Dedicated to my lovely Ling-obsessed cousin, whose birthday is coming in less than an hour.

Never Without

When Lan Fan came to the emperor's chamber that afternoon for her daily guarding shift, she was greeted with a somewhat surprising sight. Behind the desk, Emperor Ling Yao of the Xing was diligently working. The lunch tray was still laden with food and definitely untouched, not even a single grain of rice picked up from its black-lacquered bowl. The guard captain frowned and turned to look at the clock perched above the door—an Amestrian gift from the new Fuhrer—and she could barely believe her eyes. Assuming that the last meal the emperor ate was the morning snack, then he most possibly he hadn't eaten for at least six hours. And knowing the daily habits of the perpetually hungry man before her, Lan Fan was worried.

"Your majesty?"

Ling made a start, nearly blotting out whatever it was he was writing with the dainty little brush. "Lan Fan! Oh, um, hello. It's your shift already?" He scrambled to gather the papers in front of him, only to have the still-wet ink sticking on the carefully-written Xingese characters, rendering them illegible. He pretended not to notice the blotchy ink and instead lifted his gaze towards his favorite guard.

Lan Fan blushed. She wished she could stop blushing whenever his eyes landed on her, because really, she should be used to it by now, especially now that she's the captain of his guards and all. But despite all that, she was still rendered flustered by his gaze. "Yes, it's already four. I…Your Majesty, am I intruding?"

"What? No! No, of course not!"

"You haven't eaten your lunch," she pointed out, letting her worry be heard in the undertone of her voice.

"I haven't?"

If previously Lan Fan was worried, she was probably near terrified by now. She frowned, a line etched deeply between her eyebrows. "Your Majesty, please eat. It won't do if you collapse due to starvation. Not even us guards could guard you against your own negligence."

"Maybe you're right," he relented. He did feel rather hungry, now that he was no longer immersed in his work. He pulled the tray towards him and started eating, grunting in slight displeasure at how cold his lunch was already. He finished the meal quickly and then returned to tidying up his blotted papers.

"Is…everything alright?" asked Lan Fan, the frown still not erased from her forehead.

"Yes. Yes, everything's fine. It's just, um," Ling wildly scrambled his desk again, messing up the already-tidy stack of papers, "the pipsqueak Elric already has a baby!" He waved a photo at Lan Fan.

She didn't buy it. The emperor was hiding something from her, but how could she ask him about it without sounding insolent? So she tucked away the curiosity—disrespectful, pesky, nosy curiosity—and instead pretended that she did not suspect a thing. "I see," she said. And then, blurting out the first thing on top of her mind—because it was among the things she had been pondering and fretting and worrying over—she said, "Speaking of which, don't you think you need to produce heirs anytime soon?"

As soon as the words left her lips, Lan Fan regretted saying anything at all. The topic of Ling having—or going to have, for that matter—fifty concubines was, by an unwritten agreement, a topic they both skirted around. Up until now, he still hadn't announced the names of ladies that he would take as his wives, although in several clans the choices were narrow, and thus, obvious. The emperor before him had conducted the mass matrimony ceremony within the first month of their reign, yet Ling always tried to stall, to not pick a wife at all, and even though the elders already chose about sixteen young ladies from different clans, the emperor himself forbade anyone to announce any names, with the reason—excuse—that to ensure fairness all names would be announced together.

Lan Fan knew of his reluctance, of course, as she had spent more time than ever guarding his chambers and essentially knowing most, if not all, state matters he dealt with. She immediately dreaded his reaction, whatever it could be. But to her surprise, he didn't show any signs of avoiding that subject. Instead, he merely rubbed his chin in a somewhat contemplating manner before saying, "I suppose so."

"The elders are getting fidgety; they think you're being foolish by not deciding the names sooner," she said. It hurt her, like small paper cuts making tiny, non-lethal, yet incredibly painful wounds inside her. If she could have a say, she wouldn't want him to have a wife, or two, or fifty; but what she wanted was of no importance. Ling was now emperor, and her duty was to make sure the emperor's needs are fulfilled, and an inevitable need of an emperor was an heir.

"I'm doing something about that," he answered, sipping tea from the ceramic cup carefully. "By the end of this month they will stop pestering me."

"Was that what you were doing? Choosing your future wives?"

Ling paused, cup still in his hand, hanging midway between his lips and the tray. Lan Fan stammered an apology for being too inquisitive, but he shrugged it off and said, "Yeah, sort of."

Lan Fan should be happy that he would soon establish his solid place on the throne by having heirs of his own, but when she excused herself later from Ling's chamber, she felt oddly hollow. This she made an excuse for berating herself, and eventually she dismissed the empty feeling by convincing herself that she was just a bit tired from guard duties. She tried not to think much about her "Young Master"—who is now too noble and royal for such a title—having other women around him. Women whom he could—and would, and should—touch.

As the end of the month was nearing, Lan Fan found more and more things that were off. For one, she accidentally heard one of the elders complaining about Ling refusing to choose any wife candidate being offered, no matter how beautiful or smart they were. When she asked the emperor himself about this, he merely waved her off—as if the conversation earlier that month never happened, or something took place that changed his previous disposition. Soon after, there was a long and elaborate promotion ceremony—the emperor himself giving the head of the clans seats in the board of advisors. The ceremony was held in the utmost grandiose, second only to the matrimony ceremony and the crowning of the emperor. This was odd. Although Ling did make a promise—to her, Lan Fan thought, he promised her and this made her feel somewhat precious—to not shun the weaker clans and make them all equal and heard, the ceremony done was over the top.

The final blow was when a lady from the Fei clan furiously lunged at Ling after her advances were politely refused. She was "paying her respects", so to say, to the emperor. In other words, she was subtly seducing him, silently sending messages of "pick me, pick me" so he would choose her as one of his fifty brides. She tittered and made small talks and purposefully used so much perfume the odor nearly suffocated Lan Fan. She bowed to him so deep, not out of respect or fear, but to display her plunging neckline and smooth, creamy décolletage.

He humored her, politely chatted with her, all the while drawing a line and showing her that he had no interest in her. When he finally dismissed her, saying he had matters to attend to, she displayed nothing less but blind fury.

Blind fury was not enough to even put a small nick on him—Lan Fan easily deflected the woman's poisonous dagger with her automail arm. She had faced far tougher enemies than this frail Fei woman; the homunculi sprung in her mind like some bittersweet nostalgia. Although no real harm was done, she did make a mental note to scold the emperor for stalling his matrimony and causing incidents such as this. If he had decided properly and took the fifty concubines as soon as he was crowned, this wouldn't have had to happen.

What the woman did—or more appropriately, spat out—after Lan Fan pinned her arms down on the floor, however, startled the guard. "So it's your fault!" the lady snarled, her face full of spite. "You say you're a guard, but I know what you are. His whore!"

Lan Fan stiffened, but if she was surprised—was she, she wasn't sure if she was necessarily surprised, or if she was in any way supposed to be surprised—her expression did not betray it. Instead, she stuck two fingers of her free hand into her mouth and whistled loud. Right away, the door of the chamber slid open and two of her subordinates walked in. She told them to bring the woman to prison and then stand guard and make sure no one enter the chamber.

Her two subordinates obeyed her, and as soon as the door slid closed again Lan Fan turned to Ling. She hesitated. Should she ask him about the woman's last comment? But she had already heard of the rumor, many times, whispered between cleaning-maids and servants, and she had numbed herself to it. It was not true, never true, and the rumor of her—oh, the horror—selling her body to the emperor was not important. So she steered her thoughts away from the remark—let it be kept just in her thoughts, as a proof that at least she was in a way the closest to him, so close that people misunderstood the nature of their relationship—and asked him of the more pressing matter, "What was that woman talking about? What did she mean by you're not taking any wife? I thought you said at the end of this month the matrimony ceremony is taking place."

Ling shrugged. "I never said anything like that."

"You said…"

"I know what I said. I said at the end of this month the elders will stop pestering me with all this matrimony nonsense. I don't want to marry them."

Confusion and frustration flooded Lan Fan, although something akin to relief somewhat also stirred in her. "Whore," said the woman's voice again, ringing in her ears even after she had left the room. "But the tradition…"

"It's an archaic tradition and I am not marrying her."

"Aren't they…insulted but your refusal?"

Ling shrugged with indifference. "That Fei woman was. And several other clans. I might have to watch out for poison in my food for the next few months." He paused. "But most of the clan heads were happy with their seats."

Seats. Of course. It suddenly made sense, why he made such an elaborate effort to bring as much grandeur and glamor into the ceremony. Mollifying the many clans of Xing before refusing to take their women was a very clever move. It was a move made by a true politician and opportunist. A move he made to evade fifty women—and their children, his children, his subjects—clawing for power. Nevertheless, one last issue remained to be solved. "But you need an heir!"

"Of course I still need a wife. Only not fifty of them. Goodness, they'll milk me dry!"

Lan Fan blushed at the insinuation—she hated how she was so easily blushed by the simplest of innuendos—but continued on. "So have you chosen the one?"

"See, here's the thing. Pretty sure as the emperor, I would face a lot of threat to my life."

Lan Fan narrowed her eyes. "Where are you going with this?"

"Well…my wife will have to be a strong person, maybe stronger than me. And she has to be undyingly loyal. See, not many women are like that. 'Course, the ladies from the Fei clan, as we have seen, are inadequate. Probably someone from the Chang clan or the Li clan would be trained in martial arts…but in Chang the only eligible girl is May and that's gross since she's my half-sister and Al might kill me if I lay one finger on her."

"Take a woman from the Li clan, then." Her voice was clipped; this pretending-to-be-thoughtful act of his was starting to gnaw on her nerves.

"Questionable loyalty. I think we need someone really loyal to me."

"You're not implying…" she said slowly, very softly, as if scared she might break something if she spoke too loud. She knew exactly which woman that would willingly sacrifice her own life for the Emperor. She knew which woman was trained in the martial arts so well she could deflect a dagger in her sleep. She knew, and she detested it—and detested him, too—because the knowledge gave her something like a hope. Unforgivable. What a terrible feeling, that small hope, knowing perfectly well that it could be stomped upon and left to die anytime soon.

Ling ignored her. "The Dao clan might also stab me from behind, and the Wu clan's youngest eligible daughter is already thirty-two, a little too old, isn't she?"

"Your Majesty…" She wanted him to stop. Just stop, because she had spent a lot of her time before he became an emperor pining on him, and she had spent even more time after he became an emperor trying to extinguish other feelings than simple loyalty and duty.

Of course, Ling ignored her again, and in a mocking imitation of someone realizing something, he said, "Oh, I get it! How about you, Lan Fan?"

And that was the last straw. Now it was so vivid what he was implying, and by any chance, her guess was right on target. It was as close as Ling could get to a romantic proposal, but how dare he? How dare he try to crumble down the wall she had built to protect herself from the floods of emotions? How dare he decide—yes, decide, because even though those last words were formed into a question she knew he had made it a decision—to destroy Xing's traditions of thousands of years just so he could marry her? It was insanely calculated, and she despised him for it, his shrewd mind and scheming ways. But most of all, she abhorred herself for feeling that single rush of happiness coursing inside her.

This all happened inside her, see, and she just did not know how to react. So she did the only thing she could do: she fought. In a flurry of motions she charged towards him and landed hits after hits, mindless desperation poured out in the form of attacks.

He was not baffled. Instead, he parried her hits with his arms, and when she finally got him pinned to the wall and face-to-face with her sharp automail, he merely nodded with a smile. "See, Lan Fan, no one else could do that and still have my full trust. No one, male or female."

Lan Fan did not answer, and with her ragged breathing—he really put up quite a good defense to have made her pant like this—she gasped, "Why?"

The question really could mean a lot of things. Why choose her? Why trust her? Why do this?

But he simply shrugged. "None of them are as amazing as you are anyway."

Lan Fan released her grip on Ling, and as he slid down to the floor, she slumped. Weakly, she muttered, "Grandfather would kill me if he were here."

Ling now displayed a full grin, wider than his usual smirk. As she pulled Lan Fan's head to his chest, he mumbled, "Nah, he'd be thrilled. I think he always worried about how you'd die an old maid."

"I was prepared for that, you know." Her voice came out muffled with her face still buried in his silk robes.

"Die as an old maid?" asked Ling, more out of curiosity instead of contempt. His fingers played with her bun, tugging softly, trying to unravel it.

Lan Fan nodded.

He lifted a tendril of long, silky hair he managed to free from her tight bun. "Goodness, Lan Fan, what would you do without me?"

"I don't know, Young Master. But I'm not without you, am I?"

He sighed in contentment, before saying one last line that brought her finally weeping and surrendering to her full torrent of emotions, "Never, Lan Fan. Never without me."

Right. That's that. I do hope they're not too OOC-I never really wrote LingFan before (heck I barely write proper fanfictions at all), but you know. Fluff fluff. Review makes me happier than baby kittens in a wool basket.