6

With the first eventful day over, the rest of the week passed uneventfully. Whatever was bothering Mustang had passed too; by the next morning, he was his usual acerbic self, with something snarky to say about ever meal Laura made, whether it was deserved or not.

Things had settled into a comfortable rhythm. She showed up for breakfast and dinner and did groceries once a week. At the end of the first week there was a check made out to her for a good amount of money left on the counter. He offered no comment on it, and neither did she.

She could never tell if it was a good day or a bad day with him; his moods were indiscernible. She was afraid to ask how things were going with the investigation and Hausman when she had no information to offer him in return. She hadn't found any more convenient breaks in the case. She had been trying to rehearse the best way to ask Mustang for some information on Dante, but all of her attempts fell flat. She had decided to grease the wheels by making something new, a pot roast, but that was going equally badly.

Mustang came home with his usual door slam, but appeared to be in a decent mood. Good, that might make her job easier. "General, I-"

He stopped in front of the kitchen, looking vaguely puzzled to see her there. "You're here? I thought I told you I didn't need you today."

"You didn't say anything to me." She said, getting a sinking feeling that her little plan was falling to pieces. "And Havoc said-"

"Forget Havoc. I'm not firing you, I'm just going out for dinner tonight." He grabbed his jacket from where it had been carelessly draped over a chair, and sniffed at the air. "What are you making?"

"It's a roast." She said sullenly. The one day she'd actually tried to make something good, and it wasn't even going to be eaten. "Not that it matters now. Where are you going anyway?"

"Somewhere infinitely better than here." She peered down the hall at him. He was combing his hair, while carefully avoiding the band of his eye patch. He looked happier than she'd ever seen in her brief period of employment. "It's not really any business of your, but if you must know, I'm going on a double date with Havoc and his girlfriend."

Her mouth must have dropped or something, because he gave her a very strange look. "What?"

"Nothing." She said hastily. She didn't know why she was so surprised over that. It wasn't as though the eye patch detracted much from his looks, although she'd never admit that. He could be charming when he wanted to be, although she had yet to witness that skill herself. She had thought he was in some permanent mourning period for Hawkeye, but maybe it was good he was getting out. "You still should have said something to me! I made this whole big thing, and no one's going to eat it!"

"So eat it yourself." He shrugged, putting his jacket on. "Just clean up after yourself and get out of here before I get back. I'm sure it's dry like everything else you've attempted, but there's no sense in letting it go to waste."

"But it's coming out so well!"

"Does my opinion really matter all that much to you?"

"No!" She glared at him. She was mad, because or a moment, it had. He was only her employer, and he wasn't a great one at that.

"Good. I'll see you tomorrow then. Try not to make a mess." He disappeared out the door, and the house felt oddly empty without him. Behind her, the timer and she swore loudly as she accidentally touched the oven.

Since she'd been given the run of the place, at least for the duration of the meal, she decided that she might as well make the most of it. Her thoughts moved briefly toward whether she should paw through the papers on his desk and see if there was anything worthwhile there. It would have been what Hausman would have recommended, had he been in her shoes. She shook her head and abandoned the idea. It had been a long time since she'd had a decent meal, and even longer since she'd been allowed to rest in a comfortable place like this. Mustang did pay her well and fairly, but it would be a long time until she could afford her own place. For now, it was summer, and a park bench sufficed for a bed.

She set a place for herself at the table and found a newspaper to read, enjoying the familiarity of the gesture. After perusing Mustang's record collection, she found something to suit her tastes. The strains of classical music filled the house as she helped herself to the fruits of her labor.

The beef was dry, she thought, and cursed Roy Mustang for being right, as usual. Still, it wasn't a total loss; the potatoes were quite good and the green beans had been spared from the usual mushy softness. She finished up, cleared off her place, and washed the dishes. She didn't want to leave, she was feeling lazy and comfortable, neither of which were feelings she'd had in a while. She shouldn't be here when he got back; he had been quite specific on that. She had already inadvertently seen him shirtless before, and she didn't want to get any more personal that that. She didn't have much experience in the realm of double dating, but it probably should take longer than a half hour. There was time.

She moved into the living room and continued with her paper on the couch, aware that she was dawdling, but unwilling to do anything about it. From here, she had a clear view of the mantle where there were a few framed pictures. She knew enough now to recognize most of them. There was Mustang and his troops, unsmiling, with the exception of Fuery who was giving Havoc bunny ears. A much younger Mustang and Maes Hughes, looking giddy with matching diplomas. Mustang and Riza Hawkeye together, both smiling. It was strange seeing Hawkeye in personal photos, not the clinical ones given to her by the military for the investigation. She had her hair down and was wearing a pretty sundress, her eyes not quite looking at the viewer. Laura felt a pang of loneliness for a loss that wasn't even hers to mourn. It increased all the more when she realized that the majority of the people in those pictures were dead.

She went to put the paper back on the coffee table, intending to leave, but heard a tiny thud on the carpet from something she'd knocked over. Bending down, she saw a small black pawn lying underneath the table. Beside her paper was a chessboard with a game that looked like it was in progress. She knew nothing about chess and could not establish if the game was going well for either side. She wondered if Mustang played both sides or if he had someone else join him. Somehow she suspected the former.

She heard the door open and the matter of the chess set was forgotten. Mustang had returned, much sooner than she'd expected. He had taken his jacket off and thrown it over a chair, and when he turned around, she saw a weariness that he did not bother to hide. "You're still here?"

"Sorry." She said quietly. "I just, ah-" She remembered the pawn suddenly and placed it on the game board. "I was cleaning up. I wasn't expecting you back so soon, or I would have left sooner."

He fell back on the couch with an irritated sigh. "Ask away, why don't you? I can tell you're dying to know what brings me back so soon. I got stood up. Roy Mustang, stood up for a date. I thought I saw a pig go flying by when I left the restaurant."

"Oh." She had no idea of what to say to that. He was being bitterly sardonic, but it must have been a blow, obviously. His first attempt at dating after he lost his eye and Hawkeye's death, and it had failed miserably. Even she knew of Mustang's playboy days before the death of the Fuher. She could have had a field day with it. All she felt pity, but she knew enough that he would scorn that. She settled instead for avoidance. "I was thinking of making some tea. Would you like some?"

Tea, the British answer to all ills of the body and heart. He nodded curtly, making no comment as to how the tea would be cold or how she was mooching his food. It enabled her a few minutes to busy herself and think of something to say. Words, at least spoken ones, were not her strong suit. "She must be crazy then."

He looked at her incredulously. " Now, not that I'm trying to inflate your ego or anything, but I can see no good reason why you should be stood up." She said calmly. "Maybe she has a terrible sense of time or direction. Perhaps it's all three. Either way, those are highly undesirable traits to have in a prospective girlfriend. I can't imagine what would happen if you stayed together. There might be a bunch of little dim-witted, crazy, flame-spewing pyrotechnics running around Central, so really, it's quite good that you've gotten out now."

To her surprise, he burst out laughing. "That's the worst explanation for being stood up that I've ever heard. Not that I've heard any, but still."

She shrugged, but smiled. She had never heard him laugh before, and part of her was pleased she'd elicited the response. "I thought I'd try. It seemed to be the most logical explanation to me."

"Your idea of logic and mine must be miles away then. Look, you've even put the pawn in the wrong spot." He moved it carefully back to the place it had been before she'd knocked it over.

"I never claimed to know anything about chess. Although it is a rather fitting game for a dog of the military."

He smiled and she was surprised at herself for tying to provoke that response. "Would you like to learn?"

"Me?" One surprise after another. "My grandfather tried once and he gave up after two days because I was too dense to get it. It'd take you all night, and then some."

"It seems I have more time on my hands tonight than I thought I would." He had already begun moving the pieces back to their original places. "I doubt it would take you that long to learn. Besides, if I train you well enough, then I might be able to have a decent partner to play against."

The prospect of that was not unsatisfying. The teapot whistled shrilly and she jumped up to get it. "How will you take it?"

"Black, please. I have the feeling that this is going to be a long night."

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

In the next few hours, Laura learned everything she could have possibly ever needed or wanted to know about chess. Mustang was a good teacher and he was unexpectedly patient with her, but he was still a harsh taskmaster. She knew perfectly well she stood no chance against him in a fair game, but he didn't make any attempt whatsoever to go easy on her. He trumped her first game in an astonishingly low number of moves, adding somewhat needlessly that she would need a better strategy that that if she wanted to be taken seriously.

They played many games; the first few were over abysmally quickly, but after a while she was able to get them to lengthen out a bit, little by little. She sat with her brow furrowed and a slight frown on her face, taking a terribly long time to plan her moves. Mustang eyed the board coolly, as if daring it to come up with something to challenge him. She had finally come up with a decent strategy and started talking in a shallow attempt to distract him from it. "You play this often then?"

"Often enough. I find it helps to clear my mind. It never hurts to practice strategy, although real war is never this neat and tidy." He fell for her feint and took her last pawn. "Much like fencing, it's an attempt to make something brutal into a cute game. Still, it has certain merits. I can see what you're doing with that knight, by the way, and it's not going to work."

"I know." She did know that, but the knight was a ploy. It was all she could do to feign the appropriate annoyance without showing how happy she was that her plan was working. "Don't worry, I haven't lost yet. If there's anything my grandfather taught me, it's not to give up, regardless of whether I'm going to lose, which I am, in this case."

"You're doing fine." He said mildly, taking another piece, one she hadn't counted on. "And your grandfather sounds like a contradictory fellow. You said he gave up on teaching you chess?"

"Yeah. I guess I got to be a little too much even for him. He's a tenacious man, though. Most Americans are. You should have seen the fight he put up when my father moved me out to Britain. He's not an alchemist, but he would probably give you a run for your money." She moved her knight slowly, hoping he wouldn't take notice. "He was…feisty. Not like my fathe-"

She had realized her mistake and cut herself off. It may have been a fortunate lapse, as Mustang took more interest in her dialogue than her movements. "What about your father exactly?"

"I'd rather not spoil a nice evening by talking about such dreary things as him. Besides," she couldn't hold back her glee. "Talking about that would take the attention away from my fantastic victory! I've taken your queen, Mustang, and your king is in check."

He looked a little shocked for a short moment before a slow smile crept up his face. "Very clever. That was unexpected."

"The student has bested the master then!"

"Oh, I wouldn't go so far as to say that. Unfortunately for you, my game can be won without the queen. And in this case…" He made his move deftly and she realized suddenly that in her haste to take his queen, she'd neglected to guard her own king well enough. "A pawn can still take down a king as well as the larger pieces can. You would do well to remember that. Checkmate."

Her face fell. "I thought I had you there."

"You did well, for a beginner. I didn't see your move with the queen coming, and that can be victory enough for you now." He yawned and flipped open his pocket watch. "Guess I lost track of time; it's rather late. Do you want me to walk you home?"

"No!" She did not want him to know that her home consisted of a bench in Central Park. She wasn't sure why it mattered that much, but it did now. "No, it's fine, I'll walk by myself. It's not far, it's totally safe, I'll be fine."

"Alright." She had the feeling he might have pressed the issue if she stuck around much longer, so she hastened to grab her coat and purse. "If you feel up to it tomorrow, then perhaps we'll play again."

It didn't sound like it from his tone, but she had a sense that it was less of an invitation and more of a plea. She'd enjoyed herself tonight, surprisingly so, considering that she was pretty sure that he'd hated her not too long ago and her feelings had been mutual. "I'd like that."

She considered the evening again as she walked down the street to her makeshift home. She had suspected that the only reason Mustang kept her around was to get information out of her, so he could go off an avenge Hawkeye or something equally futile. He seemed to have abandoned that track after she'd run into his office and told him nearly everything she'd know. Subsequently, she'd let her guard down. But tonight was entirely unexpected. How strange that she had begun to think of the general almost as a friend. Most unexpected.

AN: This chapter was kind of fluffy, but I allow myself that much because there is no fluff after this. Midterms have begun and from the looks of my crazy calendar, I'm going to be busy until December, so it could be a while until the next chapter. (Hopefully not until December though…) Chapter 7 is good and I'm really interested in what you all think about it, so please stick around! I'll try to push these chapters out as soon as possible! This fic recently got up to 1000 hits, which is the most I've had yet. Thanks for reading, as always.