"I am the terror that flaps in the night!" The sheer randomness of that comment made Ray pull the phone away from his ear and stare at it.
Balance of Power
WARNING: Post Series, Post Movie SPOILER HEAVY and slightly AU
June 3, 2006 - 3:33 am
"Hey, Mam. How're things there?"
"All right. I've been busy with some work-related things lately. Any reason you're calling me in the middle of the night, though? You're never up before nine if you can help it."
"Well, there was a bit of a snafu at the hospital today. Thought you should know about it."
"What sort of snafu?"
"Well, three victims from a car-bombing came through ER tonight. One was DOA, the other two had some nasty injuries. But that wasn't the strange thing."
"Some official-looking guy came in, asking for one of the victims by another name."
"That is strange."
"That's not all. The guy who was asking questions... he was cursed, Mam."
"By a raven."
"Oh, I see... you didn't happen to catch his name, did you?"
"Yeah. It was really weird. He said his name was James Bond, like he was some crazy cosplaying wanker."
"...son, I have to go. Need to call into work about some stuff. You take care, you hear me?"
"All right. See you in a few days, Mam."
"Love you, Llyn."
"Love you, too."
Ray sat and stared at the phone, trying to fight the formation of what he suspected was a stress ulcer. He'd come to the front desk after assuring Al he'd come back if anything happened and escorting an exhausted Gene back to his room around 2:30, having to leave in the teen's possession an I.O.U. stating he owed Gene 30 bucks for the poker game. His plan was to sit in the nurse's station until something happened.
Hopefully, that 'something' would involve a certain patient's older brother charging through the doors to claim his lost sibling.
Ray let his head hit the desk with a soft 'thunk' as all of the concerns he'd been thinking took another lap through his mind. What if they weren't coming? What if the Feds had discovered Ed and he was in custody somewhere? What if Bond had found out something and had already killed the boy off, and was just waiting for Al to try and escape on his own? What if everything had decided to adhere to Murphy's Law and had gone to shit?
He was so lost in his own thoughts that he barely heard the warbling ring of the nurse station phone, until Rick, the nurse 'administrative assistant' - Ray just thought they should drop the smarmy titles and call him a fucking secretary already - saw fit to smack him upside the head. "All that gambling got you down, Purdue?" he asked as he picked up the phone, and then proceeded to ignore him in order to take the call. "Park City Medical Nurse's Station..."
Ray let him talk on the phone, just trying to get the horrid picture of the taller, older Al he imagined Ed to be in the clutches of those Feds out of his mind. The images only halted their merry-go-round in his brain, however, when he felt another tap on his head, this one decidedly softer than the last one. "What?"
Rick shrugged and handed him the phone. "It's for you, Ray. Someone who calls himself... DW? Sounds like some punk kid."
Ray's eyes widened, and hardly daring to hope, he put the receiver to his ear. "Hello, Purdue speaking."
"I am the terror that flaps in the night!"
The sheer randomness of that comment made Ray pull the phone away from his ear and stare at it. That line... DW... he put the receiver back and spoke one word, almost a question. "Ducky."
"Well, I prefer Darkwing, but if you insist. Can I get back to my monologue now?"
Ray couldn't help it; he sagged into his chair with relief. It's them! Finally, I can find out just what the hell is going on! Focusing his attention entirely on the conversation at hand, Ray tried to sound casual. "Sure, DW. Sorry for interrupting."
"That's perfectly all right. Now, where was I? Ah, yes... I am the terror that flaps in the night! I am... unable to keep our appointment because my cape exploded."
Ray winced at the words, and also at what that phrase implied. So, the attempt went all to pot. Fuck, what now? "That wasn't a very good thing to do."
"Yeah, don't rub it in. Anyway, shall we try this escapade again sometime? Say, tomorrow night around ten? I'm sure I won't light my gas canisters on fire next time."
They're trying again tomorrow night. And whatever screwed up this attempt shouldn't have an effect on the next one. "All right, sounds good. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"No shacking it up with cute chicks? Aw, damn. Anyway, talk to you later, Wall."
Ignoring the last comment, Ray said his goodbyes and got up, tossing an "I'll be right back" at Rick as he made a beeline for Al's room. The kid would want to know.
Where is he?
Al had given up on crouching behind his bed after the poker game, and instead sat cross-legged on the mattress, clutching the teddy bear to himself.
Why isn't he here yet?
The soft fur under his hands didn't stop the trembling in his fingers, and he constantly looked at the door, hoping. Waiting. Praying.
He should be here by now!
He swallowed the lump in his throat and curled more closely on himself, trying to keep the tears out of his eyes. Gene had exhausted himself and gone to bed. Ray had gone to keep watch. All he could do was wait.
He was really tired of waiting.
But the longer he waited, the more Al wondered if something had happened. Something had to have happened; Brother would've come, hell or high water, if he possibly could've. He wouldn't have been late. Well... he wouldn't have been too late, anyway.
The isolated feeling, the sense of I'm not supposed to be here kept growing, and Al curled further in on himself. He felt so /alone/, even with Ray and Gene around. They were great friends, and good people to hang out with, but... but...
I want my brother.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, hoping he wouldn't cry. He shouldn't cry. He couldn't cry. He...
He heard footsteps in the hall.
Al sat up, wiping hurriedly at his eyes he wasn't crying, he wasn't and getting off the bed. It's about time, he thought, grabbing his bag and going to hide just out of sight of the door. He wanted to be sure it was Ed. Then he was going to punch his brother for taking so long.
However, as he sat and listened to the semi-hurried footsteps make their way down the hall, he had the feeling he was going to be disappointed. They took too long hitting the ground to be his brother's; the stride was for a taller man. And there was no sense of almost-limping that one automail limb would produce.
He knew he was wrong when Ray came through the entrance, and shut the door. "Al, you in here? I heard from Ducky."
Ducky. Not Ed. Ducky. Something happened.
Al climbed out of his hiding spot and looked at Ray, the worry that kept his gut clenched in fear appearing in a quavery voice. "What's going on, Ray? Where's my brother?"
Ray sighed, then crouched down so he and Al were eye-to-eye. The feeling of dread in Al's stomach worsened. "He didn't tell me a whole lot. Just that something got fragged, and they're trying at ten tomorrow night."
Al's heart plummeted into his stomach, and he swallowed back tears that had welled up with renewed vigor. His voice caught, and he looked away. Large arms, warm and comforting, came around his shoulders, and Al let his head drop to Ray's shoulder.
"I'm sorry, Tiger."
That one word was the last straw, and all the force of his emotions went into his arms and voice as he shoved Ray away. "MY NAME IS NOT TIGER GOD DAMN IT!!!"
Al caught Ray's saddened look as he turned away, but he ignored it, tears and frustration and anger rushing through his head with the force of a tidal wave. "I AM NOT A TIGER. I AM NOT A JOHN DOE. MY NAME IS ALPHONSE THEOPHRASTUS ELRIC. I... I'm a human being..." All the anger drained from his body, and he fell to the floor, unable to stop the tears this time. "I'm real... I'm not fake..."
"I know you're not fake, Al." Those arms were back, and Ray gave him a hard hug there on the floor. "You're real. You're here. It'll all be okay."
Letting the words soothe him, Al let his head fall back on Ray's shoulder, and cried.
Ducky dropped Tom off with a flashlight on one side of the doctor's lot and drove off to park the Ninjavan in the visitor's lot on the opposite side. As Tom started at one end and Ducky at the other --in search of one red Camry that was hiding an injured Maes Hughes-- the older man was grateful the hospital was one of the smaller ones in Tulsa. They would only have to check about 150 vehicles.
Although the lot was well-lit, both men were able to keep to shadows as they ducked and wove around vehicles whose colors were altered by the orangeish glow of the sodium lamps. And how many different shades of red were there, anyway? Tom cursed the advent of aerodynamic technology that made late-model cars more efficient, because it also made them all look alike until one was right on top of the vehicle and able to see the slight variation in trim or headlamps, or -more often than not-just plain shining a light on the glued-on badges that declared the automobile was made by a certain manufacturer.
Fortunately, it was a passenger car, rather than a pick-up, an SUV, or a minivan they were looking for. That eliminated two thirds of the lot right off the bat -they just had to make sure they didn't miss anything that might be tucked in between a pair of behemoths. It was also easy enough to slip right past the more obvious whites and yellows and beiges; it was the blacks and deep blues and forest greens along with the reds that -in the ambivalent light-- had to be paused over to verify that, yes, this vehicle can be eliminated. Then there was the time taken to shine a flashlight on the interior of a possible candidate for sheltering a fairly large man who was trying to avoid an assassin, so even with most of the lot taken out of the search parameters, it was still going to be a slow, tedious process.
Maes hadn't actually given him any real details when he called, mostly that he needed to be picked up at the hospital and that he was hiding. He did manage to tell Tom that Reilly and Ed had escaped -that Maes had actually been in contact with Ed-- and that made the older man feel a lot of relief. All the other questions Tom had whirling through his mind were shoved to the back for later. Maes sounded like hell and they would be able to get what information he had when they found him and got him somewhere safe.
Ducky had acted his normally, gleefully insane self when he had called the Walking Wall to let him know there was going to be a delay, but to anyone who knew him well, there was a definite sound of tension in the hacker's voice. Tom wondered though, if Ducky had picked up on the same things he had. The younger man could be terribly oblivious at times.
What Tom was able to decipher -and not from what Maes had said, but a brief bulletin on the radio as they raced back to Tulsa-- was the man had run into some trouble from an agent of some sort. At least that was his guess after making a vain attempt to add everything up that had happened today.
The reporter who was on the scene of a highway accident had been rather more vague about the particulars than was usual for a story like this, and Tom had the ugly feeling that authorities were being more insistent than normal about keeping some of the details played down. For all intents and purposes, it was nothing but a car full of drunken kids driving too fast, but the subtext was horrifying. Certain pieces of the report didn't quite fit. Little things like the mention of explosions and the reporter's insistence that the accident was in no way connected to an incident at the local coffee house just a few minutes before -where another explosion had occurred.
Between the subtext and the nervous, wavering tone of the reporter on the radio, Maes' call from a doctor's car in a hospital parking lot, Reilly's house, Reilly and Ed missing and signs of a pursuit... Tom really didn't like how the pieces of this complex puzzle were starting to fit together.
Their window of safety while searching was limited as well. Tom had no idea what the schedule of the security patrol was and had even less desire to find out. They had to find Maes quickly and get him to real refuge before either man was stopped and forced to answer some awkward questions.
Wading through the warm, humid air at almost sixty years old didn't help matters. Tom had barely gone through half of the lot and already he was feeling it in bones and muscles that were no longer as limber as they once were. He wasn't in bad shape. In fact he took pride in the fact that he kept active and alert when so many of his old friends were showing what he always called 'pre-death rigor mortis'. Unfortunately, it didn't matter how well he took care of himself, entropy always reigned supreme and it was making its presence known in his back from all the crouching he was doing, and in his thighs and calves in his attempts to move as quickly as he could. As irritating as it was right now, it was going to hurt a hell of a lot worse in the morning. He didn't even want to contemplate what would happen if he had to support Maes back to the Ninjavan.
Maybe he'd just call Ducky over to take care of that problem.
Tom saw the slowly approaching, close-set headlights of the hospital's security golf-cart and caught Ducky's attention to silently signal him just in time for the younger man to hide. He crouched down as well, but kept in a position to see the cart growing closer. If they were lucky the guard would be nearing the end of his shift or about to go to a break and would just give the lot a cursory glance.
His heart dropped down into his gut when the small vehicle took a turn down the aisle he was currently hunkered down in. As it drew nearer, Tom hoped Ducky kept the presence of mind to stay hidden, rather than try to do something stupid. Such as create a diversion. A diversion was not what they needed right now.
He crept around the front of the car he was crouched next to and wedged himself between it and a pick-up, then glanced off to the right to see that Ducky was doing the same only a few cars down. He felt himself relax. The boy was going to do something right this time. Maybe all the head-thumping he'd given him over the past couple years had actually made an impression. Ducky was damn good at what he did, but when it came to working in the field, he needed more common sense and to watch fewer movies.
His relief was exceedingly short-lived, however, because all of a sudden he saw the hacker stiffen and looked for all the world like a cat about to pounce a canary... and then he was up and in the center of the aisle acting like an epileptic kangaroo with a bad case of ants-in-the-pants.
Tom froze where he was, gaping at the younger man, and he imagined that the security guard was probably doing much the same because the cart stopped with an audible bark of small tires. The older man buried his face in his hand and suppressed a groan. This was not going to end well, at all.
Ducky was gesticulating and gibbering desperately as the security guard stepped out of the cart and Tom was able to pick out something about lost keys before the hacker started to wail like he'd lost his best friend. Or maybe it was his best friend's dog. Tom couldn't tell through the soap-opera dramatics.
The security guard, hardly trained in the fine art of handling melodrama, made a nervous attempt at calming Ducky down as he tried to radio for assistance. This only succeeded in causing the young hacker to become even more agitated. He started waving his arms about wildly and "accidentally" knocked the radio out of the guard's hand at the most convenient moment to send it flying and smash into the back of a Jaguar, setting off the car alarm.
Tom sighed and started to stand with the intention of performing some sort of damage control when he picked up a pattern in the way Ducky was flailing about. When the message finally made it past the blockage of being stunned, he gazed in one of the directions Ducky was waving.
There was the red Camry, not more than three cars away, and the passenger door was slowly opening. Tom squirmed out of the wedge he'd put himself in and scrambled over to help Maes out of the car and keep him down. He darted around the partially open door just as Maes' feet touched the asphalt, startling the injured man and nearly causing him to lurch backwards.
Maes looked even worse than he sounded over the phone. Even in this dim light, Tom could see the haze of pain in the normally sharp green eyes, his right arm was hidden inside a set of scrubs and he was drenched in sweat. The wet heat radiating out of the car was enough to make Tom limp and he was shocked that Maes had managed to stay hidden inside that sauna for over an hour. It had to have become so unbearable that he had no choice but to open the door. Thank whatever deities that are watching over us that it's night-time, Tom thought.
With silent communication, he helped Maes out and into a painful crouch. Then they slowly wove their way to the back aisle of the lot --as far from the baffled security guard and Ducky as possible-and straight to the Ninjavan.
Okalahoma City, Oklahoma
Ed lost track of time listening to the endless cycle of frustrated growls, devastated cries, and heart-stopping thuds of what had to be a head or fists or both hitting the bathroom walls. Reilly had locked herself in there shortly before all the noise began, but Ed couldn't remember when she had left the one-sided conversation. He didn't even remember when he had stopped talking.
Ed had doubted his ability to properly relay Hughes' message without breaking down, but once he began, the words spilled out with the same detachment he used when conveying reports to Mustang. He'd been fine up until he got to the part about Kitten. Remembering the distress in Hughes' voice, however, had opened the door for his mind to wander. If the incident had left Hughes --the same Lieutenant Colonel Maes Hughes that had devoted years of his career to studying every gory detail of homicide cases like Nina Tucker and Scar's other victims-- close to tears, there was no way Ed would ever be able to comprehend the horrors that had ended Kitten's life.
But his imagination sure had tried to make him understand.
The scenarios grew darker and more twisted with every breath. Gruesome images of carnage and malevolence coursed through his mind faster and faster until they blurred together in an indistinguishable amalgam of death.
...Alphonse, eyes wide and searching, fingers stretching... reaching for his as he was pulled through the Gate... Nina-and-Alexander, his hand resting heavy on their head, bodies and souls crying... begging for help... for relief... His mother's face on one of the bodies of those creatures, those abominations... Waking up with Winry's cheek next to his when she spent all night by his side after every one of his automail surgeries... The pain... oh the pain... two missing limbs could cause...
...A blood-spattered alley wall... A disillusioned man impaled by his own sword... Armor and darkness... Bloody coughs... His mother's dying grip... Alphonse... Brother... slipping away from his grasp... The scent of Winry's hair... The feel of Noa's skin... Shadows dripping from the ceiling... The Truth, taunting...toying... with his sanity...
Another thud from the bathroom brought the dingy hotel room back into focus. Ed was panting hard, his heart threatening to pound out of his chest. He wiped a shaky hand across his forehead. It came away slick with sweat and he shivered uncontrollably. Struggling to regain control of his breathing at least, Ed ran through half a dozen relaxation techniques until his tremors reduced to a dull shake.
Reilly dissolved into another round of muffled tears and Ed took one more deep breath to find his center. His gaze fell on his duffel, still next to the chair where he'd abandoned it the moment he walked through the door. Shouldering the bag, Ed made his way to the door and quickly undid the privacy lock and security chain. He slipped outside before the noise alerted Reilly.
He made it as far as the tree line behind the parking lot before his conscience got the better of him. If he was going to leave, he should have done it that first night. Before the bowls of gumbo, once he regained consciousness after punching the ghost of Hughes, or when he found Al's whereabouts -- that was when he should have left. Reilly had been right. Ed had let her in on his secrets and now they were slowly killing her.
He was killing her.
An overwhelming feeling of helplessness stopped Ed dead in his tracks. Dropping to his knees, he pounded the ground until his left fist went numb and he could feel every remaining bone in his right shoulder like he was losing his arm all over again. Exhaustion sapped what little strength and willpower he still had, leaving him at the mercies of the unrelenting pull of gravity. Defeated, and so incredibly /tired/, Ed sank to the ground.
Edward Elric had spent so long in purgatory; he had forgotten that asking forgiveness was even an option.
He'd had fallen on his back. In addition to its usual protests the strain of his automail always produced, a newer, sharper pain suddenly appeared in his side. Ed traced the discomfort to something in the duffel he was half-laying on and he rummaged among the socks and shirts until he could extract a thin book.
In the stilted moonlight, his own reflection stared back at him again, and Ed brushed a finger lightly across the printed image of the son he never got to know. He reverently placed his family's memoirs back in the bag, his hand brushing against the corner of another ancestral tome of equal importance, the photo album he had taken from Reilly's place.
This was no time to run. Not when there were so many loose ends he had to make right. If he left, Reilly might still be at the mercy of Bond... and who know who else. And there was the simple fact that -as much as he hated to admit it-he needed the help Reilly and Tom, and even Ducky, could offer to get Al.
With newfound resolve, Ed rose to his feet and shouldered the duffle. He took a deep breath, then forged a silent path back through the trees --back towards their shared hotel room. As he walked, the grass crunched under his feet; a sign that the rain which had accompanied his appearance in this whole mess needed to have a repeat performance sometime soon. Shaking the thought from his mind, Ed walked a bit faster, eyes scanning to where he knew the room was as the hotel came into view and searching the shadows for movement.
It was then Ed noticed a new detail with sickening dread --the window on their room was open. And the lamp on the side table by the bed had been turned off.
Ed cursed his stupidity for forgetting the gravity of his present situation as he slipped along the tight shadows of the building. He stealthily positioned himself directly under the window and counted to ten under his breath. He heard no sound in the room, from Reilly or anyone else.
A battle cry emanated on its own accord somewhere between Ed's despair and hope. He vaulted smoothly through the window and clapped, landing in a crouch with his right arm sporting a lethal blade.
A startled shriek sounded from the vicinity of the bed and Ed slashed high with his right arm as he sensed something whiz by his ear.
"You /idiot/!" Reilly's irritated voice chastised him.
The shrill exclamation was music to Ed's ears.
He heard her fumble around the nightstand until the room was bathed in a yellow-tinged incandescent glow. Glancing around, Ed noted sheepishly that the room was also covered with the fluffy innards of a pillow, the remnants caught on the tip of his arm's sword.
"Can't you enter the room like a normal human being, Ed?" Reilly grumbled, as she rose from the bed. "That was my pillow you just flayed."
"Well, next time find a better weapon!" Ed retorted, flinging the torn pillowcase across the room and returning his arm to normal.
Ed's concern for Reilly's immediate safety quickly evaporated as they continued to glare at each other. Finally Reilly broke her gaze away to lock and chain the door again, double checking that everything was in place. Then her own expression turned sheepish as she faced him once more and nodded towards the window.
"Um... if you don't mind... the window's stuck."
At Reilly's completely ordinary request, Ed obliged, muscling the stubborn glass back into place without a second thought. Reilly immediately latched the lock on it as well, squinting out across the landscape before yanking the curtains closed. Taking a moment to actually think about her actions, Ed blinked once... twice... three times... and Reilly waited.
"Wait a second," Ed said, suspicion creeping into his voice. "Why the sudden obsession with the locks? You just had the entire room open! I came in through the window, for crying out loud!"
Reilly snatched his right hand, flipped it palm-up and slapped a small rectangular piece of plastic into it. "That's because you left your key here."
Ed shoved the card deep in his pocket and threw himself into his previously abandoned chair. "Well," he mumbled, eyes focusing on some pieces of pillow fluff his movements had disturbed, "what if I wasn't coming back?"
When the fluff had once again settled and Reilly still had yet to respond, Ed risked a glance at her. She was staring at him openly with a warm, soft, and knowing smile tugging at the corners her mouth.
"Of course you'd come back."
Sidney was not a patient man. When he wanted something, he made it a goal to acquire it as quickly as possible. At the moment, his goal was to throttle and flash-burn whoever was responsible for maintaining the intelligence channels and the government networks. He had spent twenty minutes attempting to log on, and each time the page stubbornly refused to load. He had attempted every possible variation of his password for potential errors, and still nothing.
It was inconvenient in the utmost, and he almost wished for the paper-ridden bureaucracy from Amestris, because at least he could terrify the secretaries into producing documents faster. And if there was something he wasn't authorized to access, he could always... persuade them in other ways. If they didn't survive his methods, well. Too bad. He wasn't broken up by it.
This system was theoretically faster, but he wasn't noticing much in the way of productive results. Sidney let his eyes flick to the phone, and he just as quickly vetoed the idea. She was insane. And beyond obnoxious. And it was four in the morning. If she was anything like normal people, she should have been asleep.
But then again, she was Heist, and he had no idea if she actually slept. She seemed to constantly hover alarmingly in place, like a dementedly focused hummingbird. Most likely, she was awake. And she had bragged about her computer skills enough times to make him consider her immediate painful death. It had taken a lot of self-control and the vague idea that he might be able to someday exploit those skills to leave her breathing. Clearly, this was an opportunity for the invested effort of tolerating her existence to pay off. He shrugged and dialed the number.
The phone rang six times before she answered, and it was a mere six seconds before he decided he'd rather she hadn't.
Rescuing the guard from Ducky had been remarkably easy. After Tom got Maes settled into the back seat of the Ninjavan, he simply drove up, acted like he'd been looking for the hacker for awhile and made his apologies to the security guard for letting his rather slow and mentally unbalanced son slip his supervision. He didn't care that he was sounding horribly politically incorrect and he didn't think the guard actually noticed as relieved as he appeared.
After Maes had told them which hotel and room he'd checked in at, the rest of the trip was grimly silent. No one was willing to broach the subject hovering over like a thick, black cloud. It just somehow seemed like it would be less ominous if they discussed it while in the warm glow of hotel room lamps.
When Maes filled them in, Tom didn't think there could be enough light in the world to chase away the nightmare they were now deeply tangled up in.
Maes was now sitting stooped on the side of one bed, one elbow on his thigh, his free hand tangled in the hair at the nape of his neck, and he was shaking --in pain, anguish and exhaustion. The man's voice had been a dead monotone when he'd spoken, and his eyes were flat and lifeless. Tom had seen shell-shock before and he knew Maes had been a soldier who had seen action. He didn't think he could be laid low all that easily and it made him wonder what Maes wasn't telling.
He had no doubt that the other man had given the full story of what had happened tonight. He wondered, instead, about the events in Maes' life up to this point.
The room was quiet, save for the soft sounds of Ducky's sobs from the bathroom --at least the boy was no longer retching-and Tom tried to make sense of a whole shit-load of things that made no sense.
Reilly and Ed were alive and -as far as they knew-uninjured. Tom was able to figure out where they'd gone to ground from the message that Ed had given Maes. Tom knew the hotel from squirreling away witnesses on occasion. Fortunately, Ed's little brother was still safely tucked away in the mental ward under the protection of a walking wall. Tom grabbed onto those small but positive scraps and held on tight. They could work with this. It wasn't an entirely abysmal situation.
Just a dangerous one.
Three people had been killed... that they knew of. Two of them were strangers -and from Maes' description, likely government agents-but that didn't make their murders any less horrifying than Kitten's. Her death just made it a hell of a lot more personal.
The agent's deaths made the whole lot of them -Reilly, Ed, Maes, Ducky and himself-suspects. The only one in this tangle who wouldn't be considered suspect would be Al, but as soon as they smuggled him out of that hospital, he would become an accessory.
This is probably killing Reilly, Tom thought and his throat clenched tight. He knew that she'd realize they were now officially fugitives and it was all he could do to keep from taking off and getting to her as quickly as possible. He'd taught her how to handle a gun, but he had no misconceptions about her ability to use it when it mattered. He doubted that she even took the damn thing with her. He was certain that she was terrified and trying to hide it from Ed, beating herself up right now because she was the one who sent Kitten to meet Maes, and fretting about what to do next. Tom could only hope that Ed would be thinking clearly enough to keep Reilly from doing something stupid in a moment of panic.
How could she have known what would happen? How could she have known just how dangerous this game is that we're being forced to play? He knew she'd planned for trouble, but no one expected this.
He looked back up at Maes and felt the man's grief and guilt from where he sat. Even Maes had no idea that this... Bond was involved until it was too late.
Bond. Tom would laugh, if the whole mess wasn't so damned detestable. He was another alchemist that came through some bizarre portal between universes, and not one like Ed, but an assassin. A man who, from what Maes had said, reveled in death. The Stealthworks Alchemist. Even the name had a dark, sinister sound to it.
It was all starting to feel like a very bad action movie with Stallone or Schwarzenegger (or, gods forbid, /both/), and Tom briefly wondered if he could get a refund on his ticket.
Then, through all the stress and horror and tension and grief, the absurdity of that one thought forced a short, bitter laugh out of him. Maes looked up sharply, like he thought Tom had finally, completely lost it -and Tom wasn't so sure he was wrong.
"Sorry," he said. "I was thinking about the movies." At Maes' confusion, he shook his head, and added, "This-" he waved a hand to encompass the room and everything beyond, "-whole thing is just so surreal."
Understanding and a hint of black humor sparked in Maes' eyes and he responded with a small huff and a nod. "We'd probably flop at the box-office."
"Close down after only two weeks."
"Well, there goes my acceptance speech for that Oscar."
Both men chuckled low at the twisted jokes.
"We'll never work in this town again," Tom added.
Maes went somber and looked like he would crumble at the first touch. "I'm... sorry," he whispered. "I-"
Tom waved him off. "Let's not waste our energy over what's done, Maes. We need to figure out what to do next."
The other man relaxed and nodded. "I suppose we can forget about fetching my car," he said. "I'm sure it's being watched."
"Hope you didn't have anything of sentimental value in there."
Maes' eyes went wide for a moment, then he felt around himself one-handed. He looked somewhat relieved when he reached the back pocket of the scrubs the hospital had given him, and pulled out a wallet. He flipped it open and sagged with a gust of breath. He folded it back, and returned it to the pocket and nodded. "Nope. Nothing in the car that can't be replaced."
The bathroom door opened and both men turned to see Ducky emerge. The boy looked like death, pale and shaking, his eyes red-rimmed and swollen.
"You still with us, Ducks?" Tom asked softly.
Ducky nodded and fell down onto the foot of the bed Tom was sitting on. The younger man pulled out his cellphone and said, "I'm calling Heist." He faced Tom and Maes, determination setting his jaw. "We're going to need her help."
Kansas City, Missouri
"Oh Sidney, you're so fine, you're so fine you blow my mind! HEY SIDNEY!"
"Relax, it's just a bad eighties mix on the mp3 player. What can I do you for?" Heist pulled her earbuds out and sipped at her third iced mocha of the night as Sid-Siddo-Siddhartha Gautama, freaking grandmaster of agenty coolness explained his newest dilemma over the phone. From what she remembered about federal databases, it sounded like he'd either changed his password and completely forgotten it (unlikely) or he was locked out of the system (and that was never without a reason). Either way, bad.
"Hell's creeping bells," she muttered and balanced the phone between her ear and shoulder to dig through the mess on her desk. She swept off a few programming manuals, four textbooks and a pile of academic journals. At the bottom, she found her hacking notebook, and beneath it her college diploma. She gave it a withering look before she tossed her feet up and kicked it off the desk.
She was still not happy about it. By rights, she should've been in school for another two years, but when they had kicked her out, they'd been generous enough to allow her to continue the coursework from a safe distance. It really wasn't her fault that she got bored sometimes. Honestly. She wondered why they were surprised when she breezed through it all in six months; after all, they paid her to go to college for being brilliant, so the fuckwits should've seen it coming.
Heist rolled her eyes and flipped through the notebook. For a couple years she'd been a cheerful menace on the web at large, and she'd kept a running record of everywhere she'd gotten into and how. The federal databases she'd managed to hack hadn't been as entertaining as she'd hoped, and all it had gotten her was a warning label in the CARNIVORE protocols. That had been a joy to work around, and her father hadn't been pleased when they bugged the ISP. He had a contract with the brains in US-CERT, and the effort of dodging around the government, the civvie wizards and her father's suspicion was too much. Lesson learned, she was good, they were better, all was best avoided.
A few sheets of paper slipped out of the back of the notebook, and she winced at the sight. Two years later and the experiment specs were still perfect. It really should have worked, but the spectacularly unexpected results weren't worth the risk. "H'okay. So. Here's the Earth," she mumbled as she tossed them aside. "And we are definitely going to blow ourselves up."
"Nevermind, Sid old chap. Nerd logic." The phone chirped again, and she checked the number. "Gimme a sec. New call."
She flipped it to the incoming number and tapped her fingers on the desk as the unfortunate soul rambled blithely on, without any confirmation she was even listening. "Tuckandroll! Landline! I'm talking to somebody on this one!"
"Sure thing, Heist."
She flipped back to Sidney and sighed melodramatically. "Yo Sid. Minor problem. This might take a while because I'm pretty sure Big Brother is watching. So you just hang on, okay? I can give you some cheerfully bland elevator music, all righty?"
"What are you...? HEIST!" shrilled out of the phone as she dropped it by a stereo speaker and cranked up the volume on some Oakenfold. The other phone in the room rang obnoxiously in time with the tune, and she pushed off from the desk and spun dramatically around to grab it.
"Palacek Wedding and Funeral Parlor. You marry 'em, we bury 'em. How may I direct your call at this amazing hour of night?"
"Nice, H. Very nice. Come up with that one by yourself?"
"Of course not, Tuckandroll, but David de Jesus and the gods of baseball only know where it came from. You know I can't help but recycle your better lines."
"Tell me you're not buying into that sporty cult, H."
"Well, you know, five years of fast pitch doesn't wear off overnight." She paused. "Gonna tell me why you're maligning the name of the True Faith at this hour, or do I have to guess, and bear in mind-"
The line clicked, and another voice joined in. "Lena? Whazzit?"
"Oh God, it's Darkwing Ducky again. Why do you keep calling us, you maniac?"
"You know it's because I'm in love with you, darlin' pretty."
Heist felt it was time for an intervention, because they could go at it all night, and then she'd be stuck with a grumpy brother in the morning. "Shut the hell up, both of you. Go back to bed Constantine, and if Ptolemy or Roman asks any questions, please remind that I have Docs and I'm not afraid to use them." The line clicked again, and only Ducky was left to deal with.
"Nice threat. New boots?"
"Steel-toed half-calves and black as sin. Kitten would be all over them."
Ducky didn't say anything for a long moment, and Heist frowned. That wasn't right: Ducky never went quiet unless he had something unpleasant he didn't want to say.
"Everything okay down there in Oz?"
"...yeah. 's just been a really long day."
"Another day in Paradise. We were gonna go rescue Terminator Jr. tonight, but you know how it is, best laid plans blow up in your face and all that jazz. It's actually why I was calling. We have need of your stealthy skills, yo!"
"Interesting. So do I. When was the last time you hit anything government?" She took down a few notes on hacking as Ducky listed off everything he knew, and a few other notes besides. He was too enthusiastic, too into it. Ducky had always been a shitty liar, and he compensated for the lack of truth by making up for it in volume and wisecracking.
"Why are you tapping the mainframes, anyway? I thought you kicked off that stage like Elvis leaving the building."
"I'm helping a friend out. I think he might be in trouble and I wanna check." She turned her attention to the computer and got to work. "So which crazy-ass fu 'o mine are you having the need of?"
"We gotta break into the hospital in Wichita and get the kid out. And we've gotta do it hard, fast, mission impossible-style because there's this psycho agent after him, and probably us."
Heist hissed in sympathy and paused on the keyboard to flip through her manuals. She had an auxiliary password lying around somewhere, she just couldn't remember where. "That might be my friend's problem. He's not saying, but I think he's being set up. He's been pretty cranky lately."
"You're helping out a govvie? Doesn't that roll against your freedom of all interesting info principles?"
"Nope! He needed help. I gave it." The computer chirped confirmation, and she jumped. "Got it! Gimme a min, Ducks. I gotta give him the good news." She reached over for her cell, but paused at the vehement words pouring quietly out of it.
"-can't believe this... intolerable... going to die too quickly to scream..."
That didn't sound good. "Bad day at the office, Siddo?"
"Never assault me with that noise again, Heist. What do you have?"
"Dunno yet," she chirped. "Looking!" She scrolled through the records and clicked on Bond, James S. She had half a mind to look for her record after Sidney's, but the report that popped up a second later brought all thought to a painful halt. "Fuck me, Jesus..."
"Heist. What is it? Heist?"
She shook herself out of staring at the sheer volume of pain onscreen and tried to organize her thoughts. "Some real sick fucker's been having a goddamned death-orgy, and they're pinning the blame on you Sid. I'm guessing that's the guy you're after..."
A shrill whine came out of the other phone, followed by a plaintive, "Heeeeeeeiiiiiiissssst!"
She lifted the phone to her other ear. "Just a minute Tuckandroll! Almost finished." She dropped it and returned to the cell. "So where's the kid come in, Sidney?"
"I need him because I think he can get us home. He and his brother are brilliant, really important where we come from, and if they got here, they might know how to get back. I just can't get to him."
"Oh... Well. The good news is, some friends of mine are gonna try to break him out tomorrow night. Details coming in five, four, three, two..." She returned the main phone to her ear and let Sidney listen in.
"Hey again, Ducks. We are calling me why? Seems you have a plan already."
"You're the mistress of sneaky pain, Junior Miss Espionage and escape artist. We need help. Will you come?"
"So let me get this straight. You want me to come to Wichita, break into a hospital, gang rush the surely crazy-mad-ninja security, and make sure you guys all come out in one piece with the Terminator's brother safely in hand?" She adjusted the cell so Sidney could hear better. "Sounds insane."
"Will you do it?"
"Wouldn't miss it for the world, Tuckandroll. I'll beg off work and everything."
"You have a job? Since when?"
Very funny, Ducky, she thought.
"You still have a job? How?"
Nice, Sidney. See if I give you free milkshakes again. Though that did bring up an unpleasant reminder...
"Well, if you must know, I got fired," she said airily.
"What did you do?" Sidney.
"You didn't blow up the building did you?" Ducky.
"I did not blow up the building!"
"You could've. Remember the Franklin Hall debacle?" Ducky again.
"That doesn't count, it's not like I was trying to turn it into a crater..."
"You blew up a building?" Sidney that time.
"But it was awesome!" Ducky. Again.
"IT WAS AN ACCIDENT!"
"I'd claim that one. It made news all over, even-" Ducky.
"-where did you learn to do that?" Sidney.
"-was a proud day, that. And remember when your parents posted bail? That-" Ducky.
"-can't possibly be in the ordinary curriculum. Have you-" Sidney.
"-been holding out on me? For shame, babe." Ducky, goddamnit.
She couldn't take it anymore.
"STOP PLAYING PING PONG WITH MY BRAIN!" She shoved the two phones together. "Entertain each other. I've got work to do!" That was a lie. Mostly, she wanted to know what they'd talk about. She was tired enough to be curious, and she really didn't want to think about The Franklin Hall Incident.
"Ummmmm... I'm Ducky."
"You may call me Sidney."
"Right on, Sidney Dangerfield!"
"Please don't call me that."
"All righty. Danger stranger."
Four seconds and it had already devolved into drivel. A new record for Ducky, and a headache for her. Heist cast around for a distraction, and landed on the plans for her grand experiment. At the time, it had seemed like a good idea. Go to Franklin, set up shop in the abandoned science lab and avoid blowing the breakers in the main school lab.
"So how do you know the Heist?"
"Internet cafÃ©. She helped me with my email."
"Yeah. She does that. Really helpful."
She couldn't imagine it had been terribly helpful to end up leveling the building for the wrecking crew and taking all their equipment with it. She still had no idea what went wrong. She'd redone some wiring, set a current through it and then... She couldn't remember much of it, though God only knew she had tried.
There had been an explosion. She had seen the first signs and known to get out when a power surge took out her voltometer. After that, nothing. At least, nothing that made any sense. She remembered a brief flash of a massive door, and the impression of a huge eye blinking open.
"Don't you have somebody else to perturb at this time of night?"
"You're one of those weird day people, aren't you?"
Sidney growled something she couldn't understand, and Heist picked up the phones again.
"As fun as this has all been, boys, I'm hanging up now. See you later." She hit the off buttons with authority and glanced at the clock. From an official standpoint, it was about an hour and a half past Very Late. She shrugged.
If she had been anything like a normal person, she might've considered going to bed. She'd been awake for a very long time, and she had a long drive and some hardcore sneaking to do later. Wisdom dictated she be at least a little bit rested for later.
She shrugged. Normality and wisdom could take a hike. She was young and strange and about to embark on something completely insane.
I'll sleep when I'm dead.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Reilly insisted that he take the bed for a few hours to rest, she wasn't in the mood to sleep, lack of pillow notwithstanding. For once, Ed didn't argue. His mind was so full with the events of the evening, with Hughes and Al's safety, staying ahead of the Feds and keeping Reilly safe somehow, he doubted there was even room for his usual terrors and old memories of the Gate to disturb his dreams.
He felt himself drifting off as soon as he bunched the remaining pillow under his head. Something still niggled at the edge of his consciousness, though, and he fought mightily with his internal clock until he could remember what it was.
Ed called her name in an exhausted, half-winded breath. She had curled up in the chair much as she could, staring in the general vicinity of the phone, quite similar to how Ed had been seated earlier in the evening when she had been the one in bed. Had it only been a couple of hours since then?
"Yeah, Ed?" she acknowledged softly.
"There's something... in my bag..." he labored, his words growing slower and more faint as he dug deeper into the worn softness of the mattress. "I... you... I'm sorry..."
Reilly found the discarded duffel and unzipped it with caution, not quite sure how to interpret Ed's near-sleep rambles. From the top she pulled out the book penned by Ed's son. Reilly had already given it to him, in thought at least, whether she had specifically told him directly or not. It hadn't been hers to begin with anyway; Ducky's eccentric grandfather had given it to her ages ago. She and Ducky had been out in the field --researching a rumored sacred spot in Nebraska-- and they had stopped by unannounced just in time for dinner. The man had been ornery and pessimistic, but his mind was sharp and quick and he caught Reilly off guard more than once. He seemed genuinely interested in his grandson's hobbies and sent them on their way with an overflowing box each of an assortment of books on various subjects he had deemed helpful to their research. Ducky had told her not to feel obligated to keep them, and Reilly's box had immediately taken up residence in the pink bedroom of her youth, where it sat until Ed had come across it.
She set the book down, fairly certain that it was not what Ed had wanted her to see. Reilly doubted she could take reading about more death and depression tonight if she had a full bottle of Prozac in her system.
Her second foray into the bag ended quickly with a sharp gasp.
She shoved aside an already faded black tank top of Ed's and reached with trembling fingers for a well-worn photo album. The genuine imitation leather cover was cracking at the seams and a fair share of the pictures needed to be reinserted in their correct pages after a wild Hummer ride in the depths of Ed's duffel, but it was there, in her hands.
Reilly clutched the album to her chest, unable to stop the tears that rolled down her cheeks. A single snapshot of a family portrait slipped from its position and drifted towards the floor, nestling among a patch of pillow fluff.
From his spot on the bed, Ed rolled over and mumbled something about home.
June 3, 1919 - 4:23pm
Central City, Amestris
Even though the captain had showed her in and told her she was expected, she still hung nervously back at the door. It didn't matter how many times she'd encountered the man behind the desk --or how much he'd changed in the past four years-- she still couldn't shake the feeling that when he saw her/, he would examine her closely and find her lacking. That was when he wasn't looking right through her, or just plain ignoring her --such as he was doing now. She was certain he heard the door open; yet he didn't look up from the paperwork that littered the top of his desk. His dark head stayed bent over the folder in front of him --tilted to the right at a slight angle as he carefully signed a report, laid it aside and moved on to the next one in the stack. Unfortunately, protocol prevented her from saying anything to garner his attention -she would just have to wait until /he was damn good and ready to acknowledge her.
So she waited -while not patiently, at least quietly. It was late afternoon and the sun was beating in through the open, westward windows. A slight breeze ruffled the paper on the desk, but it didn't have the strength to reach her and alleviate the sweat that was popping out under the layer of wool and cotton. Muted sounds from outside filtered in, and she could hear the muffled voices of the staff in the room behind her, but none of that was enough to cover the soft scratch of pen on paper.
She tried to suppress the urge to fidget but she was beginning to melt under the uniform jacket she was required to wear and allowed herself the luxury of pulling at the collar in a manner she hoped wasn't obvious. The Solstice was still three weeks away and already it was threatening to be a hot, humid, miserable summer. She was eminently grateful that her job kept her in what she affectionately called 'The Dungeon' most of the time. The main records archive was buried two floors below ground, and while most found it dark, dank and depressing, she considered it the opposite. It was filled with records that had to be kept in order, and those records were filled with so much interesting information. Not only that, but it was several degrees cooler and she really wanted to get back there. If for no other reason, than that she would be able to shed the heavy jacket that seemed to weigh more the longer she stood there. She was positive that by the time the man behind the desk finally deigned to grace her with his attention, she was going to be a limp, sodden mess.
In complete contrast, he seemed quite comfortable. While he was allowed the privilege of being out of uniform --his jacket was hanging off the back of his chair, and the sleeves of his dress shirt were rolled up-- he still always looked as though he was seconds away from being ready for inspection. It was almost irritating just how cool and collected he always appeared and she wondered how much of that image was cultivated, and how much came naturally to him.
He asked to see me, she reminded herself. And I have something he's wanting. It's not like he would just snap his fingers and I'd disappear. She saw the flash of red on top of an otherwise impeccable white glove as he laid his pen aside, and closed the folder. Then again...
He finally looked up and she felt like hiding from that measuring gaze. She would have thought that only having one eye would reduce the intimidation factor by half in that look, but it only seemed to increase it instead. She swallowed nervously and took a hesitant step forward, the file she brought held in front of her as if it could shield her. "Br-brigadier General," she said. "You said you wanted me to notify you if I heard anything on any unusual tectonic activity?"
He didn't smile. She couldn't see any obvious change in his expression at all actually, but it seemed that he actually /brightened/. "Of course, Sciezska." He held out a hand for the file she brought with her and she crossed the room -a little less nervous, a little less intimidated.
As he opened the folder, and scanned the report, she said, "This came in a few hours ago, Sir. The village is out west. Fairly flat plains, the soil predominantly clay and sand. There haven't been any records of tremors as far back as early last century, but within the past six weeks, there were two. The second one occurred yesterday afternoon and caused minor structural damage to a house and a barn near the epicenter."
"And the first one?"
"/We/ didn't get the report of the first one because it was so mild, and there was no damage. The only reason we know about it now is because it was mentioned along with the tremor that occurred yesterday."
The Brigadier General nodded, closed the folder, and set it aside. "Thank you Sciezska. Please notify me if you come across any more information of this nature." Then with a gesture, he dismissed her.
"Yes, sir." She turned and strode to the door. She was curious about why he was so interested in minor earthquakes, but knew better than to ask. Aside from the fact that the military did everything on a need-to-know basis, Brigadier General Roy Mustang was naturally taciturn anyway. She had her suspicions, but decided it was better to keep her own counsel. She was fairly certain that it was simply a matter of National Security. There was precedent for the concern, after all.
Of course, there may be other reasons just as important.
Her hand hovered over the doorknob, and she debated whether he would be interested in a bit of trivia from a letter she received last week. It couldn't hurt, she supposed. "There was another incident, sir," she said as she faced him and hesitated for the briefest moment. "I have a distant cousin who is homesteading on the plains of Vinland." The look he gave her was bored indulgence. She knew he was barely tolerating this little bit of personal information. "We've corresponded regularly since we were children, so I can assure you that he's not prone to exaggeration."
"Is there a point to this?"
She nodded and moved back toward the desk. "Yes, sir. I know you only asked for tectonic activity in and around Amestris, but this might be important. See, his last letter mentioned a similar tremor in his area. The location shares geological conditions with the first site, and occurred on the same day as the first one out west. And there was another one at exactly the same time approximately 160 kilometers away from him."
He steepled his fingers and was silent for a long moment. When he finally spoke again, it was in slow, measured tones. "Vinland is a country on another continent. With an entire ocean between us, I might add."
"Yes, sir. I understand." That's it, she realized. I've screwed up. He'll probably chase me out of here, and I'll be off this assignment.
"How often do you correspond with this cousin of yours?"
"I receive a letter from him about once a month."
He nodded and went silent again. She waited, barely breathing... practically seeing him work things out in his head. When he brought his attention back on her, he said, "Sciezska, I understand your mother has taken a turn for the worse."
The comment was completely unexpected, especially from the Brigadier General. "Uh... actually, sir, she's been im-" The words died in her throat at the look she caught on his face. She suddenly understood that it was vital for her mother to be exceptionally ill at this moment... not that she would ever wish that on her, but still... "Y-yes, sir. Oh, it's horrible, Brigadier General! The hospital is holding out little hope of her improving this time, and I'm so far away. It's way out west, as a matter of fact, but it was the best place to treat her and I'm so worried I won't be at her side if she... if she..." the hitch in her voice wasn't entirely faked, since she had been worried recently that her mother was going to get worse, and she couldn't be there for her -but it just so happened that she started improving before Sciezska could get any leave to visit.
The corner of Mustang's lips twitched as he struggled to suppress a smile, and he held up a hand to stop her before she really lost herself in the ruse. "I'll have your leave request approved in the morning. You'll find your ticket at the counter. Will two weeks be sufficient?"
It took a moment for just exactly what he was saying to her to sink all the way in. "Y-yes, sir. Absolutely."
"I'll expect a full report on your return, Sciezska. And I trust that with your talent for observation/, you won't leave /anything out."
"I won't miss a single tiny detail, sir."
With that, he nodded and dismissed her.
Sciezska returned to the Dungeon in a daze. The full impact of what had just happened only hit her when she finally sat down at her desk. I'm going on a field assignment. Me! A lowly bookworm, is being sent into the field. She only hoped she was up to the task.