baka neko


"You are not to go to Central," said Pinkao, and she looked old and tired.

"I can't not go," said Winry. "If nothing else, at least I'll be there for Ed. Al's been missing for nearly a month, Grandmother." She bundled up a white shirt into the suitcase; the compactly rolled up pouches containing her tools went in with greater care.

"You think I don't know? I picked up the call." Pinako shook her head. "But even here in Resembool we've heard of the attacks. It's not safe for women to walk in Central, especially at night. They lose jewellery, anything gold, and some of them have been raped."

"No one died."

"Not yet." her grandmother corrected, and there was a grim set to her mouth. "I'd forbid you to go..."

Winry smiled ruefully and leaned over to kiss her grandmother's cheek. That iron-set mouth did not change, but an invisible sigh seemed to gust through her. "But I'd go anyway, because I'm a Rockbell, and once we're set on something..."

"Go, you silly child." Pinako said gruffly. "But if you get hurt in any way I'll never forgive you."

There was nothing she could reply to that. So she kissed her grandmother's cheek once more, pulled on a green sweater and headed for the train station.

Ed was taller, but then, he was eighteen now.

"You shouldn't have come," said Ed, his eyes pouchy and dark. "It's not safe here. Even without some sicko attacking women at night– you shouldn't have come." He brooded over his beans. "Hughes has thrown up road-blocks everywhere, patrols, done everything short of pulling apart every single brick of Central City and we still can't find Al or even stop the bloody attacks. It's too dangerous here, Winry."

"Ed, if you're going to just jabber nonsense again, I'm stuffing a bottle of milk in. Now, eat!" She glowered at him and the nearly full plate.

He ate. For at least three spoonfuls, and then he put the spoon down again. Before Winry could harangue him further, a private tapped on the door with an apologetic expression.

"Ah, sir, you're wanted in the tac–"

"I'm on my way," said Edward tersely, pushing the bowl aside. "Thanks, Winry. You'll be staying with the Hughes right? Better get over now."

"I know, I know– go do your thing. I'll be back at Mister Hughes' house before sundown." Winry promised, sighing a little at how little Ed had eaten. Ed was going to be skin and bones, and when they finally found Al, she'd have to present Ed and Al would go – Winry? Why are you showing me a model of a skeleton? and she would go Oh Al, I'm so sorry. Ed just wasted away because he wouldn't eat, and of course, his skeleton is stunted too because he wouldn't drink any milk.

She snickered in spite of herself, and slid off the seat. Better go reassure the Gracia she hadn't been kidnapped along the way.

She'd only been to Central twice. Despite that, she was pleasantly surprised at how much she remembered of the route, despite the inevitable detour into several tool stores. The people were friendly, if worried, and more than one gruff storekeeper advised her to hurry home before sunset. Then she passed the Carterhall Park and darted in on a whimsy. It was a small, well-kept park maze, and she amused herself by wandering in the green passageway of man-tall hedges and a veritable cascade of pale roses woven in an arching spray overhead, ranging from pale pink to dark red. The perfume was light, but dizzying. More than once she thought she half-saw a face in the leaves, formed by a trick of light and shadow, and her steps grew languid and slow. Then she burst into the center, half-blinded by the sudden sunlight, and blinked several times to adjust. In the middle of the clearing was a lovely little fountain with a cherub gleefully emptying a jar. She walked over and looked in with delight– the tiles were deep cobalt blue and flecked with gold, and there were baby mermaids frolicking at the base. The water rippled hynoptically.

Then a white rose petal tumbled by, borne on by the waters and she raised her head. Behind the fountain was a rose bush, not so well trimmed as the rest of the topiary, but almost bristling with wild sprays of white blooms. It took a mere three steps and she was standing before it– closer, the perfume lingered heavy and sweet, and in two breaths she had plucked two blooms.

"Lady," said the voice behind her, a tenor, ringing gold. "You will pull no more."

Al? her heart thought and leapt. She turned.

There was a man, with wild gold hair and dreamy eyes, wrapped in grey and standing behind her. There was something– strange, about his face. She knew, somehow, he was handsome, that his eyes were the colour of– she couldn't fix his features down, as though it was wrapped in mist. Even the shape of his body wavered like smoke. Like an elf from a fairy tale. Three strides and he towered over her, and he reached for her hands and gently opened her clenched fingers, bleeding from where the thorns had dug in unnoticed. She started, staring down at the drops of red in her palm. She had not even noticed the pain.

"You broke my roses," he said softly, gently even. "You broke the branches. Why did you come into this garden without my leave?"

She stared at him. "Carterhall belongs to no one, if at all. I may come and go as I please and by no one's leave."

His smile was sword-bright and sharp. "Then by no one's leave, Lady," he said, and caught her by the hair and dragged her down. His mouth followed. It tasted– green, and of metal, of some strange, exotic herb and he was very, very strong...

She worked with automail– her arms were muscled and wiry, and she had wrestled with the Elric brothers before they grew up and left to learn alchemy. She escaped with her life and a bloody rose.

Gracia exclaimed over her hands, and helped her wash the rose clean and strip it of its thorns before she gave it to Elysia. She seemed not to notice anything amiss with her guest, and Winry was grateful. Her questions, instead, were of what she'd heard in the Headquarters, and whether Maes would be back for dinner, and if Edward would join him before he starved to death.

Al was still missing, and strange 'incidents' were happening in Central, Winry told her as she sipped tea and held the warm cup in her bandaged hands. The thornpricks throbbed with a different heat. No, neither would be back for dinner again. Something new had come up– something about a new drug discovered and they were now testing it.

When she went in again, Ed was curled up on a couch, finally asleep. Maes instead chatted desultorily with her over a cup of coffee, his own eyes dark with fatigue. "The drug? Oh yes. They've only started testing, but the only thing we know so far is that it causes powerful hallucinations, and it's airborne. It tends to linger, on skin and clothing too, like perfume, and even people around the original victim start experiencing secondary hallucinations. We're still not sure how long the effects linger for."

Something tickled the back of her memory. Then Ed woke up, grumbling a little, and she concentrated on stuffing in as much breakfast down his gullet before he was coherent enough to protest. Hughes told her to come back every day, especially in the mornings.

Another four weeks slithered by without even a hint, or– she didn't know why, but the mood was of a grim waiting silence. She found herself waiting too, for something.

It broke at breakfast. Hughes had dragged Ed over to get some sleep instead of spending too many late nights poring over maps and reports – then Elysia asked her point blank, "Winry-neechan, why are you so green?"

"Just a little queasy," Winry assured her. Then noting the look of confusion on Elysia's face, elaborated further. "Just a stomach upset. So I feel like throwing up."

"Not over Gracia's magnificent pancakes!" Hughes exclaimed. Then suspiciously, "You've been taking care of yourself, have you? Bad enough we have one sick shrimp–" he fended off an enraged Ed easily; the alchemist moving in slow motion, still sleep-dazed.

Gracia had an odd look on her face. "Elysia, would you like to show Daddy and Edward the picture you made last night? Yes, right now. Thank you."

"Winry," she said slowly, after the men had vacated their seats, Ed protesting faintly, "I swear I'll not speak of it to anyone else. When was your last period?"

She swallowed. "Six weeks. And a half."

Gracia inhaled. "There's a test kit I can get you to check." Her eyes darted sideway to the door the men had passed, then zipped back to her, almost ashamed.

"My own fault," said Winry lowly. "There is no one in this house who will have a child named after him.

Gracia looked uncomfortable. "Surely you can tell him– I assure you, Maes will, back you up if Ed doesn't–"

"No." said Winry firmly. "This isn't something they can help in." She stood up too fast; the chair went skidding backwards, and in the silence after she could hear Elysia's clear voice echoing down the stairs.

"I can't explain it now," she said, and left the house.

She wrapped her sweater tightly around herself, braided her hair with restless, nervous movements on the bus. She missed her stop and had to walk back, shivering in spite of the sun.

I can't explain it now, she had said to Gracia. But she didn't think she could ever explain it– how that man, like a dream or a demon had a pull on her like gravity; she felt the all of herself yearning towards that green park and that tiny-voiced fountain where the roses bloomed.

He was dressed in grey and he moved like smoke or shadow, and I don't even know if he's human. How could I ever explain, Gracia?

She bit her lip once, when she wended her way through, and stood before the fountain and the rosebush again. I'd trade him for nothing in this world, she thought. There is nothing of equal cost.

She plucked two white roses.

Lady," said the voice, like the echo of a dream. "You will pull no more."

Her heart did not leap, did not cry "Al!". But she knew that voice, knew it the way she knew her own heartbeat.

It was Al's, transmuted, dark and strange with desperation and madness. No wonder she had not recognized it; not when she had not seen him since he was fourteen and still spoke as a boy.

"Why take roses from this garden?" he asked her, his voice silken as his grey arms wrapped around her from behind. "You left here with your life once. Do you want me to kill the child inside as well?"

Goosebumps prickled her flesh. "Where do you come from?" she whispered. "How did you come here, to guard this fountain and these roses?"

The release was so fast she yearned backwards into his warmth. She turned, letting the roses fall. Was it Al? Was it not-Al? Al had been a suit of armour when she'd last seen them– but...but

Would Al grow up to be like him?

Yes, her heart whispered back. He was gentle. And you would know that anywhere, no matter how he changed.

"I–" the man took a step back further. "I...I was fighting. Someone. And I fell into the dark. Into there–the faeries live there. I never dreamed they lived in darkness, but they're dreams aren't they? So they came from the dark. Faery-dark. Faery-dreams."

She took a step forward. He didn't seem to notice. "Then the lady found me–she was all night and fire-eyes, she took me home. She said I was hers."

"What did she do to you?" Winry whispered.

"I–nothing. Something. She feeds me, and gives me something to drink. She treats me well. But–it's so strange. I feel– She told me today..."

Winry held her breath. "Go on."

"They pay a tithe to their lord, she says. To the king of hell. I think I'm the one."

Her heart nearly stopped. "Are you sure, Al?"

He didn't seem to react at all. "Does that mean– will you die?" Winry asked.

Al frowned at her. "Perhaps. But everyone is afraid. The big man and the smiling one– they're all afraid. They won't talk about him, just say to wait. But the lady in black says..." His eyes drifted away from her, staring at something only he could see.

"It'll be just like meeting father."

"You can't meet him." said Winry flatly. "Come away with me, Al. It's dangerous. Ed's looking for you–"

"I can't go. She'll find me, no matter where I am. They've been staying here because they've been ringed by iron, by men bearing iron, they can't find a way out..."

"I'll think of something," said Winry urgently. "Please Al. How can I save you?"

He paused. "At midnight, tonight." He looked at her at last, frowning a little. "Tonight is all Hallow's Eve. There will be a parade, and the King will lead them in a black car. They'll go down Miles Cross and pass the city gates. First will come soldiers in black, riding black horses, then there will be soldiers in green, riding brown horses. There'll be a procession all in costume. The lady will be there, and the big man and the smiling one too. But the last one will be me. I'll be in white armour, and I'll ride a white horse, and you must pull the rider off."

He broke off, shaking his head a little. "My head– I'll be the one on the white horse. They said I must wear the armour because of who I was before. I think...I don't know."

"Al," she said, and dared to touch him.

"You must hold on." he looked through her, faint panic in his eyes. "The rider will change–they'll change me. Like a snake, like an asp or an adder, but you must hold on. I'm your baby's father."

"Yes Al," she whispered, her insides turned to ice.

"Then a bear and a lion, but you must hold on. You'll love your child, I know it."

"I will Al," she whispered. "Forever."

"Then a red-hot iron brand. You have to hold on, I won't harm you, I know it. And when they'll turn me into fire itself–you must throw me into water– and I'll be there. I'll be me, I know I will. I love you."

"Come with me," said Winry again, and her eyes were stinging.

"I can't. They've marked me. They'll find me, and they'll find you!" He was distraught now, moving jerkily, and he paced away from her. "But I'm your baby's father. I think I remember you." He shook his head again, as if in pain, then suddenly whirled and plunged into the bushes.

"AL!" But no matter how she searched that park after, she found no trace.

Midnight. She would find him at midnight.

Gracia would not attend the parade– it was too late for Elysia, and Ed and Hughes had not even returned from Headquarters. So she walked alone, gladly, to Miles Cross, with her green sweater on for luck.

Around her the revellers sang and talked, and above her lanterns shaped like pumpkin jacks glowed. And then she heard a faint chiming sound, and the soft purr of a car. Men and women cleared the streets and stood on the sidewalks in anticipation.

They're here. She stepped back and crouched down by a stack of boxes, out of the dim circles of light, away from the crowd.

First passed the black car, the emblazoned lion catching light. People cheered as the Fuhrer waved. Then came the soldiers, their horses snorting as they paced down the road in even clops. The bells on their tack danced and jangled. Then the revellers dancing behind, as bloody clowns and waltzing vampires, as white-sheeted ghosts with red mouths. She saw the lady in black with her fire eyes ride by, smiling lazily, the big man and a smirking one flanking her. She let them all pass her by, and started climbing up the boxes.

Then a white horse clopped around the bend, slowly, the white rider half-slumped as if in pain. Winry took a deep breath, rubbed her sweaty palms and leapt.

Her leap carried both herself and the rider off the horse cleanly; they fell to the ground in a painful clang of metal, throwing sparks. Arms and legs tangled painfully, her soft wool hardly up to buffering the jab of metal against her hip. The rider struggled in her arms, thrashing in panic, and around her the crowd roared– some in confusion, others in amusement, thinking part of the show.

Winry cried out as one gauntleted hand struck her lip and cheek, but held on fast. Then under her, Al rolled abruptly, and something like a black spear sliced his armoured arm open as if it were a tin can. A winged snake tattoo flashed briefly beneath; Al continued rolling. Then people screamed and scattered as the big man lunged forward, biting through the huge stone wall that sprouted out of the ground.

"Winry!" Ed roared, and with a crackle of lightning sent a huge stone lion lunging forward.

"Ed–" she tried to say, then nearly doubled over as an elbow caught her in the gut. She clung on, but Al had gotten his hands free and slammed them onto the ground. The ground quaked; the road cracked and a huge bear rose and swiped at Ed from behind. He spun and smashed into the ground. Bullets whined overhead as uniformed men dashed forward. The bear turned towards the slowly rising red heap.

"AL, NO! It's your brother!" she screamed. Al jerked once, under her, wavering, and the bear collapsed into nothingness.

"Burn her," the woman hissed, fire eyes dancing. None of the bullets seemed to touch her. Her fingers were a fan of spears.

Al clapped his hands together. Winry found herself grasping a burning brand of iron, and she screamed as it seared her arms and through her skin. Her skin was smoking, her hair was on fire, the iron seemed to brand itself on her skin–

And beneath the fire, she could feel the man bucking beneath her, desperately trying to throw her off, trying to escape her, escape even himself.

You're my baby's father, Al. She didn't let go.

"Al," she tried to pant, but the fire was burning everything, even her tongue, all the oxygen–was that her heart beating like a drum, like footsteps?

"AL, YOU IDIOT!" Ed growled and slammed his hands down on the burning armour. There was a hiss-the fire suddenly quenched and then she found herself spluttering as the armour simply– wasn't there. She gasped as her arms tightened around wet skin instead, water soaking her clothes. Al went limp under her.

"I have him!" she screamed at Ed, who nodded and whirled back into the chaos.

"I have him," she almost wept, as she struggled to stand and haul up a naked Al, lying wet and limp in her arms. He was too heavy– but she'd held on, she'd keep holding no matter what. Then another pair of arms supported Al, and she blinked up, grip tightening in panic.

"Come on girl," said Hughes gently, voice rough with exhaustion and pain, "you did well. Let's go home."

"I have him," she said, tiny-voiced, and let herself be guided to the waiting car.