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Only Human

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Jean doesn't know how long he remains kneeling there, in that place that echoed of whispers and stank of darkness. He recalls watching his shadow lengthen, elongating in front of him as he stares at the ground, unblinking. The world grows dim, gradually melting into darker shades of day until he is surrounded by a curtain of black, the air an unsettling brand of quiet.

Perhaps, at some point, he sleeps.

-----

He is falling, gradually, as if in slow-motion. The space around him is cold, seeping through his skin and into his lungs, but his body feels weightless. He doesn't breathe.

There is warmth below him, and when he twists his body around, he sees a large circle of coloured glass, glowing faintly. The centre pieces are framed by a black and blue outer border, and together they paint a picture of someone he vaguely recognises--but the name slips past his thoughts, dissipating into the back of his mind, and he fails to remember.

His feet touch down first, tentatively, and he half-expects the ground to shatter under his weight, but it holds firm. Nevertheless, his steps are careful as he walks across the circular platform, peering over the edge. A steep drop greets him, disappearing into hollow nothingness.

Then, a voice speaks to him, indistinct but persistent in his mind; when he looks around, he notices three pedestals standing near the centre, each cloaked by a soft, mystical light.

Three choices.

He turns to the first.

Noises. Indistinct footsteps.

Someone shakes his shoulders, yelling words he cannot understand.

Now he is descending along a spiralling staircase. Each step is made of stained glass, not unlike the platform he first arrived at, and seems to be suspended in the air by an unseen force. He walks through the empty space without hearing so much as his footsteps; the place is deathly quiet.

Is he still not breathing?

He cannot tell. He does not dare check.

Another circular landing lies in wait ahead of him. As he approaches, he realises that the platform sits atop a tall, cylindrical tower, rising up from the emptiness below him without any supporting structures. He steps onto it, feels the hair on the back of his neck stand straight; when he whirls around, the steps that first brought him here have disappeared, and he is once again stranded with no way of escaping.

The ground ripples, like water. His ears pop but there is still no sound. It prickles his senses in intuitive warning; he reaches down for his weapons and finds them missing.

A large shadow appears.

Soft cushion under his spine. Hazy figures moving all around him, and unintelligible sounds fill the air. In one corner, he sees a shock of black and he gasps, memories flooding his mind's eye.

"Marco—!"

Someone whispers into his ears, tone low and soothing—but it is the wrong voice, the hand on his face the wrong size, and he shakes his head, trying to fight off the stranger's unwelcome proximity.

"Marco..."

The ground finally shatters, just as he expected it to. Broken shards fly haphazardly all around him, and the stinging pain of glass cutting into his skin is the first tangible thing he feels in what seems to be a very long time. He is falling once more, helpless to do anything but watch as the creature reaches out with one arm and curls its massive claws around him. 

Now, the world is ablaze.

It's too hot, he thinks. The sun's too close. My skin is burning.

Noise on his left. He turns his head and squints against the bright light. Vaguely, he makes out a figure, someone familiar. "Hwu—" he says, and stops. His tongue feels heavy, uncooperative. He tries to speak again, but this time the words get lodged in the base of his throat and he coughs, sputtering around the sudden lump.

The hazy figure moves; something cool touches his forehead. The dampness is instantly gratifying and he finds himself relaxing, all the fight leaving him.

But the forest is alight with flames. When he looks to the lake the water, too, is burning. Everywhere, the fire consumes without mercy. Only he alone, stands unharmed.

"Look, Jean."

He turns, heart thundering against his ribs, but the boy is not there.

"Here."

He turns again, and this time he sees—

(A body torn in half, an oblique wound running from the side of his neck to just above his hips. Right arm missing, but the left is reaching out for him, muscle and skin barely clinging to the bones underneath. Lips parted wide in a grotesque smile, head tilted to one side. Black hair in his eyes, face mottled with red, as he says, "Jean...")

He gasps. When he tries to move, his limbs get tangled in something he cannot identify, and he struggles, panic rising in the back of his mouth. Kicking viciously, he hears something tear and he twists his body away, desperately, still seeing fire and mutilated bodies.

Before Jean can fully register his surroundings, he slips and lands on a hard, unforgiving floor. The familiar sensation of wood helps ground him and as he lies there, his breathing gradually slows, his thoughts piecing themselves together little by little.

There is no fire, he tells himself. No one else here.

Jean exhales heavily, reaching up to grip the edge of the bed he had fallen off earlier, and pulls himself onto his knees. The cotton sheets are ruined; he can see the gaping hole his momentary disorientation had caused. There is a glass of water on the side table and suddenly his throat feels like it's made of paper, scrunched up and abandoned. He reaches for the glass and drinks greedily, licking at the rim when the water runs out too soon, and drops it onto the mattress.

He leans forward, cushioning his head with his arms. There is a deep fatigue in the ends of his backbone, beginning in his lumbar and spreading throughout his body. There isn't enough energy in his muscles to move and he finds his mind drifting away in that position, slumped forward onto the bed, face hidden from the world.

This time, he doesn't dream.

-----

"Jean!"

He wakes with a start, blinking against the sudden light before his eyes can stay open. Gradually, blurry outlines shift to form familiar faces, one of which smiles at him. "You're awake."

"Yes," he agrees, rubbing at his eyes with the heels of his palms.

"What are you doing on the floor?" someone else asks. "Why aren't you on the bed?"

He sighs. "I fell off, Connie."

There is a bout of silence as his visitors consider this. Then, Connie coughs awkwardly. "You, uh. You okay, man?"

Jean doesn't answer. He makes no move to get up either, staring at his hands, before finally looking up at them. Three faces wearing identical expressions of concern are watching him, silently. "I don't know," he says quietly, the words hushed.

Armin and Connie help him stand, supporting his weight as they drag him onto the bed. Krista fusses, fluffing the pillow and patting his arm, constantly asking him if he's comfortable. None of them mention the torn sheets, for which he is grateful. Armin brings him up to date with recent events; apparently, it's been three days since Reiner and Bertholdt found him in the central square and dragged his limp, unresponsive body back to safety. Since then, Eren has gone from unexpected hero to a prisoner of the MP, to hostage of the Survey Corps. For the rest of them, tonight is the induction ceremony.

"That's one of the reasons we came by," Krista pipes in. "To see if you're feeling well enough to attend."

Connie nods, head bobbing as he crosses his arms. "Yep. Wouldn't want to miss your big chance at joining the MP, right?" His tone is light, but there is a rigid tension in the way he is holding himself, his smile strained, eyes darting left and right.

Jean glances from him to Krista--who is chewing on her bottom lip--to Armin, who is watching him carefully, his head bent slightly, hesitant.

"What?" Jean asks.

Armins swallows, eyebrows curving into a frown. "A lot of people went missing that day," he begins, "when we took back Wall Rose. We spent these last few days collecting all the dead bodies. For a, a proper funeral. And there were a lot of unidentified bodies. Because of...the condition they were found in."

Now he understands their worry, the reason they're looking at him as if he is a fragile, delicate thing, on the verge of breaking. It makes him nauseous; it makes him want to throw his head back and laugh. I know, he wants to say. I've always known.

Instead, he says, "And?"

"We didn't find Marco," Armin says, enunciating every word clearly and carefully, "but we think he might be among the unidentified bodies."

Jean closes his eyes. "He's not."

No one speaks. No one moves. The air is dripping with unvoiced thoughts and Jean can practically taste their sympathy. When he opens his eyes again, Armin is still looking at him. There is a sad line in the arch of his eyebrows now, but aside from that, his expression doesn't change. "Jean," he says firmly, "Marco is dead."

He meets Armin's gaze steadily, and replies, with the same grim inflection the other soldier had used, "I know."

-----

They leave after that, Krista ushering the other two boys out with a gentle hand on each of their backs. Before she closes the door, she turns to Jean, a small hesitant smile on her lips, hand stilled on the doorknob. "The induction ceremony will start a little after dusk. We'll see you there, right?"

He nods wearily, barely having the energy to make even that one small gesture. Satisfied, she tugs on the door and it closes with a soft click, leaving Jean alone with his thoughts once more.

Breathing out a long sigh, he leans back against the pillows. "He's dead," Jean says, thinking of warm laughter echoing in his ears and freckles under his fingertips—dark brown eyes screaming in a silent plea, so very afraid, as an unknown darkness devoured him whole.

It was a death by Jean's decision. It was Jean who picked his own selfish desires over what was most important and in doing so, had condemned Marco to a fate he still did not entirely understand. Now Jean would live out the rest of his life with blood on his hands, soul soaked in guilt.

Jean brings his hands up, pressing the back of his fingers to both his eyes, and feels moisture on his skin. "He's dead," he says again, to the empty room and his treacherous thoughts.

And then, just like every cycle before this, he mourns.

-----

At some point, Jean manages to heave himself out of bed and over to the nearby chair, where his clothes have been laid out, washed and folded into a neat pile. He picks up his uniform jacket, relieved to find it still intact, and digs a hand into the breast pocket until he finds what he's looking for.

The two cubes are cold against his skin, their surfaces the colour of bone, black dots staring up at him from the cradle of his palm.

"The rules of the game are simple," the hooded man says, setting down his mug of beer. "Roll the dice, and the outcome determines the number of chances you'll be given to change the past. The countdown begins. You are transported back in time, ready to make things right."

Jean stares at the dice, still trying to wrap his mind around the concept of other worlds and unknown magicks, and doesn't respond.

The man continues, unperturbed by the silence. "Should you fail during an attempt and wish to initiate the next, all you have to do is roll again and let the dice take over. You may restart as many times as you wish, at any point of your history. However, it goes without saying that this will only work once your beau is dead."

That effectively cuts through his train of thoughts. "Fuck you," he snarls, bitter fury rising into his throat.

The bastard ignores him. "Of course, this deal becomes invalid once you agree to my second offer."

"Well you can take your second fucking offer and go to hell," he growls, snatching up the dice, "because that will never happen."

"Hmm." Even with his face shrouded by the hood of his black cloak, Jean knows the other man is smirking. "We shall see."

Jean stares at his hand. Slowly, wordlessly, he tips his palm to one side, watching the dice tumble off his skin and onto the floor. It hits the ground with a barely audible sound, clattering softly against the wood.

Time does not rewind.

-----

He makes it to the induction ceremony somehow. He listens to the Commander's speech, every word loud and hollow in his ears, as he stands in position. He can feel the glances of his batchmates, can feel the burn of Armin's gaze on the back of his head. On his right, Sasha is fidgeting restlessly, her shoulders twitching erratically. Next to her, Connie is wearing a half-grin on his face, eyes wide, staring straight ahead.

Slowly, people begin making their way off the field. There is no chatter, only silent retreat. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Annie turn from them without a trace of hesitance, shoulders squared and back straight as she departs with the rest of the crowd. Jean thinks of the faux recon mission they'll be sent on in a few weeks, and the inevitable slaughter of nearly half the Survey Corps, and says nothing.

In the end, it is still more or less the same crowd that remains. Without turning his head, he can picture Reiner and Bertholdt's identical expressions of somber determination. He can see Krista's tears and Ymir's irritated scowl; Mikasa standing tall, Armin, resolved.

Connie laughs, a low hopeless sound. "I don't even care anymore. Do your worst, you titan shits."

Jean doesn't respond, not even when Sasha's high-pitched whine joins Connie's broken muttering. This is their coping mechanism. It's important; it is the only way they will become strong enough to survive the fate that awaits them.

He stares straight ahead. The future is clear to him. And bleak.

-----

"Will you two stop crying already!?"

"Who...who's crying?" Krista mumbles, dabbing at her eyes with the sleeves of her blouse.

Next to her, Sasha makes no similar move to hide her tears. The corner of her eyes continues to overflow shamelessly, and she sniffles as she takes another swig of beer.

Ymir makes an exasperated sound, exhaling through her teeth. "Fuck. I don't know how you two are gonna survive the Corps like this."

"Leave them alone," Reiner says from four seats away, nursing his own drink. "It's better that they let it all out now instead of breaking down later during a recon."

"Well, aren't you a sweet one," she sneers. "Speaking from personal experience, I'm sure?"

The blonde scowls, a faint flush racing across his cheeks, but before he can reply, Connie slams his mug down, splashing beer. "Shut up, Ymir," he says, words slurred. "Not everyone can be as strong as you, alright?"

Ymir raises one thin eyebrow, cocks her head at Connie. "You flirting with me?"

Now it's Connie's turn to flush red. "No!" he protests, gesturing wildly with his hands and punching Armin in the ear.

She grins. "Sure sounds like it."

He makes a choked sound somewhere in his throat and slaps a palm onto the table. "I'm just trying to say. You might be okay with getting killed. And eaten by titans. But the rest of us are normal people with normal fears of dying, okay?"

"Sorry, Connie. I don't do pity sex." Ymir pauses, looking thoughtful, and adds, "Or guys either."

The shaven boy lets out a strangled roar, climbs onto the table and tries to launch himself at her. His attempts are foiled by Armin's hastily grabbing his shirt, ending with him falling face first into Krista's bowl of chicken broth. He jerks back reflexively, kicking Armin in the chest, who yelps in pain and knocks over his own drink which then proceeds to spread across half the table, dribbling into their laps.

There is a pause. Connie wriggles a little and then stops moving completely.

Mikasa sighs and gets up to find a cloth.

Jean, among the lucky few sitting at the dry end, gives his still nearly-full mug a disheartened shake, watching the liquid slosh around inside of it. The beer has barely given him a buzz and his thoughts are still too loud in his skull, but his stomach is protesting such early drinking without any food to ingest first. Torn between eating--for which he has no appetite--and being sober, one would have thought the choice to be obvious. But Jean learned a long time ago that he couldn't trust his mouth when drunk, and the last thing he needs right now is to spill his pathetic heart out in the middle of a dining hall all too full of people.

Hence, the untouched beer.

"Jean."

He looks up to see Armin's worried smile. "You're very quiet tonight," the blonde observes, leaning slightly over the slumped, motionless form of a now-snoring Connie.

Jean shrugs. "There's plenty of noise to go around," he says, nodding at the shaven boy. "No need for me to add to it."

"That's not true," Armin says. "This is our last night as trainees. We're all supposed to blow off some steam before we leave."

"I'm not really feeling it."

"What's the matter, Kirschstein?" Ymir says, tapping her fingers against the wooden table. "No point in socialising if your boyfriend ain't here to smile at you?"

Krista gasps, choking on a sob. "Ymir!"

Jean turns to face her, the dull ache that has been haunting his chest all night long now throbbing twice as strong. "What was that?"

"You heard me." She smirks, baring teeth. "Not worth making nice if he ain't here to coo and be proud of you?"

He is out of his seat before he knows it, but once again, Armin's keen instincts has him looping his arms around Jean's waist before he can try anything, the blonde spread over Connie's back in an awkward angle, weighing Jean down. "Ymir, stop it," he says, huffing for breath.

"Why?" she shoots back. "His face is making me sick."

"Yeah?" Jean snarls, pushing at Armin's arms in an attempt to forcefully shove him off. "Who's the one looking?"

"Can't help it if you're gonna sit there in front of me."

"Find a different fucking seat then."

"Too much effort. Easier if you leave."

"Do I look like I'm leaving to you!?"

"Jean," Armins says. Then, "Ymir!"

"Get over it, brat," she spits, eyes narrowing. "Where we're going, people'll be dying left and right. You won't have time to sit around and mope."

"You think I don't know that!?" he yells, and has the pinprick satisfaction of seeing Ymir freeze in place. Anger surges into his chest, flaming hot fury pouring into his lungs, blinding him momentarily. "I know it better than you ever could! Better than any of you! I've known for years!" And fuck, there it goes, his goddamn mouth. He's not even properly drunk yet.

Jean grinds his teeth, clenching his jaw shut before he says anything else.

"Years?" Ymir echoes, managing to simultaneously laugh and scoff. "What, did your family get eaten up too?"

"Enough!" Krista is standing now, shoving Ymir off the bench. "Whatever it is you think you're doing, Ymir, stop. We're leaving."

The tall brunette obediently slips out of her seat and into a stand, but the glint in her eyes tells Jean she's not quite finished. "Well, Kirschstein," she mutters, ignoring Krista's stern protests as she leans in close enough that he can feel her breath. "If you know it so well, try to keep it in mind in the future, alright? It only gets worse from here."

Jean breathes through his nose, and refuses to speak.

Ymir smirks again, but Krista is insistently tugging at her arm, and she allows herself to be dragged away, out of the hall.

When the two girls are out of sight, Jean permits himself a heavy sigh. A hand pats his side, startling him out of his thoughts, and he belatedly realises that Armin is still hanging around his waist, cheek pressed to his stomach.

The other boy looks up at him with wide blue eyes. "Are you okay?"

He nods. "Yeah," he says, grateful that the word doesn't come out too shaky. When he looks around the room, the rest of the hall has mercifully gone back to minding their own business, giving him the illusion of privacy, no matter how brittle it is. It makes him want to smile; it also makes him feel like crying again. "Yeah, I'm okay. Thanks, Armin."

The blonde nods and finally relinquishes his hold. They're silent for a moment, the two of them just sitting there on the same bench, accompanied by quiet chatter and Connie's incessant snoring. After a while, Armin jerks his thumb at the sleeping soldier. "Wanna help me carry him back to the dorm?"

Jean takes one last gulp of beer and shrugs. "Sure, why not?"

-----

They leave in the morning. The journey to the Survey Corps headquarters is to be made on horseback, and each new soldier is required to attend the stables to receive a horse of their own, their permanent companion from that day onward. Jean arrives to find his partner already picked out for him--a tall, magnificent brown beast of speed and muscle. It snorts into his hand, nuzzles his hair, and makes him smile very, very slightly.

The journey takes up almost the entire day, and by the time they arrive at their destination, the sun is already beginning to set, painting the sky in shades of dusk. Armin and Mikasa cluster around Eren in a small reunion, and the others are quick to follow. Jean considers ignoring them and going straight to bed, where he'll finally have some peace and quiet after an entire day's worth of being surrounded by inescapable noise. But then Armin glances his way, their eyes meeting, and Jean trudges over with a sigh.

By the time he reaches the group, someone must have already given Eren the news, because the boy turns to him with slow dread, expression torn midway between shock and pity. His usual grimace doesn't show, and he hesitates, looking at loss for words.

Jean decides he doesn't have the energy to sit through another pity lecture, or any more fumbling declarations of sympathy. So before the other boy can arrange his thoughts well enough to speak, he says, "You look well."

Eren blinks.

"I heard you got beaten up pretty bad. With how worried Mikasa's been, I was expecting to see you all strung up with casts and bandaged like a corpse," he continues, pretending not to see the death glare Mikasa is giving him. "Guess those titan regenerating powers carry over to your human form too, huh? Must be handy. You could get your hands bitten off over and over, and it'll still grow back every time. Very convenient for a suicidal moron like you."

Now Eren's lips have curled into a familiar scowl of intense dislike, and there is no gentility to his next words. "Fuck off, Jean."

Somewhere near the castle entrance, one of the senior officers is announcing the arrival of their uniforms. Jean heads in that direction, following the flow of the mob, and doesn't look back.

-----

He immerses himself in drills and strategy lessons, pouring all of his focus into their daily activities. His free time is divided between extra practice sessions--with whoever happens to be free at that time of the day; usually Connie and Sasha, occasionally Reiner and Bertholdt--and caring for his horse.

Jean spends a lot of time with the mare, teaching her to recognise the sound of his whistles when they go out to the fields. She always neighs in immediate recognition, galloping over to him and shoving her head into his shoulder with enough force to knock him over. In turn, he learns her temperance, her stamina and pacing, the rhythm of her canter and her snorts of frustration. It is a gradual process, and he hopes they will be enough to keep each other alive, outside the walls.

He exercise, he eats, he showers. He thinks about everything but what hangs in his mind the most, and tries to convince himself that everything will be okay.

It is only when he sleeps that he finds no escape. His memories crawl out relentlessly, masquerading as dreams so real that he almost believes them, and every night he drowns in a sea of things he does not want to remember, tainted by false hope.

When he wakes, it is always on the fine line between dream and reality, and Jean lies awake in the solitude of early dawn, carefully picking apart what is real from what isn't, biting back unbidden tears.

-----

A week after their initiation into the Survey Corps, the castle is ambushed.

It happens near midnight, the full moon hanging bright in the clear sky, solemn and cold. Jean is awoken by startled shouts, followed by what sounds like an explosion, somewhere in the basement of the castle. He jerks upright as someone darts over, rushing to the window, and Jean hurries over to join them.

The castle grounds are crawling with shadows, a thousand bright yellow eyes staring out of the rapidly expanding mass of black. Jean inhales sharply and immediately throws himself back from the sight, nearly tripping over someone's foot in his hurry to get away.

His heart is hammering in his chest, his thoughts a whirlwind of confusion.

What are they doing here? Jean wonders. What's happening?

Connie appears at his side. "What's going on?"

"How the hell should I know?" he retorts, wincing when the words come out sharper than he had intended.

But the other boy barely reacts to his harshness, merely pausing long enough to grab Jean by the elbow and hauling him out into the hallway.

The castle is in complete, utter chaos. As they make their way down the staircase and into the great hall, Jean catches snippets of alarmed exchanges--cannon powder, fire, monsters, and basement. 

"Monsters?" Connie repeats, swerving around a soldier heading in the opposite direction. "Are they talking about titans?"

"Those things outside didn't look like titans," he yells back, and keeps the rest of his thoughts to himself.

"Soldiers!"

Everyone freezes in place. Hanji is standing on a table near the back end of the hall, one blade raised in the air. "Soldiers," she says again. "To me!"

As everyone scrambles to obey, the squad leader lowers her sword and begins briefing them on the spot. "There isn't much time. We seem to be under attack by an unknown enemy, both from outside and inside the castle. Scouts reported them as having appeared out of thin air," she says, and a low murmur of disbelief ripples through the crowd, despite their training, forcing Hanji to raise her voice in order be heard, "and they show no signs of stopping any time soon. Regardless of where they're coming from, there have been several casualties already. These things can hurt, and they will not hesitate to do so. Your orders are to dispose of each and every one of these creatures immediately. Use your weapons. Approach them with caution but show no mercy. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir!" The crowd salutes as one, voices bouncing off the walls.

Hanji returns the gesture. "Dismissed!"

They rush to their respective storerooms, grabbing their equipment. There isn't enough time to strap on the 3D gear, and they head out into battle with only their swords and extra blades. They split into groups to cover more ground, and Jean ends up in the same team as Bertholdt and a girl he doesn't know.

Bursting into the kitchen, they are immediately assaulted by a wave of those black creatures. The girl swears and goes running into the fray swinging. On his left, he sees Bertholdt do the same, slashing at everything he can reach. Jean grips his swords and heads for the nearest monster, bringing his arm up, ready to strike.

"He will turn into one of them," the man says, gesturing to the bright-eyed demon. "A Heartless, as we call it."

Jean freezes.

A mistake; the creatures lunge at him all at once, sharp claws tearing at his clothes and skin. The stinging pain is almost unbearable, but he does not dare fight back, a gripping fear clutching at his heart.

He might be here, he thinks, feeling sick. Marco might be one of them.

The monsters continue climbing up him, all over him. The weight of them brings him to his knees, their attacks relentless. He feels his fingers twitch around the handle of his blades and he grits his teeth, forcing himself to let go. He hears a shout and then he is being pulled away, out into the open air.

Jean gasps for breath, lungs burning. Bertholdt is kicking off the remaining shadows that cling stubbornly to Jean's legs, slapping them away with his sword.

"Private!" the girl yells from across the room. "Pay attention!"

"Are you alright?" Bertholdt asks, eyes still fixed on the monsters.

Jean is wheezing. "Don't," he manages to say, coughing. "Don't fight them."

The other soldier looks down at him, confused. "What?"

And then, Jean hears it.

He scrambles into a stand, stumbling into Bertholdt, disoriented. The other boy grunts, nearly falls, but Jean pushes past him, out of the kitchen, and takes off running. He hears Bertholdt's faint cry of surprise, calling his name, but his body is moving on its own now, his mind focused on one thing only.

The whispering.

He doesn't know why, doesn't know what it means, but the pounding in his chest tells him to follow that sound, and he keeps going. The world becomes a blur of people and demons, the noises of fighting fading into the background. In his mind, the unpleasantly familiar susurrus is the only thing of importance, and everything else is secondary.

Jean takes turns instinctively, jumping down flights of stairs and skidding around curved corners as he finds himself going deeper into the castle undergrounds. He slams into one of the basement storerooms, fumbling the knob in his hurry to get through. Once open, he staggers inside, hands going for his weapons, bracing himself for another wave of undead creatures.

The room is crawling with those shadowy monsters, occupying nearly every inch of the storage. Yet none of them are attacking, seemingly content to ignore him, and it is such a stark difference from what he's seen outside that it makes him even more worried than if they had swarmed him instantly. He backs away a little, keeping close to the door as he tries to figure out what should be done next.

One of the smaller shadows breaks apart from the rest, heading unsteadily for him. It takes him by surprise, his reaction pure reflex; he twists his body around and aims a kick at it. The monster makes no sound as he sends it flying across the room, landing some distance away, its feet clawing ineffectively at the air as it struggles to right itself.

Jean stares, breathing hard. His boot feels damp where his foot made contact; it felt like he was kicking damp mist, a strange moisture seeping through the leather of his shoes and into his skin. When he glances down, his boot is clean, and his stomach lurches. 

Then, movement. Goosebumps prickle the back of his neck and Jean whirls around, swinging his blade in a wide arc. His blow is parried, but his attacker is nowhere to be seen. Jean takes a step back, scanning the room, his heart racing and his every muscle tense, ready to fight.

Suddenly, he is being pulled backwards, choking on the collar of his shirt. Before he can react, his back slams into a wall with enough force to crush all breath out of his lungs. A yelp of pain escapes his throat as the impact vibrates through his shoulder blades, even as he brings up his swords against his opponent.

Then he freezes, heart coming to an abrupt stop. And he stares.

Marco smiles. "Hello, Jean."