Author's Note: Hi guys! Hi! The semester is finally over! Thank you to everyone who reviewed during my ridiculously long break between updates - it kept the story fresh in my mind. So here's an update for you all, in spirit of the holidays. Be warned, the contents of this chapter surprised even me. Ling's character took this in a completely different direction than I intended!
It's good to be writing again! :)
Contrary to Hamou's prediction of a day-long trek, it took Ling and Lan Fan less than three hours to reach the water pools of Malecktrot. The sun had long since fallen, the mountain grown cold and still in its absence. Still, Ling ran high along the many rugged boulders, Lan Fan hot on his heels. Heeding Talib's warning, the two of them hurried past the first shallow body of water. Ling wondered if many travelers made the mistake of drinking from the toxic pool, before he remembered that this pass, Malecktrot, held some sort of religious sanctity. He doubted many took its path.
Obviously however, some people did – for when he and Lan Fan arrived at the second water source, they found just beyond it a small clearing. It lay in a low ditch, circled by a ledge of boulders. At its center Ling saw a tiny ring of stones: a fire pit, surrounded by bits of debris and pottery.
"It has not been used for some time," Lan Fan spoke, breathing heavily. "Not since Hamou became priest. Talib explained the cultural significance. This place is used to head a pilgrimage – those villagers set on the holy life remain in this spot for days." She paused, and then said dryly, "evidently, the pool is frequented by angels."
Ling turned to her, ready to laugh, but whatever joke he had been about to make died in the back of his throat. Lan Fan was looking down, fingers slowly tracing the palm of her automail hand, where Talib had touched her. Ling's jaw clenched at the softness in her eyes.
"We'll stay here the night," he said loudly, catching her attention.
"But…my Lord," Lan Fan protested. "I had thought that we would journey through the night, to reach Mei Chang before the Shitong takes her into Xing. Are you not concerned for her safety?"
Ling nodded as he moved closer to the camp, inspecting the small fire pit at the center. "Of course I am." He discovered a pile of tinder, just beyond the pit. "But even though Mei's kidnapped, we know that Li won't be harming her. Not so long as he thinks she's discovered the secret to immortality. And we're already far ahead of schedule."
He picked up two logs and shook them, dusting off a fine layer of sand. "And if Hamou's map is correct, then we'll need to wait for Li to cross our paths eventually. So we ought to do so in a place that has water and shelter. Besides," he struck two pieces of flint together, igniting the wood within the pit. He glanced over his shoulder wryly. "When's the last time you slept?"
Lan Fan paused to consider. It had been over two days, it seemed, by her estimation. "I am fine, my Lord." Ling rolled his eyes.
"Yes, yes, of course you are," he sighed. "But you'll be even better after a nap." He hopped back onto the ledge, crouching into a stretch. His muscles tensed, popped, relaxed, and he rocked back comfortably on his heels. Moonlight flashed in the hollow of his throat as he craned back his head, exhaling harshly into the desert air. Each breath puffed out in quickly-passing clouds, and he smiled. "I'll take the first watch."
Lan Fan fidgeted, ready to protest, and Ling looked down at her surreptitiously. One of his eyebrows rose, and the corner of his mouth creased. "Do you think," he said after appraising her for a moment. "That it would be too terribly sacrilegious if we took advantage of that pool of water?"
Ling smiled fondly. "You're an absolute mess, Lan Fan."
And it was true, she realized. While her companions had been afforded the privileges of rest and washing, she had been out hunting in the desert. Wayward hanks of hair that had escaped from her topknot showed brown instead of black, tangled and painted with dust. A similar film had covered her skin, she saw, and blood from her kills covered the leg exposed by her torn pants.
"It does not bother me, my Lord," she confessed easily, oddly comfortable with the grime. It seemed fitting, that she should be so next to Lord Ling, who sat relatively clean save for a shining bit of sweat at his nape. "But it is probably prudent to wash."
His eyes danced with mirth in the firelight. "Probably," he agreed, not bothering to hide his laughter. "You look worse than that one time we snuck into the market and had to run through the back valley. It took days for Kama to rinse your hair out."
Lan Fan's mouth twisted laconically as she moved behind Ling to kneel at the pool's edge. "You were the one who suggested clay as a disguise, my Lord. And if I recall correctly, your own hair had to be cut, it was so tangled." Sinking her hands into the water, Lan Fan gasped and shivered at the chill. Ling's laughter stopped short, and he cleared his throat.
"It is not unbearable," she replied. "The pool must be spring-fed." Working meticulously, she sleuthed water over her arms and scrubbed at her face. The sand on her skin darkened before rinsing away, trailing brown rivulets over her fingers.
"Is it okay for your automail to get wet?" Ling asked, voice tight. "It won't rust, or anything?"
"It is resistant to water, I believe," she replied, reaching up to untie and shake out her hair. Clumps of dirt and small rocks tumbled out along with it, falling onto the surface of the water with a hiss. "And I have an oil which I can rub into the metal, later." She knelt low, braced her hands on the shore's ledge, and took a deep breath.
"I could – " she heard Master Ling say haltingly just before she dunked her head. Spring water filled her ears and pricked coolly at her cheeks and, in the privacy of the dark water, Lan Fan grinned widely. Perhaps she did not mind the grime, but she so preferred to be clean. Still beneath the surface, she ran a hand through her hair raggedly. The crust of dirt and sweat dissolved beneath her fingers, and Lan Fan waited until no trace of mud remained before emerging from the water.
Quickly, she twisted her wet hair up and out of the way, securing it with a senbon.
"You know, it'd probably dry faster if you left it down," Ling pointed out. Lan Fan looked at him sharply over her shoulder, and he tilted his head innocently. "What? It would. Oh come on, is it that big a deal?"
"Yes my Lord," she asserted. "You are royalty. I will wear my hair bound in your presence, as is proper." Ling rolled his eyes.
"You'll be cold," was all he said. "And hypothermia isn't all that proper either."
After a long moment, Lan Fan rose from where she knelt by the pool. "Yes," she allowed. "You are correct, my Lord. While you avail yourself of the pool, I will dry my hair by the fire. Please let me know when you are finished, so that I may bind it up again."
Ling stood as well, bouncing on his toes, and shrugged. "Sure thing," he said. "I'll take my time then."
She nodded, feeling ridiculously small as they crossed paths – her dripping wet to the fire, him to the springs. Lord Ling looked down at her with a gentle little smile, and Lan Fan became acutely aware of the cold water still sliding from her hair into her eyes, running across her neck, down her back.
She blinked and hurried back to the small camp. Rustling through her bag, she drew out a clean and unshorn gi and tunic, hastening to put them on while Master Ling's back was turned. Her bindings were filthy as well but – Ling splashed loudly in the water behind her – Lan Fan felt it more wise to keep them on.
Now, as clean as the meager bath had allowed and clothed in her least-dusty tunic and pants, she knelt and shook out her hair by the fire. Working at the tangles, she inwardly despaired at the inappropriateness of the situation. She had no shame in her hair; she accepted it as a natural part of her femininity. But women only wore their hair unbound when they wished to be courted. To do so in front of Master Ling felt...strange.
Propriety bit at her gut; on one hand, she desperately wanted to watch Master Ling, to be sure he did not turn and accidentally catch her with her hair down. On the other, she was deathly embarrassed at the thought of watching him scrub sand from his arms. She settled instead with keeping her gaze forward as she worked, tracking his movements out of the corner of her eye.
True to his word, Master Ling took a very long time in the spring. Her long hair was almost dry by the time he called out: "Okay okay okay. I'm seriously cold. That's enough splashing around for one night. Turning around now!"
Lan Fan looked up in time to see him turn, covering his eyes dramatically. "Oh no! Quick Lan Fan, hide your hair! You might offend me and bring shame and destruction on our entire clan!"
Shaking her head indulgently, she swiftly gathered her long black hair into a loose bun at the base of her neck. "Thank you, my Lord," she tried to hide her amusement. "The crisis has been averted."
"Hey, anytime," Ling laughed, coming to sit at the edge of the ledge, shaking droplets of water from his hands. "What can I say? I'm a day-saver."
He leaned back and looked at her softly. "All clean now, hm? Feel better?"
"Yes my Lord," Lan Fan replied, ducking her head to hide her happiness. Already, just from her quick bath, she felt more rested than she had in days. The warmth from the fire soaked into her flesh arm and, while not tired, she knelt at peace.
As Master Ling exchanged his over-shirt for a much cleaner tunic, Lan Fan stared into the hand of her automail. It lay open atop her thigh, cold, and she ran her warmer thumb over the metal palm. Just as in Nasesh-Arem, she could not help but feel awe as she traced where Talib had taken her hand. Unable to help herself, she smiled, and Ling made a strange rough sound in the back of his throat.
"Sooo," he drawled suddenly, voice high. "Yeah. It's time to talk about that. I think somebody has a bit of a crush."
Lan Fan looked up from her palm. Ling sat casually, forearms draped against drawn-up knees, smiling up at the sky.
"Oh come on, Lan Fan. It's obvious. You've been mooning over your hand all day." Easy grin still stretched across his face, Ling turned to her, one eye opened. There was a disturbing contrast there, between his laughing face and serious gaze. Lan Fan wanted to squirm, pinned. "You hardly even smile around me. But that Talib guy holds your hand once, and suddenly you're all a flutter? Come on," he repeated and laughed. It was odd – Lan Fan had thought she had known all of Master Ling's laughs, yet this one was strange: more mocking than joking, more accusing than teasing. He sounded offended, even betrayed.
Baffled, Lan Fan insisted, "I don't know what you mean, sire," and meant it. A moment later, his words repeated themselves in her mind, and her face flushed with understanding. "Oh!" Could a person die from a sudden rush of blood to the face? "No, sire, I do not – there has been a mistake, I think, my lord. I do not …he, Talib, is admirable yes, but I do not have any -"
"It's nothing to be ashamed of, Lan Fan," Ling interrupted. He had shifted now, facing her fully, looking down from where he sat perched on the ledge. Both his eyes were open, and he no longer smiled. "When the person you like touches you, or holds your hand, you naturally feel happy. Don't try to deny it. You lit up back when he said goodbye. And you've been touching your hand ever since."
Lan Fan's mouth worked noiselessly. "That isn't…" She couldn't understand her sudden panic – all she knew was that she needed to correct Master Ling's misunderstanding. It didn't make sense, that urgency, but it had to be made clear. "Sire, you are mistaken."
Damp in the moonlight, the tendons in his throat showed tense as he swallowed. "You know, it's okay, Lan Fan. You're allowed to get married, have kids, and start a family, some day. You won't always be my bodyguard after all. You'll move on eventually. Maybe…maybe once we fix everything up in Xing, you could go back to Nasesh-Arem. Hamou would probably welcome you there happily enough. And I'm sure Talib would as well. I could even arrange it for you, once I'm Emperor, if you wanted."
Horror, and the fiercest compellation, moved her from the fire to the foot of the short ledge. Him sitting, her standing, she was at level with his eyes. They widened slightly, though his face remained calm.
"I will always serve you, my lord," she insisted. So close - she could reach out and touch his face, his fingertips, if she dared. She fisted her hands in the fabric of her shirt.
Blushing furiously, Lan Fan forced herself to hold Ling Yao's eyes. They were narrow, serious. She imagined taking the flush in her face, the strength of her beating heart, and filling her words with their heat. She spoke fiercely. "I will never leave your side, Master Ling. Not ever. I have never even considered it a possibility."
Ignoring the churning mortification in her gut – Grandfather would have flayed her for speaking so forwardly to the heir – Lan Fan took a deep breath. Her gaze dropped to Lord Ling's fingers, and she awaited reprobation.
It did not come.
To her surprise, Ling did not condemn her actions. Actually, since he had not said anything at all, she gathered the remaining shreds of her courage and confessed:
"What you have said, however, is true. When Talib took my hand, I realized something which had escaped my attention before." She saw his fingers twitch and dig into his knees. "When Mei Chang repaired my injuries after the sandstorm, she went farther, perhaps, than I suspect was completely necessary. I could tell immediately – the joint connection felt smoother. It was almost as if she had healed the differences between my flesh and the automail, as if I had been born with a mechanical arm naturally. It did not hurt to move it anymore."
"It had been hurting you?" Ling broke his silence, and when Lan Fan glanced up she saw his mouth twist. "You never said it hurt you. What kind of shoddy mechanic did Fu take you to?"
"The mechanic was skilled, my lord. The error lay in my own handling. The nerves slid out of place, slightly, and the muscles tore at the junction, when you – ah – when I caught the homunculus Greed as he fell off the building."
A beat. "I remember," Ling whispered. He brought up one hand to his face, pressed his thumb to his cheek. "You bled." He smiled ruefully. "I could never get Greed to shut up about you, after that. 'The ideal woman,' he always said."
And suddenly, all at once, Lan Fan became very aware of the vast emptiness of the desert. Light, quiet, and cool, the night air around them yawned widely, and Lan Fan felt simultaneously isolated from the world and at its very center. Stilled with chill and silence, the night seemed comprised of only her and Ling.
They had traveled alone before, of course. Her childhood was filled with memories of the two of them, together, as master and servant. Now, with Ling's eyes open and bored into hers, and the crackling of the fire the only sound for miles, Lan Fan realized that she was not just a bodyguard alone with her lord. A breeze flowed over her exposed nape, and she became keenly aware that she was a girl, of sorts, and she was alone with Master Ling. Her eyes burned with the force of her blush.
She swallowed, and continued. "I had thought that Mei Chang's use of the Philosopher's Stone had given me a boon: pain-free automail. That alone would have been wonderful." She raised her mechanical arm, manipulated the fingers and wrists. Ling realized that the joints did not screech or whir as they had done in Amestris. "But when Talib touched my fingers, I realized that Mei Chang had given me more than that." Lan Fan looked down, smiled, and breathed: "I can feel, my lord."
Ling did not respond immediately, but when he did, he frowned. "What do you mean? You could not feel before?"
"I could feel pressure, through the nerve ports," Lan Fan explained. "But no more. No pain, no true sensation. When the automail grew cold, or hot, I could feel it in the skin and bone connected to the metal, but not in the arm itself. But now, after Mei Chang's healing, I can feel warmth in my fingers again.
"I had not noticed it before; my priorities were otherwise occupied, and the relative heat and cold of Nasesh-Arem did not seem so different from how the arm had felt before. I had thought it the phantom pains of a missing limb. But when Talib took my hand, I felt warmth, and I realized I had done so before in the village as well."
"And that made you happy."
This time she raised her head as she smiled, eyes sparkling. "Yes."
Heart high in his throat, Ling moved closer, one hand still clenched firmly on his knee. He reached out towards her extended arm. "May I?" he asked. Lan Fan spread her fingers as permission.
To her surprise, instead of the curious tap she had expected, Ling took her hand gently, releasing his knee to bring both hands to cup her own. "So you can feel this," he remarked lightly. Lan Fan nodded. Warmth passed from his palms, curling into her metal fingers.
Ling maintained his soft hold, moving past her wrist, sliding his hand up her forearm. Heat followed, swirling in slow patches of lingering warmth. "And that, you can feel that as well?"
"Yes, my lord," Lan Fan answered, voice hitching when his hand curled around the joint of her elbow. He lingered there a moment, feeling out the catches and dips in the joint. For a brief moment, as he went further up her elbow, she worried that he might cut himself, but his fingers danced easily around the edge of her blade.
"You know, I've always been curious about this arm," Master Ling confided, voice steady and quiet. "It's even more complex than I thought."
Lan Fan stared at a point over his shoulder, forcing herself to remain still and composed. "You could have always asked, my Lord," she said.
Ling laughed - "didn't want to be rude" - as he traced her upper arm. She felt the heat from his hand seep into the grooves which marked where her bicep would lay. "Does that feel strange?" he asked. Around the bolts at her shoulder, the divots and layers of metal plates, he explored. Her breath caught, almost in a gasp, when he reached the junction between flesh and metal. Ling hmm'ed, lowly, in response.
"Well, I think this calls for some investigating, don't you?" Ling suggested with focused nonchalance. "Since it took you days to figure out that you could feel temperatures again, we should," he cleared his throat. "We should figure out your arm more fully. There could be other differences as well. How about here?" His thumb ghosted over the seam separating her arm from her shoulder, and Lan Fan shivered. "What does it feel like?"
She thought her face would overheat. "It feels warm."
"But is it the same," he pressed, "as on the automail? Is there a temperature shift at all?" He made the transition again, moving his hand across the whole of her shoulder, metal to flesh to metal again.
"No," Lan Fan answered. "It is the same. But there is a slight difference. That is, I can tell when you are touching," she would not stutter. "When you are touching my skin, rather than the metal."
"How, if the temperature is the same?"
She shrugged; the motion slid his hand closer to her neck. "The texture is different. On the automail, there is pressure and warmth. On my skin, I can feel more fully."
Ling had moved closer; his breath rustled her long bangs. "Are you sure?' he asked. "So then this," the hand holding hers shifted slightly, "is only a change in movement?"
"And this," Lan Fan froze, for Ling's thumb had dipped along the curve of her neck. "Tell me how this is different."
"I don't – I suppose – it feels like normal contact," her mind felt fogged. She forced herself to remain detached, and clinical, though it became increasingly difficult. "My hand cannot feel the callouses of your fingers, but my – I – can."
"Here?" Ling murmured lowly, the tips of his fingers just barely touching her skin.
Ling hmmm'ed again, hand resting on her shoulder, fingers twining into the bun at her neck. He tilted his head, catching her gaze. She had never seen him look so serious before, or so earnest. Lan Fan felt the heat in her cheeks swirl down to root deep in her belly. Her heart seemed to expand within her chest, pressing against her lungs, and she inhaled sharply.
"That's, ah, probably not," she stammered, eyes wide. "I think I understand it now, my Lord, thank you."
Ling smiled ruefully, his brow knitting. His fingers were still in her hair, and she felt the pressure of his hand on hers, and suddenly she wanted very much to be in Xing, alone, in her and grandfather's house by the hill, far away from Ling, where he couldn't see her blush, or hear her stammer, or catch her looking at him for longer than a servant ought to look at her master. Her skin itched.
But she didn't move.
"If you ever asked," he said, almost wistful. "I would. In a second. In a heartbeat. But you never will," his fingers curled further into her bun, loosening several damp strands of hair to fall about his fist. "And I'll never ask, either. It wouldn't be fair to you."
Lan Fan felt the inexplicable urge to cry, though her eyes remained dry and stunned.
"It's like one of those 'unstoppable forces meets an immovable object' things," he laughed humorlessly. "It's impossible, and maddening, and it's just getting ridiculous, don't you think?"
"I..." Lan Fan felt her hands shaking. Her mind reeled - what was the proper way to remove herself from this conversation? She knew how to be alone with a hungry Master Ling, or an angry or tired Master Ling, or even just Master Ling: cheerful companion. But this Ling, who wore a simple brown tunic instead of his Golden Phoenix royal sleeves, who reached out to her with rough and warm hands, was something completely different.
But he wasn't, not really. She did know this Ling: the boy who ran through brambles and mud with her as a child, and who challenged her to ridiculous eating competitions, and always looked back at her with a wide smile. She knew this Ling better than she knew Ling the Emperor, and she knew herself as Lan Fan, trained by Fu of the Yao clan. She was no coward. She was no lady of the court, who could charm with her words yet reveal nothing of herself. She was Lan Fan, and she would be brave, this once.
She grasped his forearm, and looked into his eyes steadily. "I-I will not presume to know of what you are speaking," she said. "And I will not ask for you to explain, because as the heir to Xing it would be beneath you to say such things. But I am a mere servant, and not much is beneath my station, so perhaps I at least can make myself more clear.
"I think of you often, my prince," she said, forcing herself not to look away as Ling's eyes widened. "It is shameful, perhaps, that I do so, but it is the truth. And it is true that I will never ask for anything of you, anything more than a master ought to give his servant, just as you will never ask for more than a servant ought to give her master. It does not pain me. If you will forgive me for burdening you with it, know that you have my...my deepest affections, and it is with them that I serve you."
"Lan Fan - "
She increased her hold on his arm, knees weak with mortification. Determined, she breathed deeply. "I care for you as - I care for you more than I care for anyone else. That is my ultimate truth, and deepest vow. So...so that is that. But I will not ask of anything from you, my Lord, ever. On that, I remain immovable." She let go of his arm, and he lowered both his hands to his sides. They stood in silence for a moment, and Lan Fan could hear her words echoing in the night, impossible to take back now.
"So if you're the immovable object, I guess that makes me the unstoppable force, huh?" Ling asked lightly. To her surprise, Lan Fan saw that a high color had crept around his neck, staining his ears red. He grinned nervously. "Pretty impossible."
Ling sat back on his haunches and regarded her, feeling his heart beat so quickly that his chest felt bruised. "I understand what you're saying, Lan Fan." And he did - in her confession, she had taken the fall for them both. It was both admirable and infuriating, that she should be the one allowed to speak her feelings, while he remained bound by stupid higher expectations. She had been honest, but firm, and had established their boundaries even more firmly than before. "And I should apologize for being so forward with you, as well. Sorry."
Her lips quirked. "You are forgiven, sire."
"Well good. And," here he looked down at the ground, ultimately unable to see her face. "And you should know that I do not consider your feelings a burden."
"Sire..." she warned.
"Nothing inappropriate," Ling clarified. "Just that, as a ruler, I can appreciate honesty and - and honor in my subjects. But a ruler should be honest too, don't you think?" He looked up and saw her half-undone bun, her simple grey tunic and pants, and something twisted in his chest. "It's only impossible so long as we remain how we are, you know. Once I become Emperor, I'll...I'll save our clan, and Mei's too. All of them. And, if you're going to be immovable, maybe you could stay immovable by my side?"
Lan Fan nodded without hesitation. "Always."
Swallowing, Ling shook his head. "No. I mean...that if you are immovable, and I'm unstoppable, and that's what makes this," he gestured at the space between them, "impossible, then I'd be willing to stop. For you." He exhaled roughly. "Okay, this is absolutely ridiculous. I don't even know what I'm saying anymore. Lan Fan," he said resolutely. "I'm going to wait for you. That's what I'm saying. And I'd like you to remain by my side, supporting me, until it's not impossible for us anymore. Will you do that?"
For once Lan Fan did not blush, though she did smile slightly. "Always," she said again, and when Ling extended his hand as if to seal the deal, she took it in her own and laughed.
Still, Lan Fan had insisted on keeping first watch. "For now, I am still your servant, and will behave as such." Ling had whined, but also grinned so widely at her "for now" that he had complied without much a fuss. As he slept on the other side of the camp, Lan Fan curled her knees up to her chest and marveled at how she felt no different than before, as if nothing had been said that either of them had not already known.
And perhaps, she thought, that was true.
Okay, so these two totally weren't supposed to have admitted their feelings for each other yet. But every which way I approached it, my understanding of their characters wouldn't allow for anything else. The problem's mostly Ling - he just didn't want to hide his feelings for Lan Fan anymore. Ugh. Hopefully the pacing of the story made the situation believable - not too rushed, is it?
Also, I realized that Ling's whole, "we should figure out your arm more fully" pretty much translates into, "I hafta touch you more – for science!" Hahaha! And poor Lan Fan is just "okay well I totally don't know what to do with my emotions right now." I love these two.