Disclaimers: I do not own Shingeki no Kyojin/Attack on Titan. Hajime Isayama does. Also, thanks to the wonderful translations of the manga by the people over at Gantz_waitingroom. A few of the lines of dialogue in the corpse burning scene are taken directly from the manga scene itself and edited without taking away from the meaning. I take no credit for those aforementioned bits of dialogue.
A/N: Shingeki has a lot of wonderful, complex characters, but the one I'm most impressed by is Jean. He grows from a selfish, arrogant kid to a responsible, respectable young man with great leadership qualities who honestly cares about his friends' lives, the latter of which I hope to have touched upon here. In other words, I really like Jean. Oh, and Jean/Sasha? The scene wrote itself. This story's been sitting on my computer for over a month and has been edited so many times I've lost count because I was never satisfied with it until now. Anyhow, happy reading, and comments are appreciated.
Fair warning: Small spoiler warning for chapter 21 and beyond. Also, the part with Sasha will make a little more sense if you've read chapter 36, too, actually, so slight spoiler for that chapter as well. Nothing major, though.
resigned to the call
"A person often meets his destiny
on the road he took to avoid it."
— Jean de La Fontaine
When he speaks, he is honest. Jean is not the type to mince words.
If placed in the situation, Jean once said he'd kill a Titan during a kitchen clean and prep session back in the early days of enlisting into the military. Connie jeered at him.
"You? Fight a Titan?" he guffawed, peeling a potato, the last of several that he had begun skinning an hour earlier. "You'd probably be the first to book it!"
"Even the weakest prey will fight back if cornered," offered Sasha, a remark that was half-benign and yet all insulting to Jean. Surprisingly, she had earnestly peeled her share of the potatoes without eating any, whereas Connie was snacking on the one he'd just peeled. When prompted about it, Sasha explained she wouldn't eat them because they were still raw, and that it was sacrilege to eat food that wasn't prepared properly.
"Screw you guys," Jean grumbled, removing his apron after his share of dish washing.
"Aw, come on man, don't be like that," implored Connie, now waving a notebook at him as he folded up the white apron. "I was gonna ask you about this question for our theory class."
"Figure it out yourself," he shrugged coldly.
Beside him, Marco nudged his elbow as if chiding him for his prickly personality. "Why don't we help him out, Jean?"
"If you wanna help him, then go ahead," he frowned, straightening out the wrinkles in his shirt as he made his way to the door, "but count me out."
He wasn't here to help some other saps graduate. No, he coveted a top ten finish in his year—and he wasn't about to waste any time trying to help the competition. He went to bed that night running through the class lessons in his head, a dizzying spiral of grim facts, precise figures, and solutions to theoretical dilemmas until he fell asleep, motivated by his goal of entering the Military Police.
A common saying is that humans are, by nature, social creatures; that they crave love (be it familial, platonic, or even romantic), attention, and acceptance is simply proof of the seemingly ordained human desire for companionship. Jean has gained many comrades-in-arms since he enlisted into the military, not that he asked for them—although some of them were admittedly tolerable—but they were allies all the same. And when he joins the Military Police, that number will surely only grow.
But can camaraderie, something so apparently necessary, overcome fear?
The Titans had broken through the walls once again, this time Wall Rose, and humanity seemed to be truly on the brink of extinction.
The soldiers lined up in rows, anxiously waiting for an address from the Commander of the Garrison. A row in front of Jean, an older, scraggly-looking soldier from the Garrison begged a young trainee to cause a ruckus, intent on fleeing from the front lines of Trost and escaping an inevitable clash with the advancing Titans that would more than likely be the death of them. Other soldiers—adults—clamoured in approving dissent in the hopes of abandoning their posts. He began to wonder, then, what are we fighting for?
Jean despaired for humanity. There was no solidarity, no esprit de corps.
It was only cowardice.
If he had it his way in this godforsaken world, Jean would graduate from the military academy in the top ten, apply directly to the Military Police, and then live out his days in comfortable distance from the Titans.
At the very least, he had accomplished a third of that.
At the base of the fire, Jean watched the bodies of his fellow soldiers smouldering into the sky; burning flesh crackled in the embers under the veil of the night, not a single twinkling star to wish upon. Beside him, Connie clutched his head in despair, running through all their training and wondered, "Was it all for nothing?"
The rest of his classmates looked on in silence, their faces devoid of hope and full of doubt. Reiner and Annie still wore their steely expressions and Bertolt looked unassuming still, but they all seemed to be going through the motions, like they had experienced this once before. Distraught, Connie was the only one who dared to speak, and Sasha looked the bleakest of them all.
A stray bone fragment sat in the palm of his hand, a littered scrap of one of humanity's lost souls, forever nameless. Jean looked at the bone chip and thought, which one of these is yours again, Marco?
He looked at the fire and wished, if only I hadn't become a soldier.
Generally, people believe in strength in numbers, but was it not also this strength in numbers, this peer pressure, this suffocating societal belief of over-glorified military achievement that pushed all these naive and fresh-faced children into enlisting, into hardship, to their deaths?
The bone chip in his palm told him, no, society is not at fault.
Somewhere in the flames was Marco's body, burning up into the atmosphere. Jean remembered the woman who was with him when he found his friend's corpse. Marco was simply a tool for disease in her mind. His final moments, his dreams, and the fact that he lived didn't matter.
Marco couldn't have been the only case of this, and as long as the Titans existed, there would be many more victims. It could be him next, or any one of his classmates standing by him here.
Jean looked at them and grit his teeth.
Sorry, Marco... This is the only way I know how to mourn.
He rose shakily to his feet, hoping to hide his fear with a smile.
"H-Hey, we're still supposed to choose what branch to serve in," Jean said, and ignored the grim austerity in their eyes. "Have you guys picked one yet?"
His hands and feet quivered the longer he stood and sooner or later, his knees would most certainly buckle if his violently pounding heart didn't give out on him first. He clamped a hand over his wrist in an attempt to cease his trembling hands, but it was obvious even to him how afraid he was of the words he was about to utter.
"I will...enlist into the Scouting Legion."
If Jean had it his way in this world, all his friends would live.
Desertion is a capital offense in the military, but while less horrifying than being devoured by the Titans, it is infinitely more shameful. The stigma attached to it is supposedly a heavy enough deterrent to keep the soldiers from abandoning their duties.
Jean has always thought that negligence should not go unpunished, but the reverse logic of further reducing your already dwindling population by your own hands made him cringe. Granted, the King and all the higher-ups seemed to agree that cowards were extra, unwanted mouths to feed, and disposing of them seemed more beneficial to military morale. Regardless of defectors, though, the human population was already dropping like flies.
A number that was sure to plummet further in a month, after his first, and possibly last, expedition outside the walls.
Quiet conversations carried out in the dining hall, though they lacked the boisterous naivety of youth, the enthused anticipation of a meal after a long day of physical exertion during their academy days. Fresh off enlisting into the Legion, tonight's meal was eaten with a sombre awareness.
Across from him, Connie chewed on his bread hesitantly, his hands shaking as he lifted a spoonful of stew to his lips. Back hunched forward and shoulders drooped, he ate with his head down.
When Jean stared at his dinner, it was a dismal reminder that he quite possibly had only a month left to live. He ate quickly at first, but when he burned his tongue with the hot stew, he realized time seemed to pass by faster the quicker he ate, and he abated. But time and patience are fickle things, and when he ate more lethargically (no thanks to his burned tongue), dread and worry plagued him.
Connie stared questioningly at him as he reached for the pitcher of cold water to soothe his scalding tongue.
"Hey, Jean?" he mumbled as Jean didn't respond, instead racing to douse the burning. "If someone told you to die, would you do it?"
If not for the fact that he felt his tongue might melt off, Jean might have done a spit take. He was insane! But the desperation in Connie's eyes told him he was dead serious.
"'The hell? Of course not!" Jean scoffed. He sounded inconsiderate and hostile, not cut out for articulating sympathy, but always the perfect person to argue with.
No, not like Connie, who got along well with almost everyone. Jean still remembers how he jumped to Armin's defense when Ymir had spoke so degradingly of the blonde back in Trost. He might not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer, but Connie was compassionate. He cared enough not to run away, and that was more than Jean could say for the gas supply team that left them on an island, or the soldiers who jumped at the chance to ignore their duties if not for Commander Pixis' warning.
"That's what I thought," Connie smirked knowingly, leaving Jean completely bewildered. It was such an obvious answer to an idiotically simple question, but Connie's simpering complacency at his response imparted some kind of special underlying meaning to it, the significance of which he couldn't figure out. "That's all I wanted to hear."
From there, it grew quiet as Connie finished his meal and Jean attempted to eat (and was failing miserably at it) his own, the other new recruits filing out of the dining hall to turn in for the night. Mundane conversations filtered through the doorway as they left, and Jean wondered if the anxiety prior to dinner had simply evaporated. He was wrenched from his thoughts when he heard a clatter and saw Connie rising from his seat. As he turned to leave, he placed a hand on Jean's shoulder.
"Thanks, Jean," Connie half-whispered, and drifted through the doorway, lost with all the others, leaving Jean even more confused. Thanks...for what, exactly?
He didn't deserve it.
Dinner tasted like regret, but Jean had always eaten his portion, leaving nothing on the table. Most of them had left to turn in early, save for a few new recruits. One table in particular caught his eye...
"Is something wrong, Sasha?"
It was Krista at the table next to him, speaking to their resident Potato Girl.
"You're awfully slow today," Ymir scowled. "You usually wolf things down faster than a Titan."
"I-I just want to try savouring my food," Sasha explained, blanching at the mention of Titan. Dried tear stains ran along the side of her face and nervous fits of laughter slipped through her teeth, reminding Jean of when they were stranded on the roof in Trost about a week ago. She tried convincing everyone to fight, but she lacked the conviction needed to persuade anyone.
Jean gnawed on his bread, halting on the stew for the mean time. It tasted bland, like the idleness of fear. Sasha also had one of the worst breakdowns after nearly being eaten by a Titan back in Trost. Not even Connie reacted so strongly, and he had missed his killing blow, too.
Krista chastised Ymir for her brutal honesty. Apologize to Sasha and Sasha please don't take it to heart and a dozen other things followed this cherubic line of sympathy. It went on like this until Sasha smiled weakly at them with a wave, assuring them that they could leave first and she'd catch up with them as soon as she finished eating.
The brunette was always the liveliest of the trainees when a plate of food was placed in front of her, but the girl he saw now seemed like a cheap imitation of the original. Missing was the starved enthusiasm in her eyes, the skittish flutter in her motions.
Jean took another swig of cold water, his tongue starting to blister again.
They say discretion is the better part of valour.
Jean has always been prudent, but he makes no excuses for his cowardice and has never shirked responsibility. Safety wasn't truly obtainable, not even in the inner walls. Trost had been considered part of the "inner walls" at one point—when there were three walls, of course—and the remaining denizens of humanity had truly believed that these concentric walls would keep them safe. Security was to be taken with a grain of salt, apparently.
Jean poked the tip of his tongue out into the cool night air and it prickled as a sharp breeze blew over and against his tongue. He grimaced at the mild stinging sensation, vowing never to eat so hastily again. The moment he reached the lodging, he stood at the doorstep, contemplating.
Inside the cabin, the boys were talking, muffled voices drifting through the walls. Well, that's something, at least, Jean thought as his fingers grazed the door handle, stopping just short of pushing it open. His throat tightened as he gripped the handle and he turned around, stepping off the veranda.
The moon still hung low in the evening sky, and he wasn't quite ready to sleep just yet, instead deciding to wander around the enclosed area, until his feet finally brought him to the stables where the horses were kept.
Located behind the cabins, the stables were simple but sturdy wooden structures. A couple of horses were still awake, their heads poking out from their stalls. It wasn't only the equine, though, as a long, thin shadow stretched out in front of him, elongated by moonlight, and he traced its origin to a figure in front of one of the stalls.
Her face pressed gently against the horse's, Sasha stood motionless, eyes closed and deep in thought, an action that seemed to be more consoling for her than the animal. When Jean was within two metres of her, she tensed, eyes sharp and poised, pivoting around faster than he could react. A hunter's reaction? he thought, remembering she hailed from Dauper. When she saw it was him though, her shoulders seemed to relax and her eyes glimmered briefly in acknowledgement.
"...Jean," she greeted, and his throat tightened at the familiar memory.
A similar thing occurred last night just before enlisting into the Scouting Legion. She greeted him but he said nothing, simply staring, stone faced. Her words from the night before echoed in his mind:
"Why did you suddenly choose the Legion? Aren't you afraid?"
'Aren't you?' he thought, her and Connie's trembling backs imprinted in his mind. He remembered her tear-streamed face after joining the Scouting Legion, the way her resolve collapsed like a flimsy house of cards in Trost.
Sasha was waving a hand in front of his face now, trying to grab his attention. "Jean?"
He brushed her hand aside and managed to mumble under his breath in the crippling silence. "What?"
"You...never really told us why you joined the Legion." Her lips were pressed into a fine line, a searching glint in her brown eyes that begged for him to answer.
"Me? Well, I..."
The haunting image of Marco's body flashed briefly in his mind, his friend's words ringing hauntingly in his ears: 'I think you'd make a better leader, Jean.'
His jaw clenched, shallow gasps the only thing his vocal chords could manage.
"There's something I can only do if I join the Legion."
Eyebrows knit together, Sasha was speechless, as if letting his words sink in. Though the curiosity in her eyes remained, she pried no further.
"What about you?" he quickly countered, arms folded and leaning against the stable's wall. His tone was cold and condescending, for once choosing to hold his cards closer to his heart.
She stuttered in response, stroking the horse, and Jean turned towards her quizzically.
"Jean," she paused, "you are from Trost, right?"
He raised an eyebrow at the change of subject, having no clue what she was going to say next. "Uh, yeah?"
"Does my way of speaking, um," she held her hands close to her chest, scraping at a fingernail with her thumb, "annoy you...?"
What the hell? What was with everyone today? He seemed to be getting one weird question after another tonight, Sasha's question even more bizarre than Connie's. Whatever she was thinking, it was beyond his realm of understanding.
Jean narrowed his eyes at her in confusion. "Uh," I'm more annoyed at your random ass questions, actually, "no? Not really?"
"Oh," the brunette turned away, and he ceased the tapping of his foot against the stable walls when she murmured, "but I probably would if I didn't speak like this..."
He frowned. He didn't really get what she was going on about. The way she spoke was always careful, almost forcibly well-crafted, but he had thought nothing of it. Sasha had always just been an idiotically carefree glutton to him, but now, wrapped in the thick blanket of moonlight, he saw her more clearly. She was almost as tall as he was, and he could see her face quite well, even in the moonlit darkness. Glassy-eyed, she stared at the horse, petting it tenderly, small, ephemeral smiles tugging at her lips when the ungulate creature whinnied quietly. They communicated through gestures; caresses of the forehead, brushes of the cheek, but not a single spoken word. Jean sighed softly.
"The way you speak doesn't matter," he stated, running a hand through his hair. There was an undercurrent of annoyance in his tone, even in his kindest moments. "There's more to understanding someone than just listening to their words."
Sasha gazed at him fixedly, eyes shining faintly. Her lips parted slightly, as if to speak, but she said nothing, holding him steadily in her eyes. Her gaze unnerved him and he leaned away from her, but never breaking eye contact.
"Wh-What?" he stammered, suddenly feeling self-conscious.
"Jean, you..." Sasha leaned in close, inches from his face, and he stopped breathing. "...Really have a long face," she finished. "Just like a horse!"
Jean stared at her, dumbstruck. "Huh...?"
Sasha laughed blithely, briefly illuminating the stillness of the night like a flickering candle. Her laughter wasn't as crisp or striking as when she stole Connie's (technically his) target during their aptitude exam, victorious and carefree as she gloated, the dapples dancing fleetingly on her skin, but the memory of it would be just as vivid.
Mortified anger quickly replaced subsiding wonder, though, and his face tingled with both rage and embarrassment. But mostly fizzling rage.
"I don't have a goddamn horse's face!" he seethed, recalling Eren's nickname for him during their training days. Normally he wouldn't retaliate, but it was probably the least flattering thing anybody could say to him. Horse face, Eren called him. Likewise, Jean dubbed him the suicidal asshole.
"But don't you think horses are kind of cute?" Sasha almost beamed.
"Like hell they are!"
"Aw, come on, don't be so mad. Look, your face is stretching!"
"I'll show you a stretched face," Jean retorted, roughly pulling at her cheeks until the pink of her gums showed. He firmly believed Sasha could stuff a whole loaf of bread in her mouth if she tried. She laughed wholeheartedly though, even as her cheeks flushed red from his pincer-like grip. Seeing as the grin on her face wasn't disappearing even as he applied more pressure, his anger waned, and he relented.
"Whatever," he huffed, turning to leave. "I'm turning in."
"Yes sir!" saluted Sasha, following after him. "Horses need their beauty sleep, after all."
Jean groaned. "Can it, Potato girl."
"I wasn't talking about you," she protested smugly.
They walked to the sound of crumbling sands under their soles, the cool touch of the night at their fingers.
"Hey Jean?" Sasha said, this time more mutely. "Thank you..."
Her eyes softened as she said it, a ghost of a smile pulling at her lips. Jean grabbed the side of her face and tugged harshly at it. Sasha winced, quickly slapping a hand over her swelling cheek.
"Squirrel cheeks," said Jean, and hid his trembling fingers in his pockets, a piercing, but tickling warmth at his fingertips.
His scorched tongue didn't burn so much anymore.