Jean Havoc leaned back and contemplated the ceiling. Once or twice, he sighed. When this didn't get a response, he sighed louder.
Across the office, the little space between Colonel Mustang's eyebrows twitched.
Breda hid a grin. This was going to be fun.
It took three more heavy sighs from Jean, and two eyebrow-twitches and an irritated pen-twirl from the Colonel, before one of them cracked. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, it was the Colonel. "Lieutenant Havoc," he said, with an air of carefully-restrained patience, "is there something you'd like to share with the group?"
"Well," Jean said, transferring his glazed look from the ceiling to his own hands. " . . . No," he said, and sighed. And sighed again.
Breda focused on his own work, studiously, while mentally counting down: ten, nine, eight . . .
By about 'four,' Mustang had closed his eyes as though drawing on a deep reserve of resolve. By 'two,' he'd broken his pencil in half.
And it was right then, when Mount Mustang was about to explode with visible frustration at his languishing subordinate, that Jean said, "It's just that Nancy dumped me last night."
Jean said he had the tactical ability of a pineapple, but he always managed to time it just right so he didn't piss Mustang off too much. It was, Breda thought gleefully, like he was some kind of savant.
"Did she," Mustang said flatly.
"I'm sorry," Fuery said, with perfect earnestness. "Was that the woman you brought to the pub last week?"
"Yeah," Jean said mournfully.
"She was really pretty," Fuery said, with such innocence that Breda was almost positive that he didn't know that he was dumping salt in the wound.
"Yeah," Jean said. "I really liked her. And I thought she was going to—"
Hawkeye, softly but very firmly, cleared her throat.
"—I thought she liked me too," Jean finished. He was no fool.
"That's all very sad," Mustang said, "but I think you can focus on your work without undue distraction, can't you?"
"Easy for you to say," Jean muttered, and then amended, "sir."
Breda grinned, but privately wondered if Jean was right or not. Sure, Mustang had a reputation as a ladies' man, but if you actually paid attention, there really wasn't that much evidence as to the truth of it . . . .
"I'm sure we'd all be happy to offer our condolences after work," Hawkeye said, shuffling through her papers, "but we are working under a deadline here."
"I concur with the Lieutenant," Falman said. "Your inability to form a lasting sexual relationship—"
"There, you see?" Havoc said, and gnawed on his thumbnail (as much a sign of nicotine withdrawal as of upset, truth be told). "You assume it's just that I want to get laid. I don't. I just . . . " He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I get lonely sometimes."
Breda would have bet he was the only one to catch the quick look that passed between Hawkeye and Mustang. Hm. But then Mustang sighed elaborately, put down his paperwork, sand said, "It seems you're determined to interrupt our work, so as much as I'm sure I'm going to regret this . . . ."
Breda couldn't keep the smile entirely off his face this time. Watching Jean's tightrope walk over the volcano-mouth of Mustang's patience was entertaining enough; watching Mustang playing Miss Lonelyhearts was going to be awesome.
"—and remember," Mustang was saying, "that women go out to eat, to drink, and to see their friends, not just to meet men. Sometimes not to meet men at all. That's why you may get a bad reaction if you interrupt a group of women sitting together."
"Right," Jean said, looking distinctly dazed. He was taking notes with a fervency that he rarely showed for his work otherwise. "So should I talk to the ones who are alone?"
"No," Hawkeye supplied. She was still doing paperwork, but Breda could tell that she was paying attention to the conversation, although he couldn't tell if it was with amusement or dismay. Probably some of both.
"No," Mustang agreed. "If you only pursue women who are alone, you look predatory—like you're trying to isolate them."
Jean scratched his head. "So I can't go after women in groups or alone?"
Mustang sighed. "The point is," he said, "the point is that there aren't set rules like that. You have to judge the situation, you have to determine whether someone looks receptive, you have to be sensitive to their reactions . . . ."
Jean looked flattened.
"I'm confident you can do this," Mustang said. "You aren't stupid, although sometimes you seem determined to act like you are."
"Don't you have any . . . straightforward tips?" Jean asked meekly.
"Well," Mustang said thoughtfully. " . . . Well. Ah, here's one: spending time with female friends often works wonders. For one thing, it makes you appear less predatory. For another, it makes it clear that you can relate to women apart from wanting to date them. . . . You can relate to women you aren't dating, can't you?"
"Yes!" Jean said, looking offended. "Of course."
"Good," Mustang said. "There's your start. Take a female friend with you to the pub. Now, can we please return to work?"
"Only . . . ." Jean said.
There it was again: the first warning rumbles of Mount Mustang. "Only what?"
"Only most of my female friends are either women I used to date, or women who turned me down."
"Ah," Mustang said. "That . . . might be awkward."
"You can say that again," Jean grumbled, and then brightened. "Of course, that's not counting you, Lieutenant Hawkeye—"
"No," Hawkeye said, very pleasantly, and signed a form with a flourish.
"Oh," Jean said.
In Jean's considered opinion, Heymans was not taking the problem seriously enough.
"You go out, you strike up a conversation, you flirt, it's not advanced alchemy, man," Heymans said that evening, popping the cap off a beer and handing it to him.
Jean took it, took a long drink, and said, "Easy for you to say." It was, too. Breda generally seemed to be able to find a girlfriend when he wanted to.
"C'mon, I'm crying you a river. You're good-looking, you're tall, you're fit—"
"—if you're hitting on me, Heymans, I am out of here—"
"—don't be a smartass. And you're a good guy. You're fun to hang out with."
"Thirty seconds with a pretty woman," Jean gloomed, "and I'm babbling like an idiot. And not just babbling but saying stupid shit."
Heymans clapped him on the shoulder. "In my opinion as your close friend, you need to suck it up."
But Jean did not suck it up, to Breda's amusement and Mustang's visible dismay. He brooded around the office, he sulked at the communal coffee pot, and Breda was beginning to believe that he really was lonely rather than just hard-up. Well, he'd always been a sociable type, popular with the troops, comfortable in company, easy to get along with unless, apparently, he found you attractive, and then his brain leaked out his ears. Pity, that.
It took Mustang three whole days to really lose his patience, which was longer than Breda had been expecting.
"Look," he said to Jean, "if I find you a—a wing-woman, someone to go with you and keep you from acting like an idiot, will you promise not to bring up your love life for a m— no, make that two months? Even if it doesn't work out?"
Havoc went, predictably, starry-eyed. "Really, sir?"
"Only if you promise."
And that would have been that—a day, time and location picked out, an oath extracted from Jean—except that that was when the issue with the court-martial of Major Tyndon came up, and Mustang got busy. Breda didn't realize quite how busy until a week later, when he paused by Mustang's desk at the end of the day. He said, "So who'd you line up for tonight?"
"Huh?" Mustang said, emerging from his paperwork like a man surfacing from a deep lake. "What about tonight?"
"Havoc. Plan: Get Havoc to Stop Complaining? Tonight? At the pub just off base? You set it up." Jean had already gone home to change, in fact.
"Oh," Mustang said. "Damn. I lost track of—"
"Ooooh," Breda said. "Well, I'm sure he'll understand."
"No," Mustang said, rubbing his eyes, "I did make a promise, after all."
"I was assuming I would fill in after all—" Hawkeye began wryly, but Mustang raised a hand to cut her off.
"I need you for the investigation tonight. No, I'll have to think of something else—damn it."
"Sorry, sir," Breda said with a wince.
Fuery, who had been tinkering with his listening devices again, said, "It's a pity I'm not really a Kate, or I'd fill in."
Mustang froze and slowly lowered his hands.
Breda, never the slowest on the uptake, said, "Oh, hell no. Sir."
Not that he expected it to help.
It was by far the strangest assignment Maria had ever been given, and that was saying something, considering that she worked closely with Major Armstrong. Her gaze went from the pile of filched women's uniform parts to the three men and then to Sheska.
"Do you think coral works on Kain?" Sheska asked, pawing through the collection of cosmetics they'd been able to rustle up from the lost-and-found box and from the disguise storage for Investigations. "Or should I try the terra-cotta?" Sheska leaned back anxiously to examine her handiwork.
" . . . I honestly don't know," Maria said, feeling helpless. "I don't wear much makeup."
"Me, either," Sheska said.
"I'd go with coral," Hawkeye said from her desk, without looking up. "Save the terra-cotta for Breda."
"That's what I always thought," Falman said in his usual deadpan. "From the first time I ever saw you, I thought, there's a man who'd be flattered by terra-cotta lipstick."
"You laugh now," Breda said, "but you haven't seen the wig Sheska rustled up for you yet."
"Are you sure neither of you can do this?" Fuery asked plaintively from beneath the mop of his wig.
"I have an assignment from Major Armstrong," Maria said firmly. She could probably have gotten out of it in time if she'd wanted to, but . . . no. Just no.
"I offered," Sheska said. "I don't understand why the Colonel said it wouldn't work—I'm sure plenty of women in pubs like to talk about sixteenth-century metaphysical poets—"
"Worth a try," Fuery said sadly, and then obediently turned his gaze upward as Sheska advanced on him with a mascara wand. Maria, for her part, turned her attention to Breda.
"Hold still," she said, giving the tub of foundation they'd found a stir. She squared her shoulders and steeled herself.
"Evening out my skin tone?" Breda asked. He looked as though he was right on the edge of having fun with this.
"More like: trying to cover your five-o-clock shadow," she said, and went to work.
Even though Mustang hadn't sent anybody (darn him), Jean thought, tentatively, that the evening was going pretty well. When the woman a few seats down from him at the bar had asked the bartender for recommendations for ale, he'd chipped in a suggestion, then, despite an overwhelming desire to move two seats down like a puppy, had waited for her to say, "So, beer aficionado?"
"Nah," he'd said, "just like something I can sink my teeth into, yanno?" He'd smiled, and made himself bite his tongue, not jump right over into her space, wait, wait . . . .
"You might like Wyndham's Ten Pound Porter," she's supplied, and then she'd moved closer to him,
Wonders never cease.
They'd quickly moved on from beer to small talk (her name was Maureen, she hadn't been surprised that he was a soldier—this was a just-off-base bar, after all—but he'd been a little surprised that she was an accountant, to which she'd laughed and said, "We're not all boring,") and then to sports (she favored the Eastside Tigers, while he still followed his hometown team), and it was going really well . . . and she was very pretty, curly red-brown hair and a wide smile, and . . . .
"Excuse me," came an unexpected, querulous voice from his elbow. "Hi. Jean? . . . Here I am."
He looked down to the person standing next to his stool. It was a woman he didn't know, pretty cute with big brown eyes and a mop of dark curls, albeit in a too-young-and-innocent-for-him kind of way. She was also nigglingly . . . familiar. Mustang's promised wingwoman?
"Hi," he said, then, to Maureen, "D'you mind if my friend joins us?" Did he know this girl? It was possible, his social circle and Mustang's did have some overlap. She was really familiar-looking . . . .
"Not at all," Maureen said. "I'm Maureen."
"Kate," the mysterious wingwoman said, and Jean inhaled his beer and nearly choked.
"How's it going?" Falman asked, straightening up to crane around the corner. His wig—ash-blonde hair, eerily similar to his usual premature greying shade although quite a bit longer—threatened to slide off.
"Fuery's doing fine," Breda said. "I'm not sure if Jean's figured it out."
"How long do we have to wait?" Falman said. "This wig itches, and I need to do my laundry tonight."
"If we all go out at once, he's going to blow it," Breda said, reasonably. " . . . Huh, she's acting like she likes him."
"She was acting like that before Fuery went out," Falman said, equally reasonably.
"You have a point. Here, okay." He straightened Falman's wig with a quick jerk of the wrist, skewered it in place with a bobby pin ("Ow," Falman protested) and gave him a shove in the small of the back. "Break a leg, Vanessa."
Fuery had been almost plausible, because he had a light tenor, because he was young enough to pull off 'cute,' and because, well, because unlike some people, he was clean-shaven. In fact, his air of overwhelmed terror had made Maureen take him under her wing. It probably helped that he wasn't trying to act like a girl. Maureen had warmed immediately to "Kate," and, once it became clear that "Kate" was a Just A Friend (he'd introduced "her" as a co-worker, which was doubly plausible because apparently someone had purloined a uniform skirt in service of the ruse), to Jean as well.
Maybe this wasn't such a bad idea, he'd thought, and had begun to relax.
He'd realized someone else was approaching by Maureen's climbing eyebrows, and had turned with a lurking sense of doom to look into the face of a very square-jawed, gimlet-eyed blonde. "She" was wearing trousers (oh, thank goodness, his brain failed on the thought of Falman in a skirt), a truly startling shade of red lipstick, and . . . clip-on earrings?
"Hi, Vanessa," he'd said, faintly.
"I require a drink," "Vanessa" had replied.
"I can imagine," he'd said.
Falman was really putting away the beers, and Fuery looked like he was going to pass out from sheer anxiety, but Breda, Breda was having a ball. He'd never seen what was supposed to be so humiliating about women's clothing (he knew for a fact that Hawkeye wore earrings and lipstick when she was off-duty, and sometimes dresses too, and there were few people in the country more competent or, let's be honest here, terrifying than her). The rising panic on Jean's face might have been a bad thing (they were friends, after all, and there was a difference between ribbing and torment), except that the woman (the real woman, that was) seemed to be having a fine time. She was still chatting and smiling, and every time she looked at "Vanessa" she appeared to be struggling not to laugh. That seemed like a very good sign to Breda.
He checked his lipstick, straightened his skirt, strolled up behind Jean, and tapped him on the shoulder. When Havoc turned, he said, "Hello, soldier!"
Havoc turned brick red and spat beer across the counter.
Maureen burst out laughing.
Fuery, quivering with ambient embarrassment, said, "Oh, please, could you just give him your number?"
Jean buried his face in his hands and moaned.
"I can't believe," he said, after Maureen had left, "I can believe, I can't, I'm going to kill—I don't even know who!"
"Jean—" Breda began.
"I was doing fine on my own! You were—well first of all it wasn't supposed to be you, and second, whoever it was was supposed to help my odds, not tank them!"
Breda picked up Maureen's discarded cocktail napkin and showed it to Jean. Written there in eyeliner pencil were the words, "Call me sometime, we can get drinks. Also, you have excellent friends," followed by a string of numbers.
"Oh," Jean said, and then suddenly he lit up like the rising dawn, a huge grin spreading on his face. "Oh."
"Hi, Roy. Your evil taskmistress leaving you alone tonight?"
"Oh, you know, she's not all bad. Anyway, I called because I thought you might want to know how Operation: Jacqueline went."
"Let's just say I haven't lost my touch for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat."
"It would have worked better if 'Brady' had shaved first, you have to admit. Someday you're going to be too smug for your own good."
"Hm. Yes. But not today."