There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
Marco goes home in a yellow envelope, GARRISON MILT. stamped on it in blocky red letters. Dog tags, a lock of hair and a neatly worded letter signed by Commander Dot Pixis that mourned the loss of a promising soldier: the sum of Marco Bodt’s life, no bigger than the width of Jean’s hand.
Mrs. Bodt would open it with shaking hands, yellow paper ripping from the force and Marco’s tags would fall onto the floor, silvery gray chain pooling over the metal disks. Jean usually imagines there to be more crying after that, Mr. Bodt weeping silent manly tears with an arm around Mrs. Bodt’s shoulders. If he’s feeling particularly shitty that night, he even thinks about the bloody lock of Marco’s hair he’d cut off with his pocketknife, cradled in Mrs. Bodt’s small, worn hands.
After that point, he’s usually too drunk to string together two words to form a coherent thought, let alone wallow in guilt.
Only in the Legion is the chance of dying from choking on your drunken vomit higher than from an encounter with a Titan.
Jean has a specific routine when he gets back from a scouting expedition Outside: shower, eat, get drunk, fuck, wake up, drink coffee, repeat until sent on another mission.
“We need to talk.”
“The fuck we do,” Jean says, toes squelchy wet from Titan blood and a week’s worth of shit coating his skin. He doesn’t like it very much when the routine gets disturbed, especially when it comes in the form of Armin fucking Arlet. “I need a shower, not another meeting with you.”
Jean snaps him a smart salute, Titan guts flying from his green cloak. “Lieutenant Commander, sir!” It gives him a tiny flare of satisfaction that Armin’s boots end up splattered in blood.
Armin, serious as always, doesn’t even flinch. “Jean, this is about a personal matter.”
Jean shoves his hands in his pockets and sighs. “Alright, alright. Your office?”
The Lieutenant Commander’s office sits on the second floor of Legion’s headquarters, equipped with its own bathroom and an adjoining study. It boasts windows and walls lined with bookcases going all the way up to the ceiling, stuffed with so many books the shelves creak ominously when Jean so much as looks at them.
Armin waves a hand carelessly at a stool covered with stacks of papers. “You can move those anywhere.”
The map on the far wall catches Jean’s eye-- it’s one of the few detailed ones he’s ever seen of the world Outside. The Walls don’t even feature on it, just vast expanses of wood and mountains. Armin follows his gaze and smiles, glasses gleaming in the reflected sunlight.
“Ten kilometers northwest from Wall Maria,” he says, voice edged with a fierce pride. “Soon, we’ll have enough data to draw up a new one reading up to twenty three kilometers.”
Jean shoves the papers off his stool and onto the floor and takes a seat. “Is that why you’ve been wearing those on your head?”
Armin’s fingers trace the leather bands on the back of his head, half-hidden by long yellow hair reaching down to the nape of his neck. “You know how it is with eyes and reading.”
“Yeah,” Jean snorts. “You know, you look even stupider than Hanji did with those.”
“Thanks,” Armin says dryly, settling himself into his chair. “You’re always a pleasure to talk to.”
“Well? What did you even want to talk to me about?” Jean’s right leg starts fidgeting, ankle knocking rhythmically against a leg of the stool.
Armin presses the tips of his fingertips together, wide blue eyes magnified to an absurd degree by his glasses. “It’s about Marco.”
Jean’s leg freezes. “What--” Jean licks his lips and tries again. “What about him?”
“Rather, his younger brother. He recently graduated from Cadet School and applied to join the Scouting Legion.”
Jean’s caught between the sensation of falling forward and sitting rigidly in his stool, between the air rushing in his ears and the solid weight of wood under his thighs, between the tags hanging around his neck and Marco’s sent home in a thin yellow envelope.
“Are you alright?”
“I didn’t know he had a brother,” Jean says, distantly.
Armin gives him a long look, large blue eyes unreadable. “Neither did I.”
“How-- what--” Jean grips the edge of the stool, knuckles whitening, splinters digging into the tips of his fingers.
Applied to join the Scouting Legion.
“Oh, hell no,” Jean says furiously, rocketing off his seat and stomping over to Armin’s desk. “I am not dealing with-- with-- with whatever hare-brained fucked up scheme you are coming up with. Scouting Legion?”
Jean stabs a finger at Armin’s chest, not quite touching the embossed crossed wings. “Fuck no.”
Armin’s eyes are even freakishly larger up close. “Jean.”
“No! No, no, no, no! I am not taking care of-- of him or getting near him and I have absolutely no intention of meeting the little fucker, alright? Better yet, send him back.” Jean’s chest is heaving and he’s dimly aware that he’s so close that he’s practically spitting on his superior officer’s face, but he’s too scared to care.
“If he’s anything like his brother, he’s probably smart as fuck. Give him to the Garrison, to the Military Police. He’s not joining the Legion, ever.”
Armin blinks owlishly, all innocent-like. “Jean, if you would calm yourself--”
“Calm-- calm myself?!” Jean’s voice rises so high it feels like he cracked a vocal chord.
“Is-- is this a bad time to come in?”
Jean whips around to rip the intruder a new one and open his mouth. And then closes it. Then open it again. The boy has dark curling hair framing a sweet, heart-shaped face, freckles splattered over the bridge of his nose and the curve of his jaw. Baby fat still stubbornly clinging to round cheeks, arms and legs too long for the rest of his body. Bright brown eyes, framed with long delicate lashes.
“Fuck me,” Jean says.
Because he’d rather do anything but look at the boy in the eye, Jean stares right into those wide brown eyes, hoping that it’ll make the other boy spontaneously combust into flames. It only serves in making the boy squirm in his chair.
“Corporal Kirchstein, permission to speak sir?”
Jean considers it for a long moment, watching the boy sweat under the silence. “Granted.”
“Is--” The boy swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing. “Is it true that you knew my brother sir?”
Oh for fuck’s sake, did the kid’s voice crack at the end? Jean wonders if his balls had even dropped yet.
“What’s your name, Trainee?”
“Kurt Bodt, sir!”
Clean salute, good posture. Jean’s right leg starts shaking again, a nervous habit he never managed to quit from his rookie days.
“Why do you want to join the Scouting Legion?”
This time Kurt’s voice is steady: “To kill Titans, sir!”
“And why do you want to kill Titans, Trainee?” Just another normal interview, Jean tells himself, trying to ignore the fact that Armin had basically shoved the two of them into a supply closet to foster a ‘closer relationship.’
“As revenge, sir. They killed my brother.”
Jean’s lip curls. He knows the light in other boy’s eyes, bright and hungry. It makes his stomach roil to see it again in a different face.
“Your brother?” he asks, for the sake of appearances. “When did he die?”
“During the attack of Trost seven years back,” Kurt answers, fists clenched on the table. “Right after he graduated.” He swallows, and looks up, eyes keen. “But, sir, from what the Lieutenant Commander told me, he said you knew my brother.”
Jean smiles very pleasantly and leans forward, the edge of the table digging into the soft skin of his stomach. “Everything the Commander told you was a bucketful of horse shit. Forget about it. If you want to live a little longer, go join the fucking Military Police or better yet, find another job.” He’s close enough that he can count every single freckle on Kurt’s face, skin pale and sweaty under the dim torchlight. “But I’ll be damned if I let you join the Legion on my watch. I don’t need useless sacks of shit like you.”
Jean pulls his cloak on and stands up, kicking the chair out of the way. “Now, get the fuck out of here and I hope I never see your ugly face again. Understood?”
Kurt’s shaking as he stands up, all gangly limbs and red faced, as he snaps a sharp salute. “Understood, sir!”
Jean’s ready to make for the door, when Kurt digs at something under his shirt and pulls it out, metal gleaming with reflected light. The links of the chain are old and rusty from water damage, but the disks are still shiny and burnished, letters clearly etched onto the surface: MARCO BODT/M/100962.
“They sent these home after he died,” Kurt says, sweat plastering dark curls on his forehead. “He was killed in action, eaten by a Titan.”
Jean stays silent, watching the hypnotic swaying motion of the tags, dangling in Kurt’s trembling fist.
“My mother was never the same after that. My father left to work in the farms and never came back.” Kurt holds them up higher in the air, high enough that the tags are above both their heads now. “The Titans ruined my family,” Kurt says, voice ragged. “I want to join because I want to see why my brother decided to do such a stupid fucking thing and get himself killed. For what? Because all I have left right now are my brother’s tags and-- and--” Tears drip steadily from Kurt’s jaw and onto the floor. He’s seen enough.
Jean pulls the hood of his cloak up and over his head and turns away to the door. “Report to the barracks tomorrow at eighthundred sharp.”
Kurt makes a harsh croaking sort of noise and then hiccups. Jean walks out of the room, watching the kid cry into his sleeve from the corner of his eye until he’s too far away.
Jean hands the kid a mop and a bucket and sets him to wiping down the floors of the mess hall. The kid gives him a horrified sort of look and Jean makes shooing motions with his hands.
“Run along, rookie.”
Jean smiles. “Alright, it looks like we’re going to need to set some ground rules. Lieutenant Commander Armin assigned you to my care and that means you need to shut up and do whatever I say. Understand?”
The kid nods and then opens his mouth.
“Rule one: don’t talk to me. Rule two: don’t fuck with me. Rule three: do whatever the fuck I say. Are we clear?”
The kid shuts his mouth and gives him a nasty look.
Jean considers his job done and goes back to his room and the half bottle of whiskey waiting for him on his nightstand. He checks the angle of the sun from the window-- midmorning, there's plenty of time to get thoroughly trashed and then go hunting for a nice fuck for the night. Jean even settles into a nice whistle during the walk back: he’s clean, fed and going to be drunk, with the minor inconvenience of the kid dealt with. Jean’s even feeling good enough to think about writing his report and handing it on time.
It’s only when he gets back to his room that he realizes what Armin exactly meant when he said that Kurt Bodt was assigned to his care. A bulging pack stuffed with clothes, sleeping roll and a newly-issued 3DMG sit neatly outside his door, a note tacked onto the doorknob.
TAKE GOOD CARE OF HIM
Jean crumples the note and kicks the fucker’s pack for good measure.
Sasha Braus slams her tray down on the table, bits of mashed potatoes flying into the air. A chunk lands in Jean’s coffee and he fishes it out with a spoon, flicking it back at her face. It soars right into her ready mouth and Jean fakes a gag while watching her swallow.
“You’re so fucking gross,” he says, making a face.
“Is it true?”
“Is what true?” Leave it to the fucking potato girl to cut right to the chase. Jean gives her a stink eye but Sasha plows right through it, oblivious.
“About Marco’s brother. He’s really here then? And you’re taking care of him?” Sasha shovels a forkful of over-steamed broccoli into her mouth, chewing furiously.
“No,” Jean says, sipping from his mug.
“You’re a really bad liar,” Sasha says sincerely and Jean nearly chokes on his coffee.
“Seriously?” he coughs into his hand. “I can’t believe you’re the one telling me that.”
“I talked to Connie, who said he talked to Mikasa who talked to Armin and he said that Marco Bodt’s brother joined the Legion!”
“What are you guys, some kind of old lady knitting circle?” Jean wipes his mouth on his sleeve. “Leave the fucking kid alone, he probably won’t be here long.”
Sasha gives him a look. “Jean.”
“You know the odds just as well as I do.” Jean shrugs. “How many of us from our graduating class are left? Six? Seven?”
Sasha inhales the rest of the food on her plate and chugs down her water. “I never knew you were such a scaredy-cat,” she says, punctuating it with a loud burp.
Sasha gives him a shit-eating grin and slings her leg over the bench. “He’s in the regular mess hall, right?”
Jean’s just a second too late, but by then Sasha is halfway to the exit and showing no signs of stopping.
Jean slams his coffee down on the table and runs after her, desperately hoping that the kid is in the bathroom, taking the longest shit of his life. The hallways are filled with fluttering green cloaks, soldiers plastered to the walls while Sasha sprints straight down the middle, barreling over any poor unfortunate soul who’s unlucky enough to be in her way. Jean leaps over a girl with a bootprint on her back, just a few meters behind--
Sasha bursts into the massive hall, neatly cartwheeling past a crowd of grungy looking soldiers huddled protectively over their drinks. “BODT!”
And damn his fucking head, Kurt Bodt stands straight up from his seat, saluting awkwardly. “Sir?”
Sasha dives in head first and the two of them hit the ground in a messy tangle, all long limbs and dusty brown leather. Jean stops to take a breath, leaning his hands on his knees. He’s getting soft, too used to letting a horse do the running for him. Sasha pops up first, hauling the kid up with an arm under his shoulders.
“Woah,” she breathes, a hand delicately tracing the freckles on his jaw. “You look just like him.”
Jean makes a strangled sort of noise and makes his way towards the two of them, heart hammering away in his chest. “You’re freaking him out,” he snarls at Sasha, pushing the two of them apart with a hand. “And you’re making a scene.” He’s only too aware of the silence in the mess hall, countless pairs of eyes dead set on his back.
Kurt’s head snaps to attention, back so rigid Jean’s half-sure that there’s a pole shoved up his ass. “Sir!”
Jean ignores him, instead slapping Sasha’s hand away from Kurt’s face. “You’re starting to freak me out too.”
Sasha turns to him, big eyes threatening to swallow up her face. “But-- but-- Jean.”
Jean knows and he turns his head away so he doesn’t have to look at either of them in the face. “What the hell are you dickfucks looking at?” he barks at the crowd around them and the mess hall slowly fills up with noise again, soldiers paying exquisite attention to their mashed potatoes and overcooked beef.
“You can grope him in private, alright?”
Sasha nods once and Jean turns away, pretending not to notice the way her hand snakes out to grab the hem of Kurt’s shirt. He hustles the two of them out of the hall, out the doorway and into the closest room-- a bathroom, with one poor soul pissing away at a urinal.
“Out,” Jean motions, adding a filthy hand gesture and the kid scarpers, zipping up mid-stream. Sasha and Kurt shuffle into the room at his signal like two wayward children and Jean arranges himself by the door, leaning against the jamb with his arms folded across his chest.
“Okay,” he says, plastering a bored look on his face. “You can touch his ass now.”
Kurt gives him an alarmed look. “Sir!”
“Do you remember what he looked like?” Sasha’s hand turns Kurt’s face gently towards her, the top of her head nearly meeting his chin. “Marco.”
Kurt swallows, face blanching. “No,” he says, voice cracking. “Not really.”
She traces the line of his nose with a fingertip, the curve of his brow. “If you look in the mirror, you’ll see him,” she says gently and Jean looks away, determinedly staring at the crusty old urinals, streaked with old piss and drunken regrets.
“You knew him?” Kurt asks, voice shaking.
“Same Trainee Group,” Sasha answers with a blinding smile. “And Jean too,” she adds pointedly, which he promptly gives her a finger for.
“Really?” The kid gives him a funny look and Jean’s too sick of the smell of rancid vomit to put up with this bullshit anymore. “I’m out,” he says carelessly. “Send him back in one piece, I’ve got an away mission the day after tomorrow.”
“We’re going Outside?” Kurt asks, face brightening, his voice eager.
He can taste bile on his tongue, sour enough to burn. “Yeah,” he says, trying not to gag.
This is what Jean lives for: there’s nothing quite like riding on a horse, the world stretching out before him without end, Walls at his back. His gear is a familiar weight on his hips, the crossed wings flying from his shoulders in a ripple of green.
Yellow smoke blooms in the air just ahead and Jean digs his heels in, clicking his tongue at Gallagher, who slows to a trot obediently. The kid hurtles past him, ass bumping up and down in his saddle like a sack of potatoes.
Jean sinks deeper into his saddle, back hunched over.
“Oi, Kirchstein. Your little duckling’s gonna get himself killed like that.” Peter gives him a poorly hidden smile, clearly holding back a fucking snigger or two.
Jean sighs and tugs at his reins, guiding Gallagher over to where Kurt is doing his very best at falling off his horse. Gallagher blocks the old mare’s path with the length of his body and the kid’s ass nearly flies off his seat from the sudden stop.
“Good riding,” Jean remarks, raising an eyebrow.
Kurt shoots him a glare, but the effect is ruined when he clutches desperately at his horse’s mane when she shifts on her hooves.
Jean snorts. “Get off, we’re stopping for a water break.” He slings himself of his saddle with the ease of long years and takes up Gallagher’s reins with an easy hand. Kurt has managed to fall off his saddle feet-first and clumsily follows after him, sweat trickling down his throat and lingering in the hollow of his collarbones.
“Where are we, sir?”
“Fifteen kilometers southwest of Wall Maria. A routine patrol with some of the surveyors.”
Kurt gives him a hopeful look. “And the Titans, sir?”
Jean smiles grimly. “You’ll see them soon enough. Just get your horse some water and keep your blades on hand.”
Jean leaves his horse with one of the younger officers and heads off to the shade where Armin has set up camp with his cartographers, face buried in sheets of paper.
Armin gives him a squinty-look, the tip of his nose already smudged with ink. “No active sighting, but they’re concerned about one of their nesting grounds. Foster reported that he saw some shadows moving around.”
Jean hocks up a glob and spits on the ground, careful to aim away from Armin. “Three hours?”
“If we keep up this pace, I think so. We’re definitely making contact by the time we break for the night.”
“Fuck it all,” he says, fingering the handles of his grappling guns. “I’d feel better if there was more forest cover.”
“You’re not usually this tense about fighting,” Armin observes, adjusting a strap on his head. He jerks his head over to the kid in the background, where he’s busy rubbing down his horse. “He’s good.”
“Good doesn’t mean you’ll live,” Jean says, right foot toeing the ground. “Not in this world.”
Armin’s eyes are hard, two chips of stone gleaming in the shadows. “Jean, I know--”
Red smoke erupts in the sky and the camp explodes into action, Armin vaulting up from his seat and shouting orders. Jean can feel every beat of his heart, pounding away in his empty chest, like a pebble rattling in a tin can, leaving marks with every hit.
Jean doesn’t even remember running. One moment, he’s under the tree talking shit with Armin, the next he has an arm around the kid’s thighs and hauling him up on the old mare, fear choking up his throat.
Jean looks straight into Marco’s eyes and tries to memorize every detail. “Run,” he shouts raggedly and slaps the side of the horse hard enough for it to rear in the air, hooves flailing.
Jean catches the kid’s hand, callouses brushing against soft skin, and squeezes tight. “I’ll come back for you, I swear.”
The last thing he sees is Kurt’s slim back, bowed over and growing smaller by the second. It’s enough and the vise around Jean’s throat relaxes. Around him, the chaos flows rhythmically, green circling red, human against Titan. Jean breathes in the sharp, coppery smell of blood and draws his first blade.
Three Titans, two in the ten meter class, one looking close to breaching twenty.
Jean raises his hand and fires, grappling hook sinking into a Titan’s eye socket with a sickening crunch. The familiar jerk tugging at his hips and he’s flying through the air, towards the gaping maw, growing larger and larger by the second. He’s close enough that he can feel the hot stink of Titan breath wash over his face before, a flailing arm grazing his leg and throwing his momentum off course, enough that his hook nearly jerks free.
One, two, three seconds in the air--
Jean lands on the top of the Titan’s head and pulls his grappling hook free with a grunt, hot blood gushing in the air and splattering his face.
“Go, go, go!”
Jean risks a glance down at the ground, the world dizzying at this height. Peter and Albrecht are waving up at him, hooks and wire tying the Titan’s fists to the ground. He can hear the creak of the wire, groaning as it strains to hold the monster down, if only for just a minute. He salutes them with his sword and looks up at the blue sky, looking no closer from here than it does from the ground. In its own way, it’s a comforting thought.
He steps off into empty air and lets himself fall, blades spinning in his hands.
Jean lands awkwardly, ankle twisting underneath him but it’s enough to see the Titan fall to the ground, blazing steam rising from the nape of its neck. Nothing matters after a good fight. Albrecht and Peter give him bloody grins and Jean grins right back, exhilaration shooting through his veins.
“Good fight, Corporal,” Albrecht roars at him, banging a fist on his chest.
“Good fight,” Jean shouts back and turns around, surveying the situation. One Titan down, another swarming with green bodies and the last--
Jean freezes, blades hanging from numb hands. For a moment he can’t reconcile the figure dangling from the Titan’s fist and the image of Kurt riding away into the distance, curled over his horse. But the dark curly head is the same and Jean nearly pukes, hands shaking so hard the metal blades rattle.
He’s never run harder in his life. Marco, Marco, Marco-- is this how you died? His legs are too slow, too tired, his gear too heavy, it’s like every worst nightmare Jean’s ever had but worse, because this is reality, the shortness of his breath, the blood streaming down the back of his neck, mixed with sweat. Marco-- no,Kurt dying right before his eyes and Jean too slow to stop any of it.
One in five of every recruit dies on their first mission.
Jean vaults himself into the air, blades swinging. His hooks sink into soft flesh and Jean flies through the air, dark head growing closer with every heartbeat.
His blades slide through Titan flesh like a hot knife in butter, cutting through the wrist in one clean swipe. The fingers curl open slowly, a flower furling open and Kurt tumbles from the air and to the ground, green cloak fluttering in the wind, wings in flight. Jean flings himself after him, hand reaching out, straining, stretching, fingertips just touching--
All the breath in his body leaves him as he hits the ground, cradling Kurt’s warmth to his chest, arms clenched around the body like a vise.
Liza’s blurry face comes into view and Jean blinks, squinting at the bright light.
“Corporal, are you alright?”
“urt,” he says, trying to speak without breathing. His chest hurts with every rise and fall of his lungs and every breath sends shooting pains through his bones, fire crackling and turning his body into dust.
Liza’s golden head tilts closer to his mouth and Jean forces it out with all the strength left in his body: “Kurt.”
She nods once, twice and then moves away, slender fingers prying away Jean’s grip with what seems like inhuman strength. Kurt slides from Jean’s chest and onto the ground, dark head lolling from the movement. Liza places a gentle hand by Kurt’s throat and Jean forces himself to watch, searching for the telltale movement of his chest. Jean can’t find anything. Black and red dots flicker at the edge of his vision but he clings on to consciousness with a bitter determination, watching Liza’s bright head lean over Kurt’s body. He can die after he knows.
Liza finally moves away, pale face unreadable.
Jean doesn’t even try to speak, just blinks tiredly in recognition.
“I have a steady pulse.”
Jean’s eyes shutter closed and he lets himself fall into darkness, sweet relief filling his lungs. Alive. Nothing else matters, not after a good fight.
This is how it starts:
Two boys join the military. One survives.
This is how it ends:
Consciousness comes to Jean in ebbs and flows, washing over him and then drawing back into the deep depths of his mind. Life passes by him in fits and starts: blue skies framed by thin lashes, the slow rolling rhythm of the cart pressing against his skin, a cool washcloth gently mopping his sweat-soaked brow, dark eyes half-hidden by shadows.
Jean lets himself go.
“You look like shit.”
Jean gives Armin a crooked smile, bandaged fingers clumsily touching a temple. “Lieutenant Commander.”
Arm hooks a stool with his leg and drags it over to the bed in one easy motion, perching on the top like a curious yellow bird. “How’re you feeling?”
“Like I look.” Jean shrugs. “I’ll be out of commission for a while but Doc says I should be back by Midwinter.”
Armin gives him a flat look. “Would you like me to list the extent of your injuries?”
“Concussion, twisted ankle...some fractured ribs...” Jean’s voice grows smaller and smaller as Armin’s face grows stonier, lips pressed into a thin line. “And some other minor stuff,” Jean adds in a low voice.
“Yes, very minor,” Armin nods impassively and then leans over, bright hair falling over his eyes. “And if you ever do something as stupid as that ever again, I’ll have you drummed out of the Legion.”
“You should find a new threat,” Jean says, picking at the fraying edges of his infirmary-issued blanket. “That’s what, the third time you used that one? Losing your touch, Arlet.”
“The situation was under control, Jean.”
“Yeah, so under control Kurt fucking Bodt was hanging upside down in the air from a fucking Titan’s fist.” Jean’s shoulders tense, hands clenching and unclenching into tight fists. “Don’t tell me this wasn’t all part of your fucking plan, to get me paired up with Marco’s brother so-- so--” Jean’s voice cuts off abruptly, chest heaving. Armin waits respectfully, looking down at his hands until Jean’s breathing returns to a steadier rhythm.
“Why did you do this? Why?”
“Because he asked me,” Armin says simply, looking straight at Jean’s eyes.
“Kurt Bodt came up to my office three days before final exams and gave me this.” Armin reaches into the inner pocket of his jacket and pulls out a thin sheaf of paper, tied up with a rough leather thong. “Here.”
Jean accepts it with trembling hands and he fumbles with the tie for several long minutes. Armin doesn’t offer to help and Jean doesn’t ask. Eventually, it unravels open and Jean gently smooths the yellowing pages out, tracing the curls of ink. “This is--” Jean looks up, face painfully vulnerable.
“Letters from Marco,” Armin nods. “Kurt had them in his possession.”
Jean holds the papers up in the air, sunlight gleaming through the thin sheets and gilding the old letters, gold tracing watery black ink. “My name’s in here,” he says.
“It seems-- it seems you were mentioned several times in them.” Armin coughs into his hand. “Marco wrote about you to his family.”
Jean swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing. “And Kurt--?”
“He joined up once his mother passed away.” At Jean’s sharp look, Armin shrugs. “Consumption and grief.”
The papers are old, marked with faded coffee rings and what he’s sure is smears of Marco’s favorite jam cookies, the kind they used to sneak into the mess hall for, Marco shaking in fear the entire way. Jean had to hold his hand the first time.
I placed third on the history exam today! Jean came up with this really rude song about the kings and queens in the capital and I can’t write it down here (sorry Kurt!) but it did help me remember all of them, so I suppose it has its worth in its own way.
It’s hard to be alone here, we’re all crammed in the room with hardly enough space to breathe. But it’s strange how easy it is to be lonely in a crowd of people-- I miss Ma’s pot roast and Pa’s fiddling and it’s hard, having to go to bed in a room that doesn’t have Kurt in it.
Jean and I fought today.
“He was always writing back home but he never...he never let me read them.” He sets them gently down in lap, years of memories spread out before him, just tangible enough that if he reaches out, he can almost brush Marco’s shoulder, look into those kind brown eyes.
“Kurt came to my office, asking if the Jean Kirchstein in the letters was the same Jean as Corporal Kirchstein of the Scouting Legion.”
“And what did you say?”
“I told him that he should consider his words carefully.” Armin laces his fingers together into a tight weave, marked with writing calluses and fresh ink stains. “We’re not the same people as we were seven years ago.”
Jean barks out a short laugh, hot flickers of pain flaring up in his chest. “You fucking smartass,” he says, but there’s no bite. “You always were the clever one.”
“But even I can’t know everything.” Armin’s eyes are sober as he looks over Jean’s bandaged hands, the bright red badge of courage marking the snowy white dressing on Jean’s battered chest. “He went down on his knees and begged for one chance, for just one meeting.”
“And that when you--”
Armin nods. “You know the rest of the story.”
“Fuck,” Jean huffs out. The two of them are silent for a long while, clock ticking by lazily on the bedside table. It’s a comfortable kind of silence, the kind that feels like the quiet serenity of a book and a warm fire.
Armin’s is the first one to stir, rising from his seat like a man slowly waking up. “I have a meeting,” he says, a touch apologetic. “The duties of an officer.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I’ll stop by before evening meal. Don’t strain yourself.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jean says, uncharacteristically quiet. Armin’s halfway towards the door when Jean’s voice stops him, all the more striking for its softness.
“If-- if you see him, tell him to stop by.”
“He hasn’t been by yet?”
There’s a long pause and then: “No.”
Armin hooks a finger through a loop of his belt. “I’ll see what I can do,” he says casually and walks out, heading towards the infirmary registrar. His meeting can wait a few more minutes.
Fucking bedpans, fucking ugly ass nurses, fucking fuckity fuck fuck! Jean’s nostrils flare. “I think I can piss by myself now,” he says, his voice as frigid as a Dauper winter.
“Corporal,” the nurse says, smile stretched out so wide on her face it looks freakishly similar to a Titan’s gaping maw. “Doctor’s orders. You’re bedridden until further notice which means--” The nurse shakes the metal pan in the air.
“If there’s one thing I have left it’s my fucking dignity,” Jean howls. “There’s a fucking bathroom right over there, just wheel me over in a chair and let me take a dump in peace.”
There’s a knock on the door and Jean whips his head around so fast his bones creak in protest. “If you’re another nurse, get the fuck out!”
It slides open, inch by fucking inch and Kurt motherfucking shithead Bodt sticks his head through the gap. His face is pale under all those freckles, but Jean recognizes the determined set of his jaw. Nasty bastard.
Jean bares his teeth at the boy, relishing the tiny flinch of Kurt’s head. “Either get in or get the hell out of my room.”
Kurt slides in, lanky body slipping easily through the gap. His shoulders are hunched over, making him look shorter than he is. Jean smiles, satisfied.
“And you.” Jean jerks his head at the nurse, waving his bandaged hands at her in a vague approximation of an obscene gesture. “I have a guest. And you know what that means?”
The nurse narrows her eyes. “I’ll be back, Corporal Kirchstein.”
“I’m quaking in my backless gown,” Jean says, raising an eyebrow. The nurse leaves in a clatter of sensible heels, bedpan swinging menacingly from her hands.
“Good,” Jean grouses. “I thought she was never going to go--”
“I-- I’m sorry sir!”
Jean stares as Kurt bows down, hands fisted on his thighs. “I was inconsiderate, reckless and didn’t think the situation through properly. Sir!” Kurt raises his head a fraction, revealing a face so white that his dark hair looks inky black in comparison. “I am ready to accept whatever punishment you see fit, Corporal sir!”
“You can sit down for a start.” Jean motions at the wooden chair in the corner of the room; one of Armin’s lackeys had brought it over on his last visit. “You even get to lean back in it.” Stools, apparently, were not dignified enough for the Lieutenant Commander.
Kurt gives him a blank look. “You’re-- you’re not angry with me?”
“I will be if you don’t sit the hell down and stop looming over me,” Jean snipes, waving a bandaged hand. Damn kid was a fucking giant, almost as tall as Bertholdt had been.
The kid snaps to attention and lugs the chair over to the bedside, carefully positioning it so that if Jean tries to reach out and whack him on the head, his arm will fall short by just a few centimeters. Smart. Kurt licks his chapped lips and sits in his chair, back as stiff as a board.
Jean narrows his eyes and that shuts the kid up pretty fast. Bandages wrapped around his head, ramrod straight posture, slight hitch in his left leg. “What did the Doc say about you?”
“Minor concussion and some bruised ribs.” Kurt swallows at Jean’s hard look. “Some scrapes and bruises,” he adds in a small voice.
Jean snorts. “Not too bad,” he says and looks down at his lap, trying to ignore how the tight knot in his chest seems to loosen a little.
“I-- I want to explain myself.” Kurt leans forward, hands braced on his knees, face pinched tight and urgent. “There’s no excuse for disobeying direct orders from my superior officer but I-- I didn’t want to-- I came all the way here so I could fight in the Legion,” Kurt says, the words blurring together in one frantic rush. “I came here so I could find out more about my brother and to run away just when the Titans came and-- I-- I--I can’t do any less than what he did,” he ends fiercely, looking Jean in the eye. “I’m not a coward.”
“O-Okay?” Kurt repeats.
“Okay,” Jean nods. “I get it.”
“You’re not going to...?” Kurt’s face scrunches up.
“What, you thought I was going to beat your hide in? Newsflash hotstuff.” Jean gestures at his bed. “I can’t even stand up to piss by myself. What makes you think I can kick your ass right now?”
“But you?” Kurt makes a helpless motion with his hands.
“Armin chewed you out, right?” At Kurt’s nod, Jean just shrugs. “You know you fucked up, Armin knows you fucked up, I know you fucked up. Okay.”
“I thought you hated me.” Kurt’s face lights up in a brilliant flush, from the tips of his ears to the base of his throat. “I mean-- Sasha said that--”
“What did Sasha say?” Jean asks, his voice low and intent.
“She said--” Kurt swallows. “That you and Marco were really close and because I looked like him but I’m not him so you got really mad and--” Kurt shuts his mouth when Jean raises a hand in the air, but he only rubs his face tiredly.
Leave it to the fucking potato girl to see right through him. “I don’t hate you,” Jean says in a rough voice, pressing down on his eyes with the heel of his hand.
“I didn’t mean to say that,” Kurt says in a miserable voice. “Only it’s just in the beginning, you kept pretending you didn’t know him and I didn’t know what to think.”
“I don’t hate you,” Jean repeats again, as much to convince himself as the boy sitting next to him. His hand falls away from his face and Jean makes himself look at the boy, at the curve of his cheek, the curling black hair, the stubborn jaw. He’s taller, shoulders a little broader, his hair a little longer and curlier. The difference between the two is so subtle it sets Jean’s teeth on edge every time he looks at the kid. Similar but not similar enough. Not Marco enough.
“How old are you, Kurt?”
Kurt starts, dark hair falling in his eyes. “Fifteen, sir.”
Fifteen. Jean barely remembers fifteen, all awkward limbs and growth spurts, voice cracking and fervent crushes. “You know, Marco was the same age when he died.”
“I know, sir.”
“Do you, really?” Jean leans back against the headboard, flat infirmary-issued pillows barely taking the edge off the hard wood. “Imagine that tomorrow, the Colossal Titan destroys the gate to Trost. Just think, just for a second, that tomorrow is the day you die. You just graduated, you’re just a few days away from joining the Military Police and changing the world.” Jean closes his eyes. “And then you die, body half-devoured by a Titan. That’s it. You’re dead. You’re never going to change the world. You’ll never get married, see the world Outside, fight any more Titans. It’s the end of your life. At fifteen.”
Jean’s been in the Legion longer than he’s known Marco; he’s lived seven more years than him. “I look at you and I see Marco, because Marco never had a chance. He went out and he died like some no-name shit found rotting away in some street three days after the attack. Kurt, I want you to live.” Jean scrubs at his face with a sleeve, turning towards the window. “I want you to go out and have the life that Marco never got the chance to have.” The sunlight is blinding; Jean presses a hand against his eyes, palm growing slick.
There’s a hand on his shoulder, gentle and warm.
“I’m glad that my brother knew you, even if it was only for a little while.” Jean’s hand falls away and he turns toward the kid, tears dripping steadily down his nose. Kurt gives him a bittersweet smile that’s all his own, with a dimple in the corner. “All he did was talk about you in his letters... Jean this or Jean that or Jean and I did this together. I hated you for a little bit, back then. My brother was my best friend and then he went off all the way to Trost and found a new one. But-- but--” Kurt’s shoulders shake but his hand is still steady on Jean’s shoulder. “I’m not the only one who remembers him now. You and Sasha and Commander Armin remember what he looks like and what he was like and-- and you still think about him, even though it’s almost been a decade since he died.” Kurt’s eyes turn a light golden color under the sunlight, wet tear tracks streaking down his cheeks. “I’m glad.”
Fucking kid. Jean reaches over awkwardly and pats Kurt’s hand. “There’s a service every winter honoring the fallen,” Jean says gruffly. “If you make it that far, you should go and light and a candle in his name.”
Kurt gives him a wet hiccupy sort of laugh, but it’s the first time he’s seen the kid look anything other than angry or confused. It’s a good look on him. “How can I not when you’re the one looking after me? You’ll probably dig me up from my grave and make me go anyway.”
“I won’t always be around to save your scrawny ass, rookie,” Jean says, but there’s no sting in it. Instead he squeezes Kurt’s hand as tightly as he can. “Remember the rules I gave you in the beginning?”
“‘Rule one: don’t talk to me. Rule two: don’t fuck with me. Rule three: do whatever the fuck I say’,” Kurt recites with a watery smile.
“I have a new one for you,” Jean says. “Four: live.”
Kurt’s snoring in the chair beside him (“You can’t go!” “Sir?” “The nurse will come back if you go! Don’t make me order you!!”), head pillowed on a balled up blanket Jean deigned to give him. He’s close enough that his hair brushes the rails on Jean’s bed, close enough that Jean can see his lashes flutter as he dreams.
Against the orders of the nurse, Jean’s sitting cross-legged on his bed, arm around his chest to brace his ribs. “You’re an absolute fucker,” he says quietly, hand fiddling with a chain hanging from his swollen right ankle. “Leaving me to deal with your bratty shit for brains brother without a single word.” His fingers trace each link of the chain, until they hit a heavy metal plate embossed with lettering.
Each soldier is given two sets of dogtags: one to wear around their necks and another on their ankle, in case of dismemberment.
Jean collected both sets off Marco’s body and sent one to the office for processing, along with Marco’s lock of hair. The other, he kept for himself. Marco’s on his right, Jean’s on his left. With every step, he takes Marco with him, Outside and beyond.
“I miss you,” Jean says in a voice so low he can barely hear it. “I wish you could tell me if I’m doing the right thing.”
Kurt mumbles something in his sleep, spit trail trickling down from the corner of his mouth and onto his leather jacket. Jean looks at him with a quiet affection, fingers clenched tight around the tag on his ankle. “But I’ll probably do the opposite of whatever you tell me just to piss you off.” Jean huffs out a soft laugh.
He unfolds his long legs and leans back in his bed, head hitting the pillows with a dull thump. “I’ll take care of him,” he promises. “No matter what.”
For just a second, Jean can almost feel the tag heat up against his skin, a brief flicker of warmth before it fades away. It’s enough. Jean closes his eyes and waits for what tomorrow will bring him.