This story is the sequel to A Little Late.
A mild, foggy summer morning had brought the squirrels out of their hideouts. The trees, heavy with leaves, in the garden made a kind of adventure playground for them. She watched two playing tag in the chestnuts just outside her bedroom window: spiraling up a trunk, dodging and feinting among the branches, then scampering along a bough and leaping to the next tree, zooming down the side of its trunk headfirst, freezing halfway, claws sticking to the corrugated bark, then streaking across the grass, one trying to shake off the other by jinking and swerving and turning on a sixpence till he reached the bole of an old poplar and they both rocketed up its side into the thin elastic branches and balanced there swaying gently and blinking contentedly at each other before disappearing in the top of the tree. Pure play –no question. They were just larking about, exercising their agility for the sheer fun of it. If there was such a thing like reincarnation she wouldn't have minded coming back as a squirrel. The vitality of these little beasts was sort of inspiring and energizing. Sighing, Ran Fan patted her left forearm made of carbonized reinforced steel and shook her head. You could call it bad luck, or jinx, or curse, but seemingly her automail would never really cooperate with her nervous system. No matter what command her brain sent into it, the prosthetics would never quite do what she wanted. That really wasn't much of a nuisance unless she started to seriously use it as a supposedly reliable part of her body in training. The whole session could go just fine but one miscalculation, one wrong move, one overestimation and she could be sure to land flat on her face. That was accompanied by a sharp, piercing pain, like a red-hot needle thrust into the inside of her left shoulder and then withdrawn, leaving a quickly fading after burn. Squirrels never had such problems. Often, when she felt miserable because of the whole malfunctioning of her automail she felt bad for it. At least she had one. That was what all the mechanics always told her. Admittedly, there were worse things that could happen to you, physically. The doctors who often visited alongside the technical staff liked to list all the things that made up a more dreadful plight. For instance: cancer, multiple sclerosis, motor neuron disease, emphysema and cardiac arrests. Not to mention the things you could be born with, like muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, haemophilia and epilepsy. Ran Fan didn't understand half of their medical blabber and often she assumed they just wanted to make her feel stupid, or at least show off their own knowledge. She knew, though, that there were situations that were worse than hers, indeed; like war, pestilence and famine. It was funny how knowing that didn't make the pain in her arm any easier to bear. Perhaps it was because of what they called 'compassion fatigue', the idea that the people got so much human suffering thrown in their faces every day from the media that they sort of numbed, they'd used up all their reserves of pity, anger, outrage, and could only think of their own misfortune, the pain in their own shoulder. In her opinion that sounded not only alarming but also logical. When she had been younger, about fifteen, she could have overcome almost everything by reminding herself of how much others suffered. When she had threatened to drown in her practically endless self-pity she had thought of the people she loved and how much they relied on her to complete her task, on how much they would suffer if she failed. This way she had made it through the nasty provisional automail surgery she had endured to make it back to her master's side in time. Now she couldn't be fazed by other people's problems any more. She was too focused on her own. Once they had been back in Xing she had received a real treatment, which lasted the whole three years. There had been no reason to hurry. Her late husband, and father of her children, had talked her into it and she just hadn't been able to deny, he had just wanted the best for her, after all. She had insisted on keeping the built in blade, though. After that it had seemed to work just fine and every once in a while she had let it be maintained. Two years ago it had started to constantly malfunction for no genuine reason. This was when they discovered the incompatibility between her nerves and the artificial extensions in her prosthetics. The technician who had examined her had been very surprised that it had worked at all for such a long time. His diagnosis had been everything but encouraging. She would never be able to use her automail perfectly, but, to an extent, it was still capable.
The empress of Xing stood up and stretched until the bones in her spine cracked warningly. For the last two hours she had refused to leave the bed. Her husband had been gone long before she had woken up. He had a lot of meetings and councils these days. That and his constant worrying drove him out of bed very early. For a few months now his muttering and frowning had intensified and he had many conferences behind closed doors. Still, whenever she asked for the cause, he dodged her questions and changed the subject. That didn't help to calm her often impressively irrational imagination. She wouldn't bother herself with such things today, though. There was too much on her mind, anyway. Barefoot, she crossed the room and opened the doors to their bathroom. The walls as well as the floor were tiled with white, shiny ceramic that was, despite the very comfortable temperature, extremely cold against her exposed skin. Making sounds of dislike she tiptoed and skipped from one tiny carpet to the next. This way she made it to the washbasin and looked at the mirror above it. Where she stood the mat was still wet, which proved that someone before her had used the bathroom. A proud smile stretched across her lips as she examined her reflection in the glass. It was her someone who had used the bathroom before her. That alone was able to make her day. She doubted she could ever get over being thrilled about the sheer fact that she was with the man she loved. Still grinning she untied the silk dressing gown and let the dark blue fabric softly flow down her naked legs to the floor. She couldn't say that time had much effect on her body; she should praise her connective tissue more often for the good job. Not that she was actually old enough that any aging would have been normal.
She went over to the aubergine-shaped bathtub and turned on the silver faucets. Roaring loudly, the water rushed into the tub and quickly filled it. When the water had reached halfway up the frame she turned it off and reached for one of the small parcels prepared on a low counter. Tossing the over-sized teabag into the water she tied her hair back. At once the waving fluid turned pale violet due to the herbs and dye. She waited a moment and then slid into the warm water. The aromatic solution flowing around her body made her nose tickle and made her muscles relax. The bloomy, strangely piquant scent called up very pleasant memories of the times she wasn't alone in here. She liked the bathtub.
After rubbing herself dry and oiling her automail she dressed. She chose to wear a long traditional shaped dress in the color of cherry blossoms, a discreet, light pattern stretching across it. She didn't look as pale as usual and she really liked how sparkling her eyes seemed when she wore it. It was one of her favorite dresses, mainly because it had been a present from Ling. She let her hair fall loose over her shoulders and reached for the ring waiting for her on the bureau together with what little amount of jewelry she possessed. She put it on her finger and watched it reflecting the sunlight for a moment.
When she entered the dining room a little later she was greeted by a bunch of maids encircling one seat at the end of the long table. They young girls giggled and chattered continuously and never looked away from what occupied their attention. She could tell without seeing what it was, though. When she approached the group of servants one of them noticed her and hurried to bow to her.
"Highness." They announced in unison. Ran Fan acknowledged their hasty politeness with a friendly nod. After eight years she was used to titles like 'my Empress', 'High Lady', 'Highness' or 'Your Excellency'. They made room for her, so she could sit down. She raised an eyebrow as she took a seat opposite from her son. Fuu Yao grinned in a cunning way and winked at a girl that just served him more peaches with a deep blush. Flustered she bit her lower lip and retreated. Ran Fan clicked her tongue and at once the maids had better things to do. The pack parted and minced, snickering and babbling, towards the exit.
"Would you tell your fan club that I'd prefer to eat without being watched by a dozen pairs of eyes?" she muttered and reached for one of the fruits.
"With all due respect, Mother, they are not looking at you." the young man smirked.
"With no due respect, Son, I don't want them here." She shot back and squeezed the soft peach between her fingers to test its consistence. Satisfied with the result she buried her teeth in it and bit off a mouthful. She licked the sweet, sharp juice from her lips and looked at Fuu.
"Have you seen your sisters today?" she asked. At the headshake of her son she sighed and looked at the entrance doors, half expecting them to come in now.
"It would fit into their habit to sleep through their ceremony."
"Speaking of which, do I have to come?"
"No buts. They came to yours as well. At least act as if you were a caring elder brother, will you." She wouldn't accept any excuse less than major injury today. Ever since the twins had made an appointment with the final exams of the royal guard of Xing they had been talking about nothing else. Now that they finally had passed their tests they were literally freaking out.
"Hey, I do care. Who trained with them every afternoon?" Fuu took a sip from his cup and pulled his dark eyebrows together at the supposed offense.
"Fine, I give you that. You will come one way or another." She shrugged it off and grinned at him. He rolled his eyes in defeat and tried to hide the smile lurking in the corners of his mouth. He could deny it all he wanted, but she knew he was just as proud of Ming and Li as she was. Of course, they wouldn't work as bodyguards afterwards like their mother had; it was more of a gesture. Fuu did, though. For three years now he was the official bodyguard of the first and second princess of Xing. In his eyes that was a mean joke, but he couldn't say he didn't like it better than watching over some noblemen he didn't know at all. Fuu had decided on his own that he wouldn't stop his training just because he had become a prince and he had meant it. To him, royalty was nothing but a title since he wasn't born as a son of the emperor. In his eyes he was born to protect just as his fathers had before him. Ran Fan was very proud to see that her son had grown up to say such things. He was very strong, indeed. When he wasn't flirting with the female servants he trained his abilities or silently stood a few feet away from his sisters, watching over them with hard eyes. At first they hadn't understood his aloofness, but when he explained to them that he had to see protecting them as his job and that he had to see them as objects while being on duty, they sort of accepted it. Ran Fan could tell they even enjoyed it a bit to have their own brother as a watchdog.
"Can I bring someone?" Fuu interrupted her thoughts.
"Just a friend…" he muttered indifferently and shrugged. The way he said that assured her that it wasn't just a friend he was having in mind.
"Female much?" she joked and picked an apple from a bowl next to her.
"Does that matter?" he asked, uncertain. In response she shook her head and pursed her lips doubtfully. Fuu had had a lot of girlfriends in his still very young life and his mother more than once had worried about that, not out loud though. He changed his steadies so fast, they couldn't be called steadies anymore. The way he treated women bothered her, recently more than ever. He flirted shamelessly and whenever he could, so that there were many young female servants around here who were left behind with a reeling head and, often enough, with a broken heart.
"Fine, but remember: This day is about your sisters." She admonished him softly, a little frown on her face as she eyed him.
He nodded and waved at something behind her, "Speak of the devils."
Ran Fan turned around halfway and smiled at her daughters, walking down to them, both wearing the most gleeful smiles.
"Good morning, Mother." They greeted her simultaneously and sat down to her sides. She gave both of them a one-armed side-hug and chuckled: "Morning, you two."
Fuu barely took his eyes off his plate to welcome them. His chin-long hair hid his eyes.
"What's up, Bro?" Li scoffed and flicked his ear across the table. He shook her off and growled, annoyed.
"So, what's the deal? Getting all emotional tonight?" he teased his siblings with a mocking expression. In return they stuck out their tongues out at him.
While her children kept taunting each other Ran Fan's eyes wandered across the room. She missed Ling. She used to do that when she hadn't really seen him in a couple of days. He just left too early in the morning and came back too late in the night. As if she caught track of her thoughts Ming suddenly raised her voice.
"Will Master Ling come, too?" she asked with a hopeful gleam shining in her eyes.
"He said so, but I'm not sure. He is very busy lately."
Now Fuu interjected: "Yeah, what's up with that? I heard some pretty nasty rumors."
The empress' had snapped up. "What rumors?" How came that everyone other than her knew something about that?
"I was talking to some soldiers the other day and they said something about a war building up." He muttered in an undertone. Li dropped her chopsticks in shock while her sister's eyebrows shot up, totally surprised. The only one keeping her composure at this ominous news was the former bodyguard.
"With what country?"
"I don't really know. The west, the masses say." Her son muttered; a stern look on his face. His hands tightened around the glass he was holding.
"War? Real war? Like… War?" the twins stared at each other with horrified expressions. Ran Fan patted Ming's hand and tried to look as reassuring as possible.
"It won't get this far. Ling wouldn't risk getting our nation into a physical conflict." Her voice was firm and convinced but she knew it was betraying her true feelings. She knew how often Ling paced up and down at night wearing a grim expression in their bedroom, she knew how often he lay restlessly next to her and stared at the ceiling. He did all that rather frequently and despite his attempts of not disturbing her sleep she woke up often at night and found her husband sitting at the end of the bed burying his face in his hands. If he really was dealing with a war it didn't seem like he was having the upper hand.
Now Fuu shrugged and pushed his untouched plate away from him. "I don't know," he said. "We are quite a great nation and since Master Ling had been able to unite the clans we wouldn't have any problems building a big enough army. The Xing Empire is the strongest nation on this continent, Mother. A war probably wouldn't be that much of a problem for us. Besides, who would dare be a match for us?"
Ran Fan narrowed her eyes. "Amestris would dare."
"Why would they do that? Don't we have a peace agreement with them?" Li wondered, recalling her politics studies. Her sister nodded and added: "I thought Führer Mustang was a friend of Master Ling. Why would he attack us?"
"Stop worrying, honey. There won't be a war." Their mother cut them off and rose. "Go and prepare yourselves for tonight. I don't want you panicking half an hour before it starts because you have nothing to wear."
The twins immediately forgot about their queries and jumped to their feet. Nimbly they leaped over the low bench and darted out of the dining room, their footsteps still resounding seconds later. Ran Fan followed them with her eyes and heaved a sigh.
"You don't believe it yourself, do you?" Fuu muttered and straightened up, his strong arms crossed before his chest. "With the things the way they are-"
"I know, Fuu, but luckily I can fake optimism." She interrupted him and shook her head. Now he stood up as well and began to walk away. Over his shoulder he said: "Tell me when people start gathering at the front."
The royal guard's ceremony to welcome new members resembled a funfair with its crowded squares and colorful booths lining up along the streets. Ran Fan remembered how dazzled she had been the first time she'd seen it. The same look was now on her daughters' faces. The dusk crept over the firmament and the shop owners began to light their windows. The lanterns that hung above their heads threw a dim light at the scene. Moths circled the open fireplaces, torn between their will to live and their urge to come near the light. As she watched she saw one of the poor insects getting devoured by the flames just because the wind has changed its direction and blown a few sparks away. Despite the large number of royal guards there were no masks to be seen. Everyone laughed and talked openly, not bothering to hide their feelings behind white expressionless faces. It was a mutual agreement between the clans that during this day no one would attack so that there was no need for complete uniforms. Then again, who would dare assail with so many experienced warriors around?
So everyone freely enjoyed themselves, listened to story-tellers, danced to the electrifying music and took a look at the many stands. It was the same as last year, and the year before the last and so on. People kept coming in while little left, musicians showed off their talent and the guests tasted the good food, besides fighting the guards learned many other essential things necessary to keep their charges alive. The main event was still the ceremony, but it was more of a party than a ritual to introduce adolescents to their new life-long (and –threatening) duty towards their masters. She recalled walking next to Ling, bashfully hiding her face behind her wide collar while gazing at the many attractions that had overwhelmed her senses. At the time she had been little more than thirteen. Now she was guiding her daughters through the crowd towards the high platform where the other teenagers were already waiting. It was a pandemonium as the teachers and older nobles tried to line everyone up alphabetically. Li and Ming were standing at the back of the line, almost at the end. There were like thirty young men and women and all of them had a self-praise or a worry to utter, a few were just chattering about trivial things. Ran Fan refused to believe that she ever had behaved that way. From the corner of her eye she saw Fuu approaching his sisters, a young girl in tow.
"And? Getting nervous?" he smiled down on the twins with a friendly wink. The two of them rolled their eyes before leaning to one side to catch a glimpse of their brother's companion. She hid behind his broad back in return and blushed deeply. Fuu stepped a little aside and put his arm around her shoulders encouragingly. "Guys, that's Huan." He introduced the girl.
The twins waved at her simultaneously with raised eyebrows and a half-smile. She waved back and cast her eyes down.
"She's also a guard-soon-to-be." He grinned. Ming tilted her head to one side with an incredulous expression. She couldn't believe that someone as fragile-looking and bashful as this small person could be a warrior.
"So, are you getting your certificate today, too?" Ming tried to lure some words out of her. Huan shook her head, fast and defensively. "I'm still a year away. I'm not very good at this." She shrugged and tried to get near Fuu again. He rubbed her upper arm comfortingly and kissed her cheek. "Go save our seats, will you? I'll be right with you." he purred in an undertone. With flushed cheeks his date bowed respectfully and left. The prince followed her with his eyes for a moment, then sighed and turned around.
"What's up with you? Do you actually like this girl?" Li scoffed and checked on her hair once again.
Her brother shrugged casually. "She is kinda cute, but I doubt that we are going somewhere."
"I can tell." She muttered. "I have to ask you, though. Why are you doing that? Every maid we cross paths with is madly in love with you. Seriously: What the hell?"
"Well, I do what I do when I do what I do." Fuu sang terribly full of himself, goofily seesawing on his footballs while shoving his hands deep into his trouser pockets. Ming snorted: "How can you actually be proud of yourself for breaking some innocent girls' hearts?"
"That's quite easy. See, whenever I come across a hot chick, I-"
"Oh. My. God. Please leave, Fuu!" Li interrupted and covered her ears. He laughed and pulled his sisters into a tight embrace. While that sudden proof of familial affection startled the twins they welcomed it. They had been edgy and nervous the whole day and it had worsened the sooner their call approached. They could use some support.
"I'm proud of you girls." He muttered into their hair.
"Don't go weepy on us." Ming chuckled and nestled against his chest. It was sort of endearing to see how well the siblings went along with each other, no matter how they acted among others.
Ran Fan watched them from afar and couldn't help the smile that stretched across her lips. She sat down in front of the little stage they'd built up like the other relatives and friends of the novices. Fuu and the young girl that was following him around now came to her and sat down next to her. Huan, she believed that was her name, stiffened the moment she got near the empress of Xing and never once said a word. Her eyes locked at her daughters Ran Fan shifted her wait a bit as she felt a growing pressure from inside her throat. The line was moving very quickly and with every name that was announced the twins, as well as their mother, got more excited. The speaker, the captain of the royal guard in fact, finished with the list of names, and then began to hand out diplomas as the young ones filed past. Every guard received a mask at the beginning of their duty and was supposed to keep it until they died, which often happened long before they had reached a high age. Li made big eyes as the tall man pressed a small piece of thin parchment into her hand and then, grinning wolfishly, handed her a white mask with a red and blue pattern on it. On the forehead a black spot was painted. The twin turned around, her eyes searching for her family. When she found them she held up her mask with an enthusiastic grin. Ming came right behind her smiling shyly at the captain as she took her certificate and mask. Hers was almost the same as the one of her sister, but it was painted the other way around. They went to stand with the assembled new guards and immediately the teenagers began to show each other their masks. When the last one had crossed the stage they had to speak the official vow of the Xingese Guards. The twins kept their mouth shut though. They were the princesses of this nation after all, they wouldn't work as guards. After that the group parted and the sisters almost ran to their mother. Li had put her mask on, but, in order to keep it from covering her sight, she wore it obliquely. Ming was still busy scrutinizing hers.
Ran Fan almost exploded with pride. It was mostly a nostalgic feeling, she would never let her little girls fight on the battlefield. But they looked so much like her when she had been their age she was simply overwhelmed. They had their hair tied back in a tight bun, which left nothing but their bangs and two strands to frame their fair faces. She didn't know why but this image also frightened her a little. She shook her head, a little irritated by her own thoughts. Just because she had some weird kind of déjà vu, that didn't mean that her children would suffer like she had. Besides, everything had worked out for her, hadn't it? They just reminded her so much of herself, that she couldn't help but foreseeing their way in life. Obviously someone else thought the same.
A warm hand rested on her shoulder and made her flinch a little.
"Oh my, I feel like I've time traveled."
Ran Fan turned around, truly surprised. In front of her stood a tall man with long pitch-black hair that he wore in a casual ponytail. His eyes were slanted and very narrow, which in combination with his subtle, (heart-melting, she should add) smile made him look constantly chipper. His garment was unusual informal. He was wearing a pair of pants instead of that gown-like clothing he used to and a white shirt. He was accompanied by two scary-looking men who stared at the masses with hostile, expecting-the-unexpected, narrowed eyes and crossed arms.
"You came." She smiled and kissed her husband's cheek. Ling chuckled at her surprised face as she rubbed her lips.
"You need a shave!" she blurted. He sucked in the air between clenched teeth, grinned and wagged his head. He scratched his chin and pulled his eyebrows together. "I think about growing a beard. Do you think a moustache would suit me? You know, a twisted one."
"Don't make me move out." She threatened jokingly.
"Master Ling, you're here!" Ming and Li rejoiced, showing their masks to him simultaneously. They immediately started bombarding him with all kinds of information, from the exact order of events to the smallest details of their outfits. The twins loved to toss every sentence, as trivial as it might be, right at him. This was a habit they had developed very quickly after they had first met him. At least they had stopped wrestling him to the ground beforehand. The emperor endured it all with an interested-slash-enthusiastic expression and nodded at the right moments, but everyone knew he barely listened. At least he got all the highlights.
"I'm so proud of you. Can you believe it? My two little girls are fully-fledged warriors now. Someone, pinch me."
The next second an iron hand grabbed his backside and made him yelp in surprise. He couldn't help but laugh confusedly: "What the-? Ran Fan, you naughty woman! That was a figure of speech."
His wife smirked in response and shrugged innocently.
"Way to hit that, Mom." Fuu came their way with both his thumbs up. The twins giggled and high-fived their mother while Ling stood next to it and just wore the most disbelieving look on his face. His whole body posture was yelling 'What was happening right now!'.
"I'm sorry I missed the ceremony, girls." He apologized to his step-daughters now, a contrite smile on his lips.
"It's alright, Master. You are here now." Ming reassured him. Li nodded, still wearing her mask that comical way. As she wagged her head it got out of place and fell right in front of her eyes so that she was blind for a moment. Fuu grinned and patted her head encouragingly. "That's why I don't wear mine." He smirked, still patting. She fought him off waving her hands around and stumbled away in order to escape him. Ran Fan rolled her eyes, smiling slightly, and leaned against her husband. The young ones began to wander off on their own, meeting friends or buying food.
"Remember the last time we were here?" Ling muttered, squeezing her shoulder a little to get her attention. She nodded.
"I remember you getting sick because you ate too much." She chuckled.
"Yeah… I can recall that." He muttered with a wry expression. "You were friendly enough to hold my hair back while I threw up behind the food tent."
"Lovely memories." Ran Fan rolled her eyes. "Didn't you try to win a toy tiger here?" she grinned, pointing at a colorful booth where many children bounced up and down in front of a counter to see more.
"Oh, yes. I tell you these lower cans are weighted with stones!" he complained, using the same argument as back then. In return she patted his chest and sighed: "Of course they are."
"Isn't it weird how little the whole place has changed?" he sighed, a nostalgic look on his face.
"We have changed." His wife smiled. Her eyes were constantly drawn to a group of musicians. Wondering what held her interest Ling stopped. She gazed at a young woman playing the ripa. He raised an eyebrow in surprise.
"Do you want to play it?" he asked her in an undertone. He knew Ran Fan didn't like anyone to know that she actually was very musical. She could sing, she could dance and she could play the guitar-like instrument impressively well. Even though, she rarely touched it she never seemed to be out of shape. Ling hadn't heard her play very often. One time, when he had been seven, he had been very sick and nothing could have lightened his mood. One night she had sneaked into his room and asked him if he wanted her to play. He had wanted her to. He remembered her fingers dancing over the strings, eliciting a beautiful melody from the inconspicuous instrument in her grip. He had never seen her more at ease before then. The next day he had been able to leave the bed again.
"It would be rude to interrupt them." Ran Fan mumbled and was about to walk onward but her husband didn't move.
"I'd like to hear you play. I bet they won't mind." He whispered and took her hand as he approached the small group. Before she could complain he had asked the baffled artists if he could borrow the ripa for a moment. The woman nodded and handed him the instrument with a bow. He smiled at her and promised to bring it back in a few minutes. The next moment he had pressed the smooth wood into his wife's hands and looked at her with expecting, pleading eyes.
"You won't let me deny, will you?" she sighed in defeat, stroking the round body of the instrument her lips bending to a soft smile.
"No." he replied cheerfully, celebrating his victory. He sat down and gestured her to come to his side. She did as she was told and began to pluck at the strings by way of trial. She adjusted them a few times and hummed a simple tune to get in the mood. She inhaled, shot an uncertain look at Ling and began to play. An unknown melody developed around them, the notes she hit were as random chosen as they fit. Her eyes closed a bit and it seemed as though she was drowning in the music, or rather diving in. Her fingers flew over the strings, working in fluent, swift movements. As time passed by, the melody gained complexity and refinement. Ling stared at her in total awe. Her lips parted a bit and seemed to tremble. It took him a moment to realize that she was actually singing along. He leaned closer to hear the words. Not few people noticed the royal couple and stopped to listen. Before long a crowd had formed around them, silently watching the empress as she, lost in her music, created those lovely tunes no one had ever heard before. That was when her husband understood that she was improvising. She was still crooning under her breath. He wanted to tell her to sing louder, but he didn't dare interrupt her flow. Her eyes opened and she almost stopped, seeing the many people gazing at her. A few seconds later she brought the tune to an end and cast her eyes down. The emperor waited a few seconds before saying: "Ran Fan, would you sing for us?"
Shock was plain to see on her face as she stared at him, wide-eyed. "I don't think-"
"Let's ask your audience then," he interrupted her mid-sentence. "Would you like to hear your empress sing?" he addressed the crowd. Applause and encouraging shouts answered him. "There. Your fans demand an encore." He smirked.
She didn't want to show it but he was sure that all the friendly support flattered her to a certain extent. Therefore she blushed slightly and began to play again. This time the melody was simpler, but not less enchanting. Her voice was a little shaky and low at the beginning but after some words she straightened up and sang:
"You're in my stars, you know
Don't need a crystal ball to tell me so
Whispering in the air, hoping that my words find you somewhere
Even when I close my eyes, I'll never recreate the time that flies
The consequence is hanging there
The sky will fall but I don't care."
Her voice was higher and sweeter than it used to be. For a second he wasn't even sure if it was her singing.
To him Ran Fan always had been a warrior. Even now as his wife and mother of three children she still had this aggressive aura that let everyone reconsider harming the things she held dear. Even when kissing her daughters on the forehead or tousling her son's hair with a loving smile he knew she could jump right into the old habit of not hesitating to massacre any opponent. Now she didn't seem like a fighter at all; still resistant, still strong but softer somehow. With her long eyelashes throwing shadows on her flushed cheeks, her full lips curling as she sang on and her graceful body rocking slightly to the rhythm of the music she just was so… feminine. He couldn't say he wasn't totally overwhelmed by that sight. As he kept gazing at her with admiring eyes her song ended and she shrugged modestly. Someone in the crowd surrounding them began to clap and soon everyone joined in. Ran Fan obviously was embarrassed by the sudden and unanimous utterance of approval. She stood up and gave the instrument back. Ling never left his wife's side, his eyes always glued to her. The second the ripa left her hands the hard, vigilant edge of hers bounced back into place. Ling just could hope he would see that other, gentle side of hers again one day.
It was getting late while the lights in the lanterns slowly burned down. As the night went on the place began to empty. The booths closed down, people went home and the torches were put out. A cool breeze whirled across the open space. Ming and Li shuddered and yawned in unison. Their brother put his arms around their shoulders to warm them a little. Huan had left a few hours ago, stuttering incomprehensible sentences until the prince had kissed her goodnight. Now he sat with his sisters on a bench in front of a dying fire. He looked at his mother who sat opposite to them. "We should go. They might fall asleep any second now." He said under his breath. Ran Fan nodded. She was tired as well. Ling rose and held out his hand for her. She took it and he pulled her to her feet. "Let's go home then." He said.
"Alright, the twins are asleep and Fuu is in his room… hopefully. I can't tell if he sneaked into the maids' quarters already." Ran Fan sighed and began to brush her hair, sitting next to her husband in their bed. Ling snorted and crossed his arms behind his head. His gaze traveled over his wife's delicate body, barely covered by the thin silk that her nightdress was made of. She hadn't tied the ribbon around her waist yet so that most of her fair, smooth skin was left unveiled. Her soft curves pressed against the textile leaving nothing to imagination. Of course, his Highness did not have to imagine one single centimeter of her. He watched her pulling the comb through her raven-black tresses for a couple of minutes.
"I really don't get the behavior of the kid." He muttered, idly stroking her thigh with his fingertips.
"Who do you mean?" she replied quietly, still doing her hair.
"Fuu, of course. He is only fifteen. Okay, he'll turn sixteen this year, but… He is still almost a child." Ling shook his head.
"You're just jealous because you got none when you were fifteen." She yawned and put her comb aside.
"Excuse me? I was a little busy back then? Maybe you remember this homunculus who kind of took over my body? Plus, it's not like I got no action at all…" The longer he talked the lower his voice got, the last sentence was almost unintelligible. While he spoke the woman next to him stiffened. And right then he knew he'd made a mistake.
"Care to elaborate on that?" she turned around to face him.
"I… I… You see, er… W-While Greed… Ehm… and… I mean… there was this one time… I… He… It was… His… You look so beautiful tonight, honey!"
"Are you trying to tell me that-"
"Yeah, you know what? When was the last time we had a really romantic dinner together?" Ling interrupted, desperate to change the subject, his expression a picture of regret and alarm. The next second Ran Fan turned the lights off and turned her back on him. Ling was sitting in the dark and stared at nothing, cursing himself for his careless words. His head was reeling a little because of the swift change from peaceful harmony to cold punishing silence. He needed a second to reflect on how he got into that situation. Following an impulse he turned the lights back on. He didn't want the day to end like this.
"Ran Fan, listen to me." He pleaded quietly. "I'm sorry I said that, but I really don't understand why you're so upset about it. It happened almost twenty years ago."
Finally she came to life again and shot him one lasting glare over her shoulder. Her lips barely moved when she said: "I am upset because while I was writhing in enormous, almost unbearable pain in order to get back to your side as fast as possible, you were enjoying yourself with some easy, filthy, disgusting-"
"Ran Fan." Ling snapped his fingers to make her go on with her original sentence.
"…while you had nothing better to do than to fornicate with God-knows-who." She continued with a sharp edge in her voice.
"Well, physically, you might be right. But it wasn't me who made the decision. I tell you, I had nothing to do with it. Greed has been in total control at the time and you know that." The emperor muttered, still on the defense. She didn't say anything in return so maybe his explanation had calmed her down. She rolled over to look him in the eyes. She didn't appear as angry and repelled as he'd expected her to be. The prevailing emotions on her features were worry and sadness.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to freak out like that." She rubbed her eyes and wrinkled her nose a little. "I guess I'm just tired."
"It's fine." Ling wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer. It was his natural reaction to not having her in his arms. Their faces were just inches away from each other and her hands, warm skin and cold, life-less metal, rested on his chest. She slid deeper into his embrace and nestled against his torso.
"Ling, can I ask you something?" the sound of his name on her lips still made him smile and eased every tension in his body so he just nodded, a devoted expression on his face.
"Is it true? Are we at the brink of war?" her voice had been hesitating and quiet but he flinched as if she just had whipped him. According to his reaction she was right. Ran Fan narrowed her eyes and made a face, her mouth nothing but a grim line. She complained, or rather growled: "Why didn't you tell me?"
Ling shifted his weight uncomfortably. This was a topic he really had wanted to avoid.
"Who did you get that from?" he grinned weakly.
"Oh, my son broke it to me."
"Seriously. Ling, what's going on?" she pressed, refusing to let him distract her. He attempted a change of the subject once again but she blocked him right from the beginning so that he was forced to give an appropriate answer in the end.
"There are some arguments between us and Amestris." The emperor sighed. Next to him Ran Fan gasped and straightened up a little. Despite them having very good friends in Amestris, this country was one of the very few that could take on the Xingese Empire. Their military usage of alchemy was very elaborate and destructive; way better than the Xingese one. Ling knew what she was afraid of. In case of a physical conflict Xing had a chance of actually losing to the force of the state alchemists.
"Can you prevent them from attacking?" she whispered.
"It… doesn't look good."
"What are you fighting over anyway?" she wanted to know.
"We are trying to split up the desert area between us but… I get the feeling that Mustang is looking for a war, maybe as a chance to prove himself." Ling shook his head in disapproval. Ran Fan thought about that for a moment, then she said: "I don't think he wants war. More that he is willing to put up with it. Why don't you give them what they want? It's just some dead void of sand you're risking our peace for." She frowned thoughtfully. Ling did almost agree with her, almost. "The problem is: Underneath the desert are lying great amounts of mineral oil. The supplies located there are huge and once we found them we immediately claimed the land as ours. The Amestrians got suspicious and analyzed the land themselves. Of course, they wouldn't let us have the oil. Now we got a serious problem and I can't get rid of the feeling that I've got too much on my plate." He explained with a plain voice.
"And we can't do without the oil? Don't we have other fuel we can use and trade with the other countries? Like coal? Xing has got giant coal mines. Why not use them instead?" Even she noticed the desperate tone of her suggestions. She didn't fear battle, she never had. She did fear the meanings for her family, though. A war meant fighting, fighting meant soldiers, soldiers meant young men leaving their home behind to defend the same somewhere else. Involuntarily she remembered the words of her son from this morning. He was eager to fight. They had trained him to be. Her husband must have known what she was thinking about because he lifted her chin up with his hand and looked her straight in the eye with his clear dark blues.
"I won't let it happen, Ran Fan. There won't be a war. No one will fight." He stopped short when he was about to add 'I promise'. He couldn't say that. There was always the possibility that he might fail. How would he be able to face her ever again if he wasn't able to stand by his word?
"I hope you are right." She closed her eyes and pressed her front against his, seeking solace and warmth. She was worried about the same as he was. He could easily picture his step-son in the middle of the battlefield. Maybe he wouldn't even have a hard time, he was an extraordinary good fighter, but maybe he would die like any other random person. He would never let one of his family get hurt. He had seen Amestrians fight before and it had been a massacre. He didn't even want to imagine their behavior on the open battlefield, without a city surrounding them to consider. The country in the west hadn't as much people as Xing and the army wasn't as developed as the eastern one, still their powers were more than frightening. Ling had been raised to be paranoid and calculating. This had been the only way to survive. Therefore he had always mistrusted the abilities of alchemists and alkehestrists since they possessed a power he could neither understand nor use himself. He knew that it was a deadly mistake to underestimate the advantage of one's opponent and it was one he sure wouldn't make. Ling closed his eyes, a little frown on his face. He was already thinking of strategies and chances, he realized. His mind was ten steps ahead of him and rushing through options, different scenarios, tactics, plans and various courses of action. His hand reached over to the low table next to him and one swift move of his fingers later the room was painted black again. The silver moon, coated by gray thick clouds, shone softly through the windows, illuminating the sheets and the intriguing shape of the woman resting in his arms. He had to discover that he really feared the idea of war. Not only because of the many innocent civilians trusting him to avert any calamities, but also because of his wife and his children. He doubted Ran Fan could deal with it if Fuu or her daughters had to be recruited. She would blame him and he would blame himself. She shifted in his embrace and clung to him, as if his arms were enough to protect her from the developing catastrophe on the horizon. As he held her through the night, drifting in and out of sleep, he wished for nothing else than them to be.