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it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing

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Jean walks into the theater on the first day of rehearsals and crashes into someone as soon as he passes through the door.

The guy glares at him with enough hatred to murder the spirit of a small child, pushes a, “Watch where you're going, jerk”, through his teeth and storms off.

Jean stares after him, a, “Shit, sorry”, still stuck to his lips, until he smells Windex, and then a voice is saying, “Kirschtein?” and he looks down to see a tiny man looking at him with intricate boredom, before he gets told off for standing there and wasting time when he should clearly be on the stage and scurries off.

 

The guy from the door plays the lead. He has a lot of ranty monologues. Figures.

 

He and Marco are in the same squad in the show, and Marco doesn't smoke but still joins Jean outside stage door when he goes to light one during their break. He is too nice for his own good, Jean concludes after two minutes of conversation. Still, he guesses it is nice to have someone to talk to, even for a little bit. People don't usually stick around for long after they get to know him better.

Marco asks him what he thinks of the crew so far, and Jean snorts and says, “The lead looks like a dick.”

 

Two days later, the lead gets into a passionate speech about how noble a career acting is before a handful of cast members. Jean listens from the side and does not even try to prevent himself from laughing once he is finished. The guy turns around, obviously pissed. “You have something to add?”

Jean lifts himself out of his seat, digging around his pocket for his pack. There are still a few minutes to spare, and if he hurries, he might be able to swallow enough smoke to make himself feel jaded and wash out that tiny bit of foolishness that he thought he managed to kill off long ago, that insists on flaring up after what he just heard. “Nothing much. Nice to see you're practicing even in your off time, but just remember that this is not a stage. You don't have to impress anybody with your grand emotions.”

He doesn't make it five steps and the guy is in front of him, getting in his face with clenched teeth. The next thing Jean sees is a fist.

 

It takes four crew members and a couple of behind-the-scenes workers to pull them apart. Jean is panting. The other guy has a bruise on his jaw and an eye almost invisible from bulged flesh around it. He hears someone talking about bandages and then the crowd is parting to let Levi through and... well. Fuck.

Marco told him about the rumor circling around the set, how Levi had supposedly mastered every martial art under the sun, and Jean had no trouble believing it. Not only was he surprisingly bulky for his stature, but was also intimidating enough to retain perfect silence every time he was talking without having had the need to request it even once.

Levi surveys the scene for all of half a second, and stares at them for another two, or at least that's what Marco tells him later, but Jean would swear on anything and everything that those were the longest moments of his life to date. Finally, he says, in a voice quiet enough to echo around the room, “Not that I didn't expect this to happen. But”, and here he grabs their wrists and pulls them closer to rub the last part in their faces nice and well, “if you ever do it again while in my show, say goodbye to your careers.” And then he stalks away, and Jean registers him yelling at someone to get him two extra make-up artists to cover up the wounds.

Jean looks down at his arm. There are purple fingermarks appearing.

 

When he sees the guy the next day, he looks mostly fine (make-up), with few cuts and bruises tactfully left to add to the role. They stand at the opposite ends of the hallway for a second, and then the guy briefly glares and pushes beside him. Jean can think of a million different reasons of why he shouldn't do what he does next, and calls out, “Wait.”

He's sort of surprised when he actually does. They have their backs to each other, but he hears the footsteps stop.

“What's your name?”

Silence.

Then, a snort, and “And why is that any of your goddamn business?”

Footsteps grow quicker, and Jean is left standing in the hallway long after they can't be heard anymore. “Fine”, he mutters. “Asshole.”

 

“Why is he so angry?”

They are outside stage door again. Jean is smoking, Marco isn't. It's been a month of the rehearsals. Jean is really at a loss of what Marco is doing. Out here. With him in general. They talk. Marco smiles all the time, sometimes just because he is Marco and sometimes knowingly, like he is perfectly aware of what Jean is thinking even though he isn't saying it. Like he is also perfectly aware what he should be saying but won't, ever. It's part freaky and part annoyingly great.

“Who is?” Marco is staring at some kids on a nearby playground, and Jean offhandedly thinks he would make a great dad. He also knows that Marco knows who he is talking about. There are about two people on the entire set that can be described that way, and Jean wouldn't be talking about himself in third person.

“Asshole.”

Jean didn't believe Marco was truly capable of smirking, but he suspected this was as close as he got. “Excuse me?”

Jean sighs. “The lead?”

He doesn't know what Marco wanted to achieve by making him go through that acknowledgment, but he seems satisfied as he shrugs. “I don't really know the details, but it seems he went through some rather tough times when he was younger. Must have left a scar or two.” Jean idly wonders where does Marco pick up all this information, because he swears he is always the first to know when someone is dating, first to congratulate someone on their baby, first to give condolences to someone whose family member just passed away. Trust must go hand in hand with being ridiculously nice to everyone.

They don't talk anymore until Jean finishes his smoke.

 

“Yo, Titan Boy!” Connie barges backstage. “Your turn.”

Asshole gets out of his seat and Jean bites down on his tongue.

 

Asshole has a hot manager.

She appears one day at the theater, swiping Jean off his feet and making him unable to take his eyes off of her, makes him stutter and curse himself for months to come over making such a bad first impression, and then she goes over to Asshole and his best friend the Tiny He-Man and then they are hugging and oh. Oh. Jean hates Asshole just a bit more because of that.

It is only later when he asks the blond kid (Armin?) whether they are dating and he chokes over something half-horror, half-amusement that he finds out she is also his adoptive sister. Jean doesn't know does that make him feel better or not.

 

It is getting colder, and sometimes Armin joins him and Marco outside stage door, even though he, too, doesn't smoke. Turns out he and Marco are on pretty good terms because of course. Jean still doesn't get it. He still can't entirely get over the fact that Armin is Asshole's best buddy. But he admits, not out loud, that for some incomprehensible reason, it feels kind of nice.

 

He asks them, once, why they are doing this. Marco has buried himself in his scarf, and Armin is blatantly shivering, talking about how some two back-up actors totally fucked behind the fake trees yesterday (Jean is certain this is where at least 70% of Marco's gossip comes from). They should go inside, get warm, place bets on Reiner and Asshole's arm wrestling match, socialize with better people. They look at him with blank expressions, then at each other like they expected this would come. Armin sighs, and Marco chuckles and says, “Because we're your friends”, like it's obvious.

Jean doesn't know what to say, but they seem to understand.

 

Levi just calls him Little Shit.

 

And then there is one day in early November, and Jean is alone outside because Marco has something to attend to regarding his costume, and Armin is the production manager, so he always has something to attend to, and he just lights one when there is shouting from behind the door and a, “I'll be right back, jeez, just going for a smoke”, and then Asshole is tumbling outside in nothing but a thin shirt, his breath fogging up, face lit up, which means he was either yelling at Armin or Mikasa decided to drop by, and then he sees Jean and all of that disappears, and Jean will never tell a soul that something inside him died a little then. He gives him a nod, which Asshole ignores. He pulls out a cigarette and sticks it in between his teeth, digging in his pocket for a lighter, frowning when all that comes out are some crumpled and a bit bloodied tissues and a broken pencil.

It's sad, Jean thinks, how they have been working not exactly together, but side by side for so long, have gotten into a fight, that Jean has had most physical contact with him than anyone else since his last relationship ended, and he didn't even know he smokes. He doesn't know his bloody name, fuck, and this must be Marco (and Armin) rubbing off on him because since when did Jean care?

He lights his own and reaches out toward Asshole with it. A peace offering.

There is a long moment in which they both stare at the flame tilting in the breeze. Then Asshole comes closer and bathes the end of his cigarette in it, grumbling a small, “Thanks”, and Jean smiles behind the smoke.

 

It becomes even colder after that, and Jean quite literally has to force his friends to remain inside. They still eat lunch together, even start hanging out outside of work, but Jean doesn't want them catching pneumonia because of him. Instead, he starts running into Asshole more often. It's disorganized, seemingly, at least at the start. Asshole stumbles out when Jean is already halfway through, or Jean opens the door just in time to see Asshole put out his cigarette. Sometimes they run into each other in the hallway, and silently walk together. Occasionally Asshole will bow and mock with, “After you”, or Jean will gesture for him to pass with, “Ladies first.” Eventually, they start to argue about the shape of clouds, and then some more about acting. Asshole scoffs at Jean for just wanting to get famous and rake in cash, and not doing it “for the beauty of the craft”, as he puts it. Jean laughs at him, but Asshole asks him if he just wanted money, why did he choose theater in the first place, and Jean doesn't answer, but he doesn't have to. After that, conversation surrounding the theme is mostly about acting school, and their pathetically small number of equally pathetically small roles. Jean grumbles at Asshole for managing to snag the lead in his first big show, at which he shrugs and says, “What can I do, I'm just that good”, and Jean punches him in the shoulder and Asshole closes his eyes and laughs. And it's... different. It's very, very different from the way he usually scowls at everything and Jean realizes, except not really, because he already knew, that he never saw him even smile before. Not even with Armin, when he is stressed about the show or irritated because he got a line wrong, not with Mikasa when she is trying to straighten his hair or is worrying that he is overworking himself. He could, maybe, if he paid more attention. The problem is that Jean wants to pay attention, wants to do it all the time, which is exactly why he doesn't, why he looks away whenever he catches himself watching, why he tries to stay out of the room Asshole is in when he doesn't have to be there. But now, Jean is the only one in the audience and he can look all he want. Asshole has sharp canines, teeth just a little bit yellow and a molar missing, which doesn't surprise him. His eyes crinkle and his cheeks dimple and he looks like he is fifteen, even though Jean feels Asshole wasn't carefree and childish as he looks now even then. He has a disgusting, overwhelming urge to hug him. Even just throw his arm over his shoulders, bring him that little bit closer so that his shoulder digs into his side, curl his fingers around his upper arm, dig his nails in, feel his stupid hair on his cheek before he lays it there fully and maybe stay like that until whenever Levi loses his patience and comes out yelling at them to get there asses back inside before they poison themselves, even though Jean knows, for a fact, that Levi smokes as well, and in front of the theatre as well, with absolutely no shame.

Jean ends up squishing his cigarette. Asshole stops laughing and bumps their shoulders together and Jean kind of wants to die.

 

“What's your name?” Jean asks him again one day. The sky is gray. It looks like it might rain later.

There is no introduction, and Asshole looks at him with eyes widened in surprise and an eyebrow raised. It looks at least a part intentionally mocking. “You really don't know?”

“I wouldn't be asking otherwise, would I?” Jean snaps.

Asshole stares at him for a moment. He looks contemplative, which is not something you can often see on him, so Jean stares right back before he can help himself. Finally, he nods, turning back to the front and bringing his forgotten cigarette back up. Thunder crackles somewhere in the distance. Yes, definitely a storm incoming. “Not telling”, he says.

Jean wants to be pissed about that. He honestly does. And he equally honestly can't.

The thing is, he could always ask Armin. He could listen more closely when Mikasa comes around and would be bound to catch it sometime. He could find out from anyone on the set, probably.

But he knows he won't. He has a suspicion Asshole knows too.

 

Rehearsals get more intense as the date of the premiere comes closer. They enter the rainy season, and Jean and Asshole wordlessly set up a shared schedule of smoke breaks, which they cling to religiously whenever the opportunities allow. Or at least Jean does, because he is a helpless idiot. They crowd around the doorway and try not to get wet because neither of them wants to see Levi pissed because they are, one, risking dying in more ways than one and, two, dripping water on the floor. They go from standing each on their own side to sliding on the floor with their legs tangled and trying to guess what the other's favorite color is. Jean offers yellow and Asshole looks at him in surprise and Jean just shrugs because it is sorta obvious. He finds himself telling Asshole about his dad dying and his Ma and how it is sometimes hard and he nods like he understands and Jean finally finds out what is that shitty past everyone is always whispering about. They are quiet for a while after that. They have both stopped smoking, and it is time to go soon, when Asshole leans his head against the wall and sighs. “I have never talked to anyone about this, not really. Mikasa and Armin were there, and there just wasn't...” he trails off. Jean bumps their legs together, reminiscent. “Yeah”, he says. “Me neither.” And somehow, that is about the happiest moment of his life.

 

It's all well until Jean falls off the stage.

They are rehearsing a scene with this weird half-flying enabling gear that the characters in the imaginary world of the play use, and something happens, a rope snaps, and Jean is heading for the floor.

He wakes up in the hospital with what they tell him is, thankfully, a minor head injury. He will have to stay the night, but they are letting him go tomorrow. Levi pays a short visit to tell him how stupid he is. He pats his arm on his way out and mumbles, “Don't ever do that again, Kirschtein”, leaving Jean gaping after him. Marco and Armin are at his side when he opens his eyes, and stay there with Levi's blessing until Jean practically falls asleep and tells them they should go home to get some as well. They wish him quick recovery and head for the door, but Armin suddenly stops and turns. “Oh, by the way, ermgh – “ Marco slaps a hand over his mouth and just like that, Jean knows what he's talking about. Armin rolls his eyes and pushes the hand away. “Um, 'Asshole' has been here all day as well, but he is too scared to show his face. He's probably gonna come in soon and pretend he just got here. Just so you know.” And with that, they leave, and Jean feels like he is going to melt into his bedding.

True to Armin's word, Asshole shows up some ten minutes later, fidgeting like he wants to run away. He sighs and waves his hand at Jean. “Scoot over.” They press together hip to calf. Asshole punches his arm and says, “Don't you fucking dare ever do that again.” Jean did always suspect he looked up to Levi.

They nod off. Asshole's head lolls down to Jean's shoulder. They stay like that until nurses shoo Asshole out.

 

The night before the premiere, everyone is zipping around like headless flies. Jean is in the middle of gulping down a swig of water when some staff member runs by, catches on some discarded gear piece, and sprawls all over the floor along with the enormous stack of whatever it was he was carrying. Jean, feeling unusually sympathetic from his own relatively recent tumble, runs to his aid along with a couple of others. When they ensure the guy is fine, they all help collect the papers. Jean's mind is elsewhere, and he doesn't realize what he is doing until someone tentatively calls, “Um, Jean... “ through what hits him is complete silence. And oh. Oh. Those are programmes for their play. Lying open. Everywhere. And the first member of the cast listed... is the lead.

Jean stares at the name, two small words written on glossy paper. When he looks up, everyone stares at him in a very interesting mixture of horror and glee.

Jean runs outside.

For some incomprehensible reason, nobody tries to stop him, even though they must know where he is going and it is raining, but he has enough sense to throw off the rest of his costume and they are done with the official rehearsal anyway.

He bursts out and immediately gets soaked, and he thinks of him, him, him, of the bastard who was the embodiment of everything Jean used to believe, of how he once told Jean that when he died, he wanted his ashes to be thrown out over the ocean, even though he's never been there and Jean had snorted at him, but not genuinely, of his stupid sunshine smile, of the pattering of the endless rain that was drowning him right now while he watched his breath mingle with the smoke and blow off into it, and maybe a splash of water to the face was all Jean needed, because he is back inside in a second, getting water anywhere, and then he is in the lead's dressing room and he startles, half of his make-up still on, looking at Jean in confusion, and Jean breathes, “Eren.”

He doesn't know who moves first, but they are there, in the middle of the dressing room, with Jean chanting, "Eren, Eren, Eren", rubbing his thumbs over his cheekbones and getting powder everywhere, and Eren is laughing and crying and carding his hands through Jean's hair and then he says, "Jean", and he can taste it on his lips as he kisses him.

They sit on the floor, and Jean hugs him, hugs him like he wanted to this entire time, Eren squeezing his middle back painfully, and thinks how this must be his hour upon the stage. And maybe during that hour, everything is alright.