Disclaimer: All ownership of the amazing world of Fullmetal Alchemist belongs to Arakawa.

Summary: The return from Amestris to Xing should have been triumphant. However, when faced with mourning, guilt, forbidden attraction, a homicidal panda, and an endless stretch of desert – Ling almost misses the homunculi.

Author's Note: Is there anyone who can read Fullmetal Alchemist and not fall in love with everyone from Xing? This is my first foray into Fullmetal fanfiction - inspired largely by the awesomeness that is Lan Fan.

Day One

"I do not mean any disrespect," Mei Chang spoke suddenly, breaking the reverent silence as she and Ling arranged the wood and kindle. Lan Fan knelt off to the side, pitching the small two-person tent a safe distance away from the pile. "But perhaps," Mei continued, "given our location, it would be more wise to hold off the ceremony until dusk?"

She wiped at her glistening forehead with a sweaty palm and scowled, glaring at the vast amounts of sand – everywhere. "There's no need to make this desert any hotter, after all."

Torn between sympathy and offense, Ling answered her simply. "Yes yes, well - there's also no need to draw unnecessary attention to ourselves. A fire during the day is much harder to spot than one at night." Lan Fan and Fu, of course, had found no trouble locating his daytime smoke signals while in Amestris. But they were exceptions, always. The memory of his guards' prompt loyalty lanced through and twisted in Ling's gut. Fu...

He grimaced and cast one more dry branch onto the pile, wiping his hands – muddy from coagulated grime and sweat – onto his pants. "Besides, we've got to start traveling at dusk anyway. We'll hold the ceremony now and sleep until then. Lan Fan," he called, and she paused in securing down a tent-corner to face him. Ling frowned at what little of her eyes he could see through her blasted Yang mask – they were as black and flat as slate. "You will not be taking guard tonight."

Shocked, her spine stiffened. "Young master, I -"

"No Lan Fan," Ling insisted. The hot glare of the desert hurt his eyes, but he opened them wide to look at her sternly. "We may not be in Xing right now, but we will still honor its customs. The family duty is to vigil, and nothing more. You are not my bodyguard today. Not until dusk. Do you understand?"

Before Lan Fan could form a protest, Mei added softly, "It will be no problem. Between Lord Ling and myself, we can keep watch while you grieve. Xiao Mei will help as well." Xiao Mei chirped lazily from her perch atop the dozing camels.

Lan Fan did not seem comforted. "Sire," she insisted. "Certainly the circumstances being what they are calls for an exception. We cannot forsake your safety for the sake of tradition! I will be perfectly fine accepting my duties."

"Your only duty today is to Fu. I mean it, Lan Fan. Consider it an order." He looked over her shoulder meaningfully at the newly-erected tent. "Starting now. Go on and get ready. Mei and I will finish the preparations. We'll come and get you when it's time."

Ling knew that, beneath the mask, Lan Fan's face was beet red – the tips of her ears rosy against her coal-black hair – though from anger, embarrassment, frustration, or heat-stroke, he could not tell. Even when they had been children, Lan Fan had been a blusher; any and all extreme emotions showed themselves through her pale skin. Ling remembered the day she had earned her rank as guard – she had accepted and worn the Yang mask with something close to relief.

It certainly hid her feelings well enough now. Wordlessly, and without a wayward glance or telling flush, Lan Fan bowed stiffly first to him, then to Mei. Obediently she pivoted on her heel and knelt to gather her pack, disappearing behind the flap of the tent.

Xiao Mei yawned.

"You are very kind to her," Mei whispered as she and Ling moved to carry Fu's body from where it lay swaddled by the rest of their belongings. Ling tried not to look at his hands as they unwrapped the body, the sickly sweet scent of herbs and incense filling his nose and mouth. Beneath the heady aroma, Ling could almost detect the putrid stench of decay...

He looked at Mei to distract himself. Her face was solemn, far from its usual chipper attitude, as she rolled up the sullied brown cloth and placed it at the foot of the pyre.

"Is that so?" he asked, registering her earlier comment. Dirty, hot, and miserable, he felt far from kind.

She nodded without missing a beat, draping a white cloth over the body. "I am glad," she said, glancing up at Ling's face bashfully. "You are kind to your servants, your inferiors. You are stern, but considerate. It is a trait not found commonly in rulers. My clan -" she took a deep breath. "My clan will gladly serve you with honor, when you ascend the throne."

Ling reached down and lifted the body, shifting it from the ground to the pile of wood and tinder. Beneath his fingers, the flesh was both too soft and too stiff. He thought back to when he had hefted the gluttonous homunculus into the lieutenant's car without care, muscles straining and heart swollen with anger and grief for a fallen comrade.

As carefully as he could, Ling placed Fu gently on the broken branches.

"I accept you and your clan, Mei Chang," he said, "and I will rule you as Emperor." He looked at the form of Fu laying peacefully, wrapped in pure white. "But that does not, and never will, make you my inferior."

The sun had reached and passed its highest point before Mei left to summon Lan Fan. As he waited, Ling stripped off his yellow shirt and used it to scrub at his arms and face. Moderately presentable, he turned the cloth inside out and shrugged it back on. Sweat and muck had stained the white interior a faded grayish yellow, but it was better than nothing.

Some time later the two girls emerged from the tent, both Lan Fan's topknot and Mei's side-tails abandoned for single black braids. Lan Fan's hung down her back like a dark rope, pitch against her bright peasant's tunic.

She accepted the smoldering torch from Ling and, without hesitation or preamble, thrust it onto the pyre. The incense and scented oils caught immediately; the pile lit up into a musky-smelling blaze.

The three of them – four if you counted Xiao Mei – stood a careful distance away, respectfully mute. Time passed slowly, until Mei again broke the silence.

"Was he a good man?" she asked, her high-pitched voice carrying in the hot desert air.

Irrational anger flared briefly in Ling. What kind of question was that? How could Fu have been anything other than the very best of men? But when he glanced to his right Mei stood respectfully, the fire-and-desert heat covering her grave face with sweat.

Ling followed her gaze to the blazing pyre, where his oldest and greatly-loved bodyguard and friend lay, burning: such a small ceremony, so much less than Fu deserved. He should have been buried in the palace cemetery, surrounded by the graves of the Honorable Fallen Warriors. Fu, at the very least, should have been laid to rest near the green fields where he had trained Ling and Lan Fan, or beneath the plum trees where he had loved to take his tea.

Was this – a slap-shod cremation attended by three Xingians and a panda, in the sweltering hostile desert – the best Ling could do for him?

He nodded his head gravely. "Yes."

Mei glanced up, raising one bossy eyebrow surreptitiously. "Then, perhaps you should say a few words?"

An odd noise came from beside him – a strangled sound caught between a scandalized scoff and a dry sob. Ling could hardly breath himself – his throat clenched, and he tilted his head to look where Lan Fan stood at his left, slightly closer to the fire than he and Mei.

She had followed his orders precisely – dressed in the traditional mourning garb of Xing. The Yang mask was gone, along with her black hood and gi. In their place she wore a long-sleeved white tunic, a simple sash, and a pair of loose white pants. Black wisps of hair had already escaped from where her braid fell over her shoulder, sticking to her sweaty nape, and her bangs hung messy and long. Her feet were bare.

She wore the clothes of a farmer's daughter, or any common girl in the market, if they were to attend a funeral. Yet even dressed as a peasant, without any trace of her uniform about her, Lan Fan stood every bit like a soldier. Her face had been scrubbed clean of sand and sweat, and she gazed steadily at the pyre before her with a ramrod-straight back. Her very essence spoke of restraint and discipline - what little of her aura Ling could detect felt contained and focused.

Ling swallowed the lump in his throat, breathed deeply through his nose, coughed (the smell, gods the smell: roasting flesh, burning incense, smoke and charcoal) and spoke:

"Fu was – was my most trusted ally, and dearest friend." Ling had never hated his voice before, but now his words fell flat and lame in the desert air as he futilely struggled to express Fu's worth. He squeezed his eyes shut and imagined a stern wrinkled face, strong hands, and the smell of steeped Oolong. "He taught me how to fight, and not only for my safety, but – but to protect others.

"Fu gave his life for mine, even though I'm...I'm not," Ling opened his eyes and searched the flames, just barely able to make out the raised black lump in the center. He breathed again. "Fu, I will spend the rest of my life following what you taught me. I will protect everyone. I will care for everyone. Just like you cared for me, and protected me. I promise."

Ling couldn't stop his gaze from sliding to the left, and he spoke his last words with an eye on Lan Fan's naked and stern young face. "Thank you. Thank you so much, Fu."

The wood spit, the flames crackled, and the Xingians kept vigil until their cloaks were cold with sweat and the embers ceased glowing. Mei quietly helped Lan Fan gather the ashes into a simple piece of Amestrian pottery that they had brought.

"We will have to move at dusk, in about four hours," Ling said, his voice sounding, still, foreign and wrong in the stifling air. "We'll travel until it's too dark, rest, and move again before dawn until it's too hot to go on."

Lan Fan nodded and cupped the pot firmly in her hands – it tink'ed against her automail – and silently slipped into the tent.

Ling claimed the first watch, and Mei crawled over to where the camels took shelter under a small outcropping of rocks for rest. Before long, the smell of burning jasmine began to waft out from the tent. The murmur of Lan Fan's prayers, as she kept her vigil, was just barely audible above his own breathing. Cautiously, Ling extended his senses behind him, unsurprised when he felt Lan Fan's aura no longer restrained and quieted. It ebbed and flowed in motley surges of grief, swelling and spiraling and wincing when Ling's own inquiring presence was detected. Lan Fan's chanting increased in volume.

Ling squared his shoulders, set his jaw, and glared out across the sand.

Four hours later, Lan Fan emerged with her hair up and under her black hood. Mei and Ling would not mention having heard anything other than prayers – certainly not heart-wrenching sobs – during their watches, and the stoic Yang mask hid all evidence suggesting otherwise.