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After All the Misery

Chapter Text

August 1902
Yao Province, Xing

    Feng Liu was not a man of patience. As he stood guard outside the nursery of his charge he caught himself nodding off. It was the middle of the night and by far the most boring of the guard shifts.  In his adolescence he dreamed of glory and honor, and victory in battle; of defending princesses against wicked plots, and winning the love of a beautiful maiden. His enthusiasm for honing his fighting skills knew no bounds. And when the time came he pledged his fealty to the Yao clan just as his father and ancestors before him. Though she was not a princess, Feng was fortunate enough to capture the affection of a young woman who in turn he gave his heart.

It is an honor to guard the young master. You guard the future of your clan. He reminded himself of this each night, but the long hours spent leaning against the door to the nursery were agonizingly dull. The young prince was two and slept through the night these days. With nary a sound to disturb the night he found his mind wandering to his own child likely asleep in bed with her mother.

Perhaps it's time we gave her a sibling.

A faint sound from within the nursery pulled him from thoughts of his family. He hesitated for but a moment then drew his sword and entered the room. A dark shape moved against the bright moonlight streaming through the open window. Before the wet nurse could cry out for help the assassin drew a sword across her throat in one swift motion and tossed her limp body aside. Feng did not hesitate again. He moved between the assassin and Prince Ling's bed, clashing swords with the intruder. The noise roused the young prince from his dreams and he screamed as his gaze fell upon the dead woman.

In the distance Feng heard the sound of hurried footsteps. His fellow guards if he was lucky and not some curious servant. Or worse another enemy. The intruder was quick and vicious with their attacks. It was all Feng could do to hold the murderer off. With offense improbable the guard left himself open, drawing his opponent in. Even as the assassin sliced deep into his thigh Feng struck true, piercing the assassin through the ribcage beneath his arm. Feng threw all of his weight into the attack, forcing the other back while sinking the blade deep into the assassin's heart.  

    Both Feng and the assassin tumbled through the open window into the garden two stories below. As Feng rolled onto his back he wrenched his sword from the side of his vanquished foe. He could still hear Prince Ling's cries from outside. Feng grew cold as his blood poured from his wound with each heartbeat.

A summer night shouldn't be so cold.


 

    It was hardly a month after her husband's death that Suyin's father-in-law showed his face on her doorstep. She was startled by the knock on the door of her small home so late in the night, but not surprised to see him. His hair was graced with more white than the last time she saw him, the lines of his face etched deeper. In him she could see the elderly grandfather her husband might have become if not for the assassin's blade that cut their future asunder. The only true difference between the two men was their smiles. Feng's mouth was always quirked into a self-assured grin. She couldn't recall ever seeing anything besides a frown on her father-in-law. She opened the door further, inviting him in without a word as she walked off to make tea. Suyin's three year old daughter slept in the bedroll by the brazier, while she and the stoic older man sat at the table together. On the table between them their tea grew as cold as the woman's temper simmered on the edge of boiling anger.

    "You couldn't be bothered to attend your own son's funeral and now you show up here unannounced." Suyin said. Even as she recognized her own impertinence she did not soften her gaze nor tone. He was still as unreadable as ever, but for a moment she thought she saw a sadness flicker in his eyes. The same eyes as her husband and daughter. "Why have you come?"

Fu lifted his tea cup taking a sip of the cold, bitter liquid to buy himself a moment. He fought back a grimace at the taste.

"Feng would've wanted-" he began before she cut him off.

"You know nothing of my husband's wishes. How could you? With such bad blood between you that you'd hardly spoken in the last five years." He waited for her to fall silent again and did not allow his composure to break.

"My son and I did not see eye to eye on most things. Yet we both knew the importance of honor. And duty..." Fu set the cup down and turned his gaze to his slumbering granddaughter. "He would want Lan Fan trained. To serve the Yao clan as our family has done for a thousand years."

"Feng wanted a son to follow in his footsteps not our only daughter!  We were going to have sons!" Suyin raised her voice. In her outrage she forgot to keep quiet and in the bedroll Lan Fan stirred.

"But you did not. Now that Feng is dead you never will. You should be proud he gave his life to protect the young lord. It is an honor to live and die in the service of our prince."

Suyin threw her tea in Fu's face and regretted that it wasn't scalding.

"You care only for your own twisted sense of honor. My daughter is three and already you are dreaming of her glorious death all in the name of serving the Yao. Get out of my home," she commanded. Fu did not rise. Instead, he drew a handkerchief from the sleeve of his robe and dried his face.

"I dream of Lan Fan's life not her death. The best she can hope for here is a good marriage to someone of a higher station. A life of bound feet and baring sons," Fu's gaze turned sharp, "Will you maim your precious daughter in the name of beauty? Teach her to arrange flowers, compose poetry, and smother the same determined streak you so loved in her father? Feng would not wish such a life for Lan Fan. We both know it."

Suyin's eyes shined glossy with unshed tears. She said nothing for fear her will would shatter.  The sound of covers rustling drew her attention.

"Grandfather," mumbled Lan Fan. Her hair was a wild tangle and her robes were rumpled from sleep. The girl shuffled over to Fu and cuddled close to his side. Though not a constant figure in her world when Fu was present she was his tiny shadow. The old man glanced at her mother in askance, and when she did not protest he lifted his only grandchild into his lap. Lan Fan laid her head against his broad chest and lulled by the sound of his heart began to drift back off to sleep.

"...She had not spoken since the burial," Suyin told him. Her heart ached with a stab of jealousy. Three weeks of attention and coddling hadn't broken her daughter's silence. There was no denying the old man had a way with Lan Fan without having to try.

"You wish to take her from me," she said. He didn't deny it. "She's all that remains of him."

"Feng would not wish for you to live the rest of your days as a grieving widow, Suyin. You're young and in time could marry again. Allow me train the girl. I will see to her wellbeing and your own." Fu combed his fingers through Lan Fan's hair, showing gentleness Suyin didn't expect. After all, the man had been far more devoted to the Yao clan than to his own wife and son. Fu rose from the table and tucked Lan Fan back into bed. Suyin felt her resolve waver.

 

With a heart full of sorrow Suyin bid her daughter farewell the next morning. The clouds were burnt orange and red from the rising sun. Lan Fan clung to her mother with a wail, but relented when Fu gathered her into his arms and seated her upon his horse. Though the Yao estate was merely a few days ride across the Yao province, Fu might as well be spiriting Lan Fan away to another world for how it grieved Suyin. She stood on the doorstep long after she could no longer see their silhouettes against the horizon. 

 

Chapter Text

January 1906

Yao Estate, Xing

 

    Fu slipped into Lan Fan’s room before the break of day on her seventh birthday. She did not stir as the old man appraised her from the shadows. Her hair had slipped from her tie in the night, spread across the pillow like a lacquered fan. She’d snuggled herself securely beneath the warm, heavy quilt Suyin made for her. It was a thing of beauty and skill, not a stitch out of place. When she’d received the parcel she’d untied the twine with care, making sure not to tear the brown paper wrapping. Even in her delight Lan Fan had been cautious as she lovingly smoothed her hand over the dark blue fabric and white embroidered blossoms.

The girl sleeps too deeply.

With a lightning fast flick of his wrist Fu yanked the cover from her, and Lan Fan woke with a start at the sudden chill. She sat up quickly, trying to gather her wits about her,still addled from sleep. Lan Fan shivered and peered out her window into the dark before looking up at Fu.

    “Master, it’s still nighttime,” she mumbled and rubbed her eyes.

    “Do you think the enemy will wait politely while you get your beauty sleep?” Fu’s voice was the crack of the whip. His granddaughter got to her feet and changed into her winter training attire. Fu eyed her as she hastily gathering her waist length hair into a braid. That would have to go; another lesson to be learned. Lan Fan glanced at the kitchen mournfully as he led her from their home without even a morsel of breakfast, but she dare not complain. Through the bitter cold and snow they trudged to the outer wall of the grand estate. The guards at the gate were expecting them, and allowed master and apprentice through without question.

    With each step Lan Fan sunk knee deep in the snow and she cursed her diminutive stature. Fu’s longer legs easily outpaced her and he showed no signs of halting. She doubled her speed to avoid falling too far behind. Even with her scarf wrapped around her mouth and nose each breath was a thousand frozen needles in her lungs. It took less than a kilometer before she found herself winded. The passage of time grew sluggish in the cold. To Lan Fan it felt like an eternity before they came to a stop at the edge of a vast icescape. He’d brought her to the lake frozen during the snowstorms of the past few weeks.

    Lan Fan couldn’t help the gasp of awe that escaped her lips. A sliver of the morning sun glinted at the horizon, and the illumination of the white expanse blinded her momentarily. They stood before the lake in companionable silence a brief while. All too soon Fu pivoted to face Lan Fan with his customary scowl.

    "Your endurance is pitiful. Clearly, I've been too soft on you. You will run the circumference of the lake. Should you take shortcuts I will know and you will begin again. Do not walk if you wish to eat today, apprentice," Fu instructed. Lan Fan stared at him wide eyed and unmoving until he spoke again. "Are you as foolish as you are weak? I said run, girl."

Fu flicked his wrist, releasing a kunai into his palm, and flung it at her feet. With a strangled yelp she turned and sprinted along the icy shore. When she glanced over her shoulder the old man was nowhere to be seen.


    "Ah!" Lan Fan slipped once again on the slush of the bank. As the morning wore on she'd been thankful for the sun's warmth, but melting snow hindered her progress. She went down hard on her right knee, biting her tongue in the process. Tears sprung to her eyes; she managed to hold them back just barely.

    I mustn't cry. Grandfather is watching. Lan Fan sniffled as she pulled her scarf off and tied it around her bloody knee. She stood shakily, spit a glob of crimson at the ground, and forced herself to keep moving. Her muscles burned, legs trembling with every step, and she could no longer feel her feet--whether from the cold or the distance she did not know. The back of her throat was raw from thirst and she hadn’t any water. Instead, she ate handfuls of snow and shivered all the more for it. More than once she spied frozen inlets that could’ve been traversed easily enough, but each time she thought of how far she’d come she resisted the temptation.

Master will not be merciful if I disobey, she reminded herself. On multiple occasions she could’ve sworn she saw something, perhaps even felt something in her periphery. Each time Lan Fan turned she found nothing but an unrelenting sense something important had escaped her notice. Suddenly, she thought of how very alone she was by the edge of the lake.

What if master isn’t watching me? What if a beast is hunting me? She thought of the howl of wolves in the night, and it was no longer the fear of disappointing Fu that drove her footsteps. By the time she burst through the trees into the clearing from which she originated, Lan Fan had worked herself into a frenzied terror. Next to the shore her grandfather sat on a log before a small fire. There was a hole in the ice nearby and over the flames two freshly caught fish were roasting. Lan Fan burst into tears at the sight of him; her body flooded with relief. He hadn’t abandoned her in the forest. With the last of her energy she ran to Fu, flinging herself against him, and wrapping her skinny arms around his waist.

Fu placed his hands on her shoulders, prying her from him, then dropped to one knee before his weeping granddaughter. Though his heart wished to pull her into a consoling embrace he refrained. Instead, he tilted her chin up and looked her in the eyes.

“You’ve done well, Lan Fan,” he said, “But no more tears.” He waited as her sobs abated. Sniffles and hiccups replaced them, but she’d composed herself.  Fu nodded with approval, and set her upon the log with a canteen of water and one of the fish, which she tore into with ravenous appetite. Once she'd eaten he cleaned her hands and face of her meal and carried her home on his back. 


    They reached home by midday with Lan Fan a limp as a doll. Exhaustion racked Lan Fan's body and to her misfortune feeling returned to her feet. In place of numbness she felt raw pain and an unrelenting throb. Complaining would take energy she no longer had. She remained silent as Fu carried her through the gate and to their small home in the outer sanctum of the estate. Fu built a fire in the brazier and settled her by it while he set about drawing her a bath. The heat of the fire leeched the chill from her bones. Her fingers were stiff and clumsy as she set about removing her shoes. A cry of pain drew Fu back to the main room. Lan Fan clutched the shoe and stared at her feet. Blisters had formed and broken leaving them a bloody mess. This time Fu did not chide her for her tears.

He gathered his granddaughter in his strong arms and tended to her wounds, cleaning them as gently as he was able with his large, callused hands. After her bath he set her on a stool with her feet soaking in a basin of water and sea salt. Clad in a clean robe she sat still while Fu combed her damp hair. She watched in silence as he fetched a pair of scissors from a drawer. Fu cut her hair to her shoulders leaving it long enough to still gather into a bun.

"A bodyguard has no need for vanity. Long hair can be grabbed in close combat. Place value in your strength, speed, and agility." Fu bandaged her injured feet and fed her stew before sending her off to bed early. As she lay in bed daylight still streamed through her window. Despite her weary body Lan Fan could not sleep for many hours. She stared at the ceiling contemplating Fu's words, the pleased tone in his voice when he told her she'd done well.

More than anything she thought of the lightness she felt in her chest when she saw how proud he was of her by the lake. It felt like soaring.

Lan Fan decided she'd meet any challenge he threw at her if only to see that expression on his face once more.



    

Chapter Text

August 1906

Yao Province, Xing

 

Winter melted into spring, spring warmed into summer, and all the while Lan Fan trained endlessly with her master. Lan Fan's hands and feet toughened with calluses, her spindly frame metamorphosed into lean muscle, and she’d sprouted several centimeters in height. Not so long ago she’d been picky about her food, but now, regardless of the meal placed before her, Lan Fan wolfed it down with gratitude. She no longer complained about her aching body at the end of the day for she knew it meant she’d become stronger. Evenings were spent at the table studying by lantern light. At night she slept like the dead, which never failed to stoke her grandfather's ire. Many mornings began with a bucket full of frigid water to the face.

"Your sense of qi is lacking. A drenching is nothing compared to an assassin’s blade," Fu lectured her over breakfast. Across from him Lan Fan sulked. It was clear from the hunch of her shoulders and indignant scowl. Water still dripped from her hair. Her face was all Suyin, but that scowl was every bit her father. Fu had seen that same expression a hundred times over on Feng. She ate her bowl of rice, refusing to meet her master's eyes. "It is a poor excuse for a bodyguard who cannot read the Dragon's Pulse."

"Maybe I don't want to be a bodyguard," Lan Fan grumbled. Before she realized she'd sparked grandfather’s fuse the bowl was slapped from her hand. It crashed against the wall; shards of ceramic and grains of rice went everywhere. She stared at Fu wide eyed, afraid to move, waiting for him to shout at her or worse. Silence stretched between them taunt as a wire. When he finally spoke his voice was calm and deadly.

"You disgrace our bloodline with such words. Selfish, ungrateful child. I should send you back to your mother. It’s a blessing your father is not alive to hear you. But then if he were perhaps I would have a grandson to train instead.”

“I didn’t mean it…” her voice was quiet and filled with remorse, “Please, don’t send me away. I will try harder.” Lan Fan bowed before him, her forehead and hands flush against the mat. There was a slight tremble in her form, but no tears were shed.

“...You do not understand what it means to be a retainer of the Yao clan. The blame for that is mine,” he stood as he spoke, “Follow me.”

He turned and strode from the house knowing she would follow. Lan Fan, still his tiny shadow, scurried after him in silence. The Yao estate was vast, a small a city in its own right, and Fu lead her toward the center. They passed through the inner gate. The houses here were more elegant than what Lan Fan was used to seeing and the paths well kept. Fu led her into a secluded garden near the main house.

“Do you know why your father died?"   

"To protect the young lord," she replied. Her master wasn't looking at her, but at the ground. The look in his eyes was intense and far away.

“Feng died to protect the future of our people. Without the young lord we would have no purpose. All hope would be lost without the prince,” Fu turned his attention to Lan Fan, “The Pulse of the Dragon is the energy of all living things. I will not have you blind to the flow of the world. One day it will save your life.”

Crouching in front of her Fu took her small hands in his own.

“We’re of the same blood, you and I.These hands are made for kunai not embroidery needles. Your feet are for running, and not delicate slippers. Granddaughter, you are the future of the Liu. It is a bright future.”


October 1906

Xing 

For the third time in as many hours Lan Fan’s head lulled forward in a doze. To strengthen her sense of the world Fu taught her to meditate. Or rather he tried to teach her. Despite her efforts Lan Fan could never fully clear her mind of thoughts, and when she came close she’d only fall asleep. Across from her Fu sensed her qi settle as she nodded off. In this she took after her father and it frustrated him to no end. Next to Fu laid a thin bamboo reed. In a swift movement he struck her across the back of her hand with it. Lan Fan’s eyes snapped open and she sat up straight. A welt blossomed on her pale skin.

“Your concentration needs work, apprentice. The purpose of this exercise is not relaxation. You must clear your mind of thoughts. Focus on your qi then expand your attention to the flow of qi around you. When you learn to tap into the Dragon’s Pulse you will have the advantage over untrained opponents. An alkahestrist or assassin will be less likely to catch you unaware.”

“Master?” Lan Fan began then hesitated, worrying her lower lip between her teeth.

Fu waited for her to continue.

“Did my father… Did guardsman Feng die because he couldn’t read the dragon’s pulse?”

“Feng preferred to train his body and mind over his sense of qi. It did not come as easily to him as swords. He was a skilled guard who faithfully protected the young lord at the cost of his life. With determination you will master qi sensing,” he stood from the floor. “There are things to which I must attend. Continue your meditation.”

“Yes, Master.”    

 

Xue Yao regarded Fu Liu with calculating appraisal as she lifted her teacup to her lips. For a woman of only twenty-two years she possessed remarkable cunning. She always played her cards close to the chest, often concealing her intentions behind a perfectly cultivated court smile. Dressed in a white and green quju cinched with a golden sash Xue radiated refinement, despite the meagerness of the Yao holdings in Xing.

“I’ve heard tales of your young apprentice. They say the child is a girl, yet her skill exceeds what is expected of her youth and gender,” she commented, “She is close in age to my son, I believe?”

“Yes, my lady. She is called Lan Fan and is my only remaining descendant.”

“I have not forgotten the honorable service of Feng Liu. Should she take after her father I am certain she will be a valuable asset to the prince. In fact Ling is the very reason I have asked you here today, Guardsman Liu,” Xue set her cup aside and flicked open her fan. “He would benefit from your tutelage. Will you consent to train him?”

“Lady Yao, you honor me with this task,” Fu replied and bowed reverently.

“I implore you to push him as hard as you would any pupil. The twelfth prince mustn’t be perceived as weak. Too many attacks on his life have been made already.”

“As you wish, my lady.”

 

It was late evening when Fu returned home. The lanterns hadn’t been lit, nor the fire in the brazier stoked. A chill had settled in the house and with the only light from the sunset Fu’s shadow stretched before him from the doorway. Lan Fan hadn’t moved from the spot he’d left her. Legs crossed, hands on her knees, spine straight as an arrow; Her eyes were shut, but he did not think her asleep. Fu drew a knife and threw it, arcing it to graze her cheek. To his approval the girl grasped the blade by the hilt before it could strike her. She blinked her eyes open and saw Fu before her with the faintest of smiles beneath his mustache.

“I’ve taken on another student. Tomorrow, you will begin training together. It is long past time you had a proper sparring partner,” he proclaimed.  

“Another student?” Lan Fan repeated. She was uncertain how to react. Her emotions flitted from excitement and curiosity to a twinge of jealousy. Never before had Lan Fan had to share Fu. Not as a grandfather nor master. “Who?”

“You will learn soon enough.”

 

The autumn morning was crisp and cloudy. Lan Fan waited in the orchard alone while Fu fetched the new student. She wondered about this new sparring partner. Would it be a boy or a girl? Someone her age or younger? Had they trained with anyone else before? Most of all she wondered if they’d be friends. Lan Fan’s childhood was one of solitude and the prospect of making a friend filled her with nervous excitement.

Of course we’ll be friends, she thought, The best of friends. With a smile gracing her usually frowning mouth, Lan Fan hoisted herself up into a nearby tree. She fliched an apple from above her and stood balanced on the branch with her back leaned against the trunk. It was a better vantage to look out for them. Lan Fan bit into the firm skin of the fruit, juice dribbling down her chin. When she spotted two figures approaching she tossed aside the core and leapt to the ground with a flip.

At her master’s side was a boy with long black hair pulled back into a ponytail. His stride had a careless grace that surprised her. She noticed his training clothes were new, and was suddenly self conscious of her own. Multiple tears in her pants and shirt were repaired by her clumsy stitches. Still, she could barely contain her joy. The boy couldn’t have been older than her. She stepped closer, bowing slightly, then gave him a shy smile. He gazed at her with amusement playing across his features and tucked his hands into his sleeves.

“A girl? You want me to fight a girl?” the boy said with a tilt of his head. Lan Fan’s smile dropped, her cheeks colored from a mixture of anger and embarrassment. She held her tongue, smoldering silently, and curled her short nails into her palms.

“Underestimating your opponent based on their appearance is unwise. Bow to one another. You will spar until I tell you to stop. I will judge both your strengths and weaknesses for myself,” Fu said.

He stepped away from the pair of children. Ling bowed in a jovial manner and Lan Fan curtly in turn. The two fell into fighting stance and for a moment the only movement was the wind stirring the fallen leaves around them. Ling’s cheeky smile spurred her into action. She struck as swiftly as a viper and Ling narrowly dodged. Ling’s humor evaporated as their fight intensified. In a flurry they exchanged blows and blocked in equal measure. Adrenaline coursed through Lan Fan like venom in her desire to prove a formidable fighter. Her stamina was unmatched and she pressed the advantage as he began to slow. Sensing her impending victory Ling scraped his back foot forward, kicking dirt into her face. It caught her off guard and she cried out from the grit stinging her eyes. Ling pivoted, tripping her, and grinned in triumph as she went down hard on her hands and knees.

“Not bad,” he panted, “No one has ever fought me properly before.” Ling walked in front of her and held out a hand to help her up. He did not expect it when Lan Fan pushed to her feet and tackled him instead. With the wind knocked out of him Ling could only bring his arms up to protect himself as Lan Fan rained blows down on him. She’d bloodied his nose before Fu hauled her off him

“Enough!” He separated the pair then knelt to examine Ling’s injuries.

“You punched me!” Ling exclaimed.

“Cheater!” She returned vehemently as she scrubbed at her eyes. Tears streaked down her face. Lan Fan told herself it was only from the dirt and not her bruised pride. She glowered as Fu helped the boy sit up.

“Young lord, are you all right?” Fu inquired. He produced a handkerchief from his sleeve, using it to stem the flow of blood from Ling’s nose. Several feet away all color drained from Lan Fan’s face as the boy’s identity dawned on her.   

“‘m fine,” he grumbled and took the cloth from their master. His expression was sulking, avoiding Lan Fan’s gaze.

“T-This one did not realize who you were, my lord” she dropped into a deep bow, wondering if she’d be strung up her neck for harming the prince.

“Forget it. You hit like a girl, anyway…” Ling replied with petulance. Tumultuous anger and deep felt shame warred within Lan Fan’s chest at his words. This was the boy she was meant to pledge her life to one day? Fu instructed her to return home while he took the prince to see the royal alkahestrist and Lan Fan decided she did not like Prince Ling Yao. Not one bit.

She hated him.

Chapter Text

November 1906

 

    Ling strode beside Lan Fan as they followed Fu down the wooded path. The apprentice bodyguard was decidedly not looking at him, but he gazed at her sidelong. Four weeks from their disastrous first bout of sparring, and no matter his tactics he couldn’t coax any friendliness from Lan Fan. Oh she was respectful as they come he’d give her that. It was always “yes, my lord” and “no, my lord” and “as you say my lord.” He was certain he hadn’t heard her string more than five words together at a time since. It hadn’t taken him long to regret his trick during their match. It was one thing to fight dirty when his life was on the line, it was quite another when making a first impression. He’d gotten off on the wrong foot with her. Quite literally when he thought about it. It wouldn’t do for someone he had to spend so much time with to dislike him. Snow flurries began to fall from the sky, settling in their hair. Ling slipped his gloves off then retrieved two oranges from his coat pocket.

    “Do you like oranges?” He asked and held one out to her. She glanced at him, then at the fruit nestled in his palm.

    “Yes, my lord,” she replied, but didn’t move to take the orange. Her hand stayed firmly by her side.

    “Well, then have one, Lan Fan,” Ling insisted, but still she hesitated, “You wouldn’t refuse a gift from a prince, would you?”

    “...No, my lord. Thank you, Prince Ling.”

    “Ah! So you do know my name. With all this “my lord” business I was beginning to think you didn’t.” And there was the blush. If he was being honest with himself he rather enjoyed unsettling his companion. After all, she turned such an interesting shade of pink when flustered. He suppressed a grin as she took the orange with a stiff bow; She was careful to avoid actually touching him he noted. Again, they walked in silence, each of them peeling their snack and eating the sweet segments. Lan Fan ate more slowly than Ling, savoring the treat. When she was finished she cleaned the sticky juice from her fingers with a clump of snow. Ling licked his fingers clean instead, smirking when he caught Lan Fan wrinkling her nose in distaste.

    “We’re here,” Fu announced. He’d brought them to the same lake where he’s tested Lan Fan’s mettle not yet a year ago. It was not quite a cold as last time, but cold enough all the same. “You will run the circumference of the lake.”

“You can’t be serious,” Ling gawked at him.  

“Should you take shortcuts I will know and you will start again. Get moving.” The prince looked at Lan Fan for some sign the old man was joking. She looked almost… smug.

She thinks I can’t do it, he realized.

“Very well,” Ling replied and shot Lan Fan a grin as he pulled his gloves on, “Race you!”

He dashed off without waiting to see if she’d follow, because of course she would.



“You know,” he gasped and leaned with one hand against a gigantic tree, “it’s not much of a race if you aren’t competing.”At first he thought he was doing quite well to keep pace with her, until he had to stop to catch his breath and she stopped, too. She was holding back so he wouldn’t fall behind. Ling was both impressed and exceedingly annoyed by her skill. How does she make it look so effortless?

“I’m your guard, Master Ling, and the woods are dangerous. It would be unwise to leave you unattended.”

“Guard in training,” he countered, “I’m sure old man Fu is around here somewhere. Go on ahead. I won’t have you let me win. Where’s the fun in that?”

Resolute in her duty Lan Fan stayed in place looking out at the iced over lake as Ling recovered his breath. She didn’t see the snowball coming and it struck her squarely in the back of the head. Lan Fan yelped as icy slush slipped past her collar and down her back. Spinning around quickly to admonish him she stopped at the look of mischief on the prince’s face. He knelt in the snow to fashion another projectile.

“Don’t be so serious all the time, Lan Fan!” he said and tossed another snowball. The young bodyguard attempted to dodge, lost her footing, and landed on her bottom in a drift of snow. Ling laughed at her scandalized expression. As he began making a third snowball she scurried to her feet and ducked behind a tree.

“Master Fu will be cross if he catches us neglecting our training,” Lan Fan shouted from cover. Peering from behind the tree she saw the prince lob another snowball and narrowly dodged. “My lord!”

“That’s right! I am your lord. And I order you to have a little fun, Lady Bodyguard.”



    Insufferable. He is insufferable! In the vast whiteness around them there was no opportunity to slip from view. Not in her black attire. The prince would not relent with his game. There was no avoiding it. If she didn’t give in he’d only continue to badger her. Well, if I must play…

    Lan Fan peeked out from her defensive position, marking her target, and threw a snowball; Not at Prince Ling, but at the snow-laden branch above his head. She couldn’t help her satisfied smile as snow dumped on the young lord’s head. Ling sputtered as it got in his mouth and nose. Blinking flakes out of his eyes he saw her stoop to gather more snow in her gloved hands. Before she could throw it Ling turned tail and ran.

    “Catch me if you can!” The prince fled and the bodyguard pursued. He sprinted along the shore of the lake. Over short distances he was quite quick even if he couldn’t keep it up for long. Lan Fan followed several meters behind, taking care with her footing. Ahead of them the shore veered left due in a wide inlet. Ling didn’t hesitate to venture onto the ice.

“My lord you mustn’t!” Lan Fan called after him and halted on the bank. Laughing off her words he kept going, holding his arms out for balance.

“Don’t worry so much, Lan Fan. Can’t you tell from his qi? Fu isn’t close enough to catch us!” He threw her a wily look over his shoulder.

“It isn’t safe, your highness!” she fretted. The prince was at the halfway point now and turned toward her.

“The lake is frozen. Are you afraid, lady bodyguard?” Ling teased and stomped his foot to prove it. Beneath him the ice fractured with an audible crack that reached both their ears. Still as stone Ling gazed down at the widening rifts in the ice.

"Don't move!" Lan Fan shouted in a panic, "I...I'll get Master Fu!"

"Wait, don't leave me!" Ling took a step toward her with his other foot and the cracks splintered further. They locked eyes and he disappeared beneath the ice. All around her was silent but for the gentle sloshing of water.

"GRANDFATHER!" She shrieked into the quiet.

What do I do?

Lan Fan moved across the ice as quickly as she dared to the hole. It was an inky chasm. She couldn't see him. Drowning. The prince was drowning and there was nothing she could do about it, because she couldn't see him. She shut her useless eyes and deep within her she felt a tug. Lan Fan didn't need to see him, not if she could sense him. Like snatching at a loose thread she clung to his qi, letting it lead her to another patch of thicker ice. She pounded at it with her small fists then drew a kunai from her coat and stabbed with all her might. It shattered with her effort. When she'd widened the break enough Lan Fan stripped herself of coat, scarf, and gloves. Then she jumped into the depths.

Lan Fan sunk through the dark, freezing water. Below her she saw Ling and she willed herself to swim toward him. Her frame was stiff and sluggish from the shock of frigid water. Sunlight refracted around them from the hole above. The prince was still as death, eyes closed, hair floating around him. Lan Fan grasped him by the hood of his coat and kicked as hard as she could for the surface.

By some miracle she managed to haul them both out of the water. She coughed, dragging ragged breaths, as she pulled Ling to the shore. The entirety of her form shivered. Ling wasn’t breathing. She turned him onto his side and slammed her flat palm between his shoulder blades, causing him to cough up two lung fulls of water. While Ling wheezed and continued to cough Lan Fan retrieved her discarded garments. Without a thought to propriety she stripped Ling of most of his wet clothes, leaving his pants and shoes, and bundled him in her dry coat and scarf. Her fingers were clumsy as she slipped the gloves onto Ling’s hands.

Minutes that stretched like hours passed before Fu found them huddled together. Lan Fan with her arms wrapped tightly around the prince; Ling with his head on her shoulder, eyes barely open, teeth chattering.

“What happened?” Fu dropped to his knee beside them and cupped the prince’s face. The boy’s lips were blue, his skin without warmth, but he was alive.

“T-The ice… b-b-broke…” Lan Fan slurred as her teeth clicked together. Her grandfather’s face was a mask of worry. Never before had she seen him so frightened. She wished he was angry instead. Anger she knew how to handle. Fu took off his large fur lined coat and wrapped it around the trembling children. With haste he gathered kindling and sparked a fire. Most of the wood he gathered was damp, but he found several pieces dry enough to catch flame. Ling no longer shivered, instead mumbling incoherently, trying to push Fu’s coat away.

“We must return home. The young lord needs a healer,” Fu said and scooped the little prince into his arms. He watched as Lan Fan struggled to stand, her limbs not cooperating. Keeping one arm around the prince he wrapped his coat tightly around Lan Fan and pulled the hood up to cover her wet hair. “I cannot carry you both. Stay by the fire and do not fall asleep. Do you understand?”

Lan Fan nodded.

“I will return for you. I swear it, granddaughter,” Fu promised and kissed her forehead. He didn’t look back at Lan Fan as he took off with Ling clutched tightly to his chest.  






Chapter Text

    Don’t fall asleep. Grandfather is coming back. He promised to come back. Stars glittered above in the night sky void of clouds. The moon was full and brilliant, shining a cold light. Lan Fan’s little fire had diminished to embers. Both feet were numb and her fingers had taken on a bluish-white tone. She knew she should gather more wood, but her body was stiff. Instead, she held Fu’s coat tightly around her small frame and stared into the sky. She wondered what it would be like to fall up into the heavens. Would it feel like floating? Would it be as cold as the lake? She thought of Prince Ling suspended under water, the look on his face before he slipped beneath the ice. It’d been more surprise than fear.

    ‘Don’t leave me!’

    Don’t fall asleep, Lan Fan fought to keep her eyes open, Just a little longer. Don’t…

    When the search party came for her Lan Fan was barely conscious, breaths coming slow and shallow, lips blue and cracked from the freezing temperatures. Deliriously Lan Fan mumbled as she was wrapped in a thick, scratchy blanket. She opened her eyes  for a moment as she was loaded into a palanquin. It was lit by a single lantern, warm and draped in fine silk.  Someone smelling of jasmine and honey cradled her, warming her frozen hands between their own.

    “Sleep little one,” a soft, lilting voice whispered in her ear. The world lost focus. Lan Fan finally gave into darkness.

 

When she woke from her fevered dreams she didn’t recognize her surroundings, nor could she recall how much time had passed. Lan Fan was tucked into a gigantic, plush bed, and bundled under multiple blankets. A brazier crackled with fire across the room; on the table next to her a lantern glowed and cast flickering shadows against the wall. Incense had been burned recently. The air in the room was stifling and almost unbearably warm. A woman dressed in lavish robes sat next to her bed, attention focused on embroidery until the girl shifted beneath the covers. The woman’s face was oval, her nose long and narrow, and she had a familiar quirk to her mouth.

“You had us worried, little one,” Xue said as she pulled her stitch taunt, “You’ve slept for three days.”

“My lady,” Lan Fan’s throat was dry and her voice was rough. Lady Yao set her embroidery aside, pouring Lan Fan a cup of water from the pitcher nearby. She helped Lan Fan sit up and encouraged her to take small sips before speaking again. The little bodyguard’s words were tinged with dread. “Is Prince Ling all right?”    

“Ling is in bed with a fever insisting that he’ll die of boredom long before a cold will get the better of him,” she said with the same sly smile as her son. Lan Fan sunk back into the pillows, momentarily relieved by Lady Yao’s words.

“I’m sorry,” Lan Fan whispered. She worried the edge of her sleeve between her fingers, then released the fabric when she realized the borrowed sleeping robe was likely more expensive than everything she owned combined.

“For what, little one? Saving my foolhardy son from his own stupidity?” Xue returned to her embroidery, finishing the last of the red blossoms she’d stitched on the corner of a handkerchief.  

“But if I’d stopped him-” Lan Fan began.

“Had you not been there Ling might’ve still ventured into danger and drowned. You jumped in after him without concern for your own life. I doubt Ling could find a more worthy protector in all of Xing.”

Lan Fan flushed crimson at Xue’s words.

“You should rest. It appears your fever is back,” a knowing smile played across her mouth. She left the handkerchief on the table, “I promised Ling I’d inform him the moment you woke. I’ll have something brought for you to eat.”

A servant brought her rice and a bowl of broth shortly thereafter. Till her first bite she hadn’t realized quite how hungry she felt. She ate so quickly she nearly made herself sick. An alkahestrist came by Lan Fan’s room, giving her a brief exam, and congratulated her on not losing any toes or fingers to frostbite. Another servant helped her to the baths to freshen up. She soaked in the hot water for nearly an hour, indulging in the warmth, before being ushered back to her room. Lan Fan was settling back into bed when Ling slid the door open, peeking inside. He smiled at her, a touch less sure of himself than usual, and slipped into her room. But for the atypical pink of his cheeks the young lord looked no worse for wear. Before he could stop her Lan Fan climbed out of bed, throwing herself onto the floor in a bow of perfect humility.

“You don’t have to do that. Please, you’re not well.”

“My lord, I…” She couldn’t continue as tears welled in her eyes and her throat tightened. As the prince crouched before the young apprentice guard she pressed her forehead hard against the floor. She wished it would swallow her up. When Ling’s hands settled onto her trembling shoulders she lifted her head. His expression was solemn.

“Don’t. I’m the one who should apologize. I’ve caused you all sorts of trouble,” he took a deep breath and held her gaze, “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me, my lady?”

“Of course, but there is no need for you to apologize to one such as me. I’m no lady. Just a bodyguard. Not even that yet...,” she replied.

“But you will be, won’t you? My bodyguard?” his voice was hopeful. As if she’d consider saying no. She didn't trust herself to speak and nodded instead. The smile he gave her was genuine and it eased the tightness in her chest. Had she ever seen him smile like that before? "Good! Now that's settled you should get back in bed, Lady Bodyguard."

"Yes, Master Ling."

The prince stayed by her bedside regaling her with tales of his last visit to the imperial palace. She drifted off while he listed off all the foods he tried at a recent festival.

 

Suyin arrived at the Yao estate the next afternoon escorted by two attendants. Fu waited for her at the stone steps leading up to the main house.  In the past four years his daughter in law had done quite well for herself. Dressed in an indigo quju with lilac accents she was a vision. A lacquered comb gilded with pearls adorned her hair and her ears were pierced with gold studs. She was a far cry from the farmer’s daughter his son had married beneath a cherry tree. Feng wouldn’t recognize her, he thought. The old man narrowed his eyes at the sight of her entourage dressed in Zhang colors as they were. His raised hand brought four other Yao guards from the shadows, barring their passage and flanking them.

“What is the meaning of this? Let me see my daughter!”

“You may enter. Your escort will wait here,” he declared and rested his hand on the hilt of his sword in warning. With irritation lacing her voice Suyin ordered her guard to remain outside. She hurried up the steps and inside with Fu to the guest wing.

“Was that necessary?”

“Were you not betrothed to Zhang scum I’d have no need for such caution. Feng would roll in his grave if he knew you’d sully yourself with a Zhang.”

“Feng would wish for my happiness.You said yourself he wouldn’t want me to spend my whole life as a grieving widow.”

“You’re marrying into a rival clan.” Fu stopped to face her.

“Liwei Zhang is an honorable man despite your prejudices. He wishes to adopt Lan Fan as his own daughter.”

Fu grabbed her arm and drew her close.

“Do you think I would allow my granddaughter to become a Zhang?”

“It isn’t your decision. We don’t need you to take care of us any longer,” Suyin pulled free of his grasp, “Lan Fan nearly froze to death! Letting you train her was a mistake from the beginning! I’m putting an end to it. Now where is my daughter?”

They both looked down the hall as a door slid open. Before them stood the prince with his hands tucked into his sleeves and head tilted in contemplation.

“Prince Ling, shouldn’t you be in bed? Your mother will be concerned…” Following Fu’s example Suyin bowed. Heart pounding in her chest, Suyin glanced at the boy through her lashes. So this was the prince her husband died to protect. That her daughter nearly died to protect.

“No need to worry my fever is gone; however, Lan Fans is not. Your carrying on will wake her. Take your arguing elsewhere,” Ling gave them a thin smile that didn’t reach his eyes, “Please.”

“Pardon me, my lord, but I’ve come all this way from the capital to see Lan Fan…”

“And see her you shall! But I’m sure you’ve had a long journey and could use some tea, hm? As my guest I insist. Bye bye now.” Dismissing them with a wave of his hand he stepped back into the room and shut the door firmly behind him.

 

From her perch on the bed Lan Fan gazed at him, worry and confusion lurking in her chestnut eyes. He gave her a conspiratorial wink, placing his finger to his lips while he listened for sounds of Fu and Suyin’s retreating steps. When he was certain they’d gone he reclaimed his seat by her bed.

“Don’t look so worried, Lan Fan. No one will make you go anywhere against your wishes. Now, let me tell you about the time I put stink bugs in my cousin’s bed…”

“But you heard her. Mother is going to marry Liwei Zhang. I’ll have to live with them.”

“Ah, but you promised to be my bodyguard! My mother says you can always trust a Liu to keep their promises. A Zhang could never be my retainer; therefore, you must stay here and remain Lan Fan Liu. So you see the matter is settled. Unless… you want to leave?”

'Don't leave me!'

 

Hours later Suyin was brought to her daughter's room. Two years had passed since she last saw Lan Fan. Once her little girl would've dove into her arms, but now she merely bowed. Though only a few feet separated mother and child the distance between them was a chasm. The contours of Lan Fan's face hadn't changed much. Still, Suyin hardly recognized the girl before her. When did my little girl take on such an intensity?

"I've missed you so, Lan Fan. My how much you've grown," said Suyin. She closed the physical distance between them and drew her daughter into an embrace. Kneeling she tapped her finger lightly on the tip of her nose. "And so pretty, too. When I heard what had happened I came straight away. You must've been so frightened." Lan Fan nodded.

"Well, you don't have to be frightened any longer. I'm taking you home with me. You're going to love it in the capital." Suyin took Lan Fan's rough hands in her own and kissed her palms. "No more of this silly martial arts business. Your new father intends to spoil you with dresses and dolls, and I will teach you embroidery."

"Mother, I wasn't frightened for myself. I was afraid Prince Ling would die. That I couldn't save him. I promised to become his bodyguard."

"I only want what's best for you."

"I am a Liu. A Liu always keeps their promises," Lan Fan said and pulled her callused hands from Suyin's own soft, delicate ones.

"You're father would be proud," Suyin resigned.

"Are you?"

A kiss pressed to her forehead was Lan Fan's answer.

Chapter Text

April 1911

Xing

    "You know those letters don't read themselves, Lan Fan."

    "No, my lord, they do not," she replied without looking up from her studies. Ling lounged by the open window of the study; next to him sat a bowl filled with hard candy wrapped in brightly colored cellophane. A dozen wrappers already littered the floor around him. Ling's hand hovered over the treats, index finger twirling as he selected his next morsal. At yet another crinkle of wrapper Lan Fan tightened her grip on her pencil. They were meant to be practicing Amestrian. Ling's pronunciation was awful and Lan Fan struggled with conjugation of irregular verbs. What was the point of grammar rules when the language ignored them on a whim?

    "So you agree, then, that you should read them." He gestured with one sticky hand at a neatly stacked pile of unopened missives.

    "I agree that paper is inanimate."

    "Most people are excited to receive mail. I never receive any mail." From his seat across the room Ling let out a long suffering sigh, "What if it's important? Or better yet what if it's gossip? At least let me read them."

    The bored prince laid on his back with his right ankle crossed over his raised left knee, and tilted his head to look at her upside down.

    "You're supposed to protect me from danger, Lady Bodyguard. I'm in terrible danger of dying of boredom."

    "I believe you will live, Prince Ling," she informed him, but couldn't quite suppress her smile. Her mirth did not escape him. With a smile of his own he sat up and joined her at the table.

    "Just one? Aren't you even a little curious?"

    "Not especially." It was a half truth. The letters were a curiosity, but all from her mother. They were all the same. Ling looked at Lan Fan's work over her shoulder. At his proximity her cheeks colored.

    "You've got it all wrong. If you let me read one I'll help you with the lesson," he bribed her in a sing-song voice.

    "...Just one."

    With a flourish of his wrist the prince grabbed the stack of envelopes and fanned them out on the table like a deck of cards. His excitement was infectious. Despite her better judgement Lan Fan set her pencil aside, propping her chin on her hand to watch him deliberate. He crossed his arm over his chest and cupped his chin with his other hand, mock frowning in consideration. In recent months he'd finally outgrown her in height. Ling tilted his head looking at Lan Fan sidelong.

    "Well, what do you think?"

    She looked at the plethora of letters and pointed at the third from the right. It was thicker than the others.

    "Of course." Ling carefully plucked the letter from the rest. "This is clearly the most interesting of the lot."

    He took his time opening the envelope being certain not to rip the contents. Inside he found a few sheets of stationery folded in thirds and a small red envelope emblazoned with the symbol for luck in gold leaf. Ling checked the postmark.

“All this time you’ve had New Year's money just waiting to be spent! You see what happens when you don’t open your mail?” He set aside the red envelope in favor of the letter.

“Let’s see… ‘Darling daughter, I hope this letter finds you well. We missed you dearly at the New Year festival. Your father’...” Ling glanced at Lan Fan through the shadow of his bangs. A mask of apathy concealed her emotions. “...’Your stepfather and brother are well. Xiang asks when you will visit and hopes you’ll attend his birthday. He’ll be five this summer. I’ve enclosed your hongbao. Perhaps next year you will join us for New Year in the capital. Doubtless, you know how it hurts me you won’t…' ”

The prince fell quiet. Hands stilled on the letter; eyes darting across Suyin’s perfect penmanship. His jaw tensed as he skimmed the second page. To the third page a photograph of Liwei, Suyin, and Xiang from New Years was clipped.

“ ‘My this year be auspicious… hope you’re eating well…my regards to your grandfather… write us once in awhile…’ so on and so forth  ‘your loving mother, Suyin.’” Ling returned the letter and photograph to the envelope then stacked it with the rest. Next to him Lan Fan picked up her pencil and tried to focus on the task at hand. “How will you spend your newfound wealth?”

“You are welcome to it, my lord. Master Fu already gave me New Year's money.”

“That’s no good. If I spend it I’ll get all your luck. Shall we spend it together then?” He bumped his shoulder against hers playfully.

“As you wish,” she mumbled.

“Wonderful. Now, about that homework…”


June 1911

Xing

Long before a hint of morning lightened the sky Lan Fan rose from bed. As she washed herself she shut her eyes, focusing her attention inward on her qi then expanding her senses to the quiet flickers of energy throughout the estate. Damp hair gathered in a tight bun. She clothed herself in her uniform; no longer an apprentice, a proper member of Prince Ling Yao’s retinue. A clandestine soldier against the ever lurking threats to her liege. With steady hands she donned the armor Fu presented her with the night before. It was much lighter than what she’d trained in for years. Heavy armor made her strong, but now her speed and agility would make the difference in a fight.

Lan Fan didn’t own a looking glass (a bodyguard has no need for vanity). She set her candle in the window and caught her reflection in a pane of glass. Black hair, pale skin, her father’s eyes or so she was told. The enemy must never see your face. A guard is a shadow, seen yet unseen. The last line of defence between the prince and a knife in the dark. For this you were born. Fu’s words echoed in her mind. The yin mask she retrieved from the table by her bed handling it with reverence. Lan Fan the girl disappeared behind painted porcelain and pulled the cowl over her hair. Once more she gazed at her reflection. Only the bodyguard remained bristling with kunai and laden with explosives.

 

The caravan departed the Yao estate shortly after dawn. Prince Ling’s entourage numbered a dozen consisting of servants, guards, and his mother. Despite the size of the party the prince had no one with whom to pass the time. Lady Yao traveled in a separate palanquin. Lan Fan walked in step with his, but would not be distracted from her watch. But for her height Ling couldn’t distinguish her from the rest of his guardsmen. A testament to her training to be sure, but he found himself wanting for her companionship. It was nearly a day's journey to the imperial city. This day marked twenty years since the current emperor came to power. Members from each of Xing’s fifty clans would be attending tonight’s celebration in honor of the emperor (may he live a thousand years, health to his eminence, etc.).

Ling could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen the emperor, always from a distance and usually behind a silk screen. Sighing the prince flicked his fan open and closed then tapped the end against his lips in contemplation. What must it be like to have a father who can recall your name without an advisor reminding him? He glanced at Lan Fan through the translucent curtain shading him from the harshness of the afternoon sun. That mask must be sweltering. What was her father like, I wonder? She never spoke of the man. Perhaps she didn’t remember him. Ling knew the man was a Yao guard who died in service. Did she know the specifics? He dared not ask. The prince drew the curtain aside to speak with his guard unimpeded.

“It occurs to me that this is your first visit to the capital.” Lan Fan spared him a glance before returning her eyes to their surroundings. So watchful. “The new year’s money is still unspent. What do you say we find a use for it in the market tomorrow?”

“My lord I don’t believe there will be time for any excursions.”

“Then we’ll have to make time.”

“As you say…”

“Will you always do as I say, Lan Fan?” he inquired hiding the seriousness of his question in a light tone. Now he had her attention. Those eyes behind the mask dark as bitter chocolate.

“Always… my lord.”

Her intensity unsettled him. The weight of it was more than he expected. Ling allowed the curtain to swing back into place.

 

Festivities were held in the celestial gardens. Lanterns illuminated the area leaving enough dark corners to put the young bodyguard on edge. Servers bearing food and drink wove in and out of clusters of nobles. She wondered if anyone would dare to poison the delicacies. Likely the emperor had taken measures to prevent such a devastating outcome. Still, it would be all too easy for someone to poison a cup of wine. Fu stood watch somewhere on the rooftops for a better vantage point, while Lan Fan remained at the side of the prince and his mother. There were half as many guards lining the perimeter as there were guests. Prince Ling wore traditional robes in subdued shades of green and gold. On Ling’s arm Xue Yao was radiant in red.  

“A nest of vipers,” Lady Yao whispered behind her fan. Lan Fan was apt to agree. Currently, the imperial dais remained empty though guarded all the same. How many here would gladly slaughter their way into that seat? More than Lan Fan liked to think. The party proceeded without disruption. Guests mingled and feasted and made merry. Every conversation laced with double meanings and insincerity. Lady Yao was whisked away by a cousin to be filled in on the juiciest of court gossip. The emperor made the briefest of appearances receiving a few of the more influential attendees from his throne. Rumor had it the emperor’s health was in decline yet even from a distance he was an intimidating presence.

Ling filched a tray of pastries from an unsuspecting server; making a swift retreat to the shadow of a pillar on the edge of the festivities. Behind her mask Lan Fan smiled at his antics. The celebratory fireworks had just begun when two of the princesses retired to the shadows nearby to whisper behind a fan. Twins identical from head to toe from their features to their pale pink robes. They appears to be a few years older than the prince. Lan Fan caught the subtle tense of Ling’s jaw at the sight of them and stepped closer.

“The seventh and eighth princesses. Bai and Bao Tien,” Prince Ling muttered under his breath just loud enough for his vassal to hear, “Their brother was the twentieth prince. He died under suspicious circumstances.”

“Suspicious?”

“Smothered by a blanket in his cradle. An accident.” A burst of green firework illuminated his face. The darkness of his expression shook Lan Fan. She glanced at the Tien twins. They were pretty with delicate features and small hands. Were they capable of suffocating an infant? One twin noticed Ling and Lan Fan and whispered to the other. Arms linked they crossed the distance to prince and bodyguard. Lan Fan straightened, taking a step forward to keep the princesses from coming too close to Ling. The one on the left giggled.

“Prince Ling, you’ve managed to acquire the smallest watchdog I’ve ever seen.”

“Yes, well, I select my retainers by their quality not quantity. Mooncake?” Ling smiled thinly and held out the tray.

“No, thank you,” they replied in the same disdainful tone.  

“Of course. They are rather large we wouldn’t want you to choke…” Both girls narrowed their eyes at him and left to rejoin the party. “It seems I’ve lost my appetite. Pity. Aside from the food this party is rather insipid wouldn’t you say?”

“...The fireworks are nice, my lord.” Ling faced her and tilted his head. After a moment he turned on his heels and strolled over to the trellis against the wall.

“You’re right. Let’s get a better view of them.” He grinned at her over his shoulder, climbing before she could protest. Lan Fan joined him on the roof. Sounds of the party seemed far away from here. Bursts of red and green cascaded against the night sky. It was a warm night. The air sweet with the scent of new blossoms. Ling laid back on the slope of the roof with his hands behind his head. “How do I ensure the prosperity of our clan? With so many backstabbing nobles serving their own interests... “

Lan Fan didn’t have an answer, nor did she think he was truly asking her opinion on the matter. In the garden some of the smaller children had been given sparklers and were playing a game of tag. She watched them in their delight. Is Xiang watching the fireworks from his window? Lan Fan tried not to think of her little brother often. They were worlds apart even in the same city. Even if she did wish to see him they’d only be on opposing sides once he grew up. He was a Zhang after all. Best not to think of him as a brother. She felt Fu’s presence before she saw him.

“Young lord, your mother is looking for you. She wishes to depart,” said Fu.

“I suppose we must. The fireworks aren’t as good as last year anyhow.”

 

The market was a marvel of the capital. Shops and stalls were numerous with bustling crowds throughout despite the early hour. It was a sight worth seeing and it was Ling’s favorite part of the city. He’d hoped Lan Fan would be pleased but she radiated anxiety. Concerned for his safety she hovered by his side, not letting him more than a step away. Ling, Lan Fan, and Fu were all dressed plainly in order to avoid standing out. To the unknowing they appeared merely to be two children running errands with their grandfather.

“Where to first?” Ling inquired. They’d split the money between them and he was curious to see what she’d buy with her share. He’d never seen her covet anything besides food.

“Wherever you please,” she replied. Fu had instructed Lan Fan not to address Ling formally while in public, lest it draw unwanted attention. It went against every instinct to not follow her response with ‘my lord’ or ‘master’ or ‘Prince Ling.’ She didn’t have the audacity to call him Ling. Even unmasked she knew her place.

“You aren’t going to make this easy are you?” Ling took her hand. “Stay close it’s easy to get lost here, Lady Liu.”

He tossed her a grin and led her through the crowd. Lightning couldn’t’ve jolted her more than Ling suddenly taking her by the hand. ‘Lady Liu’ set her cheeks ablaze. She wished she had her mask to hide her embarrassment. A sweet shop was their first stop. Fu mumbled they’d purchased enough to rot their teeth out twice over, but didn’t dissuade them. They wandered the stalls to the point of Fu’s impatience.

“We must return soon if we are to depart on time,” Fu informed them.

For Lan Fan to look seemed more than enough. Each item she examined was enchanting. But nothing she needed. What use does a bodyguard have for this? she would ask herself. But at one booth Lan Fan lingered. The vendor sold fans, scarves, and hair adornments. Her eyes settled on a black lacquered comb with a design of gold cranes. It was simple and lovely, and Lan Fan felt ashamed for wanting it. She couldn’t bring herself to touch it. When she turned around Ling was looking right at her. Her breath caught in her throat.

“Master Fu is right. We should return.”

“There’s nothing you want, Lan Fan?” He quirked an eyebrow at her and she shook her head. “I see. If you’re certain.” They began to make their way back to the palace when Lan Fan stopped to speak to a merchant selling kites. Fu and Ling waited nearby as she conducted her business. She pointed to a dragon kite. The man nodded, smiling, and accepted her money. He jotted something down in his ledger. Lan Fan bowed and returned to her companions empty handed while the merchant took down the kite and packaged it in brown paper.. Fu steadied his gaze on her, frowning in confusion.

“Xiang’s birthday is next week,” she told Fu not quite meeting his eyes.

“It’s your money to spend as you please. Let’s go.” Lan Fan nodded and turned toward the prince. Or rather the place the he was a moment before.

Prince Ling was nowhere to be seen.  

Chapter Text

Ling crossed his arms over his chest as he looked at the many combs on display. Any one of them would be lovely in Lan Fan’s hair. The question is which one caught her eye? Selecting a gift for his mother would have been infinitely easier. Xue Yao loved red. Her favorite present from her son was a single crimson feather he’d found in the orchard. She’d fashioned into an earring and wore it daily.

More than five years Lan Fan had been his constant companion; never denying his wishes, going along with his schemes even when it caused her trouble. He knew the determined look in her eye when they trained, the foods she most enjoyed, that she never asked for anything she didn’t need. But this… this he didn’t know.

“I believe this is what you’re looking for young man. ” The woman minding the stall picked up the comb Lan Fan wanted.

“You’re certain this is the one?” Ling asked.

“The girl couldn’t take her eyes off of it.”

He took the comb from her carefully and brushed his thumb over the gold inlaid design. The hue reminded him of a leaf Lan Fan had preserved between the pages of a book last autumn. She still used it as a bookmark.

“I’ll take it.”

The drawstring bag still heavy with coins clinked as he returned it to his pocket. Ling thanked the woman and began his trek back to where he’d given Fu and Lan Fan the slip. The marketplace had become much more crowded as the morning wore on. Ling could hardly make his way through the rabble. Someone jostled him into a mountain of a man who nearly elbowed him in eye for the trouble. The prince managed to duck out of the way and into an alley.

“Well, that’s problematic. Hm…” He put his hands on his hips and looked up. Blue skies above, building walls on either side, and further down the alleyway a convenient drainpipe. Ling grinned at his own cleverness as he approached the pipe, intending to make his way across the rooftops. Behind him a trio of older boys stepped into the alley. Ling pivoted at the sound of their footsteps.

“That’s a lot of coin for such a little boy to carry,” the frontman remarked. He was a roguish sort. Young and attractive but hair unwashed and clothing layered with grime. The butterfly sword in his hand gleamed in the morning sun with a perfectly honed edge. Of his two companions one was solidly built without the charm of good looks and the other a head shorter than Ling and skinny. All of them appeared in their mid teens. On the left the taller of the lot cracked his knuckles.

“Now, now. No need to be so menacing. We’re all friends here,” Ling replied while assessing the threat. Outnumbered though unlikely outskilled. No way out of the alley but the way he came or up. He didn’t like the idea of turning his back to them long enough to scale the wall.

“Right you are. And what’s money between friends? I’d advise you hand it over before you get hurt.”

“Getting hurt would be troublesome. I’m running late so it looks like I’ll have to make this quick.” Prince Ling drew his sword.

“Brat’s armed, Shu,” mumbled the smaller one on the right.

“This just got interesting. I’ll be taking that as well,” Shu gleamed at Ling and drew a second butterfly sword from his scabbard, “Nothing personal!”

In a blur of blades the fight began; the thief took the offense while Ling deflected and defended. He bided his time for an opportunity to take the upper hand. Having never fought anyone outside of a training session Ling favored caution. Luckily for him Lan Fan preferred kunai. Battling a seemingly untrained opponent dual wielding blades wasn’t dissimilar enough to throw him. Shu was unrelenting with his strikes forcing the prince further into the alley toward a dead end.

“You’re not bad. Not as good as my sparring partner,” said Ling. Deflecting another slash meant to unbalance him, Ling spun around behind Shu and kicked him in the small of the back. It sent the teen sprawling. Grinning Ling turned to face his other opponents and was met with a fist to his left eye.

The larger of the lackies grabbed him by the collar drawing him close for another punch. Before he could throw a second punch Ling kneed him in the groin. It was followed by the hilt of Ling’s sword driven into the thug’s solar plexus. He went down wheezing and Ling leapt over him nimbly. Only the skinny one remained in his way. He was armed with a single ill cared for dagger. Prince Ling pointed his sword at him.

“Would you prefer to step aside or join your friends in the dirt?”

The boy stepped forward and gripped his weapon tighter. A subtle shift in the boy’s gaze was Ling’s only warning before a hand fisted in the base of his ponytail. He was yanked back by his hair, back against a chest, and cold steel biting into his neck.

“Drop the sword,” Shu spoke into his ear, “Don’t think I won’t cut your throat. I’d rather not kill over a pittance, but hey, we’ve all got to eat.”

Ling was weighing his options when something dropped to the ground in front of them with a light tink. He shut his eyes just in time to avoid being blinded by the flashbang. Cries of surprise and confusion filled the air from his attackers. Without a moment to lose Ling wrenched Shu’s blade away from his neck nicking himself in the process. Ling twisted to face him narrowly avoiding the blind slash of Shu’s other blade. Lan Fan, masked but unarmed, dropped to the ground between them. A swipe of Shu’s sword rent her shirt cutting a thin red line across her belly. She ducked under another strike, closed the distance, and struck Shu in the chin with an upward thrust of her palm. It was followed by a kick to his stomach that threw him into the bigger thug who had just regained his footing. When she rounded on the smallest boy he dropped his knife and turned tail. He had the misfortune to run directly into Fu.

“Young lord, are you all right?” Fu asked. He grabbed the teen by his collar in an iron grip.

“No harm done. Just a scuffle.” Ling’s eye had already begun to bruise and swell. Blood trickled from his neck. Master Fu took this in with a frown while Lan Fan drew a kunai.

“How dare you injure the young lord?!” Lan Fan neared the pair. Shu rolled to his feet and raised one short sword in defense then dropped it with a scream when Lan Fan threw her knife into him hand.

“Lan Fan!” The young bodyguard stopped in her tracks at the command in Prince Ling’s tone even as she produced another blade from her sleeve. Half turning she split her attention between her master and the boys crouched on the ground. “That’s enough. They are beaten.”

“They attacked you, my lord!”

“We didn’t know he was anyone important. We’re sorry, we didn’t mean anything by it!” said the little one.

“Shut up, Wei!” Shu hissed.

“How do you wish to deal with them, my lord?” Fu inquired. Ling considered. Until now he’d never held someone’s fate in his hands. Not like this at least. The punishment for attacking an imperial was death. But of course they hadn’t known he was a prince. Ling sheathed his sword. Still don’t come to think of it. Just an out of place noble.

“That was a decent fight. You have my thanks. Lan Fan, please stop my new friend’s bleeding,” Ling instructed with cheer. Shu was aghast and shrunk back at Lan Fan’s approach.

“Should you ever care for a rematch or honest work come find me at the Yao estate,” Ling tossed the bag of coins to the larger one, “Shu, Wei, and you are?”

“Uh, Jin,” the boy replied a bit dumbfounded.

“I am Ling Yao.”

Another scream tore through Shu’s gritted teeth when Lan Fan removed her knife from his flesh. Blood poured from the puncture wound. She drew a white handkerchief from her pocket, the red blossoms on the edge Ling recognized as Xue’s preferred pattern, and wrapped it securely around Shu’s palm.

“Wonderful. No hard feelings. Please, see your friend to a healer. It would be a shame if he wasn’t able to hold a sword next time,” Smile unwavering he turned to Fu, “Shall we?”

Before the trio could blink Fu and Ling disappeared onto the rooftops. Lan Fan followed then paused on the ledge at Shu’s shout.

“Hey! Next time we fight man to man! I want to see how you measure up in a fair fight,” he challenged.

“There are no fair fights.”


February 1914

Xing

“You’ve gotten better,” Shu huffed as he parried another blow of Ling’s sword. They sparred in the training yard both having shed their winter coats. Snow flurries drifted around them but failed to stick. From the sidelines Wei and Jin ate their lunches and watched. The trio showed up in the Yao province on the cusp of autumn nearly two years ago. Shu’s love of weaponry had been put to use as an apprentice with the blacksmith, while Wei took to kitchen work, and Jin turned out to be the best stablehand the horsemaster had seen in years. Thanks to Shu’s impropriety he and Ling became fast friends. The two often snuck out of the estate to explore the city. Lan Fan would disapprove, but tag along nevertheless to ensure Ling’s safety. With them by his side he saw the lives of his clansmen. The weight of his responsibility as the Yao scion given context.

“And you’re not keeping up,” Ling threw himself into another strike. Though not a proper student of his Fu deigned on occasion to correct Shu’s footwork or gruff criticism for leaving himself too open. Today, they had the yard to themselves if one didn’t count the pair of guards hovering nearby. Fu’d assigned them to Ling for the day in his absence, and instructed Ling to practice with the “street rat” until he returned. For once Lan Fan wasn’t around to train with him. Upon Fu’s insistence she’d begrudgingly returned to her mother’s home for a visit. She’d been gone three days with another four until she returned to the estate. It had Ling in a mood. Not that he would admit it. The audience he’d recently had with the Emperor also weighed heavily on his mind, “Jin, why don’t you grab one of those swords and join us? I need a real challenge.”

“Nuh-uh. ‘m not stupid,”Jin mumbled around a bite of food. He was a brawler and not much good with a blade.

“Hand to hand then,” Ling countered and disarmed Shu with a flick of his wrist. The sword went flying across the arena and landed in a mud puddle.

“Hey! I just polished that!” The prince ignored Shu’s grumbling and turned toward Jin.

“I promise to pull my punches.”

“Last time you broke my nose, your highness.”

“Wei?”

“I should get back to work,” Wei squeaked out, making a break for it before he became Ling’s next target.

“Horses need grooming,” added Jin and took his leave of them.

“Best five out of seven?” Ling turned his most winning smile on Shu who in turn gave him a withering look.

“We’ve been at it all morning. Anyhow, I have work, too,” Shu shook the mud from his sword and made a face, “I don’t know how Lan Fan puts up with you. You’re so high maintenance. Does that come with being a prince or is that just you?”

“High maintenance? I'm delightful. You should be honored I find you such good company,” Ling scoffed.

“Is there something bothering you?” Shu’s tone shifted taking on a serious note. Next to him Ling propped the dull edge of his sword on his shoulder.

“Bothering me? Why do you ask? Fishing for gossip?” The prince grinned to belay his friend’s concern.

“I keep my ear to the ground. Since you returned from your summons to the palace you’ve been… off. I’ve heard whispers,” when Ling said nothing he continued, “Rumor has it the Emperor isn’t long for this world.That he met with not only you but all of his heirs. He’s given you lot a task: ‘Seek the key to immortality.’ ”

“Who’ve you been talking to?” Eyes dark, good humor gone, knuckles tight around the hilt of his sword; Shu saw he’d struck a cord.

Undeterred by Ling’s countenance Shu kept his voice low, “Let’s just say I have my ways and leave it at that. But if you are after the impossible keep in mind that you have friends in low places.”  

Ling held his gaze then turned his eyes to the cloud cover overhead.

“A storm is brewing. If we’re to survive it we’ll need good steel.”

 

Chapter Text

February 1914

Imperial Capital

Xing

    With feather light strokes Suyin applied white makeup to the canvas of her daughter’s face. The two sat at Suyin’s vanity. It’d taken much cajoling on Suyin’s part to convince Lan Fan to allow her to apply makeup on her for the family portrait. The girl had her eyes closed and the corners of her mouth pulled down into a frown. A bit of the fine powder puffed up into Lan Fan’s nose causing her to sneeze. She opened her eyes when Suyin chuckled. The vanity was littered with numerous jars of makeup, a dozen brushes laid out like surgical tools. Over the mirror a scarf was draped to prevent her from a glimpse of the work in progress. Suyin had a smile on her face as she selected a fine brush, and unscrewed the lid from a bottle of inky liquid.

    “Eyes closed,” her mother instructed. Years of practiced discipline kept her still, hands folded in her lap instead of clinched in fists. Delicate sweeps of brushes of various sizes tickled her face. She wondered if she’d look like a jester when her mother was through. Though she’d vehemently protested this activity Lan Fan had to admit, if only to herself, that she enjoyed the quietness of it. The last six days were a cacophony of bickering with her mother and her brother hounding her with his unquenchable thirst for attention. Xiang was off in his room getting ready with the help of a servant.

While modest in comparison to the Yao estate Lan Fan was uncomfortable amidst the opulence of Liwei Zhang’s home. The deference the servants showed her was incongruent with the tenets of her upbringing. Her place within the Yao clan in discord with her status as the stepdaughter of a lesser noble. Jasmine assaulted her nose when Suyin lifted the stopper from a small glass bottle of perfume. It was sweet to the point of nausea.

“Mother-” she began to protest. What is the point of wearing perfume for a photograph?

“Just a touch. Indulge me?” Lan Fan held back a sigh and relented. A dab behind each ear. The scent wasn’t so overwhelming in moderation. She’d never worn perfume. Even a little could give away her position in the shadows with a change in the wind. Not even her bathing soap was scented.

“We should pierce your ears. Jade studs that would suit you nicely.”

“I don’t need my ears pierced.”

“My mother pierced my ears when I was your age. It won’t hurt much.”

Does she honestly think I’m afraid of pain? Lan Fan thought.

“A bodyguard-”

“-has no need for jewelry,” Suyin sighed, “I know.” She picked up a brush then sat behind her daughter to style her hair. Lan Fan tried to push away the guilt she felt at her mother’s disappointed tone. Again they fell into silence. Suyin pulled some of her hair back, fixing it in place with a pin, “There we are.”

She tucked a loose strand of hair behind Lan Fan’s ear then removed the scarf from the looking glass. Lan Fan looked at her reflection. Eyes accented with pale pink shadow and lined in black; Lips stained the color of raspberries, eyebrows darkened and defined. She was unrecognizable to herself. No, she corrected and glanced at Suyin in the mirror, I look just like her.

“Look how lovely you are, Lan Fan. You will make the most beautiful bride someday,” Suyin smiled proudly. She adjusted the sash of her daughter’s dress, smoothed a crease from her collar.

“A bride?” Lan Fan's voice wavered.

Taking a seat next to Lan Fan again Suyin opened a tin of salve and slathered the substance on one of Lan Fan’s hands. She took care as she massaged the salve into Lan Fan’s rough hands, paying special attention to her calluses and cuticles. Once she’d given the other hand the same treatment she retrieved a file from a drawer, setting about shaping Lan Fan’s short, ragged nails. “Yes, a bride. A wife. Perhaps a mother one day. Despite what your grandfather has told you there’s more to life than subjugating yourself to your liege. One day you may wish to settle down.”

The notion was a vise around Lan Fan’s heart. It was all she could do to breathe. Imagining a path different from the one she’d chosen as a child disturbed her. Her purpose in life was to protect Prince Ling. Anything else was a distraction. Lan Fan looked in the mirror trying to picture herself older, contented with a life in the shadow of a husband, kept busy with children. It was a smeared watercolor of Suyin’s life. The acrid smell of nail varnish drew her attention. In silence she watched as Suyin painted her nails as dark as cherries. “Mother…”

The door to the room slid open. Xiang darted under his father’s arm with a grin and rushed to Lan Fan and Suyin’s side. Were it not for the difference in age Xiang and Lan Fan could be mistaken for twins. Aside from his short hair and a smile that came easily he was a carbon copy of his sister. He was tall for seven with an abundance of excitement and energy. Exhausting as he was Lan Fan struggled not to like Xiang. Liwei remained by the door watching with a pleasant expression. Though nearing fifty with grey beginning to grace his hair he was handsome. Despite Lan Fan’s reservation toward her stepfather he’d never shown her anything but kindness. Sometimes she wished he were cold or mean tempered. It’d make it easier to see him as the enemy.

“You’ve outdone yourself, Su. Lan, you look very beautiful. Just like your mother,” Liwei said. Always he called her Lan. Once the abbreviation of her name grated on her, but she’d become accustomed. There was no mistaking the affection of it.

“Sister, will you stand next to me for the picture?”

“If you like…” Lan Fan replied and Xiang beamed. Suyin took her husband’s arm and the four of them filed out into the garden where the photographer had set up before the koi pond. As it turned out there were many photographs to be taken: all four together, Liwei and Suyin, Lan Fan with Xiang, Liwei and Suyin separately with each of the children, and finally portraits of each of them individually. Lan Fan had never had her photograph taken before. By the end of the session her vision swam with spots from the flashbulbs. She was beginning to develop a headache. Once finished Xiang ruffled his hair out of the neat style in which it’d been combed.

“Xiang, we still have dinner to attend,” Suyin admonished as she attempted to fix his hair with her fingers.

“Aw but mother I wanted sister to teach me how to throw knives! Do we have to?”

“Dinner?” Lan Fan frowned. This was the first she’d heard of it. For the first time it dawned on her Suyin might possess some ulterior motive to dressing her up. Lan Fan threw a look as sharp as a blade at her mother, “Dinner where?”

“Lan Fan will do nothing of the sort. You’re too little to play with knives.”

“But mother! Lan Fan got to train with knives when she was four,” Xiang whined.

“That has nothing to do with you. Go fetch your coat. If we don’t leave now we’ll be late.”

“It isn’t fair!”

Lan Fan rounded on Liwei when Suyin didn’t answer.

“Dinner where?”

“We’re attending a small gathering at the Zhang estate this evening.”

Beneath the white powder her face grew hot with anger. It was one thing to visit Suyin Zhang and quite another to attend a gathering of the Zhang clan. Her loyalties might be called into question.

“If you think I’m going to attend a Zhang party-!” Lan Fan started in on Suyin even as Xiang’s tantrum escalated.

“I want to train with Master Fu! Why does Lan Fan get to and I don’t?”

“-under no circumstance am I going to dine at the Zhang estate! I’d rather eat glass!”

“Enough!” Liwei Zhang silenced them with a word, “You will not speak to your mother with such disrespect. Go fetch your coats the both of you. I will not tell you again.”

The siblings jolted at the ire in Liwei’s voice. He did not have to tell them twice.


Yao Estate

Xing

In Lady Yao’s study Ling Yao lounged on the floor by the fire perusing a thick tome on alkehestry. He’d surrounded himself with stacks of books he’d compiled from the library in addition to the ones he’d recently scrounged up in the market. At her desk Xue Yao occupied herself with correspondence. When Ling tossed the book aside with a sigh she looked up from her letter. She set aside her ink brush and letter to observe him. For days now he’d been agitated and sullen. Certainly the race to the throne weighed on him, but she wondered how much of his demeanor had to do with the absence of his youngest bodyguard. Ling wasn’t yet fifteen, but already he was a head taller than her and maturing into a man.

Xue rose from her desk, barefeet and hem of her robes whispering against the floor, and joined him by the fire. She reached out and brushed her thumb lightly over the crease between his eyes. A smile briefly tugged at the corners of his mouth and he turned his attention her. This evening Xue’s long hair was worn down. It made her look younger. Sighing once more he laid his head on her knee and gazed at up at his mother, “I’m certain the red elixir is the key to immortality. I should have studied alkehestry. Now there is no time for me to learn.”

“You will find a way,” she stroked the back of her hand down his cheek and jaw.

Ling allowed his eyes to shut. Between his training and tutoring, and her courtly duties they didn’t often have time together. When they did attend events at court together they moved in different circles. It wouldn’t do for him to cling to her skirts like a child in public. “You sound so certain.”

“You must also be certain of it.” For a time they were both silent. Xue unbound Ling’s hair, combing her fingers through the strands.

“The other potential heirs will scour Xing for the secret to immortality. Perhaps I should instead travel to the west. Seek out immortality in the land from which the Western Philosopher originated,” Ling mused.

“Crossing the desert will be perilous.”

“Best I don’t go it alone then...”   


Imperial City

Xing

This is a small gathering? Lan Fan grit her teeth. The Zhang province held a population of nearly 250,000 people. Their holdings and influence at court were enough for rival clans to be wary. More than a hundred Zhang clansmen and their guests were in attendance. The party took place in the main hall, spilling out into the garden as well. Suyin had the forethought to confiscate the majority of Lan Fan’s knives, though she hadn’t discovered the kunai sheathed to her thigh. The dress Lan Fan wore leant itself well to concealing weapons, but the tightly cinched sash and trailing sleeves hindered her movement. Before this Lan Fan had only attended gatherings of this sort as a guard. She felt naked without her mask. Vulnerable without her assortment of blades and bombs.

Xiang kept her company until he spotted several of his cousins. While he engaged in mischief Lan Fan tried to remain inconspicuous. This was best accomplished by avoiding her mother. If she couldn’t disappear behind a mask then she was determined to be a wallflower. As the party wore on her anxiety abated though didn’t dissipate. Many tables overflowing with food and drink lined the walls. Lan Fan was unable to enjoy even this, since her constricting robes barely allowed for breathing let alone eating. After an hour of subterfuge Liwei found her hiding spot in the the garden.

“There you are, Lan. Your mother is looking for you,” he said.

“She only wants to parade me in front of potential suitors,” seethed Lan Fan.

“Suyin means well.”

“She meddles.”

“The prerogative of a mother,” Liwei chuckled and offered his arm, “Mine often did the same. Just be cordial. It won’t take long.”

No one has ever described me as cordial.

Suyin was awash with relief when Liwei returned with Lan Fan. Liwei introduced Lan Fan as their daughter to a number of nobles and their sons; she clenched her jaw each time, but didn’t correct the assumption that she was Lan Zhang. No one will mistake Lan Fan Liu for Lan Zhang. No one knew her face, but she’d seen many of these nobles over the years. She’d attended enough court functions by now to recognize many by face if not name. Remaining laconic seemed the best course of action. After an hour of the same dull conversation with half a dozen clusters of nobles she feigned thirst. Mollified by Lan Fan’s cooperation Suyin excused her without objection.

Lan Fan passed by a waiter, filching a glass of punch, and ducked into an alcove. She took a sip of her drink and choked when a taste like liquorice gone wrong assaulted her tongue. It burned down her throat, eyes watering as she coughed into her hand. Nearby someone chuckled. She looked over to see a young man dressed in shades of cerulean and pewter leaned against a pillar watching her. He was perhaps seventeen and on the thin side with a pale countenance; his expression a mixture of amusement and concern, “Are you all right?”

“The punch is bad.”

“Is it?” He looked into his own cup, before walking over and taking her drink. One small sip later he nodded.

“Ah. This is not punch.”

“It’s awful.”

“It’s a liqueur from Aerugo. Sambuca I think it’s called. Here,” he held out his glass which appeared to actually have punch and smiled, “You will like this better. Don’t worry I haven’t drunk from it.”

Eyeing him suspiciously she took the glass and hazarded as taste. It was delicious.

“Thank you.”

“I know you,” he stated. Again, he sipped the liqueur. Lan Fan didn’t know how he could drink something so vile.

“I doubt that.”

“Rather I know of you,” he amended, “Lady Suyin’s daughter, correct? You take after her.”

Lan Fan snorted into her drink, That’s a laugh.

“You and I are third cousins through marriage.”

“Are we?” she returned with disinterest.

“We are,” he had a twinkle in his eye Lan Fan didn't care for, “Though you are not a Zhang.”

Lan Fan narrowed her eyes ever so slightly.

“I didn’t catch your name.”

“It’s Junjie.”

This time she choked so hard on her drink it nearly came out her nose. The Ninth Prince Junjie Zhang held out a handkerchief. Too afraid of offending to refuse Lan Fan accepted the cloth. After a moment she composed herself. Her face flushed hot with embarrassment; veins burning from adrenaline. It was known the Zhang prince didn’t often attend court functions due to poor health. Often he sent a proxy to the palace in the case of trivial matters. Regardless she should’ve recognized him. Junjie Zhang and Ling Yao had the same eyes if nothing else. Lan Fan cursed herself.

“You’re not what I imagined of a Yao watchdog,” Junjie mused, “But one can never rely on appearances. Wouldn’t you agree?”

He’s baiting me, Lan Fan bit her tongue and tasted blood. Prince Ling would know just the sort of pithy remark to use in this situation. Then again he was a prince and could speak far more freely than Lan Fan. As it was she didn’t trust herself to speak. A quick scan didn’t turn up any guards, but she was smart enough to know they were watching from closeby. She would at any rate.

“Pity you didn’t become a proper Zhang. You might’ve been my guard instead.”

“I’d never be a proper Zhang regardless of my surname.” These words were true enough. Even if she’d been adopted by Liwei she was seven when he married her mother. For four years she’d already lived, trained, and studied with her grandfather. Enough time for him to cultivate loyalty and devotion to the Yao clan. She’d never have been a guard as a Zhang. Not to Prince Ling, nor anyone else of importance.

“Is that so? Well, someone’s made a proper lady of you this evening.”

“One can never rely on appearances,” Lan Fan spat Prince Junjie’s words back at him. The prince laughed. With an idle grace he swirled the contents of his glass and took a step closer. Too close for comfort. Near enough to see the light dusting of freckles on his cheeks. Lan Fan was flustered in a way she couldn’t pinpoint. He stared into her eyes as if searching for something. She looked back--thinking of Prince Ling’s eyes, which somehow that made it all worse--hoping she didn’t telegraph her unease. Whatever he saw in her brought a sly smile to his lips. Junjie reached up, slipping a lock of her hair through his thin fingers.

“Something tells me we could be of great use to one another, Lady Liu.”

It was the honorific that sparked her temper. Abandoning her better judgement she clasped his slender wrist tightly. Beneath his too pale skin the bones felt fragile, easily broken. A wince of pain cross his features as he released her hair. He didn’t let his smile slip. Vaguely aware of how reckless she was behaving Lan Fan spoke in a dangerous whisper, “I know where my loyalty lies. Don’t think I’ll be manipulated, my lord.”

Lan Fan released Junjie’s wrist when he stepped back. A masked guard approached them with a hand on the hilt of a blade. Prince Junjie waved him off with a smile. He didn’t seem as deterred by her words as she’d hoped. “Ling Yao is fortunate to have a vassal with such fierce devotion. Give my best to your liege. I’m sure our paths will cross again.”

    As the Zhang prince strolled off with guard in tow Lan Fan realized she still had his handkerchief. She held it tightly and willed herself to not tremble.

 

Chapter Text

February 1914

Yao Province

The morning Lan Fan was due to return home Ling decided to give his guards the slip. He rose early, dressed warmly, and tied his newly forged sword across his back. Nearly four nights and days Shu’d worked relentlessly. The design was simple yet perfectly constructed. It was good steel as promised. Ling started out the window then returned to the table by his bed. Lifting the false bottom from the drawer he retrieved a small parcel. It was tied up in a scrap of black brocade. He slipped it into his pocket for safekeeping then leapt out his window into the garden below. Sneaking out of the estate hardly took any effort. Ling pilfered a pork bun and three oranges from the kitchen on his way out. Before anyone noticed his absence he was strolling through the orchard eating breakfast.

Ling whiled away the hours on a hilltop near the main road to the estate, practicing his sword technique to distract himself from the anticipation. When he grew tired of that he laid back on the dry grass to stare up at the clouds. Seven days without Lan Fan; he wanted to be the first to see her home. Even though she’d disapprove of him wandering off without an escort. He ate one orange then another. The third he saved for her. He took the parcel from his pocket and untied the cloth. The black and gold lacquered comb was as beautiful as the day he bought it nearly two years ago. Ling twirled it slowly between his fingers as he watched the road.

In all this time he’d never found the right moment to give it to Lan Fan. She’d been frightfully cross with him that day for disappearing. Once she’d been particularly down about an admonishment from Fu. Ling thought it might cheer her up, but she spirited away to practice alone before he’d had a chance to get it from his room. Since then he carried it with him each day. As time passed it became more than a trinket, more than a simple adornment. Often Lan Fan occupied his mind, even when his thoughts should lie with his goals.

Propriety wedged between them as they fell into their respective roles. At times he went days without seeing her unmasked. It was easier to focus when he couldn’t stare at the back of her neck, the freckle on the curve of her ear,  her thumb worrying back and forth across her lower lip as she read. Sometimes the mask wasn’t enough, because even with it her eyes could pierce to the very heart of him. Not that she would look directly at him. Ling closed his eyes and held the comb to his lips for a moment. After I’ve found the key to immortality, when there is time for anything but my goals.

Ling opened his eyes at the sound of hoofbeats. In the distance he spotted two riders cantering along the road. He wrapped the comb in the cloth and returned it to his pocket. As they drew near he recognized Lan Fan accompanied by her stepfather. Prince Ling stood with arms folded as they approached. Her cheeks were pink from the cold, bun loose and tousled by the wind, and dressed in a quju of black and gold. The cloak wrapped around her was crimson. Ling couldn’t recall ever seeing her wear anything so bright. Instead of shadow she was flame. Lan Fan reined her horse to a stop when she spied him on the hill. Next to her Liwei also drew to a halt.

“Good afternoon, your highness,” he said with a bow of his head.  

“Young lord, what are you doing here unescorted? Where is Master Fu?” Lan Fan’s tone was laced with worry and exasperation. It took a moment for Ling to find his voice.

“Lan Fan! What luck that we should meet along the road when I’m in need of an escort. Lord Zhang, I thank you for seeing my bodyguard this far. There’s no need to trouble yourself further. I will see her the rest of the way.”

“As you wish, your highness.” Liwei didn’t look pleased with this turn of events, but broached no argument. From his jacket he withdrew an envelope sealed with the Zhang crest stamped in wax. He handed the envelope to Lan Fan then swept her bangs from her eyes. “Lan, see that you give that to your grandfather. Be sure to write your mother. We shall see you again in the summer. My lord.”

Lord Zhang bowed his head once more in deference to Prince Ling before starting back the way they’d come. The envelope Lan Fan tucked into the saddlebag. She dismounted from the mare clumsily thanks to her attire, yet her bow was smooth as the silk she wore. “Young lord, this one humbly asks that you not wander unguarded, even through your own lands. Were anything to happen...”

“Yet something has happened. I’ve stumbled across a rare sight--Lady Liu in a dress,” he teased. At ‘Lady Liu’ he caught her flinch. Always she became flustered at his good natured teasing, but this time she looked uneasy, perhaps guilty. Did something happen? Ling wondered. As he walked closer she straightened and kept her eyes averted. Prince Ling tossed the orange he’d saved to her and noticed her painted nails when she caught it. He reached out and tugged at the edge of her cloak. “This color suits you.”

“It’s far too bold for me, my lord.” Still she would not look him in the eye. With her thumbnail she picked at the skin of the fruit but didn’t peel it.  

“Lan Fan.” She looked up when Ling spoke her name. “Tell me what’s troubling you.”

“...If it pleases you, my lord, this one would prefer to speak back at the estate lest our words carry on the wind.”

“Then let’s return. We have more to discuss than you know.”

 

They spoke late into the night with Fu. Lan Fan changed into her guard uniform and fixed her mask in place before they settled into discussions. The tension Ling’s young bodyguard held eased somewhat in the familiar black garb and armor. The knives she wore concealed about her body were a comfort. Lan Fan told her master and lord of the soiree at the Zhang estate; of her encounter with Junjie Zhang and all that he’d implied. The young lord listened closely as she spoke. If he doubted her fealty he showed no sign of it. In turn Prince Ling told her of his plan to seek the Philosopher’s stone in the west. They would cross the desert for the young lord wished to see the Xerxes ruins.

“We haven’t the time to concern ourselves with petty Zhang conspiracies. I will relay the information to Lady Xue. She’ll see to it that our spies look into his intentions. Prepare yourselves,” Ling commanded, “We leave tomorrow night.”

It was nearing three in the morning when they finally retired to their rooms. Before they went their separate ways Lan Fan passed along Liwei’s letter to Fu. A day of traveling on horseback and night spent in close counsel left her exhausted. She might’ve collapsed onto her bed without bothering to take off her armor if it weren’t for the bundle resting on her pillow. The moonlight streaming through the window wasn’t enough to see properly by. Lan Fan struck a match to the wick of the lantern by her bedside.

She took a moment to remove her armor and shoes then sat down to examine the bundle. It was a white handkerchief embroidered with a familiar red blossom pattern. The very one she’d wrapped around Shu’s wounded hand on the day they met in the market of the capital. The fabric was soft with age and miraculously free of bloodstains. She wondered if they’d been removed with alkehestry. Wrapped inside the handkerchief were six kunai. Expertly crafted by the look of them. Lan Fan tested the point of one against the pad of her index. A bead of blood welled to the surface. Deadly sharp.

Lan Fan smiled.  

Chapter Text

April 1915

Desert Area

“Maybe it’s sunstroke,” Mei Chang whispered, twisting in the saddle to look up at Ling. The prince frowned, not taking his eyes off Lan Fan. The half-siblings rode together with the bodyguard guiding their way across the great desert. A third horse tied to Lan Fan’s by a length of rope carried Fu’s body. Three days ago they’d reached the edge of the Amestrian frontier. The little Chang princess negotiated supplies and horses for the journey. Her connections in Youswell proved useful in this endeavor. Since they’d begun their trek across the barren expanse Lan Fan hadn’t spoken a word. She hardly slept, only eating and drinking at the insistence of her liege. Now she was humming. Every so often the humming would evolve into half sung phrases under her breath--words they couldn’t quite catch. It was troubling more than her silence.

“Lan Fan,” Ling called out. She continued to hum without any acknowledgement.

“I think we should stop,” Mei worried and held Xiao-Mei close for comfort.

“Lan Fan,” He affected a commanding tone.

When she still didn’t answer he urged his horse into a canter to catch up. He reached out, placing a hand on her left shoulder without thought. “Guardsman Liu!”

“Ah!” Lan Fan cried out in pain; Ling pulled his hand back. He knew she was still favoring her shoulder, but it’d been days since she’d discarded her sling.

“You’re still injured,” his tone was harsher than he intended, but perhaps not harsh enough under the circumstances. Ling grabbed her reins, looking around for somewhere with a modicum of shade. He spotted an outcrop of rock and led their horses to it. Quickly he dismounted, helping Mei down before lifting Lan Fan from her saddle. She was a ragdoll in his arms. Too delirious to protest. The prince cursed under his breath as he laid her in the shade. Mei felt her forehead while Ling removed her armor.

“She’s burning up!” Mei exclaimed then set about removing Lan Fan’s shirt for a proper look at her wound. The automail arm itself was in excellent shape, but the port to which it was connected was another matter. Around the port the skin was red and swollen with signs of infection. Mei went back to the horses.

“Lan Fan, look at me,” Ling pressed his hand to her cheek and leaned closer. Her eyes were unfocused.

“Out of the way, Yao!” Mei shoved Ling aside and set down their canteens. Xiao-Mei growled at him. “We have to bring down her fever.” With no time to waste Mei tugged off Lan Fan’s shoes then stripped her down to her chest bindings and undergarments. The alkehestrist took a handkerchief from her pocket, soaked it in water, and laid it across Lan Fan’s forehead. She took out her blades and plunged them into the ground around her patient’s shoulder. Lan Fan screamed when Mei activated her array then passed out. When the transmutation finished the skin was less inflamed, red lines of infection receded though not gone.

“Will she be all right?”

“If the fever doesn’t cook her brain, if she doesn’t get septicemia! She needs antibiotics, intravenous fluid, things we don’t have!” The princess was beginning to panic, she was about to cry. Ling took her by the shoulders and shook her slightly. He needed her calm, because she was the only one who could do anything for Lan Fan besides make her comfortable.

“Get a hold of yourself, Chang. We’re at least another two days from the border, maybe three. We can’t dwell on what we don’t have. Think of what we do have that can help. We have you, ” Ling loosened his hold on his sister. Mei took a deep breath to calm herself. After a moment her eyes widened in realization, she laughed at the obvious.

“We have a philosopher’s stone.”

 


 

The crackling of fire woke Lan Fan hours later. Her throat was dry, head aching from sleeping too hard, but the pain in her shoulder was gone. Around her the air was cool, but she was warm under a blanket. Someone held her hand. Grandfather, she thought. No, grandfather is dead. Whoever it was their hand was rough and warm and maybe if she just kept her eyes closed she could pretend. If only for a moment more. When she finally opened her eyes it was Ling’s face she saw. He looked pensive and weary. Prince Ling is holding my hand. He glanced at her face when he heard her breath catch.

“You’re awake,” he whispered. “Why didn’t tell us your shoulder wasn’t healing properly? You could’ve died. You would’ve died if not for Mei. What were you thinking?” He was angry. Lan Fan couldn’t think of anything at all with him holding her hand.  

“My lord-” she began scratchily.

“Would you have me bury you both?” Ling raised his voice, he’d never raised his voice to her. Not like this. She sat up and clutched the blanket to her chest.

“No, I…” she looked away. On the other side of the campfire Mei Chang was pretending to be fast asleep. Lan Fan saw through her ruse. Mei was too quiet. Doesn’t she know she snores?

“Look at me.” It was a command. She would have obeyed if not for the tears brimming in her eyes. If she looked at him she would fall apart. Lan Fan tried to pull her hand away, and he trapped it between both his own. “Lan Fan, please look at me.”

She shook her head, “I cannot, my lord.”

“Why not?” his voice was softer this time. It made it worse. She wished he’d keep shouting.

“If I look at you I’ll cry.” Anger she could weather like a ship in a storm. Compassion would sink her. Ling stroked his thumb along the inside of her wrist.

“Would that be so bad?”

“If I start crying I fear I’ll never stop.” Shadow fell over her face as Ling lifted a hand to her cheek. He turned her face toward his; Lan Fan kept her eyes on their intertwined hands.

“You were singing. I’ve never heard you sing. It was the same song again and again. Where did you hear it?”

Lan Fan looked at him and was undone.

 


 

Fall 1914 - Spring 1915

Central City, Amestris

For six months Lan Fan and Fu remained in hiding. Six long months of automail surgery and rehabilitation on an accelerated timeline. Lan Fan’s automail engineer was a woman named Margot Fontaine who promptly declared her patient completely insane. “Six months? It can’t be done. You’re crazy,” she’d said around her cigarette. The black market operation was run out of the cellar of a nightclub. She had hair as bright as copper and eyes the color of freshly cut grass. Fontaine was dressed in a pinstripe pencil skirt and a green blouse with the sleeves rolled back. She was the epitome of curvaceous. On her feet she wore expensive looking white heels that could crush an instep with ease. Lan Fan thought she was the most beautiful woman she’d ever laid eyes on. Then Lan Fan saw the nightclub’s owner and resident cabaret singer, Madeleine Rousseau. She was just as beautiful as Fontaine with blonde hair instead of red, but it was her charm that made all the difference. Or maybe it was the accent. When Fontaine refused the job, Rousseau--who’d been eavesdropping the entire time--joined them at the corner table.

“Perhaps it is you who cannot do it in six months,” she took Fontaine’s cigarette for her own, winked at Lan Fan, then rested her hand on Fontaine’s knee, “Look at her. There is a fire, no?”

“Tsk, there is no job I can’t handle.” Fontaine colored and snatched back her cigarette. She contemplated, savoring the last drag, and fixed Fu with a hard stare. “I will do it. But do not blame me when your girl is retching blood.”

Fu paid Fontaine’s exorbitant fee and they set to work.

There was blood and retching and agony to rival cutting off her own arm. Pain worse than Dr. Knox debriding her bloody stump without anesthetic. But there was also music that held back the madness. Fontaine worked mostly at night when the din of the nightclub was enough to cover Lan Fan’s muffled screams. Fu was there through the procedures, holding her hand when the suffering was too great. When the pain and antibiotics turned her stomach he was there to hold her hair back. Often, after the club closed down and the last drunkard was shown the door, Madeleine would join them in the cellar. She’d wipe Lan Fan’s fevered brow and sing. Long past when Fu and Fontaine retired to bed Madeleine would serenade her through the pain.

“You don’t have to stay. You must be tired,” Lan Fan would say and Madeleine would click her tongue.

“We live in the shadows, do we not? We are creatures of the dark. In the light of day you are sleeping. If I am to see your spark burning bright then I must come here at night, no?”

Lan Fan was enchanted with the songstress. As Fontaine engineered the bodyguard’s new arm Madeleine would drink coffee with Fu and Lan Fan. There was more to coffee than Lan Fan ever imagined. Madeleine introduced her espresso. She acquired a taste of it, but a light roast with cream suited her palate best. The singer could chat for hours and Lan Fan was content to listen. The bickering between Madeleine and Margot reminded her of Edward Elric and the Rockbell girl. One morning she walked in on the two of them. Margot half turned in her seat at the workbench; Madeleine whispering sweet nothings in a foreign tongue between kisses. Lan Fan snuck back to her cot before they noticed her presence, and kept this knowledge to herself. It was no one's business but their own.

“You have a beau?” Madeleine asked casually one evening. They were embroidering by lamplight. It would help with her dexterity, or so Margot said. A dozen or so needles broke between her metal fingers before she got the hang of the delicate task. Ten years Lan Fan had dodged her mother’s attempts to teach her embroidery. She wondered if Suyin would laugh or cry when she told her.

“Beau?”

“A boy. Someone special. One that makes your heart pitter patter.”

“Special…?” Lan Fan stuck herself with the needle. She cursed while Madeleine tittered. Of course there was someone special. Ling Yao was everything to her. More than her liege, more than a childhood companion. There wasn’t a word in Amestrian or Xingese that could encompass what Ling meant to Lan Fan. Fu once said she was born to protect the Yao clan, but that wasn’t the truth of it. She was born to protect Prince Ling. Now more than ever she was certain of that fact. As certain as she was of her place in this world. In the shadows.

“Stop teasing the girl, Maddy,” chided Margot from her workbench. Lan Fan’s automail was nearly finished, and she was eager to swap the temporary prosthetic for the real deal.

“There is… but not in the way you think.”

“Hm, if you say then it must be so.”

Two days before the events of the promised day Margot Fontaine declared Lan Fan’s rehabilitation complete.

“I’ve done all I can. The rest as they say is up to you,” Margot said. She lit a cigarette and fussed with her tools.

“Margot, darling, are you crying?” Madeleine inquired.  

“Don’t speak such foolishness. It’s the smoke in my eyes. That is all.”

Madeleine embraced Lan Fan, being careful of her automail. Minutes passed before she let go, but only to cup Lan Fan’s face. “You must see me perform tonight,” Madeleine kissed her cheek then the other, “A special song I will sing for you. This song you must hear before you leave me forever, my heart.”

One pleading look to her grandfather was all it took. Lan Fan had seen the club during the day often enough, but at night it was something else. The lighting, the cigarette smoke, couples dancing and huddled at small tables. Laughter, glasses clinking, the constant murmur of the crowd. The space was transformed by all these things and more. And to see Madeleine Rousseau in all her finery, illuminated beneath the stage lights--she would never forget. The first few songs of the evening were familiar favorites. After all this time Lan Fan knew them by heart. She and Fu sat at the table in the corner where Madeleine had convinced Margot to work a miracle. Before the fifth song the lights dimmed.

“Today, I am full of sorrow. The daughter of my heart is leaving. It is my dearest wish that she carry this song wherever she may go. May she share it with the one she cherishes…”

 

Hold me close and hold me fast

The magic spell you cast

This is la vie en rose

 

“Lan Fan,” Fu stood.

“Master Fu, please, can’t we stay?” Desperate to hear the rest of the song, she couldn’t bare to leave now. Not before it was over. Fu held out his hand to his granddaughter and nodded his head toward the dance floor. Lan Fan blinked, confused, then took his offered hand.

 

When you kiss me heaven sighs
And though I close my eyes

I see la vie en rose

 

In six months Margot gave her back the ability to fight; Madeleine taught her to love music; and in one song Fu taught her to dance.  


Chapter Text

April 1915

Desert Area

Tears streaked down Lan Fan’s face, body shaking with grief, desperately trying to hold her sobs back. In the year since they’d left Xing Lan Fan had remained steadfast through everything. She’d had the strength to cut off her own arm when he’d refused to leave her behind. Lan Fan remained strong when Fu was cut down on the battlefield, while Ling grappled with his own helplessness. She’d prepared and wrapped Fu’s body in a shroud the day they departed Central without tears. But now Ling tugged at the thread of her composure and she was unraveling. Lan Fan pulled her hand away and this time Ling let her. Both hands covering her face she wailed. Do something you fool, Ling told himself. In the nine years he’d known her Ling had never seen Lan Fan in such anguish. He could imagine Greed in the back of his mind, sneering at his inaction. What kind of emperor are you gonna be when you can’t even comfort your woman? Ling took the blanket from his shoulders and wrapped it around Lan Fan before pulling her into his arms. He couldn’t bring back her beloved grandfather, but he could hold her while she shed tears for him.


Lan Fan couldn’t bare for her prince to see her in such a state. If she had her mask at hand maybe it would be enough to ground her. It’d always had a calming effect on her. A mask was all it took to disappear, but they’d put it somewhere for safekeeping. Until they were safely back in Xing with Prince Ling declared the successor to the throne she couldn’t allow herself to mourn. It was a distraction when all that mattered was her liege’s safety. And yet she couldn’t stop the tears. She couldn’t suppress the physicality of her grief, nor could she explain how a song hummed under her breath could hold her together, but the mention of it tore her asunder. And then Ling was holding her and it was too much.

She wasn’t sure how much time passed until the tears stopped. When they did she was exhausted; head pounding, sinuses swollen, her whole body weighed down with sorrow. With her head against Prince Ling’s chest she heard the steady beating of his heart. The fire crackled and everything else was quiet. Lan Fan focused on the rise and fall of Ling’s chest as he breathed; the way he smelled of sweat and sand and something entirely him; the security of his arms around her. She committed all this to memory for she couldn’t imagine ever being held by him again. Not when he was to become emperor. When she spoke her words were whispered.

“This unworthy one begs your forgiveness, my lord.” Though reticent she removed herself from the embrace and bowed her head. “My carelessness has caused you trouble.”

“Don’t call yourself unworthy.”

At the sincerity in his tone she looked at him. There was something in his expression she couldn’t place. It twisted at her heart.

“That word could never describe you.”


October 1920

Imperial Palace

Xing

“Alphonse Elric has returned to Xing,” Ling remarked as he read a report from Shu. In half a decade the man had become one of Ling’s most valuable assets. Unbeknownst to but a few he was not simply a skilled blacksmith appointed to the palace, but the emperor’s trusted spymaster. Once Shu’d said he kept his ear to the ground. Now Shu had eyes and ears everywhere. Not even Ling knew the full extent of his spy network. He was fairly certain several of his own servants reported back to the man. In his periphery he saw the subtle shift in his bodyguard’s posture. Lan Fan stood vigil in the corner of his study. Though the hour was late and the shadows long Ling’s bodyguard remained ever watchful. He’d named her commander of the guard without hesitation. Who better than Lan Fan to lead his personal guard detail? Between Lan Fan’s protection and Shu’s reconnaissance they’d disrupted half a dozen assassination plots.

It was by no means an easy task to bring the fifty families to heel under his rule. Even now there was discontent among many of the more prominent clans. Ling had yet to take any wives and his advisors incessantly needled him about his duty to sire heirs. The previous emperor left behind forty-three sons and daughters who could usurp him should he perish without establishing his line of succession. He had no intention of continuing the tradition of the fifty wives. Shu knew this well enough if his insinuations were anything to go by. ‘Give my best to your lovely bodyguard’ indeed. The emperor scanned the rest of the encrypted message then tucked it into a drawer.

“Mei will drag him to court in due time.” Tension had worked it’s way into his shoulders throughout the day. Ling stood from his desk, rolling his shoulders to ease the stiffness. “What would you say to a bit of exercise?”

“This one would say the hour is late.”

“Yet both of us are awake. When was the last time we sparred? I can’t recall,” Ling countered.

“It’s been some time, your highness.”

“Precisely.”

Lan Fan waited while Ling changed then proceeded with him to the imperial training hall. It’d been ages since he’d practiced with a partner. Practice weapons lined one wall of the room. Lan Fan stood at attention while he stretched. She kept her gaze just to his left, not quite looking at him. “What do you think? Hand to hand or swordplay?”

“Whatever pleases you, my liege.”

Dangerous words, Lady Bodyguard.

“Hand to hand then. Why don’t you remove your armor?”

“Emperor-”

“It’s a friendly match. No need to be burdened by it. At least take off the mask.”

Armor could hardly burden the guard. They both knew it. What he wanted (and oh how he wanted when it came to her) was to see Lan Fan. The person she concealed behind armor and mask and propriety. Since their time in the desert Lan Fan laid bricks of duty, honor, and tradition one by one; Before Ling knew it she’d built a wall between them. Most days she was his silent sentinel. Only speaking when addressed. There were times he almost regretted appointing her commander of the guard. Her position came between them more than he’d ever imagined. Rather than acknowledge the inevitable court gossip she combated it with distance and professionalism. Now she hesitated at his suggestion she remove her mask. Her reservation at war with her desire to obey.

“Not a command,” he told her, giving her an out. Ling set to wrapping his wrists. After a moment Lan Fan turned her back to him. Piece by piece she shed her armor. The mask was next to go and finally the cowl. She placed each discarded item against the wall, taking care to set the mask on the folded cloth. When she faced him once more she was impassive. Lan Fan kept her eyes averted in deference. Once she would’ve been bashful without her mask, but these days even with her face uncovered she hid her emotions. Fu would be proud. There was one thing she couldn’t hide.

“Your hair,” Ling uttered in surprise. He couldn’t help his stare. In all the years he’d known Lan Fan she’d kept it cut just past her shoulders, tied up in a bun with bangs framing her face. The bangs were the same as always, but the rest was cut to chin length and set in a slight wave. Lan Fan was still as stone, a faint blush rising to her cheeks. “It’s so…”

Short, he thought but didn’t say aloud. She was taut as a wire. Ling could see it in the line of her. What brought this on? He circled her and wondered when he’d last seen her with her hair down so to speak. The cut was flattering. It showed off her neck, the angle of her jaw, her near white skin. She looks…

“Modern,” Ling concluded. “It’s positively Western.” Her cheeks were no longer pale pink but bright as poppies. For a moment Lan Fan seemed the timid, easily flustered apprentice and Ling the young master teasing her for sport. Ling closed the distance between them. “What inspired the change?”

“I-” Lan Fan began, faltered. As if she couldn’t possibly explain something as simple as a haircut. “Short hair is practical.”

Ling raised an eyebrow. He could let her get away with that answer, but decided to push the question. There was more to it he was certain. Lan Fan was always sincere but drawing a genuine response or emotion from her had always been difficult. More so now than ever. As maddening as her evasions were he enjoyed the challenge. It was always worth the reward. “More practical than a topknot?”

“Yes. No. They are practical in equal measure, majesty.”

“I see,” Ling stated. He clasped his hands behind his back, tilted his head in consideration. Ling cast a glance at the weapon stands. “I’ve changed my mind. Let’s start with the bo.” It’d been years since they’d practiced with staffs. Though Ling preferred dao and Lan Fan favored knives Master Fu insisted they become proficient with a variety of weapons. He selected one for himself and tossed another to Lan Fan. She caught it with ease, twirled it with both hands to familiarize herself with the weight then slid into fighting stance. A meter across from her Ling readied himself. He held her gaze for a long moment. No looking away now. Then she was a blur and he was bringing up the bo to block. One deflection then another, but she was swift, halting the third strike a centimeter from his head.

“First strike.” She drew back before he could counter. Agile as ever she dodged his strikes, moved in under a sweep of his staff to halt a blow to his chin. Ling took a stuttered step back as she straightened. Like oxygen to embers she was alive in a fight. Lan Fan swept a foot behind her and settled into a defensive stance. “2-0, highness.”

He appraised her then took the offense. Five unsuccessful strikes before knock her legs out from under her. She hit the mat with his staff at her throat. “2-1, Lady Bodyguard.” He caught a spark of ire in her eyes. Stoked by his strike or the epithet he couldn’t be sure. She rolled to her feet and in place of shadow he saw the fire he remembered from their early days. Reminiscent of their first fight in the orchard Lan Fan drove him back with relentless offense. Across the training floor she scorched a path with her ferocity. Running out of ground to give Ling dropped his staff and grabbed Lan Fan’s as she lunged. Using her momentum he flipped her over his shoulder onto the mat.

“2-2,” he finished speaking and found himself knocked on his ass by his own discarded staff.

“3-2.” Lan Fan stood over him, staff at her side, and bowed.

“Finished already, Lady?”

On the staff Lan Fan’s hand tightened till her knuckles were white. “This one is not befitting of the title of lady.”

“It’s never bothered you before.”

“It’s disingenuous. Only by your grace do I bare the rank of Commander. It wouldn’t do to forget one’s place.”  

“Yours or mine, Lan Fan?”

 

Chapter Text

“Yours or mine, Lan Fan?”

The emperor lost the teasing gleam in his eyes. Even alone she didn’t allow herself to think of him as Ling. Especially when it was only the two of them, though they were never truly alone. She’d had two additional guards shadowing them all evening. They currently stood watch in the corridor. Another six patrolled this wing and the roof. Each one vetted by Lan Fan herself and approved by his highness. “Where are your modern sensibilities to go along with that hair?”

Once resisting his jests had been a game. For better or worse, one way or another, Prince Ling always won in the end. Now he was emperor and Lan Fan couldn't afford to be overly familiar with him. Lan Fan bit her tongue lest it betray her better judgement. The modern style was entirely the influence of Madeleine Rousseau. Inspired by a flyer for the nightclub the singer included in a recent letter. Madeleine reproduced in curved lines and bold colors with her hair cut short, framing her face in waves. It was signed in Madeleine’s flourished cursive: ‘For ma coeur . With love, M.’ The singer’s beauty wasn't something she could emulate, she knew that, but she’d thought perhaps there was no harm in a small attempt. Vain, foolish notion. She bowed, the curtain of her hair falling into her face. “I wouldn’t dare presume to tell you your place, Emperor.”

“Then tell me yours.”

“Behind a mask,” she answered with conviction. “In the shadows. Between you and any foolish enough to wish you harm. Until the day I’m dead and buried alongside my father and grandfather.”  

Silence flooded the room until all she heard was their breathing; the echo of her hearts tempo in her head. Ling rose to his feet, took a step closer, then another. Lan Fan stayed in her bow with her eyes on the floor. She heard the quiet rustle of fabric when the emperor retrieved something from his pocket. A square of rumpled silk fell to the floor between them. The emperor placed his hand on the elbow of her automail arm, careful not to trigger the concealed blade, then slid it down her forearm to lift her metal hand. She watched Ling trace his thumb along her artificial lifeline. Hundreds upon hundreds of times she’d watched his hands as he danced pen across paper, worked a whetstone along a blade, brushed a lock of hair out of his eyes. Hands as familiar as her own. In her palm he placed the lacquered comb she’d longed for so many years ago.

“This is-” Lan Fan was stunned. She hadn’t forgotten it, but she couldn’t believe it was the same one. How? How did he know? Lan Fan straightened her back and looked up at him.  

“Something I’ve held onto for a long time. You are my greatest protector, my closest confidant.” Ling closed her fingers around the comb. “You will always be Lady Bodyguard to me.”


 

Lan Fan woke before sunrise with her thoughts on what transpired with the emperor the night before. Midnight struck with the change of the guard. Her second in command had taken over her watch, escorting Emperor Ling back to his private rooms for the night, effectively rescuing her from making even more of a fool of herself. I didn’t even thank him for the gift. The comb rested on the vanity next to her mask. The room she called her own was decent enough sized and furnished with a bed, a cabinet for her clothing, and stand upon which her armor hung. Now that she resided permanently in the imperial city most of her belongings were housed at her stepfather's estate. Her next guard shift wasn’t until tomorrow morning and she was due for a visit with her family. For once she was grateful for a reprieve from her duties. She wasn’t sure what to do or say when she saw the emperor again. The implications of his words whirled in her mind.

Don’t make inferences, she scolded herself. Her intuition she trusted in most circumstances, but when it came to the emperor her feelings were unreliable. They were inextinguishable, best kept smothered if she wanted to keep her wits about her. Lan Fan rose from bed and proceeded to the bathhouse in the servants wing. Since her brother was certain to ask her to train with him she decided to deviate from her routine of running three miles before breakfast. This early she had the bath to herself. She took advantage of the quiet to soak longer than usual, letting the heat work the tension from her muscles.

Before the morning birds could take up their songs Lan Fan made her way back. She took care to wick the moisture from the joints of her automail with a soft cloth before using the oil Margot sent in a recent care package. While she hadn’t seen the two of them in five years they were often in her thoughts. Margot wrote infrequently, preferring to let Madeleine do the corresponding for both of them, but she kept Lan Fan supplied with all manner of practical things. A bottle of oil here, a polishing cloth there. A new pair of fur lined gloves each winter with the warning that her automail was ‘not for cold weather’ and ‘don’t blame me if you get frostbite.’

Lan Fan dried her damp hair with a towel before working the tangles out with a brush. For a long time she stared at her reflection in the looking glass. Her cheeks still pink from the bath, hair straight since she hadn’t bothered to pin it while it dried, mouth twisted in a frown of contemplation. She glanced at the comb. It was more elegant than she remembered. As Lan Fan considered she worried her thumb across her lower lip. Wearing it would be a sign of gratitude. Taking care not to snag any strands in her automail Lan Fan pinned one side of her hair back just above her ear with the comb. The golden cranes on the black lacquer glinted subtly in the light when she turned her head. Pulling herself away from the mirror Lan Fan dressed in a long sleeved black cheongsam with small white blossoms embroidered on the skirt. The embroidery was her own handiwork. Her dexterity was long since recovered, but it pleased her mother to no end that Lan Fan would join her in the activity.

From a drawer she retrieved a pair of black linen gloves. She’d taken a page out of Edward Elric’s book shortly after returning to Xing. While trade had been restored between Amestris and Xing for several years automail was still uncommon. Gloves attracted fewer stares than her metal arm. The weather was brisk enough for them at any rate. She slipped on her shoes and the gloves before arming herself with five kunai--the ones Shu made for her. The sixth was long gone. She’d used it to dampen the blow of Fuhrer Bradley’s sword. Dropped on the battlefield in their retreat. If not for Shu’s craftsmanship the cut might’ve proved fatal. Lan Fan pushed the memory from her mind as she wrapped a white pashmina scarf around her neck. With coins tucked into her pockets with a flashbang or two she left the palace after daybreak.

The morning was clear with a pleasant breeze stirring the leaves. Shops and stalls were already open throughout the market. Lan Fan passed by the storefronts without a glance making her way to a specialty cafe in one of the more affluent areas of the the district. The pale pink sign above the cafe read pâtisserie in delicate gold script with the Xingese characters for bakery below. Less than half the tables outside were occupied due to the early hour and cool weather, but the inside of the shop was crowded with customers. The pâtisserie was quite popular with the younger generation who delighted in all things neoteric. A mix of those dressed traditionally and in western attire chattered in line for the confection of the day--a chocolate almond croissant according to the framed chalkboard behind the counter. The display case was full of freshly baked bread and pastries.

Lan Fan’s mouth watered at the decadent mixture of sugar, flour, and coffee beans in the air as she entered. It was the only place she’d found in the city that brewed coffee and espresso as well as Madeleine. She joined the queue, settling into the hustle and bustle of the cafe. No one paid her any mind. The clamor of the cafe was comforting. It helped drown out her troublesome thoughts. Behind her the door opened with a chime and a gust of wind. Someone a touch out of breath stepped in line behind her.

“Excuse me?” A tap on her shoulder. Lan Fan, resisting the urge to grab the wrist of the offending hand and twist, turned around. Instead of a stranger she found herself looking up at Alphonse Elric. The young man’s short hair was tousled from the wind, clothes a bit rumpled, and he carried a suitcase in one hand. His face lit up with a grin. “I thought that was you!”

“Alphonse,” she uttered. The emperor mentioned he’d arrived in Xing. Lan Fan’d thought he’d be off to visit the Chang princess. By the look of him he was fresh off the train. “This is a surprise.”

“I should say the same,” Al returned and held out a hand. “It’s good to see you, Lan Fan.”

“It’s good to see you as well. It’s been some time.” Lan Fan shook his hand and accompanied it with a brief bow.

“I almost didn’t recognize you. You look nice. Not to say that you don’t always look nice. What I mean to say is you always look nice, but especially today. Is it a special occasion?” Al amended. His politeness had always belayed his intimidating appearance when he was merely a soul trapped in seven feet of armor. Now he was tall and handsome and his good manners were endearing. The younger Elric brother had clearly inherited all the charm. She wondered if he noticed the admiring glances thrown in his direction.

“No, I have the day off. I’m visiting my family later.” A few more people crammed into the shop behind Al. Lan Fan stepped forward with the line, careful not to bump into the couple ahead of them.

“That’s good. It’s always nice to spend time family. You know, come to think of it, I don’t know much about your family. Well, aside from...” Alphonse cleared his throat, refraining from mentioning Fu. “Do you have brothers and sisters?”

“A younger brother, Xiang. He’s fourteen.”

“A little brother?” He grinned that infectious smile of his. “He must look up to you a lot.”

“He wants to follow in my footsteps. Much to our mother’s displeasure.” Lan Fan found themselves next in line to order. “Would you like anything?”

“Hm? Oh no please don’t go to any trouble.” Alphonse protested.

“I still owe you for the room service.”

That drew a laugh from him. Lan Fan gave him one of her rare smiles. “In that case I’ll have whatever you’re having. I’ll grab us a table.”

Lan Fan joined him at a table with two orders of pain au chocolat and coffee. He thanked her as he added sugar to his cup. She stirred cream in hers and removed her right glove to keep it clean. They ate in silence awhile until Al struck up the conversation again. “How are you?”

“I’m well. Not much has changed since you were last here. I take it you’re well?”

“Things are great. It was nice going home to Resembool. Though, it’s good to be back in Xing. And Ling? How’s he?”

She hid her blush behind her cup. Emperor Ling was the last topic in the world she wanted to discuss. Thinking about him conjured ideas she knew better than to entertain. Lan Fan tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, fingertips catching against the comb. Alphonse followed the movement with his eyes.

“In good health. He hasn’t changed either,” she answered diplomatically.

“Is that so?” Mischief glinted in his expression.

“You can judge for yourself.”

“All right then. I should change first. I’d rather not look like I’ve been on the train for three days when I make an appearance.” Al ran his fingers through his bangs and finished off his coffee. “Thanks again for breakfast. I’m glad I ran into you. I’ll see you later?”

“You could clean up at my family’s home. There’s no sense getting lodgings when his highness will insist you stay at the palace.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to impose.”

“I’m certain,” she replied.

They arrived at Liwei Zhang’s home shortly thereafter. Lan Fan opened the gate and beckoned Alphonse inside. In the courtyard a gardener was raking the fallen leaves. He bid Lan Fan good morning, giving Al a curious look. Lan Fan returned his greeting and led Al into the house. Down the hall she heard the murmur of activity from the dining room. She brought them to the dining room and slid open the door to find her family in the midst of breakfast. Liwei looked over first, his mouth curving into a warm smile.

“Lan, what a pleasant surprise. Have you eaten yet? Come have a seat,” Liwei welcomed her then noticed Alphonse Elric behind her. Next to him Suyin, as put together as ever even so early in the day, straightened in her seat. Her eyes darted from Alphonse to Lan Fan and back again. Xiang held a bowl of rice in one hand and his chopsticks in the other. His face was alight with curiosity, he didn’t notice when he dropped a clump of rice in his lap. At fourteen Xiang was already as tall as Lan Fan and resembled her strongly.

“I’ve eaten. This is my friend Alphonse Elric. He’s arrived from Amestris this morning and we bumped into each other. I told him it would be all right for him to freshen up here before he meets with the Emperor.”

“It’s very nice to meet you Mr. and Mrs. Liu. And you must be Xiang,” Al grinned at Lan Fan. “He looks just like you!”

“It’s Zhang. My mother is remarried,” Lan Fan corrected him.

“Oh. My apologies. It’s nice to meet you Mr. and Mrs. Zhang.”

“Welcome to our home, Mr. Elric,” said Liwei.

“Just Alphonse is fine.”

“Please won’t you join us for breakfast? A cup of tea at the very least,” Suyin invited eagerly. Lan Fan didn’t like the way she was looking at Alphonse Elric. Half cordial, half predatory. As if she would pounce on him at any moment for some nefarious purpose. “Lan Fan, go fetch another tea setting for your friend.”

“Yes, mother…” Lan Fan was starting to regret this whole thing. She went to the sideboard to fetch tea cups for them both.

“Thank you, Mrs. Zhang.” Alphonse took a seat and Xiang leaned forward in his own.

“You’re the Alphonse Elric? Lan Fan told me the Elric brothers are the cleverest alchemists in all of Amestris. Is it true you can do alchemy without transmutation circles? Can you show me?” Xiang asked in rapid fire.

“Xiang, Alphonse is our guest. He’s not here to entertain you with tricks,” Suyin admonished.

“I’d be happy to show him, though it’s not the best activity for the breakfast table. I’m actually in Xing to continue my study of alkahestry. My brother and I’ve studied alchemy since we were children, but there’s still much more to learn.”

Lan Fan sat next to Alphonse, pouring tea for the two of them. She remained a spectator while Liwei and Suyin exchanged pleasantries with Alphonse and Xiang inquired about Amestris and alchemy. Suyin seemed to notice Al’s flagging energy as breakfast wound down. She set down her cup and turned to Xiang. “Darling, why don’t you show Alphonse to the guest room? I’m sure he could use a rest. Alphonse, it’s been a pleasure to meet you. I hope you’ll join us for dinner soon. When your studies allow for it of course.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Zhang, for all your hospitality.” Alphonse stood, bowing respectfully, then was whisked away by Xiang.

“He’s a nice young man,” Suyin lilted at her daughter.

“Mm.”

“Suyin…” A warning from Liwei. Lan Fan caught on to where this was going.

“Quite respectable from the sound of things. Is he the one who sends you all that mail you’re so secretive about?” her mother teased.

“Alphonse is a friend. Nothing more.”

“Even if he’s a foreigner you could do worse. Automail is so common in that country. I’m sure he doesn’t even bat an eye at such things.”

Lan Fan set her cup down hard enough to rattle the table. “Foreign or otherwise I have no interest in being courted.”

She excused herself before the conversation turned into a proper argument. In the safety of her bedroom Lan Fan shut her eyes and breathed. She kept them closed, letting the quiet settle into her like a balm. When her irritation subsided she opened her eyes and went to the phonograph in the corner. Thanks to Madeline she had a dozen or so records. The phonograph was a gift from her stepfather. Left in her room without preamble between visits. Lan Fan selected a record and set it to play at a low volume before laying on her bed. It was swing music from a popular Amestrian big band. She liked the clear ring of trumpets. A light knock on her door and Xiang stepped inside.

“I like your friend.” He smiled and shut the door behind him. Xiang turned up the music then joined her on the bed. “Is something the matter?”

“No,” She denied. “Why do you ask?”

“Because you're having a sulk.”

“I'm not sulking.”

“You should tell your face,” Xiang teased.

“This is how my face always looks.”

“Not true. You get a funny little quirk to your mouth when you're in a mood. Right there.” He tapped his finger against the corner of her lips and she swatted his hand away.

“I'm not in a mood. Not exactly…”

“Then what is it exactly?”

“Xiang,” she sighed.

“Lan Fan,” he sighed in return. Xiang laid next to her, tilted his head to rest against hers. “I wish you would tell me things. You can you know. We’re siblings.”

“It’s not that I wish to keep secrets from you. There are certain things I can’t tell anyone,” she said remorsefully. If she could confided in someone it would be him. He’d grown from an eager child into a kind young man. Always amicable and full of enthusiasm. But she didn’t know how to surmount the distance she’d kept between them for so many years.

“It’s not that you can’t tell me. You won’t. Lan Fan, you don’t trust me.” The hurt in his voice pricked at her heart. He sat up and turned an all too familiar frown on her. “We’re the same blood. You’re one of us even if you pretend not to be. More than you know.”

“What do you mean by that?” Lan Fan sat up as well. When Xiang rose from the bed she grasped his wrist firmly. “ Xiang!

He wrenched his arm away with a huff. Xiang crossed his arms over his chest and regarded his sister. After a moment his expression softened and something Lan Fan thought might be guilt flickered in his eyes. In her chest her heart beat a bit faster. She licked her lips and asked again.

“Xiang, what did you mean more than I know?”

“I shouldn’t have said that. I only meant…” He trailed off, ran a hand through his hair. “Would it really be so bad to be a Zhang? It’s just a name.”

“It’s not just a name. I’m a Liu. I’m the only one left.”

Xiang met her eyes regretfully and Lan Fan’s stomach turned.  




Chapter Text

Ling kept his gaze on the koi pond as he tapped his nail against the side of a tea cup. In his inattention the drink had gone cold. His mind was far from the atrium and the company of his mother. He’d been agitated throughout the council meeting that afternoon, something Xue hadn’t failed to notice, though his advisors were none the wiser. The dowager empress sat across the table dressed in robes of emerald and gold silk. Her long nails shone with a clear lacquer. In her right ear she wore the red feather earring her son had gifted to her as a child and had plum blossoms woven into her long hair.

“Has something happened?” Xue asked. She set her cup down, refilling it, and added a single cube of sugar.

The tapping of Ling’s nail on porcelain ceased but his eyes remained on the fish glittering among the water lillies. “Nothing of consequence.”

Xue swirled a spoon in her cup then set it to rest on the saucer. She lifted the cup to her lips but did not drink. Instead she savored the aroma of the rising steam as she regarded her son. As a child Ling had always come to her with his troubles. She’d trusted him to share his burdens. If not with her then Fu. But Fu was gone and Xue was unaccustomed to prying. She blew softly across the surface of her tea. The commander of the guard had been notably absent today and the emperor’s displeasure was palpable.

“Commander Liu isn’t in attendance today. Is she unwell?” his mother asked.

“She’s...” Ling propped his chin on his fist and afforded her a glance. “I’ve upset her, I think. I can’t read her like when we were children. Things are different between us.”

“You’ve grown up.”

“It’s more than that.” His face twisted with frustration. “She keeps me at a distance.”

“As distant as the stars, I imagine. What do you intend to do about it?”


Despite wearing a dress Lan Fan found the hall of records far too easy to break into. The back entrance was dutifully bolted but someone had neglected to lock the transom window above it. She boosted herself through to the other side and landed silently in the darkened corridor. It would’ve been simpler to stroll in during business hours, but that would mean curious looks and questions she’d rather not answer. A bored clerk might not have cared who she was but requesting copies of records meant paperwork. It would inevitably get back to Shu that she’d been here. The man was annoyingly well informed. Better to find what she needed under the cover of darkness than make his work easy for him.

Lan Fan kept the hood of her cloak up and her face concealed. The mask she wore was painted with a black and gold harlequin pattern; a spare she kept hidden beneath a floorboard in her bedroom at home. It took longer than she anticipated to locate the appropriate archive, but she’d only had to duck out of the sight of a guard once. Several times she thought of turning back. Seeing the truth would make it all real. If all she had was Xiang’s word perhaps she could convince herself it was a lie. Yet she knew she had to see for herself. Lan Fan slipped into the records room and the door snicked shut behind her. It was too dark to properly search the files. Lan Fan risked the light of a nearby lamp and set to work.

Half an hour passed before she laid hands on her objective. She read the documents thrice before using the ditto machine tucked into the corner of the room. She removed her gloves to save them from ink stains. Thankfully her hands were steady. Barely enough time passed for the ink to set before she heard footsteps in the hall. Lan Fan returned the originals to their drawer then tucked the duplicates into an envelope. When the echo of steps faded into the distance she made her escape. She receded into the shadows of a side street several blocks away. Lan Fan removed the mask. It’d been years since she’d cried and she wasn’t about to start now. Instead, she curled her hand into a fist and assaulted the brick wall with blows. By the time she regained control her knuckles were a bloody mess and her shoulder reverberated from the impact. Her fourth and fifth metacarpal bones were broken. She only had herself to blame for the fractures. Even upset she knew better than to be careless with a punch, but the pain was something to focus on.  

“Damn it,” she uttered. “Damn it. Damn it! ” Lan Fan leaned against the wall and turned her eyes to the moon. It was well after midnight. Her absence must’ve been noticed hours ago even if Xiang kept her departure quiet. Going home would mean facing her mother and stepfather in the morning if not tonight. Not step. Not anymore, her mind corrected. ‘Zhang, Lan Fan Liu’ the amended birth certificate read. Instead of Feng Liu her father was listed as Liwei Zhang. The adoptions records were dated February 7th, 1914. Finalized during her last visit before Amestris. Signed by Liwei and Suyin Zhang but the greatest betrayal of all was her grandfather’s name scrawled on the witness line.

Grandfather, why didn’t you tell me?


 

Ling opened his door at daybreak to find Lan Fan in place of his guard from the night before. She was dressed in her uniform and armor, but hadn’t covered her hair nor put on her mask. In her hair she wore the comb. It was as lovely on her as he’d always imagined. His pleasure at the sight was short lived, however, as he noticed the fresh bandages wrapped around her hand. His was staring and concern showed on his face. Lan Fan dropped her eyes to the floor and bent forward into a bow. What happened? The words died on his lips as she straightened. If she’d slept at all it hadn’t been well judging by her careworn look and the dark circles under her eyes.

“Lan Fan, what have you done to your hand?”

“It’s nothing, sire.” The bodyguard averted her gaze as she answered. It was clearly something and the emperor became angry. He was angry with her for evading his question, angry with himself for allowing her to get away with such behavior time and again. Perhaps if he’d demanded she be forthright in the past she would share her burdens with him.    

“I’ll be the judge of that,” snapped Emperor Yao. He held out his hand for hers. Lan Fan’s small hand was bulky with gauze. The tips of her pinky and ring fingers stuck out from the bandages, the skin marred with bruises. He palpated the digits and felt her wince. Broken. Ling clinched his jaw. “How did you make such a mess of your hand? Answer me, Commander.”

“I lost my temper.”

“That’s not a proper answer.” In his frustration he wanted to shake her. Ling wanted to shout at her. He wanted her to speak without being ordered. Most of all he wanted to kiss this infuriating woman who caused him such worry.

“I punched a wall,” Lan Fan confessed. “More than once.”

“Why?” Ling demanded. “Look at me.”

Lan Fan closed her eyes, drew in a measured breath, and looked at him. “I was upset over a personal matter.”

“A personal matter?”

“Something I still need to sort through.” She was silent for a moment then lowered her eyes to his hands still cradling her wounded one. “I didn’t thank you.”

“Thank me?”

“For the gift,” she answered softly.

“You don’t need to thank me.”

“But I do. I’m grateful.”

“It was always yours, Lan Fan.”


Emperor Ling ordered her to see to her hand before she resumed her duties. In exchange she ordered three additional guards to his escort until her return. Lan Fan made her way to the south wing of the palace where the alkahestry master in residence kept an office. Master Hsu had in fact worked for the Yao family nearly a decade. He’d been the one to tend to their cuts and bruises after many a training session with Master Fu. The door to his office was shut, but she could hear the murmur of voices beyond it. Lightly she rapped on the door and a moment later Master Hsu slid it open.

“Commander Liu! Remarkable timing as always. Won’t you join us for tea?” Master Hsu ushered her inside. At the table by the window Alphonse Elric sat with an open book in one hand and a teacup in the other. He appeared properly rested and was dressed in a suit and tie.

“Alphonse?” she uttered in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

“Ling is busy until this afternoon so he asked Mr. Hsu to let me shadow him today. He has quite the collection of alkahestry texts,” Al replied.

“I can hazard a guess at what brings you by this morning, Commander. May I?” Master Hsu had her sit on the exam table against the wall and gently unwound the gauze from her hand. The knuckles were split and oozing blood and much of her skin was bruised. Her two broken fingers were swollen and stiff. Master Hsu clicked his tongue in disapproval. “Come take a look”

As instructed Alphonse came over and upon seeing the damage he swore under his breath. Al blushed at his own language and cleared his throat.

“As you can see from the bruising this injury occurred four to six hours ago. Without the intervention of alkahestry the lacerations would require multiple stitches and the fractures splinting. What is our immediate concern?”

“Infection.”

“Correct. Fetch me the disinfectant from the cabinet. A basin as well,” Master Hsu sighed, shaking his head. “One would think you’d take better care of your remaining hand. Any reason in particular you didn’t come to me straight away, Commander Liu?”

“It was late.”

“Late indeed,” he scoffed. Lan Fan held her hand over the basin as instructed. The disinfectant burned like fire as he doused the cuts. She managed not to scream, but gripped the edge of the table with her automail that the joints creaked. When the pain subsided she let out the breath she held. “There now that’s the worst of it, my dear. Now, Alphonse, we’ll proceed with closing the wounds.”

Master Hsu drew an array on the table with practiced ease. The transmutation took well under a minute, a process that was relatively painless save for a stinging sensation as her flesh and bones knit back together. Though quite faded some bruising lingered. The alkahestris tested her range of motion and instructed her to flex her fingers. Satisfied with the results he nodded. While he deposed of the soiled bandages Alphonse stepped closer to speak with Lan Fan.

“Where did you disappear to yesterday?

“Something came up.”  

“What a bar fight?” He looked skeptical. Instead of answering Lan Fan put on her mask and cowl. Al sighed in exasperation. “I hope you’ve at least let your family know you’re all right.”

“I must return to my duties. Thank you, Master Hsu.” The bodyguard bowed and left before Alphonse could harangue her further. She tried to ignore the guilt thoughts of Xiang conjured. None of it was his fault. He’d apologized profusely, begged her not to leave. He’d stumbled upon the truth ages ago, kept the secret to protect her, and how had she repaid him? By shutting him out once again. Xiang deserves better. Lan Fan took a deep breath. Fu was gone but there was still one person who might have the answers she so desperately needed.

Chapter Text

Inside the blacksmith shop the air was sweltering. It was late in the evening, the coals in the forge banked but not extinguished. The heavy door to the smithy was thrown open to allow the brisk autumn air to circulate in. Shu stood at a large roughhewn table pushed up against the backwall sorting through parchment. The man was tall and broad shouldered, well muscled from years of backbreaking work. Still handsome in the rough sort of way he’d had as a teenager with his hair in need of a trim and clothes marred with soot. A gust of wind blew through the shop, scattering a stack of papers. While collecting the loose sheets he caught a shadow of movement in his peripheral vision. When he turned he saw only a few errant leaves whirling in the breeze. Shu closed the door before returning the pages to the table. From a shelf above the workspace he fetched a crumpled pack of cigarettes and lit one off the flame of a candle. Shu took a slow drag, watching the tendril of smoke coming off the end. Enjoying his vice for a minute before looking up.

“Need something?” he asked with a smirk. Above him Lan Fan was perched on a rafter watching him. She’d come straight from her guard duty and was still bedecked in her uniform and mask. Lan Fan dropped to the ground in front of him and held out the documents she’d stolen from the Hall of Records. The spymaster put the cigarette between his lips and took them. He read silently. Whatever he thought of the documents he kept it to himself. Shu returned the cigarette to his hand and tapped the ashes onto the floor.  

“You knew,” Lan Fan accused.

“That you broke into a government building? No, you got that one past me.” Shu rubbed at a smudge of ink on the birth certificate..

“Be serious.” Lan Fan snatched the papers from him.

“You’re serious enough for the both of us, Lan Fan.” Finished with his cigarette he put it out on the leg of the table. “Not here.”

An hour later they met outside the palace. Shu looked sharp in a western suit--he’d even put on a tie--and charcoal colored coat. In turn Lan Fan wore a cheongsam with a light jacket, gloves, and scarf. Already she regretted not bundling up properly. The icy wind cut through her clothes, her automail growing chill. Shu leaned against a lamppost smoking another one of his cigarettes. When he saw her he flicked the remainder into the gutter and straightened. He gave her a once over as she approached, then removed his coat with a flourish to drape over her shoulders. The wool held the faint scent of tobacco and sandalwood. Shu offered Lan Fan his arm. Not just his arm, but his right arm. She hesitated. He waited patiently, not saying a word, until she tucked her automail hand into the crook of his elbow. Hardly anyone was out at this hour and those that were paid them no mind as they walked the streets.

“Tell me everything you know,” Lan Fan insisted.

“Everything I know? Now that would take awhile.” Shu chuckled under his breath and Lan Fan glared at him.

“Fu was a good man. Kinder than most would give him credit for. Loved you more than anything in the world.”

“Master Fu would never consent to me becoming a Zhang,” Lan Fan said with more conviction than she felt. The truth was he witnessed the proceedings and said nothing to her about them. It didn’t make sense. “Was he coerced?”

“Not in the way you’re thinking. Do you know what I liked best about your grandfather?” Lan Fan shook her head. “He expected more of people, regardless of their circumstances. He trained you despite you being a girl, pushed you as hard as he would a boy. Probably harder so no one would question your abilities. Fu called me a street rat, but he didn’t let me get away with sloppy swordsmanship.”

“He’d hit you on the back of the head. Tell you to do better…”

“Precisely. Most of all he believed a lowly twelfth son could ascend to the throne and Xing would be better for it. He wasn’t wrong.”

“What does any of this have to do with being adopted into the Zhang clan?”

“Everything.” They stopped in front of a bar Lan Fan was familiar with.

“Why are we at the Lindy Club?”

“Because you like it here,” he answered matter of fact. The door swung open with a gaggle of people filing out for a smoke on the curb. Shu grabbed it before it swung shut and held it for her. Inside the nightclub was a flurry of activity. On the stage a live band played swing, the couples on the dance floor swept up in the face pace. The bartender had an easy night of it with the place half full. They sat at a table near the stage where their conversation would be drowned out. Shu ordered a whiskey for himself and plum wine for her from a passing waitress. “Don’t be so cross with me.”

“Don’t be so meddlesome,” she muttered. Lan Fan shrugged off his coat and hung it over the back of her chair.    

“I prefer observant,” he said looking entirely too pleased with himself. “Stop scowling or people will think we’re having a lovers quarrel. Do you know what the name Zhang gives you?”

“I know what it takes from me,” she deflected.

“Do you? Being a Zhang gives you agency. It opens doors that otherwise would be closed to you. You have more choices than ever before. Possibilities.” Shu took out his lighter, flipping it open and closed. He cut a glance at her. “Does that frighten you, Lan Fan?”

“I’ve fought literal monsters in battle. There’s little in this world that frightens me.”  

“Yet a few pieces of paper upset you. You think they take something from you. Keep up Zhang, Lan Fan Liu. They didn’t take your name from you, simply added another. Besides, a name doesn’t change who you are. You’re Lan Fan Liu, commander of his imperial majesty’s elite bodyguards. You could still be Lan Fan Zhang, but you don’t know who she is. Perhaps you’re afraid to find out.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? You had no right to keep the truth from me.”

He toyed with the lighter a moment longer before pocketing it. Leaning closer he took her hand and freed it of the glove. The knuckles were still covered in fading bruises of green and yellow. Shu held her hand and brushed his thumb over the mottled skin. His mouth was set in a hard line. When he looked at her she was unsettled by his intensity. She broke his gaze to look at their hands, thinking she should pull hers away. Lan Fan stayed still. “When you returned to Xing you’d lost your arm. Fu was dead. You left people in Amestris you cared for deeply. Any idiot could see you were in pain. I didn’t tell you because it would only hurt you.”

Shu pulled out an envelope from the inner pocket of his suit jacket. The wax on the back was broken, but Lan Fan saw it was stamped with the Zhang seal. Shu laid it on the table, sliding it over. The waitress returned with their drinks. Once she’d moved on to another table Lan Fan moved her glass aside and picked up the envelope. Inside she found a letter penned by Liwei Zhang, an official duplicate of her birth certificate, and a photograph. It was her in the picture. The one taken that afternoon before her informal debut as Liwei’s daughter at Junjie Zhang’s party. She stared at her fifteen year old self a moment before turning the photograph over. On the back her mother had written ‘Lan Fan, Age 15.’ Lan Fan unfolded the letter and read in silence. Once she’d read it twice over she put it away with the rest.

“This doesn’t have to change anything. Not unless you want things to change.”

She laughed dryly and ran her finger along the rim of her glass. Not looking at him she asked, “Does he know?”

“If he does he didn’t learn it from me.”

“I don’t need protecting. It’s not your job to protect me from things.”

“It’s my prerogative to protect Ling’s interests and what’s important to him. Besides, you should know he isn’t the only one who cares about you. You’re important to me as well, Lan Fan. I’d like to think after all these years you’d consider me a friend.”

Lan Fan took Shu’s whiskey when he reached for the glass. It went down smooth as she sipped it. Shu didn’t know she’d never liked sweet wines. He didn’t know everything about her and she felt a bit of triumph in that knowledge.

“More like cohorts,” she said. The band struck up Moonlight Serenade . She finished his drink and stood to leave. Shu stood as well and caught her hand. The glove still lay on the table. His skin was warm on her own. He stepped around the table, settled his other hand on her waist. Lan Fan looked up at him with a frown. “What are you doing?”

“When was the last time you danced?” Shu maneuvered her onto the dance floor. In the low lighting his brown eyes looked obsidian. Shu regarded her with fondness and a hint of desire she pretended not to see. Lan Fan thought she should look away from those eyes that pierced through her. Even when they weren’t together he had eyes on her. She didn’t know how to feel about that. Lan Fan turned her attention to the couples dancing nearby. All of them looked terribly intimate. She wondered if they looked intimate as well. The thought brought color to her cheeks. Lan Fan knew they ought to stop, that she ought to put a stop to this, but she hadn’t danced with anyone else since Amestris. Trusting Shu to lead she shut her eyes and envisioned the steps in her mind.

“We make a good team.” Under the pretense of keeping their conversation hushed he pulled her closer. His words were whispers in her ear. “Always have when it comes to looking after Ling.”

“Emperor Yao,” she corrected out of habit. Even now he was still appallingly informal when it came to the former prince. Once she’d come close to cutting off his hand when he’d had the audacity to point and laugh at Prince Ling. He’d been lucky she was too busy stifling her own laughter. It wasn’t every day you saw royalty spitting dirt with grass stains on their clothes; Ling’s own fault for trying to show off a jump reverse hook kick after a rainshower. She bit back a smile at the memory and looked up at him. Shu looked right back. His eyes fell to her mouth then his lips were on hers and Lan Fan forgot to breathe.  





Chapter Text

Wrapped up in his embrace Lan Fan froze. Shu’s arm around her waist, hand on the back of her head. His lips were warm, softer than they looked. He was gentle with her but deliberate in his affection. Whatever this moment was she was lost in it. As far as she could discern it was a good kiss. In fact it was her first kiss and he’d stolen it. Once a thief always a thief. The kiss ended with her completely flustered for the first time in she didn’t know how long. No one had held her with like this since Ling by the fire in the desert. It felt like a betrayal. Ripping free of his hold Lan Fan fled the warmth and cacophony of the nightclub. Storm clouds swept across the sky obscuring the moonlight. The frigid wind tore through her silk dress. She’d left a glove and her jacket at the table, but she’d take the cold over doubling back for her belongings.  

With hurried steps she walked without a destination in mind. She didn’t want to return to the palace nor did she care to return home. More than anything she wanted to be small again. To return to the time when her only worries were training and keeping the young lord out of trouble. She had enough troubles without the burden of Shu’s feelings. Behind her Shu called her name. Lan Fan refused to slow her steps. She didn’t want to speak to Shu let alone look at him. When he caught her by the elbow her anger blossomed into fury. She turned and struck him across the face with her automail hand. The harshness of her slap was dampened slightly by her glove as well as her control but it still staggered the man.

“I suppose I had that coming,” he laughed dryly. Shu worked his jaw for a moment and swore under his breath. She started to storm off again when he stepped in her path. “Lan Fan, stop. Just wait a second!”

Despite the strong urge to knock him to the ground Lan Fan halted. Drops of rain began to patter the ground. Shu slid his hands into his pockets and took a step back as he weighed his words. For a moment he looked at the ground between them before lifting his head. “I’m not going to apologize.”

Lan Fan tried to interject but he held up a hand to silence her.

“I’m not finished. I’m not going to apologize for kissing you. I’m not sorry. I’m done keeping my feelings for you to myself. I’m not a fool. I know protecting Ling will always be most important to you. I won’t ever ask you to give more than you’re willing. You’ve given up more than enough pieces of yourself.” Thunder rumbled overhead while the rain became steady. Lan Fan wondered how many times over the years she’d dismissed his lingering looks. Assumed the brush of his fingertips against her skin was accidental. He’d kept her handkerchief for years until he’d returned it wrapped around the best kunai she’d ever owned. Knives he’d made to keep her safe. Shu understood her far better than most.

I’m such a fool.

She thought of telling him there wasn’t anything left of herself to give. All her passion she’d poured into protecting her lord. Every desire cast aside for those of her master. An arm was nothing. Without hesitation she’d cut the heart from her chest if the emperor wished it. Every part of her belonged to him. Ling Yao was her northern star. She’d be lost in the dark without him. Ling was far beyond her reach while Shu stood in the rain offering his own heart. Waiting for her to say something in return. His cheek was beginning to bruise from her blow. I shouldn’t have hit him so hard.

Lightning illuminated the dark night; the accompanying thunder startled them both.

“What you’re proposing…” she faltered. What was he proposing? An affair? A proper courtship? Whatever it was it was just another distraction from her responsibilities. She’d already been far too distracted of late.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit soon for a proposal?” he teased with that familiar, rakish smile.

“Be serious!” Lan Fan insisted. They were drenched by now. She shivered miserably. On top of being cold and wet her shoulder ached incessantly.

“When it comes to you I’m entirely serious. We could have something, you and I. Don’t take me lightly.” Removing his coat he wrapped it around her shoulders again. It was warm and the lining dry. “You’re freezing. Let me walk you back. Or home. Where ever you want to go, Lan Fan.”

She let him walk her home to her stepfather’s estate. It was closer than the palace. Shu kept a respectful distance for which she was grateful. When they arrived at the gate he told her to return the coat later and waited until she was inside to leave. Lan Fan didn’t have her key to the house. Dripping on the doorstep she debated whether to knock or find an unlocked window. With a resigned sigh she rapped on the door. Having expected a servant she was surprised when her stepfather answered the door.

“Lan, what are you doing out in this storm?” Liwei ushered her inside. The house was warm. Though it was late he was still dressed. He was often the last one to bed in the Zhang household. “Go change out of those wet clothes. I’ll make tea.”

Save for the rain on the roof the house was quiet. Lan Fan stepped out of her sopping shoes and went straight to her room. She traded her cheongsam for a pair of soft black pants and a dark blue shirt with frog clasps. Making her way to the kitchen she ran her fingers through her rain-tangled hair. Her shoulder still ached from the weather and her automail needed attention. The kitchen was empty but she found her stepfather waiting in the parlor for her with tea. On the seat next to him was one of  her mother's handmade quilts. Lan Fan bundled the blanket around her and sat next to him. Liwei poured a cup of tea, oolong by the aroma, and passed it to her. As she sipped it he placed his wrist against her forehead to gage her temperature.

“I’m fine,” she mumbled avoiding eye contact.

Liwei poured another cup for himself. For a while they sat in silence. The sound of rain and warmth of tea were soothing. She glanced at him sidelong. There was more silver than black in his hair these days. The lines around his eyes and mouth more pronounced. She wondered what cares her face would show at that age. If she lived so long. Lan Fan worried her lip between her teeth. Did she still call him stepfather? Did he think of her as a proper daughter? He had the answers to the questions she was so afraid to ask.

“Did you ever meet my father?” Lan Fan asked. Lord Zhang was still a moment before setting his tea cup aside. He turned in his seat to give her his full attention. Feng Liu was a subject Lan Fan never brought up. Not with him nor anyone else. Not even her own mother.

“Feng was one of Lady Xue’s personal guards before Prince Ling was born. He often accompanied her to the capital for court functions. I never met him formally. What I know of him I Iearnt from Suyin.”

“You wanted to adopt me from the start. I overheard mother and grandfather arguing about it. Why?”

For a moment Liwei was far away. He stared at the rain streaked window as he contemplated his words.

“Not from the start. Suyin accepted my proposal of marriage on the condition that I adopt you. She needed assurance that you’d never be viewed as less than any other children we might have. I agreed because I wanted Suyin. You were the spitting image of your mother, but you were as different as night and day. I’d never met a more severe child. We had so little of you in our lives. When you were with us you were always frowning. It was a struggle to love you. Fu put his foot down about the adoption and I thought that was that.”

Liwei’s words cut deeper then she wanted to admit. The hurt unexpected. She’d spent so much time not wanting to be a Zhang that she hadn’t imagined he hadn’t wanted her . Lan Fan stared at him and bit her cheek hard. “But you did adopt me.”

Tension wired it’s way into his posture.

“How long have you known?”

“Not long enough.” No point in ratting out Xiang now. “ Grandfather didn’t change his mind easily. The matter was settled so how…?”

“It wasn’t something that came about suddenly. I found myself missing your frowning face between visits. When I came to know you it was impossible not to love you.  It was unfathomably hard letting you grow up with another clan. Fu wrote to us of your progress. I was in awe of how determined such a young girl could be. I never wanted to take your father’s place in your heart, but you were as much my child as Xiang. The night of Prince Junjie’s party was the first time I could introduce you as my daughter. It was one of the proudest nights of my life.”

“But why wasn’t I told? How could you hide the truth for so long?”

“Fu asked that we delay telling you. I can’t know for sure but I believe he intended to tell you once you’d returned from your journey.”

“That still doesn’t explain how you changed his mind. I was already pledged in service to the Yao clan. If anyone learned the truth I could’ve been exiled!”

“Lan Fan, you were a Liu the day you swore your oath of fielty. It wasn’t by chance that we waited. I was the one who convinced your grandfather. Regardless of my marriage to your mother you weren’t of noble birth. It complicated the matter of inheritance. You didn’t have equal standing with your brother. Besides we could see you were fiercely devoted to Prince Ling. It would’ve been devastating for you to fall for someone above your station. I never imagined he’d become emperor....”

The color drained from her face. Had she been that obvious for so long?

“You returned from the west having accomplished so much. The emperor made you commander of the guard for which we were so proud. We had you in our lives properly after so long. Suyin was afraid telling you would only drive you away. Don’t think ill of her. Your mother wishes only for your happiness.”

Lan Fan heard the sliding of the study door and turned her head. In the doorway Suyin stood looking concerned.

“I heard raised voices. What’s wrong? Lan Fan, you’re pale as snow.” Suyin hurried to her daughter, kneeling and cupping Lan Fan’s face. The worry on her mother’s features stayed her tongue. “Is your arm troubling you?”

“I got caught in the storm. Only a little,” Lan Fan answered.  

“You’re chilled to the bone. Come let’s draw you a bath.”

“Suyin-” Liwei began and met Lan Fan’s eyes. He looked afraid of what she might say or do next.

“A bath would be nice…”

Suyin guided her daughter from the room to the bath. While the large tub filled with steaming water Lan Fan undressed. To her surprise Lan Fan accepted Suyin’s offer to wash her hair. Sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest she closed her eyes. Suyin’s hands were gentle and she was careful not to get suds in Lan Fan’s eyes when she rinsed the shampoo out. Lan Fan finished washing up on her own. When she climbed into the bath her mother sat on the edge. The ache in her shoulder was deep. She rolled it a few times to no relief. When Suyin placed one hand on the edge of her port Lan Fan looked up at her.

“It’s been so long since you were examined by an automail doctor. I worry something’s wrong. Perhaps you’ve outgrown this one? You were so young when you got it…”

An objection was on the tip of her tongue when Madeleine came to mind. If she could get Margot Fontaine to come to Xing certainly Madeleine would insist on joining her. Lan Fan missed them terribly. Besides if there was anyone she could confide in it was Maddy. In her head she ran over the cost of travel, potential replacement parts, lodging, and the matter of travel visas. A great expense but well worth it. Infrastructure between Amestris and Xing had improved since the trade agreements. They could take the train across the desert.

“Perhaps you’re right. It’s been too long… I could write to my engineer. See if she’s willing to make the trip to Xing.”

“Tell this lady engineer of yours to name her price. We will cover the cost.”

“What? No, mother, I don’t need you to do that,” she protested.

“Let me anyway?”

Lan Fan could argue the point further, but in the heat of the bath all her fight was seeped away. She was tired and couldn’t bring herself to have one more heated discussion tonight. Already she had enough to think on with Shu and Liwei’s words heavy on her mind. Suyin was always trying so hard and it was exhausting.

“Thank you.”

“Do you want breakfast in the morning or will you be gone early?”

“I have to be back to the palace before dawn.”

“Don’t be up too late then.”

Suyin pressed a kiss to her temple before leaving.

Steam hovered in the air. Lan Fan sank deeper in the bath and brought her fingertips to her lips. The kiss weighed on her mind along with her stepfather’s words. He’d gotten it all wrong. Couldn’t he see that no matter what her title, even if the prince hadn’t become emperor, she’d still be an unsuitable match for Ling Yao? Unworthy no matter what words the prince had whispered under the cover of night. Lan Fan Zhang still belonged in the shadows.

True to her word Lan Fan rose an hour before dawn. She dressed in one of her spare uniforms, but she’d need to collect her armor at the palace before reporting for duty. Before any of that there was one person she needed to see. Silent as ever she slipped into her little brothers room. A beam of light fell across the bed from the cracked door, but Xiang didn’t wake. Only the top of his head was visible from under the blankets. Lan Fan crouched next to his bed, taking the time to observe her sleeping brother; breaths coming slow and deep, long eyelashes fluttering from dreams. She hated to wake him. He looked so peaceful. Being gentle she swept his messy hair from his eyes. Lan Fan pulled her hand away as he stirred.

“Wake up little brother.”

Xiang squeezed his eyes tightly shut and mumbled a protest. He’d never been much of a morning person.

“Xiang,” she said a bit louder and his eyes blinked open.

“Lan Fan?” Xiang rubbed his eyes and then snapped them open in realization. “You’re home.”

“I can’t stay. I’m sorry for the other day. You were right.”

“About what?”

“We’re the same blood.” Lan Fan clasped his hand and looked intently into his eyes. “You were looking out for me. I won’t forget that.”

The near suffocating hug Xiang pulled her into was unexpected, but she returned it all the same.

Chapter Text

Lan Fan stopped at the palace kitchen before her guard shift. The letter to Margot sealed and tucked away in her pocket. She’d decided against sending by post. Shu’s couriers were far more reliable than international mail. It would reach Margot within days not weeks. She wouldn’t have to worry about it falling into the wrong hands or getting lost. She’d been up half the night thinking about the kiss. Refusing to call it their kiss in her mind. But until she figured out a response to Shu’s feelings she intended to avoid him at all costs. Lan Fan didn’t trust him to not make advances.

So it’d have to be Wei. He was as deeply entrenched in secrets as Shu, though less likely to needle her with questions.

Breakfast preparations were well underway for various courtiers. Lan Fan managed to pick Wei out of the shuffle. The young chef was shorter than most of his kitchen staff. He snapped a quick order at one of his assistants while he personally prepared the emperor’s breakfast. Small as he was Wei commanded respect. Careful not to interrupt the flow of work she made her way to his side and tapped him on the shoulder. He cast a glance over his shoulder and his face brightened at the sight of her.  

“Good morning.”

    “I need a favor,” she said keeping her voice low.

    “Walk with me. We’re headed the same way.” Wei lifted the heavily laden tray. One would think Wei was trying to fatten the emperor up if they didn’t know the extent of Ling Yao’s appetite. Though even for Ling it was a lot of food. Probably has a guest this morning. Wei navigated their way through the servants corridors.

    “What’s this favor?” Wei asked with a glance at her.

    “I have a letter to send to Amestris. ”

    “You’re asking me and not Shu because...?” He raised an eyebrow at her. A scowl formed on her face, blush rising to her cheeks.

    “I don’t have time for his nonsense,” she answered vehemently, “Will you take care of it or not?”

    “Of course.” Wei accepted the letter as they rounded the corner to the atrium. He must be taking breakfast with the dowager. It was Xue Yao’s favorite room in all the palace; lush with plants, a pond glittering with golden fish, and a towering ceiling crafted entirely from glass. An inspired architectural feature that refracted light marvelously and equally wondrous during rain showers. Lan Fan tied her mask into place. The porcelain was cool against her skin. The final piece of a costume for a role she knew by heart. Two of her men stood guard in front of the door. They bowed to her as she passed through the door with Wei. Qiyin Gao, her right hand in the guard, stood watch over the emperor. He bowed as Lan Fan dismissed him.

    Instead of Lady Xue (who would’ve been a welcome sight as Lan Fan held her in the highest regard) Ling was in the midst of conversation with Alphonse Elric. Al was dressed in grey trousers and waistcoat with the sleeves of his shirt folded up to his elbows. The collar of his shirt left unbuttoned and he wasn’t wearing a tie. Alphonse Elric was dashing as ever. The sight of Ling Yao stole her breath. He was draped in robes of black, golden yellow, and white with fewer layers than the typical imperial garb. He had his cheek propped against the heel of his hand. Unbound hair brilliant beneath the beaming sun. It spilled over one shoulder with bangs casting a shadow over his face. He leaned back in his chair as Wei approached.

“Your breakfast, majesty,” Wei said as he laid a veritable spread on the table. A sampling of food from both Xing and Amestris. Coffee had already been served and Wei refilled their cups.“Will there be anything else?”

“That will be all,” the emperor replied. Wei tucked the empty tray beneath his arm, bowed, and inclined his head toward Lan Fan as he parted. Lan Fan took a measured breath, holding it as Ling’s eyes shifted over Al’s shoulder to her, and dipped forward into a bow.

“Good morning.” Alphonse turned in his chair with a smile.  

“Commander how nice of you to join us. Would you care for a coffee?” Ling asked

    No sense in protesting he was already pouring her a cup. Not only pouring the coffee but fixing it the way she preferred. Ling held the cup aloft with a serene smile. Lan Fan lowered her mask before stepping closer and accepting the cup. She bowed in gratitude; he was looking right at her when she straightened.

“I’m sure you could use it after your late night. Your disappearing act is almost as good as mine.”

    Lan Fan froze in place. Did he know everything already? Where she’d been? Who she’d been with? Shu was a wealth of information but far from Ling Yao’s only source. The man had kissed her in the middle of a crowded bar where anyone could see.

Breathe .

“The storm hit while I was visiting home. Xiang and I had a fight last time. Alphonse encouraged me to make amends.”

“Ling was just bored and wanted someone to spar with. Don’t worry I put his highness through his paces,” Al commented. The alchemist finished his coffee, made a show of looking at his wristwatch, and rose from his seat. “Look at the time. I should get going before Mei comes searching for me. I'll see you two later.”

“Don't let my sister bully you too much.”

“I’ll manage. Mei’s strict but she's nothing compared to my alchemy teacher,” he replied while putting his jacket on. On his way out he smiled at Lan Fan. “I’m glad you worked things out when Xiang. See you later!”

“Pity he couldn’t stay for breakfast. Wei’s out done himself this morning. Hungry?”

Looking entirely too innocent Ling took a bite of dumpling. Lan Fan looked from Ling to the table. Every dish was one Lan Fan favored. Baozi, congee, oranges, pain au chocolat, strawberries (sliced into the shape of roses), and the coffee. Coffee when she knew Ling preferred tea. Alphonse Elric making a convenient departure.

What conspiracy is this?

This whole thing was highly suspect. Except for the guards in the hall they were alone. Lan Fan glanced at the door before taking the seat left vacant by Al. She sipped her coffee and feasted her eyes on the meal settling on the plate of orange segments and strawberries artfully arranged.

He always brings me oranges.

“Alphonse tells me he has a standing invitation for dinner from your mother,” Ling remarked.  “I’ve never received an dinner invitation. He’ll have to teach me how to charm Lady Suyin.”

“My mother would be honored to have you, my lord.”

“Honored indeed,” he said with amusement. “Speaking of Amestrians we’ll have an envoy from the west in two months time. General Mustang has accepted my invitation for a diplomatic visit. Al has an interesting idea for an exchange program for alchemy and alkahestry students. A high ranking officer endorsing the program would go a long way. There's also the matter of establishing an embassy now that power has returned to parliament in Amestris.”

“What about Edward?”

“Al’s inviting him in an unofficial capacity. He might spark a diplomatic incident if he was involved in discussions. Wouldn't that be fun? He might not be able to perform alchemy but his theoretical knowledge is a valuable asset.”

A diplomatic incident…

“With your leave I’d prefer to double your guard before Mustang and his retinue arrive. An enemy might use this visit as an opportunity to strike.”

“As you wish,” he replied as he ate a strawberry.  

“My automail mechanic is arriving within the next few weeks,” she informed him. I hope. “I may require a few days of leave if she needs to make any extensive adjustments to my arm.”

“Is it troubling you?” the emperor asked in concern.

“Not especially but it hasn’t been serviced properly in five years.”

    “It occurs to me that I know very little of this engineer, considering how much she’s done for our people. How much she done for me through you.” As he gazed upon her automail he propped his head on his hand again. “Tell me about this mysterious artist.”

“Margot Fontaine is a hard one to know. She comes across as cold and indifferent at first. Most of her work is blackmarket so she’s a private person out of necessity. Strong like platinum and just as beautiful. Madeleine brings out her softhearted side.”

“Madeleine?”

“Madeleine Rousseau. Fontaine works out of the cellar of her nightclub. It’s a front but a successful one. She’s a talent. People flood in every night to hear her voice. When Madeleine sings it’s…” Lan Fan searched for the proper word to explain. “Enchanting. She’s enchanting.”

Ling listened attentively as she spoke. Some realization flickered across his face. There and gone so quickly she almost didn't see it.

“These women are important to you.”

Unable to convey how important with merely words Lan Fan settled for a nod of affirmation.

“Then they deserve a royal welcome.”


November 1920

 

    The courtyard glittered with an untouched layer of snow. A cold snap hit in the night, foreshadowing the bitter cold to come till spring. Lan Fan’s footsteps crunched as she made a path to Shu’s workshop. The coat Shu left in her possession was folded neatly over her arm. It was early enough that he might not be there. With luck she’d return it without the hazard of seeing him. During the past three weeks she’d managed to avoid him for the most part. They’d had a handful of clandestine meetings with the emperor that set her nerves on edge. He hadn’t actively sought her out since the night they kissed. Passed along Margot’s response with a servant when it arrived. Lan Fan stepped inside the shop, shutting the door carefully behind her, and turned to see Shu sitting by the fire peeling a red apple. He looked over and Lan Fan froze.

    “I was wondering when you’d turn up.”

    “I brought your coat.”

    “Were you worried I’d be cold?”

    An affection smile graced his mouth. He cut a slice from the apple and ate it off the point of his knife.

    “The weather only reminded me to return it,” she denied. That morning she’d woken shivering. Dramatic revelations aside they’d been friends for years. It hadn’t been easy avoiding him. They worked so closely to keep Ling safe. Just leave it and go. Lan Fan laid it over the back of a chair.

    “Would you like an apple?”

    At his feet was a basket full of bright red apples.

    “Why do you have so many?”

    “Because I like them,” he answered. “There won’t be another harvest this year.”

    They looked delicious. Lan Fan picked an apple from the bunch, polished it on her sleeve, and sat next to him

    “You’re not in uniform today,” he observed.

    “My automail mechanic is arriving today.”

Lan Fan bit into the apple. It was as juicy as it looked. A bit of it dripped down her chin.

“With her friend, right? They’ll be happy to see you,” he said. Shu moved to sit closer to her. “I’m happy to see you. You look very nice.”

“Don’t,” she protested.

“Don’t what?” he teased with a grin.

“You know what.”

“Don’t say you’re beautiful? Don’t tell you I’m always happy to see you?” Shu lifted her chin. Wiped the juice away with his thumb. “Don’t kiss you?”

The apple tumbled from her hand.

“Don’t say I love-” Lan Fan covered his mouth with her hand to silence him. Shu’s eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled behind her hand.

“You’re incorrigible.”

He pulled her hand down to rest over his heart.

“No denying it.”

“I don’t have time for distractions,” she insisted.

“So you find me distracting?”

“Insufferable.”

Lan Fan pulled her hand free heading for the door.

“Then why haven’t you turned me down?”

At the door she stopped. Behind her she hear him strike a match. Smelled the cigarette he lighted. Snow flurries billowed in when she opened the door.

“You asked me not to take you lightly.”

Lan Fan ventured into the snow before Shu could ask why she hadn’t accepted.


“Lan Fan!”

Madeleine dropped her luggage in the middle of the crowded platform. She was as beautiful as Lan Fan remembered. Dressed in a dramatic black coat and tailored red dress; looking as elegant as ever. Lan Fan ran to Madeleine and allowed herself to be swept up in a hug.

“Ma coeur. How I’ve missed you!” Madeleine whispered in her ear. She cupped Lan Fan’s face between her gloved hands. “My fierce beauty.”

“It’s good to see you,” Lan Fan said unable to keep a smile off her face. “Thank you for coming all this way.”

“Tsk. As if we would refuse an invitation from our girl.”

Margot, dressed far more practically for travel, cleared her throat behind them.

“I hope she’d not the only one you’re glad to see,” Margot said wryly. When Lan Fan stepped over to greet her the fiery haired woman pressed a kiss to her cheek.

“Of course not,” Lan Fan smiled again. Judging by the numerous bags Madeleine had packed for every possible occasion. WIth Lan Fan’s help they gathered the suitcases and made their way to the car waiting outside. Margot sat in the front with the driver, while Madeleine took the backseat with Lan Fan. The singer took this as an opportunity to fawn over the bodyguard. Touching her hair, admiring her clothes, gossiping about fascinating things that happened recently in Central. Lan Fan couldn’t get a word in edgewise; she didn’t mind in the slightest.

They were greeted at the palace by several attendants who showed Margot and Madeleine to two lavish adjoining rooms in one of the guest wings. Initially, Lan Fan had intended to have them stay with her family; however, the emperor had insisted on providing accommodations at the palace. A few hours remained until their introduction to and subsequent dinner with the emperor. Margot decided on a nap, while Madeleine insisted Lan Fan join her in the spa like baths of the palace. The two of them sat on her bed afterward. Madeleine combed Lan Fan’s damp hair and began setting it to dry in fingerwaves

“Now I have you all to myself,” Madeleine said in hushed tones. “You must confess all your secrets. Tell me all about your fascinating life.”

“It isn’t as exciting as you think.”

“Lies,” Madeleine teased. She finished setting Lan Fan’s hair then moved to the vanity to fix her own. “I want to hear about this infamous Ling Yao.”

“Xing has come into an age of prosperity and unification under Emperor Yao’s reign. He’s a benevolent leader but shows strength where he needs it. He made alliances with the right clans when he came to power. The connections he made within the Amestrian military have also served well.”

“That’s his politics, ma coeur. The emperor he is your ruler, but the man he is your raison d’etre, non?”

Lan Fan didn’t know how to answer. This was what she’d hoped for when she wrote to them. A chance to confide in Madeleine all the feelings she didn’t dare put in a letter. The words caught in her throat.

“Yes,” she whispered.

Madeleine glanced at her in the looking glass, and Lan Fan averted her gaze.

“I have something for you,” Madeleine said. With one perfectly manicured hand she gestured to the garment bag hanging on the door of the wardrobe. “I saw it in a shop and knew it must be yours. Wear it tonight?”

Lan Fan rose from the bed and unzipped the bag. Ran her fingers lightly over the beaded fabric of the dress; there was no way she could wear such a thing in front of the emperor. The garment was entirely unsuitable for her. It was downright scandalous.

And she adored it.


     “Hold still,” Al insisted.

    “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Ling complained. “It feels too tight. Qiyin, this foreigner is clearly trying to strangle me.”

    “Don’t say things like that! He might think you’re serious. I know how to knot a tie. If you don’t like it change back into your flouncy robes.

“Flouncy-!”

The guard covered his laughter with a cough. Qiyin’s sense of humor was one of the things he liked best about the man. It made Lan Fan’s absence slightly more tolerable.

“I don’t see why you wanted to wear a suit anyway,” he interrupted and cinched the knot in Ling’s tie.

“Most of the people at this dinner will be wearing Western attire.”

“Your mother won’t. Neither will Mei or Lan Fan.”

“Be that as it may it’s a welcome change from stuffy court functions. I intend to enjoy this evening without the pomp and circumstance.”

Al snorted his disbelief.

“With slightly less pomp and circumstance.”

Ling stepped around Al to give himself a final once over in the mirror. The suit was black with touches of Xingese aesthetic in the collar and buttons. Some of his tailor’s finest work. He’d decided on a ponytail instead of a top knot. Ling could almost hear Greed’s approval. ‘ Lookin’ sharp kid! Go knock ‘em dead!’ More than half a year he’d shared his body with the homunculus. Sometimes he missed the man. It was a foolish thing to wish Greed was still with him, but he’d been a friend there at the end.

“What do you think?” Ling asked of the other two men in the room.

“You look very distinguished, your highness,” Qiyin approved.

“It’s a good look on you,” Al agreed.

“Well then shall we?”

Chapter Text

“Margot, come have a look!”

Madeleine placed her hands on Lan Fan’s shoulders and turned her toward the mirror. She’d beguiled Lan Fan into wearing makeup. Lan Fan didn’t own any herself since Fu had always discouraged vain indulgences; however, Madeleine came prepared. Her assortment of brushes and palettes put Lady Zhang’s collection to shame. Looking at the result of Madeleine’s efforts the bodyguard barely recognized her own reflection. The door to the adjoining room slid open. Margot leaned against the frame. She had an unlit cigarette between her lips and a lighter in hand.

“My love if you dare light that…” Madeleine warned in a deceptively sweet tone.

Margot clicked her tongue in annoyance and set the offending items on the dresser.

“What do you think?” asked Madeleine. Around Lan Fan’s neck she fastened a double strand of golden hued pearls.   

“She’s enchanting,” Margot answered. Ordinarily, Lan Fan would protest such flattery. Never in all her life had she thought herself beautiful, and yet, Madeleine had cast a glamour upon her. This couldn’t possibly the work of makeup alone. Even with her automail Madeleine made her resemble a model from one of those fashion catalogues. She didn’t know what to say. Lan Fan met her eyes in the mirror.

“Let’s not keep your emperor waiting, Lan Fan.”


 She’s late.

Ling didn’t ask Al for the time but he knew his unfailingly punctual bodyguard was definitely late. He pretended to listen to Alphonse and Mei’s discussion of theoretical alkahestry concepts. Of course, he couldn’t care less about because Lan Fan was late . Rather than ask the time he tried to discreetly glance at Al’s watch. Light glinted off the face effectively obscuring the time. Next to him his ever patient mother gave him a serene smile. Lady Xue was clearly amused by her son’s agitation, though she did him the courtesy of concealing it behind a silk fan.

Just then the doors to the reception room opened. Ling leaned forward slightly in his seat. The two strangers who stepped through the door were both striking; however, the emperor only had eyes for the apprehensive Xingese woman in their wake. She wore champagne colored gloves with a sleeveless dress of seafoam green silk. It glittered with intricate beading, catching the light with even the most subtle of movements. It showed far more of Lan Fan’s legs than Ling had ever seen. Legs accentuated by a pair of gold heels.

Lan Fan was a vision of splendor. He’d never seen her wear a stitch of makeup, but now she shined with a luster. His eyes were drawn to her mouth. Lips painted a dewy peach. If I kissed her would she taste as sweet? He wondered. Her blush was in full bloom. When she bowed he saw the pale expanse of her neck and upper back.

“I hope we’re not terribly late,” said the blonde as she rose from her own bow. Ling vaguely noticed she wore her hair in the same style as Lan Fan.

“Fashionably I assure you,” Xue answered with a disarming smile, and thank the gods that she did. Ling hadn’t found his voice. “Please join us.”

Madeleine sat next to her with Margot to the left. Lady Xue commenced with the introductions. Lan Fan still stood, her eyes locking on Ling. Social graces be damned he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

“Please forgive this one for keeping you waiting, Your Majesty.”

“No need for apologies, Lan Fan. You’re not the last to arrive,” Ling replied as lightly as he could. She was striking in her uniform and armor, lovely in the modest, traditional clothes she wore off duty, captivating even covered in dirt and sweat after a long training session. But now he thought he might go mad for want of this woman. By design or circumstance she was always just out of reach.

You may have wanted women, Greed, but my trouble is I only want one.

“We aren’t?” Lan Fan asked in confusion. Her gaze fell upon the two remaining empty seats. “Who-”

“Only boring parties start on time, Imperial Highness ,” Shu said from the doorway. The man wore his usual devil-may-care grin and a dark grey suit. Shu was a last minute addition to the guest list. Someone to liven things up. Another familiar face to put the ever formal Lan Fan at ease. Only, when Shu walked into the room, she was taut as a bowstring. He noticed it in the way she held herself. In the discord of her qi.

“Commander Liu, you grow more lovely each time I see you.” Shu did a circuit around her.  “Who do I have to thank for putting you in that dress?”

“It’s the latest fashion from Central. It’s magnificent on her, no?” Madeleine said.

“The word hardly does her justice. Wouldn’t you say, Emperor?” He winked at Ling as he pulled out a chair for her.

“I couldn’t agree more.”

Tonight. It has to be tonight.  

Dinner commenced with a well received first course. Conversation came easily for everyone but Lan Fan. Each dish placed in front of her was hardly touched. The emperor noticed Shu’s gaze kept returning to her even as he chatted up the Amestrians. Shu was a known flirt. It could be nothing. He hoped it was nothing, but the way Lan Fan became flustered was worrisome. Shu leaned close to whisper something in her ear. A blush amplified the rouge on her cheeks and she hissed back a reply. Ling narrowed his eyes as Shu tossed her a sly look. She reached for the glass in front of her, inadvertently knocking it over. Currant colored wine spilled across the table.        

“I’ve got it.” Alphonse clapped his hands, transmuting the wine from the tablecloth. A servant stepped forward to refill Lan Fan’s glass. She muttered an apology and cut a glare at Shu.

“That’s some party trick,” remarked Margot. “So you’re the Alphonse Elric. Your sister-in-law has made quite a name for herself.”

“You’ve heard of Winry?” Al beamed proudly.

“I spent my fair share of time in Rush Valley. The Rockbell name has been associated with quality prosthetics since Pinako. A bit on the practical side for my tastes.”

“Lan Fan’s arm is a work of art. I know Winry admires it. I’m sure she’d love to discuss the craft with you if you ever pass through Rush Valley.”  

“There’s a meteor shower tonight,” Mei piped up over dessert. The Chang princess turned starry eyes on Alphonse. “Wouldn’t it be romantic to watch the stars fall from the heavens?”

Alphonse colored slightly as he cleared his throat. “That would be something. Though it’s a bit cold out.”

“Princess Mei that is a splendid idea,” Madeleine agreed. “Don’t you think, Your Majesty?”

“It’s the perfect night for it, but Alphonse is right about the weather. Why don’t we all fetch our coats? We can reconvene in the garden.”


“Do you think Lan Fan and that man…?” Mei whispered. They were the first two to arrive at the garden. Snow still lingered on the ground. Overhead the night sky was clear, the moon full and bright. In a secluded alcove of the garden the two of them found a bench. Al drew Mei close for warmth.

“For Ling’s sake I hope not.”

The princess laid her head over the alchemist’s heart. It was a comforting rhythm. Proof that Alphonse was here. That he’d never be trapped as a hollow suit of armor again.

“Maybe it’s for the best.”

“How can you say that?” Al frowned at her.

“Because marriage is politics,”

“Marriage should be about love.”

“You’re being naive.”

“Oh really? Are you going to have a political marriage then?”

“That’s different!” Mei protested.

“I disagree!”

The two of them moved to either end of the bench, each crossing their arms in a huff. Without the shared warmth they both shivered. Mei looked at him out of the corner of her eye. The last thing she wanted to do was fight with Alphonse. But she wasn’t wrong and if she apologized Al would think he was right . Not that she wanted him to be wrong. The opposite in fact. But if he would just stop being so stubborn!

“Why are we fighting about hypotheticals?” she asked.

“I don’t know…”

“Then can we stop?” Mei held out her mitten covered hand to him. Al took it and scooted closer.

“Look.” The alchemist pointed at the sky as several stars shot across it. He put his arm around Mei again. “Make a wish.” 


 “If you want to get me alone all you have to do is ask,” Shu jested. They stood together by the servants entrance to the garden. In her haste to intercept him Lan Fan hadn’t bothered to change save for throwing on her coat and gloves.  

 “What were you thinking?” Her voice trembled with fury.

 “When I saw you in that dress?” He stepped closer to button her coat.   

“Showing up at dinner. Stop that!” She smacked his hands away to fasten the buttons herself.

“I was invited.”

“Flirting!”

“I flirt with everyone,” he countered. Throughout dinner he’d taken every opportunity to unsettle her. Even now he was still teasing her; she was fit to strangle him.

“Not everyone! You flirted with me in front of the emperor !”

“Why shouldn’t I?” He kept his tone even but his eyes were hard. “He doesn’t have any claim to you.”

“He has every claim to me!”

“Ling takes you for granted! He doesn’t own you. If you don’t want me then say the word. That will be the end of it. But don’t use your oath of fealty as an excuse. If you love him-”

“Don’t speak to me of love,” she whispered harshly. If someone overheard them it would be a disaster. “You know nothing.”

“Have you forgotten who I am?” A cloud passed over the moon, casting a shadow over his face. She couldn’t see his expression, but he sounded angry. As he advanced on her she gave ground. Her back met the cold stone of the garden wall. Shu pressed his gloved hand to it above her head. Instead of cigarettes he smelled of soap and woodsmoke. Though he refrained from touching her he leaned in close. His words were a whisper. “I know more than you could possibly imagine.”


 

In his search for Lan Fan Ling found Margot instead. She stood alone beneath a large, ancient oak tree in the middle of the garden. The bottle green coat she’d bundled up in complimented her fiery hair. The oak was Lan Fan’s favorite feature of the garden. It still bore a canopy of red leaves dusted in fine snow. She was in midst of smoking a cigarette as if it were her last. When Margot caught sight of him she gave him a wry smile.

“Forgive me. I haven't had one all evening. Maddy will have my head if she finds out I've been crass in front of you,” she said, putting out the cigarette on the bottom of her shoe. The remainder she stuck back in her cigarette case. They were alone for the moment. Qiyin was out of sight. Close enough to intercept a threat; far enough for a semblance of privacy.

“Your secret is safe with me,” he replied. “Have another if you like.”  She cocked an eyebrow at him in askance. He affected one of his practiced smiles. The kind he used to hide his intentions and set others at ease. Margot proceeded to light a fresh cigarette. Taking a drag she fixed him with a contemplative stare. Smoke made blue by the moonlight curled around her. The automail engineer wasn’t what he’d expected. Margot Fontaine had a grace about her. The sort who saw much and said little judging by her sparse dinner conversation. He wondered what she saw when she looked at him.

“It seems I’m indebted to you, Ms. Fontaine.”

“Is that so?”

“You restored my bodyguard. Without her things would’ve unfolded quite differently. She’s invaluable to me.”

“The way I hear it you wouldn’t leave Lan Fan behind. That she cut off her arm to save you both,” she said.

Ling recalled Dr. Knox banishing him from the room while he debrided Lan Fan’s shoulder. The sound of her muffled screams. Dr. Knox’s rough voice as he shouted at Lieutenant Hawkeye to hold her down. She hadn’t asked for him then, and he doubted she’d want him there when Margot reconnected her automail. He knew better than to think she blamed him for the loss of her arm. It was that Lan Fan would rather suffer alone than cause him anguish.

“She’s possesses a remarkable will. It’s far from the first time she risked her life to save mine. Abandoning my loyal servant was out of the question.”

Taking another drag Margot stepped closer to Ling. With her impressively high heels she was nearly at eye level with him. This close he could see the fine lines around her eyes and mouth, could smell her perfume and the faint scent of her shampoo mixed with tobacco smoke.

“Remarkable is a fitting word for her,” Margot stated. They heard the crunch of footsteps at the same moment. Margot hastily dropped her cigarette, stamped it out, and scrapped it into the snowy underbrush. Pivoting toward the newcomer Ling spotted Madeleine wearing a cloche hat and long coat.

“There you are,” Madeleine said, taking Margot’s arm. “I hope you aren’t boring the emperor with more shop talk.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” she answered.

“You know, automail doesn’t have much presence here. The desert has kept Xing isolated from Western influence for far too long. Seeing as how my most skilled bodyguard is outfitted with an automail arm extensive repairs are something of an inconvenience. Perhaps we should set aside some time to discuss the industry?” Ling suggested.

“I have no objections.”

“Splendid!” Ling turned his attention to Madeleine. “Speaking of Lan Fan do you know where she is?”

    A brief glance passed between the two women Ling couldn’t quite decipher.

“I’m sure I couldn’t say,” Madeleine answered. “This palace of yours is vast.”

"Of course,” Ling acknowledged. Still, her room wasn’t far enough away that retrieving her coat should take so long. The emperor wondered if this might be divine justice for all the times he’d disappeared on Lan Fan. He took a deep breath and tapped into the dragon’s pulse. As children they’d practiced the technique with games of hide and seek. It didn’t take long to seek her out. Lan Fan was close by and she wasn’t alone. He sensed Shu’s familiar qi alongside hers. It set his teeth on edge.

“Please excuse me,” Ling spat out. Without explanation he departed the company of his guests. Qiyin emerged from the shadows to fall in step behind him. The guardsman seemed to sense the abrupt change in his master’s disposition, though he was wise enough to keep silent. Shu had been all too familiar with Lan Fan over dinner. By the very nature of their work his advisor and bodyguard shared an intimacy. Until tonight he’d never imagined it might be something more. Ling discovered them by the gate. He could perhaps blame some of the avarice that followed on Greed.

But the wrath was all his own.

Chapter Text

    “I know more than you could possibly imagine,” Shu whispered. The implications set her heart racing nearly as much as his propinquity. He pulled back enough to look at her. “I hold as much power over you as him . Do you know the difference between us?”

Thoughts whirling she found herself unable to summon a response. How many more of her secrets did he have up his sleeve like an ace? What would he do with them if provoked? The wind picked up and made a hollow sound; moonlight broke through the clouds. She could see his face once more. Anger smoldered in his eyes.

“I’ve never chosen to wield it.”

Shu raised his hand to touch her cheek. His fingertips barely made contact before Ling Yao seized his wrist in a merciless hold. The two of them were so embroiled in their vehement discourse neither had seen nor sensed his approach. How much of our conversation did he hear? What more does he suspect? Malice flashed across Ling’s face. He threw Shu up against the wall, holding him there with his arm across his throat. He cut a sharp look at Lan Fan and she couldn’t breathe. Dismay washed over her like waves breaking upon a shore. Ling directed his gaze back to the man he held pinned.

“Something you need, my liege? I was just having a word with the commander.” The constriction of Shu’s airway gave his voice a breathy quality. A wolfish smile played across his mouth. Either he didn’t realize the severity of Ling’s present disposition, or worse, he didn’t care.

“My lord-” Lan Fan found her voice only to be immediately cut off.

“I do believe you’ve been making advances on Lan Fan all evening. Unwanted advances by the look of it,” Ling seethed.

“We both know that if I’d done anything untoward she’d already have cut my throat.” Raising a brow in amusement Shu let out a dry laugh. “Do you mind? You’re wrinkling my shirt.”

“How long has this been going on?” Ling demanded.

“If you were any other man I’d tell you it’s none of your fucking business,” Shu responded. “But seeing as how you’re emperor it’s none of your damn business, Imperial Majesty.”

Ling Yao threw him and it was no small pleasure to him when Shu landed face down in the snow. Wiping slush from his eyes Shu got back on his feet only to be abruptly punched in the mouth. He careened from the blow, blood spattering from his split lip. Shu straightened, no longer affecting an air of amusement. Anticipating a fight Lan Fan stepped forward to intervene.

“Do not speak to the emperor with such disrespect,” she warned. Shu seemed undaunted by her words. Adrenaline coursed through Lan Fan like poison. In her peripheral vision she saw Qiyin emerge out of the shadows, his hand already resting on the hilt of his sword. She’d chosen her second in command well. She had to stave off further confrontation at any cost. If Shu assaulted the emperor he’d end up maimed or dead.

“Did you think she belonged to you?” Shu’s tongue darted out to lick the blood from his lip. “That if you kept her in the shadows no one else would see her? No one else would want her?”

“That’s enough!” Lan Fan insisted with a wavering voice she hardly recognized as her own. They finally looked at her and she felt she might shatter. Silence descended over them as the wind died down. Ling’s face was a mask of anger and hurt. Meanwhile, Shu looked more bitter than she’d ever seen him. Unable to bare looking at them a moment more she bowed. If Qiyin was merciful he would strike her head clean off. She deserved nothing less for the anguish she’d caused with her omissions and indecision. “Please, I do not wish to be a point of contention between you.”

“I’m afraid on this matter we are firmly at odds,” said Ling. “Get out of my sight.”

Lan Fan felt her heart seize in panic and she jerked her head up. However, it was not her but Shu the emperor addressed. Shu glanced at Lan Fan once more, giving her a look that spoke volumes, before taking his leave of them. An eternity passed it seemed before Ling looked at her. He seemed to be struggling to hold his temper in check.

“When did you start keeping things from me?” he ask in a low voice. When she’d arrived at dinner he’d looked like she was something wondrous and beautiful. She wished she could go back and preserve the moment. Encase it like a blossom in resin. Now he regarded her with discontent. She felt like something wretched. Lan Fan lowered her eyes to the ground, wishing for her mask, certain her shame was written all over her face.

“I didn’t want to burden you with my troubles. You have far greater concerns,” she answered. Lan Fan hadn’t had the courage to tell him about her parentage nor Shu’s fledgeling courtship. Even now she still didn’t know how she felt about it all. All her life she’d walked the same path. Now it branched before her and she didn’t know the way.

“After everything we’ve been through how can you possibly believe your troubles are beneath me?” He’d never been so infuriated with her. Stepping closer he took Lan Fan by the shoulders and shook her. “Look at me!”

Lan Fan raised her head.

“What’s he holding over you?”

Lan Fan parted her lips to answer then glanced at Qiyin. While she trusted her fellow guard to keep silent about anything he heard in the emperor’s company she’d never chosen to divulge her own personal matters. Ling caught on to her hesitation.

“In private then,” he relented, dismissing Qiyin with a wave of his hand. Trusting the emperor’s safety to Lan Fan, Qiyin bowed and set about patrolling the garden out of earshot. Ling noticed her shivering and scowled.

“You’ll catch your death in this weather.”

The sheer stockings she wore did nothing to warm her legs. Without a hat or scarf her nose and ears were already numb and her shoulder ached ceasely from the cold. Her lack of consideration for the weather seemed to worsen his mood if possible. There was no end to his displeasure. Expecting her to follow he departed the garden for the warmth of the indoors. Once they were shut inside his study Ling took his coat off and threw it fitfully to the floor. Lan Fan considered leaving her own on. By now she was entirely self conscience about her attire. But the wool was sweltering. She removed her coat and carefully to lay it over the arm of a chair.

“Well?” Ling snapped. Not sure where to begin she lowered her eyes to her feet. The gold heels Madeleine had loaned her were damp from traipsing through the snow. She thought of the day they went through the ice. How cold she’d been with her boots soaked through, desperately trying to stay awake before a dying fire.

“Do you remember when my mother came to the Yao Estate? After the incident at the lake?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Do you remember?”

“How could I forgot? Your mother has loathed me ever since,” he scoffed. Lan Fan let the remark slide. It was no good arguing on Suyin’s behalf at the moment. It was beside the point.

“She came to take me away to the capital to live with her and my stepfather. I was supposed to be adopted into the Zhang clan. You said yourself a Zhang could never… If I’d gone with my mother I would’ve lost any chance to serve the Yao clan. I chose to stay with my grandfather and become your guard.” Ling, his arms crossed over his chest, listened with an intense expression. When he didn’t speak she continued. “A few weeks ago my brother and I were arguing. He was upset and let it slip that my stepfather adopted me with Fu’s consent.”

Whatever Ling had expected her to tell him it clearly hadn’t been that. A look of befuddled surprise replaced the anger on his face. He opened his mouth to speak then closed it again. The corners of his mouth pulled down into a frown.

“That doesn’t make sense. Why would Fu allow such a thing?”

Lan Fan’s mouth went dry. If Liwei and Suyin had guessed her feelings for the prince Fu must have known. She licked her lips in a nervous gesture.

“Liwei wished to see me taken care of in the event of his passing. He did the convincing. Before we left Xing grandfather signed the papers. Whatever the reason he didn’t want me to know.”

“But Shu knew about this?”

Lan Fan nodded.

“He’s known for years and never told anyone. Not even me. I was the one to approach him.”

“Why would he keep that a secret for so long?”

“Out of loyalty.”

“He’s loyal to one of us at least. You used to confide in me. Now you push me away and you turn to him. Behind my back the two of you-!”

The emperor cut himself off looking away with a grimace.

“My lord, please, you misunderstand. Shu and I-” she tried to explain to no avail.

“Did I have it wrong this whole time? Are you only by my side because of a childhood promise? Shall I release you from it?” Ling threatened. If his aim was to hurt her he succeeded. Lan Fan’s composure fractured at his words. She blinked rapidly, trying to hold back tears. One trailed down her cheek and she hastily brushed it away. The fingers of her glove came away stained with makeup. Desperate not to be banished from Ling’s service Lan Fan prostrated herself before him. The beading on her dress clinked softly as she pressed hands and forehead flush against the mat.

“No, your highness. Please I beg you to reconsider.”

“Believe me I have much to consider, Lady Zhang .”

Lan Fan was left all alone as he swept from the room without a backward glance.

 


 

    “Are you going to tell me what happened last night?” asked Margot. They’d arrived at her family’s household before daybreak. For the sake of discretion it was decided that Lan Fan’s maintenance would take place at home. Her mother welcomed them with a warm smile and offers of breakfast. The automail mechanic chose to subsist on coffee while Madeleine joined Suyin in the kitchen. Lan Fan didn’t have the stomach for any of it. She said nothing as Margot uncoupled her automail. These days she hardly noticed the weight of it but it’s absence was an odd sensation.

Margot tilted Lan Fan’s chin up to get a good look at her. She frowned at her visage. Heaving a sigh she moved over to the makeshift workbench.

“You look like hell.” Margot was never one to mince words. “If you’re not going to talk then get some sleep.”

Lan Fan laid down on her bed facing the wall. The night before she hadn’t slept a wink. She didn’t think she’d sleep now, but didn’t have it in her to argue. At least Margot would allow her to be heartsick in silence. She placed her hand over the empty socket of her port and curled into a tight ball. Before long the comforting sound of Margot at work lulled her into sleep.

 


 

    Ling cancelled all of his appointments for the day. While he could avoid his advisors as emperor he still had matters that required his attention. After the confrontation of the night before he wasn’t eager to revisit his study. Instead, he secluded himself in his private rooms with enough work to keep him distracted. He sent his breakfast and lunch back to the kitchens untouched. That afternoon Wei brought the emperor’s tea himself along with rice and a plate of jiaozi. He set the food unceremoniously on top of Ling’s paperwork.

    “You’ll faint if you don’t eat something,” Wei said. Ling gave him a withering look. Wei ignored it as he poured the tea. After a moment Ling picked up his chopsticks and began to eat.

    “Are you all right?” Ling paused with his bowl of rice in one hand and chopsticks in the other. Steam rose from the sticky substance. Across the table Wei looked concerned. “Whatever is troubling you-”

    Ling set the bowl down with a clatter and saw Wei flinch in response.  

“Keep your own counsel,” he told him in no uncertain terms. The last thing he wanted was to discuss his troubles, especially not with one of Shu’s cohorts. Never mind the fact Wei was just as much his friend as Shu’s. Ling made a show of pushing aside the meal Wei brought and resumed his work. At Ling’s dismissal Wei grew indignant. He held the tea tray over his chest and tapped one finger against the wood.

“As you wish. Will there be anything else?” Wei asked with a curt bow.

“No,” answered Ling.

    Wei departed without another word. He didn’t need to say anything for Ling to sense his disapproval. After he’d gone Ling picked up the tea. A faint aroma of peaches rose from the cup. Wei had taken care to craft a simple yet comforting meal for him. He regretted his callousness, but he was too prideful to do anything about it.

It was the same with Lan Fan.

There was no doubt now about Shu’s feelings for her. That he hadn’t realized it before now was an embarrassment. Whatever their relationship Ling hadn’t wanted to hear it. He’d shouted her down when she was so desperate to explain. Now he didn’t know how to even begin repairing the damage he’d wrought.

Or if he could.

Chapter Text

Three days passed without Lan Fan by Ling’s side. A long day of receiving nobles and their various complaints in the throne room left Ling restless and agitated. His shoulders were stiff and he felt a tension headache coming on. He decided on a bath to ease his discomfort. The emperor was left alone to relax after the two guards attending him did a cursory patrol of his private bathing hall. In the middle of the room was an extravagant pool more suitable for swimming than the act of bathing. Ling sank down into the satisfyingly warm water. The steam rising from the water held the fragrance of eucalyptus and sea salt. He unbound his hair, breathed deep, and sank beneath the surface. Closing his eyes he welcomed the temporary sensory deprivation.  

Where have you been hiding a woman like that?’ Greed had said the night Lan Fan found them in the woods outside Central. The homunculus had been intrigued by the woman Ling insisted on sending a message. That he’d written it in Xingese script was enough to annoy the one who possessed his body. Yet he’d managed to keep Lan Fan all to himself over the many months apart. He tried not to think of her as he’d last seen her; maimed and weak from blood loss. Instead, he envisioned her on the day he met her along the road. Hair disheveled, cheeks rosy from the winter wind, cloaked in autumn red.

Ling sat up against the side of the bath and wiped water from his face. He wanted to cling to that image now, but all he could think of was her subjugating herself on the floor of his study. As brilliant as a prism and in that moment as easily broken.

He stayed in the bath until he began to feel stifled by the humidity. Taking his time he dried off and clothed himself in the clean robes hanging by the door. Ling lingered a few minutes more in the quiet while he combed his hair. To avoid the resurgence of a headache he left his dark mane of hair down.

Resigned to the company of his guard detail Ling slid the door open to the corridor. Leaning against the opposite wall with a bottle of some liquor in one hand was Shu. The cut on his lip was scabbed over. Apparently not grievous enough a wound to see an alkahestris. Or purpose he'd rather not discuss the circumstances behind it.

“Let’s talk.”


 

A wail of pain pierced through the quiet house.

“That a girl,” Margot soothed. “That’s the worst of it.”

Lan Fan was unaccustomed to the agony of reattaching automail. She remembered throwing up the last time. This time was no different. Nausea overwhelmed her and she tasted bile. Madeleine was already there with a basin. After a few moments of retching the sick feeling subsided. She laid her head back on her mother’s lap. Madeleine had tried to dissuade Suyin from being in the room for this part, but she’d insisted on staying with Lan Fan.  

While Margot fixed the bolts in place Suyin ran her fingers through her daughter’s hair. Lan Fan allowed her eyes shut. When she was small her mother often soothed her to sleep like that. Nights when her father was home were another matter. Feng would tuck her into bed and tell her folktales while her mother sewed. She wished she could remember more of him. The door to her room slid open and Xiang stuck his head in.

“Is she okay?”

Lan Fan could hear the worry in his tone.

“’m fine,” she muttered. Over the last three days her little brother had found any excuse to hover about her room. He’d pestered Margot with automail questions until she’s had enough. Madeleine intervened before Margot could physically toss Xiang out. She set about teaching him several card games. They played quietly for hours while Margot worked and Lan Fan slept intermittently.

“Can I see?”

Xiang was at Lan Fan’s bedside before anyone answered. He looked at her arm closely without touching. The basic framework of her automail remained the same. It gleamed with a fresh application of polish. Adjustments were made to accommodate the amount she’d grown since fifteen. Though the arm had continued function more than adequately over the years Margot chose to replace most of the wiring. The electrical work took the most time, but the engineer also took the time to buff out what scratches and nicks she could. The concealed blade only needed a bit of sharpening.

“Leave your sister be,” Liwei called from the doorway. At the sound of his voice Lan Fan opened her eyes. Her stepfather beckoned to him. “Come set the table.”

Xiang sighed in exasperation but obeyed nevertheless.

“I’ll make you some tea,” Suyin said. “Unless you’d prefer I stay?”

Lan Fan shook her head and sat up gingerly. Her mother kissed her temple before heading to the kitchen.  Margot ran Lan Fan through a circuit of movements to test her dexterity and range of motion.

“Very good.”

Standing up Margot stretched her arms over her head and arched her back. She looked tired but satisfied. The room smelled of sweat and machine oil. Madeleine opened the window to let fresh air in and Margot gathered her tools.

“When are you leaving?” Lan Fan asked.

“At the end of the week."

“We’ll stay as long as you need, my love," Madeleine corrected.

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” snapped Margot.

“We can discuss it later.”

Madeleine gave her lover a tight smile.

“There’s nothing to discuss,” Margot replied. Madeleine responded with a diatribe in her native tongue. Having none of it Margot slammed the lid of her toolbox shut. “Don’t shout at me in Cretan!”

“We could be happy here!” Madeleine insisted.

“I thought we were happy. I’ve spent the last nine years trying to make you happy. If you’ve tired of our life together then by all means stay in Xing!”

Despite her upset Madeleine moved closer to cup Margot’s face. A smudge of grease marred the engineer’s cheek. She wiped it away with her thumb and kissed Margot’s frown. Lan Fan diverted her gaze for the sake of their privacy. Displays of affection seemed to come so naturally to other people.

“You know I don’t mean such things.” Madeleine whispered such that Lan Fan barely heard her words. Sitting on the bed Lan Fan remained silent to avoid intruding. “It’s only that our Lan Fan is here. My heart could not beat without you.”

The two of them parted swiftly as footsteps sounded in the hall. Though the matter wasn’t laid to rest it would have to wait.


A fire warmed the small chamber to which they’d retired. The blacksmith crouched before the hearth to stoke the flames. Shadows danced across his features. Ling picked up the liquor Shu brought and read the label. It was a bottle of bourbon whiskey older than either of them. Likely ill-gotten if he knew Shu, which these days he wasn’t sure he did.

“I don’t suppose you paid for this.”

“You did actually.” A faint smile tugged at the corner of Shu’s mouth. “Wei had a case of it imported. He has it on good authority your General Mustang is fond of it.”

“Of course I did.”

Ling cracked open the bottle to pour them each a drink.

“I haven’t been playing fair,” Shu admitted. He stood and accepted the offered glass.

“Have you ever?”

“I don’t suppose either of us have. You’ve gotta admit the deck is stacked in your favor on this one.” Shu clinked his glass against Ling’s and took a swallow of the expensive alcohol. After a moment Ling followed suit.

“I wonder…” Ling muttered into his glass.

“How is she?”

“You don’t know?”

A trace of venom seeped into Ling’s tone.

“Would I ask if I did?” Shu quirked an eyebrow at him. Unwilling to admit he didn’t know Ling took another drink. A silence descended upon the room broken only by the crackle and occasional pop of the fire. Shu finished his drink first. He fetched the bottle to refill his glass. Not asking he topped off Ling’s as well.

“You should’ve told me.”

“Which part?”

Everything!”

Shu gave off a long suffering sigh.

“You don’t get to know everything. If Lan Fan chooses to keep a secret from you it’s not my place to divulge it,” Shu declared.

“And what’s your excuse for keeping secrets from her? She told me you kept the truth about her place in the Zhang clan for years . Out of loyalty she says. I don’t buy it!”   

“Because it was so damn important to her to be your guard! There’s nothing Lan Fan wants more than to stay with you. She didn’t want you to know.”

“You didn’t want me to know!” Ling accused.

“Of course I didn’t. If I had you would’ve made her your empress years ago. Don’t act so surprised. We both fight dirty. Only we’re not on the same side this time.”

“How long?”

“You'll need to be more specific,” Shu said.

“How long have you been in love with her?” Ling asked. He didn't have it in him to ask if she loved him back. If they were lovers already.

“Well…” Shu sat in front of the fire and set the bottle of bourbon between them. He lifted his glass to his lips. “Not as long as you.”


 The palace was quiet when Lan Fan returned. Late enough that her charge might be asleep. If the emperor intended to dismiss her from his service for her transgressions she wanted one last night to be near him. Margot and Madeleine remained at her family’s estate. Perhaps she would go with them back to Amestris if Ling decided her usefulness had run out. It was a thought she didn’t entertain long.

Lan Fan would never leave Xing.

Should the emperor cast her aside in disgrace she’d endure the shame. Even if her name was dragged through the mud she’d remain. There were many people capable of protecting her master. Of the two of them Shu was the indispensable one. Shu would likely allow her to serve as one of his agents. In whatever capacity she could Lan Fan intended to continue serving the emperor.If it had to be from afar then so be it.  

In her room she lit a single candle. She dressed in her uniform and armor. The comb Ling had given her was tucked in a drawer of her vanity. Though Lan Fan no longer thought herself worthy of the gift she chose to wear it. She pinned a section of her hair back with it as before. Once she’d put her mask and cowl she regarded her reflection. Everything was the same but she felt like a shell of herself.

At this hour he was usually either in his private chambers or burning the midnight oil in his study. Instead she located his guard detail outside a receiving room. They were stationed on either side of the door. As Lan Fan approached she heard a commotion. The guard on the left winced from the sound but showed no signs of alarm.

Lan Fan dismissed the pair. They exchanged a glance but didn’t question the orders of their commander. When they’d gone she leaned against the wall with her arms crossed over her chest. Within the room she heard muffled conversation. Half an hour passed and then another. It wasn’t until sound of shattering glass reached her ears that Lan Fan entered.

In the middle of the room Wei gingerly picked up shards of glass. He was dressed in sleeping robes looking altogether irate. The emperor lounged on the floor by the fire. Next to him on the floor a deck of cards was scattered. A tray of delicacies sat close at hand on a low table. Standing near Wei taking a swig straight from the bottle was the last person Lan Fan expected to see.

“Oh calm down,” Shu chastised. “It’s only a glass.”

“It’s crystal!” Wei snapped back. He looked over at Lan Fan and relief washed across his face. “Thank goodness.”  

“Lan Fan!” Ling said her name in delight. He held a crystal tumbler matching the broken one. Her master beckoned her closer. The contents of his glass sloshed on the floor in the process.

“There’s our girl,” drolled Shu. “We’re playing daihinmin. Wei is a being a sore loser.”

“Join us!” Ling chimed in.

“Are they…?” Lan Fan began in disbelief.

“Drunk!” finished Wei.   

“Someone should go get Jin,” Shu added. “He’s missing all the fun!”

“I’m certain Jin would rather stay at home with his wife and baby,” said Wei. “He’s the only one with any sense.” As he picked up another shard he sliced deep into the heel of his hand. He dropped the piece with a hiss of pain. Blood poured down his hand. Wei went pale at the sight of it and looked as if he might faint.

“Hey!” Shu caught his friend before he collapsed face first into the pile of glass. He gave Wei a few light taps on the face to get him to focus. “It’s just a little blood. You’re fine.”

Lan Fan stepped forward to help but Shu waved her off.

“I’ve got him.” Shu stumbled a bit but managed to haul them both to their feet. “Come on. Let’s go see old man Hsu.”

Drops of Wei’s blood pattered to the floor as they swept from the room. Lan Fan crouched down to clean up the mess. She wrapped the broken crystal in her handkerchief. If Wei was still concerned about it in the morning she could ask Alphonse to restore it. The alchemist had a talent for such things. If only everything could be so easily mended.

“You’re here,” Ling said. He seemed to sober in her company. Lan Fan said nothing. She didn’t trust herself to speak. She knew she should be relieved Shu and Ling had managed some sort of reconciliation. In place of relief she felt resentment. A glance about the room revealed nothing suitable to wipe up the blood. She stood and set the cloth bundle on a side table.

“I was afraid you wouldn’t return.”

“This one was not certain she was welcome to return,” she said flatly.

Lan Fan stood at attention but kept her eyes turned down, watched his hands as he gathered the cards into a neat pile. He separated the stack in two and shuffled them with perfect technique. Something he’d picked up from the homunculus. During his six months in hiding with Edward, along with the chimera Heinkel and Darius, they passed much of the time with various card games. Greed had been quite the card shark. Insisting all the while that bluffing was not the same as lying.

“I missed you.”

Words barely audible over the whisper of cards. Being apart from him these past few days was misery. She’d thought him glad to be rid of her. Ling spread the deck in a line. In a fluid motion he flipped them over and back again. His hands stilled and he looked up at her with remorse. “I was arrogant to think you were mine alone. I believed you knew my feelings without ever saying them.”

Her world spun off its axis.

Chapter Text

“Say something?”

Lan Fan’s head swam with the unfathomability of what Ling implied. There was no way he meant what he said. Not when he’d been drinking and damn Shu for getting him drunk! It wasn’t the first time the bastard had done such a thing in the name of camaraderie. She was always left with the mess.

“What would you have me say?”

“Anything you wish,” Ling stated.

“There are no words needed between us,” she insisted. Ling stood and stepped closer to her. Lan Fan fought the urge to flee. If they went any further with this there’d be no more pretending.

 “There are so many needed,” Ling said softly. He lifted his hands to her hood, pausing before he touched her. “May I?” Lan Fan looked up at him then. Eyes like pools of water in the dark of night. It would be so easy to drown in them. Lan Fan didn’t understand why he asked. There was nothing she would deny him. But she nodded all the same. The cloth fell about her shoulders. Ling took care as he removed her mask and placed it on the table.

“I admire you more than anyone. I adore you. How is it you don’t know that?” He lifted a hand to her cheek.

“My lord I’m your guard.” 

“I know that! I know I asked it of you, but I didn’t know what I was asking! We were children. I didn’t know I’d fall in love with you,” Ling confessed.

Her breath hitched.

“Stay with me. Always. Not because I ask you, but because you love me. Do you love me? Or do you love-?”

Lan Fan couldn’t bare to see him so distraught. She reached up to run her fingers through his hair. Watched his eyes drift shut at the touch. How long had she wanted to run her fingers through it? She shouldn’t have dared to touch his eminence without leave. Still, it seemed to help and it was all that truly mattered.  “It's late your majesty. We can speak of this in the morning. When you've slept…”

Lan Fan held onto his arm as she escorted him to his chambers. Though the drink robbed him of his equilibrium she got him to his bed without incident. Ling watched her as she put out several lanterns. The one by the bed she turned down to a soft glow. She did her best to ignore how beautiful he looked lying on his his side, head propped on his perfectly manicured hand. He was compliant enough until she turned to leave.

“Stay?” He asked, catching her hand.

“I will be right outside,” Lan Fan assured him.

“Just until I’m asleep?” The pleading look on his face reminded her so much of when he was a boy she didn’t have the heart to leave him. Acquiescent Lan Fan moved to his bedside. Ling tugged her toward him with a lopsided smile.

“Wait…” Lan Fan glanced toward the locked door. Another guard or servant could discover them. Her reputation would never recover. But it was the middle of the night. With his level of inebriation he’d be asleep before long. No one would be the wiser if she slipped out as soon as he dropped off. Hands trembling she removed her armor and boots. Once she was seated against the lattice headboard he sprawled across the bed in an undignified manner. Ling wrapped his arms around her and laid his head on her lap.

“Just until I’m asleep,” he mumbled this time. Lan Fan’s heart pounded. She didn’t know what to do with her hands, or how precisely to disentangle herself from the emperor once he did fall asleep. Ling relaxed against her with eyes closed. His hair spilled down his back like so much ink. As his breathing evened out she combed her fingers through the strands. He made a small hum of pleasure, and Lan Fan wanted to stay like this forever.

The night wore on and she stayed right where she was. Curled up against her Ling slept deeper than she’d ever seen him. Certain he wouldn’t stir she traced the contours of his face. In the dark she breathed those three words knowing he wouldn’t hear them.


Morning dawned and Ling wished it hadn’t. His head pounded incessantly, throat parched, and quite certain this is how he was going to die. As hangovers went it wasn’t the worst he’d ever had. What made it so bad was that he could recall falling asleep with Lan Fan in his arms and had woken up alone. He pulled a pillow over his head and considered smothering himself with it. It’d save him the embarrassment of facing her again.

Mei would make a good empress.

A knock sounded at the door, reverberating through his skull, and the Emperor of Xing prayed for death. Without his bidding the door swung open. “How are we feeling today?” Wei asked sounding far too chipper. He was clearly attempting regicide through decibels alone. Ling lowered the pillow enough to squint at his friend.

“Have you come to put me out of my misery?” Ling muttered.

“I’m afraid not your highness.” Wei set his tray down louder than necessary. The emperor was pretty sure he deserved it. “You have a diplomatic visit to plan. As requested I’m here to see you’re functional.”

“Requested by whom?” Ling asked, propping himself up against a mountain of pillows. Despite his derisive tone Ling decided Wei was the agent of some benevolent god. He’d brought a large helping of congee with salted duck eggs, a pot of ginseng tea, and a pitcher of water. Ling consumed a glass of water greedily.

“Lan Fan of course. I hope you didn’t give her too much trouble last night. My hand is fine by the way,” Wei said wryly. He exchanged Ling’s empty glass for a cup of tea.

Ling latched onto his first comment. “...You’ve seen her this morning?”

“Just now in the hall.”

“I see,” Ling replied a bit breathlessly. “I’m glad to hear your hand is all right.”

“Drink your tea, emperor,” Wei instructed. There was a hint of affection beneath the exasperation. “If you’ll excuse me yours isn’t the only breakfast I need to see to this morning.”

Ling caught a glimpse of his beloved bodyguard outside the door when Wei passed through it. He resisted the temptation to rush into the hall. If he was going to save any face he needed to compose himself. A drunken confession was definitely not how he’d wanted to express his feelings. Hardly tasting it Ling choked down what he could of his breakfast. As he prepared himself for a long day of insufferable meetings most of the prior evening came back to him: consuming most of a bottle of bourbon with Shu, dragging Wei out of bed to bring them food, Lan Fan’s unexpected return. How much of their idiocy had she heard through the door before she made her presence known?

He scrutinized his reflection longer than he should have. There was nothing to be done about the dark circles under his eyes. Other than that he looked more or less presentable. Ling took a deep breath and opened the door. He half expected her to be gone, but there she was as beautiful as he’d ever seen her. The yin mask was tied to her sash and she wore the comb he’d given her. If he’d told her how he felt when he’d given it to her things might be quite different. Had she wore in the night before? She must’ve but he’d been too busy making a fool of himself to notice.

“You’re here.” Ling’s relief came through in a sigh. “Thank you for staying.”

Lan Fan inclined her head in acknowledgement.  

“I could use some fresh air. Will you walk with me?”

“I’d like that,” Lan Fan replied.

The weather had warmed enough in the last few days that they could walk through the garden comfortably. In the morning light her hair shined like obsidian. They stopped beneath the oak tree. Above them two cardinals hopped among the branches chirping and singing at one another. There was much to say and neither quite knew how to begin. Ling swallowed his pride. What was left of it at any rate.

“I’ve behaved horribly towards you. You’ve put up with far more than you should,” Ling said. He worried the edge of his sleeve between his fingers. “I know I don’t deserve your forgiveness.”

“You had a right to be angry. I’ve kept things from you.” Lan Fan turned her eyes down to the ground.

“I don’t understand why you didn’t tell me. I accepted the other clans. The Zhang prince was one of the first to throw support behind my claim to the throne. Why kept it a secret?”

“I didn’t know what to make of it all. How to reconcile how grandfather raised me and the decision he made. I was angry with him, but he’s not…” A sigh escaped her and she looked heavenward.

“He’s not here anymore,” Ling finished solemnly.

“I went to Shu because he always has his nose in everything.”

“Secrets are his currency,” Ling conceded. “Is there another reason you went to him?”

Lan Fan tensed at his question.

“I knew the two of you were close. I just never thought… It was always the three of us. Shu and me running off to find trouble. You there to make sure we didn’t find too much. Are you…? Do you love him?” Ling asked bracing himself for whatever followed.

“Shu’s affections are misguided.”

“Are they?”

“I have no interest in affairs of the heart,” Lan Fan informed him quietly.

“I see,” Ling replied trying not to let his hurt show through. “Then I was wrong to think you might return my feelings?”

“I cannot act on my feelings. Please don’t ask me to speak of them.”

A flicker of hope ignited in his chest. Ling pressed the issue. “Then you do have feelings for me.”

“I’m unworthy of your affection my lord,” Lan Fan insisted.

“Ah. Haven’t I told you not use that word to describe yourself?” A breeze stirred the fallen leaves around them. Ling tucked his hands into his sleeves and tilted his head. He leaned forward as if to whisper. “Lady Bodyguard, do you love me?”

Lan Fan cheeks were in full bloom. Thoroughly flustered. He reached up to tuck her hair behind her ear. “Because I love you.”

“I…” Lan Fan faltered. “I was born to protect you.”

“Then shall I keep you close?” Ling asked with a touch of humor.

“My lord, I…”

“Ling,” he said and kissed her.

Chapter Text

December 1920

“I’ll be back!” Xiang shouted as he hurried out the door pulling on his jacket. Though the air was freezing he left his hat in his pocket and his scarf loosely draped. By the fence waited Xiang’s most prized possession--a 1918 Cartwright Brothers racing bicycle. The frame was painted a shiny apple red with a parcel rack attached to the back. In addition he’d added a lamplight and a bell to the handlebars. Xiang saw it in one of Lan Fan’s Amestrian catalogues and fell in love instantly.

For almost a year he stashed his allowance in order to buy it himself. Heartbreakingly, Xiang discovered having it imported nearly doubled the price. In the end his father had agreed to cover the difference in part so he didn’t have to keep hearing about it. Then there was the matter of learning to ride it. His mother was convinced he’d break his neck but Xiang was determined eventually getting the hang of it. These days he went everywhere on the bicycle rain or shine.

“Xiang,” Suyin called from the doorway as he wheeled his bicycle to the gate. “Don’t be late for dinner. be careful!”

“Yes, mother.” He smiled at her and was on his way. As usual the streets of the Imperial Capital were bustling. Xiang loved speeding his way through the city. Even if he had nowhere in particular to go he spent hours on his bike. This afternoon he was headed to the post office to drop off a letter for his father. After that he had the rest of the day to himself.

“Coming through!” He announced with a ring of his bell. A merchant who knew him by sight bid him good afternoon. Xiang glanced back with a smile and a wave as he passed.

“Watch out!” Someone in front of him cried out. His head whipped forward. In front of him was a man stepping off the curb. Xiang put on the brakes so hard he went flying over the handlebars.

“Are you trying to get someone killed?!” exclaimed the man in heavily accented Xingese. He huffed his annoyance and hauled Xiang up by his elbow.

“Ow ow ow! I’m sorry, I wasn’t looking,” Xiang hissed in pain. He’d come down hard on one knee which was certain to bruise, but it was his right wrist took the brunt of the fall.  

“No shit!” The stranger dusted Xiang off roughly with one hand. In his other he carried a battered suitcase. “You’re lucky you didn’t crack your head open!”

“I said I was-”

“Lan Fan?” The man seemed to have forgotten he was in the middle of a scolding. His amber eyes were wide with surprise. He looked at Xiang’s face then at his left arm before looking him up and down. “You’re not Lan Fan,” he said in an accusing manner.

Xiang blinked up at him. Equally surprised he looked at this stranger properly for the first time. His long gold spun hair gathered up into a ponytail. Those eyes he’d only ever seen on one other person. The fact that the man knew his sister on a first name basis. Everything clicked into place and his whole face lit up with excitement.

“Lan Fan is my sister! Are you Edward Elric? The Fullmetal Alchemist? I’m Xiang. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Xiang gave a swift bow and held out his hand to shake only to wince in pain. His wrist was already swelling.

“Yeah that’s me.” Edward sighed and put a hand to the back of his neck. “This is just great. Come on let’s get out of the street kid.” The Fullmetal Alchemist, or rather retired Fullmetal Alchemist as Alphonse had mentioned, set the suitcase on the curb in order to right the bicycle. “Home or the palace?”

“Um I'm going to the post office. I have a letter-” Xiang started to pull the letter from his jacket pocket.

“Not where you were going . Where should I take you to get patched up?” said Edward.

“Oh!” Xiang colored a bit feeling embarrassed. Here he was making a complete idiot of himself in front of a real life hero. Home was the obvious choice since it was considerably closer; however, he hardly ever got to go to the palace. Only for special court functions and then he was stuck with his parents the entire time. If he went home he’d be scolded for riding too fast. Again. Going to the palace wouldn’t get him out of a scolding, but Lan Fan would only be annoyed he hadn’t paid better attention to his surroundings. Besides it meant he’d get to see his sister. That was worth a lecture. Xiang tried to not look over eager as he said, “Palace!”


 

“You take that.” Edward gestured at his suitcase. “I’ll push your bike.”

“It would be faster if we rode the bicycle.”

“With that wrist? I don’t think so. You’ll just crash into something or some one else.”

“Do you know how to ride a bicycle?” Xiang asked with innocent curiosity.

“Of course I know how to ride a bike!” Edward insisted. “The physics behind it are kid stuff! Kinetic energy makes it go, the distribution of mass and gyroscopic effects keep you upright, and you brake with friction.”   

Edward Elric hadn’t been on a bicycle in his entire life. Growing up he and Al didn’t have one to learn on. Besides who would’ve taught them? Yet another thing Hohenheim hadn’t stuck around long enough to do. Not that their mother couldn’t have taught them herself. It was only that was the sort of thing fathers typically taught their children wasn’t it? Ed wasn’t sure what kind father he’d be when he and Winry had kids, but he was damn sure going to be around to teach them to ride a bicycle.

The kid had a point. The sooner he got to the palace the sooner he’d see Alphonse. He’d taken an earlier train from East City than General Mustang and his entourage for that purpose. Strictly speaking he was here on a travel visa. Showing up with Amestrian diplomats would undermine his unofficial capacity in this whole affair. Arriving separately had the added benefit of not being stuck on a train with Mustang for three solid days. Edward respected his former commanding officer, even considered him a sort of friend these days, but that didn’t mean the end of their verbal sparring. They would’ve been at one another’s throats before they reached the desert.

“Anyway! It’s just a matter of practical application of theoretical knowledge,” Edward said. Between the two of them they secured Ed’s suitcase to the rack. Xiang sat behind Edward and held onto his shoulder with his good hand. After a false start or two and nearly overbalancing Ed got them moving. Ed grinned in triumph. He’d always been a quick study. “See? I told you. Where to?”

Xiang navigated while Edward peddled and did his best not to run them into anything. It was a bit slow going but Ed admitted to himself it was enjoyable. He was used to traveling everywhere on foot or by train. A bicycle might not be such a bad investment.

“You know it’s not such a bad thing running into each other. I can’t read half the signs around here,” Ed admitted.

“Really? But your Xingese is very good!” Xiang said brightly.

“I can speak it all right. I know a decent amount of simplified Xingese characters but Al’s the one who bothered to learn traditional. So you’re Lan Fan’s little brother huh? Does that mean you’re a bodyguard, too?” asked Ed.

“No, not yet anyway. Lan Fan trains with me sometimes. I want to become her apprentice, but she says she’s too busy guarding the emperor,” he replied sounding despondent.

“That sounds about right.” Edward laughed under his breath. “Ling can be a royal pain in the ass. But that’s what your family does, isn’t it? Protect the Yao clan?”

“Different sides of the family,” Xiang answered.

“Huh? How do you mean?”

“We have the same mother but it was Lan Fan’s father’s family who serve the Yao. He died a long time ago. After that our mother married my father and I was born. Since we came from different clans we weren’t raised together.”

“Oh.” Ed didn’t know what else to say to that. He couldn’t imagine growing up apart from Alphonse. They looked after each other most of their lives. He wondered how Lan Fan’s father died but didn’t ask. Taking Lan Fan and Fu’s dedication to Ling into account he could draw enough conclusions. “You’re together now though, right? Isn’t that the whole point of the unification of Xing?”

“Yes,” Xiang said with warmth. “We’re together now.”

As they neared the palace gates Edward marveled at the sight. Alphonse was always eloquent in his letters but even he couldn’t do the place justice. The palace was a masterpiece of Xingese architecture. It was the epicenter of the Imperial City. Ed was beginning to see why Alphonse loved it here. Traveling abroad, immersing himself in another culture, studying alkahestry with a certain Xingese princess. People liked Alphonse. He made friends everywhere he went and Edward was glad.

Alphonse Elric deserved everything the world had to offer.

 

   

Chapter Text

Alphonse Elric raked his fingers through his bangs as he turned the page in his book. In the past few days the alchemist had nearly taken up residence in the palace library. Al glanced at his watch and sighed at the time. It was already half past three, much later than he’d realized. It was all too easy for him to lose an entire day surrounded by such a wealth of knowledge. He picked up the fountain pen resting in between the pages of his research journal. The sharp point scratched softly across the page as he made a note. Once the ink set he closed the journal and began gathering up his books and various research materials.

The proposal was as polished as it was going to get. In the beginning Alphonse had envisioned an exchange program between Xing and Amestris. A sharing of knowledge and culture to the mutual benefit of both countries. He wrote Edward about this idea and, between the two of them, it evolved into something far more ambitious--an international school dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of alchemy and alkahestry.

The Elric brothers decided to divide and conquer. Alphonse spoke with Ling while Edward took the idea to Roy Mustang. It didn’t take much convincing to garner his support. Mustang was lauded for his role in the restoration of Ishval. Improving diplomatic relations with Xing was in Amestris’s best interest as well as his own. A strong background in foreign policy would give him an edge in his inevitable bid for prime minister. Now that the groundwork was in place the rest was left up to diplomacy.

“Mr. Alphonse?”

“Hm?” Al turned toward the faint voice. It belonged to a young woman with long chestnut hair wearing round spectacles. Though he didn’t know her by name Alphonse recognized her as a servant. He’d greeted her in passing before but had never struck up a conversation. She’d always seemed to turn red and scurry off the second he opened his mouth.

“If you would please follow me your presence has been requested,” she said looking at her feet.

“Requested by whom?” Al asked.

“There’s been an incident.” The woman peeked at him over the top of her glasses. “Mr. Edward Elric has arrived with an injured boy. He’s asked for you or Princess Mei should you be unavailable.”

“Of course. Thank you for coming to find me, Miss…” Al laughed awkwardly and gave her an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I’ve ever caught your name.” The young woman bowed, pushing her glasses back up as she straightened, and he saw the blush across her face.

“My name is Yue-Yan,” she told him.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” said Al. The alchemist held his books against his chest as he bowed in return.

“Yes, um… this way…”

Al followed the shy young woman from the library. There was no telling how much trouble Edward had found in the scarce amount of time he’d been in Xing. He wished Ed had told him he was arriving earlier; Alphonse would’ve met him at the station. Hopefully whomever he’d brought with him to the palace wasn’t too terribly injured. He glanced at his guide, noticing her eyes were a peculiar shade of hazel. Al wondered if perhaps her heritage wasn’t entirely Xingese. In silence she led him to a receiving room in the guest wing.

“Thank you again,” Alphonse said. Though she was still timid Yue-Yan gave him a small smile along with her bow. Sliding the door open he stepped inside. Al was surprised to see Lan Fan’s little brother sitting beside Edward.

“Xiang?”


 

 “Commander Liu!”

    Lan Fan turned and saw Qiyin approaching at a clipped pace. She was surprised to see him. No more than two hours ago she’d relieved him from his watch. Several steps ahead of her the emperor stopped as well. They were currently headed to the dowager’s parlor. Her master had a meeting with his mother and Madeleine. Upon Xue Yao’s invitation the singer had agreed to perform at the gathering being held tomorrow night in honor of the diplomats. Madeleine hadn’t discussed Lady Xue’s request with Margot before accepting. Margot was furious at her for the decision, she’d nearly returned to Amestris without Madeleine. Between the two of them things were icy at best.

Still dressed in his uniform and armor, Qiyin had his sword sheathed at his side, but he’d forgotten his mask. It was easy to forget how strikingly handsome the man was with how often his face was hidden. The strong jaw and dimpled cheeks, the murky grey-blue of his irises; the faint wrinkles on his forehead and crinkling at the corners of his eyes, which only gave him a distinguished appearance. No wonder half the serving girls are infatuated, she thought. Though Qiyin was fourteen years her senior he’d never shown even a hint of disrespect, nor did he tolerate it from anyone else. He gave a cursory bow as he came to a halt. Whatever the matter was it was clearly urgent.

“Guardsman?” Lan Fan questioned, frowning in concern. “Is something the matter?”

“Your brother is here. Xiang sustained several injuries. He’s asking for you,” he informed her. “Alphonse Elric is tending to his wounds. They’re presently in the Snow Flower room.” Qiyin’s eyes darted to their master for a moment. “Should you wish to go to him I can resume my post.”

“Commander Liu will go to him straight away,” Ling answered for her. “If you would please inform the dowager empress we’re delayed.”

Qiyin inclined his head in acknowledgement. Lan Fan followed him with her eyes as he departed. She was certain he knew of Ling’s feelings for her. He’d witnessed the exchange between Shu and Ling in the garden that night, yet he hadn’t said a word to her about the subject. Only welcomed her back when she’d returned from her absence. What does he think of his commander now? Lan Fan banished the thought. Xiang was her immediate concern. If he’d come to the palace seeking her then the situation must be serious. She headed to the guest wing with Ling at her side.


 

As they proceeded to the Snow Flower Room, Ling glanced at Lan Fan out of the corner of his eye. She was worried. Ling saw it in the stiffness of her shoulders, the hurried footsteps, how she hadn’t protested him accompanying her. Ling curled his fingernails into his palm to keep from reaching out to her. Weeks ago he’d given Lan Fan permission to increase his guard detail. He hadn’t given any thought to the inconvenience. When she wasn’t on duty and Qiyin not in her stead he was guarded by no less than three of her best. Only she knew how many others swept the shadows and rooftops. Attempts to dismiss at least one of the additional guards were spectacularly unsuccessful. The royal guard would rather suffer his annoyance than the wrath of their commander.

The emperor was eager to get the diplomatic visit over with already. There wasn’t any time for proper courtship. Not with the demands on both of them. The brief moments alone with Lan Fan were stolen. Preparing for the arrival of the Amestrians required a great deal of his attention. Wei was especially concerned with menu options. In the end Ling ordered him to use his best judgment, regardless of the cost, and to please go away . Later he’d realized his best chef had pestered him on purpose for that particular outcome. Ling couldn’t help but admire the stratagem. Once upon a time he’d used similar tactics to get his way.

These days Ling had to rely on more sophisticated means of manipulation. Fortunately, Xue Yao was a master puppeteer who taught her son everything she knew about pulling people’s strings. Had it not been for the ambition and altruism Xue cultivated in him from a young age he might not have sought the throne with such fervor. The dowager empress held more than an honorary seat on his council. He was rather looking forward to her introduction to the general. Lady Xue’s eloquence was more than match for the Mustang’s charm and wit.

They neared the Snow Flower room. The hallway momentarily was empty. Ling cast a glance behind him to be certain they were alone. He slowed his pace, entwining his fingers with Lan Fan’s. Saying nothing she matched his steps. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye as she removed her mask unbidden. Lan Fan still hadn’t called him by his given name, nor had she returned his words of love, but it was enough for now that she returned his affections. He wouldn’t demand words she wasn’t ready to give.  

“If it was something serious they would’ve sent for Master Hsu,” Ling assured her. Lan Fan looked up at him. He saw her cheeks were rosy and resisted the urge to kiss her. Now was regrettably not the time. Before they reached the door to the Snow Flower room he released her hand, already longing for the next time he could touch her.


 

Xiang tried to remain still as Alphonse examined his throbbing wrist. The extremity was mottled with fresh bruises and swollen. The alchemist gave him an apologetic smile when he winced at the pain.

“The knee is only bruised, but I’m pretty sure his radius is broken,” Alphonse said.

“Can you fix it?” asked Edward, standing nearby with his arms crossed over his chest. The older of the brothers was frowning, though Xiang didn’t know him well enough to determine if it was out of concern or irritation.

“Of course I can fix it, but I’d be more comfortable if someone else took a look to be sure,” Al answered.

Across the room the door opened. Xiang looked over Al’s shoulder, a smile already forming on his face despite the agony of his wrist, and locked eyes not with his sister as anticipated but the Emperor of Xing. Though Lan Fan was commander of the royal guard, guarding him even when he was merely a prince, Xiang hadn’t had so much as a conversation with Ling Yao. Now here the man was in the same room with him. Xiang realized he was openly staring.

The color drained from his face.

Injured knee forgotten Xiang stood hastily, bowing before the emperor.

“What are you doing, idiot? Sit your ass down!” Ed dropped a hand onto his shoulder, but Xiang shrugged it off. Even if Edward could get away with informality he couldn’t no matter who his sister was in relation to the emperor.

“Young Lord Zhang, please sit,” said Emperor Yao. “No need to injure yourself further on our account.”

“Whoa, wait a minute... Lord Zhang?” Ed interjected.

Putting weight on his knee was a bad idea, and as it gave out someone caught him by his shoulders. Xiang lifted his head as he was helped back to his seat. It was Lan Fan. She looked worried. Instantly, he felt guilty for his selfishness. He’d wanted to see her, but hadn’t given a thought to the trouble it might cause.

“What happened?” Lan Fan knelt to take a look at his wrist.

“Bicycle,” he mumbled.

“You’re okay?” she asked softly, looking into his eyes. Xiang nodded. The corners of her mouth twitched up in a faint smile. Lan Fan placed her hand on the top of his head, ruffling his hair a little as she stood.

“He’s got a broken wrist and some bruising, but it’s nothing to get too worried about. If you’d prefer I can get Mei,” Alphonse said.

Lord Zhang?” Ed asked again.

“If you’re confident you can heal the break there’s no point in waiting,” Lan Fan replied, ignoring Edward. Al pressed his lips together and nodded.

“Ah, Edward! We were expecting you tomorrow with the others. To answer your question Lan Fan’s brother is a relation of Prince Junjie of the Zhang clan,” Ling explained. “Therefore deserving of the title of lord.” Xiang observed the Emperor of Xing, half listening to his exchange with Edward Elric. Young or otherwise he wasn’t used to being addressed as Lord Zhang. His father was Lord Zhang. Alphonse chalked out a purification circle on the floor. Lan Fan helped him up and didn’t let go until he was standing steadily in the center of the array.

“Don’t move,” Alphonse warned. Taking a deep breath the alchemist drew five kunai from his pockets, throwing them into the points of the star. Xiang watched in awe as energy crackled within the purification circle. The air around him smelled like a summer day after a sudden rainstorm. He felt a strange, itching sensation in his wrist as the fractured bone fused back together. The pain vanished along with the swelling and bruises. Once the healing was complete the light in the circle diminished.

“Thank you, Alphonse.” Xiang gave him a formal bow. Lifting his head he glanced at the emperor through his bangs. Why is the emperor here? Xiang wondered. Of course, this was the imperial palace, the emperor could go anywhere he pleased. It was only he hadn’t imagined encountering the emperor. Xiang was fascinated. The emperor had the same eyes as the Zhang prince. These days he often went with his father when he had business at the Zhang estate. Prince Junjie was kind to his younger relatives, and children were always welcome at formal gatherings of the clan.

Xiang liked his imperial cousin, but he was glad the Zhang clan hadn’t won the throne. He wasn’t even sure Prince Junjie had sought it. While other potential heirs to the throne were busy seeking the key to immortality, the Zhang prince had remained in the capital. He didn’t like to think about how things might have been if Ling Yao hadn’t become emperor. If not for Emperor Yao’s commitment to Xingese unification he and Lan Fan would’ve become enemies.

Xiang had his heart set on becoming a member of the guard. It was more than a desire to be like his sister. He wished to serve the empire, to protect the man who brought his only sibling back into his life. His mother was set against the idea, and Lan Fan always deflected when he brought it up to her. Xiang was the only son of his family. There were expectations placed on him. He wasn’t sure he could live up to them. Suddenly, he realized his best shot at choosing his own path was standing right in front of him.

“I’m just glad I could help. I hope you’ll forgive my troublesome brother for his part in your accident,” Al said.

“Hey, don’t blame this one on me!” Ed objected. The alchemist knelt to pull his kunai from the floor. Xiang stepped out of the purification circle. With a clap of his hands Alphonse restored the floor to its previous state.

“It was my fault. I wasn’t watching and I was going too fast,” Xiang admitted.

“No harm done,” said the emperor, giving him a wink.

Xiang cut a look at his sister, licking his dry lips nervously. He took a deep breath and threw caution to the wind. Pressing his hands together he stepped forward and bowed to the emperor. “Your majesty,” Xiang began. “I’m honored to be in your presence. It’s my greatest wish to become a member of your guard. If you would but allow me to prove my skills-”

Xiang ,” Lan Fan tried to interrupt.

“I know I can be of service, your highness!” he insisted. For a moment silence descended over the room. He felt everyone looking at him.

“There are many honorable ways to serve the empire,” Ling Yao said. Xiang lifted his head. He didn’t dare look at his sister. He could sense her displeasure at him for going over her head. “In this matter I must defer to Commander Liu.”

“No,” Lan Fan said flatly.

“But-!”

“I said no.”

“Hold on you’re not even going to give him a chance?” Ed came to his defense.

“This is none of your concern,” Lan Fan snapped.

“You should at least let him show what he can do!”

“Please, Lan Fan?” Xiang looked at her hopefully.

“I admit I am curious to see just how much your brother takes after you,” said Ling, his eyes twinkling. Xiang held his breath as he waited for her answer. At last she sighed and looked at him.

“Fine,” Lan Fan relented.

Xiang’s heart soared.

Chapter Text

“I don’t think this is such a good idea,” Al muttered. Dismissive of his brother’s concerns Edward bumped his shoulder against Alphonse’s.

“What’s the harm? Don’t worry so much!” Ed responded.

“I think you’re forgetting your fight with Lan Fan,” Al said drily.

“She’s not going to blow up her little brother!”

Ling, Edward, and Alphonse leaned against the far wall of the training hall as the Zhang siblings prepared for the fight. The room was spacious enough that their conversation didn’t carry. Across the room Xiang was busy wrapping his wrists with sarashi. Meanwhile, Lan Fan removed her armor along with the impressive arsenal of explosives she kept on her. The spectators looked over at the door when it opened. In stepped Qiyin wearing his mask this time. He stood at attention by the door until the emperor beckoned him over.

“Ah! You're just in time for the show,” Ling tucked his hands in his sleeves. The bodyguard bowed before joining them along the wall. “Lady Xue wasn't too put out, I hope?”

“No, your highness. The dowager empress sends her regards to the young lord,” replied Qiyin. “Show?”

“Xiang Zhang wishes to join the guard. A demonstration is in order wouldn't you say?” The emperor quirked an eyebrow at his bodyguard.

“Indeed,” the guard answered.

“So what do you think?” Ed said under his breath to Ling. The emperor hummed in thought glancing at Qiyin sidelong.

“If you were a betting man, Guardsman?” Ling inquired.

“Ten to one in favor of the commander. Three to one the young lord lands the first strike,” Qiyin replied. The three of them looked at him in surprise. The guard smirked and folded his arms. “I'm a betting man.”

“Ten to one, huh?” Ed mused. He grinned with a wicked gleam in his eye. “Five thousand cenz says Xiang takes the cake.”  

“I'll take that wager,” Qiyin agreed.


Lan Fan eyed her little brother as she unfastened the bracer from her right arm. He removed his shirt to wrap his abdomen. Xiang was still lean but beginning to put on muscle. Before long he’d be taller than his big sister. Not so little anymore. The display of insolence he’d shown in front of the emperor was inexcusable. She was well aware of Xiang’s desire to become a member of the royal guard, but she’d thought she could put this off a few years more. Xiang was a naive child who wanted to play hero. The fact he was two years older than Lan Fan when she bound herself to Prince Ling was of no consequence.

The only way Xiang would become a bodyguard was over her dead body. She’d taught her brother to fight in order to defend himself not to follow in her footsteps. Though Edward’s encouragement wasn’t helping matters, Lan Fan blamed herself for the current state of affairs. Perhaps, if she hadn’t indulged his curiosity about her adventures in Amestris, they wouldn’t be in this situation.

What am I going to do?

Xiang wanted to be taken seriously. Lan Fan wondered if he realized she always pulled her punches. If she thoroughly defeated Xiang he’d be humiliated. That was the last thing she wanted to do, but she also knew this had to be a lesson. Lan Fan could draw a blade across an assassin’s throat without hesitation. Her brother was bright and kind and smiled so easily. Xiang’s hands were unstained by blood. She wanted them to stay that way.

Glancing toward their audience Lan Fan saw the emperor watching her. When he caught her eye his lighted up and a smile flickered across his face. The sort of smile Ling always wore when the two of them shared a secret. A blush rose to her cheeks and she ducked her head, cursing herself for becoming so easily flustered. Turning her back to him she unwound the spiked leather strap from her automail hand.


 Ling kept his attention on the siblings as they converged in the middle of the room. Both dressed in black and barefoot. They were an inkblot smudged before it could dry properly. This was the first he’d heard of her brother’s ambition. He wondered why Lan Fan hadn’t mentioned it before. Of course, it wasn’t as if he’d asked after her little brother with anything more than polite interest. They bowed to him then each other in a mirror image Ling found fascinating. He was curious to see how this match turned out. Xiang had something to prove, but Lan Fan had years of experience on him.

Xiang broke his stance first and she allowed him to take the offense. There was a lightness to her steps as she pivoted away from his strike. Ling always admired her agility, but this was something else entirely. Lan Fan moved like an ink brush over parchment. Bold, deliberate, and beautiful. The boy was skilled and fast but he wasn’t focused. Xiang made the mistake of glancing at his audience. Lan Fan landed a back fist strike across his face that sent him careening.

“Eyes on me,” she instructed. “Don’t look at them.” Xiang straightened and nodded. Intensity ignited in his eyes. When he attacked once more it was with determination. Lan Fan deflected most of his blows until he feinted a punch, following up with a kick to her ribs. His triumph was short lived as Lan Fan grabbed his leg, sweeping the other out from under him. “Is this you proving your skills?” Lan Fan said, derisively, as he hit the mat.

She's baiting him, Ling realized, amused by how much she reminded him of Master Fu. Imagining Lan Fan with two little apprentices of her own kindled a warmth in his chest. Children chasing each other through the tall grass. Playing games when they’re meant to be practicing or studying their lessons. Managing all manner of mischief when her back was turned. Driven by his older sister’s taunt Xiang got back on his feet. Ling decided to entertain such thoughts another time.  

“Show her what for, Xiang!” Ed cheered on.

Xiang fell back several steps to assess his opponent. His eyes were sharp. Ling could practically see the gears turning in the boy's head. One moment he was utterly still and the next he was a blur of movement. He drove Lan Fan back across the training floor. Ling saw what Xiang had already discovered for himself. Each time he struck on her left Lan Fan evaded. If he moved fast enough he could land a solid hit. Closing the distance between them Xiang jumped, spinning in the air, and kicked her in the face. Ling heard Alphonse suck in a sharp breath as the blow connected.

Blood pattered to the mat like rain drops.  


I didn’t mean to kick her that hard.

Xiang stared aghast at his sister’s face. Her nose was at the wrong angle. Blood was everywhere, pouring down her mouth and chin, soaking into her shirtfront. Lan Fan wiped her sleeve beneath her nose and sniffled. Breathing through her mouth she leveled her gaze at him. Pink stained teeth flashed at him, more grimace than smile.

“Are you finished?” asked Lan Fan. Xiang hesitated. He backed off several steps, shooting a look at Ling. The emperor’s face was impassive. Xiang couldn’t read him. Alphonse stepped forward to intervene, but Ed dropped a hand on his shoulder to stop him. In the corner of his eye he saw movement. Xiang narrowly avoided the automail fist aimed at his head. Adrenaline burned in his veins. He knew she was holding back, but he hadn’t known how much. It was all he could do to dodge her attacks.

Xiang tumbled out of the way of her kick. He couldn’t lose. Not when it mattered this much. But Lan Fan wasn’t giving him time to strategize. If he couldn’t beat her then it would somehow have to be a draw. Next time she struck he didn’t draw back. Xiang shifted enough to keep from getting clocked in the face. He grabbed Lan Fan’s arm at the elbow, left foot breaking her balance, and swept her to the floor.

What he didn’t count on was Lan Fan using his momentum to flip him to the ground. His teeth lacerated his tongue on impact. Blood flooded his mouth, trickling down the back of his throat. Xiang rolled to his front and forced it back up with a cough. Before Xiang could push to his feet he was grabbed by the hair. Lan Fan wrapped her metal arm around his neck and yanked him to his knees.

“That’s enough!” Alphonse shouted from the sidelines.  

“This is the part where you concede,” Lan Fan informed him.

“No,” he wheezed. “I’m not finished!” Xiang got his feet up under him. Summoning all his strength he threw himself backward.


 Lan Fan landed on her back with the wind knocked out of her. Blood drained down the back of her throat from her sinuses choking her. Xiang’s weight on her diaphragm wasn’t helping matters either. Between keeping her hold on her brother and drawing breath she chose the latter. Xiang was off her the second she slackened her arm. The sound of solitary applause reached her ears. The emperor had apparently decided the show was over.

“Impressive to say the least,” Ling said delicately.

Sitting up Lan Fan cupped her hands around her nose. The swelling and displaced fracture made breathing through it impossible. Lan Fan snapped her nose back in place. Even Qiyin winced at the sickening crack.

“I believe we’ve talked about you setting your own setting your own breaks, Lan Fan. Specifically that you shouldn’t ,” Ling scolded. The pain was nothing compared to her anger. Lan Fan held her tongue lest she say something scathing. If it’d been anyone else she would’ve blocked that kick with her automail. This was exactly why she couldn’t take Xiang on as an apprentice even if she wanted to. Lan Fan would go easy on him, because she couldn’t face her mother if she didn’t. Xiang’s training would suffer for it. That sort of thing could get him killed.

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to!” Xiang was an anxious presence at her side. Al rushed over with a handkerchief drawn from his waistcoat. Having once performed her own field amputation Lan Fan thought all this fuss over a broken nose was more than a little absurd. Lan Fan took the handkerchief from Al to keep him from cleaning her face. She pressed the white cloth beneath her nose. Someone had stitched peony blossoms in the corners. A favor from Princess Mei? Somehow she always seemed to acquire other other people’s handkerchiefs and inevitably ruined them with blood. It reminded her of the one the dowager empress had made her years ago. The same one Lan Fan wrapped around Shu’s wounded hand the day they met.

Don’t start thinking about him.

“Can I see?” asked Alphonse.

“It’s fine,” she muttered. The swelling made her sound as if she had a head cold. Now that her septum was more or less back in the right place the pain was tolerable.

“Lan Fan,” Ling said her name like a warning.

“I know how to splint a nose,” Lan Fan insisted. She knew she shouldn’t be arguing with Ling in front of anyone, but she was annoyed with him.

“But what if it heals crooked?” Xiang asked. It was so much like something their mother would say. Even though it hurt she couldn’t help but laugh a little. Sighing in surrender she lowered the handkerchief now stained by the vibrant red of fresh blood. Al was gentle as he examined her nose.    

“I think it might be better if Mei heals this for you. Healing cartilage properly takes finesse. Besides that wearing your mask is going to hurt if you don’t,” Al said.

“Seriously, if there’s someone around who can fix you up let ‘em. Take it from someone who has done more than enough patch jobs on himself,” Ed chimed in. Qiyin was the only one with enough good sense not to harass her.   

“I will see Princess Mei,” she sighed.

If only so I may hear the end of it.

Lan Fan allowed Alphonse to give her a hand up. She looked down at Xiang. There was blood smeared on his lower lip. Xiang’s face was painted with remorse. He wouldn’t even look at her.

“Hold your head up, Xiang,” Lan Fan commanded. Putting on a brave face he lifted his head. Everyone in the room was utterly silent. Lan Fan held out her hand to him. “You should be proud.”

“Huh?” He stared at her openly surprised.

“You were strategic in your attacks. You exploited the opening in your opponent’s defense. Your attacks are well executed, but you telegraph your moves before you make them.” Lan Fan closed her hand around his wrist, and hauled him to his feet. “Since when did you get so good at jump kicks?”

“I’ve been practicing,” Xiang answered.

“It shows,” Lan Fan said.  

“You’re pretty good kid,” Ed grinned at him.

“Does this mean...?”

“Keep practicing,” Ling intervened. “I’m sure one day you’ll make a fine member of my royal detail.”

Xiang’s eyes lighted up. That brilliant smile of his spread across his face. Meanwhile, dread settled into the pit of Lan Fan’s stomach.

Chapter Text

Ling set a basin of warm water down on the table next to a washcloth. Folding his legs beneath him he sat in front of Lan Fan. Secluded behind the closed doors of his study he lifted her chin up with his fingertips to have a look at her face. Lan Fan kept her eyes turned up to the ceiling during his inspection. There was blood crusted beneath her nostrils. Around her nose and in the hollows of her eyes her fair skin was a distressing shade of red. Hopefully, Mei could do something about the bruising; otherwise, Lan Fan would have two black eyes by tomorrow.

In the middle of the table was an incense burner crafted of jade and bronze. Ling struck a match to the incense within. Juniper scented smoke curled up from the censer. “Do you remember when you gave me a bloody nose?” Ling asked. He submerged the cloth in the water and wringed out the excess. Lifting her chin once more he carefully cleaned the traces of blood from her face.

“You kicked dirt in my eyes,” Lan Fan replied.

“I did have it coming didn’t I?”

Sighing for dramatic effect he rinsed the cloth in the basin. Blood clouded the water transforming it into a roseate solution. He folded the fabric in half twice, wiping the square down her pale throat. Ling was aware of how much she was indulging him. Lan Fan wasn’t in the habit of letting others take care of her when she could do for herself. Maybe she’d have asked Jin to set her nose. The stable master had set his fair share of broken noses over the years. Only one of which Ling himself has caused. After all these years Jin still refused to practice hand to hand combat with him.   

“I never knew your brother was eager to follow in your footsteps.” Ling kept his tone conversational. “I’d say he has the makings of a fine bodyguard.” Lan Fan’s mouth twitched into an infinitesimal frown. If he wasn’t looking for it he would’ve missed the glimmer of emotion. She was playing her cards close to the chest. He rinsed the cloth again and took her hand. There was dried blood beneath her fingernails. Ling noticed as he cleaned her hand she kept her nails neatly filed. Something she’d never bothered with as a girl. They’d always been torn and ragged. The most he’d ever seen her care for them was cleaning beneath them with the tip of a knife.

Each day Ling noticed more about Lan Fan. Little things he’d missed while he was busy taking her for granted. Ling knew the girl and the bodyguard, but Lan Fan the woman was an everlasting enigma. He caught glimpses of her as if behind a veil.  

“I take it you don’t agree?”

“Xiang will never be a bodyguard,” Lan Fan answered. He’d read the trepidation on her, as clearly as words on a page, when Xiang insisted on displaying his fighting technique, but there was a finality to her tone Ling hadn’t anticipated.

“I would’ve thought you’d be proud to have your brother among the guard.”

“It’s not that,” she muttered.

“Then what is it?”

Ling laid the washcloth over the side of the basin. He leaned his elbow on the table, resting his chin on his fist, as he regarded her. Lan Fan had a pensive air about her. Rather than look at him her eyes remained on the smoke rising from the incense. Ling took her hand again and pressed his thumb lightly against the inside of her wrist. The pulse in his thumb was indistinguishable from her own.

“Xiang is beloved in our family. He’s sheltered in a way neither of us ever were. How could we be? There was so much at stake.” Lan Fan brushed a lock of hair out of her face. Saying nothing Ling waited for her to continue. “My mother has already mourned a husband. Though they had their differences I know she grieved for my grandfather and she wept for weeks over my arm. I cannot risk depriving her of her only son.”  

Upon hearing the words he became deathly still. His mouth was dry as the desert. Ling wet his lips before asking the question he’d spent more than a decade avoiding.

“How did your father die?”


Lan Fan took a deep breath. She held it until her lungs burned for want of oxygen. There were plenty of reasons why she’d never spoken of her father with Ling. There was no avoiding the topic now when she was the one to bring him up. Not when his death played so heavily into her desire to protect her mother from any further loss.

Suyin couldn’t survive another broken heart.

“He was stabbed during an assassination attempt,” she explained.

“Who was he protecting?” Ling asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” whispered Lan Fan.  

Realization struck him like a wave after a storm. She saw it wash over his face, leaving sorrow in its wake. “Your father was protecting me, wasn’t he?” Ling released his hold on her wrist. “I always thought your mother despised me for what happened at the lake, but that was only half the reason.”

“The man responsible for Feng Liu’s death is long since scattered to the wind.”

“He was your father .” Ling insisted. “How can you not blame me for his death?”

“My father died with honor. If he’d lived I wouldn’t be here with you. I’d have never trained with grandfather. The brothers I might’ve had would be your guards. My mother would never have married Liwei Zhang, and the brother I have now wouldn’t exist.”

She reached for him this time. Lan Fan was afraid he’d recoil, but he remained motionless as she touched her fingertips to his cheek. He hadn’t kissed her since that morning beneath the oak tree. Despite how she longed for him she hadn’t dared initiate a kiss of her own. Didn’t dare speak his name though it lingered like honey on her tongue. Lan Fan brushed the pad of her thumb over his lips.

“Wishing for a different life for Xiang doesn’t mean I’d choose any other for myself.”

Ling placed his hand over hers.

There was a knock at the door.

The emperor sighed in frustration and the bodyguard retreated to a respectable distance.


Lady Xue sat before her vanity and considered her reflection. Though the hour was late the dowager empress was still dressed in a gown of imperial yellow silk. In her hair she wore ornamental flowers fashioned from gold and freshwater pearls. Xue wasn’t a great beauty by conventional standards, but she knew how to play up her strengths. Picking up a delicate brush she touched up the color of her lips. There were few men at court who didn’t desire a taste of her mouth. The door to her room opened. Xue didn’t have to look to know it was her son standing in the threshold.

“Have you come to amuse me with tales of your day?”

“In a manner of speaking,” answered Ling.

“I take it the young lord is no worse for wear?” she inquired.

“He’s the resilient sort.”

Ling stepped into the room shutting the door behind him. Tilting her head to the side she removed one of her earrings. Xue glanced at him in the mirror. Dressed in trousers and a changshan he reminded her of the young prince he was not so long ago. Xue returned her attention to her reflection before she lost herself in reverie.

The dowager empress took off her other earring and tucked the pair away in a drawer. Her son watched as she removed the adornments from her hair. Taking her hair down was always an arduous task. The tresses tumbled down her back in sections like unspooled ribbon.

“Is there something on your mind?” Xue asked, as she picked up her hairbrush.

While she brushed out the long strands she watched her child in the mirror. Ling crossed the room and settled his hands on her narrow shoulders. He caught her eye in the looking glass. The lantern on the table banished the shadows from his face. Xue saw a desperate desire there. The likes of which she hadn’t seen since before he claimed the throne.

Taking the brush Ling ran it through her hair in smooth strokes. Xue was content to let him. The last time Ling did this he was still a child. As a boy he was fascinated by all the features they shared. They had the same nose and face shape. The same smile when they meant it. Ling had the previous emperor’s eyes, as well as his strong build, but as far as Xue was concerned her son belonged only to her.

There was nothing she wouldn’t do for him.

“Whatever it is all you need do it ask,” Xue said should that truth have escaped him.

The brush passed through her hair once more before being set aside.

At last Ling spoke the words weighing on him.

“I intend to abolish the tradition of the fifty wives,” he said.     

Xue turned in her seat to face him.

“Have I not supported your every endeavor?”

“Would I still have your support if I told you I have intentions toward Lan Fan?” Ling asked. His features were etched with apprehension. Lady Xue folded her hands on her lap and considered his question.

“What do you need from me?”

 

Chapter Text

Sleep evaded Lan Fan late into the night. She had every intention of getting a proper night’s rest for the arduous day ahead, yet even meditation failed to quiet the tempest of thoughts. Lan Fan couldn’t get her earlier conversation with Ling out of her mind. Furthermore, she couldn’t stop thinking about her father. Princess Mei had the worst timing, though Lan Fan supposed she should be grateful. She managed to mend Lan Fan’s nose with only a handful of smug comments.

Sighing in defeat she threw back the tangled bedclothes and got up. If Lan Fan was going to get any sleep this night she had to finish their talk. Before she could change her mind she was dressed and navigating the corridors to the imperial wing. Lan Fan made her way to Ling’s chambers without being seen.

To Lan Fan’s alarm she did not find her second-in-command standing watch outside the large doors. Fearing the worst Lan Fan threw the doors open and rushed inside. Aside from the absence of her liege nothing was amiss. The panic she felt was all too familiar. Although, if Ling had revived his vanishing act Qiyin would’ve sent for her.

Therefore, the emperor was merely elsewhere.

The sudden rush of adrenaline left her feeling ill. Lan Fan covered her eyes with a trembling hand. She was exhausted . There were tears burning in her eyes and her throat constricted. Lan Fan thought she’d put this disgraceful behavior behind her. Somehow she’d let the events of the last several weeks shipwreck her. Lan Fan laughed in a broken manner and wept.

How can I miss someone this much when I barely remember them?

Perhaps the broken heart she needed to protect didn’t belong to her mother after all. Lan Fan was the one who couldn’t suffer another loss. The death of her grandfather was supposed to have tempered her heart. If she drowned in a wellspring of sorrow she couldn’t protect those she loved most.

Lan Fan scrubbed her eyes with her sleeve. If Ling saw her face he would know right away she’d been crying. The decision to return to her room came too late. She heard the sound of a sword being drawn in the hall. Lan Fan turned to see her cautious second-in-command in the doorway. Qiyin started at the sight of her tear streaked face.

“Commander Liu?”

A shadow on the floor was her only warning before the emperor stepped into the room. As his eyes swept over her Lan Fan thought she might die of shame. The guard put away his sword and returned to the hall. Lan Fan caught one last look of concern from her subordinate as he closed the heavy doors behind him. 


Ling was astonished to discover a distraught Lan Fan in his room. He hadn’t seen her this upset since Fu’s death. Hoping she wouldn’t withdraw he approached slowly.

“What’s wrong?” Ling asked.

“I…” Lan Fan’s voice was thin. “I thought-” She took a teeny, gasping breath as she struggled to compose herself. Instead she was overcome by more tears. He was quite unprepared for them. Lan Fan looked as if she might collapse in on herself like a star. In place of gravity she was dragged down by some unknown sorrow.

Ling put an arm around her shoulders and hooked the other beneath her knees. He scooped her up in his arms without trouble; Steel appendage aside she was remarkably light. Across the room he carried her to his bed. Ling sat upon it with Lan Fan cradled in his lap. She laid her head on his shoulder. Several minutes passed before the tears subsided.

“Forgive me,” she begged.

“There’s nothing to forgive.”

“I shouldn’t be here at such an indecent hour,” Lan Fan whispered.

“There is no hour in the day when I do not wish to see you.”

A selfish side of him reveled in the fact Lan Fan was here and not with a certain blacksmith. Shu seemed to have backed off his pursuit if only for now; Ling wasn’t foolish enough to think his friend had given up. ‘ Yeah, well fuck that guy ,’ the homunculus Greed might’ve said. ‘ Who does he think he is moving in on our woman, huh?! ’ It was entirely for the best there was no one else in his head to encourage such pettiness.

“Will you tell me what’s wrong?” Ling intoned.

He ran his fingers through her hair to comfort her, noticing how long the strands had become. Either Lan Fan had decided the western style wasn’t for her, or simply hadn’t had the time to have it trimmed. Ling hoped his initial reaction hadn’t discouraged her embrace of modernity. Speaking of modern women he remembered he hadn’t met with Ms. Fontaine. He needed to amend that before the engineer and her lovely companion returned home.

“There was a time after he died I didn’t speak,” Lan Fan said.

Ling was confused for a moment then recalled the trip through the desert. Of course. This was about Fu. He should have seen this coming. However well-meaning Fu’s reasons were for concealing the truth it didn’t change the fact that he’d hidden it.

“How could I forget?” He twirled a lock of her hair around his finger. “You really scared me with that out there in the sands.”

Lan Fan shook her head slightly.

“No,” she muttered. “Not then.”

Ling frowned in thought but didn’t interrupt.

“When I was little we lived in my mother’s village far from the Yao Estate. Father was often gone for days and weeks at a time. When he was home he told me bedtime stories. The one I loved the most was the tale of the jade rabbit.”

The tale of the jade rabbit was one he knew by heart. Ling found it in a book of folktales when he was fifteen, but the first time he heard it he was only a boy. There were many versions of the tale but they all had one thing in common.

“The jade rabbit is the companion of the moon goddess,” Lan Fan continued. “There on the moon with his mortar and pestle he mixes the elixir of life. Long ago a deadly plague swept the lands from the mountains to the sea. The moon goddess sent the rabbit to earth. He visited each family in turn and cured them of their illness. Then the rabbit returned to the goddess’ side on the moon.”

Lan Fan covered her eyes with her hand.

“He promised to be home in time for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Mother said we’d make mooncakes and stay up late to see the jade rabbit. He died three days before the equinox. While everyone else celebrated the harvest we buried my father.”

The legendary substance had many names: the elixir of life; the red tincture; the philosopher’s stone. Whatever the name it was the tale of the jade rabbit that sent Ling in search of it. Until now Ling had forgotten the man who first told him the story. The man who watched over him and kept him entertained when his mother was too busy to play. He always had a smile when you needed one and he laughed with his whole body.

“I asked mother if we could pray for the jade rabbit to make father better again. She told me there was no such thing as a rabbit on the moon pounding the elixir of life.” Lan Fan laughed but there was no humor in it. “Well... she was right about the rabbit at least.”

Lan Fan lifted her head from his shoulder to look at him.

“Father was much better at telling stories than I am.”

“He made shadow puppets,” Ling remembered.

Surprise spread across her face.

“How did you…?” Lan Fan trailed off.

Ling smiled a little and said, “I liked the one about the magic paintbrush.”

“I thought you didn’t remember him.”

“So did I.” Ling rubbed his jaw as he thought. “He did voices for all the animals, didn’t he?”

“Yes, he did.”

Lan Fan smiled and this time her laugh was genuine. The beauty of it struck him like a hammer to a bell. He wanted to see her smile every day. To make her laugh with her whole body. She looked at him with more fondness than he deserved. If Ling could make her happy maybe someday he’d be worthy of her.

Maybe she would forgive him for his guile.

“I miss him,” she sighed.

Smiling wistfully Ling tucked her bangs behind her ear.

“I know…”

Lan Fan pressed her lips together for a moment. He didn’t dare move as she lifted her hand to his cheek. She brushed her thumb over his lips for the second time today.

Only this time it was followed by a kiss.


“Where did you manage to get strawberries this time of year?” Shu reached for one of the of candied strawberries sprinkled with sesame seeds only to get his hand slapped for the trouble.  

“Those haven’t set yet,” Wei scolded, “and they aren’t for you!”    

“It’s a wonder you haven’t bankrupted the kingdom,” Shu quipped. Leaning back against the counter he watched his oldest friend work. The chef stood on a wooden crate previously used for shipping produce. Malnourishment in his formative years had taken its toll. Wei picked up another bamboo skewer topped with a plump strawberry, dipping it into a saucepan of molten sugar.

“Why are you here anyway?”

“Isn’t the pleasure of your company reason enough?”

“If you’re going to hang around at least make yourself useful,” Wei ordered.

Shu washed his hands and started cutting the stems off strawberries. Wei acted like he didn’t notice when Shu popped one into his mouth. There was no one who tolerated his antics more. Shu suppressed a smile and glanced about the room. The kitchen was busy with preparations for the party that evening. Servants passed in and quickly out again with breakfast for the residents of the palace. There was always greater risk when things were this lively.

He made quick work of the strawberries and set them in a bowl.

“Keep an eye out tonight,” he said.

Wei paused in his task for a moment.

“Have you heard something?” Wei asked in a quiet voice.

“Nothing definitive.”

“Should I pass along a message?”   

“I’ll speak to her myself.”

   

   

Chapter Text

Quiet as a mouse Lan Fan slipped out of Ling’s room early the next morning. The emperor was still asleep in bed. In the hallway Qiyin stood guard before the doors. Lan Fan grasped for something to say to him. “Please be sure you eat something before you return. There’s a long day ahead of you, my lady,” Qiyin spoke softly. The warmth of his tone wrapped around her heart. There weren’t words to convey how much she valued him. Lan Fan wondered what she’d ever done to deserve his consideration.

Before she took her leave of him she gave him a grateful bow. Not until she was halfway back to her room did she realize he’d referred to her as lady. Lan Fan set the thought aside for later. The day ahead would be long indeed and this wasn’t the time for semantics. Taking the long way around she arrived at her room sight unseen. Lan Fan combed her fingers through her sleep tangled hair as she let herself inside. There she discovered an unwelcome guest flipping through a catalogue.

“My, my, some of these advertisements are downright risqué ,” Shu remarked. He turned the catalogue lengthwise and whistled. Lan Fan’s face went hot with anger and embarrassment when she realized he was looking at a lingerie catalogue from a stack of fashion magazines Madeline had given her.

“Give that to me!” Lan Fan hissed and crossed the room to wrench the glossy pages from his hands. “What are you doing here ? ”  

“Waiting for you...”

Those dark eyes of his raked over her form. Shu raised an eyebrow as he took in her rumpled clothing and unruly hair. She felt naked under his scrutiny.

“What do you want?” Lan Fan demanded.

“That’s a dangerous question,” he teased.

“I don’t have time to play games with you!”

“Everything is a game,” Shu scoffed. “Besides, I’m here on business.”

“Business?” Lan Fan blinked.

“Several of my agents have gone to ground. That wouldn’t concern me so much if another hadn’t turned up dead in the sewers.”

“Is there a connection?”

He looked away with a grimace.

“If there is I haven’t found it yet.”

“You’ll find it,” Lan Fan said. “Whatever it is…”

“...we’ll deal with it together,” Shu finished. “I know.”

Lan Fan nodded.

They were silent for a moment.

“I miss you,” Shu confessed.

“Shu…”  

“I know, I know.” He chuckled. “But you should know…” Shu tucked his hands into his pockets, took a step closer, and looked into her eyes. “I’m not going anywhere, Lan Fan. I’ll be right here when you need me.” Shu’s face was as gentle as the hand he used to sweep her bangs from her eyes. “Will you promise not to forget that?”

Lan Fan was overwhelmed by his heartfelt words.

“I promise.”

Shu leaned down and kissed her on the cheek.

“That’s my girl,” he whispered.

Lan Fan shut her eyes and didn’t open them again until she heard the door snick shut behind him.


Captain Hawkeye entered the first class compartment currently in use as a briefing room. The winter wind flowing through the open window kept them from sweltering in the cramped accommodations. Coffee cups doubled as paperweights in order to keep important papers from escaping on the breeze. A typewriter occupied a corner of the table but its owner was nowhere to be seen. By the window Mustang sat thumbing through a Xingese phrasebook. Riza claimed the empty seat across from him.

“The conductor informs me the train is right on schedule, sir. We should arrive at the station within the hour,” said Riza.

“Very good, Captain,” He acknowledged. Throughout the past three days Mustang had kept the phrasebook close at hand. By the look of it the book was quite old. The leather bound reference guide was pocket sized and worn around the edges. A number of the pages were marked with folded corners. The margins were filled with notes, yet she hadn’t seen him so much as reach for a pen.

“How’s the Xingese coming along?” Riza removed her mug from a stack of papers, storing them away in the attaché case at her feet. Roy looked up from book with a rueful smile.

“Let’s just say I can now flirt flawlessly in two languages,” Roy replied.

“I wasn’t aware you could flirt flawlessly in one,” she deadpanned.

“Ouch.” Roy splayed his hand over his heart. “You wound me, Captain.”

“I’m certain your ego has survived worse, General.”

Roy chuckled as he slipped a photograph from between the pages.

“I have it on record that the last man to use this book successfully wooed and wed a beautiful Xingese woman.”

He reached across the table to hand Riza the picture. Keeping a careful hold on the edges she turned the photograph toward the sunlight. The image frozen in time showed a handsome couple on their wedding day. They stood beneath an arbor covered in morning glories looking at one another in adoration. The groom sported a morning coat and top hat, while the bride was dressed in a long sleeved wedding gown. A gust of wind caught the trailing lace veil. Riza saw traces of Roy in this unmistakably Xingese woman.

“I didn't realize your mother was from Xing. Wasn’t her name was Helena?”

“Your memory is sharp as your eye.” Roy nodded. “Yes, Helena Mustang née Zhou. One of my grandparents’ attempts to help her assimilate into Amestrian culture. Her Xingese name was Li-Na. I'm told it means ‘one who has beauty and grace.’”

“It suits her.” Riza didn't suppress the soft smile that rose to her lips. “When did she immigrate?”

“I believe it was 1871 or ‘72. My grandparents settled in Central and opened a restaurant. They mostly served Amestrianized Xingese fare, but there was another menu of traditional dishes for Xingese diners.”

“Is that how your parents met?” she asked.

“Not quite. My father was working as a stockboy in the open air market at the time. She went there every morning with her mother to buy fresh produce. She spoke a little Amestrian, but she was shy about her accent. The first time he greeted her in butchered Xingese she was elated.”

“Madame Christmas told me the story of how they met enough times I could recite it verbatim, but this relic she held onto until a recently. After reading some of the more lascivious translations I see now why she waited until I was older to pass it along.” Looking at her through his bangs Roy smirked in a most wicked manner. “If you like I could give you a recitation in private.”

General, ” Riza warned even as she felt her neck grow warm.

“You know, there’s only so long one can be engaged to be engaged. When are you going to make an honest man of me, Miss Hawkeye?”

“I’m not discussing this while we’re on duty, sir .”

“Do you like the veil?” Roy turned the picture toward her again. “It belonged to my great grandmother. Three generations of Mustang women have worn it at their weddings.”

Sighing she gave the picture a second look.

“It’s a lovely veil. I would be honored to wear it,” Riza stated.

The door to the compartment opened, putting an end to the conversation. Roy tucked the photograph away and winked at her. In stepped the owner of the typewriter, a fair haired bespectacled young man by the name of Sebastian Schuyler. He held an ink ribbon in one hand and a carafe of coffee in the other.

Sebastian was a last minute addition to the diplomatic support staff. He was a brilliant young man who completed his study of law at the impressive age of twenty, before serving a year as a political aide to a member of parliament. Following his time in parliament he secured a position as an attaché. Sebastian landed this particular assignment due to his nearly perfect score on the Xingese Language Proficiency Test.    

Impressive resume aside Hawkeye didn’t have a solid read on him. Sebastian’s suits were bespoke, but he couldn’t manage to knot his ties properly. When he wasn’t briefing them on the political climate of Xing he spent much of his time writing in a travelogue. The fountain pen he used looked like it cost a small fortune, yet he was forever getting ink stains on his fingertips.

Sebastian took his seat in front of the typewriter and poured himself a fresh cup of coffee. He started to set the carafe on the table then remembered himself. “Would either of you care for another cup?” He glanced between them in question.

“Thank you but I’d better not if I want my hands steady,” she answered.

Roy smiled politely and declined with a wave of his hand. The young man took a sip of his coffee before replacing the ink ribbon. Hawkeye reminded herself to assemble a dossier on Sebastian Schuyler when they returned to Central. If he turned out to be as useful as he seemed on paper they’d do well to offer him a position on Roy’s campaign staff.

 

Chapter Text

Suyin walked down the hall to the study with the morning mail in hand. She filtered through the stack of envelopes with little interest until she came across a peculiar letter. The address on the envelope was written in a delicate script Suyin found vaguely familiar. Flipping the envelope over she glanced at the wax seal and came to a halt.

A plum blossom pressed into signature scarlet wax.

The seal of the dowager empress.

The rest of the mail scattered on the floor at Suyin’s feet. Only once before had she received a letter from Lady Xue. A handwritten letter of condolence for the death of her late husband. Suyin’s hands trembled as she opened the envelope. Inside she discovered a formal invitation to the festivities at the palace this evening. Suyin hurried to her husband’s study, barging in without knocking.

Liwei sat at his desk with his ledger open in front of him. He still wore his sleeping robes and his silver streaked hair was messy. Suyin started to speak when she noticed Xiang spread out on the floor by the fireplace working on his studies.  

“Xiang, go make your father some tea,” Suyin instructed.

Xiang lifted his head to give her a quizzical look. He glanced over at his father who currently held a steaming cup of tea. “But…” Xiang was about to protest when he saw his father shake his head ever so slightly. “Yes, mother!” Once the door shut behind their son Suyin approached her husband’s desk.

“I’d say we have three minutes at best before Xiang has his ear pressed to the door.” Liwei stifled a cough against his fist. He’d attempted to fight off his cold the last few days to no avail. Suyin handed him the invitation along with the envelope. He took a drink of his tea as he read the invitation.

“It’s certainly last minute,” Liwei remarked.

“We can’t possibly attend!”

“I don’t see why not.”

“I have nothing to wear!” Suyin insisted.

“What about that dress you’re saving for the New Year celebration?” suggested Liwei.

“You’re ill!”

“If you’re worried about that then I’ll stay home.”

“You know I hate going to these things alone.”

“I’d never dream of sending you alone. It’s high time Xiang started going to these events. Besides our daughter will be there. Don’t you want to see Lan?” He asked.

Suyin pouted. Though Lan Fan would be there as a bodyguard she did wish to see her. Not a day went by that Suyin didn’t regret letting Fu raise her daughter. Even now she didn’t see Lan Fan as often as she’d like. She could see his point about Xiang as well. Suyin sighed as Liwei gave her that warm smile of his.

“Fine. I will go to the party.” Suyin felt his forehead with the inside of her wrist and frowned. “But you must go back to bed. You’re burning up. If you’re still feverish this evening I’m staying home.”

“My dearest, I…”

She gave him her most disapproving look. The one she usually reserved for the children when they tried her patience.

“...will head straight to bed once I finish my tea.”

“Better,” she said.

Suyin rewarded her husband with a kiss.

“I’m going to get you sick,” he mumbled against her lips.

Suyin kissed him again to show him what she thought of that.


 By the time Lan Fan returned Ling was ready for the day ahead. Upon Qiyin’s departure the emperor had his beloved bodyguard all to himself. Ling pushed her mask up for a glimpse of her face. “Lady Bodyguard, must you spirit away every time I fall asleep?” Ling admonished. He leaned down to kiss her. Lan Fan placed her hand on the side of his neck as she parted her lips. She tasted of melon and her skin smelled like fresh soap.  

“I didn’t want to wake you,” Lan Fan answered.

“If you’re concerned for my beauty sleep you’re welcome to take me back to bed,” Ling suggested. Lan Fan’s cheeks and nose turned a dusky pink. The shade reminded him of the sunrise. Ling decided it was by far his favorite color.

“This one humbly reminds you of your appointment with the dowager empress in the Hall of Serenity.”

Ling affected a melodramatic air.

“I suppose if I must,” he sighed. “I see you’re all business this morning.” Ling gave her a wry smile and tugged her mask back down. Truth be told he was eager to see the metamorphosis the Hall of Serenity for tonight’s party. Lady Xue had taken on the planning of the social event at Ling’s behest. The Hall of Serenity hall was only used for ceremonial purposes. His mother’s decision to break with tradition wasn’t lost on him.

The last event held there was his coronation, but the Hall of Serenity was most often used for imperial weddings. In fact Xue’s own wedding to the previous emperor took place there more than twenty years ago. His mother was thirteen at the time, yet another reason Ling abhorred the tradition of the fifty wives. He knew his mother well enough to know this party would be the social event of the season. To that effect Ling had given her carte blanche to do as she wished.

Xue Yao did nothing by half measures.


The palace was animated this morning.

They proceeded to the pavilion where Lady Xue awaited their presence. The sun warmed them as they crossed the snow covered courtyard to the Hall of Serenity. Following Lan Fan’s instructions there was a vast guard presence visible throughout the palace. Lan Fan relegated two of her best men to the shadows. Though she didn’t see either of them she caught their qi signatures at the edge of her senses.

Two steps behind the emperor she ascended the steps to the pavilion. Lan Fan meant to tell Ling of her discussion with Shu, had intended to tell him the moment they were together again, but then Ling kissed her. He was playful and happy, and there wasn’t any point in ruining his mood. Ling trusted them to take care of these things.

It wasn’t unusual for a spy to break off an assignment if discovery was imminent. Three all at once was a noteworthy aberration. A dead agent was another matter altogether. Lan Fan wished she’d pressed Shu for more information, but when it came down to it Shu’s job was intelligence and Lan Fan’s execution. In every sense of the word.

If Shu had anything more than conjecture he would’ve told me.

Lan Fan returned her attention to her surroundings as they entered the hall. A veritable bouquet of lanterns in the shape of lotus blossoms were suspended from the ceiling. Once illuminated the lanterns were sure to cast the room in an enchanting light. The caisson in the center of the vast room was the only portion lacking them. The intricate design depicted two golden dragons intertwined amidst a series of hexagons.

Throughout the room tables covered in pristine cloth awaited the feast of delicacies Wei had undoubtedly devised. The food was the only thing that made these sort of things tolerable for Lan Fan. Wei always treated the servants to an abundance of leftovers. Wasting food was an inexcusable offense in his kitchen. One of his staff once made the mistake of throwing out a bruised, but otherwise perfectly good peach in front of him. Wei reduced the young man to tears.

The eastern beauty of the room was juxtaposed with music from the west. Upon the dais at the far end of the room a band warmed up with a jazz standard Lan Fan knew by heart. Furthermore, she realized she knew the band playing it. Whiplash was a signature of the jazz band from Lindy Club. The septuple time was a live wire that sent a jolt down her spine. Lan Fan spotted Madeleine seated on the edge of the stage with her ankles crossed.

The singer was enraptured by the two women dancing the quickstep in front of her. Lan Fan recognized Margot right away, but it took her a full measure of the song to realize she was dancing with the dowager empress. Lady Xue’s hair was curled and swept up in a modern updo. Instead of robes befitting royalty she wore a goldenrod cheongsam. The absence of her usual attire and ornamental hairstyle revealed her slight silhouette. When Margot spun her she laughed in delight.

Xue Yao looked so much like her son when she laughed that it caught Lan Fan off guard. For the first time she wondered if her father saw this lighthearted side of Lady Xue. Feng had only been a few years older than her. They must’ve been close for Xue to trust the safety of her son to him. Whatever the nature of their relationship, Xue cared enough about his daughter’s fate to personally fetch her from the lakeshore in the dead of winter; to stay by Lan Fan’s bedside when she was sick with fever and needed a mother.

“Très magnifique!” exclaimed Madeleine. The dance came to an end and Ling joined in on Madeleine’s applause. Lady Xue laughed again, fanning herself as she turned toward her son and his bodyguard.

“There you are,” Xue said. The dowager’s ruby red lips curved into a sly smile.

“Bienvenue, Your Majesty,” greeted Madeleine.

Margot nodded in a curt manner to the emperor.

“Good morning! I didn’t realize there were dance lessons to be had. You’re going to put me to shame tonight,” Ling said.

“But of course!” Madeleine chimed in. “You are just in time! We must go over tonight’s set list. Lan Fan, you will show your emperor the steps, non?”

Lan Fan froze in place as everyone looked at her.

“What?” she squeaked.

“Lan Fan is a splendid dancer,” Madeleine said in a stage whisper.

“Is that so…?” Ling inquired. He looked like the cat who got the cream. Lan Fan shook her head and held up her hands in protest.

“Imperial Majesty, this one assures you that’s an exaggeration,” Lan Fan denied.

“Do not believe her lies!” Madeleine insisted. “Mademoiselle Liu is a dancer at heart!”

Madame Rousseau is a traitor, Lan Fan thought.

“Madeleine,” Margot warned. Apparently, she was the only one on Lan Fan’s side.

“You are far better off learning from Ms. Fontaine,” Lan Fan argued.  

Lady Xue moved closer to Margot and linked their arms.

“I’m afraid her dance card is full…”

Madeleine rose from her seat and stepped onto the stage.

“What about Stardust ?” Madeleine cajoled. “You love that one, ma coeur.” Stardust was one of Madeleine’s lullabies for Lan Fan during those agonizing nights when her body was racked with chills and her nerves were on fire. The singer’s musical cohorts played the first bar of the song to entice her. Madeleine stepped in front of the microphone and adjusted it. “Or perhaps there is another song you’d prefer…?” She raised her eyebrow evocatively.

Lan Fan knew exactly which song Madeleine hoped she’d suggest. She hadn’t forgotten Madeleine’s words that night about sharing it with ‘the one she cherished’, but now wasn’t the time nor place for such things. La Vie en Rose had too many associations for Lan Fan, and she doubted Ling had forgotten the melody after her delirious display in the desert.    

Stardust is fine.”

  Lan Fan looked down at herself. I’m not dressed for this. She removed the more cumbersome pieces of armor, as well as her spiked gloves and mask, then deliberated over her footwear. After a moment she decided to remove the boots as well. Better to dance barefoot than risk inadvertently stepping on Ling’s toes. Though taking his amusement into consideration Lan Fan thought he might deserve it


Ling tried not to look too pleased with himself. He hadn’t the faintest idea Lan Fan knew how to dance, let alone that she had a secret passion for it. This was the most fascinating thing he’d learned about her of late. Furthermore, Madeleine’s influence on Lan Fan continued to work in his favor. He resolved to keep the women in Xing if possible. Ling held out his hand and gave Lan Fan a cheeky grin.

    “Shall we?”

Lan Fan glanced at his hand. For an instant he thought she’d change her mind, but she took his offered hand and stepped closer. Ling stood still as she took his other hand and lightly set it on her waist. In the corner of his eye he saw Margot and his mother take up the same position. When Lan Fan turned her chocolate eyes up to him he felt his heart skip a beat.

“Beginning with your left foot you’ll take two walking steps toward me, then one to your left and bring your right foot together,” Lan Fan instructed as the music started. “Walk. Walk. Side. Together.” Ling looked down at his feet and mirrored her steps. The mesmerizing voice of Madeleine Rousseau filled the room.

And now the purple dusk of twilight time

Steals across the meadows of my heart

High up in the sky the little stars climb

Always reminding me that we’re apart

“Slow. Slow. Quick, quick,” Lan Fan guided him. “You don’t want to bump into anyone when you’re dancing. That’s where the corner step comes in. Step forward on your left foot, then rock back on your right foot, and make a quarter turn to change direction.”

“Seems easy enough,” Ling remarked.

“It’s harder when you aren’t looking at your feet,” Margot quipped.

“Keep your eyes on your dance partner, Your Highness,” said Lan Fan.

You wander down the lane and far away

Leaving me a song that will not die

Love is now the stardust of yesterday

The music of the years gone by

Ling laughed and lifted his eyes to her face.

“You’ve been keeping secrets again, Lady Bodyguard,” he teased.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” she replied.

“Since when do you know how to dance?”

“Grandfather taught me,” Lan Fan answered. “When we were in Amestris.”

Sometimes I wonder why I spend

The lonely night dreaming of a song

The melody haunts my reverie

And I am once again with you

“And you’ve been practicing in secret all this time?”

“I have a phonograph at home. My stepfather gave it to me and Madeleine sends me records. Xiang and I listen to them together.” Lan Fan’s cheeks colored and she averted her eyes. “Sometimes we dance, too.”

Ling drew her closer as they did another corner step.

“After all this time you still manage to surprise me. What’s this dance called?” he asked.

“It’s the foxtrot.”

When our love was new

And each kiss an inspiration

But that was long ago

Now my consolation

Is in the stardust of a song

Nearby Margot spun Lady Xue under her arm. Ling wondered how long his mother had practiced with Ms. Fontaine. They looked so natural together. “And that move?” he asked again. If Lan Fan loved to dance then he intended to learn every step.

Beside the garden wall

When stars are bright

You are in my arms

The nightingale tells his fairytale

Of paradise where roses bloom

 “A promenade with a turn,” Lan Fan told him. “Step to the side with your left foot and cross with your right. The gentleman leads the lady through the turn with his right hand on her back. Left, right, left, together and back into the basic step.”

Ling followed as she slowly walked him through the steps. “Like this?” He led her through the move this time. When Lan Fan faced him at the end of the turn she was all smiles.

“Very good, Your Majesty.”

Though I dream in vain

In my heart it will remain

My stardust melody

The memory of love’s refrain

“Once again you’ve saved me, Commander Liu.” Ling swept into a bow and pressed a chaste kiss to the back of her hand. “Only this time from embarrassment. You’re quite the teacher.”

“This one is honored to be of service,” Lan Fan mumbled.

Ling gave her hand a gentle squeeze before letting go. He turned then toward the others with a smile that froze in place when he saw the loathing on Margot’s face. They locked eyes and in an instant her expression became impassive. She retrieved a cigarette case from the pocket of her trousers and put one between her lips.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Margot said.

The redhead headed for the door without waiting to be excused.

What was that about?

Chapter Text

Upon arriving at the palace the envoy from the west was shown to the guest wing. They were given time to settle in before their formal introduction to the emperor. Roy indulged in a steaming hot shower and a shave before putting on a fresh uniform. He styled his hair in his usual fashion, then put his ignition cloth gloves in his pocket. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be any call for them. From the other pocket Roy pulled out a square jewelry box to take a look at the contents. Just to make sure it hadn’t somehow vanished. Nestled in the black velvet cushion was a radiant cut diamond solitaire set in a platinum band.

Roy bought the ring six months ago. He’d kept it hidden in a closet at home, waiting for the perfect opportunity to propose. If there was a more romantic setting for an engagement than a snow covered palace Roy couldn’t think of it. Business came first but he’d be damned if he didn’t make time for pleasure. He didn’t dare leave it anywhere Riza might find it by happenstance.

The only other person who knew about the ring was Jean Havoc. The First Lieutenant was sworn to secrecy under penalty of death by immolation. Havoc had whistled at the sight of the engagement ring and said it was about damn time. He even brought along a bottle of champagne to celebrate. Outside the door Roy heard the murmur of voices. He snapped the ring box shut, returned it to the safety of his pocket, and left the privacy of his room. There he came across the lieutenant straightening the tie of their diplomatic attaché.

“Seriously, kid,” Havoc said around a toothpick, “a four-in-hand knot isn’t that hard.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” said Sebastian. Judging by his exasperated tone and stiff posture Sebastian was more tolerant than grateful for the assistance with his attire. Riza emerged from the room to Roy’s left and gave the two of them a once over.

“Lose the toothpick, Lieutenant,” she ordered.

Havoc complied as he ceased his manhandling of Sebastian. The subject of his attention immediately adjusted the tightly cinched knot. Over the last several days Roy got the impression Sebastian Schuyler was the long-suffering sort. He put up with Havoc’s good natured teasing, but his annoyance had a habit of showing on his face. Sebastian had yet to realize his inability to school his expression only encouraged the lieutenant.

The sound of footsteps caught his ear. Roy turned toward the servant sent to fetch them. Straight away he noticed her kaleidoscope irises. They were brown at first glance and bottle green the next. It was difficult to pinpoint the color with the light glinting off her oversized spectacles.

“Honored Guests of the Emperor, I’m tasked with escorting you to your audience with His Imperial Majesty. My name is Yue-Yan. Should you require an interpreter during your stay I’m at your disposal.”

The young woman’s voice was soft and the words rehearsed. She was timid and seemed hardly able to speak for herself let alone anyone else; nevertheless, there wasn’t a trace of accent in her speech, and her coloring suggested she might have more Western heritage than Roy had Eastern.   

Xie xie ,” Roy thanked her in Xingese. “My Xingese is elementary at best. I’m sure I’ll find your assistance invaluable.”

The diplomatic party introduced themselves in turn to the interpreter. While still aboard the train Mustang had instructed Sebastian not to reveal his fluency in Xingese until required. Roy wanted to know what was said when their hosts thought they couldn’t be understood. Mr. Schuyler was skeptical of the stratagem but agreed to go along with it nevertheless.  

“If you are ready the Emperor awaits your arrival.”

“By all means, Miss Yue-Yan, lead the way,” Roy said, dropping his voice an octave. Yue-Yan blushed accordingly and escorted them from the guest wing. He wondered if this young woman would’ve had a place in the palace under the previous emperor. Xing had a long history of isolationism; however, in the second year of his reign, the progressive young emperor set about dismantling the tradition by establishing trade agreements and investing in infrastructure. If discussions went as planned Amestris would have a nascent embassy in Xing before the snow melted into spring.

The doors to the receiving room were nearly as intimidating as the guards standing on either side of them. In tandem the two guards opened the double doors to admit them. Roy heard Yue-Yan draw in a deep breath before she proceeded into the room.

Ling Yao had matured into a commanding figure since Mustang saw him last. Seated upon his throne and dressed in distinguished robes the young emperor certainly looked the part, yet it was the bewitching woman on the adjacent throne that drew Roy’s interest. The noble woman’s dress was a tapestry of gold and silver flowers on a background of black silk. The jewel encrusted combs and decorative pins in her hair seemed headache inducing.

By all accounts this was the dowager empress.

Roy saw the resemblance between mother and son.

I didn’t expect her to be quite so young.

Xue Yao appeared to be Roy’s age if not a few years younger. He thought she’d look younger still without the painstakingly applied makeup. Sebastian had neglected to mention her age in his briefing. He had told them Lady Xue served as regent to the Yao Clan after the death of the chieftain, and during Prince Ling’s absence once he’d come of age; she had the honor of a seat on the royal council; and, most importantly, she had the ear of the emperor.

It’ll take more than flirting in her native tongue to win over the most influential woman in all of Xing.

Roy Mustang was more than up for the challenge. He shifted his gaze to the bodyguard standing at attention to Ling Yao’s left. Nearly a head shorter than most of the guards Roy had seen thus far, but the lethal automail made Lan Fan significantly more imposing. Smart man to keep a woman with that kind of moxie around. Halting before the dias Mustang and his entourage bowed to the Emperor of Xing. Yue-Yan introduced them in Xingese and repeated herself in Amestrian for their benefit. Meanwhile, the dowager empress regarded them with discerning eyes and an inscrutable countenance.

“Imperial Highness, may I present General Roy Mustang of Amestris and his compatriots Captain Riza Hawkeye, First Lieutenant Jean Havoc, and Mr. Sebastian Schuyler,” Yue-Yan pronounced.

The Emperor of Xing steepled his fingers.

“Welcome to Xing.”


The afternoon sun reflected off the snow in the stable yard. Shu narrowed his eyes against the glare. There wasn’t a cloud to be had in the brilliant blue sky, nor was there much of a breeze. In his wool coat Shu was almost too warm. He watched whilst the stable master exercised a palomino in the paddock. The horse’s coat shined in the sunlight. Shu knew without needing to see the mare up close there was nary a tangle in her mane or tail. When it came to caring for the horses Jin was meticulous.

Shu reached into his left coat pocket for his tin of cigarettes. He came up empty handed and tried the right. Instead of metal his fingers closed around a single glove. Lan Fan’s abandoned glove. Left on the table the night of their rendezvous at the Lindy Club. Shu kept it like a favor. Studied every stitch until he could call the item to mind as easily as the woman who owned it. There were three decorative buttons along the wrist. He wondered if Lan Fan still had the other glove tucked away in a drawer somewhere.

He tightened his hand around the article of clothing. Lan Fan hadn’t spent the night in her room. Shu didn’t know for sure if she’d spent the night warming Ling’s bed, but he was certain she hadn’t slept in her own. The bedclothes were cool to the touch; besides, she’d turned up with wrinkled clothes and wild hair. A biting remark had been on the tip of Shu’s tongue when he noticed the telltale puffiness around her eyes.

Lan Fan had been crying.

In the darkest part of his heart Shu hoped the emperor was the source of her tears.

That’s the way these sort of things ended, wasn’t it?

The object of his desire was in the inside pocket of his coat. Shu lit a cigarette and strolled over to the fence. He crossed his arms over the railing as he smoked, out of habit rather than a need to indulge his vice. Taking the cigarette from between his lips he wet them to sound a short, sharp whistle to catch the attention of his friend. Jin’s head snapped in Shu’s direction. He slowed the mare from a canter into a trot then walked her over to the fence.

“Hey, what are you doing here?”

“Nice to see you, too,” quipped Shu.

Jin dismounted the horse with practiced ease. Standing straight Shu was a tall man but even he only came up to his friend's chin. Jin had grown into his big bones if not his looks. The mare nudged the hand holding the reins and received a sugar cube for her efforts.

“You know what I mean,” Jin said. He waved at the smoke between them.

“Yeah, yeah. You know, you’re the third person to say that to me today.” Shu put the cigarette out on the fence. “It’d be nice if at least one of my friends was pleased to see me but no. It’s always ‘What are you doing here?’ and ‘What do you want?’”

“That’s because you only come around when you want something,” Jin stated.

“Not true.” Shu noticed the deadpan look Jin gave him, and amended his words. “Not entirely true. Everyone is so suspicious.”

“You're a suspicious guy.”

Incorrigible ,” Shu corrected. “Or so the ladies tell me.”

“If you say so.”  

“Speaking of ladies how’re yours?”  

“Daiyu is fine. The baby sleeping through the night now.”  

“Glad to hear it,” Shu replied. Jin was right. Shu did want something from him. This would be a hard sell but there was no one else. “Hey, listen, I need a favor.”

Jin narrowed his eyes. He asked, “What sort of favor?”

“I need you to pick up some messages for me,” answered Shu.

“No.”  

“Just hear me out-” Shu insisted.

“I told you I wasn’t doing that sort of thing anymore.”

Shu hadn’t forgotten. Not so long ago Shu could count on his help with no questions asked. Daiyu had changed all that. Pretty Daiyu from the laundry made an honest man out of Jin. She had wrapped him around her little finger with hardly any effort. Jin grinned like an idiot when Daiyu smiled in his direction, always laughed in delight at her subtle humor.

In Shu’s opinion Daiyu was painfully ordinary. Jin had never asked for it. He was enraptured by his wife, even more so by their baby daughter.

“I need someone I can trust. Wei can’t vanish from the kitchens. Not today.”

“Have you ever thought about doing your own dirty work?” Jin asked.

Shu gritted his teeth. He wasn’t in the mood and didn’t have the time to wheedle this man into helping him.  

“This isn’t my dirty work and you know it.”

The words had the desired effect. The stubborn look on Jin’s face shifted to reluctance and Shu knew he’d won.

“Dead drops only,” Jin stated.

Shu passed him a slip of paper.   

“That’s all I need.”

Chapter Text

Edward sat on the end of Al’s bed and crossed his ankle over his knee. Leaning back on his hands as he watched his little brother dart around the room. The alchemist’s collar was turned up, a scarlet tie draped around his neck, the cuffs of his shirt unfastened. Al gathered up a stack of books from his desk chair, looking at the spines before setting them down again. Ed never got tired of watching his brother. It was a goddamn privilege to see Alphonse in the flesh. Sometimes it was the only way he could convince himself that the nightmare was over.

“Have you seen my research notes?” Al asked. “I swear I just had them.”

Ed heard an edge of panic in his brother’s voice. He didn’t know what Al was so nervous about. His little brother was brilliant, and Ed was happy to knock sense into anyone who didn’t see it. Looking around the room Ed spotted the journal in another stack of books on the table by the bed. Ed had one just like it. A gift from Winry given before they left home again on their respective journeys.

“Here.”

Curious to see how Al codified his research, Ed picked up the journal and opened it to the middle. Between the pages was a pressed peony. He thumbed through the book, discovering more preserved flowers. Ed flipped to the cover page to read what Al had written.

A Study of the Art of Flower Arranging and the Language of Flowers by Alphonse Elric.

Ed turned his attention to the notes. The marginalia was as fascinating as body of the text. Sketches of leaves and vines crept across the paper, threatening to overshadow the words like kudzu. Al switched between Amestrian and Xingese seemingly at random. Ed’s eyebrows climbed. There was no way he could decipher this without brushing up on traditional Xingese, not to mention reading reference books on a bunch of flowery nonsense.

“Since when do you know so much about flowers?” Ed ventured.

Color blossomed high on Al’s cheeks.

“Mei taught me about flower arranging when I was first came to study in Xing. I had trouble understanding the concept of reading the dragon’s pulse. It was supposed to teach me patience and harmony with nature,” Al explained.

“Did it work?”

Al chuckled and fixed his cuffs.

“Sort of.” Al got this wistful look on his face. “It reminded me of mom. There was this book she had. About the language of flowers. It was on the shelf in the kitchen. Next to all the cookbooks. Do you remember?”

Ed remembered how after working in the garden their mother smelled like summer. Like soil and sunshine. Not that sunshine had a scent but there was always something different about the air in summer. He remembered she never wore perfume, but she’d sometimes rub her wrists with a sprig of lavender. The window box in the kitchen had overflowed with chamomile, mint, and anise for tea. Trisha grew all their vegetables and herbs herself. She made do with what she had, and made sure her boys always had enough.

“Yeah.” Edward licked his lips, “Yeah, I remember.”

“I never read it. Too busy reading dad’s alchemy books, I guess. When Mei showed me Xingese flower arranging I thought, ‘This is something mom would’ve liked.’”

They hadn’t talked about mom like this in a long time. The memory of their mother was a familiar ache. Ed didn’t think the pain would ever heal entirely. He wasn’t sure he wanted it to.

“So,” Al turned toward the mirror to fix his tie. “I decided to read up on it. Figured it would make a decent cipher.”

“It’s great,” Ed said. “Mom would love it.”

Al caught Ed’s eye in the mirror.

“You think so?”

“I know so,” Edward answered.

Alphonse’s mouth quirked up into a smile. He turned his eyes back to the mirror and cinched his tie.

“Thanks brother.”

“Do you want to go over it one more time?” offered Ed.

His little brother flipped the collar of his shirt down before checking his wristwatch.

“There’s no time. I have to be there in ten minutes.” Al buttoned his waistcoat and pulled on his suit jacket. “Thanks anyway.”

“You clean up pretty good, little brother.” Ed grinned.  

“We both do. You’d know that if you ever bothered to put on a tie,” Al sing-songed.

“Special occasions only. Bad enough I had to wear one at my own wedding. I mean, seriously , it was my wedding why should I have to spend it getting half-strangled by a silk noose.” Edward complained under his breath, while Alphonse tucked a stack of notecards into the pocket of his waistcoat.

“Oh good! Then I’ll let you borrow one of mine for the party tonight,” his brother declared.

“Damn it! Walked right into that one, didn't I?”

“Hook, line, and sinker,” Al said, cheerily.

Ed got up from the bed to hand him the journal.

“Proud of you. You know that?”

“I know. Thanks, Ed. It’s just I’ve never made a presentation like this before. There are a lot of moving parts. I’m not sure they’ll go for it.”

“Alphonse,” Ed clamped a hand down on Al’s shoulder. “This is Mustang and Ling we’re talking about. They already know you’re brilliant.”

Al gathered up a stack of presentation folders and his journal. He glanced at his reflection, brushed his hair into place with his fingers, and took a deep breath.

“Here goes nothing.”


 The diplomatic meeting moved to the comfort of the indoor garden following the formal introductions. They were seated at a table beneath the cultivated red maple. While they waited for Alphonse Elric the emperor asked after mutual acquaintances. The glass ceiling above them was iced with a layer of snow. Lanterns floated in the koi pond. The scales of the fish were illuminated by the glow.

Lady Yao toyed with her feather earring as she listened to the conversation. Save for Sebastian Schuyler she’d heard tell of each of these foreigners, yet they weren’t the only subject of her scrutiny. Xue glanced at Lan Fan out of the corner of her eye. The bodyguard was perched on a branch of the tree.

There was no one Xue trusted more with her son’s safety. No one living, at any rate. Feng Liu’s daughter was a steadfast servant. Xue had expected nothing less of the girl. She was an echo of her father. Lan Fan hadn’t inherited his humor but she had Feng’s smile. His impatience and temper, too.  

The doors to the atrium opened.

Xue pulled herself from her reverie.

Meanwhile, Yue-Yan entered the indoor garden with tea service. The serving girl’s glasses slid down her face as she watched her steps. She attempted to push them back up with a scrunch of her nose. The tea set clattered when she placed it on the table. Yue-Yan winced at the sound.

The dowager empress picked up the folded fan from the table in front of her. Xue snapped it open with a flick of her wrist, concealing her amusement behind red silk. Yue-Yan pushed her glasses back into place. Once again they slid down her nose. First, Yue-Yan served the emperor followed by the dowager empress, then the military personnel. The civil servant was the last to be served. Sebastian was busy with his notes, but tapped two fingers on the surface of the table when Yue-Yan poured tea for him.

It was a symbol of thanks and proper tea etiquette. Sebastian Schuyler was the only one of the diplomats who demonstrated it. Xue caught the gesture. The serving girl smiled politely in return. If Yue-Yan thought anything more of the nicety it didn’t show on her face. In the interim, everyone else was distracted by the arrival of Alphonse Elric. Xue picked up her tea and contemplated.

Now isn't that interesting…


Roy looked over his shoulder at the door and in walked Alphonse Elric. The last time Roy saw the young man was at Edward and Winry’s wedding. He looked as sharp now as he did then. Roy smiled and stood to greet him.

“General Mustang!” Al exclaimed. The young man tucked the leather bound journal and folders he brought with him under his arm and held out his hand.   

“It’s good to see you, Alphonse,” Roy said.  

They shook hands.

“Likewise!” Al chirped. “Thank you for coming all this way.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Roy replied.

Alphonse bowed to the emperor and dowager empress before shaking hands with Hawkeye and Havoc. Riza favored him with a rare smile and a subdued hello.

“Hey kid! Long time no see,” said Havoc.

“It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?” Alphonse agreed.

The alchemist turned to the unfamiliar face at the table.

"I don’t believe we’ve met.”    

“Sebastian Schuyler.”

Sebastian stood and shook his hand.

“Alphonse Elric. It’s pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Schuyler,” Al declared.

Then he recognized the young woman clutching a teapot.

“Oh. Hello!”

Upon being addressed directly by the alchemist she turned beet red.

“There’s no more tea,” Yue-Yan blurted out.

Alphonse blinked a few times.

“Oh. Um, that’s all right. I'll just have water,” Al poured himself a glass from the pitcher on the table to save her the trouble.


Sebastian put his closed fist to his mouth and cleared his throat. Still holding the teapot Yue-Yan sat down in the empty seat next to Sebastian. Belatedly, she set the teapot down and stared at her cup with a vague look of devastation.

Her glasses slid down her nose.

“May I?” Sebastian inquired.

Yue-Yan looked at him over the rim of her glasses with eyes wide. Sebastian carefully removed her spectacles. Between his hands he warmed each of the earpieces before adjusting them. He set them back on her surprised face.

“There now that should be better.”

She tilted her head down experimentally. The glasses stayed in place. A small smile graced her mouth and she whispered thank you. Sebastian nodded as he picked up his fountain pen. As Alphonse Elric distributed his presentation packets Sebastian flipped his travelogue to a fresh page. In the upper corner he wrote the date, underlining it with a flourish.

“Thank you all for coming today. I know your time is valuable. Alchemy and alkahestry have longstanding traditions of self study and apprenticeships. Though the two disciplines developed independently of each other I believe their future lies in interdependence,” said Al.

Sebastian flipped through the handout.  

“Imagine if you will a school dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of alchemy and alkahestry. An international school with campuses in both Amestris and Xing. The curriculum would consist of beginner, intermediate, and master classes in both disciplines. Students with strong academic performance would also be afforded the opportunity to participate in an exchange program.”

An infinitesimal frown settled onto Sebastian’s features. He glanced up from the handout to look at Alphonse. Sebastian tapped the point of his pen against the paper twice. A moment later it was flying across the page.


 Alphonse did his best to ignore the scratching sound of Sebastian Schuyler’s pen. The alchemist could respect diligent note taking but it was distracting. It helped that the rest of Al’s audience was attentive, although most were inscrutable. Ling had apparently inherited that unreadable countenance of his from his mother.

“The alchemist motto is ‘be thou for the people.’ In the pursuit of scientific and medical advancement we must remember to first do no harm.” Al paused long enough to take a sip of water. “Keeping that in mind I believe it’s important to include mandatory courses in research ethics.”

The alchemist looked up from his note cards when someone cleared their throat.

“Do you have a budget proposal?” asked Sebastian.

“Pardon?” Al blinked.

“A budget proposal,” Sebastian repeated. “I don’t see one included.”

“No, I haven’t… I don’t have a budget proposal.”

“Why don’t we save the questions till the end?” Roy suggested.

Sebastian adjusted his spectacles.

“It’s just we’ve come all this way, and Mr. Elric seems unprepared.”

“Excuse me?” Alphonse balked.

“You’re asking for funding and you don’t even know how much you need,” Sebastian stated.

“If you would let me finish my presentation-!”

“I believe I’ve heard enough,” Ling proclaimed.

“I have to agree,” Roy said.

Alphonse tasted bile in the back of his throat. He swallowed hard. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go. He’d worked on this presentation for weeks and for what?

“There is a lot to work out but you’ve sold me on your vision,” the general continued.

Al jerked his head up in surprise.

 “I have?”

“It’s inspired,” Ling said matter of fact. “We can discuss this and further matters tomorrow. For now I must take my leave.”

The emperor stood from his chair and tucked his hands into his sleeves. Lan Fan dropped from her perch to follow her liege.

“Sebastian, please help Alphonse mock up a budget proposal for review,” General Mustang instructed.

“Certainly.”  

Roy gave him a conspiratorial wink as he departed, leaving Alphonse Elric with his head still spinning.

Chapter Text

Madeleine stood in the doorway watching her distant lover. Margot was seated at the dressing table. The oil lamp on the table burned bright. The light transformed her copper hair into molten metal. Margot had it pinned up off her neck. She opened a jar of moisturizer and looked at herself in the triptych mirror as she applied a dab to her clean face.

They weren't speaking to one another. Or rather Margot wasn't speaking to her. Not in private at least. To make matters worse she’d made a point not to touch Madeleine over the past two weeks. Margot wouldn’t so much as help her with a zipper. She was still angry with Madeleine for extending their visit without bothering to discuss it with her first.

“Ma chérie?”

The redhead twisted the lid back on the jar and ignored her.

“Je suis sincèrement désolée,” Madeleine apologized.

Margot met her eyes in the mirror.

“De quoi es-tu désolée?”

Apparently, Margot wasn’t going to make this easy.

“Je suis désolée pour tout,” Madeleine said.

“Je vous pardonnerai si vous êtes en train avec moi demain,” said Margot.

Madeleine crossed the room to her lover. If such things were allowed she would call Margot her wife. Madeleine leaned down to put her arms around Margot’s shoulders and kissed her cheek.

“D’accord,” she relented.

In the mirror she saw the engineer’s features soften. Margot circled her hand around Madeleine’s wrist as she rose from her seat and tugged her toward the bed. They kissed as if for the first time. It didn’t take long for their passion to ignite.


In the corridor of the imperial wing Lan Fan stood watch. Lan Fan’s eyes were closed but she was tapped into the dragon’s pulse. The qi signatures in the vicinity were expected. The entrance to the wing was barred by a pair of guards. Down the hall in the dowager’s rooms Lady Xue was accompanied by two of her attendants. The emperor was alone in his room getting dressed.

It was her fifth sweep of the area in the last twenty minutes. Satisfied with her findings Lan Fan opened her eyes. Despite her anxiety regarding the emperor’s safety she looked forward to aspects of the party. Lan Fan looked forward to the music and the fireworks in particular. The scent of gunpowder lingered in the air during fireworks. It reminded her of grandfather.

Fu taught her how to handle fireworks before he’d trusted her with bombs and flash grenades. He didn’t teach Lan Fan how to make her own until she was almost fifteen. Master Fu had warned her not to lose any fingers. Lan Fan glanced at her metal digits. The irony wasn’t lost on her.

Lan Fan felt the approach of a familiar qi. Dressed in full uniform Qiyin entered the corridor. The guardsman's appearance was entirely unexpected. He wasn’t due to take up watch until well after the party tonight. Qiyin bowed before her.

“Good evening, Commander Liu.”

“Is something wrong?” Lan Fan asked.

“I’ve been asked to relieve you of your duty and deliver this,” he answered.

Qiyin handed her a letter. The front of the envelope read Lan Fan Liu Zhang. Her full name. Heart pounding she turned the letter over. The seal of the emperor. Lan Fan tore open the envelope. Inside she found an invitation to the soiree. There was a note on the back from the emperor.

 

Lady Bodyguard,

I command you to have a little fun tonight.

Sincerely,

Ling Yao

Emperor of Xing

P.S.

Don’t be cross with Qiyin

 

The commander of the guard bit her cheek. If she refused to attend as a guest she would be disobeying a direct order, but there was nothing stopping her from acting as a plainclothes bodyguard. Lan Fan tucked the invitation back into the mangled envelope.

“You will not let him out of your sight unless he is in mine,” she commanded.

Upon his acknowledgment she departed. What she was supposed to wear to this Lan Fan didn’t know. She was disinclined to wear the dress Madeleine gave her. Even with full length gloves too much of her automail showed. Furthermore, the length was inappropriate for an evening of this caliber. Lan Fan intended to draw as little attention to herself tonight as possible. It wasn’t the first time she’d been a wallflower.

There was an apparel box on her bed.

The box was cream colored and wrapped in a black satin ribbon. She hesitated to open it. Instead, Lan Fan removed her armor and went to the baths. Half an hour later she showed up at Madeleine’s room dressed in a robe. Water dripped from her freshly washed hair. The bodyguard had the box tucked under her arm. She knocked on the door urgently.

Margot answered the door.

“Is Madeleine here?”

“She went to warm up with the band.”

Lan Fan’s face fell.

“What do you need?” Margot asked.

“Help. I don’t own any makeup...” she confessed.

Margot looked her up and down.

“Get in here. I’ll take care of you.”

Lan Fan thanked her profusely and hurried inside, following Margot into the adjoining room. She set the box on the unmade bed.

“I’m assuming there’s a dress in that box. Let’s see what we’re working with,” Margot sighed.

Carefully, Lan Fan pulled the ends of the bow and removed the top of the box. Inside, wrapped in gold tissue paper, was an evening gown. The dress was turquoise silk with gold trim and beading. The sleeves were short and made of sheer fabric. It was magnificent. Lan Fan was afraid to touch it. Margot lifted the dress by the sleeves and whistled. It was floor length. Lan Fan would have to wear heels.

“Someone has expensive tastes,” Margot remarked.

Lan Fan said nothing.

The redhead put the dress on a hanger. There were gloves in the box as well. The same champagne color Lan Fan had worn previously, but to her relief these were opera length.

Margot pointed at the vanity and snapped.

“Sit down. I need to set your hair before it dries.”

Lan Fan did as she was told. Margot set her hair in waves and pin curls, making quicker work of it than she ever could. Before starting on Lan Fan’s makeup Margot used the pitcher and basin to wash her hands.

“I thought you were working tonight,” Margot said. She turned Lan Fan’s face toward the light. For someone who worked with them so often Margot’s hands soft.

“So did I,” Lan Fan replied.

The engineer clicked her tongue.

“I see.” Margot tested a few shades of foundation on her cheek before she found a match she liked. She applied it to her face with her fingertips. “I’m not putting as much of this on you as Madeleine does. You don’t need it.”

“I don’t?” Lan Fan echoed.

“Trust me. You have a beautiful complexion.” Margot applied blush to the apples of her cheeks.

“Thank you,” Lan Fan breathed.

They fell into silence as Margot accented her eyes with shadow. She set the makeup with powder then got out an eyeliner pencil.

“Eyes closed,” Margot instructed.

Lan Fan shut her eyes.

Margot finished lining her eyes. She tried several shades of lipstick on the back of her hand. “We’re going home tomorrow,” Margot informed her as she cleaned the swatches of color from Lan Fan’s fair skin.

“I thought you might,” Lan Fan said.

It was still disappointing but not surprising.

“We’ll come back to visit.” Margot lined her lips into a bow, filling them in with the lip pencil. She followed up with the coral lipstick. “You know you can come visit us, too. Anytime. You’ve always got somewhere to go with us.”

Margot replaced the cap on the lipstick.

“Thank you, Margot.”

The engineer waved off her gratitude.

“Let’s get you dressed.”

Lan Fan took off her robe. Underneath it she already wore undergarments and a slip. Lan Fan put on the gloves and a borrowed pair of stockings. Margot helped her into the dress. Lan Fan wondered if Ling had picked the dress himself. She had Lan Fan face the full length mirror as she ran the zipper up and fastened the snap. It was then Lan Fan realized this wasn’t something off a rack. The gown fit too well to be anything other than bespoke.

Once again she sat at the dressing table while Margot finished her hair. Margot took out the pins she used to make fingerwaves, adding a jeweled headband to Lan Fan’s hair. As Madeleine had the night of the dinner party, Margot finished the look with strands of pearls. Lan Fan stared at herself in the mirror. When she remembered herself she tore her gaze away. If Master Fu was here he would strike her for her vanity.

“Do you want a clutch for your lipstick?” asked Margot.

“No, thank you.”

Margot raised a brow at her.

“How about for your explosives?” Margot asked again.

Lan Fan laughed once at that.

“Yes, please.”

Margot fetched her a small beaded bag from Madeleine’s collection. Lan Fan gathered up her things and put them in the dress box.

“Lan Fan.”

The bodyguard looked over her shoulder at her automail engineer.

“Don’t let anyone take advantage of you.”

Lan Fan wasn’t sure to what she was referring. How could anyone take advantage of her when she could easily slice them to ribbons?

“I won’t.

Chapter Text

The courtyard leading to the Hall of Serenity was illuminated by strands of lights suspended between rooftops. The moon was a freshwater pearl on midnight blue satin. Stars glimmered in the clear sky. Inside the venue the band was already in full swing. The pathway to the stairs was designated by paper lanterns. Party guests filtered into the hall in a steady stream. Most were in couples or small groups.

Lan Fan Liu Zhang ascended the steps alone. While Margot finished getting ready for the event, Lan Fan had returned to her room to arm herself. She had kunai sheathed to each thigh, and managed to fit a compact, lipstick, and single flash bang in the borrowed clutch. There wasn't room to fit anything else within the tiny compartment. Lan Fan tried without luck.

One of the guards did a double take as she passed through the open doors. Lan Fan kept her eyes forward and head up. The grand hall was a cacophony of conversation interspersed with joyous laughter. Merrymakers were dressed in high fashion. Many of the younger guests were wearing western attire, reducing the extent to which Lan Fan stood out in the crowd.

The evening had only just begun but there were a number of people already in attendance. Madeleine hadn’t yet taken the stage. The band played Sunrise Serenade . Servants carrying trays of drinks and hors d'oeuvres moved between the clusters of nobles. Lan Fan accepted a flute of champagne from a passing server, and scanned the hall for someone, anyone she knew.

As Lan Fan navigated her way through the crowd she caught a flash of golden hair. Following it she found Edward Elric talking animatedly with Mei Chang. They were both dressed to the nines. Ed held a rocks glass of bourbon and gestured with his free hand as he made a point. Xiao-Mei sat on the princess’s shoulder munching on a fresh strawberry. Surprisingly, Alphonse wasn't with them.

Edward took a sip of his drink as Lan Fan joined them. He inhaled in surprise and choked. Princess Mei slapped Ed’s back in an effort to help but only staggered him. The little Chang princess looked far too amused. Lan Fan gave them both a withering look. Finally, the former Fullmetal Alchemist got his coughing fit under control.

“Hey,” Ed choked out.

“Shut up.”

“I didn’t say anything!”

“Then don’t start,” Lan Fan snapped.

Mei Chang tittered.

Al showed up with two flutes of champagne.

“I didn’t see any plum wine,” he said.

He handed one of the flutes to Mei then noticed they’d gained a fourth.

“Lan Fan!” Alphonse sounded pleased to see her.

“Has anyone seen the emperor?” Lan Fan asked.

“Did you lose him again? You ever think about putting a bell on ‘im?” Edward contributed.

Lan Fan stepped on Ed’s foot with her heel.

“Ow! It was a joke!”

“Do not make jokes at His Imperial Highness’s expense.”

Al disguised his laugh as a cough.

“He hasn’t shown up yet,” Al answered.

Lan Fan tasted her champagne.

The trio picked up their conversation. They were talking about Alphonse’s presentation. Having been there in person Lan Fan turned her attention to the room at large. Everyone who’s anyone was at the party. The lotus blossom lanterns overhead cast a dreamy glow. Tablecloths were barely visible beneath the cornucopia of delicacies. In several sections aerial acrobats dazzled spectators.

The bodyguard broke off from the group to patrol the hall.


 Upon arriving at the palace Lady Suyin immediately lost her escort. Suyin turned her back just long enough to check their coats. When she turned around again to remind Xiang to stay with her this evening the boy had already vanished. Suyin pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed in frustration. Suyin loved her children dearly but their wanderlust tried her patience. He was almost as bad as Lan Fan when it came to disappearing.

She would never admit it to her daughter but she hated these events nearly as much as Lan Fan. Being Liwei Zhang’s wife afforded her the title of lady, but there were still those who only saw her as an upstart. Gods’ forbid anyone allow her to forget she’d married above her station.

Suyin Zhang took a deep breath and entered the party hall unescorted.

N ouveau riche.

That’s what they called her in polite company.

The aristocracy could call her whatever they liked. For the sake of her children there was nothing she wouldn’t endure. Suyin hadn’t intended to marry again. After Fu took guardianship of Lan Fan, Suyin went to the Imperial City looking for work. Suyin reasoned that, if she could find honest work that paid well enough, she could provide for Lan Fan without her father-in-law’s help. Then she could bring her little girl home.

Suyin found a job serving in a tea house. Without Fu subsidizing her living expenses it wasn’t enough to scrape by. No matter what Suyin was determined her daughter wouldn’t grow up destitute. At the tea house Suyin met Liwei Zhang. She noticed he was handsome but thought nothing more of it. Liwei was courteous but reserved. Nothing more than polite conversation passed between them for months. He drank his tea and read the newspaper, and always dined alone.

In the beginning, Liwei only came to the restaurant a handful of times a week, then it was every weekday. Before long he came around every day like clockwork. Suyin found herself counting down the hours until he turned up. He’d always ordered the same variety of tea. By the time he became a regular he was asking her recommendations. Their polite conversation turned personable.

One rainy day he came in with his newspaper over his head. The paper was soaked through, and Liwei absolutely drenched. Suyin couldn’t help herself. She laughed. Between bouts of the giggles Suyin apologized profusely. Liwei looked surprised by her mirth. Instead of reproaching her he’d smiled and joined in on her laughter. The following day Liwei asked permission to court her.

Suyin reminded him she was a widow. That she had a daughter in the care of a relative. Liwei said he didn’t mind. He asked if she minded the difference in their age, or his lifelong status as a bachelor. Suyin Liu found she didn’t mind in the slightest. Soon she found herself in love. Suyin had many regrets in her life, but marrying Liwei Zhang wasn’t one of them.


 Xiang’s mouth watered as he surveyed the desserts. He hadn't bothered to eat lunch and by now he was starving. The commander of the guard’s little brother was dressed in black tie. His heavy bangs fell into his eyes. Despite his mother's cajoling he'd refused to let her trim his hair or style it back off his forehead.

“It isn't dignified,” she’d argued.

“I like it this way,” Xiang had insisted.

His father had come to his rescue, convincing Suyin to let him be.

Xiang selected a bamboo skewer of candied strawberries and a glass of fizzy, pink punch. Treats in hand he wandered about the hall taking in the sights and sounds. He wondered if there would be fireworks tonight. Xiang loved sparklers but he decided only little kids played with sparklers.

He paused to watch one of the acrobats performing feats of fancy high up in the air, and bit into a strawberry. Flecks of the hard candy coating fell onto the front of his shirt. Hastily, Xiang brushed the crumbs off his clothes and hoped no one noticed. Xiang lifted his eyes and laid them on the most beautiful person he'd ever seen.

Fair hair that caught the light like gossamer. Eyes the bluish grey of river water peering out from wire framed glasses. Willowy and wearing white tie. The bespectacled man stood on the other side of the circle surrounding the acrobat. While he watched the performance he fidgeted with his cuff link; Xiang noticed his fingers were thin and his wrists delicate.

If there was anyone Xiang had to meet tonight it was this ethereal gentleman.

“Xiang?”

Xiang turned toward the familiar voice of his sister. Lan Fan looked stunning. He blinked owlishly at her. If Xiang hadn’t arrived with their mother he might’ve mistaken Lan Fan for her.

“Sister?”

“What are you doing here?”

“Um,” Xiang looked at the items in his hands. “Eating?”

“No, Xiang, what are you doing at this party?”

“Oh! We were invited!”

Lan Fan stared at him then deadpanned, “We?”

“Yeah, mother is here too but father’s at home. He has a cold.” Xiang took another bite of a strawberry, “How come you aren’t dressed like a guard?”

“I was invited also,” Lan Fan answered.

“Hey, do you know who that is?”

Xiang looked toward the gentleman again.

He was gone.

“Who?”

Xiang shook his head slightly.

“Nevermind.”


 Edward Elric was already on his second drink when a blonde bombshell took to the stage. The woman looked familiar. In fact she looked very familiar, but for the life of him Edward couldn’t place her. While the singer adjusted the microphone Ed wracked his brain.

“I swear I’ve seen that woman before,” Ed muttered.

“Who?” asked Al.

They stood together against the wall waiting for Mei to return from powdering her nose.  

“The woman on stage. I know I’ve seen her somewhere .”

“Oh! That’s Ms. Madeleine. She’s good friends with Lan Fan’s automail mechanic. I wrote you about her. She has a nightclub in Central where she sings cabaret. Maybe you’ve seen the flyers?”

“Nah that’s not it…”

Ed tilted his head in contemplation.

Where have I seen her?

He took another sip of his bourbon. The amber liquid tasted like the same expensive shit Mustang drank. When Ed passed through Central City they sometimes got together to talk alchemy over drinks. The General was a decent stand in for Alphonse when Ed needed to bounce ideas off someone. Roy tried on several occasions to school Ed in fine bourbon and scotch. Ed preferred beer thank you very much, but when Mustang footed the bill he sure as shit didn’t say no to the good stuff.

Madeleine started singing a song called Rien de Rein . Ed knew this song. He’d heard it in more than a few bars during his travels in Creta. Ed flushed crimson when he realized exactly where he’d seen the blonde. For the second time this evening he choked on his drink. Bourbon went up his nose, the alcohol burned in his sinuses.

“Good grief, Ed. Slow down with that stuff before you asphyxiate,” Alphonse admonished.  

“I’ve seen that woman in her underwear!” Ed whispered.

What ?” Al exclaimed.

Edward shushed him.

“Keep your voice down!”

“What do you mean you’ve seen Ms. Madeleine in her underwear?” Alphonse Elric looked thoroughly scandalized.

“Remember how I told you about those risqué postcards in Creta?”

“Unfortunately,” Al replied.

“Yeah, well, she was on one of them.”

“Oh god brother please tell me you didn’t buy it!”

If possible Edward’s face and neck grew even warmer.

“N-No!” Ed stammered. “Don’t look at me like that!’

Edward Elric technically hadn’t paid for the postcard. Strictly speaking a desk clerk had forced it on him at one of the more seedy hostels he’d stayed in while in Creta. ‘You like pretty girls?’ The rather filthy looking man had taken a postcard off the spinning display rack on the counter and handed it over with the room key. ‘Free of charge.’ Ed had blushed furiously and tucked it away in his travelogue.

He’d be lying if he said he hadn’t looked at it since.

Alphonse covered his eyes with one hand and groaned.

“It’s not like I went looking for pornography!”

This time Alphonse shushed him.

“Don’t talk about that sort of thing in public,” Al insisted.

“Don’t talk about what in public?” Mei inquired.

The Chang princess had snuck up on them while they argued in hushed voices.

“Nothing!” The Elric brothers insisted at the same time.

Mei regarded them with suspicion.

“This song is pretty great, huh?” Ed tried to change the subject.

“Oh boy! It sure is!” Al replied with far too much enthusiasm.

“You two are acting weird.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. You know what? I would love to dance. Do you want to dance? Let’s dance!”

Alphonse took Mei by the hand and led her onto the dancefloor. Ed downed the rest of his drink in one fell swoop. He tried not to picture the cabaret singer naked. Of course, now it was all he could think about.

In the postcard Madeleine’s hair was longer, and she was about fifteen years younger, but it was definitely her immortalized in black and white. The photographer had posed her at a dressing table, looking over her shoulder in the midst of gathering up her flowing hair. Between her painted lips she held a hairpin. Madeleine’s bare back and the side of her breast were in full view. Nevertheless, she’d had the appearance of an ingenue.

Edward watched the bewitching woman on stage. He wondered how she’d gone from posing for semi-nude photographs to singing for nobility. There was no way in hell he was going to ask.

Chapter Text

Edward whistled as he looked at the spread laid out before him. He didn’t know what half of the food was but it looked delicious. It almost made up for all the restaurant and room service bills Ling stuck him with over the years. Ed filled his plate with a variety of savory morsels and grabbed a table. While Ed tried a mystery dumpling he watched the crowd. Edward Elric wasn’t big on parties but this wasn’t half bad. The booze was all top shelf and Ed was pretty sure he’d just eaten the best dumpling of his life.

In hindsight Ed should’ve convinced Winry to come with him to Xing, but his wife had orders piling up and couldn’t get away. He decided to send her a postcard tomorrow. Winry always complained he didn’t write enough when he was abroad. The last time she brought it up he’d made a crack about international postage costing an arm and an leg, and how he just got the arm back.

Winry didn’t think Ed’s joke was very funny.

Alphonse found him as he was finishing his first helping of the feast.

“Have fun?” Ed asked.

Al was a bit flushed. He drank half his punch before answering.

“Yeah,” Alphonse answered. “Mei is dancing with a cousin. I needed a break from the heat.”

It took everything Ed had not to reach over and check his little brother’s pulse for an irregular rhythm, to not press the back of his hand to Al’s forehead to check for fever. When Alphonse first got his body back Edward didn’t sleep. He stayed awake to make sure Alphonse didn’t spontaneously stop breathing in his sleep; that Al didn’t go into cardiac arrest or have a seizure. It wasn’t until Ed started hallucinating from sleep deprivation that the doctors caught on. Ed was sedated after that but not without a fight.

Once Ed awoke from fourteen hours of sleep he’d gotten an earful from Al. Ed wouldn’t soon forget his emaciated baby brother alternating between shouting at him and taking deep breaths from an oxygen mask. He’d had to apologize to the orderly and nurse he’d scratched up in the process before Al would let him off the hook.

Five years later Ed still worried about Al’s wellbeing. But Alphonse was whole and healthy, and he didn’t need Ed checking his vitals. Alphonse Elric was just fine. He was downright thriving, that’s how it was going to stay.

“Alphonse?”

Ed looked over at the woman who spoke his brother’s name. For a split second he thought Lan Fan had gone and changed. Despite the striking resemblance the woman’s obsidian hair was flecked with silver, and the finest of lines framed her eyes and mouth. She was Lan Fan in twenty years or so.

“Mrs. Zhang!” Al stood from his seat to greet her. “Good evening. It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

Mrs. Zhang beamed at his brother.

“How long has it been since we invited you to dinner? Shame on you for depriving us of your marvelous company,” admonished Mrs. Zhang.

“My apologies. It has been awhile hasn’t it?” Al chuckled.

Edward coughed into his fist.

“Oh! Sorry! Where are my manners? This is my brother Edward. Ed, this is Lan Fan and Xiang’s mother, Suyin Zhang.”

Ed rose from his seat to bow.

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Zhang.” Remembering Ling addressed Xiang as Lord Zhang Edward asked, “Or should I say Lady Zhang?”

“Such manners! Are all Amestrian men so gracious?” Suyin rested her petite hand on Ed’s bicep briefly.

Edward flushed crimson, laughed in a self deprecating manner, and scratched the back of his head. “Something like that,” Ed evaded. He didn’t know what to do with compliments like that.

“Missus will do just fine,” Suyin said, her smile winsome. In comparison to her children Mrs. Zhang looked fragile. Her dress was a pretty, flowing garment with trailing sleeves. If Lan Fan was cut marble Suyin was carved alabaster.

“Where’s Mr. Zhang?” Al asked.

“I’m afraid my dear husband has the flu,” Suyin sighed. “Would either of you happen to have seen my son?”

“Not tonight,” Ed remarked.

Suyin gave him a curious look.

“You’ve met Xiang?”

“Yeah, we ran into each other yesterday. Literally. He went flying over his handlebars. I was pretty turned around. Xiang helped me find my way to the palace. He’s a good kid,” Edward elaborated.

“Did he now? Xiang didn’t mention that,” Suyin lilted.

“He’s got some kick, too. I can tell you from experience he comes by that honestly.” Edward took a swig of his drink. His brother gave him a warning look that Ed ignored. Ed was an adult goddamn it. He’d drink as much as he wanted. He knew how to pace himself.

More or less.

“Xiang kicked you?” Mrs. Zhang looked alarmed and confused.

“No, no! I mean when he sparred with Lan Fan. Xiang said he wanted to join the guard, so Ling wanted to see how the kid measured up to his sister. He kicked her right in the face. She took it like a champ though.”

The pieces clicked together in Ed’s alcohol addled brain about the time Al slapped his linen gloved hand over his eyes. Suyin’s smile froze in place. “If you would please excuse me I really must find my son.” Her countenance cracked and she turned away, departing without a backward glance.

“Shit,” Ed muttered.

“You just had to open your big mouth,” Alphonse groaned.

“I didn’t know it was a secret! It’s not like I tried to get Xiang in trouble!”

“I don’t think Xiang is the one in trouble.”

Edward swore colorfully under his breath.

“Language,” Al hissed.

“Oh stop clutching your pearls, Al,” Ed grumbled. He took a deep breath and let it out in a huff. “I’m gonna see if I can find Lan Fan before Mrs. Zhang does.” Ed tossed back the last of his drink and handed Al the empty glass.

“Hold the fort.”


 

Riza Hawkeye set her glass of sauvignon blanc on the bar. The crystal was damp with condensation. Riza ran the pad of her middle finger around the rim of the glass. It rang with a clear sound audible under the din of the party. Riza scanned the crowd for the general. Roy was off charming dignitaries with the assistance of Yue-Yan. Riza was joined at the bar by Jean Havoc. The three military officers had elected to wear civilian formal wear this evening instead of dress blues.

“So be honest. What do you make of Sebastian?” Havoc asked.

“Hm.” Riza took a sip of wine while she contemplated her answer.    

“I mean, you gotta admit the kid is socially inept. What's a guy like that doing working for the department of diplomacy?” Havoc finished his drink and signaled the bartender.

“General Mustang personally selected him out of a pool of candidates for this assignment. He sees something worthwhile in Sebastian. That’s enough for me to put trust in him. For now at any rate.”

“Well, if you ask me he’s uptight. But I guess I see your point,” Jean conceded. He chewed on the end of the thin straw in his drink. The two of them had gone drinking with the rest of the team enough over the years that Riza could tell the level of Havoc’s inebriation solely by how pronounced his oral fixation was. Although, at the moment, it wasn't as clear an indicator due to the fact Jean Havoc had recently given up smoking.

“Still having trouble quitting?” Riza asked.

“Yeah, I shoulda waited ‘til we got back. I picked the worst time to give it up. But I promised Becky I’d quit,” he replied.

Jean slurped the dregs of his drink through the mangled straw. The sound grated on Riza’s nerves but she refrained from rebuking Havoc. As far as she was aware the man hadn’t cut loose in some time. Since his reinstatement Jean worked twice as hard as he once had, and he was no slacker beforehand. These days Havoc was usually the first to arrive at the office and always the last to leave. Hawkeye had returned to the office one evening to retrieve a file for the then Brigadier General, shortly after Havoc’s reinstatement, to find him burning the midnight oil. When Riza asked what he was doing there so late, he’d replied, ‘Catching up, sir.’

“You’re a good man, Jean Havoc,” Riza said. “Rebecca couldn’t ask for anyone better.”

Jean got a lopsided grin on his face. During his recovery Jean Havoc and Rebecca Catalina had rekindled their romance. The two of them tied the knot last spring. Riza had happily accepted the position of maid of honor. Recently, Rebecca confided in Riza over one of their lunches they were trying for a baby.  

“Oh yeah?”

Riza picked up her glass.

“Don’t push it, Lieutenant.”

“Mustang’s not a bad catch,” Lieutenant Havoc shifted the conversation.

Hawkeye suppressed a smile.

“You make him sound like a fish,” she monotoned.

“Wait ‘til you see the hook,” Jean drolled.

Riza blinked once, twice, then looked right at him.

“What?”

“What?” Havoc repeated.

He looked rather stricken.

“I believe you’re mixing your metaphors, Lieutenant. Am I the fish or the fisherman in this scenario?” Riza raised an eyebrow.

“I, uh, I need a cigarette,” Jean declared. He picked up the fresh drink set in front of him, and made a mad dash for the nearest exit, leaving Riza Hawkeye thoroughly baffled.


Half an hour into the party Lan Fan had yet to set eyes on her charge. She had half a mind to accost the emperor in his rooms. Only she knew Ling would enjoy it immensely. Lan Fan wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. She also thought it unwise to leave Xiang unattended. Between copious amounts of sugar and pure elation her little brother nearly bounced off the walls. Xiang chattered at her elbow as she did a circuit of the hall.

“Father said he’s going to have a telephone put in. Mother says it’s a nuisance and she won’t have it in her house, but I think she’ll come around. She came around on the bicycle. Do you have a telephone here at the palace? Can I phone you when you aren’t working?”

“Yes, we have a telephone and, no, you may not phone me. I’m always working,” Lan Fan answered. Xiang made a disappointed noise and Lan Fan paused to look at him. He had that look on his face; the one he’d worn yesterday. Lan Fan couldn’t say no to that face. She picked a crumb off Xiang’s cheek, wondering when she’d gone soft. “It’s just, you know I can’t advertise my schedule. I’ll phone you,” Lan Fan promised.

Xiang’s smile rivalled the radiance of a full moon on the winter solstice.

Lan Fan counted herself lucky his smile didn’t match the rarity of such a celestial event.

The band finished one song and began playing another. The song caught their attention. “Hey! We know this one!” Xiang exclaimed. He glanced at the couples twirling about the dance floor. “Come on!” Before Lan Fan could protest Xiang took her by the hand. He led her into the midst of the revelry. Lan Fan placed her automail hand gingerly on Xiang’s arm as he rested his other hand on her waist. He never minded her automail. When he first saw it he’d been all curiosity. Xiang wanted to know everything.

The snow is snowing, the wind is blowing

But I can weather the storm

What do I care how it may storm?

I’ve got my love to keep me warm

Xiang led the dance with confidence. They had music in common. Lan Fan loved the hours they spent together listening to records. She’d taught Xiang the foxtrot one afternoon when a thunderstorm chased them indoors. The next time Lan Fan visited Xiang had bought a book on dancing. Together, they taught themselves a number of contemporary dances.   

I can’t remember

A greater December

Just watch those icicles form

What do I care if icicles form?

I’ve got my love to keep me warm

Lan Fan followed when Xiang twirled her under his arm. Xiang was a good dancer. He was naturally good at a lot of things.

Off with my overcoat, off with my gloves

I need no overcoat, I’m burning with love

My heart’s on fire, the flame grows higher

So I will weather the storm

What do I care how much it may storm?

I’ve got my love to keep me warm

Lan Fan moved closer when Xiang spun her back into his arms. She slid her hand up to his shoulder. The two of them were eye to eye.

“How’s your nose?” Xiang asked.

“Good as new. How about your tongue?” Lan Fan replied.

Xiang stuck his tongue out.

“Insolent.”

My heart's on fire

The flame grows higher

So I will weather the storm

What do I care how much it may storm?

I've got my love to keep me warm

Over Xiang’s shoulder Lan Fan saw their mother making her way through the fray.

“There's mother.”

He made a corner step to get a glimpse of Lady Suyin.

“Uh oh,” Xiang paled. “She looks mad.”

“Why would she be mad?”

“Probably something I forgot to tell her. On purpose. One, two, three, break left!” Xiang spun her off and made a break for it.

“Xiang!”

Chapter Text

Lan Fan didn't argue as her mother grabbed her by the wrist and dragged her off the dance floor. Lady Suyin led them to the nearest empty alcove where they could speak privately. Lan Fan took a step backward when her mother rounded on her and released her wrist.

“Tell me you did not fight with your brother yesterday. In front of the emperor no less.”

Lan Fan flinched and lowered her eyes to the floor.

“Look at me when I’m speaking you,” Suyin demanded.

Snapping to attention the bodyguard lifted her head.

“Do you deny it?”

Lan Fan opened her mouth to explain but thought better of it. She decided to shoulder the blame for the incident. Any excuse she made would ring hollow. Lan Fan shook her head. Lady Suyin trembled with anger and Lan Fan braced herself for a lecture. She’d heard it all before.

“You know exactly how I feel about Xiang becoming a guard, yet you continue to encourage him,” Suyin seethed.

Xiang hardly needs any encouragement.

Lan Fan kept her own counsel.  

Peace never lasted long between them. These days their arguments were mere skirmishes compared to the war they once waged. The last several years they’d maintained an unwritten armistice. Now Lady Suyin unleashed her arsenal.

“Reckless! Just like your grandfather,” Suyin said in a caustic whisper.

Lan Fan put up her best wall. She pictured herself sinking in icy water, her heart frosting over like a window pane. Tiny bubbles streaming from her mouth until there were no more to be had. “I should never have let you show him how to make a fist let alone how to fight,” Suyin continued. It was no use. Lan Fan wasn’t suspended in an underwater icescape. No water muffled her mother’s words. Only the sound of Lan Fan’s heartbeat reverberating in her head.

“Do you wish to send me to an early grave?” Suyin’s voice climbed.

“No,” Lan Fan monotoned.

“Xiang is a child. You are the adult.”

“Yes, mother.”

“You should’ve sent him straight back home.”

“I know.”

“Keeping secrets!” Suyin carried on. “How am I supposed to trust either of you?”

Suyin’s words ignited the short fuse of Lan Fan’s temper.

“People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” Lan Fan shot back.  

“What in heavens are you talking about?” Suyin asked.

This was hardly the time or place for this conversation, but for once Lan Fan couldn't keep quiet.

“February 1914.”

“What?”

“You changed my name. You replaced my father. You are the one who keeps secrets,” Lan Fan exploded.

The color drained from Lady Suyin’s face.

“How do you know about that?”

“What does it matter how I know? You should’ve told me. I have more important things to do than report back to you on Xiang’s misadventures. Why don't you try looking after your child for a change instead of having someone else do it?”

Lady Suyin struck her daughter across the face. It shocked Lan Fan. By the look on Suyin’s face she was just as startled by her action. Suyin didn't make a habit of disciplining her children in such a manner. To Suyin’s credit she recovered quickly.

“Now you listen to me. You will not speak to me that way. I’ve always looked after your best interests. Your grandfather may have colored your opinion of me but I’m your mother. Do you hear me?”

Lan Fan stared at her wide eyed. No one had reprimanded her physically in a long time. The last time Grandfather had struck her clean across the face for losing Prince Ling. For the loss of her arm.

“Do you hear me?” Suyin asked again.

“Yes,” Lan Fan answered.

“No more sparring with your brother. No more worrying us with your coming and going as you please without so much as a word. I’ve had enough. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Lan Fan repeated.

“Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

Lan Fan looked at her mother in defiance. If Suyin wasn’t going to apologize for her trespasses than neither was Lan Fan. She shook her head.

“No.”

“Then go take care of the things you think are more important than your family,” Lady Zhang commanded.

“As you wish.”

The Yao bodyguard obeyed.


While Yue-Yan excused herself briefly Sebastian convened with General Mustang. They took up residence at a standing table near a group of acrobats. “Any whispering campaigns?” Mustang asked. Sebastian tilted his head, letting his eyeglasses tip down his nose, and gestured with the hand holding his highball glass.

“Apparently, there's some chatter about a noble from the Zhang clan making an unexpected appearance. Aside from that not much. Idle gossip from the servants. The centerpiece of the dessert table was a croquembouche but someone named Peizhi dropped it on the way from the kitchens. Those sorts of things,” Sebastian took a sip of his ginger and bourbon. The carbonation in the ginger beer fizzed, tickling his nose. Sebastian wasn't above eavesdropping if it meant ingratiating himself to General Mustang. He didn't consider himself adept at espionage but he was no stranger to people watching.

Sebastian Schuyler didn't have friends. He had classmates while at university, colleagues at work, and a handful of acquaintances. This was entirely by design. Schuyler had no interest in divulging the details of his personal life. Inquiries into his private affairs were met with polite yet vague responses. Sebastian told any who asked that he had no family to speak of, and he was married to his work. He lived alone in a modest flat. Sebastian was courteous but reserved with his neighbors.

Unfortunately, Sebastian’s aversion to making friends wasn’t doing him any favors. Though Sebastian stood by his assessment of Alphonse Elric’s presentation, in hindsight he thought he'd spoken out of turn. The Elric Brothers were infamous for their influence and close ties to the Amestrian military brass and the Emperor of Xing both. The diplomatic attaché had spent the remainder of the afternoon annotating Alphonse’s presentation packet in preparation for their meeting the following morning. If Sebastian wanted any chance at the chargé d’affaires appointment he needed to make nice with Alphonse Elric.

“What about our interpreter?” asked Mustang.

“She’s a skilled linguist,” he answered.

“Anything else?”

Sebastian adjusted his spectacles. Noticing a smudge on the left lense Sebastian removed them. He set his drink on the table. From his pocket he produced a pristine handkerchief to polish the glass. He had the impression their interpreter was infatuated with Alphonse Elric. Miss Yue-Yan became considerably more flustered in Mr. Elric’s presence. Earlier in the evening Sebastian caught her looking at the alchemist across the room in a manner he could only describe as longing. It also appeared Alphonse was oblivious to her affection.

“Miss Yue-Yan’s translations thus far are accurate. I believe she can be trusted to do her job,” Sebastian replied.

If Yue-Yan had a secret crush on Alphonse Elric it wasn't his business. Sebastian most assuredly wasn’t going to make it his business. He held his glasses up to the light. Crystal clear. Returning his glasses to his face he blinked his eyes back into focus.

Roy Mustang regarded him with an inscrutable expression.

“May I ask why you decided to study Xingese instead of say Cretan?” Roy inquired.

Sebastian picked up his drink.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he equivocated.

“You're good at that,” Mustang smirked.

“I don't know what you mean, General.”

“Evading.”

Schuyler didn’t dignify his observation with a response. Mustang did him a favor and dropped the subject. The diplomatic attaché had a feeling it was only for now. Upon the return of their interpreter he excused himself.


Edward saw Lan Fan making a beeline for a side exit. He forced his way through a group of people to follow her, ignoring a man Ed was pretty sure called him a racial slur. Ed caught up to her outside. The Xingese young woman slipped on an icy patch of the pathway. The theoretical alchemist wrapped his arm around her waist.

“I’ve got you,” Edward exclaimed.

Lan Fan grabbed onto his shoulder. Between the two of them they managed to keep her upright. They stared each other. Edward could proudly say she stared up at him.

“You can let go of me now,” Lan Fan told him through gritted teeth.

He removed his arm from her waist before he lost it.

“You’re welcome,” Ed laced his words with sarcasm.

Then Ed remembered why he was looking for her in the first place.

“I guess you talked to your mom. I didn't know she didn't  know.”

“Your ignorance of our traditions is increasingly apparent,” Lan Fan accompanied the words with her most contemptuous look yet. Ed had seen that look from her enough over the time they’d known each other.

“Didn’t your mother ever tell you if you keep making that face it might stick?” He joked.

Lan Fan didn’t crack a smile.

All dolled up she was still terrifying. A chill ran down his spine. Or rather up from his automail. It was freezing out.

“Hey, your automail isn’t for cold weather right?”

“It’s perfectly fine. Mind your own automail,” Lan Fan instructed. “If you would stop meddling in my affairs everything would be fine.”

The bodyguard turned to storm off once more.

“You’re being an idiot,” he shouted.  

She didn’t stop.

Screw it.

Ed decided to go for broke.

“Here I thought that was Ling’s job!”

It worked like a charm

Lan Fan turned to glare at him.

“Do not insult His Imperial Highness,” she warned.

“Then don’t be an idiot.”

Edward took off his jacket as he walked over to her. He put it around her shoulders, held his hand out toward the veranda.

“Ladies first.”


Lan Fan wanted to scream. Instead she shut her eyes and took a deep breath. Fresh air and frigid temperatures were what she needed. They cooled off her hot head. Lan Fan opened her eyes and walked up to the steps. Edward followed behind her. Lanterns illuminated the walkway surrounding the Hall of Serenity. Lan Fan hesitated at the door.

“Hey,” Ed said.

She looked up at him.

“If you want to stay out here awhile I could get us some coffee,” Ed offered.

Lan Fan nodded.

While Edward went to fetch them coffee Lan Fan breathed. By the time Ed returned with coffee she calmed down enough to conduct herself with temperance.

“Thank you.”

“No problem.”

Lan Fan took a sip. She tasted coffee and almonds. The drink burned the back of her throat but warmed her chest.

“What’s in this?”

Edward tried his coffee.

“Amaretto. I asked the guy at the bar for strong coffee. I think something got lost in translation. Sorry, I don’t know how to say espresso in Xingese.”

“It’s fine.”

In relatively companionable silence Lan Fan and Edward sipped the coffee and liqueur concoction. Eventually, Ed broke the quiet. “Look,” Ed began. He paused. Lan Fan waited while he considered his next words. He continued, “My dad wasn’t around when I was a kid.”

Silence.

“I mean, he was kinda absent even when he was still around.”  

Edward warmed his hands around his cup.

"Then he comes back acting all surprised things aren’t the way he left them,” Ed glanced her way. “Xiang mentioned you didn't grow up together.”

“Master Fu raised me after my father died,” Lan Fan stated.

“Were you close with your dad?”

Lan Fan looked at him. Ed didn't have a baby face anymore. He had a strong jaw and broad shoulders. With Ed’s golden hair in a tail he looked a lot like his father.

“He wasn’t around often. He spent a lot of time at the Yao Estate guarding Prince Ling. But when he was home he was present,” Lan Fan answered.

“How old were you when he died?”

Lan Fan looked up at the stars. Inside the Hall of Serenity the band played Moonlight Serenade.

“Three.” Lan Fan surprised herself by asking, “How old were you when your mother died?”

“Five,” Ed took another sip of his coffee. Lan Fan finished her cup. Edward Elric was doing his best to relate to her. Lan Fan thought it more than a little strange but at the same time strangely comforting.

“We should go back inside,” she said.

“Yeah it’s pretty cold out here.”

“Thank you,” Lan Fan returned his jacket.

“Don’t worry about it.”

As Lan Fan and Edward returned to the party together she thought perhaps they were better friends than she’d realized.

Chapter Text

“What do you think?”

Qiyin Gao glanced at Emperor Ling Yao upon being addressed. His Imperial Highness added a gold pocket watch to his white tie ensemble. The emperor looked fit to conduct himself in western high society.

“Your Majesty cuts an impressive figure,” he replied

“As usual your taste is impeccable,” said His Lordship.

The emperor adjusted his bow tie and pulled on a pair of immaculate gloves.

“You haven’t said how Commander Liu took the invitation,” the emperor remarked.

“Accordingly, sire.”

“Oh, come now,” Ling caught his eye in the mirror and grinned. “I’m certain you can tell me more than that.”

Qiyin didn't report on the guard commander. Not to the emperor nor anyone else. His loyalty to Emperor Yao came in second only to his loyalty to Commander Liu. He chose his response carefully.

“I believe her exact words were ‘You will not let him out of your sight unless he is in mine.’”

“Business as usual then,” Ling quipped.

Qiyin noticed the amusement in Ling’s tone and affection in his features. The bodyguard chuckled and clasped his hands behind his back. The emperor sat on the end of his bed to finish his look with a pair perfectly polished black Oxfords.

“How much am I going to pay for dismissing her this evening?”

The lieutenant weighed the odds.

“A great deal, I imagine, though not enough to inspire remorse,” Qiyin responded.

Ling looked up from tying his shoe. His eyes twinkled with mischief.

“Then I take it you've seen the dress?”

As a matter of fact, Her Royal Majesty had consulted the guard’s professional opinion. Qiyin advised against constricting or cumbersome attire. He also informed the dowager empress that although Commander Liu displayed her automail while on duty she didn't draw attention to it when out of uniform; A weapon the commander concealed when she didn't seek to intimidate.

The dowager empress gave him a glimpse of the gown before her seamstress boxed it up. Xue Yao was an auteur. Qiyin indicated his approval. Lady Yao tasked the him with sneaking the dress into Lan Fan’s room.

He’d set the box upon her unmade bed. Though he’d touched naught else he’d glanced about the room. Her clothes from the night before piled on the floor in front of the wardrobe. An assortment of glass bottles, brushes, and handful of hairpins on the vanity. A collection of glossy magazines towered on the bedside table. A tattered issue tossed in a wastebasket. A pair of gold heels in the corner by the door. One shoe knocked over on its side.

He’d resisted the urge to set it right.

“I’m under strict orders from Her Ladyship not to spoil the surprise,” Qiyin said.

“Lady Xue loves a good spectacle,” Ling conceded.

“I believe you’ll be satisfied.”


 

Greed wouldn’t be satisfied.

Ling stopped short of voicing the thought. It came to his mind unbidden. The homunculus weighed heavy on his mind of late. The emperor gave his bodyguard a rueful smile.

“Heavens forbid,” Ling replied


 

Roy Mustang saw music as colors.

It started after he had his sight restored by way of the philosopher’s stone. Roy turned on the wireless in his townhouse and saw a symphony of color. It terrified him. He thought he’d gone mad. He phoned Hawkeye immediately. A multitude of neurological and ophthalmological tests later he received a diagnosis.

Chromesthesia.

A neurological phenomenon but not a hallucination. The doctor described it as a bad wiring job. ‘People are born with these sort of perceptual phenomena.’  Once his sanity was assured Roy did what any scientist worth his salt would do.

The Flame Alchemist went to the library.

He learned there were more types of synesthesia than sound-to-color. Roy discovered he also had spatio-temporal synesthesia. Since early childhood he visualized time as a looped ribbon. Case studies of chromesthesia documented variations of the phenomenon. Some synesthetes perceived the colors in the mind’s eye. Roy perceived the colors in the external space.

The research couldn't explain the causation of the experience. Roy couldn't definitively say the philosopher's stone caused his chromesthesia. He didn't have empirical evidence but there had to be a correlation. Based on the available data it remained the most logical conclusion. Roy halted the scientific method at hypothesis. The phenomenon didn’t obscure his vision. Synesthesia was far from the worst thing Roy Mustang had learned to live with.

The Hall of Serenity was a painter’s palette.

Colors twisted in the air like aether.

“Who is the singer?” Roy asked.

“Madame Madeleine Rousseau. An honored guest of His Imperial Majesty from Creta by way of Amestris,” Yue-Yan answered.

The translator trilled the r on Rousseau. Her syntax astonished him. Yue-Yan switched between languages with ease.

“Do you speak Cretan?”

Yue-Yan smoothed a lock of her fine hair with her fingers. She looked at her feet and said, “Je parle un petite peu, Général Mustang.” The translator switched from Cretan to Amestrian without taking a breath. “But my pronunciation isn't the best.” She peeked up at him and smiled a little.

“I’d say you have an ear for it. Do you have an ear for music as well?”

The young woman blushed, twisted the lock of hair around her index finger.

“I can play guzheng .”

Roy tilted his head in thought.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that instrument,” he said.

“Um,” Yue-Yan looked up and to the left as the gears turned in her head. “It has strings.” As the translator searched for the word she made a plucking motion with her fingers.

“Harp?”

“No.”

“Guitar?”

Yue-Yan shook her head.

“Maybe there isn’t a word for it in Amestrian,” Roy offered.

“Maybe,” Yue-Yan didn’t sound convinced.

“Well, whatever it’s called I’m sure you make beautiful music,” he said, looking at the stained glass world around him. Roy Mustang hoped he never became accustomed to it.

“May I ask how you came to be such a skilled linguist?”

“I’m a Han. We’re border dwellers.”

The name rang a bell.

“Han? There was a Mr. Han who helped a refugee named Maria Ross cross the border to Xing. This would’ve been about six years ago now. Any chance he’s a relation of yours? I’m afraid I don’t know his first name.”

Yue-Yan Han’s eyes lighted up.

“My uncle.”

“How serendipitous! Why don’t we have a dance? You can tell me how a lovely young woman from the border ended up this far from home.”

General Mustang smiled and held out his gloved hand.

She took it then said, “Oh! Zither.”

The interpreter smiled in satisfaction.

Serendipitous indeed.


 

Ling Yao had a skip in his step.

Things were going his way. He would have to make his apologies to Lady Suyin should his little tourney have caused trouble for the siblings. Ling was certain Xiang was his path to a foot in the door with Lan Fan’s mother. Frankly, the woman intimidated him. The resemblance between mother and daughter was striking.

Such fearful symmetry.

If he looked at Suyin through his lashes she was Lan Fan painted in watercolor. Lady Bodyguard in a beautiful daydream. The incident at the lake haunted him. Accident aside he often had trouble with first impressions in his youth. Ling was a precocious brat. It cast a shadow over the rare encounters he had with the woman. So much of their lives was compartmentalized. Between them they wore many masks. Sometimes he lost track of who he was supposed to be.

Lan Fan was his constant.

When Ling found himself tempest tossed and lost at sea Lan Fan lighted his way to shore. Ling feared nothing with her watching over him. The emperor determined to have everything he desired. Lan Fan Liu Zhang was at the top of the list. If everything went as planned things should fall into place.

Ling headed to the Hall of Serenity with Lieutenant Gao in tow. When they stepped outside two bodyguards joined them. Bolin and Tingzhe. They made a remarkable team. Lan Fan never passed up an opportunity to put them on the same rotation. Commander Liu assigned him a lively detail for the evening. She didn’t know those two played cards with him when he wanted to slack off.

He resolved to walk into this hall one day with Lan Fan on his arm. One day the emperor would call her his consort and they would be together at last as equals. All he had to do was play his cards right.

Greed taught him a thing or two about cards.

Ling smirked.

As Emperor Ling Yao proceeded along the pathway the emperor spotted a stray.

Ms. Margot Fontaine dressed in a suit tailored in an androgynous fashion. Margot’s makeup bordered on avant garde. She smoked a cigarette.

“Your Majesty.”  

Chapter Text

“Your Majesty.”

Lieutenant Gao signaled for Bolin and Tingzhe to take a walk. The pair broke off to make a sweep of the courtyard. Qiyin hung back slightly as the emperor approached the engineer. The androgynous ensemble suited Margot Fontaine.

“Ms. Fontaine, how fortunate we should both be late to the party. I was just thinking about our promised chat. I hope the offer hasn’t expired,” His Lordship said.

Margot narrowed her eyes at the emperor. The redhead lit a fresh cigarette off the spent one. She took a drag, held the smoke in her lungs, and let it out slowly.

“You’ve got ‘til I finish this,” Margot flicked off the ash.

The emperor paused, folded his arms across his chest.

“Have I done something wrong, Ms. Fontaine?”

Margot fixed his liege with a stare.

“I don’t like you,” she stated.

His Majesty looked at Qiyin then back at Ms. Fontaine.

“Pardon me?”

Margot exhaled smoke.

A smoldering dragon in the guise of a woman.

“You heard me.”

"I can’t see any reason why,” Ling said.

“I’m not buying this prince charming routine,” Margot replied.

“Ah. Actually, you mean “emperor” charming. A common mistake. It’s my boyish good looks.”

Ling Yao had to get cheeky.

Rookie mistake.

Lieutenant Gao held back a sigh.

He never learns.

“I don’t like the effect you have on Lan Fan. You go looking for her and the next thing I know she’s spends three days acting like a bird with a broken wing. It happens again you’ll be dealing with me.”

“I believe there’s been a misunderstanding.”

“I don't wanna hear it,” Margot flicked the remains of her cigarette at the emperor’s feet. His Lordship hopped clear of the cinders. Qiyin step forward to subdue the woman The emperor halted him with a sweep of his arm. The bodyguard crossed his arms in a show of disapproval. How Commander Liu put up with Ling Yao’s stubbornness he didn’t know.

Probably something to do with love.

“I implore you not to upset my guards. They’re frighteningly well trained,” Ling said.

His Majesty was correct on that count.

Lan Fan Liu commanded respect. From the very start she took more shifts than any of them. It took him several weeks to realize the commander had trouble sleeping. He recognized that haunted look of hers. Nightmares. She didn’t speak of them. Instead she joined him on his watches. The nearness of His Highness eased the young woman’s nerves. He noticed it in her breathing and the tension in her graceful form.

Sometimes Qiyin caught Lan Fan with a song in her step. Ms. Rosseau was right about Lady Liu. The commander was a dancer at heart. It wasn’t any wonder why her father adored her.

She once asked if he’d disobey an order from His Imperial Majesty if it meant keeping him safe.

Qiyin knew what she was asking.

Feng had said it a thousand times if he said it once.  

‘The people are lost without their king,’ he’d answered.

She appointed him her second-in-command that day.

As a novice guard Qiyin Gao idolized Feng Liu. The man was everything Qiyin wished to be. Feng seemed invincible until the day he died. When Qiyin heard Liu’s daughter gave her arm for the prince he knew she was the same caliber as her father.

Serving alongside Feng’s legacy was nothing short of a privilege.

“I can’t argue with any of that,” Ling concluded.

The emperor looked to him. “Can you?”

“No, Your Eminence.”

“That’s settled then.”

Ms. Fontaine gawked at them.

“May I see you inside, Ms. Fontaine? You’ll catch your death in this weather.”

The dragon appraised the emperor like a gemstone.  

His Lordship offered his arm and she took it.

At last the Emperor of Xing proceeded into the Hall of Serenity.


Lan Fan and Edward decided to be wallflowers together. The bodyguard and alchemist planted themselves behind a pillar in close proximity to the wall.

“So what is the deal with you showing up all dolled up?” Ed inquired.

Lan Fan spared Edward a glance.  

“His Eminence is having a jest,” Lan Fan replied.

She felt a bit tingly from the amaretto and champagne. Drinking on duty was an egregious offense. Someone should report her to the commander.

Lan Fan giggled because she was the Commander.  

“What?” Ed asked.

A smile spread across his face. Edward Elric had a daring smile. She loved that sort of smile. Ling had one just like it. The world hummed at the edge of her senses. Lan Fan needed a glass of water.

“I’m parched,” she said aloud.

“Wait here,” Ed commanded. He walked away then turned on his heel to look at her. Walking backwards he asked,  “Punch or water?”

“Water.”

Edward mock saluted as he spun forward. His golden hair whipped around behind him the way a breeze flirted with a scarf. The emperor had such beautiful hair. The wind cajoled Ling’s inky hair. Commander Lan Fan Liu took a measured breath. She shook her head to clear it.

Focus.

Lan Fan stepped into the shadow of the pillar to peer out at the crowd. She spotted Hawkeye at the bar. The captain looked sophisticated in a sapphire evening dress. Lan Fan didn’t let her gaze linger. Her eyes swept over a group of guests engrossed in conversation then whipped back. The Ninth Prince Junjie Zhang and Commander Lan Fan Liu locked eyes.

Surprise and delight flickered across his features.

He looked like the cat who got the canary.

“If it isn’t the watchdog herself,” someone lilted behind her.  

“How good of His Majesty to invite the help,” echoed another.

Lan Fan tore her eyes away from Lord Zhang to cut a glance over her shoulder.

Bao and Bai Tien wore identical looks of mockery.

“For a moment I thought you were that parvenu mother of yours,” one of the twins tittered.

Lan Fan couldn’t tell them apart. The Tien twins were opalescent in pastel quju. A nightmare disguised as a daydream. Lan Fan’s reaction to the insult splintered. Nevertheless, Lan Fan’s protective nature outweighed her anger towards her mother. She opened her mouth to say something she was sure to regret.

“There you are, cousin.”

Junjie Zhang linked their arms together. The Ninth Prince pulled her to his side and Lan Fan froze. Suddenly, she was surrounded by enemies with no means for escape. Adrenaline sobered her. Lan Fan looked up at Lord Zhang. He hardly ever attended court functions. Junjie and Ling were the same height but the Zhang prince was delicately crafted. The pale freckles dusting his nose and cheeks were barely visible against such a fair complexion. His eyes mirrored Ling’s. Junjie gave her his fizzy pink drink and a smile as sly as a fox.

“Beware flowers with thorns, Lady Zhang. We wouldn’t want you to prick your finger,” he cautioned.

Good humor aside the prince had dark circles beneath his sunken eyes. He looked unwell. Lan Fan found herself more concerned than she might’ve imagined. Junjie leaned down to whisper playfully in her ear.

“Exit stage right?”

Lan Fan nodded numbly.

With that Junjie Zhang whisked her away into the revelry. Lan Fan started the day as a knight. Somewhere along the way she wound up a damsel in distress with Prince Junjie in the role of her rescuer. The two of them blended into a crowd huddled around an acrobat. Life never failed to remind Lan Fan of its surrealism at the most peculiar of times.

“Good evening, Lady Liu,” Junjie chuckled.

“My Lord,” she breathed.

Her heart pounded in her ears.

“A little bird tells me you’re something of a dancer,” he continued.

Lan Fan looked at him with wide eyes.

“Huh?”

“Little Xiang is quite the storyteller,” Junjie said.

The commander of the guard felt lightheaded. Her knees threatened to give way and she clung to the prince’s arm for balance.

“A dance is a fair reward for a rescue.”

He glanced down at her with a hint of a smile. The prince looked tired but seemed light in spirit. Junjie looked as if he should sit down. Lan Fan focused on her hearing. The band played a slow tune. Lan Fan wondered at Junjie Zhang’s sudden appearance. A dance would buy her a little time to puzzle out his intentions. The bodyguard handed off the drink to a server.

“One dance.”

The prince’s eyes twinkled in delight as he guided her onto the dance floor.

“You’re looking thoroughly modern this evening.”

“I could say the same for you, My Lord.”

Prince Junjie wore white tie. Lan Fan adored western evening dress. Dancing gloves in particular. Lan Fan liked clothes more than she should. Grandfather wouldn’t approve.

Grandfather is gone.

“I hope you didn’t let them get to you.”

“Pardon?” Lan Fan blinked at him.

“You look like you have something on your mind,” he commented.

Lan Fan changed the subject.

“I’m surprised to see you here, My Lord,” she said.

“Likewise. It’s been a long time since Lady Lan Zhang attended a party. I was beginning to think we met in a dream.”

The bodyguard didn’t bite her tongue.

“Commander Liu,” Lan Fan corrected.

“My mistake," the prince apologized.

Lan Fan’s imagination ran wild with all the things Xiang might’ve divulged to his imperial cousin. Xiang’s naivety would be the death of her.  

“I wasn’t aware my brother’s told such entertaining stories.”

Junjie had a playful gleam in his eye.

“Quite.”

“There you are,” Edward said. He stood behind Prince Junjie with two glasses of water in hand. “I told you to wait. What gives?” Ed moved closer and glanced at Junjie. “Hey Xiang.” The theoretical alchemist glanced again. “Wait, you’re not Xiang!”

“No,” Junjie tilted his head curiously.

“Okay then piss off this is a closed club.”

Edward elbowed his way in between them.

“Such a lively fellow,” Junjie marveled.

Ed handed Lan Fan a drink and took her other hand.

“Come tell me what all the food is so I don’t eat something gross,” Edward demanded.

Lan Fan looked over her shoulder at Prince Junjie as Edward dragged her away. He waved his fingers at her. Lan Fan thought she saw the prince smirk before the crowd obscured him from sight.

“Who was that guy? I didn’t offend someone important did I? Mustang will give me such shit if I piss off someone important. Old man acts like he’s still my C.O. Like he can tell me what to do. Roy’s not the boss of me!” Ed gestured.

“He’s my cousin.”

“Oh, well, that’s a relief."

Chapter Text

Xiang hadn’t told his parents about his little escapade at the palace. He didn’t want to get in trouble. If he got in trouble his mother would take the bicycle away. Probably for good this time. Xiang knew he should be more careful but it was a racing bicycle. He couldn’t help himself. He got another glass of pink punch and a lotus seed bun. The fizzy drink was delightful. He liked how the bubbles tickled his nose. He took a large bite of his pastry. Xiang felt like he was buzzing; he had a good deal of sugar since his arrival.

Xiang caught a glimpse of Lady Suyin through the crowd. Xiang stuck the sweet bun in his mouth and looked for an escape route. There was a break in the crowd to his right. Xiang didn’t hesitate. He couldn’t dodge her indefinitely, but if his mother caught him now she might drag him home by his ear. Xiang caught sight of Alphonse and made a beeline for his table. He took the sweet bun out of his mouth to greet him.


Sebastian Schuyler decided to eat his humble pie now rather than later. But first he got another bourbon and ginger. He didn’t drink often. Or rather he didn’t drink often in social situations. Alcohol always loosened his tongue. Sebastian found Alphonse seated alone at a table. The diplomatic attache approached the table as a raven haired boy joined the alchemist.  

His eyes sparkled.

He laughed like he was getting away with something.

Sebastian wondered if it had something to do with the pamplemousse and bubbles. He wasn’t as young as Sebastian initially thought but he certainly didn’t look old enough to drink. The alchemist and the noble exchanged words in Xingese. Sebastian didn’t catch them. He’d forgotten himself entirely.


“Hello Alphonse!” Xiang chirped.

“Hi Xiang. Your mom’s looking for you,”Al lilted.

“I know, I know!” Xiang laughed and looked over his shoulder. Lady Suyin was on the prowl. Hiding in plain sight was his best chance of survival. “Can I sit with you?”

“Sure.”

“Thanks!”

Xiang sat in the chair next to Al. He turned in his seat to watch the band perform. Madeleine Rousseau was a wonderful singer. Xiang liked playing cards with her, but more than that he liked listening to her talk about Creta and Amestris. He wished he could travel to Amestris. Xiang wanted to see Maddy perform at her nightclub.

“Did you need something?” Alphonse asked.

Xiang turned his head to look at Al. The alchemist wasn’t looking at him. Xiang followed his line of sight. Alphonse wasn’t speaking to him. He was speaking to the enchanting stranger in front of them. Xiang Zhang sat up straighter in his chair.

“Good evening, Mr. Elric. I wondered if I might have a moment of your time?” The stranger inquired in Amestrian.

Xiang’s mouth went dry. He picked up his drink and took a quick sip; He wanted to ask Alphonse to introduce him. At the same time, he didn’t want to converse in Xingese with Alphonse in front of someone who didn’t know the language. Instead, Xiang pinched the fabric of the alchemist’s pant leg under the table, tugging twice to get his attention. Al glanced at Xiang with a question in his marigold eyes. Tilting his head to whisper, Xiang swept his feathered fringe to the side with his fingertips.

“Is he your friend?” Xiang winced at the eagerness in his tone.

The alchemist tilted his head at question. Xiang allowed his fringe to fall back into place and averted his eyes. He learned that one from his sister.

“We’ve only just met,” Alphonse mumbled.

“I hope I’m not interrupting...”

“You aren’t interrupting,” Al said.

Once again Xiang tugged at Al’s pant leg. Al shifted his leg to free the fabric from Xiang’s grasp and said, “Have you met Xiang?”

Xiang stood to offer his hand.

“Mr. Schuyler is one of the diplomats from my country.”

The diplomat started with a stutter and clasped Xiang’s hand.

“Xiang Zhang. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Xiang said.

Xiang made eye contact and smiled.

For a split second the handshake lingered. Long enough to inspire syncopation in his chest.

“Sebastian.”  


In the red light district of the Imperial City the emperor’s spymaster waltzed into a whorehouse. Shu took a seat at the bar. He ordered a bottle of baiju and asked for two glasses. While Shu waited he decided to indulge in another vice. Only two cigarettes remained in the tin. Shu stuck one in his mouth. He spun the flint wheel of the lighter, receiving only a spark for his trouble. His hands shook. He hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. Instead the spy subsisted on nicotine and coffee. He flicked the flint again to no avail. A third attempt had him swearing under his breath.

The bartender set a ceramic bottle on bar then grabbed two small glasses from beneath the counter.

“Will there be anything else, sir?”

“Yeah, you got any matches?”

The bartender fetched him a matchbook from a box near the brass register on the back counter. A red lotus on a white background emblazoned the front of the cover.

“Thanks,” Shu mumbled.

He tore one of the paper matches free. Shu struck it between the striker and folded back cover. The blacksmith cupped his hand around the flame while he ignited the end of his cigarette. He held the smoke in his lungs as he shook out the match; let the smoke out in a slow, steady stream.

For once Shu didn't have his finger on the pulse of the situation. Furthermore, his thoughts continued circling back to Lan Fan. He wondered how long Lan Fan intended to entertain the emperor’s flights of fancy.

Not that it mattered.  

It wouldn't last.

Meanwhile, there was work to do. Shu paid the man behind the bar. Glasses in one hand, bottle in the other, and cigarette in his mouth he went upstairs. Shu rapped on the door at the end of the empty hallway. A waifish woman answered.

“If it isn’t the man himself,” she marveled.

Shu smirked around his cigarette.  

“You know you love me, Millie.”

The madame tugged him inside by his lapel, and the spymaster kicked the door shut behind them.


Edward returned from the restroom to find Lan Fan struggling to get the cap off her lipstick. She couldn’t get any friction with her gloves on.       

“Need a hand?” Ed asked.

“Ha ha very funny,” Lan Fan grumbled.  

He rolled his eyes.

“You know what I mean.” Ed snatched the item from her hands. He stuck his gloves in his back pocket and popped off the cap. The peachy pigment smudged on his skin. “You’re gonna get this all over your gloves.”

“If I remove them I’ll never get them back on again,” Lan Fan told him.

Ed stared at the lipstick then looked at Lan Fan.

“I can draw a perfect circle with my eyes shut,” Ed declared.

Lan Fan blinked at him.

“Congratulations.”

He ignored her sarcasm.

“If I can do that I think I can manage to color in the lines.”

Edward tilted her chin up. Most of the lipstick had transferred to champagne flutes and coffee cups but a stain of color lingered. The theoretical alchemist touched up her lip color with painstaking precision. He twisted the tinted wax back into the tube and replaced the cap; Ed swapped her for the compact.

“Hold still.”

Edward applied the fine powder to Lan Fan’s fair skin with a delicate touch.

“There,” Ed mumbled. “Don’t say I never did anything for you.”

Edward turned the mirror around for inspection. Lan Fan blinked at her reflection. Surprise was a good look on her. She caught him looking and blushed furiously.

“What?”

“Nothing,” Ed said. He closed the compact and handed it to her. “Here.”

“Thanks.”

Lan Fan opened her purse one handed. Inside the handbag Ed spied what looked like an incendiary device.

“Hold on,” Ed said.

“What?”

Lan Fan looked up from stuffing the cosmetics back into the clutch.  

“Is that a bomb?” Edward whispered.

“No,” she deadpanned.

“It looks like a bomb to me,” he said.

Lan Fan looked at him like he was stupid.

“Flash bombs are fireworks.”

Edward wasn’t stupid but he gawked at her all the same.

“Fireworks are for children.”

“And?” Ed prompted.

“This is a flash grenade.”

Edward couldn’t help but laugh.

“I don’t even want to know how many knives you have.”

“Enough,” Lan Fan said.

Chapter Text

Junjie Zhang ordered an espresso and an ice water at the bar. The Ninth Prince had a blinding migraine. Junjie knew it was coming when he started seeing spots an hour ago. Prince Junjie didn’t often make use of his rooms at court, but now he was tempted to retire to them.

Instead, Junjie chased four aspirin with the shot of espresso.The bitter remedy usually did the trick, but he’d waited too long to take it. He couldn't see out of his right eye. Prince Junjie hoped it was a side effect of the migraine.

The Ninth Prince’s poor health was common knowledge. Only a select few knew the severity of his condition.

Junjie remained seated while he waited for his vision to clear. He drank his water slowly. He couldn’t leave. Not yet.

Not until he had words with The Dowager Empress.


 The Dowager Empress looked like she belonged on the silver screen.

Xue stood gracefully in patent leather heels near the entrance to the hall. For once Xue’s lips weren’t stained scarlet. Instead they were painted the pale pink of a cherry blossom. The ice blue dress she wore glittered with silver beading. In addition to a fortune in tanzanite jewelry the dowager empress wore white evening gloves.  

“There you are,” Xue purred.

“Forgive me. I didn’t realize you were waiting,” Ling apologized.

Margot released the emperor’s arm, stepping over to the dowager empress.

“Oh.” Xue looked amused, and asked, “Did you think I meant you?”

“Here I thought I was your escort,” Ling played along.

“I’m afraid you’re on your own,” Xue replied.

“Shame,” Margot monotoned.

“Best of luck.” Xue winked at him over her shoulder as she departed with Ms. Fontaine.

And so the Emperor of Xing was left to fend for himself.

“Your Majesty.”

“Hm?” Ling glanced over his shoulder at Qiyin.

“Ten o’clock.”  

In the shadows near a pillar Lan Fan and Edward were a pair of wallflowers. The Fullmetal Alchemist had his back against the the pillar. Commander Liu stood next to him. He watched as his Lady Bodyguard surveyed the room. Ling noticed the close proximity of their hideout to the dessert tables.   

And she wonders why I adore her…


Ed examined the white cube on his plate with ever growing suspicion. The supposed dessert was garnished with a single mint leaf. In an effort to gather scientific data the theoretical alchemist probed the specimen with the only apparatus at his disposal.

He poked it with his fork.

It wobbled.

“What the hell is it?”

“Coconut pudding,” answered Lan Fan.

“The hell you say! I know what pudding looks like. This is not pudding.”

“That's what it’s called,” Lan Fan insisted.

“I don't think you know what pudding looks like,” Ed stated.

The Emperor of Xing rounded the pillar without warning.

“It's also called a coconut bar,” Ling informed him.

“Ling!” Ed exclaimed.

“Hello,” Ling Yao grinned at him.

He looked entirely too satisfied with himself. Truth be told Ed was glad to see Ling even if he was tempted to knock him down a peg or two. Nevertheless, the alchemist resisted. Instead, he pointed his fork at Lan Fan for emphasis.

“I told you it wasn’t pudding.”


“Your Majesty.”

The Emperor of Xing marveled as Lan Fan Liu Zhang, commander of His Imperial Highness’s Royal Guard and ruler of his heart, bowed like a proper lady of the court.

Lady Lan Fan Liu Zhang, you are beautiful.

Ling longed to whisper those words into the perfect shell of her ear. So why don’t you? His mind played devil’s advocate.

“Edward?” Ling kept his eyes on Lan Fan as he spoke.

“Yeah?”

“Alphonse is looking for you,” Ling said.

“Oh right! I told him to hold the fort. Here, I don’t want this.”

Edward foisted the dessert plate and fork on him. Ling was more than happy to take the pastry off Ed’s hands. He was starving. Ling carved off a corner of the coconut bar and put the fork in his mouth. The concoction of sugar, coconut milk, and agar was delicious.

“You'll eat anything won't you?” Ed wrinkled his nose in distaste

“I have an adventurous palate,” Ling responded.

“Says the guy who once ate my boot.”


 

“Alphonse!”

Edward found his little brother at the table where he last left him. More importantly, Lan Fan’s little brother sat next to him. Ed walked up behind them. Alphonse shifted ninety degrees in his seat.

“There you are. Did you find Lan Fan?”

“Not before Mrs. Zhang found her. Speaking of!”

The former state alchemist whacked the minor Xingese dignitary on the back of the head.

“Ow!” Xiang cried.

“Thanks to you I’ve got your sister and your mom mad at me. You better go make an apology tour right now, or I’ll kick your ass I swear to god.”

“You don't believe in god,” Al reminded him.

“I do for the purpose of this lecture,” Edward shot back.

Across the table a man he never met before cleared his throat.


Sebastian Schuyler watched in alarm as Major Edward Elric casually assaulted a Xingese dignitary. The newspapers painted the military veteran as a hero. Ask anyone in Central or East City who ever passed a newsstand. Of course, The Central Times essentially functioned as a propaganda machine. Sebastian learned to read between the lines. Edward Elric was a liability. More pressingly, Major Elric looked like he was on the wrong side of tipsy.

Sebastian cleared his throat.

Edward seemed to notice him for the first time.

“Major Elric, you are a de facto representative of our republic. I implore you to act like one,” Sebastian beseeched.

Edward gave him an incredulous look.

“Who the hell are you?” Ed asked.

“My name is Sebastian Schuyler.”

Edward looked to Alphonse for clarification, “Is this the bureaucrat you told me about?”

The diplomatic attaché bristled.

“I am not a bureaucrat.”

“Okay,” Ed mocked.

Sebastian narrowed his eyes at the arrogant alchemist. He knew better than to resort to ad hominem attacks. Nevertheless, Sebastian Schuyler sunk to Edward Elric’s level.

“If it weren’t for administrators, alchemists like you couldn’t get so much as a potato battery funded.”

“Who the fuck are you again?” Ed snapped.

“Edward!” Alphonse admonished.

“I’m a representative from the Department of Diplomacy.”

“I take it this is your first day on the job?”

Sebastian’s temper boiled over.

“I'd rather be a novice than a has-been.”

“You motherfu-!”

“Wait a second!” Xiang interjected. He rose from his seat, holding his hands out like a lion tamer. “Mr. Schuyler, Edward is friends with my sister. He's basically an older brother. So, if you think about it, it's his prerogative to hit me!”   

Sebastian stared at him.

“That sounded better in my head,” Xiang laughed in a self depreciating manner.

The young lord’s clumsy attempt to diffuse the situation wasn't without merit. For the first time all day Sebastian Schuyler didn't feel like he was on his own. The diplomat realized he’d missed a key piece of information.

“Who is your sister?” Sebastian asked.

Xiang Zhang’s face lit up with joy. Even in the middle of a verbal sparring match Sebastian found it difficult not to get caught up in Xiang’s excitement.

“Lan Fan Liu. She’s commander of the royal guard,” Xiang’s voice rang with pride. “Do you like working for your government? I’m studying to take the Imperial examination next year, but I’d much rather join the guard.”

The Fullmetal Alchemist hauled the young lord backward by the collar.

“You’re still here? Apology tour. Now.”

“It was nice to meet you!” he called over his shoulder.

Edward Elric gave the boy a forceful nudge in the right direction. Xiang looked over his shoulder one more time. A bashful smile spread across Xiang’s face.

Sebastian wanted to take time to commit his smile to memory. He wanted to answer Xiang’s questions, and ask about his exams. He wanted nothing more than to walk away from this exchange with Edward Elric.

Without Sebastian’s help Alphonse Elric’s deeply flawed proposal was dead on arrival.

He didn't have the charisma needed for a political career, nor was he persuasive enough for litigation, but he knew how to work the system.

Sebastian looked right at Alphonse, and said, “No one cares about your little vanity project.”

Chapter Text

In the kitchen Wei worked quickly to fix Peizhi’s mistake. The Dowager Empress specifically requested a croquembouche. He refused to disappoint Lady Xue. Wei cracked six eggs into the mixture of water, flour, butter, sugar, and salt, using a wooden spoon to fold the them into the mixture. The chef didn't have the time to properly reprimand the hapless server. Instead the chef relegated Peizhi to dish duty. Wei warned him if he broke so much as a teacup he was out of a job.

He transferred the dough into a piping bag. While Wei took care of the puff pastries his  sous chef whipped up a new batch of the cream filling at his station. Wei garnished the first tower of pastries with primroses crystallized in white sugar. Thanks to a misfortune of his own making he didn't have enough candied flowers left for another one.

Wei used the remainder of the edible flowers to make primrose water. At the time he thought the out of season blossoms would otherwise go to waste. Nothing turned Wei’s stomach like letting good food go to waste. Everyday people in the Imperial City went hungry. Wei survived the better part of his woebegone childhood by eating out the garbage.

He wasn’t ashamed of it.

Not anymore.

Turning a blind eye while your the most vulnerable citizens starved in the streets? Now that was worthy of shame. He thanked the gods Ling Yao valued the welfare of his people over his own opulence.

Wei would hate to have to poison him.


“No one cares about your little vanity project.” 

“That’s it! Let’s take this outside!” Edward challenged.

“Sit down, Ed,” Al said.

“I’m going to knock those glasses right off your smug face,” Edward snarled.

Alphonse stood from his seat, got right in his face, and declared, “If you don’t sit down and shut up right now I’ll throw you out of here myself.”

“You’re seriously going to let him talk to you like that?” Ed balked.

“I wanted to hear what he has to say. I’m not going to let you make any more of a scene than you already have. I don’t need you to fight my battles for me,” Alphonse insisted.

“I don’t want to fight either of you,” said Sebastian.  

“Nobody asked you!” Edward snapped.

“I want to get your idea off the ground!”

Edward and Alphonse both looked at him in surprise.

“I’ve worked on election campaigns. I know how to fundraise. I’m not very good with people, but I know how to organize them,” Sebastian continued.

The Elric brothers took their seats. Edward Elric crossed his arms over his chest; Alphonse Elric folded his hands on the table before him.

“I’m listening,” said Alphonse.

“Everyone seated at that table today has an agenda. General Mustang is here to establish a resident embassy. I’m here to ensure your proposal is a success. If you still want to take this outside that’s fine, but I’d prefer to take this to the library.”

Alphonse Elric didn’t need to think twice about his answer.  

“Library.”


“Where is your guard detail?” Lan Fan demanded.

“Lieutenant Gao,” Ling summoned. The bodyguard stepped into view from his vantage point on the other side of the pillar. Ling placed the fork on the empty plate. “Would you please take care of this for me?” Their secret keeper took the plate off the emperor’s hands and made himself scarce.

“As you can see I’m well protected,” Ling eliminated the space between them. He leaned down and whispered in her ear, “Lady Lan Fan Liu Zhang, you are beautiful.”

Lan Fan’s heart fluttered.

“The dress is beautiful,” Lan Fan demurred.

“It’s beautiful on you,” Ling corrected. He leaned down again to kiss her. Lan Fan pressed her gloved fingertips against his lips.

“Remember where we are,” Lan Fan warned.

His Lordship took her hand.

“Forgive me,” Ling implored, and kissed the back of her hand.

Lan Fan scowled at him.

“Don’t be mad,” he cajoled.

“You invited my mother.”


Sebastian Schuyler.

Xiang repeated his name silently. He searched for his sister with a smile on his face. He hoped Edward didn’t punch his own country’s diplomat. Truth be told, Xiang hoped to have a sparring match of his own with the Fullmetal Alchemist. Maybe Ed could give him advice on how to outsmart his sister the next time they went toe to toe.

He passed by the dessert table and stopped for another serving of strawberries. Out of the corner of his eye Xiang saw Lieutenant Gao emerge from the shadows. Xiang turned his head, watched the bodyguard approach a server collecting empty glasses, then returned his attention to the alcove.

It looked like the sort of place he might find his sister. Besides Edward had shoved him in this direction. Worst case scenario he could hideout while he finished his food. Xiang wandered over with the snack and strolled into the shadows. There he found the emperor in hushed conversation with his sister. He froze at the sight of them. Lan Fan looked upset.

It looked like a lover's quarrel.


“I wanted to apologize to your mother in person,” Ling explained.

Lan Fan shut her eyes, pinched the bridge of her nose, and sighed.

“Bad idea,” she declared.

“Lan Fan-”

“She doesn't listen!” Lan Fan interrupted.

“You’re not listening to me,” Ling pointed out. 

Lan Fan looked up at him with a frown.

“I’ll make it right,” he promised.

Ling gave her a reassuring smile and tugged on a lock of her hair. The show of affection transformed her frown into a diminutive smile. Not knowing when he might have another moment alone with her he took a chance and stole a kiss.


Xiang dropped the bamboo skewer in his hand.The candy coated strawberries hit the floor with a crack. Crystallized sugar shattered at Xiang’s feet. He looked down at the mess in dismay. Fragments stuck to the tops of his brogues. Sugar crunched under his shoe as he took a step back. He lifted his gaze from the floor and locked eyes with his sister.

“I’m sorry!” Xiang panicked.


Edward walked himself straight to the bar and took a seat. He had orders from Al to get a cup of coffee and sober up. Ed didn't think he was that drunk but he decided not to argue. While Ed waited he loosened the stupid tie Al coerced him into wearing. He tapped the fingers of his right hand on the bar top in agitation. The bartender who served him amaretto coffee instead of espresso pulled a bottle of champagne from an ice bucket.

Ed watched the man peel gold foil away from the neck of the bottle and twist off the wire cage around the cork. The bartender covered the cork with a white linen napkin, put one hand securely over the cloth, and twisted the the bottle with the other. Ed barely heard the cork pop over the noise of the party.  He made a mental note to give the technique a try sometime. The last time Ed opened a bottle of champagne the cork went flying. Not to mention a good fourth of the carbonated alcohol spilled over the side.

Then he noticed the guy sitting next to him had an empty espresso cup in front of him. “Hey,” Ed pointed at the cup and saucer, and asked in Xingese, “How do you order that?” As luck would have it the person next to him turned out to be Lan Fan’s cousin. He didn’t answer. It didn’t look like he was all there.

Is he drunk?

The crystal tumbler in his hand slipped from his fingers and his head dropped forward. Edward caught the glass of water.

“Whoa!”He set it on the bar top then gingerly placed his hand on the guy’s shoulder. “Hey, are you okay?” After a few seconds Lan Fan’s cousin lifted his head. He looked confused and his pallor concerned Edward. “Hey,” Ed snapped his fingers in front of the guy’s face. The pale young man pressed the heel of his hand to his right eye.

“Hm?”

“What’s your name?” Ed asked.

“Junjie,” he mumbled.

The name rang a bell.

This must be the prince of the Zhang Clan.

“Hi Junjie. I’m Edward.” Ed fished his pocketwatch out of his waistcoat and took Junjie’s pulse. “You feeling dizzy?”

“A little,” he replied.

“Well, your pulse is normal. That’s good. Want me to get you some more water?”

The prince nodded.

Edward waved down the bartender.

“Can we get some water and two more of these?” Ed asked one of the bartenders and pointed to the espresso cup in front of Lan Fan and Xiang’s imperial cousin.

Which makes him Ling and Mei’s brother, Ed thought.  

He regarded Prince Junjie more closely. Ed could sort of see a resemblance between the former and current prince. Princess Mei didn’t look much like either of them. Speaking of Mei, the theoretical alchemist wondered if he should go find his brother’s alkahestry teacher. Junjie seriously did not look well.  

The bartender served them two single shots of espresso, refilled Junjie’s depleted tumbler, and poured a second glass of water. Edward thanked the gentleman behind the bar. Meanwhile, Prince Junjie’s head dropped forward again and jerked back up. Ed snapped his fingers in front of his face again.

“Stay with me.”

“I think perhaps I should retire for the evening,” The Ninth Prince responded.

“How about you sit and drink your water?”

Edward’s suggestion came too late. The prince ragdolled to the floor, hitting his head against the edge of the bar on the way down, and the alchemist swore loud enough to draw attention.

   

Chapter Text

Lan Fan locked eyes with her brother.

“I’m sorry!” Xiang exclaimed.

‘Little Xiang is quite the storyteller.’

Lan Fan internalized Xiang’s panic and made it her own.

Palpitations disrupted the steady beat of her heart. Adrenaline and cortisol coursed through her veins like venom. For years she pushed her little brother away. Meanwhile, Prince Junjie had the presence of mind to keep his little cousin close. If Xiang divulged her rendezvous with Ling to their imperial cousin she only had herself to blame.


“I'm so sorry,” Xiang reiterated.  “I-I’ll clean it up.”

The lordling prayed the floor would open up and swallow him. He felt mortified for a multitude of reasons in addition to being absolutely astounded.

Xiang never believed the whispering campaigns about the emperor and his sister. In fact he'd once gotten trounced in a fight with a boy at school who called his sister the emperor’s trollop. He came home that day with a black eye and a broken thumb. He didn't tell his parents what instigated the schoolyard scuffle.

Shortly thereafter Lan Fan came home for a visit. She didn't ask how he broke his thumb. Instead she showed him how to make a proper fist.

Xiang dropped his eyes once more to the sugary mess he made. “I'll clean it up,” he repeated. Xiang had no doubts about Lan Fan's honor, but now he wasn't so sure about the emperor.

Someone dropped a hand on his shoulder and Xiang nearly jumped out of his skin.


Lieutenant Gao put his hand on Xiang Zhang’s shoulder.

“How are you at keeping secrets?” Qiyin inquired.

Xiang’s eyes were wide as saucers.

He reminded Qiyin of Lan Fan when Master Fu first brought her to the Yao Estate as a toddler. Little Lan Fan stared wide eyed at anyone who spoke to her. Fu foisted her care off on his off-duty subordinates, while he watched over Prince Ling. Qiyin couldn’t coax a single word from the little girl, but sweets bought him a smile from time to time.

“Huh?” Xiang was far more verbal than little Lan Fan albeit ineloquent.  

Qiyin drew him close to converse in confidence.

“The most important quality of a bodyguard is discretion,” Lieutenant Gao elaborated. “If you cannot be trusted to keep secrets you cannot be trusted to shadow the emperor.”

“I can keep a secret,” Xiang answered.

“I have your word?” Qiyin pressed.   

“I swear,” Xiang confirmed. “I won’t tell anyone.”


“Let’s get you cleaned up,” Lan Fan monotoned.

“Lan Fan,” Ling said, reaching for her arm.

“Don’t,” Lan Fan cut him a look like broken glass. “I think you’ve done enough.”

Ling dropped his hand back to his side.

Lan Fan circumvented the shards of sugar.

“Come on,” Lan Fan put her arm around Xiang’s shoulders. “Let’s go.”

Xiang nodded. Lan Fan couldn’t bring herself to look at Qiyin. Without a backward glance she led her brother out of the shadows.


“Bordel de merde!”

Finally, someone who speaks my language , Margot thought.

The automail surgeon turned her attention away from the conversation between the Dowager Empress and a noble whose name Margot had already forgotten, and toward the commotion over at the bar. On the floor in front of the bar someone had collapsed. Margot went from curious to alarmed as she saw the foul mouthed, presumably Cretan gentleman crouch down beside the person on floor and reach a hand out to shake them.

“Arrêtez!” Margot shouted. “Ne le touche pas!” The gentleman jerked his hand away. Accustomed to running in heels the redhead rushed through the crowd to assess the severity of the situation. “Putain, qu'est-il arrivé?”

“Um,” Ed looked up at her in distress. “He… il est tombé et s'est cogné la tête.”

Margot recognized the infamous Fullmetal Alchemist.

Merde.

Margot Fontaine had hoped to dodge the military presence at the party.

Or rather Margaret Faulkner had to avoid the Amestrian Military at all costs. The military brass in attendance wasn’t like to recognize Private Margaret “Maggie” Faulkner. Nevertheless, the woman now known as Margot Fontaine colored her brunette roots red the day prior to the party, and concealed her freckles under foundation.  

It didn’t matter if the Ishvalan War of Extermination took place more than fifteen years ago, nor did it matter that she hadn’t signed up to be a soldier. In the eyes of the military Margaret Faulkner remained a deserter. A coward of a combat medic who abandoned her comrades in a time of war to save her own skin.

If anyone in the military discovered Margot Fontaine was Margaret Faulkner she would be court martialed and put to death by firing squad. As much as Margot wanted to grant Madeleine’s wish to immigrate to Xing it wasn’t an option. Margot’s forged papers wouldn’t hold up under anything more than cursory inspection.

None of that mattered right now. If she let Edward Elric touch the kid with a head and possible spinal injury he could end up paralyzed.

Or worse.


All of the Xingese nobles Edward Elric knew were fully bilingual in Xingese and Amestrian. And so, the theoretical alchemist swore in Cretan. It didn’t occur to him that he might be in earshot of anyone fluent in the romantic language.

For once it looked like his penchant for cursing might get him out of trouble.

“Etes-vous un docteur?”

The redhead surprised Edward by switching to standard Amestrian.

“Automail engineer,” she said, looking over her shoulder at a woman accompanied by one of Lan Fan’s subordinates. The engineer snapped at the bodyguard and pointed to the spot next to Ed. “We need another pair of hands. Listen very carefully. The three of us are going to turn him over onto his back. While I stabilize his neck and head the two of you will roll him like a log toward you.”

Edward nodded. He placed one hand on Junjie’s hip and the other on his upper arm, while the bodyguard took his place next to him.

“On my count,” the redhead instructed, as she stabilized Prince Junjie’s head and cervical spine. “One. Two. Three.”


Prince Junjie regained consciousness in a room he didn’t recognize. The Ninth Prince wished he hadn’t. The blinding migraine from earlier paled in comparison to the pain he now felt. The vision in his right eye had returned but now he saw double. Nausea washed over him like the wave of a stormy sea. The prince swiftly shut his eyes against the visual distortion.

While he waited for the nauseated feeling to subside he took stock of his physical state. He could move neither his head nor his extremities; he recognized the sticky feeling of blood on his face. Prince Junjie was no stranger to waking up on a backboard. He didn’t remember the events leading up to his current predicament, but he thought it safe to presume he had a nasty fall.

When Master Kang catches wind of this he’ll confine me to bed for a week.

Junjie groaned in a combination of pain and embarrassment.

“I think he’s awake.”

The prince didn’t bother to open his eyes to see whom had spoken. The male voice sounded familiar but he couldn’t place it. He didn’t want to think about it. His head hurt too much to think.

“Prince Junjie?”

He opened his eyes to see The Dowager Empress leaning over him with a concerned frown on her pretty mouth. Lady Xue’s features smoothed into her usual inscrutable countenance. A foreign woman with fiery hair moved into view above him. Junjie blinked in an attempt to clear his vision.

“I want you to follow my finger with your eyes. Keep your head still,” The redhead instructed.

Junjie wanted to close his eyes but he did as he was told.

“Good job. I’m Margot. Why don’t you tell me your name?”

Junjie Zhang

Prince Junjie opened his mouth only to find he couldn’t verbalize his answer. Aphasia robbed him of his words. His eyes darted to Lady Xue in a desperate plea. The Dowager Empress toyed with her necklace and looked sidelong at the man to her left. Junjie followed her subtle glance.

Next to Lady Xue stood his cousin’s colorful friend.

Edward. His name is Edward.

Margot took his hands and asked, “That’s okay. We’ll come back to that one. Can you squeeze my hands?” Junjie complied and the western doctor nodded in satisfaction. “Very good.”

The doctor moved out of view. Prince Junjie heard the sounds of rummaging. He turned his eyes toward Edward. Presumably, Edward Elric. Junjie heard all about The Elric Brothers from Xiang. Indeed, Little Xiang was quite the storyteller. Prince Junjie enjoyed his little cousin’s company immensely. The boy had boundless enthusiasm; he became even more animated than normal when he spun a yarn.

I hope Xiang got to meet The People’s Alchemist.

Lan Fan Liu was acquainted with The Fullmetal Alchemist. It’d be a shame if she didn’t introduce her brother to one of his beloved heroes.

Margot returned with a reflex hammer in hand.

Moving to the end of the bed she untied his oxfords, loosening the laces enough to slide the shoes off his feet without jostling him. The doctor ran the point of the hammer up the inside of his arches.

“That’s what I like to see,” Margot mumbled. “Wiggle your toes for me. Good.”  looked at Lady Xue, and said, “He isn't showing signs of spinal injury or brain bleed. I think we’re looking at a concussion.”


The Dowager Empress twisted her necklace around her finger. Xue Yao desired to speak with Prince Junjie in private, but Edward Elric’s presence proved problematic. Junjie’s diagnosis provided the perfect opportunity to get rid of the Fullmetal Alchemist.

“Mr. Elric, would you be so kind as to fetch us some ice from the kitchen?” Xue requested.

The alchemist acquiesced to her request.

“Thank you for all your help,” Lady Xue lilted.

While Margot rewashed her hands Xue enveloped Junjie’s delicate hand in her own. Prince Junjie squeezed her hand. The automail doctor returned to her patient’s side.

“I need to clean that cut of yours, but first let’s give that name another go.

“Junjie Zhang.”

Chapter Text

Edward Elric headed for the kitchen without asking for directions. The theoretical alchemist believed he knew the way. In truth Ed did not know the way, as such he became lost almost immediately.


While Margot sutured his laceration Prince Junjie and Lady Xue murmured to each other in Xingese. The room smelled of perfume and iodine. On the bedside table the lantern burned high enough for Margot to work, low enough not to bother the prince’s eyes.

“You’ve failed to uphold your end of the bargain,” Junjie said.

“I’ve done nothing of the sort,” Xue denied in dulcet tones.

The Ninth Prince winced in discomfort as the doctor pulled a stitch taunt.  

“I supported Ling’s claim to the throne. What do I have to show for it? Nothing.”  

“You will have your seat on His Majesty’s Royal Council,” Lady Xue assured.                                                                                                                                                                                                      

“It’s been five years. ”

“Patience is a virtue.”

The automail doctor hooked the needle through his skin again.

“I’m running out of patience,” he hissed.

“It will pay off,” Xue promised.

“Why should I believe you?” Prince Junjie frowned.

“The futures of our clans are intertwined.”

“I don't follow…”

“The emperor intends to make your estranged cousin his one and only consort. By the time I’ve finished legitimizing her standing at court, and orchestrating their union, His Majesty will offer you a seat on his council. Most importantly, he’ll believe it’s his idea. No one will dare challenge our rule.”

“You really think you can pull that off?” Junjie asked in disbelief.

Xue Yao smirked.


Lan Fan took her brother to the lavatory to clean off his shoes. Neither of them spoke on the way there. While Xiang went into the men’s room Lan Fan sat on the bench along the opposite wall. In the corridor the sounds of the party were little more than white noise. Her breath hitched. Lan Fan leaned forward and put her hand over her eyes.

This is my fault.

Across from her a door creaked. Lan Fan wiped all trace of emotion from her face and lifted her head. Instead of the men’s room the open door belonged to the ladies’. Mother and daughter froze at the sight of one another.

Suyin appeared apprehensive.

Commander Liu shifted her gaze over Lady Suyin’s shoulder as she would with any noble with whom she wasn’t familiar.

“Lan Fan-” Suyin started.

“Your son is in the men’s room,” The guard commander interrupted.

“Darling-” her mother tried again to no avail.

The Yao bodyguard rose swiftly from her seat.

“This one humbly suggests you take him home before he borrows any more trouble.”

The Commander of His Majesty’s Royal Guard bestowed the noble woman with a bow and walked away.

“Lan Fan!”

Commander Liu didn’t turn back.


Xiang stood before the sink in sock feet whilst furiously cleaning the sticky mess from his shoes. Water only made things worse. The leather looked splotchy, and the black dye stained his handkerchief and hands. From the hallway he heard the familiar sound of his mother’s raised voice. Xiang thought all the curse words he wasn't permitted to say aloud.

He put on his damp shoes and hurried into the hall.

“Mother?”

“There you are,” Suyin stated.

Xiang looked up and down the length of the corridor.

Lan Fan was nowhere to be seen.

“Where’s sister?”

“Never you mind your sister’s whereabouts.”

“Mother-”

“It’s time to go.”

“But-” Xiang couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

“Whatever you have to say it can wait until we’re home.”

“You never listen! Why won’t you ever listen?” Xiang railed at his mother.

“One more word and I sell the bicycle,” Suyin told him in no uncertain terms.

Xiang clinched his jaw.

“Let’s go.”


Lan Fan Liu Zhang felt like the punchline of a cruel joke.

The Commander of His Royal Majesty’s Guard wanted nothing more than to return to her room, change back into uniform, and resume her place among the shadows. Alas, the emperor tied her hands with his order of an invitation.

Against her will Commander Liu rejoined the party as a guest. She decided to head straight for the bar. Tingzhe and Bolin flanked her as soon as she entered the main hall. Even if she hadn’t recognized them by their qi signatures she would’ve known them by their masks. The day the pair of them swore their allegiance to the throne she’d gifted the identical gold and black masks to them.

“Commander,” Bolin accosted.

The hint of amusement in his voice vexed her.

“You two better have a damn good reason for being absent from the emperor’s side,” she snarled.

Tingzhe cleared his throat, and said, “His Royal Majesty wishes to speak with you.”

Lan Fan halted in her tracks.

“Have I been summoned?”

The two of them shared a look over her head.

“Pardon?” Tingzhe sounded bemused.

“Is this a summons or a request?” Lan Fan clarified.  

“A request.”

“Inform His Eminence I'm indisposed.”

Commander Liu continued on her way.

Bolin and Tingzhe shared another look.

“That is an order,” Lan Fan called without looking back.

Her subordinates bolted to obey said order.

Wisely so.


Bolin and Tingzhe dragged their heels on the way back to the emperor.

“You should tell him,” Tingzhe insisted.

“Why me?” cried Bolin.

“Because I nearly got my head bitten off back there! Besides, His Highness likes you better.”

“He’s not going to like either of us after he hears what we have to say,” Bolin muttered.

“I’ll roshambo you for it,” offered Tingzhe by way of compromise.

“Deal.”

“Ro. Sham. Bo,” they said in unison, tapping their fists against their palms after ro and sham, and throwing down after bo.  

Bolin chose scissors and Tingzhe went with rock.

“Damn it!”

“You lose,” Tingzhe stated the obvious.

“I hate you.”


Ling caught sight of Bolin out of the corner of his eye. He noticed neither Lan Fan nor Tingzhe were with him. The emperor extracted himself from his conversation with the minister of commerce in order to speak with the his guard.

Lieutenant Gao followed.

“Your Majesty,” Bolin bowed.

“Where is she?” Ling questioned.

“Commander Liu is indisposed, sire.”

The emperor stared at the bodyguard.

“Indisposed,” Ling deadpanned.

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“What do you mean indisposed?” Ling inquired, lightly.

“She’s unavailable,” Bolin’s voice went up an octave.

“I know the definition of the word, guardsman,” Ling said through clinched teeth. “What did she say? Tell me exactly.”

The bodyguard winced.

“Tingzhe told Commander Liu you wished to speak to her, and Commander Liu asked if it was a summons or a request. Tingzhe said it was a request then Commander Liu said to ‘Inform His Eminence I’m indisposed.’”

Ling stared at Bolin long enough to make him sweat.

“Is that everything?”

The bodyguard hesitated.

“Is. That. Everything?” He asked again.

“Commander Liu wasn’t happy about us not being with you.”

Ling walked away to find Lan Fan himself.    

Chapter Text

While Emperor Ling Yao looked for Lady Liu Zhang with Lieutenant Gao trailing behind, Princess Mei Chang looked for the Elric Brothers. The half siblings ran into each other in the midst of their respective searches.

“Have you seen Alphonse? Or Edward?” Mei asked.

Xiao-Mei darted from one of Mei’s shoulders to the other, turning her little head this way and that, and sniffing at the air. If anyone thought Princess Mei wouldn’t bring the panda to a high profile event such as this they were sorely mistaken.

"Not lately. Have you seen Lan Fan?” Ling inquired.

“Oh I saw her all right,” Mei replied.

“Where?” Ling demanded.

“First you tell me why she’s dressed like a Cretan socialite,” the Princess negotiated.  

The emperor wasn’t in the mood to play games with his haughty little sister.

“I’ll find her myself,” Ling replied.

He brushed passed the princess.

“Wrong way,” Mei caught him by the arm.

Ling shot her a look and she let go. Luckily, Lieutenant Gao knew of the emperor’s fondness for his little sister. If Mei was anyone else she would’ve lost that hand.

“Last I saw her she was at the bar,” Mei said.

Ling Yao nodded and changed direction.

 “You’re welcome!”


By the time Ling located Lan Fan at the bar his Lady Bodyguard had finished her first hard liquor beverage of the night. The bartender set a clean napkin in front of her, salted it, and placed a Bourbon Rickey on top. Ling took the empty seat next to her. Instead of acknowledging him she took a drink.

“So you’re ignoring me now?”

Ling glanced toward the stage. While Madeleine Rousseau took a temporary reprieve the pianist played a waltz. Numerous nobles danced in three quarter time. Ling wondered if Lan Fan knew how to waltz. Present company excluded his guests seemed to be enjoying themselves.  

“I’m following your command,” Lan Fan answered.

“What?” Ling looked at her for clarification.

Lan Fan lifted the rocks glass in a mockery of a toast.

“I’m having a little fun,” Lan Fan reiterated.

He sighed her given name.

“Isn’t this what you wanted?”

Ling never heard her sound so miserable.

He responded, “I wanted to make up for the dinner party I ruined.”

“Did you ever think to ask what I want?”

Lan Fan’s scorn tried his patience.

“Why don’t you tell me then?” Ling snarked.

“I want you to stop undermining me.”

“Undermining.” Ling sputtered, “What do you mean undermining?”

“Reassigning my watch without so much as consulting me; Sending your guards on errands better suited for servants; Kissing me in front of my brother, who now thinks I'm your strumpet by the way,” Lan Fan hissed.

Aghast, he asked, “Xiang called you that?”

“He didn't have to,” Lan Fan finished her drink, set it down hard enough to rattle the remaining ice. She hailed the bartender for another drink. “It was written all over his face.”

“I think you’ve had enough,” he declared.

Lady Liu Zhang did not take kindly to His Majesty’s suggestion.

“I think I need some air,” Lan Fan rose from her seat. “That is if I have your leave, Your Eminence.”

The emperor dismissed her with a wave of his hand; The bodyguard took her leave of him; The bartender brought her third drink.

Ling Yao drowned himself in it.


Silence reigned on the car ride home.

In the back seat Xiang sat as far away from his mother as he could manage. He leaned his hot head against the cool window and simmered. The moment their driver pulled to a stop in front of their home he was out of the car. He slammed the door shut behind him and marched through the gate and up the walk to the front door. He heard the click of his mother's heels on the path behind him.

“Xiang,” Suyin warned.

Xiang ignored her and stormed into the house. He didn’t bother to remove his shoes in the foyer.

“Young man come back this instant and take off your shoes!”

Pressing a hand against the wall for balance Xiang yanked off his botched brogues and lobbed them over his shoulder.

Suyin snapped, “Xiang!”

His sleeping robe clad father appeared at the end of the hall. Liwei Zhang’s face was flushed with fever. He coughed into his fist.

“What is the meaning of this?” demanded Liwei.

Xiang looked to his father and pointed at his mother.

“She doesn’t listen!” he shouted.

“Lower your voice,” Lord Zhang commanded. “There are people sleeping in this house.”

“Tell your father where you were yesterday,” Lady Suyin instructed.

“I had an accident on my bike-” the young lord began.

“He ran into someone with the bicycle,” Suyin interrupted.

Xiang curled his short nails into his palms.

“No I didn’t!”  

Liwei held up his hand to silence his wife, “Let him speak.”

Suyin conceded with a scowl.

“I almost ran into Edward Elric with my bike, but I didn’t because I braked in time. I did hurt my wrist though. Edward didn’t know his way to the palace. He took me there to get it fixed and I showed him the way.”

His father frowned in a show of disapproval and cleared his throat.

“You should’ve told us about this,” Liwei admonished.

“That isn’t the half of it,” Suyin interjected.  

Xiang took a conscious breath.

“Lan Fan came to check on me; the emperor was with her. After Alphonse healed my wrist,  I told His Majesty I wanted to become a guard. I asked to prove my worth. He said it was up to Lan Fan.”

“And she let him,” Suyin sneered.

“No she didn’t,” Xiang denied.

That gave his mother pause.

“What?” Lady Suyin asked.

“Lan Fan said no. Twice. Sister only agreed after the emperor said he wanted to see us fight. I went over her head,” Xiang confessed.

And his mother went white as snow.

“Go to bed, Xiang,” Liwei ordered. “We will talk about this more tomorrow. I advise you think about your actions. Make no mistake there will be consequences.”

Xiang didn’t need to be told twice. He brushed passed his father and turned down the hallway to his room. Xiang wanted to slam his bedroom door shut.

He closed it carefully behind him.


Everything is falling into place , Xue thought, as she stepped backwards out of the guest room, and pulled the door to. One of the Commander Liu’s clandestine soldiers awaited her in the corridor. The guard commander took the Dowager Empress’s safety as seriously as that of the Emperor. In the company of her assigned protector Lady Xue navigated her way back to the Hall of Serenity.

Master Fu’s granddaughter was by far the best investment Xue Yao had ever made. Indeed, Lan Fan surpassed Xue’s expectations by leaps and bounds. Instead of a shrinking violet Ling had picked a rose with thorns. Xue couldn't arrange a better match for her son if she tried.

The Dowager Empress hadn't any inclination to try. Lan Fan proved her unflinching loyalty time and again. Furthermore, Lady Lan Fan Liu Zhang made the perfect weapon to bring about the demise of the concubine system. By the death of the tradition Xue Yao would at long last be revenged.

Lady Xue flicked open her ever present silk fan and smiled.


Lan Fan descended the front steps to the Hall of Serenity alone. The temperature had plummeted since last she ventured outside. Too cold to stand about and catch her breath. The bodyguard in the bespoke evening gown decided to take a walk.

If Shu hadn't muddied the waters of their friendship with his feelings for her, Lan Fan would've headed to his workshop. Wei would be far too busy in the kitchen to brook her presence. Shivering she headed for the stables, certain she would find Jin there tending to the horses.

He didn't like to leave them on the nights he knew there’d be fireworks. The gunpowder spectacle spooked the livestock. Lan Fan had the impression Jin preferred animals to most people. Not that she blamed him.

Lan Fan hitched up her skirt and took a shortcut between buildings. The sunny day had melted the snow there, the cold snap had transformed it to ice, and no one had salted the infrequently used path. This time no one was there to catch her fall. She slipped on a paving stone, cracked her head on another, and went out like a light.


Margot Fontaine pulled a bobby pin from her updo and fixed Prince Junjie’s fringe out of his face. She helped him to sit up on the edge of her bed before fetching a bandage and roll of gauze from her bag. Thanks to her meticulous suturing skills and proper surgical technique the laceration was unlikely to scar.

The automail surgeon gingerly placed the bandage over her handiwork. Holding the square of sterile cotton in place she looped the end of the gauze, winding the roll around his head with one hand.

“Elric said you fell,” Margot stated.

“I suppose I must've,” Prince Junjie remarked.

“You don't remember?” She removed her fingertips from the bandage, as she wrapped a second layer of gauze around his head.

“I'm afraid I don't recall,” he replied.

The redheaded woman added a third and fourth layer of gauze. From the bedside table, she grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the excess length.

“What's the last thing you remember?” Margot asked as she tied off the bandage with a square knot.

The Ninth Prince removed a pill bottle from the right-hand pocket of his suit jacket.

“Taking four of these.”

She accepted the bottle and read the label.

“Aspirin?” Margot arched an eyebrow at him.

“I had a headache,” said Junjie.

Margot narrowed her eyes at him she processed this new information.

“A headache or a migraine?”

Prince Junjie looked mildly surprised.

“A migraine.”

“I thought so,” Margot handed back the bottle.

“How did you know?” He inquired.

“It explains the aphasia,” Margot informed him.

“Ah. I see."

“Unless, of course, you have a history of seizures.”

Fear flashed across the prince’s pale face. If Margot hadn't been looking right at him she would've missed his reaction to her offhanded comment.

“I'll be damned,” Margot muttered.

Prince Junjie knuckles went white as he tightened his fingers around the bottle of aspirin.

“You had a seizure.”

“If you tell anyone-” the Prince of the Zhang Clan threatened.

“Let me stop you right there,” she snapped. “I couldn't care less about your little secret, but you threaten me you're gonna have a lot worse than a concussion. If you think I’m kidding...”

The surgeon snatched the scissors off the nightstand and pressed the point against his neck, right over his carotid artery.

“Try me.”

Chapter Text

"I wouldn't dream of it,” Prince Junjie didn't dare try the woman holding the sharp instrument to his neck.

“Smart man,” said Ms. Fontaine and removed the point from his delicate skin.

“My aren't you terrifying,” Junjie laughed in an uneasy manner. He put his hand to his throat to makes sure she hadn’t drawn any blood. His palm came away clean.

“Thank you very much,” Margot responded.

The automail surgeon gathered the medical instruments and supplies from her workspace by the bed. Sitting at the vanity she wiped the scissors clean with a piece of cotton soaked in isopropyl alcohol. Prince Junjie watched the unflappable woman return the impromptu weapon to her surgical instrument case.

“If you want to sleep have at it but I’ll have to wake you in a few hours.”

“Thank you. I know the drill,” he replied.

“I'll bet you do.”

Junjie laid down on her bed on his side. Eyes half mast he watched her seal the bottle of alcohol before taking a lighter and cigarette case out of the pocket of her suit jacket. Excluding attempted assassins, Margot Fontaine counted as the second person to ever threaten him with physical harm in such an open manner.

“I see now why my cousin chose you for her automail doctor,” Junjie said.

Margot lighted her cigarette. Prince Junjie wrinkled his nose at the smell. She let the smoke out of her lungs in a steady stream.

“Is that so?”

“You’re two of a kind,” he said in admiration.

“I'll take that as a compliment.”

“As well you should,” The Ninth Prince smiled a bit and shut his eyes. He fell asleep before Margot Fontaine finished her cigarette.


Wei bound the tower of choux à la crème with spun sugar. The croquembouche looked almost too good to eat. The chef still regretted the lack of garnish but could do no more with the time he had. Without so much as a wobble Wei and his sous chef Huang moved the recreated centerpiece onto a service trolley.

Under the supervision of the sous chef two steady servers wheeled the trolley out of the kitchen. Wei wiped the back of his hand across his forehead and breathed a sigh of relief.

“Good job everyone,” he declared. “Anyone who wants to watch the fireworks can do so after they clean their stations.”

“Thank you, chef,” came the resounding reply of his kitchen staff.

Wei set about cleaning his own station. Huang returned to the kitchen with the trolley and gave him a thumbs up. He nodded to his sous chef.

Over at the line a porter ladled a batch of hot cocoa into cups for the staff, while another garnished the well deserved treat with marshmallows. The staff completed their individual work and filtered out with their hot beverages. Soon only the head chef and the hapless server remained in the kitchen.

Wei removed his apron and laid it across his station. He poured himself a glass of port from his private reserve. A small reward for a successful evening.

Over at the scullery sink Peizhi dropped a tea cup. Wei lost his temper at the sound of shattering porcelain. He set the bottle of port down hard on the woodblock before him. In a fury the chef marched over to the server turned dishwasher who still had his back to him.

“What did I tell you about-”

As Wei drew near the server whipped around.

The edge of the knife Peizhi slashed across Wei’s throat was honed so sharply that he hardly felt the cut. Across Peizhi’s white apron Wei’s blood spattered like droplets of pigment from a shaken paintbrush. The chef wasn’t good with blood on the best of days. The sight of his own never failed to make him faint.

Wei’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. He collapsed onto the pristine floor of his well kempt kitchen. Above him Peizhi stood wiping the knife clean on the hem of his apron. The server dropped the knife into the sink, took hold of the chef by the ankles, and proceeded to drag him into the pantry.

Once he had the chef out of sight Peizhi ripped off his apron. He used it to wipe up the streak of blood left behind on the floor. From the corridor Peizhi heard the sound of footsteps. He cursed under his breath and tossed the apron into the pantry. The cloth fluttered and fell onto his victim like a shroud. Peizhi needed more time to thoroughly clean up the scene, but time was of the essence.

In reckless abandon, Peizhi left the weapon in the sink. Safe in the knowledge Wei would bleed out before anyone found him, Peizhi hurried out the door.

His work here was done.


“Why do I let him talk me into these things?” Jin grumbled to himself.

He turned up the collar of his coat and crossed his arms as he walked through the streets. Instead of having dinner with his wife and baby, he’d spent the evening collecting missives from all around the city. The chilled air had turned freezing over the last hour.

Jin was miserably underdressed for the weather.

The day had been so lovely he hadn’t bothered to bring a scarf or hat. Daiyu had fussed at him for that when he’d left this morning. As usual his wife was right. He planned on telling her that the second he got home, but he had one more dead drop to hit. After that he had to head back to the stables until after the fireworks.

He didn’t look forward to telling her what he’d been up to all evening. His wife wouldn’t be happy when she found out he was running errands for Shu again. Daiyu decidedly disliked his blacksmith friend who moonlighted as a spy. Still, he’d tell her all the same because they didn’t keep secrets from each other.

Jin turned down an alleyway in the empty marketplace. Halfway down the side street he pulled a loose brick from the wall. He needn’t have bothered coming all this way. There was no note behind the brick.

“Figures,” he muttered.

He replaced the loose brick back in the niche and turned to retrace his steps. Instead he stopped in his tracks. At the end of the alleyway stood a figure cloaked in black and wearing a ghostly white mask. Wind whipped through the alleyway. Jin heard a sound behind him and looked over his shoulder. Another such figure stood at the opposite end.

In other words they had him flanked. Both of them carried a club and each of them pulled the pin of a smoke grenade. They tossed them.

A firework burst into red sparks overhead.


“Ow! Watch it,” Edward Elric exclaimed at the man who just body checked him on the way out of the kitchen. He put a hand to his offended shoulder and glared after the guy, who didn’t even bother to toss an apology his way.

“Excuse you!”

Edward flipped him off behind his back. He pushed open the door to the kitchen and stepped inside. The theoretical alchemist expected the room to be teeming with people, but the kitchen appeared entirely empty.

“Hello?”

The door swung shut behind him.

“Anybody work here?” He asked the empty room.

Silence.

“Guess not…”

Edward swept his eyes over the expanse of the room. Cups of hot chocolate steamed on a table. The marshmallows on top melted into a foam. A bottle of port and an untouched glass set beside an apron on one of the stations.

It was a ghost town.

Having spent the last half hour wandering the empty corridors alone in search of this place he found it more than a bit creepy. Ed reminded himself he was a man of science. There were no such things as ghosts. Ling’s palace was just drafty and too big and definitely not haunted.

The sink dripped.

If the lights so much as flicker I am out of here…

Slowly, ever so slowly, Edward crossed the room to the walk in fridge. He opened the door carefully and peeked inside. The temperature was cold enough that Edward could see his breath. Edward decided to find something to carry ice in first before he ventured inside.

Shutting the door he turned around and stopped. Something that looked a hell of a lot like blood seeped out from underneath the door to the pantry. Edward’s heart pounded erratically behind the cage of his ribs. He approached the pantry in apprehension. Ed pushed the door open with one hand.

He screamed.


In the courtyard outside of the Hall of Serenity the majority of the party guests gathered to watch the fireworks show. The emperor wasn’t among them. Ling sat at the bar with a glass of lime and soda, eating maraschino cherries, and waiting for Lan Fan to return. He knew how much she loved fireworks; He didn’t care to see them without her.


A firework burst into red sparks over the palace.

The Xingese woman remained in the alleyway alone and altogether unaware. Blood pooled beneath her head. Lan Fan’s body shivered in a vain to keep her warm. The automail arm accelerated the effects of hypothermia.

No one looked for her.


Edward Elric dropped to his knees beside the bleeding boy on the pantry floor. The pantry door swung back and forth, alternating between casting shadows and light upon the two of them. Ed yanked the crumpled, crimson stained cloth off his body. Barely conscious but alive the boy clutched at the side of his throat and made a choking sound.

The theoretical alchemist’s fear transformed to panic. Nevertheless, Ed didn’t let the panic set in. He looked around him for something to stop the bleeding. Edward spied a shelf of linens. Wasting no time he grabbed a stack of cloth napkins from the shelf. He dropped back onto his knees, the right one twinging at the force, and pulled the boy’s hand away from his neck.  

Taking four of the napkins he pressed them to the Xingese kid’s neck and applied pressure.

Eyes wide in terror the boy stared up at him. His breathing had a worrisome rattle to it. Edward feared he had a laceration to his trachea. He couldn’t do anything about it if he did. All Ed could do was apply pressure to the wound and try to keep him calm.

“I’ve got you,” Ed told him.

He hoped it wasn’t a lie.

The boy blinked tears from his eyes.

They trailed down his temples and into his hair.

“I’m going stay right here with you. We’re gonna wait for someone to come and they’re going to get someone to fix this.”

He tried to speak but could only produce choking sounds. The napkins soaked through with blood. Edward grabbed more from the stack next to him, leaving the ones already pressed against the boy’s neck in place, and added to the pressure dressing.

“Don’t try to talk,” Edward shushed.

The boy sucked a breath through his bloodstained teeth.

“You’re going to be fine. Want to know how I know? Because I’ve got my hand on your jugular. If we were dealing with your carotid artery then we’d have something to worry about.”  

Edward hoped he told the truth.

Chapter Text

“Your idea is grand,” Sebastian said.

He opened his travelogue to the notes he’d taken that afternoon while annotating Alphonse’s presentation and uncapped his fountain pen. The two of them sat across from each other at table in an annex of the library. Alphonse had his research journal with him and both of them brought copies of the presentation.

They were the only two in the library at present, yet force of habit had them speaking at a low volume. The lantern on the table next to them cast a soft, flickering light on their work. At this hour the library was closed to most; however, Alphonse had special privileges from the emperor himself in addition to a key.

“I do mean that in every sense of the word,” The diplomatic attaché continued. “It’s a very good idea but your scope is much too big. What you need is proof of concept. By that I mean you should choose one location to start. Otherwise you risk spreading your resources too thinly. I recommend you establish the school here in Xing. If I make speak frankly-”

“You haven’t been speaking frankly?” Alphonse asked.

The comment made Sebastian blush in embarrassment. He fidgeted with his pen while he spoke.

“I do apologize for that. I merely had concerns. I presumed Major Elric had shared with you the finer points of applying for a government grant.”  

Alphonse Elric laughed outright.

“I’m sorry. The thought of Edward trying to write a grant proposal is just…” He laughed again and covered his mouth with the back of his hand.

Sebastian gave him a curious look.

“My brother’s research grant came along with his state alchemist certification. Ed could barely fill out a cash expense refund form. I usually ended up doing it for him and Ed would just sign it.”

Sebastian Schuyler looked at him in disbelief.

“You can’t be serious,” he said.

“General Mustang let a lot of the paperwork slide,” Al admitted.

“I see,” Sebastian said. He cleared his throat and considered his words. “I have concerns surrounding the military funding any part of your proposal.”

“How do you mean?” asked Alphonse.

The diplomatic attaché made an attempt at tact.

“General Mustang’s endorsement would certainly move things along. Unfortunately, it also makes your school look like an extension of the State Alchemist program. Your brother might be ‘The People’s Alchemist,’ but his involvement won’t belay the concerns of those working to end the military state.”  

Alphonse Elric stared at him. Sebastian Schuyler grew uncomfortable under his gaze. He again fidgeted with his fountain pen and waited for Al to say something. When he finally did it was far from what Sebastian expected.

“You’ve really thought this through.”

“Thank you,” Sebastian took pride in his work.

“Do you have suggestions for other funding sources?” Al inquired.  

“Seriously?” Mei exclaimed.

The princess stood in the doorway to the annex.

“You ditched me for the library?”

“Sorry!” Al winced.

“You are such a bookworm.”

“We were just-”

“I should have looked here first,” Princess Mei sighed in exasperation.

“I’m really sorry.”  

“I’m surprised Edward isn’t with you.”

Mei walked over them. Xiao-Mei hopped off her shoulder onto Al’s head and proceeded to chew on his hair as punishment. The princess put her hand on the alchemist’s shoulder and looked at the diplomat.

“Who’s this?”

Sebastian stood from his seat in order to bow.

“Sebastian Schuyler. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Mei blinked at him then inquired in Xingese, “Is this the bureaucrat?”

The descriptor raised the administrator’s hackles once more.

“I am not a bureaucrat!” Sebastian insisted in Xingese.  

The two of them stared at him in shock.

Sebastian Schuyler slapped a hand over his own mouth, too late to take back the perfectly pronounced words.

“I thought you needed a translator,” Alphonse said.

“I never said that,” Sebastian said in a hurry.

“You let everyone think it.”

“Because Roy Mustang told me to!”

To Sebastian’s befuddlement Alphonse Elric laughed.

“Of course he did. I’m sorry for calling you a bureaucrat,” the alchemist apologized.

Alphonse caught Sebastian off guard. He hadn’t expected an apology from the Fullmetal Alchemist’s brother. The diplomat decided to let bygones be bygones. Sebastian adjusted his spectacles and resumed his seat at the table.

“Apology accepted.”

“The fireworks started already. If we don’t hurry we’re going to miss them,” Mei rushed.

“Why don’t we pick this up in the morning?” Al suggested.

“Of course,” Sebastian nodded.

“Come on,” Princess Mei tugged on Alphonse’s arm.

“See you tomorrow!”


 

Jin wasn’t stupid.

He was not about to take on two armed assailants alone with his bare hands.

The clandestine courier rushed forward and kicked the activated smoke grenade at the one coming at him from the front of the alleyway. Sparks erupted from the white phosphorus munition. They struck both the assailant and a pile of rubbish. The trash caught fire. The attempted attacker and probable assassin screamed as the chemical burned through his cloak.

Jin couldn’t help inhaling the white smoke produced by the grenade. It burned in his nose, throat, lungs, and irritated his eyes but he didn’t let it slow him down. Jin ran toward the masked assailant blocking his escape. He ducked under the swing of their club, making a break for the open street. Another swing he didn’t see came down across his back.

The strike sent him sprawling across the cobblestones.

Jin heard the pounding of footsteps behind him. He rolled onto his back, kicked the attacker in the solar plexus with every ounce of his strength. The assailant went flying backwards. The other scrambled to shed their cloak before the chemical burned through to their skin.

Smoke from the blaze intertwined with smoke from the grenade. The clandestine courier coughed as he pushed to his feet. His lungs felt like someone had set him on fire from the inside. He pressed through the pain and ran. His wife depended on him to come home at the end of the day. Jin refused to let Daiyu down.

He didn’t look back to see the building behind him catch fire.


 

General Mustang and Captain Hawkeye reconvened on the veranda to watch the fireworks. Roy removed his tailcoat and put it around her shoulders. Riza smiled slightly at the gentlemanly gesture.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Think nothing of it,” Roy replied.

A server carrying a tray of hot chocolate stopped by their rendezvous point to offer them a beverage. The two of them each accepted with gratitude. The officers leaned against the railing and sipped the cocoa laden with marshmallows. In the courtyard servers handed out sparklers to the children in attendance.

The sky above was illuminated by brilliant bursts of red and white sparks. In retrospect, Roy was glad he hadn’t brought Master Sergeant Fuery along on the diplomatic mission. After his time in the trenches Kain could no longer enjoy such spectacles. Shellshock didn’t hinder the sergeant’s performance at the office, but he now requested leave on December 31st and January 1st and 2nd every year.

Mustang approved the request of his mechanics and communication specialist without question. Permitting Kain Fuery a peaceful New Years in the country was the least he could do. The western front lived on inside Fuery in the same way Ishval would never be over for those who served in the war.


 

The sound of explosions outside brought Margaret Faulkner to her knees. The combat medic pressed her hands over her ears. Madeleine had warned her about the fireworks. It didn’t make any difference. She curled in on herself like a wounded creature and squeezed her eyes shut. The fireworks would eventually end but the war never would.


 

Madeleine Rousseau finished her last set in satisfaction. The cabaret singer made her way over to the bar for a drink where she discovered the dejected emperor eating garnishes. Her fierce beauty’s beloved looked like the world had ended. Maddy clicked her tongue at the sight of him.

“J’arrive ne pas y croire! I do not believe it. Such a handsome man sitting alone at the bar,” Madeleine cooed.

Ling Yao looked over his shoulder at her.

“Madame Rousseau,” he greeted.

Madeleine favored him with a coquettish smile.

“You are in need of company, non?”

“I couldn’t ask for better,” Ling smiled. The expression did not reach his eyes. Liar, she thought to herself not unkindly. Lieutenant Gao pulled out a chair for her; Emperor Yao gave her a hand up onto it.

“Such gentlemen,” Madeleine praised.

The singer folded her gloved hands on the bar top. The Hall of Serenity had mostly cleared out. The two of them were the only ones seated at the bar.

“Shall we have a drink?” she inquired.

“If you like,” the emperor responded with a flourish.

“Magnifique,” Madeleine proclaimed.

The bartender approached to take their order.

“Have you met la fée verte, Your Majesty?”

Ling looked at her with a blank expression.

He blinked, “Beg pardon?”

“Deux absinthe s'il vous plaît,” Madeleine held up two fingers.

“As you say, my lady.”

“Ma coeur will not drink this with me. She doesn’t care for anise. The taste far too near liquorice for her liking.”

“You know her well,” the emperor remarked.

“I’m sure you know her better.”

“One would think but I thought she would enjoy all this,” Ling gestured over his shoulder. “I couldn’t be more wrong.”

The cabaret singer regarded him; The emperor looked lovelorn.

“Most women are easily wooed by grand gestures. Our Lan Fan is not most women. Ma coeur is timid as a bird. She will startle and fly away if you move too swiftly. She must be wooed by degrees.”

The bartender returned to them before the emperor could respond.

Madeleine clapped her gloved hands in excitement as the gentleman set two reservoir glasses before them. The singer was pleased to see he brought a bottle absinthe imported from Creta instead of some Amestrian distilled swill.

“Je vous remercie du fond du coeur,” Maddy beamed.

He poured the green spirit into the bottom of the glasses, balanced silver, slotted spoons on the rims, and set a carafe of ice water and a crystal bowl of sugar cubes on the bar top.

“Je vous en prie, madame,” the bartender replied in the romantic language.

He winked at the surprised emperor and stepped away with a bow.

“You have excellent help,” Madeleine complimented.

“So it seems.”

“Amestrians always do this wrong, setting the sugar on fire. Can you imagine such a thing?” The Cretan woman clicked her tongue in disapproval. “I will show you the proper way. You see the spirit is poured in the bottom half.”

Madeleine set the bowl of sugar between.

“On the spoon you set the sugar just so,” she demonstrated. “You must pour the water over slowly it until dissolved. See how the mixture becomes cloudy? You stir it then with your spoon.”

Ling followed Madeleine’s instructions.

“Now what?” he asked.

Madeleine set aside her spoon and picked up her glass.

“Now we toast to elusive women.”

Her words coaxed a hint of a smile from him.

Ling Yao lifted his glass and clinked it against Madeleine’s.

“Cheers.”


 

General Mustang toyed with the ring box in his pocket as he watched the fireworks display with Captain Hawkeye. He debated whether or not this was a good time to propose. Technically, the two of them were working. His adjutant drew a hard line between their personal and professional relationship. Taking that into consideration Captain Hawkeye could deem the proposal ill-timed at best and downright disrespectful at worst.

“Roy.”

His given name on her lips drew him from his reverie. He tightened his hand around the ring box and took a sip of his cocoa.

“Hm?”

Riza pointed not at the fireworks overhead but at the column of white smoke in the distance.

“Tell me that isn’t what I think it is.”

Roy squinted his eyes for a moment before they went wide.

There was no mistaking it.

“White phosphorus munitions,” Roy identified.  

“That’s what I was afraid of…”

General Mustang swore under his breath.

“Find Lieutenant Havoc and meet me inside. I’ll inform the emperor,” General Mustang commanded.

“Yes sir!”

Chapter Text

By fate or providence 1st Lieutenant Jean Havoc ended up sharing the champagne he brought to celebrate Roy and Riza’s impending engagement with Yue-Yan Han. The two of them sat on the steps to the the palace proper passing the bottle back and forth.

He could get another one.

“I just love Rebecca so much. I don't know how I got so lucky,” Havoc told the young woman sitting next to him.

The interpreter burst into tears.

“No one is in love with me,” she sobbed.

“Hey, don't cry! Someone will fall in love with you! If someone can fall in love with me, someone will definitely fall in love with you!”

The girl sniffled and wiped the tears from beneath her oversized spectacles.

“You really think so?” Yue-Yan hiccuped.

“Look how cute you are! With your glasses and your pretty eyes and you're-” Jean gestured vaguely at her. “If I weren't a happily married man I would be hitting on you right now.”

“That's so nice,” she handed the bottle to him. “You’re so nice, Mr. Havoc.”

Jean gave her a gentle pat on the back.

“Sure thing, doll.”

“Lieutenant Havoc!” Hawkeye hurried up the walkway with the hem of her sapphire evening gown hitched up.

The 1st Lieutenant sat up straight and saluted, “Sir!”

“We're needed. Grab your loadout and…” The Hawk’s Eye fixed him with a deadly stare, “Lieutenant Havoc how drunk are you?”

“Ma'am, I will be honest with you. I am plastered.”

Captain Hawkeye’s sharp gaze shifted to the weepy woman beside him.

“Did you also get Miss Han drunk?”

“Hey now,” Jean raised his hands in surrender, lifting a finger from the neck of the champagne bottle to point at Yue-Yan, “I didn’t make her do anything.”

“Sober up, Lieutenant,” Captain Hawkeye ordered.

The Hawk’s Eye ran up the steps between the two of them. Yue-Yan and Jean watched her go over their shoulders then looked at one another.

“What happened?” The interpreter inquired.

“Ya got me." Havoc handed her the bottle of champagne as he got up, “Here. Don’t drink too much.” The 1st Lieutenant patted her on the head and headed inside to change into his uniform. Yue-Yan took a drink from the bottle and smoothed her ruffled hair.

“Okay.”


 

“Your Majesty!”

General Mustang walked with purpose to the bar where Emperor Ling Yao sat with the blonde cabaret singer. The emperor cast a look over his shoulder at him. Mustang bowed by way of apology to the buxom woman currently holding Ling Yao’s attention.  

“Forgive me madam, I’m afraid I must steal His Highness away from you. Sire, a moment of your time if you will,” Mustang gestured with his head.

“Of course, General,” the emperor rose from his seat. Before departing he took the woman’s hand and kissed the back of it. “Thank you for the advice, Madame Rousseau. I will take it to heart.”

The singer favored him with an affection look.

“Bonne chance.”

Ling Yao stepped away to converse in with Roy Mustang in private.

“Is something the matter?”

“I spied a pillar of smoke outside your walls. I’m certain it was from a smoke grenade. White phosphorus munitions to be specific. They’re highly flammable and known to cause fires in enclosed spaces,” General Mustang informed him promptly.

The emperor snapped his fingers.

Two additional guards joined them from the sidelines.

“Tingzhe summon Commander Liu. Make sure to inform her it’s on business. I will await her in my study. Bolin see that troops are dispatched into the city, and ensure the fire brigade is alerted to the potential threat.”

“Yes sire,” the two said in unison.

The pair of guards departed post haste.


 

Tingzhe couldn’t find Commander Liu for the life of him.

He checked her room in the servants’ wing, the training hall, His Imperial Majesty’s private training hall, Commander Liu’s infrequently used office. The guard commander’s mask and armor remained on the stand in her room. Tingzhe stopped by both the blacksmith shop and the stables to see if she was there with Shu and Jin playing daihinmin.

The bodyguard couldn’t detect even a trace of her qi signature. Either Commander Liu had masked her presence or she’d left the palace grounds. The former seemed far more likely than the later. Tingzhe couldn’t imagine his commander quitting the palace with all the activity going on.

Even if Commander Liu and Emperor Yao were having a row she wouldn’t go far. On the rare occasion the guard commander became cross with her charge she did not allow her mood to interfere with His Highness’s safety and protection. Tingzhe couldn’t imagine her playing gargoyle in an evening gown and heels.

All the same he checked the rooftops.

Though the fireworks had ended Tingzhe tasted gunpowder on the air. The column of smoke in the distance seemed a portent of ominous events. Tingzhe wondered if perhaps she had ventured into the city for some reason. If Commander Liu herself had dispensed a smoke grenade.

It seemed unlikely.

Wasting no time Tingzhe hurried across the rooftops. He trusted the sturdy boots on his feet as he hopped the distance between buildings. Not far from the stables he caught the faint flicker of her familiar qi. The bodyguard stepped off the roof and landed in a crouch. Tingzhe closed his eyes and focused on his sense of qi.

Tingzhe opened his eyes.

“There you are,” he whispered.

Ice and snow crunched beneath his boots as he sprinted toward her. It didn’t occur to Tingzhe that the faint flicker of Commander Liu could be the result of anything other than her own efforts to mask her presence. Commander Liu was the strongest of them. Lan Fan Liu had nerves of steel long before she had an arm made of the substance.

When he found her freezing form in between two buildings he felt his heart stop. Lan Fan Liu looked like broken doll. Tingzhe shook himself out of his shock. He dropped to his knees beside her.

“Commander!”

She didn’t stir at the sound of his voice, nor when he shook her shoulder. Her eyelashes were frosted, skin as white as snow, lips as blue as berries. Lan Fan Liu wasn’t breathing. If he didn’t move fast the flicker he felt would snuff out like a candle burned too low.

Tingzhe hooked one arm beneath her knees and the other behind her back. He got one foot up under him. It took considerable effort to scoop her up into his arms. Her automail dangled like a lifeless thing. The phrase ‘dead weight’ flitted through his mind. He banished the thought as quickly as it came.

“Hold on!”


 

Madeleine entered her room quietly in case Margot had already gone to bed. Beneath the door adjoining their rooms she saw the faint glow of lamplight. The singer eased the door open to peek inside. There she spied her lover sitting on the floor with her back against the dresser. A stranger slept in Margot's bed. Madeleine was unsurprised by the young man’s presence. The singer saw the automail doctor rush to his aid from her elevated position on stage.

Margot's ashen appearance caused her concern.

“Ma cherie,” Madeleine intoned. She swept across the room to her side. Margot put up no resistance as Madeleine pulled her into an embrace. “The fireworks?”

Margot nodded in affirmation. Her tense form became pliant in Madeleine's arms. The former combat medic closed her eyes as the singer rocked her like a child. Madeleine placed a kiss on the top of her head then rested her cheek against against it.

Madeleine held her until Margot pulled away.

“Je suis d’accord,” Margot declared.

Maddy swept Margot's curls to the side and kissed her forehead.

“D’accord.”


 

Tingzhe took Lan Fan straight to the royal alkahestris’s rooms. Unable to open the door with his commander in his arms he knocked on it with the toe of his boot. His hold on her started to slip. The bodyguard hoisted her back up into his arms. Lan Fan’s head lolled against his neck and shoulder. The bodyguard kicked the door again.

“Master Hsu!”

Carrying Commander Liu felt more akin to transporting an ice sculpture. Tingzhe no longer sensed any life within her. She wasn’t breathing but maybe it wasn’t too late. It couldn’t be too late. That Commander Liu should be felled by an accident was incomprehensible. He couldn’t bare to return to the emperor with news of her demise.

The emperor would go mad with grief.

Tingzhe raised his foot to kick the door again just as Master Hsu opened it. The royal alkahestris wore sleeping robes and appeared half asleep. Master Hsu looked quite startled by the sight of them.

“Good heavens!”  

“She’s not breathing,” Tingzhe exclaimed.

Master Hsu opened the door wide to permit Tingzhe’s entrance.

“Bring her in at once. Lay her there on the table,” the alkahestris instructed.

The bodyguard hurried into his office. He laid the commander’s body on the exam table with care. The alkahestris pressed his gnarled fingers to her throat. The intense look on the old man’s face fed Tingzhe’s worst fear.

“Tell me what has happened.”

“I found her in an alleyway. The ground there had iced over. I think she slipped and hit her head. You must help her!”

“Help her I shall but you can do no more for her. Fetch the automail doctor for me at once and no other!” The alkahestris ordered.

“What about His Majesty?”

“Do not make me repeat myself boy!” barked Master Hsu.

The bodyguard rushed from the room.


 

Madeleine answered the knock at Margot’s door.

“I’m here for the automail doctor,” the bodyguard stated.

“Is something the matter?” Madeleine’s concern showed on her face.

“Commander Liu has sustained an injury,” he elaborated.

“Margot!”

“I heard!” Margot Fontaine replied.

The automail doctor slung her toolkit over her back and grabbed her medical bag. Margot stepped into the hallway to follow the bodyguard.

“Wake the prince at three, five, and seven. Make sure his pupils are even and he can follow commands,” instructed Margot.

Madeleine pressed an urgent kiss to Margot’s cheek.

“Take care of our girl.”


 

By the time Margot arrived at the alkahestris’s office Tingzhe had her filled in on the situation. The automail surgeon didn’t waste anytime. Margot Fontaine dropped the toolkit onto the other exam table in room and flung it open.

“What’s her temperature?”

“I’m afraid I’ve summoned you here in vain. The automail has caused hypothermia. Her heart has stopped. She hasn’t drawn breath since Tingzhe brought her in,” Master Hsu regretted.

“I didn’t ask you if she was breathing,” she snapped.

Margot approached Lan Fan’s beside with a spanner. The engineer proceeded to uncouple her automail arm. The redhead removed the appendage in rapid time and moved it off the table.

“I asked you for her temperature. Hypothermia is the best thing she’s got going for her if she has a cracked skull. Now take her goddamn temperature or get the hell out of the way so I can do it!”

Master Hsu fetched a mercury thermometer from a drawer. He stuck it under Lan Fan’s tongue and watched the second hand on the clock hanging on the wall. While the alkahestris took her temperature the automail surgeon cut off her snow soaked dress.

“Is there anything I can do?” Tingzhe asked from the corner where he’d tucked himself out of the way.

“I need warm blankets. Lots of warm blankets and keep them coming. Find me someone with O negative blood while you’re at it.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Tingzhe departed at once.

The alkahestris removed the thermometer from Lan Fan’s mouth.

“Fifty-five degrees fahrenheit,” he read.

“Excellent,” Margot stated.

“I don’t see how it possibly could be.”

“You’re not dead, until you’re warm and dead. I can work with Stage 4 hypothermia. If you have saline start warming it up. We’re going to need it.”

Chapter Text

Lan Fan opened her eyes to an expanse of white.

She didn’t know where she was or how she’d come to be here but she felt no fear or alarm. Only a vague sense that there was somewhere she was supposed to be, or perhaps something she’d forgotten to do. Lan Fan looked down at herself and her matching hands.

“There you are. I've been waiting for you,” said a familiar voice.

Lan Fan lifted her head. Before her stood a man with dark chocolate eyes. Eyes like her own. He wore a black uniform much like the one Lan Fan herself wore. Neither of them wore armor. Lan Fan wondered where her armor had gone and for that matter her mask.

“I didn’t think you’d be here so soon,” he commented.

“Where is here?” Lan Fan inquired.

She looked around her for some telltale landmark but there was nothing but white.

“Don’t be afraid,” the man told her.

The man offered his hand to her along with a warm smile. She did not know him, though she felt as if she should.

“I’m not afraid.”

And she wasn’t, yet she hesitated to take his hand.

“Do we know each other?”

“I know you. I would know you anywhere. You look just like your mother,” he said an affectionate manner.

Lan Fan tarried.

“Take your time. We can go when you’re ready.”

“Where are we going?” Lan Fan asked.

“Home.”


 

Edward Elric believed in science not god. The theoretical alchemist believed in The Truth though he didn't trust it. He did not believe in prayer, but there were no atheists in foxholes. In silence Ed prayed that his own two hands were enough to keep this kid alive.

The pressure dressing and the boy’s clotting factors had done their jobs and stopped the bleeding, if only for now. He prayed for someone to find them soon. Before his arms started to shake and the aching in his back turned to spasms.

Outside the pantry Edward heard the door to the kitchen swing accompanied by the sound of conversation. The theoretical alchemist wasted no time. Still keeping his hold on the blood drenched dressing he shouted for help. A young man in an apron opened the door and gaped at the crimson soaked sight of them.

“Don’t just stand there with your mouth hanging open! Get a doctor!”

“R-Right!”


 

On the way back from the laundry Tingzhe passed Bolin who was on his way to the emperor’s study. Bolin pushed his mask up and spread his hands out.

  “There you are! Where have you been? Why do you have all those blankets?” Bolin asked.

Tinghze looked over the bundle of blankets at him.

  “No time to talk! I have to get these to Ms. Fontaine,” Tingzhe said.

“What are you moonlighting as a maid now? Did you find Commander Liu?”

Tingzhe did an about face and asked, “Hey, what’s your blood type?”

"O negative.” Bolin asked, “Why?”  

“Commander Liu had an accident. Ms. Fontaine says she needs O negative blood. Here!” Tingzhe foisted the blankets off on the befuddled bodyguard. “Take these to Master Hsu’s office and tell Ms. Fontaine your blood type.”

“What sort of accident? Where are you going?” Bolin questioned.

“To tell the emperor!”

  Master Hsu’s orders be damned.

Tingzhe took orders from three people in this palace: Emperor Yao, Commander Liu, and Lieutenant Gao. Not necessarily in that order mind you. Commander Liu had long since made it clear any orders that put His Royal Majesty in peril were not to be obeyed. Fortunately, the emperor hadn’t given any such orders during Tingzhe’s service to the throne.

Standing before the doors to the emperor’s study the bodyguard took a deep breath and pulled his mask into place. Tingzhe rapped twice and waited. The emperor bid him to enter. He prayed to the gods to keep his hands and voice steady. Inside the study the emperor held congress with General Mustang and Captain Hawkeye. Lieutenant Gao occupied one corner of the room.


 

“Your Majesty may I have a word?”

Ling Yao lifted his eyes from the letter in hand. He received report not five minutes ago that a fire had broken out in the marketplace just as Mustang warned it might. The emperor narrowed his eyes at the bodyguard who stood at attention before him. Not only could Tingzhe not seem to complete the only task he’d given him, he had the audacity to speak out of turn.

“What is it?” Ling demanded.

“This one wishes to speak private,” The bodyguard beseeched.

“If you would give us the room, General.”

“Of course,” Mustang replied.

Together, General Mustang and Captain Hawkeye departed the room leaving the emperor alone with his bodyguards.

“I hope you have good reason for returning without Commander Liu. If you say she is indisposed so help me…” Ling said through clinched teeth.

“Commander Liu is–” Tingzhe started.

Ling Yao lost his patience.

“If she’s so petulant that she cannot bother to-”

“–in Master Hsu’s office!”

“What?”  

“Commander Liu sustained a critical injury. She’s currently in the care of Master Hsu and her automail doctor.”

“What do you mean critical?” Ling breathed.

“Commander Liu’s condition is dire.”

“For Gods’ sake speak plainly!”

“She slipped on a patch of ice and struck her head,” Tingzhe stated.

The sheet of xuan paper slipped between his fingers. The report fluttered onto the desk top. Ling didn’t even notice.

“You must come at once,” the bodyguard implored.

Ling headed for the door. Lieutenant Gao instructed Tingzhe to have Lady Xue handle things here and followed. If the bodyguard acknowledged the order Ling didn’t hear him. The emperor did not slow his pace.


 

“Home?”

Lan Fan frowned in thought.

I’m not sure I know where that is...

He chuckled, “Of course you do, mooncake.”

Lan Fan blinked at him.

She didn’t realize she’d spoke aloud.

“I do?”

“With grandfather and me. I’m afraid your mother isn’t here but that’s just as well. She’ll be along when the time comes. We’ll wait for her together.”

Lan Fan perked up at the mention of Master Fu.

“Grandfather?”

“Of course. He’s waiting for us.”

Lan Fan wanted to see her grandfather, but she couldn’t shake the feeling there was something she was supposed to do. Only she still couldn’t recall what that might be. But if it was important it would come back to her, wouldn’t it?

“Don’t worry,” he said.

The words seemed to cast a spell over her for she forgot the remainder of her worry. He held his hand out to her again. Lan Fan looked at his offered hand. She smiled and reached out to take it. Before Lan Fan could lay her hand in his someone snatched her by the wrist.

The hand that held her had a familiar symbol emblazoned on the back of it. Lan Fan looked up at the interloper. He looked like her prince but he wore his face all wrong. The homunculus Greed sneered at the man in front of them.  

“Now wait a damn minute!”

Chapter Text

“Monster!” Lan Fan gasped in recognition.

The homunculus donned that shark smile of his.

“You know, you really should’ve taught the little lady some manners,” Greed drolled.   

“I think she turned out quite well,” Feng took pride.

“I’ll say,” Greed gave her a lascivious look.

  Lan Fan reddened from her face down to her neck.

The bodyguard writhed her wrist free from the homunculus’s hold.  

“What are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same thing. Do you even know where you are?” asked the homunculus.

Lan Fan Liu opened her mouth to answer only to realize she did not in fact know. Every which way she looked she saw nothing but a boundless void of white. She couldn’t recall the events leading up to her sudden appearance in this expanse of white nothingness.

This place disquieted her.

“I... don’t know,” she confessed.

“I was trying to break it to her gently,” Feng grumbled.

"I got your number pops! You're trying to get her to ‘walk into the light’ when you should be kicking her ass back the other way!”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that,” he said regretfully.

Lan Fan looked at the man she didn’t know, really looked at him. She didn’t remember his face but she could recall the timbre of his voice. He’d called her mooncake. Lan Fan had forgotten the epithet entirely.

“Father?”

“Hey, mooncake,” Feng Liu beamed at his daughter. “How's the little prince? He hasn't given you too much trouble, I hope?”

“Emperor,” Lan Fan breathed.

“That's a good question! How is the brat?”

The bodyguard ignored their inquires.

“This isn’t real,” Lan Fan denied.

“It’s real enough,” said Greed.

“This is a dream,” she insisted. “It can't be real. You're both dead.”

“Welcome to the club, honey.”


 

Margot Fontaine tilted Lan Fan's head to the proper angle to ensure she had an open airway. The former combat medic pinched the Xingese woman's nose, breathed once for her, and resumed chest compressions. Lan Fan’s pallor remained deathly. Margot had removed her suit jacket and rolled up her sleeves. She didn't concern herself with the odds of survival. Wasting energy worrying about the odds wouldn't help Lan Fan beat them.

While Margot focused on resuscitation Master Hsu set Lan Fan up with an intravenous port in the crook of her elbow.

“How warm should the saline be?” Master Hsu questioned.

Margot wracked her brain as she breathed for Lan Fan again.

“One hundred three, no, one hundred four degrees fahrenheit.”

Master Hsu drew a purification circle on the lacquered surface of his desk with a grease pencil, set a bottle of saline in the center, and activated the array. He used a towel to transfer the bottle to the I.V. stand and connected the plastic tubing to the port in Lan Fan's arm.


 

Bolin burst through the door to Master Hsu’s office with the blankets. He halted at the sight of Commander Liu. She wasn't decent. Her pretty dress little more than scrap fabric on the floor. One of her gloves lay atop the pile. Looking at her in her underthings, in such a vulnerable state, made him feel dirty. He flushed with shame and averted his eyes.

“I have O negative blood,” he half shouted. Bolin stepped closer. He glued his eyes to the ceiling and he held out the bundle to Master Hsu.

“Thank you my dear boy,” said Master Hsu. He snatched a blanket off the top of the stack. The alkahestris used the already drawn array to energize the atoms in the cloth. He tucked the warmed blanket around Commander Liu’s body.

Margot came up from another breath, pointed at the alkahestris, and snapped her fingers.

“Tuck the blanket around her trunk. Leave the extremities for now or you'll just force cold blood back to her heart.”

The automail doctor snapped again this time at Bolin.

“Take over here. I need to administer meds.”

The bodyguard’s eyes went wide as saucers. He wasn't sure if he could do that. Lan Fan looked so fragile. When it came to delicate tasks he had clumsy hands.

“I-I don't know if I can-” Bolin stammered.

“Yes, you can. I'll show you. Now set down those blankets and get your ass over here,” The fiery woman demanded.

Bolin placed the blankets on the bed beside Lan Fan's stockinged feet. Margot demonstrated the resuscitation technique then moved aside for him to take over. The bodyguard took a breath to steel himself, pinched Lan Fan's nose, and breathed for her. The commander's skin felt cold; it sent a shiver through him. 

“Good,” Margot praised. “Now start compressions.” She snapped her fingers to help him establish the rhythm.


 

Margot led the guard whose name she did not know through two cycles of breathing and compression. Satisfied with his consistency she stepped away. Inside her bag she located a hypodermic needle and a bottle of epinephrine.

Margot held the bottle at eye level and drew a cubic centimeter of the synthetic adrenaline into the syringe. Setting the bottle down she narrowed her eyes as she flicked the barrel. She depressed the syringe with the slightest of pressure to rid the contents of air bubbles.

Certain she wasn't about to give her girl an embolism the automail doctor injected the hormone into her I.V. “What's your name?” Margot asked the bodyguard. The redhead unhooked Lan Fan's garters and rolled her silk stockings off. She flung the sheer fabric onto the pile of clothes on the floor, and kicked the garments out from underfoot.

“Bolin, ma’am.”

“Hsu take her temperature again. Bolin continue compressions in the meantime,” she instructed.

Margot pinched Lan Fan's fingers and toes for signs of improving circulation. The doctor didn’t get the capillary refill response she was looking for. Lan Fan’s head wound remained a secondary concern until they got her heart pumping blood on its own. Margot hadn’t provided trauma care since Ishval but she hadn’t forgot the lessons.

In those days she felt more like a butcher than a surgeon.

“As soon as the I.V. fluids finish warm and hang another bottle.”

“Very well,” came Master Hsu’s grim reply.

Margot Fontaine cut him a sharp look.

“Is there a problem?”

“I do not agree with this course of treatment,” Hsu admitted.

“Then there's the door,” she pointed. “I don't need you here if you're not committed to making every effort to revive her.”

“Even if by some miracle you managed to revive her the poor girl has gone too long without oxygen to her brain. The likelihood of severe deficits-”

Margot cut him off, “I’m the expert here when it comes to neurological signs not you. Either fall in line or get out.”

“You cannot throw me out of my own office,” he balked.

The automail doctor jostled the alkahestris out of her way to take the thermometer out of her patient's mouth. Bolin gave Lan Fan another breath of air without having to be instructed. Margot read the thermometer then set it aside.

“You think I won’t? Watch me.”  

A loud knock sounded at the door.

Margot gave Master Hsu a black look.

“Why don’t you get that?” Margot bit out at him.

The alkahestris drew himself up, stuck out his chin, and walked to the door without another word to her. While Master Hsu answered the door Margot grabbed her stethoscope from her medical bag.

“Master Hsu there’s been a terrible accident in the kitchen!”

Margot looked over at the alkahestris who stood in the doorway with a member of the help. She saw the man’s eyes widen at the sight of her patient. The automail doctor grasped the edge of the privacy curtain.

“Go on then.”  

The surgeon closed the curtain with a snap of her wrist.


 

This is a nightmare.

Ling cursed the vastness of his palace. He couldn’t get to Master Hsu’s office fast enough. If he had better shoes he’d simply take the rooftops. Instead he took every shortcut he knew. He pushed his concern for the events unfolding in his city to the back of his mind. He trusted the dowager empress to mitigate the disaster taking place outside the palace walls.

He turned a corner too fast.

The oxfords he wore for the first time tonight were far from broken in. The soles of his shoes slipped on the waxed wood under his feet. Lieutenant Gao grabbed his elbow to keep him from crashing into a dainty table set against the wall, saving a priceless vase from shattering on the floor in the process.

Ling didn’t let it slow him down.

He didn’t take the time to thank Qiyin for the reflexive save. He had none to spare. Not when the woman he loved was in such critical condition. He’d called her petulant for not answering his summons; Ling hated himself for it. How could he even for a second think she wouldn’t answer his call to action if she was able?

How long had Lan Fan laid there in the freezing cold?

In the meantime Ling had wallowed in self pity instead of looking for her. He should’ve found her not Tingzhe; He should’ve gone after her when she didn’t come back instead of sulking at the bar like a child.

The crisp bowtie around his collar suddenly felt too tight. Ling tugged at the fabric around his neck until the knot came loose. His ribcage felt more akin to a prison for his lungs. He had to remind himself to breathe through the constricted feeling in his chest.

At last he reached the office of the royal alkahestris. The emperor barrelled through the door with Lieutenant Gao close behind. Around one of the beds in the room the curtain was drawn.

“Lan Fan!” Ling cried.

Margot Fontaine moved out from behind the curtain.

“Is she all right?” asked Ling in a panic.

“You need to wait outside,” The automail doctor brooked no argument.

“I have to see her!” he insisted.

“Get him out of here,” Margot demanded of Qiyin.

“I will not leave her!”

“Your Majesty, if you would allow me to I will stay. I’m Commander Liu’s medical proxy,” Lieutenant Gao stated.

The emperor and the automail doctor both looked at the bodyguard.

“What?” Ling questioned.

“In the event Commander Liu is unable to make her own medical decisions I have authority to make them on her behalf.”

“Why have I not heard of this before now?” Emperor Yao demanded.

“I imagine Commander Liu did not wish to upset you with such talk,” Lieutenant Gao reasoned.

Ling weighed Qiyin’s words.

“If you would please wait outside I will provide you updates as they are available,” the bodyguard promised.

“I’ll permit it,” said Margot.

“Thank you,” he intoned.

The emperor reluctantly retreated from the room. In the hall outside the office Ling leaned his back against the wall and settled in to wait. He felt as helpless as he had the night Doctor Knox debrided Lan Fan's shoulder.

The silence now was somehow worse than the screams then.


 

Margot waited until the door snicked shut to step back behind the curtain. The lieutenant guard took up the spot at the end of the exam table. He clasped his hands behind his back and stood at attention.

“Are you really Lan Fan's medical proxy?” she asked.

“I am,” Qiyin confirmed. “I would retrieve the paperwork from my room, but it appears time is of the essence.”

“I'll take you at your word.”

The automail doctor removed her stethoscope from around her neck as she stepped over to Lan Fan's bedside. Bolin removed his hands from his commander's chest in order for her to listen to her heart.

Not even a flutter of a heartbeat.

“What are her directives?” Margot questioned. Allowing the winded bodyguard to have a break she resumed resuscitation efforts herself.

“No extraordinary measures. If she is to die she does not wish to have the process prolonged,” Qiyin answered.

Margot cut him a look.

“Are you going to try and stop me then?”


 

Qiyin Gao considered.

In allowing the automail doctor to continue her efforts he would be going against his commander’s wishes. Qiyin glanced over his shoulder. He thought of the young man on the other side of the door. Of the devastation the commander's death would cause to those who loved her. He locked eyes with the woman doing her damndest to save Lan Fan Liu Zhang’s life.

“Do you believe you can save her?”

“I can save her,” Margot responded.

“Then I shall take you at your word.”

 

Chapter Text

“Liar.”

“Look here little lady-”

“Stop calling me that!” she shrieked.

The only person allowed to call her Lady was Ling and only when followed up by Bodyguard.

This is a dream.

A bad dream that would fade in the light of day.

“Mooncake-” Feng tried.

“Enough with the nicknames! The both of you. I am not your little lady or your mooncake,” Lan Fan’s voice climbed.

“Okay, okay, just calm the hell down,” Greed mollified.  

“I’m not listening to another word out of your foul mouth,” Lan Fan declared. “Monster!”

“That’s enough, Lan Fan,” Feng told her.

“You are not my father! Do not speak to me as if you are!”


 

Feng Liu fixed his features into a neutral expression.

“Have a tantrum if you like.”

Feng sat on whatever passed for the floor in this place, and folded his legs beneath him. The long deceased bodyguard propped his elbow on his knee and his chin on his fist. He dismissed her with a wave of his hand.

“I’ll wait.”

Lan Fan stormed off.

As if there was somewhere to go.

Greed growled under his breath.

The homunculus started to pursue her.

“It’s best to wait these things out,” Feng told the homunculus. “Otherwise children think they can get away with this sort of behavior. Soon she’ll see there’s nowhere to go. In the meantime, why don’t you tell me your story?”

The homunculus seated himself in front of the bodyguard with his legs crossed. Greed placed his hands on his knees and leaned back.

He grinned, “Have I got a story for you!”


 

In a flash of lightning blue energy the alkahestris healed the laceration to Wei’s windpipe and repaired the severed artery. The diminutive chef drew a deep breath for the first time in over an hour. He coughed up a concerning amount of blood. Edward Elric clasped one of Wei’s small hands and pulled him up into a sitting position. The theoretical alchemist kept his other hand on the young man’s back in support.

“You’re okay. It’s okay now,” Edward swore.

Wei continued to cough. He shut his eyes as he hacked and held onto Edward’s hand for dear life. Blood and saliva dripped from his mouth. He dug his dull nails into the alchemist’s skin. The chef placed his other hand on the floor to brace himself. His blood made a tacky mess of the surface. Wei opened his eyes. He lifted his hand to look at his palm.

Blood .

There was blood everywhere.

The telltale metallic taste lingered on his tongue. The scent conjured thoughts of filthy coins scrounged from the gutter. It soaked through his shirt and left him feeling cold. Wei felt weak from the loss of it.

A ragged scream tore through his raw throat. He fainted dead away.


 

Edward Elric caught the kid against his arm as he fainted. The boy’s head lolled backwards. He had an ashen appearance. If not for the sound of his shallow breaths Edward would’ve thought him dead. Wei wasn’t much bigger than Edward when he entered the Amestrian Military at the age of twelve.

The theoretical alchemist hooked his free arm under the chef’s knees. Ed lifted the man whom he presumed was a kid into his arms as he got to his feet. Edward Elric was not about to abandoned him now. Not after everything they’d been through within the last hour.

“He needs a blood transfusion,” Ed stated.

“We’ll take him to hospital,” The alkahestris decided. “He can be treated best there.”

In the kitchen the staff looked on in horror as Edward Elric exited the pantry with Wei in his arms. Frightened whispers passed between them. The sous chef stepped forward to speak for all of them.

“Will Chef Wei be all right?”

“He will live I assure you,” Master Hsu confirmed.

“One of you go find Lan Fan and tell her what happened. Whoever did this might still be here somewhere,” Edward said.

Huang shared a worried look with the porter next to him. The sous chef had seen Lan Fan Liu in Master Hsu’s office when he’d gone to fetch the alkahestris.

“What?” Edward caught the exchange.  

“Commander Liu is…” Huang trailed off. He looked to Master Hsu for an answer.

“Commander Liu suffered a fall and is currently being treated for a head wound,” the alkahestris told a portion of the truth. “Huang if you would be so kind as to inform the emperor of this incident. He will have the appropriate people investigate this matter.”

“Yes sir!”

Edward frowned in concern for his friend. He followed Master Hsu from the kitchen carrying Wei. He didn’t waste too much time worrying. Lan Fan Liu was a tough cookie. Edward was sure she’d be fine.


 

The Dowager Empress set herself behind the Emperor’s desk in his handsome chair. Her personal bodyguard positioned himself behind and to the right of her seat. Tinzghe on the other hand took his place in the corner. Lady Xue rested one manicured hand on the armrest and held out the other for the latest report from the scene of the fire. The bodyguard handed the scroll to her with a bow. With one clear coated  nail Xue broke the red wax seal on the xuan paper.

While the mother to His Royal Highness read the missive General Roy Mustang scrutinized her reaction to the report. Per usual Lady Xue’s expression remained inscrutable. Captain Hawkeye stood sentinel on one side of the door, 1st Lieutenant Havoc on the other.

“My Lady-” Roy addressed.

“You shall refer to His Eminence’s mother as Her Majesty,” The Dowager Empress’s guard corrected.

Roy Mustang offered a tight smile and an apology, “Forgive me. Your Majesty, if the fire has spread perhaps it would be best if you allowed me to handle this situation. I could suppress the blaze-”

“No,” The Dowager Empress replied without a trace of emotion.

“With all due respect-” Roy tried again.

“The day the Flame Alchemist arrives in the Imperial Capital a fire breaks out in the city. I can't imagine a more obvious trap.” Xue tilted her head at him, “Can you?”

Against the wall to Lady Xue’s left the grandfather clock quietly ticked. On the opposite wall the fire in the hearth cracked and popped.

“I suppose not,” Roy relented.

“We are grateful for your prompt reporting of the munitions,” Xue said, using the royal we. “Regardless, matters within the borders of our empire are beyond your purview.”

“I hardly think this is the time to concern ourselves with red tape,” Mustang argued.

“What message shall we send to your Fuhrer?”

Roy furrowed his brow.

“Pardon?”

“When a firebrand makes a martyr of you and instigates a war between our two nations,” The Dowager Empress arched an eyebrow at him.

Mustang shut his mouth.

A knock on the door to the study drew the attention of those in attendance. Lady Xue waved a hand at Tingzhe and the bodyguard answered the door.

Huang stood on the threshold looking altogether anxious. The sous chef stepped inside and bend into a bow.

“I hope this matter is of import,” Xue said lightly.

In Xingese he said, “Your Majesty, there's been an attack in the kitchen. Someone stabbed Chef Wei. Master Hsu is taking him to hospital as we speak.”  

“What is it?” Roy frowned.

“Tingzhe, please escort our esteemed guests back to their rooms,” she said in Amestrian. In Xingese Xue finished, “Bring me the blacksmith.”


 

No matter what direction Lan Fan walked in her path led her back to Feng and Greed. The bodyguard dropped to her knees, buried her head in her matching hands, and despaired.

“This is a dream,” Lan Fan whispered. “Wake up.” The bodyguard curled her fingers into obsidian hair. “Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.”

Feng and Greed exchanged a look.

“I got this.”

Greed rose from his seated position. The homunculus tucked his hands into the pockets of his nehru jacket. He strolled over and crouched in front of Ling's distressed woman.

“Hey, listen here.”

Lan Fan lifted her head. Her eyes were empty.

“No giving up now. It's too soon for that. I sure as hell know wherever the brat is right now he isn't giving up. Not on you. Not for a second.”

“You can't bring a dead person back to life,” Lan Fan said. “The Elrics are proof of that.”

“Yeah well, we’ll see about that,” he dropped a hand on head, ruffled her short hair.

“Ling told me... he loved me,” she confessed.

Greed smirked in satisfaction.

“About damn time.”

Lan Fan rubbed at her eyes.

“I didn't tell him I loved him. I should have told him. Now I never will.”

“Maybe, maybe not. What say we wait awhile and see what happens? In the meantime, you might want to talk to your old man over there.”

Lan Fan looked over her shoulder at her father. Feng stood several feet away with his arms folded. He held himself in the same manner as her grandfather.

Greed offered her a hand up. Lan Fan accepted and he pulled her to her feet. She turned her face up to him.

“Thank you, Greed.”

“What do ya know you do know my name!”

Lan Fan almost smiled. Almost.

The bodyguard took a deep breath, held her head up, and approached the father she hardly knew.

Feng unfolded his arms as she neared. Lan Fan surprised them both by launching herself into his arms. He wrapped them around his daughter.

“Father,” Lan Fan cried.

“Hi mooncake.”

Chapter Text

Lan Fan didn't know what to say to her father. What did one say to someone they hadn’t seen in seventeen years? She still wasn't sure this whole thing was real. But as Greed said it was real enough. Instead of engaging in conversation the two of them simply sat together. Feng put his arm around her; Lan Fan rested her head upon his shoulder. He combed his fingers through her short locks.

Perhaps this dream wasn't so terrible. When she woke she would tell Ling. Lan Fan wondered if Feng had given Prince Ling a silly nickname as well, or if he’d merely called him the little prince. She didn't ask.

It was enough for Lan Fan to sit with her father like she had by the hearth in their small home.  

Lan Fan couldn't ask for anything more.


 

Margot administered another cubic centimeter of epinephrine to her patient. One more dosage would have Lan Fan maxed out on the medication. The haggard looking bodyguard continued compressions on her behalf, while Margot took Lan Fan's temperature for the upteenth time.

Eighty-seven degrees fahrenheit.

They were running out of time. Lan Fan was running out of time. Very soon she'd be warm and dead, and there’d be nothing left to do.

“Move,” Margot told Bolin.

The bodyguard got out of the automail doctor’s way. The former combat medic located Lan Fan's sternum with two fingers, moved them an inch upwards on her chest. Margot formed her other hand into a fist and brought the ulnar side down on Lan Fan's chest with an audible thump.

The redheaded pressed two fingers to Lan Fan's carotid artery. There she felt a flutter. Margot took her stethoscope from around her neck and checked the girl’s heart for a rhythm.

Margot heard a heartbeat. Before she could say as much blood flow reached her patient’s brain. Lan Fan sucked in a sharp breath of air. The sound startled Bolin. He bumped into the bed behind him, knocking Lan Fan's automail arm and Margot's spanner off the surface. The appendage and tool struck the floor with a metallic clatter.


 

Lan Fan Liu Zhang’s world went from white to black. There were no nightmares or dreamscapes. Into darkness she disappeared.


 

Ling shot up from his seat against the wall next to the door at the sound of a crash. The Emperor reached for the door handle right as Lieutenant Qiyin Gao opened it.

“Is she all right?” Ling tried to move passed him into the room. The lieutenant bodyguard blocked him with an outstretched arm.

“Lan Fan is breathing. Doctor Fontaine is assessing her injuries as we speak” said Qiyin.

Before Ling couldn't sense her qi. Now he felt it yet it seemed so threadbare. Just as it had in the desert when infection and fever threatened to steal her away from him.

Ling Yao felt he himself would unravel if he did not see Lan Fan breathing for himself.

“Please I have to see her,” The emperor begged.

“Just for a minute,” Fontaine snapped the curtain open. “If you get in my way I'll throw you out myself.”

Ling maneuvered around his bodyguard. He rushed to Lan Fan's bedside and held her too cold hand between both of his own.

“Lan Fan,” Ling whispered.

His Lady Bodyguard gave no reply nor any indication that she heard him. Lan Fan’s hand lay limp against his palm. He squeezed her hand gently to let her know she wasn’t alone. Even if she couldn’t hear him he hoped she somehow knew he was there.


 

Margot Fontaine returned to the other side of the bed with a penlight from her bag. The automail doctor checked her pupillary light reflex. Fontaine frowned at the sight of her uneven pupils.

“Lan Fan can you hear me?” she asked.

No response.

Margot grabbed the reflex hammer on her way to the end of the bed. She untucked the blanket providing passive warm to Lan Fan’s legs. The doctor ran the point of the reflex hammer up the inside of her arches. Lan Fan's toes curled up instead of under.

“How is she?” Ling inquired.

“Shut up,” she snapped.

The former combat medic grabbed a fresh hypodermic needle. With it she stuck each of the Xingese woman's legs, then reached across her body to stick her right arm.

No deep pain stimulus response.

“What are you doing?” The emperor exclaimed.

“Thinking. Shut up or it’s back to the hall with you.”

The Emperor of Xing shut his damn mouth. Wisely so.

Margot washed her hands at the sink before examining Lan Fan's head wound. Blood matted Lan Fan's hair but the bleeding appeared superficial. She ran the symptoms through her head and settled on a diagnosis.

“Subdural hematoma,” she said, primarily to herself. Centrally located if she was correct. “She’s bleeding into her brain. Someone get me an alkahestris. A competent one not the hack who owns this office.”


 

“Fetch Mei Chang at once,” the emperor commanded.

There was no one Ling Yao trusted more with Lan Fan’s life. His sister saved her once, she could do so again. While Bolin bolted from the room Margot set up an instrument tray. The automail engineer lifted Lan Fan’s head, turning her face toward Ling. She snatched a pair of scissors from the tray and proceeded to snip short a section of his Lady Bodyguard’s hair.

“What are you doing?” Ling couldn’t help himself.

Lan Fan’s hand began to warm between his own. The return of warmth brought her liege a modicum of relief. The bodyguard’s pale complexion pinked up as her circulation improved.

“Time for you to go,” Margot said in lieu of an answer.

“I’m not leaving her.”

Margot Fontaine leveled him with a glare.

“I’m about to drill a hole into her skull,” she informed him in no uncertain terms. “If I don’t relieve the pressure on her brain she will suffer permanent damage and die. You want to be here for that?”

Ling laced his fingers through Lan Fan’s.

The idea of witnessing such a procedure filled him with dread. Lan Fan hadn’t wanted him in the room when Doctor Knox debrided her shoulder or to witness the reattachment of her automail. Be that as it may, she wasn’t awake to dissuade him this time.

Ling Yao had quite enough of being sheltered from Lan Fan’s suffering. He intended to see her through it. He fixed the automail doctor with a dead serious look.

“I will not leave her.”

Margot appraised him for a split second.

It seemed the surgeon did not find him lacking for she resumed her preoperative procedures. The automail doctor ordered Qiyin to scrub his hands and take a spot at the head of the bed. She handed the lieutenant guard an open mask layered with gauze to place over Lan Fan’s nose and mouth along with a drop bottle of ether.

“You’ve just been promoted to anesthetist. Twelve drops a minute for two minutes then one drop a second for five,” she instructed.

Ling took the gold pocketwatch from his waistcoat.

The emperor snapped the cover open and set the watch on the exam table within Qiyin’s line of sight. In the silence of the room the second hand ticked audibly. Lieutenant Gao placed the mask over Lan Fan’s mouth and nose, and began administering the anesthetic per Margot’s instructions. While the bodyguard ensured proper sedation, Margot swabbed the shaved section of her patient’s head with iodine.

Retrieving a scalpel from the instrument tray to her right she took a deep breath and sliced through her scalp down to the bone. Margot inserted a self-retaining retractor into the incision. The surgeon dropped the scalpel into the basin and grabbed the trephine.

Ling looked away when Margot put the hole saw to the back of Lan Fan’s head. The sound of the surgeon hollowing out a section of her skull sickened him. The emperor swallowed hard against the taste of bile at the back of his throat.

Margot removed the circular section of bone, dropping it and the trephine into the basin beside the scalpel. The automail doctor picked up a sharp hook and fresh scalpel. She removed the remaining bone fragments then hooked the exposed membrane with extra care. Margot Fontaine drew in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and sliced through the dura with a steady hand.

Blood shot out from the incision. The oxygen rich substance spattered on the linens and across Margot’s immaculate blouse. The surgeon didn’t even flinch. She moved on to irrigating the subdural space with saline until the opening no longer oozed blood.


 

Mei Chang arrived at Master Hsu’s office in pyjamas and slippered feet. Lan Fan’s subordinate opened the door for her. The Little Chang Princess shrieked at the blood soaked scene before her. She covered her mouth with her small hands.

“Mei,” Ling said her name with such desperation.

“You’re here. Good,” Margot proclaimed.

The princess removed her hands from her mouth.

“What is going on? What have you done?” Mei cried.

The automail doctor irrigated the incision with saline once more for good measure then removed the retractor.

“I need you to close the burr hole I’ve made. Can you do that?” Margot inquired in a clinical manner.

“Did you think about asking that before you drilled into her head?” Mei shrieked as she approached the exam table.

“There wasn’t time. Not if we wanted to have any chance of preserving her brain function,” the doctor replied.

“Hands off of the table!”

Mei drew her knives from the pocket of her pyjamas and threw them into the table around Lan Fan’s head. Ling, Qiyin, and Margot pulled their hands away just in time. The princess activated the purification circle. Taking care she healed the open wound in her bodyguard friend’s head.

“What happened?” Mei demanded.

“Head trauma and subsequent hypothermia,” Margot washed her hands, grabbed a bore needle and intravenous tubing, and moved to the other side of the table. The emperor moved out of her way before she moved him. “You’re up O neg.”

Bolin joined the surgeon at Lan Fan’s side. The bodyguard turned nurse turned blood donor rolled up the sleeve of his uniform. Margot swapped the inside of his elbow with disinfected before setting up the transfusion between subordinate and commander.

“Good man,” she proclaimed him. “Shouldn’t need more than a pint. If you start to feel faint say something.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Margot checked Lan Fan’s pupils with the penlight and declared them equal. She checked her plantar reflex; Lan Fan’s toes curled under just as they should. Her temperature rose to ninety-seven degrees fahrenheit thanks in part to the introduction of warm blood. Between the two of them, Margot and Mei cleaned Lan Fan up and changed the blood stained sheets.  

Without further ado Margot Fontaine walked over to the sink and removed her bloody blouse. The gentlemen in the room averted their eyes as the redhead washed the blood from her skin wearing only her brassiere. Once her skin was clean and dry she donned her jacket. The suit coat still revealed a good deal of her bosom, but all things considered modesty was a minor concern.

“What do we do now?” Ling asked.

“Now we wait for her to wake up.”

As it turned out they would be waiting a long time.  

Chapter Text

At the hospital the charge nurse offered Edward the use of a shower and a set of patient clothes, while the on call doctor tended to Wei with the alkahestris’s assistance. Ed accepted the offer with gratitude. In the bathroom of the physician's lounge he stripped off his blood stained clothes. He consigned his best suit to the medical waste bin. It occurred to him that his brother could probably get the blood out with alchemy. All the same Ed couldn't imagine ever wanting to wear it again.

Edward Elric stood under the stream of hot water in the single shower. He turned his face up to the downpour, scrubbed at his skin and hair with just his hands. Turning around to let the water run down his back he looked down at his feet. Wei’s blood mixed with the water, ran down his body in rivulets, and swirled around the drain. It reminded him of the shower he took at Central Headquarters after treading through the sea of blood within Gluttony’s false gate.

He felt like he was going to be sick.

The theoretical alchemist drew a deep breath in through his nose. He waited for the feeling to pass and when it did he grabbed the bar of soap resting in the dish on the wall. Edward scrubbed every inch of his body, banishing the last traces of the blood down the drain. He washed his hair twice with the bar soap, heedless of how it would dry and tangle his tresses.

He lingered under the water until it ran cold.

The towel the nurse gave him with the stack of clothes felt softer than the linens he became accustomed during his many hospital stays. Edward pressed it against his face for a moment. The scent of fresh laundry reminded him of helping his mother take clothes off the line. These days thoughts of his mother were comforting. He could remember the good without conjuring the bad.

Edward finished drying himself off. He fumbled a bit with the unfamiliar clasps on the shirt, but the pants were easy enough to get on. They reminded him of the loose trousers Ling wore when he first met him. The ensemble felt comfortable overall. He wondered if the robes Ling wore these days were comfortable or if his friend missed his carefree attire.

Looking into the mirror he ran his fingers through his hair. He noticed he looked about as tired as he felt but at least he was clean. Edward managed to get the worst of the tangles out. He decided to leave it down until it dried and looped his hair tie around his right wrist.

The alchemist left his soiled shoes under the sink and stepped into a pair of slippers. His borrowed shoes whispered against the floor as he walked back to the nurse’s station. The charge nurse was stern looking, yet kindly woman in her forties. Silver streaked her black hair and a pair of reading glasses hung around her neck. She looked up from her charting when he walked up to the counter.

“Feeling better?”

“Yeah. Thanks again, Ms…”

“Nurse Yang will do, young man. And you are?” Nurse Yang inquired.  

“Edward. Ed is fine. Hey listen, is that kid going to be okay?”

“Kid?”

“The one I came in with. He lost a lot of blood.”

“I see. Forgive my confusion. According to the young man’s chart he is twenty-five.”

Edward blinked at her. He had to laugh if only a little. After all those years of people mistaking him for a kid because of his small stature he’d gone and done the same thing to someone else. He hoped the guy wouldn’t hold it against him.

“Right. Sorry. What’s his name again?”

Nurse Yang put on her glasses to read the clipboard in front of her.

“Wei.”

“Is Wei going to be okay?”

“He is expected to recover,” The nurse said carefully. “I’m afraid I can’t discuss the details of his condition with you, but Doctor Zhou should be finishing up his exam now if you’d like to peek in on him. Down the hall on your left. Room 307.”

“Thank you,” Edward walking down the hall.

At this time of night half the overhead lights were turned off. Save for one the patient rooms were dark. A soft glow emerged from beneath the door of Room 107. He knocked lightly on the door. A voice beckoned him in.

Edward eased the door open. He slipped inside, shut the door behind him, and turned around to see Roy Mustang’s doppelganger standing on the other side of the hospital bed. Ed let out a strangled yelp at the sight of him.

Doctor Zhou had longer hair than General Mustang, worn in a disheveled topknot, but there were unmistakeable similarities in their features. The shape of his face, the thoughtful frown, the pale complexion. He wore a pair of spectacles with round lenses but behind them the eyes were the same.

At second glance Ed realized the doctor had to be forty-five, maybe even pushing fifty. Those familiar eyes were framed with fine lines as well as his mouth. If Roy aged as well as his doppelganger he’d look good well into middle age.

The bastard.

“You must be the gentleman Master Hsu told me me about,” the doctor said in accented Amestrian. He spoke at a low volume to avoid disturbing his sleeping patient. Doctor Zhou hooked the bottle of donor blood to the intravenous tube snaking it’s way from the port inserted into his patient’s arm.

Edward tore his gaze away from the doctor to glance at the patient.

Wei looked as white as the sheet he laid on.

“Your actions saved this young man’s life,” Doctor Zhou commended. He walked around the bed and held out his hand. “You should be proud.”

“Uh,” Ed stared at his hand a beat before shaking it. The skin on the back of his hand was smooth. No scars from any hastily carved arrays. “If you say so.”

“I do.” The doctor tilted his head in question. He asked, “Are you quite all right?”

“‘m fine.”

“Are you certain? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I didn’t catch your name,” Ed prompted.

“Forgive me. Doctor Lian Zhou,” the doctor introduced himself with a bow. “You are Mr. Edward Elric. Is that correct?”

“The one and only,” Ed said with intentional irony. “How’s Wei?”

He could figure out doppelganger Roy later.

“In stable condition. Sedated. He had a fit when we first attempted to hang blood. Master Hsu informs me he is hemophobic.”

“Seriously?” Ed asked, aghast.

“I'm afraid so.”

“Has anyone called his family?”

Doctor Zhou shook his head regretfully.

“According to Master Hsu he has none to speak of,” he responded.

Edward Elric had only ever known that feeling briefly. His blood pouring from his stump of a leg with nothing left of his brother save for a pile of clothes.

“Can I stay with him?” Ed asked.

Mustang’s lookalike smiled faintly.

“I'm sure he would appreciate it. There are extra blankets in that cabinet,” Lian gestured to the cabinet by the bed. “Please let Nurse Yang know if you need anything else.”

Doctor Zhou departed to round on his other patients.

Edward Elric grabbed a blanket from the cabinet. He seated himself in the chair beside Wei's bed and settled in for the night. Ed tried to keep his eyes on Wei. Just in case he woke up and needed something. He meant to close his eyes for only a moment. Instead he fell fast asleep.


 

Ling stayed by Lan Fan's bedside throughout the long night. Mei remained with him, while Margot retired to get some much needed and well deserved rest. Mei cleaned the mussed makeup from Lam Fan's face with care. Qiyin sent Bolin off to bed. The lieutenant guard stood watch in the corridor. Every hour on the hour Mei checked Lan Fan's vitals to assure her older brother of his beloved’s stability.

“You look like hell,” Mei said in a low volume.

“Here I thought I looked dashing in these clothes,” Ling said. His tired eyes were underscored with dark circles. He provided his sister a careworn smile.

“I mean you need to get some sleep.”

He knew what she meant.

“I want to be here when she wakes up.”

Lan Fan looked as if she was only asleep. Her fringe fell into her closed eyes. Ling reached out to sweep it to the side. He pressed the back of his hand to her forehead, even though Mei took Lan Fan's temperature not so long ago. Compared to earlier her skin felt warm as a furnace.

“It might be awhile,” Mei pointed out.

“Then I will be here awhile.”

Mei sighed in exasperation.

“You are so stubborn,” she said.

The words were not without affection.

Ling laughed under his breath.

“If that's not the pot calling the kettle black…”

For a time the imperial siblings fell into silence. Ling's pocket watch ticked on a table nearby. From the bottle hanging by the bed saline dripped steadily into the intravenous tube connected to the port in Lan Fan's arm. The injured bodyguard’s breaths were shallow but even.

“She's stubborn, too,” Mei said.

“One of her most admirable qualities I assure you.”

Another moment of silence.

“You're in love with her,” the princess accused.

The emperor didn’t try to deny it.

“Is it that obvious?”

“Sickeningly.”

Ling gave her a withering look.

“You’re one to talk.”

“Shut up,” Mei colored. “You're hopeless you know that?”

“I'm an idealist,” he corrected.

“Like I said.”


 

At daybreak Lady Xue took the time to bathe and change into clothes more befitting her station. His Eminence's mother selected a red gown embroidered with white cranes. Xue chose to wear her hair down, an aberration from her usual traditional hairstyles, with a section pinned back over her right ear. Thanks to her lady’s maid all evidence of exhaustion was hidden beneath artfully applied makeup.

Xue put on her signature scarlet feather earring and crimson lip color. Fit to be seen she departed her rooms shortly after daybreak. An attendant intercepted her on the way to Master Hsu’s office with an update from the alkahestris himself. Xue read the scroll at once. She ordered the attendant to clear all appointments for the day for both herself and the emperor. Escorted by the exhausted Tingzhe Lady Xue descended upon the Royal Alkahestris’s study.

Lieutenant Gao greeted her with a bow upon her arrival.

“How is our dear girl?” Lady Xue inquired in a whisper.

“Commander Liu has yet to wake, Your Majesty. Her doctor informs us it could take some time due to the severity of her head trauma.”

“And His Highness?”

“With her now.”

Xue cast a glance at Tingzhe.

“Would you be so kind as to assume Lieutenant Gao’s position? We must convene with His Highness regarding matters of security.”

“As you wish, Your Majesty,” Tingzhe swept into a bow.

Qiyin opened the door and stepped aside to allow Lady Xue to proceed him into the room.

Princess Mei to rose from her chair and fell into a bow when The Dowager Empress entered the room. The Emperor remained in his seat beside his future betrothed. In truth Xue held a fondness for the intrepid princess. Mei Chang had Xue Yao’s trust. The Dowager Empress didn’t dole out trust freely.

“We have a problem,” Lady Xue declared.

“Just the one?” Ling quipped.

“A multitude I'm afraid but this one is pressing.”

“Very well,” he relented.

“The kitchen staff have an idea of Commander Liu’s condition, and if they are aware-”

“-then the whole palace is talking about it,” Ling swore under his breath.

“Is that bad?” Mei inquired.

“Would-be assassins will see her absence as an opportunity to make attempts on His Majesty’s life,” Lady Xue elaborated.

“We'll be fending off assailants left and right,” Lieutenant Gao resigned.

“Considering what transpired in the kitchen last night-” Xue continued.

“What happened in the kitchen?” Ling questioned.

Xue Yao froze at the question. The Dowager Empress hadn't realized no one had informed the Emperor of the attack on his friend. Lady Xue did not wish to add to her son’s troubles, but it couldn’t be helped.

“Chef Wei was attacked by an unknown assailant. Edward Elric found him by happenstance. He will live thanks to the Fullmetal Alchemist.”

“Live? How serious was this attack?”

Lady Xue hesitated to answer.

“Tell me what happened, ”The Emperor’s voice climbed.

“He had his throat cut,” Xue confessed.

Mei Chang gasped.

Solemnity settled on her son's features.

“Unknown assailant… He didn’t say who attacked him?”

“Master Hsu hasn’t coaxed that information from him.”

“Wei won’t say?” Ling frowned in confusion.

Lady Xue took a measured breath.

“He is catatonic.” 

Chapter Text

Shu slunk onto the palace grounds in the wee hours of the morning.

On his way back he passed through the marketplace. The fire brigade suppressed the inferno before it could consume the whole of the district, but a half dozen buildings on the eastern side of the street were reduced to foundations. More suffered smoke damage. It appeared efforts to repair the devastation were already underway.

As he headed to his shop the blacksmith noticed the increased guard patrols remained in effect. Your paranoia is showing, Commander Liu. Shu thought in a singsong. Then again assassination attempts were practically a pastime in Xing. Lan Fan Liu’s paranoia kept Ling Yao alive all these years.

Shu counted on Lan Fan’s paranoia to bring her back to him. Soon enough Lan Fan would realize romantic entanglement with the emperor distracted her from her responsibilities.

One close call in a moment of inattention.

That's all it would take for Lan Fan to end things with Ling.

All I have to do is wait for it.

He convinced himself.

Of course, he didn’t wish a close call upon his friend but he tired of waiting.

He imagined Lan Fan undressing for Ling before his lavish bed. Her blush spreading across her face and down her neck like a splotch of watercolor. Lantern light illuminating her tracing paper skin. Black uniform a puddle of ink at her feet. Ling studying her contours with an avaricious expression. Eliminating the negative space between them. Intertwining on a canvas of silk sheets.

The thought of them together made him gnash his teeth.

Shu entered his workshop with intention of climbing up the ladder into the loft and sleeping the entire morning away. He decided he deserved it after the night he had. Sleep should do something about the foul mood his imagination put him in. After several hours of shut eye he’d bother Wei for a belated breakfast.

Shu’s plans scattered to the wind like so much ash at the sight in front of him.

“You bastard.”

Jin sat on the floor with his back against the banked forge. The clandestine courier had his knees drawn up. In one hand he held a crumpled handkerchief. Jin’s teeth were stained pink. He coughed. Blood peppered the floor in front of him.

Shu stared in shock.

“‘Pick up some messages for me,’ he says,” Jin pulled a stack of missives from the inside pocket of his coat. “Here are your damn messages.” He flung them toward Shu. The papers fluttered in the air and floated to the soot covered floor. The blacksmith let them fall where they may. He wasn’t worried about anyone reading them. No one could break the code without his cipher.

“What the hell happened?”

Shu hopped the bench between them.

He dropped to one knee beside his friend.

“You happened, you lying son of a bitch. I walked right into a trap without so much as a word of warning from you,” Jin winced from the use of his voice.

“You need a doctor,” Shu pulled his friend’s arm across his shoulder and hauled him to his feet.

“You’re gonna need a doctor after I beat your face in,” Jin told him.

He dropped his head forward and coughed again.

His blood spattered on the tops of their shoes.

“You can hit me all you want later,” Shu promised.

Anything to get his friend moving. Shu knew a hollow threat when he heard one. He hurried Jin along as quickly as he could. The spy navigated them through halls with minimal foot traffic to avoid being seen. Fewer people meant fewer questions.

He found he had number of his own when he spied Tingzhe outside Master Hsu’s office.

Shu started with, “What are you doing here?”

“Where have you been?” Tingzhe demanded. “The Dowager Empress sent for you hours ago.”

“Working,” Shu answered.  

“What's wrong with him?”

“He's coughing up blood.”

Tingzhe opened the door for them. Shu half dragged his friend inside. To his startlement the Imperial Inner Circle gathered around his heart's desire.

“Lan Fan,” Shu gasped.  

The absence of her automail diminished her more than he could have possibly imagined.

His Lan Fan looked beyond broken.

“Is she all right? What happened?” Shu looked to Ling for an answer.

The Dowager Empress turned toward him.

“Where have you been?” Lady Xue demanded.

“Don't expect him to tell you the whole truth,” Jin advised before launching into a coughing fit.

Qiyin rushed forward to help Jin to the adjacent hospital bed. Between Shu and Qiyin they hoisted the stable master and subsequent courier onto the edge of the bed. Mei Chang moved over to them to help. Shu maneuvered himself out of her way to speak to Ling.

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Lan Fan is fine,” Ling insisted.

“She doesn’t look fine,” Shu hissed. “Do we know who attacked her?”

All eyes were on him save for Chang who examined Jin's throat with a pen light and tongue depressor.

“Attacked? What makes you certain someone attacked Lan Fan?” Ling narrowed his eyes.

Fuck.

“What haven’t you told me Shu?” Ling inquired in a cold, clipped voice.

The spy swept his eyes over the room. He considered everyone in attendance trustworthy, yet he hesitated to divulge what little information he had. Shu settled his eyes on Lan Fan.

We’re supposed to deal with these things together.  

“Does this have anything to do with the attack on Wei?” The Dowager Empress queried.

“What?” Shu pulled himself out of his thoughts.

Shu warned him, specifically warned his friend, to be careful last night. Something he supposed he should’ve done a better job of with Jin.

“Tell me everything that’s happened,” The spy master damned.

“You serve at the pleasure of His Imperial Majesty,” Lieutenant Qiyin Gao reminded him with venom. “As such you will mind your tongue should you wish to keep it in your head.”

Gods how Shu despised the Lieutenant. A mutual feeling to be sure. No love lost there. Even before Shu and Ling’s squabble over Lan Fan in garden the Lieutenant made his detest for Shu known.

Never in front of The Emperor nor The Guard Commander, of course.

The one and only time Shu made the mistake of attempting to coax information about Lan Fan from Qiyin the Lieutenant Guard threw him up against a wall. He informed Shu the next time he stuck his nose where it didn’t belong regarding Commander Liu, or in any other matter where it didn’t belong, Qiyin would cut it right off his face.

“Forgive my impertinence,” Shu said through his teeth.

The Emperor of Xing stood from his seat beside their beloved’s bed. Ling still wore his party clothes, though he'd lost the bowtie and unfastened the top two buttons of his dress shirt.

“Lan Fan hit her head last night. She required surgery. Mei said it might take awhile for her to wake,” Ling informed him.

The puzzle pieces didn't match the picture on the box.

“If she hit her head why is her arm off?” Shu narrowed his eyes back at him.

Ling grimaced.

“Hypothermia. Tingzhe found her unconscious out in the cold,” The Emperor confessed.

“Why wasn't she with you?” Shu inquired quite incredulous.

I take my eyes off of her for one second!

An unmistakable look of guilt flashed across the emperor's face. Meanwhile, Qiyin excused himself to the hall to dispatch orders to his subordinate.

“Three of my agents broke off their assignments. Another washed up in the sewers with his throat cut,” Shu told him of the same information Lan Fan the day before. “Commander Liu and I were looking into it. There wasn’t anything to tell. Not yet.”


 

The emperor turned away to address his trusted sister.

“How is your patient, Princess?” Ling inquired.

“He’s suffering the effects of smoke inhalation. There are blisters on the back of his throat, which I haven't seen before,” The alkahestris answered.

The Dowager Empress approached Jin’s bedside. Lady Xue laid a delicate hand on his knee.

“Were you in the marketplace last night?” Xue inquired.

Jin coughed. He spit blood into the basin Mei held beneath his chin.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” The clandestine courier appeared ashamed. “I-I’m afraid I might’ve started the fire. Two individuals in masks attacked me. They had smoke grenades and I-” A hacking cough cut him off momentarily.

Lady Xue moved her hand to his back.

“Take your time,” Lady Xue cooed.

Jin got his coughing under control.

He continued, “I kicked a smoke grenade at one of them. Sparks went everywhere.”

Ling's blood ran cold. The emperor stepped over to Jin. He put his hands on his friend's shoulders.

“How much of the smoke did you inhale? Did any of the sparks get on your skin?” He asked in all urgency.

“A good lungful or two. On one of them but not on me,” he answered. “Why?”

Ling released the breath he held.

“Good. That's good.”

He turned to his sister.

“He's inhaled white phosphorus, but I should think not enough to cause toxicity.”


 

Mei grabbed the grease pencil off the table between the beds. The princess drew a pentagram on the bed sheet.

“You're going to be all right,” Mei told her patient with conviction. “Lay back for me.”

The alkahestris wasted no time activating the array. Mei healed the blisters in the back of his throat, along with the unseen ones within his lungs. The Seventeenth Princess prayed her brother had it right. Mei thought Ling had it right. Jin hadn't inhaled enough of the chemical to suffocate, nor did he show signs of liver damage.

The Dowager Empress rested her hand over her patient’s heart.

“Do not trouble yourself over the fire,” Lady Xue instructed. “It wasn't your fault.”

“Did anyone die?” Jin asked, apprehension etched on his features.

Xue Yao smiled faintly and shook her head.

“Rest now,” The Dowager Empress commanded.

Mei borrowed the automail surgeon's stethoscope from the medical bag Margot left behind in order to listen to Jin’s heart and lungs. The princess picked the emperor's pocket watch from the bedside table. Mei took his pulse. She watched the second hand tick ninety degrees then multiplied her count by four.

While Mei conducted her exam Jin closed his eyes.

“What about Wei?” He asked.

The Princess and the Dowager Empress shared a look.

“Wei is well cared for, I assure you,” Xue answered.

“He’s okay?” Jin inquired again.

“Hush now.”


 

While the occupants of the room concerned themselves with the injured courier Shu only had eyes for his favorite girl. In silence Shu stole Ling's spot by Lan Fan bedside. He took her hand for a moment.

“I'm here. I'm right here,” Shu intoned. “Just like I said.”

Shu felt eyes on him. He lifted his gaze. The emperor stared at him expressionless.

“Forgive me. I know I'm late.”

It didn't much matter for whom he meant the words.


 

In one corner of the room, those hale and healthy in the Imperial Inner Circle convened to converse. The Emperor crossed his arms over his chest. The Dowager Empress tucked her tiny hands into the trailing sleeves of her elaborate robes. Lieutenant Gao stood at attention against the wall. The spy crossed one arm over his chest and pressed the fist of his free hand against his mouth.

“How long until Lan Fan wakes up?” asked Shu.

Princess Mei, still dressed in pajamas and bedroom slippers, sat in an armchair with one leg dangling and the other tucked beneath her. She swung her foot as she thought. The rosy slipper on her foot threatened to fly off.

“Honestly? There’s no telling,” Mei Chang sighed.

“You must have some idea,” Shu insisted.

“Best case scenario?” Ling prompted.

“A matter of hours.”

His mother followed up with, “Worst case scenario?”

Princess Mei hesitated.

“Mei,” Ling pressed.

“Weeks. Months.” Mei's eyes flicked from Ling to the floor. She said, “Never.”

A knock came at the door. Lan Fan’s second-in-command stepped away to answer it. Qiyin returned with the sizeable envelope Tingzhe brought upon his request.

“What's this?” Lady Xue inquired.

“The worst case scenario,” Qiyin responded. He broke the royal blue wax seal on the envelope. From it he produced a notarized document signed in triplicate for the emperor's examination. “This is my copy. Commander Liu’s copy may be found in her office. The original resides in a safety deposit box in the Imperial Branch of the Bank of Xing.”

Ling accepted the document.

The Emperor read the paperwork furiously.

“What is the meaning of this?” He demanded.

“In summary, in the event that Commander Liu becomes incapacitated or deceased, command of His Majesty’s Royal Guard transfers to me until such a time as she is able to resume her duties or a permanent replacement is confirmed,” The Interim Commander recited.

“You can't be serious,” Ling deadpanned.

“Did you have that memorized?” Mei marveled.

“At Commander Liu’s insistence, yes. If you would please refer to page-”

The Emperor gestured wildly with the papers.

“It's been six hours,” he exclaimed.

The Dowager Empress extracted the document from his hand.

Ling hardly noticed.

“Nevertheless-” Qiyin attempted to argue in favor of his commander's directives.

Xue Yao skimmed through the legalese of the first page before flipping to the second.

“He's right,” Shu interjected.

“I won’t have it,” Ling sneered.

The Dowager turned another page.

“Then I must tender my resignation.”

“You cannot resign an oath of fealty,” Ling replied altogether appalled.

“With all due respect, Your Majesty, I just did.”

Ling threw his hands up in the air.

“Unbelievable.”

“I ignored Commander Liu’s directives when I let Ms. Fontaine revive her through extraordinary measures. I stand by that decision, but I will not stand on circumstance when decisions regarding your security are paramount.”

Shu clapped a few times. The mock applause drew everyone's attention and Qiyin’s ire.

“Did Lan Fan write that one for you, too? Are you working off mad libs?” Shu quipped.

Qiyin put his hand on the hilt of his sword.

“That's enough, gentlemen,” The Dowager Empress declared dead serious.

Xue Yao turned towards her son. The floor length silk robes she wore whispered against the floor as those in attendance felt silent. Lady Xue commanded attention with minimal effort. A testament to the respect she garnered over the years.

“This is Lan Fan’s design,” Xue said to her son while holding the document with the reverence it deserved.

“It’s only been a few hours,” he insisted.

“Perhaps only a few hours more. In the meantime, she’s trusted her responsibilities to Qiyin.”

A bevy of emotions warred for dominance over Ling’s face as he listened to his mother.

“This does not mean we’re giving up on Lan Fan,” Xue softened her tone.

Ling nodded albeit with great reluctance.

“What is your first order of business, Commander Gao?”

“A conscription, sire.”

The Emperor raised his brows in surprise.

“If you will permit it I should like to enlist the services of an actor.”

“I don’t follow,” Ling confessed.

“We need someone who can play the part of Commander Liu. Of the right height and similar build. An individual with serviceable fighting prowess with a vested interested in keeping our secrets.”

Ling Yao finally caught on to where Qiyin was going with this.

“No.”

Xue Yao laughed once.

“Inspired,” she proclaimed.

“Absolutely not.”

“Who?” Mei questioned.

“I forbid it! Lan Fan already forbid it,” Ling protested.

“Look at that second-string actually has a feasible plan,” Shu drolled.

Commander Qiyin Gao tapped his fingers against the hilt.

“Permission to shed the snake of his mortal coil,” he requested.

“Denied.”

“Who did you have in mind?” Princess Mei asked again.

“It doesn’t matter because I forbid it!”

“We must send someone on good terms with her family. I believe, Alphonse Elric is in Lady Suyin’s good graces,” Xue mused.  

“Oh!” The Princess realized. “That’s a great idea! I bet he and Edward could make a gauntlet that looks like her automail.”

“Et tu, little sister?”

“The whispering campaign will cease the moment they see a facsimile of Commander Liu,” Lady Xue reasoned.

Ling ran his hand down his face to cover his mouth. He looked over at his beloved bodyguard. As much as he hated to admit it the idea wasn’t the worst.

“She’s going to strangle me herself when she wakes.”

“That’s the spirit,” Xue lilted.

Chapter Text

Prince Junjie woke to the sound of whispers. The two women who watched over him throughout the night conversed in Cretan in the other room. The Ninth Prince admired sound of the romantic language in melodic voices. Junjie opened his eyes when he heard Lan Fan's name. He listened closely to the conversation. In the middle of the night he heard Margot Fontaine leave in a hurry. Instead of inquiring about the commotion the prince feigned sleep until he fell back into it. Junjie heard movement. He shut his eyes before either of them found him out. A door opened and shut. The one adjoining the rooms opened thereafter.

“Good morning,” Madeleine said, soft and sweet.

Junjie fluttered his eyelashes before opening them. The singer sat on the pouffe beside the automail engineer’s bed. Madeleine wore a silk robe over her nightgown. Rouge stained her lips from the night before. Her pillow transformed her curls to tousled waves.

“Feeling better?” Madame Rousseau queried.

“Much,” Junjie replied with a courtly smile.

“If you like I will change your bandage. After you may go about your day.”

“Very well,” he responded.

“Trés bon.”


Shu went off to decipher the newly acquired messages. Lady Xue retired to her parlor for a brief reprieve. Mei awaited Alphonse’s return at a secret passageway Qiyin instructed them to use. The interim guard commander stood watch outside Master Hsu’s office to afford the emperor time alone with his beloved. In a censer on the alkahestris’s desk a block of juniper burned, purifying the air. Ling sat at Lan Fan's bedside. He glanced over at his friend in the other bed. Jin seemed sound asleep. The sight of his friend coughing blood earlier unsettled the emperor. Still, Mei said he'd be all right and Ling believed her. He saved his worry for Wei, though his well-being escaped his reach.

He couldn't fathom how things went so spectacularly wrong in such a short span of time. Exhaustion overwhelmed him. Ling’s hands trembled. He felt light headed from lack of sustenance. If he weren't catatonic Wei would be here with his morning meal and a lecture on how he had to keep up his strength in this trying time.

In addition to a warm meal Ling could use a piping hot bath, along with a several hours of sleep. Nevertheless, the emperor kept watch over the woman who spent so much of her life standing sentinel over him.

Ling returned his attention to Lan Fan. Her hand rested atop the blanket palm up and fingers curled. Lan Fan breathing persisted albeit unsteadily. He preferred to think of her as asleep instead of unconscious, though the distinction provided little in the way of comfort. Ling knew this wasn't how Lan Fan slept. The woman he loved didn't slumber supine under smooth bedding. She curled over on her right side with her automail arm outstretched as if reaching for a weapon. The two times Lan Fan slept in his bed the covers became tangled from her tossing and turning. He discovered her restlessness relented when he wrapped his arm around her waist and curled up against her back. How she slipped so easily from his arms in the early hours of the morning he didn't know.

Are you slipping away from me now, Lady Bodyguard?

“Lan Fan,” Ling whispered. “I'm sorry I didn't ask you to attend the party. I shouldn't have roped you into it with an order. I'll never give you another order if you obey this last one.” He placed his palm over hers, curled his fingers beneath the back of her hand. “Don't leave me.”

The door to the room opened without preamble. In walked Margot Fontaine. The automail surgeon had hair damp from a shower. As they dried her locks curled of their own accord. Droplets of water dotted the forest green blouse she neglected to tuck into her tan trousers. For the first time since he met her she wore flats instead of heels. Margot hadn't put on makeup today. Ling marveled at the galaxy of freckles mapped across her alabaster face. The pointillism pigment brought out her brown eyes.

“How did she do through the night?” Margot asked. She spared a glance at Jin but didn't inquire after him. Ling presumed Qiyin filled her in at the door.

“Mei said she's stable.”

Margot grabbed the stethoscope laid across the top of her medical bag. Ling remained quite while she listened to Lan Fan’s breathing and heartbeat. Once Margot moved on to her reflexes Ling spoke.

“When will she wake up?” Ling questioned.

Although he had his sister's assessment of Lan Fan's condition he wanted Margot’s opinion.

“She'll wake up when she wakes up,” Margot stated.

Frustrated by the noncommittal response the emperor huffed a sigh. The automail doctor gave him a withering look.

“Lan Fan suffered serious trauma. First from the blow to her head. Second from me drilling a hole into it. Her brain needs time to heal.”

“But Lan Fan will wake up, won't she?” Ling pressed.

Margot held his gaze.

“I've never met anyone with more grit than this woman right here. As far as I know no one else has ever undergone automail surgery before the initial injury healed. Lan Fan recovered and rehabilitated in six months. The average amount of time it takes is three years . I have no doubt Lan Fan will wake up. So, show some patience and keep the faith, Emperor Charming.”

The epithet of Emperor Charming didn't hold the same derision of Prince Charming. He didn't think he deserved the sympathy.

“This is my fault,” Ling confessed.

Margot raised a brow in question.

“Lan Fan stormed off because I upset her. We had an argument and I didn't go after her. I didn't look for her. If I had just-” Ling clinched his teeth. He curled his free hand into a fist.

“Lan Fan won’t blame you for this anymore than she blames you for arm,” said Margot.

“But-”

“People argue. Accidents happen. Don't be a martyr.”

Ling looked at her through the tears burning his tired eyes.

“But he's so good at it,” Jin called from his bed.

Ling Yao laughed and tears trailed down his face. He wiped them away with the heel of his hand.

“You're feeling better I take it?” Ling addressed his friend.

“More or less,” Jin coughed. “Nothing a bowl of soup won't fix. Speaking of food you’d better have eaten.”

“I’m afraid my chef is unavailable.”

The stable master sat up on the edge of his borrowed bed.

“No excuse. I’ll get us something from the kitchen. Then we need to talk about what to do next, because you and Shu can’t do anything without Lan Fan holding your hands.”

“Hey now, is that any way to speak to your liege?”

“Probably not,” Jin walked to the door and waved a hand. “I’ll be back.”

He exited the room without further ado.


 

Jin headed to the kitchen. Breathing no longer felt like inhaling cinders. Princess Chang did a serviceable job on his injured lungs, though he suspected he had a ways to go before he fully recovered. If not for the news about Wei the stable master would already be headed home to apologize to his wife and waylay her worries. As much as he wished to see his wife he determined to find out what happened to Wei.

He arrived to find the kitchen cordoned off by bodyguards. Asking permission to enter the kitchen was a non starter. Bags of rice propped open the doors to the kitchen. Jin spotted the sous chef at his station. Beside the man stood one of Lan Fan’s physically intimidating subordinates.

“Huang,” Jin called.

The sous chef looked up from his work. Jin lifted his hand to wave him over to the doorway.

“Comere.”

Huang cleaned his hands on a dishcloth and walked over.

“What happened?” Jin cut to the chase.

“Someone attacked Wei last night. We’re down to a skeleton crew. No one will tell us anything but the guards are breathing down our necks. The Dowager Empress ordered an alkahestris brought in, one of her own I think, to test all the food for poison before it heads out the door. Every server is escorted by a guard from kitchen to diner.”

Lady Xue isn't playing around.

“Then I'll need an escort. I'm here to bring a meal to His Majesty,” he declared.

Huang gave him a questioning look. Jin shrugged in response.

“Wait here.”

“Don't forget His Majesty’s appetite,” Jin reminded him. He decided to steal some of Ling's breakfast instead of asking for one of his own. Better not to advertise he hadn't eaten at home.

Jin surveyed the room from his vantage point by the door. He didn't take to this work as readily as Shu or Wei but knew what to look for. At the pantry he did a double take. The floor there held a stain. An oddity in the ever immaculate kitchen. The staff circumvented the spot on the floor each time they crossed to the scullery sink.

Blood.

Enough of it to call Lady Xue’s assurances into question. If he lost as much blood as the stain suggested Jin imagined his friend must be an absolute wreck.

He appreciated Lady Xue’s sentiment but she was wrong. The people who best knew how to care for Wei were himself and Shu. The two of them need to get to him and soon. But first he needed to make sure Ling didn't collapse. Wei would want it that way.


 

Edward waited in the hallway while Master Hsu and Doctor Zhou conducted their examination of Wei. The two medical professionals emerged from the room. The alkahestris wore a grim expression. Master Hsu offered him a less than reassuring smile.

“I must return to the palace. Mr. Elric you're welcome to return with me. You've done more than enough.”

“Thanks but I’ll make my own way back,” Ed declined.

“If you so choose. Doctor Zhou, please send word should there be any changes in his condition,” Master Hsu offered a bow. Lian Zhou responded with a deeper bow in a show of respect.

“Of course.”

“Is he still staring into space?” Ed asked as soon Master Hsu was out of earshot.

Waking up to find Wei with his eyes fixed to the ceiling and unresponsive disturbed the hell out of the theoretical alchemist.

“He remains unresponsive,” Lian Zhou confirmed. The overnight attending’s shift ended hours ago, yet he stayed of his own volition to monitor Wei's condition. Edward venerated his vigilance.

“What are you going to do to help him?” Ed wanted to know.

“Catatonic schizophrenia is difficult to treat. There are available therapies, but they aren't without risks. There's the so called “sleep cure” in which barbiturates are administered to induce sleep and facilitate rest; however, that course of treatment comes with the possibility of pneumonia and chemical dependency.”

“You mean he could get addicted to the drugs?” Edward frowned in concern.

“It's highly likely.”

“No way. That's insane. What else?”

“Electroshock therapy is used in severe cases of catatonia. Particularly prolonged, potentially life threatening episodes.”

Edward scratched his nails along his scalp working out some if the tangles in the process. He didn’t know enough about treating mental illness, but he knew trauma. Taking the tie off his wrist he pulled his hair into a ponytail and twisted the elastic around it. Ed heard a squeaky wheel and glanced down the hall. One of the nurses wheeled a shelved trolley with trays of food.

“He hasn't eaten breakfast right?”

“No, he hasn't,” Lian answered.

“Before you start sedating or electrocuting him let me try to talk to him. He hasn't had anything to eat in at least eight  hours Maybe he’ll feel up to it after he has a decent meal.”

“Hm,” Doctor Zhou considered. “I don't see the harm it.”

Edward didn't expect him to agree. Not without an argument.

"Seriously? Just like that?”

Lian Zhou stuck his pen in his lab coat pocket, tucked his patient's chart under his arm. He made a show of looking at his wrist watch.

“Visiting hours are in effect. I'm sure my patient could use a bit of company wouldn't you agree?” asked Doctor Zhou.

The theoretical alchemist smirked.

“Well, what do ya know. As a matter of fact I do agree,” he concurred.

Lian Zhou strolled off down the hall.

“See you for evening rounds,” the doctor offered by way of farewell.

Edward Elric took one of the breakfast trays with permission. The nurse offered him one for himself. The alchemist accepted with gratitude. Together, they took the breakfast trays into Wei's hospital room. The nurse set one on the table by the door; Edward put the other on the wheeled table by the bed.

“Thanks again,” Ed bowed his head.

The nurse reciprocated and departed to resume her responsibilities.

Edward put his hands on his hips as he looked around the room. He put a palm on the wheeled stool and pushed it to the same side of the bed as the intravenous stand. Next he moved the table with Wei's breakfast. The tray held a covered bowl, a small teapot, handleless teacup, spoon and paper napkins.

“Time to rise and shine,” Ed declared.

He pulled the covers to the foot of the bed. Wei wore the same hospital clothes Ed had on. On the intravenous stand above him hanged a bottle of saline. Careful not to disturb the I.V. port Edward sat him up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. In this state he reminded Ed of a doll. One of those poseable ones with articulation in the joints.

“I bet you're hungry,” Ed made conversation even though he expected a one sided exchange. “Let's see what's for breakfast.”

He lifted the lid off the bowl. Steam rose from the rice porridge. Considering it happened to be hospital food it smelled pretty good.

“Not bad. Trust me I've been in a lot of hospitals. Want to give it a try?” asked Edward.

The lack of response didn't discourage him. Picking up the bowl and spoon Ed took a seat on the stool. He stirred the mixture. Ed scooped a bit onto the spoon and scraped off the excess from the underside on the edge of the bowl.

Edward brought the spoon before his mouth. Wei neither opened his mouth to accept the bite, nor did he appear to notice the presence of the spoon at all. Ed placed the bowl back on the tray in order to open Wei's mouth a fraction. He slipped the spoon between his lips, depositing the rice porridge onto his tongue. A bit spilled from the corner of Wei's mouth. Ed put his hand under his chin to close his mouth. He grabbed a napkin to dab the porridge from his face. As he cleaned the mess he watched Wei's throat work.

The sign of a swallow counted as a success in his book. Edward got a second spoonful in his mouth without the mess this time. Ed refrained from praising him lest he come off as patronising.

“Halfway decent?” Ed questioned.

Wei didn't answer. He stared at nothing, expressionless. But at least he ate. Nutrition counted for a lot. Ed carried on the one sided conversation as he continued to spoon feed him.

“Master Hsu told me you're the emperor's personal chef. If Ling's room service bills are any indication he must keep you pretty busy.”

Edward set aside the spoon to pour a cup of tea. He wrapped his hands around the cup to gage the temperature. Ed deemed it not too hot. He brought the cup to Wei's lips, holding a napkin under his chin in case he spilled, and helped him take a few mouthfuls of tea.

“Pretty good, huh? I should probably have my breakfast before it gets cold. Were you the one who made my breakfast yesterday? Fresh orange juice, sunny side up eggs, and chocolate croissant?”

Wei blinked once, twice. More of a response than he’d gotten so far. Ed ran with the topic.

“The croissant reminded me of the ones I got at the patisserie in Creta. I bet if you did a blind taste test anyone from Creta would think they were from home. The real hero though was that coffee.”

Wei's eyes looked glossy. He blinked and tears dripped down his cheeks. Ed grabbed the last clean napkins. He swiped the tears from beneath his eyes.

“Do you like coffee?” asked Edward.

Wei sucked in a breath.

The traumatized chef pitched forward. He wept and wailed into the front of Ed’s shirt. Edward Elric put his arm around Wei in a loose hold and let him cry.


 

Alphonse Elric headed to Liwei Zhang’s estate alone. Qiyin provided Al with written directions from the palace to the estate. Along with directions the interim commander provided Alphonse with a set of his civilian clothes to better help him blend in. The hooded coat concealed the alchemist’s golden hair and shadowed his features. The overcast sky warned of worsening winter weather. He arrived at the estate about the same time Lan Fan brought him here last.

They’re probably sitting down to breakfast right now.

Lady Suyin welcomed him with a smile the last time he crashed their morning meal. He didn’t look forward to seeing her expression when he told her the news. Alphonse let himself in through the unlocked gate. Inside Xiang’s shiny red bicycle leaned against the wall. The alchemist headed up the walkway to the front door.

Alphonse took a deep breath before knocking on the wooden surface. Mei asked him to do this, but he didn’t think he was the right man for the job. In fact Al thought this plan ill-advised. Lan Fan made it plain the day they met at the cafe that Xiang’s ambition went against their mother’s wishes.

The alchemist had a hard time saying no to the princess.

An elderly woman in a muted blue robe layered over a white one answered the door. Alphonse didn’t recognize her from his last visit. He surmised she was a maid but bowed to her as if she was a noble woman. As Al straightened he pushed his hood back.

“Good morning. My name is Alphonse Elric. I’m here to see Lord and Lady Zhang on an important matter.”

“Lady Lan Fan’s alchemist friend from the west?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Alphonse answered.

The elderly woman beckoned him inside. Alphonse removed his shoes at her bidding. In borrowed slippers he followed her from the foyer to the dining room. Unlike his last visit he heard no chatter from within the room.


 

No one spoke over breakfast.

Xiang picked at his plate of food. His mother made misery look pretty in her pink quju, while his father read the newspaper in between sips of tea. Liwei Zhang had color high in his cheeks, but refused to take his breakfast in bed. Whether or not anyone liked it they ate together as a family.

The household maid Miss Chen entered the dining room with a cursory bow.

“Milord, Mr. Alphonse Elric is here to speak with you.”

Xiang lifted his head at the announcement. Over her shoulder he saw Alphonse standing in the hall. Out of the corner of his eye he caught the sight of his mother shifting in her seat.

“Mr. Elric? Of course, I will speak with him.”

Miss Chen stepped aside to permit Alphonse’s entry.

“Please brew a fresh pot of tea for our guest if you would,” Suyin requested.

“Yes, milady.”

“Alphonse, this is a surprise,” Liwei greeted.

“Please forgive my intrusion,” Alphonse bowed with respect.

Lord Zhang folded his paper and set it aside. Xiang noticed Alphonse wasn’t wearing a suit. The lordling frowned at the sudden and unusual appearance of the alchemist. He set down his utensils and paid attention.

“You’re quite welcome in our home, Alphonse,” said Suyin.

“Please have a seat,” his father gestured to the chair to the left of the head of the table.

Alphonse remained on his feet.

“I’m afraid I’m here on business.”

“Is something the matter?” Liwei questioned.

“There’s been an accident,” Alphonse answered.

“Accident?”

Xiang heard the alarm in his mother’s voice.

“Lan Fan had an accident,” Al explained without explaining anything.

A metallic taste assaulted his tongue as adrenaline rushed into his bloodstream. Against the lacquered surface of the table his palms sweated. Xiang pushed himself to his feet. The dining room chair toppled to the floor behind him.

“What’s happened to my sister?” Xiang asked.

Alphonse Elric grimaced.

“Lan Fan had an accident,” he reiterated.

Suyin cut him off before he could continue.

“What sort of accident?”

“Let him finish,” Liwei said.

    “I don't know all the details. I'm told she hit her head and she hasn't woken up yet.”

Lord Zhang rose from his seat at the head of the table.

“Please take us to her at once.”

Chapter Text

Upon Alphonse Elric’s insistence the Zhang family concealed themselves in muted clothing with hooded garments. Under the circumstances a plum outer robe layered over an onyx inner one were the best Suyin could do. Lady Zhang’s wardrobe resembled a painter’s pallet. Every bolt of fabric she selected herself. Each stitch sewn by her own hand. Of course, she had the means to buy bespoke garments but she enjoyed making her own clothes.

In the country Suyin’s seamstress skills were as much a mainstay for her formerly three person family as Feng’s modest income. In those days she’d wondered how they’d manage when more children came along. Now Suyin wondered if her children would survive to old age. She prayed her daughter's condition wasn't as grave as she feared. Between Lan Fan's profession and Xiang's daredevil feats on that damnable bicycle it wasn't any wonder why silver strands flecked her obsidian hair.

Suyin put on her heather grey cloak. She found only her burgundy gloves.

Lan Fan has black gloves .

In fact her daughter had a great number of black garments in her room, and an entire drawerful of gloves in various fabrics. The night before Suyin hadn't taken the time to appreciate her daughter's appearance. Now she asked herself why Lan Fan wore such an exquisite evening gown. Why wasn't she wearing her uniform and armor? Furthermore, how did she acquire such an expensive article of clothing?

Lan Fan's embroidery had come a long way, yet Suyin couldn't imagine her daughter enduring the tedium of hand stitching hundreds upon hundreds of beads onto finely woven fabric. To say nothing of Lan Fan constructing couteur clothing. Suyin tried over the years to teach her the finer points of sewing. Lan Fan's eyes glazed over every time.

As if the only lessons worth learning were those taught by her grandfather. Time and again Suyin attempted to tell Lan Fan she didn't have to live her life as her father and grandfather's legacy. Desperation drove the circular conversation. Suyin thought it lost on Lan Fan. She thought her daughter intended to turn Xiang into her own legacy.

But Xiang admitted he had to go over Lan Fan's head to the emperor to further his ambition. A fact that called Suyin’s convictions into question.

Suyin shut the wardrobe. The design on the front of the doors depicted a magnolia tree. Beneath her palms the inlaid mother-of-pearl, amber, and glass felt frigid.

I shouldn't have hit her.

Lady Zhang choked back her emotions. Time was of the essence. Wallowing in guilt would only waste it. Departing her room she went to borrow a pair of her daughter's gloves.


Xiang dressed all in ebony. The young lord went to his sister's room to borrow one of her spare cowls. The door to Lan Fan’s room stuck from the cold. He opened the door with a forceful tug. Pale light filtered in through the panes of the window his sister so often sneaked in and out of. The phonograph in the corner collected dust, as did the wooden crate containing records beside it. He bypassed her bed and vanity to the wardrobe. The air in the oft closed off room felt freezing compared to the rest of the house.

He opened the doors of the wardrobe. Lan Fan's clothes resided on wooden hangers. Xiang ran his right hand along the fabric before lifting her red cloak off the rack. Over the hook hanged a cowl the color of a new moon. He removed the fabric, returned the cloak, and turned toward the door on the right to see himself in the mirror.

Xiang looped the article of clothing over his head, and pulled the hood up over his hair. He regarded his reflection, but saw only his sister's stricken face from the night before. She looked frightened, Xiang realized. He hasn't recognized the foreign expression on Lan Fan's features, but seeing it on his own face made it clear.

Lan Fan wasn't as fearless as he thought, but he knew for a fact she was brave. He needed to show bravery now even if his own fear squeezed his heart like a vice. A shadow obscured the light spilling into the bedroom from the hallway. Xiang heard a sharp intake of breath. He turned toward the sound. Xiang's mother stood framed in the doorway.

“Xiang,” she uttered.

Suyin looked startled.

Still angry at his mother Xiang resisted urge to ask if she was all right. Not that either of them could claim to be all right considering the current state of affairs.

“For a moment I thought…” Suyin faltered.

The fleeting expression of anguish on her face weakened his resolve.

“Mother?”

“I can’t find my black gloves. Lan Fan has so many. I thought I might borrow a pair,” Suyin did her best to save face.

Xiang pivoted back to the wardrobe. He rummaged through the drawer full of gloves to give his mother time to collect herself. Finally, he selected a pair of leather gloves lined with fleece. He shut the drawer and made to close the doors when he heard his mother speak.

“I'm sorry for not listening.”

The last thing he expected from his mother was an apology. He decided to meet her halfway.

“I should've told you about the bicycle accident the day it happened,” Xiang offered. “The rest of it, too.”

He didn't apologize for his adventure at the palace. If he had it to do over again he'd make his appeal to the emperor all the same. Xiang felt badly about getting Lan Fan into trouble, but he wasn't sorry for sparring with his sister. Although, the young lord no longer knew what to make of Lan Fan's relationship to Emperor Ling. He hoped the next time they talked his sister would explain.

“Are these okay?” He held up the gloves as he looked over his shoulder.

Suyin smiled softly at him. Xiang smiled back but his heart wasn't in it.

“They’ll do nicely. We should hurry. Come along, darling.”

“Yes, mother.”


In Master Hsu’s office Ling Yao and Margot Fontaine partook of tea poured into porcelain cups painted with multicolored enamel. The emperor and automail engineer’s tea receptacles depicted chrysanthemums and peonies respectively. In the censer a fresh block of juniper burned. The two of them sat on opposite sides of Lan Fan’s hospital bed. Jin had come and gone with breakfast citing the need to convene with Shu on the intelligence he collected in the night.

“You saved her life,” Ling commented.

“I didn’t do it for you,” Margot declared in case he thought otherwise.

“Be that as it may any boon you ask of me I shall grant,” he declared.       

“I don't know what you think I could possibly want from you,” drawled the Amestrian woman.

“There must be something you wish for...”

Margot swirled the tea in her cup. Ling saw the gears turning in her head.

The automail engineer lifted her eyes from the contents of her cup.

“Political asylum.”


The Dowager Empress entertained General Mustang in the atrium in an effort to amend their encounter from the evening before. Breakfast set on the table before them. Roy Mustang appeared as fatigued as Xue Yao felt, though his dress uniform afforded him a distinguished air. Lady Xue looked thoroughly rested and positively radiant. A ruse of rouge, a fabrication of foundation, as false as her lashes. She curved the corners of her crimson mouth into a coy smile.

“You'll forgive us our overreach,” Xue cloaked the command in the form of flirtation. “We dared not risk the safety of a diplomat. Not even one so adept as The Flame Alchemist.”

The Chieftess of the Yao Clan knew how to stroke the fragile egos of men. Twenty years of strategic subservience served her well.

General Mustang countered her coy smile with a charming one.  

“I understand your concern, Your Majesty.”

The Dowager Empress noticed his eyes flick to her bodyguard at the formal address. Guardsman Yu shadowed Xue as frequently as Commander Liu shadowed her son. Be that as it may, the nature of Ming Yu and Xue Yao’s relationship remained purposefully professional. The death of Feng Liu, defacto big brother and bodyguard to Young Lady Yao before the birth of her son, taught her to refrain from forming friendships with those destined to throw themselves in front of swords.

A lesson Lady Xue deliberately did not instill in the little prince. At the age of seventeen she swore herself to solitude save for her son. Xue turned her heart to stone to protect the pure heart of her child.

“Speaking of concern,” he continued. “His Royal Highness left in a hurry last night. I hope all is well.”

Xue lifted the black cast iron teapot from the table between them. The Dowager Empress deigned to serve the dignitary tea. An act that required her attention, and allowed her to mull her answer.

“I've heard tell of you and your adjutant. The two of you are close,” Lady Xue set aside the royal ‘we’ in order to initiate an intimate conversation. “Is that correct?”

Mustang lifted his cup from the leaf shaped saucer. The white formal wear gloves he wore were immaculate. According to the report she received on Roy Mustang, the human weapon in front of her no longer needed an array to immolate his enemies. Xue guessed the gloves were still constructed out of his specialized ignition cloth. The Flame Alchemist had no need for transmutation circles but he was nothing without a spark.

“I've worked with Captain Hawkeye for a number of years,” he obfuscated.

Xue returned the teapot to the center of the circular table. The Xingese woman with proximity to power picked up her cup by the rim. Her son respected this man. Ling trusted him perhaps more than he should. Roy won Xue’s regard for the part he played in procuring a doctor for Lan Fan after her self inflicted amputation.

Nevertheless, he didn't have her trust. Not yet at any rate. Lady Yao could count on one hand the number of men she trusted implicitly: Commander Qiyin Gao; The three thieves; and, of course, the son she so treasured.

“Last night Commander Liu slipped on a patch of ice. She suffered a wound to her head,” Xue stated. Believable lies blossomed from the seeds of truth. “Naturally, the emperor was concerned upon hearing the news. Lan Fan has served our clan for a number of years. His Royal Majesty holds his vassal in the highest regard."  

The Dowager Empress took a sip of the red tea. She observed the subtle movements of the muscles around Roy’s mouth and eyes. The furrow that formed between his brows for a fragment of time.

“Is Miss Lan Fan all right?” He inquired.  

Xue Yao laughed like a wind chime on a light breeze.

“Don’t let her hear you call her ‘Miss' Lan Fan. Commander Liu is likely to challenge you to a duel for such an offense.”

“I appreciate the warning,” Roy chuckled in response.

“To answer your question Lan Fan is resting. I imagine the Commander of His Royal Majesty’s guard will be back to work by this evening at the latest,” The Dowager Empress twisted the truth.

General Mustang seemed to buy it.

“I'm pleased to hear it,” Roy replied.

Based on the prognosis the bodyguard could stay comatose indefinitely. In legally binding terms Commander Liu detailed her directives. Lan Fan laid out a clear line of succession. The pragmatic woman planned for all conceivable contingencies. Lady Xue could not be more proud of her. Qiyin Gao rose to the occasion beautifully; Xue feared not for her son’s safety.

In actuality, The Dowager Empress worried about The Emperor’s ability to lead in Commander Liu’s absence. The acquisition of an actor meant Ling’s return to the political stage. Xue knew her son well enough to know his thoughts would linger on Lan Fan. Ling’s performance mattered the most in this play. If he couldn't pull this off none of them would.


Ling laughed.

He thought Ms. Fontaine was joking. The punchline never came. The automail surgeon stayed stony faced. Ling's awkward laughter petered out.

“I don't understand. Why would you need political asylum?”

Margot propped one flat clad foot on the frame of the bed and leaned back in her chair.

“None of your business,” she said through her teeth.

The emperor deposited his dainty tea cup on the square table beside him. Ling leaned forward in his seat, propped his elbows on his knees, and pressed his palms together.

Margot kept her eyes on him like a cornered animal. A fierce fox prepared to bite if he dared come closer.

“Do you fear persecution?” Ling treaded lightly.

The automail engineer turned her eyes to Lan Fan.

“Extradition.”

Ling’s eyebrows climbed in surprise.

He blinked several times.

“Ah! Does this have anything to do with why you work on the blackmarket?” The emperor inquired.

Margot Fontaine stared at him stupefied.

“Don’t worry! I won’t allow your extradition,” Ling assured.

“You won’t?”

“I’ll grant you political asylum if you tell me what crime you’re accused of,” he negotiated.

“I’m not accused of a crime.”

“If you’re not accused of a crime then-”

“I committed a crime,” she clarified.

The emperor and the engineer stared at each other.

“Oh,” Ling replied noncommittally.

Margot's eyes darted away and back again.

“Several in fact.”

Ling wondered what sort of criminal he’d just gotten himself into bed with.  

“How many?” He winced.

Margot ticked off her laundry list of offenses.

“Money laundering. False identification. Illegal immigration,” she tilted her head in throught. “Twice.”

“I'm guilty of that last one,” Ling confessed. “Anything else?”

“Desertion.”

That last offense caught him off guard.

“You're a soldier?”

A haunted look fell across her face.

“The eastern front had a shortage of doctors. The military drafted me right out of my automail apprenticeship as a combat medic.”

Ling realized which war she must've fought in the moment she mentioned the eastern front.

“Ishval,” he said.

“I'm a criminal but at least I'm not a war criminal.”

A knock interrupted their conversation.

Chapter Text

Commander Gao entered the room.

“Her ladyship’s family approaches,” Qiyin apprised.

The Emperor of Xing rose from his chair.

“How do I look?” Ling inquired of Ms. Fontaine.

“Like a loved one,” Margot made no bones about it. “I’ll talk to them while you get your act together.”

The automail doctor pushed herself out of her chair. Margot made for the door. The bodyguard bowed her through it before closing the door behind them. In the meantime, the emperor buttoned his tailcoat, adjusted the collar of his dress shirt, and combed his fingers through his bangs. Belatedly, he wished he'd thought to have someone bring him a change of clothes.

He looked at Lan Fan once more. She seemed stripped of self in this state. He wondered if her mother’s presence would upset her under the circumstances. If Lan Fan would want her family here at all. It stung that Lan Fan’s second in command knew her wishes better than him but he understood it. Too late for second guessing at any rate.

Ling adjusted the covers laid over her. He lifted her hand to kiss the back of it. The warmth in her fingertips reassured him. He kissed her cheek for good measure and whispered in her ear.

“Wish me luck.”


 

Margot Fontaine entered the hallway with Qiyin as Lan Fan’s family arrived accompanied by Alphonse Elric and Mei Chang. The automail surgeon wanted to speak to her patient’s parents before they saw her. The several days she spent residing in their home resulted in a personable rapport. Lord and Lady Zhang looked relieved to see their daughter’s doctor.

“Ms. Margot,” Lord Liwei said.

The doctor heard the hoarseness in his voice.

Margot asked, “You’re sick?”

He stifled a cough and cleared his throat.

“I have a cold,” Liwei admitted.

“The flu,” his wife corrected.

“You can see her but you’re going to need to wash your hands and wear a mask,” Margot stated. “And keep your hands to yourself while you’re at it. No touching.”

Lan Fan did not need to contract a respiratory infection right now, but considering her condition Margot couldn’t bring herself to bar him from the room entirely. Instead, the doctor decided to enforce precautions. Margot hoped she wasn’t making a mistake. Then again no one had ever accused her of being too soft.

“Is she awake? Is she all right?” Lady Suyin demanded in distress.

“Lan Fan is stable but still unconscious.”

Margot swept her eyes over the visitors. Lady Suyin held onto her husband’s arm. Alphonse Elric stood off to the side with Mei and Xiang. As far as Margot was concerned there were way too many people here right now. Too many at least to let in the room all at once. She wondered how the emperor intended to keep all this a secret with so many people milling about, but she decided it wasn’t any of her concern.    

“The two of you can see her now. I need everyone else to wait here.”  

The automail engineer ushered Lord and Lady Zhang inside.

“Can’t I see her, too?” Xiang asked.

“Wait your turn, kid.”


Xiang wasn’t happy about waiting his turn. He wanted to see his sister. The door shut behind his parents. It wasn’t fair. He didn’t have time to dwell on it. Suddenly, he found himself surrounded and under scrutiny. The formidable lieutenant commander towered in front of him. Mei Chang and Alphonse Elric stood on either side of Xiang. In other words the two of them had him flanked.

“Young Lord Zhang, the empire has need of you” Qiyin stated.

“Huh?” Xiang blinked at him.

“Your sister has suffered a serious blow. News of her injury circulates the palace. When she will wake we do not know.”

Xiang stared at him speechless.   

“It's imperative Commander Liu is seen in His Imperial Highness’s shadow. She prevents plots against the emperor with her mere presence.”

The implication didn’t sink in.

“I don't understand. How can she be seen in his shadow if she’s unconscious?” Xiang questioned.

“He wants you to pretend to be Lan Fan,” Princess Mei explained in plain terms.

“As acting commander I have authority to appoint you as a member of the guard,” Qiyin elaborated.

Xiang widened his eyes.

This isn’t happening.

This wasn’t how this was supposed to happen. Lan Fan was supposed make him her apprentice before appointing him to the guard herself. He wanted to serve under his sister’s command. To fight back to back with her.

“You don't have to do this,” Al chimed in.

“Alphonse,” the alkahestris admonished.

“He doesn't,” the alchemist insisted.  

Xiang dropped his eyes to the floor. His hands shook at his sides. He curled them into tight fists to hide the tremor. Day before yesterday he’d proclaimed his desire to serve the emperor. Now he dithered. ‘Hold your head up, Xiang,’ Lan Fan's words resonated in his head. He thought of what Lan Fan would do in his position. Xiang planted his feet, squared his shoulders, and held his head up high.

“I serve at the pleasure of the emperor,” Xiang Zhang declared. Alphonse Elric sighed in resignation on his right. Princess Mei put her hands on her hips. Xiang saw her smile in satisfaction.

“There's the resemblance right there,” she said wryly.

Commander Gao on the other hand was all business.

“I hereby appoint you to His Royal Majesty’s Guard.”


 

Ling stood straight as an arrow as Lan Fan's parents entered the room.

He locked eyes with her mother. Lady Suyin looked like Lan Fan in a panic. Her arresting, raw umber eyes were wide and watchful. Part of him thought Suyin’s expressions would appear wholly different from her daughter’s. Similar to how Greed had metamorphosed his face with his distinct personality. The homunculus had been his own entity from the beginning, but by the end their emotions had blurred at the edges.

Even Edward had a hard time telling who ran the show until they spoke.

Indeed, Lan Fan inherited more from her mother's than a pretty face. Ling expected the woman to arrive in tears, but Suyin held back waves of emotion like a seawall. He realized she probably prepared herself for this sort of scenario long ago. From the look on her face Ling was the last person she wanted to see.

Last night Ling meant to make amends with Lady Suyin. The emperor had planned to ingratiate himself to her. He intended to impress his care and consideration for Lan Fan upon her. To charm her with his wit and sweep her off her feet with his newly acquired dancing skills. In the end he hadn’t even gotten the chance to say hello.

“Lord and Lady Zhang. Thank you for coming,” Ling said.

He afforded them a bow above their station in an effort to humble himself before them.

“Your Majesty,” Lord Zhang greeted.

Lord and Lady Zhang demonstrated their respect in turn. Lan Fan’s ladylike bow from last night had imitated Lady Suyin’s exactly. Ling noticed Lord Liwei looked unwell. He had color high in his cheeks and his eyes were glassy with fever. Margot whisked him over to sink. While Liwei washed his hands Margot went through the supply cupboard. The automail surgeon produced a procedure mask and proceeded to tie it into place for him.

“Suyin you should wash your hands and wear one of these, too,” she instructed. “To be on the safe side.”

Suyin heeded the suggestion.

Liwei went to Lan Fan’s side in the meantime.

Of all the members of Lan Fan's immediate family Ling was most familiar with Liwei; however, everything he knew of the middle aged man was circumstantial. Lord Liwei Zhang ranked among the lesser nobility. He held modest estates in the Imperial City and neighboring Zhang province, and served in a meritorious if low level government position. A family man who loved Lan Fan enough to insist on adopting her as his daughter.  

“Lan?” Liwei intoned. He stifled a cough. “Lan Fan?” Lord Zhang’s brow knit. He looked over Ling's shoulder at Margot. “You've removed her automail?”

“Lan Fan had hypothermia.”

The automail engineer washed her hands as well. Lady Suyin joined her husband at their daughter’s side.

“Darling?” Lady Suyin combed her fingers through Lan Fan's hair. “Lan Fan, sweetheart, mother is here,” she said in dulcet tones.

“Alphonse told us she hit her head,” Liwei raised himself up. He did not raise his voice. Lan Fan’s stepfather wasn’t the sort of man who had to raise his voice in order to make himself heard. “Now you tell me she had hypothermia. What precisely happened to my daughter? I want to know why we weren’t sent for sooner.”

Lord Zhang aimed the question at Margot. The declarative statement he directed at the emperor himself. Ling Yao didn’t have a response. He hadn’t thought to have someone fetch her family. Margot took them through the sequence of events and treatments that led to Lan Fan’s current condition. Liwei listened intently with his eyes trained on Lan Fan’s doctor; Suyin fussed over her injured child.

Ling watched Suyin hands as she smoothed imaginary wrinkles out of the covers. Lan Fan and Suyin had the same hands, but the latter’s nails were lengthy and lacquered cherry. He remembered the one and only time he’d seen Lan Fan with her nails painted. After her last visit home before they set out on their journey. The color chipped and cracked in short order. Lan Fan scratched the flecks free with her thumb nail in front of the campfire one night.  

“Comatose,” Lan Fan’s father repeated the doctor’s words.

Margot nodded in affirmation.

“Shouldn’t she be in a hospital?” Liwei inquired.

“No,” Ling and Margot answered at the same time, though for entirely different reasons. The emperor and automail engineer blinked at each other. Ling hadn’t expected her to be on his side with this one. Margot explained her reasoning, “Hospitals are the worst place for her right now. Lan Fan is at risk for pneumonia. She needs to stay in a sterile environment with minimal exposure to airborne illnesses.”

“I want to take her home. She should be at home,” said Suyin.

“Not a good idea,” Margot reiterated.

“She’s right dear,” Liwei agreed. He stepped away from Lan Fan’s bedside. “It’s only a matter of time before the whole household comes down with the flu.” He tucked his hands into his pockets to keep from touching anything. “I shouldn’t even be in here. If you’ll excuse me.”

Liwei let himself into the hall leaving Ling alone with the women.


 

Lord Zhang discovered those in the corridor in congress with his son.  Liwei shut the door soundly behind him, lifted his hand from the door pull, and stepped over to the foursome.

“Xiang,” he pulled the mask down around his neck. “You may see your sister now.”

His son stood before him like a man.

“Xiang?” He questioned.

Xiang looked at him with determination etched into his features.

He said, “Father, I’ve decided to serve the emperor.”

Liwei stared at his son for a short time.

“Have you now?” Lord Zhang lifted an eyebrow at him.

“Lieutenant Gao asked me to impersonate Lan Fan until she wakes up. I said I would. I want to help.”

“I see,” Liwei said emotionless.

“I know mother won’t like it, but I hope you’ll both understand,” Xiang said.

“I can tell you now your mother will not understand,” Lord Zhang stated.

Xiang winced. He asked, “Do you understand?”  

Liwei looked at his son for what felt like a long time. He sighed in resignation. His lungs spasmed and he pulled the mask back into place to cover his cough. He could feel his fever climbing. The headache he had all morning throbbed.

“I respect your decision.”

Xiang’s expression lightened.

“But I don’t support it,” Liwei declared.

His son’s face fell.

Xiang bowed before heading into the room where his sister laid unconscious.


 

“I promise, she’ll receive the best of care here at the palace,” Ling emphasized.

Suyin cut him a look so sharp it struck bone.

“At the palace?”

“As Ms. Margot maintains sending her home or to a hospital is ill advised,” Ling said.

“Absolutely not,” Suyin stated.

“It isn't your decision,” Ling reponsed.

Lady Suyin moved to the side of the bed. Putting herself between him and his beloved she spun to face him. Margot stayed out of it.

“She is my child,” Suyin seethed.

Fortunately, Lan Fan's forethought worked in Ling's favor.

“Lan Fan chose a medical proxy. Unbeknownst to everyone save for her proxy, a notary public, and a counselor-at-law it seems. It doesn’t matter if you’re her mother. She didn’t trust you to make these decisions.”


 

Lady Suyin screamed in anger and anguish. She lost all self control. Suyin slapped the emperor across the face. Blood beaded along the angry lines left by her lengthy nails. She drew her hand back to hit him again.


 

“Mother!”

Xiang hooked his arm around her waist. The look on Ling Yao’s face put the fear of the gods in him. He hauled her furious form out of reach of the emperor. Suyin spit at Ling Yao like a feral cat.

“Please forgive her I beg of you,” he pleaded.

He held his mother with all his might.

Xiang had never seen her in such a state. She burst into tears, turned in his arms, and buried her face against his neck as she sobbed.

The young lord looked at his liege.

“She’s not herself.”

Chapter Text

Ling seethed with anger. The scratches on his cheek stung. He drew his handkerchief from his coat pocket and pressed it to the side of his face. Blood blotted the clean cloth.

Lady Suyin sobbed so hard she couldn't catch her breath. She clinged to her son like a near-drowning victim. Her knees buckled. Xiang kept her upright with his arms around her waist. The bodyguard bolted into the room. Behind him Lord Liwei followed. The emperor held up his hand to halt any action on the part of his guard.

From the corner of his eye Ling caught movement. Margot dug through her doctor's bag until she found a fresh hypodermic needle and a glass bottle containing a liquid. In short order, she drew a dose of the medication into the syringe, dispensed a miniscule amount into the air to remove any bubbles, and moved across the room to Suyin.

“It's okay. Everything is going to be okay,” Margot assured. “I'm going to give you something to help you calm down.”

She continued to cry as Margot administered the medication into her arm. Slowly, Suyin’s sobbing subsided and she slumped against her son. He scooped his semiconscious mother up into his arms.

“What was that?” Xiang asked, anxiously.

“Two CCs of pentobarbital,” The automail doctor explained.

Liwei inquired, “Was that warranted?”

“Your wife was hyperventilating,” Margot replied.

“Please don't punish her,” Xiang begged of the emperor.

The young lord looked and sounded so much like his sister. He reminded Ling of Lan Fan after the battle on The Promised Day, begging him not to punish the other clans once he ascended to the throne.

The emperor averted his gaze.

It hurt too much to look at him.

“I have no interest in punishing a grief stricken parent,” he proclaimed.

As the emperor advanced to the door those in the room parted the way.

In the hallway, he addressed Alphonse and Mei.

“If you would please see to it Lord and Lady Zhang make their way home safely. Handle things with Xiang, as well,” he instructed.

Mei gasped at the sight of his face.

Ling didn’t give her time to comment.

He departed for the Imperial Wing without so much as a backward glance.


 

In the privacy of his rooms the emperor divested himself of his tailcoat. He threw his coat fitfully onto the floor. Ling rid himself of his waistcoat and dress shirt as well. He stood before the looking glass hanging on the wall over a table with a basin, bar of sandalwood soap in a dish, and pitcher of fresh water.

Ling poured water into the basin. He scooped water into his cupped hands and splashed his face. Methodically, he lathered the soap between his hands and washed his face. Scrubbing at the scratches hurt, but he did it anyway. He rinsed the suds from his skin and stared at his reflection.

The four long scratches on his left cheek looked worse than they felt. Conversely, the emperor felt worse than he looked. Considering the purplish skin beneath his hollow eyes and haggard countenance that said something. He slammed his fist into the looking glass. The surface of the mirror spiderwebbed.

Qiyin Gao entered the room without knocking.

“Get out,” Ling grit his teeth.

“Your Majesty, this one humbly begs you to refrain from harming yourself,” the interim commander requested in concern.

Ling grabbed the dish, soap and all, and flung it at the wall to the right of his head. The porcelain shattered and the soap bounced off the wall onto the floor. The bodyguard didn't even flinch. He pushed back his hood and pulled off his mask. For the first time all morning, the emperor saw the exhaustion written on the face of his bodyguard. He looked too tired to put up with the petulance of his charge.

“What would you have me do, my lord?” Qiyin questioned.

Ling looked down at his hand. The combination of the impact and embedded slivers of glass split his knuckles. Not so long ago he'd chastised Lan Fan for causing herself a similar injury. He felt ashamed of himself.

“Forgive me for the offense,” he mumbled. “If you would.”

Qiyin inclined his head.

“Shall I have Princess Mei see to your hand, sire?”

Ling shook his head. He said, “It isn't that bad.”

The emperor picked the slivers from his oozing knuckles. The bodyguard started to pick up the shards of the soap dish.

“I'll clean up the mess. I'm the one who made it in the first place.

Ling submersed his hand in the soapy water within the basin. He hissed at the stinging sensation in the superficial cuts. Blood permeated the murky mixture like red algae in bloom.

“As you wish. You should get some sleep, Your Majesty,” the servant suggested.

Ling looked at his bodyguard in the broken mirror. He offered him a hint of a smile, “I should say the same to you.”

“In due time,” Qiyin responded and returned to his post in the hall.

The emperor rinsed clear water over his hand. He fetch a handkerchief from his wardrobe and wrapped it around his hand as a makeshift bandage. Being careful not to cut himself further he cleaned up the mess he made in his fit of rage.

Ling sat on the end of his bed to remove his oxfords and socks. Finally, he took off his trousers and collapsed into the covers. He pulled a pillow from the pile, rolled onto his front, and laid the right side of his face on the fabric. The emperor realized the servants hadn't changed the linens since yesterday. The pillowcase still smelled like Lan Fan's hair. He sat up and covered his eyes. Tears trail down his cheeks.

The scratches stung all over again.


 

Alphonse Elric chalked an array on the workbench in the blacksmith shop, while Shu gathered up sufficient steel and leather. Lan Fan's automail laid lifelessly on the table. The alchemist smuggled the bodyguard’s arm here for reference. Al deliberated on whether or not to include the concealed blade in the replica. It added to the authenticity, but increased the likelihood of Xiang accidentally injuring himself or someone else.

In the end he decided to include the blade against his better judgement. Instead of imitating the trigger exactly he decided to add a safety to avoid accidental deployment of the weapon. Alphonse wished his brother was here. He didn’t need his help devising the transmutation circle, but this sort of thing was in Edward’s wheelhouse. The apprentice alkahestris would’ve liked to bounce ideas off his brother.

Instead, he had only the blacksmith to consult.

“What’s the hold up?” asked the blacksmith.

A cigarette burning between his lips.

“Would you mind putting that out please?” Al asked.

Alphonse Elric tolerated Lieutenant Havoc’s habit on the occasions he visited Roy’s team, but if he was being honest he found the smell of cigarette smoke offensive. Furthermore, the alchemist didn’t hold Shu in high enough regard to put up with it. Shu rubbed Alphonse the wrong way. Shu shrugged like he didn’t care and put the cigarette out on the edge of the table.

“Thank you,” Alphonse offered him a tight smile.

“Are you always this uptight?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Sure you don’t,” Shu drolled.  

The alchemist ignored him in favor of examining his array. He nodded in satisfaction. It should do the trick. Alphonse arranged the scraps of steel and leather in the center of the circle. The alchemist touched his hands to the array. The transmutation circle crackled to life with bolts of lightning blue alchemic energy. Inside the circle the ingredients twisted themselves into the shape Alphonse envisioned.

The light diminished.

In the middle of the table set a seemingly identical automail arm minus all the interior workings. The inside of the arm length gauntlet he lined with soft, supple leather. In the process Alphonse also created a buckled strap to secure the contraption across Xiang’s chest. The leather of the strap he constructed with strength in mind. He kept the side that would lay against the young man’s skin as close to the texture of kid leather as he could.

It wouldn’t due for the harness to rub his skin raw. If Xiang couldn’t wear the gauntlet for hours on end without irritation it wouldn’t be any good to them. Alphonse worried about the weight a bit. Hopefully, Lan Fan would wake before Xiang had time to become accustomed to it. He hoped she’d forgive him for his involvement.

Shu whistled in appreciation. The blacksmith picked up the gauntlet without asking permission. Alphonse checked his temper. At least the man handled the armor with care. He did well to avoid triggering the concealed blade. Shu set the replica arm next to the automail arm, put his hands on his hips, and tilted his head in examination.

“I couldn’t have done better myself,” Shu declared.

Alphonse accepted the compliment, “Thank you.”

While Shu wrapped the automail and gauntlet up in butcher paper and tied it with twine, Alphonse wiped away the traces of the transmutation circle. The blacksmith laid the package across Al’s arms.

“I appreciate your help,” Al looked him in the eye.

Shu waved away his gratitude.

He seemed sincere.

Alphonse Elric didn’t trust him.


 

Xiang Zhang sat beside his sister’s bed. He didn’t know what to do. Alphonse Elric escorted his parents from the palace an hour ago. He hadn’t had a chance to talk to his mother. Lady Suyin was in no shape to have a conversation. Xiang worried for her wellbeing. The young lord had never seen his ladylike mother haul off on someone.

“Ms. Margot?”

“Hm?”

The automail engineer stood at the sink sterilizing her medical instruments.

“Is there anything I should do?” Xiang asked.

Margot looked at him sidelong. She considered, and said, “I think you should save your strength.”

A rap sounded on the secured door. Xiang stood up quickly. The doctor pulled the curtain around the bed to hide Xiang and Lan Fan from view before answering the door. The newly appointed bodyguard held his breath. He wasn’t supposed to be here, after all.

“About time you came back,” Margot’s voice dripped derision.

“There’s no need to speak to me in that tone.”

Xiang didn’t recognize the voice, but it sounded like it belonged to an elderly man. He heard the turning of the lock. A second later the automail engineer pulled back the curtain. Xiang laid eyes on a wizened man in sleeping robes. The alkahestris regarded him with a quizzical expression.

“You must be Commander Liu’s baby brother,” the elderly gentleman said.

Xiang bristled a bit at being referred to as ‘baby brother.’ Regardless, the young lord bowed respectfully to the elder. He noticed Ms. Fontaine’s decidedly dismissive attitude toward the man.

“Yes, sir,” Xiang responded.

“I’m Master Hsu. Lan Fan speaks fondly of you. How is our patient?” Master Hsu inquired of Ms. Fontaine.

“My patient is in stable condition,” Margot asserted.

“I'm pleased to hear it. Her prognosis?” The alkahestris inquired further.

The automail doctor crossed her arms over her chest.

“The patient’s automatic functions are intact. Her pupils are responsive to light. She shows no signs of spinal damage.”

“And signs of brain activity?”

Xiang didn't like the clinical way they were speaking about his sister. He demanded, “Stop calling her the patient. Her name is Lan Fan.”

“My apologies,” Master Hsu said.

“Lan Fan is comatose,” Margot answered.

“I see,” he looked at Lan Fan. “If you'll excuse me I should really myself decent.”

The alkahestris headed for the room off the examination area.

“Hey,” Margot called after him. “The emperor doesn't want this getting around.”

Master Hsu gave her a withering look.

“You are not the only one here to take an oath,” he said, offended by the implication he'd divulge the information. “Excuse me.”

The alkahestris shut the door soundly behind him.


 

Mei Chang stealthed into Lan Fan’s room sight unseen. The princess hadn’t been here before. The state of the bodyguard’s room surprised her. Mei had no idea Lan Fan could be so messy. Of course, Mei’s own rooms were much messier, but she expected Lan Fan’s space to be clean by military regulation standards. Princess Mei removed her rucksack from her back.

Setting the bag down on the unmade bed she opened the wardrobe. There she found another surprise. Lan Fan had a number of pretty frocks. Mei wondered if she wore them on her days off. Most of them looked brand new. The only ones that seemed to have wear were a collection of cheongsam in black with delicate embroidery along the hems.

And all of sudden Mei’s mission to collect Lan Fan’s armor and one of her uniforms felt like an invasion of privacy. Though the princess considered the bodyguard a friend she realized she didn’t know much about Lan Fan beyond her bravery. The princess took one of the uniforms off its hanger and picked up a pair of boots. Mei put the boots at the bottom of the bag to keep the uniform clean.

The Seventeenth Royal Princess removed the armor from the stand in the corner of the room. Commander Liu’s armor weighed more than she thought, but no more than Mei could handle. The alkahestris added the armor to the rucksack. Then she realized she’d almost forgotten Lan Fan’s mask. Mei glanced around the room. She spied a stack of fashion catalogues.

Another piece of the puzzle that was Lan Fan Liu.

The alkahestris discovered the yin mask on the vanity next to a hair comb. Princess Mei left the rest of the items on the table untouched. She decided to endeavor to become proper friends with Lan Fan. It made sense that they should be friends. Ling was so in love with Lan Fan it was a little pathetic.

Lan Fan was important to Ling.

That made her important to Mei.

Chapter Text

Sebastian Schuyler pulled his gold pocket watch from his waistcoat. The cover of the timepiece depicted a floral design overlaying intertwining vines. The diplomatic attaché opened the cover to check the time. Half past ten. Sebastian returned the antique to the right front pocket of his waistcoat. They hadn’t specified what time to meet in the morning, but he thought Mr. Elric should be here by now.

The diplomat picked up his fountain pen. He had his travelogue open on the table in front of him. The diplomatic discussions today were rescheduled for tomorrow. It afforded the two of them more time to work on the proposal and budget, but he'd gotten as far into the financials as he could without the alchemist’s input. Sebastian’s thoughts wandered to the young lord Alphonse Elric introduced to him.

Xiang Zhang.

He hadn't heard of the young lord before. Sebastian wondered if he was the Lord Zhang he overheard party guests gossiping about. He wished he'd had the opportunity to speak with him further. The diplomat hadn't gotten to answer his question about government work.

Sebastian twirled the pen between his fingers in thought.

He decided to write a response despite not knowing where to send one.

The diplomatic attaché retrieved a rectangular box of stationery from his briefcase. He removed the lid of the flat box, selected a single sheet of stationery paper and an envelope, and smoothed the eggshell blue sheet on the table in front of him. Light glinted off the embossed border of silver foil.

Sebastian held his fountain pen poised over the paper.

He pondered before putting the point to the page.

In Xingese script he started the letter.

‘Dear Young Lord Zhang.’


In Master Hsu’s office Alphonse Elric assisted Xiang with the armor and gauntlet, while Mei and Margot waited on the other side of the curtain. The alchemist held the replica automail arm and the recently appointed bodyguard slipped his left arm inside. The gauntlet fit like a glove as Alphonse had intended. The weight of it unbalanced the young lord.

“It’s heavy,” Xiang remarked.

“Is it too heavy?” asked Al.

Xiang shook his head. Alphonse secured the harness around the boy’s sarashi wrapped rib cage. Mei suggested the sarashi to help protect Xiang’s skin from irritation.

“Are you sure?”

Xiang nodded in affirmation.  

The alchemist grabbed the uniform shirt off the empty bed.

“Arms up,” Al instructed.

He pulled the shirt over Xiang’s head. Alphonse offered to help him with the white sash that went around his waist, but Xiang knew best how to tie it. Unaccustomed to the gauntlet the boy fumbled a bit with the fabric before he got it. Next the alchemist draped the chestplate over Xiang’s shoulders. Lan Fan’s little brother stood still with his arms held away from his sides as Alphonse cinched the lacing.

“Alphonse?” Xiang questioned.

“Yes?” Al secured the spiked bracer over the right glove.

“What was Lan Fan like? When you met her.”

“Hot headed,” Alphonse answered. He laughed under his breath. “Everytime Ed insulted Ling, Lan Fan lost her temper. Honestly, she reminded me of brother.”

Al looped the cowl over Xiang's head.

“And Prince Ling?” Xiang put on the borrowed yin mask.

He pulled the hood up over his hair.

“He played the fool. Pretty well as a matter of fact.”

“How do you mean?” The novice guard tilted his head.

“There's more to him than meets the eye.”


Mei Chang scrutinized the stand-in with a scowl. Margot put her hands on her hips, and cocked her head to the side. Under their inspection Xiang shifted uncomfortably. Alphonse, on the other hand, stood to the side arms crossed over his chest.

“Are we sure they're the same height?” Mei asked.

“We're the same height,” he stated.

“I've seen them standing next to each other. I’d say the difference is negligible,” Alphonse amended.

“I suppose that's everything,” she said.

“Not quite,” the automail engineer asserted.

Margot opened the drawer of the table beside the bed. The redhead retrieved the kunai and smoke grenade she found on Lan Fan last night. She handed off the knives to Xiang and held the munition at eye level.

“This is a smoke grenade. It is not a toy. It's a fire hazard. The canister contains white phosphorus. What happens if you inhale white phosphorous particles, Princess Mei?” Margot prompted.

“Blisters form in your airway and lungs,” Mei shuttered. She continued, “The smoke irritates the eyes as well.”

“Elric tell him what happens if the sparks get on your skin.”

“Chemical burns. It also absorbs into the bloodstream, and can cause multiple organ failure and fatality,” Al said in all seriousness.

“That's right. In review, don't be reckless with the dangerous explosive device.”

Margot handed him the canister.

“I won't. I promise,” Xiang pocketed the weapons.

The automail engineer showed him how to safely deploy and retract the blade in the replica arm. Margot had him practice several times before she nodded in satisfaction.

“Shoulders back. Head up. Don't smile whatever you do,” Margot instructed.

“Or speak,” Mei stated.

“I know,” Xiang responded sounding exasperated. “You know, I’ve met my sister, right?”

“He's ready,” Alphonse declared.


Xiang followed Alphonse Elric to the Imperial Wing. The young lord had never been to this part of the palace before. He did his best to remember all the twists and turns along the way from the alkahestris’s office. The alchemist halted down the hall from the large doors to the wing. Two armed guards stood on either side of the entrance.

“Go through those doors. Keep going down the hall until you see another set of double doors. Lieutenant Gao will be there waiting,” Alphonse whispered. He put a comforting hand on Xiang’s shoulder. “I’ll see you later.”

“Okay. See you later,” Xiang smiled briefly before remembering he wasn’t supposed to smile.

Alphonse Elric lifted a hand in farewell as he departed.

Commander Liu’s brother took a carefully measured breath to calm himself. Then he proceeded to walk with purpose to the double doors. The two guards pulled open the doors at his approach. The bodyguards bowed him through. Xiang inclined his head in acknowledgement. He heard them close the doors behind him as he hurried down the hallway. As Al said he would be Qiyin Gao waited in front of another set of doors.

“Commander Liu,” the acting commander of the guard greeted.

Xiang wasn’t sure if it was all right for him to speak here.

He decided to bow instead of speaking.

“His Imperial Highness is asleep. Stand at attention outside these doors,” Qiyin commanded. “The two bodyguards at the entrance are Bolin and Tingzhe. Both are aware of your identity. I’ll return as soon as I’m able. Until then ask Tingzhe if you need anything.”

Without further ado Commander Gao left Xiang alone.

Xiang stood at attention as instructed.

He stood there for what felt like a long time before anything else happened.


Alphonse Elric arrived at the library at half past eleven.

Sebastian Schuyler waited for him at the table the two of them occupied the evening before.

“Sorry! I’m so sorry,” The alchemist apologized.

Another patron of the library shushed him.

“I’m terribly late, I know. Thank you for waiting,” he whispered, while setting down his belongings.

Sebastian smiled faintly.

“It’s quite all right,” the diplomat absolved him.

The two of them set to work.

They forget to stop for lunch entirely.  


The Emperor of Xing woke in darkness and confusion. He had an awful headache behind his eyes. The sort of headache brought on by a bout of tears and sleeping too hard. Ling lolled onto his back, laid his arm over his eyes, and breathed through the pain. For a split second, he forgot Lan Fan wasn’t waiting for him on the other side of the door. He opened his mouth to call out to her when he remembered the events of last night and this morning.

At least, Ling thought it was the same day. The emperor had no idea of the time. He wished he hadn’t woken up. The headache prevented him from falling back asleep. He heaved a heavy sigh. Sitting up on the edge of the bed he pulled the tie from his tangled hair. The emperor fumbled for the box of matches on the bedside. He struck a match to the wick of the lantern.

“Qiyin,” Ling called out to his guard.

The emperor didn’t receive an answer. He called for him again as he threw on sleeping robe and stepped into a pair of slippers. The door opened as he cinched the belt. Ling lifted his head to see Lan Fan stick her head in the door. Only it wasn't Lan Fan at all.

“Your Majesty, Lieutenant Gao left to get some sleep. Should I get Tingzhe?” Xiang asked in a timid tone.

Ling stared at him. He realized he was staring when Xiang began to fidget.

“That won't be necessary,” Ling kept his words even.

The emperor had intended to inquire if there was any change in Lan Fan's condition. He decided against bringing up Xiang’s sister. Instead, he beckoned the boy into the room.

Lan Fan's little brother looked over his shoulder before stepping inside.

“Shut the door,” The emperor commanded.

The bodyguard did his bidding. Xiang stood at attention as Ling Yao inspected him. The emperor tucked his hands into his sleeves.

“As usual, Alphonse’s alchemy is exemplary,” he remarked. “You look the part, but I'm afraid you're playing it all wrong.”

“Your Majesty?” Xiang questioned.

The emperor approached him without preamble.

“Heels together. Head up,” Ling lifted his chin with his fingertips. He circled the nervous novice. The emperor pushed his shoulder and Xiang stumbled forward.

“Stand like a tree,” Ling ordered.

“Huh?” Xiang blinked at him.

“Keep your feet rooted to the floor. Distribute your weight evenly as well,” the emperor advised.

“Yes, sir. I mean, sire.”

The young lord looked at his feet as he put his heels together. He adjusted his stance accordingly.

“Better.”


Under the cover of darkness Lady Xue left the palace. The Dowager Empress had dressed herself in a sapphire blue changshan. Under the men's tunic she wore loose fitting pants. Xue finished the ensemble with an elegant ebony coat.

Though Xue gave most of her guards the slip Ming Yu met her outside the servants entrance. Xue Yao wasn't the least bit surprised to see him.

“Didn't I dismiss you an hour ago?” Lady Yao inquired.

The bodyguard bowed. Half his hair he’d pulled into a top knot with the rest spilling down is back. He wisely wore civilian clothes.

“This one thought you might be in need of an escort, Your Majesty.”

He straightened his spine. Blind since birth he had eyes of milky white. Lady Xue selected him for her service in part for his lack of sight. The dowager didn't want another man's eyes on her at all times.

Not even one so gentlemanlike as Ming Yu.

Besides, the bodyguard read the Dragon's Pulse better than anyone else in the Royal Guard. Commander Liu admitted as much after testing his skills herself. He didn't need sight to navigate the world nor to keep Xue Yao safe.

“I suppose so,” she said. “Shall we?”

The winter wind whipped Xue’s ponytail. Turning in the direction of her destination she pulled her gloves from her left pocket. In the right hand pocket resided a folded fan. Pulling the gloves onto her petite hands she hid her polished nails.

“As you wish, My Lady.”


Wei remained impassive as Doctor Zhou examined him. Edward Elric stayed with him all day despite being under no obligation to do so. Wei still hadn't spoken a word. Traumatized by the vicious attack he'd lost his voice, though he regained some of his responsiveness.

Every time he shut his eyes he saw the pantry. The chef never wanted to set foot in the kitchen again. For that matter, he didn't think he could return to the palace. Peizhi ruined the place for him.

Perhaps forever.

Doctor Zhou finished palpating his neck. Wei wanted to wash again. He felt unclean. Even though he'd had a bath. No matter how much he scrubbed his skin he still felt unclean.

Lian took a pen from the front pocket of his lab coat and wrote a note on Wei’s chart.

“I see you haven't touched your dinner,” he commented.

Wei looked out of the corner of his eye at the covered dish on the table. He wasn't hungry. Even if he had an appetite he wouldn't want to eat another spoonful of congee. For starters it needed salt.  

He wondered why hospitals insisted on serving entirely unseasoned food. A pinch of salt went a long way to make a bland meal palatable.

“When does he get to go home?” Edward asked on his behalf.

Wei could see why the Emperor considered the Fullmetal Alchemist a close friend. They were the same sort.

“Until he's eating of his own volition and verbalizing he'll have to stay here under observation.”

Doctor Zhou looped his stethoscope over his neck.

“I have other patients to see, but I'll be back shortly,” Lian said.

He closed the door behind him.

“You've gotta eat,” Ed insisted.

Wei pressed his palm to the side neck. The alchemist walked over from the window. Wei flinched when Ed put his hands on his shoulders.

“Listen to me. If you don't start eating they'll send you to shock therapy,” Ed shook him slightly. “Say something!”


A breeze blew through the room. A chill went down Edward's spine. He did an about-face, bringing his hands up to fend off an attack. A figure perched on the sill of the previously closed window.

For a split second, Edward mistook the figure for his friend Ling. In Amestris the prince entered rooms through windows more often than not. Ed realized the person couldn't possibly be the emperor. Though they had similar features the figure before him was far too slight of stature.

“Who are you?” Edward demanded.

Smiling as slyly as a fox the stranger with a familiar face pitched forward to standing.

“That's right. I haven't properly introduced myself.”

“Let me guess. One of Ling's brother from a rival clan here to carry out some sort of revenge plot?” Ed ventured.

“Wrong,” The stranger said, stepping closer.

“Stay back,” he warned with a glare.

The pretty, petite version of Ling pulled a folded fan from their pocket.

“I hope you don't intend to fight me,” the stranger flicked the fan open.

For some reason Edward found his voice vaguely familiar. He narrowed his eyes. Taking no chances he struck at the shifty stranger.


Lady Yao blocked the blow with the forearm of her empty hand, crossed over the other arm with the fan still open, and collapsed the fan as she struck it against alchemist’s face. Edward threw a left jab. The Dowager Empress crossed the fan again to catch his elbow. The move left the man wide open. She struck the back of her free hand across his cheek.

“As much as I enjoy putting a man in his place, I don't want you to end up on death's door. Would you be so kind as to cease your assault?”


Ed realized exactly where he recognized this man from. Or rather this woman masquerading in men's clothes. ‘Mr. Elric, would you be so kind as to fetch us some ice from the kitchen?’ Ed remembered. He hadn't recognized her without the makeup and evening gown.

“Gah!” Ed exclaimed in nonsensical terms. “You're the lady from last night!”

“Astute observation,” she sounded amused.

The theoretical alchemist recoiled.

“What are you doing sneaking in here?” Ed questioned.

“Visiting hours are over.”

The lady flicked her fan open again to use it for its obvious purpose.

“The nurse turned me away at the door. Unfortunately, it isn't so easy for me to slip away during the daytime.”

Edward asked again, “Who are you?

Behind him Wei answered in a raspy voice.

“The Dowager Empress.”

Chapter Text

“The Dowager Empress.”

Xue Yao regarded Wei with worry. The raspy sound of his voice barely rose above a whisper. The fine line of reddened scar tissue running horizontally along the side of his throat hinted at the harrowing attack. He had a hollow appearance, but his color was better than she expected.

“You’re Ling’s mom?” Edward Elric asked.

Xue heard the note of incredulity in his question.

To say nothing of the unspoken inquiries.

“I am,” Lady Yao answered.

“What are you doing here?” He gawked at her.

“I’m here to speak with Wei.”

The Dowager Empress brushed by the Fullmetal Alchemist. Xue removed her gloves, pocketing them along with her fan, and afforded Wei the royal touch. Taking his small hands in her petite ones she peered into his russet amber irises.

“Hello dear one,” Xue smiled.

“Your Majesty,” he managed.

“It’s good to hear your voice,” Xue told him truthfully.

“Tell me who hurt you,” Lady Xue implored.

Wei took a gasp of air and held it. Anguish etched into his features like an inscription on a gravestone. He dropped his head forward. Wei’s hair shadowed his sunken eyes. Xue swept the mop away his face.

He had a far away look in his eyes.

“Wei,” Xue whispered.

He drew in a ragged breath.

“Peizhe,” he named his attacker.


 

The novice guard followed Ling from his room to his private bath and back again. He reminded Ling of a duckling. Underfoot albeit adorable. The emperor stopped short several feet from the doors to his room. Lan Fan's little brother bumped into his back.

“Sorry!” Xiang stage whispered.   

“No more or less than five steps behind me,” Ling glanced back at the boy over his shoulder. “Got it?”

The bodyguard hopped several steps backward and bowed.

“Let's have a chat.”

Ling stepped inside his room. He waved Xiang inside and shut the door behind him. Taking a bath helped his headache. Xiang took up watch by the door, while Ling went to his wardrobe to search for something suitable to wear. The emperor selected shoes and pants in black along with a vermilion changshan. Ling tossed them over the changing screen and stepped behind.

“Have you learned how to throw a knife?” The emperor inquired as he removed his bathrobe.

“Lan Fan showed me but I don't have a lot of practice. I don’t have my own kunai,” Xiang added, hastily, “Your Eminence.”

“Let's forgo the formalities for now,” Ling suggested.


 

The emperor emerged from behind the changing screen. Xiang found the sight of him in changshan as surreal as everything else he’d experienced today. He wondered if the emperor always acted this informal around his bodyguards. The emperor’s apparent romantic entanglement with Xiang's sister aside.

He hoped said entanglement was indeed romantic.

Xiang Zhang did not wish to challenge the emperor to a duel for his sister’s honor. The young lord would be hard pressed to win against the prince who fought homunculi and lived to tell the tale. Or rather Lan Fan told him the tale. Now he wondered if she’d told him the whole story.

“I suppose you have some questions,” Ling Yao mused.

Xiang's heart hammered in his chest.

“I don't have any questions,” he replied in a hurry.

In fact Xiang had a number of questions he didn’t dare ask.

“Not a single one?” Ling sounded skeptical.

He walked over to the dressing table and fished a hair tie out of the top drawer. Xiang watched him comb his fingers through his hair. The emperor swept the strands up into a top knot, though he let his fringe fall to the side.

Xiang worried his lower lip between his teeth.

He asked, “How come you invited us to the party?”

Ling glimpsed himself in the mirror. “I wanted to apologize to your mother,” he said. The emperor angled his face to get at a look at the scratches running alongside it. “As you can see I'm not exactly in her good graces.”

Xiang winced in response.

“I didn’t thank you for saving me from your mother’s wrath,” Ling Yao turned on his heel.

Xiang didn’t say it was the other way around.

“This one is honored to be of service.”

He hoped he sounded obsequious.

“Thank you all the same,” said Ling Yao.

Xiang felt awkward and averted his eyes to the pile rug at his feet.

“Perhaps you can tell me how one does get in Lady Suyin’s good graces.”

“I don’t think you want my help. I’m not exactly in her good graces right now either,” Xiang muttered.

And the emperor laughed. Good naturedly at that. The sound of his mirth caught Xiang off guard. He lifted his gaze to the satisfaction of his curiosity. Even though the emperor smiled he still seemed sorrowful.

“Ah. Well, at least I’m in good company,” Ling commented.

Xiang couldn’t help but turn coral at the compliment.

The borrowed yin mask hid his bashfulness.

“Shall we?” asked the emperor as he approached the door.

The bodyguard hurried to open it for him.

“Where are we going?” Xiang inquired.

Ling Yao passed through the door with Xiang at his heels.

“To put in an appearance with General Mustang.”

“The Flame Alchemist.” Xiang exclaimed, “Seriously?”


 

“Thank you for your valiance,” Lady Yao gave him a graceful bow.

Edward flushed at the descriptor. He didn't see himself as valiant. Ed did what anyone would do in his position

Or so he thought.   

“I stayed with him that's all,” Ed waved off the thanks in what he hoped was a polite manner.

Xue Yao smiled in a knowing sort of way.

“Hey,” Ed realized he had an important question. “How’s Lan Fan? Master Hsu said she fell. Does she have a concussion?”

The Dowager Empress’s expression closed off in an instant. The icy detachment in her demeanor reminded him of Colonel Mustang. Not the real Roy, but the cold facade that convinced Edward the Flame Alchemist had burned Maria Ross alive.

“Lan Fan is still unconscious.”

“W-What?”

“Doctor Margot diagnosed her as comatose.”

Shocked, Ed said, “You’re kidding.”

Xue Yao did not look like she was kidding. He felt sick at the news.

“How is Ling?” the alchemist asked.

“Beside himself.”

Lady Yao lifted Wei's chin up to look into his face.

“Follow the doctor's orders,” The Dowager Empress commanded.

Wei acquiesced.  

Edward watched her walk to the window.        

“I have to return to the palace before my absence is noticed. I'll have a car sent for you.”

“I don't think Wei should be left alone,” Ed voiced his concern.

“I'll send one of our own to watch over him.”

“Your Majesty,” Ed called out.

The Dowager Empress’s hair whipped like the tail of a kite as she about faced.

“Is it safe for you to wander around without a bodyguard?”

“I never said I was here alone,” Lady Yao winked.

Without further ado she leapt out the open window.  

Edward Elric rushed over to ensure she landed safely. Three stories below a man caught The Dowager Empress in his outstretched arms. The bodyguard set the lithe lady on her feet.

Xue raised her hand in farewell. Edward returned the wave. As he watched them disappear into the darkness he wondered if Ling took after his mother, or if Lady Xue took a page out of her son's book.  


 

“General Mustang,” The Emperor of Xing greeted him with familiarity.

Roy Mustang bowed in reverence. He wore a charcoal three piece suit, double cuffed dress shirt of crisp white linen, and a gold and black paisley tie for the occasion. His fashion forward foster sister Vanessa gave him the tie for his thirty fifth birthday.

“Your Majesty. Thank you for the invitation.”

“I appreciate you accepting at such a late hour,” Ling said.

The Emperor sat in one of two armchairs facing the fireplace in his study. Behind him stood the resilient bodyguard. A crystal decanter and two tumblers set on the table separating the chairs. In addition to the woodsmoke, incense fragranced the air with a hint of some sort of spice Roy couldn’t place.    

“Please sit,” The Emperor invited with a sweep of his hand.  

Roy gave the bodyguard a polite smile as he took his seat.

“Good evening, Commander Liu. I take it you're right as rain?” Roy asked after her health.

The bodyguard bowed in what Roy took as affirmation and acknowledgement.

“Forgive me. I’ve thrown off our itinerary by an entire day,” Ling apologized. He removed the stopper from the crystal container.

“Think nothing of it,” Roy responded.

The Emperor did the honor of pouring them both a bourbon neat. Roy reached for the rocks glass closest to him.

“Health to Your Eminence,” he toasted.

“To the continuing friendship of our countries,” The progressive emperor added.  

The two of them clinked their tumblers together.

They took a drink and settled in for an evening of conversation in front of the roaring fire.

“I had the pleasure of dining with your mother this morning.”

“Doesn’t she throw the best brunch?” Ling lavished.

“And one hell of a party,” Roy agreed.


 

Late that night Margot brought Madeleine to see their girl. The singer went straight to the sink to wash her hands. Princess Mei slept curled up in the armchair beside Lan Fan’s bed; Xiao-Mei laid across Lan Fan’s middle. The panda lifted her head to growl in warning at their approach.

“I can reinstate the no furballs on the bed rule,” Margot threatened.

Xiao-Mei behaved at once.

“Ma coeur,” Maddy kissed Lan Fan's cheeks and cupped her face. “I hear Margot has ruined your hair.”

“I saved her higher brain function,” Margot monotoned.

Madeleine combed her fingers through Lan Fan’s obsidian hair.

The alkahestris asked for a moment of Margot’s time. The automail engineer stepped away to speak with him. Madeleine removed her heels, and situated herself on the bed. Under her breath she sang La Mer to her brave, beautiful Lan Fan.


 

The armor and the replica automail weighed heavily on Xiang. Hours of standing at attention had his feet and back aching in increasing agony. He hadn't expected the task to be so exhausting. Xiang reminded himself how much worse it was for Lan Fan. The steel appendage weighed significantly more than the gauntlet Alphonse fashioned for him.

The novice guard hadn’t had a drink of water in hours. He wet his lips with his parched tongue. He talked himself out of asking Tingzhe for a break. The two experienced guards stood watch outside the door. Xiang knew he should ask for a break, but he didn’t want to appear weak.

An hour passed by listening to The Flame Alchemist and The Emperor exchange words about expanding the trade agreements between Amestris and Xing. The conversation turned toward tariffs, which he found moderately interesting. The tax on imported goods nearly cost him his prized possession. Xiang’s eyes glazed over as they discussed the price of grain. He wondered if his mother would sell the apple red racing bike while he was away.

Xiang worried over his parents. He hoped his mother was all right and his father felt better. Half of those residing at the main estate had come down with the flu. He hoped cousin Junjie hadn’t come down with it. The prince was prone to collapse, something he learned Junjie had in common the emperor. The boy’s mind wandered to New Years. He wondered if his family would celebrate at the main estate or here in the city.

The grandfather clock chimed.

Xiang brought his attention back to the present.

“Why don't we continue this chat over breakfast?” The Emperor suggested.

“A fine idea,” Roy polished off his drink.

The gentlemen stood and shook hands to Xiang's surprise.

“I hope this is the first of many such meetings, Your Majesty.”

“Likewise, General. Or should I say the next Fuhrer of Amestris?”

Roy Mustang’s smile shifted to a subtle smirk.

“Prime Minister.”


Margot Fontaine and Master Hsu discussed Lan Fan’s continuing care at length.

“As the moxa burns the meridian points warm improving the flow of blood and qi,” Master Hsu explained the course of treatment.

“Let me get this straight. You’re telling me you want to intentionally burn Lan Fan with mugwort?”

 “Moxibustion is a legitimate medical treatment,” Master Hsu defended.

“What Lan Fan needs is a central venous line and total parenteral nutrition,” the doctor insisted.

“In conjunction with-” he tried to regain control of the conversation.

“It’s a staph infection waiting to happen,” she snapped.  

 “I’ve looked after Commander Liu’s health since she was a child,” the alkahestris argued.

“The guy who gave up on her doesn’t get a say!”

Chapter Text

The Emperor of Xing in all his glory invited Xiang to join him for an informal meal the following morning. Xiang woke well before sunrise. A feat for the boy who found himself running late for school more often than not. He rubbed his tired eyes and freshened up for the day. Xiang hadn't gotten nearly enough sleep, but the bath he took before bed helped him fall asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Xiang ran his fingers through his shock of hair. Going to bed with damp hair hadn’t done him any favors. He managed to tame his locks into a similitude of his sister’s hairstyle. He thought about the day the two of them cropped off their tresses; the result of flipping through Amestrian and Cretan catalogues courtesy of Mme. Madeleine, in addition to the impulsivity of youth.

Seated on the porch out of the sun, Lan Fan had sheared sections of Xiang’s shoulder length locks with a straight razor. Xiang watched the lackadaisical fish in the pond wind their way through the lotuses. Sunlight shimmered off the scales of the dragon carp. He'd watched the autumn wind whirl his hair. A dole of doves discovered the treasure trove. The late nesters cooed and collected the strands.

After Lan Fan helped Xiang with his hair, he held for her a bronze hand mirror he’d borrowed from their mother’s dressing table. As she shaped her hair she referred to the flyer from Maddy’s nightclub. She wielded the blade with such surety. Lan Fan didn’t pay much mind to his attentive gaze. He let the birds do the chattering for a change.

Naturally, their mother sputtered at the sight of them at afternoon tea.

His father appraised them over the top of his afternoon paper. He remarked the short styles suited them, returned his eyes to the newsprint, and turned the page. Nonchalant, Lord Zhang asked his wife what she thought of fashions from the West interweaving with the East. The Lady of the House took the topic and ran with it, and afternoon tea carried on without argument.

Xiang returned to the present with a shake of his head.

He had an easy enough time pulling on the gauntlet; however, fastening the strap took some doing. The newly minted bodyguard slipped the strap through the buckle, pulled the leather taut, and bit down on the length to hold it tight in order to buckle it with his free hand. He had an easier time with the uniform and armor, though his sore shoulders slumped under the weight.

Young Lord Zhang traced his steps back to the Emperor’s study. Two of his sister’s subordinates stood at attention on either side of the doors. Xiang didn’t recognize them. His heart hammered but he didn’t break his stride. The bodyguards opened the doors at his approach and bowed him through. Holding his breath he passed between them. He didn’t release it until he crossed the threshold.

Heavy doors boomed shut behind him.  

In the study Xiang discovered the Emperor in the company of The Dowager Empress. He identified Xue Yao by the nine gold dragons and nine phoenixes of the fengguan , the so-called phoenix crown, atop her head. The traditional headgear fashioned out of gold, gemstones, and kingfisher feathers appeared weighty for a woman with such a swan like neck. Xiang couldn't begin to count the number of pearls and precious gems inlaid in the crown.

Her Royal Highness wore her hair half down like a maiden. His Imperial Majesty looked none too happy in his topknot and crown. Emperor Yao shut his eyes and scrunched his nose, while his mother blended fine powder on his face and neck.  

“There,” Lady Xue tapped the end of his nose with the brush. “Don’t touch your face.”

The Emperor blinked his eyes open, lifting the mirror from his lap to inspect the concealed scratches. Xiang wondered why the Emperor hadn’t had Princess Mei heal the lacerations instead. His Majesty’s demeanor brightened at the sight of Xiang.

“Hello,” Ling greeted him with a wave of his free hand.

The Dowager Empress turned her head. The young bodyguard bowed before she could make eye contact. He heard the swish of silk as Her Royal Highness rose to her feet.  

“Commander Liu,” Lady Xue said, silverly.

Her voice reminded him of singing bowls at the temple near the Zhang Estate. His family minus Lan Fan prayed there on holidays. Lord Zhang prayed in silence, Lady Zhang in hushed, hurried tones, and Xiang spoke softly into his cupped hands like he was sharing a secret. He prayed for his parents well being, for his sister’s safety, and for Prince Junjie’s health.

Young Lord Zhang prayed for His Imperial Majesty, long may he reign.  

The hem of The Dowager Empress’s august gown appeared in his line of sight. Golden flowers and phoenixes hand painted on black silk. The toes of her vermillion slippers peeked out from the floor length fabric.    

“Let’s have a look at you.”

After brief hesitation Xiang straightened his back. The Dowager Empress lifted his chin with her closed fan. He removed the yin mask at her bidding. Lady Xue ran her eyes over Xiang. The way his own mother did before he left the house in the morning. Bewitched by her midnight blue irises he looked right at her.

He couldn’t help it.

Her Royal Highness remarked, “Those cheeks.”

His Royal Majesty replied, “I know.”

“Huh?”

The Dowager Empress squished his cheeks like one of his aunties. Xiang inhaled in surprise. The perfume Xue wore on her wrists conjured an image of tea blooming in a cup on the corner of his father’s desk. Crackling fire brought forth fond memories of his mother reading to him by the hearth.

Xiang’s heart caught in his throat.

“Don’t let him get you into more mischief than you can manage,” Xue warned.

“Yes, Your Highness,” his voice cracked.  

A wraith emerged from the shadows. It gave him a fright. Xiang hadn’t sensed the other bodyguard’s presence. Not even so much as a flicker. Lan Fan had taught him to play hide and seek by way of the Dragon’s Pulse, but he had to focus properly to sense the flow of energy.

“‘Til tea then,” she said in parting.

The shadow of a bodyguard opened the door without preamble for Her Royal Highness. Xiang wondered if The Dowager Empress’s bodyguard was as good as Lan Fan. Were the two of them close?

“Don’t wander off,” Xue warned.

The Emperor responded with a dismissive wave, “I won’t, I won’t.”

Xiang supposed even the Emperor of Xing had to mind his mother.


 

“I hope you like hotcakes,” Ling poured syrup over his serving of fluffy pancakes.

Xiang nodded eagerly, “I’ve never had them for breakfast.”

Sitting on the cushion across from him, the boyish bodyguard brought his hands together, bowed his head, and thanked Ling formally for the meal. Ling noticed Xiang’s use of proper table manners. He elevated his own etiquette to match.

The boy looked so like his sister, but little things broke the illusion. Half the time Ling and Lan Fan still raced to finish their food when they dined together; Xiang ate small portions at a reasonable pace. He took red tea instead of coffee with his breakfast.

Most days Ling could take or leave coffee. Today, Ling poured himself a cup and stirred in a splash of cream. He lifted the cup and saucer, inhaled the aroma, and sipped the coffee with care. Heat spread through his sternum, working at  the knot in his chest that might ease, but wouldn’t unravel until Lan Fan woke up.

“Do you usually eat breakfast with Lan Fan?” Xiang broke the quiet.  

Ling placed the saucer on the table. The bottom of his cup rang against it.

“Not as often as I’d like,” Ling lamented.

He set his elbow on the table. Leaning forward he inclined his head. Ling nearly rested his cheek against his palm, but remembered his mother’s instruction not to touch his face. Instead, he laid his arm along the width of the table.

Xiang swept a forkful of hotcakes through a drizzle of syrup on his plate.  

“Because you like her?” Xiang blurted out.

Ling Yao blinked.   

Xiang lifted his eyes from his plate. He froze with his fork in front of his open mouth. Syrup dripped from the tines onto his lap. He didn’t seem to notice. Horror dawned on his honest face. “I-I mean, you’ve been friends a long time. Even before Lan Fan became your bodyguard. So, of course you like her,” Xiang laughed uneasily. He shoved the fork in his mouth to shut himself up.

“Love is more like it,” Ling said, as if he were remarking on the weather.

Xiang was an owl. Wide-eyed. Unblinking. Utterly quiet.

Seconds stretched in silence.

At last, Xiang licked his lips, and asked, “Are you in love?”

Ling lifted the corners of his mouth into a bittersweet smile.

  “Terribly.”


Peizhe had escaped far beyond the borders of the Imperial City by the time Lady Xue extracted his name from Wei. The would-be assassin traveled to the northwestern reaches of Xing. He followed a faded path deep within the woods to a stone staircase. Ascending the snow crusted steps he arrived at a crumbling castle.

A relic from before the fall of Imperial Drachma.

Part of the roof had collapsed under the weight of an uprooted sugi pine. Light from the rising sun bounced off begrimed, frosted window panes. He entered the great foyer through the weather warped doors. Rotten leaves filled the room with the odor of decomposition. High above a chandelier hung from the embellished ceiling.

A breeze blew through the entrance hall. Peizhe shuddered in the cold. Crystals chimed on the branched frame of the light fixture. He advanced farther into the room. A statuesque figure stood on the landing of the sweeping staircase at the end of the hall. From on high she surveyed the spy through translucent, smoky quartz lenses crafted into a pair of delicate wire frames.

“Mistress Kiku,” Peizhe greeted.

Behind him he heard the scuffle of boots. A hard swipe to the back of his legs had him on his knees. Peizhi hissed in pain. The man who subjugated him moved into his line of sight. In his left hand, he held a single edged sword with a hairpin pattern on the blade. The spy knew the Northern Xingese man’s square face, complexion warm with golden undertones, flecks of green in amber eyes.

“Nikolai,” Peizhe said, through his teeth. “Nice to see you.”

The swordsman forced Peizhe’s head into a bow with a shove of his hand.

“There’s no need for that, Koyla,” Kiku chided. “We’re all equals here.”

Nikolai removed his hand, and Peizhe raised his head at the sound of Kiku’s boots on the stairs. Mistress Kiku removed the hood covering her head. Coal black hair cascaded down her shoulders, kept out of her eyes by waterfall braids. Robed in russet under her wool coat, she showed no signs of suffering from the cold.

“Why are you here?”

“I have news. From the palace,” Peizhe replied, posthaste.

“Do you?”

Kiku raised a quizzical brow at him.

“Since when are you a messenger, Peizhe?”

“I knew you’d want to hear this first hand,” he answered.

“Enlighten me.”

“I’ve crippled the emperor’s information network,” Peizhe boasted.

“Is that so?”

“Geon and Tae located a dead drop. I’ve had them monitoring it for weeks, copying messages.”

He had a notebook full of decoded messages on his person. Peizhe produced the book for her review. He watched her hands as she flipped through the handwritten pages.

“You abandoned your assignment for this?” Kiku enunciated each word.

“Wei is dead.  

“Dead?” monotoned Mistress Kiku.

He licked his chapped lips.

“Dead,” Peizhe nodded.

“Funny. The letter I received yesterday indicates otherwise,” she pulled said letter from her right pocket.

Peizhe’s throat constricted. His blood ran cold. A chill ran up his spine and his teeth chattered.

“That’s not possible. I cut his throat. He was bleeding out when I-” he bit his tongue.

“...when you left?” Kiku lilted.

“It wasn’t my fault,” Peizhe started to explain, but Kiku was no longer looking at him. Instead, she peered over his left shoulder. He followed her gaze. Silent as a doe Kiku’s scout tiptoed between scattered leaves. An archer with coloring similar to the swordsman, and a thin scar over her brow. She held her longbow for balance like a tightrope walker.

“Nadezhda,” Kiku acknowledged. “There you are.”

“He wasn’t followed,” Nadezhda slung her bow over her back.

“Of course, I wasn’t followed. What do you take me for?” Peizhe sneered.

“A fool.”

Peizhe whipped his head around. He caught the flutter of Kiku’s long sleeves out of the corner of his eye. The spy blinked in confusion before Kiku pulled his head back and opened his throat with Nikolai’s sword. Fear took hold of him. Blood poured through Peizhe’s fingers as he tried to stem the flow.

  “If I wanted Wei assassinated I would’ve done it myself. I needed the emperor’s intelligence compromised. Did you think you’d get away with it? Yao’s dog will sniff you out. If she hasn’t already,” Mistress Kiku hissed.

He aspirated a mixture of blood and spit.

Mistress Kiku released Peizhe’s head. He collapsed onto his front. Kiku flicked blood off the blade, wiped it clean with a cloth, and returned the sword to Nikolai. Peizhe drowned in his own blood.


 

“Time to go,” said Kiku.  

“Where to?” The scout stabbed the spy in the heart to be sure he was dead.

“To the Imperial City.”