It had taken Ling many years to master the art of disguising his chi, and now the royal guard was not able to find him or follow him when he left on his little excursions. The head of his guard, of course, was told ahead of time that he would be going, and every single time, she would send someone to follow him or try to follow him herself, but it was easy to lose someone who relied too heavily on their ability to sense his presence.
It didn't matter if they came anyway. The Imperial guard was well trained—the best in the nation, of course—but they were really all for show, when it came down to it. The Emperor could defend himself.
Every time he left, he went to the same place. It was a day's ride away, or a night's; it didn't matter. It was the area at the edge of Xing's southeastern border. Far away from the desert, the eastern edge of the nation was mountainous and rocky, and the crags rose in high cliffs over the ocean. The weather here was brutal, away north of the fishing coastlines and sea ports. Waves crashed against mountains, eroding them away further and further as each year passed.
Here, it was quiet and loud; separated from the sound of people and living and life, there was only nature. The wind howling through the crags, the water crashing against the stone, and nothing. He embraced and hated the solitude. There was some doubt in his mind, some fear of the unknown and what was to come, but he couldn't find it in him to turn back now.
He had come here for a reason, after all.
They had returned to Xing much later than they had intended to, and the Emperor was not able to receive them right away, due to his illness. The advisors, the ones who were in charge of running the country while the Emperor's mind had been addled by his illness, tried to turn the Yao clan away, but they insisted upon an audience. Eventually, it was granted.
The Emperor of Xing had withered to nearly nothing, every bone in his body visible and covered only by his paper-thin, yellowed skin. His eyes had once been vivid and filled with knowledge and cunning, and now, they were sunken in and barely responsive. But the Xingese pharmacists had given him their best, and today, there was awareness; there was even, Ling thought, recognition.
Ling bowed until his knees were stiff and his nose was centimeters from the floor, his arms at his sides. Ran Fan laid next to him, and then, in a surprisingly clear voice, the Emperor bid them to stand.
"My liege. I have brought to you," Ling said, his tongue rolling over the language of his country with an easy familiarity, "the secret to immortality."
He had the attention of everyone present. They had better make this good.
"Allow me to demonstrate. Ran Fan." She looked up at him; her mask hid her expression, but he knew it was expectant. "Kill me."
"Master," she answered. "In what manner?"
"Keep it clean. This is a new outfit."
She chose to put a kunai into his heart; it was unmistakably lethal and would leave fewer bloodstains while maintaining a proper amount of theatrics. He would have to have the silk tailored, of course, and the cloth would have to be hand washed, but as the Emperor, Ling wouldn't care about such things. He forced his skin to remain soft and vulnerable as her blade slashed his tunic and his skin and his muscle, but it was difficult.
He staggered, gasping at the pain as his heart struggled to continue beating now, with a kunai through it. He fell back, to the marble floor, eyes open wide and staring at the intricate patterns lining the ceiling. There was utter silence in the chambers, and Ling stopped breathing for a moment. His eyes stared at nothing, and his heart stopped, finally.
For the briefest of moments, there was nothing; the world was hazy and dim. The Greed in him told him to wait a moment for maximum effect. He did, and then, when a quiet murmur began going up and he could stand it no longer, he reached up with his right hand and grasped the hilt of the kunai in his chest. A groan escaped his lips as he yanked it out, and he sent it skittering across the floor, leaving a trail of blood droplets behind it.
As he sat back up, there was a collective gasp from his audience. Good. Ran Fan extended hand down to help him up, and he accepted it gracefully.
"A trick!" someone declared. "His loyal vassal would never truly kill him."
"Only if she knew I would not die if she did so," Ling responded with an easy smile, brushing absently at the blood staining his tunic.
He saw it coming at the same time Ran Fan called out to warn him. The shuriken bounced harmlessly off of the black carbon shielding that had come up automatically to protect his neck. The guards around the Emperor had suddenly doubled, and the man was mostly obscured from sight. Ran Fan whispered a name to him, and he bent to pick up the shuriken.
Absolute silence filled the chamber as Ling walked to the offender and handed him the sharp metal. "I believe you dropped something," he said, his voice pure silk.
Two weeks later, the Emperor died. It occurred, quite tragically, before Ling could share with him the secrets of the philosopher's stone, and the Yao clan celebrated with a feast that lasted seven days and seven nights when their prince was announced as the Emperor's successor.
"You had better fucking appreciate this."
Ed stood in the doorway to the emperor's chambers, like a black-clad angel. Well, the term 'angel' might have been taking it a little too far. But he was a nice change from the typical Imperial guests, even if he was dust-covered and travel-worn, his hair coming loose from the braid it had been in. He might as well have been an angel, for all Ling was concerned.
Abandoning the two advisors that had been poring over his paperwork with him, Ling stood up from his seat, his billowing sleeves and extravagant robes sweeping around him. "Ed! How wonderful of you to visit," he beamed.
Ed was already rolling his eyes when Ling embraced him, and he didn't return the gesture, muttering about how he didn't do that 'hugging shit.' Ling was, admittedly, more than happy to hear his gruff curses again. He had missed Ed.
"It's fucking hard to get here, you know that? I was on a boat for two fucking weeks," Ed continued. "I'd never been on a boat that big before. I spent half of it puking over the side."
"Poor Ed. The sea is much more lovely when you're not being thrown to its whims," Ling responded with a nod. "I will take you there sometime so you can appreciate its true beauty from the safety of the shore."
"I've had enough water for a good, long while," Ed replied.
Ling smiled beneficently. "Does that mean you're staying for a while?"
"In Xing, sure. I told you I had some research I wanted to do," Ed answered flippantly. He was carrying a suitcase, Ling now noticed. "I'll travel around a fair bit, probably."
"But you'll come back to see me."
"Well." Ed shifted his weight back and forth between his feet. "Maybe."
That evening, Ling showed Ed his appreciation with his mouth and with his body and with his motion. The sunset filtered through the two story glass window, and underneath him, Ed was truly golden for a moment as he thrashed and moaned. Later, curled up in the middle of his massive bed, made just to his liking, with Ed smiling against his chest and his golden hair spilling over the pillows, Ling held his prize in his arms. The Greed was curled up in his mind, sated, like a happy, full kitten, and for the first time in his eighteen years, he thought, There is nothing more in this world I want.
Ed came, and Ed went, however he pleased. He traveled so many places that he was soon fluent in Xingese and could boast that he'd been in more cities than Ling himself had visited. But no matter where he went, no matter what he studied, it was always just a matter of time before he would be back in the palace. Ling grew to look forward to these times and to resent the times in the middle.
Sometimes Ed stayed for a day, sometimes for a week. He traveled back to Amestris for his brother's wedding, and that was the longest he was away. The months stretched longer and longer, and Ling grew irritable and annoyed, and there was something he wanted again.
But then Ed appeared in his doorway, and his heart surged into his throat and he forgot that long stretch, that desert without Ed, and he was happy again. I want you were the words on his lips, but I need you were the words that were truth.
It was never supposed to be like this.
Ling kissed the skin of Ed's throat, pressing him back on the bed and unbuttoning those ridiculous buttons of his shirt. "Did your brother and lovely Winry appreciate the wedding gift?" he asked, lips against Ed's collarbone.
"Fuck," was his response. Ling loved to make Ed swear like that. No matter what language they were speaking, Ed always swore in Amestrian. "They liked it. Winry said she was going to hang it up in the shop."
Ed's skin was tan, still lighter than Ling's own, but darker than normal, and his hair was lighter. He had traveled outside, through the desert this time. The train line that Ling was trying to reinstate was taking an inordinate amount of time since the tracks got buried so easily. But that didn't matter now. Ed was a bronzed god in his bed, taking and giving all in one.
It was never supposed to be like this. Ling wasn't supposed to wait like this. He wasn't supposed to spend their time apart pining, and their time together in paradise.
In the beginning, it had been about lust for the both of them. But the days came and went, and Ed didn't pack his suitcase and say, "I'm heading north for a bit. Maybe I'll come back," like he always did, and Ling knew it wasn't lust anymore. When had it changed? Yesterday, he had felt the same. Last week, he had felt the same as well. How long ago had it been since things were so easy? Had it been last month? Last year?
And it occurred to him then, maybe it had never been lust in the first place.
That was when the visits started getting longer and the excursions away from the palace got shorter. Ed blamed it on frequent headaches when he traveled, but that was diagnosed as nothing more than myopia and a pair of reading glasses fixed the problem quite effectively. And still, Ed's travels did not resume like they had.
It wasn't because of Ling, though; Ed always had his excuses. First, it was the bed. Ed loved Ling's bed. Then it was Ran Fan—she was due soon, and he wanted to meet the kid right away. Then he had found something in Ling's extensive library that required him to hole himself up amid the books—fuck the librarian, he told Ling—and do nothing but read for more than a week.
Al and Winry visited once while the railroad was actually working, their last trip before the baby, was what Winry told Ling, one hand on her gravid belly. She smiled at Ed's bemusement as she moved his hands around her bump, and Ed was adorably unsettled by the movement he felt. When they left, they told Ed to visit when the baby came, and Ed said that he would if the trains were working still at that point, and everyone laughed. Ling thought he might surreptitiously cut the funding to the railroad, but that wasn't fair, and he didn't do it.
As it stood, a sandstorm took out the lines rather effectively with no help on Ling's part, and Ed crossed the desert on a horse anyway.
Ed did not come back for a very long time, that time.
Ling coped first by throwing himself into his work. When he didn't have any time to think, he didn't have any time to miss that stupid, beautiful man. That was when Ed invaded his dreams, and he closed his eyes and saw nothing but gold. He took a few suitors, but no one held his interest for very long. He was lonely, and he longed for something. He didn't like that feeling.
He thought about ways to get Ed to come back, and he thought of ways to get Ed to stay. But he knew he couldn't implement anything; Ed's happiness depended on his mobility, his freedom. To take that away would be to destroy the most beautiful part of him. It would be like putting a songbird in a cage, only to have it never sing again. Ling simply had to wait for Ed to come back. Then, he would have to make sure Ed never wanted to leave again. If he wanted to stay, then he would keep singing.
Politics grew unstable, and Ling's spies informed him that one of his estranged brothers was stirring up trouble, clearly trying to challenge Ling's seat of power. Since his brothers could no longer kill him, it would make sense that they were at least trying to get him off the throne. Ling dealt with this discreetly, sending his own people into the crowd to remind them the good of what he had changed. He made an effort to hear more common complaints, and took more time to deal with common problems. And he still missed Ed every single day.
He knew he was being melodramatic when he wondered if Ed was ever coming back. Surely he wouldn't have left his favorite pair of gloves here or that book he had wanted to read if he didn't figure on returning. His jacket was hanging on the post of Ling's bed where he had left it before his trip.
He knew he was being melodramatic, but he did it anyway.
Ed did come back eventually, of course. Once again, he was tan and golden, looking older than Ling remembered him, and he laughed and showed Ling pictures of the baby. Ling didn't care about the baby. He only cared about Ed.
They drank that night away, until they fell out of their chairs and just laid on the ground, laughing. It was nice, and it was perfect, and then Ed went and ruined it. He turned his head toward Ling, and he smiled. "I missed it here."
"I missed you," Ling told him. He leaned over to kiss Ed, but Ed pulled away.
"Do you think," he asked, turning his head toward the ceiling again and looking at nothing, "that somebody can have two homes?" When Ling didn't respond for a minute, he continued. "Al wanted me to stay there with them, get a little place in Rush Valley, whatever. I thought about it for a while. But I can't just stay there."
"And you can't just stay here," Ling supplied quietly.
Ling rolled over, and he crawled over to where Ed was lying, spreading himself over Ed's chest. Ed had grown in these past years; not taller, but broader in his shoulders, thicker in his chest. Older. More mature. Ling wasn't sure if it suited him or not. He rested his chin on Ed's collarbone and looked down at him. "You can have as many homes as you want to, Ed, just as long as one of them is with me," he finally said.
It broke his heart a little bit to say so.
"You're such a goddamn sap." Ed made a face at him.
"Well, I'm drunk. But I mean it." Ling leaned up and kissed Ed on the mouth. He didn't want to hear a reply to that. He didn't want Ed to ever leave again. And he didn't know how to express that.
His hands worked their way up Ed's shirt, pushing the fabric up above his stomach. He kissed Ed up his abdomen, leaving a smooth trail of saliva up from his navel. Ed wriggled and mumbled things under his breath, one hand coming up to touch Ling's head.
"Shouldn't do this here," Ed stated.
"Why not?" Ling lifted his head, black meeting with golden yellow. "It's my room do with as I please. This entire palace is mine."
"Sure, but..." He broke off to yawn. "...there are other factors to consider here, you know. People. Walking around and shit. They have every right to come in here, you know."
Ling laughed and pulled Ed's shirt back down. "Fine, fine. Let's go continue this where there are no people walking around and shit," he suggested, pulling himself dizzily upright and then doing the same for the other.
It took them an inordinate amount of time and some aid by the Imperial guard to get back to the royal chambers. When they made it, Ed saw the bed, made a happy cry, and made a beeline for it, barely stopping to pull off his boots. Ling's undressing was much more in depth but no less hasty. He left his robes in a royal heap on the floor, stripping down to nothing before joining his lover in the depths of the most amazing bed in Xing.
Ed was already asleep by the time Ling made it to his side. "Mmm, no fair, Sir Alchemist," Ling mumbled, nuzzling Ed's neck in search of a response. There was none. "You owe me one in the morning." They wouldn't feel up to it in the morning, Ling was sure of this.
The only response he received was a snuffling snort from Ed. This drew a smile out of Ling.
"I wish you wouldn't travel all the time," Ling told him gently. "I miss you when you do. I understand you need to visit your brother, I really do. But sometimes I feel like chaining you to my bed so you could never leave again. I wouldn't do that, of course. I love you too much."
Ed sighed into his pillow, and it almost seemed like he had a smile on his face. Ling pressed himself up against his back, tucked his chin on Ed's shoulder, and closed his eyes.
In his sleep, Ed mumbled, "Love you too," and for a moment, all was right in the world. Ling could forgive Ed for wanting to have two homes, because right now, he was holding Ed, his most prized possession, in his arms, and it wasn't hard to pretend that he never had to let go.
It didn't last.
Ever since Ed had gotten back, he'd taken a shine to Ran Fan's daughter, Jian. On her third birthday, she danced with her 'uncle' Ed, standing on his feet as he laughed and walked in circles. Ran Fan didn't even mind, though her eyes were sharp on her daughter and her hand was protective over her taut belly as she was expecting her second in a few months.
It was then that the Greed inside Ling roared to life again, settling in his stomach like a pit of unyielding lead and refusing to be dissuaded, as he suddenly wanted something that he knew he could never have. It was something he had given up along with his mortality, and the trade off had been worth it, but...
Ling wanted a family. More than that—Ling wanted a child. A child that was his.
He asked Ed that evening if he had ever wanted children. "Sure," Ed replied easily. "Always figured I'd have one or two. But then I got stuck with you." His voice was teasing.
Even before he mentioned it, Ling knew Ed wouldn't agree. It wasn't quite the same anyway. "We could adopt."
"And who would raise it? Between my research and your job, the kid would never see either of us," Ed answered. "What do you need a kid for? I thought you were going to live forever."
"I am," Ling responded quietly. "I know I can't have any of my own. But I want..."
"Yes, you want. You'd think you would be used to wanting by now."
Part of Ling was angry. Part of him wanted to argue the point that he hadn't a choice, that the homunculus had been forced onto him...but he already knew what Ed would say. Ed would calmly point out that he'd accepted, he'd dealt with it, and he'd never even fought it. Besides, Greed had given Ling more than he had taken away. Right?
And so instead of getting angry, Ling laughed. It really was ridiculous; as the Emperor, he got what he wanted. He had Ed; he had his nation. And still, the Greed in his belly was coiled like a beast, waiting to snap up whatever offered and never be sated. He really ought to be used to it by now.
"I'm used to getting what I want," he corrected and leaned in, nibbling on Ed's neck.
"Well, you're not having what you want this time," Ed replied, brushing Ling away. "Unless you want to help me pack."
"Pack?" The Greed within him snapped further to life, flooding his veins with desire, with possession. "Where are you going?"
"South. Got a lead on my project."
Ed had a mysterious "project" that he had been working on for the last five years. He wouldn't tell Ling anything about it, except that he was working on it for Ling's sake. Ling didn't want or need Ed to work on anything for his sake. He wanted and needed Ed to stay in the palace.
It was Greed, then, that made him angry. It was Greed that pulsed in his veins, in the tattoo on the back of his hand. It was Greed that made him grasp Ed's wrists and yank him forward, so they were chest to chest, Ed looking up and he looking down.
"I don't want you to go."
Ed didn't flinch. He glared up at Ling, that fiery temper building up in his gaze. "Too fucking bad," he replied lowly. "Let go of my hands."
It was Greed that made him hold on tighter, until he could feel the bearings straining in Ed's automail wrist.
"I'm not your play thing. I'm not your possession. I'm not your minion anymore for you to do with what you please," Ed hissed. "Fuck. And you wonder what makes me leave."
And that did it. With a start, Ling released Ed's hands and took a startled step back. He was appalled for a moment at how much control he had lost. It was something he hadn't done in years, and certainly not to Ed of all people.
"Am I talking to Ling again?" Ed asked, rubbing his flesh wrist with a frown on his face.
"Yes." Ling frowned and looked away, rubbing his neck. "I'm sorry, Ed. I lost control."
"Work on that while I'm gone." The door slammed behind him.
Ran Fan's second daughter was born at the same time the political uprising was at its worst. She apologized to him three times for her inability to help and vowed to be out again as soon as she could walk. Ling forbade her from leaving the palace for six weeks, and he knew as he said it she would not listen to him.
Ling had grown complacent in his palace. He had grown complacent with Ed, and with his country. He would be complacent no longer; he would own these things fully and utterly, like he had ten years ago.
The Imperial guard pushed back the rioters from the palace, and it soon became apparent that the only solution to the problem was to remove the would-be usurper from his position of relative power at the head of the uprising. Ling knew which sibling of his it was. He even knew where his brother was staying, how well protected he was, and what it would take to remove him.
Ran Fan offered to do it. Ling told her no.
But Ran Fan was the head of his guard. Ran Fan knew all the intelligence on the location of their problem. She knew more than Ling did, in all likelihood. She was in charge of who went where. And when the third party she had sent out did not return, she appealed to Ling again.
"My lord, three times we have failed. What we need is a single warrior with considerable strength and skill to infiltrate his hideout," she told him. "I have the capabilities to do so."
"You have a four week old child to care for," Ling told her.
"I have a strong husband. He takes excellent care of our children."
"Send another party."
"I will not waste resources on a fruitless mission. I will not send anyone incapable of doing the job. I trust no one else with the speed and precision needed to accomplish this duty, my lord. I would not ask if I felt I was not up to the task."
"Then I will go." His voice was insistent.
"My lord." She shook her head slowly. "I know you cannot feel it yourself, but your chi...with the stone, I can feel you from a mile away. Your brother will as well."
Ling was supposed to have absolute power of his nation. He had known this was not fact the first time Ran Fan had questioned his tactics and the first time Ed had refused him. It was with the knowledge that nothing he said would make a difference to her that he acquiesced.
She bowed low and thanked him, and then she was gone.
She was successful in her mission. The offending man had been killed, the riots had subsided, and peace was restored to his nation. Her body was returned to the palace by pallbearers, and she was to be buried with the highest honor possible for a woman of the guard.
Ling wasn't there when the guard honored her for the most noble of sacrifices. He was sitting in a dark room, explaining to a three and a half year old girl that her mother wasn't coming home.
It wasn't the first time Ling had lost.
It wasn't the first time that he had sat to the side, helpless, while the last bit of life seeped out of someone he had loved.
He had accepted this power into his body for a reason, and it had been a greedy reason as much as it had been a selfless reason. He had accepted Greed because he was tired of sacrifices. He had accepted Greed for the power that went along with it. He had accepted Greed because he was fit to protect his people. He had accepted Greed so that he could become an Emperor. He had accepted Greed because he had finally understood the cost of what he was doing, and he wasn't about to let anyone else pay that price.
For the first time, Ling questioned his motives. He questioned himself and his drive for survival that had seemed so powerful at the time. He questioned what his life would be like if he hadn't accepted Greed. Would he be the Emperor? Probably not. Would Ran Fan and Fuu be dead? Probably not.
If he couldn't use this power to protect his subjects, what use was it?
Should he have gone in her place? He, who was invincible to physical threats, who could not be killed permanently without excessive force? He, who would have been able to deflect the blow that had finally killed her, just as her blade had sunk home?
There were a million reasons as to why that would have never been an acceptable alternative. But he didn't care about that anymore.
She had been interred in a mausoleum according to the ancient traditions that honored a warrior to the fullest. It was on the palace grounds, so that her spirit would never be far from the leader she had sacrificed herself to protect, and that was where Ling stood. The stonework was intricate, covered in beautiful calligraphy and carvings, pictures embossed to tell the story of the Great Warrior whom every warrior strived to become. Ling knew the story from memory, and he followed along with it, tracing his fingers over the patterns on the stone.
Fuu had not been buried here, because he had died in Amestris. There had been no way to bring his body back with them when they had finally gone home. But he had made sure Fuu's name and his story had made it onto the stonework of the mausoleum. Ran Fan's name was below his. Her name was freshly carved, free of wear.
That was where Ed found him.
He didn't say a word, just made his way through the wild flowers and ivy until he was at Ling's side. Ling looked at him, and he looked at Ling, and for a moment, nothing needed to be said. Ling felt as though his arms and legs were made of lead, and he was too heavy to move properly. When Ed hugged him, collapsed down onto Ed's shoulder from the leaden weight in his limbs.
"My family," he said, and then he couldn't say anymore. The tears came, unbidden, and he sobbed into Ed's shoulder.
"I know," Ed whispered, and Ling understood. Ed knew what it was like to lose everything, after all, to a nameless, faceless horror. He knew what it was like to watch his world fall apart. He knew what it was like to lose the most important thing in your life and have no one else to turn to.
Ran Fan had been his sister—not in blood, but in soul. She had grown up next to him, had learned with him, had gotten into trouble with him, had been punished with him. Ling couldn't remember a point in time when she had not been a part of his life. And that was the worst part somehow—he couldn't comprehend life without her presence, without a second shadow just behind him. He couldn't feel her anymore, and it was far more unsettling that it should have been.
He stayed there, locked in Ed's arms, as the sun went down. The graveyard was cast in splendor; the wild flowers and ivy lit up with brilliant oranges and reds from the sun. The birds called, twittering and chirping and hopping along the mausoleum walls. The stone path was overgrown and mossy underfoot, and the old poplar trees waved their branches in a gentle breeze. Ling was blind and deaf to it all; all he could hear was Ed's heartbeat, all he could see was her face.
Ling was the man who had everything. He had money and power, fame and fortune, immortal life. His allies respected him, and his enemies feared him.
But never was there a man more vulnerable than he was in that moment.
"Promise me you'll never leave," he whispered into Ed's neck.
"You're a foolish man," Ed answered, but he didn't leave either.
He was dressed in fancy Amestrian garb, shiny shoes and coal black tuxedo, complete with tails and a blue silk bowtie. Ran Fan was with him, a ghost in his arms, clothed in the same shade of blue. Her lips were dark and her face was pale, and her arm was graceful and delicate on his shoulder. He took her opposite hand and whirled her around, the smooth, pale stone of the floor stretching out beneath their feet. From somewhere, there was music, and they danced.
As they moved across the dance floor, he became aware of the faces. They were watching them from the side of the vast room they were in, silent and passive, curious. They were faces he knew; the face of his mother, of Ed, of his comrades in Amestris, of Greed, of Fuu. And then they were not, but he wasn't aware of the transition, not entirely.
The dance quickened, and Ling whirled Ran Fan around with well-practiced perfection. She responded perfectly until she was out of his hands, and then she stumbled, turned her ankle, and fell to the ground in a heap.
That was when the faces moved, shifting upward in an ominous motion too uniform to be from separate creatures. He understood a split second later when Envy's monstrous head turned to look at him, greasy black hair cascading from his head in rivulets, eyes made up of a thousand more eyes inside, wide, square teeth smiling widely at him.
This was Envy's flank, filled with the faces of his souls (the same souls that preserved Ling's immortal body). He laughed, his head thrown back and his voice echoing on the non-existent walls. And then his mouth was opened, and his tongue was lowered, more people twisted together, howling, moaning, screaming. Their hands grabbed at Ran Fan's dress and lifted her up, enclosing her in their arms, and she didn't fight. She didn't open her eyes as she was dragged upwards into Envy's waiting mouth.
Ling watched as she was swallowed whole, his feet mired in the sea of blood around his ankles that hadn't been there just a moment ago, and Envy grinned at him. "Thanks for the snack, little brother."
He was in history class from his youth, learning the names of his ancestors, dating back to the birth of the country. He sat on his knees, on a pillow made for a child when he was a full grown adult. The desk in front of him was too low and it hurt his neck to look down so far.
Ran Fan was beside him, except it was Ran Fan from twenty years ago. She wore a delicate red silk tunic he had never known her in, but then, she had taken her lessons in a different area than he had, from different teachers. Her hands were clasped together on her lap and her eyes looked forward to the front of the room, where the history Master sat.
And then Ling himself was a child too, and he leaned over and whispered to her, "This is a dumb story. I'm going to pretend to be sick so we can get out of here early."
"Listen. I like the ending of this one." She did not look at him to reply.
"...and even though the immortal Emperor thought he had everything, it turned out that what he had truly wanted was something he could not have. And now, although young in body, the Emperor was very old, and everyone he had ever loved had died many years ago." The Master's voice had taken on a strange quality as he spoke, captivating Ling's attention. "There was only one thing that the Emperor wanted now. Does anyone remember what it is? Young Yao?"
And Ling stood up next to his desk and bowed to the Master, and suddenly, he was himself again, fifteen in body and thirty in heart. He didn't know the answer. He didn't know the story.
There was a quiet sigh from beside him, and Ran Fan picked up her scrolls from her desk. She tucked them carefully under her arm and looked up at him. "I'm sorry, young Yao," the Master said from the front of the room. "I cannot allow you to sit with Ran Fan if you won't do your lessons."
Ran Fan frowned at him, and then walked out of the room.
Ed didn't leave anymore after that, not for a very long time, and Ling was unable to express his gratitude. The days were all right; he was busy from dawn until dusk, rebuilding his nation in the wake of a serious rebellion, arranging his guard to make up for its loss, and still making time for his people. The nights were not all right; that was when the dreams came.
But Ed was always there when he woke up, shushing him gently and stroking his hair and whispering to him that it would be all right.
It was like when Fuu died, but it wasn't at the same time. That trip through the desert on the way back home to Xing had been the toughest journey in Ling's life. They had traveled at night because of Ran Fan's automail, and the pain she had experienced from it had put her into terrible deliriums, where blood had seeped up around her port and burns scored her chest.
It had been, more evidently than before, Ling's duty to protect her. He had slathered healing aloes onto her burns, had sacrificed his water canteen to pour over her bloody shoulder, had created a shadow for her to sleep in when the sun was too hot. He had grieved for Fuu when she had slept her fitful slumber, had sat with his back to hers and rested his forehead against his knees, and had taken comfort in the sound of her breathing.
But mostly, he was taking care of Ran Fan, then.
Coping with Fuu's death had been more sharing the loss rather than having it echo resoundingly through his own mind. There was nothing to dull the pain, no one to share the burden with; even though Ed tried, he had never known or loved Ran Fan the way Ling had.
But still, Ed tried. And Ling was grateful.
Ling sensed that there was some difficulties for Ed during this time; Al and Winry had another baby, and Ed didn't leave. He wasn't present for any of the phone calls, but his aids mentioned hours long conversations that Ed would end by slamming down the phone with an ending phrase such as, "You don't understand."
Ling didn't pry, and Ed didn't offer anything on the matter. But when Al and Winry finally braved the trains to come visit, once the baby was a year old, Ling greeted them rather formally. As he turned away, he caught a glimpse of Al's face with a clear expression of understanding, and worse, pity. Whatever Al hadn't understood over the phone, he understood now.
Whatever it was wasn't evident until a month later, when he accompanied them to the train station and watched woodenly as Ed hugged his brother and sister-in-law, kissed his niece and his nephew, and waved as the train pulled out of the station. Winry looked out the train window at Ling, and there was sadness and confusion in her eyes.
Almost unconsciously, the Greed coiled up in his belly again, and he gritted his teeth and stared after the train, and he found himself ridiculously longing for a family like that. His family was gone, now. That was something he'd accepted when Greed had entered his body all those years ago. He would outlive his family. He would outlive anyone he cared for. But for the good of his country, he had accepted that burden. And maybe for the good of his greedy heart.
As Ed put his hand on Ling's arm and walked with him back toward the palace, Ling glanced back over his shoulder for a moment. "Your lovely sister-in-law seemed a little confused as the train pulled out," he remarked conversationally.
Ed's hand tightened on his arm, just slightly. "Of course she did. You didn't hug her goodbye," he answered quietly. "You always hug her goodbye."
It occurred to Ling that he had barely spoken to either Al or Winry while they had visited. It hadn't seemed like a month visit because Ling had always found something to do. He hadn't been sure if he'd been avoiding them or if he was really just busy, but Ed had just answered that question for him. He remembered his lackluster greeting, how it had differed from his youth when he would have openly embraced them both, would have played with the children.
He had pushed everyone out, he realized with a start. After Ran Fan's death had torn him apart so completely, the knowledge that he would live longer than everyone around him had frightened him, and he had pushed everyone out. Maybe not consciously, but it was true. Ed was all that remained, a strong, steady presence in his bed each night.
And suddenly Ling understood. He understood why Ed stayed, even when his family was going through the important transition of a new baby, why he had had shouting matches with Al on the phone about whether or not he could visit, why Al and Winry had eventually just come to them instead of Ed traveling, why Ed didn't travel so much anymore at all.
It was for Ling's sake. All of it was for Ling's sake.
He thought back to that time in his life where he had wished nothing more than for Ed to stay all the time, to never leave him waiting again. But it didn't matter now, did it? Because no matter what, Ed would be here when Ling needed him.
Ling was celebrating his fifteenth birthday for the twenty-third time when Ed decided they were going on a vacation.
In his late thirties, Edward Elric was a beautiful man. The lines of age hadn't touched him yet; his face was free of wrinkles and his hair as brilliant gold as ever. His only real sign of aging was the increasing amount of time he spent wearing his glasses. As the years wore on, he wore them more and more, but they hardly diminished his looks. Ling actually liked the glasses; rather, he liked removing them and then kissing Ed just behind the ear while he was trying to read or something.
The Emperor's birthday was a national holiday, and the palace was bustling with activity for the entire week of the event. Ed routinely ignored this, declaring that Ling shouldn't get to celebrate birthdays anymore, and that anyone conceited enough to declare his birthday a national holiday just for the hell of it didn't deserve a party anyway. When Ling argued that his predecessors had all done the same thing, Ed made it clear that he wasn't referring only to Ling.
But this year, Ed had declared that it was time for a vacation. "You haven't left the Imperial City in like five years," he declared, propped up on one elbow on the bed as he paged through some book.
"Why should I," Ling had asked, smirking devilishly as he stole Ed's book and took its place, "when I have everything I need right here?"
"You're going to need a full body cast if you don't give that back," Ed told him, quite seriously.
Instead of complying, Ling laughed and held the book up over his head, peering at it. "What is this?" he asks curiously. "Some sort of a travel book?"
"Something like that." Ed shrugged, attempting to grab it back, but Ling held it to the side, just out of the smaller man's reach. "I'm sick of this stuffy old palace. We should go away somewhere or something. Take the girls along. Give that back, asshole."
The girls Ed referred to were, of course, Ran Fan's daughters, whom Ed had all but adopted, much to their father's chagrin. Jian, who was nearing twelve years old, was very seriously following in her mother's footsteps. It was her dream to become the Emperor's next guard, and her demeanor and dedication reminded Ling of her mother, sometimes painfully so. She was at the top in her martial arts classes and carried the inborn air of a protector.
Little eight year old Lihua, however, had taken after her father in some ways. She was quiet like her sister, but less inclined to be a protector. Ed was apprenticing her in both eastern and western alchemy, and while she still lacked some of the mechanics and strengths, her attention to detail was astounding. She might only be able to transmute a wooden sparrow where Ed could make an eagle without any extended effort, but her sparrow showed each feather, each talon, each nuance lovingly crafted from her circles.
Ed loved both of the girls dearly, and Ling did not feel differently. His relationship with them was far different from Ed's—despite his casual demeanor around them, he was still the Emperor, and their father still had instilled in them a healthy respect of Ling. It made Ling a little bit sad sometimes; this was the closest to a family he would ever have, and Ed seemed to have the monopoly on that too. Ling couldn't quite be jealous. It was Ed's connection that afforded him as much time with them as he got.
"I am sure the girls would be delighted to be free from their lessons for a while," Ling mused. "Their father, on the other hand, might not be so delight—oof."
Ed was in the process of using his automail arm to climb on top of Ling, causing the as much pain as possible as he rescued his stolen book. Ling pushed him off and rubbed his chest, glowering at Ed. Ed gave him a look that clearly explained that Ling should not do stupid things if he wants to avoid being injured. Ling was familiar with this look.
"Well, we can just go ourselves too, you know," Ed decided, once again lying on his back with the book out over his head.
"Where is it that we are going?" Ling asked, thinking back. Somehow, he had a vague memory of telling Ed he would bring him somewhere, but where to and why were not registering just yet. "Didn't I promise to take you somewhere?"
"What? When?" Ed looked curiously over at Ling, his glasses making his eyes look a touch bigger than they actually were.
It finally clicked. "When you first came. You hated the boat, right?"
"I said I'd take you to the sea—just to see it, not to ride a boat in it," Ling quickly clarified when Ed made a terrible face to let Ling know what he thought of the idea. "We'll go to the eastern sea. I haven't been there in ages. It'll be nice this time of year."
It became pretty clear that Ling had no idea what the sea was like any time of year when they finally managed to get there the month following. The weather was stormy, and they couldn't actually get near the beach due to the massive waves. Ed insisted he was all right with that—he couldn't swim with two metal limbs anyway, right?
And in the end, it was the cliffs that enamored Ed the most. The cliffs overlooking the eastern sea, barely a day's drive outside of the capital city, were tall and furious, beaten down by wave after wave of water slamming into their sides. The end result was a masterpiece of rock, stained pale by the salt and the sun, ragged from erosion, and simply put, awe-inspiring.
The sun was setting behind Ed as he stared out in awe over the rocks and the waves. The east had gone dark already, and the evening star was showing in the far distance. Ed hadn't cut his hair in ages because Ling liked it long, and now it was dancing in the wind almost as though it was alive. When Ed turned to look at Ling, there was such wonder in the grin on his face that it made him look twenty years younger. It was a breathtaking view, honestly; Ed was as beautiful as he had been nearly twenty-five years ago when Ling had first met him.
"This is fucking amazing," Ed murmured, sweeping a metal arm about him in a wide circle to indicate the sea.
Ling agreed, but the landscape wasn't what he was looking at.
He stepped forward, until he was behind Ed, and he wrapped his arms around the other man's waist. He lowered his face to Ed's level, pressing them together, cheek to cheek. Ed turned his head then, so that he could press his lips to Ling's cheek, and Ling just smiled, adjusting his position so that he could turn his head and kiss Ed on the mouth. Ed's hand came up and held the back of Ling's head in place, and for a long moment, there was nothing but the crash of the waves against the rock.
"This is perfect," Ed whispered, golden eyes turning from Ling's face again to scan the landscape which they were a part of.
Ling looked at his lover, at his amazing, beloved companion, his best friend and his one and only, and he knew he was the luckiest man alive. There was nothing about Ed that he didn't love, that he wanted to change. Well, that wasn't strictly true, but in this moment, at the top of the cliff overlooking everything and nothing, Ling couldn't remember the bad.
He smiled, nuzzling Ed's cheek just a touch. "I know."
And from that day forward, the cliffs of the eastern sea would always remind him of Ed.
They traveled to the ocean a few more times before Ed's travels again came to a halt around his forty-fifth birthday. Ling didn't notice for a couple of years (when it became evident that Ed was continually not traveling), and when he did, he thought little of it. Ed still spent ungodly amounts of time in the library, still single-mindedly researching his mysterious project, and Ling figured he had gotten enough materials to finish it.
He didn't have any reason to think otherwise until one day, he happened to intercept Ed paying off a servant to retrieve something for him. He handed the servant a long list of Xingese characters that Ling couldn't read from where he was, and he only caught the tail end of the conversation.
"...any books on these subjects. Any of them, I don't care how inane they seem," Ed was saying.
"Yes, sir," the servant bowed.
Ling waited until the servant had scurried off, and then Ed turned to walk away, only to be confronted by the Emperor. "Too busy to hit the library yourself?" Ling asked, somewhat amused by the idea of Ed using his servants to retrieve books for him. Ed had adapted very quickly to not having to do his own laundry or cooking, but he'd never really gotten used to the idea of ordering servants around.
"What? No, I sent that guy to the library in Chiayi," Ed confessed, frowning a little.
Chiayi was a town far north of the Imperial city, a day out on the train lines. It was then that Ling thought about the last time Ed had left the city, more than a year ago now. And he was suddenly confused. If Ed didn't have the materials for his research, why had he stopped traveling?
"That was quite the list you gave him," Ling pointed out. That implied that Ed either had a lot more research to do, or that he didn't expect the information he needed to be in any one book. And both of those conclusions suggested that it would have been far simpler for Ed himself to have traveled to Chiayi himself and done the research there. "Why didn't you just go yourself?"
"Well, I don't know." Ed wasn't looking at him. "I'm too old to be gallivanting around the countryside."
"Too old?" Ling echoed, frowning as though the idea of that never occurred to him. And really, it hadn't. Why would it? Ed was one of those people who retained his youth far past when he should have. He always looked and acted younger than he was. And Ling, of course, didn't have to worry about any of that aging stuff.
Ed gave Ling a stricken look. "I'm going gray," he said pathetically, his face easily betraying exactly what he thought that meant.
It was a lie, in exact meaning, if not in spirit. Ling had noticed the strands of off-colored hair at Ed's temples for the first time only last week, but they weren't gray by any means. Ling had been rather amused, actually; Ed's golden hair was turning silver. It was somehow appropriate.
"It makes you look dignified," Ling lied. In truth, it was just cute, like every other part of Ed, and it was also barely noticeable. "Why does having graying hair make you unable to travel?"
Ed glowered at him. "It does not make me look dignified, you stupid asshole, it makes me look old. You're supposed to reassure me and tell me it's my imagination or something," he protested.
"At least you're not going bald?" Ling laughed and hopped backwards to avoid Ed's fist.
There were many changes in Ed, changes that Ling didn't always notice right away. There were crinkles at the edges of Ed's eyes, at the corners of his mouth. There was a weariness in him that had never been evident in his youth. There was a slight limp in his step, and Ling couldn't tell if it was just a part of his gait he'd never actively noticed before or if this was a new behavior. There was a bottle of large, oblong painkillers in the top drawer of his nightstand. There was, of course, the small smattering of silver in his perfect golden hair.
But none of that explained why Ed didn't travel any longer. When Ling managed to push him about it, without allowing Ed to change the subject or side-step the question (when had he gotten so good at that?), Ed would only say that he was simply tired.
Tired of traveling, perhaps? Tired of moving about without a clear destination in mind? Ling didn't think so, not from the way Ed paced the palace corridors restlessly. He wanted to travel, that much was clear to Ling. But he wouldn't, and there was no better explanation than, "I'm getting too old."
Ling didn't force an answer, though. Ed would come to him when he was ready.
They received a letter from Al in that time, despite the fact that Ed talked to him on the telephone almost weekly. Ed tore it open and put on his glasses and took the Amestrian script in eagerly one day over dinner. And then he laughed and held the letter out for Ling to see.
"Sara is getting married," he announced cheerfully. "Al is flipping a nut."
Sara was Al and Winry's daughter, and the last time Ling had seen her in person, she had been about six years old. Ling knew, in theory, that she was just younger than twenty-year old Jian, now a loyal member of Ling's personal guard, but his mind refused to process the information that she was old enough to be married, and that Al (and thereby Ed) was getting old enough to be a grandfather.
Ed kept reading the letter, his smile faltering slightly at one point but brightening up again by the end. "They invited me to the ceremony. There's a note saying you're welcome too, but you'll have to sneak out because they were hoping for a relatively small service," he read, sounding amused. But there was something else in his voice, something just at the edge that Ling couldn't quite put his finger on.
"I will send my regards with you," Ling laughed. "I'm fairly certain I would be missed."
Without looking up, Ed added, "Maybe I'll stay home too."
This startled Ling, really and truly. Ed was clearly restless, stuck inside the palace nearly all the time, and this was an opportunity to visit the brother he sorely missed. Ling no longer worried he wouldn't come back to Xing, and he would have gladly accompanied Ed if he could have.
"Why would you do that?" Ling asked quietly, all of his attention riveted on Ed now. If whatever was keeping Ed in the palace was severe enough to keep him from his only niece's wedding, then Ling figured he had a right to know.
Ed looked him in the eye with a grim sort of intensity, and Ling understood that he was finally going to hear it, straight out of Ed's mouth. "Can you really not tell?" he inquired, his voice level and low.
Ling stared at him, an unnatural fear building up in his chest.
"My back," Ed explained. "And my hip. I can't travel because I can't ride trains or horses. I can't get in and out of cars. I've had arthritis for ten years from this goddamn automail. It's just...finally gotten the better of me."
Ling was taken aback. Certainly, he had known Ed had had some problems with pain from the automail; he had known that years ago. But he had had no idea it had escalated so far that Ed was a virtual prisoner in the palace. Ed, his beautiful, free Ed, trapped like a bird in a golden cage—the very thing Ling had wanted to avoid so many years before.
"You've talked to the healers about this, haven't you?" was all that Ling managed to get out.
"Yeah. Of course I have. You think I take those enormous horse pills every night for fun?" Ed asked, breaking eye contact. "I take them so I can sleep. I can't believe you never noticed."
"Of course I noticed. I just never realized..."
"We can't all have perfect, young bodies forever," Ed snapped suddenly, slamming his hands down on the table hard enough to upset his drink. "There's nothing more anyone can do, you understand? That's why I don't fucking talk about it. It's going to be like this for the rest of my life."
Ling went silent at this outburst. It was obviously something that had been building up for a long while, and it hurt to think that Ed hadn't shared this with him. It hurt more to realize that he had been sitting aside, waiting for Ed to come to him, while Ed had suffered silently for ten years. Ten years. Ling understood why Ed was yelling. Ling didn't blame him at all.
Traveling, moving around—that was who Ed was, fundamentally. He hadn't sat still for more than thirty years, and suddenly, that was all taken away from him. He couldn't leave, not without substantial amounts of pain, pain that would be with him for the rest of his life. It was no wonder Ed was upset.
But that didn't mean there was nothing that Ling could do about it. The servants hadn't approached the table to clean up the spilled glass, because it was clear that the intrusion would not be a welcome one. So Ling took his napkin and put it on the spreading mess, and he looked up at Ed.
"You could use my stone," he said quietly. "You could heal yourself."
Ed was still glaring at him. "Not much use when the damage will just repeat itself in a couple of years," he said coolly.
"Then take more. Take half of it. You can stay here with me, forever," Ling said suddenly. The Greed within was coiled up, waiting to strike, like always, when Ling found something new that he wanted; this was it. He wanted Ed. He wanted Ed forever. But that really wasn't new at all, was it?
When Ed looked up at him, it was with the eyes of an old man. For a moment, he looked every bit of his forty-eight years, and more. Ling could see the wrinkles on his skin, the smile lines, the single calloused hand, the way his muscles had started to sag, just a little. Ed had gotten old while Ling had watched, and he hadn't even noticed.
"Right, like you want me at this age forever," Ed snorted in response.
"You would have punched me in the face if I had offered it twenty years ago," Ling answered.
There was another moment of silence as Ed considered his words. "Yeah. I probably should now, too, but it's a bit of effort to get up," he replied.
Ling's mouth twitched slightly. "Maybe that's why I waited."
A servant had braved the scene to clean up the mess on the table, and Ed focused on him instead of on Ling. He wasn't scowling anymore, at least. "You're such an asshole," he commented, looking down at the letter again.
"Is there anything we could do to make the train more comfortable for you?" Ling asked, trying to think of a way this would be more tolerable to Ed.
"Doubt it. I would have figured something out by now, don't you think?"
Ling had to admit, he was probably right. But that didn't mean Ling couldn't try. He began to try and concoct an idea, something that Ed's brilliant and just a little too practical mind would never come up with. Nothing came immediately to mind. A car would probably be the most comfortable way to ride, but not for that distance, and the roads didn't run through the desert anyway. On a train, Ed would be able to get up and move around, but trains were so bumpy that he'd never have a chance to get comfortable, even in the Emperor's private car.
The Emperor's private car...
With all the amenities of the Emperor's private car, and his healers and care and plush pillows and masseuses and hot water bottles, plus Ling's own delightful commentary about everything happening to distract him, Ed might just be able to travel. So rarely did Ed actually ever want something like this that Ling was delighted to go out of his way to make it happen. It could be like a birthday present, or something.
Of course, to use the Emperor's private car, one had to be accompanying the Emperor. But then, it had been a while since Ling had been to Amestris. He might not be able to go to the wedding, but he could certainly drop Ed off at the Rizenbul station, and then pick him up on his way back to Xing.
"When is the wedding?" Ling asked
Ed gave him a look. "Why's it matter?"
"Because I'm going to get you to Rizenbul, one way or another, that's why."
The dream was always the same.
Ling knew by now from just the frequency of it that he was dreaming as soon as his knees touched the pillow in front of the low table that served as a desk in a child's classroom. The pillows weren't always the same, the classroom was often in a different location, and his companions in class varied from time to time. Sometimes it was Ran Fan, sometimes Lihua or Jian; occasionally, it was Ed or even Fuu.
But one thing that never changed was the Master in the front of the room, aged and wise, with a long white beard and thin, spidery hands. He read from a scroll, unwound in his hands, so old that the paper was yellow and cracked. The story was the same too, as was Ling's impatience.
When he was awake, he didn't have the full awareness or clarity to remember the story in the dream, and when he was asleep, it seemed new and old at the same time, a story he knew but hadn't heard in many years. He never remembered the ending, almost like he had never known the ending. Maybe there wasn't an ending at all.
But time after time, dream after dream, the Master would call Ling's name and have him stand. He would ask the same question each time, and Ling would falter for an answer. The admonishment he received in turn for not knowing the answer was typically similar too. He would be chastised for not doing his homework, and his companion classmate would express disappointment and then leave.
It was damning to not know the answer, and when he woke up, the feelings of disappointment and frustration were fresh in his mind. He would lie there on his silk sheets and stare at the intricate carvings in his ceiling, and he would think.
What could the man who had everything possibly still want?
Ling did get Ed to Rizenbul, in time for the wedding.
It took an hour of massage and locating of pressure points to alleviate the pain before Ed could disembark the train, but he did so under his own power. Ling followed him out, much to the distress of his personal guard.
Rizenbul was beautiful and warm, flooding his senses with an overwhelming sense of simplicity and life. The grass extended for miles outside of the train station, even visible beyond the tiny town. This was the part of Amestris that Ling had missed, not the bustling cities filled with hurrying people or the stiff, uncomfortable decor of the Fuhrer's conference rooms.
Ling laughed and turned in a circle in the train station with his arms stretched out on either side of him, the few people actually there turning and watching him curiously. "Ah, the fresh scent...of..." Something not so nice had invaded his nose now, and he frowned a little.
"Cow shit," Ed provided, smirking a bit.
"That's it," Ling laughed.
There were a few cars in the parking lot, and out of one of them was emerging Al. He carried his age slightly better than Ed did, although he had more of that same silvering hair at his temples than Ed. He was grinning as he made his way up the platform and immediately embraced his brother upon reaching him. "Brother! I'm so glad you could make it," he gushed.
Ed was laughing, which was a good reaction—Ling was worried he'd still be sore. He probably was, actually, but Ling knew by now that Ed was good at hiding that. Al came and greeted Ling too, and Ling yanked him into a hug anyway. "It is wonderful to see you again, Al! I do regret I won't be attending your lovely daughter's wedding, but I have an important appointment with the head of the state. You understand, yes?"
"Oh, of course," Al replied, even though he had already known that. It made Ling a little sad that he couldn't go, honestly; he considered Al and Winry and their children to simply be an extension of his family, via Ed. Even though they had never exchanged vows or rings or any of that, Ed was Ling's and Ling was Ed's. It was just the way it was, and no ring or promise or ceremony was going to change that or make it more sacred.
It went against his greedy nature to belong to someone the way he did, but he couldn't stop it anymore than he could stop himself from loving Ed at all.
And then Ed was coming up to him, looking up at Ling's face as he grasped his forearm. "Thank you," he said quietly, "for this. I don't even..."
"Ed." Ling smiled at him. "I would do anything for you. You know that." He reached his hands up and touched Ed's face, smoothing the slight wrinkles there, and Ed was grinning up at him. The sunlight on his skin and the touch of Ling's hands and the smile, all these together, made him look ten, fifteen years younger than he was.
Ling didn't care that there were people on the platform, that Ed's brother was only a few feet away, that to the casual observer, they were a fifteen year old boy and a fifty year old man. Ling kissed Ed on the mouth, and Ed made a sound and then kissed him back.
"I miss you already," Ling said in Xingese, even though it wouldn't surprise him if Al could understand him.
"You haven't left yet," Ed reminded him. "You have to let go of me before you start missing me."
"I do not."
Ed closed his eyes as Ling started kissing him again, at the corners of his mouth and his eyes, wherever he could reach. "It's only two weeks."
"We'll see if you even remember to miss me," Ling joked. He released Ed, though, released him to his first home and to his brother and to his family. He sighed a little. "I love you, Ed."
"Yeah. I love you too, asshole."
Despite their words, Ed stood on the platform watching until Ling's train was far out of sight.
Al and Winry's second child was a boy by the name of Matthew, with his father's hair and his mother's eyes. Ling had not seen him in person since he was a baby, but he had seen pictures. And now, he was the only person on the platform where Ed was supposed to be waiting for him.
Ling descended the steps of the train gracefully, feeling light and free in his travelling clothing. Traveling was a blessing in disguise, because no one expected him to be in full Emperor regalia when he was moving through tight passageways and small doorways. He sometimes secretly wondered if the Emperor's tailor was the real assassin in many cases in the past—an Emperor should be able to defend himself, but could not if he was rendered immobile by his own clothing.
"Um," Matthew said when Ling descended the stairs. He looked very unsure of himself and worried. Ling wondered if he knew how many people were watching him to make sure he didn't try anything on the Emperor of Xing. "You're Mr. Yao?"
Ling nodded encouragingly.
"Um, Uncle Ed wanted to talk to you before you leave. There are no other trains today, so can yours wait?" the young man asked.
Ling smiled and turned back to the train. "Make it happen," he said, and there was immediate movement from the servants within. A pair of guards appeared at his sides as he stepped further out onto the platform, and he sighed in annoyance. He knew they would always be there and always be useless...but oh well. Tradition was tradition, and over protectiveness rarely got people killed.
"All right," he said amicably to Matthew. "I am ready. Where is your uncle?"
"This way...um, sir."
They traveled down a long, winding road that Ling remembered vaguely from his last visit here years and years ago. It was a gravel road heading the opposite way of the town, and a cemetery was visible over one of the hills. Outside the cemetery gates was parked an old fashioned blue car that Ling recognized as the one Al had driven to the station two weeks ago.
Matthew escorted him to the gates and pointed to something out of Ling's line of vision. "Fifth row in, all the way to the right," he said.
"Ah, of course. This is slightly bigger than the last time I was here," Ling commented, stepping through the gates. He paused, then. "Thank you, Matthew. You two can stay here." The last bit was directed at his imperial guard. There were more of them, Ling could sense them, but they would take the hint as well, he was certain.
He found Ed standing in front of a pair of graves, wearing a dark brown coat and leaning against a walking stick. The stick was new; he had refused the idea just as soon as Ling could conjure it up back in Xing. That was interesting.
Ling had thought he was soundless, but Ed picked up on his presence anyway. "Al's reserved he and Winry a plot just over there," he said as Ling approached, pointing to an empty bit of grass a row over. "Asked me if I wanted something here."
"What did you tell him?" Ling placed a hand on Ed's flesh shoulder.
"I told him no, at first. I mean, it would seem silly to drag my body all the way over here just to be buried, you know?" Ed murmured. "But then I started thinking, you know, it might not be so bad. Might be nice. I could be buried by Mom and...and that bastard father of mine. By Uncle and Auntie Rockbell, and by Granny, and eventually, by Al and Winry. You know?"
This conversation was not something Ling wanted to be having, not now and not ever. He didn't want to think about the day that Ed wouldn't be there for him any longer and what he was going to do with that. He hadn't considered where he wanted Ed to be buried. But somehow, it wasn't here.
"Is that what you want?" Ling asked cautiously, unsure of where this conversation was headed.
"I don't know." Ed looked up at Ling, finally, and his eyes were filled with conflict—more conflict than there should be if he was just debating on where he wanted to be buried. Ling was suddenly very worried. "Ling, this is...the last time I'm ever going to get to be here. It's only going to get harder to travel. I'm never coming back here."
A horrifying understanding came over Ling. "Ed..."
"I-I...I don't want to leave!"
Ling closed his eyes and thought about all those times so many years ago when Ed would leave the palace for weeks at a time, about how he had felt when Ed had walked out the door. He thought about how he had felt when he found out that Ed could not longer travel easily, how he had longed for something to make Ed happy again.
Was this it? Did he really have to leave Ed here?
He found himself stepping forward and wrapping his arms around Ed, as tightly as he could manage. Ed dropped his stick and clung to Ling's torso, burying his face in Ling's shoulder, and for a moment, neither one of them spoke. What could he say? How could he beg Ed not to leave him, not to stay here, when getting on that train would just invoke twelve hours of unspeakable pain? How could he ask Ed to leave the town where he was born, where his brother and best friend lived, where his nieces and nephews stayed, where his parents were buried?
But he could, because it was what he wanted, and it was such a strong and encompassing desire that the very thought of going back to Xing without Ed was just absurd. He knew he couldn't take Ed against his will, and he wouldn't think of it, but that didn't mean he couldn't try and sway Ed's decision. Perhaps he was taking Ed away from Rizenbul and Amestris forever, but Ed had a home in Xing too.
"Please come home with me," Ling said, and that was all he could say. Please come home. Please leave this place. Please. Please.
"I'm just," Ed murmured, and then stopped for a moment. "I'm just not ready to say goodbye."
Ling's heart leapt in his chest. Did that mean Ed was coming with him? He pressed his lips to the top of Ed's head, still holding him probably a little too tightly. "My train can't idle in the station forever."
Ed sighed and shifted, finally pulling away from Ling. "Yeah, I know. All my stuff is in Al's car. He let me borrow it. Matthew is playing chauffer." He reached for the discarded walking stick, but Ling beat him to it.
"Did you already say goodbye?"
"Yeah." Ed hesitated and then took his stick back from Ling. "Before you can ask, Winry gave it to me. I guess a lot of people with automail have problems when they get older. She said this should help out a bit." He began a slow hobble toward the entrance of the cemetery, and Ling followed.
"Ed." Ling was surprised; he hadn't meant to say anything, but there was some guilt he hadn't worked through just yet. He knew he should keep his mouth shut, let what was happening continue, because he was getting Ed back. But he couldn't help it. Ed stopped and glanced at him, and Ling couldn't quite make eye contact. "You do want to go back, don't you?"
Ed took a deep breath. "Of course I do. All my research is there. And I couldn't abandon Jian and Lihua, and...there's you, and your goddamn wonderful bed," he said slowly. He looked up at Ling's face. "My life is there now. With you. There's no question of that. But that doesn't mean I won't miss this. That I won't miss here."
After a moment of silence, Ling stepped up behind him and put his arm around Ed's waist. These were the words he needed to hear. As much as he needed Ed, he needed Ed to need him almost just as much. As much as he needed Ed to come home with him, he needed Ed to want to come home too.
He looked down at Ed, and Ed glanced up at him. He sneaked a kiss and a nuzzle, and then they started walking. "Let's go home," he said, and Ed looked at the car and the road to his brother's house and the empty countryside, and then he nodded.
"Yeah. Let's go."
Starting with the moment that Ed told Ling about his joint pains, Ling found himself watching Ed. It annoyed him that he hadn't realized Ed was hurting for so long. It bothered him that Ed had hidden it, waiting for him to notice. It bothered him more that he had not asked, waiting for Ed to tell him. If something else went wrong (and really, he was beginning to understand that it was only a matter of time until it did), he wanted to know about it.
But it was frustrating. Ling couldn't tell what was arthritis, what was aging, and what was something else altogether, or even if there was something else at all. And so he would ask Ed how he was doing every night, admitting his guilt over not realizing Ed's trouble with arthritis. Ed told him each night, at first, finding Ling's inquiries amusing or something. He got annoyed after a while, but Ling was persistent, and his concern prevailed.
What Ling came to understand was that Ed was tired and his joints hurt. Sometimes, it was difficult to get out of bed in the morning, and sometimes, it was difficult to get back into bed at night. From what Ling gathered, these were pretty typical signs of aging.
And Ed did age, seemingly right before Ling's eyes. His hair silvered, the lines on his face lengthened, and his once muscular frame lost much of its bulk. Ed was getting thinner and bonier. He wore his glasses all the time, bifocals now, and the walking stick became a permanent fixture. Even so, Ed kept up his lifestyle, and he was spending more time than ever on his research. It was, as he told Ling a number of times, something he needed to finish.
Ling didn't ask what his deadline was, because he was afraid he knew.
The years passed, and Ling grew adept at backrubs and lotion application. Matthew got married and had a special reception in Xing so that Ed could attend with minimal discomfort, and Al and Winry became grandparents, eventually five times over. Fuhrer Mustang finally retired his seat, and a half-Ishbalan man named Stephen Holting took over the Amestrian government.
The political climate was different in Xing as well. There were always misguided attempts at Ling's throne, but most of his siblings had grown too old to really bother. There were new would-be usurpers now, sometimes the children of his siblings, and sometimes others. No one succeeded, of course. No one even came close. Jian, however, nearly lost her life in the same way her mother had, and would probably never fight again. Her sister took her stead for her, joining the guard soon after this. Lihua brought her alchemy with her to the battle field and wielded it strongly and efficiently. Jian married but never had any children, and Lihua did not seem interested in marriage.
Ling's life was not unpleasant; Ed wasn't capable of certain bedroom activities that he had been in his youth, but he always tried for Ling's sake. Most of the time, it wasn't so bad, but Ling's libido was still fifteen years old, and Ling had been given explicit instructions to wait until Ed was dead before taking anyone else as a lover.
In the end, the company was good, the sex was all right when it happened, and the job wasn't as stressful as it had been once. Ling was enjoying his life.
That all ended, though, when Ed started getting sick.
It wasn't really a big deal at first; Ed got sick sometimes. It happened. But as his illnesses became more frequent, and as the herbal regimen the healer put him on to bolster his immune system did nothing to stop them, it became evident that something was wrong. Ed was old, but he wasn't that old.
He had other symptoms too—small things that were unremarkable by themselves. Night sweats. Headaches. Nosebleeds. Bruises he wasn't sure the origin of. Nothing major, just like getting sick was nothing major.
Ed was at the healer anyway, despite half-hearted objections, because Ling was concerned. He was supposed to have another twenty years with Ed, at least. He wasn't ready for this.
The healer traced a finger from the center of Ed's hairline down his forehead and stopped just between Ed's eyes. She touched his chest, dragging her finger down his sternum, down to his belly, and she stopped once more. "Your chi is not flowing properly," she explained with a frown. "It is blocked...but it is not certain where. This is what causes your illness."
Ed eye twitched just slightly; Ling knew he never understood vague terms like chi. Ed was too scientific. He couldn't sense chi, and so he didn't really know what to make of its existence. One couldn't explain it in words, and Ed liked words too much to bother with something so abstract.
But even Ling could feel it, though he was not trained in the healing arts. Something was definitely off about the way Ed's energy filled his being. He didn't know what it was, or what the physical correlation was. He didn't know what it meant.
He was afraid. He was afraid for Ed, and more so, for himself.
Two days later, the blood test came back positive for a condition familiar to the healers: Ed was anemic. This was a great relief for Ling, until the healer took him aside.
"Anemia is a deficiency, easily fixed," she said to him. "But there's always something that causes anemia. Very rarely does it occur on its own, with no provocation. And...it would not block his chi, as we have seen. There is something underlying. I am...afraid, Your Excellency, that his prognosis does not look very good. I have seen things similar to this..."
Ling felt very numb, as though he wasn't really inside of his body, as though he was a ghost, standing back and watching his body go through the motions. His head nodded and his throat swallowed and his tongue spoke. "What is that something underlying, Healer?"
"His blood is ill. He doesn't fight infections properly. He bleeds too easily. His blood does not carry nutrients or oxygen properly. It is...a cancer. In his blood." She swallowed slightly and looked up at him. Her eyes were sad. "My medicines can prolong his life, but they cannot save it."
"How long?" Ling's body asked without his permission.
"Five years at the very most. My lord...I am sorry." The healer bowed to him, low and humble. A lesser Emperor, one of his forefathers perhaps, might have struck her dead for the bad news, but Ling couldn't find enough emotion to even think it.
Instead, he forced himself to smile. He would smile for Ed, if he only had five more years to smile. He smiled at the healer, and he said, "Then we will make them five good years."
Ed's gaze was focused on Ling's face when he returned to the room, and it was steely and knowing, but Ling didn't allow his smile to falter. At least, not until Ed spoke. "How long?"
There was a moment of silence where Ling fought his urge to react to that. "How long what?"
"How long 'til it kills me?" Ed asked bluntly.
Ling felt his facade shatter. This was all too much, too soon. He felt like someone had taken a hold of both of his lungs and squeezed so that he couldn't fit a single breath inside of them. He felt like the earth could shake and the palace walls could fall down around him into a pile of rubble, and he would just stand in the center of it all, not knowing or caring.
The world ends with two words: "Five years."
Ed admitted in bed that night that he had known it was coming.
"Didn't notice it at first," he murmured, stroking flesh fingers through Ling's hair gently. "But eventually... well, I have all the same things my mom did before she died. She never went to the doctor, though. I mean, I didn't want to. It was like....I didn't want to know. I knew, but I didn't want to know."
Ling didn't say anything. He didn't know if he could. His mouth was dry, his tongue was lead. His eyes burned and his throat ached. He was angry. He was devastated. He was nothing, numb and open and unable to breathe. It was almost as though all of those emotions had welled up so deeply inside of him that they were simply too much to feel.
His left hand moved on its own accord, the hand with the dark ink cut against skin, and it rested over Ed's heart. He wanted this. He wanted.
"Take my stone." Ling's voice was rough.
"They could fix you. They could make you better."
"I don't want it."
Ling's hand clenches into a fist, still resting there over Ed's heart. He wished he knew alchemy. He wished he could somehow force this onto Ed, that Ed didn't have a choice in the matter. But he knew he wouldn't be able to do that, even if he had the ability. This was Ed's life to do with as he pleased—even if the decisions he made left them with so very little time together.
Neither of them fell asleep for a long time after that. Ling laid awake, his head pillowed on Ed's shoulder, his hand over Ed's heart. He listened to Ed's breathing, felt his pulse. He listened to Ed's chi, memorizing every feeling attached to it, all familiar things he already knew but comforting nonetheless. He waited until Ed was asleep before allowing himself to follow. He dreamed that he too had grown old with Ed, and things weren't quite so bad that way.
Over the next week or so, Ed adopted a sort of morose air. He threw himself into his work more than ever; suddenly, he had a time limit on it. He still wouldn't tell Ling what it was about, and Ling wasn't worried about its contents anyway. He wanted to do something, go somewhere, take Ed out of this damn palace he was trapped in. He wanted to make those five years worth living. He also wanted a second opinion, and the Amestrian doctor was on his way to Xing.
The damning part about it was that there was no way around it. Under no circumstances would Ed accept the stone, and while Ling could order one of his alchemists to do it for him, he wasn't sure he trusted any of them that far. He also wasn't quite certain what would happen to him if he did that, and if there was one thing he could not do, it was leave his nation without a leader.
But his Greed was torn in a way it never had been before. On the one hand, he had Ed, his lover, his beloved, his everything, wasting away and dying in front of Ling while he could do nothing but watch. On the other hand, he had his immortal life with which to govern his dearly loved country, and with it, the ability to give his lover a cure that he wouldn't accept.
Ling did not know what he wanted more.
He did, really, but Ed had already made the decision for him. He could argue the point for hours—and he had, actually—but Ed refused to listen to reason. And Ling was forced to be an Emperor first and a lover second.
The Amestrian doctor took a look at Ed's test results and made a clucking noise with his tongue, shaking his head. The case was too advanced and the treatment too strenuous for an old man, he said. He did not agree with the healer's prognosis—he thought it was being too kind. He offered three years, no more. Ed took this in stride, and he studied.
The thing Ed did not do was call his brother.
Ling passed the weeks with a growing knot of despair in his belly. He arranged for a vacation—he would get Ed out of this palace, no matter what it took. And it took a lot—a lot of convincing and a lot of pain medication—but Ling eventually drove Ed out to the sea for another visit. He did not want to think of it as Ed's last.
But with the illness taking its toll on Ed's body, with the glasses on his nose and the silver in his hair, with the back hunched from arthritis and the weight of his automail, with shambling steps and reliance on his walking stick, Ed looked very, very old. There would not be another trip here, and they both knew it.
It hadn't been a good idea, and Ling realized it quickly. Ed could barely stand from the pain in his back and his hip, and there was no good place to rest. But Ed's gaze softened when he saw the powerful waves sweeping over the rock, and the sun caught his hair and turned it gold again. There was a smile on his face, and Ling didn't regret it.
Besides, Ed wasn't completely helpless, even at sixty-two years old, crippled by his own body working against him. He clapped his hands together, flesh and metal, and he touched the tip of his walking stick. The ground rose up behind him, molding itself into an elaborately decorated stone bench, just big enough for two.
There they sat, Ling with his arms around Ed, and Ed with his head against Ling's neck. They were still for a long time, and the wind was their only real company. There were guards, of course; there were always guards, but they stood back, with the car, giving them the illusion of alone time. The evening was theirs and theirs alone.
"I don't want you to drag me back to Rizenbul to bury me," Ed broke the silence. "No matter what Al says. All right? I want to be buried here."
It wasn't a conversation that Ling wanted to be having, but he had to admit that he realized the necessity of it. "In Xing? Of course. I can't put you in the royal tomb, of course, since we're not technically married, and the old fashioned types get all up in arms about that sort of thing...," Ling murmured thoughtfully. The idea of where to bury Ed had never occurred to him.
"I don't want to be buried in the royal tomb anyway. I'm not royalty. I'm not part of your guard, and I'm not a member of your family. I don't belong anywhere in the city, Ling," Ed replied quietly. "I mean here. Here. Bury me by the ocean. I...like it here."
"Here? In the cliffs?" Ling asked. That would take a long time to carve out a sepulcher all the way out here, and the work would be tedious and dangerous, so close to the water. One wrong move and the entire cliff face could come crumbling down.
Ed nodded, his face tilted against Ling's chest. "Here. If I wasn't so damn sore, I'd transmute it myself, since we're out here anyway," he said. "Well, I guess it doesn't really matter where I'm buried. It's not like I'm going to care."
"I mean, the whole burial thing, that's for you, right? If you want me closer, that's okay too. I don't know. I'm just a blabbering old man. I just...this is our place. I want to always feel like that, or something. It doesn't really matter, I mean, I know you like to visit Ran Fan and Fuu sometimes still, so maybe you'd do that with me too..."
"And the whole funeral thing too...they say funerals are for the living, not for the dead, so I figure you should all have some sort of a party or something. Stand around and sip your goddamn cocktails and talk about what a great guy I was."
"Ed. Stop." Ling's face was wet, and he didn't remember the tears starting. "You can...you can be buried where you would like. I'm the Emperor. I will make it happen."
"...okay." Ed's voice had gotten quiet. He was probably tired. It was difficult for him to run at full speed for a whole day by now, and they had done a lot of traveling. Ling knew they should head back soon, but he didn't want to. The bench behind him was cold, but Ed was a comforting warmth against his chest and side.
There was another silence, a quiet that wasn't quiet at all, with the fury of the waves and the rock and the wind. He held Ed, held him tightly, as though he was afraid the cold arms of nighttime were about to sweep him up and take him away, and really, when he thought about it too long, that was exactly what he was afraid of.
"...yes? Who is this?"
"It's me. It's Ling."
"Ah! I didn't recognize your voice. This is a surprise. I'm used to Brother calling."
"I'm calling on his behalf, actually."
"...oh? Why couldn't he make the call?"
"...Al, you and Winry should visit."
"What's going on, Ling?"
"He's—sick. I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Al, he wouldn't call you. He doesn't even know I'm calling you. But it's not even an option anymore."
"Sick. How sick is he?"
"...you need to come out here. Soon."
"He has what your mother had."
"I...oh, god. Oh, god. We'll be out as soon as we can."
"I'm sorry, Al. I—I'm so sorry."
Ed worked on his research until the day he finally couldn't get himself up out of bed any longer. And even then, sometimes when the fevers would get too high, he would be mumbling the scientific components of, well, something under his breath. Even in his broken body, that brilliant mind never stopped going, inventing, creating.
The Amestrian doctor's guess of three years had come and gone, and Al and Winry had moved into the palace. But it became more obvious with each passing day that five years had been too long an estimate. Ed's health was deteriorating rapidly. The sepulcher had been designed and transmuted, a garish looking mausoleum of stone, adorned with spikes and harsh swirls and guarded by gargoyles. It was gaudy and ugly and suited Ed in every way possible.
Ling's days were a haze of meetings and decisions and standing on pins and needles as he watched for a messenger to come and tell him the news. His nights were spent in Ed's hospital bed, his arms around Ed's emaciated waist and nose buried in his hair. He was afraid to leave Ed alone for fear that he would never speak to his lover again.
Ed celebrated his sixty-sixth birthday attached to a number of monitors and an IV line that fed him when his stomach couldn't handle solid foods. Winry had baked an apple pie, but Ed couldn't eat more than a few bites. Still, he enjoyed the party they threw in his hospital room, although he was exhausted by the end of it and slept so hard that night that Ling thought, more than once, that Ed had left him once and for all.
Three weeks after his birthday, Ed asked Ling to stay with him in the morning, and Ling immediately canceled every one of his plans for the entire day. Ed didn't have a real reason, just that he didn't want Ling to be far away, and Ling did not have an argument with that. Day passed into evening, and evening into nighttime, and Ed lay in Ling's arms.
"Do you think I'll make it to sixty-seven?" Ed asked.
No. Ling did not think so. "I hope," he said instead.
"Me neither." A pause, and then Ed turned slightly—painfully—in Ling's arms. "Ling?"
Gold eyes were focused on Ling's face, demanding every part of his attention. Ed's face was serious, but there was a touch of something there, something Ling didn't recognize. Something he didn't ever recall seeing on Ed's face before.
"Ling, I'm scared."
It was almost too much. Ling wanted nothing more than to comfort his lover, to hold him and kiss away his fears and promise him that it would be okay. But it wasn't going to be okay. It was never going to be okay ever again. And as much as he wanted to say something that would make a difference here, to make Ed fear what lay ahead less, there wasn't anything he could say.
So instead, he just leaned in and buried his nose in Ed's hair and closed his eyes. "I know. I am too," he whispered.
"...there's some stuff for you in my desk, so don't you dare just go dump it in a box and ship it off to Al," Ed murmured. "Important stuff."
Ling fully intended to never touch anything belonging to Ed ever again. "Okay."
"You should probably start dating again at some point," Ed went on. "Not tomorrow or anything, but you know. You're going to be awfully lonely if you don't."
Ling would never look at another man or a woman with half the feeling of how he looked at Ed. "Okay."
"An' you got to take care of Al. He's going to be...well, you know. Worse than he already is."
Al would get by. Al would survive, because he had Winry. He wasn't losing his lover. He wasn't losing his one and only. He wasn't going to be alone for all of eternity. Al would be just fine.
"Okay," Ed repeated. "I'm tired. I'll think of the rest I was going to tell you in the morning."
Ling kissed Ed's ear. "Okay."
"You'll stay here? In the morning?"
"Of course. You do the same, all right?"
"I'll do my best."
Even at this point in his life, the dream still held the same integral points in it. As soon as Ling's knees hit the pillow in the desk of his old classroom, he knew what it would be today. The classroom with the ivory walls, the Master behind his wrinkled, yellowed scroll, Ran Fan sitting in the seat next to him. And as the Master spoke in his slow, deep tones, he wove together the story of the Emperor who could not die in a tapestry of sound and images.
Ling's throat ached as he listened to the story. His eyes burned. Part of him could still feel Ed's warmth enveloped in his arms, the stiff hospital bed under his shoulder. He understood, finally, that the story was his story, that everyone he loved was being systematically removed from his life, and that he could not stand allowing new people into his heart for fear that they would simply destroy him the way that Ed's illness was destroying him.
"...the immortal Emperor, though, had let his Greed get the better of him," the old Master said, reading from his ancient scrolls. "Everything he did was for his own reasons. Everything he felt was for his own benefit. When he was very old, he finally understood that he did not have everything. In fact, he had lost more than anyone else ever had; he had lost his love and his strength. There was only one thing the Emperor wanted now. Does anyone remember what it is? Young Yao?"
Ling stood up next to his desk. "Ed. He wanted—I want Ed back. I want Ed back!" His voice had started out quiet and grown in pitch until he was shouting at the frail old man. "That's all I ever wanted! That's all I ever really wanted! That's all I need! Please! I just need him back!!"
When the old Master looked up, he was suddenly no longer the man who had taught Ling so many years ago, no. He had transformed into another man, one that Ling knew too well. The face of King Bradley loomed before him, and he was paralyzed with the shock of it.
"No!" Bradley bellowed, his voice reverberating through the room. "That's incorrect!"
And just as quickly, his sword was in his hand, his arm was swinging wide, and Ran Fan was screaming again, just like she had all those years back, when—but this time was different, she was still screaming, and she wasn't stopping, screaming and screaming and—
Ling jerked out of sleep to the shrill sound of what wasn't screaming at all, but the sound of Ed's monitors. The sensors had slipped, must have, it'd happened before while they were sleeping, and Ling blinked blearily at the healer rushing into the room. He struggled to make sense of what was happening as she checked Ed's pulse and then the sensors and finally just unplugged the screeching machine. Somehow, through all that, Ed hadn't woken up.
Ed hadn't even moved.
Not even to take a breath.
In fact, every one of the sensors was in the right place, recording just as they were supposed to.
The healer was giving Ling a sympathetic look, afraid to say the words that he couldn't stand to hear, the truth he couldn't stand to admit. He stared down at Ed's pale face, peaceful and still. He felt Ed's skin, still warm to the touch. He couldn't even convince himself that Ed was just asleep, though. Not now. Not anymore. His chi had stopped. His soul was gone. His body was—
"Leave me," Ling said, his voice clipped, and the healer was gone from the room only a moment later.
He rested his forehead in the crook of Ed's neck, where his shoulder met up with his chest. He inhaled Ed's scent, sterile and wrong, and he didn't know what to do. Here he was, confronted with innumerable years ahead of him, with no purpose and no direction and no—no Ed.
He didn't know what to do. He didn't know how to get up, to continue on.
What could he do? He held Ed's body in his arms—Ed's broken, aged body, wracked with disease and pain—and he wept.
Ed's body was interred a few days later in a private service attended only by those who had been closest to him. It was a short service; Winry said a few words, but Al couldn't, and Ling didn't want to. The pallbearers, dressed in the traditional white Xingese mourning robes, carried the coffin inside of the garish tomb and emerged a moment later, empty handed. The gates were closed, the doors were locked, and the key was given to Ling.
That didn't matter much. Part of Ling was inside of that tomb, and despite the fact that he had the key in his pocket, it was a part of him that was never coming back.
Al contributed to the sepulcher by walking up to the side of it and pressing his hands together. Blue light poured over the stone as Al etched in place Ed's final memorial. Ling did not go and read it. He didn't want to know what it said.
Ling stood at the edge of the cliff as the guests slowly filtered back toward the cars they had arrived in. He stood, and he felt the wind around him, billowing out his white mourning robes. He watched the water crash into the rocks, watched the storm clouds churn in the distance. He was alone, he thought. He was alone: finally, wholly, completely alone.
It was different from Fuu's death, different from Ran Fan's. It was different, because while they had been family, Ed had been a piece of who Ling was. It hurt. It was physically painful to allow Ed to be interred here, to leave him here, to be separated from him. They had been together for fifty years, for half a century, and Ling knew eventually, that wouldn't seem so long to him. But right now, that was eternity. It was enough.
There were hands on his shoulders, and he looked at Al. There were fresh tears on Al's cheeks, a heavy pain in his eyes. If anyone understood what Ling was feeling, it was Al. But he still held back; Al would just die in a few more years too. Ling never wanted to attend another funeral in his life.
"He told me to take care of you," Ling said, and his voice was flat, no inflection in it whatsoever.
"He told me the same thing," Al whispered. He turned Ling around, so that his back was to the ocean, his face toward the cars and the guests and, beyond them, the capital city and all of Xing. The sun was setting in the west, over his land.
He didn't want to go.
He didn't want to leave Ed here.
He didn't want to leave part of himself here.
"Ling...let's go," Al said quietly, and Ling couldn't help it. He turned around to find the cliffs and the ocean bathed in nighttime. His eyes found the bench Ed had made for them to sit on the last time they had been here together, and he realized he would never sit on it again, not with Ed in his arms the way it was designed.
Ling turned back toward Xing, toward life, toward eternity as the world's loneliest man. He never wanted to see the ocean again.
It became evident after a long while that the world continued on without Edward Elric.
The media had had a field day with it, of course; Ed had been one of the most beloved icons of Amestris' history, despite having moved to Xing forty-some years earlier. Pictures of him when he was fifteen crept up all over Amestrian tabloids, and the stories of the Fullmetal Alchemist suddenly became everyone's favorite topic of conversation.
Xing handled this much differently. Ed hadn't been as famous here, though most had heard of the tales of the Fullmetal Alchemist, savior of Amestris. He was more known for being the consort of the Emperor and for the rumors saying that he was the son of the great sage. Those in the palace crept around Ling, only interrupting his brooding misery for the most urgent of requests.
But eventually, it was expected that he should pick up the pieces and move on with his life.
Al and Winry moved back to Rizenbul; there was nothing keeping them there, and they had not seen their grandchildren in a long while.
Ed's name dropped out of the papers, except for the occasional mention.
The Aerugean ambassador really needed to speak to Ling about the trading lines between their countries and would talk to no one else.
Spring came. The flowers bloomed. Summer came. The sun shone. Autumn came. The flowers withered. Winter came. The snow fell.
The world didn't end just because Ed was no longer in it.
The world didn't end; only Ling did.
Ling wasn't aware of the passage of time. He was only aware of the feeling of vague disassociation from his day-to-day life. His body went through the motions of being the country's leader. He made decisions based on the words of his advisors. He ate, because he had to. He slept, but alone.
But eventually, the deep, throbbing pain that he was aware of with the intake of each breath—eventually, that faded. Eventually, he turned the picture of him and Ed taken years ago back around so that it no longer faced the wall. Eventually, he allowed himself to remember what his life had been with Ed. He came out of his grief-induced stupor like it had been a nightmare, and he discovered that years had gone by without him realizing it.
He began to realize some things. He realized that his advisors were running the country now, using his pain as a way to control him. He also realized that he didn't really care. No, that wasn't true, he did care, but not in the way that he should have.
He loved his home. He loved Xing, and he loved being its leader. There was no one else qualified for the position, no one else who could run this country like he could—at least, that was what he had been telling himself. He did love Xing, of course. But he began to wonder; he had been in power for more than fifty years, perhaps it was time for a fresh perspective on things.
It wasn't really an option, of course. Even in this liberal age, blood was still the single most important quality in a ruler, and Ling was unable to pass on his genes to the next generation.
But wouldn't it have been nice just to...sit back and let someone else do the work?
It was a stupid thought, really, and Ling dismissed it. He was still capable of leading his country, and he was still the most capable person in the country. Besides, if he stepped down from his position, what would he do? He still wasn't aging, after all. He was still immortal. He was comfortable where he was. He was just still grieving Ed, that was all.
Ed's study had been locked up shortly after his death, and Ling permitted no one to enter. But maybe now, five years after the fact, it wouldn't be so bad to go in there. Maybe the desk still held Ed's scent. Maybe he had left something there for Ling. Maybe Al would want some of those books. He found the key and then still had to wait a week to actually work up the nerve to open the door.
The room was exactly as Ed had left it, down to the book laid open on the desk and a piece of paper with three lines of Ed's scrawling handwriting on it. Everything in the room, however, had been covered in three centimeters of dust.
Ling was afraid to have it cleaned, though. The scent of books and paper and Ed's aftershave was still in the room, and he wouldn't have that leave. He brushed off the chair and sat down at an Amestrian style desk that was just a bit too low for his liking. He imagined Ed sitting exactly where he was, hunched over his desk and writing on that paper. The lamp on the desk blazed onto his research, glinting off the steel of his metal hand. In Ling's imagination, Ed looked like he did when he was thirty. Ling thought he probably liked too look at Ed the most around that age.
He reached out and picked up the paper Ed had been writing on, blowing off the dust as he did so. Ed's handwriting had always been terrible, but Ling had gotten pretty good at deciphering it. This paper had a few research notes on it that Ling didn't understand. He put the paper back down on the desk. He did the same with the book, sneezing after he blew the dust off. He couldn't even fathom what the book was about, even when he looked more closely at it
Beyond the desk, Ed had an old credenza filled with his research and even more books that didn't fit in his bookshelf. Ling wondered absently how many of these actually belonged to a library in Chiayi or somewhere else in Xing and had just never been returned. The credenza and all of the desk drawers, of course, had been alchemically sealed to prevent theft or whatever it was that alchemists worried about.
Ling sat there for a long moment, covered in dust and spiders. He closed his eyes and imagined that Ed would come back anytime to finish his research, that mysterious project that he hadn't gotten a chance to...
With a frown, Ling pushed back the chair and stood up quickly. Maybe a little too quickly; his knee jammed against the wood underneath the desk, and it jarred something loose. Ling frowned and inspected the damage. There was a long, thin, wooded panel on the front of the desk, and it seemed to have come loose, a bit...no, wait. That was...
He gripped the panel and tugged it gently. It rolled open without protest, revealing a hidden drawer.
The drawer was dust free, sealed pretty well until Ling's knee had loosened it. It was only a few centimeters deep, not enough to keep anything in it but a small stack of papers. In fact, the only thing Ed had kept in that hidden drawer of his was a single envelope. On the outside was scrawled:
In the event of my death
Ling's first impulse was to shove the envelope back into the drawer and pretend he had never found it. It was bringing back the memories, visceral and almost corporeal, of Ed dying in that hospital bed with that cancer ravaging away his insides, dying in Ling's arms.
But he also owed it to Ed to read whatever last words he had deemed worthy enough for a letter. With trembling hands, Ling lifted the envelope up and pulled the seal open. There were a number of folded loose leaf papers within, many with things crossed out. He couldn't quite make out the words because his eyes were blurred with a sudden onslaught of tears. He rubbed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. He started to read.
Ling,After this, there were a number of things scrawled out, entire paragraphs inked over enough that Ling couldn't make out anything that it said. He moved down the page.
This is going to be the most difficult thing I've ever written, so bear with me if I get a little long winded and stupid.
It's getting apparent that I'm not going to be able to finish my research before I die, and I'm sorry for that. Everything I worked for, it was going to be for you. It was going to be a promise for us—that's what I thought at first, anyway. It became clear to me that I was never going to be able to fix everything in the span of my own lifetime, so I decided to write everything down so at least you might have the chance. But there were a lot of variables and things I didn't consider until too late.
Anyway, a lot of it is done. All of the most important things. I got enough of it done that you should be able to accomplish what I set out to do.
Ignore that bit, I don't know what I'm talking about anymore, and I'm too fucking lazy to copy that whole first part over on a clean sheet of paper.This thought ended with another chunk of illegible scribbling, and Ling had to stop anyway, because it was getting too hard. Ed's unique turn of phrase was evident all over the letter, and it was bringing back that grief that had seemed to end him directly after Ed's death.
Anyway, there are a lot of things I'm probably going to say to you, and there are a lot of things I'm not going to get to that I wish I could. I'm never going to be able to write them all down, because the damn things pop into my head in the middle of the night or when I'm sitting on the john or something, times when I can't write them down, and then I try and think of them later and they're just gone.
So I'm just going to write down the important stuff. Stuff you probably already know, stuff I probably already said, but it's important anyway. Things like, I love you. You know, the sappy shit.
Thanks for everything. Is that stupid? Thanks for being you. Thanks for loving me. Thanks for bringing me to Rizenbul for my niece's wedding. Thanks for letting me see the ocean. Thanks for your big, stupid bed. Thanks for calling my brother for me when I got sick. Thanks for wanting me. Just, thanks. I had a good life, and I wouldn't change a damn thing about it. Except maybe the whole getting sick part. This kind of sucks.
It feels really damn weird knowing you'll be reading this after I'm dead. Part of me doesn't even want to write it because it's too much like giving up and
The scratched out section ended in the middle of another sentence.
know how that is. This is getting stupid again. I guess I'm not very good at this.On the following page was a circle, intricately drawn with every symbol placed with the precision that could have only come from Edward Elric, the genius alchemist. His hand hadn't wavered when he had drawn this circle the way it had wavered from time to time in the letter on the previous pages. As always, Ed's circle was perfect.
I could go on for pages and pages about the things I want to say to you, as is pretty evident by the fact that I'm on the third page already. But see, the thing is, I know you already know this shit. I'm not going to discredit you like that, assuming that you don't know how madly I'm in love with you and how fucking grateful I am that you never left me, even when I turned into this ugly husk of a person.
I think it will be a relief to die, in some ways, but I really don't want to. Getting old really sucks, though. I hope that, if you ever manage to get old, you don't lose any of your hair.
I'm not even making sense anymore. Listen, my research. Like I told you, it's all for you. On the next page, I drew the circle that will unlock my cabinet and my desk drawers. Get Al or Lihua or someone you trust to do it for you, all right? But I need you to do something for me. You can't open that research until you've figured out for yourself what it is that you want. I don't mean like what you want for dinner or whatever, I mean for your life. Imagine for a minute that you have a choice. Imagine that anything is possible. After you figure it out, then you can open up my research.
I know I can't stop you or anything, so I'm just going to have to trust you, as bad of an idea as that is.
I think that's all the important stuff. Well, no, it probably isn't, but
Fuck this. I love you. Please don't go crazy when I die. I just want you to be happy.
Ling leaned back in Ed's chair in front of Ed's desk in Ed's study, and he looked up at the ceiling. Ed didn't want him to go crazy. Ed wanted him to be happy.
A hundred years could pass—a thousand!—and Ling would never be happy again. Without Ed, he was nothing. Without Ed, he was less than nothing, he was just—he was only the selfish, greedy prince Ed had met fifty something years ago.
Ed wanted him to be happy. It was a stupid thing to wish for, but Ed had probably known that. He had written it down anyway. Ling closed his eyes and pulled into himself and pretended that he wasn't there, or maybe that Ed was there. His chest hurt, and he realized he was crying again. He didn't care.
How could Ed ask him to be happy? How could Ed ask him what he wanted? He wanted Ed back. He wanted the past back. He wanted—he wanted to start all over and do things over again. He wouldn't muck it all up if he had another chance. He wouldn't chase Ed out of the palace, he wouldn't waste time arguing over stupid things, he wouldn't—he wouldn't what?
Ed would grow old and die, no matter what he did.
Even if he could try again, he knew he would never be able to keep Ed forever. Even if Ed had taken half of his stone, they probably wouldn't have been able to stand looking at each other after three hundred years or so. Together forever—it was a myth.
Even if he had another chance, what could he change? Should he have never fallen in love with Ed in the first place? He couldn't imagine what his life would have been like without Ed. He didn't want to think about that.
Finally, disgruntled, Ling folded the letter back up, carefully and deliberately, and put it back into the hidden desk drawer. He latched it again and he stood up, brushing off his clothes. He rubbed the tears from his face, set his shoulders, and exited the room that had been Ed's study. He locked the door behind him.
He could honor Ed's last wish. No one would see Ed's research until Ling had figured out this last riddle: what it was Ed thought he wanted.
The room was now familiar, with its ivory walls and low desks and cushions for his knees. Ling sat, facing the old Master, settled on his velvet pillows, willowy old hands adjusting the scroll in front of him. Ling sat, and he waited for the story. Beside him was a figure swathed in black robes, face hidden, and Ling didn't look at him. This was new, but he didn't care.
"...and even though the immortal Emperor thought he had everything, it turned out that what he had truly wanted was something he could not have. And now, although young in body, the Emperor was very old, and everyone he had ever loved had died many years ago."
Ling was very still. He felt the age of his years in his bones, but his hands were smooth in his lap and his heart was strong in his chest. His spirit was old; his body was young. He had lived too much, seen too much, lost too much.
"There was only one thing that the Emperor wanted now. Does anyone remember what it is?" The Master looked up, and he turned to Ling. "Young Yao?"
He knew this. He should know this. He needed to know this. This was what Ed had wanted him to know, and he didn't want to disappoint Ed. He closed his eyes. He thought. He dreamed. If he could start over, he would change things. He would revoke his responsibilities. He would never become the Emperor, because now he knew that there were more important things in life. If becoming the Emperor meant he had to live forever—
And suddenly, he remembered that dream, the one where he and Ed had gotten old together. Maybe Ed would still die first, but then Ling only had five or ten years to look forward to, not an eternity.
He knew the answer.
He knew what he wanted.
Ling opened his eyes and he looked at the Master, patiently waiting for his response. "He wanted to die. The old Emperor wanted to die."
The Master nodded once at him. "Very good."
His companion stood up, then, the man in the dark robes, and he pulled back the hood. It was Ed inside of the robes, the Ed of his youth, maybe in his twenties or so. He was beautiful and golden perfect, and he was smiling. "Come on," Ed said, stretching out his hand to Ling. "Let's go."
Ling reached out his hand, and he woke up crying into his pillow.
Lihua opened all of the alchemical locks in Ed's office for Ling. What he found amazed the both of them; Ed's credenza was filled with decades of research, all handwritten and categorized by year. At the very top of the boxes of research was another envelope, bearing Ling's name, lying on top of an old leather-bound journal. Inside the envelope was another letter.
My father died sitting in front of my mother's grave, all alone, with a smile on his face.Sitting in that chair again, Ling felt a bit gratified to know that he had read Ed correctly. No, that wasn't it—Ed had read him correctly. That idiot Ed, he had known all along that this was where Ling was going to end up. He had just ended up there sooner than either of them had expected.
I never remembered him being happy. After he met my mom and me and Al were born, he spent the rest of his life trying to figure out how to die with us because he couldn't bear the thought of continuing on after Mom was gone.
I know your situation is a little different, but I don't want you to abandon everyone who loves you and counts on you the same way he did, searching for a way to die when you're ready.
Included in these files is my research from the past forty-five years. It details anything I could think of that you might need in order to join me when you're ready. I've outlined a way for you block off your chi from detection (though you should really thank Lihua for that) so you can leave without being followed. There's also a bit about the construction of an automatically locking device that you can put the stone in to keep it from being used by anyone you don't want to use it. There's even a way to destroy it, if you want to do it that way.
The only thing I didn't get finished was a way for you to have your own heir. I know bloodlines are important there, but I don't know what's going to happen exactly after you take out the stone. Either way, your best bet is to find one of your sibling's kids beforehand, I think.
Anyway, so you don't have to take ten years to read through all this shit, everything you need to know is in this notebook. Burn everything after you're through with it.
He picked up the journal and opened it up to the first page. He stared at it for a moment and then turned the journal over and looked at it upside down to see if it made anymore sense that way. It didn't.
"Lihua," he said, his voice quiet and calm. "I am going to need your help with this."
He handed her the letter, and her eyes scanned the page, slowly translating the Amestrian in her mind. When she got to the bottom, she paused, and then handed the paper back. "Your highness. Is this what you want?"
Ling sighed. "I don't want to die, Lihua. But I'm so tired. I'm...so tired. I want...I want to be wherever he is. He always knew it'd end up like this. This is all—" He looked at the stacks of research, years and years of study dedicated to one single subject. "This is all for me."
Lihua bowed her head. "I shall respect your wishes, and my master's wishes," she told him.
"Thank you." Ling stood up, closing the journal again and handing it to her. "I will need time to...arrange things, and you will need time to understand these things." He closed the cabinet and had her lock them again, and then he locked the door to the study behind him. He had some planning to do.
It took time, and a lot of it, but time was no longer Ling's enemy.
Time had stolen from him everything that it would take: Fuu, Ran Fan, Ed. Time could no longer damage a timeless man.
He would give up his country before time could take it.
He would give up his life before time could figure out a way to force him to suffer longer.
It took time to meet many of his nieces and nephews belonging to the siblings that were not actively trying to remove him from the throne. It took time to get to know them, to understand their motives and passions, though it was helped by the fact that none of them realized his ultimate agenda. It took time to sift through all of them and choose one to succeed him to the throne.
He took his time doing it. He would make no mistakes.
He made trips out to the ocean to sit beside Ed's monument and to think. He made plans. He fired some people, hired new people, promoted other people. He arranged things to let them remain stable. He wrote some letters. He learned to disguise his chi and routinely disappeared from the palace without letting anyone know but the head of the Imperial guard.
He attended a funeral in Rizenbul and watched Al discover the pain of living without one's soul mate. A year later, he attended another funeral, and it was bittersweet, losing another friend and knowing that Al had accomplished so easily what Ed had devoted his entire life to.
He brought Ed's boxes and boxes of research out to the courtyard after Lihua had been through anything she might need, and he set it all on fire.
He searched his libraries until he found an appropriate epitaph.
He took his time, and time waited for him.
The sun rose slowly over the eastern sea, casting a splendor of orange and pink and red across the starry dark sky. The waves crashed against the cliffs, the wind whistled between the rocks. Here, it was quiet and loud; separated from the sound of people and living and life, there was only nature. The wind howling through the crags, the water crashing against the stone, and nothing.
Here, nestled innocuously between two rising crags, stood a lonely stone mausoleum. Here was where the great Fullmetal Alchemist had been laid to rest. Here was where the once immortal Emperor of Xing joined him in his eternal slumber.
Here was the place where the doors to that sepulcher had been opened, where Ling had taken his place sitting on the dusty floor next to the coffin, in the center of a circle incorporated into the very foundation of the tomb. Here was the place where Ling had nodded to Lihua gravely, where he had said in no uncertain terms, "I am ready."
Here was where Lihua had performed the transmutation to destroy the philosopher's stone that kept the Emperor from achieving his last wish. Here was where Ling closed his eyes for the very last time, where the doors were sealed with alchemy, where he imagined that Ed was reaching his hand out for him again, and this time he was able to take it.
Here was where the words of Ling's epitaph were transmuted into the stone, so that everyone would know why the immortal Emperor of Xing, the man who had everything anyone could ever ask for, had decided once and for all to leave the mortal plane:
And so, on this night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my guide,
In this sepulcher here by the sea,
In his tomb by the sounding sea.