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Jean will later look back and think he should have nipped the situation in the bud while he was lugging a demolished post-Titan Eren to the Survey Corps casualties portage cart. Eren is short one foot, and half his face has been torn off so that jagged white stumps of cheekbone visibly protrude from the bloody pulp in two places. His eyes are gone completely, which Jean really thinks is a waste, because even when Eren's big green eyes inevitably grow back, they won't be the same eyes he was born with. They won't be the same eyes he used to learn how to read. They won't be the same eyes that widened in Jean's direction in the yellow lamplight of the canteen. Eren won't see anything with the same eyes he saw his parents ever again.

Jean hoists him closer by his thin waist, trying to provide sufficient support as one-footed Eren is forced to hop forward.

"R'you crying?" Eren slurs. His mouth is mostly still intact. "Jjjean?" He really tries hard for the J.

"Shut up, Eren," Jean mutters. "The sound you hear is me trying not to hurl my guts out after looking at your ugly mug."

Eren, who has been known to get so injured in battle that he literally holds his guts in with his hands, makes a terrible gurgling noise, and a bloody bubble forms where his nose used to be. Maybe it was a snort. He coughs instead and spits out a tooth.

Jean gags. "Oh my god."

"You zound like you're hypa-hypel-hyperventi...lating," Eren says with extreme effort. His bloody face turns in Jean's direction like he's looking at him, except he has no eyes to look with, just a slippery red mess obscured by rising steam.

It's a shame, Jean thinks, about Eren's eyes. He tries to take a few deep breaths.

"Well, I'm not." He takes another breath. "You asshole."

"I'll...I'll be fine, you know," Eren says, not that Jean asked. Though it does make him feel better to know that Eren isn't planning on spitefully dying in Jean's arms or something equally Eren-like.

It's just a waste, Eren's big green eyes going that way, without fanfare or notice. Jean doesn't examine this feeling further, because over the years he's thought a lot of things were wasted on Eren Jaeger. Mikasa Ackerman, for example. 3D maneuver gear. Spoken language. Breathable oxygen...

And Jean isn't crying, but he's starting to feel like maybe he could if he let himself. His throat is hot and constricted in the right way. Or maybe that's the Titan steam. Or maybe it's something as mundane as his autumn allergies acting up. Fuck if Jean knows. He feels sick.

Eren's forehead is knitting together into skin again, slowly.

Jean sees eyebrows.

He gulps down another breath. "You sure you're gonna be okay, Eren? How many fingers am I holding up?"

Eren groans, and for a second Jean goes stiff with panic, ready to bodily pick him up off the ground and run to the med carriage, but then Eren snaps, "Shut your big mouth, Jean, I swear to God..."

Jean gets out two hysterical guffaws. "I'll shut my face hole when you shut yours."

Eren hesitates for a moment before he sighs and gives up on talking, leaning his weight against Jean as the stump where his foot should be steams more profusely. He starts walking on it while it's still just an ankle, probably before he really should, but Jean doesn't say anything. Eren's body is lean and warm and agitating through their uniforms, which is fucked up to think about a guy with no foot and a gaping facial wound.

They near the line of carts and horses that make up home base. The moaning of the injured and dying drifts across the field, a sadly familiar sound.

"You're lucky I was there to save your sorry ass," Jean continues.

Eren makes that gurgling sound again; this time it's definitely derisive. "Oh, here we go," he begins to say, but then two medics, having caught sight of Eren's face and realized he's not just any footless faceless grunt, are rushing toward them, carefully extricating Eren from Jean's embrace, escorting Eren back to a cart as if humanity's last hope were a candle flame on a windy day. Even Eren Jaeger is made of tougher stuff than that.

Although he doesn't sound very tough when he makes a noise in the back of his throat and blurts, "Jean?" as the medics sit him down. He reaches out like the blind man he is and will continue to be for the next five to ten minutes.

Jean steps forward to take Eren's outstretched hands without thinking. Instantly, he regrets this course of action.

"Oh," Eren says.

"Oh," Jean says back, pulling away with a jerk. The two medics just fucking disappear, off to tend to someone who actually needs help healing. "Sorry. I mean, I'm not--sorry."

"Uh..." Eren puts his hands in his lap. His cheekbone has reformed without any skin over it. It's hard to read his expression.

Jean breaks out in a sweat. "You're such an idiot, Jaeger!" he says, for no reason. "I'm...I'm actually impressed!" Unfortunately this does not sound as sarcastic as he meant it.

"What?!" Eren blindly extends his hands again. "What the hell is wrong with you?"

There's someone in the throws of death in another cart five feet away, and here is Jean Kirschtein, blushing up to his ears.

"Hey, I pulled you out of the jaws of death with my bare hands. Don't talk back to me!"

Eren opens his mouth to say something but Jean cuts him off.

"And now I need to go kill a Titan!" he yells, unhooking his 3DMG grips from his belt and turning back toward the forest of giant trees. His laugh sounds forced and somewhat insane. "Goodbye, Eren!"

"Jean! The mission is over!" Eren calls as Jean flees.

He gets all the way to the edge of the forest before a senior officer tells him the same thing and cusses him out for being numb-nuts stupid.

 


 

It doesn't get better.

According to plan, the Survey Corps' next mission begins three days later and has no set end. After two years of planning, outpost missions and Hanji Zoe's development of Zoe Zoe Titan Repellent, the Corps are headed for The Basement. The Repellent is a sour-smelling reddish-brown slime that comes in clear bottles, each labeled with a little picture of a glasses-wearing cartoon girl giving a thumbs up. It's made of Titan pheromones, the same pheromones that stop Titans from feeding on one another despite their limited mental capacities, and the soldiers slather it on liberally. Although it does nothing to deter aberrants or shifters, alleviating the risk of attracting normal Titans with large groups of people is a blessing.

Jean is assigned to a squad with Armin. They smile and greet each other amicably. Jean likes Armin, after all. Armin is kind and smart and has a healthy sense of self preservation.

"Long time no see, Jean!" Armin says, giving him a rather weak punch on the shoulder.

It's a little weird, even after all this time, to be friends with someone whom Eren values so highly. Despite his best efforts, Mikasa never really gave Jean the time of day. It's different than Bertholdt and Reiner, or Marco. It's different than Connie or Sasha or the others. Armin knows more about Eren than almost anyone else alive.

Jean finds himself wanting to ask him to impart some knowledge, but he bites down the urge with the force of a hundred aberrant Titans. It is imperative that he does not ask. It's the most important thing in the world.

Eren would find out. Eren, Eren, Eren. Jean hasn't seen Eren since their strange encounter during the 67th expedition beyond the wall, which, when he thinks about it, makes him want to crawl out of his own skin and expel his still-beating heart onto the ground. C'est la vie, though, as his mother would say.

On the bright side, the endless mission has turned out to be boring.

Jean and Armin's squad spends most of the first two weeks camped out in an abandoned house awaiting orders between Rose and Maria, and mind-numbing boredom is always preferable to mind-numbing terror in Jean's book. He makes a few jokes about the bizarre state of their squad leader's hair and laughs when Armin yelps, "Jean, he's gonna hear you!" and he does not ask about Eren.

At all.

In any case, Jean doesn't know what he'd ask. Does he even want to know, or would knowing the things that Armin knows just make Jean's sweaty feelings sweatier? He probably knows things like what Eren's favorite food is, and how he prefers the weather, and why he smells all good all the time, and how Zhiganshina changed him, and what his favorite pretend game was as kids. Jean's was cops and robbers. Eren and Mikasa probably played Titans and Survey Corps. Armin would know. Armin would probably tell him, too, but Jean manages not to ask, as he is getting sweaty just thinking about it.

Armin is too smart. He would deduce the whole thing right down to Jean's exact standing blood pressure when he spotted Eren half dead and dangling. Armin is also too kind to tease him about it, and probably has too strong a sense of self preservation to tell anyone else. But he would know, and at the moment that sounds terrible.

Still, Jean hasn't even heard whether Eren made a full recovery, (even though Eren always makes a full recovery, you never know, something could happen, even though this mission is based on Eren's ability to perform to the best of his ability, and they probably wouldn't send him out with half a face, hey, you never know,) and what kind of hero would he be if he didn't check up on his damsel? He's going to do it. He's going to invert himself into a creature with some bravery and ask anything he wants. No, no, he'll just make some snide comment about how Eren Jaeger is a dimwitted safety-phobe, which is true, and Armin will defend him at length and probably will mention his state of health--

"Eren's alright, if you were wondering," Armin comments, at Jean's extended silence.

"I," Jean stutters. He licks his lips and glares. "Wasn't."

Armin smiles. "Okay," he says, too easily. "He was asking around about you, since you tried to continue fighting after retreat orders had been given, so I just thought..." He shrugs, because he is smarter than smart, and so of course he already knew. Armin's so smart he obtained the knowledge through osmosis just by occupying the same space as Jean.

Jean slumps down on the abandoned house's rotten mattress and covers his head in his arms.

"You okay?"

"Eren Jaeger is a dimwitted safety-phobe," he says weakly from inside his arm fortress.

"I don't know about dimwitted..." Armin sighs and sits down against the wall opposite the bed. And. And he doesn't say anything else. He goes silent, and when Jean looks up, he's staring out the window into the empty street with sparkly introspective solemnity.

Nothing works out for Jean Kirschtein. He didn't even manage to join the Military Police properly.

Eren's distant roar marks the end of their respite.

So much for safety.

 


 

Repellant or no repellent, Titan conflicts become more and more frequent as autumn wears on, and the more losses, the lower the morale, the harder Eren fights to trick unwilling participants into feeling hope. Unfortunately, bereft of his usual soap box, he has to do so through literally fighting.

Stories of Eren Jaeger pulling apart Titans with his teeth spread down through the ranks.

It doesn't work, and it's bad for Jean's nerves, which are already frayed to their limit as he has gone from seeing Eren nowhere to seeing him everywhere.

Armin says it's due to the recent travel formation rearrangement moving their squads adjacent to each other. Then, after a pause, he vehemently insists he had nothing to do with it. Jean doesn't buy that, as he knows that the higher ups have been inviting Armin to almost half of their strategy sessions lately, but he doesn't say anything because it's sort of nice to see Armin enjoying Eren's terrible company.

Eren doesn't make terrible company to Armin, though. He gets energetic and intense talking about battle plans as they all gnaw at their breakfast rations, puts his hand on Armin's shoulder, and leans in with a grin to tell Armin some private joke, a joke of which Jean is suddenly 100% sure he is the butt.

Watching this exchange from across the campfire, huddled in his cloak against the chilly November morning, still partially asleep, Jean nearly cracks a tooth chewing.

Armin is lucky they're friends, war buddies, compadres. As such, Jean is not allowed to punch him in his face for laughing at Eren's imbecilic joke, which may have been about the topic at hand--doing 3D maneuvers upside down--or more likely, probably, almost definitely, was about Jean's apparently notably unimpressive appearance. Eren keeps glancing at Jean between bites of food, smirking like the complete asshole that he still is, Jean's skipping heart be damned. Yeah, they are definitely laughing at him. Historically, calling Jean a horseface makes up a good three-fourths of Eren's comedy repertoire, and history always repeats.

Here it goes:

"Hey!" Jean growls, pulling down his hood to dramatically reveal his face.

Eren's smile drops.

Armin slaps his forehead.

Jean points at them with his wooden spoon. "Just what's so fucking funny, huh, Jaeger?"

"Jean..." Armin wearily starts to say.

"This isn't about you, Armin!" Jean snaps.

Armin sighs. "This isn't about anything."

"It's between me and Jean," Eren agrees, getting to his feet.

"What is?"

Jean's armpits may be damp, but his will his strong, and it's propelling him forward around the fire in spite of the cold and his better judgement. He accidentally steps on Connie's foot on the way over, but Connie's complaints are ignored.

"Yeah, Jean, what is your problem, anyway?" Eren asks, sort of subdued as he stares him down.

Jean grabs the front of Eren's cloak, because it always feels like a good time to challenge the hand-to-hand combat valedictorian to a fist fight.

"Your ignorant giggly face is my fucking problem! We could all eat dirt today, so what the fuck are you laughing about?"

Eren rolls his big huge shiny green eyes and then punches Jean in the nose.

The crack and drip is familiar, and Jean deserves familiar, because two members of his squad died yesterday. One of them, a guy named Justin, had given him part of his bread crust at lunch, and, two hours later, was torn limb from limb. Jean slaughtered the responsible Titan efficiently, coated by the spray of Justin's blood.

Jean aims a stomp at Eren's shin, simultaneously trying to elbow him in the head.

Eren avoids both blows and retaliates by tackling Jean to the ground.

From there, it quickly devolves into a cat fight.

Armin groans, "You are both so irrational," as Eren hikes up Jean's jacket and shirt to slap his bare lower back as hard as he can.

"What-- No!" Jean yelps, pulling Eren's hair.

Eren rolls over on top of him, sticking his knee into Jean's thigh.

"Don't pick fights you can't finish," Eren says with his hysterical grin this close to Jean's mouth.

It occurs to Jean that perhaps starting fights with someone against whom he never won was not as purposelessly cyclical as he once thought. History only repeats so long as you don't learn from it, and Jean has spent the past three weeks studying. C'est l'amour. Merde. Et cetera.

In a desperate attempt to keep Eren from noticing how red his face has suddenly become, Jean hurls his whole body into a wave to buck him off, which, fortunately, shocks Eren into weakening his grip and, unfortunately, results in Eren's head smacking against the log he was previously seated upon.

Distantly, Connie is still complaining about his "broken" foot, Armin continues his monologue about their similarly large but uniquely stupid egos, and Sasha apologizes for finishing what was left of Jean's rations.

Jean's hearing, however, has been simplified to the crack of Eren's skull against the wood.

He scrambles forward across the cold, wet grass and runs his hands through Eren's hair without thinking about it. Eren's soft brown locks do not seem greasy from the repellent the way Jean's do, just warm and welcome between his fingers. Jean feels across his scalp for an abrasion that isn't there, because Eren is actually fine. There's nothing but a slight bump on the back of his head.

In fact, Eren is staring up with wide, huge green eyes, dazed and shiny in the periwinkle light of the sunrise. "Uh..."

Jean stares back, hands still cradling Eren's head. "Oh," he croaks. "I thought I killed you."

Eren winces as a glob of blood drips unromantically out of Jean's bruised nose onto his left eyebrow.

"Shit," Jean whispers, wiping it away in a hurry.

Eren starts to laugh again, looking very pathetic with an orange-brown smear across his forehead. Jean figures it's either Eren trying to goad Jean back into a fight or Eren pretending not to be nervous about Jean leaning farther down, but he never finds out which, because the ruckus around them goes eerily silent.

Eren's eyes shift to just left of Jean's head. His face drains of color, pale enough that Jean sits back into a squat and looks up to see a black signal flare cut the morning sky.

 


 

The sound of battle is still a shock, never as loud as it should be, like Jean has cotton balls in his ears. Rushing wind dampens each sound to background noise. The zip and hiss of 3DMG lines and gas jets sometimes goes as subtle as the clink of dishes at a dinner party, the orders going down the chains of command distant and vague until they're shouted directly at him. Thunderous footsteps of overlarge soles feel like a crash but sound like a mere buzz. Only the lightning bolt explosions of Eren's shifts come as a shock.

Jean, who, upon the death of the strange-haired Captain Roracs, has been promoted to a junior squad leader at the tender age of seventeen, mostly hears the grinding of his own teeth. He's been squad leader for a week, and he's already been scolded twice about prioritizing troop survival over mission success. So much for that, though. The initially defensive Formation Beta has taken the army into the nearby port city along the river. It puts Jean's squad on Eren defense duty, a job with a pretty shitty survival rate.

Eren and Levi's squad flits in and out sight between the buildings. The squad has been reformed with Hanji, a few veteran Survey Corps members and, most recently, Connie and Sasha.

Mikasa has also shown up somehow, despite being specifically ordered on many occasions by twenty different senior officers, and notably by Commander Erwin himself, to stick to her orders, yes, even if they involve Eren in mortal danger, even if that means his being in mortal danger without Mikasa around.

As she passes them up, she and Armin exchange a dark look. Then she nods to Jean as well, gorgeous as usual, grave as a six foot hole.

Jean nods back with a nervous grin before calling, "Two o'clock!" to the troops behind him. "Richardson on assist! This one's mine!"

5 meter class Titan, deranged smile with three missing teeth, puff of red hair... Easy.

Richardson, a brawny black-haired kid with a foul sense of humor, spins out in front of it with a battle cry that would be hilarious under different circumstances.

The Titan's head twitches in the direction of Richardson's swing, an enormous hand shooting up to grab him as Jean lands a foot and swings his blades through its neck. The toe of Richardson's boot slips up and free from between its fingernails as the Titan stumbles on lifeless legs and collapses on the cobblestone street.

Tonia Hall screams in terrified celebration somewhere to Jean's right. She's the Corps' youngest recruit, having turned fifteen just two days before the mission began, and she takes every fight she can rustle up. She reminds him of someone. "That was brutal, Captain!" she yells.

Jean feels more brutalized than brutal at this point in his life, but he manages a little smirking and posturing for her sake. "Expect anything less?"

Her exhilarated laugh echoes across the muted battlefield, cuts through the wind rushing in Jean's ears.

Richardson whoops and does a back flip on the next release of his lines.

The jovial mood is killed when Catherine is. She's timid and thirty-five, which is pretty old for a Survey Corps soldier, and she gets bashed sideways into a brick wall before flopping violently against the ground.

Armin and Tonia take out the Titan with a very cute alley-oop, or so Jean would say about the petite pair if he had not recently watched his comrade and subordinate perish horribly. He remembers Marco every time, and wonders if perhaps the same thing happened to his friend alone in Trost, where the other half went, how Annie acquired his equipment.

Richardson starts crying, big ugly tears, and Tonia still somehow has enough presence of mind to scold him for dripping snot on her cloak.

A hundred feet ahead, Eren's brunette head bobs up above the roofs every so often. His squad is on lookout for whatever or whomever caused the local Titans to become aberrant and find their camp. Upon finding it, Jean can only assume Eren will go Titan and punch the secrets out.

No time to think, though, in a war zone. Jean sends Armin, Tonia and Kurt to the left and teams up with Richardson again to take the Titan on the right. Mikasa flashes in and out of sight, slicing an Achilles here, a neck there. She's hanging around enough that Jean starts including her in his orders as well, which is just about the same time she decides it's time to glide off elsewhere, because Mikasa is just not a team player when it comes down to it.

Squad Kirschtein has taken down nine Titans in total by the time Jean notices that Eren has stopped moving. He stands motionless on the roof of the town's Cathedral, separated from his squad, but not alone.

Across from Eren, there is a tall girl dressed head to toe in black instead of the typical military uniform.

Something is wrong with her 3D maneuver gear as well. It's too big, too chunky, with the main engines suspended at the wrong angle from her hips. The set is several models old, Jean realizes, something that would have been military issue forty years ago.

A chill solidifies in his gut. "Proceed northwest!" he shouts against the wind.

The hush grows louder. Eren yells soundlessly at the girl in black, his expression open and terrified.

Jean moves faster. 80 feet away from Eren. 40 feet. Faster. He's going too fast, in fact, pulling ahead of the relative safety of his squad's formation. 20 feet. Almost there.

Eren's eyes meet his for one fleeting moment before something explodes into existence between them.

A boiling wave of steam engulfs Jean, sending his half executed landing into a tailspin. His face and hands sting like they'll burn off. Realistically they are more likely to grind away when he hits the ground, which he'll proceed to do at any moment.

Blind from the steam and spinning too fast to pull out even if his visibility were perfect, Jean is doomed.

This is it, he thinks, but he's thought that before. Nothing fully registers except his heart rattling between his lungs.

And then it's over.

One minute Jean's hurtling toward a death at once early and overdue, and the next, he isn't.

Titan Eren holds him up to face level and roars in a way that seems like it was meant to be soft or comforting, but is not. In actuality, Eren owes him a Titan-sized thank you card just for Jean not shitting his pants.

On a good day, when Jean is watching from a relatively safe distance, it's a pain to watch Eren disappear inside a larger body and get battered again and again, bones exposed, screaming with an overwide mouth. Up close, it's enough to render him speechless, slack jawed, wide eyed.

His instincts drag to the forefront of his mind sluggishly. He should scream, cuss, slice Eren's hand off at the wrist and flee. Mikasa Ackerman herself was nearly killed this way. Unfortunately, Jean has recently been turned into a giant goober by the infamously transformative powers of...suddenly not hating the most irritating person on the planet. Eren has Jean on a string, as they say, has him wrapped around his little finger, has him in the palm of his hand.

Gigantic green eyes that will soon evaporate peer at Jean curiously.

The blood rushing in his ears grows quiet, and a second later the world grows loud. People are screaming.

"Shit!" Jean yelps, pulling up into a kneel. He tries to look around, ignoring his exposed stinging skin, but it doesn't do much good.

Eren has him cupped between huge hands like a child peeking at a fluttering captive butterfly.

The screaming intensifies and is followed by a thunderous crash.

"Put me down!" Jean shouts, pounding his fists against Eren's fingers. At the next deafening crash, he jolts so badly his shoulders and head knock into the hand held over him.

Eren cocks his massive head and makes another vaguely sympathetic sound, not sparing a glance for whatever is crashing around in front of him.

"Put me down, you stupid son of a bitch, before I decide to cut my way out!"

Another crash. The lingering scent of acrid Titan steam.

Eren doesn't even blink.

Jean shakily attaches his grips to a pair of new blades. "You're bringing this on yourself!" he calls, and then he doesn't do anything. Huh. He shakes his blades at Eren. "I'm really gonna do it, Eren!" Titan Eren doesn't react. Strangely, neither does Jean. He stares at Eren's glowing, unblinking, objectively creepy eyes, his uneven exposed rows of teeth, the points of his ears. "It won't even really hurt him," Jean says, bewildered by his own actions once again, acid rising in his gut. "Fucking hell, this is unbelievable."

And then perfect, intelligent Armin hurtles into view, catching and hanging on the front of Eren's hair. "Jean, are you alright?!"

Eren's gaze wanders right, expression shifting to murderous as he lays eyes on his best friend.

At the next unidentified BOOM, Armin looks up and clenches his teeth.

"I'm fine!" Jean replies belatedly, grunting when Eren pushes him down and cups his hands closer together, severely limiting Jean's space and range of vision. "Eren, would you quit it!"

"He transformed wrong!" Armin yells, pale faced.

"Oh, really?" Jean mutters. He pushes one Titan hand with his shoulders and the other with his feet in an attempt to use the force of his whole body to pry himself free.

When Eren lifts his top hand, Jean stands up, quite by accident.

However, it turns out the reason for Eren's lifted hand is an attempt flick Armin away from his face, and so Jean and Armin both make an efficient retreat, slipping right between Eren's large fingers.

As they zip away, Jean finally realizes what all the screaming was about.

The girl on the roof is gone, and in her place stands a Colossal-type Titan.

Steam pours from her corded crimson muscles. Her Titan form appears different from the Colossal Titan the 104th is familiar with, curvier, indicative of a female shifter. It reminds Jean of Annie in spite of himself, but staring up at 60 meters of superheated muscle and rock hard organic armor, the comparison feels quaint.

Up in the sky the Titan's skinless face, with its long rows of skeletal teeth perpetually smiling, turns toward Eren. There's another remarkable crash as she finishes turning around and plants her house-sized foot through the exquisite church she and Eren had been standing upon a minute ago. Jean's teeth and maneuver gear lines rattle with the energy.

At least a dozen Survey Corps soldiers get as far up as her waist before being swatted like flies by a gargantuan red hand.

Jean isn't sure Eren stands a chance against her on his best day, and today he's still just staring after Jean like a dog watching a ham bone.

"He must have been extremely focused on protecting you when he transformed," Armin tells him as he bounces to a halt on a nearby roof, staring at Jean in alarm, like Jean did this on purpose. "He can't seem to change his objective."

The remaining three members of Jean and Armin's squad--Tonia Hall, Hans "Richardson" Richardson and Kurt Fleur--assemble on the roof as well, looking shaken and young. At least Richardson has stopped crying. Tonia touches his shoulder in a hesitant gesture of comfort. They all know that Richardson had an on-going crush on Catherine, one that she had endured with quiet amusement and more than a few soft-spoken jokes about spry younger men. The thought makes Jean ache with sympathy.

Kurt, now the eldest of the squad at twenty-eight, is all business. He turns to Jean, who turns to Armin, who is watching with a look of abject horror on his face as the female Colossal Titan begins bending down in their direction, so mammoth her movements seem relaxed and drowsy when in actuality her body is whipping through the air at blistering speeds.

"Orders, Captain?"

Jean gives himself five seconds to assess the situation. Eren's squad is locked in battle with several 12 meter class Titans, managing to fend them off with Levi's expert direction, but only just. His own squad is exhausted and hopeless, in dire need of a pep talk. Current successful strikes against the Titan are zero, little black specks of human beings treated as a mere annoyance rather than any kind of respectable threat. Eren himself has his back to the female Colossal Titan and is moving toward the roof Armin and Jean have chosen to evade him. In Titan form, his ability to form human facial expressions is limited, but he somehow manages to convey offense and annoyance at Jean's continual attempts to escape, shoulders hunched and eyes stormy. If he were human it would be funny, but seeing the familiar gestures on the body of a Titan only manages to freak him out.

What freaks him out more, though, is the enormous hand that scoops Eren up in its grip as if sizable Titan-y Eren were nothing but a rag doll.

Jean empathizes. His heart is a drumbeat inside his head. The whole situation is rubbing him raw.

"We stick to our Formation Beta objective and protect Eren!" he announces. "We don't have enough gas to get to that thing's neck--" especially not Jean, after running his engines so hard in his effort to rescue Eren earlier "--so we're going to help out the only way we can. Tonia and Richardson, you cut up the backs of its knees. Armin and Kurt will take the Achilles tendons. Seek assistance from other squads as you meet them!"

"That won't be enough, Jean!" Armin blurts.

"Huh?" Jean rarely treats Armin like a subordinate, but in high stress situations he can't help but feel himself bristle at the challenge. "I miss something, Arlert?"

"Eren's not fighting back!" Armin points over Jean's shoulder. "You've got to do something!"

He looks and finds Armin's assertion to be terribly accurate. Eren, held fast by the unfamiliar Colossal-type Titan, appears to be almost calm, watching them deliberate on the rooftop.

"Damn it," Jean says, raking a hand through his hair. "That bastard should have just let me die when I was supposed to." He jumps a foot high when Mikasa lands almost soundlessly next to him.

"What's going on?" she demands, pointing her blades like she has to threaten the truth out of him. "What's wrong with Eren?"

"His focus is off," Armin says hurriedly, putting up his hands to placate her. "He changed to save Jean, and now Jean isn't in danger."

"The hell, I'm not," Jean objects.

Armin seems to be running short on patience as well, because he snaps, "He saved you from the fall! That was the extent of his thoughts!"

"Jean?" Mikasa echoes softly. She surveys him quietly for half a moment before she nods at Armin, like he's the ranking officer among them. "I'll stay with him. We won't fail."

Jean rolls his eyes. Then he turns to the rest of his confused squad and shouts, "Did you all go deaf? Go for the legs! I've got my own shit to worry about!" He makes a shooing motion until they all drop off the roof and head for the Colossal Titan, one by one. He sighs. "Take care of yourself, Armin."

"You won't have enough gas to reach him if it stands up straight," Armin advises, pulling out new blades. "Eren would never let you die," he adds as an afterthought just as he jumps into the first tug of his lines.

Jean's stomach does an odd combination of 3DMG techniques, and then, as the Colossal Titan begins to straighten up, lifting Eren to eye-level, he nods to Mikasa and begins to run.

By the time he gets to the end of the roof, he's gained enough momentum to send him plummeting forward at a speed that has to be a personal best, not as fast as Mikasa or Corporal Levi by any means, but not too shabby, either. He attempts to preserve gas without sacrificing his travel time, which is something he's always gotten top marks in, but it's not enough. It won't be enough at all, at the rate Eren is ascending into the sky, but it's going to come so, so close.

Mikasa pulls ahead of him easily. Assuming she has a bit more gas than Jean, she should just be able to make the jump between the rooftop closest to the Titan's hands and the Titan itself. However, if Jean can't make it along with her, it may not matter.

He drops down to run the length of a housing complex that Mikasa sails over, quickly calculating how much gas he'll save versus how much speed he'll lose, and finding the answer insufficient to reach Eren in time. Jean didn't manage to be ranked in the top 10 of his trainee group for nothing, though, so he changes his plan at the last moment.

He pulled off this maneuver, once, a million years ago during boot camp, on a practice run Keith Shadis had invented via consultation with the devil himself. But once is more than never, and this is his Jean's last option that doesn't end in his or everyone's imminent death.

Mikasa, who hasn't even looked back to see whether he's following, jumps from the tallest building near to the Colossal Titan, embeds the hook of one of her cords into its forearm and pulls herself up.

Jean's engines rattle and grind on his next pull, running on fumes, just enough for one final, ridiculous push.

Landing on the ceramic shakes of a long roof running perpendicular to the huge clearing the Colossal Titan has created, he shoots his right-hand line firmly into the roof of a gable behind him. Ahead is a bridge which runs over the river. He takes a few practice steps, trying to gauge the angle he'll need to make his shot.

The Colossal Titan hesitates in its upward motion when Mikasa lands on its arm. This is his chance.

Jean takes a deep breath and checks his aim. "Here we go," he exhales.

He lets his right side run slack as he propels himself forward with the last of his gas, shooting the left line into the bridge's wingwall and aiming his body underneath it in a line parallel to the ground. When he retracts his left line, there's a flash of light and then darkness and then light as Jean zooms through the tunnel beneath the bridge, the brief crackle of wind echoing over the river water. The right line, the anchor of which remains fastened in the gable far behind, tugs as it runs out of wire, slingshotting Jean out and up as his weight pulls it against the stone edge of the bridge.

With a final prayer to whatever cruel deity got him this far, he cuts the cord when he reaches the top of the arc and sails into the air toward the female Colossal Titan. His gear gives one last sputter of acceleration and then dies, and just like that, Jean is free of any resource that might save him should his estimation be wrong.

He flies up over the heaps of rubble created by the Colossal Titan's steps. Up, up, 50 meters above the heads of twenty Survey Corps squads. Up, up, up toward Eren and Mikasa.

And then down, far too soon.

His estimation was wrong, as it turns out, but Mikasa--beautiful, strong, agile Mikasa--swings down and catches him under the armpits as he hurtles in, unintentionally aiming for the Titan's hip instead of the landable shelf of her still outstretched arm.

"And you call Eren suicidal," says Mikasa, retracting her line to haul them back to the hand.

"Laugh it up," Jean gasps, pulling himself up onto the sweltering, pliable flesh of the Colossal Titan's wrist. "I pulled it off, didn't I?"

Eren, still trapped in his most useless Titan form to date, has been getting more restless and wiggly by the second, and he positively roars when he spots Jean, outstretching big, grabby hands.

"Oh no you don't!" Jean says, crawling away toward the Titan's elbow on all fours, using his dulled blades as ice axes. "I'm in big trouble Eren. You better haul ass if you want to save me!"

Mikasa hums a slight noise of approval.

The Titan looks down on them with a face that still seems distant, high in the air, despite the fact that they are literally standing upon another part of her body. It's a distance she means to close, though. Jean's stomach lurches. He digs his swords into the exposed muscle beneath him to keep from being thrown off when she brings her hand up for better view, peering at them with empty black eyes.

When everything stops spinning, Jean manages to lift his head and look back at Mikasa, who is touching Eren's big face and saying, "People are dying, Eren. You have to fight! Fight for Jean! He can't protect himself. Now is the time to act!"

"Shucks, you're making me blush," Jean mumbles.

Eren looks sidelong past Mikasa for proof. Some sight Jean must be, drenched in sweat, burned pink everywhere. Something has to be dangerously wrong with Eren's Titan sense of circumstantial evaluation, because Jean's grotesque visage does not compel him to action but seems to actually calm him down even as the female Colossal Titan squeezes him in a firmer grip.

"Eren! Focus!" Mikasa yells.

The flesh beneath them gives a sickening drop.

Jean grits his teeth, clutching his blade handles, boots running slickly in place on the now bloody, damp surface of the Titan's skin. At the next lurch, his right hand slips loose of his grip.

With a fresh rush of adrenaline he realizes the Titan is trying to shake them off.

She turns her arm and wiggles it as if trying to rid herself of a spider.

"Eren! You heard Mikasa!" Jean shrieks, staring down at the rubble on the ground, the bodies littered around the Titan's feet what seems like miles away. He dangles by one sweaty, weakening hand. "I'm a damsel! Get to rescuing!"

One moment of terror passes without event. This is it, Jean thinks, as his blade's grip in the Titan's flesh begins to cut and give, but he's thought that before.

Eren gets to rescuing, which is totally fortunate, because Jean has reached his daily quota for death defying free falls.

The Female Colossal Titan's attempts to injure Jean have sent Eren into a convenient blood rage. He rips off one of her fingers, screaming.

Mikasa holds tight to his hair as he braces his feet against the Colossal Titan's remaining fingers and prises himself free with straining muscles. He leaps to Jean's position near the elbow in one tremendous bound and scoops Jean up without further fanfare. In two more nauseating jumps they are at the Female Colossal Titan's throat.

She reaches up to grab them, those mondo sausage fingers coming in like cannon balls, but then stops dead.

She turns her head down, bending closer.

Jean follows her gaze with a laugh of relief.

His squad has completed their task with flying colors. The Survey Corps forces are chopping at her legs in droves, little ant-size specks drifting back and forth with fresh blades. Despite possession of rapid Titan healing, she won't be standing for much longer.

In her moment of hesitation, Eren growls and scurries up the side of her face like a huge hairless squirrel, gouging out one eye in short order. There's a deep, loud rumble that could be her extensive vocal chords crying out in distress. Boiling blood spurts out in pulses as the Colossal Titan takes one stumbling step backward.

Mikasa springs up out of Eren's hair as they feel the beginning of a long fall forward, uses the last of her gas to maneuver up behind the head, and begins slicing as they gather speed.

Below, soldiers are darting out of the way in droves, giving the Titan an overly wide berth in which to fall.

Jean, on the other hand, is vulnerable and useless, cradled under Eren's enormous armpit. The last thing he sees before the shock of hitting the rubble-strewn ground is the teeth of the Colossal Titan closing around Eren's leg. It gives him an odd sense of deja vu.

There's a long dark intermittent period wherein Jean struggles for air, having had the wind knocked completely out of him as a result of the impact. Although he's not moving, wind still seems to be rushing in his ears in some way, comfortingly loud and warm. With a squint he spots the outline of Eren's hand--his human one--against the stark daylight.

"Eren," he whispers, touching the tips of their fingers.

Shaking his head to clear the ringing, Jean slowly pushes himself up into a squat next to the wreckage of Eren's Titan body. He pulls on Eren's hand and then looks around for someone to give him a blade when his human form won't come free of the bloody Titan meat.

His back aches and twists when he stands up to get a better vantage point.

The towering mountain of the female Colossal Titan's corpse has already begun to rot away, evaporating at visible speeds. Between its ribs, which stand as tall as the skeleton framing of a cathedral, Jean spots Levi and Sasha extricating a girl dressed all in black from the putrid steaming heap.

The remaining normal Titans that had previously been dead set on devouring them--the ones who weren't crushed beneath the hulking body--have already begun to wander away without her influence.

The ringing in Jean's ears starts up again.

Eren's hand is cold and clammy with blood and condensation. He could be suffocating. He could be dead.

He can hear Armin freaking out somewhere like the tweeting of a little bird.

Twenty feet away, soldiers have begun to gather.

Jean tries to crane his neck to see what they're staring at without letting go of Eren's hand.

Armin and Mikasa are at the center of the crowd.

He's over here, Jean almost says, but then his voice gets swallowed up by circumstance.

Between them, Armin and Mikasa hold Eren's limp body, or what's left of it. The innards are pouring out in curly strands. The sternum is sticking up straight. His white rib bones curl like a beckoning hand. Five fingers. Five toes. One eye, wide open and staring at the sky.

That bitch tore him in half.

Jean lets go of the hand he'd been holding.

 


 

He hangs around outside the infirmary in the snow and listens to Eren screaming for a good couple of hours before anyone finds him. The sounds are not comforting, but they're better than the silence that followed the two broken halves of Eren's body lain at odd angles in the cart. Eventually the screaming quiets down to crying, and then whining, and then the familiar sound Eren getting into arguments for no goddamn reason.

Soon after, Mikasa steps outside. She inhales quickly when she notices him and then frowns. "You're going to get sick," she says, narrowing her eyes. Her hair is more disheveled than Jean has ever seen it, including the heat of battle.

Jean, who is covered in a thin layer of snow and has been very creepily, very stalkerishly, very suspiciously, camped out next to Eren's window, all the better to hear the agonizing pain, avoids her eyes. "I was just passing by!" he exclaims, folding his arms magnanimously. "Hey, you sound worried. Change your mind about me, Mikasa?"

She makes a small noise that could, by some generous bystander, be described as the beginning of a laugh. "You're going to get sick," she repeats. She might be smiling at him, too, but she has her scarf wrapped over her nose and mouth, which Jean finds very cute, although he is interested to note that he doesn't find it any cuter than finding Bertholdt asleep under his bunk or seeing Sasha rub Connie's head after he's had his hair buzzed.

Mikasa takes off her cloak and holds it out to him. "Go in and see him instead of lurking under his window."

Jean wheezes a laugh, waving his hands ridiculously until she stops trying to give him her clothes. "What are you, my boyfriend? Not that I--have a boyfriend! See who? I'm not lurking. See who? Who's even in there? I was just-- I'm not going to get sick."

 


 

That night, he gets sick and finds himself dragged to the infirmary by Richardson after throwing up in the shower.

The doctor, utterly unimpressed by him after a long, traumatic day's work, prescribes a bucket and a glass of water.

The infirmary has been set up in an old hospital which was abandoned when the Titans invaded Wall Maria eight years ago. It worked well for the Corps' purposes, strongly built out of red brick, equipped with a hundred empty rooms, each with at least a single bed, and, most blessedly, a boiler that someone in engineering manages to get fired up.

Jean gets a room with a mattress so moldy his nausea won't allow him to be near it and ends up hunched over his bucket of vomit in the corner, shaking and sweating beneath his blanket. After avoiding the hands and teeth of the mighty Titan, day in and day out, he has succumbed fully to the flu. His stomach feels imploded, turned in on itself in a sharp knot.

He hasn't been this sick in years, not since before basic training back in Trost. He vaguely remembers his father feeding him soup and a lullaby in that different language his parents would sometimes speak to each other but tried not to teach Jean. The one line of the lullaby he can still recall goes on a loop in his head until it makes him queasy.

Eventually a pair of bare feet appear in his doorway.

"Wow," says the person attached to them. "They tell me I look like shit, but they obviously haven't seen you."

Jean drags his head up to see Eren grinning but not meeting Jean's gaze. He's not wrong about looking terrible. The bags under his eyes are inky purple, hair matted and dirty despite his fresh clean linen clothes, and his whole body droops sideways against the door frame like the insides haven't all filled in yet.

Trying not to figure out which half is still original straight-from-the-womb Eren, or if any of him at all is the old model, Jean laughs weakly. "We're a pair, huh?"

Eren pushes himself free of the door frame and shuffles over to crouch next to Jean and his bucket on the floor. He gives the contents a long look.

"Stop, what the hell," Jean says, scooting the pail away.

"Is it...because of the fall?" Eren asks. His shoulders bunch up with anxiety.

"God, I hope not." Jean goes for sarcasm but his voice comes out unusually sincere. "Doc says it's probably just the stomach flu," he amends.

Eren silently eyes him over, and Jean knows he's a real beauty queen at the moment, clammy skin, face burned, nose bruised from Eren's fist, the rest of him bruised from the fall, because Eren's nostrils flare and he says, too loud, "I wish I could murder the flu."

"That's like the nicest thing you've ever said to me," Jean notes with a laugh.

Marco would know the right thing to tell Jean about his mixed up feelings, in his bluntly logical way. He would say it wasn't such a big deal, that people change, that Jean has a good heart and deserves love just like anybody else, but it's been years now since he's spoken with Marco.

Jean laughs so hard he makes himself throw up.

Eren gets closer and hands him the nearly empty glass of water when he's finished. "You've been acting really bizarre," he says while Jean gargles.

Jean shoots him a dirty look, spits in the bucket. "You're the one threatening germs with corporal punishment."

"Hey, Jean..." Eren says, staring. Abruptly, he looks away and scratches at his tangled hair.

"Yes, Eren?" Jean sighs.

"The girl we caught says there's an army waiting in Zhiganshina. More...people like her. Like me."

Well, of course.

Jean thunks his forehead down on the edge of his bucket. "Great. We're all dead."

Eren shoves his shoulder irritably. "Don't say that!"

"Yes, I know you have an aversion to the spoken truth," Jean says. "Eren Jaeger is immortal. It's not like he almost died today."

Eren looks confused. Eren probably doesn't even think in those terms.

"It's not about living or dying," he says, green eyes wide and serious. He sweeps up Jean's hand in a frenzy of wartime emotion. "It's about winning and losing."

"Eren," Jean says, staring back, his palm getting sweaty beneath Eren's fingers. "That's a complete pile of shit. You can't win if you're dead." He feels like he's going to barf again.

"You always lose if you never fight," Eren says, contrary as always.

And quelle surprise, he is looking at Jean's mouth and leaning in, because naturally debates about mortality would get Eren's blood pumping.

"I just barfed..." Jean protests, watching in disbelief as Eren's face looms ever nearer.

"I won't get sick," Eren says seriously. "It's fine." He takes Jean's face in his hands. "It's fine; it's fine." Whether he can't catch human illnesses anymore or whether he's just Eren and is planning to refuse to be ill is anyone's guess.

Regardless, Jean puts a stop to it.

Eren makes a feverish noise of protest against his palm although Jean is the one with the fever. It's really inconsiderate.

"The taste in my mouth could literally shrivel your brain," Jean says, pushing Eren's face away, "and I don't need the Brass riding me for giving their living weapon the kiss of death."

"My brain will just heal. It's fine!"

"My spit will burn through the back of your neck and kill you Titan style."

Eren groans. "So--go brush your teeth or something!"

"Man, you're really starting to piss me off! I will upchuck directly into your mouth, Jaeger. In fact, you know what?" says Jean murderously, "I want to! Come here, I changed my mind. Let's make it happen." The moment he says it, though, he's hit by another round of dizziness. His head spins. His view of Eren's stupid disgruntled face swims horribly. "It's your lucky day," he all but whines, curling inward beneath his blanket. He shrugs away the hand that settles on his shoulder. "Look, I don't know what Armin and Mikasa told you, but you don't have to come here and give me a weird pity make out session as a reward for joining the Survey Corps or saving your life or like, whatever shitty thing you've come up with. I'm just..."

Jean pauses and looks up at Eren, who is watching him with his elbows on his knees, head tilted like a puppy, which is very cute, cuter than Reiner bandaging Armin's head or Ymir's desperately flippant reactions to receiving compliments from Krista, much cuter than Corporal Levi befriending his horse, even cuter than Mikasa's unbearable attempts at lying, and, hell, since they are all going to die soon anyway, Jean figures he may as well say something.

"When...on the forest mission, a few weeks ago, remember? When I found you, you were hanging out of some Titan's teeth by your ankle," Jean says wretchedly. "It bit through, and dropped you on your face on a scrap of bone from your...whole...rotty Titan body...thing." He pulls his blanket up over the top of his head like a hood, glaring at Eren's bare feet. "And I thought you were dead. I wasn't thinking. I thought I'd never get to--see you again or whatever. Or punch you in your dumb face. So obviously that was a problem for me. Made me reconsider some things."

Eren laughs softly. His toes curl.

"And we're both going to die tomorrow, and we're not even friends--"

"We are," Eren says as he peels back Jean's blanket. He pushes until Jean looks him in the eye and then smiles, satisfied. "We've lived together and learned together and fought together, so that makes us friends. I don't really know what you were saying about Armin and Mikasa and pitying you. I stopped listening since you weren't making sense--"

"What the fuck. That's so rude," Jean says.

"--but, uh, I've always liked you," Eren continues, somewhat awkwardly, almost laughing. He scratches his head for a second, glancing out of the corner of his eye before he seems to change his mind about his demeanor and crawls forward with a deep frown of determination, sliding his arms around Jean's waist, sticking his nose behind Jean's ear. "I was just waiting for you to pull your head out of your ass and learn right from wrong."

Jean swallows thickly, brain stuck on the feeling of Eren's mouth against his neck. "You really don't know how to leave your crappy holier-than-thou attitude at the door, do you?" he rasps. "Anyway, you waited too long."

Eren ignores his griping. "Armin says your squad won't be assigned to me again, since being in love--"

Jean chokes.

"--has turned out to be a liability. But I'll find you in Zhiganshina after things calm down," Eren promises, pushing Jean's sweaty bangs back from his forehead. "Meet me by the clock tower, if it's still there."

Jean sniffs miserably, scowling when Eren wipes his tears. "Just because we've both survived so far doesn't mean anything. Good luck always runs out eventually."

"Luck has nothing to do with it," Eren insists. He kisses Jean's cheek and nose and forehead, lips gentle against the bruises and burns. "You should see your face when you cry. It's not lucky at all."

Jean snorts. "Well, you have my permission to hook up with some hot young thing if I kick the...bucket," he says, glancing at his pail of vomit. "So to speak."

Eren stills and makes that pissed off face Jean likes so much. "I've liked you since I was twelve, so you might be kind of it for me," he says, like it's the worst thing in the world and not by far the most romantic words Jean's sad little ears have ever heard.

It makes a good few things flicker into focus: the persistence of Eren's quest to change Jean's mind, the fights, and mainly the knowing looks Armin and Mikasa have been giving him for the past week, the past month, for years.

"Be safe, alright?"

"You be safe," Jean snaps, reaching out to hold Eren's hand. "It's such typical dramatic Eren bullshit that you would wait until now to tell me that."

"The clock tower," Eren reminds him. "Don't be a jackass."

"Fine, whatever, I heard you the first time."

He is fairly sure he'll never see the thing on this side of heaven.

It's wasteful is what it is, but it is one on a list of hundreds of things that have been wasted between them. Eren stares at him with the same earnest green eyes that have seen a change take place, that have not seen Zhiganshina before or again, that have never beheld the bygone horrors of his childhood or the impending ones of his death. His eyebrows furrow in concentration, one track mind narrowing down to Jean Kirschtein of the 104th, for one quiet moment.

Jean gives himself five seconds to think that perhaps Eren is right.

He considers that maybe the clock tower is built of white bricks and surrounded by a grove of autumn colored trees, that perhaps he will walk down the street and throw his hand up against the yellow afternoon sun to see the dark outline of a conquering hero. Jean will laugh in open relief whereas Eren will pretend he knew all along it would turn out this way. Armin will arrive with a smile full of answers. Mikasa will hug them both and threaten Jean to be good to Eren on pain of death. The others will congratulate them, holding each other, the sudden weight of freedom unfamiliar. And this is Jean's dream, so hey, Marco will be there too, waving and winking in that way that wrinkles his freckles, aiming an elbow at Dazz when he inevitably says something horrible. They'll bring Thomas and Mina and Hannah and Franz, their boots shiny and new, all their limbs attached and everything, and Eren would probably want to see those people from Levi's squad again, so they're welcome to show up to his Never Happening in a Million Years Dream Scenario as well, to give their strange host of congratulations including a truly crude string of suggestions from Corporal Levi. Jean allows himself to imagine the dusting of snow beneath their feet, clouds that stay at the horizon. Eren will cry, but Jean won't, because he can stay composed hypothetically, in his own head. And maybe as the clock tower rings in a new hour, Eren will grin wickedly and tug Jean close by the lapels of his jacket and whisper, "Here we go," and--

In the morning, after Jean has brushed his teeth, they manage to kiss each other goodbye.