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Tertius: Faith

part 3 of The Virtues Arc

The firm, the enduring, the simple, and the modest are near to virtue.—Confucius: The Confucian Analects

—warm mud, squishing up between his toes, grainy and almost disgustingly slick. They've been hunting for minnows along the riverfront all day, of course; no school on Sundays, and Mom was back at the house taking a nap.

Winry giggles and splashes him, and the water is warm too; she shrieks when he splashes back, 6-year-old childish screams of laughter and outrage that rise into shrieks as Niisan flings a blob of mud her way (he's been trying to splat her since they got there and now he finally has). It's followed quickly by more splashes as they both scramble out of range of Death-By-Winry—

and now the rain is soaking them as they run for the house, bone-chillingly cold, no longer warm; the weather had turned astonishingly quickly. But even as Niisan mutters a word he shouldn't be saying (they've been hanging around the cattleyard that week, and some of the farmers have interesting vocabularies) they both know that when they get in, Mom will already have hot cocoa waiting and blankets by the fire....

There is a rattle of metal plates as he shifts beneath the bed's thin blanket, and a faint glow flickers inside the empty sockets of his eyes as he wakens, just a little. He can't really get more comfortable—or less comfortable, for that matter; being an unsouled body means that all he can feel is the vaguest hint of pressure that tells him that he is laying down or standing up. Nothing more.

So the glows flicker out back into darkness again, and he falls into sleep; falls into memory, a diver plunging deep and hard into the depths of blue water:

"EEEEEEW!!! MOOOOOOM!! MOM, HE RUBBED WORMS IN MY HAIR!!! EEEEEW, AL I'M GONNA KILL YOU FOR THAT!!!" And he's running like hell, the feel of the gooey worms still gross and sticky all over his hand, making him almost as disgusted as his brother currently is (but Niisan deserved it for putting what Winry's dog did outside onto your breakfast chair. If he does that again, he giggles to himself, wait ‘til he's asleep and put some in his *bed* and see how Niisan likes THAT. Still, he feels sort of bad about squishing the worms...) But right now he's running, bare feet thudding hard-hard-hard against the damp grass and skidding as he swings himself around the corner of the house, fingers splintery-tight on the wooden porch railing—straight into his furious brother, who has a handful of something slimy ready and an evil grin on his face

On his face shadows flicker fitfully; the rain's still coming down. It's been doing its best to drown Central all week. He shifts again with a squeak of overstrained bedsprings, wondering sleepily how rust would feel if he could feel it—would it itch? Or hurt? He almost can't remember itching or hurting, except while he dreams. Then it all comes clear again, rushing back like tears.

...and he's crying because his tooth throbs and feels like it's going to hurt like this forever and never ever stop, the pain is so huge. Mom has said that tomorrow they'll go into town and have his bad tooth pulled, but he's scared of the dentist... Even though he doesn't want to be a baby he's huddling in her arms with tears running down the swollen side of his face. And Niisan, wonder of wonders, isn't teasing him for being a baby; instead he goes next door and brings back ice from the Rockbell's carefully-treasured store that they keep for medical uses. It helps, too, makes some of the fire and throbbing go away so he can sob himself to sleep on his mother's lap.

Niisan's asleep, or as asleep as he manages these days. He can't recall Niisan sleeping an entire night through in the past few years unless under sedation or so dead-tired that he could barely breathe. But as the rain drums on the roof, Niisan's chest rises and falls slow and even, not rough and staccato with bad dreams or hitching in pain.

What did breathing feel like? Was it something you did deliberately, or did it just happen? And when you held your breath, where did you keep it, in your lungs or your mouth or your throat? He doesn't remember. Experimentally he makes the sound of an indrawn breath (how, he doesn't know; he doesn't think about it either, just in case that breaks the charm and he finds himself suddenly mute)—the rush of air past lips and teeth, hissing down into the lungs—and then lets it go again, a puff of nothing but sound. He can do that, if he wants; he can even whistle.

But he can't remember how to hold his breath.

Panting breath and cool water on a warm day, gulped down too fast and running in drips and drops across his shirt like comforting fingers. But suddenly the shirt's over-warm and he tugs it off, wincing as one of Sensei's teaching-bruises reminds him that Next Time He Had Better Be Faster. He tilts his head back, drinking almost all of the cup, and then he pours the last of it over his upturned face and squints as the drops run into his eyes and ears.

"You're dripping on the floor, Al... Better not let Sensei see that—"

Ooops; so he hastily drops his shirt and scrubs up the dribbles with one foot before she returns from the bath-house. But it's still so hot so he goes to the pump for another cup and allow the extra water to run over wrists and palms, cool as shade and sweet as forgiveness.

"Here she comes; ready to try what we practiced yesterday on her?" And he nods against his better judgment, but Niisan is determined (isn't he always? Pig-headed, Mom had called him) and so he drops down suddenly into a crouch so Niisan can run up his back like a monkey and launch into the air towards Sensei—

The air feels grey and only faintly lit through the drop-streaked windows; almost dawn now, rainwashed light filtering dimly across their dorm-room in thin, skeletal lines on the floor. Turning over with a restless skid of metal across sheets, he drowsily remembered a thought he had had once when he was... eight? or nine? just before, anyway... about how light seemed to have a *weight* to it, lying across a person's skin. He had been sprawled across the floor reading in front of the fireplace, and it had seemed to him that the heat of the fire could be felt like a faint, ghostly hand, pushing against his hair and the hand that shielded his eyes from the direct glare. Was it just heat that made the pressure, or did light itself have its own mass, too small to measure?

Weight; he could remember what that was like, anyway. Weight meant gravity; gravity meant depression.

Of course, everything had its opposite, negative values balancing against positive and vice versa; that meant that light meant... lightness?

and he was spinning and spinning and spinning around and around and around in his four-year-old wheel of self, arms flung out wide enough to embrace the world as he fell down on the grass, laughing beside Winry and his brother. Dizziness made circles inside his head, almost as if his brain was revolving in his skull; giddy, he rolled over with his eyes shut and began to tickle Niisan blindly, which got him pinned down and tickled as well until his thrashing shrieks brought Winry's mother to the window to see what the noise was about—

Morning sounds were beginning to leak out into the hall alongside the light; grumbles and vague voices, water running, the sound of a toilet. Niisan rolled over, a bad case of bed-head making him look like the business end of a blond mop as he scrubbed at his eyes and mumbled something unintelligible (fortunately) before falling almost immediately back asleep. He never had been a morning person—

The first few days of not-feeling no-bodyness had been almost insanely scary. It had almost been like those things he had heard the damaged soldiers talk about over at Winry's house, how when you lost an arm or a leg you could still sort of feel it.

And... he COULD, he really could, almost; almost.

It had hurt, all over, the not-thereness. Every bit of ghost-feeling had hurt, hurt, hurt, HURT. Like having your skin stripped away a bit at a time, like a million ant-bites, hurting inside your head until it crowded out the words and filled up your world with red pressure. It wasn't real; his body was gone, he understood that. Understanding didn't stop the pain, though he managed to keep his screams silent except when he was in his room at night and could muffle them in his pillow after Niisan fell asleep.

How could something that wasn't there *hurt* so much? It wasn't FAIR.

Well, it could; just like he could scream without really having a mouth to do it with. That wasn't fair either.

But it was then, while he had watched his Niisan lying so small and white and bandaged in his bed and thought to himself that his pain was just phantoms, his pain was nothing compared to Niisan's, that he understood how he could make the agony leave. All he had to do was forget: forget warmth and coolness, forget touch and texture, forget hunger and thirst and contentment. Forget the feelings of being alive; forget it all, and it would forget him as well.

forget the feeling of Mom's hand on his hair, the memory of being rocked to sleep—

forget voices and faces and sunlight and the thudding of his heart in his chest—

forget the taste of apples and the warm, smug purring of a smuggled kitten hidden beneath the bed-covers—

forget the shrill sharpness of a skinned knee, the angry purple hurt of a stubbed toe, the maternal kiss that made it all better—

...and after a little while the feelings had gone away completely, just like he had thought they would. All the way away.

But Niisan was still hurting. And his fierce, stubborn, unbreakably determined eyes had haunted him even more than the memory of his mother's death, and he had to do it. He had to forget...

Because that way maybe Niisan wouldn't hurt as much. Niisan was stubborn like that.

And so was Alphonse.

"Mmmph?" Niisan was waking up now, shirt rucked up around his armpits and half his bedcovers on the floor. "Nff; whmphaargh. ‘nother ten m'nutes....." The thrown pillow from his brother's bed was nothing more than a near-daily formality, just the usual. "Blaaghff. ‘kay...."

One of Niisan's boots dropped onto the floor with a thud while he put the other one on; and his brother thought about gravity. And the term ‘pig-headed', which he vaguely recalled thinking about earlier.

Things were heavy by nature; they grew lighter only with work and refinement, like replacing the cruder metals with better, stronger ones, thinner and more flexible or stiff as necessity required. You even had sayings about it; "Many hands lighten the work" and that sort of thing. If you wanted things to improve, you lightened them and made them more efficient.

Niisan was working on his hair now; idly his brother remembered that he himself had never had long enough hair to be able to braid it. Maybe when he got his body back...

...because he would, sooner or later; he believed that with all the heart he had once had. And it wasn't just Niisan's stubbornness that would do it or even his own, or Colonel Mustang or anybody else; it was time as much as anything that would do it. Time and patience and faith, and Edward Elric's steady beating of his fists on the door. Every day they lived, every step they took, it moved them further away from the past and closer to their goal..... someday.....

warm mud between his toes/pounding feet, running/pain and its relief/cool water/giddiness, the pure delight of just being alive—

Niisan was pig-headed, wasn't he?

...and he believed that one day they would reach it. And Niisan's pain would go away at last and he would be able to feel again. He would allow himself to feel again, when Niisan was no longer hurting anymore. Then it would be okay to be alive again for real.

Someday.

He believed. His brother was far too stubborn for it not to happen; if the world trembled before alchemy, it positively cowered before Edward Elric and his unshakable, unbreakable, unwavering pig-headedness. So, he believed.

And in the meantime (until Someday happened) he had his dreams.

"C'mon, Al, you ready?" Yaaaaaaaaawn. "I want to grab a bite before we hit the library. There's this section I saw yesterday in a book, something to do with Holdinger's theory about secondary and tertiary natal criteria in arrays—" A second yawn; Edward Elric scratched at his head and stretched, blond braid swinging. "Let's go—"

"Niisan, is your report ready for the Colonel?"—-and he stood, joints rasping against each other; maybe he really was starting to rust. His brother guiltily avoided his eyes as he opened the door (which is as good an answer as any). But the report was probably ready anyway; he just liked to jerk the Colonel's chain whenever possible.

Edward Elric was stubborn that way.

"Come ON, Niisan!"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever... Hey Al, wait up—"

And so was his younger brother.