Oh yeah, I'm a dead man. If I'm lucky, he'll be quick and give me a hemicorporectomy, rather than dismember me slowly.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Sidney was ready to kill someone.
The current hospital he was investigating was the eighth on his list in the city of Cedar Rapids, and the constant runaround and bureaucracy bullshit he was getting from the various hospitals' staffs had him ready to turn the next human being who spoke to him into a splattered pile of bloodred goo. And he probably wouldn't hesitate to do it in public, either.
I need to calm down, he thought as he reached into the breast pocket of his jacket, withdrawing a very beaten-up packet of cigarettes. As much as I'd like to, I can't kill these people. Too bad.
Sidney stuck the cigarette into his mouth and dug for a lighter. Only concerned with his personal irritation and the desire to calm himself, he spun the flint wheel and brought the flame up to the tube of tobacco.
"Um, excuse me, sir?"
He let loose a low growl, raising his eyes to glare at the offending speaker. "Yes?"
The nurse he'd questioned earlier gave him a curt glare right back. "You aren't allowed to smoke in here, sir. I'll have to ask you to go outside, or be escorted there."
Sidney raised an eyebrow. "And just who would escort me, hmm?"
"I will." Not hesitating to seize him by the arm, the petite female nurse started dragging him to the exit. "Come with me, sir."
The smirk on James Sidney Bond's face turned downright creepy. "If you insist."
It wasn't until the next day that an exploded female body was found behind the hospital dumpsters, the corpse only identifiable by the nametag still firmly affixed to the shredded scrubs.
It had been a very long, very fruitless couple of weeks for Ducky.
He'd been at the hospital going from one ward to the next to search for and salvage the files needed to keep the hospital going. It was grunt-work and not worthy of his skills, but it was the best way to find out what he needed. Working the main database in the hospital IT department wouldn't do him any good. Besides, IT proper was a nightmare that kept the contracted team locked up in the place for 16 hours or more at a shot. Why it took the hospital IT department to finally admit defeat and call in the contractors, Ducky didn't care to contemplate; but it was a source of tension that he preferred to avoid.
He'd reached the point where there was just a backlog of files to decrypt and the excitement of having a rush put on a file had dwindled. He actually had time to do a little reconnaissance and bend a handful of laws to the point they screamed in protest.
Three days ago, he'd found one file that had been very interesting and disheartening. It was a John Doe case that matched the parameters of Al's description; but it stated that the boy had been transferred to another hospital in Iowa. Fuck! Back to square one, he thought. And to make matters worse, he was stuck there until the job was complete.
It was too soon to contact Tom to give him the bad news. He wanted to confirm that the transferred patient was Al, anyway. On a hunch that morning he'd moved on to the psych ward and spotted a boy fitting Al's description having a wheelchair race with his nurse and one of the other boys in the ward.
He was almost certain the boy was Ed's brother; they had the same sense of humor at least, and a biting intelligence that Ducky had already seen in Ed. There was a definite similarity to the picture he'd found on the 'net that Ed had positively ID'd. Unfortunately, in his mind, the boy was blending in too well; Ducky still wasn't sure if he was the one he was looking for. Firm confirmation one way or the other would require getting a lot closer to the boy and talking to him.
As luck would have it, he came to Ducky soon after the Wheelchair 500.
The hacker had dove deep into the dark recesses of the nurse's station hard drive when the three racers had wandered off for lunch; Rammstein cranking at full volume in his ears to block out everything else. He had no idea how long he'd been under, but he nearly came out of his skin when he felt a light tap on his shoulder. He spun in his seat and came face-to-face with the slight-built boy whose huge hazel eyes had gone the size of saucers and his good hand had gone up in a defensive posture.
Ducky closed his eyes and laid a hand over his racing heart, willing it to slow down. When he opened them again, the boy was saying something to him in a voice far too deep for his size and age. The hacker blinked, trying to follow what he was saying, but he didn't understand German. Then he realized he still had the earbuds in, and Feuer frei! was blasting away.
"Huh?" he said as he yanked the buds out.
The kid gave him a bemused look and said, "I was just wondering if you were okay? You were jerking around in your seat like you'd been electrocuted."
Ducky scowled half-heartedly at the insult. "I'll have you know, Rammstein is damn good music and I've been complimented on my dancing."
The boy looked at him like he thought he was insane and it hit Ducky right in the center of the chest. It was so much like Ed it was scary. Score!
Then he pointed at the MP3 player sitting in the hacker's lap and said, "What's that?"
Ducky held it up. "This? It's my MP3 player. Okay, okay, I know it's not quite as cool as an iPod, but it does what I want."
Score number two, Ducky thought and felt his breath hitch in his throat. He wanted to make absolutely certain that it was Al, so he did the only thing he could think of. He offered up the earbuds and said, "Wanna take a listen?"
The kid stuck the buds in his ears and gave a listen. After a moment his brows shot up and he practically yelled, "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?"
Score number three. Tri-FUCKING-fecta! It took every ounce of willpower the hacker possessed to keep from leaping out of his seat and doing a victory dance.
Ducky brought his impulse under control, then chuckled and tugged the buds out of the boy's ears. "You don't have to yell. And no, I don't."
Al snickered behind his good hand and said, "Might be a good thing. Those lyrics aren't very happy."
"Heh. You should hear some of their other stuff, this song is mild."
Confusion etched the boy's face. "If you don't speak German, how do you know?"
Ducky reached back and tapped on the computer monitor. "There's a website with the translated lyrics."
About that time, the huge nurse that had been racing him and the other kid earlier called "Tiger!" and Al trotted off with a smile and a wave.
Ducky watched as Al left, then turned back around to finish his work. Before he knew it, he had gone under again, and was oblivious to the rest of the world; but he couldn't keep from grinning psychotically. IfoundhimIfoundhimIfoundhim! I AM a God! And Terminator-boy will worship at my feet! Well, maybe not, but he's probably gunna be a lot less snarky.
Lost in giddy thought, the young hacker nearly jumped out of his chair when he felt a very large, very heavy finger tap him on the top of the head. Jerking the earbuds out of his ears once more, he spun in his seat and came face-to-face with a light blue wall. His eyes went wide and traveled up to see the face of the nurse the kid had been racing with--Ray, he thought--and had to repress the urge to gulp.
"Didn't your shift end a few hours ago?" the large nurse asked, jerking a thumb at the wall. Ducky cast a quick glance to the side and up at the clock hanging there, then blinked at the time. Shit, I shoulda checked in with Tom an hour ago, he thought.
"Oh." Ducky gave the intimidating man a sheepish grin, then turned back to the computer and started to shut down the programs he was using. "Sorry about that; I just don't know where the hours in the day go when I'm on a computer," he said in a rush.
"Actually, I'm glad you're still here." Ray gave him a smirk that Ducky could swear he saw fang in and a hand the size of a dinner plate clapped him on the shoulder. "I wanted to ask you a few questions, about earlier."
"Yeah, when you were talking with my patient."
Fuck. "Oh. Uh, okay, sure," he squeaked.
"Come with me, I know just the place we can go and talk."
Ray grinned evilly and Ducky was quite certain that if he made one wrong move, the giant nurse wouldn't hesitate to rip his spleen out through his nostrils. This is not good.
As they passed an open door he was roughly shoved through and into a cramped linen closet that was made all the tighter with the presence of the living, breathing wall in a nurse's uniform. Ray slammed the door behind him, jerked the light on and lifted Ducky by his brightly-colored shirt in one smooth, lightning move that should have been impossible for anything that huge to accomplish.
Ducky grasped at the hand, feeling the cloth restrict his breathing. Oh yeah, I'm a dead man. If I'm lucky, he'll be quick and give me a hemicorporectomy, rather than dismember me slowly.
"What do you want with him?" the nurse asked, dark eyes glaring into Ducky's.
Ducky gasped hoarsely, hands scrabbling at the one holding him up. "I-I was just talking to him! I swear!" he squeaked out, trying to get some air.
"It didn't look like that to me. You were trolling for information."
Ducky choked as he was shaken like a rabbit in rhythm to the words.
"Now what do you want with him?"
Ducky panicked and tried to blink away the spots swimming in his vision as he was bounced off the wall a couple of times for emphasis. The words spilled from his mouth. "I swear I wouldn't hurt Al, ever! I mean it! Just let me go!"
The large nurse paused, glaring even more at Ducky. "You know his name?" he asked, the large hands finally loosening enough to at least allow the hacker to breathe.
As he gasped for ragged breaths, Ducky nodded. He couldn't do anything else.
And he was utterly shocked when he was set down gently and the large man sagged against a cabinet of towels then slid to the floor. "Thank God. How's Ed?"
Ducky coughed again, until he'd caught his breath. "He's fine... wait how do you know about Ed?" he asked, staring at the large nurse.
"It's a long story. Let's just say that I've been protecting the kid, all right?" Ray looked up at Ducky and the hacker was amazed at the relief in the man's look. "You're here to get him out, aren't you?"
Ducky shrugged. "Actually, I'm recon. We weren't entirely sure this John Doe was Al. He looks and acts enough like Terminator that it should be obvious, though."
"Also a long story." Ducky grinned at Ray. "Tell Terminator Junior that his brother's coming to get him, okay?"
"Ed can tell him himself." Reaching into his pocket, Ray scribbled something onto a sheet of paper. "That's Al's e-mail address; 'Gene set him up with one a few days ago."
Ducky looked at the address and smirked. "Awesome. Make sure that kid stays safe; we'll be coming to get him as soon as I finish this job."
Ray smirked right back. "Get the job done soon, then. That kid needs out of here before he goes fucking insane." Wiping the smirk off his face, the nurse sighed. "He's got someone after him; that note in his file was to throw the agent off his scent."
Ducky's eyes widened. "Who's after him?"
"Some Fed-boy; Al accidentally used something that'd be really useful to the Feds, and they were asking a lot questions."
Ducky cursed. "Well that's just great. I'll be sure to pass that information on, though." Opening the door, Ducky peered outside, then grinned. "See you later, Fezzik."
Ray let a relieved chuckled escape his lips, then he got up and slipped out the door. "Respect your elders hippie, before I chop that ponytail off." He waved. "Have a good night."
Ducky nodded, then looked at the address one more time, a relieved grin on his face. Ed's going to shit himself with joy, he thought as he poked his earbuds back in his ears and sauntered off. We've got him.
Ed rubbed his temples and tried to reread Reilly's notes once more. Between the awkwardness of staring at the computer screen, being leashed by the wrist to the tower, and her theories based more in speculation and mysticism than science, his head was really beginning to hurt and his eyes were burning.
He'd spent weeks sifting through the tangled mess that Reilly called research. The first one was wasted just figuring out her bizarre filing system. I should be used to that, he thought. All alchemists code their notes. But Reilly's has no rhyme or reason. Well, it does, it just isn't based in logic.
He'd finally set his stubbornness and skepticism aside out of self-preservation. He needed something to challenge his mind before he went completely stir-crazy. Reilly's gates and leylines were what was available. He had to admit, when he could peel away the layers of speculation, her theories had some measure of validity. Especially in light of what actual science now knew about the brain and how it worked.
"When you told me about taking your alchemy exam, you mentioned one candidate almost lost his life because he was too exhausted to move," Reilly had said one quiet night in the garden.
"Yeah. What about it?"
"If your alchemy is powered by the souls of the dead from this side of the gate, then why was he so wiped out? That doesn't make sense if the energy supposedly came from somewhere other than himself."
Ed pondered that question for a long time.
"What we know today about how the brain works," she had told him a few days later, "is that when a person has a thought, there's an electrical charge that jumps from one neuron to another."
"Thought is energy?"
Reilly nodded. "And I'm sure you know the first law of thermodynamics, right?"
"Energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be transformed from one form to another. The total energy is constant within any system. But that could still cover my father's theory."
"Perhaps. But anyone can learn to draw a circle with the right symbols. Why is it that not everyone can perform a transmutation?"
Ed snorted. "Easy. They don't know how."
"How do you do it?"
"I know the chemistry of what I'm transmuting."
"So? If I drew the right circle with the right symbols and knew the exact chemistry, I couldn't transmute a damn thing. What is it that you add that is the catalyst?"
For once, Ed didn't have an answer. At least not one based in hard science or alchemy as he understood it. Reilly did, though. Or rather, she had a theory. It just couldn't be quantified with any sort of reliability; even in this world.
He leaned back in the chair and looked down at his hands. All his life, he'd just accepted that alchemy and his ability to transmute something was possible. He had an unshakable faith that he would be able to make the transmutation work like it should as long as he applied the right principles. As unshakable as knowing the sun would rise every morning.
He'd only failed twice in his entire life. Once when he and Al tried to rebuild a bridge outside of Rush Valley; when he neglected to take into account a few of the basic principles of physics.
The first time he failed though, was when they tried to bring back their mother. What they didn't realize back then, was that the human soul was impossible to quantify.
According to Reilly's theories, faith equaled thought, which equaled energy, and that energy was what made up the soul. Once a person dies, that energy was transformed into something else and could never be recovered. And it was his soul that was the energy that powered alchemy.
"So why can't I do alchemy without a circle on this side of the gate?" he asked.
"Alchemy is just accepted as a fact in your world. Even the people who don't use it still know it exists. That's Universal Faith. That energy is a part of the fabric of that universe. Here, alchemy has become legend and mysticism. You don't have the energy of Universal Faith helping your alchemy along. You just have your own faith in it."
The principle for the gates was essentially the same. They were once sacred places and a lot of faith was placed in them. The energy of those sacred places was never lost, it was just transformed, collected, and eventually became the gates. The energy of those gates was never lost; it was transformed and became the leylines. The energy of the leylines was never lost, it just traveled from one gate to another. "But what does that energy transform into?" he asked himself.
And if Reilly is right, then would all concepts of an afterlife be completely invalid? he wondered. Even the atheist one?
That had been the burning question on Ed's mind for weeks now. It was the reason he was going through Reilly's notes. He thought if he searched hard enough, he would figure out the answer; and that was leagues better than letting his brain turn to mush with the aid of the idiot box.
He also thought perhaps there might be something that would help them in the near future. As it was, the plans to get Ed integrated had been tossed onto the back burner for now. There had been a few incidences that spooked Reilly and she was more interested in preparations to run, if it came to that. Ed didn't argue the point. Ducky was now somewhere in Wichita chasing rumors that Al was there; and Tom was still following other leads. No one had the time or the ability at the moment. Hughes was doing what he could, but he was also busy investigating the things Reilly was worried about.
There was a small part of his mind that thought he might find answers of another sort, as well. A way out of this strange world and maybe... just maybe... back home. Back to Amestris. I can't afford to think about that right now, he thought as he rubbed his tired, burning eyes once more. Not until I know more. Until I know for certain it's not going to require sacrificing someone's life in order to open a gate back home.
Ed rested his left hand on the back of his neck and rotated his head in an effort to relieve some of the tension. Reilly had warned him that spending too much time on a computer wasn't good for him, but he'd forget the time when he got deep into her notes. His aching head, neck and eyes told him he'd been there too long, though. It was time to get away from the damn thing. His eyes not only burned, but they were starting to feel heavy. Been on far too long, he thought.
He rested his head on his crossed arms and closed his eyes. Just for a minute, he thought. Let me rest my eyes a minute and then I'll go out back and get some air.
His eyes snapped open and he realized, with some dismay, that he'd dozed off. It took a moment longer for him to comprehend that the playlist he'd been running had also ended. Odd, he thought. That should still be playing when Reilly gets home. How long was I out?
He raised his head and wiped at the corner of his mouth, then scowled when he noticed the screen was black. Not like when he'd wiped the hard drive, but like the computer was turned off. He looked under the desk, and saw that the machine was still plugged in, and a quick once-over showed him nothing else had been disconnected as far as he could tell.
It was then he realized he wasn't hearing anything but silence, period. The windows were open, but he couldn't hear any crickets or frogs. The usual background noises were missing as well. The refrigerator wasn't humming, the clock on the wall wasn't even ticking. A chill crawled up his spine and his eyes slid to the wall where the old clock hung. The pendulum had stopped moving.
The Hell? He thought he was still asleep. His eyes felt like they weighed a ton, and he just couldn't find the energy to move. And at that moment, he felt like someone had started playing cat's cradle with his intestines. He knew this feeling. Had felt it once before. The lights are on, he realized with horror.
He looked around the living room, peering into the dimmer corners for movement. He couldn't see anything writhing anywhere, but he felt the malevolence. He knew they had to be there somewhere. His eyes went to the dark hallway and he was almost certain that was the source. Except for one thing, it felt like he was being watched from behind.
He tried to turn the seat to look behind him and found the effort it required was enormous. And it was for nothing, because there was nothing there. In fact, it felt like whatever was glaring at him with such pure hatred had kept itself at his back; but he didn't think that was possible, and him miss it...
...Then Ed stopped breathing and his eyes rolled up.
There it was. Hanging directly over his head. His mouth went dry and he swallowed, but it felt like his throat was stuck. I thought those things hated light.
The light in the living room was subdued, coming from a single lamp on the table at the far end of the couch from him, but it was still light. The spot on the ceiling wasn't that dark. His mind started to shut down in a panic when he saw the wet-hair like tendrils start to spread out from the spilled-ink patch of black. Just like before, the thing was searching for him, but it was right over him and slowly reaching down.
What the fuck was it Reilly said? He wracked his brain trying to remember. The words came hesitantly and weakly. "I-if y-you're not here in the n-name of light, then in th-the name of light, begone."
The tendrils stopped their search and jerked back like they'd been burned. Ed almost breathed again.
Why aren't they leaving?
The shadows continued to hang over his head like a gathering storm and he was still feeling drained. "Damnit," he complained without his usual force. "If you're not here in the name of light, then in the name of light begone," he said again. He said it with more conviction, but nowhere near the energy Reilly had used. He just didn't have it.
The shadows suddenly seemed to contract in on themselves and he saw them begin to swirl. Like a cyclone, the shadows spun and formed a funnel that was aimed right for him... and he was paralyzed.
I have to move, he thought. I have to find some way to get out of their way before they reach me.
The feeling of helplessness that filled him began to boil over into anger. He hated being helpless with a passion very few people ever felt. It was that absolute black hatred of that feeling that had kept him alive and moving for so many years. He found enough energy to aim that hatred at the shadows. His jaw clenched and he growled. "Fuck you, bastards."
It was a mistake, he realized almost immediately, because the shadows seemed to grow and whirl faster with the force of his anger...
"Fuck!" he blurted as his arm came up and he instinctively flinched from the expected impact.
His reaction was enough to topple the desk chair backwards and spill him onto the hard wood floor in a tangled heap. When he lowered his arm, he could see the shadows return to their searching form as the tendrils reached out to locate their lost target.
Fuck this, he thought. Reilly has faith in light and words, I have faith in alchemy. Lets see just how strong faith is in this case.
He found the energy to clap and change his automail into the short sword. It also caught the attention of the shadows and they charged right for him with the force of a bullet. Ed only had an instant to react, but it was enough.
"Eat automail you bastards," he whispered and swung his arm.
The reaction was instantaneous and explosive. The instant his automail made contact with the shadows, bolts of energy arced between them and his arm, lighting the living room up in a blue-white light. He felt the energy clear into his shoulder; seeping into the ports where the automail was fused to his nerves, short-circuiting them and nearly numbing the entire right half of his body.
He was held in the grip of an entity made of negative energy and was being electrocuted, he was certain of it. He couldn't break free. The shadows had him and were sucking the life right out of him. He could feel the electrical charge coursing through him and reach the port on his left leg before that side started to grow tingly-numb. The only place he had any feeling was where nerves were fused to wires. And damnit, that hurt like hell, too!
The next instant came hours later, when he fell back in an explosion of black rain that felt as solid as smoke.
The world wavered then faded to black as Ed lay on the floor, unable to feel anything with flesh, but feeling every remaining jolt coursing through him at the ports of his automail. He knew that Reilly wouldn't make it home in time to save him. He'd failed his brother... again.
"I'm sorry... Al," he whispered as oblivion washed over him.
Reilly knew something was up when she went on her break. As she came out of the bathroom, the light in the narrow hall went out and she felt the cold chill of hatred aimed at her back. She had never faced the shadows anywhere but at home and never when she was so wide awake. Her energy wasn't draining from her, either. There was just the hatred. She never turned to look behind her, but walked down the hall and back to the main cubicle farm.
On her way back to her desk, she grabbed one of the floor managers and said, "You need to get maintenance on that hall light. It went out." Still, she refused to look back toward the hall. She wasn't going to give them the power.
"Looks like it's on to me," the manager said.
Reilly spun and stared. The light was back on and seemed to be just fine. They take advantage of the dark, she thought. They never created their own darkness before.
An icy hand gripped her heart. Ed.
"Hey, you okay there?" she heard her manager ask from somewhere far away.
"N-no. No I'm not." She faced the manager finally and swallowed. No, she thought, I'm most definitely not okay. "I'm not feeling well, I think I'm going home."
"You only have a couple hours left on your shift, Reilly. Can't you make it that long?"
Reilly barely heard him as she stumbled toward her desk long enough to grab her purse.
"You know, this is going on your record. You don't have permission to leave."
"Fine," she said as she aimed herself at the door. "I quit."
I never thought you could dream when you're dead, Ed thought. He heard the light sound of a flute playing nearby; and on the wave of the music, came a sense of peace.
His eyes opened briefly, but he felt a sense of unreality as he felt the music wrap around him in a comforting blanket. Everything was a wobbly blur as Ed sought the source of the sound and found an unrecognizable blob in the center of a lot of other unrecognizable blobs. He blinked in an attempt to clear his eyes and something that vaguely resembled a human took shape, but it wasn't any human he recognized.
"/Wakhan ThÃ¡nka nÃci un,/" the human-shaped blob said. "You fought the darkness and lived. But another battle will be coming soon."
"Who I am is not important. That I have news of your brother is."
"He's safe and under protection. And he's waiting for you."
The blob began to play once more, and Ed drifted back to unconsciousness. Al was safe.
Tom pulled into the drive of an unassuming middle-class home in the 'burbs. It looked like any other home in the neighborhood; carefully manicured lawn, nearly new minivan in the drive, basketball hoop hanging over the garage, even down to the skateboard left in the middle of the lighted walk up to the door. It was all perfectly, disgustingly banal.
Even the man who answered the door was incredibly... normal. Tall, blonde with a touch of grey starting at the temples, and dressed in the standard uniform of middle-American, middle-Management, middle-Class. Even down to the polo shirt with khaki slacks. It was enough to make Tom queasy.
With a friendly clap on the shoulder and a hearty handshake for any neighbors to see, the man escorted Tom inside where the cover of normalcy continued. Tom gave a nod to the perfectly normal wife with the perfectly normal pre-teen son playing a perfectly normal game of Parcheesi in the living room, and followed the man down the stairs to the perfectly normal basement cum playroom, complete with home theatre system, fully-stocked wet bar, and regulation-sized pool table.
If things were any more 'normal', it would actually cause suspicion, he thought as he took a seat at the bar.
Anthony Coltrain was the name the man was going by these days. Tom knew him in a former life as something else entirely and wasn't all that certain that name hadn't been a pseudonym as well. It didn't matter. What did matter, was what the man had hidden in a small room in his basement; behind a door that was very skillfully disguised.
'Anthony' counted out the bundled stack of bills Tom laid on the bar, nodded and picked up a remote control. He pressed a button and the hidden door that looked exactly like the rest of the solid pine paneling in the basement opened. Then he reached under the bar, pulled out a small backpack of the sort a little girl might carry. He handed it to Tom, nodded at the hidden room, and said, "Knock yourself out. It's all clean and untraceable."
Tom couldn't help but grin at all the toys the man had for sale. Cellphone PDAs, wireless network cards, walkie-talkies that scrambled the signal to anyone but the person who it was intended for... he felt like a geek at Christmas.
Anthony hung back at the door casually leaning on the frame with his arms crossed. "Not your usual shopping, Old Man."
Tom smirked and shoved a set of walkie-talkies into the bag. "I thought it was time I finally joined the Twenty-First Century."
Everything had been removed from the boxes to save space, but even then his purchases crammed the little back pack full.
"If you need some more traditional hardware, let me know," Anthony said. "I know a guy."
Tom clasped the man's wrist and grinned. "You know a lot of guys. Hopefully we won't need that hardware, though."
The entire transaction took less than half an hour. Tom was buckling up and just about to turn the key in the ignition when his cellphone beeped. He flipped it open, and found one text message. A single word, Trifecta.
Beautiful, Tom thought with a grin as he backed out of the drive. The message only meant one thing, Ed's little brother had been found, alive and not seriously injured, and he was safe. Three out of three. Things were looking up.
The good mood lasted only long enough for him to reach the exit of the neighborhood. Tom's phone chirped again and when he answered, he found a very panicked Reilly on the other end.
"He did what? Is he breathing? Pulse fine?" He clenched his jaw as he listened. Reilly almost never panicked, but she was in such a state he could barely understand what she was saying. Something about shadows and electrocution, and Ed being paralyzed? "He's what?! Reilly, slow down. Take a deep breath. Does he need emergency help? No? Good. I'm about an hour away, provided traffic doesn't have other plans. Did you call Maes?" He listened to her rattle on a moment longer, nodding as he did. "Okay, call him as soon as you get off with me." He listened a moment more, relieved that she was starting to calm down. "No, don't try to move him yourself, are you nuts? I know how heavy he is. Just make him comfortable until Maes gets there. I'm on my way."
He ended the call and sighed. Damn her and her pet shadows, he thought. He'd never seen these things himself, but he knew that anytime she saw them, trouble loomed ahead. From the sound of things, it looked like this time trouble was bringing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with it.
Hughes had barely thrown the car into park and yanked the keys out of the ignition when he was out and jogging up the steps into Reilly's house. For once, he didn't bother to knock first. What he saw as soon as he barged in brought him up short.
Reilly was sitting on the floor with Ed's head in her lap and his eyes were closed. He looked for all the world like he was just asleep. Or... dead. He's too pale, he thought.
The living room was a shambles. It looked like a tornado had hit and selectively tossed papers and books around, but ignored the lamp and some of the nick-nacks. The worst damage was around the desk, where scorch-marks etched the wood floor in trails that led from Ed to the computer. There were charred bits of black plastic hanging from the tower and a bit melted to Ed's right wrist from the static band. The tower was a warped, scorched mess and the monitor was destroyed. The amount of heat that was needed to generate that had to be enormous, Hughes thought. Amazing the whole house didn't go up.
There were also scorch-marks all over Ed's automail and the arm still showed the short sword. He was out before he could transmute it back, Hughes realized with a shock.
Reilly looked up as he knelt on the boy's other side. Her eyes stricken, dried trails down her cheeks from shed tears. "He's in and out," she said. "Keeps asking about Al."
Ed's eyes slid open and wobbled as he searched for the source of the familiar voice. "H-ughes?"
"I'm right here, Ed. Don't talk."
"We're still looking for him." Hughes scooped Ed into his arms and was stunned at how limp the boy was. "I'm going to get you on the couch, okay?"
Ed swallowed, but it looked like it was taking more effort than it should. "N-numb."
"I'll bet. You look like you took quite a jolt."
After he got Ed settled on the couch, he gripped Reilly by the elbow and hastily escorted her through the kitchen and out the back door. Far enough away so as not to disturb Ed, but close enough, with the door still open, to hear if he needed anything. "Okay, what in the Holy Hell happened in there?"
She pulled free of his grip and sagged down onto the steps. Wrapping her arms about herself and staring down at the ground, she told him about the shadows showing up at work and what she thought had happened at home. Then she went back and told him about the first time Ed encountered them. She spoke softly and Hughes could hear the tinge of shame in her voice. Her lips were pulled down in a deep frown and her eyes were unseeing. She looked like she was hovering on the edge of shock.
When she finished, he stared down at her for a long, silent moment. He wanted to be angry at her. For not informing him that his friend was in danger, for not telling him what these things were before he had to deal with a limp teenager that may or may not come out of this. God I hope he comes out of this, he thought.
Even as he thought that, he knew he would. As he'd laid Ed down on the couch, some movement was coming back, some sense of feeling. Ed had complained that he was starting to tingle.
Hughes wanted to be pissed at Reilly, but he couldn't. She was already beating herself up as it was; there was no point in adding to it. He took a few steps away from her and ran agitated fingers through his hair. "He can't be alone now. You know that, right?"
He faced her again, and pointed into the house. "If those... things... are some harbinger of doom and they're targeting Ed, he can't be alone."
Hughes sighed. "I hate to add more grist to the rumor mill, but I'm moving in."
Reilly's brows disappeared into her bangs.
Hughes shrugged and gave her a sheepish grin. "I live in a tiny efficiency apartment that wouldn't let me cuss out a cat without getting fur in my mouth. Besides, for now it's better to keep Ed away from overly curious eyes." He knelt down in front of her and laid a hand on her knee. "It's only temporary. As soon as we find Al, the three of us will get out of your hair."
Hughes laid a finger over her lips. "I've been doing my own snooping around, Reilly. I've got a strong suspicion that the trouble that's about to come down on our heads is somehow connected to Ed, Al and I. If we go, that trouble will follow us and leave you alone."
"I know too much, Maes," she stated bluntly.
"Yeah, well... I'm not killing you, so forget it."
Reilly laughed softly and dropped her head on his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her in a comforting embrace. There was no voice laying guilt on him this time; this was friendship.
The phone rang inside the house, but they ignored it for the moment, both somewhere in their own thoughts. Then Ducky's voice filtered through on the answering machine. "/Reilly! Check your email damnit! I hit the Goddamned jackpot!/" He ended the message with a psychotic laugh. The instant Ducky hung up there was a dull thud from the living room.
Hughes and Reilly stared at each other wide-eyed, then it was a scramble to see who would get in the door first.
They found Ed sitting on the floor with his back against the couch and drunkenly listing to port. His left hand was barely holding him up and he was waving the right around in an attempt to get some sort of balance; and he still hadn't transmuted the arm back to normal. "Al," he slurred. "Iss Al."
Hughes knelt down and caught Ed's right arm by the wrist in an effort to avoid being skewered, while trying to help him back upright. "Easy Ed. You need to get some rest, you're hurt."
Ed blinked and tried to focus, but failed miserably. "Issal. D'cky f-found Al."
"I know," Hughes said.
Reilly disappeared, then came back into the living room a moment later with her laptop in hand. She flopped down on the floor on Ed's left side and the boy slid over with his head on her shoulder.
Hughes gave up trying to wrestle him back onto the couch and sat down on his other side.
It had never seemed to take so long to get a laptop to power up before, and it seemed to take even longer for the internet connection to be made... and it was an eternity before all of Reilly's emails loaded. But finally, amidst all the spam for home loans and penis enlargements, was a solitary email from The_Duck_Lord.
Tell Terminator all three bets paid off. Will be able to collect from a walking wall named Ray. Some Men in Black want a cut from the pot, but the wall buried the treasure. Can get more info here: email@example.com.
Hasta La Vista, Baby!
"Alssssafe," Ed mumbled, then fell asleep on Reilly's shoulder with a smile on his face.