The first time it happens, Ling isn’t prepared for the red jacket unceremoniously dumped in his arms. He is hardly prepared for the sight of Edward rolling his flesh shoulder, either, swearing up a storm as he strolls up to a stranger, shouting, “Hey! You wanna go? Yeah! Then let’s fucking go, bastard!”
This is why you let me be in charge , sneers the voice in his head. You clearly can’t control him.
“I don’t want to control him,” Ling confesses quietly, mesmerized as he watches Edward suplex a fellow automail wearer two or three times his size. “I wouldn’t get to see this happen.”
Whatever chaotic majesty of mud-wrestling the shit out of a random nobody this is.
Why was Edward fighting this guy again?
Greed doesn’t answer until the brawl is nearly finished. Ling can practically hear a smug, knowing grin in his voice. Why, your highness…enjoying what you see?
Despite what the homunculus likes to pride himself on, Greed hasn’t managed to know Ling inside and out yet if he thinks he’s going to get a rise out of him with that kind of poking-and-prodding.
“Of course I am,” he hums as he watches Ed once again drop the giant boulder of an ex-soldier into the dirt with a squelch. Ed is covered with brown muck; it soils the golden shine of his braided hair and smears pale bronze of his sun-warm skin. It sticks the white button-up he wears close to his form. But the toothy grin the alchemist sends the prince’s way over his shoulder afterwards is still, somehow, pearly white.
Ling’s fingers dig into the scarlet red of Ed’s jacket.
“Wow,” Greed and Ling say at the same time, but for entirely different reasons.
It’s funny to watch the ones who underestimate Edward. Sometimes, it’s the alchemist’s height that throws people off. The fools pick a fight because they think it’s an easy win. They say something uncalled for and Ed, inevitably, rises to the bait.
Ling’s favorites are the ones that assume Ed is weak or slow because of his automail.
They are hunkering on the outside of an already-pretty-outskirt town up north that’s not north enough to be covered with snow year-round, but north enough to be hilly and craggly and with one of those neighborhoods that’s considered “historical” or some shit like that. It’s Greed and Ling’s turn for a supply run but Greed never does any actual chores so it’s Ling that sets out after guilting a sour-faced Ed to follow him as the pair of arms that will carry their bags back to camp.
Except it’s somewhere along the way from the pharmacy to the grocery that Ling realizes he’s lost Ed and he’s not entirely sure how or why until he finds him in an alleyway between two dilapidated glasswork buildings. His flesh shoulder is pressed to the wall. Three burly men surround him.
The bag of medicine is held loosely in his hand.
“Well?” one of the idiots presses. The ringleader, if Ling had to guess.
Ling half-wonders if he should wait but then thinks what Ed would say if he knew he just stood there, so he puts a flat hand to the side of his mouth. “Yo, Ed! I’m open!”
The muggers’ split-second of confusion ends the instant the white plastic pharmacy bag lands in Ling’s open hands and Ed’s metal fist collides with the jaw of the one pinning him to the wall.
The fight is, rather unfortunately, over in a matter of seconds.
“Bastards.” Ed rings the wrist of his flesh hand with cool, metal fingers as he stands above them.
“H-how…?” the one now missing a tooth and eating snow to pay for it, rasps. “The hell’s a kid with automail so fast…?”
“You haven’t ever actually met someone with automail, have you?” The frown on Ed’s face is heavy and thick. Disapproving.
There’s something about the silence of the shamed privileged that Ling, who is undoubtedly yes, another privileged, will never tire of.
Ling’s chest is warm with pride. There’s a thousand and one more words he thinks he’d like to say to thumb-tack on to the end of this conversation. Something that will nail the idea into these thick knuckleheads that they are fools to have ever thought people who go through something like automail surgery are weak prey.
But the words never make themselves out of his mouth because he must have a pretty dumb look on his face.
Ed’s giving him a weird stare. “What?”
“Why’re you looking at me like that?”
Play it cool. Play it cool. “Like what?”
Ed’s nose scrunches up. He shakes his head. The ends of his golden tail dance against his shoulder-blades. “Whatever. We’ve got groceries to get, right?”
They reach the slums of Kanema and for the first time in who-knows-how-long, Edward sees his father, which is precisely when Ling prompts Greed to stick out their arm.
Ling can feel the question on Greed’s tongue that doesn’t surface. Maybe he’s already figured out the answer, because for the first time ever, the homunculus listens to him and outstretches one hand. Nearly immediately, the sleeping roll Edward had tucked under his arm flies into it as Ed flies at his father.
Oooo. Nice sucker punch. And at his old man, too.
He’s holding back, Ling hums.
It’s perhaps the only time Greed has ever willingly held something not his own.
For as many strengths as Edward Elric has, he has just as many weaknesses. Chief among them is his prioritization of Alphonse at the cost of anything and everything else, especially of his person. Though Ling supposes these faults are a given when said younger brother was the reason Edward had, for so many years, only one arm.
There is a period of time in between the Promised Day and when Ling ought to return to Xing that both Elrics are hospitalized as their bodies recover from their selective transformations. It is during these days that Edward, just as Ling predicts he will, doesn’t leave Alphonse’s side.
Ling, in turn, for some reason, though he tells himself over and over again it’s not because he misses the constant company of the damn voice in his head, hardly leaves Ed’s.
Riza Hawkeye convinces Ed to step away once Alphonse has gotten used to sleeping. The boy falls to slumber at odd, random moments, but he loves every minute of it. Edward, as Riza points out, can’t make water boil any faster by watching it.
So Ling oh-so-generously follows on Ed’s heels to the cafeteria because if there’s one thing Ed could be productive at while his brother is resting, it’s feeding himself and the future Emperor of Xing who really should be halfway across the desert by now but who’s keeping track.
Their trays of food are in their hands when they catch wind of a joke from a nearby table. Something about the amount of food on someone’s tray and that “twig kid” who could probably use it and oh, speaking of which, have you seen that guy? Supposed to be one of those amazing alchemists Mustang likes? He looks like something out of a horror movie--
--and Ling takes Edward’s tray out of his left hand without Ed even needing to ask.
Briefly, Ling wonders if it’s any use warning Ed he shouldn’t be using the arm still in its sling, but then he sees the look of terror on the military visitors’ faces and he doesn’t think of it again.
After months of separation and penned “I miss you’s” scribbled out to be replaced with, “How’s the winter in Creta?” Edward finally finishes his westward travels and returns home. And after he’s in Resembool for a month, or maybe it’s two, he relents to Ling’s persistent, annoying letters and agrees to visit Xing.
Alphonse warns Ling over and over again that Edward will be grumpy when he arrives.
“He wasn’t kidding,” the young man says with earnest eyes that look so much like his brother’s, “when he said the reason he wasn’t going to travel east was because of his automail. It’s not going to be easy for him to cross that desert.”
Ling promises it will be fine. He will arrange for every comfort; Ed will want for nothing and know no pain during his journey.
Edward arrives on Ling’s palatial front doorstep with burns up his left thigh and a crick in his back and two sun-bitten ears and with a new straw hat Ling has never seen him wear before clenched tight in his hand. The instant Ed sees Ling, he launches into a train of expletives about the abysmal care that had been afforded to him and if Ling really wanted to see him so bad how come he didn’t give him a car instead of a horse and damn it he’s thirsty.
One of the horsemen handling his luggage mumbles something Ling doesn’t hear and immediately, Ed is on him.
It is second nature to grab the crumpled straw hat as it flies through the air.
Alphonse makes a strangled noise of distress, exhaustion, and maybe a little of, “I don’t know what I was expecting.” He launches himself down the steps at Edward to pull him off the attendant. “Brother!”
Ling has never seen anything more wonderful in his life.
He plops the straw hat on his head and smiles.
It shouldn’t have to be said that an emperor does not fight.
It is assumed and understood that an emperor has trained assassins and warriors for a reason: that they handle his battles for him. He does not throw down his gauntlet or undo his robe. He is above the dirtying of his hands. He should not have to stoop to irrational, emotional displays. He is detached. His will is executed, while he can remain unchallenged.
But before he is an emperor, Ling is Ling.
And Ling is a lover.
And there comes the day he and Edward share a secret kiss behind the orchid tree in his palatial gardens and their fingers intertwine and that is the day that changes everything.
Edward has changed over the years.
So has Ling.
But Ling cannot and will not change his loyalty.
They are walking in the gardens together, again, as they have found that they like to do after they changed from two “I’s” to a together “we.” Ling idly spins an orchid they had found fallen on the stone pathway. Edward walks at his side, hands folded behind his back. Ling looks to him and smiles and thinks how badly Edward would hate to hear how much he looks like his father, now.
Then they hear the murmurings of a handful of court scholars who are also, at this early afternoon hour, taking refuge in the gardens.
They hear Edward’s name.
It’s either “fucking ex-alchemist” or “fucking an ex-alchemist” and “for what?” in the same breath but Ling doesn’t want to nor need to hear the rest.
Edward’s dark scowl is replaced with confusion at the orchid dropped in the center of his palm. When he sees Ling’s face, however, even that melts away into a handsome, devilish smirk that Ling would hungrily press against his mouth if his hands weren't busy rolling up his robe sleeves.
“All right,” Ed says and twirls the orchid stem in between fingers that were once metal. “I’ve got your flower, babe.”
Ling does not round the hedge corner as an emperor.