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Day Ten
Somewhere south of Central City, Amestris

Her master cannot go back and claim the throne now, and that is the worst part of it all— that all of this, everything, it's been wasted. It isn't that she feels no sympathy for the people of Amestris, because she does (even if her concern for her master must always come first). Even if Lan Fan were not the sort of woman to push her station and the impartiality it requires aside— and she most certainly is, because otherwise her master would never have brought her with him to Amestris and made her privy to his plans for the throne— she would have no choice to learn it every time she looks at Edward Elric's face. The others do not show it so much; Alphonse cannot express such a thing thanks to his armor, though it's evident when he speaks, and Scar has lost nothing. If anything, he may have gained the one, tiny scrap of victory in this: Ishbal remains where Amestris fell. Her master and that tiny, yapping Chang have lost nothing, really, and so while they may feel the same tug of human grief and sympathy that she does, they have not the depth of feeling the Elric brothers do.

She doesn't know what happened to the military officers or Edward's teacher or Van Hohenheim; perhaps they struck off in a different direction. Or perhaps they died, or still fight the tiny monster called Pride, or they sit below the empty country of Amestris even now. They could be lost in the tunnels, trapped by a collapsing ceiling, or held prisoner by the homunculus. There is no way to get word to any of them, and they cannot risk catching the attention of a homunculus by trying.

Greed hides. I know when they are coming, and he does not, her master murmurs in her ear as they stand apart from the rest of the group, and of course the monster would be as protective of his own skin as he would be anything else. Greed is why her master cannot take the throne now, because Greed's father will be looking for him, and Xing is the first place he will look. He knows that Ling Yao is a prince of the Empire of Xing, and that he will go to ground in either Yao or the capital. They will have to stay away until they are prepared for their own defense. And by that time, the Emperor (may he live forever) will be in failing health if he lives at all and a son who does not come from Yao will be on the throne or very nearly there. They have failed.

Greed has never explained why he fears this, why he is so sure that his father will come for him, but sure of it he is. She cannot quite bring herself to doubt that, not after seeing Greed stand alone against his creator as no other homunculus has. Why Greed would threaten that monster when he strides the world as a god, she does not know, but it's clear Greed believes he does. And because of that, it falls upon her to plan where they will go— Scar will likely leave them before too long, she decides, and the Elric brothers will be little better than useless just now. Greed will be no better, being more concerned with saving himself than with the rest of the group. Mei Chang… well. As much as Lan Fan hates to even think of it, the little upstart is probably the only one whose help will be worthwhile just now, and she's going to have to ask.

Perhaps they can take refuge with another, lower-ranked clan that would not see an appreciable enough change in status from assassinating them (like the Chang, as much as it galls her to admit) to actually take the trouble. Obvious target or not, it seems to her the most prudent option to return to Xing— where else would have such alchemy to mount a defense against that monster? Annoying and overly ambitious she might be, but the Princess Chang has proven that the pharmaceutical arts are the beast's sole weak point. Yao is not a clan of pharmacists, and most of the strongest clans in that regard are close enough to the throne they would not suffer Prince Yao to live more than a few moments after he set foot into their domains.

Edward wants to go to Xing, even if he won't say it yet. He stands there, battered and bruised and with blood running down his face and his automail leg damaged enough that he limps when he walks, and he looks out at his empty country like he wants to burn it onto his eyelids. She knows that look— he wants to memorize the sight of it now, so that he never has to lay eyes on it again. He will go to Xing and bury himself in the massive libraries in the imperial capital, look for the edge they might give him in both restoring his brother and defeating the homunculus. He looks like a man who wants to salt his entire country and light it afire, and watch until there's nothing but leagues upon leagues of scorched earth no one will ever touch again except to dread as a monument to the fallen.

"We can't cross the desert like this," she tells her master when they finally stop walking for the night. It feels like the hundredth time they have dropped from sheer exhaustion since the world ended for them, but in reality it is only the ninth. "We don't have supplies for the journey, the map we came here with, or even a compass. We're so far south now that we'll enter the country in Sheng clan territory, and the Prince Sheng will kill you. We have to turn west and go to Creta."

Geography is one of many things she's had to study in preparation for her capacity as the right hand of the Emperor Yao. She is very glad now that she's studied it, not to mention the crash-course in navigation and survival she and her master had both gotten from her grandfather in the desert. If he were still with them, they would have never veered so sharply south in the first place. He would have kept them north, until the air turned sharp and cool and they turned east to cross the desert near the border with Yao clan lands.

But he is not here. She will tell them, if she and her master ever return to Yao and aren't driven right out again in disgrace for failing in Amestris, about how he fought a monster. They should know about her grandfather and what he did, even if she herself has failed.

"And," she says, hesitant to bring up her own discomfort but knowing it could lead to greater problems for the group as a whole and thus is important for him to know. "I would not be able to cross the desert as I am with this arm, Master. I would need to protect it, or else it would require repairs we cannot obtain in Xing. Edward will have the same problem, and his leg is obviously already in need of repair." And that is worse, because the last thing they need is to leave their best hope of getting out of this intact in the middle of the desert.

He is not her master when he answers her. She can tell immediately. This is the first time he has come out and shown his fangs to her since Central City fell down in shambles around them, the first time he is confident that his father is far away.

"We aren't going to Xing," Greed says. "He's gonna look there first. We've gotta lay low for awhile. Tour the world, stay one step ahead. You know how it is."

She does not, because he is wrong.

"We will be safer in Xing than we will anywhere else," she insists. She would never argue so with her master— but then again, her master would not suggest something so stupid that she would need to argue with him.

"I have a map," Mei Chang says, because evidently the Chang clan is so low now that they do not teach their children the dishonor of eavesdropping on one's betters. Still, the news that she has a map is the best thing anyone has said to her in days— or rather, one of the only things she has heard in days that isn't from her master. Edward talks to his brother and screams out his rage at nothing, Alphonse talks to his brother and to Mei Chang, and Scar talks to no one.

"We could go through Creta and Aerugo and go around through the south," Edward says, and his voice is hoarse as he squints down at the map. Does he need eyeglasses? They say at home that reading too much can do that to a man, and Edward has spent more time than most shut in libraries and reading by lamp-light. More importantly than that, though, is that this is the first time since those first few awful days he hasn't screamed at them.

"I like Aerugo," Greed says, and he shows his teeth. "You think Xing is nice, girl, wait until you see Aerugo. You won't want to go on through the desert."

"Yao is in the north of the country," she says. Surely the monster knows this; does he not have all of her master's thoughts and memories at his disposal?

"We're not going to Yao," Greed says. His smile does not slip. "I told you, we're going to Creta, and then on to Aerugo. Do I need to have your master come out and say it?"

Yes. You do. She does not say it, does not blush, does not do anything except keep her face as composed as her mask.

"Getting across the Cretan border would be hard," Edward says. The screaming really has taken its toll; his voice is low and scratchy. It is not entirely unpleasant to listen to, actually, particularly when the alternative is that monster warping her master's voice. "I bet they think we're trying to catch them off guard. They're going to be watching."

"That will not be a problem." Lan Fan steps back into her role as a guide— or perhaps not back into, since this is the first time she will be performing it on her own— as if she has been there all along. "We've done it before, and Creta's military is not as well-equipped as Amestris's was. If we can cross into your country, we can cross out of it again." She pauses for a moment, unsure whether she should be tactful or blunt. Normally she would have simply been blunt, but he has just lost his country. "Provided that some of us can keep our heads down and avoid making a scene."

"It will be hard to hide me," Alphonse says in a small, apologetic voice, as if he's intentionally become a seven-foot suit of armor to hinder them.

"There are ways around that," she says, and allows her mask to slip the slightest bit for the first time in a very long time; the corner of her mouth twitches. "I am more concerned about the homunculus."

"He won't hinder us," her master says, his voice and his face all his own again. "He's still too wary to stay out for long. I imagine he'll be an infrequent visitor until we're in Aerugo. Did I mention that we're going to Aerugo?"

Evidently her master can be wrong— and she still cannot bring herself to argue.

 

Day Eleven
Somewhere south of Central City, Amestris

 

Edward and Alphonse have moved to the outside of their camp to talk, but not so far away she can't hear them. Everyone else can as well, if the slightly irritated look on Scar's face (which is very close to his normal expression, but she is used to reading people who are trained not to show emotion) and her master's raised eyebrows are anything to go by. And even if they could not hear the Elric brothers before, they certainly can once the two begin shouting at one another.

"Do you think I want to go without you?" Alphonse asks. Mei Chang is the one who's started this fight; she insists on rejoining with her clan. She claims that the Chang clan has enough knowledge of alkahestry to stop the homunculus that destroyed Amestris, or at least to mount a very good defense. (Privately, Lan Fan is fairly certain she simply wants the Yao clan to be indebted to the Chang, and perhaps to restore Alphonse in the bargain.) Alphonse is inclined to trust her, but Edward thinks that Greed has the right idea.

 

Or perhaps it's simply the fact that Greed's route will take them away from Amestris faster, rather than doubling them back to approach Xing directly.

"Why wouldn't you? Everyone else leaves," Edward shouts right back at him, and that's it— the real issue between them is out in the open for everyone to see.

"Brother," Alphonse says, and he isn't shouting anymore. She can scarcely hear him now, his voice low as if he has just realized that everyone knows about their argument. "Brother, don't be ridiculous. I'm not— we have to split up into smaller groups. We're too easy to follow now, you told me that yourself yesterday. Mei knows where to look for answers in Xing, and I can help her. Scar knows more about Xingese alchemy than I do, so we need him, too. It's not safe for Ling there now, so we'll go without him."

"So I'll go with you," Edward says, and she can hear his desperation. And that is a poor idea if she's ever heard one, as poor a plan as Greed's excursion to Aerugo. He is barely holding himself together as it stands now, and that's with everyone supporting him. If Edward goes to Xing with Alphonse, he will work and work and work until there is nothing left of Edward Elric. And perhaps that is what he wants— there is no way Alphonse heard him when he shouted at her master last night that the monster's got my face, because if he had heard then Edward would already be trussed up and ready to be carried to Aerugo.

At this rate, they may have to do that anyway. Finally, something Greed might actually be useful for. Carrying an unwilling alchemist across three countries is below her master's noble station, of course, but is work fit for the homunculus.

"No," Alphonse says, and Edward stops. He freezes where he stands, shocked that his brother is honestly telling him they need to separate. She can hear him come to a complete halt, right down to the tiny fidgeting movements he never really loses. "I… I don't think that would be a good idea, brother. Your automail is already damaged, and the sand's just going to make it worse."

"I don't care about that—"

 

"Exactly, brother!" Alphonse is shouting now, shouting right over Edward. "I'm afraid that I'm going to come back and you'll be dead!"

So he does know what will happen to his brother. It makes sense, really— always watching, nothing to do while the rest of the world sleeps but watch and think, seeing the worst of his brother over the years. Alphonse must have known before any of the rest of them did, even if he's never said anything until now.

"Al," Edward says, and his voice still rasps as it has for days.

"Please," Alphonse says. "It won't be for too long, and this will be the best chance for both of us. We need Mei and Scar in Xing, but you can stay ahead of… him. Ling can tell when he's coming."

And that is the last word on the subject; Alphonse takes no argument. No matter how much Edward rails and raves and tries to convince him, because he does, Alphonse does not so much as budge from his position. There are no concessions, no matter how much Alphonse looks like he wants to give in to stop his brother from coming apart entirely.

"Would you like me to tie him up?" She finally asks Alphonse, and everyone turns to stare at her. Well, except her master, who just grins like he thinks it's a grand idea. He would think that.

It's the first time anyone besides Greed has smiled since it happened, but everyone is so preoccupied with what she's just said that they don't notice him.

"If— if he won't see reason," Alphonse says, obviously hesitant. Resolute or not, Edward's frantic arguing is obviously having some effect on him. And it might be her imagination, since it hardly makes sense, but he sounds embarrassed. It's not the first time she's seen Alphonse rather uncomfortable with his brother's outlandish behavior, but it seems an odd time for him to show it.

"I'd like to see you try," Edward says, with a hint of his old venom back.

It is going to be a very, very long trip to Aerugo.

 

Day Thirteen
Northwest of Dublith, Amestris

 

Two days after they split from Alphonse's group, she wishes they had tied Edward up; he tries to run off and chase down his brother. It takes her fifteen minutes to catch up with him, less than it should have because he makes no effort to hide his tracks— he simply crashes through anything in his path, a straight line where meandering might be safer or more efficient. When she does finally come across him— in the trees, far from the road as all their chosen routes are because where there are roads there are bodies— she has had enough.

"Stay where you are," Lan Fan says, her voice low and furious even to her own ears; it is not the even tenor she is supposed to hold. She lands between Edward and his blundering straight path back to Alphonse, blocking him unless he cares to clear his head enough to make it around her.

"Get out of my way," he breathes, so furious he can't speak in more than a growling whisper. "I'm going after my brother. He's all I have left."
"Stop this at once," she says, and falls into a fighting stance. If Edward is not going to see reason until she beats it into him, then so be it. She will not have him ruining their mission to keep her master alive. They need Edward Elric, and thus she cannot allow him to go on like this. "You have more than your brother left. You have a mission— to survive long enough to see him restored, and to help my master survive, and to stop the homunculus before he begins his plan again."

Surely having such an important burden is enough, surely he will realize that the entire world is depending on them because they know the truth of what has happened here. And unlike Van Hohenheim, none of them— except for her master, perhaps— has the luxury of chasing the monster for centuries until it strikes again. They must act now.

"You don't understand anything," Edward says, and he lunges for her.
And then her knife is in his shoulder, tip dug into his flesh far enough that it stays with him as he falls back in surprise. His automail hand reaches reflexively for the blade, and she throws her weight forward to send them both tumbling down to the ground. It's not even a struggle, not really, because when he tries to roll them over she presses down on the knife and he howls. It's hurt and angry and something else entirely, something she can't quite read.

"Stop it before I actually have to hurt you." She slams her knee down onto his solar plexus, and uses the instant he falls back breathless to pull the catches on his automail arm. She has an advantage she lacked in their first fight: now she knows exactly, intimately, how the automail works, and how to take it off in mere seconds.

Edward's pupils are wide and dark, not contracted to pinpricks like he's high on adrenaline and ready to strike. When she slides the automail out of the port and tosses it aside, he goes boneless and draws in a sharp gasp. She realizes then— as he looks at her with that strange, wanting sort of look— that he is not poised for fight or flight, and that hurting or not, he could certainly throw her with his automail leg.

"Please," is what he says, which isn't an answer at all.

She can hear it when her master catches up to them— no, that's Greed's lazy but so very precise stride, not her master's long, loping walk. He's surprisingly quiet for someone who doesn't seem to care how much commotion his movements stir, but she still hears.

"I love it when I show up just in time for the good part," Greed says, and she can hear the rustle of his coat as he takes another step forward.

"This isn't the time for your nonsense," she says. If someone had told her when she left Xing— or even scarcely a month previously— that she would be leading her master and the Fullmetal Alchemist over the border and into Creta, or herding a monster, or even just speaking as often or as boldly as she is forced to now, she would have called it a lie, a ridiculous story made up by someone who obviously has no idea what her obligations and duties are. Which, of course, they couldn't have known— those obligations had changed so very much in an instant below Central City even as they had stayed frustratingly close to the ones she had started with.

"And to think, for awhile I didn't know what the kid sees in you," Greed says, and he doesn't show any inclination whatsoever of standing down.

"We'll be at the border soon," she says, and whatever strange plea she had halfway gotten out of Edward is gone. He looks tired, defeated and hurt and miserable. She stands up, and hands his arm back to him as he sits up. Suddenly, she feels nearly as weary as he looks.

"Don't stop on my account," Greed says, sounding for all the world as if he's being truly magnanimous. It sounds far too much like her master when he wants something, and that realization is almost a physical blow. Edward's face goes an odd, blotchy red when Greed says it, and he turns away from both of them.

"Either make yourself useful and give me your pack, or go back where you came from," she says. She cannot help being curt with him, not with any of them, however hard it is for her— the time when her shyness crippled her without her mask is long since gone, and if she cannot overcome such a small thing then her mission is even more of a failure than she had ever thought. "You have the bandages."

"Sure, sure, anything for a pretty girl," Greed says, and takes off his pack.

The best they have to clean it with out here in the field is carbolic acid— barbaric, but they don't have access to the best medicine Amestris has to offer, let alone Xing. The shoulder wound is not a clean cut— too much movement in that moment she knocked him back— but it's not as deep as she had originally thought, and Edward lets out a hissing breath as he presses the disinfectant-soaked cloth to his shoulder. When it's over, his eyes are red-rimmed and he looks anything but wanting for this particular sort of pain.

For whatever reason— a premonition of danger in need of her master's greater senses, boredom, or something entirely unknown to Lan Fan— her master returns then, Greed's presence falling back. She can tell; the feeling of life energy flowing where there had been only a mocking alchemical ghost of it before is unmistakable.

"Give me the bandages, you idiot," Edward says, and her master hands them to him. He can tell when Greed has gone, just as surely as she can; he would have been far more insulting if he had been speaking to the homunculus. It's the last thing any of them says for some time, until Edward's shoulder is bandaged— with her master's insistent help, because of course bandaging one's own shoulder one-armed is a task not even the Fullmetal Alchemist can perform— and they are ready to walk again.

"You should save your daring escape for when we're at the Cretan border," her master says, and his eyes smile where his mouth doesn't. "We'll probably need it."

 

Day Twenty-One
Amestris-Creta Demilitarized Zone (Amestrian Side)

 

The Cretan border is not just more vigilant; the entire army appears to be mobilizing. All across the border there are fortifications, tanks, whole battalions. Now that Amestris has gone quiet, it's clear that the Cretan government is taking no chances. It could be that they fear a feint similar to the one Drachma's border force fell to— or perhaps they investigated after they lost contact with their spies, and found the country a house of charnel. That would be enough to make any nation mobilize, surely.

"Great," Greed says, making a rare appearance as they hide near the border. They have to be careful; one movement that can't be attributed to animals and they'll be spotted. "If it were just the two of us, we could probably get through. There's no way they'll let the Fullmetal kid through, though."

As if they had ever been planning to go through the border post legitimately. What does Greed take her for, an incompetent?

They wait and wait, making note of when the guards change shifts and where the gaps in their watch are. There is one spot in particular that seems promising, a small blind spot in the line where the guards are slowest to change. It's between two empty convoy trucks, which means it will be easy to slip through in the dark; so long as they can keep quiet and make it across the line, they'll be in Creta no worse for the wear.

It's nearly sunset when Lan Fan feels something creeping on the back of her neck.

"Homunculus," she says to Greed, because she knows that feeling. "If you value your life, let my master out. There's something coming, and I can't tell what it is."

That is the one area where Ling Yao has always outstripped every bodyguard he's ever had, every spymaster assigned to protect him from the machinations of his brothers, from the intrigues of the Drachmans whose land borders that of the Yao clan, from the horrors that hide in Amestris: his ability to read chi. He may be able to tell them which monster it is that has followed them to the border— the child, the king, or the god.
"Wrath," is the first thing her master says when his eyes narrow and his shark's grin disappears and his body is his own again. "It's Wrath."

"You can tell them apart now?" Edward asks, and she cannot tell if he's skeptical of the truth or impressed by it.

"It's not hard," her master says, and scrubs a hand through his hair. The gesture leaves it sticking up in the front. "Their leader feels like something too powerful to exist. Wrath's energy is very close to my own. The one that's neither is Pride."

Her master had not called King Bradley Wrath until the monster took root in him, even after they had learned the man's real identity. Now it is the only name he uses.

"He's close," Lan Fan says, and he nods.

"I've got an idea," Edward says, and it's the last thing she expects to hear from him right now. He looks even worse now than he did a few days earlier, and he hardly speaks except when he's half-asleep and mumbling at phantoms. There are dark smudges under his eyes that look so deep it's hard to believe they aren't painted on, and the edge of the bandage on his shoulder is still peeking out from under his shirt collar. But now he looks out at them from under his tangled yellow fringe and his eyes are burning bright. Edward Elric is thinking again, and that means they may yet get out of this.

They wait, but not for long. King Bradley comes for them before the sun dips below the horizon.
The sight of someone coming from Amestris, a lone figure walking out from the stillness, is enough to spur the border guards into action. Wrath does not even try to hide; there is no element of stealth to his approach at all, none of the careful silence Lan Fan has drawn from her master and Edward. When he stops short of the actual demilitarized zone, though, the Cretan soldiers hold their fire and watch.

This is what Edward has planned for, the moment when Bradley decides that he has waited long enough and that he has no choice but to come into sight of the Cretan military. He's that thing's wrath, right? Edward had asked, with a look on his face that had been some small, defeated version of his usual towering rage. I know all about wrath. He won't wait for us for very long.

"I am here to kill some rats," he says, and salutes the Cretan line. They raise their guns, one perfect line in a unison that Amestrian soldiers could probably have never matched no matter how hard they might have tried.

Bradley pulls the eyepatch from his face and drops it to the ground.

They are out of sight, ducked behind buildings that had once housed Amestrian soldiers but are now empty— did the Cretans clear them out, or had the soldiers left on some other errand set by a Central Command that knew they would no longer need to defend the border against Creta? Whatever had happened, there are no bodies in this particular border post, and for that she is profoundly grateful— to have to hide from the homunculus amidst the rotting corpses of the Amestrians would be too much for any of them. The concrete-and-steel strength of the border post buildings, built to withstand an assault, works to their advantage in that it hides them from the bullets as well as from view.

After the first round of fire, Bradley is untouched save for being slightly mussed, his rolled-up shirtsleeves a little bit wrinkled. And even that is because of his own movements dodging the bullets, not from any Cretan attack.

"I'm not here to concern myself with Cretan affairs," Bradley says, never losing that friendly, fatherly mockery of a tone. "But if you insist on shooting me, I may have to take an interest. I assure you, these rats are on my side of the border."

Edward mutters obscenities under his breath; their plan had been to let the Cretan military finish Bradley off, or at least distract him. It could have even worked, had the Cretans not stood down just then— they had found Sloth's body on the street, slain where he stood without the aid of sophisticated alchemy or alkahestry. Major-General Armstrong and Major Armstrong had both been slumped on the ground nearby, obviously the victors in that battle and killed later alongside everyone else. If one monster could be killed by mortal means, then surely so could the others.

"There you are," Bradley says, and steps around the corner of the building before any of them— even her master, who has been following the monster's chi this whole time— realize he is there. "I'm afraid your part in this is over— those of you who had a part at all."

He looks at her when he says that, and the derision in his voice— the disregard for everything she has done, the dismissal that she may have been some threat to him in all of this— is enough to clench her human fingers around the hilt of her knife. To dismiss that is to make light of everything her master has done, everything her grandfather has done, and— something she should not think, but does anyway— everything she has done.

King Bradley will regret the moment he crossed the Yao clan.

Edward is the first one to charge him, and she cannot say that she is surprised. He screams when he sets upon Bradley, all these weeks of pent-up rage and grief pouring out in one sudden flurry of revenge on King Bradley's shoulders. Even when that first hoarse shout is done he keeps on snarling; he sounds like an animal, howling cornered and mad. He looks like an animal, his hair everywhere and his movements so fast and wild it's hard to make out what he's actually doing. It involves the earth rising up in sudden, vicious spikes that Bradley dodges around, and so much dust and blue sparking that there's almost a haze around him.

"Brothers are such a pain," Greed says. "Be a peach and keep an eye out for the rest of 'em while I help deal with this, would you?"

At first she thinks he is telling her to stay out of the fight, but no, that's not what he means at all (stupid comment about being a peach notwithstanding). If he is out and fighting, they will have to rely on her own (less sharp, because for all her training she is not so naturally gifted in those arts as her master) sense of chi to know when another monster might be upon them. It's hard to tell with two of them so close, but if she stops for just a moment to ground herself then she can distinguish them: an overwhelming sense of want that must be Greed, and the measured malevolence that can only be King Bradley. There is no one else; Pride is tied to Central and wherever their Father is, he is not here with Bradley.

She finds her opening when Bradley faces Edward's fist on one side and Greed's claws on the other. She slips between them as Bradley grabs Edward's leg and wrenches, ducking right under Greed's arm as he does so. Edward howls and tries to lunge at him again, but falls short and hits the ground; Greed's fist hits only empty air with a wild swing.

The blade on her automail rips right into Bradley's left side, and only leaves when he takes hold of her arm and pulls her right out of him. She can feel the joints crushing together, wires snapping and connections breaking under his hand, and the pain as he takes her by the arm and throws her aside is so great she has to clench her teeth to keep from screaming. There are white bursts of pain behind her eyelids, and by the time she can see again it's gone quiet except for the sound of dozens of rifles suddenly cocking.

Bradley is gone, and her master and Edward are facing a line of Cretan border guards while she's been thrown out of sight. And gone he is— she can feel his chi fading, getting further away with every second. He is running away, crawling off to recover from a stab wound that just might incapacitate him enough to make him vulnerable in the face of Edward's furious alchemical barrage or even a second hail of Cretan gunfire. And already she is mentally taking stock of what they will do when the Cretans fire. Her master will be fine, for the monster has too much sense of self-preservation to do anything so stupid as hiding when the entire border guard has a rife scope trained on him. Edward— well, all she can hope for is that he will be able to defend himself.

"We surrender!" But somehow, it is her master speaking, not Greed. He has indeed been stupid or foolhardy enough to listen to whatever plan her master must have given him, and he is letting Ling Yao speak to the Cretan guards. "Look at me, I'm not even from Amestris— I just want to get out of here! Please don't shoot!"

He is speaking in Cretan, and with a heavier accent than he normally does— playing the part of a mystified visitor from Xing who just wants to go home. So that's why Greed isn't speaking— Greed's voice is Amestrian, and would sound an enemy to these men. She can only hope Edward keeps his mouth shut, and that the Cretans don't think to search him.

"What about him?" One of the Cretans asks. "He's not Xingese."

Lan Fan gets up slowly and carefully, holding tight to her arm both to keep it still and to keep it quiet. It doesn't hurt so much when she keeps it still; the pain comes from jostling the connections still made to the automail port, not from the damage to the arm itself.

"He's with me," her master says. "Did you not just see that man from the Amestrian military chasing us and trying to kill us?"

"Arrest them," the same Cretan says. At least, that's what she's pretty sure he's saying; her spoken Cretan isn't the best and the words for arrest and convict have the same root and this could still be disastrous.

She'll just have to save them before anything too untoward happens. At least she's the one who managed to avoid being arrested; otherwise, they would all be doomed.

 

Day Twenty-One
Amestris-Creta Demilitarized Zone (Cretan Side)

 

It's hard to be quiet enough to slip inside when her arm is making a grinding noise every time she moves it. So she ties it against her as she would a broken bone, to keep it still and quiet; she will do this one-handed, because to require two hands is the limitation of a novice, a child. They are still looking for her; the Cretans saw four people fighting on the Amestrian side of the border, and they have only caught two of them. And she can only hope that Bradley has decided to hide or leave, and that she will not run into him alone and one-armed. That is not the challenge of a child, to be faced with one arm.

Her master and Edward are loud enough to mask almost anything when she's close enough to the transport to hear them. For once, their bickering is a blessing and not an annoyance.

"—such a bastard," Edward is saying.

"Ah, I do not think so," her master says. "My mother is one of many wives, of course, but she is joined formally to my father."

Of course, instead of doing something useful or trying to escape without her help, they're sitting there arguing over the semantics of the word bastard.
"That isn't even the point! Fuck, why are you so stupid?" Edward asks, and the transport convoy shakes a little. The guard watching the door sighs, as if this has been going on all night, and then bangs on the door until it stops. "And maybe if you people would untie me and let me strangle this idiot I wouldn't be so loud!"

"Maybe we should let him," a second guard says as he passes the first one on his patrol around the area, and even the joke is enough to make Lan Fan remember his face.

She takes an especial satisfaction in coming up behind him and slamming the hilt of her knife into the back of his skull when he's moved past the truck and into the shadowed corner where she's waiting for him. Perhaps she did not need to do it so hard— she thinks she may have cracked his skull, though she actually does hope she hasn't killed him— but there is no time for finesse, not now that they have to get out of this camp and into Creta proper before Bradley manages a way to do it and ambush them.
The patrols come every ten minutes, which gives her that much time before this one turns up missing and another soldier finds him. She will have to work quickly.

"Shut up," Edward howls in response to something she hadn't quite heard, and in that moment of commotion she disables the second guard— less forcefully than the first, but he still crumples to the ground obligingly. This one is definitely still alive, at any rate. The transport is unlocked, and when she opens the door she realizes why— her master is shackled to the side, and Edward is missing his arm and leg. In the absence of enough limbs to shackle, he's been hogtied on the floor.

"Lan Fan," her master says, and he sounds so profoundly smug about the fact that she's come to rescue him that she can't help but feel proud. He knows that she will not fail him, even when she isn't sure of it herself. "How long do we have?"

"Eight minutes until the next patrol," she says, and kneels down on the floor of the convoy to cut the ropes holding Edward. "What did they do with your automail?"
"Over there in the corner," Edward says. "Idiots. I almost had my hand and my foot together, and then they'd have been sorry."

Everyone is an idiot in Edward Elric's world made of formulas and arrays, the world he sees filtered through chalked designs and books and dead languages, but she has to admit that he's right in this case. Leaving the automail right there in the transport had been a stupid move.

"Can you get it back on?" She asks, and he nods. She hands him his arm, and that's easy enough— he puts it back on one-handed just as she's learned to do to her own arm. There is just an instant of hesitation, a second when he wears that vulnerable look he'd had when she stabbed his shoulder, and then he is back to himself and beckoning for her to hand over the next piece of automail. When she hands him his leg, though, he reaches for his belt.

"What are you doing?" She asks, a little alarmed at what might require him to start taking off his clothes in the middle of a Cretan prison transport.
"The leg's pretty fucked up," Edward says. "It's going to hurt like hell to put back on, and I don't want anyone to hear me."

He finishes taking off his belt, and she realizes what he means when he puts the leather between his teeth. He bites down to strangle the sound of his groan as his leg slides back into place. It's not anywhere near as easily as the arm had gone in, and he's pale-faced and breathing hard when he finally leans back against the metal side and relaxes. While he's been doing that, she has been examining her master's shackles.

"They transmuted them on," he says. "No lock."

"Have Greed do something useful and turn his shield into graphite," Edward says, eyes closed and face still sickly white.

"Or you could just transmute them," her master says.

"Fuck you, I can't even get up right now," Edward says, and that's startling. He never admits to being weak or in pain. "Those are really loose. Graphite is just carbon, and it's a lubricant. If he does that, you can slip out of them."

"You have six minutes to be ready to get up," she says.

"Yeah, well, that six minutes will go a hell of a lot further if I don't have to get up and walk over there." He hasn't put his belt back on yet; instead he holds it clenched in his hands, knuckles white and bloodless against the leather. She nods, and turns back to her master. His chin is held high; somehow, he looks more regal with his hands manacled above his head than he has since they left Xing. Until, that is, his mouth curls up and his smile is that of a serpent, a smile that promises fangs and venom if one is foolish enough to believe it.
"Lucky thing this body's flexible enough for this, huh?" Greed asks, and the implication he leaves open with his tone is anything but proper. "I come back and find the kid all chained up— I really am missing all the good parts of this little trip, aren't I?"

While he's talking on uselessly, though, his hands are far more practical. The sight of sparking, changing flesh— so like an alkahestric reaction, but not at the same time— is enough to keep her from berating the monster, especially when he bends first one wrist and then the other out of joint and slips out of the manacles.

"Not a bad plan, midget," Greed says after he's popped his wrists back into place. "What now?"
"You go away so that we can tell where Bradley is," she says. She doesn't want Greed out here any longer than he has to be, even if he is a valuable ally in this particular fight; to hear him say such things as he has been with her master's voice is simply too much. "And we get out of here."

"And if I go, who's going to drive? You? You don't even have cars in Xing, and the kid here doesn't know how to work them. So I'm guessing neither do you. And you've gotta be tall enough to see over the steering wheel, so Fullmetal's out." Greed smirks when Edward grips the belt so hard the leather creaks.

"Yeah, like we'd ever lose them if we took this," Edward says. "We're better off just sneaking out."

She is inclined to agree with him.

"We're walking," she says. "Now kindly release my master."

"You know," Greed says, sounding terribly interested, "you quit calling him young master. That's new."

"Go," she says.

"I'm going, I'm going," Greed says, and holds his hands up disarmingly.

They slip out with three minutes left before the guard will be discovered. They are noisier than she would like; her arm is grinding, and Edward has a limp that makes his automail drag a little. Her master is the only one of their number who is truly silent, but somehow no one seems to hear them. They are quiet enough that the small sounds making up the nighttime military camp cover their passage, and they manage quickly enough that they are beyond its limits when the alarm is finally sounded. The transport holding her master and Edward being at the far edge of the border post— and on the Cretan side, with thinner defenses because everything is facing Amestris— had been nothing but pure, blind luck that they cannot expect to have again.

And just like that, they are in Creta. She cannot feel any sign of King Bradley around them, and she knows no one is on their trail. It's so easy that the heavens must be playing a trick on them— and given who the newest claimant to the divine is, that is a far likelier possibility than any sort of benevolent aid. They have nothing, two of the three of them are in desperate need of an automail mechanic they cannot afford in their current states, and they are all injured, but Amestris is behind them.

For the first time in weeks, the living around them outnumber the dead.

 

Day Twenty-Two
Northeastern Creta, exact location unknown

 

The first town they come across, in the early hours of the morning, is abuzz about the fact that someone has slaughtered most of the nearby border post. It was an Amestrian attack, they tell each other. They have a monster and they've set it loose on us. King Bradley had obviously returned to that border post looking for them, and hadn't taken no for an answer; now she no longer has to worry about whether or not she killed that guard, because Bradley has taken that out of her hands. The man is dead now either way, along with people who had looked at her master and seen someone worth keeping alive even if he had come over the border with an Amestrian in tow. Bradley has even more to answer for than he did before.

 

"We have almost no money," Edward says. "And no food. And my Cretan is shit, because they have the stupidest verb conjugation system I have ever seen." And that's completely true, because no language should have words for arrested and convicted that sound so alike that she can't quite figure out whether they're detaining her master or killing him. "I can't go into any towns around here, if they really think Amestris killed an entire base. They'll chase me out with torches and pitchforks."

 

No one does, though. They are careful and they are quiet, keeping their heads down as they pass through villages too small to have gotten detailed newsreels about the war with Amestris and good information about what the more famous Amestrian war heroes had looked like. Edward's dissimilarity to his legend is truly prodigious in this particular case, because no one questions them. It is too good to be true, their proof that any god following their progress is not the monster reborn under Amestris, and that luck follows them for days— until their money runs out and they are still three days' walk away from the capital of Creta and without any other way to get there.

"If we can make it to the capital, we'll be all right," her master says that night. They are in a barn, of all places; the house it is adjacent to seems to be empty, but they take no chances. Even if the inhabitants have long since moved on, they are more likely to be noticed moving around in the house than they are crouched in the barn in darkness. "We can request aid from the Xingese embassy there, so long as we leave before they send word home."

No one can know where they are, not so long as that knowledge could fall into the wrong hands and be used against them before they are ready to fight back. Edward is asleep on the floor, curled up in a corner because of what she suspects is a leg malfunctioning enough to interfere with climbing the ladder. Her master sits in the hayloft as if it is his throne, legs crossed under him and his head high, and so that is where she stands at the ready.

"Lan Fan," he says. They speak their own language, something they don't often do anymore— it's easy enough for Edward to start staring off into the distance and thinking of things that would be best left until they have leisure to grieve when he can follow the conversation. "How is your arm?"

"I need a mechanic," she says, honestly. It will do no one any good for her to lie about how functional her arm is, even to save face. Even to save face to her master, who is sitting straight-backed as his father ever has and making a long-disused hayloft seem an imperial palanquin.

 

"We can find one in the capital," he is saying, but it is hard to focus on his words when he sits there atop his grass throne and looks down at all two of his subjects with a more imperial bearing than any of his more-favored brothers ever have had. He has scraped the left side of his face on something, and it disturbs her that she doesn't recall when or how it had happened. "Or they will know who to speak with in Xing to have it repaired."

Someday, when they are in the imperial capital and they have killed their monsters— and she is undecided as to whether the one within her master numbers among the damned or not— someone will paint something very like this. Emperor Yao cannot be painted any other way— he has swallowed a demon and clawed his way out of the hell that is Amestris now and even now he plots to kill a god before he begins his ascent to the throne, and Xing will know it if she has to take off her mask and raise her voice to all of them to accomplish it.

"What happened to Aerugo?" She can't help but hope that he has changed his mind, decided to listen to sense instead of the beast.

"We'll need to get money before we go any further," he points out. "We will still enter Xing from the south, when the time is right."

"Of course," she says.

"You don't like this plan." He just looks at her, his eyes hooded and lazy instead of deliberately narrowed to obfuscate his intentions from her.

"I agree with whatever plan you require, Master," she says. Surely he will not question her devotion now, cannot question it now. If he does not believe that she will follow him to the ends of the world and back, then she has already failed him more than she can atone for. Bad enough that she must justify to herself that the disrespects and disobediences that are quietly amassing at her feet are necessary to keep him alive and well and on the path to the throne; if he no longer believes they are, then they are nothing but failures.

"What if I asked you what you didn't like about it? I want to know where you would lead us, you know." He is asking questions she daren't answer. If she goes down this path now, someday she will find herself attempting to question an emperor And she will not be the one to bring shame down upon her lord by insubordinating herself before him after he has been crowned. But he won't stop until she tells him, she knows, because he is persistent and he is far too canny and he has no decorum; there is nothing to do but tell him. "You've done nothing but lead us in the right direction now, don't think I haven't noticed that. Tell me."

"We are wasting time," she says, and it is one of the hardest things she has ever done. "And we leave ourselves vulnerable to attack. Then there is the fact that we cannot cross the desert as we are now, and will have to find a mechanic in Creta or Aerugo. Had we gone straight to Xing, or through Drachma, we would be in much better repair."

They can't go through Drachma, not with Edward in tow— their intelligence will have told the Drachmans that the Fullmetal Alchemist's last official posting had been to Fort Briggs, and so they will have scraped up every bit of information on him they can find. They will not be expecting a giant of a man who strides the world like the god with his face; they will recognize him for who he really is. But it would have still been faster, had they been able to— and more importantly, the Xingese embassy in Drachma is administrated by the Yao clan, that being the clan situated closest to the border. They would be in friendly territory as soon as they made it to the capital, untouchable even by a Drachman military eager to capture the hero of the people of Amestris.

Then he is there, kneeling in front of her instead of sitting above her like the prince he is, and his hands are broad on her arms. They are deceptively strong; he is not so indestructible as she would like to think when the monster isn't protecting him, no matter how his luck so far would make him seem compared to her and to Edward.

"You don't understand what you ask of me when you ask me to disagree with you," she goes on when it's clear he isn't finished with this topic. "When we are here, it is one thing— but what happens when we are back in Xing and people question why Prince Yao's guard does not know her station? When they say that his inability to direct his servants means he cannot direct the empire?"

There. She's said it. It is the single most insubordinate and unacceptable thing that she or any other warrior of her lineage has ever said to a noble Yao. Were her grandfather still alive to hear her, she would have probably lost her position and her honor the moment those words left her mouth. But he is not here, nor is anyone else who might second-guess the sacrifices to honor and propriety they must make to stay alive. There is only her, she who knows what it is to stare down a devil no one in Xing can even imagine and the things that must be done in the face of evil. It just happens that one of these things, here and now, is to look at her master and say you are wrong.

"What happens is that people learn the Emperor Yao does not suffer fools to serve close to him," is his answer. "There is a difference between devotion and blindness, and you know how to stay on the right side of it."

"Sometimes I wonder," she says, another transgression on her ever-growing list of petty insubordinations.

"I don't," he says. Of course he would think she is infallible; he wants to believe that his most devoted bodyguard, the one who has been chosen to shadow his steps for the rest of his life, is devoted and not merely blind to his flaws. It's just like she wants to believe that the strength she sees in him now is his and not the homunculus's, or how both of them want to believe that the Fullmetal Alchemist isn't collapsing into despair and perhaps even madness faster than they can pull him back from complete ruin. These are the lies that keep them moving forward, the lies that keep her believing that they are doing something right and that they are not doomed to failure from the start.

They are both quiet for a long time; she can hear crickets, and animals on farms too far away to notice them so long as they are quiet. She does not hear Edward; he sleeps the deep, silent sleep of the well and truly exhausted in both body and spirit. Then, finally, her master speaks again.

"What do you ask me for when you say things like this?" And again, he will not stop pressing issues that are not proper for them to speak of. There are so many ways she can answer his question, so many words that she would not be able to get them out even if this had seemed the time and the place for them. This moment, when she can put a stop to all of this tension with one well-chosen word, is of course the moment her tongue betrays her sense of duty and decides to instead agree with what everything else within her wants to say.

"I ask you for nothing, because I want something you cannot give me." The worst part of all is that she cannot look away or hide her face as she admits these things; she has no mask to hide behind now, and she must watch him because it is her job to watch him. She is between him and whatever threats might lurk beyond the window, which means she must face him and look over his shoulder at what might come from below the hayloft. He can see the blush that must certainly cover her entire face right now; he must realize what she is saying.

"I don't like it when people tell me what I can't have." He leans forward, and despite his words his eyes are not Greed's. "I guess our newest ally is rubbing off on me more than I thought." That is something that sounds almost like it had come from the homunculus, but not quite; the words are tempered with a consideration that would never come from the monster. "I wish you had told me sooner."

She wants to wish that she had said something sooner, too, but all she can bring herself to feel is that she should have never said anything at all. Right now-- with her arm tied broken against her chest and Bradley out there tearing apart half of Creta looking for them-- is not the time for a distraction like this.

"You trust me." He does not insult her by asking a question; they both know it's a statement of truth. "Why do you have such a problem with trusting me with this?"

"Because going to Aerugo isn't even your plan," she says. "It's his." She is being charitable in even referring to the monster as a person at all, but she supposes that he has at least earned that much regard.

"Not where we're going," her master says, and the clarification is enough to make the blood rush up to her face again. To hide one's facial expression is perhaps the one form of subterfuge she hasn't been drilled in over the years, simply because someone of her station is to wear the faceless porcelain mask of a bodyguard-- to act as a weapon, not a person-- that will do the work of hiding her expressions for her. "Where we are."

"It is not a matter of trust." It isn't; it could never be. Even when she does not know who he will be from one minute to the next, there is not any person in this entire world she would tell anything before Ling Yao. "It is a matter of what I can and cannot do, and what you can and cannot allow me to do."

Not even he can allow anything he likes; even the Emperor of Xing himself is bound by tradition, country, and clan to follow what has come before, and all of the monster's railing against it will not change the fact that he has miscalculated and helped himself to a portion far less than the banquet that he wants. That is one lesson that, try as he might to grow up, her master still tries to run away from.

"It is a matter of trust," he says, suddenly sharp and loud. Not commanding and imperial, no; this is the voice of a boy who has been wronged, not that of a man giving her orders. "You don't trust me to know something so important. You don't trust me to act appropriately now that I do know. You don't trust me to know how much I can and cannot ask of my people, of you, and you tell me that it is not a matter of trust?"

 

It is the influence of the monster. This one thing that she has always had-- her feelings that are hers and hers alone, for all they were so transparently obvious to some in Amestris-- is now something he lays claim to. It is just another trinket for the god's greed made manifest to collect, and he is letting that happen. And it is this, these awful treacherous words she knows cannot have come from her master's mind alone but are because of the monster he harbors within, that will destroy her.

"I am sorry, my lord," she says, words that she can barely force out. "That you can think so little of me-- I have failed, and I am sorry."

There are no apologies that can answer for the fact that there is a royal prince of the Yao clan without a bodyguard he can trust watching over him, that she has ruined her job so thoroughly that not even her death will change anything. He has said something that he cannot take back; to know that he cannot even trust her is to have something ripped open and left to bleed right out of her.

"I didn't mean it that way." Now he does speak with the voice of a god and an emperor, but when he opens his mouth and repeats himself he is quieter. "I did not mean it that way-- Lan Fan--"

He had meant it enough to say it. That is a fact-- had she been doing her duty properly, he would not have had any cause to think that. There is no way he can mean it that is not shameful, and it is that thought that drives her to take the first step back. And the next and the next, until she is going down the ladder to leave her prince-- if he does not trust her, he will be safer watching his own back. That is fact, not spite.

Every rung she moves down the ladder gets harder as the sheer shock and hurt that sent her to running in the first place begins to dissipate and the realization of what she has actually done is all that remains. She is running from her master and her duty because of one failure; this isn't like her. Where is the Lan Fan who has stared down King Bradley time after time, the Lan Fan who fought the Fullmetal Alchemist knowing nothing but the incredible stories about him, or the Lan Fan who made her automail surgeon swear that she is an impossible thing, an inhuman thing, for how quickly she recovered and returned to the battlefield? All that she has left to her is a Lan Fan she does not wish to have around, not now when all of their lives are at stake. She needs to be a weapon, a shield, a compass-- not a heartsick girl.

Her master leans over the edge of the hayloft, his long hair falling down over his shoulder to obscure his face; he rests his hands on hers where they still grip a rung within his reach.

"Please," he says, and that is when it is too much. Her master should not have to wait long enough for her to obey an order that he has to say please. "I know that your loyalty is not in question. I do. It has never been about that and will never be about that. This is a sort of trust that no one at home would understand, because they don't know what we know."

Not yet is what hangs unspoken at the end of his words. The ancestors help them all, but Xing will learn what her prince and his vassals already have. There is no way that the monsters will not chase them down, and no way that the god who birthed those horrors will ignore the only nation left on the continent with the means to defeat him. If the Princess Chang and her company have made it safely to the desert and into a caravan, they will have a chance-- it may not be the ill-favored swamp that her Highness is used to, but if Changs know anything it's how to crawl through the mud unseen. And once they are in Xing, all Mei Chang will have to do in order to gain an audience with her revered father (may he live long enough that they are able to trounce her return with their own) is show them her companions. Xing will have warning of what comes for them-- the god himself, because if Bradley has gone chasing his errant brother there is an entire nation and more between him and the great ocean of sand Mei Chang has to lose herself in.

"I." Her words stick in her throat. "Master, you must trust me to trust you. Even if I cannot say it."

"And you must trust me more than you trust tradition and station, and say it if I ask you to." He is implacable, his hands unyielding over her own. "It's the only way we can get through this."

He's right, of course. She cannot say he almost always is, not after how wrongly he's spoken of her just now, but he is right about this. And she trusts him to continue to be right. They do not speak again that night, but she follows his unspoken order to rejoin him in the hayloft and every unspoken order that follows the next day.

There is a sort of awkwardness to it that shouldn't be there, a feeling that there is something new when really, isn't it what's been there all along? All she has done is say it aloud, and her master has acknowledged it. Putting a situation out into the open should not change it, but it does and it has; now she is acutely aware every time he asks—or doesn't ask, but merely expects—her to do something, and she has to wonder if he feels the same way at those moments. Perhaps he doesn't, since he hasn't given her any indication that he reciprocates her feelings—only that he knows of them and does not begrudge her them.

They still have almost no food—what little they can steal unnoticed, something that none of them is comfortable doing but also something none of them can find a viable alternative to—and it is another two days to Creta. The only comforts they have are that no one is after them (at least, not that any of them can sense) and that water isn't hard to come by. Quite the opposite, actually; much of the land between the border and the capital is mud.

"We can make it," her master says on the last night they should be spending hiding in the mud before they reach the capital of Creta. They are huddled down in a clearing that isn't quite soup, and at least the farms have given way to trees that will hide them all the better. Edward 's only response is to mutter something about making her master eat shoes, which she doesn't even want to begin to understand; at least the Cretan countryside is as sparsely populated as the northern part of Amestris had been, so it's not likely anyone will hear them.

"Yes," she says. "We can."

He smiles at her, and there is nothing of Greed in it.

 

Day Twenty-Five
Ierapetra, Creta

The capital of Creta is very different from Central City. There is no comparison to the imperial capital of Xing, of course, or even to the great city held by the Yao clan, but it is something that far transcends the former capital of Amestris. Even discounting the fact that there is no lingering evil under their very feet, this city is older. There is a dignity and a history to it that shiny, upstart Central simply could never have matched, not if it had lived for a hundred more years. It may not compare to home, but it is more like it than anything she has seen in far too long.

"Have you ever been here before?" Edward asks as they weave their way through the narrow streets. It is not so rare to hear someone speak Amestrian on these streets; even with an all but declared war on, there are expatriates here-- enough of them that very few of the fairer heads in the dark Cretan crowd are Drachman.

"Never," her master says, and smiles at them both brilliantly. "Our relations with Creta are limited, not even sharing the desert with them, and what trade we have is controlled entirely by the Tian clan. We will have to make the Prince Tian think that we are harmless, and he will be more than happy to pay for automail repair and a train to Aerugo. He always did like throwing money at problems until they went away."

It's easy enough to find the embassy; it's the only place in the city where the chi flares up like people are using it. Prince Tian is, after all, the third prince of Xing. His bodyguards should far outstrip any the Yao clan can provide. This is, perhaps, the only time that her appearance alone and unmasked will help her master in his political ambitions; to see him fallen so far, so desperate and so much a failure, will make the Prince Tian think that the twelfth prince has nothing left save an ambition to return home alive and perhaps serve at the Yao-controlled embassy in Drachma. Prince Tian has no real interest in the throne, a fact that is well known to many; he prefers to stay in Creta and build a commercial empire. He may even see having the clan that controls Drachman trade in his debt to be a boon.

The embassy is the grandest building in its part of the city, as befit an extension of the Emperor's rule. Before they approach the gate-- open, because of course anyone familiar enough with chi techniques to hide his ill intent would come from within and not without-- her master holds up his hand for them to stop.

"Don't tell them who you are," he says to Edward. "Xing and Amestris don't have a treaty of any kind, and they'll probably turn you over to Creta as a war criminal." Never mind that the Fullmetal Alchemist had never been dispatched outside of Amestris, and that the only border he'd probably ever come within sight of was the one north of Briggs; he is still an officer in the Amestrian military, perhaps the only officer left from that less than august organization.

"Good thing I know a little Drachman," Edward says, and makes an odd face. His mouth is twisted, as if the thought of speaking Drachman bothers him. And perhaps it does; they had been, after all, Amestris's staunchest military rival, and Edward had been stationed on the Drachman border for a time. "That's what you've got in mind, right? Nobody's gonna believe I'm a damn Cretan, even if I could speak the stupid language and its stupid cause-and-effect conjugations, and we can't tell them where I'm really from."

"Exactly!" His smile is even wider now, and she can understand why. Every time Edward opens his mouth and proves he's still thinking is another tiny reprieve, another sign that he is still with them. They need him to survive. "The Prince Tian and his retainers have never been to Drachma, just as I have never been to Creta before. So long as you mostly keep quiet, we should be fine."

People stare as they walk through the open gate and up the path to the embassy. The men and women who come to this embassy are diplomats and merchants and rich, noble visitors with their guards; the sight of three people so battered and dirty and worn is a new one here. They know the uniform of a bodyguard-- though not the lack of the mask, since not all of the clans mask their noble guards as the Yao do-- and thus that her master is an important man. Important men do not show up in such places in such a state unless there is something very grave at stake; it is this fact, more than any other, that sees them unmolested by any guard or bureaucrat for as long as they are. It is not until the grand vestibule-- because the embassy is situated in a building of soaring Cretan design, not an authentic Xingese structure-- that someone finally deigns to stop them, and when it does happen their obstacle is a nobleman's guard.

"Your Highness," he says to her master, and inclines his head. He does not bow; he is the vassal of another clan, and her master is not the Emperor to command subservience from all clans. "What clan has honored the Prince Tian with a visit?"

"Yao," her master says. "I am Ling Yao, the twelfth prince of Xing, and I am here to seek the protection of my most honorable brother, the third prince of Xing."

If this doesn't get them killed, then they may have just made it to safety.

 

Day Twenty-Six
Ierapetra, Creta

Her master does not allow her to accompany him to the embassy after the forst vosot, and it is only their newfound understanding that keeps her to the letter of that order. Your duty now is to trust me and what I ask of you, he says. It is both the easiest and the hardest order she has ever been given, because while it goes against everything she has been taught to do it feels right in a way what she has been taught never has. So she sits in the boardinghouse they sought refuge in after her master's first trip to the embassy, left there to contemplate their next plan of action while Edward stares out the window.

"You've had automail longer than I have," she says finally. It seems a bad time to speak of such mundane things, in the first moment they've had to rest, but there is a time and a place to let slip her weaknesses and that is when her master is not present. "Is there anything that can be done about my arm, until we can find a mechanic?"

"Maybe." When he turns away from the window, he looks awful despite being clean and at least a little bit rested for the first time since before they left Amestris. There are dark smudges under his eyes, a testament to the fact that even a roof over their heads and half of an entire country between them and the monstrous god is not enough to give him any measure of peace. "I didn't really try to fix mine when I broke it, Winry-- she-- she didn't like that."

This is the first time she's heard him say Winry Rockbell's name since this entire awful thing happened, and he sounds just as distraught as one might expect. If there were any other way, she would spare him such a painful subject; the fact remains, however, that she has to ask him about automail and that these questions are going to remind him of Winry.

"I wish I didn't have to ask you these questions," she says. There is no reason to stay silent and hide behind her mask, not here in this room. Besides, she has seen him without his mask-- that moment she lay crouched over him, dagger thrust into his human shoulder and that strange, vulnerable look on his face while she did it-- and it would not be fair to refuse him the same courtesy. "But if anything goes wrong when we cross the desert-- I need to know if we can fit it."

"I know," he says. "I know you do, and I know you don't want to. If you were that bastard prince, I'd probably punch your teeth in for it, but you're not. You get it."

So does he. She knows the threat is an idle one, the same sort of thought that she must admit occasionally comes to her when her master does something particularly egregious. But even knowing that, she almost opens her mouth to protest that her master does understand, and would never try and belittle what has happened in Amestris-- and particularly not what has happened to Winry. He had known her; he had liked her. She had helped them all.

"I can get sand out of the joints, as long as you get your arm fixed before we go. Anything I do to it now isn't going to be that good, not for the desert. But I could probably at least get the pieces back into some kind of order." He starts to rise, prepared to come to her, but falls back down into his chair abruptly. He doesn't speak, but his face is pale and his jaw is set. She rises and goes to him instead; neither one of them says a word about his leg. Neither one of them needs to.

Automail isn't exactly like having a flesh and blood hand, but neither is it entirely without sensation-- the same nerve connections that ensure she can move it as she does the hand she was born with also ensure that she can feel something with it. Not pain, nor temperature-- but she can feel pressure and texture in a muted sort of way. It would be impossible to properly manipulate objects without being able to feel them there, and the engineers and alchemists who had first thought of automail had taken that into account. She can feel his hands on her arm, because of that muted sense of touch; his automail fingers are heavier on the metal than his flesh fingers, but a little less sure.

And then he claps, the vibration from it running all the way from her shoulder to her fingertips.

Alchemy is very different from alkahestry-- it is a destructive art, the mad wisdom of Xerxes untempered by the knowledge of the golden-eyed sage who had delivered unto Xing the secret of alkahestry, of life and healing and of working with the earth instead of against it. She has never made a study of alkahestry, though she has gleaned a little from what her master has studied and a great deal more from the past year of her life; still, she can almost understand why alchemy is fundamentally so different from alkahestry, now that it's being used on her and not as a weapon. Where the alkahestry had flowed in lines following her chi, set on its path by the healer who had overseen her automail surgery, alchemy follows stark angles and patterns that would not have been out of place in an Amestrian array. It does not work with her, but instead seeks to rebuild her in its own image.

No wonder it has been labeled a destructive, incomplete thing by the alkahestry masters. It must be so much easier to destroy than create with a power such as this. But destructive or no, when he pulls his hands away her arm is straight and she can flex her fingers. Not nearly so well as she could before Bradley had thrown her by the arm, but the movement is there.

"Thank you," she says. "...is there anything you can do for your leg?"

"I'm pretty sure there isn't anything a mechanic can do for my leg," Edward says bluntly, and reaches up to scrub his human hand through his hair. "Short of surgery, anyway. It's not the automail, it's the port. It's too small, and running around in the snow at Briggs was hell on it. It needs to be replaced yesterday."

Perhaps they have misjudged just how far Edward Elric will go to kill this false god. She has assumed that he does not want his automail replaced, that it is a relic of Winry he wants to keep with him. But then again, the things she has heard about him-- burning down the house where his mother died-- and seen from him-- no civil words for his own father-- tell a very different story, at that. They say that he will have his automail changed as soon as he can, because that means he can run from what has happened the way they had all run from Amestris. He is not avoiding the subject because he wants to keep his automail; he is avoiding the subject because there is nothing they can do until they are safe and he does not want to slow them down.

"We have to get through the desert," she says. "We can't, if you are in bad shape. And we can't win without your help."

"Yeah, you can," he says quietly. "As long as you've got Al, you can do it. And Al's going to get to Xing just fine. He is. Bradley's after us, Selim can't leave Central, and I think if that old bastard was planning to use his so-called god powers to kill us all where we stood he'd have done it already instead of delegating to someone we can outrun."

There is a rustling at the window, and she can suddenly feel a new source of chi in the room. Her master has kept his mostly suppressed, both to hide his newfound companion and to keep Prince Tian and his retainers from thinking he is anything but a weak, defeated prince begging for protection and mercy. Now, though, he lets it spill out around him; she cannot blame him, because keeping it so hidden must have been painful.

"And what, we're supposed to leave you here?" Her master asks from where he is suddenly perched on the open window's sill, legs crossed under him. He looks as if he will fall backwards if he leans back at all, but they are only on the second floor. Should he slip and do something impossibly clumsy, he will not be hurt by the fall. "I don't think so."

"Why can't you use a door, like a normal person?" Edward mutters, and the sound of him saying something so ordinary is enough to raise her spirits even more. He has been taken in by the Yao clan, whether he wants it or not; their claim that he is a Drachman retainer is enough to make him a ward of their clan in the eyes of the Tian stationed here. That means her protection for her master must extend, albeit in a smaller way, over his guest as well. There will be no sneaking off to die in the desert in an attempt to speed their journey.

"I have an appointment with an automail mechanic for both of you," her master says. "But there is a... complication... with that. The only good automail technicians in the city are Drachmans and Amestrians, and neither one of those will be fooled for a second.

"I arranged for an Amestrian one, on account of the fact that they are the inventors of automail and I will not have some half-competent Drachman hammering away at my only remaining bodyguard. It will be a trial to convince such a mechanic to work on a Drachman, of course, but I am confident that my personable ways will convince him to see reason. And an Amestrian mechanic will surely see the reasons for keeping an Amestrian military officer's true nature a secret in Creta, so we should be able to make it to Aerugo before anyone figures it out."

It is a good plan. She must trust him to make the plans now; they are not in her territory now, but his. Their obstacles are politicians and customs and laws, at least for now, and not monsters and the very land working against them. He trusts her to trust him.

"What are we waiting for, then?" Edward asks, and finally manages to get up from his chair. It is not without a slight wince, but he is up and once he is moving it would be difficult indeed for someone not well acquainted with his usual stance to notice anything amiss. He is hiding his limp well, better than he did at the embassy.

Her master is right, of course. The automail technician turns out to be a doctor, a thin man who doesn't look capable of lifting an entire steel leg, let alone installing it on a thrashing patient. His name is Dr. Gray, and he doesn't look happy to see them. He closes the door when they are all inside, and waits until he is reasonably sure no one will follow them inside before he gives them the bad news.

"I told the embassy already, I don't deal with Drachmans anymore. They cause trouble." Dr. Gray's mouth is pressed down into a thin, pale line. "I don't care which clan you're from, or how close to Drachma it is. There's a war going on."

"Do I look like a fucking Drachman to you?" Edward asks in his perfect Amestrian accent, and he takes out his pocketwatch in one fluid motion that ends with slamming it down on the table in front of them. "You're such a damn patriot, huh. What are you doing in Creta, if you love Amestris so much?"

"Living," Dr. Gray says. He looks down at the watch, and then back up at Edward, before he speaks again. "That changes things. Come along, then. What's your name?"

"Russell Tringham," Edward says, without any hesitation at all. He does not lie often, but she can see the wisdom in doing it now. If this man is as patriotic as he seems, he will have certainly heard of the infamous Fullmetal Alchemist. And while his intentions will likely be good, they do not want to draw attention to themselves before the time is right. They must get to Aerugo before the Prince Tian finds out that her master has duped him.

As it turns out, her automail will need to be replaced completely before it is fully functional again. It is in fairly decent order now thanks to Edward's transmutation, but for a full range of motion-- particularly in the small sensitive joints of the fingers-- she will need a new arm. It is, however, something that can safely be postponed until they cross the desert so long as they manage to outrun any major fights in their path. And they have little choice, since they do not have time for an entirely new arm to be made for her by a technician who has never worked with her before.

Edward's situation is a little less straightforward. While he had been right about needing a new port, it seems there are adjustments that can be made to alleviate some of the problem until such a time as he can get it. Now that he knows he's working on a State Alchemist, Dr. Gray falls all over himself to make sure that he's doing everything he can for Edward. She can only wonder what has happened to this man, since such a hatred of Drachmans and such a reverence for Amestrian soldiers while living in another country can only come from personal experience.

"Is this frost damage?" Dr. Gray asks, and looks at Edward slightly askance.

"Not much I could do about that when I was at Fort Briggs," Edward says, and if having his automail worked on now is having as much effect on him as simple reattachments have in the past then he's determined not to show it to Dr. Gray.

"Of course," Dr. Gray demurs. "Your arm will be fine—it's hard to break good Rush Valley automail, and you've taken better care of it than you have your leg. But you need to get the port on your leg replaced as soon as you're in Xing—and quite frankly, I'd recommend staying here and having it done instead of crossing the desert. Even in a caravan, you're going to have trouble."

"We can't do that," Edward says.

"Be it on your head, then," Dr. Gray says, and stands up. "I would also recommend, however, that you find a better disguise."

"I'm not—" Edward's head whips around so quickly that his braid swings right over his shoulder.

"Funny how you exactly match the description of the Fullmetal Alchemist, Major Tringham. Someone in Creta is going to notice that if you don't hide a little better." And with that, Dr. Gray is finished with them; that leaves only one thing for them to do.

The walk is faster now that Edward's limp has improved, to the point that while he is actively trying to hide it he seems perfectly mobile. She does not know how long he can keep it up, but hopefully it will be long enough for them to take their leave of Ierapetra. So long as they both stand silent behind her master and nothing goes wrong in the final pledge of allegiance to the Prince Tian, they are almost free.

When they reach the embassy, though, it is silent. Even the birds in the gardens outside have ceased to make noise, and she hopes that they are merely possessed of better survival instincts than most people and not dead in their cages. There is no telling what may have happened here, other than the fact that there is no doubt King Bradley has followed them. She can feel him, pure malice lurking inside the embassy. The constant powerful flow of chi she had felt when they first arrived here is no more; all she can feel now is Bradley, and a faint echo of life inside. Someone still lives in the embassy, at least.

"Hello," Bradley says, in Cretan, when they enter the vestibule. They are in nearly the same place they had been days earlier, when her master had first bowed before his brother. "I was just having a nice talk with the Prince Tian."

Bookish, reserved Prince Tian looks both furious and terrified-- his color is high and the anger in his eyes when he looks at his brother is unmistakable, but she can feel the ripples in his chi that tell how deeply he shivers with fear. He is the only person in the vestibule, aside from the three of them and Bradley himself, who is still alive.

"You did leave out a great deal when you met with your brother," Bradley says, as if admonishing his own brother. In a way, perhaps he feels he is. "Like the real identity of your Drachman retainer, for example, or what you're trying to bring back home with you. What happened to your other, senior bodyguard. Why you are in Creta, running like the rat that you are. Why the leader of a powerful nation is chasing after you personally, and why you have brought me down upon the brother who granted you protection."

"And I suppose you told him the whole story?" Her master asks. She would swear that it is his voice, and his posture, but the sharp upturn of his mouth is all Greed's.

"Certainly not. I thought I would leave that for his brother. And after you tell him the truth, I can deal with my brother." His eye moves slightly, towards where she stands next to Edward. They both have dropped into position behind her master. "And the vermin who got away at the border outpost. You both should have died in Amestris."

"This man claims to be the Fuhrer of Amestris," the Prince Tian practically snarls. "What sort of treachery had you planned?"

"Nothing, against you," her master says, that same alien smile on his face. "After all, you have no wish to take the imperial throne. My request for hospitality was genuine-- you see, we came here from all the way in Central City, and that's a rather tiring walk."

At least, that's what she thinks he says. That same verb conjugation problem she'd had before is coming up again; he could be saying that he does not plan anything against the third prince, or he could be saying that he has already carried out his treachery against the third prince. It is the exact same issue that had caused her confusion between detained and convicted before. But she has to trust him, no matter what he means. She has a promise to keep, and so does he.

It will be difficult; she does not have the blade on her automail that she normally does. It was snapped right off in her last fight with Bradley, and so her only weapons are knives that she must get exceedingly close to strike with. That is a distance even she will be hard pressed to close with Bradley, not when they have been denied all element of surprise.

"And he's not really the Fuhrer of Amestris anymore," her master goes on, because he does not know when to stop talking sometimes. "Unless he wants to claim that title over the half a dozen Amestrians who still live."

"Ling Yao," the Prince Tian says, his anger giving way to annoyed weariness, "stop all of this obfuscating and explain yourself." His pale face has gone blotchy red with anger, and were he inclined to study of alkahestry instead of economics they would likely have reason to fear just now.

"Your brother can deal with you after I deal with mine," Greed says, and the last tenuous link-- the appearance of her master's chi flow-- falls away and everyone in the room can tell that the Prince Yao is not who stands before them anymore. "And I don't like it when you call my people vermin, Wrath. I don't like it at all."

He drops his dao. Of course; Greed needs no weapon except for his own claws. Even the strongest Xingese steel is an inferior instrument to the edge of a diamond.

...he's dropped his dao.

"I was planning to make Amestris mine," Greed says, and every trace of his shark-smile is gone down in favor of a scowl that bares his fangs just as effectively. "And you had to go and take that away from me. You think I'm gonna let you do that a second time? Xing's mine now. So are the little lady and the Fullmetal brat. Hell, even that idiot prince's brother is mine now."

The strangled sound from just to her side can only come from the Prince Tian. Greed's skin is turning black; it's the sight of the transformation that's startled him so. When Bradley sees the same thing, his reaction is not to stare but to strike. Greed strikes back, and Edward leaps forward with alchemical sparks already crackling over his automail.

In that one blind instant when Bradley is occupied with two opponents and still has his oroborous eye covered, Lan Fan picks up the dao. She will have to move quickly, especially if she intends to do this one-armed; thankfully, it is not her leg that is working less than perfectly.

When Bradley's sword hits Greed, it gives off sparks. Something is going to give if he keeps hitting Greed with an ordinary weapon, and that something is not going to be the shield. Bradley knows this, has to know this, but he doesn't have any choice but to keep his focus on Greed-- with his leg working somewhat better, Edward is both a well-armed target and a moving one, whereas Greed is staying right there where Bradley can get to him and keeping him away from the others. She only has a few more seconds before he will inevitably take off his eyepatch and know everything that is in the room, and by then it will be too late to surprise him.

Greed is laughing. He just stands there, keeping Bradley locked down in one position instead of letting him choose his target. Greedy indeed, to want even all of Bradley's attention for himself; any other explanation would make her head hurt and will have to wait for a moment when everything does not depend on her getting things absolutely right.

The parts of the tile floor that have given way to stone and reached out on all sides of Bradley are of a curiously convenient height for her to jump from one to the other, but there is not so much as a glance her way from Edward. The wrath of a god sees everything. He knows what she is doing and hopes that Bradley does not, and he doesn't want to give her away. Her master is not the only one to trust her to trust him, even if it's in an entirely different way. And that trust is worth it when she makes it to the railing far above them, where people walking on the floor above can look down at the polished floor of the vestibule and see the people coming in and out. It was probably built for aesthetics, far from any borders in a nation that had been peaceful until Amestris forced everyone to be otherwise, but the guards of the embassy must have found it an absolute blessing for keeping track of comings and goings. Lan Fan walks around the balcony as softly as she can, her chi muffling her footsteps and keeping the faint stirring of air from alerting Bradley that she is up here watching him. There is no time to climb the railing-- he will see her-- and so all she can do is jump, right over the decorative railing, and fall down into the vestibule.

If she does not get this exactly right, she will die. It is a complex balance of chi, just the right amount slowing her fall so that it will not be fatal but not enough to render her sword incapable of slicing right through flesh. Then there is more chi, making the sword an extension of her and ensuring that it will do its job even if her master has been lax in keeping it sharpened, used now to claws that need no whetstones to remain deadly. And then finally there is the technique to help keep her silent, though nothing will keep her hidden from the eye. A flashbomb-- if she even had one, because she had lost the last of hers somewhere before the Cretan border post-- would only be a giveaway, and not hide her from Bradley's unnatural vision anyway.

When she feels resistance, when she does not feel the dao break under her hands in a screeching shower of sparks and steel, she knows that somehow she has done it. The spray of blood where her master's dao has gone right through Bradley's arms-- thanks to the added force, if not finesse, of her half-repaired arm-- is everywhere, and yet she cannot bring herself to be disgusted. It is the blood of an enemy, one who has taken much from her and tried time and time again to take everything from her, and so she lets it rain down around her.

The flash of the transmutation surprises her, but only because she has been so focused on the fact that Bradley stands staggering and bleeding before her and his sword is on the floor in hands no longer his own. It is something that she has been waiting for, the chance to face down the man who has taken her grandfather, taken her arm, tried to take her master, and left her for dead no fewer than three times, and now that she is here there aren't any words. She had rather thought she would make Bradley see what it would be to feel that fear of having nothing, but now that she is here it is so very, very obvious that there is no way to make a monster feel anything. Even now, he looks at her like she is something he will deal with just as soon as he can lift his sword again-- until the transmutation starts.

"I am so fucking done with you, Bradley," Edward says, and she can hear the clench of his teeth in his voice. He's behind Bradley, and without his arms there isn't much the homunculus can do except try to get away. Which he would probably be doing a very good job of, even incapacitated, except that Edward keeps burning off his philosopher's stone and Greed is still there, holding him in place, and she has taken away his weapon.

She picks up Bradley's sword; she has to wrench it out of fingers that will never unclench again, but take it up she does. It is longer than she is used to, thinner and with more give. It is a strange weapon, but not entirely unlike the blade she normally has on her automail. It is slippery under her fingers from the blood; were it her weapon, she would have wrapped the hilt to prevent such a thing from happening. Perhaps she will do that, when they leave this place.

"Did you care about them at all?" She asks King Bradley, looking at him and him alone. She ignores the blood, the blue flash of alchemy and the sickening sound of crackling and burning that comes with it. She ignores the two men standing with her and the terrified fumbling of the Prince Tian behind them; she must have this secret from Bradley before he dies. Not, as he must think, because she has some hope that her master is still inside Greed somewhere; after all, she knows that he is there. No, she must hear it from him because she has to know if he feels anything at all in these last moments, if the destruction of his wife and his country has had any effect on him at all. If it has not, then she will have no choice but to work against the monster within her master whether or not he is still there and a willing participant in his own damnation.

"I chose that woman," Bradley says, and looks her right in the eyes.

That is what she needs to hear, the knowledge that her master can choose, and she pierces Bradley's unnatural eye with his own sword.

The change in his body is sudden; one moment he is the adversary who has chased them for so long, and the next he is a desiccated husk of what he had been. And it is at that moment, when his uniform pools too loosely around a body suddenly too small for it, that she sees the vial slip from the folds of fabric at his pocket.

She may need it, if the monster proves less trustworthy than her master.

"I would have the meaning of this," the Prince Tian says in a trembling voice as they stand in the wreckage of the Xingese embassy. They are battered and bloody and falling apart once again, except for Greed standing impeccable and unharmed in her master's body, and they stand in what is now only a house of the dead. Is this what will follow them all the way to Xing?

"Surely you've heard the rumors out of Amestris, about the border force suddenly disappearing, and all communication and trade stopping," Greed says. He doesn't speak quite as roughly now as he normally does, as if he has picked up some eloquence from her master. "Your kid brother meant it when he said that my brother was king of half a dozen people. Amestris is dead. Speaking of, I did say you could deal with your brother when I was done with mine."

And with that, his smile fades and her master stands serious and somber in his place.

"Lu Tian," her master says, using the Prince Tian's given name in a way that would be terribly disrespectful were it not about to become eminently clear that he will be the next Emperor of Xing no matter what he must do. "I cannot die. You know what that means. Help me now, and I will ensure that you remain the Third Prince of Xing. I will, after all, have no need of heirs to put into such a position."

He is not stupid, the third prince. He has spent years studying economics, among many other things, and that has given him a keen analytical mind; he knows when he is defeated.

"Whatever you require, Prince Yao," he says, and inclines his head. "The Tian clan is honored to ally itself with the Yao clan."

"Thank you," her master says. "I meant it when I said we didn't mean to bring trouble down upon you. And we are acting to save all of Xing-- what has happened in Amestris will look to Xing next, because of our alkahestry masters. There are three things that we require-- do you still have a working telegraph line to the imperial capital?"

"We do. It is the only one that crosses the desert." Lu Tian pauses. "It may be intercepted, though. We relay through Aerugan operators between here and the desert."

"That's fine," her master says. "Our enemies know where we are and where we are going. You need to get word to the capital that I have been here-- address it in care of the Princess Chang, who should arrive in the imperial capital before we do. Tell her that I have been here and am alive, and that my retainer and the Fullmetal Alchemist are with me."

"I still want the full story from you about this, but I will send your telegraph." Her master's older brother does not look very much like him; they both take after the clans of their mothers, Lu Tian with the square face she remembers vaguely seeing on the Lady Tian at court on the few occasions she was there and her master with the classical oval face-- now that he is old enough that it is no longer too long for the rest of him-- of the Yao clan. But at that moment, they share the same expression, one of sour-faced determination. They are not eager allies.

"And you will have it, when time is something we have," her master says. "For now, we must move on. The other two things we will require of you are passage to Aerugo, and a place in one of your caravans across the desert. Both of my retainers have automail in poorer repair than can be quickly dealt with here in Creta, and a caravan is the only safe way for us to cross the sand."

She is very, very glad that they speak in Xingese, because if Edward had understood her master calling him a retainer there would be no stopping his fury.

"Lan Fan," her master says. "If you and Edward would return to our lodgings and prepare for leaving tomorrow, I have things to discuss with my brother."

She almost argues with him. A brother is the last person her master should be ever be left alone with, particularly one he has come perilously close to having killed and humiliated, in that order. But he trusts her to trust him, and he has ordered her to fall back.

"Should we be doing this?" Edward asks her outside.

"Yes," she says, and it almost doesn't feel like a lie. People must be staring-- they are both covered in dust and blood, and seeing two such people-- her armed with two swords, and both of them with automail-- is not a regular sight in Creta. They will be lucky if no one calls the police, but then again-- they have been lucky so far. Perhaps it will hold out. "We have a second philosopher's stone. Bradley had it."

Lan Fan takes out the vial that she had pocketed back in the embassy. It looks like something menacing, winking redder than blood and bubbling of its own accord like something alive. She can feel the heat of it through the glass.

"Put that away," Edward says hoarsely. "Put it away. I don't want to look at it."

She puts it away, but only because she does not want to start even more of a scene in the street. He will have to deal with what they must do eventually, but the time and place for that revelation is not here and now when they already look like the murderers they are.

"I didn't want to have to kill him," Edward says when they are back in the boardinghouse, blessedly unseen by the proprietor, and she is washing the blood from her face. "But-- there wasn't any other way. I want there to be another way."

Well, at least one of them has mercy enough even for monsters. There may come a time when her master will need that, and so as long as Edward knows when to put that aside as he has today then there should not be a problem.

"If anyone will find one, you will." He finds ways to do things that no one else would expect, and that is why they need him to stop this monster from destroying anything else. "But if there isn't one, you have to be prepared to do what is necessary."

"I liked it better when you didn't talk," Edward mutters, and that is just the limit of what she can tolerate from him. If her master will not take that sort of thought from her, then she will not take it from some Amestrian commoner who isn't willing to face their problem head-on.

"And I liked it better when you had a spine," she says.

He stares at her for a moment, and then laughs. He is laughing at her. It's not a good laughter; it's the brittle kind that comes when someone has seen or heard something so terrible that the only way not to go mad is to do something halfway between laughing and crying.

"Do I need to stab you again?" She finally asks when he shows no sign of quieting; she has never been good at comforting people. That is why she has the job she does; she is a protector, not a caregiver. And it had calmed him down the last time; it is a tempting option, albeit one she knows she cannot use the night before they begin a journey to the desert.

"Yeah, actually," he says between laughs that almost sound more like hiccups now. "That just might work, for awhile."

He is being serious. His laughs taper off into gasps, and he is looking at her with expectant, almost desperate, eyes. This is not a look that suits Edward Elric; even that odd look he had given her back in Amestris when she did stab him had been better.

"That would be a very bad idea, just before a train ride and a caravan trip. We are lucky enough that your shoulder hasn't gotten infected." She knows that he knows this, but everyone has moments where they are not rational. Her own had been that evening in the hayloft, and her master's is going on right now as he speaks alone to Lu Tian. Edward deserves to have one more than all the rest of them do, and he has been holding onto his rational brain by the tips of his fingers ever since they began their walk through Amestris.

"I know that," he says. He doesn't look away, or duck his head in shame. He just looks at her. "I know it like I knew we had to kill Bradley."

Given how he reacted to killing even that homunculus, that is not a good thing. There has to be something else she can do to get him thinking straight again.

"Is there anything else that would work?" There's no reason not to simply ask, if he's that aware of what he needs right now and why he needs it.

"It would be just as stupid," he says, but his eyes narrow. "Well, maybe not. You have automail and know what can mess it up, so you'd probably be okay doing it. Hell, it might even help, with as screwed up as my leg is right now."

He takes his own automail leg off, something that must be more difficult than it looks-- the arm is complicated enough, especially at first. To work with something so unwieldy as a leg alone is something she is glad she has never had to learn. The port is more torn up than the one on her arm-- he has obviously had more than one surgery, and it does look like he is outgrowing it. That he can walk like that-- he would be good at her sort of work, if he were not so merciful and willing to give people chances.

"Don't tell my master about the philosopher's stone," she says suddenly, treacherous words but ones that need to be said. If he truly does trust her, then her master will understand that she does it for him, and that she cannot yet consider the monster within him a second master. Perhaps he would earn that designation in time, or at least the respect that Edward can command when he is not doing his best to ruin their plans, but he does not have that now.

"Are you kidding? He would use it," Edward says. He does not trust her master. Perhaps she would not, either, had she seen him accept the philosopher's stone into himself. But she had not been there, and so she does not know the demons within her master himself the way Edward might. "I am not saying a damn word about it."

Not even to save your brother? "What do you want me to do now?"

"Put your fingers there, in the port. There's a couple of wires that are loose there-- the red one is the one you want." She follows his directions, and as soon as she brushes her fingers against the appropriate wire his head falls back and his breath comes sharply. He looks relieved.

"Doesn't that hurt more?" She asks.

"It hurts different," he says. "And right now, that's enough."

And just like that, she gets it. It makes so much more sense now, why he grips the sides of his chair and lets out a gasp that sounds anything but agonized when she takes the red wire and pinches it. Up close, the automail port is a mess, and she wonders how much of it is from growing, how much from weather automail was never meant to withstand, and how much of it is of his own making.

"Don't do this yourself anymore," she says. She is not used to giving orders, but if he can learn to hurt differently and take relief from it then she can learn to obey differently and do the same. "Not without someone around to fix it for you." He had been complacent in his automail repair, because he had been so used to going to Winry; most of the damage had probably already been done by the time the homunculus ascended to godhood.

"I'll be okay until we get to Xing. I've gotta stay in one piece and find Al, right?" He asks, though there is a hitch in his voice in the middle of his words. Whether it is because he is lying or because she has just pressed the red wire to the blue wire, she does not know. He moves his hand—the automail one that threatens to splinter the wood of the chair—and grips at her shoulder. There is a little bit of pressure, of course, but the alloy in her automail shoulder is made for combat and holds up just fine to what would be crushing pressure on her flesh and bone shoulder. He opens his mouth to say something else, eyes closed and fingers unyielding on her metal shoulder, when they're interrupted.

"That's right," her master says from behind them, and he sounds pleased. "Though how long it will be before we get there, if this is your idea of packing to leave, I don't know."

"Don't you know how to use a door, you idiot?" Edward asks, a far less irritable echo of the same question he asked when her master last entered the room. Her master laughs, and she can hear both him and Greed in it.

"I always miss the good part," Greed says, and he still sounds a little like both of them.

She will keep the stone in her pocket, but she is a little less sure now that anyone will ever have to use it.