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Jean’s muscles are sore. Especially his back. 3DMG is merciless on their spines, and they feel the effects of their advantage every single night.

Armin says that sore muscles mean they’re getting stronger; he read it in a book. So really, it’s good that they can barely move by the time they collapse into their bunks. And Jean has to say that he’s probably right. He’s stopped getting huge bruises from the harness, and his originally soft teenage body is quickly becoming the wiry, firm, rough body of a soldier.

Even so, he fears that he may never feel that comfortable, bone-deep warmth of relaxation again. Every night, the last thing he feels before he sleeps is the twitching of his muscles as they finally start to release, as they finally accept that it’s time to be still for a while.

Jean had assumed, then, that the muscles in his sides were getting stronger too. They ached, after all, on those wound-up nights where he and a few others were too hyped to sleep right away, and stayed up joking and laughing and trying to forget why they’re actually here.

His and Marco’s hurt the worst, he thinks. They stay up the latest, hiding together under a blanket and trying hard to hold in their giggles. Their sides hurt from the effort. Everything is so much funnier when laughing out loud will get you a shoe to the skull. He knows Marco feels the same way. Stolen glances, commiserating eye contact are all he needs. They’ve grown close enough to be able to read volumes from brief side-eyes.

It’s worth it, though. He can count on Marco, and Marco can count on him. They stay up late and laugh silently or they sneak out and laugh to the stars, and their sides always hurt, and Jean knows their ribs are getting stronger and stronger with their connection.

When Reiner shushes them during Marco’s incredibly expressive mimicry of how Thomas had gotten himself tangled in a tree, his hands waving wildly under the blankets and Jean’s face going deep scarlet from breathless giggles, he knows he can’t stop, and Marco knows too. So he quiets Jean’s laughter with his lips. His hands had been busy imitating Thomas smacking into a branch.

They both understand.

The next morning, their ribs feel like they’ve broken from the gasped laughter they each swallowed from the other. But laughter is infectious and they can’t stop until deep into the night.

Jean knows it’s okay. They need it, and it makes them so much stronger.

He swears they don’t look like teenagers anymore. Bruising and injuries have torn any childlike features from their faces. Broken fingers thicken their hands, make them almost ungraceful; callouses make them rough. Their bodies are solid muscle, a mix of their intense training and being somewhat underfed. There is no softness left. Hell, Reiner now needs Annie, Bertholdt, and Connie sitting on his back to make pushups hard. Mikasa can lift Eren and move him out of her way when he’s bugging her.

They aren’t children anymore, and their bodies can attest to the fact. But Jean can forget all of that when he’s tucked into a blanket fort with Marco at two in the morning, laughing and kissing and just existing.

When Jean walks down the hot streets of his hometown, he doesn’t understand. He knows most of these people; he knows that they’re strong. All of them; every single one of them spent every day getting stronger, and their muscles all ached so much with the effort. All of the aching, for nothing, as they were swatted out of the air and eaten in a fraction of a second.

What were their burning muscles supposed to accomplish if not survival?

Jean’s looking at his gloved hands. His left middle finger is bent funny from an old break; he doesn’t need to see it to remember. There’s a scar down his right palm. His forearms are solid, his wrists narrow. His hands used to be almost delicate; now what? They blew out most of their innocence in their training and dumped the rest of it in the street the second the Colossal Titan kicked in the second gate and the only thing actually saving them was dumb luck.

Something catches his eye. He glances at yet another fallen comrade, slumped against the wall, and the smell hits him first. Fuck, summer wrecks corpses. He almost can’t recognize the person’s face—



Jean stares. He’s got to be hallucinating. There’s no way.

His eyes focus on the corpse’s chest. He knows those ribs. He knows how much stronger they were, more than everyone else’s. Jean knows how sore they’d been together, laughing until their ribs got tough.

But it didn’t matter.

Because here was Marco, with half of his tough ribs torn away from his sweet, rough, grown-up body. Jean can see his cold heart, torn black muscle hanging uselessly in a pile of shriveled viscera.

But they’d laughed together. They’d—

Jean is going to be sick.

It means nothing, he decides as he falls to his knees. Their pain, their aching, their torn muscles mean nothing to these disgusting sacks of shit that rip away everything anyone has ever loved with huge grins on their dopey fucking faces.

He’s making sounds with his mouth, but he’s not sure if they’re words or not.

He’s looking around, spewing mouth sounds, staring at this shell-shocked white-haired doctor, not understanding anything either of them are saying.

All he can hear is Marco’s shushed laughter.

All he can feel is Marco’s soft lips on his—the only part of them with any softness left, by some miracle.

All he can see is shredded rib bones and a carelessly abandoned corpse.

Jean really is sick then. He hasn't eaten in days but something has to give; he imagines he throws up the rest of his faith in their bodies along with the acid that had been burning a hole in his stomach.

Because strong bodies and strong ribs did nothing to save Marco; they’ll do nothing to save him, either.

It’s just dumb fucking luck.

Chapter Text

It’s been ten years now. A lot has changed; Trost as well. It’s almost like it’s a real place again, though it will never be the Trost Jean ran through when he was a child.

That Trost died with Marco and the hundreds of others that day.

Jean knows somewhere inside that he won’t find it again at the bottom of a bottle, but he can’t help but look. After all, that thing you’re looking for always shows up in the last place you look, right?

The bartender knows Jean well enough to know when he needs this the most. He also knows Jean’s limits; probably better than the man himself. He knows when to start serving Jean water with food colouring, because Jean won’t notice, and he won’t be mad the next morning.

The ten year anniversary of Trost is a dark day for everyone, and the bartender lets Jean have a few more drinks than normal. They grimly take shots together, not needing to talk. They’d only talk about what they’d lost, anyway, and no one needs that shit. Not tonight. Wordlessly, Jean shakes the bartender’s hand, pays his tab, and stumbles out of the bar. He’d come alone, and he always leaves alone. There’s no point to the people who try to pick him up; they give up pretty quickly when they see the ghosts in his eyes, anyway.

Jean wanders the street aimlessly. They say that with every mission you come back alive with the Survey Corps, your chance of survival increases greatly. It’s true, and it’s fucking unfair horse shit. The turnover rate is incredible. Jean doesn’t even bother learning anyone’s name anymore.

It’s unfair, he thinks as he collapses on the sidewalk. He scoots back against the rebuilt house and stares at the sky. He wonders if he’s looking at the same sky Marco had, or if life had drained from his friend by the time he was tossed here.

It’s so unfair. Jean doesn’t try to stop the tears that streak his face, the quiet sobs that wrack his tired form. His sides ache from crying, because he’s not sure that he ever actually stopped after the first tears had fallen in front of the funeral pyre.

He wants Marco back. The laughs and scares and hushed kisses would never be enough. No one would ever be able to replace that soft blush Marco got when he giggled, the deep pink that covered his face when he laughed too hard for too long, the bright scarlet that seeped onto the freckled skin of his chest when he was close, so close, Jean’s name falling from his lips like prayers. All of it, all those nights were never enough.

Jean’s had to grow old alone, and he’s been terrified the entire time. Every day could be the day, and Jean’s not sure if he wants that or not. But this is his life now. He’s survived ten years; he’s basically invincible, an unstoppable force within Levi’s squad. The glory is nothing compared to the victory he had felt when Marco smiled so wide he lit up their blanket fort.

Jean sighs, staring at the stars. They’re moving so fast, but it might just be the whiskey talking. Pretty soon he’d stand up, brush himself off, and head back to his house. He would pass out in his bed, and he would wake the next morning, put on his uniform, and leave the walls with his team to stare death in its grinning idiot face once again.

And just like every other time, he would lose his cool and cut a bloody path through his pain. And he’d come back and his muscles would be sore, and he’d know that it still means nothing.