And this is how the story ends
Or am I wrong and this...
This is just the beginning, just another start?
Another Start by Unknown Artist
Ran Fan woke up and, no second later, wanted to fall asleep again. Her head hurt, her throat resembled a battlefield and the bitter taste in her mouth made her flesh crawl. She didn't know what had disturbed her doubtful rest but she was sure she would want to curse the reason once she was strong enough for such things again. Slowly her senses regained connection to the outside world. First she noticed the bright light blinding her, even though her eyes were shut. Then the numbness left her worn-out body. She could feel the weight of a blanket and the heat radiating from it. Even though she was burning and would have given anything to get out of that bed she just couldn't bring herself to move her arms; too much effort. She heaved a sigh and tried to escape the sunbeams by turning her head away. After a few silent minutes the sounds returned as well. She first discerned her own breathing, then the rubbing of skin against textile and as the loudest noise in the mostly quiet room she heard the snores. Surprised she rolled over to see what was going on on the floor next to her bed. At first she couldn't see anything but a pile of clothes and hair but after a while her vision cleared. A smile spread across her lips and lit up her exhausted expression. Ling was lying on his back with all his limbs stretched out. Two small figures cuddled up to him, one actually sleeping on his chest, and nestled against his neck. The two girls looked so tiny and fragile next to that grown man, it was almost funny. Their eyes were shut tightly and every now and then one of them twitched a finger or shifted their weight in order to get in a more comfortable position. She sat up a little and smiled tiredly. That moment the emperor's eyes opened and he turned his head in her direction. The woman blinked in surprise; she had assumed him fast asleep. He didn't move, just whispered in a desperate voice: "Save me." Ran Fan grinned and shook her head, answering: "No."
"Traitor!" he hissed and tried to free himself from the twins' embraces on his own. It was a rather difficult task for he didn't want to wake them. After some limb-arranging he successfully escaped from his little prison. He came to her side and sat down on the bed. His fingers found hers and he gently stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. "How are you?" he wanted to know.
"I feel like something ran me over, but I feel better than yesterday." She admitted with a frown.
"The doctor said you had flu. It's only natural that you'd need some days to recover." Ling's hand rested on her shoulder as he spoke. Ran Fan nodded and closed her eyes for a moment.
"Are you alright?" she was worried that he might have caught it too.
"Well, my back hurts." Ling muttered and stretched.
"Poor you." Ran Fan chuckled and rolled her eyes. At least he wasn't sick. She briefly wondered if he could get ill at all. "Why were you sleeping on the ground anyway?"
"The kids and I had some talking last night and we kind of fell asleep synchronically."
Now she noticed the figure lying a few feet farther behind. Fuu seemed to have been sitting at first but during the night he'd lost his balance and had fallen to one side. The mother tucked one of her strands behind her ear and wiped some sweat off her neck. She sat up with a little help from Ling and leaned against his shoulder.
"Ran Fan, we have talked about the whole relationship-thing we got going here." Ling started. She stiffened in response.
"Don't worry, they are fine with it. Well, Fuu isn't very delighted but he will get there… I know he will." He reassured her.
"Yes, I think so too. He is very mature for his age."
"He reminds me of you. He acts and thinks like you." Ling said; a thoughtful look on his face. "Your daughters… they have thrown a very interesting option into the mix. I think I want to try it."
Instead of answering he stood up and tilted his head to one side. Ran Fan followed his actions with her eyes silently. The emperor turned around and looked at her with a sincere expression. She was overwhelmed by the amount of emotion shown in his gaze. For some reason her insides began to twist and she felt like a fist was crushing her lungs. Ling's hand wandered up to touch her forehead. The pressure of his fingers electrified her entire body. She recognized this gesture. Then he briefly stroked her slightly parted lips and let his hand linger upon her collar bone. For a few minutes no one spoke. Maybe she was hallucinating but if she wasn't totally mistaken he'd just asked to marry her. His features didn't change. He was still staring at her with those honest, deep blue eyes. At once she couldn't feel her legs anymore. All her blood rushed upwards and painted her cheeks bright red. He was waiting for her answer.
Before she even had been born, her life had been given to him. She had been his possession the moment they first had seen each other. He didn't have to ask for such a thing. She would have followed him everywhere, would have done everything for him. He knew that and yet he preferred to perform this sacred ritual, reserved for couples truly in love. How could she ever be enough for him?
Ling's expression suddenly altered to something dark and self-conscious. He was just about to retreat when Ran Fan came back to life. She caught his hand as it left her skin and pressed it against her flushed cheek. She didn't give him the chance to say anything. She had thought about it before, but every time she pictured herself becoming the emperor's wife she saw outraged people and disapproving glares. She had been taught to always think of the worst-case-scenario but maybe it didn't have to be that way. Maybe they wouldn't mind, there had been cases like this before, after all. Considering that it was quite easy to answer. So she raised her arm and gently rested her finger on his chest to complete the rite. For a moment they didn't move. Then Ling grabbed her waist and covered her with overjoyed kisses.
"You will become my wife?" he rejoiced.
"Yes." She nodded, desperate to get that message clear. "Oh God, yes! Of course!" she threw her arms around his neck and fused their mouths in one breathless joining. Ling's eyes widened with bliss and she could feel a smile stretching across his lips. "Yes?" he whispered against her cheek. Ran Fan couldn't help but roll her eyes. "Yes!" she grinned. Together they fell onto the bed. All of a sudden she didn't feel sick at all anymore. She gazed at him with dazzled eyes. Just looking at his face made her heart skip a beat and now she almost forgot to breathe. How was it possible to love someone so damn much?
She just had to be close to him. She slid into his arms and began to stroke his jaw with her lips. "I love you." she breathed against his neck. He didn't let go of her as he sat up and placed her on his lap.
"Let's be cliché and say: I love you more." He joked and tilted his head to the left so she could kiss his favorite spots. Someone cleared their throat and made the cheerful couple jump. Their heads snapped around in unison. In front of them stood three children, all of them wearing an expecting expression. Their shining eyes were all fixed on the emperor and his fresh fiancé. They were obviously waiting for some sort of reaction.
"Come here!" Ling exclaimed, too happy and pleased with the situation to not overwhelm others with his elation. The young ones leaped into the adults' arms. Fuu nestled against his mother and embraced her gently while Ling 'fought' with the twins over who got to hug whom. They won. In the end the man was lying on his back again and had to excited girls squatting on his torso. They didn't wait to bombard him with questions. This seemed to be their preferred way of asking something: Wrestle the other one on the ground, sit on their chest so they couldn't escape and just toss every query right at them. Hopefully, they already knew about the flowers and the bees.
"Have you done what we'd planned?"
"When will you get married?"
"Can we be bridesmaids?"
Ran Fan held her dear son in her arms and watched the rest of them playfully scuffle. The boy followed her gaze and grinned. He plucked at her collar to get her attention. As she looked back at him he examined her face thoroughly.
"Are you happy now?" he wanted to know. She didn't have to think about that. With total conviction she smiled at Fuu and kissed his forehead.
"Yes. I'm happy now."
"Have you heard about it?"
"Yes, the emperor will marry the widow from the Yao Clan."
"Well, I think that's romantic."
"In your eyes everything is romantic, Jin Pei."
"But think about it! Emperor Ling fell in love with this poor woman and saved her from her plight. He is the knight and she is the damsel-in-distress."
"And you have read too many fairytales."
"I think it's time for a royal wedding that has nothing to do with duty and advantage but with the true and deep feelings for each other. What is more touching than a real life love story?"
"I bet she was the reason he divorced all his wives."
"Probably. Well, if that isn't the best proof of a man's feelings."
"Well, it's his life, I suppose. And if he really loves her I'm happy for his Highness."
"I would kill to go to this ceremony!"
The other woman rolled her eyes in return and looked out of the window again. The two Xingeses had entered the wagon a few stations ago and ever since then the carriage had been filled with the high fast voices of the females. Both wore pretty dresses and extravagant hairstyles.
"Are you listening?"
Winry Elric jumped and turned around to look at her husband. "Of course." She lied. Edward folded his arms and raised an eyebrow sardonically. Then he asked: "What did I just say?"
"Oh, you are never listening when I tell you something!" the blonde complained instead of answering. The man snorted and started to turn the pages of his book again, which proved her right and declared her the victor of their little argument. The couple sat just a few meters away from the gossiping women and she eagerly followed their comments and theories about the most illustrious and most awaited event of the year. A gloating part of her wanted to wander over to those two and –just for the heck of it –show them her invitation to the earlier mentioned occasion. Of course, she wasn't that childish and lofty.
Since they had passed the borders of Xing she was very excited about everything. She never had been to a foreign country before and the strange relief and landscape glued her eyes to the wide pane in the wall. The train stopped in every bigger city and so she could catch a glimpse of the many people living and working here. She had been rather disappointed when she realized that there were no great differences between the citizens of the east and the ones of Amestris. In fact, besides their hair color, they looked very much alike. The things that really interested her, though, had been the houses. The unknown shapes and structures of the Xingese architecture fascinated her for some reason. Here they used way more wood than in Amestris and the mansions, they happened to see, all were surrounded by splendidly designed porches. The roofs reminded her of the pyramids Ed had shown her in the photos he'd taken when he had been to Creta. Between the rows of houses in the cities, lanterns, hanging on cords, were put up. The whole country seemed to celebrate the upcoming wedding of its leader.
Deep in thought, Winry stared at the woods rushing by. The thundering of the wheels against the iron of the rails somehow dulled her senses and made her sleepy. It has been a long journey and she was very tired after all. Just seconds before her eyes finally closed someone tapped her shoulder. She yawned and turned around. A young boy looked at her with big eyes and fiddled around with the hem of his shirt.
"Mommy, I'm thirsty." He announced. His mother smiled sweetly at him and reached for the bag under her seat. As her hand rummaged through the supposedly useful things Edward had brought along she asked: "Where is your sister?"
"We are playing hide-and-seek."
"Fine, but be careful, will you?" she admonished the child and handed him the small bottle filled with a white liquid. The little one nodded and hastily removed the lid to drink the first gulp of milk. Grinning brightly he wiped some of it off his mouth. "Yummy!" he commented.
Ed, who didn't look up from the printed letters in front of his face, grunted: "Not my son."
Winry rolled her eyes, but secretly she thought of it as hilarious that her son and her daughter both loved milk. They drank it every day and if she let them, they'd drink it for every meal. After he finished the bottle her kid ran off again, searching for his sister. Winry stretched; the bench was very hard.
"Where will we meet Al and Mei?" she inquired. Ed closed the hardback and put it aside, obviously willing to talk again.
"We'll leave the train in the capital. Near the station is a small restaurant and there they'll be waiting for us."
"I still don't get the whole capital-thing."
"It's simple. Whatever clan gets their successor on the throne is allowed to declare their clan's city the new capital. So, now it's the Yao Clan's city." He shrugged.
"But why don't they choose one city that remains the capital no matter who is the emperor?" Winry wanted to know. To her that sounded much easier than moving everything from one province to another.
"Every Clan's city has got an own palace, just in case the emperor wants to stay for some time. I guess it's so the new king doesn't have to get used to new climates and surroundings and stuff. It works for them; there is no reason for us to complain." Ed slouched in his chair and yawned. "In a couple of hours we are there, by the way."
"Aren't you excited to see Ling and Ran Fan?" she gazed at her husband disapprovingly. His lack of enthusiasm bothered her. After all he and the Xingese Prince had gone through together she had assumed him to be full of anticipation to meet him again. When the letter from him had arrived her husband hadn't acted as surprised and overjoyed as she had expected. He had grinned, though, as she'd told him that the emperor would marry his former bodyguard and had kept muttering "It's about time" till the day they had left for the railway station.
"Of course, I am." He mumbled, without paying attention.
"You sure don't look like that." She grumbled.
"I just don't know what to expect, okay? I mean… it's been ten years, Winry. I think I can't even remember their faces anymore. Who knows if we will get along after all that time?"
"Al has met Ran Fan last year and he said she hadn't changed too much."
"Sure, but she isn't the little bodyguard girl from my memory anymore. She is a mother… I can't even imagine that."
Her annoyance vanished as he spoke. So that was what had troubled him all the time. Edward never had been a big fan of changes. That his friends had grown to become parents and kings was upsetting him. She smiled softly and came to sit next to him. She took his hand and pressed her lips into his palm.
"Who would have thought you could be such a great father back then?" she teased. He chuckled and replied: "It's quite easy. I just have to be the opposite of Hohenheim."
"Aside from that… I bet Ling hasn't changed at all, too."
"I'm sure deep down he is still that goofy guy we met in Rush Valley."
"I know, Master."
"I'm very hungry…"
"I'm dying of hunger."
"That wouldn't be nice."
"I swear I pass out if I don't get anything edible right now!"
"You haven't passed out in years."
"I'm still able to, if I concentrate."
Ran Fan laughed quietly and examined the seating plan once again. As she counted the chairs and compared the number with the one on her list she frowned.
"I fear we have invited too many people." She turned around to show Ling what kind of problem had occurred. "We could use one of the rooms down the hall, too, I guess. We just –Master, that is decoration."
The emperor had started eyeballing one of the bouquets standing on the table next to him. Just when he reached out for it his fiancé stopped him. He pouted. "I know… I'm just so hungry!"
"Let's call it a day then." The woman smiled. When her master started devouring the equipment it was time for dinner.
The two of them left the room and headed toward the dining room. Ling's arm was wrapped around her waist, so that their torsos always touched. He didn't change anything about their posture, even when a pair of servants crossed their way. The two men bowed deeply and gave Ran Fan a friendly smile. She had thought that people would frown upon the emperor's decision and that the common aversion to her would intensify but nothing of that sort happened. It seemed that the people really weren't as petty and old-fashioned as she had believed they were. In fact, the atmosphere around the palace had brightened a lot lately and all over the country the word was spread that her master would marry her. The masses actually had reacted very calm and accepting. That was probably mainly because of the change that had happened to their emperor's attitude. He sounded more cheerful now, he talked to the people on the streets, he laughed a lot and showed more interest in… everything. She figured he partly put on an act to calm the commoners and to show that this marriage was for the best, but secretly she really wanted to be the cause of his sudden wave of enthusiasm. Of course, Ling never had been one of the idle but his eagerness… had intensified. So nobody complained and smiled at the couple whenever they were outside. Her fiancé expressed his love to her almost obsessively in public. That could become a little embarrassing but she just couldn't resist him. One kiss and she practically melted in his arms. That was so unfair!
Then again… she had her own powers to use. For example, he would obey immediately if she just stretched and made some cute, high-pitched sounds. The easiest way was still appearing nude, though. All in all, life was good these days. Every night she prayed to a deity, she didn't believe in anymore, that things would stay this way. She wanted her life to be an uncomplicated fairytale. She was still reflecting on the absurdity and perfectness of everything when they entered Ling's quarters. A low table was already prepared for them and the polished slab was covered with plates, bowls and jars. Steaming soups and rice stood next to fish, grilled lamb and steaks. The wealth of the offer still made her uncomfortable. Until the last months she had eaten with the servants and never too much. It wasn't like her stomach couldn't manage this quantity, she just felt a little out of place.
"Where are the children?" Ling asked as he sat down. He rubbed his hands and poured himself whine from a golden carafe. Wordlessly he offered her some, she nodded and answered: "I believe they are in the garden. Last evening the Head of the Han Clan arrived and the Clan's chief's sons are playing with them all the time." She took a sip from her cup and smiled. "We should save some food for them. They will be hungry when they come back."
"We should." Ling toasted and emptied his chalice with one draught. He heaped up meat and rice on his plate while shoving bread into his mouth. Ran Fan chuckled quietly and kept her gaze locked on her fingers as she tore apart a leaf of lettuce.
"Don't you want to eat?" Ling asked between two bites.
"Not really." She confessed and rested her chin in the palm of her hand, tapping her metal finger on the table in an unsteady rhythm. Her eyes traveled across the large room absentmindedly.
"Are you worried about the wedding?" His behavior changed at once. He gulped down the huge bite in his mouth and put his chopsticks aside. He straightened up and looked at her with questioning eyes. He had his legs folded beneath his body and crossed his arms before his chest. In return Ran Fan corrected her posture as well. He grinned at this old habit of hers. She smoothed her hair and answered: "I'm just nervous." That was an understatement. She was almost trembling with restlessness and tension. Two months ago she had accepted his proposal and she couldn't be happier. Still, she felt like something was missing. She couldn't tell what it was, but deep down she knew she was forgetting something very important. Therefore she checked on everything twice, just to be sure. Had she sent all the invitations? Had everyone a seat? Did she order enough food? Were the rooms appropriated for their guests? Even to herself it seemed weird to waste thoughts on such trivial things. As long as she was married to Ling by the end of the day, she actually couldn't care less. But she couldn't get rid of that edgy feeling that rippled through her entire body. Not only were these childish worries concerning the marriage ceremony circling in her head but also darker, more surrealistic fears. Before her inner eyes grenades exploded, daggers pierced the air, blood splashed across the floor, bones broke, children screamed, swords sank into unprotected flesh and tears hit the ground. Assassination attempts, vengeful ex-wives, disapproving conservatives, envious siblings… Her face froze to a motionless mask of horror as the possibilities in her mind raged on. Ling, who had gotten used to the sinister spirals she often drowned in, gently brushed her cheek with his fingertips to pull her out of it. As his skin met hers she flinched and blinked like an owl. He cupped her face with his hands and came closer. He emphasized every word as he spoke.
"Don't worry. Nothing will go wrong."
"I'm sorry." Ran Fan lowered her gaze and tried to look remorseful. She never had been good at controlling her features. The emperor laughed at the grimace she made and kissed the tip of her nose teasingly. "You are forgiven. Just relax a little." He commanded and started eating again, not without glancing at her every once in a while to make sure she wasn't thinking negative thoughts again. She wasn't, really. Ling had the impressive ability to extinguish all her anxiety within one second. She sighed and reached for the soup standing the closest to her. She poured some of it in her bowl, took her spoon and began to shovel the spicy broth into her mouth. Mechanically she chewed the cooked meat and grinded the vegetables between her molar teeth. Then she repeated the process, without even knowing what it tasted like. She continued like this and barely paid attention to her surroundings. After some time she was done and folded her hands in her lap, waiting for her master to finish his meal. He grinned now and clapped his hands together. "I'm alive again. That was delicious." He stated and she agreed. For a few minutes they sat silently next to each other and followed their own thoughts. Then the emperor suddenly turned around and gazed at his woman. He didn't just gaze, he scrutinized her. This was rather stressful and soon Ran Fan was all jumpy again. She felt her skin tickle where his stare lingered and her hair raised up. She saw him shifting his weight unconsciously and her hands intertwined. His intent look didn't stop for an instant, he just sat there and watched her every movement. The seconds ticked by. Now she grew tired of his game and met his gaze. His eyes were unusual wide open. He never blinked and soon she didn't do it as well. His blue irises drew her closer and her suspicion of him held her in place, so she just didn't move. What was he going for?
That reminded her of a snake for some reason. She once had heard that snakes could hypnotize their victim so it wouldn't flee. If that was what her master was trying he sure succeeded. The woman made big eyes and didn't budge an inch. Finally she was able to open her mouth. Without looking away from his face she murmured: "Master, what are you doing?"
"Looking at you." Ling answered matter-of-factly.
"But why?" Her voice sounded so indolent and sluggish… as if she was about to fall asleep any second.
"Because I want to." He muttered and he seemed to have slowed down as well. She swallowed and tried to moisten her lips. As her tongue glided smoothly over her upper lip she noticed that the body of her fiancé stiffen. The sight of the muscles shifting under his skin dried her throat. Almost unintentionally she stroked her own neck and massaged her stiff shoulders with her not-automail hand. She still gazed at Ling and he still gazed at her. Now his jaw tensed and his expression wasn't as relaxed as before.
"Master…?" she breathed, totally awed by the appearance of her emperor. He purred in return. On all fours he crawled to her and squatted now like an, unusual stunning-looking, gargoyle in front of Ran Fan. Suddenly he took of his casual shirt and threw it away.
"Have sex with me." He demanded straight out. It wasn't a question, it was an order. An order, she was all too eager to obey. He came to her and began to undress her with hasty fingers. She didn't know what had gotten into him, but that was something to be later dealt with. He touched her all over, his fingers flew over her heated skin and as he cupped her right breast with his hand, his mouth found hers. She felt his nails furrowing her back and his lips working with hers. Several layers of textile fell to the floor and Ran Fan had to grab Ling's neck to drag him towards the cushions nearby. Together they dived into the thick pillows and when she lay upon him she followed the shape of his abs with her tongue playfully. Now they wore nothing but their pants, or in Ran Fan's case a long, tight skirt, and writhed with excitement and pleasure. Her torso pressed against his, she buried her fingers in his long silky hair. Ling groaned in the back of his throat and with one hand he drew the curtains that bordered the pile of pillows and blankets, to shield their love from possible intruders. Himself, he didn't care about that so much but he knew Ran Fan felt very uncomfortable knowing someone could see her as weak as she assumed she looked when she didn't wear clothes. In fact, she had a very strong and firm body. Not too soft or curvy and not too hard or flat. She had just the perfect amount of everything, in his eyes. He once had tried to tell her that but she didn't want to hear it. Maybe she wanted to keep her self-consciousness… He couldn't understand that, but it was too less a deal to waste any time arguing. He pulled her closer and pushed his hips against hers to show her what he needed. Ran Fan's clouded eyes cleared for a moment and she smiled at him. Kissing him deeply she reached down and invaded his pants with her skilled fingers. She began to stroke him, her touches were tender and gentle and so awfully sweet. He was a little surprised by her teasing pitilessness. The minutes passed by and she just wouldn't stop. She was aware of his state and yet she preferred to torture him further. Oh, she was so cruel!
"C'mon!" he moaned and threw his head back. Helpless in her grip Ling cringed with desire, silently begging for salvation. His lover seemed to have heard his pleas. Ran Fan turned from a devilish demon of purgatory into an angel of mercy. Still kissing him she gave him what he wanted. She freed him from his prison, which really had been restricting, and released the pressure in between his thighs with a few swift movements.
Panting he fell back into the cool velvety cushions and wiped some sweat off his forehead. "Why must you torment me like this?" he gasped, still out of breath.
"Because just once I wanted to call the chucks." She joked and climbed onto him. She let lips explore his neck and didn't stop when Ling began to speak.
"You are mean. I wonder why I'm willing to marry you."
"Well, if my character doesn't appeal to you…It must be my rich dowry then." She murmured tonelessly against his throat and her cool breath made his skin tickle.
"Probably…" Ling mused and stroked her back absentmindedly. He loved holding her like this. He never had done that when they were younger and now he just could curse himself for wasting so much time. She was so beautiful and sensual and desirable and attractive… How could he seriously have missed that back then? Ran Fan raised her head and arched an eyebrow as she felt his manhood rise again. "That quickly?"
He grinned at her dirtily. "It always depends on my partner."
"I feel so honored." She scoffed and he snickered at it. "That's the most sincere compliment I can give you." he shrugged and playfully bit her earlobe. His mouth wandered along the line of her jaw and then covered hers.
"You know, I will revenge myself. Round two?" he asked between two kisses.
"I'm begging you." she laughed as he rolled over with her.
Their heads snapped up at the sound of someone knocking at the door.
"No, no, no!" Ling complained.
"If we don't move they might go away." His fiancé suggested with a straight face. Ling waved it off and sat up.
"What?" he barked. His voice sounded as aggressive as he felt. Always interrupting at the most unfavorable moment, that was his servants' style. Sometimes he wondered if they were doing it on purpose, just to annoy him.
Before the newcomer could answer, Ling had dressed again and left the little refuge behind the curtains. Ran Fan needed some time to deal with her top on her own.
The subordinate was smart enough not to enter when he replied: "New guests have arrived and demanded an audience with you, your Excellency."
"An audience? Are they important enough?" Even to himself that sounded condescending …but damn it! They just interrupted something very essential!
"I can't tell, your Excellency. They… They are foreigners, but they possessed an invitation." The man outside was obviously concerned that he had done something wrong.
Ling opened the door to look at the servant. With a suspicious expression he asked: "Foreigners?"
"Yes, your Excellency. Two males, two females and two children. One of the women looks Xingese though."
The emperor turned around to eye his fiancé questioningly. She now came to his side, fully dressed again, and wrapped her arm around his waist. Ran Fan looked at the man with a friendly smile. "Where are they from?"
"Amestris, I believe, my Lady."
She nodded and politely instructed: "Tell them we are on our way." The she sent the servant away and began to fix her hair. Ling tilted his head to the left like a confused dog and muttered: "I never saw you giving orders before."
"Does that bother you?" she wondered, a puzzled look on her smooth, fair face.
"I don't know yet. You might take over my country." Thoughtfully he pulled his eyebrows together as he held the door open for her. She hinted a curtsy and giggled childishly.
"Why, what perfect manners." Ling complimented his woman and took her hand.
The couple walked down the corridors, Ling strutting, Ran Fan marching, and occasionally greeted one of their guests who had already arrived. The visitors' residences weren't actually inside the palace but, since they were allowed to, they took their chance to explore the habitat of Xing's ruler. Therefore it was very noisy these days, from everywhere voices and laughter resounded and the steps of children rang through the halls. The young mother smiled a little as she thought of her offspring's faces when they'd heard that many playmates for them would arrive soon. When the first family, the head of the Chang Clan, had arrived they had brought a young, shy girl along and the twins had almost burst with joy. Immediately they had grabbed the new arrival and dragged her away from her parents. Thirty minutes later they had started a merciless pillow fight in their room and Ran Fan had had to use all her knowledge of diplomacy to end the tiny war; plus she had had to give every girl some candy. With each new child that set foot on the emperor's plot the whole scenario repeated. After few weeks her daughters had a whole bunch of followers and they led their friends through the estate, always searching for new adventures. Role-play was something quite popular with them. Since Ling never grew tired of telling them about the events in Amestris they often played a game, they liked to call 'Emperor Ling versus The evil homunculi'. Ran Fan hadn't been very happy when her fiancé had disclosed that he'd told her children about the whole Amestris-Immortality-thing to her, but now it was too late anyway.
Every time they played 'Ling versus Wrath' Fuu joined them and covered the part of the brave, honorable martyr who'd fought alongside the emperor. His mother always left before they started charging at each other.
A squealing door shook her from her thoughts. Startled, she looked up to find herself in front of the entrance hall. Ling squeezed her hand and gave her a warm smile before pulling her into the bright room.
All heads snapped around to them as they walked side by side, up to the newcomers. She wanted to break the skin contact between her and Ling, but he didn't let her. She felt his thumb gently drawing circles on her skin.
A proud smile on his lips he met the stares of Edward Elric and his companions. Winry had grown to be a beautiful woman just as he'd figured she would when he'd first met her. In her arms she held a young child that bashfully hid its face under the long blond locks of its mother. The emperor's eyes wandered over to the man who stood protectively next to her and curled one arm around her shoulders. Ed's hair was longer now and he wore it in a simply ponytail, but his bangs still framed his hair while one little antenna stuck up from his head. He, too, had a child at hand, but it wasn't to like to calm the youngster, it had more of a restraining attempt. His golden eyes darted from one direction to another, without focusing on something. The tall man next to him smiled kindly at the Xingese and hinted a bow. The female next to him rolled her eyes, but nodded respectfully. Mei Chang's hand constantly rested upon her belly, which obviously was bulging a little.
For a moment no one said anything.
Then Winry came to Ling and clumsily hugged him with one arm. "It's been so long."
Without releasing Ran Fan he returned the embrace. He chuckled: "It has, indeed." As he pulled back Al approached him and offered him his hand. The emperor took it with both of his and smiled brightly. "I see you have enjoyed yourself." He joked, referring to the pregnant Chang woman. The other man rubbed the back of his head and shrugged modestly.
Now Mrs. Elric turned around to greet Ran Fan but she wasn't quite sure what would have been appropriated. To Ling's surprise his fiancé choose for her by spreading her arms out. The two females embraced each other cheerfully and immediately began to talk, very much and very fast. (That Ran Fan was able to understand Winry's gibberish was a miracle to him.) Mei joined them and at once all their attention was occupied by the growing baby inside her body. The emperor figured that only females could get so intrigued by something like that. Even his former bodyguard's eyes shined with admiration. Now Edward slowly approached them. It was a little uncomfortable, so Ling decided to break the ice. He turned around, the most chipper grin on his lips, and exclaimed: "Look at you! There are still wonders in this world. You've actually grown!"
The emperor had to admit, that he deserved the book that hit his forehead. Everyone laughed, besides Ran Fan who was scowling at the Amestrian with burning eyes.
And like that, it seemed they'd never been apart. Ed and Ling were busy reminiscing, Alphonse obsessively inquired about his wife's condition while Mei, Winry and Ran Fan tried to calm him down. The Elrics introduced their children to the Xingese couple and asked about the royal household. The small group strolled down the hallways while giving updates to each other and entered a huge, cozy lounge. They sat down and didn't stop talking while enjoying the Xingese tea that was custom to serve to guests. After a good hour Ming, Li and Fuu appeared in the door frame with a few other children in tow. Edward's offspring jumped up and tried to talk to them, excited to see that there were others about their own age, but the only one who could speak at least a bit Amestrian was Fuu and he never did very well in class. The twins eyed the strangers and seemed to recognize Alphonse and his partner.
"Hello, Mr. Elric and Miss Chang." They greeted them in unison and bowed.
Al laughed in response and waved it off. "In fact it's Mrs. Elric now." He informed them. "You two have changed."
"We're about three inches taller now!" they reported proudly.
Ling nudged Winry and whispered: "I bet Ed couldn't say such things for years."
"I heard you!"
"Can we play with the two foreigners?" Ming wanted to know. Her mother narrowed her eyes disapprovingly. "They have names."
"They won't tell us their names. They are always speaking this strange language. But they have funny hair colors." Li snickered and winked at Ed's son. The boy blushed at once and looked away with emphasized indifference. The adults grinned at that and Winry explained to her children what the others wanted. A few moments later they ran off together.
When all the hustle and bustle had died down Mei leaned back with a sly expression.
"So… Wedding, eh? Been there."
"Yeah, I've been there, too." Ran Fan shot back. What was that? A contest? Then again, she could relax. She'd been married and pregnant before. She won.
"Don't be so spiteful. That wasn't supposed to be an insult." The Xingese female retreated.
Al and Ling rolled their eyes at the childish behavior of their women.
The following days Ran Fan's tension grew, even though Winry and Mei did their best to keep her calm. Ling and the other men watched with wondering eyes the bond of friendship and closeness that formed between the females, apparently out of nowhere. The three women often sat in the garden and watched the children play. Winry even volunteered to maintain Ran Fan's automail. Ling was happy to see that his fiancé was able to talk freely to the others, to laugh and have fun with them. That was something she unfortunately had to miss the last years. He didn't know much about a woman's psyche, but he was sure that something like friends was pretty important for one's well-being. He discovered that he'd missed that as well now that Ed and Al were here. The emperor and the Elric brothers often spent many hours in the library of the palace where Ling showed them all the alkehestry books he possessed. Even though Edward wasn't able to use any form of alchemy anymore, his interest hadn't vanished. Ling liked to listen to their plans for the future and their ideas, they weren't half-bad.
Al spread his arms to underline his opinion. "I'm just saying that a hospital based on alkehestry might be more efficient than an ordinary one."
"So you're thinking of training young alkehestrists to be doctors?"
"The Xingese masters are doing something similar to it, so I'm positive it would work. We just would have to improve the current state of alkehestry in combination with biology."
Ling scratched his chin. "I will try to support my researchers. It sounds… promising."
The young man flashed a bright smile at the emperor. "That would help a lot! Thank you, Ling."
Ed rubbed his forehead and yawned. "Now that that's settled… When do we have dinner?"
"As soon as the women return."
"Great, 'cause I'm starving." The blonde winked. Ling rolled his eyes and rose. The men went downstairs and followed the wide hall to the dining room. On their way they ran across Fuu and Edward's daughter who just tried to teach each other their language. Ed whistled suggestively and the children's heads snapped up. The boy's eyes narrowed while his playmate's cheeks flushed bright pink. It was unlike Fuu to play with someone so many years junior to him. The Amestrians must have thought the same because they both grinned at their friend and Alphonse snickered: "Is it me or are we having our next illicit love-birds? Must be the genes."
"Leave the kids alone." Ling tried to defend them and called out to the couple: "Go, get the others. We're having dinner now." Fuu nodded and tried to translate it to his friend. She nodded and took his hand, pointing at something in the distance. Then they wandered off, searching for their siblings.
When the small group entered the room their women were already sitting at the table and discussed something, very animatedly. Ran Fan frowned and shook her head, again and again but Winry just laughed and talked on. Ed now sat down next to her and laid his arm around her shoulders. Ling and Alphonse joined their loved ones and mirrored Edward's gesture.
"What are you talking about?"
"Oh, we were trying to persuade Ran Fan to celebrate with us."
"And I told you that we are too old for such things." The former bodyguard insisted with a stern look on her face.
At Ling's confused expression Winry explained: "In Amestris, it's custom to have a party before getting married."
"That's another point. Our wedding is settled for next month. Plenty of time for your ridiculous ideas."
"But I want to go out now!"
"No, with you all, I mean."
Now Ling interjected: "Well, Ran Fan, why don't you join them? It sounds like fun. Maybe that distracts you a bit." At his fiancé's glare he just grinned.
"We could keep an eye on the children." Al volunteered and his older brother nodded.
"Why are you doing this to me?" Ling's bride-to-be sighed.
"Because we love you. That's our way of expressing it." Ed stated and began to pile up food on his plate.
"So, do you know some good night clubs around here?" Winry asked and took a sip from her cup. Ran Fan blinked.
"Oh boy… Fine, then. We'll find ourselves some action." She shrugged.
Al tilted his head to the right. "Winry, weren't you supposed to be a mother?"
"Can't mothers have fun anymore?"
"Not in Xing." Ran Fan triumphed, but nobody took any interest in it. The emperor ran his hand through his hair and asked: "What are you going to do?"
Mei answered this time. "We are going to have dinner and maybe some drinks, that's all."
Al snorted. "When you had your 'party' you came home totally drunk."
All eyes focused on the couple now. Ling hurried to shove some bread into his mouth so he could muffle his laughter, Ran Fan pressed her lips together and Ed stared at the pregnant Xingese with an incredulous expression. Mei being drunk? Sometimes you just missed the best stuff.
Winry leant back.
"That's going to be so much fun."
"Okay, Ed, don't let them stay up past their bedtime." Winry urged.
"I wouldn't dare." Her husband saluted.
"See? That's why I love you." She kissed him and gestured her friends to get ready. Mei had a hard time convincing Al that it was totally fine for her to go out. After some interference from her friend the man gave in and only muttered his doubts under his breath.
Ran Fan plucked at her sleeve and stared grudgingly at the wall. Strong arms embraced her waist from the behind. Ling pressed his lips against her neck and made her regret once again that she had agreed to do this tonight. "Have some fun." He whispered into her ear with a husky voice. She sighed and stroked his muscular forearm. "I won't."
"Please. For me." He purred, playing his victorious card. She just couldn't deny him anything, no matter how trivial his request might be. She turned around in his embrace and kissed him. "I don't want to." She tried it again.
"I know, Ran Fan, but I'd like you to enjoy yourself tonight."
"I could enjoy myself, but for that I need you around." Ran Fan pressed her front against him and let her fingers wander under his shirt. Ling couldn't quite suppress his reaction. He freed himself from her and laughed, a little embarrassed. "You just don't want to go out. I won't fall for that. Why must I force you to be happy?" He shook his head with a frustrated sigh.
"I'm happy here, Master." She muttered.
Now Winry interrupted their little moment by pulling at Ran Fan's arm. "Come now. Ling won't run away."
"I don't intend to, at least." He confirmed and then released her from his tight hug. She turned around and just wanted to follow the other women through the door when she heard the voices of three children coming her way.
"Mom, wait! We want to say goodnight!"
Ran Fan knelt down and kissed her children goodbye. The twins threw their tiny arms around her and Fuu, after some deliberate reserve, did the same. Tousling her son's hair teasingly she admonished him: "You are in charge tonight. So be good and do what the master tells you to. No complaining when you have to go to bed, alright?"
"Hmm, we'll see."
"Yes, we will behave and be the best children ever. Promise." The boy rolled his eyes.
Li tapped her mother on the shoulder to get her attention. With big eyes the little girl asked: "When will you come back?" The question sounded so sad Ran Fan just wanted to cancel the whole thing, but she had promised to go. So she squeezed her offspring once again and mumbled: "Later this night, dear. Good night, you three. And remember: No misbehaving."
She got up again and gave her fiancé one last heart-breaking gaze before Mei dragged her out of the palace and deeper into the darkness of the evening.
The little group wandered through the streets of the big city and enjoyed the night. It wasn't too cold and not too warm, with just the right amount of wind whirling through the alleys. Ran Fan had to admit that it wasn't as awful as she had expected. The night life of Xing was very intriguing and you just had to be happy among all the street artists and laughing people. The red glow of the lanterns painted the whole scene in a friendly color, so that you couldn't help but feel safe. It seemed that the inhabitants of Xing always had a reason to celebrate. Music rang through the filled streets, dancers performed everywhere and many spectacles drew the people from one point to another. The first time the women just let themselves wander with masses but after a good hour Mei got a hunger pang and they had to look for a restaurant. They sat down in a small one that wasn't as stuffed as the others and ordered some food. While Mei enjoyed herself Winry complained about her dry throat.
"Then drink something." Ran Fan suggested and skimmed through the menu.
"Okay, I'll order for all of us. What do you want?" she asked and smiled encouragingly. The former bodyguard just shrugged. "Water."
"Oh, Ran Fan! It's no fun if you're not celebrating right." Winry sighed.
"So I have to drink alcohol to have a good time?" she scoffed.
"…Yes! At least today."
"I can't handle alcohol well." Ran Fan muttered but Winry didn't listen.
"Look, they even got Amestrian Whisky. I'll order some."
Now Mei raised her hand with a sulky expression. "What about me?" She was pregnant, she couldn't consume alcohol. She pushed the now empty plate away from herself.
"Have some juice or something like that." Ran Fan suggested.
A few minutes later the women got there drinks and started talking about random topics. They became so absorbed by their conversation that they didn't even noticed that they drank more and more to refresh themselves. As the hours ticked by Ran Fan noticed her tension drown in the snug dimness that shrouded her senses. She never had been seriously drunk before, but it wasn't as bad as she'd assumed. In fact, she was very at ease and all her thoughts were so wonderfully superficial, she didn't worry about a thing. She figured that the whisky did this to her, and even though she didn't quite feel like herself she enjoyed the change. With flushed cheeks and a careless smile slapped across her face she began to argue with Winry over how many drinks she had had already.
"I tell you, you are drunk."
"Nope, nope, nope." She sang in response.
"Hey, want me to tell you a secret?" the Amestrian woman chuckled after every word and leaned closer. "I'm know too, you drunk."
"Pf, you just messed up the words."
"No, you did."
"You can't prove that!"
Mei just grudgingly stared at her bottle of orange juice and occasionally steadied one of her companions when they threatened to lose their balance. Winry and Ran Fan kept ordering drinks and half an hour later they held each other in a tight embrace and sobbed melodramatically. The third one just groaned, annoyed.
"You two are my bestest…test friends I ever had." Ran Fan now declared, not without stumbling over her words. Clumsily Winry toasted towards her and gulped down the last bit of whisky in her glass. When she realized that there was nothing left she slammed it onto the table several times. "Why is-is this empty?"
"Maybe someone stole it." The drunken Xingese wondered.
"A-Anyway, let's talk about s-s-something selli-seru-serious."
"Tell us about your boyfriend, Ran Fan!" Winry rejoiced and nodded exaggeratedly. Mei rested her chin in the palm of her hand and raised an eyebrow. This was going to be interesting.
"F-First of all, he isn't my boyfriend. He is my m-master and my fiancé. I-I-I love him very, very much. More than Edwa-Edward." She stuttered proudly. She had to grab the table for support, her world was spinning before her eyes.
Winry snickered childishly.
Now Mei interjected: "It would be weird if you loved Edward more than his Highness."
"Yeah, but some-sometimes M-Master can be so im…immer… you know, the opposite of grown-up?"
"Immature?" Winry suggested.
"Yeah, that. B-But it's alright, because I l-love him. …And the sex! It's worth it!"
Mei's head snapped up and Winry almost cracked up.
"Now you have to be specific."
A triumphant grin stretching across her lips, Ran Fan leant back and rubbed her neck. Her sight was clouded but she enjoyed the warmth that streamed through her body and centered in her stomach. The fuzzy feeling in her head was very funny.
"He knows of positions… I-I wou-wouldn't have thought possible. Pl-Plus, he always finds ways to k-kee-keep it colorful. He is the awesomest!"
Now the others, drunk or not, were interested. "Details!" they demanded.
"No, that's private." She folded her arms before her chest and acted as if she was insulted.
"Pwease!" Winry clung to her and shook her a little. Five seconds later she had already forgotten why, though. Laughing and blabbering the three of them sat at the table and tried to build a pyramid out of the glasses they already had emptied.
Ling stretched and sat down again. "Okay, the twins and Fuu are fast asleep. Everything's fine."
For three hours the men had sat in front of the fireplace now and talked about everything that came to their minds. Every once in a while they checked on the children they had to babysit while their women were out celebrating. It was almost one o'clock in the morning by now.
Al paced up and down, one eye always on the window. "They sure take their time." He complained.
"You are talking about an alkehestrist, a trained bodyguard and an automail mechanic. They can look after themselves." His brother reassured him, even though he did it with a frown. Ed shrugged and continued reading in a book he'd borrowed from the emperor. The man stared at the flames and let his mind wander. Unfortunately his thoughts just kept spinning in circles. In the end he always ended up thinking about Ran Fan. He had to discover that it bothered him way more to not have her here with him than he'd expected.
"Hey, you know what I noticed?" Alphonse suddenly exclaimed. "Ling, what happened to Greed?"
For a moment no one said anything. The brothers stared at the Xingese in unison and the Xingese stared at the brothers. He put his fingers together and rested his chin on his thumbs. Now that they mentioned it… What had happened to him?
"I can't tell. I think he is floating around somewhere in my head but he hadn't really interfered for over a year now. I can barely spot his presence anymore. Why is that?" Ling pondered.
Edward was truly surprised by that. "Do you think he is… kind of asleep?"
"Is that possible?" The emperor doubted that. Greed always had been there, no matter what time of the day it was. Why would he sleep now?
"Maybe he is dying." Al suggested and Ling flinched. He considered the homunculus a friend, after all. When the alchemist saw his reaction he held up his hands. "I mean, that he is satisfied now. Think about it, Ling. He said that your greed equaled his own. Maybe, now that you are the ruler of Xing, he has no reason to be anymore."
"I am the emperor of my nation for over ten years now, Alphonse, and he always has been in the background of my thoughts. He stopped talking just a few months ago."
Ed raised his eyebrows and a smile began to spread across his lips. "How many months ago?"
"It started half a year ago. Now he is totally silent." Ling was sure about that, but he had to admit that he hadn't been paying too much attention to Greed's activities lately.
"And when exactly did your relationship with Ran Fan start?"
"I don't see how that's relevant." The man muttered but then counted the months. "A little over five months, I believe."
"There is your solution, my oblivious friend." Ed laughed. "Sorry for sounding cliché, but: Ran Fan is what you wanted more than anything else and now that she is yours, you desire nothing else. Ling, you're officially not greedy anymore."
"Oh, please!" he snorted. "You're telling me that love was all I ever wanted? That sounds just ridiculous, Edward."
The other man didn't stop chuckling and folded his hands in his lap, slightly leaning in. "Sometimes the most simple and ridiculous answers are the right ones."
"Ockham's Razor!" Al suddenly exclaimed. Ling rolled his eyes and shook his head.
"I don't think that's it. I mean, Greed is still there."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course." He held up his left hand to prove it. The Ourboros tattoo still covered his skin, forming a strong contrast between it and the red color of the dragon that chased its own tail. He scrutinized it with narrowed eyes, searching for any changes and, much to his surprise, there was one. He remembered the tint of it being somehow deeper and stronger, now it seemed to have paled, like an old wound that was finally healing.
The Elrics exchanged one brief look before grinning gloatingly and, much to Ling's annoyance, high-fiving each other. Obviously they had noticed the difference too.
"What do you know?" the man barked.
"Why are you struggling with it? Isn't it a good thing that Greed is gone now?" Al wanted to know. He finally sat down next to his brother. The two of them stared at the emperor with questioning eyes and demanded an answer.
"It is." Ling admitted with a sigh. "I just can't believe that he simply disappeared like that. That sounds too easy. He is a homunculus after all."
"Yeah, he is incarnated avarice, but with no greed to feed upon he dies like any ordinary creature. It's sounds reasonable to me." Ed clapped his hands together. "End of discussion."
Just that instant a servant entered the room and bowed.
"Your Excellency, the ladies… have returned." The middle-aged woman reported, an amused smile hidden in the corners of her mouth. At once the atmosphere brightened.
"Why don't they come in?" Al wondered, confused that someone actually had to announce their arrival.
"Well, Sir, it appears the ladies could use some help with that."
Worried like that, Ling and the others rose and followed the maid with wary expressions.
When the three of them entered the entrance hall they were greeted by giggling and joyful voices.
"There are our men!" Winry threw her arms in the air and squeaked happily. Mei greeted them not as overjoyed as her companion, mainly because she had to keep the blonde from tripping over her own feet.
"Could someone please help me?" she muttered when her friend sank against her shoulder, blabbering something unintelligible.
Ed muffled his laughter with one hand and carefully lifted his wife up. No second later you could hear the low snoring of a woman. The man sighed and shifted his weight a bit so he wouldn't lose his balance.
"Looks like it has been a party." He commented. Al rushed to his wife's side to make sure she was fine. After a few minutes of arguing she could convince him that she hadn't drunk any alcohol, that she was feeling well and that it had been great fun.
"I'm tired. Let's go to bed." She yawned and plucked at Alphonse's sleeve. He nodded and wished everyone a good night. Ed did the same and, with Winry in his arms, left as well. Ling followed the couples with his eyes, an amused smile on his lips, and then he searched for his fiancé. Ran Fan was leaning against a pillar and wore a rather distressed expression. He hurried to her and stroked her flushed cheek with a worried frown.
Maybe she was nauseous?
That moment she came to life and raised her head. The second she saw his face she smiled in a clumsy way and giggling wrapped her arms around his neck.
"Master!" she rejoiced. He could smell some sort of whisky in her breath.
"Say, are you drunk, Ran Fan?" he chuckled. Her being so light-hearted and impulsive was a rare sight and, he had to admit, it was kind of funny.
"I'm not sober." She confessed very inarticulately.
"I can tell." Ling squeezed her shoulders softly. With her large, clouded eyes she looked up to him as if he just had cured cancer and ended the worldwide famine simultaneously. Then, without warning, she kissed him; surprisingly fierce. Out of habit he pulled her closer and buried his fingers in her hair with a groan. Ran Fan pressed her front against him eagerly and licked her lips in a seductive way. Whether she did this on purpose or he was just awfully single-minded, he didn't know. Then he remembered that she was very intoxicated after all. Sighing he restrained her and met her disappointed stare.
"I won't take advantage of your state, love." He purred and rubbed his nose against her heated cheek. Even though he said it, he wasn't sure if he could stand by his word. Simply her scent, so bloomy and sweet, aroused him.
She wound in his arms, trying to reach his mouth again. "But I want you…!" she complained; her voice nothing but a seductive moan.
"You're not making it any easier, you know?" Ling murmured against her neck. He let his lips trace the line of her artery, pulsing strongly beneath her soft skin. He could feel the waves of blood rushing through her veins as he kissed her throat on trial.
"I think" he began. "We should go to bed. It's late." With these words he pulled back and smiled at the staggering woman in front of him. A low chuckle on his lips he watched her eyes close and open for several times, which proved him right. The alcohol in her system exhausted her very quickly so, no minute later, she just fell into his arms, fast asleep. Ling lifted her off the ground and carried her, bridal-style, into their joint quarters. There he put her to bed, always grinning as if someone just had told him a hilarious joke. When he turned off the lights and began to undress the talking started. Ran Fan had spoken in her sleep before; he figured she was just having a very vivid dream because of her intoxication.
"My Lord…my… my Lord…wait…"
The emperor froze for a second, mostly because of the odd choice of words.
She never had called him that. He always had been 'Master' or, when they had been younger, 'Young Master'. Anyway, she couldn't be referring to him. Ling came closer as he untied his hair and tried to hear her next words.
"My Lord… I… miss you… so much." Ran Fan pulled her eyebrows together and whimpered helplessly. "I love…" the rest was too low for him to understand. But he wouldn't have been able to concentrate further, anyway. Who was that guy she was talking about?
A reasonable part of his brain tried to remark that she was just having a dream and that the half-sentences she happened to utter could mean something totally different but a much larger and louder part just roared with jealousy. Restless, he paced up and down next to her lying figure. He needed to know who could mean so much to her. His insides twisted with nervousness and anger. Who could it be?
As if she was teasing him she rolled over and mumbled: "My Lord… I'm so happy…"
As she babbled on, Ling tried to analyze her words. It was custom for a woman to call her husband or master 'my Lord', wasn't it? Since she simply didn't call him that, or ever had before, she had to be talking about her husband. Still, was she already seeing him as her husband or…?
The name pierced the dark air. She had almost breathed it, so low her whisper had been, but for the emperor it was as if she had yelled it at him.
Her first husband, the father of her children… of course, it was him.
He, the man who had held her first.
It was too late for trying to compete with him. He was dead, so Ling had won.
Why, then, did Ran Fan dream about him now?
"My Lord…Jian… I will always… love…y…"
The covetous man at her bedside listened silently to her every plea and confession. Deep down the leader of Xing knew she loved him, she had told him so many times, but hearing her talking about the only other man who had ever touched her heart, the only other man who had ever embraced her and kissed her lips, it sickened him. He wasn't sure if he could stand her sleep-talking for much longer, should that go on. He felt like he had to prove that she belonged to him now. He had to prove it to himself, to her and to the dead Clan's Chief. She was his and he would never let anyone else have her. So he lay down next to her and pulled her against his chest. She didn't wake up, just kept muttering and mumbling. As he'd supposed, he couldn't sleep well this night. But sometime, during the endless hours he had to hear that other man's name passing her lips, he finally understood. Ran Fan had been so nervous and restless the last months, as if she felt guilty and didn't want to get caught. At first he had believed it was because of the wedding and her irrational fears that the masses wouldn't approve it but even when everyone they met smiled and wished them a happy life she couldn't calm down. She had always talked about having forgotten something and now he saw, she had been right. Her dreams maybe had tried to reveal it to her all the time, but now Ling was very sure of his opinion. Yes, there was something she had forgotten. There was still someone left she had to tell about her plans for the future.
When Ran Fan woke up the next morning, the first thing she became aware of was her aching head. The taste in her mouth was awful and made her want to spit out. She believed her eyelids weight each a ton, yet she mobilized her strength and slowly blinked on trial. She was glad to see that the world wasn't spinning anymore, like it had been just a few hours ago. Back then it had been quite enjoyable but, looking back on the events of yesterday, she just wanted to blush bright red and hide under her blanket. Now that she thought about it, she had to admit that she had no idea how she had got home last night. Probably she didn't even want to know. Her memories were very fuzzy and blurred, anyway. How was that a good sign?
She groaned as the sunlight stroked her face and fell right into her eyes. Throwing her right arm over her forehead to block the brightness, she rolled over to the other side of the king-sized bed. There she noticed the lack of a male body next to her. She lifted her head a bit and looked around. Her master wasn't anywhere to be seen. She felt oddly awkward, as if something major had happened while she had been out. That moment the big white door to her left opened and Ling came in. In his hand he held a steaming cup. When he saw her straightening up his expression brightened and with a polite smile he handed her the mug.
"This will help against your hangover." He informed his fiancé and sat down next to her. She sniffed at the liquid inside. Its smell stung her nose, but it was stimulating and somehow piquant, so she carefully sipped at the green fluid. As the first drop moistened her lips she wanted to jerk back. It was hot, spice- and temperature-wise. After suppressing her dislike of the taste she took another nip of what, she supposed, was some sort of tea. At her disgusted grimace Ling chuckled, "I'm sorry, but it really helps."
After some minutes its words proved to be true. The throbbing beneath her temples, that had pained her, ever since she'd woken up, slowly faded to a numb pulsing, which was much easier dealt with. When she finally could think clear again she shot her master an insecure glance. "Master, could you tell me?"
Ling, who had been busy smoothing the sheets with one hand, looked up with a frown.
"Tell you what?"
Her next question was barely more than a whisper. "Was I very awful last night?"
He laughed in response, which eased some of her tension. Ling's hand wandered up her shoulder and reassuringly rested against her neck.
"Not at all. Your behavior was rather amusing." Even though he had meant it in a friendly way she felt humiliated by her own actions and it didn't matter that she had forgotten what she had done.
"I'm so sorry… I knew I shouldn't have drunken so much." She shook her head in remorse. She should have stayed in yesterday; that would have been wiser.
"You have nothing to apologize for, Ran Fan. A few minutes after you three arrived you fell asleep." Ling stroked her cheek and slid behind her. Gently he forced her to lean against him as he began to absentmindedly part her hair with his fingers.
"Well, you were pretty talkative, though." He muttered, more to himself than as information for her. His hands never stopped caressing her strands, but according to the hidden resentment in his voice she had said things she would regret now. It wasn't uncommon for her to talk in her sleep; she had done it ever since her first day as a bodyguard.
"What did I say?" she asked, mostly to know what she had to apologize for.
The reply was short and clear: "You talked about Jian."
"And what exactly did I say?" she pressed. She didn't know if she had to feel guilty now. Wasn't it only natural that you dreamt about people who had played a major part in your life?
"You said you missed him and you would always love him."
Her eyes widened with shock. This couldn't be true. She never had loved a man more than Ling Yao and she never would. Why would she say such a thing now, that she was about to get married to him?
"Master, forgive me. This meant nothing, it was just a stupid dream." She tried to save the situation. She turned around to look at his face, but he didn't look at her, just kept combing her hair with his fingers.
"That's not true, Ran Fan. You said you had forgotten something and now we know what it has been." There was no feeling in his husky voice as he stared out of the window.
"What do you mean?"
The emperor took the cup from her hand and placed it on the low bedside table. He stood up with a swift movement and smoothed out his garment. Instead of answering her question Ling flashed a gleeful smile at her that just could be faked.
"Get dressed and meet me downstairs." He commanded and left the bright, white room the way he'd come.
Ran Fan was left behind, totally confused and miserable. If only she hadn't left the palace yesterday night…
Few hours later she followed her master's lead and took on a pair of heavy boots that just didn't matched with her dress. The mint green textile softly flowed down her legs and ended in a white hem around her ankles. She liked the light color; it was so very different from the black and dark blue she used to wear in the past. Sometimes she wondered if her way of dressing depended on her mood. She moved her automail in a circle to test its capabilities. Since Winry had reinforced and maintained it, it didn't even squeal the least bit anymore.
"Mommy, where are you going?" Ming scampered over to her and tilted her head to one side like a confused puppy. Li followed her, in one hand a piece of bred in the other a cup of milk. Before Ran Fan could answer that she didn't know Ling straighten up and smiled at the two girls.
"We are visiting someone. Do you want to come along?"
"Yes!" the twins rejoiced and ran away, searching for their shoes. Their mother pulled her eyebrows together and glanced at Ling.
"What are you doing?"
He hinted a shrug and muttered: "I love you and want you to be happy. You have to be totally sure that you want this to happen. I'm talking about the wedding."
"Of course! Master, I would not have agreed if I didn't love you!"
"You agreed to marry Jian." He shot back and like that took her breath away. "I can't tell whether he has been a good man or not. I just think that everyone deserves an honest explanation."
"Master, where are we going?" Ran Fan hissed, even though she was pretty sure to know what place her fiancé had in mind. In her eyes that didn't make sense.
"What do you think? The cemetery."
The changing of the seasons was almost unnoticeable in Xing. There never was a real winter with snow and coldness so that the spring flowers were no surprise at all. The grass always was green and the trees never lost their leaves. Sometimes the endless vitality of the nature became so boring that the people wished desperately for a cold snap or a blizzard. The weather never granted their wishes, so the sun kept shining and the temperatures stayed high. Fuu never had liked the climate of his home country. He loved the cutting wind on his face and the breeze whirling through his hair, but Xing rarely offered such things. Today, though, the gods must have felt gracious because one hell of a tempest was building up on the horizon. A gust roared through the tops of the old trees surrounding the graveyard and now he was glad his sisters had convinced him to accompany them. Master Ling and his mother barely spoke, but the young boy could tell that she wasn't in the best mood. That was understandable though. Who could be joyful and happy when visiting the grave of someone they loved?
The woman now stepped away from her family, not without glancing at them over her shoulder, and slowly approached the tombstone in the shadow of the old oak. Fuu sat down on the soft grass and rested his chin in the palm of his hand. He had expected Master Ling to follow her but he stood motionlessly next to him and kept the twins from running to their mother.
"Why can't we go, too?" Li complained and tried to escape the strong arms of the emperor.
"Your mother wants to talk to your father in private. She will show us when we are allowed to come closer. Be patient." He explained in an undertone. Ming sat down next to her brother with a thoughtful expression and began to gather daisies. "I'm making a wreath for Daddy." She told the others. Ling smiled at the little girl. "He will be happy to see it."
"Then I'll work extra hard!" she exclaimed full of determination and began bind the little stems to a ring. Fuu and the rest continued staring at the woman standing in front of the grave.
She inhaled deeply as she scrutinized the polished stone to her feet. It felt so awkward to talk to a memorial, but Ling was right. She had to tell him.
"I don't even know how to start this…" she admitted to no one and intertwined her hands in a helpless manner. It was impossible for her to talk to the air like this so she tried to picture Jian standing in front of her. The picture of him she called up was a little blurry but it fulfilled its purpose. In her mind he was smiling at her with a patient look in his gray eyes, as if he knew this was hard for her. So she simply began.
"First of all: Forgive me. I haven't shown up in a while, I know. I guess, I just didn't want to meet my past again, now that my present is so perfect. …Do you remember the one time you asked me how I felt about Ling Yao? … I told you that I wasn't sure what I felt towards him. The truth is: I always knew it and I think you knew it, too. My L… Jian, I love him. Now I can tell you, because I don't have to see the look on your face anymore." She actually began to tear up. She fought against the sobbing and won. "He loves me, too. I can't describe how happy I am, because of that. And… We will get married. Soon." Her breath came unsteady and shaky but at least she got any oxygen at all. She felt as if someone pressed her chest together. "Ehm… Fuu is very good at the martial arts and he is a promising swordsman. Ming and Li are growing up so fast, a few months ago they started their training and… they are very skilled. His Highness is very happy with their progress and supports them wherever he can. They miss you very much. I miss you. I think… maybe… in another life… somewhere else… I could have been worth your love. You have told me so many times that I was the best that ever had happened to you, but that's not true. You deserved someone who could love you back. I couldn't. My heart was already taken… but I'm sure… if it weren't for his Highness… I know it could have become love. Deep down I always knew you were perfect for me. You gave me all the things I needed, you could make me smile, you really loved me. And maybe… if we had had a little more time I would have been able to feel the same for you. All I can say is… I'm sorry. I really am, Jian. But I can't say that I wish I could have loved you, because I don't and I'm tired of lying to you. I hope you understand that. …We have three wonderful children, Jian, and I thank you for them. I will never forget you. I wouldn't dare. You… You know that, don't you?" Ran Fan let the tears ran down her cheeks now, there was nothing more for her to say. The image of the man in front of him flickered and as she stared him in the eye he faded away. Crying she stand in front of the grave and embraced herself. At least, Ling had been right. The awful feeling of having something left undone had disappeared. She wiped the water off her eyes and turned around, a weak smile on her lips. The twins and Fuu ran to her without hesitation. Fuu hugged his mother wordlessly while his sister knelt down and placed a little wreath on the tomb. "I made it for you, Daddy." She whispered and took a step back. Li just waved at the stone in front of her with a brave smile. Ling waited in the distance for them to return. He didn't want to disturb their familial moment, but suddenly his fiancé turned around, her eyes searching for him. She didn't say anything, but the wet traces on her face and her white lips said it all. The emperor didn't know of anything better to do than to just come to her side. The moment he was within her reach she wrapped her arms around him and pressed her cheek against his torso. Ling stared at the sepulcher and nodded respectfully. This moment rain started to fall. A few minutes they waited by the grave and let the water soak their clothes without saying anything.
"Thank you." Ran Fan broke the silence. She was still embracing Ling and her head still rested against his torso.
"I love you." he simply answered.
"I love you, too." She smiled and looked him in the eye. "Let's go home. There is a wedding I need to prepare."
"Mommy, can we be bridesmaids or not?"
"If you are good you might."
"We are the best!"
A relieved laugh on his lips he guided the others under the heavy branches of the forest that surrounded the cemetery. The twins immediately began to poke their older brother with twigs until he chased after them. Smiling Ran Fan and Ling watched them play as they slowly went home.
"Ran Fan? Can I ask for something?"
"What is it, Master?"
"Exactly that. Could you call me Ling from now on?"
"I can try." She laughed and kissed his cheek teasingly before she walked onward, yelling at Li for splashing in a dirty puddle on the ground.
Ling blinked in astonishment as he watched them from the behind. Fuu and Ming were pretending to fight with their twigs and Li tried to escape Ran Fan who held her in a steel grip and cleaned her dress. He sure loved them. He had to tell them more often. He couldn't wait for the rest of his life to begin. With a bright smile the emperor of Xing followed his family home where his friends were waiting.
He trusted in the future, for once. At first it always had been something blurry and uncertain, than he had simply ignored it and just lived every moment like his last. Now he was looking forward to it.
He had been convinced that he deserved a happy ending like everyone else, he just hadn't known that his story hadn't been over when he'd become emperor.
But he should have known that their happy ending was just the beginning of the next chapter…
Thank you all for reading, for your loyal reviewing and showing interest in this story.
I hope you had as much fun reading it as I had writing it.