A War Story is a Black Space
"I will not let her speak because I love her, and when you love someone, you do not make them tell war stories. A war story is a black space. On the one side is before and on the other side is after, and what is inside belongs only to the dead."
-Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente
The day after the war ends, as it must, Jean Kirstein knocks at the door of his childhood home in Trost. The sidewalk is still burnt from that first battle and the roof is new, but it's everything he needs right now and so he hugs his mother like he'll never see her again. His sister cries and his brother – so young and small when he had left – stands at the foot of the staircase, wondering who the tall man with Mama's eyes is.
We're so proud of you, his mother says, and Jean says, I know.
He leaves in the afternoon, because the winners are tasked with stitching things back together. People, too.
Krista is waiting for him at the outer gate. She takes his pack without a word and attaches it to her own horse. She moves like a well-oiled machine: practiced, fluid, but like a fire in her has been extinguished. He understands, and lets her, despite himself – none of them have been quite the same since yesterday, and it's good to have some semblance of familiarity.
None of you are to travel alone, Hange had said, her voice stern. No exceptions.
She had refused to visit her own home in Sina when they'd left, despite Jean's protests. There's nothing there for me anymore, she had declared, her eyes far away. The Survey Corps is home now.
It's not going to be the same, either, said Jean. He'd anticipated the silence he got in return.
The two of them take the boat to Maria in silence that is neither awkward nor comfortable. He doesn't know what to say to her; they had never been that close during training and recent happenings only seem to make things harder, but Krista tries her hardest to smile in the morning and Jean can't help but ruffle her hair in turn. He feels too old for his too-young body, and he knows she does too.
Armin and Sasha are waiting for them, wide-eyed, at the port. "You're here," is the first thing Armin says, and he engulfs the two of them in a hug. It is at once so like him and so odd that Jean almost forgets.
Sasha begins to cry.
"Sasha," Jean croaks out. "Sasha, no." Bile begins to rise up in his throat and he reaches out towards her, but Krista beats him to it.
"It's okay," says Krista, putting her arms around the taller girl, Sasha's sobs wracking Krista's smaller body. "We all feel the same way."
But Jean takes one glance at Armin's dark stare and knows she couldn't be further from the truth.
"You're different," Armin says, as they walk to the meeting grounds, Krista and Sasha talking in hushed tones behind them.
"That's not something you would say," Jean says mildly. But Armin's right, as usual: it's odd, saying things mildly; it feels as if he is a candle that was once a forest fire.
Jean remembers Armin on the first day of training – gleaming eyes, mouth set in a firm line. This Armin, four years later, seems so much older.
"I'm just noting it," says Armin. "None of us are who we were before the war."
Hange greets them at Zhiganshina's gates. Jean can tell by the firm line her mouth is set in that the title of Commander weighs heavily on her, that she misses being allowed to run free and poke at Titans the way Erwin used to allow her, bemusedly – but Erwin is dead, and so is Mike and everyone else, and Jean knows Hanji well enough to know that she understands where her duty lies.
Duty. It's such an ugly word, now, restraining and restricting where Jean once thought it glorious and glamorous. I will do my duty to King and country, he hazily remembers Marco saying – Marco, whom, out of all of them, could have done his duty best.
It's duty that keeps Hanji from taking the Commander's pin off her cloak, and duty that keeps Moblit by her side, and duty that brings him and Armin and Sasha and Krista back here, despite everything.
But he sees Mikasa ride up behind Hanji, bags under her bloodshot eyes, and knows it's not duty that will keep him here.
"This was my home," says Mikasa, and Jean wishes hard that this were another time, another place, another story – anything that would let Mikasa be happier, less broken, more willing to smile at him, at anyone.
He stares at it – it's lovely, ivy crawling up the crumbling walls, the collapsed roof crusting away, leaning on the slanting road, windows darkened in some fearful, haunting symmetry. He tries to imagine it upright, sunlight streaming in through the windows, Mikasa beaming at the doorstep. Tch.
"Eren's, too," he finds himself saying.
Mikasa lowers her head, and Jean hates himself. "Yes, Eren's too. He wanted to be buried here."
They couldn't even grant him that; Eren Yeager needed a giant ceremony along with all the other nameless graves because he was that fucking special.
Jean thinks that if he were a better person he would have reached out for her hand, maybe squeezed it tight, but they're both damaged, and he isn't sure if two broken people can piece each other back together.
Their meals are painfully silent.
If Jean closes his eyes and remembers hard enough, he hears laughter – Connie cracking jokes, Reiner patting Krista on the head, Marco's soft, inoffensive giggles, Ymir dropping in occasional snark, Eren laughing loudest, brashest, always loudest. But Sasha keeps turning to her side to talk to someone who isn't there, and Krista's eyes are wide and searching, and Armin refuses to look up.
"Is there any word from Bertl?" says Krista, already knowing the answer.
Mikasa does nothing but pick at her food and bury her nose further under her scarf.
They don't leave her alone. Not the first night, nor the second. Always, someone is with her – some tiresome new recruit, or Krista in the bathroom, or Sasha while she eats. They take her gear away from her, and only give her spoons and forks to eat with (no knives). One of the girls sleeps with her and makes sure she doesn't get up at night. But always, Mikasa is quiet; Jean has barely heard her say ten words since his arrival.
We have to avoid more casualties–
We can't lose her –
She can't lose herself–
The third day is the funeral.
It's a huge thing, people from all over coming to Zhiganshina to celebrate the re-opening of Wall Maria and the world – fitting that they should do it here, where everything started. But of course they must first give credit where credit is due, and so come the bodies – there are many, many bodies that Jean loses count, thinks of all these soldiers left to the appendices of the history books. His comrades look sombre, draped in black: it makes Sasha look skinnier and Krista and Armin look smaller, but Mikasa – with dark, dark hair and dark, dark eyes as black as her dress, looks like she's about to wilt away.
There are statues for the more prominent members – Commander Smith, broad-shouldered and one-armed, his handsome face gleaming in the sun. Captain Levi, his deadpan face perpetually captured in the marble likeness. Captain Mike, his smirk erroneously curved upwards. Hanji dips her head, her shoulders shaking; this is the first time Jean has seen Hanji come anywhere near sad.
The band keeps playing, always sad songs Jean has never heard, but he chokes down sobs all the same. What of my comrades? Those I trained with? Had it not been for Trost, would they be here too? Would they get statues? Would I be here?
Reiner gets a statue. Jean had insisted on it – no matter where he was aligned, he died in defense of humanity. And he was my friend – and he can tell it was a rushed job, with Reiner's jaw too round and his eyes too wide, but he bows his head for his friend all the same.
He'd insisted on a statue for Ymir, too, for Krista's sake.
Eren's statue is last. It's a perfect likeness, the stonemason managing to capture Eren's determined gleam and his brash grin, his hand engraved with bite marks. At any moment, Jean thinks, the statue could move and he would believe it, and everything would be back to normal.
He supposes he hadn't believed it, either, when he'd seen it happen – none of them had, not when they'd seen Eren eaten, or impaled, or dismembered, coming back strong each time.
You have to destroy the Coordinate, Eren had screamed. Jean, bruised and bloody, had not understood.
But Mikasa had.
He wishes he'd known what Eren had been pleading, perhaps that way he could have spared her the pain. Mikasa had shouted and screamed in protest – there has to be some other way –but in the end she'd done it, knew that in the end it would have to be Eren or the world.
But what was the world without Eren? What was she to do, now that she'd crashed her whole world down on itself?
Jean unclenches his fist and notices that beside him, Mikasa is openly crying. He looks around. Armin is dry-eyed but shaking, Krista is sobbing quietly, and Sasha is trying to force it down. He tilts his head to the side and offers his arm in a half hug. Mikasa accepts, crying into the shelter of his chest.
The Jean of four years ago would have whooped and yelled at stuck his middle finger in Eren's face, but four years is a long time and now all Jean feels is tiredness and a heavy pain in his heart. None of us are who we were before the war.
The crowd is chattering as the casket is lowered into the ground, and Jean wishes quickly that this was a private funeral – that it would just be the people who cared, but Jean's had enough of wishing now and knows it never works.
Celebrated war hero Eren fucking Yeager, making a giant mess and dying, leaving everyone else to clean up the mess.
It doesn't take Jean long to realize that he's crying, too.
"You're up late."
Jean whirls around, hands instinctively reaching for the blades at his hip before realizing that they aren't there, that he left them in his room –
"You don't have to worry. I'm not here to fight."
He sits back down reluctantly, but his eyes don't leave her. "That's not like you, Annie."
She sighs and sits down next to him, her blonde hair falling in her face. She pushes it back; he notices she doesn't tie it up any more like she used to. It's longer now, though, falling to her mid-back in straw-colored waves. "There's nothing to fight about anymore," she says. "We've lost."
"Why are you here?" he asks, his throat clenching in emotion. There is so, so much she left in her wake; part of him wants to strangle her until she admits to killing Marco, all those poor soldiers and civilians –
She raises an eyebrow at him, as if she knows exactly what he's thinking – the girls had always been good at that, reading people. His hands fall like lead to his sides. "I didn't kill Marco, if that's what you're wondering." Annie pulls her knees up and rests her chin on her kneecaps. Jean can tell she isn't going to say more.
He doesn't know what else to say, but questions bubble up in his throat and he has to force them back down.
"Is there any particular reason you're up so late, staring at Eren Yeager's grave?" he instead asks sardonically.
"I could say the same for you," Annie mutters, and for a moment he remembers cafeteria tables and Annie sipping water in a corner, watching as he and Eren duked it out. But Annie has longer hair and a more emotional voice, and Jean himself has no one to duke it out with anymore. "I watched the funeral. Must have been some fun stuff."
"You're not answering my question."
Annie glares at him, but turns her head aside. "I – Someone – Bertl and I are fine," she mumbles. "We'll take care of ourselves. Don't worry about us."
"They'll catch you. Execute you for treason. Hell, I could turn you in right now."
"But you won't." Annie almost smiles then, a cute smile that made her eyes glitter.
Jean buries his head in his hands. She's right. He's too tired, and too nostalgic for old days to turn in someone he used to spar with in the yard. "Why are you telling me this?"
"I – Bertl thought – We – Someone needed to know," she says finally. "And we trust you, Jean. But you can't tell the rest of them." She looks up at him, her eyes pleading – it's a strange look, but Jean finds himself wishing she had been more emotional. "Please."
He wonders when things had stopped being I with Annie and started being we. He forces out a smile. "Sure."
Annie almost smiles at him again before melting back into the shadows. "Thank you, Jean."
The next day, only Armin is at breakfast. "The girls are in Mikasa's room," he says.
"Hey," says Jean. "Are you okay?"
"Could be better." Armin offers him a weak smile. "I've been trying to help Hanji run things, but there's so much to do and too few experienced people to do it. She herself admits that she's not much of a leader."
They sit in companionable silence for a few more minutes. "Is the Survey Corps even relevant anymore?" Jean murmurs. "Now that there aren't any more Titans."
"That's what they're trying to figure out," says Armin. "I know Hanji's leaving for a trip to the Inner District before they open the gates, so they can formalize it before people start leaving. Other than that, no clue."
"What are you going to do once your service is over?"
Armin sighs. "I'd thought about coming back to here, to Zhiganshina, maybe help rebuild it. That was always the plan, me and Eren, and Mikasa – after we'd gone out and travelled, of course. Seen the world." He takes another bite of his bread, and Jean can hear what is implied – that things being as they are, Armin might have to rebuild Zhiganshina by himself.
"If anyone can do it, it's you," Jean says, and finds that he means it.
"Thank you, Jean."
When he wakes up plagued by nightmares, he isn't even surprised to find her there at the gravestone, running her fingers over the markings. He knows them by heart, too – Eren Yeager. Beloved son and brother. Great warrior.
She doesn't even flinch; Jean wonders if she knew he was there all along.
"Can I sit next to you?"
She gives a tiny, imperceptible nod. Jean sprawls down next to her. "I don't think it suits him, really," he says, almost a bit too loudly. "It's so…generic."
"I hate it, too," Mikasa says quietly. He's surprised at this burst of emotion. "But then, I don't think anything could ever capture what Eren – was."
"You loved him." Jean exhales through his mouth. "That would be – difficult."
Even more quietly – "I know."
Did you know I loved you, too? Patiently, always – four years I loved you and watched you love him.
He grimaces. "I can't sleep, either."
Mikasa is quiet for a few moments. "I couldn't sleep," she whispers, so softly that Jean strains to hear it. "When I do, I just remember. I haven't slept properly since – since–"
He places a hand on her shoulder. "It's okay. I get it." But he doesn't, really, not when his mother and sister and brother are tucked away in Trost, a roof over their heads, and he knows that she knows that. But Mikasa doesn't shrug his hand away.
"I'm sorry," says Mikasa. "I know I've been – difficult." It's odd, seeing Mikasa like this; not the hardened warrior she was on the battlefield but a sixteen-year-old girl with a heart she didn't want anymore.
"It's all right," Jean replies. "We – we understand. Take all the time you need."
"Eren would want me to live on," says Mikasa.
"He wanted all of us to live on," says Jean. "And we have to – because we're free. They all died for our freedom."
"I'm so tired."
"We all are."
Realizing his hand is still on her shoulder, Jean almost recoils, but instead he stretches out his arm for another half-hug. Mikasa obliges, resting her head on his shoulder.
For a brief, crazy moment, he wonders what it would be like to kiss her now, quietly and softly, in front of Eren's grave.
But instead he just rubs silent circles with his thumb on Mikasa's shoulder, listening to her breathing rise and fall, wondering if she can feel his heartbeat. "Thank you, Jean," she says after a while. "I'm sorry."
Jean freezes for a few seconds, and sighs, smiling to himself. "Let's get you to bed." He pulls her up. "It's a big day tomorrow. Eren would want you to be excited."
Mikasa shakes her head. "I am excited. Eren has nothing to do with it."
Jean smiles to himself. "That's good."
He offers to walk her to her quarters, but she assures him she's more than capable. He believes her. "Thank you, Jean," she says again, tip-toeing and pressing a kiss to his cheek before she leaves.
Something like happiness blooms in his chest, and he can't help but yelp in joy. None of us are who we were before the war, he thinks, but some things aren't going to change that easily.
The day the gates are to be opened the five of them stand in a line behind Commander Hanji, donning their cloaks for what could be the last time. There's a crowd, again; Armin says it's good, that people could be interested in Zhiganshina as a heritage site, and would be interested in helping rebuild it.
"Here it goes," Sasha whispers. The men begin to open the gate, and it creaks and shudders with the blood of a hundred years, but it rises all the same. It rises higher, and higher, and the crowd sings of bloodshed and triumph and birds soar above them, and slowly Jean feels a smile crawl onto his face.
"Hey, Armin," he says, turning his head aside. "Your original plan – I don't suppose there's room for three more?"
The girls look at him, then to Armin. Krista grins, Sasha laughs, and a smile plays at the corners of Mikasa's mouth.
Armin looks heartbroken and excited all at once, before his mouth begins to curl upwards. "I don't think Mikasa and I would mind."
Mikasa shakes her head. "I think I'd like that."
The gates creak as they hit the ceiling, and the crowd roars. Armin grabs Mikasa's hand in his left and Jean's in his right.
"Are you guys ready?" he asks. "It's a brave new world out there."
"We're never ready," says Krista. "But we'll make it out all the same."
Jean laughs – a full, throaty laugh he hasn't done in a very long time. "Now's as good a time to go as ever, then."
"Can I visit my dad first?" Sasha pipes up.
"One – two – three – go!" The five of them run out into the sunlight, Mikasa's laughter ringing in the air above them.
Do you understand that we will never be the same again?
The future's in our hands and we will never be the same again.
- Things We Lost in the Fire, Bastille