Al stood to one side and watched Lieutenant Hawkeye mix the cake batter, the movements of her arm swift and sure as she angled the large bowl against her stomach and whipped the spoon around and around. A big pot of stew already simmered on the stove, and from the way Ed was licking his lips and breathing so deeply, Al thought it must smell delicious.
He wished he could smell it too, but it was enough right now that he and his brother would get to sit down to a real dinner at a kitchen table, with a group of people who were almost like a family. Havoc had already set eight places at the big table along the wall across from the stove and sink, making a place for Al at one end even if he wouldn't be eating. The man now sat on a chair at the far end, his long legs stretched before him across the black and white kitchen tiles. Ed perched on a high stool to Hawkeye's left, watching her movements as though studying a chemistry experiment. And beyond them, Breda crouched before the open oven door, trying to light the pilot light.
The three military people had already discarded their uniforms, having returned early from their inquiries. Colonel Mustang, Falman, and Fuery were still out, but they were due back at any moment.
"You know," Havoc remarked to Breda's back, "it's really not that hard. We have a stove like that back home. I don't get what the problem is."
"Neither do I," Breda muttered. "I can't decide if it's the flint in this thing or if the gas isn't coming out." He stretched out a hand still holding a long lighter with a push button on the side, and leaned head and shoulders into the oven. They heard a couple of clicks as he tried again to get a proper spark.
"Don't gas yourself, Breda," Ed cheerfully advised him. "Even serving under the Colonel can't be that bad."
They heard a muffled "Very funny" from the oven before Hawkeye added, "And do try not to set Rayna Layton's kitchen on fire. Brigadier-General Layton wouldn't appreciate losing his house."
It was Brigadier-General Layton who had made this domestic scene possible in the first place. He and his wife were spending two months in Central, and when they'd heard that Colonel Mustang's crew needed to come this way to investigate the doings of a couple of alchemists in the countryside, they'd loaned the house to Mustang and his people for as long as they needed it. Al, for one, had really appreciated the domestic atmosphere in the evenings.
The front door opened, and Al turned toward the kitchen doorway beside him, a shoulder joint squeaking as he did so. (He'd have to get Ed to oil it for him after dinner.) A moment later, Colonel Mustang swept in with Fuery and Falman trailing after him. The younger man set a sheaf of papers on the counter, clearing a space beside the flour bin, while Falman paused in the kitchen doorway next to Al, leaning against the frame. Mustang moved to Hawkeye's other side. "Something smells good," he smiled. "And cake too? What's the occasion?"
"Nothing in particular," she answered. She found a spatula and began pouring the batter into the cake pan. "I thought everyone would like a little extra tonight, since we've been here a week."
"Sounds good to me," Fuery beamed, turning and leaning back against the counter near Ed's stool. "I'll take cake any time."
Mustang glanced past the lieutenant. "Weren't you sitting there when I left after lunch, Fullmetal? Have you moved at all today?"
"Yeah, yeah, keep your shirt on," Ed said. Though Al reflected that the Colonel would have to remove his uniform jacket to take his shirt off at all. "I hung around near the hospital for a couple of hours," his brother continued, too interested in what he had to report to get irritated, "and I think I might have some clues about the alchemists' secret archive."
"So have I. We'll have to compare notes after supper." A glance to the Colonel's right. "Committing suicide, are we, Breda? You could at least wait till we all leave the room."
"Ha bloody ha." Breda re-emerged, sitting back on his haunches. He peered at the flint end of the lighter. "I'm sure the gas is working down here. It's got to be this thing."
"I need the oven soon, Breda," Hawkeye reminded him. "But tell me, Colonel, what did you learn this afternoon?"
"I did some casual chatting at City Hall," Mustang said, lifting the lid of the pot to peek at the stew, "and I met this woman who – "
"It's always a woman," Havoc murmured.
" – had seen some strange lights in an abandoned barn a few days ago," Mustang finished, setting the lid down amidst a cloud of steam, and casting Havoc a dirty look over his shoulder.
"That was it," Ed nodded, his braid bobbing up and down his back. "The lights and the barn. They were there again two nights ago."
"Then we'll have to check it out soon." Another glance toward the oven. "Lieutenant Breda, you just have to click the thing and the gas lights up. It really can't be that hard."
"I can help if you like," Havoc offered, sitting forward in his chair. "We have a stove like that – "
"At home," Breda finished, his voice muffled from within the oven. "I know, I know, already! And if you come over here, I'll break your legs." Havoc hastily straightened up, pulling his feet closer to the chair.
"You're not a very handy guy, are you, Breda?" Ed said.
"Never mind, Edward." Mustang immediately came to his man's defence. "He hardly needs you piling on."
Uh oh, thought Al. That wasn't going to go over very well. He watched his brother's eyes narrow. "You're one to talk. You were the one who nudged him again, just now," Ed pointed out.
"Well, I'm his commanding officer. You're not."
"Breda," Hawkeye said, smoothing the surface of the cake batter, "I really do need you to figure out the problem. The cake needs to get baking."
Again the man pulled himself out of the oven. He held the lighter in front of one eye, peering along its length.
"I smell gas," Falman frowned.
"The cake can't wait much longer," Hawkeye added.
"Seriously Breda," Havoc leaned forward again, "I can figure it out for you – "
"I can figure it out myself if you'd all just get off my – "
"That's enough." Mustang's clipped words cut them off. He whipped his right hand out of his pocket, tugging the ignition glove tight with the other. "Let a professional do this." He lifted the hand, flexed his fingers, and –
They appeared almost simultaneously: the flame and the white cloud that seemed to explode out of nowhere. It instantly engulfed the Colonel, utterly snuffing out the flame, and only slowly dissipating to reveal him standing there, arm still raised, coated entirely in white powder.
"What did I always say?" Hawkeye demanded, returning the now-empty box of baking soda to the counter. "Not in the house."
Mustang opened his eyes, two stark black holes in the expressionless white of his face. He blinked. "It wasn't that big a flame," he muttered, his mouth a dramatic slash across the white expanse.
Hawkeye leaned past him and snatched the lighter out of Breda's hand. Grabbing a butter knife, she fiddled for a moment with a screw near the flint end. Then she leaned forward again, pressing the button. The element at the bottom of the oven lit with a whomp, using up the excess gas with a little flare before settling down to a low, steady burn. The woman shut the oven door, rinsed a cloth under the tap, and began wiping powder off the counter.
"Supper is almost ready," she reminded them briskly. "You'd all better wash up."
Slowly Mustang turned. Al's gaze was as riveted on his unnaturally white uniform, face, and hair as everyone else's. The Colonel lifted his head. "Dibs on the shower," he said, and walked slowly and with great dignity from the room, powder wafting in his wake like a trailing wedding veil.
The creak of his tread on the stairs in the hall was swallowed by the laughter that finally exploded into the kitchen. Even Hawkeye, with her back to the rest, could not stop her shoulders from shaking, Fuery had to remove his glasses to wipe the tears away, and Breda was positively choking as he threw himself onto his back and howled.
Ed looked over at his brother as he, too, roared with laughter, but Al groaned. He knew that expression of glee. "Baking soda!" the older brother exclaimed, the triumph of new and extremely useful knowledge unmistakable in his voice. "Baking soda!"