a/n: i should be writing the fics i promised people for christmas. this seems to be a theme, me writing fic when i should be writing something else /sighs heavily

disclaimer: fullmetal alchemist does not belong to me.

The day after she and young master leave the scorching and unforgiving heat of the desert and finally return to Xing, return home, she arranges for another bodyguard to watch over Ling and retreats to her bed.

She's been taught to be emotionless, cold and calculating, swift and unafraid. She's been trained to go weeks without sleep or food and to always hit her mark with her kunai and that protecting the young lord is the only thing that matters, but Grandfather is dead and right now she only feels tired.

She curls up under her sheets and sleeps.

She leaves her bed to attend Grandfather's funeral, to watch as he burns, turns to smoke and white ash and scatters, flies on the wind.

She doesn't cry. Grandfather taught her not to.

She learns from young master after the funeral that there was an assassination attempt on him in the day she was absent, someone trying to steal the stone. He laughs it off and tells her not to worry, insisting that he's fine and really, Lan Fan, you needed a break anyway.

The guilt is overwhelming and she materializes outside his chambers again that night, clothes black as night and mask as cold and emotionless as she should be.

"Say, Lan Fan?" Ling looks up from the practice grounds to her perch in the tree above him, hand on his hip, sword jutting out awkwardly.

"Yes, my lord?" she replies, and does not say sheath your sword if you're not using it because she's not his mother and she's certainly not Grandfather.

"What would you have done," he begins, catching her wary gaze and sheathing his sword with a smirk, "if I hadn't retrieved the stone? If I failed?"

She sighs heavily and hops nimbly to another branch, eyes scanning their surroundings. "But you didn't fail, my lord."

He flops back into the grass melodramatically and groans. "Aw, come on, Lan Fan, it's no fun if you don't play along." He looks up at her expectantly, mischief in his eyes, and for a second she thinks she sees Greed in his irises and feels the ground drop out from under her, nearly falling out of the tree.

She disguises her shock as annoyance and reaches up, hoisting herself onto a higher branch, crouched low and looking out and away, past the training yard walls and into the rolling hills of the country. "I would have done the same thing I always do," she says, knowing Ling is looking at her and resolutely not looking at him. "I would have protected you with my life."

"What if," and his voice is close, much closer now; she looks down to see him perched on the branch just below her, and she almost jumps, she'd forgotten how fast of a climber he is, "I protected you instead?" He's smiling, sincere, and to her great irritation she feels a blush spreading hot over her cheeks. She adjusts her mask, grateful for the barrier, and knows that Grandfather would want her to say nothing, to ignore the young lord and not indulge his silly notions.

"That would be something," she says anyway, and slips a knife from her belt, passing it from hand to hand. "The emperor of Xing, die for the bodyguard who was supposed to protect him?"

"A king is nothing without his people," he says, voice low and suddenly serious. She spares him a glance from the corner of her eye and he's not looking at her anymore, but at his hands. She imagines that he's imagining claws instead of fingers, imagining a snake eating its tail on the space below his knuckles and an impenetrable ultimate shield clothing his palms.

She sighs and climbs higher, because all of a sudden it's hard to breathe, being so close to him. Her kunai presses cold into her flesh hand. "But the people are nothing without their king," she counters, knowing it's a weary and nearly age-old argument. She looks down at him and now he's staring at her arm, not the one made of bone and muscle and sinew, but the one made of steel and gears and wires.

She remembers his shoulder pressing hard into her stomach as he carried her across Central, remembers his chest heaving against her legs as he ran, remembers her arm, dead and lifeless, flopping uselessly as he carried her. Remembers how she'd never felt so utterly helpless.

His eyes meet hers and she knows he's remembering, too. His gaze softens into something almost fond. Her breath hitches in her throat and his eyes are sad, somehow.

She is the one to look away first.

Sometimes, she wonders what it would be like to kiss Ling.

Then Grandfather's face is behind her eyelids, disappointed and disapproving, and she knows that she is hopeless.

He'll marry a woman actually worthy to be empress, one day, she tells herself. And when that happens, I will protect her just as fiercely as I protect the young master.

She convinces herself it's what Grandfather would have wanted.

They travel to the capital a few days later for an audience with the emperor. Ling travels by the road with the rest of the convoy and Lan Fan travels by the trees lined along the road.

"Why do you always do that, anyway?" Ling shouts up to her. "It's surely more work than just walking."

She hops nimbly from one tree to the next, her automail hand catching a branch as she swings herself into the foliage. She ignores him while he laughs from the road.

"I have the advantage, up high," she says without pretense as he eats that night. He looks up from his tin plate. "Grandfather taught me that," she adds quietly after a moment, not looking at him.

Ling smiles softly and goes back to his meal.

Later, in the capital, when Ling presents the philosopher's stone and the emperor seems actually pleased, Lan Fan can't help the surge of pride that swells in her chest.

The emperor gives the Yao clan his blessing, vowing to pass the crown on to Ling, the twelfth heir of Xing, once he passes.

Ling is beaming and Lan Fan thinks, If only you could see him now, Grandfather.

He slings an arm around her shoulders as they leave the emperor's throne room, much to her horror. He laughs when she shrugs him off, then runs ahead of her, cackling and crowing in exultation all the way to the guest chambers.

"So," Ling says conversationally one evening, back home, "when I become emperor, will you call me 'your celestial majesty'?"

She sighs from where she's crouched in the corner of his study, leaning back further into the shadows. "If you wish it, my lord."

He laughs. "Well, you don't have to if you don't want to."

She straightens, folds her arms over her stomach, leans one shoulder against the wall. "It doesn't matter what I want."

He stands and crosses the room to her. "That doesn't seem very fair," he says reasonably. "Surely if there's something you don't want to do, then you don't have to do it."

She fidgets, shifts from one foot to the other. "It's my job to do whatever you want," she says, "not what I want." But it's not just her job, she thinks, it's her life. Grandfather taught her that, ground it into her head, stitched it into her soul, her very being. The young master is the only thing that matters.

Ling is quiet. She looks up, meets his eye.

This proves to be a grave mistake.

The mood changes almost instantaneously, the careless ease of their conversation flying from the room, replaced by something hard and coiled, waiting to spring.

"I know what I want," he says slowly. "But I don't want it if you don't. So the question is, do you?"

Her breath hitches. There's no mistaking what he's asking her. She draws in one deep breath and considers her options. She could say no. He won't do anything if she does. He'd go back to his scrolls and she'd probably climb up into the rafters for the remainder of the evening.

She could also say yes.

She reaches forward tentatively with one hand, twists her fingers in his shirt, and nods.

He kisses her.

Propriety says she should push him away. Protocol says she should push him away. Grandfather says she should push him away.

She wraps one hand delicately around his bicep and pulls him closer.

She dreams, that night.

It's more of a memory than a dream though, of a time when she was very young, her steps still untrained and clumsy.

Grandfather is holding her hand and leading her through a garden, pointing out the different plants and their practical uses. "One day, Lan Fan," he says, "you will put this knowledge to good use, to serve the Yao clan and the young master."

"But Grandfather," she says, squeezing his hand a bit tighter, "what if I don't want to?"

He stops walking and turns to face her, crouching down to be at eye level with her. "Lan Fan," he says gravely, "when it comes to things such as these, it does not matter what you want. Sometimes you have to lay down your own wishes for the good of others."

She frowns. "What if I am unhappy?"

He lays his palm on the top of her head, heavy and warm. "That should be very sad," he says, straightening and reaching for her hand, "you are so much more beautiful when you are smiling."

Nothing much changes, afterward. Ling still sleeps in til noon, eats too much, and overexerts himself training. Lan Fan still watches over him, eyes alert and careful.

One thing does change, though: sometimes he'll catch her eye across the room, or her hand in passing, and her heart will thump faster and harder and he'll smile, laugh sometimes. But it doesn't feel forbidden, or out of line. It feels happy. The happiest she's felt in a long, long time.