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Twice as bad, twice as good

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“... Now that he’s taken a monster like you under his flesh.”

And with that, he started walking away.

Ling hated him.

“I hate him.” He said, setting his jaw.

Metaphorical jaw, he supposed, the one of his body projected inside his mind. Ling wasn’t really sure about how any of that worked.

King Bradley, Wrath, was walking away from them, having regained his composure and gotten the last word in their conversation. Ling couldn’t contain his anger at the thought of being this close to the man responsible of Lan Fan amputation, and not having the ability to do something about it. Trapped inside his own body.

He started tugging at his hair, trying to calm down. He repeated to himself he needed to buy his time and be patient. After a moment of breathing hard, he realized that his real hands, the ones of his actual body, were moving through his own hair, according to his mind. Shocked he stared at them for a second, then he started moving. On reflexes alone, he let his mind focus on the Dragon Pulse, searching for Bradley energy behind him, calculating the steps needed to reach him.

‘Twenty-three and moving, good, I can do this.’

He swung around, stepping down the edge of the roof, right hand going spontaneously behind his back to reach for his sword.

The moment his foot hit the ground was also the moment his hands closed around thin air, reminding him that he didn’t have his sword anymore.

Nor his own clothes.

Nor, after a second of shock, his own body.

Said body, once again in Greed’s hands, didn’t stop the spin Ling had started, and fell on its ass.

Through the body’s eyes, Ling saw Bradley calmly getting away and stepping away from the roof.

Meanwhile, Greed stretched his legs and leaned with his back against the wall like he had had every intention of being seated on the floor, and it was not, in fact, a pretty humiliating fall the one he (they) just had.

Ling then noticed the homunculus was also laughing at him.

“Cool off, kid, this hatred of yours is not doing you any good. It actually ruined that ‘big secret plan’ of yours.”

“What?”

“Yeah, your ‘let’s not let Greed realize I can get the control of the body’ plan.”

In the real world, Greed was putting his hands behind his head, as if sunbathing.

“But no, you had to get angry at Wrath for some idiotic idealistic reason. You had to take the body and yell at him when you didn’t have enough strength to keep it. Don’t get me wrong now, I appreciate the dramatics behind it, I truly do, really good timing. And it was strangely satisfying to me seeing him unsettled. I mean, I just met the guy, but seeing him without that satisfied look on his face...”

Both of them jumped, realizing that the homunculus’ shield had appeared up to the elbow on his right hand.

Now Ling had calmed down a little and was curious.  He could tell that, right now, the tone of his voice was, even if still playful, forced.

Ling decided to push the issue, to see what would happen.

“Why do you think?”

Greed snapped. “ I don’t know. Shut up, you little pissant!”

For a minute neither of them talked. The only sounds were those from the city and from the souls screaming around them. For a second Ling could feel Greed letting his guard down, and sensed the walls around his mind crumble. At that moment he heard the homunculus thoughts as they were his own. He could tell how confused he was, how the meeting with Bradley left him. The fact that as soon as he heard Wrath’s voice he had had a certain sense of uneasiness, that he felt the need of masking with forced laughter and laid-back attitude. Greed was wondering the meaning of his involuntary hostile attitude toward his brother. He could tell there was something inside him that was screaming not only not to trust him, but to actively defy him.

The moment passed and Greed became aware of Ling presence in his mind. He forcefully shrugged off his worries, blaming Ling presence and hate for Bradley for his own hostility. He started laughing again.

“Admit it, kid, you fucked up. You wanted to make me believe that you were completely hopeless in this arrangement, asking me all nicely about leaving you control to get the message to that vassal of yours, waiting for me to drop my guard until when you’d be strong enough to keep me contained. But you just fucked up, it happens to the best, believe me.”

Ling could feel the weight of the statement, he truly did fuck up.

He had swallowed his pride enough to ask for Greed’s help to let him write and then to deliver the message instead of fighting for control.

This time it wasn’t like with Ed when he first met him. He had told Fu he would lower himself and bow to here and there if it meant to get what he wanted, but pleading an homunculus for a favor like that, like Ed himself did with Envy when they were stuck inside Gluttony stomach, was something he didn’t know he would be willing to do until he found himself doing it.

He thought he was being smart at the time, if a little less proud than he should have.

He thought he was taking his time, letting the homunculus’ confidence grow to finally get his chance with all the strength he needed.

But once again Bradley had put himself in the middle of his plan.

Once again a ruler that was everything he had swore to himself he would not become had proven to him how naive he was actually being. His naivety this time had costed him what may have been his only chance of getting the autonomy of his body back. The fact that Lan Fan sacrifice hadn’t been enough for him to finally grow and be the man his clan needed him to be, the ruler his entire country had been waiting for generations to have, the person Fu and Lan Fan believed he could be was like a blow right in the guts.

He really had thought that his willingness to give up his body to a homunculus had meant he was finally on the right track of finally becoming all that. How stupid he’d been, how arrogant, he really was just an arrogant child, way over his head.

“Hey, now, don’t beat yourself up too much. I was just messing with you, well at least partly.”

He got up and started dusting off his pants before going back to watch the city, leaning with his elbows on the edge.

”I mean, I knew about your plan from the start. You see, the moment you started thinking about asking me about the message you were also thinking about how you wanted to trick me into a false sense of confidence. In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have known, but at that moment you were also having this internal monologue about your duty and a clan needing you to succeed, something about feeling guilty about an arm and the fear of meeting an old man about it.”

Greed was vaguely waving his tattooed hand while talking, Ling’s tattooed hand to be exact.

“Seriously you should try to relax a little and get over it. This is why you failed. You see, with this arrangement we’ve found ourselves in right now, I’m able to read you if you think loud enough or if you get too emotional about things.”

The face (mask?)  in front of Ling grimaced.

“And by now I’m sure you noticed it works both ways. So how about we make a deal that you keep your emotion in check, so I don’t have to listen about your angsty whines, and you can keep your “new and improved and most of all super secret plan” you’ll be coming up next to “get control of this body” to yourself?”

Ling had no idea how a bodiless face floating in the middle of a stream of screaming souls could make so clear the sarcastic air quotes in a sentence, but it seems that Greed was gifted in the weirdest ways.

In some way it made sense, the feeling of thoughts rushing over his head without the ability to put a stop to them, when he was overwhelmed by emotions, by the stress and weight caused by his duty for his people, was not a new one. And it was only logical that any other conscience residing in his mind could sense those turbulent thoughts.

But even if it made sense, now Ling needed to stop acting so impulsively and start thinking about his next move. First and most of all now he needed to stop taking for granted everything that Greed was saying.

Only because it made sense, it didn’t mean it was true, or that it wasn’t also a trap.

He was the man who was going to be Emperor of Xing, he should be ready to think a way out of every situation and be able to see the intention of every person he needed to deal with.

This particular person in front of him was a literal embodiment of a sin. A sin who had every reason to make sure Ling could never get to achieve his goal, so he needed to see where was the catch before doing, or not doing, anything.

“Using my anger I got the control of my body again, at least for a while, how do I know that you are not saying that so that it doesn't happen again?”

Greed huffed.

“Come on, don’t be dense, you little pest! I thought you were a Prince or something, aren’t you supposed to be, I’m not saying smart, but at least educated?” Ouch, that burned a little. “ Do you think that the control you get via anger or strong emotion is going to stick? The moment you calm down, you’d lower your defenses and I’ll get an even stronger hold.”

“And I should just take your word for it? You really think I’ll trust the sinful lying creature that is possessing my body about what to do or not do to get it back?”

For some weird reason, Greed seemed hurt by that statement.

“Listen, little Prince, you don’t know me and for once I’m going to give you a pass, but there is one thing you need to understand about me, and that is that I do not lie. I may steal here and there, kill the occasional person that pisses me off for some reason, like if they steal or break or kill my stuff, but. I. Do. Not. Lie”

At that moment Ling understood two things.

The first one was that for some weird reason he believed Greed. This weird monster that had taken everything from him, laughing, but that had also seemed legitimately thrilled when he found out the man he had stolen the body of was still there to hear and answer his thoughts.

The second was that he finally knew his next move. It was going to take a long time, more than he was comfortable with taking. He had, after all, a deadline set to the moment of the Emperor death. A death that was every day nearer, so he needed to be more patient than he normally was, but he finally knew what he needed to do now.

He slowly and deliberately smiled in his projected body inside his mind, trying to get Greed to pay attention to the fact that he finally was a step in front of him. He relaxed and got himself into lotus position. From now on he wouldn't get caught screaming and tossing like a child, he decided.

“So it’s all going to be a battle of intellect between us, huh Greed? The one who can stay calm and bide his time is going to learn everything there is to know about the other. Finding always new ways to alter him, leaving him less and less control with time.”

Ling closed his projected eyes, to show Greed how little worried he had become about his situation.

“You‘re being honest with me so I’m going to do the same with you.”

He let his voice reach the lower tones and looked the sin right in the eye.

“I’m going to discover everything there is to know about you, homunculus, and I’m going to use it to get my body back. I’m going to drag you to Xing and use your abilities to get the throne I was born to have, and there isn’t a single thing you can do about it.”

Greed for a minute just stared at him and then started to laugh that too-loud-almost-forced laugh of his.

“Now you are talking, kid. I was beginning to think I imagined that fire I saw in you when we met. Here’s the thing though, you are what, seventeen? Nineteen?”

“Fifteen.”

“Fifteen! You really think a fifteen years old, in the middle of his angsty teenage years can beat a grown man at this kind game?” Greed laughed again.

Ling grinned and shook his head.

“The more you talk, the more I’m convinced that there aren’t even going to be a contest between us, Greed. I’m going to take control right now only by asking you one single question.”

“Oh, you are, now, eh?”

“Yes.”

“Then let’s make this interesting. Let’s say you win and get to me ‘with one question’ as you said…”

“Then you are going to let me finish whatever I’m going to start doing when I take over.”

“No running away with this body. No trying to contact the Elrics or your guard again. No doing something against Pops. And most of all, no interacting with any of my other siblings, don't let them know you are here, all right?”

“Sure, I can do that. It’s not like I thought I would be able to do any of that anyway, except the siblings' thing, but why would I do that in the first place?”

“All right, and if you don’t win then you are never going to do what you tried to do with Wrath earlier, all right? I’ve gotten enough shit from them only because I left for a little bit, helping you, by the way, I don’t need them crawling up my ass because of one of your revenge-slash-I’ll-be-a-better-ruler-than-you-piss-contest shit. Deal?”

Ling didn’t even think about it, he knew he was going to win. And, also, attacking Bradley in the middle of the palace had been a stupid fucking idea, anyway.

“Deal!”

“Then let’s see what you got.”

“All right. You see, I noticed something about you. Before, you said to Ed you are a different person than the Greed before you, the one they met in, I don’t remember which city of this country. I don’t really know the details. And they don’t matter, anyway.”

“Huh?”

“But you also keep talking down to me like you’re a grown man, and I’m just a child.”

“Not to pop your bubble, little Prince, but you are a child.”

“How old are you, Greed?”

“What kind of an idiotic question is that, while we were talking about…Huh.” Greed sneer was cut in half as he finally understood what Ling meant.

Ling could feel the homunculus yet again confused by his knowledge of having just come into existence and his feelings of being so much older than that.

The confusion inside the homunculus grew to the point where Ling, without any struggle, found himself in control, while Greed was very far away inside their consciousness. More away that any of them had ever been up to that point.

Ling tilted his head, both in the real world and inside his mind, as if it could help him hear Greed better. He could tell this wasn’t going to be a permanent solution, obviously. He didn’t have much time before the homunculus would get his thoughts together and come up with some kind of excuse to what was going on.

And he was going to be pissed.

“Luckily you never tell lies, so you’ re going to respect the deal.”

He wasn’t sure Greed was hearing him in his current state, but still, he trusted (when did that happen?) that he wouldn't interfere anyway.

“So, let me finish what I’m about to start.”

With that, he rushed off the roof, looking for the kitchens.

 

Chapter Text

Two weeks. He’d been alive for two weeks, sharing a body with an entitled little brat and he still couldn’t believe that this was his life.

At first, his siblings and Father had been busy cleaning the mess done by the Elric brothers and the X-faced guy. Wrath had done some kind of power move against the brothers and some Mustang guy to keep them in check. Envy had dealt with the escaped prisoner. Father had rebuilt his room and taken care of Gluttony. Sometime during that time, Wrath had come to talk to Greed again, telling him that in a few days time he was going to have to start doing Gluttony’s work, now that his brother was unavailable.

That hadn't happened yet and, until now, they had left him alone and nobody had bothered him.

Or at least, nobody outside of his own body.

Greed sighed as he watched said body, without a shirt for some reason, seated in one of the gardens of the palace. Doing. Absolutely. Nothing.

Greed sighed again, louder.

Not that the concept of loud, or noise even, had any meaning in the space inside their minds. Luckily, or the both of them would have gone crazy by now with all the screaming the Stone’s souls did every single moment. They couldn’t technically hear them, but it was like all that what was left of the souls’ will, aimed to make him and Ling well aware of their presence.

So every time he concentrated inwards his mind would translate that will into images and sounds. He thought that that was also why the screaming never covered the conversation between him and Ling.

Speaking of which, the pest still wasn’t giving him any sign of responding, so Greed sighed a third time, in an abnormally noisy way.

“What do you want?”

“This is so fucking boring, how could you willingly do this for more than 5 minutes?”

“Shut up, we have a deal! I won the last round so I can meditate, and I have still at least fifteen more minutes before my time is up. It’s hard enough to do this with this thigh as fuck pants I’m not allowed to change because of the rules you gave that time you won.”

“And yet you took off my coat and shirt... And whoa, language! I don’t want to be known as a corrupter of the youth.”

“Shut up! And, also, you never said anything about taking clothes off! You just said to not change them with, and I quote, ‘that hot-air balloon masked as pants’ I was wearing! And, by the way, that is MY coat.”

“Oh, come on kid, I don’t lie to you! So show me the same fucking respect.”

“What? What did I say?”

“You've been brooding about the day you fought against Wrath long enough in this last few days that even I know you stole that coat from that Colonel ‘safe house’.”

“That doesn’t make it yours.”

“It doesn’t make it yours either .” Then he thought about it for a second and raised his voice. “And even if it was, it’s mine, now. *You* are mine, now! You gave yourself to me and now you and everything you owned is mine!”

Ling stayed silent for a while, long enough that Greed started to regret his outburst. But it was true, the Prince needed to remember that. He was Greed, everything belonged to him, or was going to be, at least. Ling had been his first possession and he wasn’t going to let him forget it.

Luckily, what he had fast learned about the guy was that he easily bounced back into good mood after a punch. Or, at least, he was really good at faking it, and that was enough for Greed.

“Yeah, well, even if it’s true, it’s just a temporary situation!” He said it with a smile and a nonchalance so well acted, that even Greed, that at that moment could faintly sense Ling’s emotions, was almost inclined to believe. “One day I’m going to be able to drag you back to Xing and become Emperor!”

“ And how is your Master Plan going, again? Do I need to remind you that I’m just allowing you to be in control at this moment? Me being a very generous boss and all.” All these fucking déja-vus he's been having lately were fucking annoying, by the way.

“You’ll see. And you are not doing it for generosity, you’re doing it because you are bored being a good boy for Daddy and you enjoy the challenges we take on. Even if I win most of the times.”

“Wait, you win *some* of the times. And I didn’t know you’d start doing this boring sitting in the sun thing, or I would have never accepted them in the first place!”

“That’s your own fault, isn’t it? Now, shut up, and let me concentrate! I won and you are wasting my time! If I knew you’d be so annoying about this I would have used this time to eat some decent food!”

“Yes, please! Even being somewhat an unwilling participant of that weird act of adoration with food that you call eating is better than this!”

“It is eating!”

“No, I eat, what you do is something entirely different, that I don’t want any part of.”

“My body needs to eat more than average, or else I faint!”

“I’ve never fainted and I use the same body.”

“You waist some of the Stone power to do so! And that’s not the point, the point is that you need to shut up and let me concentrate on my meditation.”

“Why do you want to meditate so much, anyway? How can you not find it so fucking boring? We haven’t moved in hours!”

It was true, still now, while talking to him, Ling hadn’t moved a finger of the body in the real world, what a waste of body autonomy...

“We’ve been here thirty minutes, not hours.” Said Ling rolling his eyes, finally! A movement! “I need to meditate to keep my connection with the Dragon Pulse alive.”

“Your... what, now?”

“My connection with the Dragon Pulse, you see, in Xing every member of the royal family and their se… Oh shit!”

Greed suddenly felt himself shoved back in control. “What the hell, kid! And wow, today you’re on fire! Two weeks with me and you are already...”

“Greed, shut up, I sense…”

“... swearing like a… What?”

Greed didn’t know what stopped him first from finishing his sentence.

If it had been Ling’s sudden spark of anxiety that rushed through the body or his warning.

It didn’t matter anyway because both of them arrived too late. Greed knew it the moment he heard a voice behind him.

“So it is true. You really are keeping a human consciousness inside.”

Greed swung abruptly, not easily because of Ling previous weird Xingese meditation position, and found himself in front of a child.

“Who the fuck are you?” He said, out loud.

“Shit maybe I shouldn’t swear in front of a child, look what I did to you!” He said to Ling, in his mind.

“Don’t call me a child! I’m the future Emp… That’s not the point! Greed, I don’t think he’s a child either.”

The child-looking-maybe-not-actually-a-child was looking at him impassively.  His eyes locked into Greeds', like if he was trying to look inside of them, searching for something, probably Ling.

Then his face softened, and he smiled kindly, making Greed easing the tension he didn’t know he built up. In contrast, he could feel Ling inside of him stiffening even further.

“You can’t even recognize your older brother? I’m hurt, Greed, I really am.” He looked around, getting serious again. Greed did too, nobody was around. He and Ling made sure to find places almost always desert, to be certain to be alone while doing their thing. But then again, they weren’t alone now.

“Come, I need to talk to you, but not where we can be seen.”

He turned to go as if he was sure he would be followed. But then, after a couple of steps, he cast a last glance at Greed, and added, perfectly calm. “And can you please put on a fucking shirt.”

----------

Greed followed his brother (how fucked up was that he didn’t even know his name?) out of the garden and into the tunnels that would eventually lead to Father throne room. He had, in the meantime, put his shirt and coat on, and done everything in his power to ignore everything Ling was saying. He wanted to put his entire focus on the other homunculus.

The moment he stepped inside the tunnel said homunculus stopped walking and looked at him again.

“Now that we're out of possible unwelcomed eyes we can introduce ourselves to each other in a more adequate manner.” He tilted his head. “I’m Pride, Father's firstborn, your oldest brother.”

“Name’s Greed.” He said, trying to keep his nonchalant attitude, but sounding way more awkward that he’d have liked.

“From what I gathered you’ve already met every other one of our siblings, with the exception of Sloth. How unfortunate that he has to finish his work up North right when we get to meet a new brother.” He added shaking his head.

“Yeah, what a pain…” At that Pride snickered like he had just told an inside joke. Which he didn’t, but he liked the feeling he got all the same.

“Listen, Greed, I talked to Wrath and I’m here to tell you what Father’s work for you is.”

“Why didn’t he tell me himself?”

Pride smiled again.

“Because I wanted to meet you. Now, as far as your job goes,” how he could make his face, his entire body really, shift from one of a child to one that emanated that much authority, Greed had no idea. He wanted that too, for himself, so much. “Right now we find ourselves on a tipping point, we cannot make any mistake. Gluttony and Envy let outsiders infiltrate their way right to Father and we can’t have that. You’ll patrol this tunnel and do a better job at it than they did. At least until it’s time for us to make our move.”

“So my job is to do the same as the useless chimeras that crawl this place?” Greed huffed.

“Your job is to a better job than those useless chimeras. You are a homunculus, Greed, of course this job is beneath you, like being the cute kid of the Fuhrer is beneath me. But we do it and we endure it because what we’ll have at the end is far more valuable than some months of boring tasks.”

Now Pride was finally talking his language! Greed felt a big grin involuntarily creeping on his face as if he wasn’t in control of it. For a second he thought it was Ling's doing, but that was impossible because the guy was very far away inside his mind at the moment, Listening in, but hiding away from Pride. Sometimes his avarice, just like the brat himself, was less like a little voice on the inside of his brain and more like a force that almost moved him of its own accord.

“And what will we have in return for these boring tasks?”

“Look, I know how much you value honesty, so I’m not…”

“How?”

Oh, that’s where Ling was!

“Not now, brat! Can’t you see I’m busy?” He said internally, pushing him more far away inside. He went without much of a fuss, probably because he didn’t want Pride to see any kind of struggle from the outside. But not before having the last word.

 

“Greed, how does he know how much you value it?

Well, shit.

“Yeah, how do you know?”

“....”

“ You just met me. How do you know I never lie?”

“What did just happened Greed?”

 

Greed let his Ultimate Shield show up to his elbows.

“Answer me, brother dear!”

 

Something strange was happening in the shadows out of the corner of his eye. Were they not alone?

Pride sighed, aggravated, as if dealing with a child on a tantrum. Greed anger was rising more and more, his body tense, ready to strike.

“Greed, I apologize, I should have known you’d make this difficult.”

 

From behind him, Greed felt something grabbing his legs, then slowly moving up twirling around all his body, like invisible snakes, keeping him in place. He tried to look, but all he could see were shadows. Something inside his brain, and it wasn’t Ling, was screaming that that wasn’t the first time he saw something like that. He silenced it, putting it into a far away part of his mind. He started to struggle.

“Calm down. I’ll explain everything, I just need you to listen and don’t do anything stupid in the meantime. Seriously brother, have some decorum, you’re behaving like a human.”

He spatted the last word, then he waited until Greed stopped struggling before continuing. “Father thought it was better not to tell you for your own good, but I think that after this disgraceful performance he’ll have to reconsider.”

 

It was almost like he was talking to himself, but then he looked again right into Greed’s eyes as if his next words were going to be a test, and Greed’s fate was going to be decided from its result. The Prince, deep inside of him, was thinking the same.

 

“Do you know that you are not the first Greed, that there was a Greed before you?” He waited for a response and Greed, to hell with everything, wanted to give him the most sardonic one he could muster, before sensing the feeling of little hands crawling on his face in warning.

He just nodded.

 

“The thing about him, you see, was that he was defective. He was Greed the Avaricious but he couldn’t understand how to achieve what he wanted. He didn’t understand how following Father, the creator of all the Homunculi, was the only path by which he could get everything he the world that mattered. And he died, alone and without a thing to call his own.”

 

Greed swallowed, horrified by the concept. The little shadow hands were moving on his face as if to soothe him. He knew they were, in fact, creepy more than everything (even without Ling’s distressed input, thank you very much) but for some reason, it also kind of worked, he leaned in a little bit.

 

“Father wanted to try again, making a Greed that could have everything he desired, so he purified his soul, purged his memories and made you.” He smiled. “ And you know the path to get everything you crave, don’t you? You are avaricious, truly Avaricious, aren’t you?”

Greed needed a second. What Pride had said was unsettling, and it was making him feel lightheaded, or maybe it was the feeling of spiraling just before the loss of control of his body in favor of Ling? He couldn't have that. That was so not the time to have a Xingese brat taking his place. Thankfully Ling seemed to be of that same opinion because he wasn’t even trying to take advantage of his momentary weakness.

He took a couple of deep breaths, trying to calm down,

What Pride had said made sense, he knew there had been another Greed, and he knew that everything couldn't have turned out that well for him. For a second the thought of Father taking something like his own memories from him made him want to start fighting again.

But if it was true, if the old Greed truly had been that inadequate that he couldn’t get anything at all for himself, then he didn’t want to have anything to do with him. The less he was like him, the better, so those weren’t his memories, and Father didn’t take them from him.

Once he decided that, every other decision was an easy one. He shrugged the best he could with the shadows still keeping him still, and rolled his eyes at Pride, who was still watching him like a hawk, trying to guess what he was thinking.

“Don’t worry that creepy little head of yours, Big Bro. I know you’re right. I’ll do what daddy dear wants me to do. I’ll expect things in return at a certain point, though.”

“Of course, I wouldn’t want it any other way. You are Greed, after all, the Avaricious among the Homunculi, be proud of that.” The shadows against Greed started to loosen up, to then suddenly tighten up again. “One more thing. I heard a really distasteful thing from Wrath, and had the confirmation earlier, is it true that there's a human inside of you right now?”

He seemed so disgusted by the thought that Greed couldn’t let himself miss the occasion to be a smartass.

“Well, there's more than one human inside the both of us, if you think about it. Hundreds or even thousands, isn’t that kind of our thing?”

“You know what I mean.” He sighed. “Look, I’ve already been here too long. If really there's a soul that is more, let’s say, lively, than the others, deal with it. I don’t want to hear anything like this ever again, am I clear?” The shadows dissipated all at once. “I’m glad you saw reason about where your loyalties lie, but you need to remember that is us against them. Don’t let a human soul even come near your own consciousness, all right? You had your fun with it, now let it rot with all the others, am I clear?”

Greed, finally able to move, put a hand behind his own neck and started massaging it, smirking. “Crystal.”

“Perfect, I’ll leave you to your patrol, then. We’ll see each other again.” And with that, he started to walk away.

Greed kept talking to him until he was out of hearing range, and then he talked some more.

“Yeah, good talk, really nice chat, Bro. Come visit anytime.”

When he was absolutely sure he was alone, he let out a sigh and leaned against the wall. He took a moment to regain his composure. In the meantime, Ling, who had stayed far away and silent the whole time, came creeping back near the surface.

“Are you really going to do everything Father tells you?”

“Yes, of course. Pride’s right, it’s obviously the best thing for me. Staying with my siblings, doing what I have to and then getting what I want.”

Ling didn’t seem happy about it, and Greed could see why.

“But don’t you worry about that last part, little Prince. I’m not going to get rid of you.”

“What?”

Greed laughed.

“I thought I made myself clear in these past few weeks. You’re my possession, my first possession! And no one, I mean NO ONE, including the other homunculi, including Father, including you,  will take it away from me.”

Ling didn't say anything.

Chapter Text

“So how would I help you get the crown, really?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“You keep saying you want to drag me kicking and screaming to Xing and become Emperor, but I fail to see how? Except, you know... The obvious.”

 

“Which is?”

 

“Well, immortality really seems like a good place to start to stage a coup…"

 

"..."

 

"But for some reason, I don’t think that’s your plan, though.”

 

“Not really, no.”

 

“So?”

 

“So what? You want to know my tragic backstory?” Ling snarled.

 

“God, please no. No. It’s just,” Greed gestured all around them, at the nothingness in dim light inside the tunnels. “There isn’t really anything to do except waiting for intruders that’ll never come.”

 

They were sitting against one of the big pipes that ran in that area, and Greed had taken off his coat ( Ling’s coat… let’s say their coat), rolled it up and put it behind his head, as a pillow.

 

“I want to know what would be my part if you really got to beat me, just please, no backstory, I think I’d rather die of boredom.”

 

“So you’re starting to think I could win, eh? Getting scared of what’ll happen to you?”

 

“Please. What’ll happen to me is that I’ll have an annoying parasite for the eternity.” He didn’t seem much beaten down by the prospect though, even with all his complaining. “I’m just trying to understand your reasoning.”

 

Ling huffed, it wasn’t like it would do him any damage to tell Greed, and he did have some problems with his plan that needed fixing. Talking about it out loud (out loud-ish) could help him.

 

“Well, ok. You know how I’m one of the Emperor children and heirs, right?”

 

“Anyone who ever talked to you for more than 5 seconds knows that, kid.” Greed interrupted rolling his eyes.

 

“Rhetorical question… Anyway, Xing is divided into clans, you see, and the Emperor rules over all of them. Each clan ….”

 

“Yeah yeah, I know that already, fifty clans, lots of siblings fighting to give their asshole daddy the best gift of all to get his favor.” He dismissed his own explanation with a hand. “You thought real hard about that part more than once. What I want to know is how do you think getting *me* there can help you.”

 

“Well, what better gift to a dying selfish asshole than immortality?”

 

“So, you’d like me to… what? Leave this, I hate to admit it, more than conveniently strong and athletic young body to get into the one of a dying old bastard?”

 

“What? No! I’ve never wanted that dickhead to get immortality in the first place! How could I get the throne if he never dies? My plan was to get the secret of immortality and then, give him only some evidence of it, enough for him to know I’ve found a trail for the real deal. I’ll give him a lead so shallow that he’ll die before getting it! He’s soon to die anyway.”

 

Meanwhile, Greed had gotten up, dusted off their coat and pants and started walking hands in his pockets.

 

“Ok, good, I was really questioning your intelligence there for a while. But how do you get proof of immortality out of me? Without giving away the whole process, that is.”

 

Ling smiled really big, the biggest, most shit-eating smile he could muster.

 

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Really trying to give off that air of superiority that his uncle always told was expected of him.

 

Maybe they needed a break from being in each other pockets (hell, in each other minds) every second of every day, because Greed just laughed at him.

 

“This is priceless. Not only you have no chance to beat me and take me to your little country, but you also have no idea on how to use me to get the crown once you get there! When will you give up your childish dreams, little Prince.”

 

Ling tried not to get riled up, miserably failing after he started what could only be described as whining.

“Never, it’s not a childish dream, it’s the only way to help my clan and all of Xing!” He cringed and stopped talking. After taking a few slow breaths, he started again, trying to look unconcerned. “And, by the way, Xing is not at all a little country, it’s like eight times Amestris…”

 

“Fascinating, marvelous, a real gem of a country to rule, you still don’t have a plan to get it though.”

 

“I'm still closer than the others princes and princesses” Ling replied, smirking.

 

“Are you? I’m not so sure about that. They still have their bodies’ autonomy as far as I know. You? Not so much.”

 

Ling dropped his smile. “Not all of them.”

 

“What?”

 

“Not all my brothers and sisters are better off than me.”

 

Greed was left without words for a few moments, then he did what Ling had come to understand was his greatest resource, even more than that Ultimate Shield he liked so much, he deflected. “Well now, didn’t we say, no tragic backstory? Why did Pops have to make me with the body of an irritating brat like you?!”

 

“Yeah, you’re right.” He hated the fact that Greed could probably tell how grateful he was for the change of subject. Maybe he needed to do some damage control. “Hey, Greed. Do you….”

 

“Shhh, did you hear that?” Greed whispered.

 

“What is it? I didn’t hear anything.” Ling murmured back, then blushed while Greed laughed internally. He coughed and tried again, at a normal volume, because, you know, nobody could hear him in there anyway. “What did you hear?”

 

Greed didn’t answer but started walking towards where Ling could only assume was the sounds came from. Only after a couple of minutes, they realized where they were.

 

The big door that led into Father lair was only a dozen feet away, and now that they were nearer Ling too could hear muffled voices on the other end of it.

 

They tiptoed to the door and tried to listen. Neither of them was able to get the words, but Father was talking to someone, and that someone didn’t seem to be an enemy. Didn’t seem to be an enemy of the homunculi, actually, so they were probably Ling’s enemy if he thought about it.  

Why did he need to think about it? The whole situation was getting ridiculous.

 

Greed tried to open the door in the most stealthy way he could, Ling was aware of that, it still made so much noise that Ling felt all of his own ancestors covering their ears in their graves.

 

With the door open, even before entering they could distinguish the words of the conversation. The man the homunculi called Father was talking.

 

“... I need everything to be put in motion before the Promised Day. You are going to follow Pride’s lead in bringing everything where it should be. Wrath is working on the Colonel and Envy is already up north. I need everyone trustworthy on this, so don’t disappoint m…”

 

“Ouch! Everyone you trust’s on that and you leave me out, Pops?”

 

As they entered in cue with Greed’s overdramatic reveal, they finally got who Father was talking to.

Ling shuddered, Gluttony gave him the creeps more than any other homunculi, with the exception of Pride.

He was also really not comfortable being in that room in general, he could feel the wrongness of it, and of Father, even while not being in control.

 

“Well well well, and look who you brought back to life. Is he still himself, or did you restore his soul too?”

 

...So maybe Greed wasn’t all that fine about it as he wanted everyone to think…

 

He must have thought it too hard because Greed replied to him, internally.

 

“Shut up, you pissant, I told you, I don’t care what happened to that failure of Greed!”

 

Even if Ling didn’t believe a word of it, he didn’t want to start a discussion with the homunculus that could expose him to Father, so he just snorted in the most annoying way he could.

 

Meanwhile, Gluttony was waving happily at them in that weird childish way of his and Father had turned toward them and was shooting Greed a look that conveyed… Well, mostly annoyance and disgust.

His tone of voice matched that look.

 

“Greed, I told you your job. Why are you here?”

 

“Well, you didn’t actually tell me, did you? My sweet little older brother told me. Why did you make him so creepy by the way, what’s with the shadows and all those eyes?”

 

“ I made my firstborn in my own image, and gave him all my pride as a homunculus.”

 

“Oh shit, really?”

 

Greed was laughing but Ling could feel his uneasiness and discomfort. It was like the first minutes after they met, when Greed was really confused about, well, everything, and all he did was trying to cover it with easygoingness and laughs. Ling was starting to find it really annoying. He finally understood Ed’s sprouts of anger at him everytime he used his smiles and fake dumbness to get what he wanted.

 

“I said, shut up! If I’m uneasy it’s because of your stupid agitation about this room!’”

 

“Will you stop faulting me for every emotion you don’t understand? You are not exactly a stable person even without me! And stop talking to me, I don't want to know what happens if he finds out I’m here.”

 

“I’ll ask you again, Greed, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you doing what were you supposed to?”

 

Greed was still laughing. Almost maniacally. For some reason, Ling knew he was feeling hot, boiling, even if the room itself was chill. What was that about? “Why aren’t you answering my questions, Pops?”

 

“Are you doing this again?” Gluttony interrupted, anxiously fidgeting and turning from Father to Greed.

 

Ling could feel the Shield starting to appear on their hands.

 

“What does he mean by that?”

 

“Why do you always do this!” Gluttony cried out.

 

“I am not him!” Greed shouted, answering a question that nobody had asked. Now his attention was toward his brother and he was ready to act. Ling could feel his muscles tensing.

 

“Enough!” The voice roared across the room, echoing for dozens of seconds. Father pinched his nose like he was regretting every choice he ever made that got him to this point, or maybe just regretting one. “Do not fight in front of me. I sent Envy away for this exact reason.”

 

At that moment, while Greed was distracted Ling got control. Immediately the Shield dropped and Ling tried to relax his body tension.

 

“Gluttony, do as you were told. Don’t let anyone see you, don’t swallow any sacrifice.” Father turned to Ling. “Didn’t we agree you’d do your part to get what you wanted? Did Pride lie to me?”

 

Ling lowered his voice the best he could to match Greed's tone and shrugged, trying to get a layback attitude vibe. “Naa, he didn’t”

 

Greed was sulking.

“What the hell do you think you are doing?”

 

“Saving our asses. Don’t want to meet the same fate as Other Greed because you wanted to antagonize your dad…”

 

“I…”

 

“Yes, yes, you are not him, that’s why I said Other Greed.”

 

“Then go do as you were told.” Father ordered. Greed, inside Ling’s mind, tensed again.

 

“Sure.” Ling replied still trying to seem nonchalant. To get the point across even better he put his hands in their coat’s pockets as he started walking slowly to the exit, grinning maniacally and keeping his eyes wide open.

 

“You own me, by the way. It really took a lot out of me not smashing my fist into his bearded smug face.”

 

“Yeah, yeah.” Greed replied. Ling grinned, pleased with himself. “I’ll let you stay up past your bedtime, or even let you try alcohol if you stop being so pompous all the time.”

 

His grin got bigger.

“Eh, you like it.”

 

“Shut up, pest.”

 

Chapter Text

Ling didn’t know what to do.
Greed was still kneeling, holding Bido’s dead body in his arms. He had stopped screaming long ago, now he was just clinging to the body and staring at nothing.

… A big man with grey hair and horns…

On the inside of their minds, Ling didn’t dare to make a sound.

...a girl with tattoos and a killer smile...

After Greed's screams and Ling's own outburst, even the souls seemed quiet.

… a kid with a katana and spiky hair…

Over and over the same images, the same memories kept streaming in their minds. Greed seemed hypnotized by them. He wasn't moving, wasn't making a sound, as far as Ling could tell wasn't even thinking, just watching them over and over and over.

Ling’s anger had blown off at some point and all he could feel now were Greed’s confusion and desperation and so much pain.

.... Bido smiling up at him ...

No. Not at him. At Greed. Ling needed to remember that.

He knew this was his chance. If there was a time when he could get the upper hand on the homunculus for real, for good if he played his cards right, this was it.
All he had to do was say the right words, push the right buttons, feeding to the right emotions and he could be able to gain enough strength to turn the tables around.

Until now their battle had been uneven, to say the least. Even if had managed to get control here and there, he knew that every moment of autonomy had been in fact a concession on Greed's part. He had the dominance of their mind space, and all Ling had done until now had been almost touching it without really grabbing hold of it.

This was all these weeks had been about. Every time he had been in control, every time he had learned a new thing about Greed, he had been able to gain a little more weight in the balance of control, getting a little closer. He felt confident that this was the moment he had been waiting for.

He could finally take it for himself.

He could finally get it.

“Greed.”
No response.

He needed to do it. For his people. His clan. Xing. For Fu and Lan Fan. He needed to fuel Greed’s guilt.
He could already feel it all over him, so powerful that the souls had stopped moving.

The feeling of Bido’s blood on his hands was so intense that Ling could almost see it on his own hands, in the projected body in his mind.
It was so similar to Lan Fan’s blood.

The sensation of Bido's lifeless form in their lap so similar to the one of a detached arm in his hands.
Greed was shaking exactly like he had been while trying to tie the thing (the arm! Lan Fan’s arm!) to a stray dog. He didn’t know if it was the shaking or the blood that had made it so difficult he had had to try four times before getting it right. Tying his own shirt in Lan Fan stump had been easier, not by much but easier nonetheless. Maybe because she hadn’t been fighting it like that stray had. Sometimes all he could think of was where that dog had gone, after.
Where was her arm now?
Did someone find it?
Did they bury it?
Throw it away?
Was it decomposing on the side of a random road somewhere in Central?

No.

He couldn't do it.
He had lied, cheated, robbed, fought for his goal. He was willing to use every soul floating around him for it.
But he couldn't do this.
It didn’t make sense. Why couldn't he?

Greed was a homunculus, he wasn’t human. He was a monster and he had just killed his friend.
Ling looked down at Bido’s body through Greed’s eyes.
He hadn't been exactly human either.
He thought about Alphonse, a soul trapped inside a metal armor (lately he had come to a new understanding of his circumstances that had made him grimace at the thought of their past conversation about the usefulness of Al's situation).
He wandered back to Al's speech to Ed that he had eavesdropped. It was about people not being entirely human but still living a good life accordingly with the way they are.

And Greed’s pain felt like his own.

Greed.”

This could be a mistake. He could see himself, in the future, looking at this moment as the exact point he had lost his crown.

Greed memories were still streaming in front of his eyes.

“Greed,” he said, louder, but softer. This time he could feel the homunculus’ attention on him.
What are you going to do now?”

The same memories, more defined this time, were his only answer.

....Two men were running toward him trying to help him (not him! Greed!). He could remember thinking how fragile they were while breaking apart… Roa and… Fuck, the name was on the tip of his tongue...

“Greed!”

“They were mine! How could he lose them like that?”

“Who?”

“Greed! The other Greed! The old Greed! He had them and he lost them like that!” Ling was feeling a wave of anger surrounding him, feeding on the pain and confusion that had been there until now. “How could he? How could he lose my possession like that!”

Greed was screaming again, and Ling felt consumed by his anger, this time he felt like Greed's fit of temper made him lose control, not gain it. But he needed to make Greed understand, or this could be in vain. Bido’s death would be in vain.

“He didn’t lose them, Greed, *you* didn’t lose them! They were taken from you!”

They both gasped at the memory of Dolcetto cut in half at the hands of Bradley.

Ling felt himself sink lower. Their collective mind-space was filled with anger, so much that Ling almost couldn't even feel himself in it anymore. All he could feel, see, hear was one face, one name. Every soul seemed to scream it in the void, maybe he was doing it too. He wasn't sure.

Bradley.

With the little consciousness he had left in all the mess around him and inside of him, he watched Greed stand up and move.

---------------------------------

“Humm… Thank you.”

“What?”

They were sitting outside, leaning against the cabin’s wall. From the inside they could hear one of the chimeras snoring, Ling didn’t really know which one. With all that had happened, neither Ling nor Greed were quite eager to nod off even if, honestly, they could both have used some sleep. Not really for their body, that could always use the energy of the stone instead, but for their own minds.
So they stayed there, waiting, some may say brooding, while the chimeras and Edward slept.
The night was almost over and the first lights were coming up on the horizon.

“Don’t make me repeat myself, brat.”

“No no, I’m actually confused! I thought you were angry at me, ‘cause I told Ed about your stuff with the homunculi. We had a deal about that...”

Greed laughed bitterly.

“I think we are past that now, don’t you?”

Ling smiled softly.
“Yeah, you’re right.”

They stayed silent for a while, watching the light slowly irradiating the woods.

“I meant thanks about B… About what you did after we run from Bradley.”

“Oh.”

He chuckled bitterly. “Yeah, I’ve to admit I went a little crazy for a while there. I… Appreciate the fact that you risked going back to get him…”

“Well, he was your comrade, I couldn't leave him there.”

It had been tricky to balance the chimera on his shoulder then run into the unfamiliar streets of the Central without knowing where to go. Knowing that the homunculi could come and find him at any time. Alone, while Greed was silent in their mind, lost in his own confusion and anger, even as Ling kept asking frantically if he knew a place where they could hide. More than the physical fatigue it had been the memories of the similar situation he had found himself in that had gotten to him most.

“Really, it’s not a big deal.”

Remembering that other time gave him the idea of where to go at some point so it was also for the best…

“Do you want to go back there?” Ling asked.

He had burned Bido’s body outside the city, on the opposite side from the cabin because he didn't want the smoke to give away their position. He had also decided that it would be too big a risk to stay there to pay respect, too. After making sure the fire wouldn’t spread, he left. He knew it had been the right decision even if he thought that it would have been good for Greed to stay.
At least now Greed was considering the option of going back, so it was something.

“No. It’s not a good idea. I have new minions now, I can’t bring them there. It’s just... nice to know he’s there and not... You know.”

“Sure.” All he could think was where Lan Fan arm could be right now. And what right did he have to make her loss about him? Hadn’t she given him enough already? Hadn’t Fu, who had spent and was still spending his entire life serving his family? They should have hated him, and maybe they did. Maybe they were just trying not to break their vow, while in fact, they had been hating him every step of the way. He didn’t think that was the case but he could never be sure, could he? And how fucked up was that they were still more of a family to him than his real one?

“Whoa kid, are you trying to steal my thunder? This is my night to brood, not yours.”

Ling smiled. “Well, it’s almost morning, so…” They let the silence fall again. “I’m sorry, for yelling at you in a moment like that.”

“Relax, don’t mention it, I probably needed that anyway. But really, I’m serious, don’t mention it again, at all, to no one.”

“Sure.” He exhaled. “So, what do we do now?”

“I don’t know, lay low for a while, I think. We need to wait until the Promised Day. I kinda have a party to ruin. Relatives to kill. Worlds to rule, you know, that kind of things.”


“Fine. So we're just gonna stay near Central? Or do you want to go somewhere else for a while until the day comes?”

Greed seemed to think about it.

“ Three of my siblings and Pops are in Central right now, so I think we should get the hell out of here until it’s time to return, or until the situation changes. Two others are up North so maybe let’s not go there either. Let’s just move South, for now, I’ll think about a real direction later. When I’m...”

He stopped talking for enough time than Ling felt inclined to prompt him.
“What?”

It felt like Greed was trying to consider if telling Ling or not. After a while, he seemed to have decided that he trusted him enough to do so, funny.
“... I’m trying to remember places where we could hide. He was out of Father’s radar for a long time, like a hundred years, he may... I mean, I may... He … Whatever! There could be more than just the one in Dublith that Bradley found.”

“Sure, smart, and if you can’t remember, you could also ask Ed, maybe he knows something, he’s met you before, right?"

“Yeah, I kinda remember him now. Really angry and loud. But I don’t know if I wanna do that.”

“Well, ok, I thought that pride shouldn’t get in the way of getting information or something like that, weren't you who said that? But ok. I guess we are going South for now then, and wait on Father so you can do your thing.”

“I’ll think about it, ok?”

“That’s all I’m asking. But at the end, this is all for you, you know? I’m not that thrilled about wasting time waiting 'till the Promised Day.”

The sun was up now, and they stayed in companionable silence for a while. When Greed broke it his voice was weirdly serious and soft. (And sad?)

“You know I can’t let you go to Xing, right? And you know why?”

Ling swallowed.
“Yeah, I know.” He forced a smile. “But hey, when you’ll get to rule the world, Xing’ll be a part of it, so we’ll have it anyway.”

Greed reply was even softer.
“Yeah… When I’ll get the world…”

Chapter Text

Greed woke up startling.

A boot was poking at him and the sun, high in the sky, was shining in his eyes. He moved his head to get in the shadow of the person standing in front of him.

Ed was looking down, his arms crossed, a smug expression on his face, maybe because he could, in fact, look down on someone for once.


“You are so dumb? Why have you slept outside?” 


“Sweet as always I see.” Ling said out loud before leaving the body back to him.

 
“I don’t like it when you do that without asking. If it’s to be a smartass I’ll let you out no problem, just ask.”

Ling just laughed, while Ed was looking at them baffled.

 
As Greed stood up and dusted off his coat Ed kept staring at him.

“Is he always there?”

“Who?”

“Ling.”

“No.”

“What? Yes!” Ling shouted.

"Why are you screaming? He can’t hear you! But if he knew you can always hear him, he would talk only to you through me. I have no intention of being a phone wire between you two!”

 Ling looked satisfied with the explanation, so, in exchange, Greed amended to Ed.

 “Sometimes.”

 
“Oh ok, how does that work?”

 
“It’s pretty interesting actually!" Greed, in the most dramatic way possible, looked left and right, then moved toward Ed and motioned him to lean closer. "It works like nunya business.”

 
The runt did not look amused, but, against all odds, retained his composure.

“Wow, you really are snappy in the morning.”

 
“Whatever, where are the actually valuable minions of mine?”

 
Ed narrowed his eyes.

“Ling ate all of our food yesterday, they went out to get new rations.”

“And who told them to do that?”

“They told themselves. Why? Do you have something against food? In Ling’s body?”

 
“It’s my body now, get used to that.” He smirked and pointed a thumb at himself, as he often did when talking about Ling. “He did. And he hardly ever complains at this point.”

 
He immediately regretted it as Ed started to yell again about… something, he wasn’t really listening to him. Anyway, why do people scream in the morning?

Whatever, he was more concerned about Ling, who was once again going down a spiral after what Greed just said.

He supposed it was kind of reasonable for a person trapped inside of a shared mind for so long to have from time to time episodes of unstoppable and uncontrollable trains of thought, even if Ling was conscious of their surroundings and was still connected to their body's senses when Greed was in charge.

It wasn’t like they were getting more frequent, these episodes, and Greed also guessed that having someone else inside his mind that could kind of stop them was somewhat helping.

He still didn’t like this thing, though, not one little bit. Maybe because he could feel Ling’s emotions during them, even if somewhat muffled.

Probably because the Prince was his and he didn’t like when his things weren’t at their best.

 

He decided to break Ling’s spiraling by suddenly leaving him in control. It wasn’t like there was something to do anyway, right now, other than talking with an annoying little runt. 

That obviously left Ling very confused.

“...What?”

“I said you’re an asshole.”

“I’m Ling, Ed.”

“Oh… Hey, when did you… You know what? I don’t care, guess what, asshole, you’re an asshole too.”

 
Ling passed a hand through their hair, and Greed could feel his perplexity regarding what had just happened. He could tell he was about to make a big deal out of it, with all the asking and the trying to guess and the speculating and talking, so he decided to get things straight.

 
“Let’s update our rules, shall we, brat? I’m going to have you interact with these minions of mine when they start to bore me, ok? You aren’t going to tell them any of my plans but you can tell them what you want about Pops and my idiot siblings. You can tell them what to do, order them around, have fun, just, you know, follow what you know I’ll want in the best way you can. You are somewhat good at being in charge, are you not? You’re a Prince after all.”

 
Ling looked at him for a while, head tilted and eyes inquiring. Greed didn’t know when and how he had started to understand Ling's expressions, especially his eyes that were always fucking closed anyway. It didn’t make sense he could tell they were inquiring!

 
“What do you mean?”

 
“What? Come on! Are you really gonna pout about me calling you an asshole, you idiot Prince?”

 
They just ignored the runt's input.

 
“Nothing, I just said what I want you to do and not do. Now, what are your terms?”

 
“ I wouldn't…” He didn’t let the kid finish the sentence.

 
"And I’m going to say this right off the start, I’m not letting you out on meals while we are still in hiding if I can help it, they just said you made us all wait because the chimeras had to go get more food since you ate it all in one sitting.”

 
“Oh come on!”

 
“What, I call you idiot Prince all the time! What is wrong with you?”

 
“Well it’s true, we could be long gone by now, but instead we are in a place that you told me we know for sure Gluttony saw and knows the location of.”

 
“Ok, that’s true, I’ll give you that.” Ling begrudgingly conceded.

 
“Yes, it is! What the hell! Are you all right? You look kinda spacey. We don’t have anything left to eat, if that’s what you are fishing for.”

Was Elric still talking to himself?

 
“ I know that’s true. So, not that! I’ll eat more myself if it's going to make you less whiny. So, that aside, what do you want?”

“Well if I can’t eat, then I wouldn’t mind getting out to meditate, or exercise.”

“WE ARE OUTSIDE. Seriously Ling, what is wrong with you?”

“Ok, fine, once in a while I’ll let you do that, and only mildly complain. Just make him shut up now, please!”

“Who?”

“YOU! What is wrong with YOU!”

“Now!”

 
“Oh, Ed, sorry, were you talking to me just now? I wasn’t listening”

 

The pipsqueak then spent ten minutes screaming at the sky. They both concurred it was hilarious.

 

Chapter Text

It was the ninth day they passed doing nothing but walk, find shelter, find food and walk some more.

They had ditched the car the first day, it would have come in handy but it was way too risky to use it, and they needed to play it safe for now. Ed had fought it, not really seeing the exposure it could bring, but he had eventually calmed down, after a reminder of their agreement about laying low and staying in the shadows.

Greed didn’t mind the monotony of their days, after spending weeks searching for intruders in the tunnels all day every day he could hardly complain about it.

Also, he kind of liked it, seeing the world he only had a concept of until now. He had always known of it, it wasn’t like there were things he didn’t know about. Maybe the knowledge came from Father, or maybe from his own repressed memories, but seeing things, touching them, smelling them, it was something different. It was more than he could remember having, and he felt exhilarated by it, besides everything that had happened and was still happening inside his head.

Before these days the only thing similar to this he had experienced was watching into the horizon from the roof of the palace, something he (they) tried to do from time to time.

It was weird how the more he saw the more he wanted to see, and touch and feel, and own.

 

Ling thought that was the reason his dear old daddy had practically confined him to the tunnels and hadn't given him other jobs. Maybe the same had happened to the other Greed all those years ago. Maybe he too had wanted the world. He still didn’t remember much. Other than his fight with Wrath and some moments here and there with his fri… chimeras, most of what he had were not memories per se but...hugh… simply put, feelings.

After that first violent time, where all those images and feelings came rushing back, everything was calmer and blurrier. He would see something or hear something that would trigger a reaction in his brain, most of the times not really memories, more like reactions to them. Similarly to those times when Ling would think of something not intensely enough for Greed to see but still enough to feel his response.

The Prince was kind of helpful during those times, taking control with short notice without letting others know, if Greed didn’t feel like it, or talking to him if he needed distraction here and there. Maybe he did it out of gratitude for the fewer times Greed had reciprocated the favor, maybe because of a long game he was playing. He didn’t much care to find out. It didn’t matter, it was still kind of …. Nice… being able to entrust someone on some level (surely more than he ever did with any of his siblings during his short, long, life). Part of him didn’t want to ruin it by knowing for a fact that the kid was only thinking about immortality when helping him.

Also, there were a lot of times, like now for example, where Ling was So. Not. Helping.

“You are so moody when it happens!” Oh yeah, another lecture, just what he needed. “You need to tell them something, or they are going to notice it on their own!”

As if…

The runt was always muttering and scheming by himself, or complaining about the car they left behind (still!) or bickering with Ling about everything and anything whenever he realized he was out.

The chimeras, on the other end, didn’t really pay any mind to anything that wasn’t directly significant to their journey.

All in all, nobody was really paying that much attention to Greed, even if they did decide to follow his leadership.

It was fine, Greed was okay with it, that just meant that the brat was wrong and nobody was going to notice anything.

“Hey, Greed”

“What?” When did Ed get so close to him?

“Everything ok? You seem kind of spacey, and not the Ling-is-getting-out kind of spacey.”

Greed would have been sort of touched by the attention toward him, let alone the concern, if not for the gloating Ling was doing inside their head.

“What do you care?”

That made him frown, and raise his voice. Sometimes it was more fun to watch him lose his hair-thin patience than others.

“I don’t, ok? But you’re kind of my boss right now, and you are kind of deciding where to go. So maybe I worry a little if you don’t look up to the task.”

He forced himself to laugh. “Don’t bother. I know exactly what I’m doing.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Oh yeah?”

“Is there a fucking echo?”

“What?” After a moment the shrimp grinned. “Did Ling just agree with me on doubting you?”

Greed hated how quickly the kid was getting used to the situation and how well he was adjusting on catching what was going on.

He sighed.

“Well, what is he saying to you?”

“You should ask him for help. We need to find a safe place and you keep struggling to remember. You know you have met him before!

“What good would it do? I’m pretty sure I’ve met him near the end of it all. I doubt he knows any place where I could have a hideout other than… that place in Dublith.”

“Then ask him about it! You don’t even know what place in Dublith! You don’t know if any other of your comrades are still alive! You only remember Dolcetto and Roa in the sewers and Bido…well... maybe he wasn’t the only survivor!”

Oh, he really did not want to think about THAT.

“Let’s make it clear, Ling! You don’t talk about them, not to me, not to anyone. I know I need to figure something out but it is not your place to advise me. Your place is to do as you are told, or else.”

“Or else what? Come on Greed, don’t be dense! You listened to Pride even when you knew fully well something wasn’t right and now you are not going to listen to me even if you know I’m right?”

“Yeah, because you have no ulterior motives, right?… You actually told me yourself you’d use everything you learn about me to your advantage.”

“I thought we were past that at this point.”

“Yes well, so did I. But I guess we aren’t, are we?”

They stayed silent for a while, and it must have shown on his face because Ed decided it was a good moment to intervene.

“So.... what is he saying?”

“ He’s saying we should braid each other's hair and share our feelings.”

He could feel Ling’s surprise at the nearly accurate answer.

“What?” He snapped at him. “You thought you were special? It’s not just to you, I don’t lie to anyone”

“Sure, we should totally do that.” At least Ed was with him on how ridiculous Ling’s idea was, based on the sarcastic tone and the eye rolling.

“Hey, there is nothing wrong with either of those things, what is wrong with you two?! And you even used to have a braid, Ed. Why did you stop?” Ling hadn’t exactly asked for control, but he took it slowly enough and made his intention very clear, so that Greed didn’t mind much, even if they were kind of in the middle of a fight still. “You finally figured out you look almost fourteen without it?”

“WHAT? No! The army is looking for a blond with a braid! How dare you!”

Ling burst out laughing, fight with Greed forgotten, as he swiftly avoided the first two punches headed in his direction and started running to avoid the small ball of yellow anger that was coming at him. Greed was taken aback. He had never “seen” him laugh and smile like that. So easily and disregarding of all his troubles. It was totally different from the set and studied smile he often had.

 

It was weird. He liked it, seeing him that way for once (and that was strange all in its own, why should he care? Ling was supposed to be just the container of his stone, then again he had long since accepted that that was far from true for him).

But there was a part of him that hated it too.

So much.

It reminded him how having everything he could possibly possess of Ling’s, and even somehow gaining some more, would never be enough; he would never have HIM. He felt this key notion in a moment like this more than he did all those time they fought and argued. At least those times he could tell that part of what Ling was saying was for Greed’s own good.

No, as he saw him interact with other people in such a way, he could tell he’ll never be able to have him for real, not as much as he had had Bido, that had searched from Dublith to Central to find him, or how he had Roa and Dolcetto that had died trying to protect him. Or Martel or Ulchi. They truly had been his own…. and he didn’t even remember how he met them. Shit, he didn’t even know for sure if they were dead or alive.

He had been angry with his old self for not being able to get anything before dying, but now he was starting to acknowledge that maybe he had had it right the first time. He was even feeling some kind of jealousy toward him, himself, absurd as it may be.

The thought of the wrongness of feeling his siblings emotions (jealousy and anger) came and went, as if he had always known on some level that Pride and Father were wrong to define them all only by one trait.

 

“I’m sixteen, asshole, and I have been growing taller every day! It’s you the one who has a freakishly adult body for someone younger than me!”

Yeah, he knew what he had to do. He sighed.

“ So many excuses!” They were still running and screaming “Al told me how he too used to be taller than you, so …”

“Okay.” Geed interrupted him.

“What?”

Ling, sobering immediately, maybe sensing Greed’s state of mind, stopped running abruptly. A running Elric casually crashed into them. All three collapsed to the ground, but Greed and Ling barely noticed.

“Okay, you’re right, I’ll… I’ll talk to him.”

“You sure?” Ling spoke out loud so now Ed, that was lying on top of them after the crash, stopped struggling and watched them puzzled.

“Don’t make me repeat myself.”

“Can I ask him to teach us how to braid our hair too? I’ve always wanted to know how! It looks so complicated and fun!”

Greed had had enough and decided to take his body back. And Ling has been asking why he was so moody all the time, the pest...

“Shut up now, asking him was your idea!”

The other kid meanwhile had stood up and was even offering a hand up for Greed.

“Asking me what?”

“But I was serious!”

“Nothing, kid. The Prince ruined it. Let’s go find the chimeras, shall we?”

He ignored the offered hand and stood up on his own, the started walking in the general direction in which the two other guys were previously headed.

Ed was screaming behind him.

“Oh come on! Don’t let that idiot Prince get to you! Talk to me, Greed. Screw him!”

“Nope!” He replied, but as he walked away a smile crept across his face.

“Hey, since when did he start to even consider taking your side in any argument?”

“Yeah, I’ve been wondering too.” He kept talking just because he didn’t want to hear what Ling had to say about what that could mean, and what it meant to Greed. “I’ll do it, ok? I said I’ll do it and so I will. Just... give me time.”

“... sure...”

He must have said the wrong thing because for some reason now the kid sounded strange again.

“...You have nothing but time.”

And mean.

Chapter Text

“No, look, you have to tie this part to this one to make sure it doesn’t jam.” Ed sprang the trap with his metal hand, that promptly caught it. “You see? This way the rabbit doesn’t have the time to jump away.”

He clapped to transmute his own arm into a blade, freeing himself, then clapped again to fix the string he just broke.

“Now you try.” He handed them the parts.

 As Ling worked to copy Ed’s example, Greed watched, only sometimes giving some inputs.

 “I have to admit, he’s a better teacher than I thought he would be. More patient for sure.”

 Ling smiled. “Right? Maybe having younger siblings that had never tried to kill you does that to a person.”

 “I know, right?”

 They both laughed as Ling finished to set the trap. He looked up to Ed to see if he’d done it right and noticed the other teen staring at them with wide eyes.

 “Did I say that out loud?”

 Ed just slowly nodded.

 “Well, it’s true.”

 “It’s fucked up, that what it is.”

 “You are telling me that? And it’s not like you didn’t know.”

 “Mhm.”

Ling could feel some kind of judgmental vibe coming from Ed, maybe it was projected, maybe not. It pissed him off nonetheless.

 “Hey, it’s not like it’s our fault! I’ve told you, we have the fate of our clan on our shoulders. Getting the crown is not an amateur competition. The wrong clan wins, one that has some kind of resentment toward yours, sometimes centuries old, and it could mean decades of crisis and starvation, for some even extinction. It’s a war.”

 Silence had fallen and Ling felt self-conscious all of a sudden. He plastered on a smile on his face even though he could tell neither of them was buying it, at all. He felt Greed incoming question even before the homunculus had thought it completely in his own mind, and saw that same question stuck in Ed’s mouth as if he was too scared to voice it.

 “No, I’ve never done it. Some tried to do it to me, I’ve seen it done one time, but I’ve never done it myself. I’d like to think I would never be capable of it, even if I don’t really know most of them. Their life should mean less to me than the one of any member of the Yao clan, never mind the very survival of my whole clan, even if we share the same blood. I hope I’ll never find out. But… ” He exhaled. “ I promised Greed, no tragic backstories, so… We’ll leave it at that.”

 “We said that before you had a first-row ticket to my worst memories! That’s not fair”

 “Well, that’s tough! And what do you care about Xing’s affairs anyway?”

 “I.... don’t”

 “Then shut up and think about your own murderous siblings!”

 “Like we don’t think about them enough…”

 “Shit! I’ve never thought about it!” Ed all but screamed. They stopped arguing and looked at him.

 “About what?”

 “Greed!”

Ling let Greed take control swiftly.

 “What.”

 “Not you, the other one.” Ling would have been impressed on how little fazed Ed was getting at their shifting if he wasn’t so occupied watching intently Greed’s reaction at the mention of his past life. “I’ve always thought it was weird how King Bradley took him down and dealt with that all ordeal, but I’ve never thought about it after knowing he was a homunculus. About what it meant.”

 

Ok, this could go horribly wrong. Greed was still, both fists clenched but without the Shield.

“And what did it mean?” He managed to get out almost without moving his jaw.

 “Well, he told us he wasn’t in talking terms with the other homunculi but it’s not like we were sure, you know? He had just had Al kidnapped to get immortali…”

 “YOU DID WHAT?” The question was for Greed but, for some reason, it got out of their mouth too. They both jerked in reaction while Ed looked at them unimpressed.

 “At least he didn’t have his gang try to kill us for the same reason... like some other people did…” He crossed his arms. “...After conning us…”

 Greed looked thankful for the change of subject, even if it was something they had wanted to talk to Ed about for days.

“The Prince conned you? And then tried to kill you?”

 “You don’t need to look so proud of him about it.”

 “ I didn’t try to have him killed, Lan Fan gets a little carried away sometimes... That’s all”

 “But you’re not denying the conning them part.”

 “I was starving! I was literally fainting on the side of the road!”

 “So you cheated them out of a meal?”

 “Well…”

 “A meal? He played the part of a dumb Prince for weeks, leeching off us! Well, dumber...”

 “Ok, I am proud.”

 “Thanks!”

 “At least you were honest, Greed. You wanted something from us and you kidnapped Al to get it. Not like that asshole!” He could see Ed thinking about what he just said. “Ok, that was also a dick move, and I stand by my anger at the time. And I know, I know, he wasn’t you but still… What?”

 Ed must have sensed their discomfort at the statement because he stopped talking and was now just kind of looking at them like they had a cool secret they didn’t want to tell him, which they had, not a cool one, but a secret.

 

“ Are you going to tell him? Ask for his help?”

Ling was getting tired of having this conversation.

“How many times are you going to ask me that, really?”

And he wasn't the only one.

“How many times are you going to change the subject, or agreeing with me and then do nothing?!”

 “Why are you so determined on making me regain my memories? And with his help?”

 “You are literally a two hundred years old being with a few months worth of memories, excuse me for believing we have a better chance of kicking your megalomaniac father’s ass with all your memories intact! Not to mention Wrath.”

 “We? Didn’t you want to, what was it, bring me kicking and screaming right to your own asshole of a daddy?”

 “Well yes, but I can’t if you end up dead before I get the chance.”

 “What’ll probably kill me is having to watch my back from an idiotic kid inside my own mind while I try to fight them.”

“Or going at Bradley without any notion of combat! Seriously, that is the one thing I know about your old self from your memories, you had no training whatsoever!”

 

“Guys! Stop it!” Ed shouted, losing his patience. “I hate when you do that! At least give me one of the two ends of the conversation! You are so fucking weird and this whole situation is crazy.”

They looked at him, blinking, they had kind of forgotten where they were.

It took a few more moments for Greed to decide.

“All right all right, I’ll do it.” Greed was already talking out loud but then he actually started talking to Ed. “As I said to you when we met in that cabin, I’m getting something, memories or whatever, from my past life. That’s why I attacked Wrath, as you remembered before, I had plenty of reason to do so.” He kept gesticulating with their hands, pretending to be nonchalant about it, as if it could make the whole conversation less awkward. “And now I’m trying to remember other things from before my death, and I’ll... appreciate… if you could tell me what you know…”

 “And tell us about any secret hideout Greed could have had that Bradley doesn't know about.”

Ling intervened, even knowing it would annoy Greed to no end. But then again, Greed was busy with all the ‘I don’t understand basic human emotions especially my own’ thing. And to his credit, he wasn’t exactly human. And probably regaining all his memories wasn’t going to help with that.

 

“Oh, ah. ok .”

In any other occasion, it would have been fun watching Ed struggle with his emotional constipation.

“Well, sure.”

 

-----------------------------------------------------------

They were all sitting around a campfire in silence.

Darius and Heinkel were minding their own business, as usual. This evening, in particular, they could feel that something was off and didn’t want to have anything to do with it so they looked extra careful on not addressing them nor look them in the eye. As if the three of them were some easily-scared wild animals... the irony…

Ed was playing with the rabbit meat on his plate, only barely eating. Ling could understand why. The conversation they had before had to have been a painful one for him. Even just hearing his friend talking about how he had to tear apart his unconscious brother armor to get a bloody body out of it had been tough, never mind having to live throughout it.

Greed wasn’t feeling any better. The notion of the massacre of all of his friends and the destruction of his home had been a hard one.

They truly were all gone, and on top of that, for a second Ed had given him the hope of a survivor, recalling a chimera he had knocked down before the fight that maybe could have made it out alive. Obviously then he remembered the fact that he had been a chimera lizard so everything felt even worse after that.

 One thing that really made Ling mad was that Greed still stubbornly kept himself from referring to any of them as his friends, or even comrades, in the same buttheaded way he had decided not to join Ed until Ed agreed to work for him.

Everything about his behavior was telling the opposite, not to mention what Ling was feeling coming out of the homunculus’ soul. If Ling could feel it so strongly, how could Greed not understand it even a little?

 

Right now, he was seated still, not even trying to eat his food, and kept staring at the flames, almost unblinking.

“They were very loyal.”

“...”

“They all fought for you till the end.”

“Thank you. That makes me feel so much better.” How much sarcasm could a person put in a sentence?

“I’m not trying to make you feel better, asshole, I’m trying to say, well, you must have been doing something right. I would have been honored to meet your old self.”

“I thought we agreed I was my old self.”

 “You know what I mean. Still, I’m sorry it didn’t work. Talking to Ed.”

 “Yeah, but … I’m glad to know for sure. What happened.”

 Silence. Ling decided to break it.

“You were right, You can’t fight them and me at the same time, and fighting them is the most important thing right now.”

 He sighed, he hadn’t been planning on saying this. It was exactly the opposite of what he had been trained all his life to do. It felt like that moment in the tunnels when he decided not to take advantage of Greed’s grief. He hated how every important decision he made from the moment he and Greed started sharing a body had been pointing in the opposite direction of his goal. And he hated even more the fact that he didn’t regret it, so far. ( And when did he start to refer to Greed possessing him as 'share a body'?)

He was terrified of what he was about to say. In comparison, fully agreeing on getting his body taken from him and deciding to cross a desert into a country with a military dictatorship had been a piece of cake.

“Also, Greed, look.” He could feel the homunculus full attention, maybe he was sensing his panic. “At this point, we are a few months away from the Promised day, going against you when you’ll fight against your Father and your siblings will only give me even less hope to ever go back to Xing in time, or even at all.”

 “What are you saying?”

 “I’m saying: truce. Until that day, I promise I’m not going to try to steal our body, you don’t have to worry about me and maybe we’ll have a chance to actually survive this thing.”

 Greed squinted his pupilless eyes.

“ And what do you want in return?”

Ling huffed.

“You are insufferable! Just… The fact that we both won’t die so that I’ll have the chance to go to Xing in a couple of months!” He shouted, but then he remembered something else. “But, also, you’ll have to let me teach you some tricks to fight someone like Wrath, so we won't get killed the minute we start fighting. You have no real combat technique, and Bradley uses that against you, a lot!”

“Mmm, I’ll give you that… But ho…?”

 “Yes, yes. And how can you possibly trust me? Seriously, it seems like you are the one who got possessed, not me. Just… believe me. I may not always tell the truth like you do, but we people of Xing, we always keep our word."

He got a grunt in response to that, but he persisted.

 "So, what do you say? Partners?”

 Greed went silent for some time, Ling could feel… something.... stirring inside of him.

 “Sure, partners.”

 

They stayed in an awkward silence for a while, very self-consciously, then Greed broke it, thank God!

 

“Hey kid, wanna see something funny?” Then, without waiting for a response he added out loud. “Hey, runt?”

 “What?”

“Thank you... for before.” He said with the most melodramatically sad and "honest" face he could muster.

“Oh" Ed turned redder than that tacky coat he used to wear everywhere and avoided their eyes as he shouted. “Don’t worry about it! Anyway, wow! It’s getting late, goodnight!” And ran away.

 Greed snickered.  Ling was on the verge of tears with laughter.

 “Wait, you did that on purpose? How did you know?”

“ What do you think, that I don’t know my own possessions by now?”

“ Ok, then let's see, what am I thinking right now?”

“ You are trying to find a way to use this whole touchy-feely conversation to your advantage and…” Ling could tell he was only pretending to think about it. “ Get me to let you eat this roasted rabbit I do not want yourself.”

Ling didn’t want to give him the satisfaction, but he was spot on.

“...And? Is it working?”

Greed rolled his eyes and let the control shift away.

“You shifty little bastard, why do I put up with you anyway…”

Ling just laughed.

But, as he got the meat and brought it near the fire again to get it extra crispy as he like it, Greed added.

“You know, I think Father burned me to death.”

WHAT?!

 

The meat went flying. The chimera jumped into action against an imaginary enemy. Heinkel had already a gun in his hands, somehow.

Greed started laughing maniacally inside their head.

What a fucking bastard.

 

Chapter Text

Against all odds, Heinkel was kind of happy of this whole working-for-a-homunculus situation.

When it came to it, he could say Greed was the best boss he’d had in years. Not that it really said much seeing who his last boss had been. Some may have said that, still, Kimblee at least had been human and not an artificial being in the body of a teenager but Heinkel would have just shrugged at them, after all, he himself was part man part lion, so who was he to judge?

And Greed wasn’t bad. Sure, Heinkel could tell he didn’t know what the hell he was doing or what their destination was at least seventy percent of the times. And sure, he did sometimes become a teenaged foreign Prince that somehow was better than him at everything they needed to do, while other times he just stared at nothing for minutes and minutes murmuring (or straight up yelling) parts of a conversation nobody but him and the Prince could hear. But at least he could tell he paid attention to their opinions on every problem they were facing, even if he would never admit it, and even if Heinkel was almost sure it was because he had no idea what to do in most situations.

It had become easy to look past all the annoying rants (sometimes generated by the fact that the homunculus felt like he wasn’t in control of a situation, and other times because it had been too long and he needed to make clear again to all of them how he was “the boss, and the decisions were to pass through him, but yes, I've decided that what you’re doing right now it’s exactly what I wanted you to do”) and Heinkel was willing to ignore all the little quirks because the guy was sarcastic and funny and even likable if he was in the right mood.

Right now, though, nobody was in the right mood.

It was raining, pouring.

The four (five?) of them were taking cover from the rain in an abandoned warehouse outside East City. They had decided to go there because Greed had had some kind of epiphany about a safehouse he had in that city in his previous life (Heinkel didn’t want to even start to try to understand what all of... That...meant. The whole, an-artificial-human-and-a-foreign-Prince-share-a-body situation was more than enough for him without bringing up memories from a past life, thank you very much). Anyway, the safehouse had been a bust. It turned out it had become a school at least fifty years before. (Again, he didn’t want to know).

In the abandoned warehouse, Darius was trying to set up a fire to fight the clamminess in the air. Heinkel himself was making the inventory, trying to understand if they needed a new errand party for their rations. What was left could last two to three days more, depending on who, between Ling and Greed, would have dinner that night. Fullmetal was checking the roof, and alcheming it so it would finally stop leaking on them. Greed wasn’t doing much of anything if not watching Ed with contemplative eyes.

Heinkel couldn't figure out if he looked more concerned or irritated.

Until he snapped.

“Ok that’s it! We’re going to Rush Valley.”

“What?”

All three of them turned to him, confused.

Where did that come from?

It wasn’t like it was unusual for him to change the subject or to suddenly start talking about things in no way linked to the situation at hand. As if he had had a whole conversation without them, and, well, that was exactly the case... The Fullmetal kid and Darius were having these big discussions to decide if it was more hilarious or annoying. Heinkel himself didn’t mind much, it was still better than Edward’s various lectures about alchemy and it was entertaining watching him constantly get irritated with himself, even knowing fully well it wasn’t actually with himself he was irritated with.

All that said, deciding to change itinerary just like that was weird, even for him... them.

“I said we are going to Rush Valley, the Prince told me that's where you have your mechanic friend, and that thing, it’s clearly not working well right now.” He said, vaguely pointing at Ed’s automail leg.

Ed was taken aback.

“Well, it’s raining and there’s a very damp weather and sometimes it does that.” He was mumbling as if he wanted the conversation to end as soon as possible.

Greed just squinted his eyes.

“No, it’s not that. I’ve caught you limping a lot these past few weeks, even when it wasn’t raining, Ling noticed it, too.”

That made Ed grin for some reason.

“You think…”

“What?”

“I’ve been getting taller in these past months?”

Oh, that explained the smile…

“I don’t know, it’s hard to say what’s going on all the way down there!”

That was the Prince who spoke.

“Hey!!”

And that was again the homunculus that was laughing in his face.

Another thing they’ve started to do a lot, the Prince and Greed, was to come out for just one second, enough to say what Heinkel was sure they thought was a clever comment, and then leave again before they could face the consequences. It was troublesome how much those two found each other hilarious, but even more alarming was how everyone else had become that good at understanding who was talking and/or laughing.

“Anyway, Winry’s not in Rush Valley anymore. She came to Briggs and now she’s who-knows-where with Al. You two should know about this.” He said with an accusing tone,  pointing at both Darius and him.

“Eh… That’s the past, we don’t work for Kimblee anymore.”

“That’s right you don’t! You work for me, ”Greed exclaimed, then gestured toward Ed once again “and I only want my people at one hundred percent, so tell me how we can fix that thing if your mechanic’s unavailable.”

“Well, we could go to Resembool, that’s my hometown. Granny’s there and maybe she can fix it. Make it right for my height.” He sounded so proud.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea, they surely are keeping watch over your hometown in case you’re so stupid to go there.” Darius interjected. “And look, you are.”

“Don’t worry,” oh, Ling came back, “I can lead you so that… shut up, they know… ok… I can lead you, under Greed’s supervision as the real undisputed boss of this group….happy?... in a way that nobody who’s watching the house will notice us.”

“You sure, kid?” Heinkel needed to know if he was just bragging or he was for real, it was important to do so with these pests.

The Prince looked dead serious.

“Yes, don’t worry.”

“Sure then, Resembool it is.”

“Hey, I didn’t give my ok! We go only if *I* say so.”

“...” The three other people in the room were all giving Greed the side-eye, but nobody said anything. They all knew who was the right person to make him get his shit together. And, as clockwork, the homunculus tilted his head almost imperceptibly and squinted his eyes just a little, a face they all, after a while, had decided to call the Ling-is-lecturing-the-living-shit-out-of-Greed-face.

They only had to wait a couple of minutes before Greed grimaced, then, trying so hard to be nonchalant but obviously failing, he shrugged.

“Yes, yes you don’t have to be so…aargh… Listen up,  I’ve decided we should go to Rosen...whatever it’s called.... because I need every single one of you at your peak condition next month.”

“Yes, sure.”

“Whatever.”

“If *you* say so…”

The three responses were delivered in an incredibly sarcastic tone, so Heinkel couldn't figure out the proud small smile on the homunculus face that came after hearing them.

 

Chapter Text

“Are you going to watch him all night or can we go join Ed and the others for dinner now?”

 

Standing in the shadows, just outside the circle of light of the campfire, Greed kept staring at Hohenheim, unable to look away.

“You can sit down if you want.”

They jumped, both inside and outside their mind.

“I don’t know if I want to… He has just stopped … crying… With that face…”

“Well, you should have thought about it before creepily watching him from afar, Greed! Now move.”

“Ok, ok, I’m going, what’s gotten into you?!”

“...You…”

Greed resolutely ignored him, but nonetheless stepped into the circle of light of the campfire and sat down.

Hohenheim had a bottle and a cup in his hands and offered him the cup, full of something.

“So, which one are you? Of his... Children.”

Greed didn't like much this start of exchange. Even as brief as it had been this far, he could tell that it was all going to be on the other man’s terms, if he didn't do something about it. So he didn’t answer immediately. He took a long deliberate swig from the cup.

Man, the alcohol in it was so cheap he couldn't even tell what it was. Ling didn’t seem to like it, at all. Oh yeah, right, fifteen years old have no taste for this kind of things.

Sixteen

“ Oh, shut up, like it’s any different”

Hohenheim cleared his throat and their attention went back to him, he didn’t seem annoyed or irritated by his stalling, he was watching them with some kind of amused curiosity, like if he was seeing something both incredibly familiar and completely foreign at the same time. Not that Greed was able to tell any of it, that was Ling’s doing. As he'd told often, understanding people’s intentions and thoughts from a glance was something crucial to survive Xing politic circles, literally survive. Greed kind of liked that the Prince was letting him know his impressions lately, even if he would never admit it, of course, even if Ling probably knew it already anyway.

Greed smiled and put on his bravado.

“I’m Greed the Avaricious.” He smirked. “I’m the person who’ll own the world.”

“Oh, I see. Is that why you stopped working for… your father?”

“Yes.”

Hohenheim just nodded, still looking at him like he was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen. In the meantime, Greed could feel Ling wanting to say something but barely keeping it in.

“ What now, brat?”

“... Nothing.”

“Spill it and don’t make me waste my time”

“You won't like it”

“Though shit, say it.”

“It’s just, it’s not entirely true.”

“What?”

“That may be your goal, maybe... but you didn’t rebel your father because of it... this time”

“...”

“I told you that you wouldn't like it.”

“Shut up”

“Exactly my point”

Greed wanted to see some reaction from the man who looked like his Father so he decided not to ignore the Prince’s annoying reminder but to use it to push it a little bit, just to see what would happen.

(Not because he thought he could help him understand confusing things he couldn't, for the life of him, understand about himself.)

“Well, mostly for that. I also did it because he did me wrong, he killed... took away something of mine. Also, I just don’t want him to succeed.”

Hohenheim didn’t look anything but even more intrigued, leaning a bit more toward him.

“So you’re angry at him? Are you doing this out of spite? You want… revenge?”

Ok, this wasn’t going where Greed wanted it to go

“Maybe”

“Justice?”

And now he was just angry.

“You don’t know anything about this, old man. Don’t talk about things you don’t understand!”

Man, he was shouting, he needed to calm down. Hohenheim leaned back and held out his hands.

“I’m sorry I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you, it’s just...You know what you are, right?”

Greed put up his most unimpressed smartass face.

“...Yes.”

But the man just smiled politely. The asshole.

“No, I mean, what you really are. What are you made out of.”

“Yes, I am his Avarice, I am the part of his soul that craves for everything he craved before making me.”

Hohenheim was once again watching him closely, and now he was starting to look sad.

“And what are you craving right now?”

It was weird how natural it felt talking to him, anger and irritation and puzzlement and all. As if it was something he’d always done, similar to how it was with Ling. And he knew it wasn’t for the familiar face, in fact, that normally would have had the opposite effect.

 

“Everything. The world. To not have this emptiness inside me anymore. There is something between me and everything I don’t possess, like an invisible wall, and... I know, somehow I know it as an indisputable truth, that if I manage to own the whole world then that barrier won’t matter anymore.”

Hohenheim was making weird faces like he was trying not to show how much his statement got to him (Thanks, kid) and it was pissing Greed off once again. This weird connection he was feeling with him wasn’t something he understood, and it was very different from the kind of connection to those things from his past that he didn’t remember. It was in some way more… visceral. He knew it came from his dear old daddy and he hated it.

“Just do me a favor, will you? Your Father, he gave you a part of himself and called it Avarice, don’t make the mistake to think he knew everything about it.”

“What do you mean? That is the one thing I know for certain! That I have his desire for everything.”

“You have the desires he didn’t keep. You know his plan, right? He still wants a lot of things, even after creating you. Isn’t that weird? Why do you want those same things, how is that possible?”

“Humh.”

“So, maybe the desires that he put in you are something different. You were talking about justice for someone. Some frie…”

Greed didn’t even need to stop him, he just shot the guy a look, and he understood.

“Yes, sorry, I wouldn’t want to presume, it’s just... I assumed I knew him once, what he wanted, but then... after what he did to my peo...Well, I had to think again. Now I realize, maybe some part of it, some part of him… Maybe I was right the first time.” His eyes and voice were soft.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

Was he just trying to push his buttons? Because he wasn’t making any sense.

“I know, just… Promise me you’ll think about it.”

Greed didn't say anything because he didn't like to think about that kind of things and he didn't tell lies.

After watching him closely for a while Hohenheim caught himself with what he was doing and forcibly laughed and shrugged.

“But what do I know? I’m just an old man with old regrets, and wishful thoughts.”

 

Meanwhile, he could feel Ling having some kind of realization.

“Greed, let me talk to him, please.”

At least he didn't have to answer.

“Fine, I'm thinking the runt was right on the money before, I’m a second from punching him too, this fucking guy…”

He left the Prince in control and he got immediately to the point.

“You really think so?”

This time Hohenheim was left speechless, mouth hanging open.

“You really think the desires Greed’s made of are… What you hoped all those years ago? That he’s made of that?”

 

“I’m made of what?”

“I’m trying to understand if you’re lying.”

“Again, seriously, how many times do I have to say it? I thought you knew by now that I’ve never lied to you.”

“I know! I’m not saying to me!”

Fucking hell. Sometimes the kid was a fucking mystery. A stressful irritating fucking mystery.

“Yes, but well… I’m sorry, who are you?”

“I’m Ling.”

Oh, good. At least the Prince wasn’t being an annoying shit just to him.

“How are you there, Ling?”

“I think it’s because I’m not just a soul in this body, but it also used to be solely mine, before.”

“And you’re still so near the surface? And he’s ok with it?”

“Well, you’re the one with the theories about the one you called Dwarf in the Flask, about which desires he gave Greed and which ones he kept.”

 

“Quit talking about me like I’m not here! Explain!”

“Sorry, you're right. We are talking about the power of friendship.”

“... I... actually hate you.”

“Wow, for a guy who claims he never lies you...”

“Yes, yes, shut up now, don’t even start with me. Didn’t you want to talk to him?”

“Oh, right”

Hohenheim was indeed talking.

“Yes, I guess that’s true, I’m sorry I’m being rude, this is just very interesting! And even more unexpected than finding Edward teaming up with one of the homunculus children.”

“Why? My soul is strong, this was my body and Greed is a greedy bastard who wanted company. You should be able to understand. I can feel it in you that you also have souls inside, so much more than even us. I’ve only seen their Father similar to you. And I don’t mean your face.”

“Oh, are you an alkahestrist?”

“No, I'm not.”

“So I have to assume you have some kind of connection with the royal family in Xing. I can’t say I’m happy to see you here, then, if I’m making the right assumption on why. I hope you can understand why is that, after hearing my story.”

“I do understand. And I, myself, hope you believe me when I say I believe in a ruler’s duty to his people and not the opposite. I am Ling Yao, twelfth son of the Emperor of Xing, it’s an honor to meet you, Van Hohenheim, Sage of the West.”

Greed was buffeted by how regal Ling was being. Every word, every movement was studied and elegant, and august. He actually got up and bowed gracefully, putting his hands together in front of him.

Hohenheim looked shocked for a second too, before smiling and bowing himself in the same manner, a lot more clumsily but still not as awkward as a person who had never done it before.

“The honor is mine. Yao clan, you said? I believe I’ve seen your land, once upon a time. The rainforest I saw there is still one of the most beautiful views I had the privilege of experience in my long life.” Greed could tell the kid joy at the mention of his clan’s lands by someone who had seen them. “I used to live in the lands of the FenDou clan for a while, neighbor and allied to yours.”

Ling didn't drop the smile nor changed his tone, he was too well trained for that, but tensed up just a little bit.

“We are in a feud for as long as history remembers with the FenDou clan.”

“Oh,” Hohenheim scratched his head, “well, it can’t be that long, can it?”

Ling thought about it for a minute then conceded. “No, I guess not.”

“You are young, not much older than my son Edward, am I right?”

“I’m actually a little younger.”

“Oh,” It was weird how the man with the face of Father could express so many nuanced emotion on his face. Greed didn’t like it. “Anyway,” and he liked even less how much similar to his Pops he was getting in that moment before speaking again. “If you get what you want from this country someday you’ll understand how something like a feud between two neighbor clans is just small and petty.”

Greed could feel how Ling didn’t like where the conversation was going, even if his tone remained the exact same.

“We’ll see…”

“Are you still sure you want to go on with your plan even knowing what you know now?”

“I’ve already told you I’m not going to sacrifice anyone for my own ambition. I’m not like your K... that.”

“Even if you don’t, it doesn’t mean nobody has been sacrificed. Using an already made Philosopher Stone.”

“That’s... Peculiar of you to say after what you told us.”

“It wasn’t something I wanted.”

“Even if you didn’t, it doesn’t mean nobody had been sacrificed.”

They stared at each other for a while. Greed was fascinated by the polite undertone of the entire conversation, even during an obviously heated argument. Greed was used to furious fights and screams and, well, he was used to that little bastard of Envy. He wasn’t used to politeness between people that hated each other.

“Naa,  I don't hate him, I like him. Don't tell Ed.”

“You do?”

“Yes, he’s weird!” Out loud he went on, “Besides, I already have what I came here to get.” He pointed at himself. Well, at them both.

Hohenheim blinked twice.

“Oh,” His face went back on doing that weird, expressing emotion thing. “Yes, sure, you’re right.” And now he was laughing a genuine laugh, still with that face, creepy. “But, it looks more like he has you .”

Ling smiled. “Yeah,” Talking more to Greed that to the other man. “That too.”

Chapter Text

They were going to die.

Not really but they might as well have been.

They were both going to get sucked in by Father’s will. Becoming just two souls swirling in a storm. Maybe both conscious enough to see what the Asshole would do with the power Greed was giving him, maybe.

Ed's fists were enough against him now but they wouldn’t be once he had regained the power of a stone. He may as well punch against a wall. Or his Shield.

Then Greed remembered.

The time he and Ed fought.

How his Shield had crumbled.

How it could be a weakness, one that could save the life of all those idiots that had wanted to come to fight against a homunculus with the power of a god.

And just like that, he had a plan. A real one.

(There’s a first time for everything.)

But, obviously, it wouldn't be his life if there wasn't a problem.

 

“I won’t let go.”

 

Ling was trying with everything in his power to keep him inside. He could see him literally grabbing him and pulling. He knew it was a projection in their mind and it was only Ling’s will that was keeping him there, for now. He could also see how that was breaking him and making him dangerously close to getting sucked into Pops’ body too.

There was one other thing he noticed, even as Ling was shouting about his need for the Stone, his need to be the Emperor, the stone souls were quickly passing by around them, sucked away fast.

There wasn’t any force trying to stop them: Ling’s will was solely focused on trying to keep Greed in.

This whole situation shouldn’t be that big of a problem, not really. Find a way to stick it to Father was a priority, or at least he thought it had been. He thought he wanted that, and that what he needed was the power he had. Now he knew that finding a way to make sure he didn’t kill every single person Greed had come to know in the past few months (and all the other people in the country that meant far less to him) was something he needed more.

But if that was the thing he wanted the most why it didn’t seem that important compared to making sure Ling wouldn’t get sucked in with him? Why was he that much more important than everything else?

No.

It didn’t matter why.

He couldn’t go and make his old man pay if it meant Ling would die too. That was a fact.

But also a fact was that Ling wouldn’t let go.

 

For Ling there were things almost sacred, Greed had come to know this, and the concept of being partners, friends, comrades was one of them. Maybe the most important of all.

He had seen it more than once, with his bodyguards, both in memories and real life. As much as his mission was important to him, the life of a comrade wasn’t something you could sacrifice or dispose of , the bonds between some people were impossible to break, even by his own duty.

And it didn’t concern only the members of his clan, Greed was sure that, by now, if needed Ling wouldn’t hesitate to help the Elric brothers with any means necessary.

And now he stubbornly kept grab of Greed.

It had been a weird journey, getting to this point.

They had had similar goals for months and they had helped one another almost since the moment they met . But that hadn’t made them partners. They had become that much later.

Greed remembered one time, months ago, when he had just stopped working for the Asshole.

They had decided to split up the group to try and find an abandoned house to crash in in Geob because the whole sleeping in cabins and under the stars thing got old really quickly.

Greed was scouting an apartment apparently deserted, ruffling over some drawers, looking for something interesting before calling the others, who were less happy to scavenger other people things for their own goals than the two of them.

Greed had been muttering out loud something like, “At least you’re on my side about this kind of things, eh partner?”

For a reason he didn’t understand until much later that had provoked an insane reaction, so big he had lost control of the body to the other man for a while.

“Do not call me that! And don’t insinuate things like that! I am a Prince that's trying to save his people and does what’s necessary to obtain it. You! You're just a homunculus that wants to own everything that he sees. The only thing we're on the same side of is like... this room!”

 

At the time he had misjudged his reaction for a sense of weird royal pride, and had mocked it.

He finally got it a little when Ling asked him to be partners, after sensing how scared the kid had been, and why. He hadn’t been scared of a rejection, as Greed would have been in his place, but of the awareness of his own bond with someone like him. Enough to offer something as precious as that. What he said was that he wanted a truce, but they both had known that it was something much bigger than that.

It had been… something.

It had been meaningful in a way Greed hadn’t understood right away , maybe because it was something that obviously was very important to Ling, but it had been given to him freely, without asking anything in return.

Ling had a lot of people that counted on him, that trusted him, always had. And he had always known that at a moment’s notice he could lose it all, relaxing near the wrong person, believing the wrong lie, following the wrong lead. Anyone could be a temporary ally if their goals coincided with his but that didn’t mean he would let his guard down around them. Or he trusted them at any moment.

This was different, special.

A bond he was careful to tie and he considered impossible to break.

That was the reason for Ling's immediate reaction to Bido’s death (not that Greed had been enough in his right mind to notice it at the time) or even to the end of that poor bastard of Gluttony.

Greed now understood all of this and more.

So he knew without any doubt that what he was about to do would work.

Oh, the kid was going to hate him so much.

“You know, it’s not quite as ideal as being king of the world but I can make do with Emperor of Xing. Let’s fight him together, eh partner?”

------------ -------------------------

 

Greed was dying.

As he felt his own consciousness shift away he finally realized it.

 

“It’s enough.”

 

It wasn’t the first time he died. He remembered every detail of the other time too, now. It had been from his dear old daddy’s hands that time too.

He remembered the sound of his own laugh, high and maniacal and desperate. He remembered looking down at his siblings as they watched him, unfazed. He remembered thinking about how he was dying alone and with nothing but was still better off than them. He remembered thinking about his henchmen, his possession, his chimeras (his friends, supplied the voice of an imaginary Ling inside his head) that had laid down their life for him. (“You must have done something right” Ling had said one time).

Now he was dying smiling, watching his friends, his real family, as they looked up at him, horrified.

He must have done something right this time too.

And Ling was there.

For the first time, he was seeing him not reflected in a mirror or as a projection in their mind.

For the first time, he couldn’t tell him what he wanted to let him know just by thinking about it.

He couldn’t even talk to him, he was vanishing.

Right when Greed had finally figured it out, he couldn’t tell him.

Eh, Ling was a smart guy, he’ll get it on his own, maybe he’d already had.

“They gave me everything I could want.”

Nobody answered his thought but it was ok.

For the first time, Greed and Ling locked eyes. And they both knew they didn’t need words, but they thought them towards each other all the same. Force of habit.

 

“Thank you”

 

He knew Ling would understand him.

Maybe saving him, making sure he would be alive at the end of the day had been more about Greed desires than Ling’s own. Even considering the Philosopher Stone in Lan Fan hands and the possibility of getting the Crown.

Maybe his last act, making sure that Father didn’t kill anyone anymore, had been more of a selfish act than a first true selfless one, like he had thought.

He didn’t care. Ling, his first possession in this life, his first partner, friend, would be alive, in the world. He probably will never forgive him, but he would be around (living, being angry at him, not forgiving him) and that was enough.

Eh, what could he do? This was what Greed wanted and, after all, he had always been a selfish man.

Ling would have his crown, Ed would get his brother back one way or the other, the chimeras would find another job, another boss to be salty assholes to and dear Pops was about to die too, he had made sure of it.

And Ling would be alive.

Fuck it.

He was satisfied.

 

“Goodbye.”

 

He was ready.

 

And then he felt a new weird force suck him in.

Chapter Text

Ling watched as Lan Fan took her last kunai and with extreme accuracy threw it precisely at the center of the target, like all the others, 30 feet ahead of them. He clung to the one he had in his own hand, putting pressure on the blisters he had there. He didn’t feel the pain. The shame of seeing all of his own kunai but one on the ground next to his target was too big to make him feel anything else than the stinging in the corners of his eyes.

It wasn’t fair. She had way more time with Fu and Teacher Ju to learn this kind of things while he had to go and suffer lessons about geography and politics and all those other boring stuff. It wasn’t true, he loved his lessons, he loved how good he was at them. He just hated it when they expected him to be as good as Lan Fan when he returned to his combat training. And she was twelve! She had a whole year worth of training more than him.

He let the kunai fall on the ground and used his sleeve to make sure his eyes were dry.

“I don’t need to learn this kind of things. Kunai are for guards and assassins. I am a Prince! This whole lesson is beneath me.”

He knew it wasn’t true, and he knew why, but his pride was too bruised. Even more so by the fact that Lan Fan, as always, wasn’t rubbing it in for being better than him. Like he was so much worse that she didn’t even have to. (He also knew that wasn’t why she didn’t gloat).

“And anyway, if I ever need to throw a kunai, I can always make one of you do it for me.”

 

He didn’t dare to look at Fu. He hated when he made Fu mad and the guard would get that blank look on his face and his voice would have that weird fake deferential vibe.

“Young Lord,” yes, exactly that vibe, “ a Prince needs to learn every style of combat possible. Us guards, we’ll always be by your side to fight and die for you, it is our solemn vow; but if anything were to happen to us, and we fail our duty, you need to be able to survive who made us bring shame on our ancestors.”

He hated this kind of speeches. He hated to be reminded that. And he knew Fu knew he hated it. Ling was sure it was his way to punish him because he couldn't straight out yell at him, nor scold him angrily like he did with Lan Fan. As if he couldn’t take it. It wasn’t like being a Prince meant he was so stupid he couldn't tell the difference between a scold and disrespect to his bloodline.

 

“Well, then why do you care if I survive on my own?”

 

Lan Fan, who had been watching the exchange quietly until now, interjected. She always did when the importance of the guards' duty was talked down by anyone, even by him. Ling always thought that when she’d finally get her own mask, it was a matter of months now, Ling was sure, she would be less eager to put them on a pedestal.

“It’s their vow! How can you talk that way about their vow!” When Ling turned to watch her she amended, lowering her voice, “Young Lord.”

“I mean, if you die, the vow is broken, you don’t have to serve anymore. You shouldn’t care if I live or die then. Why should you?”

“Because that’s what we’re here for!”

“Yes, but Lan Fan, I know your duty, I know it’s what you need to do. But why should you want to?”

Fu kneeled in front of him, not the way he did when they were in the palace, during ceremonies. He kneeled the way he used to do in front of Lan Fan when she would hurt herself with the knives to look at her wound, after sternly lecturing her about what she did wrong. One knee to the ground, eyes searching for his.

 

“Young Lord, you’re thinking about it the wrong way. We are your servants and guards, that’s true, and you are our Prince, but that’s just the surface. The vows, the ceremonies, the titles they are just… masks. You, me, Lan Fan, we all have roles to play, for the sake of our clan, for the good of all the people of this clan. Your role is to learn every way, every method you can to stay alive and be better than your siblings, our roles are to stay by your side and keep you alive. You may be a Prince to us, but you, just like us , are just a servant of the people of the Yao clan. As you will be of Xing when you’ll become Emperor. Do you understand?”

 

“I think so, but… What you’re saying is the opposite of what Teacher Wei always says . The traditions are there because they are sacred and you have a duty and I have a destiny. It’s not the same. If I were you, I’d resent having a duty trusted upon me by someone who has a golden destiny.”

“And when you think about your destiny don’t you feel it heavy like a duty? Isn't that why you get jealous of Lan Fan progress?”

“I get jealous because I have to do so many lessons more than her and you expect me to be as good as her at the ones we have together.”

“And do you resent her?”

“...No.”

“Neither does she because of her duties.”

“That’s different. I  just have to study more, she has to die for me, you both have to die for me.”

“And you’ll have to spend your life trying to become Emperor and then you’ll have to rule for us. Do you understand Ling?” He gasped, Fu had never called him anything other than ‘Young Lord’ or ‘Young Prince’, never! “You will not only rule us, but rule for us.”

 

He sighed, then he put his hand on Ling’s shoulder, another thing he’d never dared to do. When he started to talk again he seemed to be quoting something, someone. Ling would never know who or what.

 

“‘A ruler duty is to his people, without them he’s nothing.’ That is your part. ‘But people without their king would be lost as well.’ That is ours. Do you understand?”

Ling thought he did but wasn’t sure and he didn’t want to lie about something clearly so important. (What he did understand was that if the wrong person came to know about this conversation Fu would be in a lot of trouble, a lot. Fu was taking his chances to teach Ling this lesson). Lan Fan spoke before he could.

 

“Even if our roles are different, we are part of the same team.” By the way she spoke Ling could tell she had just thought about it. It wasn’t something the two of them had talked about without him. He was glad, it meant that maybe what she was saying was true.

 

“We are in this together, even if from outside it doesn’t look that way. It’s not that you are expendable and I’m a Prince, it’s just the role we are playing.”

 

“Isn’t it easier to stomach now, your so-called destiny?”

 

Ling thought about it, really looked inside himself trying to understand what he was feeling. It was a rule he’d had to play by for the rest of his life, so was Lan Fan’s and Fu’s, but at least this way…

 

“Yes, I may be your Prince and you may be my guards on the outside, but we’re together. You may have to follow my orders and I may never leave my duty, but on the inside, we’re partners.”

 

Lan Fan, very uncharacteristically, covered the distance between them with three steps and hugged Ling.

Fu smile was covered by his mustaches but a bright light was reaching his eyes; he put a hand on each of the kids' heads.

 

“Well said, Young Lord. Well said.”

Then he leaned closer.

“And by the way, for now, until you learn to throw kunai, I’ll just have to give you a grenade for emergencies. Don’t forget, we’re on the same team but with everybody else? No trick is too low if your survival is at stake.

Ling smiled up at him.

 

They were on the train to Yous-Well, the last city to the East, last stop before the desert.

Ling was watching out of the window as Amestris went by.

They were about to start an excruciating journey back to Xing and he still hadn’t found the courage to look Lan Fan in the eyes.

He closed his own and let the noises from the train and the conversation between Lan Fan and Mei Chang fill his head, like thousands of souls screaming.

“That, I won’t miss.”

It wasn’t true. For some crazy reason, it wasn’t true. Amestris was going by outside the window and there was no one there to tell him that it wasn’t true.

 

He tried to listen to the conversation that was going on.

“I just want to make sure that you trust us.”

“And what makes you think it’s not the opposite? In the middle of the desert, I could kill the both of you and steal the stone.”

“You think you can take the both of us?”

“I am sure of it. In the middle of the desert? You’ll be in so much pain with that metal arm, and him? He’s been a homunculus so long he’d forgot his hands are not weapons by themselves.”

“What?”

“He doesn’t have his sword.”

It was true, and even worse, he hadn’t thought about it until now. And another thing that Mei didn’t know, was that it was very hard for him to cross the desert with his… condition in the matter of food and passing out with the lack of. He hadn’t thought about it either, because ever since that time at the cabin, they had used the stone every time the issue had come up.

 

“But you are right…”She paused”...I… don’t know your name?”

“Lan Fan.”

“Lan Fan, you’re right. We can trust each other. It’s not like we have on our hands a way to sacrifice millions of people for the good of one, or a few. If I take the Stone from you without killing you after, you could just make another one.”

“You really think we’d do that?”

Mei tilted her head. So did her panda.

“No,” she conceded, “but I’m sure the Emperor would. And you wouldn’t mind that much. You’re desperate for the crown because there’s a big chance the clans you’re in a feud with may have their Emperor or Empress. If the Emperor stays the same it wouldn’t be a Yao but it wouldn’t be a FenDou either, for instance. Your clan would be okay with the status quo.”

 

“And you would give that information to him if your clan was safe with the status quo?”

 “... No.”

“Then why do you think he would? A ruler is nothing without the people.”

“Yes, well, where are your values when my clan is starving? Aren’t we people of Xing too?”

“What do you think we should have done? We are a big clan but it’s been generations since we had a Yao Emperor. You think we should have bypassed the Emperor wishes? March to the Capital. Kill the royal family and decide for ourselves?”

“We are the royal family.”

“Exactly! You two are lucky enough to have more than one option to get this right! And you’re lucky enough to have seen how a leader without his people looks like. Princess, isn’t doing the best thing for the sake of all of Xing, all of it, more important than our differences?”

 

Ling was amazed. Lan Fan had grown a lot during these months. She had lost very much but she had learned a lot too. Much more than him.

He also noticed how she didn’t have any hesitation arguing with a member of the royal family that wasn’t him, maybe because she’d spent her whole life training to kill them.

 

“It’s like the Young Lord said. If he was able to ally himself with a creature such as the homunculus Greed, we can certainly be allies between ourselves!”

 

Creature. He had called Greed that a lot in the beginning. Believed it, too.

It was weird thinking about that now. Now that he was positive he’ll never know someone so intimately as he had known Greed.

And he’ll never be understood as much as Greed understood him.

It was funny because Greed wasn’t a very intuitive person, not with people and certainly not with himself.

It was also funny how much human Greed had felt to Ling, even if he had never actually seen him if not as a floating mask projected in their mind.  

It was funny how Ling was sure he would never be as close to anyone as he had been to him.

But the funniest part of all was another. And it was so funny Ling couldn't breathe. If Ling hadn’t been so set on trying to make Greed understand himself, so they could have that final connection, put down that final screen between them so that Greed could understand what they could be for each other, maybe he would still be with him right now.

And wasn’t that just hilarious!

He could laugh about it all the way to Xing and all the way to the throne he didn’t care that much about at the moment. The throne Fu had died for.

He opened his eyes and tried to listen to the noise of the train once again. (Like the souls). He tried to concentrate again on the conversation between Mei and Lan Fan.



“... And I did saw him trying to give the stone to Edward to save Alphonse. I guess I can try, really try.”

“Thank you. I hope one day you’ll see how trusting him was the right choice.”

Ling looked at them. How Lan Fan could still put her faith in him after all that had been taken from her was… incredible.

“Would you stop trusting me after I lied and tricked you?”

“... no.”

“And I’m a homunculus.”

“You did it for a selfless reason, for once.”

“After all this months kid, you think that was the only reason?”

No, he needed to stop this. Greed was gone and the voice in his head was only his own. He needed to stop this. He tried to concentrate on Lan Fan and Mei, who was doing a weird face copied by her panda (what was up with that thing?)

 

“Lan Fan, I’ll try to use my alkahestry to make the crossing of the desert the least painful possible for you.”

Yes, that was good. That was something positive he could focus on.

“Thank you.”

But Mei and the panda were still doing that face. Like they were going to do something... evil? Endearing? Both? He couldn't tell.

“Also, I just wanted to say, I’m sorry I tried to kill you while you were…”

No. He understood what she was about to say and that was so… he didn’t have a word for it, but every other thought abandoned his body because she wasn’t going to say that. She wasn’t. It wasn’t possible.

“...armless.”

 

The silence that followed was… indescribable.

Ling looked up at Lan Fan that was staring at Mei, mouth open. She then noticed him and their eyes met.

She smiled.

Then laughed.

“You… You really are his sister!”

Ling and Mei joined her.

It wasn’t until the train stopped that he realized that they were still able to look each other in the eye.

Maybe that was enough.

In his head, he was the only one laughing.

Maybe not.

 

Chapter Text

Ling made sure that everyone was gone around his private quarters. He asked Lan Fan to inspect the windows and the roof above and checked one more time with the Dragon Pulse before gesturing Al to sit down in the low table already set with the appropriate teaware.

Al prepared the teacups and started serving, in an acceptable manner for a westerner, Ling had to admit, following the rules of the Tea Ceremony with textbook rigor but none of the precision that comes with practice. It was obvious he had studied and read about the art for this very meeting, and Ling could barely keep a smirk off his face as one of the guys that had rescued him at the side of a road like a stray dog and the wallet of whom he had emptied with room services was now this nervous about serving tea to him. It was also kind of sweet of him to learn a costume of his culture just to impress him.

 

It’s been almost four years after the Promised Day and Alphonse Elric looked good. He looked healthy and a lot more similar to the photographs of himself as a child they (.... he) looked at in Resembool, than to how he looked the only other time Ling actually saw him in his body. Sickly, all skin and bones, malnourished.

It was weird, seeing him in his body, so similar to his brother and yet so different. His expressions matching the tones in his voice, not a mask anymore.

they sat across each other and they both stared, trying to get their head around how much they both had changed. Even if Al had arrived hours before, only now they were alone and finally able to let go of all the ceremonies.

Al was the first to catch himself doing so.

“Oh, oh, I’m sorry. Your Highness? I didn’t mean to stare... it’s just, look at you. I mean...”

Ling held his hand up and interrupted him.

“Please Al, it’s just me, we’re alone. Just call me Ling.”

“But you’re the Emperor of Xing. Of an actual Empire. You are the Emperor of an Empire!”

“As often Emperors are. Look, just, I was a Prince and you and Ed still threw me out of rooms and yelled at me about how stupid I was. I think you can manage to at least call me by name now that I’m Emperor.”

“Well, it was mostly Brother, but ok. It’ll make it easier explaining why I asked you to meet alone actually.”

After receiving his cup, Ling tapped two bent fingers on the table in thanks as customary before remembering who he was drinking with, that he may not know the custom. It was what he usually did when drinking tea with Mei, or some other of his most trusted siblings. When Al noticed it he blushed and murmured something along the line of “You honor me.”  

(It was somewhat an honor to receive this kind of appreciation from an Emperor, due to the fact that the two bent fingers tapping on the table were to signify a bow from his part. But it was also not a formal way to express gratitude, and, at this point, Ling knew Al was aware of that. It meant familiarity, some kind of intimacy.)

He checked one last time the Dragon Pulse to make sure they were alone (well, apart from Lan Fan). Sensing all around himself he noticed that there was something weird about Al. It was like he was… something more than he actually was, but it was probably a sensation left from all the strange things that had happened with his soul, so Ling shrugged it off. Other than that, everything was normal, they were alone.

“You said you needed to talk to me, and you said we needed to be alone, and now we are.”

Al looked very uncomfortable. He seemed to be a lot easier to read than his brother, and Ed didn’t exactly have a poker face himself, but maybe it was because Ling was still used to the armor.

 

“Look, ok… Ling. What I’m here to tell you, well, it’s not exactly… I just trust you to understand my point of view about this ok?”

This probably wasn’t going to go well if this was the start.

“I’ll let you talk until you’re finished and I’m not going to ask for your head no matter what. Is that enough?”

After three years as Emperor, he was only half joking.

“Oh, well ok thanks. Yes, that is enough.” He cleared his throat. “Ok so, I believe you’ve met my dad right? Hohenheim?”

It didn’t sound like a rhetorical question so Ling answered even if he had just said he wouldn't interrupt.

“Yes, I’ve met him. He was a good man, I was sorry to hear he passed away.”

“Thank you. Brother told me you’ve heard his story,” (so maybe it had been a rhetorical question) “oh and by the way, he doesn’t know what I’m about to tell you, if that's what you’re wondering. I’m not sure he would be okay with it. Brother I mean.”

Years in politics had taught Ling a lot about how a person behaves when they don’t want to talk about something.

“Al.”

“What.”

“Quit stalling.”

“Oh, yes ok. So, as you know dad was the only survivor of Xerxes. He was also in love with my mum. He wanted to live and to die with her and I have no doubt that he would have stayed with us if not for Father.”

He exhaled and started playing with his napkin, that was extremely rude in the presence of the Emperor, and during tea nonetheless, but Ling let it slide.

“But there was a part of dad that died with his people. Despite how much he loved mum he couldn't let go of that. I’m sure you can understand something like that, right?”

Ling just nodded.

“So, before going back to Resembool one last time, dad came to me, in my hospital bed, while Brother was sleeping, and asked me something. He asked me to find a way to make sure that every single one of his people’s souls would find peace. He taught me a way to release the souls of a stone. And I did that. I learned, and then, two years later, I told Brother I would come here, but what I didn’t tell him was that before that, I searched in Amestris for every Stone left, to make sure my dad wishes were granted. He told me he wanted to die by her side, but after what happened that day he didn’t think he could, not anymore, not until he was sure every soul was at peace. I gave him that assurance. And now they all are.” He sighed. “Except for the ones you have.”

Oh.

Al finally let go of the napkin. After a few moments, he met Ling's eyes.

“Look, Ling, thinking back, you and I, we don’t know each other that much. I know you’ve become a good friend of Brother and, well, I consider you a good friend too. So I’ll tell it to you like it is. I know you need the Stone, I know it’s one of the reasons you’re able to keep the peace in your country while you’re trying to stabilize it and unite it. And if it was anything else I wouldn’t be here with this request, but, you understand, I know *you* understand, the Xerxeses… in some way” Al's face was like stone, even more so that when it was a helmet. “They are my people too.”

 

Silence fell for a long time, Ling was sure that if Al was almost any other person he would have had Lan Fan kunai pressed on his throat for even making a request like that.

 

He decided that he needed more, he made sure his face was blank and expressionless as he broke the silence.

“You’re right. I do understand. And because we understand each other’s situations and we are friends, like you said, I’m asking you. Why should I give it to you? Why do you think I should give up the one thing that’s keeping my country at peace to help the souls of your people?”

 

“You did it for me.”

“What?”

“Ed told me you offered your Stone to bring me back.”

“That was different.”

“How so.”

“I’m the Emperor now. Before, I tried not to but, a Prince can be selfish and do something for himself and his friends, an Emperor cannot. Also, at that moment, four years ago, it felt like it wasn’t impossible to find another Stone. Now you just said to me you made sure there aren’t any around anymore. I’m also sure you didn’t stop with only the Stones made out of your people, you helped the Ishvalans too, right?”

Al smiled softly and Ling saw Hohenheim in him. Ed was a lot more like their father both in looks and in behavior, but sometimes, in flashes, Al’s resemblance to him was incredible.

 

“You’re right, I did. And you’re also right about how it’s different now. I hope I can change your mind though.”

“How?”

“There is a part of the story I haven't told you yet.” He smiled. “You see, I didn’t come here empty-handed. I would love to give this to you without expecting nothing in return, and I know Brother would be so mad if he knew I didn’t do just that, but I hope you’ll understand.”

Ling gestured for him to continue, curious about what Al thought could be something he’d want more than what he had now.

“Remember when I told you about my soul and my armor? In my hotel room, with Winry. About how I couldn't last in a body not mine?”

“Yes, Winry yelled at me a lot.”

“Yeah, she does get protective…”

“I noticed.”

“Anyway, after a while, in Briggs, I started to have this… episodes, in which my soul would...travel? To my body. I’m sorry it’s hard to explain. It was like my body was sucking my soul in. Where it belonged. Because my soul wasn’t attached strongly enough to my seal anymore.”

Ling was very confused by the change of subject but didn’t interrupt, he just nodded to let him know that he, kind of, understood.

“What I’m trying to tell you is that, when a soul is not attached to anything it goes to its rightful body, that is why every soul of Amestris went back to their right body after we expelled them from Father.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Ling was starting to lose patience, even more so because Al tone was getting serious and kind of nervous.

“You know Hohenheim and the Dwarf had the same blood, the same body, right?”

“Yes, but what does it have to do with anything?”

“I talked to Brother about this, without telling him why, and he thought, hypothetically, that  you’d want to have this.” From his pocket, he fished out a vial, with red liquid inside.

“It’s a Philosopher’s stone!”

“Yes.”

“You’re giving me a Philosopher stone in exchange for mine? I thought you didn’t want Ishvalan souls to suffer either.”

“Your Majesty.” Lan Fan interrupted them, and it was so uncharacteristic of her that he stopped looking at the Stone (it probably was the only thing that could have distracted him) to turn to her. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty, but that Stone, sense it! It only has one soul!”

She was right.

He could sense now that that Stone had a lot less power? Energy? Life? Than the others. In fact, it only had one. That was the cause of that weird feeling he felt on Al when he first saw him.

“What’s the meaning of this?”

“Ling, when Father died, all the parts of his soul that weren’t inside of him were sucked in by a body almost identical to the one that created them. Hohenheim’s body. He then gave them to me, to give to you, in exchange for the souls of Xerxes’ people.” He held the vial up. “This, without added souls, without powers, without immortality, is the part of Father that wasn’t brought to the gate of Truth nor was still inside a container nor was already dead.”

 

Ling couldn't breathe.

 

“This is Greed.”

 

 

Chapter Text

When it came down to it, it was the easiest choice Ling had ever made.

Lan Fan and even Al tried to make him reason, make him think about all the consequences before deciding. Just to be sure he wouldn’t do something he could regret later.

Ling didn’t care.

He would have a weaker hold on the country.

Ling didn’t care.

He would be possessed yet again, he shouldn’t want less power over his own body. It wasn’t something a person should want.

Ling didn’t care.

He wouldn’t become immortal with this, Greed was powerless without a stone to tap into.

Ling absolutely didn’t care.

Al couldn’t offer him anything else in addition to this, in exchange for the Stone he had, other than his services.

Ling didn’t care. (And he wouldn’t want them either way, if they were forced by guilt, but he couldn't even think about that now).

Lan Fan didn’t say it but there was the possibility that Al could be lying. With something this important it was a concern he should consider, even if it was an Elric brother they were talking (or not talking) about.

Ling didn’t care, just the chance of it being true made it so Ling couldn’t care.  

Nobody had the courage to bring it up but the notion was stuck in the mind of all three of them. The life of a person shouldn’t be more important to him that the stability of Xing. Not even Ling’s own life, needless to say the life of a homunculus.

But Ling just couldn’t care.

At the end of the day, when it really came down to it, Ling just didn’t care.

 

He had decided a long time ago he would give his whole life in service of his nation, but not this.

For this he was selfish.

 

And now, after giving up the stone to let Al perform some kind of alchemy to it and after watching it disappear, along with the political power it gave him, he couldn’t feel anything.

He felt numb.

He felt numb as he extracted a kunai from his robe and pressed it into his hand. He felt numb as he sliced his palm with it. He felt numb as beads of blood started to drop on the table when he presented the hand to Al. He felt numb as the vial was opened with a small pop and Al looked at him one last time, searching for one last confirmation that he wanted him to proceed.

He nodded.

Nothing had ever been easier.

It was a no-brainer.

The liquid fell into his open wound.

He expected to feel the pain and the conflict of that first time.

He didn’t get either.

No pain, no conflict.

What he felt was... wholeness.

He felt whole. For the first time in four years. He hadn’t even noticed how incomplete he had been up until now. Every hour of every day he had felt incomplete and after a while he didn’t even notice anymore, and in some way that had been so much worse.

How could he think he could live his whole life like that, nevermind an immortal one?

 

“Can you keep the teen angst down, kid? I’m trying to be reborn once again here.”

Ling smiled, inside, outside, everywhere, anywhere in his body and mind.

 

“You know, I’m not a teenager anymore.”

“Then stop fucking brood like it!”


One moment everything was just thoughts inside his mind, the next they were looking at each other, well not really (Ling couldn’t believe how much he missed being confused about how everything worked).

They were inside their mindspace.

Ling looked like he did when he trained or meditated, comfy pants and open shirt, long hair in a ponytail instead of the traditional bun he wore in almost every other occasion these days.

Greed looked... well, for starters, he looked like a person. Like a person Ling had only seen in memories not his. Why was Greed looking like a person? Before he could even ask the question he already understood the answer, coming from Greed state of mind. (God, he had missed this.) Greed remembered himself, all of himself, and this was how he saw himself be. (It said a lot on how he had seen himself up until now, confused by the lack of whole memories and the guilt over the death of people he didn’t legitimately remember... but that was a thought for later). All around them, instead of souls screaming there were trees, spreading into the horizon. There was a campfire in the middle. There had to be some kind of subconscious reason for this particular place to be where they envisioned themselves being, but Ling couldn’t care less at the moment.

 

Right now there was only one thing in Ling’s mind.

 

He took three imaginary steps and stood in front of the imaginary body of the asshole that hurt him more than anybody ever did.

Greed winced in response to that thought.

Ling couldn't take it anymore, he got on his imaginary toes and kissed him.

It was… It wasn’t a real kiss, he knew that. It was a projection in their minds, mind. It was different. Completely unconnected with their body, that Ling was pretty sure was lying unconscious giving Lan Fan a heart attack. It was like they were sharing the idea of what that act meant. And it was different. It was simpler. It was special. And it was entirely only theirs.

 

It lasted a long time. He could feel Greed’s hunger for, well, everything Ling would give him. Or maybe it was his own hunger after all the time he had been left alone. It wasn’t important. One or the other, it was theirs most of all, like everything else.

 

Uncharacteristically, it was Greed who pull back first.

“I thought you’d be angrier at me.”

“That’s because you’re an idiot. And a selfish asshole. And a greedy bastard.”

“Ok, maybe you are angry at me…”

“And a stupid fucking idiot if you think I didn’t already know all of that! Of-fucking-course you jumped at the chance of not suffering that loss again, even if I had to suffer for it. You think I don’t know this?”

“Ling…”

“It’s okay, I understand.”

“No, you don’t! I couldn’t stand the thought of a world without you in it, even if I wasn’t there anymore. There, I said it!”

“Well tough, because I gave up immortality for the both of us to get you here.”

“You. Did. What.”

Oh, the satisfaction of getting back at him was… gold. He decided to be a shit about it.

“Surprise!!!”

He could feel a rush of emotions coming from Greed and it was like drinking fresh water after crossing the desert, he didn’t care how angry those feelings were.

“You had no right Ling. I made sure you were… I died for.. I did it for you!”

“Oh, don’t act so innocent! You did it for yourself, you just said so! For months I had this exact conversation in my head . Alone, by the way, because you weren’t here anymore!”

Greed had the decency to be of ashamed at that. This whole Greed had an actual face situation was doing wonders.

And he was there. Greed was there. Ling was actually fiercely yelling at him in their mind!

“But after a while I got it. Your motives weren’t selfless and for some reason I was angrier with you when I thought they were. I can’t be angry with you for being selfish the way you are, for wanting what you want. I like you this way. It would be insane of me to not want you to be the way you are. Isn’t it also true the other way around? When we met, you found my avarice appealing.”

Greed watched him for a minute, then his eyes softened and he smiled. Ling liked how a smile looked on that new face he needed to get used to, it felt so familiar even if he’d never seen it before.

“I hate it when you’re right.”

“No, you don’t.”

“No, I don’t… Say, if you’re not a teen anymore, how much time has passed. And how am I here anyway.”

“I’ll tell you about all that later, come on let’s have some fun. It’s been four years, I’m the Emperor now.” He grinned. “You’ll love it.”

“I’m sure I will, kid.”

Greed opened their eyes, in their real body, for the first time in years, Ling stood back and enjoyed the ride.

Chapter Text

“...This is the Zhongnanhai garden, it used to be the Imperial garden but four Emperors ago they changed it! I like this old one better...”

 

“...This is Kuo! I know him since forever! He used to be help-cook in the Yao residence when I was a kid, now he’s the boss of my personal kitchen! You have no idea how many nights we stayed up to try and replicate some of the Amestrians recipes I’ve discovered...”

 

“...These are Jian swords! They are almost two thousand years old! The Empire was different then and we would have only one family on the throne, the Qin dynasty if I remember correctly…”

 

It had been two days since it happened and Ling had spent almost every second going around the palace and showing Greed things, and places and people.

He still couldn't believe it. It was incredible. It was something astounding. He would believe it to be a dream if it wasn't for that sensation of… rightness that he felt inside of himself (themselves!) that just couldn't be there if that wasn't the real thing.

 

Ling just couldn’t contain his excitement. He wanted Greed to know everything, enjoy everything, have everything. In those four years, he sometimes would have… moments. He would talk to someone and know, with every fiber of his being, what Greed would think of that person, how he would love to bicker with her about this or how he would love to tease him about that. Ling would enjoy a visit to a palace, or a garden, or a park and would know what Greed’s opinion would be like, with his horrible sense of taste, second only to Ed’s.

And now he could show it all to him.

To Greed.

Greed, who wanted everything, possessions and affections, and now Ling could give it all to him. After so much time dreaming he could have.

 

They were walking down what he called the meditation room, that was actually an indoor garden he used when he wanted to be alone. He liked this room, a lot, it was kind of weird he didn’t show it to Greed before. Maybe because he didn’t have the impulse to go there since he wasn’t alone... (he wasn’t alone!)

 

That’s when he noticed that something was wrong. Ok, maybe less like noticed and more like got himself smashed in the face with the reality that something was wrong.

 

“I know this is not really your kind of thing but I think I know what I can show you next!”

They were walking, Greed was in control and was slowly dragging his feet, hands in the pockets of the comfortable yet expensive pants.

“Eh… no thanks..”

 

That was weird enough to make Ling stop chatting, for the first time in two days, if he had to be honest to himself, which he wasn’t and wouldn’t be for a little while more. It was not yet enough to pop his bubble though.

“What? Why?”

Greed looked and felt confused too. (Weird, he hadn’t felt Greed emotions since their reunion...)

Greed took a deep breath, then sat on the ground, leg crossed in lotus position like he was meditating. Ling didn’t know he knew how to do it that well. He must have learned it from the feeling of when Ling did it. After that, he left control of the body, leaving it with no one in the so-called driver’s seat. From the outside, it would look like the Emperor was meditating, safely guarded by Lan Fan, on the inside they were able to talk freely in their new and improved woody mindspace, without having to worry about what the body was doing. Ling had to admit, it was crafty.

“Because we’re fighting?”

“We are? Since when?”

“Since you decided to give away immortality!”

“You’re still angry about that?”

“Am I still... Ling…” For him, in moments like this, finally seeing Greed’s expressions on an actual face wasn’t that much fun anymore. He looked like he was trying to decide if he wanted to tell him or not, which hurt Ling a little. “Kid…Ling … do you realize I have nothing right now?”

Of all the things he expected...

“What?”

“I have nothing. No Devil Nest, no henchmen, no purpose, no enemy, almost every person I know that is alive is in another country across a desert. Hell, I don’t even have a body of my own . All this.” He assumed control just to gesture at everything around them, then retreated again. “All of it, everything you’re showing me, is yours, and I’m just… here, hitching a ride!”

“No. What? No-no-no-no Greed, it’s ours. Everything is ours! That’s what I’m showing you!”

Why would he think...

“...And then you went and took the only thing I had left.”

“Your Stone?”

“You, dumbass!”

“You have me! What? Greed, you do! What are you saying?”

 

Why couldn't he understand Greed? He had always been able to, from the beginning. Even more than the homunculus himself did most of the times. Why couldn’t he now?

 

“I had you more before you did that.”

“You were dead before I did that! You didn’t have me when you were dead.”

“Yes, I did! Now I have to live with the knowledge that one day you won’t be here anymore. And nothing of mine would be left in the world.”

“But…”

“And now you are showing me all this, and all I can think of is how you had everything and yet took away all that was mine.”

“Greed, I… I don’t understand”

“You’re all I’ve got, kid.”

Oh.

But no, still...

“Exactly, you have me and everything I’ve got. Everything of mine is yours too, don’t you know that?”

 

“Not really, not like before”

That made Ling really angry.

 

“ Can you let go of at least some of your stupid pride, for fuck’s sake Greed. Everything that is mine is yours, everything! Who cares if they are Ling Yao’s for everybody else? What we know is more important, you know that, you’re too smart not to know that.”

“Oh, come on. Don’t be naif.”

“Me? How about you? Why do you have to be so fucking blind! We can literally share emotions, how can you still be the same self-centered asshole even with me?”

 

They stayed silent for a while, heavily panting like their yelling could affect their breathing even there, inside their mind.

After a couple of minutes, Greed slowly smiled.

“I thought you liked that I was a self centered asshole”

Ling smirked in response.

“Yeah, I do. It’s just… I think maybe sometimes two self centered assholes in one room are a little too much… I wouldn’t change it for the world, though.”

“Yeah, that’s kind of the problem here, isn’t it? And don’t flatter yourself, you are not even a fraction of the egomaniacal bastard I am.”

“That is up to debate at this point…”

Ling sighed, he didn’t understand and that hurt, but fixing this was more important than his bruised pride.

 

“Okay, okay. We can… we can go away, start fresh somewhere. So everything we’ll have will be ours, and feel like ours to you too. Greed, there is only one thing I need…”

“Don’t get corny with me, brat. I’m not saying that. Of course I’m not saying that. Don’t be stupid. Think about what you’re saying. You really think you could do that?”

“...No… I couldn’t.”

“Exactly! And even if you could, I’m not going to let you throw away everything that you’ve worked for because I’m not satisfied anymore.”

“You’re not satisfied? Wait, you were satisfied?”

“ …”

“Greed, talk to me.”

 

They sat down next to the fire (when did they stand up?), all around them, woods. Greed staring at the flames Ling on the log next to him but with his back toward the fire, facing the trees. He cast a look sideways to Greed, he looked... resigned.

“You know, I didn’t get it at first. This place. I was just reborn, all my memories came back, I was kind of a mess, and you were here and then you were all over me.”

Ling blushed just a little, Greed was watching the flames and not him but, being all of this just a projection, he knew he did.

“Shut up…”

“Couldn’t keep you off me, Ling… All that... Smooching and...”

“Asshole!”

“No, but seriously, after that, I didn’t think of it that much, this is just where we are. But now, I think I get it, do you?”

“Why the trees? And the fire?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be the perceptive one?”

“Aren’t you supposed to tell me instead of gloating?”

“I can do two things at once! This is where we made the truce, you called me partner. You screamed at me the first time I called you that.” He was right. How hadn’t Ling recognized it? “For some reason, I kept thinking about that while I was dying.” Geed turned to look at Ling, who turned to him in response. “Do you think it was me who made up this place? Or was it you?”

Ling sighed and looked away. Greed did too.

“Why can’t it be both?”

Greed gave a small chuckle in response.

“I’m serious. I’ve lived four years of my life with this se… Look, it’s just, I don’t think I’m me anymore without you, not really, not entirely. Me, by myself, I’m just part of what I feel me should be.”

They stayed in silence for a while, that was the biggest difference between then and now, besides Greed appearance, nothing made noise in there apart from them (main difference from real woods, too).

“Kid, that’s fucked up.”

It was Ling’s turn to chuckle.

“You think I care?”

“Eh.”

“No seriously! Why should I? And you, you were satisfied? The moment you abandoned me, that’s when you were satisfied?”

“What can I say?”

Ling was getting wired up again. Greed could be such. An. Hypocrite. (And so could Ling, but, by definition, he didn’t want to focus on that now.)

“Why are you angry at me for getting you back? You were satisfied, I think I get why that is, but I kinda think it's easy to be satisfied while you’re dying, much easier than in life. But you know what you get in life? You get everything else, you idiot, you’re alive! Why aren’t you greedy for that!”

This time Greed laughed for real. Ling wanted to be mad about that too but, for some reason, what he did instead of focusing on that, was close his eyes and listen to the sound. Nothing was like the fake-not-really-sounds-but-more-like-projections sounds that he finally had in his mind again, especially if they were Greed’s. He wasn’t alone anymore. Fuck, Greed could win every argument in the world if it meant that Ling c ould keep listening to that.

 

“You know, one day that you-are-supposed-to-be-greedy argument will stop working.”

They both sensed the mood shift of the other and lulled themselves with it.

Ling smiled and shifted positions so that he was now lying on the log with his head on Greed’s lap. It wasn’t like touching in real life, he couldn’t feel Greed’s body against his own. Ling will never be able to describe how or why it was different, except to Greed.

Greed understood, and maybe that was the point.

 

“Greed?”

“Hum.

“Would you prefer a body of your own? I think that something like that requires a Philosopher Stone to work and those are even more difficult to come by, now. It would need an alchemist too, and I don’t think Al is that much down to something this similar to human transmutation. Or using a Stone at this point, if I think about it.”

 

Greed’s eyes were locked to the fire once again. It was weird. It wasn’t just the new projected face and body, he felt different. Older. And in some ways, he was, now that he remembered all of himself. It was probably why Ling didn’t understand him so effortlessly anymore. Maybe it wasn’t that bad… Maybe it could be a good thing. Ling had grown too, they could discover each other again.

“No, I don’t think I’d want that. You’re right, kid. Not having this thing would be… I want this, what we have. And not just because I’m, well, me.”

 

For the important things, they were on the same page.

 

“I’ll try ok, Ling? Let’s … Let’s do this, I’ll try for a while and if I see that the thirst is coming back, and I mean really coming back…”

“We’ll try something else, maybe somewhere else”

“You wouldn’t be okay with that.”

“No, I wouldn’t, but we’ll figure something out anyway”

“Yes, we will.”

“Because we’re partners right Greed?”

“Yes. Because we’re partners.”

 

They stayed like that for some time, then Ling remembered another thing.

“You sure you’re ok with us being like this? And not separate?”

“Yes,” Greed grunted . “I told you already, when did you get so… I don’t know.”

“No, what I mean is, you know… Like this... You know... We will never be able to…I kind of figured you’d want someone you could… And we can’t...You know….” He put his fists in the air above himself, in front of Greed’s face, and bumped them together a couple of times “You know... Not really..."

Greed laughed for so long Ling was sure if he had been in an actual body he would have stopped breathing.

“Shut up, it’s a serious concern! Won’t you, you know, want more?”

"Oh, Ling. Poor, little, naive Emperor Ling Yao. You really have very little imagination, and, honestly, faith in me." In the meditation room of the Emperor palace, Greed swiftly took control of the body to stand up and walk in the direction of their rooms

"Let me open a new world for you..."



Chapter Text

 

The guy was still talking in front of them and Greed was trying to keep himself from yawning in his face. The whole meeting was meaningless and boring as fuck. But he could tell it meant a lot to Ling if he was able to act like the rightful Emperor in occasions as such, something along the lines of them being less of “the ruler of the country and a demon who sometimes possessed his body” and more like “two rulers who just happened to share a body”.

And yes, he did appreciate the sentiment even if it certainly didn't feel like it was true (the “yet” came almost automatically, after all the times he had heard Ling add it to Greed’s own internal monologues.)

Anyway, the kid liked it when he made efforts to understand the culture and ceremonies and all the gimmicks, and Greed himself tried to at least not let everybody in the room understand how much he hated all that stuff. (That, for now, was enough for Ling.)

 

This particular meeting was an atrocious one.
They were talking about ways to make the Shao clan and the Xo clan stop fighting over some river. The Shao clan had started to build a dam alongside the part of the river that was entirely in their land (so they had all the right to do so without the Emperor’s input). Obviously now the Xon river wasn’t big enough anymore to sustain the irrigation system of the Xo clan, a rural clan that based on it most of its economy. Part of the problem apparently was that traditionally the Xon river and all its resources were considered part of the Xo clan. Representatives of both families had come to the palace and a historian was trying to decide which one of the two claims had more credit, the fact that that part of the river was in the Shao territories or the fact that water was a resource of it so it belonged to the Xo.

Everything was complicated and political and somebody was always in some kind of conflict with somebody else for the most uninteresting reasons.

 

Eh, he just needed to get used to that, and, considering everything else that was going on, this was nothing: in these past weeks he was trying to get used to a lot of things.

The fact that he now remembered all of his past life’s (should he say lives now?) memories was one of them.

 

It was… really fucking weird. It wasn’t like he didn’t remember most of everything by the time the Promised day had come, but it had been different.

Then, not only his memories had been more like a lot of messy out of sequence flashes he had to try and have a viewpoint of rather than a full straight understanding of his own life. But, most of all, he had found, in all that time, difficult to really considered his old self … well, himself. He had known this fact and had hated himself for it, still did a little bit, but it was like he could only blame himself that much without it becoming a vicious circle of pointing and blaming past selves (and honestly, he had done the best he could considering the circumstances of his first rebirth and the amount of information he had had).

Now he didn’t just remember a lot more (like, not all of it, because he was about 200 years old, thank you very much) but he also felt a little… balanced.
Like he was now not only accepting his two sets of past memories as his own but that shouldn’t even be a question.
Ling thought that was why he now looked like his first self inside their mind, because he didn’t question his past identity anymore. He himself liked to think it was more of an unconscious aesthetic choice from his part, he fucking hated the mask of his Shield covering his actual face (faces, both of them).

Speaking of which, that was another thing he was trying to get used to. The fact that he didn’t have his Shield anymore, or his regenerative ability, hell even his standing ability was compromised sometimes in this body without a Philosopher Stone and with a shortage of food.

How did Ling do this for so many years?

The good thing was that they lived in a palace, Ling’s palace, where they could get food just about anywhere anytime. He really didn’t want to know how the kid had managed to cross the desert twice in his condition.

 

And it wasn’t just that. Almost everything was harder as an almost human homunculus. (No wonder Wrath was so fucking angry and bitching about his "sore old body" all the fucking time.) He couldn’t just decide not to sleep for a night and expect not to be tired and cranky all day, or fall asleep in a chair instead of a bed and expect not to have some pain here and there.

What an annoyance.

And their body was only fucking twenty.

He didn’t want to imagine what it would be like at fifty or seventy, not to mention what would happen to their looks...

God, they would be old and wrinkled…

Like that historian guy who was talking in front of them right now.

This couldn't be happening to him.

One thing was to be alive, healthy and strong all life, and then die (honestly, he had died twice now, he was kind of getting used to it) another thing was to be forced to watch how time slowly took away those things from him. Leaving him, them, slowly with less and less and nothing at all until it took away their life as one last Fuck You.

He did not want to think about that.

 

“So don’t, besides that is so long from now, and also who cares?”

 

“I do, I care! It’s like I’m cursed! I had this perfect look and a Shield that would tamper with it..”

 

“A Shield you didn’t use properly because you are a vain idiot but continue”

 

“... Then I had that body destroyed and I was put in a teenager, and don’t get me wrong we look fine in the right clothes and not dressed like a clown like this…”

 

He tugged at their clothes a couple of times just to be annoying, if he was going to have an existential crisis or a midlife crisis or whatever this was at the tender age of 200 the brat was going down right beside him, dammit! This was his fault after all.

 

“Stop it! Don’t be like that! I don’t mind being inside during this thing but you need to let me hear what they have to say, I told you this is an important meeting I need to hear about.”

 

Greed rolled his eyes, only inside their mind, not in front of the twenty-three other people in the room (and the kid said he didn’t do anything for him…).

 

“It’s really not.”

 

“Yes, obviously what we are talking about is more important... I mean, how can the fate of two of the most densely populated clans in Xing even compete to be as relevant to the grand scheme of things as your angst about your face.”

 

“Your face, kid, or at least ours. Seriously you have a problem.”

 

“Shut up.”

 

“And I didn't mean that what you’re trying to do here isn’t serious, just that this meeting isn’t. It’s not going to solve anything. And you know it, or you wouldn’t be talking to me instead of listening to what that fossil is blabbering about.”

 

Again, his immeasurable tact made him not point straight at the old guy who had been trying to kill them all with boredom in the last hour or so. He was nailing this Emperor of Ceremonies gig.

 

“That fossil’s younger than you, and we’ll be looking like him one day.”

 

“Uuuugh, don’t remind me. No, but seriously, you know this thing like it is now, will never work, right?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“They are fighting about a technicality! All of you don’t have the perspective on this thing. They are little lords fighting about the ownership of a river. You think this is about the fucking river, it’s not.”

 

“No! Exactly! It’s about the fact that the Shao wants the energy of a dam and the Xo wants to use the river for irrigation. And it’s not about the lords, it’s about the Shao’s artisans and Xo farmers. We are just trying to get to understand who has more right.”

 

“No, kid. All of you are just trying to understand who can piss the farthest. Let me tell you, I know a thing or two about desire and …”

 

Ling groaned, he actually groaned at him. Disrespectful little shit...

 

“Oh my God, are you kidding me? Are you doing one of yours ‘I know a thing or two about desire’ speeches now?”

 

“Don’t argue with me, I’m sharing my immeasurable wisdom with you.”

 

“Oh yes, I’m so honored. Please Greed, tell me more about Xing politics and how they work…”

 

A light cough in the room made them all aware again of what was going on outside their head. Lan Fan (who had made the noise, in a manner so uncharacteristic and beneath her position that had caught the attention of more than one person), was shooting daggers with her eyes at them beneath her mask. They both then realized that they had been smirking at each other for a while and that smirk was now plastered on their body’s face.

Greed let Ling seize the body to school it back to the perfect pensive and attentive expression he used in such meetings, before anyone other than the guard could tell something had happened.

 

They had to be more careful.  

 

And thank Lan Fan once in a while, this wasn’t the first time it had happened.

 

And stop interfering with each other internal monologues.

 

And stop thinking so freaking loud then.

 

“Anyway, as I was saying, I know a thing or two about desire...” Ling rolled his eyes at him. “ Your problem is that you’ve been doing this for so long you can’t see outside this room. Do you think the farmer in… Xo gives a flying fuck about which rich family owns the damn river? Or the guy in whatever-the-name-of-that-other-one-is really has an opinion about where his light power comes from as long as he can afford it?”

 

“Oh”

 

“Yes, oh. Do you even listen to anyone outside your little circle of Lords and Ladies? You used to be all high and mighty about how you were going to be a king for your people, all of them.”

 

“I...I...”

 

“Do you really think this is in any way important to anyone but the lot of you?”

 

“I...You ar...”

 

“How can you stand being here, in this room listening to this crap all day?”

 

...Oh my God!....

 

... It’s true!...

 

…. It’s so true!...

 

Something was happening.

… Oh Shit oh shit oh shit….

 

Greed remembered well those episodes Ling used to have all those years ago. One of those things that used to happen sometimes when Ling used to think about his mission and his momentary inability to complete it. Those spiral of thought so overwhelming for the kid that they would sometimes catch him too.

This felt similar, but not entirely so.

Maybe because it had never happened while Ling was in control of the body.

 

...What am I even doing here?...

 

Because something was going on with the body too.

On the outside, in fact, Ling started to breath more and more rapidly, each breath getting less and less air inside their lungs. He could feel how every intake of air was not enough and how the attempts of getting more were actually hurting. Their eyes were beginning to water and they could feel their lips starting to sting, like little pins were put in them. Greed had no idea how and why any of it was happening.

One other thing was even more terrifying.

Ling was on the surface. He was the one in charge of the body but… In some way, he wasn’t (?). Like, Greed could feel that there was something that was preventing Ling to take control, and that something wasn’t Greed himself.

It came from Ling’s own mind.

 

... I don’t know… I don’t know...

 

Then it hit him.

Greed had seen something similar to this, from the outside. Back in the Devil Nest days.  Some of his chimeras… ( He could remember Martel voice like she was there saying now “He’s fine! They are panic attacks, Greed, you asshole. You know, from the time the army tortured us? I’m sure you remember... And you hovering over him is not really helping, fucking hell, give him space!”).

 

… oh shit… What am I doing… If I’d let someone else here maybe they would’ve...

 

On the inside, everything was a little more... familiar, in some way. Everything was loud and moving (like the souls used to be) only now every noise came from Ling’s own thoughts.



...It’s not necessarily true that I was the only one that didn’t want a war between clans...

 

Everything else was shaking by the force of them, the trees around them were moving like if in the middle of a tornado. Greed looked around. The sensation of every single tree moving in synch with a specific… scream… a scream that both came from Ling and was directed at him.

 

… Maybe someone from a smaller clan would know how to help everyone, not just cower in a room like I do...

 

Greed didn’t remember much about the time right after he killed Bido, but he remembered Ling memories of it. (Yeah, that makes sense…) That was enough to know that this was a hell of a lot more similar to that than to too-much-thoughts-in-my-head episodes Ling used to have.

 

… What am I doing? This isn’t right, this isn’t right. This. Isn’t. Right….

 

Anyway, there wasn’t time to waste about overthinking this now. What they didn’t need was to everybody to understand what was going on. (Luckily “wrinkles” over there was putting the whole room to sleep). He took control of the body and searched for Lan Fan. She was watching them with wide eyes, he slowly moved his eyes toward the door and she slightly nodded.

 

She came closer to him and stage whispered loudly enough for everyone to hear about another important meeting he needed to attend to.

 

He took the opportunity in an instant, and after a minute and a few (very transparent, in his opinion) excuses and apologies they were out of there.

 

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

 

The moment they were out and inside an empty room, Lan Fan’s hands were all over them, searching for a wound of some kind.

 

“Your Majesty, what’s going on? Are you alright?” She froze. “Have you been poisoned? Your lips just then…how did this happen?”

 

“We’re okay”

Everything inside their mind was still screaming and roaming and Ling wasn’t responding. Greed was trying to touch him and couldn’t (he wasn’t strong enough to get through him with his mind so their projected body couldn't touch).

Everything inside their mind space was screaming Ling thoughts and it was like Ling wasn’t even there.

 

“Physically we’re okay.” He amended.

 

“What’s going on?”

 

Greed was unsure about what to do. On one hand, giving the body back to Ling could help him break his… thing (It had worked before, hadn’t it?), on the other he really didn’t like what was happening earlier to their body.

 

“It was like you weren’t breathing”

 

Exactly.

Greed held up a hand and focused inward again.

 

The place was a mess.

 

The trees were screaming and agitating and… growing somehow. Covering the sky.

The fireplace was still there but it hardly emitted any light at all. It was also moving, in an unnatural and impossible way.

Everything was… wrong.

 

Ling was still. The only thing still in all of it, and somehow this felt even more wrong. He was just… standing there, eyes opened and focused on nothing, like he didn’t feel or hear or see any of the things all around them. And all Greed could sense from him was wrongness.

 

Greed decided he didn’t give a fuck about what would happen to their body and pushed the kid on the surface.

 

Chapter Text

"Kid?"

Pushing him back on the surface had certainly caused some change.

Their breath was erratic and their heart was beating too fast, but on the inside the violent wind and loud scream had somehow tuned down, even if not completely. The fire was reduced to barely lit embers and Greed could only just make out the shape of the trees that were still shaking.

Everything was just dark.

Kind of scary, too.
 

For instance, even if his thoughts kept swirling around him, he couldn't see Ling anywhere and he wasn’t answering. Well, he knew it wasn't like he could've just stood up and left his own mindspace (he couldn't, could he?), but still the sensation of being left alone in the dark tempest of someone else's breakdown wasn't reassuring. Not even from a two hundred years old big scary demon's perspective.

"Kid, for fuck's sake."

"How could I ever think I could reign?"

Greed took a few steps around in a direction he couldn't see and tripped over a little projected human ball curled up under a tree, falling ruinously. Okay, at least they could 'touch' again, that was a good sign.

“There you are, you had me worried there for a minute.”

On the outside, their body was beginning to return to normal. They couldn't yet feel the air in their lungs but the purple shade of oxygen deprivation was vanishing and their lips were turning pink again.

Noticing a little change of expression on the Emperor's face, that until then had been completely blank, a little regain of consciousness, the look of horror in Lan Fan's eyes faded as well and she even allowed herself to breathe a little too.

Ling opened their eyes to her checking their pulse and breath.

"I can't possibly be Emperor"

All the horror came back at once.

"WHAT. What. Your Majesty. Your Majesty? What are you saying? What happened? Oh my god. Everything was alright, the room was secure. What got to you, Young Lord, Your Majesty? What happened that I didn't see? Oh god, I’ve... I failed you."

 

Their mindspace was now silent, and getting darker and darker by the minute. Ugh, this sharing-emotions deal was really showing its downsides. It couldn't possibly be fair that the kid could take over the place like that. Yes, yes, Greed had kept him trapped in an eternal void full of screaming souls for some time, but that was no excuse.

 

Ling was still lying on the ground, hugging his knees, his eyes closed, a pained expression on his face.

 

"I'm just a spoiled little brat"

Greed snorted.

"I won't argue with that"

"I've already governed for four years without the tiniest idea of what I was doing. I've probably done more damage than anything"

Phew. That had been awful, but now the kid seemed to be himself again. Sort of.

"Well okay, you are young and you have little experience but some of your ideas have been..."

"I’m useless. This is useless. I should kill myself. That way maybe someone who can actually do something can take my place. Yeah, I should kill myself and do right by the country for real, for once."

Okay, maybe not so much himself.

"Hey, Whoa, tune it down a notch, will you? I have some interest in your body's well being too here!"

Greed moved closer to Ling, sighed, and took his hand.

"You don't understand Greed, I will never be a ruler for all of my people."

"Didn't you study everything you could possibly need to become Emperor pretty much your whole life?"

“Yeah, well, so did Bradley. And he was the worst ruler imaginable.”

“Touché.” He couldn’t really argue with that. “But still, it’s not like you’re a random person who happened to become Emperor, you’ve been preparing for this.”

"Yeah. And now everything I know about Xing politics is some one-sided academic bullshit, written by some Yao professor for a future Yao Emperor. Nothing I could ever use to unify the country. I was trained to never look further than my palace's backyard!"

"Even if it was true it would be amazing, given the size of your gardens. Besides, you didn't exactly meet me at the bus stop, did you?"

Ling began to chuckle a little at the joke, but the attempt ended in sobs. He grasped Greed's hand tighter.

The darkness was fading a little, the sky, now visible over the trees, was getting lighter, surrounding them with the soft light of a twilight and a little flame was beginning to blaze from the ashes of the fire.

Greed rolled his eyes and sighed. He couldn't believe to have sunk to such depths. He was holding hands with Ling in imaginary woods, trying to figure out a way to achieve someone else's goals. Look at what you're making me do, brat.

 

"Look, kid, you're mildly well-liked by the public, and your long term goals and vision are by far the most comprehensive and equitable that Xing has seen in the last trijillion years or so. You have every premise to be able to use your position to end the clans' wars in a more effective way than any Emperor before you. Mostly because you are the first to have actually addressed the issue inside the palace. Achieving unity will probably take decades and you'll need to drastically change your methods and your government, but you're in the best position to make those changes."

 

Ling straightened up a bit, wiping away his tears.

"Please say something, I'm all out of motivational speeches."

 

This time Ling grinned for real.

 

"You know that I didn't even know where to find the Xon river on a map until yesterday, when they came to prep me for the meeting?"

“That’s not surprising, this country is bloody gigantic.”

“Yes, yes it is. How could I be so arrogant to think I’m the only one that ever envisioned unity and peace? And how could I think that I could ever achieve it using the same ministers and diplomats as my father? They’re all just like that wrinkled fossil in the other room. Fuck, it’s been difficult to find a historian that could be considered impartial about a dispute between two clans. How can I hope to unify fifty?”

 

On the outside their body had been 'meditating'. Lan Fan hadn't been able to get either one's attention for half an hour and was by now prepared to guard the Emperor's silent body for the ages to come. Maybe even from actual enemies, for a change.

 

Inside instead, the sky had begun to darken again.

 

“Okay kid, let’s go see for ourselves.”

“What?”

“Let’s go find this river in real life and not on a map. We’ll get other opinions, from the locals, experts and not. Someone with less wrinkles. And I’ll try to apply my extraordinary intelligence to the problem. We’ll figure something out.”

 

Greed stood up inside their head, like he was actually walking somewhere.

 

“I don’t know if it would be useful, and besides I don’t think I can be absent from the palace for a long time...”

“Bullshit, the old system can stand for a few weeks without you, it’s well oiled. And we’ve just established that none of this meetings are important and that we need to find new ways to govern and build a new Xing. You said you trust that Chang girl, did you not? Let her be in charge in your stead for a bit. She is royalty and all. Come on now.”

 

Greed took Ling’s hand and helped him up. Finally, the mindspace was back to normal.

 

“And, kid, I do appreciate the entertainment but... the next time you want me to take you on a road trip find a less dramatic way to ask.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Whatever anyone may say, Qing was living a good life.

 

When he had left his parents’ farm thirty years ago he had done it because he thought he wanted to travel the world. When he first arrived in a city so far away from his hometown that he had never heard its name before, he realized he just didn't want to stay home, as simple as that.

He didn’t hate his family, or the farm, or anything like that, he just wanted to leave.

He didn’t like to do manual labor and he didn’t like having to talk to the same few people day after day after day.

But he was good with them, the people, even if he couldn’t stand the majority of them.

He had found out that working in an Inn out of town but on a busy road full of commuters suited him perfectly. He could charm people and enjoy the company during the busy hours and be glad to be left the fuck alone during the slow ones.

Perfect.

He knew that people talked about him. What they said. A newbie one time told him how everyone in the nearby towns considered him bizarre. A bit of a loner but always surrounded by people. How they all laughed at the way he liked to know every new person who entered his Inn, how he would eagerly start conversations with the majority of them only to lose interest right after, the precise amount of time could change from a few minutes to hours. He had only shrugged in response. It was probably true, and seen from the outside it probably looked weird, but they could say what they wanted, he didn’t care, he was a curious person - sue him. He wasn't adventurous and liked to stay in his own place but he was curious so he asked and talked. He was also very impatient, he hated conversations he could guess the end of. Was he an odd person because of this? Probably. Was he an asshole for banishing that newbie from his Inn? Even more likely. But seriously, in his defense, was there anything more boring than a guy who used gossip to please people?

Anyway, his customers were good people, if a bit dull (in every sense of the word), and Qing knew he was well liked even if not understood.

He had his regulars, they came, they talked, they ate and sometimes stayed for a night, if they weren’t daily commuters, and then they were gone.

Some of them he liked more than others, some he knew more than others but he was almost always happy with them.

In a place like this, even the people who weren’t regulars were always the same, in some ways.
The road was a busy one, it connected Xo, Shao, and Ren, but it was almost exclusively used by people who needed to travel for work. Farmers and merchants and day laborers.

The people that didn’t fall in that category were more interesting; travelers from all over Xing (okay, maybe not all over it, if he had to be honest, let’s say, all the East-Southern regions of it).

A lot of them were people like he had thought he would become. Travelers. Young and curious and sharp, they wanted everything the world had to give. Some had left their life behind because they felt like they were trapped by mediocrity, others just wanted to get as far away from their troubles (and their past lives) as they could.

Some of them, Qing ended up hiring for a while.

Not because of the goodness of his heart, obviously. During farmhand season the chores were just too many, it was good to have some help and they were cheap. Usually, three meals a day, a bed and some cash to store for when they went out again into the world were enough.

They never stayed for long, he didn’t need them to and more often than not they were kids, late teens, mid-twenties, a couple of thirty years old late bloomers, that didn’t want to stay anyway.

Usually, they were trying to figure out what to do with the new freedom that distanciating themselves from their community gave them, or they were just tired of the life on the road and wanted to settle for a couple of months.

Stay as long as you want, work and learn, and when you are ready to leave, leave, no questions asked.

It was just that simple.

 

The person that had just entered the Inn was completely different from any of them.

 

Qing was sure of it from the moment he opened the door.

To a distracted eye, he looked like any other person that came in every day. Simple clothing, dirty of sweat and dust from the road, messy ponytail. But Qing noticed almost immediately that, under all that dirt, those clothes were new, simple but brand new. Same as the shoes. Like a costume of a farmer in a theater in the Shao capital. He was tanned but like someone who was spending time under the sun for the first time in months, not like someone who had worked outdoors every day of their life. His teeth were white, and he seemed armed under his clothes. Not like a sword (everyone would notice that) but like daggers and kunai.

Qing could make a list of things that felt wrong about this guy just about ten seconds after he entered.

The eleventh, the guy fell, face first into the floor, fainting, two steps inside the Inn.

 


 

Qing was good with people. He just was. But he absolutely couldn't figure out how it happened.

One moment he was helping the guy to a chair, the next he was offering him a job.

In between a lot of other weird things happened.

None of them, in any way whatsoever, could have been perceived by any sane person as a job interview. Not on Qing’s part anyway.

Honestly.

He had given the guy food, a lot of it, an incomprehensible quantity of it. Like, the guy should be dead, or in a coma.

He had asked him for his name. And what kind of name was Dolcetto, anyway? Don't get him wrong, he knew it was fake. For someone that mischievous, capable to talk himself into a job with that ease, it had been incredibly effortless for Qing to notice him literally argue with himself over that particular question. But couldn't he have chosen a more normal name like Li? There were like five Li in the room at that moment alone.

While eating 'Dolcetto’' had asked him what could only be described as the most random line of questions he could think of. Always smiling and always looking at him like his brusque answers were the most interesting thing in the world. Where was the road headed if someone came from Ren? How far were the Xo Clan lands? How about the Shao's? Oh, so we are in the Shao’s lands right now? Already? Which clans were his clients from, in percentages? How many were regulars and how many were a one-time thing? What were their jobs? How far was the Xon river? Did Qing had an opinion about it? (About the river? Who has opinions about rivers?) How expensive was it to keep the light on at night? Did he have a phone or any other machines that used electricity? And so. Many. Others.

 

The weirdest thing was that they hadn't been Qing’s hands around 'Dolcetto''s neck that ended that conversation. The moment he stopped eating, he stood up and started pestering every single other person in the room with the same kind of questions. This time with a bored expression on his face, like he was barely listening. He had also started to go behind the counter to refill the drinks and the plates of every customer he talked to. Setting tables and cleaning them up, like he knew exactly what he was doing. Qing was accustomed to employees that started from zero in the food service world, the only ones who accepted wages as low as his. He let him do it because why would he stop someone who was doing his job for him?

 

When he had made the round of every single customer, he went back to Qing and asked one last question. Again with that fucking placating smile on his face that Qing didn't trust a bit. (Holding the wine pitcher like an expensive teapot for some reason, even if he had been holding it right until that moment).

"Are these people your only regulars or do you have more of a rotation thing going?"

Qing decided to answer, because what should he do at this point?

"No, it's not exactly a rotation, but they change with the days and the months. Tomorrow only half of them will be here but there will be a lot of Xo's people coming, on their way to the tomatoes cultivation down south."

"Okay, then. I accept."

"What?"

"That man over there," he pointed to Tao, sitting in his usual place by the window, "told me you give people food and a place to stay in exchange of help during this season." He smiled wider. "I accept."

"Who said I'll give it to you?"

He wasn’t exactly refusing. It would be good to not teach the basics of almost every skill needed, for once. It was also already late, well into the season, and he did need help sooner rather than later. But mostly he was just curious. It had been years since someone had been this… different from expectations. It made him so crazy he wanted to punch the kid, but he was also just so curious.

“Well, for starters, I work for free. I just need accommodation and food.” Did he wince just after saying that?

“I’ve seen how much you eat, I’m not sure I’m not actually losing money by feeding you.”

‘Dolcetto’ laughed very loudly. Qing couldn’t associate that laugh to the polite smile he wore up until ten seconds before.

“I can’t argue with that. Look… What was his name? Right. Look Qing, I’ve worked in a bar from before you were sipping your mother’s milk… Okay, maybe not, because I’m like what? twenty? Right right. But. I’ve even said I’ll work for free, for fuck’s sake, do you think I’d work for just about anybody? I actually like you… for now. So, now, stop pretending you don’t want to hire me, it’s very annoying and time-consuming, and tell me where you keep the unopened barrels” he wiggled the pitcher to show him it was empty “we're out of wine”


 

 

It had been a week and the kid was still a mystery to be solved for Qing. He had begun to call him Zhēn Dolcetto (Dolcetto for real), or only Zhēn (for real, totally), to make him aware of just how much he trusted anything he said, any day, in every single instant. The first time he had used it Zhēn had just laughed in that silent and joyful way he did (half the time, when he wasn’t being loud and harsh).

 

He was composed and careful and inexperienced and inconsiderate and competent and loud. He was everything and its opposite. He was driving him mad. Qing was used to getting people just from a glance, he could talk to a person for ten minutes and roughly predict their behavior. Zhēn just didn’t fit. And it wasn’t just the mystery behind his appearance in the Inn, and his decision to work for free and the weird questions he posed to everyone who’d listen. Those things Qing couldn’t get but he could still see a thread of a story behind them. He could tell that once he knew what that story was, it would all make sense. No, what Qing couldn't get his head around was… well, mostly everything else.

 

He behaved like there were no consecutive meaning behind his actions.

 

For example, right now he was drinking and chatting with ‘Bald’ Li, in the middle of the conversation he distractedly went for one of the dumplings at the center of the table… with his hand, like a foreigner. The second it was in his hand he let it fall on the plate again and picked up the chopsticks, with the easiness and the spontaneous simplicity that only a native could have.

That wasn’t normal. It just wasn’t.

But Qing had a plan. The oldest plan in the world in cases like this one, actually: get the man drunk and let him talk into oblivion.

 

He waited until nightfall when the place got empty and Zhēn’s job was to clean around a bit for the next day. He went to the kitchen and took out a jar of his personal Baijiu, that he fermented himself during the low season. With it and two glasses, he went back into the dining hall where Zehn was … standing perfectly still with his gaze fixed nowhere and his head slightly tilted to the side. He looked like he was far, far away. Qing would love to say this was the first time something like this happened. He really would. But it wasn’t, and it was hardly the only clue that something was up with that kid’s attention span. Sometimes while they talked he could feel like only half of his attention was on him while he kept thinking about something else the entire time, and other times he changed the subject on the middle of an exchange like it was the obvious continuation of the conversation when it so clearly wasn’t.

But he was good, he was well liked by the customers (even while tormenting them with odd and slightly insane questions) and he worked hard (half of the time). And, once again, he was interesting and refreshing so he didn’t say anything and accepted his quirks.

 

With a sigh, Qing snapped his fingers a few inches from his eyes… It only worked the fifth time he did that… Weirdo…

 

“Hey, stop that, I was in the middle of something!”

 

“Yeah, cleaning my Inn, and I reckon you weren’t doing such a great job, with all your standing around and daydream. What are you, one of those people who hear voices? I’ve got nothing against them but if they tell you to kill somebody, I kinda wanna know, alright? Now come drink with me, I wanna know if this year’s batch is saleable.”

 

Zhēn shrugged and followed him. He also murmured something like ‘I got an annoying voice inside my head alright…’ but Qing decided to let that go for now.

 

They sat across from each other and Qing handed him one of the glasses.

“So, do you know what this is?”

It would have been a weird question to ask to anyone else in the entirety of Xing. Every single clan had a version of Baijiu. The Southern Clans made it out of rice, but Qing knew that in other clans it was different (legends had it that in the Imperial Palace it was made out of tropicals fruits or anise). It was like if he had just asked if he knew what wine was, or water.

Obviously, Zhēn managed to give an even more odd answer.

“Some kind of liquor? I don… Baijiu, of course it’s Baijiu, everyone knows what Baijiu is! What is this one made of?”

Qing pretended not to notice, he needed to make him think he wasn’t noticing any of this… weirdness. Luckily it seemed like Zhēn was in his more relaxed and inattentive mood, as opposed to the times Qing could actually see him scan everything and everyone around him. Or maybe this was one of the times he managed to hide just how vigilant he always was. Qing couldn’t know for sure.

 

“I use rice… like anyone in Shao… and Xo… and the nearest 10 others clans really… Why, what does your Clan use?”

 

Zhēn laughed for a good minute before answering.

“You want to figure out which Clan I’m coming from that bad? What do you think?” He drank the glass all in one shot, and grimaced a little, smiling that shark smile he sometimes had. “Whoa, this is the good stuff!”

 

Qing took a sip from his glass.

“I think you are not from around here, sometimes more so than others.”

“And what do you mean by that? Come on, we know you have theories!”

Did he just say ‘we’?

“...‘Tall’ Li said you keep staring at me like at a weiqi board after a lěng zhāo* when I’m not looking.” He added with that sly toothless smile Qing hated. Or maybe it wasn’t sly, maybe Qing was projecting. How could a person be that confusing?

He didn’t have time to answer his question that Zhēn was already laughing loudly again and helping himself to another glass of Baijiu.

“So, shoot! What mysterious and overly complex theories do you have on behalf of the presence of yours truly in your establishment? I’ll tell you what, let’s make a game out of it! Every time you get one right, I’ll drink, and if you get it wrong you’ll have to drink.” Qing didn’t even have the time to open his mouth that Zhēn was already arguing with him “Yes, it is a good idea, shut up. So, what do you think, deal?”

“Do I have to answer or do I have to shut up?”

 
“Oh, come on, what’s your answer? I’ll be sincere, I never lie… Ok, ok I never lie except for really specific circumstances that will never happen here, now. Scout’s honor.”

“What’s a scout?”

“Don't’ worry about it… So?”

Qing grinned, this was way more than he had hoped, presented to him on a silver platter.

“Deal.”
 

It was on.