The residents of the Légion had grown fewer over the years. They had all done their travelling, grown apart and clung together, but now they were dwindling. Jean's last letter to Armin Arlert had been over a year ago. Now, with America in the war, Jean was thinking about sending him one. But Jean was aware that he needed to be careful what he sent, and where. There were always eyes watching, and he could feel them at his back, waiting for him to stumble.
"Historia wishes us a Happy Christmas," Sasha called to them, resting the card they had received in the mail on the mantle of the fireplace. Connie blinked, looking up from his game of solitaire. The bar no longer opened on Christmas, because no one came. The liveliness of the twenties had melted away fast, and now people only drank to drink their stress and fear away. Jean was one of those people.
"Oh, man," Connie said. "I hope she's okay."
"I'm sure she's fine," Hange laughed, resting a piece of cake down on Connie's table. Hange and Jean made the cakes for birthdays now, since Historia was gone. Eren and Armin had known had to cook and bake as well, but they had left well before Historia and Ymir. Jean had traveled a bit with them, travelling to Italy and Greece and Spain. Once they had all even met up in Brooklyn at Connie's childhood home. Now Jean didn't know, though. He felt sad, and a little vacant. Like half of him was missing.
"Yeah," Sasha chirped, grabbing her own slice of cake eagerly. "Who would hurt a nun, anyways?"
"I still can't believe it," Jean said, staring into his glass. "A fucking nun!"
"Next time we see her," Connie said, "will we have to call her Sister Historia?"
"Well, what else would we call her?" Sasha asked.
"Uh," Connie said, "Historia?"
"Do you think her father ever looked for her?" Jean wondered out loud. He was sitting at the bar, feeling glum and distant. He was better than Levi, though. Levi was sitting beside the Christmas tree, his bad leg laid flat and his good knee propped up. He was writing something against it.
"My father never came looking for me," Sasha said quietly. "And he ain't a Lord of England."
"Obviously Historia doesn't care what her father thinks," Hange said, grinning as she rested a slice of cake beside Levi. He did not look up at her, nor did he falter in his writing. He did, however, jerk his chin in acknowledgement. "And she shouldn't! Papa Reiss sounds like a terrible person!"
"Right," Jean said. "He's fucking terrible. Is he even still alive?"
"Great question!" Hange rested her back against the bar, and she shrugged. Her age was beginning to show in her face, lines framing her mouth from smiling too much, and wrinkles gathering at the edge of her eyes for a similar reason. Her matted brown hair was shot through with a streak of silver. But hey, Jean's hair was completely gray, and he was certain he looked much older than her because of it.
A sharp, startling sound of a note being struck made Jean jump. He looked over at the piano, which had been sitting untouched for years, and he saw Sasha standing over it, idly running her fingers across the ivory keys. She looked up, and she smiled sadly.
"I miss Eren," she admitted. Jean saw that her cake was sitting unfinished on the lid of the grand piano, and that worried him. Something was obviously troubling her. "He always played such pretty songs."
"Yeah…" Connie agreed, picking at his own cake. "So did Historia."
"We can invite them back here," Jean suggested, "when the war's over."
"Yeah!" Sasha's eyes brightened. "We can all hang out here just like we used to, and Eren can play his songs, and Armin can tell his stories, and we can eat all of Historia's delicious cooking, and—" She broke off, her grin melting from her face. She stood, one finger against a piano key, and she blanched. "Oh mon dieu…"
"What?" Jean asked, jumping off his stool. "What's up?"
She looked at him, and there was terror gleaming in her large brown eyes. "Jean," she whispered, pulling her hands close to her chest, and taking a step back. "There's someone coming to the door."
"What?" Jean repeated, whirling around to look at the front door. He did indeed see a shadow stirring against the light of the streetlamp. "So…?"
"So," Sasha said, her entire body shaking. "I've got a bad feeling, Jean. A really bad feeling."
Levi looked up at that. There was a knock at the door. They all stood for a moment, stunned. Then Hange hurried to the window, pulling back the curtain ever so slightly. Levi jumped to his feet, backing away from the door warily, his eyes darting around the room. He looked down at the paper in his hands, and he went to the bar to continue writing.
"Merde!" Hange hissed, flinging herself from the window and nearly toppling over herself. She stared at the door in horror as another knock rung through the air. The fireplace crackled, spitting flame and smoke. Jean sunk further into the room, reaching out and grasping Sasha's hand. He knew before Hange even said it. "Gestapo."
"Oh," Connie said, his voice thin. "Oh, hell. Oh fuck, oh…"
Jean could feel Sasha shaking. He could feel her terror as they all realized what this meant for them. They'd been caught. They were now compromised. The Legion of Scouts could not be a haven any longer, nor a crossroads. They needed to cut ties, and fast.
"What are we going to do?" Sasha whispered, her eyes flickering fast. "Guys?"
Jean thought, in that moment, he understood why Annie had taken that pill. Because the terror, the anxiety, the uncertainty of what was to come. It was hell. Torture. They would be forced to name names. They would be sent to god knew where, interrogated for who knew how long, tortured maybe, and then likely executed. Annie had been a coward, Jean thought numbly. But I'm not. I won't be.
"Connie," Jean said, taking a step forward as the man at the door began to pound at the wood with his fist. "Go upstairs. You're the quickest. You need to give the heads up that the Légion isn't safe. That we've been compromised."
Connie looked at Jean, and Jean could see the young American soldier there, the boy who had carried Jean from Belgium to France, and thought nothing of it. And Jean saw him nod, fear glistening inside his eyes as he ran, bolting up the stairs without a sound. Jean moved to the door, and he shakily pressed his hand to the knob. He looked back at Hange. She nodded, biting at the skin of her thumb anxiously.
Jean opened the door, and peered out into the chilly December night. The officer looked at Jean, his expression irritated, but solemn. His eyes were like glass, and they stared through Jean, looking into his very soul and judging him with malice. Jean stared at the man, his mouth falling open. He was losing some of his confidence. Hurry up, Connie, Jean thought. He felt nauseous.
Jean supposed they were lucky that they weren't hiding any Special Operative Executive agents at the moment. Well, unless they were counted as SOE. And by all means, Connie, Sasha, and Levi had been through the training. Jean and Hange had decided to play it on the backlines, considering they were needed at the bar in order for everyone's appearances to be in shape. They did their own parts to contribute to the Resistance, though.
All that was over now. They'd been caught. Somehow.
"Officer," Jean said slowly, confusedly. Innocent until proven, he reminded himself. "Joyeux Noël. Can I help you?"
"You took your jolly time answering," the man said gruffly. He stepped up, standing in the doorway and peering into the bar. "Doesn't look like you're having any party. Why did you hesitate?"
Jean smiled. He felt sweat building at the base of his neck. "Well, it's Christmas, officer," Jean said. Natural, he reminded himself. Just act natural. "If I had known who was outside my door, I probably wouldn't have been such a prick about answering."
The man quirked an eyebrow. He nodded vaguely, and he peered inside. "You're Jean Kirschtein, I assume?"
"Oui," Jean said, grimacing as he was shoved aside. The officer brushed past him, and slammed the door shut. He looked around, and there was no trace of emotion to be found in his callous face. "I own this bar. It's my responsibility." Jean knew it was crazy, but maybe if he could shift the blame of the situation onto himself…
"Very festive," said the officer, staring at the Christmas tree in the corner.
"We try our best," Hange said, her cheeriness causing the atmosphere to fizzle out.
The officer nodded. He looked once more around the room, his eyes sweeping the place, before finally his eyes stopped. They froze upon Levi's face.
The man was staring back. He had finished whatever he had been writing, and now he stood at the bar with a look in his eyes that Jean could not explain nor fathom. Levi looked very suddenly like a man being told the date of his execution. His lips were pressed thinly together, and his eyes were hard and daring. Jean looked between the officer and Levi, not understanding.
"You are Levi, I presume," the officer spat.
Jean's eyes widened. No, he thought numbly. He understood. He understood what was going on as Levi pulled a silver lighter from his pocket, resting on the bar, and glancing at Jean. Jean had known Levi for twenty seven years. He could see the look in his eyes. He could read the man's thoughts as he pressed the lighter to the countertop. Might as well give this back. They'll take it away from me anyway.
He looked back to the officer and said, "Can I at least go get my coat?"
"No," Jean said aloud. He couldn't help it. "No way."
The officer looked at Jean, and Jean could sense the warning there. It was a sharp glare that rebuked Jean's words. The officer looked back at Levi. "Go ahead. Get your coat, you swine."
Levi stared at the man vacantly. Jean could see a muscle in his jaw jump, and he pushed off the bar, whirling around and marching toward the stairs. His limp was only noticeable to anyone looking for it. Jean felt sick. They hadn't been caught at all. It was just the inevitable outcome of Levi's birth. Jean looked at Hange, whose face had become something like a mask. There was bewilderment in her eyes. Shock. Confusion. Disbelief.
"There has to be a way to—"
"Hold your tongue," the officer said sharply, rounding on Jean. "Or so help me, this place won't be standing by the end of the week."
Jean couldn't speak. Oh. This was really happening. There was no stopping it. They were stuck, and left to stare vacantly at the nameless officer who had come to take Levi away. What the hell could they do? They were powerless in this situation. Utterly powerless. If Armin was here he could talk Levi out of this circumstance, Jean thought. But Armin wasn't there. And Jean was growing terrified.
"I'm…" Jean took a step back, his eyes darting between Hange and Sasha. "I'm going to… to help him with his coat…" He spun around and walked to the stairs very slowly, every step a labor. Before the man could object, Hange asked him if he wanted a drink. Her voice was very tightly cheerful. It chilled Jean to the bone. I wonder, Jean thought, sickened, if he'll be alive by the end of the week.
On the last step, Jean nearly ran into Levi. He was buttoning up his jacket, a fedora between his teeth. Jean grabbed him by both arms and dragged him down the darkened hall, pushing him into an open door. It was too dark to see Levi's expression, but Jean could hear his breaths. Shallow, rattling. Levi was scared. The whites of his eyes glowed in the darkness.
"Let go," Levi said, pulling his hat from his mouth. "He'll come up here, you moron. Then you all will be fucked."
"No," Jean said. "I can't. You're not going anywhere."
Levi sighed. "Kirschtein—"
"No!" Jean shook the man, feeling desperation clutch his heart and snap his spine. "Dieu, no! There has to be another way. You can still escape. Come on, you can't just give up like this, we've got to do something— the window, come on, you can make it down the fire escape—"
"Jean," Levi said, grabbing both of Jean's wrists and squeezing. "Running is pointless. They'll catch me. And they'll arrest all of you for helping me. Don't you get it? There's no escape from this!"
Jean gritted his teeth, and twisted his head back toward the door. His heart was pounding hard against his ribs, and he was overwhelmed with horror at the situation at hand. He was horrified because they were losing Levi. A chunk of home was being torn away. Jean had never imagined, not in a million years that his commanding officer in the Great War would return to his life simply because he had nothing better to do. And then become one of the most valuable friends Jean had ever had. Because Levi was still here. He hadn't left. He could have years ago, but he hadn't, and that amazed Jean.
"You're just going to lay down and take it?" Jean hissed, his eyes widening in shock. "That's not the Levi I know!"
"Keep your voice down," Levi growled. He looked around, his eyes darting and the dark, and he sighed. He sounded exasperated, and defeated. "Jean, I'm old. I'm old, and I'm fucking tired. The last thing I need right now is for you to cause me more grief. Let me go, I'll be fine."
"You liar," Jean whispered. He looked at Levi, and he didn't see an old man. He had the face of a child. He just never aged, and it showed in his youthful features. His hair hadn't turned gray, and the only hint of his true age were his frown lines, and the ancient shadows under his eyes. "You dirty fucking liar. You think they won't work you till your dead because you're old and tired, huh?"
"Oh," Levi said. "No. I'm counting on it."
"Are you crazy?"
"This was coming," Levi shot back. "We all knew it was. We've been avoiding it, ignoring the papers and the headlines about the roundups, pretending that it wouldn't come to this. I've been running my whole goddamn life, and I know I can't run anymore, so fuck it. I'm going to look Death in the face." Levi pushed Jean backwards, and Jean felt his spine collide with a wall.
"You call me an idiot," Jean coughed, clutching his ribs. He glanced at the doorway, and took a deep breath. "You're reckless. You're just like— you're like Eren, and— and you're so stupid. We can still fix this!"
"Jean," Levi said, placing the hat on his head. "Calm your ass down. And for fuck's sake, don't worry about me. I'm more than capable of coping."
"How would you feel if it was one of us getting rounded up, huh?" Jean was angry, but also desperate. He could hear someone at the foot of the stairs, and his heart felt as though it was about to burst from terror. "If it was me, or Hange, or— or anyone, really— you'd tear the fucker's throat out, and you know it."
Levi shook his head. He was at the door, his back pressed to the frame and looking like a child instead of the old man he claimed to be. He was shaking, and Jean could see it. It wasn't a senseless sacrifice by any means— Jean knew that Levi going quietly would ensure the survival of the Légion, and thus their Resistance. Jean was close to sobbing as he grabbed Levi's arm, and clutched it tightly.
"I'm so sorry," he choked out.
Levi shrugged him off. But he nodded in acknowledgement, stepping in the hall. He seemed to struggle for words, his mouth parting and closing. He moved forward, and murmured, "Thank you."
Jean stood there, frozen in fear as Levi marched up to the officer. The man looked at Levi, and in the darkness of the hall he looked like a beast, his silhouette devouring Levi's.
"What the hell were you doing?" the man snarled.
"Taking a piss," Levi said, brushing past the man. "And saying goodbye. Is that so wrong? Or do you like to forget that people like me are still human?"
Jean swallowed a cry of shock when he saw the man's arm shoot out, and his fist collided with the side of Levi's head as he turned at the last second, clearly seeing the blow coming. Jean ran to the stairwell as the sound of a body colliding with multiple steps echoed in the empty hall. Jean grabbed the officer, fisting the front of the man's uniform and giving a wordless shriek of rage.
The officer shoved Jean off him, and then promptly backhanded him. Jean stumbled backwards, his body pressing up against a closed door. His blood was rushing in his ears, and he couldn't see anything. Terror and rage fueled his actions and his thoughts, and he found himself consumed by the various ways they could dispose of this man's body. Killing him would be easy. Getting away with it, though…
"One more misstep, Kirschtein," the officer whispered. His voice was almost soft against the darkness. "One more, and I'm taking you all in."
"You're only one man," Jean breathed. His breath rattled against the silence. He was tired, and scared, and beyond enraged.
"Look around you!" the officer snapped. "This building, this city, this country, this continent! There is no safe place for you to run, Kirschtein! Do yourself a goddamn favor, and let the Jew go!"
Jean stared in shock as the officer whirled away, leaving Jean pinned to the door and marching down the stairs. Because the man wasn't after Jean. It was Levi the man wanted, and Levi was his only concern. Jean saw Connie open his door cautiously, poking his head out into the hall. Jean glared at him, and mouthed, "Get the fuck back in there!" He shooed the man with his hands, and Connie reluctantly retreated back into his room.
Jean moved cautiously down the stairs. He began to hear struggling, and then he bolted. He rushed down the steps, and jumped the last two, sliding into the bar with a wild look in his eyes. He looked around, and saw the officer had Sasha's wrist clutched in his fist. Levi was up, leaning against the bar for support and looking almost stunned. As if he had not expected anything like this to happen. Hange had a knife in her hand, and she had her usual enthusiastic smile on as she took a step forward. Jean mentally egged her on.
Kill him, Jean thought desperately. Do it, please, then we can save Levi.
He didn't even think about the consequences. They didn't matter anymore. All that mattered was saving Levi from this man, from this terror and uncertainty that came with being rounded up. Where would they take him? Was it possible that they might be able to break him out? Perhaps they'd be able to save him a different way. There had to be some way. They were soldiers. They could do this.
Levi grasped Hange's wrist. He looked up at her, and she stared ahead as he gave his head a little shake. He pried the knife from her fingers, and set it down on the countertop. Jean watched as though peering in through foggy glass. These people… these wonderful people, who were his family longer than his mother had been… This was the fate they had resigned themselves to. Saying goodbye without knowing if it was the last, not knowing where they were going or if they'd be safe. If Jean had known five years ago that when he had said goodbye to Ymir, who was going to Barcelona to live with Historia for a little while, it would be their last goodbye, Jean would have said it differently. He would have told the woman that she wasn't as callous as she pretended to be, and Jean loved her for being a sister and a cigarette friend, even if she claimed to have no attachment to any of them other than Historia. Jean would have hugged her instead of waving her off irritably, and he would have apologized for never reaching out more.
Jean had never gotten to say goodbye to Marco. He was the only one. He had said goodbye to his mother when he had went to war, but he had not realized it would be her not returning at the end of the line. He had said goodbye to her as if it was his last, and he was thankful for that memory at least. But Marco had been ripped from Jean so suddenly, it was startling to think that they hadn't known each other long at all. Jean had known Eren for years, and he still claimed to hate him, even though he knew it wasn't true. Jean could not remember the last conversation he had had with Eren Jaeger. Jean couldn't even remember what he looked like, honestly. The face that came to mind was a boy of fifteen with eyes like green fire, glaring through the darkness of a brisk Christmas Eve, and burying a man with raw fingers. Jean had never really seen Eren as a man, but more like an impudent child. What if Eren was dead? It wasn't like Jean got letters from him. Armin hadn't even written in a year, so Eren certainly wouldn't. And yet, Jean could not remember their last goodbye. It had to have been years ago… before Ymir and Historia left…
Levi's goodbye was unspoken. It was the ginger way he held Hange's fingers, and the gleam in his shadowy eyes as they passed over Jean's face. It was the lighter on the countertop, the unsteady step forward as he told the officer, who was rebuking Sasha as he'd rebuked Jean for helping a Jew, that enough was enough.
The officer grabbed Levi by the arm and shoved him toward the door. Jean stared. He had never seen anyone treat Levi so roughly. He had never seen Levi take any shit like this before. He had never seen Levi resign himself to this kind of humiliation, to be yanked like a dog on a chain. This was hell. This was hell all over again.
"No!" Sasha cried suddenly, lurching forward. There were tears in her eyes, and Jean knew that she was just as angry and scared as he was. That was why he caught her around the waist before her fists could collide with the officer's face, and he whipped her around as she thrashed. "No! This isn't fair! It's— it's his birthday, you monster—!"
"Sasha, quiet," Jean hissed. His senses had returned to him. They were in trouble. They were in so much fucking trouble. "Shut up, okay?"
She was harder to hold onto than he had thought she'd be, but he clutched her very tight, his arms slipping from her waist to beneath her underarms to lock her shoulders so she would stop clawing at his face. "Let him go!" Sasha shrieked. Jean was shaking very badly, and he listened to Levi at the door.
"You know, when I was a soldier," Levi said, "we did our fucking best to avoid making women cry."
Jean and Sasha shrieked in unison as Levi was thrown out the door. He heard Levi's body crash into the snow outside, and Sasha completely changed her attitude. She and Jean both sunk to their knees as they got a perfect view through the wide open door of the officer's boot connecting to Levi's face just as the man attempted to pick himself up. He was glaring up at the officer, blood burning his pasty lips. And then Levi delivered a chillingly bloody grin.
"Is that the best you can fucking do?" he spat, blood freckling the undisturbed snow.
"Oh mon Dieu," Sasha murmured, suddenly clutching onto Jean for dear life. "He's trying to kill himself."
Hange was standing stock still, staring out the door with a mixture of fascination and apathy. She turned her face away, and stared at the knife Levi had torn from her grasp. Jean felt helpless as he listened to the strange and terrifying crunch of a boot smashing into Levi's body, and a whip had materialized in the officer's hand. That sound was even more grotesque, a ribbon of leather slicing through the air and landing with an earsplitting crack upon Levi's cheek.
The beating went on for a minute. Then two. Then three. Jean and Sasha were shaking, and Jean wondered which one of them would break down first and start sobbing. They were living under an unyielding spell, and stuck in a dizzy daze of confusion and horror. What the hell was wrong with the world? This was happening. This was real.
It took about eight minutes for the officer to calm down and stop attacking Levi. By that point, the entire room had grown chilly from the cold wafting through the open down. By that point, Levi needed to be yanked up by both arms, his face an unrecognizable blur of dark red and pallid white and bruised black. Levi's head twisted, lolled, and he stared at them with the kind of defiant gaze that didn't belong in that mangled face. The officer shoved Levi into the back of a car, tossing the hat that had fallen off back into the bar. He wiped the blood off his whip, and glanced at them.
He stepped onto the stoop of the building, and watched them with cold eyes as he reached for the doorknob, and very slowly closed the door.
They were quiet as they listened to the car start outside. They listened to snow spit against the roar of the tires, and they trembled as the sound faded fast. They listened for a while after that. They listened because they were scared, and they had no idea what else to do. Jean hugged Sasha, burying his face in her shoulder and praying for the first time in years. Sasha said nothing. She rubbed Jean's head, her fingers trembling, and Jean tried not to cry. But tears moistened his eyes anyway, and he found himself biting his tongue to keep himself from screaming angry words at nothing. He wasn't sure what would happen now.
Connie appeared at the foot of the steps, looking shaken and scared.
"What…?" Connie asked, looking between Jean and Sasha, embracing and shaking on the floor, to Hange, who was on her third shot of vodka. Sasha bolted upright at the sound of his voice, and she stared at him with glistening eyes. "What the hell just happened?"
Jean let go of Sasha to allow her to jump to her feet. He sat alone on the ground, staring at the wooden boards beneath him as Sasha ran to Connie and flung her arms around him, pulling him into a bone-crushing hug. She buried her face in his shoulder, and gave a hasty, shaky, muffled recap of what had happened. Connie could only stand there, looking confused and horrified.
"Levi…" Connie swallowed uncertainly. "Levi's gone?"
There was nothing they could say. Jean stood up, and he walked to the front door, bending down to scoop up Levi's hat. It was a little damp from the snow, and there were spots of blood here and there. Filthy, Jean thought numbly. Levi wouldn't even want it anymore. He'd just throw it out. Jean wandered to the bar as Connie and Sasha sat on the steps, Sasha's head resting on his shoulder, and both their eyes clouded with grief. They hadn't said goodbye. It wasn't fair. War keeps tearing my family away from me. Marco, and my mother, and Ymir, and now Levi too.
Jean sat down, and he asked for a drink. Hange was more then happy to oblige, though her cheerful mask had melted away. She looked at him with glassy eyes, pouring his liquor before him, and then turning away. Jean sat for a few minutes, or maybe a few hours, staring ahead of him and sipping senselessly at his alcohol. He finally plucked up the courage to reach across the bar, and take Levi's lighter in his hand. It wasn't shiny anymore, and the engraving was a bit faded, but it still read, Bury me upright, fucker.
Jean felt hot tears on his cheeks. He had no strength to wipe them away. He tentatively reached for the paper Levi had been writing on, slipping it closer so he could read it. Levi's tiny, scrawled writing was stark against the white page. Jean realized fast what the paper was, and it was a stone dropping into his stomach. What the fuck was he supposed to do with this?
He could send Erwin Smith the letter, but then Erwin would send one back. And there would be no one to receive and reply. There was no point.
Jean couldn't bring himself to read the letter. He did, however, look at the last line written.
Joyeux Noël, vieil ami.
I'm almost done with the final chapter, next chapter (or at least I think I am). I definitely could do another one after that to provide more closure but like...? Yeah, no, I didn't finish on time, so next chapter is the last. It should be up... sometime. I won't make promises.
Merry Christmas, Angie, you dumb bitch. Also sorry that all these chapters are hella depressing. (no i'm not)