"Is that what I think it is?"
"Is that what I think it is, Master," Mei corrected automatically, before looking to see what had caught her pupil's attention.
He was staring at a large wall-hanging, a piece of embroidery Mei's master had received when her master passed away. It was said to date back over three hundred years - not very long, as works of art go, but considering the subject of the piece...
Al touched the fabric, and the shift of it under his fingers allowed a patch of sunlight to find his hair, and make it shine as brightly as the gold thread in the embroidery.
He glanced over at her and, realizing she'd been staring, she averted her eyes.
"Very well," he said with a grin in his voice. Pressing his hands together and bowing deeply, he asked, totally serious, "Oh honorable Princess Mei Chan, master of alkahestry, will you answer the humble question of your lowly pupil?"
The sight of him bent over like that, hearing him say things like that, made her mouth go dry. She trembled, feeling Xiao Mei do the same at her side. "You just don't know how to play fair," she muttered in High Xingese, clenching her fists to keep from shaking.
Al's head popped up at that. "What did you say?" Remembering himself at the last second, he smiled and tipped his head to one side, adding a wheedling, "Master?"
"Ah, nothing! Absolutely nothing," she insisted when he frowned skeptically (and adorably) at her. "Just talking to myself. But to answer your question, yes." She stepped forward to better admire the fine silk stitching, touched a finger to the focal point of the picture. "This embroidery depicts the Western Sage bringing alkahestry to Xing."
Standing straight, Al looked at the embroidery with newly awed eyes. "Wow," he breathed. "So that's Dad." He pointed at what she'd just touched. "What's this that Dad is holding, a flower?"
"It's a lotus flower, silly!"
"Lotus...?" The way Al stumbled over the word, Mei could tell it was one he'd never found a satisfactory translation into Amestrian for, like panda or bamboo. She sighed; silly Amestrians having no words for Xingese concepts. She nodded at Xiao Mei, who raced off to the gardens to find one. "It's a flower with a lot of symbolic meaning in Xing, especially related to purity, because it grows in muddy waters but always blooms clean and bright. All parts of the plant are useful in non-alkahestrical healing, so it's come to be associated with medicine as well."
"Medicine and purity... so here it represents alkahestry, then?"
Mei smiled absently. She had such a good student in Alphonse Elric. "Exactly!"
Al's attention drifted next to the three figures on the other side of the image, each with an arm outstretched towards the Sage. "Who's he giving it to?"
"They represent the three original schools of alkahestry."
"Three schools?" Al's nose wrinkled up for a moment. "Oh!" His eyes lit up. "You mean the three historical methods: skin contact alkahestry, long-distance alkahestry, and potion-making alkahestry."
"That's right. You see the one closest to the Sage has a bamboo tube in their hand? That's the Song alkahestrist, who learned from the sage that directly transmuting the human body could have severe consequences, and instead used alkahestry to make healing poultices and potions, as well as a theoretical universal solvent that would make all the other medicines more effective." Mei shrugged when Al looked at her with interest, saying, "I don't know much more about it than that! The Song school of thought has mostly fallen out of favor, as greater understanding of the composition of the human body allowed alkahestrists to heal without intermediaries."
"And the other two?" Al peered at the figures, looking for indicators. "Ah, could this one with the knives be the founder of the long-distance school of alkahestry?"
"No, sorry!" Mei giggled at the look of dismay on Al's face. "Those aren't actually knives, but a serrated blade used in field treatment of serious injuries. For removing limbs," she added when Al didn't seem to get it. His expression blanched. "It's thanks to the Li alkahestrist's skin contact alkahestry that amputations are for the most part no longer necessary in Xing! Bones can be reset, blood vessels reconnected, even nerves reattached, thanks to what he learned from the Sage about human anatomy."
"Huh, so that makes... this guy way back here the long-distance alkahestrist?"
"That's right!" Mei beamed; this was her real field of expertise. "The Zhang alkahestrist was an expert archer, and used that knowledge in concordance with the Sage's lessons about manipulating the Dragon's Pulse to develop a method of alkahestry even the Sage had never heard of before!" Pulling out one of her knives, she tossed in the air a few times before showing the blade to Al. "Pupils of the Zhang alkahestrist weren't as talented with the bow and arrow, so they used knives instead, which can be more easily thrown in greater number. According to my master, these were used by a pupil only two generations away from the Zhang alkahestrist herself!"
"Oh?" Al didn't look as excited as he should be. Maybe he didn't understand the importance of what she'd said? Before she could explain, he'd already moved on. "So you only need to understand the Dragon's Pulse to do long-distance alkahestry, huh? Maybe I can get by without it..."
A bit miffed that Alphonse wasn't impressed by the history of her knives, Mei might have been a little snippy when she said, "Don't be ridiculous! The Dragon's Pulse is a fundamental part of alkahestry. If you can't understand something so simple, then I can't really teach you anything!"
Al groaned miserably. "But I just don't get it," he complained. "Something that you just feel as the source of alkahestrical energy? It doesn't make sense!"
"It's not as if you can feel the tectonic energy used in alchemy," Mei argued.
Al faltered for a moment, looking sheepish, but a counterargument occurred to him. "But we can see evidence of tectonic energy in earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions!"
"There's similar evidence of the Dragon's Pulse! You just have to look, see the bounty of life around you, feel it - "
"See? There you go again, with the "feel it" nonsense!" He lifted his index fingers to his forehead and hummed, mocking a common meditation position. "This does nothing for me!"
"You aren't even trying! If you would just - " A muffled whine at Mei's feet interrupted them, breaking the tension of the moment. It was Xiao Mei, the stem of a lotus flower caught between her teeth and obstructing her speech. Mei sat down and took the flower gratefully from her friend. "Thank you, Xiao Mei," she murmured. Sighing with relief - that flower must have been heavy for someone Xiao Mei's size! - Xiao Mei climbed up and settled on Mei's shoulder, a calming weight. "I'm sorry, Alphonse, I shouldn't have - "
"No, I'm sorry," he insisted, dropping to his knees and bowing slightly, more sincerely this time than before. "You're my alkahestry master; I shouldn't question your teaching methods just because the subject matter doesn't come as easily to me as alchemy did."
"And I shouldn't have snapped at you. Just because your father is the one who taught it to my people doesn't mean it will come naturally to you." Mei considered the lotus flower she held in her hands. Maybe she could salvage something out of this conversation yet. "Here," she said, holding out the lotus. Al took it uncertainly. "Does that flower feel alive to you?"
He blinked, taken aback by the question. "Well..." He rubbed a petal between his fingers thoughtfully. "It's not limp or dried out like dead flowers usually are, but I know it can't be really alive since it's no longer rooted in the earth. I suppose it's... dying?" He made a face at that. "I hate to think that giving a girl flowers means killing something, but that is true, isn't it?"
"Yes, but that's not what I meant. I mean..." Mei gently touched her fingertips to Al's eyelids and nudged them down. "Does that flower feel alive to you?"
"Mei, I can't," he protested, even as he allowed his eyes to shut.
"Just try," she said quietly. "Focus on what you hold in your hands. Concentrate only on that." She stretched out her words, evened out her breathing, and was proud to see Al do the same, unconsciously mimicking her movements. She stayed quiet for a minute, waited for him to fully relax his body while focusing his mind. "Now, tell me: what do you feel?"
His brow furrowed. "I... I feel... oh!" His eyes flew open, and for a moment Mei was caught in the bright golden gleam of them, utterly entranced. "I - Mei, I think I actually - "
"What did you feel?"
Al stared at the lotus, struggling to find words. "It's like... warmth, but not actually warm. Like a burst of light, only I didn't see it, I felt it." He fell back into a more Amestrian sitting position, awestruck. "I... I don't really know how to explain it." A grin spread across his face, and he chuckled. "No wonder you had such a hard time teaching it to me!"
Watching him smile at her, lotus flower cupped in his hands, Mei was suddenly struck by the absurdity of their situation, and burst into helpless giggles.
He blinked a few times, his smile falling. "What? D-did I do something wrong?"
Mei did her best to reassure him, but it was hard to get a sentence out. "Nothing like that," she managed between bouts of laughter. "It's just - it's just - "
"What?" he asked again, and this time the bewildered look on his face was enough to get Mei to calm down.
"It's silly," she said, a bit embarrassed by how strongly she'd reacted to the idea, more so because the strength of that reaction made Al insist that she tell him. Fiddling with her fingers and averting her eyes, she explained, "I was just suddenly struck by how backwards this all is - me, giving you the lotus, when it's your father that gave the lotus to the founder of my school of alkahestry." When Al didn't respond, she mumbled, "I said it was silly."
After a time, Al spoke. "I don't think it's silly," he said thoughtfully, "or backwards." Mei looked up to find him giving her the same consideration he'd given the lotus while trying to describe the Dragon's Pulse. It was a deep, thorough look, one that made her cheeks feel hot from the scrutiny. "If you like, you can consider it equivalent exchange - information my forebear gave your forebear, which now you're giving me. Or, really," he reconsidered, looking up and away (to Mei's relief), "I guess it's more like the equivalent exchange plus that my brother and I are looking for, since the information you have is more than what my father gave this country." He hummed, thinking it over, then returned his attention to Mei. "What do you think?"
Mei flushed. "I think you're giving this a lot more thought than I was," she muttered, staring at her knees. The way Alphonse could turn most anything into a discussion of alchemy or alkahestry was one of the more admirable and frustrating things about him. The ideas he came up with were astounding, but sometimes he made her feel like such a child for not looking for the underlying meaning in something as benign as having lunch.
Al let out a little huff of breath and something intangible shifted between them. "Well," he said with a grin in his voice, "if you'd rather I was giving you the lotus, that's something I can manage."
Mei frowned, confused - were they still discussing the lotus as a metaphor for alkahestry? Because Alphonse was a good student, but not yet so good that he had anything to teach her. Then she felt something cool and smooth against the back of her ear, and had to resist the urge to sit up and knock it out of place. With gentle movements Alphonse settled the weight of it against her head, only lifting his hands away when he was sure it would stay.
"There," he said with a voice that radiated satisfaction. Mei sat up straight and stared at him, brushing a hand absently against the silk-soft petals of the lotus flower he had tucked behind her ear. "If the flower's already dying, it should at least be for a good cause," he explained with a secretive smile.
And after that, he had the gall to act surprised when she fell backwards, flush with the heat of embarrassment and joy. "M-Mei? Mei? Are you okay?"
"You don't play fair at all," she whispered bitterly, the sentiment belied by the smile creeping across her face.