Ed is guided through the maze of twenty first century America by a well-meaning, if slightly sadistic, new friend. A crackfic in the "Balance of Power" universe.
I realize that this got covered in BoP, so let's consider this "Take Two," in a different POV.
Friends In Need:
To Mary Reilly this was normal, the crush of people, the cars zipping in and out of the parking lot, heedless of posted speed limit signs or annoying pedestrians with the right of way. And, outside of a few drowsy moments when she had fleetingly wondered just what an alien race might think of them, she had always taken her life rather for granted.
Watching Ed's face as she expertly pulled out of the Wal-Mart parking lot and maneuvered her way into the far right lane that would put her on the highway, she was once again struck by just how strange this had to be for him.
He'd handled it quite well, taking most of the changes in stride, but if she paid attention, she could see little signs of stress; the way the corners of Ed's mouth tightened as people pushed past him for moving to slowly, the knuckles of his one hand white as he gripped the door handle as cars zipped by her -
"Hey! Watch where you're going, asshole!" Reilly suddenly yelled out loud as a car pulled in front of her without warning, only about six inches of space between her front bumper and his rear end. She was possessed by a juvenile urge to honk her horn at the bastard, but he was driving one of those shiny new SUV models that looked like it could crunch her much smaller, ancient truck easily enough without leaving a dent. And, contrary to what certain people, like Tom, might think, Reilly didn't go out of her way to find trouble.
"Doesn't anyone watch where they're going around here?" came Ed's voice, and she glanced over at him, again. His face was slightly pale, but Reilly quickly put her eyes back where they belonged; on the road.
"You'd think. But no, especially not if they drive those monstrosities. It seems to be the consensus that, if you drive one, you're entitled to your fair share of the road, and then some."
Ed swallowed. "Uh huh. Is it just me or are you all suicidal?"
"Now, what on earth gave you that idea?" Reilly laughed. "I promise, once you get used to it, the speed is actually rather addictive. Actually, that reminds me, I should put you behind the wheel fairly soon; you're plenty old enough to learn." She could see Ed staring at her out of the corner of her eye, and she continued, "Don't worry, I'll put you on the back roads near the house. There won't be any traffic."
"Um," Ed hesitated. "Are you sure that's a good idea? I mean, I knew how to drive a car when I lived back in Germany, but this? It's all panels that make no mechanical sense!"
Reilly sighed and shifted in her seat. "Ed, you're going to have to pick up these skills sooner or later if you're going to live in this society. Better with me, who actually understands, somewhat, what your situation is than somewhere else. It'll get better, you just need more exposure. Trust me."
"Trust you. Right. Gotcha. Exposure," Ed sighed, turning to gaze out the window.
Reilly watched the exits go by for a couple of miles in silence, when a sign for the upcoming exit caught her eye. Shopping mall, one mile. "And speaking of exposure, Ed, I think it's time to introduce you to the mall."
"Mall? What's that?"
Reilly just smiled and pulled into the lane for the exit. "You'll see."
If the parking lot at Wal-Mart had been crowded, the mall's was a maze of shoppers that darted around, trying to secure that one magic parking spot that would put them within twenty feet of the door. Reilly rested her hand lightly on Ed's back, noting that, while he took care not to give any overt signs of nervousness, he allowed her to guide him around the lot and through the doors, his eyes darting around as he took in the sight of hundreds of people crowded into the food court.
"See, isn't this fun?"
Ed swallowed slightly. "You people are nuts. There are ten times the number of people here than I used to see in some of Central's markets..."
"Central? Central what? Where's that?" Reilly asked, curious.
She was even more curious to see Ed duck his head slightly and watch the shoppers with a rather unwarranted intensity. "Just back...home. It's not important. So, what's here that's worth wading through all these people?"
She grinned at him. "Probably just about anything you could think of, my dear. Why don't we just browse until something catches your eye, hm?" As Ed slowly made his way through the throng of people, Reilly made a mental note to ask him again about "Central."
Ed relaxed as the crowd in the food court thinned slightly when they reached the main shopping area, but his eyes stayed rather wide as he took in the sheer variety of shops. Reilly noted, with some amusement, that he was particularly drawn to stores with strong color schemes and somehow was unsurprised when he stopped outside of Hot Topic.
"You wanna go in?" she asked. Ed didn't strike her as the type who was normally shy and for a moment she worried that maybe the mall had been too much for him, too fast. But when he flashed her a grin she couldn't help but smile back at him. She had always believed in the idea of "sink or swim." Ed did strike her as the type who had learned to swim young.
"Sure." Ed said, squaring his shoulders almost imperceptibly and walking into the dark store. Reilly made sure to keep her sigh low as she followed. Just because she'd predicted it didn't mean she had to like it.
The store was, naturally quite dark, but fortunately, none of the typically depressing music blared over the speaker system. Ed glanced over the selection of T-shirts and seemed particularly drawn to a specific black (of course), shirt with a rather interesting design of salamanders swimming in a sea of yellow and orange fire.
Ed stopped staring and turned to face her. "What? Oh, sorry. It's just that the shirt...reminds me of someone I used to know." At Reilly's raised eyebrow, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "Never mind."
"See anything you like? Reilly teasingly pulled a pair of black shiny pants that, in another lifetime, might have resembled leather, and held them to Ed's waist. "Oh, very nice."
To her surprise, Ed actually took them and inspected them, feeling the material. "I used to have a pair of pants like this that I wore all the time. But...this can't be leather, can it?" he asked, scrunching his nose.
Reilly peeked at the tag in the back. "One hundred percent vinyl. Nope. Real leather would be more expensive than that. This store specializes in trends, not quality materials."
She thought she detected a hint of regret as Ed hung the pants back up. "You know, when I was a kid -" Ed began.
"Back in the ice age...sorry, please continue," Reilly pretended to quail under Ed's glare.
"As I was saying before a certain crone interrupted me," Ed ducked Reilly's swing, "leather was normal. I lived in a farm town; dairy mostly." Ed made a face and Reilly suddenly remembered his aversion to milk. "We had a couple of leather workers in the village and my mother gave me a pair of 'adult' pants for my ninth birthday. After I became a State...well, I wore them pretty constantly for the next four or so years. There was 'room to grow,' not that I did too much growing. I hate admitting that."
"You mean you used to be even shorter? What are you now, five foot four?"
She smiled sweetly. "Yes, Ed?"
Ed grinned right back at her. "Bite me."
"I'm going to have to talk to Ducky. He's corrupting all of that sweet, Old World innocence." Ed laughed and Reilly looked back at the cheap looking pants. "In the meantime, why don't you see if you can pick up a couple of shirts here?" she continued, and shooed him back towards the walls covered with various t-shirts.
She considered herself fortunate that Ed was a fairly quick shopper. In about fifteen minutes, Ed had an armful of t-shirts that would blend in quite nicely with the rest of the teenage population.
As the cashier, a wispy, delicate looking young man with jewelry that covered his fingertips in wicked looking silver spikes rung up the purchases, all the while checking Ed out, which Ed was blissfully oblivious to. Reilly noticed that the fiery shirt that initially caught Ed's attention had made it into the pile.
"There ya go, love. Come back soon, ya hear?" the cashier said, cracking his gum and winking at Ed.
Ed just grabbed the bag and Reilly thanked the young man for him before she followed Ed out of the store. They had walked for a couple of feet before Ed, peering into the bag, pulled out a little slip of paper that had been scrawled on. "What's this?" he asked, and showed it to her.
She snickered. "That, Ed, is a phone number."
The yell that echoed through the mall caused quite a few people to stare at the mismatched couple as Ed dropped the paper with the phone number into the nearest potted plant and Reilly doubled over, laughing at the look of total astonishment on his face.
"What's the matter Ed, guys not your thing?"
He glared at her. "No, but...that's really not the point! It's forward! Brazen! Whatever happened to getting to know someone, courting them?"
Reilly laughed even harder. "I'm sure there was casual sex even in the 1920's, Ed."
"You didn't talk about it, Reilly!"
"Well, you'd better get used to it, because these days, sex is used to sell everything from clothes to apples."
Ed continued to shake his head. "Why do you need to connect sex and apples? Don't people want to eat?"
If Reilly hadn't been so amused, she would have been banging her head against a wall in frustration. "Ed, why don't you just...accept that it is the way it is, for now, and I'll try to explain in more detail later. Okay?"
"Sure. I doubt you'll be able to make it make sense, but you're welcome to try."
"Now, now, have a little faith. Meantime, let's get you a few more clothes and you'll be set." she said, steering him toward a department store.
Ed sighed dramatically. "How many clothes do I need? Besides, I don't want to trespass on your hospitality..."
Reilly just stared at him, her hands on her hips and Ed swallowed at the look on her face. "I'm going to pretend I didn't just hear that. Now, I'm gonna drop you in the men's department here and come back for you in about half an hour while I pick up some stuff. You gonna be okay on your own?"
"Of course! I'll be fine!"
She smiled. "Good. I recommend you pick up a couple pairs of jeans; they're quite handy to have, and just a couple more shirts." She pulled an old watch with a broken strap out of her purse. "The wristband is broken, but it still keeps time. I'll meet you here in about half an hour. And here," she added, pulling some money out of her purse. "That's your budget. Have fun!"
Ed pulled off a surprisingly crisp military salute. "Yes, sir!"
Reilly returned a one fingered salute. "Later, gator!"
Ed held up his middle finger. "What does this mean?" he asked, looking at his finger, then at her.
She snickered and walked away, leaving a very confused Edward behind, making a mental note to have Ducky explain it to Ed when she had a running head start.
Reilly walked down the halls, not really seeing the stores as she passed them. She didn't really need to do any of her own shopping, but she desperately needed a chance to be in her own head space for a few minutes.
She was having quite a bit of fun with the culture clash. She could still hear Ed cry "It's brazen!" That, combined with his reaction to Kitten had provided more than enough material to tease the young man with for the next year. Although, after that scene in Wal-Mart, with Mrs. Butt-er, Butterworth, she could imagine Ed would be able to hold his own.
Although, to be quite fair to Edward, she could almost understand how the nosy old woman had made her mistake. When he wasn't scowling or making an ass of himself, he had quite a pretty face. If one overlooked his height, which Reilly could do easily since she wasn't particularly tall herself, all one saw was a leanly muscled figure with hair a shade of blond that she would have thought was straight out of a bottle if she hadn't known better.
The clincher, though, were his eyes; beautifully shaped and an unusual brown color that looked gold in some lights. They were eyes that had seen too much, she thought to herself. For a boy who was only nineteen years old, his eyes looked like some of her father's war buddies, men who would never forget what they had seen on the front lines, or behind the scenes for that matter.
Marc Holland had the same type of eyes. Of course, he had lost his wife and little girl in a car accident and Ed had been tumbled not once, but twice through the Gate, but the end result was much the same. Reilly cursed to herself as Marc's image came to mind; despite her narrow world view, Mrs. Butterworth was actually quite perceptive. She had noticed the man just as soon as he had come to town.
He was handsome, certainly, but what had really drawn her was an aura of sadness, that desire to hold him in her arms and help him forget the pain that lurked in his gaze sometimes when he looked at the local children he was so well known for photographing.
Reilly wasn't the only one with that opinion, either. Half of the single women in the area had tried to catch Holland's attention in the last three years, convinced that they would be the one woman who could open the man's lonely heart and make him love again. And every time an invitation was extended, Marc Holland politely (he was always polite) declined.
There were many different levels of humiliation, and Reilly had no intention of chasing after a man who was obviously not interested in her, or any woman for that matter.
She had stopped without realizing it and was face to face with a giant red sign that screamed "Sale! Store Wide Clearance, Everything Must Go!" A tacky, puce-colored leather jacket was displayed next to the sign. Peering into the store, Reilly realized the store specialized in leather.
"My mother bought me a pair of leather pants for my birthday. I wore them pretty constantly for the next four or so years." Ed's voice echoed in her mind, his face regretful as he hung up the tacky vinyl pants . Reilly cocked her head and headed into the store. If they had a pair of black leather pants in a "petite" size, it was quite simply meant to be.
A disgustingly chipper looking girl was cracking gum as she leaned on the counter, inspecting her makeup in the dim reflection. "Excuse me, miss?"
The girl looked up and if Reilly could swear that the woman literally chirped, "Yes? Can I help you?"
"I'm wondering if you have a pair of black leather pants?" A look passed over the tiny girl's face and Reilly continued, her voice cold, "I'm shopping for a friend. He's about five foot four, very lean. Do you have anything?" She certainly didn't need this child's opinion about what would look good on her, thank you very much.
Apparently, the deep freeze treatment worked, because the girl's attitude was very conciliatory as she said, "I'm not sure if we have anymore men's pants in stock, but let's check, shall we?" The light brown ponytail bounced over to a rack in the back and Reilly followed, shaking her head slightly. "Um, let's see...no, no more men's black leather...is brown ok? Oh wait, no, you said he was small?" Reilly choked as the girl continued to rifle though the hopelessly disorganized rack. "No, nope, definitely not white, he'd look like Elvis, and..." there was a pause as Reilly began to inspect her fingernails, "Well what do you know!"
"You found a pair?"
The girl whipped a pair of pants around with a flourish and held them up for inspection. "Men's black leather, petite, size small. Think these will fit your friend?"
Reilly touched the leather. Unlike the hard, shiny vinyl, these were soft to the touch, the material pliant and luxurious. She checked the price and raised her eyebrow at the original cost. Even at clearance prices it was expensive for her budget.
Edward's face swam in her vision for a moment, the lost look on his face as he stared at the crowded mall, his anxiety about his brother clear to see as he moped about the farmhouse trying not to touch the electronics. It was amazing how well he was coping with everything that had happened and Reilly sighed slightly as she realized that she was definitely going to buy him those pants. After everything he had been though, she thought he deserved something familiar to hang on to.
"I'll take them," she said to the girl, bringing her attention back to the practical. Five minutes later, she was back outside the store, her wallet considerably lighter than when she had walked in. So much for taking Ed somewhere fairly nice for lunch, she thought.
She looked at her watch and cursed. She was going to be late! She began to pick up her pace as she walked back to the meeting place and she absently noted the trademark golden arches of McDonalds. A Big Mac actually sounded really good to her...
A wide smile broke out across her face. She knew where she was taking Ed for lunch. This was going to be fun.
"So, did you find everything you needed?" Reilly asked as helped Ed settle the packages in the backseat of the car.
Ed shut the door and then slipped into the shotgun seat. "It was fine. I really can't thank you enough, Reilly. You didn't have to do this and if there's anything I can do-"
"Ah, ah, ah! None of that. I was happy to help and there was no way you could keep wearing Tom's clothes, young man. Now, why don't we grab lunch and be on our way home?"
Ed's face brightened. "Food?"
Laughing, Reilly pulled out of the parking space. "Ed, if you're going to live in this century, you must be introduced to the most prolific fast food chain in the world. It will harden your heart, expand your ass, and make you oh so happy as it slowly kills you."
"And this is a good thing?" Ed's voice was incredulous.
Reilly laughed. "In moderation. Anyway, it's about as American as you can get; hamburgers, french fries-"
"Hamburgers are German, Reilly. You mean you actually have hamburgers around here?" Ed looked much happier as he settled into his seat.
Reilly just grinned to herself as she spotted a McDonalds off to her right and pulled into the drive in. "Take a look over the menu and then I'll order for us, okay?"
As she rolled down her window, the dull, mechanized voice blared, "Welcome to McDonald's, what can I get you?"
"Just a minute, please." Reilly glanced at Ed, whose face was comically scrunched as he read through the menu. After about a minute, Reilly realized that Ed must be systematically reading through every item on the menu, to be thorough. After a minute or so, Ed finally finished as he huffed slightly.
"Big Mac, Double Pounder with Cheese, Fish Sandwich; Reilly, I thought you said this place had hamburgers? What is all this?" Ed exclaimed, throwing his hands into the air.
They both jumped as the car - unsurprisingly another SUV - honked it's horn at them. "Hold your horses, you bastard," Reilly muttered. "Ed, you want me to just get you a plain hamburger?"
Ed looked pathetically grateful as he nodded. "Ok. Hello? You still there?" Reilly called into the speaker.
"Yeah, lady, we've even slaughtered the cow for you. What can I get you?" came the annoyed voice.
"A little less attitude would be nice. Since there's not much chance of that, could I have a Big Mac, a medium fry, a medium diet Coke and..." she trailed off, looking at Ed, trying to fight her grin as a diabolic thought occurred to her. "And a Kids Meal, please."
"You want hamburger, cheeseburger, or chicken nuggets with that Kid's Meal?"
"Hamburger, please, and a regular Coke."
The speaker crackled. "And what kind of toy? Boy or girl?"
"Boy," she said, ignoring Ed spluttering next to her.
The speaker was beginning to give off alarming amounts of static as her order was read back to her and the price quoted.
"Toy? Reilly, what the hell did you just order me?"
Reilly grinned at him. "A Kids Meal. It's the simplest thing on the menu, Ed. Hamburger, fries and a drink. I could have gotten all of it separately,-"
"Then why didn't you?" Ed interrupted.
"-but it's less expensive to do it this way, not to mention that it seems to be easier on the workers' brains. Trust me, the more simply you put something to these people, the better. Otherwise they'll screw it up." Reilly finished as they pulled around to the second window.
A bored looking teenager adjusted his visor and cracked his gum at Reilly. "Eight dollars and seventy four cents?"
Reilly handed him a ten and her handed her the bag with their food while he counted out the change. "Thank you, have a nice day!"
"Up yours," Reilly quipped and drove off.
"Reilly?" came Ed's voice as she drove.
"Yes, Ed?" Reilly pulled into another parking spot so she could eat without driving at the same time.
The brightly colored box had literally been torn open without regard to the little handles flung to the floor. Ed had pulled the flimsy bun back, exposing the patty covered with ketchup, flecks of white onion, and two lone pickle slices. "This is not a hamburger."
"Yes, it is." Reilly said, enjoying herself immensely.
"But...but..." Ed trailed off, then watched, wide eyed, as Reilly pulled out her Big Mac. "There's nothing on it! Why does yours have stuff on it?"
"Because," Reilly said loftily, taking a bite of her food, "I didn't order just a plain hamburger."
Ed scowled as he tore into his own burger, then ripped the cover off his soft drink before taking a giant swig. Has he ever had pop before? she thought just as he began to choke, holding a hand up over his nose and mouth.
"What the hell is this?" he coughed as Reilly pounded his back. "It's..." he trailed off, glancing into the dark brown liquid. "Reilly? It's bubbling. Why is it bubbling?"
She tried not to laugh. "It's pop, Ed. A sweetened, carbonated drink, and oh my god, that has caffeine in it!" Reilly exclaimed. "Oh dear, thank God I got you a kid's size!"
"Carbonated?" Ed peered back into the cup with more interest. "With what? Beer and champagne just fizz, this is literally bubbling!"
"Ducky could help you look it up on the internet when we get home." Reilly explained.
Ed took a more cautious sip, his face blank with concentration. "Actually, it's not bad." He took another sip, careful not to inhale it again, and tried a handful of the fries.
Five minutes later, Reilly wasn't more than halfway through her own meal before Ed had finished everything and was gazing mournfully at the plastic toy that came with the meal.
She sighed. "Here, Ed, why don't you finish this for me and I'll dig up the leftover gumbo when we get home, what do you say?" Handing him the other half of her burger, she didn't miss the way Ed's face lit up, both at the prospect of more food immediately and at the idea of getting gumbo later on.
"Oh, by the way, Ed," she continued as he finished the rest of her Big Mac and wiped his fingers on the flimsy paper napkins, "I have a little present for you. It's on the backseat."
Ed twisted in his seat. "This white bag back here?"
"Yeah," said Reilly, pulling through the space and into traffic.
"Hey! Wait for me to buckle up!" Ed cried and scrambled to clip his belt in place. Reilly smiled, but didn't discourage him. "Now what did you get..." Ed broke off as he pulled the pants out of the bag.
"Well? What do you think?"
Ed just stared at them, running his hands over the soft leather. "Reilly...I don't know what to say. Thank you," he finished, softly. "They're perfect."
She reached over and ruffled his hair. "You're welcome. Come on, I hear gumbo calling my name."
They drove in silence for the rest of the trip home, Ed holding her gift close to him as he watched the cars pass them. Reilly was pleased to notice, when she took the time to glance at him, that a lot of the tension had drained out of him. He wasn't jumping at the sheer volume of traffic and his mouth had relaxed.
It wasn't until Ed's next question caught her out of the blue that she realized that she should have cut the size tags out of the pants before she gave them to him.
"What does it mean, 'Petite; Small?'"