Second Crossing
Set pre-episode 9. A series of vignettes, and a spoon. Rated for minor language. Minor spoilers.

01. familiarity

If Jean has a fatal flaw, it would be the way he stiffs the tip.

"And that," Fury wastes no time telling him over the bridge of a spoon, "is why you have no luck with women, Havoc."

The clatter of the diner tinkles around them, a chorus of silverware and handwashed plates. An order for fried potatoes comes hollered through the air; the next table over is insisting on ketchup, and lots of it. Jean ignores the buzz, and focuses on his defense.

"I always give at least six percent." Fury's scowl does not change, so Jean rallies the rest of his protest. "Ten percent is supposed to be for outstanding work. When I get a good waitress, I don't hesitate, believe me. How could I have known the last one would be insulted for something like that?"

Fury rolls his eyes. "First off," he begins, imperious, "ten percent is standard. Anything less is an insult." Grease swims in the air, flecks of oil suspended on heat. The spoon in his hand waggles in time with his lesson. "Yesterday, you only gave seven-point-five without explanation. Because you didn't tell our waitress what you wanted for better service, she's going to wonder what she did wrong in order to fail ten. Way to go, Havoc, making her feel insecure."

"It's average!"

Jean's back goes stiff for the rest of their breakfast. Predictably, Fury picks up the check.

Fraternizing is, by degrees, punishable in the Amestris Army. So many individuals invest their entire lives in service that they begin as teenagers and sail down predetermined careers, wearing cooking-cutter uniforms and saluting rows of standardized graves. The induction of King Bradley saw the lowering of the age bar to a mere sixteen. There's talk of decreasing it to fifteen if possible, along with the promise of a healthy pension should a person last until retirement. With so much of one's life spent in the company of fellow soldiers, it's almost impossible not to blur the line.

Hence the regulations. But the diner on Second Crossing is a known exception, tolerating the rubbing of shoulders and ranks. Generations of the military have camped out in the sticky-plastic booths as effectively as a trench war, embarking on assaults towards their neighbors to capture paper napkins and condiments.

At his most generous calculation, Jean Havoc has determined that he's spent more than one-third of his military career inside Second Crossing. Eating, reviewing new work assignments, even sleep--Jean has worn a hollow down in his preferred seat, second window to the left. Third when that booth is already full. He has memorized the faux-grain of the table -- plastic nubbing stained with grape juice and syrup, chip in the corner from an overeager fork -- to the point where he knows it better than his own bedroom's ceiling.

That familiarity might bother another man. Jean prides himself on pragmaticism. He'd told Fury once that all he wanted in a woman was that she knew how to scramble eggs, that everything else was negotiable. Tall, short, brown hair, blonde -- none of the details mattered except for that one, and Jean considered himself open-minded about it. Fury had laughed, asked why. Jean's only answer, painstakingly offered as any childhood secret, was that the food reminded him of home.

Cooking is not Jean's strong point. Gender has nothing to do with it -- Jean just knows his own weaknesses, and food happens to be one of them. He is limited in his ability to prepare most meals, especially those cobbled together on his meager paycheck. Despite surviving the ranks to Second Lieutenant, he is a novice at preparation of canned soups, and alternately overboils or underheats. Jean particularly hates handling cold potatoes. The texture is slimy; the juices that leak are stained with white yeast. He wipes himself clean of the slippery, pale paste, but ghost-memories cause him to shudder all through the rest of the day.

The food industry workers are Jean's saviors. He likes Second Crossing because they're open twenty-four hours around the clock, and because he can always expect to find someone else from the military there. Late-night cravings submit to the diner. Havoc can rack up his bottomless coffee cups and watch the other officers swap in and out, and occasionally call one over for conversation.

That was how Jean first got to know Kain Fury. He'd seen the other officer around the halls before, had even caught a glimpse of Fury's startled eyes when Jean had swaggered in reeking of a secretary's perfume, but they'd only begun to talk by accident. The other booths had all been full, all except the tiny quarters of plastic seat-cushions at Fury's table, so Jean and his friends had conquered the territory with finesse.

Jean had fetched up against Fury and resorted to a winning smile by way of excuse, right before a notably portly sergeant had tried to squash his own bulk in with them.

Jean had engaged in witty conversation with Fury's shoulder. Fury passed the sugar, nodding blandly to the fate of Jean's latest girlfriend. The tale finished halfway through the pancakes and had confused itself with the syrup jar, so Jean resorted to anecdotes about the weather right before he asked if Fury was doing anything after breakfast and if he wanted to hit the firing range.

Now Fury listens to all the failed-date stories, whether or not there's anyone else around to force the two of them into proximity. He's always willing. Jean might collide with Fury in the hall, or shift uneasily at the military cafeteria, his hands sculpting measurements in the air. But inevitably, there is always the diner booth and Fury's patient expression hovering over another rancid cup of ground coffee-beans.

The last girl Jean had been with -- the one that made him swear to Fury that he'd take a break from dating, and he'd even mean it this time -- was one of Second Crossing's waitresses. Charlotte was her name, a thin girl bordering on sickly, prone to fainting spells and gasping. The food industry was not kind to her body. Charlotte's toes would swell red as cherries from all the standing; Jean would take her feet in his hands and rub them in basins of warm salt water, easing away the tension as if a simple massage could unmake an entire world of toils.

On the day their relationship had finally soured, the weather had just broken from winter into spring. Jean had picked up pastries from a bakery down the road, and had smuggled Charlotte out during a break to coax them into her. They'd sat on one of the outside café patios, wirewick frames scattered on the pavement like forlorn pigeons waiting for feed. Waxed paper rustled as Jean unwrapped the first sugary treat and then offered it forth.

By Charlotte's fifth refusal, Jean took a bite himself. This did not encourage her. Her hair was long that spring, and it draped itself in a shield around her cheeks. When Jean reached out to her, he'd had to part the brunette strands like water weeds, her face the fish beneath.

Nervous of the guilty white carton that sat between them, Jean asked why she was so steadfast about not eating.

"It's because I think about jumping," she'd confessed, eyes fixed on the clock tower that hulked beside the main Officer's Exchange, eternity keeping company with the wan camel-colored jackets and lace-up boots. Her voice was as little as the rest of her, which was what had initially attracted Jean in the first place: that fragility which made him want to wrap her in gauze and keep her safe. When she spoke, it was always without remorse.

"All the time. Mostly after lunch. That's why I don't eat." Wrapping her narrow arms around herself, Charlotte shivered despite the afternoon warmth. "I heard that the impact will cause your stomach to explode, and then everyone would have to deal with half-digested corn and bread all over the sidewalks, cleaning up the mess. I can't stand skipping lunch, because I get hungry. But if I eat, that means I'm stuck for another day. What do you think I should do?"

In the distance, the clock tower coughed out three chimes, and fell silent.

"Eggs," Jean had replied at last, abruptly.

Charlotte turned her desperate deer-eyes towards him. "Eggs?"

"Yes." Jean's nod was firm. He didn't look at her, but only fixed his gaze resolutely on the Officer's Exchange, blotting out the clock tower from his peripherals. "Scrambled."

You really can pick them, Fury sighed when he heard it all later, about how, at the end, Charlotte had stopped talking to Jean and that was that. Even though the two still cross paths at the diner, neither of them want to interact for long. Fury is remarkably sympathetic in a surprisingly understated way, so Jean doesn't say no when all the booths are full save Charlotte's section, and Fury makes the suggestion to eat back at his place.

Jean doesn't remember kissing her goodbye, that last time. There is a smooth oyster where her mouth should have been in his mind; all that week he'd been distracted trying to figure out why. When the memo hit his desk saying to get in his hours time logged by that Friday, the words ran together in his mind. October time is Friday. No Charlotte. No schedule either, but Fury had taken up the slack and written out Jean's assignment for him, dropping it on his desk at 3:45 pm. Fury had also handled dinner that night, which was good since Jean promptly got drunk and passed out on Fury's couch.

At the diner these days, Jean watches the stranger that his girlfriend's become and still thinks, there stands the most beautiful thing in the world. Afterwards, he wonders if this makes him somehow creepy, to crave his ex as an abstract want rather than a real person.

He asks Fury this once, and the other man is quiet for a long time before he shakes his head, and says no.

Second Crossing is Jean's habit. He returns to it even when the bad memories are mixed with good, just like he chain-smokes in bed sometimes, ashtray balanced on his chest. All his lunches are prepared in Second's greasy kitchens, and most of his silverware at home secretly belongs to the diner -- three spoons, five forks, one syrup jar and two saucers. A handful of jelly scoops, strawberry and grape. Salt and pepper shakers. Sugar packets.

Fury is his steady companion through all of this. Fury is the sidekick, the weaker friend, who hates Second Crossing's bathrooms ever since he went into the men's stalls once and screamed at the sight of a huge, black water-beetle sitting on the flush valve. Jean likes the fact that Fury can prepare pasta rations without burning them and doesn't seem to mind when Jean steals an extra helping.

He saw Fury get angry only once that he can recall -- a transformation as bizarre as an alchemist's, the way Fury's goofy little frown shifted into pitilessness, his eyes stripped of their naïve blundering. It had been when one soldier had been jesting about Second Lieutenant Hawkeye and Jean's compatibility together. Hands rounded, cupping the air as he colorfully described the woman through gesture, the man hadn't expected Fury's palm to come slamming down on the table, flipping over a butter knife by accident when it clipped the plate.

"Knock it off," Fury had growled. And, startled, the other soldiers fell silent.

Fair's fair, Jean figures. But when Jean asked if Fury was hot for the Second Lieutenant -- politely, between friends, with tact -- Fury only glanced away with that same unforgiving blankness.

"It's funny," is all the other man said. "No one expects me to lay claim to things."


And Fury hadn't answered.

Jean doesn't really understand Fury sometimes. The Sergeant-Major who doesn't joke when he should about certain lewd connotations, and who prefers to wait until the showers are all empty until he takes his turn. Who defends Second Lieutenant Hawkeye but doesn't seem to notice when the woman's hair is slipping out of its barrette and tickling the back of her neck, or the taut shape of her calves when she walks.

Since Hawkeye rarely comes up in conversation, Jean figures Fury is just hiding his romantic interests. That would make sense. It would explain why Jean doesn't comprehend what Fury means when the man scorns the chances of relationships for military officers -- how they're impossible, how nothing works out -- and also the fact that Jean suspects he doesn't really know Fury. Not one bit.

Fury, who is so much like a woman to Jean's mind, and not at all.