“I don’t have anything on my face, do I?” Winry asked, peering in the hallway mirror. “Or on the back of my head or something?” She twisted, trying to get a look at herself. “I hate these things. I always feel like everyone’s looking at me!”
Mei smiled. Winry was dressed in a red beaded dress that fell to her calves. It accentuated her curves, which was a little unfashionable, but very flattering on Winry’s figure. Her blonde hair was gathered on her head, stray tendrils falling around her face. “You are beautiful,” Mei told her. “It’s only natural for people to look at you. And you haven’t got anything on your face.”
Winry sighed. “You look beautiful,” she said, looking over at Mei with a smile. “Your hair is so pretty. It’s just like ink, and it looks lovely in those braids.” She frowned at herself. “Mine is just unruly. I can never get it to do anything interesting.”
“It looks great,” Edward said, coming into the hallway. “Is she done worrying about what she looks like, Mei?” he asked. “Oh, you look nice, too.”
“I think she was just getting started,” Mei said, archly.
Edward smiled, leaned down, and kissed Winry tenderly. “You look amazing,” he reassured her, softly. “Red’s always been my favorite color.”
Mei smiled again. Even Edward could be romantic sometimes. It didn’t hurt that he was dressed in his very best- a vest and tailcoat, a tie, and his gold hair brushed to shining and pulled back in a high ponytail. He looked like a prince to Winry’s princess, ready to sweep her away.
There was a step, and Mei turned around to see Alphonse fiddling with his cufflinks. Mei smiled. Edward made Winry very happy, but Mei had definitely gotten the handsomer of the two brothers. Mei was willing to admit that Edward was- perhaps- better-looking than she’d given him credit for on their first meeting. Alphonse, though, was every bit as handsome as she’d imagined him when he was still bound to the armor. Where Edward was lean and sharp, Alphonse had an exotic, aetherial beauty that never failed to make her heart beat faster. She looked up at him, and gasped. “Alphonse!”
“You cut your hair!” Edward said, behind her.
Alphonse looked sheepish, running a hand through his now-short hair. “I thought it would look better with the tuxedo,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about cutting it anyway.”
Edward laughed, and came up, ruffling his brother’s hair. “I like it!” he said, grinning. “It looks like you again. I thought the long hair was weird.”
“It made me look too much like you, Brother,” Alphonse agreed, laughing. He looked over at her. “Do you like it, Mei?” he asked, shyly.
She blushed. “It looks really handsome!” she told him.
He smiled, and it made her feel all fluttery. //I am lucky that such a beautiful flower is willing to grace me with her presence this evening,// he said, softly, switching to court Xingese.
She blushed even harder. Edward laughed. “What the hell did you say to her, Al?” he asked. “She’s gone all beet-colored.”
Mei turned to him and glared. “Nothing an unromantic bean-boy like you would understand!” she snapped.
To her irritation, Edward laughed. “That’s bean-man to you, bean-girl,” he said.
Winry smacked her husband on the arm. She really did do that a lot, Mei reflected. “Maybe you should be asking Al for tips,” Winry said, narrowing her eyes at her husband. “Some women like romance.”
Edward grinned unrepentantly. “Some women aren’t crazy gearheads, too,” he said.
//If we let them, they’ll do this all night,// Alphonse commented to Mei, his voice full of amusement. //I sort of suspect Brother of having a thing for Winry when she’s angry.//
Mei giggled, and looked up at Alphonse. They glanced at Edward and Winry, now arguing more seriously, and then at each other again. They both started laughing helplessly. When they finally got hold of themselves again, Edward and Winry were staring at them.
“What?” Edward demanded.
“Nothing,” Alphonse said, his face a picture of innocence. “Shall we go? We don’t want to be late.”
Mei glanced back nervously up the stairs to where Trisha was already asleep. Elicia would take good care of her, Mei reassured herself. And if someone should decide that an unimportant Imperial niece was worthy of assassination, the house was already under guard because of Edward’s position.
Alphonse held Mei’s hand while Edward drove them to the ball. It made her feel like a teenager again, instead of a woman married five years with a baby. When they arrived, Alphonse helped her out of the car, too, smiling down at her, his yellow eyes shining. “We don’t get the chance to do this very often anymore,” he observed softly. “It’s nice to be here with just you.” He brought her hand to his lips, laying a kiss on her knuckles.
Mei smiled, trying to make it look coquettish rather than childish. “It’s nice to be here with you, too, Alphonse,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the dancing!” she added, cheerfully. “Amestrian dancing is fun.”
“I’m looking forward to the buffet,” Edward put in, loudly.
“Everyone already knew that,” Winry observed, and let herself be dragged toward the door.
There was a doorman checking invitations and announcing people as they entered the ballroom. “Minister Edward Elric, and his wife, Mrs. Winry Elric,” the doorman called, as Edward and Winry entered.
Alphonse handed him their invitation, and patted her hand where it rested on his arm.
The doorman glanced at it, and called out “Her Imperial Highness, Princess Mei Chang, and her consort, Alphonse Elric, the Life’s-Blood Alchemist.” She outranked Alphonse, of course. It seemed unfair to her sometimes. Alphonse could spend his life doing work that would change the world, but she would still outrank him because she’d been sired by a man she’d never even spoken to.
The ballroom that Alphonse escorted her into was lavishly decorated. So were the inhabitants. It made Mei conscious of her own gown, which stuck out among the Amestrian fashions. It wasn’t Xingese exactly; more an Amestrian seamstress’s dream of a Xingese gown than the article itself. It made her feel out of place, caught between one world and another and not properly present in either.
“Would you like to dance, Princess?” Alphonse said, breaking her out of her reverie. He was smiling, and his eyes were laughing. She laughed as he caught her in strong, warm arms and carried her out onto the dance floor. There, they were silent together for a while, caught up in the rhythm of the music and the dance.
“Mei?” Alphonse said suddenly, his soft, tenor voice rumbling where her head rested on his chest. //You really do look beautiful tonight,// he said. //It’s nice to get the chance to see you outside of the school.//
//We have been working too hard lately, I think,// she agreed. //But you do see me outside of the school,// she said, and she reached up to kiss him. //You saw a lot of me outside the school yesterday morning,// she added, slyly, her confidence in the inability of anyone else in the room to speak Xingese making her bold.
His cheeks colored, and he leaned down to kiss her back. Mei leaned up and into Alphonse’s embrace. Somehow, his feet kept them dancing in time with the music, but only their ability to sense qi prevented them from bumping into other couples on the dance floor. As they pulled apart, Mei flushed, warm from the kiss and the memory of long, pale limbs twined with her own.
The next song was a fast one, and Mei and Alphonse danced that one, too. That sort of dancing always reminded Mei a bit of sparring- the athleticism of it, the flow of energy between partners, the trust. Alphonse was a capable partner for both. He and Mei came off the dance floor laughing and in need of water and a minute to sit down.
Mrs. Hughes came up as Alphonse was off getting them drinks. “Hello, Mei,” she said, seating herself across the table. “I’m so glad to see that you and Al were able to come.”
Mei didn’t know the older woman well. She had been to their house a few times with her daughter, Elicia. Mei knew that Winry visited her regularly, and saw her as a cross between an older sister and a surrogate mother. She knew that Alphonse cared for Gracia, and felt that he owed her a debt of gratitude. She also knew that Gracia’s husband had died long ago, murdered by the homunculi. Mei knew that Alphonse still felt deep sorrow over his death, and that Edward, predictably, felt guilt. “It’s a very nice party,” Mei said. “I always enjoy the dancing.”
“I could see that!” Gracia said, smiling. “You and Al make such a lovely couple on the dance floor- and off of it. I’m so glad that he’s found someone to be happy with. He had such a terrible time of it, for so many years.”
“I know,” Mei said, thinking with shame about her own part in that. “To be honest, I never thought he’d want to see me again after the Promised Day. I was so surprised when he sent word saying that he wanted to come to Xing and study with me.”
“He came to see Elicia and I before he left,” Gracia told her, gently. “He was so excited to be traveling and learning new things. He was excited to see you again, too- although I admit that I didn’t expect him to marry you!” She smiled, and it was clear that it wasn’t an unwelcome surprise.
“Alphonse didn’t expect that either,” Mei said, shyly. “Neither did I. I had such a silly crush on him when I first knew him, but then- things happened.” Things like the Promised Day, and Alphonse begging her to help him commit suicide. Confused and terrified and cowed by his fear for his brother, she’d done it. After that, after seeing Edward pull Alphonse from the jaws of death itself, her daydreams about handsome blond princes had seemed so much foolishness. She had set them aside, and worked on ensuring her clan’s survival through the succession conflicts. “And I was still so young, then. He was with me in Xing for two years before-” She blushed. Before the night when Alphonse had pulled the alkahestry scroll she was reading away from her, taken her face in his hands and kissed her, his yellow eyes round with fear and hope. She’d resolutely thought of him only as a friend until that moment, embarrassed by the rose-festooned fantasies of her childhood. Two months later, he’d gone to the Emperor for permission to court her. “-Before we started courting,” she finished, lamely.
Gracia patted her hand. “Sometimes, the most unexpected things are the sweetest,” she said. “It must be an adjustment for the two of you, living in Amestris again. If you need anyone to talk to, I want you to know that my door is open. I suppose I adopted the Elrics long ago, and you should consider yourself part of that family too.”
“Thank you kindly,” Mei said, and she meant it.
When Alphonse got back with food and drink, she held his hand and fed him bits of shrimp and puff pastry. They watched, laughing, as Edward and Winry danced one of the scandalous new Western dances, Edward throwing Winry over his back and under his legs with ease. Alphonse danced with Gracia and Riza and Winry. Mei danced with Roy and Edward and Alex Armstrong. When they left to go home, Edward and Winry were just drunk enough to be giddy as Alphonse loaded them into the car.
//It feels strange sometimes,// Alphonse said, suddenly, as they drove into the darkness. //All this. I would never have guessed that I’d end up here.// He was smiling.
Edward stuck his head in between the two front seats. “Are you two speaking that weird foreign language again?” he asked.
“It was a nice evening, Brother,” Alphonse said.
“Mrs. Hughes throws a good party,” Edward agreed, grinning as he flopped back onto the seat next to Winry.
//I’m glad I ended up here with you,// Mei said, shyly.
Alphonse’s smile widened into a grin. “I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said.
Winry was on him as soon as they got their bedroom door shut behind them.
“I like it when you wear a tuxedo,” she growled at him, and then she had him up against the wall and was pulling at his tie.
Ed groaned. “It’s times like these,” he said breathlessly, “That I don’t mind being married to an aggressive, crazy gearhead.”
Her lips twisted. She knew he was just trying to rile her; she always knew. “If you keep talking like that,” she said, nipping his neck, “I’ll take your leg off and hide it from you for a few days. Maybe that’ll teach you to be polite about my work.”
“You wouldn’t do that to me,” he said, grinning, letting her pin him as she worked her way down into the hollow of his throat.
“Don’t test me, Edward Elric,” she said, and smiled. She pulled his tie completely off, tossing it carelessly to the side. “You should know what I’m capable of.” She pushed him onto the bed and jumped on top of him.
“Yes, I do,” he said, and then groaned as she leaned down and bit his exposed collarbone. He bucked against her, the sensuality of it overcoming him. Not for the first time, he wondered exactly why he was so turned on by assertive women. It certainly couldn’t be the lure of the exotic.
“One of the things I like about you in a tuxedo,” Winry announced, her weight uncomfortably, pleasurably settling over his groin as she leaned into his chest, “is getting you out of a tuxedo.”
“You and buttons,” Ed complained, without any real sincerity. She was working her way down his chest, undoing the tiny buttons of his shirt and the larger buttons of his vest, her fingers soft and cool against his skin. He arched into the contact, wishing that she’d finish with the damn buttons already and move on.
Finally, she had his chest exposed, but made no move to actually remove his shirt, vest or jacket. “Pretty,” she commented, smiling, looking down at him.
Suddenly, Ed was thinking of Al’s students staring at his naked body, horror in their eyes.
She noticed the change in his mood immediately. “Ed?” she said, dropping to his side, her head propped up so that she could look down into his face. “Are you okay?”
“Sorry,” he said, frowning. He’d been having a good time; he hadn’t meant to mess it up.
He started to sit up, but Winry pushed him down, looking closely at him. “What is it?” she asked, with a tone of voice that made it clear that she wasn’t going to let him pretend nothing was wrong.
He frowned deeper, trying to figure out how to ask what he wanted to ask. “Does it ever bother you?” he said, finally, not meeting her eyes. He gestured tentatively to his chest.
Her face wrinkled with confusion. “Does what bother me, Ed?” she asked. “I thought I made it clear that I liked the tux.”
“No,” he clarified. “I mean-” he touched his chest, brushing his fingertips over the scars at his shoulder and on his belly. “This. Does it ever bother you?”
“Your scars?” She ran a hand over the skin of his belly.
Parts of the scar were numb, and other parts were over-sensitive. It always felt strange to have someone else touch it. He sighed. “Al’s class,” he said, and didn’t elaborate. Winry knew him well enough to follow what he was thinking about.
She leaned down and kissed him, lingeringly, tenderly, with none of the urgent heat she’d had a moment ago. “You’re alive,” she whispered as she pulled away.
His heart lurched. He looked up, brushing a thumb across her cheek to check for tears. “I’m sorry,” he said, unsure why he was apologizing. For all those years of worry, perhaps. For bringing it up again, certainly.
“I’m not,” she declared, firmly. “Corpses don’t scar, Ed. If I had a magic lamp, maybe I’d wish for you never to have had to suffer like that.” She put a hand firmly on his belly now, tracing an old sword slice with her fingertips. “But we don’t get magic. We have to live with the world as it is and move forward. You lived. You got Al’s body back. You came home to me. It’s enough.” She looked down at him, shifting her position just enough to put the length of her body against his. “And I meant what I said before,” she growled.
Ed breathed, and relaxed into a grin. “I’m still wearing the tuxedo,” he pointed out. “Mostly, anyway.”
“Not for long,” she promised.