He’d stared down titans, felt their hands clamp down around his ankle or brush against his cloak. He’d slipped and fallen 5, 8, 10 meters before his 3-D maneuver gear found purchase in rough bark or a chink in the wall.
He knew true fear- that fleeting moment when his heart stops cold in his chest and ice floods his veins because this is it. The sudden clarity along with the searing awareness that he was about to die. A split-second of regret, a ferocious wish to turn back time so he could have ducked faster or aimed higher.
Invariably, he’d escape. Let out the breath he’d been holding as his blade pierced titan flesh, or he jerked to a stop, but the sheer terror of those instances never fully left.
Yet somehow it didn’t compare to the deep, thrumming dread he felt as he stared at the turbulent water before him.
Jean blinked in confusion.
I was just- But the images were already dissipating like early morning mist, his memory pinwheeling through blank space.
Where am I?
The moon was hanging low and pregnant in the sky, bouncing white light off the wavelets that were sucking hungrily at the shore.
A forest full of gnarled trees crouched against the thin strip of sand that separated them from the river. They sat crystallized under the stars, undisturbed by even the faintest of breezes. In fact, the whole scene was too still. No birdsong or rustling of animals in the underbrush.
Like being trapped in a painting, Jean thought with a shiver.
Something tugged inside his chest, a nagging sensation of déjà vu that drew his gaze to the tree-line.
Running feet, muffled laughter. The air hot and thick as a wool blanket.
“You remember this place, don’t you, Jean?” A voice to his left, echoing back through the blood, pain, and smoke.
No, it can’t be-
Jean squeezed his eyes shut, willing away what had to be a figment of his imagination; A remnant of happier days. For a brief moment, he tasted blood.
Birds screeching overhead, Shardis stomping and cursing his way through the undergrowth. Bated breath, soft skin pressing together below a bush. Someone whistling the all-clear as the commotion receded. Trainees emerging from shrubs and trees with leaves and sticks in their damp hair.
A warm hand around his wrist.
“Wait, stay here with me.”
“What are you?” He ground out the words, afraid of what the answer might be, “A memory, a dream, a piece of my own fucking head?”
“It’s me,” Came the calm, disembodied reply. Fingertips brushed his shoulder but Jean forced himself to keep his eyes closed.
“But Marco, you’re-”
“You can look at me, you know,” he murmured.
Jean was caught off guard by the sadness in his voice. Cautiously, he turned his head and felt a large lump form in his chest that squeezed the air out of his lungs. Gentle brown eyes, a smattering of freckles, the soft smile; all untouched by dirt and decay.
“See? I’m not… The way I was when I died.”” Marco laughed hesitantly, rubbing his temple with the palm of his hand like he always did when he was nervous.
Used to do, Jean corrected. On closer inspection, Marco’s skin was nearly translucent. In the faint glow of the moonlight, he looked paper thin, delicate; the angles and outlines of his features blurring around the edges. Jean stole a quick glance at his own reflection in the water. He seemed solid enough.
A harsh chuckle bubbled up from his throat. “So this is it, huh? Some twisted version of my life flashing before my eyes, only all I get is a ghost and a stupid, empty memory?”
He kicked out at a rock, and though it felt real, the sound of his boot striking stone and the soft sploosh as it hit the river were muffled as though the air itself absorbed the noise.
Marco squinted, his freckles crinkling along his nose. “I think it’s more like walking on a tightrope. Life is on one side, Death is on the other, and you’re in the middle like this-” He stuck out his arms and took an exaggerated, wobbly step to demonstrate. Your body’s not quite finished yet, so maybe you can fight your way back if you try hard enough.”
“Fuckin’ great,” Jean groaned sarcastically. His chest seemed to have tightened a few more inches and black spots were beginning to dance in front of his eyes. He sat down heavily on the sand, and stared moodily out at the swirling water.
Looks like I can’t even die properly. Hell, I was supposed to join the Military Police and live out the rest of my life with two solid walls between me and the titans. My biggest worry should have been if my boots were shiny enough to pass muster. I was gonna be safe.
We both were.
“I, umm thought you’d be happy about that,” Marco muttered, still looking at him with that stupid expectant expression. Like he was still the leader of anything anymore.
“What if I don’t want to fight back?” He spat the words out violently, before he could change his mind. The question felt prickly and hot on his tongue.
What if I could stay here with you?
There was a soft rustle as Marco crouched down at his side.
“Why did you join the Survey Corps?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jean huffed, “Look where it’s gotten me.”
“If I had lived, would you have made the same decision?” Marco’s face was deceptively neutral but his eyes were dark and unreadable, mirroring the river.
Jean realized that he hadn’t really thought about it. The blinding loss he’d felt after Trost had faded to a dull, insistent ache, but his memories of that time were colored by ash. Joining the Survey Corps had seems like the only reasonable option at the time, after he’d watched the flames consume the dream they’d shared together.
“I don’t know. Maybe. Everything I saw in those days made me think about how shitty the whole situation was, you know?” He sighed, staring at his hands. “I figured that you’d want me to do something to make it better. Hey, what about you? If… you’d lived, would you have joined the Corps?”
Marco’s eyes widened. “I don’t know if I’d have had that kind of courage,” he smiled ruefully, “but I might’ve followed you.” He leaned over and rested the top of his head against the curve of Jean’s neck.
They sat in the eerie, perfect stillness for a while, listening to the waves slosh against the sand.
“I wish I’d stayed, the last time we were here together,” Jean said finally. “If I’d known that we didn’t have much time, I wouldn’t have been so afraid to-”
But Marco hushed him by placing a hand on his arm. “I think it’s time for you to choose,” he jerked his chin towards the river. “Say ‘hi’ to the rest of the gang for me when you get back.”
“I see, you're trying to get rid of me, huh?” Jean tried to smirk but his voice cracked.
The water lapped stealthily at his toes. Jean drew back, expecting a chill, but even that sensation was dulled. He took a deep breath and waded out into the darkness. The bottom fell away swiftly, and soon his feet were kicking out over empty space. With each stroke, his arms seemed to grow heavier, the cold becoming more pervasive until it was gripping his chest like a vise. Breathing was getting harder, his lungs fighting weakly to expand.
Only the moon stood out from the dark, now. It loomed over his head, growing larger as he began to flounder. Specks of silver danced on the ripples as his head slipped under.
He was floating, wrapped in velvet. On the third day of training he’d given Eren a bloody nose.
The voice was digging deeper now, poking rough fingers into his cocoon. Connie had toasted him on graduation night. Two of the Top Ten with the world at their fingertips.
Mikasa, Krista, Reiner, Sasha… Their faces a kaleidoscopic swirl of images. Other sounds were filtering in too, blending together incomprehensibly. He was being dragged now, up towards the surface. He could feel warmth on his face-
“Fuck,” he gasped, or at least attempted to. What came out was more a weary rush of air and blood. His chest was on fire.
“He’s awake!” Someone cried, followed by the pounding of boots on hard earth.
The sky above was a fuzzy blue. Just like the goddamn ocean.
“Try not to move okay? You definitely broke some ribs. You’re going to be just fine, okay? I need you to stay with me.” A brunette medic was peering over him, her hair tickling his forehead.
“A titan slammed him into a tree. He was out for a while, so he might have a concussion too…” Armin again.
Jean let their voices wash over him in a comforting lull. Every breath was like getting stabbed with a hot poker.
“How many did we lose?” he wheezed, listening to the panicked shouts and thunder of hooves echoing in the distance.
Armin didn’t answer.
A pale, dirty palm lay at the edge of his field of vision, fingers curled up to the sky like a dead bug. Jean wondered whose blood soaked the ground, other than his own.
The memory of that warm summer day encroached upon him again; his friends’ laughter dying out in the distance, Marco’s face flushed and eager, his grip tightening around Jean’s wrist.
I wish I’d stayed.