Mei Chang was fourteen when Alphonse Elric first came to the court of Xing.
He looked nothing like the skeleton-boy she’d seen in the whirlwind following the confrontation with Father. He was tall and strong and handsome. His pale hair was cut short, and he filled out an Amestrian suit and tie nicely now. Only his eyes were the same, still round and golden and kind.
Mei’s Imperial brother, His Celestial Majesty, was overjoyed to see an old friend. They all dined together in private- Ling and Lan Fan and Alphonse and Mei.
“How long are you staying?” Ling asked. “It must be at least a month; my Imperial pride would be outraged for anything less.” He grinned at Alphonse, and Mei knew that Ling was only partially joking.
“I suppose I can stay that long,” Alphonse said, affably. “I was hoping to work on alkahestry with Mei, if she doesn’t mind teaching me. But then Zampano and Jerso and I are headed further East for a while.”
Mei flushed, thinking about private lessons with Alphonse. She turned her face down, paying closer attention to her food.
“I’m sure Mei would love to give you alkahestry lessons,” Ling said, cheerfully.
Mei considered how much trouble she would get in for kicking the emperor in the face.
Alphonse ended up staying for two months. In that time, he helped them foil both an assassination attempt on the emperor and a plot to discredit the Chang clan. The day he left, Mei was proud of the way she managed to return his hug without embarrassing herself. She was grown up now, and she was beyond foolish daydreams of blond Amestrian princes. It wasn’t like Amestris had royalty anyway.
Mei was fifteen when Alphonse returned from the East.
He was even taller than when he’d left, and it seemed as though he towered over Mei almost as much as he had when he’d been in the armor. He smiled, and laughed, and told the emperor stories about his travels. He brought Ling a box full of exotic spices, and a promise to advise the palace cooks about the cuisines of the East. He brought Mei a number of scrolls in languages that neither of them could read. He also brought her a bird carved from colored stones. Its tiny wings were covered in tinier stone feathers, and its eyes were jewel-bright. It looked as though it were about to take flight in her hand.
“It made me think of you,” he told her, his yellow eyes smiling.
Alphonse begged the Son of Heaven for the favor of his sister’s time as a tutor. The Son of Heaven told him that if Mei was willing, it was no business of his. Mei tried very hard not to notice the twinkle in the emperor’s eye when he said it.
Her days changed, then. She spent her mornings as she always had; reading, or sparring, or playing with Xiao Mei. Her afternoons, though, were occupied by Alphonse. At first, she was the teacher, and he the student. He couldn’t read Xingese, and he didn’t know anything about alkahestry or meditation, and she provided him with sharp-tongued instruction in those subjects. His mind was startlingly quick, though. Soon, their sessions became less about instruction and more about mutual discovery and discussion. She had always been brighter than her teachers, but it was clear that she was not brighter than Alphonse- only more experienced. They argued constantly, but their sessions were exhilarating and productive.
When they needed a break from indoor study, she and Alphonse went out to spar. Before Alphonse’s return, Mei had been sparring with various members of the palace guard. Soon, though, Alphonse became her only partner. He had no fear of bruising a member of the royal family, and while he himself was still learning, he was clearly gifted enough to match her. He approached fighting with the same calm joy that he approached most things, and Mei had to outdo herself to keep up.
Sometimes, she had to admit, she looked at him and remembered her childish dreams about what the Prince in the Armor would be like.
She was just sixteen when everything changed again.
She had stopped wondering when Alphonse would leave them, to go off traveling or to go home. He’d been at court for a year, and she had grown used to his presence. Still, in her heart, she knew that he’d leave again someday.
They were studying together when a messenger brought him the letter. Alphonse read it to himself, his face shifting in response to whatever was written inside. The years spent in armor had robbed Alphonse of the ability to keep his feelings hidden- if that was an ability he had ever had. As he got to the end of the letter, his face suddenly showed shock and delight. “Winry!” he cried. “Brother and Winry! There’s going to be a baby!” He grinned, and grabbed Mei into a hug, dancing around the room. He looked down at her, breathless. “They want me to come see them after the baby comes. Can you believe it? Brother and Winry are having a baby!” Mei danced with him, caught up the the joy rippling through his qi. It wasn’t until later that she realized that it meant that Alphonse was leaving her.
He seemed to know it, too. Their time together took on a strange, somber tone. They argued less, and found reasons to let the sessions stretch into the evening. Mei knew that he was spending his time with her now while he could. Soon, he would be gone.
Two weeks before Alphonse was going to leave, they sat together in the library. Alphonse was tense and silent, and Mei didn’t know what to say. She resigned herself to studying in silence, not sure how to draw him out, or whether she should even try. They went on like that into the evening, stopping to ask questions, or clarify points, but never really beginning to discuss anything. All the while, Alphonse grew more tense. Mei began to worry that she’d done something to upset him.
She reached for a scroll, and suddenly, his hand was on her wrist, stopping her. “Mei,” he said, his voice choked. He reached down and took her face in his large, warm, calloused hands. “Mei,” he breathed, and kissed her.
Mei had never kissed anyone. She had thought about it, of course, but not in recent years. She had decided to leave those fantasies behind, to focus on the welfare of her clan and on her development as an alkahestrist. She had not thought about Alphonse’s lips on hers, or his fingers threading through her hair, or his hand stretching, strong and warm, around her waist. Now that the moment had arrived, she had no idea what to do.
“Mei?” Alphonse whispered as he pulled away from her. His yellow eyes were wide, and she saw fear there. “Say something?” he begged her.
“Alphonse,” she gasped, and tears welled in her eyes. “I didn’t think-” she started. “I don’t-” she blushed, her face growing hot. Finally, she leaned up and pecked him inexpertly on the lips, hoping that actions might serve where words had failed.
He laughed, and there were tears on his cheeks. “You’re so beautiful,” he told her shyly, his pale skin flushing. “You’re brilliant, and you’re strong and you’re beautiful. I don’t want to leave Xing without you. Please say that you’ll come with me when I go back to Amestris.”
She blinked, her lip quavering. “I have duties to my clan here,” she said, trying not to sound like she was whining. “I can’t abandon them to move to Amestris.”
“Then don’t,” he told her, brushing her cheek with his fingertips, his fingers trembling as if afraid he might break her. “I’m not done with my research. I’ll come back if you and Ling will have me. But I want you to meet my Granny, and to see the baby, and to meet Paninya and Mr. Garfiel and Mr. Nedobeck. I want you to see Resembool. I want you to come home with me.”
The tears broke through. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I’ll go with you.”
Then Alphonse was kissing the tears from her cheeks. His lips were salty when they met hers. This time, she kissed him back, her fingers curling shyly around his neck.
Ling came to her quarters a few evenings later. She was just getting ready for bed, and she squeaked when he appeared. She hadn’t sensed him coming. Perhaps it was something to do with having housed a homunculus- or perhaps it was just Ling- but he could often shield himself from her.
“Hey, little sister,” he greeted her. He had many sisters, but she was the only one that he addressed that way.
She glared at him. “What are you doing here, Ling?” she asked him, reaching for something to use as a projectile.
He grinned. “Al just came to speak to me,” he said, his eyes twinkling with amusement. “He asked me for permission to court you.”
Ling laughed. “I take it this isn’t a surprise,” he said. Mei threw her powder pouf at his head. It hit dead on, of course, and white powder spread all over Ling’s black hair. He threw himself backwards onto her bed dramatically, as though she had dealt him a mortal blow.
“Alphonse wants me to go with him when he visits Edward and Winry,” she told him.
“Oh, ho,” Ling said, lifting his be-powdered head up to look at her. “Do you want to go?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Why are you asking?” she said, suspiciously.
Ling looked at her thoughtfully. “Because it’s my job to decide who you marry,” he told her. “But you’re Chang clan, and it’s not like anybody thinks you’re important, and I have plenty of other sisters to marry off anyway. So, I’m curious- do you want Al? You can have him if you do.” His eyes were strangely kind.
She stared at her brother. She was an Imperial princess, and Imperial princesses did not marry for love. They married for the well-being of their clan, and the stability of the Empire. Mei had always known that, even if she had allowed herself to imagine a romantic elopement in her childhood. Even when she’d kissed Alphonse, she hadn’t seriously thought that she could marry him.
Ling laughed. “Hey!” he said, sitting up. “What’s with the long face? It’s just a question. I thought you’d be happy.”
Mei started to cry. “I- I don’t know,” she said. “I want to go to Amestris. He wants to show me his home.”
“Resembool?” Ling said. “Yeah, it’s a pretty place. Hey, don’t cry, Mei.” He leaned down and patted her on the head. If anyone else had done it, she’d probably have tried to take their hand off with her kunai.
Mei sniffed. “I don’t know whether I want to marry Alphonse,” she said. “I didn’t know I could.”
Ling smiled. “Let me know,” he said. “The offer’s open.”
Mei was six months shy of seventeen when she left Xing for Amestris the second time. Her Imperial brother wished her good luck, his bodyguard dark and silent behind him. Before she went, Mei broke protocol and hugged him. The courtiers gasped as they watched. Ling only laughed, and opined that her Amestrian was rubbing off on her.
Mei blushed as she rode off, Alphonse at her side.