"Great," Hughes mumbled as he opened the door. "Reilly sends me, Mister Disgustingly Normal, into a den of freaks. Way to blend in."
"I'm the Girl Your Mother Warned You About"
Arc One: Chapter Eighteen
Balance of Power
June 2, 2006 - 8:02pm
It had been a week since Hughes told Reilly he was moving in. A week since Ed had been attacked by the shadows. He'd stayed at her place every night since then, but he hadn't actually moved out of his small efficiency apartment until tonight.
It wasn't that he had much to pack. Maes Hughes had spent the past few years living like a monk. He'd never made the tiny apartment a home, never put any pictures up on the stark-white walls, never added any personal touches, had barely enough utensils to eat take-out. The microwave and the television were the only things that were used on a regular basis. In fact, the stove looked exactly as it did when he moved in. He'd lived for the past almost-four years as though the arrangement was temporary, and he'd finally decided it was time to let go of that notion.
Since he'd been pronounced dead, he'd dreamed of Gracia and Elysia at least twice a week, often three or four times. Always, they were vital, and alive, and behind a heavy, inches-thick door that towered so high the top was obscured by mist. In the featureless plane that was the land of dreams, he could see through that terribly solid door. He could see them; his girls, his light, his life. He could see them so clearly it hurt his eyes, his heart... his soul.
At first, the door was his ally. It was protection. It kept his girls safe from the horrors he was being forced to deal with. He could turn the knob at any time and join them on the other side of that door, but he didn't dare. Not at the time.
As horrible as he thought the cancer was within the military, as a ghost he found out it was even worse. Those in command at the Northern Front weren't just his friends. They were his country's only hope. And they'd been sent there to die. They were the last roadblock to some New World Order being planned by the top brass. Hughes had no idea exactly what the actual plan was; his sources of information became thin almost as soon as he was well enough to leave the hospital and things moved very quickly after that.
It was a possibility that what the brass had planned would cut out the cancer, and set Amestris back on the right course. A possibility, but not a probability.
Hughes wasn't a gambling man. He preferred to put his money on a sure thing. His friends that had been shunted to the front line in another senseless war were that sure thing, and they were about to be eliminated.
The last bit of information Major Armstrong was able to get to him before he was deployed was sketchy at best. But Hughes figured out where in the puzzle the one piece fit. He had to stop it before it was too late.
The country to the north was alchemy-poor but mineral-rich, especially in the rare-earths. They had never been a threat before. In fact they had a decent trade-agreement with Amestris, but they also had physicists and their technological development was moving forward.
The gossips and rumor-mills of Central City whispered about the possibility of a devastating bomb developed by the North. When Hughes dug a little deeper, he discovered that they were nowhere near that point.
The plan was to have his friends die in battle along with thousands of other innocent soldiers and civilians. The top brass were going to stack the deck and make sure of it.
Hughes was almost too late when he caught up with Bond.
The alchemist-assassin had set the timer on a device that would wipe out the entire regiment in an enormous alchemic reaction without focus, but hadn't yet sent it off to the target. All Hughes had to do was prevent Bond from sending the device to the targets until it exploded. Their location was far enough away that the only damage would be to the landscape. The only casualties would be himself and the assassin. Hughes was already dead, though. Dying again wouldn't make a difference in the lives of his friends and family. But they would be able to finish what they had started. The cost was reasonable.
Maes Hughes wasn't an alchemist and he only had a vague understanding of it. He knew nothing of The Gate. Even after three years, seven months, two weeks, four days, and an odd number of hours, minutes and seconds on the other side of it, he still had no understanding of exactly what happened, or how he ended up where he did. All he could remember was the timer on the bomb reaching the end and then he was in some farmer's field in Northern Oklahoma.
He still dreamed of his girls on the other side of that door, but now the door was locked and barred. It was no longer his ally, but his enemy.
The dream shifted only slightly over the years. At first he would spend the entire time he was in the land of dreams screaming and banging on the door until his throat was raw and his hands bled. Then he would plead with the door to open. He offered to give his life for real if the door would only let him through, let him touch his girls just once more. Often, in frustration, he would dream of hurling knives at the door, or finding other ways to destroy it. Always, the door remained unscathed.
As he moved through this strange new world, a ghost once more, lying-about himself, about his family-he'd dream that he spoke to Gracia and Elysia through the door. He'd break down and cry and beg their forgiveness for hurting them so deeply. Always, they remained silent. He could only hope that they heard him and forgave him, but he wouldn't blame them if they never did.
Over the past year, he no longer fought the door, no longer tried to open it. He'd finally come to understand that this would never work. All he could do was wait. He couldn't open the door. He didn't have the ability. If the door ever opened again, it would be by its own choice.
He resigned himself to just standing in front of it when he was there and just observing his girls. Wondering about them. Had Gracia moved on? How was Elysia doing in school? The tears still came in the dreams, but they'd dried up long ago when he was awake. They were gone, out of his reach. All he had left was this time, while he slept.
Then Ed came to him in that featureless plane, entreaty in his gold eyes. "We're all a part of whatever world we're in. We don't have a choice but to interact with it," he said in a voice that had matured.
"You can't go back." Ed grasped his shoulder and pointed behind him. When Hughes turned, he saw another door that stood wide open. "You can only go forward."
Hughes had never seen that door before. Had it always been there? He walked up to it and looked through. Beyond was life. And there were people there. Old friends, Ed and Al. New friends, Ducky, Tom, the people he worked with at the studio... and Reilly. They called to him and waved him over. They invited him to join them, but a feeling of fear settled deep in the pit of his stomach and he couldn't cross the threshold.
He saw Ed and Al hanging off of each other's shoulders, shining brightly and happy. The brothers, united and whole, called to him the loudest, but it was Reilly who was nearest. She was quiet and waiting patiently for him. He watched her turn to the brothers with a brilliant smile, then she took one more glance back and walked away. She didn't leave; she put herself in the background.
Life was through that door and it terrified him more than anything he had ever experienced.
/If I go through that door, will my girls be forever out of my reach? /he wondered.
He felt the firm grip on his shoulder return and Ed was beside him once more. "They're already out of your reach, Hughes. They have been since you crossed The Gate."
He jerked around again and felt himself quail. Gracia and Elysia... his girls, his life, they were fading, becoming shrouded in a mist. "No!" he cried, and stumbled to the door. "No! Come back! Please..." he banged on the door in desperation, but he knew it was fruitless. He sagged to his knees and let his forehead fall against the unyielding barrier. "Please," he sobbed. "Don't let me lose this. It's all I have left of them."
He felt Ed next to him once more. He didn't want to look at him. He couldn't bear it.
"You won't lose them," the young man said softly. He felt a hand rest over his heaving chest. "They're here. They'll never completely fade."
Over the next two weeks, when he dreamed of that door, it grew further and further away, but Gracia and Elysia remained as they were, mist-shrouded, but there. The open door was always right within reach, but he couldn't cross the threshold.
When Ed appeared next to him again, Hughes asked him why he couldn't cross.
"You're not letting yourself."
He was nearly blinded by a golden light and thought at first it was coming from Ed. Then he felt heat on his left hand and brought it up to look. His wedding ring was the source of the heat and the light.
"You have to let go," Ed said, then he went through the door.
For the first time in years he cried while he was awake. The tears fell unnoticed at first as he stared down at the open wallet in his hand; at the dog-eared picture within that he'd kept on him since he'd 'died'. Then he downed the last of his sixth bottle of beer, stuck the fourth finger of his left hand all the way in his mouth and slicked it with his spit. It was salt-bitter from his tears, and he grimaced at the taste.
He tore at the ring, pulling at the one thing that held more meaning to him than his own life. It refused to come off easily, stopping at the knuckle. He twisted it back and forth as he forced it over the pinched flesh, not caring about the pain as it scraped his skin. Then it broke free and it nearly flew from his grasp. He clenched his hand around the ring desperately, his heart pounding at nearly losing something so dear, and held it close to his chest until his heart and breathing calmed.
Hughes read the engraving inside one last time; You are my heart and my life, eternal as a circle. He whispered, "I hope your lives are happy, Gracia... Elysia. I love you," as he dropped the ring into the plastic sleeve with the photograph of his wife and daughter. He couldn't bring himself to actually say 'good-bye'.
The wallet fell to the table as he covered his eyes with a left hand that now felt horribly naked and raw. Then the stillness of the small apartment was broken by his choking, ragged sobs.
He didn't know how much time had passed when he woke up. The apartment had grown darker and he no longer felt the buzz of the cheap beer. He felt groggy, puffy and queasy, but he also felt that the worst of the pain had finally ended. He was ready to move forward now.
He took a shower, then finished packing the last of his clothes. He dropped the key off with the landlady downstairs and told her that she was welcome to the stuff he left. He no longer had any use for it.
The sun had set and night was approaching when he tossed the bag into the back seat next to the gym-bag full of paintball equipment. He smiled a bit and hoped he'd have a chance to let Ed pay him back for his humiliating defeat in the near future.
It still hadn't reached full dark when Hughes slowed for the turn down Reilly's road, but it was dark enough that he could see the lights from emergency vehicles a mile down. His heart pounded, and he had to consciously keep from pressing down on the gas.
He was waved to a stop by a police officer a hundred yards from the drive and he rolled down his window. The young woman leaned in and said, "Sorry, sir, but we can't let you get any closer to the crime scene."
"C-crime scene?" Hughes said, and felt his stomach flip. "What happened?"
"That's being investigated right now. We don't know for certain, yet." Her expression became questioning, but not suspicious. "You family?"
Hughes swallowed and stared down the road at what was left of Reilly's house. What he could see of it between fire trucks and police vehicles looked like it had been completely destroyed. "Yes," he whispered. He faced the officer. "Yes," he repeated, louder. "Reilly was... is my... girlfriend." Well, it isn't entirely a lie. We are friends.
Hughes felt the bottom drop out of his world and his vision go black along the edges at the look of pain on the young cop's face. "OhdearGod," he choked. He stared wide-eyed at the remains of the house and just shook. "Please tell me they got away."
"I... I'm sorry," she whispered. When Hughes turned to her, he could see she was fighting to keep her professionalism. A rookie, the investigator and soldier in him couldn't help thinking. Even through his anxiety of not knowing for certain if Ed and Reilly had escaped, he couldn't stop that part of his mind from working. This is probably her first time to deliver bad news like this.
Very carefully struggling to keep the fear out of his voice, he asked, "Did you find their bodies?"
She swallowed and didn't answer. In the lengthening silence, Hughes caught sight of a flat-bed tow-truck pulling out of the drive, a smoking hulk of a sedan carried on its back. It can't be them. Please, if there is a God, don't let it be them.
He put the car in park, shut off the engine, and opened the door. The woman stepped back. "We haven't found any bodies in the house, but we found the car in the middle of the field," she said. "It looked like someone was chasing them." He barely listened as the tow-truck neared them. He stepped into the center of the road and waved for it to stop.
"I don't think you want to do that," the officer said. "There's not really anything left to identify until DNA tests and an autopsy can be run."
When the truck came to a stop, he said to the officer, "I need to see for myself. Please."
She thought about it, then nodded. To the driver, she said, "Let him look."
Hughes pulled himself up on the platform next to the car and lurched back at the stench of charred flash. He pulled his shirt up over his nose, and looked around the outside, delaying the inevitable -avoiding the gruesome sight within. He could feel the heat that still clung to the sedan and gave it a cautious tap. It had at least cooled enough to touch at this point.
The vehicle was unfamiliar, and unidentifiable as anything but a generic sedan. Government issue, Hughes thought. Feds. There wasn't any paint remaining, and the tires had melted into an amorphous mess. The glass was mostly gone and spiderwebbed where what little remained had fused into the frame. The hood, however, sent a thrill of fear through him. Burned mostly away and unidentifiable to anyone not knowing what they were looking at, was a partial hint of an array. One Hughes was vaguely familiar with.
This whole scenario is wrong, he thought. Ed would never go to these extremes, even if his life was in danger. He'd disable them, but leave anyone chasing them alive. He squinted and leaned closer. /No. Not Ed. The pattern and symbols aren't right. The only other possibility could be.../Hughes stopped. He didn't want to consider the other 'possibility' yet.
He steeled himself and reached for the door of the sedan. When he tried to pull it open, it wouldn't budge. A closer look in the fading light showed him that it was welded shut and the soot and shadows within wouldn't afford him a good look. He turned to the officer who was still on the ground. "Can I borrow the flashlight?"
She reluctantly tossed it up to him, but didn't try to dissuade him. Hughes took a deep breath and readied himself, then turned on the light and shined it into the warped, gaping hole that was once the windshield. What light penetrated the soot illuminated enough that he felt his gorge rise. The two bodies that had been immolated inside the car were still sitting upright, melted into the seat. Any actual identifying marks had been burned away; it was impossible to tell if the victims had been male, or female. Images of Ishbal came back to him in a rush, and he felt his knees begin to buckle.
There was something terrifyingly familiar about the condition of the sedan. He'd seen enough intelligence photos to know that Roy Mustang wasn't the only one who could do something like this. The scene smacked of Bond and Hughes had to acknowledge it. The array on the hood is his. For one very brief moment, he actually wished that Ed had been responsible for this destruction. The idea that Bond was on their asses terrified him and made the possibility of the charred forms inside being Reilly and Ed so much more real.
"Sir, are you alright?" the woman called up to him, pulling him back to the here-and-now. Instead of answering he forced himself to look again. His answer was there --even if he couldn't tell much-- and he was putting the pieces together. There was just one thing he had to make absolutely certain of.
He swallowed and forced himself to really look at the bodies. He knew it would have been too much to hope they'd died easily before they had been burned and he was at least grateful that there wasn't anything remaining of their faces. He didn't think he could take it if he had to see the horror frozen there as they realized they were going to die in the worst possible way imaginable. And knowing that sadistic bastard, he probably made sure they died slowly. He shined the light down the torso of the driver and saw one hand fused to the wheel and the other grasping at the door handle. Or not? He aimed the beam over at the passenger, and saw that this one was hanging onto the door with both hands. Trying to escape. Both of them. They saw it coming, but their deaths were instant. Hughes rubbed his chin and furrowed his brow. If they died that quickly, then Bond was pissed. At this moment, he couldn't tell if that was good or bad. He shined the light down at the driver again, this time lower, then quickly turned it back to the passenger, again aiming the light low.
Four arms. Four legs. And Bond pissed off enough to flash-fry them.
This time his knees did give out and he sunk down to the platform.
It's not them. Thank God it's not them. They got away.
Hughes pulled into the muddy patch of space that passed as a parking lot for The Bohemian Coffee House and hit a water-filled pothole deep enough to jar his teeth. For what was possibly the hundredth time since he started to navigate the maze of one-way streets that made up the city's warehouse district, he'd cursed Reilly for her choice of contact spots. The place was next to impossible to find, unless you knew exactly what you were looking for and he'd missed it more than once. It didn't help that while the front of the building faced a main thoroughfare, all indications that this was a thriving business were around the back, only accessible down a dark, narrow street.
After he'd confirmed that the bodies in the sedan were not Ed and Reilly, Hughes had driven straight to Tulsa and checked into a cheap motel. Then he walked the two blocks to a nearby convenience store and made a call to a cellphone number Tom had given him that didn't belong to him, Ducky, nor Reilly. He left a short, cryptic message on the voice mail, then returned to the room to wait. The instructions were to meet up with his contact at midnight at the coffee house. With the round-about method of getting the message to Tom and Ducky that Reilly and Ed had run, Hughes could only hope that nothing got lost in translation. He knew it was going to be a long night and he should be conserving his energy, but with everything that was spinning around in his head, even a short nap would be elusive. All he could do, was lay on the bed, stare blindly at the ceiling, and try to sort everything out. There were so many questions that needed answered. The biggest being, how is Bond connected to Ed?
How would he have discovered that Ed was here, and how would he even know who he was? And what does he want with him? The most obvious answer to the last question was that the assassin thought Ed might get him back through the Gate. Unfortunately, that did nothing to shed any light on the rest of the puzzle. It was possible that Ed might know. But he wasn't going to find that out until he could catch up with them. Hughes was a patient man, but this night was eroding that patience quickly. He couldn't keep the thought that Bond was closing in on those two out of his head, and the only thing that stopped him from going out and searching the streets of Tulsa was the knowledge that it was very likely they weren't even in this city.
He shut off the ignition and looked at the old 2-story brick building that was attached to an empty, metal-sided warehouse. First impressions are not always right, he realized when he saw the fire escape balcony was freshly painted with window boxes and potted plants decorating it. The brick part of the building looked like it was well maintained and there was a large patio set up with tables that were already filled with customers, most of whom were a bit of a shock.
Black seemed to be the dominating color of choice for clothing here, along with chains, leather, and a few spiked collars. Hughes saw several kids milling around with hair in colors he'd only seen in fevered dreams.
"Great," he mumbled as he opened the door. "Reilly sends me, Mister Disgustingly Normal, into a den of freaks. Way to blend in."
He sighed, stepped out of the car, and nearly lost his balance when his foot went further down than he'd anticipated. The instant he caught himself, he felt the cold chill of muddy water soak through his shoe and pants-leg. He groaned down in disgust at the pot hole that nearly swallowed his car a moment ago and was now working on devouring him. "Well, this evening is starting out just great."
With acrobatic skill, he managed to get the other foot out of the car and on solid ground without soaking in it or falling face-first in the mud. Once both feet were on the same level he headed toward the coffee house, shaking his drenched foot at every other step. Then as soon as he reached the fence surrounding the patio, he felt a knot of anxiety tangle in his gut.
They were all. So. Damned. Young. Out of all the customers hanging out, behaving like they'd known each other since they were small, not a one could have possibly been much older than Ed. This whole set-up was beginning to look like the classic Very Bad Idea.
Reilly had insisted that this was a safe place for a contact meeting if something happened and she and Ed had to run. Hughes had no choice but to trust her on this. He considered himself lucky that no one actually paid any attention to him as he dodged and wove around kids with more metal on their clothes and faces than he had in his pocket.
Once inside, he had to squeeze through the press of bodies waiting in the narrow entry hall for the bathroom in order to get to the main room of the place. He received more than a few lecherous looks, from both women and men, and he was certain a few nudges and brushes were quite deliberate.
He was finally able to take a breath once past the hall and took a quick glance around. He wasn't certain how he'd recognize 'Kitten', but Reilly said he'd know her when he saw her. For some reason, that did nothing to ease his apprehension.
The place inside was hardly what he expected. It had a casual look, but not seedy. Almost like someone had turned their basement into a huge party room. There was an old upright piano with an acoustic guitar resting on top of it, couches scattered about, even a few old footstools. One section had been converted into a cyber cafÃ©, with wrought-iron patio tables and chairs and there was a small stage in the center.
The place was buzzing with people wandering about talking to people they knew, hugging, or cuddling on the couch. Even a few people were sitting on the carpeted floor around an enormous coffee table that looked like it had been made from a single stump of an incredibly large tree. There were murals on the walls and ceiling, a few tables where people were playing chess, even a nook filled with books and a pair of comfortable old recliners.
This is not your typical trendy restaurant, he thought. There was a slight amount of relief when he spotted a few normal-looking and older people in the crowd. Maybe I won't stick out too badly, after all.
He found an empty table and settled in to wait. A young blonde man that looked like he could be blown away at the first stiff breeze approached him with a pad of paper in hand. Hughes was stunned at just how similar he looked to Ed in the fine-boned facial features and big, expressive eyes. But while Ed was short and wiry, this boy had a tall and willowy build.
"Hey, welcome to The Bohemian. What can I get you?"
Hughes's mind went completely blank. There was no menu, so he had no idea what was available. "What do you recommend?"
The boy shrugged and gave him a friendly grin -/Dear God, are those... real fangs?!/-and said, "Personally, I love the cinnamon raspberry vanilla cappuccino."
"Sounds good to me, I'll have that. What's good to eat?"
"First timer, huh?" The boy grinned wider and Hughes was absolutely certain those were fangs... and they didn't look fake. "If you're just wanting dessert," he said as he pointed back at the cash counter and the large pastry display case next to it. "The best are the cheesecake, the tiramisu, and the Boss made a kick-ass apple pie today."
Apple pie?! He was almost tempted, but the feeling of his heart lurching quickly made him change his mind. He didn't think he could eat anyone else's apple pie but Gracia's. He shook his head and said, "The cheesecake will be fine, thanks."
As the young man walked off to get his order, Hughes felt a pair of slender hands on his shoulders and before he had a chance to react, there was a gentle puff of hot breath then the tip of a tongue sliding up the shell of his ear. He involuntarily shivered and was stunned frozen for the merest instant. That was enough for him to find his lap and arms suddenly filled with a voluptuous young woman with bright lavender, shoulder-length hair, vivid gold cat-slit eyes, and a black satin corset that enhanced two of her most prominent features.
Any possible form of coherent thought flew off to parts unknown as he just stared at her seductive smile. She purred and fingered that one errant lock of hair he could never keep out of his face. It made him think how much she seemed like a large, fluffy cat...
His brows shot up. "Kitten?"
"You know, you're just as yummy as Pandora said you'd be," she said.
"Well, her words were more like, 'Cute, cuddly, and if you try to molest him, I'll tell Ducky you have the hots for him'."
He laughed. "That sounds more like something Reilly would say." He placed his hands on her waist and attempted to politely remove her from his lap, but she wasn't budging. "You... might want to get up now. I don't think this is what she intended when she asked you to get in contact with me."
She wriggled just the slightest bit and gave him a wicked grin as his breath hitched and his fingers clamped tightly on her waist. "Hmmm. You know, from where I'm sitting, I don't think that would be such a good idea." She leaned in close and spoke softly in his ear. "If I get up, everyone will know just how blessed you are."
His face went hot and tight and he groaned low, more from embarrassment than anything else. He closed his eyes a brief moment, got his scattered thoughts under control, then gave Kitten his most wicked grin. "I'll just have to take that risk, won't I?" he said mildly. "Now, if you don't get up, I'll tell Ducky you have the hots for him, myself."
She pouted and didn't move at first. Hughes suddenly forgot she was there, though, because his attention was drawn to someone at the register. The man had his back to him at first, but there was something about the stance that was far too familiar. There was no mistaking that ram-rod stiff posture, the bald head, or the overly superior tone of voice that drifted over the low murmuring of the crowd.
With an annoyed huff, Kitten started to rise but Hughes grabbed her hips and held her down. "On second thought..."
With a lusty purr she bent down and kissed him with a skill that took his breath away and wiped out any thought of protest. Almost by pure reflex alone, he responded to her playfully probing tongue; allowing her in and relishing in the sensuous glide along his own. All he could sense at that moment was heat and electricity that vibrated him down to his toes.
A low moan rumbled deep in his chest and his arms tightened around her; pulling her closer. Ooohfuuuuck.
Wait. No! Way wrong word, he thought, trying to get his whirling mind to slow down. He had to focus on something much more important.
Thinkunsexythoughtsthinkunsexythoughts... Last thing I need is to be seen by Bond...
...And that broke the hold she had on him.
He pulled away from her; panting and wild-eyed. She smiled, insufferably pleased with herself, but his eyes slid past her to see that Bond was still at the register. The man was beginning to fidget and Hughes sincerely hoped that whoever was waiting on him finished up with him soon. He didn't want to see what Bond would do in a fit of pique here. He'd seen it too often before and the end was never pretty. Reilly's house and the bar-b-qued sedan was proof that he hadn't mellowed with his exposure to this world.
The girl behind the counter stepped away from the register and Bond turned. Hughes yanked Kitten down and buried his face in her neck. She purred happily and ran her fingers through his hair. He nuzzled at her ear and watched the counter through her impossibly lavender hair. "Don't look," he whispered and wrapped his arms tighter around her to keep her from doing exactly that. "There's a man at the register that I want to avoid."
He felt her tense and her warm breath in his ear. "Someone after Pandora and the hottie?" she asked, all hint of seduction gone from her voice.
"Yeah. How do I get out of here without being seen by him?"
"Leave that to me. Just keep your nose buried in my neck for a moment."
"Just trust me." He did as she said and felt her shift in his lap as one arm left his shoulder. There was absolutely nothing seductive about the movement this time; it felt more like she was gesturing to someone behind him. Then she leaned back down and whispered, "And if you get an urge to nibble while you're there, I certainly would not complain."
She actually giggled at that. "Can't blame a girl for trying."
Hughes kept his face buried in her neck, all the while watching Bond with one eye. He sensed another presence behind him and tensed. Kitten felt it and said in his ear, "Easy Lover, Gretchen is a friend of mine. Just play along."
Play along? Why does that scare the hell out of m-- He suddenly forgot how to breathe when he felt a soft, hot mouth on his neck that was most definitely not Kitten's and a hand snaking around from behind him and down the front of his shirt. His eyes went wide and he gulped. "Um... as flattering as this is, it really wasn't what I had in mind, ladies."
The hot mouth left his neck with a light nip and a low, lusty chuckle. There wasn't much relief however, because Gretchen's breath puffed on the damp flesh as Kitten whispered in her ear. Hughes couldn't hear what was being said, but it was brief and he felt the tickle of hair when Gretchen nodded.
Bond was growing more impatient as he waited at the counter. Hughes was grateful for the delay, but fearful of what would happen if it went on too long. He was also very grateful when he felt Gretchen stand and step back from him.
He thought he might actually be able to breathe now.
"Don't worry Honey," Gretchen said in a voice far deeper than he expected. "I'll tell Spike and then we'll get the distraction started."
Hughes then came to the stunned realization that the rather tall, raven-haired 'woman' who sauntered into his line of sight and toward the counter was no woman. This must have transmitted itself to Kitten, because she started to giggle. "Gretchen is a trans, Darling."
"Transsexual. She has one more surgery and then she'll be all woman."
He had no idea just how to respond to that. Especially since Gretchen had a damn fine pair of legs and one hell of an ass.
Instead he occupied himself and his overwhelmed brain with watching Bond and the show Gretchen was starting.
He could hear Bond's voice growing more impatient with the slow service and he tensed when he saw the man start to nervously fiddle with his wristwatch. There was something odd about the gesture and then Hughes realized with an icy certainty that the watch was most logical place to hide a personal array. If he gets serious with that thing, the game is up, he thought. I won't let him blow this place and all these kids up.
He caught sight of the willowy blonde waiter as he was coming around the counter with a tray. Gretchen moved in behind Bond and Hughes shifted in a vain attempt to keep the assassin in view. He caught a subtle gesture from the woman and a glance toward Bond by the waiter. Then the boy headed to his table, set the coffee and cheesecake down, scribbled something hastily on the ticket, and left without another word. All the time, Kitten was wrapped around him like a blanket, doing a damn fine job of acting like they were making out while keeping him shielded.
Hughes started to wonder just who some of these people really were. They were working together like they'd been a long-standing team with almost military precision. He stretched his arm out and grabbed the ticket. There was a note.
"What's it say?" Kitten asked.
"Damn, Spike's getting slow."
He never heard what she said, because he saw the blonde sneak back into the kitchen. A moment later there was a crashing sound from there and a screaming match started. What the hell?
The effect was instantaneous. The entire coffee house went quiet for the space of a heartbeat and then as a single entity, nearly everyone clamored up to the counter to see what was going on. It was simple and brilliant. Bond was effectively trapped by the press of curious onlookers and Gretchen had the perfect position with her height, to block Hughes's escape from the assassin's sight.
Kitten sprung off his lap, grabbed his wrist and yanked him toward the front exit. "Wait, my car's out back," he protested.
"We'll get it later, c'mon."
They were halfway across the coffeehouse when he heard a bellowed, "HUGHES!"
Ohshit! he thought as he chanced a glance back over his shoulder.
Bond was roughly shoving people out of his way and doing his damndest to get out of the packed mob. Hughes only caught a glimpse of Gretchen latching onto the assassin and then being slung back into the pastry case next to the counter, shattering the glass front.
Kitten cried out and started for her friend, but this time it was Hughes doing the pulling. "No time Kitten. We've got to get out of here, now."
They hit the front door running, slamming it open so hard it dented the steel and rebounded back. As they reached the end of the sidewalk a thirty year-old metal monster screeched to a stop and the passenger door flew open. At the same moment, Hughes caught the bright yellow glow of alchemy from the corner of his eye. He yelled "Get down!" to the driver and threw Kitten to the ground, shielding her with his own body as the coffee house door exploded onto a million fragments.
As soon as the wind from the explosive concussion blew past, he looked up toward what remained of the doorway and saw Bond clasp the frame with one hand as the band around his wrist glowed. There was another bright yellow flash, as the frame morphed into something else altogether. He didn't hang around to find out what Bond was transmuting; he just pulled Kitten up, flung her into the car and dove in after her.
"Get to the hotel, Spike," Kitten said, as Hughes squirmed around to get upright. It was only as he did that he realized there was no more yellow glow and he looked back to see Bond just standing on the sidewalk lighting a cigarette.
"This isn't good," Hughes said when he couldn't see anything else in the man's hands. The bastard never wasted a transmutation. Then a cold chill trickled down his spine when he realized he didn't see anything back there.
He gulped, rolled down the window and stuck his head out. He looked back and down, where he was blind previously. "Oh HELL!" he said again when he finally spotted a clockwork 'spider' about the size of a German shepherd gaining on the sedan. "Floor it!"
"You got it," Spike said and Hughes heard the big eight-cylinder engine growl. He chanced a glance at the driver of the sedan. 'Spike', he discovered, was his willowy waiter and the boy had a ferocious grin that bared his fangs.
"How fast can you get?"
"On this road? Fifty, tops. Too many hills and curves."
Hughes leaned back out of the window and saw the spider closing the space between them. Fifty wasn't going to be fast enough. He knew Bond's clock-work bombs could reach that easily. "Too slow. That bomb'll catch us any second."
"Bomb?" Spike squeaked.
Kitten looked at Hughes, wide-eyed and pale and he was painfully reminded that distractions and pranks were one thing, but these kids were still kids and they were in serious danger. It wasn't fun anymore.
Kitten stammered then got herself back under control with a grim determination. She pointed out the left side of the car. "Highway."
Spike nodded, his face tight. A moment later, Hughes was thrown sideways when the boy made a sharp left turn and had to scramble to grab hold of the dash in front of him when the door flew open. Once he had himself righted he stretched to grab the handle and barely had time to jerk back when Spike sideswiped a telephone pole with the door, slamming it back shut. Then the boy overcorrected and slid the left side of the car along the retaining wall of the on-ramp, throwing sparks everywhere.
Hughes leaned back out of the window and saw the spider continue on its original heading. Then it spun and zeroed in on them. It launched itself for the sedan with more speed than before, leaping up onto the right side retaining wall and skittering after them. "Better give it more gas, Spike!" Hughes said.
The car sped faster up the ramp, but the spider doggedly kept closing the space between them. "Shit! Don't let it get ahead of us!"
"What is that thing?" Kitten asked.
"It's a robot. If it gets ahead of us there's no way we can get around it," Hughes said. "It'll attach itself to the car and explode."
No sooner were the words out of his mouth, when the spider poured on a burst of speed and leapt at the car. Kitten screamed when it hit the roof with a heavy metallic clank, but Spike just clenched his jaw and sped up. Hughes saw the spider careen off across the ramp, but he didn't delude himself with thinking they'd managed to get away. He needed something besides a throwing knife to deal with it.
"Spike, do you have a gun?"
"Damnit! Why do you old people always assume that someone with an alternative lifestyle is automatically a gang-banger?" Spike complained.
Hughes just looked at him.
The boy blushed furiously, then pointed. "Glove box."
Hughes opened the box and rifled around the pile of old parking tickets, ketchup packets and unidentifiable detritus. "I'm not finding it." He reached further back and his hand hit something hard and metallic. "There it is," he said as he pulled the gun out. He released the magazine to check the ammunition, saw it was fully loaded, then slapped it back in. It was a .22 --little more than a pea-shooter-- but it was the best he had at the moment.
The old car burst out onto the highway and swerved to avoid an oncoming semi at the merge-point, unbalancing Hughes once more. He was saved from falling into the door by Kitten's quick yank on his arm. He gave her a hasty thanks and looked back. Just as he feared, the spider was back on course and gaining on them. At least it's in the open now, he thought. It made keeping an eye on it easier; aiming at it would be a problem, though.
He made a quick assessment of the robot. Knowing Bond, there would be only the smallest of vulnerable places that a bullet might cause some damage. The case would be impervious, but the 'eyes' that surrounded that main body might not be. He briefly regretted never listening to Hawkeye's firm suggestions that he get more practice on the firing range. His aim with a gun was less than stellar and this wasn't paintball.
The 'eyes' that ringed the spider glowed a baleful yellow from the internal alchemic reaction and that was where Hughes intended to aim. He looked at the window. Getting through it was going to require more flexibility than he'd used in years and an awkward angle, but his aim would be steadier if he used both hands. No choice, he thought as he brought his long legs up and turned backwards in the seat.
"Keep your right side clear Spike!" Hughes said, as he maneuvered his shoulders through the open window. A semi laid on the horn as it roared past, making him instinctively flinch and duck. "Damnit!"
"Sorry," Spike said.
Once he made sure it was clear, he eased back out. The spider wasn't immediately visible and he leaned further out. At that moment, the bomb leapt onto the trunk, startling Hughes and causing him to fumble the gun. He quickly recovered and took aim.
The first shot skipped with a spark off the top of the robot and the machine's body flinched backwards as it hesitated in its climb forward. Hughes took the opportunity to squeeze off another round. This time he sent the bullet right into one of the glowing eyes. The spider reacted by spreading its legs out and flattening itself to the trunk of the car. Then it started to shake and bolts of yellow sparks flew out from it in all directions.
The entire metal body of the old car was suddenly electrified. Spike yelped and swerved when a shock zapped him, throwing Hughes hard into the door, causing him to drop the gun and nearly tumble out onto the pavement racing past below. Miraculously, the door didn't fly open this time.
He heard a pop and a hum over the wind and engine noise as he regained his balance, and saw that the spider had fused itself with the metal of the car. The eyes that ringed the body of the robot were opening and closing in rapid succession and the sequence was speeding up as he watched.
"Oh Hell," Hughes said when realization hit him. "That arrogant bastard alchemized a failsafe."
"What the fuck, Mate?" Spike shouted, and Hughes winced when he realized he had spoken aloud.
"Pull over!" he yelled. "We're abandoning the car."
"We can't! We're elevated!" Spike called back.
/Shit/. Hughes saw that there was nowhere to pull over safely. Not without risking getting hit or going over the side. And not for at least a few miles. This part of the highway was running alongside the river.
He could see the lights reflecting off the river where the highway crossed up ahead and an idea hit him. He ducked back in and sat forward in the seat. "Speed up, Spike!"
Hughes pointed ahead. "I want you to aim the car right at the guard over the river. When I say, we're going to jump out just before the car goes over. Got it?"
He heard incoherent noises, but ignored them as he popped the latch on the door to get ready. It was dangerous as all hell and those kids could still end up dead, but it was better than waiting for the bomb to blow.
"Get ready!" He had to hand it to Spike. The kid had nerves. He kept the car barreling along the elevated highway with one hand on the wheel and the other on the door. As a gentle curve started, the car remained straight. "On my mark! Three... two... one...now!"
He pushed off with his feet and slammed his shoulder into the door. He only had enough time to see Kitten roll out of the passenger side before he slammed into the cement barrier and fought for breath and consciousness. He felt a sickening crunch-pop in his shoulder as he heard the screech of metal and the crumble of concrete being shattered at high-impact, and was suddenly struck with a very strong sense of nausea that he struggled to swallow down.
At that speed the car should have busted all the way through. Instead, it bounced back into the middle of the highway, where it was clipped by a semi and sent spinning.
Hughes saw disaster an instant before it struck.
Kitten was stunned and stumbling toward the highway instead of back to the guard. It put her right in the path of the spinning car and she was hit by the rear end, throwing her to the ground. The car came to a stop, but she was under the trunk. She shook her head and tried to crawl out. Hughes scrambled to his feet, his right arm hanging uselessly at his side, and lurched forward to go help her, but he saw the light from the internal spark of the bomb go out as the final hole slid closed.
He barely had the chance to yell to Spike and hit the ground himself when the car exploded in a huge fireball of flying glass and metal.