Categories > Anime/Manga > Full Metal Alchemist > Balance of Power

As Time Goes By

by CrackbunnySyndrome 0 Reviews

Hughes was shoving the marinating steaks in the refrigerator when he heard Ed hesitate. His curiosity got the better of him and he glanced around the open door in time to see Ed pull out two clear ...

Category: Full Metal Alchemist - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Action/Adventure - Characters: Alphonse Elric, Edward Elric, Maes Hughes - Warnings: [!!!] [V] - Published: 2006/03/26 - Updated: 2006/03/26 - 8777 words

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"As Time Goes By"
Arc One
Balance of Power


May 8, 2006 - 1:23pm
Wichita, Kansas

"You can't be serious!"

Al stopped his forms at the sudden outburst, surprised at the vehemence behind the exclamation. /That sounded like Ms. Goodson/, he thought, creeping toward the door to listen in.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but I'm quite serious. John isn't well enough mentally to be placed into foster care. I'm sorry, but you'll have to leave."

The shrillness of Ms. Goodson's voice increased, and Al had to stifle a snicker at the rising hysteria. "I demand to speak with the doctor that examined that boy! He is perfectly able to be removed from this hospital; in fact, he should be before he is allowed to backslide!"

Al sniggered quietly at the calmness in Heather's voice. "The doctor who examined him was Doctor Branch, a visiting specialist. Due to the events which occurred in the parking lot, he deduced that John has mentally blocked some other events which cause him to be unstable around those he does not trust. It was therefore decided that John be transferred to the psychiatric ward where he can be observed and treated by those he knows and trusts. A reevaluation will be conducted after a month's time." Al heard Heather's voice grow stern. "Until that time, I suggest you tend to your other cases, Ms. Goodson. This case has been suspended until further notice."

Al was surprised to hear the vehemence in Goodson's voice. "This isn't over yet, Breach. I know you're hiding something about that boy, and I intend to find out what it is, and get him into the care he needs. You just watch yourself, missy."

"Watch yourself, ma'am. I'm very tempted to report such a threat, Ms. Goodson, if you do not silence yourself. Now, please leave before I have you escorted from the hospital."

A snort followed that comment, along with the sharp pock-pock-pock of a woman's heeled shoes just before the door Al was listening at opened. "Ah, I see you heard that," Heather commented, giving Al a smile.

"It was hard not to," Al replied, grinning. "Can I ask why she seems to be dead-set on getting me out of this hospital?"

Heather smiled ruefully. "She sees you as a child who's been abused, and the hospital is supposedly hiding it. She wants you where she can watch you at all times, where she can decide if you're being treated right, I guess." She looked at Al's sweaty forehead, and chuckled. "You look like you're enjoying yourself, Tiger."

Al grinned widely. "Yeah. I've missed doing my forms." He pouted slightly afterwards. "Though I miss sparring with my brother."

Heather smiled and ruffled his hair. "Since Ray and I are the ones who're going to look after you, maybe you could convince the lug to spar with you. Get his apathetic ass in shape again."

Al snickered. "Maybe. So where are you taking me now?"

"Psych ward; Ray's got your room ready. Sorry it took a couple days; we didn't have a bed available until now. It won't be too bad though. You're with the B-Mod kids, and most of them are just depressed, so you may be able to help some of them cheer up." She offered her hand. "C'mon, I'm supposed to make it look like you're nervous of everyone else, so let's go. Maybe you'll get an award for this."

"Maybe." He took her hand and smiled. "Lead on, ma'am."

0o0o0

May 9, 2006 - 8:15am
Wichita, Kansas

The first night in the psych ward had been an interesting experience for Al. He had his own room again; and due to his supposed fear of other people, the only people who had come to check on him had been either Heather or Ray. Al honestly felt sorry for Heather; if he'd kept track of the hours, her last shift had lasted 36. He had to wonder how any doctor or nurse could handle the long hours, but Heather had just looked marginally tired when she'd woken him up early in the morning.

Hopefully, she's getting the rest she needs today, Al thought, sitting up and getting out of the hospital bed. He shook his head at the straps on the sides, discretely hidden on the underside of the bed, where they'd remain until they were needed. No need to worry about that; I have no intention of making Ray use those on me. I like moving.

Al giggled to himself at the thought, and took a look at his left arm, turning it and examining the limb through the black sleeve he still wore over it. The muscles are starting to atrophy, he thought in annoyance, settling on the floor. I should try to exercise it a bit.

Al took the sleeve off, looking at the scars the road rash had left on it and the sickly-yellow bruises left from the broken blood vessels as he prodded the healing break with his right hand. It's not healed enough yet for me to move it. "Dammit," he said out loud, carefully putting the sleeve back on. "I wanted to do push-ups today."

"You really shouldn't push it, Tiger," said a voice from the door. "You could re-break that arm, and then where would you be?"

"Very annoyed at myself," Al replied, grinning. "Hey, Ray. You get any sleep last night? Yesterday was pretty stressful."

"I slept fine, once I knew you were okay and hidden in this part of the hospital." Ray grinned right back. "Get dressed, okay? I'm supposed to take you to breakfast."

"I have clothes?" Al responded, going over to the small set of drawers in the room.

"A few; mostly stuff donated to the hospital that's your size. Oh, and the pants you were wearing when you came in." As Al looked through the clothes, Ray snickered. "It's a good thing no one went through your pockets; they'd get suspicious of the marks in your back pocket."

"Apparently you went through my clothes," Al retorted, grinning as he pulled out a pair of boxers with some strange yellow-skinned character all over them, a pair of jeans, and a black shirt with "University of Iowa" emblazoned across it in yellow. "You gonna watch me change?"

"Heck no, boy. Why would I wanna stare at your skinny ass?" Ray smirked and slipped out the door. "Come on out once you're dressed."

"All right."

0o0o0

The cafeteria was about a quarter of the way full when Al got there, Ray leading him in and directing him to the line. Trying to make it seem like Ray was helping him get used to other people, Al let Ray go talk with one of the other nurses as he loaded a tray with some cereal and toast with jam. If nothing else, I can't wait for Ed to find me so I can get some decent food, he thought as he sat down with his meal. Hospital food sucks.

He sat down at a corner table, watching the other kids as they filtered in, eating his... cereal... the label had called them Cocoa Crispies anyway, and they were pretty good.

A small boy with bright red hair, freckles and thick glasses parked his wheelchair a few tables away and Al tried not to stare. He remembered how Ed was when still recovering from the loss of his limbs, getting wheeled around by an armored version of himself, and his brother feeling self-conscious about it. I wonder why he has a wheelchair, /though/, he thought to himself. He took a bite of the toast and grinned. Mmmm//, jam.

"Hey, wheelchair boy!"

Al looked up at the name, surprised when three of the boys who had just finished their breakfasts came over to see the boy in the wheelchair, grinning maliciously. This doesn't look good.

"Oooo, eating fruit this morning, wheelchair boy? Think it'll make it so your legs work again?" the tallest boy in the trio asked, his cronies sniggering at the question. "Good luck, gimp."

"I don't remember inviting you three to come sit with me," the boy in the wheelchair retorted. "And the name's Eugene."

Al continued to pretend to ignore the activity at the table as he watched from the corner of his eye, but he smiled into his juice and nearly choked. The boy sounded almost like Ed.

"Oh, we're soooooo sorry, /Eugene/," the second boy teased, making the name Eugene sound like an insult. "We forgot Mr. Rich Boy doesn't like being reminded he's a gimp."

"Actually, the term 'gimp' implies I can actually /walk/. Morons."

At this, Al really did choke; grateful for the coughing fit that masked his giggles. Oh yeah, he sounds just like Brother.

The first boy who spoke leaned right into Eugene's face. "Oh, look who thinks he's so smart. What, did you swallow a fucking /dictionary/?"

I think I've seen enough, Al decided, standing up and walking over to the group. "Excuse me."

The boy practically breathing down Eugene's neck didn't move. "Get lost, loser," the third one said, giving Al a shove.

Al smirked, grabbing the boy by the wrist. "Wrong move."

Before the boy knew what was happening, he was flat on his back and staring at the ceiling. Al grinned, putting his one good hand into a defensive stance, his left hand still secure in his sling. "Now, if you'd be so kind as to go back to your rooms? I'm sure the nurses wouldn't like you to cause a scene, would they?"

"Little late for that, Tiger."

Al blinked as Ray stood over him, glaring not at him but at the three bullies. "Hello Shawn. Blake. Randy."

The three boys glared at Ray, as though he'd offended them. "Stay the fuck out of this Purdue," the boy on the floor spat, getting up. "I'll beat that kid to a fucking pulp."

Al smirked. "I'd like to see you try."

"Knock it off, boys." Ray glared at them all, and Al winced lightly at the look on his nurse's face. "All of you, gym. /Now/."

The three other boys grumbled, and Eugene looked up at Ray. "Do I have to go, too? They were the ones being idiots."

Ray sighed, leveling a firm look at the boy. "Yeah, you too, 'Gene. C'mon, boys, let's get going."

Al sighed and followed the other four, smiling wryly at Ray. "Sorry for the trouble."

"Nah, I was going to come over and whap some sense into those boys anyway," Ray whispered as they walked out the cafeteria and down the hall. "Now you can, and both you and I can stay out of trouble. You're settling a dispute in a controlled environment, and I don't have to lay a hand on 'em." He laughed quietly. "You showed a little fang there. I didn't think you were the type."

Al blushed. "It's a habit I get from Ed, I think."

"Figured. Now look chastised."

Al tried to look suitably subdued as he walked, but he couldn't help it; the thought of actually sparring again made him grin. He'd been inactive for too long, and he was fidgety.

0o0o0

"All right now, boys. First one to fall and not get up in five seconds loses, got it?"

Al glared at his left arm, which was strapped to his side. "Can't I just keep my arm in the sling?"

"I don't want you swinging that thing around and using it as a weapon, Tiger. Besides," and here he looked at Randy. "I think you can take him, easily."

Randy glared. "Some gimp like him won't beat me."

Al smirked. "Funny, I thought I had once already."

"Shut the fuck up!"

"Now, now, Randy. Language." Ray stepped back. "Go ahead, boys."

Al smirked and stepped back, his one free arm up in a defensive stance. Randy had his fists up ready to punch, and lunged at him. It was an easy dodge and Al jumped, using Randy's chest as a springboard to finish the flip and knock him over at the same time. "Is that all you've got?" Al asked after he landed, arm back up.

"H-how the /fuck /did you do that?!?!" The first boy, Shawn, asked in shock.

Al just shrugged one shoulder, keeping his eye on his target. "Don't know," he retorted, dodging another attack by Randy and ducking a punch, using his one good arm to steady himself as he kicked the other boy's legs out from under him. "Muscle-memory, it feels like." He waited for Randy to get up again, smirking. "Still want some of this?"

"Like hell! Muscle memory doesn't let you do shit like that!"

"Believe what you want," Al retorted, flipping over Randy again and smirking as he overbalanced and fell to the mat again.

"Actually, Shawn, muscle-memory lets people do what he's doing all the time." Eugene grinned as Randy got up once more. "Can't you see he isn't even thinking about his moves?"

Al smiled at Eugene, letting Randy grab him by the neck and using the boy's own momentum to throw him to the ground again. "I think we're done, Ray," he said, straightening up. "That's the fourth time he's gone down."

Ray smirked. "Yup. Sorry, Randy. Win goes to Tiger."

Randy glared at Al. "You'd better watch your back, punk. You'll be sorry."

"Yeah, yeah, big words." Ray glared at the boy. "You'd better not be making threats. You boys don't want me to have to come pin you down again, do you?" The three boys swallowed, and Ray smirked and made a shooing motion. "Thought not. Now get back to your rooms before I drag your butts back there."

Al watched as the three glared at him and ran off, Ray following to be sure they behaved. He laughed quietly, then started tugging at the bandage holding his arm down. "Sorry for butting in, Gene; I just didn't like what they were saying to you."

"Eh, I'm used to it." The boy shifted his wheelchair, and Al was surprised that it was controlled by a joystick. "I've been here awhile; they're just insecure about themselves." He smiled lightly. "Thanks for the help. See ya."

Al blinked. "That's abrupt," he complained, catching up with Eugene after putting his sling back on. "You don't even know my name."

"I'd assume it's Tiger; that's what Ray calls you."

Al blushed. "Actually, no. That's a nickname."

"Then what is your name?"

Remembering the Bond marathon Ray had made him watch, Al smirked and puffed out his chest. "The name is Doe. John Doe."

Eugene looked at him like he'd lost his mind. "Please tell me you didn't just quote Bond to tell me your name is /John Doe/."

"Ummm..."

Eugene waved a hand. "Never mind. Geekiness aside, you really don't have a name?"

"Not one that I remember, anyway." Al blushed again, rubbing at the back of his head with his good arm. "Ray thought John was boring."

Eugene smirked. "I think I'll stick with Tiger." He gave Al a long, calculating look, then sighed. "C'mon, I guess. Neither one of us have anything good to do, anyway; we can go hang in the computer area."

Al blinked. "Computer?"

"You really don't remember anything, do you?"

"Not really." Grinning, Al rubbed at his hurt arm. "I really was working on muscle memory."

"Lucky you're a black belt or whatever." Eugene looked up, giving Al the first real smile he'd seen on the boy's face. "C'mon, I'll teach you the basics."

0o0o0

"What the hell is this thing?"

Eugene chuckled, positioned next to Al in the very small computer lab of the psych department. "It's a computer, dummy."

Al studied the screen, watching as it moved in the same way the TeeVee did, the words 'Windows XP' inscribed on it and a colored bar moving around. "What's it doing right now?"

"Booting up. I figured I could show you the joys of the Internet; at least, as much as they allow us to have here." The small, wheelchair-bound boy grinned. "I can set up an e-mail account for you, too, since you probably don't remember if you have one."

Al shrugged. "Does everyone use these a lot?" he asked, moving the small contraption next to the keyboard that Eugene called a mouse. Not very mouselike, I don't think, he thought as he watched the small arrow move around on the screen.

"Some more than others, but they're everywhere, so you're at a disadvantage if you don't at least know the basics." Eugene smirked, pointing at the screen of the computer he was situated in front of. "I'm considered something of a computer genius, though."

Al snickered at the slight bit of ego. Yup, he is so like Brother, he thought, then blinked as the screen changed to read 'Welcome to Windows' and some pictures popped up. "Now what do I do?"

"Click the picture next to the word 'Patient'; that's the general User ID for us stuck in B-Mod. It tells the computer administrators who's on, and what we're doing."

"They can track what we do?" Al clicked the small picture, and watched as it continued to 'boot up'.

"Yeah, but I can make it so they don't know what we're doing." Eugene smirked. "No worries, John. You've got 'Gene the Genius on your side now."

"You don't have any ego at /all/, do you?" Al teased.

"Nope! Not a bit."

Al smiled as he heard a small bit of music from the speakers as the computer flashed to a picture of some stone monument and smaller pictures started dotting the left side of it. Al blinked in utter shock. "I think I recognize that place," he said casually, to test his knowledge. "It's in Caledonia, right?"

Eugene jerked and just stared at Al for several moments. Al gulped. "What'd I say?"

"You're right... sort of." Eugene pointed at the screen. "That's Stonehenge. How the hell do you know Scotland's original name, though?"

Oh, shit. "Ummmm.... I uh, err..."

Eugene gave him a wary look, sighed, and waved a hand. "Never mind. So, what do you want to do first on this thing?"

Al gave a sigh of relief that Eugene dropped his questioning, and shrugged. "What can I do on these things? All I know so far is you point at things and click on them."

"Well, let's stick with that for a moment, then." Eugene dragged himself forward, and pointed a thin finger at an icon that looked like a flame surrounding a world. "Click that."

Al did as he was told. That icon kind of reminds me of Colonel Mustang. "So what's this?"

"It's a program called Firefox; it's a decent enough Internet browser, for our purposes."

"And what is the Internet?"

"The Internet is an interconnected system of networks that connects computers around the world via the TCP/IP protocol." Losing the lecturing tone, Eugene smiled. "In other words, it lets you see information and talk to people from all over the world."

Al blinked. "Like a giant library, huh?" he asked. Looking at the window that had popped up, he blinked at the simplicity of the site. "Google? What's this place?"

"It's a search engine. Click on the little box, type something you want to learn about in the little box, then click 'Google Search.'"

Al thought for a few moments. I wonder what I'll find. Extending his right hand over the keys, he painstakingly typed 'alchemy' in the box one-handed, then clicked the button.

His eyes widened at the number of results he got from that simple search. "23 million results?? There's that much information?!?"

"That's a pretty broad topic, you might try narrowing it down." Eugene adjusted his glasses and peered at the screen. "Why alchemy, though?"

Al shrugged, distracted. "Seemed like a decent topic. How do I search again?"

"Type the new search into the box above the results."

Finding the search box again, Al clicked ahead of the word 'alchemy', and added the word 'biological' in front of it, before clicking 'search' again. "Fewer results this time," he murmured, deciding to click on the first underlined thing. It said 'Science & Technology at Scientific American.com', and intrigued Al.

What he found was an article on how skin and bone marrow cells could transform into neurons, and Al's eyes widened. "Interesting..."

Eugene giggled at the intent look on Al's face. "Go on and read; I'll help you set up an e-mail account when I finish checking my own."

Al didn't hear his comment, too absorbed in the short article. He pouted when he reached the end; apparently, he had to subscribe to the site before he could read the whole thing. "Do I have to subscribe for everything if I want to read things?" he asked, pointing at the button.

Eugene looked over. "Nah, just stuff like that. It costs money, though; too bad." He grinned. "Shall I leave you alone with your research?"

"If I can't get the information, no real point to it." He shrugged. "Now, what's this e-mail you keep talking about?"

Eugene smirked. "Allow me to show you..."

After a bit of wrestling with the site, Al was soon set up with an e-mail address all his own; armoredalchemist@gmail.com. He frowned as he got to his inbox, and noticed two e-mails already. "I already have mail?"

"It's automated mail; just to say that hey, it works." Eugene nudged Al over, and added his own e-mail. "And there's my e-mail, so you can e-mail me now!"

"But we're both right here," Al commented, blinking.

"We can keep in touch this way, though. When you get out of here."

"Boys," called Ray from the door. "Computer time is up; log off, okay?"

Al frowned, signing out of the mail program and closing the window. "What about you? Why are you here?"

Eugene rolled his eyes, shutting down his machine. "My parents. They think I'm going to kill people because I'm stuck in a wheelchair and horribly misanthropic."

Al made a face, and copied Eugene's clicks to shut his own computer down. "That makes no sense."

"Yeah, well, my parents aren't the brightest lightbulbs in the world."

He snickered. "I guess not. Shall we go to lunch now?"

"Sounds good to me; showing a noob around the Intarweb makes me hungry."

Al felt terribly lost again. "Huh?"

Eugene grinned. "I'll explain some other time. C'mon; let's go."

0o0o0

May 16, 2006 - 4:45pm
Bartlesville, Oklahoma


Hughes shifted the heavy bag of groceries over to one arm and rapped twice on Reilly's door before he remembered he didn't need to knock. /Two and a half weeks/, he thought, /and I still can't bring myself to just walk in. /With a grin, he turned the knob and opened the door...

...to be greeted by a dagger at his throat.

Hughes smirked and peeked around the back of the door. "Hello, Ed."

The younger man glared and returned his arm back to normal. "You know no one knocks at Reilly's."

Hughes came the rest of the way in and hip-checked the door closed behind him. "Old habits die hard, I guess." He scowled and added, "What do you do? Spend all day hanging around the door waiting for someone to skewer?"

Ed gave him a dirty look; then he peeked curiously over the top of the paper sack and sniffed. "Smells good. But why are you bringing food here?"

Hughes grinned, slipped past Ed, and headed for the kitchen. "For the past two weeks, she's fed me nearly every night." He paused and glanced back over his shoulder. "Mind you, I don't eat nearly as much as you do, but I thought it would be nice to pay for dinner for once." He jerked his head toward the door. "There's another bag in the back seat, would you grab it for me?"

"You planning to feed an army?"

"You're eating, right?"

Ed gave him a mildly annoyed look and went outside.

"Get the gym bag while you're at it," Hughes called.

"Yeah, yeah. Whatever," Ed called back as he jogged to the car.

In the kitchen, Hughes started taking food out of the sack and laying it out on the counter. The fresh vegetables could sit for the time being, but he needed to marinate the steaks. He started looking through the cabinets for a bowl with a lid and after the third try, he found what he was looking for.

About that time, Ed returned with the other bag and started to unpack it.

"I thought today was Reilly's day off," Hughes asked as he mixed up the marinade.

"She decided to work a couple hours to cover for someone else today," Ed said. "She'll be back around-"

Hughes was shoving the marinating steaks in the refrigerator when he heard Ed hesitate. His curiosity got the better of him and he glanced around the open door in time to see Ed pull out two clear bags full of red and blue balls. The younger man turned with a bag in each hand and held them up with a most befuddled look. "Uh, Hughes? What exactly are we having for dinner tonight?"

Hughes grinned. "Hand me the gym bag."

0o0o0

Out by the low garden wall, Ed watched curiously as Hughes knelt down and pulled a vaguely gun-like object from the bag. "Care to fill me in, here?" Ed asked.

Hughes just glanced up and gave him a wicked grin, then turned back to the bag. He screwed a cylinder with a label of "CO2" onto the bottom, then attached a curved hopper of some sort on the top. He handed Ed the gun, but didn't answer the question.

He nodded at the bags of colored balls sitting at Ed's feet and said, "Pick your color."

"Red... I guess. Are you going to keep me in the dark forever?"

Hughes finished putting the other gun together, set it aside, and pulled out a mask and gloves. He handed them to Ed and said, "Put those on."

Ed looked at them suspiciously, but did as he was told.

It was only after both of them were geared-up and had the colored balls loaded in the hoppers that Hughes decided to fill Ed in. "The game is called paintball," he said as he took a few steps away from him. His voice sounded hollow behind the mask, which only served to add to the strangeness of the situation.

Ed stared down at the gun in his hand. "Okay. And?"

He couldn't see the grin behind the full face mask, but he could hear it and it worried him. "You shoot at each other."

Before Ed could respond to that, he felt a hit in the middle of his chest. Shocked, he stared down at the spot and saw a large blue splotch covering the middle of Icarus's back. "Hey! That's my favorite shirt!"

"It washes out," Hughes said as he dashed off and ducked behind a nearby bush.

"What the-" Ed blurted, still stunned. "Come back here, damnit!"

Hughes poked his head up from behind the cover of the bush and Ed caught the glint of light on metal. /Ohshit/, he thought and vaulted over the garden wall just in time to avoid another hit.

"That was a cheap shot, asshole!" Ed yelled as he hunkered down and slammed his back against the wall.

The only response he got from Hughes was an almost maniacal laugh. It was contagious, too; and while Ed didn't exactly laugh, a huge grin nearly split his face in two.

He suddenly understood just what Hughes was up to. Ed had been more than just a little twitchy and irritable of late because of the forced inactivity. He needed the adrenaline rush and the release of pent-up frustrations; and his morning routine of practicing his forms just wasn't doing it.

Hughes had spent years in the Intelligence Division of the State; and for nearly a year after he was declared dead he'd spent his time skulking in the shadows. The man was a consummate sneak; quick, stealthy, and deadly with throwing knives. Ed wasn't sure just how good the man would be with a gun at a distance, but he had a feeling that there was going to be more than just a little bit of a challenge. Good.

0o0o0

There were supposed to be 1000 balls of paint for each of them, and the hoppers held approximately 200 rounds. Ed had reloaded twice already, which meant 600 rounds. He estimated Hughes had only reloaded once.

Hughes should have been nearly covered in bright red paint. Ed looked down at himself and sighed. /At least as covered as I am/, he thought. But he wasn't. In fact, Hughes barely had a mark on him, which only served to slam home the fact that Ed couldn't shoot his way out of a wet paper bag. It didn't help matters that Ed couldn't sneak up on a deaf man, either.

He cautiously peeked around the corner of the shed, peering with one eye in the direction of Hughes's last known position. He thought he caught movement behind the bush and grinned. Maybe I'll finally catch him off-guard.

Ever since the game had started, Ed had been more and more in tune to the subtler sounds around him. It was self-preservation, after all. Hughes was one sneaky bastard, and the man seemed to take great joy in ambushing Ed. So when he started to creep out of hiding to take what he thought was Hughes hiding behind the bush and heard a barely-there sound, he knew he was done for. But he wasn't going out without a fight, damnit.

Ed spun, gun at the ready, finger on the trigger; and was hit square in the chest. Again. He'd overbalanced when he reacted, firing wild, and fell back on his ass. Not a single shot hitting his opponent.

"Damnit! Why can't I hit you?" Ed yelled as the other man disappeared around the shed.

"Because your aim sucks, noob!"

Ed blinked. He really has been here too long, he thought with a laugh.

0o0o0

/Holy shit! He doesn't know I'm behind him/, Ed thought with wicked glee. He'd managed to get about ten feet away from Hughes and the man still had his back to him, peeking around the corner of the garden wall. /Close enough/, Ed thought as he brought the gun up and took careful aim.

Just as he started to squeeze the trigger, Hughes spun and fired. "Too slow!" he taunted as a round hit Ed right in his weapon arm and throwing his shot wild.

Before the words lost their echo, he was gone again.

"Damnit!"

0o0o0

Ed was nearly out of ammo and Hughes still barely had a hit on him. He had one last chance and he was going to make it count. If the man was going to play sneaky, then it was high time Ed did, too. One thing Ed had going for him, when he wasn't getting his ass kicked in paintball that is, was an almost feline grace and the ability to climb nearly anything. So he shimmied up the tall bole of the Catalpa, hid himself amidst the huge leaves... and waited.

He didn't have to wait long, either. Hughes came creeping into the garden in a low crouch, weapon at the ready. Ed had to grin. The man was watching and aiming for any hiding place Ed might fit behind... on the ground. He wasn't looking up.

Ed took careful aim and waited. He had all the time in the world and the advantage for once. He wasn't about to waste it.

When Hughes was within a range Ed knew he couldn't possibly miss, he gently squeezed the trigger. Victory may not have been within his grasp, but he'd at least get in a few good hits.

He couldn't help it. The low, wicked chuckle escaped unbidden... and Hughes looked up.

"Eat paint, asshole," Ed said as he fired.

He saw the man's sharp green eyes widen just before he dodged-ducked-weaved away from the volley of ammo coming at him with relentless speed.

/How the hell does he do that?! /Ed wondered as he wrapped his legs around the tree branch and flipped upside down to get a better shot through the dinner-plate leaves. He definitely heard the sound of paintballs hitting flesh. He knew he heard it.

He also knew he was empty now, as well. "I'm out!" he called, and Hughes lowered his gun.

By the time Ed dropped from the tree and regained his feet, the other man had joined him. He'd pulled the mask off and wore a wolfish grin; but it wasn't nearly as huge as Ed's.

"I got you, damnit! I finally got you good!" Ed crowed.

Hughes cocked a brow, and looked down at himself. A careful search only revealed one new red spot. He pulled out the bottom of his shirt to give it a closer inspection, then looked back at Ed. "Maybe we need to take you to a firing range."

Ed just gave him a growl without any real heat in it and flopped down in the shade of the garden wall. When he pulled off his mask, he revealed his grin, wide and fierce. For the first time in ages he'd had fun for the sheer joy of just having fun. There was no agenda, no mission, no urgency.

Hughes fell down on the ground next to him and laughed at look on Ed's face. "Have fun?"

Ed stretched and rolled his shoulders with a wince. "I'm gunna feel this in the morning, I'm sure. But it was worth it."

He fished around the gym bag and found a bottle of water; half of which he dumped over his head, the other half down his throat. It was flat and tepid. Ed figured it had been in the bag for awhile, but it didn't matter; it tasted wonderful at that moment and he was too wiped to trudge back into the house right then.

Hughes sat back against the wall, resting his arms on his knees and stared up into the dappled light of the Catalpa. "What are the odds," he said, "of the three of us ending up in this world... this time together?"

Ed's eyes went wide at that. "That's out of the blue."

Hughes smiled and chuckled soft. "Variation on a theme, actually. I've asked that same question nearly every day since I fell into this world. Why here? Why now?"

Ed rested his head against the cool stone of the wall and thought about it. "I don't think I even want to try and calculate the odds. But I don't think it was random."

Hughes gave him a startled sideways glance. "You saying you actually believe in a higher power there?"

Ed snorted. "Hardly. Where did you say you'd come out at?"

"West of here. On some farmer's land outside of Ponca City." He shrugged. "I have no idea where Bond came out at."

"Bond?"

"The Stealthworks Alchemist. Ironically, he was an assassin for Hakuro." Hughes reached into the bag and pulled out another bottle of water. "His 'specialty' was creating tiny clockwork machines that could move about unnoticed. About the size of a cockroach, actually." He took several long gulps of the water, then stared ahead as he remembered. "He combined that with a knowledge of poisons and explosives and used them to kill people who got in Hakuro's way."

Hughes sat silent for a long moment and Ed didn't prompt. He knew he would tell him the rest of it in time. He could tell from the play of emotions on the man's face that the memories were painful.

"When we came through the gate," Hughes said finally, "I had caught up to him, and was attempting to stop a plan to set several of those bugs into the battalion stationed in the north. Fuery, Havoc, Armstrong. All of them were there, fighting some bullshit war. Roy was there, too." Hughes looked down at the ground. "I don't... I don't know if I stopped it in time."

/Of course/, Ed thought with a jolt. /He doesn't know/. He laid a hand on the other man's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. When Hughes looked up, Ed smiled. "They're alive."

A slow, relieved smile spread across the older man's face, and he leaned back. "Good."

Ed snickered, which caused Hughes to give him a curious sideways glance. "Mustang wasn't even in the north. He was at the Fuhrer's mansion."

Ed started laughing harder. He couldn't help it. The irony was just too rich.

"Care to share the joke?"

Ed wiped at his eyes and got himself under some measure of control. "Yeah. He was avenging your death."

"Aven-- Oh, shit. What did that idiot hot-head do?"

Ed hesitated. How do you tell a man who had spent years pushing his best friend up the ladder that said friend threw it all away in an assassination?

"The Fuhrer was a homunculus, Hughes," he said, finally. He knew it was going to be a shocker, but at least it would soften the blow to come.

Hughes stared.

After a long moment, he stammered, "It went all the way to the top? I thought it stopped at the Fuhrer's secretary." He fell back against the wall again, still stunned. "That explains so much. I thought Hakuro was assassinating his way to the top. But... He was aiding and abetting. He must have known." He covered his eyes with a hand. "And Roy... he threw it all away, didn't he?"

Ed chuckled. "Busted down to Corporal, according to what Al told me. The new government wasn't going to execute him because he was a hero, but they couldn't promote him because of the way he staged the coup."

Hughes laughed and shook his head. "Remind me to deck him when-" He stopped, pain dimming the sharp green eyes, then looked away.

There was a long, awkward silence between the two of them, then. Ed knew what the man was feeling. He'd felt it himself for two years; when he'd come through the gate without Al. He was waiting and drifting. Not living, not allowing himself to really be a part of this world he was trapped in.

He felt his throat grow tight as he absently plucked at the grass between his feet. "Maes..." he started, but words escaped him.

Hughes let out a shuddering sigh and dropped his head. "I know, Ed." He took a deep, steadying breath, but Ed could still hear the heartbreak in the sound. He knew it would never completely go away either. "We can't go back. I tell myself that every morning. It doesn't help."

Ed stared across the garden, at nothing but the images in his own head. "The first two years I was on the other side of the gate, I didn't interact with this world. I wasn't a part of it, I thought. I thought it was my own personal Hell for all the sins I'd committed. For killing Al. Or that it was just a dream I couldn't wake up from."

He faced Hughes finally. "But that's wrong. We're all a part of whatever world we're in. We don't have a choice but to interact with it." He gripped Hughes's shoulder again, and the man looked up. Ed smiled sadly. "I know how hard it is for you. Everyone... Your friends, your family... They're all unreachable now. It..." Ed hesitated, swallowing. "It would be easier if they had died."

Hughes's eyes went wide and his brows shot up. Then a slow, sad smile tugged at the corners of his lips and he shook his head. "I do have family here. Now. At least I always thought of you and Al as sons."

Ed blinked in surprise, then he grinned. "Same here, Hughes."

Next thing Ed knew, he was caught in a powerful and affectionate headlock, with his nose stuck in the man's sweaty armpit. "Augh! Okay! Okay! Let go!" When he was finally able to extricate himself, he grimaced and brought his hand up to his nose. "Man! You need a shower!"

Hughes just laughed softly.

Then both of them forgot all about the warm fuzzy moment when they heard the sound of someone pulling into the drive, playing heavy metal at full volume. Both men looked at each other and grinned wickedly. There was only one possibility.

"Ducky," Ed said.

Hughes held up his paintball gun and said, "I still have balls."

Ed laughed, low and evil. "Let's do it."

Hughes loaded both hoppers with the remaining blue balls, as they heard Ducky bang the front door shut and call out, "Hey! Anyone home?"

A moment later, they were hunkered down behind the garden wall and heard the back screen door slam. A look passed between the two men as they listened for the sound of Ducky coming around the corner of the house and into range. With a nod from Hughes they came up at the same time and fired...

...Hitting Reilly with a dozen blue balls of paint.

She screamed in surprise and covered her face with her arms. It was only then that Ed and Hughes realized who they'd hit.

"Oh, fuck," Ed whispered, his eyes gone wide in abject terror.

As soon as Reilly realized she wasn't dying, she brought her arms down and /glared/. Hughes gave her a sheepish grin and said, "Uh... oops?"

She was still dressed for work, with a white tank top under a light blue chambray shirt and a long blue cotton skirt. Now she was covered in splotches of blue paint, and Ed was certain he could see those splotches boiling.

Without a word, she spun on her heel and went back in the house.

Hughes and Ed slid back down behind the wall and looked at each other. "We're dead meat," Ed said.

The sound of Ducky's insane cackle reached them and Ed winced. "That's not helping matters."

Hughes held out a hand to Ed and said, "Well, it was nice while it lasted."

Ed glanced down, took the offered hand, and shook it. "I'll see you on the other side, Hughes."

They gave it a couple of minutes and then Hughes said, "Well, let's go face the music and grovel for our lives. If we're lucky, she'll only kill us a little bit."

"Or at least quickly."

They packed all the equipment back up, then headed out through the gate. As they came around the back of the house, they stopped short at the sight of Reilly waiting for them with a neutral expression and her hands behind her back. The chambray shirt was gone and the skirt had been traded for a pair of faded fatigues. She was also wearing a bright red bandana tied around her head and was barefoot. Something was strapped to her back, Ed noticed; and from the way the shoulder straps cut into her skin, it looked heavy. Uh-oh.

Hughes and Ed gave each other a questioning look, then Hughes came forward. "Reilly, I really am sorry about tha-" He hesitated when her look went cagy and she whipped around with a gargantuan, brightly colored gun. More like a cannon, in Ed's opinion.

"Say hello to my little friend, Hughes," she said as she pressed the butt of it against her shoulder and squinted one eye to peer through the sight. Then her grin became predatory.

Hughes dropped the gym bag and raised his hands in surrender. Taking the other man's cue, Ed followed suit. He just hoped Reilly didn't really shoot them.

Neither one of them had a chance. She started firing before they could duck out of the way and her aim was deadly. Both of them were soaked with icy water in short order.

They remained still while Reilly soaked them both. It only seemed right, once Ed knew they weren't about to die. What'd she do, load it with ice, too? he wondered with a shiver.

After a moment, she lowered the cannon and gave them a petulant look. "You two are no damn fun!" she said as she stamped her foot.

Ed caught sight of Ducky creeping out the door and silently unlooping the hose. The hacker grinned wickedly and laid a finger on his lips when he noticed he was being watched.

"Ah, well," Hughes said with a laugh. "We thought if we just stood here and took our punishment, you might let us live."

It was all Ed could do to keep his expression properly chastised when he saw Ducky twist the faucet up full blast; but when the hacker brought the gun-shaped sprayer to bear on Reilly, his eyes went wide.

He cast a nervous, side-ways glance at Hughes and saw by the man's expression that he was well aware of the impending attack from behind. As though it had been planned in advance, both men dove for cover in opposite directions.

Reilly's startled and offended screams could be heard through half the county.

When Ed heard what sounded like a struggle, he peeked out of his hiding place behind the shed to see Reilly wrestling Ducky for the hose; and both of them were getting soaked in the process. He also noticed that the woman had somehow shed the tank from her back and discarded the cannon. She didn't look upset; not with that determined grin and the delighted sparkle in her eyes. With a sigh of relief, he cautiously came out of hiding. Besides, if Ducky was getting the worst end of the confrontation, Ed wanted a better vantage point to witness the momentous occasion.

He glanced over where Hughes stood with his back against the house. At the man's questioning look, Ed shrugged and grinned. He knew Hughes couldn't see a thing from there. That was a blind spot that Ed had become painfully aware of earlier.

The spot Reilly and Ducky were wrestling in was rapidly becoming a sloppy, slimy mud-puddle; and in the blink of an eye, she managed to wrench the hose free of Ducky's grasp, slipped, and fell in the puddle with a resounding splat. It didn't slow her revenge any, as she turned the hose on Ducky before he had a chance to find cover.

Ed laughed. Hard.

He also realized too late that was a big mistake, because Reilly instantly turned the hose on him, soaking him to the bone before he could move. "Gah! Shit!" he sputtered as he dove into the same hiding place Hughes was in.

The older man laughed and shoved Ed back out. "No way, Ed! I don't want caught in the crossfire."

Ed stumbled, fell, and gave Hughes a look of utter betrayal. "You traitor!"

He caught movement from the corner of his eye and then turned his attention back to Hughes. Except now he was grinning. He knew Hughes couldn't see a damn thing.

It took a moment, then the grin on the older man's face disappeared as though someone had wiped it away and he turned.

Reilly was leaning around the hiding spot with a seductive smile on her face. Hughes's eyes went wide as she brought the hose up and squeezed the trigger. "Dodge this," she said, hitting him dead center of his chest; drenching the man clean through before he could scramble to make an escape.

Trapped with his back against the house and one side against the garden wall, Hughes chose to fight for control of the hose. Size and experience ended the altercation quickly, as he not only deftly relieved her of the sprayer, but flipped her around, twisting her up in the hose and pinning her against him with one arm. With a look of mischievous glee, he brought his arm up high, and aimed the sprayer straight down, soaking the top of Reilly's head.

"Well you look like you're all having fun here," Tom said as he carefully tip-toed around the muck.

Ed saw something wicked flash across Reilly's face as she turned, snatched the hose from Hughes's startled grasp and aim it at Tom.

Tom cocked a calm brow and reached behind him. "I think you got another idea that beats that one all to Hell, Reilly," he said as he pulled out his gun and pointed it at her.

Reilly dropped the hose and raised her arms in surrender; but her huge grin remained.

Tom spun the gun like he was in the old west and shoved it back in the holster on the back of his belt. "Now, if y'all are quite finished; I was invited for dinner and I'm getting hungry. You wouldn't like me when I'm hungry."

Reilly laughed and went to give Ed a hand up. He just gulped and stared when she bent over. He was starting to get a little chilled a moment ago, now he was warming up rapidly.

The white tank top she wore might have been opaque when it was dry, but it was nearly non-existent when wet. He was suddenly learning things about his benefactor he really didn't need to know. A thought flashed, completely unbidden; the echoes of which would rattle around in his brain for some time to come. Good grief, how does something that small hold up anything that... big?

Hughes came out of hiding just as Ed was being pulled to his feet. He shook the water from his hair and nearly stumbled blindly into Reilly as he did so. He recovered quickly though and gave her a sheepish grin. Ed watched as the next instant, Hughes's eyes slammed downward and went wide. The sheepish grin quickly turned unmistakably lascivious and spread unabashedly across the man's face.

Ed cleared his throat noisily and managed to get the other man's attention. "First dibs on the shower," he said and dashed off.

Hughes blinked. "What? No! Wait, I'm calling it, damnit," he yelled as he ran after Ed.

"You have to beat me, then."

0o0o0

Reilly watched as Hughes and Ed raced to the house. She silently mused at the way the older man looked soaking wet with a hell-bent for leather grin and realized with a shock that she was thinking of a lot more than just that.

"You're blushing," Tom said, yanking her rudely out of her thoughts.

Reilly blinked, focused, and felt herself grow even warmer. "What? No, it's just hot today, is all."

Tom snorted. "You're covered in gooseflesh and your lips are starting to turn blue." He glanced down then right back up with a smirk. "We won't go into the other symptoms of being chilled to the bone."

Reilly crossed her arms in an effort to cover her ample chest. Tom only shook his head and started for the house. "Don't bother. The men who would actually be affected by that have already gotten an eyeful." He glanced over his shoulder and smirked. "Ed's probably going to be traumatized for life now."

Reilly didn't move from her spot. Instead she groaned and covered her face with a hand. She silently cursed her genetics, attractive men in general, Hughes in particular, and the fact that Tom could read her like a book. Not for the first time in her long association with the older man, she questioned the wisdom of allowing anyone to get to know her quite so well. /Maybe it's time to make a few changes/, she thought with a snicker. She knew she wouldn't. It just wasn't in her to dump a friend when things became 'inconvenient'. Besides, she knew Tom would never let that happen.

She heard Ed's offended bellow over Ducky's insane cackle. "I'M NOT A TOY-BOY, DAMNIT!"

She giggled and headed for the house. Well, some things can go on as usual, she thought. She was starting to get used to Ed's temper and Ducky's compulsion to push the blonde's buttons. It had a bizarre sense of rightness about it all.

Just as she reached to the screen door, she heard Hughes's muffled voice from deeper in the house; and immediately after, Ed's offended squeak. "You're a damned pervert, Hughes!"

Reilly immediately let go of the handle, turned, and flopped down on the steps. /Maybe I can just stay out here until I dry off/, she thought. As warm as she felt, she didn't think it would take too long, anyway.










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