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A Different Song

Chapter Text

Southern California in the last days summer had always been the kind of beautiful backdrop that inspired songs, poetry - works of art that still did no justice to its sunny brilliance. The light that bathed the town of Fullerton in muggy warmth also brought into sharp focus the rich hues of gardens and fountains situated around the buildings of its college campus. The pavement almost glowed in the cheerful sun, beckoning returning students to walk twisted paths and chat with the people they passed. The near-white stone walkways lead to grassy stretches - perfect for games of frisbee or reading in the wash of natural light - and past smooth courtyards, ideal for skateboards and bikes. The CSUF campus was alive with a breezy, balmy energy.

And Jean Kirschtein was enjoying none of it.

Instead of roaming over the campus grounds, enjoying the last days of summer freedom before his junior year of classes resumed, he sat in the small, drab office of the college's housing counselor. Looking for a dorm so late in the year was something he never thought he'd find himself doing, but it was just another bullet on a growing list.

He stared out a tiny window at the beautiful day he was missing while the humorless man sitting behind the desk typed his information into the school's system. The guy looked like he couldn't be much older than Jean himself, but he wore an expression of someone who had years more stress on his shoulders than anyone in his twenties had a right to. He also had an absolutely ridiculous bowl cut hairstyle that nearly hung over his eyes when he looked down his nose at the screen, but Jean wagered spending eight hours a day trapped in that soul-sucking void of an office would hinder anyone's decision making abilities, even when it came to things like hair cuts.

"Unfortunately there's not a whole lot left to choose from at this point," he sighed, as though he would rather be anywhere other than in the cramped office with Jean. At least they had that much in common, Jean thought, as the advisor clicked his tongue and pecked his keyboard. He glanced back at Jean over the top of his narrow glasses. "Probably should've done this a few weeks ago."

"I still had a roommate a few weeks ago," Jean gritted out.

"Did your roommate withdraw? If so we can place you in the same dorm and find--"

"No, he replaced me." It was the truth, at least as far as Jean was concerned. Things had been fine for four semesters - no logical reason to change anything - but then Eren Jaeger just had to room with his long-lost best friend, and just had to register before Jean even so much as thought to call him about it. And then Jean was totally screwed over, left without a dorm, a roommate or a solid plan when he'd never had to worry about any of that before.

"Replaced you?" The counselor asked, quirking an eyebrow. Jean nodded quickly; there was no way he was gonna pour out the details to some guy he barely knew.

"He asked some friend of his to take my spot. Transfer from another school."

"That shouldn't be possible. If you were already registered--"

"I wasn't," Jean admitted, glaring down at his shoelaces as he kicked the floor under his chair. "I just figured we'd room together again." He felt heat rising behind his cheeks, and scowled harder as if that might scare it away. Thankfully, the man behind the desk wasn't even looking his way.

Instead, he pushed his glasses up his nose and continued tapping at his keyboard. "Mm. Well, it's never a good idea to wait until the last minute."

"Apparently." Jean said flatly. He couldn't tell if the advisor was trying to sound like an ass, or if he just naturally came across that way. Either way, Jean couldn't imagine a less pleasant way to spend the afternoon than listening to his passive aggressive lecturing.

"We don't like to put freshman with older students when we can avoid it, so let me see if I can find another upper classman..." He squinted and adjusted his glasses again as he examined the screen in front of him. "Ah, looks like I've got an opening in the Roseanne Wallace building. Room 104; roommate will be a senior." The look on his face was one of accomplished finality - he was clearly done searching, whether Jean was happy with the assignment or not. Jean sighed and tried to imagine himself moving in with a total stranger, only making him feel all the more uneasy.

"He play ball or anything?" Jean asked in the hopes that he would have something worth chatting about with the new guy; he played baseball himself, but he was ready to settle for any sport he could bullshit his way through talking about. Tennis. Golf. Water polo. Anything.

The counselor shook his head. "No, looks like an arts major. Roseanne isn't a departmental dorm."

That was an understatement. The Roseanne Wallace Memorial building - or 'Rose Wall', as the students usually called it - was well known on campus as the 'leftover' dorm - a place where you ended up if you didn't find a place anywhere else. Jean dropped his head against the back of his chair with a thump and groaned.

"Great."

The advisor didn't seem to notice his unsettled tone - that, or he just chose to ignore it. He clicked around a few times and a noisy printer on the desk beside him spat out a thin stack of papers. "Alright, just take this downstairs and check with the lady at the desk to get your key. Anything else I can do for you?"

Give me a different room assignment? Promise me I'll never have to sit in your office again? Get a job that you don't suck ass at doing?

"No thanks," Jean settled on, deciding to keep the rest to himself. He looked at the papers in his hands - while the counselor went back to doing God knows what at his computer - and then tucked them under his arm to head down to pick up the key to a room he'd rather not even see.

Outside it was a beautiful California summer day, but Jean found the sun as irritating as everything else. He made a note to himself to buy another pair of sunglasses; he'd definitely need them to get through the semester.

--

Another year, and still no recruitment. Another year playing the same game he'd been playing for most of his life, with a passel of teammates he could only barely tolerate when they weren't on the field together, and another year with few friends for that very reason. What little social interaction he'd had outside the diamond in previous years had mostly come from Eren, and that in itself had been a problem. Eren was certainly not what he would call a friend, but he was something - something familiar - and Jean was still pissed about losing him as a roommate. Especially since all he was getting in exchange was some random guy who he would most likely have nothing in common with.

Aware that he'd have to face the stranger before he could sleep that night, but far from ready to do so, Jean elected to waste time and money picking up a few creature comforts to get through the potentially awkward evening with. The Target he stopped at was bustling, even in the middle of the day. The back to school rush for supplies and clothes and everything in between had people cramming into tight aisles and rummaging through messy shelves and bins. Jean heaved a sigh and headed into the fray. He was almost relieved when his phone rang; his mom's voice was a welcome distraction from the chaos inside the store.

"Hello, sweetie." Lynnette Kirschtein had a soft, warm voice, and to Jean it had always been the sound of home. He couldn't think of a time when he wasn't glad to hear it.

Jean replied through gritted teeth, holding his wallet there as he wedged himself through a crowd. "Hey, mom. S'goin on?"

"Not much, just dusting the empty nest," she laughed. "How did things go with the housing counselor?"

"Fine, I guess. I mean, I've got a dorm assignment, so at least there's that. Still pretty pissed that I'm gonna be stuck with some random dude."

"That's for sure then? Your old roommate already has someone else?"

Jean sighed. "For sure, yeah. Eren's bunking with some kid named Armin - scrawny little blond, ponytail-wearin' asshole. Guy he's known since grade school or whatever. Real cute story." He didn't bother trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice. His mother didn't know everything about his complicated relationship with his former roommate, but she knew Jean himself well enough to know that he hated change. "So now I'm stuck with Mr. Random. Guy's apparently a theatre major - probably gonna have a completely different schedule than me and annoy the piss outta me with it all the time." He found a stack of school year planners - nondescript, in plain, assorted colors - near the end of a cramped aisle. Reaching halfway into the pile for a book that wasn't dented and scratched, he pulled one out without a second glance and tossed it into the basket hanging on his arm.

On the other end of the line his mother sighed, her tone as close to reprimanding as it ever tended to get. "Now, Jean there's no reason to be so negative. I'm sure he'll be a nice boy and you'll get along just fine. It might be good for you to get a little outside of your comfort zone. But you're definitely not going to be happy with the situation if you go into it already complaining."

"Yeah, I gotcha mom. Sunny side, and all that. Listen, I'm at Target right now; do you need anything? I won't be home for a while, but--"

"No, I've got everything I need. Thank you though, sweetheart." Jean could hear her smile through the phone, and smiled a little too, despite himself. He made his way to the front of the store, grabbing a few bottled cappuccinos and a half-frozen tray of prefab sushi to eat once the big introduction was behind him.

"Alright, well I'm gonna pay for this junk and then go get my dorm set up. I'll call you later." They said their goodbyes and Jean slid his phone back into his pocket, dumping the basket onto the register belt absently.

Barely cognizant of how much the total came to, he passed his debit card across to the cashier, took the bag she handed him and headed for his car. He wasn't looking forward to starting over with a new roommate in a new building, but at least he had a few things to make it a little more comfortable. Pulling up to the pre-session empty lot of the unimpressive Rose Wall dormitory, he wondered if a grocery bag full of familiar items would be enough.

--

Passing open doors and still-vacant dorms on his way to what would be his shared room for the next few months, Jean shuffled by a handful of people, doing the same thing he was. Boxes and bags were tossed outside of doorways, and he stepped carefully around them and kept to himself. Down the hall, a tall, bulky blond in a leather jacket lifted a trunk onto one shoulder and then his head, calling to his friend behind him for something else to balance. An even taller, absolutely exasperated looking young man sighed from his place behind the amateur strong man, and responded in a soft voice that cut a sharp contrast to the booming sound of the other's. He - begrudgingly, if Jean was reading him right - tossed another small duffel bag atop the growing pile of luggage in the blond's arms and gave a heavy sigh when the added weight toppled him to the ground. Jean rolled his eyes and kept walking, making a mental note to avoid those two entirely, if possible.

"102, 103... 104." Jean whispered to himself, eyeing the number plaques beside each door. When he reached the one that matched the number on his key, he found no use for it, as the door was already standing open, light coming from inside. He turned the corner and laid his bags by the door facing, relieving his tired shoulders while he peeked into the room.

Inside - slumped over an overstuffed suitcase and singing quietly to himself in what sounded like Spanish - was a man with short, dark hair and cheerful expression. He dug through stacks of clothes and almost danced as he sorted things into haphazard piles on one of the dorm's small beds. After a moment he finally noticed Jean's presence in the doorway and turned to face him with a wide grin.

"Hi!" he beamed. "Jean, right? That's what they told me when I called the housing office this afternoon..." He held out a hand to shake.

"Yeah," Jean said quickly, taking his hand. "And my assignment sheet says you're... Marco?"

"That's me! Nice to meet you." Marco had a firm, confident handshake and a disarming smile. He stood a few inches taller than Jean, and was maybe a little bulkier as well, but it may have been the way his loose clothing hung from his shoulders and hips.

"Yeah, same."

Marco glanced over his shoulder quickly, and then back at Jean. "Hope it's okay with you if I set my stuff on this side. If not though, I can trade you."

"Nah, it's cool. This is fine." Jean laid his things on the untouched bed to prove his point. Marco grinned and then turned back to his work unpacking. Jean sat on the empty bed and looked over Marco's head at the posters, calendars and pictures already hanging on the wall on his side of the room. Jean didn't recognize most of it, but he knew what 'Phantom of the Opera' was, and the pictures of Marco with a pretty blonde girl grinning beside him that were pinned all around that poster seemed pretty straightforward, too. Marco must've seen him taking it all in; he chuckled and caught Jean's attention, rubbing at the back of his neck and smiling sheepishly.

"Yeah, I have too much stuff, I know," he said, tilting his head to indicate the posters. "I'm just really bad about holding onto things, especially from plays. I'm here for musical theatre. I was actually gonna try to get on with a production company this fall, but I changed my mind at the last minute and decided to finish my degree, so here I am in the catch-all dorm." He chatted like Jean was a longtime friend, and Jean nodded along, trying to fake as much polite interest as he could manage. Only when Marco turned the topic back on him did he even bother to look his new roommate in the eye.

"Do you need any help unpacking?"

Jean stared at him for a moment, unsure if he'd heard him correctly. "Any... help?"

Marco nodded. "Sure! Might make things go faster, you know? I have my phone - I could play some music and we could just jam straight through it. Helps me when I'm packing or whatever, for sure."

"That's okay," Jean said quickly. "I, uh... I'm kinda weird about my stuff." When Marco's cheerful smile dropped just slightly, he felt pushed to amend his answer. "It's not a you thing."

Seemingly content with that reply, Marco shrugged and turned back to his luggage. "Is it ok with you if I still play a little bit of music? I just kind of hate working in quiet."

Jean nodded, despite his own preference for silence, and hoped Marco would keep it down. After a few minutes of sorting through underwear and socks, Jean realized Marco had propped the phone up on his bed and was singing along to something under his breath so quietly, it was almost impossible to hear at all. Marco seemed to know the song by heart, and shifted his shoulders in time with it, dancing as it faded out. Another came on and he smiled broadly; Jean mumbled a question, trying to create small talk where he knew it was struggling to exist.

"That musical stuff you're listening to?"

Marco grinned over his shoulder and nodded.

"Mm-hm. It's from 'The Last Five Years'."

"Ah. I'm... not even gonna pretend I know what that is." Jean said plainly. Marco laughed - warmer and fuller than a stranger had ever done in Jean's presence - and shook his head.

"At least you're honest," he said. Jean shrugged.

"Just not my thing, man. If that's what you like though, cool."

"What about you, then?" Marco asked.

"Me?"

"Yeah; what are you going to school for? I thought I saw some athletic gear with your stuff - you play for one of the teams here?"

"Oh. Yeah. Uh... I mean, I'm here on a baseball scholarship. I'm kinda hoping to play in the minors or something at some point." It wasn't something he was used to talking about. Everyone else in his life already knew; he wasn't sure what to even offer when it came to talking about himself. But when he spoke, Marco seemed to actually listen. "Still haven't been picked up or anything yet, though. So declared myself a business major. Something to fall back on." He finished with a shrug and hoped that was enough.

"That's a good plan," Marco nodded. "Incidentally, I know how you feel, still waiting for your break. I haven't had a lead role the entire time I've been here. Big school, lots of talent, y'know? But I'm hoping I'll get something this year." He talked about the school year with such genuine enthusiasm, Jean almost envied it. He wasn't sure how to sound anything other than uninvested in the discussion though, so he settled on a backwards nod and a half smile.

"Well, best of luck on that, man."

"You too," Marco smiled, and then went back to casually shuffling through his things.

Jean was actually glad Marco had initiated - and ended - conversation. It wasn't his strong suit, and he was painfully aware of how standoffish that often made him seem. But Marco didn't seem as put off by it as some people he'd met - as Eren had been when they'd first moved in together - and for that at least, Jean was thankful.

The silence that settled between them might have been considered tense between friends, but for what they were - barely acquaintances - Jean was thankful for Marco's apparent respect of his need for space. They made beds, tucked belongings into drawers and hung clothes in narrow closets without more than a few glances in each other's direction, and it was fine. Every once in a while, Jean would find himself searching for something he'd already tucked away, and Marco would nod toward it wordlessly. Jean would tip his head backward in thanks and that was conversation enough, relaxing in its ease. By the time his new roommate mentioned heading down to the bathroom for a shower, Jean had reasoned that the semester might be tolerable, as long as Marco kept his distance and let Jean keep his.

Once the room was empty save for Jean and piles of yet unorganized possessions, he flopped onto his bed and pulled his phone from his pocket. His mom answered in a single ring, and they chatted about her day for a few minutes before she asked about his new dorm mate.

"Yeah, he's an okay guy, I guess. Little too friendly, but I guess that's better than him being a prick. Long as he isn't up in my face all the time, we'll probably be cool."

His mother hummed thoughtfully. "Well, try to get to know him a little better, sweetie. Find something you have in common - you two could be become great friends if you make an effort!"

Jean scoffed. "I doubt it, mom. The only thing I have in common with this guy is our dorm number. But it's not a big deal either way. Come the end of the semester. I'll just see about changing rooms. Hopefully get in with one of the rookies if nothing else." He let himself fall backward, flat on his back to toss his shoes from his feet and stretch muscles that he hadn't realized were tense.

"Just don't miss a chance to make a friend, Jean." She sounded every bit the concerned mother. Jean sighed directly into the receiver, and on the other end of the line, Lynnette laughed.

"Yeah, alright mom. Listen, I'm gonna turn in so I can check out the facilities and talk to Coach Z tomorrow before the freshman crowd comes stumblin' in. Talk to you then, okay?"

"That's fine. Goodnight, sweetheart. I love you; come home soon." That was her line, every night that Jean called her, and it never ceased to make him a little homesick, even if he'd never admit to it.

"Night, mom. Love you too."

Jean slid his thumb across the screen of his phone and laid it at his feet. He wondered how long he would have to organize his things - and his thoughts - before his roommate returned. With only a few days left to get his head in gear before classes officially began, he figured jotting a few things down while he had some solitude was a good plan. Rifling through the bag he'd tossed to the end of his bed, Jean pulled the planner from inside it and groaned as the dim light of his desk lamp revealed the cover he hadn't bothered to even glance at in the store.

Stripes. A rainbow of stripes. And on every third line of the pattern, an iridescent strip of glitter sparkled just enough to accentuate the three different hues of pink.

Fantastic.

He sighed and flipped it open to skim the pages, only slightly relieved that - despite a rather swirly looking font - the empty lines and boxes inside seemed fairly gender neutral. As much as he could've kicked himself for it, he knew he wouldn't be returning it; the thought alone of standing in line holding it and handing it over to some jaded returns clerk was enough to sour his stomach. He folded the book until the front cover touched the back, and paper clipped the two sides together, keeping the ridiculous colors his sparkly little secret.

When the door handle clicked and Marco came back into the room, grinning warmly, Jean assumed he was going to be prodded with unwanted conversation or scrutinized for the way he'd already rearranged the stack of books on his small desk three times. But Marco gave him nothing more than a quick glance, a friendly smile and comfortable silence the rest of the evening. He even dimmed the lights on his side of the room as soon as Jean flipped off his own lamp, settling in with headphones and only popping them out of his ears when Jean looked his way, ready to listen if Jean actually decided to say anything. He didn't, but Marco didn't seem bothered by that. He fell asleep before Jean, headphones still hanging from his neck.

Jean lay back, his head resting on his threaded fingers as he stared at the ceiling of his new room. Five months, he reminded himself - and just a little over six until baseball season would be back in full swing, and things would resemble what he was used to. At least he had that much to look forward to. Marco slept quietly across the room - a stark and welcome contrast to the window-rattling snores he'd grown accustomed to hearing from Eren - and in the still of the silence, Jean drifted into more pleasant thoughts.

A well-worn routine, familiar faces and memories of home; these were the things that relaxed his mind and followed him into his sleep.

Chapter Text

Pavement and steel weren't warm things by nature, but under the soft and growing light of early morning, they almost glowed.

The track and training facilities on CSUF's sunny campus had been a place of contentment for Jean since he'd first seen them as a freshman. They were one of the safe zones in his life, places where things were largely unchanging, where he could return and have his expectations met. He slipped quietly out of his dorm before the sun had pulled itself from behind the horizon to go for a run. The coaching staff didn't usually arrive until ten or later, so he anticipated some solitude while he waited to meet with them.

He dropped his bag on a bench in the lower tier of the recessed bleachers a few yards from the track and dug his shoes from inside. Lacing them up, he glanced out across the circle of pavement and noticed - with a groan he didn't even bother trying to stifle - that he wasn't alone. A solitary runner jogged past him, completely unaffected by his presence. He watched her - a softball player, by the looks of her team logo t-shirt - and sat down unceremoniously, debating on whether to even finish tying his shoes.

A tiny fraction of his edginess fell away when behind him, he heard the heavy footfall and familiar voice of his head coach approaching.

"Mornin', Kirschtein."

"S'goin on, coach?"

"Could ask you the same question, kid. Why're you sulkin' around down here when the sun looks so good out there?" He motioned toward the track. Jean shrugged.

"Didn't know we were sharing the track with softballers this year." He said it through his teeth, watching the runner finish a lap and begin another without pause.

"It's all in what time you get here," his coach said with a dismissive laugh. Jean glanced down at his cell phone - still not even nine AM yet - and back up with a frown.

"Yeah well, kinda thought before breakfast might be a good time to avoid the crowd."

"I'd hardly call one softball player a crowd." The coach took a seat on the bench behind them, adjusting his hat to keep the rising sun out of his eyes. "Something tells me there's more under your skin than her, though. What's eatin' ya, kid?"

Coach Mike Zacharius had a thick southern drawl - of the west Texas variety - that sometimes belied how extremely observant he was. Or maybe after two years, he just knew Jean too damn well. Either way, Jean knew better than to waste time lying to him.

"Seems like this entire semester is gonna suck, coach. Jaeger bailed on me to room with that transfer outfielder kid and now I'm stuck in the Rose dorm with a new guy. Known him for less than a day and it's just..."

"Not what you're used to." It wasn't a question; his coach knew enough to finish his sentence with confidence. Jean nodded sourly.

"Wouldn't have to deal with this if I'd gotten picked up last year."

"You know 's well as I do that it can be a little harder for shortstops to get noticed, as much competition as there is out there. Doesn't mean you aren't a good player. And it doesn't mean this year isn't gonna be the one."

Jean shrugged. "Sure doesn't feel like it yet." Coach Zacharius stood to look down at him, laying a hand heavy on his shoulder.

"A dorm's just a bedroom, Jean. A place to lay your head and not much else. You can make whatever you want of a room, but in the end it's still just four walls. I know it's not what you wanna hear, but you've gotta remember that this is temporary." He squeezed Jean's shoulder and waited until Jean nodded in response. "Focus on what matters, alright?"

Jean gave him another weak nod and turned back to look at the track. The runner didn't seem keen on slowing down; Jean hefted his bag higher up onto his shoulder without bothering to close it.

"I don't think she'd mind sharing the track with you, Jean."

"Not really her I care about."

Mike sighed, crossing his arms. "Just seems like a waste of a morning coming down here just to complain."

Jean glanced at him, but made no excuse for himself. "Why are you down here this early anyway, coach?"

"Figured I'd be running into you." He smiled knowingly; Jean looked down and away with a huff.

"Yeah, well. I think I'm just gonna head back. Got a phone call to make anyway."

"How is your mama?" Mike didn't have to ask who Jean was calling, and Jean didn't have to ask why. The only person that could predict him half as well as his mom was his coach. "She doin' alright?"

Jean stood and shrugged one shoulder, pulling his bag closer to him as he did. "Yeah, she's good. Same as always."

"Good to hear. You tell her I said hello, alright?" Jean nodded his agreement and turned to leave. Mike clapped him on the back, leaving his hand where it landed to keep his attention. "Listen, Jean - keep yourself straight this semester, y'hear me? Nose in the books; that'll make things go a lot faster. Five months will be gone in a blink."

"Hope you're right, coach."

Jean shuffled his bag to the other arm and gave his coach a lazy wave as he headed out of the facility. On his way, he heard the frantic chirping of the dozen or so birds, trapped in the slats of the rafters above the benches. The sound was familiar, a near-constant to the athletes who used the track in the spring and summer, and who'd seen those same birds get stuck there year after year. He didn't bother mentioning them to any of the staff as he breezed past them on his walk back toward the dorms. They were surely already aware, as often as he'd seen them freeing the confused birds in semesters prior. It wasn't his place to worry about it. Instead he wiggled his phone from his pocket again, and reminded himself to pass along Mike's greeting to his mother.

--

His mom was slow to answer, but when she came to the phone they exchanged pleasantries and made the same small talk as usual. She told him through giggles that she'd met his cousin's new boyfriend that morning - and wasn't impressed - and let him ramble about his wasted morning at the track before asking what else was bothering him. Somehow she always knew.

"Sick of this semester already," Jean grumbled. "Trying to get it together for classes. Turns out there are a couple of books that weren't on my list so I have to deal with the bookstore."

"Oh, that's not gonna be fun."

"This time of year? It's gonna be a damned nightmare. It's for a 200-level class, so they're probably pretty picked over already. Assuming they even have what I need, I'll be knee-deep in freshmen and lazy-ass seniors. Really exciting." Jean trudged up the stairs of the dorm building, the elevator having been too full of people for his comfort. He kept his phone visible, pressed to the side of his face to keep from having to speak to the people he passed in the hallway. He wasn't much for small talk on a good day...

"At least it's only one trip, Jean. The sooner you go--"

Jean cut her off with a sigh. "I know, I know, 'sooner I'll be done'."

Lynnette hummed softly, changing the subject. "So how are things going with your new roommate today? You still haven't told me much about him." Jean was glad for the chance to talk about something else.

"I haven't actually seen him today. But I mean... he's cool, I guess. Not much has changed since yesterday - I barely spoke to the guy. Which, y'know, is fine."

He waited for her to respond as he backed against the dorm room door to push it open, but there was no sound on the other end of the line. When he closed the door behind him, he finally heard the soft click and beeping of the call ending, and then quiet, in his ears, in the room - everywhere but in his head. A dropped call. 

A wasted morning.

Cursing and shaking his head at the sight of Marco's unmade bed - how did his blankets even end up like that? - Jean gave his phone a toss onto the pile of folded blankets at the end of his own bunk and flopped backward onto it, to catch up on the sleep he'd surrendered for nothing.

--

When Jean woke up the light in the dorm was soft for midday, and cracking one eye fully open, he noticed that the shade had been pulled on the room's small window. Marco sat quietly on his own bed, cross-legged with his computer in his lap and headphones in his ears. When he noticed Jean stirring he glanced up and gave him a quick smile, returning to whatever he was doing without speaking.

Jean sat up and reached for his phone. It was just past noon, and with nothing on his to-do list other than book store shopping - which he had every intention of putting off as long as he could get away with - he laid back and let his eyes wander around the room, wasting time thinking about as little as possible.

Marco removed his headphones and hummed quietly to himself, smiling down at his laptop as he typed. Jean looked over his shoulder at his decorated wall, letting his curiosity bubble out into what he hoped sounded like friendly conversation.

"That your girlfriend? In those pictures?"

Marco followed Jean's eyes to the photographs pinned around the poster behind him and then turned around with a chuckle, shaking his head.

"Oh, no. That's Krista. We're just friends." Marco pulled one of the pictures from the wall and passed it across the space between them for Jean to look at. The smiling blonde was very pretty, despite the ridiculous faces she and Marco were making in the snapshot. He nodded and handed it back to Marco, who replaced it carefully, chattering happily. "She and I met during that show, working backstage. We were still in high school; we've been friends forever. She's like my sister."

"That's cool" Jean responded. He found himself searching Marco's side of the room with his eyes to look for pictures of other people - other easy topics of conversation - but there didn't seem to be many. It made Jean wonder. "You got a girlfriend or anything?"

Marco shook his head again, still smiling. "Nope. I'm single. Have been for a while."

"Ah. Well, sorry if me askin' bugs you. I know it irritates the shit outta me when my cousins ask me at every family reunion."

Marco grinned and nodded like he knew - like he'd heard those questions and dealt with that annoyance too - and his smile made the topic feel a little less prickly.

"I know exactly what you mean. But it doesn't bother me. I'm guessing you're not seeing anyone right now, then?"

Jean shrugged, although he knew damn well he was the definition of unattached. "Not at the moment," he said coolly. Marco leaned back against the wall beside his bed and grinned knowingly.

"Interested in someone, though. Right?"

Again, Jean gave the most noncommittal gesture he could manage, but Marco made it really hard to outright lie. What he finally settled on was a tiny piece of truth, the tip of a growing iceberg. Marco folded forward, his elbows onto his knees and listened like he cared, and once Jean started talking, it was hard to stop himself.

"I mean... there's this one girl..."

--

Mikasa.

She was soft spoken, beautiful, brilliant - and Eren Jaeger's half sister. Jean had met her the weekend he and Eren had moved in together the first time, and every time he'd seen her since, he realized more and more that she was something entirely apart from other girls he'd met. Mostly because she spoke politely to him and seemed to regard him with some level of respect, despite the fact that her brother barely made it through a sentence without swearing at Jean most days. And because she was there, already a part of Jean's life - familiar.

It wasn't really what Jean would've called a crush, as much as a realization that she could be everything he wanted in a girlfriend. It was a logical match, he told himself - practical. At least at first. By the end of his and Eren's second full year rooming together, Jean found himself staring covertly at her whenever Mikasa would drop by for brief visits with Eren, and trying to look halfway decent anytime he knew he might run into her. Which was a frequent occurrence at that point.

But then Eren had deserted him and taken nearly every opportunity for Jean to see Mikasa with him, and Jean was left passing her by at unpredictable intervals on campus, with no excuse to make conversation beyond a hello. Not that he would've been likely to say much to her either way; in truth, Eren had always kept her almost entirely engaged when she would visit their dorm in previous semesters. Jean didn't even know what she liked talking about. But that didn't keep him from bitterly wishing that he could figure it out and catch her interest somehow.

Those were the kind of thoughts that often accompanied him to his classes, especially when he'd just bumped into her on his way to the lecture. That was the case on his first day of microbiology, when he saw her across the stretch of pavement in front of the science department building and waved, receiving no acknowledgement in return. He took a seat near the back of the class, more intent on glowering at his clenched hand than at paying any attention to the instructor. At least until that instructor loudly arrived.

"Good morning, good morning, hello!"

'HANJI', the slender person at the front of the class scribbled across the whiteboard once they'd dropped their armload of books onto a nearby desk. An intricate blue headscarf was wrapped over dark hair and pinned in front of olive skin at the neckline of otherwise plain clothing, but didn't distract from an almost manic smile the instructor turned to face the class with. A few paces away, a short, quiet man - not much older than Jean, if at all - stood, closer to the door. He watched the professor with a look somewhere between reverence and absolute panic as they addressed the class.

"Let's skip the formalities, shall we? This is Biology 240 - the fascinating science of health and disease, and I am your instructor! Incidentally I'm not fond of sir or ma'am, so please just call me Hanji."

Jean couldn't exactly tell whether 'sir' or 'ma'am' would've been more appropriate for his professor, but he wasn't curious enough to care. They preferred neither? Fine. Jean preferred not to speak to teachers one-on-one, anyway.

Hanji's pleasant, bouncing accent became more obvious as they continued their introductions, motioning toward the young man still hovering by the classroom door. "This is my assistant, Mr. Berner. If you need any additional assistance during or after lectures when I am otherwise disposed, he'll be here or in my office. Moblit?"

The nervous-looking man waved around the room, a tight smile on his face. Once his introduction was over, he took an empty seat in the front row, obviously relieved. Jean made a mental note to himself not to take a position as a teacher's assistant if he returned for his senior year, and turned his focus back to his enthusiastic professor. Hanji had already flipped three books open and seemed to be drawing from all of them, scribbling messy notes on the board beneath the largely written name.

"Alright, we have a lot to cover this semester, so we're going to get right into it! Open your books to..."

There was more to the sentence, but Jean's attention trailed off out the window at the mention of a book he didn't have yet. He wandered the white stone sidewalk outside with his eyes, wondering if the gorgeous weather would hold out until he was done with class for the day. Dragging his gaze back inside but still struggling to focus properly, he looked around the room, at his classmates sitting in various states of disinterested slump. At the long, high table he sat near the middle of, there were two petite blondes seated at either end. One had a friendly glow and smiling eyes, and looked familiar, although he couldn't place how. She seemed to actually care what was being discussed by their instructor, an odd sight among the rows of vacant faces. The other young woman seemed almost like the inverse of the first, a distant, almost harsh expression on her face. Jean stared absently at her until she glanced his way and he turned his attention back to the professor, attempting to look engaged in the very animated lesson.

"So I'm going to go ahead and let you all go early today, but I do have a few assignments to send with you."

The collective groan from the students seemed to fall on deaf ears, Hanji still beaming as page after page was written on the board beneath the day's messy notes. Jean looked down at his notebook - never even opened - and bit down on the inside of his cheek, sulking. He hadn't taken a single line of notes, and when Hanji underlined a due date for the homework that was less than a week away, he glowered even harder at the whiteboard; he didn't even have the book yet.

When class was formally dismissed he was one of the first out the door amid the shuffling crowd, heading back to his dorm with a sour taste in his mouth that had less to do with the class, and more to do with his own stubborn avoidance of the bookstore, and nearly every other responsibility he could sidestep. Maybe lunch would help. He stopped at the campus coffee shop on the way, just in case it didn't.

--

For all the stress of the still-young semester, quiet afternoons in the dorm were frequent, and Jean took full advantage of the time to collect his thoughts. Marco was rarely any trouble to that end, giving Jean the space and silence he needed. So when a thundering knock rattled their door a few days in, Jean nearly tumbled off his bed, reaching across the room and smacking frantically at Marco's arm on instinct.

The insistent pounding at the door was so alarming, Jean was sure the building had to have been on fire. He grabbed a few important things, prepared to evacuate the room as Marco moved to answer the ear-splitting knock; when the door swung open the person on the other side slapped Marco over the shoulder so forcefully, it took Jean a moment to register that it had been a friendly gesture.

"Marco Bodt! Thought you weren't comin' back this year, Mr. Broadway - you decide you'd miss us too much?" It was the booming voice of the husky blond guy from down the hall. He barged in past Marco with another quick slap of his back and left another man - his apparent roommate who Jean had also seen before - standing in the doorway behind him. Marco smiled weakly and turned to invite the second visitor in, waving dismissively when he mouthed a silent 'sorry'.

Before Jean could protest, the two strangers were sitting on Marco's bed, the obnoxious blond kicked back with his feet tossed into the other's lap. Marco sucked in a breath and glanced at Jean, an apology written across his features.

"Uh, Jean, these are friends of mine. Reiner, Bertholdt - this is my roommate, Jean."

He gestured between them and Jean reluctantly offered his hand out to shake. The blond - Reiner - took it first, nearly pulling Jean off his bed again. His bruising handshake left Jean terrified to greet his companion, but Bertholdt was an entirely different entity, gentler in his touch and easier on the ears. He even looked like Reiner's foil - taller, thinner, dressed more sharply, albeit in clothes that looked like he'd bought them from some hipster joint downtown. Jean had known him less than five minutes and he already preferred him to Reiner.

"Nice to meet you," he said, mostly to Bertholdt. He glanced at Marco, who seemed as anxious to get them to leave as he was.

"I decided to finish my degree," he told Reiner, stepping back into their conversation. "One year left, y'know?"

Reiner nodded from his place perched on Marco's pillow. "Makes sense, Broadway. What about you, Jean? You a stage and screen guy?"

"Uh, no. I play baseball." The puzzled look on Reiner's face as he looked between Jean and Marco made Jean feel more out of place than he already had, but then Reiner grinned like he'd heard a joke, and Jean gave him a tight smile on reflex.

"A jock, eh? That's pretty awesome - I was startin' to think I was the only one in this damned dorm who knew a free throw from a field goal."

"You play ball?" Jean asked, maybe a little more hopeful than he'd intended to sound. Reiner shook his head, a little less enthusiastically.

"Not anymore. I was a pretty good linebacker in high school, but I blew my chance at playing on the team here my first semester, so now I'm just kinda... here."

"There's nothing wrong with that," Marco chided, and Betholdt nodded like it was something he was used to having to say himself. Jean briefly wondered just how close he and Reiner were - and how two starkly different personalities like theirs seemed to make such an easy pair - but Reiner's bark of a laugh shook his thoughts and brought him back to the conversation at hand.

"Yeah, tell me something I don't hear at least once a week! Anyway, we came to ask if you guys wanted to come down to ours tonight for some Xbox and beer. Might have some kinda takeout too, if we can scrape up the cash. Y'guys in?"

Jean's mind flew, desperately trying to come up with an excuse that didn't sound rude. He wasn't the first to answer though; Marco seemed just as eager to turn down the offer.

"Well, tonight probably isn't the best time." Marco had a remarkable talent for being polite, even when he was urging someone to get the hell out of his face. "I've got an audition to get ready for, and I know Jean has homework..."

It was at least half a lie - Jean had never mentioned his homework to Marco - but one that Jean was quick to run with. He nodded and shuffled a few books and papers onto the bed in front of him.

"Whatcha workin' on?" Reiner clearly didn't pick up on the go away vibes Marco was sending. Jean blurted out the first subject he could think of.

"Biology. Uh, 240 - Health and Disease. Kinda sucks."

"Ay, Annie has that class, right Bert?" He nudged Bertholdt with his foot and he nodded. Reiner turned back to Jean with a grin. "Look for her next time; she's a real cute blonde. Tiny little thing. I'll have to ask her if she's seen you."

"Yeah, sure." Jean nodded, struggling to maintain his forced air of hospitality. Reiner might not have noticed, but his friend was quicker on the uptake.

"I think we're gonna go," Bertholdt said quietly to Marco. "Sorry to barge in. We'll see you around, alright?" He scooped Reiner's feet from his lap and stood, holding a hand out automatically and pulling Reiner up after him. "It was nice to meet you, Jean."

Jean waved after them, Marco following them out the door chatting just to keep Reiner moving. When the two of them finally left, he collapsed against the door with a sigh as it closed behind them, and Jean briefly considered hugging him, thankful as he suddenly felt for Marco's comparative respect for his personal space. They talked for a few minutes about their unexpected guests, Marco apologizing again while Jean dismissed it entirely, eager to sleep off his frustration. They moved back into their separate, quiet worlds, and Jean fell asleep quickly, glad for the peace.

--

The next morning was a decidedly slower one, and with no morning classes and a lot on his mind, Jean didn't even move from beneath his blankets until Marco returned to their dorm from having lunch.

When he came back in, he noticed Jean not having budged and eyed him cautiously, maybe a little concerned. He was hesitant in asking, but too polite not to.

"You, uh... you ok?"

Jean didn't really feel like mentioning Mikasa again, especially after all but dumping his every thought about her into the lap of a guy who he still barely knew a few days before. Instead he went with complaining about something else that was bothering him, since Marco seemed too perceptive to be entirely untruthful with.

"I've got homework in my damned science class already. I haven't even gotten the book yet or anything. I'm usually so much better about having my shit together, but this lame-ass semester--"

"What's the course number for that class?"

Jean blinked at Marco's question, not having actually expected a response of any sort. He thought for a moment before electing to dig his schedule from his planner and check.

"Uh, 02113, looks like. Why?"

"BIO 240, you said it was, right? Hanji?" Marco asked. Jean nodded. "I'm pretty sure I still have my textbook from that from last year. It's used, but you can have it if you'd like."

Jean squinted at him. "I... really?"

Marco's easy laughter should've seemed out of place, but when he nodded and repeated his offer, Jean quickly accepted it with a smile of his own.

"Thanks, man. That really saves me some serious hassle."

"No problem," Marco said cheerfully. "Just glad I can help."

--

Marco's jovial disposition was definitely something Jean took his time in adjusting to. It wasn't that Marco was anything but pleasant to be around; he was possibly the friendliest human being Jean had ever come in contact with. But he was new, and that alone made Jean approach with caution.

The book Marco had given him had been a thirty minute drive away at the time - something Marco didn't even mention until he was already back from his trip to retrieve it - and that was just par for the course in being acquainted with Marco, Jean quickly learned. Perfect he wasn't, but thoughtful he was, in ways Jean had never even considered before meeting him.

Granted, Marco was undoubtedly the messiest person Jean had known since some of the pigs he'd gone to high school with. Clothes, books, papers and nearly anything else Marco might use littered his bed, the table beside it and the floor of his side of the room. But as much of a disaster area as his little corner of the world was, his things never invaded Jean's space, much the same way Marco himself kept a comfortable distance between the two of them.

He offered Jean food every time he brought some back for himself, despite Jean never doing anything but turning up his nose at Marco's borderline disgusting eating habits. Still, just the repeated offers of cheap burritos and milkshakes were more considerate than he was accustomed to. When he turned Marco down he tried to remember to thank him anyway. He didn't always catch himself in time, but Marco never seemed put off by his refusals, and Jean learned in short order that he could count on the offer being extended again, regardless.

They still knew next to nothing about each other, and most of that was by Jean's design. Oddly though, he found himself more relaxed with his new roommate in some ways than he'd ever been with Eren. That certainly didn't make them friends, but that word came closer to describing Marco than anyone Jean had known in a while.

The semester was still new though, and Jean was painfully aware of how things could change as soon as he'd adjusted to something. So he stepped carefully around Marco, content to share space with him, but careful to keep from knowing him well enough to drop his guard too far. The rest of the days of the coming year were still an unknown quantity, and the only thing that unsettled Jean more than the things he couldn't predict were the things he thought he could, only to end up mistaken.

--

One thing he found that he could expect during the week was seeing Mikasa on his way to classes. He could almost predict exactly where he would pass her. Not that it made much difference; she rarely noticed him. When she did it was usually because she was walking with Eren and Armin, and those were the mornings Jean went to class ready to punch someone. Thankfully, no one really spoke to him, so the student population was at least temporarily safe from his right hook.

It could've easily been said that Jean was double majoring in doodling and daydreams, investing far more of his time in class in either of those things than in any manner of actually learning anything. His business and math classes weren't the issue; he'd never needed to pay attention to lectures to excel at statistics. But his electives were a different story, particularly his science class, before which he nearly always saw Mikasa. The best he could muster during most of Hanji's lessons was an occasional laugh at poor Moblit's expense and a spare roll of the eyes at his professor's entirely unwarranted excitement at the subject matter.

Going through the motions of the semester was numbing; Jean was distracted by nothing, desensitized to everything but the ring of his alarm in the mornings and the sound of his mom's regular phone calls. Tuning things out made them more tolerable, from his professors' droning to his roommate's singing. So hidden were those things from his notice that when Marco didn't return to their room until close to midnight for several days in a row, he didn't even bother to ask why. When a third night came and went without sight of Marco until the morning hours approached - and the Marco that did eventually drag himself in looked exhausted and maybe a little upset - Jean finally inquired once they'd arrived back at the dorm the following evening.

"Hey, uh - everything ok?" he ventured. "Haven't seen you around much the last few days. You good?"

Marco nodded hastily, flopping backward onto his bed heavily. He was smiling, but despite what little Jean knew of him, it seemed different somehow. Still, he was more than glad to let it go at that - until Marco actually spoke.

"Auditions," he said on a sigh, draping an arm across his forehead. His reserved tone said a lot more. Jean hid a grimace behind the back of his hand; wrapped up in his own anxieties, he'd completely forgotten that his roommate had things going on too. Thinking back, he was pretty sure Marco had even mentioned heading to auditions once or twice that week, which Jean had waved dismissively in response to and entirely ignored. He made an attempt at redeeming himself, making conversation from between clenched fingers.

"Oh, yeah? How'd that go?"

"Eh, I'd hoped for better" Marco admitted. Jean felt a sharp pang of guilt; he remembered Marco talking about hoping for his break, about how important it was to him. He winced, looking up from his open books and nudging them away with his foot.

"Ah, man I'm sorry."

"It's no big deal," Marco said through a hollow smile. "I mean, there's always the spring production, and after that I'll probably intern at a theater somewhere next summer. Decent roles are out there. Just gotta keep trying." He rolled over onto his stomach and rubbed hard at his eyes with the heel of his palm. "I mean, I got cast, but I passed on the chorus role to work tech, since I need the experience. So really it was my choice, I guess." His hands slid down to curl under his chin, and his expression changed suddenly. "Besides, the guy that got the lead is incredible."

"Oh, yeah?"

"God, yeah" Marco sighed, a grin starting to tug at one corner of his mouth. "Gets the lead in basically everything this school puts on; he's probably held more in four years of college than most people do their entire careers."

Jean nodded backward, slightly amused by Marco's apparent reverence. "That good, huh?" Marco nodded.

"Fantastic. I mean, not only is his acting great, his singing or dancing alone would land him decent roles. His voice - you have no idea. And I mean, he's gorgeous, too; I don't--"

Marco cut himself short, mouth hanging open where it had stopped and quickly covered by his still-cupped hand. He stared straight ahead for a moment like he was backpedaling mentally, and when he let his fingers fall away from his face, Jean could see an odd palor beginning to rob his cheeks of their color. There was a strained moment of silence, and then he cleared his throat, looking back at Jean with what was clearly feigned dignity.

"I, uhm... I should've probably mentioned before now that I'm gay," he said quickly. "I hope that won't make things weird, but I don't mind if you wanna--"

"No, no, it's cool. It's fine." Jean stammered through a response to try and halt the conversation from the awkward path it was heading down. He gave his roommate a small smile. "Doesn't bother me, man."

Marco exhaled sharply and dropped his head back into his hands for a moment, muttering something in a different language before looking back up with a relieved grin. "That's good. I wouldn't wanna make you uncomfortable. I'll try not to talk about--"

"Dude, seriously - don't even worry about it. I mean I'm like... bisexual, I guess, so it's whatever."

As soon as the words had left him, Jean felt his stomach leap. He was pretty sure he'd never actually said them, never acknowledged it out loud, and he had absolutely no idea why he'd dropped it into Marco's lap so freely. Marco raised both eyebrows, but it wasn't harsh - more genuine surprise than shock.

"Really?" There was nothing unfriendly in Marco's voice, and despite his perfectly sensible caution, Jean couldn't help feeling safe talking to him. He shrugged quickly.

"I guess, yeah. My old roommate, y'know? And... a couple other guys. Not like, all at once. Just... yeah." Jean kicked his foot at nothing, waiting for Marco's response. This wasn't a conversation he'd ever had with anyone - the guys he'd messed around with didn't really ever get around to talking much - and he wasn't sure of what to expect. Marco just nodded quietly, unfazed. Definitely not exactly what Jean had anticipated.

"I don't really date guys, though," he clarified. "I just... yeah. I date girls."

Marco nodded again. "'S there a reason why?"

"Just never wanted to, I guess. Not my thing. It's like... dogs and cats; I just have a preference."

"Dogs and cats?" Marco smirked and Jean threw him a lopsided frown in response.

"Yeah, like... I like both just fine. And there are lots of different kinds of dogs and cats, and other stuff too, so like... why limit yourself? But for me dogs are fun to play with for a little while. I can't see myself having one long-term. I'd rather have a cat to come home to. Just easier to put up with."

The laugh Marco gave him in response made heat rise to Jean's ears, but then Marco wiped his eyes and grinned at him and he forgot to be embarrassed, ending up - inexplicably - laughing right along with him.

"So you're saying men are dogs?" he cackled. Jean raised an eyebrow and nodded.

"Dude, are you saying it's not true?"

"Fair enough."

"No, honestly though, some of it probably has to do with growing up playing sports, too. I'm not about to deal with all the shit guys go through for being gay in the leagues. Makes it harder to get picked up, to get a spot anywhere but the bench; I've been doin' this too damn long to worry about catching shit for having a boyfriend."

"So it's not so much your preference, then."

It wasn't a question, but Jean answered it like one. "Some of both, I guess. I might rethink it if I ever met a dude I could stand being around in bed and everywhere else, but I'm going on twenty-two and that's yet to be an issue."

"Gotcha," Marco chuckled. "Well I'm glad you told me." Just when Jean was about to toss out a quip about not getting too sappy, Marco tacked on something else that gave him pause. "I've never had a roommate I could relate to like that. Makes me feel a little less alone."

His words were cheerful but still heavy with the weight of the beginning of their conversation, and Jean felt a rush of some protective feeling for his roommate. Pity? Had to be. He glanced down at his watch and then back at Marco.

"Hey, listen. We've both had a rough couple of days, and I haven't eaten since breakfast. You wanna come with me to grab some Starbucks? They should still have their sandwiches and wraps and stuff out, and I could use some caffeine if I'm gonna get my stupid bio work done tonight."

Marco twisted his mouth back and forth for a moment, considering, then finally; "I don't really like Starbucks."

"What?!" Jean asked incredulously, only half-serious. Marco stuck out his tongue and shook his head.

"I don't like coffee, especially theirs. Everything they have is gross."

"You're weird, dude," Jean laughed. "But whatever, let's go get something. I'm bored, starving and after this week I think we could both probably use some junk food. How's pizza?"

--

It was less than fifteen minutes to Brea, where they settled on eating at the California Pizza Kitchen that Marco suggested, and despite Marco's feet on the dashboard and his voice almost constant in the usually quiet cabin of Jean's car, it was a pleasant drive.

It didn't take long to get a table so late in the evening, and once they were settled, their food came to the table almost as quickly as the easy flowing conversation. Jean grabbed a set of the untouched silverware from the end of the table and cut into his slice of pizza, rearranging the grilled vegetables on top. Marco laughed and Jean glanced up at him, fork already lifted halfway to his mouth when he paused.

"What?"

"This is the first time I've seen you eat normal food since we met," Marco teased. Jean eyed him, half-frowning across the table.

"Normal food? Sorry I don't eat pizza doused in barbecue sauce." He pointed at Marco's onion-laden barbecue chicken pizza and grimaced dramatically. Marco laughed, loud and warm, and Jean couldn't help smiling back at him, disgusting food and all.

"You just seem to be a health food guy," Marco grinned. "Not something I'm used to."

"I can see that," Jean said, and Marco chuckled again. "Honestly though, I grew up eating kosher, eating a shit ton of fried crap at the holidays and heavy ass meals all the time - it's just nice to eat things that don't turn my stomach nowadays, and eat whatever the hell I want for a change." Jean prodded at his pizza - ignoring the way Marco snickered at him for eating with a knife and fork - and thought about his mother and her constant offers of snacks and extra food. "Nothing against my mom."

"You guys seem close," Marco noted. "You talk to her a lot."

Jean shrugged. "I guess. Dad died a few years ago, and it was..." He trailed off, becoming a little uncomfortable with the conversation. "I'm all she has."

Marco nodded. He didn't push any further, probably halted by what Jean had just shared. Instead he smiled and nudged Jean's knuckles with his own. It happened too quickly for Jean to pull his hand away, but it wasn't as weird as it probably should've been. It was friendly, like Marco's voice as they talked over dinner.

"I think that's great, though - you two being close. I'd honestly love to have that with my parents."

"You don't get along with your folks?" Jean asked. Marco made a noncommittal hand gesture and laughed. Jean hesitated, then asked, "'S it because you're gay?"

"That has a lot to do with it, at least with my dad," Marco sighed. "He's really traditional, and I think I just... disappoint him. It was really bad when I was in high school, but now that I'm not around as much he's tolerable. Cordial, I guess you'd say."

Jean nodded. "Your mom still around?"

"Oh, yeah. She's easier to deal with than dad. Still likes to talk about how I'm never gonna give her grandkids, but she's got my sisters for that."

"Grandkids?" Jean scoffed. Marco nodded, half smiling.

"That's a big deal to her. Maybe it's just a mulher thing; Brazilian women love babies."

"I think that's just a mom thing. Thank god my mom isn't really on about it, but if I brought someone home she'd probably start." Jean shook his head, trying to imagine Lynnette asking him about grandkids. He glanced back at Marco, who seemed lost in his own head as well. "You say your mom's Brazilian?"

"Yeah, but she's taken."

Jean glared at him and Marco laughed so loudly he was sure they were going to get asked to leave. Instead their waitress wandered by and asked about refills, exchanging a wink and a smile with Marco. Jean leaned across the table as she walked away.

"You know her?"

"Nah," Marco smiled. "Just being friendly." She returned and laid drinks in front of them, their checks tucked under each glass. When she left again she threw a smile over her shoulder that Marco returned, and Jean raised an eyebrow, not sure if he was impressed or a little jealous of his roommate's people skills. When Marco noticed him staring, he shrugged one shoulder and took a sip of his drink. "Brazilian thing."

"Gotcha," Jean replied. "So that's why the Spanish."

"Portuguese," Marco corrected, not a trace of snark in his voice. "My sisters are better with it. I lean pretty hard on my English, even when I'm home. Just one more thing mom would probably like to change, but at this point I've heard the lectures about being bilingual so much I could recite 'em by heart, and they still don't make we wanna work on my Portuguese."

"Man, I thought having my mom smother me to death and poke me full of Jewish food was irritating."

"Ah, she's not too bad, really. I do think she kind of thought having a gay son would mean me being less of a slob, but, uh... she was wrong about that much."

"Can confirm", Jean quipped, eyeing the mountain of crumpled napkins piled around Marco's massacred plate of pizza. Marco tossed one of them at him and smiled, if not a little sarcastically. He was still grinning when he glanced at the clock and thought to ask for more to drink, their glasses running low before conversation had even begun to lull.

Jean paid for their food on one ticket, and although it was his idea to awkwardly insist on picking up the tab, he was glad that no one from the team - or any of his classes - was there to see him on what definitely wasn't a date. Marco left the tip, only rolling his eyes a little when Jean suggested he leave his number for the infatuated waitress, and then the tension Jean was keeping to himself was gone as they snickered about it.

They finished their meal long after the restaurant had closed, laughing and talking like real friends, Marco thanking the staff profusely as they finally left for the night. The drive back to campus was quieter, with Marco half asleep in Jean's passenger seat. They said goodnight before they went to sleep, and for the first time he was acutely aware of sharing his room with another person, though it was more like company than a crowd. Standing at the starting line of a friendship was a strange feeling, and one that made Jean smile, even if it was beneath his blankets.

Marco was not what he'd expected, something that would've bothered him about anyone else. But Marco was calm when Jean was tense, smiled when Jean couldn't, and offered an ear even when Jean didn't return the favor as readily. He was almost a therapist, a complete lack of judgement when that was all Jean had known from roommates and friends before him. In less than a month he'd done more to make Jean feel at home in their hole in the wall dorm than two years of school at CSUF had managed to do.

And in return, he was satisfied with a plate full of pizza and a few bad jokes.

Chapter Text

Autumn was slow to arrive in southern California.

Like most things in the breezy town of Fullerton, cooler weather took its time settling in, with arms and toes still bare well past the last days of September. Most days, the only indication of the sluggish change of seasons was the waning light at the end, melting into evening a little earlier all the time. Jean was glad for the sunshine, despite the fact that he saw most of it through the dusty windows of classrooms, labs and his dorm room.

Marco was a pleasant presence in the stead of the light Jean missed out on, a decent second with his sunny personality and warm laugh. Jean was ever more comfortable with him as fall crept closer, maybe even more than he was willing to admit. But the fact that Marco was allowed to lean against him, grab him by the arm - to touch his belongings without Jean immediately feeling the need to snag them away - said enough. Jean didn't have to tell Marco he'd begun to trust him, and that in itself was one of the many reasons he did.

He made an effort to satisfy his mother's curiosity about his roommate a little more once he actually felt like he had things worth mentioning. She called often and he found that he repeated himself a lot, but she always seemed pleased to hear that the two of them were living in peace. It was definitely more than he could say about his two tense years rooming with Eren, and in his mom's eyes, it seemed to make Marco seem like some kind of godsend. Jean didn't mind setting her straight about that 'perfect roommate' bit, but he also didn't try to deny it entirely.

"Yeah, he's like a human garbage disposal. Except he leaves half the garbage all over the room. No, it's like ten times worse than Farlan. It's gross. But he keeps his crap on his side, at least. So it's tolerable." On the other end of the line, Lynnette chuckled.

"Are you two getting along alright, though?" She asked. "No fights?"

Jean knew she was probably still thinking of the way he'd come home for breaks during his previous semesters, grumbling about the nasty arguments he and Eren regularly had. But that was understandable; she didn't know Marco, after all.

"I don't think it's humanly possible to fight with this guy. He's pretty chill. And I mean, he's still being really good about staying outta my hair. 'S got play practice or whatever, so he's barely here. But he's good to talk to. I don't mind him."

She hummed happily. "Well I'm glad you've made a friend, Jean. Not such a bad semester after all, hm?" Jean rolled his eyes but smiled, in spite of himself.

"Yeah, yeah. Listen, I'm gonna drop back by the dorm and then head to my afternoon classes. Talk to you later, alright?"

"Okay, sweetheart. Be sure to stop by the mail room today before it closes. There should be something waiting for you."

"I'll do that. Thanks, mom. Love you."

Lynnette's surprises - if they could be called that - were always pleasant ones. Jean knew what to expect in the boxes she regularly sent him; a hand written card lined with more cash than he needed, pictures, newspaper clippings or whatever she found interesting from the week or so before, and a plastic bag stuffed with baked goods. That month's package was different though, packed heavier than usual. When he brought it back to the dorm and peeled away the tape, the usual contents slid out onto his blankets, along with an extra plastic bag, filled with oatmeal cookies and bearing a handwritten label.

Marco

He smiled and laid the bag carefully on his roommate's bed before opening his own and sorting through the other items in the box.

--

Classes, homework and tests - the school part of college life - stayed in the background of Jean's mind, buzzing quietly as he continued to go through the motions of being a student. Marco offered to help him with homework more than once, but Jean preferred to keep his status as a mediocre student to himself. His performance picked up slightly when Coach Z mentioned checking on his grades, but for the most part Jean was only physically present during lectures. Getting through courses with only a handful of notes had always been a talent Jean quietly prided himself on, but it didn't seem to be doing him as much good as he'd banked on, at least in his biology class. Still, science was one of the furthest topics from his mind, even when his professor would give zealous, impassioned lectures about pandemics and the spread of disease in human populations.

He spent a great deal of time between classes going out of his way to run into Mikasa - and to avoid running into Reiner and Bertholdt - but had little luck with either. Busy, conflicting schedules kept their neighbors down the hall from dropping in too often, but it wasn't something Jean could escape entirely. Five minutes into another one of their unexpected visits, Jean was reminded that it wasn't really the two of them he dreaded seeing - Bertholdt was an okay guy. Unfortunately, he usually spent most of his time talking to Marco, which stuck Jean with entertaining Reiner. And Reiner had a tendency to make conversation by asking questions, particularly the kind that Jean didn't like answering.

"So are you guys together, or...?" He asked one evening, motioning between Jean and Marco. Jean felt his stomach drop at the implication, suddenly uncomfortable with how quickly his answers threatened to bubble out of him. No, of course not. Why would he even ask? Did other people think that, too? His head spun with familiar anxieties. But it was Marco's voice that doused Reiner's question, courteous but quick - a simple but definite negative.

"No."

Jean glanced at him, and from over Bertholdt's shoulder Marco offered him an apologetic half smile. Jean shrugged it off and turned back to Reiner, ready to turn the question on him, to ask about he and Bertholdt. Reiner was already prodding at another topic, though; nosing through the things scattered on Jean's desk, he held up the rainbow striped planner with a crooked grin, and Jean felt his stomach lurch again.

"Whose notebook?!" He smirked. "It's got glitter and everything! Jean, man - you got a girlfriend or you just like pink?"

Jean's ears burnt, prickly heat rising in the skin just below his eyes as well. He sighed and considered blowing off answering entirely, but Reiner was making a mess of his carefully tabbed pages. Jean started to grab it out of his hands, but then Marco snagged it from between them, laying it on his own beside table.

"It's mine, Reiner." He gave Jean a quick glance and Jean didn't argue. Marco was convincing, and Reiner actually seemed to believe him. "Let's drop it before I tell Jean about your keychain collection."

"Annie bought those for me!" He insisted. "Obviously when someone--"

"Because she knew you loved Sailor Venus," Bertholdt teased, though it was more good-natured than the kind of prodding Jean was familiar with from most of his own friends. "You still have them. All six." He gave Reiner a slow, knowing grin, and Reiner stammered for a few seconds before making a sound like growl and heading for the door, grumbling on his way out.

"Whatever. Fuck you guys. I'm tired of this conversation." He left the door open behind him, and Jean waited for the sound of Reiner opening his own door down the hall to turn back to the other two and laugh.

"God, he's like two different people at once!"

Bertholdt nodded and rubbed at his temples. "Tell me about it." His voice was almost somber, and Jean briefly wondered if he'd said something wrong. After a moment of quiet pause though, Bertholdt raised his eyes back to Jean, smiling placidly.

"Sorry if we upset him or whatever, Bertholdt" Jean offered. Marco nodded in agreement; Bertholdt waved dismissively.

"Don't worry about it, he gets over things pretty quickly. And sorry about him poking around; he... means well, I promise. Guess you've just gotta learn how to reel him in sometimes." The softness returned to the edges of his voice with a deep sigh as he turned to face Jean, alone. "You can call me Bert, by the way. Most people do."

Jean nodded, maybe a little glad that his neighbor seemed ready to leave he and Marco in peace. "Cool. I'll do that. Thanks, Bert."

"Better go check on the giant child down the hall," Bert chuckled, all trace of the tension in his voice gone then as he smiled. "I'm sure we'll see you guys around."

"Later, Bert." Marco waved him out the door and closed it behind him, slumping against it the way he always did when their unexpected guests were finally gone. Jean huffed a laugh and nodded in silent agreement. When Marco moved to flop back down onto his bed, Jean tapped his leg with the toe of his shoe before kicking it off.

"Why'd you lie about the planner?" He asked when Marco rolled up on his side to look back at him. Marco shrugged one shoulder and smiled.

"Didn't figure you felt like putting up with Reiner. Bert is right, though; he's really not so bad once you learn how to work him. Easy to distract, thankfully."

Jean nodded. There were a lot of things he thought about saying. 'You didn't have to', 'that was really cool of you', 'why the hell are you so nice to me?' - none of them sounded like the right response in his mind. He settled on stuttered gratitude. "I... well, thanks."

Marco, for his part, seemed more than happy to accept what was really a half-assed way of saying 'I'm still not used to someone having my back like that'. He reached across the narrow stretch of floor between their beds and lazily bumped his curled fingers against Jean's shoulder in response. He was asleep a few minutes later, snoring softly while Jean smiled absently up at the ceiling of their room. He wasn't even sure why he was in such a good mood, given the commotion of the evening. But he was more than okay with grinning himself to sleep.

--

Sharing space had always been somewhat of an intimate experience for Jean. Even with Eren, with whom he only barely got along, cohabitation seemed tied to the fact that they occasionally ended up pressed against each other, clawing at clothes and scrambling along one of the bare walls of their shared room. But living with Marco was an easy kind of come and go - a give and take of privacy and company in turns that Jean was usually in control of. He was more comfortable than he could ever remember being while living on campus, and it took the tension out of sharing a dorm.

Still, it wasn't without its surprises.

"Hey Marc--"

Jean stopped midsentence after opening their door one afternoon, gaping at his roommate, voice stuck in his throat. Marco stood beside his bed, shirtless and sweating, with thick leather straps wrapped around his arms, his waist, his legs - he turned and smiled at Jean around another length of strap he held between his teeth.

"Oh, hey!"

Jean blinked, waiting for his brain to process whatever the hell he was seeing. "What are... you doing?"

Marco dropped the belt in his mouth to the floor, and only when the loud crack startled him into a quick jump backwards did Jean even register that he'd been staring. Marco didn't seem to notice, though. "Working on making harness straps for the lighting rigs. Gotta make sure they're fitted right before we start working on wires next week, but they mark clothes up really bad. Figured I'd do it now when I wouldn't be in your way."

"Oh, yeah. Uh....sorry to barge in." Jean trained his eyes on the strap on the floor, just to make sure Marco knew he wasn't watching him or anything. He swallowed a strange thickness in his throat and shuffled in place.

"Oh, it's no problem! Actually, can you fasten that top buckle? It's hard to reach the shoulder straps." Marco backed toward him, pointing over his shoulder at the loose strap that curled from his chest to his back. Jean hesitated for a few seconds, but by the time he found his voice to answer, his hands were already on the buckle and strap.

"Yeah. Sure - hang on."

He pulled at the leather, tugging until Marco nodded, then laying it flat against Marco's skin. Up close he noticed that it was scattered with patches of freckles, all the way down his back and maybe further, slightly shiny from a fine film of sweat and...

Jean shook his head hard, unsure exactly where his eyes were trying to lead his thoughts. He changed the subject, or rather offered one, since Marco probably hadn't been thinking about the topic of his own skin.

"So what's this show called, anyway?"

Marco brightened at Jean's inquiry. "Pirates of Penzance."

"Mm. 'Sat like... Jack Sparrow and all that?" Jean asked, half joking. Marco snorted with laughter.

"Uh, no. Not even close." He tapped his foot back against one of Jean's legs, still snickering. "But you tried, and that's what matters."

Jean flicked two fingers against the back of Marco's neck and huffed. "I'm gonna choke you with these straps--"

"Didn't know you were into that, Jean."

"-- and then hide your body under your bed. Nobody will ever find it behind all the pizza boxes and dirty socks." He smacked the fastened buckle lightly against the center of Marco's back.

"Right. I'll go ahead and let my sisters know where to look." Marco grinned, checking his reflection in the mirror, obviously satisfied with the fit of the straps. "Thanks, Jean."

"Yeah, no problem." Jean left Marco to his work and busied himself with meaningful tasks like rearranging the books on his desk three times and making to-do lists that he'd already written once before. For some reason it was hard to focus on much else. Marco finished what he was doing, snagged a shirt from the floor and headed out again with barely a word more than his friendly goodbye, and Jean let out a pent up sigh of a breath he hadn't realized he was holding.

On his way to his afternoon classes, he found the odd image of Marco tangled up in leather straps hard to push from his mind. Even then, with no one beside him, his throat was a little tighter, his face a little hotter in something that hung somewhere between shock and secondhand embarrassment. It was probably just surprise, he reasoned. The realization that someone like Marco was crafty, capable of working with his hands; Jean hadn't really pegged him as the type to have that kind of skill. But Marco was nothing if not full of surprises, and for some reason, that was far less annoying than it should've been.

--

Marco became increasingly scarce as October rolled along, something Jean barely noticed until a day came that he saw something funny and his first thought was to tell his roommate, only to realize he probably wouldn't see him until late that evening. He'd already gotten used to having him around, and was admittedly a little let down every time he returned to their dorm and found it empty. He reasoned that he would have to deal with not seeing much of his friend once his season started in January anyway, so he might as well get over it sooner rather than later.

Anxious to find something to occupy his mind and time between classes, Jean thought about training - going back to something familiar, that he could do without much socializing. Aside from batting cages and the always slightly disgusting weight room though, there weren't many opportunities for him to work on anything productive alone. There were always groups of the other players heading to the practice field to pitch, catch, swing a little bit - at least Jean had heard that there were. He'd never been one to join the others outside of a formal practice, and just the thought of having to deal with some of them on what he considered his own time bordered on offensive to him.

He couldn't stand some of his younger teammates - people like Thomas Wagner who didn't seem to be aware that they could actually keep their mouths shut once in a while. And not even the possibility of seeing Mikasa was enough to make him want to mingle with Eren and fucking Armin. He'd have enough of them once January rolled around, so he saved himself the irritation while he still could.

Running was one of his few remaining alternatives, and he'd always liked it well enough. It was also his best chance at bumping into his coaches, who he actually liked chatting with once in a while. So he took frequent trips to the track, before breakfast, after lunch, sometimes even after the sun had set. But the solitude it usually brought him was usually just out of reach, replaced by the almost constant presence of the runner he'd seen his first day back at the track. The softball player who - Jean quickly learned from unpleasant experience - was the worst kind of company.

"Stay in your lane, asshole!" She passed him with a curt shout during one of his morning runs, startling him out of his steady pace. "Or at least get outta mine."

"Sorry, damn." Jean spat out his apology on reflex. The other runner scoffed and slowed down, just enough to keep talking to him, something Jean wasn't exactly thankful for.

"See you here almost every day, stalker boy. 'S not nice to creep on girls like that." She threw a cat-like grin over her shoulder. Jean groaned.

"Tch. Yeah, well I'm not here to 'creep on' anybody; can't help that you apparently live here."

"Easy there, killer," she snickered. "Just tryin to stay in shape for ball season. 'Sides, not everyone has somewhere better to be." She looked him up and down. "So you on the track team or what?"

"No - baseball. Shortstop."

"Hm. Well try keeping your brain somewhere in the tristate area next time you're sharing the track with me. Alright, shortstop?"

"My name is Jean."

The softball player laughed. "Mine's Ymir, but I doubt you give any more of a shit about that than I do about yours."

"Yeah, well - nice to meet you." It seemed like he was repeating that phrase every few days, but he couldn't remember a time when he'd meant it any less.

"Likewise, shortstop."

Jean doubled his pace, and Ymir seemed satisfied to stay at her leisurely clip. By the time she made it back around the track to pass him again, he was already tossing his shoes into his bag.

--

Wandering the winding white pavement paths on campus, Jean was alone in a crowd. Despite people around him at nearly all times, he spent most of that time in his own head, walking without talking to anyone unless they spoke to him first. It wasn't anything different for him, but in those first weeks of fall it started to feel that way.

He wondered if Marco had noticed how little they'd seen each other since his play practices had started up. It was a thought that crossed his mind too quickly for him to rein it in, and as he made his way to class, it spiraled into wondering if Marco thought about him from time to time too - wondering if that was something friends usually did.

A voice cut through the thicket of his thoughts and turned him on his heel in the middle of a packed walkway.

"Jean!"

Marco approached from a few yards away, surrounded by a small pack of people who followed him over to where Jean stood. Jean gave him a nod and a quiet hello.

"Wanted to introduce you to my friend Krista." Marco tugged on the arm of the petite blonde beside him; she waved up at Jean and he held out a hand to shake for lack of better response.

"Oh, yeah - Marco mentioned you a few times before."

She grinned and prodded Marco in the arm. "Nice stuff, I hope!"

"Yeah, don't worry." Jean shook her free hand and studied her; he knew her from somewhere else too, but he couldn't place where. "It's nice to meet you," he offered after a moment. Krista nodded and made a sound like a giggle in response.

"I think you're actually in my science class."

"Oh, yeah? I think you're right. You must know Reiner and Bertholdt, then. I think they mentioned you." Reiner had mentioned a cute little blonde sharing part of Jean's schedule, and though he couldn't remember the name he'd given in conversation, Krista definitely fit the bill. It would certainly explain how she, Reiner and Marco were all apparently acquainted.

Krista seemed a bit taken back at the mention of Reiner's name, but still smiled through her response. "Ah, did they? I haven't seen Reiner in forever. I need to drop in on him sometime."

Conversation halted between them as Jean ran up against the wall of I Have No Idea What Else To Say, and just as the nervous laughter and tight nodding began, Marco eased things along, making more introductions.

"And these guys over here are Sasha --" he motioned to a grinning brunette, a little taller and heavier built than Krista; "and Connie". Connie wasn't any taller than Sasha, but he made up for a short stature with a big smile - all the brighter in contrast to his dark skin - and a firm slap of a handshake.

"S'goin on, man?" Jean shrugged in response and shook hands with he and Sasha.

"Are you an arts major, or..?" Sasha asked. Jean shook his head, feeling a little out of place.

"Uh, no. Business major. I'm here on a baseball scholarship."

Connie's face lit up and he knocked his knuckles against Jean's arm. "Aye, you know Jaeger, then! Had a couple classes with that guy last year, he's a trip!"

"Yeah," Jean replied flatly. "Yeah, I know him."

"He's a sweetheart," Sasha said. "Nicest guy on that team." She said it loudly, like she was trying to make a point that no one was arguing against. Jean bit back a grimace.

Marco stepped into the middle of the group of them and threw an arm over Connie's shoulders, turning him away and effectively ending the conversation. Jean made note to thank him for it later.

"We'll let you go, Jean. I'll see you later, okay?"

Marco herded his friends off in the opposite direction, offering a final wave back at Jean before they were out of sight. Jean jammed his hands into the shallow pockets of his pants and headed to his next class, questions answered for the time being.

Marco probably didn't think much about not seeing Jean as often. Marco probably didn't have the time.

--

Once he was aware of their existence, Jean seemed to bump into Marco's friends from the theater more than just about anyone else on campus, though that might have been purely because of their proximity to Marco.

They were friendly - if not a little forward - and otherwise basically what he'd expected. Loud, conspicuous in the crowd of students shuffling around campus, and much more similar to Marco himself than Reiner and Bert, the only other friends of Marco's that Jean had collided with that semester. Jean also appreciated Sasha and Krista's bubbly demeanors and Connie's laid back attitude, but still - only in small doses. Ultimately Marco was more than enough fine arts exposure for Jean; he kept his interaction with the others limited to a wave in passing.

Marco seemed keen on changing that though, and never more so than a Tuesday evening, a few weeks before Halloween. He was thoughtfully picking at the tray of sushi Jean had insisted he try, offering a new topic every few minutes to keep dinner from being too quiet. He prodded a sliced roll into some wasabi sauce, turning his head to politely hide the cringe when he tasted it, and promptly spit it back onto the plastic tray.

"Are you doing anything this weekend?" He asked once he was rid of the discarded bite of food, replacing it instead with one of the cookies Lynnette had sent him. Jean shrugged.

"I mean, I don't think I actually have any plans. Why?"

"The theatre department is having a party, like an early Halloween thing. Mostly people from the theatre, but we can bring whoever, and there's gonna be food and probably more free booze than is really legal on campus. Thought I'd ask if you wanted to come with me. And a few of the other guys - the people you met a few days ago should all be there."

Jean didn't pause to consider it before answering. People he barely knew and really didn't care to, drunk and crowded around him - he couldn't think of a less desirable way to spend a night.

"Uh, nah. I think I'll pass man. Not really my thing."

The tiniest crack in Marco's ever-present smile appeared for just a moment, but it was swept away with an understanding nod. "Alright. Offer still stands if you change your mind."

Jean mirrored his quick nod, glad to move on and hopefully change the subject. "Yeah, okay. Thanks." But things went quiet between them after that, the weight of making conversation resting on his shoulders until it crushed him into total silence.

Marco was odd for the rest of the evening, at least by Jean's standard. Every time he drew in a breath to speak, Marco would look at him anxiously, like he was waiting for whatever Jean might have to say. It passed with the coming and going of sleep, though; the next afternoon Marco seemed as cheerful and distracted as always, busy with friends whose names were too numerous for Jean to keep straight. Hanging up after another call from his mother, he briefly wondered what it was like to manage such a packed social calendar, though it wasn't something he was curious enough about to get anywhere near himself. He was fine with a planner full of due dates and lecture times, though he found himself jotting down one name repeatedly on the blank spaces left for his free evenings in the dorm. Lightly, in pencil, and always marked out and moved to another day, just to receive the same treatment.

Marco.

--

It made sense that Marco was so well-liked. Jean understood why he had so many other friends, especially the theater kids who Marco obviously gelled with. He got it - but that didn't ease the strange sourness in his stomach that bubbled into his chest every time Marco rushed off to do something with someone else.

He wasn't jealous. If anything, maybe he just envied the fact that Marco was so obviously loved by his peers; among his teammates, Jean usually felt like a badly cut puzzle piece, crammed in among others and forced to fit where he just didn't. Actually enjoying the people you performed with was a foreign concept for Jean, and Marco made it look annoyingly easy.

More than anything, he was just beginning to wish he had a little more of Marco's time, just to have someone to talk to. With midterm exams speeding toward him and the sobering knowledge that he was likely to bomb his biology test, he thought often about taking Marco up on his offer of homework help, if he could only catch him long enough to talk to him.

For his part, Marco did plenty of talking, to basically everyone but Jean. Constantly texting, Skyping, chatting on his phone when he wasn't out of the room - he'd said play productions kept him busy, but Jean wondered if his phone might actually be attached to his hand some days.

He did his best not to listen in, but he couldn't help staring a little when Marco would talk to his family, half in English and half in high-speed Portuguese. Listening to him prattle with his sisters made Jean wonder what they could be talking about so frantically, but he never bothered to ask.

"Não, não me sinto culpado. Ele não está interessado, ele deixou bem claro. Por que deveria me sentir culpado?"

Jean tried to ignore his curiosity and let Marco have the same privacy he was always offered when he talked with his mom. Still, part of him wished he had the patience to learn a little Portuguese. (Or a decent translator app on his phone.)

His reasons for wanting more of Marco's undivided attention were purely practical of course, but that didn't make him feel any better about it. Not much did, really. He was tired of his mom being his only confidante, and he didn't even bother telling her about his frustrations with almost kind of missing Marco - not after he'd spent so much time complaining about him to her those first few weeks. He wasn't ready for 'I told you so', but he was more than ready for someone to talk to. So much so that it began severely inhibiting his decision making abilities...

"You look like someone shit in your cereal." Ymir sidled up beside him during an afternoon run, easily matching his dragging pace. She nudged a shoulder against his and he slowed, just enough to move a lane away from her. An unfazed, taunting grin was her only response. "More than usual, I mean."

Jean glared at her but didn't feel up to a full blown argument. "Oh fuck off, I don't look--"

"Right; so what's up your ass today, shortstop?"

Jean huffed and looked down at his feet hitting the pavement. "I didn't say anything was." He considered quitting for the day, but that still-new part of him that wanted someone to talk to was more desperate - and persistent - than his common sense. A few paces ahead of her again he mumbled, caught between hoping she'd hear him and wishing she wouldn't. "It's stupid..."

Ymir gave a bark of laughter and shrugged, a barely visible gesture as she sped up just enough to pass him again."Probably. And I'm gonna lap you before you spit it out."

"I'm just... kinda pissed at my roommate. It's not really a big deal." Jean reasoned that to be plenty of information. Unfortunately, Ymir actually seemed mildly interested.

"He an asshole?"

Jean shook his head. "No, not at all, actually. Nicest guy on the planet. I just can't seem to catch him to talk to for more than half a second and--"

"Oh. It's like that." Ymir chuckled. Jean tossed her a confused glance.

"Like what?"

"You guys are a thing." She wasn't asking, but Jean was quick to answer.

"No we're not!"

"Mm. You wanna be, then. Right?"

Jean's strides became sloppy, the more irritated he became. "No! It's not like that - I'm not--"

"Relax, shortstop. I don't care if you like dudes. I'm a lesbian." Her smile was probably supposed to be some brand of reassuring, but it just compounded his annoyance.

"I never said - it's not about that. Marco's my friend. I... would never do that with him." His past encounters with guys on campus - brief flings and secret rendezvous devoid of anything resembling affection - had been one way tickets to destroyed friendships. He would never do that to Marco.

Ymir nodded dramatically. "Right. But you're pissed that he won't spend time with you. Not gay at all."

Jean shot her a glare and let up on his pace, letting her breeze past him before she noticed and slowed down too. "You know, I don't even know why the hell I told you any of this."

"Beats me, shortstop. Because you know when you guys do get together I'm gonna ride your ass about it. But sounds to me like your boy's probably busy with someone else right now. Might wanna make that move sometime soon."

"I'm not gonna--" Jean stopped himself, fully aware she was baiting him into putting his foot in his mouth. He threw his hands up and then dragged them down the sides of his face. "I'm leaving." He whirled around on his heel and headed for the recessed bleachers. The sound of Ymir's cackling followed him, but she didn't bother to do the same.

"Yeah well - see ya tomorrow, shortstop!" She went back to her run and Jean glared after her, more than a little irritated by the idea that she might be right about more than just his return to the track.

--

A strong fall breeze swept over the campus and seemed to signal the approach of the middle of the semester. Tired, frazzled students bumped past Jean as he made his way back to his dorm. Already agitated by Ymir's prodding, the bitterness of the people he passed was contagious, and by the time he was climbing the stairs to their floor he was stomping with each step.

Marco popped into the room completely unaware, and his beaming smile felt like a taunt. Jean wrestled back the urge to snap at him, reasoning that he hadn't actually done anything wrong.

"Hey, Jean!"

"Hey." Marco's cheerful presence made it hard to remember just how upset he was, but watching him collect his things to rush off - again - bolstered Jean just enough to loosen his lips. "Listen, if you're not busy--"

"Actually I do have to run. I'm already keeping a friend waiting and I've got practice in a few hours, so if I'm gonna..." Marco turned to face him again and trailed off, face falling. He dropped the contents of his hands onto the empty bed behind him and stepped cautiously toward Jean. "Is... is everything okay?"

"Not really, man. I've been trying to catch you all week, and you're never here for more than half a second." It was a little more tart than he'd intended, but he knew it was better hanging in the air than banging around in his head. Marco twisted his mouth into a frown.

"Jean, I have rehearsals right now and it doesn't leave me a whole lot of time to--"

"To talk? That's literally all I need, one damn conversation. Then I'll leave you alone if you want." Jean sighed, pressing a fist to his forehead, eyes closed as he tried to remember everything he'd wanted to say. "Look, I know it's probably shitty and selfish of me, but I feel like you offered me help and someone to talk to and all that, and then when I actually need it, you're not there. I get that you're busy, but I just--"

"Do you need help?" Marco interrupted. Jean stared at him before conceding, stammering through an answer.

"I... yeah. I do."

Marco stepped closer, his voice quiet and genuinely concerned. "What's wrong?"

"My science class. I don't - I think I'm gonna bomb the midterm. It's like half our grade, and I honestly don't remember half the shit we've talked about in that class because I have my head up my ass most days and... I don't wanna fail. If I fail a class they'll stick me in academic probation and I can't pass this thing by myself."

He pinched and rubbed at the bridge of his nose, heaving another sigh at the fear that his sudden change in attitude would just drive more of a wedge between himself and his new friend.

"I know it's probably pretty messed up for me to only talk to you when I need something, but I--"

"No, I was the one who told you that you could. I'm sorry I haven't been available. I..." Marco pulled his phone from his pocket, then reached out to gently squeeze Jean's shoulder. "Give me a minute, okay? Lemme see if I can free up my schedule a little bit tonight."

Jean immediately felt a sharp pang of guilt. "I didn't - you don't have to dump whatever you were gonna do."

But Marco was out the door and in the hallway before Jean could argue any further, talking to someone on the phone in a voice that was apologetic and placating. Jean felt like an ass thinking about whoever might be on the other end of the line, missing out on their plans with Marco just so he wouldn't fail a test. But when Marco stepped back in the room and gave him that wide, disarming smile, Jean momentarily forgot to feel bad.

"Alright, taken care of. I'm all yours for the night" he said through his grin. Jean laughed.

"Careful who you say that around."

Marco nodded dramatically, drawing another loud laugh from Jean. "Oh yeah, you're right - wouldn't want anyone to think I'm gay or anything." He grinned and settled on his bed, waiting for Jean to dig notebooks out of the stack on his desk.

 

When Marco said 'for the night', he was apparently determined to be true to his word. Hour after hour passed, evening slipping away as they kept reviewing Jean's poorly written notes, and Marco's blessedly proficient knowledge of the subject. His patience wasn't quick to wane, even as Jean's attention span threatened to. Marco ordered pizza for them, reorganized the notes, and jumped back into it without so much as a sigh. Jean was taken aback, but too afraid to say anything that didn't directly relate to biology. Maybe Marco didn't realize just how many hours he was wasting holed up in their dorm, dragging Jean by the hand into a vague understanding of his science terminology. Maybe he'd lost track of time, and selfish as it was, Jean didn't want to draw his attention to it. After weeks of barely seeing his friend, it felt oddly like a victory, having that undivided attention.

Still, he couldn't help feeling guilty at how quickly and completely Marco had dropped everything else he had planned to help Jean study. As their cram session began to resemble an all-nighter, Jean thought about Marco's invite to the Halloween party, and the way he'd been so quick to turn him down. Eyeing Marco pouring over chapter reviews and fighting to keep his eyes open only made Jean feel all the more like a terrible excuse for a friend.

He'd make it up to him, though. Assuming he passed - and maybe even if he didn't - he'd do something for Marco in return. Go somewhere or take him somewhere or something. He made a promise to himself to do that, to celebrate with him and hopefully seem like less of a jerk in a single outing. He promised himself, and then turned his attention back to Marco, trying to focus on the new notes he was making in the margins of the book.

--

Pathogens.
Carcinogens.
The characteristics of infectious diseases, and a host of other off-putting facts...

Jean wasn't even sure if he passed Mikasa on his way class that morning. A last minute review flew through his head, and Marco's steady, reassuring voice rang in his ears, reminding him to breathe when his anxiety about the exam threatened to freeze his hand. The test packet in front of him, he flipped through it carefully, checking for questions he knew he could answer easily.

Four, six, ten - the number of answers he was sure of grew quickly, and with each one, so did his confidence in Marco as a tutor. By the time he finished the last few questions, he realized that no one else had even turned their tests in yet. He looked back over his work to bide his time, waiting for others to rise from their seats before he did the same. When Krista and a few other students moved to leave, he followed, exchanging a polite wave with the pretty blonde on their way to the professor's table at the front of the room.

"Your tests will be graded and scores posted online within the hour!" Hanji chirped as the first few students meandered out of the lecture hall. Moblit sat a few feet away, already feverishly working on reviewing score sheets. Jean actually felt a little guilty adding his to the growing pile, but he was glad to get it out of his hands.

Not excited by the thought of staring at the ceiling of the library or his dorm room for an hour, Jean decided to go for a quick run to keep his idle mind from irritating him further. Unfortunately Ymir was there to take care of that.

"Don't have time for your shit today, Ymir," Jean said before she even had time to speak. "I'm just here to run off some time between now and my grades being posted."

"Grades posted?" She asked. "Little early for that, shortstop."

"Midterm. Science test. Supposed to be posted in an hour or so." He picked up speed, nearly sprinting, but she kept pace.

"Oh yeah? Wha' kinda science?"

"Uh, biology. Why?" He huffed. Ymir was winded too, pausing every few words to steady her breathing as they ran.

"Is it the disease class? My girlfriend's in there." Jean almost laughed at the idea that there was someone fond enough of Ymir to actually go out with her.

"Oh, yeah. Hanji's class?"

Ymir nodded. "Yup. She loves it. You should say hi sometime."

"Yeah, I'll get right on that."

"Sure ya will. She's a hot-ass little blonde, in the event you actually get lucky enough to run into her. 'Bout this tall." She held a hand out, even with her shoulder. Jean thought of the short, nameless blonde with the severe expression he'd noticed on the first day of his biology class, likely one of the only people he'd seen who could hold her own with Ymir.

"Yeah, I think I've seen her. Real quiet."

"In class maybe." When Jean shot her a disgusted glare, Ymir laughed so hard she actually had to stop running.

Jean slowed to a stop as well and clutched his knees for a moment, recovering from their sprint. "Speaking of which, my grades might be posted by the time I get back to the dorm. So as much as I'd love to hear about your sex life..."

Ymir followed him back to the bleachers, packing her own bag beside him for once. "I'll just pick up where we left off next time."

And if Jean had learned anything being stuck with her as a running partner, it was that she definitely wasn't kidding about that.

--

His laptop was open before he'd even landed on his bed, fingers flying across the keys anxiously. The student access portal was slow-moving that afternoon, and Jean wondered how many of his biology classmates might be responsible for bogging it down. Once the screen finally loaded he scoured the list of grades, wincing a little at the less than stellar marks he'd gotten on most of the quizzes leading up to the exam. But his exam grade was another story, a bigger number in bolder type that he couldn't help smiling at the sight of.

84.00/100.00 (B)

He was still grinning a moment later when the knob of their dorm room door clicked and Marco peeked in, shuffling sideways into the room with an armload of what looked like swords with long, squared blades. Jean elected not to ask about them, and blurted out his good news instead.

"Guess who passed?"

Marco beamed, dropping the faux swords onto his bed and crossing the room to clap Jean on the shoulder. "Excellent! Flying colors, yeah?"

"Well I don't know about flying - hang gliding maybe. Parasailing."

"Good enough." Marco laughed and settled on Jean's bed beside him. He bumped his elbow against Jean's side. "Proud of you."

Jean shoved him back with a shoulder and grinned down at the floor. "Yeah, well. Let's go stuff ourselves with junk food to celebrate. Unless you'd rather me drag you to Starbucks and show you how wrong you are about their drinks." He looked up to find Marco's smile twisting slightly to the side.

"I'd love to, Jean. But I've got somewhere to be tonight. Maybe some other time soon, okay?" A quick pat to Jean's knee, and he was up and moving again, gathering things and changing clothes for whatever his plans were. He was still smiling, but Jean couldn't quite return it, his mouth hanging in a barely parted line.

"Uh... sure. Yeah, when - whatever." Questions about where Marco was going - and with who - were on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed them with a dismissive nod as Marco grabbed his room key lanyard and prepared to head out.

"I'll be in late, so I'll just see you tomorrow. Have a good night, and congrats again on passing your test."

Marco tossed one last distracted smile over his shoulder and then the door clicked behind him. Jean stayed where he'd sat, staring at the door for what might've been half an hour, before realizing just how deep into his own thoughts he'd wandered. How did he end up there, sitting in the peaceful quiet of the room he had all to himself for once, and hating it?

It wasn't that he resented Marco going out to do... whatever he was doing. It wasn't his business, and he didn't care what his friend did on his own time. But something about the late evening felt like their time, an unspoken rule of shared space and a ritual of quiet conversation before sleep. Looking at the door that Marco obviously had no intention of coming back through that night, Jean couldn't push Ymir's teasing words out of his mind.

"Sounds to me like your boy's busy with someone else."

Maybe Marco did have someone. Marco was obviously mister popularity, with friends and theatre buddies and possibly mysterious boyfriends, and that was fine, because despite what Ymir thought, Marco wasn't 'his boy', or his anything. It didn't bother Jean that his closest friend had someone else to spend time with, because why would it? He asked himself that a few more times, every time he found himself feeling a little lonely in the empty dorm room, and never came up with a decent answer.

Even as the sun came up outside - appearing before any sign of Marco's return - Jean still couldn't quite understand why his mind wouldn't let him sleep.

Chapter Text

Despite the fact that late nights alone in what was meant to be shared space were becoming increasingly frequent, Jean made every attempt to keep his nose out of his roommate's business.

Maybe it was because it was the same courtesy he imagined Marco would grant him, if he had reason to. He was always ready to listen when Jean wanted to talk about anyone, anything - but he never actually raised the topics much himself, and Jean silently thanked him for that. Marco didn't pry, so why was Jean struggling not to?

Maybe it was because of Ymir's words, still clanging around in his head, no matter how much he tried to remind himself that he really didn't care if Marco had someone. The way she'd said it implied jealousy that Jean had been certain wasn't there, but hearing the idea replaying on unending loop in his mind made him begin to wonder; maybe he wasn't so sure after all.

Mostly, he didn't ask because he didn't really want to know. He liked having Marco's attention - it was nice, considering how few people he actively kept company with - and knowing beyond doubt that he had to share that attention with a love interest was annoying in a way Jean had no experience with. When he'd let his guard down with Marco, faster and more fully than he'd done with Eren or anyone before, he'd given up something like a part of himself. It wasn't that he expected Marco to understand that exactly, or to feel the same way. Marco had more friends than Jean could name, so he doubted he'd ever dealt with the uncomfortable feeling of wrestling with the decision of whether or not to let someone in. Still, Marco made him feel special, like he was the most important person in Marco's life when they were talking, even if it was about pizza or science tests or dirty socks. Something about him having a boyfriend cheapened that, though. Perhaps he'd imagined a closeness where one didn't exist. He knew Marco was an actor, but he didn't like to think he was that good of one.

So for a multitude of reasons, he kept his thoughts and feelings about Marco's personal life to himself. It wasn't an easy topic to approach anyway, so Jean steered conversation away from it. Marco didn't seem to mind; he was just as quick to sidestep discussion of his time outside their dorm room. It was in turns relieving and maddening. Jean didn't want to talk about it, but some small part of him cried out to know what the hell was keeping Marco too busy to talk to him.

It wasn't so much that they never spoke. Marco still carved out time for long chats with him about whatever might come up between them on a given day. And he still poured himself into it entirely; when they were alone together, Jean still had every bit of Marco's focus. That made it sting all the more when he didn't , when he tried to reach out and was met with empty air rather than a waiting hand.

The Halloween party came and went, and despite Jean's last minute decision to accept Marco's invitation, he sat in their dorm that night, alone. There wasn't much of a reason for him to go when Marco had 'already agreed to go with someone else, sorry' . He thought he heard Marco giggling with someone in the hallway before he finally stumbled back in that night, but Jean pulled his blankets above his ears and tried not to listen. It wasn't his place to ask, he reminded himself. It wasn't his place to care.

The coming holidays gave them plenty of excuses for the kind of easy conversation that always felt great at the time, cheerful talks that often led into deeper discussions and left Jean wishing for more. He made monumental efforts to push the bitterness from his mind when they would get time to actually talk that way, consciously choosing to enjoy being with his friend rather than stewing about how rare an occasion it had become.

"Got any exciting plans for Thanksgiving?" Marco asked him one evening, shortly after the month of November began. It was the kind of thing Jean usually despised talking about, but like most things, it was different with Marco. He settled on his bed between stacks of opened notebooks, carefully closing each one before moving them to his desk.

"Other than forced socialization with a house full of relatives? Not a thing." He made a neat pile of the books and turned back to face Marco, propped on one arm.

Marco flopped onto his bed and scooted his back against the wall behind it, pulling off his shoes and rubbing his feet through his socks. "Sounds about like the holidays at my parents' house."

"Yeah, you got a whole passel of sisters, don't you? That's gotta suck."

Marco shrugged and peeled his shirt over his head, tossing it onto the floor and biting back a laugh when Jean frowned at it. "It's not so bad. I get along with my sisters just fine, especially my twin and my youngest sister. They're a lot more fun than Bruna."

"Bruna?"

"My oldest sister," Marco nodded. "She's... a lot like my parents."

Jean didn't press for exactly what Marco meant; he remembered Marco mentioning trouble with his parents before, and figured it a topic best left for another time, or left untouched altogether. He was too glad for Marco actually finding the time to talk to risk upsetting him. He opted to keep things light, encouraged by an unspoken thankfulness from Marco. Jean wondered smugly if any of Marco's other friends could read him so easily.

"I don't have any siblings; just a couple of annoying-ass cousins." Jean thought about the cousins he'd grown up with, forever grateful that he only saw them once in a while. His grimace must've been obvious; Marco laughed and prodded him from his thoughts with a sock-clad foot.

"At least you don't live with them."

Jean nodded hastily. "Thank God! Hitch is obnoxious, but I think I'd almost prefer living with her than with her brother Farlan. He's the biggest slob I've ever met. It's freaking gross."

Marco grinned. "More gross than me?"

"Just slightly," Jean laughed. "So you're a twin?"

"Yeah. Alisa - that's my sister's name. We're really close; mom used to say we might as well have been conjoined, since we're basically attached. Amarrado, she always calls us."

"Three sisters," Jean breathed. "God, I don't think I could share a house with that many people. Especially if they were anything like Hitch." He made a dramatic retching sound and Marco chuckled, shaking his head.

"Well I've never met Hitch, but like I said, my sisters are alright. My little sister Dani keeps things interesting , but we haven't really argued since we were all kids. Not with each other, I mean. Mom and dad are a different thing. But a full house is just something you get used to, I guess. No matter who you share it with."

"Wouldn't know, man. S'just been me and mom for a couple of years now. Before that it was just the three of us. Pretty quiet."

"Must be nice," Marco hummed. Jean nodded, lying back into his folded hands.

"I won't pretend it's not. Still, holidays kinda suck. I've got more aunts than a damn picnic - loud-ass, crazy Jewish women." He pulled one hand from beneath his head and dragged it down his face, sighing behind his fingers. "S'too much."

Marco rolled onto his stomach, chin propped on an open palm and eyebrow raised skeptically at Jean. "I need to show you how Brazilians do holidays. I think you might be willing to trade."

Laughing as he closed his eyes, Jean dropped an arm to point lazily back at him. "That is a bet I'd be willing to make, my friend."

--

Jean didn't have many people to talk to on campus outside of the coaching staff and his mom, and being as he wasn't actually a huge fan of talking, it had never been an issue. Still, he found it hard to share the time he had with Marco with anyone else; he regularly turned down invites to go to mixers with Marco, knowing that his roommate would probably spend the entire party talking to the whole room and leaving him standing. At least that's how it played out in his head.

So when their neighbors down the hall popped by for visits, Jean was usually quick to find an excuse to send them on their way. Eventually their visits became more sporadic, until they nearly stopped altogether. Just when Jean began to wonder if they would ever hear from them again, there was a quiet knock on their door on a Friday evening, and Bertholdt stepped halfway in to speak when Marco opened it.

"Just wanted to ask if you guys wanted to come do dinner with us tonight. Reiner said something about tacos, and Annie's off campus 'til Monday, so there's no way the two of us are gonna be able to eat everything he's probably gonna order." He looked past Marco and caught sight of Jean, quickly tagging a disclaimer onto his invite. "You don't have to, of course."

"What? Are they tryna shit out on us again?" Reiner was still down the hall - maybe even still in their dorm room, by the sound of his voice - but he was loud enough to be heard, regardless. "C'mon, Bodt. S'not like you got anything better to do. Unless you and Au--"

"Alright, yeah. I'll be down in just a bit." Marco nearly shouted, cutting Reiner off and nodding in Bert's direction all at once. He turned and raised an eyebrow, questioningly. "Jean?"

Jean shrugged. He would never have accepted if Marco hadn't already committed to going, but at least it was something to do other than staring at poster-covered walls. And regardless of circumstance, at least Marco would be there - be with him - all evening. "Sure," he finally replied. "Nothing else to do." An hour later they were leaving their room together, Jean still slightly amazed that he'd agreed to go.

The room that Reiner and Bertholdt shared was an interesting one, evident right from the moment Jean followed Marco through the door. One side had a simply made bed and sparse decor, save for a faded, life-size standee of a football player, with lanyards full of key chains hanging from its arms. A small television was settled on a set of drawers, an Xbox beside it and a tall stack of game cases behind. Everything was very neat, very well kept, and Jean was surprised to see that Reiner was so pulled together within his own space. Bert's side of the room was a different story - or at least looked like it might belong in a different book.

A stack of fraying quilts was tossed to the end of his mismatched bed, almost matching the messily folded heap of flannel shirts beside it. A desk was piled with old books, movies on tape, and cassettes like Jean hadn't seen since he was very young. A VCR and an ancient-looking Walkman with clunky headphones were among the mess as well, and an old film camera completed the collection. On the walls behind it all were peeling posters and pictures, more faces than Jean could even count. It was a laughably stark contrast to Reiner's pared-down part of the room, but it was what Jean saw on both sides that brought real questions to his mind.

Clothes and accessories - feminine, and clearly too small for Bert or Reiner - were casually tossed over the back of a chair, the post of a bed, onto a nightstand and even peeking from beneath a closet door. A belt on Reiner's bedside table, a tiny shirt hanging out of a laundry basket - was that a bra under Bert's bed? Jean didn't say anything; he was too busy trying to figure out which one of them had a girlfriend, when he'd just assumed they were an item themselves. Reiner and Bert didn't seem to recognize his staring around the room for what it was. Bert tucked away the worst of his mess with an embarrassed laugh while Reiner went about dragging game controllers out of a drawer.

Jean nudged a shoulder against Marco's and caught his attention, fully intending to point out the out of place clothes and ask him if he knew whose they were. Instead, he ended up startling Marco into grabbing his arm, prompting a loud crack of laughter from Reiner.

"You guys look scared to death. I swear Bert's mess monster doesn't bite too hard." He eyed the place where Marco was slipping his hand away from Jean's arm. "Shouldn't flirt with your roommate, Bodt. Some people might not like that too much."

Jean turned to Marco, eyebrow quirked at 'some people'. Marco shrugged dismissively and patted his shoulder, crossing the room to take a seat next to Bert and leaving Jean standing - and wondering.

Things got a lot less awkward once there was food to share. Bert had been right - Reiner left for twenty minutes and came back with what might've been half the Taco Bell menu in boxes and bags. The room was pleasantly quiet while he was gone - Bert and Marco made conversation, Jean content to listen for the most part - and Reiner's neatly made bed provided Jean with a comfortable seat. He was so caught in the steady rhythm of Bert and Marco's back and forth that he let his mind wander along with his eyes, until they fell on something that stopped them both.

Under the shoes he kicked to the floor, Bertholdt had one normal foot, and one that looked like it might be made of metal and plastic. His pants leg raised slightly when he crossed his legs beneath him while he and Marco chatted, and Jean could see rods and bolts instead of the boney flesh of an ankle. He made strides not to stare - to look anywhere else - and a mental note to himself to ask Marco about it later, when he wouldn't risk the tension of mentioning it in front of Bert himself. Reiner returned soon after, and Jean's curiosities were swept away with the sounds of dozens of taco wrappers landing on nearly every surface in the room.

Reiner was pretty terrible at most of the video games they played, but Jean wasn't much better, and the night ended up a lesson conducted by Marco and Bert in how to absolutely spank your opponents gracefully. Between 'courses' - Reiner had brought back so much food that they had to eat it in waves, to keep it from going to waste - they talked about their majors and Jean's experience on the baseball team, the upcoming theatre production Marco was helping with and Bert's apparent obsession with things long since outdated.

"Just because something isn't loved by a lot of other people anymore doesn't mean it isn't worth loving," Bert smiled. He looked - maybe a little sadly - in Reiner's direction, despite it being Jean's teasing he was responding to. Reiner laughed and leaned across the narrow divide of the room's floor to gently smack Bert's arm.

"Very poetic, Bert."

Bert rolled his eyes and smiled a little wider, and the subtle sadness left his face. He retrieved another bag of food from his messy desk just in time for Reiner to place a bet with Marco about who could eat more fire sauce on a single taco, and shared a look of disgust with Jean when Marco took him up on it.

When they shuffled back down the hall to their own room later that night, stomachs full to aching and exhausted enough to flop onto their beds without much more than a few words exchanged between them, Jean was smiling almost as widely as Marco. Reiner was still one of the most abrasive people he'd ever encountered, but Bert did strike a nice balance with him, and taken together they were actually kind of fun guys to be around. As quiet as things had been the week or so before, dinner with them was a decent change of pace. He still needed Marco as a buffer, though. Maybe Bert and Reiner did, too; they never seemed to pop by - or barge in - when Jean was alone. And as seldom as Marco was actually with him in the dorm, Jean almost wished they would. Almost.

--

 

When Marco told him that his play production was coming to an end, Jean was awash in familiar, conflicted feelings. He hadn't bothered to come to any shows - he hadn't even asked for the dates - and he only felt guilty for missing his chance to when Marco did things like help him with his homework. Or bought Jean dinner. Or smiled at him.

But he was also immensely glad to hear that it was over. Maybe they'd finally have time to talk - for Jean to ask the million or so questions he'd been cataloguing in his mind about Bert, Reiner and nearly everyone and everything else - now that he knew Marco wouldn't be so predisposed. It was one less obligation, one less reason for Marco to be gone, and no matter how disgusted he was with his own selfishness at the thought, Jean couldn't deny that he was happy to know that he might be around more often.

But he wasn't. In fact, as soon as the show wrapped, Marco was gone more than ever. The closer Thanksgiving break crept - and the more Jean found himself sitting alone in the evenings - the more bitter he became about it. There was a reason he didn't befriend people, a reason he didn't like opening up; some doors were hard to close again. The week before Thanksgiving wasn't a particularly chilly one, but he couldn't remember a time that he'd felt any colder.

It was hard to sleep, wondering where Marco was and what he was doing. It was something Jean was pretty sure most roommates weren't supposed to care about, but that didn't help him let it go and rest. Still scowling at the ceiling at nearly three one morning, he heard the click of the doorknob turning, and sat up to shift his glare in that direction.

"Hey!" Marco said breathlessly, half collapsing backward against the door to close it. His hair was out of place in every direction, and his shirt looked like it might be on inside out under his jacket. Jean looked at him for a long moment, unsure why the heat rising in his chest was suddenly so hard to control.

"Hey," he replied flatly.

"God, the weather tonight is amazing, isn't it? Gorgeous." Marco sighed happily, looking out the tiny window on the opposite wall. Jean didn't move his eyes away.

"Wouldn't know. Haven't really been out since sundown," he snapped. "Which was like, what... six hours ago?"

Marco's smile cracked and began to fall away. "You okay?"

"I'm fine," Jean grumbled. Marco was frowning by then, his voice softened with concern.

"I... are you sure?"

"Just gettin' a little sick of you rambling in at half past ass-o'clock every night," Jean spat, and pointedly ignored the way Marco jumped backward in response to his sharp tone. "Kinda hard to sleep when I don't know --" he paused, collecting his thoughts before he let the wrong ones tumble out of his mouth; "-- don't know when the hell you're gonna come stomping in."

Marco crossed his arms over his chest, stepping sideways to his bed like he was avoiding an enraged animal. "I'm... really sorry. I guess I didn't realize it was causing a problem. I didn't even know how late it was, to be honest."

"Yeah, well it wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't every damned night." Jean hesitated for a moment before finally spitting out the question that he only sort of wanted an answer to. "You got a boyfriend or what?"

"Yeah." Marco's reply was slow, an almost sheepish smile tugging at his lips. But when he saw that Jean wasn't smiling in return, his apologetic tone returned. "I didn't wanna mention it to you and make you uncomfortable or whatever. But ye--"

"Well maybe you should've," Jean interjected. He turned away but could still feel Marco's eyes on him, confused and questioning.

"Huh?"

"You should've just told me. At least then I'd have known where the hell you were." Jean glared at him. Marco stared blankly in response for a moment, before narrowing his eyes to match Jean's.

"Are you serious?!"

For the first time, Jean heard a hardness in Marco's voice; anger or something like it. It was an unfamiliar sound, but one Jean was half prepared for, after all his weeks of worrying that Marco's peaceful patience with him was a facade.

"Why does it matter where I was?" Marco demanded, and Jean answered in kind.

"It didn't!" he snapped. "It doesn't. I don't care. Do whatever you want, just... stop dragging your loud ass in here after three AM." His voice wavered a little, and Marco's anger evaporated, replaced again by confusion and concern.

"Jean, I really didn't --"

Jean threw up a hand, silencing him. "I don't wanna fucking talk. That's what you have a boyfriend for." He flopped down hard onto his side, grabbing a handful of blankets and tugging them over half of his face. Behind him, Marco was still talking, though his voice was quieter, breaking at the edges.

"Wh-- I don't understand why you're being like this. Why can't we just--"

"Just let me get some sleep for once, alright?" Jean reached up over his shoulder and tapped the base of his bedside lamp, shutting off its light. There was a long pause - a tense stillness - before he heard Marco do the same, and then the room was quiet, save for a few words.

"Alright. Goodnight, Jean."

--

The sun cut through the blinds early the next morning, not blocked by the shade that Marco usually pulled sometime during the night. Jean cracked an eye open and dragged himself out of bed almost as soon as the room began to lighten; even in November, California mornings were perfect for running. And running was perfect for avoiding roommates.

Marco was still asleep. For a moment Jean noted how exhausted he looked, even lying there with his eyes closed, sprawled awkwardly across his still-made bed. Was he still wearing yesterday's clothes? Jean didn't stay long enough to dwell on the thought. He headed for the track without waking him.

With cool air still hanging close to the ground from the disappearing darkness, he made it to the track before anyone else, even the early morning staff. Even the coaches. Even Ymir. He walked and ran the track in turns, carving out a solid hour to himself before he saw any signs of other people on the grounds. The sun was climbing well into the sky when he heard the sharp bark of laughter he'd spent most of the morning anticipating.

"Form's lookin' a little weak this morning, shortstop!"

Jean groaned and kept moving, know that it didn't matter how fast or slow he ran, she'd just match his pace. "Ymir..." It was said like a warning, and Ymir cracked a wide smile and strode past him.

"You think you're ever gonna get picked up moving that slow?"

He glared in her direction, nearly stopping mid-stride. "Seriously?" She shrugged like she had no idea exactly how asinine she was being.

"Thought shortstops were fast! You the backup guy, or what?"

"Why you gotta roll in here talkin' shit?" Jean snapped, speeding up to level with her, his voice a harsh shout. "It's already been a horrible morning, and now you're --"

"So run it off," she said. He stared at her.

"What?"

"Run. It. Off." She said it mockingly, between panted breaths as she moved faster. He kept pace, and she kept talking. "I can tell you're in a pissy mood. Whatcha want me to do, bake you some cookies? Better learn to suck it up, shortstop. Or --" she passed him with a breathy laugh; "-- run it off!"

Jean broke into a sprint, his anger at Ymir and Marco and Marco's damned boyfriend pushing him harder, faster until he passed her by, not stopping until his legs ached and his heart threatened to burst from behind his rubs. His chest was on fire, a burning ache that squeezed his lungs as harshly as it stung his eyes, and yet - he felt better. His face was damp with sweat and what might have been tears, and he shucked his jacket to drag it over slick skin, tossing it over his shoulder along with all the fucking feelings he didn't have time for.

"Better?" Ymir grinned, still struggling to steady her own breathing as she slowed to a stop beside him. She bumped a fist against his shoulder; he shook it away.

"Fuck you."

She laughed - loud, obnoxious, and unfazed by Jean turning to head back for the bleachers. "Thought so," she said, following him a few paces before turning her attention back to the track. "Better keep hittin' it though, shortstop. Gotta step up that weak game unless you wanna graduate without a contract."

He struggled to think of a gesture rude enough to toss over his shoulder at her, still too bitter to thank her for the only real relief he'd found for the anger tearing at his chest. Her warning echoed in his head and followed him out of the athletic complex, across the sparsely populated campus grounds of the early morning. It rang in his ears, even as he tried to figure out what the hell to do for the rest of the day that didn't involve talking to his roommate.

Better step up your game.

--

Baseball season was still a few months away; even the earliest practices and games were still weeks out. But his game on the field wasn't the only thing he needed to step up. Passing his lonely reflection in the picture windows of the buildings on his way to class every day, he reminded himself that he would have to be the one to make an effort to change it.

Putting people beside himself in any sense had never been his strong suit. A year before, reflecting on being single probably wouldn't have made him think twice. But for some reason, Marco having someone legitimately bothered him, and he reasoned that it had to be because it brought his own loneliness sharply into focus. So he would have to step up his game, starting with actually making conversation with Mikasa.

Finding her alone was next to impossible, but at least it gave him something to do that kept him out of his dorm. He reworked his schedule - taking lunch later and dinner off campus - to keep himself busy and stay in areas during the day where he might actually have a chance of bumping into her. When it finally paid off, he was so startled he barely remembered to speak.

"Mikasa." He mumbled her name - more a statement of surprise than anything - as she breezed her way through one of the crowded round stone pavilions near the heart of the campus. She stopped and glanced over her shoulder, and offered him a tiny, polite smile.

"Oh, hey. Jean, right?"

"Right, yeah. Eren's old roommate," he said quickly, the description sour on his tongue. But making sure she remembered him was worth associating himself with Eren for a moment. He gave a shaky laugh and stepped toward her. "How, uh - how ya been?"

"Doing well," she said simply. "You?"

Jean shrugged. "Fine. Just... staying busy."

"Yeah..."

Conversation threatened to stagnate between them, Mikasa already glancing over Jean's shoulder as if she were mentally somewhere else. Jean felt a familiar thrumming in his chest, anxiety screaming at him to step up his game, move, speak - do something.

"Y-you look really nice," he finally stammered. Heat prickled behind the skin of his cheeks as he tried to swallow the thickness in his voice. "I... I haven't seen you in a while. Your hair's really long now. It's really pretty."

"Oh, thanks. I'm probably gonna cut it soon. Eren keeps nagging me about it." She twirled a strand between two fingers and eyed it, dropping it back to rest against her shoulder and sighing, her voice distracted and distant. "Well, anyway--"

"Hey, uh - d'ya wanna get coffee sometime?" Jean blurted out, cutting her off. The question was out of his mouth before he had time to reconsider it, and despite feeling like he might be sick, he also felt accomplished. He'd actually managed to move forward for once. The feeling didn't last, though. Mikasa twisted her mouth into a frown and backed away another few steps.

"That sounds nice, but I don't really have a lot of free time this semester. Sorry."

Jean nodded quickly, face falling to look at the stone below his feet - to look anywhere but at her face. "Alright. Well I, uh... I'll let you get where you're going. It was nice to see you again." He chanced a look up at her, and found her standing farther away than she'd been the moment before.

"Yeah," Mikasa gave him another small smile and waved, turning to leave. "You too."

She walked away without another word, or further thought. Back to her life that didn't include him in any capacity, he thought darkly. He left too, unable to imagine anything he hated the idea of more than standing in place where she'd just dismissed him. But he had nowhere to go - nowhere that felt right, anyway. He traipsed over campus until he found a picnic area, cafe tables and stools unoccupied save for a few lurking pigeons.

Sitting at a tiny metal table beside the white stone walkway - less bright, in the softer light of the fading November sun - Jean slipped his phone from his pocket. No sooner had he glanced at the time on the screen, than the phone buzzed and his mother's smiling face appeared in the top corner. It rang twice before Jean slid his finger to the left, sending it to voicemail. As much as he loved her, hers was not the voice he wanted to hear.

He slipped the phone back into his pocket and headed for his dorm room.

--

It was well after dark when Marco slipped back into the room, careful and quiet. Jean wasn't sure of the time, only that he'd downed nearly an entire pot of coffee waiting for the door knob to turn. Marco turned once the door was closed behind him, face paling slightly when he caught sight of Jean looking back at him. They'd avoided each other, silent for days, and he seemed timid to be the one to break that silence.

"Did... I wake you?" he asked quietly. "I tried not to--"

Jean cut him off with a sharp shake of his head. "No, I waited up."

Marco sucked in a sharp breath and nodded cautiously. "Oh. Uh, why'd you--"

"I ran into Mikasa today," he said quickly. It wasn't an apology, exactly - but it almost sounded like one, and Marco seemed to hear it in his tone. He took a few steps toward Jean's bedside.

"Yeah?"

Jean nodded. "Didn't exactly go like I'd hoped."

"I'm sorry." Marco stopped in front of him, arms still crossed cautiously. "You alright?"

"I've been better. But -" Jean struggled with exactly how to say what needed said, finally deciding he had no idea, and just letting the words fall wherever they might. "I've been a lot worse too. Sorry I was a dick, man."

Marco didn't move, but his face softened. "I'm not upset, Jean."

Jean sighed and fell backward onto his bed, legs still draped over the side. "Don't say that. Just makes it worse."

Marco laughed, a soft sound Jean hadn't heard in days. "Duly noted. Never forgive you for anything. Got it." He kicked Jean's feet, prompting Jean to pull himself up just long enough to make a show of rolling his eyes.

"Ass."

Marco laughed again, stronger and more like himself as he settled on the edge of his own bed, right across from Jean. "I'm just glad we're not gonna leave for break without talking."

"Same. Last few days were weird." The topic of conversation was veering dangerously close to being too intimate for Jean's taste. But Marco had a way of making it feel safe, so Jean let him talk.

"Yeah. I'm sorry I didn't tell you before."

"It's not a big deal. I mean I pretty much already knew. Just thought we were like... good enough friends to talk about that kinda shit." Giving words to his feelings made his throat uncomfortably tight; his first reaction was panicked backpedaling. "That sounds pretty stupid now that I say it."

"No it doesn't," Marco assured him. "You're right. Just - next time, maybe just talk to me first, so we don't have to ignore each other for days, yeah?"

"Why, you miss me?" Jean smirked, pointing a finger and thumb in his direction. Marco snorted with laughter.

"Terribly." It was a joke, of course. But the genuine smile he punctuated it with pulled at something unfamiliar and raw in Jean's chest. Silence fell between them for a few minutes before Marco spoke again, quieter. "Did you wanna talk about Mikasa?"

"Not really, man. Let's just say I suck and leave it at that. She's definitely never gonna be interested as long as I keep shoving my foot down my throat." Jean scrubbed at his eyes with the backs of his hands, pulling fingertips down his face with a sigh. Marco frowned sympathetically.

"Sorry things didn't go so well. I'm sure it's not as bad as you think, though." He rose from his seat at the edge of his bed to retrieve his phone, a small smile pulling at his lips when he sat back down again. "Hey, by the way - do you want my number?"

Jean stared at him, trying to figure out exactly how they'd gotten from talking about his failed attempt at getting a date to receiving Marco's phone number. "What? Why?"

Marco shrugged. "Well we're getting ready to go home for break. Just thought you'd like to have someone to text while you're cooped up with relatives." His smile faltered slightly when Jean continued to stare at him, still mulling over what he'd said. "If you don't want to, it's fine."

"No, that's... that's fine," Jean sputtered quickly. Something in the back of his mind wondered aloud if Marco would even have time to talk to him over break, seeing as he had a boyfriend to keep in touch with. But he quieted that voice with his own. "Cool, actually. If you want to, I mean."

Marco grinned again and nodded. "I offered, remember?"

They exchanged numbers and stories of what they'd done the last few days, and every time Marco laughed, the room felt a little more like home again. When Jean unlocked the screen of his phone to add Marco's number, he saw a text from his mom, reminding him about the things she would need him to do and pick up for the coming holiday, and to call her as soon as he could. He grinned and moved to put his phone aside for the night when he felt it buzz. When he looked back down at the illuminated screen, a text labeled 'Marco' - with only a single, silly emoji - was waiting for him. He laughed under his breath and texted him back; they talked that way until they ran out of things to say.

Marco said goodnight once comfortable silence had stretched between them for a while, and when Jean replied, he did it with a smile. Things still weren't exactly the way he wanted them, but for the moment - with Marco's promise of someone to talk to other than his cousins over their break away from each other - he was content. He drifted off to sleep with his phone still curled in his fingers.

Chapter Text

The drive back home was nearly two hours one way, and despite the gorgeous scenery, Jean had never enjoyed it. The long stretch of quiet gave him ample time to think, something that usually ended with him feeling stressed about upcoming schoolwork or the approaching baseball season, and very rarely made him anything other than tense upon arriving. So he was glad when he saw only his mother's car in their driveway when he pulled up. She had dinner waiting, and was the kind of soft, solitary voice he needed to decompress after a long drive through his own thoughts.

"So any earth-shattering gossip I need to know before everyone gets here tomorrow?" He stacked their empty plates together, handing them off to her as she stood to leave the table. Lynnette dropped them carefully into the slats of the dishwasher rack and closed its door, smoothing a wisp of her hair back in place. It was beginning to gray at the roots, but Jean assumed that was an observation best kept to himself.

"Oh, I'm sure we'll hear more than our fair share once they arrive," his mother sighed, her voice edged with a touch of humor at the truth of her statement. "You know my sisters."

Jean's aunts had a talent for gossip like he had never witnessed elsewhere. Their chattering often left Lynnette the odd one out, content to just listen to them prattle about people she apparently knew as well - people from back in 'the neighborhood'. You can take the girls out of Long Island, Jean's father used to say about them, and only when Jean was older did he understand it enough to fight the urge to take his late father's place in mumbling it at every family gathering.

"Your cousin Emily won't be with us this year, I do know that much," Lynette offered. "She's in Europe until January."

Jean nodded, eyebrows raised for a moment, impressed and maybe a little jealous. "Must be nice."

His mother nodded. "For her, I'm sure. She's probably enjoying the time away. Your aunt Debbie - probably not so much." She shook her head, and Jean laughed; he could hear his aunt's worried voice in his head, just at the mention of her name. No wonder his cousin had leapt at the chance to travel.

"I'd probably enjoy being out of the country too, if I was Em."

"Mhm. I just know Deb must be missing her terribly. And your uncle Charlie is in AA now, so Deb asked me not to serve any wine with dinner this year."

"Great." Jean groaned. "Really looking forward to dealing with Farlan and Hitch all weekend without it."

Lynnette rolled up the kitchen towel in her hands and tossed it at him. "I didn't say we didn't have it, dear. I just said we weren't serving it." She looked back at him with a small, mischievous smile, one that made Jean acutely aware of just how much he resembled his mother. "Downstairs pantry, second shelf," she said simply, clearing the last few things from the table to wipe it down. "None for Hitch, though. We don't need a repeat of last year."

"That was not my fault, it was Farlan's," Jean insisted, handing the towel back to her. "I'm a respectable adult who doesn't provide alcohol to minors. 'Sides, I'm not planning on sharing with either of 'em."

"Probably be best if you didn't," his mother laughed. "Farlan's not exactly known for his self control either."

"If I lived with Hitch I'd stay drunk, too."

"Now, Jean..." She chastised him, but there was an tone of amusement in her voice that Jean was proud of. "Anyway, I think I'm gonna head to the store for a few things before it gets too late. Would you like to come with me?"

"Supermarket, two days before Thanksgiving? Nah, I think I've had that panic attack before." He stood and kicked off his shoes dropping them beside the front door, just to show that his only intention for the evening was staying in.

Lynnette didn't press him. "Alright. The notepad is on the fridge. If there's anything you want, jot it down while I'm getting ready."

A few things scribbled in his mother's floral stationary, a pot of coffee brewed and left on the warmer for the rest of the evening and nothing to do for a considerable chunk of it other than watch tv, Jean found himself wondering what Marco might be doing. He sent him a text and settled in to scan the channels for anything other than obnoxiously early Christmas specials.

From: Jean
What's goin on, man?
6:38PM

The reply vibrated his phone before he'd even found something to watch.

From: Marco
At a Christmas parade with Dani and Ali. What're you doin?
6:39PM

Jean shook his head; Marco would be that guy who was already freaking out about Christmas.

From: Jean
Already? What happened to Thanksgiving?!
I'm doin stuff for mom.
6:41PM

From: Marco
Never too early for Christmas!
Hey do you have Snap Chat?
6:45PM

From: Jean
Debateable.
And yeah, why?
6:47

From: Marco
Send me your name on there. I'm gonna add you.
6:49PM

Jean texted a reply, and not a minute later, his phone buzzed to let him know someone named 'mbodt1014' had added him on Snap Chat. He returned the favor, and was met with a picture of Marco - and two pretty girls with dark hair and eyes - grinning widely with a nose painted black, cheeks tinted pink, and a pair of stuffed reindeer antlers perched on his head. Jean snorted out loud and fired back with a picture of himself, mouth twisted to one side and eyebrow raised. He captioned it, too.

You guys look ridiculous.

A few minutes later his phone buzzed again, another text from Marco, peppered with a handful of emojis.

From: Marco
Jealous?
I'll bring the antlers back to the dorm if you want...
6:57PM

From: Jean
No thanks
6:59PM

A familiar tune played from the television, and Jean noticed the opening titles of one of his favorite shows. He dropped his phone to his side, threw his legs up over the arm of his chair and watched the enthusiastic food show host reveal the secret ingredient of the day. The end credits were rolling before he heard his mother pulling into the driveway, and he shuffled his shoes back on to help her carry what was likely to be more groceries than their kitchen shelves could even hold, and just enough to satisfy the dozen or so relatives they'd be greeting the next day.

--

Bags emptied and groceries tucked away a little while later, Lynnette settled in front of the kitchen counter, humming as she pulled out produce and knives. Jean leaned on the other side, one leg hoisted over a stool and keeping him anchored when he made occasional checks to his phone. A few comfortably silent minutes later, his mother tapped the blunt side of her knife on the counter between them to catch his attention and smiled.

"So talk to me about your roommate," she prompted, motioning for him to take a seat. "You don't complain about him anymore, so I'm assuming things are going well?"

Jean flopped down fully onto the stool and shrugged, arms folded onto the counter in front of him. "Marco? Uh, he's a good guy." He wasn't sure where to start, telling someone about Marco. How nice he was? How endlessly patient? How fucking disgusting he could be, pulling a shirt from his dirty laundry to wear again without so much as a cautionary sniff? Jean twisted his nose at the thought but laughed under his breath anyway, settling on telling his mom just how wrong he'd been, worrying about not liking Marco. "Y'know, actually I--"

"Ooh!"

Lynnette dropped the knife in her hand and sucked in a sharp breath, and Jean worried for a moment that she'd cut herself. But she brought a hand to her temple and frowned, then looked back at him with one eye closed, and the face she made was too funny for him not to laugh, just a little.

"What's wrong?" He finally asked, hoping he sounded more concerned than amused. She patted the side of her face for another minute and then shook her head, looking back at him with a tired smile.

"Just a headache, sweetheart. Sorry; it's been a stressful week. And with my sisters coming in tomorrow..." She rubbed a hand over her face. "This is the third migraine I've had since Friday."

Jean nodded, understanding. Family functions always held a uniquely crushing kind of stress for his mother - especially the winter holidays - though she was the last person who would ever admit feeling overwhelmed. Jean could see it in the features of her face, though; her usual vibrancy was replaced with a look of near-dread, and she was pale even in the warm lamp light of their kitchen. He looped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed.

"Why don't you call it a night. I'll finish stuff for you in here if you want. Go watch your crime shows or whatever and kick back."

"That would be great." She offered him a tired, grateful smile and reached up to pinch affectionately at his cheek. "Thank you, sweetie."

"No problem, mom."

Lynnette pushed up onto her toes to hug him, and he let her dot his cheek with kisses, only making a small show of wiping his face as she jotted down the things she needed done. She left on a laugh, the door to the bathroom upstairs clicking behind her, followed by the sound of running bath water.

Jean listened for a moment, just to be sure everything sounded alright. Praying wasn't something he found himself doing very often anymore, but when he did, it was for the peace and rest his mother deserved. He eyed her list and went about trying to help her find it.

--

The list of chores Lynnette left him with consisted mostly of kitchen work, and Jean was glad for it. Working with food brought him peace - something he knew he'd be hard pressed to find once his relatives arrived the following day - and was something he enjoyed, because he was good at it. It was no secret amongst his family that he usually helped with holiday meals. Even as a child, Jean had been handy with a knife, standing by his mother's side, chopping vegetables and listening to his father's over-told stories. When his father passed away, he'd been the only one to cook for a while, taking turns between watching his mother spiral into depression and watching endless hours of the Food Network, trying to fill in the blanks of his culinary knowledge and keep the two of them fed. It took a few years, but his mom was eventually able to cope - to enjoy life again - and despite her return to their family kitchen as 'head chef', Jean was known to lend her more than a little bit of help during the hectic holidays. And truth be told, he loved it. (Though that was just one more bullet on a long list of things he'd probably never admit to anyone he wasn't related to.)

Somewhere between chopping celery and mincing onions, Jean checked his phone, distantly aware of the fact that he'd been chatting with Marco earlier. There were no new text messages, but a tiny icon at the top of the screen indicated new email. Instinctively he tapped it and pulled up his inbox, taking a seat at one of the stools on the opposite side of the high kitchen counter when he saw the name attached to the new message; Mike Zacharias.

The message was short, though still padded with his coach's paternal tone.


Jean,

Routine academic monitoring shows me that you're in danger of pulling less than a qualifying average in at least one of your classes. I don't think I have to remind you that doing poorly in your classes can result in academic probation, suspension from athletics or even the loss of your scholarship. I know you're capable of more than barely passing. Remember what we talked about earlier this semester, Jean – quit the day dreaming, get a tutor if you need one, and stop worrying about things that aren't important. Practices start after Christmas break, and I expect you to have things straightened out by then.

Enjoy your weekend with your family, and send my best to your mother. I'll see you at the track next week, when you're not studying.

- Coach Zacharias


Jean closed the email, rubbing the scent of aromatic vegetables into the skin of his temples before he could think better of it. He laid his phone on the counter and went back to working on his mother's to-do list, his coach's words almost audible in his mind. Academic probation - losing his scholarship entirely - was the kind of thing he always reminded himself of when he didn't feel like going to class or studying for a test, but he'd never actually imagined it to be a real possibility. Something about hearing it from his head coach - over Thanksgiving break no less, when Jean imagined baseball would be the last thing on anyone's mind - made it even worse. He could almost stand the thought of having to sit a season out; thinking of the look that would be on Coach Z's face if he did was what made Jean sure he needed to get his ass in gear. He mopped the kitchen counter down with a towel, grabbed his phone and headed to his room, hoping he still had some aspirin in his bathroom's medicine cabinet.

Pills and his tv remote in hand, he settled on his bed a few minutes later, suddenly very aware of how achy his feet were. Sad, really - how was he going to handle baseball season if he couldn't chop vegetables for an hour without getting a damned cramp? He swallowed the thought with the pills and flipped the television on, searching for something familiar to calm the nervous knot in his stomach. Every channel seemed to be showing commercials at once, and he glanced down at his phone for a moment to gauge what he might be able to find by the time. Only when the screen lit up and showed a little ghost icon in the top corner did he once again remember he'd been chatting with - and had gone silent on - Marco hours earlier. He tapped the icon and loaded the picture - an abandoned pair of antlers on a dresser top with a tiny winking face in the caption - and rolled his eyes, pulling up his text messages to send another.

From: Jean
Sorry I spaced for a bit, man. You still up?
11:10PM

Marco replied immediately, and Jean briefly wondered if he just lived with his phone stapled to his hand.

From: Marco
Yeah, I'll probably be up for a while. Everything ok?
11:11PM

He decided against telling Marco about the email from Mike. There would surely be time for that later, when he would undoubtedly bribe him into helping him study for finals. For the time, it was just nice to have something - someone - to think about other than relatives and people who might as well have been.

From: Jean
Just bored as hell. Probably not a problem you have very often there.
11:13PM

From: Marco
Some days I wish...
You doin anything tonight?
11:15PM

From: Jean
Just marathoning Iron Chef and Chopped.
11:18PM

From: Marco
Wtf is Chopped?
11:19PM

From: Jean
Seriously?!
It's like a food show competition thing.
It's sweet.
11:20PM

From: Marco
If you say so.
Sounds like it would put me to sleep.
11:22PM

From: Jean
You have horrible taste.
But I already knew that. Fuckin bbq sauce...
11:25PM

From: Marco
Whatever, raw fish.
11:27PM

A roll of the eyes and a muffled laugh, a short break from the conversation to watch a round of judging and a chef angrily stomping offset, and then Jean texted him back, punctuating the sentiment with a snap of his middle finger perched in front of his poorly lit, smirking face.

From: Jean
You just need instruction on decent food.
Good thing you have me.
11:35PM

From: Marco
Definitely.
11:40PM

Jean prodded at his social media apps for a few minutes and then dropped his phone to his side, glancing absently back up at his tv and smiling when he saw the 'Chopped' title screen again and thought of Marco. His phone buzzed again and he plucked it from the blankets beside him; another Snap Chat notification. He opened the app and let the photo load.

Face flushed from what was probably laughter, with the remnants of face paint still darkening his nose and cheeks, Marco smiled at him from the screen of his phone for ten brief seconds, and it was more than enough time for a realization to wash over Jean.

Marco was really attractive.

Not the way some people were. He'd never half-blinded Jean or caused him to drop things the way cute girls in high school did, nor was his the kind of smoldering heat that had first made Jean realized he was attracted to guys, sprawled across the pages of a magazine with flawless, airbrushed features. Rather, Marco had a beautiful smile, a warmth that radiated from beneath brown skin and emanated from expressive eyes, and a casual comfort about his nature that drew Jean in and held him there, and for the first time - the image still fresh in his mind, even as it disappeared from the screen - Jean let himself think about it all.

Considering it for more than even a few seconds, it was hard to talk himself out of the thought that Marco was actually pretty damned gorgeous. But having the hots for a roommate had never gotten him anywhere before, other than alone in an empty dorm room, bitter and broken-hearted. The things that had happened with Eren had left heart-deep stains Jean had never bothered to clean up, and he couldn't imagine doing that to himself again, or - worse yet - doing it to Marco. So he didn't respond, because what was there to say? He fell asleep watching a chef on tv set their stove on fire, and mercifully dreamt of everything but his roommate's smiling face.

--

Thanksgiving dinner was never 'dinner' in the usual sense in Jean's mother's house, mostly because his relatives rose early the morning after arriving, and demanded to eat before the sun had even settled into the sky. Luckily, Lynnette was always a step and a half ahead of their appetites, passing a tray of appetizers for breakfast as she put the finishing touches on a meal that was essentially a four course lunch. Jean stayed out of her way, hoping his aunts and uncles would stay out of his; they didn't seem keen to do so.

"You got a girlfriend yet, kid?"

The questions started before the table was even set, flying in every direction, but mostly aimed at Jean - son of the host, as he was. He responded with every ounce of respect he could muster for his uncles, which was not much if he was honest with himself.

"Nope. But thanks for rubbin' salt in that wound." His mother raised an eyebrow at his reply, but didn't chastise him. His aunt Debbie clicked her tongue loudly though, reaching across the table to rub his arm patronizingly.

"Probably aren't any nice Jewish girls at that school, anyway." She gave him a look of something like sympathy and he shrugged her arm off, shaking his head as he ducked back into the kitchen to grab his mom more plates, mumbling under his breath.

"Yeah, 'cause that's exactly what I need."

From their places hovering by the refrigerator, Hitch and Farlan laughed, probably glad Jean was bearing the brunt of their family's nosiness for once. After a long moment loitering with them out of range of dinner conversation, Lynnette called all three of them back to the table, offering Jean a small, apologetic smile when they finally took seats.

The rest of the questions weren't quite as personal, thankfully - and Jean shared the hot seat with Farlan and Hitch, pausing to let them answer as well, and trying not to sound quite as cynical as he felt when it was his turn to speak.

"How are your classes going?"

"They're going. Almost gone, thankfully."

"Any prospects for getting picked up by a team this year?"

"None yet. I'll, uh... I'll keep you guys posted."

Plates cleaned and table cleared from dinner, Lynnette poured coffee and passed trays of cookies and pie, excusing anyone who wasn't interested in dessert. Turned out that was really just Jean, but he didn't mind. He left the table, shooting his mother a grateful glance before stepping into the living room to breathe.

--

After everyone filled themselves with enough turkey and pies to incite a mass nap, Jean snuck off to his room for some peace. Downstairs, chatter was light, his mom and aunts talking softly while the rest of his relatives lay scattered on couches and chairs, snoring loudly enough to drown out most of what was being said. From what he could make out though, Jean could hear Lynnette's artful sidestepping of his aunts' questions about his personal life. He'd have to remember to thank her later.

He didn't share his mother's talent for polite avoidance. When Farlan and Hitch wandered into his room later that evening - despite him grousing at them in protest - he was only able to escape his cousin's prying for as long as it took her to locate his cell phone.

"Who's this guy?" Hitch asked, wiggling the phone back and forth as she held it up, the screen showing Marco's face, as well as their entire text conversation. Jean grabbed for it and scowled at her.

"Gimme my damned phone, Hitch."

"Who is he?" She insisted, hanging onto the phone and frantically eying the screen as if it would give her anything more than Marco's name. Jean finally snatched it out of her hands and gave her a hard shove to the shoulder.

"My roommate." He dropped the phone into his pocket. "Why?"

She fluffed her hair and smiled. "He single?"

"No. Besides - he's gay." Jean said it carefully; even if it was the truth, it still tasted like an insult on his tongue. The way Farlan raised an eyebrow at the mention of the word didn't help.

"That's what you think." She giggled in that way that always made Jean's lip curl involuntarily and ran a hand through her hair. "He just hasn't seen me yet." She pulled a tube of lip gloss from her pocket and slicked it across her mouth, grinning when she caught sight of her reflection in Jean's mirror.

Jean wasn't sure if he or Farlan was the first to laugh, but a few minutes later they were both still struggling to breathe. Hitch glared at them both and stood to leave, nose in the air.

"That's not how it works, kid! You're wasting your time," Jean yelled after her, knowing she would probably be headed to Facebook that same night, looking for Marco. "And your lipstick."

"And you're an asshole!" she called back, ducking into the guest room a few doors down. She poked her head back out and glowered at Farlan as well, who was still wiping his eyes from laughing at her so hard. "Both of you."

"She's gonna tell mom we were hazing her," he sighed, slouching back in Jean's beanbag chair. He looked up at Jean - who shrugged in response - and laughed again. "Worth it, though." He bumped a fist against Jean's, and for a moment, Jean could actually tolerate him.

--

Jean was glad for the silence when his cousins finally decided to leave him alone for the night, but he was just as glad to give it up when he saw a FaceTime request from Marco. He'd said something about a barely used, older generation iPad he had back home when Jean had mentioned owning one himself; Jean was more than a little grateful to see it apparently put to use, and couldn't shrug off the smug feeling that it was just for him.

Marco's face lit his screen a moment later, looking as tired as Jean felt, but smiling twice as wide. "Glad to see you're still alive."

Jean sighed and flopped back onto his bed, taking his tablet with him. He propped it on his knees and rubbed at his eyes, suddenly aware of the fact that it was nearing midnight. "Barely made it out, man. I've seen some shit."

"I'm sure." Marco yawned, the frame around his face jiggling for a moment while he settled on his stomach, stretching and propping his iPad on something a foot or so in front of his face. "So apart from your cousin stealing your phone, how was your day?"

"Eh, it could've been - wait, how did you know Hitch took my phone?"

Marco gave Jean a lopsided grin and held his phone up beside his face. "Figured you probably didn't give her my number outright."

Jean felt himself go pale.

"Your number? Did she send you something?!" He squinted at the phone in Marco's hand, and sure enough, there were fuzzy images of his cousin. His pallor was quickly replaced with a palpable flush of secondhand embarrassment.

"Just a few sexually aggressive selfies and her contact info. I didn't respond." The laugh he said it with somehow made it even more mortifying. Hitch's parents were definitely going to hear about this...

"You're a better man than I am," Jean sighed. "I'd have ripped her ass for it."

Marco shook his head and then dropped his chin to rest on folded arms. "She's just a teenager, Jean. I've got sisters. I know how it goes."

"You're still better than me. Mr. Perfect."

He didn't mean much by it - just that Marco was a ridiculously nice guy, not rightfully teasing the hell out of his snotty cousin for flirting with him - but Marco shifted awkwardly and cleared his throat, then changed the subject.

"Anyway, other than that, how was your day?"

"Fine, I guess," Jean shrugged. "Annoying as shit - lots of 'do you have a girlfriend yet?' But nothing too bad." Jean rolled over and mimicked Marco's position, burying his face in his pillow for a moment at the thought of his nosy relatives. He raised his head again at the sound of Marco's voice.

"Mm. Haven't heard that question since high school."

Jean scoffed, a distracted a laugh and then -"Really? God, that's gotta be nice."

Marco laughed, but it lacked all vibrancy. "Yeah; they're too busy telling me I'm going to hell to bother asking about my love life. It's great."

The air in Jean's room suddenly seemed uncomfortably hot, as he struggled to backpedal up the mountain he'd just verbally jumped from.

"I - I didn't - I'm sorry, man. Didn't mean--"

"You get used to it," Marco said with a wave. He grinned a little wider than usual and somehow managed to look Jean right in the eye via the camera. "Don't worry about it. Really."

It was hard, dropping that particular part of the conversation when he felt like he was still extracting his foot from his mouth, but Marco's smile and the quiet laughter lighting his tired eyes were very convincing. They talked about whatever else they could come up with, joking and teasing and wasting the rest of the evening until it was very late, and Marco mentioned his family's tradition of breakfast the morning after Thanksgiving. Jean apologized for keeping him awake, but Marco dismissed him with a yawn and a sleepy grin, and wished him a good night before signing off from their chat. Jean drifted off to sleep, glad for Marco's smile to break up the irritating near-chaos of the holiday, and willing himself not to think much more on what a nice smile it was, or that there were only two days until he would see it again in person.

--

The light shining from their open dorm room door welcomed Jean back to campus, and from halfway down the hall, he could already hear Marco singing. A few strides and a step around the corner, and he was standing in their doorway, Marco turning on his heel to smile back at him, somehow even brighter than the way he had on the afternoon they'd first met.

"Hey!"

"Hey, man," Jean smiled, and shifted his bags onto one shoulder to hold out a hand. Marco crossed the room and threw an entire arm around him, though - hugging him around the shoulders and giving Jean almost no choice but to loop his free arm back around him in response. It might've been weird; with anyone else it surely would've been. But more than just being okay, it was nice - comfortable - and Jean let himself lean into his friend's should for a moment before they pulled apart to continue talking.

"Long-ass weekend, huh?" Jean tossed his bags onto his bed, settling beside them to look back at Marco as they talked. "Family, man."

"Tell me about it." Marco laughed and hung a jacket over the post of his bed. "Never been happier to be back on campus." He eyed Jean beginning to peel his shoes off and tapped his own feet against Jean's toes to stop him. "You hungry or anything? I'm starving, so I figured if you wanted..."

"Your man's not gonna get upset?" Jean immediately regretted how quickly he'd asked it, the echo of his question heavy on his mind with implications he hadn't meant to be there. "I mean... not that it's like that or whatever. Just don't wanna piss the guy off."

"He's not even back on campus 'til tomorrow," Marco said with a shrug, and as hard as Jean searched his face he couldn't find even a trace of hesitation.

"So I'm not ruining any plans?"

Marco shook his head. "Nope. I'm all yours for the evening. If you want, I mean."

"Yeah, sure." Jean said finally, trying not to think too long on Marco's statement. "But we're going to Starbucks."

--

"So?" Jean asked, once they'd settled at a tiny table, a vanilla whipped drink in Marco's hand that Jean had basically ordered for him. Marco sipped it and shrugged, grinning a little around his straw at the way Jean watched him.

"It's pretty decent, but only because it has like... zero coffee flavor."

"Because it has like zero coffee in it, nerd. It's basically a milkshake." Jean took a long drink of his own latte to make a point. Marco twisted his mouth to one side and shook his head.

"A five dollar milkshake. Not really worth it if you ask me."

"Says you." Jean kicked at his foot under the table, snickering when it knocked Marco's shoe off. "So when's your next play thing?"

"Play thing?" Marco teased, pulling his shoe back on and grinning at Jean. Jean raised his middle finger along the straw of his drink, but nodded anyway, and Marco responded after another good laugh. "Well, we have a Christmas revue the first week of December, but that's just singing. Next real show is the spring musical."

"That's cool. Baseball should finally be getting started in January. Well, at least prac--" He stopped in the middle of his sentence, his straw falling from his lips when the bell above the door chimed and a small group of people walked into the shop.

Eren, Armin, and Mikasa. Jean stared at them over Marco's shoulder for a moment, silently wondering; why tonight? 


"Jean? You okay?" Marco asked after a long pause. Jean nodded before he could even speak.

"I... y-yeah. I'm just gonna... run to the restroom really fast." He backed out of his chair, taking pains to be quiet. Marco stared after him, but nodded.

"Alright."

The bathroom door closed and locked behind him a moment later, Jean leaned forward over the sink and glanced up into the dimly lit mirror. The tightness in his chest threatened to escalate into the crushing pressure of a panic attack if he didn't breathe, so for a moment he did only that, waiting until he felt less like throwing up to weigh his options on the situation he'd just fled from.

On one hand, Mikasa was just a few yards away, likely sitting somewhere on the other side of the door by then, and he was torn between desperately wanting her to see him, and wanting to get out as quickly as possible, and let the brisk evening air cool down the burning rising to his cheeks. After the last time they'd spoken, he didn't really love the idea of running into her while she was out with someone else - especially Eren and Armin - or while he was on what could even remotely be misconstrued as a date with his roommate. He couldn't let them think he was with Marco, there or otherwise. Mikasa might not have known him well enough to jump to assumption like that, but Eren sure as hell did.

On the other hand, he had Marco all to himself for once, his full attention for as long as they were there. He had no way of knowing when the next time that would happen would be, but something in his chest - railing against the panicking voice in his head - demanded that he not give it up. It urged him to go back to his seat, sit down, and focus on nothing other than his best friend's face, nothing but talking to an undistracted Marco for as long as he had him. Besides, it protested against his brain - he didn't have to speak to the others, and they didn't have to speak to him. They didn't even have to know he was there...

That was his solution. He ran cool water over his hands and splashed it across his face, trying to wipe away his anxieties as he dried them on rough paper towels and headed back out to the shop's lobby, resolved to sit down and absorb himself entirely in Marco. Luckily, that wasn't something he imagined he'd have trouble with, especially with the patient smile Marco offered him on his return.

"You okay? We can leave if you need to." He eyed Jean with genuine concern; Jean shook his head fiercely.

"No. I'm good. We can stay. Let's just stay."

Marco stared at him for a moment and then nodded slowly, eyebrow still raised slightly. "Okay..."

Eren and the others ordered their drinks and took seats near the back entrance of the shop, and for a while Jean felt like he might be off the hook. They didn't even so much as look his way - not that he would've seen them, busy as he was talking to Marco. Lost in conversation and the passage of time, he actually forgot they were there at all - until Marco mentioned needing to get back to the dorm.

Jean made a strident effort to hide the fact that he didn't want to be spotted. He tried to smile as he led Marco toward the front entrance to leave, and when his hand slid against the metal bar of the door, he thought he'd escaped. But then a voice halted he and Marco both, turning Marco on his heel.

"Marco?"

Jean turned to see who'd called, face dropping when he saw an excited wave coming from Eren's table.

"Armin?!" Marco grinned, and then he was walking back into the shop, straight toward the people Jean had almost succeeded in avoiding. He swallowed the swears on his tongue and reluctantly followed him.

Marco knew everyone. Every fucking person on the planet. It was something Jean was used to by then, though that didn't make it any less irritating. And of all the human beings he could possibly be friends with - of everyone in southern California he could stop to talk to - it had to be Armin.

Armin was beaming at him, and Jean had to force himself not to roll his eyes at the two of them trading hugs.

"It's so great to see you again!" Armin smiled, straightening himself up again. "Gosh, you look great. Still doing shows?" He squeezed Marco's arm with a friendly familiarity; Jean came to stand behind him, trying not to stare down at Armin's fingers resting there.

"Only always," Marco laughed. "So what made you decide to transfer here?"

"Baseball team's top notch. And Eren's here, so it was an easy transfer." Armin tossed a smile over his shoulder and Eren pointed back at him lazily. Marco nodded, then turned quickly to look at Jean, like he'd just remembered something.

"That's right, you play baseball. You and Jean know each other." He motioned between the two of them; Jean nodded tightly, feeling Eren and Mikasa's eyes fall on him along with Armin's.

"Oh, yeah, we actually just met a few months ago at my first team meeting. Good to see you again, Jean. So how do you two know each other? You guys together, or--"

"No." Jean beat Marco to saying it, maybe a little too loudly for the conversation he was jumping into. The rest of his thoughts came tumbling out of his mouth as he glanced nervously past Armin to where Mikasa sat. "We're not together. Marco's dating a guy from the theatre department."

Jean didn't even know that much, for sure. He'd only weaseled the fact that Marco had a boyfriend at all from him shortly before, and filled in the blanks of his knowledge himself, to keep from having to ask. It wasn't that he hadn't thought to ask - it was that he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

Marco was silent for all of a beat before giving a shaky laugh and turning back to face everyone at the table. "Right. Yeah, no - Jean is my roommate. Remind me sometime Armin, and I'll introduce you to my boyfriend. You'd like him."

"Will do. Well, you guys look like you're in a hurry, so I'll let you go. Nice to see you both!"

"You too!" Marco smiled, and then headed for the door without waiting for Jean.

Jean nodded in Armin's direction and gave the others a quick wave. "Yeah. Mikasa, Jaeger - see you guys around."

He headed out into the damp chill of the evening, trailing a few yards behind his roommate.

--

Armin Arlert was a fucking thief.

Jean considered a lot of things to be his, and Armin seemed to be moving in on all of them. His old roommate, his school, his coach - Jean wasn't good with sharing on a good day, but the last thing he wanted was for his time with Marco to be added to the list of Armin's conquests.

Yet, walking back to their dorm with more distance than words between them, he felt like Armin had sucked the fun right out of their evening, just by being at the same Starbucks. And knowing Marco probably had absolutely no idea why Jean was stewing about it - and that he'd probably think Jean was overreacting if he did - made the wordless walk back seem twice as long.

It wasn't that he said anything about it - it was the fact that he didn't. With Marco, that was always worse. They moved in silence around each other, still settling things for the coming week after their brief break away from campus. It wasn't the same comfortable quiet they usually gave each other, nor did the air carry the tense charge he'd grown used to when he was struggling to hide his irritation at Marco in the previous weeks. It was like the confused silence of two people unsure how to talk to each other, and that was not something he thought he'd ever have encountered with Marco.

Reiner popped his head into the room and broke the icy tension, and for once, Jean was
genuinely thrilled to see him standing there.

"You guys wanna do pizza with me and Bert? S'just the two of us in town 'til tomorrow night." He grinned back and forth between the two of them, and Marco nodded back immediately.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm in." He didn't turn back to look for Jean's answer. Jean said it loud enough to make sure he heard it, though.

"Me too."

Reiner gave them a thumbs up and pounded a fist happily against the door before shutting it behind him. They still didn't speak in the thirty or so odd minutes that passed before they left the room again, but Jean thought he saw Marco eyeing him a few times. He didn't look back to see what kind of expression he wore; he just did his best to keep his mouth shut too tightly for his foot to fit in it until they could get out of the suddenly suffocating silence of their dorm room.

--

Bert and Reiner's room was at least familiar by then, but felt no less awkward for Jean than the first time he'd visited. He took an offered seat on Bert's messy bed, scooting over slightly in hopes that Marco might join him. When Marco finally did, he bumped against Jean and quickly sputtered an apology, shifting away. Before Jean could stop himself, he laid a hand on Marco's leg and clasped it there.

"It's fine. Stay." It came out like a plea, and Marco looked at him for a few seconds before his face softened and he nodded. He scooted back against the wall until he and Jean's shoulders were nearly touching. Jean realized his hand was still resting near Marco's knee and pulled it away, jamming it into his own pocket.

Eyes wandering to keep from staring a hole through his avoidant roommate, Jean noticed more things stacked on Bertholdt's disastrous desk than usual, some of them with bows and ribbons. They looked like gift boxes - for jewelry or lingerie - striped in shades of pink and red. Jean had seen the pattern on the boxes and bags that people strode out of Victoria's Secret with when he'd worked at the local mall as a teenager. Seeing the sparkly, feminine packages stacked in Bert and Reiner's room pulled an amused smirk to his lips before he could stifle it, and coupled with his staring in that direction, it must have been obvious.

Reiner cleared his throat with a loud huff, the look on his face something akin to pouting. "They're gifts. Can't guys even keep stuff for their girlfriend layin' around without catching shit?"

"I think the day we stop giving you shit is the day you need to worry." Marco quipped, and Jean couldn't stop himself nodding in agreement. Marco traded a glance with Bert, chuckling. "How else are you suppose to know we love you?"

"Besides," Bert reminded him gently; "the only one that said anything was you." He nudged Reiner's side affectionately and it seemed to calm the storm.

Foregoing video games - Reiner seemed too tired to endure another night of losing consistently - Bertholdt laid a stack of VHS tapes beside their tv and hooked up his VCR, cheerfully tolerating Reiner's teasing about watching b-movies from the stone age. He popped in a tape and let it play, laying a pizza box in front of Marco and Jean before settling across from them, beside Reiner on his bed. They dug into the pizza Reiner had perched on his lap, Reiner dropping his chin onto Bert's shoulder as he chewed. Bert groused at him for a moment about chewing in his ear, then reached up to swirl fingers through Reiner's short blond hair. Jean prodded the box in front of him open with his foot, grabbing a slice of pizza to keep himself from staring.

It wasn't that he was uncomfortable, exactly. It didn't bother him that Bert and Reiner might be a thing; he'd always kind of assumed they were, and he would certainly have no room to judge them for it, if that were the case. But Reiner had very clearly said he had a girlfriend - or one of them did, at least - and more than anything, Jean just didn't understand. He wondered absently if Marco knew what was going on with the two of them, but more pressingly, he wondered if Marco was upset with him.

A few feet away, the movie played on - some horribly acted zombie-themed disaster that Bert seemed genuinely enamored with - and beside Jean, Marco moved to grab a few slices of pizza as well. Jean smiled at him hesitantly, and Marco returned it briefly, as if on reflex. But then he turned away, just enough so that his face was out of sight as he ate. Unsure of what else to do, Jean mirrored him, their shoulders bumping together gently as he turned. His eyes wandered to the gifts on Bert's table again - to the bra peeking from beneath Reiner's bed - and he sighed. Some things he might not understand, but he was pretty sure he knew why the air between he and Marco was so thick with tension. He pulled his phone from his pocket and covertly snapped a picture of the clothing on the floor, sending it to Marco with a half dozen confused emojis and a quickly typed text.

From: Jean
So whose bra is that on the floor?? You know?
10:13PM

From: Marco
Probably Reiner's, idk.
10:15PM

Jean couldn't help the snicker that turned Reiner's head toward them, but he did make a concerted effort to play it off as something else. Reiner raised an eyebrow and grinned like he knew what was funny - and Jean smiled back, because how could he? They all turned their attention back to the flickering tv screen, and Jean let his shoulders roll back against Marco's, just slightly.

From: Jean
You're an ass.
Missed you over break ya know.
10:19PM

From: Marco
Missed you too.
10:21PM

From: Jean
Sorry I was weird at Starbucks... Mikasa kinda messes with my head.
10:23PM

It was true, if not the entire truth. From behind him, he could feel Marco's shoulders shift as he shrugged.

From: Marco
Nbd. Just thought you were pissed at me for talking to Armin.
I forgot you didn't like him til we were already talking...
10:25PM

The audible sigh that escaped Jean turned Reiner's head again, and Bert's as well. Reiner gave Jean the same knowing grin as before, but that wasn't nearly as confusing as the soft, almost worried expression on Bert's face, looking at Marco. Jean decided against trying to figure the two of them out - it was a lost cause anyway - and looked back down at his phone, trying to play down the fact that he was buzzing with relief that things were okay with he and Marco again.

From: Jean
Nah. I mean, he's still a fuckin punk. But you're cool. You can talk to whoever.
10:29PM

From: Marco
Just glad I can talk to you.
10:32PM

Jean's throat tightened; he couldn't see Marco's face, but he swore he could feel him smiling. He began tapping out an answer, and then another, debating between the dozen or so honest responses he could give Marco. For some reason, he was even tempted to let his head roll back onto Marco's shoulder, much the same as Reiner was doing to Bert across from them. In the end, he deleted them all before sending a single one, and settled on the safe distance he'd designed between them, even if it no longer seemed to exist, physically.

From: Jean
Don't get sappy on me, loser. Bert's sappy enough for the whole room.
10:36PM

Something changed after Marco opened that text, and Jean wasn't just in a room, watching other people enjoy each other - he was surrounded by friends, part of the group rather than a witness to it. Marco jabbed an elbow backward into Jean's side, laughing under his breath at the way he jumped. Jean wriggled back against him, relaxing at last, and they sat that way, until their breathing became an even pattern, and Bertholdt had to tap them awake to send them back to their own room.

 

 

Chapter Text

On many university campuses, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas break were alight with excitement, winds bearing the season's first snowflakes swirling through the rows of dorm buildings and over the bustling grounds as students prepared for finals and the holidays. In the balmy south of California though, snow was a relative rarity, and Jean was not one much for the twinkling lights of the approaching Christmas frenzy. For him, the only thing swirling was his train of thought, racing faster than he could chase after as he tried to balance pulling off decent grades and maintaining his sanity.

Coach Mike's warning about his academic performance laid heavy on his shoulders, following him to his final lectures with the darkness of an isolated rain cloud. When Hanji told their class that the final exam would be worth half of their overall grade - and thus, a perfect opportunity to haul a pitiful grade out of the fire of possible probation - Jean felt relief wash over him. When Hanji mentioned that it would be a
cumulative exam, that wave of relief slipped through his fingers and washed right back out to sea.

When the pretty blonde who sat a few rows up - Krista, if he was remembering correctly - asked him conversationally on their way out of the lecture hall one morning if he was ready for the final, he accidentally blurted out that he wasn't, proceeding to immediately word-vomit every detail of
exactly how unprepared he really was onto her as if she wasn't just an unsuspecting casual acquaintance. To her credit though, Krista patiently walked with him to the library, speaking bubbly words of encouragement laced with a familiar tone of optimism he was used to hearing from his roommate. Jean mentioned it, and Krista smiled; she said she knew Marco, but that didn't come as much of a surprise. Everyone in California seemed to.

When they got to the library's main student lounge, she offered to photocopy her neat, meticulous class notes for him as a way to help him study, and was on her way to the machine before he could find reason to decline. She handed him a thick stack of papers with a smile and wished him luck studying, and he had to shake himself from thoughts of what an absolute
angel she was just to mutter his thanks. All she asked in return was that he say hello to Marco for her.

Marco was a hard person to find time to say hello to. He was frequently gone - presumably with his boyfriend - and his absence had a way of making the already poorly heated dorm room seem colder. But he still made time to study, and he usually made a point of doing so with Jean. Maybe it was just because they were roommates, an arrangement of convenience and coincidence; but Jean liked to tell himself it was more than that - that his friendship was
that important to Marco.

Often during their study sessions, Marco would take breaks to answer calls or reply to texts that had packed his inbox in the half hour or so since he'd last checked. Jean really did try not to eavesdrop, but sometimes when Marco would step into the hall to talk, his voice was loud enough that Jean didn't have to listen very carefully for it, exhausted and frustrated in tone as he argued with the person on the other end of the line. He would return to the room quieter, and Jean wouldn't ask; regardless of his own curiosity, he could tell it wasn't something Marco wanted to discuss, and if Marco was willing to offer
him that courtesy, Jean figured he owed it in return.

It was the beginning of a realization for Jean.

Marco was almost unendingly selfless; his patience with whoever he was always talking to on the phone was rivaled only by his tolerance of Jean's inability to focus most of the time while they studied. So giving was he of his time that he was spread dangerously thin between all the things he was balancing, with that never being more apparent than the first time they stayed up past midnight studying, and Marco drooped over onto Jean's shoulder, fast asleep. It was that night that Jean learned Marco talked in his sleep - jumbled nonsense about coffee and sushi and cats. Prodding him up out of the floor and into his bed was easy; coming to terms with the fact that he might be abusing Marco's charity was less so.

Jean knew the tight grip with which he clung to Marco's free time was selfish. That much he never bothered denying to himself. What he couldn't reconcile the thought of was that loosening it might be the right thing to do; giving up even part of the quality time he had with his best friend was an unpleasant idea, even if that time
had been relegated to studying and eating junk food in the middle of the night while Marco phased in and out of wakefulness. After the third incident of Marco literally falling asleep on him though, Jean reluctantly came to terms with what was really going on.

He was
using Marco.

He was using him - receiving so much of Marco's energy and making next to know effort to replace anything he took. And no matter how comfortable it was for him, or how much easier it made his life, it was wrong. The night it hit him that he was essentially abusing their friendship was a sleepless one, and before the sun peeked through their window - and he was forced to fabricate a story to tell Marco about being sick the night before, so as not to rouse his suspicions - he resolved that he would make it up to him.

--

Jean's grand plan for proper repayment came in the form of tipping a stack of books out of Marco's hands and onto his desk, and swearing off anything productive for a solid evening. He urged Marco to pick something else to do, and only mildly regretted that decision when Marco's face lit up like an obnoxiously bright Christmas light. He heard something about
'favorite musical' and 'you'll seriously love this', and before he knew it, he was stretched out on Marco's bed - for a better view of the screen of Marco's shitty laptop, tied down by its charger - and waiting for the main menu screen of the dvd Marco had popped in to load.

When the opening chords played and the word 'RENT' scrolled across the screen, Jean reminded himself
why he was suffering through the movie in the first place. He wasn't a big fan of musicals, and all he really knew about that one in particular was that everyone was either gay, on drugs or dying. If he was honest, he wasn't even really a fan of watching new things; it triggered a strange anxiety, a mild fear of the unknown that he was too embarrassed to tell anyone about. But he was a fan of Marco, in the sense that for the first time, he was willing to kick his own discomfort aside for a while to try and show him a good time. When the main character made a remark about Christmas eve though, he seriously debated voicing a complaint.

"Is this whole thing about Christmas?"

Marco grinned at the way he grumbled, leaning back from his place in the floor beside the bed to nudge Jean in the elbow. "Nah, it just opens on Christmas."

"Good," Jean said, straining to speak as he stretched. "Hate Christmas."

Marco laughed. "So s'at just a Jewish thing, or..?"

"I mean, we celebrated Christmas when I was growing up. My dad always insisted on it. I liked it just fine as a kid. My dad really loved it." Jean looked down at his hands, studying his fingernails, trying not to make eye contact as he blinked back a faint sting in his eyes. "He was coming back from a Christmas party at his office when he died."

Marco's smile cracked and fell away immediately. He paused the movie without giving the computer a second look and turned himself to fully face Jean.

"I... I'm really sorry." He pulled his knees in to his chest and curled arms around them, staring up at Jean like he was waiting for an indication of what to say or do next. Jean didn't have one to offer.

"That's life," he finally said after a few minutes. "The weather was crazy bad that night and mom told him not to go, but my dad insisted because it was for
Christmas. He wrecked on the way home. When the cops knocked on our door at two in the morning, I thought maybe he'd come home late because he was Christmas shopping or whatever." Jean looked back down at his hands again; they were beginning to shake. "We didn't end up doing Christmas that year. And we haven't done it since."

The silence that spanned between them made it embarrassingly easy to hear the way Jean was sniffling, trying to keep his breathing even. Marco was still for a long stretch of it, but when he finally moved, his hand was warm and soft as it came to rest on the back of Jean's.

"I had no idea," he said apologetically. "I would've never - we can turn this off, okay?"

Jean let his hand drape over the edge of the bed, using the other arm to wipe roughly across his face so as not to disturb Marco's hand on his. "Nah," he said quietly. "Don't. I don't like feeling like a downer."

Marco shook his head quickly. "You're
not--"

"And besides," Jean interjected. "I kinda like this main guy. Marcus or whatever."

"Mark?" Marco asked teasingly, decidedly less tense. Jean nodded, glad for his willingness to move conversation along.

"Yeah, man. Scrawny ass blond Jewish guy, with no girlfriend and a shitty ex-roommate? It's like watching a movie about
me."

Marco laughed -
really laughed - and it made Jean smile despite the dissipating sting at the corners of his eyes. He stretched again and folded his arms beneath his chin, letting himself relax, idly glancing between the movie as it resumed playing and Marco's face as they slipped into easy conversation.

"These people need jobs."

Marco leaned his head back onto the edge of the bed and laughed. "Easier said then done, y'know."

"Yeah, I hear ya. Still - at least the hot Latina chick is gettin' paid."

"Charming, Jean."

Jean snickered at the way Marco's eyes rolled. "I mean, not that I can really talk right now. I'm mooching off mom while I finish school."

"Did you ever work when you were back home, though? Summer job, or anything?"

"Worked at a bookstore for a bit," Jean shrugged. "Swear that place was haunted. After that I worked at a record store." He rolled onto his back, head leaned back over the bed's edge, still only half looking in the direction of the laptop. "What about you, Broadway? You ever work for a living?"

"Just summer jobs," Marco shrugged, head dropping slightly to the side until it came to rest against Jean's. "I was a pool boy for a while."

"Oh, yeah?" Jean looked up at the ceiling, grinning; he tried to imagine Marco, cleaning a pool and probably singing while he did - shirtless, skin an even richer shade of brown from the sun - and then quickly realized that it might not be something he wanted to imagine while
talking to Marco.

Marco nodded, the movement gently rustling Jean and rescuing him from his thoughts. "Yeah. Worked for a sweet old British lady. Miss Lucy. She always tried to pay me extra to stay and talk. Honestly I was just glad for somewhere to be during the summer other than home."

"God, I didn't wanna be
anywhere during the summer," Jean groaned, rubbing his tired eyes before returning them to the bright screen. "Baseball basically made that a pipe dream, though."

Marco nodded. "At least I had a pool, I guess." Jean visualized him being ogled by an old woman and laughed.

"I mean baseball wasn't bad, obviously. S'what I'm basically planning to do with the rest of my life, assuming I ever get picked up."

"I'm sure you will soon," Marco smiled, and although it was an assurance he'd heard fall from more than a few patronizing mouths, coming from Marco's it actually seemed like genuinely invested faith. "God only knows if I'll land a job after I graduate. I'm not exactly landing the big roles here on campus as it is."

"So you're gonna keep acting? After graduation, I mean?" Jean said the last part with some hesitation; it was the first time since they'd met that he'd given thought to the fact that Marco would be graduating at the end of the year.

"Yeah," Marco nodded, bringing Jean back to the conversation at hand. "Can't really see myself doing anything else. Even if I'm just working backstage or whatever. I've been doing theatre stuff since I was in elementary school - I can't imagine life without lines to learn."

"Same, I guess - but with sports. I've been playin' one kinda ball or another since I could walk. That was my dad's thing.
Our thing. Might be why I wanna keep doin' it, even when it sucks." He rubbed his eyes again, wary of how emotional he'd already allowed their conversation to become that evening. "Like, even on a lame ass day when everything else sucks, at least I can still do that, y'know?"

"I get what you mean. Singing and acting are things I can always fall back on. I know I can do
those things, so I always have somewhere to belong." Marco smiled, maybe a little sadly. "Theaters have always been my home away from home."

Jean rolled back onto his stomach to look at him, smirking. "You're really on about that, huh? Do you just like... hate your family, or..?"

Marco gave a sharp shrug of one shoulder. "It's not my
family exactly. It's not even my parents, specifically. It's just... being in that house. It's like - yeah, home is where the heart is, as long as you're willing to sit down and be quiet and pretend to be anyone other than who you are." He finished with a huff, and then was silence for a moment before he glanced back at Jean and frowned. "Sorry. Didn't mean to--"

"No, it's... I'm sorry it's like that." Jean looked down at him and stretched a hand out to squeeze at his shoulder. Marco cupped his own hand over Jean's without pause.

"Just glad it's not like that here."

Jean curled his fingers with Marco's and held them, as well as Marco's attention despite his voice dropping to a hushed murmur. "I promise it's never gonna be."

Marco's face broke into a genuine smile that warmed Jean bone-deep, and he was happy to let their hands linger together until Marco stretched and moved away of his own accord. They watched the rest of the movie, Marco singing along and Jean following the plot as best he could while trying not to let parts of it hit as close to home as they did. When he cried, he wasn't sure if it had more to do with people on screen dying, or the pain still tucked in the deep corners of his heart at the resurfaced thought of what winter had taken from he and his mother years earlier. But he felt better afterward, either way - and Marco was too busy wiping his own eyes to poke fun at Jean for the tears in his.

The end credits quietly rolling and replaying snippets of songs he knew he'd soon have stuck in his head, Jean let his eyes flutter closed, breathing in the peace of the darkened room. Marco's bed was somehow more comfortable than his, if only in that moment, and if only because the half dozen blankets Marco usually piled around himself were crumpled in soft mounds around Jean, rather than tightly tucked the way he usually kept his own bedclothes. Jean buried his face in one of the quilts – inhaling, relaxing, mind wandering - barely cognizant of his actions and how steady and even his breathing had become until Marco gently prodded him back to consciousness.

"So, uh... are you still planning to switch rooms after the end of the semester?" It seemed a question out of nowhere, but the sound of Marco's voice indicated that he'd been mulling it over for a while before asking.

Jean stared back at him, more than a little confused. "No...? Why would I?"

Marco looked down and away, and despite the low light, Jean was pretty sure he could make out the faintest hint of redness on his cheeks. "I... overheard you tell someone on the phone you were going to. A while back, like at the beginning of the semester."

Thinking for a long moment, he remembered a conversation he'd had with his mother, the very first night he'd shared a room with Marco. He remembered saying it, and he remembered Marco walking back into the room just a few minutes later. And he felt like an ass.

"I... yeah, I remember that now," he confessed, rubbing the back of his neck anxiously. "That was a while ago though, and I--"

"I'm sorry for eavesdropping on you," Marco blurted out, and Jean almost wanted to laugh at how different he was then than his usual confident, assured self. "I know I shouldn't have, I just--"

"It's not a big deal," Jean assured him, honestly relieved that he wasn't the only one embarrassed by the topic at hand. "I mean, I'd probably listen in on
your shit sometimes if I knew any Portuguese."

"Yeah..." Marco nodded and laughed nervously, and Jean briefly wondered if it was lingering embarrassment at listening in on him, or something else that was making him so fidgety. But he reckoned he owed Marco a better explanation than the shrug-off he'd given him, so he cleared his throat and pushed on.

"But like I said, that was a while ago, before I really
knew you or whatever. I didn't know I was gonna like you so much." As soon as the words left his mouth they burned the skin of his face, and he hoped it was as hard for Marco to see him blushing as it had been for him to see Marco. "I didn't know you were gonna be cool. But now - I mean yeah, I definitely wanna bunk with you again next semester."

Marco grinned, relaxing a little. "I'm glad. And likewise, by the way."

Jean returned his smile as they relaxed into silence for the evening. He couldn't help briefly wondering what Marco's boyfriend would think of their living arrangement staying the same, if he would be jealous or upset by it - but self-centered as it might have been, he didn't bring it up with Marco. He was glad to know that in some respect, their friendship came first, and he wouldn't let himself think too long on whether or not that was selfish.

He kept his thoughts to himself even as he crawled back over to his own bed for the night, content with them for once, and drifted off to sleep with a smile tugging at his lips.

--

He was still smiling the next morning, even as he left Marco behind for one last set of laps around the track before the semester ended. When he got there, Ymir was already running. He took to the track anyway, figuring himself as being in too good a mood for even her prodding to bring him down. At least until she opened her mouth.

"What's the shit-eatin' grin about, shortstop? Your roomie finally givin you the dick?"

Jean's eyes drew down so quickly they knocked the smile right from his face; he threw a glare over his shoulder at her as she matched speed with him. "Seriously? Why do you constantly have to shit on my day? Like literally whatever's going on, I can always count on you to ruin it."

Ymir's face went blank for all of half a second before she pulled another large grin, though her voice was quieter. "Harsh, shortstop."

"Harsh? What about you constantly ragging on me about shit?! Why don't you get a fucking life outside this damned athletic complex? You're always here; I've got enough problems this semester without you--"

Jean halted when Ymir jumped in front of him, but his feet weren't as quick to stop as his mouth; he slammed into her and was knocked back a step, Ymir unshaken and unyielding in her stance like she might be ready to fight. He struggled to find his footing again and stared at her, mouth agape and ready to shout until he saw her face, boiling red with rage.

"You know what your problem is, shortstop? Your problem is that you think you
got problems." She spat her words at him like she might follow them with a fist, but loomed still like a statue in front of him instead.

Jean swallowed until the scraps of his voice returned, still shocked. "Ymir, what the hell?"

She glared at him for another long moment but said nothing; Jean had never felt so pierced by someone's eyes before. Then she turned with an almost audible snap in the other direction, snatching her bag from its place on one of the rows of bleachers before leaving the track and the complex without another word or a single look back. In her wake, she left silence, and Jean wasn't familiar enough to know what to do with it. He stared after her in something like disbelief that she'd actually left him in peace for once, but he didn't feel the relief at her absence he thought that he would.

Jean had a way of painting people as characters in his mind, and he had never give Ymir much more depth than he would any other annoyance in his daily life. Her emotional variance from his perspective went only from bad to worse; in many ways Jean saw her as a monster with no real purpose in life. But standing on an otherwise empty track that morning, the cool, damp air around him hung heavy with the settling realization that Ymir was as human as he was, complete with emotions he hadn't known existed, let alone how to be considerate of.

He half expected that she'd return that morning, but even after idly circling the track for over an hour, he realized she wasn't coming back. Whatever had set her off so suddenly was beyond his limited understanding of her, and despite being angry and shaken from their exchange, he couldn't help a lingering feeling of concern, hoping she had gone someplace where she could collect herself and remedy whatever thorn was paining her. Heading back to the dorm himself, he wondered if he'd see her again after the holidays, and if she'd still be pissed at him when he did. Maybe by then he'd be able to process the events of the day enough to understand them, and
maybe even offer her an apology.

--

Finals came and went, with only one small breakdown the night before his science test,
complete with an emergency caffeine refuel and a pep talk from Marco. He talked Jean down from his state of near-panic and reminded him that less than twenty-four hours stood between him and relative freedom. It wasn't much positivity to go on, but it was enough.

The morning of the exam, he woke with only a few minutes to spare before he was due in the biology building, and Marco was already gone. But on the nightstand beside Jean's lanyard and phone, there was a red Starbucks cup, with a messily written
'Jean', and a much neater 'you can do it!' scribbled on its side. He took the still-warm latte with him on his walk to class, and finished the test before most of his classmates; he turned in his test packet without a second thought, but couldn't bring himself to toss the cup, opting instead to take it back to the dorm with him. He was too busy smiling down at it as he breezed through the main courtyard to even notice the people he was passing, and in too good a mood to worry that some of them might have been Mikasa and Eren. The cup was sitting on his nightstand again before he even sat himself down for the afternoon, like a reminder that he'd made it through the day.

Hanji was as quick as ever to post grades, and when Jean saw his score that evening - a 91%, more than enough to drag his overall grade up above the line of sight of his irritated coaches - he collapsed back onto his bed with a relieved sigh. He decided to wait up for Marco, to thank him for the help, and the coffee. But to his surprise he wasn't waiting long. His roommate shuffled in just shortly after the sun had set, looking exhausted and slightly disheveled but quick to flash a smile when he saw Jean grinning from his place perched on the bed.

"That looks like a good grade face," he laughed, and when he plopped down at the foot of Jean's bed rather than his own, Jean had to fight the urge to haul him across the blankets for a hug. Instead he clapped him in the shoulder and nodded, pulling an even wider grin from him. "I knew you'd be fine."

"Thanks to you, man. I owe you big." He dropped back onto the bed and crossed his legs, playfully kicking Marco's arm as he did. Marco raised an eyebrow and nodded.

"Noted. So what are your plans for the evening? Celebratory sushi or something equally gross?"

"I've got so much work to do on your taste in food," Jean sighed. "But, nah. I've got absolutely no plans for tonight, other than maybe passing out early. Wish I could say the same for tomorrow. So much shit to pack."

"Doesn't have to be a bad thing," Marco shrugged, scooting back against the wall beside Jean's bed. Jean looked at him skeptically.

"How is shoving everything I own into boxes and bags and hauling it out to my car all day
not a bad thing, Mr. Optimism?"

Marco shrugged again. "We can make it fun. Blast some good music and just make a day of it. Makes things go a lot faster."

"Tch. Right, because
'Packing: The Musical' is definitely how I wanna spend my last free day before I go home for break." Jean grinned at the way Marco shook his bed, laughing in response.

"Just give it a try, okay?" He asked once he could breathe again, wiping his eyes. "You already hate packing, so at least it can't be worse, right?"

Jean shook his head, but then conceded. "If you say so, dude. Just keep the show tunes in check, okay?"

"No more than fifty percent air time," Marco said dramatically, raising one hand in a vow. "Wouldn't wanna kill you before you even get to go home for Christmas."

"Hanukkah," Jean corrected. "First night is the 16th this year. It'll be over by Christmas. Thank god."


Marco shook his head. "My statement stands. Gotta send you home to your aunts in one piece."

"It's coming back in one piece that I'm worried about," Jean sighed, dragging an arm over his closed eyes. Marco snorted a laugh and nodded.

"Trust me, I know the feeling. If you knew my family..." He trailed off and Jean let him, happy when he turned the topic of conversation on its heel. "So, baseball starts right after the holidays, yeah?"

A quick nod, and then Jean pulled his arm away from his face to look back at Marco. "Yeah, essentially. Not sure how ready I am, but I guess it's gonna start regardless." He stretched his legs, accidentally landing them in Marco's lap. Marco glanced down at them and then settled hands over sock-clad feet and continued their conversation without pause. Jean didn't bother moving them.

"Well, at least your position is a sure thing, right?" Marco sighed. "I wish theatre was that way."

"You guys have another play coming up after winter break, don't you?"

Marco nodded, like he might have been taken aback by Jean remembering - surprised or flattered or both. "Yeah. Well, auditions, anyway. The actual show wont be until April."

"You gonna do it?" Jean asked, suddenly slightly uneasy at the memory of how incredibly busy Marco had been during his last play. Marco nodded, but also patted Jean's foot like he was reassuring him - of what, he didn't know, exactly.

"I'm definitely gonna audition. I really like
'Tick, Tick... Boom!' and obviously I'd love a role. We'll see how it goes, I guess."

After that they sat in silence for a while, Jean becoming increasingly aware of the weight of Marco's hands on his feet. When it seemed Marco had begun to shift with the stiff discomfort of a dead conversation, Jean spoke up again, if for no other than reason than to air some of his own curiosities.

"So you and loverboy doin' anything romantic over break?"

Marco looked back at him with a raised eyebrow, but laughed like the question was genuinely funny and shook his head, settling comfortably back against the wall.

"No. He's probably gonna be too busy. But I would definitely like to hear from my friends to break up the nonstop parade of Portuguese." He looked at Jean and grinned, squeezing one foot slightly. "You included."

"Same," Jean smiled, trying not to let the swelling warmth in his chest at Marco's words seep into his casual tone of voice. "Rather talk to you than Hitch and Farlan any day."

They dissolved into lazy, quiet laughter about families - complete with Marco's best impressions of his relatives - and talked until their eyes were heavy, slow to make a move to actually sleep with the knowledge that they had nowhere to be but there for the entire following day. After a slow start and not a small amount of arguing over how to share playlist time, they had their packing party, and Jean was forced to begrudgingly admit that Marco had been right about it making time pass quicker.

That night, possessions crammed into their cars – and a scribbled-on, empty coffee cup sitting in Jean's cup holder to make the journey with him – they shared a few more bad jokes and a long hug before waving goodbye to each other for the term, and set off in opposite directions for home.


Chapter Text

Jean had always been at least partially convinced that he had the perfect mom.

It wasn't even a statement of bias; Lynnette was wonderful at knowing exactly how much space he needed, and how to handle him at his most peculiar. Supportive without suffocating - doting without her presence being daunting. She had never been much for prodding him with questions, which was good, considering the multitude of things that only she knew about him.

She didn't say anything when she accidentally caught sight of some very
personal and rather mortifying pictures of Jean - and Eren - from his first semester in college. She never told anyone about the fact that when Jean was in high school, he'd accompany her to her yoga classes. (Or about the fact that he still did, when he was home for breaks and summers.) She didn't even mention the glittery striped planner that he knew she'd clearly seen with his bag, although he almost wished she would have, just to give him the opportunity to explain himself.

Still, there were things about him that even
she questioned from time to time.

"Sweetheart, why is there an empty coffee cup just sitting in your car?"

That question came when she walked through the door on Jean's first full day at home, in from the driveway where she'd been cleaning out both of their cars. She had a habit of cleaning Jean's for him whenever he was in from school, and usually he trusted her judgment on what to toss out and what shouldn't be bothered. Usually.

"Is it important?" She asked further, pulling an empty garbage bag from a box in one of the high cabinets. "Because if not..."

Jean popped his head up from sorting through the low kitchen drawers, knocking his forehead hard against a counter without even stopping to swear. "It's... I dunno, just - don't throw it away, alright?" The granola bar he'd dug out of the drawer was perfect for shoving into his mouth to keep it from embarrassing him any further. He rubbed his reddened skin as he chewed and eyed her anxiously until she nodded in response, one eyebrow raised, but not questioning him further.

Jean sank back against the edge of the counter, relieved - still chewing and skin still stinging as he watched her out the kitchen window, closing the door of his car without removing anything from it. He heaved a grateful sigh; his mother was always purposely a step removed from his personal business, always considerate of his space - almost to a fault.

The rest of his family? Not so much.

He didn't have much contact with his late father's family anymore. Jean's dad, Lonan - Lonnie, or Lon to Lynnette and their close friends - had been an only child, like Jean himself, and had only a scattering of cousins to keep in touch with. Those cousins didn't make much effort to touch base with Lynnette and Jean once his father had passed away, and Jean was fine without the forced congeniality that came with associating with them. But his mother's family more than made up for the absence of his father's; there were times when it felt like their noise levels were life's way of evening out the balance of silence from the other side of Jean's gene pool.

Hanukkah was always the loudest, most bustling time of year in their household. Jean couldn't even rightfully make fun of the insanity of the people preparing for Christmas in the local stores, when his own relatives were twice as grating sometimes. Still, it was wonderful to see his mother move with purpose, truly in her element as she entertained them, and it was at the very least a decent change of scenery from being on campus. Not that there weren't things he missed about school...

Jean was glad for the silence of the SnapChat app while he snuck pictures of the most hilarious and awkward moments of his family's celebration to send to Marco. From his great aunt setting her wig on fire while holding the shammash candle, to his uncle's post-feast snoring that sounded like a machine gun, Jean sent Marco snippets of life in the Kirschtein home at its most chaotic. His personal favorite capture was taken while his aunt Debbie ranted about her daughter, Jean's cousin Emily.

"And she's run off to Austria - can you believe that, Lynn?
Austria! With some schemndrick named Miles!"

Jean recorded her indignant rant and sent it Marco's way, along with the caption;
'Can you blame her???' . Marco responded with a snap of himself biting a knuckle as if to keep from laughing, and Jean couldn't wipe the grin off of his own face, looking at it.

It was easy enough to avoid most direct contact with his relatives; the only thing his elders seemed interested in was asking about his personal life, so when he dodged those questions, he pretty much lost their attention anyway. Hitch and Farlan were harder to avoid, though. The three of them were often herded off somewhere together by the older adults, grouped by default because of their age, mindless of the fact that they really didn't have much desire to commingle.

Sitting on the stairs together, the three of them idly chatted while prodding at cell phones, waiting to be called back down for dinner. Farlan was propped on the top stair, Jean a few steps below him, back pressed to the wall and legs stretched out in front of him. Hitch sat between them, atop the wide, carpeted bannister that ran alongside the stairs. When conversation began to wane, she let her shoe fall almost entirely from her foot, swinging it to kick Jean's leg to catch his attention.

"So how's your hot roommate?" She grinned, looking back down at her phone.

Jan rolled his eyes. "Still gay and still too old for you," he said flatly. Behind him, Farlan barked a laugh that set Hitch glaring.

"I don't know about too old," he said, wiping at his eyes. "Hitch's been talkin' to some dude the last few weeks that's so old she won't even tell me his name. 'Fraid I'll squeal on her to mom and dad."

Hitch's face visibly paled, but she drew her eyes down fiercely and glared even harder.

"More like I
know you will, asshole."

"Yeah'd, serve you right,
Snitch."

"You deserved every time I've ever busted you," she said, crossing her arms. "And whatever, he's not
that old. He's in his twenties."

Jean raised an eyebrow. "Hitch, you're seventeen."

"Eighteen in March!" she amended. "Besides, he's a good guy. Has a decent job and everything. Actually, I'm pretty sure he works at CSUF." She eyed Jean like she was waiting on him to be impressed. What he gave her was a look of shock and mild disgust.

"Is this dude a
professor?!"

"No!" she squealed. "And you know what? I'm done with this conversation. You guys are just fishing for blackmail fodder." She hopped down from her perch on the bannister and leveled herself on a step between the two boys. "He's a nice guy, and that's all you need to know."

Farlan prodded her in the back of the knee with one foot, trading a grin with Jean when it almost knocked her down. "If he's such a good dude, why didn't you bring him around for the holidays?"

Hitch scoffed. "Right, because mom would've
loved that. Besides, he's busy over the break."

"Busy bein' a fucking creep, probably."

"Farlan, shut the hell up!" Hitch's voice was as loud as it was shrill, and downstairs there was silence for a moment as the aunts and uncles stopped to listen. Hitch and Farlan's mother - Jean's quick-tempered aunt, Pat - shouted back at her after a moment.

"Hitch?! I'd better not hear that again!"

There was another long stretch of silence, with Jean and his cousins sitting stone-still until they heard their relatives talking again, before Jean hissed a question, still wary of their ears.

"What's this dude's name, Hitch?"

"Ask me again in a few months and I might actually consider telling you." She stepped
over his outstretched legs and snarled quietly back at him and her brother. "Until then, both of you can fuck off."

Jean watched her stomp down the stairs and head out the front door to the patio, rubbing his temples. "Geez.
That's gonna blow up in her face when your mom and dad find out."

Farlan shrugged. "Eh, I wouldn't worry about it too much. She and that dude aren't like, super serious. Kinda seems like he's just stringin' her along or whatever. She'll figure it out on her own, though.
I'm not sayin' shit to mom and dad. Hitch can deal with her own problems. Probably won't last with that creep anyway."

Jean nodded. Farlan seemed satisfied that the conversation was over, but Jean couldn't help worrying about Hitch. Sure, she was possibly the most irritating person he'd ever been forced to associate with, but she was also young and boy crazy, and probably easily misled. Seventeen was a rough-ass age for common sense - Jean knew from experience. It wasn't his place to say anything to his aunt and uncle; he wouldn't want to be on the other end of he had a secret to keep. But her sort-of boyfriend sounded like a sort-of creep, and something about his deliberate absence and elusiveness reminded Jean of Marco's boyfriend. The similarity left his stomach uneasy; he hoped that Farlan would keep an eye out for Hitch's safety and wellbeing, but he knew that was probably as unlikely as Hitch making good decisions on her own.

--

The slow, quiet mornings and drowsy late evenings at home were what Jean valued most about being on holiday break. He looked forward to the hours of the day when his family wasn't crowded around tables and in every comfortable seat, to the laid back breakfasts with his mother and knowing that he gave her someone to share those quiet moments with.

Seeing the way she moved through the large, open rooms of their home always made Jean think of when he was younger, when his father was there to make their house seem less expansive and more like a home. He missed his dad, of course. But he missed him for his mother's sake even more, especially when the ebb and flow of daily life around the holidays became somewhat erratic. The way his father would speak softly - as if whispering away tension - was a gift Jean knew his mother sorely missed. In times of stress, his father was always there to hold his mother's hand, sweetly calling her Nettie - a nickname no one else had breathed since his passing. Jean wished for many things during the winter holidays, but he knew that it would do no good to wish for his father's return.
And there would never be another man like him.

Still, Jean tried his best to carry the weight that his dad left behind when he passed. He was just getting to the point where he was almost as fond of being away at school as he was of being home, but it didn't stop him wishing he could somehow be more present for his mother. She had long since recovered from the terrifying battle she'd fought with depression after losing her husband, but Jean still worried about her.

"Well, I have a clean bill of health," she announced, backing through their front door late one morning. Jean had insisted on hearing how her appointment went, and she seemed happy to share the news. "Dr. Cash said everything looks fine; she said my blood pressure and cholesterol are a little high, but nothing we can't fix."

"It's Hanukkah," Jean sighed, thinking about his loud relatives and the oil-soaked latkes they'd all been eating for days. "I think bp and cholesterol spikes are just part of the Jewish holiday experience." She chuckled and nodded as he pulled her into a hug and pressed a kiss to her forehead. "But I'm glad to hear everything else is okay. You worry me sometimes, woman."

"Just returning the favor," she smiled. "Twenty one years worth of it." She stretched up onto her toes to ruffle through his hair, combing it back into place with her fingers even as he grumbled and swatted her hand away. Jean meandered into the living room to drop himself onto the oversized armchair there, and Lynnette turned to head upstairs. "Now I've got a phone call to make, so I'll be back down in a bit."

Jean quirked an eyebrow at her as he threw his legs over one of the chair's arms, scooping the remote from the coffee table beside it. "Aren't we gonna see everyone later today anyway?"

Lynnette nodded and then offered a hesitant half shrug along with her response. "Well, Mike wanted me to call him. Let him know... how you were doing."

"Mike? Like... Coach Z?"

"Mhm." That was the only further answer she gave, and then she was moving up the stairs and calling back to him over her shoulder. "If you need me sweetheart, I'll be upstairs."

He watched her leave, then turned back to the television with a shrug, sinking lower into the cushions of the chair. He wondered as he flipped through channels exactly how closely his coach was keeping tabs on him - and if he would be as bad at bullshitting the reason why as his mother was. But Lynnette had genuinely smiled when she'd turned away to head up the stairs, and
that was a pleasant change that Jean was not about to protest.

--

Jean was actually quite fond of Hanukkah, in the sense that he loved celebrating the holiday itself. The food was too heavy and the weather was always awful, but the warm glow of the candlelight and the presence of loved ones was something he looked forward to more than he would readily admit. An entire week of gifts wasn't too bad, either - though more than half of them were usually socks or shaving kits or foods Jean never ate from family members who had no idea what he liked. But his mom usually nailed it, and he always went back to campus better for it.

Still, Hanukkah was eight days long - eight nights of loud relatives, unhealthy food and way too many people shoved into the same house. His patience for it usually wore thin after the first few days, so when Marco casually mentioned having a free evening - and invited Jean to help him waste it by FaceTime chatting - Jean was flopped down on his bed and opening his iPad's flip case as soon as the front door had clicked closed behind his departing family.

When the camera pulled up his real-time reflection, Jean winced; he hadn't bothered looking in a mirror before agreeing to a chat with Marco, but he briefly wished he had. He ran fingers through his hair and tried to look a little more pulled together, but it was hard after a long night of dealing with aunts and uncles. All thoughts of his own appearance fell away when Marco appeared onscreen, though - smiling like he hadn't seen Jean in ages. Jean grinned too, and Marco chewed on his bottom lip for half a second before chiming a nervous greeting.

"Hey! Um,
'chag urim sameach'!" He said it slowly, like he wasn't sure of his words, and Jean stared.

"Wait, what?"

"What, did I say it wrong?" Marco went back to worrying his lip between his teeth. Jean couldn't help a small snicker at his expense.

"You - no, that was
perfect, actually, but - how do you...?"

"Google." Marco admitted with a laugh. "I don't really know anything about Hanukkah to be honest. But I can always learn."

"Yeah. Yeah, I... thanks, man." He didn't want to tell Marco just how much hearing him speak Hebrew meant to him, that it warmed him bone-deep that Marco would take the time to teach himself how, just for Jean. He didn't want to confess that the smile Marco wore while he nervously recited his greeting - brighter and more cheerful than any holiday light display - was worth more than all eight nights of gifts. So he didn't.

"So, what are you doin' this evening?" He asked with a shrug, letting the sentimentality of the moment slip from his shoulders.

Marco's eyes flicked upwards - probably to check the time on his tablet screen - before shaking his head. "Nobody's home, so probably just watching tv solo for a while. I think 'A Christmas Story' is gonna be on in a bit, so--"

Jean groaned. "And you haven't seen it enough yet to be sick of it?"

"You
can't get sick of that movie. It's not humanly possible."

"If you say so, man."

Marco's eyes narrowed. "Are you seriously telling me that you
don't like 'A Christmas Story'?"

"I don't think I've ever actually watched it all the way through, but--"

"You
haven't?! Well, watch it tonight! It's on in like half an hour."

"Marco..."

"Okay, sorry," Marco mumbled, suddenly less enthusiastic. "It was probably really
inconsiderate of me to ask. I know you're probably not comfortable with it, and--"

Jean waved him silent. "Marco -
chill. I don't care. Really. I'm just givin' you shit." He gave Marco a lazy smile to prove his point and Marco's worried expression broke into a glittering grin. "I'll watch it. But I'm gonna stay on FaceTime with your ass the whole time and complain."

Marco beamed. "Wouldn't have it any other way."


The movie was actually pretty decent, if Jean was honest. He didn't mind it, and at least there was no singing or terminal illnesses, so he counted himself lucky that Marco had gone easy on him this time around. Still, it wasn't without its annoying elements, and Jean was as quick to point them out as Marco was to laugh at them.

"She's just gonna take 'em all in her hand? Un-fuckin'-sanitary, dude."
"Does this woman ever leave her house?"
"Thank God I didn't have any siblings. This kid is annoying as shit."

And finally, when watching the main character's curmudgeonly father snapping at his wife; "This dude's an asshole."

Marco laughed quietly and nodded. "Guy's almost as bad as my old man."

"Yours ever scare you enough to hide under the sink?" Jean grinned. Marco shrugged one shoulder, his expression suddenly less cheerful.

"I wish that was the worst of it." He looked down and away, covering his mouth with his hand like he was afraid he'd already said more than he should. "But no, not specifically. Mom wouldn't have offered me a glass of milk if I had, though. Probably just a slap with a shoe and a lecture."

"Damn, dude. Why do you even go home?" The words left Jean's mouth before he could think better of them, and as soon as they did he wished he could pull them back and smooth the unintentional edges of them. "Sorry. That was--"

"No, it's okay," Marco assured. "I just - where else would I
go, y'know? I've got nowhere else when I'm not at school, and... I dunno. They're my family. Things aren't great here, but they never have been. That's just life. And at least it's Christmas. That's why I like this time of year so much - everyone at least attempts to play nice. So it's okay."

Jean nodded. He really couldn't empathize, exactly, and it frustrated him. "Yeah. Still, though. Sorry."

Marco chuckled softly. "S'okay. Things are fine at school. I can hack it here for a couple'a weeks in between semesters."

"And then you can get back to annoying the hell outta me with your dirty socks and shit."

"I'll sneak some into your luggage next time we go on break so you won't miss me so much."

Jean propped himself up on his elbows, grinning down at his tablet screen. "Watch yourself, Bodt. I know where you sleep."

Marco's loud, genuine laugh was more reassuring that things were okay than his words ever could've been. "Yeah, considering it's like five feet away from where you do."

They trailed off into comfortable silence as the movie played on, only occasionally shooting each other glances or quietly laughing over jokes that Jean would've probably never admitted were funny two days earlier.

As the tinny music of the end credits filled both of their rooms - even after Jean had muted his television, by way of the echo from Marco's end of their video chat - Jean stretched on his bed, lazily scratching at his scalp, and watching the way Marco fidgeted expectantly on his screen.

"Well, was it worth listening to me bitch for an hour and a half?" He grinned, dropping his chin onto a pillow. Marco snorted.

"You're kind of obnoxious, but it was fun."

Jean sank deeper into his pillow, mumbling into it. "Yeah, well Christmas movies are kind of obnoxious."

"Be that as it may," Marco grinned. "I really appreciate you watching it with me. It means a lot."

Jean rolled his eyes and dragged a hand through his hair. "I'm sure it won't be the last stupid shit you convince me to do."

"Glad to hear it."

They stayed online with each other for what might have been another hour, nothing but quiet talking and occasional fits of embarrassing laughter that made Jean glad Hitch and Farlan weren't there to hear. When they finally said goodnight, Jean realized his face was aching from smiling. The next day was the last of Hanukkah;
his holiday season was at its close. But Marco sending him another half dozen goofy, pointless messages - even after they'd said their goodbyes - made it feel more like a beginning.

--

He'd couldn't remember ever listening to a voicemail so many times in a row. Or using his phone's archive feature. But the soft, hushed voice Marco spoke in when he left Jean a message on Christmas Eve was a little hard to hear, and he told himself that's why he listened to it over and over, smiling at every word.

"Hey, Jean. I, uh... don't know if you'll be doing anything tonight, but I'm taking a breather from the festive chaos in the house and just thought I'd give you a call. I know you don't do the Christmas thing, but I hope whatever you're up to tonight is fun. Probably a lot quieter than what I'm doing, at least. Anyway, Merry Christmas, Jean. I... hope you have a good night."

The end of the recording was punctuated by the rough sound of a door sliding open, and people chattering loudly for a few seconds before the audio cut out. It was a reminder that Marco had taken time away from celebrating with his family to call him. Jean figured the least he could do was return the favor.

It was odd, wishing someone a Merry Christmas with any kind of sincerity. But he really meant every word of the message he left, despite the fact that he was glad for Marco not answering, so he didn't have to make an entire conversation of it. Something about the breakfast he shared with his mom that morning felt like a holiday meal, even if he didn't acknowledge it out loud. Even when he wasn't around, Marco had a way of changing things for the better. Jean shook his head and smiled thinking about that, grinning down at a cup of coffee on the first Christmas morning he'd let himself experience in years.

The rest of his day was quiet, long stretches of relaxation punctuated by colorful SnapChat messages from Marco. There were pictures of food, pictures of brightly wrapped gifts, and of the carnage after both were gone. There were photos of Marco's gifts from family - video games, sports equipment and action movies captioned with
'They think if they keep trying...' - as well as from his sisters, gifts that Jean could tell Marco might actually be interested in. He sent snaps captioned with endless happy emojis of a short stack of cds from various musicals, all apparently with autographed cases. Jean wondered how long it would be before he had all the songs memorized from hearing Marco play them on repeat.

Most striking were the pictures Marco sent of himself with his sisters, usually captioned with their names so Jean could tell them apart. All three girls were very pretty, with dark shiny hair and warm brown eyes - and they all looked a lot like Marco, scattered freckles and all. His twin Alisa looked like she could've just
been Marco with longer hair. But none of them had the same iridescent smile as their brother, and Jean wondered if maybe Marco was just that damned one-of-a-kind, that even his beautiful twin sister couldn't light up a room like he could.

Once the incoming photos had become more sporadic, and Jean had settled into his bedroom for the evening to lounge, Marco sent him a text asking him to help break in his new video games, 'so he'd be familiar enough with the controls to kick his little sister Dani's ass the next day'. Normally Jean would've passed - gaming online wasn't his scene, considering how piss poor he was at most video games in the first place - but the added incentive of Skype chatting while playing made it a much more appealing offer, and he could tell Marco really just wanted to unwind and talk. He labeled it a personal favor for Marco and agreed, and was fumbling through the drawer of his tv stand to find his all but abandoned XBOX com-link headset.

Marco greeted him by thanking him half a dozen times, only laughing a little bit when Jean gave a loud, rumbling sigh into the mic, and went on a rambling tangent about how he barely even remembered how to use his XBOX controller. He let Marco choose the setting, the mode - everything about the game, and tried his best to at least pretend he wasn't bored out of his mind. He wasn't even sure which of the umpteen 'Call of Duty' games they were playing, and he didn't care enough to ask. Marco tried to make up for Jean's lack of interest with conversation and the occasional glance at the screen where he'd pulled up Skype, for which Jean was thankful.

"Sorry for beating you to death with Christmas stuff all day."

Jean shook his head and shrugged in response, trying to keep at least part of his attention focused on the game he was already badly losing. "No big deal, dude. Didn't bother me. Your sisters are gorgeous, by the way."

Marco laughed. "Thanks, I guess? I think we all kinda look the same, to be honest."

"I can see it," Jean nodded. "World class gene pool."

"I don't think you'd have much of a chance with any of my sisters, though. Considering--"

"I'm not interested in your
sisters." Silence fell between them save for the background noise of the game as Jean slowly registered just how entirely awkward his words had been - and the multitude of ways they could've been taken. He backpedaled as fast as he could get words out of his mouth, leaving the game in play so he'd have somewhere to look, other than directly at Marco. "I mean, like - what I'm saying is - obviously I'm not gonna try to make a move on my best friend's sisters. What kinda creep do you think I am?"

"Best friend, huh?" Marco raised an eyebrow teasingly, leaning forward to drop his chin into his open palm and look right into his laptop's camera, headset pushed slightly to one side. It wasn't the response Jean had expected to his rambling, but it set the conversation in a different direction - and got him off the hook of any more explanation.

"If you're gonna be a dick about it I can always retract that statement."

"Nope, too late. It's out there." His stuck out his tongue, biting down and grinning around it, and Jean looked away in the hopes that the low lighting in his room made it hard to see the way Marco's mischievous smile heated his face.

"Fine, yeah," he finally mumbled. "You're my best friend. And also an asshole sometimes." The admission left him feeling open, vulnerable - but also like a weight had been lifted from him. Marco just laughed, more soft and affectionate than teasing.

"We can't all be perfect, Jean." He settled back in his chair and propped his controller on his knee, still smiling. Jean clicked his tongue and sighed.

"If I was perfect I wouldn't be gettin' my ass handed to me on this bullshit game right now."

"Practice
makes perfect," Marco snickered, killing Jean's character for what was at least the fifteenth time in a row. "Another round?"

"Let's not and say we did," Jean groaned. He looked at the time and dragged a hand down his face. "Can we just FaceTime instead?"

Marco nodded. "Gimme like ten minutes."

It was closer to twenty minutes before an exhausted-looking Marco was finally online with him, but they spent their evening in what had quickly become their ritualistic way, discussing their day as they unwound in their separate beds, even hours and miles apart. That night Jean left his window blinds open, welcoming the glow of the neighborhood Christmas lights, and the distant ringing of church bells through the evening. He'd never had a more peaceful night of rest.

--

Jean had always been a creature of habit. That had never changed, even when the habits themselves did. And Marco was becoming a habit.

He was part of Jean's everyday, in a way no one had quite been before. Eren had been his roommate for a solid two years, and even when they shared a
bed - or a shower, or space rutted up against the locker room wall - they didn't share half as much as he and Marco did in an hour or two of easy conversation. In just five months, Marco had become an irreplaceable part of his comfortable routine, and Jean figured that to be the primary reason he found himself hurrying the days along, quietly counting them down as he waited to be back in the same room with his best friend.

Not that they ever really went without speaking. Thanksgiving had given rise to frequent texting and chatting - the longer break for winter holidays had made it a nearly constant occurrence. Jean couldn't remember ever having to charge his phone more often, sometimes twice in a day as he received photo after SnapChat photo, message after text or instant message. Marco was never silent long, and Jean never once stopped to let himself feel guilty for monopolizing his time. When his family caught him smiling down at his phone and teased him about a secret girlfriend, he just gave them a lazy glare
and corrected them.

Best friend.

His relatives were quick to supply advice when their questions as to whether he had any prospective girlfriends garnered Jean's usual negative response. Quick to give him lectures he wasn't looking for. Quick to remind him that being single was
his fault.

"You're never gonna get yourself a woman unless you go after one," his uncle Andy - Hitch and Farlan's opinionated stepfather - offered, wagging a finger at him while Jean's aunt sat beside him, nodding. "You've got to be proactive, kid. You waste too much time talkin' to your friend, there. No girl's gonna want a man that's all wrapped up in his own head like that."

"Maybe Jean's just focused on more important things right now, Andrew" Lynnette said, clearing the table in front of their relatives without meeting their eyes. Instead she turned and gave Jean a half smile, almost mischievous in nature. "Or maybe he's figured out that women are
people and not animals to be hunted."

Jean wasn't sure he'd ever seen
anyone in his family struck speechless before that day, but it was certainly a nice change of pace.

--

After Hanukkah had come and gone for the year, Jean and his mother still had straggling relatives and Christmas minded well-wishers dropping by every few days to keep their home from falling into total silence. It was something Lynnette didn't seem bothered by; Jean knew she undoubtedly got lonely with him out of town most of the year. Still, despite being glad for the company for his mother's sake, he was glad to see them disperse and leave peace and unhurried quiet in their wake.

Never one for exciting New Year's eve plans, Jean was content to spend it the way he usually did, watching overhyped countdown specials on television with his mother and sipping wine while they made fun of the poor selection of entertainers. Parties weren't something Jean was comfortable with on a normal day, but the spectacle that came along with New Year's bashes was something he was especially glad to avoid. Still, with midnight approaching and his social life suspended in radio silence while giddy couples kissed for the tv cameras, he couldn't help feeling a little lonely.

When his phone buzzed beside his leg, it was a happy surprise to see Marco's name lighting the screen. He'd sent a quick message to him hours before - just asking how his evening was going - and when he'd received no immediate response, he'd assumed his friend was busy with other plans. So belated as his reply was, it made Jean glad to see that he'd made time to send one at all.

From: Marco
It'd be a lot better if I had you here to kiss.
11:58PM

Jean stared at the screen, eyes almost as wide as his slacked jaw, rereading the words in his head at least half a dozen times. The clenching in his chest was
real, and nearly doubled him over as he tried to process exactly how he was feeling. He hadn't even formed a coherent thought in response before his phone buzzed again, and his fingers tapped the text icon automatically.

From: Marco
OMG, sorry - wrong number!
Champagne, haha
11:59PM

He read the second text only once, and then dropped his phone onto the couch beside him. Hand reaching for his wine glass, he let his eyes fall on the television screen as the people on it cheered along with the announcer's countdown to midnight.

"Ten!"

Of course it wasn't meant for him.

"Nine!"

Why would it be?

"Eight!"

And obviously that didn't bother him.

"Seven!"

Because Marco wasn't his.

"Six!"

He didn't have feelings for Marco.

"Five!"

And Marco didn't have feelings for him.

"Four!"

Marco was just...

"Three!"

His roommate. His best friend.
Someone else's boyfriend.

"Two!"

He had no right to feel
anything. Especially over a couple of stupid, misfired texts.

"One!"

So why couldn't he think of anything else?

The ball dropped. The tv crowd erupted. Jean numbly stood, still staring blankly at the television, and then hugged his mother and headed upstairs to his bedroom without explanation.

His door closed behind him, he glanced at his window to see neighbors letting off fireworks outside. Downstairs, he could still hear the muffled music coming from the televised special he'd abandoned watching, and he almost wondered if it might be worth returning to in contrast to the ringing silence of his room. The hot sting in his eyes reminded him why he'd left in the first place, though.

He looked at his phone again, Marco's apologetic text still pulled up on the screen. He flung it onto his bed and raked a hand through his hair, slouching against the cold glass of the window. Maybe it wasn't the fact that Marco's words weren't meant for him, but that for a split second he thought that they
might have been, and in that moment he had absolutely no idea how to feel about that.

That thought weighed him down, a palpable pressure on his shoulders that had him slouching as he crossed the few feet to his bed and dropped onto it face first. Downstairs he heard his mother talking, presumably on the phone as she laughed and cheerfully wished someone a happy new year. Jean gritted the sentiment into his pillow.

Happy fucking new year.

Somewhere in the expanse of blankets, he felt his phone vibrate. He should've let it go, just left it there. But he plucked it from its spot by his knees and opened the home screen anyway.

From: Marco
Happy New Year!
12:03AM

Three words; probably a generic, mass message. It was supposed to be a thoughtful gesture, and it was surely not intended to feel like the slap to already raw nerves that it was. But there he was all the same, resenting his best friend for wishing him a happy new year.

Somewhere, Marco's boyfriend was probably getting an inbox full of messages, and Jean was staring at three words. That was it - that was all Marco thought of him. The memory of their 'best friend' conversation flashed before his mind's eye, and he glared down at the brief message in its striking contrast. Jean was alone that night by choice, but his
loneliness was something beyond his control, and nothing was a clearer reminder of that than being one of god-only-knew how many people receiving the same stupid text.

He didn't mean that much to
anyone.

Why would he? He never let anyone get close enough to him to know that they mattered, and when he did, he had a unique talent for destroying things with the people closest to him. So there just
weren't any people close to him. Even when he'd let himself think there was finally an exception to that rule, he was apparently wrong. That was the last complete thought he had before smashing the fist that held his phone against his headboard, letting it slide from his aching fingers and crack against the polished wood a few more times before coming to rest on the floor, screen shattered.

For a moment there was the inevitable panicked drop of his stomach, a violent flipping that made him feel nauseous. But then it set in that it was already broken – too late to do anything about it – and maybe it was just better that way. At least he wouldn't waste his time waiting on more messages.

After a few minutes with his head in his hands, Lynnette tapped on his door to ask if he was alright. He kicked the phone out of her line of sight and nodded, promising her that he was, and giving her another hug before she left him alone for the night. He could tell that she knew he was lying, but he would deal with that another day.

His laptop was on his bed, and he opened it and loaded a few videos to kill his bitter boredom until he could fall asleep. On a whim, he decided to check his email and Facebook, since he only got around to doing so occasionally on breaks. Seeing a cluster of new friend requests, he abandoned his video tabs altogether, and clicked through them one at a time.

The first was from Bertholdt. Jean added him back without pause, mostly because he wondered if looking at Bert's page might answer some of his questions about him. He was always too sidetracked when talking to Marco to remember to ask him anything about their dorm neighbors. But Bert's Facebook was sparse, with few posts and almost no photos. There was no relationship status, nothing about Reiner or the blonde girl that apparently left bras all over the dorm room - the outdated profile information still listed Bertholdt's current level of education as high school. Clearly Jean wasn't going to be satisfying his curiosity by Facebook stalking. He gave up and moved on to the other friend requests waiting at the top of his screen.

There was one from Marco's friend Connie, and one from Sasha, who Connie was apparently in a relationship with, according to their statuses and ridiculously affectionate profile pictures. There was also a request from Armin, to which Jean clicked "Ignore' without second thought. He backtracked a minute later though, realizing Armin was undoubtedly friends with Eren (who Jean had long since deleted as a Facebook friend) who would surely be friends with Mikasa. A few clicks and he found what he was looking for, and made the instantly regrettable decision to scroll through Mikasa's Facebook.

Her profile was almost a solid wall of photos, pictures of places, things around campus, paintings and sculptures - and dozens of images of herself with either Eren, Armin or both. Jean's stomach twisted at the sight of she and Eren, at a concert somewhere, beaming at the camera together. Had
he ever even seen Mikasa smile like that? Moreover, had he ever seen Eren smile that way before? Relaxed, content - a look that was painfully foreign to Jean, one he knew he'd never been the reason for before.

He scrolled through more pictures, unable to pull himself away from staring at the genuinely happy expressions on Mikasa's face, on Eren's face, and even the way Armin smiled when he was sandwiched between the two of them. Album after album of cheerful faces; after a while it began to feel like they were taunting him, laughing at him through the screen. Scrolling back to the top of the page, he had every intention of exiting the tab. But instead he found himself sending Mikasa a friend request, even as his hand shook with the discomfort of looking at her profile.

It probably wasn't the best idea, given how cool she'd been toward him the last few times they'd run into each other. She was pretty unlikely to respond, if he was honest with himself. After all, they'd only actually spoken once since he and Eren stopped rooming together. But the half bottle of wine in his system and the undeniable twinge of jealousy tearing at the seams of his chest - of exactly who or what, he couldn't even be sure anymore - made it seem like a much more logical decision.

There was only so much of staring at endless pictures of Mikasa smiling with other people that Jean could take, and when a picture of she and Armin led to a picture of Armin and a much younger looking Marco, Jean couldn't restrain his curiosity.

Marco's Facebook was littered with more posts from other people than with his own words, though from the looks of his obviously recent profile picture, Jean wagered he probably used it with at least some frequency. He clicked the photo and began browsing through the rest of Marco's albums, not sure what he was looking for, but surprised by what he didn't find.

The boyfriend.

Despite the fact that Marco's status was set to 'In a Relationship', there was no name, no profile that Jean could look at to answer any of the questions in his head. Pictures that were obviously taken in the previous weeks were posted, complete with likes and comments from friends and family - but not a single image looked like it could be of anyone who Marco was romantically involved with. It was all at once annoying and perhaps a little gratifying; Marco apparently didn't even care enough about the guy to acknowledge him on social media. Jean clicked the 'Add Friend' button before he could stop himself, and quirked an eyebrow when he received notification almost immediately that Marco had returned the favor.

The alert light flashed in the corner of Jean's shattered phone screen. He stared at it for a long moment, arguing with himself over whether or not it was even worth risking the slide of cracked glass under his fingers to check and see if the phone itself was still working. But a mix of curiosity and sheer force of habit had him scooping it from its place on the floor and carefully unlocking it to confirm that it did indeed still function. And the flashing light was alerting him to a new text message.

He could see his own face in the blank screen for a moment as the shaken device struggled to open his inbox. The involuntary snarl he wore looking down at the phone was made all the more intense when he saw who'd sent the text, but the message itself made his stomach and chest flip in unison.

From: Marco
I miss you. :/
12:37AM

Jean huffed, still glaring down at the screen. He fired off a response without thinking, spitting venom through a handful of characters on the screen.

From: Jean
Wrong number again?
12:38AM

He laid the phone on the bed beside him, the light from his laptop highlighting the deep cracks webbing across the glass of its broken screen. The computer pushed away, he let himself slide down to bury his face in the comforter of his bed, sighing hard enough to ruffle the overgrown fringe of his hair. How could single, simple texts – just three words, each – make him so damned upset? Maybe it was because he figured those words were meant for someone else again, and it made him all the more acutely aware of the fact that
he had no one to hear them from. Just as he was beginning to wander back down a darker path of thought – maybe I'm not worth that kind of sentiment, maybe I never will be – the phone buzzed quietly, and the tiny light flashed again.

From: Marco
No...

I just mean I miss being at school and stuff. With you.
Sorry if that's weird. Just miss you.
12:42AM

Jean's lip quivered; it was drawn down so forcefully into the hard frown he'd been glaring
at his phone with that when he read the words it actually shook his whole face, cracking the scowling expression to make way for the beginnings of a smile. Something like relief washed over him, shoulders to toes. Strange how a couple of quick messages could trash an entire evening - and the same thing could pull it right back out of the can.

The still-freshly wounded part of him still burned to come back with a snarky quip, but logic - and the pleasant swelling in his chest - reminded him that he had no real
reason to. He truly wanted to be upset, but the grin pulling at his features was just too wide to be suppressed. Looking down at the screen, and Marco's endearingly fumbling words, all he really wanted was to tell Marco the truth, admit that he missed him too and was wishing away his winter break just to see his ridiculous grin and hear his impromptu singing again. But instead he fired off a choppy, near-nonsensical response about needing another loud music day when they returned to make unpacking more bearable, and convinced himself that it was close enough to the truth for the time being.

Shortly thereafter, Marco sent him another text, and when Jean pulled it up to read, the sting from the earlier messages was gone.

From: Marco
So did you have a good NYE?
12:52AM

Jean replied, wincing as he nicked the skin of his finger on one of the jagged cracks on his screen, and wondering if the store he'd bought it from would be open the following day.

From: Jean
Could've been better.
But it's alright now.
:)
12:55AM

Somewhere outside his window, fireworks popped, and he sleepily wondered - despite knowing better - if maybe Marco could hear them too.



 

Chapter Text

The second week of January had never held any significance for Jean before. The rainy haze of winter in California made being anywhere other than stretched out in bed a hassle, and the early days of baseball on the horizon reminded Jean of the stress he'd be under with his coaching staff on his back to keep his grades in the range of eligibility. Still, he headed up the stairs of his building upon his return to campus with a smile. Marco was probably already upstairs.

A buzz in his pocket tickling his leg, Jean pulled his fragile cell phone from his pocket. Through the web of cracks on its broken screen, he saw a text from his mother;
'New phone is here. Pick it up next weekend?' He sent back an affirmative reply, careful not to cut his finger, and hoping that the next two weeks wouldn't crawl past as slowly as the last days of his winter break had.

Jean took the last two steps of the stairway at once, smile returning when he heard Marco's voice. It was a common occurrence to hear Marco singing, even from the distance of the top of the stairs at the end of their hallway. But his voice was different, not only louder but more passionate as he sang. Jean half expected to find him standing on top of some piece of furniture when he rounded the corner into their room, but instead he saw a very collected looking Marco, headphones nestled in his ears as he stacked folded clothing, casually belting out some show tune like it was the most normal thing in the world.

"Come to your senses - the fences inside are not for real, if we feel as we did, and I do."


Jean stood in the doorway for a moment and listened, not bothering to interrupt Marco's candid performance until it seemed that the song had ended. When Marco was quiet for a short time, Jean cleared his throat, and tried to pretend he hadn't been standing there the entire time, taking in the show.

Marco turned with a start, but then
beamed. He held an arm out to pull Jean into a hug, and Jean was more than happy to let it happen. He looped his own arm under Marco's, across his back and squeezed, glad to be back in what felt as much like home by then as his mother's house. Marco hummed happily, and Jean could feel it where their chests were pressed together. They stood that way, perhaps a moment longer than strictly necessary, before Jean stepped back to pull away and Marco did the same. Jean's arm met a snag at the thin wire of Marco's headphones, however, and a tight snap pulled them back against each other as Marco tried to free him. Their heads collided roughly and the cord popped out of its place in Marco's phone, hooking itself around the loop of Jean's pants and pulling him just enough to one side that he lost his balance, tripping him, and sending him to the floor with Marco falling hard after him.

On top of him, actually.

His face as he pushed up onto his elbows above Jean was
almost worth the fall. He looked down at him, comically wide eyed, looking over his face frantically as if he might somehow be gravely injured.

"Are you okay? God, I'm so sorry. Here, let me--"

"Don't!" Jean hissed, but it was too late. Marco was already frantically fidgeting, trying unsuccessfully to wriggle his hands between them. After a moment he looked back at Jean apologetically.

"Yeah, I'm stuck."

Jean clicked his tongue and sighed. "Fantastic."

"Hang on, just let me see if I can..." Marco tried to lift his hips, only to end up with his face buried in the crook of Jean's neck. He raised his head again sharply, sputtering an apology, even as it brought their hips together with a sharp snap. Jean felt a a rush of heat, sweeping over him and heading to where their hips met, but he silently willed it away. But Marco kept moving, wiggling and shifting and creating more physical contact than Jean's brain was ready to process, all by trying awkwardly to
avoid it. When the cord gave way slightly, he brightened. "There. I think we can - yeah, here we go. Wait, no."

Jean huffed, sure he was turning an interesting shade of red by then. "Will you just roll us over? I think I can probably get out of this if I could actually use my arms."

He was right; once he was free of Marco's weight, he was able to scoot himself up high enough to unwind the cord from his belt loop, freeing them both.

"There. God, that was harder than it should've been." He scowled and jumped to his feet immediately, shrugging his jacket from his arms to tie around his waist. Shoulders popping as he rolled them backward he heaved a relieved sigh, though he couldn't deny momentarily missing the pleasant press of warm weight against him.

"Sorry."

"S'okay," Jean murmured, dropping a hand to pull Marco up after him. "You were really gettin' into that one," he smirked, mind trailing fondly back to Marco's enthusiastic singing. For a fraction of a moment, Marco's face went blank, in an almost panicked expression. But then his chipper smile returned, and he laughed breathlessly, taking Jean's offered hand to pull himself out of the floor.

"It's from the show we're doing this spring," he smiled. "Just thinking ahead, I guess."

"From the sound of it, they'll probably just
hand you the lead, as well as you know the music."

"I doubt that." Marco spun the cord of his headphones around his phone, tossing it onto the bed behind him before plopping down himself. "It'll be Auruo. He's... pretty much guaranteed whichever role he wants, and he's basically
perfect for the role of Jon, which is the only one I'm really halfway cut out for."

"Arlow?"

"Auruo," he corrected, pronouncing his name almost reverently. "He's basically the assistant director. Grad student, so he still qualifies for the auditions, and just... blows everyone else outta the water. He's just unfairly good." Marco was smiling as he collapsed backward onto his bed, though there was something not entirely cheerful in the tone of his voice. "He's already paid staff these days, and he's probably gonna step up into the director's chair once Levi leaves.”

"S'that the dude you're with?"

Marco bit his lip and shrugged, gluing his eyes to the ceiling for a brief second before returning them to Jean's. "What about baseball, hm? You said your season was starting soon, right?"

"Yeah..." Jean considered taking Marco's bait, letting the conversation spin off into a safer direction, but the one thing he hated more than confrontation was the thought of living another six months without answers to any of his questions.

"Look, Marco; you can cut the bullshit with me, okay? I'm not stupid, so don't treat me like I am. I don't know why you feel like you can't talk to me about your man, but I... I don't want you to think that." He took a seat on his own bed, eyes still squarely fixed on Marco. "I don't care to talk to you about whatever, but you don't have to constantly veer off in the other direction whenever this guy comes up. If things are bad with him... you can tell me, alright? I really don't care to listen;
'best friend', remember?"

Something about the lat few words seemed to register deeply with Marco. He inhaled sharply, then breathed out his stuttered reply."I... thanks, Jean. I don't mean to always - it's just...
complicated."

"Like how?"

"It's... I don't even really know if he and I are official at this point. He's really weird about people seeing or even
knowing about us, because I'm an undergrad and he's... kind of an instructor. He's so focused on his career and I just... don't know that I factor into his plans a whole lot."

Jean frowned. "Guy sounds like a dick."

"Don't say that, Jean. You don't even know him."

"No, but I know
you," Jean said quickly. "And I know you can do better."

"Nice to know, but I'm not sure there's much better out there, for me."

"What, why?" Jean looked at him incredulously, scooting forward until he could reach across the space between their beds to prod Marco roughly in the arm. "Don't you even give me any 'not good enough' bullshit, Marco."

"No, I just mean... I've just got a pretty bad track record."

"So?" Jean shrugged sharply. "Break it."

Marco laughed, but it wasn't the vibrant, happy sound Jean was used to hearing. "Yeah, because Mr. Perfect is just gonna walk right up to me one day and shake my hand."

"I mean, you never know. But even flyin solo for a bit would be better than puttin' up with this Arrow guy's shit."

"Auruo," Marco corrected, frustration rising in his voice. "And I know what I'm doing, Jean. I don't need a babysitter, or a counselor." He let the air between them hang quiet for a moment, looking pointedly down at the floor. When Jean shifted uncomfortably under the weight of the silence, something changed in Marco's expression, and he looked up, voice softer as he spoke.

"But I do appreciate having a friend who cares. Seriously, though - don't worry about me, okay? Just... talk to me about your baseball season."

--

As it was, Jean didn't have much to say about the looming baseball season. Practice didn't begin for nearly another two weeks, officially speaking. But it was tradition for the players to start clocking in hours on the field and in cages and bullpens right after they'd returned from the winter holiday break. Most of what Jean had to look forward to in those weeks was more running, laundry that was nearly impossible to keep up with from practices in even the rainiest weather, and awkward run-ins with basically every person he didn't want to see.

Contact with Eren was an inevitability once the season was in swing, and since that was a problem for the first time, Jean wasn't sure how to act. They didn't practice together much, and when they came and went from the facilities, it was as if they didn't know each other at all, barely speaking. But when they
did have to interact, Jean's stomach was soured by how little it seemed to faze Eren, whose smile was always easy and bright - more so than Jean had seen it in the entire two years he'd known him. Jean was glad for a sport that kept him moving, kept him thinking about anything other than the knot in his chest that tightened every time Eren wound up to pitch.

Finding out Armin would be manning second base was another one of the more irritating discoveries he made in those first few days of informal warm-ups, along with the fact that he was apparently rather chatty whenever play would lag. But even Armin's proximity was overshadowed by the chattering of the pack of girls that took to settling in the bleachers, shouting meaningless encouragement at the players they were dating. 'Future baseball wives', the coaching staff called them. 'Annoying', Jean decided on, instead.

The staff came to most of the practice sessions, and Mike was never more than earshot away from Jean. None of the other players seemed to notice his hovering, but Jean was acutely aware of it. He didn't mention it; he didn't need a reason for any of his teammates to give him shit.

Some of them were pretty creative at finding ways to do just that, however. Chief among them was typically Thomas Wagner, whose 'good-natured teasing' had always seemed to Jean more like the taunting of a passive-aggressive asshole, masquerading as a good guy and fooling almost everyone. He was almost certain that Thomas was aware of his opinion of him - even more sure when their first conversation of the season went quickly south.

"S'goin on, Kirschtein?"

Thomas made small talk as they stretched together, lumped into a group by an oblivious assistant coach. Jean sighed, knowing Mike could probably hear him from the few yards away he was standing, and opted to keep his reply as cordial as possible. Mostly by keeping it short.

"Same shit, man," he shrugged. Thomas didn't seem to take the hint.

"Yeah? Heard you weren't roomin' with Jaeger anymore. He wise up and kick your ass out, or what?"

Jean felt his face prickle with heat, but whether it was anger or embarrassment, he couldn't be sure. He looked down at his shoes, trying to focus on relaxing into his stretch, despite his growing irritation. "He just wanted to room with Ponytail, I guess."

"Mm. So who's your new roomie?"

Jean slid to the ground, rolling his shoulders back from a shrug. "Arts major. Dude from the theatre department." Thomas slid down beside him, oblivious to his avoidant tone.

"Heard he was gay."

Jean's breath hitched for a moment, a knee jerk reaction to a word that has always been a insulting accusation in the context of his life. It didn't matter that it was true of Marco; that was no one's damned business, especially Wagner's. Jean narrowed his eyes and leaned out over his legs, glaring back at Thomas. "Where'd you
hear all this shit?"

"So he
is, then? You guys, like..." Thomas made a strange wiggling hand gesture, and Jean spat out a response as quick as the words would come.

"No? No! We're not - it's not like that."

Thomas laughed, and the smug tone of it set Jean's teeth on edge. "If you say so, man. Word is that you guys are pretty close."

"We are
not!" Jean snapped, the slam of his fist muffled by the ground it hit against. "Look, it doesn't matter how close we are, and I don't care what you think you know. Marco and I aren't a thing, and you can go tell whoever you hear all your shit from the same."

A few people around them turned with piqued interest in their conversation, and Thomas made a show out of grinning at the way he'd riled Jean up. "Damn, Kirschtein, dial it back, dude."

"Fuck off, Wagner."

Jean ignored the whistles and shouts from some of his other teammates and pushed hard off the ground and to his feet. He turned with a sharp kick that sent dirt flying behind him, and only grinned a little bit when Thomas yelped. Walking away, he could hear the angry shouts of Nile Dawk, the fielding coach whose voice was usually heard demanding order, arguing with the other coaches about regulations and insignificant details. He was snapping at the others to get back from Wagner, and when Thomas told him what'd happened, Jean was sure he'd hear about it later. Fights and arguments always led to a tongue lashing from Coach Dawk. But passing Mike, Jean glanced over to see his face - watching Wagner talking to Dawk - and caught sight of a knowing grin. Mike tipped his head to motion toward the field without a word, and Jean took off in a shuffling jog.

Jean made a note not to prod too much at whatever his mom and the coach had going on; it already seemed to be panning out in his favor.

--

Unofficial practices ran on unofficial schedules, usually lasting just 'until everyone was too damned tired to stand each other anymore'. Jean walked into the dorm room with his jersey slung over one shoulder, unzipping his bag before he'd even made it all entirely through the door. Anxious to get out of his clingy, sweat damp undershirt and pants, he dug into the bag right away and tugged his shirt off, tossing a casual greeting over his shoulder at Marco, who was sitting cross-legged on the other bed. It must've taken Marco a moment to register hearing Jean speak to him, because he was only just pulling his headphones from his ears and peeling his eyes away from his computer screen when Jean looked back over his shoulder at him. Marco raised the drink in his hands to his lips as he made eye contact with Jean, and then promptly dribbled the entire contents of his mouth down the front of himself, sputtering.

"You okay?" Jean snickered, raising an eyebrow. Marco was still for a moment before nodding frantically. He tried to wipe away the evidence of his spilled drink from his clothes, but it was a hopeless cause.

"You, uh - yeah," he stammered, fixing his eyes firmly on Jean's. "You just startled me; that's all."

"Oh-kay," Jean laughed, shaking his head. "I'm gonna go grab a shower. You still gonna be here when I get back, or..?"

"Yeah, yeah definitely. See you in a bit." He waved cheerfully, but Jean could hear a nervous tension in his voice, and Marco popped his headphones back in and returned his eyes to the screen without another word.

Jean shrugged it off and headed to clean away the stress of his day.

--

His return to campus hadn't been as exciting as he'd plotted it to be in his mind. He was just as stressed about his classes as before, especially knowing that not only was his coaching staff acutely aware of his recent lackluster performance, but at least one of them apparently had an in with his mother. Disappointing her always ended up feeling worse than whatever actual mistake he'd made, and it wasn't an occurrence he was eager for.

His social life wasn't fairing much better. Marco was still the majority of his human interaction on campus, and he was still gone fairly often, with classes, other friends and his boyfriend. Jean occasionally stopped in the hall of their building to chat with Bertholdt or even Reiner, but his days were otherwise fairly quiet. And for the first time, he found he was beginning to crave some background noise.

As it turned out, he had a class with Mikasa, and was actually seated not far from her. When they settled into their seats on the first brief day of Hanji's research class, he couldn't help a spark of hope - maybe this would be his chance to get to know Mikasa a little better. But that hope was doused, like the flame of one of the campus' decorative lamps in the rainy California winter; Mikasa didn't even seem to notice his proximity, much less return his hesitant wave and anxious smiles. He was in for a repeat of the romantic tragedy that the fall semester had been.

Still, things probably could've been worse, and by the grace of whatever god might've been watching, he had a lot to keep him busy that semester - lots of ways to blow off the steam that would otherwise build until he exploded with it. Those explosions were something he avoided at nearly any cost; even the cost of his patience at dealing with a pack of slow moving runners crowding the track in his first day back. But one runner was nearly doubling his speed, and he had to put a concerted effort into matching her pace.

"Ymir! Hey!"

Ymir glanced over her shoulder but didn't slow down. "Whadaya want, shortstop?"

"Nothing. I mean..." Jean huffed, half breathless from shouting while sprinting. "I just wanted to say... I'm sorry. About the last time I saw you."

"Yeah?" This time Ymir offered a raised eyebrow, but still made no effort to slow her pace.

"Yeah. I... yeah." Jean nodded; apologies weren't something he had enough experience with to be good at, even with someone he was fond of. With Ymir they were an even more awkward experience.

She nodded, stride shortening just slightly. "Hm. Well maybe I'm not in the mood to get over shit today."

"You - seriously?" Jean hissed, still working to keep level with her. "Well that's fine then. I can't
make you do anything. I apologized , so... yeah, that's it. God, why're you so damned difficult?" He stopped where he stood, and this time, Ymir halted as well. She turned to walk back toward him, arms crossing over her chest.

"I'm difficult?"

"Yes! You harass the shit out of me all semester, I
finally call you out on it and then you throw a fit and stomp off, and then I apologize - even though I honestly still have no damned idea what I said that pissed you off so bad - and then you're not even gonna accept it? You're fucking impossible, Ymir. We wouldn't have to have this conversation if you weren't constantly up my ass all the time."

Ymir didn't argue with him. Instead she cracked a wolfish grin that had Jean's eyes rolling on instinct before she's even spoken. "Bein' up your ass ain't my job, shortstop. I'll leave that to your roomie."

"And will you fucking
stop that?! Marco and I are not--"

"Whatever you say, shortstop." She gave him a sarcastic salute and started jogging backwards, turning mid-stride when Jean started after her.

"Look, just - stop, okay? Stop sayin' that shit, stop harassing me, stop
following me all the time."

"I dunno, shortstop. Seems like
you're the one following me right now."

Jean stopped in his tracks and stared after her; she kept running, cackling as she sped off. He wanted to be upset. He wanted to catch up to her and keep shouting. He wanted her to be wrong - but she wasn't.

A group of shuffling freshman track team runners jogged past him, and he watched as they caught up with Ymir, whistling and cat-calling at her. He couldn't stifle a grin at the way they ground their toes into the rough track, turning to run the other way when she barked insults back at them. On anything other than the receiving end of her aggravation, she wasn't really all that bad. It was a thought Jean would never share with anyone, especially Ymir herself. But for all her roughness, he was glad for the way she'd laughed. He certainly wouldn't call her his
friend, but whatever they were, he was glad that they were back to it.

It was probably the most lackluster run he'd ever had, but he headed back to the dormitory, satisfied, regardless.

--

Less than a full week into the semester, Jean was already sick of trudging through the rains of winter to get to his classes.

"The weather today is disgusting." He sat on the edge of his bed, staring out the window sourly. “Not even the thought of Starbucks later is doin' it for me.”

 

From his place across the room, Marco stretched on his own bed and nodded, yawning. "Mm. Makes you wanna take a nap, doesn't it?"

Jean huffed. "Tell you what it
doesn't make me wanna do: walk to my stupid ass research class." He stood and glared at the window, as if the weather might change just by merit of his will. When it didn't offer to, he let himself drop into the floor, cross legged for a moment before deciding just to lie down completely. "I'm just gonna lay my ass down right here instead."

Marco stared at him. "On the
floor? Who are you and what happened to Jean?"

"He gave up on life, two weeks into the new year." Jean patted the floor beside him, wriggling closer to the posts of his bed to make more room there. "Come on, get down here with me. It's great."

"I have class too, y'know," Marco laughed. He kicked at Jean's leg, and Jean caught his ankle, holding and tugging on it.

"Oh, c'mon,” Jean said, beginning an off-key version of 'Chasing Cars'. “
If I lay here... If I just lay here--"

"It's
lie here--"

"-- would you lie with me, and just forget the world?"

Marco snorted. "Seriously? What is this, 2006?"

"C'mon, man. Don't even
act like you don't remember the whole damned song." He hooked fingers under the tongue of Marco's shoe, prying it off and tossing it across the room. "Get down here."

"Do I have to sing?" Marco grinned, giving up and settling onto the floor beside him, kicking off his other shoe as well.

Jean shrugged. "Probably sound better that way, Broadway." He tugged the loose fabric of Marco's sleeve until Marco was lying beside him, stretched out as best he could be in the cramped floor. He prodded Jean with an elbow and laughed.

"Fine, where were we?"

Jean resumed singing, but suddenly, it felt a great deal less frivolous. Marco only a few feet away from him, sprawled out and smiling expectantly, he almost whispered the next line.

"I... don't quite know... how to say... how I feel."

Marco nodded, taking the next line as if in response.

"Those three words... are said too much... they're not enough."

They returned to the familiar chorus in unison, but as the verses went on, Jean found himself less present. Marco was looking straight ahead, up at the ceiling, his voice clear and loud and perfect as he sang through a smile. Jean had heard him sing countless times before, but he'd never really
listened. It was beautiful, and Marco was a breathtaking sight, blissfully in his element. When he started another verse and let his head fall slowly to the side, to look at Jean with that glittering smile, Jean's throat closed off entirely.

"All that I am - all that I ever was - is here in your perfect eyes, they're all I can see."

Jean couldn't sing, couldn't speak - couldn't even stop himself staring as Marco finished the last few lines, singing every word like it was written just for his voice. Just for Jean's ears.

"I don't know where - confused about how, as well - just know that these things will never change for us at all. If I lay here..."

Marco trailed off and let his eyes flutter closed as he gave a sigh that seemed almost relieved. Jean continued staring, until Marco cracked an eye open and glanced over at him, laughing quietly at his dumbstruck expression.

"You alright?" He asked; Jean swallowed and willed his wavering voice to return.

"Yeah. You're - I mean... your
voice - it's really gorgeous."

Marco looked away, a hand coming to rest over his mouth as if hiding something. "Oh - thanks. Just hope it holds up for auditions later this evening. First night is always a good one to make an impression."

"Yeah - I, uh - I'm sure you'll do great." Jean was barely cognizant of his own voice, only of Marco still happily humming the melody, turning to look back up at the ceiling.

"We should probably head to class now," Marco chuckled and Jean just nodded in response. What they even talked about the rest of the walk down the hall and stairs, Jean couldn't remember exactly. But stepping out of their building and into the afternoon air, he found that he didn't mind the rain quite as much as before.

--

Heading across campus to class, the weather seemed considerably less dreary. Jean felt strangely disoriented, but in the most pleasant way possible. Like looking through amber lenses, the world was a little sunnier, despite the rain, and he wasn't intent on questioning why. He didn't even stop himself when he realized he was smiling at no one. Humming.

On his way, he passed Bertholdt, who was talking with a short blonde woman Jean vaguely remembered from one of his classes the previous semester. Bert seemed to be walking slowly, almost limping as he crossed the slick pavement, and despite the cross look on her face, the woman with him didn't seem keen to rush him. Seeing Bert's off-balance meandering was a sharp reminder for Jean that Bert was handicapped, and that despite nearly six months of knowing the guy, he
still didn't know anything more about it than that basic fact. He didn't even bother with thinking to ask Marco about it later that night; as soon as he thought about Marco, his thoughts went fuzzy and lost their focus in the fluff, and he knew he had no chance of remembering anything important. He resolved that one day he'd figure out how Marco did that to people - or if perhaps, it was just him.

Hanji's research techniques class was suggested to Jean as a good elective choice by an advisor the spring before, despite having nothing to do with Jean's major. It proceeded those first few days in much the same way as the class he'd taken the previous semester, in that Hanji stood at the front of the class, excitedly introducing themselves as well as an ever more exhausted-looking Moblit, and chattering enthusiastically to a class full of people who seemed less than excited to be there. Jean didn't see any faces he recognized from the semester before, but he admittedly hadn't spent much time memorizing them. Knowing Mikasa was in the class with him made observing the other students slightly more interesting for him, but she seemed in no hurry to look his way.

The details of his earlier conversation with Marco still rippling at the water's edge of his divided attention, Jean wished his afternoon away. He'd promised Marco days earlier - in one of his impromptu and poorly worded pep talks - that they could go grab drinks together before his audition, since Marco apparently had no plans with his
boyfriend to do so. A good luck ritual, of sorts. And something he'd much rather be doing than sitting at the back of a classroom, staring at the back of Mikasa's head as she probably thought about anything but him. He sighed, scribbled crossly on his syllabus handout and stared ahead in an effort to look halfway present, as Hanji's voice resurfaced in his ears.

"... So this semester, I'd like to demonstrate the ways that a collaborative approach can be crucial for obtaining an accurate outcome when gathering and analyzing data. So we're going to do a group term project."

The students gave a collective chorus of disgruntled sounds, at which Hanji only chuckled.

"Groaning won't get you anywhere, other than annoying the people sitting beside you. Now - I'm going to assign your groups, and at our next class meeting, we'll all get acquainted and begin work."

"Alright, group one; Sarah, Chelsea, Taylor, ..." Hanji's voice faded into the buzz of the classroom
noise as Jean waited for the sound of his name, and looked around the room, mentally.
preparing himself to be lumped with some of the more sour faces looking back at him.

"Group four will be Emery, Ty, Aiden, Mikasa and...
Jean." The mention of Mikasa's name had hooked Jean's attention, and his own right after hers had brought it sharply back to focus. He looked across the room to where she sat, half hoping she'd be looking back. But she was still looking straight ahead, writing as she listened, and as Hanji smiled and told the class, "So that's all for today. See you Thursday afternoon, folks!"

The class stood en masse, herding toward the door. Mikasa was in the middle of the pack, shuffling away as Jean stood toward the back of the line, but once he'd cleared the classroom's doorway, he made quick work of bounding out the large double doors of the sciences building and over the stone walkway to catch up with her.

"Hey, Mikasa!" He didn't mean for it to be a shout, but compensating for shortened breath, it was loud enough to turn Mikasa stiffly on her heel. She gave him one of her small, polite smiles and waved.

"Hi, Jean."

"Hey, uh - looks like we're gonna be working on this stupid project together."

Mikasa nodded. "Mhm."

"I've never met the other people, but... I'm glad
you're in my group. B-because I know you, y'know?" He scratched anxiously at the back of his head, watching for the way she reacted. She gave him little to read, and less to hear.

"Yeah."

He swallowed, digging his phone carefully from his pocket. "So, I, uh... I figured it'd probably be a pretty good idea for us to... keep in touch, so we can talk about the project and stuff. You wanna like, exchange numbers or whatever?"

Mikasa shrugged, shaking her head without pausing to give his suggestion a moment of thought. "I don't think we'll need to - Professor Hanji said we'll be meeting next class to discuss everything, so we can just chat then, right?" She patted his arm and gave him another tight smile. Jean nodded automatically, throat suddenly too tight for anything other than a few scattered words.

"R-right, yeah. Sure. Okay." He dropped his eyes - and the conversation - seeing as she already had, and didn't wait for her to say anything else. "See you then."

Feeling her leave without having to watch, Jean tried to slide his phone back into his pocket. When the fabric resisted, he pushed harder, shoving it so that his hand slid roughly across the front - across a minefield of shattered glass. He pulled his palm back with a hiss, flinging the phone to the ground and noticing the blood on its broken screen before he saw it on his hand. The jagged puzzle of pieces burst out onto the pavement, collected rain water washing away the blood and any hope he had of using the phone any longer. Hand beginning to sting and chest too tight to speak even enough to swear, he bit down hard on his lip and stomped on what was left of the phone, leaving it behind as he headed in the opposite direction of the sciences building.

The walk to the track was purely a reflex - his brain was white with anger and
hurt that blurred every other thought, and his body just carried him toward one of the only releases he had for it. He didn't have running clothes with him, and he also knew that if he ran, he risked bumping into Ymir, which he couldn't muster the patience for. But with the beginning of the season approaching, the locker rooms in the athletic complex were open and he could dress out in his under layer, if nothing else. Batting in the cage sounded like the best thing in the world, the only thing his mind offered as a way to spend the rest of his evening. Distantly, there was the fuzzy outline of a thought - didn't he have something else he was supposed to be doing, some prior commitment? But with no phone to check and no concern left to show, he headed down the stairs to the locker rooms and pushed whatever it was from his mind.

Whatever it was, it probably wasn't important.

Chapter Text

Baseball had its drawbacks in Jean's life, but one thing it had always offered him was an escape.

Batting in the cages that afternoon, he had lost track of time, and of the bitterness boiling in his blood, at least for a short time. Focused on one thing only, he was able to forget everything else for a little while, and that was something he had always valued about his sport. Something he was
less excited about were the angry-looking gashes on his hands, cuts rubbed raw by the bat despite makeshift wrappings - something he hadn't been fully cognizant of until after he put his gear away for the evening.

The pain in his hands came flooding back once he finished though, along with the burn of rejection that refused to let him feel like anything other than a complete loser on his walk back to the dorm building. He hoped Marco would be in a decent mood when he got there; he had certainly had enough
bad for one day. When he opened their door, he was glad to find Marco already inside, fussing intently with something on his bed.

"Hey," Jean sighed, dropping onto his bed, relieved to be there after the evening he'd weathered.

"Hey." Marco's reply was quick, curt. Jean didn't think much of it; there wouldd be time to prod him about it later, after Jean was out of his sweat stained clothes and stretched comfortably across his bed.

He tugged his shoes off, hissing quietly at the sting in his hands as he did. "You, uh... you goin' somewhere?"

"Mhm." He didn't offer anything more - didn't even turn to face Jean. There was a stiffness about his posture that Jean wasn't familiar with. His voice, everything about him seemed...
cold.

Jean raised an eyebrow, peering around Marco's side at the duffel bag he was haphazardly stuffing. "You gonna tell me where?"

Marco turned sharply to face him, and Jean noticed with a start that his eyes were as narrowed as the thin, tight line of his lips. "Do you actually
care, or..?" he snapped, pulling back off the sentence like it stung coming out. Jean stared, stammering, waiting to understand.

"W-what? Why would I ask if I didn't--"

"Just figured you had better things to think about," Marco spat. "Like whatever kept you from calling to tell me you weren't showing up earlier."

Once the words finally processed, they knocked Jean backward onto his bed, hands coming up to drag down his face as he remembered the plans he'd made with Marco, many hours too late.

"Shit, I'm sorry - I
knew I was - damn it, Marco; I completely forgot. Things got kinda crazy after my class let out and I completely trashed my--"

"It doesn't matter." Marco cut him off and turned back to what he was doing, shoving things into his bag with a few more sharp pushes. Jean groaned.

"It
does, though. I didn't mean to--"

"No, it doesn't." Marco insisted, and when he turned back to look at Jean, the light caught what might have been faint streaks of pink on his cheeks. "I don't need this after the day I've had. You don't have to act like it was a big deal, because it obviously wasn't. Just... don't." He hauled his bag up onto his shoulder. Jean weakly threw up a hand in protest, but it did nothing to slow him leaving.

"Marco, I --"

"I said
don't," he repeated, hand already on the doorknob. "I'm gonna go stay with Auruo. Don't bother waiting up."

There was a very deliberate slam of their heavy wooden door, and then its echo, mixed with the fading sound of footfall down the hallway. For a long time, Jean didn't even remember to breathe; he just stared at the door with glassed-over eyes, head just barely above water as waves of guilt washed over him. And then there were hours of nothing but silence to accompany the abysmal whirlpool of his thoughts.


Marco didn't return. Jean didn't sleep.

--

By one o'clock the next afternoon, there were no signs of Marco's return. Jean had realized by then just how badly he'd screwed up, but along with that came the realization that he had absolutely
no idea how to fix things. So he did the only thing he knew how to do to center himself.

He went home.

It wasn't entirely flippant. His mother
had mentioned that he needed to come home that weekend to retrieve his new cell phone, so really he was just being practical. Getting himself out of the stagnant, lonely room and completing a chore, all at once. He felt odd, not letting Marco know where he would be - and then stranger still when he reflected on that feeling. He shook it off as he pulled into his mom's driveway nearly two hours later, exhausted from the drive and from thinking the entire way.

Lynnette met him a few paces outside the front door, wearing an expression that was all at once slightly confused and extremely relieved. She pulled him down into a tight hug, quick but insistent.

"I didn't know when you'd be home, or if you were still coming," she said, and her voice was thick with residual worry. "You didn't pick up--"

"My phone... broke," Jean said with a wince, not in the mood for the whole of the story. "It's totally busted."

"Well, your new one is on the kitchen counter, still in the box." She stepped back to look him over, adjust his shirt collar, fuss with his hair; Jean could sense the nervousness she was venting with each small gesture. "I'm just so glad you're alright. I hate not being able to reach you, I just..."

"I know, mom. I'm sorry." He pulled her to his chest and squeezed. Since his father's passing, any length of time without word between he and his mother had given her cause for alarm, and he could still feel the tension in her shoulders as he hugged them reassuringly. "Won't happen again, alright?"

She nodded, slowly. "Just... email me next time, or something, okay?"

Jean snorted. "Yeah, that'd work. You only check your email like once a month, mom."

"Not if I think my boy's in trouble!" She pinched at the back of his arm and he prodded her away, but reached out to squeeze her shoulder again, even as he rolled his eyes.

"Right. Okay - next time I have a life-or-death situation arise, I'll be sure to shoot you an
email about it."

She swatted at his arm again, shuffling him toward the door with a tired smile. "Alright, alright. Get in the house, you. Dinner should be ready soon." She walked past him, lingering on the front steps to hold the door open for him, but Jean stopped in front of her for a moment instead, breathing in the feeling of being with someone he knew wanted him there. Her peaceful presence was just what he needed to gather his thoughts; he hoped some of it would rub off on him, follow him back to campus the next day to help him make amends with Marco. But he would think about that when dinner was over.

"Thanks, mom." He smiled, finally following her inside. The box containing his new phone was right where she'd promised it would be, carefully laid aside for him. He slid it open and sighed down at it, wondering if there was a chance Marco would answer him if he texted him that evening. He decided instead just to let it charge, to enjoy a meal with his mother, and - when she fussed over the bandages on his hand, insisted on making him dessert, and reloaded his debit card with more money than he needed, despite his protests - to repeat, "Thanks."

--

Driving back to campus the next day was unpleasant, if only because Jean hated making the two hour trek twice in the same weekend. Once he got back to the dorm, he collapsed on his bed, grateful for a moment of still silence and solitude, as the room showed basically no signs of Marco having returned to it while Jean was gone. He buried his face in his pillow, trying to practice a conversation with Marco in his head before the time came to actually have it, but all that came to mind were echoes of the sharp words Marco had left him with the last time they spoke. When the doorknob gave a slow, heavy click, Jean nearly rolled off the bed turning to face the sound.

"Hey," he breathed, before he could manage anything more articulate. Marco stared back at him from the cracked door, stepping through it hesitantly.

"Hey," he said finally, quietly. He looked pale, exhausted. "What's - what happened to your hand?"

Jean only realized Marco had been holding bags when he dropped them to the floor, the door still carelessly ajar as he crossed the room in a few quick steps to look wide-eyed at the bandages trailing up Jean's wrist and arm.

"Oh, uh... long story." Jean looked down at the overzealous wrap job his mother had insisted on sending him back to campus with, tucking his hand into his lap.

Marco nodded, just barely, schooling his features to look less concerned than he obviously was. "I've... got time."

Jean stood, shifting under Marco's unwavering stare and clutching anxiously at his wrapped hands. "I don't wanna keep you from--"

"I've got time," Marco repeated flatly. The expression with which he looked back at Jean was hard, practiced in its coolness. But Jean could see the edges of his eyes softening, as if he might cry. He hesitated for a moment before laying a hand on Marco's shoulder, stepping into his space with a quiet assurance.

"So do I."

After a moment of stillness, Marco's arms came down to rest over Jean's, in a lopsided hug, heavy with something unspoken - something like relief. His clothing - his skin - smelled different, like the memory of sweat, the mephitic musk of cigarette smoke, and like... someone else. Jean's first instinct was to push him away again, but something in the way Marco leaned forward - like he literally couldn't remember how to stand without Jean bracing him - made it impossible. Jean turned his face instead, letting Marco drop his forehead onto his shoulder and just
breathe until he could lift his face again. He ignored the fact that they were supposed to be squabbling, the fact that he knew whatever was wrong wasn't resolved, and let bringing a hand up to Marco's back to smooth a reassuring pattern there take momentary priority.

"S'everything okay?" Jean knew the answer - or at least part of it - before he asked the question. The fact that Marco was measuring his breaths, laboring to make sure they were coming as evenly as possible was indicator enough; he wasn't okay.

"Yeah. Just... not sure what to do with myself this evening. Auruo's...
busy. He's got company."

"That's pretty shitty."

Marco shrugged, but he took his time in responding, like every word was a concentrated effort. "I'm used to not being a priority. But yeah, I guess a change of pace now and then might be nice."

Jean stepped away from him like he'd been slapped, staring back at him sourly. "Why - what makes you think you're not a priority? Why do you say that kinda shit about yourself?"

"What else would you
expect me to think? Considering no one ever makes an effort - you didn't even bother texting me the other day! No call, no show - nothing. I waited here for an hour, at the bar for another two--"

"I've been trying to tell you, my phone is busted! Completely shattered - what's left of it is still probably layin' on the pavement outside the science complex." He pulled his new phone from his pocket, shoving it out in front of him to make a point. "I went home last night so I could pick this one up because the other's
gone, dude. I couldn't call you; I couldn't even call my mom."


Marco shook his head, like he was willing himself to stay angry. "You didn't think to stop by? Come let me know you were gonna go somewhere else instead of just leaving me hanging for hours?"

"I didn't mean for - I wasn't
thinking, okay?"

"Do you
ever?"

"Not around
you, I don't!" The ambient sound of wind outside the thin window of their room was all that prevented total silence for a moment as they stared at each other, Jean's jaw hard set to keep his lip from shaking. After a long moment, Marco took a seat on the end of Jean's bed, lowering himself but not his eyes. Jean sat beside him, burying his face in his hands and gathering his thoughts with a sharp inhale before trying again.

"I'm sorry, Marco. I let my own stupid shit get wrapped too tight around my brain and I dropped the ball. And it sucks, because it's not the first time and it probably won't be the last, but - I
care, okay? I really do."

"I know." Marco said it without moving, without so much as a change in expression, but Jean could hear the bitterness leaving his voice. "I'm... I'm sorry. I don't really have a right to snap at you. You don't owe me anything. It's not like we're d--"

"We're
friends, though," Jean quickly insisted. "And I need to get my shit together and try being half as good as you are to me."

"You're fine, Jean. You don't need to--"

"Hardly. I can be really shitty sometimes, but..." He trailed off, hands wringing together in his lap for a moment before he finally gave in to the moment and threw one of them over Marco's shoulder. "I'm glad you're here, Marco."

Marco chuckled weakly and nodded, letting himself lean into Jean's side. "I'm glad you still
want me here." It was obvious that Marco intended to sound casual, conversational - but there was a brokenness in his words, an implication that he was genuinely surprised that Jean or anyone would want him around, and it made Jean squeeze his shoulders a little tighter, on reflex.

"I'm always gonna. Even when you don't feel like puttin' up with me - I'm always gonna
want you around."

"Glad to hear it." Marco hummed contentedly, otherwise quiet as he sat for a while, just letting his head rest where it had fallen on Jean's shoulder. Jean almost let his mind go clear, breathing in the peace of the moment, but then Marco was speaking again, and his voice was so hushed that Jean had to be fully present just to hear his questions.

"So... did something else happen? Other than the phone, I mean?"

Jean shrugged. "Just... Mikasa."

"Ah. I see." Marco shifted, moving away when Jean tensed slightly beneath him.

"But it's not really - it doesn't matter." It was hypocritical, Jean knew - dismissing his own problems so readily when he was so insistent that Marco open up to him. But he was beginning to tire of endless rounds of talking about the same impossible girl, and despite the way he always promised otherwise, something in Marco's expression told Jean he might be tiring of hearing it. Besides, there were other things to talk about - Marco things. "Tell me about auditions. How'd it go?"

"Auruo is definitely gonna get the role of Jon," Marco said with a defeated sigh, dragging a hand backward through his hair. "His read through was probably the best of anyone's. And he
knows it - he hasn't shut up about it for two days."

Jean frowned. "Can't imagine anything he did was better than you."

"Well it definitely
was, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see at this point." He dropped backward onto Jean's bed and huffed. Jean tossed a handful of wadded blankets at him, laughing when Marco buried his face beneath them and continued dramatically melting into the bed.

"Yeah. But look, whatever happens - you're still gonna be just as good. This show doesn't mean shit in the long run; you're not even outta school yet. You're gonna be a professional singer, or actor or
whatever the hell you wanna do. You're... you're amazing."

Marco smiled, peeking from beneath the mountain of blankets piled around his face. "Kinda nice to hear someone say that like they mean it."

"I
do," Jean insisted. "And I'm gonna keep sayin' it 'til your stubborn ass believes it." He snatched a pillow from the head of his bed and tossed it at Marco's face, snickering when the shock knocked Marco from the edge of the bed entirely. Marco hooked a foot between Jean's ankles and pushed him off balance as well, and they spent the next ten minutes dragging each other out of the floor and laughing until they could barely breathe.

They talked about everything. Jean told Marco the whole story of what had happened with Mikasa, put up with his sympathetic fussing afterward, and even bit his tongue when Marco mumbled a few complaints about Auruo. It was just nice to hear Marco's voice - something he was embarrassed to admit he had desperately missed in the few days since he'd last heard it sound so vibrant and warm.

Jean fell asleep quickly that night, the sound of the rain outside infinitely more pleasant against the backdrop of a calm mind. When he woke up the next morning, Marco was gone, and he wondered if things might not have been quite as repaired as they'd felt the night before. But a quick check of the time gave way to him finding a 'good morning' text, full of ridiculous emojis and the assurance that everything was indeed back to normal.

--

That day was a long one. Busy from the start with a to-do list for his classes that was a mile long, and a short run that ended early due to the threat of rain, Jean had also received more than his usual share of correspondence, texts from his mother and emails from professors, as well as a
'we need to talk' sort of message from Coach Mike that had Jean more than a little on edge. By late afternoon, he was backing into he and Marco's shared room with every intention of planting himself at his desk or on his bed, not to move again until necessity demanded it. But turning around, he was stopped in place by the sight of a room that had been cleaned, two beds that were equally made up, and the very peculiar behavior of his roommate.

Marco was lying on his bed, an almost comical sight in his oversized shirt and Iron Man boxers. If it hadn't been for the absolutely desolate look on his face as he stared up at the ceiling, Jean might have laughed. Instead he opted to tap his knee against one of Marco's, gently jarring him from his daze.

"Y'alright, man?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm good." Marco nodded, rubbing at his temples, but his voice was probably the least convincing Jean had ever heard it.

"Don't bullshit me, Marco. You
cleaned. Obviously something is very wrong."

With a long sigh, Marco propped himself up on his elbows, face still almost blank as he mumbled a response. "Cast list was posted today. Looked pretty much like I expected it to. Was just... tryin' to keep myself busy so I wouldn't spend all day thinkin' about..."

"You didn't get the part you wanted." It wasn't a question; Jean was reading it aloud from the look on Marco's face.

"Auruo did," he said, flopping back down. "I'm his
understudy."

"Hey, at least there's that," Jean shrugged. He took a seat at the desk at the end of Marco's bed, tipping the chair up onto it's back legs as he kicked off his shoes, laying crossed feet on the corner of Marco's disheveled sheets. He wiggled his eyebrows, hoping for a laugh. "At least it's someone you like
studying under, right?"

Marco sat up fully, gathering his legs to his chest with another heavy sigh. "Not really. Auruo is...
difficult. When it comes to theatre stuff, I mean. He gets pissed and picks fights really easy, and I just... I'm not looking forward to it, honestly." He dragged a hand through his hair and sniffled, and Jean suddenly realized that he was close to tears. He pulled his feet off of Marco's bed and scratched anxiously at the back of his neck, uncertain of what else to say.

"Ah. I'm sorry, I... look - the show's gonna suck, alright? It's their loss. If they wanna cast Oreo instead of someone as good as you--"

"Auruo," Marco impatiently corrected, dropping his chin to his knees.

Jean shook his head. "Whatever. My point is, it's just gonna suck for them, okay? You don't have to lay around and feel shitty about yourself just because Mr. Perfect bagged a role he probably rigged the audition for anyway."

"Jean, he wouldn't--"

"Let's get outta here, alright? Let's go get somethin' to eat and just get out of the room. You'll feel better, and I won't have to watch your ass mope all night."

"You're so thoughtful." Marco rolled his eyes, but Jean could see the smile beginning to pull at the corners of his lips.

"Hey, I'll pay for food. That's as thoughtful as I get, take it or leave it." He stood, holding out a hand to pull Marco up after him. Marco smiled -
really smiled - after a moment, raising an eyebrow even as he let Jean pull him off his bed and to his feet.

"Make it Leadbelly's and I'll take it."

"Deal, Mr. Barbecue Sauce." Jean grinned. "Now put some damned pants on."

--

The air was cool and damp with the beginnings of evening as they made their way out of their building and started the short trek down to the parking lot where Jean's car waited. They didn't speak much - Marco still seemed intent to stew in his own thoughts, even if he had taken to wearing a smile since they'd decided to leave. But they didn't want for conversation long; halfway down the hill that led to the lot, they bumped into Connie Springer and his girlfriend, and Connie was quick to fill the void of silence.

"Hey, man - how's it goin'?" He bounded over to them, hand outstretched in Marco's direction.

"Hey Connie," Marco smiled, quick with a handshake and a hug. "Saw the cast list - congratulations on the part, you're gonna be amazing."

Connie grinned. "Thanks, man! I still can't believe I edged out some of the other guys, but I guess once in a while it pays to be the black kid."

The chipper brunette beside him laid her head on Connie's shoulder and poked him playfully in the side. "You're gonna be great, baby."

Marco reached out to pull her - Sasha, if Jean was remembering correctly – into a hug as well. "Your auditions were incredible too, Sash. I loved your read."

Sasha smiled and waved dismissively. "Eh, Krista definitely deserved the part, though. And I'm more than happy to work backstage on this one, especially since they want me to help with choreography."

Marco nodded, voice a little quieter. "I'll be right back there with ya,"

The conversation might have tapered off there, with Marco recoiling into his shell of disappointment and self-deprecation, if it hadn't been for Connie. "What about you, Jean?" He asked, and Jean couldn't help snapping his head up in surprised at being addressed. "How's ball season lookin' so far?"

"Ah, not much happening yet," Jean said honestly. "Practices and more running than anything, right now. Should be a decent season, though."

Connie nodded. "Lemme know when some home games are, alright? I'd like to see y'all play."

"Uh, yeah, sure. Will do." Jean was used to people offering him phony cordiality, but Connie seemed to genuinely mean his words. He was a good guy, and the fact that Jean could tell that after only speaking to him a few times made talking to him that much easier.

Sasha laughed, dropping her head onto the top of Connie's again. "And he
might even look up from his pretzels and hotdogs long enough to watch part of the game!"

"Says
you, Footlong Queen." Connie scowled at her, whipping around to look her in the eye - and standing just slightly on his toes to do so. Sasha turned a violent shade of pink, almost immediately.

"You are
banned from speaking of that, remember?"

Behind them, Marco was snorting, laughing so hard Jean couldn't help but join him. "Oh, now
that's a story we need to hear."

"M-maybe next time," Connie said, still glaring at a furiously blushing Sasha. "We gotta get movin' before my stupid evening class starts up, but it was good bumpin' into you boys."

"Alright," Marco conceded, still wiping the corner of his eyes from laughing. "See ya, Con! Later, Sasha!" They waved back, smiling, but Jean thought he could hear quiet bickering start up once they were just beyond earshot.

"Footlong Queen?" He asked, grinning at Marco as the two of them headed off to the parking lot to retrieve Jean's car. Marco shook his head and laughed again.

"I dunno, man - but with
those two, I bet it's gold."

--

The little barbecue restaurant - a favorite of Marco's, Jean had learned - wasn't uncomfortably crowded, but Marco seemed less than his usual level of thrilled-to-be-there anyway. It wasn't more than fifteen minutes into their meal that the idea of a pleasant distraction seemed lost on them both. Jean wasn't a particularly empathetic person, as a rule. More than a few ex-girlfriends had been sure to inform him of that. But seeing Marco still obviously hung up on what he saw as his own shortcomings made him feel genuinely angry, although he wasn't even sure who to be mad at on Marco's behalf.

Marco was the kind of person that deserved
everything, and the fact that he couldn't see his own worth was slowly driving Jean insane. But words had never been Jean's strong suit - especially when things like feelings were involved - and to make things worse, he hadn't really entirely figured out how he felt about Marco. After six months of knowing him, all he was sure of was that Marco was good, deserved good, and settled for a hell of a lot less.

If things were different, maybe Jean could acknowledge the fact that he liked Marco, liked being near him, talking to him, even
thinking about him. If things weren't what they were, maybe he could just let himself like Marco. Maybe even love him. But his chest still smoldered from the burn of the last time he'd let himself make that mistake, and there were a million reasons why getting involved with any guy was a bad move for him, especially if that guy was his roommate. So as close as they got after countless hours of late night talking and shared laughter, he resolved that he wouldn't let himself think of Marco that way. He wouldn't let himself know Marco too well, only to find out later that he never knew anything at all.

That didn't mean he didn't
care. On the contrary - Jean was almost bitter about how much he did care, almost outside of his own control. What was supposed to be a cheerful dinner - an escape from the droll atmosphere Marco was creating in their dorm - turned into an impromptu counseling session, when Jean noticed how distant Marco's gaze still seemed.

"You okay? I mean, not just the audition thing, or whatever..."

"Yeah. 'm fine. I mean...
obviously I'm a little let down, but I really am happy for Auruo. I'm proud of him; I just feel kind of overshadowed. I just wish I had more going on. More going for me."

"You
do, Marco."

They stared at each other for a long moment after Jean said that, as if each was waiting for the other to break it. When Jean wouldn't look away, determined to make his point, Marco seemed to give in, and then circled the conversation back around with a quiet hum. "Anyway - are
you okay?"

He should've just shrugged, let it go and stuffed his mouth with more bread to keep it from spilling words everywhere. But the softness that warmed Marco's words when he asked things like that always dragged the truth out of Jean, and he found himself mumbling it without hesitation. "Just wish I wasn't such a fuck-up with the whole 'getting a date' thing."

"Maybe you're just asking the wrong people. Need to stop chasin' so many
cats." Marco said the last part with a small smirk, but he bit it back when Jean rolled his eyes.

"Maybe I'm just not cut out to ask people at
all," he grumbled, draping himself across the tabletop as he toyed idly with a salt shaker. "I find a way to absolutely destroy every chance at a date I come across. Love is bullshit, dude. It's just... not there for me."

"It's not meant to be there for everyone," Marco said with a shrug. "But I think in your case, it's probably just not wherever you're looking for it."

"Where the hell am I
supposed to be looking?"

"I don't know - somewhere other than your science class, apparently," Marco said, struggling to hide another small smile. "Not very romantic."

Jean frowned, staring at the shaker as he passed it back and forth between his hands. "I don't really do the 'romance' thing. It's hard to fall in love when no one wants to return the favor."

Marco's face fell at the tone of Jean's voice, suddenly more serious as he brushed his knuckles against Jean's to catch his attention. "I highly doubt that's the case, Jean. I still say it's just a case of you looking in the wrong places - maybe looking too
hard."

"I think it's me looking at
all. Last time I thought I found what I was lookin' for, they weren't lookin' back."

"Maybe they
couldn't," Marco offered. "Not meant for everyone, remember? Doesn't mean there was something wrong with you, or them for that matter."

Jean shrugged. "Sure as hell feels that way, most days." He stared down at his hands for a few moments, fighting the strange and sudden urge to push them across the table toward Marco's. "When did this become a sob fest about my shitty love life, anyway? Pass me that bread, I'm gonna drown my sorrows in gluten."

"Good luck with that." Marco smiled again, even laughed a little bit, and the sound of it made Jean feel just a little less hopeless.

Things improved from there. With a little food in his stomach and a contagious smile on his roommate's face, Jean was actually able to relax backward in his chair, and enjoy the fact that his plan to cheer the, both up had actually worked for once. Three refills and a half dozen embarrassing stories each later, he was feeling content - genuinely glad they'd braved the chance of rain to go out that night. And then he looked up from his plate.

Glancing toward the door, he caught sight of a handful of familiar faces. Thomas Wagner, and a few other guys from the team - Sam, Franz, and their entire gaggle of giggling girlfriends - were crowding in to gather by the host stand, and Jean was fairly certain his stomach flipped entirely on its side when he caught sight of them.

Panic. There was no other word for how he felt. A chill shook him from the sudden sweat of his brow line to his seat, as his mouth went sand-dry. They would see him. They would see him out with Marco, just the two of them, and he would never hear the end of it. His eyes zipped back and forth between the exit and the bathrooms, desperate to figure out some sort of escape plan. He must have gone noticeably pale, because it was Marco's hand bumping against his that brought him back to reality, and Marco was obviously unnerved as he cautiously questioned him.

"Jean? Jean - you okay?"

Jean swallowed hard and tried to nod, but the effort just caused him to rock slightly in his seat. He grabbed for his stomach, trying to explain in as few words as possible. "I just - I feel like I'm... I need to leave."

Marco didn't press him for any more details. He waved a waitress down for their check, insisting on paying, and keeping a worried eye on Jean the entire time they waited, even as Jean made every effort to disappear from the face of the planet. When their food was paid for, Jean made for the door without making eye contact with anyone, glad for Marco following quietly, at a comfortable distance until they were out in the open air. He insisted on driving, regardless of the rain beginning to fall and how shaken up he was, and Marco didn't argue; they rode in silence back to campus, and Jean had never been so glad to be within walking distance of their dorm.

--

The walk up the stairs was equally quiet, save for the squeaking of their shoes, and Jean was glad for the fact that Marco couldn't hear the jumbled mess inside his head. When they reached the top of the stairwell, Jean could see someone standing in the hallway, close to their door. Marco recognized him before Jean; he called out a greeting and Bertholdt looked up from where he stood, leaning against the wall and fumbling to pull on a shoe.

"Hey, boys! How's the weather out there tonight?" He smiled at them, pulling a weathered-looking newsboy cap from his jacket pocket, eying their soaked shoulders.

Jean shook his head, and shivered at the breeze of the air conditioning against his rain damp skin. "Gross, but welcome to Cali."

Bert laughed quietly. "Sounds about right. I can't stay to chat too long - Reiner and Annie are already waiting across campus and she's gonna bite my head off if I'm late again."

"Try to get there in one piece, alright?" Marco teased. There was a deeper meaning to his words - a joke heavy with history Jean didn't know enough about to understand - and the familiarity Marco seemed to share with him made Jean curious, like nearly everything else about Bertholdt. Bert nodded and slapped a hand firmly against his shoe, and Jean noticed that it was fitted onto his prosthetic foot.

"Will do. S'long as I don't forget my foot, I'm good."

"Why, uh - what happened to your leg?" Jean blurted out the question before he could stop himself, and as if his own crushing sense of mortification wasn't already crippling, Marco went noticeably pale almost instantly beside him. Jean clapped a hand over his mouth of unconscious will and groaned behind it, only embarrassing himself more. "Sorry. I didn't mean --"

"It's alright," Bert said quickly, and he smiled despite the hesitation in his voice. "Really. I mean it's kind of a heavy story, but the long and short of it is that I was in a car wreck with some friends."

"Ah." With any other explanation, Jean's curiosity might have continued, voiced or not. But words like
'car wreck' had a way of slamming his thoughts to a halt and shutting them down before they could travel down an unpleasant trail of memory. He swallowed and stammered an apology. "I'm... really sorry."

"Don't be. It's no big deal these days." Bert's soft, ever-present smile didn't falter, but Jean could tell he was just as eager to end the conversation as any of them. "But I've gotta get goin'. See you boys later."

He rolled down the cuff of his pants leg and reached up to straighten his cap, nodding in Jean and Marco's direction once more before heading down the hallway. Once he was out of earshot, Jean let out a breath he hadn't been aware of holding, groaning as he let his shoulders drop back against the wall outside their dorm room door.

"God, I am
such an ass."

"It's not you," Marco said, turning to fumble with the lock. "Bert just doesn't really talk much about anything,
that especially. Something... happened to Reiner, back then. He was in that wreck, too. I think Bert just feels like it's not just his story to tell."

Jean nodded. "Yeah. Maybe. Still feel like a dick, though."

"Well, don't." Marco bumped knuckles against Jean's back as they stepped through the doorway to their room. "The important thing is that we're back, and you don't look so green anymore."

"Huh? Oh, yeah. Right." Jean agreed, absently. He'd all but forgotten feeling sick in the first place. "Just needed some fresh air, I guess."

It wasn't true. The air he needed was that of the inside of their cramped dorm, their shared space that somehow kept him from drowning in the rising water of stress just outside its door. Even when his head was spinning, dizzy with thoughts of everything he'd surely have to deal with from his teammates the next time he saw them, the warmth of Marco's presence had a way of making him forget everything except what was in front of him, inside the four familiar walls of their room.

--

Okay.

That was the word, the feeling that came to mind when Jean thought about Marco.

Things weren't always good. Some days they argued. Some days Jean couldn't understand how one human being could be so messy, and some days Marco would declare that he couldn't stand the smell of 'overpriced coffee and raw fish' any longer. But at the end of every day, come long, exhausting practices or stressful classes, things in Room 104 were always okay.

Being around Marco was like watching a play - sometimes an elaborate production, complete with musical numbers and a dramatic retelling of something Connie had said earlier that day. Other times it was more intimate, a one man show in which Marco would sprawl out on one of their beds in his boxers and talk with Jean until they were both too tired to make much sense. In either case, he had a way of making the every day come alive, and Jean counted himself lucky to bear witness to his impromptu performances. But Marco was an actor after all, and the images he projected for an audience were always only temporary. Even if it was an audience of one.

In the day to day of things, Marco had his own life. He couldn't constantly be there, holding things together for Jean, or making them seem okay when they weren't. He couldn't act as a buffer for the things Jean didn't want to deal with, and it was when Jean was edged into
those situations that he missed his roommate the most.

"You and your
boyfriend have a good time last night, Kirschtein?"

The edge of laughter in Thomas' voice as he came to stand behind him soured Jean's stomach; he swore under his breath as a ball rolled past his hands uncaught, his concentration broken by how much he suddenly wanted to punch Wagner in the face.

"Fuck you, Thomas."

Thomas chuckled obnoxiously, glancing every so often back at Mina and the other girls, hovering a few lengths away in the empty stands. He sidled up beside Jean, arms crossed as he tugged his hat down, grinning back at Jean from behind the bill. "Looked like you were. Didn't catch you guys quick enough to have you introduce me to him, but--"

"He's my
roommate, asshole," Jean growled. "My fucking roomie - that's it. He was having a shitty day, I offered to get him out of our dorm."

Thomas snickered, eying some of the other players over his shoulder who were listening in on their conversation. "And out on a date - you're a real sweetheart, Jean."

"It wasn't a fucking date! Look -
Marco is gay, not me. Having a gay roommate doesn't make me gay. I'm not gay." He said the last few words with finality, spitting them out like the bitter half truth that they were. But the only thing that disgusted him more than the constant pressure he was under to outright lie about himself was the self-satisfied smirk on Thomas Wagner's face that pushed him to do it. "Now get off my ass about it, before I stomp yours."

Thomas scoffed, rolling his arms back and making a show of thumping a fist against his chest. "Like to see you try, princess."

Before he could step any closer to Jean, Thomas huffed, breath stuttered as he was knocked nearly a foot backward by the rough smack of a heavy leather glove hitting him squarely in the chest. He looked up with an indignant glare, and Jean's eyes followed his; Eren stood a few yards away, arms crossed and scowling in Wagner's direction.

"Lay off, Wagner," he snarled, fingers cracking threateningly as they curled into a fist. "Go stir shit somewhere else. I'm sure Mina will be just as impressed." He jerked his chin in the other direction, signaling Wagner to move. Thomas just stared at him, and for a moment he looked like he might actually take Eren up on his unspoken threat.

"Throwin' shit. You're a fuckin' toddler, Jaeger." Thomas spat his words as he turned on his heel, tossing the glove back in Eren's direction. Eren snatched it out of the air and stood, unfazed - watching him walk until he was sure Thomas wasn't turning around.

He turned then to Jean, face far less harsh as he opened his mouth to speak, but Jean didn't stay to give him the time. Offering nothing but a curt wave as his halfhearted thanks, he left Eren standing in silence, and headed to dress back out for the evening. If there was anything he was less keen on taking than Thomas's shit, it was Eren's charity. Eren didn't push him, didn't try to speak to him again, even as he left the athletic complex, and even Coach Mike was notably absent from Jean's path as he watched the beginnings of darkness settle into the sky on his way out.

Even in the dead of winter, southern California wasn't especially cold. But the misty January evening chilled Jean's sweaty skin as he walked against the wind, thinking of how entirely
isolated he was beginning to feel. He'd started the school year longing for the familiar routine of baseball, of faces he knew and places he belonged. But with each passing practice, he felt that sense of safety slipping away - things were different this year, and different had never been something Jean was well equipped to handle.

He didn't feel the same comfortable click he had in years previous when he was surrounded by his teammates, and perhaps - most disturbingly - he had begun to realize that it was never really as good a fit for him as he'd perceived it to be. Baseball, CSUF - his entire life didn't feel like
his anymore. Even when he was home, he felt unsettled, like he was longing for something that wasn't there. He didn't have a place of his own.

His thoughts swirling around him like the damp breeze, he felt a familiar buzz in his pocket, grounding him for a moment. He took extra care in pulling his phone from his pocket, only realizing he'd been wandering the campus grounds in aimless circles when he stopped to read the text on its screen.

From: Marco
Bert and Reiner are here and I could use some backup...
5:16PM

There wasn't even time to fire off a response before another text came, followed quickly by two more.

From: Marco
I will buy you so much Starbucks if you come back, dear GOD.
Reiner is singing, I think he's drunk.
HELP JEAN DON'T LET ME DIE LIKE THIS.
5:18PM

He read them under his breath and found himself laughing, promising in a quick response that he was on his way. Marco's next few texts were equally comical, and Jean's grin only grew wider at the thought of exactly what he'd find waiting for him back in their room. His steps found direction and his thoughts cleared, a comfortable calmness settling over him, knowing as he turned up the stairs toward their dorm that he was heading to the one place he felt he was
supposed to be, even if his sense of belonging there was only borrowed.

He always had Marco, even if Marco wasn't really his.

Chapter Text

The first real practice of the season always brought some sort of ceremony with it, a feeling of starting fresh and an optimism about what the months ahead could bring. Jean enjoyed it, if for no other reason than it was the one day of the official schedule that everything seemed within the realm of possibility. This could be his year - this could be his chance.

The unofficial practices had grated on his nerves - an unpleasant combination of Armin's chattering and Thomas's
existence - but the real deal was entirely different. Thomas was masked up, squatting at the other end of the field, a comfortable distance at which Jean couldn't even hear his voice if he had to. And Armin was decidedly quieter, focused on the game in a way Jean hadn't predicted. Watching him play, Jean was actually taken aback by his skill; Armin was quick on his feet and moved with a quiet confidence that struck a sharp contrast to the bubbly demeanor Jean had encountered in their few run ins off the field. At least the guy could play the game, Jean conceded. Didn't make Jean any quicker to like him, but it made him slightly more tolerable.

The weather wasn't perfect, but opening day of practice was rarely ideal. The coaches gave long winded speeches about the upcoming season, and a few alumni stopped by to shake hands with the team. Gunter, Erd - guys Jean had never gotten a chance to play the field with, but had heard stories of since he'd been a freshman. Mike seemed happy to see them, while Nile appeared to be avoiding them, and that was more than enough for Jean to judge them as decent guys. He shook hands with both of then, and the other visiting alums, before wrapping up the first rigorous practice of the season.

At the end of practice, it was obvious that everyone was heading somewhere, with someone else. Thomas and his pack met their girlfriends at the gate, no doubt debating which restaurant they'd grace with their collective presence that evening. Eren and Armin left together, laughing and talking with an easy back and forth that seemed foreign out of Eren, but it only served to remind Jean that Armin knew a different Eren than he had.

Even most of the coaching staff had wives or girlfriends or
someone to go home to once the last whistles were blown. Jean tried to tell himself that he was one of the lucky ones - no one to answer to, no one to rush him. But it was a hard sell, even to himself.

So when Coach Z asked him to hang back to talk afterward, he found himself glad just for the interaction.

"You're lookin' good for this season, already. Haven't seen you this fast since you first got here." Mike took a seat at one end of a long metal bench, Jean taking the hint to settle a few feet away in front of him.

"Got a lot to accomplish this season," he sighed, glancing out at the nearly vacant field. "Need it to be a good one. And hopefully my last one here."

"There's no shame in graduating before you move on, Jean." Mike's tone was almost fatherly, laughter behind it that he was holding back for Jean's sake. "But I know that itch. And I think this might be your year. I can't imagine it not being, if you keep your head on your shoulders."

Jean rubbed at his temples, trying not to think about the multitude of things threatening to knock his head askew. "Tryin', coach."

"That business with your roommate from last semester sorted out?"

"Bus-- oh, yeah, yeah. I'm roomin' with him again this term." There was a beat of silence, Mike's raised eyebrow disappearing under the bill of his hat at Jean's apparent change of heart. Jean shrugged, not in the mood to offer much more of an explanation. "Turned out to be a decent guy."

Mike nodded. "Well I'm glad to hear that much. Just - remember to focus, alright? That's what's gonna get you where you wanna be; the rest of it don't mean anything, you hear me? Your roommate, your drama with Wagner--"

"Wagner is the cause of all the bullshit between--"

"That may be," Mike cut in firmly. "But you need to be the
end of it. Don't let stupid things get between you and where you're goin', alright? Focus on what's important."

Jean sighed and let himself drop back to lie flat across the beam of the bleachers, hat pulled down to cover his face. "You're a broken record, coach."

Mike chuckled and reached out to clap a hand over Jean's foot. "One you need to hear, sometimes. Now, I, uh... spoke to your mother, recently. And she's a little concerned about you after last semester. Wants me to keep an eye on you."

"Mm." Jean lifted his hat to look back at his coach, amused by the way his usual slow, sure speech had become rambling and quiet at the topic of Lynnette.

"I know you're a grown man, Jean. It ain't my place to treat you like anything else. But if one of my players' mothers--"

"Coach. C'mon." Jean sat up, hat in one hand as he rested his elbows on his knees. "You're right - I'm not a kid. So I'd hope you'd know that I'm also not
stupid. I know my mom isn't just another concerned parent, so you don't have to bullshit me about it. And for the record, I really don't care." He offered Mike a genuine smile. "Keep an eye on me if you need to, I don't care about that either. Just... remember that my mom is a good woman, okay? And good is the only thing she deserves."

"I'd say we're in agreement on that," Mike smiled.

Jean stood and put his hat back on as he stepped toward the line of filtering sunlight at the edge of the recessed bleachers. "Glad to hear it."

Mike stood after him, lingering in place. "Keep me posted on how your grades are lookin', alright? Don't wanna have to go diggin' through Blackboard again."

"Yeah, will do. Speakin' of which, I got a study group to try and catch. See ya coach." He headed out with a wave tossed over his shoulder, then turned to shout before he was too far out of earshot. "Oh and, if you talk to mom before I do, tell her I'll call her tonight."

Mike nodded and waved in return.

"Will do."

--

He really didn't mind.

That was the conclusion he'd come to once he'd let the fact that his mother was most likely dating his head coach - in at least some semblance of the word - sink in. Lynnette had never been one much for big outings, but the two of them clearly did a lot of
talking. And once there was absolutely no doubt - despite the fact that neither his mother nor his coach had actually copped to it - Jean realized that it really didn't bother him. Seeing two people he cared about making each other happy was a good thing. And he was happy for them.

Still, it didn't lessen the dull twinge in his chest when he reflected on the fact that even his coach, even his
mother was faring better than he was at finding someone to spend their time with. At least Lynnette's love life might be the topic of the family chatter at the spring holiday meals - instead of his - and that was almost worth the reminder of his own lack of success. Almost.

Thinking on his frustration too long, his mind drifted into the territory of the comfortable dorm room he was heading back to - to Marco. He wasn't sure why his brain was always so quick to offer up thoughts of his roommate and their shared space when he was irritated, but he assumed it was because it was his safe place, where he felt at peace and could just let go of his stress. Marco had such an easy way about him, and it was hard to be anything other than content in the same room as him.

But Marco was also full of surprises; Jean never knew exactly what to expect, backing through the door to their room. And on that cloudy, late January day, he was unpleasantly surprised.

Marco's mood seemed themed for the weather, gloomy and dark, eyes cast to the ground and the tell-tale smattering of recently dried tears marking his face. It was the kind of thing that might have been easy to miss, amid his generous dusting of freckles. But it was the first thing Jean noticed when his eyes fell on Marco's glum face.

"Hey, whoa - what's going on, what's wrong?" Jean dropped his hat and bag at the door and moved to hover by the end of Marco's bed, rocking anxiously on his heels. "I thought we were over the sads."

Marco swallowed, obviously trying to sound calm. "I don't - it's not--"

"Marco..."

"It's...
Auruo," he choked out. "He and I got in an argument. Over a stupid house party." He looked down at his phone in his hand and bit his lip, visibly holding his breath for a moment. "I think... I think he broke up with me? I'm honestly not even sure, it's--"

"Stupid," Jean said flatly.

Marco didn't argue, only sniffed quietly and nodded, "Yeah."

"Hey, c'mon." Jean took a seat on the bed - nearly in Marco's lap - throwing his legs insistently across Marco's as if to trap him in place. Physical contact like that always disarmed Marco, when it came from Jean. And Jean wasn't above using that to his advantage to dig his friend out of a ditch. "What can I do?"

Marco shook his head. "You don't need to do anything."

"That's not what I asked," Jean countered. "What
can I do?" He stared at Marco, waiting. Jean wasn't usually one for extended eye contact with anyone, but he'd long since accepted that Marco brought out all kinds of weird things in him. And he just wanted to bring a smile out of Marco.

"I... really can't think of anything. I really don't wanna think about it at all, right now. Just - take this." Marco jutted an arm out, shoving his phone into Jean's hands. Jean took it, but not without hesitation.

"Take it?"

"I mean, like... Put it somewhere. Get it out of my face. Otherwise I'm just gonna spend all night lookin' at it, and--"

"Gotcha," Jean nodded. He hauled himself off of the bed and crossed the room to drop the phone on his own bedside table. "Done."

Marco raised an eyebrow, and the corner of his lips curved up with it. "Kinda obvious
hiding place, dontcha think?"

"Didn't know I was supposed to make it a treasure hunt," Jean quipped. "Besides - you come near it, and I'll tackle you or some shit."

"Mhm. You a football player now?"

Jean prodded Marco in the shoulder and laughed. "Don't test me, Bodt."

"Thank you," Marco said quietly, and reached up to catch Jean's hand. He held it there for a moment, before Jean squeezed his shoulder and settled on the bed again, beside him this time.

"No problem. Now - what can I do to keep you from thinkin' about Oreo all night?"

"Auru--"

"I'm not even
slightly worried about getting that asshole's name right. Keep pushing and I'll start calling him Double Stuff."

Marco snorted. "You're terrible."

"Maybe, but I'm better than fuckin'
Oreo." Jean shrugged, and Marco nodded without hesitation.

"I agree." The smile he said it with was simple, but there were layers of thought beneath it, layers that Jean was unsure how to read, or if he was even ready to know about. He opted not to try, to keep conversation from lingering there too long.

"So, uh... tonight. What do you wanna do?"

"Well, I
had plans to go to a house party," Marco glumly reminded him. Jean twisted his mouth to one side and nodded.

"Then go."

Marco grimaced, shifting his legs closer to his chest. "Well I
can't, I mean - they were plans with Auruo - I don't really wanna go alone."

"I'll go with you."

"You?" Marco sounded almost like he might laugh, but his expression was one of shock and surprise. If he was honest, Jean was a little surprised at himself, too - he hadn't started the conversation with the intention to offer to take Marco out anywhere. But he shrugged, wiggling into a cloak of feigned confidence in his suggestion.

"Yeah. Well, I mean, if it's cool for you to... bring
friends."

Marco eyed him hesitantly. "Do you
want to go?"

The memory of Halloween flashed through Jean's mind. The memory of missing a chance and of regret and frustration and the idea that
maybe, if he'd agreed to go with Marco then, that Marco wouldn't have even ended up with Auruo at all. Something in his head whispered to him not to blame himself for that - something much louder screamed that he couldn't miss another chance to be the friend Marco deserved. His own voice was a compromise, quiet but sure, and simple in reply.

"Yeah."

"Well, then - yeah," Marco said, a genuine smile spreading slowly across his face. "Yeah, that might be nice."

Jean nodded. "Might be."

--

There wasn't much 'getting ready' to be done before they headed out for the party, and Jean was glad for that much. Marco ducked out of the room to wash his face, and when he returned, all traces of his bad day seemed to have been scrubbed clean, save for the faint redness and quiet sadness still lingering in his eyes. Jean hoped that would be gone soon, too.

They left as the sun was dipping past the horizon, closing their window to the first cool breeze of winter evening before stepping out of their room. On their way out, Jean could hear quiet talking, that got only slightly louder as they approached the stairwell. Once they'd started down, he realized it was coming from one of the lower landings of the stairs, and caught a quick glance of a couple, pulling apart from kissing to laugh and talk.

"You couldn't look bad if you tried, pretty bird."

Jean recognized the man's voice before he even saw his face, so he was only slightly startled when he and Marco stepped onto the bottom landing and were greeted by Reiner, and a short, familiar-looking blonde woman. Reiner's arm still hung across her shoulders, and she was in no hurry to move it. She gave Marco a wordless wave, and Reiner reached out to clap them both on the back as they passed, seemingly unaware of the fact that Jean's mind was scrambling to make sense of what he'd just seen.

That was the quiet, stone-faced girl that was in one of his classes the semester before. That was the woman he'd seen walking with Bertholdt, on more than one occasion. That was... Reiner's girlfriend?

He tried not to think on it too long, lest he be tempted to ask Marco aloud. That night was about distracting Marco from thinking about relationships, and talking about one wouldn't be much help. And besides - at least that explained the bras and crop tops he'd seen all over Bert and Reiner's room, though it didn't explain how Reiner's obvious thing with Bert factored into the equation.

Jean shook his head.
Marco now - figuring out what the hell was up with Bert, Reiner and 'pretty bird', later.

--

The party would have been a pretty long walk, even in the nicest of weather. In the rain that was lazily dripping from the edges of roofs and the branches of trees, it was a trek Jean wasn't willing to make, even for his best friend.

So they drove. Marco was quiet most of the way there, and though he still had a distant sadness in his eyes, Jean was glad for the smile he caught a glimpse of in Marco's reflection on the window. When they
did speak, it was mostly Jean complaining about the inconvenient location of the party, apparently being held in the top floor of a run down house owned by someone in the theatre department. Jean remarked on how sketchy the place was even as he parked in the 'lot' beside it; Marco just grinned wider and hooked an arm around his, all but dragging him up the rain slicked stairs and into the house.

Jean had expected something quiet. Not quiet in the traditional sense - theatre kids didn't seem to actually know how to keep their voices down. But something subdued, without the raucous atmosphere of the typical booze-soaked college party. He knew he had been wrong to think he knew anything about Marco's friends though, when they made it through the upstairs door, and were nearly pounced on by a very excited - and slightly intoxicated - Krista.

"Marcooo!" She squealed, tossing arms around his neck and nearly tackling him against the doorframe. Marco laughed and pulled her up into a proper hug.

"Hey, Krista!"

Behind them, a woman shouted. "Let the boy get in the door, baby!"

Jean's head snapped to the side on reflex, to look over Krista's head and Marco's shoulder. He knew that voice.

"Ymir?!" He hissed under his breath. Ymir dropped her head backward and raised a hand in greeting, and Jean was still processing the fact that she was there when it hit him that she'd called Krista 'baby', and his understanding of just about everything started to fray at the edges.

All the times Jean had heard the name 'Krista' began cropping up in his mind, falling into place where they apparently belonged. Krista was Marco's best friend. Krista was Ymir's girlfriend. The same Krista who had sweetly offered him help with his studying the previous semester. He sorted her into all of those different slots in his head, all of them making more sense since he'd seen Reiner with someone who definitely
wasn't Krista just a little while before. There were too many blondes for his brain. And they were all too hot for the people they were dating.

He tried not to stare at Krista as she led them back to where Ymir was sitting, kicked back on a threadbare sectional couch. She plopped down on Ymir's knee, and patted the cushion beside them, motioning for Marco to sit. He did, and Jean took a seat a few feet away - hovering, but not too closely.

"Congratulations, by the way," Marco said once they'd settled. "I saw the cast list - you're gonna be an incredible Susan."

"Thank you, Marco!" Krista beamed,cheeks flushed a bright pink. "I'm actually kind of nervous about it, but with lots of practice, I'm sure it'll be fine. Honestly, I can't believe you didn't get Jon - your audition was
amazing. I mean, no offense to Auruo or whatever. Say, where is he tonight?"

Marco swallowed hard, face falling. "He's... I don't know, honestly. We're kind of over, I guess."

"Oh, I'm sorry," she cooed. "But - Jean's cuter, anyway."

Jean felt Marco tense beside him, posture going rigid as Krista giggled obliviously. "Right. Well - I need a drink," he said, finally. He turned back to Jean. "You want anything while I'm up?"

"Uh, sure," Jean laughed nervously. "Just - I can't really drink during the on season, so - see if they have anything that isn't like eighty percent alcohol."

"I'll do my best," Marco said with a dramatic salute, and Jean couldn't help a quiet chuckle under his breath.

Once Marco was well beyond earshot of them, Jean cleared his throat and used every ounce of casualness that he could fake to question Krista, hoping they were on good enough terms that it would pass for friendly conversation.

"So do you guys know Marco's boyfriend? Or, well - ex-boyfriend, or whatever?"

Krista broke into a wide grin immediately. "Oooh,
why?"

Jean groaned. "It's not like
that; you're as bad as Ymir." Ymir herself laughed, but Krista's face fell in disappointment. Jean sighed. "Marco's my best friend, okay? I just wanna know if that guy's as big of a dick as he seems."

"I wish I could tell you," Krista shrugged. "But I don't really know much about him. He's always really nice to me, but I barely speak to him."

Ymir pressed her face against the side of Krista's, laughing. "Everyone's nice to you, babe."


Krista giggled and turned to rub her nose against Ymir's, and Jean fought the urge to gawk in disbelief. He might've interrupted their love fest to push further for answers, but he could hear people approaching from behind him, and glanced over his shoulder just in time to see Connie grin before playfully slapping his arm.

"Hey, Jean! What's up, man?" Connie dropped onto the couch beside Jean, arm still outstretched to catch Sasha in his lap.

Jean shrugged, not sure of what to say. "Just taggin' along for the night." Over their shoulders, Marco shouted from two rooms away, his face barely in sight as he held up a can of something and waved it.

"Hey, Sash, Connie - you guys want anything while I'm up?"

"Nah, man - brought our own!" Connie raised a water bottle to make his point, and Marco nodded like he was just remembering something, before flashing Connie a thumbs up and disappearing again.

Jean eyed the plastic bottles in both Connie and Sasha's hands. "You guys not drinkin' either?"

"Never do," Connie shrugged.

"Oh, really?"

"Yeah. It's... just an us thing." His tone made it sound like that was where he wanted the conversation to end, but Sasha wiggled in his lap and threw an arm around his neck, pressing her forehead to his before turning back to face Jean.

"Connie's way too modest - it's actually a
me thing, but he gave it up with me when I did." She pinched at his cheek, Connie only grumbling a little bit in response.

Jean nodded. "You have problems with it or somethin'?"

"You could say that." Sasha looked down at her water bottle, turning it in her hands as she spoke. "I used to party a lot. That's actually how Connie and I met a few years back. I was at a party, black out drunk, and my date and I got into a big fight. I don't think he was gettin' what he wanted from me, y'know? So he left me there, face down on the sidewalk, half my clothes missing. I woke up in a hospital room, with Connie sitting by the bed. Total stranger, just sitting there, waiting to make sure I was okay."

"That's how you guys met?" Jean said, wide eyed. "Jesus."

Sasha nodded solemnly. "I couldn't believe someone would do something so nice for me, especially when we didn't even know each other. But I knew I needed to
get to know him. He was my white knight."

"Minus the white part," Connie grinned. "After that though, we both swore off drinking."

"I don't blame you, damn." Jean nodded, raking a hand through his hair. "That's a hell of a story, though."

"Connie's always the guy with a good story," Sahsa grinned. "The trouble is figuring out which ones he cooked up."

Connie rolled his eyes at her, but didn't argue. Their easy rapport was fun to watch; Jean found himself smiling just watching them talk, and idly wondering just what kind of stories Connie had to tell, if Sasha's 'footlong queen' nickname was any indication. He made a mental note to follow up on that later, and for once, he felt like he actually might.

Marco returned a moment later with several drinks, and although one was a chilled can of soda that he handed to Jean, the others were cheap, flavored beer, and with Krista and Ymir already holding drinks, Jean wondered who they might be for. The answer came quickly, when Marco opened and downed one of the cans before even setting the rest on the table in front of the couch, and had another cracked open and at his lips a moment later. Clearly Marco had no intention of taking it easy.

"You gonna be okay with all that?" The question sort of fell out of Jean's mouth on its own, but Marco took in stride - and in between rapid drinks.

"Yeah, I'm good. Just - tryin' not to think about things, y'know?"

Jean nodded, but he made sure Marco noticed the apprehension in his expression. "Just be careful, alright? Don't wanna end up doing something you'll regret."

"I'll be fine," Marco promised, laying his second empty can down as if to prove a point.

Beside them, the sounds of Krista begging Ymir to dance with her. - and Ymir flatly refusing - spilled into he and Jean's conversation, with Marco attempting to assist Krista in her persuasion techniques, and then offering to dance with her in Ymir's stead when it didn't work. Ymir clicked her tongue as Krista bounded from the couch and over to the makeshift dance floor in the middle of the room. For once, she didn't seem interested in pestering Jean, so when Sasha disappeared for a few moments as well, he took the opportunity to chat with Connie.

"So, uh - can you tell me anything about this dude Marco's been dating recently?"

"Been dating?" Connie asked. "They break up or something?"

Jean shrugged. "Yeah, I guess." Connie mimed wiping his brow, heaving a relived sigh.

"Good for Marco, then. Auruo's a pompous ass, if I ever saw one. 'Course I'm not really supposed to say that too loud."

"Why?"

"Well, I'm in the internship program here. Tryna get a job through the theatre department. Auruo's technically my boss."

Jean winced. "That sucks."

"Tell me about it. That guy's a whole bag'a dicks. I honestly have no idea how a good guy like Marco got mixed up with him in the first place." Connie shook his head, glancing over to where Marco and the others were dancing. "Asshole probably thinks he's been doing Marco some kinda favor, too."

Jean nodded, turning his head away in hopes that Connie couldn't see the flush rising there. Watching Marco dance with Krista, smiling and laughing and completely distracted made him happy, but the fact that Marco
needed a distraction was unfair. Infuriatingly so. Connie was right - Marco was so good, and Jean could feel the tension building in his jaw, threatening a headache later as he ground his teeth, thinking about Auruo. He'd never even seen the guy, didn't know anything about him, other than he definitely didn't deserve Marco. He was glad to hear that it wasn't an opinion he was alone in.
He might have continued stewing in his secondhand rage at a complete stranger all evening, if he hadn't been interrupted by Krista's enthusiastic rendition of Avril Lavigne music. It was a strange thing to find himself grateful for, but it was a welcome distraction from his borderline irrational line of thought about his best friend's ex - and the way it made Marco grin and giggle over Krista's shoulder was worth any amount of Krista's drunken singing.

'Hey, hey - you, you - I don't like your girlfriend!'

Ymir rolled her eyes and then tossed an arm across her face, and Jean couldn't be sure if it was annoyance or embarrassment that spiked her voice as she mumbled from behind it. "You
are my girlfriend. God, who the hell decided to play this shit?"

A moment later Krista returned with renewed energy, this time with a makeshift crown of poorly folded paper perched atop her head as she sang.

'And hell yeah, I'm the motherfuckin' princess!'

Jean's eyes went wide at the sound of Kristas's sweet, tiny voice swearing so proudly, but he couldn't help laughing along with Marco and the others about it. Beside him, Ymir just buried herself further backward in the cushions of the couch and groaned from behind her sleeve.

It was obvious that Krista wasn't planning on slowing down - or toning down - even as her steps began to wobble slightly. Marco wasn't much help, stumbling right alongside her and laughing as they both polished off another round of drinks. Jean watched with mild concern, but heard a voice in his head reminding him that Marco wasn't his to chastise for anything, especially on a night like this. Still, he was glad when Sasha returned and tapped Connie on the shoulder, tilting her head toward the center of the room to motion toward them.

"I'm gonna go hang out with Krista for a bit," she said with a smile. "Not sure Marco's got it under control by himself."

Connie glanced over at the noisy drunken pair in the middle of the room and nodded. "Sounds like a plan."

After a few minutes, Ymir stood and meandered toward what Jean assumed was the restroom, not bothering to excuse herself. Once she was gone, Connie leaned over and nudged Jean, his voice almost a whisper.

"Ymir isn't exactly the most fun at parties," he said with a quiet sigh. "Krista always brings her, but - Sasha is usually the one to keep her entertained while Ymir sulks. So Krista always ends up getting hammered to compensate. Vicious cycle."

"I can see that," Jean hummed. He and Connie watched Sasha trying to supervise what looked like it might have started out as dancing, but had devolved into a clump of people laughing in a pile in the middle of the floor. To her credit, Sasha was stone sober and laughing harder than any of then. The grin on Connie's face as he watched her was almost as wide as her own.

He sat and talked with Jean for a while after that; Jean couldn't be sure exactly how long, given that he didn't even bother pulling out his phone. Conversation was always an adventure with Connie, and he had a way of making people laugh that made Jean genuinely glad he and Sasha had decided to show up that evening. Especially given that Marco seemed too distracted trying to keep Krista company to do much talking otherwise. But Jean couldn't complain - the evening really was about making
Marco feel better, after all. And if that involved drunk dancing and bad karaoke with his friends, Jean was content to watch - and maybe laugh a little.

Sasha was a little more outwardly concerned. "Hey, I think it might be time to get the drunks home," she suggested, when it seemed like Krista was doing more crying than laughing, and Marco's expression had glazed over entirely.

Jean winced at the sight of the two of them. "Oh, shit. Yeah, I think you're right."

Connie helped Sasha move the two of them closer to the door, careful not to let Krista trip over herself too much. "Jean, you okay to get Marco back safe?"

"Yeah, sure." Jean looked over to where Marco was standing, propped against a wall, breathless and barely able to stay upright. He laughed to keep from audibly sighing. "Might have to drag his ass up the stairs, but..."

Jean hoped Ymir - or someone - would take care of Krista, but he didn't wait around to see to her. He had enough on his hands; the way Marco swayed on his feet just trying to stand in place hurried Jean's pace in getting him back to the dorm. He walked him over to the door and waited with him on the top step, shouting over his shoulder at the others while Marco tried to get his bearings. “See you guys!”

Connie and Sasha waved back, Sasha still standing next to an increasingly emotional Krista. When Jean turned back, he found Marco glancing back and forth between him and the stairs, as if they were the most frightening thing he'd ever seen. Jean looped an arm around his waist to brace him, and they started down the staircase, Marco stammering the whole way.

"Oh, god, I c-can't - Jean, I'm so sorry."

Jean counted to stairs for both of them, making use of his reflexes every few steps as Marco clung to his shoulders. "What're you sorry for?" He already knew the answer, but keeping Marco talking seemed like a good idea.

"I drank way too much," Marco groaned. "Way, way too much, and I brought you with me and basically
ignored you all night, and now - I'm... really sorry."

"S'alright, dude. It happens." Jean led them out into the cool night air, pulling off his jacket to toss over their heads in defense of the rain that was falling harder every minute. "Let's just get you back to the dorm, alright?"

He opened the car door and let Marco flop backward into the seat. "Here. Buckle up. Okay? Just - rest until we get there." He fastened Marco's belt and straightened him up, shutting the door only when he was sure Marco was halfway comfortable.

Marco did as he was asked, for the most part. He let his head lie against the headrest, eyes closed as they made their way back to the dorm in relative silence. Only when they stopped at a red light - Jean lingering a little longer than usual to be sure of his line of sight in the heavy rain - did he so much as speak. But when he did, it was almost a
wail.

"I'm such an idiot,
my god." A strangled sob interrupted his slurred sentence as he sat forward. "I'm w-worthless. S'no wonder he--"

"Hey, no. Stop." Jean pushed him back, his hand landing roughly against Marco's chest. "None of that, okay? You're not worthless, or an idiot, or anything else, and anyone who tells you different is an asshole."

Marco didn't argue with him, just closed his eyes and hiccuped quietly until his breathing was even, and he looked like he might be asleep. Jean pulled into their lot and parked the car, sighing when the engine went quiet and nothing but the sound of the rain against the windshield could be heard. He glanced over at Marco, then back up at the dorm, eyeing the illuminated windows on their floor and hoping that Bert and Reiner would be gone, or too busy to bother noticing him dragging Marco in, in such a questionable condition. Marco was good at covering for people, keeping nosy friends off their backs. Jean was decidedly less so.

"W-why do you still have that cup?" Marco slurred, breaking the silence by pointing down at the empty Starbucks cup with his handwriting on it, still sitting in Jean's cup holder. "S'from Christmas."

"Just didn't throw it away," Jean said quickly. Marco snorted.

"You
always throw things away, though. Neat freak."

Jean mumbled a few insults under his breath and shrugged. "Yeah, well. We're here, okay? You think you can get up the stairs?"

"Probably," Marco said confidently, then fumbled for several minutes just trying to locate the buckle of his belt.

Jean clicked his tongue and sighed.
"Right. Here, let me help." He unbuckled himself first, then turned across his seat to reach for Marco's belt. Marco hummed quietly.

"You are s-such a good person, Jean."

Jean shook his head and smiled, just a little. "Only when I'm around you."

"And you say stuff like
that. And it's just - you're so cute." Marco laughed and let his head drop forward, pressing their foreheads together as Jean finally got the buckle of his lap belt to pop. Jean looked up through the overgrown fringe of his hair to see Marco's glassy eyes looking back at him warmly.

"Well I'm glad you think I'm
cute," he smirked, and pushed back to sit a little more comfortably.

"You are!" Marco squeaked, clapping a hand over his mouth at the embarrassing pitch of his voice and then laughing behind it.

"Alright," said Jean, of no mind to argue with his inebriated roommate. "You gonna be okay?"

Marco nodded. "Definitely."

Then he smiled - a big, silly grin that made Jean feel almost uncomfortably warm as Marco reached up and traced fingers reverently along his jaw. Jean froze in place, hovering over his intoxicated friend and staring back at him cautiously. Marco just laughed again, leaned forward until their noses bumped together - and kissed him.

It wasn't what Jean would've expected, and the realization that he might've had
any expectations about it at all was almost as alarming as the warm drag of Marco's lips across his. This was not the hesitant kiss of a person afraid of their own actions. It was slow, soft - but insistent. It was searingly confident, even for all Marco's fumbling. A quickly catching fire.

Jean felt like he was burning alive, warmth pouring over his parted lips and straight down to his chest, a spark exploding there and warming him to his every extremity. Marco's mouth was a flame against his skin, trailing down across his jaw and to the top of his neck before returning, Jean's blood boiling under the heat. A smolder he hadn't been aware of before burst fully to life, sending its blaze spiraling
downward until he was shifting out of his seat, almost into Marco's lap.

He should've said something right away, should've stopped everything to question Marco about what the hell he was doing, and
why. The logical voice in his mind should have been screaming that this wasn't okay. But that part of his brain wasn't working, then. There was no hesitation, no stopping to think; there was only the molten hot feeling of Marco invading his space, their lips parting to slide better against each other as Jean felt fumbling fingers curl in his hair.

Marco gave a rumbling, satisfied moan that echoed deep in Jean's chest, and Jean matched it before he could stop himself. The pull of Marco nipping at his bottom lip, the tug of Marco's fingers in his hair - it was desperate and needy, but full of unspoken praise and reverence that Jean had never felt before. He could only assume it was a product of Marco's intoxication, but it laid a thick steam over his brain, keeping him right there in the moment, dizzy and delirious and craving
more. And Marco just kept stoking the flame.

It was a low hum, buzzing against Jean's flushed lips as Marco licked along the line of his teeth, stopping to bite Jean's lip again before returning to mouth along his jaw. It was a gasp, as Jean felt fingers inching under the hem of his shirt, pushing it up just a little, until warm hands could splay across the tense muscles beneath it. And it was a shaky, rattling breath, as heat ran down Jean's arched spine, and back up again to leave him shivering where he was perched, all but on top of Marco. It was every sound, every sense - everything but
thought - and Jean was lost in it.

Gasping for air he hadn't realized he was missing out on, he finally pulled away, the reality of what was happening washing over him, even as his hands roamed down Marco's sides automatically. When his mind began to clear, he looked to Marco for an explanation, for something to help him understand - to know that he wasn't the only one slipping to his drowning death in confusion. But Marco was silent, eyes closed and slumped back in his seat, a sleepy smile on his swollen, still-slick lips. Jean stared at them for a moment, as if they might part to speak reassurance to him, but none came. He hauled himself unceremoniously out of Marco's lap and was out the driver's side door and into the stinging chill of the evening air before he could let the discomfort settle in his chest.

"C-c'mon. Let's... get you upstairs." He said it as casually as he could manage, all but scooping Marco out of the passenger's seat and bracing him to stand as they hobbled up the stairs. Marco didn't say anything - didn't even have the decency to act embarrassed or flustered - he just laid his arm heavily across Jean's shoulders, his face pressed into Jean's neck as they finally made it to their floor.

Jean saw no sign of Bert or Reiner as they rounded the corner to head down the hall, but the short blonde woman he'd seen earlier - Reiner's 'pretty bird' - was a few paces behind he and Marco, a laundry basket tucked under her arm.

His first reaction was panic at the thought of anyone seeing Marco - and himself - the way they were, but her brow didn't so much as lift. She sat the basket down in front of Reiner and Bert's door, and turned back to Jean with a near-blank expression.

"Need a hand with your door?" she asked calmly, and Jean conceded with a nod. She let him lead, stepping in front of him only when they stood in front of his and Marco's door, and she took the offered keys and held the door open wide for them to stumble through. Once he'd gotten Marco safely onto his bed, Jean turned back to see her still standing there, face unchanged.

"If you need anything for him, I'm just down the hall for the night." It was hard to reconcile the genuine concern in her voice, coming from a mouth that didn't turn up into any kind of smile, but Jean offered her a weak one of his own, anyway.

"Yeah, alright. Thanks, uh..."

"Annie," she offered. "Goodnight." She gave him a nod and let the weight of the door closing behind her scoot her along, and only as she was nearly out of sight did Jean recognize the oversized flannel shirt hanging from her shoulders as one of Bertholdt's. A tiny part of his mind put forth the question of why she was apparently kissing Reiner earlier that evening, and traipsing around their dorm in Bert's clothing just a few hours later. Whose girlfriend was she? But that question was of minimal importance, in that moment; he had far more pressing things to worry about.

Like the mostly unconscious lump of roommate that was beginning to snore a few feet behind him. A lump that probably needed checking on, despite the fact that just sitting down next to him made Jean's face feel ten degrees warmer.

He pried Marco's shoes off, opting to let him sleep in the rest of his clothes, if for no other reason than to avoid having to peel them off of him. A blanket pulled haphazardly across his legs, Marco rolled over onto his stomach, and Jean prodded him back up onto his side, tucking a pillow beneath his head in the process. He sat for another long moment on Marco's bed, just watching the steady rise and fall of his breathing, until doing so began to make him feel the same awkward swirl of emotions he'd been caught up in when Marco kissed him. He patted Marco's arm and put space between them, shuffling back over to his own bed for the night.

It was probably foolish to believe that a few extra feet of distance would quiet the torrent of confusion in his mind. He slipped out of his own shoes, letting his pants hit the floor and lie beside them before wriggling under his blankets and rolling over to face the wall, determined not to give in to the urge to stare in Marco's direction.

Saying Marco wasn't attractive was a lie he hadn't bothered telling himself, even from the first moment he'd realized it. He'd never wanted to
act on it though, never given any serious thought to kissing him. He knew from experience that those kinds of thoughts didn't tend to get him anywhere good. But he hadn't needed to think - and apparently neither had Marco.

But Marco was drunk. Extremely so. And knowing that he had let things progress as far as they had with Marco being so far gone left Jean feeling more than a little uncomfortable. Marco had initiated things, sure. But Jean knew he should've stopped it sooner. And thinking of the inevitable conversation - if what happened wasn't something Marco actually
wanted - was even scarier than the thought of dealing with what it would mean for their friendship if it was.

Jean fell into a fitful sleep once his mind tired of thrashing in circles, keeping pace with his anxiously churning stomach. His eyes stung with unfallen tears of guilt and confusion, while his lips still tingled with the faint taste of someone else's. He hoped for dreams, if for no other reason than to show him just what it was he really wanted – he'd never been more unsure in his life. But a more dreamless sleep he couldn't remember.

--

Almost as soon as he'd opened his eyes to the irritatingly bright light of the next morning, Jean felt his chest tighten in panic. He sat bolt upright in bed, chancing a look over at Marco, who was still sound asleep. The memory of what had happened the night before - of how much he didn't know how to handle it - came flooding back, nearly robbing him of breath as it washed over him. How was he going to bring it up? What was he going to say? What was going to happen between them after this?

Snatching a pair of sweatpants off the floor, Jean tugged them on and headed quietly out the door to the showers. Maybe there, he could scrub away the confusion that still clung like Marco's scent to his skin. Or at least buy some time to think before Marco returned to the land of the living.

The showers were thankfully vacant. He started one and peeled off his shirt, wondering for a brief moment why the pants he wore clung so loosely to his hips, before stepping out of them and realizing with a sigh that they were actually Marco's. As if he wouldn't have
enough awkward explaining to do.

Stepping under the hot water, the tension in his shoulders melted away, and Jean tried desperately to rationalize everything. Really, all he would have to do to play the whole thing off would be to tell Marco he wasn't interested. People get drunk, and weird things happen, but it was nothing to tank a friendship over. The problem was, he didn't know how Marco felt. And he was no longer exactly sure how he felt about Marco.

It wasn't even a matter of
wanting him, he reasoned. He had been passively reminding himself that Marco was off limits for months, for a number of reasons. And his brain had never raised any argument. This was a matter of feeling wanted, like someone's first choice, for once in his life. He could still feel the memory of hands on his skin, arms heavy around him in that moment, wanting him. That much he could get used to.

He walked back to the dorm room wrapped in a towel, determined not to enter the room wearing Marco's pants. They were wadded into a ball with the rest of the clothes he'd brought with him, and he was glad for the empty hallway that kept anyone from seeing him in next to nothing. He had to save whatever scraps of dignity he had left.

Marco was fortunately still face down in his pillow when Jean stepped quietly through their door, but a quiet shuffle under the covers made it obvious that he was at least halfway awake. Jean tossed the ball of clothes onto the floor and gave them a swift kick, grabbing a pair of boxers from a stack of clean clothing he was
sure was his own. He pulled them on just in time for Marco to roll over, and exhaled a shaky greeting when Marco cracked open one eye.

"Hey."

"Hey," Marco mumbled, raising a hand weakly to wave in his direction.

"Rough night last night, huh?" It was all Jean could think to say. Perhaps if he was careful, he could coerce Marco into starting the trickier part of the 'about last night' discussion. Marco didn't seem wise to his game.

"God, yeah. My brain feels like wet cotton candy."

"Gross."

"Tell me about it." Marco pulled a pillow over his face and held it there for a moment, before peeking out to add, "I seriously can't remember half of what happened last night."

Jean sucked in a sharp breath, brakes slamming on his trail of thought. "Oh, yeah?"

Marco nodded, tossing the pillow aside."Yeah. It's like... everything after we left the party is just..." He shook his hands on either side of his head, then dragged both of them down his face. "Thanks for getting me up here and stuff, though. I was probably a total embarrassment to be around last night."

Jean stared at him for another split second, then shook his head automatically. "Nah, it was no big deal."

And it wasn't.

No one else saw anything happen. There would be no one for him to explain anything to later, nothing to make excuses for. His teammates hadn't seen him out, his friends hadn't seen him stumbling back in. Hell,
Marco didn't even remember what had happened, so it clearly wasn't anything to anyone.

It was
meaningless.

So
why couldn't Jean stop his mind from wandering back to the way Marco's face had looked inches from his own, or the way his lips tasted? Why couldn't he stop thinking about it?

He crossed the room to find a shirt, spying Marco's cell phone still lying on his table, a light flashing in the corner. "By the way, here's your phone."

Marco rubbed his eyes and sat up to reach for it. "Oh, yeah - thanks."

Jean watched him prod at the screen for a moment, alternating which eye he kept closed to keep the irritating brightness from furthering his headache. "Miss anything monumental?"

"Auruo must've gotten lonely last night," Marco said sourly. "Three
'come see me this week' texts just since yesterday."

Jean turned away and absently shuffled things around on his desk, digging into his mother's latest care package to keep from grilling Marco too hard. "So - you gonna?"

"I dunno," Marco shrugged. "Probably shouldn't. Probably will." He sighed loud enough that it hid the snap of the cookie Jean held in his hand. "I'm predictable garbage."

"Garbage, no. But definitely predictable." Jean kicked Marco's foot and forced a smile. "So - pizza or burgers today?"

"Definitely burgers," Marco grinned. "With bacon and cheese, preferably."

Jean made a few gagging noises just to pull a laugh out of Marco, only backing off when Marco winced at what was probably a pretty nasty headache. He busied himself with rifling through papers, cleaning out his planner and answering his mom's increasingly frantic missed messages from the night before - anything to keep himself from feeling the sinking in his chest at the thought of Marco going back to Auruo. It was a feeling he assured himself had everything to do with him wanting the best for his friend - and nothing to do with anything he might have wanted for himself.

By any form of logic he'd previously know, Jean should have wanted to disappear, to get as far away from the dorm as possible for the day, and leave Marco alone to nurse what would no doubt be a hellacious hangover. But he didn't. He couldn't even imagine himself anywhere else, doing anything other than spending his day making sure Marco was alright.

Because the one thing he
did know - even if he didn't exactly know why - was that despite anything and everything, he just wanted to be wherever Marco was.

And that was enough, for then.

 

Chapter Text

It was jarring, how quickly things returned to some semblance of ‘normal’. That had become an exceptionally relative term in the months since his junior year had begun, but the way things almost immediately fell back into whatever the hell their place even was was almost startling. It was as if nothing was out of the ordinary, nothing had happened.

Jean didn't try to go against the flow of it, for fear of drowning in the current.

It took all of forty-eight hours before Marco was fully back on his feet, and stumbling back into their dorm at an obscene hour of the night. Jean's stomach bypassed turning and did a wrenching full flip at the knowledge that Marco had walked right back into Auruo's undeserving arms, but he wouldn't let himself mention it. He had no better option to suggest, and the nagging guilt of his own actions when Marco had been heartbroken and drunk kept him from saying anything about the fact that being single would be better than being with a complete asshole.

It was Marco's problem, a problem he was choosing for himself. Jean stomped down the protective feelings that prickled at his chest every time Marco mentioned his boyfriend's name, trying desperately to be more like the friend Marco deserved. He couldn't make Marco's decisions for him, but he could offer some sort of comfort when they bit him in the ass. Marco would do the same for him.

If Jean ever actually
had dates to complain about.

As it was, his love life was still in neutral, with the most action he'd seen all semester being a quickly forgotten, accidental kiss with his inebriated best friend. There weren't exactly people standing in line for him, and the one girl he was interested in had taken to pointedly avoiding contact with him, probably afraid of another clumsy attempt at getting her number. It was pretty evident that Jean wasn't getting anywhere, on that particular street. He didn't even want to consider the rest of the map; it was just more trouble than it was worth.

Other people had social lives; Jean had baseball.


For all of its stressors, it had always filled a void in his life. Whether it was the unyielding ache in his chest after his father had passed away, or the dull, gnawing pain of his loneliness, the game was always there. It was his pastime, his social outlet, the career he'd aimed for since he was still wearing braces and dreading his Bar Mitzvah. It wasn't the default, masculine obsession of his peers - baseball was just always there - part of his identity - ever present in his consciousness.

At least on the field, he knew exactly where he stood. He knew his place.

It was more than he could say for the rest of his life.

But he wasn't jealous of the people who had it all figured out, exactly. He would have liked to have time for a social life, to possess the elusive ability to ask people out with tripping over his own tongue - but he didn't envy those that did. Mostly because one of those people was Marco, and try as he might, Jean couldn't bring himself to desire the life Marco led. It was busier even than his, somehow, and full of drama of the literal and figurative senses that Jean was happy to sidestep for the most part. But Marco always squeezed in time to talk, time for him, time for
them. Jean was glad to find him in their dorm when he returned from checking the mail on an otherwise quiet Saturday morning.

"Mom sent more snacks." He pulled out the bag marked 'Marco' and waved it before tossing. "Hope you like oatmeal. Heads up."

"That woman is an angel," Marco grinned, prying it open before he'd even taken a moment to sit down. He crammed a cookie into his mouth and sighed, mumbling around crumbs. "She gonna be at any of your games, comin' up?"

Jean frowned at the mess Marco was making, but elected to ignore it for the time being. "Nah, she usually doesn't come to too many. She's not much for traveling. Although she'll probably be at one or two closer to my birthday. Usually falls during spring break, so I have more time to show her around and stuff."

Marco finished off another cookie in a single bite and smiled. "That's sweet."

Prodding about his mother was usually a quick way to set Jean on edge, but Marco had long since proven to be nothing but sincere in his curiosity. His tone didn't hold so much as a hint of teasing, and Jean had to down a handful of cookies himself to keep his lip from doing the odd quiver it did if he thought too long about its warmth. He tossed a cookie in Marco's direction, sure that he couldn't do much more damage to the crumb-covered floor than his roommate already had.

"Why, though - you wantin' to meet her? She's taken too, y'know."

Marco glared at him for all of half a second, before his eyes raised again. "Oh yeah? New thing?"

Jean nodded. "Yeah. She and my head coach, actually." It was odd, acknowledging it aloud, so casually. But Marco was a great litmus test for those kinds of conversations. He was too busy plucking the cookie out of the floor between their beds to act the least bit shocked.

"Really? S'at weird, or..?"

"Not really." Jean watched him eat the cookie, trying not to outright retch in disgust. When he shook his head, Marco just gave him a lopsided grin, and he sighed for lack of a composed response. "Whatever makes 'em happy, I guess."

"Right. But yeah, I mean - I wanted to at least say hello if she was gonna be in town at some point."

"I'll see what I can rig up. You planning on coming to games?"

"Maybe some," Marco shrugged, stretching over the side of his bed to grab a hoodie from the floor. He pulled it on and then looked back at Jean, voice slow with hesitation. "Why? That...
not something I should do?"

Jean shook his head automatically. "Just a surprise, honestly. Didn't think you liked sports."

"Never said I did," Marco said quietly, but he seemed to think better of saying anything more on the topic. "But it's something to do, right? I could use a little change up in my routine now and then."

Jean nodded and stretched across his bed, arm coming to rest across his closed eyes. "I hear that."

"Speaking of routines, I guess I'd better scoot." Marco shuffled to his feet, maybe a little more eager to get out of the room than was strictly necessary. "But I'll be back tonight. Thank your mom for the snacks, okay?"

He was out the door not a second later, Jean offering a lazy wave after him.

Thinking on it without Marco's proximity to cloud his head, Jean wasn't altogether sure that he
wanted Marco to come to his games. Marco was more of an unwitting distraction than ever, now that Jean knew what it was like to be pressed up against him, could remember what he sounded like, sighing Jean's name. Those kinds of thoughts lingered right at the edge of Jean's consciousness, pushed as far away as Jean could keep them with Marco so often right in front of him. And they were certainly not the kind of things he needed to be thinking about while in uniform.

Not to mention the fact that he'd surely catch hell from some of the other players if they spotted Marco in the stands. He was the kind of person it was impossible to miss, impossible for Jean not to smile back at - and just one of those involuntary grins could be enough to spark a week's worth of shit from Thomas and his cronies. Jean didn't like the idea of dealing with more of that than he needed to, but more than that, he didn't like the thought of letting
Marco unknowingly walk into it.

But there was still a basic and very loudly insistent part of him that
wanted Marco there. He wanted to glance up at the crowd of spectators and see a familiar face. He wanted to know someone was there just for him, and for no other reason. Jean wanted that - and if he was honest with himself, he wanted that person to be Marco.

He didn't let his mind linger too long on the subject of
why. In the end, it didn't matter. He wouldn't allow it to.


--



ALUMNI GAME

The bold-lettered banners hung from every available space in the perimeter of the stadium. It was the first game of the season, the celebration of players past and present, more about pomp and pageantry than actual sport. And it was just the kind of thing that Jean loathed about collegiate athletics.

To say that he didn't enjoy the
spectacle wasn't entirely accurate. It was nice, the way the fans and the staff acknowledged and admired the players on that day. But the scrutiny they were under the moment play began - thousands of extra eyes, extra voices shouting when they weren't at peak performance - was the stuff of unfiltered anxiety. He was glad for the extra hours he'd clocked on the track in the off season; more hustle meant less people yelling in his general direction.

Playing the field was admittedly easier than ever with a second baseman like Armin. He was almost as fast as Jean, and had a surprisingly strong and
accurate arm. And the guy knew the theory of the game well enough to teach it. They didn't speak much, but Armin seemed to know what Jean was going to do before he did. It was welcome - just not quite enough that Jean was compelled to stop and chat between innings.

The game was over well before the sun set, and as the people began to leave, Jean considered slipping out with the rush, skipping dressing out altogether. He opted instead for a leisurely lap around the edge of the field, to kill time until the stands had cleared, slowing to a stop when he spotted a familiar face. Marco was propped on his elbows, looking out over the divider, waiting.

"Hey, Broadway. You actually showed up."

Marco leaned over the metal railing, smiling down at him with that incandescent grin that rivaled the afternoon sun. "Never been one to say no to hot guys in uniform."

Jean snorted. "These guys aren't exactly first round picks, looks-wise." He motioned over his shoulder at the dirty, sweaty mess of humanity still clearing the field. Marco shrugged.

"Maybe not all of 'em."

"You're terrible," Jean laughed.

Marco tapped the steel banister twice, the sound ringing in the emptying stands. "Gotta have an excuse for being here, right?"

Jean nodded. "If you say so." He reached up to clap his gloved hand against Marco's, letting it linger where it hit against his fingers. "And hey - thanks."

Marco squeezed his leather-clad fingers and smiled. "Anytime."

He didn't stay long; from the way he was dressed and the bag he carried, Jean could tell he had places to be afterward. But he'd
been there, and regardless of his previous apprehension, Jean couldn't even articulate how grateful he was for that.

Thankfully, with Marco, he knew he'd never really have to.


--


The steady rhythm of the on season was comfortable for Jean. Knowing that he had somewhere to be and something to do helped direct his days, and kept him from letting his thoughts dwell too long in one place. It didn't leave much time for socialization, but Jean was more than content with the small scraps of free time he did get.

He spent most of that down time in the dorm. Studying, resting and occasionally venturing online to respond to backed up notifications on social media - those were his pastimes when he wasn't on the field, most of them done with Marco somewhere nearby. Rarely did he have time to do much else, but when he did, it was nice to vent some of his latent frustration and clear his head in the cool outside air.

Keeping it clear very long was impossible though, with his usual running partner around around. But Jean knew that well in advance of heading to the track, and found himself there anyway.

"You actually manage to get laid the other night, shortstop? Or'd you step on your own dick again?"

Ymir matched pace with him, and Jean didn't bother speeding up, despite his eyes rolling out of habit.

"Yeah, good to see you too, Ymir."

"You not shadowing roomie today, then?"

Jean huffed.
"Roomie is busy with his asshole boyfriend. Who is not me, by the way."

Ymir pouted, voice pitched high like a whine. "Aww, and I thought for sure when you said 'asshole'..."

"Real funny." They breezed past a block of other runners, and Jean was fairly certain he spotted Reiner's friend Annie among them. The sight jogged his memory. "So anyway, your girlfriend's... a character."

Ymir's steps faltered slightly. "Yeah. Yeah, she definitely is." There was a momentary slip in her ironclad, near-caustic demeanor, a crack in the impervious wall of woman Jean had come to know. But then it was gone, her lips pulled back into their usual smirk. "You jealous?"

"She's not what I expected, I'll say that."

"S'what everybody says." Ymir mumbled breathlessly. "She embarrasses the shit outta me sometimes. It's like she can't make up her mind who she is, exactly." Her vulnerability showing again, Ymir was silent for a long moment, the only sound from her the noise of her feet falling in rhythm on the pavement as they ran. She drew a sharp, shaky breath and continued, slipping back behind her confident facade.
"Actresses, I guess. But hey - she's hot."

"Mm. Romantic."

"You need to tone down that jealousy, shortstop." Ymir barked a laugh, head thrown back as if letting the tension of the earlier topic shake from her tied up hair. "Unlike you, I know when to pounce to get what I want. 'M also not afraid to admit that I'm gay."

"Yeah, and you also don't play a men's sport," Jean snapped. "You've got no idea how damned dangerous that shit is. I could ruin my chances of bein' picked up. Softball isn't exactly as bad."

"Maybe not, but --
hey, wait just a damned second - are you tellin' me that's the only reason you're not puttin' it to your roomie? Oh my god, you do wanna--"

"What?!
No!" Jean shouted, tossing his hands to either side in exasperation. "I was just saying in general! God, how do you always get me to say shit like that? Why do I even talk to you?"

Ymir grinned. "We just don't know."

"You're an ass." Jean grumbled a few more insults under his breath and lengthened his stride, passing her without looking back. Behind him, she shouted through breathy cackling.

"Keep runnin' from your own bullshit, shortstop! Gotta keep that hustle goin'!"


--



The season hit full swing in the first weeks of February, and Jean found himself in the familiar routine of traveling with the team. Though he enjoyed the solitude that the empty seat beside him on the bus afforded, it made it all the easier to see everyone else crowded in chattering clumps. Eren and Armin sat a few rows up most of the time, just close enough that Jean could overhear bits and pieces of their easy flowing conversation. Thomas and the guys he ran with - Samuel, Nack, Mylius, sometimes Franz, when they suckered him into putting up with them - were usually crammed in the back, growing louder and more grating with each bus ride. Jean was glad for his headphones, and the phone they stayed plugged into.

Marco's name was usually the one making his phone vibrate, keeping him company from hundreds of miles away. Jean knew he had other things that he was surely doing, but that never seemed to slow down their conversations; the bus, the locker rooms, the hotels - Marco went everywhere with him.

Come the first game of the month back on home soil, Marco was there, too. He sat in the middle of the crowd, deliberately unobtrusive in his positioning, but once Jean knew he was there, he was impossible to miss. Jean's attention was equally divided between the stands and the field, and to say he didn't play his best game would've been a massive understatement. Still, Armin did a fairly decent job of grabbing whatever slack Jean left, and they pulled off a comfortable win. Marco didn't stay to chat afterward, but knowing he'd been there had Jean smiling, even as he taped up a sore ankle after dressing out. Nothing was heavy enough to weigh down the corners of his lips.

At least for a little while.

"Awfully nice of your boyfriend to show up, Kirschtein."

Jean looped the tape once more around his ankle and tore it sharply, tucking it as he glared up at Thomas approaching, flanked by his usual crowd.

"He's
still just my roommate, Wagner."

"So'd he just come to stare at the rest of us, then?" Thomas scoffed, and a few of the boys behind him snickered. Jean laughed tersely under his breath.

"Might have - if you were worth starin' at."

The chorus of conflicted sounds around them after that was nothing short of entertaining; the guys didn't seem to know whether to hiss at Jean's searing comment or retch at the implication of another man staring at them. It only seemed to make Thomas angrier.

He grabbed Jean by the loose fabric at the front of his jersey, pulling him roughly to his feet before pushing him away again. "Why don't you tell your roommate to keep his fuckin' candy ass away from the stadium. The rest of us don't want him hangin' around, watchin' people." He stepped into Jean's space, grabbing him by the sleeve again and sneering.
"You might be into that, but we're not."

It might have gone further - Jean's fingers were curled into a fist before he even realized what he was doing - but there was a shout, a boom of a voice that pried the two of them apart as if it had laid hands on them.

"Wagner!"

Thomas looked up, still glowering, and Jean followed his angry gaze to where Mike stood a few yards away. He laid a hard look over both of them, and Jean felt Thomas's fingers slip from the fabric of his shirt. Nothing more was said, but Wagner straightened himself and spat at the ground between them, throwing Jean one last glare before turning to leave with his pack. They laughed like jackals as soon as they were out of sight, and the sound just rubbed salt in the wound left by Jean's coach -
his mother's boyfriend - having to come to his rescue.

He hauled his bag up onto his shoulder, and turned to head out of the stadium, in no mood to pause to offer Mike his gratitude.

Turning down the dimly lit halls beneath the stands, Jean heard the echoes of Thomas and the others, and slowed his steps to avoid them. Footsteps somewhere behind him grew louder, and their sound was nearly on top of him before he realized it was intentional. He stopped where he stood and turned to see Eren, crossing the last few feet to catch up to him.

"Hey," he said, as if talking to Jean was the most
natural thing in the world for him to be doing. Further down the hall, Jean could see Armin, loitering. "Those guys givin' you shit again?"

"Nothing I can't handle. Why do you care?"

Eren shrugged, arms crossed. "We
have been friends for two years now."

"S'at what you call it?"

"And we're
teammates," he said resolutely, ignoring Jean's venom. "Look, I just wanted to be sure you were alright. Seems like Wagner's really been riding your ass lately, and I didn't know if... there was something up."

"It's just some shit they were saying about my roommate," Jean sighed, not sure that side stepping the truth was even worth the effort. "They don't know about..."

Eren was one of only a handful of people in Jean's life that he
didn't have to finish that sentence for. He was half the reason for the words left unsaid. Maybe that's why the conversation was so damned uncomfortable.

"But don't worry about it. It happens." Jean tried to shrug it off, anxious to get out from under Eren's familiar stare. Eren was less willing to let it go.

"It shouldn't."

"Well it
does, and you know that's not gonna change."

"Not if no one tries to change it." He threw an arm up on one side of Jean, propping himself on it so that he hovered in front of him, stopping him where he stood. His other hand came to rest on Jean's arm, squeezing. Jean looked down at him and bit his lip to keep it steady.

"Why do you
care so much?"

"It's my problem too. For a lot of reasons." His fingers tightened over Jean's arm, just enough that Jean could feel the nervous twitch in them. He pulled away.

"Then you should know by now that there's no fixing it."

He tugged his bag tighter over his shoulder and ducked from under Eren's looming stance, offering a curt nod in Armin's direction and quickly leaving them both behind.



--



A distant roll of thunder punctuated an otherwise silent walk back to the dorm. Jean ignored it, ignored the way his legs burned from nearly sprinting, ignored
everything other than the thought of being able to close his dorm room door behind him and lock out the anxieties that felt like they were following him, like the storm clouds closing in overhead.

As soon as he'd made it inside, he did just that, not so much as bothering to glance Marco's way until he'd tossed his bags to the floor and flopped down on his bed. Just knowing Marco was there was comfort enough. But when he did finally raise his eyes,
comfort wasn't the feeling he was immediately met with.

Marco was shuffling through the narrow excuse for a closet that dented the wall on his side of the room, stretching to reach something behind the hanging coats and costumes pieces and singing quietly to himself as he did. His headphones in place, his phone was tucked into the folded waistband of his black pants - pants so snug, they apparently didn't even have room for pockets.

The tendency Marco had to dance in place might have been a theatre thing. Maybe it was a Brazilian thing. It might have just been a
Marco thing. Either way, it was a thing that was hard to look away from, even as warning sounds echoed in Jean's head. There was no shirt to hide the way the muscles of his back moved as he danced, the way his pants threatened to roll lower with every sway. Jean ran down an extensive list of the most boring baseball terminology he could bring to mind, but it wasn't enough of a distraction. It took Marco turning around for Jean to finally break his eyes away, only then aware enough of his ogling to be embarrassed by it.

Whether Marco noticed Jean's staring or not was unclear; he was too busy taking note of the heaviness still lingering on Jean's features. He popped one earbud out and frowned.

"What's wrong?"

"It's - it was--" Jean hesitated for all of a second, and then let his answer tumble out with an exasperated sigh. "Eren."

The fact that he'd answered so quickly – answered at all – gave Marco obvious pause. It was only when Marco took a seat, a grave expression on his face, that Jean realized with a start that he was entirely out of the habit of using Eren's name, for any reason. The significance wasn't lost on Marco. He perched on the corner of his desk, hands folded nervously in his lap.

"Oh. Did he, uh...
bother you?"

Jean palmed at his face, shaking his head behind his splayed hand. "Basically the opposite, actually. Was like... checkin' up on me today. All friendly."

"Well that's good, then."

"It's fucking
weird, is what it is." He dropped his chin into his open hand, staring hard at the wall across from him. "How can he just be okay? How can he find his chill, and I still can't?" Marco was leaning back, only half sitting on his desk, rocking slightly and looking back at Jean with a soft, sympathetic expression. Jean swallowed and returned his eyes to the wall, voice still brittle, on the edge of breaking. "When you've... done that kinda stuff with someone - how do you just..?"

"I'm not exactly sure of what to say," Marco confessed. "I've never really had a problem with any of my exes."

Jean looked up, jaw hard set and glaring. "He's not my
ex. I didn't mean shit to him."

"I really don't think that's true." Marco's voice was still soft, but there was a quiet insistence in his tone. "It's obvious that he cares about you, even now. Look, I'm not saying he did nothing wrong. But I think there's a lot of miscommunication going on with the two of you. If you could just clear it up--"

"He had
two years to clear that up, Marco. Two fucking years."

"I know, I know.. Like I said - he's not without fault. But... sometimes people just
do things. In the heat of the moment, y'know? Happens to everybody. Doesn't make it right, but--"

"That's bullshit," Jean snapped.
"I'm not that kind of person. I only do that kind of thing if I mean it." He wasn't sure, but it seemed like Marco's eyes widened at that, just a bit. There was a beat of silence between them, just long enough for Jean to feel a peal of dread that he'd said something wrong, but then Marco shrugged and cleared his throat.

"Well everyone's different."

Jean let out a long sigh, shaky with an edge of relief. "Maybe. Nobody's differences seem to match up with mine, though. I'd say you're lucky to have somebody, but I wouldn't exactly mean it, given that your boyfriend seems like a complete--"

"Yeah, well..." Marco quickly interjected. "How are things with Mikasa?"

Jean stared back at him for a moment, consciously letting him shift uncomfortably under the scrutiny in repayment for the can of worms he was opening with that particular topic. Finally, he dropped backward onto his bed with a dramatic sigh, and he could hear Marco breathing similarly.

"Still somewhere between 'she has no idea I'm alive' and 'she hates my ass entirely'."

Marco clicked his tongue impatiently. "She doesn't
hate you. She just doesn't know you."

"And you honestly think she'd like me if she
did?"

"Yes!"

It came out as something like a shout, Marco's hands tossed in the air in front of him like he was making an entirely obvious point. Jean chewed on the inside of his lip, trying to figure out how to respond, but in the time it took, Marco seemed to give up waiting, shaking his head and flopping down onto his own bed. Jean scowled in his direction, maybe a little bitter.

"Don't know how much of
your dating advice I should take. What do you know about women?"

"I know about
people," Marco frowned. "And you don't have to take my advice. Or be an ass about it."

If he had sounded the least bit angry, Jean might have bristled in defense. Instead he just looked hurt, and after another long moment of silence, Jean wordlessly admitted defeat. "Alright, mister
people skills. Advise me."

Marco's lips lifted into the beginnings of a smile, but he rubbed his hand over his mouth as if to hide it. "Like I said, if you'd just put your best foot forward when you're around her, she'd see your worth. It's kinda hard to miss." The hand hiding his mouth made a pass over his entire face, like whatever needed concealing was spreading across his cheeks. He raked it through his hair and shrugged, offering Jean an optimistic smile. "Just be yourself."

Jean rolled his eyes. "Ok, but
realistically?"

"I'll help you," Marco conceded. Finally, Jean cracked a smile.

"Now
that's more like it. Speaking of which, I've got some ridiculous homework for my communications class, and I'll probably die if I have to do it with a random-ass classmate. Think you can spare an hour or two to help?"

Marco heaved a half-hearted sigh. "I have practice in just a bit, but if you can wait until afterward, I'll see about moving some things around so I can help. Coffee's on you, though."

Jean nodded, then narrowed his eyes in disbelief. "Since when do
you drink coffee?"

"Since I got a lazy ass roommate that keeps me up half the night helping him study." Marco grinned back at him, wide and warm enough that it sparked a smile on Jean's face, too. "Guess you're rubbing off on me."

"Yeah? How long before I have you drinking it black?"

Marco grimaced dramatically. "There are a lot of things I'd do for you, Jean. But
that's not one of them."

"You ate a cookie off of the
floor."

"And you regularly put raw fish in your mouth - are we really having this argument right now?" He raised his handful of dirty laundry like he might throw it at Jean, probably just to watch him flinch. "See you after practice, alright?"

With that he was gone, leaving Jean still laughing under his breath, awash in reflection.

Marco was so
good.

Good at everything, good to everyone. Faults, floor cookies and all, he was just good. And just thinking about the smile he'd thrown Jean's way before walking out the door left Jean feeling warm to the tips of his fingers.

Why was Marco so patient with him? He couldn't recall a single filed memory of himself doing something to truly
deserve his friend's kindness, his endless tolerance - but his mind did offer him the realization that he'd repaid Marco's permissive nature by taking advantage of him, on more than one occasion. The swirling chant of 'not good enough' began its crescendo in his head, but he shook it away.

Marco never asked for anything in return. He built Jean up from every angle, and Jean wouldn't let his own insecurity undo the work that Marco had done. It was work that
he had done too, in learning to value himself, if only a little.

He slid his phone from his pocket, and pulled up a saved tab on his browser. He knew that there was no debt that he could feasibly repay in his friendship with Marco. But he could see what was on special at Starbucks for the month, and buy his best friend a drink that might come somewhere close to matching him in sweetness.



Chapter Text

February was a chilly month, even in Southern California.

Though Jean could never remember trudging through the snow his mother always talked about dealing with back in New York, he dealt with more than his fair share of frigid rain, there in Fullerton. Walking to class was an absolute nightmare, with the wind too strong and the sun too weak. It made him infinitely thankful for the brevity of the California winter.

Things on the baseball field weren’t much better, but at least there, he was too busy, too focused to notice how much the weather sucked. The first weeks of their season were slipping by without major incident, save for a few scrapes with Thomas and a few more awkward half-conversations with Eren. If there was anyone who knew how to properly stay the hell away from Jean and allow him the space he needed, it was Armin, and Jean found himself increasingly – if not begrudgingly – thankful for that. He could do without Armin’s habit of blowing and popping bubbles with his chewing gum on the field, but the day he realized that that was his chief remaining complaint with Armin was the day he came to terms with the fact that he didn’t really hate the guy, anymore. And that maybe he’d never had reason to, in the first place.

One thing that offered a break from the grinding pace of ‘class, homework, practice, game, repeat’ was the timing of Jean’s mother’s birthday, which fell toward the end of the month. He always carved out time to make a trip home for a few days to celebrate with her, and thankfully his game schedule always allowed for it. He had to take that time out of the middle of a regular week to avoid missing games, but missing a class was a small sacrifice, especially given how listless he’d become in actually participating in his courses. Jean was only a junior, and he had worse senioritis than Marco.

Marco himself was one of the only things Jean missed about being on campus when he was away, and he even lingered an extra hour on Monday night, just to catch Marco before he left. Marco seemed glad for that, and promised to stay in Jean’s pocket the way he always did when Jean was traveling. Jean’s phone was buzzing before he even made it onto the highway for his drive home, and he smiled the whole way there.

Lynnette met him at the door, with dinner already on the table and wine ready to pour. There was contented silence for a little while as they ate, Jean glad for home-cooked food and a pause in the unrelenting beat of life. His mother beamed at the way he happily sighed between bites.

She hesitated for a moment when Jean pushed the serving plate toward her for seconds.

“Probably shouldn’t. Doctor Cash has been on me about my levels lately, blood pressure and cholesterol. Keeps wanting me to go on medication for them – as if I didn’t feel old enough, already.” She chuckled and tucked a loose wisp of hair behind her ear, shaking her head. “She doesn’t take much for an excuse, but I think she’ll understand a birthday dinner.”

“It does only come around once a year,” Jean laughed. Lynnette raised her glass in agreement and laughed around a small sip of wine.

"So, no good stories from Valentine's Day this year?" She asked. It was the inevitable question, casual though it was. Jean shook his head.

"Same as always," he shrugged. "Spent half my day on a dirt diamond, the other half holed up in a room full of idiots." He looked up from the food he was pushing around his plate to offer her a tight smile. "Sorry to disappoint."

Lynnette patted the back of his hand. "You never disappoint me, sweetheart. Besides, I hear your cousins have more than enough gossip to go around for the entire family."

"Hitch?"

"And Emily. One's running off and getting married in Europe somewhere, the other's apparently been hiding some older man from her parents. Makes me glad I had a boy so I don't have to listen to your aunts any more than I already do."

Jean laughed darkly. "Yeah. All you've gotta deal with is 'when's he gonna find a nice girl, when's he gettin' married?' “ His impression of his aunts’ accents was enough to make his mother giggle. Jean smiled too, shaking his head. “I'm sure that's tons of fun to put up with."

Lynnette raised her glass and shrugged. "After twenty some years, you get used to it."

"You're a national hero, mom."

"Glad you think so, sweetheart." She settled back into prodding at her food, a beat of silence passing before she picked the conversation back up. "So I'm assuming that means no wedding in the near future."

Jean groaned. "Ah, c'mon - not you, too."

"I am still your mom, you know. I just wonder."

"No wedding plans,” he groused. “Probably ever, to be honest. But definitely not any time soon."

"Alright, well - you do know you can talk to me if that changes. Or if it doesn't. I just like to know what's going on with you."

"Yeah, yeah mom. Just - I got nothin' to talk about, alright?"

"Okay, sweetheart." She didn’t press him – she never did. The only thing she pushed was the serving platter back toward him with a patient smile. "More potatoes?"

Jean sat back slightly in his chair and let slip a relaxed sigh, reaching to pull the tray the rest of the way across the table. If there was anything that slightly dulled the ache of his painfully uneventful personal life, it was the stillness of home, and his mother’s delicious food.

"Please."


--

 

Being at home meant rest for Jean’s tired feet, a hot bath if he wanted one instead of a quick shower, and of course, cooking.

Baking, specifically. After an offhand mention of how much his roommate had enjoyed her cookies, Lynnette got the idea for the two of them to spend an afternoon preparing some more for Jean to take back with him. He was never one to say no to time spent with his mom in any fashion, but pulling out the wooden spoons and stand mixer – his stand mixer, to be exact – was among his favorite uses of that time.

"What kind of drugs do you put in these, woman?"

He popped a clump of sweet, crumbly, unbaked dough into his mouth, not bothering to hide the elated sigh that escaped him when he did. It was hamantashen cookie dough, the makings of his favorite dessert, and so good that he couldn’t even wait until it was folded around fruit filling and baked. Jean wasn’t usually one to talk with his mouth full – he constantly hounded Marco to stop doing so when they ate together – but this was a worthy exception.

He mumbled around a mouthful of almost-cookie. "They're not even baked and I think I've eaten half a dozen."

"Family secret." Lynnette shook her wooden spoon and winked at him. Jean frowned.

"I'm family," he grumbled, mouth finally empty enough to speak without crumbs hitting the floor. "And I don't know the secret."

Lynnette nodded and handed him a tattered recipe book, tightening her apron. "Well, it's about time you learned."

 

They made three batches of the hamantashen cookies, and a double batch of two other snacks, on the basis of ‘teaching Jean how’. He wasn’t entirely sure he remembered the details of any of the recipes once they’d finished all the batters, but he certainly knew which ones he was going to take the time to write down. Although he’d have to make a note not to make quite so many, without someone to help him eat them.

Baking was never a small project for Lynnette, especially if it was in preparation for Jean leaving again. She always insisted on sending him with enough cookies and pastries to stock a small pantry, and despite his particular eating habits, he’d never been able to complain about it. After they’d popped the first batch of cookies into the oven and prepped half a dozen pans to bake afterward, she leaned back against the kitchen counter and hummed happily, satisfied with their progress. Jean wiped his flour dusted hands on his jeans on reflex, grimacing when he realized what he’d done, but too high on the smell of baking pastries to worry for too long.


"Now if I only had an oven in the dorm," he grinned when he pulled the first pan from the oven, replacing it with the next. "I could make these crack cookies myself."

Lynnette smiled, watching him as he stared impatiently at the cooling cookies. "When you get your first place, you can make a batch to celebrate."

"Thanks for teaching me," Jean said, prying a steaming cookie from the pan and juggling it between his hands until it cooled enough to hold properly. "And… for putting up with my shit, in general."

"Anytime, sweetheart." She went about clearing the countertop, shuffling dishes into the sink, but she spoke with a voice that was raised just enough that Jean could hear her above the clatter. "And I mean that. You know you can talk to me about anything, right? You don't have to, but if there's ever something bothering you, or you just want to talk, I'm a phone call away."

"I know, mom. I--" Jean dropped back onto his elbows on the counter, eyeing the cookies for another long moment before plucking another one from the pan, stuffing it into his mouth still hot, as if to try to stop himself saying anything more. It didn’t work. "There is this... girl."

Lynnette nodded, turning around to lean back against the counter opposite Jean. She folded a small towel in her hands and looked at him, the picture of patience. "Do you want to tell me about ‘this girl’? Like I said, you don't have--"

"No, it's not that I - it's just kind of a stupid story, really. I'm stupid, I mean."

"You're not stupid, Jean." There was something more than motherly in her tone, something that made Jean feel level with her - and made him want to level with her. "Now - tell me about this girl."

"She's my ex roommate's sister. Really nice girl. Really pretty, really smart. Really not interested in me at all."

"I see."

Jean gave a long, frustrated sigh, because when it came to Mikasa, words just weren’t something he could make work. "And I'm just... hung up on her, I guess. It’s kinda hopeless, though. I keep tryin' to talk to her and it just gets me nowhere." He pressed the heel of his hand into his closed eyes; unseen, his mother made a stifled sort of huff.

"Are you sure it’s her you’re hung up on?”

Jean rubbed his eyes again and then stared back at her, confused. "I mean… yeah? There's no one else. What do you mean?"

Lynnette’s face was soft with something more like concern than sympathy. "I mean is it her, or the idea of her? Is she connected to something or someone that makes you interested? Or is it just her, as a person?"

"Her, I guess?" Jean shrugged. "I just... think about her a lot. About how things would be if we dated. I mean, maybe it is just seeing the other guys on the team with girlfriends in the stands, but - Mikasa's great. Perfect. She just... doesn't think that I'm that great, apparently."

"Then you shouldn't waste your time waiting around until she figures it out."

"Mom."

"I mean that, Jean.” She pulled the finished tray of cookies from the oven, resetting the timer and motioning for another to replace it with. “You don't have to wear yourself out running after people that won't even take the time to look back at you. You'll never find what you really want that way."

"Well it's not like people are jumping in line to look my way, mom." Jean handed her another tray of unbaked cookies. "But I am starting to think the whole love thing is bullshit, at least for me. Seems like the more I search, the less I find."

“Love isn't about searching. You don't find it - you happen upon it. You just look up one day, and there it is. Right in front of you.” She reached out and pinched the tip of his nose, and he only lightly swatted her away. She grinned. “A person that’s worth your love will be someone who loves you the way you are right now, and still loves you twenty years from now, when you’re entirely different. You don’t have to go looking for them, or looking to change yourself to find them – they’ll meet you right where you are.”

"You sound like my roommate,” Jean sighed. Lynnette’s smile broadened.

"Then he sounds like a smart boy."

Jean nodded automatically, unable to stop a smile from tugging at the corner of his lips. "He's pretty alright, yeah."

"You two still getting along well?" Lynnette asked, turning her back on him to start on the dishes in the sink. "You don't say much about him, but I just assume no news is good news."

"Yeah, things are fine. Great, actually. Most of the time, anyway."

"Dorm life has its ups and downs," she said with a glance over her shoulder. "You seem to like him, though."

"Yeah. I mean, he's a walking disaster that never wears a shirt, but yeah. I do."

Lynnette smiled. "I'm glad."

In the soft silence that settled between them, Jean seriously contemplated mentioning more about Marco to his mother. Not that he wanted her to know everything exactly, but if there was anyone who would hear him out on how frustrating – and frustratingly attractive – his roommate could be, it would be Lynnette. But the words wouldn’t come. He chewed on them for a few moments, waiting for them to feel right, before giving up and simply swallowing them instead. The intent to share them lingered, bittersweet on his tongue as he chased them with a change of topic.

"So what about you, mom? We just gonna talk about my sad excuse for a love life, or are you gonna tell me how things are goin' with the coach?"

"Things are lovely," she said, not looking up from scrubbing the mixing bowl. "He's a very nice man."

Jean moved to stand beside her, taking the washed dish from her hands to dry. She let him without hesitation. "Good. As long as he's good to you, and makes you happy, that's awesome."

"He does, sweetheart. You don't need to worry about me." She handed him another dish, stopping to pat his arm before returning to her task.

"I mean, I'm not worried, exactly." Jean stopped, turning to face her fully. "I know you won't take shit from him, or anything. I just... haven't seen you happy in a while. With someone, I mean. Since... since dad. Guess I didn't expect it. Not that I'm not happy for you guys."

"I can't say I saw it coming, either,” she conceded, stopping what she was doing as well, taking the towel he offered her to dry her hands before using them to prop herself against the edge of the sink. "Your dad was the love of my life. We were best friends, from the day we met until the last day we saw each other. I could never replace what I had with him, and I would never try to. But being happy isn't a one-time event, and love can happen again. I've never understood why people think there has to be a limit on it, and how much of it you can give away." Her words were strangely pointed even as she looked away, as if she wasn't referring only to herself anymore. After a moment she smiled and returned her eyes to Jean. "I'm just glad I’ve found someone that make me smile.”

Jean nodded. “I think dad would be glad to know you’re smiling again.” Lynnette squeezed his arm and smiled again.

“I think so, too.”

They talked for a while longer, and Jean was glad to let her catch him up, happy to see the sparkle in her eyes when she told him of the plans she and Mike had been making to travel later in the year. He knew she must be pretty serious about him; his mother hated going much further than the edge of town for almost anything. So hearing her talk excitedly about Mike coming to visit that summer, and her plans to visit his family with him that winter left him taken aback, but happy for her.

When she asked him if he minded the thought of her absence at the holidays, he shook his head automatically, quick to encourage anything that led to her happiness. Still, not doing anything at the holidays would be a strange feeling, and his brain was quick to offer an alternative – he could spend the holidays with Marco. Visions of snowmen and tree trimming and all the fun Christmas festivities he’d missed out on since childhood swirled through his mind like a white-out snow storm, leaving him cleaning up drifts of nostalgic feelings while his mother continued talking about introducing Mike to Hanukkah traditions.

Jean spent the rest of the afternoon trying to pretend it wasn’t completely strange or illogical to imagine himself doing those things with his best friend.


--

 

Time at home was always quiet for Jean. His mother went about her business, even with him there, if not slightly more interrupted by stops to dote on him and stuff him with whatever she’d been cooking. When she stepped out to run errands and left him behind, he was glad for the quiet, even if it did bring with it a strange sense of homesickness for a place that wasn’t his home.

A lapse in commotion left Jean with time to catch up on social media, an activity he rarely made time for unless he was left with no excuse. But it was an increasingly pleasant experience, as his Facebook was more active, with messages from Connie, a funny – if not slightly crass – shared post from Reiner, and even a friend request from Annie. Jean had always had ‘friends’ on Facebook, but for once it felt like there was actually some relevance to the word.

His inbox also held a message from Marco, a rambling, sappy sort of thing, edged with just a little of Marco’s trademark sass. He apologized for wishing Jean’s time away, but told him he already missed him back at the dorm, and that he was thinking of inviting Reiner to come sleep in Jean’s bed, just to keep it from looking so empty. Jean was just about to send him a reply, threatening his life and Reiner’s – and assuring him that he missed him, too – when he noticed that Marco had posted a cloud of new photos. He clicked away from his inbox and over to Marco’s profile to look at them.

The shots were obviously taken in and around the theatre, Marco in about half of them, the rest full of faces that Jean only half recognized. Connie and Sasha were goofing around in some of them, Connie inexplicably dressed in high heels and what looked like a bathing suit in one of them. Jean laughed mostly because he wasn’t even surprised at how confidently Connie seemed to be wearing the outfit, or how red in the face Sasha was as she laughed beside him. There were pictures of Marco with them, pictures of him and Krista, and several sneaky shots of a short, scowling, dark haired man, flanked by a shockingly perky and pretty red-haired woman, smiling enough for both of them. Jean couldn’t remember meeting them, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t. He made a mental note to ask Marco who they were.

The pictures were mostly candid shots, mostly group photos, with pairs or passels of people in various states of ridiculous dress. But there were a handful of posed shots, mostly Marco smiling with other people. And it was one of those pictures that brought Jean’s casual scrolling to a halt.

There in the photo, Marco winked at the camera, lips pulled into a smirk, even as they were pressed against another man’s face. Jean stared at that person, at the expression on Marco’s face, and realized he had never seen either. Glancing down at the caption on the photo, his stomach did an unpleasant flip.

‘Auruo!’

There were several photos featuring the same man’s face, but nearly every one of them showed him pointedly avoiding the camera. He looked away, covered half his face – anything to avoid being photographed. Marco’s face made it look like some kind of game they were playing. But Auruo looked decidedly less playful. And decidedly different from what Jean had envisioned.

Auruo was taller than Marco, a bit thinner, and with the look of someone considerably older, though it may have been the sharp angles of his face, or the way he was dressed. His hair was oddly reminiscent of Jean’s, though it was lighter, an obvious dye job in contrast to his light olive skin. He wasn’t unattractive, but Jean’s initial reaction was that Marco could do worlds better. The guy’s expression looked like someone who hadn’t done something fun for decades, and cut a sharp contrast to Marco’s beside him. How on earth Marco found that attractive, Jean couldn’t understand.

The only thing Jean had accurately predicted about Auruo was the way he felt about him, upon seeing his face for the first time. He had never wanted so badly to punch someone, especially someone he’d never met. The penalties for fighting on campus might include loss of his scholarship, but for a brief moment, he wondered how much damage to Auruo’s face might be worth that price.

It was strange, loathing someone so instantly. But it wasn’t really so quick, when he stopped to think about it. It was weeks, months of watching Marco’s smile rise and fall, the pink stains that tears left on his cheeks when things weren’t going well, and the knowledge that the person Jean was staring at was the reason for all of it. It was the fact that – regardless of all of that – Marco still chose to be with the guy.

Jean looked up from his screen, catching a glimpse of himself in his dresser mirror. He raked fingers through his hair, glancing at his profile from either side. Had he always been so pale? Had he ever even cared about it before? He closed his laptop rather than return to glowering at the screen, staring instead at the wall of his room and wondering why he suddenly felt so inadequate.

Not five minutes had passed before Jean was cracking the computer open again, letting the page he’d left up reload, and staring hard at the photos. He scrolled around, flicking up and down through the smattering of pictures, all with a visibly happy Marco in them. It hit him after seeing photos of Marco with Krista and Ymir, Connie and Sasha – even older ones with Bertholdt – that Marco had never been in a picture with him. Marco, who kept photographic evidence of his life plastered all over his walls, had never once taken a photo with Jean. Normally Jean avoided being photographed at all costs, but scrolling back up to see Marco smiling, with his lips pressed against Auruo’s half-hidden face made Jean’s mouth go sour.

He’d had more than enough glaring at his screen for the evening, and was two swipes of his touchpad away from exiting his browser window again, when Marco’s name popped up in the tiny chat box at the bottom of the screen. The abrupt change in Jean’s state of mind at the sight of his icon was almost jarring; warmth flooded his chest while his brain tried to recover from the sensation of emotional whiplash.

Marco Bodt: Hey! Saw you were online and just wanted to ask if you were coming back tonight or tomorrow.

Jean settled back against his pillows and pulled his laptop more comfortably into his lap to type.

Jean Kirschtein: Not til tomorrow afternoon. Mom wants me to go to breakfast with her tomorrow or whatever.

Marco’s icon barely had time to register that he was typing before his reply popped up.

Marco Bodt: Ok. Just checking before I make any plans for the night. Sorry to bother you while you’re spending time at home!

Jean Kirschtein: You’re not bothering me, dork. Mom’s out right now, actually. I’m just sitting around.

Marco Bodt: Oh, ok.

Marco Bodt: You have time to get on Skype?

A few minutes later, Jean was glancing up at his dresser again, giving himself a brief once-over before Skype finally loaded, and Marco’s smiling face filled his screen. They spent the first few minutes teasing each other, Marco making fun of Jean carefully avoiding a mess while eating cookies, and Jean telling him that he really should consider wearing a shirt sometimes. When Marco gave him a cheesy grin and a joking ‘you love it’, Jean was glad he picked the next moment to stretch, looking away from his screen and hopefully not catching the flash of embarrassment warming Jean’s ears and cheeks. But it was quickly laughed off and forgotten, and their conversation became a comfortable one, banter about what they’d been doing in the whole two days since they’d last seen each other in person.

"Mom made these cookies while I was here.” Jean held up one of the fruit-filled bites before popping it into his mouth. He wasn’t exactly ready to admit that he’d done more than half of the baking himself, and Marco didn’t need to know, anyway. “They're bomb ass good, you've gotta try 'em. I'll bring some back."

Marco laughed. "You make cookies sound really exciting, Jean."

"When you grow up eating chopped liver and gefilte fish, cookies are very exciting." Jean brushed the crumbs from his shirt, licking the remnants of candied fruit from his fingers before looking back up at the screen. Marco’s eyes seemed hard fixed on him for a split second, but he shook the dazed expression from his face and pulled a broad smile when he realized Jean’s attention had returned to him.

"So you made cookies. What else did you guys do?"

"I mean, we talked a lot. Just stupid stuff." Jean shrugged, not keen on sharing the details. "I got to grill her about Coach Z for a bit."

Marco grinned. "Anything earth-shattering?"

"Nada. Old people relationships are way too chill."

"I'm sure your mom would love to hear you calling her an old person." Marco chuckled. When Jean gave him a lazy, dismissive wave, he sighed, still smiling. "Remind me not to talk to you when I'm over forty."

"That's different, though. We'll be old together." There was a beat of silence and a slight slack to Marco's jaw that Jean did his best to rectify by verbally tap dancing backward. "I mean, like - at the same time."

Marco nodded hastily, changing the direction of the conversation with a near-audible snap. "I honestly think it’s great that you can talk to your mom. I mean, my parents ask about school and stuff, but they really don't care about theatre. My dad's never even been to one of my shows. And I could never talk to either of them about anything personal." Marco looked down and away for a moment, his features heavy for a bare second before he reaffixed his smile. "But at least I have my sisters."

"I'm really glad you do." Jean returned his smile, and for a moment, they were just sitting there, miles apart, grinning at each other. A strange shyness washed over Jean, and his eyes dropped of their own accord. He dug through the tin of cookies in his lap, trying to make it seem like that was why he’d looked away in the first place. And for the second time that day, his mouth moved faster than his brain could, and offered up some unintentional honesty. "Mom asked me about Mikasa."

"Did she?" Marco seemed only mildly interested, and the lack of scandal in his reply made Jean regret his word spill a little less.

"Yeah. Well, I mean - she just asked me about my shitty ass love life in general. I told her about Mikasa."

Marco nodded, still not extremely invested in the topic.  "What'd she have to say?"

"Mom stuff. You know. Advice, and all that. Told me I need to stop chasing after people who aren't looking back at me, or whatever. And of course her opinion was that I'm 'too good' for that."

"She's right, you know." Marco looked directly into the camera – directly into Jean, somehow – and Jean had to drop his gaze again for a moment.

"She's my mom," he groaned. "She's supposed to say shit like that."

Marco shrugged. "Maybe. But I'm not your mom."

"Genius observation."

"You know what I mean. I say those things because they're true."

"I think you're just on my mom's payroll."

"You caught me," Marco grinned, throwing his hands in the air dramatically. "She slips hundred dollar bills into the cookies. She's literally paying my way through school. I'm banking on you not pulling your head out of your ass for the rest of the semester; a few more bags of cookies and I'll have a new car, paid in full."

"You're an asshole."

"Love you too, Jean."

It was said with an impish grin and a wink that meant nothing more than the teasing tone of Marco’s voice, but it still shook Jean just enough that he stumbled over his words for a moment.

"You, uh… you gonna be in the dorm when I get back tomorrow?"

Marco nodded. "Yeah, should be. Why - you miss me?"

Jean scoffed. "Just wonderin if you and lover boy were doin' anything." For the briefest moment, he considered mentioning having seen Auruo’s face – telling Marco how entirely underwhelmed he was, and how much better Marco could do – but then Marco was shaking his head sharply, an edge of irritation in his voice as he replied.

"Nope. He's got plans and so do I."

Jean swallowed the slight pang of disappointment that jumped to his throat at the thought of Marco being too busy for him when he returned to campus. "Oh, so you goin' out or something?"

"Nah, just figured you and I could grab a bite. Maybe with Reiner and Bert or whoever's around."

"Sounds good." Jean didn’t even bother trying to conceal the wide grin breaking across his face at Marco’s words. He was Marco’s plan – he was the better option than Auruo for an evening. He raised a cookie to his lips like he was making a toast, lifting the tin it came from into view as well, and smiling all the wider. 

"I’ll bring dessert.”

Chapter Text

Early March was windy. Not yet the balmy breeze that brought people out onto the campus grounds in hoards, but warm enough to make Jean's time on the field considerably more pleasant. Signs hung all over campus, urging students to begin planning for the fall semester that loomed beyond the horizon of summer, but it was hard to focus on the future when he wasn't even sure where he'd be, then. Teetering on the cusp of spring, the weather seemed to swirl with hope for new beginnings and change, but life pressed on at much the same pace as it had in weeks earlier.

Jean spent more time engaged in conversation with professors than other students in class, more time with people like Hanji than people like Mikasa, and was too busy sulking about that fact during group meetings to absorb much of what was being discussed. His other courses weren't as irritating, and being on the road for games kept him from having too much downtime to think too much on them, even if they had been. He filled that time instead with studying enough to keep his coaches off his back, talking with the people he had begun to consider friends, and sharing fruit filled cookies with his roommate.

Marco continued to attend home games, sometimes as nothing more than a distracted-looking patron, tucked in the corner of some high row of bleachers, poking at his phone. But anytime Jean actually had a hand in something, he found himself glancing upward after the exchange of bumped elbows with the other fielders - and found Marco looking down in his direction, smiling. Sometimes he even brought Connie and Sasha along. It was enough; Jean had never needed a crowd to feel encouraged, but those three were a crowd in their own right.

Away games were different, as Marco couldn't follow him, and his time to call either friends or his mother was severely limited. Every step and shuffle out on the field, and every crack of the ball meeting his bat was met by nothing more special than the subdued applause of a collection of strangers. Spare dorms and hotel rooms offered comfortable rest along the scattered route of the team’s tour, and the list of cities they stopped in offered what might’ve been exciting changes of scenery, if Jean wasn’t too busy feeling just slightly out of place in every one of them. His socialization was limited to the people he roomed with, his teammates, coaches - and Thomas Wagner.

"What's a'matter, Kirschtein? Your boyfriend couldn't make it today?"

Wagner's taunting was beginning to roll off of his back with slightly more ease, a fact he wasn't sure he should be proud of.  Mike couldn’t catch all of it, and Nile Dawk and the other coaches did little to deter it. Jean tried not to vent about it to the only pairs of ears that weren't there to hear it first hand, saving his conversations with Marco and his mother for things that made him feel better, rather than worse. Both staved off a different type of homesickness, and having both of them in his pocket during trips out of state kept him from missing either place too much.

Rather than focus on the fact that he was away from his default sources of comfort, he targeted his senses instead on the games at hand, torqueing up his performance at every twist, every snap, and every move in front of the crowds. Some of those crowds were host to scouts, people who had the power to make his dreams come true - but only if they noticed him. He was as quick as he could push himself to be, brought his best to the plate when he was up to bat, and was so much lighter on his feet that Armin could barely keep pace with him. Peak form was easier to shoot for when he used it to run from the negativity that seemed to follow him from stadium to stadium.

Jean found himself faster, stronger, better than he'd ever been on the field, but it came with a price afterward. Swollen joints and tender muscles reminded him that he was only human, and only capable of pushing so far before his body gave a hard shove back. That hard shove typically came in the form of a sore ankle, and set him limping through the halls leading out from the locker rooms after games with near never-ending innings.

It was after their last away game for a short stretch that he found himself barely able to leave without clinging to the wall, hoping no one from a scouting agency could see him struggling. He ended up with the next best thing, when he heard a quiet conversation behind him break into a friendly shout in his direction.

"Jean? Jean!" He turned to see Armin walking briskly toward him, hand outstretched. "You alright? That ankle really looks painful - would you let me take a look at it? I might be able to help."

Jean shook his head on reflex, continuing to gather his things to leave the lockers. "No, thanks."

Behind both of them, there was a sharp exhale, and then Eren was beside them, arms crossed over his chest. "Armin's a sports med major, Jean. He knows his shit. Let him look at your ankle." His expression was an odd mix of concern and impatience, and Jean stared back at him stubbornly for a moment before giving in and nodding.

"Fine. Yeah."

Armin took Jean’s bag from him and dropped it carefully onto one of the benches, motioning for Jean to settle beside it. Jean followed instruction, huffing quietly as Armin pulled back the leg of his pants and his sock, looking him over.

"Have you injured this before?"

Jean shrugged. "Not recently. Messed it up real bad when I was like thirteen, but it hasn't given me much trouble, since." He looked up and away, wondering if Armin was the type to share their conversation elsewhere. “I try not to mention it to the coaching staff unless it does.” To his surprise, Armin simply nodded.

"Definitely seems to be bothering you now. Are you on it much, off the field?"

"I mean, I run. But other than that, no. Most I do is walk to class and up and down my building stairs."

"No elevator?"

Jean scoffed - laughed. "Nah, I'm in the Rose Wall building. Thing's older than shit."

"Ah. Oh, yeah - Marco is your roommate, isn't he? I remember now."

"Yeah. You guys know each other, right?"

Armin’s face lit up, warmed by a genuine smile - the kind most people wore when talking about Marco. "We went to high school together. He was my locker mate. And he used to date one of my sister's boyfriends." Armin shook his head, dropping his eyes back to Jean’s ankle. "Small world."

"Tell me about it,” Jean sighed, trying to remember just how many people he’d had a similar conversation with since meeting his roommate.

"Be sure to tell him I said hello again,” Armin added, and Jean nodded.

"I'll do that."

Armin examined him carefully, bending his foot back and forth, so gingerly that it didn't even hurt. When he finally did push it enough to make it twinge, he applied pressure with a thumb and all but rubbed the pain away, holding his fingers there while he plucked a roll of cloth bandaging from his bag. He wrapped it expertly, like he knew exactly where Jean needed various levels of tightness, and clipped it carefully afterward. Looking over his work once more, there was a level of care in his eyes that was professional, but that brimmed with a personal commitment, that Jean knew he had scarcely earned. It only served to remind him that Armin really wasn't as bad a guy as he'd first figured him to be. And Jean found himself slightly more trusting of someone who'd previously shared friendly space with Marco.

"Looks like that ought to do it. Just stay off of it when you can and try some ice if it swells at all. I’ll try to snag you some balm for it, before next practice."

"Thanks," Jean nodded again, realizing that he could actually turn his foot without the feeling of being stabbed. He place it on the floor, readjusting his sock and pants, intending to leave. Then Eren settled beside him on the bench.

"So, Thomas givin' you shit again?" He was slumped backward, hat pulled down low, peering at Jean from below its brim. Jean shrugged.

"Same shit, different day, yeah. Still haven't figured out why you keep askin' me."

Eren huffed. "Still haven't figured out why you just keep takin' it, like it's not bothering you." Something in his tone bristled its way up Jean’s spine, painfully hot as it struck something still sensitive in the back of his mind. He growled before he could stop himself.

"Sounds pretty fucking familiar, coming from me though, doesn't it?"

They stared at each other, waiting for the other to speak, only remembering themselves when Armin sharply cleared his throat and waved weakly back at them.

"I'll just... see you two later, alright?" He shuffled a few last things into his bag and headed toward the exit, not even bothering to hang back long enough to see if Eren would follow him. As soon as he was out of sight, Jean snapped back to glare at Eren.

"When the hell are you gonna stop prodding me about Wagner?"

"When you do something about him!"

"What do you expect me to do?” Jean hissed, arms thrown out to either side. “He's not even doing anything wrong, he's just an asshole."

"Not doing - Jean, are you serious?" Eren dragged hands down his face, palming hard at his mouth as if he were holding words back by force. "The bullshit coming out of his mouth is some of the most disgusting, homophobic--"

"That's just how sports are, Eren. You know that."

"And that's how they're always going to be, if no one does anything about it." Eren sprang to his feet as if he would leave, then turned sharply to look back over his shoulder, jaw still hard set. "That stagnant attitude is fucking dangerous, Jean – what’s it gonna take for you to see that? What happens if you just let him keep doing this? You think it ends with you, with him? You have to--"

"I don't have to do shit, and you need to quit tryin' to make me,” Jean shouted. When the murmuring of people just beyond the open exit of the locker rooms hit his ears, he remembered that they weren’t strictly alone, and reined his volume in as he shifted uncomfortably under Eren’s stare. "There’s nothing dangerous about Wagner – he’s just an idiot. Wish I knew why the hell you suddenly care so much about what's goin' on in my life."

"Because I'm on your team! Not just on the field." His voice cracked; in all the time he’d known him, Jean had never heard it falter, before. Still, he shook his head.

"Yeah? You've got a funny way of showin' it."

Realization washed over Eren visibly, and swept away the color of his face, leaving him a shade paler. "Jean, that's not - I'm not talking about that, right now."

"Well maybe you should," Jean spat. "Maybe we need to talk about that, before I take anything that comes out of your fucking mouth with more than a grain of salt."

There was another long exchange of looks, Jean wondering if he’d finally pushed back hard enough to pry open the lock Eren seemed intent on keeping their past under. But when no words came, Jean shook his head, scooping up his bag and pushing himself to his feet to leave. He was nearly in the outer hallway before he realized Eren wasn’t on his heels, but was instead hanging back, calling out after him.

"Hey!" He shouted, hand cupped over his mouth as he leaned against the smooth doorway of the locker room. "Stay off that ankle for a bit, alright?"

Jean clicked his tongue and gave a curt wave over his shoulder without stopping for any more conversation.

"Whatever you say, Eren."

--

Being absolutely fabulous at taking direction - and absolutely determined not to do so, if it came from Eren - Jean found himself heading to the track the next morning.Marco had agreed to meet up with him afterward, for food and studying that would likely just turn into talking and laughing, a welcome catch-up from the days Jean had spent on the road. It was the spot of sunshine that lit the periphery of Jean’s consciousness, warming it to match the relatively pleasant day around him. Days with neither class, nor games were rare as spring rolled in, and he had every intention of taking hold of the opportunity to actually choose what he did with it.

When he arrived at the track, it was packed more tightly than usual with people. Runners from every sport made use of the breezy weather, moving in packs and pairs so as to keep conversation moving with their steps. But Jean was alone, without even Ymir’s company to distract him. He set himself to running, sure that she would be along eventually. But after several spells of running and waiting in turns, she never showed up.

It wasn't that he wanted her there, exactly. There was not much that he knew of more annoying than her constant teasing and taunting. But circling the track by himself - free to move at his own pace, and come and go as he pleased, for once - he was hit with an unsettling realization. He didn't really know what to do, without her there.

Remembering that he'd been badgered into trading phone numbers with her a few weeks before, he returned to where his bag sat, and dug out his phone to send a tentative text.

From: Jean
12:54 PM
Hey it's Jean.
Thought you'd be here by now.
You not coming to nag me today?

It took a while, but eventually he got a response. Just not exactly the kind he was expecting.

From: Ymir
1:12 PM
Not comin today shortstop
Probably not comin back at all

He responded, slightly alarmed, and slightly irritated that he might be falling for her typical melodrama.

From: Jean
1:13 PM
You ok??
Need anything?

From: Ymir
1:17 PM
Not rly
Just let me fuckin lay here shortstop
Let me die in peace

Jean reread the text a few times, sighing. Well aware the he was throwing away a perfectly peaceful afternoon, he sent another reply, already tossing his things into his bag to leave by the time it had sent.

From: Jean
1:18 PM
Where do you live?
I'm coming over there.

Ymir's directions were confusing at best, being as she was apparently refusing to answer actual phone calls. But Jean managed to pry from her that she lived in a place called ‘Titan Terraces’, just outside the edge of school grounds, and once he had that much to go on, he fumbled through Google for the rest.

It was a long walk, but a clear path between campus and the shabby buildings of the kitschy apartment complex, complete with references to the college’s mascot and chipping paint in faded shades of blue and orange. Jean felt slightly uneasy as he passed some of the tenants, staring back at him with equal distrust. It took another four exchanges of poorly typed text, but Ymir finally told him which apartment number was hers. Jean was headed up the creaking metal staircase to her unit before he'd even sent a response; the neighborhood around the terraces didn't seem like the kind of place to linger outside.

The sappy sound of melodic wailing hit Jean's ear before the click of the doorknob, familiar, but out of place there. He stepped inside cautiously, almost afraid he'd gotten the wrong apartment. Inside, Elvis music played loud enough that it seemed to drip from the walls, pulling the peeling wallpaper of the near-empty living room after it. The day's sparse sunlight was battled back by a torn shade, pulled down past the sill of the window it hung in front of. And in the center of the room there was a futon couch, covered in grocery bags, empty takeout boxes - and Ymir.

At first glance, the empty bottles strewn around the couch suggested that she might have been drinking, but before Jean could as much as close the door behind himself, the smell of saccharin fruit wafted past him, and he caught sight of the labels. Jarritos. The kind of liquid candy that Jean had only ever seen children and very distressed adults downing. And Ymir was barricaded by discarded bottles.

"What are you doing?" He ventured, not daring to move further inside.

"Wallowing,” Ymir replied flatly, her voice rough. "Leave me here to die."

For a few moments, Jean just loitered at her door, taking in the sights of her sparse living accommodations. But it was hard to notice much of anything other than Ymir, stretched out on her back, hair hanging over the edge of the couch as she rolled her head between looking forlornly up at the ceiling, out the window, and back at Jean. He’d almost never seen her without a smile - haughty and obnoxious as it often was - but her features were slack, nothing but emptiness.

He approached her cautiously and hovered, just outside the ring of discarded bottles tossed around the futon.

"Why are you here, shortstop?" She said finally, not a fraction of her usual sharpness behind it. Jean shrugged, trying to keep from using phrases like ‘worried about your wellbeing’.

"The track is too quiet, without you naggin' me,” he settled on. He took a step closer, looking her up and down, frowning at the sad state of her. "Now - why are you here?"

"I live here,” she said quickly, and glanced back at Jean for a reaction. But he didn’t give her one, and for once she didn’t seem willing to prod for it. She pulled a half-empty bottle from between the couch cushions where she’d apparently been propping it beside her and took a long drink, sighing as she pulled it away from her lips again. "And Krista dumped me."

"I... I'm sorry." Jean said automatically. He wasn’t well equipped with words of comfort, and for her they seemed even harder to come by. But he took a seat in her floor, hands folded in his lap, and let himself try. "Was it... did she say why? What happened?"

Ymir snarled. "Fuckin' Auruo Bastard, or whatever the hell his name is. That’s what happened."

The name hit Jean like a slap across the face, unseen before it landed and leaving him confused. He stared back at her, mouth slightly agape.

"I don't…"

"She wasn't answering her phone, so I went to her rehearsal. We argued a little bit and then that asshole made a big deal about it. He just kept going on and on about how ‘some people’ shouldn't be there, ‘some people’ were a distraction, just passive aggressive bullshit, riling everybody up at Krista and me.” Ymir covered her eyes with a hand, rubbing hard at her temples before motioning out in front of her, acting out the rest of her story. “I couldn't take another word of it. So I decked him, right in the fuckin' teeth."

Jean actually gasped, a mix of shock and peculiar pride jumping to his throat. "You punched him in the face?"

"In the mouth," Ymir nodded. "Right in the source of all the shit he was talkin'."

Jean had to force himself not to grin, to remind himself that they were discussing something serious. "And Krista broke up with you? For that?"

"It wasn't just for that." She shook her head, tossing her arm over her eyes again with a heavy sigh. "I've been fuckin' up for a while now. I know I have. She just... exhausts me, though. She’s this huge personality, and people are just hanging off of her, all the time. Guys, girls – somehow she handles all of it, and I just… don’t know how. It’s like she’s more than one person, all the damned time. She needs attention, and then space, and never really bothers to tell me which one, like I'm just supposed to know from one day to the next. And she says I never wanna do anything fun with her, and I'm not affectionate enough, and..." - her voice wavered - "she's so fucking right."

Ymir sat bolt upright then, as if struggling for air. Jean wasn’t sure he’d ever seen someone so violently resist crying. "I want to be, y’know? I wanna take her to all those shitty parties and dance with her and buy her flowers and all that, because that's what she wants and I love her so fucking much. But that's just... not how I show it. And it's not good enough for her." She sank back slowly, Jean’s eyes following hers to look up at the shadows dancing across the ceiling. "I'm not good enough for her, and I don't know why I ever thought I was."

Before he could think to do otherwise, Jean moved onto his knees, scooting through the minefield of bottles to edge closer to the couch. He dropped a hand onto the threadbare fabric of it, heavily enough that Ymir noticed. She didn’t ask him to move, barely seemed to regard him there. She just sighed raggedly, waiting for her breath to return to her in even increments before speaking again.

"The problem with actors is you never know how much of what you see is the real thing. It's like it's second nature to 'em. She'd tell me she loved me, and then keep me in the dark about shit. I never knew which Krista I was talking to." She laughed, dark and droll. "And I blew it with both of 'em, I guess."

Jean swallowed thickly, acutely aware of how little he understood Krista, or Ymir, or what to say to someone whose heart was breaking. "You don't think this'll like... blow over, or whatever?"

"What I think is that she's already got someone else in mind to move along to."

"Really? Who?"

"Fuckin' dude she's in that show with." Ymir waved her hand, trying to come up with a name, and then, "Springer."

"Connie?!" Jean yelped, unable to check his tone of surprise. "Somehow I doubt that. On several levels."

Ymir heaved a sigh. "Can't say that makes me feel any better, shortstop. You've got your head so far up your ass, you don't see anything, anyway."

Jean drew his eyes down, arms crossed tight around his knees as he drew them to his chest. "Yeah, I'm glad you appreciate me comin' by to check on you. S'been a real pleasure."

She snapped her head up, voice thrown like a knife. "Never said you had to."

He could have left, then. A practical voice in his head told him that he should. But something a little deeper, a little louder, made him feel like staying, like he might be the only one to do so. That thought alone softened him, even as Ymir glowered lazily in his direction.

Jean looked around to avoid locking eyes with her, looking the sparse walls of her living room up and down, instead. There were no pictures, no decorations - nothing that made the place look like a home, save for the sad girl sprawled on the well-worn couch at its center. He turned his gaze to the tiny table at the foot of the futon, where an ancient iPod sat on a speaker stand, playing out loud.

"If I listen to any more Elvis music, I'm gonna vomit." Jean groaned. Ymir pointed somewhere in the direction of the sound.

"Just hit shuffle or something, then."

Jean did, reaching out to prod the cracked screen with a careful fingertip, laughter bubbling from him when the song changed to one he wouldn't have expected to be in her library.

"'Pretty Girl Rock'?" He snorted. Ymir bristled.

"What?" She snapped. "I can be a hot bitch, when I feel like it."

"You're full of surprises," Jean said at last, unable to think of a better way to close the topic. He looked around the room again, hit again with wonder at how stark it was, how little there was to look at, to do. "And you need better distractions. You have Netflix or anything?"

Ymir raised an eyebrow. "Does it look like I can afford that shit?"

"It's like nine bucks a month, Ymir. I'll buy you a subscription." He considered it, for a moment, but wondered if it might hold him up from returning to meet Marco. Instead he sidled up to the side of the couch again and prodded her knee. "Look, just - you have a computer?"

"Yeah..." She hesitantly reached under the couch, slowly pulling a weathered laptop from beneath it. Jean prompted her to open it, and to hand it to him.

"Get yourself some shit queued up, then. Use my info. I'll write it down for you." He looked around the room for something to jot a note down on, but coming up empty, he grabbed for his phone to text it to her instead. Ymir watched him suspiciously.

"Why're you being so weird, shortstop?"

"The word you're looking for is 'nice'," Jean quipped, "and I'm just trying to help, because I've been where you are right now. And... I wish someone had been there for me when I was."

Throat threatening to tighten if he kept talking, and back turned to Ymir, he finished typing his information down, sent the text, and continued staring at the screen of his phone, even as it went dark. He might've sat there longer, wondering at exactly what moment he'd developed some sort of urge to coddle and protect someone who gave him nothing but grief, but before he could, he felt her hand land on his shoulder.

"What about roomie?"

Jean looked back at her. "What about him?"

Ymir shrugged. "Seems like he's there for you."

"He is, when I need him," Jean conceded. "Marco's a good guy."

She nodded as if she'd made her point. "Hang onto him." She squeezed his arm before dragging her fingers away. He let his head turn further on a tilt.

"Huh?"

"Hang onto him," she repeated. "Show him how you feel. Don't let him walk out the door without knowing it, every day."

"Ymir, he and I aren't--"

"Doesn't matter, shortstop. You'd be bullshittin' me if you said you didn't like him like that. I'm not as stupid as you take me for. So spend less time tryna convince me otherwise, and more time appreciating the fact that he's good to you. 'Cause one day, he might not wanna put up with your shit anymore. And... I don't want you to be where I am, again."

Jean didn't protest. Any other day, he might have. But with Ymir looking back at him softly, eyes rimmed with red and the remnants of tears she'd hastily wiped away before they could fall, he held his tongue. Maybe he pitied her. Maybe he cared. Maybe she was right.

"Loaded up and ready to go," he said simply, turning back to face her computer. He passed it off to her, glad for the grateful - if still slightly hesitant - look on her face. "Just use that info I sent you to log in when I'm not around."

"And you really don't mind?"

"Nah." He stood, pushing up off the couch to climb to his feet, knocking knuckles gently against her shoulder before turning to leave." Just... take care of yourself, alright? Text me if you need anything, or whatever."

She pursed her lips and twisted them. "You know I'm not going to."

Jean shrugged, hand already on the doorknob. "Do something other than wallow, okay?"

He pulled the door behind him, without so much as a look back.

Halfway down the rickety metal stairs, he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket, but he didn't bother checking it until he'd well passed the edges of the property, returning to a slightly safer area of town. When he finally did, he had a text message, a single word - still more than enough to bring a small smile to his face.

From: Ymir
2:34 PM
Thanks

--

The brisk pace with which Jean moved made the walk back to the dorm faster than he'd expected, and he was there before Marco had a chance to return. He waited for a while, flipping through his school email, Blackboard courses, unfinished assignments - just letting time slip by as he waited to hear from Marco.

Once their designated meet-up time had come and gone, Jean - slightly irritated - shot him a quick message, and waited nearly another half hour to hear back from him.

From: Jean
2:56 PM
We still good for this afternoon?

From: Marco
3:16 PM
I'm gonna be really late, I'm so sorry
I have no idea how long I'll be
Really sorry.

Jean didn't respond.

He knew himself well enough to know that anything he would say would undoubtedly give away how frustrated he was, so he kept it to himself. Ymir's words about Marco's boyfriend flooded back to him, and he realized with a groan what was likely keeping his roommate. Marco was probably - at that moment - fussing over Auruo somewhere. Not that it wasn't to be expected; that's what boyfriends did for each other, right? But if Jean was sure of one thing, it was that Auruo wouldn't have been quick to return the favor to Marco.

The entire line of thought was a crooked spiral of frustration, Jean spinning deeper and deeper into layers of aggravation over Marco, Auruo, and his own selfish irritation at not being prioritized. It left him near-seething, so much so that he stepped out of the dorm room just to look at walls and breathe air that didn't hang heavy with reminders of being alone. For once when he heard Reiner's booming voice coming up the hall toward him, he welcomed the distraction.

"Jean! You guys up for a little two on two?" Reiner motioned between himself and Bert, then back at Jean. He jerked his chin back toward the lone window of the long dormitory hallway, beaming. "C'mon, man - nice ass day, don't wanna waste it!"

Jean nodded automatically. "Sure. Just gonna be me for a bit, though."

To Jean’s relief, Reiner didn’t question his response. He didn’t ask why. He just smiled wider and shouted over his shoulder as he herded Bert alongside him toward the stairs.

"Get changed and meet us downstairs, then! Hustle!"

Jean was pushing the heavy front door of the building open a few minutes later, opting to stay in his running clothes after shrugging on a jacket. Bert and Reiner were already waiting, Reiner's fingers hooked in the corner of Bert's jacket pocket, and Jean made a conscious effort to keep walking without pause at the sight.

Reiner didn't seem aware of his curiosity. He and Bert turned without ceremony once Jean had made it to them, the three of them meandering toward the collection of barely-used, outdated basketball courts that sat in a nearby park, off campus. It was easier than fighting through an inevitable crowd to use the school's facilities, and more conducive to talking. Which was always a necessity, in Reiner's eyes.

"Marco not around or somethin'?"

Jean shrugged. "I dunno where he is, exactly. We were supposed to go grab a bite and then study for a bit this afternoon."

"And he ditched you?"

"Does that a lot," Jean groused, a little more acidic than he'd intended. "Said he’d be late, 'cause something came up. Probably with lover boy." He kept his eyes in front of him, but it was impossible to miss Reiner and Bert staring at him from his peripheral line of sight. After a beat of silence, Reiner shrugged and clapped him firmly across the shoulders.

"Sucks. But whatever, we can still shoot around for a little bit."

Jean nodded. "Fine with me."

The courts empty, save for the three of them, Reiner jumped right into taking poorly-aimed shots at the netless hoops, claiming when they bounded off in the other direction that he was ‘just getting warmed up’. For his part, Bertholdt watched with mild amusement and shook his jacket from his arms, pulling himself into a long, slow stretch. Jean watched him, registering that he was intending to play, in at least some capacity.

"Bert, you uh - you ok to..." Jean trailed off, glancing down at Bert's prosthesis and back up again. Bert nodded placidly.

"Yeah. Trust me, I know my limits by now."

Jean decided to forgo stretching altogether, still wrapped up in watching Bert do so with slight concern as he shrugged. "Alright."

Know his limits Bertholdt certainly did, but he didn't seem to have many. He was quick, moving with accuracy that Jean didn't have as he hit half a dozen baskets without a miss, making a game of seeing how long he could keep the ball out of either of the others’ hands. Reiner was considerably slower, and Jean might've thought him to be pulling punches, if Bert wasn't slipping past Jean himself, just as easily.

"Damn, Bert – you're really good!" Jean stopped to watch him, catching sight of Reiner proudly doing the same. Bertholdt chuckled quietly.

"Height helps, I guess."

"Bullshit," Jean said. "You play like you really know how. You ever play on a team?"

Bert's smile faltered, just slightly. "Yeah. Yeah, I actually came here on scholarship. That was before I lost the leg, though."

"Oh." The corner of Jean's lips tugged downward of their own accord. "Gotcha. Sorry."

"Eh, don't pity him too much," Reiner laughed. "Faster than both of us as is. The other leg was an unfair advantage."

Jean’s eyes darted back to Bertholdt, looking for him to be offended, insulted - but he was smiling more broadly than Jean could ever remember seeing. Jokes seemed to make the situation better, at least when Reiner was the one telling them. Jean caught the ball finally passed his way and joined the two of them, glad for the lack of tension.

"Too bad we don't have a fourth,” Reiner mused. “It’d be nice if we could actually play a decent game."

"Yeah. Too bad." Jean was trying not to dwell on the thought of Marco, most likely tending to his dirtbag boyfriend at that very moment. But Reiner was making it difficult.

"Not that Marco would be much of an asset."

Jean's hands stilled, fingers digging into the rubber of the ball. He squinted, only half because of the hazy sunshine. "What do you mean?"

Reiner shrugged, waving his hand dismissively. "I mean, you know, since he's..."

"Are you implying that Marco being gay would make him bad at basketball?" Jean growled through gritted teeth, suddenly unable to rein himself in. "Or at fucking anything for that matter?”

Reiner's eyes widened, startled. "Whoa, whoa - no! I just meant that Marco's horrible at sports." The look of shock gave way to one of amusement, Reiner laughing hard enough to shake his voice as he spoke. "You ever seen the guy play? Anything other than a video game? Talk about a tragedy." Beside him, Bert batted at his arm, chastising playfully.

"Hey, everyone has to be bad at something."

Jean stared at them for a moment, letting his undue anger dissipate before speaking again, a little embarrassed. "Oh. Right, yeah. Sorry, didn’t mean to go off, I just - that shit irks me, man. See that a lot, bein’ an athlete."

Neither of the others seemed bothered by his outburst. Reiner just shook his head, a more serious expression on his face as he glanced between Jean and Bert. "I hear that. No way you're gonna hear that bullshit from us, though. I mean, especially considering."

"Considering?" Jean cocked his head to one side, waiting for clarification. It came by way of a massive, sly grin that burst across Reiner's face, which he wasted no time in turning to press against Bertholdt's lips. Bert squeaked but didn't otherwise protest, even slipping an arm around his waist to keep both of them from toppling over. When Reiner pulled away again, he looked back at Jean smugly. Jean shifted in place, nodding for lack of a better response.

"You guys are together?"

"Well, yeah?" Reiner grinned, maybe more at the way Bertholdt shifted under the focus of conversation than at the actual topic. "Thought you'd figured that much out for yourself by now."

Jean shrugged. "I... well, I kinda thought so, but - I also thought you had a girlfriend, at one point."

Reiner nodded. "I do." Jean stared at him for a moment, waiting for either he or Bert to react, but neither did. As if to further his point, Reiner tagged on, "And so does Bert."

"I... okay, then." Jean watched their faces for more of an explanation, but Bert was tight-lipped, while Reiner didn't seem to understand the confusing can of worms he was opening.

"Yeah, you know Annie, don't you? That's her."

"Whose her?" Jean blinked. Bertholdt finally spoke.

"Our her."

Jean looked back and forth between them. "Your... both?"

"Mhm." Reiner answered with finality, tossing the ball in Jean's general direction. "Watch it, Kirschtein!"

Not even Reiner’s terrible aim of the ball was enough to dissuade Jean’s curiosity, although he could tell that neither of the other two were interested in continuing the conversation from that point. Bert still seemed slightly shaken and uncomfortable, while Reiner seemed to have moved on to other things in his mind, and showed no signs of backing up. Jean let it die, perhaps only because he’d gotten half a step closer to the whole truth about them. And perhaps because there were more important things to talk about.

"You guys talk about Marco like you know him." Jean took a shot, the ball circling the hoop once before rebounding in Reiner's direction.

"Well, I mean obviously we do. Bert's known him a lot longer than I have." Reiner passed the ball to Bert, if perhaps only to watch him as he fluidly lined himself up to take another well-placed shot at the basket. "You guys dated for a while, didn't you?"

Bertholdt nodded, the ball leaving his hands with a gentle push. "A few years ago, yeah." The words were casual, falling as carelessly as the ball through the hoop. But by the time it bounced onto the pavement and began to roll, Jean was staring at Bert, eyes wide.

"You dated Marco?"

"For a little while, yeah." Bert shrugged, letting the ball return to him and kicking it up from the ground. Jean didn't drop his eyes - or bother hiding his surprise.

"You and Marco - why the hell didn't he ever tell me that?"

From behind them, Reiner laughed, and though Jean didn't turn to look at him, he could hear the teasing in his tone. "Well why would he?"

"I'm his - we're - I can't fucking believe this! Has everyone dated Marco at some point?"

Still glaring in Bert's general direction, Jean held his arms out for the ball, only half expecting it. When it hit him, it bounded from his chest with a thump that shook him through, and he pushed it away on reflex. It bounced from his hands aimlessly, and - still staring at Bert - he stepped after it, only to cross his feet and misstep quickly, rolling one foot over the other, and dropping him to the ground with a twist, a crack, and a dull, painful thud.

“Ow, fuck!”

"Oh my god, are you alright!?" Bert and Reiner hovered above him not a second later, but Jean could barely make out whose voice he'd heard, senses dulled by sharp waves of pain. He threw his hands outward, pushing away anything and anyone close enough to touch him.

"Holy shit, that hurts! Motherfucker, god--”

Bertholdt bent beside him, frantic. "Here, let me--"

"Don't fucking touch me, dear god - just... call somebody!" Jean dropped back, flat onto the pavement with a sharp grunt. His first instinct was to pull his leg to his chest, away from where the others were knelt, trying to examine him, but he found he couldn't move it. Beside him, Bert was panicking.

"Who should I call?!"

"I don't know, I don't think any team medics would be on campus today and – no, don't! – I can't move it, shit!" Jean hissed and writhed under even Bertholdt's most careful touch, desperate but unable to escape the pain.

"Ok, sorry, sorry!" Bert yelped, scooting back and pulling Reiner after him. He jumped to his feet and scanned the area for other people. "Reiner, we need to get him to a hospital."

Reiner laughed, albeit nervously. "Nah, he probably just bruised it. Walk it off, big league!" He offered a hand out to pull Jean to his feet; if Jean had been capable of standing, he might have punched him.

"I can't stand up, you asshat." Jean seethed. Bert stepped in before Reiner could say anything else.

"Reiner. 911. Now."

"We can drive him!" He bent down close to Jean, hands out and turned upwards, like he meant to slide them under Jean to lift him from the ground. "Here, just let me--"

Jean shouted, quickly going hoarse. "Don't you fucking dare, Reiner. Don't."

Reiner backed away quickly, shoving his hands into his pockets. "Fine, Jesus Christ." He pulled out his phone and began to dial, stopping to look around as if checking for something. "Where are we, again?"

Bert huffed, grabbing the phone from him. "Let me call. You stay with Jean." He had the phone pressed to his ears moment later, but covered the receiver for a brief second to shout back, "And for god's sake, don't touch him."

For the first time in the short time Jean had known him, Reiner followed instructions. He hovered over Jean, but didn't come too close, perhaps owing to the mix of irritation and agony on Jean's face. His mind reeled; an injury could land him in bed, land him in trouble, land him on the bench for God knew how long. An injury could end his career before it started. He hissed through clenched teeth and willed himself not to think about it, because the last thing he needed under Reiner's supervision were tears.

The mortification he felt when the ambulance arrived to retrieve him - coupled with the fact that Reiner and Bert were still arguing over the best course of action for him - set Jean so on edge that he snapped at the EMTs before they even collected his vitals. He insisted on hobbling up and over to the stretcher they had readied, not willing to let himself be hoisted in anyone's arms. Finally, despite his profanity-laden grumbling, the small team strapped him carefully to the flat surface of some excuse for a mattress, and he felt the shaking of his muscles begin to lessen. Just before the doors of the vehicle closed, he heard Bert's voice, presumably calling out above the clamor.

"We'll follow the ambulance."

Jean couldn't honestly say that those words brought him any comfort, but the sharp pain radiating up from his foot kept much of anything from doing so.

The drive seemed a short one, at the quick clip with which the ambulance moved. The paramedics onboard kept him talking, distracted despite his pain, and assured him that his injury probably felt much worse than it was. Jean was pulled carefully from the back and wheeled down a maze of hallways, into a room walled almost entirely by pulled curtains. His pain level spiking between bearable and excruciating left him disoriented, until a nurse administered a calming cocktail of clarity, by way of medication. After that, he was actually able to hear what the staff had to say, when they wheeled him down the hall and back again from an X-ray lab.

Back in the tiny, makeshift room, Jean watched the clock, waiting for news of his tests and word from a doctor he hadn’t even seen yet. Both were slow in coming, and Bertholdt and Reiner appeared before he'd actually received notice of anything.

"Surprised they got you back here so quickly." Bert smiled weakly, rounding the corner into Jean's roped-off room. Jean shrugged.

"Yeah. Well - the ride here helped."

"I'm sure."

Beside Bert, Reiner fidgeted, eyes focused on the floor like he was avoiding something.

"Hey, I'm gonna... go wait for Annie," he said quietly, nudging his hand against Bert's. Bertholdt squeezed his fingers and nodded. He watched him leave, round the corner and head down the hallway until he was out of sight, then stepped further into Jean's room, sighing as he took a seat on the bedside chair.

"He hates hospitals."

"Nobody likes this shit." Jean said. He realized there was more of a story behind Bert's words, though – something in Reiner’s expression before he left that Jean hadn’t seen before. He prodded gently. "He have like... reasons, or what?"

"More than a few, yeah." Bertholdt nodded. A cork seemed to pop, and then suddenly he was all words - more than Jean had ever heard from him at once. "When we had our accident, Reiner and I went to the hospital together. He was already messed up, bleeding from the head, couldn't see anything and - they took us away from the scene, and our friend was still there. We thought he might still be alive." He stopped, just breathing for a moment. "He screamed at the paramedics to take us back, but they couldn’t. Reiner wasn't even human, then. Neither of us were."

Jean blinked, shocked. "Your… friend?"

Bertholdt nodded solemnly. "We had another guy with us in the car. Marcel - a friend from when we were kids. He was visiting for the weekend, and we were on our way over to see Annie. We got side-swiped and hit the railing of the bridge just inside the exit from the interstate. Flipped onto the bank of the river; the other car just drove away. EMTs said Marcel was gone before they even arrived."

"God, I'm so sorry." Jean chewed on his lip, trying to think of a more eloquent response. Bert barely acknowledged him.

"The whole back end was crushed. Reiner was pinned by his seat, and the water was coming in. I kicked out the door - the whole wall of the car on that side - made enough of a whole for him to get through and get out." A look of determination played across Bert’s features, as if he were reliving things in his mind. He gestured to his prosthetic leg, making a vague chopping motion, and Jean grimaced as he realized what he was implying. "The car collapsed before he could pull me all the way out after him. That's how I - well, yeah. I barely remember the hospital after that, honestly. But he does. He was awake for all of it.”

"I had no idea. I didn't mean to..."

"It's okay." Bert said quickly, and he really seemed to mean it. "I don't know how long it's been since I talked about it, but... I feel better when I do. The wreck changed both of us so much - you can't lose somebody, right in front of your eyes, and then ever be the same."

"I can't imagine," Jean breathed. "I mean, I lost my dad. But... not like that."

"Reiner was a mess for weeks." Bert said softly, eyes turned back toward the pulled curtain at the entrance of the room. "Then he just kind of... shut it off. Switched over to a different frequency, almost. Sometimes he remembers, but usually it's like he purposefully forgets."

Jean nodded. "I would, too."

"I was driving, and I couldn't--” Bert's voice was strangled by the beginnings of tears, but he paused, waited them out, and pressed on. “Annie had it really rough, too. She blamed herself. Still does, I think. That's one of the reasons she stuck around. And then the ‘us’ thing just kind of happened."

"So you guys are together? All three of you?"

Bert nodded, his face already apologetic. "I know it's probably odd for someone who doesn’t--"

"No," Jean said firmly, determined even in his medicated haze not to be the reason for anyone to feel the need to apologize. "No, I just... didn't know."

"Things after the accident were horrible. Some days they still are." Bert glanced down at his hands, and for the first time, Jean noticed a weathered-looking leather bracelet, strung with a large wooden bead that was carved with some kind of script. Bert rolled it between his fingers. "I can't do this alone, but... with them, I never have to. I don’t always know how, but - it's what works for us. It's different and it's exactly what we need. It's - love isn't just a finite resource. Figuring that out is what got us through things."

"I'm glad," Jean said simply. "Glad you guys have each other."

Bert smiled, and Jean could feel relief rolling off of him. "I don't think I could handle the bad days without them. I mean, I'm sure I could, but - I don't want to. You know what I mean?"

Jean thought about his own life - his mother, his new friends, Marco - and nodded. "Exactly."

There was a rustling, rounding the corner - a breathless sound, frantic footsteps mixed with a worried voice, that Jean recognized by then as Annie’s. She counted out loud the room numbers she passed, until she found the right one and ducked her head in, just to be sure.

"Hey," she breathed, eyes darting back and forth between Jean and Bert. "Are you alright, Jean? Is it broken?"

Jean shook his head. "Don’t know yet, but I don’t think so. Still gonna keep me off my feet for a bit." Loose-lipped from the medications in his system, he nodded in Bert's direction, smiling sleepily. "Your boys took good care of me."

Annie smirked, seemingly unbothered by Jean knowing the nature of her relationship with Reiner and Bert. "I believe that outta one of them, at least." She turned to Bertholdt, squeezing his arm as she tilted her head toward the open curtain. "Speaking of which, we need to get back outside to the other. He's… really ready to go."

Bert nodded. "I figured. Let’s go, pretty bird.” He offered a quick glance backward. “Take it easy, ok Jean? Let us know if you need anything once you get back to the dorm."

"Thanks man." Jean waved after them as they shuffled out. "You guys take care, too."

As thankful as he was for their assistance, Jean was more than ready to see them go. He wasn’t one much for company on a decent day, but seeing as it had been anything but, he was happy for some solitude. The quiet was only interrupted by the regular popping in of nurses and staff – including a disinterested doctor, flatly informing him that his ankle was merely sprained – and after a while, by the ringing of his phone, heralding the call he knew he’d be receiving before too long. Somehow his mother always knew when there was need to check in on him.

"Well thank god it's not broken," she concluded, after a long conversation that mostly involved Jean retelling the story of his day three times over. "Do you think you'll be able to finish your season?"

"I'm hoping so. Doc didn’t seem to give a shit about that, only that I stay off of it for a while. Mike is gonna be so pissed."

Lynnette chuckled. "I'll talk to him tonight, and see if I can soften the blow."

"Not sure if I should say thanks or be grossed out, mom." Jean gagged loudly enough that he was sure she could hear it through the phone. On the other end of the line, she clicked her tongue.

"Watch your attitude or I'll come up there and see to that ankle myself."

"I'm sure you would if you could." Jean promised to call her once he made it back to the dorm safely, and wished her a good night. "Love you, mom. Talk to you later."

Pain medications sufficiently doing their job, Jean began to drift shortly after they'd hung up, hanging pleasantly between sleep and some vague semblance of consciousness. He wondered how long it would be before the staff made their rounds back to him, prepared him to leave and sent him on his way. He considered the fact that he wasn’t sure how exactly he was going to get back to campus. And he spent a few moments in his stupor trying to identify the voice seeping into his consciousness, whispering as someone entered his room.

Cracking one eye fully open, he saw that it was Marco, and made an effort to pull himself a bit more upright. Marco was beside him almost instantly, hand on his arm, breathless as if from running and steadying him where he slumped forward. Jean gave up and lay back against his pillow instead, opening both eyes as compensation.

"Bert texted me,” Marco said, winded. “What's going on, what did the doctor say?"

"Well hello to you, too." Jean smiled sheepishly, maybe a little amused by the way Marco's face scrunched up with worry. "Said it’s just a sprain. Not sure how long I'm gonna be a bed potato yet, so if you’re the kinda guy who prays..."

"The last thing I'd be asking for is for you to get back up on it and hurt yourself worse."  Marco shook his head, dropping into the chair beside the bed. "I'm really glad it's not any worse than it is." Jean nodded.

"Me too."

"I'm so sorry I'm late.” Marco rubbed a finger under his nose nervously, eyes focused somewhere in a distance beyond the curtained wall of the tiny room. “Maybe if I had been there, you wouldn't--"

Jean cut him off with a wave. "Hey, none of that. I'm a dumbass whether you're with me, or not." He waited until Marco looked satisfied with his lack of fault before adding, "So where were you?"

"I got caught up after the fiasco at practice," Marco sighed. Remembering what Ymir had recounted to him, Jean cleared his throat to hide his laughter.

"Oh, yeah. I, uh... heard your man got injured."

Marco nodded, sighing heavily. "Punched in the face, to be precise. Broke a few teeth and I think he had to have stitches in his tongue."

"Gross, dude." Jean's eyes shuttered closed, then snapped back open when Marco's words made it back around to process completely. "Wait, you think? You didn't go to the hospital?"

Marco shook his head. "Couldn't. I had to stay after to talk with Levi and Petra. With Auruo hurt, he's out of the show. They moved me up to the lead role, so…" He looked like he might smile for a moment, but then his face dropped and he shrugged it away. "He wouldn't have wanted me there, anyway."

"Well, fuck him," Jean said plainly. "And congratulations - you deserved that part from the start."

"You say that like you know anything about it."

"I know about you," Jean contended. "I've heard you sing. You're gonna nail it."

"Well, thanks. But let's talk about that later. You're sitting in a hospital room, for god's sake."

Jean snorted. "Chill, mom. I'll be fine. Just gotta wait for the boot and the bad news and then I'm free to go." He reached out to pat Marco’s arm, but missed by a wide margin. Marco reached out to him, instead.

"I'm glad Bert texted me - I came as soon as I got his message. I'm glad it was him, and not Reiner. Reiner would've had me thinking you broke your whole leg."

"I would've, if I'd let Reiner help me." That was enough to make Marco laugh, and Jean in turn, and for a moment they just sat there, tension bubbling away as they laughed a little longer than strictly necessary. Finally, concern returned to Marco's face, and he leaned forward onto his elbows, eying Jean's injury.

"How'd you get hurt, anyway?"

"Just... messin' around." Jean said quickly. "I fell, playing basketball."

Marco looked at him quizzically. "Doesn't seem likely, out of you."

"I was distracted," Jean offered, not keen on explaining why. His mouth, however, worked faster than his brain. "So – you and Bert used to date?"

"What?"

"Bert told me earlier - you guys dated?"

"Oh, yeah. For a little while, a long time ago. It was nothing serious." Marco shrugged. Jean nodded, mouth twisted to one side.

"How come you never told me?"

"I... just didn't think to, I guess." Marco confessed. "Sorry."

"No, it's... you didn't owe it to me, or anything." Jean felt increasingly anxious to end the conversation. It felt too much like arguments they'd had before, and lying on a stiff, sterile mattress with a brain fogged by analgesics, it was the last thing he wanted. "Just don't worry about it."

But Marco didn't dismiss it so flatly, placing a hand gently on Jean's knee and squeezing, waiting for his attention. "For what it's worth, I don't always think to tell you things, but if you ask me, I'll always answer honestly."

"Noted." Jean hesitated for all of a minute before putting the offer to the test. "Talked to Armin a little bit, yesterday."

"Really?" Marco asked, leaning back in his chair. "About what?"

"You, actually. I mean--" Jean cut himself off before his mouth could outrun him again, waiting for his brain to lap back around. "I just asked him how he knew you. Said you two were friends in high school."

Marco nodded cheerfully. "Yeah. Armin is a sweet guy. I know you don't care much for him, but..." His voice suddenly tightened and trailed off, and Jean leaned forward on his bed to show he was listening. Marco cleared his throat and continued. "When I came out, a lot of the guys in school didn't want anything to do with me. Armin was different. He volunteered to be my locker mate. People called him gay, too, but he didn't care. When my locker got graffitied, he just helped me clean it off. Good guy."

Jean grinned, despite himself. "Sounds like it."

There was silence for a few minutes after that, Marco poking at his phone and Jean eying the peeling signs on the walls as he waited for the return of the nursing staff. There seemed to be no rush on their part, and he didn't bother hiding his frustration about it. Marco noticed, humming thoughtfully as he slipped his jacket from his shoulders.

"I'm gonna hang out for a bit, okay? I'll go grab us something to drink if you want, and then I'm gonna wait until they let you go, so I can get you back to campus."

Jean palmed roughly at his face, irritated with the wait, but not with Marco. "You can go on back, Marco. You don't have to--"

"Want me to call Reiner and Bert?" Marco asked, raising an eyebrow playfully. Jean heaved a sigh, slumping back onto the bed with something like a groan.

"I want... something with coffee."

Marco grinned before standing to step out of the room. "Figured."

--

The next eighteen hours or so were rough, Marco having to basically drag Jean up the stairs and into their dorm being only the first layer of embarrassment. The next was the fact that – with the painful swelling contained only by the massive makeshift shoe attached to his foot – he couldn’t get in and out of his usual clothes. Getting undressed was such a hassle, he briefly considered just staying in his underwear, indefinitely. Marco being a comfortable size or two bigger than Jean was helpful, though Jean worried that the soft pants he lent him would fall off if he turned too sharply in his bed.

On top of everything, the text he'd woken up to had made it clear - he'd be hearing from his head coach that afternoon, and it would be a personal meeting. Unable to get up and go anywhere, Jean had no way of escaping it. He took Marco up on his offer for takeout and sent him out to retrieve their necessities for the week without him. Marco had only been gone ten minutes when a firm knock rattled the door.

"Come on in," Jean said. Mike stepped through the door with a mannerly nod.

"How's that ankle, kid?" He lingered near the door for a moment, arms folded across his chest.

"S'been worse," Jean sighed. He peeled back the leg of his borrowed pants, showing his coach the obvious swelling. "It's been a lot better, too."

"Looks like it." Mike examined it from a comfortable distance, then motioned wordlessly at the chair at the foot of Jean's bed. Jean nodded, and he took a seat. "So may I ask why you thought it was a good idea to mess around and get yourself hurt, midseason? You're lookin' at missin' some games, Jean. That's not good for your chances at recruitment. Or for the team."

Jean scoffed. "The team doesn't give a shit if I'm out there or not." Mike leaned back in the chair, head dropping to one side with a sharp inhale.

"That's exactly the attitude that got you here, you know that? The fact that you honestly believe no one around here cares about you. You can't even see yourself as part of the team - that's why you thought it was apparently a good idea to be clowning around with a handful of jock rejects--"

"They're not rejects!" Jean snapped before he could stop himself. "They're good guys. My friends."

"Then I'm surprised you can even see 'em!"  Mike said with a boom, sitting forward with such force that the chair creaked loudly under him. "You've got a problem, Jean. You've got yourself so damned convinced that there's nobody around you that you live like it's actually true. You're a good player and a good kid, but you refuse to rely on anyone, and no teams are gonna even look your way if you're not willing to work with ‘em. On and off the field."

"How am I supposed to work with a bunch of assholes who just give me grief?" Jean demanded. "Wagner and his cronies are constantly--"

"They're just smack-talking, Jean. It's nothing you can't handle. And they're not the only ones on the team - what about Arlert? Jaeger? Last I checked, you two were close."

Jean bit back a sneer. "You haven't checked in a while then, coach."

"Look, son," Mike blurted out, and paired with his heavy drawl - thickening as he became more frustrated - Jean might've ignored it. But his coach pulled back, sat back in his chair, fully aware he was standing on the fault line of a boundary he was determined not to cross just yet. "I'm not asking you to fake anything. I just want you to realize things aren't as bad as you're seein' 'em. You've got people who support you, on the team, at home, here in your building - start learning when to lean on the right people, and stop replacing the common sense your mama gave you with stupid-ass decisions. It just takes one careless mistake, and you could blow your shot at a career." He wiped a hand down his face slowly, pausing as if to compose himself. "I don't want that for you, Jean. I wanna see you go wherever it is you want to. But I can't do it for you."

Jean eyed him for a long moment, but he had no argument to offer. The coach was right, and Jean found himself in the middle of another lesson on how to handle other people knowing best.

"What do you want me to do, right now?"

"I want you to rest," Mike said plainly. "I want you to stay off that ankle, and use your off time to get ahead on some school work. And when you get back out on the field, I want you to have whatever beef you have with Jaeger settled, so I know you're not in danger of fist fighting everyone on the team."

"Coach, I'm not gonna--"

"I'd say I trust you to make better decisions than that, but..." He glanced at Jean's propped foot and shook his head, pushing himself to his feet. "You rest up, you hear me? And call your mama. She'll be wantin' to hear from you."

"Always is," Jean shook his head, smiling for what might've been the first time that day. "See ya, coach."

Mike nodded and turned for the door, hand already on the knob when it rattled from the other side. He stepped back and let it swing open, and Marco all but ran into him, stiffening anxiously when he realized what he'd done.

"Oh, sorry. Didn't mean to--"

"That's alright," Mike said calmly, an obvious effort to quiet what looked like mild panic written across Marco's face. "I was just on my way out. You're Jean's roommate?"

"Yes sir," Marco nodded quickly, offering a hand from beneath the armload of bags he carried.  "Marco Bodt. Nice to meet you."

Mike shook his hand with a polite nod. "Likewise, Marco. You take care of Jeanboy over there, alright? Don't let him mess around and hurt himself worse."

"I'll do my best, sir."

With that Mike was on his way out for real, a brief wave offered to both of them.

Marco stood rigidly in place for another moment, watching the door close and listening for the trailing off of footsteps beyond it. When he finally turned back to face Jean, it was with a heavy exhale, relief evident in his features. Jean could only groan, fighting to keep his embarrassment from becoming obvious.

"Well that was annoying as hell."

Marco's face lost the edge of anxiety, and he sat his armload of bags down on his desk. "What, the pep talk, or...?"

"The part where he introduced himself like my fucking dad, but yeah – all of it was pretty stupid."

"Sorry. He say anything in particular? That you wanna talk about, I mean?"

"Just that I need to stay off the foot." Jean gestured at his heavily wrapped ankle, frowning. "Same old, same old." He swung his leg over the side of the bed, considering putting his weight on it, just to test himself for the day. But Marco stepped in front of him almost inhumanly fast, a smile spreading slowly across his face.

"Well, we'll just have to make sure you do, then."

"We? Marco, you're not actually gonna--"

He tried to stand, but Marco stepped in front of him, smiling even as he blocked Jean's footing. He tried to swing his legs to the other end of his bed, climb out that way, but Marco reached over to pull out the chair from his desk, trapping him from that angle as well. He tried to reach across the floor, balanced on one arm as he pushed the other out as far as it would extend, nearly toppling himself headfirst off the bed. But Marco caught him, hoisting him back upright and back into bed. Jean glared at him, trying to figure out how to get past the moving wall of Marco.

"I am perfectly... capable... of..." He trailed off, his protests falling on deaf ears. Marco grinned, dancing back and forth in front of him.

"You need me to pick you up?"

"Don't be an asshole."

The remark garnered him a dramatic pout, so much so that he might've laughed if Marco hadn't started speaking again. "I thought I was being helpful, but whatever. Sorry, grumpy."

"I can walk," Jean said flatly. Marco crossed his arms, grin returning.

"But you're not supposed to."

"I need to stretch."

"You can stretch in bed."

"And this room needs cleaned, and I'm hungry."

"I can clean it, and I brought you takeout." Marco turned to gesture back to the bags on his desk, satisfied that he'd won their argument. "But I'll need you to move, at least while I make your bed. So are you gonna let me pick you up, or do I have to peel you up off that bed?"

"You were serious?" Jean hissed, his immediate reaction to the thought of being hoisted into the air always one of panic. But Marco nodded calmly, and Jean's apprehension melted at the edges, though it did little for his sense of pride. "Fine. Whatever. You're still an asshole."

Marco beamed. "You wound me, sir."

Despite Jean's grumbling and overly cautious stiffening, Marco didn't so much as errantly brush against his ankle. He slipped a hand under the bend of Jean's knees, the other around his waist, raising to the crook of his tense arms, and carefully plucking him from his seat as if it were the most practiced motion for him. Still, four feet from the floor, Jean went rigid.

"You alright?" Marco asked quietly, fingers squeezing just enough to show they were securely in place. Jean turned his face on reflex, darting it into the crook of Marco's neck to hide it before he realized what he was doing. The brief and accidental brush of his lips against warm skin startled him. He grumbled, pulling back slightly.

"M'fine."

He tightened his arms around Marco's neck. Marco held him in place for a moment, letting him relax before turning and walking them toward the other bed. Slow, steady steps punctuated the short distance between sides of the room, but Jean could only hear them, Marco's gait a gentle glide as he held him. He grinned down at Jean, maybe a little smug. Jean glared back at him.

Up close, Marco's features were disarmingly striking. His skin glowed in the hazy sunlight spilling into the room, casting shadows behind soft hair falling over his forehead, and lighting scattered starbursts of freckles that streaked across his cheeks, across his nose, and under his eyes. Those eyes weren't as dark as Jean remembered them, flecked with glints of gold and bronze behind a blanket of eyelashes, as thick and dark as his hair. Until then, he'd only been vaguely aware of the fact that Marco even had eyelashes, let alone what they looked like. But less than a foot from his face, tiny details like those were enough to wipe the glare from his features entirely, leaving him absently staring back at his roommate.

Marco pulled him tighter against his chest, still smiling as he lifted one leg to kick piles of clothes and blankets to either side on his bed, still holding Jean securely as he did. Jean sighed, wondering if he was just showing off at that point. Face pressed more firmly into the fabric of Marco's shirt, Jean let himself rest there, waiting to be put down again. He tried not to think about the fact that it wasn't the first time he'd been so close to Marco, the first time he'd felt his warmth, or the fact that Marco’s scent was familiar to him. Instead he grumbled, determined to only seem anxious to be let down.

"I'm not a baby - you don't have to carry me like your little sister or something."

Marco finally bent to set Jean back on a steady surface, placing him gently down onto his own bed. "As far as I'm concerned, until you're back on your feet, you're most definitely a baby." He poked his tongue out at Jean, undoubtedly expecting more sass. What he got instead was Jean trying increasingly hard not to acknowledge the strange sensation of missing arms around him.

"So how long am I stuck being your baby?"

He hadn't meant for it to sound so venomous, to defile any accidental sweetness the final word might've implied between them, but as soon as he'd said it Jean sucked in a sharp breath as if trying to pull it back. Marco stared at him, stunned for a moment before his brain seemed to catch up to the rest of him, and his face softened, dropped. He patted and trailed a hand over Jean's shoulder, but his touch was lighter than usual, almost distant.

"Let's give it a few days, anyway."

There was an odd sort of quiet that settled over the room, then; Jean hadn't heard anything like it since their first hesitant days in the dorm together. Marco busied himself with what needed done, not even pausing to ask aloud. A quick glance, a brief nod - it was all the direction Marco required, tidying and organizing with focus Jean had never seen from him. At least not when cleaning was involved.

He tucked Jean's things where they belonged - his books, his spare gear, his worn-out, rainbow striped planner - some of them into places Jean had even forgotten he'd set aside for them. He relaxed as much as he could on Marco’s disheveled bed, in Marco’s too-loose pants, with Marco’s cheerful humming punctuating his pace as he cleaned. When he seemed satisfied with his work, he tied off a bag of garbage to be taken out, flopped down onto the bed beside Jean and grinned proudly.

Jean studied him, shaking his head.

"Why're you so keen on being a butler?" He asked, not dropping the subject when Marco offered him a folded paper box of takeout Chinese food. "You hate cleaning."

Marco shrugged one shoulder, smiling across the edge of his own box. "Yeah. But I don't hate you."

Jean looked back at him – Marco, clumsily shoveling fried rice and vegetables into his mouth with chopsticks he barely knew how to use and smiling around each mouthful - and remembered what Ymir had said to him. He bumped his knee against Marco's and capped it with his hand, letting it linger there until Marco topped it with his own.

“Likewise, Broadway.” He smiled. “And thanks.”

Chapter Text

--

The days Jean spent recovering might have been the sunniest that entire year.

Birds sang from the earliest hours of morning, and the sounds of people laughing and shouting as they walked the winding paths on campus could be heard from every building. But from the confines of his and Marco’s dorm room, Jean didn't see much sunshine. The little bit that filtered through their window only served to remind him of that fact that he couldn't be outside in it, that he was stuck. The thick, soft boot wrapped around his aching foot might as well have been filled with concrete.

Jean was a creature of habit, to be sure, but also one of comfort. Nothing was less comfortable for him than being cemented in place, dependent on others in the most literal sense. With almost daily check-ins from Mike and visits from the team’s physical therapist, he was constantly reminded of how much he'd screwed up, and of how upset the entire coaching staff was. Hearing about how poorly the team was doing without him should have been an ego boost, but it just left a worsening bitter taste in his mouth after every conversation, guilt settling gut-deep.

Marco made it better, though.

As much as he could, Marco brightened the room with open window shades and Jean’s favorite takeout, and just his cheerful presence. Never once did he shame Jean for his injury, or remind him that being stuck indoors for two weeks was entirely his fault. All he cared about was Jean getting better, feeling okay. He brought Jean tuna sashimi instead of salmon, and ordered his drinks from Starbucks completely wrong. But he tried. And Jean had never been so happy to eat food he didn't like.

If the extra stress of caring for Jean was taking any sort of toll on Marco, he wasn't letting on. At least for the most part. At his edges, he seemed a little more frayed than usual, sighing into pillows after short phone calls with family and Auruo, and flying into a mild panic over the location of a random, dirty shirt one morning. But most of the time, he kept his cool, even when Jean was more than a little irritable. Perhaps the most irritating thing for Jean was the fact that he was acutely aware of the fact that he didn't deserve Marco’s patience. But he was grateful for it, all the same.

When Marco wasn't around, Jean had more than enough to keep his mind busy and to keep him from feeling too lonely. Homework to keep up with, professors and coaches to keep in touch with – and more than a few calls from his mother. Even from a distance, she knew how to fuss over him. The word ‘smother’ came to mind.

“Did you get my care package?” She asked, her voice floating into the air from the speakerphone of Jean’s phone while he typed. He nodded, realizing a second later that she couldn't see him.

“Yeah. That's like the third one this week, mom. You tryin’ to fatten me up too much to run?”

“I was trying to cheer you up, mister. I figured it was better than singing the Boo Boo Song.”

Jean groaned, nearly drowning out her laughter. “The Boo Boo— seriously, mom?”  He reached down to fidget with the edge of his makeshift cast and sighed, softening just a little at a fond memory. “Haven't heard that one in a while.”

“Haven't needed to sing it in a while. Not since you still called me ima.” It was the Hebrew word for mother, a word Jean hadn't spoken since he was a small child.

“That was like… back when I was still in Hebrew school.” Jean laughed. “S’been a long time.”

Lynnette hummed. “Just remember, though – you might be a grown man, but I'll always worry about you. You're still my little boy.”

"Yeah, yeah, mom. Love you, too.” If she had been there in person, he would have hugged her, pressed a kiss to her forehead to show her that he really meant it. But she wasn't. So he settled for looping his arm around his own bent knee and repeating, quieter, “Love you.”

“I love you too, sweetheart. Call me again when you can. Get plenty of rest, alright? Talk to you soon.”

Jean tapped the screen of his phone and dug into the package his mother had sent, adding the three bags of snacks to the other half dozen he already had stashed in his bedside table. He may have been laid up, but at least he was well fed. And anything that made staring at the same four walls all day easier was a good thing, extra calories aside.

--

Bert, Reiner and Annie dropped by, following up on their time with Jean in the hospital. They were glad to see how much he'd improved, and joked about Marco missing his calling as a nurse. Jean was glad for the different backdrop of their surroundings then, and for getting a chance to see the three of them together outside the curtained wall of an emergency room bed.

Everything about the three of them was looser, easier, more comfortable than Jean had ever seen out of them before. There wasn't much of a difference in Reiner, truth be told; he was as abrasive as he'd ever been. But the way Bertholdt moved around him – and the way Annie seemed a perfect hinge between them both – had Jean smiling.

"You look a lot better, slugger.” Reiner laughed. He draped himself across Marco’s desk, seemingly unbothered by the mess there, perhaps too used to Bertholdt's equally impressive disasters.

"I feel a lot better," Jean replied. "And I'm a lot less pissed than I was the last time I saw you.”

“Good thing,” Reiner snorted. “Drama queen.”

“I’ll show you ‘drama queen’, soon as this damned ankle heals up.”

“I’ll hold you to that. And using your crutches is cheating!”

Jean flipped him off and Reiner howled with laughter, nearly tipping his chair backward. After a moment of catching his breath, he began rifling through papers curiously, and Jean was maybe a little thankful that he’d chosen Marco’s desk rather than his. Marco himself didn't seem bothered. He stood close by, chatting with Bert and Annie.

"Nice shirt,” Marco said, motioning toward Annie. Annie grinned and pulled it out away from her, straightening it so that the image of a blonde anime character in a short orange skirt was more clear.

“Thanks. It's Reiner's.” Her jacket pulled to the side, the words ‘Sailor Venus’ were readable, and Jean chewed on his bottom lip to keep from grinning. Annie didn’t bother; she smiled slyly between Marco and Bert.

Behind her, Reiner caught the end of the conversation and frowned, his ears going pink at the tips. “We should probably go and let baseball boy rest.”

“Probably,” Bert agreed, although with his hand tucked in Annie’s and a smug smile to match hers, he didn't seem quite as concerned as Reiner.

They stayed for a few minutes more, wrapping up conversation while Reiner tried to explain why he liked Sailor Venus. (Something about aesthetics and childhood crushes; Jean wasn’t really listening.) Marco saw them out and turned to face Jean as he let the door slide closed behind him, and only when they couldn't hear footsteps anymore did they finally let themselves laugh.

--

Visits didn't always happen when Marco was around, even when they were actually meant for him. One afternoon while Jean was propped up in bed, laptop on his bent knee playing an Iron Chef rerun, there was a knock at the door. He yelled a simple command to come in, assuming it was Bert or Reiner. But Connie poked his head in and grinned, instead.

“Hey, man! Heard you were laid up – you doin’ alright?” He stepped in and held the door ajar, Sasha following him inside.

“Yeah, yeah, can't complain,” Jean shrugged. Connie smiled wider.

“That's good! So’s Marco around? He gonna be back soon, or..?”

Jean shrugged again. “No idea. I mean, I think he's visiting Oreo or whatever his name is, but I don't know for sure.”

“Oreo!?” Sasha cackled, she and Connie both nearly dissolving from laughter. “That's great. Although, Oreos are good. That guy doesn't deserve to be named after a delicious cookie.”

"Tell me about it,” Jean huffed. Connie leaned against the wall, smile fading.

“You finally meet the guy?”

Jean shook his head. “Nah. Don't have to, though. I can see the way he treats Marco.”

Sasha laughed tersely. "I don't think Marco’s the only one he's treating, if you get what I'm sayin’.” Connie nudged her, frowning hard. She shrugged it off but he shook his head. Jean looked hard at both of them.

“Wait – this dick is cheating on Marco, too?”

Connie scrubbed his face roughly and looked back at Sasha one last time before returning his eyes to Jean. “We don't know that. It's just… a hunch. And it's really no one’s business.” He said the last few words loudly, obviously talking more to Sasha than to Jean. Jean shook his head pushing his laptop to the side and twisting his quilt in his fist when he remembered he couldn't stand unassisted.

“It's Marco’s business if his asshole boyfriend is stepping out on him!”

Connie nodded, obviously trying to keep things calm. “It is. Marco’s, and no one else’s. Definitely not mine.”

Jean eyed him with scrutiny, wondering how someone Marco considered a friend could willingly keep Marco in the dark about something so important. There was a flash, an echo in the back of his mind of Ymir’s words, her implication that Krista had left her to take up with Connie. Jean blinked for a moment, considering it, and then shook the idea from his mind. Connie wouldn't do that. Surely. Still…

“Why? Why wouldn't you want to say something to him? He's your friend.”

Again, Connie nodded, though he was decidedly less collected. “He is. But Auruo is my boss, Jean. I gotta tread lightly, y’know?”

Beside him, Sasha wore a serious expression that Jean had never seen her with, and it was enough to rattle him into dropping the topic. At least for the time.

“Yeah. I… I understand. Still, though. Guy’s a complete son of a bitch.”

“Don't I know it,” Connie laughed, maybe a little too loudly. “The funny thing is everybody knows it. Levi, especially – our director. Auruo’s gunnin’ for his job, and I think Levi’d like nothin’ more than to not hand it over to him.”

“Honestly though, Levi kinda hates everybody,” Sasha grinned. “So that's not the best example.”

“No, Levi just hates his actors. Because we ‘don't take our craft seriously’.” Connie drew the last part out with a low, dramatic flourish that had even Jean laughing, although he didn't exactly understand it.

“That sounds like a story…”

“Not really,” Sasha snickered, shaking her head. “I think he just gets tired of us all breaking out in song when he's trying to give us our blocking or our notes at the end of rehearsal.”

“’s boring as hell, though,” Connie sighed. “What are we supposed to do? We're musical theatre majors.”

“You guys are a trip,” Jean laughed, having no hard time imagining Connie and Sasha irritating a director. Or imaging the songs they would sing. “I probably know at least half you guys’ show by heart at this point, as much as Marco sings it around here.”

“Oh, yeah, and he's been bumped up to the lead now, too!” Connie said with a clap. “Bet old pissbaby Auruo hates that!”

“Who honestly cares?” Jean huffed. “Marco deserved it from the beginning.”

“And now he's got it.” Connie grinned. “Speaking of which, I just came by to drop of this stuff for him to try on, so I'll toss it over here on his desk.” Connie moved to set a cloth grocery bag on Marco’s piled up desk, grimacing at how little safe space there was to do so. “This boy ever clean anything? Jesus!”

“Don't even get me started,” Jean sighed, and then Connie and Sasha were laughing again, not stopping until they were on their way out again. Jean waved after them, typing a quick note to himself in the margins of his homework that he needed to tell Marco they'd been by. Not that he thought he’d need it – he'd have a harder time deciding whether or not to keep quiet about some of the things they'd talked about.

Still, he was glad for the way they'd killed the silence for an afternoon.

--

Perhaps the most surprisingly pleasant visit Jean received while he recuperated was the one he got from Armin, who dragged Eren along for whatever reason. It could have been extremely awkward; it threatened to become that way when Eren lingered near the door for the first few moments, looking around cautiously like he was afraid to step further into Jean’s space. But Marco settled on the bed beside Jean without having to be asked, his presence somehow tempering the situation, and easing the flow of conversation between the four of them. It wasn't that Jean needed Marco’s protective hover, so much as he gladly allowed it.

Armin examined his ankle, handing over a goody bag full of balms and wrappings he'd brought as a get well gift, and heaping praise upon Jean – or Marco, really – about his improvement.

“Almost field-ready!” Armin beamed, and in that moment, Jean could no longer see whatever it was that he’d disliked about him. When they shook hands before he left, it was as friends, and even the deep gashes in trust between he and Eren seemed more shallow, then.

Marco must've been able to tell; the smile he offered Jean after they left started as one of consolation, but it was quickly replaced by a look of pride, though Jean wasn't exactly sure what he'd done to earn it. Still, despite his still-healing ankle, it was the best he could remember feeling in a long time.

--

When he was finally, fully back on his feet, Jean made a point to actually attend all of his lectures. Having missed more than a few, and knowing he was walking a tightrope with the coaching staff already, he didn't need any more absentee marks that semester, medically excused or not. He found only a few of his teachers incredibly sour about working with him to catch back up, and the others relatively more understanding. Hanji was perhaps the most enthusiastic about his return, and their class held another happy surprise for him.

On the day of his return to class, Mikasa actually smiled at him. Jean might have dismissed it as accidental, or the result of a particularly good day on her part, but she did it twice, and again the following class session. As Jean continued to pull his weight in their study group – and continued to otherwise give her space – she seemed to slowly, gradually warm up to him. Still, he kept hope at an arm’s length. It was nothing if not the bringer of unnecessary letdown, in his experience.

Letdown was one thing Jean was determined not to bring with him when he returned to the field for practices. Attentive to his body during warm-ups, careful with his movements in the cages, he was cautious those first few days. When Armin hovered near him, offering advice about avoiding further injury, he actually took it. Jean listened. And it paid off.

The first game he played after recovery was nerve-wracking, but by the third inning, Jean realized the coaching staff were anything but displeased with him. He was in peak form, more focused at bat and as light on his feet as ever on the field. It was hard to know for sure if he was any slower; Armin met him halfway where he could, and the rest of the fielders seemed almost equally glad to assist him – to have him back on the field. The breeze that day was warm, and the air that it moved across the field was different. Happier. Jean couldn’t stop smiling.

It helped that he noticed Marco in the stands by the beginning of the fourth inning. He’d had a long rehearsal that afternoon, and told Jean not to get his hopes up about seeing him. But there he was, still dressed out in his dance clothes, grinning wide enough the Jean could see it yards away. He smiled back, and then returned his focus to the field.

Standing in line to pass out handshakes with the players from the visiting team afterward, Jean couldn’t wait to get away and thank Marco for coming. The coaches handled most of the politicking, anyway, laying on thick the praises for the opposing players, despite the wide margin by which the Titans had beaten them. That kind of feigned friendliness and formality made Jean uncomfortable on a normal day; that day, it just made him all the more impatient.

He met Marco just outside of the concession area, still in uniform. When Marco put one arm out for a hug, Jean nearly dove into him, wrapping both arms around him and laughing when Marco had to do the same to keep them from toppling. Eren and Armin breezed by, Armin waving in their direction, and Jean and Marco both waved back, still grinning as they talked.

“Can't believe you didn’t even stop to change!” Jean teased, plucking at the loose fabric of Marco’s t-shirt. He frowned at Jean and crossed his arms.

“I wanted to get here as soon as I could!” He pouted dramatically, and Jean had to stop himself laughing aloud. “I didn't have to come, y’know.”

“Hey, I never said you looked bad,” Jean said quickly. Marco blinked back at him, then slowly smiled.

“Well you didn't change before coming out to talk to me either, so I’d say we’re even.” He bit back a grin when Jean began to open his mouth to argue, waving him silent. “But you know I don’t mind.”

"You and your weird thing for uniforms,” Jean laughed, trying to ignore the way Marco’s eyes seemed hard focused on him, the way it warmed his face more than the midday sun.

Marco shook his head. “I honestly can't see how you don't understand it.”

“Not my preferred aesthetic,” Jean said flatly. Marco snickered.

“You're not sitting where I am, then.” He motioned to the emptying stands behind them. Jean rolled his eyes and took his hat off, smacking it against Marco’s arm.

“You're terrible,” he sighed, but his quickly reappearing smile gave him away. “But I'm glad you were sitting there. I'm glad you came.”

“What are friends for?”

Marco pulled him in for another hug, and Jean returned it, the sounds of people mulling around them blending into meaningless static. It didn't matter if the coaching staff was chattering a few feet away. Jean didn't think about his teammates possibly watching, listening. All that mattered was the fact that Marco was there, a perfect end to a perfect afternoon. For once, he was too genuinely happy to think about anything else.

But Marco couldn't stay forever. He couldn't follow him to the lockers. He couldn't be there to help him keep his cool when the day went from terrific to terrible in the space of a few minutes.

"Coaches sure are making a big deal about your ass bein’ back.” Thomas sneered, eyeing Jean as he was packing up to leave. Jean tried to ignore him.

“They’d do that for anybody on the team.”

“Yeah, probably not,” Thomas scoffed. “Not everybody's mom is fuckin’ the head coach.”

With that, Jean turned sharply and slammed the door of his locker closed behind him. “Shut the hell up, Wagner! You don't know shit!”

“Why don't you make me?” Thomas spat, thumping a fist threateningly against his chest. “You ass around and hurt your ankle and then roll back in here like you're a fuckin god. Your fag roomie take good care of you? He suck your dick, too?”

“What my roommate does with anyone isn't your fucking business, Wagner!” Jean seethed, too worried about reinjury to move from where he stood, to knock Thomas’s teeth out, like he wanted to.

“It’s my business when he’s hangin’ around, staring at everybody.” Wagner snarled. “Probably lookin’ for something to jack off to, nasty piece’a shit. You'd better tell him to keep his fuckin’ fairy ass away from the stadium.” He leaned in to make his point, his face just inches from Jean’s and his arm drawn back like he was ready to throw a punch if Jean spoke again. Jean just glared, conflicted.

There was a sharp whistle from a few yards away, and both of them stopped to glance in that direction. Coach Dawk was standing in the entryway, looking only at Thomas, frowning hard before shaking his head. Thomas clicked his tongue and pushed Jean hard in the chest before stepping away, spitting at the floor near his feet as he left. By the time Jean glanced back to where Nile had been standing, he was gone, obviously unconcerned with Jean himself. But walking out of the lockers and away from what had happened, Jean wasn’t entirely alone.

He had known Eren and Armin weren’t too far away from the moment Thomas had first started harassing him. Lately, it seemed like Eren was always quick to make an appearance when that happened. But they’d kept their distance, maybe because they knew Jean would want them to. The second Thomas turned to leave, though, they were on either side of Jean, hovering almost protectively. They guarded his walk from the lockers.

“Jean, seriously, you need to report this. He made actual fucking threats – you could nail him on this one!” Eren reached up to squeeze Jean’s arm, stopping him for a bare second. The three of them loitered, and watched Thomas and his friends as they made their way out of the athletic complex, Jean fairly certain he saw Thomas throw a glare over his shoulder before walking out the doors. Armin sighed. Eren huffed and turned back to look at Jean. Jean just shook his head.

“It's just Wagner being an asshole, Eren. Being homophobic doesn’t make him dangerous, it just makes him a dick. He's so full of shit it drips out of his mouth - he's not gonna do anything." Jean turned sharply to head for the same doors, once he was sure Thomas was gone, uncaring as to whether the others followed him or not. When they did, likely intent on arguing, he mumbled, flat and final, “And neither am I.”

--

The topic of Thomas and his asinine bullying always put Jean in a foul mood. He wasn’t sure if it was just that he was obviously upset, or because he was so transparent to Marco at times, but Marco always seemed to know when he’d had a scuffle with Wagner. He didn’t usually push Jean to talk about it, but he let Jean unload when he needed to. And that evening back in their dorm, Jean needed to.

“You can’t let one person ruin something for you that you love, though.” Marco responded, after listening to Jean vent his frustrations. Unlike Eren or even Armin, Marco wasn’t insistent that Jean be proactive in his response to Thomas’s taunting. Rather, he was the kind of encouragement despite trouble that Jean found himself craving, a bandage rather than a stitch.

Jean looked back at him, trying to fight the rush of affection he felt that was trying to play across his features. He decided against telling Marco every detail, glossing over why Thomas was harassing him, leaving out the threats he was making about telling Marco to stay away from the stadium. If there was anything Jean didn’t want, it was to lose those moments of looking up into the stands and seeing his best friend smiling back. So he kept the details to himself, and breathed out the tension with a long sigh.

“Not so sure I love it, anymore.” He confessed. “Baseball, I mean. There are days when I dread being on the field because I know I’ve gotta deal with his shit in the locker room afterward.”

“But then it's not baseball that's the problem,” Marco corrected. “I've never seen you happier than when you're on the field. You're in your element and it's so natural, and…” he dropped his eyes for a moment, swallowing. “And it's just really incredible to watch.” Moving to take a seat on Jean’s bed rather than his own, he let his shoulder brush against Jean’s as he sat close beside him. “It's the people you don't like, and only some of them, at that. And you can't let a handful of idiots destroy something you enjoy.”

“I'd like to destroy that handful of idiots,” Jean laughed dryly. “Wagner in particular. Talkin’ shit about my mom, and… other stuff.”

“But then you’d lose your scholarship.” Marco bumped their shoulders together, a small smile on his lips. “And that's more important, you know? You can ignore Thomas until you're able to move on from here.”

“Whenever that is,” Jean groaned. “I’m starting to think I’ll never move on from here. My third year and I’ve got no prospects for a pick up, yet.” He rubbed his temples and shook his head, letting his face fall into his open palms. “I'm gonna graduate without getting a contract. Watch me.”

“Don't think like that.” Marco said it firmly, though he was still smiling. “Things might look a little bleak right now, but they’ll get better. They always do. You’ll get picked up, I’m sure. But in the meantime, try to enjoy being here.”

Jean stared back at him for a moment. Marco had a point; he always did. And the small upturn of his lips had Jean’s curving upward as well after a moment, infected by Marco’s contagious positivity.

“I guess you're right,” he said finally, bumping his shoulder back against Marco’s, wide grins on both of their faces by then. “Here’s not so bad. Not at the moment, anyway.”

--

Jean had never been a shining example of a good student, but on the mend from his injury, he was as close as he'd ever been. Pushed by circumstance into making a real effort in his classes, his teachers took note of his performance – and so did his study partners.

So did Mikasa.

Taking Marco’s advice, he continued to do his share and beyond in their group, continued to show his worth by being his best self, and Mikasa seemed quietly impressed. She still rarely spoke to Jean, but in the days since she’d begun sitting a little closer, smiling a little more often, he realized that she just wasn’t much of a talker. A listener she was, though; when Jean spoke, her eyes warmed his face with their unbroken focus. He tried in vain not to stutter around her, but when he did, she only smiled wider. Never had being himself paid such dividends.

When he made his irregular rounds on social media one morning, he noticed that he had a Facebook friend request, and nearly rolled off of his bed when he saw that it was her. He fought the urge to send her a pointless message, and instead turned his focus to thanking Marco for helping him find his chill long enough to get her attention. He was nearly buzzing with excitement, a foreign but welcome feeling. But when Marco shuffled into their room early that afternoon, he looked to be in no mood for celebration.

Jean bit his tongue on the subject of Mikasa for the time, inquiring with Marco instead about why he looked so glum. 

“What's wrong?” There was no need to explain how he could tell something was off; they'd long since learned to read each other to that effect. Marco glanced over his shoulder at Jean as he stuffed a few things into his overflowing closet.

"You sure you have time to talk?" Marco asked, half buried in boxes and sloppily hung clothes. Jean nodded.

“Sure, yeah. Nothin’ to do ‘til class. Then a group meeting and a run, but ‘til then I’m all ears.”

Marco turned back toward him, exhaling his answer sharply. “It's Auruo.” He grunted as he pushed the door closed against the mess straining behind it. “Ever since he got hurt, he's been really… difficult. More than usual, I mean. He's really pissed about the whole thing, probably more about losing the lead role, than anything.”

Jean rolled his eyes. "He's a big baby.”

“I understand his disappointment,” Marco sighed, taking a seat in his desk chair. “I just wish he could be at least a little excited for me.” He fiddled with a cup of pens, unconsciously beginning to tidy his desk after a moment. Jean watched him, then shook his head.

“I wish he wasn't a massive piece of shit, but we can't all get what we want.” Jean gave a dry laugh, glancing back down at his laptop screen, but when he looked up again, Marco had stopped cleaning – and stopped smiling.

“I'm glad my relationship is amusing to you, Jean.”

Jean groaned. “Oh, c’mom Marco. I didn't mean--”

“Don't worry about it.” Marco said flatly, standing again. He grabbed a short stack of books and tucked them under one arm, nodding curtly as he turned toward the door. “I'll see you later.”

As soon as the door clicked closed behind him, Jean knew he owed him an apology. Marco deserved that much. Sure, his boyfriend was an unworthy bag of trash, but that wasn't technically Marco’s fault. He was under so much stress, and had still taken the time to see to Jean’s needs while he’d been recovering. And he’d repaid him by mouthing off about his relationship drama.

Jean groaned. Some best friend.

A few quick texts to Reiner, a shuffle of his evening schedule, and Jean wagered he had a perfect solution figured out for making it up to Marco.

From: Jean
1:12 PM
You and Bert up for a movie night, tonight?
Food’s on me, movie choice is Marco’s.
You can totally invite Annie, btw

Reiner responded almost immediately with an affirmative, and a request for pizza. Jean reminded him that he couldn't have his own entire pie unless he was willing to chip in. And they agreed that Marco’s taste in movies was pretty horrible, but beat Bert’s by a long shot, so it wasn't a total waste of an evening. Jean left for his afternoon classes, smiling to himself.

On his way, he sent a text to Ymir, letting her know he wouldn't be joining her at the track, after all.

From: Ymir
1:34 PM
You're bailing on me shortstop?

From: Jean
1:35 PM
No, I just have a thing to do. It's important.

From: Ymir
1:37 PM
An ‘important thing’. Riiiiight.

Jean groaned down at the screen in his hand. He knew that if he didn't respond, he’d probably have to deal with more of her prodding than if he just came clean. He bit the bullet and replied honestly.

From: Jean
1:40 PM
Look, I kinda argued with Marco earlier and now I gotta fix it.

From: Ymir
1:41 PM
Oh. Ohhhhh I see.

From: Ymir
1:41 PM
So is it gonna snow?

Jean read the text a few times, trying to be sure he was seeing it correctly. Ymir's sanity came into question for a brief moment, but maybe she'd just mistyped something. The sky was clear, cloud-free, and warm. He looked back down at his phone, confused.

From: Jean
1:45 PM
Huh? It's like 75 degrees

From: Ymir
1:46 PM
Exactly. But you’re finally pullin your head outta your ass.
So it's probably gonna snow.

From: Jean
1:47 PM
See your annoying ass at the track this weekend, alright?

From: Ymir
1:49 PM
Have fun with roomie!
;)

Jean slid his phone back into his pocket, and grinned despite himself.

--

Once his afternoon classes were behind him, all that was left to do for the day were pleasant things. A one-on-one meeting with Mikasa, and then a late night with Marco and their friends, hopefully putting the tension earlier behind them. Jean walked the patterned paths across campus with a little extra spring in his step, smiling at people he didn't even know.

His walk toward the library took him within a short distance of the athletic complex, and even from many paces away, he thought he could hear loud, familiar voices from behind one of the buildings that surrounded the track. He slowed his steps to listen, giving into curiosity. But the more he heard, the more it sounded like angry, hateful shouting. He nearly elected to ignore it – a fight was something he was looking to avoid at all costs. But the closer he came to the source of the sound, the more familiar the voice became. And then suddenly, it was clear enough to turn his stomach.

“You too big of a pansy to fight me, queer? Came creepin’ around to stare at everybody but now you wanna run?”

The taunting snarl was Thomas Wagner’s, unmistakable in the way it twisted Jean’s gut. He stopped where he stood, listening despite himself.

“You just gonna stand there and take it? Yeah, I bet you're pretty good at takin’ it, huh?”

There were sounds of whistling, muffled curses – probably Samuel and the others, followers of Thomas even off the field. Jean pitied whatever poor guy had gotten himself surrounded by them, but was thankful not to be the focus of their harassment for once. He hauled his bag higher onto his shoulder and turned to be on his way, trying to ignore the part of his brain screaming at him to step in.

Whoever they were bothering didn't seem to be giving them the response they wanted, when a voice that sounded like Samuel’s sneered, "Won't talk, huh? Ain't gonna say nothin?”

“Maybe he can't.” Thomas spat. “Maybe he's had so much fuckin’ dick in his mouth he forgot how.” There were louder shouts, gravel shifting under moving feet; Jean could hear the commotion better, only realizing as the sound became clearer that he was unconsciously backing toward its source again. From around the corner of the building he was approaching,  he heard more taunting, hissing, peals of laughter.

"Cool it, Thomas!" Said another voice.

“Shut the fuck up, Franz!” Thomas replied. Then he seemed to loose his venom on whoever he was harassing, again.

“S’wrong? Don't wanna take it from me? Thought you were into guys. Nasty fuck.” There was the sound of something being thrown, hitting the wall like buckshot. Jean glanced down at his feet, at the loose rocks that lined the edges of the pavement beneath them, and grimaced. Edging toward the corner of the building to try and get a look at whatever confrontation was happening, he heard another voice, more familiar than any of the others, and his stomach dropped.

"What is your problem? Why are you--”

“What's my problem?!” Thomas didn’t let him finish, didn't let Jean have time to process who’s voice he was hearing before he was lunging forward, shouting. “It ain't my problem! You're the one with the problem, you disgusting piece of shit. Hangin’ around the field, fuckin’ starin’ at everybody. And now you turn up here?! Kirschtein might be into that shit, but I ain't.”

Jean stepped out into view to shout, but his voice caught in his throat. Nothing but a pained wheeze escaped him as he watched Thomas draw back his fist, the flash of a face in front of him definitely Marco’s, wide eyed with panic before he snapped his eyes closed, and Thomas punched him hard enough to knock him into the wall behind him.

"Marco!” Jean finally managed to scream, legs still frozen in place. The others turned to face him, glaring. But Thomas didn't look away from Marco, eyes drawn down and near manic as he pulled his arm back to hit Marco again. Marco didn’t fight back, didn’t try to defend himself; he only turned his head, trying to avoid another punch, catching the worst of it across his nose. Blood splattered down the front of his shirt, dark enough against white fabric that Jean could see it, yards away. He screamed again.

“Get the fuck away from him, asshole!”

“Thought I told you to keep his nasty ass way from us!” Thomas snarled, still gripping Marco by one arm. He shook him hard, shoving him back against the wall again, and as he hit the bricks and bounced slightly, Jean finally found his footing to run toward them. Thomas let go of Marco, kicking gravel in his direction as he slid down the wall. “But you wouldn't. Fuckin’ soft on him. You're both fags.”

“So what, then?” Jean roared, sliding across loose rocks as he came to stand in front of Marco. “You gonna beat the shit outta me, too?” He spread his stance as wide as he could manage, his bag long forgotten where he'd dropped it yards away, hands and arms splayed out in defense of Marco, half propped against the wall behind him. Some of the others looked on in genuine surprise, horror; Thomas broke into a disgusting round of laughter.

“You lookin’ for a fight, Kirschtein?” He cackled, roughly cracking his knuckles. He motioned over Jean’s shoulder, even more amused. “Or you just tryna save your princess over here?”

“You leave Marco the hell alone!” Jean hissed. “Don't you ever touch him again, or I’ll kick the shit outta you, you understand me?”

“Will you?!” Thomas scoffed a laugh, then launched himself at Jean without warning, pushing him back against the wall beside Marco. “Like to see you try it, asshole!”

On reflex, a Jean raised a leg and kicked Thomas sharply in the stomach, knocking him off and away. Jean never fought – he didn't even really know how. But the glimpse of Marco in his peripheral sight – blood crowning his head, pouring from his nose and his mouth – made him want to. He dug his heels in where he stood, fingers tightening into fists he intended to use.

“Jean, don’t!” Marco said weakly, wiping the blood from his lips. Jean’s jaw tightened, torn between the sight of Marco needing help, and Thomas needing a kick to the face. When Marco could see that Jean wasn’t going to listen, he tried to push up from where he sat, but slid back down with a pained groan.

“You gonna do somethin’, or just let me whip your ass, too?” Thomas jabbed. “Because you two would look real fuckin’ cute, sittin’ there together.”

Jean stepped out from where he stood, hands up to guard himself, forcing danger as far as he could push it from Marco. Thomas kicked more gravel in Marco’s direction, just to taunt both of them. He laughed through bared teeth. Marco winced; Jean snapped.

And then there was chaos.

Shouts surrounded them before Jean could even make contact. The angry yelling of campus security, the voices of a scattered few of the coaching staff, and the panicking of Thomas’s crew, all clamored into a roar around them. Thomas himself was unfazed, having finally regained his footing after being winded by Jean’s forceful kick moments before. He seemed intent on landing at least one more blow in the shuffle around them, but a bellowing voice froze him in place.

“WAGNER!”

Mike was in the middle of the crowd then, making a path for himself through the river of people, straight to where Jean and Thomas stood facing each other. Thomas dropped his hands, and a Jean mirrored him unconsciously. When Mike reached them, the rage on his face was jarring, undeniable. He roughly pulled Thomas back a few feet, putting himself firmly between he and Jean.

Immediately, Thomas seemed keen on mumbling an excuse, an apology. Mike flatly denied him the chance.

"If you think your sorry ass has any excuse for what just happened here, then I suggest you take it up with the dean, or maybe your mama. Because I think I'm pretty clear on the situation.”

“Coach…” Thomas began, haughty demeanor fading fast. “You didn't see! These guys--”

“Have every right to take you to court over what just happened!” Mike cut in. He leaned into Thomas’s space, eyes narrowed and voice quiet, yet unmistakably furious. “I’ve been waiting for you to do something stupid, Wagner. Waiting for a chance to send you packin’ after I watched you harass my other boys too many times. Now you’ve handed it to me and you’d better believe I’m taking it.”

He looked up to see a uniformed officer approaching, and grabbed hold of the sleeve of Thomas’s shirt as if to keep him from running.

“Rounding these boys up for question,” the officer said sharply,  glaring at Jean as hard as he did at the others. He looked back at Mike. “You have any idea where we should start?”

"Start with this one," Mike snapped, pushing Thomas in the officer's direction. He motioned toward Samuel, Mylius and the others. "The ones back there too. And get some medical attention for these two.”

“You boys involved, as well?” The officer asked of Jean and Marco. Jean shook his head; Mike cleared his throat.

“Victims.” He said very clearly, his voice like a warning. “The university needs to handle this properly and respect both of them, seeing as how they've already been throughly disrespected here, today.” The officer’s face changed, then, reflecting a bit more softness, and perhaps a touch of fear at Mike’s tone. He turned to motion to others in uniform, signaling them to round up Thomas’s friends.

"And I wouldn't get too comfortable in your jerseys, boys!” Mike boomed. “You've worn ‘em for the last time.”

With people shuffling around them, Jean turned on his heel. Marco was still propped against the wall, half lying on the ground where he’d slid down it. He looked up at Jean with one glazed over eye, the other already swollen closed. Jean dropped to the ground beside him, his ankle painfully tight as he squatted.

“Marco…” He breathed, trying to decide where to begin. What had happened? Why had they done this to him? The questions stacked up faster in his mind than he could string words together, but one was louder than the rest. “Why didn't you fight back?”

“’s what he wanted,” Marco croaked, coughing to clear his throat. Jean leaned in closer, his hand coming to rest behind Marco’s head of its own volition.

“Maybe, but that doesn't mean you had to just let him hit you! For god’s sake, Marco – big guy like you, you coulda mopped the floor with Wagner’s sorry ass! Or at least defended yourself!”

“But then I’d have paid for it, anyway.” Marco straightened himself up, reaching up to clutch Jean’s shoulder for support. “Guy’s a white, star athlete, probably from a wealthy family – I’m a poor, gay Latino kid, whose parents wouldn't even come to his defense, much less the people that run this school. I fight back, I’m looking at losing my scholarship, too. Not worth it.”

He looked down at his shirt, torn at the sleeve and stained with blood and dirt from the rocks Thomas had thrown at him. Jean reached up to move the torn piece of sleeve away from where it stuck to Marco’s reddened skin, both of them wincing. Marco reached up to catch Jean’s hand, squeezing it hard as he sat up further. “S’bad enough that you were gonna risk yours over me.”

“Wasn’t just about that,” Jean said quickly. But then Marco looked up at him with one tired eye, and the need to explain himself melted away. He softened, leaned in until his face was almost touching Marco’s. "So what’re you gonna do?”

Marco blinked back at him for a moment, then shrugged, groaning as if it were painful to do so. “I'm gonna go back to the dorm, and try to forget this happened.” He reached up to touch his face, hissing as he dragged fingers over his swollen eye. “And hope that I'm not too busted up to stay in the show.”

“You’re not gonna do anything about this?!” Jean asked, pushing himself up onto his feet again. “You need to report it, you need to let people know this is happening, you…” He looked down at Marco, covered in blood to the point that half of his face was almost masked by it “You need to go to the hospital.”

“Jean--”

“You've got to do something about it, Marco. No one else can but you, and I know you're scared, but – I’ll go with you, okay? Whatever you need, I’ll be there. But you've got to be the one to report it and make a move.”

Marco didn’t argue any further, and Jean didn’t push. There would be time for that later. For the moment, Jean just moved to stand beside him, letting Marco drop his head against his leg, and waiting for the scramble of people to still enough for them to leave.

Mike ordered people around, sending assistant coaches on missions to contact families and notify the admissions board that Thomas and the others were no longer eligible for their scholarships.

“They can figure out the logistics from there,” he said sharply. “But as far as I'm concerned, I don't care if they lose every credit hour and dollar they've spent to be here.” He looked back at Jean, looked him up and down and then reached out to squeeze his arm, exhaling with something life relief. Jean returned the gesture, then glanced back down at Marco, still leaning against him.

"Call mom for me, would you?" He asked simply, and Mike nodded.

--

After more than a little resistance, Jean finally convinced Marco that he needed to go to the hospital. Jean drove him there himself, letting Reiner know once they'd arrived that their movie night would have to be postponed. He offered to bring Bertholdt, and join Jean at the hospital, but despite appreciating his intentions, Jean thought it best not to accept that offer.

Watching nurses fuss over Marco was painful, but Jean put on a brave face. He knew Marco needed it. And what was worse, he knew that – at least to some extent – what had happened was his fault. If he had just mentioned Thomas’s threats to Marco, if he had just said or done something himself, instead of waiting for it to escalate, maybe Marco would never have crossed paths with him at all. Guilt flooded his chest, his lungs, making it hard to breathe. Trying to distract himself from it, he talked to an increasingly medicated Marco.

“Why were you even over by the athletic buildings?”

“Was lookin’ for you,” Marco said sleepily. “Wanted to apologize for snapping at you earlier.”

Jean pressed bent knuckles to his lips, biting them hard to fight the feeling of tightness threatening to rob him of breath again. After a minute, he managed a few words, barely audible.

“You have nothing to apologize for.”

Once Marco looked to be well taken care of, Jean stepped out to make a phone call. He knew his mother would be calling soon – Mike having likely already informed her of what was going on – so he figured it best to head her off at the pass. Anything to keep her from stressing too much.

"Mike took care of everything,” Jean assured her, after they’d gotten past his retelling of the events. “I think he's been waiting for a chance to, honestly.”

“He cares a lot about you,” she said. “We both do.”

“I know, mom. I love you, too. Both of you.”

"This probably isn't a good time, but -  I want you to know that Mike and I have talked about making things... official. Maybe sometime later this year.” There was a pause, a thoughtful silence on Lynnette’s end. “But I want you to be okay with that before we talk any more about it.”

“I am,” Jean said automatically. “It's not about me. But for what it's worth, I want whatever makes you happy. And I could probably put up with Mike for the long term.”

Lynnette sighed, relieved laughter at its edge. "I’m glad. Now, you go take care of Marco, okay? I'll send extra oatmeal cookies for him with my next care package.”

“He’ll like that,” Jean smiled. “Thanks, mom.”

“No problem, sweetie.” She hummed quietly to herself, and then, “In the meantime, maybe you can sing him the Boo Boo Song.”

“Mom.”

A soft laugh, a half-hearted apology, and then Lynnette said her goodbye, and Jean was left to return to Marco’s tiny room and sit in silence. But he didn't even consider leaving. He remembered sitting in an identical room just down the hall a few weeks before, propped up in a bed like the one Marco was sleeping on and loaded with a similar cocktail of pain medicines – and he remembered having Marco by his side. Knowing from experience that Marco would do the same for him, he settled himself in the bedside chair and got as comfortable as he could, intent on staying.

Marco shifted in his sleep, cracking an eye open for just a second, just long enough to see Jean still there. He smiled sleepily and made an attempt at a wave, barely raising his hand from the bed. Jean shook his head and silently laughed. He caught Marco’s outstretched fingers and laced them between his, squeezing his hand. When Marco didn't let go, Jean didn't make him. If Marco needed a hand to hold, then Jean wanted it to be his.

In the stillness of the sterile room, amid the soft beeping of monitors and the gentle rhythm of Marco’s breathing, Jean quietly began to sing a song he only somewhat remembered. It was half in Hebrew, and half out of tune, since Jean wasn’t much of a singer, and hadn't even heard the tune since he was a child. But the more he sang, the more Marco smiled in his sleep. And that was all the encouragement he needed.

He sang until the words returned to him.

Chapter Text

Thirty six hours was a long time to go without sleep, especially with no decent coffee nearby. But Jean made do.

Marco ended up being stuck in the hospital overnight, possibly more out of the nurses’ fear for his safety, than any strictly medical reasons. A broken nose, a black eye – a mess of cuts and bruises, to be sure, but nothing worth being admitted over. Marco promised all of them that he wasn’t in any danger anymore, and that he would surely be fine to return to the dorm. But they were all in agreement that he needed to stay. Jean wondered if it might have something to do with the way Marco smiled at them, cheerful and thankful for everything they did to help him, despite how much pain he was in.

Even all bruised up, Marco was a charmer.

It was the following afternoon when they finally got to return to their little room. The slow climb up the stairs felt like trekking up a mountain after the sleepless night they’d both had, but Jean didn't complain. His mind was preoccupied; he was needed.

“You alright?” He asked, no more than a few minutes after they’d settled in their room. Marco winced as he lowered himself onto his bed, but nodded.

“As much as I can be, for the moment.”

“You need anything?” Jean glanced around the room, to see if any of Marco’s necessities could be moved closer. Marco paused to think, then shrugged, suddenly sounding shy.

“Could use one of those ice packs, and maybe something to drink.”

Even when he felt that he might be imposing, Marco was much better at giving straight answers than Jean was, and Jean was glad for it. He gave him a thumbs up and smiled. “You got it.”

Jean was on his way back down the hallway not five minutes later, a cold drink from the building’s vending machine tucked under his arm. When he got back to the room, Marco was prodding through the bags from the hospital. Jean batted his hands away – careful of his injuries – and retrieved things for him instead. He mumbled something about having two good hands and eyes, knowing full well that Marco would take it as the joke it was meant to be.

Taking care of other people wasn’t something Jean had an immense amount of practice with, outside of looking after his mother. But Marco made it easy; he was humble and so openly grateful for the help. Jean set aside any embarrassment he might’ve had about tending to his best friend and just did it.

Marco would do it for him. He already had.

“Looks like it's gonna be my turn to take care of you, for a while.” Jean joked. Marco shook his head, disquiet beginning to play across his face.

“No, I've gotta be back on my feet tomorrow. If I can't make rehearsals, they'll replace me.”

Jean threw a hand up, incredulous. “Are you serious? That's way too soon, Marco -  you gotta take it easy for a bit.”

Marco cocked an eyebrow and gave Jean a hard stare. “Says you.”

Jean huffed. “Hey, I did what everybody told me after I messed up my ankle. Even let Armin boss me around. I served my time.”

“Yeah, well I don't have time. I've got tonight, and that's it.” He tried to make a gesture to emphasize his point, but ended up hissing in pain, instead. Jean took that as his cue and dropped down onto the bed beside him.

“Then you're gonna rest tonight.”

Walling pillows around Marco on either side and worriedly glancing up every so often to see what the cause of a wince or a sharp intake of breath might have been, Jean reminded himself of his mother. Or maybe of Marco himself. He laughed under his breath at the thought; Marco smiled weakly in response.

“Something funny?”

 Jean shook his head. “Just thinking. I feel like my mom. If she was here, she’d probably have you wrapped in blankets a foot thick.”

Marco laughed, relaxing into the plush mounds Jean had situated around him. “She sounds precious. World needs more people like her.”

“You can say that again,” Jean smiled. “More people like you, too.”

There was a beat of silence as Marco looked down at his hands, running fingers over the one that was reddened. “Don’t know about that,” he said softly. Jean didn’t argue with him, only sat in steadfast silence, waiting for him to look up again. When he didn’t offer to, Jean cleared his throat.

“You, uh… You want some space for a little bit, or…?”

Marco shook his head fiercely, before reining himself in and dropping his eyes again. “No, I'd rather… I’d like for you to stay.”

Jean smiled again, making a show of stretching where he sat.

“Then I’ll stay right here.”

--

Jean kept to his word, not leaving Marco’s side – much less, the room – except to run errands and fetch things for him as needed. They talked and caught up and even laughed, and if it weren't for the angry looking bruises covering half of his face, Jean might've forgotten Marco was even injured. Even a little busted up, his smile had a way of making things brighter.

When Marco began to fade out of consciousness that evening – no doubt drowsy from all the pain medication in his system – Jean stayed with him, still. He didn't even bother to move when Marco slumped against him, sliding down Jean’s side to rest comfortably across his legs. Wedging a pillow carefully beneath him, Jean let Marco’s head settle in his lap. Sleep looked good on him, much needed as it was, and Jean didn't dare disturb him.

Marco was warm, and heavy in Jean’s lap, despite how little of him was actually there. He smelled good, the same pleasant, familiar scent on his clothes and the pillows around them, and Jean wondered how, when it had been at least two days since either of them had showered. The soft pants he wore were a pair Jean had borrowed not two weeks earlier, and he reached down to absently thumb at the peeling logo on Marco’s hip. Marco hummed contentedly; Jean patted him there, and pulled his hand away.

Occasionally Marco would wiggle, readjust himself in his sleep, and when he pressed his face into Jean’s thigh, Jean was acutely aware of the warmth of his breath there. It should've been uncomfortable, but instead it was merely awkward, reminding Jean too much of the fact that he’d been close enough to Marco once before to feel that warm breath on his face. It was hard not to think of that night, the way Marco’s eyes fluttered in his sleep reminiscent of the way they shuttered closed right after he had kissed Jean. It was also incredibly inconvenient, thinking about Marco’s warmth pressed all along the front of his body, when Jean was holding an oblivious, sleeping Marco in his lap. He shifted beneath him and willed the thoughts away, trying not to let his mind talk his body into reacting to them.

It was neither the time, nor the place, though Jean wasn't sure there would ever be an appropriate venue for those kinds of thoughts about Marco. Off limits, he reminded himself. Not an option.

Trying to distract himself, he prodded at his phone, reaching as far as his seated position would allow to plug its charger into the nearby wall outlet. He managed not to disturb Marco, silently congratulating himself. But when he tapped his phone’s screen and saw a Facebook message waiting, his smile fell away, and he remembered something that had totally slipped his mind in the hours before.

Mikasa: Is there a reason you didn't show up for our meeting today? I waited for ages.

Jean sucked in a breath, wincing at the realization. His one chance at talking to Mikasa alone for more than thirty seconds, and he’d completely bailed on her. But Marco shifted in his lap again – asleep, comfortable – and he couldn't be too mad at himself. He sent her a reply, hoping she wouldn't be, either.

Jean: Hey, I'm really sorry. My roommate got attacked by a couple of assholes from the baseball team and was pretty hurt. Guys about tore him in half. I went with him to the hospital. He's out now, but he needed me here tonight. I totally forgot to message you. I'm really sorry if you thought I didn't want to meet, but I had to help him out and got sidetracked. Let me know if we can meet up again sometime soon.

Once the message was tagged as ‘sent’, Jean let out a long sigh and dropped backward onto the bed, Marco still half in his lap. There were notifications for a handful of texts and a voicemail on his phone as well, and he decided he might as well check them. He figured he would hear his mother’s voice when he opened his voicemail inbox, but the one he heard instead was deep, if not just as soft.

“Hey, Jean. It’s Mike. Just checkin’ in on you boys, makin’ sure Marco got the medical attention he needed. I made a few phone calls and got him a meeting with the dean tomorrow, so try to see that he takes his complaints to the top man. Mr. Smith’s an old buddy of mine, so I'm pretty sure he’ll do right by you two. Hope you're both gettin’ some rest. Keep me posted, lemme know how things go tomorrow. Take care.”

Jean sighed. Mike was nothing if not concerned – sometimes overly so. Still, he couldn't keep the corners of his mouth from turning up just a little at the sound of Mike’s worried voice. It was familiar. Comforting. Parental.

He rolled his eyes in the near-darkness, where no one could see him shake his head and grin.

Beside him, Marco stirred in his sleep. Only then did Jean realize he’d rolled from his resting place on Jean’s hips. At first, sniffling mumbles and gentle shifts under the blanket that only half covered him made Jean wonder if he was uncomfortable. But then it became whimpering, arms winding tightly over his head and fingers clawing at nothing, before shouting brokenly between gasps for air.

“No, don’t – get away from me, stop!”

He shook them both with his violent twisting. Jean wrapped arms tightly around his middle and held him, letting the force of his hold against Marco’s writhing shake him awake.

“Don’t touch me, I--” Marco sat bolt upright, taking Jean with him. He stared at Jean, wide eyed, like he'd seen something horrific. One of Jean’s arms was still half wound around his waist; he squeezed Marco gently and waited. Marco began to cry.

“Dream. A dream,” he muttered frantically. “It's… it was just… I'm sorry.” He shook with the force of a sob that he wouldn't let escape. Jean tightened his hold again, just slightly, leaning over to rest his head against Marco’s.

“Hey, hey - it's alright. You're okay. I’m right here, and you’re safe. I've got you.”

Marco nodded, turning himself so that he could drop the side of his face that wasn’t battered onto Jean’s shoulder. He mumbled a choked-up explanation – something about dreaming of Wagner, and then something about his father – but Jean didn't push him to repeat himself. It didn't matter what he’d dreamt of. Only that it was over.

“Get some rest, ok? Everything’s good. I'm right here.” He reached up to squeeze Marco’s uninjured shoulder, gently still. “I’m gonna stay right here.”

It took several wordless minutes of stuttered breath, but finally Marco seemed to accept Jean’s assurance. He slid back beneath the blanket, letting out a ragged sigh as he adjusted his pillow and whispered his thanks. Jean reached for his phone, holding it up beneath his face so that Marco could see what he hoped was a reassuring nod, a smile that said ‘no problem, don't mention it’, and that would hopefully be enough to ease Marco’s mind long enough for him to sleep.

Once his breathing was deep and even again, Jean wagered he was out cold, and contemplated moving back to his own bed, for comfort. But Marco curled into his side, fingers lightly dragging across the bottom hem of Jean’s t-shirt, and Jean decided against it. He’d promised, after all. Leaving Marco alone after that would've been heartless, would make Jean a terrible friend. So he pushed his qualms away and pulled the blanket higher over both of them.

While he waited on sleep, his eyes fall back to the screen of his phone. The notification flag beside his Facebook app – which he’d only cared enough to download after Mikasa had added him as a friend – told him that he had unread messages. He tapped the icon and held his breath.

Mikasa: Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry to hear that. I hope he’s alright.

Mikasa: If you're able to leave your dorm tomorrow, maybe we can meet in the early afternoon. The library will be closed, but there's a little smoothie place just down from the campus apartments, and we could meet up there.

Mikasa: Here’s my phone number, to make things easier. 555-1785

Jean blinked at the message for a moment in disbelief, before a big, ridiculous grin spread across his face. His bit his lip to hold it back, subconsciously afraid that it might somehow show through in the tone of his writing as he tried to respond casually.

Jean: Yeah, ok great. Thanks a lot, Mikasa. I'll see you tomorrow.

He put his phone down beside him and smiled up at the dimly lit ceiling.

She gave him her number.

Part of him wanted to prod Marco awake, to tell him about it. He could almost see the sleepy smile Marco would undoubtedly offer him, and the thought made Jean’s smile all the wider. But Marco needed his rest, so Jean refrained.

The peaceful look on Marco’s face made Jean optimistic about his recovery. A nagging sense of fault still stung him every time he caught sight of Marco’s swollen eye, his scraped skin and badly bruised nose, but in his sleep, Marco looked happy, free of pain. Jean let his forehead fall gently against his sleeping friend’s and smiled.

These were the kinds of moments that stayed within the confines of the four walls of their dorm – the kind of thing Jean hid from the world, for so many reasons. People might get the wrong idea. People might talk. People didn’t deserve to share the time that was only theirs.

There was a massive list of reasons why things that normally would've been weird with anyone else were totally fine with Marco, and Jean referred back to them often. He had a head full of excuses. It was a Jewish thing. A Brazilian thing. A best friend thing.

But mostly it was a Jean and Marco thing, and that was more than reason enough. Marco turned his face so that his skin pressed against Jean’s lips; Jean just smiled against him and wondered how long it would be before he would fall asleep, himself.

Looking back at his phone screen a little while later, he gave in to the urge to reread his conversation with Mikasa, to look at the phone number she’d given him again, as if to remind himself that the whole thing hadn't been a dream. Instead, he was sidetracked by another message waiting in his inbox.

A message from Eren.

Eren: Jean, you ok?!

Jean hesitated for a moment; in the months since they'd parted ways as… whatever they were, he and Eren had never messaged each other on Facebook. They weren't even friends there, despite several recent requests on Eren’s end. Why change that, now? But Jean answered, if for now other reason than to quiet Eren’s nosiness.

Jean: Yeah, I'm alright. Why?

Eren: Mikasa told me about Marco, so I called around and got ahold of Coach Z. You sure you're ok? You guys need anything?

Jean: We’re alright, really.

Eren: I can't fucking believe Wagner, dude. Guy needs to get his ass handed to him.

Jean: Yeah well. Just let me pretend I live in a world where he doesn't exist.

Eren: God, you're still such a drama queen. Some things don't change.

Jean stared hard at the words, glaring while he contemplated a searing response. Eren rarely acknowledged him with words like ‘still’, and seeing it in text set Jean simmering. But before he could say anything, Eren was typing again, a line of dots bouncing beside his name to show that he had more to say. Jean glowered at his screen, but waited.

Eren: Anyway, take care of yourself, alright? And Marco. Armin and I can bring you guys some stuff if you need, just shoot me a message. Don't be a dick about it either, ok? I'm offering.

Eren: And add me back, asshole.

And with that, Eren was offline.

Something still sour in the back of Jean’s mind told him not to do anything, to chalk the whole chat up to Eren being a nosy asshole, just like he'd always been. But something a little louder remembered the way Marco had smiled when Jean had made relative peace with Eren and Armin during their visit to the dorm in the weeks before, and he found himself clicking the little blue tab with the barest hint of a smile on his face.

‘Add Friend’.

--

The next morning was an early one.

Never had Jean’s schedule for an ‘off’ day been so loaded, but helping Marco make his way down the hall to the showers, he couldn’t bring himself to be upset about it. He went out to buy them both breakfast, trying to organize his plans and his thoughts for the day. On the way back, his phone rang.

When he answered, Lynnette wasted no time fussing over him.

“How are you, sweetheart? How's your roommate?” She sounded tired, and Jean wondered if she’d slept the night before.

“Marco’s doin’ alright. I mean, he’s in awful shape, really, but… I don't think he intends to let that stop him from anything.”

She laughed, a relieved sound. “Sounds almost as bull-headed as someone else I know.”

“I am not bull-headed,” Jean huffed. “I'm just… Anyway, how are you, mom?”

“I'm alright. Headache – probably from all the worrying I've been doing lately. Though it might’ve been the extra glass of wine last night...”

“Hope it's not me you’re worrying about. I'm fine, y’know. I've got things under control.”

“I know you do, sweetheart. And I’ve got a lot of other things on my mind, trust me. But I’ll never stop worrying about you. Or your friends.”

“Hey, I told you – Marco’s fine. Or he will be, anyway.”

“I'm sure he will, with you taking care of him.”

“I don't know about that.” Jean balanced a full bag on the back of one arm, using his freed hands to dig through his pockets, searching for his dorm keys. When he reached the door though, he lingered outside of it, propping himself against the wall and speaking quietly. “I'm just kinda here.”

His mother chuckled. “You just being there is more important than you'd think, Jean.”

“Now you sound like him.” Jean frowned at his phone. “You guys really need to meet, you'd get along perfectly.”

“We could talk about how stubborn you are,” Lynnette teased. Jean sighed.

“I'm sure you’d have lots to talk about, then.”

“Well maybe whenever I make it over there for a game, you can introduce me.”

“Sounds like a plan.” At that, Jean smiled. Beyond the door, he could hear shuffling. “And it sounds like he's up, so I'd better go see if he needs anything before I leave for the day.”

Lynnette hummed thoughtfully, a smile audible in her tone. “You're a good boy, Jean. A good man. And I'm sure he'd say you're a good friend.”

“Mom, it's really not a big--”

“And I am so proud of you.”

“I don't…” Jean stalled for a moment, mouth twisted into a frown. But he had no real argument for his mother, nothing he could say to shrug her words off gracefully. So he gave up trying.

“Thanks, mom. I love you.”

--

Although a one-on-one meeting with Mikasa was something he would’ve given an entire limb in exchange for a few weeks earlier, Jean struggled with guilt over leaving Marco alone for the morning. Of course Marco could handle himself. That didn’t mean he should have to.

Marco offered a weak argument to Jean’s insistence that he needed someone to check in on him. Reiner was quick to offer, popping in with get-well gifts of junk food before Jean had a chance to leave for the day. But Jean wanted Marco to feel better when he returned, or at least not worse; he left Bertholdt in charge, instead.

The sun shone brightly on Jean’s walk to the smoothie shop. Sunglasses forgotten in his rush, he squinted against the light, for once wishing for the overcast skies he’d lived under for the weeks before. The obnoxious brightness, the caffeine he’d loaded himself up on to prepare for his day – it all led to a jumpy, jittery feeling when he finally spotted Mikasa, waiting at an otherwise empty metal table in the open-air sitting area. Or maybe that was just his heart, quickening in his chest.

“Hi, Jean.” She waved as he approached, pushing a chair out for him beside her. He dropped into it with a tense huff, giving her a tight smile.

“Hey. Sorry again about yesterday.”

She shook her head, passing a half-empty paper cup from one hand to the other. “Oh, please don't worry about it. Really. Eren talked my leg off about the whole thing last night, and I just… I'm really sorry you and your roommate had to deal with all of that.”

“It's alright, now.” Jean said, though he wasn’t sure how convinced of that he was, himself. “Wagner lost his jersey, and hopefully Marco won't lose anything with his theatre stuff. Poor guy deserves a break.”

Mikasa swirled the drink in her hands and nodded. “Well, I think it's really commendable, the way you helped him.”

“He would've done it for me.” Jean said quickly. The familiar rush of affection he felt at the mention of Marco made him feel calmer. For the briefest flash of a second, he almost wished Marco was there with him, to steady Jean’s nerves. But even the thought of him made things easier. Jean shrugged. “S’no big deal, really.”

“It is, though,” Mikasa insisted. She had yet to smile, and Jean shifted anxiously under the intensity of her gaze as she looked up from her hands. “I think loyalty to your friends and family is really admirable. I guess I didn't give you enough credit, but - I'm really impressed, Jean. There's a lot more to you than I ever noticed, before.”

Jean swallowed, crossing his arms in front of him. “Thanks.”

Mikasa seemed to be contemplating her next words, speaking carefully, tactfully. Jean wished he knew her well enough to know what might have been bothering her. But then she offered him the tiniest hint of a grin, and he forgot to be concerned.

“It probably seems a little trite at this point, but I just wanted you to know that I have a lot of respect for that, and for you.” She laid a hand on his arm, fingers tapping gently. “Eren was right about you.”

“Eren?” Jean gulped. “He talks to you – about me?”

She nodded. “Always has, but a lot more, lately.”

Jean sucked in a breath and held it for a moment, thinking; he tried to sound as relaxed as possible as he spoke. “What does he say about me?”

A laundry list of things that Eren could have told her rolled through Jean’s mind. Private things – incredibly fucking embarrassing things – that had his chest tightening at the memory of. Eren knew way too much to be talking to anyone about him, especially Mikasa. He tried not to let his face betray the fact that he was panicking.

“That you're a really great guy.” Mikasa said simply. She took a sip of her drink, smiling around the straw, and then chuckled, “And I think I agree.”

“Oh,” Jean muttered, and let out a shuddering sigh not unlike a balloon, deflating.

Mikasa tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear, looking down at the cup in her hands as if she were hesitating. It was foreign, to Jean; he'd never seen her anything but stunningly confident. But she spoke with unusual warmth and softness then, still smiling.

“Listen, I know we don't have a lot of time to talk this afternoon, but I was wondering – would you like to grab coffee sometime? Or something else if you don't like coffee?”

“I love coffee!” Jean almost shouted, hands hitting the table excitedly before he could stop himself. So much for any chance of keeping his cool around her, for once. He felt his face flush immediately, but when Mikasa laughed, he did, too.

“Great.” She said, wiping at the corner of her eye as she caught her breath. “I just think it'd be nice to talk about something a little more exciting than research methods.”

Jean nodded, still a little overenthusiastic. “Yeah, definitely.”

The rest of their casual meeting was technically spent discussing their group project, but Jean barely retained any of it. What stuck with him was the sound of Mikasa’s laugh, the way the sunlight lit her features, and the way she clasped his hand as they were parting ways. Walking away, she almost seemed to float, hair picked up by the soft afternoon breeze.

Heading back to the dorm, Jean felt like floating, too.

--

As soon as he had made it to the landing of their floor, Jean could see Bertholdt, hovering in his and Reiner’s doorway and talking to someone inside the room. He turned to wave at Jean as he passed, mentioning that Marco was still in their room, and ‘seemed like he wanted some space’. Jean nodded his thanks and entered their room quietly, just in case.

Inside, Marco was fully dressed, in clothes a little nicer than Jean was used to seeing on him. A white, button-down shirt and pants with an actual button and zipper; Jean might have laughed at how out of character he looked if it weren’t for the dreadful expression on Marco’s face.

“I feel like I'm gonna throw up.”

He sat on the edge of his bed, hands folded. Jean hovered in the doorway for a moment, frowning.

“No reason to get worked up,” he replied. “We're just gonna tell the guy what happened, and hopefully the school will do something about it.”

Marco looked back at him, eyebrow raised. “That ‘guy’ is the dean, Jean. Kind of a big deal.”

“He's also a friend of Mike’s,” Jean said, letting the door close behind him as he slipped into the room. “So not such a big deal.” He said it as much for himself as for Marco; Jean hated talking to authority figures. But Marco needed reassurance, so he gave him the most convincing smile he could offer. “It's gonna be okay. I promise.”

Marco rubbed a finger under his nose, anxiously looking down at the floor. “I hope so. I just don't want to make things worse than they already are.”

“You won't. Everything's gonna be alright.” Jean promised, and took a seat on his own bed, across from Marco. After a moment, Marco looked up at him, calmer.

“Let's talk about something else. I'd rather save my upset stomach for after lunch.”

“Well, uh… Mikasa asked me out on a date earlier today.” It was out of Jean’s mouth before he could stop to worry that it might not have been appropriate in the moment. But Marco’s eyes widened and he leaned forward with interest.

“Really?”

“Yeah!” Jean sputtered, “I mean, I think. Kind of.”

Marco beamed. “That's great! And you said yes, right?”

“Well, yeah.” Jean thought about it for a moment, then cupped a hand over the back of his neck and laughed. “I think I kind of yelled at her, actually.”

“Still,” Marco chuckled, “That's really great, Jean.” He leaned forward to squeeze Jean’s knee. “I'm so happy for you.”

Everything about Marco's expression was genuine, but Jean couldn't help noticing a flash of something less than cheerful in his eyes. It was a sad kind of smile, and Jean almost felt guilty for the topic of conversation. Especially considering the smoldering mess that was Marco’s love life. Jean swallowed, fidgeted where he sat.

“Thanks. Yeah, I'm… I'm excited.”

Marco nodded. “You should be. Hey, maybe you could bring her to the show! I could get you guys tickets.”

“She'd like that, yeah.” Jean said, and then a little quieter, “I'd like that.”

“That was an easy sell.” Marco laughed. “Thought you hated musicals.”

Jean shrugged. “Yeah, but I don't hate you.” He grinned, turning Marco’s own words on him. “Besides, I bet Mikasa’s into that kinda thing.”

He expected Marco to laugh and agree, but instead, the smile on Marco’s face faltered for a moment. Afraid he’d said the wrong thing, Jean changed the subject, glancing at his phone as he slid it from his pocket.

“Well, we should probably go. Don't wanna be late.”

Marco nodded, and then his anxious expression returned. “Oh, God. There goes my stomach, again.”

“Hey, no no no - we're all good, remember? No worries.” Jean said, moving to his feet to hold an arm out for Marco in case he needed it. He didn't take it, but bumped his shoulder against Jean’s in thanks, all the same. Jean smiled again. “Let's just go before you have time to worry any more. Maybe we can grab something to eat, afterward.”

"After this?” Marco laughed. “I think I'm gonna need a drink." Jean rolled his eyes.

“Great idea for your stomach, yeah.”

He jabbed Marco playfully in his uninjured side and they headed out, making their way across campus, a little slower than usual. Marco made a valiant effort to walk as if nothing was paining him. Jean put almost as much work into showing him that he didn't have to.

They matched each other’s stride and enjoyed the sun.

--

The group of connected buildings that housed the office of the dean was not unfamiliar to Jean. It was also the home of the advising offices, and walking through the heavy, double glass doors of the main lobby reminded him of the afternoon he’d first met Marco, when he’d wasted several hours getting his rooming assignment sorted out. The sun was just as bright that day as he walked in with Marco, but Jean was even less happy with his reason for being there than he had been the last time.

They made their way down brightly lit hallways, toward the waiting area designated for appointments with school staff. Past the offices of financial aid, the offices of advisors and student counselors – until Marco stopped mid-stride. Jean followed his eyes, to where a familiar looking man stood in an open office door, turning to leave.

Jean knew his face as soon as he saw it properly, and his stomach turned before Marco even said the name aloud.

“Auruo?”

Before he even saw Marco’s face, his changed, feigned sweetness in his slightly startled tone as he responded. “Oh! Hello, love.” When he actually caught sight of Marco, his smile widened. The gratified look in his eye set Jean on edge; his words were even worse. “Oh, Marco, you look… terrible.”

Marco nodded, obviously embarrassed. “I told you it was bad.”

Auruo himself looked to have healed considerably, if the stories Jean had heard from Ymir and Marco were to be believed. Still, his false teeth – replacements for the ones Ymir knocked out – were so white they glowed, and his face was tight where the remnants of stitches still pulled around his mouth. It made his sickeningly saccharine smile all the more obnoxious.

“Worse than I thought,” he nodded, but there was no concern in his voice. Instead he laughed, holding Marco’s face in his hand for a moment as he studied it. “I don't think any amount of makeup is going to hide that ugly eye. Petra’s good, but she's not a miracle worker.”

“I’m okay, though.” Marco insisted, and for the first time, Jean was sharply aware of a lie in his voice. He pulled away and drew himself up a little taller. “It looks worse than it is. I’ll be fine to do the show.”

“Well that’s a relief,” Auruo said dryly. “Wouldn't want to lose the part on account of an injury. Someone far less qualified might end up with it.”

“How ‘bout you ease up, asshole?” Jean snapped, clinging to Marco’s sleeve to keep himself from lunging forward at Auruo. Things were tense enough that day without him punching anyone in the face. “Marco was in the hospital yesterday – and where the hell were you?”

"Busy,” he said flatly. His mouth twisted into a smirk as he looked Jean up and down. “You must be John."

“Jean.” Marco corrected. “What are you doing here, Auruo?”

Auruo laughed haughtily. “Last I checked, I was free to be wherever I wanted to without consulting anyone beforehand.”

“I just asked what you're doing – you told me when I texted you that you were out of town this week.” Marco’s voice was painfully quiet as he glanced to either side. “I don't see why it’s a problem if I ask, I'm your boyf--”

“I stopped by to chat with a friend,” Auruo interrupted. “But I've got places to be right now, so if you two will excuse me.” He cocked an eyebrow at Jean before walking away, making a show of dragging a hand across Marco’s uninjured side as he went. “I’ll be home after nine tonight.” He said, suggestion in his tone; Marco nodded, responding without looking back at him.

“Ok – I’ll call you then.”

Auruo barely spared him a nod, and then he was gone, heading off in a hurry. Marco watched him, worrying his swollen lip between his teeth. Jean watched too, but where Auruo was going or whatever the hell he was doing wasn’t really of his concern; he desperately wished it wasn’t any of Marco’s, either.

"What a dick.” Jean grumbled, as soon as the lobby door closed behind Auruo. There were myriad other things he wanted to say, but he kept his words plain. Beside him, Marco was quiet for a moment, but when he finally spoke, his voice was shaking.

“Jean, I really don't know if we should go through with this. I don't think--”

Jean cut him off with a wave, splaying his hand on Marco’s chest as he shook his head. “Hey, hey hey, whoa - it's okay. Alright? This isn't gonna be a big deal.” He patted the place where his hand rested, eyes locked with Marco’s. “Don't let your asshole boyfriend rattle your nerves. He's a prick, but we'll worry about that later. You're okay. I'll be right here.”

That seemed to be enough, at least for the time.

Marco nodded and followed Jean through one last set of doors.

 --

Waiting wasn't something Jean had planned on, seeing as how Mike had implied that they would be prioritized. He’d honestly expected just to walk right in, get things over with quickly and be on their way. But the dean’s office door was closed when they arrived, and – after checking in with an overly-chatty secretary – they took seats in the small waiting area and did just that.

When they were finally shown in half an hour later, Jean nearly had to drag Marco in beside him, bolstering him by the arm. He was the first one to speak as well, trying not to let on that he was a little bit nervous, himself. This was a friend of Mike’s, he reminded himself. Couldn’t be that bad of a guy.

“Mr. Smith?” He ventured, once they were through the office door. The room was strikingly decorated, slick and ornate and entirely out of place against the sterile halls just behind them. An older man with broad shoulders and sharply groomed blond hair sat behind a large desk, looking up from the screen of his computer with a cordial smile.

“Yes? What can I do for you?”

Marco visibly trembled, silent. The skin of his face that wasn’t an angry shade of red or purple looked pale, and he looked at Jean uncertainly. Jean cleared his throat and spoke for them both.

“We – my friend, and I – we were supposed to have a meeting with you. I think my… coach called you.”

Mr. Smith’s smile widened, though he remained formal. “Ah, yes. You're Mike’s boys, right?”

Jean swallowed, nodded. “Yes, sir.”

The dean waved in the direction of two large, plush chairs in front of his desk. “Well, come on in and take a seat, gentlemen.”

After a few minutes, Jean could definitely tell that Erwin Smith – as he invited them to call him - was a friend of Mike’s. His formality never wavered, but he became increasingly warm and inviting, making small talk with both him and Marco. He didn’t address the issue at hand right away, but when he did, he eased them into it. If nothing else, Jean was impressed by his tact. Marco just seemed all the more anxious.

He recounted his story slowly, obviously trying to remember details. Marco was a stickler for them, anyway – maybe it was the kind of thing a person picks up after years of reading scripts and stage directions. But he was extra cautious that afternoon, as if the man he sat across from was a judge, rather than a dean. Maybe in some way he was, in Marco’s eyes. Jean sat beside him, bumping their arms together every so often, just to remind him that he was there.

Erwin took careful note of everything Marco mentioned. He made all the right faces of disgust and disappointment at all the right times as he listened, and Jean wondered how genuine it was. But regardless of his intentions, he didn’t interrupt, barely even prompting Marco; he was attentive and respectful, and it helped move things along, as Marco finished his story and repeated a few key details just for clarity.

When he was finally finished, Erwin continued jotting things down for a silent moment before tapping his papers on his desk to straighten them. He cleared his throat, jaw stiffly set as he folded his hands and addressed Marco, directly.

“I trust that you know that this kind of violent and intolerant behavior does not reflect the principles that this university stands for. We have a zero tolerance policy for violence, especially for our students on athletic scholarships. The young men who did this have been removed from the baseball program, and are ineligible to return.”

Jean and Marco exchanged a glance; Jean looked back at Erwin. “But… are they still going to school here?”

“The collective decision of both the admissions and education boards was that it would be best to let the students finish the academic year and for those that are eligible for graduation to be allowed to do so, while those who are not yet eligible will transfer to other universities. They will remain ineligible to participate in the collegiate baseball program, however.”

“But that - that's not fair! What kind of ‘zero tolerance’ is that?! That's not enough.” Jean said sharply. “Marco’s still in danger!”

Marco reached for his arm. “Jean…”

“I understand your concerns.” Erwin said calmly. “But I’m afraid--”

Jean cut him off, nearly standing from his chair. “This isn’t just a personal thing – those guys are dangerous!” To his surprise, Marco chimed in in agreement before Erwin could respond.

“I don't have any problem with them finishing out their school year, Mr. Smith.” He wrung his hands, careful of the healing scrapes there as he glanced down at between words. “But Jean is right – how can anyone be sure that this won't happen again? To other people?”

“Campus security will be supervising the activity of the young men involved until the end of term this year.” Erwin assured him. “And if there's anything we can do to make either of you feel safer, please don't hesitate to ask.” He pulled a pair of business cards from a tiny holder on his desk, offering them to both Marco and Jean. “You can contact me directly, if you'd like.”

There was a drawn out stretch of silence, but finally Marco reached for the card and nodded. “Thank you, sir.”

“Mr. Bodt, will you be pressing criminal charges against the people who assaulted you?” Erwin sat up squarely in his seat as he spoke, and Jean could see the tension in his posture. Marco shrank back slightly in response; Jean bit his tongue and let Marco reply.

“I don't intend to, sir. No.”

Erwin nodded, relaxing slightly. “I'm afraid that outside of that, there isn't much else that I can offer you. The decision isn't entirely mine to make.” He smiled apologetically and stood, wordlessly signaling the end of their meeting. “But I meant what I said; if there's any way that I can make the rest of this school year easier on you – either of you - I'd like you to let me know.”

Marco stood as well, and finally Jean after him. “Thank you, sir,” they said at once, and took turns shaking the dean’s offered hands.

Erwin walked them out, as far as the second hallway before waving them on their way. There was silence between them as they made their way toward the lobby, but once they were out in the open air of the courtyard again, Jean groaned his frustration.

“That was bullshit.”

“That was politics.” Marco sighed. “Mr. Smith is right, though - he can only do so much.”

Jean scoffed. “Coach Z got more accomplished than that guy did!”

Marco nodded. “Things don’t always turn out the way you're expecting. But that doesn’t mean it won't get better from here. I mean – it has to, right? Only so far down we can be. I guess for now, let’s just try not to think about it.” He squinted against the bright light of the day and cupped a hand over his eyes. He might’ve been looking for someone, or he might have just been as exhausted as Jean was. Either way, they walked in silence back to their room, only looking up from the pavement to wave at people as they passed.

“You alright?” Jean asked, once they’d reached their door. “I mean, after…”

“It wasn't as bad as I thought it'd be.” Marco confessed. “Not with you there.” He dropped his eyes to the knob of the door, where he fumbled for a moment with the key before pushing into their room. “And at least now we know what's going on, exactly.”

“Yeah. I'm glad.” Jean nodded, following Marco inside. “And, uh… Auruo?”

“God, I don't even know what that was about.” Marco groaned dragging a hand through his hair. “He's been acting so odd, lately. More so than usual, I mean. I don't feel like he's ever honest with me.”

“He's an actor.” Jean said flatly. He didn’t add to it, for fear of saying too much.

“Yeah, well so am I,” said Marco, “And I know the difference in stage face and real face. I haven't seen much of Auruo’s face in a while.”

“Maybe it's not a bad thing.” When Marco looked back at him with obvious offense, Jean shook his head, backpedaling quickly. “I mean, maybe you're seeing him this way for a reason.”

Marco inhaled a shaky breath and stared at him, but didn’t argue. Finally, he shrugged. “I guess better now than later this year.”

“Later this year?” Jean asked. Marco nodded, dropping heavily onto the edge of his bed.

“He's planning to move, if he doesn't get the permanent job with the school. Probably to Los Angeles or Burbank. And we've talked about me going with him.”

“You…” Jean looked back at him, mouth hanging open as he waited for words to come to him. Surely Marco wasn’t serious – surely he wasn’t so stupid. But after a moment it became clear that he wasn’t kidding. Jean swallowed the argument sitting on his tongue; it was for another day. “Okay, then.”

“I know you probably wanna say something, but--”

“Don't worry about what I think.” Jean said. “It's not important right now, anyway.”

Marco shook his head. “What you think is always important to me.”

“Well, then right now I think you need some rest. How about that?” It was a little more forceful than it needed to be, but it was excusable, Jean thought. He really was just concerned for Marco, even if it wasn’t only about his health.

“I think you're right.” Marco agreed. “I have practice later today, and I've gotta look at least halfway like I can still function, so I'd better catch a nap.”

“Do that. I'm gonna go do some laundry, let you have some quiet.” Jean looked around the room, grimacing at the mountains of unwashed clothes stacking up on Marco’s side. “Want me to do some of yours?”

“You don't have to.”

Jean snorted. “I know I don't have to touch your gross-ass socks and shit, but I offered.”

Marco glanced at a nearly-toppling tower of dirty clothes near the end of his bed, then back up at Jean. He smiled, slow and sheepish. “I mean… If you insist. Thanks.”

--

Watching loads of laundry spin, Jean thought about the coming weeks of his life.

Good things were on the horizon. For better or worse, the spring holidays were coming, and if nothing else, that meant time with his mother and more good food than he could eat. Spring break was just around the corner as well, and afterward, he had a date – an honest-to-God date – with Mikasa lined up, that he didn’t even have to do the asking for. Things were definitely on the upswing.

Still, he couldn’t be entirely content. Not when he knew Marco’s skin still stung with fresh injuries that Jean blamed himself for.

He had the rest of the season to finish with a busted-up baseball team, no idea how the coaching staff were going to feel about him essentially being the reason for the others getting booted, and a major decision to make about whether or not he even wanted to stick with the career path he’d been on since he was prepubescent. He hoped for some kind of sign as to what he should do.

Instead, he got a phone call from a familiar number.

“Hey – everything alright, coach?”

On the other end of the line, Mike sounded hoarse. “Just followin’ up to see if you and that roommate of yours met with Erwin this afternoon. Hadn't heard from you.”

“Yeah, we went.” Jean rubbed at his temples. “Was like pullin’ teeth, getting Marco out the door, but we went. Didn't end up being worth much.”

“What makes you say that?”

“They're not gonna do shit, coach. They're not even expelling Wagner. Just taking him off the team.”

“That’s probably all they can do, for now,” Mike said, though the disappointment was evident in his voice. “This whole thing is a nightmare for everyone involved. Don't think I don't know that it's the worst for you and Marco. But there's only so far my reach, or Erwin’s or anyone else's goes. It's out of our hands.”

Jean clicked his tongue. “It's bullshit, is what it is.”

“I'm inclined to agree with you on that,” Mike conceded. “But regardless, I'm glad you got him there and got the report made. That's something, and no small thing, to be sure.”

“Yeah. It is something, I guess.”

“You did good, Jean. And no matter what comes of all this, I am so proud of you.”

Jean grumbled. "Cut the schmaltz, coach.”

Mike laughed. “Just needed you to know that. You go get some rest and I'll see you tomorrow afternoon.”

He promised that he would, before tapping his screen once and dropping the phone back into his bag. He switched he and Marco’s clothes from a row of washers to a set of dryers, and went back to watching his worries spin with them.

--

The return to the baseball diamond was better without Wagner and his crew, if only marginally.

It was obvious that the team as a whole was a little bitter about losing half of their key players. With freshman slotted into the holes left by Mike cleaning house, their stats suffered. And that made everyone unhappy, right down the line to oblivious sports fans. (Many of whom seemed to enjoy shouting their opinions from the stands, even well after the final inning.)

The school itself bent over backward to cover up the possible scandal, glossing over what had actually happened while the coaches laughed artificially in interviews and talked of a ‘regrowth period’. Mike hovered like a worried father, and – overwhelmed by the unexpected scope of the incident’s fallout – Jean didn’t stop him. He did his best to assure Jean that he wasn’t at fault, and neither was Marco. Jean only really believed the latter part of that, but he was getting better at smiling that same forced grin that the staff used in front of people off the field.

Still, the stadium did bring him some element of comfort. Maybe it was the familiarity. Or maybe it was because for the first time, he was free to just enjoy playing the game. He didn’t have a genuine quarrel with anyone else on the team. Excluding himself, perhaps.

He frequently found himself occupying one of the many benches when the other upperclassman players were practicing in groups he wasn’t invited to be a part of. It wasn’t so strange; he was used to being by himself. So when Armin dropped onto the bench next to him one afternoon to ask why he was there, it caught him so off guard, he felt compelled to offer him the truth.

“They all blame me. For what's happening, right now. For us losing half the team.” He pointed out at the groups of other guys practicing, cutting Armin off before he even got his question out. But Armin listened, and Jean kept talking. “Or what's worse, they blame Marco. I'm afraid he's gonna stop coming to games.”

“I hope he doesn't.” Armin adjusted his hat and sighed, following Jean’s eyes to look out across the field. “All that’ll do is prove those guys right.”

Jean blinked at him. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, if Marco stops coming, and you keep letting them make you feel unwelcome, they’ll think they're right. That you have something to be ashamed of.”

“Maybe I do.” Jean shrugged. Armin pulled his legs up onto the bench, crossing them under himself as he turned to face Jean properly.

“Like what?” The look he studied Jean with was searching, curious – but absent of judgement. Jean looked down at his feet for a moment, hesitating. He knew he didn’t have to answer him, but he wanted to. He needed to talk.

“I don't know if I even belong here, anymore. I was starting to feel comfortable again, recently. Happy, even. But then all this shit happened, and… I don't know if I wanna stick around and deal with it.”

“You don't have to,” Armin said matter-of-factly, “But I'd hate to see you give up something that you're really good at, just because of a single incident.”

“It's not a single incident, though.” Jean said, dragging a hand down his face. “Thomas and those other assholes have been doing this for months. They even used to toss snide comments around back when Eren and I were--”

Jean bit down on both lips, clamping his mouth closed a moment too late. He waited for some indication of awkwardness on Armin’s part, but none came. Instead, he smiled, hand clasping Jean’s shoulder.

“I know. Eren told me.” He didn’t say exactly what Eren had told him, and Jean figured maybe he was better off not knowing. “But the thing is, if it's not a one-time thing, then something had to happen to stop it.”

Jean groaned. “I just hate that it had to happen to Marco. And it's all my fault.”

“Not true.” Armin said firmly. “Nothing they did was up to you, or caused by you, or anything else. But there is something you can do, now that's it's all said and done.”

“What's that?”

“You can make a stand. You can show the rest of the team that you're not going to be set back by this whole thing. Show Wagner and those guys that they don't hold the power. That's what Marco seems to be doing. That's what he's done as long as I've known him.”

Jean shook his head. “He does that kind of thing because he thinks he has to.”

“Maybe he does. For right now, anyway.” Armin shrugged. “You can’t always tackle things head-on. Marco knows that so well; I learned by watching him. Maybe the only way things are ever going to get better is if people refuse to break. Stay the course and just wait.” He rested a hand on Jean’s shoulder again, but Jean looked back out across the expanse of the field and sighed.

“It's hard, waiting for things to change for the better, when change is the only thing you're really afraid of.”

“Maybe change will be a little less scary if you're the one making it happen.” Armin said brightly, and then he was shuffling to his feet. He smiled encouragingly back at Jean and stretched, stepping out into the sun. “Food for thought, alright? See you later, alright?”

He turned to leave, and Jean waved after him, still mulling over hid words.

“Yeah. Thanks, Armin.”

--

As usual, baseball wasn't the only thing weighing on Jean's shoulders. The thought of the upcoming Passover holiday – and having to spend his break knee-deep in pesky relatives – pushed down so hard on him that it nearly doubled him over most days. He had no idea how his mother had put up with her siblings for so long, but it reminded him that he was distantly grateful that he’d never had any of his own.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want a break from the routine of school, practice and games. Spring break was in sight, those first weeks of April, and though he’d be busy for most of it, he still looked forward to the breathing room it would afford him. Time with his mom, time to talk to Marco, and maybe even a little extra rest. If he could find enough hours in the days.

He was torn between wanting time to hurry along, and wanting it to stand still long enough for him to catch his breath.

With time slipping by before the holiday, it wasn’t unheard of for his relatives to step up their efforts to annoy him and invade his life. He steered clear of Facebook in those busy days, but he couldn’t avoid his phone, and when it spent an entire afternoon vibrating with an unfamiliar cell number on its screen, he had to fight the urge to turn it off or just toss it out the nearest window.

When he finally answered it, it was as he walked into his room after a long practice, and after what must’ve been a dozen calls or more from the same number, no voicemail left between. He gave more of a growl than a greeting, but the voice on the other end of the line was quiet, somber.

“Jean? It's Farlan.”

Jean groaned. “Why the hell are you callin’, man? I've been busy all day and my phone’s been ringing non-stop – what?”

“Mom and dad wanted me to call--”

“Look, if it's about Passover, just call mom, she’ll--”

“Jean.” Farlan nearly shouted at him through the phone. Jean scowled, slamming the door behind himself.

“What!?”

“Sit down, man. Listen.” Farlan’s voice was softer then, sober and hesitant. “Your mom – Lynnette’s gone, Jean.”

Jean almost laughed. “Gone? What do you mean – is she like… missing or something? I just talked to her this morning, she's probably--”

“No, Jean. I mean she's gone. She's… Your mom is dead, Jean.”

The duffle bag on Jean’s arm slid to the floor. He stood beside his bed, paralyzed.

No...

“Dead? What, no – she… she was fine, just this morning! I just talked to her. Is she in the hospital, or--”

“No,” Farlan said bleakly. “She called my mom this afternoon to take her to the emergency room, but when mom got there, all the doors were locked and Lynnette didn't answer. She called the paramedics and they got in – but Lynnette was gone by the time they got there.”

“She… what…” Jean struggled to breathe as the floor seemed to give way beneath his shaking legs; he stumbled to his bed and fell back onto it. “How?!”

Farlan hesitated. “Dad said they think it was an aneurysm. They must not have caught it in time and it--” His voice wavered like he might cry. The sound burned, from Jean’s ringing ears to his stinging eyes. Farlan choked out a few more words. “God, I'm so fucking sorry, Jean.”

“I… I gotta get over there.” Jean stammered. “I gotta get home. She can't just – she can't be…”

“She's gone, Jean.” Farlan insisted. “There was nothing they could do.”

“I gotta get home.” Jean repeated. “Where is she, Farlan? I've gotta--”

“You’ve gotta stay there, Jean. Don't you dare try to drive. Not tonight.” Jean had never heard his cousin sound the least bit authoritative, but despite the cracking of his voice, Farlan remained firm. “I'll come get you tomorrow morning.”

Jean shook his head furiously. “Farlan, I can't just sit here, my mom – oh, God, mom...”

“You have to, Jean. Please. Don't try getting out. Just pack up and try to breathe, okay? If you need anything, let me know and I'll bring it with me tomorrow.”

“I don't know what I need, I just – I wanna talk to my mom.”

“I know. I'm sorry, Jean.” Farlan said quietly. “I’ll be there early tomorrow. Please don't do anything stupid before I get there.”

“Yeah. Ok.”

The call never technically ended. Jean just dropped the phone on the bed beside him, staring out the half-closed window until the room began to spin, and his eyes began to burn. He leaned forward, burying his face in his open palms, rubbing hard at his eyes. He opened his mouth to whisper, and the burn spread to his throat, threatening to close it off.

“Mom. Ima. Mommy…”

He toppled forward, melting into the floor beside his bed. There, the remnants of his most recent care package still sat, a few last cookies and a folded note, in his mother’s handwriting. The last one he would ever receive.

Willing himself to breathe, to push the sting from his lungs as his chest heaved against it, he screamed, but the sound that came out was closer to a sob. He punched the wooden frame of his bed, numb to the way it stung his knuckles as he pulled them back, shouting at the ceiling.

“I don’t understand! Why now – why her?!”

He’d never been much for talking to God, but his mother always had been. The thought ripped another angry scream from him, and he kicked the bag of crumbled cookies further under his bed.

“She was good! She did everything you want, she followed all your laws – why?! Why did it have to be her?” By then, he couldn't escape the burning, flooding his eyes, boiling up from his stomach; he tore at his blankets, pulling them from the bed and onto the floor beside him, still shouting in the empty room. “So many disgusting pieces of shit in this world and you take her?! This doesn't fucking make sense! Why?!”

No answer came.

Jean tried to breathe, tried to steady himself, but only managed a few ragged breaths before collapsing forward, face pressed hard into the edge of his mattress. He mumbled to who or whatever might be listening – to himself. "I can't fix it. I can't do anything. Why?”

Outside there was a roll of thunder, a distant sound, made more so by Jean curling in on himself, silently sobbing. He stayed there in the floor, eyes too full of tears to bother opening them, squeezing his knees to his chest and rocking on his heels. The storm outside rattled things harder, but the only sound that Jean bothered to look up for was the soft click of the dorm room door, opening.

Marco darted into the room then, as if he’d been running. He was already half on his knees before he managed to say anything, worry weighing down his features.

“Jean--”

“Marco...” Jean reached for him, maybe for a hand up. Instead, Marco dropped down beside him.

“Your cousin texted me. Hitch’s brother. He told me – Jean, I'm so sorry.” He reached for Jean’s shoulders. Jean let himself be pulled forward, into a tight hug. He leaned into it, into the crook of Marco’s neck, and pressed his nose there. Marco reached up to cup fingers over the back of his neck, rubbing soft circles with his thumb. “I’m so, so sorry.”

Jean couldn’t hold back. He was always telling others not to cry, but he couldn't stop himself. With Marco’s arms not offering to move away, he let himself shake apart, shivering with every sob. The only tether he had to the world around him was Marco, the fistful of his shirt Jean tangled his fingers in. Whatever might have been left of his pride ran down his face, staining his cheeks pink and searing his sadness even deeper. With every blink, every breath, it was more real. He finally lifted his face long enough to look at Marco, lip trembling as he tried to speak.

"She’s gone,” he hiccuped. “And I still gotta tell Coach."

Marco lifted his hands to Jean’s face, wiping tracks of tears away with the pads of his thumbs. He waited until Jean could breathe again, at least a little, before talking to him.

“Do you want me to leave, tonight? If you need some space, I understand. Or I could go get you something, if you--”

“Stay,” Jean pled. His face already burnt too much for a blush to warm it; he was beyond caring. “Please. I need you here.”

“Then I’m not going anywhere.” Marco promised.

He didn't press Jean for details. He didn't try to make him talk, or try to tell him things would be alright. He didn't push him – but he did hold him by the shoulders, and didn't so much as bat an eye when Jean all but crawled into his lap.

"It's okay,” he said softly, lips pressed into Jean’s hair. “I've got you.”

Nothing else was said, that evening. But in the quiet of their shared space, Marco held him. The rhythm of the falling rain sang to them as it gently tapped the window glass.

And somehow, Jean slept.

Chapter Text

Morning broke gently the following day.

Jean awoke to a gentle shift of his shoulders, Marco scooting out from under Jean where they had fallen asleep together in the floor of their room. The skin of his face was still tight as he yawned, still pink and stinging from too many tears to number the night before. It was a reminder that he couldn’t escape from the world as it was – a world with one less point of light.

Marco was there, of course. But something was different.

Jean couldn’t put a name to it. It was a difference in the way Marco moved. It was the way he laid his arm across Jean’s shoulders, rubbing at the back of his neck without having to ask if he was sore from the way they’d slept. It was the way he helped Jean pack, helped him remember everything he needed, things he couldn’t call to mind with the painful haze hanging there, fogging his thoughts. It was the way Marco looked at him, sympathetic without patronizing pity, concerned without contrived coddling.

In the time they’d known each other, Jean had come to know that Marco had an incredible way with words. Sometimes the simplest things had the most lingering impact when they came from his mouth. But that morning, it was everything he didn’t say, that brought Jean the most comfort. When Farlan knocked on their dorm room door, Jean found himself wishing for just a few more minutes of that consolatory silence.

Marco introduced himself properly to Farlan, thanking him on Jean’s behalf. If things had been different that day, Farlan might have made fun of Jean, for relying so much on Marco. He might have questioned the fact that Marco draped one of his own sweatshirts over Jean’s shoulders before Jean left, one that Jean often borrowed after wearing it once and finding it to be insanely comfortable, and one that robed him in that mcuh-needed comfort. If things weren't what they were, Jean lingering in a hug with his roommate might have raised Farlan’s suspicions, or at least given him pause for thought. But with grief written all across Jean’s features, Farlan didn't question anything. He offered to carry bags, and otherwise stayed out of the way.

Jean made an attempt at calling Mike before he left. He braced himself for a horrible conversation; Marco must've sensed his tension, as he sat at a close distance on the edge of Jean’s bed while Jean waited for an answer. When none came, Jean resorted to calling Mike’s office, on the off chance that he might actually be there. When one of the assistant coaches answered, Jean asked for Mike, only to be told he would be out for a few days.

“His fiancé passed away,” the man on the other end of the line said somberly. “Is there a message you'd like me to take for when he gets back?”

“No,” Jean sighed. “Sounds like he already knows.” He hung up without further explanation, rubbing at his temples with a strange mix of sadness and relief. He wanted to know Mike was okay – but he really wasn't ready to talk about it, yet.

 

The trip home was strange, if only because Jean couldn’t remember ever riding there. In the passenger’s seat, he was at the mercy of Farlan’s way of driving, the crawling pace at which he drove, and the small talk. It was an art that Farlan was clearly unskilled in.

“You know,” he muttered, shifting markedly in his seat without making eye contact with Jean, “if you need to like… talk about anything, we can--”

“I really don’t, man. I just…” Jean threw a hand up to stop him and shook his head. “Let’s just not.”

Farlan nodded.“Okay, yeah. Sorry.”

“S’fine.” Jean let it fall silent in the cabin of the car for a few minutes, but the sound of the pavement under the tires was a dull roar in his ears, louder and louder in the stagnant air until he couldn't hear himself think. He cleared his throat and pulled out his best attempt at casual conversation. “So, uh. How are you guys? Your parents and all? How's Hitch?”

Farlan shrugged, eyes stubbornly focused on the road in front of them. “Doin’ alright, I guess. I mean she doesn't really talk to me about anything.”

Jean hummed. “She still with that guy?”

“Oh god, that’s a fuckin’ mess, dude.” Farlan groaned, clamping his eyes shut for a moment. Jean raised an eyebrow.

“Really?”

“Yeah. I honestly don't know much more than mom and dad do, which is jack shit. The only person Hitch ever talked to about it was your mom, actually.” As soon as the last few words left his mouth, Farlan paled, wincing as if he’d stepped on something and broken it. “Sorry.”

“Don't be.” Jean insisted. “Mom is – was – the kinda person you could talk to. Wish I'd talked to her a little bit more, myself.” He ran his teeth over his bottom lip, allowing himself just a moment, a split second to feel the wave of grief that washed over him, and then he bit it back. “So is Hitch alright?”

“I don't know, man. I know she went over to visit with your mom last week, and Lynnie apparently took her to the health department and the pharmacy. Mom was freaking out about it, asking Hitch if she’s knocked up.”

Jean’s eyes went wide. “Is she?”

“No. I mean – not that I can tell, anyway. She told mom no, but that doesn't really mean shit.”  Farlan scratched at the back of his neck, gesturing out in front of him as he spoke, never moving his eyes in Jean’s direction. “I feel like we’d be able to tell though, y’know? She ain't gaining any weight or whatever. If anything, she's lost a bunch. She never eats or anything. I think she's just sick, and doesn't want mom and dad breathin’ down her neck all the time. S’probably why she won't tell ‘em anything about Mr. Weirdo Boyfriend, either.”

“So’s he a creep?” Jean asked. “Thought he was just too old for her.”

“He seems like a fuckin’ creep to me.” Farlan said bluntly. “He only calls her at certain times and never lets her call him. She doesn't even have his number. He's got no Facebook that I've seen, but I probably looked for the wrong name, anyway. It’s like ‘Arlow’ or somethin’ weird.” He huffed. “I've never met him, never even seen him in person - it's like he's not even real.” Farlan tapped his hands against the steering wheel, an artless rhythm born of awkward idleness as he shifted in his seat, again. “And yeah, he's definitely too old for her, if he's actually working at CSUF. But who knows if that’s true, either.”

Jean shook his head, his stomach knotting at the similarities he noticed between his cousin and his roommate. "Sounds so much like a guy I know. Or, well - a guy my friend is dating.” He glanced down at his hand on the window’s edge, clenching it as he stared. “Why do people stay with assholes like that?”

“I dunno, man. I guess sometimes you just get hung up on people.” Farlan shrugged. “Beats the hell outta me.”

Farlan’s phrasing was never eloquent, but Jean couldn't have said it better, himself. Hitch mooning over a man that seemed to be on an almost equal level of trash with Marco’s boyfriend? Marco doing the same, wasting his time and his heart on someone with an interest in neither? None of it made sense, to him. But before Jean could open his mouth to add more to the conversation, he thought of himself, a year earlier, when he was still pining over someone who would never feel the same way about him. He didn't say anything else. Because even thou he’d been there, himself, it still didn't make any sense.

The rest of the car ride was quiet, a polite yet awkward unspoken agreement between he and his cousin not to say anything further. There were no more stops to make, and the radio faded in and out as they traveled through different towns. It wasn’t until they reached Jean’s mother’s driveway – just Jean’s, now – that Farlan spoke again, clearing his throat as he parked carefully between a scattering of other cars already there.

"Hey look, I – I know you don't wanna talk about it or whatever, but I just… I'm really sorry, man. For everything right now.”

“Thanks, Farlan.” Jean said, and nodded toward the door to motion Farlan after him. He had nothing more to add, but he hoped his cousin would understand just how much sincerity was in the words that he’d managed.

--

Jean's home was packed to the walls with relatives.

Faces that Jean barely recognized – along with some that he wished he didn't – looked at him from every chair and every corner. It was the week of Passover, but there was no celebration; instead, people who he hadn't seen in years descended on his home to ‘grieve with him’. Some of them were their usual loud, abrasive selves, and it drove home Jean’s wish that his mother were still there, to shield him from their invasive questioning. But most of them looked at him with pity, and he quickly realized how much he preferred the racket.

As a group, they planned a funeral for his mother. Once most of the major decision were made, talk turned to Jean, himself. There were the foreseen questions to answer, of what he would do in his mother’s absence, what he would do with the family home, and if he would continue with his schooling and career. Some of his aunts and uncles didn't feel it was right for him to do so, but Jean had grown enough of a spine to give them firm answers when they asked if he would consider leaving CSUF. Mostly, people asked how he would care for himself, and for the property that was now solely his. He had no answers for those questions, but he assured everyone that he would sort it out, soon.

Really, he just wanted out from under their line of questioning.

Having his extended family posted up around the house brought Jean none of the comfort that his relatives probably assumed they were providing. But it did offer a distraction; he went nearly the entire first day at home without having time to dwell on the reality of his loss, to miss his mother enough to cry for her. Still, by the end of the evening, Jean was more than glad to send everyone on their way. He promised to call them to work out the last, minute details of a funeral he didn't even want to think about. All he wanted was some time alone.

Well, perhaps not entirely alone.

“Hey,” he sighed, head chin resting on crossed arms as he looked sleepily up at his laptop screen, the clock in its corner having just passed ten. On it, Marco waved back at him.

“Hey,” he replied, offering a small, cautiously comforting smile. “How are you?”

“I mean I've definitely been better…” Jean said honestly. “But not so bad right this minute.” He looked back at Marco – right at him – and smiled, just a little in return. “Good to see you.”

“Likewise.” Marco leaned back to stretch, and Jean could see the surroundings of their dorm around him. He folded his legs beneath himself and moved back into focus, giving Jean a worried look. “You have anybody there with you?”

“Yeah. House full’a relatives.” Jean dragged a hand down the side of his face, leaning into it to prop himself up so that he could see Marco better. “S’like any other Passover, except everyone’s pretending to care about me. And mom’s not here.”

Marco pressed the back of his fingers to his tightly closed lips and nodded. “I'm so sorry, Jean.”

Jean scrubbed his face with his palm and dropped back down onto his folded arms. “I know. You don't have to keep sayin’ it, though. I'd rather just talk. About anything.”

“Then let's talk,” Marco said softly, settling into his stomach as well. “About anything.”

Talk they did. About anything Jean could think of. Marco did his usual tap dance around topics that were too personal, but they had long-winded conversations about the smallest details of life in the dorm, life back home, life on the field, in the theatre, and everywhere else. Just life. And in talking about it, Jean realized just how important his roommate and best friend had become to his.

Marco was the warmest, sweetest, most genuinely kind person Jean had ever known. He had a way of making Jean feel more important, more cared for and more loved than he had ever felt before. Even if it was just by making ridiculous faces at him via Skype when Jean cracked jokes; Marco made him feel better.

“So I guess we’re just gonna have everything on one day. Get it over with.” Jean sighed as he finished telling Marco the details of his mother’s arrangements, a topic he knew he couldn't avoid altogether. “I’ve still gotta call Coach and let him know the specifics. Sure as hell am gonna need him there to get through it.”

"He needs you, too,” Marco said quietly. “I’m sure.”

“Well thank God we have each other, then.” Jean sighed. On the other end of the video chat, Marco rolled up onto one side to peel his shirt off, tucking it under himself as a pillow. Jean poked fun at him, Marco smiled wide enough to make him forget to keep teasing him, and then the topic moved along to something else, much to Jean’s relief.

Knowing sleep would probably be hard to come by, Jean mentioned offhand that he didn't have much intention of trying to find it that night. Marco only briefly argued, before relenting on the condition that he would stay up and keep Jean company. Normally Jean would have protested, but the thought was far too appealing to a hurting, grieving Jean, who didn't really want to be alone. They stayed on their Skype call for hours.

Lying on his bed, there was so little around Jean to make him feel at home. With his mother’s presence no longer there, the house he slept in didn’t feel like his own, and he found himself missing the dorm. Sure, the bed was more comfortable at home, and things were quieter, more private, and the amenities nicer. But there, he was alone. There, he didn't have Marco.

When sleep finally took him, Jean was lying just in front of the keyboard of his laptop, arms crossed and face buried in the sleeves of the sweatshirt Marco had sent with him. Something about the smell of the fabric was relaxing – comforting – and Jean was gone within a few minutes of letting his head drop to his arms.

The sun was already filtering into the room when Jean awoke, lighting it in a way that made him think for just a moment that his mother would be up to poke her head in and wake him at any moment. But reality settled with the weight of the day on his shoulders, and Jean sat up, knowing as he stretched the ache from his back that no one was coming to check on him. He glanced at his computer screen to see that his call with Marco had ended hours earlier, probably shortly after he’d dozed off. But a message remained on the screen, and Jean pulled the computer into his lap to squint at it with tired eyes.

I hope you sleep well, Jean. Just remember that I'm here if you need anything. Goodnight, and good morning, tomorrow.

Jean closed the laptop and set it aside. He ran a hand through his hair and ran down a list in his head of everything he needed to do that day. But his mind kept drifting back to those words, somehow spoken in Marco’s voice in his head.

And in the hazy light of the quiet morning, he smiled, despite everything.

--

The quiet of that morning was something Jean had never heard, in his life. The day before had been so full of unwanted interaction that Jean had wished for solitude. Eying the breezy, open sprawl of the empty house, he was filled with regret.

He ate breakfast alone, or rather, noshed on something that resembled breakfast while he sat in front of the television, watching a show he cousins have cared less about. The volume was just loud enough to be annoying, but it was an effective distraction, and better than the silence that brought too many painful thoughts along with it. When he finished, he washed his dishes, looking for anything to keep his hands busy.

But he couldn't find enough to last the day. When he ran out of things to tidy and tinker with, he found himself leafing through photo albums and stacks of old papers his mother had been in the process of weeding through before her death. Pictures of Jean as a child, of his mother and father - of their family when it was whole - were on every page, and Jean carefully shifted them back and forth, trying to remember when they were taken.

Grabbing a small stack of books, he brought them into the kitchen, spreading them across the counters. He would have to decide what to do with them, ultimately – what to keep and what to let go of. But for the time, he just pored over them, marveling at how carefree his smile was in every photo. Life had taken a lot from him; he wondered if he'd ever smile that way, again.

Glancing up from where he was sorting through photographs, Jean spotted something tucked into the corner of one of the kitchen counters. A small bag, tightly but neatly wrapped, with a piece of paper attached. He moved to examine it, and recognized it for what it was before he even picked it up.

A care package, from his mother. Never to be sent.

He pulled the note free from the tape and unfolded it.

Jean,

I’m so proud of the way you and Marco are handling everything life has thrown at the two of you lately. I know Mike is proud, too – even if he doesn't tell you very often. I’m so looking forward to meeting Marco in person. You two have been so good for one another. Keep taking good care of each other, and make sure you pass along a hug from me along with these cookies!

Love you so much,

Mom

Jean flipped the slip of paper over the backs of his fingers, reading and rereading until his eyes were far too misty to continue. The bag on the counter was packed with cookies, still fresh enough to eat. He pulled out the bag marked ‘Marco’ and sat it aside, then found the one labeled with his own name. Even the sight of his mother’s handwriting – scribbled in her favorite pastel permanent marker – was a painful prod between his ribs, searing chest-deep and twisting where it hit. He pulled apart the sealed edges of the bag and pulled out a cookie, staring at it as if to remember the way her hands had taught him to fold the dough.

They were hamantashen. His favorites.

A bite from the corner was as sweet as it ever was, tasting like sugar and fresh fruit and love. Jean broke the cookie in half to finish the rest of it, but got as far as licking his crumb-dusted fingers before he lost the will to eat. He dropped the cookie onto the counter, picked up the note – his mother’s last words to him – and folded, slumping onto the counter with a shaky sob.

She was gone. His father, and now his mother – both gone, both taken from him without warning, and before he was ready to say goodbye. He was alone, by force rather than choice. The house was painfully silent against the sound of his crying.

He needed someone.

Jean knew Marco would be in class at that hour, and his wasn’t really the type of voice Jean needed to hear, anyway. Only one other number made sense to dial; Jean was relieved when he heard a warm greeting on the other end of the line.

 “Hey, Jean.”

“Hey, coach.” Jean made an attempt at steadying his breathing, still uneven from crying for the better part of an hour.

“You doin’ okay, kid?”

“I've been better.” To anyone else, Jean might have lamented. But it occurred to him that Mike was probably feeling just about as terrible as he was, dealing with almost as much inescapable, unrectifable pain. He swallowed his complaints. “Probably ‘bout the same as you.”

“Stormy weather, right now. That's for sure.” There was so much that they needed to say to each other, but some of it was so painful – and painfully obvious – that it was better unspoken. Mike gave a long sigh, and the way his breath wavered at the end made Jean wonder if he was trying not to cry, as well. But if he was, he was good at concealing it. “You need anything?”

Jean slumped forward over the counter, again, letting his forehead drop into his open palm. “No, I just… wanted to tell you about the funeral stuff. And… to just talk for a minute, I guess.”

There was something like a chuckle on the other end of the line, a low laugh – a reassuring sound. “Well, tell me what you need to, and then we can talk. You know I've always got a minute for you, kid.”

What began with polite pleasantries became Jean, sighing into the receiver to keep his breath from hitching when he thought too long about his mother, and unloading his thoughts on his coach as if Mike were his mother. In a way, he was the only piece of her that Jean had left – someone that the person he loved most had loved in turn. It didn't make Jean and Mike related, exactly, but it made them something. And that something was enough for Jean. For then.

“Just remember you aren't alone, alright?” Mike reminded him, as their conversation drifted toward its end. “I know it probably feels that way right now, but you're not. You got people all around you that care a whole awful lot.” He paused, and then, quieter, “You got me, for what that's worth.”

Jean closed his eyes, the words settling over him like a blanket of solace. “Worth more than you think, coach.”

“Good to hear.” Mike said with a weak laugh. “Now you take care of yourself tonight, alright? Get some rest or whatever you need to do to feel alright. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”

“Yeah. Alright. And hey –“ Jean willed the right words to come to him, but when they didn't, he spoke anyway. “You alright?”

“I’ll be okay, kid.” Mike replied. “I’m not alone.”

--

The funeral proceedings were set to be five hours long, all told. Jewish services were traditionally brief, but the meeting and greeting before and after were always drawn-out affairs. Jean dreaded every minute, but he was at least thankful that it would be over by that evening. It wasn't that he didn't want to say his goodbyes – it was that he didn't want to do it surrounded by family.

They'd already quietly criticized him for not observing many of the rites and traditions of burial. It should have fallen to Jean, they said, to take care of more of Lynnette’s business. But he handled what he had to, and left the rest to his aunts and uncles, unapologetic. They wouldn't have liked the way he would have done things, anyway.

It had never bothered Jean to dress in well-pressed shirts, jackets and tailored pants; at least that much of his appearance at his mother's funeral wasn't a disappointment to his relatives. He was set apart from the other mourners by the K’hiar, the black ribbon pinned to the left of his shirt, signifying him as having lost a parent. He fiddled with it as he stood outside the funeral home, just another reminder of how detached he felt from everyone else there.

Aunts and great aunts poked and prodded as they remarked on how sharply dressed he was, as he waited outside, half heartedly greeting them. They didn't bother hiding their surprise that he’d managed to pull himself together. His jacket thrown over his shoulder to keep from sweltering in the late morning heat, he waited for a hand he might actually want to shake. The first that came was Farlan’s.

They didn't speak, so much as nod to each other before shaking hands. But so good it was to see his cousin – a welcome break from the parade of foreign faces that had passed him all morning – that Jean unthinkingly pulled him into a hug. Farlan didn't resist. He patted Jean’s back a little awkwardly, but neither of them pulled back right away.

Hitch stood behind Farlan, hovering in his shadow almost as if she were hiding. Jean couldn't blame her; the young women of his family were an even hotter topic of gossip than he was, and he couldn't imagine having to put up with it. But she wore a brave face, smiling at Jean before offering him a hug herself. Farlan was right – Hitch was thinner than he'd ever seen her, her appearance almost gaunt. But her impeccable hair and makeup helped hide what might have been fairly dark circles beneath her eyes, and her clothes were unusually conservative, long sleeves and pants that covered all of her. She knew enough not to give their family any more reason to chatter than they already had that day. Jean patted both of them on the back once more and thanked them for being there – genuinely – before letting them move on through the doors.

Mike showed up fairly early, and Jean was immensely glad. He stepped away from his unofficial duty of greeting family as they entered the funeral home, hand extended for Mike’s as soon as he saw him approaching.

“S’good to see you, coach.”

“You too, son.” Mike was dressed in a tailored suit, a drastic departure from the way Jean usually saw him. He nodded cordially to the people passing them, people Jean didn't even vaguely recognize. He'd never been more relieved to see his head coach. His… whatever Mike was, now. Mike seemed to return the sentiment, and reflect Jean’s anxiety at facing the day, alone. He eyed the open doorway behind them. “You alright to go inside?”

Jean nodded. “I’ll be alright, yeah. You?”

Mike smiled at him, a hand coming to rest on his shoulder.  “Yeah. I won't be alone.”

The spectacle that was made of Jean was the most uncomfortable part of the funeral proceedings. As the grieving only child, people seemed to feel entitled to invade his space in ways that would've made him uncomfortable on a good day. There, with only Mike for support, they made his skin crawl, his stomach turning with every hand he shook, every curious, pity-laced stare from across the room as people chatted about him just out of earshot. But he had no choice; he went along with it, wishing the day away as quickly as he could. Wishing his mother was there to make it better.

His aunts were painfully outspoken, but mostly to each other. Only when his aunt Deborah approached he and Mike – wondering aloud who Coach Z was – that Jean was actually forced to interact with her.

“This is my… my mom’s fiancé. Mike Zacharius.” It was the truth, but Jean realized all at once that he'd never really acknowledged it out loud. It stung, assigning a word like fiancé to a man who would never marry his intended. His aunt pursed her lips into a circle and patted Mike’s arm.

“Almost stepdad status, huh?” She said, still looking at Jean.

To his credit, Mike answered with far more patience than Jean could've managed. “Yes ma’am,” he said politely, and took her patronizing smile in stride. She reached over to give Jean the same arm-patting treatment before turning away; Jean glared after her.

“Why’s she gotta say shit like that?” He growled, low enough that only Mike could hear him. “Tch. Almost. Like a damned piece of paper between you and mom makes any difference. I’ll call you my stepdad if I damn well please.”

Once he’d said it, Jean worried that he might have overstepped some sort of boundary. But Mike didn't seem fazed, but for a nod of agreement.

“Didn't make too much difference to your mama and me, either.” He capped Jean’s shoulder with a hand and squeezed, reaching into the breast pocket of his suit jacket with the other. “But I still don't wanna see her go without this.”

He pulled out a small, white box, popping it open for a moment to show it to Jean. Inside was a slender gold ring, with three sparkling red stones. Mike smiled down at it, wistfully.

“She told me she liked rubies.” He closed the box again, sighing at the quiet snap of the lid. A tabled stood close by the display of the closed casket, a place to leave tokens that Lynnette would be buried with. Mike kissed the top of the box, and placed it there amongst the other items left by friends and family.

Jean scowled hard at it, angry at nothing and no one in particular that his mother would never see the ring. “It’s really pretty,” he said, still staring. “She would’ve loved it. She loved you.” He broke his embittered stare to look back at Mike, his voice almost too quiet to be heard. “I do, too.”

Mike clasped a hand gently at the back of Jean’s head, pulling him into his side for a hug. “Love you too, kid. That don’t change after today, either. You hear me?”

Jean nodded tightly. There wasn't anything left to say, that wouldn't reduce him to the crying mess he knew people were expecting to see. So he let Mike hover close to him, relieved for the familiar, protective presence, and busying himself with accepting more condolences and silently willing time to move more quickly.

Just as his eyes idled and settled back on the small floral display atop his mother’s casket, threatening to water again, there was a voice behind him, a quiet call of his name. He turned at the sound, needing a moment to recognize where it had come from.

“Jean?”

“Marco?” Jean blinked, doubting his eyes for a moment. But Marco was there, cautiously shuffling toward him through the standing crowd. “Marco!” He threw his arms out to pull Marco into a hug without hesitation. His relatives stared more fervently than before, and Jean cared absolutely nothing about it. Marco was there - despite the still-obvious swelling across the bridge of his nose, and looking paler than Jean could remember, he was there. Jean hugged him a second time, as if to be sure of it.

“What are you doing here?!”

“I just wanted to be here if you needed anything. For support.” Marco glanced around at the people obviously eying them, people Jean knew that he didn't. The trace amounts of confidence in his voice wavered. “Sorry if--”

“Don’t apologize,” Jean said fiercely. “God, it’s so good to see you.”

Marco relaxed a little, looking a bit more like himself. “Likewise. Just wish it wasn't here.”

“That makes two of us.” Jean sighed, palming at the back of his neck. “You okay? You look… pretty terrible, actually.”

“Thanks,” Marco smirked, rolling his eyes. “I’ve got on something like three layers of makeup to cover the bruises.” Marco pointed to the areas under his eyes, and Jean realized Marco’s parlor came from the unnaturally even color of his skin with the thick makeup there, covering even his freckles, and the warmth Jean was used to seeing. Marco shrugged. “Didn't figure your family would appreciate some beat-up punk showing up here, today.”

“Fuck what my family thinks, first of all.” Jean said flatly. “But you don't really look terrible. Just like… pale. Worried me.”

“I’m fine. Don't worry about me.” Marco smiled, rather unconvincingly. He glanced back at doorway, shifting in place where he stood. “A couple of people asked about the arrangements, so I let them know what you told me. Just some of our friends.” The words ‘our friends’ struck a chord of warmth in Jean’s chest, but he simply nodded, and Marco continued, anxiously. “I think a few of them said they’d be here, too. I hope that’s okay.”

Jean nodded, dumbstruck. Marco had absolutely no idea how much his actions meant, and Jean was at a loss as to how to tell him. He rubbed his face, embarrassed by his own lack of eloquence. “That’s… That’s fine, Marco. I mean - I’m sorry, I just didn’t expect anyone else. I didn't even expect you, but--” He reached for Marco’s hand, squeezing and holding it for a long moment. “Thank you.”

Indeed, it was only a short while before several of their friends showed up. Annie was the first into the room, Reiner following close behind her, his hand in hers. Bertholdt was a step behind, crossing in front of the others to speak to Jean first.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said softly, and though he looked painfully out of place and out of his zone of comfort, his tone was genuine. “I'm not sure what I can offer, but if there's anything…”

Jean waved a hand, shaking his head. “Thanks for being here, Bert. All of you guys.”

He nodded in Annie and Reiner’s direction, and Reiner returned the gesture, obviously somewhat uncomfortable. He clung to Annie in a way that was almost funny, towering over her yet hovering in her shadow. She accommodated, pulling him gently by the hand as she took her turn greeting Jean.

“If you decide you need anything when you get back, you know where to find us, okay? Until then, have this.” She handed Jean an envelope, with what looked to be a card inside. Reaching into the small bag that hung from a long strap at her shoulder, she pulled another small stack of envelopes from inside and gave them to Jean as well. “And my brother sent this stuff.”

“Your brother?” Jean asked. Annie nodded.

“Armin. He said there was some stuff in there from a few other guys, as well.”

“Armin’s your…” Jean let it roll over in his mind, back to what Armin had said about his sister’s boyfriend having dated Marco previously, back to the way Armin had greeted Reiner and Bertholdt like friends in the halls of Jean’s dorm after visiting he and Marco, and it clicked. “Tell him I said thanks.” He said, tucking the envelopes under his arm. “Thank you all.”

A few paces behind Annie and the boys, Connie appeared, more neatly dressed than Jean had ever seen him. He wore a dark suit and a sober expression, and walked in nodding politely at Jean's relatives. Pausing to let Jean finish speaking with Bert and the others, he waited on someone else, still making their way into the open room of the funeral home lobby. By the time he was approaching Jean, hand outstretched, Jean could see that it was Krista trailing behind him.

“You doin’ alright, man?” Connie asked with a quick grab of Jean’s arm. Jean titled his head to one side, shrugging.

“Hangin’ in there, I guess. Thank you guys for coming all the way out here.”

“S’no problem,” Connie said earnestly. “Marco let us know what was goin’ on and we went ahead and told our director to call things off for the day, so we could all be here. Krista rode up with me.”

Connie motioned behind him. Krista was standing a few feet away, talking to Reiner while Annie and Bertholdt stood close by. She leaned up on her toes to whisper something to Reiner, who looked back at her, wide eyed. They continued talking, just out of earshot of Jean, and the interesting expressions that crossed Reiner’s face made him curious. But the question he posed to Connie was a more obvious one.

“Where’s Sasha?”

“Stayed behind,” Connie said dismissively. “But she sent some stuff for you with me. Food and stuff. I’ll grab it out of the car whenever you’re free for a second.”

“You guys didn't have to bring stuff,” Jean frowned. He felt guilty, accepting gifts on such a somber occasion. “I don't need anything.”

“Ain’t about the things, man. Just a little way to remind you we’re all around. You decide you do need anything, though, you let me know, alright?” He reached out to clap Jean on the arm again.

Jean nodded. “Thanks, Connie. Will do.”

Jean watched his friends – all of them – take seats near the back of the block of chair his uncles had just finished arranging for the service. Just having them there, a whole row of guests that were present purely to support him, was enough to set his eyes to watering again. He turned back to Marco, biting his lips together hard to keep them from quivering and offered him as much of a grateful smile as he could manage. Marco was the reason all of them were there, the reason Jean had met all of them in the first place. He swallowed the thickness in his throat and muttered his thanks, and Marco smiled warmly.

When the time came for the service to begin, Marco moved to take a seat with the others in the sparsely populated back rows. But before he could, Jean hooked fingers into the sleeve of his shirt, catching him by the arm and the eyes, giving him a panicked, pleading look. Marco nodded wordlessly and followed a Jean to the front row of seats, taking a place on Jean’s left, with Mike at Jean’s right. Together, they all but held him up.

The eulogy itself was brief. Jean had asked that much of their Rabbi. A scriptural reading, a recitation of his mother’s favorites Psalms – it was beautiful in its brevity, a simple service that reminded Jean of the way his father had been buried. It was exactly what Lynnette would have chosen for herself. The words being spoken echoed somewhere in the distance beyond Jean’s consciousness. He didn't let himself linger on them, lest he lose the numbness keeping him from falling apart. He just wanted it to be over.

It wasn't for lack of respect to his mother’s memory. Jean would've appreciated nothing more than the chance to mourn her in private, with only a scattering of guests at his side. Instead, the size of his family and their holdings to outdated traditions called for the stuffy, uncomfortable affair the funeral had been, Jean fumbling through the scaled-back role his relatives had left for him to take in all of it. He just wanted his freedom, freedom from their expectations, freedom to visit his mother’s grave without feeling like he had to put on some kind of show for others. Performing for them was exhausting, like running a race he’d never known to train for.

When guests were led outside – and Jean’s friends said their goodbyes, save for Marco – he could see the end in sight. But it was the last lap he worried about, the most. He didn’t even really ask Marco to ride with him to the burial park. Just another tug of the sleeve, a nod of the head, and they made their way to Jean’s car.

--

Driving to the cemetery was almost therapeutic. It was the first time in days that Jean had driven, and in the slow parade of the funeral procession, he finally felt some semblance of control over his life, even if it was just his foot on the gas pedal. Marco sat beside him, silent as he had been for most of the day, but in a way that was somehow comforting. It wasn't the strained, nervous quiet that he'd had to bear on the ride home with Farlan. It was a respectful, patient silence, heavy with reassurance and support, unspoken but tangible between them. As they turned into the cemetery to drive the narrow, winding roads that led to his mother’s resting place, Jean let his free hand come to rest on Marco’s knee, and Marco topped it with his own. It was enough to center Jean for a moment before stepping out into the blinding brightness of the sunny afternoon.

It was fitting though, Jean thought, as the Rabbi said his final words over the casket. His mother was the sunniest person Jean had ever known, radiating light from inside that couldn't be masked by even the hardest times. Light that reflected in those around her, the remnants of which still lit Mike’s face as the speaker reminisced fondly of Lynnette. She was the brightest and most beautiful soul, and it was only right that the day that marked her departure was almost as luminous as she had been. When the last prayer came to a close, Jean couldn't bring himself to smile, but he closed his eyes and imagined hers, instead.

Mike might have been doing the same thing. Jean opened his eyes and glanced over at him, only to find Mike’s eyes closed, his head tilted toward the sky. Jean had never noticed the deep set lines at the corners of his eyes before, but they were strikingly evident in the sunlight, accented all the more by the slick shine of tears. But when he opened his eyes, he turned to Jean, took his expression in for a moment, and dropped a hand heavily across his shoulders, offering a reassuring smile. Jean swallowed the urge to cry; they might have been hurting, but they still had each other. Mike was still there.

Marco stood by as well, hands folded in front of him, hovering close at Jean’s other side. The last few family members behind him patted Jean on the back, promising to check in on him, later. At every funeral Jean had ever been to, things ended when the final prayer did, and he followed relatives to someone's house to eat and drink and grieve together. But this time, the loss was his. And the last thing he wanted was more of their smothering attention and pity, even if it meant dealing with more criticism later. He let them leave, not bothering to speak to them as they did. They spoke to each other instead, making plans aloud to meet at his aunt Pat’s home for a meal in observance of what remained of the Passover holiday, and then they were all but gone within the space of a few minutes. But Mike and Marco didn't turn away; Jean spoke silent thanks in his head.

The attendants pulled away the large metal supports, and the casket was lowered. His mother was really gone, the stone at the head of his parents grave now engraved with both of their names. Jean swallowed, unable to think of any final words for his mother, for the chapter of life that was closing. Instead, he let his hands fall from where his arms had been crossed over his chest. He looped one arm over Mike’s shoulders, Mike returning the favor with a tight half hug. The other, he bumped against Marco’s, and Marco laced their fingers without hesitation. He held Jean’s hand, bracing him along with Mike as Jean said a wordless farewell to his mother.

Jean was too numb to cry, but if he would have, it would have been out of gratitude to his best friend, and his ‘almost-stepdad’.

“Do you need anything else tonight?” Marco asked, once the burial was over. He stood by as Jean said goodbye to Mike for the evening, sure to remind him that that didn't leave him alone. “I can stick around, if you do.”

“Can you just stick around, period?” Jean answered quickly, thumbing at the ribbon still fixed to his shirt. “I’ll take you back to pick up your car or whatever. I just don't really wanna be alone, tonight.”

Marco nodded. “I’ll follow you home.”

--

Marco was close behind Jean for the entirety of the drive home, and that was probably half the reason he made it there without incident. His chest tightened as he turned into the driveway, reminding himself that his mother wouldn't be meeting him halfway to the door. Instead, Marco pulled up alongside Jean’s car and parked, waiting for Jean to move for his own door before getting out.

It was odd, showing Marco around the house. Pointing out the bathroom, the coat rack, the spot in the kitchen where the floor was always slick – these were the kinds of things that faded into the realm of unimportant knowledge for someone who’d lived with them for so long. And to Jean, it somehow felt like Marco had always lived with him. Like he always would.

But it was already April, and by the next month’s end, Marco would be graduating, and leaving CSUF. Leaving Jean. Just like everyone and everything else. The thought was one Jean hadn't let himself dwell on until that evening.

It dawned on Jean that in all of his efforts not to let himself want Marco, he'd wound up needing him instead. He leaned so heavily on him, the way he'd leaned on his mother before, and the reality that Marco wouldn't be there to lean on forever became as clear as the aching unfairness of his mother’s passing. Nothing was permanent. Life held no guarantees.

All Jean wanted was one thing – something – to hold to that wouldn't slip through his fingers. He dropped his keys on the kitchen table and leaned over the back of one of the chairs with a heavy sigh, trying to keep from crying. But he couldn't. The final threads of his composure snapped; he leaned his head back and closed his eyes, and let his sorrow roll down his face.

Marco moved over to him without pause, and wrapped an arm over his shoulders, pulling him in for a hug. But they stopped short, looking at each other instead, Jean’s arm looping around Marco’s middle. He felt vulnerable, face stinging from the tears that were still falling, and probably looking worse than he'd ever let anyone see him in a long time. But Marco didn't care; he made that much clear. He wiped newly fallen tears from Jean’s face, and let his head fall gently forward, so that their foreheads pressed together.

It was all Jean could do not to slip his arms around Marco's neck, and pull their bodies closer together. Maybe it was just his need for closeness, that evening. But his arm still hovered on Marco’s back, and his face pressed to Marco’s was the most comforting thing he’d felt in days. His breathing hitched with the threat of more tears, and Marco’s arm tightened around him. Jean let his head fall to Marco’s chest, Marco’s fingers gently swirling through his hair as he patted Jean’s head. They stood that way for a few minutes, until Jean could control his breathing again.

“W-we should eat,” he said, breaking the silence by clearing his throat much louder than strictly necessary. He backed away from Marco, his arm lingering for an extra second on the small of Marco’s back as he went. “I’ll make us something, alright?”

“Sure,” Marco nodded, eyes a bit unfocused as he dropped them from Jean’s. “Anything you wanna do.”

Jean hastily assembled crostinis, spreading small, thick slices of bread out on a pan as the oven preheated. He breathed in the smell of butter and garlic, of a recipe so simple and practiced that he knew it by heart. Cooking was calming for him. It was a way of caring for himself, and for others. He remembered cooking for his mother while she mourned the loss of his father. Now, with Lynnette gone, too, there was no one to return the favor. Jean blinked back tears and popped the pan of appetizers into the oven.

Marco was a pleasant presence in the quiet expanse of Jean’s home. He propped himself on the kitchen counter by his elbows, looking down at his phone while Jean busied himself with preparing food. He hummed to himself, probably reining in his usual singing aloud out of respect for what Jean was going through. But Jean wouldn't have minded. The house was too quiet, otherwise, and Marco’s voice was a beautiful sort of noise.

“You can sing, if you want.” Jean finally said, leaning back against the oven. Marco looked up at him, eyebrow raised, and Jean felt a flush of embarrassment. But then Marco grinned and shrugged, and sang a few bars of the tune he'd been humming. Something about ‘actions speak louder than words’ and ‘ask the birds’ – Jean wasn't really listening to the lyrics. He was watching the way Marco’s face lit up, the way his eyes sparkled and then fluttered closed, the way he looked in the low light of the kitchen lamps. Jean was used to being a little awestruck by Marco, but he was especially captivating that evening.

Jean was probably just tired, he told himself. A long, draining day, shot nerves and a growling stomach made his judgement a little skewed. There might have been more to it, but it didn't seem the time or place to let his mind linger on it. Instead, his listened to Marco sing, until his song was finished, and Jean realized how quiet the house really was in comparison.

And that he couldn't hear the oven timer ticking, anymore.

In a panic, Jean turned and opened the oven door, but was met with a face full of thick, grey smoke, and the smell of burnt food. He groaned, pulling the pan from the oven rack and dropping it unceremoniously onto the stovetop. He stared at the blackened bread and shook his head, his face heating up to match the unpleasant warmth in the room.

“I… I haven't burned anything since I was in junior high.”

It was meant to be an offhand remark, a self-deprecating crack at how off of his game he was at nearly everything, then. But as smoke filtered out of the air, it burnt his eyes, and by the time he was prying torched toast off of the pan to throw it away, they were watering so badly that it trailed down over his cheeks and left him sniffling. Marco stood by wordlessly. He didn't ask if Jean was crying; as usual, he knew exactly what not to say.

Jean wiped at his eyes, looking with a distracted, glassy gaze over the calendar his mother had kept hanging on the refrigerator, just above the trash can. He traced the days with his finger, trying to remember the last day he’d spoken to her. When he came to a bright red circle, he stopped, staring at it before breaking into hysterical, bitter laughter that obviously startled Marco.

He looked at Jean cautiously. “Uh, what’s…”

“It’s my birthday,” Jean said between wheezing breaths. “Tomorrow is my fucking birthday, and I didn't even remember it.” He pulled the calendar from the fridge and pitched it into the trash can, then leaned back against one of the kitchen counters to rub at his temples. “Just had more important shit going on, I guess.”

The idea was to laugh it off, pretend it didn't bother him. But his legs folded of their own accord, and he plopped down onto the smooth, cold kitchen floor, head coming to rest against the cabinets behind him. Marco watched him for a long moment, then took a seat across from him, leaning against the opposite row of cabinets in the narrow kitchen space.

“Do you, uh… D’you wanna do something?” He asked, hands tucked under his crossed legs. Jean looked up at him questioningly and he shrugged, “for your birthday, I mean.”

Jean shook his head. “Don't really see the point, honestly. I've got no one left to celebrate it with.”

Marco unfolded one leg to prod Jean with his foot, his voice soft even without a smile. “You've got me.”

With a nod, Jean drew his knees to his chest, arms crossed over them as he let his head fall between them. He tried to remember the words of Mike and his mother, remind him that he wasn't as alone as he thought he was. He tried to reflect on how many people had shown him support over the preceding days, friends he'd barely acknowledged before then. Desperately, he tried to feel that he was somehow still lucky, for all that life hadn't taken from him.

But curled into a ball in the floor of his kitchen, it was hard to feel anything other than the loss that sat heavy on his shoulders. Still, Marco was right. Jean had him.

Maybe one day, he'd figure out exactly what that meant.

“You still hungry?” Marco asked quietly, and Jean just shrugged, not bothering to raise his head.

“Not really. I'd rather just sleep, but that's not gonna happen.” He looked up just enough to raise his eyes to Marco. “Maybe I’ll just see what's on tv. I can order you something, if you want.”

“I'm not worried about me,” said Marco. “I haven't seen you eat all day, and I've been with you since this morning. You've gotta have something.”

Jean raised a hand to his face, rubbing hard at his eyes, and raking fingers through his hair as he hummed. “Mm, how about pizza?” He said with a slightly defeated sigh. If Marco was going to insist they eat, it might as well be something Marco would enjoy, too. “There's a local place here that makes pizza that's absolutely dripping with grease. It's disgustingly good.”

“Sounds like my kind of food,” Marco grinned. Jean nodded.

“Thought so. And I might even have some barbecue sauce here somewhere that your nasty ass can pour all over it.”

Marco clutched at his chest dramatically. “Grease and barbecue sauce? You sure know the way to my heart.”

“You're gross,” Jean said, and then his hard set jaw finally softened, giving way to a tiny smile. “So what do you want on yours?”

--

Half an hour later, they were pulling slices of pizza apart, sitting on Jean’s living room floor with a bottle of wine between them. It was one of the nicer bottles from his mother’s stash, one he would never have he chance to share with her. Jean served it in thick plastic cups, so he couldn't feel quite as guilty about just how much he was drinking.

The room’s soft rug was a decided improvement to the kitchen, and Marco’s suggestion that they pull throw pillows and blankets from the furniture into the floor with them proved to be a good one. Jean ate his pizza with his bare hands without complaint; at least they had plenty of napkins.

As they sat, he looked over the thick stack of letters and cards he'd been handed at the funeral home. Messages of apology, encouragement and comfort, and gifts of money that he didn't really need piled up beside him. He passed a few of them across to Marco to look at, to make up for the lapse in conversation. Marco smiled at the cards from Armin and the rest of the baseball team – including Eren – as if he could read the unspoken surprise and gratitude on Jean’s face.

Never had paper meant so much.

“So how about I make dessert?” Marco asked after they'd each eaten nearly half a pie. Jean raised an eyebrow, not able to recall Marco ever cooking anything in the many months he'd known him.

“You're gonna cook?” He asked, not bothering to hide his skepticism. “You're that drunk already?” Marco shrugged.

“Well, not exactly. Can I use your microwave, though?”

Jean nodded cautiously, and Marco was shuffling to his feet with a grin a second later.

With Jean’s direction, he pulled a small pile of ingredients from the pantry and fridge, and began scooping them in small amounts in two large coffee mugs. Sugar, flour, milk and cocoa powder – Marco whisked them all together, mumbling to himself in Portuguese as he pulled a seriously concentrated face. Jean might have laughed, if he wasn't wrestling with uneasy feelings of nostalgia, remembering himself and his mother making sweets in that very spot, just a few months earlier. He watched Marco work silently, still in doubt as the cups of brown goo went into the microwave.

 “And you're sure that’s gonna be edible when it comes out?”

Marco laughed. “Should be. If I remembered the recipe right.”

“Comforting,” Jean sighed, and Marco laughed even harder.

When the timer on the microwave pinged, Marco excitedly removed the mugs, wincing at the steam pouring from them as it wafted into his face. “They're gonna need to cool for a bit,” he said, but his giddy smile betrayed how anxious he was to taste his work. He passed a warm mug to Jean and tilted his head back toward the living room. “Let’s go sit.”

They made their way back over to the living room floor, settling again into the makeshift fort of pillows and linens. Jean turned the television on, scanning the channels for something to watch. He settled on a late night cooking show; Marco stretched, yawned, and – with a playful grin breaking across his face – began to sing.

"If I lay here…”

This time it was Marco who started the impromptu sing-along, stretching out on the large plush rug on the living room floor. He held a hand up to Jean, waiting.

“If I just lay here…”

Jean took his hand and swallowed, letting Marco gently pull him onto the floor beside him. He settled there, placing his steaming mug beside himself, and tucking his hands behind his head. Glancing to the side, he found a very expectant-looking Marco smiling back at him. He heaved a sigh and joined in.

“Would you lie with me and just forget the world?”

Marco grinned, reaching for his own mug, piercing the top of his tiny cake with his spoon to vent steam. He propped himself up on his elbows and sang, voice louder and clearer than before.

“Forget what we’re told, before we get too old. Show me a garden that’s bursting into life.”

“That line doesn’t make any fucking sense.” Jean groused, though he couldn't fully stifle an automatic smile pulling at the corner of his mouth at the sound of Marco’s singing. He sat up to grab his cup of cake, prodding it with his spoon and turning himself so that he flopped over onto Marco, lying with his head on Marco’s soft stomach.

“Lots of things don't make sense,” Marco shrugged, taking a bite of his cake. “Doesn’t mean they're not good.”

“Well this definitely doesn't make sense,” Jean nodded, glancing down at the cake in his hands before taking a small bite. He sighed around his spoon and went for another. “But it’s definitely good. Where’d you learn to make this?”

“My oldest sister, Bruna. She used to make us things like this when we were all home alone.” He took a bite and sighed around it. “She was a lot sweeter when we were kids.”

“Well this shit’s amazing.” Jean reiterated. “It's addictive.”

Marco chuckled. “That’s exactly why I don't make it very often.”

“Why not?!” Jean asked incredulously. “Give me the recipe and I’ll start making it once a week back at the dorm.”

“Probably not the best idea, at least for me.” Marco shook his head, shifting under Jean without pushing him away. “Auruo already nags me about needing to lose a few pounds.”

“Seriously?” Jean gaped at him. “The only weight you need to lose is him.” He rolled onto his stomach, pushing up on his elbows to look at Marco better. “This cake is fucking delicious, and you deserve as much of it as you want. And someone to remind you of that.”

“He’s not the first,” Marco sighed. “And he probably won't be the last. I tend to attract people like that.”

Jean huffed. “You deserve better.”  

Marco shrugged one shoulder, eyes more on the mug in his hand than on Jean. He poked the cake inside a few more times, and then sat the cup aside as if he'd lost interest, finally looking back at Jean as he leaned back onto his bent elbows.

“And you deserved something better than a mug cake for your birthday.” He was quiet for a moment, staring back at Jean, waiting for something. Maybe he hoped Jean would understand the point he was trying to make without him having to say it, but the alcohol in both of their systems made it hard to know for sure. Finally, he gave a ragged sigh. “We don't always get what we think we should outta life, you know? Especially when it comes to people. Auruo’s – he just…”

Jean sat up on his knees as Marco trailed off, fire in his eyes that he hoped Marco could see. “He’s not even fucking worth your time, Marco. I would never…”

There was a beat of silence, a stretched out moment in which rational thoughts echoed distantly in Jean’s mind and tried to warn him that he was leaning forward, to fast, too close. But he ignored them, falling into the warmth that pulled him forward instead, until he was a breath away from Marco’s lips, and his eyes shuttered closed.

“Never,” he repeated, maybe to Marco, maybe to himself, not even sure of what he was promising. And then his lips were pressed to Marco’s, and for a slit second, everything stilled. He wasn’t hurting, didn’t feel like crying, couldn't feel the anger and despair that had raged inside his chest for days – there was only the soft, warm beginning of a kiss, the first glow of a flame.

But with a sharp inhale, Marco snuffed it out.

“Jean, don't.” He pressed a hand to Jean’s chest, prying them gently apart. The expression on his face was somewhere between hurt and panic, all the more evident on his bruised features. He shook his head, chewing on his bottom lip for a moment before finally muttering, “I don't want to r--”

“Sorry, I – I’m just… sorry.” Jean mumbled an apology and sat quickly upright, scooting away from where Marco was lying.

Never had Jean been so violently sobered. Never had he been so sharply reminded of every doubt, every reason for hesitation he’d ever felt. Never had he expected that to come from Marco. But perhaps he should have.

It made sense, when Jean actually listened to the voice still screaming at him in his head. Marco had someone else. In a way, Jean did, too. He had the promise of a date with Mikasa, of exactly what he'd always wanted. So why did it feel as if everything he'd wanted had just been ripped away, like the ground had given out beneath him?

They were friends, he and Marco, and no matter how different Marco was from Eren or from anyone else, Jean still should’ve listened to his own logic. Marco was supposed to be off limits, something he’d reminded himself of too many times to number. He shouldn't have played with a fire that he already knew was dangerously hot, and the burn of rejection burst into an inescapable fire, singeing every inch of him from the inside out. He should never have dropped his guard.

The sound that broke the heavy silence between them was a shuddering sob, and Jean barely realized it was his own, until he couldn't draw a breath without shaking into a heap there on the floor. He didn’t have it in him to apologize any further to Marco, or to ask him to leave, sparing Jean what was left of his dignity. There was only the struggle to breathe again, and a swirl of thoughts, as he tried to think of how to explain himself.

But he didn't need to.

Of the many things Jean should have known, that was chief among them. Marco wasn’t upset. He didn't hesitate to scoot over to where Jean lay, sidling up close beside him to show that he was there, a shoulder for Jean to lean on when crying into his own folded arms became unbearable. He laid a hand on Jean’s back, unflinching when Jean turned in toward him.

Given what had just happened, part of Jean wanted to hide. He wanted to leave, to get away from Marco and conceal his shame, but he couldn't. He couldn't even stand; the space between Marco’s arms was too comforting, and he couldn't bring himself to leave it.

Jean melted against him, pressing his face into the crook of Marco’s shoulder. In that moment, he was far too weak to push away the arms that were holding him - holding what was left of his world together. Because despite anything else, being next to Marco was the one thing that still felt right. When Marco stroked fingers through Jean’s hair, humming and then softly singing to him as he cried until he couldn't anymore, he almost believed that if he lay there – if he just lay there with Marco – they could just forget the world.

Because when Marco spoke, Jean believed him. And the last thing Marco said before the two of them drifted off to sleep in the living room floor of Jean’s achingly empty childhood home, was that they would be okay. Not Jean, alone – not Marco, himself.

They.

Jean took the words to heart, and dreamt of a sunrise that would let him feel better about believing them.

Chapter Text

Returning to campus wasn't easy.

In class, at practice, in the halls and on the walking paths that wound around campus – everyone and everything went on with a steady beat of the everyday. No one but his closest friends knew that Jean was hurting, still raw to the core from his loss. The sun shone on, the days moved along, and nothing slowed down for him.

It wasn't that he was entirely alone. Friends, coaches and teammates stopped by almost from the first hour he returned to the dorm, bringing more gifts and bouquets of flowers that Jean was too polite to refuse. He had no idea where to put them; they ended up arranged in slapdash order on his desk, his books banished to the space under his bed. Jewish tradition called for mourning for thirty days, displaying gifts and wearing the black K’hiar ribbon as a sign of it; he felt he owed his mother that much. At least their dorm room smelled good.

It was good that it did, since that was where Jean spent most of his time, on his first days back. The weather outside the walls of his building was beautiful, but he could barely lift himself from his bed, much less make his way out into the fresh air. The most of it he felt was the breeze through the open window, or the open door when people stopped by to visit. They asked if he wanted to get out of the room, to do something fun, and he resented himself for turning them down every time. But he had no other choice.

There was no simple way to tell people that he didn't want to do anything. He barely even wanted to exist.

Marco understood.

More than anyone, he cared about Jean, and cared for him. He fielded conversations when Jean just wasn't up to talking, helped him keep his flowers, gifts and letters organized – despite still not bothering to clean his side of the room past absolute necessity – and provided Jean with a calm and patient soundboard for the few things he did feel like discussing.

Jean was grateful, of course. There was an understanding between he and Marco that required no words; he knew what Jean needed without being asked. But what was missing was the awkwardness that Jean expected, the apprehension of a person who'd literally had to push him away at one point. It just wasn't there. Marco continued to be as warm, as thoughtful and as obliging as he'd ever been, as if consciously choosing to forget what had happened. He was totally fine. Meanwhile, Jean was quietly going out of his mind with guilt.

Perhaps snapping was inevitable. Jean was getting better with words, but there was still a limit to his finesse.  After yet another evening of Marco’s attentiveness,  Jean’s lack of understanding tumbled out of his mouth in something like a shout.

“How are you still being so good to me? After the… thing?!”

“The thing?” Marco asked, but his expression betrayed the fact that he already knew what Jean meant. Jean answered anyway.

“The night of the funeral! When I was drunk and tried to fucking kiss you – you aren't even mad!”

Marco stared at him. “Why would I be mad? It's not like you tried to hurt me.”

“No, but… you sure didn't seem to want me to do it.” It stung Jean to say aloud, burned him to acknowledge the confusion and rejection he'd felt with the slightest push of Marco’s hand against him, reminding him that that wasn't something that could happen between them – that Marco was not an option. It wasn't that Jean had really wanted him to be, exactly. But the assurance that he wasn't left Jean with an unexplainable sense of failure.

Standing at Jean’s desk, Marco drew a deep, uneven breath.

“I just knew you weren't in your right mind, Jean. For God’s sake, you forgot your own birthday! I couldn't get mad at you for anything that happened, that night.” He rearranged Jean’s flowers, carefully examining a tiny vase of ribbon wrapped forget-me-nots before turning back to look at Jean, the blooms still in his hands. “Is that all that this is about?”

“Yeah, I guess, I just…” Jean pawed at his face, rubbing at the skin that was heating up under his fingers. He willed himself not to turn red with embarrassment. “I didn't - it didn't mean anything, y’know? I mean - it ... doesn't have to mean anything.” There was a painful length of silence, and Jean felt like melting into his bed. He wasn't lying; the kiss was obviously better off forgotten. So why did he feel so dishonest?

Finally, Marco moved, and only then did Jean realize he had frozen for a moment at his words. “Yeah. Yeah, I figured.” He gave Jean a tight smile, nodding as he sat down beside him at the bed’s edge. Their fingers overlapped as he sat, and he laughed, though it was nothing like the infectious sound Jean was used to. “Not worth being upset at my best friend over.”

Jean nodded, staring at the floor. At nothing. “Thanks for letting me get it off my chest.”

“Don't worry about it.” Marco insisted, and then looped an arm across his shoulders. “Don't ever worry about it.” He curled his arm in tighter, and let Jean fall against his side.

With Marco there to lean on, he felt safe. Marco was a net to catch him, a hand to hold when Jean couldn't feel his way through the darkness that had been far too present in recent days. Jean was glad for everything that Marco was, and for the fact that he always made time to be those things for him.

The next day, Marco left for home, Easter weekend rolling in as he rolled out. But before he went he left Jean a small vase of flowers himself, laughingly adding them to the others with the complaint that he didn't want to be the only one who hadn't contributed to Jean’s floral array. They were roses, and in the low light of morning in the dorm, Jean could see that they were yellow. He put them right in the middle of all of the others, a spot of sunshine among muted, somber tones.

Just like Marco, himself.

--

As the days of April crept by, Jean was aware of spring in full bloom around him. His walks to practice, class and the track were bordered by flowers and bathed in sunshine, but it was hard to take any of it inside with him, or let it inside of him. Especially on the exceedingly long weekend that Marco was gone.

The first evening wasn't terrible, but the day after was anything but a ‘good’ Friday. That night was even worse, lonely and boring in turns,  and plagued by terrible dreams that woke him violently before the sun rose. His first instinct was to call his mother, to reach out for her voice and reassurance. But a second later, he reminded himself that she wouldn't be there to offer it, anymore, and he stared numbly at her contact info, lost in painful thought for another hour. Once he was sure Marco would be awake, he sent him a chat request on Skype. Gone were the days that he needed a reason to call him; Marco answered quickly, and then he was on screen, looking back at Jean with tired but smiling eyes from what looked to be a living room.

"Being here alone is weird. I mean, I'm fine, don't worry,” he added quickly, when he saw Marco’s face change. He knew Marco was still worried about him, given all that he'd been through. And maybe rightfully so.“I just keep having weird ass dreams and nightmares, and last night was the worst. I woke up and punched the nightstand and dumped coffee all over my bed. Couldn't get back to sleep in that mess.”

Marco shrugged. “Sleep in my bed, then.”

Jean blinked back at him. “I mean… I'm gonna clean it up. Just might take a day or two to get everything washed up.”

“Then just sleep in mine ‘til I get back,” Marco repeated. “You know I don't care.”

Jean wrinkled his nose. “I'm afraid of what I'll find over there. Laundry from seven years ago or something.”

“Taco Bell wrappers are more likely.” Marco laughed, even harder when Jean grimaced dramatically. “It's not bad, I swear. Your choice though.” He leaned back in his chair, shirt riding up as he stretched, and Jean bit his lip to keep at bay the smile that kept to his face when he saw Marco’s soft stomach. It was really cute – like a lot of things about him – but Marco didn't need to know that. He didn't need to know that Jean had noticed how well his face had begun to heal, bruises and bumps almost gone from his beautiful features, eyes more sparkling than swollen. He didn't need to know that Jean caught himself looking at his lips more and more often, thinking of the now two times he'd kissed them. No, Marco didn't need to know any of that. He finished stretching and settled back in front of his screen, looking back at Jean with the beginnings of an amused smirk that Jean hoped had nothing to do with his staring. “So – what were you dreaming about that made you deck the nightstand?”

“It was weird, dude. There was this other version of me and he had like a jacked up nose and half his ear was missing and he looked like he hadn't washed his clothes in six years and he kept trying to make out with me.” Jean shuddered. Marco raised an eyebrow.

“You dreamt you made out with yourself?”

Jean frowned, trying not to let it become a pout. “Well it just sounds sad when you say it like that.”

That was enough to make Marco laugh, his hand dropping from its place holding up his chin to rub at the back of his neck. “That's weird, yeah. But I mean, I used to have this one dream over and over where I was like half snake. And another where I was in a bad accident and then the doctors rebuilt me into a cyborg, with a robotic arm and like a computerized eye.” He laughed. “My sister Alisa always said I watched too many ghost stories. Or maybe drank too much before bed.”

Jean snorted. “I'm inclined to agree, either way.”

Conversation with Marco was warm and welcome, something Jean didn't like to outright acknowledge how much he'd come to depend on for peace of mind. They had ways of finding the most obscure topics of conversation, especially when the most obvious ones were still too painful to touch. And they talked for hours if left to it, and left alone. But after only about half an hour of chatting, Jean noticed that they weren't alone, anymore.

A petite girl with dark, curly hair shuffled around Marco, noisily rummaging through the room before disappearing again. Marco didn't pay her much mind on her first visit, but she returned a few minutes later, and perched on the arm of Marco’s chair.

“-Hey, bro.”

“Hi, Dani,” Marco said flatly, not bothering to raise his eyes from the screen in front of him. “What are you doing?”

Jean remembered Marco mentioning a ‘Dani’, his younger sister. She hovered, and bit the corner from a Danish pastry, peering intently over Marco’s shoulder as she did. “Eating. Obviously.”

“On my shoulder?” Marco finally looked up at her. She didn't look back; she was looking at Jean.

“Just scopin’ out what you're doin’, big brother.”

“I'm a little busy.” The camera panned slightly, and Jean saw that Marco was making an effort to subtly turn the screen from Dani’s line of sight. She followed, leaning harder onto him.

“I see that.”

Marco sighed. “Dani...”

“Who's this?” She pointed at Jean, waving. Her face pushed close to the webcam, Jean could see her better, see that her shoulder length hair was the same dark chocolate shade as Marco’s, and even see the faint line of freckles across her nose. Her eyes were green though, and impossibly large as she sized him up.

“Dani…”

“C’mon, you met Shiro!” She groused. “And Chelsea, and Morgan - I've introduced to you all of my--”

“This is Jean,” Marco said, before she could finish her sentence. “My roommate.”

Jean waved back. Dani’s eyes went wider. “Is this the Les Mis song guy?” Suddenly Marco’s eyes were as big as hers, brows knit in something that looked like panic.

“Dani, can you not?!”

“M’just askin’!”

“How about you just go?” Marco swatted at her, sending her jumping to her feet and off of his chair.

“Fine, fine! I'm gonna go eat the entire bag of doughnuts, ‘cause you're an ass.” She ripped off another piece of pastry and threw it at him, and then she was gone, and Marco turned back to face Jean, his own face an interesting shade of pink.

“I'm so sorry.” He palmed at his forehead, dragging a hand down his face. “My little sister is an experience. I… God, I am so embarrassed.”

“Call it fair trade for the shit with Hitch.” Jean laughed, but as soon as he'd spoken his cousin’s name, the image of her in his mind’s eye – gaunt and troubled, last he'd seen her – robbed him of his smile. When he realized Marco was watching him with concern, he shook his head. “Sorry, man. Talking about my family just gets to me right now.”

Marco nodded, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth. “We can talk about something else.”

Jean shrugged. “Doesn't really matter, honestly. Not that I don't appreciate the sentiment, it's just… Everything is bothering me right now. Mom's gone, half my family is either messed up or pissing me off, there's still a shit ton of drama with the team over the thing with Wagner, you're gone--” He stopped himself, swallowing to keep his throat from closing off on him entirely, and to keep from sounding any more desperately attached to his best friend. Marco waited, and eventually he found his voice again. “It's just a lot, all at once. I can't get away from it.”

“You need some kind of safe zone,” Marco told him. “Like a happy place. Doesn't have to be a real place, but you know what I mean.”

Jean nodded, dropping his eyes. You're my happy place, he thought of Marco; my safe zone is you.

“I kinda have one,” he admitted. “But I get what you're saying. Maybe something more concrete.”

Marco reached up to adjust his webcam, aim it so that he could look into it directly. “I'll be back in a couple of days, okay?” He looked back at Jean with raw reassurance, nothing patronizing in the way his dark eyes searched Jean’s through the screen. Maybe he knew. Maybe Jean didn't have to say it. Or maybe – somehow – he already had.

Jean nodded. “Alright. For now I’ll let you get back to throwin’ doughnuts at your sister. Talk to you later, yeah?”

Marco nodded, smiled. “I’m always around.” Jean returned it, feeling just a little better.

“Damn good thing.”

That night, he took Marco up on the offer to sleep in his bed. It was only for one night, of course; just until he had time to get his own bed clothes laundered. And it's not like he was really sharing Marco’s bed, though they'd slept in much closer proximity before. But that evening – surrounded in soft, mismatched linens that smelled of Marco – Jean was at peace. It was still too quiet, too lonely without his roommate there. But the change of angle afforded him a new perspective, a different outlook on his time alone – as well as a nicer view of the small spray of flowers adorning his desk. They were prettier, head on. Especially the ones Marco had left.

Jean couldn't be sure – it may have just been a trick of the light – but he thought it looked like the tips of them had begun to turn red.

--

The next morning was a Sunday, and Easter, specifically. Wagering there wouldn't be many people to distract him, Jean used the quiet afternoon to make his way to the track for a run. He should've been surprised to see Ymir already there, rather than off celebrating somewhere. But something about her presence made sense, and Jean decided not to ask her why she wasn't elsewhere.

“Oh, look who finally dragged their ass to the track!” She bounded up to him, whacking him in the arm with her near-empty water bottle. Jean didn't even bother rolling his eyes.

“Yeah, nice to see you too, Ymir.”

“Tch. What was your name again? S’been so long I can't remember.”

 “Don't be an ass this early.” Jean scrubbed at his face, setting a shuffling pace for them as Ymir followed.

“Gotta make up for lost time, shortstop.” She grinned. “So where’ve you been? Busy with your Not Boyfriend?”

“I went home.” Jean replied, eying his feet as they moved across the lined track. “My mom passed away.” He came to a stop. Ymir stopped smiling.

“Oh.” She halted, bouncing as she forcefully slowed her steps, a deep frown tugging the rest of her features down with it. Her voice lost all of its sharpness as she looked at him, crossing her arms over herself. “Shortstop – Jean - I'm sorry.”

The tone she spoke with was so genuine and so soft, it didn't even sound like her voice. Many things had made him cry since the day that he'd gotten the news about his mother, but nothing had hit him quite so unexpectedly as the authentic emotion Ymir looked back at him with.

“S’alright. I’m not here to talk about it, okay?” He stepped back, shaking his head. They were alone on the track, but he glanced either way out of habit before attempting  a slow jog again. “What's up with you?”

“Same shit,” Ymir shrugged, following a stride behind. “Still single as fuck.”

Jean winced at the sudden memory that he wasn't the only one life had left hurting recently. “I'm sorry.”

“Not your fault. Trust me, I'd pin it on you if I could.” She flashed him a spiteful smirk, pausing only for a beat to wait for him to return it. “Nah, this is all me. I'd love to show her that I'm sorry. But she's too busy with Springer for me to even catch up with her.” She looked out in front of her, way off in the distance somewhere – at what, Jean didn't know. “Think she's finally found somebody that treats her like the queen she is.”

“You don't think she's just busy?” He offered. “I really don't think she and Connie--”

“They're together all the damned time.” Ymir snapped. “Explain that to me.”

Jean shrugged one shoulder, throwing his balance off slightly. “They're in that show together, you know? The one Marco’s in.”

“Yeah. And she's playing Marco’s girlfriend. Not Springer’s. You never see all three of ‘em together, now do ya?”

“I mean, I don't really pay much attention, but…” He trailed off. She was right; he couldn't think of a single incidence of the three of them being sighted together, despite the fact that all of them were close. But Krista and Connie were admittedly spending a lot of time together, privately. He sighed. “No.”

“That's what I'm sayin’.” Ymir shook her head. “I've lost her. For good. The only person that ever knew exactly how shitty I was and loved me anyway, and I ruined it.” She laughed, but it was a cold sound. After a stretch of silence, she glanced over at Jean between falls of her feet. “Why don't we go back to talkin’ about you, shortstop?”

Jean blinked, at a loss. “I don't even know what to talk about, honestly.”

“You got anything goin’ on?” She asked, and then her eyes narrowed and the corners of her lips curled up into the Grinch-like expression Jean had come to absolutely fear. “You gettin’ any lately, or you still a complete loser?”

“I've got a date.” He said, perhaps a little too forcefully. He tried to rein himself back in, but his excitement was far too apparent. “Soon.”

“No shit?!” Her tone of surprise was obvious, but she left no time for Jean to be offended before pressing him for details. “Spill.”

“A girl I've known for a while.” When his brain offered ‘my old roommate’s sister’ as a description, Jean shook his head, settling on something more accurate. “She's a friend.” He pulled his phone from the pocket of his shorts and opened his Facebook app, passing it carefully to Ymir.

“She's cute.” Ymir conceded, handing him his phone back a moment later. “What about roomie, though?”

Jean raised an eyebrow. “What about him?”

“I mean, clearly the guy wants your dick, and you're givin’ it to somebody else?” Ymir gave him a fiendish grin, shaking her head. “Rude.”

“He has someone else!” Jean spat. “And… I told you, it's not like that.”

“Very convincing,” she laughed. “So what's your big date? Where are you taking the future wifey?”

“We're going to see the show. Marco's show. He got us tickets, so--”

“Are you kidding me?!” Ymir ground to a halt, laughing too hard to keep running. “Insult to injury, much?”

Jean stopped a few feet further, circling back around to face her. “What do you mean?”

She stared at him, cackling. “You won't date the guy, and now you're only going to see his show because he gave you free tickets to drag this chick along?” She dragged her hands down her face, a bewildered smile still on her face. Jean threw her a dagger-sharp glare.

“No! I would've gone to see the show, regardless.”

“Right.”

“I would have!” He insisted. “Marco's my best friend! Why wouldn't I go see his play?”

Ymir snickered. “Because people don't do that shit for their ‘friends’.”

Jean glowered back at her. “You have no idea what people do for their friends!”

“You're right, shortstop – considering I've never really had any of those.” The remark hit Jean hard, a deep gash to the puffed-up pride he had braced himself with in defense to her taunting. But even as he was sinking in guilt, she barked with laughter, clapping him on the arm and shuffling back into a run.

“Ah, no need to look so pissy, shortstop. You're a lot prettier when you smile.”

--

Despite the physical outlet it provided, baseball continued to be more of a source of stress than a respite for Jean.

The other players didn't bother hiding the fact that they blamed him for the holes in the lineup left by their missing teammates, Thomas and the others. Some of the coaching staff seemed resentful as well, but maybe only because they'd had to frantically shuffle less experienced players around to cover the gaps, and explain exactly why the school had ‘allowed such violence to occur without appropriate discipline’. Even the fans – despite the fact that their booing and shouting wasn't directed at Jean, himself – added to the overwhelming feeling of guilt that continued to weigh him down.

At the end of a particularly bad practice, Jean noticed that Mike wasn't in his usual place, hovering a few yards away. Worried that something more than baseball might be bothering his coach, Jean made his way to Mike’s small office in the halls of the athletic complex, only to hear that someone was already inside it with him, behind a barely cracked door.

“You know, some people might be apt to blame this season on you, Zacharius.”

The voice was Nile Dawk's, though Jean wasn't sure what exactly he was talking about. He pressed himself flat against the wall beside the door to listen.

“I reckon they might be,” said Mike, sounding like he'd had this exact conversation before, less than enthused.  “But what exactly are you gettin’ at, Nile?”

Nile gave a sneering  little laugh that set Jean’s teeth on edge. “Between your obvious favoritism, your inability to control your players off the field, and the fact that you're absent as often as our schedule permits--”

“I had a fiancé to spend time with,” Mike snapped,  emphasizing the past tense in a way that made Jean feel like the bottom of his chest had given out, letting his heart free fall into his stomach. “Guess that won't be a concern for you folks, anymore. But thanks for your sympathy about all that.”

There was a sharp scoff, and the sound of chairs shifting roughly across hard floors. Nile’s voice wavered, just below a shout.

“I’m not here to baby you about your personal life, Mike. I just think maybe it's time for you to step down. You're letting an awful lot of people down with the lame ass performance this team is putting out lately.”

“It's one season,” Mike reminded him. “The school isn't going to--”

“One season full of pissed off fans, dwindling ticket sales, and more press coverage for fights than for the terrible stats we've got. As far as I'm concerned, it's just a matter of time before you get edged out.”

Mike sighed. “I'm sure you'd love to see that, Dawk.”

“I'm not the only one.” There was a threat in Nile’s voice, an unspoken promise that might have been acted upon if he hadn't noticed the creaking of the door behind him. But he did, and he turned on his heel, catching a glimpse of the sliver of Jean’s angry face that was visible through the widening crack, and flashing both he and Mike a tight, insincere smile as he took that as his cue to leave. “Have a great day, coach.”

Jean stepped out of the way to let Dawk pass, neither of them so much as bothering to speak to each other. As soon as he was clear of the door, Jean moved past him, bursting through the doorway himself. Still sitting at his desk, Mike inhaled sharply.

“You outside that whole time, kid?” He asked. Jean didn't answer.

“Was that asshole serious?!”

Mike sighed. “I take that as a yes.”

Jean closed the door hard behind him, as if daring Dawk to return. “He doesn't know what he's talking about, coach – the school would never--”

“It ain't just about the school, Jean. That much he's right about. We keep lettin’ these fans down, and pretty soon they might be lookin’ at lettin’ me go.” Mike rubbed at his temples. “Can't say I blame ‘em.”

“Blame me,” Jean mumbled, dropping heavily into the weathered chair on the opposite side of Mike’s desk. “This whole thing is my fault. Top to bottom.”

Mike pushed back from his desk, drawing his eyes down into a hard scowl. “Now you listen, son. That is the last time I wanna hear you say that. Bad things happen to good people way too often, and I think that just goes to show how damn good you are. Your circumstances don't dictate who or what you are – your choices do. And you're getting’ better at those every day.” He leaned forward again, arms crossed on his desk as he let himself smile, just a little. “Your mama would be awfully proud of you.”

Jean melted a little further in his seat. “Wish I agreed with you on that, coach.”

“You will, one day.” Mike promised. “Until then – focus on what's important. Okay?”

“I'm tryin’,” Jean replied honestly, but given that he didn't even know what was important anymore, he had no idea if his focus was misplaced. Probably, given how poorly he felt like he was handling life at that point. But one thing that wasn't misplaced was his trust in his head coach, his mentor, his almost-stepdad.

“I’ll keep tryin’. Thanks, Mike.”

--

Mike’s words were well intended. Jean couldn't say that he didn't appreciate them. But they were the words of someone who was looking at things from a very different angle, someone who loved Jean too much to allow themselves to see his fault. They just didn't help.

He wasn't the type to go looking for wisdom, but occasionally it seemed to find him. As the two of them became better friends, sage advice often came by way of Armin Arlert, who had a remarkable talent for listening without speaking, at least until Jean had finished dumping his thoughts all over him.

“And I can't stop looking in the mirror and wanting to punch myself. Everything is my fault.” Jean ground his foot into the grass of the practice field, fingers laced at the back of his head as he looked out across it. Beside him, Armin lazily examined the seam of his glove as they waited for the others to join them for practice.

“It's really not.” He said plainly. “But I understand why you feel that way. Have you talked to Mike about it?”

“Yeah. He gives me the same positive bullshit you do.” Jean glanced back at him sheepishly. “No offense.”

“None taken.” Armin chuckled. “I wish I could do more to help, though.”

“Thanks. God knows I don't deserve it. But thanks.” Jean stood with him, the two of them watching the less experienced fill-in players arguing yards away. He licked across the front of his teeth, shaking his head at their squabble. “I guess the thing that bothers me right now is that this whole thing has just sucked all the fun out of everything. Like all the color is gone from everything I used to enjoy.” He laughed to himself, or maybe just at himself. “That sounds dumb, I know.”

Armin shook his head. “Not at all. Makes perfect sense.” From anyone else it might've sounded patronizing, but from Armin it was actually reassuring, proof that Jean wasn't losing his mind. He tugged at the K’hiar ribbon, now tied around his wrist.

“I just wanna play. I wanna enjoy this fucking sport that I've spent my whole damned life working on. I wanna enjoy life. And that's probably really selfish of me.”

“No it's not. It's natural. It's like…” Armin looked around, like he was searching for something. Then his eyes settled on the rafters just above the recessed bleachers of the dugout, birds fluttering from one exposed beam to the next. “It's like asking a bird if it prefers a cage or its wings. You're not selfish for wanting to fly.”

“I don't feel like I can fly. At least not anymore.” Jean followed his eyes, watched the birds for a moment as well. Then he dropped his eyes back to his own feet. “Sometimes the ground seems like the better option, anyway.”

Armin titled his head to either side, thoughtfully. “If the ground is where you have to be, you might as well blaze a trail forward until you get where you wanna be. Remember what I said about Marco?”

“I'm no Marco,” Jean said flatly. “I don’t wanna have to fight to enjoy my life. I don't wanna put up with the kind of shit I see other guys go through in this sport. Gettin' dropped for trying to stand up to the corruption in the system. Treated like shit for being who they are, liking what they like – how can I see that and keep on fighting for anything?” He was saying more than he'd meant to – implying more about himself than he'd intended – but Armin had a way of making him feel like he could do that without worrying, the only teammate to ever do so. Jean sighed, eyeing the sharp white lines that made up the baseball diamond. “The safe path is a lot more inviting.”

“But it may never lead you anywhere. Except in circles.”

Jean nodded. “I know you're right, Armin. I guess I just have to let it knock around in my head for a bit before it sinks in.”

Armin laughed, and tugged his glove on properly as the rest of the team finally took their spots to play. “Fair enough.”

--

The season rolled on, and the Titans continued to rake in mediocre scores, even on good days. It was hard, playing with a group that had gone from a near-professional level to one full of younger players, still cutting their teeth on fielding positions and fighting amongst themselves. With half the original lineup missing though, they had no choice. It was made all the worse when a pregame debriefing included the introduction of a substitute pitcher.

“Why’s Eren on the bench?!” Jean asked of anyone who might humor him with an answer. It wasn't true, exactly; Eren wasn't even there. Jean couldn't remember him ever missing a game. When no one offered a response, he looked directly at Armin.

“Fighting.” Armin reluctantly sighed. “He was lucky. Only got a three game suspension.”

On their way out of the lockers, Jean followed him. “Who’d he tangle with?”

Again, Armin sighed, voice heavy with annoyance that didn't seem to be directed at Jean’s line of questioning. “Thomas Wagner.”

“What?!” Jean grabbed him by the shoulder, and they hung back in the open walkway beneath the bleachers as the rest of the team passed.

“He beat the absolute hell out of him,” Armin said quietly. “Somehow got him alone, so no one could prove that he started it, but I know Eren. If he didn't think he'd get arrested, he would've broken both his legs.”

“He started it?” Jean hissed. “Why!?”

Armin grimaced, a hesitant wince as he declined to give an answer. Jean looked out across the field, at the substitute pitcher playing in Eren’s place, and mumbled frustrated curses under his breath.

The game was as terrible as Jean predicted it would be when he realized Eren wouldn't be with them, a massive spread between their score and the other team’s that even their combined best effort couldn't bridge. With teamwork at an all time low – and a fill-in for a key player – not much else could've been expected. Jean felt dread deep in his gut every time they were at bat. So when he and Armin made their way out of the stadium together after dressing out, and caught sight of Eren - waiting with a wide grin on his face -  Jean nearly punched him on sight.

“Miss me today?” Eren cracked. He was covered in small bruises, his bottom lip swollen and dark with a healing gash. Jean saved his punches and tossed his hat at him, instead.

“What the hell were you thinking, fighting with Wagner?”

Eren threw a quick glance at Armin, then looked back at Jean with an impish smile, thumbing at his busted lip. “Hey, I know I look bad, but you should see him!” Jean didn't laugh.

“No, you asshole,  I mean – why?!”

Eren shrugged. “He pissed me off.”

Jean rolled his eyes. “You shouldn't have gone after him.”

“Yeah, well he shouldn't have messed with you.”

For a moment, Jean thought Eren might laugh, might make light of what he'd just said. But he didn't. He looked back at Jean with raised eyebrows, disappearing into the fringe of his hair as he silently dared Jean to argue. Jean never could keep himself from taking Eren’s bait.

“Since when do you care about me?!”

“Since when don't I?”

Jean laughed, bitter and humorless. “Since I've known you, I guess.”

In the beat of silence that fell between them, Eren looked to Armin, as if searching for support. But Armin – wide eyed and obviously uncomfortable – slunk away slowly, rounding the corner of the large wall separating them from the lockers, a  few feet away. Eren turned back to Jean, eyes narrowed.

“Why do you say shit like that, Jean? You should know I--”

“What I know is how bad you fucked with my head, Eren. You kept me going for two years, kept me cramming my shirt in my mouth to keep from telling you I loved you because I knew you weren't gonna say it back!” The words came flying out of their own accord, taking with them a heaviness from Jean’s chest that he was glad to see ripped from the roots it had laid there. He should've been more conscious of people listening; he should've cared, but he didn't. “That shit messes with people! You can't just expect me to forget about it!”

“Look, I know I fucked up, okay?!” Eren snapped. He picked up Jean’s hat from where it lay by his foot and clutched it. “I should've talked to you about this a long time ago, but I just didn't wanna pull your chain any more than I already had. This is my fault; I get that. But I didn't lie. I did a lot wrong by you, but that's one thing I can say. I told you I didn't love you, not that way. I couldn't, I can't and I don't. But that doesn't mean I don't care about you.”

He took a step back, covering his face for a moment with the bend of his elbow as his chest continued to heave. When he spoke again, it was with broken shout, voice more raw than Jean had heard it, even in their most intimate moments.

“I just want us to be friends, Jean. Friends. That's all I ever wanted.”

Jean eyed him for a moment. He tried to grasp at the remaining straws of the bitterness Eren had left in him, but found that he couldn't reach them anymore. There was no prickling anger left in him for what had happened, only the smoothness of a fully healed scar. Finally, he nodded, slowly. “Friends.”

He shortened the space between them, reaching out for his hat when Eren handed it to him. But instead of taking it, he let it fall to the ground, taking Eren’s hand instead. He took it, shook it, and felt what was left of the tension between them leave with the breeze. Eren bent down to scoop his hat up again, this time planting it atop his head with the first hint of a grin.

As if summoned, Armin reappeared at the corner of Jean’s vision. Jean wondered how long he'd been there, how much he had heard, but decided that it ultimately didn't matter. Armin was beaming with poorly contained pride, and Jean smiled in return.

Eren bumped his knuckles against Jean’s arm, grinning wider. “So I, uh… heard you and Mikasa might go out?”

Jean shrugged, reaching back to try to brush away the prickly feeling rising to the back of his neck. “Yeah, I guess so.”

There was the smallest change in Armin's smile, almost imperceptible, while Eren drew his eyes down and smirked knowingly at Jean.

“That a thing?”

“I dunno, man. We'll see.” Jean answered honestly. Eren clapped him on the back with a broad smile, and the three of them left the athletic complex together, enough laughter during their brief walk to almost make up for weeks without it.

--

That afternoon was like the gentle rise of a hill among the valleys that Jean's luck had been in the previous days.

Everything did continue to go well with Mikasa. Jean didn't know if that qualified what they had as ‘a thing’, but there was definitely something there that hadn't existed before. Something that made him desperately want to excel in class, but that made it nearly impossible for him to actually pay attention. Something that left him buzzing.

The real marvel of the situation was that – between the glances and grins and poorly suppressed giggles – Jean was actually learning. Mikasa was an excellent tutor, a stand-out peer, and when Jean could stop staring at her lips, he actually absorbed at least a little of what they were saying. Lessons about one member of a group possessing the potential to influence the others with the right behavior and conditions, passages read aloud about the dynamics of human perception and positive and negative regard – all of it was sticking, even if he didn't let himself pause to think about the ways it could apply to real-life scenarios. The important thing was that he was getting it, and she was taking notice.

They continued to study together, their other group mates all but forgotten as they laughed at each other’s jokes and made new ones every class period. A girl named Sarah who shared their workload in the group even remarked that they made quite the couple, which to Jean’s amazement, Mikasa only smiled in response to. At one study session held over lunch in the dining hall, Mikasa pulled out a stack of note cards for them to quiz each other, beaming when Jean agreed. He didn't know everything yet, but what he did remember seemed to surprise her. She excitedly swatted his hand, wincing when she realized how hard she’d hit him. The bright pink mark left behind was gone soon after, as she rubbed it away with her thumb and slid her fingers into the spaces between Jean’s.

Never had to felt more like one thing was tethering him to the earth, keeping him from drifting away with the wispy clouds overhead.

The one thing he wanted more than anything, though, was to share the way he was feeling with Marco. His good luck with Mikasa had him floating, and he wanted to drag Marco up into the stratosphere alongside him, regaling him with every detail. But he hesitated. Something that he couldn't explain kept him silent, kept him from mentioning nearly anything to do with Mikasa to his best friend. He told himself that was why, that  he was being a good friend, and that it would surely upset Marco to hear, given how badly things seemed to be going with Marco’s own relationship. He was being considerate.

Ultimately that's what he strived for. Marco had always been so good to him, so supportive; Jean wanted to return the favor. He wanted to be an ear or a shoulder or whatever Marco needed him to be. He wanted to be safe for Marco.

Still, it was hard to keep all of his thoughts from bubbling to the surface. Occasionally he would mention seeing Mikasa, and Marco would flash that familiar, dazzling smile that Jean loved and congratulate him on how well things seemed to be going for him. But the topic didn't usually circulate back to Marco’s own personal life, and when it did, he was quick to abandon it.

Jean tried to respect that. Marco deserved that much. But when Marco drifted into their room with tired eyes and a sluggish gait that made plain just how downtrodden he was feeling, Jean found it hard to bite his tongue. Exhaustion was not something Marco tended to wear on his sleeve.

This was something else.

Jean prodded, gently.

"Auruo.” Marco admitted, without much hesitation. It was as if he were just too weary of the subject to bother avoiding it, any longer. “He's been so acidic with me, lately. Barely even has time to talk, let alone…” He shook his head. “Things are just kinda rough right now.”

Jean groaned, rolling over to bury his face in his pillow for a moment before speaking. “Why do you stay with his ass?”

“Jean, not this again.” Marco pled, half turning away. “It's hard to explain, okay? You don't even know him, or the situation, really.”

“I know enough to know you don't need him.”

“It's better than being alone,” Marco spat, and his face was like someone who'd just been slapped. Maybe he hadn't meant to say it, but once it was out, the confession hung like a thick fog in the air between them, heavy on Marco’s shoulders. He sat down on his bed, curled in on himself from the unseen weight of it. “Being by myself reminds me too much of being younger. Of the things I went through. I know I don't need Auruo, but I need someone, just to kill the silence. Otherwise it's gonna kill me.”

“Then be with someone else!” Jean begged. He had no names to suggest, but he would've offered almost anyone. Almost.

Marco flopped backward onto his bed, arm following to fall across his face. “There is no one else!” He puffed his cheeks out and exhaled, like he was holding himself back from raising his voice. Jean scoffed.

“Marco, you're fucking gorgeous - they're tons of people who would--”

“I don't want tons of people!” Marco shouted, sitting bolt upright. “ I just want y--” He clapped a hand over his mouth, eyes wide. There was a strained beat of silence before he finally let his fingers fall away, voice still tight. “-- y-you… you to drop it, ok? I want you to drop it. I wanna stop talking about this.”

Jean groaned in frustration, tugged at his own hair angrily and then screamed, “He's cheating on you!”

Stunned silence resounded for a moment, and then a soft little hiccup that reminded Jean why he hadn't mentioned it to Marco before.

“You know that?” He asked, the hurt in his voice was sharp against Jean’s ears. “For sure?”

Jean winced, and talking became painful and difficult as his throat tightened. “Not exactly, but… Connie told me. A while back. I should've told you then, but I… didn't.”

Marco nodded, his glassy eyes focused somewhere on the floor. “Yeah. Yeah, you probably should've.”

“But you're gonna ditch him now, right?”

“I don't know, Jean.” Marco scrubbed at his eyes, tired or trying not to cry or maybe both. He stood and paced, like he might leave the room. “It's not that simple.”

“How is it not that simple?!” Jean demanded. “If  he's stepping out on you--”

“You don't understand, okay?! Maybe I'm just settling, but maybe that's because I have to! And you don't understand what that's like; the person that you want, wants you back.” Marco moved for the door. He turned back to give Jean a lingering look that left him feeling guilty in ways he didn't even understand. “We're not all that lucky.”

The door closed with a snap behind him, and Jean sighed at the sound of footsteps growing faint outside it. He wondered how long Marco would be gone, where he was going, and how the hell he was even strong enough to shut their heavy wooden door with such incredible force. Mostly though, he wondered why Marco always chose to solve his personal problems by denying them, hiding them, and running away from the thought of facing them.

And he wondered if – maybe – Marco had picked that up from him.

--

The next morning brought no trace of Marco with it.

Jean looked the room over throughly, even as his eyes burned for more sleep; there was no sign that his roommate had been back since he'd left. His blankets were unmoved, the door was still locked, and there were no messages from him anywhere. But this time Jean didn't brood over it. He just wanted to know that Marco was alright.

It wasn't that he wasn't shaken by Marco leaving. He was always blindsided by the small explosions that Marco seemed prone to, though in retrospect, always found himself disappointed that he hadn't noticed the signs that one was on the horizon. But he’d learned that they were part of who Marco was, a side effect of bottling the pressure he was under until he couldn't stand it anymore. It was a Marco thing, but not a Marco problem.

Jean reached out right away, no longer keen to play the runaround games he’d always resorted to when avoiding an apology. Marco was too important for that.

From: Jean
9:13 AM
Hope you're ok.

Lingering in their room, Jean waited for a response. To keep his hands busy – in hopes that his mind would follow suit – he tidied things up. Picking up the mess of scattered papers and wrappers on the floor, restacking both of their books, making Marco’s bed – Jean hoped the small touches he was making would make Marco feel more at home when he did finally return. It was the first step in his apology.

He knew it would blow over. Things would drift back into place between them, the usual ebb and flow of their friendship making it hard for them to stay frustrated with each other for long. But with the sudden and blinding pain of losing his mother still a fresh wound on his heart, he didn't want to let things stay broken with his best friend any longer than he had to. The thought of something happening to Marco while they were arguing might not have been logical, but it also wasn't out of the realm of possibility, and at the top of Jean’s list of fears. Factoring in the calendar – and the fact that the days he had left of Marco being his roommate were rapidly slipping away – there just wasn't time to waste. But there was time to wait, the only thing Jean could really do. So he did.

After several hours, Jean realized a response to his messages probably wasn't coming. He gathered some of his things and went for a walk, still intent on keeping himself moving to keep from overthinking. On his ambling, leisurely route, he caught sight of a flyer for an upcoming softball game to be played there on campus, and upon closer inspection realized that the date on the poster was the same as the date at the top corner of his phone screen. Ymir would be playing that day, he thought. With an afternoon to wile away – and a point to prove – Jean made his way to the softball field.

It was foreign, sitting in the stands for once. The game was relaxing to watch, summoning memories as warm as the afternoon sun of Jean spending summers at the ballpark with his father as a child. And the girls were good. Not that it would've been hard to put the men’s team to shame by that point, but even on their best day, the Lady Titans would have given them a run for their money.

Ymir was excellent, a talented outfielder, and hyper focused on the field. Jean wasn't surprised by her skill; he knew firsthand how fast she was. But he was impressed, all the same. Every time she had a hand in a play, he cheered, and she glanced around the sparsely populated stadium, searching for the sound.

The look of surprise on her face when Jean met her near the gate after the game was more than worth the price of admission, though he admitted freely that he enjoyed the game itself. She eyed him suspiciously, almost as if she didn't believe he was really there.

“Why're you here, shortstop?”

“Came to see you,” he said, a smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. “’Cause, you know - that's what friends do.”

Ymir stared at him for a long moment, waiting for a punchline. But when it didn't come, she twisted her mouth to one side, a long deep breath keeping her from tearing up, and she pulled him into a hug. It was tense, and a little awkward, but Jean could hear the smile in her voice.

“Good to know.”

--

Jean's concern about Marco only grew when he still didn't return that evening. Dinner hours came and passed, with still no sign of him. Jean paced their small floor, trying to think of something to do instead, something to keep himself from staring between wilting flowers, an empty bed, and a closed door.

A knock at that door had Jean running to answer it, but Connie was the one standing in the hallway when he did. Jean tried not to look disappointed. Connie bumped his fist against Jean’s shoulder.

“Hey man, how you doin’?”

Jean stepped out of the way and let Connie inside. “I'm alive. Best I can ask for, these days.” Connie nodded.

“That's good, that's good.” He bit his lips together hard. It was obvious that he didn't know exactly what to say; no one seemed to know how to handle conversation with Jean, lately. Friends were still handling him with kid gloves, gingerly sidestepping weighty subjects while checking on him like an unattended toddler. It wasn't exactly pleasant, but their hearts were in the right place. Connie's was no exception as he muttered, “You keep takin’ care of yourself, alright?”

Jean promised that he had been - that he would - and Connie nodded his satisfaction at that response, happy to change the subject.

“Listen, have you seen Marco around?” He looked back at the cracked door behind him, maybe wondering if Marco was in the hallway. Jean shook his head and swallowed.

“No. He's… not been here since the day before yesterday.”

Connie hummed. “What's that about? He okay?”

“I hope so.” Jean sighed. “It's my fault he's gone. We were talking about his boyfriend, and I just kinda exploded on him about why he should leave him.” He shuffled back over to his bed and flopped down there, raking a hand roughly through his hair. “I should've just kept my mouth shut.”

Connie stepped over to him, kicking his foot enough to get his attention. “S’not your fault at all, man. Auruo is a grade-A prick, and if I was in a position to say what I think about him, I’d jump on the chance. Especially about the shit he puts Marco through. But I gotta swallow it because he's my boss. Sasha gets so pissed at me for it, but what can I do, y’know?”

Jean nodded. With Marco dating the guy – and dealing with way more of his bullshit than he needed to – Jean could understand Sasha’s frustration. Especially with Connie completely beholden to Auruo; Jean couldn't imagine the stress that must cause between he and Sasha. Which reminded him…

“How is Sasha?” Jean watched the way Connie inhaled at the mention of her name, tense, like she was a topic that left him on edge, rather than his girlfriend.

“Busy, tired, not feelin’ well,” he mumbled. “Mostly just snappin’ at me. S’like I did something wrong and she won't tell me what.” He looked down at his shoes, toed at the floor and shrugged. “Stress, I guess.”

“Probably,” Jean agreed, though he wasn't entirely sure he actually concurred. But he reminded himself that it wasn't his business, and let it go; he'd already opened his mouth about too much, that week. “I’ll let Marco know you came by, okay? Tell me if you hear from him before I do, alright?”

Connie smiled, a little more relaxed as he slapped Jean’s hand for a shake, taking his cue to go. “Will do, man. Take care.”

With that Connie was gone, and Jean was glad when the sound of his steps faded out, no longer leaving him wondering if they might be the sound of Marco returning. But before he could settle in for another quiet night, Jean’s phone vibrated – loud against the silence of the room – and Connie’s name appeared on the illuminated screen.

From: Connie
5:44 PM
Krista says Marco is with her. Says he's pretty worked up, but he's alright.
Just thought I'd let you know.

Jean felt his nervous stomach settle, just a little as he sent a response.

From: Jean
5:46 PM
Thanks, man.

His questions weren't answered, entirely. He didn't know why Marco was there, why he hadn't just told Jean that he wasn't coming back. (Or why Connie knew what Krista was up to that evening, but barely seemed aware of where his actual girlfriend was.) There were a lot of things he still wondered. But he knew that Marco was safe.

And that was enough to allow him some rest.

--

Game days were nothing out of the ordinary as the month rolled ever closer to May, but there was a different feeling on the home field the following day. From the locker rooms to the groomed grass of the diamond, fresh air weaved it's way into Jean’s perspective, chest deep as he stepped into the sun and smiled past the bill of his hat. He let Armin’s words resound in his head, ringing true when Jean stepped back to actually look around him and realize he was enjoying himself for the first time in months.

Many things were the same as ever. It was the same old game, the same sights and sounds that Jean had grown up on. Familiar routines and rituals, the tap of bats against the plate and the numbered shuffle of feet in superstitious rites were the same as they'd always been. But in the fresh light of a different day, they somehow seemed new.

The younger players seemed to finally be finding their stride, but what was more important, was the feeling between the remaining original lineup. Nearly a week without their usual pitcher had left everyone with a sharp shift in perspective, thankful to have him back. The entire attitude of the team was different, and in the early innings, they pulled ahead on the scoreboard.

Things were better on a personal level for Jean, too. The world in which Armin smiled and Eren laughed with him was a brighter one, and the game felt for once like what it was – playing. He had friends on the field with him. It was the best Jean had felt in a uniform in ages.

And Marco was there.

The final inning was nearly over before Jean noticed him in the stands. Maybe he'd been there the whole time, maybe he hadn't. But the only thing that mattered to Jean was how quickly he could get to him, that he would have a chance to talk to him after the game

Thankfully, Marco lingered where he'd sat until the stands were all but clear, and Jean was able to make his way up to him. Hat and jersey still on, he jumped the short railing between the stairs of the bleachers and the stands where Marco say and took the remaining steps two at a time, meeting him before he’d even had a chance to stand and pulling him the rest of the way onto his feet and into a tight hug. He pressed his nose hard into the skin of Marco’s cheek, just beside his ear as he whispered.

 “So damn glad to see you.”

Marco pulled back just far enough to nod, hands still looped around Jean’s middle. He leaned back in for another hug, and Jean tightened his hold on him again. He was well aware that people might be watching – and suddenly aware of how little he cared.

A hard clap on his shoulder was the only thing that broke the illusion of their moment alone, Eren standing behind him, grinning widely.

“Bunch of us are goin’ to grab a bite to eat – celebrate actually remembering how to play baseball. You wanna come with?”

Jean shook his head without pause for thought. “Nah. I've got plans.”

“Mikasa?” Eren grinned, nudging at Armin who didn't seem to find it quite as amusing. Again, Jean shook his head.

“Not today,” he said. He glanced back at Marco. “Something a little more important.”

Eren gave him a thumbs up, and then dragged Armin after him, leaving Jean and Marco behind as he complained about ‘starving’ all the way out of earshot. Jean bumped his elbow against Marco’s and tilted his head to motion toward the stadium gates. The two of them headed out together, making their way across the still-crowded parking lot and toward Jean’s car.

“Thank you so much for being there, today. You didn't have to.” Jean walked close beside him, maybe somehow worried that something would happen to him, otherwise. Marco being anywhere alone on campus made Jean a little nervous, but especially him being near the athletic buildings. They passed the road that led to where Thomas and the others had cornered him, and Jean tugged at Marco’s sleeve, pulling him in the other direction on reflex. He wondered if that fear would ever leave him. For his part, Marco didn't seem worried, but he stayed close to Jean all the same.

“I wanted to,” he said. He leaned into Jean’s touch at his arm. “I'm really sorry for the last few days.”

“Don't be.” Jean insisted. When they reached the space where he was parked, he slapped his hand across the top of his car above the passenger’s side door and looked back at Marco. “Hop in.”

“Where are you – where are we going?” Marco asked, but he was already reaching for the handle.

Jean shrugged. “I need to run to the store; that's why I drove. I’d kinda like it if you just come with me.”

Marco offered an obliging smile as his response, and opened the passenger’s side door.

--

The ride was silent, but peaceful. Marco didn't ask any questions, and Jean didn’t either. They simply breathed in their closeness, a mutual gratitude swirling around them that the other was there. When they arrived at the small grocery store a mile or so from campus, Jean hurried inside, Marco shuffling after him. He waited to see if Jean would pull out a list, give him a reason why they were there; instead Jean asked a question.

“Now - what's in those mug cakes, again?”

Marco stared back at him for a moment, confusion passing briefly over his features before a wave of realization followed. He bit down hard on his bottom lip, eyes beginning to shine. Jean reached out to squeeze his arm, and Marco pulled him into a lopsided hug, laughing to keep tears at bay.

“Aisle six,” he said with a smile, and Jean let him lead the way.

They did their shopping and returned to the dorm, laughter easing the air between them until it was as relaxed as ever. With patience for Marco’s haphazard, half-Portuguese instructions and more than one failed attempt, Jean finally managed to replicate the mug cakes, and they settled on the floor between their beds to talk.

“You were right. He was cheating on me.” Marco pulled a blanket around himself and prodded at the cake in his cup. “And when I confronted him, he didn't even bother denying it. He just dumped me. Told me I wasn't worth the trouble, anymore.”

There were at least half a dozen things that Jean wanted to say, but none of them seemed appropriate as tears welled in Marco’s eyes. He sat silent, sock-covered toes overlapping Marco’s.

“I know I'm better off,” Marco sniffled. “You don't have to tell me that. I don't even wanna talk about it, I just… After seven months, me putting up with so much of his shit, he just drops me like I'm nothing.” Marco took a bite of his cake, swallowed, and sat the mug aside. “I am nothing.”

“Don't say that,” Jean warned. “I’ll fight you, mug cake and all.”

That was enough to make Marco smile, and Jean clinked their cups together to make his point.

“But seriously, I'm really sorry. He's a piece of shit, but that's not your fault, and it never was.” He lowered his voice, clasping a hand around the back of Marco’s bent leg. “Sorry if I made you think otherwise.”

Marco shook his head, coiling his arms around his knees as he drew them closer, trapping Jean’s hand in place. “It's not your fault, either. I guess I just wasn't enough for him.”

“You were too good for him, is all.” Jean huffed. Watching Marco shrug and poke at his dessert, he asked a question he hoped he didn't already know the answer to.  “Who, uh… who else was he steppin’ out with? Do you know?”

“Another guy,” Marco sighed. “An advisor here. I didn't get his name or anything. But that's why he's always hanging around the advisory building.”

“I'm sorry.” Truth be told, Jean was glad just to know that Auruo wasn't seeing a younger girl, for fear that he might've been the one stringing Hitch along. But now he knew there were two dirtbags like him on campus, and that left his stomach twisting sourly. Whoever Hitch’s mysterious CSUF boyfriend was – and whoever was Auruo’s guy on the side – it didn't matter. All that mattered was Marco, sitting in front of him, nursing wounded self worth and a fractured heart. Jean squeezed his leg. “He's so fucking gross, and I'm so sorry, Marco. I never thought I'd be as damned foolish as Jaeger, but I swear, if I thought I could get away wit hit, I'd bust that guy's windows and his kneecaps.”

Marco dropped his head to rest on his knees, face buried in the space his body made as he curled in on himself. His voice was muffled that way, but Jean could understand him. “It's… He's not even really what I'm upset about, it's just..." He dropped his head a little lower, shaking it as if deciding against something. "Let's just not talk anymore about it right now. I'm all cried out. I got a lot off my chest, staying over with Krista. I've had enough Ben & Jerry’s and cheap beer to upset my stomach for a year, and cried over more sappy songs than I wanna admit to. I'd rather my time with you be happy.” He looked up, a weak smile offered to Jean. “I just wanna feel better.”

Jean pulled at his legs until he pulled Marco forward, just enough to press their foreheads together. “Whatever I can do to make that happen, name it.”

“Just be here.” Marco breathed. “Just be you.”

Jean nodded. He could do that. For Marco, he would.

--

The following day, Jean had another scheduled meet-up with Mikasa. Marco's sleepless, red-rimmed eyes made him hesitant to leave him behind, but Marco insisted, and left as well, to keep Jean from dwelling on the matter. Jean arrived early, but their agreed upon meeting time came and went without word from Mikasa. Still, Jean lingered, sure she would turn up. While he waited – sitting at one of the wrought iron tables in the sunny student lounge, outside – he heard a voice as a small group of people passed by.

“Jean?”

“Oh hey, Sasha.” He almost didn't recognize her; her voice was quiet and her usually well manicured appearance was disheveled, her hair wadded on top of her head in a messy knot and her clothes looking slept in. She wandered over to where he sat, waving lazily.

“Hey, how you been?”

“Doin’ okay. You? Haven't seen you in a while.” Jean pulled out a chair for her, but she dropped her bag into it rather than herself, leaning hard on the back of it.

“I've been crazy busy, with the show coming up, doing choreography, working back stage and all that. I'm just always too tired to do anything else.” She yawned, hitching forward at the end of it like she might be sick. Pressing the backs of her fingers to her mouth, she shook her head. “This show is wearin’ me out.”

She did look tired, more so than Jean had initially noticed. Her skin was unusually pale, enough that the shadows beneath her eyes were obvious in the sunlight. The skin of her cheeks was mottled, splotchy and slightly pink. Jean didn't feel that he knew her well enough to ask if she'd been crying, but he wondered all the same.

“Mm. Yeah, I've seen Connie a few times, and that's what he said. He came to the funeral.”

Sasha nodded, her attention suddenly somewhere far away. “Yeah. He told me it was nice. I'm really sorry I couldn't be there.”

“It's alright. I hope you're feeling better than you were.”

She shrugged. “It comes and goes, lately. Seems like all this work has made my immune system awful; I've stayed sick.” Jean gave her an apologetic frown.

“Yikes. I'm sorry.”

“Oh it's nothing I can't handle.” She stretched, yawning again before noticing Jean glancing at his phone. “Sheesh, listen to me, talking your leg off. You got somewhere to be?”

“Nah, I'm actually waiting for my partner.” Sasha raised an eyebrow at his words and he back pedaled frantically. “Class partner. Group partner. Friend.”

Thankfully, Mikasa arrived before Jean could force his foot any further into his mouth. She clasped his arm, apologizing between winded breaths.

“Hey, sorry I'm late,” she huffed, setting her things on the table. There were no books, no notebooks in her hands. She brushed a fallen wisp of hair from her face, tucking it behind her ear with a polite nod in Sasha’s direction. Sasha seemed content to sit by and listen as she spoke. “My roommate and her boyfriend just broke up, and she's been a mess all morning.”

“Oh, man.” Jean winced at exactly how well he knew that feeling. “I'm, uh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

Mikasa shook her head, lips pursed as she dropped into a chair beside him. “It's fine; she's better off without him. But I actually stopped by to ask if we can meet later this week, instead. I'm heading to the store to pick up a few things for her, because I think she probably needs me to hover for a little while. Maybe bring her lunch.” She paused to catch her breath, and then gave Jean another apologetic look.  “I'm really sorry for the short notice.”

“Nah, it's fine. We can do that.” Jean said quickly. “Who was the guy?” It was meant to be conversational, a product of Jean not really knowing what else to say. But Mikasa narrowed her eyes and glared at no one in particular.

“Asshole named Thomas. Thomas Wagner.”

Jean felt his throat tighten, a sickening burn rising at the mention of that name. “So Mina is your roommate?”

Mikasa nodded. “You know Mina?”

“I know Thomas.” Jean gritted out. “He's that guy that beat up Marco.”

“He's also my ex boyfriend,” Sasha interjected. “If you could even call it that. Went on a few dates. Left me face down in a ditch, on the last one. Scumbag.”

“Oh my god, I'm so sorry.” Mikasa looked between them. “I knew he was involved with that whole incident, but I didn't realize…” Jean shook his head tightly. Sasha mirrored him.

“Don't be sorry,” she said. “I’m more worried about your roommate. If you guys want company this afternoon, I've been there, done that with that guy. And I can make really good ice cream sundaes.”

Mikasa smiled. “Yeah, definitely. If you wanna walk to the store with me, we can talk.” She held out a hand, leaning across the table to reach Sasha. “My name is Mikasa.”

“Sounds good. And I’m Sasha, by the way.” They shook hands and Sasha complimented the tattoo on Mikasa’s wrist, one Jean himself had never even noticed. Then she stood, gathered her things and waited for Mikasa, patting Jean on the back before leaving. “See you later, Jean.”

Mikasa gave him the same treatment, a lingering touch across his shoulder as she left. “Thanks, Jean. I'll text you later, okay?”

The two of them left together, not even acquaintances half an hour before, and obviously well on their way to being friends as they waved back at Jean once more. He stared after them. He’d learned many things over the course of the year that had little to do with his courses, and one of them was just how amazing women were – and how incredible friendship could be, when it was real.

Jean headed back to his dorm, not the least bit upset for the change in plans. He wondered what his own best friend was doing, and found himself smiling at the thought, grinning around the straw of the drink he stopped to buy. He picked one up for Marco too, just in case.

--

In the days that followed, Marco seemed to be doing alright.

For the first time, Jean didn't worry that his resolve would crumble, that he would go running back to Auruo like he had before. Then again, perhaps it was simply because Auruo wasn't giving him much of a chance to, obviously too busy with his other boyfriend to pay Marco any mind. But as time passed, it seemed to bother Marco less and less. The show might've been keeping him too busy, as it neared opening night. Or Jean might've just been too wrapped up in his own life, too focused on making things happen with Mikasa to notice what was happening with Marco. But Jean liked to think that Marco was moving on. Just hopefully not to someone equally terrible.

Unfortunately, Marco still had to see his ex boyfriend frequently. Almost daily, he had rehearsal, and that usually resulted in an unpleasant run in. Jean could always tell when they'd crossed paths, when Marco would return to the dorm deflated and distant. But it only lasted a little while; Jean prided himself in being an escape for Marco, a happy place. At least, he hoped that was the case, at least, and that Marco wasn't simply getting better every day at concealing how bothered he might've actually been. Jeam tried not to let himself ponder that thought too deeply.

Marco was there for him too, of course. He continued to move around Jean with the same degree of care, the same patience and kindness that he always had, though he did it through a silent sadness, now, swaying the topic of conversation in an endless dance away from what he himself was thinking or feeling. A wall of sorts had gone up between them, Marco assuring him that things were alright but keeping space between Jean and the truth of exactly what he was dealing with. Part of Jean wanted to pry, to ask why Marco often looked so upset when he thought that no one was watching. But he quickly realized that Marco had no intention of divulging any more than he already had.

Still, he was ever supportive, ever observant to the day to day changes in Jean’s actions, and the first to speak up when it seemed like Jean was struggling. That much didn't change. Asking what he was doing – one evening when Marco found him sprawled out on their dorm room floor, surrounded by notebooks and wearing a panicked expression – was just par for the course.

“Just freaking out about this stupid presentation tomorrow.” Jean grumbled. “The usual.”

Marco frowned, settling on his bed to look down at Jean. “You’ve been working on it for months, I thought you were ready for it.”

“I am!” Jean insisted, more to convince himself than anything. “I mean, I guess I am. It's not really the stuff I'm presenting, it's just actually presenting it. With Mikasa. Like what if I tank? What if I forget my stuff or I'm late to class, or--”

“Or you slip and fall in front of everyone?” Marco suggested with a sarcastic smirk. Jean nodded frantically.

“Right – oh god.”

Marco laughed, so hard he was left wiping his eyes while Jean glared back at him. “This presentation is a huge chunk of your grade, and you're worried about embarrassing yourself in front of a girl.”

“Marco…”

Jean’s whine seemed to bring Marco’s sympathies around a bit. He clapped his hands over his knees and looked down at Jean. “I've  got rehearsal tonight. It's tech week, so things are insane right now. I'm not exactly sure when I'll be back, but--” He stood up, slung a bag over his shoulder, and crammed a few articles of questionably clean clothing into it before sidling back over to the door. “I can pick us up some Starbucks on my way, and we can cram before we pass out tonight. Sound good?”

Jean nodded, collapsing backward into the floor in relief. “Sounds great. You're my favorite, Marco.”

Marco grinned, hand already on the doorknob. “I'll remember that.”

--

Sleeping through his alarm should've been Jean’s first indication that the day of his presentation was going to be an interesting one.

Once again he was thankful for Marco, who woke him with a gentle prod, a reminder of what he was late waking up for, and a bag of breakfast from a drive-thru. Jean didn't even stop to ask what it was; he wolfed down a biscuit filled with questionable egg-like substance while scrambling into his clothes, eyeing his phone the entire time. But he thanked Marco before he left and sped off to class, running down a mental checklist of things to worry about at least three times on the way.

Sitting, waiting for his group’s chance to present, Jean tapped his feet and fingers. He thumbed through notes in Mikasa’s lovely handwriting, eyes getting lost in the gentle loops of the letters as he remembered their study sessions working on those notes. When Hanji called the names of Jean and the others in his group, Jean jumped out of his seat, prompting snickers from some of his nearby classmates.

Hanji was unnaturally excited and attentive, but perhaps it was to make up for the complete lack of concern shown by the other students in the room. None of them so much as looked directly at Jean. But Mikasa did, and that was enough to set Jean’s heart fluttering nervously.

The presentation itself went well. Jean didn't trip over his words, or himself. Hanji was pleased with how thorough Mikasa’s outlines were in detailing their topic and research findings, and Mikasa praised Jean’s contribution in particular, and Jean felt the hammering in his chest intensify. He managed to keep himself collected long enough to share his portion of the presentation, and to keep his eyes on his group mates that weren't Mikasa while they were speaking, but only barely. But it was enough, and when they finished, the class gave them a lackluster round of obligatory applause, and Hanji shook each of their hands and promised them a good grade. Months of worrying and actually studying were going to pay off.

But more importantly, it was over.

With the project finished and little still to do other than study for finals and finish out his baseball season, Jean felt a tremendous load slip from shoulders as he left the classroom. Mikasa gave him a hug as he left, and he couldn't stop himself laughing from sheer relief, and excitement at the fact that the next time he would see her, it would be for a date he felt like he'd been waiting for his entire life. It was just just around the corner of the calendar, in sight, like the warm days of summer as time sped toward them.

Things were finally looking up.

That afternoon, he and Marco left the dorm together, stepping out into the warm sunshine. Walking wordlessly together to their individual practices, their steps made a pleasant rhythm against the sounds of spring around them, laughter and birdsong and the quiet rush of the breeze gently shaking the trees. Everything was truly beautiful, and for the first time in weeks, Jean could feel it. Beside him, Marco lifted his face to the sun and breathed deeply, and the light showed just how much he had healed, as well as darkened every tiny freckle. He opened his eyes and turned to smile at Jean, not bothered by the way that Jean was studying his face, and bumped their shoulders together playfully. Jean smiled in return. Nothing was perfect, but everything was alright.

They were okay.

Chapter Text

There were handmade signs all over campus as the month of May rolled into Southern California, proclaiming student activities for the first day of May. ‘May Day!’ the signs read, and passing them everywhere, Jean couldn't help but laugh to himself at how entirely appropriate they were.

His plans with Mikasa were just around the calendar’s corner, looming alongside Marco’s opening night as Jean planned to make a date of seeing the show. To say that he was looking forward to it was an obvious understatement, but even more than his excitement, he was nervous. Jean liked order, and a certain degree of control that life had all but taken from him in the previous months. But dating – actually starting the relationship route from its beginning with someone – offered no real plan, no feeling of security in what he should say or do. It was electrifying, exhilarating, and just… a lot.

He only wished he had someone to talk about it all with.

With his mother gone, his usual outlet for reassurance and comfort  were taken from him as well, leaving him always wondering what she would've said in any situation, what she would have told him to do. No matter how many times he caught himself reaching for the phone to call her out of sheer habit, he always remembered a moment later that she wasn't there to talk things through with. He knew that she would have directed him to Mike in her absence, but despite Mike being the closest thing to a parent Jean had left, he had no intention of discussing his love life with him.

Not that it wouldn't have been a fine man-to-man topic. Problem was, the men in Jean’s life were pretty unreliable for decent conversation. He'd mended fences with Eren not long before, but their chats were still mostly in a safe zone for both of them, limited to laughter and crude humor that went nowhere near the topic of feelings. Besides, Jean couldn't image that talking so openly to Eren about his plans to try to hook up with his sister would be a very welcome conversation for either of them.

Armin was a excellent listener, and an even better administrator of advice, even when Jean wasn't keen on taking it. But the one topic he didn't seem to have much to say on was Mikasa. Any time Jean or Eren even casually mentioned her, Armin seemed to go quiet, to willingly fade into the background of the conversation and stop contributing altogether. But he seemed alright, speaking to her; when Mikasa turned up at one of their games, Armin couldn't stop smiling in her direction. The juxtaposition was odd, but Jean figured the guy had his reasons. He was just one more person Jean couldn't vent to.

The one person he did want to discuss it with was Marco, but for some reason, that still felt inappropriate. Uncomfortable. Odd.

It was probably just the guilt Jean still felt over the melted mess that was Marco’s love life. Marco still wasn't really over his breakup. Not that he ever mentioned it, exactly; in the days since they'd officially parted ways, Marco had only even said Auruo’s name in passing. Even after Auruo threw an absolute tantrum over Marco garnering praise from the theatre department staff for his work in the upcoming show – which he told Jean about with equal parts pride and exasperation – Marco still really had nothing bad to say about him. Jean did, but Marco was quick to dismiss it. If he was still hurting, Marco never admitted to it, and never pinned the blame on his ex. But Jean could tell.

There was still a quiet sadness that surrounded Marco, a far-off look in his eye when he didn't know Jean was watching him. He still winced – almost imperceptibly – when Jean mentioned his plans with Mikasa, and the high hopes he had for them. A raw tenderness still existed in him that Jean tried to avoid making worse; he knew how the sting of a healing heart could linger. But Marco didn't seem to be healing. He seemed content to shoulder the sadness, the same day after day, even if he didn't admit to exactly what was causing it.

It could have just been that Marco was busy. Marco handled stress fairly well, especially in comparison to Jean, but the end of the school year was heaping it onto his head in greater amounts than he could balance, and it was easy to see that he was wearing thin. Jean barely saw his roommate in those early days of May, rarely caught him for more than a few moments of quick conversation before Marco was rushing off for class or a study group or one of the half dozen types of rehearsals he seemed to have lined up every week. He even stopped coming to baseball games, something Jean tried to pretend didn't bother him as much as it did. After all, Marco was genuinely swamped. How he was managing, Jean didn't really know. But when he happened to still be awake one evening when Marco dragged himself into the dorm, he made a point to take advantage of the chance to catch up.

“Fancy seein’ you here.” Jean stretched theatrically, fumbling for his phone on the nightstand to check the time. He turned the screen toward Marco, holding up the display of 11:53 for him to see as he dropped his bags with a sigh of relief and exhaustion. “Before midnight and everything. I'm impressed.”

“I am too, to be honest. I'd say let’s do something to celebrate, but that would mean missing out on sleep. Which I need every minute of, right now.” Marco nearly crawled onto his bed, kicking his shoes to the floor without bothering to remove anything else. He flopped down hard onto his stomach and scrabbled for a pillow, giving up when he found them all to be out of reach. He groaned into his blankets; Jean stood with another stretch and grabbed one of his own pillows, dropping it onto Marco’s head before sitting next to him on his bed.

“I'd say. I don't even know if I've seen you in bed since last week. Your bed, I mean. I haven't seen you sleep.” He bit down on his lip to stop himself talking, but Marco barely seemed to have notice his babbling. He was fumbling with the pillow, trying to wedge it under his chin, barely able to lift his head.

“I barely have. This show is running me ragged. Everyone's stressed. It's just the three of us, and then a tiny supporting cast, so it's all on us to bring the show together.” He flipped himself over, landing on his back with a huff and finally tucking the pillow beneath his head. Jean shrugged.

“I'm sure it'll come together just fine. Especially with you as the lead.”

“I value your confidence,” Marco chuckled. “I wish I could say it's not affecting me, but I'm really nervous about opening night. The others are, too. Our stage manager, Dazz – I think he's probably had something like five meltdowns, just this week. And then the whole reason we wrapped early tonight was because Sasha and Connie got in a shouting match over God knows what, and Sasha stormed out.”

Jean hummed, interest slightly piqued at the mention of their mutual friends. “Man. That's weird.”

“Yeah. One minute everything was fine, Connie was laughing and crackin’ jokes with Krista, and then boom, world war three. Sasha was screaming and crying; it was a disaster.” Marco draped an arm across his closed eyes. “Just hope the show doesn't follow suit.”

“I'm sure it won't. You, uh, think Sasha and Connie are alright, though?”

“I think they're just stressed. The show is wearing everybody out.”

Jean wondered if it was really just stress grating on Connie and Sasha, and stubbornly hoped that it was. It had to be. “Yeah. You're probably right.”

“So what's going on with you?” Marco asked, pulling his arm away to look up at Jean. “I haven't even been making it to your games, I feel like I haven't seen you in ages.”

Jean grinned. “Aw. Missed you too, Broadway. Mikasa made it out to one of the games – did I tell you?” Marco nodded. Jean scooted back to sit against the wall, Marco sitting up out of his way long enough to let him stretch his legs before flopping back down right across them. Jean couldn't think of anything that he wouldn't have already told Marco, so he settled for a shrug as he glanced down at him, half in his lap. “She spent more time afterward talkin’ to Eren than anything. Kinda made me miss your chatty ass.” At that, Marco nudged him hard in the stomach, Jean laughing under his breath. “But I mean, she was there, so that's something. Everything else is just the same old, same old, y’know?”

A peaceful quiet settled over them then, the kind of pause they hadn't been able to grab hold of in weeks. It was something Jean only ever did with Marco, only ever wanted to do with him. No one else made silence so comfortable. But comfort caused Jean’s mind to wander, and his thoughts moved to his mouth faster than his brain could rein them in.

“Gettin’ kinda antsy over that whole ‘going on a date with my dream girl’ thing comin’ up, though.”

Marco cracked an eye open. “Why're you anxious?” He shifted away, moving like something was paining him as he sat upright to pull himself out of Jean’s lap. “If she's your dream girl then why aren't you just excited?”

“I am, trust me!” Jean insisted. But Marco wasn't teasing him, wasn't poking fun at his insecurity. Jean softened, sighing. “But that's just it; she is my dream girl, so everything has to be perfect. This could be the start of something major. Like I know it sounds crazy, but – she could be my wife one day, you know. I've always kind of imagined her when I thought about getting married someday. I don't wanna screw things up before they even get started.”

“Nothing’s ever perfect, Jean. Not with people involved.” Marco offered his advice with a sigh that ended in a smile. “Just enjoy yourself. And be yourself. It’ll all be great, I'm sure.”

Jean tugged absently at the leg of his pants, vaguely nodding. “I'm just afraid myself isn't good enough. I've gotta try to show her what she wants to see.”

Marco drew his knees to his chest, turning so that he was facing Jean head on. “Well lying isn't gonna win you any favors. Besides, anyone who doesn't like you for who you really are doesn't deserve you, anyway.” Jean looked up to see an expression on Marco’s face that was almost hard; the tone of his voice was protective, and Jean wondered how he'd ever found a friend to care so much about him. Seeing Jean searching his face, Marco pulled back, just a bit. “I just mean… You should be honest. Don't fake it, or what you'll get will be fake, too. Trust me.”

Jean rolled his eyes.

“Why are you always trying so hard to make me into a good person?”

“I'm not,” Marco said patiently. “I'm trying to make you see that you're already a good person. And you don't have to pretend to be anything else.”

Jean stared at him. There was nothing argumentative in Marco’s voice, no challenge in his expression. He meant what he'd said, and it almost made Jean want to believe it, himself.

“Well, thanks. Maybe one of these days, I'll agree with you.”

--

Talking to Marco always made Jean feel better, whole again after something had been taken from him by the long stretches of time between their once regular conversations. They could talk about anything; Marco seemed determined to prove that to Jean, even listening when he clearly didn't really want to. Even distracted and exhausted, he was every bit the supportive sounding board he'd always been for Jean.

There was one topic they didn't discuss, though – one topic that seemed to be off limits, via some unspoken agreement between them. It was the one thing Jean tried hard not to think about, and as the last weeks of the term slipped away, it was something Marco seemed equally happy to avoid acknowledging. It was their one taboo.

Their dwindling time together.

Marco was going to graduate. He was close, handing in final papers and filling out forms, and studying for a last round of exams. In a few weeks time, Marco would get his degree, and be ready to move on. Or just move, if he had it his way. That much, they had talked about.

The house Marco had grown up in was no home for him. Though two of his sisters were still there to dull the sting, his parents disapproval of him loomed large, dampening every visit home and every holiday he spent there. Since they'd met, Marco spent as much time at home taking to Jean as he could manage, keeping himself busy to escape the awkward tension that was life at home for him. But he wouldn't be able to do that forever, and he'd been talking about getting himself out of there once graduation had passed since the first weeks of their friendship. Marco needed to take wing and leave the cage that his parents had created for him. Jean couldn't begrudge him that.

So Jean tried not to think about it. He tried to pretend that it didn't bother him, that he wasn't conscious of the quiet countdown in the background of his thoughts. He didn't let on that with Marco leaving, he was right back to the terrified mess he had been coming into the school year. Things were going to change again, after he'd already had to deal with an entire year of more upheaval than he'd ever known before, and this time, the change would take from him the one person who had helped him shoulder all of the rest of it.

Jean tried not to care that the end of their year together was in sight.

He assumed he would be returning to CSUF the following year, since there was still no contract elsewhere in his future. Marco would be gone, and Jean would have to find another roommate, even then wishing that he could keep Marco in his life, somehow. Missing Eren had been a force of habit, an unhealthy dependence on a familiar face. But missing Marco would be like missing the fires of home.

Still, Jean did his best not to think about it, and Marco made that easier by refusing to speak about his graduation and summer plans beyond the abstract concepts of ‘soon’ and ‘coming up’. They ignored it, together, electing instead to make the most of the quiet moments they still had with one another in their shared space. Even as his big date, Marco’s big show and the big deadline of the school year’s end drew closer, they kept the thought of parting ways tucked away, hidden on a high shelf that was still out of sight and out of mind.

They just didn't talk about it.

--

Getting ready for his date with Mikasa was like flying on autopilot. Shower, do something with the hair that really should've been trimmed more recently, pull on the clothes he'd laid out for himself before his trip down the hall to get cleaned up – it was all doable without much thought. He moved around Marco, only aware that he was even sharing space with him when Marco glanced up at him – nearly ready to leave – and snorted with laughter.

“That's what you're wearing tonight?”

“Yeah?” Jean glanced down at his clothes, a red button-up dress shirt and black slacks and shoes, then back at Marco. “Why, s’it look bad?”

“No, of course not, it's just--” Marco reached out to turn down Jean’s shirt collar, pinching the crease between his fingers until it stayed in place as he bit back his laughter. “You're overdressed. It's just a first date – relax and have fun, remember? You look too damn fancy to have much fun.”

Jean crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. “Well I mean – we're going to the show. You're supposed to dress up a little when you go to the theatre, at least that's what my mom always said when I was a kid and dragged me to stuff. I mean, it's just a dress shirt and some decent pants.”

Marco chuckled. “And shoes that look like they cost more than my car.”

“Your car must be a piece of shit, then,” Jean said flatly. “But like I said, I'm only gettin’ cleaned up so much because we're going to your show. So it's not like I'm wearing this just to impress Mikasa. It's your show. So I guess if anything, I'm wearing this for you.”

Jean said it with an impish little grin, a joking tone that seemed to completely miss Marco. He stared back at Jean with a startled look on his face, silence hanging between them for a long stretch before he finally shook his head and blinked away his daze, expression softening.

“You look really nice, Jean. I hope you guys have fun, tonight.”

Jean found himself wanting to pull Marco into a hug, perhaps just on reflex. But it felt strange, as things always did between them when Mikasa was the topic. He settled for a bump of his knuckles against Marco’s arm.

“You got us some decent seats, right?”

“Only the best for you,” Marco teased. He snatched a pile of tiny papers from the desk behind him and pressed them into Jean’s hands. “Here you go.”

"Historia Reiss?” Jean asked, glancing at the names billed on the front of the show flyer, tucked beneath the tickets. He recognized Marco’s and Connie's, but not the third. “Who the hell is Historia?”

“That's Krista’s stage name. She's started using it in playbills and stuff recently. It's an actor thing.”

“If you say so,” Jean shrugged. The thought turned over in his mind for a moment, and then he smirked at Marco. “So do you have a stage name?”

Marco shook his head, laughing. “No. I just use my own. I like Marco just fine.”

“Me too,” Jean grinned. “You're gonna do great tonight.”

“So will you.” Marco promised, though his smile was a little less dazzling than Jean was used to.

“I'm not the one acting.”

“You'd better not be,” Marco warned. He turned back to the things he had laid out on his bed, throwing clothes over his bent arm before heading for their door, glancing back at Jean once more. “See you later, okay?”

--

Jean had grown accustomed to feeling uneasy. In the weeks of spring that were coming to their end, he'd felt nothing but unsettled, one catastrophe after another piling up to weigh heavy on his mind and in his gut. But heading to meet Mikasa, he felt a happy sort of uneasiness for the first time in ages, nervous excitement.

She looked absolutely stunning.

Her hair had grown just long enough that she was able to tie half of it back, a style that beautifully frame her face. She wore a short, black dress, sparkling jewelry and a red silk scarf to match her strappy shoes. Jean had to wrestle with his lungs when he saw her, bumbling through a greeting and, “You look amazing.”

Strolling across campus in the direction of the downtown area nearby, Mikasa didn't seem bothered by her fussy clothing. She walked with a graceful stride, keeping pace with Jean just fine in her heels. Deciding dinner sounded good before the show, they settled on a restaurant just a few blocks from the edge of CSUF grounds, a small Italian place with white table cloths and gold framed paintings on the walls.

"Place is pretty swanky for a college town,” Jean remarked, under his breath so that their fussy waiter wouldn't hear him. “Don't think I've eaten anywhere other than fast food in months, though. My view on swank is probably a little warped.” He caught himself wondering what Marco would think of the restaurant, and tried to remember if he'd seen Marco eat anything that required a knife and fork in the entire time he'd known him. He slid his hand in front of his mouth to keep from cracking up at the thought.

Mikasa grinned. “Yeah. Well it's a definite upgrade from food service fair, that's for sure.” She picked up her fork and twirled it between her fingers. “Look – metal and everything!”

Jean laughed. “I guess they don't trust college students with something as dangerous as actual metal forks. Yet they trust some of us with cleats and metal bats.”

“Speaking of which, I really enjoyed coming to the game the other day.” Mikasa smiled. “It was great seeing you and Eren and Armin do your thing.”

“Yeah. They do their things pretty well.” Jean nodded. Mikasa tapped the stem of his still-empty glass with the tines of her fork.

"You're not half bad yourself.”

“Likewise,” Jean said quickly, before realizing that it really didn't apply to the conversation at hand. But before he had a chance to mentally slap himself, Mikasa was laughing again, and he couldn't help but smile along.

Their meal was nice; Jean could hardly remember the taste of his food for the pleasant memory of their conversation. Mikasa was less careful with her words, as they talked; they chatted about classes and classmates and campus politics, and Jean learned that she had strong opinions that she had no problem talking about, if asked. The more he got to know about Mikasa, the more he liked her. But the spark he was waiting for between them had yet to catch fire. He kept waiting for one moment, some intangible thing that would light a flame under their idle chatter and turn it into something more meaningful, take them from laughing to lingering looks at each other across the table. But it never came.

It would, though. Surely.

The rest of the evening ahead of them, Jean tried to leave his reservations behind with the tip.

--

Marco hadn’t been joking about getting them good seats.

Their tickets led them to spots that were right in the center, just a few rows back from the first. He let Mikasa take her seat, sweeping the room with his eyes while she got comfortable. The rows were still filling up, still sporadically populated, and he could see the seats in the back of the wide, shallow room. In one of them, a familiar face; Ymir sat, her face in her phone as she waited, alone. If she would have raised her eyes, Jean might have waved. But she kept her eyes glued anywhere but the people around her, and Jean gave up on greeting her. He took his seat beside Mikasa, and made sure to tell her how lovely she looked in the warm lights of the stage house, while together they laughed at some of scenery waiting to be used onstage. Talking to her was getting easier. They chatted about the things and people they noticed until the lights went down and the crowd went silent.

The show opened with a loud musical number, building in volume as Marco was joined onstage by Connie and Krista. Marco stood in the center, but he was almost unrecognizable. It wasn't that he looked like anyone other than himself; from Jean’s relatively close seat, he could see Marco well, even see the areas where his stage makeup was heavier to cover the last traces of bruising on his face. But his behavior – his acting – was so unlike him that Jean caught himself grinning stupidly as he watched.

Marco owned the stage, despite sharing it. He sang with the passion that he kept at bay when he was quietly crooning in their dorm, and he danced like Jean would've never imagined him capable. A stark departure from the usual Broadway ballads he favored, Marco’s voice had a hard edge to match the music it was set to, and he nailed every note. He was spellbinding to watch, better than Jean had expected him to be.

Marco could've spent the rest of his life beneath that spotlight, and still shone brighter.

Krista and Connie were wonderful, as well. With such a small cast – just the three of them, rotating through scenes by playing multiple roles – it was easy to see just how talented they all were. But it was the lyrics of their songs, the words to the music that captured and held Jean’s attention.

"Why do we play with fire? Why do we run our fingers through the flame? Why do we leave our hand on the stove, although we know we're in for some pain?”

“Cages or wings – which do you prefer? Ask the birds. Fear or love, baby? Don't say the answer…”

There was an entire house full of people watching the show, but when Marco sang, “Actions speak louder than words,” Jean couldn't help feeling like it was aimed right at him. It rang so true to the hours they'd spent talking about things, and the lyrics resounded with the voices of not only Marco, Connie and Krista, but of his mother, Mike, Armin and everyone who'd offered him advice in the many troubled days before. It was a theme, an anthem that hit him harder than it should have, and his mouth hung slack as he listened.

"Why should we try to be our best? When we can just get by and still gain? Why do we nod our heads, although we know the boss is wrong as rain?”

“Why should we blaze a trail when the well-worn path seems safe and so inviting? How, as we travel, can we see the dismay, and keep on fighting?”

It was almost infuriating how much Jean could relate to the songs. He dreaded the teasing grin he'd have to see on Marco’s face when he admitted it to him. But maybe it was worth having a little bit more in common.

As the show went on, Jean was able to make out the story a little better, the tale of a man nearing a crisis point in his life as he struggled to decide what to do with the rest of it. Marco’s performance made it easy to enjoy, especially in the scenes he shared with Connie. Beside him, Jean could hear Mikasa quietly laughing at their combined footwork. They sang and danced all over the stage, jumping onto scenery and off of props, dancing like partners with Marco spinning and dipping Connie, cutting a laughable contrast with Connie dressed in a suit jacket and tie, Marco in a worn flannel shirt. But they were every bit the team, amazing to watch perform together, and just seeing them made Jean feel a rush of affectionate pride.

Marco’s stage time with Krista was different. Their chemistry was palpable, and Jean could feel the charm rolling off of Marco, even yards away. The innocence he'd always perceived in Krista was gone as she matched Marco move for move, suggestive word for word. And watching the two of them flirt was an interesting experience.

It wasn't that he was jealous. What sense would it have made for him to have been? Marco was his friend, and by a certain extension, so was Krista. And they were acting. There was no reason for him to feel anything at all, but he found himself shifting in his seat every time Marco’s hand dropped to Krista’s waist.

Jean dropped an arm across the back of Mikasa's chair, hoping it would help by reminding him that he had someone to flirt with sitting beside him. But it didn't. He still found himself huffing quietly every time Krista’s hands were on Marco shoulders and chest.

Dancing to a sexy song about a green dress, Marco and Krista capped a flirty display with a kiss, and Jean was sharply reminded of just how good an actor Marco was. It was incredibly convincing, despite the fact that Jean knew Marco wasn't actually interested in Krista, and he couldn't stop himself stealing a glance of Ymir watching as well. She stared off to the left, stone-faced, hard focused somewhere other than where Krista and Marco stood.

Watching Marco kiss someone else brought to mind the memories of exactly what his kiss felt like, tasted like, memories that were becoming harder and harder for Jean to ignore. He was lost for a moment to the daze they brought with them, or maybe more than a moment;  he was shaken loose from the fog around his brain by the house lights coming up for intermission, and by Mikasa’s quiet, reverent voice.

“Your friend is incredible.”

“Yeah. Yeah, he is.” Jean replied, absently. It occurred to him that he was still staring at the stage when he watched the curtain fully close in front of it. He shook his head again and turned back to look at Mikasa. “You, uh - you like it so far?”

“I do,” Mikasa nodded. “I usually hate musicals, honestly. But this is really good.” She looked back toward the closed curtain and smiled. Jean nodded, watching her. Hated musicals? Definitely not what he’d assumed, but as the night moved along, he was realizing more and more that she wasn't the person he'd painted her to be. She was her own person, a real person, rather than the sleek, flawless ideal that Jean had envisioned. And he liked that, though he wasn't entirely sure how it gelled with his dreams of making her his perfect baseball wife. Oblivious to his thoughts reeling, she turned back to him, still smiling. “You?”

Jean nodded. “It's great, yeah. I’m kinda gettin’ a little fidgety, sitting here, but--”

“We can do something afterward, if you'd like. Drinks?” She leaned in, just a little, her voice lowered. Jean nodded again, automatically.

“That sounds good.” He said, glancing behind him to see that the row had nearly cleared from people meandering out into the lobby for intermission. Maybe he needed a little stretch as well. Get his head straight. “For now, I'm just gonna run to the bathroom, if that's okay.” Mikasa smiled.

“I'll save your seat.”

--

The small bathrooms of the theater lobby were packed with people, all rushing in and back out without so much as stopping to excuse themselves from bumping into each other. Jean squeezed past a pack of them and into an open space in front of a mirrored sink. He ran a handful of water and splashed it across his face without stopping to think better of it. It was enough to bring him out of his haze, to remind him of why he’d holed up in a bathroom to begin with.

His dream date wasn’t quite panning out to be the dream he’d imagined it would be.

He’d been looking forward to the evening for weeks, thinking about it almost nonstop for days. But there, with Mikasa waiting for him in the other room, he realized he wasn’t enjoying himself as much as he’d hoped. Their date was more than halfway over, and he still wasn’t excited to be there.

That much he couldn’t lie to himself about. But he still couldn’t understand why.

Mikasa was absolutely brilliant. Her smile was more beautiful that evening than he’d ever seen it, and up close she was warmer, her voice softer and sweeter than he was used to hearing when they talked about classwork. She was clever and funny and by all accounts more incredible than he’d even assumed that she was. And still, he couldn’t pretend that things were going exactly like he’d hoped they would.

He must have been doing something wrong, he told himself. He just needed to stop overthinking it, stop waiting for the two of them to click and just let it happen, naturally. Marco’s advice resounded in his mind, ‘just enjoy yourself, and be yourself’. Marco had never misguided him.

He reminded himself to relax and breathe, and slipped back into his seat just as the house lights went down.

--

Dressed in a different costume, Krista took her place beneath a spotlight on the right side of the stage. Marco introduced her again, this time by a different name as she was playing a different character, and baleful chords began as she stepped forward to sing. Her voice was clearer, more raw and more real than it had been before, and she really did seem like an entirely different person. Marco watched from downstage, almost out of sight in the shadows, and he wasn't the only one. The audience was all focused on Krista, but Jean caught sight of Ymir over his shoulder and the rest of the people around them seemed to fade into a blur. Krista was supposed to be singing to Marco’s character, but the look on Ymir’s face made it seem like it was private performance. Jean felt the pain on her features as she listened. And he couldn't stop it affecting him, either.

Krista’s voice was lovely, but when Jean actually listened to the lyrics of her song, he began to feel his chest stir with something that had nothing to do with sympathy for Ymir.

“Come to your senses, the fences inside are not for real if we feel as we did, and I do.”

Every time she returned to the line, ‘Come to your senses’, Jean’s mind presented him with an image of Marco, trying as he said he always was to make him see things in himself that he couldn't. Jean smiled at the thougJht, but then the tone of the song changed, and the view from his mind’s eye changed with it.

“But now the air is filled with confusion. We've replaced care with illusion.”

It struck him, the memory of Marco’s face when he'd pushed Jean away the night of the funeral, and again days later, when they talked about it. Confusion. He'd been wondering why there was so much of it hanging in the air between them in the weeks before, but the further Krista stepped into the spotlight onstage, the clearer the reason became in Jean’s mind.

“Baby, be real – you can feel again. You don't need a music box melody to know what I mean.”

Marco was that person that was always building him up, always behind him, always caring for him despite how little he sometimes cared for himself. Marco made him feel again, no matter how numb life left him. And he had no idea what that made Marco, but it was definitely something more than just a roommate and a friend.

"Come to your senses, come to your senses. Come to your senses, baby, come back alive!”

Warmth rushed through Jean with a shudder that started at his shoulders and left him tingling to his toes. Despite everything the past few months had taken from him, he felt more alive than ever, more so every day. He'd spent so much time looking for someone that would complete him, would bring the dreams he had of a perfect life to reality, and he'd never found it. What he'd found instead was someone who complimented him, raised him up and then grabbed his hand to let himself be pulled up after, a partner up the ladder again and again. And he'd found them without looking.

His mother's words resounded in his mind, asking him if he was falling for the idea of Mikasa, rather than for an actual person. Lynnette had never been wrong, before; Jean had spent months boxing a real person into a box he could fit inside his heart, only to discover that the box wouldn't fit the way he'd expected it to. There was no room left for it, there. If he let himself be honest, that space had been filled for months at least, but he'd denied it, numb to the fact that he'd accidentally lost his grip on his heart. Jean was so caught up with pleasing the people around him that he'd forgotten to feel. 

It dawned on him as he listened to the same line, over and over – come to your senses – that he didn't need what he’d believed he did for so long. The life of a gorgeous wife and conventional family that would make him appealing to adoring sports fans, what he was expected to have; he didn't even want that. He didn't need someone to fit a mold, he needed someone who broke it.

Someone like Marco.

Someone who cared, unconditionally. Someone who had seen Jean at his lowest points - at his worst - and still saw the best in him. Someone who changed him for the better, without changing anything about him. He'd been sharing his life with that someone for months, without realizing how broken that life would be without him. He'd been working so hard to fall in line that he hadn't even realized he was falling in love.

Maybe he was imposing something, again. He'd spent so long framing Mikasa as something he assumed she was, only to have her leave a massive crack in his perceptions. He didn't want everything he knew about Marco to break the same way.

But there was no way it could. Marco wasn't decorative glass, wasn't the beautiful but fragile ideal Jean had created in his hopes for Eren or his thoughts of Mikasa. Marco had been tested and tried, repeatedly banged up and bruised by life and by Jean’s insensitivity, and found to be resilient, anyway. Marco was strong when Jean wasn't, soft in his touch and his voice when Jean needed to hear the things he was saying. Marco was everything Jean needed, and had never expected to want.

But he did.

More than the smoldering longing he'd felt the first few times he'd really let himself look at Marco, or the heady, hormonal rush he got when they'd kissed in his car months before, he wanted Marco. He wanted to let his hand linger when his doubts were screaming at him to pull it away, wanted to share space with him without having to explain away how much he loved his warmth or the way Marco smelled. He wanted to kiss him again.

Jean knew exactly where it could lead. He knew the risks, the social ramifications that he'd worked so hard to sidestep, hiding his bisexuality from the general public. He knew that if he ever dated another man, he'd have to do it differently, to put on a brave face and walk out into the sun, in hopes that he wouldn't be burnt by the glare of other people in the athletic community. He knew he'd have to open himself in ways he wasn't sure he was ready to do. He wasn't sure it was worth it. 

But the thought of Marco's hand in his - as something more than his friend, something that felt completely natural to think about, somehow - made Jean feel like it might be.

The revelation left him dizzy despite being settled firmly in his seat, his chest dropping in a bottomless spiral toward his stomach as he realized he would never see his best friend in the same light again. There was only this light, the one shining on Marco as he sang alone again, as if singing just to Jean as he repeated the same line. “Come to your senses.”

All Jean could do was claw uselessly at the melting scraps of his long-held dreams as they slipped away to give rise to new ones with the return of the house lights. Mikasa would be waiting for him to speak, but he could think of little to say, other than the truth. Which probably wasn't the best choice, smack in the middle of their date.

“Well that was… impressive.” He breathed. Beside him Mikasa nodded, smoothing out her clothing as she stood.

“Mhm. Do you wanna stay and congratulate Marco?” She glanced back at the doors that led to the hallway behind the stage, where signs hung with the words ‘Meet the Cast!’ in bold, glittery letters. Jean’s heart leapt to his throat.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to speak to Marco, exactly. Marco really had done a wonderful job, and he definitely deserved to hear that. But at that moment, Jean still wasn’t entirely sure how he was feeling or what was going on in his head, but he did know that standing right between Mikasa and Marco seemed like a terrible idea.

He shook his head.

“Uh, nah. He's not expecting us to hang around or anything. He’ll be busy after the show and I'll see him back home, anyway. Back at the dorm, I mean.”

Really, Jean just wanted to space between himself and the seat he'd been in. They still had drinks to get, and maybe that would help him collect himself. Maybe a walk through the fresh evening air and a night in a dimly lit bar would ignite the spark he was still desperately clinging to the promise of.

Maybe he was confused about the way he was feeling. Fear kept him from letting himself think otherwise. He ignored the voice in his head, still whispering.

Come to your senses.

--

The bar they chose was small, a little spot ten minutes off campus called The Dancing Titan. It was lit with neon signs and low hanging lamps that lit Mikasa’s pretty face perfectly. When she asked what he wanted, he opted for one of whatever she’d be drinking, and she returned with two sidecar cocktails. They settled in a round booth near one of the place’s few windows, and she pushed the drink across the table to him, smiling.

It was nice. They talked about the show a bit, about musicals they'd seen before and about some of the interesting people around them in the bar. And it was fun. But it still didn't feel real; the experience felt like it didn't belong to Jean. The whole evening had been a page stolen from another person’s storybook, and Jean wondered how long it would be before the page ran out. He wondered if he had his own book to return to, when it did. Still, Mikasa seemed to be enjoying herself.

“I had a really good time, tonight.” She pushed the scarf around her neck up over her mouth, but Jean could see in her eyes that she was smiling behind it. “I don't know about you, but I definitely wouldn't mind doing this again, sometime.”

Jean would have responded – he should have, should have said something polite and charming to match her words – but then she was leaning up in her seat, her hand sliding over his fingers as she gently pressed her lips to his. Her kiss was soft and warm, but that was all it was. Jean found himself wondering what he was doing wrong, even then, and it was the seal on an unavoidable realization. The girl he’d dreamed of kissing for months had taken the lead, and all he could think of was kissing his best friend, instead. The spark wasn't coming, because it had already ignited elsewhere, long ago.

He wasn't the only one that noticed.

“Is everything okay?” Mikasa asked quickly, pulling back farther than she needed to to look him over. “I'm sorry, I thought you wanted--”

“I did! I mean, I guess I… thought I did.” Jean touched his lips, wondering why they weren't buzzing from the kiss the way they had when it had been Marco’s lips pressed against his. But he already knew why, if he let himself think for more than a bare second. He needed to be honest with himself – and with Mikasa. “Look, Mikasa. I need to tell you something. Several things, actually.”

“Is there someone else?” She asked, shaking her head. She wasn't angry; her expression was one of guilt. “I didn't mean to--”

“There wasn't,” Jean insisted. “Or at least I didn't realize there was. But, yeah. I guess there is. Now.”

Mikasa looked back at him, waiting for more. When Jean didn't offer it, she took a sip of her drink and let her head drop into her open hand, propping herself on the table to look back at him. “I've got to be honest, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.”

“I know, trust me.” Jean sighed. “Mikasa, you are an absolutely wonderful girl. I didn't even know how great you were until recently. You're nothing like I thought you were, and I mean that as a compliment; I had this narrow-ass little picture of you as a person and you're so much more than that. And you deserve someone who gives you their full attention, and their whole heart. Tonight made me realize that that can't be me, because I don't have either of those left to give.” Jean glanced out the window, and caught himself wondering where Marco was at that same moment. “Somebody else already has ‘em.”

“Do I get to know who, since this train is already completely derailed?” She leaned harder into her open palm, a tiny, knowing grin beginning to play at the corner of her lips. “Is it Marco?”

Jean frowned. “Am I that damned transparent?”

Mikasa smiled, full tilt. “You're definitely not quite the actor he is, that's for sure.”

“I'm not the anything that he is,” Jean conceded. “But that's the thing. You remember a while back, you told me that there was more to me than you saw before? That I was a better person? That was all him. He makes me better, because he makes me see what I'm actually worth. What I could be if I'd actually try. He makes me wanna be better.” Jean looked at the half-empty drink in his hand, contemplating throwing the rest of it back to brace himself, but decided against it. Thinking about just where he was, and what he was doing, he laughed. “And for all that time he spent making me better for other people, I completely missed what was right in front of me.”

Mikasa was silent for a long moment, nodding as she mulled over the things he'd said. She shifted, dropping her wrist to the table where her bracelet clinked against the polished wood. Her beautiful, sparkling bracelet, that she'd worn with the rest of her beautiful clothes, on a date that was ending with Jean nearly dissolving in front of her in a dimly lit bar. He groaned.

“God, I'm so sorry. This was a really nice night and I completely fucked it up.”

Mikasa sat upright, shaking her head firmly. “Hey, hey – no, it's okay. You didn't ruin anything. I mean, sure, it's not what I was expecting, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed.” She softened, smiling as she cupped a hand over the back of Jean’s arm and squeezed. “But I still had an amazing time, and I think I've made a really good friend. That's a hell of a lot better than most of my dates turn out.” She leaned in close again, this time bumping her shoulder against his. Jean stared back at her, stunned.

“You're too good for this world, Mikasa. There are angels who don't deserve you.”

She smirked, all on one side of mouth as she twisted her lips. “Glad you think so. Now --” She stood up, tugging on his arm to pull him after her. “Go find Marco, and tell him exactly what you told me.”

“I can't just leave you here,” Jean insisted, glancing around the room. He might have been living in his own head that evening, but not enough that he would leave a woman – his friend – alone at a bar. “You want me to walk you back, or I could pay for a cab, or hang out until you--”

“I've got it under control.” Mikasa insisted. “And besides, if it makes you feel better --” she glanced down; her phone was in her hand, a text message conversation pulled up on its screen. Jean hadn't even noticed her pull it from her pocket, but he didn't miss Eren’s name at the top of the conversation. Mikasa shook the phone in her hand. “Company should be here before you even make it out of the parking lot.”

Jean groaned again. “You texted Eren? God, I'm definitely gonna catch shit about this whole thing, aren't I?”

Mikasa shrugged. “You probably would've caught shit from him, either way.” She pulled on his arm to turn him around, and pushed at the small of his back to send him toward the door. “Now go. And you’d better tell me how things turn out. You have my number.”

Jean nodded, still in almost complete disbelief of the way his evening had turned more sharply than he had at Mikasa’s urging. He pushed at the door handle, turning back to smile and nod  at her over his shoulder, a bewildered but genuine thanks.

“Yes ma'am.”

--

Leaving the bar behind him, Jean’s thoughts were a tangled mess. Whispers of ‘what are you doing?’ and ‘are you insane?’ mingled with the relief of having everything off of his chest to someone, knowing that he was on his way to lay everything on the table for Marco.

But he wasn't even sure what he had to lay there.

Clearly he and Marco needed to talk, and they had to do it soon. Jean knew himself well enough to know that if he didn't use the swing of his fevered momentum that evening that Mikasa’s push had lent him, he would never work up the grit to say anything to Marco about it at all. But what was he going to say? What was he even feeling, and what was he thinking, shuffling close to a sprint to try and catch Marco before he left the theatre building, in time to tell him about it?

He had no idea. But he hadn't known peace in his own head for months. Maybe telling Marco what he'd told Mikasa's really would be the answer to that. He hoped.

On his hurried walk back to the theatre building, Jean passed a convenience store. He might have kept walking, if he hadn't caught sight of the window display. Just below artfully painted letters proclaiming ‘We Sell Wine!’, were at least half a dozen bouquets of flowers, all neatly wrapped with ribbon. Jean found himself stopped in front of the window, peering inside, considering them.

Showing up with flowers would definitely be coming on too strong. Hell, he didn't even know how he felt about Marco an hour before, and there he was looking at bouquets of roses. There was more than a chance that Marco would be put off by Jean cornering him to fumble through the things that needed to be said, but that chance would probably be higher if Jean actually had the nerve to bring along a bunch of flowers.

But Marco had just finished performing, starring in a show, and Jean had seen other people bearing flowers in the audience, no doubt to hand over to the people on stage once they were off. Other people had probably brought Marco flowers. Jean briefly wondered if anyone had brought him flowers with weightier intentions than just to congratulate him, and that was enough to move Jean inside, to look more closely at the bouquets.

There were bunches of carnations, lilies and daisies, and a single bouquet of dark red roses, right in the middle of all of them. Jean looked at them, tried to imagine himself handing them over to Marco, and huffed with indecision. If he chose any other bunch, it would be easy enough to pass the flowers off as a gift of congratulations, a present from one friend to another, in case things didn't go anywhere else between them that evening. That possibility was very distinct. But if he chose the roses, their deep red color and romantically wrapped ribbons would leave no doubt of exactly why he'd brought them. Red was the color of romance, but for Jean, it represented honesty. He stared at them for a few moments before realizing just how much time he'd wasted in the brightly lit store, not catching up with Marco to actually give him the flowers. He snatched the roses from their display loop and made for the register.

The woman behind the counter didn't offer to acknowledge Jean until he was actually pushing the flowers in her direction to purchase them. She cracked her fingers and a gum bubble at once, a pop loud enough to bring Jean’s eyes to her long enough to read her name tag – Heather – and notice the ribbons woven through her pigtails, peculiar for a woman who looked at least ten years older than Jean himself.

She slid the wrapped bouquet across the register and waited for it to beep, looking the roses over with a knowing grin as she did.

“Big apology or big date?”

Jean shrugged, reaching for them once she’d totaled the sale. “Kinda both, actually. Hoping for a little more of the latter.”

The cashier grinned and winked at him, popping her gum once more as she passed a receipt across the counter to him. “Good luck, kid.”

--

Despite knowing it was probably of zero actual benefit, Jean continued to run down a laundry list of things he needs to say in his head as he quickly made his way back to the theater.

I like you. I have feelings for you. I think I may even be in love with you.

All of it sounded so sincere on first thought, but the moment he would imagine himself actually saying it aloud to his best friend, it lost all significance, all eloquence. More than anything, he feared the image of himself, standing in some badly lit street with a face as red as the flowers he'd convinced himself to buy, wondering why the hell he'd thought Marco wouldn't turn him away. He feared it, because it was so entirely plausible.

He’d been an idiot. Jean had felt himself falling for Marco for longer than he even cared to admit to himself, much less to anyone else. But he'd ignored it, swallowed it at every opportunity, because of who Marco was. A guy, his best friend, his roommate. It all sang too much of things that had broken Jean before, but the one thing thing that had never broken him was Marco. Even when they argued, Marco was a safe place to land for Jean, a cushion for the fall he'd taken. Marco put Jean’s broken pieces back together again, so seamlessly that Jean hadn't even noticed them mending until he was whole again. But the biggest tumble Jean had taken was one that Marco couldn't save him from, because it was Marco who'd caused it.

Falling for Marco hadn't been the same as it was with Eren or Mikasa or anyone else. It wasn't the floor dropping out from beneath his feet like it had with Eren, a sudden and painful realization as he hit the floor below that he was at the bottom with no one to pull him up. Nor was it the slight stumble, the hitch in his daily walk that his slow-burning crush on Mikasa had been, just enough to keep him tripping over his own feet. Falling for Marco Bodt had been a headlong high dive, a swirl through the air into crystal-clear water that Jean hadn't even seen around himself until he was drowning in it. It was familiarity and comfort and all of the things Jean craved, built up around him so gradually that he'd almost missed seeing a castle for staring at lone bricks in the wall. It was right. And Jean had to know of Marco felt the same way.

He had to talk to him.

Their time together was running short. Jean had repeatedly pushed the thought away, but only that evening did he realize that he was sweeping it aside along with his honesty about his feelings for his best friend. If he didn't say something that night, he might not get a more perfect chance. Jean wasn't one to jump into things without due thought, but this was something it was better not to dwell on first. He had to do it, and it had to be soon.

He had no idea what he would actually say. The thoughts that spun through his mind could be so beautiful when Marco was involved, especially since he'd dropped the pretense of purely platonic feelings not an hour before. Free to feel, his head was a mess of pretty things he wished he could say to Marco, all being shouted at once. But despite the giant leaps forward he'd made since he'd known him, Jean still didn't consider talking things through to be a speciality of his. But Marco made him want to be better, made him want to try – and more so than ever, now that Jean had so much that he needed to say.

That was, if he even caught up with him, at all.

There was a very real possibility that -Marco would be gone by the time Jean returned to the theater complex, and Jean would have no idea where to even begin looking for him. He knew Marco and his theatre friends were planning to do something after the show; he remembered them doing so the previous semester, and Marco’s chatter about post-show plans earlier that week anytime Jean would mention Mikasa. There was no telling where they would go, or what time Marco would return. Jean’s best shot was to catch him beforehand, but he wondered if he'd already missed that chance.

As he rounded a corner to head down the alley between buildings that would lead him to the theatre complex, Jean heard voices. He sped his steps on reflex, hoping it was someone who could point him in the direction of Marco, but not wanting to be stuck in a dark alley with anyone else. But a few steps closer, the voices became discernible – and Marco’s was among them.

A group of people came into view, Connie, Krista, Sasha and Marco, laughing and smiling and looking like they were having a fantastic time, already. They were still in their costumes from the show, Connie with a dress shirt hanging open and a tie hanging over his shoulders, Krista still in a dress that looked like something someone's mother would wear, and Marco still in simple black pants and a t-shirt, with his flannel shirt tied loosely at his waist. He looked genuinely happy, and Jean hesitated at the fear of ruining that. But then they were close enough to spot him, too, and any chance of turning back faded with his obscurity.

Jean swallowed hard.

He had to talk to him. He had to be honest. He had to say something meaningful.

 “Hey.”

“Uh, hey.” Marco glanced to either side, silently apologizing to his friends, or perhaps willing one of them to make things a little less awkward, to strike up their own conversations to keep his from taking center stage. But they didn't offer to, looking back at Jean or over at Marco like they were expecting something. Jean cleared his throat.

“Do you… have a minute?”

Again, Marco glanced around him, but he was already stepping toward Jean, maybe subconsciously so. “I mean, I’m on my way somewhere, but. Sure. Of course.”

Jean rocked on his heels, anxious as he jammed his free hand into his pocket. “I just need to talk to you. But… alone. If that's okay?”

“I already said that it was. You're so worked up, Jean.” Marco smiled, obviously somewhat amused. He followed Jean around a nearby corner, waving over his shoulder at the others to go ahead. “Did your date go well? And…” He eyed Jean’s hand, still wrapped around the stems of the bouquet. “Did she bring you flowers?”

“What? Oh, no – these are actually for you.” Jean held the flowers up and out toward Marco, chest tightening when Marco just stared back at them, at him. “The show, you know?”

Marco’s face fell a little, but he nodded. “Oh. Yeah, okay. Thank you.”

“It's no big deal.” Jean pushed the flowers into Marco’s outstretched hand, but before Marco’s fingers could close around them, realization washed over Jean. If he let go, he would let go of more than just a handful of roses. He would let the topic drop and never revisit it, waste everything he'd been through that evening on another missed chance. He couldn't do that.

He pulled the flowers back toward himself with a snap of his head to either side.  “Actually, you know what? It is a big deal. It's a huge fucking deal.”

Marco looked back at him, eyes wide, stunned into silence for a moment. “Jean?”

“I've spent the last like… nine months of my life acting like this wasn't a big deal, and I can't keep doing that - I've got like three weeks left!”

“Jean, I don't underst--”

“I don't either, Marco. But what I do know is that I am fucking crazy about you, and those flowers have absolutely nothing to do with the the show.” It was out in a single exhale, and Jean was glad for that; once the words cleared his lips he felt like he'd sunk beneath an invisible sea, drowning on the breath he tried to draw. He ventured a look back at Marco, who was just staring, his expression steady, almost entirely blank.

“You – are you being serious, right now?” He looked Jean up and down, down at the flowers and back to Jean’s face. Jean made himself nod, forced himself to speak.

“Do you honestly think I would drag you over here and scream this stuff at you if I wasn't?”

Marco shook his head, twisted his mouth to one side, thinking. “I just – where did this come from?”

“It's all been there. Been in here, for way too fucking long.” Jean thumped a hand against his chest, still carefully holding the flowers in the other. “I just didn't see it. I think I've been falling for you since the first time you kissed me – maybe even before then. I don't know if you even remember that, but--”

“Yeah, I do.” Marco cut in quietly, and Jean swallowed the tightness in his throat at the admission. He couldn't let himself stop talking. Not yet.

“But then when the thing happened – the night of the funeral – I thought that meant you definitely weren't interested. I mean, I've always kind of just assumed you weren't, but I still wanted to--”

“I didn't want to take advantage of you!” Marco snapped, hands thrown up and out toward Jean. “What kind of person sees someone weakened by their pain and loss and--”

“But you make those things better, Marco! You told me I need a safe space, and that's you. You're my happy place.” Jean’s chest was a riot zone, heart hammering until he could barely breathe. He stopped to try anyway, to give himself a second to think. But nothing came to him. He couldn't speak from his mind; his heart was his only option. “I'm still not even sure I’m ready for this, but I can’t afford not to tell you right now. Dating guys scares the hell outta me, but nothing about you does. You make me so fucking happy, Marco. And I wanna be the one that makes you happy.”

Jean reached up to drag a hand down his face, only to feel traces of wetness on his face. He looked to the sky; it was dark and hazy, but he hadn't felt any rain, yet. Dropping his eyes back to where Marco stood, he found him still staring, shifting from one foot to the other, thoughtful.

“I don't know.” Marco said finally. Jean blinked back at him.

“About what?”

“I don't know what to think or what to say. I care so much about you, Jean. You know that, but I… I don't want to be your backup plan. I've already been someone’s second choice, and I don't want to do that anymore.”

“Marco, you were never my backup plan. You were never my plan, at all. I was too stupid to realize how much I wanted to make plans with you, and I almost missed my fucking shot to figure that out. But once I did, I stopped things with Mikasa before they even started.”

Marco cocked his head to the side in disbelief. “She didn't – you stopped it?” Jean nodded, close to tears.

“Yes! I couldn't do it. She's a great girl and she didn't deserve to be a backup plan, either. And she probably would've been, even if things worked. Because all night, all I thought about was you. I think about you all the time, Marco. Every day, even when you're not around. Especially when you're not around. And it hit me tonight that that wasn't  just because I think you're hot, or because you're my best friend. I mean, you are. Both of those things. But it’s more than that, too.”

There was another painful stretch of silence between them, Marco staring back in shock, bringing a hand up to rake through his hair. Jean felt the same way he had when Marco had pushed him away weeks before, vulnerable and terrified that what he'd done would ruin things between them. When Marco finally found words, though, they were quiet and curious, not even a hint of the annoyance that would've been justified in being there.

“So what exactly are you saying right now, Jean?”

Jean dropped his hands to his sides, laid bare as the clouds above them seemed to shake with the distant sound of thunder. “I just want a chance to kiss you while we're both sober, and walk away from it knowing we both remember it happening.”

Marco was quiet for a moment, lips bitten together in a tight line as he nodded. After a few beats of this silence, Jean worried that he'd done just what he feared doing, ruined their friendship by opening his damned mouth. But then Marco was letting his arms fall from where he'd crossed them and stepping slowly into Jean’s space, a smile playing at his lips.

“I don't know about you, but… I’m sober right now.”

Jean didn't need any further invitation.

He reached for Marco, one arm thrown around his neck as he brought the other hand up to his chest, fingers pressing into the dip just above his collarbone. Marco’s skin was warm against the cool evening breeze, and Jean inhaled that warmth for a moment before finally, finally leaning up to kiss him. The soft slide of Marco’s lips against his was so natural, so perfect, and the spark he'd been searching for elsewhere hit him with the force of a starburst, an aurora of light behind his eyes as he let them flutter closed, consumed by beautiful flames. It was everything their brief kisses had never been allowed to be before, slow, and deliberate and full of honest, requited desire. And Jean was completely present, the moment burning its way into his memory as it singed every sense, promising to linger long after the explosion had quieted. Jean hoped it might linger forever.

Fingertips softly grazed his jaw as Marco brought his hands up to hold Jean’s face in them. Jean hummed, leaning into his touch and into the kiss. Marco made it impossible to feel like he was close enough, especially as beautiful as he was, breath hitching as Jean tugged his lip between teeth and smiled.

Their legs overlapped as Jean stepped forward to press his body flush against Marco’s, and when Marco’s hand smoothed its way down his back to slide into Jean’s pocket, Jean gasped and jolted forward, nearly toppling them both as he lost his balance from the shift. Before they could fall, Marco wrapped both hands over his hips and pulled Jean into his arms, lifting him off the ground with an effortless sweep. Jean’s arms found hold around Marco’s neck, not bothering to break their kiss as he let Marco pick him up, and walk him backward toward the brick wall of the building behind them.

It was Marco’s arm that hit the wall, but Jean let his back relax against it, legs wound around Marco’s waist. The occasional breeze against Jean’s skin was a reminder that he was actually there, that it was all really happening and not just a beautiful dream. Jean finally pulled back to breathe, to look Marco in the eye and see if the monumental change he felt in himself was visible there, too. He cupped Marco’s jaw, thumbing softly across his cheek.

“So much I need to say. So much I should've said a long time ago…”

Marco smiled back at him, beautiful brown eyes sparkling like he'd somehow captured the stars above them. “I'm all ears.”

Jean brought their lips together again, and a third time, if for no other reason than because he could. They’d been coasting forward in neutral for so long, there was no reason to hold back once the ignition was fired. He knew there were things that needed to be said, but he couldn't bring himself to part with the sweetness of Marco’s kiss long enough to say them. Not yet. He captured Marco’s lips for another, intoxicated by the quiet sigh Marco breathed into it. It said what both of them needed to, what they were both thinking.

-Finally.

“Thought you hated being picked up,” Marco teased, nosing at the sensitive skin just beneath Jean’s ear. He tightened his grip, hauling Jean up further, more securely in his strong arms.

“S’different when it’s you.” Jean admitted, breathless. “Everything's different when it's you.”

He tangled fingers in Marco’s hair, arms wound tight around his neck. Marco’-s hands on his hip and at the small of his back, Jean pressed the side of his face against Marco’s and sighed, unable to stop himself grinning as Marco pressed another kiss to his cheek and hummed against the skin there. Jean’s eyes shuttered closed and he breathed in the moment, the perfect warmth that was Marco’s embrace with the world stopped around them – and then cracked an even wider smile when it came back to life, Connie leading a chorus of their friends as they came running around the corner, cheering and shouting in their direction.

“It's about damned time!”

With a winded laugh, Jean let his head drop forward onto Marco’s shoulder. Marco leaned his own against it, bracing Jean as he slid down the wall to stand on his feet again. Behind them, their friends were still laughing, still chattering about them. But it faded into an indistinguishable buzz as Marco cupped his hand at the back of his neck, grinning shyly as hem looked back at Jean.

“So, uh – do you wanna come to a party with me tonight? Maybe as a date this time?” He glanced back over his shoulder as an explanation, his ,adorably apprehensive demeanor a sharp twist from his confidence moments before. Jean shrugged, dropping an arm across that same shoulder.

“We gonna do anything afterward?”

“Possibly,” Marco hummed. “Maybe you could stay at my place tonight.” He winked and Jean tried not to snort with laughter.

“I dunno. Isn’t that the kind of thing a boyfriend would do?”

Marco grinned widely, obviously trying unsuccessfully to stifle it. “Mm, I'd say so. Are you the kinda guy that wants to be somebody’s boyfriend? Because that could probably be arranged.”

“Only if that somebody’s you.” Jean slung his other arm over Marco’s shoulder and let Marco walk him back toward the wall again, kissing him the whole way. When the jeers behind them started up again – mostly from Connie – Marco tugged the jacket from around his waist and turned sharply to toss it in their direction. Connie howled with laughter, ducking just in time.

"Got places to be, boys. Let's see some hustle!” He threw the shirt back at Marco, who unrolled it and stretched it above his head and Jean’s to shelter them from the states of their friends for a few seconds more, ducking in for another tiny, stolen kiss.

Marco tilted his head back toward the others then, wordlessly asking Jean to follow. They joined the group out in the more brightly lit street and began a slow amble toward wherever they were going. Jean didn't even bother to ask.

“So the party,” Marco said as they walked, speaking to everyone listening. “I invited some guys from our building, Bert and Reiner. And their girlfriend, Annie.”

Connie clapped and pointed in Marco’s direction. “I know those guys! Had class with both of ‘em. Big beefcake blond guy and the dude with the bum leg, right?”

Marco laughed through his nose. “That's one way to put it, I guess.”

“Nice guys,” Connie nodded. “Haven't met the girlfriend, but that's cool too.”

Jean marveled at the fact that no one even questioned the phrasing of ‘their girlfriend’. Clearly Marco’s friends were of a different breed, but Jean was beginning to feel like their raucous little circle was right where he belonged. Marco squeezed his hand and smiled, as if he somehow knew what Jean was thinking and approved. Then he turned and looked in Krista’s direction, decidedly less upbeat.

“And, uh, Krista… I invited Ymir when I saw her after the show.”

There was a noticeable hitch in the steps of the entire group, everyone slowing around her to watch Krista’s reaction. She didn't merit it. She simply shrugged, not bothering to look up from the ground as she kept walking.

“That's fine. I mean, she probably won't show. She wouldn't even talk to me afterward.” Sasha threw a comforting arm over her shoulders and squeezed.

“That doesn't always mean someone's not interested,” Jean chimed in, the mere fact that he had raising Krista’s eyes to him. “Trust me. Sometimes people just… don't know what to say.”

He exchanged a quick glance with Marco, hoping the heat rising to his cheeks wasn’t noticeable in the passing light of the street lamps they walked under. Marco grinned and slipped an arm around his waist. Behind them, Connie snickered.

“Yeah. Sometimes people don't know what to say for like a whole year. Right, Jean?”

Jean threw a sharp glance over his shoulder and Connie laughed harder, and soon the rest of them with him. They headed onward, Jean following the others to a party that he – for once – actually wanted to go to.

 He hadn't set out that morning to get two dates under his belt by the time the evening ended, but he was quickly learning to let the flow of life pull him along with it, once in a while.

--

The house party was in a location that seemed vaguely familiar, and halfway into the small den, Jean recognized it as the same place where they'd been together months earlier. It was the house where Marco had gotten insanely drunk and then had to be walked out like newborn animal, stumbling all over Jean as they left. It was the place they'd gone together the night that Marco had kissed him, all those months ago. But in the same dim light, Marco looked entirely different than he had that evening. Jean wondered if he was just seeing Marco the way he was meant to, for the first time.

“I don't come to a lot of these, so if there's anything exciting going on, just warn me.” Jean joked. Marco hooked fingers in Jean’s belt loop and laughed against his ear.

“The most exciting thing going on is that you're here with me,” he whispered. “I couldn't care less about anything else tonight.”

Marco pulled Jean down after him as he flopped onto the thin cushion of a couch, and Jean landed in his lap. It wasn't strange, exactly; it wasn't even the first time they'd sat so close together. But it was exhilarating and unnerving, sitting that way in front of other people. Jean glanced around them but no one seemed to be paying them any mind, all having conversations of their own. Marco slid a hand up his side to cup his jaw, looking up at him with an unspoken question in his eyes, ‘is this okay?’. Jean nodded and tossed one leg to either side, pressing himself flush against Marco as he was pulled down for another kiss.

There was a certain type of couple that Jean had always rolled his eyes at, that pair that could always be found in a corner, hands all over each other and laughing against each other’s lips. But when he realized that he was part of That Couple that evening, he was far less bothered by it than he ever assumed he might be. He indulged Marco’s every wordless plea, for kisses, for warm touches, for the closeness that had both of them drunk before a single cap or cork had popped.

Reiner threw a pillow at them, aimed squarely at the back of Jean’s head while he laughed.

“I'd tell you guys to get a room, but you already have one.”

Jean didn't even bother moving from his place in Marco’s lap. He scowled over his shoulder for all of half a second. “See if we invite you into it, anymore.”

Reiner scoffed, wrinkling his nose dramatically. “With what you two are gonna be doin’ in there? Count me out, man.”

There would be lots of that to put up with, Jean wagered. Marco mumbled as much to him with a laugh and a stolen kiss just behind his ear. But it didn't matter. He'd been ‘with’ Marco less than a few hours and was already insanely happy. The others would follow suit, even if they did it by poking fun at the two of them.

To his credit, Reiner didn’t waste any time, celebrating with them.

“Hey let’s have a cheers!” He held up a still-bagged bottle of whiskey and what might have been lemon juice, looking around the circle with a wicked grin. Beside him, Annie and Bertholdt exchanged an eye roll.

“It's called a toast, sweetheart.” Annie said, patting his thigh. When he glared down at her she poked her tongue out and grinned around it, Bert chuckling behind her.

“Sorry, Miss Manners.” Reiner groused. He turned back to face the group and waved his hand in Jean and Marco’s direction. “Anyway, let's have a toast. To these two idiots finally pushing their beds together!”

Bert groaned. “Reiner, oh my god.” He kneaded his temples, Annie taking her turn to laugh. Marco smiled.

“I’ll drink to that.”

“Yeah, see? That's what I'm talkin’ about!” Reiner boomed, and then he was off to fetch glasses to pass around.

He came back with a mismatched assortment, some of them still wet from being washed. Pushing one into every open hand, he prodded and Sasha and Connie to join them. “C’mon, everybody needs a glass!”

Connie shifted in his seat, but Sasha jabbed her knuckles into his side to get his attention and nodded her encouragement.

“Go ahead, baby. One won't hurt. Special day, y’know?” She grinned. Connie shrugged and finally nodded, taking one of the glasses.

Reiner began pouring, offering a still-empty glass in Sasha’s direction a moment later. “What about you, party pooper? None for you?”

“Not for at least eight more months,” she said coyly, and there was a beat of silence as she and Connie exchanged a knowing look. Krista squeaked so loudly Marco nearly threw Jean across the room in surprise.

“Is it finally time?! Oh god, I don't have to keep it secret anymore - tell ‘em, tell ‘em!”

Jean and Marco exchanged a confused glance; Marco looked at Sasha, beginning to smile.

“Sasha, are you..?”

“Mhm. Workin’ on a lil Springer!” Sasha beamed, patting her flat stomach and looking back at Connie proudly. Reiner’s response was a shout loud enough to almost drown out Krista’s squealing.

“Connie’s gonna be a daddy!”

Connie nodded, slipping an arm across Sasha’s shoulders. “Mhm. Best damn daddy on the planet. Got names picked out and all that. Been dragging Krista around with me so I wouldn't buy the wrong shit for Sash, but I think I'm gettin’ the hang of it. Dad-mode, son. I'm on it.” He raised his glass and the others followed suit, shouting a chorus of cheers before throwing back their drinks. Reiner was on his feet a moment later.

“Second round of drinks, come on!”

The rest of the evening was more of the same. Toasts were made over the tiniest celebrations, drinks were passed and music thumped loud enough at times to rattle the furniture – and Jean took note of absolutely none of it. The party for him was Marco’s ever present smile, a laugh every now and then that shook Jean in his lap and warmed him chest deep. It was several hours of grinning, stealing kisses and letting his hands fall wherever they might, knowing he didn't have to be careful anymore. Marco made sure to remind him of that, his own hands roaming over Jean’s back, his shoulders, his sides. They were even too wrapped up in one another to notice the drop of the lights and the rise in the volume of music as other people chanted ‘dance, dance’ around them.

Krista bounded over from her place wedged up next to Sasha and playfully kicked at Marco’s feet.

“Marco, come dance with me!”

Marco looked up at Jean, running hands over his legs as if weighing the option of asking him to move. Ultimately he decided against it, too comfortable with Jean’s warm weight in his lap. “Sorry, Krista. I think I'm gonna sit this one out.”

Krista pouted dramatically, and she might have actually protested, if Marco hadn't offered such a genuine, apologetic smile before returning his attention to Jean. But they were all of them too tired for arguments, stage makeup still clinging in patches to sweaty skin and costumes only half peeled off or changed out of. Krista glanced around the room, frowning. Marco was busy, Connie was already dancing with Sasha, and both Bert and Reiner were accidents waiting to happen. But there were a handful of other faces scattered around the room that Jean didn't recognize – and one that he did.

Ymir hovered in the open doorway. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, tugging one of her sleeves down over her wrist and fisting fingers over the hem. Her eyes were on Krista, alone.

“I'll dance with you,” she muttered. “If you want.”

Krista gave her a hard, searching look for a moment, but Ymir didn't buckle under it. Finally, the set of Krista’s jaw softened into a smile, and she nodded. “I think I’d like that.”

--

Despite the fact that he was running on fumes of energy by its end, that evening was the most fun Jean could remember having in a very long time.

He and Marco left before the others did, and nobody really bothered to argue their departure. Reiner made sure to let everyone know what he thought they were planning to spend their evening doing, but after a last round of laughter and another kiss in front of everybody, the two of them left, and headed back to their dorm at a slow, strolling pace, Marco carrying his flowers with a smile.

On the way, Jean noticed that his mind was as clear a the sky above them, all threat of a storm having disappeared. Sure, there were still many things that needed to be discussed. He and Marco had so much to talk about, and so little time left to do it in. But none of that seemed to matter, as they tugged at each other's fingers on their walk. Jean felt assured. Relaxed. At peace.

Opening the door to their shared room seemed like a completely new experience. Marco fumbled for his key, and Jean laid his head on his shoulder, slipping arms around Marco’s waist and pressing a smile against his jaw as he did. Marco joked about what a distraction Jean was, pausing his efforts to get them in the door to turn around and enjoy being pushed up against it. Jean did just that, and when Marco did finally manage to turn the knob, the two of them stumbled into the room clawing at each other’s clothing, trailing mouths over each other’s skin as they laughed.

Marco stumbled backward toward his bed, unhooking and tugging his belt from his hips in a single, hurried motion. Jean kicked the door closed, unbuttoning his dress shirt as he turned back to look Marco over. Marco was watching him as well, biting back a grin as Jean shrugged the shirt from his shoulders and hauled his undershirt off after it. When he unfastened his own belt, Marco grabbed it before Jean could pull it off, and used it to tug Jean across the room and down on top of him. Jean laughed and nipped at his neck, tugging at the neckline of his shirt with his teeth, prompting Marco to remove it. He sat up to do so, letting Jean roll from his lap and onto the bed beside him, tossing the shirt at him playfully once he had it off.

Jean had to fight the urge to bury his face in the fabric and breathe. He had something better, now – something he didn't have to feel odd about adoring. The smell of Marco’s skin was at least twice as good as the scent that clung to his sheets and clothes, and the taste of his lips was even better. And Jean was free to have those things, indulge every sense in Marco, anytime he wanted. It was almost too good, too much for him. He let out a shaky sigh as Marco crawled over him, gently pinning Jean beneath him and straddling his hips.

“Are you okay?” He pushed up onto straight arms, looking down at Jean with a careful expression. Jean bumped his nose against Marco’s arm beside his head and let his forehead rest there for a moment before nodding.

“Yeah, I'm good. I'm great, I just – this is a lot, you know? Still can't believe it.”

Marco nodded. “I know. You know I know.” He hoisted himself backward, up onto his knees, spread across Jean’s lap. His hand found one of Jean’s. “But we don't have to do anything you don't want to. Nothing at all, even -  it doesn't matter to me.”

Jean shook his head fervently. “I've wanted this for so long, you have no idea.” He propped himself up on his elbows, using one arm to hook a hand behind Marco’s head as Marco leaned over him, pulling them together again sharply. Jean nipped at Marco’s lips, his jaw, peppering hungry little kisses wherever he could reach. Marco turned his head to catch Jean’s lips again, sighing into them.

“Why didn't you say something?”

“Because I thought this was all I wanted.” Jean motioned between the two of them, mostly naked, already flushed. “And this kinda thing has never gotten me anywhere good. I couldn't do that to you.” He thought about Eren, despite himself. Strangely, the memory seemed suddenly foreign, like it was of a person he didn't know, had never known. In front of him, Marco was looking back at him with nothing but patience and an attempt at understanding, and Jean could feel what remained of his hesitation fading. “But this isn't all I want. I wanna send you stupid texts and hold your hand and kiss you and everything we already do, but in front of everybody. And that scares the shit outta me, but I don't care anymore.” He laced his fingers with Marco’s and squeezed, swallowing his embarrassment at his outburst. “Sorry. I guess I kinda killed the mood.”

“I couldn't be upset with you right now if I tried.” Marco chuckled, letting himself drop so that he was flush against Jean, on top of him from head to toe without smothering him. He dropped his lips to Jean’s shoulder and kissed there, slow and full patience. “I feel exactly the same way, you know. I was afraid to tell you that I was interested because you didn't seem like you were, and I was scared, too. You're not alone.” Marco rolled to the side, pulling Jean after him slightly so that they lay face to face, the tips of their noses brushing against each other as Marco found Jean’s hand again and held it. “You were never alone, and you're never going to be.”

With Marco dropping soft, warm kisses across his cheeks and nose, Jean couldn't help laughing, couldn't help smiling, and couldn't keep his words from tumbling out, unchecked. “God, I love you.” No sooner had he said it, though, than he was staring wide eyed back at Marco, their faces so close that he could hear the hitch in Marco’s breathing like a distant roll of thunder as they both froze. “I, uh – sorry, I didn't--”

“It's okay,” Marco said quickly, shaking his head. “I do things like that a lot. Just say things without thinking. It's not a big deal.” With a wide smile, he was entirely prepared to let Jean off the hook. But Jean wasn't prepared to give himself the same slack.

“No, it is a big deal. Remember?” He pressed a hand to Marco’s bare chest, feeling the warmth under his fingers as he smoothed them across his skin. “You're a big deal, Marco. And I… meant what I said. I love you. Just kinda wanted to say it a little better than I did, I guess.”

Marco nodded, a smile slowly breaking across his face. “I'm not opposed to hearing it again.” Jean grinned, taking his turn to smother Marco in kisses.

“Good. Cause you're gonna hear it every damned day.” He smashed his lips to the side of Marco’s neck, abandoning teasing nips for a messy kiss, and then a loud raspberry blown against his skin. Marco wailed a laugh, digging fingers into Jean’s sides to search for a ticklish spot. Jean jumped up onto his knees, walloping Marco with a pillow before springing onto him and pinning him down. Shaking with laughter, they kissed again, Jean letting Marco’s wrists go free as he curled his own fingers into dark, thoroughly tousled hair. Marco tugged at his bottom lip as they pulled away, just hard enough to remind Jean of what they'd been doing before their impromptu tickle fight.

“Sorry I killed the mood. Again.”

Marco laughed, a quiet sound and a shake of his head as he ran splayed hands over Jean’s back and sides. “S’okay. Honestly it's just really nice to know that sex isn't all you want out of me.”

“No – God, no, Marco. I seriously don't care at all. Well, I mean – yeah, sex is nice. With you it would be – but I don't care if… That's not all I care about. At all. You know?” He looked down at Marco, mouth twisted to one side as he tried to keep himself from rambling any more. Marco quieted him with a kiss.

“I know.”

“I do too. I mean – I know how it feels, when all someone wants is sex.” Jean sat up, sat back on his heels and let his hands drop to his lap, fidgeting with a piece of thread frayed from the hem of his boxers, peaking up over the waist of his unbuttoned pants.. Marco propped himself up enough to reach up to him, tucking a few strands of hair behind Jean’s ear before stroking his thumb tenderly across his jaw.

“I know. I'm so sorry, meu bem.”

Jean leaned into his touch, without the need for justification that he usually felt. Marco was his boyfriend, as odd as that was for him to even think. He was allowed to press a grin into Marco’s open palm before kissing him there. “I don't know what you just called me, but I kinda want you to say it again.”

“Meu bem,” Marco repeated. “It's like… ‘my dear’ or ‘my love’, in Portuguese.” He shrugged, biting back a bashful smile that Jean hardly recognized on him. “Sorry, I know it's really sappy.”

“I've known you were a big pile of mush for a long time, now.” Jean smirked. “I'm just kinda stoked on the idea of you being my pile of mush.”

Marco nodded, leaning into Jean’s hand as he ran it through Marco’s hair again. “As long as you’ll have me.”

“A long-ass time, then.” Jean quipped, and grinned from ear to ear at the way Marco snickered. “Seriously, Marco - I'm not even half of what you deserve, but I'm gonna make up for it. I'm gonna get better. Gonna show you how amazing you are and… I'm gonna show you that I love you.”

“You can show me that just by being as incredible as you already are.” Marco said, genuinely. He laced his fingers behind his own head and looked up at Jean, beaming. “Your smile is so beautiful, Jean.”

Jean wrinkled his nose, stubbornly willing his face not to redden by ducking forward to nose against Marco’s. “Your whole face is beautiful,” he smirked. “Can I kiss it again?”

Marco nodded. “Anytime you want.”

Jean took him up on the offer, kissing every inch of skin he could reach before his own laughter stopped him. Marco looked down at him, an eyebrow raised.

“What's so funny?” He asked. Jean just laughed again, shrugging one shoulder as he let his head fall against Marco’s.

“Just – we could've been doing this months ago. Wasted a whole damned school year not kissin’ you.”

Marco nodded into the nape of Jean’s neck, looping an arm lazily across his waist to pull him closer. “Better make up for lost time, then.”

--

The next morning was overcast, but inside room 104, things were as bright as they'd ever been.

Jean reached for his phone on the nightstand where it lay beside a bouquet of red roses, and tried not to disturb Marco, curled into his side and still sleeping. His screen was alight with a message alert, and he wondered if it might be Mikasa, following up on her demand to know how things went. He would've welcomed hearing from her, just to be sure that he hadn't ruined her evening entirely. But it was a Facebook message from Eren, with a badly misspelled congratulations and too many suggestive emojis.

Eren: Hey and let me know when you aren't busy gettin celebratory dick and I'll bring you guys a fruit basket or some shit. :P (PS, I think your fuck-up with Miks ended up makin Armin’s night last night, but I'll let you figure that one out next game.)

With a yawn, Jean shook his head. He had no idea what Eren was talking about, but he didn't have it in him to care, then. Beside him, Marco was stirring in his sleep, and Jean tossed his phone back onto the bedside table and wrapped both arms around him to kiss the top of his head.

They had lost time to make up for.

Chapter Text

--

For several days, Jean still couldn't believe that his life was his own.

He woke up beside Marco, curled contently at his side. They would linger in bed together in the mornings, talking, laughing into each other’s lips, trying to avoid leaving the room – and each other’s presence – as long as they could. When they did, it was almost always together, whether they stopped to talk to Bert and Reiner or bumped into Annie on their way out the building doors. It was a subtle change, to anyone on the outside. But for Jean, the entire planet had tilted on its axis.

Everything was new. Moving around Marco in their shared space was different. Hands dragged across bodies as they passed each other, no longer quick to jolt away. There were no apologies offered for staring, anymore; Marco was completely open about the way he felt, and the way Jean made him feel. Boundaries didn't seem to exist, anymore, and when the two of them came to one that remained, they tested each other, seeing how far they could push it.

The excitement of romance taking root filled the air around them, buzzing in Jean’s head, his throat, his chest. He wanted to be closer to Marco, wanted to know everything he didn't already. Things progressed at lightning speed, and Jean found himself grabbing hold of Marco whenever he could, stealing a kiss just to feel that it was all really happening. Despite his nervousness at letting himself be so completely swept up in their fledgling relationship, he could hardly sleep at night, for fear of missing even a moment of Marco.

“You look exhausted.” He heard Marco say one night, as he raised his head to blearily blink at him at whatever obscene hour it was. Marco frowned, putting down the book he’d been reading and shifting beside him on Jean’s bed. “Why aren't you sleeping?”

Jean patted Marco’s chest, then pressed his forehead against it. “This is nice. Don't wanna miss anything.”

Marco breathed a laugh, reaching down to pry blankets from beneath them both and pull them up over Jean. “The only thing you're gonna miss out on is sleep. Get some rest. I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

That was the kind of reassurance Jean found himself seeking often, in their earliest days. He needed to know he wasn't dreaming. They had jumped into each other’s arms so quickly, turned so quickly from the paths they would have otherwise taken, that it was easy to feel that they’d somehow lost their footing in the process. The snap of  realization that he wanted Marco the way he did had jolted Jean hard, leaving him struggling to find his balance again when all he could think about was getting more of everything that he was suddenly allowed to have. Jean feared falling a second time, with a less beautiful end result than the tumble he'd taken for Marco. The ground seemed to shift beneath him as his world changed suddenly, and he clung to hope that it was a permanent change, a change for the better.

Perhaps it was because they’d both been in such desperate need of stability that they’d taken such a quick fall together, at all. Jean had been so broken by life in the months before, finding rest in Marco’s arms was a welcome source of comfort. Marco made him feel alright again.

But then again, he always had.

Jean could scarcely remember a time when he felt anything other than warmth in his heart for Marco, and it seemed only natural that that warm glow would eventually become a roaring flame. He recalled the months of stifling heat settled deep in his chest, threatening to melt him from the inside at the mere thought of his best friend, heat that he didn't have to ignore any longer. It wasn't as big of a change as it felt like from the off; just a release, relaxing into something that had been waiting for him all along. Jean hadn't fallen in love with Marco suddenly - he'd realized suddenly that he was already in love with him.

Still, he feared dragging Marco – or himself – into something they'd regret. Quick decisions and always been bad decisions, for Jean. It was easy to forget how enamored he'd been with Eren, years before. But forgetting how jagged the edges of that split had been was harder, even after they'd since been smoothed out. Jean sometimes caught himself silently panicking, hoping that he was not repeating a mistake he'd fought so hard to learn from.

When he and Marco were alone together, though, Jean had a hard time thinking that they were anything other than made for one another.

“You don't, uh… Think we're doing the wrong thing, do you?”

It was a question asked from behind bent knees, pulled tight to Jean’s chest as he prodded Marco’s feet with his own, late one evening. Marco put aside his laptop and sat upright, head falling slightly to one side.

“What do you mean?”

Jean shrugged. “I mean… Do you think we rushed things? Like, between us?” He looked between them; Marco was in nothing but his boxers, Jean himself wearing only the soft track pants Marco had been wearing an hour earlier. Bright pink marks were only by then beginning to fade on both of their necks and chests, standing out in beautifully varied contrast to their different skin tones. It was a heady daydream of a perfect evening, and it had quickly become their everyday existence. But the person that Jean had been just weeks before would've been startled and scared to see himself enjoying it.

Marco must have been able to feel that secondhand shock. He pulled his own legs in to squeeze against his chest, dropping his chin onto his bent knees.

“Do you?”

Jean twisted his mouth into a sideways pout, huffing, “I asked you first.”

“Fair enough.” Marco smiled, and despite the weight of the moment, there was a carefree warmth that emanated from him. “Honestly, I do tend to jump into relationships pretty quickly. My sisters always ride me about it, but I just kind of like the feeling of having someone. Comes from not having anyone at home to rely on, I guess.” Marco shrugged, and might have let the topic drop there, if a Jean hadn't been looking back at him with obvious doubt written across his features. Marco shook his head. “But it's different, this time. You’re not just someone to be with. If it had been anyone other than you, I'd say I let things go too quickly. But I've been hung up on you for months, Jean. This didn't happen overnight, for me.”

“Why didn't you say anything, then?” Jean grumbled, watching his toes wiggle to keep from meeting Marco’s eyes as he felt his face prickle with an uncomfortable warmth. “You remember that time we kissed – the time you kissed me, after that party. You told me so. Did you like me, back then? Like this?”

“Not quite like this,” Marco admitted. “I didn't know you then, like I do now. But I wanted to.”

Jean raised his head, finally locking eyes with him. “Why didn't you just tell me that?”

Marco sighed, squeezing his own legs tighter. “Because I had a boyfriend, but mostly because of the things you said. About dating guys, about Eren, about liking Mikasa. I would've left Auruo if I'd thought I had a chance with you without a second thought, but you made it pretty clear you weren't interested. Or least I thought so at the time. And I liked you a lot, but I respected you a lot more.”

"But you still kissed me." Jean said it with a snap, just an edge of the hurtful sting he remembered living with while he waded through the confusion Marco had left behind after they'd kissed that first time. He wanted to be angry; part of him still might have been. But he knew he didn't have much of a reason to be, given the things he'd said and done since then.

“I know. And I shouldn't have. I could blame it on the alcohol, but I wanted to kiss you.” Marco let his legs go, let them stretch out in front of him so that he could use his hands to take hold of Jean’s. He thumbed over Jean’s knuckles, not bothering to pry Jean’s fingers from where they were clasped over his knees. “And I still wanna kiss you.”

“Likewise.” Jean conceded. “Sorry I'm being this way. I'm just… worried I’m gonna destroy things, jumping into this so fast.” He looked down at where Marco’s fingers were smoothing across the backs of his own. “Wouldn't be the first time.”

“Do you want us to slow down?” Marco asked. Jean shrugged, gesturing vaguely in Marco’s direction, in a way that was meant to direct the question right back at him. Marco leaned forward. “I mean, I want you. In every single way - but I also want you to be comfortable.” He pressed soft, quick kisses to the backs of Jean’s hands. “What do you want?”

“I want you to be honest with me.” Jean replied. “About everything, and I'll return the favor. No more acting when you're not on a stage.”

“I can promise you that much.” Marco smiled. “And anything else, if you just name it.”

“I just wanna know that this is the real thing, I guess. I'm not sure if there's a way you can prove that, or if it's even fair to ask you to. I just don't wanna fall on my face again.”

Marco shook his head. “You know how I feel about that. I told you before we decided to do this ‘us’ thing that I didn't want a rerun of what I had with Auruo, or anyone else. I wanted something real, because what I feel for you is real.” He slid his hands between the bend of Jean’s knees, pulling the two of them closer together. “I love you, Jean. And I'll keep telling you that until you believe me, and keep right on going after that. I love you.” Pressing his forehead against Jean’s, he laughed. “And even if you do fall on your face, I’ll always be here to pick you back up.”

Jean grinned, bumping his nose against Marco’s. “You make this sound like a pretty permanent arrangement, sir.”

Marco smiled to match Jean’s. “You make me want to make this a permanent arrangement, sir.” He tugged at Jean’s legs until Jean gave in and let himself be pulled forward, into Marco’s lap and into a slow, sweet kiss. On his knees with his arms draped over Marco’s shoulders, Jean hummed against his lips, sighing when Marco pulled away and leaned back to look up at him.

“What is it?” He asked, eyeing Jean cautiously, though his smile was still in place. Jean pressed a kiss to his forehead and shrugged.

“Still kinda can't believe you wanna be with me.”

Marco breathed a laugh, sinking fingertips into the slight softness of Jean’s hips and pulling their bodies flush against one another again. “How many times do I need to kiss you before you believe it?”

Jean gave him a lopsided smirk, biting one side of his lip as he dropped further into Marco’s lap. “I dunno. I'm game to find out, though.”

They spent the rest of the evening trying to answer that question, Jean reveling in the fact that – for the moment – everything was perfect, and nothing frightened him about being in his boyfriend’s arms.

--

Intimacy in every form was a sticking point for them, in their first days. Jean craved it, thrived on Marco’s attention, but also feared it more than anything else. Never had Jean experienced the tender touches or warm words that Marco offered so freely, at least not in the context of romance without sex. He'd never had a partner who was just as satisfied with him wrapping his arms around their neck as they were with him wrapping his lips around them elsewhere. Being lavished with love - purely for love’s own sake - was uncharted territory for Jean.

As with everything, though, it was made better by the fact that it was coming from Marco. Closeness was something they were already accustomed to, moving around each other in the small space they'd shared for so long. When Jean stopped to think about the months they’d been together as friends and roommates, the memories that came to him were of lying on one bed or the other together talking, draped across each other’s legs or leaning into the other’s lap. They were memories of studying in a pile on the floor and ending up all but on top of each other by the early hours of morning, memories of hands held and shoulders cried on, of arms wrapped tight around healing bodies and owners of broken hearts. Physical reassurance that they cared about one another was already commonplace; the only difference once the word ‘boyfriend’ was attached to their relationship was the weight each touch carried, the newfound significance.

Really though, even that was nothing new. They’d been dancing around each other so long, even before Jean realized he'd taken the floor. Reaching out for Marco was completely organic, and being touched in return wasn't as new as his restless mind would have him believe. It was an embrace they both wanted to be part of, and once Jean got a steady hold on him, he felt like holding on forever.

Despite the fact that Jean could barely keep his hands to himself once he had the green light to touch Marco almost whenever and wherever he felt like, sex was still something that rattled him. His only experiences were with the lackluster lovemaking of his late teen years, and the rough, impassioned, searing sex he'd had with Eren, that had only left his heart more empty every time. Never had he had a partner take their time with him, thread fingers through his and tell him that they loved him before making love to him. Never had sex meant so much, and that alone left Jean anxious about it.

Everything with Marco was something that he didn't want to screw up, and nervously fumbling his way through their first few times together could have destroyed what confidence he still had in himself. But with Marco, it didn't. They laughed together, rather than at each other. They stopped for twenty minutes at a time, just to kiss heated skin and whisper praises and promises to one another. They took a step back for every one they took forward, but eventually, they found their fit with each other. And the way his name sounded tumbling from Marco’s lips between murmured declarations of love made Jean wonder why he’d ever been nervous at all.

--

There were plenty of other things to be concerned about, after all. Life was still moving forward around them at breakneck speed. Finals weren't far off; some of Jean’s classes already finished for the semester as he began studying for his exams. Between pickup practices and games all over the country, there was little time to memorize everything he needed to. But Marco made the best study buddy, and always had a pretty decent reward in store for Jean when he managed to focus.

More distracting for Jean than his baseball touring schedule or his new boyfriend’s kisses was the fact that he could no longer pretend Marco’s impending graduation wouldn't bother him. Every time Marco smoothed warm hands over Jean’s chest or down his sides, it was easy to think about how addictive his touch was, how very used to it Jean could become. Marco filled his every sense, every day, and Jean was finally allowed to enjoy it. But every moment spent beside him was a quiet, distant whisper in the back of Jean’s mind about a moment he'd spend missing him, in the future. Their time together was diamond sand, tiny fragments of perfection slipping through an hour glass that neither of them could stop.

The only option that seemed logical to Jean was to make the best of the time they still had. Spending summer together wasn’t completely out of the question, depending on what Marco would do after graduation, and they still had a few more blissful weeks together living in the tight hug of space that was their dorm. They would figure the rest out before long, Jean hoped. Until then, he made every effort to enjoy being as close to Marco as possible.

“Guess I’m gonna have to find a new roommate for this fall.”

Jean made the remark as he flopped down onto Marco’s bed, wriggling sideways to stretch out along the length of it. Marco was sitting with his back to the wall in nothing but a loose pair of pants, a thin book in his hands. He raised it to let Jean sprawl across him; Jean’s head landed softly on Marco’s stomach.

“Guess so.” Marco nodded. Jean felt around for his phone, glancing at its screen for a moment before looking back up at Marco.

“Maybe I'll find one that actually does laundry more than twice a semester.”

“Ouch,” Marco winced dramatically. They snickered together, laughter that melted into contented sighs as Marco swirled fingers through Jean’s hair. “Just hope you don't find one that's a better kisser than me.”

Jean shook his head firmly, pinching playfully at Marco’s stomach. “Not planning on kissin’ anybody but you for the foreseeable future.” The promise brought a smile to Marco’s lips, and Jean tugged at his arm until Marco brought those lips to his. When Marco pulled away, he peppered a few featherlight kisses across Jean’s forehead and nose, and Jean fidgeted under him, prodding at his ribs for halfhearted revenge. “Besides, I don't think anyone’s a better kisser than you.”

“Where’re you hoping to get with all that flattery, meu bem?” Marco hummed.

“Wherever you're willing to let me get.” Jean shrugged. He didn't even bother hiding the stupid little grin that tugged at his mouth at the sound of Marco’s pet name for him. “I like when you call me that, you know.”

“S’at so?” Marco smiled, quirking an eyebrow. “I’ll be sure to make you sick of it.”

“Good luck. I have ironclad patience.”

“For everything except my messes.”

Jean snorted. “Your messes are next level, Marco. Nobody has that much patience.”

“Here’s hoping your next roommate is a little better, then.”

“Yeah. Here's hoping.”

That final exchange had been meant as a joke, in the same lighthearted vein as the others before it. But something had quickly soured the sweetness in the air between them, and Marco’s eyes had returned to the book in his hands, though Jean wasn't sure if he was actually reading it, anymore. He rolled up on his side to see Marco better, and to take back his attention, as well.

“What're you reading?”

Marco turned the book around for a moment so that Jean could see the text. “Scripts. I'm gonna try to get some work this fall, even if I have to scrape pennies off the floor to make it to auditions.”

“You won't.” Jean said flatly. “I'll make sure you can get there.”

“You don't need to help me, Jean.”

“I don't need to. I want to. Mom left me a decent chunk of money, and I can't think of anything I’d rather spend it on than making you happy.” He rolled fully onto his stomach, propped up on his arms so that his head still rested comfortably on Marco’s chest. “S’what boyfriends do, right?”

Marco nodded, shrugged. “When they can, I guess.” When the slight sadness in his voice registered in Jean’s mind, Jean pushed himself up further, sitting up so that he could cup his hand over the back of Marco’s neck.

“Hey, now…” He brushed the tip of his nose against Marco’s, waiting for his full attention before he continued. “You've already done a shitload for me, Marco. Things I couldn't make up for with money if I tried. Least I can do is swing some plane tickets to get you where you need to go.”

Marco kissed him, slow and sweet and full of gratitude that Jean didn't even feel he deserved. “You're a sweetheart.”

“I don't know about that, but…” He kissed his way back down the side of Marco’s face, his neck, his chest and finally his stomach again, blowing a raspberry into the soft skin there and cracking up when Marco lost himself to a fit of giggles. When they both had finally caught their breath, Marco corrected his original statement.

“You're my sweetheart. How's that?”

Jean shrugged and nuzzled at Marco’s belly button, hoping to hide the way his entire face was alight. He mumbled something that resembled ‘alright’ into Marco’s stomach, and Marco let him leave it at that, returning to his reading as Jean settled in to spend the evening close to him, enjoying the simplicity of just being beside the person he loved.

--

Summer was on the ever-brightening horizon, and with it, an upswing in attendance at baseball games. The cheers from the crowd were louder as the Titans regained their footing on the field, and no one cheered louder than Marco. He came to every home game, migrating from the nosebleed bleacher seats he usually occupied to comfortable, private box seats, secured for him in advance of every game by Mike.

The head coach had entirely abandoned any effort to argue with those who accused him of favoritism. The seats he saved for Marco were listed as reserved for a friend of his, but anyone with eyes knew they were a favor for Jean. On the occasion that someone did bring it up, Mike wasn't shy about countering their argument with a laundry list of things Jean had been through, more than once referring to he and Marco as ‘his boys’ when reminding the coaching staff to give them patience and space. Jean hadn't planned on Mike’s protection, but he probably should have.

A handful of teammates and some of the staff still stared when Jean would interact with Marco after games. People had always failed at subtlety when gawking at the two of them, but now that things really were what they had always been assumed to be, Jean felt strangely uncomfortable. People were staring because Jean had a boyfriend; even the ones that didn't know that for sure could've figured it out by the way Jean’s eyes followed Marco around the stadium, lingering on him a little more than they should've until Jean could see him up close after each game. When he finally got to slip his fingers between Marco’s after the final inning, he knew people were watching them. But it didn't keep him from wanting Marco there, and – thankfully – it didn't dissuade Marco from showing up.

Of course, Marco couldn't make it to away games.

Jean had always missed Marco when they were away from each other. Even in the earliest days of their friendship, he found himself pining for the comfortable companionship Marco offered any time they were apart. Baseball season had made it much worse, and now – knowing that he was missing out on time that he could be spending under Marco’s arm or under his blankets – Jean missed their dorm room even more. At least with their change in relationship status, Jean could actually tell him that without feeling overbearing. Marco always returned the sentiment, two fold.

Eren and Armin never prodded Jean about who he was texting or slipping off to another room to Skype with while they were away for games. They already knew, and the fact that they never made a big deal about it endeared Jean to them that much more. They helped him feel like it was okay to miss Marco.

Maybe because Jean wasn't the only one of them missing someone.

There was more talk of Mikasa than Jean could ever remember, in the locker rooms and borrowed dorms they travelled to on tour. But he wasn't the one saying her name. It was usually Eren, taunting Armin over who he was texting, calling, spacing out thinking about, while Armin rolled his eyes and shuffled out from beneath the spotlight of everyone's glances. Jean could only smile.

Good for him.

When they played their games at home, Mikasa began making a regular habit of showing up to them. She could usually be found tucked away in the stands somewhere while the crowds cheered, but before and after the team took the field, she was always close by, ignoring Eren’s asinine antics in favor of watching Armin.

When she wandered over to where Jean was sitting at a pick-up practice after a home game one afternoon, there was none of the tension that Jean had felt in her presence before. There was only a drink and a smile, offered to him by a friend, as they watched people take the field to practice.

“You and Arlert, huh?” Jean looked back at Armin, crouched yards away, and laughed as he took a sip of the drink Mikasa had brought. “That's a pretty good match, actually. Can't say I saw it comin’, though.”

“Sometime’s a curveball’s good,” she shrugged. “Even if you don't see it coming ‘til it knocks you over. I think things turned out alright for you, too.” She looked up at the stands, where Mike had taken a seat next to Marco for a chat – something that had become a regular occurrence. Jean followed her eyes and smiled.

“That they did.”

--

Things were more than alright. Baseball was more fun, as the season began winding up for its last pitch. There would still be games to play, even after class was finished for the semester. But something about the end of school marked an end to the hurried pace of their season, and as the sun shone warm on their arms and backs as May rolled on, Jean began to remember why he loved the game so much.

The second week of May was harder than the days before it. Between baseball, books and balancing time with the person who was now his boyfriend, Jean had little time to think about dates on a calendar. But passing a drugstore display exclaiming, ‘Happy Mother’s Day!’, Jean’s stomach dropped and he felt a healing wound to his heart reopen.

Thankfully there was a game to keep him busy, that Sunday afternoon, and Marco was there when he made it back to the dorm and needed a few minutes to fall apart before piecing himself back together again.

More than himself, though, Jean worried about Mike. Jean had Marco to help keep him sane when things were too painful for him to process; Mike had no one. No one, except for his work. And Jean.

Jean hoped that he could tell by the way he let himself linger in Mike’s protective presence, that he would gladly return the favor, if only asked. But Mike never wanted anything from Jean. Only to see him do well.

“You look good out there, kid. Gonna make a pro team mighty happy one of these days.”

Mike clapped Jean across the shoulders as he made his way out of the lockers, a little slower than usual. Some days his ankle still bothered him, and it only seed to remind him that he wasn't the perfect player Mike was always trying to convince him that he was. He shook his head.

“Right after I win the lottery and discover Atlantis, right?”

“Ease up on that negativity, son.” Mike squeezed his shoulder and let go, stopping their meandering pace to face Jean fully. “Word is you’ve got a reason to smile, these days.”

Jean shrugged, but he couldn't stop himself grinning, just thinking about Marco. He knew Mike knew about the two of them; word travelled fast once a handful of people caught wind of things. Still, it wasn't some thing Jean put a name to in front of his teammates and coaches. Not yet, anyway.

“Listen; the tournament in Hawaii is on next week’s schedule.” Mike lowered his voice, like they were discussing something of greater weight than a line on a schedule list. Jean raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah? So?”

“So, we book our hotel block before the start of the season. And our team is down a few players since we booked ‘em for this year.”

Jean sighed. “Thanks for reminding me, coach.”

Mike continued, as if Jean hadn't even spoken. “So that frees up a few beds. And I figured you might like to bring a friend.”

There was a beat of silence, as Mike eyed him, waiting for Jean to understand his implications. Once he did, Jean blinked back at him, eyes going wide.

“I – you mean – I can… bring Marco? To Hawaii?”

“Figured both you boys could use a break.” Mike smiled. “And some time to talk, somewhere other than a dorm room.”

Swallowing hard, Jean shook his head. “You don't have to go out of your way for me like that. You already catch so much shit - what're they gonna say about you letting me drag my boyf--”

Mike cut him off with a sharp wave of his hand. “I'm not doing anything because I have to, and I'm also not changing my mind on account’a any of the other coaches. For the time being, I'm in charge in this department. And while that's the case, I'm gonna make your time here as enjoyable as I can.”

“For the time being?” Jean parroted. “You think you're gonna get sacked or something?” Mike shrugged one shoulder, sighing.

“I doubt that, but the school’s not above edging me out. With Nile and some of the other boys always chattering behind my back. Probably won't be much longer before I retire.”

“Don't let them do that to you, coach. You're the best thing this school’s got goin’ for it, you…” Jean frowned, scowling hard to keep his face from betraying the swirl of emotions causing his lip to quiver. “I don't wanna be here if you're not.” 

“That much I think I can take care of.” Mike assured him. “I’ll go when you go. No sooner, no later. Wanna at least see you hit the ground runnin’ somewhere.” He clasped Jean’s shoulder again, smiling, wide and genuine. Jean gave a sharp sigh, almost a laugh as he breathed his relief.

“Atlantis, coach.”

“Right, right.” Mike thumped his arm a few times, before turning to leave, twisting at the waist to look back at him as he made his way down the hall to head out of the stadium. “Now you ask your boy if he wants to join us next week, alright? Everything’s on me, if he does.”

Jean nodded, waving after him, and smiling, still stunned.

“Thanks, Mike.”

--

Worried about the short notice on which he was asking and if an island getaway was too much, too soon for the two of them, Jean fidgeted his way through asking Marco to join he and the rest of the team in Hawaii the following week. He was expecting careful consideration, the two of them talking through it on a logical level regarding rescheduling exams and making up for lost time studying. What he got instead was shocked silence.

“You gonna think about it, or...?” He shifted his crossed legs beneath him, moving to rise from his seat on Marco’s bed. Marco clapped a hand over one of his knees to stop him, a bewildered look still freezing his face.

“You really mean – you really want me there?”

Jean laughed, relieved. “Well yeah, of course I do! If you want to come, I mean.” Marco sat facing him, fidgeting, but relaxing enough to smile.

“I’d love to, Jean. Of course I’ll need to figure a few things out here, first, but – are you really sure it's okay?”

“Mike asked me to invite you. It was his idea. He wants you there, and you know I do.”

Nodding blankly for a moment, Marco finally seemed to accept the invitation, collapsing backward on the bed with a blissful sigh. “Hawaii. With you. God, Jean that’s gonna be amazing.”

“Long as you're there, it will be.” Jean grinned, leaning forward to crawl over Marco’s still crossed legs. “Maybe between games we can sneak off and get lost on a beach somewhere.”

“Get lost, huh? Oh, that’d be awful.” Marco smirked, reaching down to pull Jean further up, until Jean hovered over him, arms straightened and stiff on either side of Marco’s head, propping him up.

“Especially once it gets dark.” He said quietly, leaning down to brush his nose against Marco’s. “Might have to stay real close to each other to stay safe.”

Marco hummed, lip bitten to keep from grinning widely. “Safety first.”

Jean bent one of his legs, resting his knee between Marco’s with a gentle, teasing press of his weight. “But it’ll be hot, too. Might have to sleep naked to stay cool.” He slid a hand beneath the hem of Marco’s shirt, fingers skating along his stomach and across the broad expanse of his chest. Marco couldn't hold his grin – or the gasping little breath that escaped before it – back any longer.

“Mm. We can do that without getting lost in the wilderness, if you’d like.”

“I tell you what I’d like. I’d like--” Jean captured Marco’s lips, his hand sliding back down to tug at the waistband of Marco’s soft pants, but then the soft sounds of Marco sighing under his touch were broken – by the loud buzzing of his cell phone. “For people not to call me right now, fuckin’ cock blocking…”

Jean smacked at the bed beside them, searching for his phone. Farlan’s name was the one lighting his screen, right below a time that read nearly midnight. Jean grumbled obscenities under his breath but answered with a simple, curt, “Hello?”

Farlan mumbled his own greeting, not hesitating to get to the point of his call. “Hitch is in the hospital, Jean. S’real serious, man. Figured you ought to know.”

“What? Why?!” If the tone in Jean’s immediate response hadn't been enough, the fact that he sat bolt upright in Marco’s lap communicated the severity of the situation without any further explanation. Marco put his hands out right away to help Jean up, sitting up after him on the edge of the bed as Jean moved to his feet.

“She overdosed.” Farlan breathed. The word hit Jean like a wave, shaking him on his feet. He out a hand on Marco’s shoulder, clutching his phone with the other.

“I… Why?”

“You remember Dirtbag Boyfriend? That guy she was sneakin’ around with from the school down there? They split. She found out he was cheating and ripped his ass for it, and he just dumped her.”

Jean growled. “Piece of shit.”

“It gets worse, dude. He apparently got her hooked on some shit while they were together. That's where she got the stuff she OD’d on. He’s a fuckin’ drug dealer, sleepin’ with minors, and his nasty ass still has a cushy advising job.”

“He's an advisor?” Jean hissed, and Marco looked back at him, eyes widened. He didn't ask, though; he let Jean keep talking. “You guys have to tell the school.”

Farlan scoffed. “My folks are gonna handle that. Me? I'm gonna fuckin’ kill this guy.”

“Don't say that, Farlan.” Jean warned. “You know it's not worth you getting arrested.”

“Let a cop look me dead in the eye, and tell me I'm not justified. That's my little sister, man.” Farlan sounded like he might be close to tears, and there was a long pause while Jean waited for him to collect himself enough to speak again. When he did, his voice was softer, more somber. “Best case scenario, if she makes it through this mess, she’ll be headed to rehab. She's not even out of high school, yet.”

“I know, I know.” Jean dragged a hand down his face, not sure of what he could possibly say that would be of any value to his cousin. But he owed it to him to try. “Look, you guys are gonna get through this. Hitch is a badass girl, she’ll be okay. And I can help you guys file reports, if you can figure out exactly who the guy is you’re dealing with.”

“Marlow. Last name's like Freudenberg, or some stupid shit,” Farlan spat. “That much I wrenched outta Hitch before she got messed up.”

Jean swallowed. He was almost sure he'd seen that name before, but it existed somewhere on a long list of things he'd never filed away with much importance. “Okay. Then we’re already a step closer to getting it handled. Try to stay calm, and be cool for Hitch, okay? Your parents are gonna be flippin’ their shit –she needs somebody, and it's gotta be you.”

“Yeah. Alright.” Farlan took a deep, ragged breath and sighed his exhale. “You sound like your mom sometimes, you know.”

“I could do way worse than that, so thanks.” Jean smiled, and he hoped that somehow Farlan could hear it. “If you think of anything I can do, you know how to get ahold of me, alright?”

“Yup. Got your roomie’s number, too. Thanks to my nosy sister.”

“Yeah. Uh, actually…” Jean moved to stand between Marco’s parted knees as he chewed on his lip, hesitating. “Marco’s my boyfriend, now.”

A beat of silence followed, and then, “You're dating a guy?”

“Well… Yeah?” Jean curled his fingers over the back of Marco’s neck, Marco moving his own hand up to meet his. The decision to come out to a member of his family had been a split-second one, born of a surge of affection he was feeling for his cousin. If he was going to telling of his relatives first, it might has well have been Farlan. He wasn't sure what to expect out of Farlan in response, but what he got was a surprised huff and an awkward laugh.

“Alright, man. Whatever works for you. Least I know how to get ahold of you if your lazy ass doesn't answer your phone.”

“Maybe if you didn't call at ass o’clock at night, I would.” Jean joked, laughing a little too quickly himself, maybe more out of relief than anything else. “No but, seriously – keep me posted, alright?”

“Will do,” Farlan agreed. “Talk to you later, Jean.”

Jean hung up, dropping his phone onto the bed and rubbing hard at his temples. Marco waited until he moved, offering open arms for Jean to slide into until he was ready to talk. After Jean had sat perched on his knee for a moment, Marco gave him a gentle squeeze, a kiss on the shoulder, and whispered, “What’s going on?”

Jean inhaled deeply, trying to think of where to begin. “My cousin, Hitch. Remember her?”

Marco smiled automatically, in spite of himself. “Yeah.”

“She's messed up. In the hospital from an overdose. She's apparently been on drugs for a while now, and Farlan says it was that guy she was dating that works here that got her into it.”

“Man that works here?” Marco asked, mouth falling open. “Is he a professor, or..?”

Jean shook his head. “An advisor. Some guy named Marlow.”

“Well that narrows it right down, then.” Marco said flatly; Jean sat up further, blinking back at him.

“What do you mean?”

Marco sighed, letting his head drop against Jean’s arm as he spoke. “CSUF only has one male student advisor right now. I got curious so I poked around until I figured that much out. And that's the same guy Auruo was cheating on me with.”

“He – seriously?!” Pushing a hand sharply into Marco’s shoulder, Jean jumped to his feet, a hard glare on his face not meant for Marco. “That's so fucking disgusting – how could one person be such a massive dick? God, I’m gonna--”

Marco stood, grabbing Jean by the shoulders. “Jean, please don't do anything you'll regret. He's not worth it. The last thing you need right now is to risk--”

“I'm not going to, Marco. You know I wouldn't. The problem is--” Jean scowled for a moment longer, before letting his head drop forward onto Marco’s shoulder. “I couldn't, even if I had the nerve. I’d lose my scholarship and trash my entire career in one damned move.” He let Marco pull him into a hug, tighter against his chest. “This guy might have destroyed my cousin’s life, and I can't do shit, except tattle to the dean. This fucking sucks.” Standing in Marco’s embrace, Jean caught sight of his own bed frame, the one he'd dented when he'd heard the news about his mother. He sniffled, determined not to cry while he was so angry; he knew by then that it wouldn't do him any good, anyway. “I can't even be there, for Farlan and Hitch. I'm useless right now.”

Marco slid one hand to press at the small of Jean’s back, rubbing soothing circles there as he trailed the other up to swirl through the short hair at the back of Jean’s head. “You're not useless, sweetheart. And summer is coming. For better or worse, it's almost here, and once it is, you’ll be able to be with your family when you need to.” Marco scratched blunt nails through Jean’s hair, and Jean relaxed in his hands.

“Not a very good trade off for bein’ without you, though.”

“It sounds like they might need you more than I do, right now.” Marco said, pressing a kiss to Jean’s temple. “I'm not going anywhere though, Jean. Not this summer, not as long as you want me around. And whether you're stuck there or stuck here, I wanna make sure you know that you're never alone. I'm gonna be here, no matter what.”

Silence stretched between them as Marco smoothed away Jean’s worries, and Jean struggled with how to thank him. He wasn't sure he knew of a way; Marco mattered so much more than any words Jean could string together. But there was one that stood out in his mind, that returned to him every time Marco whispered love into his ear.

“Y’know – when I was a kid, my mom and dad had this word for each other. Like a nickname, I guess. They always called each other ‘neshama’. It's like…’my soul’, in Hebrew. It’s a name for that person that's really important. The one who’s always there.” Jean stepped back, just enough to see Marco’s face, to run his thumb along the lips that brought him so much happiness, from songs to kisses, to sweet words spoken in quiet moments. “I’ve been thinking about that word a lot, lately. When I'm with you.”

Marco smiled, the familiar, warm expression that Jean absolutely adored. “I like that word,” he said quietly, and pulled Jean against him again, dancing him gently from side to side as they held each other for another long moment.

Without explanation, Jean moved to turn out the lights in their room, letting the glow from the moon outside their tiny window illuminate their shared space just enough that they could see each other’s silhouettes. It was all they needed, and Marco seemed to understand. He pulled Jean into his lap, let Jean melt against him as they peeled away the layers of fabric that separated their skin. Jean needed to disappear for a little while, and Marco’s warmth was there to envelop him in reassurance that he wasn't alone, that he could let himself go and know he would be caught.

They let their hands roam slowly over each other’s skin that evening, bodies draped in nothing but the moonlight. Fingers and lips lingered, smoothing their way across chests and stomachs, along the fevered skin of shaking thighs and shifting hips. Every touch was unhurried, just what Jean needed as Marco kissed away the tension in his every muscle.

“Marco,” he breathed, barely more than a whisper. “Neshama.”

The moon was just bright enough to light Marco’s face as he repeated the word, and pressed Jean’s hand to his quick-beating heart. Jean had never heard it sound more beautiful.

--

Taking flight to leave for Hawaii, Jean learned that Marco was rather terrified of flying. It wasn't a bad experience, though; Marco spent most of their take off and the better half of the flight, tightly clasping Jean’s hand. For Jean, it was a welcome change, holding onto Marco, rather  than just a phone with his name flashing across the screen.

When they touched down, Jean couldn't stop smiling. Not for himself - he'd been to the islands before, several years in a row – but for Marco. The look on his face when they were greeted by their first glimpses of local scenery was more breathtaking than all of it, combined.

The first night, there was no official business to handle, no game to play. The coaches took the team – and their handful of guests – out to dinner, where Eren told stories that left Jean and Armin both rolling their eyes, and Marco laughing until tears rolled down his cheeks. When dinner and drinks were finally finished by the majority of the team, they received keys to their hotel rooms and headed for them in pairs.

The room that matched the number on Jean and Marco’s keycard was fairly standard issue, for a tourist destination. The walls we