There was snow gathering on street corners, and smoke tainting the air. It billowed from his lips in a wistful cascade, and perched itself upon the thin winter air precariously. A cigarette wilted on his lips. A man had appeared on the snowy sidewalk, youthful by design, but ancient in the eyes. With a hollow blue gaze, and a thin little smile, Armin Arlert greeted his old friend for the first time in years.
Jean was speechless at the sight of him, and smoke filled his mouth to burn away his anxiety. This was a necessary meeting,
"You lucky fucker," Jean joked, his cigarette dangling from his mouth. "You still look barely over the age of consent!"
Armin managed a meager little laugh, though Jean could sense that it was a courtesy more than anything else. Jean had been telling it true— Armin still looked like he was in his twenties, with his baby smooth face and skinny build. His shoulders had gotten broader in the time spent away, and his face was longer and more defined, but with his glasses and loose yellow ponytail, Jean was sure he could convince anyone in the city that he was studying at a local university. The only thing that gave away his age were his tired blue eyes, which echoed a thousand sins and aches, like a murky oasis mirrored and searching. Beneath his eyes were mauve bruises that suggested sleepless nights were as common for Armin Arlert as they were for Jean Kirschtein.
Armin pulled a red scarf above his nose, shivering a little from the cold. Jean didn't want to ask about it, but he couldn't help but stare as Armin rested his hands on the chair across from Jean, his eyes inquiring without ever speaking a word. Jean waved his hand as a quick response, his cigarette burning dangerously low to his lips. Her scarf, Jean thought, his stomach twisting with anxiety. Why does he have her scarf?
"How's America?" Jean asked unthinkingly, his mind lingering on the threadbare red accessory. Armin smiled weakly.
"No different than England," Armin said, "or Paris, or Spain, or Germany, or Italy, or Russia, or Ireland, or Scotland, or anywhere else I've lived."
"I think you're missing a few countries there," Jean said, tossing his cigarette into a nearby snow bank. It sizzled, hissing as the ice devoured the flame. "Didn't you, Eren, and Mikasa live in Japan for a little—?"
"Yes." Armin looked away. He sat, tightlipped and implacable. That worried Jean, who had always found Armin to be immensely friendly and approachable. "We lived in Tokyo for about two months, and then traveled a bit before we left for America." He rested his hands on the café table, and he smiled vacantly. "We actually saw Hiroshima, did you know?"
That name made Jean wince. "Warfare just keeps getting nastier, huh?" Jean muttered. Memories of the trenches surfaced, and he swallowed them down like bile clawing up his throat. He had no need for shellshock now. It had been thirty years, and he still had trouble remembering those horrible days. At the very least, there was 1914 to remember fondly.
Armin laughed. Jean looked up at him with shock clear in his face, his eyes widening behind his own spectacles. Armin looked almost like he was about to cry, his eyes wide and a tremulous grin plastered on his lips.
"Oh, Dieu," Armin gasped. "You have no idea, do you? Jean, do you know what I've been doing for the past four years?"
Jean did not like where this was going. "I don't suppose you were wooing some pretty American girls?" Jean asked weakly. Armin shook his head.
"Nuclear fission," Armin said quietly. His smile was gone, and his eyes were dry, but by the sound of his voice Jean could hear him weeping.
It only took a moment for Jean to realize what Armin was saying. "Oh," Jean whispered, his eyes widening in horror. "Mon Dieu…"
Armin was silent for a while. The only time he spoke up was when a pretty waitress came outside to offer him a drink. He ordered a coffee politely, his smile genuine. Jean was left to sit and observe his old friend sadly. For the next five minutes they stared at each other, before Armin spoke again.
"Tell me I'm a monster," Armin said softly. "Go on, Jean. You know you want to. Curse me like you cursed the men who utilized chemical warfare. You know you want to…"
"It's different now, Armin," Jean said. He didn't know if he truly believed it. "As horrible as what happened was, it was inevitable. And it ended the war."
"Maybe." Armin took his coffee in his hands, and sipped at it tentatively. He studied Jean carefully, and then he brushed his fringe out of his eyes. "Enough of that, though. What about you? Why did you stay in Paris?"
Jean had a million reasons. He had had a long, tumultuous life of running away from Paris and then running back to shelter himself from the cruelty of the world. But in truth, most of the terrible things that had ever happened to him had happened while he'd been away from his birthplace. So, logically, when he was done soul searching, he had come to one brilliant conclusion.
"Some of my best— and worst— memories are of France," Jean admitted. "I was born in Paris, and I think I would like to die here too."
Armin laughed, and Jean felt warm and relieved when he found that there was a familiar sweetness to it. He was happy, and it was clear by his laughter. "I wish I had your conviction," Armin said. He looked tired. "I was born in France too, but I can't bring myself to stay here. I don't think I ever considered it my home, not even after the war."
"You and Eren and Mikasa," Jean said. "Did you ever return to Germany?"
Armin shook his head. "Eren did," Armin said quietly. He pressed his lips together, and looked suddenly haunted. "He… he joined the Gestapo, you know."
Jean blinked rapidly. No, that's not right, Jean thought. Eren Jaeger, the bastard, he'd tear himself in two before he fought for Germany again. "What about Mikasa?" Jean found himself blurting.
Armin smiled knowingly. "She's in America," he said gently. He smiled sadly, and stared down into the contents of his coffee cup. "She and Levi are trying to get their papers in order so they can come to Germany. They want to search the camps for Eren."
"Wait," Jean said, "excuse me? Eren's not—"
"He smuggled Levi to America, along with countless others," Armin said, looking so incredibly happy, and yet so incredibly devastated. Jean thought about Eren Jaeger, and all the hatred that had turned to a deep, indescribably fondness over time. His stomach felt full of ice chips and hot iron nails. "Mikasa would have come with him, but I mean, clearly she wouldn't be able to pass for the staple of the Aryan race." Armin grimaced. "Honestly, if it wasn't for Eren's father being so deeply connected within the government, Eren would have been sent off immediately. He's never looked or acted the part of a good little German soldier."
Jean had to laugh at that. "Oui," he said. His straightened up and stared at Armin intensely. Excitement and alarm stirred inside him, toiling his emotions and toying with his thoughts. "Did you say Levi is alive?"
"Does that honestly surprise you?" Armin asked with a steady look.
Jean shook his head. He was smiling without realizing it. "Hange'll pitch a fit when I tell her," Jean said, relaxing in his seat. "How about Erwin Smith? Hear from him lately?"
"He worked with me on the Manhattan Project," Armin said easily. As if talking about it didn't bother him at all, contrary to his previous behavior. "I think he went back to England when it was deemed safe. He said he had some things to take care of there."
"Annie?" Jean asked anxiously.
Armin shook his head. He looked visibly shaken at the mention of the girl's name. "Wouldn't that be nice?" Armin asked bitterly. "To see her again, after all these years?"
"I think I'd punch her," Jean said honestly.
"I think I'd stop you," Armin said, smiling. "But she's still in a coma. It's likely she'll never wake up. Or at least that's what the doctors say."
Jean slumped. He needed another cigarette. "I still think she's a coward," Jean said stubbornly.
Armin shrugged. The winter wind toyed with his ponytail as he took a sip of his coffee, sitting comfortably in spite of the chill. He set his cup down. "Do you keep in touch with any of the others?" Armin asked. "Sasha, maybe? Or Connie?"
"Sasha and Connie are up in Russia, doing Christ knows what," Jean said, pulling another cigarette from his carton. He stuck it between his lips, but did not light it. "They said they'd be back by spring, though. If Russia even has a spring."
"How about Ymir and Historia?" Armin asked eagerly. "I haven't heard from either of them in ages…"
"Ymir died in the Spanish Civil War in 1937," Jean said, staring at Armin. He watched the man's shoulders droop in sorrow. "Historia took up residence at a convent in Barcelona, and the last I heard she'd become a nun."
That made Armin smile. "I might just go to confession, then," he said softly.
"I think it has to be a priest," Jean laughed. He considered it, and scratched his head. His hair had gone prematurely gray years ago, and now it was no surprise that it was thinning out. "Not that I'd even know, to be honest. I don't think I've been to confession since after the war."
"I don't think I was even baptized."
"Heretic," Jean teased. Armin laughed in surprise, as if the insult was some fond nickname from years and years past. "And what of Bertholdt and Reiner?"
Armin smiled, and shrugged. "Dead, maybe," Armin said. "But hopefully they fled somewhere safe. I looked for them in America, but I got caught up with work. Maybe I'll start looking again after Eren's body is recovered."
"You know for sure that Eren is dead?" Jean asked, ignoring the queasy feeling in his stomach. After all these years, it still tore a chunk of him away when a comrade was taken.
"No," Armin said pensively, running his index finger idly along the rim of his cup. "What scares me the most is that… that I might never find him, and that his body is in a mass grave somewhere, like— like—" Armin swallowed. He didn't want to say it. Jean didn't blame him. He felt the phantom pain of an ancient devastation as an upheaval of memories flooded his mind.
"You can say it," Jean said in a thin monotone. "Like Marco?"
Armin looked ashamed. "Yeah," he said quietly. "Sorry. I wasn't even there when he died, I shouldn't have—"
"That was thirty years ago, Armin," Jean said quietly. His cigarette sagged against his lips, and he pulled out an old silver lighter with an old, fond inscription on its face, and he cupped the flame to save it from the icy air. He sucked greedily for smoke, hoping it would numb his old pain and guilt. He offered Armin the carton, but Armin shook his head.
"I don't smoke anymore," he said. He sat with a dull smile on his lips, and his tired eyes laughing. "Or drink."
"Merde!" Jean choked, spitting smoke and laughing in disbelief. "How can you live with all of it?"
Armin's smile was small and sad, and he shook his head. "Numbing the pain only makes it worse," Armin admitted. He looked at Jean, and pressed a hand to his heart, raising his chin high. "I'm guilty of a lot of strife in this world, but I accept that. I became a monster a long time ago, and if it is my fate to boil in my sins, then so be it. At the very least I can control my own grief, instead of letting apathy consume me."
Jean had forgotten how truly eloquent Armin was. He sat in silence, a cigarette smoldering on his lips, and ashes trickling toward the ground while smoke ascended to the heavens. Winter air kissed his cheeks. It whistled and moaned, like the long buried memories that haunted his dreams. He heard ghosts in the air, and he felt them drawing him closer with every drag he took on his cigarette.
"I hope you find Eren," Jean mumbled. He didn't know what else to say.
Armin nodded. "I hope so too." He looked stolid then, and his hollow eyes burned with something Jean had not seen in decades. Determination had settled inside Armin's soul, and Jean was sure that the world would tremble at his conviction. In fact, it already had. "I'm going to bring him home. Even if it's his corpse, I don't care. He deserves so much more than what I can give, but I have to try."
"Never thought about settling down?" Jean asked.
"I could ask the same of you," Armin said. He was smiling thinly. "But honestly, married life isn't for any of us. I think we knew that from the very beginning. Maybe that's why we were so close."
"And why we drifted so far…" Jean murmured. He sucked at his cigarette hopelessly. Armin looked at Jean, and there was something unreachable about this man who had once been an enemy, an acquaintance, an anchor, and a best friend. Armin had been born in France, like Jean, but unlike Jean, Armin had an affinity for the air. He could not be fettered to his roots because the past could not contain him. And Jean was jealous. Because even with all of his strength— and oh, Jean knew he had plenty— he could not compare to the strength of Armin, or Eren, or, god, Mikasa.
"The world is an enigma," Armin said softly. "But with every friend we make, the world is a little easier to grasp."
"Maybe," Jean said. He rose to his feet, tossing his cigarette once more into the snow. He looked at Armin, and he offered out his hand. Armin grasped it tightly, and stood up as well. They stared at each other, and Jean knew that this was goodbye. "Joyeux Noël, Armïn Arlert."
Armin smiled warmly, sadly, timidly, like he had that fateful Christmas Eve of 1914. He looked thirty years younger, and more alive than Jean had seen him in his life. "Fröhliche Weinachten, Jean Kirschtein," Armin Arlert said, tears freezing on his cheeks.
For Angie. Because she's hella sweet.
I did have translations for everything, but the list got way too long and time consuming by the time I reached next chapter, so keep google translate ready. If my German or French is off, I'm so sorry! I take Latin!