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He meets the man in a tavern.

There had been a brawl, during which chairs had been knocked over, and then people. He vaguely remembers having thrown himself into the fight at some point, and his face certainly remembers being punched multiple times. Eventually, the scuffle had dwindled and Jean had found his way to a chair. Perhaps the man had decided to buy him a drink—or two, or five—and they had gotten to talking.

Now Jean laughs, coughing when he chokes on the mouthful of beer he has just taken. "That is the most ridiculous fucking piece of bullshit I have ever heard."

"It's true, though," the other man says, his words untouched by alcohol despite how long they have been drinking. "Won't you believe me?"

"No," he spits out, glaring at him. "Because you're out of your mind, is what. Batshit. Completely. Or a heretic." Here he squints, trying to see the other man through the haze of intoxication. "You are, aren't you. One of those underground heretics going round reading scrolls and shit."

The stranger smiles, unperturbed. "Maybe I am. Would you believe me then?"

Jean stares at him, long and unblinking, and then promptly leans over the side of the table to throw up.

Later, they are outside the pub, in one of the dark winding alleyways. Jean is leaning heavily against the wall for support, legs shaking against his will as he tries to catch his breath. The world is a blur of melting lights and hazy intelligible noise, and his head is aching something fierce.

The man—he still hasn't given his name, damn him—is standing a few feet away, watching him. Jean takes a deep breath, angry, and only manages to sputter out a strangled, "What?"

"I am waiting," he says, calm as fuck, "for your answer."

He groans then, stomach twisting violently in protest, thoughts turning in wild desperate circles and he knows he can't handle it, he can't do this again. He's done it time and time again and it always ends the same way, with him lying in a ditch in some unfamiliar part of the city, all hopes broken.

"But it doesn't have to be," the other man says, his voice suddenly very close, and Jean is furious to find that he has crumpled to the ground without even realising it, and the stranger is kneeling next to him, blue eyes sharp. "I can give you a chance to change things. To find the ending you want."

Jean squeezes his eyes shut and tries to look away, refusing to answer.

"We're similar, you and I," he says, very quietly. "We've both lost something important to us. The difference is you can get it back."

"But you don't guarantee it," Jean says, and wants to hit himself so much it makes him sick. No no no no. “It’s only a chance.”

"Yes."

He laughs. No. "What good is that then?" No no NO.

There is a pause. It is long and heavy, stretching on for so long that Jean peels his eyelids open to look at the other man.

And that is his mistake.

The blonde man meets his gaze steadily, without a trace of expression, and says, "At the very least, you get to see him again."

-----

The stranger hands him the dice.

Jean takes them, and rolls.

5

It is hot. Jean can hear faded yelling, as if from a distance, and he can feel sweat trickling down his neck, gluing his clothes to his skin. When he opens his eyes, the sky is the brightest blue he has ever seen, with fluffy white clouds hanging overhead. There is no wind, only the heat of the afternoon sun.

"Who the hell are you!?" he hears suddenly, to his right. "What are you doing here!?"

He swallows, a familiar ache returning to his chest like an old, old friend, as he turns his head.

The boy salutes. "Marco Bodt, sir! I am here to join the Military Police and give myself to the King's service!"

Ah, Jean finds himself thinking.

There he is.

-----

He has to keep it casual this time, has to ease his way into a friendship with the other trainee. He's learned his lesson; jumping in headfirst would only alarm him, and spouting nonsense about coming from the future would definitely alienate him and ruin any chances he could have had. He has to take it slow, gain his trust. Like he did the first time they met.

This is the logical course of action, his mind tells him. Listen, Kirschstein.

But of course, Jean doesn't.

What he does do is rush forward and backwards at the same time, feet tripping over each other as his body takes over, and instead of doing, anything sensible, like walking away, or running straight into trouble, all he manages is to let out a startled, frustrated yelp and fall chin first onto the ground.

There is a silence then, as all heads turn to him. He can feel Shadis glaring at him with an intensity that may match the time Sasha offered him a potato—that's not happening this time, not anymore—can feel the confused looks his peers are giving him.

But.

When he looks up, he sees Marco, whose arms are still folded in salute; Marco, whose gaze is fixed on him in bemused surprise; Marco, who, as Jean watches, turns his head slightly, lips curving upwards in a small sympathetic smile.

-----

Later, he is hearing Marco's soft laughter as the two of them walk towards the dining hall. Jean is having difficulty paying attention to their conversation, and by the time he finally drags his focus back, Marco is in the middle of expressing his concern. "—alright though? It looked like a pretty rough fall."

He shrugs, rubbing at his chin, and wincing when it comes away still a little bloody. When he speaks, the words waver only slightly. "I've had worse."

"Well, at the very least you've got a day's head start of training on the rest of us. That's bound to give you some advantage later on."

"The only advantage I got from running laps for four hours straight," he says, thanking whatever divine being that had stopped Shadis from giving him the same punishment he had given Sasha last time, "is the muscle cramps waiting for me tomorrow."

Marco chuckles, tilting his head at the building ahead of them. "Come on. If we hurry, you might still make it for dinner."

He nods, and follows.

-----

The next few months are spent with rigorous drills and endless exercise. Jean trains his body and mind, and he trains hard. Even with all the extra effort, he still graduates in the bottom half of the top ten. Still, that doesn't really matter. He's got different goals, this time round. He doesn't need to be the best; he just needs to be good enough.

When the day comes, he keeps close to Marco, refusing to let him out of his sight. If the other boy notices his sudden vigilance, he doesn't mention it. Chalks it up to nerves, maybe. But he doesn't question it, and for that, Jean is grateful.

He keeps close, as close as he can possibly be, as they fly past buildings and titans alike. And he vows he will do whatever it takes to keep the other boy safe.

-----

He keeps close, but not close enough.

4

This time they train together. He helps the boy figure out his strengths and flaws, fixes his balance and fixes his gear. Jean takes it upon himself to oversee his training, pushing the other boy to his limits.

When they argue, Marco Bodt listens with a smile, and never yells back.

It makes Jean feel like shit.

-----

"—but you always hang back and let someone else go for the kill," Eren says, frowning in puzzlement. "I know it's not really any of my business but if you're trying for the Military Police, shouldn't you be aiming for as many points as possible?"

Jean is silent, watching Marco. He had noticed it too, earlier, and it had made him so angry that he had missed the next target, allowing Connie the chance to finally swoop in and steal the prize.

"Well," the taller brunette says, one hand rubbing the back of his neck in an act of discomfort. "The way I see it, if there's someone else behind me who's more capable...I figured it would be best if I acted as bait instead. Distract the titan long enough for someone else to kill it."

Jean stares at him in naked disbelief.

As if sensing his gaze, Marco turns to him, smiling sheepishly. "You probably think it's stupid," he says, shaking his head when Jean does not respond, "and I know it's only a simulation, but I can't help but see it as the real thing. If this were to really happen, I want to be able to make the right choice."

"And you think the right choice is sacrificing yourself?" Jean yells, standing up before he can think it through. "Being noble?" he asks, pushing forward and shoving himself into the other trainee's personal space. His shorter stature means he has to crane his neck upwards slightly to properly glare at him, and it probably makes him look like a child but Jean does not give damn because Marco is being stupid stupid stupid. "What good would getting yourself killed do?"

Marco does not step away, even when Jean's hands have found themselves fisting the collar of his uniform. He is calm, breathing perfectly steady, as he looks Jean in the eye and says, "It means someone else gets to live."

Jean wants to hit him. But even now, after everything, he can't quite bring himself to.

So he punches Eren instead.

-----

Later that night, Jean lies awake in his bed, staring at the ceiling. His body hurts all over from earlier; Eren has never been one to pull his punches, and from the other boy's point of view, Jean had attacked him without reason. It took Mikasa hauling him by the collar to break up the fight and by then the both of them were thoroughly beaten up. Jean doesn't regret it one bit.

What he does regret is a little more complicated. He's been thinking it over for hours now, listening to the quiet, regular breathing—or, in Reiner's case, snoring—of his dormmates as sleep continues to elude him. From two beds away, he hears the soft, steady pattern of Marco in deep sleep, a sound that he knows will haunt his dreams for years to come.

Jean listens and pretends that his cheeks are still dry.

-----

In the morning, he finally finds the courage for it. As everyone begins cleaning up and leaving the hall, he taps Marco lightly on the shoulder, twice, and steels his nerves.

The other trainee stops, turns to him, and smiles. "Morning, Jean."

"Morning," he replies, and forces himself to look the brunette in the eye. "Listen. I'm...sorry about yesterday. I shouldn't have yelled at you. It wasn't right."

"It's fine," Marco assures him. "I can see why you got angry. It's not exactly the smartest thing to do."

"That's not it," he says quickly, and then backtracks. "I mean, obviously, it's not the...the best of ideas, but. It's not why. It's not just. I mean. Fuck." He's fumbling now, can see the way Marco's head is tilted slightly to one side, uncertain, and Jean is panicking when he blurts out a desperate, "It's you."

Marco blinks at him, uncomprehending. "Me," he says, slowly.

"Yes." Jean swallows and hopes to hell he can be coherent this time. "I don't want you to think that you're dispensable. Don't throw your life away just because you think it would help keep someone else alive. You're uh. You're important too." To me, is what he wants to say, but he's pretty sure that would only aggravate things, this early on, so he doesn't.

He stares, eyes wide in unconcealed surprise. Then, colour seeps into his cheeks, beneath his freckles, and suddenly Marco is ducking his head, refusing to meet his gaze. "Thank you, Jean."

His breath catches and his lungs seize without warning. His heart is racing and his instinctive reaction is to run out the door and not look back.

But Jean has lived through this moment too many times to give in to childish embarrassment; he has lost this moment too many times to take it for granted now.

So he reaches out and, very, very carefully, hooks his fingers underneath the other boy's chin, turning his face towards him. Marco doesn't resist, but he still won't look at him and Jean wants to—

A hand comes up to grasp his, pulling gently, and Jean immediately relinquishes his hold. "We should get going," Marco says. "Training will start soon."

His stomach drops at those words Jean he can't quite keep the disappointment out of his voice when he replies. "Right."

Marco nods once, and then hesitates, lips parted slightly as if intending to speak.

Jean waits, acutely aware of how their fingers are still intertwined.

In the end, the other boy says nothing; instead Marco flashes him another quick smile, squeezing his hand lightly before rushing off.

Jean remains standing where he is, rooted to the spot for a few moments longer. By the time he finally makes it to the training grounds, Shadis is screaming at Connie about landing on his head, and Jean gets 25 laps around the field.

But his heart is light as air and when he finally collapses, he does so by simultaneously falling to his knees and bursting into unrestrained laughter.

-----

The next day, they have lunch together. And then dinner.

Three days after that, they sneak out of the dorms past curfew and head into the forest where they spend the rest of the night painting pictures out of stars and making each other laugh.

In one week, nearly everyone knows.

-----

They graduate as the top ten. That night, Jean kneels at the side of Marco's bed and tries to find the right words.

"I need you to promise me something," he begins.

Marco is watching him, brown eyes darting from his hands—where they have curled, involuntarily, into fists, gripping the bed sheets so hard that his knuckles have started turning white—to his face. "What is it?"

"Tomorrow," he says, and then stops. Don't fight, he wants to say. Call in sick. Pretend you’ve sprained your ankle. Or I could even twist it for you. It would only hurt a bit, only temporarily. Don’t fight, please don’t fight.

His lungs feel constricted and he can't quite breathe. There is so much to say, so much he could say, but none of them would save Marco. Jean knows, because he has tried them all before.

"Jean," the other boy says gently, reaching out and covering Jean's fingers with his own. "I'll do my best. I promise."

He blinks, once, long and hard, and grits his teeth. "Yeah. We both will. We'll make it."

We’ve both trained hard, he doesn’t say. This time, we’re better prepared. It’ll be alright.

I won’t let you die this time.

-----

The titans come, as expected.

Only one of them of survives.

3

There are times when Jean comes very close to telling him everything.

When they lie awake together in the fields, watching the stars shine from over the top of the walls; when they lie in bed together, the steady rhythm of Marco's deep breathing acting as both a reassurance and a reminder for what is yet to come. When they zoom in and out of each other's sights, swerving around branches and tree trunks during drills. When Marco laughs, the most beautiful sound Jean has ever known; when Marco reaches out to him, tentatively, as if worried that one day Jean might pull away instead of leaning into his touch, the way he has always done, the hundreds of times they've been together.

Do you know, Jean wants to say. Can you see how much you mean to me?

But he doesn't have to. He can see it in the way Marco looks at him, the quiet acknowledgement in his smiles. He doesn't have to say anything because Marco knows—not everything, but he knows enough, and Jean can't even begin to imagine a cycle in which he refuses the mysteriously-dressed stranger—in which he chooses to allow this boy to remain dead without going back to try and save him.

-----

"I love you," he says one night, a quiet, almost broken confession against the curve of Marco's neck. He feels a treacherous wetness begin in the corner of his eyes and, blinking rapidly, buries his face into the pillow beneath them.

The other boy stills and for a moment, all Jean can hear is the sound of their heavy breathing, mingling together in the silence.

Then, he feels a hand sliding up his back, gently caressing the knobs of his spine. Fingers thread into his hair before edging their way onto his face and Marco nudges him back so that their eyes meet, even in the dark.

He kisses Jean. There is so much meaning to that one tender gesture, so many unsaid things passing from lip to lip without either of them even having to breathe that when they finally pull apart, Jean is gasping, his head swimming.

Marco smiles at him, lips curling in an expression Jean will never forget. He brushes his fingers against Jean's eyelashes and there, balanced on the fingertips of Marco's right hand are all of Jean's hopes, all of his fears.

In all the years they have known each other, Marco has never once questioned him.

And Jean will never say no.

2

The day always happens differently.

Most of the times, Jean isn't there to see it. Sometimes, it follows the first cycle; Jean gets separated, his gear malfunctions and Marco distracts the titan long enough for him to escape. Sometimes, a herd of titans ambush them out of nowhere and they are all forced to flee in different directions. Sometimes, Connie slips off the edge of a roof, and they instinctively turn back for him. Sometimes, Sasha panics, and loses an arm. Sometimes, Jean panics.

But the point is, Marco dies, every time.

-----

(It is never Annie. He thought it would be, at first. Almost hoped it would be, because it would make everything so much easier if there was only one stagnant possibility to consider, instead of the hundreds of uncertainties Jean has come to know)

-----

Other times, like now—after he has scrambled to escape, after Marco is there, after Marco isn't—Jean finds him just in time to watch him die.

Again, it is never the same way, never the same place, never the same titan.

On the roof, on the ground. In the middle of a jump; just as he's about to land. 4m class, 10m class. It doesn't matter.

The point is, Marco dies every time.

1

When he makes the leap, he does so in one impulsive, furious movement.

Jean barrels into him headfirst and tackles the brunette to the ground. Before they've even properly hit the floor, he is already swinging back, putting all the force he can muster into his punch. The hit connects solidly with his cheek and Jean has the satisfaction of hearing the pained yelp, of feeling skin breaking beneath his fingers, of bone giving. The other boy fights back, obviously, but Jean's anger, born from uncountable cycles of watching history repeat over and over, despite his best efforts to prevent it—from endless hopes made and broken, and years of frustrated grief; it gives him a strength he has never known before and for once, he finds himself winning.

If I could just, he thinks. If I could. Then—

Then, hands are grabbing at him, pulling him off and dragging him away. He tries to resists, readies a kick at his unseen opponent.

"Jean!" Marco says, his voice raised several pitches higher than his norm, as he clutches at his clothes. "Jean! Stop it!"

He falters, loses his balance. Ahead of him, he sees Eren pulling himself up into a sitting position, one hand wiping at his mouth and coming away bloody. Next to him, Armin is fussing, half in shock, half shaking with concern. On his other side, Mikasa has one hand on Eren's back, holding him up, but she is glaring at Jean openly, black eyes full of threat.

"What do you think you're doing?" she asks, words dripping with murderous venom.

"What am I doing?" he echoes, and wants to laugh. He remembers a time when he would have wilted under her fury, so important was she then; that was a long time ago. Right now, only one person matters. "I'm making him take responsibility!"

"For what?" Armin asks, staring at Jean as if he's convinced he's lost his mind; maybe he has. "What did Eren do?"

Jean ignores him in favour of struggling anew, trying to break free of Marco's grip without accidentally hurting him, but the newly-christened soldier has him in a tight hold, stubbornly refusing to let go. A frustrated sound escapes Jean's throat. "This is all your fault, Jaeger! Your goddamn fault!"

"What the hell are you talking about?" Eren rasps, voice hoarse from the damage to his throat, where a lovely handprint of red will gradually blacken into a bruise.

"You know damn well what I'm talking about!" He doesn't, he really doesn't. Not yet. But by the time he finds out, Jean knows it will be too late.

"Jean!" Marco says, still holding him back. "Jean, calm down!"

It's happening again, he thinks, blinking rapidly. In two days, it will happen all over again, and his vision flashes bright, nausea climbing up his throat and he is screaming. "I'll kill you! I swear I'll kill you!"

Suddenly he is falling forward, his legs folding as he is kneed from the back. Marco leans close, pressing his whole body against Jean and pushing forward until they are both sitting on the wooden floor, bent in a half-bow. He shifts into Jean, crossing his arms in front of Jean's chest and pinning him in place, his fingers rubbing soothing circles into his shoulders. "Calm down," he is saying, whispering into his ear. "You're alright. I've got you."

He feels Marco move, feels the gentle touch of lips in his hair.

"I'm here. I've got you."

Jean starts to cry.

0

That night, he goes to sleep alone. The bed, once a place of comfort, is now far too big. He shivers, chills scraping the surface of his bones over and over, and no matter how much he twists and turns Jean simply cannot get warm.

It is too quiet, too cold.

At some point, he finds himself curled up into a tight ball, breathing hard into the empty space to his left. He can still remember the warmth of late nights, the sensation of skin against skin, and it burns like fire, spreading through his chest with a longing he can no longer put out. Not this time.

He knows what is coming.

There will be months of restless sleep, ruined by recurrent dreams of memories and haunting memories of dreams. He will plough through mission after mission with the Survey Corps, gripping onto his life with his teeth as death rushes past him every time. He will watch the people around him die, either by the mindless cruelty of titans or through the eventual breakdown of their spirits as humanity spirals around a battle they will not win, not from his experience.

It will be months before Jean finally snaps and gives in to grief. Months before he throws himself off the roof and breaks his right arm in three places. Months before Connie kicks down his door and yells at him, and Sasha trails in after him to stuff a sack of bread in his face; before Reiner and Bertholdt drag him bodily into a night of drinking, subsequently followed by intoxicated singing and bad decisions. Months before Armin convinces him to sit down for a talk, cutting open his misshapen heart with a cold, surgical precision and slowly threading them back together with a kindness he does not deserve—not after what happened with Jaeger.

It will be months before he meets the man in the tavern.

-----

There had been a brawl, during which chairs had been knocked over, and then people. He vaguely remembers having thrown himself into the fight at some point, and his face certainly remembers being punched multiple times. Eventually, the scuffle had dwindled and Jean had found his way to a chair. Perhaps the man had decided to buy him a drink—or two, or five—and they had gotten to talking.

Now Jean laughs, obnoxious and bitter, coughing when he chokes on the mouthful of beer he has just taken. "That is the most ridiculous fucking piece of bullshit I have ever heard."

"It's true, though," the other man says, words entirely untouched by alcohol despite how long they have been drinking. "Won't you believe me?"

"No," he spits out, glaring at him. "Because you're out of your mind, is what. Batshit. Completely. Or a heretic."

The stranger smiles, unperturbed. "Am I?"

Jean stares at him, long and unblinking. Very carefully, he sets his mug down on the table. "No, you're not."

Later, they are outside the pub, in one of the dark winding alleyways. Jean is leaning heavily against the wall for support, legs shaking against his will as he tries to catch his breath. The world feels dim, sounds diminished.

The man—after all this time, he still doesn't have a name—is standing a few feet away, watching him. Jean takes a deep breath, angry, but only manages to sputter out a strangled, "What?"

"I am waiting," he says, calm as fuck, "for your answer."

He groans then, stomach twisting violently in protest, thoughts turning in wild desperate circles and he can't handle it, he can't do this again. He's done it time and time again and it always ends the same way, with him lying in a ditch in some unfamiliar part of the city, all hopes broken.

"Remember our deal," the other man says, his voice suddenly very close, and Jean is furious to find that he has crumpled to the ground without even realising it, the stranger kneeling next to him, blue eyes sharp. "You can give in any time. I can save him, in your place."

"Save a part of him, you mean," Jean mutters angrily.

The man shrugs. "Isn't that better than nothing? At least some form of him will live on, outside your memories." Now he leans in close, shadows swirling around them both. "Tell me. Do you surrender?"

He squeezes his eyes shut and tries to look away, refusing to answer. He can hear a muted whispering as the darkness gathers hungrily, watching for weakness, ready to devour him whole.

"Jean Kirschstein," the man says, "do you surrender?"

"No!" All breath leaves his lungs in one rushed exhalation. His head hurts, and his body is shaking. It is too much, too much.

The stranger leans back, an unreadable smile on his face. "Then take it."

Jean looks at him, then at his outstretched hand and the two dice lying on the flat of his gloved palm, waiting.

He thinks of Marco, of the countless times he's tried to save him, and how he has always, inevitably, failed. He thinks of their bargain, born from his selfish greed and loneliness—save him, or abandon him to darkness.

He remembers Marco.

-----

The stranger hands him the dice.

Jean takes them, and rolls.