Diplomatic Entanglements: An Inextricable Tale
Chapter Ten: "Saving the world – want to help?"

canon: Anime with some manga-only characters (spoilers only to their existence and a few, very minor details about them)
genre: Post-series; divergent future (from episode 27); romance, general
pairings: Ed+Winry, Roy+Riza, several others revealed in this chapter

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Author's Note: I didn't expect this to take more than a year to finish, but this has been a very busy year+ for me, and I appreciate everyone's patience and enthusiasm and encouragement. I hope you enjoy the finale.
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Edward opened the door as quietly as he could. He thought he would have to wake Winry before the mob descended upon them very shortly, but he wanted to give her as much time to sleep as possible until then.

But she was already awake. And she had guests.

"What are you doing here?" Ed demanded glaring at the Xingians.

"Ed, it's all right." Winry crossed the room to him, taking his arm in a sort of miniature hug. "We've been talking about why he came to Amestris. I've been... explaining things to him."

Ling stood up from his seat at the kitchen table. "I want to help you, Fullmetal Alchemist. I did not mean to be of assistance to your enemy."

"Vera," Ed muttered.

"She did not tell us much, but she did make sure I would focus my attention upon you. I believe she wanted Ran Fan and me to distract you so she could pursue her plans without your notice," Ling said, his expression somehow both reserved and hangdog.

Ed wanted to feel suspicious about this but it seemed a very reasonable explanation. Nothing Ling had done so far had been in any way threatening. He showed no signs of being a chimera himself. And in spite of his insane pursuit of the Philosopher's Stone – an insanity Ed was far too familiar with to condemn – Ed had to admit, the guy was... likeable.

Shit. "Okay, Ling. Truth is, I can use all the help I can get. Too bad you aren't an alchemist—"

"Mei Chan might be of assistance, then?" Ling ventured.

Squelching his instinctive response to any mention of the princess who'd humiliated him in front of everyone, Ed gave a noncommittal nod. "If she's trustworthy, yes."

"For all that we are sworn enemies," Ran Fan said, her voice flat. "Mei Chan is honorable. She would be most valuable in a fight."

Exchanging dubious glances with Winry, Ed thought, Ooookay... "We're meeting here to discuss strategy for tomorrow—" Ed noticed the time and corrected himself. "For tonight."

He turned to Winry and gave her a wan smile. "I'm sorry about Evie. I had no idea. If it's any consolation, Beatrice is in big trouble for that."

Winry smiled at Ed's worried expression. "I almost felt sorry for the poor thing. She doesn't have any idea what a dress should look like. Fortunately, Gracia does know."

"Great!" Ed said, relieved that someone he trusted to make sure Winry was happy finally had charge of the situation. "Maybe she could help out with Scieszka and Riza, too. They're going to be busy prepping for tonight, too—" A knock interrupted him. "There they are now," he sang and hurried to the door.

"Ed! What's going on?" Winry demanded as she followed him.

"Usual stuff," Ed replied, his signature rakish grin cutting across his face. "Saving the world—want to help?" He threw open the door, and his grin flashed on the first arrivals.

- - - - - - - - - -

Winry watched in amazement as Ed's friends and colleagues all began to show up at their door then fill up their house. Scieszka arrived with Falman and Fuery, all of them carrying bags. Fuery ran back out to their car twice to bring in more supplies. She felt a twinge of jealousy as Maria Ross arrived, and she and Ed gave each other enthusiastic hugs as Denny stood nearby, looking nettled. But when the woman turned her lit-from-within smile toward Winry, the girl realized there could be no threat from someone so truly caring. I'm glad she's Ed's friend. He has so many good friends.

And more arrived, some slipping in without fanfare—Martel and Havoc and, much to Winry's surprise, the former Major Armstrong managed to sneak in, too.

"Miss Rockbell!" he exclaimed, and then she, too, was hugged enthusiastically and surrounded by sparkles.

Everyone seemed happy and calm and Winry wondered at it—she would expect this sort of mood from a welcome-home party for Ed or some kind of old soldiers' reunion, but for a war party?

Ran Fan and Ling had vanished in their usual, there-and-gone fashion, but they slipped back in shortly after with, Winry guessed, Princess Mei Chan in two. The girl was short—shorter than Ed!—and she had the oddest cat with her. Goldie could barely contain her curiosity and loomed in a very un-menacing, kitteny fashion from a nearby windowsill.

Her cheeks stained red, Mei Chan bowed to Ed who solemnly returned her courtesy. "Ling Yao has explained the matter," the princess said as she straightened, seeming to shrug off her embarrassment in an instant. "I offer my assistance in defeating such a dishonorable foe as well as to ensure that Amestris knows Xing would not be part of such cowardly plots."

"Amestris welcomes your assistance," Ed said, and Winry couldn't quite keep her astonishment at his diplomatic reserve.

By the time the sun began to glimmer through the windows, just clearing the surrounding buildings to turn the sky golden-rose, the house was filled with allies and activity. Gracia had arrived, taken measurements, and left once more, this time with Denny on loan to help fetch and carry. Breda had arrived, weighed down by communications equipment, and he and the rest of the old team were huddled in Winry's workroom, discussing whatever their own part of the plan might be.

Just as Winry began to contemplate how to feed everyone, Mustang and Hawkeye finally showed up. To Winry's surprise, they carried in white paper boxes filled with pastries and sandwiches.

"If you could provide the coffee, Miss Rockbell," Mustang said with a smile. "I believe breakfast is served."

"Just in time, too," a very familiar voice said from the direction of the back door. "I'm starving."

Winry turned and Ed appeared from wherever he'd been, hurtling himself across the kitchen to catch his brother in welcoming hug. "Al, you're here!" he exclaimed. "Now I know everything's going to be fine."

Mei Chan stood in the doorway, a hand lifted to her mouth and her eyes wide with shock. Winry watched as the girl's face very slowly turned first soft pink and then bright red before she whirled and fled the room.

When she turned back to say something to Ed and Al, she found Alphonse similarly thunderstruck. "Who was that?" he breathed.

Winry bit her lip when Ed caught her eye with an indulgent-older-brother grin. "That," Ed said, nodding toward the empty space where Mei Chan had been. "Is someone who thinks you're tall enough."

- - - - - - - - - -

"Edward, if you would, please?" Gracia said, stepping back from Scieszka who now wore a very lovely, very formal, very flattering deep burgundy dress.

"Shouldn't Mei Chan do this? She's a girl," Ed protested, embarrassed.

Mei Chan, however, just shook her head, a teasing smile on her lips. In the hours they'd all spent together planning for the night's battle, everyone had grown comfortable with each other. Comrades in arms, Ed thought. It really does happen.

"I do not know how to do this alchemy, Fullmetal," Mei Chan demurred. "I am eager to learn. Please demonstrate."

"All right," Ed grumbled. "But I'm closing my eyes. I don't want to get in trouble if anything gets... exposed."

Scieszka turned crimson, and Winry swatted Ed with her dress gloves. "Quit it. She's nervous enough already. You just have to tweak the fit, and she'll be ready to go."

How Gracia had managed to find three perfect evening gowns on such short notice, Ed had no idea. The only thing they needed was tailoring, and Gracia had – rather high-handedly, he thought – decided Ed could manage that little bit of work himself.

Most everyone had slipped away, led by Martel in ones and twos in order to avoid any of Vera's spies seeing, and just a few of them were left at the house. Several of the group would be taking their places now, not attending the ball as guests but there in vital roles nonetheless.

Alphonse had gone up to change into his formal wear, and Roy had just emerged from a guest room, having done the same. He looked amazingly suave, and Ed wanted to have a jealous fit, but there was no time for that. For all that the day had seemed more like a reunion than a war party, what they were preparing for was in deadly earnest.

Ed took one last look at the dress, examining the seams and how they were meant to fit against the body, then clapped his hands together, dropped them onto Scieszka's shoulders, and closed his eyes.

She squeaked slightly, obviously trying to suppress any reaction at all, and when he pulled away, opening his eyes, he saw her smiling delightedly at her reflection as Mei Chan stared, wide-eyed, clearly impressed.

"I teased you, Fullmetal," she said. "But truly that was formidable alchemy."

"I'll open a dress shop when I retire," he said, grinning.

Winry swatted him again. "You will not!"

"Thanks, Ed," Scieszka whispered, and she gathered her skirts and headed for the door where Ling and Ran Fan waited. Everyone was at ease with everyone now. Everyone had his or her role assigned in the larger plan. It was almost amazing, though, how comfortable Scieszka now seemed about the entire situation. Standing up to Beatrice appeared to have given her some much-needed confidence at last.

Riza was next, her dress an elegantly-simple sheath of deep blue melting into even deeper blue along the hem. As Ed prepared to make the very minor adjustments needed to perfect the fit, he caught Roy standing in the doorway, staring open-mouthed.

"Brigadier, really," he teased. "What about the fraternization rules?"

But Roy had already crossed into the room. He pushed past Ed, muttering, "Fuck the rules," and took Riza into his arms as Winry clapped delightedly. Ed felt his own face warming as the two finally kissed, and he wondered if he'd ever be able to kiss Winry like that.

As if she'd read his thoughts, Winry leaned over to whisper in his ear. "We'll need to practice some more."

"It's about time," Gracia muttered. "But you're wrinkling her, Roy."

The two parted at last, both looking a bit rumpled and more than a little flushed. Riza patted her hair primly, the contrast comical, and Ed grinned. "I'll fix that, too," he said.

A flash transformed Riza's dress from nearly to perfection, and she and Roy left the room together, their eyes seeing nothing but each other.

"That's going to be an awkward date for Alphonse," Ed observed.

"And me," Winry agreed. "But no one's going with who they should be going with."

"What do you mean?" Ed frowned. "Well, besides us."

"Alphonse and the princess should be together," Winry said, holding up a finger. "You and me; the brigadier and Hawkeye; Scieszka and Falman—"

"You're kidding!" Ed exclaimed. "Really?"

Winry laughed. "Oh, he is so head-over-heels for her, it isn't even funny. He's been trying to read everything she reads so they'll be able to talk books together, but you know how fast she reads. I don't know when he sleeps!"

Ed laughed. "Who else?"

"Well, Ling and Ran Fan," Winry continued.

"Obviously," Ed agreed.

"And!" Winry paused dramatically.

"Winry, it's your turn," Gracia interrupted, though her face was lit with laughter. "Go put on your gown."

"But-?" Ed watched her go and sagged a bit. "I wanted to know who the last couple was."

"Not everyone gets paired up, Edward," Gracia said. She reached out to smooth the bit of his hair that always seemed to stick up.

"No one for you?" Ed asked. He regretted the words the moment he spoke them, but Gracia didn't seem upset.

"I've already had true love," she said. "Now I have friends." She noticed his expression, and her smiled deepened. "Don't worry, Ed. Maybe I'll find love again, someday. But for now, I'm happy with my memories."

"It is obvious who the last couple is," Mei Chan said, and Ed started. He'd forgotten she was there and hoped she wasn't offended by Winry's comment about "Alphonse and the princess."

He gave her an encouraging, curious smile, and she preened ever so slightly. "It is your friend Martel and Mr. Havoc, of course. They do not stare but they are aware of each other at all times."

Ed nodded as Gracia also looked enlightened.

Winry, bustling back into the room accompanied by the susurrus of rich materials, exclaimed, "Exactly!" She and Mei Chan exchanged satisfied smiles and both turned to look at Ed.

Ed completely understood Roy's impulse the moment he saw Winry. "Gracia," he said, his voice going hoarse around the edges. "You're a genius."

"You should dress people for a living," Mei Chan agreed. "You have enviable skill at matching costume to individual. Were I not prepared for the evening myself, I should be most honored to have your assistance." She sighed, looking around wistfully and with the pretence that she was just...looking around. And not for anyone... like my little brother!

"I must go to prepare to meet my escort," she said after a moment. "Some young bureaucrat." She turned an arch smile on Ed and added. "Ziyi Ming will be expecting you soon, Colonel Elric."

"Hurry up and fix my dress, Ed," Winry said, apparently oblivious to just how amazing she looked.

Ed tried to glare after Mei Chan and ogle Winry at the same time. Doesn't quite work. "You look..." Words failed him. He hoped he wasn't drooling.

Winry blushed and smoothed her skirt distractedly. The dress was a fantastic, deep green strapless number with a sweeping, unfussy skirt. Ed was simultaneously turned on and jealous. Which, he thought again, was probably how Roy had felt at the sight of Riza in her dress.

"I don't see anything that needs changing," Ed rasped.

Gracie laughed, rolling her eyes, but she examined Winry with care. "It does seem to fit you very well, dear," she agreed.

"Aw!" Winry pretended to pout. "I wanted Ed to transmute my dress, too!"

"First law of alchemy, Win," Ed said, and he looked into her eyes. "Don't mess with perfection."

- - - - - - - - - -

Alphonse felt almost superfluous in the midst of all the controlled chaos of Ed and Winry's house. His brother had grown into his leadership role in a way that surprised even Alphonse—though he'd always believed Ed capable of anything.

He tried not to stalk the Xingian princess who seemed to be trying not to stalk him, too. They kept catching each other's eyes, blushing, and scurrying away to other rooms, only to drift back toward each other and repeat the entire process.

"She's so pretty," he sighed, leaning against the wall and watching her as she talked animatedly to Ed and Armstrong and the brigadier about some sort of alchemic plan. He supposed he should be with them, but he wanted to watch her, and he couldn't very well do that if he was standing right next to her.

"Stop mooning," Havoc chided. "You're making a fool of yourself." Al opened his mouth to protest but Havoc held up a hand. "And if I'm saying that, you know you've really gone overboard."

The man walked away, carefully not-looking at Martel who winked at Al and drifted after the soldier.

It's like a matchmaker's dance! Al thought. You'd think we weren't just about to face down a crazy alchemist with dozens of innocent lives at stake.

But he supposed love or at least romance in the face of possible death was a good affirmation of life. And he hoped he'd at least manage to dance with the princess once himself.

- - - - - - - - - -

Ziyi Ming had a death-grip on Ed's arm as he escorted her into the ballroom. They paused at the top of the grand staircase, waiting for maximum affect while they were announced, and the princess preened yet again. There was no doubt she was beautiful – and from an objective perspective, Ed thought she might well be the most beautiful woman at the ball – but Ed knew many men, including him, had eyes for others that night.

He hoped he hadn't missed Winry's entrance. He wanted to see her sweep down the stairs in that dress. And he wanted to make note of all the men he'd have to kill for ogling her, too.

He did take note of where all his agents were and relaxed a little. Everything was going to plan. There was Armstrong—escorting Gracia! That was unexpected, but at least she'd know to get the hell out of the way when the time came, and she'd be able to help with crowd control. She looks really nice...

Havoc, Fuery, Breda, and Falman blended into invisibility, dressed as waiters and carrying trays. Martel he didn't see, but he hadn't expected to see her. She'd be skulking somewhere, keeping track of all the details.

Riza and Alphonse stood together, chatting comfortably, and Ed went toward them, stopping when he felt Ziyi dig in her heels. "I wanted to introduce you to my colleague, Alphonse Hughes," Ed explained, staying unruffled with effort. Having to tend to this princess was going to add a level of difficulty to his job. I wonder if Mei Chan and I can a manage a partner exchange... maybe her date's higher-status than I am, and Ziyi will want to trade-up.

Ziyi was polite to Alphonse and icy to Riza—whose loveliness rivaled the princess's—but she allowed Ed to make the introductions. He wished the dancing would start soon so he could get that over with and then others would likely take the princess off his hands for a few dances. And then I can get down to work.

"Brigadier General Roy Mustang and Miss Winry Rockbell." The names were announced, and he whirled toward the staircase to see Winry, who stood poised and at ease, her arm held lightly in Roy's. They made a striking couple, and another twinge of jealousy stabbed into him. He glanced at Riza whose expression was deceptively serene.

Alphonse laughed, breaking the mood. "You two are funny," he said.

Martel was suddenly there, right behind them, and Ed and Al shifted position to keep her hidden while Alphonse said something to Ziyi to distract her. Martel whispered in Ed's ear, "She's here. Black dress. She doesn't seem to be missing an arm any more."

Shit. She'd found another victim to make herself complete. Even though this eased the threat to Winry, it did not make Ed feel even the slightest bit comforted. An enemy who would use other people like so much fodder for her own ambitions was not an enemy to take lightly.

But if she was here and moving about so brazenly, he hoped that meant she was overconfident. He expected her to be. He'd done everything he could throughout his team's day of planning and work to plant the seeds for her overconfidence. He lifted his chin in an imperceptible nod, and Martel melted away again, off to pass the word to the rest of the team.

After an interminable period of wandering around introducing and being introduced, chatting about nothing with all sorts of people Ziyi wanted to impress, the dancing finally began. The Xingian royals and their escorts were to open the dancing, so Ed led Ziyi out onto the floor, as Georgie and the eldest prince, Mei Chan and her date, and Ling and Scieszka joined them. No one tripped or flubbed the steps, and after the first dance ended, the dance floor filled up with more couples, and everyone began to exchange partners.

Maybe I will get a dance with Winry, Ed thought, but as he gave a slight bow to a young man who'd asked Ziyi to dance, he noticed the floor. He froze for just a second, mid-bow, then felt a hand on his shoulder as he straightened.

"Fullmetal. May I have this dance?"

- - - - - - - - - -

Alphonse tried to move fast while also observing protocol. He slipped through the crowd, hurrying to Mei Chan's side as quickly as he could, and when he reached her, he saw that she'd been watching him. Her face seem lit from within, her eyes wide and starry. "Vera's made her move," he said, keeping his voice low. But how he wished he could have said something else to her at this moment—"May I have this dance" or "You're the most beautiful woman here, princess"—but duty called.

"Do not fear, Mr. Elric," Mei Chan said, her voice equally controlled. "Your brother's plan is most thorough, and his alchemy is most impressive. He will be fine."


"We have our parts to play now, Mr. Elric," Mei Chan reminded him, and they whirled into the dance as if that was all that they had on their minds.

- - - - - - - - - -

"Nice arm," Edward replied, letting his eyes move over Vera's body as if it interested him. "New?"

Vera's smile sharpened, her eyes narrowing. "You expected me," she said.

Ed nodded a bow at her and held out his hand, accepting her offer of a dance. She took his hand in hers, and Ed felt a slight, faint chinking of something hard hitting his automail hand, even through the glove, as if she had a diamond ring turned round the wrong way. He was glad he couldn't feel it; it probably would have gouged his flesh hand. "You expected me," Ed countered.

Vera threw back her head and laughed—a deep, rich sound. Her gown left her lovely, long neck and elegant shoulders exposed. No doubt she was a very attractive woman, but Ed knew his reaction should not have been so strong. Primal. "What have you done, Vera?"

"Pheromones are powerful attractors, Fullmetal," she whispered, running her fingers lightly up his arm as they moved onto the dance floor together. Her hand wrapped around his neck, caressing. "And animal attraction is the strongest of all."

"There's nothing you can do to change my mind," Ed said. "I don't want anything to do with you."

"That's part of what makes you so appealing," the woman replied, smiling. Ed fought back the urge he suddenly had to kiss her. Hard. "Strength is something I value, and it is so very rare—"

Ed gritted his teeth against the thrumming in his blood. "What are you really here for? I've seen the pattern on the floor."

"Then you know what I'm here for," Vera breathed. "Power, Fullmetal. I'm tired of hiding in the shadows. I'm tired of this new peace and diplomacy. War makes things happen!"

Somehow Ed completed the required steps, but he couldn't help gaping at the woman. "You want war?"

Vera's grin turned feral. "I want action—I want upheaval. That's where you get power. That's how you take power."

Telling her she was crazy seemed entirely beside the point, but the animal part of his brain was growing stronger as Vera's touch strengthened the effect of her enhanced pheromones. Ed had never been so aroused in his life. He wanted to throw Vera onto the floor and have his way with her, and she saw in his eyes that he did and laughed. "What do you want now, Fullmetal?"

He ground his teeth together hard and tasted blood. "I want you to stop this," he growled.

Her finger brushed his cheek. A new finger from someone else's arm. Someone else now dead so that Vera's body could be whole once more. Ed shuddered as disgust and desire warred within him.

Vera licked her lips and moved closer in his arms. "And if I said I'd stop? What would you do to make that happen?"

- - - - - - - - - -

Winry watched over Mustang's shoulder as they whirled around the dance floor together.

"I'd be insulted if I didn't know what held your attention, Miss Rockbell," the brigadier observed dryly.

"She's just—so—" Winry growled.

"Indeed, she is."

But Winry couldn't stop fuming. "She doesn't need to plaster herself to him like that!"

"It's all going to plan," he soothed.

"That bitch."

A cough that was probably a laugh in disguise made her glare at the man, but his poorly-concealed smile had a calming effect. "Sorry," she muttered. "I just wish I could do more."

"You're about to do your part, Miss Rockbell. We'll need all the cool heads we can get when all hell breaks loose," Mustang said as his gaze wandered away from her to track the movements of another. "Wait for the signal."

- - - - - - - - - -

Ed hoped everyone had followed orders. He hoped everyone was in place. He hoped no one would get hurt—Winry, Alphonse, Gracia, Scieszka... what have I gotten everyone into?—but there was no more time to waste.

The music wound down to the song's end, but Vera gave no indication she meant to let him go. She didn't reckon on Ed's date however. But neither had he.

"You are neglecting me, Fullmetal Alchemist," Ziyi Ming snapped, seizing his arm in her firm grip. "I would have this dance."

"He is dancing with me, princess," Vera hissed, her eyes gleaming dangerously.

Ziyi sneered at the woman, oblivious to the danger. "The colonel is my escort, little blonde person," she said, waving her fingers dismissively at Vera. "Go find someone else to bother."

Vera stiffened, fury coming off of her in waves, and Ed knew she was about to do something if he didn't first. Shit.

He clapped his hands together and slapped them on the nearest piece of Vera's dress—which just so happened to be the bodice. Oh, Winry is going to murder me!

"Edward!" Ziyi yipped, shocked, but the signal had been given and the next sound to break across the ballroom was an explosion of fire.

At that, true chaos broke out and yells and screams filled the room, but Ed had no attention to spare them. Vera was looking at him as if he were food, and she'd been starving for years.

"Do you know what I've been up to since we parted, Fullmetal?"

Her dress transformed, twisting around her like a straight-jacket, but she didn't seem to care.

"Going crazier?" he guessed, concentrating on binding her as tightly as he could.

But she threw her arms wide as if the cloth were made of paper and clapped her hands together in an echo of his own gesture. "I've seen the Gate."

- - - - - - - - - -

Riza's fingers itched to fire her gun, but she knew Ed was right--there were far too many people and too much chaos to introduce gunfire into the mix at this juncture, even if she might have been able to take Vera out with one shot--"Which is fine," Ed had said, "If Vera's the only alchemist in her pack."

If she wasn't, they'd be opening themselves up for a counterattack from an unexpected quarter. If Vera went down, her pack would scatter into chaos and any chance at containment would vanish along with the order the force of Vera's chimera personality held over them.

So she stood cover, ready to act in direst need but stuck standing guard until then. She watched as the "waiters" suddenly began hustling the party-goers toward the exits, leaving behind only a few of the well-dressed attendees.

Edward stood near the center of the chaos, facing off against Vera Landis who seemed to be dressed now only in her underwear. But Riza recognized the gesture she made, and knew they'd all have to work even faster.

- - - - - - - - - -

The few people left behind who weren't allies circled and growled, closing in around Vera and Edward. Ziyi still stood beside them, frozen now in shock at what was going on between the two alchemists.

Mei Chan took a running step toward her half-sister, but Alphonse caught her arm and they both watched as the former Major Armstrong slid by, sweeping the princess up into his arms and whisking her away to safety. Mei Chan laughed, startled, and Al said, "That was probably an Armstrong family slide passed down through the generations."

Her sister safe, Mei Chan began her own task, dropping a handful of small knives to the floor where they formed a crisp pattern in the larger pattern etched there by Vera or her minions.

Al watched the princess work as he sketched out his own circle on the floor, and when they were both ready, they began their transmutations.

- - - - - - - - - -

Ed threw himself sideways, away from whatever Vera was about to do. Vera slammed her hands down onto the floor, right onto the transmutation circle that Mei Chan and Al should have by now completely ruined. A few seconds ticked by and Ed's eyes widened as the transmutation seemed about to take off but it died away quickly, fizzling to nothing.

As soon as she realized her plan had been foiled, Vera made a sound like a roar and altered her attempted transmutation, ripping the floor up in front of her, the rift arrowing toward Ed.

"None of that, Vera," and fire once more exploded, almost engulfing the woman who screamed and turned--crazily--toward this new attack.

"Coward!" she shrieked. "You were always a coward!"

Fwip sounds sang through the air, and Ed turned to see what was happening. Several men lay unconscious on the floor—and one or two furrier-looking specimens: all Vera's minions. The tranquilizer darts seemed to be working, and he looked up to the balcony high above to see Maria and Denny waving down at him.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Riza moving toward Mustang, her attention fully on Vera.

"It's over, Vera," Mustang said, his voice soft. "You know it's over."

"I won't be stopped by a coward like you!"

Mustang actually laughed which startled not only Ed but Vera who didn't seem to know how to react to this. "You aren't being stopped by a coward like me, Vera," the brigadier said, grinning. He reached out as if to snap another explosion into being. "You've been stopped by the Fullmetal Alchemist."

Yes, and now what do we do with her? Ed thought wildly. If she can transmute like I can, then—

Alphonse and Mei Chan moved in closer, Mei Chan's daggers poised, and Al carefully drawing a pattern on the palm of his hand while they waited to see if they were needed again.

Drawing a pattern on the palm...

Vera moved and Ed knew she was about to clap her hands together again. Now that she was ready for him, Ed didn't think Mustang's fire would be enough nor would a bullet or tranquilizer dart rip through the animal determination of Vera at full power--at least not fast enough.

Ed launched himself across the space separating him from Vera, catching her by the arms and tumbling her to the floor. He pinned her arms to the tiles with his knees and clapped his hands together, tearing away his—very expensive, damn it—formal wear and exposing his automail arm as it transformed into its accustomed blade. Vera's pupils dilated as she watched, her mouth open and panting. Oh, yay! She thinks this is foreplay.

He heard more shouts and voices around him, but he was focused solely on his opponent. She had to be stopped, but I don't want to kill her.

He hoped his instinct was right. He hoped—

He moved, freeing her arms, then yanked them up so he could see her hands. Thought so.

"You didn't see the Gate, Vera," Ed said, and he slashed her left palm open with his automail blade, tearing a scream from the woman that echoed off the ballroom walls. "It would swallow someone like you and not even burp."

A small, blood-red stone hurtled through the air in an arc before it pinged on the floor and skittered to a stop in front of Alphonse. He and Mei Chan stared down at it as Vera choked out, "Don't—"

Al moved to stomp on the false philosopher's stone, but Mei Chan moved faster, and one of her daggers shattered it into splinters.

Alphonse looked at her, surprised. "I thought you wanted power," he said, but he was smiling.

"It screamed," Mei Chan whispered, sounding a bit sick. "It was used for evil and did not wish to be. So I..."

"You destroyed it! You idiot!" Vera flailed, trying to break free of Ed's grasp, but she was badly weakened without the stone's power bolstering her own strength.

Havoc and Martel moved out of the shadows at Mustang's signal and came to take charge of the woman. By the time they lifted her to her feet, she'd gone limp. Blood ran down her arm from her damaged hand and dripped onto the floor, leaving a smeared trail of droplets in her wake.

Ed saw Georgie peeking at them from behind a pillar near one of the side doors and gave her a wink. "Sorry about the mess, Madam Prime Minister," he called.

"I did read all the files, dear," she replied, winking back at him, and she turned to go address the now completely confused and upset crowd. Scieszka and Falman followed along after her, ready to explain in more detail if needed.

It occurred to Ed that he hadn't slept in two days, and he stayed where he was, kneeling somewhat lopsidedly on the torn-up floor of the ballroom. Aside from a few nicks from flying debris, he didn't think he'd been hurt at all this time. Nice change of pace.

His team began to gather around him, making a small tableau in the ballroom's center. "I don't get it, Ed," Al said, reaching down to haul him up from the floor. He also seemed to be examining Ed for injuries. Fair enough.

"Get what?" Ed managed, accepting the assist and levering himself to his feet.

"How'd she do that clappy thing if she didn't see the Gate?"

Ed smiled at his little brother. "Same way you were going to," he said, gesturing at his own hand with a pretend pen. "She had a circle tattooed on the palm of her hand with that fake stone embedded right in the middle. When I saw you drawing on your hand, I took a chance. I just didn't believe she could've really seen the Gate between now and when we saw her last. Especially since she's in better shape now than she was before."

"Better shape, huh?" Winry said, and Ed whirled to face her. She looked really mad.

"Physically!" Ed protested. He glanced around, hoping for some sympathy, but everyone seemed to be drifting off to other duties—carting away minions, giving reports to the police who'd shown up at some point when Ed hadn't been looking, and... pairing up.

Roy and Riza were gazing into each other's eyes like teenagers, and Mei Chan had come up beside Alphonse, who'd turned to talk to her, and now they weren't much better than the grown-ups.

Ling and Ran Fan stood next to a small pile of minions they'd apparently wrangled together and looked as if they'd had more fun than anyone else that night. Ed didn't look around anymore, starting to be afraid of what pairing he might spot next. He turned back to Winry and sighed. "She has two arms," he added.

Winry still glared at him. "You wanted to have sex with that thing!"

Ed could feel his face turn bright red, and he was certain attention had switched back to him once more from several quarters. For one thing, the background murmur had died down considerably.

"She was doing some sort of alchemy to make me... want her," Ed hissed, trying to keep his voice down. "As if I'd ever want to even touch her at all—"

Winry smiled then, a lopsided, half-stifled smile, and Ed sighed again. "That wasn't nice," he said. "I'm really tired."

"But you're so much fun to tease," Winry replied. She glanced down at his automail which still held its bladed transmutation. "That's pretty amazing," she said.

"Haven't you ever seen this before?" He held out his arm for her to examine.

"I don't think so," she said, and he saw that she was about to disappear down the path of automail geekery, never to return.

He pulled his arm away and transmuted it back to normal. "You can look at it later. There's something else I want to do now."

She looked startled as his arm returned to normal and looked up at him as he spoke. Perfect. Ed caught her face in his hands—one flesh, the other cool, perfect, lovingly-made automail—and kissed her. She moved closer as he did, and their hands found hair to tangle in while their bodies pressed as close to each other as clothing and air allowed.

Something thwacked against the back of Ed's head, and he pulled away to glare at Havoc.

"Geez, get a room, you two," the man said, returning the glare with interest. "You—" but he didn't get any further than that before Martel literally snaked out an arm, caught him and pulled him into her embrace. Havoc melted into her kiss without any noticeable resistance, and Winry giggled.

Ed looked at her, enjoying her smile and the feel of her body against his as she giggled. Perfection. This is perfection. "I've been meaning to tell you something for awhile now, Winry," he said, keeping his tone casual.

She smiled at him, her eyes glowing. "I know, Ed. I love you, too."

"Let me say it!" he protested, laughing.

"You already have," she said, and when his expression turned more confused, she explained, "You're a man of action. You say your love with what you do. And I love you, too."

They kissed again, uninterrupted this time, and sometime later Ed managed a couple more words. "Ling's right."

Winry's eyes widened at that but she said nothing, her expression expectant.

"I should marry you," Ed said.

"You should," Winry agreed. "And I should marry you."

"It seems," Georgie's voice rang out, calling everyone's attention back to the situation at hand. "That several of you ought to marry each other."

She didn't seem the least bit upset by the flagrant romancing going on between Mustang and Hawkeye, Scieszka and Falman, and even Denny and Maria. She strode over to where Ed and Winry stood, still rather entangled.

"But the first thing we'll need to do is sort out that damn fool fraternization rule," she added in a conspiratorial and highly theatrical whisper. "Do you have any idea how much trouble everyone had getting dates to this ball?"