Dichotomy - yes, that ist certainly the best word, Alphonse can come up with on the spot.
He has yearned for his original body so long and that is why he really does not want to complain now, but right this moment he kind of wishes back his armour.
The desert is hot!
It is not as if he hadn’t known that before, but simply hearing about it, can never cover just how hot it is.
And then all of this sand! At first, he was amazed by it, but after three weeks he just wants solid ground again. It is everywhere in his clothes, his hair, his mouth - just everywhere!
Part of him is excited to feel again, part of him is reminded that not all feelings are pleasant.
Sweat - he did not miss the sweat! At least not for long - the first workout had been wonderful, this here is not!
He reaches for the waterskin and takes a careful sip. He has no idea how long until they will reach another oasis.
Xerxes had been amazing and Alphonse is spending his days of riding through the endless wasteland thinking about it. How many secrets may be hidden in those ruins? Maybe he can convince Mustang to let him do some excavations? Then again… maybe the ruins should stay just that - ruins. Who knows how many of the secrets he could uncover from putting the pieces back together, should rather stay dead and hidden.
‘Xerxes does not exist anymore for pretty good reasons!’, he reminds himself.
“Mr Alchemist”, the desert guide riding ahead of him at the front of their little caravan turns around.
“Yes?”, Al gently kicks his horse and catches up with the dark-skinned man.
“Look ahead”, the other points forwards and the younger Elric shields his eyes with his hand. “What do you see?”
“Sand”, he suggests, squinting excessively. “And a storm?”, he swallows back hard.
There is a dark line on the horizon.
“Not entirely wrong”, the guide laughs. “It is Xing”
It takes Alphonse several seconds to process the words. “Then?”, he beams in excitement.
“Yes - tomorrow night we will camp on grass”
“Wohooo”, he rips his hands up and cheers. Finally.
“What is this?”, Alphonse asks, making a loose gesture and looking around curiously. “What are they doing?
“They are harvesting the rice”, one of the men from the caravan explains to him in stuttering Amestrian.
“Ohhhh”, Al pulls out his notebook and pen, eagerly writing down and doing his best to sketch out the vast comb-shaped lakes and the people standing in the shallow water, swinging their reaping hooks.
They wear large, pyramid-shaped hats, something Alphonse wishes he had too. The weather is well and the sun and sky reflecting off the water make everything unbearably bright.
“Have you not seen rice, young Mr Alphonse?”, another of the guards, riding by his side asks.
Some of the workers in a field to their right look up and he acknowledges some pointing at the caravan curiously.
“Only the dry grain - it can’t be grown in Amestris, so I have never seen the plants”, he explains.
“You will see many new things here then”, the guard laughs.
“I sure hope I will”, Al grins back brightly.
But to be entirely honest, while Al is more than just excited to finally see Alkahestry in its full range, that is not his priority.
Their merry little caravan crosses a bridge and the dull echo of hooves on wood startles a couple of colourful birds that hush away across the gentle stream like living gemstones. They move so fast, little wings flapping in a speed, his eyes can’t follow.
“When will we reach the railway?”, he asks, looking after them.
“Next day”, the man riding by his side answers.
“Why don’t you extend the tracks?”, Alphonse looks around.
He is once again torn between being glad he has a butt that can hurt and complaining that his butt hurts - a lot! Horses are cute, but he definitely prefers the train.
“There is nowhere train could go”, the guide joins in on their conversation. “Out here, only rice and huts. No towns and no people with a need for train. Would travel empty”, he explains.
“Oh , I see”, Alphonse scratches his chin. “But do people never travel?”
“Not everyone craves the unknown, Mr Alchemist”, the guide laughs his deep rumble. “People in Xing travel to praise the emperor and no more - just like you do now”
“I’m not sure I will praise him that much”, Al grins and moves to scratch the back of his head. ‘And you make that noodle-slurping bastard pay me back, you understand? With interest!’, his brother’s last instructions, furiously yelled after the train taking him to Ishval, echo through his head.
He turns around his own axis, bumping his backpack into another man, who gives him an annoyed stare. Where…?
“Alphonse, right here”, and someone taps his shoulders.
Al almost drops his backpack, as he jumps a foot in the air, hand clenching around Ling’s invitation letter serving as his temporary passport, that is now, if not before already, crumpled beyond readability. He had been told to find the customs counter and show it to them, but it seems like that won’t be necessary anymore.
“Lan Fan!”, he calls out, clutching at his chest with a weak chuckle. “Don’t jump me like that”, he wheezes.
“It is so good to see you!”, the dark-haired girl smiles and wraps him in her arms.
“Yeah!”, he grins and hugs her back.
“How was your journey?”, she steps back, locking her hands behind her back.
Now that Alphonse can take in her appearance he notices that she has changed in the months, in which they haven’t seen one another.
Her straight posture is even prouder now and her clothes seem finer, more elaborate. Still a warriors attire, chest plate polished and mask hanging from her belt, but it is clear that she is settled here and he finds that the usual black of her clothes is now disrupted by occasional, red, white and green embroideries along the cuffs, collar and calves.
“My back hurts from all the riding”, he sighs and rubs his hip. The caravan brought him to the first large town with a train station and for the first half of the journey, some of the merchants had accompanied him, but ever since the interchange, he has been on his way to the capital alone.
“I imagine”, Lan Fan nods solemnly. “Come, I will show you to the palace”, she makes a handwave. “So you don’t get lost”
“That would be appreciated”, he laughs and shoulders the backpack. In all honesty, he didn’t even think about the fact that he only knows a total of eight Xingese words and none of the written language - so he had exited the train and been faced with a myriad of unknown symbols, pointing him to places he never even heard off. Only the signs leading to the bathrooms had been easy to identify, but to his great despair, there was no universal pictogram for ‘customs inspection’.
“I was walking in the wrong direction, wasn’t I?”, he, therefore, asks a bit embarrassed.
“Entirely”, Lan Fan nods and guides him through the large, domed hall of the train station.
Alphonse admires the foreign architecture and he notices the many stares they earn. Some people whisper with one another when they pass, some move out their way hastily and others scrunch up their faces in displease.
A foreigner and a girl with an automail arm. Well, they are an odd pair, he supposes.
“How did you know I was arriving when I did?”
She gives him a superior and slightly mischievous smile. “I am the emperor’s shadow - I now have many eyes and ears and it is my duty to know everything”
“And you are sure it was a good idea to leave Ling alone?”, he mocks.
“Please do not ask that. If I start thinking, I start worrying”, and her face turns slightly pale.
“As restless as ever”, Al laughs out loud, then he fumbles with the strap of his bag. They walk through another huge hall, this one filled with cards, selling everything from spices, to flowers and food and while the arrival and departure area had been relatively empty, compared to Central conditions, this market is packed with people to the brim.
Alphonse takes in all the new scents curiously.
“Say, May is -”
“I think we better get to the palace quickly”, Lan Fan cuts him off. “You must be exhausted from travelling”
Al is a bit perplexed… but this place is loud and crowded… maybe she just didn’t hear him.
And May will be at the palace for sure!
So he nods enthusiastically and straightens his back. “Yeah!”
“Woah”, he can’t quite help himself. The capital is huge! As in: Huge huge! It must be at least four or five times larger than Central.
The train station is located at the edge of a vast valley, that gently forms the land, covered in houses and shacks and buildings of every form and shape, flowing down towards the river, snaking along at the bottom of the dale. And on the other side, above the city, glowing a fiery, royal red, rise the walls of the palace, stretching over the top of the hill endlessly in both directions.
One broad street, so wide three giant lizard-Envys could comfortably take a stroll, walking side by side, runs from the station down to the water, narrows a little and forms an elaborate, arching bridge over the broad river, before returning to its previous width and leading up to the palace.
Along that street, the buildings are tall, clean, painted colourfully and decorated with bright cloth banners and flags, embroidered with various emblems. The same goes for the estates gathering beneath the palace. But Alphonse notices that the further his eyes drift from the main street, the shabbier and greyer the houses become until, at the very end of the valley, they blend into little more than shacks and dirt.
Alphonse feels very, very tiny in the face of this unknown, bustling city.
“Come on, there is a car waiting for us”, Lan Fan tucks at his elbow and so he follows her, stumbling, his senses still glued to the endless stretch of buildings and people, the myriads of sounds, calls and noises and the onslaught of unknown smells and scents.
He can’t wait to drop his backpack and go exploring! Wait - no! He wants to go to the palace first, grab May and then go exploring!
Then again… maybe he should insert ‘Taking a nap’ somewhere in that schedule. He doubts he can run around all day without sleeping a little first. And anyway - he wonders how many verbalities he will have to perform. After all, he is technically a guest of the emperor.
Oh no, maybe there would be a feast in his honour!? Please, everything but that! Al can not handle diplomacy right now - thinking about naps has made him incredibly tired and his bones suddenly feel so very heavy.
“Alphonse!”, Lan Fan waves her hand in front of his face and he flinches back into reality.
“Sorry”, he laughs. “Spaced out a little. This city is so huge!”
“It is vast”, she agrees with a solemn nod. “This is merely one of three hills”
“It goes on!?”, Al asks weakly.
“Yes - what you see is what we call the Inner City. But there are many conglomerating settlements on the other side of the palace and the train station, that are considered part of the capital as well”, Lan Fan explains as they walk. “But I would advise that you not go there - at least not alone”
“Are you questioning my combat skills!?”, he raises his eyebrows in mock-challenge.
“I would not dream of it - although I do not object a thorough inspection might be necessary”
“Lan Fan”, he grins vividly and offers his hand. “You are o-uaaaaaaa”
Skillfully she grabs his wrist and swipes his feet from underneath his body. Only the hand catching him by the straps of his backpack prevent Alphonse from unceremoniously hitting the ground face first.
“Okay”, he wheezes. “That one was on me”
“Entirely”, she laughs and hauls him back up on his feet.
Rubbing his wrist, Al follows her further along the station until a scarlet car with a filigree crest painted on the side holds in front of them.
It looks different than the ones used in Amestris - rounder and the driver’s seat is outside the cabin. Kind of like a carriage without a horse.
The man steering the vehicle is wearing a white mask, with red stripes running down the cheeks and he greets Lan Fan in Xingese, then he turns towards Alphonse and performs a slight bow.
“Honoured Guest of his Imperial Majesty, it is my privilege to escort you”, he says in surprisingly fluent Amestrian.
“Oh umn, thank you”, Al smiles a bit flattered. He really hopes, Ling didn’t use this opportunity to discover his inner party planner!
They enter the vehicle and without much further ado it begins to rumble down the stone-paved street.
The engine is louder than Al is used to, but the car still runs smooth. Curtains block the view outside, so he pulls one back to catch glimpses of what they are passing.
Up close the houses and people are even more colourful and artsy, decorated with wooden carvings, brightly dyed curtains, banners and sculptures flanking the entrances. People fill up the street, hastily avoiding their car when they spot it. Some begin to whisper, some begin to point. Some bow or even fall to their knees and others pull grimaces and turn away.
One child spots him and Al gives the little girl a smile, but she jumps in the air and retreats behind her mother’s skirt.
“You look foreign”, Lan Fan comments, but there is sympathy is her voice, “Unknown”.
“I guess so, yeah”, he tries to laugh it off and scratches his neck. She is right, of course! As a child, he probably would have been cautious too. Ed not, but Al definitely.
So he decides not to think too much about it and instead focuses on all the other wonders revealing themselves to him. Despite being tired and worn from his long journey, he feels an exciting tickle rise in his feet, telling him to jump out the carriage and see, feel, smell and experience the unknown, talk to the people, learn and discover.
He has been in Xing for little more than a week, in the capital for little less than an hour and he already can’t wait to go back home and tell his brother about everything he has seen so far, despite not even having scratched the tip of the iceberg!
They pass a large archway, build from green and red painted wood, crowned by the carving of a firebird and as if that had been a signal, the driver picks up the pace.
Alphonse notices how the structure of the avenue has changed. Before, it had been one messy broad street, with people, cars, carts and carriers all scurrying in one big mas without structure, striving into every possible direction at once. Now, the chaos has divided into two lanes, one towards the station, one towards the palace and while traffic is still a wild mixture of various transportations and pedestrians, the centre of the giant road is relatively free and seems to be reserved for motorized participants, once again following the two main directions, allowing them to speed up and cover the long distance of the floodplain more easily.
Occasionally Alphone points at something, that looks particularly odd to him and Lan Fan gently informs him about things such as local food, the meaning of different symbols and colours, as well as fabulous creatures from Xingese mythology.
The further down the giant boulevard they drive, to more orderly traffic, becomes, sorting from the cars on the very left of the lane, to carts in the middle and pedestrians at the right.
“What do people do if they want to cross the street?”, Al eventually asks.
“They wait for an opening”, Lan Fan just shrugs and he swallows nervously in response.
He wonders how many people get run over or trampled every day.
His companion seems to notice his distress and chuckles. “It only seems dangerous now. Once you are on foot, you’ll see, it isn’t that hard.”
“I don’t think the average citizen can just jump from one car roof to the other”, Alphonse mocks her and she playfully rolls her eyes.
“You will see”, she insists.
Their vehicle hits a little bump when the stone pavement of the street makes way to the wooden planks of the giant bridge and the engine tuckers louder, fighting against the sudden upwards slope.
Alphonse draws back the curtain even further and gasps in awe, as his eyes drift along the course of the river, winding its way through the valley, like a big, shimmering, milky blue and brown spotted snake.
Promenades with painted balustrades and market stalls run along the banks, fields of softly swaying reed stretching into the river below. But in the distance, where the houses turn smaller and eventually into shacks, the water turns darker and the shoreline seems less defined.
Across the bridge, the street performs two half circles, winding around the tall, bronze statue of a noble-looking man in fine garments, long, flowing cape and a weird, high and oval hat of his head.
“Who is that?”, Al scoots across the car, to look out the other window and cranes his head in order to take in the full size of the monument.
People are gathering around the foundation, putting down flowers or cups with smoking sticks in them, some even kneel down and seem to pray.
“He was the first emperor of Xing”, Lan Fan respectfully bows her head when they pass the round plaza.
“Oh”, Alphonse mimics her hastily.
From then on, it is only a little plain stretch, before the road slowly begins to rise and he knows that they are ascending up towards the palace. A nervous tickle rises in his neck.
“Do I have to do something?”, the panic eventually bursts out of him. “You know like… bowing, or doing hand things”, he flaps his hands around to underline his point.
Lan Fan critically draws her eyebrows together. “Is that common is Amestris?”, and she tries to imitate his own motions.
When Alphonse made them, he felt like a dunce, but she actually manages to make wild and random hand waving look graceful and noble.
“No!”, he hastily corrects himself. “I mean like… general courtesies?”, he searches for the right word.
Lan-Fan thinks for a moment. “I don’t believe we will run into anyone, but now that I think about it, if we are in the presence of others you will be expected to bow before the emperor”, she taps her fingers against her chin.
‘Great’, Alphonse thinks dryly.
“Maybe also bow, or nod respectfully, when you are introduced to noblemen, but since you are the emperor’s personal guest, you do not owe anyone else courtesies”, she continues to think out loud. “I trust you to be level-headed. There is more than one reason we invited you and not Edward”, she finishes with a smirk and an embarrassed flush creeps up Alphonse’s face.
‘Brother… why does he have to have such a temper’
The street turns quieter. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of traffic towards the palace, whose sunset red walls, crowned by a roofed battlement rise higher and higher above them, the closer they get.
Eventually, their car enters the shadow and there is a loud rumbling when the thick, dark portal is dragged open to grant them entrance.
Al feels his heart skipping beats and his hands begin to sweat nervously.
To say he was underwhelmed would have been rude, but it comes very close. He doesn’t know what he expected, but it was not another wide and empty plaza.
It somewhat reminds him of a drill ground and indeed, at the far end, he spots a good dozen people, marching along the wall towards the gate, bearing spears, who’s peaks glistened in the bright sunlight.
The space was square and wide. On both sides it borders into low buildings, painted in the same red colour as the wall, running on and on behind them.
And ahead, beyond the paved void, towers another wall, this one painted in a radiant green and interrupted only by another massive, round portal.
Or at least it should be, because when they come closer, the car performs a curve and he can catch a glimpse at the right side wing laying on the ground shattered and the left hanging in its hinges dangerously askew as if something massive had broken through.
“What happened here?”, Alphonse asks in confusion and when he looks at Lan Fan, her expression is pinched.
“Xiao Mei”, she mumbles.
“Xiao Mei?”, he raises in eyebrows with a slight laugh, certain that she is messing with him. “Come on”
His companion hesitates, then she steels her shoulders and straightens her spine even more. “You will find out anyway, so I might as well tell you. If anything it is probably for the best that you know, before meeting May. She has holed up in her room and refuses to come out”, Lan Fan sighs and looks out the window at the remains of the pompous gateway as they pass and drive along the green wall. “It happened a couple of days ago and no one knows why. Xiao Mei…”, she makes a small gesture, uncertain how to phrase her next words, “...grew”
“She grew?”, Alphonse croaks out, his stomach having dropped as soon as Lan Fan mentioned May.
“Yes. Substantially. She laid waste to the bonsai garden and the bathhouse, attacked several people and then escaped through this portal and over the southern wall. We lost her tracks after she jumped in the river”
He stares at her, mouth open and unbelieving.
“No”, he states, as if that could simply make what she had just said untrue, but Lan Fan returns his gaze, condoling but stern.
“No”, he repeats, more insistent. “What does that even mean: Grown substantially?”, he demands, surprised at how angry his own voice sounds.
“The last time she was spotted, she was almost seven feet tall and entirely feral. It happened from one moment to the other and we do not know why”, Lan Fan sighs. “We tried to restrain her, but she overwhelmed the guards and fled”
Alphonse’s throat is dry as the sand of the desert he just crossed and his brain seems unwilling to form a response.
“This is not possible”
“Trust me, it was no event I would have ever believed to be likely either!”
He looks at the floor of the car and his mouth opens and closes several times, as he fights for an explanation, then a cold shiver runs down his spine and his head snaps up.
“How is May?”, he asks frantically.
“She was injured, although not gravely… but her heart is broken”, Lan Fan avoids his eyes.
A rush of relief, immediately followed by an even bigger rush of dread wash over him and he nervously stomps his foot, as if that could make the car drive faster.
He needs to see May! Even more than he wanted to reunite with her before. He just has to be there for her and he has to figure out what exactly happened here!
They have reached the edge of the parade ground and now rattle along the pathway between the low barracks and the emerald wall until they reach another, smaller but undamaged gate and the car stops.
Al is about the rip open the door and jump out, but Lan Fan keeps him back with a gentle, but unbreakable grip of her automail hand on his shoulder.
And while Alphonse is practically shaking with impatience, the two wings open, way too slow for his taste. Finally, the car pulls up and through the gateway, into yet another courtyard, this one smaller and the walls lined with garages.
The driver stops and now Lan Fan releases him, opening the door on her side and holding it open for Al to jump out.
He turns and twists his head, half expecting May to be somewhere close, but he realizes that is stupid a second later and straightens up.
There are people, who seem to be servants, dressed in uniform clothes, consisting of beige tunics with yellow and orange embroideries, tied around the waist with a black cloth, waiting for them and looking like they expect orders from Lan Fan.
She has just opened her mouth and a first syllable slips her lips, when she is interrupted by a loud ‘Boom’ and seconds later, a dust cloud rises over the walls, the epicentre not far away from where they are.
The servants all flinch, turning around hectically, the driver pulls two daggers from his sleeves, jumping to attention and Lan Fan sports a long knife with gruesome edges in the blade in a matter of seconds, putting herself in front of Alphonse, as if to protect him.
Shouts echo from beyond the courtyard, then someone jumps easily over the wall, drops down onto the roof of a garage, slides over the clacking tiles, so smoothly, they must do so every other day, falls to the ground and lessens their impact with a sleek summersault, before darting for the slowly closing gates in a flurry of yellow, red and green robes.
Lan Fan shouts something Xingenese to the driver, who lowers his raised blades and swirls around to the fugitive herself, taking only a millisecond to aim, then she throws her knife at the person, pinning their robes to the ground, causing them to stumble and lose the vital seconds needed for their escape.
With another echoing ‘Whom’, the emperor of Xing, Ling Yao himself, hits the portal, that just shut closed right in front of him, face first.
“Nooooooooo”, he wails theatralicaly, “Let me out!”
“Your Majesty”, Lan Fan stomps over to him, pulling her knife from the ground and the ripped piece of robe with it, then she closes in on her ruler, towering over him with a gloomy expression, that would have made Teacher proud.
“Hi there - I see you are back”, Ling tries to lay on the ground, as casual as possible, as if this was his usual spot for rolling in the dirt and he would do so on a regular basis. His voice, however, is strained and his lips do something that Alphonse would not exactly categorize as a smile and more as a desperate plea to pretend everything was normal.
“I am back”, Lan Fan verifies drily.
“How wonderful”, Ling pants. “And you have brought Alphonse. What a pleasure indeed”
He does not make any attempts to get off the dusty ground.
She stares at him for several seconds more, then turns around, hands linked behind her back and punts back to Al.
Ling pulls himself upright the moment she isn’t staring him into the ground anymore and jogs up after her.
His grandiose, gemstone showered, gold-threaded, radiantly dyed, imperial robes are now dusty, torn and ruffled. There is a steak of dirt across his face and the cheek that hit the portal first has turned red, swelling by the second.
“Alphonse!”, he chirps, grabbing his hand with such enthusiasm, Al almost topples over. “What a pleasure to meet you again! Why don’t we have a nice, long talk, just the two of us! How are your brother and the automail-girl? Oh, what has the Colonel been up to and how’s the gunslinger-lady? You have to tell me everything, as lengthily as possible and don’t leave out a single detail of what has been happening in Am-”
The words die in his throat, squashed under the pressure of Lan Fan’s intense glare. “You have a date that is probably looking for you”, she snarls.
Ling swallows back hard. “But Alphonse -”
“- has someone else to attend to, Your Majesty”, she undercuts him coldly.
Al dares a quick glance from him to her, then he works up a timid smile and mumbles: “Good to see you, Ling”, before he remembers what Lan-Fan said earlier and tacks on a hasty dip of his head, not having enough room to bow. It feels very weird.
“Ohhhhhhh”, the other man is still holding on to his hand, but understanding and, to Alphonse’s confusion, regret, appear on his face. “Right… maybe you can cheer her up. The Chang girl has been down in the dumps for the past five days”, he sighs and his head drops a little. “Well, I will see you later then, I suppose”, Ling ads and under his right-hand woman’s watchful gaze he trots out of the courtyard. The servants throw themselves into deep, deep bows when he passes and he grants them a small, noble gesture of awareness before trotting on, like a sulking toddler.
“Is that…”, Alphonse chuckles nervously, still looking after Ling, “normal?”
Lan Fan to is staring after her ruler, lips pressed into a line so thin, he fears they might just disappear. He has seen her unapproving of Ling’s actions before, but now she seems outright hostile.
“The lords have started to send their daughters as potential brides and they are already fighting for his attention like rabid dogs”, she dryly informs him. “But it’s his duty to court them and I suppose you have to start early if you need to father fifty children with spoiled, arrogant, ugly, fizzy-haired -”, she seems to realize what she is saying and stops, clearing her throat pointedly. “I assume you want to see May right away”, and changes the topic entirely.
Alphonse refrains from telling her, that Ling doesn’t seem eager to attend his dates either, fearing she will turn the edged blade, clutched tightly in her hand, on him instead and decides to simply nod very quickly.
“Splendid”, she attempts a smile, but the way her teeth are bared is more frightening than encouraging, so he’s actually a bit glad when she turns around again and begins to lead the way.
Alphonse casts a last glance back at the car and spots two of the servants carefully unloading his backpack. He wonders what they will do with it… probably bring it to wherever he will sleep.
They walk at a good pace underneath the archway, out of the courtyard and…
“Wo-hah”, for the second time today Al is hit head-on by overwhelming visual stimuli.
There is another, rectangular space in front of them, but this one is divided into many, symmetrical squares by broad, gravel-paved paths leading in straight lines from the destroyed main gate up to the palace and smaller walkways connect the sides of the garden.
Some are planted with flowers, others with tiny trees, many have been filled with sand and large boulders arranged in the sand, a few filled with water, designed as little ponds with big red and white dotted fish drawing circles around the edges. Once in awhile a check is decorated with a statue, some human, others dedicated to the various beasts and creatures of Xingese mythology or just plain, but no less artfully crafted, normal animals.
And above everything else towers the palace.
Build like a pyramid, the first row of roofs is low and casts shade over a suspended, porch-like walkway, the second rises higher and the building at the centre counts no less than seven or eight stories. The whole complex stretches far to either side and Alphonse can’t even begin to assume how far it goes on the other side of the main building.
He swallows hard. He knew that Xing was old and the royal family had accumulated considerable wealth, but this… he’s starting to sweat. What is might look like on the inside?
A countryside boy from Resembool at a place like this, personal guest of an actual emperor! Where on earth did he take the wrong turn?
They stride along the checks, each somehow unique and yet in their entirety uniform. Lan Fan strikes a fast pace, obviously still aggravated and suppressing it with all her might, but the tension in her shoulders tells Alphonse everything he needs to know. So he keeps quiet until they have made it once across the decor-garden, ascended a few flat stairs, entered the shade of the low roof presiding the palace, continuing behind the wooden pillars, over wooden floorboards, that are polished so shiny, he can see his own reflection in them and giving their footsteps a soft echo. Eventually, Lan Fan relaxes a bit and stops power-walking. Al, however, is already panting heavily at that point.
“We’ll be there soon”, Lan Fan casts a glance at him and lets herself fall back, so they walk side by side once more.
“This place is huge!”, he wheezes.
“Wait until you see the park”, she actually manages a little smile. “But you will get used to the distances. Most places relevant to you are not that far apart”
“Oh, you know, I try to stay positive”, he grins, “I need to get my body into shape anyways”, and playfully flexes his biceps. He’s already gained substantially in body mass since returning from the portal, but he still isn’t at a point he’d be happy with.
She chuckles and they turn around a corner, through a gap where the wall forms an alcove and the glossy floor turns into flat steps, that take them slightly higher up and deeper into the palace complex.
Four turns later Alphonse has lost his orientation completely. They should be somewhere in the southern wing, back in the part that only has one storey, but he wouldn’t put any money on it.
The hallway is long and decorated with paper scrolls, hanging from the walls, covered in elaborate watercolour and ink paintings, which bear Xingese letters along the edges, presumably telling the story behind the scenery.
Alphonse wonders how long it would take him to learn the language.
Lan Fan stops a couple of metres in front of the round, wooden door, studded with bronze ornaments and pats his shoulder, a new kind of tension appearing on her face.
“I will send someone to show you the way so you can bathe and change before dinner tonight, but I’ll give you as much time as possible! May is pretty bummed out so just… try to lift her spirits and get her to join the meal. She’s not eaten properly in days”, she murmurs quietly and Alphonse nods, his adam’s apple laying in his throat like a stone.
Then he visibly steels himself and closes the little distance between them and the door. His hand raised to knock, he turns around again, uncertain, hoping for a little more information on what to expect, but Lan Fan has already vanished without a trace. With a nervous lick of his lips, he proceeds to knock anyways and waits.
Absolute silence, only interrupted by the passing echo of his knuckles connecting with wood.
He knocks again.
Still no reaction.
Then he tries the doorknob. It goes down smoothly for about a millimetre, then it blockades harshly, refusing to budge any further.
“May, it’s me - Alphonse”, he calls gently, hoping that this might lure her out or at the very least open the door.
But he is mistaken.
And so Al sighs, cracks his knuckles and takes a closer look at the door. He doesn’t want to leave permanent marks on it. The artwork of a large, cat-like creature embossed in the wood and lined with bronze is truly beautiful.
Once he has analysed the structure and the metal adornments he takes a deep breath, claps his hands and carefully presses the tips of his fingers against the door. The wood parts under his palms like water, bending to the side flexibly and reveals a low but massive dresser that has been pushed under the handle, reinforced by a chair propped against the knob of the uppermost drawer, as well as a darkened room in utter chaos.
Carefully and his forehead furrowed in concentration he climbs over the furniture and turns around to transmute the door back into its original state, proud of himself that only very, very tiny transmutation marks are visible around the handle.
Then he redirects his attention to the room and takes in the damage. Most furniture his either rearranged or scratched, pillows and clothes are flying around everywhere and one of the paper curtains has a long tear in it, presumably from the vase laying shattered at the floor below, that casts a blinding stripe of afternoon light to split the room in half and illuminate the dancing dust.
“May?”, he asks carefully, eyes scanning a knife stuck in the wall, a heap of blankets in the corner, a chair with a broken back and an empty bed.
“May?”, he asks again.
This time he is rewarded with a sound, that sounds like the desperate attempt to stifle a hick-up and that draws his attention back to the heap of blankets in the corner furthest from the door. He takes a slow step towards it and squints his eyes until his gaze catches at a white ribbon peaking out of the sheets. A white ribbon that leads to a frizzy, black coil of unkempt hair.
Alphonse decides against confronting May directly and instead walks over to the window with the torn curtain, having spotted a second vase with dried, crumpling flowers in it on a desk one window further. So he softly claps his hands again and resculptures the shards on the floor in the image of that vase, before repairing the tear too and rolling up the blind, fixating it with a leather loop hanging from the wall. Then he opens the window and a little gust of wind hushes through the room.
The blanket heap shuffles and rolls tighter into itself. Al casts a glance outside.
May’s room is overlooking another porch, which overlooks a perfectly blue pond, decorated with a little, house-shaped stone sculpture. He isn’t quite certain what it is - a bird feeding station perhaps?
Beyond the pond, an emerald green lawn stretches all the way to a gravelled path and continues further until it ends it low hedges. It’s beautiful.
He soaks in the idyllic scene like a sponge, hoping to carry some of the lightness over to May when he closes in on her burrow and sinks to his knees in front of it.
In the new light, he can see just how dirty the room is. Apparently, Lan Fan wasn’t kidding when she said May hadn’t left her room at all. There are two doors beside the main portal, that lead from this chamber - one exits onto the porch and the other, Alphonse strongly hopes, leads to a bathroom.
“Hey”, he stretches out his hand and gently pulls at a blanket-corner, revealing first a shoulder, followed by the back of a head in wild disarray, usually tidy buns loosened and uneven, one about to dissolve.
Alphonse doesn’t know what to say, but he knows what to do.
He shuffles a little closer, sits down crosslegged and runs his fingers through the loose hair until he finds the ribbon and manages to pull in out. Admittedly, he needs quite some time to undo all six braids and both buns, smooth out the slightly greasy and at the same time felted cascades of black with his fingers and put them back together in a high ponytail, which he bundles into one thick braid.
“Winry let me do her hair sometimes when we were kids, but I haven’t practised in a long time, so I’m sorry if it’s not as pretty as your usual braids”, he mumbles, when he sits back and takes a look at his work.
May lets him hang for another couple of very silent seconds, in which he dares not to breathe, then she jumps out of her blanket, arms outstretched and collides with his chest, throwing him on his back.
“Alphonse”, she sobs, arms wrapped around his neck tightly, face buried into his chest. He has only seen it for the fracture of a moment, but it was long enough to notice the petulant eyes, irritated nose, salt-crusted cheeks and dark eye bags.
Al feels an instant flush shoot up his face. He is laying on his back now, with her on top of him.
Carefully he puts his hands on the middle of her back and gives it a shy pat.
“I missed you too”, he mumbles and she answers with a hick-up. “I…”, Alphonse hesitates. “I am so sorry, May! Lan Fa-”
“Don’t say her name!”, she shrieks and sits upright, face pulled into an ugly, vile and incredibly hurt expression. But that isn’t all! To his horror, he takes notice of a heavily swelling bruise on her right jaw, that has reached a state of cruel purple.
“Bu- … why?”, he returns perplexed. “And wha-”, he doesn’t get to finish that sentence either.
“That pesty woman attacked her! She tried to hurt Xiao May!”, May spits with venom and angrily wipes the snot from her nose.
“DON’T SAY IT!”
Al swallows back and decides to dig in his pocket for a tissue first, offering it to her. “She”, he starts and May takes the cloth harshly, but doesn’t scream at him anymore, “wouldn’t do that!”, he believes it from the bottom of his heart!
Xiao Mei may be pesty from time to time and yeah, some people might not sport ‘getting bit by tiny panda’ very high on their to-do list, but he just can’t imagine anyone actually and intentionally trying to hurt her!
“She did!”, May hisses through a long and intense snort. “They all did! They chased her away!”, she declares accusingly and her moves to scratch her left biceps - which is wrapped in bandages.
“May, your arm!”, then he looks back up at her. “And your cheek! You are hurt!” Without thinking much about it, he too sits up and cups her face in concern. “This looks bad!”, and then something dawns on him. “Did L- … did she do that to you?”
He prays, oh dear Truth, he really, really prays the answer is ‘No’!
“No”, May mumbles and a whole palace’s weight drops from Alphonse’s chest. “That was one of the guards”, she wipes her nose with the tissue again and a fierce gleam sparks up in her eyes.
“Why?”, Al realizes he is still holding her face and hastily lets go, leaning back a little, as to bring distance between their bodies. Considering she is sitting in his lap it doesn’t help much.
“One of them stabbed at Xiao Mei with their spear, so I stabbed them with my fist. And then they tried to restrain me and one hit me in the face - it was on accident”, she rubs the bruised cheek with her shoulder.
Accident or not - hot, boiling anger rises in the pit of his stomach and May seems to notice because she tacks on a little: “The stinky Yao man already got mad at them”
It doesn’t really help, so he tries to just… focus on something else.
“Lan- … she said that Xiao Mei got bigger? That she got wild?”, he asks carefully.
May bites her quivering lip, then she whips her head around, scoots off his lap and hastily crawls back into her blanket den, avoiding his eyes.
“May!?”, Al follows her, trying to reach for her hand.
“She was just scared!”, May shouts, but her voice sounds as if she was close to crying again. “She was just scared and confused and panicked! They didn’t have to attack, they just made it worse and now she’s gone and all alone!”, furiously she wipes at her eyes, this time using her sleeve again, Al’s tissue dropped and forgotten and shakes off his hand, trying to vanish in her sheets again.
It is at this moment he catches a glimpse of her face and of the absolute and utter hurt, loneliness and denial painted across it. It is at this moment, that Alphonse understands, just why she is so lost, why she is such a mess, why she is holed up in her room instead of following Xiao Mei, doing everything in her power to get her back.
“She attacked you too, didn’t she?”, he asks and it hurts in his own very heart, to see how her hands quiver and clench into the blanket and the tears start to roll over her cheeks once more.
He knew there had to be a reason for all of this. Lan Fan would never attack Xiao Mei… not unless she was trying to defend someone… someone like an injured May.
“It was an accident”, May croaks out hoarsely, but she doesn’t sound entirely convinced by her own words. And there it is: The root of the problem.
Alphonse is well aware of how much the little black and white critter means to May and the fact that her best friend and year-long companion through thick and thin, through drought and thunderstorm, her only emotional support until she met Alphonse - well, he doesn’t want to deny Scar and Yoki their fair share of credit -, attacked her, must have left far deeper emotional scars than the physical claw marks he is suspecting under the bandages on her arm. It had torn down her confidence and now she didn’t know what to do anymore.
Abandoning Xiao Mei was not an option, but she also seemed scared of what would happen if they reunited. Crying into a blanket in a dark room was, therefore, a pretty viable course of action, Alphonse thought. He’d probably not know what to do either and be running in circles, screaming out his anger and frustration.
He wonders what his brother would do… Probably break stuff, but from the state of the room he concludes, that May has already exhausted this option.
“I’m sure it was, May!”, Al reassures her gently. “You know…”, he hesitates, uncertain if this is really the right approach. But then again, he is radically lacking in alternatives and so he adjusts his seat, leans his back against the wall and looks up at the ceiling, thinking over his next words. “... this might sound selfish right now, but I know how you feel”, he takes a deep breath. May still has her back turned to him, but he can feel her listening closely.
“When I lost my body, I didn’t know what to do… I pretended to be confident because I didn’t want my brother to feel guilty - he had enough to deal with already. But deep down I was so, so lost and every time I was alone, I felt like crying, because I just couldn’t imagine a future. I was stuck! Both mentally and physically. I never told Ed this, but I didn’t actually believe I’d ever get my soul out of that armour for a very, very long time… I just kept pretending because I couldn’t bear to tell him. He always worked so hard and I just couldn’t be the one to… to…”, Al flaps his hands weakly. Despite thinking this little speech over beforehand he has hit a point where he just can’t remember the right word anymore. It was on the tip of his tongue just a moment ago, but now it’s nowhere to be found, the hours of train ride and many overwhelming impressions of the day fogging up his brain. “To disspirit him!”, he finishes, as soon as his thoughts have performed one tumbling, uncoordinated somersault, return to a stable structure and the vocabulary comes back to him.
One dark eye blinks at him from the blanket-pile.
“It was pretty pathetic”, Al chuckles and scratches the back of his head, ruffling his hair. “But now I’m glad that I let Brother drag me along and that I never actually gave up”, and he looks at his fleshy, human hands with a curl of his lips. “So it is okay to be weak sometimes. You don’t have to be strong all on your own. I’d never have lasted so long if I didn’t have Edward. Or Winry and Granny, Mr and Mrs Hughes, Mustang’s squad, even Barry the Chopper and so many other people, who helped me. Like you and Xiao Mei”, he dares another glance and finds two dark eyes looking at him.
May has performed one turn in her nest, blankets wrapped tightly around her, only the tip of her red nose, her eyes and new braid peeking out. But she is looking at him, water shining in her endlessly dark-blue eyes, reflecting the light of the room like ponds the midnight moon and she sniffs, blinking away the wetness.
“You were strong for me back then, so if you need someone to be strong for you right now, I’m here. And I’ll help you look for Xiao Mei because she protected you and you protected me, so in a way, she protected me too and it’s only right to return the service”, he explains, offering his hand. “How does that sound?”
“What about your Alkahestry studies?”, May sniffs.
Alphonse halts… oh right… dang!
“Well”, he scratches his chin. “How about you just teach me? It’s the study of energy that flows from the hills into the valley, isn’t it? And I’m sure we’ll find a hill or two on the way”, he does his best to sound as jokingly as possible, wearing a big smile, before lowering his hand to her again.
“But how will we find her - she’s long gone”, May pulls the blanket tighter around herself, still not looking entirely convinced. Oh boy… this really is going to be a hard one!
“I’m sure Lan Fa-”
She makes a noise like an angry, wet cat and even though her mouth is covered he can sense how she bares her teeth. Al crosses his arms over his chest and looks May straight in the eyes when he continues: “Lan Fan”, pronouncing the girl’s name especially pointed, “will have kept track of her! And she just tried to protect you”
“I don’t need protection”, May turns away her head, breaking eye contact, but right before she does, he can spot a defiant gleam in her pupils, that looks a lot more like her usual self.
“Yes, you don’t!”, he agrees. “You’re strong and Lan Fan knows that, May! But sometimes when someone tries to protect you, that doesn’t mean they think you are weak. Most often it just means that they care for you and I know that Lan Fan cares for you! You are not enemies anymore!”, he tells her with all the confidence he has in him.
The heap of blankets emits a muttered complaint, that is neither agreement nor disagreement and rather something right in the middle.
“May”, Al prods her in the back gently.
“May”, he pokes her stronger. “We can’t get Xiao Mei back all on our own. It will be hard to find her, you are right. So you have to accept Lan Fan’s help… for Xiao Mei, okay?”
What follows is another rumbling noise.
“May!”, Alphonse calls out in slight exasperation, bumping her shoulder for the third time. How does Edward always do this? Annoy other people into agreeing with him!? And why does it never work for Alphonse? He is just so darn tired.
“I said ‘fine’”, she calls out and sits upright in one quick motion. “But neither she nor the stinky Yao man are coming with us!”, she declares, sullenly wiping off snot with her sleeve.
Al is torn between inwardly cheering and inwardly cringing. He decides to hand her the tissue again and May blows her nose hard.
“Ling?”, he asks curiously. “Why do you think he’d want to come with us?”
“He broke into my room six times to hide from the suitors. Wouldn’t shut up about all the places Xiao Mei bit him and it didn’t help the slightest! So I threw him out and barricaded the door”, May muffles through the tissue with an annoyed expression.
Now Alphonse does cringe visibly. “Oof”, he voices his condolences for the emperor, who seems to be regretting his ascension rather quickly.
“And then he came back in through the window, but I threw a vase at him”, she goes on. “I think he’d set himself on fire if it meant he could skip a date or two”
Well, at least that explains the torn curtain he fixed earlier.
If he wasn’t such a little shit, Al would almost be sorry for Ling. Oh, screw his soft heart - he is sorry for him either way!
With a grunt and an ache in his legs, he rises to his feet and hauls May up after him. While Alphonse shakes out her blankets and folds them on the bed, May cracks her knuckles and puts her whole, not insignificant muscle strength into pushing the massive dresser, that has been blocking the door, back into its original place.
May explains that a servant will come and clean up anyway, but Alphonse insists on doing at least a rough sweep of the room themselves, so they pick up most of the litter and dump in on the desk.
Just as they are starting to stand there, looking at each other, neither of them certain what to do next, a loud knock echoes from the door.
“I have come to guide the honoured guest of his imperial majesty, the Alchemist Alphonse Elric”, a man, scratch that, a boy, little younger than himself, bows before them, when Al opens the door. His Amestrian is broken, stuttering and stilted, sounding as if he just rehearsed these exact words over and over.
“That would be me”, he smiles and shyly raises his hand, then turns around to look at May. “Will you come to the dinner?”, he asks with the fondest and most encouraging eye-blink in his repertoire.
For a long moment, he thinks that she’ll decline, pressed into the gap between commode and wall, where the servant won’t see her messy appearance. But then half her head peeks around the corner and she gives a tiny nod.
A bright smile works its way onto Al’s lips and it seems to be infectious because May’s cheeks pink up a little and the corners of her mouth quirk upwards.
“See you later then”, he waves at her and follows the young man with a little, energetic skip, all tiredness from his journey blown away.
It is another knock that wakes him and Alphonse needs a few, dizzy moments to realize he has fallen asleep in the gigantic, claw-footed bathtub, head resting on a soft, folded towel, rolled up in his neck at the upper edge of the metal.
“Yes?”, he asks and shuffles to sit upright. His pillow slides into the water and he curses under his breath, struggling to fish it out of the soapy water behind his back.
The young servant had led him to his rooms, which luckily weren’t too far away from May’s and similarly structured, only on the first floor.
It was one very spacy room with a bed large enough it could fit not only him but four to five other people as well, covered in silken, shining green sheets, a commode and a dresser, both carved from expensive, reddish wood, polished to an almost manic degree, a desk decorated with the gold, ruby and tourmaline sculpture of a lion and a door that lead out onto a generous balcony. It was complemented by a luxurious bathroom, that he made immediate use of.
“Master Alchemist, She Who Walks With The Shadows has sent me with curtesy of his imperial majesty and the nation on Xing to request your presence once the sun has set”, the servant from before speaks from beyond the paper door of the bathroom. Alphonse rubs his crusted eyes, struggling to follow. Broken Amaestrian and courtly verbiage do not make very good companions for his exhausted head.
“Thank you”, he calls out and cranes his head to peak out the circular window. The sky is already turning orange. He has to get out of this tub and dressed!
“Do you require any aid?”, the servant asks.
“No”, Al groans as he stretches his arms over his head, taking in his spongy palms, sighs and grabs the edged to the tub to hoist himself first upright and then slowly into a crouching position.
He climbs out of the cooling water and shivers slightly as his feet connect with the tiles. It’s a shame, his towel fell into the water, but luckily for him, there is a whole pile neatly stapled in a basket by the stone sink.
So he dries himself off, fixates the towel around his waist and steps into the main room.
The servant is, thankfully, gone and so Al walks over to his backpack that has been orderly placed next to the bed.
Since he fell asleep, wasting a colossal amount of preparation time, he doesn’t unpack and rather just turns the thing upside down, shaking until all his belonging are spread over the right half of the bed.
Most his clothes are in desperate need of real washing with actual sope, not just rinsing and wringing them in a stream, but he saved his nicest attire for this day and packed it separately from his travel wear, so it doesn’t smell like sweat and horse.
Approximately a quarter-hour later, hair combed nicely, still feeling underdressed and slightly ashamed - it is not like he didn’t pack anything more elaborate, he just doesn’t own better clothes, because shopping for palace-worthy gowns was not one of his priorities after he got his body back and besides, he doubts he could afford it! - he wonders what to do now. He could try to transmute his outfit, but that wouldn’t change the quality of the cloth, just the style. So he takes one last look at himself in the large mirror, combs his hair again, to make sure it stays nice and walks over to the door.
Al didn’t spot a bell or anything else that would allow him to call his guide. When he sticks his head outside and the man is actually standing right there, with his eyes closed, two feet away from the door, back to the wall, straight like a statue, he flinches back a little.
“Master Alchemist”, the servant bows right as Al opens the door and a shudder runs over his spine. Almost as if… of course! It’s not even that absurd, he concludes - this man is not a servant, but one of Lan Fan’s shadows. So he is a warrior, trained in sensing energies. Alphonse is sort of sorry for the young subordinate, who is now stuck with babysitting him instead of doing awesome ninja-training. He wonders why Lan Fan chose one of her own as his guide, however? Was she afraid something could happen to him and that he needed a guard trained in battle to protect him? Or was it simply procedure for special guests to have special attendants?
He wondered if he could ask the man. He spoke at least some rudimentary Amestrian aside the fancy set phrases. But would he answer him?
Maybe he should first ask Lan Fan! In the end it might be considered rude to talk to servants. He really doesn’t want to screw up, not before he has spent at least one night in that awesome, giant and soft bed.
The Shadow leads him through the hallways, deep into the heart of the palace and they end up in a gigantic hallway, at least three storeys high, lined with wooden columns, all carved to look like dragons, descending from the ceiling, large heads with open mouths, sharp fangs and glinting gemstone eyes roaring at passersby. The head of the hallway is represented by an equally huge double-winged door, showered in more carvings and embossments in gold and bronze. The artwork seems to tell a story, but Alphonse can’t quite decipher it, squinting his eyes at each section, while they walk closer, trying to make sense of the two-headed phoenix, rising from a lake and the sleeping dragon, rolled up around a mountain.
If only he could stop and look longer. If only he had his notebook and could capture the tale.
But his guide strides mercilessly towards the door, which can only lead to the throne-room. However, right before they would have reached it, the young man turns sharp left, vanishes between the wall and the last column and Alphonse follows him hastily as they move away from the large hallway with the large door and return to the maze of smaller hallways with smaller doors until they reach one, that is right in the middle.
It too has circular, metal adornments as seems to be the common style in Xing and is about two Alphonses high. The right wing swings open as they enter and another, regular servant holds it open for him. His guide doesn’t follow when he enters the dining room.
“Alphonse!”, Ling waves at him, but he would have been very hard to overlook anyways.
A flat table dominates the centre, surrounded by flat cushions on which his imperial brat, Lan Fan and May have already taken a seat. “Took your fair share of time”
“Sorry, I fell asleep in the bathtub”, Al admits with a chuckle, subconsciously ruffling his perfectly flat hair, cursing himself the second he realises what he just did and tries to smooth it back down discretely, while he walks over and plops down into the purple pillow, that Ling is enthusiastically patting between him and May.
The dark-haired has dialled down the robes and he looks so relaxed, if Alphonse had not witnessed his minor screw-up upon his own arrival, he would never have assumed the young emperor was in any kind of distress.
He almost feels tempted to mockingly ask ‘How was the date?’, but he doesn’t quite dare in Lan Fan’s presence.
“I see you’ve not gotten lazy”, he decides to start the conversation instead, referring to the athletic stunts displayed during Ling’s attempt escape, but by the way her lips turn into a thin line still, it wasn’t a significantly better choice. “Still an acrobat, I mean”, Al hastily adds to explain his train of thought.
Lan Fan still glares at a point over his shoulder, but Ling laughs out loud. “Well, I have to get rid of all the feasts somehow - can’t get fat quite yet”, he chirps, reaches forward into one of the few bowls already on the table, takes something tiny and yellowish from it, throws it in the air and catches it with his mouth.
“Cracker?”, he then munches at Alphonse, offering the bowl to him.
“Thanks”, Al nods and picks one out. It is salty and dry, but still tasty. He imagines it would pair well with a soup to dunk it in.
And as if his thought had been a cue, it knocks at the door thrice, both sides swing open and a row of servants marches in, carrying trays of food.
A woman with short black hair puts down a plate, a bowl, a knife and chopsticks in front of him, another adds an artfully crafted clay tea beaker.
Just as quick as the hurl of dishes and plates started, it is over and Ling cracks his knuckles, narrow eyes gleaming at the food.
‘Well… some things never change’, Al grins and scans the display.
Rice, fried and seasoned vegetables, breaded slices of meat sprinkled with some kind of spicy smelling sauce, more rice, a salad and a soup canteen, a large can of tea and a selection of tiny bowls with various dips and dressings - oh and everything in doubles.
“Great - five days without poison! I am starting to feel like we finally found the rat”, Ling claps his hands and stretches forward to secure himself one of the rice bowls. “Fire away guys”, he encourages them cheerfully, shovelling food onto his plate, but to Alphonse, it has lost its sparkle.
“Poison?”, he croaks out weekly.
“Oh, someone tried to kill me… couple of times actually, but I survived a literal god, so I’m not going to bite the dust because of a few lousy bits of foxglove”, Ling makes a dismissive handwave and dives for the breaded meat.
“You had diarrhoea for a whole day”, Lan Fan comments dryly and her emperor looks up.
“Was that necessary?”, he asks weakly.
Lan Fan doesn’t answer and instead offers May some tea, as if she didn’t hear him.
“So sue me, but the diarrhoea was still better than the dates”, Ling mutters under his breath.
“That bad?”, Al asks equally quiet.
“You have no idea, my friend! Run as long as you still can!”
Al casts a look at May, who pointedly refuses to look Lan Fan into the eyes while she is being poured her beverage. However, she abstains from immediately throwing the boiling leaf water into the other woman’s face the second she sets down the can, which is something Alphonse would optimistically grade as an improvement. Okay - maybe Ling has a valid point, but Alphonse is done with running. He is an Elric and a certain stubbornness seems to be genetically conditioned.
“You were talking about poison!”, Lan Fan reminds them and Al and Ling both flinch back out of their respective thoughts.
“Oh yeah… so how do you know this isn’t poisoned?”, Al asks, swallowing back as he watches how the three others begin to dig into the food.
“Ouchscha”, Ling munches through a mouth full of meat.
“Aura”, May comes to his aid. “It is a sensual way to apply Alkahestry, but instead of reading the energy in the ground, you analyse the energy that lingers in people and in things. That is how I know that there are two servants behind the door and how I know one of them is tired. If there were poison on the food, I’d sense the malintent and the foreign particles lingering on it”
“It is the same way I fight with my eyes closed”, Lan Fan ads and Alphonse emits an ‘Ahhhh’ -noise.
“That is amazing”, he cheers. “Can I to learn do that too?”
“Everyone can”, Ling nods, having swallowed his mouthful. “But it takes years of intense training - only elite warriors and alkahestrists are skilled enough to read the aura of objects reliably! So you might send your brother a letter that you’ll stay for another ten to fifteen years”, he bumps their elbows with a sleazy grin.
“I assume he will want to visit”, Al replies with a laugh and after another hesitant glance into the round, he gets his act together and focuses on the delicious treats displayed in front of him.
‘If they are wrong at least we’ll all have diarrhoea together’, he thinks with a shrug of his shoulders and squints his eyes at the chopsticks, trying to shovel up a chunk of rice.
He almost makes it to his mouth, then his hand wobbles and it falls back down on the plate.
“You do it all wrong”, May rolls her eyes and grabs his hand. “Here you have to hold like this and then put your one finger here, the other has to be like this and …”
She bends his fingers and places them around the wooden sticks. Alphonse is so distracted by the warmth of her hands, holding his, that he doesn’t pay attention to a word she sais.
“Not so hard, see”, she finishes.
“What?”, he looks up.
Ling on his other side giggles and Al is pretty sure that Lan Fan kicks him under the table because there is a shuffle and a moment later he winces strongly, cringing forwards.
“Try!”, May commands and Alphonse does.
It takes him two more tries, fingers shaking in concentration until finally, he gets lucky with a piece of seasoned carrot.
“Hah”, he calls out triumphantly and earns three bemused huffs.
Alphonse tries for a little while longer with varying success until eventually he gives up and switches to soup, so he can follow and make conversation instead of focussing on his motoric skills.
Ling makes his promise come true and forces him to give lengthy updates on the lives of virtually everyone!
“Edward wanted to go north to Drachma, but Führer Grumman said it would be difficult since they still haven’t forgiven the incident at Fort Briggs and peace negotiations are going very slow. So he is planning to travel Creta and the west instead”
“Oh, General Mustang’s doing fine! Breda taught him how to cook, but Mayor Hawkeye - yeah, she’s been promoted - has taken a liking in him doing all the work around their new house in East City and now he’s constantly complaining, tough never in her presence!”
“He wants to be called ‘The Ishvalan’ now because he sais neither of his old names represent him any more! He and Mayor Miles are making a great effort to build Ishval back up - Winry and Paninya volunteered to teach a bit at the new school they are establishing”
Alphonse finds himself talking and talking and talking until eventually...
“He is now working with Lieutenant General Armstrong, the big scary lady - yes, also promoted! They promoted a lot of people, considering half the senior staff was killed during the takeover. Anywa-uahhhhhhhh”, and he has to cover his mouth with his hand, not managing to keep in the long stretched yawn.
“Well, it is late”, Lan Fan muses, gently nodding at May, who too has been consistently drifting off over the past hour and is now half-lounging against Al’s side, eyes bleary, one hand settled on her stomach.
She must have been absolutely starved since Alphonse is almost certain she even outdid Ling in therms of who devoured the most food.
As answer May releases a content little burp, then her hand snaps up to her mouth and her cheeks pink up. “Pardon me”, she mumbles.
“Weak”, Ling scolds in friendly mock, squares his shoulders and returns a true roar.
This time Al is sure Lan Fan kicks him under the table with a scandalized “My Lord!”
It doesn’t seem to make a big impact, because Ling laughs it off and pats his belly. “Wait for tomorrows feast, my friend”, he tells Alphonse.
“Oh dear Truth…”, and Al buries his face in his hands.
He is rewarded with a gleeful slap on the back.
May dips to the side only minutes after and begins to snore softly, so they decide to break it up.
Alphonse picks her up and keeps her bridal style in his arms, doing his best not to find too much indulgence in the soft breath ghosting against his collarbone.
“Lan Fan”, he beckons her to the side just as they are about to leave and of course Ling follows after her like a duckling its mother, curiosity shining in his eyes.
“I umn…”, Al swallows back. “Do you know anything about… well…”
“The evil critter?”, Ling chimes up and both Alphonse and Lan Fan reward him with unamused glares.
“What!?”, he calls out obviously offended.
“I need to help her get Xiao May back!”, Alphonse returns his attention to Lan Fan and nods down at May, slumbering in his arms. “But I don’t know where to start or what to do”, he admits. After all, he is a foreigner in a country he knows little to nothing about, doesn’t speak the language or knows the geography of!
“I have told my eyes to be alert for all reports of her! I will check tonight and give you all information I have tomorrow!”, she nods and pats his shoulder encouragingly.
“You know what’s weird?”, Ling asks into the round. “I kinda miss being bitten out of nowhere - it was like spice to my day never to know where that cranky little beast was hiding”, he scratches his chin melancholically.
“Please excuse him”, Lan Fan begs Al after granting her emperor another deadpan look.
“Oh no, he’s actually not entirely wrong”, Alphonse sighs.
“And her too - kinda boring when she’s this gloomy! I want my fierce little sister back - so I’m counting on you Alphonse”, Ling declares, slaps his shoulder, pats May’s hair and turns around with a wave. “Sleep well”
Lan Fan and Al’s guard slash servant guide him trough the palace until eventually, they reach a crossroad and she stretches out her arms for him to hand her May.
He complied reluctantly and casts more than one glance back into the direction the two vanish in, as the young Shadow leads him back to his own lodgings.
As soon as the doors close behind Al, overwhelming exhaustion hits him like a freight train and he staggers over to the gigantic bed, pushing his littered belongings onto the floor, promising himself to clean the mess up tomorrow. He peels off his clothes, performs a quick cat-lick at the sink in his bathroom and falls asleep the very second his head hits the pillow.
Alphonse has no idea how long he slept. Eventually, the sun just burns right through the window and onto his face because he forgot to close the blinds in the evening.
First, he rolls over and dozes for another few minutes, then his screaming bladder forces him out of the fluffy sheets.
After doing what has to be done and washing his hands, he splashes his face and chest with cold water, breathing life into his tired soul and opening up his goop-crusted eyes.
Then he proceeds to go through his belongings which, after being carelessly pushed around twice in the past twelve hours, are spread across half the room.
Halfway through folding his clothes neatly and organising them in the commode on the right side wall, he realizes that he might not stay at the palace for too much longer, if Lan Fan can find out where Xiao May is. So he just picks up the rest, bundles it in his arms and throws it into one of the compartments, closing the door of the commode to hide the mess. ‘Whatever’
With an eager stride, having developed a nice little appetite, he sets out for the door and voila, the same young man who guided him yesterday is waiting in the hallway. Al wonders if he screwed up in some way to be demoted into standing outside his door all merry morning long, waiting for Al to get his fat ass out of bed. Or well… skinny ass - he still needs to build those muscles back up!
The shadow bows and makes a beckoning handwave. Al doesn’t quite have a choice but to follow him, as he starts walking, hands linked behind his back.
“Where are we going?”, he asks after a few silent turns.
“The Lady Chang has requested your presence, honoured guest”, he answers and Al’s heart skips a little excited beat.
They descend down to the ground floor and step outside onto the suspended and roofed walkway surrounding the entire complex.
The palace is like a little city of its own and while they walk, Al has a chance to let his eyes drift over the outdoor structures of the complex. People in countless different attires, proclaiming their status to the experienced, hush over the gravelled paths, pushing carts, carrying sheets, talking, arguing, enjoying the sun, seeking the shade of the low trees with their wide branches, cutting the hedges and feeding the ducks, drifting happily in the vast system of ponds, connected by small, meandering channels. And almost everyone who spots Alphonse gives him a curious look. Some long stares, some quick glances. Some with open interest, some with humble respect.
Eventually they arrive at a row of bamboos and other high ferns and reeds, sheltering a broad, stone tiled terrace from the view of the common peasants strolling the gardens. Just as the night before, his guide does not enter. He stops short in front of the gap that serves as the only entrance to the space and bows before Alphonse, who takes this as his hint to proceed on his own.
A white sail, spanning over four wooden posts, two on either side of the terrace, grants shade to an arrangement consisting of a large, yet filigree crafted, iron table, painted a gentle jade green and matching chairs.
May, already residing on one of them looks up at him and smiles. Al feels his cheeks pink and he grins giddily.
“My Lady”, he greets her and drops a shaky, mocking curtsy, lifting imaginary skirts.
“You’re a big Stupid!” , she rolls her eyes, but her smile widens and Al walks over to her, feeling good about himself.
He takes a seat so that he is sitting at a 90-degree angle from her and scans the table over.
“Awesome”, he rubs his hands. “Bacon!”
“You should have seen the face of the head cook when stinky Yao tried to explain to him how to make it for the first time! They were so weirded out by your Amaestrian cuisine!”, she snickers.
“But…”, Al looks at the plate in his hands, at the heavenly arrangement of perfectly roasted meat strips, smelling like his nicest dreams and crunching under his teeth, right at the glorious point of crispy but still juicy. “It’s bacon!”, and he lovingly cradles the plate in his arms.
“No wonder you don’t have a girlfriend”, she looks at him deadpan.
‘Ouch!’, Alphonse flinches back. Now that hurt - Badly!
“Trouble in paradise?”, a hand reacher over his shoulder and picks up two stripes of bacon.
“Hey! Are we sure Greed isn’t actually still inside you?”, Al calls out. Now that is it! First his feelings, now his bacon - is this whole country against him?
Ling saunters around the table, licking his fingers clean, then he flops down opposite of him.
“What are you doing here anyway?”, Al asks slightly grouchy, setting down the plate close to him and hopefully out of the other’s reach. “Don’t you have stuff to do?”
“Easy there, tiger - I am no longer doubting you are indeed related to your brother”, his new enemy for life chuckles. “And I think what we have for you is quite valuable, so you can fork over one more strip”, he claps his hands together. “Pretty please”
“We?”, Al’s head perks up and he turns around, immediately rearing back with a small scream. “Lan Fan! We discussed that”, he calls out weakly, clutching his chest.
Ling makes use of the distraction and steals a whooping two more pieces of bacon. Now that means war!
“Good Morning”, Lan Fan smirks, then she to rounds the table, setting down several scrolls of paper in varying sizes, before hitting her ruler on the fingers.
The feeling of justice being served is only brief, but it is better than nothing. Al starts shovelling the rest of the bacon onto his own plate, but he is interrupted again.
“Alphonse! I didn’t wait two whole hours for you to get out of bed only for you to hoard all the good stuff”, May scolds him and so he sighs and holds out his plate for her to take half of his treasures. “Talking about greed”, she mutters under her breath and manoeuvres one strip into her mouth. Being a civilised lady, she uses her chopsticks, other than Ling, who has started to just reach around and snack from the other dishes offered.
What erupts is a short but brutal shuffle for food, much to Lan Fan’s displease, who picks up her documents again to save them from the three vicious, hungry people, waging war against each other.
“You play dirty, Elric!”, Ling leans back a few minutes later, blowing at a cup of tea, whistling slightly impressed by the sandwich Al has build from his conquests.
“The only thing I didn’t have to fight for when we were kids, was my Brother’s milk” , Al explains nonchalantly and takes a bite.
He could get used to living like this!
A soft breeze makes the reed whisper and somewhere close water burbles peacefully.
Several moments of quiet follow, in which May and Al enjoy their breakfast, Ling sips his tea, Lan Fan brandishes a small knife to cut an apple into pieces and they all enjoy the idle environment.
Then Ling sets down his beaker and clears his throat. His face as changed from playful banter to that of a businessman.
Alphonse swallows the last bite of his sandwich and takes a sip of water to wet his lips and throat.
“Good News or Bad News first?”, Ling asks.
Al exchanges a glance with May.
“Bad?”, he suggests hesitantly.
“That no-longer-quite-so-tiny friend of yours seems to be up north - and either she has learned to teleport or she is not the only one anymore”, Ling drops the bombshell.
“What?”, it takes Al several seconds to process the words and May has gone pale, her hands clenching into the edge of the table.
Ling nonchalantly shoves most of the breakfast utensils to the other, empty side of the table, knocking over a can of salt, but he doesn’t quite seem to care. Then he snips his fingers and Lan Fan hands him one of the bigger scrolls, which he proceeds to roll out in the space he has cleared.
Al shuffles with his chair, edging around the corner and to May’s side, so that both of them can have a more comfortable look.
“I have collected all reports on incidents involving pandas or unusual wildlife behaviour and they… well, their pattern makes no sense”, Lan Fan explains, leaning over her emperor’s shoulder, pointing out tiny blue marks wildly scattered over the map.
“Unless there are several… causes”, Al breathes out.
“Exactly”, she nods and May runs her fingers over the marks carefully, as if they might come to live and tell her what they needed to know.
“Now the good news”, Ling claps his hand and May flinches, withdrawing hers. “They are all moving north”
“Why?”, Alphonse knows the answer already, but he can’t keep himself from hoping.
“Not. A. Clue! But people aren’t happy and this might cause serious trouble soon, so here is the extra special news: I am sending you as official investigators of the crown, giving you the authority to speak in my name and resolve this - you may abuse my titles to get free food, but please be reasonable”, Ling discloses to them.
“I am already authorised to speak in my brother’s name and inform you that you owe him 83.827 cens worth in food, accommodation and legal fees - interest already included”, Alphonse deadpans back at him.
The dark-haired just stares at him for several silent seconds, then he sighs. “Fair enough - do whatever you want! There is a military transport leaving for one of our northern outposts tomorrow at sunrise - if you take it you will be here”, and he points out a town on the map, that seems relatively close to some of the most recent panda sightings, “and can loan yourself a car at the research facility. I don’t know how far it will get you, so you better stock up good on provisions! Those roads are not very well maintained and at this time of year you might have to walk pretty quickly - but I’d say it’s worth a try...”, he goes on, strategizing over the map.
“What research?”, Alphonse crooks his head in interest.
“Oh, machines and stuff - mostly adaption of car engine blueprints that I… borrowed from Central Command, to Xingese methods of engineering”, Ling explains.
“Does Mustang know you… borrowed those?”, Al crooks his eyebrows with an amused smirk.
“Please - I always planned to practise some industrial espionage just in case the whole immortality thing turned out to be a dead-end! I don’t go through all the effort of travelling the desert without an airtight plan to return something valuable that would have given my claim to the throne a boost! But then Mustang started all this peace and trade talk and I figured he’d fork the blueprints over eventually anyway, so I went ahead and took them. Not like anyone is going to notice!”, the other waves his hand as if to shush away a pesky fly, “I just had to outsource the development to somewhere remote until they change it enough that the copyright infringement isn’t so blatantly obvious anymore!”, then he returns to explaining the map.
But Al has noticed, May isn’t really looking at the things he points out. Her eyes are empty and unfocused as if her thoughts were somewhere else entirely.
“May”, he asks carefully, reaching for her hand and Ling stops mid explanation. “Are you okay?”
“What if she just doesn’t want me anymore?”, May mumbles, voice cracking and eyes starting to water. “What if she’d rather be in the wild with her kin?”
“That’s ridiculous”, Ling dismisses her with a handwave and Lan Fan rewards his insensibility with an angry stare. “Okay, all I am saying”, he defends himself, “is that if the weird thing wanted to be in the woods, she’d been gone years ago! What happened a couple of days back is not normal and you know it, Chang! Something unnatural happened to her and to all the other critters that are going berserk in my country”, he makes a little gesture at the pile of smaller scrolls, still on the table. “So even if she wants to stay in the wild, you owe it to her and to yourself to make sure she’s really happy there and if she’s not then she will appreciate you coming to get her and figuring out what in heavens name is going on”
“Ling’s right”, Al nods and squeezes her hand. ‘And I can’t believe I am saying that’, he adds silently.
May sniffs, wipes her eyes, but she nods.
“Fantastic!”, Ling claps his hands, back to his cheery self. “Lan Fan - make the preparations… I will miss you, Alphonse, you were my perfect excuse! At least we still have the feast tonight”
“As you wish, my lord. I will tend to this while you tend to the Lady Yuan”, Lan Fan answers, pointedly neutral, but with a vial gleam in her eyes towards the end.
“What? Again… urgh”, Ling throws his hands up. “But she doesn’t talk to me anymore”
“Trouble in paradise?”, Al croons, smelling the perfect opportunity for revenge.
“Yes! She used to be the only bearable one and then we sparred together and now she’s upset, but I can’t figure out why”, Ling growls.
“She is upset because you defeated her”, May, having steadied her voice, informs him.
“But… I mean she’s a good fighter”, Ling acknowledges. “Just not that good - and we agreed upon honest combat, so she can’t complain!”, he crosses his arms over his chest.
“She’s a rich, spoiled brat and she expected you to lose as a gesture of love and commitment to her”, May retorts.
“That”, he deflates. “May be the most absurd thing, I have ever heard!”, and then his chest fills up with air and Al knows they are in for a ramble. “I mean come on! I am a warrior! I have my pride and she is not that special! In fact, she is not even remotely close to the only person who has ever defeated me in combat, because that woman is skilled, strong, perfect, has more balls than the entire rest of this palace together and she is currently sitting to my left! I do not take criticism on that and the Yuan snake can kiss my flawless ass for all I care!”
“I think that is in fact what she wants, My Lord”, Lan Fan sais dryly, but Al is pretty certain she has straightened her back and sits a bit prouder than before.
“You know what I mean!”, Ling snaps back and stands up abruptly. “There has to be something that needs my attention around here imminently enough to cancel on her. I am the emperor for heaven’s sake - let me do stuff!”, and with those words, he stomps off, Lan Fan following him with an eye roll while quickly gathering her scrolls but leaving them the map.
“We should do something”, Al whispers as soon as they are out of earshot.
“And spoil the juice?”, May asks, pulling out Al’s tissue and blowing her nose.
“Lan Fan is going to stab someone if this goes on for much longer”, he points out.
“Oh let her! 50 clans are about 45 too many and no one is going to miss the Yuans if they all go missing mysteriously”
Alphonse swallows. He can not help but feel like Lieutenant General Armstrong would be very very happy in Xing if it wasn’t for the warm climate. Then again, it would be naive to assume one new ruler could magically end hundreds of years of quarrels and bad blood between the clans overnight.
“So…”, he looks at her after a short pause. “What should we do now? We have to pack later but…”, he finishes with a loose gesture.
May blinks at him, but she stays silent.
‘Why do I have to do all the work?’, Al asks himself as he steels his shoulders. “May, I know this… is difficult for you, but… could you show me where Xiao Mei… changed?”, he fights the question over his lips.
What Alphonse expected were more tears and refusal. Not for May to finish her tea in one long gulp, wiping her lips on the back of her hand, abruptly stand up and nod.
“Kay”, and he follows her example, tough he drinks a little less hastily and stands up a lot more gently.
Then he follows her back onto the roofed porch and along the palace until they reach four wooden steps that lead down to one of the paths, snaking through the elaborate garden.
May doesn’t speak a word for most of the way, occasionally kicking at the loose gravel and Alphonse gives her the space she needs.
When cords, spanned across the way, block their walk he knows they must be close! May fights with herself, so he takes her hand and looks at her with an encouraging nod. Together they climb over the barrier and continue into a more secluded part of the park, where thick stone arches rise from the ground, each of them holding a basin at their top in which the tiniest trees Alphonse has ever seen, grow.
It would be a beautiful, poetic and quiet place - he understands why May must choose it for her walks with Xiao Mei - if it wasn’t in ruins. Two of the arches are shattered and a third bears long scratch marks. Another pile of rubble and splintered wood mark the remnants of a bench.
He still has trouble to imagine the process. How they walked here, like every other day until… what? Did Xiao Mei have pain? Did it just happen? Did she cramp, ding she try to fight it? Or did it simply overwhelm the little black and white critter? And May… she must have been so panicked and confused.
Al dares a glance at her hollow face, slowly taking in their surroundings, probably reliving the horrors at his very moment. He can’t ask her to retell them. He just can’t make her hurt like that!
“Let’s check for hints”, he mumbles gently. “Maybe there is an explanation right here”
Alphonse knows quite well, that it would be naive and stupid to believe Lan Fan and her shadows did not turn every single pebble upside down already, but he has to do something.
May follows him as he starts to wander around, but as expected they don’t find anything, not even a stray hair of Xiao Mei’s pelt. Whatever there was, time, wind and other investigators have taken it.
After maybe an hour May tucks at his sleeve and Alphonse allows her to pull him away, out of the bonsai garden, out of the park and along the wall until they are back in the checkered pomp yard advancing the palace. For a little while, he thinks that she wants to walk to the gate that Xiao Mei trashed upon her escape, but she pulls him into a small gap in the wall, that is home to stairs leading upwards until they discharge onto the flat top of the wall. It’s a narrow battlement for guards to patrol and May leans against the balustrade, staring into the distance, the breeze at the top of the palace hill blows her hair, back into the usual six braids, around her shoulders.
He mirrors her pose by her side and she leans her head against his shoulder.
“Do you think she is fine?”, she eventually asks. “What if I waited too long and someone hurt her?”
“She’s fierce, May! She’ll be fine and we will find her in no time”, he reassures her and he prays to the Truth, that his words are not just hot air.
After that, they walk for a long while longer, mostly in silence, but the further they explore along the top of the wall and back down into the park, through the orchards, along the complex ponds with their shiny fish and inside the palace hallways, the more energetic and the more determined May becomes.
They settle on a lawn, sheltered by trees with think, knobbly trunks and nap for a little while, side by side.
And then they part to pack. Someone has taken his dirty clothes, washed and dried them over the day and neatly stapled them back into the dresser. Al feels slightly guilty, as he stuffs most his things back into his backpack - but now he’s glad that he brought clothes and equipment for every eventuality and every environment.
He is finished just in time to take another bath and dress before the feast.
Ling insists on picking an outfit for him, lamenting over how they don’t have enough time to have one made for him specifically, criticizing the different cuts.
Al takes pity on him and eventually, he just transmutes the cloth they like the most into the cut they like the most.
“Wow”, Ling runs his fingers along the clothes that now fit perfectly without a single seam in them. “Do that full time and you could make a fortune”, he whistles.
The banquet is loud, full, sparkling, colourful and simply so overwhelming he remembers very little of it other than the feeling of being nothing but a tiny speck amidst the vivid extravaganza that is the ginormous throne room, tuned banquet hall .
There are many people with a lot of titles whose names he can’t remember, many faces whose features are blurred together, many conversations in varying degrees of comprehensible Amestrian that he can’t quite distinguish anymore and so much visual input, when he and May excuse themselves early around midnight, he goes to bed and closes his eyes, he still can’t manage to get rid of the bright imprints in his sclera.
Whether it is the live tigers, the man swallowing a sword, the woman with blue and green feathers transmuted into her eyelashes, performing dances and stretches the human body should not be able to execute, or the other man, drinking a weird liquid and burping flames. The artistic insanity and yet oddly structured, elitist and prude hierarchy of a Xingese banquet will presumably haunt him for the rest of his life, certainly, however, for the next couple of nights!
He is knocked out of his feverish dreams only a couple hours later, but to his own surprise he is not the least bit tired - no, a defiant and slightly excited fire is filling him with energy.
Ling and Lan Fan are there to bid them farewell, the former lamenting their leave and the loss of his source of hot gossip from across the desert, the later handing him a very official-looking letter and a bronze medallion, that, according to her, will validate their status as voices of the emperor no less.
The same driver that got Alphonse from the station brings them back there, not even two days after his arrival and while he watches the founder’s statue, the bridge, the promenade, the river, the houses, the shops and the people all pass again, he is a little sad, that he didn’t even get the chance to explore all of it.
‘Get yourself together - it’s not like you’ll never come back here at all’, he scolds himself. Yeah, if anything he should be glad that he didn’t go into town now, with a gloomy and distracted May. It will be much better once they have Xiao Mei back and she’s cheerful and herself again.
No more time to waste - he has to save a friend… two friends! One friend and one…