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

We Can Make This Thing into a Party

by CrackbunnySyndrome 5 Reviews

Ed silently called himself a bastard in every language he could remember.

Category: Full Metal Alchemist - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Action/Adventure - Characters: Alphonse Elric, Edward Elric, Maes Hughes, Roy Mustang, Schiezka - Warnings: [!!!] [V] - Published: 2006/10/02 - Updated: 2006/10/03 - 15747 words

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"We Can Make This Thing Into A Party"
Arc One: Chapter Twenty-One, Part 2
Balance of Power


WARNING: Post Series, Post Movie SPOILER HEAVY and slightly AU

A/N: Since we are currently running "The Ducky List" contest here, here are the Cracked Bunnies Top 5 Reasons Why Chapter Twenty-One Is So Late:

5. Ed touched the computer and destroyed the motherboard.
4. We let Ducky try to write it.
3. Bond kept threatening to blow us up if he didn't get tea soon.
2. The Shadows kept deleting the file.
1. We all had lots of RL stuff happen at once.

Please forgive us!!!!!




June 3, 2006 - 7:58 am
Wichita, Kansas


Even after blinking several times, Al still couldn't tell what the cafeteria workers had put on his plate. His eyes refused to focus properly --he just wanted to shove the tray away and lay his head on the table, like Ed used to do when he'd pulled an all-nighter.

It had taken almost all night to fall asleep, fatigue finally overriding his worry to shut his eyes in the wee hours of the morning. The little sleep he did get had been filled with nightmares he didn't care to contemplate in the bright light of day. For that matter, he didn't want to think about anything. He couldn't, even if he tried. The food in front of him was a fuzzy, amorphous blob, his eyelids felt like they were lined with sandpaper and there was a low buzzing in his head that did a fine imitation of cicadas on a summer afternoon. Against all efforts to the contrary, his chin came to rest on the edge of the table, and his eyelashes drifted shut again.

Just five more minutes, Brother...

The sound of something being set in front of him surprised Al enough to wrench his eyes open again, and his startled gaze came to rest on a clear plastic cup with a yellow bubbly liquid in it. "Huh?"

"Wake up and drink that, kiddo. Doctor's orders."

Al yawned and sat up straight again. "Oh. Hi, Heather," he managed, stretching to get himself marginally more functional. "Drink what?"

"That pop sitting in front of you, sleepyhead. Wow, you really aren't awake, are you?"

"Not really." Going on automatic, Al grabbed the plastic cup and put it to his mouth, condensation cooling on his hand as he poured a mouthful down his throat.

The first thing he noticed was that the drink burned. It wasn't /hot/; on the contrary, the yellow liquid was almost ice cold. But it /fizzed/, and the bubbles made the back of his tongue tingle as they tried to migrate up his nose.

The taste caught him off-guard as well; hidden in the mouthful of burn was the slightest hint of oranges, almost like the juice sitting next to his plate of breakfast that morning. And as he swallowed the liquid, burn and oranges slid down his throat where it bubbled and trickled down the sides of his stomach. It was sweet; he felt the thick mucous collect in the back of his throat, and he coughed to remove the searing feeling. "What is this?" he choked, looking at the remaining yellow liquid still fizzing in its plastic cup.

"Aww, lucky! I want a Mountain Dew!" Gene rolled up next to him, eying the cup with a bit of longing in his tired eyes. "Maybe then I'd be able to stay awake. I'm exhausted!"

"The sugar would be enough to kick anyone awake."

"Don't worry, Gene. You get some, too." Heather handed another cup to Al's friend and confidante. Gene chugged it in three gulps.

Al took another sip of his own drink and choked again. "How can you just down this stuff?" he coughed out. "It burns!"

Gene belched. "Acquired taste, I guess." He giggled at Al, who frowned deeply when Gene decided to tap his cup. "Let it sit for a few minutes; the carbonation wears off if it sits out."

Al looked at his cup again. He understood carbonation; it occurred naturally in ales and champagne as a part of the fermentation process, but he'd never seen --let alone tasted-- something non-alcoholic that had this kind of effervescence. He also wondered what caused the burn. "How...?"

"They mix CO2 and water with the syrup," Gene said, anticipating the question. "Heather, you sure it was a smart idea to give him a Dew?" He dug into his pancakes, and Al caught a hint of a grin out of the corner of his eye as he stared at the sparkling drink. "You can tell he's never had pop before."

Al decided to follow Gene's advice and let the pop set for now. Instead he got to work on his breakfast, munching on a sausage link as he listened to Gene and Heather talk.

Heather patted Al on the head, scratching his hair with long fingernails. The gesture made him want to close his eyes and purr like a cat. "How much sleep did you get, Tiger?"

Tiger. Al tensed a little. Even though he knew intellectually he couldn't go by his real name, he wanted to hear them call him Al, or Alphonse, or even Elric the way some of Mustang's men used to call Ed. Shaking off the melancholy and Heather's hand, he returned to his sausage. "I think I fell asleep around five."

"And you woke up at seven-thirty." Heather gave Gene an amused look. "He can handle it." She pitched her voice so only the two of them could hear in the semi-crowded cafeteria. "He needs the caffeine if he's going to be running around this evening."

"Okay." Gene looked doubtful, then dived into his breakfast. "Just don't come crying to me when he can't sit still for longer than three seconds at a time."

Al stuck his tongue out at his friend when he wasn't looking but Heather was, making the nurse have to stifle a giggle. "I drank coffee in Germany," he sulked, defiantly taking a gulp of the Mountain Dew. He swallowed in surprise; Gene had been right. The carbonation had faded enough that sugar and oranges were what went down his throat instead of the burn of CO2. "Surely this stuff isn't that bad, right?"

Gene snorted and polished off a pancake. "Post-World War I Germany? Dude, their coffee couldn't wake up an infant. It was watered-down mud! Dew is gonna kick your ass."

Heather came in between them, and Al blushed as she ran her hand through his hair again. "Settle down and finish your breakfast, boys. You've got therapy when you're done."

0o0o0

June 3, 2006 - 2:07 pm
Wichita, Kansas


It was okay as far as parks went, Ed decided. Nothing spectacular, but nice. Mature trees positioned about the entire area kept most of it in cool shade yet they were far enough apart to allow for running and playing.

As he followed Reilly into the heart of the greensward, they passed by a fenced-in duck pond surrounded by adults and children tossing popcorn and bread to the begging, motley-hued waterfowl. In the center though --perched on a pile of rock surrounded by a shallow pond-- sat a lone, pathetic peacock that was missing all but a single tail feather. It was staring out at the milling crowd imperiously, and even after being cruelly plucked, Ed marveled at the bird's regal bearing. An unexpected wave of nostalgia swept over him then, and he shook it off before he could pin down the cause.

Off to the other side, a brightly colored monstrosity had sprung out of a giant sand-pit, bristling with rope ladders, slides, suspension bridges and children. In a way, it was much like the places in Risembool's woods near the river where he and Al would spend hours in make-believe adventures when they were still young... before their mother died and they had to grow up far too soon.

"Hey! No girls allowed!"

Ed stopped and stared over at a watch tower positioned on the far end of the monstrosity. The child's voice sounded so much like Al it was painful. Two boys were holding the tower back from a siege that came in the guise of two little girls in pigtails and brightly colored shorts.

He couldn't help smiling. Those boys didn't stand a chance against two determined little girls.

~`~`~`~

"Not fair!" Winry said as she glared up from the ground beneath the tree house he and Al had spent days building. "We let you play with us."

Next to her, Nellie was quietly pouting and giving Al an icky moonie look but she didn't say anything. Ed never understood why she always seemed to be looking at his younger brother the same way he remembered Winry's parents looking at each other just before they kissed. It was really gross in his opinion, and he swore no girl was ever going to do that to him. "Like we'd want to play with your stupid dolls," he taunted.

Winry's eyes narrowed and she stomped her foot. "They are not stupid, Edward Elric!"

Ed leaned further over the side of the wall -ignoring the complaining creak of the rough, gray planks-- and gave her a very loud, wet raspberry. "Are too! It's not like they're real babies, ya know!"

He knew he'd lost the battle -again- when Winry's expression changed from annoyed to something more devious, and he steeled himself for it.

"Yeah? Well it's not like that is a real fort either," she said as she pointed up. Then she proceeded to point out every flaw in the Elric brother's carefully designed and crafted (with a lot of sweat and bad words their mother would surely wash their mouths out with soap over) fort.

As far as Ed was concerned, it was perfect. It was high enough in the tree that they could see for kilometers. It was defensible and next to impossible to breach, even if Al would forget to pull the rope ladder up after him sometimes. Okay, so some of the nails didn't get pounded all the way in and snagged their clothes, some of the wood was warped and cracked, and it squeaked and swayed dangerously whenever a gentle breeze hit it. But it wasn't as bad as Winry tried to make it sound.

Besides, it was /theirs/. They built it. And if they didn't want any girls up there with them, they'd earned that right.

"She's got us there, Brother," Al said soft enough that Winry and Nellie couldn't hear.

"So what?" Ed shot back, as he snapped straight and crossed his arms over his chest. He wasn't about to wave any white flags just yet.

Before he could say anything else, the fort protested the sudden movement with a crack and a loud groan. He saw his little brother's eyes grow wide just before the floor beneath them gave out and both boys tumbled to the ground in a tangle of rotted wood and scraped and bloody limbs.

"Al! Ed!" Winry cried out...

~`~`~`~

"...Earth to Ed?"

Ed started at the sudden passing of something in front of his eyes, then blinked and focused on the woman standing before him with amusement twitching her lips.

"You okay there?" Reilly asked.

"Yeah. Sorry."

Reilly glanced back over her shoulder and watched along with Ed as the two boys gave in and surrendered to the little girls, then she faced him again and jerked her head in the direction they'd been heading. "C'mon. The sooner we catch up with everyone else, the sooner we can get your brother."

He took one last look back as one of the girls squealed gleefully from the watch tower, then trotted after Reilly.

He caught up with her near a pavilion in the center that held several buildings of varying sizes -not all of them permanent. The smells of different foods --from fried to spicy to sweet-- reached him on the gentle breezes and made his stomach growl, reminding him that he'd skipped breakfast this morning. A cacophony of sound rolled over him, from music to vendors hawking, to children playing. Ed wondered if there was some sort of festival going on at the sight of all the brightly colored flags and banners, but Reilly hadn't mentioned any holiday. Then again, he reminded himself, the maul wasn't much different than this.

Then the breeze shifted and the mélange of scents grew stronger, causing his stomach to instantly -and noisily-complain. "Uh, Reilly?"

She stopped and faced him with her arms crossed over her chest. "Let me guess," she snapped. "Hungry? I offered to get you some breakfast before we left, you know."

He pulled his brows as high as possible, tilted his head down just a tiny bit so that he'd have to look up at her, and smiled as sweetly as he could. It was a game that had developed between them ever since he'd received Al's first email, and while she would feign annoyance, it never failed to light a spark of humor in her and put her in a better mood. Ed didn't expect her to fall down in a fit of giggles, but he'd hoped it would at least take some of the edge off her irritability.

It wasn't that he was oblivious to why she was in a foul mood --he'd been there. Hell, he was responsible for it. But Edward Elric was never comfortable around emotional pain in others, and often felt helpless to know what to do. So he resorted to what he knew best; glossing over it, covering it up, pretending it wasn't there.

"Can you wait a little longer?" Reilly asked, only marginally less sharp. "We'll all go out to eat after we nail the plans for tonight."

"Just something to hold me over for a little while?" Ed's stomach decided to growl again and he hugged it as though he were about to waste away to nothing. "Please?"

Reilly just glowered at him through narrowed eyes and hissed, "Stoppit."

When he feigned the most pathetic look he could -the expression Reilly always called 'the puppy-eyes of doom'-- pain flicked so quickly across her face he thought it might have been just the play of shadows from the trees. A tense silence fell between them and Ed knew he'd crossed a line. He felt a heavy stone settle in the pit of his stomach and he tried to find his voice, but it fled at the shine in her eyes and the twitching of her face as she tried to regain control. What had been a game between them had turned into a painful reminder of Reilly's friend. He'd forgotten that Kitten also used to give her the 'puppy-eyes' whenever she was trying to wheedle something out of her.

She turned and headed straight for the vendors on the pavilion without a word, and Ed silently called himself a bastard in every language he could remember. Then he jogged after her and grabbed her arm. The speed in which she spun on him and the ferocity that flashed across her face caused him to flinch back. "F-forget it," he said softly. "I can wait."

The fierce anger was gone, but she softened a little more and shook her head. "No. No, you're right. We need something to eat. Both of us." Before he had a chance to protest, she'd resumed her trek to the pavilion and the food vendors.

Ed trudged slowly behind her, still cursing himself, cursing Bond, and cursing the whole situation in general. He counted all the reasons why things shouldn't be happening the way they were and they all came back to him. If he had left when he had the chance, if he hadn't fallen through the Gate in the first place, if he hadn't wasted time wrestling with Wermier, if he hadn't spent that extra time trashing the lab... if, if, /if/.

And if a frog had wings, he wouldn't bump his ass when he hopped, Tom had said not long ago. At the time, all Ed could do was imagine the alchemy involved to create that chimera --it would have been ridiculously easy, in fact-- but now he understood. There was no point in worrying and wishing for what cannot be. In this world, at least.

Reilly had passed by several trailers before she'd stopped at one that had pink and yellow lemons painted all over it and huge red letters advertising something called a 'funnel-cake'. The badly rendered picture below the words (which he assumed was of a 'funnel-cake') looked like something he wouldn't poke with a stick, let alone eat. The scent coming from the direction of the trailer certainly didn't smell like lemonade, although there was a hint of it in the mix. Instead it had a sweet, fried essence to it that only served to make him swallow to keep from drooling.

He saw the vendor lean out of the window to take Reilly's order -a short, blocky man with deep-set eyes that looked like they would be more at home on a pig than a human. With the crowd and the music, he didn't catch what was being said, but he didn't miss the lecherous stare the vendor aimed at Reilly's chest and Ed's hackles instantly went up. By the way Reilly was acting, he didn't think she'd noticed, but that wasn't the point.

"--dogs, please. With the works," he heard her say as he came up to her.

All thoughts of the slow torture he could wreak on the middle-aged pervert fled when he caught the tail end of the order. The incongruous image of Black Hayate served up on a platter and surrounded by garnishes dashed through his mind, making his stomach flip. He gave Reilly a look of disgust as the vendor mock-saluted and turned to the innards of the trailer. "You're feeding me /dog/?"

"Just shut up and wait, Ed. You'll like it."

The light tone was a little too forced and Ed felt that stone shift in his stomach again. They'd been fine earlier... if 'fine' could be defined by awkwardly avoiding anything that might even hint at the previous night's events and the fact that neither of them had any sleep. This meant that the usual bantering had been replaced by short comments punctuated by long periods of uncomfortable silence. Ed could see the rift growing between them... not that he could blame her any. Kitten's death was on his head, even if indirectly, and he knew he'd never be able to make amends for that.

And now he had to try and fix a new screw-up.

As Reilly handed him a long, paper tray cradling an equally long bun with some sort of brownish red sauce smothering it, he caught the leer of the vendor again, and couldn't believe how blatant he was being. Even Mustang --an incurable flirt and notorious skirt-chaser-- had more class than this creep.

Ed took the tray and poked at the slop suspiciously. His finger felt something underneath, and he pushed it around to reveal a long sausage-like tube of what he assumed was meat, even if it didn't look like any he was familiar with. "So what breed of dog do you people use for this... stuff?" he asked -just a little louder than necessary.

"Hey!" the pig-eyed vendor protested.

Reilly sighed. "No dog, Ed. That's just what it's called."

"Jeeze, kid," Piggy said as he handed a second tray and a fist full of napkins to Reilly. "What kind of an American are you, if you've never had a chili dog before?"

Reilly shoved the napkins into her jeans pocket while she precariously balanced the dangerously sagging tray with one hand, and said, "He's not-"

Ed's irritation was quickly replaced with confusion when the vendor shot him a guarded look that made his vacuous little eyes gleam maliciously.

"-He's German."

Piggy's expression quickly changed to one of curiosity, and he said. "Exchange student, huh?" Then he shook his head and said to Reilly, "They're packin' them up and sending 'em to us younger and younger, aren't they?"

Reilly gave a warning look to the diminutive blonde with a barely perceptible shake of her head and putting a damper on any possible verbal retaliation.

To Ed, he added, "Well, I give you credit, son. You can hardly hear the accent."

The younger man smiled politely, then said in as pleasant a voice as he could muster at the moment, "Wichser*."

The vendor grinned, nodded and said, "You're welcome. Hope you enjoy your stay here." He waved, gave Reilly's chest one last hungry look, then turned to serve the next person in line.

As Reilly dragged Ed away from the trailer, she asked, "What did you say to that guy?"

Ed chortled softly, then licked the chili off his fingertip. It wasn't bad, but it was rather tasteless compared to the highly spiced foods Reilly loved and he'd grown used to. He was about to ask her just how he was supposed to get around the sloppy mess and eat it without wearing it, when he watched her carefully fold the paper tray down and begin to sink her teeth into one end. "I just called him a wanker," he said with a shrug.

Perhaps his timing wasn't so great, as Reilly clamped down suddenly, causing her to snort chili and start choking. Before she could drop her food, Ed took it and tried to figure out just how he was going to juggle both of the laden chili dogs and help her, and realized it was impossible. He watched helplessly as she leaned against another trailer while she pulled the napkins from her pocket, coughed and wiped at her nose, tears streaming down her reddening face.

When she caught her breath and started laughing, Ed relaxed --and not just because she was no longer choking. As she reached out for her food, she said, "One of these days, that man is going to have a chance to use that word and he's going to wonder why he gets punched for it."

"Damn, too bad I won't be there to see it," Ed said blandly as he followed Reilly's earlier example with the chili dog.

Just before he got his mouth open wide enough to take a bite, he heard Piggy bellow, "Where is that sawed-off little runt? I'm gonna kick his foreign ass up around his goddamn ears!"

Ed froze, then he felt Reilly grab the front of his shirt and yank him through the milling crowd. The sudden force caused him to lose his tenuous grip on the chili dog, and it dumped down the front of his shirt. "Dammit!"

"Careful what you wish for, Ed," she said as she flung her own food in the general direction of a trashcan.

They dashed and weaved through the mass of people to the other side of the pavilion, then Reilly hauled him around a trailer to hide between it and one of the permanent buildings. She fell back against the stone-covered wall of what was probably a gardener's shed and caught her breath as she looked around.

Ed leaned against the trailer and gazed down the front of his shirt to assess the damage left in the wake of his abandoned snack.

"Damn," Reilly said. "That's your favorite shirt, too."

Ed ran a finger through the mess covering most of Icarus and nodded. "Not that big of a deal, though."

"That chili's gonna stain."

Ed glanced up and smiled slightly. "Not if it doesn't have time to set." He leaned over and peeked around the edge of the trailer. When he was certain that they hadn't attracted any attention and had eluded the vendor, he gestured for Reilly to come closer. Then he pulled the hem of the shirt away from his body and said, "Hold that for me."

As Reilly held the shirt out, Ed etched an array through the chili with a finger. Then with a touch and a flash, the sloppy mess dried up and flaked off, leaving the shirt looking as good as new.

"Nifty," Reilly said. "I thought you needed chalk or something to do that."

Before Ed had a chance to say anything more on the subject, there was a shout from the end of the trailer. "There you are you little faggot!"

Ed spun and gaped down at Piggy, who certainly did not appear to be quite that short when he was leaning out of the window handing Reilly their food earlier. The man's belligerent attitude -especially in light of his earlier lecherousness-- would have been enough on a normal day to set him off, but the tug on his arm and a reminder from Reilly prevented it. "We need to get Al."

He turned and started to follow her. She was right after all. Al was more important than some mouthy pervert.

"You stay right there shrimp," the vendor snarled. "I want a word with you."

Shrimp?! This day was already bad enough without his height being mocked by someone shorter than he was, and as much as he'd tried to keep a lid on his already foul mood, the pressure surged to a dangerous level. He'd been willing to let it slide when the creep leered at Reilly; he had even been willing to ignore him when he chased them down. But this? It was the last straw and all the frustration and guilt and lack of sleep fizzed out from under the cap in an explosive burst. Ed's entire world went deep red and he twisted out of Reilly's grip. He barely heard her mutter, "Oh, shit."

Like a bristling cat, he loomed over the vendor as he shouted down at him, "WHO'RE YOU CALLING SHRIMP, YOU MICROSCOPIC GNOME?"

"Ed-"

"I FOUND OUT WHAT YOU CALLED ME," Piggy screamed back, with fists balled tightly down at his sides as he lurched up on his toes to meet Ed head-on. "ANDYOUR MOUTH IS THE BIGGEST THING ON YOU, YA PRE-SHRUNK MUNCHKIN!"

"AT LEAST I DON'T NEED A STEP-LADDER TO CLIMB A CURB!"

"Now is not a really good time for this, Ed..."

"THAT'S BECAUSE YOU'RE TOO BUSY FIGHTING THE FLEAS FOR SPACE ON A RAT'S ASS!"

"LOOK YOU AMOEBA-FUCKING-- OW!!!" Ed felt his head tugged back violently as his pony-tail was yanked and he spun on his new attacker...

...to slam into a wall of tan fabric that had an identical pair of creases running precisely down the center of the spaces between the perfectly aligned buttons and the side-seams -so sharp they could cut glass-- and decorated with a highly polished brass badge and a name-tag that read simply /Officer C. Crabtree/.

He took a hasty step back in order to look up... and up... and up... to meet hard blue eyes set inside a face etched out of weathered granite and shaded by a starched-perfect hat with the dark brown brim shined to a painful gloss. "Uh..."

"Is there a problem here?" the cop drawled, never taking his eyes off of the younger man.

The vendor shoved Ed aside and said, "Yeah, this pint-sized pansy is starting trouble."

Ed stiffened but clamped his mouth shut with a snap when he felt Reilly jerk on his pony-tail again. He reached up to rub at his tender scalp and glared at her.

"Is he now?"

Reilly gave Ed a warning look, then turned her attention on the cop. "Officer... Crabtree, is it? It was an innocent misunderstanding. Cultural differences, you know?"

Cultural? Ed caught something in the quick look she shot in his direction, but wasn't sure exactly what it was all about. He considered the situation and decided that now might be a good time to keep quiet. At least until he could figure out what Reilly was up to.

"Do tell," Crabtree said.

Ed looked back to see the man's arms crossed over his chest and a gimlet stare boring into him.

"Bullshit," Piggy squealed. "He ain't what he claims. I think he's one of them terrorists. You know they look just like everyone else. They ain't all sand ni-"

Crabtree cleared his throat warningly as he snapped an intimidating look at the vendor.

The short man cowed. "-er... well, you know what I mean."

Reilly made a disgusted noise then said, "/Really/. He's just an exchange student. English isn't his first language-"

Ed gave her a what-the-fuck look. Amestrian wasn't that different from English, after all. He was about to protest, but then he puzzled out the looks she'd been giving him. A silent command to play along.

"-He had no idea that what he said could be considered an insult here."

Now that Ed caught onto the game, he decided to have a little fun with it. He carefully schooled his own expression to the most innocent he could manage and looked up at the officer...

...Then he started yammering in rapid German as he gestured wildly at Piggy.

"See?" the vendor accused. "And he's probably calling you a mother-humpin' pig-fucker right now!"

Crabtree ignored him, keeping all his attention on Ed, but remaining so stoic that Ed couldn't tell if the cop understood him or was confused at the foreign language and just hiding it very well.

"Oh, he is /not/!" Reilly said. "He's just saying how sorry he is for insulting this fine, upstanding vendor who is only trying to make a living."

Ed stuttered in the middle of his diatribe, since what he was actually spouting off was far more sarcastic, extremely vulgar and had more to do with the Miniaturized Moron's sexual tastes and his mother, than anything resembling an apology.

Crabtree calmly held up a hand and said, "I think I've heard enough." To the vendor, he said, "Don't you have customers waiting, Herc? I can take it from here."

The vendor -Herc-grinned triumphantly. "You're a good American, Crabby. Just don't let that girly look fool you." Then he sauntered off.

Ed's fists clenched at his sides, but Reilly poked him painfully in the ribs before he had a chance to react.

For a long moment, Crabtree and Ed regarded each other silently. The cop's arms were still crossed over his chest and his face remained etched in stone -unreadable and intimidating. Then he said, "You know, Herc might have more mouth than brains, but I seriously doubt he'd ever sleep with his mother."

Ohshit. Ed felt the blood drain from his face in a rapid gush to pool hotly at his feet. His brain fled for parts unknown, dragging his voice right along with it. All he could manage was a choking gulp as visions of being hauled off in handcuffs to some dark, dank jail cell galloped through what was left of any rational thought which consisted mostly of a looped Al's gonna kill me, Al's gonna kill me, Al's gonna kill me.

"You were also speaking pretty damn good English during your shouting match, so I don't buy the story that you ain't from around here." Crabtree leaned into Ed's personal space just the slightest bit, but it was enough to make the smaller man take a nervous step back. "I don't know what you're playing at, boy, but I suggest you find something less disruptive to occupy your time today. I don't want to have to deal with another complaint that you've let your alligator mouth overrun your hummingbird ass. Are we clear?"

Ed could only manage a weak nod.

Crabtree straightened back up, then the granite shattered with a broad grin and an amused sparkle in his eyes. "Off the record? Those were some impressive insults. Even the German ones. Ol' Don Rickles could pick up a few pointers from you." He pulled off his hat and ran his fingers through the thick mass of short salt-and-pepper hair. "Just... leave a guy's mother out of it next time. Them's fightin' words in these parts, and I can't promise you I'll be there in time to keep you from getting your ass stomped."

Reilly gripped Ed's arm to pull him away. "No problem. I'll make sure he behaves Officer."

She dragged him quickly through the crowd and back out into the park in silence, then stopped so suddenly once they reached a clearing that he almost bowled her over.

He never saw it coming, but there was an instant of pain in his cheek and he staggered back as stars swam through his vision. When it cleared, he almost wished it hadn't, because the sight of Reilly stiff and trembling in rage was far more disturbing. "You. Fucking. /Moron/!"

"Now wait a minute! That perv-"

"I don't give a tinker's damn if he was staring at my tits," she snapped, emphasizing each word with a hard poke to his chest and slowly backing him into a huge old oak. "Your short fuse almost got your ass thrown in jail, and mine right along with you. What the hell good is that going to do your brother, if that happens, huh?"

Ed breathed out and sagged against the tree. "You're right," he said as he stared down at the ground. "I-I'm sorry."

She was silent for so long that he wondered for a moment if she'd walked away, but when he looked up, she was still standing there, still stiff. Her lips trembled and tears welled at the edge of her lashes, and Ed felt like a vice had clamped over his chest. Then when she said, "I neither need, nor want your apology, Edward," he felt like that vice had yanked his heart out and crushed it. The disappointment in her voice was more painful than the right hook she gave him.

She turned and strode to the center of the park, where he could see Ducky and Tom and Hughes sitting at a picnic table with some girl with blue hair.

"Real brilliant, Elric," he muttered as he pushed off from the tree to follow. "Alienate the one person who can protect your temperamental ass and help get Al out of that hospital."

As he caught up, he saw her back snap straight and the worried look in Hughes' eyes while he came slowly to his feet. Ed was puzzling over the unusual choice of attire on the man and didn't notice that one sleeve of the deep purple scrubs was empty until he turned just right. Ed felt a sickening horror zing through him until he realized there was a bulge under the shirt where his -still intact-arm was apparently braced. He couldn't make himself look over at Reilly, so he had no idea what her reaction to the man's condition was, but by her silence Ed figured she had to be at least as shocked as he was. Hughes had given him no indication whatsoever that he'd been injured over the phone last night.

"Hughes? What the hell happened?" he asked.

He gave Ed a tired half-smile and gingerly touched the empty sleeve. "It looks worse than it is, really. Just a dislocated shoulder."

"And about a gazillion stitches all over his back," Ducky added.

Ed started at the anguished choking sound right next to him and twisted around to see Reilly collapse into tears.

"Hey, hey," Hughes said softly as he pulled her close with his free hand. He wrapped his arm around her and stroked her back as he mumbled soothing words into her hair.

From that moment, Ed could see, the world consisted only of Reilly to the older man. The people at the table, the crowd in the park, and even Ed were no longer an urgent priority. His presence would only interfere, so Ed shuffled to the other end of the table to fall onto the bench with his back to everyone else.

"Damn, Hughes, I thought I was the only guy who made women cry," Ducky laughed.

Ed didn't have the energy to deck him, although he sorely wanted to. Instead he just gave him a short glare over his shoulder and said, "Shut the fuck up, Ducky."

He stared out at the milling crowd without really seeing anything and every sob he heard from Reilly cut right through him. After a long while, he had a feeling he was being watched closely and rolled his eyes to see the woman with blue hair watching him. "What?" he snapped.

She didn't even show the good grace to look chagrined at being caught staring. Instead she offered out a hand and grinned. "So you're the Terminator?"

Ed ignored the greeting and said, "Who wants to know?"

She pulled her hand back, but didn't look any worse for the snub. "Most people call me Heist. Those that call me anything else usually find their life spans drastically shorter."

Well, that explains the rudeness, Ed thought. This was the friend Ducky was always talking about. He had the nasty suspicion that she was too much like the annoying hacker for his comfort. Great, there're two of them.

"You know, from the way Tuckandroll was going on about you, I thought you'd be much-"

"You're taking your life into your own hands there, Heist," Tom interrupted.

"-/younger/."

Ed gave her a disgusted sigh and returned to staring out at the crowd, more than willing to shut all of them out at the moment. Except the one thing he really wanted to shut out, he couldn't --but at least Reilly's sobs had been reduced to a soft hiccuping as the storm blew over.

He sensed more than heard something being set down near his elbow and cast a glance over to see a brown cup with a white lid.

"Whoa, Heist?" Ducky said with an almost breathless awe. "You're parting with your triple-shot espresso?"

Ed heard the hacker shuffling around next to him and caught him peeking under the table out of the corner of his eye.

"Where's the pod?" Ducky asked when he came back up.

Heist shrugged and said, "Hey, he looks like he needs it more than I do." To Ed, she added, "That stuff is guaranteed to keep your grandchildren awake, Term."

"No. Thank you," he said.

He watched as Ducky opened up his lap-top, and then Tom asked, "Ducks, what the hell are you doing?"

He was growing irritated at the casual atmosphere among the group. They were all ignoring Reilly, and worse, acting like someone they called a friend wasn't even there. It seemed like the only person who cared was Hughes... and himself, but right now what little comfort he could offer would hardly be welcome.

"Checking the weather in Michigan," Ducky said. "I think Hell just might've frozen over."

That was more than Ed could tolerate. With a growl he shot to his feet and stomped off. He heard Hughes say behind him, "Let him go, Tom. He needs to be alone."

He heard Reilly's voice before it was lost in the distance and the crowd, but not what she said. He wondered if it was appropriately bitter. The Void knew he deserved it right now.

0o0o0

Hughes kept his arm around Reilly as he watched Ed's retreating back. The sloped shoulders and downcast head somehow making the young man look even smaller. He wasn't angry, that much was obvious; he looked...defeated. The last time Hughes could recall Ed like this was after the Lab Five incident, when he'd been fighting with Al. He'd never learned what had come between the two brothers, but it was serious enough to make Al disappear and Ed damn near panic as he and Winry went searching for him.

Hughes didn't need to be a trained observer to notice the growing bruise on Ed's cheek and the scraped knuckles on Reilly's right hand. He didn't know for certain what had happened, but he could take an educated guess. Tension was running high right now, and both of them had similar enough temperaments that this level of frustration was bound to explode out of them in a dramatic way.

He suppressed a chuckle at a memory from the previous time. When all was said and done, Ed had sported a new knot on his head, and Al had a few fresh dents in his armor. With a soft sigh, Hughes thought, What I wouldn't give for Winry and her wrench right now.

He shoved the thought away with vehemence. His shoulder twinged in sympathy and Hughes straightened his posture. He'd thought he was finished with such thoughts, but it was hard to avoid every little reminder of home. A child's laughter, homemade apple pie, fading photographs... It was the simple things that brought everything painfully back, but it was the less pleasant memories that weighed on his mind.

Bond was still out there. And he wasn't going to stop at just civilian casualties. The man was a sadist without any sense of limits, and given time and enough loathing for his victims there was no level of depravity he wouldn't descend to. If Bond found them, what happened to Kitten would seem merciful in comparison.

Hughes was going to have to find a way to stop him, but what that would involve...

"Nickel for your thoughts?"

Hughes craned his neck to look down at the woman nestled into his side. "I thought the going rate was a penny."

Reilly shrugged gently under his arm. "They seemed pretty heavy, so that's double the usual fare, and there's inflation to take into account."

He cracked a smile and shook his head. He was going to miss her talent for bringing light to dark situations after all this was over. "I'll return that nickel and add a dime if you'll tell me what happened with Ed."

Reilly stiffened. "I... hit him. He was drawing too much attention and I was frustrated and I hit him."

Hughes paused. It was one thing to guess what had happened, but it was entirely another to hear it out loud. "Someone said something about his height, didn't they?" he sighed. "Ed always goes overboard. Usually Al's the only one that can bring him back down."

"I didn't have to clock him like that. I just lost it. He was out of line but he didn't deserve that." Reilly pulled away, and Hughes realized she was fighting back tears. "He probably hates me."

"Reilly. Ed doesn't hate you." Hughes reached out with his good arm to rub her back. "If anything, he needed someone to knock some sense into that thick skull of his. He's a good kid, and there isn't any hate in him. He'll be fine."

"How do you know?" Reilly asked, and swiped at her eyes with the heel of her palm. Hughes took her hand and smiled crookedly.

"I know Ed. And besides, he's taken worse dozens of times. One little tap like that should barely faze him."

Reilly slumped further into herself and took a long breath. "That's not exactly comforting, Hughes."

"No. I suppose it's not." Hughes watched an ant train crawl along a groove in the picnic table and remembered the first time he'd ever met Ed. Only eleven years old and already as scarred as many veterans of the war in Ishbal. It wasn't fair, and it wasn't comforting to know that Ed had taken infinitely more abuse since then.

He shook it off. There was no point in dwelling on the past when the future loomed unpleasantly in front of them. Ed couldn't see anything past saving Al and Reilly had no choice but to march grimly on. Bond had burned all their bridges for them, and sooner or later he was going to catch up with them. And then...

"Whatever you're planning, Maes Hughes, stop it right now."

Hughes looked up to see Reilly frown in concentration. "Reilly?"

She shook her head and turned a speculative look on him. "I get the feeling you're either going to do something very stupid or very brave, possibly both, and there's no way in hell you're going to do it alone."

"But I wasn't-"

"Yes you were, and if you so much as try anything, I'll find you and deck you so hard you see stars indoors on a cloudy day."

Hughes chuckled, vague plans forgotten. He had no doubt that Reilly was good for her word, and after that Ed would serve up another ration of fist to the face when she was done with him.

Assuming she and Ed ever talked to each other again. He knew Ed would take all the blame on himself and try to solve all their problems, and he was beginning to suspect Reilly would attempt to do the same. If they'd just talk to each other, it would be so much easier to move past the grief and the guilt, but Hughes wasn't sure they would unless forced to.

"I'll make you a deal," he said gently. "I won't do anything stupid," and he amended that at Reilly's disbelieving glance, "/alone/, if you'll talk to Ed. If we're all in this harebrained scheme to rescue Al together, we need to work together, and we need to be communicating to do it."

"What if he won't speak to me?" Reilly asked. "What if he won't listen to a thing I say?"

"I'll talk to him," Hughes assured her. "Try to knock a little sense into that hard head of his. If nothing else, he'll listen. I promise."

Reilly moved back to his side and rested her head on his shoulder. "Thank you."

"No problem," he answered lightly, and tried not to think about how much he didn't mind being Reilly's comfort. How easily it came to him. And how much it felt like a betrayal of the fading photograph in his wallet. "No problem at all."

0o0o0

Ed wandered the park for a long while, trying to marshal his churning emotions. He paid little attention to where his feet were taking him until he noticed the increasing volume of high-pitched shrieks and stampeding footsteps. Something small and bony slammed into his side and Ed flailed momentarily, arms pinwheeling, before he regained his balance. He looked around, eyes coming to rest on a young boy who was picking himself off the ground beside him. Not the least bit dazed, the kid grinned and brushed his hands against cutoff shorts already sporting an impressive amount of grass and dirt stains.

"Sorry, mister!" the kid chirped before rejoining a nearby horde of kids caught up in a chaotic game of tag.

Ed watched them play for a few minutes, thinking about all the times he and Al used to wish they had closer neighbors than just Winry and Nellie. Their games of tag usually ended prematurely with the girls complaining that the brothers had been ganging up on them. Then they would go off and do whatever it was that girls did together, and he and Al would be left to entertain themselves.

He had walked the rest of the way around the duck pond, back to the large mess of brightly colored playground equipment that, despite the considerable number of tag-players, swarmed with even more kids than when they'd first arrived at the park. If it hadn't been so crowded, Ed might have considered taking up a swing, but it was more than jam-packed and he hadn't sulked on a swing since he was eight.

Instead he picked his way through the labyrinth of constantly moving bodies, careful to watch out for any other loose cannons veering towards his general direction. The cries of the kids diminished to a dull roar as Ed wandered into a patch of ancient-looking trees. They were too close together, the roots too gnarled and overgrown above the ground for navigating at anything faster than a leisurely stroll. Not the best choice for playing tag, especially with the reckless abandon of the kids by the playground. It did, however, make an ideal place to lose himself in. Concentrating on not tripping over all the nature took more effort than Ed had expected, but it kept him moving and --more importantly-- kept his thoughts away from the earlier chili dog catastrophe.

He continued weaving through the trees, occasionally picking up on a strange high-pitched noise that didn't quite blend in with the game of tag. After circling the same tree half a dozen times trying to pinpoint the source of the sound, Ed caught a glimpse of pink dart behind a nearby tree. He held his breath and froze in his spot. A few moments later, a head full of tiny braids slowly inched its way into view. It was followed by a pair of large, chocolate brown eyes that widened even more when they realized they'd been caught. The head disappeared, and Ed heard the noise again. A child's giggle. He waited briefly for the owner of the giggle to make another appearance, then resumed his walk.

The kid kept following him, hiding when he paused, laughing when he glanced over his shoulder. After a while he even found himself smiling at their little game. They continued that way until an older voice in the distance called a name, breaking their companionable silence. At this, the kid --a little girl in a pink shirt and faded overalls-- broke her gaze away. She began trotting back towards the playground, but not without giving Ed a dazzling smile and a friendly wave goodbye.

Without the distraction of the little girl and the cacophony of the crowded park muffled by the trees, Ed was left alone to do what he came out here for in the first place. He leaned back and slid down the trunk of the nearest tree. Squatting down in the dirt, he rested his arms on his knees and tried to figure out just how he was going to fix things --hopefully without screwing them up worse.

0o0o0o0

June 3, 3:15 pm
Wichita, Kansas


Even after a full morning of playing on the computer, therapy, and going to say goodbye to the babies in neonatal one last time, the after-effects of caffeine had Al twitching. G/ene wasn't kidding when he said I wouldn't be able to handle it,/ he thought, making his way back to B-Mod and trying not to tremble from the chemical. Holding the infants was relaxing, but he was just too keyed up for it to last long in the enforced quiet that neonatal required.

Wandering the halls, he wondered where Gene was. He never joined in with the neo-natal visits, citing no desire to be spat up on by podlings. He was always back before Al had finished his visit, too, either reading or trying to con Rick into letting him use the computer again.

He was also always a little more tired after Al got back, as though he'd been working hard. So, in a fit of impulse, Al turned and headed for the therapy wing. With Gene's limitations, it made sense that the guy would work on therapy more than one kid with a mostly-healed broken arm.

Al flexed his arm as he walked, surprised at how much muscle mass he'd regained already. He'd been diligently retraining it, and while his left arm was still significantly thinner than his right, it no longer looked weak. It could probably hold up to a lot now. He relaxed the arm, letting his hand dangle, and massaged the muscle. It should be fine for this evening...if Ed doesn't decide he needs to trash the hospital. The thought made his stomach churn, and he sighed. I'll stop him if he tries. They helped me a lot, so there's no reason to destroy the place. Besides; Gene still has to stay here.

With that thought in his mind, Al turned a corner and spotted Gene in the therapy room, an assistant holding his legs in place. He paused to watch, and almost wanted to look away as Gene struggled to sit upright, his progress slow and clumsy. There was very little muscle that bulged as he worked, and half of his leg didn't flex at all.

He looks so...awkward.

Watching as Gene struggled to sit upright it was easy for him to remember how his brother had looked, missing two limbs and still healing before surgery. He'd tried to do everything by himself, and the handicap of not only being sans an arm and a leg but completely off-balance often conspired against him.

~`~`~`~

"Brother! You shouldn't be trying to move on your own," Al said as he clanked over to Ed, sprawled on the floor in a tangle of sheets and bandages. "Here, let me help you.

"I can do it, Al." Completely ignoring the offer to help, Ed hauled himself one-handed into the wheelchair he'd become completely dependent on. "But... could you take me to the shower? I smell awful."

He didn't need to ask. It didn't take long for Al to push him out back, where he could help his brother keep his balance while the shower ran. And as Ed washed his hair one-handed, Al was shocked at how hard even the simplest tasks had become. Something menial and private, like Edward cleaning himself, had suddenly morphed into an ordeal involving an outside person.

Al didn't mind that he had to take care of his brother. That was what they'd done ever since their mother had died. What they would do even in metallic bodies. Even with missing limbs. But it hurt, seeing how much it grated on Ed's nerves to have to ask for the help.

"Al, could you hand me the soap?"

~`~`~`~

"I CAN'T DO THIS!"

Al dragged himself out of the memory as he heard Gene yelling at the top of his lungs, and ran for the therapy room. He stumbled through the door and onto the view of Gene trying to get the therapy assistant away from him, as much as legs and skinny arms would let him.

"Get away! I can't do this anymore! What's the fucking point to it??"

He didn't stop to think. Shoving the assistant out of the way he wrapped his arms around his friend. "Hey, Gene! Calm down! It's just me!" The flailing stopped, so Al took advantage of it and hugged his friend tight. "What's going on, Gene? What's wrong?"

"What's wrong/?" As Al expected, his friend shoved him away and rolled, trying to get to a place where he could face him. The therapy assistant hovered above both of them, but Al ignored him. "What /isn't wrong? My legs don't work because I fucking fell down a hole/, I can't even do /twenty damned sit-ups, my parents hardly care that I even exist, and you have the fucking nerve to ask me what's /wrong/???"

Al waved at the assistant to get him to go away, and settled down.

The therapist gave him an uncertain look, but something in Al's demeanor must have convinced him that it was all right, because he nodded and got to his feet. "I'll wait over there," he said as he gestured to the far end of the gym. "Any problems and I'll be right on both of you like a coat of paint. Got it?"

Al smiled and nodded, and waited until the man was out of earshot before he faced Gene again. "Wanna tell me about it?"

"What, so you can psycho-analyze me the way the quacks in this hospital do?" Gene pulled himself into a sitting position, maneuvering his legs with his hands. "I don't need any shit like that."

"Psycho-analyze?" Al shrugged at the term, and decided it wasn't important. "I'm not trying to do anything. I just want to hear what you have to say, okay?"

There was silence for a long time as Gene just sat there, rubbing at the thigh muscles that had failed him so many times. Long enough that Al half-expected Gene to just maneuver himself back to his chair and go away. He hardly expected him to speak.

"My parents aren't the shiniest pennies in the bank, for one. Neither are the people who work for them."

The resentment was thick enough that Al almost thought Gene was smothering under it. "Howso?" Realizing just how that sounded, Al coughed and hedged a bit. "I'm sorry, it's really rude of me to ask, and I don't want to do something like my brother would and insult you by badgering you about it..."

Gene let loose a laugh that sounded real enough, which made Al feel slightly better. "Your brother must really be something. When it's just us, you mention him almost every two minutes."

"Well, I miss him. He's hard to ignore, even if he is kind of short." He pictured what his brother would do if he'd heard that comment, then caught onto what Gene was trying to do; it was a trick Ed sometimes pulled. "And stop trying to change the subject."

The depression was back on Gene's face, but Al didn't dare retract his statement. His friend needed to talk about this. Just looking at him, Al could tell he'd held it in for too long and that there was too much resentment and anger for it to have been something simple.

"My parents didn't really try to raise me, when I was younger," he started. He didn't look at Al, but played with his shoelaces. "Instead, they hired out my care to a nanny service. Some woman came and watched me all day, until I was about four. That was when I got a really spacey nanny, who watched soap operas more than me."

Al couldn't believe a mother would do something like that. Remembering his own childhood, he was suddenly even more grateful than normal to how his own mother had raised him and his brother. "Soap operas?"

There was a smile again. An actual amused one. "Really bad TV shows."

Al smiled back. "All TV shows are bad."

"Touché. Anyway..." Gene rubbed at his leg again. Al figured he probably needed some time to think, so he kept quiet. "I fell, when I was four," he said eventually, in a very quiet voice. "There was a big hole in the backyard, because my parents were putting in a pool. I wandered away from my nanny, and fell in."

Al remembered one time when he and Brother had fallen out of a fort they had built. The girls, Winry and Nellie, had panicked and run around the remains of the fort he and his brother had slaved over, crying out for both of them. But the only injuries they'd had were a couple of bruises, splinters, and one very large shiner for Ed. Is it something other than just a fall, I wonder? "Was it a really steep fall?"

"Not really." Gene's voice had taken on that flat sound, the type of tone that Al had sometimes heard in Germany, when veterans from the War spoke of their injuries. A coping mechanism, one that distanced the injured from the event. "Apparently, when the nanny panicked and picked me up, the damage that was already done became a lot worse. I probably would've been fine, had she just admitted to losing track of me and called an ambulance instead of taking me inside and pretending I'd been playing in the nursery all afternoon." Looking up, Al could swear he saw tears in his friend's eyes. "But instead, I'm stuck in that fucking monstrosity, and I can't even do a few simple sit-ups. Because some moron my parents hired to raise me didn't want someone to know she hadn't been paying any attention." He flopped onto the ground and stared at the ceiling. "What do you have to say to that?"

His friend laying there, vulnerable, reminded Al too much of seeing his brother helpless, and him unable to touch or comfort his brother. "You're alive, though. Right?"

"You call this living/?" Gene gestured wildly at his legs. "I'm nose-to-crotch with most of the world, stuck in a freaking remote control /chair that no one can see past. My parents view me as either a commodity or a burden they have to 'make better'. I can't run, can't walk on my own, and no one wants anything to do with me. Fuck, I can't even roughhouse with the one guy that's even been somewhat nice to me." His eyes dared Al to say anything. "Do you really call that a life?"

"Yes, actually." Before Gene could get a word in edgewise, Al continued, sprawling on the ground next to his friend. "It's not an ideal one, true. Not even a really favorable one." He rested a hand on Gene's knee and squeezed. "But you're alive, and you're breathing. You can reason, a lot better than most of the people in this ward. You can feel, even if it's not in the way you really want to." He squeezed harder, and smiled as Gene reacted to the sensation this time. "You have a soul, Gene. You're still alive, still breathing. The flow of life hasn't stopped for you, yet. Don't let it before you're ready." He paused. "...though why do you want to roughhouse with me?"

Gene sighed and stared at the ceiling. "It has to do with my dad."

"Your dad?"

"Yeah." Working hard, Gene turned on his stomach, and propped his chin on his hands. "My dad wrestled in high school. Went to the state competition, too. He has all these trophies on the wall from things he placed in." The depressive air around him grew worse, and Al almost saw his friend deflate from it. "I wanted to do something like that. But I can't now."

"Who says you can't?"

"My legs." He sighed. "Wrestling takes a lot of leg strength. A lot of lower body strength, and a lot of upper body strength. Mine's just not up to it."

Al smiled. Here was a way he could help his friend. "Wanna bet?"

Before Gene knew what hit him, Al had pounced. A lock that Al had once used on Ed as a kid was quickly thwarted by some fast maneuvering on Gene's part, and soon Al found himself pinned by the arms. He unbent his elbows and slid out of the lock, wincing as Gene accidentally clocked him going for his waist to pin him. He was laughing, and struggling, and his movements were jerky. But they wrestled for a good few minutes, until the assistant came over.

"Hey, boys, boys! There's no need for this!"

"Yeah there was." Neither one was really sure who had won, but Al was certainly feeling less twitchy. And Gene looked about ready to burst his seams with smiling. "We both needed it."

The assistant frowned. "Well, next time? Warn a man before you do something like that. Okay?"

Al and Gene both blushed, then laughed at each other. "Okay." Al's stomach rumbled in irritation as the therapy assistant cleaned up the room, and he made a face. "You know something, Gene? I now understand why Brother always complained about hospital food."

"It's either bland and tasteless, or so chock-full of vitamins that the taste of zinc and iron overwhelms your poor tastebuds?" Gene refused help and made it to a position where he could get back into his chair. "Be grateful you've only been having it for a few weeks."

"That, and I'm hungry again." Al smiled tiredly. "Maybe your mom'll cook you something when you get home."

Gene thought about that for a few minutes, and smiled back. "Maybe." He maneuvered himself into his remote wheelchair, and laughed. "Though I'm not sure I'll want to eat it."

0o0o0

Ed was certain this was where the group had been sitting. He looked around for familiar landmarks, and mentally kicked himself for not paying closer attention earlier... but it looked like the right place. Except instead of Hughes or Reilly --or anyone else even slightly familiar-- there was a large, dark-skinned family setting out an even larger spread of food that was literally painful to look at. Among them, he spotted the little girl who had followed him earlier, carrying a bowl to the table that was nearly as big as she was and making a valiant effort to see around it.

Panic welled up as he scanned the area nearby, and still he saw no sign of anyone familiar. They left? Had he really messed up so badly this time that even Hughes would abandon him? Ed shook his head to clear it. Not possible. And even if Reilly was furious with him, she wasn't vindictive.

A handsome woman with a quiet dignity about her that reminded Ed so much of Hawkeye it hurt approached him from the laden table and asked, "Are you looking for your friends?"

"Uh, yeah... I think they were at this table earlier."

She smiled warmly, took him lightly by the shoulder and turned him. "You walked right past them, hon."

Ed instantly relaxed. They were no more than 30 meters away, scattered around a large blanket that was dominated by a reclining Hughes. Ducky and Heist were intent on their lap-tops and Reilly was leaning against Tom, who held a comforting arm around her shoulder. The stone in the pit of his stomach grew into a boulder and decided that now was a good time to learn how to roll over when she dabbed at her eyes. Hughes reached out without actually looking, and offered his hand to her. She squeezed it with a sad smile and Ed was amazed once more at how the man always seemed to know just the right thing to do or say to make someone feel better.

He faced the dark-skinned woman and said, "Thanks." Without meaning to, his eyes darted to the food that was miraculously multiplying on the table, and with effort he forced them back to the woman. "Thanks," he said again and started to move to the group on the blanket when he felt her hand on his shoulder once more.

Her smile was, if possible, even warmer than before, as she said, "Why don't you and your friends join us. We have more than enough."

It took a moment for Ed to process just what she was saying and he felt his jaw drop. "Join you? F-for the food?"

"Of course."

Ed gulped, half from shock, half from the feeling that his stomach had suddenly decided to start eating itself from the inside. He felt completely out of his element at that moment. Had this been Resembool, or even Central, he wouldn't have hesitated. An invitation like this wasn't given unless sincere, but here he'd seen people say a lot of things they didn't really mean. Sometimes out of anger or ignorance, sometimes out of politeness. He weighed the options then shook his head. "Thank you, but no. We couldn't impose."

She chuckled, a deep, rich sound that was naturally soothing. "On the contrary, we were the ones who imposed, and your friends were kind enough to let us have the table. Besides, wasting good food is a sin. I insist."

His stomach chose that moment to loudly voice its own opinion and he made a mental note to have a long talk with it about its rather manic-depressive behavior today. It wouldn't do to have it flop yet again and he lose his lunch. After all, as the woman said, wasting good food was a sin. "Thank you. I'll go tell them."

He stared to dash off when she said, "Do you have a name?"

Chagrined he nodded and said, "Sorry. I'm Ed."

She held out her left hand and he took it. Her grip was as warm as her voice and strong without being crushing. "Hello, Ed. I'm Johnna. And I'll introduce you to the rest of the family when you get back with your friends."

"All right. Be back in a minute."

As he approached the group, he caught part of Tom's comment to Ducky, and wondered just what the hell they were planning for tonight.

"-you can't crawl through the ducts, you idiot. They only do that in the movies."

"Aw c'mon, me and Ed are small enough to pull it off, and we'd avoid the security cameras."

"I don't give a shit how small you two are, if -and that's a very big if-you could even squeeze your skinny asses up in there, they wouldn't support your weight."

Heist looked up from her lap-top and said, "Actually, they could do it."

"You're not helping here, woman."

She twirled the computer around in her lap to show Tom a schematic that Ed could see over his shoulder as he approached. "The building is late 19th century. The ductwork came in about early 20th century and was huge. From the looks of things, it's all still in use. Big enough that you could damn near drive a golf-cart through, anyway."

"Ugh," Tom groaned. "Let's not mention golf-carts right now."

"You have to admit that was sheer brilliance on my part," Ducky said, then looked up and grinned at Ed. "Hey, Terminator. Feel up to crawling through some air ducts tonight?"

"Will it get Al out of there?"

"Does a bear shit in the woods?"

Ed didn't bother to try to puzzle that one out, and said to the group at large, "We've been invited to lunch."

Hughes opened one eye. "By who?"

Ed pointed back at the family that had taken over the table and made the mistake of glancing over his shoulder at the same time. The amount of food had multiplied even more than just a moment ago. No wonder they were invited to join them. "Damn," he muttered in disbelief.

"I think they were just being polite, Ed," Tom said without taking his eyes off the computer screen.

Hughes sat up and stared openly at the table. "I wouldn't be so sure of that."

Tom looked back and did a double-take. "Damn."

Hughes stiffly got to his feet, and smoothed out his scrubs. "Well, you can sit here and starve. I'm accepting the invitation."

0o0o0

Ed could have sworn he saw the table bending under the weight of all the food. A tangy-spicy-sweet smell wafted around the offerings from the grill, there were heaping platters of neatly cut vegetables, and several bags of those crispy potato things they used to dip in Hughes' guacamole. Incredibly, Ed even spotted a small bowl of some familiar-looking green spread. He counted no less than six different noodle dishes and --are those cookies?

He felt a warm grip on his left shoulder and he instinctively grabbed the paper plate that was pressed into his hands.

"You can blink, dear, the food's not going anywhere," their culinary benefactor said with a laugh. Johnna then handed him a set of plastic utensils wrapped in a napkin and picked up another plate. "Any ideas about what your friend might like?"

Ed followed her nod over to Hughes, sitting stiffly in a canvas folding chair. Away from the others, his everything-is-fine demeanor had degraded to one filled with pain and exhaustion. A grimace flicked across his face and his hand reached up to gently probe his injured shoulder. Ed turned back to the food table guiltily; he still hadn't heard how Hughes had gotten hurt. Johnna peered at him, holding the empty plate expectantly. Ed cleared his throat, "Umm, I'm not really sure what he'd like... but he'll be fine with anything." Because that's just how Hughes is...

"A little bit of everything, then," she said. "We can always get him seconds of the things he likes best."

Ed mirrored Johnna's actions, taking a small portion of most of the dishes. By the time they reached the other end of the table, his plate was very nearly overflowing, especially after she balanced two golden squares of some yummy-looking dessert on top of his hamburger bun. "You don't want to miss out on those, hon. They're always the first to go."

Johnna made her way over to Hughes, materializing a small folding tray for his plate somewhere along the way, but Ed hung back with the food. He glanced around; Ducky and Heist were filling their own plates, Tom was talking amiably with a middle-aged man by the grill, and farther away Ed could see Reilly just now leaving the temporary security of the group's picnic blanket. Arms wrapped around herself and head bowed low, she looked more defeated than Ed had felt since he'd arrived, being without his brother. She joined Tom and his new friend and surveyed the area. When she pointedly skipped over him, Ed's appetite completely disappeared.

He glanced down at the feeling of a light tug on the hem of his shirt. Peeking out from under his plate was the little girl from the trees. She gave him another wave.

"Come sit with me!" she exclaimed. With his shirt fisted in her tiny grip, Ed had no choice but to follow as she walked away. She led him to a quilt that had been neatly laid out next to Hughes' chair and in a gravity-defying move that only a small child could accomplish, she jumped, crossed her legs in mid-air, and landed with a rattle of beaded braids --all without letting go of Ed's shirt. He almost ended up wearing his lunch for the second time that day and scrambled to keep the plate level as he dropped down onto the quilt with a muffled thud. She waited until he had settled his plate more securely on his lap before picking up a half-eaten dog that looked much cleaner to eat than the one Reilly had ordered for him earlier.

Johnna bustled back to them and handed Hughes a cup. "There ya are, darling. Now you just concentrate on eating and try to relax a bit." She rounded on Ed, studying him close. "And how are you doing? Did Tessa get you a drink? She didn't, did she?"

The little girl jumped up with a squeak, dropped her hot dog and ran towards a smaller table covered in an assortment of pitchers and jugs. The hot dog bounced off her plate and landed mustard-side down on the quilt. Johnna sighed, returned it to its appropriate place, pulled an extra napkin out of thin air and in less than ten seconds had the yellow spot cleaned enough that Ed could barely see it.

Ed felt a rush of guilt at just helping himself to all this wonderful food and not offering anything in return, and said, "Can I give you a hand with anything?"

Johnna stopped her straightening of the quilt and gave him a measuring look. "Yes," she said after a moment. "You can eat up." She nodded back at the enormous spread and the brood that had gathered. "My kids won't take much home with them, and they all seem to think that Henry and I will starve to death if they don't pile all the leftovers on us. Unfortunately, even with the boys, too much of it will spoil before it's all eaten."

Ed gaped. He'd counted eleven adults, not including Johnna and her husband; he kept losing track of the number of teens and children. "They're... all your kids?"

She laughed. "Well, six of them I gave birth to, but yes." She pointed out the small cluster of five teen boys. "When my youngest went off to college, Henry and I decided the house was too big for just the two of us, so we fostered the boys. The rest are my grandchildren."

Ed could only stare. The woman hardly looked old enough to be the mother of the teens, let alone six adults.

"The holidays must be a lot of fun at your house," Hughes said.

"So is every other day, Maes. The house is always full with the neighborhood kids. My children's childhood friends and their kids are always coming to visit, same with members of the parish. Henry and I have been blessed with a lot of love and a very large family." She gave Ed a pat on the arm as she got to her feet. "Family is not always defined by blood, after all."

A sudden shout from the general direction of the teens caught Johnna's attention. With a shake of her head and a soft sigh, she gave Hughes and Ed a slight bow. "If you'll excuse me. One thing about a large family? There's never a dull moment." Then she buzzed off to break up the impending fight.

She patted Tessa on the head as the little girl skipped by with a clear plastic cup full of a red liquid, and the little girl instantly changed her gait to one less likely to slosh the drink all over the place. When she reached Ed, she thrust the cup at him, and said, "Here! I brought you my favorite."

"Thanks." Ed took a sip of the overly sweet, semi-fruity concoction as Tessa returned to her spot next to him and tore into her dog voraciously. "What is it?" he asked.

She giggled and said around a mouthful of food, "Cherry, silly!"

"Ah. Of course," he said. "I don't know what I was thinking, not to realize that this was cherry." Ed took another sip and tilted his head curiously. "In fact, I think this is probably the best cherry I have ever tasted."

Tessa seemed to find Ed's comments uproariously funny as she fell back on the blanket in a gale of belly laughs. They were contagious, and Ed felt himself cheering. Then he glanced up, and saw something that flit quickly across Hughes' face --a look of pain that wasn't physical-- then he glanced at Ed and smiled.

A moment later, Tessa was back up and dashing off for reasons only known to her. Hughes watched her, and Ed saw the longing in the man's eyes. He stared down at his plate, once more unable to find something to offer as comfort. Of all the people to be trapped somewhere they didn't belong, Hughes deserved it the least... yet he made the best of it.

Shame wrapped around Ed, then. He and Al had made their choices and he should accept the consequences. Good, bad, or something between, it didn't matter. Instead for the past few months, all he could seem to do was to sulk over the whole situation. Worse, out of all of them, Ed had lost the least. He was separated from Al, but that was only temporary. Hughes lost his family; Ducky, Tom and Reilly lost a friend, and more. And now their lives were in danger.

It was all spiraling out of control, and Ed considered once more taking Al and just disappearing. Maybe the trouble that always seemed to show up whenever he was around would follow him and leave the rest of them in peace.

"She thinks you're mad at her," Hughes said.

Ed's head shot up. "Huh?"

Hughes wasn't looking at him though, and he followed the man's gaze to see Reilly and Tom sitting on their blanket together -separated from the rest of the party-- their heads bowed and touching. He could see Tom rubbing the back of her neck as he talked to her and his other hand holding one of hers. An occasional nod came from Reilly, but she didn't meet the older man's look.

"For losing her temper like she did," Hughes explained.

Ed's hand instinctively came up and he rubbed at the tender spot on his cheek. "I deserved it," he said.

Hughes chuffed. "That's what I told her."

"Thanks... I think."

He continued watching the two of them, and noticed that Reilly seemed to be in at least a better mood than earlier. Ducky chose that moment to flop down on the blanket next to her and he said something that Ed couldn't hear, but the result was that Reilly gave him a good shove that tipped him over and his insane cackle carried on the breeze.

"Can't that asshole ever be serious for a minute?"

"Ducky's like me," Hughes said. "We'd rather put on a happy face than let people see how much we're hurting. And Tom? He's hardly said more than five words at a time since last night. Reilly's... overwhelmed... And you're more irritable than usual. We're all upset about what happened and we're all dealing with it in our own ways." He pushed his glasses further up on his nose, "But we still have to move forward, right?"

"Yeah," Ed said as he looked down at his plate without really seeing it. "Yeah," he repeated.

Tessa returned and plopped back down in her favorite spot next to Ed. Without a word, she started chomping away at a yellow square like Johnna had given him earlier.

"I think I've been adopted," Ed said as he watched the little girl devour her dessert with a low trill of happy noises.

"Providence only knows why," Hughes said with mock disgust. "Come on. Eat up. Then you can fill Al in on the great stuff he's been missing."

"Like decent food?" Ed bit into one of the yellow squares from his plate, and grinned at the taste of sugar and some sort of puffy, crunchy substance that looked kind of like grain. "We should keep one of these for him. I'm sure even here, hospital food sucks."

Silence fell between the two of them once more, but this time it was comfortable. As Ed watched the family interact with each other and their new found friends, he noticed that the motley group he was a part of had grown relaxed. Johnna had spent quite a bit of time --between herding children, pushing food and general buzzing about to make sure everyone was taken care of-- talking to Reilly. Occasionally she would glance back Ed's way, and always there was a look of compassion and acceptance. He wondered just what Reilly had said to her.

He suddenly felt a small body fall against his side and glanced down to see that Tessa was heavy-lidded and sucking her thumb. Without a thought, Ed draped his arm around her and an instant later she was asleep. He was officially stuffed and he needed to toss his plate into the trash before it attracted bugs or blew off in the breeze, but he just didn't have the heart to disturb the little girl who had latched on to him from the moment they'd met.

Johnna returned and looked down at her granddaughter with a shake of her head. Then she knelt and picked the sleeping child up without Tessa even stirring. As she shifted the girl into a more comfortable position she said, "We're about to give thanks. I hope you'll join us."

"Don't you generally do that before diving into the food?" Hughes asked.

Johnna stood and cradled Tessa. "Normally, yes. But we all got a late start and the little ones don't exactly feel thankful when their tummies are growling. God can accept a compromise in this case."

"We'll be right there," Hughes said. With that, Johnna smiled, nodded and carried Tessa off.

Ed got to his feet, then went to give Hughes a hand up. He was far from thrilled at the prospect of being forced to listen to some religious bilge, but resigned himself to it. Equivalent Exchange, he thought. They fed us; the least I can do is be polite.

His cynicism must have been plain on his face, because Hughes scowled and said, "It's not going to kill you, Ed."

The younger man felt some of the tension in his body ease and he nodded.
With that, Hughes threw his arm around Ed's shoulder and they strolled to the rest of the group.

When they reached the circle of people around the table, Ed put himself to the right of Hughes and far enough away to keep from jostling the man's injured shoulder. He gazed around at the different faces, pale and dark and shades in between. He hadn't really noticed until then the variety of races within Johnna's family. There were genetic markers every stripe--even the boy who took the spot on Ed's other side showed traces of Xingese heritage.

However, the one person that Ed was most concerned about --the one who had taken it upon herself to protect him and rally the others to help-- was not among the large gathering. He scanned the circle again, thinking he missed her, but he saw no sign of Reilly.

Worry lanced through him, and he was just about to leave to find her, when the Preacher cleared his throat loud enough to be heard over the murmuring group.

"Let's all join hands," Henry said.

Ed suddenly felt an instant of panic, and snapped around when he felt a tug at his right shoulder. Now was not the time to have to explain the automail to an overly curious adolescent. Instead, he met sad hazel eyes and looked down to see that Reilly had rescued him once again by taking his right hand. He gave her a gentle squeeze in silent thanks and some of that sadness left her face.

Henry cleared his throat again and even louder to get the remainder of his brood to settle down and they finally went quiet. "Bow your heads, everyone." The atmosphere went taut with anticipation and even the sounds of children playing and people milling about the park seemed to develop a distant quality to it, as though a canopy of privacy had settled about the circle. The pastor threw his head back, and began in an overly-dramatic tone, "Gracious Lord, who saved us from our sins and delivered us from fire and brimstone--"

One of the teenagers right next to Henry made a gagging sound. "Aw, c'mon, Dad! Save the sermon for Sunday!"

Making a good-natured face at his fosterling, Henry sighed and looked around. "Well, if you insist. We'll do a round-robin, then." He looked straight at Ed and his friends, then smiled. "Just tell us what you're thankful for, folks. Can be anything, we ain't particular."

The boy next to Henry started it off, with good health, and around the circle it went. Some said they were grateful for friends, others said family. There were cries of "Awesome food!" and laughing "Video games!" Heist let out thanks for caffeine when it was her turn, and Ed was surprised at the casual nature of appreciation in this family; it was as if they took nothing for granted.

When his turn came, Ed thought a moment. "I'm... not from around here," he started softly. "When I arrived, I didn't know anyone and everything seemed so strange. But someone took me in, and she accepted me without question." He looked around at Tom and Ducky, then settled on Reilly. "She's helped me in ways I... I can't even count. Even when I'm acting like an idiot, she seems to take it mostly in stride, and she doesn't ask for anything in return." He smiled a little. "There are a lot of things I'm grateful for right now. I'll be reunited with my brother tonight." He glanced over at Hughes. "I've found an old friend I thought I would never see again." Then he looked around the circle again and spotted Tessa. He smiled at her, which elicited a short burst of giggles and caused her to clamp her hand over her mouth to smother them. "Made some new ones." He nodded at Johnna. "And realized that family really isn't defined by blood." He looked down, took a deep breath, then said, "That's what I'm really thankful for. As puzzling as they can be. Sometimes aggravating. But they're willing to put up with me, so I guess that makes them family." He rolled his eyes nervously to his right, then his head shot up the rest of the way when he saw tears stream down Reilly's face. He was certain he'd screwed up again, even if he didn't know what he'd done this time, and was about to apologize when she smiled warmly.

The moment was broken when one of the men in the group chuckled and said, "Man, he's as long-winded as you are, Dad."

"Hey, a little respect for your elders there, boy," Henry teased and everyone else joined in the good humor.

Hughes chortled softly and said, "You have no idea."

Ed shot him a look of mock offense. "Gee, thanks, Hughes."

The giving of thanks continued around the rest of the circle, but Ed hardly heard a word of it. He felt the tension he hadn't realized was in his shoulders ease, and while he didn't fool himself into thinking that everything was all right, he was able to console himself with the knowledge that Reilly had at least forgiven him for his earlier stupidity, and she didn't blame him for the horrors of the night before.

0o0o0

Ed buckled himself in at the back of the Ninjavan as the whole crew settled in. They'd all agreed that it would be better to go to the hospital in one vehicle, rather than two, so earlier, Reilly had moved the Hummer to a place less likely to attract the wrong kind of attention and would be fairly easy to get back to afterwards.

Hughes sunk into the seat next to him with a pained groan, and then proceeded to get into a one-handed wrestling match with the seat belt. Without a word, Ed leaned over and snapped the buckle into place.

"Thanks."

Ed stared contemplatively at the lightweight cooler between the older man's feet. Before they'd left, Johnna had managed to pack up as much of the leftovers as she could, filling the cooler nearly to bursting, and there was still a ton of food that she complained was going to go to waste.

"Nice family," Hughes said. "And it's kind of comforting to know that people here aren't that much different than anywhere else."

"Yeah."

"Hey, Tuckandroll, can we hit a Starbucks on the way? I need a transfusion," Heist said as she bounced into one of the middle seats.

"Sure," Ducky said as he snapped his seatbelt into place. "Goddess forbid we let actual blood infiltrate your caffeine system."

Reilly yawned hugely from the seat next to Heist. "I think we could all use a little boost." She yawned again. "Gods, what is it about a big meal that makes you want to go to sleep after?"

"It's the tryptophan in all that smoked turkey you were putting away," Tom said. "And all that pasta and cheese."

"Thank you, Cliff Claven," Ducky said as he shoved the key into the ignition and started the van.

"Just shut up and put it in gear, Ducks."

"Well," Hughes amended with a chuckle, "most of them, anyway."

"I heard that," Reilly said.

"You gotta admit, some of the things you people consider insulting are pretty weird," Ed said.

Reilly twisted in her seat and arched a brow at him. "Oh, please, Ed. Calling someone a wanker has got to be rude no matter where you're from."

Ed shrugged, but didn't look the least bit contrite. "I was talking about that moronic midget calling me a bundle of sticks. How is that an insult?"

Reilly just made a confused noise, and everyone else looked at him as if he'd grown a second head.

Hughes coughed nervously and asked, "Ed, did he call you a bundle of sticks? Or did he call you a faggot?"

"Same thing."

Hughes rubbed at the back of his neck and looked as though he was about to be forced to swallow something bitter. Ducky exploded with a short cackle, Tom groaned and mumbled and Heist just looked lost.

Hughes glanced up as a spectacular battle of emotions laid seige to Reilly's face. "A little help here?"

She just shook her head with a snicker, turned in her seat and sunk as low as she could. "You're on your own, Hughes."

"I'll remember that," he grumbled, then faced Ed. "Well, see... it's like this..."

0o0o0

Johnna sighed happily as the last of the picnic had been packed away and hauled off. She really had no intention of dragging that odd little family into their party. But when she saw the look in Ed's eyes, she saw a hunger there that wouldn't be satisfied with just food. There was a palpable tension and overwhelming grief that had blanketed the entire group, and if they didn't have a pressure valve they were all going to explode.

She never pressed for details --it wasn't her place-- but she did pick up enough to know that they had lost a friend in a violent accident, and that Reilly had lost her home the night before. And no one had to tell her that what ever was going on right now with their lives was far from over. Inviting them to join her family may not have been much, but sometimes the little things made the biggest difference.

She felt a familiar and comforting arm snake around her waist as she watched the black van start up, then Henry kissed her lightly on the temple. "You never could resist a stray, Dear Heart," he said.

"You don't mind, do you?"

Henry hugged her closer. "I learned a long time ago that it was a waste of energy to try and talk you out of doing anything you set your mind to. Besides, I trust your judgment." He chortled and shook his head. "Although, that short one? You can tell he has a temper."

"Perhaps, but he has a big heart. Did you see how Tessa latched onto him?"

"She's got your talent for reading people. Uh-oh. What's this?"

Johnna perked up as the black van suddenly rocked violently, and then a shouted epithet burst from inside.

"LET ME GO! I'M GONNA TRANSMUTE THAT PINT-SIZED PINHEAD INTO A--" The rest of the diatribe was lost in a screech of tires as the van took off.



*From Insultmonger.com (the authors take no responsibility if the translation is incorrect)
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