Chapter Sixteen: Tabula Rasa
"We'll camp here tonight," Hiroki said as the team approached a clearing in between a couple of mountain boulders. Over the past two weeks, the six had been hiding out in the Nako mountain range, their plane safely hidden in the valley below. Although they had found a military jeep in the bottom of the plane, they still did a lot of traveling on foot so they couldn't be tracked as easily. If in fact they were being tracked at all. They hadn't so much as seen an FMA bumper sticker since their infiltration which seemed like an emotional double edged sword, relieving their anxiety but making them ever wonder about what their enemy was up to. Though some were taking it far harder than others.
Hiroki glanced at Misaki as the teen set his pack down and slumped onto the ground, looking extremely worn out. But it wasn't just today. Everyone had seen a radical change in Misaki over the past couple weeks, and it wasn't for the better. The teen was quiet, melancholy, and disinterested in everything around him, his spirits so low not even Nowaki could lift them. Shinobu was faring a little better thanks to Miyagi, but Hiroki knew Nowaki couldn't give Misaki that same unwavering support. Nowaki was their only doctor, and he had to give equal attention to all the injured, especially Alpha. For some reason their leader seemed to be down as well lately, though in a much more physical sense. Most of the time he was short of breath, pale, sweaty, and shaky, and Nowaki couldn't seem to figure out why.
Akihiko never complained about his pain, but he had allowed Hiroki to take leadership of the group for the time being. Alpha seemed distracted as of late, and Hiroki had reason to believe it was because of Misaki. Even while he ran high fevers, Akihiko seemed to be watching the teen closely, though he kept his distance.
Hiroki unconsciously rolled his eyes at his old friend. What the hell was going on in that moron's head? What did he want?
But more importantly, when was he going to stand back up and take leadership? Alpha had been the one to rally them together and give them a goal, but now everything they had built was falling apart. It wasn't that they were fighting each other, but that they were breaking down, and it was destroying the team.
Hiroki sighed and glanced at Misaki again, who was staring at the ground with a forlorn look he knew well. The teen wasn't facing the FMA or any outward evil, but his own demons, and that was a fight that could only be fought alone.
Misaki shivered on the cold, hard ground, his few blankets doing little to comfort him. The night was especially frigid in the mountains, and they couldn't risk a fire. The teen glanced over at Shinobu, who was curled up with Miyagi. They seemed to be sleeping okay, which made him even more depressed. He felt so alone.
What was even the point of all this? Running away like stray animals. It was probably only a matter of time before they were caught anyway.
A few drop of moisture filled Misaki's eyes and he pulled the blanket over his head, enveloping himself in the comforting darkness where nothing existed.
It was some time before Misaki's eyes reopened, and as he awoke the first thing he noticed was a gentle clinking sound in the distance. The teen slowly got up and realized with a bit of panic that he was alone. The air was thick with fog and he stumbled a little as he walked through the darkness. But as he moved, his eyes could suddenly make out a faint light in the distance, and his pace increased as he headed towards it. As he approached, he could make out a single figure sitting cross-legged on a rock, swaying gently and chanting to itself, though what it said Misaki could not understand.
"Hello?" He called to it. The figure paused briefly, but went back to murmuring.
"Tabula rasa…tabula rasa…clean the slate…erase the pain…"
Misaki headed closer to it and nearly gasped as he saw the person in full light. But it wasn't a person at all. It was a puppet. A wooden figure with creaking elbow joints and spider web strings, moving on its own, ever chanting those same words, "Tabula rasa."
The puppet quieted a bit as the teen stood in before it, and it's ball socket shoulders rolled as it leaned forward expectantly.
"So you've come at last."
"W—What do you mean?" Misaki asked. "What—Who are you?"
The figure's head lolled to the side curiously as it answered.
"I'm you." It said, spreading its arms to show all the various connecting strings.
"B—But that's not right…I'm—I'm not a doll. I'm not a puppet!"
The figure grunted musingly.
"Maybe not literally, but everyone has something they are bound by. You wear these strings in life, even if you cannot see them…Tabula rasa."
"You keep saying that," Misaki whispered in fright. "What does it mean?"
The puppet's unchanging face sudden took on a disturbing smile, and it crouched forward on the rock with its fingers tapping.
"You're tired, Misaki, aren't you?"
"A little, I guess…you woke me."
"Tired, tired, tired. Weary of running and fighting and trudging onward. You're tired of living, aren't you?"
"Don't lie to me, Misaki. I am you after all. I can see it in your eyes. You have nothing to live for."
Even while Misaki shook his head and gritted his teeth in denial, deep in the dark recesses of his mind, he knew this was becoming true. He had no one. He had nothing…
"That's it," The pseudo Misaki crooned as if he'd read the boy's mind. "Admit it to yourself. You'll feel better. But now that you've realized your lack of will, there is a choice you must make."
With a fainting heart, Misaki crumbled to his knees and held his head in his hands, feeling more lost than he had in his entire life.
"Please…" He said. "Tell me what to do."
With a slight creak, the puppet reached down and fingered a string that ran from the center of its chest.
"Tabula rasa means to have a clean slate…to wipe all memory…all heartache and sorrow away…forever."
Misaki's breath caught in his chest.
"You mean you want me…t—to take my life?"
The puppet nodded, reaching out and handing the thread to the teen. Misaki took it carefully, surprised at how thin it was.
"Why is it so small?" He asked shakily.
"Everyone's is. A life is a thread. It will break or it won't. Simple as that. But you have a rare opportunity, child. Just a tug, a harmless pull, and you can be free of all these strings that bind you: memories of Takahiro, your cursed powers, the enemies that hunt you…everything will just go away."
Misaki shook his head, tears of fear welling up in his eyes.
"I—I can't…the team needs me."
"All they've brought you is more sorrow. They cannot help you. They cannot even help themselves. Why, its because of Alpha that your brother is dead."
Those words hit Misaki like a brick and heavy drop fell from his eyes and splattered onto the ground. The teen began to quietly sob, clutching his life chord so hard he feared he would pull it. But all of a sudden, a face flashed before his eyes.
It was of Alpha when he'd first told Misaki that Takahiro had died. The man's somber face was brimming with heartache and pain. He was beaten, torn, and broken…yet he kept on leading them. But how could someone keep on living with that kind of sorrow? Alpha always kept going, even with the burden of Takahiro on his back…
Misaki took a deep breath as he felt a new wave of courage come over him. It didn't stop the pain or even lessen it, but it was a life ring he could hang onto in the stormy sea of his life.
Ever slowly, the boy stood, carefully taking the thread with him.
"Have you made a decision then?" The puppet asked, leaning forward. "Will you pull the chord and cut your strings?"
With every small piece of strength he had, Misaki's hand released the chord and he said one simple word.
And with it, the puppet, the strings, and the foggy surroundings immediately evaporated, and the teen awoke with a start, shoving the blanket away from his head and sucking in the cool night air. Misaki's chest still felt like lead, and yet he couldn't believe relieved he was to see the starry night sky…
The teen looked over and saw Alpha approach with a worried look on his face.
"Are you all right?"
"Y—Yes…just a bad dream."
"I see," Akihiko replied. He scratched the back of his neck nervously, as if he was struggling to find words.
"Um, Misaki…" He murmured. "If you feel up to it, I'd like to talk to you about something. Would you?"
Misaki paused briefly, but feeling too afraid to retreat back to the dream world so soon, he nodded and slowly rose, letting Alpha lead him up a small hill where they could talk alone.
Wow! I can't believe we're almost up to 200 reviews! I can't thank you guys enough for all your support. This chapter was a bit dark...when ok, this whole fic is dark, but a lighter chapter is ahead of us so I hope you'll stick with me :)
And for those of you who caught the Joss Whedon reference: kudos.
New chapter out soon! Hope to hear from you wonderful fans! :)