So this was supposed to go up last week, but then GISHWHES happened.

Warnings: The usual language, violence, blood and such things, gratuitous vocal slurring and poor grammar.

He wasn't fast enough.

The shot was deafening in the small room, and his feet were suddenly rooted to the ground. There was a moment of breathless, terrified silence as Ed held the Psycho's gaze with wide eyes.

And then the woman let out a small cry.

"Oops, I missed."

Ed whipped his head around to see her holding one hand tightly to her left upper arm, the other hand twisted up awkwardly because of the handcuffs. Blood was already trickling slowly from under her fingers. She was shivering, her eyes closed as she hunkered down on herself, and Ed could see a slightly smoking hole in the wall just behind her.

"Come on, Ed," the Psycho taunted. "Try my patience. I promise the next one won't be so kind."

Ed's entire body clenched—in anger or wariness, or even the instinctive reaction of stillness in the face of such a threat—and he turned his heated glare onto the man, who seemed entirely unaffected as he leveled the gun once more at the woman's head.

"What the hell do you want?" he growled, clenching his teeth.

"Who's to say I want anything at all?"

"No one goes around killing innocent girls and then kidnapping my brother and I without a reason!"

"Is entertainment not enough?" The man waved the gun in the air slightly, but before Ed could more than twitch it was once more levelled at his fellow prisoner. "Can I not just take pleasure from a plan well-executed?"

Ed snorted. "So this is all just a game to you, huh?" Rage was already pumping through his limbs, but he couldn't do anything about it. He had to wait for the right moment—

"Of course it is! You think it's so important, this morality, this order you live with, but try killing a few people, Ed. It does wonders for the compass. It's... Well, I suppose it's a bit freeing."

The ice that ran down his spine—an ice that whispered Greed, Greed, Greed—was both entirely unexpected and inevitable, and it surprisingly added to his fury instead of dampening it. "Like hell it is! Maybe for psychopaths like you!"

The Psycho's eyes widened slightly. "Now Ed, there's no need for name-calling. We're having a civil conversation." Contrary to his words, he twitched the gun.

Ed gritted his teeth. "Then shoot me!" He threw his good arm out to the side, his automail twitching up slightly but remaining mostly motionless. "Clearly you're just a bastard who likes playing with people, so go ahead and shoot! I'm not gonna play your games!"

There was a breathless second when Ed actually thought he was going to do it, when the air in the room snapped with tension and the Psycho's eyes narrowed slightly.

And then it was broken when he reached into his pocket with lightning-quick gloved hands and threw something at Ed.

The reaction was automatic—half a second later, Ed's hand was held in front of him to deflect the object, and suddenly it burst. Liquid flew over his hand and splattered down his arm and across his face, and what looked like bits of floppy plastic clung to his skin. He swore and shook off his arm, wiping his face frantically with his torn sleeve in an attempt to get the oddly soapy-smelling liquid off of him. Whatever it was, it was clearly bad news.

"Fortunately, I don't actually have to shoot you, Ed. Though at this point it would almost be a blessing for me." The Psycho was smirking slightly, a gleam in his eyes that Ed really didn't like.

"What the hell is this?"

The smirk widened. "It's just something to make you a little more... compliant."

Ed let out an inarticulate growl and leapt forward, ignoring the pain in his flesh leg and the gun still being pointed just past him. Apparently he'd actually taken the man by surprise, because he didn't react until the weapon had already been violently wrenched from his hand and crushed beneath Ed's automail foot. In the next moment, Ed was full-on bodychecking the Psycho off of his feet and landing on top of him with a painful grunt. The man didn't take long to recover, though, and already one of his hands was fisting in Ed's hair as he tried to land a punch on the guy's face. His one working arm was occupied with his strike, and so he couldn't steady himself as he was wrenched to the side and onto the ground. He kicked out with all his might and felt the resistance that told him his automail foot had connected with something. By the angry shout that followed, he really hoped it was something important, though he couldn't see with his head twisted awkwardly in the Psycho's fist. He reached up with his good arm and grabbed the man's wrist, trying to twist it away. He succeeded—marginally. He could barely get a grip on it because it was so thick; the fabric under his fingers was rough and hard, and he couldn't even feel the warmth of the man's body through it. The hand twisted, but didn't release his hair, and so he ended up wrenching his own head to the side and clipping his chin against the floor. A crackle told him that his neck would be punishing him for it later, but that concern was benched quickly as another hand squeezed his forearm until he involuntarily released the one in his hair. All the while, his feet were kicking out, and a moment later he finally hit pay dirt as the Psycho dropped him carelessly on the ground with another shout.

"Oh, did that hurt?" Ed taunted without thinking as he pushed himself onto his knees with difficulty. He barely had time to look up and catch a glimpse of the Psycho holding an arm across his stomach before he saw stars and felt himself impact the wall behind him. He stumbled to his feet, ready to fend off another attack, when he saw that the man was no longer advancing. In fact, he was standing in the opposite corner of the room, leaning casually—but not too casually, Ed was pleased to note—beside the door, a hand held lightly to his stomach.

"What's the matter, scared of me?" Ed growled with some heat. He made to take a step, and only realized that something was wrong when instead of going forward, his body instead moved back. "What the hell...?" he muttered, reaching a hand to his head to steady it—but his hand instead slid across his jaw. A strange tingling washed across his entire body before fading slightly, and he stumbled back into the wall behind him.

"Ah, good, it's working," the Psycho said, and Ed stared at him. "The adrenaline drives it through your body faster." The words were slightly out of sync with the mouth movements, as though the sound were taking just a split second longer to reach his ears. Another wave of tingling, this time accompanied by a feverish sort of warmth, washed over him, lasting slightly longer. He barely felt the slide of the wall behind him as the world tilted to a slightly lowered perspective, and his hand against the floor only registered as a vague pressure near his shoulder. He could hear himself drawing thick, panting breaths, but the air couldn't be felt by his suddenly-numb lips.

The dark thought of Goddamnit, I've been poisoned AGAIN slithered through his mind as the ground in front of his eyes swam slightly. A hand entered his vision, wrapping squarely around his wrist—or what he figured was his own wrist, but hell, he couldn't actually feel anything anymore—and yanking him upright. Well, he assumed it was upright, because a moment later the world was dancing around him in strange circles that slowed down and sped up without his consent.

"Finally, a bit of obedience," someone said, though it was disjointed and barely comprehensible because it moved at the same varying speed that the world did. But something in his mind—some red button that said "Oh hell no!"—flipped, and he dragged his uncooperative limbs forward and lashed out at the voice. Too slow, his mind told him, but the world said otherwise when a horrible grating sound that could have been words if it wasn't so damn slow accompanied another abrupt shift in perspective. The ceiling was very nice—low with white stippling, though it could have been better without that big metal hook—

Pain blossomed in his side, and he realized that not everything moved slowly right now as his nearly unnoticed breaths became shallow and impossibly fast. The world shifted again—why the hell can't they just let me be!—and everything was so profoundly slow-fast that it left trails of colour across his vision. Things rattled and more noises that could have been words echoed slightly, and then breathing became even more of a chore, and the world was swinging from side to side, and from somewhere impossibly far away a door slammed.

Everything just sort of drifted after that, and Ed drifted with it.

It was two hours later, when Al was sitting restlessly in a corner of the makeshift Trace lab watching Greg and Grissom run test after test on the soil sample that they had finally admitted they'd found in the package to do with Ed, that Sara suddenly came barrelling in.

"Nick found something," she said breathlessly, and it was like she'd shoved a stick into an anthill. Al leapt to his feet with a cry of "What?" even as Greg threw down the paper he was reading and Grissom was already halfway to the door with a curt "Show me."

Stopping Al from following didn't even seem to cross anyone's mind as all four of them speed-walked down the hallway, Sara already explaining. He was more than grateful that he had either fallen under the radar so well or was trusted enough at this point, because what she was saying made his heart thump heavily.

"So the mail keeps arriving with the same return address, right?" Sara asked, apparently rhetorically as she continued on. "So Nick had the idea that maybe it was strange enough to attract some notice; especially a package as large as the one we just got. You can't just drop something like that in a mail box." They stopped outside of a set of double doors, and Sara turned to them. "He figured he'd call around; at this point, anything is better than nothing. But here's the thing—he actually found something. The guy who answered at the South Jones Boulevard office said he'd seen something weird just a few days ago." She turned and shouldered through the doors into a room with a few couches and what was apparently a "vending machine", according to Greg. Nick was sitting forward on one of the couches, speaking intently with a nervous-looking man on the one across from him.

"Hey Sara," he said, glancing up in greeting. "Guys. This is Don." The other man lifted a hand in a quiet greeting, his other hand fiddling with a rip in his jeans. "He's got something to tell you."

Don grimaced and tugged at his worn golf shirt's collar, the USPS logo nearly lost under the light jacket he was wearing over it. Grissom sat down beside Nick, and Greg and Al both hovered awkwardly around them, entirely unwilling to leave but not wanting to sit on one of the farther couches.

"What did you see, Don?" Grissom asked gently, though Al could detect the hint of steel determination underneath. The postal worker fidgeted again.

"Well, I didn't really see nothin' at first, it was more like what someone in the sorting room said, and then Friday I did see it, and Beth'd said not to mention it—"

"Don. I need you to tell me what happened."

Don swallowed slightly and picked at his jeans again, his eyes on his shoes. "So there's always talk in the back, right? Things comin' back, weird things people buy, funny names—y'know, there ain't much to do and it's a way to pass the time. So Beth was sayin' she'd got this real weird letter a few weeks ago, some kind of return address she never heard of, but it made her laugh for a bit. She said it was somethin' about laughing, maybe from a joke shop, an' the zip code looked like some kinda Canadian one, with letters 'n' numbers. Didn't think nothin' of it till the next one came through and Anders found it this time, said it was weird they kept comin' through our office. Then Friday some guy walks in with a package when I'm workin' the desk, and it's got this address on it that's like, 'Haha Incompetant Street ex oh ex!'"

Al felt his stomach tighten suddenly. "What did he look like?" he asked without thinking. Grissom and Don both looked up at him, one considering and the other wide-eyed and nervous.

"Don't remember well, but I know he was a bigger fella, probably hasn't seen a set of stairs in 'bout three years. Sweatin' like a pig an' it ain't even fifty degrees yet."

Al's heart sank. It wasn't him.

"Did he say anything?" Grissom asked quickly.

Don shrugged. "Well, he was lookin' real pleased with hisself when he gave me the package. Said somethin' about a guy too much in a hurry when he gave me a fifty for it; I ain't gonna ask no questions about it 'cause he had the money, you know? But he kept sayin' someone asked him to mail this package for them and told him to keep the change, an' I thought that was weird because no one really likes havin' someone else do their mail."

"So you mailed a package that was paid for by someone who was clearly not the sender?" Greg asked. "I thought that was against regulations."

Don shrugged again. "Maybe. I'm not the one to ask; that'd be my manager's thing to check, not mine."

"Did anything happen after you took this package in?" Nick asked tightly.

When Don shook his head, Grissom stood. "Thank you for the information. You're free to go; we'll call you if we need anything else."

The postal worker sprung to his feet like an elastic band. "Just a quick question?" When Grissom nodded, he hurried on. "Is this like... somethin' to do with a murder? Am I gonna get hunted down or somethin'? 'Cause I don't mind helping you but I don't really wanna end up dead, you know?"

"You'll be fine," Nick assured him. "Believe me. No one's gonna come after you."

Don looked relieved, and hurried his way out the door with a bare glance and nod at everyone in the room.

Greg sighed explosively, his cheeks puffing out. "So how exactly did all those letters end up under the radar? I thought they had things that looked up addresses or something."

Grissom rubbed his chin. "They usually worry mainly about the shipping address, but the return address usually warrants a glance when it's that odd and unrecognizable."

"That office has the lowest rating in the city," Nick cut in. "Seriously, the Google reviews alone are damning. I wouldn't be surprised if they shipped something without a return address at all."

"So what does that mean?" Al demanded, unable to stay silent. He was doing his level best to keep his feet firmly planted where they were until such a time as he knew where this place was and how he was supposed to get there, but once he knew, there was no way he would be sitting around waiting for people to decide on a course of action. If they had some idea of where Ed was right now, then Al would find him, proper procedures be damned.

Grissom gave him a slow, steady look, as if he were assessing and weighing exactly what to tell him. Al felt his fists clench unbidden, and was about to insist on being told when the man spoke. "It means that your brother is likely somewhere in Spring Valley." A moment later, the CSI was on his feet, deftly issuing commands to his subordinates. "Sara, I want the surveillance tapes from the post office." She nodded and was gone. "Nick, get Warrick. Call any convenience stores in the area. If our guy's around, then he'll have needed supplies. Maybe one of the late-night staff have seen him come by. Take the sketch from yesterday." Nick gave a small, lazy salute and left, undoubtedly in search of his partner and the portrait a sketch artist had from Al's description. "Al." The Elric looked up, startled at having been addressed. "You're coming with me. We're going to find Catherine and Brass, and then go out and do a sweep of the area."

"Why are you bringing me with you?" Al asked—uncertain though not entirely displeased—as he followed Grissom's quick stride back through the double doors with Greg just behind him.

The man's shrewd gaze turned back to him as they walked. "Because I can't leave you alone, and the only one left behind is Greg, who's going to keep running the soil samples while we're gone." His eyes had switched to Greg then, giving the slightly sheepish-looking Trace expert an expectant look.

"Right, I'll get on that," Greg said, turning on his heel abruptly and heading in the opposite direction.

Grissom fixed Al's gaze once again with a serious look. "And you're our best resource right now. You've known this man for longer and more closely than anybody here—" he held up a hand to stave off Al as he opened his mouth to protest, "—and I know it wasn't by your own choice, but it's the reality of the situation. You're the most likely to recognize either him or a place where he would be staying. He kept you at that house on East Washington and then the country house; I think you're familiar enough with his preferred location, especially if you're as smart as your brother. And you're also the most qualified to recognize any sign Ed might have left for us if he's had the chance." He stopped walking and put a hand on Al's shoulder. "We're not going to let you on the front lines, even though you probably wouldn't have a problem with that." When it comes to Ed, that's true, Al thought. "But we need you along because at this point, we need all the help that we can get. And I doubt I could stop you, anyway."

A moment of silence passed before Al managed to express himself. "Thank you, Mr. Grissom," he said quietly. The man probably didn't understand exactly how much it meant to him that he wasn't being treated like a child or being held back for his own safety; he and Ed had experienced that far too many times in the last few years, and if it had come from the only person he felt he could really trust in this place then he probably would have lost it, level-headed (or at least in comparison to Ed) reputation be damned.

"Hey, whaz y'r name?"

The woman sniffed heavily and lifted her head to look up at him before averting her eyes, as if she were scared to look at him. "Ashley," she said quietly after a moment.

Ed grimaced as his shoulder gave another twinge, and then forced a smile onto his face. "Hi Ashley, 'm Ed. Pleased t'meetcha," he slurred, and he hoped that the smile was working at least a little bit, because he still couldn't really feel his face.

Her eyes focussed back on his face with a darkly perplexed look that clearly stated that this was not the time for jokes. Ed let the smile drop—it was more of a grimace, anyway. His shoulder ached fiercely, and he shifted as well as he could to try and relieve it. Unfortunately, that upset his unsteady purchase on the floor and sent him spinning gently away from Ashley's gaze. With a curse, he scrambled with his toes for purchase with limbs that still didn't quite respond well—though his automail seemed to be listening a lot better than his flesh and blood leg—until the tip of one of his combat boots finally gripped the flagstones well enough that he could stop the still-sickening motion.

Carefully, so as not to shift his equilibrium again, he glared upwards at the large metal hook in the ceiling that had seemed so strangely inconspicuous before. Well, he mused, it wasn't so much the hook itself that would make such a thing strange, but rather the thick chain that had been connected to it sometime in the near past and from which he now hung suspended by his aching left arm like a hunted deer.

It had taken him what felt like ages to regain enough of his mental faculties to notice his surroundings properly again. According to Ashley, in response to a heavily slurred and probably entirely incomprehensible inquiry, it had been something close to half an hour since the Psycho had left him hanging there, and another ten minutes before Ed had managed the focus to properly assess his current predicament. He wasn't entirely sure if the numbness—which had covered his entire body before devolving into tingling and then aches and twitches that were eventually focused from his waist up—was from the drug or the excruciating pressure of hanging by the arm with barely a toe-hold on the ground, but either way it sucked. Breathing was certainly becoming an increasing problem as his ribs protested violently against both their previous treatment and their current over-extended, unnatural position. Each breath hurt slightly more than the last, and with a chest full of bruises and (hopefully just cracked but probably) broken ribs, the pain was quickly becoming nightmarish. The vague floaty feeling in his head that still remained wasn't helped along much by the potential oxygen shortage, either.

The only real upsides he could see in this situation were:

A) his automail arm wasn't chained (but, to be entirely honest, it was useless to him anyway. The most he could get out of it were a creaky curling of the thumb and forefinger, and enough give in the elbow and shoulder to raise it about as high as his waist before it decided it would go no further. Honestly, the only real good thing about it was that having it hanging kept the pressure off of the shoulder port and (hopefully) prevented him from asphyxiating quite as quickly), and

B) the drug was wearing off. (Or at least, he hoped it was. Because if it wasn't, he was slowly dying and unable to notice it. And being poisoned with something potentially life-ending was horrible and unpleasant and so last month that he was more than done with it. Not just with poisoning a concept, but with being poisoned. Period.)

Which brought his thoughts to another point. "This guy and his goddamn drugs," Ed complained with heat. "I don't even know how many things he's tossed in my system, but I'm gonna need some serious medical intervention if he throws any more weird concoctions in my face!" He only realized after the fact that a few of those words were perhaps a bit too large for his still-recovering facial muscles, but he assumed that his quiet audience got the drift by her slow and sympathetic nod.

"How bad is it?" she asked suddenly, tucking her knees up to her chest and wrapping her shackled hands around them. "The drugs, I mean. And everything else." She made a vague sort of gesture at Ed's chest area, where he knew there was some brightly mottled skin showing through his unfortunately torn shirt.

"Well, I'm hanging in there," he said, unable to resist, as his face slowly regained feeling in a series of long, uncomfortable tingles. Ashley snorted darkly, and Ed blew his blood-caked bangs out of his face as best he could. "Though I could do without my arm being numb right now." As soon as he had use of his fingers, he knew they could be out of here, but right now the most his arm yielded was a tingling pain in his wrist where the shackle at the end of the chain was wrapped around it. He glared up at it, willing the drugs to wear off faster.

"He talks about you sometimes," Ashley suddenly said, looking at her knees.


"Him." She tossed her head slightly in the direction of the closed door.

When nothing more seemed forthcoming, Ed prompted, "And?"

"He's kind of scary when he comes in, because half the time he's ranting and raving under his breath. Like some crazy person, you know?"

"Well, can't really argue with that one."

Ashley snorted again, though Ed could tell it was half-hearted at best, and her hands were clenched tightly around her knees. "Crazier than usual, then. But most of the time it's like he doesn't even know I'm there, except for feeding me and... you know." She shrugged, and Ed's eyes were drawn to the large bruise wrapping around the back of her neck under her ear. "He goes on and on about how... how you ruined everything. I don't know what he's talking about, but he's not even always angry. It's like... it's a game to him—" she gave Ed a significant look, and he huffed slightly, "—and sometimes he's winning and sometimes he's losing. And you're the other player, I think."

"Sorry to break it to you, but I don't know what we're playing or why he hates me so goddamn much."

Ashley shrugs half-heartedly. "I don't know. He doesn't usually make sense, even if he goes on and... and on about things. I think... He doesn't care what I hear, because I'll just end up like all the other girls." Her voice caught at the end of her words, and she went silent for a minute. Ed did his best to ignore her tears, because despite how badly he wanted to, he didn't know how to comfort crying girls. As sorry as he felt for her, any awkward comfort he tried to offer would be received about as well as a cat bringing home a dead rat: with a pitying sort of acceptance that does a horrible job of covering up the anger and disgust as he inevitable says the wrong thing. Silence was definitely better right now; he'd learned that well over the years.

Finally, Ashley seemed to calm herself, and cleared her throat. "I... Sorry, I just..." She took a deep breath and scrubbed her face with her linked hands. Ed didn't have the heart to tell her that all she succeeded in doing was smearing her tears and the dried blood beneath them across her face. "I don't want to die here," she finally whispered.

"And you're not gonna," Ed said firmly. "Not on my watch." He could feel the tingling in the tips of his fingers, causing a pins-and-needles agony to run down his arm, but at least there was some feeling. It would have to be enough. For the first time (at least in this world; he might have done it back home sometime, but really, with all the kidnappings he'd been through, who was counting?), he was glad that he had blood on his fingers, though it was probably mixed with the weird liquid the Psycho'd thrown at him, which was probably why his arm was the last thing to come back. Hopefully it would be enough.

He didn't usually have the luxury of seeing his hands at this point, so he used it to its full advantage by watching carefully as his fingers curled toward the chain. He could hear Ashley asking something, but he ignored it in favour of concentration. He touched his first finger to a sluggishly bleeding cut near the heel of his thumb (That's new, he thought, but didn't particularly waste much brainpower on an injury he'd likely gained while flailing on the ground like a drunken fish) and carefully, though he'd done it what felt like thousands of times, sketched out a small transfiguration circle.

"We're getting out of here," he said to Ashley with a devilish (though likely lopsided—his lower lip was still half numb) smirk as he pressed his fingers firmly to the circle.

In hindsight, he really should have realized that such a cheesy line with a smile like that was just begging the universe to screw you over.

He expected the surge of energy that said the reaction was deconstructing the metal. He expected the equation to run through his head in the blink of an eye. He even expected the sharp pain spreading from his chest once more.

He didn't expect nothing.

There was no pull, no equation besides the one he'd already put together. There was no pain.

And there was no reaction.

He threw his head back and checked the circle—but it was complete; slightly more lopsided than he would have liked because of the narrowness of the chain link, but nonetheless whole. He'd had sloppier circles work for him in much worse situations. But, just to be sure, he pressed his fingers to it again. There was nothing. Even if the metal wasn't what he thought it was (which it definitely was, because he wasn't called the Fullmetal Alchemist just because of his automail, thankyouverymuch), the circle would have had some kind of reaction, even if just in his head. But nothing happened.

Ignoring the whisper of doubt coiling in the back of his mind, he touched his finger to the cut again and stretched his hand as far as it would go in order to scrawl another—this time much more carefully drawn—circle on the next link up the chain.

But pressing his fingers to it yielded just as much as it had before.

"Shit," he muttered, staring up at the circle and then down to his useless automail hand. What the hell am I supposed to do now?

Sorry for the delay and the abrupt end of the chapter. It's mid August and school will soon be starting, work is picking up, and GISHWHES. Just... GISHWHES. I'm still a bit shell-shocked from that. Next chapter's ETA is unknown; apologies on that.

Review if you enjoyed!