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[personal profile] quietlyendless
Series: they were unfortunate lovers
Part: 01, 02
Chapter: 01, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06

------

"Do you ever dream of the dead, Jean?"

He looks up, sees the moon looming high in the black, black sky. Then he turns, faces the ghost haunting his heart. "I dream of you."

Not-Marco smiles, wide and pleased.


-----

Jean wakes with a bad taste in his mouth, and he knows it's not going to be a good day.

His heart is light as air, lighter than it has been in a very long time, buoyed by the promises of his friends, and he is strangely comforted by the memory of that night. An old burden has been lifted from his shoulders, and he feels...less tired than before. It's a great sensation, almost liberating.

But.

After all these years, apprehension has long since wormed its way into his spine, filling his thoughts with doubt, and he knows this freedom will be short-lived.

Jean goes through the morning exercises in subdued silence, bracing himself for what he's sure to come. He files into the dining hall during lunch break with stiff muscles and a dark weight clinging to his bones. He swallows his food with great effort, feeling it scratch the inside of his throat.

The ranked officers have their heads bowed, discussing their troubles in low voices. Jean watches them and feels the edges of his fingertips itch. He feels the back of his neck go cold and tight, and he knows, when Captain Hanji stands, that something bad is going to happen.

All kindness is rewarded, says the voice in his head. All sins are repaid.

Jean takes a deep breath. And waits.

The captain smiles bright and wide at the entirety of the room until the small talk dies out. "We've got a problem," she says by way of introduction. "Remember those shadow things that attacked a while back? Turns out there's more of them running around in the forest. There's been no report of sightings of these monsters back in town, and it's probably best we keep it that way. So for the rest of this afternoon, and maybe the next few days, you guys get to go hunting!"

There is a collective intake of breath in the hall, and a brief moment of concerned murmurs before everyone falls silent once more.

"Don't worry," Hanji continues. "I'm not asking you to do anything reckless. The same rules apply. Move in groups, keep casualties to a minimum, and immediately report anything strange to your commanding officer. If you encounter a situation that feels too risky, retreat and regroup. The point of this particular mission is to exterminate these pests before things get worse. And if we're lucky," here her smile grows a little wider, taking on that familiar manic tinge of the curious and the intelligent, "we might learn something new about them. Any questions?"

Someone raises a hand. Jean casts a disinterested look in that direction and sees a mop of blonde framing a face he doesn't recognise. "With all due respect, sir, we're not trained for this. What if something goes wrong?"

Hanji doesn't even hesitate. "You can handle it," she says. "All of you fought admirably during the last attack, even though we were up against a completely new and unknown enemy. This time we know what's waiting. And this time, we're going after them. This first move is ours, and we'll make it count." She straightens suddenly, her spine snapping taut, and her next words come out fierce and full of command. "Will you do it?"

The entire hall stands as one, benches and chairs pushed back in a deafening rush as every soldier rises into a salute. "Yes, sir!"

Jean's body has moved without him even thinking of it, and it almost makes him laugh, if not for the sudden nausea pooling in the back of his throat. They're going to die, he knows it. Something is laughing in his head, loud and cruel, and every time Jean blinks, he sees Marco.

Are you ready to pay your debts, Kirschstein?

No, he thinks, staring straight ahead and seeing nothing.

-----

No, Jean pleads as he reports to Officer Jamal, who gives him a long look before jabbing a thumb in Armin's direction.

He walks over to where the other boy is standing, feeling the straps of his Maneuvear Gear cut into his skin, the clink of blades against his thighs. His body feel heavy, and there's the beginning of a headache pushing at his skull, and he's still hearing voices in his head--but he'll be damned if he admits it now.

Even so, when Armin throws him a quick, concerned glance, it takes all of his willpower to clench his teeth, and ignore it.

"So," Reiner is saying to Armin, "do we need a plan?"

The shorter blonde frowns a little, crossing his arms. "Fight what you can, run when you need to. Keep an eye on each other. And head straight for the meeting place if anything strange happens."

A tall, toned brown-haired girl, the last of their four-man team, nods along to Armin's every sentence. Her green eyes are clouded with worry, but all she says is, "Got it."

"Alright." Reiner claps his hands together, the smack of skin on skin sharp in Jean's ears. "Let's do this."

And then the blonde is off, soaring through the trees. The rest of them are to quick to follow; Jean shoots a hook into bark, jumps off the edge of his toes into the air and falls in pace with the others. As they move further from the base, further away from the other teams, the world gradually quietens, until all Jean can hear is the rush of air in his ears.

(and the whispering in his head.)

They can't fight them, these undead shadows with their bright yellow eyes and bodies of smoke. Jean still isn't sure what they are exactly, but he knows they work for the hooded man from the bar, which means they're from another world completely, where magic is real and time boils in his blood and sends him reeling into the past to relive his nightmares over and over. The Survey Corps can't fight this and win; it's even worse than facing Titans, because Titans are familiar, dumb animals wrapped in human skin. All they know about the shadows is that they kill and can be killed.

It doesn't matter how many they defeat. Jean knows, inexplicably, that there will always be more shadows, and not enough soldiers.

Such a pessimist.

"Realist," he mutters under his breath.

What's the difference?

"The difference," he replies, twisting in mid-air to avoid an upcoming branch, "is that I call 'em as I see 'em. And you should shut the hell up, whatever you are."

Someone's missing his freckled boy. Too bad he's trying to kill you now, eh?

"Fuck off." That comes out a little too loud, a little too angry, and he winces.

Sure enough, Armin angles his next shot diagonally, and he swings close enough to Jean to say, "Are you okay?"

"Yeah yeah. Quit worrying."

"Are you sure?"

"Just talking to myself, Armin. I'm not crazy yet."

The blonde doesn't look even halfway reassured, and he frowns. "If things start getting weird, even if you think it's not a big deal, let me know, okay? I'm here to help."

Jean swallows, tries to be comforted, as he recalls the night before. Instead, he tastes bile. "Got it," is all he manages, and even those words sound rough and forced. Armin, thankfully, has always had more tact than most, and drops the subject. The other boy curves his next arc through the air, putting enough space between them both that Jean doesn't feel quite as nauseous as before, and they spend the next few minutes in silence.

The forest is eerily quiet. Jean hears the dull burst and clank of metal hooks sinking into wood, the steady rush of gas propelling them forward, and nothing else. Nature has fallen silent, as if holding its breath for what is to come next. It makes his skin ache, and the steady whispering in his head picks up, gleeful. Jean swallows, his whole body going cold.

And he wonders if--

Out of the corner of his eyes, Jean sees a flash of yellow among green and brown. "There!" he yells, drawing his blades. "3 o'clock!"

"Wait!" Reiner says, landing on a thick tree branch. "Let's check out the situation first."

The three of them come to a halt on various branches around the blonde. Some distance away, a mass of black bodies huddle around a huge tree, wriggling restlessly on the forest floor. As they watch, more and more shadows melt out of the ground, and crawl over to join the others, their yellow eyes bright and empty.

"Think we can take them?" the girl asks. Jean glances at her, and realises he has no idea who she is.

"Yes," Reiner replies, all grim confidence, and cracks his neck. "We should probably try to split them off. They'll be easier in smaller groups."

"But try to stick close. And be careful, guys," Armin says. Jean flinches internally, hot shame blooming strong and poisonous in his chest, even though he knows the blonde had intended that reminder for everyone.

Careful, Kirschstein. Don't lose it again.

Fuck off, he wants to say. Fuck the hell off, he wants to scream, grip tightening on the handles of his swords.

"Ready," Reiner mutters, balancing on the edge of the tree branch, poised to jump.

Jean crouches low, keeping his gaze fixed on the shadows, keeps his breathing steady.

"Go!"

He lunges, heading straight for the shadows, and slices deep through one edge of the group. The blade cuts easily, as if moving through empty air, but he sees black curl around his sword, and hears something strange surge in his ears, loud and unnatural. The whispering in his head pitches higher, and he feels a brief satisfaction warm his heart.

Jean swerves around, and gets a few more with his next slice. On his right, he sees Reiner spiralling viciously through the shadows, his blades sharp and deadly, with enough force that he pushes a whole section of them up into the air before slicing through them too. The girl arches downward, lightning quick, and sweeps past him and back up into the trees. Jean follows suit, kicking at the ground as he jumps back into the air.

Perhaps they're lucky. Or perhaps they're better prepared this time. Whichever it is, the extermination goes smoothly, and at the end of it, Jean crouches on branch, panting, his chest tight and heaving. Everyone else is breathing hard too, and for a while, no one speaks.

Reiner is the first to break the silence. "Well. I'd say we did pretty good."

"Hush!" the girl says quickly, flapping a hand at him. "Don't jinx it, idiot!"

The blonde chuckles, but doesn't push the issue, his gear clanking as he sits down.

Jean hears Armin exhale loudly, but the sound is distant, diminished. His headache hasn't abated, and every muscle in his body is still tense and pained.

There's more.

He inhales sharply, gasps when he doesn't get enough air.

It was too easy; there's definitely more coming.

"--ean?"

"There's more," he whispers, voice barely audible even to himself.

Armin looks at him, eyebrows furrowed in worry. "What?"

"They're coming." Jean stands, staggers, nearly falls over. "Get up. We have to get ready."

"What are you talking about?" the girl asks, irritated.

"Jean, you don't look too good."

"Listen to me!" he snaps, sees Armin go still, and his vision flashes white, once. His fingers twitch; he wants to break something.

Are you ready?

The entire forest shakes, hard and menacing. Jean stumbles, very nearly falls off before Armin wraps an arm around his, grounding him. The other boy shoots a hook into the nearby tree trunk, and drops his free hand onto the wire, gripping it tightly. Jean quickly does the same, aiming for the branch he is standing on, and very nearly impales his own foot. He grits his teeth--not the smartest thing he's done today--and locks his body in position. The skin on the back of his neck prickles, sends a shiver down the length of his spine. Jean looks up.

There, a good few miles away, a pool of black has appeared in the ground. As Jean stares, its edges curl in on itself, then inch forward, widening its diameter. Its center is boiling, spitting angry bubbles into the air, and cackling with a sound not unlike paper being scrunched up, crisp and amplified a thousand times over. And then, a giant hand pushes through the surface, its fingers thick and long and clawed. The wrist extends into a forearm, bends into an elbow, attaches to a shoulder. Then, on the other side, another hand comes up, just as big.

"Holy shit," Reiner says. "Holy fucking shit."

The claws dig into the forest floor, and the thing braces itself, and pulls. A massive head comes through, black liquid dripping down its neck, off its arms. Its torso frames a gaping hole in its abdomen and chest, empty through and through; its legs are bent awkwardly, knees curving inwards.

Two large, yellow orbs stare straight at him, bright and menacing.

And on its left shoulder, stands Marco, tall and bright, grinning wide.

Time to pay.

--------

Bonus sneak preview of the next chapter:

"Marco??? You're alive??"

"Didn't Jean tell you? We made out in the basement."

They all turned to Jean as one, each wearing identical expressions of 'you've-got-to-be-kidding-me.'

Jean wanted to die.
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