There is little to be said about the winter, other than that I don't manage to lose any toes, and the town doesn't manage to lose any citizens to the chill. Last winter was a disaster of poor planning and sudden snowstorms that lasted all the way up until late March; my family got through just fine, but others weren't so lucky, like the Aperitifs, whose roof caved in under blankets of thick snow, and the Rheinbergers, whose smokehouse collapsed under a rotting treehouse. This year we were better: sawing off dead tree limbs before they could come down through storms, reinforcing walls and thatched roofs, building smokehouses not under treehouses.
I didn't do much. What do you expect me to do, go out and about in the cold and risk freezing on the first foot out the front door? They'd find me still as a statue, an immobile kid frozen mid-step. All would mourn my tragic loss.
I don't handle the cold well.
I mean . . . I did have to leave my house sometimes, obviously. When heavy snow came and I couldn't feign sleep long enough to weasel my way out of shoveling, you see, and when my parents dragged me out to socialize. And, of course, for church. You'd better be dead or dying to worm your way out of that. "You can dredge through the snow long enough to show your devotion," Pastor Nick always says, but he lives in the damn church, so isn't he a biased fucking party right here?
By the way, I meant to say, "All would mourn my tragic loss, especially Mikasa." I didn't forget to mention her or something. Obviously. Ahem.
And school. The school season takes place in winter as well, as the other seasons are spent hunting and helping the family business, whatever that may be for you. It doesn't mean much to me - Mom's a banker, and Dad's a househusband, not counting their hunting forays together - but that's what I work at Reiner's for, the big lug. He's practically family - did I tell you my parents started this fun tradition of inviting him over for dinner, where they then do nothing but discuss me? Yeah, that's fun.
Anyway. Where was I? School, right! Trost has one schoolhouse that, against all notions of common goddamn sense, resides on the southern edge of town (not, you know, IN town where it's easy to walk to. No. It has to be at the end of a trek down the muddy, horse and cow manure-studded road out of Trost, a left onto a muddier, dirtier road, up a hill, down another hill, and finally into the middle of the damn woods where the one-story schoolhouse stands, rather derelict and neglected from its three prior seasons of disuse). It's in here where we learn the fundamentals of everything we need to know for hunting, not that that's helped me much: tracking the paths of the sun and moon every day of the year to calculate the best hunting times for certain game; the form and function of all body parts, horn to hoof, muzzle to marrow, harvested from everything from deer to pig to porcupine (who the fuck hunts porcupine? The quills ain't worth it); we even have a class dedicated to our letters, not that anyone pays attention, but hey, at least I still remember the alphabet.
Winter's a strong contender for my least favorite season (though I'm not solid on which is my least favorite: in all of them I don't go anywhere, but at least in winter I don't feel guilty for staying inside, unlike spring and summer), but my problem with this year isn't that winter happens. No, my problem is that winter has ended, and I still have no idea what the situation is with Ymir and Marco.
Sure, yes, I remember her telling me our arrangement would continue come spring, but there's nothing like over two months of seeing her less than I anticipated doing so this winter to erode my confidence in that memory. Sure, we did see each other a lot. I had dinner over her house a few times, and she would stop by the bakery to chat when it was on the way to wherever she was going. I saw her frequently enough that the conversation never got awkward, but infrequently enough to require some catching up every time we spoke. It was all irregular and happenstance and I found myself constantly remembering the stable schedule of the fall with something like wistfulness. Hey, I'm an organized guy, you know?
I mean, I'm not, but . . . I just want to be sure of when I see people! Is it weird to schedule your social interaction like that? It shouldn't be!
And now the advent of spring has done nothing but exacerbate my anxiety about this, because I've heard not a word about what the plan is for resuming our archery lessons. Does she expect me to approach her first? She hasn't begun disappearing into the woods every Wednesday yet, which I know means Marco's awake from whatever his bru-hibernation is. Would I look to thirsty if I went up to her like, "Hey, so when's the thing starting again?" or would that be, like, perfectly acceptable? I plan often to ask Connie about this - they're way up in the clouds all the time, but they have a weird apt for what's the best thing to say - but I always seem to forget whenever I see them.
Ah, yes, I see Connie regularly. Surprised? Hey, fuck you for assuming. There's been a considerable timeskip here that you weren't around for. I mean, I'll explain in a little bit, but I'm anxious right now, because Reiner stepped out to grab more water from the well, and there are about five people crawling up my ass for pastries we are running short on. Even brick-like trenchers, which very few purchase because the majority of people in town have wooden or metal plates (though I could see the advantage in trenchers, being able to just eat your plate instead of cleaning it) are running short, and it's not like I can just whip up more of those because you need to leave them out for three or four days to make them stale, so yeah, let me just ask three-days-ago me to bake some, you crazy old dude with hair like a rat's nest.
This is why I need Reiner at the counter! I just can't deal with people sometimes, especially when they expect me to pull bread from my fuckin' sleeves. I tune out their impatient chattering outside as I hunker down and stoke the fire beneath the oven, willing this bread to bake faster. Somehow I managed to cram everything everyone wanted in at once, so it's just a matter of taking everything out at the right time. How did we run out of so many reserves so fast? This is ridiculous.
"Hey, you alive in there?" a woman calls; I can hear her fingernails drumming impatiently on the countertop, which I just wiped down, if she could kindly get those greasy fingers off-
"I can't make this bake any faster!" I bark back, realizing too late that that was kind of rude. Well, she shouldn't be rushing me! I'm frazzled! Who needs a table loaf so badly in the middle of the damn day? She can just come back later for it!
Mercifully, their talking quiets down and, also mercifully, most of the stuff gets done baking. So their edges aren't as brown as they should be. So what? That's what you get for rushing the kid in charge of your meals. I snatch out the finished products - a couple of table loaves, some oatcakes, a barley loaf (those are pretty good), and even a dreaded Reiner Braun special (WHO HONESTLY EATS THESE THINGS) - and wrap them like my very life depends on it, and if I squeeze one too hard and deform it, not my loss!
After making sure my brief absence won't burn what's left in the oven, I scurry out to the counter with arms overflowing with pastries. "Okay, coin or labor? Anyone going for labor? Anyone? No? Okay, onetwothreefourfive- this'll be . . . six gold from you, two gold from you," I prattle on, dumping the bread on the counter before the people who ordered them with my hand outstretched for the money at the same time, "six gold from you-"
"Six? Of all the-"
"Hey, ma'am, times are hard, sorry, you can always go with labor- ten gold from you, sir, or two blue if you've got that either-"
"Fine! Your roof is tilted. Write me down to straighten it out."
Someone drums their hand on the counter for my attention as I stuff the coins in my apron pocket. "I'll be right with you, let me- I'll be right back-" I call, turning back for the door and gesturing over my shoulder, barely glancing at the person, then I do a double take, realizing exactly why the crowd outside must've fallen silent.
"Yeah, uh, how much for a Jean Kirschtein?"
"Ymir!" I exclaim, gaping for a moment, stupidly torn between rushing inside and going up to her. "C-Come- two silver and no less."
"Two silver? I feel swindled at the very thought. I might have to rethink this transaction," Ymir drawls, rubbing her chin in mock deliberation.
"It's worth it. Get in here!" I demand, gesturing for her to follow me into the bakery so we can walk and talk at the same time. It's been over two weeks since I saw her last, damn it. "Too busy to chitchat 'n sit idle - you're disrupting my work experience."
"Excuse me," a man waiting for his trencher speaks up, eyeing Ymir like she'll swallow him whole.
"Just a second, sir!" I cut in before he can finish whatever bullshit request he wants to ask of me, rushing Ymir inside so I can check on the other shit in the oven. I keep spinning on my heel to Ymir, then turning back to walk normally, then facing her again, divided between not tripping and making sure she's following me.
"You make an excellent dancer, but you can walk normally, you know."
"I'm in a hyper mood and not in the mood for your sarcasm. What's up? How've you been?" I land before the oven and lean over to peek in, wincing and hurriedly scooping the remaining pastries out. The last batch was undercooked and this one appears to have made up for the loss; I sure hope those people out there like their delicacies crunchy.
"Ooooh, same old, same old," Ymir sighs, hopped up on the counter where I keep my flour, casually munching on a random bun she seems to have found. She screws up her face at the first bite and considers the morsel in her hand. "Uh . . ."
"Yeah, that's moldy. Nice." Lifting a finger to indicate I'll be back in a second, I bustle out to deliver the goods I labored over and collect the money for them, finally clearing up the impatient group before the bakery. With a relieved sigh I return inside, casually flipping a coin into the air (and failing to catch it; I do the crawl of shame to retrieve the offending gold piece from under a table) and patting Ymir's knee to shoo her off my table so I can get to work on mixing ingredients together for more loaves in case someone else comes. "Hey, honestly, that one's not even that stale. Some people like it stale."
Ymir hauls herself up on the opposite counter, unsticking gobs of bread from her teeth with her tongue, by the squelchy sound of it. "I suppose I've gotten spoiled on the freshest breads provided by Jean Kirschtein. What have you been up to?"
"Just school and this, really. Nothing new." My arms used to get so sore from all this kneading, but at this point it registers only as a dull burn that I could tolerate for hours before needing a break. Seems I am capable of some muscle acquisition, though my arms never seem to get any thicker. Why was I given the terrible curse of string bean proportions? I start on the newly-mixed dough. "Hey, it's pretty warm out. Is Marco awake yet?" There, was that too thirsty?
Apparently not, thank the lord! "That's what I came here for, incidentally. Are you still free to continue those lessons you're so easily mastering?"
I narrow my eyes at her over my shoulder. She's got one leg crossed over the other and grimaces as she finishes off that roll. "Was that sarcasm?"
"I couldn't tell you. I've never taught someone archery before. For all I know, you could be making leaps and bounds."
"That would be me," I assert, smug. "Yeah, I'm definitely game for the weekly lessons again."
"Then clear your schedule for next Wednesday, Jimbles. It's naga time for the both of us."
A wide smile spreads across my face, one I allow to grow only because I'm facing the opposite direction. "I bet you're excited, huh?"
"Oh, absolutely. Watching my star pupil flourish is what I live for."
"I mean to see your brother again!"
"Oh, him? I already saw him." She grins at the offended expression on my face. "I stopped by yesterday and lo and behold, there he was, sprawled out on the foyer of his cave and waving. Feels like it's been a while, hasn't it?"
"Yeaahhh, it's weird," I agree, sectioning off my dough and arranging handmade disks that will soon expand in the oven to become table loaves. "Like, it's been so long, I can barely remember what it was like going in the woods and shit. Or where we even left off anyway."
"Hopefully our fresh start this spring will lead to only more wonderful lessons." Ymir arches her back and stretches, extending her arms over her head and wiggling her fingers, groaning. She hops off the counter. "Well, I'm off. Make sure you're up bright and early on Wednesday, Jimbles, or I'll convince your brother to let me into your room and I'll just sit on you for half an hour."
Oh, I do much better than that when the time comes. Through a combination of anticipatory nerves and a rare spell of responsibility and forethought in going to bed early, I'm up before dawn on Wednesday, dressed and ready to meet the world. Of course, sitting here on my couch and waiting for Ymir to arrive gives me a lot of time to pretty much run through the full list of what-ifs, like, Is Ymir actually coming, and, What if she isn't, I'll look like such an idiot, and, What if it's actually next Wednesday, not this one, and what if I misheard and it's not Wednesday at all, what if it's Thursday or something.
Cane plods over from her spot before the fireplace, her nails clacking on the wood floor. Thomas is still asleep; I managed not to rouse him when I got up, and I can hear the sleepy murmur of my parents talking in their bedroom. I hope they don't come out and see me here. Cane lifts her slobbery muzzle in my direction and snuffles at the air. I push her mouth away from me before she can drool on me or something, after which she comes right back and sniffs again. I let her rest her chin on my knee with a grumble, figuring I can just wash the spit off later, and scratch her soft, muscle-padded head. I turn her ears inside out just to fuck with her and snort as she backs off and shakes her head until they're normal again. "Cane," I whisper. "You suckkkk." Her tail wags lazily as she's spoken to. "You're a bad dog. The worst dog." Cane huffs out a little sigh through her nose and turns to sit by my legs, her back facing me, then looks over her shoulder expectantly. "Okay, fine," I concede, scratching her spine between her shoulder blades. "Greasy dog. Gross dog."
Her ears prick up at the door suddenly, then a low rumble issues from her barrel-like chest as someone knocks. "Shush, Cane." I jump up, praying it's Ymir (it probably is, but what if it isn't) and answering the door. Ymir manages to sprawl vertically in my doorway and still look good, a solitary eyebrow raised in her subtle way of showing surprise.
"You're alive? The sun's barely risen." Her lips curl up in a smirk. "Eager, huh? Are you that desperate to get some whittling done, or did you miss Marco's company?"
"Uh, neither. Wait, I mean- Both! Sort of. Um-"
"Jeanbo?" my mom's voice calls, muffled by her bedroom door; before I can grab Ymir by the ponytail and run, Mom pokes her head out, mouth open to say something, and the curiosity in her face curdles as she sights Ymir and I, dressed up and ready to roll.
"Hey so yeah we're leaving bye Mom love you!"
"Jean." Mom's stern voice freezes me in my fleeing tracks, and I sigh through my nose, gesturing for Ymir to wait where she is as I turn to scuttle up to my mother.
Mom emerges from her room and closes her door to a crack behind her, putting her hands on her hips and pursing her lips to a wrinkled pout. "Jeanbo," she says, the playful affection usually associated with the nickname replaced by sternness. "Why is that woman here? You're not going out with her, are you?"
"Well, yeah, I am. Wait, I don't mean going out with her, I mean, you know, going out with her. Like, we're doing the hunting thing we did in the fall." I try to present these facts as solid and hope she doesn't wrench away their foundations by making me stay home. Am I old enough to pull the "I do what I want" card yet?
"Now, you never told me this," Mom says with the rising lilt that indicates she's about to launch into a lecture.
"Told you what, dear?" my dad wonders, suddenly appearing in the cracked doorway behind her.
"I'm going out with Ymir again," I tell him.
A hand flies up to his mouth in shock. "Going out? Oh my, you mean-"
"Yes, dear, going out with her," Mom grouses.
"No! Not like that going out! Like we're going hunting again! I told you we were just calling it off for winter and then starting again, remember?" I glance over my shoulder at Ymir, grimacing; she's still chilling in the doorway, watching us with detached interest, as if her integrity isn't being currently questioned.
"And why don't I remember this?" Mom demands. "You didn't mention it yesterday, did you, when I wasn't really listening?"
"Are you implying you don't really listen to me, Mama? That's cruel."
"Don't you start!" she warns, jumping on that immediately. Damn! "No changing the subject- I know your tricks. I wouldn't be so suspicious if you weren't going about this in such an underhanded way. You know I don't like you going places with that woman."
"That woman has a name, and she's my friend, first of all. Come on, Mom! We've been doing this for ages now! I'd tell you if something happened that made me feel unsafe, wouldn't I?"
"Would you?" Mom retorts, and steps around me toward the door.
Mom ignores me, striding up to Ymir with a set mouth and her chin in the air as if she's not a few inches shorter than the both of us. Dad disappears like a ghost back inside the bedroom. Thanks, Dad, always glad for your support, I grumble internally, skittering after my mother and hoping the damage won't be too devastating.
Ymir straightens up when Mom plants her feet directly in the doorway, barring entry and actually making Ymir back up a few paces. "Good morning, Mrs. Kirschtein."
"Mm, morning. May I ask where exactly you're going with my son?"
"I'm right here, oh my god," I whimper from the side.
"We're going due west today, ma'am," Ymir lies smoothly, confident as a cat. "We never go far, I assure you, and nowhere near the mountains."
My mom crosses her arms - god, Mom, could you choose a more rude stance to take when facing a guest? - and lowers her chin, leveling Ymir with a serious gaze. "The two of you go out and hunt, is that right?"
"Yes, Mom, oh my god where have you been this entire time-"
"Yes, ma'am. Jean's coming along pretty well."
"Archery, is it?"
"Where exactly did you learn archery?"
"I wouldn't be surprised if she popped out of the womb and fuckin'- shot the midwife in the eye," I grumble, and spy a subtle tenseness in Ymir's mouth, like she's deliberately keeping a smile down. I see you, Ymir.
"From Levi Smith, ma'am."
Mom pauses at that, eyebrows raised. Everyone knows Levi, and everyone respects Levi. I've never really spoken to him, though, unless you count him staring at me when he comes to the bakery with Hanji as communication. "Levi, huh?"
"That's right. Private lessons. Would you like Jean back at a specific time today?"
I angrily mouth something like, What the fuck? Don't ask her that! at Ymir; she acknowledges me with a brief glance out of the corner of her narrowed eyes and a brief tilt of her head, indicating she knows what she's doing. Don't fuck this up, Ymir; it shouldn't be this difficult to just want to hang out with her and Marco!
My mom rubs her chin, contemplating; that she's considering this at all is a good sign. "Well . . ."
"Mom, pleaaase let me leave, please? I won't come back too late, I swear! Come on, you were complaining all winter about me constantly being in the house!"
Mom peers between the casual politeness in Ymir's face to the pouty pleading in mine, and her shoulders deflate a forgiving inch, a victory I snatch up without hesitation. Even as she opens her mouth to say, "All right," I bounce around her, knocking into Ymir and tugging on her arm. "Okay Mom love you bye!" This time she lets us escape, watching us (me) hop down the steps and trot down the road from the doorway. When I look over my shoulder to see her I can't decipher the expression on her face.
"Oh my god, I am so sorry."
"Relax, Jean. It's all right."
"No it's not! It's so weird- she's never like this with any of my other friends!" I insist, all of my frustrated need to make her understand spilling out a mile a minute. "I hate it when she does this. I swear she's better than that, but she's just a terrible, like, judge of character. And so damn stubborn! It's like, once she has a bad impression of someone it takes forever for her to budge about it. I promise she's cooler than that, she's a big grump, it's just- ugh. She's so frustrating sometimes."
Ymir wraps her fingers around the wrist of my wildly gesticulating arm, stilling its movement. "Jean, it's not a mystery why she doesn't like me."
I lift up our joined arms, open my mouth to say something, and pause. The way Ymir's hand is wrapped around my wrist presses the surfaces of our skin together, highlighting the difference between them. I look guiltily up at her face, at the many patches of freckles dotting her cheeks and nose, then think about the pale milkiness of my own mother's face.
I tug my hand back and cross my arms, disquieted. "She'll warm up to you."
"And if she never does, I won't lose sleep over it."
I recover from this grim moment and regain my good mood in short time. The dirt road is dark with overnight rain and crunches beneath our feet; the air is wet and chilly, and every breath I take feels like it excises a layer of dust from my lungs, stripping me of all those weeks of inactivity in my room and replacing them with a fresh surface to start on, like a new page in a sketchbook to be covered in drawings. After grabbing Marco's chocolate rolls that I baked the previous day (I baked extra!) (I think baking extra is becoming the new normal amount, to be honest) we head into the woods, a path I haven't taken in so long! God, I love spring. I love that sudden transition from dead, barren branches to full domes of lush leaves and flowers. It always seems to catch you by surprise, doesn't it?
Then I'm quickly reminded of why I actually hate the woods when a newly-lush cluster of brambles catches my ankle and sends me sprawling. Ymir didn't even help me up, she was laughing too hard. Fuck the woods. Fuck spring.
I actually fucking sigh at the sight of the glade with the fallen log, surrounded by newly-budding grass sparkling with dotted dew, a fresh coat of prickly moss taking up space between cracks in its weak, exfoliating bark. The trees surrounding it hide the dark depths of the forest with fresh leaves, green and dripping, rustling as birds hop from branch to branch and sing the morning chorus.
It looks just as picturesque as the last time I saw this place, only the melancholy is replaced with enough green to make it feel like a welcoming embrace. Our boots squelch through the carpet of moss and discarded pine needles coating the glade as we go up and sit on the log (I fussed around for a few moments looking for a dry place to sit, of course). "It's almost as wet out as me."
"Shut up, Jean," Ymir snorts, then lifts her hand to her mouth and whistles, loud and piercing enough for it to hurt even when I've got my ears covered.
I lower my hands, wincing. "Do you think Trost can ever hear it when you whistle?"
Ymir shakes her head. "Nah, we're too far away, I've experimented. We're just close enough for Marco to hear it wherever he is, unless he's wandered off." Her mouth twists. "Can't tell you how many times I've had a heart attack when he didn't respond to the whistle, and it turned out he was just sleeping. He's such a lazy boy."
"I had Marco whistle as loud as he could at a certain time when I was in town. And other places too, now that I remember it. I couldn't hear a thing."
"That's good, I guess. It'd be weird if people heard some random woman whistling in the forest."
"I could probably convince someone it's a wood nymph or something," Ymir sighs. "A nymph who whistles only on Wednesday mornings."
"Like a land siren . . . except the song to tempt people in is a whistle."
"So that makes Marco-"
"Speak of the devil, and he shall appear," Ymir intones, a sudden grin rocketing across her face as she jerks her chin, indicating for me to look behind over my shoulder. She smiles often, but they're usually smirks or sneers, neither very reassuring that she has anything good in mind. But she does this thing where if she smiles without reservation, she either goes for the less-is-more route or all out. If genuinely pleased it's a subtle change, a peaceful mien accompanied by a smooth, slight upturn of the corners of her lips. And now? Now's the rarer, latter kind, where it seems like she's smiling so wide she has to bare every tooth to prove it. It's kind of like a scary grimace, if you look at it too hard, but fuck it, it's cute knowing what causes it. Or who, specifically.
Marco is halfway across the clearing when I look behind me, sure enough, kind of hunched with his head forward, a position he relaxes when he sees my face, as if he was trying to sneak up on us and got caught. Sneak up on me. My first memory of ever seeing him flashes through my head; I'm just glad he didn't decide to charge me and bodyslam me. As much as I like him, he would probably break me in half.
Ymir nudges me, her happy grin since morphed into one more characteristically smug. I narrow my eyes at her questioningly, and she just shakes her head, still smirking. Only then do I realize I was also smiling like an idiot. Hey, fuck off, Ymir, you were three times thirstier. I clear my throat and smooth my face over as Marco reaches us.
Goddamn, this boy did not change one bit. It's been, what, over three months? Two? Marco looks exactly the same as he did before winter, even down to the length of his long black hair. No new facial hair (not that I expected any), no difference in skin tone - if anything, he just looks kind of thin.
A myriad of things I could do flash through my mind - sit here and wait for him to do something, stand and offer a hug, look at Ymir for help - but, because I'm a dumbass, I opt for the gag route: I stand and immediately offer my hand to shake, imploring in my most professional of voices, "Hi, Jean Kirschtein, how do you do?"
Marco's smile dies immediately, his shoulders slumping. "Will you ever let that die?" he demands as I cackle shortly at my own damn joke. "I was about to go for a hug, too, but now you don't deserve one."
"Aww, don't let that stop you, c'mere," I snort, happy to have sapped the awkwardness I felt from the situation. Marco takes me up on my offer immediately, swooping in to duplicate the extremely strong hug from last winter, bouncing me off my feet for a moment; I barely have mind or muscle to hug him back until he's putting me down. His hands remain on my shoulders as he grins down at me, his eyes sparkling with delight.
"I was worried for a while that you wouldn't come back." The fly-aways near the crown of his head gleam gold in the morning sun.
Worried? For me? For my regal presence to be absent? "Aww, c'mon, people can't get rid of me. I always come back. I'm like a boomerang or something."
"Or like a cockroach, or a UTI," Ymir mutters behind me.
Marco shoots her a look that would be withering if it were on anyone else's face; the best he can do is make it look mildly disapproving. "Let's not make Jean feel unwelcome to our neck of the woods."
"At this point, this is also my neck of the woods."
"Uh, it's our neck of the woods and you know it," Ymir asserts. "Come here for a bit longer before you get the privilege of calling it yours."
"Does it matter? Can't we share?" Marco asks weakly. I have to listen to him rather carefully to discern his accent, unused to it as I am; Ymir talks like a Trost citizen compared to this boy.
Marco's hands on my shoulders are a warm and welcome weight, and when Ymir stands and shoves between us, dislodging Marco's grip, I feel a pang of disappointment at the detachment. "All right, you two," Ymir grunts, elbowing us both, "don't think I'm slacking on the training. We didn't come here to be all lovey-dovey."
"We haven't come out here in months and we have to do training right now?" I demand. "Can't we, like, chill out for a minute?"
"We can't just chill out, Jimbles, not when you wither like a cornstalk by the second when you're not exercising! Can't you feel the archery skills you could be learning slipping through your fingers the longer you delay? There's no time to waste!"
"And how do we help Jean get a grip on those archery skills he's so sorely missing out on?" Marco wonders aloud, exchanging a grin and a snicker with me behind his sister's back.
"I'm so delighted you should ask," Ymir drawls. "Jean, go walk Marco up to bask."
I jerk my head back with a face twisted with incredulity, looking deliberately between her serenity and the clearly awake-and-not-in-need-of-basking Marco. "What? Why?"
"Yeah, Miri, thank you, but I don't-"
"No excuses!" Ymir exclaims, shoving us both toward the forest with a fist in each of our nearest shoulders, pushing us along with much screeching in protest on my part and assurances that "I can walk" from Marco (even though he can't! CALLED OUT, motherfucker!). It's kind of amazing how Ymir can push around a thousand or whatever-pound naga, whose whole body could probably engulf hers no problem, but is instead sidling meekly in the direction she wants us to go. "You both could use the exercise, and I need some alone time to knit. Go bask. Jean, remember to come back here before getting Marco again."
"Ugh, why?" I slump and drag my feet, already resigned to my assignment; any resistance I could give would be met with harsh reprimands and harsher physical violence. I can't wait until I get awesome and muscular enough to knock Ymir on her ass.
"Because I said so."
"What's the point of coming back here, just to walk right back up? I'm so used to the route by now, I might as well just hang out there with him."
"I expressly do not give you permission to loiter. Go on, get!"
Resigned, I sigh and drag my feet away from her, Marco at my side. "So what's up!" I exclaim, spreading my arms and turning half to him. "What's been going on? How have the woods been?"
"Uh, same as always," Marco chuckles, leaning forward a bit as his snake body glides across the earth beneath and behind him. "I only woke up a little while ago. A week ago, maybe? My sense of time is always messed up when I get out of brumation."
"Yeah? Why's that?" I couldn't even imagine sleeping that long, and this is coming from a guy who really loves his shuteye, let alone in a freezing, exposed cave.
"It just takes a while to wake up. Like taking a nap you didn't mean to take - do you know that feeling? When your head feels all fuzzy for a while?"
"You're talking to the certified nap champion here."
"I am the certified nap champion," Marco snorts, smiling when I widen my eyes and place a hand on my breastbone in defensive shock. None may approach my title! "It feels like that, only my whole body is fuzzy."
I purse my lips and nod, not understanding but not needing to, too busy trying to decide how to determine the real nap king - what do we do, have a nap-off? As if reading my mind Marco notes, "I feel we should have a nap competition to determine the real champion."
"Oh, honey, don't set yourself up for failure like that."
Marco raises a skeptical eyebrow at me, just begging for an indignant tirade, which I readily deliver; he nods and rolls his eyes along with steadily more outlandish claims of my sleeping prowess, and by the time we exit the trees and behold Marco's hill I've certainly established in that head of his that my title is unmatched as a veteran of slumber. My head buzzes with things to say it him, a bunch of topics to bring up - winter, school, how brumating feels, just generally asking what he is - but I hate talking as I walk, so I just forge ahead as fast as I can so I can run my mouth. Newly-sprouted grass dots the massive hill, the tips of the young shoots yellowed by constant exposure to the sun and wind.
"I'm not sure why Ymir insisted on me basking just now," Marco muses as he switches momentarily to walking on his hands, then rears up again with a curled lip as he apparently remembers the ground is gross and wet. "I got up early and did it already, I feel fine."
"Yeah, well, she probably missed bossing us around so much that she needed to jump right back into it."
I figured I'd have a hard time getting up the steep, winding path after months of not coming here, but I suppose my replacement exercise of schlepping all the way out to the schoolhouse four times a week served me pretty damn well. My calves don't start aching until we're pretty much almost there, and even then it's a pleasant burn, like a work in progress. Once we get high enough I glance out over the forest, looking for that break in the trees that indicates Trost and watching it with muted fascination. You'd think someone could see us from there - we're far away enough to be nothing but ants but this hillside is also bare - but I've never glanced this way from my rooftop and noticed anything. That, at least, is reassuring.
Mercifully, Marco stays as silent as me all the way up to his basking . . . whatever, seemingly content to trot along in front of me and smile beatifically at me when his turns on the ascending bends brings us nearly face to face. What a happy guy, goddamn. "You sure are peppy, dude," I call to him as he turns above me.
He looks over his shoulder and beams like he's doing his best to imitate the sun. "I'm so happy you're back!"
"You can't even be lowkey about it, can you?" I snort, panting a little as we near the top - well, not the top, as the hill goes up for a while longer, but Marco's weird formation that he goes in is fast approaching. "Well, I'm happy to be back too. To be honest, like, for a while I was scared Ymir wasn't gonna bring me back here, and it made me sadder than I thought it would."
"Why's that?" He stops, brow furrowing like the very thought of me saddening is worthy of consternation.
"Oh, uh." Shit, I should've expected him to ask for clarification on that; I thought I could get away with letting my neediness be only implied. "Well, I mean . . ." Marco's still stopped, body turned and waiting on me in curiosity, so I catch up to him and step over and around his snake body until I can bump his shoulder. "You're my friend, so I would've missed you."
"I would've missed you too," Marco says, so easily, like affection is just no big deal to him - maybe I've just spent too long hanging out in my room to find it easier to just lay my feelings bare like he does. He slithers alongside me, keeping his human torso at a position similar to mine so we're at equal heights. "Why do you need Ymir to bring you? Can't you come here yourself?"
I grimace, leaning forward as I approach Marco's . . . thing. What do I even call this? A basking rock? That sounds good enough. "It's hard to explain. I don't know how to put it into words." I'm not about to launch into an explanation about how there are stages of friendships and Marco and I are not yet at the point where I feel secure just showing up whenever I want without feeling awkward or unwanted.
I stop before the black rock formation, peering up the grass pathway Marco takes to wherever he goes. I know up there is a slanted, irregular path that takes a sharp bend to the right, but not much else. I wonder if that short tree we moved together is still there, leaning against the crumbly black rock wall. It feels like ages ago that we climbed up to get it out of the way, and I was so scared and distrustful of the siblings that . . . wow, I must have been so rude. Now here I am, chilling out with him.
I turn to look at Marco. His gaze is cast upon the ground, a crease formed in his forehead. Is this one of his spaced-out episodes? "Marco?"
He shakes himself out of whatever that was, looking up at me. "Hm? Oh, I'm sorry."
"You okay? You looked like you weren't happy."
"Yeah, I am okay." He grimly sets his mouth. "I'm frustrated with myself. There are still so many things I don't understand, and I don't know how to begin understanding. I don't suppose you have to explain . . . uh, social things to people regularly?"
"Not at all."
He grimaces. "I must annoy you."
"Hey, no you don't!" I answer quickly. "I mean, sure, it used to be weird, but I'm way past used to it by now. Don't worry about it, dude." Marco grumbles some more. "Marco, c'mon."
"Come on where?"
Instead of answering like a normal person, I jam my lips together and chuckle throatily. To my surprise, Marco shifts and makes the exact same noise at the same time I do. I blink at him. "Did you just . . . make that dirty on purpose?"
Marco dissolves into fuller laughter, covering his mouth with his hand and gazing at me wide-eyed all the while. "Maybe."
"What? You make those jokes all the time."
I should've known he'd be listening, but I didn't think he'd be the type to imitate jokes about something he's clearly lacking. "Yeah, yeah! I'm surprised you, uh- wait, don't change the subject."
"It's nothing! I promise." He slithers past me, his human torso climbing even before he touches the path; he hauls and pushes himself up with handholds and his strong snake body, filing every foot of that long spine up the ledge high above, then turns to wave at me. "Thank you! I guess I'll . . . nap. Unnecessarily."
"Yeah, have fun with it." I wave and turn, braced on one heel and my other leg bent higher up on the slope, looking down at the valley. I can't believe I have to walk down this whole thing, then go back up again! And for what? Exercise I don't need? I'd much rather . . .
I blink, glancing back up at the ledge. Marco's disappeared, used to my impatient ass whirling around immediately and marching back down once he's up there. I look back over the uniform, leafy green canopy, then back up. "Hey, Marco! Marco?"
"Yeah?" I hear him answer from a distance.
"Can you come here?"
A period of silence follows, and Marco's head pops up over the ledge. "Do you need something?"
"Yeah, pull me up."
I approach the formation, stepping under its shadow as I squint up at Marco. My resolve and reason for even speaking up at all crumbles as Marco peers down at me curiously. "I don't feel like going back to Ymir, so, like . . . can I hang out up there with you, or . . . ?"
"Oh, sure! Oh, hang on, reach up and I'll grab you and pull you up-" Marco bobs back and forth and I hear the gravelly ground scratch beneath his shifting coils as he appears to brace himself, then he leans forward and probes his human torso down toward me, long muscles of his lower back flexing and bulging beneath his skin and then on under his scales as he holds himself in place, arms reaching down and smiling like he's been just waiting for me to suggest hanging out this whole time.
Well, it's good to know the request didn't weird him out, or make him afraid of pissing Ymir off. I grimace and get as close to the cliff as possible, my toes digging into the steep ground beneath me and leaning my shoulders forward to make sure I don't topple back and start a long roll down the hill that would probably take my limbs off. I grab Marco's outstretched arms and wince as he grips me, his fingers like iron. I hope this won't hurt, to be dangled by my arms like this. "Should I- you got me?"
"Yup!" Marco heaves backward and I yelp, kicking my feet at the wall in some poor attempt to help Marco lift me, which is a pretty pathetic idea because Marco appears to be made of solid muscle. I am pulled up and over the ledge in next to no time, stumbling a bit and catching myself on Marco's shoulders. I lean forward to make sure I don't tip back over the edge and do something stupid like dying.
As if sensing my fear Marco picks me up by my waist - "Holy shit, whoa, Marco!" - and sets me down so his lean bulk is between the ledge and I. "Thanks," I say gruffly, rubbing the sore tops of my arms from where he gripped me tight and raised me from the ground.
I pause and stare as his hands jerkily return to my hips, patting me and uh, Marco, what are you doing. "Uh, Marco, what are you doing?"
He seems to realize his actions, jaw slack and eyes bulging, and rips his hands off me. "Ohhhh my god! I'm sorry! I should have asked first. What the hell."
"What . . . were you doing?"
"Um . . . feelingyourhipbones." He stares at the ground. "Wow, I wasn't even thinking, I just- I'm sorry!"
I snort, shaking my head incredulously. "I mean, well. I don't really mind, so don't freak out. I've done that before. Like, dude, once I was daydreaming right next to Reiner, and I started wondering what his chest felt like, and before I knew it I realized I was touching his boob. He never lets me forget it."
Marco laughs loudly, nerves probably making him reactive. "That makes me feel much better. I'm glad Reiner seemed cool about it. Not to excuse touching you without permission," Marco says meekly, "but I don't really . . . have hipbones? So they're weird to feel."
My eyes flit down to his waist. From his ribs down to the beginning of his snake scales is pretty much a straight vertical line of body. He doesn't even have that V-shaped fold on his lower belly like a teenager of his muscular stature should possess. "You're weird to feel," I reply as my amazing comeback of the day, and spin on my heel to peer down the rocky corridor. "So, uh, what's even up here?"
Marco slithers around me and gestures for me to follow. "A nice place to bask. The sun hits it just right in the morning, so the sand heats up, and it's really comfortable. When the sand doesn't get in my scales, that is. That's annoying to pick out."
"Sand, huh? Never really tried lying on it."
I follow Marco's trail of tail around the bend, taking in the thin, uneven, sandy corridor floor, the crumbly walls of black, porous stone. I cackle suddenly and point; settled parallel to the wall, its branches and roots drooping, is the tree we dislodged! "Heyyy, there it is! It's still here!"
The tree, though flush against the wall, takes up more than half of the corridor; Marco lifts himself easily and slithers over it like stepping over a rock. "I kept it for sentimental value."
"No, I'm just too fuckin' lazy to get it out of here."
We both laugh, him waiting for me to squeeze past the tree in question. "Aww, no keepsakes for me? Hey, I mean, if you need help moving it, you know who to call." I pause and flex exaggeratedly, striking several poses that do little more than show off how lanky I am. Marco snorts. "Because these arms? Absolutely lethal. I don't know about you, but I've been doing some training these past few months-"
Marco, deadpan, turns toward me and flexes his right arm. "Fuck off," I snap, not even needing to look to know he's much more muscular than me.
He immediately starts giggling, but maintains that outlandish flex. Sixteen-year-olds shouldn't be that buff! He's no Reiner, but he's no Jean, either. "Jean, I don't know about you, but-"
I shoulder past him, marching down the path. "Fuck off!"
Marco keeps pace behind me, laughing his fool brains out. "I don't know about you, but I've been training these past few months-"
"Tch! I hate you so much. I try to have one golden moment and you just take it away, you cruel- I'll show you- AUGH-"
Marco gasps, "Jean!" as my next step lands upon nothing but air; I fall flat on my face like a sack of potatoes, knocking the wind out of myself. I groan, rolling onto my side, the ground shifting thickly beneath me: sand, not stone, thank god.
I squint up at Marco, hovering above me with his hands over his mouth. "Way to fuckin' catch me."
"I tried, I swear!" He swoops down and slides his arms around my waist, scooping me up in a horizontal hug, and rears back into a vertical position, setting me on my feet.
I do the first thing that pops into my head from that extremely touchy display. "Oho," I say, waggling my eyebrows.
"Okay, you're fine." Marco snickers, looking relieved that I'm unharmed enough to joke. "Don't be gross. I'm just glad you didn't fall on the rocks. You wouldn't be 'oho'-ing after that."
"You wouldn't be 'oho'-ing ever when I'm done with you." Not sure if that was a beating-up threat or a perverted threat, but it's a threat nonetheless. I stamp the sand below me down with my feet, looking around. I fell from the stone corridor into a wide bowl-like area, blanketed by a thick, level layer of beige sand and beset with baking sunlight from above. Smooth boulders stud the ground in various places, creating little areas of shaded sand beneath their edges. The lip of the bowl is made of that crumbly black rock; a section of it to my right is low and smooth enough to create a little shelf, over which I can see an open drop of blue sky.
This must be where Marco basks, and with how exposed it is to the sunlight, I can see the appeal should I ever feel the need to leech some warmth. It sits at the crown of the black rock formation Marco's been climbing all these months. I wobble across the sand to the shelf on my right, the lowest wall of the bowl's lip at about waist-high; resting my hands on it, I can see down the steep hill we just climbed and beyond, gazing out over the valley that holds Trost. It's like I'm standing in a bowl and looking into a much bigger, greener bowl. "What a view!"
Marco joins me at the shelf, sand rustling beneath his belly scales. The sides of his snake body rub up and push against the boulders scattered around, apparently using them to slither - I wonder if he could move across sand if the boulders weren't there. "It is, isn't it? I'm glad I got to show it to you." He takes a deep breath and sighs, looking out over the forest with a smile. "Every morning I come up here and nap for a bit, but I watch the scenery if I wake up. Sometimes, when the wind's blowing in this direction, I can smell woodsmoke, or even hear voices."
I lean down on my elbows, peeking over the edge to directly below. The hill looks so steep from this angle. Damn, do I really climb this that often? My heart rate picks up at the prospect of descending it again, even though I've done it a dozen times already. I peer into the far distance; the other side of the valley's obscured by gray morning fog, but I can see the far-off gap in the trees that signifies Trost. "All the way from over there? That's crazy."
"Yeah, it is. I can never make out any human shapes, though, only rooftops. I've seen hunting parties, just clusters of . . . horses, I guess? Over there-" He points to our left, to a spot near the eastern side of the valley where the trees thin out and form irregular rocky fields. "-and there." He points again to the right, to the west, where the river snakes through the mountains and runs through the center of the spacious dale. "Never close enough to see me - they stay far enough away so I'm not in any danger."
"Do you ever go out there?" I wonder, peering from left to right and taking in all the sights, matching this aerial view with the areas I've travelled. "Down closer to Trost, I mean. Do you ever go south of the clearing we meet up at?"
"Promise not to tell Ymir?"
"Oho!" I grin, glancing at him mischievously despite the worry this causes me. "So you go in secret, huh? Okay, I promise."
Marco's smile is equal parts genuine and a grimace. "I don't do it a lot! Sometimes I go along the mountains," he explains, sweeping his arm out to the side, following the curve of foothills making up the mountains' bases around the valley, "just to explore, get a change of scenery. Not that the scenery changes much. Trees kind of all look the same."
"No kidding. I don't get how you even stay oriented, roving around that much. Have you ever gotten caught?"
"Not that I know of- though I'm sure I would know, because I'd be dead. Once I heard voices just over a ridge and I ran - well, not ran, you know what I mean - I ran as fast as I could back north. This other time I had to scramble up a tree because three people on horseback were coming, and they passed right under me without noticing! I was . . . terrified."
Shit, this is making me scared. "Don't be doing that," I scold, screwing up my mouth. "You do not wanna be caught, dude. It's not worth it."
"I don't do it a lot, I promise," he assures. "In fact, I haven't done it since last summer."
"Yeah, well, don't do it ever again or I'll beat your ass."
"Beat my- Do I need to flex again?"
I smack him with the back of my hand, but he manages to clumsily block it with his own hand, snorting and giggling. "Why would you even want to go down there anyway?" I demand, flinging my arms up and letting them drop. "All it is is a bunch of nasty hunters and nastier dogs and a boring little town."
Marco rests his cheek in his palm, gazing at me. "You think they're nasty and boring?"
"Well . . . no. I think they're awesome, the hunters. It's why I want to be one. But to you they'd just be nasty, not to mention murder-y, and I don't want you to get hurt or something." I spin on my heel and lean back against the shelf, resting my elbows on its surface, bending a knee casually and brushing my hair out of my face with a flourish. "Why even bother? You've got everything you'll ever need up here anyway. Lots of game, all this territory all to yourself, a fantastic view, and all the peace and quiet you could want. What's to miss?"
I let my head loll onto my shoulder, staring at him with my face deadpan. "If I could be a hermit, successfully living off the land on my own, trust me, you'd never see me again. The last thing I need is to keep talking to all these people. You're living the good life, dude."
"No I'm not." Marco's voice is matter-of-fact. He's smiling very slightly.
I raise an eyebrow at him. "Besides the naga thing, I mean."
"Even without the naga thing. Would you really want to live like me all the time, Jean?"
"I mean . . . yeah. It's the life. You get your own house, your own, like, hunting grounds - shit, dude, you have, what, a good fifth of the entire valley to yourself! You don't have to worry about neighbors or people telling you what to do, or finding a job, or hunting to make money or impress anyone. You can just do anything you want."
"Anything I want except the things I want to do," Marco answers. "I don't have to worry about money or- or neighbors, no. But I'm alone."
"Is that a bad thing?"
Marco straightens up, hands splayed on the rock surface and looking away, out over the canopy toward the dark gap where Trost is. "It is. It really is." His voice is calm, like we're still having a casual conversation, but I'm getting the feeling I said something wrong anyway. "I don't have anyone to talk to here."
"Ymir visits," I point out. "I visit."
"Once a week you two visit. That leaves six days of me just being . . . alone."
"You don't like peace and quiet?"
Marco looks at me. "Have you ever gone a single day in your life without seeing or talking to one person? Even if it's just one look, or one word?"
I open my mouth to answer, then close it, then open it again. "Okay, I kind of get you."
"It's not peace and quiet when the only thing I can do when you're gone is . . . wait," Marco says.
I almost want him to stop talking, because then I don't have to contemplate the reality that . . . what? Marco's lonely in a way people don't normally have to be, and it's not something I can do anything about? It makes me want to be home, where between I and this problem there can be distance.
Maybe Marco can read the tense awkwardness in the atmosphere, because he stretches, yawning in a carefree manner that reassures me, and turns away from the valley, that little smile still on his face. "I don't even know what to do. I've been sleeping fine, and I don't feel like napping."
Relaxed, I shrug, rolling my head to my shoulder to peer down the hill again, then back to him. "We could always fuck."
Marco's arms, stretched above his head, fall gracelessly back to his sides. "You're nuts."
"Not as nuts as these nuts."
"You get really vulgar the more I talk to you, you know that?" Marco shakes his head as he starts slithering away, but by his stiffness and bowed head I can tell he's trying not to laugh.
"Hey, Marco. Feel up my hips again."
Marco flops on his stomach in the shade of a particularly large boulder, hugging a mass of sand. His snake body bunches up all around his torso, creating troughs and mounds between his coils. "Would you be mad if I said no?"
He's not paying attention to me anymore, so I wade over and plonk my ass on his lower back. He makes this little yelping grunt and pretends to try paddling away, digging into the sand. "Hey, you're heavy!" he laughs, giving up and turning his head to peer at me over his shoulder.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I demand, leaning over him to get in his face. "You calling me fat, when you're like six whole people?"
"Your butt bone is digging into my back," Marco rasps, dropping his cheek to rest in the sand in defeat. His long black hair fans over his shoulders.
See, there's a thing with me I've noticed when it comes to my friends. When a certain threshold is surpassed in terms of fondness, when some magic quantity of friendly insults is reached, all of a sudden I get really touchy. I poke. I prod. I sprawl. I drape myself on nagas, it seems. I guess I just really like touching people, in a sense that doesn't make that a creepy thing to admit.
I slide backwards off Marco's back so my butt is between him and the rock. "Move your ass," I order, drawing my legs back to push Marco to the side with my feet and hands. "This is my spot now, and you're encroaching. You've got sand in your hair, too, dude."
Marco rolls to avoid my shoving feet, and his spine follows that rotation all the way down his long snake body, exposing every inch of his cream-colored belly scales in a spiraling wave as he straightens up, reaching back to shake the sand out. "You have sand in your hair too."
My hands reach up to grab my hair before I even process what he said. "No I don't. Where?" I demand, knowing my hair never touched the ground.
Then Marco turns and showers me in a dense handful of sand, his tongue poking out between his teeth. I screech, folding like a bug onto my back and covering my face. "MARCO. You're gonna die!" I yell, flailing around and shoveling clumsy armfuls and legfuls of sand on the nearest part of him I can reach, which ends up being his snake body. Rivulets of clear sand run down his back, running like a river around his black egg-shaped scales like rain down brick mortar joints, offshoot streams cascading and bouncing off his sides. Marco gives up quickly; he lashes his tail around halfheartedly as though to get me back, then collapses on his side, laughing.
"You're very trusting," he says.
"Keep your eyes open so the sand bounces off your weird eyes." I flick a bit of sand at his face and he recoils.
"Aww, no fun."
Marco's snake body presses against a nearby rock as he slithers along it, turning to my right side so he can cross my lap and flop down upon it. His shoulders, pressed against my knees, remain stiff, as though preparing for my repulsion. "At least I didn't go for your face."
"You threw it on my head!"
"Your head's different from your face," he says innocently.
I make a face, which Marco mirrors. I make an uglier face, which Marco mirrors grossly. "Do you think Ymir has realized by now that I'm not coming back?"
"Who knows," Marco hums, shrugging. "She's bad at keeping track of time. She zones out when she knits, so she might not even notice until we go back together."
"Let's not go back. Let's just fuckin' . . . elope."
"It's like . . . running off to get married without telling anyone. Like, if your mom said you couldn't, or if your community doesn't approve or whatever-"
"Oh, that! I know what that is. My parents did that. My mother's father said that if she married my dad, he'd never speak to her again. She, uh, eloped anyway."
"Did he what?"
"Your grandpa. Did he never speak to your mom again?"
"Oh, yeah, he came over with wedding presents like the day after."
Marco and I burst into laughter at his deadpan delivery. He finally relaxes against my thighs, realizing I truly don't care where he goes, especially since I just sat on his back. I peer down at him with squinted eyes as he giggles, getting the impression that something's amiss behind his teeth. "Yo, Marco, lemme look in your mouth."
Marco's laugh face melts to one of complete bafflement, and we erupt in giggles again as we mutually realize how out of the blue this request is. "I mean-" I begin, seeking to clarify.
"Are you gonna put sand in my mouth now?"
"Yeah, actually. Well, actually, I was planning on putting my dick in your mouth."
"God, Jean!" Marco guffaws. Then he purses his lips. "Wait, are you serious when you imply that kind of stuff, or what?"
"What, the, like, sex stuff?"
"Oh shit, no! Shit. Am I makin' you uncomfortable?"
"Well, no, it's just kind of new. Is that normal? Constantly implying you want to have sex with your friends?"
I snort, and it quickly devolves into rapid chuckling. It does sound kind of nuts when you say it out loud, doesn't it? "Uh, sort of. Yeah. I mean, it's not actually serious, it's just fucking around. It's like, being comfortable enough with someone that you can say stuff like that, you know? But you don't mean any of it."
"No, honestly, but I'll get it one day. Hopefully," he mutters, grimacing. I almost ask why he's never had weird friend banter like this before, then remember that his only friend before me thus far has been Ymir, and it would be really weird if they had that kind of relationship. Before that he'd be, like, seven, which would also be weird if he had those kinds of friends.
"Well, I'll be your initiation into talking about sex with your friends. Also, let's have sex right now."
"You're a freak. Do friends actually have sex with each other, or is that reserved forrrr romantic relationships?"
"Uh . . . okay, sometimes there's this thing called 'friends with benefits', where basically you have this friend that you can have sex with. Like, you both agreed it's cool, it's not like a thing, it's just for the sensation. Or something."
"Oh, so that's us, right?"
"Yeah, that's totally us, like right now. Hey, look, you're getting it!"
Marco looks really pleased for a second, then his face twists like he realized he just got happy over being able to make sex jokes with me. I snort. "So how many friends with benefits is-"
"You can also call them 'fuckbuddies.'"
"Yeah, how many fuckbuddies is normal for one person?"
"Uh . . . one? None? Shit, man, I don't think I could ever have one. That seems like a commitment I'm not all about."
"One? Oh my god."
"Ymir has done something with pretty much every single one of her friends."
I burst into a laugh that's a little too much like a screech. "Even Reiner and Bertholdt? But wait!" I yell. "I'm her friend!"
Marco locks eyes with me and just stares impassively. I laugh a little harder, leaning away from him in denial as he breaks face too. "No!"
"Jean . . . you're next."
"Gross! Oh god, she's so old." I pause, feeling like my chest is filling with air. "Hey, wanna know something embarrassing?"
"What is it?"
"I totally had a crush on your sister last year."
"Ohhh my god, what?" Marco blares, leaning up so we're eye level; his torso rises unaided by his hands, buoyed solely by the strength of his snake body. "You did?"
"Yeah, isn't that embarrassing? It only lasted a week or two, but it was intense. I was blushing around her and everything. It was nasty."
"It would be weird if you two started dating. Or fuckbuddy-ing." He flops back down on my lap, then reaches up and rests his hand on my breastbone. "This is good, because now I don't have to share you."
"See? Exactly!." I yawn widely, turning away to be polite, then squint down at Marco. "I feel like we were on a topic, and I totally sidetracked us from it."
"I think you wanted to put your dick in my mouth."
"OH, shit, you're right! So, Marco," I ask dramatically, "can I look at your mouth? I'm really curious about it. Promise no sand or dicks will be involved."
Marco laughs self-consciously, tilting his head back and looking skyward. Is it just me, or is his face a little darker than usual? Is that . . . blushing? His face didn't get red, it just got a little more richly brown. "Sure you can. What do you need me to do?"
"Just open wide and let your pal Jean over here have a look," I command, delighted that he eventually said yes, though that delight quickly turns to a startled stare as Marco's mouth opens . . . and boy, does it open. The corners of his mouth retreat toward his cheekbones as his lower jaw inches open toward his throat. It doesn't look too weird, but it's just enough to make you stare and just know something is so, so off.
Marco appears to realize his mistake; he claps his hands over his mouth and stares up at me with wide eyes. "Opn uh muf!"
He lifts his hands off just enough to move his lips. "O-Open your mouth! Please."
"I meant that I want to see inside your mouth for more than two seconds," I drawl, but comply, stretching my mouth open for a second; the urge to yawn swells in the back of my throat. "There. Happy?"
Only when Marco slowly removes his hands to reveal his normally-opened mouth do I realize what he was doing; gauging the normal extent a mouth can open using mine. "Dude," I say, absentmindedly holding his chin with one hand and dropping the other in his long hair. "If you don't stop yourself, does your mouth just keep on opening?"
Marco tries to respond without closing his mouth, then his eyes grow half-lidded and he huffs in exasperation upon realizing he can't do that. "Answer when I'm done," I snort, hunching over to stare down at him. Okay, it just looks like a regular mouth from this angle. Just teeth and his tongue disappearing into the back of his throat, as a usual mouth. Mouths are gross, honestly. Everything is so shiny and moist, and I hate spit. Thomas used to chase me around the house when we were little, and once he caught me and sat on me, and he laughed so hard that he drooled on my face. "Your teeth are super white, dude."
"I feel like a dentist," I giggle, leaning to the side to look at the roof of his mouth. Okay . . . wait. That's not normal. The roof of a normal person's mouth is hard and smooth, right? Apart from those little folds near your front teeth. The roof of Marco's mouth is bumpy; two lumps of soft-looking flesh sit behind his canine teeth, vaguely teardrop-shaped with the thin ends pointing toward the back. Closer to his throat in the middle of the roof of his mouth is a shallow pit, though at its purpose I could never guess. Tongue looks normal, at least.
"What are those?" I ask curiously. "The, like, lumps behind your teeth." I almost die when Marco replies by moving them; the two lumps suddenly swing forward toward his teeth, becoming fleshy cones pointed downward; from their tips protrude a pair of clear fangs, about an inch in length and frighteningly sharp. "DUDE."
Marco closes his mouth enough to swallow and smile bashfully, his fangs disappearing to their rightful places. "Too weird?"
"No, that was so cool! Dude, bite my arm."
"I wanna see if it'll hurt!"
"Trust me, it'll hurt!" Marco smiles and wiggles his fangs out again, alternating like someone wiggling their eyebrows. "Only you would ask someone with fangs to bite them. You have no sense of self-preservation."
"Fuck off. Lift your tongue, dude."
Marco rolls his eyes but obeys. Underneath is just as wet, and weird, as the roof of his mouth - directly beneath his tongue is this . . . tube, of flesh sticking out, and directly beneath that are two dark little tendrils, joined at the base and splayed away from each other. I gape in surprise for what feels like the millionth time as a slit at the front of the tube on the bottom of Marco's mouth suddenly opens into a round hole, holds for a few seconds, then closes again. "Excuse me, what the fuck was that."
Marco closes his mouth to say, "I know you were gonna say that. That's called a glottis - it's basically a snake windpipe. It's how I breathe."
"What was the other thing below it?"
In response, Marco's dark snake tongue comes flopping out like a pasta noodle. I snort as he wiggles it up and down, touching his nose with it, then his chin. "I should've known! So what do I smell like today?"
"Sweat and mustiness."
"Get the fuck out." I sniff my shirt just to make sure he's joking. "You're the one who spent three months cooped up in a cave; you must smell like a damn crypt."
"In case you haven't noticed, my cave is nice and aerated, thank you," Marco says.
"Yeah, too aerated. It's wayyy too cold in there at night. How did you even last the winter?"
"Oh, I just slept and drank," Marco says nonchalantly. "The water in my jars froze over a few times, so that wasn't very fun to deal with, but clearly I am still here, so I managed to unfreeze the water. Enough about my winter; mine was boring. I've been rude, I never asked about your winter! How was it?"
I shrug. "Eh, it was . . ." I frown. "Boring."
Marco reaches up to tap my chin, frowning as well. "That doesn't look like the face of someone who had a boring winter."
The schoolhouse, to say the least, has seen better days. It hunches between the trees like a turtle trying not to be noticed when hounds are near. Its boards are soggy and splintered; its roof sags against the ribs of its beams. What must have been red paint years ago cracks and flakes off its sides like shed scales. Rows of desks too narrow to actually be useful crowd the inside, somehow able to fit every single kid in the whole village. Six thin, cracked windows on each side stave off the frigid air. To its left are long wooden tables for us to eat lunch on when it's sunny out, and the front steps sink on the left and threaten to give way with every deluge of stampeding footsteps that strikes it, but it's held strong for years now and doesn't seem to be quitting anytime soon.
I detest the sight of it. I hate it every year, especially the first day. Mercifully, class doesn't actually start until late in the morning so that we can catch most of the day's heat, so at least it's not like Ymir's hellish lessons. Doesn't stop me from dragging my feet every step of the way there. I follow the stream of babbling teenagers down the hill toward the isolated schoolhouse, mentally cursing up a storm, as usual, at how obnoxiously far away this building has to be. Is there even a point? Does this build character?
As we draw near the schoolhouse I sidle up to the tables outside, praying they're unoccupied. They tend to fill up fast with groups of friends who don't want to stand, a scenario less than optional for a Jean Kirschtein who likes sitting with at least five persons' worth of space between he and anyone else. Holy shit, would you look at that! There's a whole side closest to the woods, yet unoccupied; I walk up and claim it before anyone can get it before me, surprised at my good fortune. Now I can brood in silence, the picture of mystery and . . .
"Hey, Jean! Can I sit here?"
I look up and see Connie standing beside me, smiling cheerily. They seem to be alone. At first displeased, the flattery of being asked - they wouldn't ask to sit next to me unless they liked me, right? - spurs me to say, "Sure!"
Connie climbs onto the bench next to me, hunched over the table. "It's so cold, holy crap."
"Yeah, same. My fingers are falling off. Where's, uh, everyone else?" Connie looks at me. "Like Sasha and Armin and them?"
"They were, like, over there somewhere," Connie says nonchalantly, gesturing vaguely toward the schoolhouse.
"Connie. Did you lose them?"
Connie frowns to hide a smile, looking down at the table. "Maybe."
I laugh, loud and nasally and god tone it down. "Aww, it's okay. You have better company now."
"Better company like who, Jean?" a voice crows from directly behind me, just before a pair of crossed arms lean directly on my head. I look up and see Sasha's brown eyes blinking down at me. "Not you, you grump!"
"Yeah, me!" I snap back, shaking her off my head, and my eyes go wide as a deer about to be run down by a carriage as I see Armin and Mikasa standing with her, Armin looking expectant and Mikasa bored. Or maybe she's just dead-eyed because she's cold. I mean, same. I mean, MIKASA.
They all sit down. I'm suppressing a heart attack. I haven't seen Mikasa in forever, and never so close. Her scarf is up to her red nose, and her bangs fall over her eyes. She stares at me politely, then down at the wood of the table like she wants it to tell her everything will be okay. My heart's hammering at a stupid rate as I tear my gaze away from her and stare at Armin instead, planning to use him to calm down.
My heart's still hammering. Curious.
I squint at Sasha next, who's engaging in an animated conversation with someone behind us, my pulse thrumming through my ears, sounding like a waterfall. I stare at Connie then, watching them pick splinters off the worn table's surface. Still my heart gallops like a racehorse.
All of them are making my heart race the same way. Either I spontaneously developed crushes on all of them, or . . .
"You never crushed on Mikasa at all?"
"No, I- Well . . ." I sigh, leaning my head back. I bite my lip as I consider how to answer, embarrassed for some reason at admitting this. "I guess . . . Mikasa sort of was a cool person I used to hang out with," I say slowly. I swallow, chewing harder on my lip. "I guess I just missed that."
Marco watches me curiously. I can see gears turning behind his dark eyes, questions burning, but he remains silent. Is he trying not to ask any of his endless questions out of deference for a subject that might be sensitive to me, or letting me continue? Either way, I appreciate it.
"I dunno, man," I sigh. "This is really stupid."
"It's not stupid."
"Yeah, it is. I think I was, like . . . really friends with them all, and then I wasn't, and I fixated on Mikasa and thought it was a crush. It's like every time I'm around one of them, I get afraid of fucking up. I get too self-aware. I thought that was how crushes worked. Then, honestly, I crushed on Ymir! That was legitimate. Then I saw Mikasa again and I was like . . . oh. This isn't what I thought it was. I just wanna be around her, and the others too."
Marco clears his throat, then says, "If I can ask . . . why did you stop being friends with them?"
I rock my foot to and fro on my heel, trying to think of an answer. "I don't even know, to be honest with you. We were this little gang of kids running around together until we were, like, twelve, and then . . . I think it was me. I turned into a dick all of a sudden because I thought it was funny. They cut their losses, and time went by, and suddenly I was a fifteen-year-old dick with no friends . . . and now here I am."
A moment passes by where we both consider what I said. "You know," Marco says after it, "Ymir told me teenagers go through this phase where they just turn mean for no reason, then when they're around fifteen they realize they were being immature and cringe whenever they think about that point in their lives. So . . . I don't think you're alone in that."
"Heh." I smile a bit. "Thanks. But I think I was especially bad. There wasn't a big falling-out or anything, I just . . . was mean. I don't blame them for not wanting to be around me anymore. 'Specially . . . 'specially Eren. I somehow shifted all the blame for it on him. Maybe 'cause everyone else kind of gravitated around him? I don't know. I put a big old target on him and I held onto it. Even now I'm cringing at admitting I might be wrong about Eren. That I'm the instigator, and he's just reacting." I grimace, unable to look at Marco and staring at the sand instead. It's like pulling teeth, admitting these things about me. "I'm just mean."
"You're not mean now," Marco points out. His expression quickly turns blank, and he holds his hands up in front of his face. "Okay, wait."
I guffaw, shaking my head. "Now we both know that ain't true."
"Lemme finish! I mean it, Jean. I think you're really sweet sometimes. Sure, you were, uh, a dick a few months ago. Or a month ago. Maybe even this morning! But now," he continues, smiling as I chuckle at his antics, "now, I believe you've changed. I really love being around you! Can't be it so that if you show your old friends that you're nice now, that they'll want to be around you again? Can't you make up?"
My smile gets a little wider. I shrug. "I think we already have."
When Connie and the rest sit with me during the first class, I figure they're just being nice. When they stick with me all day, and then the next day, and the next . . . funnily enough, it makes me anxious. One day they're going to sit in a spot where there's no room for me, and I'll have to be alone again.
That day doesn't come, and it gets easier to be around them. I talk more; I listen more. I tell jokes. I learn about what's going on in their lives. Sasha's got an ear infection. Armin's grandpa took him to catch salamanders at the river yesterday, and they saw one that was bright orange ("If you see something really pretty, it's usually going to hurt you.") but it got away from them before they could get it. Connie's mom promised them they might get a filly of their own this year's foaling season if they do really well in school. Mikasa doesn't talk much, and half the time she's sitting with Eren instead, but she did admit they're both late every morning because he oversleeps, and she's too shy to wake him up, prompting us all to encourage her to kick his ass.
I tell them about what little is going on with me, too. The most interesting thing is Ymir, by far; they ask me what she's like, what she does, where she's from, what she's teaching me. All of these, of course, I answer with half-truths and vague shrugs. Can't exactly go blabbing about Marco. Though Eren works with her, the others still feel a little intimidated by Ymir and don't know how to initiate conversation.
Sasha apparently still thirsts over her, to my endless amusement, because same, right?
Otherwise, what do I have to talk about? The bakery, and Reiner's antics, I guess. Mostly I listen. It's actually really nice, listening. You can't jump in too much. You can't make it about you. I wouldn't like it if someone did that to me, so I won't do it to them. Not when I'm grateful they're talking to me at all.
Boy, I sure am grateful the teacher's going slow. In the first few weeks they always go slow for the numbskulls like me who forgot everything over the past year. Some things stick with you, like poisonous plants (BOYYY am I never going to slack off when it comes to murderous plants), and the positioning of the sun; others, like fuck I don't know the specific functions of feather shafts will inevitably escape me because how exposed am I to that shit? Our teacher's just going over boring shit we already know, which leaves lots of room for daydreaming and fucking around in the back where I tend to sit. Connie keeps picking splinters off the old desk and poking people with it, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna be their next victim.
The teacher tells us it's time for us to eat, an order greeted with lots of rustling bags and murmuring that breaks out like water from a dam. I pull out mine - PREMIUM bread baked just this morning, plus an extra loaf to share because I'm just such a nice guy - and munch, blinking slowly and sleepily. Education just ain't worth it sometimes. Sometimes I lie in bed and seriously consider playing hooky, or begging to be homeschooled, or leaving to live in the wilderness with Marco. He sleeps until noon. Sounds like my kind of lifestyle.
Sasha plunks her head down on the desk, cheek smushed against the wood. We lock eyes, and nod in understanding and mutual suffering. Sasha is no more built to last than I am. I rip my extra loaf in half and extend it toward her; she sets upon it like a hunting dog, spontaneously springing to life. "Hey, Sash, can you check and make sure you didn't get my fingers with that too?"
She says something with a fist-sized chunk of bread in her mouth. "Don't choke. We're too far into this to die like that."
Connie reaches over, intending to jam a six-inch splinter into her arm right as she swallows; I hastily slap my palm down on their wrist. "Connie, that's murder."
"It's too early for this right now."
"Jean just saved my life," Sasha bellows once her mouth is empty. A solid three rows look back at us briefly, and my face prickles bright pink.
"Sasha, shut up. I mean that lovingly," I add quickly. "You just made the entire room look at me."
"Looks like a fight's brewing over here," Armin says, in a tone of voice that implies he doesn't anticipate a fight and just wants to talk to us, turning around from where he sits in the row ahead of us. It's a wonder he's not sitting in the front.
"Jean and Sash about to battle to the death."
"My money's on Jean. He doesn't have shit to lose," Armin quips.
"I have plenty to lose!"
"Yeah, like face length." Sasha and Connie high-five each other, then shrink back before my glare.
"Are we really still on the horse jokes?" I ask. "When are we gonna stop living in the past?"
"You still call me 'Potato Girl'," Sasha points out.
"Yeah but that's . . . funny. Armin, there's a spare chair here if you want to sit with us so badly, instead of being a dick about it."
Armin leans on the back of his chair, blue eyes sparkling. "I'd rather be a dick."
I roll my eyes, but perk up as I hear Ymir's name from somewhere in the classroom, a conversation I could potentially jump in on. Who could gossip about Ymir better than I? People are grouped in little clusters with their friends, sitting on desks and each other's laps, laughing and talking.
I go to resume my own conversation with my friends when I hear it again, and pinpoint the source: four boys lounging halfway across the room. One of them says something with a toothy grin, and the rest burst into laughter. Another glances at me, nudges the others and points, and they laugh harder.
Okay, that's not the most subtle way to say you're talking shit. I fold my arms on the desk and look away, straining my ears to listen. I only catch snatches of words, but they're talking about Ymir for sure, and I'm not sure I like their tone of voice.
I blanch when a cluster of words comes together and realize they're joking about certain parts of Ymir's anatomy. My heart starts to pound as another group of kids between us stops talking to eat, letting me hear the boys more.
"How is she even allowed to have that? It's-"
"Yeah, I bet someone else could do way better at her fuckin' job. Her shit's bad anyway, why are we supposed to keep going to her?"
"She shouldn't even be able to live where she does. Have you been in there- it's like a rat's nest."
I glance around; no one else is paying any attention to them. Not the teacher, eating his own food at the front desk. Not the kids around them, absorbed in their own conversations. Not my friends beside me, joking and laughing like nothing's amiss.
"Every time I see her I'm like . . ." The kid sneers and shakes like someone poured ice down his shirt.
"Do you ever see someone's face and wanna die? She looks disgusting."
One of my best friends is being degraded for very obvious reasons, and no one sees anything wrong. But I can summon no anger at anyone but those speaking. Up until very recently, too recently, it was a conversation I was also part of.
Someone does notice, on my second glance around. Eren sits with Mikasa across the room, his teal eyes locked on the desk below him and mouth curled in a grimace. Mikasa's saying something in a low voice, and Eren shoots a murderous look at the group of boys.
"She should be living where everyone else that's her kind live," says one, a kid named Nac Tius, "in the gutter where they belong. One time my ma and I, we were walking to the fields and one tried to come and beg, and she broke its arm."
"I heard the MP killed some of them a few nights ago," another pipes up.
"Good. Less to bother us."
"Any way to direct them toward Ymir? I mean, they take her away like once a week."
"How does she even get out of that?"
"Probably lets them fuck her. Does a little . . ." He gestures, and the others burst into their loudest laughter yet.
Eren whirls, a truly scary expression on his face, ignoring Mikasa's sudden grip on his arm. He opens his mouth.
"What's it to you?"
It's loud enough that the fact that it's a reply to their vulgarity is obvious, drawing the surprised attention of the entire room, and specifically that of Nac, to look. At me.
My face burns red-hot — I pray my flush isn't too obvious. The schoolhouse is utterly silent. "Well?" I prompt, staring straight at Nac and refusing to look at my classmates, my friends who are looking between us and realizing something's going on, and especially not Eren.
"Well, nothing," Nac says after a pause, with an incredulous shake of his head.
"Then why's it matter to you?"
"It doesn't. Why, does it matter to you?"
Please, god, don't let me stutter. "Uh, yeah. Obviously. You're talking shit about someone you've never met. You're saying she took her job from someone. Why are you so obsessed with Ymir?"
I have no idea where the words are coming from, nor why-
"Okay, relax, Jean," Nac chuckles snidely, utterly secure. "I'm not stalking that diseased bitch to get my dick wet like you."
-just kidding, yes I do! "Shut the fuck up, man," I snap. "You're talking shit for no reason about someone you don't even know. What's the point?"
There's no breakthrough that dawns within them. This isn't a fairy tale. Nac just scoffs, turns around, and returns his attention to his friends. I can hear them imitating what I said in drawling voices between fits of laughter. The room slowly starts talking and laughing again, the atmosphere uneasy. I sit back in my chair, glaring at the backs of their stupid heads.
My friends are silent around me, glancing wide-eyed at each other with mouths pressed shut. All my pent-up awkwardness from the spat bleeds into the rest of my body in the form of dread and regret. "What?" I demand, needing an explanation for why they're looking at me like that. They're not going to ditch me for this, are they?
Connie blows out a breath. "Wow."
"What?" I repeat.
"Nothing! Just, man, you called him the fuck out."
"Well, yeah!" I burst out, gesturing wildly. "What the fuck was that? He's talking shit about my friend! I'll fuckin' knock his head in."
Armin, Sasha, and Connie all giggle together. "That was so tense," Armin breathes.
"Respect," Connie says.
"I could never have done that in front of everyone," Sasha pipes up.
Shocked, and a little grateful, I shrug forcefully. "Way to back me up, guys."
"I couldn't hear what he was saying!"
"Oh, likely story."
My eyes bore into the back of Nac's head, almost wishing for him to turn around and look at me. The teacher announces the end of lunch, and we shut up and straighten out to resume class.
But not before Eren gathers his stuff, crosses the room, and sits down at our table.
"Wow," Marco says.
"So Eren's your friend again?" he asks. "Did you talk about it with him?"
"Well . . . no," I admit. "I haven't, like, sat him down and said, 'Hey let's talk about our dynamic' — not too sure I'd want to, anyway — but he have spoken a few times. In conversations with other people, mostly, one of us would contribute, and we'd respond. It's weird, but it's easier that way."
"I'm happy for you," Marco says.
"Thanks. I . . ." I wiggle my shoulders. "I feel way better about it than when I was a dick about it."
"I never understand it when people say those kinds of things," Marco says quietly. "Ymir tells me about it all the time. I guess I'm grateful I don't have to deal with it. But I don't get why?"
"You know what," I huff, looking up at the sky, "I don't get it anymore either."
I wince, trying to figure out how to phrase this. "I mean . . . like . . . that's not an opinion that's exactly . . . rare?"
"You mean you think like that?"
"I mean it's not uncommon," I dodge. "Well, that was my oversharing of the day. What about you? Which friend did you spontaneously make up with over the winter?"
"Oh, stop," Marco scoffs. "I'm asking because I'm interested in what's going on with you. You're not oversharing. What's Eren like?"
"Eren is Eren," I dismiss. "All he does is oversleep, then get really mad at the squirrels running along the roof the whole lesson because the scratching doesn't let him focus. At least, that's my impression." I bite my lip. "I'm supposed to be going to Connie's ranch tomorrow, actually, so I'll probably see him there. I'll tell you how that goes."
"I hope it goes well," Marco says warmly. "Do you want me to go with you, for moral support?"
"Sure. You can be my date."
"Cool, I'll be there. I just need a time and place."
"Tomorrow at noon, in my ass. Be there or else."
"You got it." Marco can take no more, and he bursts into giggles, covering his face. "In your ass," he mumbles into his hands.
"What are you, going through your dick jokes phase?" I ask.
"It's about time." I squint up at the sky, then back down at Marco. "Not that I wanna make Ymir happy, but do you think it's time we headed back?"
Marco all but erupts from my lap, before I can grab him and drag him back, which I do try to do. "I wanna make Ymir happy!"
"'Course you do, nerd."
"What's a nerd?"
"Here we go again."
We tackle miserably-cold winters with a different sort of warmth. No one tends to eat dinner, or even sleep, in their own house in winter; everyone constantly visits their neighbors, sharing food and stories and body heat, until the wee hours of the dawn. We even celebrate the winter solstice by focusing on friends and family, a way to stave off the creeping freeze outside our walls.
A lot of Trost kids are born at the end of summer.
This is sweet and all, but there comes a certain point when you just want to sleep in your own bed, you know? Thus defined is my discomfort as I fidget on the Carolina's couch, ankles tucked under me and resting my head in my hand. We were supposed to leave hours ago. My parents chat with the Carolinas in some other room, laughing and eating. My eyes drift shut as I watch powdery snowflakes slowly stack themselves against the windowpane outside, barely more than tiny gray blurs against the black night. I wonder if anyone would be mad if I stretched out and got a head start on sleep.
I would, if I was alone. Mina's sitting by me, and keeps trying to talk to me. About work and shit. I'd love to fill the silence with mundane conversations we won't remember in a day, but actually, I wouldn't. Can't she see I'm tired?
"Work's good," I mumble.
"How's school? I don't feel like I'm learning much."
"I see you sit with Armin and them, right?"
Any group with Armin in it tends to be "Armin and them," and not something like "Connie and them." It's kind of interesting how that works. "Yup."
Mina chuckles. "Tired?"
"God, yeah. Do you think they'd get mad if I fell asleep on the couch?"
Mina eyes me up and down, and gets this bizarro smile that kind of seems too wide. "Sure! Go ahead."
On second thought . . . "What's new with you?"
Mina shrugs, holding a knee against her chest. "Nah, nothing. You hear what they're talking about in there?"
I strain to listen to our parents. "Nope. I don't particularly care, either."
"Think it might be about the bulwark."
"Yeah, it is. Just heard my mom say she'd do it. Would you?"
"Would I what?"
"Help work on the wall?"
"Uh, that means work, so no. Not interested."
Mina scoffs. "Relatable," she replies. "They laid down the foundations around the south road, did you see it?"
I took a run with Ymir a few mornings ago — by which I mean Ymir ran back and forth and tried to bully me into going faster than a walk, but as I am past the point of intimidation, that didn't happen — and we took turns flinging gravel at each other from the wall's trench foundation. "Yeah, I saw it. It's gonna be huge, no?"
"Apparently. They just posted a new outline of what it'll look like when it's finished, gates and all."
I inspect my nails for a strip of white to bite. "Anyone actually say what we're building a wall for?"
"Beats me. Might be foreigners coming on too strong lately, so we should be prepared. That's what I heard."
"You remember the one who was executed last year? And how she kept screaming that we're all living in a fantasy, and she could set us free?"
"Yeah, that was wild."
Mina hugs her knees, shaking her head. "People say the weirdest things."
"I mean, she was about to die."
"True. It's just none of them have ever been that crazy. There's gonna be another one pretty soon, I heard. The MP just took a guy last night."
I start biting the side of my thumbnail, eyes drifting shut. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. Some guy who lives by himself, east of here? He had this huge house, right at the edge of the woods- people kept saying they saw flashing lights inside, and, like, strange animals gathering there."
"Mmm." And then I freeze, teeth bared against my finger. "Wait, Mina, where?"
Mina shrugs, looking surprised at my loud question. "You know the tailor? I think he lived a little east of there. A little southeast. Like at-"
"At the end of the cul-de-sac?" I demand, ice starting to crawl up my spine.
"Mina, that is Armin's grandpa," I breathe, staring wide-eyed at her like she can fix this.
"Oh," is all she says. "Oh."
"No, no, this has to be some mistake," I stammer. "They must've taken someone else. They must've been mistaken or- or something. Armin's grandpa is the best. He wouldn't hurt anyone."
"I don't know, Jean. They got him on witchcraft."
"Witchcraft? Seriously? What the fuck?" My heart races, jittery nerves fighting my fatigue in an uncomfortable skirmish in my skin. The MP must have taken him in for something different. "No. That is fucking ridiculous. I know that guy and he is- is literally the least dangerous person in the world."
"I don't think they would've gotten him if he wasn't doing something wrong," Mina says doubtfully. She's too calm, too forgiving about this. Isn't she outraged? Doesn't she know Armin?
"He did nothing wrong," I insist. I think of his paintings, his cooking. His age. "Nothing. What could he have possibly done?"
"I don't know what they get them for," Mina murmurs. "Only that they usually get charged . . . except, you know, except Ymir. Ymir never does. You ever notice that?"
"Yes, because Ymir never does anything wrong either," I snap, really worked up now. "They- They interrogate her, and then they let her go because she doesn't do anything wrong." It feels like my heart restarts; relief blooms. "Okay, that- that's probably what's going to happen here. They'll just ask him some questions, and they'll let him go. H-He's not doing witchcraft, he just feeds cats. Someone made up the lights thing. That's all."
I list it all like it's Mina I need to convince. But if only I could repeat it all for the masses. Mina scratches her knee and stares at me like I just said I eat dogs for a hobby. "I don't know," she says vaguely. She did not absorb a word I said.
I stand. "I'm gonna go get my parents," I hear myself say, as though from a distance. "It's late. See ya."
Mina catches my wrist as I pass by; I rip it out of her grip on reflex. "Don't worry about it too much, Jean," she advises, appearing unfazed. "It's not your business. You don't wanna get wrapped up in it too, do you?"
I wish I'd ripped my wrist out of her grip that much harder. "You don't know anything," I growl, and turn away. "You don't know anything at all."
I pull myself out of recollection with hard blinks and a shake of my heavy head, my heart lightening as I remember where I am. Beyond the stares and whispers of people spreading the latest reports of the arrest like a disease, in a world bordering on fantasy. Marco flanks me, similarly quiet, content to just walk. Hehe, walk. That conversation, just weeks ago, won't leave me be. And juxtaposed against it, someone like Marco almost doesn't feel real.
He looks up at my glance and smiles at me. A half-smile, one he got from copying me. No, Marco feels very real.
Ymir spreads her arms and stares as we approach. "Did someone fucking die?" she demands. "Where were you?"
"I was with Marco! I just didn't come back." I sit heavily beside her, unafraid; Marco collapses at my thigh and blinks slowly into nowhere. "Oh, now you want to nap?"
"Fuck - off," he says slowly, like he decided on what words to use only in the last second.
"Did I not ask you to come back here and then go back up?" Ymir prattles on. "What, has the student begun to usurp the teacher?"
"Can a little rebellion liven things up a little?" Marco wonders.
"Exactly right, Marco," I say as Ymir simultaneously snarls, "No. I'm god out here, fellas."
"So what does god have in mind for us to do?"
What she has in mind, it seems, is sitting there and trying to think about what to do, because she's too lazy to string her bow and too insistent on making this a learning experience to let us just hang. So we sit there in limbo, doing nothing and groaning at each other to get up. For like twenty solid minutes.
The tip of Marco's tail brushes against my ankle in the middle of me wondering if squirrels can be albino. "They can."
"Touch me again, and your life is forfeit," I declare.
Marco's chin plunks down into his arms, but his tail brushes me again. I slap my hands down and whip my head around to face him. "What did I just say."
"Nothing." His tail pokes me.
"You're playing with fire."
"You're playing with this dick."
"Marco." His tail prods me yet again, the sharp end stinging a little. "All right, that's it."
"What's it?" Marco asks at my change of tone. The next word is stolen; his breath whooshes out of him as I drop off the log and barrel into him shoulder-first, braced like I'm plowing through a locked door. He lands hard on his back and recovers, hands scrabbling at mine. "Fucker!"
"Guys," Ymir deadpans, sidling away an inch to avoid Marco's flailing snake body.
"HUMANS VERSUS NAGAS!" I shriek, then yelp as Marco rolls atop me. "Ymir, help!"
Marco cackles, and I use the distraction to roll back on top of him. We scuffle in the dirt, all knocked elbows and chests bumping and no balance; I'd enjoy the romp if Marco wasn't so damn strong. His hand latches onto my wrist and pins it across my stomach; there's no way I'm getting this limb back. "What the fuck do you eat?" I screech. "Metal?"
"Sometimes!" Marco shouts back, singsongy with stoppered laughter. His coils converge atop and around me, pressing against the curves of my body - and not even in a sexy way! - and locking me in place. If those things pin me, it's over. I've seen Marco take Ymir down with ease; I'm going down even easier, unless-
"Ymir, a little help!" I beseech again, struggling in vain to maintain a headlock on Marco as his coils snake around my waist.
"I'm tapping out, sorry," she drawls.
"Useless!" There's prison on every side, sheer muscle now trying to squeeze my limbs together. My flailing is just getting me caught tighter. "Fucking Bodts!"
Marco, not even puffing, rolls over me again; his snake body is netted around me until there's practically no gaps but the one exposing my head and my feet. I wriggle, but I can barely move my spine back and forth. I plunk my head down on his scales, gasping. "Okay! I yield. I'm done."
"What did you honestly expect to happen?" Marco wonders, leaning his cheek in his hand and grinning at me. My pinned arm, hand exposed near his shoulder, reaches for his hair and I tug it. "Ow!"
"I expected help!" I screech. "We could've taken him together if someone wasn't so damn lazy!"
"You've got me all figured out," Ymir sighs.
I mash my forehead against Marco's body, and yelp as his muscles go slack all at once. The prison becomes something of a loopy bed; Marco's surprisingly soft and mushy snake body, when slack, makes for a great pillow. I settle my hands on the loop lying over my chest, picking at the fist-sized scales before me. "Marco," I declare, "you're like a fuckin' dragon or something."
Both Ymir and Marco scoff like I said something outlandish. "I'm nowhere near as big as a dragon is."
I chuckle. "You say that like you've seen one."
Ymir and Marco glance at each other, lips pursed. "Do not the fuck tell me that you have seen a dragon," I deadpan.
Marco shoots me a wide-eyed, almost guilty look. Ymir just starts laughing. "Her name was Rovia, and she was awesome."
"I barely remember her, but I concur," Marco chirps.
I sit bolt upright. "You MET a DRAGON?" Every bird in the forest must have taken flight from my shout. "How the fuck do you just meet a dragon? Wait- since when do dragons have names? They can't talk, right?"
"Oh, yes they can," Ymir singsongs. "Thick-ass accents, though. I'm guessing all you know about dragons is some slay-'em-all bullshit Trost fed you?"
"Um, yes," I retort, instantly rankling — I may or many not be thinking of a serpentine beast dragging hapless victims into the brush to be devoured — "and I'm not sure how else I'm supposed to know anything, considering dragons are, like, not a thing around here. Like- what was it like? What did she look like?"
Ymir casts her flattened hand to the tree canopy. "About . . . thirty feet tall at the shoulder-"
My jaw drops. "That's impossible!"
"-with these dark, muddy brown scales that drink in light. Apparently the males are all flashy and patterned, but the females are just dark brown. Twice the males' size, though. Rovia said she had a brother, Kleodes, who was gold with purple patterns."
"That's way too big!" I protest, still stuck on the size thing.
"What was she there for again?" Marco pipes up. "Was it a job?"
"She got hired for transport, I thiiink," Ymir muses. "By some mining company? I can't remember the name. She was lounging outside of town all day, and all the kids ran out to the meadow to climb all over her. She showed us these coins they payed her with, you remember that? The silver ones?"
"She was big and she was RICH?" I screech.
Marco claps his hands together and points at his sister. "Now I do! You tried to take one home! She threatened to eat me if you didn't bring it back!"
"I started fucking crying!" Ymir cackles. "There's no way she would've. I was just too young to know she was bluffing. You remember you fell asleep on her tail? In the middle of that big fin?"
"I don't remember that at all."
"Hold up. You can hire dragons?" I cut in, still struggling to reconcile paying a winged lizard taller than a barn.
Marco shrugs, at a loss for that part, so Ymir turns to me. "Dragons live on this isle in the south, adjacent to another big, populated island. They keep to themselves, but sometimes they enjoy being hired for transportation and shit, or for construction labor or something."
"How do you hire one?" I demand. "Is it the same thing as, like, the barter system? And why would a big lizard need money anyway?"
"Well, sometimes they need teams of smaller races to do some building for them, too, so it makes sense to have a treasury. I forgot why else they'd need it." Ymir scratches her chin, nudges a coil of Marco's with her foot. "You remember Rovia's ferals?"
"Races? Races plural?" I try to cut in.
"The . . ." Marco trails off, head tilted and staring into space like he's on the cusp of remembering. "The blue ones, right? The little blue dragons?"
"Her babies?" I supply dumbly. Clearly nothing I say can slow them down.
"No, stupid. Her ferals. They're like her pets . . . or her slaves." Ymir's heels stamp into the dirt. "So, there's the big guys like Rovia- those are called civil dragons. Then there's this separate breed called ferals. They're little blue, very serpentine wyverns, like, and they don't get very big. Maybe the size of a horse, at the biggest, but most are smaller. Civil dragons keep them in tamed packs; they hunt for the civil and keep them clean like cleaner fish on sharks. They're not too smart, either. Like dogs."
"I saw a dragon once," I mention thoughtfully, suddenly remembering. The incident is so steeped in fog that I can barely recall the image of those wings floating up in the distant blue sky. "It was so high I could barely see it. The whole village flipped. But all it did was fly over."
"What did its wings look like?" Marco asks excitedly. "Were they broad or narrow?"
"Uh, l-lengthwise. Lengthwise. Were they all narrow and sharp like falcon wings, or broad like, like sparrow wings?"
I puff my cheeks up, trying to focus on the foggy image. "No idea. I can't remember. What's the difference?"
Marco shifts from one elbow to the other, grinning at Ymir. "If they were broad, you just saw a civil. But if they were narrow, you saw Saphruikan."
I blink. "Suh-froo-kin?"
"Saphruikan," Marco says quickly, "is a- wait. Do you know the story of Saphruikan?"
"I do not."
"COPPERSFIELD!" Ymir suddenly bellows. "That was the name of the company! I knew I remembered it!"
"I wouldn't know!" Marco says.
"It's not a who. It's not a person- well, I mean, I think it was named after a person," Ymir says thoughtfully. "It's a . . . a name for an organization. A brand. Work gets way bigger when it's not in one tiny town."
The more she talks, the more the subject slips from my understanding. "A brand . . . like a symbol?"
"Like a logo, yeah."
"Not sure what the fuck a logo is," I say impatiently. "Who's Saphruikan?"
"She's-" Ymir and Marco say at the same time, and they both burst out laughing. "You go," Marco concedes. "You tell such good stories, and I can't remember the whole thing." He's so excited I can feel his whole body flexing, above and below me. I pat his scales and smile.
Ymir rocks back and forth on her heels, rubbing her hands. "Okay, okay. Let me set this up. First, there's something you need to know about feral dragons. And that thing is that no one knows how long they live . . . because once they get to a certain age, civil dragons ritualistically kill them."
"Because the longer a feral dragon lives, the bigger it gets. And the bigger it gets, the more intelligent it gets," Ymir intones. "When they reach about the size of a horse, they get uppity. Dangerous. They start lashing out at everything. Once it reaches that point, it's the duty of the civil dragon that owns it to kill it. They register every feral dragon like . . . like a pedigree, and make sure none of them escape so they can't grow too big."
"Some civility," I mutter to Marco. He giggles.
Ymir clears her throat. "So, okay. They do all this. And one day, this civil dragon named Ingkrad — highly respected dude, big scholar dude — starts to wonder: What happens if I let a feral grow past that point? So he decided to figure it out for himself. He took his favorite feral and he locked her up in an abandoned tower, chaining her by the neck to the wall where no one would find them. And he just left her there. He brought her food, monitored how big she got. She howled all night and scratched the walls to hell trying to get out, but he chained her more the bigger she got. She reached the fucked-up point, then got past it. Soon she was bigger than an elephant-"
"What's an elephant?"
"She got bigger than- taller than a house, let's say. One day Ingkrad came in to bring her food . . ." Ymir's voice grows scratchy and grim. "-only to find that she'd broken her chains from the wall. She ambushed him . . . and ripped his head off."
"She burst out of the tower, the biggest feral anyone had ever seen. She was bigger than a male civil- almost as big as a female! She tore across the civil settlement. She destroyed everything in her path."
"I'm kind of rooting for her, I'm not gonna lie," I interrupt. Marco scowls and nods. "It's fucked up that they all get killed like that. Is she Saphruikan?"
"I'm getting to that. So she destroys a ton of shit, rampages all over, and ends up in this big temple on top of a cliff. She slaughters everyone inside and kind of sets that up as her new home. Anyone who enters trying to flush her out, no matter how many dragons are in the hunting party, never returns. Ever. So they just kind of cleared out the area around the temple, and she's lived there ever since, killing anyone who trespasses into her territory." Ymir leans closer, eyes wide. "Growing bigger and bigger, getting smarter and smarter. One day she's gonna be too big for that temple and she's gonna rise up and scorch the earth, so gigantic she'll block out the sun! And that is the legend of Saphruikan."
"So she is Saphruikan."
"That's why I asked what the wing shape was," Marco says to me. "Ferals have these narrow falcon wings, and civils have broad ones."
"That's a pretty killer legend," I say thoughtfully, "but, like, that's gotta be a scary story civil whatever dragons tell their kids to get them to not, uh, set shit on fire. There's no way that's true. How can something just keep growing forever?"
"Snakes grow forever!" Marco supplies. "Not me, though. I stopped."
"The world's a lot bigger than you think it is," Ymir sniffs.
"It sounds like an myth. There's a moral and everything. 'Don't be bitches to things capable of killing you.'"
"Where do you think myths come from? I heard this version of the story from Rovia herself, who was alive when it happened, though obviously not present. She's a primary source."
"That's the civil perspective," I argue. "Imagine what the version would be if Saphruikan could tell it."
Ymir starts taking stuff out of her bag, lip curled. "You're hung up on this being an underdog story."
"Because it is! I'm like attached now!"
She stretches to her feet, back curled and grunting. "Well, have fun with that. I'm off to hunt. Are you coming with me, Marco, or would you rather bother Jean for a while?"
"You know I love bothering Jean," Marco replies.
"Wait, are you giving me an option?" I demand. "Am I allowed to hang here if I want to?"
"If that be what please ye, go right ahead. I'm too tired to twist your arm into doing anything if you're already developing some Marco-loving rebellious streak." Without another word, and with no other way to gauge her mood, she strides into the woods.
I stick my tongue out at her retreating back and brush-wading legs. Then I flop my cheek against Marco's hide and sigh, closing my eyes. "Why does it feel like such a long day when we didn't even do anything?"
Marco imitates me, gazing at me. "Honestly, I think the same way you do," he murmurs conspiratorially. "I like thinking of Saphruikan as the hero, kind of breaking free of her chains. Unless I'm missing something, it really seems like she didn't choose any of what she was born into or what happened to her." He purses his lips, then whacks me in the shin with the tip of his tail. "See any parallels?"
I snort, vaguely tense with the unknown of this conversation's territory. "I also like to think of this story," he continues, voice hushed, "because Saphruikan got revenge in such a spectacular way. I don't think killing is the answer, but she really made, you know, a statement. People don't avoid her because they don't know she's even there. They fear her."
I pause, then ask, "Is that what you want, though? To be feared?"
Marco twists his mouth. "God, no. I don't even know where I'm going with this. I guess I just like living vicariously through Saphruikan because it's not like she dragged herself out of that tower in the middle of the night with no one around to see her, and then spent the rest of her life hiding. It's just different." He shrugs. "I live vicariously through a lot of fictional-maybe not fictional characters."
"I don't even know what 'vicariously' means."
"Means living through someone."
"So 'living vicariously through someone' means . . . 'living living through someone through someone'?"
Marco rolls onto his back, eyes on the sky. "Let's change the subject if you're gonna be difficult."
I cackle. "I'm not!"
He turns his head and smiles at me, eyes bright. "Kidding. You don't think I'm weird for identifying with an animal, do you?"
"What? Of course not." I shrug. "I'm not . . . in your position. Or anything. I don't got a right to judge."
"Y'know, I worried because you usually make fun of me."
"Do you want me to make fun of you?"
"I want you to do it less!" Marco holds a hand up, halting everything. "This is something I've been thinking about for a long time-"
"Shush, shut up! This is something I've been thinking about for a while. I would like to ask a favor of you. You can't really say no to this, so I guess I'm demanding it."
My mind already racing with what this could be, no matter how innocuous it likely is, I drawl, "What kind of a favor works like that? That's just a fuckin' order. Like you're some kinda dictator. You're a dictator."
"I'm a dictator asking for a favor." Marco clears his throat. When next he speaks, his voice has dropped to a raspy murmur. "When you see people, can you smile at them for me?"
Whatever joke I was preparing falls flat. "What?"
"People you see at work, or people you pass on the street. I wanna ask you to smile at them." Marco's whole body suddenly shifts a bit, slides across the sand, and he turns away from me so I can't see his face. "Or I'm just dumb."
"You are, but you've got the chance to justify it to me," I whine, heaving myself over a coil so I can grab his shoulder and pull him onto his back. He flops there limply and pouts. "Who just says something like that?"
He throws his arms skyward. "How am I supposed to know!" I immediately feel bad, because he has a point. "I was thinking about it all day. I don't think you smile enough with people. And I think you are shutting yourself away from all the friends you could make. So I want you to smile at people more because it makes people happy and it would make me happy if you did it."
"It doesn't work that way, dumbo. You can't just smile at people and make new friends like that."
"Have you ever tried?" Marco grins at the congested look on my face. "Uh-huh."
"I think you've overestimating how easy it is to make friends," I say. "And how badly I need friends. I feel like every time we have a conversation it's about how I need more damn friends!"
Marco loses the embarrassed smile. "I'm asking for pretty selfish reasons," he grumbles. "I . . . really like it when you tell me about your friends. I like hearing about them. I like thinking about what it would be like to see them and talk to them too." He hoists himself up into a semi-sitting position. "I can't do much out here, so I'm making you do stuff for me. Things I would do."
Well, now he's got me all depressed again. "How close have you ever gotten to Trost again?" I murmur.
Marco looks in the direction Ymir went, then over each of his shoulders. "Once," he says hoarsely, "I went into a field. Around the southern side. It was so much open space- so organized! Everything lined up into rows. I don't know anything about farming. I just roved in circles, trying to make sense of it all."
I'm trying to think of every crop field I know to place where he could have been. Each and every one is dangerously close to Trost. "Did anybody see you?"
"I heard voices and bolted. No one saw me."
"Marco," I warn, needing to drive it into his skull even more than earlier, "you cannot be doing that. Someone could see you."
He shrugs. His voice is quiet, barely audible. "I wouldn't really mind."
"Marco, they would kill you."
Within one dizzying second, he shrugs again.
I sit bolt upright. "Marco-"
"Just!" he exclaims, hands raised. His eyes are wide, then they close, a serene smile spreading across his face. "Just, please. Please, in this way, even if it's stupid, make me happy. Ymir has so much to take care of, and she can't. You blend in."
His dark eyes open again and meet mine. "Am I being stupid or not?"
The world seems to tilt on its axis. How can one boy be so impenetrably unreal, before my own eyes? My throat swells, congested with everything I want to say. "You're always stupid," I say, with odd difficulty, "but sure. Yes. I'll smile at people more. A-And for every single one, I'll tell you about it."
Marco's inky eyes seem to drink me in; I almost beg him to blink. He does, freeing me, and smiles. He turns, black hair flowing and falling over his shoulder, and flops onto his back beside me again. After a moment, I imitate him, lying back against the coil wrapped about my shoulders as a pillow and glaring up at the blue sky like it might help me form words.
Eventually I say, "In return, do not go near Trost. Like ever again."
"Mmm." Marco's hand lolls up and his knuckle brushes against my hair, up and down. "Don't worry. I know."
There's just one more thing to be said about winter.
My unease at Armin's grandpa being taken in waxes and wanes over the next few days. Reasoning that no good justification could keep him there for long can only do so much as the weeks stretch on, and as the hollows beneath Armin's cheekbones grow more pronounced, the bags below his eyes darkening. He accepts nothing from us, no matter how much we try to help him feel better. I don't know what's worse: Armin's anguished confusion, or the fact that I can barely stomach listening to him express it. It's like I don't even want to help his pain. As we sat together one night in his room, cross-legged all across the floor, everyone jostling to put their arm around his shoulders when he broke down crying, I fought the intense urge to leave the room.
Invariably, I think of Ymir. I dread the day Ymir finds out and brings it up to me as more ammunition that Trost is as blackened within as she sees it. Because when she does, I will have nothing to say.
Enough proof I'm a bad person yet? Winter is for warmth, but Armin's family is missing. And I can't do anything about it.
One more thing. I, once more, begin to draw.
It's one of those things you can leave alone for a while and come back to nearly at the same point, which is annoying when you're trying to shake a habit you find embarrassing. How often do I trace the borders of the things before me with mental charcoal? The second I open my leather-bound sketchbook, wasting an hour flipping through my previous, years-old sketches and the memories they bring back to me, the process flows again into my waiting hand.
Sitting on the floor before the small table in our den, candles lighting my craft and Cane snoozing against my lower back, I get myself back into the rhythm on a fresh page. I doodle a finch first, its round puffy body and its legs splayed wide on a branch beneath it. Good god, I'm rusty. What's this sticking out of its face instead of a beak, a wedge of cheese? So it looks more like an eagle than anything else. So what?
I backtrack, embarrassing as it is, and draw whatever's in front of me. First the couch, then the armchair. There it is, the spacial awareness, the mental blueprint telling me where the lines go. It's all still in here. I am guided on ruts well-worn into my brain, acting on a path carved through years of mindless practice.
I sketch a quick profile of Ymir, not trying too hard, to get myself the motivation to try harder. Then I set to it, blinking away the tiredness of my eyes. Her bony cheeks, sharp chin, those clever eyes with the sparse bangs hanging over them. Freckles all around. I'm lucky to have such a good-looking friend, to be honest. I start over beneath and draw her again based purely on memory, at a different angle, because I had so much fun with the first one.
You and I both know who's next. After a pep talk about how I'm going to hide the fuck out of this sketchbook so no one sees the blasphemous contents within, I spend the next hour playing around with drawing Marco's snake body. It takes a bit to get the hang of how his scales fit in with each other, and shading is a whole other monster, but by the time I stretch my sore shoulders back I have several pages full of different angles and sections of Marco's body. The coils get more sophisticated the further I go; I add patches of grass beneath them, remembering their sleek power as Marco slithers by, driving down the earth below.
Now for the main event — an unserious version first, then a genuine attempt, at Marco's face. I have his profile, hair curling down in inky locks from his forehead, a bashful smile on his lips and his eyebrows quirked up in that wanting way. Then a generic sketch of him leaned forward, those big eyes wide at some inane thing I did that captured his fascination. I don't remember the situation, only the vibe. Just for fun, I draw Marco with short hair. Now that looks bizarre.
Art quality can be accidental; art content cannot. You don't start drawing one thing and blink and find you've drawn another thing. It just doesn't work that way.
So despite the weird panic it causes me, I begin a new sketch on a fresh page. Arms first, a break in tradition for me. I work my way up to the shoulders, then to a liver-spotted neck, then bring to life the wiry foliage of a bushy beard with quick flicks of my wrist. His puffy eyes, light and hazel unlike his grandson's. His ever-present hat.
I don't know what to do with this messy bust of Armin's grandfather. This sketch isn't going to change anything, other than reinforce my memory of how kind his eyes always are.
Damn it, why can't I have a more useful skill? Public speaking? A presence that commands respect? The spine to even talk to someone about this? I'm just a 15-year-old with a pencil.
A 15-year-old with a pencil who, like I said, does not do accidental drawings. So when I think hard, real hard, to but less than a year ago when my heart pounded near to bursting, and my feet thudded beneath me, and adrenaline roared through my entire body so much that it hurt, it is no accident but a deliberate choice. First the forehead, then the cheekbones, then the jaw, exposing the great pit. Teeth lined, eyebrows up in mindless drive, the skin above the nose and between the eyes wrinkled like the muzzle of a furious beast.
Two fangs, and two thin wisps for pupils, and Marco's berserk face roars up at me from my page.
How did I ever see this thing and survive? Even worse, how did I just draw this thing? This thing isn't Marco. Its stare is mindless, its eyes so dumb and dull and the hollows around them so dark and deep. The hairs on the back of my neck raise. The longer I look, the more certain I am that something's going to jump out at me from the dark corners of the room. I glance over my shoulders nervously, confident I'll lock eyes with a sudden predator with teeth a-drip from hunger, like a wolf slipped in and waited for me to notice it just because I drew something scary.
I can't end the night on this note. We have already established the victimhood of both myself and Marco at the mercy of this . . . not-Marco, this wrong-Marco, so dredging up the past isn't going to change anything here or how I think about him.
Still . . . berserk Marco is still and silent, frozen in time mid-screech. I'm the one in control here. I chose to draw him. And lame as it is, it's the most in-control I've felt since opening this book.
I think about showing Marco these pages, and the wonder he'd have in viewing them (because they're damn good, if I say so myself). I think about how interested he'd look, how focused in his eyes and the set of his mouth. So I set to drawing that. And the entire time, I smile.
Endless thanks as always for the people who will inevitably follow this story until the end, and to any who return: hello! I apologize, again, for how long I always take. Not to make excuses, but I've had to deal with an increasingly busy school and work schedule and sudden mental health problems. Not fun! I want to reiterate that this is never going to be a dead fic, only a fic that periodically enters years-long comas. I'm trying, as ever, to work on it.
I also want to apologize not for the content of this chapter, but for the lengthy time it took to get here. This was always intended to be a filler chapter, but with a two-year gap between updates this only ends up being a letdown. But I hope you enjoyed how this showcased the way my writing has evolved over two years, and the increasing bond between Jean and Marco! I thank you for your patience with my ancient writing and awkward, heavy-handed attempts to breach very serious subjects.
If you're a Pokemon fan, check out my most recent fics! They're all Sun/Moon centric. Thank you a million times, as always, for reading; let me know what you think!