Wiping his hands on a towel, he turned down the heat on the eggs and reached to pick up the receiver. "Hello, Colonel Mustang."
"You're Colonel Mustang, I'm Long Zhu!"
Snorting into the phone he allowed himself to roll his eyes, the tension in his shoulders melting away. "Major, I know I have explained the etiquette in phones and their usage. Obviously you've figured out the later, the former is just manners. Something I'm sure you'll get accustomed to *eventually*."
"Besides insulting my ancestry and choice of partners was there a reason to interrupt my breakfast Major?" He ignored the jabs about his intelligence, after all, *she* was the one who took vacation in order to experiment on herself with highly infectious diseases. How she managed not to fry her own brains from the rampant fevers he still didn't know and hoped never to have to mitigate again.
"I can't bake cake. I need help." She sighed in defeat.
Plating his breakfast and leaning against the counter to eat, he pondered the problem. "Are you following the directions in the book?"
"All Amestrian book! I follow, I bake! First cake explode, second I put in twenty five minutes, in five minutes is fire!"
"Sounds like you're mis-measuring your dry ingredients, flour is exceptionally flammable." He muttered around a bite. Light and fluffy, just as he liked it. "You didn't try to alchemize them together did you?"
"Only first time. Second I follow book!"
He hummed thoughtfully. "Are you using white flour or cake flour?""Flour is flour!"
"That's like saying sugar is sugar and a vaccine is a vaccine, Doctor." He grinned, methodically polishing off his pate. "Why are you attempting the fine arts of the kitchen anyway?"
"For anniversary party. No fair Gracia make her own cake."
He nodded and set his dishes aside. "Alright, I'll be over in a bit, try not to destroy anything important."
Despite being her commanding officer since the war, he'd never actually been to her living quarters. He knew her address simply because it was on file. The building was plain gray brick, blocky and inelegant. Cramped in between other buildings of the same stripe, he almost walked past it. There was no doorman, and the lock on the front entrance had been removed, probably because the property owner couldn't be bothered to locate a key.
The stairs were solid, and when he looked, appeared alchemized into the walls. The top story, only four floors high, showed water stains on the stair well ceiling and peeling paint on the door numbers. The hardwood floors were cracked, splintering and gray. For all that it was within walking distance of the hospital the tenement screamed poverty.
Letting himself in, he realized that again there was no lock, but considering she could simply transmute the door into a wall, it hardly concerned him. In stark contrast to the rest he'd seen, her walls were thick and plastered with a sea-green tint. her windows were glazed panes, rainbows flickering over the polished dark wood floors. The air smelled of incense, lemons, and burning sugar.
Looking around he realized she must have taken the dividing walls and transmuted them into the double thickness of her perimeter ones, only two doors at the far end of the single room indicating where her toilet and sleeping rooms were. On one side of the main room was her kitchen, on the other a wall of book shelves and large pillows on the floor for sitting, with a low table obviously salvaged from someone's yard sale.
Zhu herself was in the kitchen wearing her low slung loose fighting pants and a white undershirt, the black ink of her tattoo peaking up from the sloping back neckline. The kitchen itself, he realized, looked far too polished and shined. Looking into the trash bin he chuckled at the blackened form of something sort of cake shaped, hastily buried under a lot of other charred flotsam.
"You come help cook or snoop?" She asked with her arms crossed defensively under her breasts. Arching a brow he looked over the set up.
"You are aware that 'cup' is a unit of measurement, not a container of choice?" He pointed out, seeing the glass he would bet good money she used only for alcohol rimmed in white powder in the sink.
"Why not measure in weight? All alchemy in weight!" she argued, gesturing to the perfectly standard scale on the counter.
"Baking and cooking in general may be the birthplace of alchemy, but it is considered an *art*, not a science." He countered, idly opening and examining her cupboards. There was an unfortunate but unsurprising amount of alchemy ingredients, all carefully labelled and stored, from aconite to lead to Jacob's root. He didn't find actual food until the refrigerator which was stocked with milk, eggs, mess hall left overs and the bleached white flour for some reason.
'Because it's food' his brain tried to tell him but that couldn't be true. Her cookware seemed to consist of a set of dishware, a single fry pan, and a much abused now cake tin. "Where are your teaspoons?" He asked, dreading the answer.
She made a noise of frustration, scratching at the stained bandana covering her hair. "I make Xing tea. No spoon Xing tea!"
That was the answer he feared. Running a few mental calculations, he headed straight for the back rooms.
"What you doing? Toilet on left! Left!" She hurried after him, but he got her bedroom door open and took it all in, in its painful starkness, before she could grab the handle and pull it shut. "Pervert horse! I no give permission go there!"
"It's sterile. You sleep on the *floor* on a mat, Major, and your closet has no doors, with nothing more interesting in it than your uniform. Your kitchen is barren, your furniture second hand, your personal possessions decidedly few." Ticking off his fingers he continued. "You hardly date, rarely eat out, and other than splurging on the Lieutenant, alchemize almost everything you need rather than buy it. You make a decent salary, I seem to recall signing off on it every month, so where exactly are your funds going?"
She glared at him fiercely, shoving him away from her door. "Not your business bastard equine."
He settled back on his heels, eyes hard. "I could make an inquiry into your financial records, but that makes it official. If I'm asking the questions, chances are someone else probably is as well."
She stared at the floor for a long moment then sighed. "Hospital. It goes hospital. Patient can't pay, nurse needs classes, equipment old..." She shrugged. "It goes hospital."He knew better than to touch the issue of paying for civilian patients, and taking care of her nurses was her own business. Equipment on the other hand... "You need to run equipment purchases past me first Doctor, the hospital has a budget it needs to account for." He made a mental notes to delve into those records and find out who, if anyone, she'd managed to flag with her expenditures.
"None of this is cake! You here to be helping make cake!" She argued, dismissing him and his orders out of hand. He bit back his own frustration, knowing by now how to work *around* her self destructive tendencies.
"You have neither the equipment, nor the proper ingredients." He grinned and this time she edged away in latent survival interest. "I believe my dear, it's time to go shopping."
Roy smiled charmingly at the shop girl as her geriatric father dragged the Green Alchemist around by the wrist and ranted about the merits of copper over steel in baking dishes.
"So, you must appreciate a lovely dinner. What's your favorite meal?" He purred at her, watching her blue eyes go wider and a faint blush highlight the freckles over her cheeks.
"Ah... uhm.. my mother makes good casserole..." She stammered. Mentally he downgraded her probable age to a little bit more than legal.
"Hmm, I don't suppose she'd share her famous recipe then?" He asked with a feigned sigh. Somewhere in the shop a series of loud bangs resounded among some muffled Xing swears.
She startled like a woodland creature. "I should... uh grandpa..."
"I'm sure he's fine, Doctor Spitfire is just a bit clumsy outside of her natural environment of the medical ward." He reassured her, letting his voice drop to a throaty rumble.
From the sudden flush from her ears down the neck of her blouse, he hadn't yet lost his touch.
"You know," he continued, enjoying the way she bit her lip in apprehension and torn impulse, "I've been told I make an adequate chicken parmesan, if you'd ever care to... rate my skill."----------------------------------------
"Sadistic pervert Pony Colonel." Zhu muttered, carrying the sacks of her new cookware with the air of an angry cat.
"With a new phone number and hopefully an interesting Friday night next week." He agreed with a grin.
The frosting wasn't quite right, but then he'd had to explain that buttermilk was not an alchemy of salted butter and milk. Still, it was edible, and somewhat pretty, and Zhu's kitchen was only moderately destroyed.
It was a success. A moderate, underwhelming success, but given that Gracia hadn't had to make it (or deal with the furious ranting and raving of a Green Alchemist who thought duck eggs and chicken eggs were interchangeable and buttering a dish meant melting the butter and pouring it in) he felt satisfied. Zhu being the perfectionist she was kept grumbling about alchemizing something better, but he refused to participate in *that* experiment.
"The party is tomorrow, I assume we can put this safely in the fridge... wait, no, there's no room in your fridge for actual *food*." He grimaced tiredly.
"I have food!"
"You have mess slop. You know we're at peace, you can eat real food. You could learn to *cook*."
She waved a hand tiredly, rummaging through the fridge and pulling out various take out containers and shoving things around to make room for the cake. "Mess make food, why not eat?""The mess makes *slop*, hense the term. It hardly qualifies as food." He countered, folding his arms over his chest and watching her backside wriggle half interestingly. "You're very poor wife material you realize, barely a house keeper, can't cook, zealous overworker who's hardly home, and can't even drive." She glared at him over her shoulder. "I'm just saying Major, you're going to make someone very unhappy someday."
"You cooked your brain instead of cake. Get out of my house."
"It's not even a house. It's a *repository*." He muttered. "Maes should be hounding you not me."
"Maes want to *live*." She pointed out, shoving the cake into the fridge with enough force to dent the frosting. He'd fix it tomorrow. Maybe.With a smirk he relaxed back against the counter, looking her over the way that would get him brought up on fraternization charges if that were a thing among State Alchemists. "If you killed me you'd make Riza sad, so I consider myself quite safe *Major*."
Her lips twitched into a vicious smirk, a similar assessing heat in her expression as she closed the fridge with her hip. "I make it up to her. I make *her* Fuher."
She'd be terrifyingly competent at it.
With a sigh he let the challenge drop. Riza was there to guard his back, Zhu was there to watch *hers*.
"Until tomorrow, Major."
"Get out stupid horse."----------------------------------------
Gracia's smile and Maes crow of delight made up for the actual *taste* when they finally got around to cutting the damned thing and serving it.