Rating: Eh. G-ish.
Spoilers: None, really.
He grew up in the saddle, riding through the fields and scorching his fair skin in the sun. He was raised on an ethic of hard work, where effort yielded results and lack of effort meant starvation. It was an ethic akin to the principle of equivalent trade; however much you gave was what you received in return, except when the locusts came through. He grew up in the country, where the nearest neighbors were the family that lived across the river. He was raised in a place where the only time he had to touch firearms was to take his father’s rifle and fire it to scare the birds away.
He studied alchemy once, when he was much younger: a flight of fancy that became several years of lost time and wasted effort. He was nine, his brother twelve, and he was fascinated by what Michel could do with just a bit of chalk and a touch of the hand after only three years of study. Michel learned out of books and from the elderly alchemist who lived several miles down the dirt road. Jean learned from Michel and from Michel’s books, when the elder sibling was done with them.
Michel has a natural talent for alchemy, and his reactions seem effortless and graceful. He wants to practice medical alchemy, and studies the reactions which would transform plant material and chemicals into medicine. Jean has little talent for alchemy, and is too busy trying to make the reaction work to even think about whether it is elegantly executed; he works twice as hard and twice as long to produce the same end result as Michel. He suspects his elder brother had used up all the talent already, and left none for him.
By the time he himself is twelve, he is disillusioned. He is nowhere near as skilled as Michel had been after three years. Not even his sister Therese seems to think alchemy is Jean’s calling; the three year-old enjoys nothing better than smudging the edges of Jean’s arrays as soon as he finishes drawing them.
Three years pass. Michel, at eighteen, leaves the home in order to further his alchemical studies beneath a respected medical alchemist of Central City. Jean, at fifteen, stays home—surrounded by papers with scrawled arrays that don’t activate and equations that don’t add up—and listens to his father muse that if he isn’t any good at alchemy like his brother, he might as well stay on and take over the farm when his parents are too old to continue working the fields. After all, he is well suited to it, his father frequently laughs.
Jean never says anything in response to this statement of his father’s. It is rooted in fact, after all; of the few alchemical reactions that work for Jean, the one he is best at causes water vapor to condense and precipitate from the atmosphere in imitation of a rainfall: on a very limited scale.
When she is old enough, Therese takes to following Jean around the fields as he activates this array over successive patches of land. She likes to call him the watering can. This does very little for Jean’s self-image.
Jean has no desire to stay in the country and work a farm for the rest of his life. He waits three years, until he is of age; and then he enlists in the military with fanciful images of service in his mind. Those images die a quick and bloody death when he is sent to Ishbal as part of the detachment accompanying the State Alchemists. If not for his subsequent meeting of Roy Mustang, he might have tried to leave the military altogether.
Years pass; he gradually forgets much of the alchemy he wasted six years of his life on. He hones his physical prowess instead, requesting and receiving extensive training beyond that which most average soldiers get; he is ever mindful of what he saw in Ishbal, and he feels it necessary to be able to defend himself as well as possible. He remembers the times he has been cornered weaponless, and trains further in unarmed combat; he remembers the times he was run down with nothing but a standard-issue knife with which to defend himself, and learns to fight with a knife. Raised as he was, he does not find the hard work tiresome. It is ingrained in him; he must put in effort before he will see results.
His smoking habit grows worse. In between training and his service to Mustang, he snags a few moments to himself to lounge outside in the sun and have a good smoke to calm his nerves.
Sometimes he forgets he ever even tried to dabble in alchemy; but he is reminded of it every so often, since he is stationed in Central. He occasionally visits his brother, when he is off duty and Michel is not too busy to see him. His brother works with one of the major hospitals of Central, alchemizing medicine and conducting independent research of his own.
His parents are sent a notification of Jean’s achievement when he is commissioned as an officer. He visits home at this time. His parents do not concern themselves with military affairs, but they have little fondness for this institution that kills so many young men. And so they are not certain how to react to either the news of his commission, or to Jean himself when he arrives on their doorstep. His mother frets over him the entire time he is home, while his father grumbles that if he’d just stayed home and tended to the farm he’d have a longer life expectancy. His little sister, at the age of twelve, is merely enamored of his uniform and thinks it ‘romantic.’
When his mother is not fretting over the possibility of her Jean being shot at, she is scolding him for his smoking habit. His little sister thought that romantic too, until the smoke seeped into her clothes.
His parents know precisely how to react to the accomplishments of their eldest son, however. They beam openly as they read his letters aloud. Therese tells Jean privately that she thinks his job is more exciting. Jean replies to her that it’s exciting until somebody gets shot in the head.
Therese is not discouraged by that answer. She asks him if he goes to fight often. He can see the naïveté in her eyes, and wonders if his own blue gaze looks jaded to her. He replies bluntly that he spends most of his time behind a desk these days.
Four years later, few things have changed. He is twenty-five, still in the service of Mustang and well aware that his loyalty to the Colonel will cost him the advancement of his own military career. But he rationalizes that he never cared much about clawing swiftly up through the ranks. He doesn’t care to have too much power in such a military; he does not care to be too visible in such a corrupt institution. He privately agrees with Hughes: better to have a desk job than to be out in the field. He is, however, fully aware that if the situation calls for it, he will not hesitate to do what he must.
He is at his desk now, indulging in the fourth cigarette of the day and regarding a pile of newly-finished paperwork. He snuffs his cigarette in the ashtray on his desk, regards the curl of smoke. He is the last to leave the office, today. Usually the last to leave would be Hawkeye, but she is not in today. Illness; or so Mustang says.
He straightens his papers, puts them away. A blank sheet escapes his grasp and flutters to the floor.
He pauses. He puts the rest of the stack away. And then he picks up the blank sheet and a pen, and takes a moment to sift through his memory.
He draws the circle of one of the few alchemical reactions he ever got to work, and the only one he still remembers after all these years. It looks similar to the array of Mustang, having a cluster of triangles contained within a circle; however, the triangles all point in the opposite direction as Mustang's do, and there are only three of them. The alchemical symbol for fire is the triangle whose tip points upwards, while the symbol for water is the triangle whose tip points downwards. The three triangles he inscribes form an inverted pyramid: two on top with their points down, and another directly beneath it with its point also facing downwards.
In the empty space at the center of the three triangles, a line with a semicircle arcing downwards from it is drawn. It is an imitation of a falling drop of water: the alchemical symbol for precipitation. Above the cluster of triangles, where Mustang's array had the shape of a salamander, he inscribes instead the simplistic form of a nymph-like woman: undine, spirit of water.
Mustang’s array tweaks the levels of oxygen in the air to create combustion; this array influences both the hydrogen and oxygen present in the atmosphere, causing them to bond in a two-to-one ratio and precipitate as water.
He takes a painstakingly long time to do it, when compared to a seasoned, skilled alchemist. A practiced alchemist would have finished and activated the array by the time he finishes the circle and the three triangles. A practiced alchemist would have drawn and activated a second array by the time he finishes the image of the undine and touches the edge of the circle.
A faint, weak shimmer of light, and a misting of water droplets peppers the sheet of paper. He regards the feeble reaction with a tired look; and then he gets up and leaves. He can tell it will not be long before he forgets altogether.
The next morning, Mustang comes to the office early. He picks up the paper—crinkled from having dried overnight—and reads the spent array with an inscrutable look. And then he folds it up, and places it in the tray on his desk. A flick of his fingers, and it is ash.
He sincerely doubts that this sheet of paper is something Second Lieutenant Havoc wishes to see first thing in the morning.