Zilo: I can give you a list of reasons as to why this update broke the record, OR I can thank you all for being patient and get on to the next chapter! Hmmm, my psychic powers say...you want the second one!

So, thanks and love to Kasani, Beryl Bloodstone, DoctorWhotaliaandtheOlympians, NightCoringMadness, FireDragonX23, Shinigami's-Neko-Gaki, alexthregreat123, Bangkok-chan, DERANGEDauthor24, Kittenizzy Love Edward Elric, Mcat9905, Dfire, BestFriendMarcus, The Fire Rain Alchemist, Scaehime, Miss Fiction Freak, Guest, BerserkMoon, and MiaTenshiDarkAngel for reviewing and leaving awesome encouragement and funniness! Here's YOUR ETERNAL REWARD...which is a chapter and not a knife to the face.

17: Fearless Leader
in which Joey believes in herself

"Explain yourself," Mortimer said through gritted teeth.

Ike's grin got a little wider. "Sure. Your assignment here has officially been canceled, and all your backup has been dismissed. Not only that, but I've been placed in charge of cleaning up the mess you and Phoenix made. In other words, you've been demoted." As Ike spoke, Mortimer got paler and paler, much to my pleasure. "Oh, and…you sure you should be speaking to a superior officer like that?"

"What? No! There must be some mistake! The last report I sent in clearly explained how the situation was about to be resolved—" Mortimer began to sputter.

"Yeah, well, the mess made of the building begged to differ," Ike cut in.

"Does this mean we're no longer in danger?" Riza asked.

"It means just that, Lieutenant. Now that the general's no longer allowed to have goons point guns at you," Ike said.

"Why couldn't you have done this sooner?" Roy wanted to know.

"Well, it wasn't until I learned who was in charge that I realized how I could fix this. But I had to do it without him realizing it, or he could have tried to head me off," Ike explained. "That's why I disappeared on you guys."

"We could've been killed!" I exclaimed.

Ike smiled at me. "Nah. You were in charge, Joey. I knew you'd be able to handle it."

Even though I did feel a little swell of pride at his faith in me, I still wanted to hit him. "So you waited for the most dramatic moment to appear and fix everything?" I said instead.

"Well…" Ike hemmed, and I knew I was right, and rolled my eyes.

"You…" I had never heard Mortimer snarl before then, but that was definitely what he was doing. I looked back at him in surprise, to see his glare directed at Ike. "You are not going to get away with this. Once I send in an appeal, you will seriously regret messing with me." The level of his anger seemed kind of high for just this one thing, but I figured I wasn't one to measure the shortness of someone's fuse.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm terrified. Now go on and disappear like I know you will," Ike said with a shooing motion.

Mortimer shot him a look of pretty damn pure hate before vanishing in an air shimmer.

It took a few moments for my heart to settle down, and I sighed heavily and ran a hand through my hair. Next to me, Roy heaved a sigh of relief, and Ike seemed to relax a little.

"A flair for drama, huh?" Roy commented, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"Goes with the job," Ike said with a shrug.

"Never mind that," I butted in. "Why didn't you say anything? You just disappeared without a trace, and I was worried sick about you, you jerk!"

Ike's triumphant smile slipped a little as he regarded me. "I told you, I couldn't let Mortimer know—"

"Bullshit! You could have said something to me anyway! I would've kept it secret! But you just had to go and be all mysterious about everything, just like the stupid hacks you work for!"

"Joey..." Riza said, half-warning and half-concerned.

"...No, she's right." Ike looked away, now completely subdued. "I'm sorry. I should've trusted you more."

My new anger leaked away a little, seeing Ike now reduced to what looked a lot like shame. I glanced away too, suddenly at a loss for words myself.

"I think we should go tell Fullmetal and the others the good news," Roy commented suddenly, starting down the path ahead of us. "Lieutenant?"

"Naturally, sir," Riza said without missing a beat, falling into step beside him. They were giving us privacy, and I appreciated it.

Ike and I remained awkwardly not looking at each other until they'd put a good distance between us. Then we both looked up and spoke abruptly. "I—" We both halted with the same hesitant looks.

"You first," Ike said, gesturing to me.

Well, if you're offering. I swallowed and finished my thought. "I sure as hell wanna blame you for everything, but...you did come to help us. We'd probably still be flailing around in the dark without you, so...um, thanks."

Ike looked down at the ground again. "I wasn't supposed to. Taskmaster Phoenix—I mean, your mom was supposed to have free reign, and I was basically just there to sign all her petitions and oversee the completion of the testing. I—I wasn't supposed to get involved, but..."

Watching him stumble for words, I suddenly had a flash of genius, and I can honestly say I have no idea where it came from. "You're higher ranked than my mom...you're a senior officer, right? Was it you who delayed my testing?"

Ike looked up in surprise, then turned red with embarrassment. "Yeah, I...how'd you know?"

"I'm smart," I replied easily, though the real answer was hell if I know. "So you've been helping me a lot really, more than usual."

Once again he looked away from me. "More than I should've. I shouldn't have gotten involved at all. I mean, we probably shouldn't even have been friends, but you seemed like an interesting person, and I just wanted—I just wondered..."

"You don't have any other friends?" I was on fire today.

His shoulders hunched just slightly. "Senior officers usually don't."

"So...when did you decide you need to interrupt my 'testing' so hard?" I asked.

He seemed to shrink even more, his arms wrapping around his midsection as if to protect him from my question barrage. "There's...there was...I was overseeing two other tests simultaneously. Both of them were horrendous failures. I sort of helped to salvage one, but with some serious damage to that particular branching dimension, and the other...just...exploded in my face, basically. I thought that...it looked like something like that might happen to you and I just couldn't..."

God, what the hell is going on here? I could feel a lump growing in my throat. Ike had often been an annoying snarker, a cocky wiseass, a drunk jokester, all sorts of fun and irritating personas. He'd never been...sad.

"And the douche?" I asked, trying to change the subject a little. "Why was he so dead-set on ruining everything for everyone and being horrible about it?"

"Oh, him." Ike laughed a little, but it was like he was mocking his usual laugh. "He likes to hold grudges. Specifically against people who dump him."

I know my neck craned back a little. "You dated that piece of phlegm?" Isn't he an old geezer? Doesn't that break the law?

"Something like that. He wouldn't know a real relationship if it kicked him in the face, though; it was more like he was trying to orchestrate a political marriage. He likes to have control in as many areas as possible, and he didn't have a foothold in my department yet," Ike said, with a shrug that took a lot of effort to look effortless.

"Well now I have another reason to throw up when I think of him," I sighed.

Ike managed a smile at that, and my super smarts finally clued me in to what all of his body language had been screaming at me this whole time. "Ike...you're wiped out, aren't you," I said.

He let out some sort of laughing sigh. "I must be slipping pretty badly if you can tell," he said.

I chewed on my lip for a second, then gave in to my gut instinct and reached out. Ike flinched, but I determinedly put my arm around his shoulders. "Listen, I think I can handle this from here. You should go catch a nap or something. Or better yet, take a whole vacation. Go to a spa somewhere and get your back cracked."

"I don't think a back cracking is what I need," he said.

"Then do whatever the hell it is you need to do to unwind. And if it makes you feel better, I've decided to forgive you for being a lying bastard."

I had hoped that the little joke would make him laugh, but instead he looked like he wanted to cry. I remembered how he'd gotten seriously quiet whenever I'd said I couldn't trust him, and swallowed to get rid of that stupid lump in my throat.

"Look, you idiot, do you think all my ranting and raving about you betraying my trust would have happened if I didn't care about you? Convoluted Illuminati plots or no, you're my best friend and you're not going to change that so easy, you get me?" I threatened him. I saw a hint of a smile and charged blindly ahead the only way I knew how. "Now as a failed tester who's not under your stupid organization's jurisdiction, I'm ordering you to get some rest and leave this to me. You trusted me this far, so do that for a little longer, got it?"

Finally, finally Ike looked back up at me. He still looked worn, but he was at least smiling again. "...Well, since you asked so nicely..." he said.

I grinned, now fully triumphant. "Damn straight!"

I reached the area where the van was with a positive stride. I was going to project enough confidence to strangle everyone in that van. As I rounded the corner, however, I was attacked by a blur of limbs and red hair.

"You really are alive!" Ricky yelled.

"Joey!" Cassie seconded.

"Shit!" I hollered, startled. "Don't just jump on me like that!"

They were too busy hugging me to respond to my scolding.

Ed strode over next, scowling. "So it's really over? You just talked yourselves into a victory?" he demanded.

"So sorry it wasn't an epic brawl," I deadpanned.

"I'm just glad you're all safe," Al, the voice of reason, said.

"Where'd your friend go?" Roy asked.

"He's under direct orders from me to stop butting in and get some rest," I said. "And speaking of rest, let's jump in the van and get back to the house."

Roy nodded. "I assume you'll be returning us to our proper dimension?"

"You bet. But seriously, my head's still killing me. Lemme pop an aspirin first."

"Hey, I brought some of that!" Ricky exclaimed, releasing me with one arm to dig in the pocket of his khakis. He removed a purse-sized tube of ibuprofen and presented it to me on a flat palm, grinning.

Honestly, I was stunned, and I think my mouth gaped too. "How the hell'd you think to bring that?" I demanded.

"I'm smart!" he replied, oh-so-humbly.

"Shut up and gimme." I snatched that stuff like it was candy and was working at the childproof cap before I even finished talking.

I woke up that evening crammed into my bed. I say crammed because at some point during my hours-long nap, Ricky and Cassie had found their way into my bed again and were taking up every inch of spare room. Thankfully, my on-again-off-again pulsing headache from getting smacked in the back of the head with a giant metal ball seemed to have been suppressed by the ibuprofen I OD'd on earlier.

I sighed dramatically and set about working myself out of bed without disturbing the two. After a few moments I'd made it, and I once again covered them up with my comforter. I pulled my hair back into a presentable bun and straightened my slept-in clothes before leaving my room and heading downstairs.

There, Ed was asleep on the couch, the same place he'd been since we'd gotten back. Roy and Riza were sitting in chairs and appeared to be quietly talking. Al was sitting cross-legged on the floor with his back against the couch. They all looked up when I appeared.

"Hey," I said. "Did you guys rest or anything?"

"In shifts," Riza said.

"How's the head?" Roy asked.

I touched the side of my head. "A lot better. Good for mystical chauffeuring. So...we ready?" They nodded. "Anybody gonna wake Ed up?"

Al turned to look over his shoulder at his brother. "I almost don't want to disturb him, but I guess he should be awake for this." He reached out and lightly shook Ed's shoulder. "Okay, Brother, nap time's over."

Ed didn't budge. Dude sleeps like me, I thought with a snicker.

"Do you know what you're doing?" Roy asked me next.

"Yeah," I automatically shot back. Then, after a moment, "well, probably. I winged it all right before; I'm sure it'll be fine."

"Your ability to inspire confidence needs serious work," Roy said dryly.

"Colonel, be nice," Riza said.

Roy almost rolled his eyes, which forced me to stifle a giggle.

"Oh no..." Al's suddenly worried tone drew all our eyes to him. He was still shaking Ed, but harder. "Something's wrong. Brother's not responding at all."

My smile dropped entirely, along with my stomach. Roy instantly got up and went over to where Ed lay on the couch. He felt Ed's wrist first, then held a hand over his mouth. "His breathing's too shallow," Roy reported grimly.

"Brother? Can you hear me? Wake up, come on!" Al's voice got a frantic edge to it.

Shit! This cannot be happening right now! I bit my lip and watched helplessly as Al started to shake Ed even harder. Riza put both her hands on Al's. "That won't work, and you might hurt him," she said.

"But...but—!" Al was at a loss.

"We need to get him to a hospital," Roy said. It took me a moment to realize that he was talking to me.

"W-What? Here? We can't! Hospitals mean records and questions and not-flying-under-the-radar-isms, which we've actually started doing all right!" I babbled.

"Then send us back, and we'll take him to ours," Roy commanded.

I swallowed. "Okay. That then. Everybody should..." I trailed off when I realized that Roy still held Ed's wrist, Al had stopped shaking but hadn't released Ed, and Riza's hands were still on Al's. "Oh. Never mind. You're touching already. Okay, give me a sec..."

I closed my eyes and clenched my fists. Now I was regretting taking that medicine. The headaches made it easier to tell when I was about to do something dimension-related. If I couldn't feel them, then how...?

Shut up about that! You just said you had this under control! The ability's in there, you just have to find it! Like how you had to keep practicing how to flare your nostrils on command...just a hell of a lot more important!

Right. I could do this. I was amazing and wonderful and talented. I had to believe that.

I can teleport! I can teleport! To Central! Near the hospital would be nice!

I could hear Roy and Riza talking to each other in low voices, something about Ed, but they were quiet mumbles in the background. I was completely focused inward, on myself and my powers, looking for the switch to flip to get them where they needed. Almost instinctively, I reached out my hand. I felt it land on something that felt like an arm under a sleeve.

"Joey?" Riza asked me quietly, revealing it was her arm.

"Please..." Al whispered, sounding scared.

Go! Go! To Amestris! To Central! To the hospital!

Come ON, dammit!

I felt the tiniest pulse at the base of my skull, a little too low for where I'd been clonked in the head earlier. Eagerly, and desperately, I zeroed in on that pulse.

All my hopes and dreams are on you, you stupid pulsing whatever!

The faintest ache began to spread rapidly from that point all across my head, like I'd bent over and someone was dumping water on me from the neck up. I squeezed Riza's arm a little tighter and pictured Central.

Damn! I don't know where the hospital is! Oh well, please let us be close!

The ache spread away in the same pattern it had appeared, and I felt the floor beneath my feet harden and become uneven.

First thing I heard was Roy's muttered "Oh hell!" Then Al's "Oh no!" And finally, the sound of a car horn.

The arm I'd been gripping yanked itself free before clotheslining me straight on, knocking me backwards. I choked, and my eyes flew open. I saw a whirl of orange sky and dim buildings before I landed, hard, on the ground, with someone half on top of me.

I coughed a couple of times, then let out a furious "Good God, why?!"

"You transported us into the middle of the street," Riza told me with no nonsense as she got off me.

"Oh, I did?" I sat up, and the setting finally came into focus. A town bathed in sunset, but a much brighter version than I'm used to.

Riza stood over me, offering a hand up. "It looks like we made it, more or less safely."

I took her hand and got up. Then I finally got a good look around and realized we were alone. Well, alone with the pedestrians who were gawking at us. "Where's the colonel and the Elrics?"

"I don't know."

"Damn, again?" I sighed. "You were still touching Al, right? They should have come along."

Riza seemed to be thinking. "I believe they did, but for some reason we got separated."

"Hey, yeah, because I heard them before I opened my eyes. Did they poof or something?" I looked around as if I could spot them hiding.

"Like I said, I don't know. But if they made it safely they'll be heading for the hospital. We should go there as well," Riza said.

I nodded. "Sounds good. Lead the way."

Approximately three miles later (which is hell in socks and no shoes, let me assure you), we were at the hospital. For once, I assumed the role of quiet backup and let Riza do the talking at the front desk. To both our disappointment, it looked like our missing three hadn't made it to the hospital yet.

"What do we do?" I asked when the receptionist turned to speak with a doctor.

Riza heaved a sigh. "There's not much we can do. I'll call Headquarters and see if we can have a search started for them. Hopefully they'll show up soon and we won't have to worry too much."

I nodded. "Okay, you call and I'll wait outside and see if they appear on the horizon."

As Riza got the receptionist's attention to ask for a phone to use, I turned and went outside. The sun was almost gone, and the streetlights were on. Not a lot of people were out at this hour, so if they did appear they'd be easy to spot. I picked a section of the wall to lean on where I could get a good look both ways down the street, and settled in to wait.

It occurred to me suddenly that Ricky and Cassie were home alone. I felt a jump of fear before remembering that we'd thrashed the bad guys. Certainly Asshole Mortimer wouldn't be able to get his hands on them if he was busy being demoted. And with all the cast back here in Amestris, maybe the whole stupid organization would just leave us alone. That was all I wanted—to get life back to normal.

But what IS normal now? I thought, frowning. Before all of this, normal was Mom not being a villain, and anime still being fictional, and Ike not being a dirty betrayer friend who I couldn't quite hate since he had helped us. Now that this whole Leave It To Beaver charade I'd unknowingly been in had been broken into a billion pieces, what would I do? Just take over the household and have Ricky and Cassie in school as usual? At least I could legally do that, but I'd have to get a better job than my part-time. Or maybe a couple of jobs.

Well, maybe Aunt Jay would come and help. Unless she was in on this too, a thought that made me shudder. Hell, maybe even my neighbors were a part of the scheme, and the only ones not in the loop were me and my siblings. How awful would that be?

So awful that I really don't wanna think about it right now.

I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose, taking another look down each way. Still no Roy, or Al. Maybe I'd sent them to another city? Or somewhere else with convenient hospitals and doctors on hand? Maybe we'd all overreacted and Ed would be fine.

Well, a girl can hope. I sighed again. And then nearly jumped out of my skin when a girl literally appeared in front of me.

"W-What the hell?" I yelped, automatically flailing across the wall away from her.

"Gah! Sorry! I didn't mean to startle ya there, Joey!" The girl held out her hands as if to calm a wild animal, her eyes wide.

I peered at her suspiciously. She looked normal enough—brown eyes, dark skin, darker hair up in a ponytail, a T-shirts and jeans and sneakers, a backpack—but she'd literally appeared out of nowhere. "Ugh...you know my name? Then I'm guessing you're a part of that God-stupid chain-letter brigade. When are you assholes gonna leave me alone?" I asked, exasperated.

"Well I'm actually not a part of that. I mean, I got m' license, but I'm sorta specialized? Tak sent me," the girl said.


"Why?" I asked next.

"Well...we got a problem. And he specifically said only you can fix it, so here I am to collect ya!" The girl scratched the bridge of her nose and looked at me hopefully.

I was a little weirded out. "Okay...what's the problem?"

"Probly better if I show ya instead of tryin' to explain it all." The girl reached for me, but I swatted her hand away. "Hold on a damn second! Don't got touching me all willy-nilly! And I can't just leave the lieutenant here!"

She blinked, then paled. "Oh, but the lieutenant? Um, I can't let her see me, it could destroy a few dimensions."

"...I'm sorry, what?"

"Please just come on!" She extended her hand towards me, looking a little frustrated. "I promise it's not a trap, but if we don't go in the next couple seconds I'll hafta move us through space and time and that's harder than just space. Please? It's about Ed and Colonel Roy."

At that, I snapped to attention. "You know where they are?"

"Yeah, and I'll take you! But we have to go!"

I made up my mind in that second. Maybe someone else in my shoes would have still wanted to know more, or at least gone to tell Riza I was about to vanish. But instead I just took her hand before she even finished talking. She snapped up her other hand, and clenched between her fingers was what looked like a white credit card, in fact a lot like the one I'd seen on Ike back at the headquarters.

The scenery changed in a snap, different from the fade-out-fade-in I was used to. The city around us snapped into a forest, and almost immediately I heard a crash behind us.

"That way," the girl whispered, pointing. "You gotta stop the fight and revive Ed and Colonel Roy. The write-up's still in the pipe, but if you can hold him off for a little bit it'll go through and you'll be in the clear."

"The hell are you talking about?" I asked, my eyes turned towards the sound of a scuffle, hidden by more trees.

"You'll get it when you get in there. Now I gotta motor before something unexpected happens and I totally ruin everything."

I twisted around to see her release my hand. "What, you're gonna poof without even introducing yourself? Since you were flinging my name around..."

"Oh? Uh..." She worked her jaw for a second, like she was thinking it over. "Yeah, guess it can't hurt. I probly won't see you again. I'm Astrid, you can ask Tak about me later."

She smiled at me, saluted, and then disappeared in a snap of air.

I looked at the spot where she'd been for a moment, then pointedly rolled my eyes. All these mysterious people were giving me a non-dimension-hopping-related headache.

Resignedly, I turned and started trudging through the trees to find out exactly what was waiting for me.

Zilo: Once again, thanks for that patience! Until next time!