One hundred cycles of history repeating, and Jean never says no.
Except for the one time he does.
That night, Jean follows the stranger out into the dark alleyway with slow, dull movements. His every step is born of laborious effort, and his bones feel heavy, like stone.
"What will happen to him?" he asks, not bothering to clarify the question.
The nameless man understands regardless. "The darkness will take him. He'll survive, but not as you know him now."
Jean blinks, considering this. "You mean...he might..." he trails off, unable to finish that particular train of thought.
"Yes," he says, gesturing to the walls. The shadows come alive, wriggling and clawing at thin air, their yellow eyes staring straight at Jean. "This is the fate that awaits all who fall to darkness."
That is not a reassuring answer, not in the least. Jean tilts his head back to the sky and sees the black clouds gathering overhead. Thunder rumbles through the air in a low warning but the sound is subdued, the storm still some distance away.
He feels detached, as if his body is not his own, and the world he sees seems like a sight through another man's eyes. Even his breathing feels foreign, the involuntary expansion and contraction of his lungs an alien device stuck somewhere inside of him. His whole body is being weighed down by invisible, inevitable things, and he is just so very tired.
Jean does the impossible.
The moon remains hidden.
Again, the bright blue sky of beginnings. The sunlight warming his skin. The potential to make things right.
Their first dinner as trainees and Jean sits to Marco's left, doing his best to not get caught staring. Over at an adjacent table, Eren is surrounded by a small aggregation of curious newbies, drawn towards his 'experience' like moths to a porch lamp. He is giving them the speech; Jean has heard it so often that the words have burned a permanent mark into his memory, as The Speech That Started It All.
He tilts his head in their direction and shoots Eren a half-hearted glare, not really having the energy to get up and properly pick a fight.
Marco chuckles around his spoonful of soup.
He looks up at the brunette—and his heart, even after all these years, skips a beat. "What?"
"You've been staring at him all evening," Marco points out. "If you want to go over and join them, just go."
Jean snorts and doesn't bother correcting him. "Why would I willingly spend more time than I have to with that jerkface?"
"Eren's not that bad," he says, tearing off a chunk of his bread and popping it in his mouth. "He just looks a little unapproachable, that's all. You two might get along."
"Hmph." He thinks back to all the cycles of before, some in which he tries to kill Jaeger, and others where he very nearly succeeds. An old resentment uncoils in his chest, rearing its ugly head as he recalls the future that awaits them and how, at its center, stands this one stubborn, bloodthirsty amnesiac. Kill him, the snake of his thoughts hisses. Do it now and save everyone.
For one brief moment, Jean considers it.
But the atmosphere is easy and relaxed, the room a calming shade of orange. The steady chatter of eager trainees is a soothing background noise, and he hears no trace of that treacherous muttering from the shadows. There is only Marco, a solid, warm presence at his side, and so very alive.
So he rolls his shoulders in a lazy shrug, pushing away the unpleasant thoughts, and the stirring in his chest settles back into sleep. "Some other time, maybe."
As always, Eren fucks up the balancing test. He is lifted off the ground and spends maybe all of three seconds dangling from the gear cords before tipping sharply to the back and banging his head into the ground. The crowd titters in mildly unkind amusement, gossiping in loud voices like old maids as they point at the brunette now struggling to pull himself up, mouth hanging open in shock.
Jean wonders if this, too, is an event set in stone. If, for some ineffable reason, the history of mankind's fight against the titans requires Eren to fail masterfully at his first lesson on the Maneuver Gear and have all his hopes shattered before being allowed to continue. Character building, maybe? If so, then who is pulling the strings? Who is it that feels the need to instill this despair, however temporary, in the mind of Eren Jaeger?
Perhaps he will never know. In a way it doesn't really matter.
Later in the day, Eren exhausts every corner of their shared dormitory in search of last minute tips, Armin trailing behind him faithfully. Jean follows their progress with tired eyes, watching the familiar scene repeat. Marco is sitting on the edge of their shared beds—third from the floor and closest to the ceiling—legs dangling over the side.
Eventually, the duo approaches them, Eren coming to a pause at the bottom of the wooden ladder. His green eyes are open wide, shoulders tense with denial and unacknowledged fear.
It almost makes Jean feel sorry for him.
"—trick to staying upright?" Marco is saying, supporting his weight with his arms as he leans forward to peer down at the two boys. "I don't really know. I kind of just...do what feels right." He turns slightly. "What about you, Jean?"
He rubs the back of his head and thinks about discussing faulty equipment. That maybe Eren should take another look at the fitting on his belt and find the rusted screw, the source of his troubles.
In the end, Jean looks away. "Just follow your instincts," is all he can bring himself to offer.
The answer is a disappointment; Eren slumps forward a little, gaze dropping to the floor, and Armin steps closer to place a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
"Maybe you could try asking them," Marco says, gesturing to the other side of the room, where Reiner and Bertholdt are perched on their shared beds, heads bent close together in deep discussion. "Those two got the hang of it pretty fast. They might be able to help."
Jean watches the retreating figures in silence. Beside him, Marco exhales quietly. "Poor guy," he says. "I hope he figures it out by tomorrow."
"Don't worry about it. I'm sure he'll be fine."
Marco glances to him, a small, surprised quirk in the corner of his lips. "You sound so certain."
"He just feels like that kind of guy," Jean says, leaning back to lie flat on the soft cushion of his bed. "The 'stubborn idiot' type. Doesn't matter who or what stands in his way, he'll always pull through somehow." It's true, and no one knows that better than him.
"Well, that's good then." The other boy pulls his legs up and crawls past him, over the gap between their mattresses and closer to the wall. Jean listens to the sound of him settling in for the night, cloth rustling as he looks for a comfortable position. Marco's breathing gradually slows; Jean can pinpoint the exact moment the other boy falls asleep, and wishes, with all his might, that he could crawl over and join him.
Not yet, Kirschstein, his mind tells him.
There's still time.
In the morning, Eren passes with the rest of them. Jean is not surprised.
During their hand-to-hand combat training, he teaches Marco everything he's learned about close-range fighting; all those cycles had given Jean plenty of opportunity to hone his skills, and it is not arrogance when he thinks he could probably make it into the top five, if it weren't for the fact that he devoted all his time and energy to Marco.
The other trainee is unexpectedly quick on his feet—a fact Jean had been surprised to learn several cycles ago, when he had been disarmed and thrown in the blink of an eye, ribs throbbing for hours afterwards—and although he's still got miles to go before getting as good as Reiner and Annie, he picks up Jean's tricks easily, if a bit hesitantly.
"Come on," he calls to the other boy, ducking under a side punch. "You don't have to hold back."
The brunette frowns a little, dark brown eyes fixed on him.
Jean twirls the wooden knife in his hand and rushes forward, aiming a stab at Marco's abdomen. The other boy slaps his hand away, once, twice, and the third time Jean moves in, he twists away, hands latching onto Jean's forearm in a fierce grip. Their shoulders clash together. Before Jean can react, his right leg has been knocked out from under him and suddenly he is falling face first into the ground.
A hard weight presses down on his hips, and his right arm is locked against his back. Jean grits his teeth at the pain; when he opens his eyes, his pseudo-weapon is lying several feet away.
"Better?" Marco's voice is a soft, pleased sound somewhere near the back of his head.
Jean tries to nod, an automatic action that he quickly abandons when it only succeeds in getting dirt in his nose. "Yeah. Good job."
"Thank you," he replies, getting up and dusting his hands on his trousers before reaching down to help Jean up.
He accepts the proffered hand, still trying to catch his breath. There is a casual ease in the way Marco shoulders the brunt of his weight as he stands, free hand coming to a rest on Jean's arm to help steady him. It brings a slow warmth to his lungs, diffusing discreetly throughout his chest, and when he pulls away, Jean finds himself avoiding Marco's gaze, choosing instead to let his eyes wander around the training fields.
Annie is in the middle of taking Reiner down, right leg sweeping his balance away. Eren is already lying in a heap nearby, folded in on himself in an awkward angle. A little further back, two other trainees have come to a pause, the both of them watching the scene with dark eyes—Mikasa with murderous intent, and Bertholdt with a strangely unreadable expression.
Jean spots movement next to them and turns just in time to see Connie fall. Sasha immediately stands over him, one foot on the small of his back, arms raised and lips pursed, crowing triumphantly in a comical imitation of a rooster. To their right, Armin is looking at them with a gaping mouth, his eyebrows drawn in but scrunched up near the middle of his forehead, as if torn between telling them off and holding in laughter.
The afternoon is relaxed, still, and Jean stands there under the light blue sky, eyes half-closed, as he tries to savour it.
To his left, Marco bends down to pick up the discarded weapon. "Wanna go again?" he asks.
Jean tries to burn this image into his memory—Marco Bodt, alive and well, a cool breeze rippling through his hair, his freckles untouched by blood.
"Sure." He manages not to choke on the word as he brings his arms up into position. "Ready when you are."
Two and a half months into their training, seven of them sneak out past curfew on a midnight excursion. Reiner is leading the way, calling out hushed warnings as they blindly navigate the winding forest. Jean ducks under a low branch and squints; Bertholdt is directly in front of him, a tall shadowy silhouette in the dark, and while everyone else stumbles at least once over an unseen tree root—or, in Connie's case, his own feet—Jean hasn't seen the tall trainee falter once, his gait always steady and sure, as if the black night was as clear as day.
It pricks his senses enough for Jean to want to call out, a name on the tip of his tongue, when suddenly, somewhere among the tress, he hears a diminished whispering.
Jean recognises it instantly, and it sets his entire being on edge in one heart-stopping second.
But then Armin stumbles a little too loudly, and the undercurrent of noise disappears as everyone freezes in place.
When Reiner finally signals for them to move again, the unease in Jean's stomach has morphed from suspicion to wordless dread, and the moment passes.
They reach the clearing without further incident, and Connie releases a loud exhalation of relief before tipping over flat onto his stomach, arms coming out to cushion his fall. The rest of them settle down around the short boy and Jean bites back the ridiculously happy grin that attempts to burst onto his face when Marco crouches next to him.
The sky is dark, moon hidden behind multiple curtains of clouds. There are no stars out tonight, and the occasional breeze that sweeps past them is cold and slightly wet. Ahead of them, a small lake ripples quietly in the dark, an occasional splashing heard as its inhabitants moved. Frogs are croaking somewhere in the distance, a steady summoning of rain.
They talk. About anything; about everything. There, in the relative safety of near-pitch black night, the stories are easier to tell, and fears easier to admit. When Eren speaks, haltingly, about his mother, all they hear is the tremor in his voice. When Bertholdt mentions his village, lost and long gone, no one sees Armin's comforting hand on his thigh, or the way Reiner looks away, his jaw clenched tight. When Connie not-so-casually remarks about being chased out by his family, only Jean notices the way Marco slouches forward, curling in on himself.
There is a lump in his throat; Jean reaches out one hand and lays it very, very carefully, against Marco's fisted fingers. He feels the other boy twitch slightly in surprise but Jean does not pull away, and slowly, cautiously, Marco brushes his palm across the back of Jean's hand until their fingers are intertwined.
Jean leans back against the tree trunk, feeling rough bark digging into his clothes, heartbeat loud in his ears.
He learns, all over again, what it is like to be close with someone. Despite the number of times Jean has lived through this, it never becomes repetitive, never anything less than a secret honour.
In the mornings, Marco is an unmoving figure, his body angled towards Jean, a pocket of heat in the empty space between them. He wakes slowly—eyebrows furrowed in brief protest, tucking his chin to his chest as he clings to the last of his dreams before finally peeling his eyes open, blinking rapidly in the light of pre-dawn.
During drills, Marco is attentive, cloaked in an air of calm as he tips his head forward, brown eyes focused, listening. When he makes mistakes, losing his balance at an inopportune moment and breaking the team's formation, he apologies with an embarrassed shake of his head—but Jean sees his fingers clench around the handles of his blades and knows he is filing that incident away for a later time.
When they eat together, Marco saves his favourites for last. It is a troublesome habit, because Sasha is constantly circling the dining hall like a hawk, ready to swoop in and snatch up anything she deems vulnerable. She doesn't always succeed, however; Sasha may be fast, but Marco is almost never caught unaware, and seven times out of ten, Sasha ends up banging her fork against the table with such tremendous force that it summons Shadis from the hallowed depths of the instructor's private quarters, exuding disapproval.
At night, Marco settles beside him with tentative movements, as if a part of him is still uncertain about their relationship. But Jean never pushes, and one evening, Marco lies down, fingers stilled in the direction of the gap between their beds, his eyebrows drawn together slightly. And when Jean bridges that distance to touch his forearm, Marco finally snuggles closer, resting his head on Jean's shoulder.
And Jean learns, once more, the lateral curve of Marco's neck as he sleeps, the sensation of his breath on his skin; the silky texture of his hair over the smooth undercut, and the spattering of freckles that mark his being. He traces anew the bruises of their training, where the straps have bitten into his back and lower limbs; he rediscovers the acute sensitivity lying hidden in the back of his knees, and relishes the gentle touch of Marco's fingers on his spine, his hips, his lips.
Just like every time before, he falls hopelessly in love with Marco Bodt.
They return to the lake, just the two of them. This time, the sky is marginally clearer and some of the stars peek out timidly from behind the clouds. They walk together, reluctant to relinquish the hold they have on each other's hand even when Jean stumbles, dragging Marco down with him. Their laughter is quiet, secretive, only for the other's ears, and every passing second melts like butter in Jean's heart, climbing up his throat and into his cheeks.
The water sparkles in the distance as the sole intruder of their privacy. Jean lies with his head in the other boy's lap and sighs in contentment. "Think we did well today?"
"Well enough to pass, I'm sure," Marco replies, fingers threading through his hair.
"Top ten?" he asks, even though he knows the answer better than anyone else.
To that, Marco only laughs and gently flicks his nose.
Jean sniffles, massages the sting away with his wrist, and closes his eyes. "We're still aiming for the MP, yeah?"
"Yes." The boy's fingers are kneading his scalp now, scratching lightly, and Jean can't help but lean his head into the touch. "Unless you've changed your mind."
"Hell no. Only suicidal bastards like Eren would choose fighting titans over staying alive."
Marco hums softly and falls silent.
After a while, Jean cracks one eye open and looks straight up. "Have you?"
The brunette shrugs but doesn't quite meet his gaze.
A chilling emptiness slowly makes its way into his chest, suffusing out the earlier warmth, and Jean sits up. "What is it?"
"I just," he hesitates. "I just think that maybe...there's some truth in what Eren says. I think he may be right."
"Of course he's right. Believe it or not, Jaeger's still got some brains left in that thick, deformed skull of his. That doesn't mean we're wrong."
"But if we really make it into the top ten, doesn't that make it our duty to go out there and join the fight? To at least try and win against the titans?"
"Duty to whom?"
"To His Majesty," he replies plaintively, as if stating the obvious. "To the people."
Jean squeezes his eyelids shut hard enough to see stars, and then leans forward until his forehead is resting against Marco's. Their breaths mingle in the dark, and he tries very hard not to think about what's coming.
Marco exhales quietly. "I want," he says, "to mean something."
"You do," Jean says. "You're everything to me."
The other boy smiles but there is a tinge of sadness to the curve of his lips, and his eyes remain forlorn. His hand comes up to cradle Jean's cheek, fingers caressing the base of his ear.
Jean relaxes, the reaction nearly automatic. "Will you tell me now?" he asks. "About the King?"
"Not yet," Marco murmurs and leans in.
Jean pushes into the kiss, pressing closer. He licks at the other boy's lips, a silent request, and Marco shivers before sighing into his mouth. Jean slides his hands up Marco's forearms, palming his elbows, and then up to his shoulders where he fists cotton and holds tight. He feels a hand brushing along his clavicle, another on his nape, and Marco moves back, pulling Jean with him, until they are pressed up against the tree trunk. The brunette draws his knees in on either side of Jean, brushing against his thighs, and it makes him shudder.
He slips a hand under the other boy's shirt, rubbing circles on the flat expanse of his stomach, and Marco jerks, inhaling sharply. Jean can feel tense muscles straining against his palm, the fingers at the base of his hair digging into his skin, and suddenly, the night is full of heat. His lungs are burning, but Jean can't seem to pull away long enough to breathe, gasping hungrily against Marco's teeth. A fire has been lit inside of him, and all Jean wants is to get closer, closer—
Instantly, Jean flinches away. There is thunder in his chest as he looks around wildly, barely registering Marco's surprised inquiries, his vision full of fear.
Not now, he thinks desperately. Not yet. He's safe, he's alive. I can still do this. I can still save him. There's no need—
Something moves in the corner of his eye; when Jean follows the motion, he sees a pair of bright, inhumane yellow eyes staring straight at him.
And he stops breathing.
Then. Hands on his shoulders. A voice saying his name, over and over.
Jean blinks and the yellow eyes are gone, replaced by dark brown, clouded with worry.
Marco is asking him something. "Jean," he says. "What's wrong?"
He stares at the other boy, his thoughts crawling at a sluggish pace. When it finally occurs to him to look to the left, the beast is gone, leaving only empty space in its wake.
"What did you see?" Marco asks, following his gaze briefly before turning back to him, his expression a mixture of confusion and consternation. "Jean? What was it?"
"Nothing." He exhales shakily, and buries his head in the other trainee's neck. "Sorry. I'm okay, don't worry."
The tense lack of reply is a testament to how blatantly obvious Jean's lie is, but Marco doesn't press the issue. A few seconds pass and Marco brings his arms around Jean in a comforting embrace, stroking his back soothingly.
For the rest of the night, he holds Jean's trembling figure in complete silence, and doesn't question him.
The next few days come in the form of slow, agonising torture. After that incident, a strained urgency has seeped into the marrows of Jean's bones, deep within him. It corrodes his nerves, and he finds himself agitated without end. His mind is constantly alert, always watching the shadows for signs of danger, and the unrelenting vigilance drains him wholly and completely.
Marco worries. He sees the way the brunette glances at him, and how he is careful to keep close, while still giving Jean space enough to avoid smothering him. He seldom brings up that night, and when he does, he never lingers on the topic for long.
"When you're ready," he murmurs into Jean's ear, hands warm on his chest. "I'm here."
Jean swallows and nods, and doesn't talk about it.
But he feels them everywhere, now. In every corner, hiding in every flickering candlelight, and it is slowly driving him to the edge. He is extra jumpy around Eren, too, unpleasant thoughts coming unbidden to his mind every time the boy is near. The susurrus is loudest then, clawing its way into his heart.
On the eve of their graduation, Jean listens to Eren's grand speech in fuming silence. He cannot bring himself to eat or drink, playing with the cutlery restlessly while the other boy finishes his indignant argument and storms out of the hall.
He stares at the closed door.
This is your chance. Do it now.
He swallows and thinks about stairs and accidents, and blood.
Warmth closes around his right hand and Jean is jolted out of his thoughts.
Marco stands beside him, a mug of beer in his left hand. "Jean," he says and tugs at his fingers.
When he looks down, he realises that he has, in his grip, a silver knife. His knuckles have turned white, and they are shaking.
"Jean," Marco says again, and coaxes the knife free.
He buries his face in his hands. Marco slides onto the bench next to him and wraps an arm around his waist, silently.
"Be safe," Jean pleads two nights later. "Please be safe."
Marco looks up at him, his eyes full of unasked questions, his lips stretched into a thin line. But all he says is, "I'll try."
This time, he loses track of Marco fifteen minutes into the mission. They've run into an Aberrant with long spindly arms and a jaw stretching across more than half its head. It lunges at them from three roofs away, closing the distance in one graceful leap. They scatter, looping around the closest structures in their hurry to avoid the incoming titan and suddenly Jean finds himself landing on a nearby watchtower, alone.
His heart stutters, and then begins beating very fast. He scrambles to his feet and crouches near the stone wall, peering over the edge to scan his surroundings. The Aberrant is bent over in a crouch, steam rising off its arms and he thinks he can see someone racing through the air, going in for the kill.
It isn't Marco.
Jean turns away. Giving the area one last look over, he jumps off the edge of the tower, hooking himself to its side and rushing past it, landing on a nearby roof before taking off again. His palms are sweaty and the moisture makes his hold on the launchers slippery; Jean grips the handle as tightly as possible, feeling metal dig into his skin. There is a steady, rapid thumping in his ears now, an insistent noise among the sounds of fighting taking place around him. He retraces his steps back to the point where they first got separated, and heads in the vague direction of Marco's escape.
It takes him a while to realise it, focused as he is on finding the other boy, but Jean eventually notices the almost eerie silence of the area he is in. There are no titans here, no wounded soldiers, and no corpses. The place is completely empty, and in certain parts he can see traces of blood splatter without a body to accompany it. It twinges his already high-strung nerves and Jean swallows hard, nausea climbing up his throat.
Then, it reaches him, the muted murmuring, and Jean knows he is close. He swerves sharply to the right, trusting his instincts as he heads towards a central square. Once there, he drops to the ground, rolling with the force of his speed before coming to an unsteady crouch. He hears someone cough lightly; when he turns to his right, the man from the tavern is standing nearby, and—
There, leaning heavily against a fragmented piece of stone wall, is Marco, covered in blood, his left leg folded under him, broken.
His whole being goes cold and Jean rushes forward, one word repeating over and over in his head, a desperate prayer.
He kneels by the other boy. There is a huge gaping wound in his side and blood on his face, seeping everywhere, but he is, miraculously, impossibly, still breathing.
"Marco," he says, one hand pressing against his carotid, beneath his jaw; a weak pulse pushes back. "Marco, can you hear me?"
The other boy coughs, a wet gurgling sound, and opens one eye. "Jean," he rasps.
Relief floods him in waves so overwhelming that it makes him dizzy, makes the entire world swim dangerously before he forces his attention back on the wounded brunette. "It's okay," he says, trying not to cry. "It's okay. You'll be alright."
"Indeed," the stranger says, startling Jean. He is walking over to them, and bends into a crouch opposite Jean, on the other side of Marco's limp form. Raising one hand, he pulls back his black hood, revealing a head of blonde and penetrating blue eyes. "He will be."
Jean freezes. A new form of cold settles under his skin and when he meets the stranger's gaze, his chest is bursting with a thousand emotions.
"I have kept my end of the bargain," he says, gesturing with one hand to Marco, whose head has tilted slightly to one side, towards Jean. "It's time you kept yours."
Marco is wheezing, each breath sounding more painful than the last, and he shifts imperceptibly closer to Jean. "What...Jean...?"
"No," he whispers, low and full of warning. His body has moved of its own accord, arms folded around Marco protectively, one hand cradling the back of his head, holding him as close as possible regardless of the boy's pained protests. "Fuck you, no—"
The blonde man shakes his head, a low disapproving hum in his throat. He flicks his wrist, once, and Jean is sent flying back by an unseen force, slamming into the ground. By the time he manages to find his bearings, the other man has lifted Marco up by the collar of his uniform, dangling him in the air cruelly.
Fear rises up in his throat and Jean stumbles forward only to crash into an invisible wall. "No!"
Marco is coughing, his left hand coming up to tug weakly at the grip near his throat. "Jean—!"
His entire being has gone deathly cold and Jean pounds against the unmoving air desperately. "Stop! Don't do it!"
"A deal is a deal," the man says, almost casually. "No backing out now, Kirschstein."
"No!" The shadows have come, swirling in the ground beneath his feet as the buzzing grows louder, yellow orbs peering up at him, and Jean pushes forward with all his might. "Let him go, damn it!"
But it is no use. As Jean watches, liquid darkness curls around the two of them, circling them hungrily. The air is thick and heavy.
He sees Marco turn his head, blood in his hair, naked fear clear in his unharmed eye; he sees the boy's lips move, but the name drowns in the relentless whispering and Jean screams, one long anguished sound, as he watches the shadows swallow them both, wrapping around them like a distorted second skin—
And then he is alone.