Chapter 3: Two Months in Paradise
You seem awfully concerned about how your hair looks yourself, Jean. Trying to look good for someone?
. . . For all the girls who ever open a history textbook.
Under the shade of a lone tree, besides a lone headstone, sat a lone woman. As the woman relaxed on that warm summer day, she heard the soft patter of footsteps. Without turning around, the woman knew exactly who was approaching her.
"Eren, our friends have come to visit you," whispered Mikasa to the headstone.
The dark-haired woman turned to face the six figures walking towards her. It had been three years since she had seen any of her fellow Alliance members, and everyone was in their early or mid-twenties. Most of the group didn't look much different from when Mikasa saw them off. Pieck looked the same as she always did: sleepy but cheerful. Armin had that hopeful gleam in his eye, the same one he had for as long as Mikasa knew him. Reiner had shaved his stubble, probably for Historia, but looked otherwise unchanged. Connie's stature and height had grown immensely since the old days. He was no longer that short cue ball. Annie's youthful appearance bordered on being uncanny. Despite being twenty-three, Annie looked at least four years younger—no doubt a result of her years in stasis. And then there was Jean. The man still had fuzz along his chin and jawline, but his long hair was combed more neatly than usual. Upon arrival, everyone in the group got in order to pay their respects to Eren. As one person would visit the grave, either leaving flowers or whispering a few words, the rest would exchange small talk with Mikasa.
"How was your landing? I hope everyone respected Historia's protection order," said Mikasa.
"Our reception was pretty warm," replied Pieck, "Only two Yeagerists tried to throw things at us."
"I'm sorry you all had to go through that," responded Mikasa with a frown.
"Don't be," replied Armin, "Other than those two, the MPs were able to keep things under control. The fact that our reception was mostly incident free leads me to hope that tempers have cooled enough for there to be peace. To be honest, I have a lot of good feelings for the future."
"Not all of that optimism is about the peace talks," said Annie crypticly.
When Mikasa raised an eyebrow, Annie and Armin exchanged warm looks. "Mikasa, Annie and I are engaged, and we'll be having a child soon."
Mikasa's eyes widened almost as large as a Titan's, before an equally wide smile appeared. "Congratulations, both of you. I'm glad you could find happiness despite everything going on."
"What about you, Mikasa?" asked Armin.
"You know I've never been the dating type."
"No, I mean about finding happiness in general. Have you been doing alright these three years?"
"I am content. My military pension covers my needs, I spend my time gardening, and on the weekends I visit Eren."
Armin and Annie adopted worried and sad expressions, but Mikasa didn't seem to notice them. Meanwhile, Jean, who had just finished his own visit with Eren, approached Mikasa.
"I see you've allowed your hair to grow out. It's a good look on you," said Jean smoothly.
"Thank you. I like what you did with your hair as well," replied Mikasa.
"R-really?" asked Jean, a slight red tint appearing on his face.
"Yes, and I know why you combed it so well today."
"Wait, you do? I mean. . ."
Mikasa interrupted, "You wanted to look your best for visiting Eren. It's a small thing, but I'm sure he would appreciate the gesture."
The corners of Jean's mouth dipped ever so slightly, but Jean simply said, "I'm glad you think so."
"A bachelorette party?" asked Mikasa incredulously.
"Yeah! What better way to welcome Annie back to Paradis than with a big surprise party celebrating her last night of freedom?" replied Hitch.
"Well, it's not really her last night of freedom since a wedding date hasn't been set yet. Besides, a lot of Yeagerists still have grudges against her. Isn't having a loud celebration putting her at risk?"
"Cmon, Mikasa, live a little. I'm an MP and technically a "Yeagerist," so no one will try anything. All the other girls have agreed to it, and I know the perfect place."
"What will the guys be doing?"
"Throwing a bachelor party for Armin, obviously."
Mikasa had doubts over whether bachelorette parties were Annie's scene, but if everyone had already planned it, she didn't want to appear to be unsupportive of her friends' relationship. "Alright, I'll be there.
Mikasa was right—this was definitely not Annie's (or Mikasa's, for that matter) scene. It was girl's night at a popular nightclub, and Hitch thought to use her status as an MP to get the group to the front of the line. The nightclub was so crowded it was almost suffocating, but Hitch managed to push her way to a reserved table. Annie was noticeably in a foul mood, mainly because Hitch had used promises of sweets to lure her to the surprise.
"You said there were free donuts," muttered Annie.
"And there is," replied Hitch, "but only for parties that spend over forty Marks on other food and drink."
Annie looked over to where the band was. They were playing some new songs with fancy electronic instruments. It was certainly a far cry from anything Annie heard growing up in Liberio. "Is it me, or did music get weird while I was in a crystal?"
Hitch snorted, "For someone who looks like a sixteen-year-old, you can be such a grandma. Now quit whining and order a drink."
Once all the girls had their liquor of choice (excluding Annie, who got limeade), Hitch suggested a game of Never Have I Ever. When Mikasa mentioned never having played the game, Hitch offered to go first to demonstrate.
"Never have I ever. . . transformed into a Titan."
"Oh that's cheap," chuckled Pieck before taking a drink.
Annie simply rolled her eyes, "I thought the questions were supposed to be ones you didn't know the answer to."
"Well yeah, but it's also funny getting everyone drunk before you. Pieck, you go next."
"Alright. Never have I ever. . . had sex."
Annie and Hitch took a drink while Mikasa stared at Pieck. "With how popular you are with guys, I would have assumed you had no problem finding someone to mess around with."
Pieck shrugged. "I guess I never had time to chase after anyone."
And so the game went on. At first most of the drinks were evenly distributed among the players, but when Mikasa got Hitch with a question about skipping work, everyone else made a point of adding reasons for skipping work (dates, drinking, hangovers from drinking the last time you skipped, etc.), and soon it became apparent that Hitch was going to lose the game.
"Ok, I think we've punished Hitch enough. I'll try something else. Never have I ever. . . fallen in love with a comrade," said Pieck.
"Oh come on!" complained Hitch before taking yet another drink.
Pieck's eyes widened. "No offense, but you struck me as the casual type, not a romantic."
Hitch gasped in mock offense, "I'll have you know, *hick,* I can. . . I have a heart too!"
Mikasa drank without adding anything.
"Hey, Mika, you and I are kinda alike," said Hitch with a slight slur.
"How do you figure?"
"We're both old maids. You visit Eren's grave all the time, I do the same with Marlowe, our love lives are both stuck in a rut."
"Hitch, you've drunk too much," said Pieck.
"I'm juss tryin to be empa-HIC-empathetic!"
Mikasa frowned. "Hitch, how do you know about Eren's grave?"
"Annie was saying how often you go, and how you still wear that old scarf, and how you're gonna spend your whole life sad and alone cause you can't move on," rambled Hitch.
"I didn't say it like that!" shouted Annie, her face cherry red.
"Girls, can we please drop this," pleaded Pieck.
"No, I wanna know why Annie is talking about me behind my back," hissed Mikasa.
"It's not like that! Look, Armin and I are both worried about you. It's been three years, and your life still revolves around Eren. We all miss him, but if you keep doing this you'll lose the best years of your life to grief."
Mikasa's scowl widened. "Who are you to tell me how to feel? Not all of us have parents left to visit, a perfect man to marry, or the chance to have their children!" she blurted out, a little louder than intended.
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence at the table. Pieck sank in her chair while Annie took on a hurt expression. Hitch, who was just now beginning to understand that she should have kept her mouth shut, quickly blurted out, "Hey look, the cake is here!"
"You got me a cake?" asked Annie.
"It's a special cake."
And it was. The cake was almost as tall as Mikasa, with bright frosting and flowers. Annie's eyes grew as large as plates while her mouth watered in anticipation. However, Annie's excitement was dashed when the surprise was revealed: a tall, muscle bound male stripper wearing nothing but briefs jumped out of the cake, rendering it inedible. Pieck was happy to eat the eye candy, but Annie just deflated.
"Can I pick 'em or what?" bragged Hitch.
"So. . . no cake?" asked Annie sadly. But Annie perked right back up when the servers returned with large trays of donuts.
"I think I need some air," said Mikasa, excusing herself.
As the cool night air brushed against her, Mikasa clutched her scarf closer. A part of her felt guilty for snapping at Annie. Mikasa was sure the blond meant well, but she had no business talking about her like she was a basket case, and to Hitch of all people. Mikasa was sure she'd feel better after a long sleep, but the night's activities had left her a little tipsy. As she tried to remember which direction her home was in, the young woman tripped over the cobblestone road. Fortunately, a pair of strong arms caught her before she could hit the dirt.
"Woah, Mikasa, are you ok?"
Mikasa looked up and saw a familiar handsome face with dangerous looking eyes.
"You must really be out of it."
"Oh, Jean. I'm sorry, it's just, you really do look like him. Shouldn't you be at Armin's bachelor party?"
"I could say the same about you and Annie's party. Armin wasn't really comfortable with all the sexy parts of the party, he said it felt like cheating. Armin left early, but Reiner stayed to hit on a show girl who looked like Historia. Connie's gonna make sure he gets home ok. Do you need any help getting home ok?"
"I guess I could use a hand," said Mikasa, before taking Jean's arm. As the two walked, Mikasa would point in the general direction of her home while Jean kept her steady.
"So how was Annie's party? Don't tell me it really ended at eleven."
"I think the others are still there. It was fine, though the noise and crowds were a little much."
Jean nodded. "Annie was always an introvert. I imagine a public place didn't suit her. Hitch is a sweet girl, but sometimes she forgets not everyone shares her idea of fun. So why'd you leave early?"
Mikasa felt it would be hypocritical to air her frustrations about Annie to another person, but she was tired and wanted to vent. "Annie and I got into an argument. She apparently told Hitch about how I visit Eren, and made me sound pathetic. She still has a family, so I told her she has no right to tell me how to grieve!" Just thinking about that exchange made Mikasa feel heated all over again. She studied Jean's face to see his reaction, but his expression remained calm.
"You're right, Annie doesn't know what you've been through, but I think that's why she went to Hitch. You remember how much Marlowe's death hurt her. Annie probably thought Hitch could help you, or provide her with advice that would ease the pain. Annie's not really a people person, so she probably didn't think she was hurting you by sharing her worries with someone who's better with people. I'm not saying telling Hitch was right, but I do believe Annie's only goal was to help you."
Mikasa sighed. She knew Jean was probably right, he did have a way of reading people. "I'll talk to her about it in the morning. Let's just get home."
The pair walked in silence for a while before Mikasa spoke again. "Do you think there's something wrong with me, because of how often I visit Eren?"
Jean scratched his chin. "To be honest, I'm more worried about you not having enough things to do outside of those visits. But the visits themselves, no. If I had the opportunity back then, I probably would have visited Marco's grave just as often. We all grieve at our own pace."
"How did you handle it?" asked Mikasa.
"By letting new people into my life, it filled the hole Marco left. Connie, Sasha, Historia, even Eren. . . and you." Jean looked down at Mikasa's face after speaking, and noticed a slight red tint to her cheeks. Jean was surprised by her reaction, but dismissed it on the alcohol she had consumed. "That goes both ways. All of us from the 104th are here for you. I'm sure the past three years have been rough, but you don't need to feel alone."
The smallest of smiles graced Mikasa's lips. "Thank you, Jean, I. . . Wait, do you hear that?"
Jean heard it to—the patter of footsteps behind him. Turning, the pair saw a long figure in a long coat, wide owl-like eyes scanning them.
"You lost, pal?" asked Jean.
"I know you," growled the stranger. This made the hairs on Mikasa's neck stand up straight.
Jean let go of Mikasa, and put himself between her and the man. "Do you need help?"
Everything inside Mikasa was telling her something was wrong. "Jean, don't!" called Mikasa.
The second Jean looked back at Mikasa, the stranger lunged, screaming "Death to the Alliance!" Mikasa threw herself forward to intercept the man, and successfully blocked his attempt to get at Jean. Mikasa knocked him to the ground, and immediately felt a sharp pain in her chest. Placing her hand where the pain was, Mikasa was shocked to see blood when she pulled her hand away. Feeling lightheaded, the young woman collapsed. The last thing she saw before passing out was Jean pummeling her attacker.
Mikasa awoke in a bright room, a stark contrast from the dark night sky she remembered. Turning her head, she saw Jean's slumped figure in a chair in the corner. Mikasa breathed in and felt the familiar sharp pain in her chest. After placing her hand over the area, she felt bandages wrapped around her body. While Mikasa was examining the extent of her injuries, Jean woke up.
"Mikasa! I'm glad to see you awake. How are you feeling?"
"A little drowsy, but otherwise ok. It only hurts when I breathe too hard or too fast."
Jean scratched his chin. "The drowsiness is probably the painkillers they put you on. That Yeagerist punctured your lung, but the doctors were able to reseal it. They said recovery should take six-to-eight weeks, assuming you don't reopen the wound."
Mikasa nodded. "Did you really stay here all night? You didn't have to do that."
Jean snorted. "Just because we're not soldiers anymore doesn't mean we won't always be comrades. Staying with you was the least I could do after you took a knife for me."
Jean's words made Mikasa smile slightly, but it was soon overtaken by a sad expression. "I couldn't bear to lose any more friends, and you're important to me."
Jean looked away as his face turned red. Dammit, am I still getting flustered around her after all this time? A knock at the door gave the young man the distraction he needed. "That's probably the guys." Sure enough, when Jean opened the door, Armin and Annie entered Mikasa's hospital room. Connie, Reiner, and Pieck stayed near the doorway to prevent crowding.
Annie was the first to approach Mikasa. "Glad to see you alright. Listen, I'm sorry about what I said to Hitch, it was out of line."
"I'm sorry too. I know you were trying to help, and I shouldn't have assumed the worst."
"Don't take this the wrong way, but I could hardly believe it when I heard what happened. After all the times we fought, your closest call was with some drunk Yeagerist," observed Reiner, before getting an elbow from Connie over his poor bedside manners.
"No, it's fine. Levi sent me a letter saying his reflexes had dulled since the Rumbling. Mine haven't been much better. I think whatever King Fritz used to give the Ackerman Clan our powers died with the Founder."
"Fascinating," pondered Armin. "It's a shame we'll never know how far the Founder's biology-shaping abilities went. If the royal family could create supersoldiers, sterilize people, and alter memories, maybe a more benevolent Founder could remove disease and pain."
"As interesting as this discussion is, Mikasa still needs someone nearby for the next few weeks in case her lung wound reopens," Pieck interjected.
Connie added, "Any of us would be willing to find a place closer to you, or let you stay with us for a while—whatever is easier."
Mikasa looked between her friends. Pieck was nice, but Mikasa didn't really know her as well as the others. Armin was her oldest living friend, but with him about to marry Annie, Mikasa didn't want to intrude. That left Reiner, Connie, or Jean. As her eyes settled on the man she took a stab wound for, Hitch's drunken words echoed in her memory. You're gonna spend your whole life sad and alone cause you can't move on. Even if Hitch was misremembering Annie's concerns, was she right? Maybe this was her chance to make the pain stop. Jean reminded her of Eren in so many ways, and she knew he cared for her.
"Jean, could I stay with you?"
Mikasa gulped down the pills and water she had been instructed to take every morning until the chest pain stopped. As she put the glass down, the creak of a door opening turned her head. In stepped Jean carrying a tray with two plates. Mikasa smiled to see that Jean had made omelettes.
"Is this the same kind you made during Pixis's cooking contest?" asked Mikasa after taking a bite.
"Yeah, it's the recipe my mom made. I cooked omelettes a lot when I was living abroad."
"It tastes incredible. I see why the commander loved it so much."
Jean beamed at Mikasa's praise. "I actually sketched my memories from that day. Would you like to see them?"
After breakfast, Jean took Mikasa into a small study. The room was littered with crumbled sheets of sketch paper with half-finished drawings. The walls were covered with frames containing Jean's finished works. Sure enough, there was a beautifully drawn picture of Jean and Sasha clasping hands after the cooking contest. However, Mikasa spent time analyzing each attempt at capturing Jean's most vivid memories. One was of a freckled boy with dark hair, smiling as he refiled his ODM gas canister. A tall boy sleeping in a crooked position against a wall. A woman with large glasses leaping with joy as she observed a log being dropped on a Titan's nape. A boy with a terrible bowlcut holding a knife between tied hands. One in particular caught Mikasa's attention: A young boy with determined green eyes, standing in a mess hall surrounded by awestruck onlookers. Despite the still nature of the sketch, the boy looked so animated as he gave a fiery speech about a world where humanity could be free. Humanity's future lies outside the walls, and I'm gonna clear the way. I'm gonna take back what was ours! Mikasa's vision grew cloudy as she relived that day.
"These are so beautiful, Jean. Did you become a professional artist over the past three years?"
"When I was an ambassador, I had trouble dealing with memories of losing people I cared about. Onyankopon connected me with a special kind of doctor, one who deals with emotional pain instead of physical. One of my treatments was drawing happier memories of my friends—something about training the brain to associate these people with positive emotions instead of grief," explained Jean.
"So all of these were just for personal use? They're all so vivid, it's like I'm looking at photos."
"Well, the more detailed the sketch, the better the memory association. That and I don't think the guys would want me to immortalize them as stick figures."
Mikasa chuckled at Jean's joke before returning to examining his gallery. "Do you have any of our living comrades?"
"I didn't make many like that. Reiner asked me to draw a few of Historia when I found out I was doing sketch therapy, but I didn't want to enable his creepiness. Then Annie asked me to sketch some of the moments she had missed while being crystallized, and I was willing to do that. I even helped Connie draw his father and siblings."
As Mikasa walked around the disorganized art room, one drawing stuck out to her. It was crumpled and more crude than the pictures Jean had framed, but the image was oddly familiar. It was a headshot, a girl most likely. The girl in the drawing had petite features, including a small nose, narrow face, and thin eyes. The smile, while short, also carried warmth. Most telling, the girl had chin-length black hair.
"Jean, is this supposed to be me?"
"Oh that? That's. . ." Jean's voice became higher as he tried to find a way to explain the older sketch. "That's just something I made as a kid-it's not really my best work I mean we hadn't even met yet so it couldn't be you any resemblance is purely coincidental and. . ."
"Jean, breathe," Mikasa lightly chastised.
Jean sighed deeply. "It's nothing, really." However, Jean's rapid-fire explanation and crimson face hinted that Jean knew the picture was a dead ringer for Mikasa when she was around fifteen. It was undeniable to Mikasa that Jean had harbored feelings for her now. A part of her was confused over how this made her feel. Shouldn't her heart be fluttering by now? She came to get closer to him, right? Maybe if she followed this connection, it would be easier.
"Jean, would you like to draw me?"
That made Jean's jaw drop a little. "I mean, I'd be willing to, as long as you wanted it, of course."
"Mikasa, you need to hold still for this to work," chided Jean.
Mikasa looked sheepishly at Jean before trying to resume her pose. She had taken Jean to her home's garden for the drawing, and he had suggested sketching a scene where she was tending her crops. The downside to this was that it required Mikasa to hold a position where she was in the middle of pruning eggplants without moving her arms.
"And. . . done."
Jean turned his sketchbook around and revealed his work. The woman in the sketch knelt inside a circle of plant stalks, sheers in hand. A large sun hat concealed her hair, but her peaceful face was heavily detailed. As Mikasa looked over his work, Jean made eye contact, waiting for her evaluation.
"Well, what's the verdict?"
"It's incredible, but I see you've taken some liberties."
"What do you mean?"
"That girl in the sketch is much prettier than me."
"If anything, I didn't capture your beauty well enough," replied Jean unhesitantly.
Mikasa immediately broke eye contact.
Damn, too forward. Jean thought.
There was a moment of silence between the two, before Mikasa looked back up. "I have something I want to show you. Wait here."
Jean looked puzzled, but remained in his seat as Mikasa retreated into her home. After a minute, she reemerged holding something small. Wordlessly, she extended her arms and opened her hands. At first, Jean was confused at the piece of cloth she saw. Is she giving me a handkerchief? But as he looked closer, Jean noticed a series of elaborate patterns embroidered into the cloth. The most familiar was three swords forming a triangle within a larger circle: the crest of Mikasa's maternal clan.
"This style was taught to me by my mother. It's been in our family for generations, and I want you to have it."
Jean's eyes widened as he understood the significance of the gift. "Mikasa. . . this is such a personal item. Are you sure you want to give this to me?"
"Is it any more personal than those sketches you showed me? Or the one you just made? We put a bit of ourselves into what we make. You gave me something special. I want to give something back," Mikasa said matter-of-factly.
As Jean accepted the cloth, he and Mikasa smiled as they exchanged expressions of the heart with each other.
The Arlert wedding was a humble affair for many reasons. Alliance members had few friends in Paradis, and the more passionate Yeagerists would jump at the chance to assassinate the one credited with defeating Eren. For that reason, the couple settled for a private ceremony in Historia's palace, overseen by a minister Hitch had cleared. Armin chose Levi, Reiner and Connie as groomsmen, with Jean being best man. Annie asked Pieck, Mikasa, and Gabi to be bridesmaids, with Hitch as the obvious maid of honor. Also in attendance was Historia, her husband, and their little daughter Ymir Reiss. The Blouse and Reeves family came as well, and Niccolo did the catering.
Mr. Leonhart walking Annie down the aisle proved the most emotional moment of the day. It was obvious to all that the proud father was barely holding it together, while the daughter smiled in a way few other than Armin had seen before. As Armin watched his bride approach, a part of him ached that his own parents couldn't be here, but it consoled him that he had found a new family in the Survey Corps. As the couple exchanged vows, Mikasa felt like she was in a dream-like trance. She almost couldn't believe someone she had seen as a brother was about to become a husband and father, but here it was unfolding in real time. Annie didn't even wait for the minister's permission to seal the deal with a kiss.
The reception proved just as joyous. Niccolo had been offered a large sum befitting a wedding caterer, but he insisted on handling the food for free. The young chef, whose talents had become mythic across the island, spared no expense when creating the menu. As everyone ate, Jean and Hitch gave their toasts. Jean's speech started out nervous, but as he recalled all the times Armin had saved his life in the field, he found his footing and concluded that Armin was the smartest, most loyal comrade he had known. Hitch's toast was far less structured, mainly consisting of retelling the difficulties of being roommates with such a cold girl. Even so, anyone who knew Hitch could tell by the way she spoke how much she valued Annie as a friend.
After Annie and Armin had their first dance, the rest of the guests paired up. Jean looked at Mikasa, but appeared conflicted. Mikasa's thoughts were also a blur. She had been encouraging Jean's feelings for weeks, and mentally wanted to fall for him. However, no matter how hard she thought about Jean, there wasn't that fire in her heart that had been familiar with Eren. Despite her doubts, Mikasa pushed herself forwards until she came inches from Jean.
"M-Mikasa, would you dance with me?" asked Jean in a whisper.
Mikasa stared into Jean's eyes, noting how much the intensity they conveyed mirrored Eren's. Jean shared many traits, in both body and personality, with her first beloved. If Jean couldn't fill the hole in her heart, no one could. Wordlessly, she offered her hand and walked with Jean to the dance floor. It was awkward at first. Despite her agility on the battlefield, the former soldier couldn't waltz as well as she could fight. Jean showed no frustration with his partner's two left feet. He was always there to catch Mikasa when she tripped, helping her catch up whenever her footwork lagged behind. Mikasa looked at Jean whenever she accidentally threw off the rhythm, and saw that Jean didn't appear bothered. His face said, "I'm having a moment with someone I love, and nothing will stop me from enjoying it." This feeling of being wanted made Mikasa's heart flutter, easing the ache she had felt for so long. As the dance concluded, Mikasa made her decision.
"Jean, I want us to be together."
"I've dreamed that you'd say those words to me. Can I. . ."
Jean slowly leaned in and kissed Mikasa. The sensation sent a jolt through her body, and she quickly returned the kiss. Any doubts she had about starting a relationship were shoved to the back of her mind as Mikasa's thoughts were overwhelmed by the excitement of the moment. As the pair pulled away, Armin announced that they'd start the traditional bouquet toss. Armin went first, throwing his garter behind him. Mikasa smiled as it landed directly in Jean's grip. The best man smiled and gave a knowing look to Mikasa. Then Annie tossed her bouquet. Time slowed as Mikasa saw the flowers headed in her direction. This was it, a sign that it was meant to be. Mikasa reached out. . . only for the bouquet to miss her and land in Gabi's hands. The younger girl's eyes widened into saucers, and she did her best to avoid making eye contact with Falco.
As the Eldian Senate voted on whether to accept the peace treaty with the outside world, the members of the Alliance were all on edge. They had been directed to a waiting room where there was little to distract them from thinking about how the vote would go. Despite the wishes of Queen Historia and the many concessions offered by Marley, there was never a guarantee that Paradis would be open to a formal armistice. Ever since the Rumbling brought about an unofficial ceasefire, the Yeagerists had changed greatly to maintain their grip on power. Factions loyal to the monarchy had successfully pushed for a partial transition to civilian rule, with an elected legislature filled with competing political parties. Although approval from the Yeagerist-dominated military was still necessary for any new decisions, the power sharing agreement opened the door for cooler heads to take the reins. It didn't hurt that going legitimate had caused the Yeagerists to fracture over where the movement should go. The Imperialist faction wanted Paradis to expand and rebuild the old Eldian Empire. The Paradis First faction wanted to maintain the policy of isolationism that had dominated the last three years. It was no easy task for the international delegation to persuade enough senators to vote for peace.
"Reiner, that pacing is getting on my nerves," said Jean.
"Well I can't just sit still as the fate of the world is in the hands of the people who were celebrating the anniversary of the Rumbling days ago!" spat the former Armored Titan.
"Not everyone in that hall is a Yeagerist. Have a little hope," replied Connie.
"Even if one doesn't want war, they still might not like the terms. The other countries are asking for a lot of iceburst stone to aid in rebuilding," commented Pieck.
"Not to mention an official statement denouncing Eren and the Rumbling. Asking a bunch of ultranationalists to bad-mouth their messiah isn't going to go over well," added Annie.
Mikasa looked over to Armin, who had neither paced nor complained since the negotiations began. "Armin, you've been quiet. What do you think will happen?"
"I think everything will work out. The Senate might demand a lot of assurances, but I think most Yeagerists are driven by fear, not malice. Sitting down and talking with the ambassadors will give everyone a chance to see we have the same goal: to live free from harm. When the parties realize that they all want the same thing, they see that there is no need for conflict."
Jean snorted. "I think you're overestimating how much everyone wants peace. Even when we were all ignorant of the outside world, everyone hated Eldians. Grudges are hard to kill, and there are a lot of grudges to go around."
Mikasa spoke up again, "If the Senate votes no, what will you all do?"
A thick tension settled over the silence that followed Mikasa's question. Getting the nations of the world to consider a treaty with Paradis and agree on the terms was the product of three years filled with sleepless nights. If Paradis was still not ready to forgive, then there was no telling when another chance would come.
"Annie and I will probably stay here, at least until the baby is born," answered Armin. "Worst case scenario, I'll have the chance to talk sense into our people like I did with the other countries."
"The rest of us will probably go back with the international ambassadors and try to plan our next steps. It'll probably involve drafting up a new treaty and then getting everyone on board again. Hopefully it won't take another three years," deadpanned Reiner.
"If you do need to leave Paradis. . . I want to come with you," said Mikasa. When everyone looked surprised, she added "I don't want to be separated from you again."
"Let's not worry ourselves over the worst possibility," said Armin, his voice showing discomfort over where the conversation had gone. There were no further comments.
The next few minutes were filled with a quiet anxiety as everyone awaited the negotiation's outcome. After a couple hours of waiting on the edge of their seats, the Alliance was stirred as a familiar MP opened the doors to the room.
"It was close, but the Royalist coalition voted yes, and enough isolationists were convinced to break ranks. The treaty passed, and Historia will ratify it before the end of the day," said Hitch.
For a brief moment, it was so quiet that a dropped pin could be heard. But a second later everyone was cheering loud enough to shake the capitol building. Years of being threatened, spat on, and hated by the world had been worth it. Countless hours spent pleading with leaders who had lost everything in the Rumbling to give peace a chance had been vindicated. A great weight was lifted off all their shoulders. As the Alliance walked out of the building, they eagerly discussed what they would do now that the hard part was over.
"A new chapter has opened in both our lives and world history!" exclaimed Armin as he opened the doors, "The future is looking. . ." Before Armin could finish his thought, a shoe hit him in the face.
"Damn traitors, you've ruined everything!" cried a man in the crowd waiting outside. As he prepared to throw his other shoe, a pair of MPs restrained him. While the shoe-thrower was arrested, Hitch herded the Alliance into a closed carriage that would drop them off at their homes.
"I said the vote was close," reminded Hitch, "There's going to be a lot of backlash for a while."
Armin simply shrugged as Annie looked over his black eye. "The fact that the vote passed at all is a success. Peace and reason are bound to win in the end."
"Only you could take a beating and call it a win," said Jean with a scowl. "Until my mom can leave the house without some nativist harassing her, I'm not calling anything a success."
Mikasa placed her hand reassuringly on Jean's, which seemed to calm him slightly. The new closeness shared by Jean and Mikasa did not go unnoticed by the rest of the group.
"So. . . you two have gotten cuddly lately," observed Annie, eager to lighten the mood.
"I guess living so close to Jean helped me see everything there is to love about him: he's brave, determined, headstrong, but also kind and compassionate."
Jean looked away in embarrassment, not sure how to respond to his girlfriend gushing over him in front of everyone.
"I'm glad you two are happy," said Armin with a coy smile, "Just be sure to tell me when I'm about to be an uncle."
"You guys are the worst," said Jean as he felt himself heat up.
"I'm happy for you too, but I have to admit it feels a little out of the blue," said Annie.
At this, Mikasa narrowed her eyes before scooting closer to Jean and grasping his arm. "You and Armin got together quickly as well. I guess love just happens when the timing is right."
At this point Jean looked about ready to jump out of his seat, making him relieved when a familiar house became visible from the window.
"Mikasa, I've been meaning to introduce you to my mother, let's get off here."
Jean and Mikasa left the carriage hand-in-hand, while the rest of their friends watched curiously.
"I never thought Mikasa was the publicly affectionate type. I guess she's really head over heels for Jean," speculated Connie.
"I hope that's what it means," muttered Annie.
"Are you worried about Mikasa?" asked Armin.
"No, I'm worried about Jean."
As Mikasa walked side-by-side with Jean, her mind was racing at the speed of sound. She had finished recovering from her wound, and could resume living at her home. To keep her relationship with Jean strong, Mikasa typically took the initiative to plan dates. She had the idea to have a picnic near some grassy hills. Within eyesight was Eren's tree. Mikasa hadn't meant to choose a location so close to Eren's grave, she just wanted to find a peaceful location, and her subconscious did the rest.
"Something wrong, Mikasa?" asked Jean, who noticed her constant glances toward the tree on that hill.
"Hmm? Oh, it's nothing. I guess I'm just distracted."
Jean looked closer at the tree. "If you want, we can visit Eren today after lunch."
"Thank you, but we've been going on weekends, and I want to spend today with you. It's fine, really," Mikasa said, although her voice wavered slightly. Jean did not push the matter further.
Just as Mikasa turned back to the food they had packed, a heavy wind struck the couple. Blankets, plates, and baskets went flying down the hill. Jean clutched his coat and hat while Mikasa frantically tried to secure the food. Unfortunately, this meant her hands were too busy to keep her scarf from being carried off. A rush of adrenaline hit Mikasa, as she dropped everything to grasp at her scarf. The worn cloth fell at Jean's feet, who reached down to pick it up.
"DON'T TOUCH IT!"
Jean froze up, and watched in confusion as Mikasa roughly snatched the scarf from his hands and wrapped it around herself before remembering Jean was still there. Looking at her date, Mikasa saw a sequence of expressions come and go in the span of a few seconds.
First was shock. Jean had never heard Mikasa raise her voice that high.
Second was confusion. He was only trying to help.
Third was realization. As if a hundred gears clicked together and turned in unison.
Fourth was a mixture of hurt and sadness. "I'm sorry, Mikasa. But I can't be him for you."
This is what caught her off guard. A part of her wanted him to be angry, to shout at her. It would make it easier if he snapped at her. But instead, Jean simply collected his things and went home.
Mikasa spent the better part of the day by her telephone. She was torn between calling Jean and waiting to see if he would call her. She knew she wanted to talk about what happened yesterday, but what would she say? Sorry for yelling at you? For using you as a rebound? Did she want them to try again, or was it better this way?
Mikasa awakened from a nightmare that morning. It was a familiar dream, one where she found herself overwhelmed by Titans. All members of the Survey Corps had them from time to time, but Mikasa was lucky to have only been at a Titan's mercy a few times in her life. She recalled Jean talking about a kind of doctor that treated emotional pain, and wondered if such a person could help with the nightmares. She wanted to rush to ask Jean, before remembering their last conversation. Deciding she needed a distraction, Mikasa headed for the kitchen. She can't help but be frustrated by how her cooking skills still haven't evolved much since leaving the military. As she finishes her plate of rice, she recalls when Jean would make her omelettes while she stayed with him, without even being asked. He could always tell what ingredients she liked best. After finishing breakfast, Mikasa passed the beautiful portrait Jean had made of her. He poured so much passion and effort into his work, but then again, Jean always had a certain drive when he set his mind to something. Mikasa then remembered her own gift. Would Jean still keep it after she had hurt him?
If there was one thing Mikasa loved about peacetime, it was the hustle of the city. With the threat of war and extinction far from Paradis, its people were more open about how they enjoyed themselves. As she went into town for her regular grocery shopping, Mikasa stopped to admire all the musicians that played in the streets. Many placed money in hats left at the performer's feet, while others danced to the music. Mikasa recalled the look in Jean's eyes as they danced at the reception. He looked at her as he had since they were young. Like he had discovered a whole new way of seeing. As Mikasa recalled all the times she had interacted with Jean since they were cadets, she understood how badly she missed the subtle ways he showed affection.
"Wow, that's quite a story," said Annie as she set down her tea. Her pregnancy bump was coming along nicely, and Armin had said the doctors expected everything to go smoothly.
"You were right, Annie. I wasn't able to get over Eren. Worst still, I let my baggage hurt Jean."
Annie winced at Mikasa's recollection of her words. "I can't help but feel partly responsible for this, so I'll give you some advice. Talk to him. Using Jean as a rebound was a pretty terrible thing to do, and I don't think you want it as your last interaction before Jean goes overseas."
Mikasa lifted her head. "He's leaving again? It's only been two months!"
"Peace treaty or not, the Alliance members are still technically ambassadors. Everyone except myself and Armin are heading back to work to ensure the peace process continues. If you want to make things right with Jean, you'll only have till tomorrow."
"I do want to make things right, but what do I say?"
"Well, tell him you're sorry for stringing him along for starters," deadpanned Annie. "After that. . . I guess you need to tell him what you want. Decide whether you want to be with him, or stay here. Anything's better than ignoring the problem."
Jean took one last look at the port. To think, only a few years ago Paradis had never even heard of the sea, let alone considered building harbors and trade ports. As he surveyed his home island one last time, a figure racing through the crowds stuck out to him. As she approached, he immediately identified her by the way her arms hung back as she ran.
Panting, Mikasa set her luggage down between herself and Jean. "Jean, I wanted to ask if I could accompany you and help your diplomatic mission."
Jean's eyebrows rose. "Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to stay close to Eren?" His tone carried no anger, but Mikasa felt stung nonetheless.
Ok, I deserve that. "Jean, I'm sorry. All you ever did was shower me with kindness, and I used you to fill the hole Eren left. But I don't want you to be Eren for me, I want you to be you. You saved me when I was in danger, listened to me when I needed an ear, and never asked for anything in return. There's no one I'd rather be beside."
Jean rolled Mikasa's declaration over in his mind. He wasn't sure whether to believe it or whether Mikasa was letting guilt do the talking. "Mikasa, if you come with me, it won't just be seeing the world. Keeping the peace between Paradis and the other nations is time consuming, frustrating, and paints a large target on your back."
Mikasa nodded. "We're from the 104th, nothing has ever come easy. But even if you're still angry with me. . . I want to do my part to protect the peace our friends died for."
Jean put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a familiar cloth with Mikasa's embroidery. The woman beamed as saw that Jean had kept her gift.
"I don't think I could stay mad at you, even if I wanted to. I'd love for you to come with me. . . but let's take this slowly. We'll save the world like old times, as friends."
"As friends," Mikasa repeated.
As she boarded the ship, Mikasa felt a sense of calm, despite the uncertainty of the future. She couldn't say how the diplomatic mission would go, or how things with Jean would turn out. But none of that worried her, because Mikasa knew she'd be doing something meaningful again, with one of her closest companions by her side. From this moment on, Mikasa would live her life with no regrets.