There’s a lot of things they still don’t know about the titans, and every battle is a new opportunity for learning. With Annie’s help, they discover that, with training or perhaps raw skill, it’s possible to transform more than once in a row. From the incident with Reiner and Bertholt, they learn that one’s physical strength places a limiter on one’s ability to transform. You can’t change while your body’s busy growing limbs back, for example.
They confirm this much in the experiments that Hanji performs with Eren. Repeated transformations, especially if performed in a feeble mental state, can be completely fruitless—the abortive, immobile titan he produces on his final try is proof enough of that.
And afterwards, after all the experiments, after Eren’s safely home and tucked into bed, they learn one more thing: that the more tired Eren is, the more worn out and spent and exhausted he is, the longer it takes for him to heal.
It starts out slow, initially. So slow that the degeneration of his abilities is barely noticeable. And it’s almost funny at first; maybe Eren has to go half an hour without hands, or something along those lines. Pretty minor, in the grand scheme of things. Maybe he laughs and punches people with his smoking arm stubs until fingers magically and grossly splurt back out of the ends of them. And maybe because of that—because it’s not half as funny as Eren thinks, to punch people with disgusting handless stumps—maybe Jean has trouble taking him seriously. Maybe Jean doesn’t think too hard about what it means for Eren to heal slower, because thinking is always harder than not.
Then, the duration it takes for him to regenerate, the time period between limbless Eren and able Eren, starts to increase. Hours pass before the stumps of his arms and legs manage to knit themselves back into fully-formed limbs; before his eyes grow back, before meat and muscles cover up the terrifyingly-exposed bones of his face.
Then hours turn into days, and after that Eren starts spending a whole lot more time alone in the infirmary, staring sightlessly up at the ceiling while his mending flesh hisses softly in the background, like a red-hot iron dunked into a bucket of water.
After the last experiment, they cut Eren out of the useless titan he’d created and took him home—and he’s calling it ‘Eren’ because on an intellectual level he understands that that’s who it was, but honestly, the thing they brought back was barely human. Mikasa was beside herself with anxiety, clinging to it—him, begging for some kind of response, but the best they could get out of him was that he was still breathing.
Two days have passed since then, and everyone is very carefully not talking about the (heavily-damaged) titan in the room. Jean, for his part, is quite certain that it’s none of his business anyway, and if it were up to him he’d be staying the hell away from the infirmary for the sake of his sanity.
But as always, Armin Arlert is around to throw a wrench into those plans.
“Please?” Armin cajoles, taking Jean’s sleeve. “I’d do it myself, but he gets really touchy about me and Mikasa babying him.”
Jean shoves his hands into his pockets, ducking his head mulishly. “What makes you think it’d be better if I was doing it?”
“It’s different with you,” Armin mumbles, although he refuses to elaborate afterwards. “Look, you don’t have to go out of your way, okay? Just… spend a little time in there with him. If you were in that situation, wouldn’t you wish for something like that?”
If I were in that situation I’d probably wish I were dead, Jean thinks, but that’s not something he’s gonna say out loud. Though, speaking of being dead, he still owes Armin one for saving his life on the last expedition.
He sighs, moodily, and is halfway down the corridor before something occurs to him. He turns back.
“I don’t owe you anymore after this, Arlert,” he calls, grumpily. “We clear on that?”
“Of course,” Armin calls back, with a far-too-cheerful smile.
The infirmary is, as far as these things go, a pretty fucking miserable place, and generally Jean spends as little time there as he can wrangle. But Eren Jaeger the amazing limbless wonder isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so he doesn’t have much of a choice but to pull up a chair next to Eren’s bed and sit in it.
It’s weird and uncomfortable having to see Eren like this, with half his face cleaved away, his arms reduced to stumps, a still and silent bundle lying prostrate under a heap of blankets. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to it. His mental image of Eren tends to involve a lot more flailing and shouting, and the discrepancy here is jarring, like a tripwire strung across his brain.
For the first ten minutes or so, Jean just… sits there, feeling dumb and awkward and a little like this is Armin’s idea of a practical joke. As far as he can tell, Eren doesn’t even know he has a visitor, which makes the whole endeavor a gigantic waste of his time.
Then, out of the blue, Eren stirs. His throat (Jean tries not to look at it too closely, because it’s still a mess of exposed muscle fibers and raw flesh) moves, flexing, coming alive for a moment. He makes… a noise; Jean isn’t really sure how else to describe it—it’s a kind of drawn-out vowel sound, a little rounded at the edges, like a moan of pain.
“Uh,” says Jean, feeling clammy all over. He lurches out of the chair and seizes the washcloth draped at the head of Eren’s bed, stumbling away to find a basin of water to wet it in. Then he returns, wringing it nervously as he goes and splattering water all over the floor of the infirmary.
“Here,” he mutters, throat dry, as he spreads the wet washcloth over—over—the general vicinity of Eren’s probable forehead. “This, it’ll help.” Actually he is not sure that this is strictly true; quite possibly it will make things worse, but it’s one of those things that is both comforting to say and hear so he’s damn well gonna say it.
And indeed, it does seem to have somewhat of a soothing effect; after a tense moment, Eren sinks back into his cot, his muscles (the ones he still has, anyway) relaxing. Jean strains to hear his breathing, which is quiet, but labored.
For a while, he just… kind of stares down at Eren, unsure as to how he ought to proceed, lost outside the walls without a map. But just as it occurs to him that maybe he’s done here and he can go now, Eren moves again. To be precise, he reaches for Jean with a handless arm-stub that’s smoking ever so slightly at the end.
Instinctively, Jean reaches back to hold it, but stops short when it occurs to him that Eren doesn’t have any fingers for him to hold on to. Oh.
He leaves his hand hovering there for a second, pointlessly, before letting it drop back to his side.
“Uhm,” he stammers, twisting his fingers together awkwardly. (The arm-stub is still pointed in his general direction like it’s waiting for something.) “L- look. I’ll… come back tomorrow. Okay?”
There isn’t a sound from Eren, not so much as a peep, but he does rest his arm-stub back beside him on the sheets. Which seems like acquiescence—at least, as far as Jean is concerned.
True to his word, and despite the fact that he no longer owes Armin anything, Jean returns the following day. He has to do a little bit of mental gymnastics to convince himself, but the justification he eventually arrives at is that someone’s gotta bring Eren news about what’s going on outside the infirmary, or he’s going to be hopelessly out of touch by the time he recovers. (Even more so than normal, and that’s a scary thought.)
He sits himself down in the same chair by Eren’s bedside, fidgeting nervously with hands in his lap. He hasn’t said so much as a ‘hello’ yet, but the squeak of the chair as he settles in is audible, and Eren, who’s clearly awake, turns a silent, sightless face in his direction.
He starts to speak, then, his eyes wandering vaguely around the room as though trying to decide what they should settle on. He tells Eren about Hanji’s research; about what Levi’s new squad has been up to. About Sasha getting nailed for stuffing bread down her shirt and having to do extra cleaning duty for a week. About consequential and inconsequential things; the kind of stuff that occupies their daily lives. That would be a part of Eren’s life too, right now, if only he wasn’t confined to a bed on account of being blind and mute and crippled.
As for Eren, he still doesn’t have much of a tongue or, well, a jaw, so he pretty much just lies there. (Hopefully listening, because if he isn’t, Jean can think of a whole lotta other things he’d rather be doing with his time.)
Eventually, though, he runs out of things to say, to tell Eren about. And maybe you think you’ve seen awkward, but you really haven’t, not until you’ve seen Jean sitting at Eren’s sickbed, just staring at him, when Eren can’t even speak and can’t even see him on account of having big gaping holes in his face where his eyes should be.
“Man, I don’t know what else I can do for you,” Jean mutters, suddenly, resting his face in his hands. “Don’t even know why Armin put me up to this.”
Eren gives a start, abruptly enough that Jean scoots his chair back an inch or two in surprise.
“Shit, Eren,” he mumbles, as he drags his chair back into place. “You trying to give me a heart attack?”
Eren’s breathing is heavy, as though he’s running a marathon. At length, he manages to force out a single syllable: “Reeee.”
“Ree?” Jean pauses to think. “—Read?” Is that a nod? Jean thinks it is. He manages a dry chuckle, leaning back into his uncomfortable chair. “Didn’t know you even knew what reading was, Jaeger.”
Speaking in his current state seems to take monumental effort, but Eren does it anyway. “Fuuuhh… eew,” he says. He’s taking in these shivery, shaky little breaths, through a nose shaped largely from exposed cartilage. He’s obviously exerting himself, and that makes Jean feel a little bad even as he laughs because of course Eren would expend that much energy telling him to go fuck himself.
“Okay, okay. Sorry.” Still, despite himself, Jean smiles a little. The thing lying on the bed doesn’t look much like Eren, but… he’s in there, somewhere. “I’ll figure something out next time, then. Okay?”
“Mmh,” Eren says. Which Jean decides to interpret as an enthusiastic and grateful ‘yes’.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the way of interesting fiction in the recon corps library—it’s mostly research notes or reports, and that stuff is as dry as the commander’s butthole. He does, however, locate a few children’s books, salvaged from the wrecks of abandoned towns, and once he’s amassed a stack of these, he carries them, self-consciously, to the infirmary. (He also borrows a pair of reading glasses from another soldier, and in that sense it’s kind of a relief that Eren still can’t see him, because what could be more mortifying than sitting there with this little pair of glasses perched on his nose, reading a goddamn children’s book to the hope of humanity?)
He settles down in the now-familiar chair, and fixes the spectacles awkwardly upon his nose. “Okay, you ready?” he asks.
The stack of books is resting on the low table beside Eren’s bed. He reaches for the first one, flips it open, and begins to read.
“Once upon a time,” he says, squinting a little, “there were four little rabbits. And their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.”
That, to Jean’s ears, sounds suspiciously like laughter. Dropping his narrator’s voice for a second, Jean says, testily, “Look, this was all I could find, okay? You got something to say about it?”
There still isn’t much face for him to read an expression off of, but as far as he can tell Eren does have something to say about it, except he’s still struggling to make the more complicated consonant sounds. He does, however, cross his arm stubs huffily over his chest—a move that looks so goddamn comical it makes Jean laugh, and his laughter, in turns, only makes Eren huffier.
But it’s not like he can get up and leave or anything, so eventually he has to sit through the entire Tale of Peter Rabbit as narrated by Jean Kirschtein, whether he wants to or not.
And somehow—by some freak of circumstance, or perhaps just by a long, uninterrupted string of weird events—this becomes their routine for the next week. Every day they spend a little time together, and every day Eren grows back a little more of himself. When they run out of kid’s books, Jean is forced to transition over to dry research journals. But those seem to help Eren sleep, at least, and more than once he looks up as he turns a page to see that Eren’s eyes (which have finally grown back, thank Sina) are closed, and that he’s dozed off listening to the gentle drone of Jean’s voice.
Usually Jean will stop reading, then, closing the book and putting it back on top of the pile at Eren’s bedside. Then, if he’s quite sure that Eren really is asleep, he’ll reach out and brush some of the sweaty hair out of Eren’s half-formed face, pressing the back of his hand against Eren’s forehead to feel the heat radiating off of it. (Just because he feels sorry for Eren in the state he’s in, you understand… not for any other particular reason.)
He doesn’t always leave right away, either, even though his job’s technically done once the reading is. He’ll sit there for a while, just… staring at Eren, watching fingers of smoke sprout from the rounded stumps of his arms, and he’ll tell himself it’s just because he’s too lazy to get out of his chair just yet. Sometimes, too, if he happens to close his eyes or if he happens to be quite tired enough, he’ll drift off for a few minutes, fumbling his way through dizzy dreams about a world where Eren doesn’t ever have to lie prone in a bed for weeks waiting for his hands to grow back.
On one of these occasions, as he’s dozing quietly, fitfully, a weird, gargling, choking noise startles him back into wakefulness.
Still muzzy from sleep, he opens his eyes. Eren is thrashing about in bed, flailing his arm stubs (which are shaped like hooks now, having regenerated past the elbow joint), and Jean does the only thing he can think to do—he dives forward out of the chair, throwing himself over the other boy, hugging him as tight as he can. He gasps; it’s a little like hugging a furnace, feverish, fiery warmth coming off of Eren’s skin in waves.
But he clings on, holding Eren through his struggles until finally he stills; until his breathing slows down, until his eyes open and he’s kind of just staring at Jean, who stares back, still holding him with the stunned expression of a gopher that has just concussed itself on a rock.
“Uhh,” Jean sputters, immediately clammy, “I—this isn’t—“
But before he can explain exactly what it isn’t, or pull away, Eren throws up two stumpy hook arms to hug him back down, holding him in place.
Jean can’t make up his mind that feels kinda nice or just really weird, because he has never been hugged by someone with stubs for arms before. After a few long seconds he mumbles, trying to make it sound like a joke, “This is literally the worst hug I’ve ever had.”
Eren, who at long last has more or less all the body parts required for speech back in his possession, answers in a scratchy voice, “If you don’t like it, maybe you shouldn’t have started it.”
Jean laughs, then, and when he shifts it leans their foreheads together. The tip of his nose brushes Eren’s—which is at least fleshy now, if not entirely covered with skin.
His fingertips skim up alongside Eren’s face, cupping his cheek. (As always, it’s hot against his palm like a fever.)
“Okay, it’s… not really that bad,” he confesses, after a moment.
He gathers up his nerves, shuts his eyes tight, then presses his mouth briefly, chastely, over Eren’s half-formed lips before pulling back.
When he opens his eyes again, Eren is staring up at him in wonder. It’s incredibly embarrassing, and also kind of makes him feel like he should say something. He settles for, “That was fucking weird.” because it’s true.
Eren’s tongue peeks out; lashes the raw flesh of his mouth, which then curves into a smile. “Try again tomorrow,” he says, slowly. “Maybe I’ll have lips by then.”
“Maybe,” Jean says, thinking Or maybe you could just not lose them in the first place, asshole.
He drags his chair up, sitting back in it, and buries his face against Eren’s warm chest, with those weird L-bend arms clasped over his back. “Hurry up and get better so we can do this properly,” he mutters, against the slightly-sweaty fabric of Eren’s shirt.
“Working on it,” Eren answers. Jean hears the soft fwump of his head sinking back into the pillow. “’m doing my best over here, okay?”
And yeah. Yeah, Jean has to admit… he really is.