Falling, the sensation of shifting her weight forward and finding nothing there, of her center of balance tilting further and further off-kilter while she detachedly comprehended that she wouldn't be able to right it, was a somewhat thrilling sensation. Like your hand accidentally slipping off a doorknob. Like crossing your eyes and swiping drunkenly at an object that wasn't where you thought it was.
Like your master threading his toughened fingers around your pale wrist and jerking you roughly back.
Or kind of like him failing miserably and falling along with you.
Her initial mortification almost overdrove everything else, but years of ground-in instinct kicked in enough for her to swiftly grasp a length of her handy supply of wire nestled deep in her pocket, the kind with the cruelly pointed claw on the end, and fling it up at a precise angle, looping one slender arm around Ling's waist. It arced up gracefully, glinting brightly with something like hope from the moonlight, and buried itself deeply into the side of the deliciously yielding wall of soil. The two of them stuttered in their descent, held by Ran Fan's iron grip on the wire, she feeling pleased at the way it didn't cut into her flesh as it usually would.
And then her arm twinged, in a very foreboding way, and her automail fingers malfunctioned. Her grip slackened to nothing and they dropped like a sack of potatoes.
Falling was thrilling. Hitting the ground wasn't.
She landed on him, to her very astute humiliation, and felt something in her side crack at the same time he let out an understated "Umph."
She could only imagine that their fall was softened by the dampness of the soil, because Ling wasn't dead. She scrambled off him, and then abruptly keeled over as a whiplash-reminiscent crack of agony snaked up her rib-cage, paralyzing her. She kneeled with her forehead pressed to the cool ground for several seconds, mouth stretched in silent profanities her grandfather would have neutered her for. When she felt safe to move, she lifted her head, struggling with what she could possibly say to account for such a…foolish mistake. Falling into a pit. What a worthless guard she was.
All that came out was a squeaky, "Master?" because that was what she always said when she couldn't think of what she was supposed to say.
He lifted his head then, still splayed on his back and squinting at her through the darkness. Then he smiled self-depreciatingly. "Ah, Ran Fan. It seems I've broken my wrist."
She nearly suffocated on her spluttering panic. "Master!"
"Ah, ah, calm down…"
"I'm so sorry!" She started to cram her hands against her mouth in horror, stopped herself, and then inched her way over to him, clenching her teeth against her ribs' distinct little throbs. He was sitting upright by the time she got to him, examining his dirt-smeared wrist in mild interest. It wasn't difficult to see in the full moonlight, pouring down in on them in a way that could have been called ironic. His skin was split and bleeding, but as far as she could tell none of his bones were poking out where they shouldn't have been.
He waved his uninjured hand at her in a dismissive fashion. "Are you all right?"
"I'm – I'm, um – may I see your wrist, Master?"
He held it cheerfully out to her. "Feel free."
She accepted it gingerly, using the utmost caution to keep it immobile. She could remember a time when the idea of direct contact with Ling would have devolved her into a stammering puddle of blushing uselessness over something so improper. Three days without food and one shared canteen during their first excursion had soon cured that. She delicately shifted his pinky between her thumb and index finger. "Can you tell which finger I'm touching?
"Um. Middle, yes?"
"Your wrist is broken."
She was already one-armedly tearing at her pants, using her teeth when necessary. Ling watched her quietly for a while, frowning perplexedly. "Ran Fan."
"Yes?" she asked attentively between a mouthful of heavy black fabric.
"What's wrong with your arm?"
"I'm…still becoming accustomed to it." And abruptly she was overcome with shame, choking on it. Six months. Six months she'd been bed-ridden and away from his side. And even now she wasn't…wasn't efficient enough. She lowered her eyes in humiliation, unable to look at him.
"So that's why we fell. I was wondering…"
"I," she paused, forcing herself to breath against the funny tightening of her chest. "I'm sorry," she started, voice catching desperately. "I – I don't expect your forgiveness – "
"Relax, Ran Fan," he grinned unperturbedly, and she broke off immediately, feeling unnaturally off-balance. It wasn't unusual for him to wave off her little blunders and the formality that was supposed to go with them. It also wasn't unusual for her to feel terrible for failing him anyway. He tilted his head back to regard the sky, some…far, far stretch above them. "…this hole is pretty deep, huh?"
"I heard the people had been digging them," she murmured, eventually returning to her work. "They've grown suspicious of travelers since we fought Gluttony and Pride near their town."
"So they're building traps…Kind of stupid. Who are they expecting to catch?"
"They're just civilians," she granted. Not fighters, not alchemists. Just people who were scared and trying to do everything they could to protect themselves against something they were defenseless against.
"Still," he pressed, mouth still decidedly frowning in disapproval, and she could see his seriousness leaking through, his natural leader instincts. They were always there, he just kept them under lid most of the time. Most of the time being whatever time he spent in the company of someone other than her grandfather, and (and it made he feel guiltily pleased to know it) to a deeper extent, her. "What if someone fell down here and got hurt?"
Her lips curved into a smile, despite how little she deserved it. Her ribs ached with every breath she took, and that made up for some of it. "Like us, Young Master?"
He blinked. "Uh. You know what I mean. We're us."
She knew what he meant. They weren't in any particular danger. To them falling into a pit was something like stubbing your toe. A minor inconvenience.
But still, she thought, staring at his altered wrist and biting her lip. She didn't have any excuse for this.
She didn't like to use any weapons bigger than her fist, so she had nothing to splint his wrist with. She did make him a neat sling and a bandage with her pant fabric, though, and that would have to do until she could climb out and find some way to get help. Or find some way to pull him out, because leaving him alone went against every single one of her instincts. She may have been able to carry him out, had her arm been working.
She tried to move her arm, experimentally. First she tried flexing her fingers, and when that failed she moved on to her elbow. Nothing. She could feel it, alive and hard and thrumming with harnessable strength – but she couldn't feel it. The nerve endings were there, she just couldn't seem to grasp them.
Well. No sense in lamenting the loss. She didn't resent her artificial limb – her body was a tool, and she'd broken it. If cheating, using a strength that wasn't hers was what it took to fix it, then so be it. So long as she served her master she wouldn't hate it.
But likewise, she trusted her body, the part that was really hers, and she didn't feel particularly disabled.
Her right leg was exposed up to her knee, so she started to set to work on her left one. Back in Xing she would have been chastised, severely. Back in Xing a lot of things happened that didn't once cross her mind after she flitted over the border. Her nakedness didn't bother her. Ling came before her sense of modesty and morals, and vice versa.
Well. A lot of things came before Ling's sense of modesty.
Ling had already turned around by the time she was done tearing away her clothing into usable bandages (past her knee, this time), and she gratefully began stripping down her upper body, peeling back her hooded shirt and clenching her jaw every time she accidentally jostled her ribs. Painstakingly tight, she wrapped herself up to constrict her breathing. Ling waited patiently, and she trusted him enough to not have to watch him to make sure he didn't peek. After she had rolled her shirt back over herself he slid a glance at her over his shoulder.
"You break your ribs?"
"Cracked, I think," she replied, turning her gaze to the dauntingly high pit walls. She was a compact creature, and although she was nowhere near delicate, raw strength wasn't really her forte. Climbing out one-armed was going to be difficult, if at all possible. On the other hand, if she could reach her wire, some fifteen or so feet above her…
Ling tossed her his sword. "Here."
She thanked him with her eyes (and it didn't matter that it was a tiny bit too dark for him to read them – he knew her well enough anyway) and pushed up her mask so she could grip it between her teeth if necessary. Her shoes she kicked off; they would only hinder her. Taking a deep breath, she stood, taking note of the way her ribs twinged but didn't shift, and gingerly made her way over to the wall. She glanced up, tensed her chest, and sank Ling's sword as deep as it would go into the crumbly soil.
Her first heave upwards was easy. Her muscles flexed and bunched but supported her weight with fluid effort. Her ribs were going through hell, but that was easy enough to tune out. She dug her toes into the wall, conscious of Ling's alert gaze on her, and settled most of her weight there. She jerked Ling's sword out with her teeth and quickly transferred it over to her hand, ramming it two or so feet higher and gripping it again, working fast enough to not overbalance herself. Her automail hung limply, useless.
She got about two notches higher before the soil underneath her toes broke and her footholds crumbled away. She hung one-armed from Ling's sword perilously, feet scrabbling hopelessly, then jerked it free and let herself thump to the ground in a soft crouch.
Ling's head was tilted thoughtfully. "The soil's too damp."
She straightened. "I'll try a different side."
She did. And she fell.
So she tried another.
This time she managed to get a little too high for her own good, and her landing was a little rougher than the others. Her ribs creaked ominously.
She stood a little shakily. Her arm was really starting to burn by now, and she'd nearly impaled herself with Ling's sword that time. Her eyes darted around, looking for her next starting place, but Ling stopped her. "Ran Fan."
She turned her gaze towards him.
"Take a break."
"But Young Master – "
"Let Fu find us," he said, lounging against the soil. "You're going to hurt your ribs."
So she obeyed, and settled down against the opposite wall. He was right, she supposed. Her grandfather would find them, she was certain of that. She was just a little concerned with how long that would take, because her grandfather was currently an entire day's travelling distance away.
Ling seemed to sense the direction her thoughts were taking, because he smiled languidly and patted his jacket pockets. "I have food. And we both have water. No sense in worrying."
And he left it at that.
By sunrise no one had come for them – be it their comrades or a civilian coming to check the rewards of their effort – so they took shifts keeping watch while the other slept. She made sure her shift was longer, and he didn't protest. This also offered them the chance to discreetly relieve themselves and have it buried before the other woke. They'd been places like here before, so they settled into it with easy grace.
Halfway through their first day they ate a cautious portion of their rations, some nuts and dried berries. If needed they could go weeks without food, but Fu would find them long before that, so they didn't feel any particular need to be extremely frugal. An hour after that Ran Fan got up for another escape attempt, and failed five times before she admitted defeat. Maybe, if one of them had two functional arms to work with. But they were trapped as it was.
Still, they were nothing if not patient, so they waited.
Ling spent most of his time staring off at the sky, expression distant. She wondered what he was thinking about but knew it wasn't her place to ask. She occupied herself with exploring every muscle in her shoulder, trying to reach one that would cause some sort of reaction in her automail. She wasn't very successful. Once she managed to make it jerk convulsively, making Ling turn his head, but that was as far as she got.
Somewhere around the point dusk rolled around, Ling sighed heavily. Ran Fan looked at him questioningly but didn't ask. He didn't need her to.
"Ran Fan…do you think I messed up?"
She didn't know what she was supposed to say to that. She trusted him implicitly, without complications. Did she think he messed up? It didn't matter to her if he messed up, she would follow him anyway. Her world was as simple as that.
"When?" she asked cautiously.
"When I let this…thing into my body."
"You know how I feel about…it." How she felt about watching it prance around in her master's body like it was its god-given right. How sick she'd felt listening to it say the things it did in her master's voice. The way it looked at her, like she was a slab of fresh wares lying out for all to help themselves to in the marketplace. Using Ling's eyes.
He knew how long it had taken her to act normally around him in the few days following his gradual control of dominance.
Ling's eyes darkened almost imperceptibly. "Yeah."
"But you did it for the sake of Xing. And you and it are entirely separate. I don't think something so selfless could ever be a mistake on your part," she told him matter-of-factly.
He blinked at her, clearly surprised. Then his lips furled into a smile, one of his few genuine ones. He crawled over to her and rumpled her hair affectionately, either not noticing or caring when her face almost burst into flames. "Ah, Ran Fan. I can always count on you, can't I?"
"You know I'll serve you until I die," she mumbled abashedly, keeping her gaze trained on his chest. His hand paused, but he didn't remove it, instead letting it rest heavily on top of her head. She glanced shyly up at him. "How's your wrist?"
He chose to ignore that. "I'll always have my regrets, though," he went on contemplatively, seeming to not notice when his fingers started absently pressing little circles into her scalp.
"Like what, Young Master?" She couldn't help asking.
His smile hardened into something decisively more wooden. "Ah. Well. I'll outlive you, for starters."
Her breath froze in her throat. "That's true," she conceded quietly, still refusing to make eye contact.
"And…I have to listen to Greed yammer on about you all the time. He's quite dishonorable."
She could see how listening to a voice in your head lust over your bodyguard might make someone uncomfortable. "I would imagine so."
"Not to mention I made you cry," he continued lightly. "Al told me. What kind of prince am I?"
"Master, don't – "
He kissed her then. Leaned forward and pressed his thin, delicate lips against hers as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Like he wasn't aware of the way his hand on her head alone affected her.
Like it wasn't the deepest kind of wrong.
Like her body wasn't betraying her in the most terrible kinds of ways.
Love was a fairly foreign concept in Xing. Marriage was a tool for alliance, sex a way to ensure your clan didn't crumble into dust. Ran Fan had never stopped to wonder if she loved Ling. She would follow him to the ends of the earth, she knew. She would die for him. Why complicate it any more than that? Especially when it was so taboo, so morally illegal. She couldn't love him. She was his servant.
A servant that was being exposed to a very coaxing tongue, which was doing all kinds of things to her brain.
He had pulled away before she even had time to consider it, still smiling his fake smile and regarding her with the faux ease that indicated extreme wariness. She stared at him, unable to utter even an apology. For…being female.
Or tingling. Scandalously.
"Master…" his name left her mouth in a whisper.
His smile slipped a little, and he cocked his head. "Yes?"
His lips fell a little more, and he leaned marginally closer to her. It didn't occur to her to move away. "Do you want this?"
"I don't…I don't understand," she floundered.
He exuded patience. Very deliberately, he reached out and picked up her hand. She let him, utterly mystified as he brought her fingers up to touch his lips. "This," he said seriously, eyes dark and intense and open. She swallowed thickly. "Because if you don't, I'll stop, and we can pretend this never happened."
She had no idea where to start. Why did he want this? She knew him better than to assume he was going to just emulate his father and not seek more meaningful relationships, but. Why her?
She didn't know how to put all that into words though, so all she managed was a squeaky. "If I do?"
He watched her. "Do you?"
Ling was going to be the emperor, the emperor that ended war and famine and poverty. He was going to change the world, change lives. Ling was destined for greatness. She was destined to serve him, help him reach his goal at all costs. Not be his bedmate. Ling deserved a princess, a woman of purity. That wasn't her.
It was wrong. Their royal statuses were so out of sync it was comical.
But then. She knew him so well.
Just barely, so small it was almost imperceptible, she nodded.
His smile returned, much softer. "Well, all right then."
He kissed her again, much slower, clearly content to take his time now that he knew her stance on it. She struggled to keep up anyway, still mentally grappling at why she was doing this. She was – this – so dishonorable, unfair to Ling, her grandfather would murder her himself if he found out –
His tongue slipped out again to brush patiently at her lips, and a pool of foreign warmth dropped into her belly like a liquid bomb. Her thoughts crashed randomly to the emperor's concubines, of the way Ling's face hardened oh such a tiny bit whenever they were mentioned, or all the nights she'd spent up in a branch or on a wall, watching him, protecting him.
She knew why she was doing this.
She parted her lips slightly, still somewhat amazed at herself, and he took her invitation without question. Confidently, he stroked the insides of her mouth in a way that made her lose track of how odd it was, how strange, how they shouldn't be doing this. His hand started to work at her clothes, clumsily pushing them down past her shoulders. It was the feel of his calluses on her bare skin that really struck her, really cemented what was happening into reality.
Then he probed her own tongue, and she was lost again. She leaned forward unconsciously, and he shifted a little closer, slipping his uninjured wrist around the small of her back.
Just as quickly, he abandoned her lips to move his mouth's progress along her jaw, leaving her breathless and unable to keep pace with him. Automatically her arm reached out to grasp his shoulder, desperate for something to hold on to. It was all so – so foreign, and overwhelming, and – wet.
Unperturbed, he left trails of moisture along her neck, working his way down. When he reached a particular spot along her collarbone that she had never in any way thought to be particularly sensitive sensation arced up her spine, making her body go briefly taught.
"Li – " she broke herself off with a squeaky choking sound, horrified with herself.
He paused, bringing his head up to look at her, and she mentally cringed. "What did you say?"
Her mouth worked soundlessly, but before she could force anything out he abruptly buried his face in the junction where her neck met her shoulder, making her jerk convulsively from the shock of it.
"Say it again," he demanded hoarsely.
…she couldn't disobey him.
"Ling," she said quietly, and felt him grin against her shoulder.
When she woke up it was almost morning again. She was curled around a warm body, feet tangled, and had a strange kind of ache between her thighs not unlike the soreness that accompanied the day after a particularly rigorous training session. She blinked fuzzily a few times, sluggishly reveling in her newfound sense of warm contentedness, then dragged her gaze upwards.
He was already awake, looking down at her from his position propped up on one elbow. His eyes crinkled up when they found hers. She felt herself blushing, somewhat belatedly.
"I was thinking while you slept," he told her without preamble, voice vibrating his chest.
She ducked her head a little, splaying her hand over his stomach and marveling in their closeness. It was a little shocking, without all the headiness and excitement and heat…"About what?" she asked shyly.
And she couldn't help but smile.
A few hours later Fu and Ed found them, and helped them out via alchemy. Ling lied and told Fu it was him who fell, and her that tried to catch him but failed. Fu gave her a few sharp words and a stern look, but brushed his hand once over her cheek in a way that told her he had been worried.
Ed made a makeshift splint for Ling, and Fu fussed over him accordingly. She stood silently by, a little unsure of what to do with herself.
As they started to make their way back to their base of operations, a dank little cave nestled against the bottom of a mountain, Ling passed her.
And he grabbed her hand.
And suddenly she didn't feel so unsure.
…experimental the whole way through, and my first attempt at writing semi-smut. I had fun.
Set a little after chapter 85, or 87, or whatever chapter Ran Fan reunited with Ling in. I'm guessing they were out doing surveillance/investigation/some other kind of ninja-y thing.