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

Warning: Contents Under Pressure

by CrackbunnySyndrome 0 Reviews

"Calm down, cowboy," Heist murmured as she swung open the final door with ease after her little 'Sherlock' had unlocked it. "Let's go get the booty before someone realizes we're pirates."

Category: Full Metal Alchemist - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Action/Adventure - Characters: Alphonse Elric, Edward Elric, Maes Hughes - Warnings: [!!!] [V] - Published: 2007/01/20 - Updated: 2007/01/21 - 12850 words

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"Warning: Contents Under Pressure"
Arc One: Chapter Twenty-Two, Part 1
Balance of Power


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

"Calm down, cowboy," Heist murmured as she swung open the final door with ease after her little 'Sherlock' had unlocked it. "Let's go get the booty before someone realizes we're pirates."

A/N: Hello everyone! This is the Roaming Fool, temporarily taking over for Heathenesque. We apologize for the lateness of the chapter; in two months we've had two of our writers depart the project on a semi-permanant basis and one leave completely. New writers, like myself, are coming into the project. Our lives have also gotten a lot more complicated.

Therefore, it would behoove all of you who follow Balace of Power to take note, as we begin to come to the end of this story (that's right, the ending is closer than you think!) that updates will become less frequent, although the chapters will be longer in and of themselves and packed with content. It takes time to put this together for you and we want to write to the best of our ability.

Please be patient with us and enjoy Chapter 22!

June 3, 2006 - 9:37 p.m.
Wichita, Kansas


Sidney pulled a dark, older-model compact around the last cordon of bright orange cones and down the ramp to the next level, smirking at his handiwork. It was petty of him to mess with the composition of the supports the construction workers kept erecting to fix the damage he'd done to the parking garage, but he would keep it up as long as the hospital continued to withhold information from him.

The hospital system for this whole state would feel his wrath, he promised himself, as soon as he'd finished with the Elrics. And Hughes. Sidney's grip on the steering wheel tightened.

He had wasted three hours pacing the emergency waiting room floor just to have some candy striper nit-wit earnestly inform him that no-such-person-had-been-admitted-sir. By the time she'd favored him with that response, he'd lost his chance to interrogate the accomplices from the café: "Gretchen" had been discharged and the kid with the fangs had disappeared as completely as if he'd been a real vampire. Sidney had been left to watch the sun rise through a fingerprint-spotted window, holding a styrofoam cup filled with something that only vaguely resembled tea.

He had barely refrained from throwing the piss-colored liquid into the face of the simpering drone at the information desk before stalking out of the hospital, relishing the way staff and patients scattered before him. His brain had seethed with plans for revenge as he'd tossed and turned on his squeaking motel mattress -- alchemical ambuscades and grotesque deathtraps for Maes Hughes, the Fullmetal Bastard and his mealy-mouthed brother. He had dreamed of Hughes, especially, paying in blood and lymph for every frustrating, stultifying second of the previous night, screaming until their throats gave out.

He had awakened refreshed, reviewing his fantasies over a half-decent mug of Earl Grey from the nearest Starbucks before reluctantly dismissing them. Plans made in anger weren't true plans -- merely inspirations. He was the Stealthworks Alchemist: his reputation had been built on discipline, calculation and discretion. He'd have all the time in the world to neutralize his enemies once they were properly confined in Amestris. But first he needed to find Fullmetal and persuade him to open a Gate, which even the gentlest of the previous night's torments would have rendered him incapable of doing. Revenge, like a good cup of tea, was best if left to steep a while.

As he'd laid his plans for the next few days, however, Sidney had paused occasionally to consider the future, a brighter future than he'd never dared contemplate since arriving in this oubliette of a universe. Hughes's wife and daughter still lived, surely; what a lovely riot of reactions he could coax from them.

Sidney shook himself free of he distracting images, but a smile lingered on his lips as he returned to the business at hand. Such a tearful reunion shouldn't be delayed, should it? Time to move.

******

Twenty-one hundred thirty-seven hours.

Ray had been at work for an hour and a half already, and aside from a quick voicemail before coming in (/"No cape explosions; the operation is a go!"/), he had absolutely no idea what his part in this insane scheme was.

"This has to be one of the craziest extraction missions that I've ever had the displeasure of participating in," he muttered to the empty breakroom.

"That would make two of us, Ray."

He looked up to see Heather standing next to him -- where'd she come from? -- and mentally flipped himself the bird. Great SA, Purdue; when Fed-Boy comes tap-dancing down the hall to invite Tiger to join the Rockettes, you'll be all over it. "You've never been on an extraction mission, Heather," he said grumpily. "Not unless you're lying about what you've been doing the past five years." Taking a sip of his coffee, he flipped his phone open and watched the military time stare back at him. "Twenty-three minutes until operation, and I still don't know my orders." He slapped the phone closed again, the small device nearly disappearing within his large hand, and shoved a chair toward Heather with his left foot.

"Is that why you haven't gone down to be with the boys?" Heather asked, taking the seat he'd offered and swiping his coffee. "They're playing cards in Tiger's room again."

"Good to know," Ray said, glumly watching her drink. If the only casualty of the night was his coffee, he'd drop to his knees and thank the good Lord for His mercies with all the fervor of a Pentecostal granny. "I'll join them once I get a call."

Heather smiled and handed his cup back after lowering the liquid by at least half an inch. "Well, don't wait too long. Tiger probably wants to say--"

Ray felt a vibration in his hand and lost interest in what Heather was saying as he glanced at the numbers popping up on the display. He held up a finger for her to wait, flipped the phone open and brought it up to his ear. "Purdue here."

"/I am the terror that flaps in the night! And I will be patiently waiting for that lovely package of mine to be delivered on the first floor, at the end of the eastern hallway, if it isn't too much trouble./"

Eastern hallway. X-ray, then. "Can do, DW. Have a nice flight, okay?"

"/Nice flight, nothing. I just hope I don't have to stare at Terminator's ass the whole way. Your line's being rewired; call for orderlies. Comrades H and H will be waiting./"

"Right."

"/Let's get dangerous./"

Ray closed the phone and pocketed it. He hoped Heather wouldn't notice the nervousness he was starting to feel, but he couldn't shake the suspicion that this was all going to blow up in their faces. To hell with that: I will conquer my fears and succeed; I will not fail those with whom I serve. "Time to move."

*****

"Ladies and gentlemen," Ducky announced, snapping his phone shut and tossing it over to Tom in the passenger seat, "Thunderbirds are go!" He ignored a warning growl from behind him and turned right into the drive that led to the hospital's parking garage. "Your captain requests that you please remain seated until the van has arrived at the gate, at which time --"

A tug on his headrest and a menacing whisper of "Ducky!" in his left ear interrupted this incipient monologue; he glanced in the rearview mirror to see Reilly settling back in her seat, giving him a Jedi-quality fisheye. This isn't the parking garage I'm looking for -- oh, wait: yes, it is. He braked the Ninjavan at the entrance, rolled down the window and snatched a ticket from the machine with the tips of his fingers. Tucking the slip of paper into his sunvisor, Ducky gently gunned the Ninjavan up the ramp, resisting the temptation to test the vehicle's cornering ability. With the infamous Reilly luck, I'll probably get a chance to test it on the way out.

Ducky looked up at the mirror again and tried out a grim smile before letting it spread into a manic grin. Me for Darkwing Duck, not Double-Oh-Seven. Gravity didn't suit his expression any better than Ed's attempt to appear calm. Hughes did a pretty good imitation of insouciance as long as nothing was tweaking his shoulder; Tom could out-Zen Reilly any day of the week.

Only Heist, scribbling something into her PDA, seemed honestly relaxed, even excited. Ducky's fingers drummed on the steering wheel; he caught himself just before he hit the gas on the straightaway and leaned back with an effort. Later. We need someone with a clear head on this jaunt. Or, at least, as clear as Heist's head gets.

The rattle and hum of construction announced the problem before it came into view. "You have got to be kidding me," Ducky muttered, jerking the steering wheel none-too-gently to bring the Ninjavan around the last ramp and up to the roof. "Do not be telling me they're still cleaning up this mess ... "

They were. Several floodlights positioned around the area conveniently illuminated a gaping hole in the floor with a larger perimeter cordoned off with garish yellow tape. A few men were wielding some pretty hefty-looking machinery and creating quite a ruckus, despite the late hour. Ducky had wondered about the structural integrity of the building, but the damage couldn't have been nearly as devastating as it appeared if they were still allowing people to park in the garage.

Ducky remembered some of the hospital staff talking about the explosion. Construction had already been underway by the time he'd started working but, from the looks of things, they hadn't made much progress. It seemed odd that the computers had been affected the way they were. It was more like an EM burst had taken them out or something, because where the explosion was located shouldn't have damaged the systems. That should only happen if they had the main banks under the garage, he thought. It was just one more bizarre, X-Filesesque tidbit that Ducky filed away to examine later.

He consulted his roughly sketched map of the parking garage, trying not to lean on the horn as he smoothed the flimsy paper over the steering wheel. "So much for getting in and out unnoticed," he said, and whipped the van around. "I'll take Plan B for a thousand, Alex."

Five minutes later, Ducky carefully backed the van into the only available parking spot he could find. Their location, about halfway between two different stairwell doors along the outer garage wall, was about as good as it was going to get. With a sigh of defeat, Ducky switched off the ignition. He and Ed were just going to have to lug all their gear along a different route to the service elevator... and pray they didn't get caught.

Tom unlocked the passenger seat and swiveled around. Shaking out another map and clearing his throat, he faced the rest of the van's occupants. "All right, people, listen up."

With an annoyed grunt, Ducky unlocked his own Captain's seat and spun far enough to throw his feet up on the doghouse console. "We've already gone over the plans a million times, Tom."

Heist and Ed both moved forward. Heist settled on the floor cross-legged, with a huge backpack, in front of Reilly. Ed knelt down between Reilly and Hughes and dropped his own heavy backpack between his feet. He looked ready to spring at any moment but was -amazingly-quiet.

"Then we'll go over them a million and one times, Ducks," Tom said. "Let's take it from the top. Heist?"

She unzipped her backpack and said, "Get in, get to the basement, hack into the security bus and tap the line to the Wall's phone so it'll reroute the call for an orderly to us. Gank some scrubs, do a little recon and Two-Step back here. Kid stuff."

Tom nodded, then glanced at Ducky. The hacker rolled his eyes and said, "At which point, I call the Wall's cell and tell him to set up a fake injury for Term Jr. Then Ed and I take the service elevator-Which reminds me... we're not coming in from the roof now. How much of a pain is it going to be to get to the elevator?"

Heist smirked a little at him. "I thought you'd gone over this a million times, Ducky. What gives?"

He opened his mouth to shoot a smart-mouthed comment back, but Tom held up his hands. "Enough. Heist?"

"The security schematic and the floor plan didn't indicate any difference in the route," Heist said. "But I'll look it all over as I head through."

"Gotcha. Anyway, Ed and I take the service elevator down, stop it between the first and second floor, climb out through the top and through the ducts to X-ray. Then we wait for H and H and Term Jr. Second verse, same as the first... in reverse." He paused and grinned at his rhyme. "Except we go all the way to the roof, skip down the fire escape, and tra-la-la across the street where we wait for Reilly and the rest of you to pick us up."

Out of the corner of his eye, Ducky saw Hughes gently rub his injured shoulder and wince ever so slightly before the man straightened his shoulders, any expression that he wasn't one hundred percent ready. When Tom's gaze fell on Hughes, he was the picture of a calm soldier.

"As soon as the Wall calls for an orderly, Heist and I head for the third floor to pick up Al for an escort to x-ray." Hughes scratched the back of his head and smiled down his partner. "We'll use a skeleton key to get through the secured door to the psych ward and present ourselves at the main desk."

Heist made a derisive noise. "'Skeleton key.' God, what an anachronism." She reached deep into her back back and shuffled its contents around; then, with a grunt and hard yank, she pulled out a small keypad with a magnetic-stripped card dangling from the top of it by a ribbon of colored wire. "Apologize to Sherlock, Hughes, or he won't help you."

Ed leaned forward and peered suspiciously at the electronic device. "What is that thing?"

"Magnetic code seeker," she said. "Just trust me when I tell you it'll open damn near anything requiring a card-key."

Hughes shook his head. "Sounds like a skeleton key to me."

Ed ignored him, training his bright gaze on Heist. "'Damn near'? Then it might not open the door?"

Heist shrugged and tucked Sherlock away again. "It's a hospital, Term. Not Fort Knox. It'll work."

"It better."

Ed's threat might as well have remained unspoken for all the notice Heist took of it. Ducky shook his head. He don't know her very well, do he? Picking locks and phreaking phones was elementary school stuff for her, as simple as tying her shoes. "We pick up your brother," she said, "whisk him down to x-ray, and wait for your arrival in graceful seclusion. Only one security camera to avoid and no traffic down there this time of night, unless the ER gets victims from a bus accident or something."

Everyone except Heist. . . twitched. Ducky inhaled, four different inane comments fighting for access to his tongue, but Tom got in first, asking calmly, "You still sure we shouldn't try to disable the cameras along your route?"

Heist shook her head. "The less we mess with security, the better. If I start mucking about with the alarms and surveillance it increases the chances of something going wrong."

Tom nodded, apparently satisfied with the answer.

Reilly shook her finger at Ducky and Ed. "Which means you two had better not attract any attention."

Ducky smirked. "We can always use Ed as a distraction if some rent-a-cop gets too nosy. You know they're all hard-up, and..." he dropped into his bad hick accent and lecherously waggled his brows at Reilly, "...the boy shore does have a purdy mouth."

He noticed a flicker out of the corner of his eye from Ed's direction and reached up to pluck the strange object flying at his head out of the air before it beaned him. Turning the object in his fingers, he realized it was a switch he'd misplaced about a month ago. "Hey! I've been looking for that! Thanks, Ed!"

He chose to interpret the younger man's growl as, 'You're welcome.'

Hughes chuckled, then said, "After we pass Al up to Ed and Ducky, Heist returns to the basement, removes the tap, and we just walk on out."

Ed shrugged, still glowering slightly in Ducky's direction. "Piece of cake."

Everyone but Hughes and Tom groaned loudly, and the blonde looked around in confusion. "What?"

"Remind me to sit you down and show you Labyrinth after this is all over," Reilly said.

Ducky couldn't help but laugh. "Dude, you just jinxed us."

Ed rolled his eyes. "You people watch too many movies."

"/In the meantime,/" Tom said with enough emphasis to kill Ducky's next smart-assed response before it had the chance to spill past his lips, "Reilly and I will hold down the fort here and monitor your activity." He reached down and pulled a bright pink plastic backpack from under his seat, unzipped it, and started passing out small walkie-talkies to everyone. "The lines will be left open and they're voice-activated. We'll all be able to hear each other." He favored Ducky with a hard-nosed stare. "/Everything,/ Ducks. So keep the bad jokes to a minimum. We need to be able to hear the others, too."

"Well, hell. You mean I can't entertain all of you with my sparkling personality and bubbling wit?"

"Can you be serious for once?" Ed growled.

"What about the signal?" Heist asked as she grimaced down at the device in her hands as if someone had spit in them instead of handing her a two-way radio.

"Scrambled," Tom answered as he distributed a handful of small ear pieces to everyone but himself and Reilly. "We'll only hear each other, and no one else is going to hear us."

"So what's Plan B?" Hughes asked. "Just in case."

"Ed?" Reilly and the rest of the car scrutinized the two men.

Ed and Ducky eyeballed each other. Ducky sighed and fiddled with a strap on his bag while Ed impatiently recited, "If it goes to hell in a handbasket, we're supposed to get out of the hospital as soon as possible."

"And?"

"Make a break for the Ninjavan."

"Good."

Hughes looked from Reilly to Ed and back to Reilly. "How do you do that?"

She smiled sweetly, but didn't say a word. Heist's lips twitched; she shot Ducky a look from under half-lowered lids that managed to convey admiration for Reilly and amusement at him and Ed with remarkable economy. Ducky pursed his lips at her in a silent Bronx cheer. C'mon, Heist, give us a little credit. We're not exactly hacking the electronic scoreboard for homecoming, here ...

Except she didn't know that. Heist had no idea how much they'd paid to come this far. It had been left to him to tell her about Kitten and Spike, and he'd decided to wait. Ducky clasped his hands together and scratched his left thumb with his right. She'll dive into a hole and pull the hole in after her, just like she always does. And I can't be in two places at once: we need her to handle security at the Wall's end. Under the rasp of his nail, the skin of his thumb turned white, then red. Once we're out of here, then there'll be time ...

No matter how he excused it, though, he knew he was betraying a friendship that had sustained both of them since childhood. But he couldn't do a one-eighty now, not with the clock ticking down the final minutes to zero hour; he would keep cracking lame jokes and let Heist think this was another one of their excellent adventures. Whatever punishment she chose to dish out when it was all over -- even if she turned her back on him and walked away without a word -- he would take.

And that possibility, more than any obstacle they might encounter tonight, scared him shitless.

Heist pulled her hair back into a neat bun before popping a piece of gum in her mouth. "Don't worry, Term. If your brother's half as cute as you are, he'll be easy to spot and we'll have him out in no time." She rummaged around in her bag and pulled out a massive purse and a dark wig, jamming Sherlock inside before zipping it closed. "This should only take fifteen in and out," she explained as she arranged the wig over her hair. "Don't call unless I'm late, no search and rescue, yadda yadda. Does my hair look okay?"

"You're good, H," Ducky assured her. "Don't get caught."

She stuck her tounge out at him before sliding the van door open. "I haven't yet, and that one time doesn't count. 'Sides, it's only recon. No biggie." She jumped out of the van and turned a beatific grin on Hughes. "You know the plan. Be ready to go when I get back." He nodded in response and her smile widened.

"See you in fifteen!" The door slid shut again and Ducky let his head roll back against the headrest. Then his gaze slipped over Tom and Hughes before landing on Ed. All three of them, he knew, had been forced to make the best of bad choices in the past. Compared to them, this should have been nothing - but he still wondered how they'd gotten through it.

He didn't notice it at first, being too caught up in his own thoughts, but he suddenly realized that Ed was watching him. The determination in those eyes answered Ducky's question. You keep moving forward.

"Does she know what she's doing?" Ed asked.

Ducky shrugged. "Probably." He noticed Reilly watching him with an expression of disquiet and Ducky mouthed, "What?"

"/Did you tell her?/" she mouthed back.

He shrugged and focused his attention on pulling the duffel from underneath his seat. He could feel Reilly's gaze on the back of his neck and he ignored it, trying not to think of the inevitable confession he would have to make.

****

"/OW!/"

"HA, got it!"

Startled by Al's yelp, Ray opened the door and frowned at the two boys sitting on the bed. "And just /what/," he drawled, wondering if he really wanted to know, "are you two up to now?"

"Egyptian Rat Fuck," Gene said calmly, as if that explained everything, and gathered a pile of cards from the center of the bedspread to add them to his large collection. "Al kind of sucks at it."

"You didn't tell me you'd be smacking me while we played it!" Al protested. "And I forgot about the single jacks." He massaged his hand, then hunched into a posture that would have screamed to any card shark, Bring it on, baby! "Let's go again."

Thankful that Al seemed a bit calmer this time, Ray put a hand on the boy's head. "Hold on there, partner. I got the call from the Duckman."

Both boys froze in place, turning wide eyes toward Ray. "And?" Gene asked. "What's the word?"

Ray pulled up the one chair in the room and had a seat. "Okay, boys. Here's the plan..."

o0o0o0o

June 3. 2006 -- 9:52 p.m.

Ed's teeth ground together in barely suppressed agitation. Already his right shoulder was aching from the extra weight of his automail, and he yearned for another massage from Reilly. Annoyed, he clamped down on that thought and focused on the task ahead. Lifting his chin a little, he glared at the crouched form of Ducky just a few feet away. "I still say you should let me lead. I happen to have a little experience crawling through ducts. That and it would save me the view of your ass."

Ducky paused in mid-crawl to glance over his shoulder. He scanned Ed before smirking. "I'm sure you do... Considering your size..."

Ed's face flamed, but before he could launch into a well-practiced tirade a crackly voice broke over the receiver. "/Ed, shut up! Ducky, I told you- don't set him off, you asshole! We want to actually start this rescue attempt before alerting the hospital/!"

Ducky pouted his lip slightly, an expression Ed was certain he didn't realize he was making. Reilly had a gift for exotic language, and she plied it with artistic flourish when she was particularly angry. This was far more entertaining than TeeVee, and Ed leaned against the wall behind him to see how it played out.

Ducky swallowed with apparent nervousness. His grin seemed too tight as he shifted the coil of rope on his shoulder. "Sorry, darling! My accursed quick wit likes to take charge, and there's never a bad time for comedic relief!" It was a complete sham, Ed was sure. Apparently Reilly thought so too as she grated a response.

"/There is when the audience is armed, idiot./"

Ed started to grin at the dressing down Ducky was receiving when the voice suddenly turned on him. "/And Ed, you had better get your head out of your ass if you plan on reuniting with your little brother! So help me, I'll gut you myself if you give us away because you can't keep your temper!/"

In the silence that followed Reilly's irritated sign-off, Ed and Ducky simply rested for a moment, avoiding one another's eyes. Ed stared at the ceiling and found his breathing automatically falling into the rhythm of an old exercise, one of the first Izumi had taught him. She and Reilly were nothing alike, physically, but they had the same talent for cutting through bullshit. Maybe all teachers have it? Ed knew exactly how important what he and Ducky were doing was to the overall plan, knew they needed to cooperate -- No. I know I need his help. Dammit. Ducky was native to this place and time; that gave him insights Ed couldn't duplicate and skills he couldn't match. In light of that, the clowning was a minor irritant (or at least a provocation to be answered later). I'm here to rescue Al. I can put up with anything for that.

Steadied by his reflections, Ed turned to Ducky. The other man was muttering darkly about voice-activated walkie-talkies as he spun a pair of smoke bombs on his left palm. Ed calmly reached out and closed his automail fingers around Ducky's wrist, then caught the bombs as they dropped from the hacker's startled grip. Ducky grimaced, but -- mindful, perhaps, of Ed's grasp on his arm -- said nothing. Cheered by this small victory, Ed stuffed the smoke bombs back into the duffel and zipped it closed. "Let's have a look at the map," he said.

Ducky smiled, rapping his head with his index finger. "No need; it's all right here!"

Ed unzipped his pack anyway and sorted through the various objects inside until he located the map. It was creased oddly; he'd been too impatient to refold it properly the last time he'd consulted it. Shaking out the pleats, he scanned the diagram. "Okay.... it looks like the next intersection is about six yards up," he said as he traced their line of ductwork with a flesh finger. "Hughes has us making a left, then following it for about ten yards till it branches off to the right. We keep going straight for another twenty yards until we get to the first vent."

Ducky pulled the map a little closer, pointing at a cutout in the shaft they were currently crawling through. "What's this?"

Ed squinted. The map's major features were clear, but small details blurred into wavering squiggles and dots in the flashlight's low-wattage beam. "It almost looks like another shaft, but it's a lot smaller than the rest of the duct."

Ducky bent lower over the map, his own eyes narrowing in concentration and excitement. "We should check it out!"

Ed twitched the map out of his hands before Ducky could pinpoint the distraction's location. "We're not here to sightsee," he said evenly.

"But it could be a shortcut!" Ducky protested. "It might save us some time. The longer we're here, the more likely it is someone'll notice."

Ed forced himself to breathe slowly -- in through the nose, hold, out through the mouth. He's got no experience. I do. I just have to explain it to him in words of one syllable. "We don't know where it goes, Ducky. It won't help us if we get lost in it."

Ducky tapped his fingers against the duffle. "You got a point there," he said finally.

Ed blinked, then nodded. He pushed the map back into his pack and began crawling forward, Ducky following behind him, docile. Maybe this will work after all. He wouldn't count on it, though; he'd been out in the field enough to know that nothing ever happened the way you planned it beforehand. And this plan had enough complexities and trust-me-it'll-work/s in it to make him sweat if he thought about it too hard. It was a hell of a lot more complicated than anything he'd have invented on his own. Al had often chided him for the lack of forward planning in their escapades, but they'd never had time for it. /Well, almost never. Seven times out of ten ...

Oh, screw it: Ed preferred to dive in headfirst and improvise.

And you've got the scars to prove it, a voice in his head that might have been his brother's reminded him.

*******

Al fidgeted in the wheelchair as Ray brought him to a stop by the nurse's station. The sling and icepack that were wrapped around and immobilized his not-really reinjured arm were irritating to the point of near pain and he rolled his shoulder to alleviate the discomfort. He started to get up so he could see clearly over the counter and through the locked door, but a large hand on his shoulder held him down. He twisted and glared up at Ray, then said, "I still don't understand why I have to sit in this thing. My legs are fine."

"Insurance purposes" was all the answer he got as Ray added a little more pressure to his shoulder.

There was no negotiating this, Al knew, but that didn't make it any easier. Where Ray had parked him blocked his view around the corner of the the station to the door, which meant Al couldn't see his brother coming down the corridor. His head just barely poked over the false horizon of white shelf, and he craned his neck in an effort to at least get an advance peek. It wasn't a two year separation this time, but it felt just as miserable because they were in the same world and divided by mere circumstance. Anticipation had grown over the past few weeks --ever since Ed had finally contacted him by email-- and only managed to make time drag slower. It was enough to try even Al's patience and he was beginning to feel like he was at the end of whatever reserves he had left. Of course, last night's crushing disappointment and the worry that followed to keep him awake all night didn't help matters.

At least Gene's diabolical card game had managed to pump a little adrenaline into him, because he could feel exhaustion creeping up on him again. He rubbed his knuckles and scowled as Gene rolled up next to him. "Remind me to start wearing gloves when I play cards with anyone from now on," Al said.

Gene just smirked at him.

"How you holding up there, Tiger?" Ray asked.

Al turned his attention to the nurse, who was watching him with an upraised eyebrow. "Fine. I'm looking forward to seeing Brother again."

Ray chuckled. "What's with the 'Brother' thing? Does he not like his name or something?"

"Huh?"

"You keep calling him 'Brother.' Why don't you use his real name?"

Al had never really thought of why he called his brother 'Brother' instead of Ed. "Well... he's my brother. And I don't want to forget it, I guess."

Gene piped up. "I like Ed better."

"Edward Elric, the... " Al trailed off, smiling and shaking his head slightly as he realized he was about to introduce Ed as a State Alchemist, something he hadn't been for a long time and a title that would hold no meaning for Ray or Gene. Old habits die hard.

Ray's eyebrows were just about at his hairline and Gene prompted, "The. . .?"

"Never mind. It's not important anymore. Still, I can't wait for you guys to meet him!" Al started to bounce again.

"'Ed' and 'Al,' that's kind of cute." Ray smiled and ruffled Al's hair. "But unless the name 'Ed' starts with an 'h,' I don't think I'm gonna meet him tonight, kiddo."

Al stopped bouncing and felt disappointment settle in his stomach. "But. . . he said he was coming to get me! Where - ?"

"Whoa there, Tiger!" Ray put his hands on Al's shoulders. "Settle down. He's coming, but he can't be the one to meet you here tonight. The Duckman said that 'H and H' would be here first."

"H and H? Who's that?" Al asked, his nose creasing in concentration.

Ray shook his head. "You're asking the wrong man. Think, Al. Who do you know that your bro would trust you with, whose name begins with an 'h?'"

Time seemed to stop for a moment as the pieces fell into place. "Hughes," Al breathed.

This wasn't an off-hand comment in an email; black and white text that carried all the impact of discussing the weather. This was reality. He's here. Not a homunculus masquerading as Hughes and not a doppleganger either, but the real thing. Al felt the blood drain from his face and was suddenly grateful that Ray had insisted on the wheelchair, because he didn't think he could stand now if he tried.

Gene looked worried and nudged Al. "You okay, man? You look like a ghost."

"Or like he saw one." Ray gave the lightest of squeezes from his huge hands on Al's shoulders. "What's so scary about this Hughes guy, Tiger?"

Al swallowed and looked at them both before shrugging Ray's hands away. "He was dead."

****

Maes felt surprisingly nervous when they finally reached the locked doors of the psych ward.

It had been a quiet trek to the psychiatric wing of the hospital; neither he nor Heist wanted to risk anything seeming out of the ordinary, so they'd stayed relatively quiet on the walk. The silence had given his guts the chance to twirl into a very tight Gordian knot.

"Calm down, cowboy," Heist murmured as she swung open the final door with ease after her little 'Sherlock' had unlocked it. "Let's go get the booty before someone realizes we're pirates."

Maes blinked at the pirate reference, but followed her inside, green eyes looking all around for any sign of Al. He looked for silver metal, a purple loincloth... maybe the hair-decoration coming from his helmet. But the memory that Al was in the flesh - he's real now, he's alive - kicked him in the gut and almost made him nauseated all over again.

He spotted a large nurse and a boy in a wheelchair by the nurse's desk and started to head over, a small tuft of dark blonde hair peeking out from behind the desk. But he stopped short as the boy behind the help desk finally came into his line of sight, and he swore his heart skidded to a halt for several moments.

Gone was the hulking armor that was all he remembered of Al. In its place sat a scrawny young man with a quivery smile on his face and a subtle but unmistakable resemblance to Edward Elric.

He's so damned small, Maes found himself thinking as he stared at the boy, tears coming to his eyes. He looks like he'd break if I breathed on him hard enough. The tears settled on the edge of his eyelids, giving his sight a bit of a dazzled quality as he beamed at Al.

The large nurse beside Al was saying something, but Al's eyes never left Maes'. "These two are going to take you up to get your arm looked at, kiddo. Behave for them, okay?"

Maes had to restrain the urge to go over and give Al an Armstrong-worthy hug as the kid pulled his gaze away long enough to look at his large nurse and gave him a solemn salute. It was Ed's salute, though it had the respect and gratitude that Fullmetal's sloppy gestures had never contained. Maes had to stifle a laugh when the kid sitting next to Al made a face, and Al just punched him with a giggle. Still throws a better punch than Ed, too.

Heist started walking towards the handles of Al's wheelchair, but even with his shoulder in so much pain, Maes just couldn't let her do it. He had to feel Al. Had to make sure he wasn't seeing a ghost still, the way Al had seen him for so long. "I've got him," he said, his voice thick with the emotion of the moment.

He grabbed Al's shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze before he began pushing the boy away, and he finally felt sure of himself again. As they walked towards the door, he leaned over to whisper into Al's ear.

"I am so glad to see you alive and whole, Al." He straightened up and swallowed to clear his throat, then smiled as Al looked up at him. "C'mon. Let's get you back to where you belong."

The salute he got in return made even the pain in his shoulder melt away.

~`~`~`~

Gene had never felt so alone as when the first person who had ever actually given a shit about him was taken away by people he had never met. A block of ice collected in the pit of his stomach, and he felt like he wanted to cry. Even if tough guys like him didn't cry. He wanted to.

And there goes my only friend. Taking off for some awesome adventure with his brother, while I get left behind by everyone. Again. And then he thought back to his e-mail, where he and Al had first bonded. And felt at least a little better.

But as Gene watched his best friend be wheeled away by the two 'orderlies', something triggered a thought in his mind, and he dug around in his pocket. "Uh, Ray?"

"Yeah?"

"If these guys are so intent on getting out without being caught, then why didn't they disable the alarms?"

"I'm sure they took that into account, Gene."

The boy pointed up at a small red box nestled near the ceiling with a pin-point of red light staring steadily back at them. "Guess again. That light says the alarm's still active."

Gene almost laughed as Ray opened his mouth to speak, then stopped and closed it, only to open it again with the words "How the hell do you know this shit?"

Gene smiled, and pulled out two slender little devices: his jumpdrives. "It's what I do, Ray. Get me to a computer."

o0o0o0o

Steering the car down the next level, Sidney considered his next victim: Edward Elric, Hero of the People, Mustang's darling prodigy, long overdue for his comeuppance. His final moments, unfortunately, weren't quite as satisfying to imagine as Hughes'. They lacked clarity; Sidney hadn't seen Fullmetal since the brat was fifteen and nor could he decide which approach would be most effective. Given the reputed strength of the bond between the Elric brothers, having the elder witness the younger's extermination seemed such an appropriate choice -- but what if he tortured them separately, permitting them occasional brief glimpses of one another? Young men had such vivid imaginations; a subtle suggestion could conjure horrors in impressionable minds greater than anything he could inflict. Almost. They might even teach him a new trick or two...

Sidney sighed as he felt the familiar electric tingle of inspiration in his palms. Oh, yes. Yes, this would work beautifully. No one could say that James Sidney Bond didn't feel a modicum of compassion or empathy. He was a reasonable man; he understood the value of options. He was perfectly willing to offer the Fullmetal Bastard an ultimatum: your brother dies by your hand or mine. Chuckling, Sidney sped a little faster down the ramp. Such an exquisite fork. What will you choose, Edward Elric? No, don't tell me... let it be a surprise...

Sidney continued to ponder the fate of the Elrics as he made his way down to the first level of the parking garage and turned the car around to go back up, the magical parking spot still eluding him. There was a blocky, older black van with it's lights on; perhaps they were ready to leave and would be so kind as to relinquish their spot. He slowed, peering at the passengers to get an indication of what they were going to do, when he suddenly recognized the back view of a very curly head of hair.

Sidney stepped on the break quickly, bringing the car to an abrupt halt. He felt his head snap back against the seat, and cursed at his lack of self control, counting himself lucky that the tires hadn't squealed in protest. There she is.

His head didn't move an inch to the side, but his eyes kept their focus on the van and the two figures inside it through the rear view mirror. He slowed to a stop at the corner of the row, looked both ways down either side of the intersection, and turned right. The van disappeared from view, but Sidney smiled as he continued along. He had located a target and a convenient open parking space by the elevator was calling his name.

Pulling the car into the spot, he paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. This was it, there was no turning back now. He was dealing with amateurs, one lone Investigations officer, and the Elrics. It was unfortunate that Hughes and Elric had found allies; this whole process could have been so much cleaner. Neither body count nor blood bothered him, but the paperwork required to cover it up really was atrocious.

He checked his watch and felt his pockets for his gun, badge, and phone. The proliferation of wireless devices still astounded him. As annoying as they could be, he still appreciated the cell phone's convenience. Sidney had set it on vibrate earlier; there was no sense in getting complacent and ruining a job by an astonishingly loud ring giving him away. He grabbed a couple of permanent markers out of the cup holder next to his empty tea cup and quietly opened the door. They were more reliable than pencil, less messy than chalk, and faster than etching, a veritable array-making dream. The idea was so simple and practical that Sidney swore he would kill the head of Research and Development if they hadn't invented the self-contained inkwell pen by the time he returned to Amestris. But if they hadn't, he had amassed quite a collection from work.

It was one of those "disabled parking only, violators will be fined" spots, not that Sidney cared. Scanning the area, he uncapped a marker. With an amused flourish, he sketched a simple array on the back of the sign. Taking another quick glance around the garage -- it really wouldn't do for an alchemist of his caliber to become sloppy -- he touched the sign with open palms. As the familiar blue light glowed around the edges, he sighed.

There. Now he wasn't illegally parked. The new "Authorized Personnel Only" sign matched an official-looking, completely worthless tag on his dashboard. Visitors returning to their vehicles wouldn't get suspicious and he doubted security would take a second look if they patrolled the area.

He skirted the perimeter, making his way towards the van between the outer wall and closest row of parked cars. He paused at an especially old, decrepit-looking vehicle with a heavy frame, in dire need of either a paint job or a high pressured wash. A valid hospital staff decal flopped over, half peeled off of the rear windshield and the rear passenger window was covered with tape and plastic. Sidney opened the trunk in less than a minute. It was just as shabby as the rest of the car. Where rust hadn't begun to eat through, there was a thick layer of grime covering the otherwise barren floor.

It was perfect.

Whether underpaid or miserly, the owner wouldn't miss the floor of his trunk for at least a week, Sidney estimated. By that time, he planned to be just a memory in this world, perhaps taking four years worth of leave to enjoy a decent cuppa from his private stock of Ishballan goods. After Hughes and the Elrics were cold in their graves, of course...or after their ashes were scattered across the country, depending on how he decided to dispose of their bodies. Either way, they would be dead, Sidney would be home, and this poor excuse for a vehicle would have given its trunk up for the greater good.

Sidney maneuvered a few cars over until he could see the black van that still housed his two targets, who definitely weren't visiting anyone at the hospital. He smirked at the back of the van and returned to his chosen material. Stooping in a low crouch, Sidney lowered the trunk lid with his left hand until it rested on his right upper arm. He slapped the trunk floor with his right palm, his watch face hitting the metal with a light clunk.

The lid shielded most of the light, the construction work covered most of the noise, and within moments, Sidney felt the familiar thrill as one of his favorite alchemic reactions began to take place. The solid metal floor re-formed under his hand and he slowly curled his fingers around the shifting mass, careful not to break contact completely.

It was over too soon, and Sidney cracked open the trunk just enough to extract his arm and newly formed spider. He gave the machine a once-over, admiring his work. Satisfied, he tucked his creation under one arm and continued to creep between the wall and the cars. Once he was three rows closer he cut across the parking lot, never once looking at the van, and made a direct line to the far entrance on the opposite wall. As soon as he passed the last pillar in the van's line of sight, he turned towards it again.

*****

A digital chirp sounded from somewhere in one of the bags stuffed under the back seat. Reilly traced the noise to a cell phone jammed into the front of a backpack.

"It's mine, Reilly," Tom called over his shoulder. "Who is it?"

"Uh... caller ID says Amber. Amber Branch? Why is she calling -- did you ask her for something?"

Tom rolled his eyes and held his hand out for the phone. "Believe it or not, Reilly, I don't always talk to Amber when I need her help," he said dryly. "And no, I didn't ask her for anything." He pondered the situation further as Reilly she made her way to the front to pass him the phone. "Then again... she usually doesn't call directly unless she is getting back to me with information." Feeling more puzzled than he had all day, an impressive feat on its own, Tom answered with a crisp "Hello?"

The greeting was no sooner out of his mouth when their walkie-talkie transmitted a burst of static and the tinny echo of Ducky's voice enclosed in the air duct. Tom's brows furrowed as he concentrated on keeping the two lines of communication separate. Understanding his plight, Reilly snatched up the walkie-talkie and silently gestured that she would take care of coordinating the rescue. Tom nodded and stepped out of the van, trading the two-way radio talk for the more easily ignorable rumble of construction noise. The door wasn't even closed before Reilly had bounced into the driver's seat and taken command, giving Tom the reassurance he needed to focus his attention on Amber.

"/--sorry to be calling so late; you're probably busy. You know what? I'll just call back in the morning./"

"Amber, wait. It's fine. Is something wrong?"

Tom turned up the volume as the construction crew started their next round of work. He caught the tail end of a sigh as Amber continued, "/No, nothing is wrong. At least I don't think so, not yet./" She sighed again, and Tom picked up on some underlying tension, something Amber was usually a master at concealing. "/I've been researching all day, Alden's been gone all evening on call, and I guess I just needed to talk to someone who wouldn't think I'm crazy./"

Tom's eyes ran the length of the Ninjavan, his gaze settling on Reilly yelling into the walkie-talkie, her free hand waving in frustration. She caught his look and shooed him away. "Amber," he said, "right now you are the last person I'd accuse of being crazy."

"/Save your judgment until after you hear everything," Amber muttered. "I talked to Llyn this morning./"

"A normal activity between family members..."

"/He called me. Tom, he's on his ER rotation. I have a hard time getting hold of the kid just to make sure he's still alive -- oh, God, I shouldn't have used that comparison./"

"Are you sure there's nothing wrong, Amber?"

"/Llyn saw a cursed man/."

The din of the construction work faded out. His breathing quickened and Tom could suddenly feel his heartbeat pumping blood through every vein. He thought back to the first time he had met the boy, the clever, scarred Welsh teenager that Amber's new beau had been taking care of since he was young. And remembering hearing the reason behind that arrangement almost two years later, after Amber had sent Llyn into another room to play with the then-newborn Lucy. Finding out that Llyn's living situation had been caused by a cursed man blowing his family to shreds.

"/He said he saw a cursed man at the hospital, and he was looking for a patient,/" Amber paused and Tom heard a faint complaint in the background. "/Lucy just woke up. Can you hold on a sec, Tom?/"

"Not really," he exhaled, but she had already put the phone down. He glanced up to shoot a silent apology to Reilly and caught the frustrated carding of her fingers through her hair. Only Ed and Ducky could make her react like that, Tom knew, and strode back to the van.

He leaned in the open passenger door and caught Reilly's attention, but before he could say anything, Amber was back on the line.

"/Sorry about that, Tom,/" Amber's voice returned. "/Are you still there?/"

"Yeah, I'm here, Amber." Tom raked a hand over the top of his head and grimaced, "Reilly is, too."

"/Oh, okay... I'm not interrupting anything, am I?/"

"Actually, we--"

"/Ducky to base, we have reached our objective. Commencing operation Duckstorm!/"

"Ducky, hold on," Reilly spoke into the walkie-talkie, her eyes never leaving Tom's, "we aren't ready for you yet- give us about five minutes..."

Ducky's voice sounded again, and Reilly turned the volume down slightly. "If we screw this up it won't matter how surprising your attack is!" she hissed into the receiver. "Just wait for my signal!"

"/What are you guys up to?/"

Tom sighed. "Do you really--"

"/You know what? I don't want to know./"

"It's for the best, Amber."

"/Right,/" she agreed before quickly resuming where she had left off when Lucy had interrupted. "/So this cursed man showed up at Llyn's hospital. The way he described him made me think of some things going on at work, but nothing's adding up./"

Reilly was understandably irritated at Ed and Ducky --especially Ducky-- but it sounded like it was under control otherwise. Tom decided she could handle it, and wandered back away from the van with the phone pressed tight to one ear and a finger jammed into the other. "I'm listening Amber. Go on."

"/Actually, hold on just a sec again. I wanna make sure Lucy's in bed./"

A sharp rap on the van's window brought Tom's attention back to the parking garage. Amber leaving to check on her daughter less than three minutes after putting her to bed was worrying. The woman was not prone to extreme overprotectiveness; it was just another sign of how agitated she really was.

Reilly was motioning for him, her frustration replaced with a much more frantic look of concern. Tom returned to the passenger's seat and noted that she had the walkie-talkie fisted so tight her knuckles were turning white.

Everyone's twitchier than usual tonight, Tom thought. And that can mean mistakes.

"I don't know what they're doing, but it's doesn't sound like what we planned," she all but yelled over the jumbled updates coming from the walkie-talkie. Tom could pick out both Ducky and Heist's voices; they must have been trying to talk at the same time. He flipped his cell phone to the speaker function and dropped it on the van's center console so he'd hear Amber when she came back. Then he relieved Reilly of the walkie-talkie, and the dueling voices almost instantly died down.

"Of course they stop talking as soon as you come back," Reilly grumbled, but less frantic. "What else is new?"

Tom just smiled and started to call for Heist.

*****

Just ahead, Ed could make out the edge of metal that indicated a break in the wall. "Here's the first turn." The direction was unnecessary, but it felt good to hear a voice, even if it was his own. Actually, considering the company, he would prefer to hear his own voice.

Ducky followed in odd silence; the only sound was the muffled thud of his jean-covered knees hitting the floor of the shaft. Distantly, Ed heard a very faint clunk, and a rush of cooled air kicked on, raising the hairs on his left arm. It had a slightly stale, antiseptic smell that reminded him a little of the automail shop. The only scents missing were oil, grease, and Winry's hair. He snapped back to the present when he felt Ducky bump into him from behind.

"Hey, what's the dealio?"

Ed shook his head roughly. "It's nothing. Come on- we should keep moving."

Behind Ed, Ducky coughed, breaking the short span of blissful silence that hadn't been filled with his voice. "Damn, it stinks like decomposing clowns in here."

Having grown used to Ducky's strange euphemisms, Ed raised his brow slightly, but kept his query back for the sake of continued peace.

Peace, however, was a lost cause. Ducky had broken the dam with his first sentence and the words flowed in torrents. "Now I know what a TV dinner feels like. Seriously, I never thought I'd ever pull a John McClane myself, though I have been compared to Bruce Willis on more than one occasion. It must be my rugged good looks. Hey, do you think T-Jr. is into action flicks? Dude, he would totally get a kick out of Lethal Weapon! Or is he more of a thinker, yeah, he probably isn't exactly like you. He'd probably want to watch Mystic River or Ghostbusters. Or, oh wait, I guess Ghostbusters isn't really a thinking movie though, huh? But he is a kid; he might like the special effects--"

Ed's eye twitched at the rambling monologue, but with heroic fortitude, he managed to strangle back his desire to scream.

"Ducky...." He hissed warningly.

"Hey, there's the vent!" Ducky eagerly fumbled past Ed, shoving a knee into Ed's stomach in his haste, before sitting proudly in front of the slotted panel on the floor of the shaft.

Breathing slowly and cradling his abused middle, Ed's teeth clenched so tight his jaw cracked. Curling a fist, he waved his arm around, desperately wanting to punch anything, but knowing he couldn't risk the noise. With a muffled scream, he abruptly pushed the hair out of his eyes, leaving behind a streak of grime. It was only with the desire to maintain silence that Ed resisted the urge to snatch Ducky bald. "Hey, I wasn't through with you yet you bastar-- what are you doing?"

Ducky had opened his duffel and was fiddling with several small, covered tins. "The Almighty tells me he can get me out of this mess, but he's pretty sure you're fucked."

Ed's jaw dropped. "W-What?" By this time, Ducky had opened the tins and begun spreading the contents on his face. "What the hell is that crap?"

Ducky's eyes had taken on an unnatural glint, one Ed didn't feel entirely comfortable with. As he smeared more of the pigment on his skin, he suddenly grinned. "Hand me my weapon!"

Ed gaped for a second, too keyed up now to deal with the mercurial moods Ducky seemed to flow through. It may have been cute when they were safely at the house -who was he kidding, Ed would never think of Ducky as 'cute'- but with Al's life depending on them, Ed felt as close to panic as he'd ever been. Snatching the duffle away from Ducky, he grabbed the young hacker by the collar and pushed him against the wall, causing it to buckle with a watery crumple of sheet metal. With steadily inflected tones, he spelled it out as clearly as he was able without spilling blood. "We're here to save Al, stupid, not take on the hospital guards! Now if you can't get your head out of your ass I'm going to seal you up in this vent, slap some tape over your mouth, and go in alone. You got it?"

There must have been something in Ed's intense gaze, because Ducky blinked quickly, then nodded without smiling.

Releasing him, Ed knelt by the vent opening, trying to peer through the slats. Minimal light filled his vision, indicating the room was likely unoccupied. Flattening his lips, Ed sat up again and nodded to Ducky's walkie-talkie. "Are we ready?"

Ducky fished around for a second until he found a handful of large smoke bombs. Grinning widely, he raised his voice, speaking clearly. "Ducky to base, we have reached our objective. Commencing operation Duckstorm!"

Reilly's voice sounded slightly distracted as she responded. "/Ducky, hold on, we aren't ready for you yet- give us about five minutes.../"

Ducky wiped a film of sweat from his forehead, smudging the blue face paint. "What's happening? We only have about ten more minutes before the guards change shift! If I don't drop these soon we'll lose the surprise attack!"

The voice on the other end sounded keyed up and tense. Something was definitely going on, but she wasn't sharing. "/If we screw this up it won't matter how surprising your attack is! Just wait for my signal!/"

Agitated, Ducky set the smoke bombs down on the floor of the shaft. Picking up one of the tins again, he held it out to Ed. "Ready for some war paint?"

Ed jerked back in alarm. "Are you out of your mind?!"

Shrugging indifferently, Ducky retrieved a small mirror on the end of a long rod and proceeded to repair the smudges to his makeup.

Ed only shook his head, barely suppressing the absolute NEED for activity. He almost felt like he was vibrating! Al was so close, and still, he was being asked to wait... and wait... and wait... he was going to explode. Desperate for any sort of distraction, he regarded Ducky's half painted face. "What the hell is that crap for anyhow? It's not like we're breaking into a dark room."

Ducky adopted a stern look. "We go to avenge our father's fathers! Prepare ye'self, for we fall upon them from above, the strength of all Scotland at our backs!" As he spoke, his words deepened, and he affected an accent that sounded vaguely Caledonian.

To Ed's discomfort, Ducky was also advancing on him, a savage look twisting his face into a scowl. Back pressed into the wall behind him, Ed had a moment to reflect on how much he would rather be facing a giant, rolling boulder about now.

A second passed, and Ducky's lower lip trembled slightly. Another moment passed and his cheek twitched. Just as Ed was preparing to belt him, Ducky's scowl melted into laughter as he gave in to his inner psychotic.

Glaring furiously, Ed crossed his arms in frustration. "You really are an idiot."

Ducky picked up the bombs again, spinning them in one hand as he shoved the scattered tins back into the duffel. "You know you love me. Come on, say it just once!"

Ed ground his teeth. "The only thing I'd love is the chance to kick in your teeth."

Unexpectedly the walkie-talkie suddenly crackled to life. "/Okay guys, get ready. Hopefully Murphy will give us a break and this will go off without a hitch./"

Ed felt a sudden tightening in his belly. Ducky's face lost a bit of its mania as he hunched over the vent, hands shaking slightly.

Reilly's voice came again, steady, but slightly fearful. "/The next shift begins in one minute. The first shift guards will be passing you in fifteen seconds, so it's now or never. Good luck./"

"Five, four, three, two, one, it's zero hour." Before Ed could protest, Ducky quickly flipped open his lighter and lit one of the bombs.

Ed's face paled. "You dumb shit, you didn't open the vent!"

Ducky smiled. "Ye of little faith! It will fit right through the... right through the... oh /shit./" As he spoke, he attempted to push the smoke bomb through the vent openings... only to find the opening was too small.

******

The two guards walked side by side down the hall. There was very little activity in this area of the hospital, owing to the time of day. One of the men wiped unsuccessfully at a powdered smear on the pocket of his uniform.

"You see now why I avoid powdered donuts, Bill?"

Bill glared at his partner as he continued to swipe at the white smudge. "Uh huh. I thought it was cause' your missus didn't care for the extra reach when she hugged you at night."

Chuckling, the other, larger man patted his gut. "Hey, Andria likes me just as I am."

"Andria likes you cause' you play bingo with her on Friday night instead of poker with the rest of us."

The other man smirked. "It's not the only thing we do on Friday night."

Bill shook his head. "Newlyweds. You people sicken me." He stopped at the rumbling sound that rolled down the corridor. "We expecting rain?"

The other guard snorted and kept walking. "Nah. But that doesn't mean we won't get any."

"I think in my next life, I want to be a weatherman," Bill said as he started strolling again. "It's the only job I know of that you can get it wrong all the time, and not get fired."

The sounds of the guards easy laughter filled the hall as they continued their final check before clocking out.

Which was, of course, when the explosion struck.

******

"/What's with all the codespeak, Tom? Where are you guys? Who was that?/"

It figured that Amber would come back just as they started talking about X-ray. "Uh, Amber, now's really not the best time--"

"/You're at a hospital, aren't you?/"

"This is one of those times when questions shouldn't be asked."

"/Just -- is everyone alright?/"

"For now."

"/Listen, I need to make another call. Don't hang up./"

Tom had opened his mouth to say something else, but huffed in exasperation instead. He leaned tiredly against the open passenger door of the van and exchanged an irritated look with Reilly. Beyond her, he could see coruscating lights reflecting off the neighboring SUV from the welders in the construction area. The arcs were bright enough that a nearby post on the opposite side of the van would flicker in stark relief and Tom wondered just how much the owners of the SUV had paid for that finish.

You are getting tired, old man, he thought immediately afterwards, if you're worrying about the finish of a Yuppiemobile.

"Now you see why I don't talk to that woman unless I have to?" Reilly pointed out, pulling him out of his sleep-deprived musing. "She never finishes a conver--"

Before Reilly could finish her thought, Tom detected something in his peripheral vision that caused him to drop his cell onto the floor of the van and reach around the back of his pants for his gun.

0o0o0

An older man got out of the van, forcing Sidney to duck behind the closest car, but the man had a cell phone to one ear and his hand over the other. As he talked, the man looked around without appearing to be looking around.

Well, now, Sidney thought, narrowing his eyes, this puts a wrench in things.

Sidney had expected Fullmetal and Hughes to be the only challenges, since they, like Sidney, had similar backgrounds. Those two were one thing, but it appeared that the group of civilians he had previously dismissed was, in fact, highly coordinated. That was a completely different annoyance. Sidney surreptitiously watched the man until he was sure his initial reaction was more than a hunch. The longer he watched the old man with a ponytail, the more convinced he became that there was training behind that one, be it law enforcement or perhaps some sort of military service.

Grabbing a garbage can out of a nearby stairwell (leaving the bag full of rubbish for someone else to deal with) Sidney retreated out of ear-shot before enhancing his spider and shortening the length of its final fail-safe fuse. That would buy him a little more protection against anyone who tried to tamper with it.

Sneaking back to the target, the old man and the Reilly woman were both back in the front seat. The old man was still on the phone as Sidney straightened and took a few steps away from the van. It was a shame the construction noise was so loud; he would have liked to eavesdrop. It was a great way to find a little information to add that special touch to his victims' last conversation.

He slowly inched his way closer to the van, careful to stay hidden from view. The woman sat in the drivers' seat, her unruly curls obscuring a clear profile as she turned to talk to the man. Sidney set his spider down and prepared it for detonation.

It skittered quietly against the wall that the van was backed up against. They must have parked that way for the best view of the hospital entrances as well as making sure their backs weren't exposed, a sensible precaution in his opinion. It also meant they probably weren't checking too frequently in the rear view mirror. The spider made it to the van and slowly crawled its way up. Sidney snuck another glance at the two inside, envisioning how they would die when his creation finally exploded.

Completely clueless, they continued to only watch what was in front of them as the spider trailed along the van's back edge and planted itself in the center of the roof. Now all someone had to do was try and remove it.

Sidney patted his jacket and rested his hand on the slight bulge of his gun underneath the cheap fabric, feeling a creeping tendril of excitement curl low in his belly. He could help it along, if he wished.

*****

The two stared at each other for a single beat.

In a flurry of arms, Ed lunged for the vent to force it open, only to become entangled as his legs caught on the rope Ducky had insisted on bringing.

His fingers collided with Ducky's as the hacker tried to pull the wick out of the smoke bomb. The smack of their knuckles caused the bomb to slip, and it dropped it into the open duffel by their knees. "Oh crap oh crap /oh crap/!" Ignoring Ducky's panicked mutters, Ed tried to rescue it, but was suddenly smashed in the chin by Ducky's knee as the other man lunged for the duffle at the same time. Ed's teeth snapped together sharply, catching the edge of his tongue. His eyes watered in sudden pain, and his head flew back, ramming into the wall of the shaft. A loop of rope caught on Ed's wrist as he tried to sit up, and he abandoned his hunt for the smoke bombs as he fought to free himself.

Their combined thrashing was deafeningly loud as flesh and metal collided with the floor, walls, and ceiling around him. It had the odd resonance of a thunderstorm, and was just as deafening. Ed finally stopped struggling and was just preparing to turn his automail arm into a blade when Ducky gulped.

"We have a problem!"

Ed's eyes glared at Ducky from behind a layer of woven cord. "You think?!"

Ducky's face blanched as a wisp of smoke rose from the bag. "Oh, this is gonna hurt."

Ed stared at the other man. "Don't be stupid..." The wisp grew stronger as more smoke bombs were affected. Growling, Ed began fighting the rope again. "At least it's just smoke bombs, a little acrid, but they won't kill us... what?"

Ducky looked ready to cry as he started to struggle with the vent cover. "I'm sorry Ed!"

Before Ed could ask what he meant, a sudden shriek rose deafeningly from the bag, leaving Ed's ears throbbing. When it reached its peak, the bag shook with a muffled explosion.

"Ducky..."

"I thought it would take more than smoke bombs for a distraction! I've got a friend of a friend, he hooked me up with some fireworks and..."

"Who the hell /cares/, just get this damn rope off of me!"

Ducky continued to pull at the vent. "There's no time, see- one of the fireworks is..."

And time ran out with a thunderous explosion. Brilliant light tore through the shaft, and Ed felt something hot strike the flesh of his left leg, just above the automail. "Ducky!"

Ed made a valiant lunge to free himself from the rope at the same moment Ducky managed to wrestle the vent cover free. With dual cries, the two plunged from the shaft in a hail of bursting light, screaming rockets, and coiling smoke.

It took nearly a minute for the ruckus to abate.

As the last few fireworks snapped and died, Ed finally had time to take stock of his situation, and suddenly wonder why he hadn't hit the floor yet.

It was about that time he heard a light click, and inexplicably, it started to rain.

*******

Without even being aware of it, both guards dropped to their bellies on the floor. "Shit, goddamn it, not again!" Bill shouted over the alarms as he grabbed for his walkie-talkie. The other guard already had his gun in hand and was carefully rising to his knees.

"This is Wright and Campbell, we have an explosion on level two, I repeat, an explosion on level two, do you copy?" Static met his inquiry. Depressing the button once more, he rose to his feet, followed by Campbell. "Wright to base, do you copy?"

Static again, and then a voice broke through. "/We copy, backup is on the way. Stand by and wait for their arrival./"

"I hear ya, waiting for backup." With a sharp curse, Bill shoved his walkie-talkie back on his belt and pulled his gun. "Stand by my ass. If there's injured in there, we need to check it out. Keep your head down and follow close. If it gets hairy, we beat feet and wait for backup."

Nervously, Bruce nodded his head once, sharply. Wiping the sudden sweat out of his eyes with his sleeve, he followed.

Fifteen feet down the hall they saw smoke and water trailing out from under a door. "Shit, we got a fire!" Bill ran a short way down the hall where a fire extinguisher was mounted on the wall. Hefting it, he rushed back to the doorway where Bruce waited nervously, gun still drawn. "Alright, I'm going in, cover me!"

After the initial eruption from the room, it had fallen eerily silent. Save the smoke lazily tracing out from under the door, there was no indication anything had even happened.

Bill glanced back at his partner, giving him a short nod before easing up to the door. There was a sound, though it was difficult to interpret. Taking one final, quick breath, Bill spun through the door, immediately followed by Bruce.

What they saw brought them up short.

The sprinklers were on; however, the cold water was largely ignored...

******

"For now," Tom said into the cellphone. Reilly could see the tension in his jaw as it clenched.

Reilly had met Amber a few times and while she didn't dislike the woman, she found her a little too hyper for her temperment. From the little Tom had said about her, she was a valuable ally and had helped him in more than a few investigations in the past. To this day, she still had no idea how they met, or even what the woman actually did for a living; all she'd ever been able to figure out was that Amber had a government job, and not some paper-pushing clerical one, either. As far as she was concerned, it was probably better that she didn't know the whole story.

Reilly knew Tom well --hell, he'd damn near raised her after her mother died and her father spent so much time working nights-- but there were blanks about the man she'd never been able to fill in. When she was a teen, she'd made it a mission to find out everything she could. Unfortunately, the old bastard was as slippery as an eel when he didn't want anyone to know something. During that phase of her life, she did learn one thing... if she needed to know, he'd tell her. Even if she didn't want to know.

Tom opened his mouth to say something else, but from the exasperated huff that came out instead, Reilly guessed that Amber had put the phone down again. Tom leaned against the open passenger door of the van as though he'd been drained of energy and exchanged an irritated look with her. Reilly could sympathze. Between the events of the past 48 hours, Ed and Ducky's antics, and now, Amber's scatter-brained phone call, Reilly wouldn't be surprised if the normally easy-going man blew a gasket.

"Now you see why I don't talk to that woman unless I have to?" Reilly pointed out. "She never finishes a conver--"

Before Reilly could finish her thought, Tom dropped the cell onto the floor of the van, reached around to the back of his pants and pulled out a gun.

Her heart stopped as she stared down the barrel of the .38 Police Special. Black spots ringed her view and narrowed until there was just a tunnel that was filled with the gun and the glacial hardness in her surrogate father's eyes.

Her first thought --that he really had gone postal-- was instantly replaced with one much more logical and far more frightening as she slowly followed the line of sight from the gun to a point over her left shoulder.

She barely had enough time to comprehend that they were in danger, before she felt the cold bite of nickel plate against her temple and a large, warm, calloused hand curl almost lovingly around the side of her neck. She tried to swallow with a throat that was horribly dry and heard the different tones of two hammers being pulled back at the same time.

"I seriously doubt you have the nerve required to chance pulling the trigger," the stranger said, the words heavy with an almost lyrical, Old World accent. Ed has that same accent. Oh Goddess...

Her rather irrelevant train of thought was derailed, however, as the gun was held steady to her head while the man's thumb almost absently stroked the back of her neck.

"You can attempt it, but you and I both know she'll be dead before your bullet exits the chamber."
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