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The plan had been as follows: fail AP Lit, get Mikasa as a tutor.

 

“This is very unlike you, Jean,” Mr. Smith slid the marked up essay over the desk. Angry red pen slashed through lines of neat blue. Jean had to look away. “Unorganized, half-thought out. Like you didn't even read the book, even though I know you did.”

 

Jean winced.

 

“But with the AP coming up so soon, we can't take any chances,” a peculiar light cut through Mr. Smith's eyes. Something sharp and knowing that made Jean shrink back in his seat. “Which is why I've put through a request with the counseling center to procure you a tutor for the next three weeks.”

 

The urge to pump his fist in the air and whoop was an intense one, but Jean settled for clearing his throat. Frowning, for good measure. And then, in his best defeated yet hopeful tone, “If you think that's for the best.”

 

“I do,” Mr. Smith tore away a post-it and began writing something down. “So, for the next three weeks, two or three times a week, you'll be meeting with Eren to work on novel comprehension and structuring essays—”

 

Jean slammed his hands against the desk. “Jeager?”

 

That strange gleam was back, underneath a cocked eyebrow. “Is there a problem, Jean? Eren Jeager has one of the highest GPAs in the class.”

 

Jean tried, “But Mikasa—”

 

“Mikasa Ackerman's tutoring schedule is full at the moment, as are several other perfectly suitable students. Plus, I think Eren's...unique perspective on some of the works we've read will help you gain a better understanding of literature as a whole, reaching far beyond some test,” Mr. Smith extended the note. “If you fail to meet with him, I won't drop your lowest essay grade. I understand you're attending Sina on a scholarship? It'd be a shame if they decided to take that away because you failed English your last semester of high school. I also won't hesitate to send a retraction of my recommendation letter. I've done it before, and if the situation demands, I will do it again.”

 

Jean scowled. He didn't even care if he looked every inch the seventeen-year-old he was—this was not how shit was meant to go down. He had the worst feeling that Smith knew that, too, something grossly smug in the gleam of his perfectly neat blond hair, the purposeful blankness in his eyes. Jean's eyes flickered over to where Mr. Smith's right arm was meant to be, the empty tapered sleeve, then snapped right back, face going hot. An accident from when he'd been in the Marines, or so the rumor went. Some fool in Jean's teen lit elective sophomore year actually asked how it happened, and while everyone else collectively cringed Mr. Smith had simply smiled and said, that Soul Surfer movie was actually about me. And everyone had laughed.

 

Everyone except Jean, because Mr. Smith seemed like the kind of guy who was actually secretly crazy enough to get attacked by a shark and live.

 

So really, Jean had no choice but to do what he said.

--

“That's what you get for trying to pull one over on Mr. Smith,” Marco said, picking distractedly at his lunch. “Plus, Eren's not such a bad guy. Loud, maybe. Super intense. But not a bad guy.”

 

Jean squinted. “You could stand to be a little more supportive.”

 

“Supportive of what?” Marco flicked a chip at him. “Your decision to bomb that essay just so you could get Mikasa as a tutor, putting your grade and your scholarship at risk? You're right—my bad, man. Try to forgive me.”

 

“He's crazy, Marco,” Jean leaned forward. “All that shit about his dad? Like, come on.”

 

Marco's glare was so severe it made Jean jump. “That's a shitty thing to say, Jean, and you know it.”

 

Jean flinched, then slapped on a wavering grin as he tried to joke his way out it. “Y''know, for a guy whose made me sit through Pride and Prejudice four times, you're kind of vicious.”

 

“For a guy that got a huge academic scholarship to Sina U, you're kind of an idiot,” Marco stood. “And it's a beautiful story, so don't even. Come and find me when you get over yourself.

--

He and Marco didn't fight often, but whenever they did Jean always took it like a wound to the chest. Suddenly he had no one to partner up with in Bio, no one to text during photo, no one to listen patiently in the hallway to his six part rage-rant how 'emo' as a genre has been completely bastardized and marginalized. Like holy shit.

 

Meanwhile, Marco was just fine because everyone loved Marco. Easily the most popular guy in their class, which just pissed Jean off even more. Marco could hang out with anyone he wanted, was invited to parties all the time, got asked out constantly. And Jean, who just didn't have it in him to be all outgoing and shit, was alone. Jean was alone and it echoed down to some darker place inside of him that said he would always be that way. An echo that followed him through this last four classes and stuck like glue to the walls of his mind as he doodled his way through the useless void that was ninth period Government.

 

Jean dropped his head against his desk—god, it was too fucking early in the week to be having an existential crisis. He needed a cigarette like friggin' air.

 

But no, because he still had to meet with Eren Jeager in the library in five minutes.

 

The final bell ran, and Jean whipped his head up. It wasn't like what he'd said about Eren wasn't true—everyone at school knew about his dad disappearing, and a lot of people talked about Dr. Jeager's apparent break down. It was gossip, it was what Trost did. Why couldn't Marco get that?

 

Staring into the abyss of his locker, Jean briefly considered sticking his head inside and slamming the door shut a few good times. Maybe decapitation would serve as a sufficient enough excuse for Mr. Smith, from one guy with a missing body part to another.

 

Probably not.

Sighing, Jean slung his bag over his shoulder and headed down the English wing with dragging feet. Prom posters covered the walls, and just added to the sinking sensation Jean had been feeling since sending out applications as he looked around and realized how excited everyone was to get out, and how much he really just did not care. Sina had seemed sweet Freshman year when his iPod was churning out a continuous loop of jaded pop-punk urging him to fucking kickflip out of Trost and never look back. Even still sophomore year, listening to oldies radio, filling out the odd ends and angles the summer had left him with, bones feeling too big for his body. Junior year had started much the same, but somewhere between 90s alternative hits and driver's ed, Jean lost something. Something he hadn't even been aware was a part of him until his insides continued to clench at the suddenly empty space there.

 

Senior year, and that hadn't changed much, except the Smashing Pumpkins turned to Modern Baseball, and the constant echo of what now? kept rebounding down long the halls of Jean's mind. It was like nothing inside him fit together anymore the way he'd always liked it to. Nothing felt like it was supposed to and it made it hard just to get through the day. Jean sighed, gripping at his backpack straps, halting right before the library doors.

 

He took a step back, then made a face—what, was he afraid of Eren Jaeger, or something?

 

No freakin' way.

 

He charged forward.

 

Jean didn't tend to make a habit out of staying at the library after the final bell—like most students, he hightailed it home. Then there were the stack regulars. Kids who couldn't find an extracurricular that suited them. Who for one reason or another avoided going home until the five o'clock late buses rolled around. Before he got his license he used to bus it with Marco, who liked to get the heavy homework done in the far corner table while Jean waited for him and read through most of the graphic novel section.

 

There was Annie from his Calc class, who tucked herself away by the windows and stared out at the football field, cutting down anyone who tried to approach her with the most severe glare possible. YmirandChrista, names always said in one breath, having a steady claim on one of the center tables where Christa was steadily reading through all of the classics (Jean remembers seeing her tearing through Atwood and Austen freshman year, and now she was all the way at Woolf). Ymir did her best to distract her. Footsie, popping gum, sliding notes, and when that didn't work she'd get very quiet, bored gaze observing everyone around her. She knew too much, and Jean avoided her like it was his job.

 

There was Bertolt, who liked to hide in the stacks, so quiet Jean wouldn't even know he was there until he pulled a book from the shelf and saw the kid's face peeking out over it. And more often than not Reiner wasn't too far from him, in the adjacent computer lab working on his latest mission to take down the school's proxy server and give his fellow classmates unlimited web access, usually only to get kicked out by Ms. Ral, the library aide.

 

And of course there was Armin, devouring the reference sections page by page. It was one of the few places he was seen without Eren or Mikasa. Mikasa was usually out on the field, dominating whatever sport was in season, and Eren...well, Eren did everything. Eren did everything, tried everything, usually for the sake of simply trying. It was gross and made Jean, who had gone out for the track team one semester and gotten bored with it almost immediately, very uncomfortable. Eren in general made him uncomfortable, which was probably part of the reason Jean had gotten into it with him so many times over the past fours years.

 

“You're late.”

 

Jean's mouth thinned. Already off to a stellar start. He turned, “By a minute.”

 

“Ten minutes,” Eren corrected, pulling out a chair at the nearby table. He hadn't even sat down, probably just stood by the door for the entire five minutes (because it hadn't been ten, fuck you), waiting to ambush Jean the second he walked in. Jean eyed him dubiously, like there might be some ulterior motive Eren had for picking that table in particular. Eren's eyes turned up to glare at him sharply. “You gonna stand there the entire time or what?”

 

Jean yanked the chair out and plopped down unceremoniously, slinking down with his limbs sprawling, face blanched into an unaffected expression he knew would eventually set Eren off, if he could keep it up. He lifted his eyebrows, a silent challenge, and he watched Eren's jaw tick.

 

“Look,” Eren said. “Neither of us want to be there, but we have to. So let's just focus on getting this over with.”

 

“Better idea,” Jean sat up, leaning forward. “You tell Smith I did everything I was supposed to do, and we both save ourselves a lot of time, stress, and headaches.”

 

“One, you're an idiot,” Eren counted off his fingers. Jean felt his hackles rise, face hot. “Two, Smith wants to see your progress, so regardless you're going to have to do extra work. And three, I signed up as a tutor to help people, no matter who they turned out to be.”

 

“How noble of you,” Jean glared. “But I don't actually need help.”

 

“Uh, I saw your last couple of essays,” Eren snorted. “Yeah, you do.”

 

Jean bristled. “I only failed the last one, and that was only because—”

 

“Your last essay might've been a mess, but at least you had a voice. The other two were so freakin' boring I couldn't even finish them. I've eaten cafeteria meatloaf that was less dry. Seriously.”

 

Jean stood, knocking his chair back as he braced his hands against the table. “Are you—”

 

“Here,” Eren slid a packet across the table, then took out his phone. “You've got forty minutes to rewrite this Hamlet essay. Then we'll go through it together, see what worked, what didn't.”

 

“What—”

 

“Clock starts now,” Eren tapped at his screen before leaning back, arms behind his head. He cocked an eyebrow at Jean. “Times a-wastin', Kirschtein.”

 

Jean fell back into his chair, seething as he snatched up a pen and sheet of paper. Jeager wanted an essay, he'd fucking give him an essay, piece of fucking shit—

 

He gripped the pen so hard his hand started cramping halfway, but he powered through the pain, powered through the heat in his face from having Eren just sitting there and watching him, powered through the utter humiliation of the entire situation that, admittedly, Jean had only half thought out, so convinced that for once things would go his way.

 

But he's Jean Kirschtein, so of course they didn't.

 

“Done,” Jean threw the papers at Eren, watched them scatter. “Read it and weep.”

 

“If your last two essays were any indication, I probably will,” Eren gathered the pages without batting an eye. Jean clenched his fists, chest flushing because there was no more room on his face. Eren wielded a red marker, circling something from time to time as Jean watched him like a hawk (it was only fair, after the way Eren had watched him). Then Eren read the essay again. And then a third time.

 

“Shit, how many times are you gonna read it?” Jean fell back against the chair, crossing his arms.

 

“As many times as it takes,” Eren shrugged, but spun the essay back around, pointing at the first paragraph. “You fixed all the grammatical and technical stuff, but you changed your thesis too much—you're playing it safe, and doing that makes the whole thing boring. Your original idea about paralleling Gertrude and Ophelia was really interesting.”

 

Jean couldn't even beging. “It's a high school English essay, Jeager, not a dissertation. I don't have to be interesting, I have to pass.”

 

“You have to have a voice if you want me to tell Smith you're doing what you're supposed to be doing,” Eren said. Jean felt his eye twitch, because was this kid for fucking real right now? Eren stood, collecting his things. “When we meet again on Friday you should bring an essay using the original thesis. I'll bring you some samples of my stuff so you can get an idea of flow, as well, because you really don't transition well from paragraph to paragraph, so learning how to rough draft each essay before the final one should help you with that.”

 

Jean scowled. “Test day, how the hell am I supposed to write a rough draft when we're only supposed to spend like forty minutes on each essay?”

 

Eren shrugged. “I always write a rough draft.”

 

“Let me get this straight,” Jean held up a hand. “You essentially write two essays...in forty minutes?”

 

“Pretty much,” Eren shrugged again. “Yeah.”

 

“How?” Jean stressed.

 

“Dunno. It's the way I've done it since middle school. I'm just used to it.”

 

Jean regarded Eren for a moment, in the afternoon light spilling in from the window, rising in yellow peaks and falling into long shadows over Eren's face. He felt his mouth stretch to say the words,“You're crazy.”

 

Then it stretched wider, into a smile.

--

“How'd it go?” Marco came up to him at his locker the next day, fight apparently behind them. Jean had honestly expected Marco to keep ignoring him for the rest of the week, but for whatever reason he was calling a truce. Not that Jean was complaining.

 

Jean pulled his Calc notebook out. “Exactly as I thought it would. He's crazy, Marco. Off the walls.”

 

Marco squinted, tilting his head. “You don't look that mad about it.”

 

Jean wiped a hand across his mouth, and sure enough it was turned upwards. He bit back the grin immediately. “Not gonna lie, when he's being particularly Eren-like, it's kind of funny. He's just so friggin' ridiculous, it can't not be.”

 

“Is that your excuse for the way you'd bait him on in lunch freshman year?” Marco snorted. Jean felt caught, the way he did now whenever someone saw through...whatever it was he'd tried so hard to project for four years. He swallowed, and Marco continued, “Because honestly, you were just as ridiculous.”

 

“Uh, was not.”

 

Marco snorted, slamming his locker. “You still are.”

 

“The hell is that supposed to mean?” Jean asked him, but Marco just turned and headed down the hallway with a sigh. Jean jumped, running to catch up. “Marco, what does that mean?”

--

Jean always liked Shakespeare, because he found it simple. Straightforward.

 

Eren made it not that way.

 

“He's crazy,” Jean tapped the book. “There's no getting around that.”

 

“I'm not saying that there is, I'm just saying it's not that simple,” Eren sighed. “There are a lot of different layers to Hamlet, and you can't just call him crazy, or a hero.”

 

“He can't be both,” Jean said, earning him a shush from Armin.

 

Eren tilted his head, intensity gone, replaced with something almost perplexed. “Of course he can.”

 

Jean let his forehead collide with the desk.

 

“Maybe it would be better for you two,” Armin slipped into the chair next to Eren, “to go do this somewhere else.”

 

Jean lifted his head, turning to look, and sure enough a dozen pairs of eyes met his stare. Even Annie had let a disinterested eye peek out from the sheath of her bangs.

 

“Why? We're not bothering anyone,” Eren said in his stupid, booming voice.

 

Armin smiled shakily, trying, “Eren—”

 

“C'mon,” Jean stood, closing his book. “I wanted to go get something from the vending machines anyway.”

--

That was when they started meeting in the cafeteria, rather than the library. The cafeteria kids were so, so incredibly difference from the stack regulars—Sasha was usually there stealing pudding cups from the kitchen while Connie stood lookout, Marlo trying to dissuade them while Hitch laughed in the corner and cleaned out the vending machines. There were candy bar pools on paper football matches, cigarettes traded for homework answers, heavy shit talking at every table. No one would care how loud they were being in the cafeteria, which was good.

 

Because they got pretty loud.

 

“I'm just saying,” Jean pointed his pen. “It doesn't make sense.”

 

“Except it does, and you're just dense,” Eren leaned his chin against his hand.

 

“The government can't control what people think, Eren. Thought police? S'ridiculous. They can't just get inside your head like that.”

 

“Except they can,” Eren leaned forward. “Do you honestly think this isn't happening right now? Do you think the things we're presented with in the news, in movies, everywhere we look isn't a design by the the powers that be to keep things a certain way? It may not be as blatantly totalitarian as it is in the book, but it's there. It's there, Jean.”

 

“I'd say you've lost it, but you've clearly never had it,” Jean sighed, leaning back with his arms crossed. “Look, I'm not saying it wasn't a good book, because it was. I just think it's reaching a bit.”

 

Eren rolled his eyes, popping the tab on his soda.

 

“Where do all great rebellions start, Eren?” Jean reached a hang out, tapping at the center of Eren's forehead. “They begin in the mind. Sure, maybe the government or the culture or whatever can control what you say and the words you say it with, and maybe everything you see, hear, taste and touch can be manipulated. But nothing can ever get rid of human feeling—the feeling of something not right. Of being trapped. So long as a person can feel...” Jean shrugged haplessly. “I don't know, I don't think you can get rid of or control something that innate, y'know?”

 

Eren rubbed at the place Jean had touched, eyes wide.

 

Jean flapped a hand. “I mean, even in the book Winston knew something wasn't right, in like, the core of his being. And I get why in the end he doesn't feel that way anymore, because of what they did to him, but if something like this happened to us, there's no was someone like you would—”

 

He stopped himself. He had to.

 

Eren tensed. “Someone like me what?”

 

Jean frowned, feeling challenged. “There's no way someone as hardheaded and insane as you would just sit by and not do anything when you knew in your heart that something was wrong. You wouldn't give up, ever.”

 

Eren blinked, slowly, deflating. “Oh.”

 

Jean shrugged, sitting back. It was just the truth. Eren was so strong in his conviction, in his everything, that he'd do anything in his power however limited) to help, to fix, to fight. That was the main difference between them, Jean always assumed. That Eren would give up almost everything to do what he thought was right. He was such a total Rorschach, and Jean was just a...a Winston Smith, through and through. That was what scared him, about the book, was that Jean saw himself too clearly in the pages. That if he was ever facing down something that monumental—

 

“You, too.”

 

Jean blinked. “Huh?”

 

“You would, too. I mean,” Eren waves a hand. “You'd grumble and drag your feet the entire way, and you'd probably have to be slapped around a bit, but in the end you'd do the right thing.”

 

Jean slunk further down into his seat. Eren sounded so earnest and sincere it was embarrassing. This was why he only had two friends—he was too direct. As opposed to the hoards of friends you've got? a traitorous voice asked from the depths of his brain. Jean scowled harder, and said, “C'mon, let's get this done. I want to go home.”

--

Light was fading fast by the time they pushed through the doubledoors at the back of the gym. Everyone was gone already, he realized, looking across the empty blacktop. They'd stayed later than usual.

 

“Check it out,” Eren pointed. “Someone left a ball.”

 

Jean looked, and sure enough tucked in the corner of the fence was a basketball, Eren running over to it, feeling the weight in his hand before spinning it on his finger like the gross show off that he was.

 

“You play?” Eren asked, bouncing it.

 

“Sometimes,” Jean lied. Jean hadn't played basketball since the one time he convinced Marco to shoot hoops in a park, which had ended in a badly sprained ankle with Marco carrying him all the way home on his back, resulting in a horribly awkward boner and Marco gently explaining in the way that Marco always did that it was okay, it was natural, that he understood. Somehow that'd just made it worse.

 

But he was almost eighteen now, and a low fire shouldn't be set in his belly because Eren Jeager smirked at him and threw the ball with all his might. It thumped against Jean's chest, echoing his heartbeat before he flailed, barely managing to catch it.

 

“C'mon,” Eren ran towards the hoop. “Try to get past me.”

 

Jean didn't know if it was normal, for Eren to be all up on him the way he was. Jean could feel the hot brush of Eren's breath on his face, smelling like syrupy sweet soda, and if Jean tried to turn away, Eren practically glued himself to Jean's back. It definitely wasn't normal that Jean found himself pushing back into it, the warmth of Eren's body, the friction between sweatshirts, wanting to feel it—

 

Eren knocked the ball out of his hands and took it to the hoop, chain net swishing with ease as Jean watched from the halfcourt line, breathing heavy. Eren grabbed the ball again, turning back to Jean and snorting. “You suck.”

 

“Yeah, well,” Jean scratched at the back of his head, more prepared when Eren launched the ball back at him.

 

Jean tried again—this time actually breaking away from Eren long enough to try and shoot, though he suspected Eren just did it to see Jean make a fool out of himself even further, the ball flying over the hoop entirely, crashing against the fence in a rattle that harmonized with Eren's laugh.

 

“Y-you looked so focused,” Eren cackled. “And then you just missed completely—I'm fucking dying.”

 

“Could you maybe stop screaming,” Jean grumbled. “Why the hell are you always screaming?”

 

“This is my normal talking voice, jackass.”

 

“Exactly my point.”

 

The ball rolled back to them, Eren stooping to pick it up. “Tell you what—sink a free throw, and you can write about Catcher in the Rye like you wanted instead of Frankenstein.”

 

Jean held the ball in his hands, mentally transferring every molecule of good energy through his fingertips, feeling the power manifesting before him, and—

 

This time the ball didn't even make it to the net, falling short by a good three feet and bouncing lamely against the blacktop in a hopeless stutter. Jean felt his body shake with rage at the sound of Eren's pfffftt of a laugh being held back. He clenched his fists. “Don't. Say. A word.”

 

“Jean,” Eren grabbed the ball, shoving it into Jean's stomach. “You're doing this all wrong—here. Get your feet shoulder width apart. Right, now, relax yourself.”

 

Eren was behind him, hands on top of Jean's as Jean gripped the ball, Eren's voice right in Jean's ear. His entire face felt like it was on fire, but he closed his eyes for a second and tried to let all the tension in his body go with one big, noisy exhale.

 

“Okay, now, just kind—yeah, aim and shoot. Use your wrists,” Eren's hands guided Jean's.

 

The next thing he knew, the ball swished through the net. Elation flooded Jean, and he pumped a fist in the air.

 

“This mean I can write on Salinger?” Jean asked, throwing a smile over his shoulder.

 

“Yeah right,” Eren snorted, dribbling the ball back.

 

What was maybe supposed to be a five minute thing ended up in a full on one-on-one match, heavy breaths pluming up in condensation from the cold, sun setting completely and the streetlights flickering on. Jean still missed more often than not, but he was definitely getting the hang of it. Everything echoed from footsteps to the ball bouncing, hitting the backboard, Jean's heartbeat in his own ears.

 

Eren's stomach growling, holy shit.

 

“It is pretty late,” Jean remarked, checking his phone. It was almost half past six, and sure enough his mom had tried calling him four times, sent several clunky, practically unreadable text messages that if he wasn't so used to would look like gibberish. And Jean was sure it was the rush from running around, but he suddenly felt bold, asking, “You wanna go get burgers or something?”

 

Eren let the ball roll into the corner of the court again, nodding. “Sounds good.”

 

Jean shot a text back to his mom, letting her know he'd be eating out tonight.

--

If someone had asked Jean Kirschtein freshman year if he would ever consider spending any amount of free time with Eren Jeager, he would've laughed in their face. Well, if it was Marco he'd laugh. Anyone else would warrant a bath in holy water and a lengthy, loud, four part lecture on why Eren Jeager was actually probably totally the anti-Christ.

 

Four years changed a lot of things, he guessed, because there they were, on the hood of Jean's car with full stomachs, looking up at the sky.

 

“It's getting warm,” Jean remarked.

 

“Yeah, that's generally what happens during the transition from winter to spring.”

 

Jean threw a wadded up wrapper at Eren's fat head. “Shut up, I was just saying.”

 

This is nice, he thought. Couldn't stop thinking. Every time he noticed how comfortable the cool air was, or how good hot food felt in his belly, or how the sky was so clear and dotted with stars Jean could never see from the city...Sina was in a metropolis area too. Lots of buildings, lots of lights. He probably wouldn't be able to see the stars from there, at least not well. His ribs gave a good squeeze.

 

As if Eren could tell what Jean was thinking, he asked, “You're headed to Sina in the fall, right?”

 

“Hm,” Jean laid back against the hood.

 

“Excited?”

 

Jean couldn't stop himself from being honest. “Not really.”

 

Eren nodded, like he understood. Jean liked where he was looking at Eren from, distantly realizing he'd never seen him form that angle, the underside of his jaw, the curve of his cheek muted by moonlight.

 

He asked. “What about you?”

 

“I'm,” Eren said, picking at the frayed thread on his jeans, “Not going to college.”

 

Jean propped himself up on his elbows, eyebrows drawn. “Wait—why the hell are you taking college credit courses then?”

 

“I was bored in the regular ones and I wanted Smith as a teacher.”

 

Jean made a face. “So what're you gonna do after graduation?”

 

“Travel. Work. See as much of the world as I can,” Eren stretched back, sliver of stomach peaking out from underneath his sweatshirt. A dark shock of hair riding on the elastic of his underwear, and Jean had to look away, cheeks warm. “I've never even seen the ocean before.”

 

There was something small sounding about Eren's voice then, in a way Jean had never heard him sound before. The Eren he knew was always bursting at the seams, ready to go, go, go—

 

This was like being in the eye of the storm, Jean thought. He looked down at his phone. “S'almost nine.”

 

“Shit,” Eren slid down off the hood. “Mom and Mikasa are probably tearing through the countryside looking for me.”

 

“You didn't tell them where you were?” Jean sat up. “You idiot.”

 

“I'm not the idiot failing English.”

 

“Shut up—be nice or I won't give you a ride,” Jean jumped down, motioning with his arm. “You're out in the boroughs, right? C'mon.”

 

Eren tried to stop him. “You don't have to—”

 

“Oh what, like you're gonna walk from here down to Shigan?” Jean snapped, yanking open the car door. “That's six miles, easy. Just get in the car.”

 

Eren stood, like he was ready to fight Jean for doubting he could make it six miles walking (six miles through the woods, because that idiot would definitely try to take the shortcut instead of walking around). But when Jean didn't back down, Eren sighed, crossing his arms. “Fine, whatever.”

--

Shiganshina was out in the flatlands, where boroughs were separated by sprawling farmlands or dense forests, and while the first borough was only about a fifteen minute drive off the parkway, it might as well have been in another world to city kids like Jean. Parked outside of the Jeager house, he waited for Eren to get to his front door, safely inside before Jean yanked the gearshift into reverse.

 

Jean pulled out of the driveway, thinking about Dr. Jeager. Jaeger's practice had been an extremely well reputed one—like, even Jean had gone to him when he was a kid (before he met Eren and demanded his mom start taking him somewhere else.) Then, out of nowhere, Jeager shut down his practice, and a week later he was gone. Everyone suspected breakdown, or affair, or both, because what kind of man just up and leaves his job, his family like that? Jean's stomach turned with an uneasy flop as he pulled up to a red light. Christ, he'd reveled in the gossip when it'd happened sophomore year. Listed his own theories to anyone who would listen; that Dr. Jaeger had ties to some crime rings and was selling them prescription drugs and had to leave town when a deal went bad. That he was supplying illegal steroids to high school and college athletes and was going to be found out. That he was addicted to Oxycontin and lost his mind. That Eren was probably headed down the same path.

 

He rubbed at his eyes eyes, and when he took his hands away he realized the light had turned green. Jean floored it.

Chapter Text

“Give me your number.”

 

Jean screamed, slamming his locker door shut on his finger as he jumped, whirling around to face Mikasa as she stood there in the hallway with her dark eyes tunneling into him. Beyond him. Into another fucking plane of existence, maybe.

 

“Wh-what?” Jean clutched a hand over his booming heart.

 

“Give me your number,” Mikasa somehow already had his phone, Jean patting at his back pocket belatedly and realizing it wasn't there. “Don't stay out late like that with Eren without telling me. Ever.”

 

She shoved the phone back into his chest.

 

“Uh,” Jean balked.

 

Her eyes flickered down, and she adjusted her scarf. “Your finger is bleeding, by the way.”

 

He watched her float off, the gloss of her hair catching brilliantly even under the florescent lights. She was still, easily, the prettiest girl he’d ever seen in real life, but his heart wasn't beating out of his chest because of that--something else entirely. Something that felt close to being both scared and hopeful, if there was such a thing. Sticking his bleeding finger in his mouth, he couldn't help but think that was easily the weirdest thing that’d happened to him in a long time. How Mikasa, after years of him chasing after her full throttle, slipped sideways into his life while he wasn’t even looking. There wasn't even the constant low-grade buzz of jealousy in knowing that she was only noticing him now for Eren's sake.

 

Because as strange as if felt, it also felt just as right. Jean was beginning to sense a pattern there.

--

They were supposed to only meet two or three times a week, as requested by Mr. Smith, but somehow more often than not he and Eren found themselves hanging around in the hallways after classes let out, sunlight slanted through the wall of windows making their shadows long and distorted along the lockers as they made their way to the cafeteria, shoving each other over and getting yelled at by teachers.

 

They burst in through the double doors, out of breath. Jean wheezed, “Christ, Coach Levi is even more terrifying with a bat his in hand.”

 

“He's not that bad,” Eren throws his bag onto their regular table. “He's just tense because of that stunt the baseball team just pulled with that bus.”

 

Jean waved a flippant hand, sliding in across from Eren. “Literally, nothing I care less about than sports.”

 

“You would say that,” Eren snorted. “Freakin' emo kid.”

 

“You don't—” Jean had to compose himself. “You literally don't even know what emo is, so check yourself before you wreck yourself, Jeager.”

 

“We're setting the paper football score today, once and for all,” Eren ignored him, pulling a book out from his bag. “Prepare yourself.”

 

“The 'emo' you think of today is a total bastardization of what emo really is. It’s emotional hardcore, not weird guys who care more about screaming and their hair than they do about like, the music,” Jean stressed.

 

Eren started folding a sheet of paper. “Mmhmm.”

 

“It was hardcore with a melody, an offset to the hardcore that emerged in the late 70s as punk rock has finally taken root enough to start sprouting some branches. I mean, Rites of Spring, Dag Nasty, Jawbreaker,” Jean counted off of his fingers. “Bands that wrote about like, relationship woes and feeling things but with melodic, hardcore songs. Then somewhere in the 90s it was morphed into a kind of early-stage hipster style, and once that happened 2000s bands like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance got swept up in the whole aesthetic perpetuated by like, Hot Topic, and labels latched onto as a way to sell records and make money. Honestly those guys were pop-punk more than anything, if we even want to start drawing the genre lines, but like—”

 

“Hold up your hands,” Eren said, aiming the paper football.

 

“It’s the degradation of youth culture at the hands of capitalism, is what I’m saying,” Jean grumbled, holding his hands up, Eren taking his shot and scoring. Jean took the paper football and positioned it. “Something that was raw and honest was turned on it’s head just so record labels could make money--I mean, that’s nothing new, but still. Fucked up.”

 

“I guess,” Eren shrugged, holding up his hands. “I don't really listen to music, so I wouldn't know.”

 

Jean flicked the paper football just as Eren said it, missing completely. “What do you mean you don't listen to music?”

 

“Ha, you missed.”

 

Jean leered in. “Even Mikasa listens to music.”

 

He would know. He'd made it his personal mission freshman year to get close enough when she had headphones in to hear what she listened to. A lot of classical, a lot of Edith Piaf. He remembers downloading “Non, je ne regrette rein” and listening to it on a loop, imagining Mikasa in a floor length chiffon dress, hair done in a 20s style updo, lounging on a balcony overlooking like, the French countryside or something.

 

“Just hold up you damn hands. Y'know, you're only this distracted because I'm winning.”

 

“None?” Jean pressed on, “None at all?”

 

Eren squirmed in his seat. “Styx is okay. And I like the theme song to Friends.”

 

“Frie—” Jean ran a hand down his face. “This explains it. This explains why you're so friggin' weird.”

 

“What's weird is that you’re so intense about it.”

 

“Yes, me and the rest of humanity are weird because we relate to music, the single most relatable form of art on the planet.”

 

Eren narrowed his eyes. “Books are way more relatable.”

 

Jean didn't even have it in him to be angry, because it was just such an Eren thing to say. “You would think that.”

--

“You sure you don't want a ride?” Jean asked as they pushed through the gym doors.

 

“Nah, the late bus'll be here in fifteen minutes,” Eren shrugged, pulling something out of his bag. Jean pulled out the pack of Parliaments from his back pocket, sticking one in his mouth. Eren eyed him. “You shouldn't smoke.”

 

“Yeah?” Jean flicked his lighter, taking a good drag. “You shouldn't read Bret Easton Ellis.”

 

“Would've thought a chain smoking alternative guy like you would salivate over Ellis.”

 

“Surprise surprise, Eren Jeager's wrong,” Jean exhaled, then smirked. “Why, thought you'd impress me with your edgy choice in authors?”

 

Eren snorted. “Get over yourself.”

 

“I'm not hearing a no.”

 

Eren's only response to that was plucking the cigarette from Jean's lips, throwing it on the ground and stomping on it. It actually took a minute for Jean's brain to catch up, rage flooding him. “You fuck—that was my last one!”

 

“Call it payment for the shitstorm I walked into for coming home so late the other night.”

 

Jean felt his cheeks burn, and made himself look away, scoffing, “You really got in that much trouble?”

 

“Nah,” Eren stretched his arms over his head, shirt riding up. Jean averted his eyes, pretending to check his phone. “My mom was just floored I was out with someone who wasn't Armin and I wasn't getting into fights or something. She was actually kind of happy, but that didn't stop her from lecturing me for damn near an hour.”

 

“Only you,” Jean snorted, shaking his head.

 

“She's always kind of worried about me like that. I don't get it, actually, but, y'know,” Eren shoved his hands into his pockets. A beat, then, “And after my dad left it just got worse.”

 

Jean swallowed, throat suddenly tight. “Yeah?”

 

“He wasn't crazy,” Eren said. “I know the shit people around here say—he wasn't. You don't have to be crazy to do something shitty. Just human, I guess.”

 

Jean's heart was beating really fast, and he wondered if Eren knew Jean was one of those people saying things. Probably. Eren missed a lot of things that seemed obvious to most, because he was seemingly so single-minded sometimes, but he wasn't oblivious. Or so Jean was learning.

 

“What uh,” Jean scratched at his neck. “Do you know where he is?”

 

Eren shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

 

Jean winced. “Doesn't it bother you?”

 

“Some days more than others,” Eren said, and turned to look at Jean. “Not too bad today, though.”

 

Jean stared at Eren for a moment longer when something over his head caught Jean's eyes, the slow rumble of a school bus pulling out from the front loop and onto the street. “Pretty sure that was the late bus.”

 

Eren whipped his head around, watching the bus speed off down the road as he groaned, stuffing hands into his hair, shouting after it, “Are you fucking kidding me?!”

 

Jean threw back his head, cackling. “That's what you get for ruining my last cigarette, asshole!”

 

“Shut up! Get your keys out, you're taking me home now, fucker.”

--

They wound up stuck on the parkway during rush hour, windows rolled down and radio turned up.

 

“There are a lot of bands on here,” Eren remarked, scrolling through Jean's mp3, and made a face. “Some of these names—Andrew Jackson Jihad? Like c'mon.”

 

“I only like a few songs.”

 

Eren hummed, scrolling more. “Like, 90% of the people on here I don't recognize.”

 

“That's because you're a freak who doesn't listen to music.”

 

“I know this one though,” Eren tapped at something, a familiar synthesized beat filling the speakers. Jean felt his face burn, a smug voice from the passenger's seat going, “Thought you'd definitely be one of those people preaching the evils of pop music, emo boy.”

 

“First of all, no, that's mad stupid,” Jean unzipped his hoodie, yanking his arms out because it was suddenly way too hot. “Second of all, Nicki Minaj is amazing, so don't even.”

 

“Your face is literally the color of a tomato,” Eren threw his head back, laughing. “Holy shit.”

 

“Shut up.”

 

“Relax,” Eren snorted. “Mikasa blasted this song for about two weeks straight when it first came out. I actually really like it.”

 

Jean side-eyed him. Somehow Eren jamming to “Super Bass” made a lot of sense. It was earnest and honest and addictive, just like Eren was—Christ, just when Jean thought his face was cooling down, a second flush swept in. Boy, you hear my heartbeat running away, like a drum and it's coming your way.

 

“You should get over—exit's coming up,” Eren said, breaking through the haze of Jean's thoughts.

 

“Right,” Jean swallowed.

 

“But y’know, if you miss it, it's not a big deal,” Eren went on. “You can just get off at the next one. You'll have to uh, circle around the woods. It's like twenty minute drive.”

 

“No, yeah, I don't think I can get over, so,” Jean could get over, if he really wanted to.

 

“S’okay,” Eren picked at the hole in the hem of his shirt. “I’m not in like, a rush or anything.”

 

Jean cast a side glance at Eren, wind rustling dark hair, sunset catching on warm skin. He reached down and held the iPod out to Eren again. “There’s a playlist on here called Pop Off. You should put it on, and I will explain to you why anyone who claims modern pop is the downfall of music is actually probably the anti-christ.”

--

As they pulled up in the fading daylight Eren's mom stood on the front lawn, taking sheets down from the line. She was pretty, Jean realized, heart skipping a beat. Eren looked just like her.

 

At that thought Jean's face flared with heat, from his neck to the tips of his ears as Mrs. Jeager (did she even go by Jeager anymore?) waved at them. Eren's fist collided with Jean's shoulder. “That's my mom, you piece of shit.”

 

And Jean wasn't about to correct him, so he just ducked his head as Eren opened the door and slid out of the car.

 

“Eren,” his mom called out, walking down the dirt path from the gate. Now, in the daylight, Jean could actually see the state of their farm. The gate was busted and rusting, their front lawn more dirt than grass with the roof in need of obvious repair. Jean knew that the Jeager farm was old, probably in the family for near a century, because most of the Shigan land had a similar story behind it, but without the money the practice brought in it seemed like it was falling apart, piece by piece. Jean thought about his town house in suburban Trost, the three cars in the driveway. He thought about the holes in Eren’s clothes. “Who's your friend?”

 

Eren let out a long, exaggerated sigh. “Mom this is Jean, Jean this is my mom.”

 

“Hi, uh, ma'am,” Jean waved lamely.

 

“I remember you,” Mrs. Jeager's eyes turned sharp, smile still in place. “I used to have to go down to the school because of all the fights my son got into with you.”

 

Eren shouted, “Why do you say that like they were all my fault?!”

 

“Because they were,” Jean cut in.

 

“They were not,” Eren whipped around to point a finger. “And you know it.”

 

“Jean, are you staying for dinner?” Mrs. Jeager asked. “We're having spaghetti.”

 

“Ah, no thanks!” Jean jumped, feeling his face warm again. “My mom's expecting me, so...”

 

“Another time, then,” Mrs. Jeager smiled. “It was nice to see you, especially with how much Eren talks—”

 

“Ma,” Eren whined, pulling at her arm. “C'mon.”

 

“Right,” she let herself be pulled. “Bye Jean, drive safe.”

 

“Bye. Thanks,” Jean waved, for like, the third time, catching Eren's glare as he slammed the passenger's door shut. Jean waited for them to get to the gate before he put the truck into reverse, watching Eren and his mom get into some kind of fight, him waving his arms before she reached out and pulled on his ear. Jean rolled the windows back up, reaching for the volume dial and turning the music back up again, in hopes that the music would help subdue that weird feelings making his chest so tight.

 

Then, suddenly, he got an idea.

--

“I came to the conclusion last night that the reason you're actually such a freak is because you don't listen to anything that helps channel the weird,” Jean crashed down across from Eren at their cafeteria table, reaching into his bag.

 

Eren glared. “What's your excuse then?”

 

Jean spun the disc case on the table. “I put together some stuff I think will help you on your journey to becoming an actual human.”

 

“When you talk like that I have no idea what you're saying.”

 

Jean ignored him, and slid it across the table. A pause, so deeply quiet and sudden in the space of Eren's usually booming voice, followed as Eren reach forward and picked the case up.

 

“You,” Eren stared down at the disc, saying slowly, “made me a mix.”

 

“It's not a mix,” Jean tapped the cover. “It's your education.”

 

Eren flipped it over to read the back track list. “Looks like a mix to me.”

 

“Literally yes, it is a mix,” Jean huffed. “But what about the subtext, Eren? What about reading between the lines?”

 

Eren looked up sharply, considering Jean peculiarly. Jean felt his heart thud inside of his chest, the way it did now whenever Eren's intense eyes turned on him. It felt familiar, at least. Eren nodded. “Okay.”

 

Jean swallowed, regaining composure as he took his folder out of his bag. “Now prepared to be dazzled by my Frankenstein paper.”

 

Eren, who usually would've shot back with something equally snotty, was noticeably quiet. The paper was marked up, apparently satisfactory, and Eren said something about doing something with Mikasa before taking off without so much as a vending machine trip, leaving Jean in the empty cafeteria feeling like something had shifted, wholly and completely.

 

And just like that, the last tutoring session came to an end.

--

Jean drove home that day unable to shake the marrow deep feeling of off-ness buzzing inside of him, and wondered if the mix had been a bad idea.

 

He hadn't given it much thought (or well, he had. The songs themselves had been picked meticulously). But the thought of giving the mix to Eren had actually been an uncomplicated one. He traded mixes with Marco all of the time. Bumped them in Jean's truck on drives out of the city to smoke down by the landfills. (Well, Jean smoked. Marco had long since given up on trying to get him to quit.)

 

He flopped onto his stomach and pulled his covers over his head. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

 

A pillow came smashing down on the back of his head. “Stop moping, you promised we'd study for Calc together.”

 

“I'm not moping,” Jean shot up, smoothing down his static wrecked hair. “So shut up.”

 

“You could actually give Morrissey a run for his money,” Marco sighed. “Is this because Eren didn't like the mix you gave him?”

 

Jean's face exploded with heat. “How the hell do you know about that?”

 

“Armin told me.”

 

“Since when the hell do you talk to Armin?” Jean squinted. “What do you even talk about?”

 

“Since always, and how stupid you and Eren are, usually,” Marco started clearing the soda cans from around Jean's bed into a plastic bag, smiling simply. “Jean, do you know why I've made you watch Pride and Prejudice so many times?”

 

“It's a great story?” Jean recited. “Matthew Mc-Whatsisface looks great in those high waisted Napoleon pants?”

 

“No—well, yeah, but besides that,” Marco clunked down onto the floor. “It's because I thought you could get a lot out of the story. Two people who kind of misconceive a lot about each other...who grow and see the error of their own prejudices...? Any of this ringing a bell?”

 

Jean looked away, totally not up for having this conversation right now. Or ever. “Not in the slightest.”

 

“Nevermind,” Marco sighed, pausing, then, “So I heard you put Fall Out Boy on it.”

 

Jean's scowl deepened. “Stop.”

 

“Stop what?” Marco tied the bag

 

“Stop making that face.”

 

“I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” Marco laughed, holding his hands up in defense. “I just think this crush you have on him is cute—”

 

“Shut the fuck up!” Jean smacked Marco in the face with his pillow. “I do not!”

 

Marco just kept on laughing, no matter how hard Jean wailed on him.

--

Mr. Smith asked to speak to him after school, and while Jean could assume it was about his essays, it didn't stop him from going through the mental catalogue of every bad thing he'd done over the past four years and feeling his insides swoop back and forth all of ninth period, turning violent as he walked down the the English wing after the final bell.

 

“Your essays show a dramatic improvement,” was the first thing Mr. Smith said. Jean felt his spirit rise out of him. “I have no doubt you'll do well this Monday, as well as in Sina.”

 

OhthankfuckingGod.

 

“Thank you,” Jean said, feeling his spirit rise out of his body.

 

Over the weekend the weather had decided to get warm—too warm, for a school with no AC. Jean had to abandoned his well loved hoodies for t-shirts he realized he'd outgrown since last summer. Even Mr. Smith had chucked the blazers in favor of dress shirts with his left sleeve rolled up. Bolo ties were apparently something worn year-round, though.

 

“I suppose I made the right call asking Eren to tutor you,” Mr. Smith said. “And you've made an impression on him, as well.”

 

Jean wanted to ask what the hell that was supposed to mean, but couldn't find his voice.

 

“We're almost done. Three weeks left,” Mr. Smith went on. “Excited?”

 

“Yeah,” Jean said, and it sounded lame even in his own ears.

 

Mr. Smith leaned forward. “You don't sound excited.”

 

“I was, I just—” Jean tries, sitting up straight before bowing his head and stuffing fingers into his hair. “I don't know.”

 

“Probably not,” Mr. Smith said congenially. Even in the heat, he looked so composed. So together, when Jean could actually feel himself unraveling, layer by layer. “Go with that—what do you mean when you say you don't know?”

 

“I mean, there are a lot of things lately I've realized I used to want,” Jean swallowed, feeling sweat drip down his temple.

 

Mr. Smith cocked an eyebrow. “But not anymore?”

 

“Not so much,” Jean looked away. “No.”

 

“Well then,” Mr. Smith shrugged, leaning back. “Do you know what it is you do want?”

 

“I—” Jean's voice failed. Eren Jeager's big, stupid face flashed through his mind. “I'm just not sure whatever I want is gonna be at Sina.”

 

Somewhere in the hall two kids run by, laughing and then shushing each other as they go past the open door. Freshman, Jean guessed, as he made eye contact with one of the girls who blushed bright red, stumbling as her friend shoved her. Mr. Smith stood and walked over to the doorway, and for a second Jean thought Mr. Smith was going to tell the girls to quiet down, stop running. Instead he smiled down the hall before shutting the door gently.

 

“I'm a teacher,” Mr. Smith turned, walking back over to his desk. “An AP one, at that. I'm meant to encourage all of my students to go on to achieve a higher education. To present college as the only viable option.”

 

Jean watched him walk over to the window.

 

“But college isn't one size fits all,” Mr. Smith said. “There are some who will go and love it, flourish, some who won't. There are plenty who will go because they think they have to, and will get by fine enough. There is a system in place here, and it is not one that is necessarily beneficial to all. In fact, I would say it hurts far more than it helps. That being said, I have no doubts you would do well at Sina.”

 

Jean's ribcage kept squeezing, so hard he thought his heart might burst.

 

“But if that's not what you really want anymore,” Mr. Smith turned to him, smile curved on his face. “You should consider what else is out there. There's a whole world, I've heard.”

--

Jean left the school that afternoon feeling like he was falling, and each step he took he couldn't be sure he'd ever touch ground again. He tried, honest to god, when he finally made it home to get into the big book of practice tests his mom bought for him, which lasted for all of an hour before he chucked it and started reorganizing his vinyls, which turned into him listening to the Smashing Pumpkins' entire discography in reverse chronological order. The rest of the weekend followed suit, ignoring Marco's texts and staring at his ceiling until it was Monday morning.

 

The seating in the testing room was alphabetical, and he of course was right behind Eren, just like he always seemed to be. K always after J, which was the root of many an ill-fated group projects in the few classes they'd shared together over the years. The windows on the far wall were open, and every once in a while a strong breeze would push through. Jean would suddenly be overwhelmed by the smell of graphite, sweat, cut grass, Eren.

 

The test, when it came down to it, was like any other test. It wasn't the kind that could be crammed for, and it wasn't the kind that could be gauged whether or not it was easy. Jean felt in the end he did the best he could, and finished with enough time to recheck his essays—the AP essays were too structured for Eren's brand of edgy writing, so Jean stuck to the format he'd used so many times in the past. He did use Frankenstein and 1984 for his comparison essay, though, and when the proctors said it was okay to go, Jean wanted to find Eren and tell him that.

 

“How was it?” Marco asked, finding him in the hallway crowd later. “I think I did good, considering.”

 

“Yeah,” Jean kept looking around though, trying to spot Eren, to tell him about Frankenstein.

 

“Armin!” Marco waved an arm. “Yo! How'd it go?”

 

“I think my hand is about to fall off,” Armin shook out his wrist. “I don't even think my handwriting was legible at the end.”

 

“Could you imagine being one of the people who has to grade these things?” Marco asked, and he and Armin continued going back and forth like that as Jean gravitated away from their world.

 

He finally found Eren heading out the back gym doors, already halfway across the blacktop. “Yo, Jeager!”

 

Eren froze, took a good long moment to turn around and go, “What?”

 

Jean jogged up to him, and in a paralyzing moment, standing there in front of Eren, he realized how stupid the whole thing was—Eren didn't care what books he used for the comparison essay. Eren didn't care about the hours Jean spent picking songs to burn onto a disc.

 

Eren didn't care about him.

 

“Uh,” Jean scratched the back of his neck, warm under the sun. “How'd you do?”

 

“Fine,” Eren answered. “You?”

 

“Yeah, uh. Same,” Jean fidgeted. “That was a dumb lens for the comparison essay, right?”

 

“It was okay,” Eren shrugged. A pause, then, “I have to go.”

 

“Yeah! Yeah, me, too,” Jean didn't really have to go. Didn't really have anywhere he wanted to be.

 

“See ya,” Eren waved as he turned and made his way across the field.

 

There was a nice one Connie, then the rhythmic beat of rubber hitting pavement, basketball rolling into Jean's foot. He bent and picked it up, not feeling the weight in his numb hands.

 

“Yo, Kirschtein!” Reiner shouted from the court, waving, Bert and Connie and Sasha in the background. “Toss it here!”

 

Which would have been the nice, smart thing to do.

 

So obviously it wasn't the thing that Jean did.

 

Instead, he flung the ball with all of his might at the back of Eren Jaeger's stupid, fat head.

 

“OW!” Eren whirled around, face furious. “What the hell, you asshole?!”

 

“You're so fucking dense!” Jean shouted back. “Why can't you be normal for two fucking seconds of your life!”

 

“I'm not the one going around throwing fucking basketballs at people's heads,” Eren stomped over. “The hell is your problem?”

 

“You!” Jean got in Eren's face. “You're my problem, Jeager.”

 

“Whoo! It's like freshman year all over again!” Connie called from the far side of the court.

 

“Shut up, Springer,” Jean spat.

 

“Don't tell him what to do,” Eren shoved Jean back by the shoulders. “Stop acting like you're better than everyone else just because you're alternative and your daddy bought you a car. You're not.”

 

“I'm sure as hell better than you, asshole,” Jean shoved back. “At least my dad’s still around—”

 

Eren launched himself across the two feet of space between them, and that was how they ended up scrimmaging on the black top with fifth period lunch surrounding them. In the four years it'd been since their last big physical fight, Jean had forgotten—Eren was actually really fucking good at fighting. For even punch Jean snuck in, Eren wailed on him with three or four, and every time Jean could use his strength to flip them over, Eren was able to hold Jean off long enough to flip them back.

 

They wound up on the grass, Jean doing his best to hold Eren down, who was loosing steam, pinning him by the wrists. That didn't keep Eren from bucking, trying to kick Jean off, disntictly off. Frantic. About halfway through the first wave of punches Jean wanted to end it, but everytime he tried to back off Eren would start swinging again.

 

“Fucking—Eren, stop!” Jean yelled.

 

“Get off!” Eren shouted. “Get off, get off, get off!”

 

“Only if you—” Jean pressed used the body weight he'd been holding back and straddled Eren's hips to keep him from kicking.

 

Oh.

 

Oh.

 

Jean felt the world slip out from underneath him, though that might've just been Eren shoving him back onto the grass, extra punch in the gut to punctuate the push.

 

Mikasa and Marco were both there suddenly, on appropriate sides, Marco crouching next to Jean on the field asking, “Are you okay?”

 

Jean licked to blood away from his lip and spat. “Fine.”

 

Mikasa was standing in front of Eren, hands on his shoulders, saying something in a low voice, but Eren just stared off to the side, towards the wood, face red. Not because of the fighting, Jean realized.

 

Marco started pulling him up. “Shit, I thought you guys got over this.”

 

“It's not something you get over,” was all Jean could think to say, letting himself slump into Marco as he stood.

 

“The hell is going on here?” Coach Levi swooped in. He cast a look over to Jean, face contorting in clear contempt before he swung his glare around to Eren. “What happened?”

 

“Nothing,” Jean tried to cut in between them. “It—”

 

“It was my fault,” Eren said, “I threw the first punch. I started it.”

 

“Eren,” Mikasa gripped at his shoulder.

 

Coach let out a long, put-upon sigh, pinching at the bridge of his nose. “Alright—both of you, with me. Now.”

--

Sitting outside of the principal's office with four empty seats between them was possibly the most grossly, horribly awkward moment of Jean's entire life—and for someone fresh out of puberty, that was saying something. It was familiar, at least, in that they'd been there at least a dozen times before, though now Jean felt too big for his seat, the heft of whatever was between him and Eren feeling too big for the room. The school. The world.

 

So the peeling beige paint of the walls, the ferns, the faded rug all paid witness to the spectacle of Jean Kirchstein and Eren Jaeger slumped over in uncomfortable chairs, pouting and feeling each others presences on a molecular level, but trying their hardest to ignore it.

 

Until Jean couldn't stand it anymore. “Why'd you lie?”

 

“I didn't,” Eren whispered back. Or, well, his version of whispering. “I threw the first punch.”

 

“Yeah, but I threw a—” the secretary cut him off with a shush, and Jean ducked his head, turning to eye Eren's squirming profile. He whispered, “I threw a basketball at your head.”

 

“Didn't think it'd look good for you, getting suspended with a two weeks left of school for fighting. Y'know, with you leaving for Sina and all,” Eren pulled at the frayed threads of his jeans, split at the knee on one side.

 

“I'm not...” Jean cast his eyes towards the front desk, throat dry. “I'm not going to Sina. Not anymore.”

 

That finally got Eren to look at him. A thousand yard stare, burning into Jean. “Since when?”

 

Since just now, Jean thought. “Since a while. Look, it's not important. Eren, listen, I’m really so--”

 

“For some ungodly reason, the principal has seen fit to give me the responsibility of punishing you two, seeing as both of you are saying the fight was your own fault,” Levi sauntered out of the office. “Mostly I think it has to do with the fact that he's a fat piece of shit who can't be bothered with anything outside of baseball season.”

 

Jean almost swallowed his tongue.

 

“But all of the new equipment is coming in next Monday, and I need someone to organize the lockers,” Coach crossed his arms. “So, on top of serving a full week of extended detention, both of you will spend every day after school next week cleaning out the old stuff, taking inventory of the new, and putting it away. Neatly.”

 

“Where the hell is the school getting money for all new sports equipment?” Eren asked.

 

“Don't ask stupid questions,” was all Coach said before turning sharply on his heel and heading out the office door.

 

Eren and Jean walked out of the office together, watching Coach walk towards the English wing, and in the empty hallway they shared a look. Coach Levi (first name? Last name? Who the fuck knew) was another ex-marine who, despite his short stature or even because of it, was actually beyond terrifying with his bored voice and probing eyes. According to the rumor mill, he was there when Mr. Smith lost his arm. God only knew how he ended up a teacher, but Coach Levi ruled over the gymnasium with an iron fist and took the wrestling team to nationals every year.

 

So really, it wasn't like Jean and Eren could say no.

--

The equipment, apparently, was a generous donation from some of the parents of the kids on the baseball team—a team that had stolen a school bus after an away game and crashed it into a telephone pole. The new equipment was a way of smoothing over the situation without any real damage.

 

Cleaning out the locker had been done in silence, an afternoon spent twisting around each other with Eren refusing to even look his way as they trotted out box upon box of sports paraphernalia, half of which Jean couldn't even name if he tried. When Coach Levi had vaguely mentioned equipment, Jean had assumed just the baseball stuff—but apparently, he meant everything in the locker, which included tackling dummies, wrestling mats, kick balls, lacrosse sticks, etcetera. It took two days to get everything out, another to spotlessly clean the entire locker (twice, because the first time Coach deemed unacceptable), and then the following two unpacking, sorting and taking inventory of all of the new stuff.

 

Which was where they started running into problems.

 

“This seems,” Jean said, opening a box of tennis balls, “unethical. Making us perform manual labor—is this even allowed? I don't think this is allowed. I have asthma.”

 

“I heard you the first seven times,” Eren huffed. He had a bruise high on his right cheek where Jean had clipped him, a scratch on his forehead, knuckles to match. “Would you rather've gotten suspended?”

 

Jean sighed, and picked up a clipboard. He probably didn't look too much better with his split lip and black eye, scrapes on the backs of his arms where he hit the pavement, bruises up and down his flank, chest, back. He wondered if Eren's body had them too, heat licking low in his belly at the thought.

 

“I already counted those,” Eren snapped, kicking at the box.

 

“Yeah, well, you miscounted the rackets and the shin guards,” Jean didn't even bother looking up. “So I'm double checking.”

 

“You miscounted. I counted right the first time,” Eren grunted. Jean ignored him and kept counting until, just to be a dick, Eren started calling out random numbers.

 

Jean flung the pen at him.

 

Eren looked like he was about to burst, but pulled it back with a noisy exhale through his nose, closing his fist before, “Why don't you just...go home, and I'll tell Coach you had like, an emergency or something.”

 

“Okay, one, you are the shittiest liar on the face of the planet. Two, Levi wouldn't believe you even if you weren't. And three,” Jean sauntered over to where Eren was pressing himself into the wall. “I don't get why you want me gone so badly.”

 

“Isn't it obvious?” Eren said, shuffling a bunch of papers, refusing to look up. “We hate each other. We've always hated each other.”

 

Jean braced a hand against the wall, leaning in. “Is that why you got hard when we were fighting the other day—because you hate me?”

 

Eren made a choked sound, clipboard clattering against the desk.

 

“I felt you,” Jean wanted to sound composed, but his voice was thin, hands shaking as he pressed in closer. “How much you were getting off on it.”

 

Eren didn't make a move to shove him away. Just stood stock still against the cinderblock wall, fists balled at his sides.

 

“It makes you hot, right? When we fight?”

 

Eren fisted a hand in the front of Jean’s shirt. “Fuck you.”

 

“Yeah?” Jean grabbed at Eren hips, slotting their legs together, rocking forward, feeling Eren rock back. “Is that it? Is that what you want?”

 

Eren's hands shot up, snaking around the back of Jean's head and pulling him down for a crash of a kiss. If you could even call it that—it hurt more than it felt food. Felt more like Eren was trying to press into Jean so incredibly hard that any second pop, they'd just become one body. Heat blasted Jean's nerve endings as he realized, heart trying to punch it's way out of his chest, that that's exactly what he wanted. God, he wanted their skin to melt, fuse, wanted to feel their hearts touch, boom together, wanted this inescapable need to fucking consume him—evaporate his blood and drown his lungs and pulverize his mind until there was nothing left but Eren fucking Jeager and the way he was biting at Jean's lower lip.

 

“Asshole,” Jean hissed at the sting, hands gripping into dark hair, forcing Eren's head back just enough that he could fuck his tongue into Eren's mouth. With their fit together so nicely that any movement set a low burn deep in Jean's belly, rubbing up against Eren's thigh in a sweet friction that wasn't anywhere near enough. None of it was enough—

 

The door banged open, and just like that the world fit back on it's axis, Eren and Jean tearing apart with Coach Levi standing in the doorway, face like a gravemarker, dark in the light spilling in from behind him.

 

“I hate teenagers,” was all he said, cutting through the space swiftly and grabbing Eren by the collar of his shirt. “Kirschtein, when I come back I want this room to be perfect.”

 

“I—” Jean tried, but one look from Coach, cast over his shoulder, made Jean's mouth click shut, and seconds later the door echoed it, the last thing Jean seeing was Eren's red ears through the small window as he was yanked out of sight.

--

Jean finished organizing the locker, apparently to Coach's satisfaction as he stood looking over the inventory lists and drawled that Jean could leave, adding, “Next time keep it in your pants until you're out of my gym.”

 

He walked out through the back gym doors, feeling his phone in his hand, wanting to—what? Call Eren? He didn't even have the kid's number. They weren't friends.

 

Jean's back collided with brick, head tilted back as he leaned against the wall. The night air was cool, pushing against his flushed skin, but his body was intent on remembering the heat and press of Eren for as long as it could. Gripping hands, open mouth, impossibly hot. So, so impossibly hot. Jean lifted fingers to his mouth, jumping when his phone buzzed in his pocket.

 

Marco. What happened? Armin is freaking out

 

he says Eren’s not talking

 

Jean

 

He held the power button until his screen turned black, sighed, and headed for his car.

--

Marco came over that night, but Jean refused to tell him what happened, and after a while Marco eventually stopped prying, grabbing his stuff and going, “If you don't talk about it I can't help you.”

 

“I don't want your help,” Jean stared at the blades of his ceiling fan, going round and round. “I don't want anything.”

 

Marco's face dropped. “We both know that's not true, Jean.”

 

In the quiet of his bedroom, Jean was slammed with the freight train of thoughts he always tried to avoid. How Marco was really the only person who cared about him. How much of a shitty friend Jean was most of the time, how he didn't get why Marco stuck around. Why anyone would ever stick around for such a clusterfuck of a human.

 

Why Eren would ever stick around.

 

Jean rubbed at his face, falling back onto the floor with a groan. The noises of outside drifted in with a breeze through the open windows, too hot to keep them closed anymore. He thought about that night, sitting on the hood of his truck with Eren, looking up at the sky and just talking. Jean's heart gave a good, warm tug, Mr. Smith's voice floating into his mind, asking, What do you want?

 

He wanted to lie on the floor for the rest of his life and never have to move and just listen to an endless loop of Unknown Pleasures forever. He wanted to go back to the equipment locker, the blacktop, the night on his truck, the library, freshman year—

 

When Jean opened his eyes again, it felt like the first time in a long time, body completely and instantly awake. Which was good, because he had his last day of high school in half an hour.

Chapter Text

Jean still had to go to all his classes, though those class periods were spent signing yearbooks (don’t even get Jean started on that ridiculous ritual) and listening to teachers make long winded goodbye speeches that were probably meant to sound inspirational and not as ominous as they actually did. Jean honestly couldn't be fucked to care, avoiding it all, especially the expressions on certain faces. The strangest kids looked the saddest, and it was hard for Jean to let himself feel connected to them when he'd spent almost four years feeling the exact opposite. He buried himself in his phone instead, texting Marco, i’m rlly sorry about last night and i’m rlly sorry i’m just a shitty friend in general. youre always there for me even when i dont deserve it. sorryx1000

 

And Marco sent back, you’re not a shitty friend. yyoure my best friend but sometimes you let your pride get in the way of that\

 

i’ll forgive you on one condition

 

you have to sign my yearbook B)

 

Jean wrote, you evil motherfucker

--

When Jean finally found Eren, he was alone at his locker after the second period bell, most of the hallway cleared. He walked up, raw heart wailing, wall of windows casting a shadow against blue metal. Jean swallowed. “Yo.”

 

Eren ignored him, grabbing his bag out of his locker, not turning around.

 

Jean rubbed at the back of his neck. “I wanted to talk to you.”

 

Eren slammed the door shut, locking it and turning. There were dark circles under his eyes that probably matched the ones under Jean's. “So talk.”

 

Jean didn't want to call it a speech, what he had planned to say, but it was essentially along those lines—a long winded rant he'd gone over in his head about fifty times on the drive to school, all thought first period, ribs clenching tighter and tighter with each passing minute. He was going to talk about how everything changed, how he changed, about wanting things and realizing other things. A whole big section was dedicated to his re-understanding of sexuality and its fluidity, and there might've been a nicely sized metaphor about people being bags of Halloween candy, ending with his favorite Bukowski quote, what matters most is how well you walk through the fire.

 

But in that high school hallway, against the lockers, Jean could only think to say, “Come with me.”

 

The face Eren made was priceless. “What?”

 

“Just,” Jean ran a hand through his hair. “You can either stay here all day and watch everyone sign each others' yearbooks--which, so stupid, don’t even get me started--and cry when they play “Time of Your Life” over the loudspeaker and go home tonight and think about how you don't think you feel how you're supposed to feel and-and whatever, or,” Jean shrugged, grabbing Eren's bag, “You can come with me and we'll go someplace else.”

 

Eren stood still, hand still gripping at the backpack Jean took before it tightened, yanked it back. Jean felt a pleasant numbness take every nerve in his body, absorbing the crushing feeling of sadness that was trying to rock his system as he watched Eren strap it over his shoulder, his decision clear.

 

“Well,” Eren charged past him. “Let's go.”

 

Jean's head spun. “Uh.”

 

“Don't tell me you're wimping out. This was your idea,” Eren grunted, walking backwards down the hall. “I assume we're taking your tru—shit.”

 

“I thought I heard you two out here,” Mr. Smith placed a hand on Eren's shoulder. “You should really watch where you're going, Eren.”

 

“Um,” Eren, for all of his bluster, had always and would always fall short in the face of those he respected. Eren, who seemed to have no sense of boundaries with anyone else, was almost too mindful around teachers like Mr. Smith. Jean rolled his eyes.

 

“Last day of high school—you two should get going,” Mr. Smith thumped Eren on the back as he walked past. “There's still so much to do.”

 

“Mr. Smith,” Jean felt escape him before he could stop it. The teacher turned, looking like he knew what Jean was going to say before Jean even knew. He guessed he shouldn't have been surprised when all that came out was, “Thanks.”

 

Mr. Smith smiled, and nodded, and continued to walk down the hall to where Coach was waiting at the corner. Jean could hear them, faintly.

 

“...such a sentimental fool,” Coach grunted.

 

“I suppose,” Mr. Smith replied. “By the way, how's the new equipment?”

 

“Hm.”

 

Eren and Jean stood in their wake, and Jean was…not exactly sad to go, but sad to leave. He turned his head, and Eren was looking like he felt the same. Jean bumped their shoulders together, “We should go.”

--

“Oh,” Eren said, “my God.”

 

“Relax, we're almost there.”

 

“You said that two hours ago,” Eren struggled against his seatbelt, practically lying sideways in the passenger's seat. “We've been driving for five hours.”

 

I've been driving for five hours. You've been whining,” Jean reached down and tossed the iPod at Eren. “Put something on.”

 

“I am not listening to that weird screamo shit again—”

 

“Okay, one, the Gallows are not screamo, Jesus Christ. Second, excuse me for assuming you of all people would enjoy loud screaming.”

 

Eren tapped at the screen, quiet for a moment. “I liked that one song.”

 

“There are billions of songs in existence, Eren, you're going to have to narrow it down just a bit.”

 

“The one you put on that CD for me,” Eren snapped back. “The last one.”

 

“Oh,” it was the first time Eren had mentioned the mix. Jean felt his face warm. “It uh--there’s a playlist--”

 

“Let me guess,” Eren drawled. “It’s the one called For Chodeface.”

 

“Literally, the folder you kept all my essays in was labeled Dicknose. You don’t get to be mad.”

 

“I’m not mad,” Eren said, then again, softer, “I’m not mad.”

 

“You seemed really mad,” Jean knew they weren’t talking about some simple name calling shit. They both knew. “I’m sorry, y’know? For all the dumb shit I said.”

 

Eren shrugged. “S’okay.”

 

“It’s not, though,” Jean gripped tighter at the steering wheel. “None of what I said was okay, and I’m sorry.”

 

Eren was really quiet for a beat, and when Jean glanced over at him, he was scrolling through the playlist. Then, “I’m sorry for avoiding you ‘cause I didn’t know how to deal.”

 

Jean snorted. “Been there, man. Been there.”

 

The song kicked in a few seconds later. A slow, sweet piano swept in with the hum of a sound voice that breezed through the speakers and dove straight into Jean's chest cavity, clenching around the intrusion of all too familiar words. This had been the one big If song, the breakdown in the middle just a chant of I wanna love you, I wanna love you, I wanna love you that'd made Jean take it off the playlist at least three times, and in the exhausted conviction of 4am, he slapped it on the end and burned the disc. He honestly just loved the song and thought Eren might really love it too, so the lyrics shouldn’t matter.

 

But they did. Oh man, they did.

 

“Did you,” Jean swallowed, forcing out, “Did you like it? The CD?”

 

He watched Eren shuffle in his peripheral vision. “Hm.”

 

The broke Jean's nerves, fresh wave of frustration soothing them. “Hm? What the hell does hm mean?”

 

“I don't know—what the hell did the CD mean?” Eren turned to face Jean. “What the hell does any of this mean?”

 

“I don't understand what you're asking.”

 

“Well I don't understand anything that's happening right now!” Eren's hands flew up. “I don't understand anything at all! The last three weeks have been the most confusing fucking time of my entire life and it sucks because I feel like I don't know anything anymore and I hate it.”

 

“Well, we're only seventeen, so I don't think that's going to change anytime soon,” Jean veered off onto the exit. “Welcome to the rest of your life, I guess.”

 

Eren turned to face forward again, crossing his arms. A long, noisy sigh. “I like the CD.”

 

Jean smiled to himself before reaching over and rolling down the windows. Warm air gushed into the truck.

 

“It smells,” Eren shouted over the wind, “weird.”

 

“Weird?”

 

“Like,” Eren inhaled. “Salty. It smells salty.”

--

Eren stood at the edge of the boardwalk, staring down at the sand dubiously.

 

“Am I going to,” Eren squatted down and pressed a hand against it, “sink into it if I stand still for too long?”

 

“It's not quicksand, idiot,” Jean sighed, corners of his mouth tuning upwards. “Just go.”

 

Eren glared over his shoulder. “You go.”

 

Jean rolled his eyes, lifting his foot and kicking at Eren's back until he tumbled forward.

 

“You piece of shit!” Eren spluttered, flinging a handful of sand at Jean. “What the hell!”

 

“You're fine,” Jean rolled his eyes, holding out a hand, which Eren dutifully refused, standing on his own.

 

He jumped up and down before standing, wiggling his toes. “I always thought it would hurt. Like sandpaper or something.”

 

“Soft, right?” Jean stepped onto the sand. “My parents used to take me down here a lot when I was a little.”

 

“I bet, you freakin' rich kid,” Eren grunted. Jean shoved him, and Eren shoved back before shouting, “Last one to the water has to drink it!”

 

They sprinted down to the shoreline, kicking up sand at they went, running each other over. In the end, Jean let Eren win, but only because—

 

“Shit,” Eren gasped as the water rushed up to greet him. He laughed. “It's cold!”

 

“It's only May,” Jean said, looking around and realizing how empty the beach was. In the distance he could make out specks of people dotting the shore. A few tethered to the water with fishing line.

 

Eren was preoccupied making footprints in the wet sand, stomping around like a giant kid, smiling at the smack the soles made every time they hit the earth. Frowning when the water came up and made them fade, then eventually disappear. Making more to make up for the lost ones.

 

“The first time I ever spelled my name was in the sand,” Jean explained, using his foot to draw big, block letters. J-E-A-N.

 

Next to it, E-R-E-N appeared in even bigger letters. Eren shot a shit eating grin up at him. Jean knelt down and squiggled with his finger is dumb. Eren made a choked noise before shoving Jean over and writing IS A JACKASS under Jean's name.

 

Neither of them saw the huge wave breaking behind them, sudden surge of rough water enveloping them.

 

Eren spluttered. “Oh my god, it tastes like sweat. Cold sweat.”

 

“Don't be gross,” Jean pushed his hair back, rubbing at his burning nose. “Ah, shit.”

 

Eren sat back, popped up on his elbows as he stared out at the horizon. “Can't believe you drove six hours to the ocean.”

 

“Yeah well,” Jean shrugged, scratching at the back of his head. “You said you'd never been, so.”

 

“You're—” Eren snapped to look at him, eyes huge and shining as a grin stretched across his face. “You're crazy.”

 

“Shut up,” Jean smushed a hand into Eren's face.

 

Eren grabbed his wrist, smashing his own hand into Jean's face before they both toppled, Eren caging Jean in with elbows and knees. Jean spluttered, laughing, pinching Eren's ear until his steady chant of ow's was loud enough to echo and Eren's fingers jabbed into his side, hard and sudden.

 

That was when Jean realized how close Eren was, drops of water dripping off the point of his nose, his chin, his hair and onto Jean. His throat closed up, and he tried to swallow, staring up into those eyes. Eren's stare felt like a song, too familiar, and Jean was instantly taken back to every other time he'd ever held that same gaze over cafeteria tables, classroom desks, blacktops. He said, “Eren.”

 

The kiss was bruising, consuming, and it made Jean ache for it. For more than the chaste aggression Eren was giving him. Jean opened his mouth against the tight seam of Eren's lips as his hands came up to wind into dark hair, pulling.

 

Jean had spent a lot of his spare time lamenting over the lack of kissing in his life. Other than a scarring, botched spin the bottle kiss with Sasha freshman year and the whatever he'd had with Eren in the equipment locker, the kissing department was left suspiciously understocked. So long walks, space outs in class, time spent trying to fall asleep were all filled with blooming, warm thoughts of kissing. More, too, but kissing always to start. Seventeen and never been kissed, and it killed him. Killed him in the twist of his heart as he watched the glowing numbers on his clock fall further and further and further into the early morning hours, fingers gripping at sheets that were only ever warm from his own, single body.

 

Now his fingers were gripping at the soaked material of Eren's shirt, never wanting to let go, never wanting to stop as the electric want coursed through his body at the touch of their tongues. And he realized all of those lonely daydreams were worth it, for this kiss with Eren Jeager covered in sand, everything tasting like salt.

 

They only pulled apart when another wave crashed against them.

--

“Sand got everywhere,” Eren said, peeling his shirt off.

 

“We could drive back tonight,” Jean shrugged. “But I was thinking we could just crash in my truck.”

 

“That—yeah, that sounds good,” Eren's face was pink. Jean realized how it sounded, how things were different now. They weren't just two kids on a road trip, crashing. They were two kids, alone, spending the night together. Two kids who kind of really liked each other. Two kids who could reach out and touch each other without anything to fear but their own self-doubt. Jean's belly flooded with heat, feeling every inch the seventeen-year-old he was.

 

“It's whatever,” Jean offered, like a legitimate answer. “We don't—”

 

Eren cut him off earnestly, “But I want to.”

 

“Oh,” Jean felt his entire face burn. “Okay.”

 

Eren paused for a second, looking caught, before lunging forward and kissing Jean square on the mouth. Jean's hand flew up, cupping Eren's jaw, keeping him there. Though not for long, because Eren pulled away, just enough for his eyes to flicker up before his head fell against Jean's shoulder.

 

“What’re we doing?” Eren whispered. It was the first time Jean had ever heard him speak so quietly, he had to laugh.

 

“No clue,” Jean said, reaching a hand up tentatively before deciding fuck it and sliding it into Eren's hair. “I think I like it, though.”

 

“I think I like you,” Eren said, in that stupidly honest and raw way Eren always said things. Then, as he picked his head up, “We should have sex.”

 

Jean pinched Eren's nose. “You don't just go around saying shit like that.”

 

Eren's hand whipped forward and grabbed Jean's nose, pinching hard. “Fuck you, I can say what I want!”

 

“Ow, let go, shithead.”

 

“You let go first.”

 

“I was going to then you grabbed mine.”

 

“OwowowOW, you're pinching mine way harder then I'm pinching yours!”

 

“Am not.”

 

“My nose is way smaller than yours—it doesn't require as much force.”

 

“Calling my nose big isn't going to make me let go.”

 

“Fine,” Eren said. “On the count of three.”

 

“Fine,” Jean grunted. “One.”

 

“Two.”

 

“Three.”

 

Neither of them let go.

 

“Shit, it hurts—stop,” Jean shouted, laughing, trying to pull back, but only pulling Eren with him.

 

You stop.”

 

“You didn't let go!”

 

“Neither did you, ass!”

 

“Fine!” Jean let go. He did it. He let go first.

 

And just like that, Eren let go too.

--

Rain sluiced down the windows, though it was getting harder to tell as they steamed up against panted breaths of hopelessly hot hair. They were kissing (making out, Jean though with a small thrill), with Eren's legs hitched up over him as they became wrapped up in each other in the back seat, and Jean wasn't afraid anymore to put his hands where he wanted them, because Eren made it clear he wanted them there too. They’d spent most of the night wandering around the empty boardwalk, ordering greasy Chinese and Eren trying to teach Jean how to do cartwheels in the sand before the drizzle got to be too much to stay out in, and they retreated to the truck. Jean played records on his iPod dock and Eren read out loud from some Vonnegut book until skin became more distracting than words.

 

Morning was breaking, every thing that 5 am blue as Jean tugged at the elastic of Eren's underwear. Being naked happened faster than Jean could actually process it, before he could let any stings of self consciousness pick at his mind. Not with the way Eren was sucking on his tongue and wrapping a hand around Jean's dick, tugging. Jean followed his lead, hesitating for only a moment before he caught Eren’s eyes, raw want clear as day in their gleam.

 

So, so, so hot.

 

“Fuck,” Jean moved his arms around Eren’s waist, pulling him in close and sweeping him under. Somehow Eren’s shirt was the only piece of clothing that’d been able to hold on, but just barely, rucked up under his armpits and letting Jean touch and lick and bite the warm expanse of skin there. “I wanna--”

 

“Do it,” Eren baited him on, wrapping his legs around Jean's waist. “C'mon, do it.”

 

Rutting up against Eren, locking his wrists against the door with one hand as Eren panted in his ear, hot and needy with tiny whines when the rhythm was right. And Jean needed this, he needed this, he needed this—

“Fucking come all over me, do it,” Eren bared his teeth, lifting his hips up.

 

“Shit, Eren, ah!” he hissed, spilling all over Eren's stomach.

 

Eren smirked from below him, glint in his eyes provoking. “That was fast.”

 

Though it dissolved when Jean slithered down, cramped in the small space of the back seat but he made it work, taking Eren in his hand and jacking him quick and dirty. Staring at the flushed tip, Jean became aware of how swollen his mouth felt, tongue poking out between his lips, thinking distantly that he had no idea what he was doing. He leaned forward, licking the underside of the head lightly and loving the the sound Eren made as he did. So he did it again, a longer strip before taking the head into his mouth, sucking while his hand tugged around the base.

 

A hand came down and gripping into Jean’s hair, yanking him back just as Eren came, catching on Jean’s jaw, his cheek. Eren shook, groaning, pulling and coaxing Jean back up. Reflexively, his tongue darted out and licked away the come it found there, bitter and hot and salty but Jean liked it. Liked that is was Eren’s, wiping the rest off with his hand and licking it away under Eren’s incredulous stare. He grinned. “S’good.”

 

“You’re so fucking weird,” Eren huffed, clearly more embarrassed than anything, and Jean snorted, rearranging them to lie on the seat together.

 

Post-orgasm Eren was easily the best thing Jean had ever seen—instead of the strung out mess he usually was, Eren had melted, malleable in Jean's arms and he burrowed closer, dazed and warm and sweet in the way he kept pressing kisses to whatever skin was closest.

The way he kept murmuring things Jean couldn't make out. The way he clung. Jean thought, a small, barely there thought, that they couldn't go back now. There had been something safe in the way they were, in knowing their limitations, of what lines couldn't be crossed as friends. Now things were different (amazing, incredible, everything), and the safety net was gone, and they were just two kids staring down into the abyss of something massive. The rest of their lives.

 

“If you want, I can drive back,” was the first thing Eren said.

 

“I was in the Driver's Ed car with you. No way in hell,” Jean groped the floor blindly for his clothes.

 

“I was trying to be nice, asshole,” Eren threw a shirt at Jean's face. “And I got my license way before you did.”

 

“A month. You got it a month before me. And if I recall, you were the one begging me to teach you how to parallel.”

 

He sat up. “And if I recall, you were a huge jackass about it and wouldn't help me.”

 

There was a sheen of sweat along Eren's shoulders as he searched for his own clothes, caught in the sweet light of early morning. Jean felt his heart throb, and wanted more than anything to melt into that sun patched skin. An impossible closeness with the boy who had, somehow, gotten past all of Jean's bullshit. Made him want with a kind of want his seventeen-year-old bones had never felt before, knowing full well that things would not always be like this, because it was in their nature to change. Wanting that part too, even.

 

Jean leaned over the seat and pressed his open mouth against Eren's warm shoulder. It tasted salty.

--

They drove home the next morning, taking the long way around the mountain bend to see springtime in the trees, stopping at some podunk little diner halfway, eating their weight in what the menu called disco fries and then getting chased out by a gang of bikers Eren decided to get into it with. Pulling up to the Welcome to Trost sign felt like a lot of different things Jean couldn't put into order, but the prevailing sting of bittersweet rung out over everything else.

 

“Whelp,” Jean said, pulling up outside of Eren's house. He was trying his best to figure out a way to ask Eren what they were now, because Jean wanted to be a thing. He just wasn't sure how to go about starting that conversation. “Here we are.”

 

“Yeah,” Eren was trying to go for nonchalant, but the way he kept fidgeting ruined the cool tone. “So like, if I asked you to prom right now, would it be too lame?”

 

Something warm bloomed inside of Jean's chest. “You had to buy those tickets weeks ago, man.”

 

“I uh, did,” Eren scratched the back of his neck.

 

Jean squinted at him.

 

Eren groaned. “Look, I figured I'd buy them as backup just in case Mikasa wanted to go, but she and Armin had this pact I didn't even know about, so I had the extra ticket just in case.”

 

“In case what?”

 

“Don't, okay?” Eren’s head lolled back, face towards the sky, as if he were asking it rather than Jean. “Just don't.”

 

“I mean, you must've had someone you wanted to ask.”

 

“I'm leaving,” Eren kicked open the door. “Don't call me, because I actually hate you.”

 

“Aw, c'mon.”

 

“Whatever.”

 

He watched Eren walk around the front of the truck, stalking over to the gate when Jean called out the open window. “Yo, Jeager!”

 

Eren turned, eyebrow cocked.

 

“Prom's kind of really lame, and I had this thing where I wasn't gonna go as like, a statement or something,” Jean scratched the back of his hot neck. “But like, if I went with you it'd probably be okay.”

 

“Uh,” Eren leaned against the gate, and with a whine on of the hinges gave way under his weight, breaking completely. Eren righted himself quickly before he fell, smoothing a hand over his hair. “Yeah. That sounds cool.”

 

“Yeah,” Jean echoed. They stared at each other for a moment, and Jean broke away first, putting his car back in reverse. “I'll pick you up at six, then.”

 

Eren nodded, and stayed at the gate even when Jean pulled out of the driveway completely and drove off.

--

Prom was lame. The DJ sucked and everyone was weird, and the AC in the gym wasn't working right so it was hot, especially in the rented tux Jean was wearing for some ungodly reason. The only high point of the night was watching Marco get crowned prom king to Christa's queen and sweat it out during the slow dance as Ymir shot daggers at him from behind the refreshments table.

 

Eren and him spent most of the dance complaining and taking shots from the flask Reiner floated their way and then sneaking off to the equipment locker.

 

“You did a surprisingly good job in here,” Eren laughed.

 

“Shut up,” Jean yanked him in by the lapels and crushed their mouths together. Tipsy kissing was actually really great, Jean realized. His mouth felt swollen, and good, and he wanted more, nipping at Eren throat before sinking down onto his knees, Eren braced against the desk. In the short time they’d been doing thin, Jean learned something; he loved sucking Eren off. The taste, the feel, even the ache in his jaw, because if he was doing it long enough for it to hurt, it meant Eren was an absolute mess. He liked that he was better at it than Eren, who still couldn’t mind his teeth and had an almost violent gag reflex. He liked the sounds, he liked gagging on it, the heady boy-heavy smell making his mouth water, and now was no exception.

 

“Shit, Jean—” Eren gripped fingers into Jean's hair, and as Jean slid the zipper down. Eren was already hard, wetspot on his underwear that Jean decided he had to taste, licking at the tip through the cotton and feeling Eren pull that much harder, moaning shamelessly. Jean licked a long stripe up the outline, fingers reaching for the waistband.

 

The door banged open, and Jean whipped his head around to see Coach Levi standing there, holding a baseball bat. “What did I tell you little shitheads?”

 

So they were kicked out of prom. The rest Jean can't remember because he honestly blacked it out of his memory. He feels lucky, though, considering what Coach probably could've done to them, especially when they crawled into Jean's bed that night.

 

“It's raining again,” Eren said, voice quiet, the way it always got after he came. Jean pressed a kiss to the middle of Eren's chest. “Are we gonna need to have sex every time it rains, like a Pavlovian thing?”

 

Jean snorted, “You're making it seem like we're gonna be together a lot in the future for that to happen.”

 

“I didn't say with each other—ow. Kidding,” Eren slapped away the hand that was pinching at his nipple. Jean ran the flat of his tongue over it as an apology, and Eren turned over. “Stop. Between dealing with prom, getting chased by Coach, and fucking on your floor I'm tapped—the hell're you doing?”

 

Jean tapped at the screen of his phone. “Letting the world know Eren Jeager has actually officially run out of energy. Should I share it on Twitter and Facebook or is that overkill?”

 

Eren lunged. “No you fucking won't!”

 

Which resulted in another makeout session and some very nice naked spooning, Jean detangling himself long enough to put on some Neko Case before settling back into place.

 

“We graduate on Monday,” Jean said, feeling that void in his stomach that he always got thinking about the future.

 

Eren was quiet for a moment. “Are you really not going to Sina?”

 

“No,” Jean pressed his forehead against the back of Eren's neck. “S'not what I want.”

 

Eren reached for the hand Jean had pressed against his lower belly, liking the feeling of the hair there, before he laced their fingers together and brought it to his chest, keeping it pressed there for a good long while. Jean didn't need to ask anymore, what they were, because he was secure in himself and what he felt and knew—

 

“Just so we're clear,” Jean hut up, leaning over Eren's side. “This is a thing. We're a thing.”

 

A hand whipped back and caught Jean's nose, pinching but not enough to really hurt as Eren snorted. “Shut the fuck up, Jean.”

--

It was meant to be just him and Eren.

 

“You didn't say it was supposed to be just us,” Eren had snapped.

 

“It was implied, Eren. I used to word romantic.”

 

“I thought you meant it'd be like, a Wordsworth poem or something. Like, Romantic, proper noun.”

 

And Jean had buried his face in his hands and went, “An idiot. My boyfriend is an idiot.”

 

They plan had been as follows: he and Eren road trip down to the Cape, have a lot of sex, and figure out what they're doing once the summer ended, now that they both weren't going to school.

 

But then Eren said Mikasa and Armin were coming, and asked if Marco was, too. (Marco, who knew that it was just supposed to be Eren and Jean. Who shrugged helplessly and said, “Armin made it sound like fun.”)

 

Now it was the five of them, and Jean had spent a good two days demanding that Eren uninvite all of them, which resulted in a fight of beautifully epic proportions and Eren's mom calling him to come set things right because Eren kept accidentally slamming doors off their hinges.

 

Which was how Jean and Marco wound up pulling into the Jeager's driveway two days later, Eren, Mikasa and Armin all sitting out front with their packed bags. June heat had already set in, heavy and humid in the truck. It was promising to be a good summer.

 

“Thank you for inviting us,” Mikasa said to Jean as he opened the back of the truck. There was a stain of pink high in her cheeks, and she couldn't stop fidgeting with her scarf, which should've clashed with the pale yellow sundress she was wearing, but somehow didn't. Jean almost couldn't believe it was the same girl who had ignored him for four years and threatened him at his locker. Her eyes darted to the ground. “I've never been to the beach.”

 

“No uh,” Jean scratched the back of his neck, “problem.”

 

“Jean, help me lift this—oh,” Marco blinked as Mikasa single-handedly lifted up the cooler and shoved it into the back of the truck. “Wow.”

 

“You know,” Armin said, dragging his bag behind him. He was decked out in tropical print, sunglasses on his head and goggles around his neck, like he was ready to jump into the ocean at a moment's notice, “Approximately 95% of the ocean is still completely unexplored. Can you even imagine? Most of the world has still never been seen by human eyes—it's crazy to think about.”

 

“Jean,” Eren’s mother—Carla, she had insisted—came out of the front door. “Make sure Eren wears sunblock. Use force if you have to.”

 

“Mom.”

 

“I'll make sure he does,” Mikasa said, turning to look at everyone, eyes glinting. “I'll make sure they all do.”

 

Jean laughed nervously, stepping behind Eren before clearing his throat and going, “Alright, let's hit the road—if we hit the lunch rush on the expressway I am going to be pissed.”

 

Everyone shuffled into the truck, and just as Jean turned to head to the driver's side, Eren caught his elbow and asked, “We're good?”

 

Jean smirked, and grabbed Eren's nose, pulling, grin widening as Eren squawked before he ducked in to kiss him soundly on the mouth. Eren bit his lip hard enough to hurt, something hot swooping through Jean's stomach, steam fogging his thoughts.

 

“Guys,” Marco rolled down the window. “Can you not right now?”

 

Armin leaned over him to shout, “If we don't leave now we're not going to get there before the sun goes down!”

 

“Jeez,” Jean grunted. “Hold your damn horses—we're coming.”

 

Something flashed in the corner of Jean's eye, and he turned back around to see Eren holding out a CD. “Mikasa helped.”

 

Jean felt his mouth stretch, wide and slow. “You made me a mix.”

 

Eren's faced flared pink. “Shut up!”

 

“Aw, babe,” Jean called after him as Eren stomped over to the truck. “This is so thoughtful!”

 

“Call me that again and I'll break your teeth, Kirschtein.”

 

Climbing in behind the wheel, Jean adjusted the mirrors before turning the key in the ignition.

 

“Eren, put your seatbelt on,” Mikasa leaned forward between the seats and reached for the buckle.

 

Eren's ears turned red. “I can do it myself!”

 

“Jean, I printed out directions for multiple routes and I think that, since it's a Thursday morning, we should take the Northern State rather than the expressway, even though it's a longer drive—the potential for heavy traffic around noon is much, much less,” Armin pushed a manilla folder forward at him. “About 46% less, and I didn't calculate it, but so is the accident rate. There's a correlation, obviously.”

 

“This is going to be an interesting weekend,” Marco laughed.

 

Jean sighed, though his smile didn't drop as he took the directions from Armin, and as everyone talked animatedly around him, he pushed the CD into the disc player.

 

He probably shouldn't have been surprised when the first notes of “Non, je ne regrette rien” started playing. Not exactly standard road trip music, but Jean kind of dug it when things didn't fit like he thought they would. Pulling the stick shift into reverse, Jean smiled at the warmth of Eren's hand on top of his own as they went backwards, then forwards again.