baka neko

The Path Not Taken

chapter 2.

Let me tell you a story:

There was a rich nobleman, who married many times. His first wife died of sickness, he said, and the second fell down the stairs and broke her neck. How very unfortunate, his neighbours agreed. But because he was very rich, it was easy to find women willing to marry him.

He married again, and gave his new wife all the keys to every room in the house. But here is one room you must not open, he told her, though you may invite your friends and you family and let them visit every other room. And if you open that room, I will be very angry. So he kissed his wife and rode off on a journey

His new wife promptly invited all her friends and her beloved sister and together they went through the castle, amazed at the many rich and wondrous things the noblemen owned. For as he had promised, the keys he had given opened every door.

Every door, save the one he had told his wife never to open. And as they walked up and down and laughed and ate and sang, something grew in the heart of the wife and she wondered: What lies behind the door that he told me not to open?

And that thing in her heart grew and grew, until she felt her heart would burst; so she took up her keys, and went alone down the stairs, leaving her guests to make merry. And she put the key to the lock and turned it; she took hold of the door knob and turned it, and so she opened the door.

Let me tell you a story.

This is my laboratory, Shou Tucker said. I'm currently doing research on chimeras. Be careful with how you handle them; quite a few have sharp teeth. This is the chemicals cupboard; I usually keep it locked, but I'll get a key made for you. This is the guestroom, here's the key—it's a little dusty but should serve you well. You can go into all the rooms of the house and use the library; but I would appreciate it if you didn't go into the laboratory unless I accompany you, Elric-kun.

"This is my daughter, Nina Tucker, and our dog, Alexander," said Shou Tucker. "Nina, this is Edward Elric. He'll be staying with us from today onwards. He just got his automail limbs, so he needs some time to recover."

He's still wearing the turtleneck and shorts from last night; he looks tired and pain-dazed.

"Can I call you niisan?" Nina pipes up. Her hair is in two pony tails today, tied with blue bows, and a small fat fist is crammed into the corner of her mouth, a sign of uncertainty, her other hand wrapped around Shou's fingers.

"No," says Edward Elric. "My brother is dead."

"I'll be going shopping for clothes," Shou says, pulling on his coat and hat. "Nina, can you stay with Elric-kun? His therapist will be paying a visit in the afternoon. I'd appreciate it if you looked after him until I come back."

Nina nods seriously. "I'll look after him with Alexander," she says, her fist buried in Alexander's thick coat. Then she hesitates. "Does Elric...Ed-niisan hate me?"

"No," says Shou reassuringly. "He just misses his brother and he's upset. And his automail limbs are still hurting him—that's why the therapist is coming. He'll be nicer to you when they don't hurt so much."

"Oh." Nina thinks about that, and Shou waits patiently. "Did his brother go far away like Mommy did?"

Shou is silent for a while. "Something like that."

Edward-niisan doesn't scream, but the hiss of air between his clenched teeth sounds strangely loud, while the therapist, cold-faced and professional, continues to flex his automail leg.

He slumps, wet and shaking into the recliner set up especially for this, and doesn't even lift his head when the door closes behind the therapist. For a moment all he can hear is the sound of his own panting, the crazy rhythm of his heartbeat and when he closes his eyes he sees only bloody starbursts.

"Edward-nii, do you want a glass of water?"

He doesn't want to lift his head and look into that soft round face, the innocent eyes; the same kind of eyes Alphonse had when he followed his brother blindly into the dark and tried to raise their mother. He's the worst of all brothers there could possibly be; even Abel was murdered once.

"...I told you not to call me that."

"...Daddy said you had a brother before he went away like Mommy did."

"I TOLD YOU TO GO AWAY!" he snarls. His real arm lashes out and knocks the glass from her hand, it hits the floor and shatters. Nina blinks at him, wide-eyed, the bangs of her hair clinging wetly to her forehead. If she cries, he may have to kill her. He can't stand that sound any longer. He watches her swallow, visibly biting back tears.

"..but you don't have a sister right? I thought, if I'm your sister, I could call you that."

"I..." Ed begins to say, and has to stop. The blood pulses in his temples, and for a moment a ghost boy whispers in his ears.

He shouldn't be here, shouldn't be hearing this. He has no brother, he has no mother, because he killed them both. Instead a ghost whispers all forlorn in his ear, and he wears a metal arm and leg.

Niisan, says the ghost. Niisan.

"You'll have to get changed," Ed says at last. "You're soaked. You'll catch a cold."

Nina looks uncertainly at him, swaying towards the door. She's only four years old and rather literal.

"I'll walk up to your room with you." he says.

He's rewarded with a sunburst smile, and Nina trots closer, carefullly avoiding the broken glass. She holds out her hand expectantly.

"Er, just...just turn around and look at the wall first, Nina. I need to get dressed." He's pink all the way down to his boxers, and Nina spins around with a giggle.

Nina is the sun and the stars, the earth beneath his feet and the heavens above his head. He braids her hair into pigtails because she is five now, and bakes her a cake and decorates it. He helps her hold the knife when she cuts the cake, and bends down and keeps her secret when she whispers in his ear what her wish is. He reads her stories from her books; he even sings a lullaby, just once, just for her. She wants to grow up to be an alchemist just like him and Daddy, she whispers when he tucks her into bed. And he promises he'll teach her.

She is the best thing in his life, just as he thought it should have ended, ages ago, in the ashes of Lisenburgh.

"I've bought you a strawberry pie, Nina!" he calls, juggling the basket and the wet umbrella while trying to close the door against the wind. The huge gusts rattle the windows in their frames, splatter raindrops against the glass like bombs. There is no running little girl, no sloppy happy Alexander coming to greet him. Puzzled, he hangs up the umbrella and drops the basket onto the side table.

The damp smell in the house still tastes thick of cigars—Brigadier General Grahn must have come then, and Nina is most likely in her room, playing at being quiet with Alexander. He heads for the stairs, then pauses.

The door to the laboratory is open.

Let me tell you a story: How the nobleman's wife opened the door and saw the bodies of his dead wives. Let me tell you how she screamed and dropped her key, then with trembling fingers snatched it up and shut and locked the door behind her. Let me tell you how she fled from it, up the stairs and into her room, and tried to scrub the blood off her hands and then that same key, but a speck of blood remained. She went to her sister then, begging her to call her brother to save her, and the sister went to the top of the tower to look for them.

But the nobleman returned, and asked her to return the keys, and saw by her face and her trembling hands that she had not kept faith, and in fury swore he would kill her. And she, stammering with fear and weeping, begged for time, begged to make her peace with her maker and pray.

Let me tell you this: This story ended well, and the brother came in time, and chopped off the nobleman's head instead and saved the wife.

This is not their story.

"Tucker-san," says Edward, his feet soundless on the stairs. "It's time for dinner."

"Ah," murmurs Tucker vaguely. In the dim light, his face looks hollow and shadowy. The chimera at his feet whimpers.

"I'll go up and call Nina down as well."

"There's no need to, Elric-kun. Nina isn't here anymore."

A deep breath. "Why? Where did she go?"

"Oh...Nina...her mother came back and took her away with her."

"WHAT? And you let her?" Ed lunges forward, seizing him by the lapels. "You let her take Nina away? Why? Bring her back!" He's twelve, shorter even then Tucker, but the strength of his fury shakes Shou like a rag doll, rattles his teeth and knocks off his glasses.

He stops and stares into Tucker's eyes. At their feet, the chimera stirs.

"Ed....war...nii..." the chimera croaks. ""

The blood is beginning to pound in his head, and he turns to look at the chimera. It raises itself in slow, awkard movements, just like the way he moved when he'd just gotten his automail, when each step was like a thousand knives.

He knows those eyes, loved them the day those eyes looked up into his own and said brother.

"I am going to kill you," says Edward dreamily, and for the first time in his life, transmutes his automail arm into a jagged blade.