Jean was relieved to find himself heading to bed. Relieved that no one would see his bruises littered across his face or the way his arm wrapped around his stomach, almost trying to contain the contents of his dinner inside. He picked at his bruises as he absentmindedly went to scratch his cheek and twitched in pain. Captain Levi did a number on him as did Eren, but that was off the record. He wasn't sure why he let his anger erupt again, why he landed the punch on Eren, why he'd continue until the swift kick delivered by Captain Levi to the two of them ended it. The thought of Eren enduring the same humiliation comforted him a little.
And there was a silver lining.
Right after Captain Levi left, Mikasa had walked away and returned with bandages, alcohol, and cotton. She loomed over him, and his mouth had shut tightly, partially because it hurt to move his jaw, but he was sure nothing but gibberish would come out anyway. She laid the materials down on the table that Jean and Eren sat across from. Mikasa looked at him disinterestedly and turned away but not before Jean noticed the curve of her lip that moved upward. There was disappointment in his eyes when he realized she wouldn't move to bandage his injuries, but at least she had aided him before Eren or so he was convinced. The contents on the table between the two were equal distances apart from anyone else's perspective except Jean. The moment ranked number two of his interaction with Mikasa, below the time he first laid eyes on her and above the time he risked his life to save her, and a thank you never elapsed. He was glad, though, that for now his worries consisted over menial things.
Jean sighed in relief to discover the vacant beds in his room belonged to Eren and Connie. He was in no mood to confront Eren again, and Connie was quite the loud sleeper (and self-lover, but that was a story for another time and one Jean wished to never revisit).
Jean himself was a light sleeper, couple that with a person that sounded like a canon going off, it didn't make for a good night's sleep. Even the smallest sound of movement that entered Jean's ears would wake him up, but for the most part, he could avoid letting noise shatter his sleep. There was, however, something about the noise of snoring, the gurgle, and the way it echoed into the night and repeated itself over and over again, that would leave him an insomniac. He remembered back in his trainee days when he and some of the other boys would try pinching Connie's nose to eliminate the noise, or covering his mouth momentarily to find some relief of silence, or at one point, even pressing down a pillow on top his head, hoping to suffocate the snoring out of him. He remembered the scolding he received from Reiner, the envy the boys threw at Bertolt who slept through it all. Everything had failed, and the only solution was to fall asleep before Connie and hope his snoring didn't wake them up.
Thankfully, the only person in the room was Armin. Jean climbed to his assigned bunk. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of the book that obscured Armin's face. The cover was illustrated with stars painted against a backdrop of the night sky. Armin had sat cross legged but after noticing Jean, he folded the top of his page and placed the book on his bed.
Armin climbed to Jean's bunk and rested his head at the top rung. He asked whether Jean was all right with a tinge of teasing in his voice, and Jean answered yes, ignoring the ache that produced from his abdomen. He was not about to revel further in the humiliation he suffered.
He was different now, Armin. Of course, they all had changed, but Jean thought of the time in their trainee days when Armin wouldn't bother with a glance up from his book, when everyone's presence was ignored aside from Eren and the rare occasion Mikasa came to their rooms, when there was no getting in between Armin and his books.
He could still feel Armin's presence behind him, but Jean made no move to change his position and instead let out a yawn to indicate the end of their conversation. He could hear Armin shift slowly, hesitating in his movement almost as if to say something, perhaps a parting word of comfort, but then he climbed down towards his bunk and resumed his reading while Jean let sleep consume him.
And then Jean heard small whispers. His eyes opened slowly, and he moved to the other side to hear the source. It didn't sound as if the whispers were coming from outside, and the only one here was him and…
"Armin, you're doing that again," Jean said, slightly annoyed and amused.
He heard a murmur of an apology.
Some things had changed about them and some things remained the same. This included Armin's ability to mouth the words he read. Unfortunately for anyone that wasn't interested in listening, Armin was not a silent mouther. So the days Armin spent reading till morning, Jean had found himself awake. The first couple of days, he had told Armin to shut up and roughly threw his pillow for extra measure. He remained pillow-less for the whole night. But after a couple minutes of silence, Armin resumed once again. He knew Armin wasn't doing it on purpose; it was simply how he read, and he knew as well that the nights were the only time of leisure afforded to them. He understood all the reasons why, but Jean had wanted sleep so bad. The rest of the lot didn't seem to mind. Most of them were heavy sleepers themselves, and not even the morning alarm would wake them. Only the screaming threats of Keith Shadis were what jolted the boys up every morning. Eventually, Jean just got used to Armin's voice. Sometimes, Jean would follow along with the story till sleep claimed him.
Today was not going to be those days. He wasn't in the mood. "Just keep it down, will ya?"
He heard movements from below which he assumed to be Armin nodding his head in agreement.
A few minutes later, Jean found himself dozing. Off to dreams that drifted him along till something seemed out of the ordinary, even from dream standards. Voices that entered his ears began to envelope him, taking him away from his dream, his sleep. He woke and stirred slowly. His hands cupped his head while the other attempted to keep what little dinner he had left after Captain Levi kicked it out of him. He realized the origin of the voice. His elbow propped him to lie on his side, and he listened to the soft but hurried whispers.
Armin wasn't a very good narrator. He would pronounce words in a different manner than Jean would. He often read hurriedly, almost jumbling over the words that spilled out of his mouth. He would stop at the wrong moments to catch his breath. He would flip the pages noisily, one time even tearing a page in his rush. Jean wasn't sure why. It wasn't as if the pages would float away, disappear, and remain unread.
But there was passion Jean had never seen someone else attack a book with.
The door bolted open, ending Jean's train of thought. He didn't need to look up to see who had entered. He heard the person lunging to their bed, landing on it with a thud, and the cursing that ensued when said person hit the bed frame in the process. Any shred of hope Jean had about sleeping tonight withered away.
"What book are you reading this time, Armin?" Connie asked, facing Armin while his head rested on the pillow, his eyes weighed down by sleep.
Armin had remained undeterred from Connie's entrance, continuing as if nothing happened. He simply lifted the book up in response to Connie's question.
"Right, right…" Connie murmured into his pillow.
Snoring and the whispers of a boy reading filled the room.
Jean climbed down the ladder of his bunk and seated himself beside Armin. This jolted Armin out of his trance, and he gave Jean a puzzled look.
"I'd rather hear you read than try to sleep through that," he jerked his thumb to point at Connie.
Armin nodded his head as if he understood Jean's dilemma. He continued but no longer in that hushed whisper. He spoke at first with hesitance but soon confidence filled his lungs.
Jean realized Armin was reading one of his non fictional stories, but to Jean it all sounded fictional. There were books Armin read that Jean couldn't fathom the existence of. Landscapes illustrated with such clarity and beauty, animals that looked as if they had popped from someone's imagination, things, that Jean was utterly convinced did not exist in this world. But if being in the Survey Corps had taught Jean anything, it was to expect the unexpected. So many things had unraveled these last couple of months that Jean's skepticism began to crack.
Right now Armin was reading about the stars and planet that were sewn into space. Jean couldn't wrap his mind around it all. It was hard enough to understand the enormity of the world beyond the walls, but to know there's much more than that? It frightened Jean a little to know there was something even more obscure and unknown than the Titans. He was sure that this was one of Armin's forbidden books.
It was back during their trainee days when Jean had discovered about Armin's forbidden books, the time when Jean was still particularly sensitive to Connie's snoring. He decided to forsake hunger for sleep the day after during noon meal and walked in on a startled Armin who had slipped his book under the sheets. It was strange, but to Jean, Armin was already odd enough for accompanying Eren as a friend. He lied awake until he heard the click of the door, indicating Armin had left. Curiosity overwhelmed him, and he went to Armin's bunk. It took some searching, but he discovered the books that lay underneath his mattress instead of the drawer where Armin usually kept his books. He wasn't sure why Armin wanted to hide the books away. Perhaps Armin concealed lewd pictures inside the book. Jean chuckled at the thought. Armin was so innocent in nature when it came to those matters. Everyone knew Armin read books all the time, but then Jean inspected the book closer and noticed something different. Covers of a huge body of waters and other landscapes he had never seen. He assumed at the time it was another one of Armin's fictional tale, albeit a strange subject that went into enormous technical details. He later realized the books were forbidden books of the outside world, but the perks of being in the Survey Corps was no one paid any attention to these matters, so Jean left it alone.
Jean had been lulled by Armin's words when the door once again slammed open. Eren had sauntered in, which was a strange sight to see. It wasn't Eren's bruises, the bandages that covered his face, or the hand that lightly grappled his stomach that intrigued Jean. It was Eren himself. For the last couple of days, no one had seen Eren enter or leave the room. Jean assumed that Eren came inside later at night and left early in the morning. Eren spent very little time in the room, often consumed with either training or pacing with his head down as if gravity had decided to play a cruel joke.
The surprise wasn't limited to Jean. Armin himself seemed amazed, and his face lit up. He moved to make room for Eren on his bunk, motioning him to join them.
Eren gave Armin a solemn smile. "Sorry, Armin, I'm just tired." He climbed up to his bunk.
The downcast look that spread across Armin's face irked Jean.
"Hey, Yeager thought you were used to getting a beating from Captain Chipmunk," said Jean tauntingly, as his eyes quickly darted towards the door to make sure said chipmunk captain did not hear a word.
Jean wanted to rile Eren up. Get a reaction. Honestly anything more than that sorrowful puppy look Eren carried these days. Jean heard shifting, maybe even a motion to get up, but then he heard Eren drop to his bed, which made him grit his teeth in frustration. If it wasn't for the injuries Jean already incurred or the possibility of ticking off Captain Levi any further, he would have shaken Eren by the shoulders and began another fight, finishing what he had started earlier, whatever that had been.
There was silence for a couple of seconds, and then Armin resumed. Once again, his voice carried into the night. He began talking about the different constellations that swam in the sky. He was sure Armin wanted to go outside and show the stars himself. Jean would have liked to see them too, but this was the last night before the excursion to Wall Maria. Captain Levi would give a good ass kicking had they been found.
The story turned technical, discussing the components that went into making the stars, things that Jean couldn't imagine or understand. He was confused, wondering how anyone could obtain information of a world so far away. It was amazing what people could discover led by their thirst for curiosity.
Then Jean heard something not part of the story. Giggling that seemed to come from behind the door. Armin didn't seem to notice the intrusion since he continued to read on.
More giggling tumbled from behind the door. Jean pushed a finger up to his lips and caught Armin's attention.
Jean tip toed to the door slowly and then immediately turned the knob and sprung the door wide open. Three children, two girls and a boy, stumbled inside, their eyes widened at the realization they were caught.
Jean glared or so he tried. It was hard to glare; they were children. Children that continued to annoy him when they threw tomatoes at him during guard duty or when they attempted to steal Jean's horse for a ride. Now that Jean thought about it, they seemed to only target him during their antics. But they were children from an orphanage, and Jeans eyes softened a little against his wishes.
They ran forward, escaping his grip, towards the bunk bed occupied by Connie and Armin. None made a move towards Eren. They had heard of his ability and even caught a glimpse or two during his training. None wanted to evoke his Titan power.
They bounced up and down on the bunk bed. Connie remained asleep. It made sense since Connie slept through his own snoring.
"Get out," Jean said through clenched teeth.
The children made no movements towards the door. One of them asked if they could listen to the story.
Armin looked at him with a shrug. Armin had an affinity to the kids, or as much affinity one could muster for devils. Jean had heard Armin and Eren recite their own past during their trainee days. He knew Armin was an orphan refugee.
Jean agreed, and in one swift motion, the children crossed their legs and their arms rested politely on their laps as if all along they had been obedient. Obedient when it's convenient, thought Jean.
Armin began to read again. He once again dove into the constellations, their positions in the sky. Questions burst out of the children. He showed the children the drawings of the stars, but it wasn't long before one of them grew agitated.
"This is boring," cried the boy.
Jean made a grand gesture towards the door, and the boy shut up.
In the next second, Jean was sure his heart skipped a beat when the door bolted open once more. He heard the door hit the wall and kept the concern of the dent produced to himself. Historia stood, irritation exuded from her body. She stepped inside, eyed the three children whose eyes went big and dragged all three, the boy in her arms and the collars of the girls pulled by her hands. The children made a move to resist, and she hissed to them, "move again, and I'll make sure none of you exit your rooms." Immediately, the children remained motionless in her arms.
Jean wondered why Historia handled them with such roughness. His own mother was usually gentle, always fussing over him. Perhaps, to her, any attention she showed the children was better than nothing. Or perhaps she was angry at the system for abandoning them to their own devices, for leaving them to endure in their misery. Maybe she was setting them up to harden themselves against society. He saw it in her, the firmness but also the compassion and concern she showed when she was with the children.
He turned towards Armin, thankful of the distraction that disappeared. "I think we'll finally be uninterrupted – "
The door opened again, not boldly as the last, slowly, squeaking as it moved. Jean's blood ran cold.
Captain Levi stood; his eyes mercilessly looked between Jean and Armin. For a moment, Jean noticed his eyes softened a little, the eye brows relaxed, the lines by his eyes lifted, but soon the look was replaced once again with iciness. He walked slowly to the side of the door and blew the candles out. "Get some sleep," he ordered, as he closed the door behind him.
For a moment the two sat in silence. And then Jean let out laughter that his abdomen quickly put an end to. "Did you see that?" He turned to Armin, making sure the last encounter was not a figment of their imagination. "I thought we were gonna get our asses kicked."
Armin stared toward the door, thoughtfully. "He looked more concerned than angry to me."
"The man must be getting soft," said Jean, shaking his head. He moved to the table and pulled out the drawer to retrieve the matches.
Armin shot him a look of disapproval.
"I've watched you disobey many times just so you can get another page read," said Jean, lighting the candle.
Armin was grateful that Jean's attention was on the candle or else he would have seen the slight tinge of red across Armin's cheeks.
Jean took the candle holder into his hands, looking intently at the window. A thought rooted in his mind. "Come on. I have a better idea."
Armin followed Jean, exiting out of their rooms, into the hallway, out the front door, and into the backyard. Jean blew the candle out and seated himself onto the grass and motioned for Armin to sit beside him.
Armin looked at him, still torn about disobeying Captain Levi's orders.
A smirk spread across Jean's face. "Why not?" he asked.
It was simple but convincing.
The two spent their night with Armin reading and Jean listening under the quiet, star lit sky.