Eren found him on the wall’s edge, legs dangling down over the side facing the town as night fell. He strode across the stone in slow measured steps, probably to hide the trembling in his legs from exhaustion. Jean had no idea how hard it was to be Eren and he honestly didn’t want to find out; he had a hard enough time just trying to fill the role of on-the-run soldier and he didn’t need or want the weight of humanity’s hopes and dreams weighing him down. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Eren drew close, turning his head to the fading sunset when he sat down next to him, slowly like it hurt.
“You alright,” Jean asked, trying to put at least a little sarcasm in his voice for old time’s sake. Eren snorted, fingers curling over the edge of the wall like he was scared he was going to fall.
Eren Jaeger hadn’t been scared to fall once in the three years Jean had known him. He’d flung himself in the air time and time again, knocking against trees and scraping against the ground with only the faintest of groans before he shook it off and did it all over again. That little curl of his fingers told Jean more than he wanted to know about how the kidnapping had affected Eren and the thought turned him stomach, making him realize that Eren wasn’t just holding humanity’s hopes and dreams on his shoulders. He had Jean’s hopes and dreams there as well, right next to the mound of expectations that only ever grew.
Shit, Jean hadn’t thought he’d ever feel this bad for Jaeger, but the feeling welled in him, impossible to stop. He was three seconds from curling his arm around him in some sort of damn hug, just to make him stop looking like such a kicked fucking mutt, when Eren glanced over at him. His hair hung limply across his unblemished forehead, drifting slightly in the lazy twilight wind.
Jean remembered the cut there, dripping blood into dull green eyes as he craned to look at them, weak and confused. There had been no fire in his eyes. That had been the scariest thing, more terrifying than the titan towering taller than anything he’d ever seen before; Eren’s expression had been the thing to convince him they were going to die down in that cavern.
“You know,” Eren said, no preamble, no hello, voice rough in his throat like he’d been shouting since sunrise. Jean wasn’t sure what he’d been doing since the king had been killed by Historia that morning, but if Jean knew Eren he had been doing all he could to help, never resting. Or at least, that’s what Eren would have been doing before.
“If you’d joined the Military Police in the beginning, you’d have still wound up here,” Eren continued, voice even. Jean blinked at the sunset, feeling his face scrunch up in confusion at the words.
“What,” he barked, twisting to eye Eren head on. The torches were being lit behind him, the sky bleeding purple as the sun turned into a sliver and then sunk to nothing. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean, Jaeger?”
Eren’s laugh was short, jagged around the edges like a cough. “If you’d picked the Military Police instead of the Scouting Legion,” he clarified, “you would have still wound up fighting titans with us outside the walls.”
Jean blinked, not finding the humor in the statement at first. He opened his mouth to repeat what the fuck, Jaeger when it occurred to him that this was Eren’s half-assed attempt at talking to him like a normal human being. Jean could count the number of “normal” conversations he’d had with the other boy during their training on one hand, so it was a little novel, the idea that this was happening.
But honestly Jean wasn’t sure he had the capability to hold a normal conversation with anyone anymore. So he did what he did best; he rose to the bait.
“Fuck off, Jaeger,” Jean said, voice holding about as much heat as the cooling breeze around them. “My choices matter as much as yours do and it was my choice to join.” He let the words sink in, eying Eren to see if his words had any effect. Other than the twitch of his fingers curled loosely beside his thighs he showed no offense. “Besides,” Jean continued, managing to drag up enough energy to sound like his body didn’t still ache with the memory of the titan’s heat or feel like a ton of bricks from lack of sleep, “if I hadn’t joined who the hell would have sat in as your ugly mug’s better looking double? Connie? That’d be a fucking laugh.”
Eren snorted, lip curling crooked ever so lightly. Jean imagined Connie in the wig and Eren’s clothes, how the shirt would dwarf his slimmer shoulders and drag over his fingers. It was a laughable image, one that brought a smile to his cracked, chapped lips for a brief second.
“At least then I wouldn’t be mistake for a fucking horse,” Eren muttered back, almost sounding like his old self. There wasn’t a fire in his voice yet, but there was a spark, a tired, cooling ember being dragged back to life. The idea settled Jean, enough that he slouched forward, leaning into that cool breeze that pulled at his hair and slid through his shirt like it wasn’t even there. It relaxed him enough that his tongue went loose, curling around words he wasn’t sure he should say but couldn’t stop.
“While you were tucked away like a goddamn baked potato Sasha stole from the mess hall I was being a valuable, important member of our goddamn squad, asshole. So why don’t you keep your goddamn horse jokes to yourself for once, yeah?”
There was a line Jean shouldn’t have crossed and it was six feet behind and above him now. He gulped, stiffening even as the words left his mouth, but Eren didn’t rally against them and yet he didn’t shrink away. He laughed, the first loud, warm sound Jean had heard come from him in over a month, buckling forward as his arms wrapped around his stomach. Eren’s fingers curled against the material of the borrowed shirt they’d given him after the cavern, twitching as his shoulders shook, the laughter ringing out over the city as if the sound had wings.
“I know,” Eren said, peeking up at Jean through his bangs, which didn’t seem so limp when his eyes shown so bright. His lips curled at the corners and there was something almost soft about the way he continued with, “Levi said you’d done well.”
The words caught Jean off guard, so much so that he swayed in the breeze and stared, open mouthed as the sound of Eren’s voice echoed in his head. Eren had been back maybe twenty-four hours, hardly enough time to have a conversation with anyone that wasn’t about their lives being on the line, but somehow, in the ruckus, he and their captain had taken a moment to discuss how Jean had been doing? That didn’t make sense. Their captain didn’t talk to people like that, not that Jean had seen.
But Eren had been on Squad Levi much longer than the rest of them had, Jean realized with a jolt. Even with his time missing, Eren had spent a month in the other man's company, following in his wake in the dusty old castle that, according to Eren, had been much worse off before the cadets had arrived. That much downtime in his company, Jean couldn’t even begin to imagine it.
“What,” Eren said, making a face, a little bit of his defensive anger creeping into his tone. “What’s that face for, fuckwit? I’m trying to give you a goddamn compliment here.”
If Jean hadn’t known better he would have said that sentence had come out of their captain’s mouth, not Eren’s. Eren didn’t use a word like fuckwit; he always used asshole or bastard. The only person Jean had ever heard use such a word had been Levi, casual, dry, and slow, like he had all day to be disappointed in the lack of brain cells their squad had between them. He felt his jaw fall open a little further as he blinked, mind whirling to reexamine what he thought he knew about their captain and Eren.
“You talk to him,” Jean said eventually, when Eren was starting to look worried under the obvious lines of exhaustion on his face. He knew he sounded startled, but he couldn’t help it. “You talk to him like he’s-“
Normal was the world on the tip of Jean’s tongue, but something in Eren’s face changed, something Jean recognized from training. A few guys had made the mistake of picking on Armin early on in their years together and Eren had done everything he could to put them on the ground, even if it meant Mikasa had to save him from getting his arm broken in the end. Eren had a look about him like a caged animal when he got protective and that look was beginning to bloom as Jean bit off the end of his sentence, silence hanging between them. It just made the whole goddamn thing that much weirder.
But then Eren deflated, sagging like he did immediately after being cut free of his titan form. Jean didn’t really have a way to describe what expression he wore, but it was something like grief, though his lips stayed in their slight curl at the corners.
“He’s actually really talkative,” Eren said softly, like he was sharing a secret. Jean couldn’t believe it and his silence conveyed that in a way no words could. “No, really,” the other boy insisted, grinning a little more, grief leaving him bit by bit, “it was weird to me at first too, but Levi honestly just likes to talk to people. He’s not that scary once you get to know him.”
Jean had spent several weeks under Levi’s direct orders, doing shit he’d thought he’d never have to do and finding out horrifying truths beyond his imagination, but Levi was still the single most terrifying human being he’d ever met. The way he could cut another human apart, without a flinch, without a pause, flicking the blood from his blade like it didn’t matter… And then there was his encouragement, which was effective but rough, most of it made up of demands and threats in equal measure that had Jean shaking at the knees every time. Yet Eren talked like Levi was- like he was-
“Eren,” Jean said slowly, the words curling on his tongue again before he could stop them. “Our captain has killed people.”
Eren blinked at him like he’d never heard something so dumb. Jean expected a naïve denial, but what he got instead was a quiet, “he told me that too.”
Where had the older man found the time to tell Eren this shit, Jean wondered, blinking numbly at Eren as his mind scrambled to understand this new information. They’d all spent the night after rescuing him preparing for the king’s arrival at the wall, running around, prepping and planning and afterward the citizens needs to be reassured, Historia’s declaration needed to be acknowledged… Jean hadn’t known their captain had left Commander Erwin’s side all day, but he began to think that he might have been wrong as Eren’s gaze slid down to his hands, clasped loosely in his lap.
In fact, he might have been wrong about everything he’d assumed about their captain and Eren. The idea was strange, especially when Eren’s lips twitched, his eyes unfocused as he lost himself in thought. A quiet Eren wasn’t a wholly uncommon sight, but there was a gleam in his eyes that Jean hadn’t seen before. He was almost positive no one had seen such a thing before.
“He really told you all that, huh,” Jean muttered, shivering as the sky went black above their heads, stars shining bright. Eren tipped his face up to look at them, blinking with an expression that said he hadn’t seen the sky in a while. Jean tried not to think of how many days Eren had been missing, tried not to imagine how many different ways he’d been carted around like a piece of meat, chained under a church in what might have well been a rock tomb for all the warmth, cheer, and blood it had seen. Eren didn’t look at him when he smiled and Jean couldn’t help but notice his fingers weren’t clinging to the edge of the wall anymore, playing idly instead with the straps of his gear on his legs.
“Yeah,” Eren breathed, “he filled me in on what I’d missed. Said you and Armin had kept each other safe, that Connie and Sasha had been surprisingly helpful pains in the ass, and that Mikasa might be his favorite of the shitstains he’d been stuck with when it came down to it.”
Eren had never smiled like that before; Jean knew that without having to double check with Mikasa or Armin. Eren’s smiles were vicious and wide, tooth filled and with eyes that made chills go down Jean’s spine for all the reckless hasty fire they held. He remembered suddenly, thoughts disjointed with surprise, the quiet way their captain had apologized to Eren in the cavern. He’d been too busy mentally lamenting their imminent death to really marvel in the novelty of the terrifying man apologizing to anyone so sincerely, but as he thought about it, eying the curve of Eren’s slowly growing smile, it began to make a horrifying amount of sense.
The situation only became weirder when Eren slumped backward, falling to lean on his elbows behind him, head tipped completely toward the sky. He muttered something, something the wind took away before Jean could hear, but the words weren’t important. What was important was the figure Jean spotted in the torchlight behind Eren as he turned to eye him, short but solid, arms crossed over his chest and face turned to watch Humanity’s Hope as he dangled his legs into the wind and bared his throat for the stars.
“I’m glad you’re back,” Jean blurted out, ducking his head when he realized their captain had tipped his head in the distance and was studying him back. Jean couldn’t see in the growing darkness, but he imagined the man’s eyebrows were arching high on his forehead and the image made him flush unexpectedly. He cleared his throat when Eren jerked to look at him, awkward and loud with the distant noises of the city below drifting up on the breeze.
“I mean, Mikasa and Armin were really starting to go crazy missing you,” Jean muttered. It was a shit attempt to save face and they both probably knew it, but Eren only snorted, his grin a glint of teeth in the dark.
“I’m glad to be back, you goddamn horseface,” Eren responded. He sounded tired and Jean glanced at the figure hanging back a little ways from them, watching them with what Jean was beginning to imagine might have been fondness, before he began to struggle to his feet. He’d been sitting on the edge of the wall too long, wobbling in the breeze on numb legs, but Eren just watched him, a little bemused and unconcerned at the sudden movement.
“I’m fucking starving,” Jean muttered, which was the first excuse he could think of. It was also the truth, but he didn’t realize that until he said it. Eren nodded, humming a little bit in acknowledgement, but made no move to join him. Good, Jean thought, lifting his hand in a lazy wave before turning on his heels and marching away. The closest way down the wall that didn’t involve using his gear in the dark was back behind him, but that was also where their captain was lurking and Jean figured one awkwardly weird interaction was enough for his very long, very stressful day.
He glanced back only once before he focused completely on finding the lift in the dark. His glance revealed the slow approach of their captain toward the reclining shape that was Eren, whose head tipped even further back to see who was walking toward him now. There was another flash of teeth in a crooked unfamiliar way and a name, mostly taken away by the wind, but Jean turned to face forward, resolutely trying to ignore such things. Still the flicker of Levi’s answering smile and the sound of Eren’s name dragged to his ears by the lazy night’s wind lingered in Jean’s mind, making him quiet for the rest of the evening as he reflected that it wasn’t a bad thing, sure, just a strange thing. And yet as he settled next to Armin in a surprisingly noisy tavern inn, Sasha and Connie digging into their food down the way with Mikasa watching on, bemused, he guessed everyone was allowed their own brand of peace, no matter how strange it seemed to him.