Better Now than Before
"Honey, are you okay?" Jean's mother asked as she came into the kitchen and saw her son sitting at the table with a look of anxiety on his face. She had her thick, white robe wrapped snugly around her on this cool morning and mumbled something about how Jean's father always ruled the thermostat as she adjusted it.
Jean looked out the French doors and shook his head. "Nothing… I guess I'm just tired."
"Hmm." His mom said as she started preparing coffee. "How's school been going? I know we haven't had much time to talk about it. We've all been so busy these days." She said with her back to him as she rinsed two mugs out.
"You really are like your father. I'm sure there's something you want to talk about." She smiled as she came over and took a seat in the chair across from her son. After running her hand through her hair, she looked out the doors at the morning sky.
"Not that I can think of.."
"No classes you like? No clubs you joined? No girls you're seeing?"
Jean sighed and gave a simple "no".
"Jean, say something. You don't have to hide anything from me."
Jean desperately swallowed a mouthful of saliva. "I'm… not." What the hell was she talking about hiding things for?
Instead of saying anything, Jean's mother just sat there and smiled at the mess of paperwork on the table. "Your father must've left this mess this morning. He's getting ready for retirement and all… Back when we were just getting to know each other, everyone told me it was strange that I was dating him, since he was ten years older than me. I was in college just like you." Hazelnut eyes gazed up at her. "Nowadays things are so different, though. I'm sure it's not so uncommon to date someone older than you. A lot of things are different, really." She finished, and then got up and went over to fill a mug with the fresh coffee.
"It's okay, honey. If you don't want to talk about anything, I won't force you to." And with that, she picked up the mug and headed to the refrigerator for cream.
Jean clenched his sweaty hands into fists and looked out the doors again. His heart was beating fast and, even despite the room still being cold since the heater had just come on, he felt incredibly hot. "I'm… dating Marco. He's… I…"
"Oh my god! Sweetie! It's okay!" After hurrying over to the table, Jean's mother sat down in the chair to the left of him instead of across like before. "It is. I know you might've thought it was something you had to sneak around about and hide, but it's not. Trust me. Your father and I will love you regardless of who you are seeing. When you love someone, you love them the same no matter what. You're still my baby, and you always will be."
Jean avoided looking at her as she continued to tell him about how much he meant to them and how they would never think less of him. "Mom… Marco left." He said, halting her attempts to further verbalize her feelings.
"He just left. I was at his house last night, and when I woke up this morning he was gone. He didn't call or text me and I've left him lots of messages."
"Oh no… Did he seem upset or in distress at all?"
"No, we were actually having a good night. …I'm worried about him."
"Did you talk to his parents or family?"
"No one was there all night or this morning. But he doesn't drive, so I don't think he could've gone anywhere by choice."
Ms. Kirstein's hand came up to cover her mouth. "…Call the MPs. It's probably the best idea to report this-" The doorbell rang, interrupting the two who were mildly fretting in the kitchen. "I wonder who that could be at this early hour…"
Both Jean and his mother got up and went to the living room. Jean hoped as he opened the door that he'd be reunited with that freckled, smiling face he yearned so much for. He was greeted with quite the opposite when he did open it, though. "Reiner?"
"Yeah." The bulky man replied, then forced his way inside.
"How rude! Who is this, Jean?!" Jean's mother asked as she grabbed for an umbrella from behind the door to use as a weapon.
"It's okay! He's… a friend… or something! I don't know but it's not important."
Reluctantly, his mother stepped back and then went back into the kitchen mumbling something along the lines of how Reiner almost got his head smashed.
Reiner sighed, "Look, I don't exactly want to be here-"
"Then why are you?" Jean interrupted.
"I'm looking for clues about where Bertholdt went."
Standing silent after hearing that for a bit longer than necessary to process it, Jean snapped. "What the hell!? Why on EARTH would you start HERE?!"
"It's a long story. Well.. not really long, just not worth mentioning."
"I'm listening either way." Jean folded his arms and leaned against his front door.
"Fine. I started with you because I can't exactly make it out to Marco's house with the gas I have in my truck."
"I haven't been paid yet, okay?! Anyway, I came to one of you two because I know you've both been paying special attention to what he and I are up to… even though it's none of your business. Bertholdt even mentioned that he had something he wanted to talk to Marco about, so I need a ride out to his place."
"Why should I help you? The bus is running."
"Are you even listening to me? Bertholdt is gone and I need help finding him. Give me Marco's number and I'll talk to him if you just wanna stand here being an ass."
"You've got a funny way of asking for things. Why are you overreacting, anyway? He left of his own accord, right?"
"Ugh, I knew you wouldn't be any help." Reiner said just before he walked over to the front door and stormed out. Jean stood in place, silently, contemplating what he should do. He wasn't by any means obligated to help Reiner. And their history of insults and passive aggressiveness didn't make him want to, but still… he did seem very worried…
"Yo! Reiner! What are you doing here?" the sound of Connie's voice made Jean's eyes go wide. He rushed to the door and pulled it open. Sure as the sky was blue, Connie was walking up Jean's walkway. Behind him was Sasha and Historia.
Connie's parents drove off, his mother waving out the window and saying they'd be back to pick him up soon.
Reiner, halfway into his truck, got inside and laid back against the seat, sighing heavily. "I was just leaving." He replied.
"Connie." Jean called, "What are you doing here?"
"We're here to hang." Connie replied. He was looking fairly relaxed in his university sweats and jacket. Those bothersome headphones were hanging around his neck, as usual. Sasha was wearing thick shorts and leggings with a dark purple coat that stopped just before the shorts' hem. Her hair pulled up in its usual ponytail. And Historia was wearing a light gray pea coat with black leggings and those brown, cloth boots that girls liked to wear in the winter.
"I… I don't really have time for-"
"Yeah, Jean's too busy being an asshole." Reiner interrupted, now standing outside of his truck.
"You're still here?" Jean squinted.
"Oh no! We can't leave anymore because Connie's parents are gone." Sasha declared.
"Why not? Connie, where's your car?" Jean asked.
"Oh, it got totaled a few days ago. I'm getting a new one next week sometime." Connie replied, again as if the things he said and did were no big deal. Especially buying a new car, which most people had to work years for before they could do.
Feeling a bit like an asshole for wanting to rush Connie off after hearing that, Jean sighed and relinquished some of his irritation. "Come in…" he said.
"Reiner," Historia began, "What are you doing here?"
"It's a long… ugh… never mind." Reiner said.
"So you're going to look for Marco and Bertholdt?" Connie asked, comfortably seated on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate, courtesy of Mrs. Kirstein, in his hand.
"Yes. Reiner said Bertholdt wanted to talk to Marco, so if we find one of them, maybe we'll find the other. If I'm being honest, I'm just looking for Marco. Whatever Bertholdt is doing is his business." Jean replied from where he was leaning against the wall. For some reason, he couldn't sit down. Too many things running through his mind for that…
"If they're together, you don't have to worry, right?" Historia asked.
"That's right." Sasha added. "They seem like they'd be okay together."
"We don't know if they're together for sure." Jean replied. "And even if they were, where did they even go? Why didn't Marco tell me…?" This was frustrating. He just wanted to see Marco again. "Reiner, have you called Bertholdt?"
"I didn't have my phone with me when I went to find him… But regardless, his parents said he might have gone north."
"North?" Jean asked. "What for?"
"Didn't…" Connie hesitated, "Didn't Annie go to Stohess?" he asked.
A silence was what his question was greeted with.
"She did. And I was thinking that maybe we should go see her." Reiner replied, breaking silence.
"There's no way I'm going if that's the case." Jean said, drawing everyone's attention. "Marco wouldn't go with Bertholdt to see that girl."
"Umm… In any case, maybe going to see Annie would be a good idea." Sasha commented.
Connie agreed. "Yeah. Besides, it's the weekend and I've got nothing else to do. Let's go to the capital!" he said eagerly.
"In what?" Reiner asked, "My truck is out of gas."
"I can give you gas money if it's to go to the capital."
"I want to go, too." Sasha said, matching Connie's eagerness.
"My truck's a three seater. Should be enough for everyone… unless you want to go, Historia. Then Connie will just sit in the bed."
Jean folded his arms. "Ugh, fine. I'll drive. Everyone can fit in my car." He said, surprising everyone with his sudden change in decision.
"What are you going for? You were so against it just a few minutes ago." Reiner commented.
"I want to find Marco. Sitting around at home and letting two bumbling space cases and a muscle-headed lummox handle it isn't exactly a comforting idea. Even if you had Historia with you, I don't think that'd be enough to keep you guys from doing something crazy."
Connie stood up and stretched. "You sure have a way with words." He said, then turned his attention to the sky just outside the living room window. "If we're gonna go, let's go. The trip'll be a few hours. If we head out now, we'll get there long before nightfall."
"I don't need you to tell me that." Jean said, then walked over to the table near the door and picked up his keys. "Let's go. Mom! I'll be back later!" he called.
"Okay! I'll try to get in touch with the Bodt family to see where Marco is!" Ms. Kirstein said from the kitchen.
A trip to the capital with these goons. Jean hoped this didn't get worse.
Earlier that same morning.
As Bertholdt sat at a gas station quietly observing the people going about their business where such places are concerned, he tapped his steering wheel with his thumb and started wondering if he maybe should have let Reiner know what it was he was doing. You know, instead of just running off without warning. Reiner—the man who had always been there for him growing up. Reiner—the man who swore that his love was unconditional and would be there until they grew old and withered away from the world. Reiner—the man who saw potential in him and encouraged him to join the track team.
He'd been thinking about him too much lately…
Bertholdt's dark brown eyes looked at the doors to the gas station when Marco came out. Marco was such a nice guy; agreeing to come along like this after such short notice and being asked not to tell anyone about this. Bertholdt didn't know how it was that such an amazing guy could wind up with a guy like Jean, but to each their own.
"Sorry! That drink ran right through me." Marco apologized as he got into the car and put on his seatbelt.
"It's fine." Bertholdt said with a small smile, then started the car and pulled out of the gas station.
"How much longer 'til we get to Stohess? I've never been this far into the kingdom before."
"About fifteen minutes."
Marco smiled, "Good."
"By the way, I'm glad you came along."
"Oh! No, it's fine! I'll admit it was a surprise, but if you need someone for emotional support, I can't think of anyone else you'd ask. We're not the closest friends, but if you think I'm a good fit for this, then I'm happy to help you."
A gentle, appreciative smile found its way to Bertholdt's otherwise unexpressive face. "You're one heck of a guy."
"Did you need any gas or anything?" Historia asked Jean as they traversed the long road that led to Wall Rose. She was seated safely under the seatbelt in the passenger's seat of Jean's car.
"No, not really. And it's not really your responsibility to ask me about that. I'd say it's more Reiner's." Jean said, looking back at the bulky blonde in the back seat.
"You needed to go anyway." Reiner said, then looked out the window.
He, Connie, and Sasha were all seated in the backseat driver's area. Connie, since he was the second smallest of everyone in the car, was seated in the middle of them. Somehow, everyone felt compelled to let Historia sit up front. She seemed good with directions and had been to Wall Sina before for family reasons.
"Whatever. This is all your boyfriend's fault. If Marco hadn't gone with him, if he even did at all, then I wouldn't need to chase him across the freakin' kingdom. He'd be in bed with me right now."
"Bertholdt is not my boyfriend." Reiner corrected.
"Really?" Sasha asked. "Now, I thought you two were a thing."
Reiner looked at her quickly in surprise, "What?!"
"You two do spend a lot of time together. Even more time than he ever spent with Annie, someone he claimed to like." Connie added.
"You guys don't know anything…"
"Why're you so desperate to go after him, then? What he does in his free time has nothing to do with you." Jean said, further encouraging this barrage of inquiries and assumptions on the man.
"Reiner, it's fine if you do like him. None of us would ever judge you." Historia insisted with a smile.
"Can we just not talk about this?" Reiner asked.
Silence quickly grabbed hold of the inside of the car and refused to let go. And so, the ride to the inner city became a sightseeing venture, rather than a bonding one filled with laughs and stories. But even though it was silent, the others understood that for Reiner, admitting something like having feelings for another man wasn't the easiest task.
In time, he'd come around.
Once they arrived in Stohess, after a few hours of heavy silence-turned into radio listening, Jean felt himself growing a bit nervous about where he was. One wrong turn and who knew what could happen? "Historia, do you know where Annie is? She transferred to the Stohess campus of Sina, didn't she?" he asked.
"Yes, we're not too far from it. If you keep on this street and make a right on University Avenue, we'll get there."
"This'll be different. I've never been to this part of the capital before." Connie said.
Sasha kept her eyes glued to the nice business buildings they passed along the way. "The campus probably looks nice since they're more funded than Maria."
"Yeah, but look how cramped this town is. At least we got freedom." Jean said. He couldn't believe Marco would even consider coming to the capital to stay one day.
"Right here." Historia instructed as the turn came up.
Jean made the turn, almost hitting a pedestrian in the process, and drove on to where he could see a slight change in layout. Surprisingly enough, the campus was much more expansive than he thought it'd be. There were large, open areas with grass, a park, and multiple walkways. Buildings weren't crammed up beside one another like he thought they'd be, but were instead spread out quite neatly. And the main building, with a clock tower at its center, was the size of at least three of Maria University's major departments' buildings.
The campus was decorated for the winter with large banners welcoming students back from the break, winter wreaths placed meticulously on the buildings, and other things that were tenderly inviting.
"Historia, how come you don't go here? Aren't you rich?" Connie suddenly asked.
"That's not something you should ask her!" Sasha said, nudging him with her elbow. "She could ask you the same thing!"
"No, it's fine." Historia said, "I'm not personally rich. My father takes no interest in me apart from sending me a monthly stipend. I don't want to be closer to him, which I would be if I came here or any other place in the capital. I've actually started working so I can take care of myself and not have to be in contact with him at all. And… also, I can't just leave Ymir. She's where I feel at home; where I feel happy. If I didn't have her there to encourage me, I don't know if I'd be able to go on…"
"Are you two getting married, or was that just her spreading rumors?" Connie asked.
"I don't know. I wouldn't be against it." The girl replied as she stared out the window at the beautiful campus and preppy students passing her by.
"There's Bertholdt's car!" Reiner suddenly shouted and jumped up to grab Jean's seat.
"Jeez! You could scare me half to death!" Jean said, then went over to the parking lot in front of the dormitories where he saw Bertholdt's car. After parking, he made to turn his car off.
However, his eyes went wide when he saw Marco walking towards the library a ways away.
"What are you doing?!" Reiner asked when Jean started backing out of the parking space.
"I'm going to see Marco!"
"Why are you driving?! There are no parking spaces available over there!"
Jean put his foot on the brake and put the car in park again. "Shit! I hate when you're right!" he said, then turned the car off and hopped out of it. "Find Bertholdt and punch him in the face for me, Connie!" he ordered as he ran to where his boyfriend was.
"Like hell!" Reiner said.
"Oh my gosh just admit you like him!" Sasha commented.
"Hey, there he is!" Historia pointed out, then opened her door and got out of the car. "Bertholdt!"
Reiner got out and headed towards the silent giant, who was making his way out of the dormitory.
Bertholdt looked a bit confused when Reiner reached him and yanked him into a tight hug. "What's-"
"Bertholdt, you can't just fucking leave like that! Your parents weren't sure where you went, you didn't tell me anything… I was… worried, man." Reiner said with his forehead pressed against the taller man's collar bone.
"Reiner… You came after me?"
"Of course! Idiot!"
"That was so irresponsible of you."
"Look who's talking!"
"…" Bertholdt leaned forward and pressed his nose into Reiner's hair. "I came here to tell her."
Reiner pulled away a bit. "You?! You did that?! I don't believe it…"
"Yeah. Marco being here with me gave me the courage. I talked with him a bit about what happened with him and Jean, and it helped me realize what I needed to do."
"What did she say?"
"She turned me down." Bertholdt admitted shamelessly.
"Wh—why are you smiling, then?"
"Because… I can finally move on. I can give my time and attention to someone who deserves it, not to someone who ignored me."
Reiner stepped back, but was pulled into a hug again. "Bert-"
"I feel the same. I have for a long time, and it confused me. I was conflicted about who I really liked. Annie was so interesting, but she always ignored me. You're fun to be around, you believe in me even when I don't believe in myself, and you genuinely want to spend your time with me. When you ambushed me on Christmas, I was shocked and scared. I wasn't ready to face you because I wasn't ready to admit that I liked you to myself. And I still liked Annie… But part of growing up is realizing what you want and need are two different things. I wanted her because she was attractive, but also quiet like me. But I need you because you're here when I need you to be, you're always pushing me to do my best, and you cheer me up when I'm feeling like hell. I wouldn't say there's no sense of want that I have for you, though." Bertholdt said, finishing with a geeky smile.
Reiner smiled, "Of course. We grew up together. I'll always be here for you, Berry-chan."
"I'm sorry I made you wait, Reindeer." Bertholdt said, wrapping his arms around the bulkier man even tighter. "I'm open to a relationship with you… if you're still interested."
"I never lost interest in you." Reiner whispered.
"So, you guys do like each other?" Connie asked as he came over.
"CO-NNIE!" Sasha yelled.
Historia stayed standing behind the door of Jean's car, smiling at the scene before her. This was another reason she wanted to stay in Maria—these people who she'd come to call friends. Her loneliness had long since vanished, and she didn't want to see it return, ever.
"Marco!" Jean called as he got closer to said man.
Marco turned and his eyes went wide. "Jean?! What are you doing here?!"
"I came to find you! You can't just leave like that and expect me not to worry! You couldn't have called me and told me you were okay?!"
"Jean, I'm fine. And I'm sorry for not contacting you. But I forgot my phone and I didn't remember your number. I'm a bad boyfriend… I should know your number by heart."
"I don't care about whether you remember my number. Just tell me what you're doing. We have to communicate." Jean said, calming himself. Marco didn't deserve to be yelled at, especially when he was just trying to be a good friend to Bertholdt.
"Sorry for all this trouble."
Jean wrapped his arm around Marco's shoulder and started walking back towards his car, "It's not that big a deal. I accept you for who you are, and if you can't resist your angelic urges, I can't stop you. But just talk to me. You can't try to save the world alone, especially when you have someone who loves you. I could've helped."
"Yeah…" Marco smiled, then kissed Jean's cheek. "You know, you've changed a lot since the first time I met you."
"Don't remind me."
"I'm serious. You care about others, you talk to everyone instead of avoiding them, and you smile a lot more than when we first met. So, I'm glad we met that day." He continued.
"Me too. But I could go a few days without dealing with the crazies we call friends." Jean grinned.
"Do you like it here in Stohess?"
"Not really. It's nice, but I couldn't stay here too long."
"Maybe we could take a trip outside the walls, then?"
"I'd like that. I've never been to the beach. Though, I doubt I'd like it…"
"There they are!" Sasha said when Jean and Marco got back to the car.
Jean noticed Reiner leaning against Bertholdt's car and Bertholdt standing close to him, which made him raise an eyebrow, "You two going back together?" he asked.
"Yeah. Thanks for bringing him." Bertholdt answered.
"Glad to be of service."
"We're going back with you, if that's fine?" Historia said. She was sitting in the back seat of his car with the door open. Connie was sitting in the front seat, though he probably knew he'd have to move for Marco. Sasha was leaning on the car with her chin rested on her arms and a smile on her face.
"So is this where you two will always remember your beginnings?" Connie asked Reiner and Bertholdt. The resulting look of embarrassment, and reddening of Bertholdt's entire face, gave their answer away. Connie shook his head as he got out of the car and then got into the back seat.
"Well, guess we'll see you guys back in Maria. Feel free to follow me." Jean said as he got into his car.
Marco waved at Bertholdt and Reiner as he got into the passenger's seat. "See you guys back home."
"Right. Don't let Jean kill you guys on the way." Reiner said.
Jean flipped him the bird. "Piss off…" he retorted. But deep, deep… deep down, he found himself a bit intrigued about what was to come in the future. With an amazing boyfriend like Marco in his life, good friends like the ones in the back seat plus Ymir and Jaeger's gang, another couple that was also just figuring things out like he and Marco were that they could talk to, and undergrad coming to an end this semester, he wondered just how much would change for him for the better. Thinking back, he admitted that he never wanted to return to the person he was before that fateful day in Professor Hanji's class.
Life had truly become something enjoyable. No more hiding away in his room playing video games to avoid what he imagined to be not worth his time. Sure, gaming would still be a great factor in his free time, but no longer would it hold him back from opening himself up to the people who apparently wanted to be around him.
After he got into the car, and once they were on the road with Bertholdt following after them, Connie leaned forward and stuck his head between Jean and Marco, "Hey, I never asked you two. When was the first time you got together?"
I'm not good with endings or final messages, but regardless, you guys, this has been such an amazing journey. So much fun and such a learning experience. I'm glad I could tell you all such an interesting, entertaining story, even if it wasn't told perfectly eheheh... Still, I love this story and I love my readers as well! Many of you have told me how much you love it, how you read it in one sit-in be it late at night or during the day, how you can relate to it, how you love these dorks, and so on. I enjoy your replies to this story, so don't hesitate to give me anything else you might want to say now that it's finished.
Also, don't be sad. If you like my writing, you'll be glad to know that even though it may be the end of one tale, a new one is coming out soon (once I'm ready to publish it)! Keep your eyes peeled for Odyssey