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This Lion is in the Garden

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Ed really wished someone had warned him about arranged marriages when he had signed up for this prince thing.

It was too late to back out now, of course, and he had volunteered for this—who knew that being elevated to royalty could increase your love of people and country or some shit like that—but fuck it all if that meant he had to like it.  Or his husband-to-be.  Not that he had met the guy yet, but he was already pretty sure that he'd hate him.  That kind of shit just happened to Ed way more often than was remotely fair.

He could feel his father and brother shifting anxiously beside him.  Why were they nervous?  They weren't the ones whose wedding was tomorrow.  And who hadn't even met the guy yet.  And fine, so the alliance between Xing and Xerxes was riding on this, could collapse if this went badly.  But that wasn't their problem.  Not unless Ed fucked it up.  Which he wasn't going to. So they really didn't need to be nervous.

Ed swallowed, glancing over the railing of the pavilion, searching the approaching procession intently.  He had thought he would be able to pick out his betrothed by sheer elaborateness of the clothing, but he had underestimated how many princes the Xingese had.  The fuck did you do with that many, anyway?  And that wasn't even starting on the princesses.  If they were even all royalty.  Shit, what if some of them were just nobility?  Members of the household?  While he appreciated the welcome, as it was his first time to Xing, it was all a bit… much.

Ed suddenly felt very self-conscious of his own clothing.  His was nice, of course, red Xerxesian formal wear, but so many of these people were up to par without even seeming to try.  The Xerxesian entourage wasn’t nearly as elaborately done up, either.  While there was certainly a purpose for it—they wanted their royalty to stand out, after all—the Xingese had better fucking not think it made them any lesser.

And god, what if he was gross, or ugly, or rude?  Ed's experiences with foreign royalty had been less than pleasant, especially when they found out that he hadn't been born into it—a bastard until his father’s marriage “legitimized” them as royals.  Only Ed’s peers often didn’t see it that way.

Still, the guy had probably done his research, or at least the Xingese royal family had.  And if they made a giant fuss about it?  Relations between the countries would be kaput.

And no one would be that stupid.  No one.  Despite what the anxious shifting of Ed’s father and brother seemed to suggest.

The procession slowed as it neared them, and not for the first time, Ed desperately cursed the pomp and circumstance and formality that inevitably plagued anyone of high birth.  He was going to have a fucking heart attack at this rate out of anxiety, though he made sure that the scowl on his face hid that damned well.

The procession parted, and two men stepped forward.

For a brief moment, Ed felt his stomach sink at the sight of the much older man, wondering wildly why they hadn't bothered to mention the incredible age difference, but when he turned to the younger and inclined his head respectfully, it suddenly made much more sense.

He felt a hand on his back nudge him forward, just a little.  Al, probably.  He stepped out, lifting his chin.  He would not allow these foreigners to judge him, especially if they were to become his own people.

"Edward of Xerxes," the older man says in a loud, carrying voice, the words Xingese.  "The Empire of Xing welcomes you, as does its crown prince, Ling Yao."

Now, that name Ed knew.  His fiancé.  With a deep breath, he turned get his first look at his husband-to-be.

He was not, Ed was immediately relieved to note, extremely old.  In fact, he couldn't be much older than Ed—though he had to be a couple years older, given his height.  And—all right, he wasn't terribly ugly, either.  Wasn't ugly at all, in fact.  Ed would definitely withhold judgement on "good-looking" until he actually got to know the guy, but he couldn't see anything totally intolerable at first glance.

Ling Yao inclined his upper body, and Ed, pre-warned of protocol, did the same.  Ed took a moment to sneak a more thorough glance at his face.  Soft, high cheekbones, a dignified chin, and though his narrow eyes were solemn and formal for the occasion, there was kindness in their depths for the brief moment that he caught Ed's with his own.

All right, so he was pretty good-looking.

And the formality of his clothing matched Ed's own, though the stark difference to Xerxesian finery left him enchanted—even if it hadn't been gloriously intricate embroidery on silk that seemed to shimmer from a jade green through hues of darker green and even blue depending on the light, it was a beautiful feast for his eyes.  Not better than Xerxesian formal wear, of course, but certainly almost on par, at least.

"As a symbol of our future union," the older man continued, "we present you with a gift."

Ling reached into the golden silk sash he was wearing and pulled out a golden box with rounded corners.  The designs etched into it were as intricate as the Xingese embroidery, characters from the alphabet that Ed was still struggling to master.  There were animals as well, and—his eyes lit up with interest as he recognized Xingese alchemical symbols.  Not transmutation circles, but he'd done research into alkahestry and could see that there were components that had been incorporated into the design.

“Woah,” he breathed, eyes fixed on the box, lifting his hands to accept it.  He glanced upwards to Ling’s face to see the eagerness masked in those dark eyes.  When Ling pulled his hands away, he made a motion with his hands, mouthing two words.  Open it.

Ed pulled it back, watching Ling for a moment before glancing down at the box.  He couldn’t see the hinges, but there did seem to be a small seam that he could pry his fingers into and push the box open.

When he did so, a beautiful golden figure of a lion, one paw raised and with red gems for eyes, rose from the depths—and came alive.  Ed stared at it in shock for a moment, mouth gaping, as a chiming tune began to play.

It took several moments of shock to realize that the small lion was not actually alive, but a very cleverly mechanized figure powered, it appeared, by some sort of wind-up mechanism that also played the music.

His first thought, which was accompanied by a jolt of homesickness, was that Winry would have loved to look at it.  The second was a huge jumble of many different questions that all stuttered to a halt when Ling and his escort watched Ed expectantly.

He yanked his thoughts away from the box, slamming it closed as he realized, with horror, that they expected him to have a gift to give Ling.  No one had fucking warned him of that!

But—no, it’d be fucking okay, and Ed had promised Al he wouldn’t cause any more major diplomatic incidents.  And Ed was a master at quick thinking, at least.  He quickly took stock of the jewelry he was wearing.  More than enough for some to vanish with no one noticing.

Fine, he’d put on a fucking show, then.

He grinned brilliantly over at Ling, prompting a curious eyebrow raise from the latter.  Squaring his shoulders, he lifted his hands, clapping them together.  Blue bolts of light raced up his arms, across his back, over his face.  Rings vanished from his fingers, piercings from their holes, but by the end of it, Ed held a golden pendant of a dragon, dangling from a cord courtesy of a small amount of missing cloth from the inside of a hem.  With a faint, smug smile around his mouth, he held out one gloved finger, from which the pendant dangled.  Ling's eyes lit up, and he accepted it with a smile about as brilliant—though less smug—than Ed's earlier one.

The momentary almost-disaster averted, Ed lifted his chin, and as he stepped back to listen to more formalities, he felt very pleased with himself.

For all that Ed was a brilliant alchemist, he could not, for the life of him, figure out how to use chopsticks.

He knew all the ways not to use them, of course. Diplomatic incidents and all that.  But really, he should have fucking practiced before he came here; Xerxesian cuisine rarely required utensils.  He was almost positive that, despite having yet spoken a word to him, his husband-to-be kept glancing over and smirking.  Very subtly, and very quickly.  He supposed it could be that Ling was impressed with how much food Ed kept putting away, even with the obvious handicap, but he had an annoyed feeling that that might be too much to hope for.

Still, Ed did his best to ignore the guy—see?  He was a fucking snob, after all—as he chased bits of rice around his plate, a scowl on his face, when he heard something he definitely did not expect.

“Here, try this!”

Ed’s head jerked up and he glanced around for a moment before realizing who must have spoken the words.  He turned to his left to be greeted by the sight of a pleasantly smiling Ling, chopsticks in hand, a bite-sized cut of meat between them.

“Huh?”

His first words to his future husband should have probably been a little more intelligent, or at least coherent, but it was all Ed could manage right now.

“It’s a Xingese delicacy.”  Ling tilted his head to the side, almost as if he were curious.  “Try it.”

Ed eyed the cut of meat, frowning, and then Ling, both with suspicion.  “What is it?”

Ling sighed melodramatically, as if Ed had just made him the most put-upon person in the entire world.  “Just try it!  You’ll like it!”

Ed frowned at him for a moment more before turning his attention back to the food.  It did look good, even if it was different than anything he had seen before.  He reached out, but as he did, Ling yanked it away.  Ed straightened with indignation.  He fucking knew—

“Not with your hands, silly.”  For all that Ed wanted to interpret disguised malice in the words, there was only gentle chiding that he could tell.

Ed continued to watch it, quickly weighing the benefits and disadvantages.  There was, however, one very significant benefit: food.  Right there.  His stomach won over, as it always did, and he leaned forward, opening his mouth, alert for a trick, just in case.

But the meat settled within his mouth and Ling withdrew the empty chopsticks, watching him as assessingly as Ed was chewing.

And Ed hated to admit it, but it was good.  It was duck, though not even close to what Xerxes normally served: crispy skin with less meat than Ed expected, but it practically melted in his mouth, savory notes with a hint of sweetness.  So maybe living here wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

He didn’t miss the gleam of satisfaction in Ling’s eyes when Ed let out a small moan, but just chalked it up that they had actually fucking connected over something instead of hating everything.

“Okay, not too bad.”  Ed kept his tone casual—perhaps a little too casual—but Ling just smiled pleasantly again.  Ed found himself wondering if he was really that pleasant, or if there was something else going on here.

“Only not too bad?” Ling teased.  “I’ll have to try harder, then.”

For just a moment, that gleam of satisfaction appeared in Ling’s eyes again, offset by something just a little more predatory.  Ed swallowed or a moment, preparing to bristle and call him the fuck out for whatever was going on—but then Ling returned to his food and it vanished.  As Ling harmlessly turned over pieces of his meat on his plate, all of Ed’s aggression seemed to evaporate, like fire in the presence of no oxygen.  It just left him… confused.

Which was annoying in its own right, and that Ed could feel plenty of.

It was almost as if Ling could tell, though, because he turned once again, and this time he held a small bunch of thin cucumber sticks between his chopsticks like a peace offering.

“Why?” Ed snapped, still unable to shake his suspicion as he eyed the food—perhaps a bit more hungrily than he would have liked.

“Because it goes well with the duck,” Ling replied simply, still with that stupid pleasant smile on his face.

“Yeah, but who says I can’t fuckin’ do it myself?”

Instead of getting angry or insulted, Ling just shrugged, still holding the food out.  “Please?”

Of all the responses Ed had expected, this was certainly not one of them.  He continued to search Ling’s face for a few more moments, then sighed, leaning in and opening his mouth.

Ling hadn’t been lying; the coolness of the cucumber did go well with warm crispiness of the duck.  He glanced back up at Ling, who, once again, looked so very pleased.

“‘Kay, maybe a little better’n not just too bad,” Ed admitted, mouth full, eyes straying to Ling’s plate, which was heaped with just as much food as Ed’s—and had the ability to get to it much, much more easily.

Ling held up another cut of duck, so very, very pleased.  “Try some more?”

Chopsticks aside, Ed quickly developed a very favorable opinion of Xingese cuisine.

He did have to admit that Ling had good culinary taste, and with each new piece of food, he could feel the tension in his muscles unknotting, just a bit.  Ling took care to pick the most choice selections, it seemed, and was nothing but pleasant for every interaction.  And the attention, the idea of Xingese royalty devoting himself to ensuring that Ed enjoyed himself, was far more of a draw than it likely should have been.

The duck became an instant favorite, and other high points included bamboo shoots, something Ling called “oyster,” and some kind of dumpling.  Seafood was a rarity in Xerxes, even for a prince, and Ed found the amount available very promising.

“Mm, we’re much closer to the ocean than you are,” Ling commented, still agreeable as ever, offering more oyster that Ed promptly snatched up with his teeth.  “This is only a small amount of what we have, too.  “I don’t believe they’re serving octopus tonight.  A personal favorite.”

“The fuck’s an octopus?”  It sounded fake; Ed glared over at Ling, wondering if this was an attempt to mess with him.  Al would probably know, what with his interest in all sorts of things nature and shit, but Al was over there, seated with their father.  Ed glanced quickly in that direction—or, at least, it was supposed to be quick.  Upon catching a glance at them, however, he couldn’t look away.

Al stared right back at him, eyes wide, expression completely dumbfounded.  Hohenheim’s was more reserved, of course, but they both looked as surprised as Ed had ever seen him.

His scowl returned.  What? he mouthed, narrowing his eyes defensively.  They both looked away quickly.

Assholes.  “Edward?”

Ed jumped slightly, glancing back over towards Ling.  “Huh?”

“I was asking if that sounded good.”  Ling tilted his head again, and Ed’s distraction had not yet settled.  Ling did look somewhat endearing when he did that; most unprincelike, of course, but somehow that seemed to make it all the more appealing.

“Yeah,” Ed found himself saying, trying to tug his attention back to the present.  “Sounds great.”

“Excellent!”  Ling beamed, and Ed’s frown deepened.  What right did the bastard have to be so charming?  “I hope the rest of Xing is agreeing with you as well as its food?”

Instead of answering, Ed turned back to his own food, suddenly feeling the need to quickly increase his own proficiency with chopsticks.  It couldn’t be that hard; after all, everyone in the fucking country used utensils—

A tug on the shoulder of his sleeve caught his attention yet again, and when Ed turned, Ling offered him yet another food object.  This one, however, Ed could not identify, with all the sauce coating it.  But hey, at this point he trusted Ling’s judgement—with food, at least—and so he leaned forward yet again.  

Right as it passed through Ed’s lips, however, Ling’s hand seemed to shake slightly, quite at odds with his usual dexterous handling of the utensils.  While the food did get in his mouth, and it was as delicious as the rest, it left a sticky gob of sauce dripping from the corner of Ed’s mouth.

“Shit,” Ed muttered, chewing and swallowing quickly in order to clear out his mouth so he could lick it off, but just in time remembered that doing so might not reflect exactly in the best way on the Xerxesian royal family.  Instead, he lifted his hand to wipe it off with a napkin.

Ling’s hand darted out to stop him.  “No, no.  Let me.”

Before Ed could ask what the fuck he meant, Ling leaned forward, way too fucking close.  His tongue flicked out, cleaning the sauce off of Ed’s mouth with startling efficiency.  Just as Ed was about to yank away and snarl, What the hell?!, Ling shifted slightly, tilting his head again in the most infuriating fucking way before he pressed their lips together.

Ed’s desire to yank away and yell at him increased, but everything was frozen—his voice, his face, his hands.  The softness of Ling’s lips distracted him significantly, and despite how irrational the next thought was that raced through his mind—he has that and the cute head-tilt?  Un fucking fair—his mind lingered on it, on the sensation, the mental image of Ling and his fond smile.  A full sensory experience, really, the clean smell of Ling combined with the savory taste of Xingese food, all wrapped up with the pounding silence in his ears.

When Ling finally pulled away—probably after only a few moments, but it felt like a fucking year—Ed tried to snap at him to back the fuck off, that he had no fucking right to do that, but upon feeling the burning in his cheeks, the sudden coolness against his mouth with the loss of Ling’s presence, all he could do was just—let out a gargling noise that sounded embarrassingly like a squeak.

Ling’s brilliant smile at that snapped Ed out of his paralysis, and he finally managed to stammer, “The fuck was that for!”

Ling simply shrugged, turning back to pile more food on his plate.  “You look a lot cuter when you’re surprised than when you're scowling like that.”

Ed’s jaw dropped, preparing to tell Ling exactly what he fucking thought of that.

Ling turned and shoved some bread into Ed’s mouth.

And it was good bread, Ed had to admit, good enough that he decided to at least finish it before biting Ling's head off.

But by the time the massive hunk of bread had been chewed and swallowed properly, however, the servants had set out several new dishes, some with apparent Xerxesian influences, which piqued Ed's interest immensely.

And his curiosity did not disappoint.  The food drove all other distractions from his mind, and by the time he stopped to breathe, he and Ling had nearly demolished the platters.  With a wince, he realized that he had completely hogged one of his favorite dishes, not allowing Ling a chance to try it.

A plan began to form in the depths of his mind.

He still had a few slices of the lamb on his plate, and he had been watching Ling carefully during the meal.  For educational purposes only, of course.  He gave the chopsticks a few tentative clicks before reaching down to grasp a slice of the lamb with them.

When he lifted his prize into the air, it shook noticeably, but it didn't slip and fall just like most other things had done this evening.  Face set in a determined expression that he usually reserved for going into battle, he turned to his left.

"Hey, you."

Ling looked up, blinking slowly, almost sleepily, his gaze shifting from Ed's face to the food.  He raised his eyebrows for a moment before realization dawned and he grinned brilliantly again.

Ed was positive that he never looked that dignified or graceful when leaning forward to eat from Ling’s chopsticks, and he couldn’t look away.  In another area of his mind he wondered briefly if this was why Ling had done this for Ed, if he knew how it would feel to see him like this.  The idea bothered him more than he wanted to admit.

Ling then proceeded to eat the food very, very slowly.  His tongue flicked out to lick up the sauce on the chopsticks, glancing upwards at Ed with a slight smirk as he practically sucked the meat into his mouth—shit, shit, shit!

It took Ed several moments of watching Ling chew to realize that he had dropped the chopsticks onto the ground.

Which, his brain decided to remind him, now meant that Ling was now the only one of the two of them with utensils.

Ed wasn’t the only one to realize it, either, judging by the way Ling now grinned wickedly.

Fuck.  Ed was quite possibly in trouble.

But after several moments, Ling turned back to his food, picking up a vegetable as if everything was normal and holding it out.  No, not normal, Ed realized as he leans in, because it was a little closer to Ling, so he had to lean forward—

Without warning, Ling’s face blocked out the sight of the food, and before Ed could renavigate around it, Ling had pressed his lips to Ed’s again, stealing another kiss.

Ed couldn’t stop the startled noise he uttered into Ling’s mouth, but when Ling pulled back, the food was still right there.  It didn’t take Ed any time at all to weigh his options: he continued on his course until he had eaten the vegetable, warm and garlicky and delicious.

“You’re an asshole,” Ed muttered around the very large bite of plant.

Ling shrugged.  “Tsk, you have to earn it if you want to eat my food!”

Ed expected him to turn and smirk, but he just went back to eating pleasantly.  The flush on Ed’s face got worse, and he couldn’t for the fucking life of him figure out why.  He was annoyed, yes, but when he tried to figure out why, it was more… disappointment.  Disappointment that the kiss had been so brief.

Ed quickly shoved away those thoughts.  Fine.  Earn it, huh?  He’d fucking earn it.  Ling was chewing.  Distracted.  Ed lunged forward, clumsy and awkward.  So he had no fucking idea what he had doing; he’d never even been kissed until a few minutes ago.  

He’d meant for it to be a quick kiss, but Ling apparently had an impressive way of fucking up Ed’s plans.  Somehow, Ling’s hand found its way to the back of Ed’s head, holding him there, and—shit, apparently Ling had swallowed his food, because his fucking tongue was inside Ed’s mouth!

At that, Ed yanked away, eyes wide, breathing heavily, mouth slightly ajar in shock.  That, however, led to an irrational fear that Ling would somehow find a way to stick his tongue into it again, so he snapped it closed.

And Ling was beaming.

Ed stared at him for several more moments, one again so very angry at how good Ling looked when he was smiling, until the reality of the situation crashed into him.

People were watching.

They were watching that display.

He risked a glance around to see that several pairs of eyes had settled onto him and Ling, but he very deliberately looked in the direction of his brother and father.  Food.  He should get back to his food.  Ed turned back to his plate, lifting his hand—

No chopsticks.

“Edward.”

“Ed,” Ed automatically corrected as he glared resentfully at the plate.  “I go by Ed.”

“Ed, then.  Do you want this?”

When Ed looked, Ling was holding a fork.  Dangling it.

“Hey, where—!”

“I asked a servant to bring it,” Ling cut in with a casual shrug.  “Well?  Do you?  Doooo you?”

Ed narrowed his eyes at the obnoxiously playful tone, about to tell Ling where he could stick the fucking fork.  “What do you want for it?”

“Hey, hey!  If you keep always assuming that I have an ulterior motive—”

“Which you have, for everything, since I’ve met you.”

“—then you’re not gonna enjoy any of the gifts I get you.”

“Like what?”  Ed looks at Ling askance, tone dry and skeptical.  Ling simply sighed, tapping the tines of the fork against his bottom lip.  Ed watched it intently, telling himself that it was just that he wanted the utensil.

“Tell you what.  I’ll give it to you on one condition.”

“I fucking knew it.”

“When we’re done, I wanna show you something.”

“Deal.”

It shouldn’t have been a big deal.  After all, Ed had just promised to look, not do anything.  But the pleased expression on Ling’s face had him wondering if he had just made a very significant mistake.

Whatever Ling had to show him, Ed was apparently not to find out just yet.  The moment the food was cleared, Ling dragged Ed off for dancing.

He was a very good dancer, Ed had to admit.  He knew how to lead, so even though Ed was not especially familiar with the dances, he had no trouble whatsoever.  He reluctantly sent up an apology into the ether directed towards the harried dancing teacher that had put up with Ed’s stubbornness over the years.

Ling remained mostly silent as he did so, allowing Ed to catch his bearings.  Ed tried just to concentrate on the new techniques, the patterns and similarities, but he found himself increasingly aware of the contact between their hands, the warmth of Ling’s hand on his waist, the muscles of Ling’s shoulder under his own hand.  And they were close, so very, very close.  Close enough that he could see the rise and fall of Ling’s chest under the silk shirt.

He shoved those thoughts out of his mind, distracting it by focusing instead on the problem presented by the dance, breaking it down into something that can be solved.

Once Ed accustomed himself to the steps, however, he was able to focus on more important things.

“So that thing you gave me.  With the lion, that played the music?”

“The music box, yes.”

“That’s what it’s called?  Music box?  It’s based on a Persian mechanical instrument, yeah?”

“Yes!”  Ling beamed at him, obviously extremely pleased that Ed had picked up on it.  “When this betrothal was arranged, our countries began to trade knowledge almost immediately.  We combined the technology of your instrument with our clockwork to produce things like that.  It’s the first they’ve created, and I thought it would be a nice representation of our union.”

Ed snorted before he could help it, but Ling didn’t seem to be too offended.  Ed wondered how resilient Ling’s skin had to be.  “Well, I got a friend back home who loves that kinda shit.  She’d love to see it, especially what the fuck ever is up with the lion.”

Ling’s smile widened, though Ed couldn’t really tell exactly why.  “The mechanization?  Yes, that’s another feat of engineering, or so I’m told.  It’s not exactly something with which I’m familiar, though.”  He tilted his head again, and Ed’s stomach did some weird sort of obnoxious flip-flop.

“I—right, yeah.  Winry’s big into it, though.”  He paused, another thought occurring to him.  “Reminds me, she made me swear to ask—what’s this I hear about this new metalworking technique you guys have perfected?”

The way Ling lit up at Ed’s words left Ed utterly breathless.

In addition to being a wonderful conversationalist, Ed's fiancé was apparently extremely perceptive as well: when they had danced until Ed's lungs were just burning, the juncture of his thigh and the automail leg just aching, Ling finally spun him off the dance floor, a steadying hand on his back, panting at the same rate as Ed.

“Now, as for that thing you said I could show you.”

Ed glanced over at Ling, eyes narrowed.  "If it's somethin' gross—"

"No, no, not at all!"  Ling flapped his hand dismissively.  "Why are you so suspicious of everything I do?"

Ed just narrowed his eyes, the incident from dinner fresh in his mind.  Given Ling's suddenly shifty expression, it wasn't too far from his, either.

"Well, anyway, it has nothing to do with that.  Not that I've done anything strictly gross.  I just want to show you a little hospitality.  Besides, you already agreed."

Using Ed's honor as leverage was rankling, but Ling was right.  "Fine, let's get this over with."

Ling grabbed his arm, whisking him off yet again.  Legend held that the Xerxesian royal family held lion's blood in their veins; Ed wondered if Xingese royalty was of dragonfly descent.

Still, their destination was certainly not where Ed expected.  Ling navigated them behind some pillars, into a smaller room, then out through a doorway.  The mugginess of nighttime summer air settled across his face like a veil of a material thinner than spider's silk; faint as it might be, it still didn't fail to startle someone from such an arid desert climate.  As Ed's eyesight adjusted to the dim light after the brightness of the indoors, the soft light of the moon combined with small globes hung from poles that emitted a contrasting warm light revealed a garden that rivaled even the cultivated oases of Xerxes's palace.  True, they were developed far differently—the Xerxesian gardeners worked with the desert plant life, utilizing flourishing vegetation that thrived in the desert, and Ed had never seen most of these plants before, beautiful and colorful as many of the flowers might have been.  His eyes feasted on the sight, and combined with a lack of hordes of people swarming around him, he finally began to relax in the presence of his betrothed.

Of course, the first thing out of his mouth was a question about the lighting globes, which led to a long and semi-technical explanation from Ling that wasn't nearly as detailed as Ed would have liked, but he hung onto every word.

"And that works?" he interjected with disbelief when Ling finished, head spinning from the explanation of chemical reactions and reduced danger of fire.

"As far as I understand," Ling replied with a nod, his arm warm under Ed's hand.  "I'm no expert, of course, but at some point I can introduce you to the craftsmen who make them."

Ed's face split into a grin, and his stomach did that weird flip-flop again.  "Yeah, I'd like that!"

"Mm, good."  Ling's thoughtful tone had undercurrents of something else on his mind, but when Ed glanced over at him, Ling returned the look, catching his eye, then leaned in to snatch a quick kiss.  Ed stilled, allowing it for a moment, even enjoying it, before he pulled back with a sigh.

"Look, is this all you brought me out here for?  More of this..."  He hesitated, trying to think of a word disdainful enough to convey his feelings on the matter, but then just settled on, "...kissing stuff?"

Ling tilted his head, and he really needed to fucking stop doing that.  "Well, I only wanted to get away from the giant crowd and get to know you a little better in private, but it is one option.  What else did you have in mind?"

Ed seized on the words immediately.  "Well, gettin' to know each other, then!  I don't know a fuckin' thing about you besides your name and that you're clumsy as shit."  Belatedly, he realized that the last bit might have come across as excessively rude instead of the humorous he had intended, so he punctuated it with a grin that rivaled even Ling's.  Ling returned it, and on a sudden urge, Ed leaned in to bump Ling's shoulder with his own.  "I don't even know your fuckin' favorite color."

"It's gold."

When Ed watched Ling's face, he thought he might be able to detect a hint of mischief there, but he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to bring it up.  "Gold.  Okay then.  Mine's red."

"And it suits you well," Ling murmured, softly enough that Ed wasn't entirely sure he was supposed to hear—or maybe he was only supposed to think that.  Who knew what game Ling was playing?  He looked away, fairly certain that at this point his face matched his clothing and, thus, the topic of conversation.

"My turn!"  Ling's cheerful tone caught Ed's attention, had him turning his head back in that direction even though he had just looked away.  The notion that someone could have that much influence over him should be frustrating, he knew, but it didn't bother him as much as it should have.

"The fuck're you talkin' about?"

"For the questions game."  Ling tilted his head to the other side.  Ed hoped that Xingese chiropractic was as good as rumored.  "What's your favorite weapon?"

Ling couldn't know it, but he could not have picked a better question to ease one of Ed's chief fears.  He knew that his appearance might seem "delicate" or "girly" or what the fuck ever bullshit stupid people who didn't fucking pay attention to him, and that it must mean that he was weak or helpless or something.  So maybe he was finer-featured than Al, with a smaller build.  It didn't mean he couldn't kick anyone's ass if he really needed to.  But Ling—Ling looked at him and thought, "Of course he has a preferred weapon."  Of course Ed was a fighter.

"Arm," he replied instantly, smirking a little at the confused expression on Ling’s face.

“Do you mean barehanded, or—”

“Hey, no fair!  Only one question.  Now you have to answer.”  Two could play at that game, Ling Yao.

Ling, however, just sighed, a smile on his face as he tilted his head back, looking up at the stars.  “My dao.  It’s a kind of sword.  Very efficient.”

Ed tugged his gaze away from Ling and focused instead on the path in front of them, which led them away from the more lit areas and into the depths of the garden.  “We should fight.  At some point.  I’ll kick your ass.”

“You’re welcome to try,” Ling scoffed.  Ed just smirked.  The prince talked a big game, yeah, but everyone always underestimated Ed.  And underestimating a left-handed swordsman was always a recipe for defeat.

“Yeah, yeah.  What’s your favorite food?”

Ling frowned slightly, giving it serious thought.  Ed watched, oddly fascinated.  Despite their similarities in age, Ling had focus lines in his brow, which made him seem even more mature.

“Red bean buns,” Ling finally finished determinedly.  “They’re delicious.

Ed had never heard of whatever the fuck those things were, but now he had to try them.  Unless they had been one of the unidentifiable foods in the massive amounts of Xingese cuisine he had inhaled.  “Sounds weird.”  But Ed was grinning.

Ling just scoffed.  “You’re weird.  What’s yours?”

“Lamb.  That lamb shit from earlier.  Fuckin’ delicious.”

Ling paused, then comprehension dawned on his face.  “Oh, you mean what you fed me?”  His understanding shifted to a smirk.  “I quite liked that.”

Ed’s cheeks continued to burn, and he looked away.  “Your fuckin’ question.”

As they walked deeper into the maze, Ed finally started to get to know his husband-to-be.  He was actually a few months younger than Ed, though, which irked him for some reason—May to Ed's February.  His favorite season was summer, where Ed's was fall.  And, according to Ling, his alcohol tolerance was terrible.  Definitely something to remember.  Ling also asked where, exactly, some of his piercings had gone, with a knowing smirk that left Ed with no doubt that he knew exactly what had happened, but Ed had refused to answer on the basis that Ling wasn’t able to answer the same.

Ling started it, the serious questions.  What’s your greatest fear?  For that, their answers had been the same—concern for their country, for their people, letting them down.  Failing them.  Ed had retorted with an embarrassed and defensive, “How many people have you had sex with?”  Unfortunately the answers left him even more embarrassed: Ling’s six to Ed’s resounding zero.

Deep, dark secrets.  Family.  Have you ever been in love. Their depth of their questions increased with the depth into the garden that they went.  Ed really wasn’t sure what made him ask it; it just seemed to slip out.

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

It was accompanied, of course, by a wince, and a sinking reminder that he’d have to answer the same question.  But Ling watched him as he walked, his arm having now slid around Ed’s waist, keeping him close.  It was only after several moments that he finally started speaking.

“The competition for Xingese inheritance is fierce.  Incredibly fierce.  I haven’t gotten here easily.  I’ve had to… beat out a lot of rival clans to do it.”

With a swallow, Ed realized that he might not want to hear the answer to this question.

“But whatever happened, it had to be the best for Xing.”  Ling looked away.  “This country needs help.  It’s foundering.  Not terribly, but it needs strong rulers that are not served by the people, but serve the people.  There was a clan, another strong contender, in the running.  But they weren’t best for Xing.”  With a deep breath, Ling tilted his head back, staring at the stars.  “They weren’t even good for Xing.  And I had to make sure they would never rule.”  He was quiet for several moments.  “They’re not a problem anymore.”

The revelation hit Ed with a wave of dizziness, and before he could stop himself, found himself asking quietly, “Tell me there weren’t any children?”  When Ling looked over at him, however, he quickly continued, “I—no, I’m—I was only supposed to ask one question.  My turn.”

“To tell me the worst thing you’ve ever done?”  Ling’s tone was wry.  “I’m sure you can’t wait.”

Ed snorted, but at least this one wasn’t difficult to answer.  “I played god.  Or tried.  It cost me—me and my brother a lot.”  After a moment of hesitation, he tugged away from Ling, turning to face him.  It was instinct that made him shift so his back was to a tree, for even a little protection, at least.  With a deep breath, he pulled at the fingers on his right glove, exposing it to the evening air and Ling’s eyes.  The automail glinted in the moonlight.  Ling’s eyes showed his confusion, and Ed continued.  “You’re not an alchemist, but do you know anything about using it to bring a human being back to life?”

At Ling’s widening eyes, the comprehension dawning on his expression, Ed knew that he understood.  “Oh.”

“Yeah.  Oh.”  Ed winced.  “I got off lucky.  Just an arm and a leg.  My brother… I really don’t wanna fuckin’ go into it, but let’s just say that even as princes, it’s not exactly easy to get back a body.”

“A—a body?  Is he—”

“No, he’s all right now,” Ed interrupted quickly.  “You saw him, yeah?  We… I guess we sorted it out, a few years back.  But I dragged my brother into it, and I just…”

He closed his eyes for a moment, wishing that the conversation hadn’t brought back all those memories, the guilt, and this time, it was accompanied by more, by a fear that that kind of desecration would make Ling recoil.

But when Ed opened them, Ling was much, much closer than he had been before.

He wasn’t sure who made the first move.  He thought it was Ling, but then again, he had tilted his head up and locked his eyes with Ling’s, and then Ling had taken Ed’s face and was kissing him gently.

Ed was certainly the one who deepened the kiss, reaching up to grab Ling’s arms, tilting his head and pressing forward.  He was the one who opened his mouth slightly, letting Ling’s tongue flick in gently, trace against his own.  He was the one who couldn’t help the soft noises coming from his throat, little sounds of pleasure and desperation.

One of Ling’s hands drifted down to Ed’s waist, and the other reached up to tug at Ed’s hair, wrapping around the braid and pulling gently.  Ed was quick to reciprocate, lifting his own hand and burying the fingers in Ling’s ponytail.  And shit, if what he was doing to Ling felt half as good as what Ling was doing to him, Ed was already on his way to becoming a damn good husband.

At some point Ling's other hand, the one not playing with Ed's hair, had moved to his thigh, applying a gentle pressure with his thumb to the inside of it.  Ed moaned again, giving Ling an opening to slide his tongue in a little more, and Ed found himself reciprocating, his own hesitant tongue coaxed into action.  Ling, though, pulled away after a few minutes, leaving Ed unsteady and trying to lean in for something that wasn’t there.  No, Ling was somewhere else: sighing and nuzzling into Ed’s jaw.

“Shit,” he gasped as Ling pressed his own thigh between Ed’s.  “Ling, I—shit—”

Ling didn’t respond, just pushed forward, and Ed’s back hit the rough bark of the tree behind him.  For a moment, he thought it was an accident, tried to pull back and maneuver around it, but when Ling very deliberately pinned him there, his brain caught up with the situation.

“Oh,” he whispered, eyes wide.

“Yeah,” Ling murmured, lips pressed against Ed’s jaw.  “Oh.”  His hand slid down again, grabbing Ed’s thigh, tugging at it, but Ed needed no further urging to lift his leg and hook it around Ling’s waist.

He was not expecting Ling to sigh, sounding far too pleased with himself, and grind very, very deliberately against him.

He let out a noise that suspiciously resembled a whimper, a hand scrambling to grip Ling’s shoulder and steady himself, the other probably tugging almost too hard on Ling’s hair.  “Fuck!”

Ling chuckled softly, continuing to grind.  And fuck, it felt good—better than Ed could have ever expected, especially with someone he had just fucking met.  It had barely taken anything to get him hard, let alone grinding back and gasping for more.  He closed his eyes, tilting his head back to allow Ling to kiss on his neck.

“You know,” Ling murmured, sliding a hand up Ed’s side, fingers trailing under his shirt, over the spaces between his ribs, “They’ll kill us if they catch us doing that.”

Ed’s brain didn’t process the meaning at first—the murmured word fuck, whispered over and over, had become more unconscious prayer than intentional exclamation at this point.  And even after he had processed it, he didn’t really feel the need to respond—not if it was going to stop this—and settled for rocking his own hips forward, a certain illicit thrill in the knowledge that Ling was just as hard as he was.  To what end this was supposed to be, Ed couldn’t say, but he didn’t want to stop.

Ling, however, apparently had other plans.  “And we need to head back or they’ll think we had sex anyway,” he gasped.

Ed made his decision.

“Don’t care,” he practically babbled, burying his fingers deeper into Ling’s hair, pressing their cocks harder together until it was almost painful—

Brother!  Where are you?”

Ed yanked away, gasping, smacking his head on the back of the tree.  Fucker.  And from the look on Ling’s face, Ling was feeling something similar.

“Fucker,” Ed muttered, turning his head to look back in the direction from which the lights came.  “We should probably get back.”

“Yeah,” Ling muttered, pulling back, but not before reaching back to fix a smudge on Ed’s lip color.  “C’mon, before your brother suspects something.”

“Well he wouldn’t be wrong,” Ed muttered right back, but allowed himself to be led away as he composed his clothing.

Although Ed and Ling had begun a quiet conversation about the origins of Achaemenid architecture by the time they reached the palace, Al raised an eyebrow when he saw them step back into the lights, giving Ed a look that he tried to ignore.  He then, of course, realized that he was still playing with Ling’s ponytail.  He yanked his hand away, intending to cross his arms instead, but Ling’s hand snuck out to snatch it instead.

“Are you enjoying yourself, brother?” Al asked, tone dry.  Ed just glared.

“We were talking.  It’s too fuckin’ noisy in there.”

“Yes, I’m sure you kept your mouths quite occupied.”  Al paused way too long.  “With conversation.”

“Oh, c’mon, like you and Winry haven’t ever—”

“I’m absolutely certain you don’t want to finish that sentence.”

Al was actually… probably right.  Ed really didn’t want to think about how possible it was that his younger brother had his first kiss before he did—and possibly more.  Shit.  Shit.  Yeah, he really didn’t want to continue that train of thought.  He would choose to believe that Al was absolutely celibate and would remain so forever.

“I apologize for stealing your brother away,” Ling laughed softly.  “It really is hard to get to know each other in a crowd like that.”

Al gave Ling one of his assessing glances, and Ed was suddenly slightly worried.  “Yes, well, just remember that there are several parties that will be very unhappy if you get to know each other a little too well.”

Ed scowled, a flush creeping across his cheeks.  “Stupid rule,” he muttered.  “No point to it.”

Al sighed, sounding exasperated.  “I didn’t say that it was a good rule, brother.”  And at the way he glanced away, Ed’s suspicions about Al and Winry rose.  Shit.  Okay, he really didn’t want to be thinking about that.  “Just that there are plenty of stuffy old people who think that it is, and they’re the ones whose approval you need to make this alliance work.”

“Your brother does have a point,” Ling interrupted gently.  He pulled away from Ed, though kept his hand—and then lifted it to his lips, brushing them gently against the back.  “You have things to ready, as do I.  I’ll see you tomorrow?”

A brief wave of wistfulness had Ed wishing that Al wasn’t there for just a moment, or had turned away or something, so he could get a proper goodbye kiss.  But instead, he had to settle for a brilliant grin, as well as a nice view of Ling from behind as he walked away.

“You seem more amiable towards this than before, brother,” Al murmured, glancing over.  Ed determinedly did not look at him.

“Yeah, well, he wasn’t as bad as I thought he’d be,” Ed muttered.  “I guess I’m glad I agreed to this.”  And that it wasn’t you, he thought silently.

The soft sounds of the garden echoed in their silence for a few moments, until Al asked, “Why did you?”

Ed hesitated, but… no.  Al couldn’t know.  Couldn’t know about the conversation between Ed and Hohenheim, when the offer of marriage from the Yao clan had arrived.  Couldn’t know that there was absolutely no way Ed would allow Al to be tied to a marriage when he was so clearly, so desperately in love with someone else.

“Just thought it would be right for Xerxes,” he murmured, lifting his head to gaze at the door through which Ling had vanished.

All of the talk of rival clans and assassinations had already put Ed on edge.  So when the sounds of someone inching open his window woke him, he had transmuted his automail arm into a blade and had lunged for the intruder, pinning him to the bed with it at the man’s throat before Ed was even fully awake.

“Hi,” Ling chirped, beaming up at him.

Ed stared down at his fiancé, blinking sleepily, trying to figure out what the fuck was happening, and why the fuck Ling was in his bedroom.

“I wanted to finish our conversation from earlier, about the architecture,” he continued blithely.

“Are you—” Ed croaked, voice still sleep-hoarse.  He closed his mouth and cleared his throat.  “Are you fuckin’ serious?  I was—I was fuckin’ asleep, you fuckhead!” he hissed.

Ling’s grin shifted to a smirk as he lifted a hand to Ed’s hip, raising an eyebrow in a way that most definitely meant, Nice.

Ed yanked his automail arm away like a burning coal, his face feeling like one, rolling off of Ling and sitting up.

“Well,” Ling sighed cheerfully, “at least I know you won’t be a dead fish in bed tomorrow night.”

Ed froze, panic suddenly surging through his mind.  A dead fish?  The fuck did that mean?  It sounded bad.  And how did Ling know?  What if he was?

But Ling just sat up, straightening his clothing, and picked up where they had left off.

Of course, after one jab too many, Ed couldn’t resist one of his own.

“You know,” he began idly.  “You’re kind of an asshole.  Maybe I should take the Amestrian king up on his offer, instead.”

Ling’s eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed.  “King Bradley?” he sneered, which surprised Ed—he didn’t think he had ever seen Ling with such a negative expression.  “He’s a foul excuse for a human being.”

Still, it was kind of funny, especially the outraged expression on Ling’s face when Ed laughed.  On a whim, he leaned forward, pressing his lips against Ling’s in what was supposed to be a quick kiss.

Ling, of course, had other ideas.

Before Ed’s head even had time to spin, Ling had shoved him back onto the bed, was between his legs, and had his mouth on Ed’s.

Ed probably should have—protested, or pulled away, or something, but fuck, that was nice, and he had come to the realization that Ling tasted good.  He gasped softly, doing his best to kiss back, but the weight of Ling on top of him, the intimacy with which they were pressed together, left him feeling as if he were drowning, falling into a deep pool and couldn’t surface.

“H-hang on,” Ed stammered, turning his head away, suddenly very glad he had actually worn a shirt to bed for once.  “What—what are we—”

“I should think that was obvious,” Ling said with a laugh, but the cavalierness with which he said it just… irked Ed for some reason.

“Well, ex fucking scuse me that we’re not all as experienced as you!” he snapped, reaching out to put his hand on Ling’s chest and push him away a little.  The sudden, very real realization that Ling had done this before—had probably been with really good people before—and Ed had no fucking idea what he was doing, hadn’t even kissed someone until tonight, had descended on him, leaving no small amount of panic in its wake.  “You don’t have to be a dick about it!”

Ling blinked slowly, then tilted his head, the bastard.  “I’m not sure I understand?”

“You—” Ed stammered.  “You know goddamn well what I mean!  I don’t know what—what the whole point—”

“Sex,” Ling interrupted candidly, and Ed took a deep breath.

“Shit,” he hissed, sitting up even more, pushing Ling off to the side, ignoring the protesting noise of indignation coming from his right side.  “I—fuck, you can’t—I can’t—we—”

“You were the one talking big about the tradition being ridiculous,” Ling drawled, watching Ed with a fucking obnoxious smirk on his face.  “Unless it was just talk.  Besides, you’re the one who kissed me.

“Just—just for a second!  Or it was supposed to be!” Ed snapped, lifting his hands to bury them in his hair.  “And I didn’t mean—I’m not sticking to some stupid tradition!

“Are you sure?” Ling goaded, still smirking.  “I mean, I had you pegged for a rulebreaker, but if you’d rather be proper—”

“Like fuck I’m—” Ed began with a growl, but a pounding on his wall cut him off, and they both froze, eyes wide.

“I can hear you two, you know!”  Earlier, Al’s interruption had caused no end of strife for Ed, but this time, it was a blessed salvation.  “If you’re going to bang, then at least be quiet about it!”

“You need to go,” Ed said quietly.  “Now.  Before—before something happened.”

Ling sighed longsufferingly, watching Ed as he picked himself up, rolling his shoulders as he stood.  Ed matched the thoughtful expression on his face with his own wary one, unsure what Ling would do next.

“You’re nervous,” Ling said suddenly, leaving Ed’s face red yet again.

“I don’t fuckin’ know what—”

But Ling had cut him off with a kiss, a lingering one this time, sweet and comforting and gentle.  “It’ll be all right, Ed.  I’ll make sure.  The witnesses are silly, anyway.  See you tomorrow.”

He hopped out of the window without another word.

As Ed lay back on the bed again, covering his pillow with a groan, he realized that the only thing he could focus on is that he had finally gotten a proper good night kiss.

Even with just regular wedding preparation, the next day would have been difficult enough.

But it was a full-on fucking disaster.

The first thought through his mind, of course, was that Ling had mentioned something about witnesses last night.  At the time, he had been too distracted to think much else of it, but it was at the forefront of his mind today, and he could barely find time to look at Ling, let alone speak with him.  So a note with a request for clarification, slipped to Ling by an agreeable servant with a gold coin for his discretion.

But the next time Ed saw Ling, his husband-to-be was watching him with an expression of regret.

Al was, of course, the one who was on the receiving end of the ensuing panic the first breathing moment Ed got between clothes and jewelry and makeup and every fucking thing else.

“I can’t do this.”

“Brother?” Al asked weakly, watching him with a concerned expression on his face.  “What happened?”

“I don’t—I don’t fuckin’ know,” Ed gasped out, fisting his hands in the Xingese silk underclothes that the servants had put him in.  “I think—somethin’ happened, but I don’t know what—”

“Brother.”  Al took Ed’s shoulders, giving him a small shake.  “Please.  Talk to me.”

Ed closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, then opened them, staring straight up into Al’s determinedly.  “I think I’m considering throwing myself out the fucking window, Al.”

Al’s tan skin went several shades lighter at that.  “But—but you were getting along so well last night!  What happened?”

Ed didn’t miss the implication of “a little too fucking well,” but being scolded for being a horny teenager would have been better than this.  “I don’t fucking know!  But something—I had to have done something—did you see the way he looked at me, Al?” he finished desperately, turning away and clutching his head.  “I can’t do this!”  He was trying to breathe, really, but his chest felt shallow, his breaths too quick, and he just wanted to run, all the way back to Xerxes.

“Brother—look at me.  Take a deep breath—”

His eyes darted around the room, looking for an escape route.  “I fucked up everything, everything we’ve worked for, oh god, Al—”

“Edward!”

Al’s firm tone snapped Ed back to reality, and he looked over at his brother, eyes wide.

“You need to take a deep breath.  Now.”  Al’s tone was firm, one that Ed had rarely ever heard him use, but it made him want to listen.  Under Al’s intense gaze, he took a moment, then inhaled slowly.  “Good.  Now another.”

A few more breaths, and Ed wanted to die slightly less.

“Now, can you please tell me what happened?”

Ed lifted the palms of his hands to press them against his eyes, but Al grabbed his wrists before he made contact—and Ed belatedly realized that if Al hadn’t, he’d have kohl all over his face right now.

“Don’t—don’t look at me, okay?”  Ed didn’t lift his eyes to see if Al complied.  “I just—last night, okay?  He said something about witnesses, so I sent him a note asking, but he gave me that look, that fucking look, and it’s probably because I made him go last night, and I can’t do this—I’m done—we have to go back—”

“Edward.”

Ed stopped, swallowing, flicking his eyes back up to look at Al.

“I don’t think he’s upset with you.”

“And how the fuck d’you figure?”

“I—brother, you were supposed to read their wedding traditions!”

“Like I fucking had time for that,” Ed muttered, glaring.  “Why?  Is that important?”

Al lifted a hand, pinching the bridge of his nose.  “Witnesses, Ed.  It’s for… you know.”

“...For?”  When Al hesitated, Ed’s scowl deepened.  “God, Al, just tell me!”

“To make sure you… consummate.”  Al’s expression made it very clear how uncomfortable he was in using that word in relation to his brother, but Ed barely noticed.

No, he was too busy panicking again.

They’re going to—

They’re going to watch?

“What the fuck?!

“Brother!  Not so loud!”

Ed lowers his voice to a hissing whisper, but it’s no less horrified.  “No!  Absolutely fucking not!  No way—I didn’t agree to—”

“Brother, please.”  Al’s expression told Ed way more than he needed to know—regretful, but unable to help.  Just like Ling’s.  “I’m sorry, I am, but I thought you knew.”

“No!  No, I didn’t, and I wasn’t even fucking supposed to be here—!”

With horror, he realized exactly what he had said, and shut his mouth immediately.  But Al was too canny to leave it there.

“What… what are you talking about?”

Ed did his best to backpedal.  “I—nothing, okay?  Nothing, it’s not important, I just—I thought I was okay with it, but then I get here, and fuck, I don’t know what’s goin’ on, and I’m freakin’ out—fuck, Al, I’m terrified.”  His voice cracks at that, at the admission to the one person that he would ever admit it to.

“But—brother, it sounds important.”

“It—it isn’t now, okay?  Not anymore.  It’s what I wanted for you,” he finished weakly, stomach sinking into an even deeper pit than it had been.  “I’m the older brother.  It’s my fucking job.”

“You chose this?  For—for me?”  Al’s expression was utterly bewildered, completely stunned, and there was nothing less in the world Ed wanted to do right now than clarify.

“You had—you’ve got something, okay?  Someone.  At home.  I know you and Winry—shit, Al, I couldn’t let you give that up, not when I’m right here.  It wasn’t even a fucking hard decision.  And I’m okay with—”

“You what!

Ed actually flinched at that.  Al never raised his voice, not like that.  “I couldn’t let you fuck off to some foreign country to pine after Winry while I sat and watched!  It’s fucking done now, got it?”  He wanted to make Al understand, but—but Al wasn’t Ed, he wasn’t a big brother, it wasn’t his job to look out for his younger brother.  “Don’t—don’t fuckin’ get any ideas of protesting or going and trying to get it changed.  Don’t even mention this to father.  Just—ugh, I dunno, go breed little demons with Winry and let ‘em loose on me once in a while.”

“But you should have told me you were doing it, at least!  Can’t you get that through your thick skull?  I didn’t think even yours could be that dense!”

Ed hunched his shoulders and looked away.  “...Didn’t want you to talk me outta it.  You’re good at shit like that.”  Not after Al had already suffered so much, gone years without a body, and all because of Ed.  He had failed Al once.  Never again.

When he looked back, Al had covered his face.  “Well, I can’t do anything about it now.”

Ed tried to crack a wry grin, reaching out to ruffle his hair.  “Nope.  Look, after… after everything we went through, this is more important t’me than anything, okay?  So can you just… accept it?  Please?”

Al’s lips twisted a little bitterly as he dropped his hands.  “I didn’t say I wouldn’t, brother.  I just… wish that you had told me.”

“Well, you know I can’t keep shit from you.  It eventually comes out.  Even when it shouldn’t.  Like just now.”  Ed tried to laugh, but it was weak.  Very weak.

“You do seem happy, at least.”

Ed’s face fell even further.  “I… I dunno, though.  That’s the problem.  I think he might’ve changed his mind about me.  But I mean—shit, I don’t wanna be sappy, but—if he hasn’t, I’ll definitely be fine, okay?”

Al took a deep breath, watching Ed.  “I doubt he’s changed his mind, brother.  He seemed very… fond, last night.  He’s just busy, with the preparations.”

A hope began to rise in Ed’s chest, an almost giddy sensation that turned his desolate expression into a grin way more quickly than it should have been able to.  “You think so?”  He hesitated, smile fading again.  “I just… I wish he’d, y’know, look at me proper.  Say something, make me feel—I’m overreacting, aren’t I?”

“You are, a little,” Al says with a crooked smile.  “They’re keeping him busy.  I’m sure he can’t wait to see you.”

Ed groaned, trying to hide his anticipation.  “I just wish they’d keep me as fuckin’ busy.”

Al practically gaped at him.  “Brother.  You’re supposed to be getting ready.  You’re getting married.  I just pulled you aside so you didn’t die of nerves before the ceremony.”

Ed glanced down at himself.  Yeah, he needed to toss on some clothes, but his hair was already braided back.  “But I can do the rest in like five minutes, right?”

The expression on Al’s face as he dragged Ed off had him wondering exactly what the hell they had in store for him.

The clothing, Ed had to admit, was absolutely breathtaking.  Ed knew that there was no way Ling could have told them to make it red, but he was resplendent in it anyway, with a wrapped silk shirt and a high collar and some more of that breathtaking embroidery.

The hair, however, was another matter.

“They think I’m a fuckin’ girl with all this goddamn hair, don’t they?” Ed grumbled as the woman behind him plaited it into a design far too complicated for his liking.

Al didn’t even glance up from the scroll he was reading, something about Xingese medicine, it looked like.  “Ling’s hair is almost as long as yours, and his father’s is longer.  Stop complaining.”

Well of fucking course he would be a smug shit, since he had short hair and didn’t need to worry about it.  “It’s my wedding day and I’ll fuckin’ complain if I want to.”  Couldn’t Al give him a little sympathy for the treatment that he was getting?  Yeah, he had helped out with the real problems earlier, but Ed wanted to grumble, too.

“I’m glad to hear that you’ve finally accepted the impracticality of your hair, at least.”

“Hey, you shut up!” Ed hissed, lifting his chin dramatically.  “I can’t wear short hair!  I’d look like a fucking baby.”

“Appropriate, then,” Al said flatly, unrolling the scroll a little more.  “With all of this squalling.”

“I can’t fuckin’ wait until you marry Winry, y’know,” Ed snapped.  “You’re such a goddamn brat.”

Still, he kept his mouth shut for the rest of the ordeal, and by the time the woman was done, he was nearly afraid to move.

“You don’t clean up too badly after all, brother,” Al murmured, looking impressed.  “You might actually pull this off.”

“Fuck you,” Ed spat, but there was no heat in it, and he realized, suddenly, that the banter had kept his mind completely off the panic of earlier.  He sent a silent thanks in Al’s direction.  “I could’ve roped in the King of Amestris, too, y’know.  At the same time.  So watch your mouth.  I’m a fuckin’ prize.”

Al wrinkled his nose.  “But why would you want him?  He’s old and creepy.”

“Just ‘cause I can, doesn’t mean I would’ve.”  Ed shrugged, admiring himself in a mirror before turning to Al saying softly, “Y’know, I think I’m a little in denial.”  He felt a little lost as he said it.  “Can’t believe I’m not going home with you after this.”

Al’s expression softened, belying the utter pride on his face.  “I’ll visit, all right?  As much as I can.  And you both had better come to Persepolis, too.”

“Like fuck he won’t.  No one can stop me from visiting.  Believe that, okay?  It’s just… gonna be weird.  It’s always been us.  And now it… won’t be.”  Ed straightened, trying to stave off the suddenly sober mood with some humor.  “Besides, now you can work on gettin’ hitched yourself!”

Al didn’t answer, just watched him for a few moments.  And then, without a word, he stepped in to wrap Ed in a tight hug.

Ed was silent for a moment, quiet and hard, but then softened, wrapping his own arms around Al and squeezing.  Fuck.  This was going to be harder than he thought.  “C’mon.  You gotta go get dressed now.  And they need to load me up with jewelry and shit.”

Al sighed, pulling back.  “I should, yeah.”  He watched Ed, and even though he was trying to hide being upset, Ed could always tell.  “You’ll… you’ll be all right, brother, okay?”

Ed tried for a cavalier grin, but was only marginally successful.  “Yeah, I always am.  Now go on.  I gotta finish makin’ myself look pretty.”

Al sighed fondly, turning to go.  “You’re always pretty, brother, and you know it.”

“I resent that!” Ed called after him with a laugh, but when Al disappeared from sight, the exhaustion returned, weighing him down more heavily than the jewelry was about to.  He let out a sigh, sinking to his knees, watching the door, knowing that his life was going to change forever.  And hoping, praying, it was going to be for the better.

Nervous as Ed might be, he was going to look like a prince for once in his goddamned life.

His chin raised, confidence heightened even more by the silk finery, he walked with the procession to the dais, escorted by his father.  He was a prince of Xerxes, an empire older even than Xing’s, and he was damn proud of it.  He wasn’t the flustery fucking kid from earlier, and hoped that person would never make an appearance again.

Of course, then he caught sight of Ling and couldn’t help his face splitting into a fucking grin.

Ling’s clothing was every bit as beautiful as Ed’s—yesterday’s outfit had nothing on the gold attire in which Ling was bedecked.  Ling’s eyes met Ed’s, and they widened, as if to say, ah, there he is.

And then he smirked.

Well, so fucking much for not wanting to be that flustery kid again.  He took a deep breath, praying that his face didn’t take on a similar hue to his clothing, but he knew he couldn’t be completely successful.  His heartbeat increased, thinking about what had almost happened last night, what was going to—

Wait.  No.  Shit.

The moment he got to the dais, he hissed, “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me people were gonna watch?”

Ling glanced over at the official, who was watching the both of them, eyebrows raised.  “Shut up during the ceremony!” he hissed, narrowing his eyes.

Ed snapped his mouth shut, but continued to glare, even as the official cleared his throat.  And Ling…  Ling needed to stop being so hot when Ed was trying to be mad at him, the fucker.

“If I may begin.”

“Absolutely,” Ling murmured, reaching out to take Ed’s hands.  It wasn’t until he gave a quick glance down that Ed realized they were shaking.

Ed took a deep breath, steeling himself, staring steadily, almost defiantly into Ling’s eyes and trying to settle any and all lingering doubts.  He couldn’t back out now.  He was going to fucking do this.

He barely heard the man as he began speaking, choosing to focus on Ling instead.  In contrast to Ed’s intensity, Ling simply smiled fondly, letting Ed’s energy and anxiety roll off of him like a curtain.  Ed couldn’t quite figure out exactly what that meant—so he studied him, studied his features even more intently than before, trying to puzzle out that smile, that tilt of the head.

And it was easy to get lost in that face, so very easy, until he was staring instead of glaring, mouth slightly agape instead of scowling.  He really was handsome, though, and… oddly comforting.  All his life, Ed had been a protector—for his brother, Winry, his people—but Ling was different.  He wasn’t precisely a protector for Ed, not in the same way, but even though he had only met Ling yesterday, Ed couldn’t help but feel he was a… a refuge, of sorts.  A comforter, who, tease as he might, would always be someone on whom Ed could rely.

He wondered exactly when he had become so… so enamored of his fiancé.  Or his husband, whichever they were now.  And of course, that left Ed wondering when he would be allowed to kiss him.

He didn’t realize that the official had stopped speaking, that Ling was leaning forward expectantly, that the entire room was dead silent.

Ling reached out, taking Ed’s face gently, and pulled him in for a kiss.

For a moment, Ed’s eyes widened in surprise, but they soon closed as he leaned in, taking Ling’s arms.  The kiss was filled with tenderness and longing, and somewhere outside the entity that was the two of them together, he could distantly hear cheering.

He pulled back, eventually, turning his head to stare at everyone dazedly.  When he looked back at Ling, his—his husband was smiling at him, and something inside Ed did a flip-flop.

He ducked his head in an attempt to hide the spreading red on his face, but Ling had none of it.  With a soft laugh, he tilted Ed’s chin up again, meeting his eyes, and Ed could see the same excitement reflected there that he felt.