Some time after it is over, they run—fleet-footed and evasive.
The homunculus lies dormant under young master's skin. The snake chases its tail on the back of his hand and Lanfan can feel the massive concentration of chi that fills him, smothering the sense of the young master's own like the scent of clean skin under a bath of perfumes.
But still the avaricious does not rear up in the young master's body, cant his shoulders to one side or curl his mouth. On the fifth day of their flight, Lanfan watches him too closely, too warily—she does not avert her eyes quickly enough when he meets her gaze.
"Greed is considering what he has learned," young master explains, realizing what she is waiting for. His smile is wholly his own.
Lanfan tugs up her collar—tugs down her hood.
They travel to East Amestris, then meander north. Home gets farther away and they seem to have no real direction. The desert was worse than the bitter cold, though. In the cold, they hide in their borrowed coats and in their layered clothes. The wind stings her eyes and a man they pass suggests she remove her mask lest it freeze to her skin with her own perspiration. She has already been warned about her arm, but wherever they think it was made, it was not. It does not hold the cold. It is the only part of her that doesn't.
Her nose gets rosy pink, and her cheeks follow when young master points it out with a grin.
There is a small cabin, an old outpost for soldiers who have since traveled to Central Amestris. A storm is coming and there are supplies in the cabin. There is no better place to stay.
Lanfan builds a fire while young master sorts through their rations. It takes her twice as long as it otherwise might because she is listening so intently for anyone approaching, impossibly, through the taiga. There is no longer a third to stand guard.
She wonders if they will ever return to Xing.
Young master sits on the floor of the cabin with his legs folded and his eyes closed. Lanfan waits to see who will look out of them once they are opened, but it is her young master still. He frowns.
He looks at her where she stands a few feet off, stock still and silent. His eyes cast up then down as he leans his head back.
"Do you think that I am running away, Lanfan?" he asks.
"N-no, young master. No!" she says. Her head shakes fitfully, but she does not know what she believes.
He pulls himself to his feet, unfolds until he is tall and lean. His coat is off and muscles stand out on his shoulders and in his arms. Lanfan follows the line of his silhouette down past his hips and along his legs. His feet are bare and without his boots, his toes only just peek out from under the edge of his trouser leg.
She looks away.
"I am running away," young master says, contradicting her.
Lanfan shakes her head again, but says nothing. Stares at the far corner, then down at the floor.
"I was supposed to make us immortal," he says and Lanfan bites her lip, clenches her teeth down on the memory that the words call up. "I was supposed to make Yao immortal."
"The stone," Lanfan says, a gentle reminder. The thing that lives inside you, Lanfan thinks, never to be forgotten.
"There can never be more. There should never be more," young master says and she can see all the bodies reflected in his eyes, the people of Amestris struck down for long minutes. Their number is naught but a fraction of Xing—more than could ever be allowed.
"This should be the last." His fist curls against his breastbone. He smiles, rueful, bitter. It does not look like the young master's smile, but it is.
"Perhaps, they are better off without me."
"No," Lanfan says, voice sharp and firm. Of this, and perhaps only this, she is certain. There is no better off without him.
Young master smiles at her again and this is one she recognizes, though she wishes that she did not.
"You have always been most loyal to me, Lanfan," he says. His eyes do not glance over her flesh arm or to the one that is not. They do not have to.
"I have always been loyal because it is my duty," Lanfan says. "And because you are loyal, young master. You toil for your people. You would never run from them."
He turns, not wholly away, but slightly, and crosses his arms. He hunches his shoulders.
"Not all of them," he says quietly.
Suddenly, he is close, too close. Lanfan's skin is buzzing like something has come alive in her blood and has set off marching, charging, through her veins. It is not an unfamiliar sensation—no more unfamiliar than the shape of his eyes and the slope of his jaw, the dip and curve of his upper lip—but she does not want it now. Not when their quarters are too close, so far away from some high place where she can run and clamber to its peak and wait until her body settles itself.
Close enough to touch, he speaks.
"What would you do, Lanfan, if I did run?" He takes a step forward, almost a stumble, as if he were pushed. "If I were not a prince any longer?"
Lanfan closes her eyes. She wants to breathe deeply—to compose herself, to breathe him in—but she cannot. She opens and closes her mouth. It is dry. She licks her lips.
"You wouldn't, young master," she insists, reminding them both. She makes herself look at him. His entire focus is on her face, unwavering and desperate—covetous, a small voice adds. "You will always be a prince."
He takes another step just like the last, invisible hands urging him forward. The unnatural chi roils within him, but Lanfan cannot perceive whether it is more than usual, if it is any different. She thinks, fleetingly, that perhaps some things were within the young master all along.
He puts his hand on her right shoulder. His thumb presses lightly into her flesh. Lanfan's skin burns beneath her clothing.
"Lanfan," young master breathes and she can feel the word against her skin.
In the blink of an eye, Lanfan retreats until her back is against the wall. Young master's hand hangs in the air, less than an arm's length distant. The cabin is not very big.
Still, she is too far away from him. She doesn't want to be, but she cannot abide being any closer.
"You wouldn't, young master," she repeats, voice shaking. "You will always be a prince."
Her right hand quivers. The left is still.
Young master's arm lowers, back to his side. His face falls, flashes panic and horror.
"I'm sorry, I-" he says all in a rush, taking a step back. "Forgive me, Lanfan. I did not mean-"
"There is nothing to apologize for or to forgive, young master," Lanfan says and bolts for the door. The cabin is stout, one small story, but there are trees and Lanfan needs to breath thinner air. The atmosphere in the cabin is thick with things that have no place.
She is fast, but he is faster. He presses his hand against the door, holding it closed, just as she reaches for the knob. His arm is straight and firm, near her head. She isn't caged in, but she doesn't want to move. She can feel the heat emanating from his body as surely as she does the vibrations from the wind buffeting the other side of the door.
"Lanfan, please," he says from behind her. "You don't have to- You can't go out there in that weather. I'm sorry. Please forgive me."
She slips away, from him and from the door. She makes her perch instead on the single chair by the table, the only other furniture in the room besides the sturdy military pallet on the opposite side.
"There is nothing to forgive," she says again.
He is allowed to want—briefly or persistently, idly or ardently. It is Lanfan's desires that do not matter. It is Lanfan's desires that are a betrayal to her station and her obligations.
Of course, there is no one left to be disappointed in her.
Young master stares over at her. She turns her head towards the fire but she can see him out of the corner of her eye. He goes then, past the bundle of blankets on the floor where she sleeps, to the pallet and sits. They do not speak further.
The young master sleeps, or pretends to, and Lanfan thinks.
For some time, young master has believed that Lanfan is the best of his servants.
Lanfan knows that this is false.
Lanfan is fast and Lanfan is agile. Her limbs are sturdy and her blades accurate. She would give her life and more for him.
But Lanfan has always been weak.
She crosses the room in the glow of the firelight, her hood doffed and her collar folded down. He lies on his back on the pallet and Lanfan places a hand on his chest—the hand made of skin and bone and sinew.
"Young master," she says softly.
His eyes snap open. His heart pounds.
"Lanfan," he says, "earlier those things I said-"
He moves as if to sit up, but Lanfan's hand is firm and he stills, trails off.
He doesn't need to explain himself, not to her. She thinks she might prefer if he didn't.
Lanfan leans closer and her shadow falls over him. She has taken her hair down and it spills around her shoulders. She watches his eyes follow it as it moves.
"I understand," she says.
Young master swallows, throat working, then covers her hand with his own. He clasps her wrist and pulls her nearer still. Lanfan does not look away.
If this is what the young master needs, she will give it to him. He is allowed to want.
He presses down on her. His hips roll as he fills her, presses deeper.
He groans and she can feel his abdomen quiver with pleasure. A matching sound claws its way out of her throat.
Her flesh hand is meant to be gentle on his arm, against the muscles of his bicep, but she slips constantly—shamefully. Her nails dig into his skin. The automail is wound in the bedding, metal fingers straining against the fabric of the sheets down near where her thighs press too tightly, wanton, against his waist.
Lanfan is trying, but her body is every bit as traitorous as her mind. It will not obey. Not when their skin is slick with sweat, sliding and sticking. When his mouth is against her chin and her neck and her ear, hungry.
This is what the young master desires, Lanfan thinks. Her hips rock up against his. Her toes curl. She presses one heel into the small of his back.
What he wishes, I must provide, Lanfan thinks. She claims his mouth with her own, teeth against his lower lip. Her left arm frees itself, winds about his shoulders, pulls him down until his chest rubs against her breasts.
Lanfan gives, but Lanfan also takes.
They eat naked on the floor, draped in the blankets that once made up Lanfan's bed.
His hair has come unbound, a long, dark fall down his back. She wants to run her fingers through it, wind it about her hands. She wishes for him to want this—to ask.
He watches her over the top of his tin plate, eyes twinkling, shining, in the firelight. When they finish, he grins at her crookedly, then reaches out. His fingertips brush against her cheek, his hand curves around her jaw. Lanfan interprets this as a command.
She goes up on her knees, half-leans and half-crawls the distance between them, and kisses him. Her blanket slides down to her waist. Her mouth slants hard over his. He cradles her face in his hands and returns in kind. Lanfan presses him back into the floor—he leans, he reclines, he lets himself be pressed—her knees at either side of his hips.
Their kiss ends with them both gasping. His blanket has fallen away, now covering nothing but the floor as he lies on top of it. Lanfan looks at him, her hands on his shoulders, and she can feel him rousing. She can feel the heat of him where she hovers just above, aching and throbbing.
His hips jerk. Lanfan presses down and rubs against him. He groans and his hand shakes, reaching. She does it for him—holds him steady and sinks down.
He laughs suddenly, an explosive bark unlike himself, his hips jerk again in perfect time. His eyes screw shut and the moment passes.
He sits up, leaning on one elbow. His fingers are soft on her nape and he kisses her neck, her shoulder, her collarbones. She slides against him, over him, again and again, heat curving along her spine until her hips snap down like the end of whip.
They doze on young master's pallet. Lanfan stands off until he lies down, then beckons her. He pulls her to him, hand in her hair, and she curls against his body.
She wakes when he begins to fidget, shifting around where he is pressed against the wall so that they may both fit onto the slender surface. The coverlet is bunched around their ankles, thrown off in their sleep, their skin left open to the air.
Lanfan raises her head.
"Young master," she begins, thinking to move back to the floor.
"Sorry," he says, then smiles, all teeth. "Kid's good and tired out—like he just had an eight course meal."
Lanfan unwinds her arm from around his waist, but she does not otherwise retreat. Their sides are pressed together from shoulder to hip. She does not fear him and she will not hide from an interloper.
"I can fill in if you wanna climb on again," he continues, coaxing his rough voice out of the young master's throat. He gives her body only a cursory glance—acknowledgment of what is already familiar, Lanfan realizes, from looking through another's eyes.
"Leave the young master's body, monster," Lanfan demands. She folds her arms over her breasts.
The homunculus chuckles and it rumbles through young master's chest. He crosses his arms behind his head.
"Nah," he says. "This is my body now too. The kid and I have a deal. That matters to you right? You have to respect what your 'young master' wants?" It is a casual declaration in the tone of an observation—as if the answer and the outcome do not especially matter to him. But Lanfan is close enough to feel the unnatural stillness of his body, the way his breathing has slowed.
Lanfan's eyes narrow.
"Why should I believe anything you say, creature?"
"I don't lie," he replies immediately. He arches his back, lets the stretch ripple the full length of the young master's body. Lanfan wants, suddenly, to look away.
"More'n I can say for Ling. It's mostly to himself so he figures it doesn't count." He snorts. "Humans."
"The young master is not a liar," Lanfan protests by rote, attempting to focus her full attention on their conversation. The heat of his body was comforting when young master was in control. No longer. It makes her feel sticky and exposed. Lanfan presses her thighs together, moving her leg so that it no longer touches his.
"Of course he is," says the homunculus. "He's pretending he doesn't, but he wants to go back to your Xing. He wants to go back strong and triumphant, take control of it all—hell if his old man's dead or not—make it how he wants it. But he's scared."
"What is he scared of?" Lanfan asks before she can stop herself.
He rocks one leg back and forth. It bumps against hers as he does so.
"I gave him power, just like he asked. Now he's scared it's gonna make him like me."
Lanfan sits up in a flash and looks down at him, indignant.
"Young master could never become like you."
The thing wearing the young master's body shrugs.
"Maybe you should tell him that," he says.
"It is not my place! If the young master wishes my opinion, he will ask for it."
The homunculus sits up then, his muscles bunch briefly before he vaults over Lanfan and out of the bed.
"When are you going to give up this 'young master' bullshit?" he asks as he stands in the center of the room, the contours of his limbs outlined by the scant light.
"That is who he is, you foul thing," Lanfan spits.
He twists to flash a grin at her before carefully picking up his discarded trousers.
"Really?" he asks. "He didn't seem much like your master when you were fucking him into the floorboards earlier."
Humiliatingly, Lanfan reddens. She feels it creeping up her chest and neck. The compulsion to cover herself rips through her, but her dignity will not allow it.
"The young master desired-" she tries. "I did only what-"
The homunculus tucks himself in and zips up, then scans the floor for the young master's shirt.
"Sure," he says dismissively. "You're a little liar too, huh?"
Lanfan's voice catches in her throat.
"You surprised him, you know." He is smiling, widely, lasciviously. "The kid knew you wanted it, but he didn't know you wanted it that bad. I could have told him that. He don't like to listen to me about you. Little bastard gets real possessive."
He finds the shirt under the table and pulls it on.
"Can't exactly blame him for that, though." He winks at her. The young master's hair sways as he moves. Lanfan's blood rushes.
"Where are you going?" she asks, when he reaches for his coat.
"To stretch my legs."
Lanfan shakes her head. "But the storm-"
"It's almost over," he interrupts. "Besides, it takes a lot more than that to make me pay attention."
He pauses when his hand is on the doorknob and glances at her, all casual arrogance and flippancy.
"Don't worry. I'll bring him back."
A gust of cold air replaces warm as he disappears into the night and Lanfan finally pulls up the blanket.
When she next wakes, young master is beside her again, arms wrapped about her waist, his face against her shoulder.
The homunculus is correct about the storm abating. And in good time as their rations are running low. Young master tosses the remainder into the large cookpot full of melted snow and makes some odd version of Amestrian stew.
"How long will we stay?" Lanfan asks as they watch the bubbling pot. It is as close as she can come to her actual question.
The line of young master's mouth is tight before the corners curl up. She cannot read the look in his eyes.
"Are you conspiring with Greed now, Lanfan?" he asks.
Her expression of horror is enough to make him stop her before she can even draw breath to apologize.
"It's fine," he says and squeezes her hand briefly. "I just know that he is very persistent."
"I did not conspire," Lanfan mumbles.
"He says there are some things you need to tell me."
She can still feel the warmth of his fingers against the back of her hand. When she blinks, in that split second of darkness, she imagines him above her and beneath her and inside her. The desire to run her tongue along the hollow of his throat is ever-present.
These are all things she needs never to tell him.
"We should go home," Lanfan says instead. "We should go back to Xing, where you can use the tools you have acquired in order to serve your people. You should not be afraid."
"He told you?" young master says but that is not the question he is asking.
"He would never wish to serve anyone," Lanfan answers.
Young master stirs their meal, stares off at nothing. Lanfan wonders if the creature living inside of him is speaking to him now, wonders what he is saying.
"We'll go," he says finally. He tilts his head at Lanfan and laughs quietly, almost as if to himself.
"I know when I'm outnumbered."
They travel south and then east and further east. Until there is nothing but sand and the blazing sun.
The homunculus mostly comes out when young master sleeps. He stares and grins and smirks at Lanfan from across their tent—from across the distance through which Lanfan will not reach first.
"Almost home," the homunculus whispers through the dim light in the early hours. "Gonna tell him? Wishing doesn't get you anything, you know."
His teeth gleam.
"I think you'd both enjoy it. Just the thought of you asking for it gets him all worked up."
"Quiet, monster," Lanfan always says before she explains again.
At times he laughs. At others he grunts out something about humans with great frustration.
Young master has not touched her since they entered the desert. Sometimes, he sits and watches her—she still flushes—and she does not think of it as waiting, as longing.
When she dreams, she hears his voice say to her: tell me what you want.
When she is awake, it is only the homunculus: tell him.
"When the young master wishes something from me, he will say so," she says again and again. "I want nothing but to do my duty and whatever the young master desires of me."
They both let Lanfan have her lie.