The bells sing out for an execution one morning, and Thomas has to shake me out of bed so I won't be late. I'm still stumbling and yawning by the time we finally emerge from our house, shivering from the cold morning air, the four of us in our best clothing - which for some means apparently wearing a shade of green halfway between mold and vomit.
"Your dress is so- god," I gripe.
Thomas rolls his eyes and moves to walk next to my dad instead. "Jean, don't be rude to your brother," my mom grunts.
"We shouldn't have let you leave the house like that."
"You should talk- you slept in those," Thomas rejoins, gesturing around our parents at my baggy pants and mangy shirt.
"At least I'm matching!"
"Boys," Dad frets. The village square is within view, framed by houses on the sides of the street we walk down; from here we can see the gathering crowd, their sleepy murmurs filling the morning air, and distant figures perched high upon the sacred dais. I used to get nervous flutters at the sight; now this is just an inconvenience forcing me to roll out of bed too soon.
Other families join us as we plod to the square; Dad waves good-naturedly at some friends and strikes up friendly conversation, which his companions groggily reciprocate; Mom, meanwhile, beckons over the Carolina family, with whom we're all familiar. Two adults whose first names escape me start griping to Mom about what nasty pauper stirred shit up now as their daughter Mina falls into step with me.
She flashes me a smile, to which I reply with a grunt. "Morning, Jean."
"You look awfully chipper today," she jokes, bumping me with her shoulder, a motion that sends a wave of irritation through me; I hate it when people are too physical with me.
I sidle away from her until there's a more comfortable distance between us. "I gotta work in a few hours, whatever. I just wanted to sleep."
"At Reiner's, right?" I nod. "How is it there?"
"Boring," I groan, drawing it out. "People are so dumb and rude. I ask them what they want and they either take, like, ten million years to decide what they wanna order, or they just stare at me like- like I'm the damn naga."
I contemplate the way I stare at the damn naga - familiar and fond, though usually with some exasperation - as Mina laughs. "Maybe I'll stop by and make things a little less boring."
Whoa, I barely goddamn know Mina. We only make forced conversation when my parents drag me to their house or she's brought to mine, though she always seems more at ease than I am. "Yeah, sweet."
We gravitate toward our own families as the growing crowd looms close, and I wriggle between my mom and my dad to avoid getting lost in its midst. No one's particularly interested in getting a good view; there's not much action to witness anyway. By now the townsfolk have filled the flat, foliage-sparse square to the edges, until people spill out into the streets branching away from it. My mom forges a path for us to underneath a solitary tree; its boughs are high enough that we can clearly see the dais. Thirty feet tall it rises, a square platform of white stone, surrounded by wide, shallow steps of the same material: a miniature, manmade, symmetrical hill, visible by all, crafted for glorious showcase. Twin oak pillars, their smooth, oiled surfaces gleaming, stand tall, side by side at the dais's highest level; black chains, gleaming and new, wrap around their bases, and the ground between them is darkened and stained.
Sensing its purpose, the crowd, though huge, never congregates too near, and words are hushed the closer they get to those stone steps. At the zenith of the dais cluster several high-ranking members of the military police: resplendent Gloria Bernhard; brothers Djel and Ralph Sannes with faces grim; and old Omar Fritz; side by side overlooking the citizens of Trost are Pastor Nick and Nile Dok, conversing in low voices. Nick, with sunken eyes and stiff posture, towers over the stressed-looking Nile - in other words, the same they've always looked. They usually appear to be in close quarters.
As the last stragglers arrive everyone falls silent when Pastor Nick steps forward, arms spread as though to embrace us. "Friends," he intones. "Family. We welcome you this fine morning."
We chorus back pleasantries that get lost in each other; one squeaky young voice hollers from near the houses, "GOOD MORNING!" and we all laugh.
Pastor Nick barely cracks a smile, but that's okay; we all know he's crotchety. He starts droning on about something or another about how we shouldn't actually be out here if it weren't for some people, and I slouch against the tree, tuning him out. It's probably the same stuff as what he says at church, just with whatever sorry soul's gonna get offed instead of the default naga starring as who makes our lives miserable simply by existing.
Clouds billow cool and grey overhead; it must be ready to snow or sleet soon, and I can't decide which one I hate more. I cast my gaze over the crowd instead, over the enraptured faithful and politely attentive and shifty impatient bored, like me. We've all got better things to do, I'm sure. Way to my right I think I can glimpse Sasha's ponytail- or, wait, is that her? She has this reddish tint to her hair that's unique to her and one of her moms, as far as I know- yep, yeah that's her; I can see Connie's bald-ass head within fifteen feet. When are they gonna bone? Maybe they already have. Ew.
Loitering in their area are Mikasa (HI) and Eren (BYE), as well as their parents, Grisha (who looks like he constantly needs a bath) and Carla (Carla's cool), caretakers in one case biological and the other adoptive. Grisha is the town's best and most trusted doctor; I heard he once saved us from a plague brought from terrible lands by thieving, exploitative foreigners who wanted to weaken us. Had Maria not shone through Grisha's hardworking hands, many people would have died. He's cool, I guess. Carla is too. She's a housewife, last time I checked, and she sure knows how to keep a bunch of kids well-fed. Shame two perfectly respectable people had to spawn that thing.
Mikasa has been a part of their family for as long as I can remember. No one knows who her parents are, and it's safe to assume they're not from Trost, which Mikasa takes some fallback for. I mean, she's still really pretty! With her pretty face and silky black hair . . .
All right, I'm staring. I need to sober myself with something gross. Which is worse, Thomas's dress or Pastor Nick's livery turkey-neck? Both have got a decent shot for Worst Thing to Contemplate After Witnessing Beauty.
Oh my god, if Marco was here, he could take up so much space. People would have to, like, stand over his body sometimes. And if he held himself like he normally does, all raised up with his chest horizontal to the ground and his arms drooping, he'd take up even more space. He could totally knock over so many people with that snake body. I want to do that, shit. That would be hilarious. What a ruckus that would cause. Ew, who am I, Mom? Who even uses the word "ruckus"? Thank god I didn't say that out loud - did I? - I didn't, good. That would've been so embarrassing.
A hush falls over us all as Pastor Nick stands aside, words apparently exhausted; the crowd on the far side of the dais parts to clear a path for four figures, who make their way up the steps to the twin beams: two members of the military police, holding between them a ragged, dirty degenerate, and, shadowing them, the executioner. The headsperson's presence is a tangible one; clad in a black smock and boots, their identity is kept hidden by their large white mask, carved in the likeness of the smiling goddess Maria, framed by black cloth to shroud the entire head and most of the shoulders. Executioners, or freers, as we call them, change with every ceremony, forever masked so that they escape judgement from their fellow citizens; this one appears physically female. In their hands is hefted a heavy double-edged axe, shiny and sharp, eager for its purpose.
Dad politely stifles a yawn beside me, then nudges Mom and murmurs something about how nice the couple in front of us looks. I shoulder myself in between them and squint. "Isn't there supposed to be three of them? Where's that woman with the funny nose?"
"Jean, keep your voice down," Mom chides exasperatedly.
"Oh no! Do you think they separated from her?" Dad gasps.
"Don't fret, dear. I'm sure she just felt sick and couldn't come."
After some words we just missed, the prisoner is made to kneel between the beams. The MP and the Pastor stand over them, their gazes righteously pitying, especially because the person's visibly sobbing. Some people at the front turn away in disgust at the display. The weeping increases in pitch as the freer steps up, waving a hand; at their behest the MP chain the criminal by the arms low to the posts on either side of them, forcing them to bow forward until their head is nearly bent to touch the ground, a final prostration to the goddess they turned away from.
"Hey, Mom, remember that time I stole that pie from her window?" I ask Mom. "When I was, like, four? I don't even like pie."
"I don't remember that."
"You made me return it and helped me bake another one to make it up to them. I remember it pretty clearly- we were, like, standing in the kitchen, and I kept asking you where cherries come from, and you told me they fell from the sky on sunny days? Way to tell a kid a lie, by the way."
Pastor Nick's reciting some final words to ensure the sinner's soul to heaven. Mom chuckles. "What's wrong with preserving your sense of wonder, Jeanbo?"
"Oh my god, do not call me that. I'm fifteen."
"Yes, but you'll always be my little Jeanbo."
"Leave me alone! You know, it's kind of her fault for putting the thing on her windowsill anyway. Who does that? What if it rained? What if a raccoon or something came along and took it?"
Pastor Nick steps aside, away from any potential splatters to mar his robe. The MP steps back as well; the freer is the only one who comes forward, and a wail of despair issues from the bound prisoner.
"A little raccoon did come and take it," my dad coos, tickling me lightly in the ribs; I jump a foot in the air and almost slam into Thomas.
"Watch yourself, Jeanbo."
"Screw off, Tom-Tom."
"Don't call me that!"
"Don't call me Jeanbo!"
The axe rises; a hush falls over some of the crowd. Most of it continues talking.
"Jean, your voice is carrying."
"Your face is carrying! Ugh, I touched your dress, I feel dirty-"
"Boys, please," my mom chides gruffly. "Both of your voices are carrying."
A crunch and the sound of metal ringing on marble cuts through the air, and after it silence. "Yeah, well, everyone else is talking too. Thomas, seriously, next time you go out I'm choosing what you wear. I'm trying to do you a sibling service here."
"And you'll turn around and charge me for it, you broke, nagging little-"
Mom turns to me with a frown and a wrinkled forehead as Pastor Nick drones some bland words, beseeching us to pray for the sinner's wayward soul, whose barren body is now cascading red down the stone steps. Can't see where the head wound up. "I'd send you two to your room, but you share it and I can always hear your bickering through the walls."
"Hey, we've got to deal with hearing you calling Dad 'kitty' all over the house, so . . ." Thomas guffaws at that one.
"Oh, go to work or something; it's too early for this," Mom sighs, throwing a hand up in the air and letting it fall.
"I don't have to work for hours, though," I whine, slumping and pouting. As the final words have been said the crowd begins to disperse; some, yawning, return to their homes to get some shuteye, and others mill about in groups, chatting uninterrupted. The Jaegers appear to have left the premises, and I envy their escape. If only I could slip away to home so easily without my mom having a canary about me "socializing" and "being polite to friends and family"; I barely talk anyway, so what're they missing?
I form responses in my head to imaginary questions, all in a soft voice with a strange accent: how many people are here, who I know, what my parents are like. At least if he was here I'd have someone to talk to.
Stuffing my hands in my pockets, I wander away toward the dais, more to occupy my time and feet than for any specific destination. I spot Reiner chatting up a group of people and go to hover next to him, hoping to just say hi. When he sees me he turns, opening his arms and clapping me on the shoulder. "Hey, there he is! Can't imagine how hard it was to raise you from the dead this morning."
"Ha ha." You can understand how old that one gets. I'm sure you're tired of it too.
"Oh, lighten up. Where's your folks? I want to say hi to them."
"Please, god, no," I mutter. "You'll talk to them for hours and I want something to eat, you can't distract them."
Just because you said that, I'm gonna go over and distract them all day long. And no falling asleep at work, now. I can't afford another peel after you torched the last one."
"You're a fuckin' liar," I yowl, crossing my arms. "It's a little brown around the edges, it still works, you bastard! You make it sound like I almost burned the damn place down."
A laugh attracts my attention to the side, and I see Reiner's crowd had dispersed except for three I hadn't noticed earlier: Armin Arlert, Sasha, and Connie. "Oh, 'sup."
Great, now I want to go back to my parents. "'Sup, Jeeeaaaan," Connie drawls in their unnecessarily excited voice. "How you been?"
I can't tell if he's mocking me or not. I try to look disinterested. "Uh, good. You?"
"Good!" they all chorus, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. "What've you been up to, Jean?" Armin queries, his words soft and polite.
"Uhh, nothin' much," I grumble, shrugging. I look around for Reiner, intending to redirect the conversation back to him somehow, but he's gone; an indignant glance tells me he really did go to talk to my parents, the bastard. He left me alone with these people. "Just working with Reiner and Ymir, I guess-"
"Hey, don't you go hunting with Ymir, huh?" Sasha bursts out. "You go hunting with her, don'tcha? Eren told us!"
Oh, so Eren's nice and aware, and talking about it, no less. "Yeah, I am. We go once a week and bring back, uh, lots of stuff . . ."
"What kind of tricks is she teaching you?" Connie demands. "Is she scary? Did she let you touch her scars?"
"I want to touch them."
"Bet you want to touch more than her scars, Sash."
"CONNIE SPRINGER, you bet I do, but you can't just say that out loud- what if he tells Ymir?"
Armin catches my eye and - whoa - shoots me an exasperated look. The simple gesture fills me with unexpected warmth. "Yeah, I mean, I might run that by her, being her pal and all-"
"-but I doubt she returns the sentiment, she's got her eyes on someone else."
"WHO?" Sasha could do to use her indoor voice even if we're outside. "Jean, you, like, you know all Ymir's secrets!"
I grin wolfishly. "You have no idea."
"Whoa, that didn't sound sexual at all," Connie mutters; they and Sasha burst into obnoxious snorting giggles.
"I'm glad you're learning a lot with her, Jean," Armin interjects as the others jeer at my disgusted face. "No matter how it's going. I feel like you two would mesh well, though, somehow."
How would you know? I don't say that out loud. "We spend half the time screaming at each other, so you're a little off the mark." And the other half is spent amusing Marco.
Marco. Would he get along with these guys? Armin, for sure; his patience and intelligence would tackle Marco's questions as they come. Sasha and Marco would match for weirdness; Connie could probably speak to him better than I ever could. I start imagining Marco here for a different reason.
"You ready to go, Armin?" Connie asks at a loud rumble from Sasha's stomach. "I skipped breakfast for this, and I'm pretty sure Sash is about to swallow that severed head over there whole."
"Oops, yeah, my grandpa's probably waiting," Armin chuckles apologetically. "See you around, Jean."
"Huh- oh! Yeah, sorry, see ya." I take an awkward step back, not meeting their eyes. Way to look unaffected, Jean!
Sasha and Armin are three paces away when Connie goes, "Hey, Jean, wanna come?"
I stare at Connie in shock; they're grinning at me and jerking their chin in the others' direction in invitation. "Yeah- uh, go where?"
"We're goin' to Armin's grandpa's house for some breakfast, wanna tag along? He makes anything you request, so he could probably make you an omelet- that's your favorite, right?"
"Yeah. I'm surprised you even remember that."
They shrug, that toothy smile unrelenting. "Hungry?"
"Always," I joke, and they snort. This is so much easier than I thought it would be.
Armin and Sasha wait for us to catch up, and I feel the first stabs of regret, reasoning I should've just coveted my little victory of one painless conversation with my old friends instead of risking more chances to mess up. When I scan their faces for any disappointment about my inclusion they either hide it well or don't feel it at all. I wonder if it's too late to feign fatigue or sickness and sneak home.
The three form a line, leaning in on each other and chatting immediately; I try to keep up on Connie's right side as we head to the northeast side of town. What to occupy myself with? Admiring the scenery, counting my footsteps? Or do I try to be included in the conversation? They're talking about something Sasha bought, and I can't gather enough context to contribute, so I'll just chill on the outskirts. It sounds like some article of clothing that is so scratchy Sasha, and I quote, "could reliably use it to skin a horse." Christ, Sasha, not in front of Connie, their family owns the ranch.
Oh, shit! Where Armin is usually means Eren and Mikasa are not far behind. Mikasa's company I'd welcome, but Eren I can do without!
Where are we even going? From the square we went southeast through craggy alleys over craggier cobblestones which eventually turn to pockmarked dirt roads. I don't go to this part of town much. The houses are less that and more shacks with sagging roofs and splintery-boarded walls. Unkempt-looking people loiter around in lethargic groups, missing teeth and patches of hair. The four of us clump closer together without a word.
"Armin, your grandpa lives here?" I ask. Usually grandparents live with their families; no point in taking up more than one house. My grandparents died a couple of years ago, so the house is just us four.
"My mom grew up here, but when she moved further into town he refused to leave his old house. I still visit him every day because he gets lonely."
Trees outnumber houses five to one as we near the border of town, strolling down a bumpy cul-de-sac toward a particularly low and wide house, squat like a toad yet solidly built and maintained, its paneled roof nearly flat and wraparound porch big enough to host a goodly party. I wrack my brains to remember if I've met Armin's grandpa before; I most likely have at some party or something. I hope he doesn't remember me. Don't you hate it when you can't remember old people, but they can remember you? Oh, Jean, it's you! Oh, it's you, generic old person who's probably my mom's friend, therefore not mine. Do you remember me? No, I really don't and you know it, stop making this awkward. You've gotten so big! Yes, thank you, it's called growth, we all do it, though all it's done to you is add wrinkles.
Armin bounds up the steps with puppy-like enthusiasm, knocking politely on the door. "Papa? It's me and some friends, can we come in?"
No one answers. Armin trots down the steps and around to the side of the house, gesturing for us to follow. "He's probably gardening or feeding the cats in the backyard."
"I wanted to feed the cats!" Sasha whines, and I perk up at the mention of cats. I love cats, man.
Whoa, this is one big house. It's one story, but as long as it is wide. Our reflections bob across big glass windows as we pace after Armin, Connie and Sasha arguing over who gets to feed the cats first and me just trying to keep up. I snort, imagining Marco with us. He'd probably try to go on the roof and scare someone, like this one time where we whistled for him, he just didn't show up, and when I marched into the woods to investigate he suddenly dove his human torso down from his spot perched and wound up in a tree - I didn't know he could climb trees - and made me jump a damn foot in the air, the huge asshole. Ymir laughed so hard I thought she was going to throw up.
Then Marco fell out of the tree like a limp shoelace because he was laughing too hard to balance. Serves him right.
"Hi, Papa!" Armin calls cheerfully, standing on tiptoes to kiss his grandfather on the cheek. His grandfather, a tall man with a greying beard and a wide-brimmed hat, smiles at him and then up at us, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
"Good morning, Armin, Sasha, Connie . . . and Jean?"
FUCK, he knows me.
I bunch my lips up and wave halfheartedly, which turns into an offered hand as Armin's grandpa approaches for a handshake. My polite smile turns a little genuine as my memory flies back to the first time Ymir and I visited Marco after the sleepover, and therefore after Marco's revelation that you only shake hands once. When he came when we whistled I ran at him with my hand extended, a shit-eating grin on my face, and he swatted my hand away and told me to fuck off. Touchy, touchy.
"I'm not sure if you remember me; you used to come and play here when you were small," Armin's grandpa says, bringing me back to the present. "Other than that I have only seen you in passing in town. How do you do?"
"I'm good, you?"
"Sleepy and a little hungry, which I am sure you are. Armin's told me you're a big eater, yes?"
How much do these people talk about me when I'm not around? "I am, actually."
"Well, you've come to the right place, at least your friends might say. But for now, we have breakfast to provide for some other friends, right, kids?"
Sasha is gone; I think she's in the house raiding his pantry. Connie and Armin are doing this weird handshake thing, but they perk up and pipe, "Yes!" when prompted.
Sasha erupts out of the house, balancing no less than five wooden platters on her arms brimming with various cooked meats like chicken and beef, shredded into curiously small strips. "Ready, sir!"
A great stirring drags my eyes to my left, and I'm met with the sight of a great gardened backyard. It's a very attractive lot of land, with hedges serving as a border between the forest and Armin's grandpa's property, and within are plots of colorful flowerbeds and labelled vegetable gardens bordered by rows of stones. He must keep this place well-raked; there are hardly any autumn leaves among the browning flowers and dirt pathways, though maples and oaks scattered throughout the yard provide canopy cover (or they would, if it was a more forgiving season).
And covering this property are cats of every size and color, trotting toward us from basking places atop rocks or within flowerbeds, piping a chorus of reedy meows. There's no way he owns all of these cats. Tabbies, calicos, longhairs, shorthairs- this must be every cat in town! No wonder most of them are so fat.
Sasha stands at attention as the cats mill around her ankles. "I present to you, my little dears-" She deposits her platters in a long line like a master chef displaying the tenderest cut of veal for a king, bowing and posturing. "-your ahem midmorning meal. Voila."
Whatever word that was. Sasha's so dramatic.
This is heaven; I just love cats. Hey, there's that gray cat that screams outside my window sometimes! I always thought it was pregnant, but maybe it's just fat from these meals. And further back, is that-
Oh my god, there's a big black dog here. I wait for chaos to erupt, but then realize that's not a dog. "Oooooh, man," I mutter, narrowing my eyes at my greatest adversary, the wicked Anaximander Bodt, come to claim his royal breakfast, I see. We're not far from Ymir's house, I realize. He's easily twice the size of every cat around him, and they clear a path for him as he slinks by. And waddling beside him, Rose! Her fat swings from side to side as she trots around, how precious is that?
Oh my god. She sees me, stills, then prances toward me with a breathy meow. She remembers me! It's like Maria herself come to earth to give me a pat on the head. "Hi, Rosie!" I squeak, practically falling to my knees to greet the little tabby. She jumps on my lap with no hesitation, planting her front paws on my chest to headbutt my face, purring. This is the best cat ever. Cats just do not get better than this. "What're you doing here, you- whoa, fuck-"
Anaxifuckthiscatseriously charges me with a vicious snarl, his tail puffed up like a raccoon's; I fling Rose off me and scramble back, ready to kick this fucking cat. Luckily, Rose lands in a patch of soil on the edge of a flowerbed and immediately curls up to sleep, still purring. Nax detours to her, skidding to a stop and sitting at her head and glaring at me.
Fight me, Naxie.
Armin, Connie, and Sasha are laughing at me. I shoot to my feet, dusting myself off self-consciously. "Those are Ymir's cats," I say loudly.
"Yeah, we know. The big one chases me every time I walk on the other side of the street," Connie chortles. "I pulled his tail once."
"Eren told me he can pet that one on the head, and he tolerates it," Sasha breathes with wonder.
No! This can't be. Eren can't beat me in this! With only that, my resolve is set. I must pet Anaximander Bodt.
I take a step toward the beast in question, but his ears flatten immediately to his sharp head and he snarls, his red eyes brimming with warning over teeth that look longer than my fingers. Uh, in time, I guess.
Marco would get a kick out of this right now.
"Sasha always knows what to do," Armin's grandpa chuckles. "Now that our guests are fed, how about some food for the humans?"
Connie and Sasha scream something and race each other inside. Armin gives me a wide-eyed look and we both snort. Goddamnit! I didn't want to, but his laugh is infectious. I didn't come here to bond (sure, Jean), I came for free food!
Armin's grandpa leads us inside, politely depositing his hat on a coatrack by the door. The home's interior is cozy and clean, the walls made of solid fir logs that almost gleam with polish. We go through a spacious living room populated by a comfy-looking pair of armchairs and a long, wide couch facing a fireplace into the kitchen, a huge, gleaming place with tons of equally shiny cutlery hanging on the walls. This guy's house feels like a home-goods store.
"Now, Armin, dear, I'm picturing a breakfast sandwich for you - yes, I do have sausage, it's on the counter over there - Connie, you like a classic pair of eggs with some bacon, good choice! Sasha, a bit of everything? Oh, a lot of everything, how could I be so silly? And now Jean," Armin's grandpa says, depositing a loaf of bread and some raw meat on the counter and turning to me with a smile. "What can I get you?"
"Uh . . . do you know how to make omelets?"
"Ah, so you're still the little omelet lover, eh? Do you take it prepared the same way as you did when you were young?"
"I do- wait, have you made this for me before, or . . . ?"
"In fact, I have. You were very little, so you might not remember, but if I burned even a corner of that omelet, you made sure the whole town knew," he chuckles.
I snort. That's definitely something I would do. "I appreciate perfection," I assert, flipping my hair dramatically. Sasha makes a noise like someone stepped on her foot.
"Go make yourselves comfortable in the other room," Armin's grandpa shoos, getting things from his cupboards. "Breakfast will be ready in just a few moments- no, Sasha, I insist, I promise I don't need help, go relax with your friends-"
We troop back to the living room and I loiter in the doorway, evaluating where to sit. Sasha and Connie immediately drape themselves over the couch, and Armin nestles himself into one of the armchairs, so I go to do the same in the remaining one. Holy shit, this thing is comfortable. It's like it wants to swallow me. And spacious, too. My legs are almost sticking straight out, that's how far back I can sit. The inside of the seat even slopes down, so your thighs are kind of tilted up, and the back is at an angle . . . whoa, don't fall asleep, Jean. You haven't even had breakfast yet.
"I'm gonna die, I'm just- I'm gonna die right here . . ."
"Sasha, stay with me! There's so much to hold on for!"
"Stomach . . . cavernous, it's eating my insides, guhhhhh . . ."
"Steamed rice with basil, broccoli with cheese melted on it, cauliflower and onion, sizzling, bloody steak-"
"Spare me! I'm too weak!"
"Turkey sandwiches with tomato and mayonnaise," Armin puts forward, and Sasha groans.
"Baked potatoes," I pipe up, and Sasha all but shrieks.
"You're all trying to murder me!"
My eyes dart around the room like they do when I'm agitated. Most of the wooden floor is covered by a thick rug, and a semicircle of granite flooring surrounds the fireplace. The ceiling is high and dusty (I mean, duh, there's no one tall enough to reach those high corners) (whoa, Marco could!) and (wow, imagine Marco dusting a house) like Ymir's house, there are paintings all over these walls. "Sasha, look," I call, pointing at a small picture of a bowl of fruit. Sasha looks and utters a pained gurgle.
Some intoxicating smells are beginning to waft out of the kitchen. I try not to join Sasha's anguished chorus; it's been a while since I've had a good, fluffy omelet.
Man, imagine Marco sampling an omelet. Ymir just fried some eggs for us the morning after the sleepover, but her technique was lazy, lackluster! An omelet master needs to to be the one to deliver such a feast. Marco and his two stomachs would appreciate the offering. Man, I woke up that morning a little before sunrise to take a leak, and when I got back Marco was awake and blinking at me questioningly, and when I asked him if he was going back to sleep he rolled over and sighed, "Y-Yeah . . . yeah . . . uhh . . ." and was snoring two seconds later, to my amusement. When all three of us woke up an hour or so later he didn't even remember it.
As Connie taps an aggressive drumbeat on Sasha's stomach, I look around the room a second time, feeling like there was something important I saw but forgot. The furniture looks like it was made for a giant; Connie and Sasha could lie flat at either end of that couch and their feet wouldn't even touch. Marco could fit his whole obnoxious body on it. This is the kind of shit I'd love to buy for my potential future house, holy shit. I've got to ask Armin's grandpa where he gets his chairs.
As I'm jamming my hands between my knees to warm them I do a double take at the painting over the fireplace. A rolling blue abyss, vaster than any lake, laps at a white beach beneath a grassy cliffside. There's no doubt that's a painting of the ocean- could it be the one I spied as a child, rolling uninvited into that trader's tent? I thought there was more land in that picture, or the frame was more intricately carved with patterns. Maybe it's not the same one.
"Cool painting, huh?" Armin speaks up, observing where my gaze is locked. I glance at him; he's conjured a book and a blanket out of fucking nowhere, apparently, and is now wrapped up like a newborn bookworm. He and Marco should talk; they can bond over their affinity for reading.
"Yeah. It's the ocean, right? I feel like I've seen that one before, but I'm not entirely sure-"
I cut myself off with pursed lips, because Armin's jaw just dropped and he straightened up in his chair to look at me head on. "You know what the ocean is?" he exclaims.
"Uh, yeah. The, uh, the biggest body of water there is, right? Sea, beach, big blue? With the boats and the whales?"
Armin's eyes widen even more. "Where on earth did you hear that? No one thinks it's real; not even they know what the ocean is." He gestures at Connie and Sasha.
"Is the ocean the pine tree that's thicker than a house, or that big cat with fluffy hair only on its neck?" Connie wonders, staring at the ceiling. "I forget the stuff you tell us, sorry."
"No, that's a redwood and a lion, and lions have hair everywhere but a mane of longer hair on their neck- we're talking about that," Armin answers, pointing at the ocean painting. "The big lake of salt water, the one you said you were going to drink if it was the last thing you did?"
"Oh, right, that one. Well, thank god it's not real, so I don't actually have to."
"But it is," Armin grumbles, almost to himself. "I know so."
"I . . . heard about it somewhere, I don't know," I tell Armin, trying to figure out a convincing story for the origin of that knowledge besides, "The naga told me."
"Can you remember who said it? I'd love to talk about it with someone; everyone I know just tells me to stop reading so much silly fantasies because anyone can write anything and print it and people will take it as fact- but I know it's real! I've read as much as I can on it; it makes too much sense not to exist." He falls against the back of the chair with a plop, curling his blanket around himself more. "I want to see it someday."
I almost - almost! - tell him that I heard it was northeast, not fifty miles away, but clamp my mouth shut. What am I doing, encouraging someone to go north? I need to watch my mouth better. Oh god, have I slipped up in the past? Let my tongue wag just enough to imply the north isn't dangerous? My skin goes icy at the thought as I race through the conversations I've had in the past week or so.
"You okay?" Armin asks.
"W- yeah! Yeah, sorry, I was just trying to think . . . of where I first heard about the ocean, I mean. I might've seen another painting of it somewhere when I was little, not sure where- for all I know, it could be that exact one up there. Uh, hey, can you tell me more about it? Now I'm curious."
Armin looks like I just made his year. He carefully places his closed book on a coffee table and wriggles around to face me fully, leaning forward until he looks like he'll fall out of his armchair. "Jean, I had no idea you were interested in these kinds of things."
"It's been a pretty interesting autumn. I'm, like, learning a lot of new things." To say the least.
"Oh, does Ymir have to do with it? Does she know about the ocean too?"
I mean, everyone knows already she's not from Trost (except me until she told me, apparently). Would telling Armin she knows what the ocean is do any harm?
"Yeah, it was her. Apparently she's seen it- because, y'know, she's not from here."
Armin's eyes shine brighter than a candle. "I need to talk to her. I need to! Someone who's seen the ocean in person! I knew it was real!"
I imagine how he would react if I told him it was within a day or two's walking distance and feel immediately guilty, both for thinking about telling him and for refusing to. "Yeah, it'd be great to see it, wouldn't it?"
Connie stretches and groans, flipping from their back to their side and leaning their head in their hand. "When you two wackos get dragged in by doll-fins and nokks I won't be there to help you."
"Doll-fins don't drag people in," Armin rebukes, sounding almost offended.
Shit, I should remember to ask Marco what the fuck doll-fins are. Dolls with fins? Fish dolls? Who makes those?
A hideous noise issues from the general direction of Sasha's midriff, but we don't have much time to respond to it, as Armin's grandpa strolls right in with plates in his hands. "Thank you for being patient, kids!"
Another hideous noise issues from Sasha, from her mouth this time, and Connie bellows, "FOOD," loud enough to rattle my teeth.
"We're eating in this room?" I wonder aloud, astonished as Armin's grandpa lowers a plate of eggs and bacon onto Connie's bald head in a daring act of balance and a plate filled with what seems like everything a larder can hold onto Sasha's stomach. Sasha proceeds to engulf what looks like half the plate into her jaws. I'm shocked if she even knows what cutlery is.
Armin's grandpa disappears, then reappears with two more plates and makes a beeline for us, delivering a sandwich to Armin and-
Were I in Ymir and Marco's company I'd dramatically announce that I'm going to come or something. Did this man pull an omelet straight from my dreams?
"Whoa," I breathe, inhaling perfection as I balance my steaming plate on my lap. A fluffier and more perfectly-formed omelet even my dad could never conjure. "This looks awesome."
Armin's grandpa smiles, backing away with a little flourish. "I hope I did it justice, yes?"
"Hell yes it is."
"What, does your mom still make everyone sit at the table when you eat?" Connie asks, bacon sticking out of their mouth. "Even when there's, like, sixteen children in the house?"
"I can't even eat a slice of bread on the couch," I sigh, cutting a tiny piece off my breakfast and nearly swooning. "This is like breaking the law right now."
You know what else is breaking the law? The cloudy texture of this egg. The meaty richness of the rice and chicken beneath. I have died and gone to heaven.
Armin's grandpa settles down on the couch between Connie and Sasha, some baked bread in his hand and a mug in the other, smiling happily at us all. "Everything cooked to taste?"
Connie, Sasha, and I only respond with moans past our full mouths; Armin says, "Yes, thank you, Papa."
I have to teach Ymir how to make this, if we're going to have sleepovers in the future. After the one I attended she kicked us (and by that I mean me) awake and practically shoved those fried eggs in our noses. If I got met with an omelet every time she woke me up, I'd be the opposite of grumpy.
"Papa, Jean knows what the ocean is," Armin blurts out, his sandwich not even touched, apparently too agitated to eat. "Before I even told him! He saw your painting." He points over the fireplace.
"Ah, really?" Armin's grandpa hums, looking at me with interest. "Now where on earth did you hear about the ocean? That's quite exciting to hear."
I hastily chew and swallow the enormous bite of food in my mouth - burning my tongue in the process - and say, "O-Oh, I heard about it from Ymir Bo- you know, the, uh, the weaver? I go hunting with her a lot, and it came up once. Apparently she used to live on the coast."
I sure hope this isn't too much to reveal, but what damage are Armin and his kindly grandfather going to inflict? They just seem excited.
"Yes, I think I know her. I buy my baskets from her. Oh my, I can't imagine!" Armin's grandpa exclaims, tapping his feet excitedly. "I glimpsed it just once in my travels, far out and far off, obscured by fog anyway. All I remember is thinking it looked like the end of the world."
"Jean, can you introduce me to Ymir?" Armin asks. "Whenever I go visit Eren at work I get too shy to talk to her . . . she's really intimidating . . . but now-"
"Hey, introduce us too!" Connie cuts in; their plate is empty and balanced upon their head again. "We feel like she'll eat us if we come close or something. Give us an in, Jean!"
"I've spoken to Ymir sometimes and I never thought she might have seen the ocean," Armin's grandpa muses, "let alone live near it! Oh, I have so many questions. By chance, Jean, do you have any idea what that is?" He points with his mug to another picture, this one more of a mural than a framed painting. It looks like a mountain, like the ridges of one of Marco's seashells, but less regular and a uniform tan in color. I'm not really sure what it's attempting to depict.
"Uhh . . . I gotta say no."
"That- we heard it's called a desert," Armin breathes, his eyes shining like a pair of gemstones held up to the light. "They're these big, hot plains full of nothing but sand as far as the eye can see!"
"Those big mountains, they're as big as the ones surrounding Trost, made entirely of sand. They're called sand dunes. Can you imagine, Jean? Climbing a mountain made of sand!"
Okay, the ocean was a stretch, but a big plain made of sand is just a little out there. "Why would the sand be in a big pile like that?" I demand. "Wouldn't it just . . . I don't know . . . level out? How'd all that sand get there?"
"Whatever god that placed us here must have willed it," Armin's grandpa hums.
"Maria, maybe, yes."
"It depends on what you believe."
"Didn't Maria split the earth between barren and fertile?" Connie asks, straightening up. "For the lost and for the faithful? Maybe the dis-sert is just the barren part, and the fertile forest is for us."
"Yeah, and the forest stretches on for half the world until it cuts off into a wasteland, right? That makes sense. Shit, where does the ocean fit into that?"
"Well, assuming it exists, it's made of salt water, so I'm guessing that's in the barren half. Salt water would taste so bad!"
"And nothing can live in salt either!"
Connie and I nod at each other sagely, having figured it all out. Sasha remains silent, apparently trying to eat her clean plate.
Shit, my own food is getting cold. I wolf down a few more bites of omelet as Armin's grandpa gets up to bustle around and collect Sasha's plate before she licks a hole right through it. Who knows how many other dishes have fallen victim to her voraciousness.
Fuck, I'm the only one who hasn't finished eating. I'm kind of full anyway, amazing as this omelet is. I hand my almost-finished plate to Armin's grandpa when he comes around for it. "Was this made all right, Jean? Do I need to do anything different?" he asks with the earnestness of a man who takes others' comforts very seriously.
I give him a half-smile and nod. "Nah, it was awesome. Thanks." The warmth in his earthy eyes remind me of Marco's.
As he bustles into the kitchen, I look around his living room again, wondering if I'll see something else fantastical like a landscape where trees grow upside down or a mountain that breathes fire. Instead I see the sun outside, low enough in the sky to still be visible from the windows. Oh- Oh shit! I have to work! I jump to my feet, casting around for anything I might have brought with me to Armin's grandpa's house. "What?" Sasha asks, looking up at my sudden movement.
"I just realized I have to work in, like, now- fuck, I'm not even dressed!" I scoff at myself, turning a quick circle and trying to remember if I actually did bring a bag or not. I didn't, right? Yeah, no, I didn't, I left the house empty-handed.
"Oh, shit, we kidnapped you," Connie muses.
"No it was fine!" I blurt out, whirling on him. "It was totally, completely- not bad, at all. Th-Thank you, actually! For inviting me. Guys." I look over at Armin and try to smile like a normal person instead of the wobbly thing on my face right now. "Thanks for letting me over."
"Awwww, Jean," Connie and Sasha croon - a most harmonious sound (that I missed) - and Armin beams back.
"Of course, Jean! Thanks for coming. It was really nice seeing you again."
We don't comment on what the "again" part refers to, but I can tell he means it. "Thank you. Now shit! I gotta run!"
"Byeee," all three chorus after me as I awkwardly speed out the back door, waving; after two steps outside I pop my head back in and call, "Tell your grandpa I said thanks!"
Most of the cats have cleared out; I don't see a great black back, so I assume Nax and Rose are gone too. I prance around the house and back toward town before realizing the house has such big windows that the three could probably see me trotting like an idiot. I slow to a respectable pace, heat rising in my cheeks. Yeah, well, what's the use for such big windows anyway? My mind races, overanalyzing everything I did and said, trying to lend clarity to any moments where I felt confused and reassurance to those where I felt awkward.
Was I nosy? Was I rude? Was I awkward and out of place? Unwanted? Most likely. Most definitely. No, wait, they invited me! They wouldn't have invited me if they didn't want me to be there. It's their fault if they regretted it later!
Shit, I should've thanked Armin's grandpa again. Shit, I shouldn't have stared around so much. I should've talked more- no, no, less!
This is why I don't interact with people, holy shit. I'm not up for an endless round of did I or didn't I in terms of succeeding at seeming like a functional human being.
But I'd be lying if I said my mind's not going to refer to this morning every free second of every day for the next month or so.
Reiner's not mad that I'm late. I don't actually think he notices, though he does look up with expectation at my coming. "Hey, Jeanbo!" he greets. "Your-"
"Don't call me that!"
"Dearest Jeanbo. Your girlfriend's here in the back. She seems impatient. Don't keep her waiting!"
Ymir? I hum a "huh" and pass Reiner into the bakery. People still crowd in the plaza, though most of them have dispersed. The freer is gone, as is the MP. Nile Dok and Pastor Nick are roving around the square, talking to random groups of people. A pair of teenagers, Pastor Nick's alter servers, by the looks of their white robes, scrub the blood out of the stone of the dais.
Ymir is settled on the counter, absentmindedly rolling a ball of dough around between her palms. As I come in she tosses it to me and snorts as I manage to catch it with a flail. "Morning, sleepy."
"This can't be good," I say, setting the dough down on my cutting board. I tilt my head and give her a look.
She gives a half-smile, but it doesn't quite reach her eyes. Something's getting to her today. "So optimistic. I can't drop by to say hello?"
"Well, I mean, you can. Is something wrong with Marco?"
"No . . . well, not technically. I was going to run up and check on him today, but . . ." Her lip curls. "Jolly old Nile and Nick out there talked me into another meeting with the MP. And by 'talked me into' I mean they showed up at my house with ten MP members and heavily hinted they'd burn my shit down if I didn't come." She grumbles under her breath. "Where were you just now?"
"At . . . a friend's house."
"You have friends?"
"Ha ha. You know, you could've said no to Nile and Pastor Nick if you don't want to talk to them so bad." I turn away, rummaging around and setting up my station for the day, lining up knives to polish and shaking different flour breeds in wooden bowls.
"Like, I know you don't like them for whatever reason, but if you tell them you really don't want to be in the MP, they'll leave you alone and you won't have to deal with losing your time anymore. They probably have other candidates to get to."
"With the way they nag me, you'd think I'm the last able-bodied person for miles," Ymir groans, rubbing her eyes. She looks, and sounds, tired.
"Well, what have you been saying to them?"
"Everything from 'no' to 'fuck yourselves' with varying degrees of fondness. This has been going on for almost a year now, Jean, I don't think they're really interested in my excuses."
I frown, troubled and not pinning down why. "What do they even say to you?"
"Join us or . . . they don't specify."
"I don't get, like, why? What's so special about you that they need you in the MP?"
Ymir doesn't answer. I purse my lips, glancing at her over my shoulder. She's leaning forward with her elbows on her knees, leaning her chin in her hands and staring at the floor. "When do they expect you, now?"
"As soon as they're done chatting up the people in the square, yeah."
"Did you just wake up? I didn't see you at the execution today."
"I'm not interested in your people's gore fetish."
I widen my eyes in surprise at the sudden ferocity in her voice, pouring water into a wooden bowl for cleaning my hands throughout the day. "What does that mean?"
I decide not to pursue it. Maybe it's the way that amazing omelet is settling in my gut, or the high I'm riding from talking to more than three people in one morning, but I don't want to see her sad. "Hey, whenever they're done talking to you, come back and I'll give you a free table loaf or something. Or if it takes that long we can grab dinner, as long as it's on you."
Ymir is startled into chuckles. "Asking me out on a date, then insisting I pay? The ladies and gents must be clawing at your doorstep."
"Stop!" I yelp, a blush rising to my cheeks for reasons unknown. "I didn't mean it like that. You just look tired." I narrow my eyes. "Besides, I am young and broke."
"Says the kid rolling in dough!"
"Literally, not metaphorically!"
Ymir shakes her head, and I feel some relief at the smile on her face. "Nah, I'm sure your folks wouldn't approve. And . . . every other folk wouldn't, either. Hunting with me is a stretch by itself."
She must be getting different feedback. The only reception I've gotten is awe and jealousy, not including my parents' mistrust. "So I'm guessing you want me to go check on Marco?"
"Yeah, if you don't mind. Ask Reiner for the last half of the day and run up there to check up on him. You might have to stay a while, and he won't be in his usual place, so don't bother whistling."
"'Check up'? Is he okay? And why today? It's a Sunday." I gesture outside, as if the day is written in the clouds.
"Oh, you'll see when you get to him. You remember how to get to his cave, right? Good. If you go along that cliff east, you'll eventually see a little brook. Follow that brook north and when you hit a big area-" She spreads her arms out, fingers splayed and down. "-with a sequence of waterfalls, you'll find Marco. Just call for him then."
"This is weird. Can't you tell me what's going on?"
"It'd take too long to explain. He'll do it when you get there. For now . . ." She slides off the counter, landing on her feet with a thud. "I guess I've done enough hiding, unfortunately. Hopefully they don't . . . never mind. See you later, Jean."
"Seeya," I say a little sadly, watching her go.
She stops at the door, peeks outside, then turns to me again. "And listen. Marco's not in his right mind right now, so I need you to be as patient as possible for him. Try not to get freaked out, yeah? And don't make him feel weirder than he already feels. I'm trusting you not to do anything stupid when he can't defend himself, physically nor mentally."
"This, all of this, sounds ominous as hell. And you know I'm not gonna hurt Marco!"
"Oh, don't worry, it's normal. This is probably one of the last times you'll see Marco this year, so try to enjoy his company." She ducks out then with a wave before I can say anything else, though I utter a vocalization for her to wait, but she doesn't come back in, leaving me more perturbed than ever.
Reiner approves my early absence with no trouble at all, though with a joke about my excessive absences on Ymir's behalf, surely for nefarious and lecherous reasons. I stop home to get a thicker coat and more comfortable boots for the trek, finally changing out of my pajamas and wondering all the time what could possibly be going on with Marco. Not in his right mind? This doesn't have to do anything with the berserk state, does it? No, it can't be; if it was, Ymir would've warned me for safety's sake, knowing my incautious ass. But it's something that might freak me out, so what? Does Marco have some third form? Is this something like when he eats whole deer?
The sun is high in the sky when I embark into the woods, barely permeating the cold air as I wait until no one's around to slip out of sight in case someone wants to look for me; I don't want anyone following me. It's snowed a couple of times the last few days, but not heavily enough to stick.
You wouldn't believe the amount of times you have to walk a certain path to memorize the way. Let me tell you about the woods. It's full of trees, and trees all look exactly the same. Every stretch of forest, if it doesn't have random landmarks like a funny-colored boulder or a half-chewed deer corpse with its bones bared for the sun to bleach, looks exactly the same. So you can imagine how easy it is to get lost here! There comes a point every time I make this trek up north where I'm sure I'm lost, thinking, It didn't take this long last time, did it? or Did I accidentally go too far west? or Is this some elaborate dream and I'm sleepwalking? Or did I die and go to a neverending hell forest?
Maybe not so dramatic. But usually right as I begin to panic and tell myself that I'm surely turning around if something doesn't come up soon, the gap between tree trunks widens and sunlight strikes the swaying green grass of Marco's glade.
But I've made landmarks for myself, or more specifically taken note of any variation in my path I can. A peculiar copse of trees with only one stem. A low-hanging branch with jagged stumps like thorny blades instead of twigs. A deer trail so well-run it's turned the earth to sand. A brook barely deep enough to carve a shallow furrow in the dirt beneath, dried up and dead half the time and only sluggishly running at its swiftest. After I memorized things like that the way became simple enough. Maybe one day it'll become easy enough to be like second nature.
Ymir. What am I supposed to think? She's been living here almost ten years; how can she not accept our traditions as normal by now? Isn't there a point where you just . . . assimilate?
I know Pastor Nick and Nile won't do anything bad, they're good people - Ymir's probably the one giving them hell and just complaining about it - but I can't fathom why they don't just leave her and move on to another candidate for the MP.
I wonder what Marco would think of this- though Ymir's probably filled his head with bad stories and biased assumptions like she did with Reiner. Marco did express interest in learning a second perspective. I find myself wanting to discuss this with him. I mean, sure, killing people always sounds bad, but that's how it is.
Trying to keep Ymir's advice in mind, I manage to make it to Marco's cave despite my frozen toes, and from there follow the cliff east. If her ass gets me lost and eaten by a bear I'll physically resurrect myself to drag her to hell with me.
I take a deep breath and holler, "Marco!" as I walk, kicking stones into the creek beside me. "Marco, are you there?" I yell again, listening for an answering call or something. Should I whistle? Maybe I should whistle.
The further I go, the wider and swifter the creek becomes, until the opposite bank grows too distant to jump and I could almost call it a river. Frozen moss-covered rocks and boulders messily clog the water's borders, creating shelves of collected earth for sparse ferns to grow and nearby tree roots to anchor. The clear water gurgles and sparkles over swells and depressions in the river's deep. It's a pretty sight; I'd even be tempted to dip my feet in if the very thought doesn't freeze my toes to the bone.
The forest grows hilly and cliff faces bare themselves as the river cuts through them; I find myself huffing and puffing up and down slopes, sometimes having to creep close to the edge to make sure the river remains below me. At some point I get stuck when a slope looms ahead, too steep for me to climb; I end up backtracking and skittering across the river to its other side over shallow, flat rocks just below the surface, luckily without getting anything more than the soles of my boots wet. If a single drop had touched my socks, it would've been over. I'd be on my way home. Sorry, Marco, I'm not about to get frostbitten for you.
I get so lost in the task of following the twists and turns and hills of the pretty river (I even have to cross over it again to the side I was originally on because the fucking woods just won't quit with the cliffs), as close as I can stay to the water's edge, that when it rounds a bend I don't look up until I'm nearly surrounded by cliff. I look up and freeze, mouth open in wonder. Two solid walls of granite cliff, a hundred feet high, form a large circular area and surround the river below, which cuts through the gorge in stratified levels, forming rumbling waterfalls in three places. A wide pond of water, glimmering as its shaking surface forever wavers from the thunder of the lowest waterfall, feeds the stream I was following. The wintered carcasses of varied foliage clings to any surface that isn't vertical with resilient roots; I wish I could've seen this place when the plants had leaves, because it must've been something to behold.
I don't see my scaly friend. "Marcoooo!" I call over the waterfall's distant thunder, padding closer carefully; the sandspit by the water is wet and wobbly under my feet, and I'd hate to step too hard and get a shoe full of freezing water. "Marco! Where you at?"
A section of the pond is cut off from the rest by a stripe of crumbled rock and dirt; I use it as a bridge to cross to the gorge's right side, nearly falling on my ass a few times when a rock was too wet or unstable and gave way beneath me. I take refuge where there's flora, dead as it is, reasoning the ground has to be more reliable there. I trot closer to the falls, the earth hard beneath me, bare stems scraping against my pants, stepping over bare outcrops of rock. "Helloooo! Anyone here?"
What if Marco went back to his cave? Why would he go outside when it's so cold? Does Marco even know I'm coming? Fuck me, fuck what Ymir said, I should've whistled. "Marco! Oh god, a baba is eating me!" No answer. "I'm dying!" Nothing. "Marco, come on!"
To my left is a ten-foot drop into the pond; to my right is a bare cliff face, heavily pockmarked and dark with bumps and sharp edges. The horizontal shelf I walk upon is a different slab from the vertical part of the cliff, and the deep crack where they meet is about as high as my shoulder in some places and almost as low as my ankles in others, forming a long, shallow rock shelter all along the bottom of the cliff. There's something dark clumped underneath the overhang, still and unmoving, but it's about the size of a freckled naga curled into a ball. "Hellooo? Marco, is that you? That better be you. I swear to god, if whatever you are is about to spring out at me . . ."
I jump a foot in the air when the mass moves, anticipating its movement as I am, but my nerves calm when I hear a low groan. Is this guy even capable of replying to a call with anything but a groan? "Heeey, finally! Christ, I've been calling you forever, dude. You okay?"
I trot up to the cliff and stoop down, reaching in and tapping his cold scales. He's hiding his human part in his snake coils. The part I touched shies away from me with a sudden movement and I teeter back, hand raised. "Whoop, shit. Sorry, didn't mean to startle you. Are you okay? Your sister told me to come and check on you, whatever that means, but you look fine to me, so if you don't mind I'm gonna kick her ass when I get home. This is a weird place to take a nap, by the way. Doesn't the waterfall noise keep you awake? I mean, it's not that loud, and I'm not judging your choices, but how can you fall asleep with that rumble in the background?"
As I chatter Marco unravels himself and reaches out with an arm, dragging himself out from under the cliff with slow movements, his head bowed. His black hair is disheveled and frizzy, which is weird, because as curly as his hair gets he brushes it often and it's never really knotty like that. "Aw, shit, I didn't bring a brush this time. Can you hear me? I'm talking to you here. I just-"
I cut myself off and jerk back with a startled wheeze when Marco lifts his head and opens his eyes. His eyes are blank and featureless, a milky blue-white, completely hiding his iris and pupil.
I scramble back further as he pulls himself out from under the cliff, my mind flying back to the last time his eyes were nearly uniform in one color. "M- are you berserk? H-Hey, Marco!"
He screws up his face and rubs it with his hand, wobbling as he leans on his other arm. "Jean?" he croaks, his voice hoarse like he's got a cough. He waves his hand in front of his face, his snake tongue flitting out rapidly.
"What happened to your eyes? Are you blind?"
Marco's hand hits the dirt again with a slap, the corners of his mouth downturned. "Yes," he sighs, head (and gaze, presumably) focused a little to my right. He emerges more and lifts his human torso off the ground, swinging it low in a slow arc and squinting, like a curious neck letting its head look at something thoroughly. "Where'd you go?"
"Right here," I say, plopping back on my ass and dusting myself off, my heartbeat still racing. Berserk Marco's solid gold eyes flash behind mine. "Oh my god, what happened to you?" They look like the eyes of a blind old dog that used to follow people around in the plaza, begging for food and pets.
Marco, clearly unable to find me, gropes his hand around, and I offer mine. He brushes against my hand, then grabs it, drawing closer to me. His intensely white eyes, formerly so dark, are so unnerving I almost have to look away. "You sound worried."
"Well, yeah! Holy shit, you're blind!"
He chuckles, but I get the feeling he doesn't find it funny. "You don't need to worry. I'll be un-blind in a few days, I'm just . . ." He trails off with a sigh, patting up my arm to my shoulder. "You're freezing."
"And you're blind! Why are you blind?"
"I'm just shedding," he grumbles, then suddenly collapses his human torso across my lap. Whoa, okay there, Marco. He rolls stiffly onto his back, wiggling around until his head is pillowed on my thigh, then sighs like he's a million years old. "And tired, and hungry and cold . . ."
My hands hover by my head, not really sure where to put them, or even what to do about the sudden weight on my lap. I settle on stiffly placing them at my sides. "Uh."
"Can I sleep? Can I sleep here?" he groans bluntly, blinking his blind eyes up at me. If I look close, I can just see the border of his pupil against his iris under that eerie whiteness."I'm so tired, Jean."
"Why . . . what. Marco, can you explain this to me in terms I'll understand?"
"Didn't Ymir tell you what happens when I shed?"
"Yeah, no. She said you would."
"She should have!"
"Well, she didn't!"
"Ugh," Marco groans, his voice squeaking a little at the end; he doesn't seem to have much control over it, like it gets when you wake up in the middle of the night and you're too tired to focus. "I go blind because- because I'm all wet and soggy and god I feel so ughhh-" He covers his face with his hands, mumbling something imperceptible behind them. He opens his hands to blink dazedly up at me. "Sorry. Do you know what shedding is at all?"
"Uhh, isn't it when your hair comes out?"
"My scales come out- no, off. My scales come off every once in a while because that is how scales grow, they just . . ." He wiggles his hands in front of his face. "They grow under the old scales, then sometimes the old scales pull off and the new scales are there. Am I even speaking Idem? I'm sorry, I cannot think of anything at all right now. Can I just sleep?"
"No, don't fall asleep! What does this have to do with being blind?"
Marco whines and screws up his face. "There's a- a- I can't even remember, I'm so tired. I'm so tired . . . but when I try to sleep, I can't see, I don't know what's around me-"
"Okay, okay, you can sleep. Man, when's the last time you slept?" I breathe, bending over him to squint at the dark bags beneath his eyes. He's paler than usual, and that's not just from the lack of sun. His hands come to rest on his lower stomach, and I see that they're shaking.
"Few . . . few days ago."
"Marco!" I exclaim. "You haven't slept in days? Why?"
"I don't feel good, sleeping out here," Marco whines pathetically. "Every noise is scary."
"Oh my god, you big baby- okay, look, you want . . . you want me to stick around while you sleep?"
Marco screws up his face, but nods. "Sorry," he groans. "If you had plans today. T-Tell me them when I wake up. An' how your day was . . ."
"Okay, uh . . ." I look around for something to lean against; the base of my neck is already aching from leaning over Marco with nothing to hold me up. Eyeing a nearby tree that's tilted so that its canopy hangs over the water, I nudge Marco off of me and grab his hand, tugging him after me. "C'mon, sleepy."
I have to haul him a few feet before he starts slithering on his own; hey, if he took the initiative to throw himself face-first on my crotch, I'm going to take the liberty of dragging the dude, okay? I shove him back with my palm on his forehead when he tries to keep on slithering to stop him from running straight into the tree and kneel down, contemplating it. The bark doesn't look too scratchy, and there's even a funny knot around head-height that I can probably lean my head against if my neck gets tired. I turn around and sit against it, leaning back. The ground is frozen and frigid, and the bark hard and unforgiving, but it'll do. I lean forward and tug on a strand of Marco's bangs, whipping my hand back when he swipes at me with a grumble. "All right, c'mere."
Marco grabs my outstretched hand, using it to guide himself to me, then flops on my lap like he did before. I'm starting to accept this as normal at this point. Like an old man turning in bed he shifts and slides, shoulders nudging, snake body arcing up and hitting the hard ground in little frustrated waves, until Marco's on his back, head pillowed on my lap and sighing. He shuts his eyes and groans again. "H-Hey, you can wake me up if you need to move."
"I'll let you know," I reply, my hands kind of hovering in the air until he settles down, then letting them rest on the ground on either side of me - that is, until I touch the freezing carpet of leaves beneath me and grimace. I cross my arms over my chest, fingers jammed into my armpits. "Night."
Marco locks his fingers together and stretches his arms to the sky above him, then relaxes; his torso moves and hovers a little as his snake body situates itself in circles around me, coils shoving over my calves and bunching up on either sides of me. I wiggle my feet around, making sure my blood flow isn't going to get cut off by the mass of Marco's body. He's not heavy at all (actually his snake body is kind of eerily light, despite being a very solid pressure) but there's thirty feet of him, and he just clumped most of it on top of me. This is the kind of stuff he only does with Ymir; delirious and sleep-drunk as he is, it still reassures me that he actually likes and trusts me enough to clamber all over me.
Such an interesting day this is.
Holy shit, is Marco sleeping already? His head is tilted to the side away from me, his puffed eyes shut and mouth slightly ajar, not revealing much more than chapped lips and the bottoms of his two front teeth. I wonder where his snake tongue is. Maybe one day he'll deign to show me, since he's so secretive. How can I make him less so, complimenting his more unique qualities? Marco, your scales are looking extra shiny today. Your jaw is looking very stretchy this evening.
I tip my head back instead of staring at his face like a creeper, looking at the craggy lip of the granite high above me. Thin, precariously-balanced trees, white and lifeless, hang in dense clumps over the edge of the cliff high above me, with lifeless roots of a stronger stuff than time and erosion to keep them there through the winter. I watch a trio of birds flit from the cliff above to a tree on the shelf I rest on, perching on branches for only seconds at a time before shuffling to new ones, like they can't be content with where they are.
I didn't bring anything to keep my hands or head busy, so I daydream for a while, watching wispy clouds float by high above through the icy blue sky, keeping some amount of warmth as my face gets used to the chill and my hands seek snug refuge in my armpits. I go still for the two or three times that Marco shifts so as not to disturb him, rousing only to swallow or tilt his head to a different side before going still again. Is it just me, or is he getting a little bit warmer (this information was collected through a discreet touch to his shoulder)? Am I, the walking icicle, keeping him that warm? Well, good for us. Seems I am capable of some heat generation.
I can't believe Ymir made me come out here just to turn me into Marco's pillow. Okay, Marco looks really peaceful right now, and I'm glad he's comfortable, but . . . well, but nothing. I just can't believe Ymir bade me become the scary village naga's pillow.
Hah! Scary. Look at him. Could danger come from such a gentle face? What, is he going to smile someone to death?
Imagine Armin finding Marco. I entertain that trail of thought for a while, closing my eyes because I've exhausted everything within my field of vision. Would Armin tattle on him, or become his friend? Marco could take Armin to the ocean, oh, Armin would kiss his tail for that. For some reason, between Marco's unassuming friendliness and Armin's quiet intellect, I could picture them becoming pretty good friends.
I open my eyes again, peeking down at Marco. His head is tilted and tucked toward his right shoulder, his hands crossed neatly over his stomach. I can't believe he put off sleep for entire days. I'm going to have to have a serious chat with this young man. If he doesn't feel right sleeping in the open, he can't be going out gallivanting and losing-
Marco's not breathing.
Oh my god, Marco is not breathing.
I stare at his chest so hard I could resuscitate him with just my eyes, waiting to be absolutely sure I have something to panic about. Five seconds tick by. Marco's chest does not move. Please, oh please, let this be a snake thing. Ten seconds . . . fifteen. Okay, oh my god, he's not breathing. Marco is not breathing.
I lean forward and grab him and he springs to life, his arms jerking up in front of his face. "Whabigit!"
"Oohh my god," I huff, slapping a hand to my chest and clutching it. "A-Are you okay? What the fuck? Dude, you stopped breathing."
Marco leans up, squinting around like he has no idea where he is, then flops back down and closes his eyes. "H-Hey!" I exclaim, grabbing his arm and pulling it. "What the hell was that?"
"Was whaatttt," Marco rasps, squeezing his eyes shut.
"You weren't breathing! At all!"
"It's normal? It's normal for you not to breathe?"
"Go t'sleep," he slurs, rolling stiffly away from me until his back faces me. He thumps his head around until it's comfortably settled on my thigh just above my knee, then goes still, chest rising and falling in a big shuddery sigh.
I lean forward to hover over his shoulder, squinting at his face. "Hey, you're fuckin' weird."
His hand lolls up and back to swat in my general direction before falling limply in front of him. "Yeah, that's what I thought."
My back hits the tree trunk again with a thud as I cross my arms, heart rate still pretty fast, staring at Marco's back. I watch the dome of his ribs and the slope of his waist with borderline frantic eyes, practically burning a hole in his skin, and I exhale a sigh of relief as, about thirty seconds in, Marco's chest swells with a slow breath, then relaxes. At the same time a section of his snake body also inflates, then deflates in sync with his human half. Another long pause ensues, then the cycle repeats.
Maybe it's because Marco's so big, and apparently has more than two lungs, judging by the movement of his snake body as well as his human torso. Whatever! I'm used to weird shit with Marco at this point. Almost had a heart attack, it's fine. Shit, he's fucking blind. Nothing is stranger than that right now.
A curve of his snake body, toward the end, is near my left elbow; inside a coil I can see the very tip of his tail sticking up into the air, resting against his own side. I reach for it, careful not to jostle Marco, and grab it; I drag it toward me and squint at it. The tip is as thick as my thumb and hard and dense; I pick at the tiny scales running up and down its surface, each about as big as a fingernail. I pull it forward a little more, dragging more of his snake body closer and frowning as part of it rolls over to expose the lighter scales of his belly. Is it just me, or are his scales not usually this dull? Did the belly ones always have that odd blue sheen, almost iridescent, like there's something dark beneath the ivory? Marco's tail flexes, pulling at the tip in his sleep; I tug back, and he rips his tail out of my hands with a twitch of his scaly hindquarters, with not a shift of his human half. "Fine," I huff. "Don't let me have fun."
I tilt my head back, now officially run out of things to amuse myself. I gaze up at the clouds, watching them slowly drift by, and I don't know when or how I fell asleep, but maybe the thunder of the waterfall behind me turned soothing instead of distracting, and I jolt awake when Marco shifts in his sleep as well, rolling a coil of his body against my thigh. I suck in a big breath through my nose and rub my eyes, yawning. My eyelids feel heavy and my mind sluggish, the opposite of rested after an afternoon nap. My ass is really starting to hurt, and the base of my neck, though I swear I'm resting it flat on the bark, keeps getting more and more sore.
Marco slowly rolls closer to me from his side to his back, wriggling his shoulders to get more comfortable on my thigh and keeping his eyes closed. You know, the more I look at him, the more I kind of want to draw him. Is that strange? I haven't drawn a thing in years, but I really want to bust out the pencil and capture his likeness. I'd be the first one to do so, and I can imagine Marco would jump at the chance to be- wait. Would he like being drawn, or feel self-conscious if put down on paper? Both are equally plausible. It's enough to make me banish the thought for now (not to mention, Marco might be one of those people that's always like, "Oh my god, draw me!" or, "Draw this!" which, trust me, gets real old real quick).
Marco's awfully handsome, now that I study him. I mean, I've been studying him this whole time, but the back of his head is practically on my dick at the moment, and that's the kind of position that just begs for one's attention. Ymir's face and features are angular, full of triangles. Marco's face shape is much more square. Strong jaw and chin, wide forehead, big, expressive eyes, and a button-like nose. His black hair is really thick (I know because Marco's a prime target for hair-ruffling; poor boy's just so trusting when you call him over to "show him something") and, when it's brushed, looks practically inky. Very tempting to try and recreate with charcoal or something similar. I trace the outline of his face with my eyes, mentally planning it out.
Marco's eyes open, staring sightlessly into the clouds. "Prince?"
I open my mouth to say something, but can't think of how to respond. "Prince, are you there?" Marco asks again, his voice taking on an odd lilt that mixes strangely with his accent. His fingers rove over the dirt, questing out to feel for something.
"Um . . ."
Marco jumps, his whole body jerking with surprise at the sound of my voice. "Ymir . . . ? No, Jean." He lifts his head up, squinting around, then thumps his head back on my thigh. "Hi, Jean."
"Hey. What did you just call me?"
Marco stretches his arms out in front of him, linked at the fingers. "What, Jean?"
"No, 'Prince.' You just called me 'Prince.'"
Marco's face screws up in confusion, his head tilted vaguely toward me. "I did?"
He shrugs. His voice has returned to its usual inflection, and is much less groggy. "I don't know. Also, were you touching my tail before? I dreamed you picked my tail up but I'm not sure if that was real."
"Oh, yeah, I did do that. Hey, so like . . . ?"
I trail off as Marco's snake body ripples to form a big circle, movements stiff and jerky; he lifts his human torso off me and shrugs some leaves off of his back, hovering almost ten feet off the ground. "And you shook me once. Was that a dream too?"
I lean forward to stretch my back, arching it forward and groaning as my spine cracks. "No, that was real too. Why the fuck do you breathe so weird?"
"I don't know that either."
"You could've warned me about that! I thought I was gonna start bawling. How do you feel?"
"So much better," he sighs, lowering his human half more to the ground, then waving his arms around. "Uh, where are you?"
I stand, rubbing my sore neck, and grab his wrist, tugging him to my side, where he locks his arm around mine. "Why would you have bawled?" he asks.
"Because I thought you died on me or some shit! I was terrified!"
He pats around my shirt with his free hand, then, after apparently feeling where my shoulder is, rests his head on it, grinning. "Aww, do you care about me, Jean?"
"Oh, yeah, obviously, my heart just races at the thought of you." I stab his head with my chin, which I've been told is very sharp, and the reputation apparently lives on as Marco yelps and pulls away to rub his hair.
I open my mouth to ask Marco about what he said again, but he speaks before I do. "I mean, I hope you care about me after all this time. I care about you. Why did you come and not Ymir?"
"She got . . ." Ymir's despondent face flashes behind my eyes, and my mood sobers. ". . . held up."
"Is that a good 'held up' or a bad 'held up'?"
"Not entirely sure, to be honest. C'mon, why the hell did you come all the way out here to be miserable? Let's go back to your cave."
"I need water," he grumbles, but he starts slithering, arm in arm with me. I guide him through the grass on the smoothest path I can, instructing him to lift himself over sharp rocks and logs and things, and warning him of the precarious nature of the terrain closest to the water. If I follow the river in the opposite direction, I should be able to get to Marco's cave easily.
Well into the trek back, as I fret over Marco slowly navigating his body down a steep slope, hooking his body around trees to keep himself from rolling, I'm like, "Oh, yeah! What the hell's with the blind thing? You said you were shedding?"
"Oh, I didn't tell you? I can't remember a thing. I was so sleep-deprived." Marco clutches my arm a little tighter and grimaces as we skid down a patch of leaves (he reacted better; I uttered a little scream). "Get us to level ground first before you question me."
"So demanding!" The stream's water bubbles next to us as my aching calves get a rest as I reach level ground, pulling Marco after me. "Who was it that graciously lent you his lap so you could take a snooze, huh? I don't usually offer my legs so easily, you know."
"Oh, I'm so grateful for your thin thighs and knobby knees . . . absolutely terrible pillow, by the way . . ."
"Marco!" I exclaim, laughing and knocking my shoulder into his. "I'm two seconds from just leaving you out here to find your own way back home."
"Don't! I take it back. You're a good pillow, even if you do never stop fucking around."
"Dude, it is so weird when you're talking to me, but not, like, looking me in the face. Now answer my question! What's with the shedding thing and why does it make you blind?"
Marco sighs and lets out a frustrated groan, but I get the feeling it's not at me. "I'm shedding and all my skin is gonna come off soon-"
"What the fuck?!"
"Let me finish or you'll get confused and interrupt me more. Well, I misspoke, it isn't my skin that's coming off. See, when . . . oh, molting occurs periodically throughout a snake's life before a molt the snake stops eating and often hides or moves to a safe place just before shedding the skin becomes dull and dry looking and the eyes become cloudy or blue-colored the inner surface of the old skin liquefies this causes the old skin to separate-"
"Okay, Marco, holy christ," I cut in. "Your voice just, like, sped up and got really monotone. Can you talk like a damn human being?"
He hesitates, blinking, and I think, Shit! That was an asshole thing for me to say. "I mean-"
"It's like . . ." He trails off, sounding like he's about to explain, and I inwardly breathe a sigh of relief; I was afraid I was going to make him sad by pointing out that . . . well . . . he's not technically a human being. "Have you ever had a sunburn?"
"Yeah, shit, I burn like nothin' alive."
"Have you ever had it so bad that your skin comes off afterwards?"
"Oh my god, yeah. Dude, listen, once I fell asleep on my roof, and it was summertime, and I had shorts on, and the tops of my thighs-" I bend over, gripping the front of my pants legs, as if he could see that. "-got so fucking red and, like, I got these huge blisters-"
"-all over my legs, and then when they popped- I'm gonna stop now. Go on."
"Thank you. Definitely not related to what I'm telling you- but I appreciate the contribution! Oh, that sounds so painful."
"For a whole year afterward my skin came off in sheets in the bath. It was brutal."
"Don't make me throw up on you. Where was I?"
"Oh yes, right! My scales come off like sunburn skin sometimes. I hate it, I really do, because it's weird and I really wish I didn't have to do it . . ." He's screwing up his face like he expects me to call him names, his grip on my arm tightening.
"Yeah, come on, dude, I know," I chide gently. "Honestly, I'm picturing it right now and it's not even the weirdest thing you do- not that you do a lot of weird things! But it doesn't sound that bad. Go on."
Marco huffs out a little breath, looking more relaxed. "I did it more often when I was younger- almost once a month, so it was kind of like a period, and in my books that are all written about reptiles they say snakes shed more as they grow, so that is evidence to support that. Have you ever seen a bug molt . . . ? Wait, don't answer that, please, I think I'll stay away from saying examples because you keep getting confused. I shed because the scales don't grow with me, so I have to grow new ones every so often as I get bigger, and after a while of this-" He gestures at himself, at his blind eyes. "-the whole thing comes off like a sock turning inside out."
"Does it hurt?!"
"Not really pain. It's like . . . well, peeling off a very, very resilient scab very, very slowly."
"A huge scab that takes up almost your whole body."
The river's gotten steadily thinner and less rambunctious beside us as we stroll along, arm in arm, Marco stiff and grimacing and me just I don't know enjoying this fuckin' day. I look over my shoulder at Marco's snake body, squinting at it. It's cold as a larder but the sun's still out, and the trees lack leaves; Marco's scales should be shining a little more, right?
"Okay, now that we took forever to get to the point," I snort, "why exactly are your eyes like that . . . ?"
"Ah. That." I snicker, Marco's sagacious and world-weary tone juxtaposing his general ridiculousness. "To get the scales off, they come off me because . . . how do I phrase this. This stuff, this liquid-" He points right at his open eyes, his pupils just discernible, unfocused somewhere over my head. "-unsticks the scales from me, and since my eye caps count as scales, they also get unstuck with this liquid. If the liquid's in my eyes it means it's here as well." He taps the meat of his hand on the scales where his hip would be.
I only halfway understand it, but I don't think he can clarify much better than that. "Is that why you're so dull? Oh my god, no, not you, I mean your scales."
"Oh, you noticed? Yes, it is. I'll be like this for a couple of days, then maybe a day or two after that I'll actually shed."
"Yeah, it wasn't too obvious, but I had a lot of free time when you were lying down . . . okay, you look terrible. Like someone dumped a bucket of icy fuckin' water on you. Are you in pain right now or something?"
"It's not pain, it's . . ." He actually stops slithering, but pouts and oscillates his body rapidly in place, like a person stamping their feet in frustration. Leaves loudly protest under his coils. "I feel sticky and soggy like wearing wet clothes, but I'm still dry, it's so frustrating. Soaking in water helps before the blindness - that's why I like going to the falls - but then when I'm blind it just makes things feel worse, so I can't soak . . ."
"Wait, how long have you been blind?" I ask, tugging him back into motion with me and squinting around, surrounded by monochrome trees. Marco's hill that he suns himself on is closer than before, looming over our right (is that the outcropping where Marco basks, way up there casting a dark shadow beneath its black and reaching rock? Why, I think it is!). Oh, fuck, I hope I can find Marco's cave from this direction! This hilly area looks familiar, at least, and the way rock walls rise out of them.
"I can't see anything except light and dark, and it was . . . maybe a few days?"
"And you can't move around when blind, right? Marco, were you cooped up by those waterfalls for days?"
"Maybe . . ."
I gape at him, then when I realize he can't see my indignation I nudge him and yowl, "Marco! Oh my god, you've gotta eat and shit! Don't tell me you were drinking that dirty-ass pool water next to the falls-"
"Oh my god! Here, let's-" I breathe a sigh of relief as I sight a familiar break in the granite wall; guiding Marco up from the little depression in front of his cave, pointing out where the roots splay rigid and jagged before the entrance so he doesn't run his belly scales into them, I ferry him inside and into his bed. "Okay, so will you be okay? Do you need me to do anything else or whatever? Food?"
Marco trails his fingertips along the lip of his kidney bean-shaped bed-bowl, shuffling his whole body into it, groping around the surface of the blankets within for his favorites. "Can you see the chest between my shelves over there?" He points in the completely wrong direction, but luckily I can see the one he means. "There's some venison in there and jars of water. Can you put them next to my bed?"
There isn't much light shining into his cave at this time of the day, and I have to wait for my eyes to adjust before walking over, but I do as he asks. The chest's (thickly made and airtight to prevent animals from catching the scent of any food within) heavy lid thuds back against the cave wall once I figure out the latch in the near-dark, squinting and turning things over to find what he needs. Jars of spices like black peppercorn, pickled fruits and vegetables, as well as a metal tub (that I snooped inside) full of ice and lemons clank and ting as I shuffle them around in search of meat. Five, six, seven jars of clear water (who is this thirsty? Good lord) get placed at my feet as I finally find a few strips of hard jerky, dark and wrinkly and speckled with salt, wrapped in thin cloth. "How much jerky do you want?"
"I want everything that's in there," Marco's tired voice replies.
"You got it." After closing and latching his food chest, in two trips I set everything next to Marco, who's curled himself in a loose ball, his human half leaning against the lip of the bed on a pillow and most of his snake body buried beneath blankets. His eyelids droop; his hair falls over his face.
He feels around for the food and wrenches a bite out of a jerky strip, chewing slowly. Only when he swallows (Ymir sharpened him up on waiting until his mouth isn't full to talk when speaking a while ago) (I can't believe it was less than two months ago that I looked on in bewildered disgust as the scary naga offered me bread I'd baked with a full mouth) he asks, "Are you staying here or going back to Trost? I'm about to sleep again, so I won't be good company."
"I figured I'd head back, if you don't need anything else. It's cold as hell, man. My fingers are about to break off."
Marco chuckles, sliding down deeper into his bed and rolling onto his back. "You can go. And thank you, Jean," he adds in earnest, "for taking care of me and letting me sleep on your lap. When I can't see every little noise keeps me awake, so thank you for making me feel safe."
The weird wording and plain sincerity makes me feel awkward, so of course I deflect it into jokes. "What the hell, that's so cute." I squat down and ruffle his bangs roughly, earning a yell. "Hey, don't even worry about it or whatever."
"I can't see, that one is not fair!" Marco protests, covering his head.
"All right, fine, god you earned a free one," I grumble with exaggerated irritation, leaning forward on my knees over him and grabbing his hand to stick it in my hair. He sticks his tongue out and grins and ruffles it triumphantly. "Yeah, okay, live it up- OW don't tug on it, bastard! I'm ending this battle right here. Goodbye."
"Have a safe trip back home!" Marco calls as I stand and head for the exit. "Don't let your fingers break off!"
"Eat that fuckin' jerky before you attract a bear or something; I am not fighting one off for you!"
"You would because you caaare about meee!"
"Goodbye, Marco!" I holler pointedly, but it's a different name, a royal name that rebounds around my head all the way home.
It's getting dark by the time I reach Trost again, and no one wants to be out in the dark and the cold; people are closing up shop, lighting candles to illuminate their packing up and offer some meager measure of warmth on his frosty evening. I stop by the bakery to help Reiner close up shop and ask him if Ymir had stopped by at all today, to which he shakes his head; I try to hide my worry, unable to decide whether she's still being held up by the MP or she just went home. I grab that table loaf I promised her and wave Reiner goodbye as I head to her house, my breath fogging up around my face as I practically jog. When I get home, if I still have enough solitude and light, I might just bust out the old sketchbook and try drawing some things.
I hop up Ymir's porch steps, dancing in place as I knock on her doorframe. "Ymiiiir!" I yowl. "Open up, it's me!"
What am I going to do if she's not home after all? Leave this on her stoop? Nah, the raccoons will get it sure as seasons. I don't think I have the mental fortitude to attempt extricating her from the MP base either; the sheer intimidation factor of my potential future workplace is enough to make me give the building a wide berth. "Ymir! You want me to freeze out here, huh? Remember we talked about dinner?"
Her front door opens inward, then the storm door swings out. "Finally, good god, you know how much I fucking hate the-"
"-cold." Oh. We blink at each other, me with my hand still raised to bang on the door again, he with his hand on the knob like he's confused at what I'm doing here. Brilliant me has nothing to say - what would I say? - so I blurt, "'Sup."
". . . 'Sup." Eren's gaze flits from my face to the wrapped-up loaf under my arm, then back. "We're closed."
"I-I'm not here to buy something." What the fuck is even going on? Little half-phrases I could say, as well as the fuzzily-formed faces of my friends (can I even call them my friends?) like Armin and Sasha swim behind my eyes, nothing substantial I can bring forth into words. Fuck Eren right now, I came here for a purpose, something uncomplicated I can focus on. "Yeah, uh, 'scuse me, I gotta bug Ymir-" I shoulder my way past Eren (wow, the closest I've been to him in forever; I'm surprised he doesn't make more of an attempt to stop me besides opening his mouth and staring harder) and stroll into Ymir's house. "Ymir, where the fuck!"
Rose meows from the couch. "Hi, Rosie! I love you," I coo, then swing my middle finger down at the red eyes peering out from under the kitchen table, "and fuck you, whatever-your-name-is-because-I-forgot-it- starts with an A, though- Ymir!"
"What?" an answering yowl sounds from behind her bedroom door, and Ymir emerges, her hair down and waving around her shoulders, not wearing any pants. "What, what's your problem?"
"You stood me up for our dinner date! Go put pants on, I'm getting cold just looking at you." With another grumble Ymir spins around and disappears back into her room, hair spinning in a fan behind her instead of in a long rope like it normally would in a ponytail. I throw myself down on the couch next to Rose, making her bounce a little. She doesn't seem to mind, instead shutting her eyes and rolling onto her back, her round little face completely content. Cats have it so easy.
Eren is still standing at the doorway, staring at me like I've grown a second head. "What?" I demand harshly - and regret it. I don't have the energy to fight right now. Have I mentioned I talk really fast when I'm nervous? Because, oh boy, nothing sets my nerves alight quite like feeling like I'm being judged by Eren fucking Jaeger. Man, I haven't used his full official name in a while. Probably because of Marco fucking Bodt.
"Ymir, do you want me to kick him out?" he calls instead. Excuse me?! I have more of a right to be here than you, and you work here, you goddamn fucking-
"God, no," Ymir says, shutting her bedroom door behind her and crossing over to me on the couch. Is she in sleepwear already? She flops down next to me, leaning back against the arm of the sofa and swinging her legs up into my lap, crossed elegantly at the ankles. "Can't you tell he's my little boyfriend? Look at him, bringing gifts for little old me."
I tickle the bottom of her right foot in revenge, making her jump and yelp. "Ew, god, please don't start telling people we're dating."
"You can go now, Eren," Ymir sighs, gesturing outward with her left hand as she rubs her eyes with the other. "I gotta talk to boyfriend here."
I watch Eren deliberate, my stomach tense, my jaw set, before he eventually gets his coat, hung on the upturned leg of a wicker chair in the middle of the pile on Ymir's floor, and leaves with a wave. Little by little my muscles relax, hurried along by the warm weight of Rose settling against my thigh and purring, practically making my whole leg vibrate. I pet her head gratefully.
Boy, what a day.
Ymir wiggles her toes in my lap. "Now, I'm not the most observant person," she starts, which is a humungous lie, "but is that not the first you've seen Eren in, like, thirty years?"
"Miiiight be. Wait, I saw him today at the execution!"
"Nah, nah, but here you just made eye contact! Exchanged words!" Now that Eren's gone, her voice morphs easily back into that accent she naturally sports, her "th"s turning to "d"s, her "oh"s turning to "uh"s, the emphasis she places on words shifting all across the letters until they feel like completely different words, had I not gotten used to this accent already through Marco's thicker pronunciation.
"Yeah, don't talk like it'll be a regular thing," I huff, scratching the side of Rose's gray head. "I didn't know he was here." I squint at her from the side. "Why was he here?"
"We were f-"
"Don't say 'fucking'!"
"-finishing packing up, oh my god, assumption much? Rosie, c'mere!" she calls, patting her stomach. "Rosieee, love me, c'mon!" Rose makes an adorable noise and heaves her fat little body to her feet, padding over my thighs and up Ymir's body to flop in the crook of her arm. "My little baby! By the way, why are you so frightened of my sex life?"
"Because Eren is fifteen, you're seventy, and that's downright predatory?"
"You're so concerned for his welfare, Jean. Good thing he has someone like you to look after him."
"Your brother is blind, by the way," I cut in, annoyed, "but otherwise he's fine. He cooped himself up near those dumb waterfalls while he was blind! He can't be doing that - what if he couldn't get home?"
"He does that sometimes when he sleeps too long and gets blind before he can get to his cave. I had a feeling he would do that. He's all right, though? You did bring him back?"
"Yeah, no, don't even worry, he's fine. I got to the waterfall place and he was just trying to sleep, so we stayed there for a while so he could sleep on my lap, then I took him to his cave. Was I supposed to do anything else for him? I gave him the food and water he asked for, but, like . . . take him for a walk? Change his bedding? What?"
"He's not a dog," Ymir scolds, so I refrain from laughing at my own joke. That was kind of asshole-ish. "As long as you did what he asked, you're fine."
"So . . ." I start talking quickly just to cover up that bad joke that just slipped out. "His scales come off 'like a sock turning inside out', he said."
"Yes indeed. The new coat is so shiny! And the process itself is pretty cool-looking, if you ask me. Not that I remember too well, anyway. He doesn't let me watch anymore - says it's too weird." She shakes her head. "As if I haven't already seen it all."
"He needs his privacy," I hum.
"Bad news, by the way, Jim. Can you make it out to this Wednesday?"
"What? Yeah, of course. What's bad news?"
"That's the last visit of the season," Ymir hums grimly. "It's too cold for Marco to stick around anymore, so he's gonna- oh shit. Did I ever tell you what brumating is?"
"No?" I answer, alarmed at the "last visit" bit. Oh my god, what now? Big words mean big meanings (wow, what a coherent thought, Kirschtein). What could be worse than being able to smell emotions, periodically going blind and slough body parts off, and gobbling down deer whole?
"Okay." Ymir pauses for almost ten seconds as she apparently formulates her response. This better be a doozy. "It's basically hibernation, but for reptiles."
"No, he brumates. See, you know how cold he gets, and how it fucks up how he moves? He doesn't do well in the cold cold. So he goes to sleep for the winter and wakes up in the spring and everything's all good."
"So . . . so we're not visiting him at all in the winter? I thought we were . . ." My heart sinks at this. Just when I began enjoying myself, all of it has to end?
It takes me a moment to realize I wasn't thinking about the archery lessons.
"I will to check on him, but not as often. There's no point, since he'll be asleep. It's not something you have to worry about." Ymir leans her head back on the arm of the couch, gazing up at the ceiling as she rubs idle circles into Rose's head. "But back to Marco in the present day. How about when you first saw him? He was so sleep-deprived, right? Could barely speak, right?"
Chary to reveal how perturbed I am, I say in a rush, "Yeah, it was eerie! I mean, I guess I know a little of how that feels. I once stayed up all night, like, I don't even remember what I was doing, but I didn't sleep until the next night and I just couldn't do anything. I couldn't concentrate on anything, even talking. I actually started hearing things."
"And imagine what was going on in Marco's head, huh? He can go for several days, just because being blind makes him feel so insecure."
"Poor guy. He shouldn't be keeping food in his cave, by the way. What if a bear smells it?"
"The chest where he keeps his food is airtight! It doesn't smell!"
"Yeah, well, I've been thinking about a bear mauling him like all day and it's scaring the shit out of me. You'd better be ri- OH MY GOD, Ymir! He fucking stopped breathing and-"
"How was he acting when he hadn't slept yet?" Ymir cuts in, totally interrupting my amazing tale about how I almost died when I thought Marco stopped breathing.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean . . . what did he do, what did he say, things like that."
That's oddly specific, but she might just be checking on his health or something. "He was just kind of loopy." A feeling of sudden disquiet settles on me when I remember something else. "Wait, uh." Ymir's eyes are locked on me. "Well, this is kind of random, but when he woke up he called me a strange name."
"He called me 'Prince.' And he asked me where I was, even though he was lying right on me. I don't know, his voice started sounding weird. What's with that?"
Ymir straightens up; Rose makes a little noise of protest and reaches up with an outstretched paw. "What exactly did he say to you, verbatim?"
"Oh, uh," I say in a quiet voice at her sudden interest. "He just said, 'Prince,' and then something like, 'Where are you.' Wait, no! He said, 'Are you there?' It was really weird."
"And then what?"
"Then I kind of made a noise and he jumped like he was waking up for the first time. He said he didn't remember calling me Prince, and I mean, it's a great compliment, 'cause I don't blame him for mistaking me for royalty, but-"
"And he didn't mention Prince at all, aside from that?"
"No, he didn't." I reach over to pet Rose because I feel like I'm discussing something bigger than I realize and I don't know what to do about it. "So is that a thing with him, or . . . ?"
Ymir sucks in a deep breath through her nose, settling down again from her alert position. "So," she begins, "I'm sure you've noticed Marco talks to himself sometimes, right?"
"Yeah, even when we're around. Like, he continues the conversation."
"He's not talking to himself. Not really." Ymir crosses her hands over her stomach. "He talks to this person he calls The Prince. Like an imaginary friend, though I don't think he's made up."
That almost makes my hair stand up. "What do you mean?"
"Let me get to it. Have you noticed he's almost called you Prince too?"
I almost deny it, but then think back his tired and timid behavior when I first had to walk him up to bask, and just before he let me touch his scales, and after he saved me from the baba. He addressed someone whose name began with P, but cut himself off just in time. "Yeah . . . a few times."
"He's done it to me more times than I can count. He talks to this guy so often that he slips up and calls anyone that. He always pretends he never did, so he's definitely keeping it deliberately secret . . ."
"Is this . . . a bad thing?" When Ymir looks at me, her eyebrow raised, I shrug. "So he's got an imaginary friend. I had imaginary friends when I was younger. He might be embarrassed because he's so old now and he still has one."
"When you were younger, yeah. Listen. When he's not paying attention I overhear some of the . . . conversation. I don't think this is just an imaginary friend, and I want to know who exactly this person is. So far I've heard him talk about some pretty strange things, usually when he's sleep-deprived. Off the top of my head, he once told The Prince to, uh, 'Let him out.' And to 'get away from the bars, because they're cold.'"
"Bars . . . ?" What the hell would he be talking about? Let him out? He lives outside. What cold bars could he be trying to stay away from?
"I've been listening for quite a while, and here's what I think. I think this person, this man, has to do with how he was made, like maybe The Prince was someone he knew, someone who was with him when he was kidnapped and turned into a naga all those years ago," Ymir intones. "And judging from what I've heard, I think The Prince was the one who took him. For some reason he just keeps talking to this guy- this royal guy, or something. And sometimes, when he gets too deep into the conversation, it's like it takes him back to when he was captured and he's seven years old again."
Seven years old again. My mouth opens with muted revelation when I realize what was so off about Marco's voice when he woke up and said those strange words. He'd adopted the wheedling, clumsy pronunciation of a child. My head is starting to hurt from following this. Ymir goes on, "I want to know what happened to him. I want to know how exactly they changed my baby brother into what he is now, and The Prince might be the way to find out. You saw how weak Marco was when he'd gone days without sleep. Believe me, if he doesn't have someone around to watch him because of his blindness, he's too anxious to sleep, and he will stay awake for days. Jean, why is it that we can't just ask Marco what happened to him?"
My mouth opens and closes a few times, unsure of what words to produce. "Because it fucks with him?" I supply. "He doesn't want to think about it. He goes berserk if he does."
"Exactly. We can't ask him because if we push him too far, he remembers how he was made, panics, and goes into the berserk state. Sooo . . ." She looks to the side, like she's checking to see if someone's listening, before piercing me with her stare again. "What happens when we ask him when he can't go into the berserk state?"
Something about this does not sit right. Too much technical talk, too much insidious insinuations. "Like when he's shedding. When he hasn't slept and he's too tired to get triggered."
"Exactly. Trust me, I've pushed him. I think under certain circumstances he can't get into the berserk state because it takes too much energy he doesn't have. I want to find out what happened and I think you do too. How would you feel about helping me out?"
"Easy. When he doesn't seem, uh, coherent, when he hasn't slept for days, just ask him some questions. Try to find out who The Prince is, or how they turned his legs into that. Don't worry about making him berserk; he's too exhausted to do so. More often than not he falls asleep before he can answer - it's why I haven't gotten much progress, honestly. But if you get anything out of him, come and tell me. We can figure this out."
I swallow, my heart beating hard for some reason. "This doesn't feel right. This feels, like . . . manipulative."
"Manipulative? Jean, he can't remember it when he's that tired. He won't even know. He hasn't caught me yet, obviously," she snorts. "We're just doing a little investigating, and he's none the wiser. It's not hurting him, so why not?"
I bite my lip, fidgeting under her gaze and the guilt of my curiosity. Yeah, I do really want to know who did this to Marco and how. I want to know who in the world has the power to turn legs into a snake body. It's for a good cause, right? If we know more about Marco's condition, we can better help him, or something. This isn't about just curiosity. It's about knowing what dangers exist in the world. Imagine this Prince coming to Trost. Would the information we could draw from Marco be able to help us then?
"I guess I can try," I grumble eventually. "I'm not sure what progress I can make, I mean, if you've been doing this for . . . how long?"
"A few years now, back when I really started noticing how much he talks to himself. And since he only sheds a few times a year, I don't get the opportunity much. I figure someone else to help me might speed things along." Ymir flashes me a rare smile - not a grin or a smirk that she's so fond of, but a real, genuine smile, a soft upturn of her lips rather than an eyebrow-scrunching leer that precedes a quip or insult and bares white canines. It makes her sharp face look gentle. I melt under it, my face heating up all of a sudden.
Fuck, I do not have a crush on Ymir right now. Damn it, why can't I make a single friend without crushing on them at some point? Fuck!
"Yeah, uh . . . yeah," I agree lamely. "I'll help you." I'm an asshole.
I'm going to regret this, aren't I?
"Good," Ymir says with satisfaction. "Pretend nothing's going on when he's lucid and we'll be all good. Tell me everything he says word-for-word, if you can, and we'll try to figure it out together."
"Some fucked-up guy, this Prince is," I mumble, "kidnapping people and fucking up their bodies."
"Yeah, no kidding." Ymir plays with her fingers, the shadowed look on her face reminding me of this morning. Tired agitation has no place on her face. I don't like seeing it there.
"Hey," I say, patting her shin. "What's up?"
"Wha?" She looks up sharply, eyes widened in surprise. "What?"
"You've got a weird look on your face. And melancholy doesn't look good on you! You're supposed to, you know, draw life from the youthful and shit to live forever. Feed off my misery. Come on, I'm the youngest and prettiest." I indicate my own face, blinking rapidly in mock flirtation.
"You have the weirdest way of being worried for your friends," Ymir sighs. She tips her head forward to rub her eyes, scrunching her nose up. "Sorry, I guess. I was just thinking. When, uh, when bodies started appearing in the Jinae area . . . well, there were a lot of suspicious folks living there, and the whole town was so scared anyway. People started saying the bodies were cursed. That if you touched or moved one - hell, even looked at one too long without making a-a hand gesture to ward away bad spirits - you'd be afflicted with bad fortune, or infertility, or something else bad. Even a target on your back for the kidnapper to come back and get you. All depended on who you asked." Ymir covers a cough in the back of her wrist, her head thudding back on the arm of the couch. She looks nice with her hair down, but older. More tired. "We didn't bury the bodies; we burned them. Way out in the woods with something covering your face so you wouldn't breathe in the cursed fumes. We'd let the trees absorb their ashes instead." She blinks at the ceiling, looking far away, before returning to me and shrugging. "I don't know, I was just remembering."
I almost open my mouth to point out the similarity between this paranoia and Ymir's problem with Trost, but something tells me this is not the time. The distant look in Ymir's mud-colored eyes makes me wonder how many times she's thought about Marco's twisted body being found, Marco's ashes spreading to an uncaring sky as the people who knew him look on with detached fear, unwilling to even feel his essence one last time. I try to imagine Thomas going gray over me like that and feel sad because . . . I can't. I don't give him much opportunity to like me anyway.
My sudden dip in mood needs an outlet. I plunk the table loaf I brought with me onto Ymir's shins, wiggling my eyebrows. "So that dinner date."
Ymir looks up and rolls her eyes, sighing up at the ceiling, but not before I see a slight upturn of her lips. "Congratulations: you got me the most boring part of dinner."
"Hey, hey! This is my profession here, my livelihood. Bread is the most integral part of any delicious supper. There are people who don't even have this, you know!"
"I've never been a very big bread fan, Jim, but I appreciate the effort. In all my years no one's tried to seduce me with baked yeast before. If I wasn't confined to this couch my legs would be spread so wide right now."
"You are so fucking gross," I laugh. "I mean it. You know how my mom would react if she just heard that? She wouldn't let me leave the house for a year."
"Oh my god, I forgot to tell you. Your mom tried to kick my ass, bro."
I bolt upright and grab Ymir's legs, mouth open in horror. "What?"
"She fuckin' saw me across the street or something and rushed me! Listen, Jean, I made eye contact with her across this big crowd of people and I saw the danger in those eyes. I hightailed the hell out of there."
Oh god, oh shit, I didn't think she was that serious about her dislike of Ymir. "Oh my god, she- oh my god," I hiss, mushing my face in my hands and muffling my voice with irritation and a wall of skin. I glance up at Ymir, my face twisted with embarrassment. "I am so sorry."
"Jean, she was gonna wrap those meaty fingers around any body part she reached first, I could tell. She plowed through that crowd toward me like nobody's business!" Ymir shakes her head and chuckles, her lips pulled back and up in a smile that doesn't strike me as genuine. "Luckily I know so many backroads. Even if she didn't come to physical blows, a conversation with her is not one I look forward to."
"But why would she- I just- gragh!" I burst out, my feet tapping in agitation. "I'm gonna yell at her when I get home, I swear to god." Something along the lines of, Leave my fucking friends alone or I'll have sex in the woods with her or something equally horrifying.
"Hey, don't start trouble. It ain't worth that; I'm used to it."
"Ymir!" She shrugs at my dismayed expression. "What does that mean?"
"I mean I'm just used to it! Don't worry about it. I don't wanna be the source of any tension in your house. I'll start feeling emotions, like guilt and responsibility."
"I-" I clamp my mouth shut and groan really loudly, staring daggers at Ymir, eyes narrowed, lips bunched up.
"What is your problem?"
"I am worried! A-And nosy."
"Go back to hating me, it was much more attractive."
She cackles as I sputter and gape, trying to swing her legs off me, but I grab them and haul them back onto my lap. "Wait wait, I'm not done yelling at you! What happened with the military police and shit? How long did they keep you?"
"Oh, that," Ymir says, twisting her mouth to the side and furrowing her brows as she flips a hand dismissively. Her insouciant attitude reassures me immensely; if she's so flippant then there must not be much to worry about (and certainly not much to make myself go gray worrying about all afternoon) (which I did today). "It was just standard . . . 'This is such a great opportunity for you and we strongly recommend you reconsider your stance on our bulllllshit,' standard stuff. What, were you gonna bust in there and rescue me?"
"Psch, no," I scoff. "I would've made Reiner do it."
"I love you too, you enamorous debonair."
"Not sure what the fuck that means. I don't . . . I don't think 'enamorous' is a word . . ."
"I don't think your mom is a word. Anyway!" She sits up to make a show of rocking her old woman hips off the couch, groaning like her back's about to give out and swinging her legs off of me successfully this time. "Wanna help me tackle this baked yeast you just graciously bestowed upon me?"
"Oh, is that date I promised finally happening?"
Ymir grunts as she stretches. "Something like that. Unless your parents will wonder where you are . . . ?"
"Nah, I'm good. If they wonder where I was I'll just tell them I was hanging out with Reiner or something-"
"Yeah, ha ha, funny. And when I get home I'm gonna yell at Mom for . . . whatever it is she tried to do with you. I'm still so angry about that, ugh . . ."
"Hey, please don't start a fight on my behalf," Ymir warns me seriously, scooping the bread off my lap and tapping me on the head with it before turning to head to her kitchen counter. "I may claim I thrive on drama, but I'm actually delicate as a flower. I could never know I'm the rift in the Kirschtein household and sleep soundly at night."
"No, you thrive on being dramatic. You want help making food?"
"Do you cook as well as you shoot?"
I slowly rise from my seat, scowling at the amused hunch of her shoulders, her back turned to me as she braces for my outrage. "Leave me alone. I fought off over ten homeless people for that bread on the way here."
"Oh, my gallant hero," Ymir drawls dryly, snorting as I join her at the counter. "I'll give you simple tasks, like standing there and looking pretty. And dicing potatoes." She indicates three of the vegetable in question, rolling them my way. This, at least, I know how to do, though she'll probably find some way to criticize me or correct my technique.
Halfway into my task I look up, contemplating the spider plants around her window above her counter. "Today was wild," I announce, half to myself.
"Yeah." It feels nice to end such a social day on this quiet, companionable note.
"Watch what he does, Jean," Ymir says aside to me, amusement lacing her voice as she plows through a windswept pile of leaves, waving her hands around in her pockets. "He'll be there and mope, and mope, and complain all day, then all of a sudden shoot off in the woods and be back, good as new. Don't tease him too much, that's my job."
I'm concentrating on absorbing as much warm wind as I can; you can bet your ass this will be the last reasonably warm day of the season, the sun beaming and bright, cloudy sky belying icy waves of daytime snowfall and nighttime bone-deep chill. I've actually taken off my coat to tie the arms around my waist, rolling up my shirt sleeves and letting my skin feel the fresh, forgiving air before I wrap it in thick cloths and furs for like three months straight. I'll be like a shriveled little sun-starved raisin, whiter than snow.
Not to mention this is apparently the last time I'll see Ymir and Marco for a long while.
True to Ymir's word, Marco waits for us in the glade, curled about the log like an overgrown tree root. He looks miserable. Clearly not blind, though, because when he blinks up at us with a pouty face from his curled up arms his eyes look as normal as ever, no milky film covering his dark, devouring irises. His only greeting is to call a long and drawn-out, "Ughghgh," before burying his face in his arms again.
"Awww, Marco, are you feeling under the weather?" Ymir croons, trotting up to him and sitting next to his head, ruffling his hair, dodging his blind grab for the offending hand. "Are you shedding today?"
"I hoooope," Marco whines. I approach them and sneak a glance at his snake body, wondering if I can see any more differences in it. His scales seem . . . darker than usual. According to Ymir, he'll pull the whole blasted thing off at once in a little while. "The water is going to be freezing."
"You don't need to wash yourself off afterwards, you know, hon. It's not like you've got dirt to wash off under there."
"It's not a feeling you understand, Miri! It's like if you began sweating under the first layer of your skin. Very uncomfortable. Hi, Jean, don't touch me."
"I . . . wasn't gonna." I plop down on Ymir's other side, leaning forward with my elbows on my knees to look at Marco. "So . . . how are you?"
"Okay, that's all I need to know. Hey, uh, I brought you some extras of those rolls you like," I tell him, patting the bag I brought, loaded with four or five times the usual amount of chocolate-studded bread than usual. Hey, what can I say? I had nothing to do this morning and felt generous. What a nice guy I am.
Marco's mouth falls open in delight. "Thank you, Jean! Oh, that's so sweet of you. You didn't have to do that. Once I'm done shedding I'll definitely eat those and tell you if they're good."
Ymir sniggers, pulling that damned sky-blue sweater she's been knitting for god knows how long out of her bag and setting it on her lap, taking up the needles in both hands. Halfway through last month she realized she was making the thing much too small for Christa's size, and after a lot of screeching and cursing realized all she had to do was resize the blasted garment instead of starting all over. Boy, she's sure got it bad if she's willing to knit one thing for months on end. "Waaait for it," she singsongs, elbowing both me and Marco at the same time, evoking identical retaliatory reactions with our own elbows. "He's gonna moan and groan then, suddenly, off he shoots!"
"I'm going to change the subject now because I don't appreciate you making fun of me when I am suffering, which Jean isn't doing. Jean was so sweet to me when he came to visit! By the way, Jean," Marco says casually to me, leaning over Ymir and interrupting her knitting, "Ymir said a little bit ago that you were probably the least nurturing person she's ever met, and wouldn't be surprised if you, um . . . what was it, Miri, 'drank-'"
"Marco, don't say it!"
"'-drank the ocean dry to spite a dehydrated Eren Jaeger' . . . which is funny because the ocean is salt and would make you thirstier-"
"Fuckin' snitch! Don't believe a word he says, Jimbles, he always was a bigger squealer than a piggy. I believe in your nurturing talents with a steadfast heart." Ymir folds a hand over her heart, jutting her chin into the air.
"You also said he treated your cat with more affection than he's probably shown his entire family."
"Okay, that one is true," I cut in. "The first one might be true too."
"So maybe I did say all this," Ymir admits, clacking her needles together. "But this was- would you both give me some damn room? Let me breathe here," she demands, waving her arms in front of her and shooing us back; during the course of the conversation we both started leaning toward each other over her lap. "Anyway, this was before Jean risked his damn life to walk ALL the way to my house and give me a load of bread, which totally, completely opened my eyes to how generous and giving our precious Jonathan is-"
"Uh, I think you mean Jimbles. JEAN." I clap my hands over my mouth so hard it makes a noise that echoes. Fuck me entirely.
Ymir turns to me with incredulous eyes. "Did you just name yourself Jimbles?"
Marco starts to cackle. "No!" I exclaim. "Shit! You spoke too fast, I fucked up!"
"Sure, Jimbles," Ymir says.
"Whatever you say, Jimbles," Marco giggle-snorts.
"I hate both of you motherfuckers. My name is Jean."
"Okay, Jimbles 'Jean' Kirschtein."
"Shut up, Marco! I could hear the quotation marks in your damn voice!"
Marco opens his mouth to respond, grinning even as he does so, but whatever he was going to say dies in a hiss as his jaw goes slack. He jumps up on his hands, slamming his palms down on the bark, and declares, "I'LLBEBACK." Then off he takes, slithering at high speed away from us and disappearing into the woods.
Ymir utters a gross laugh, whacking her knee. "What did I say, huh? Off like an arrow."
"You're making him like to taunt me!" I whine, watching Marco's long form disappear over a low ridge. "Soon he'll be giving me wedgies. You're turning him into a scaly bully."
"I'm shocked you know what quotation marks even are. And hey, he's growing a sense of humor. Now he won't follow you around, kissing your ass all the time. Lighten up!"
"Lighten your ass up," I grumble. "So what's on the agenda for today, Miri? A hundred pushups? A thousand? Racing each other up a mountain? What?"
"You heard me. There's no point wasting such a nice day getting ourselves worked up when we can just rest and relax. I don't quite want to spend Marco's last day here sweaty and gross. So just enjoy yourself, Jonathan- I mean, Jimbles. Soak up some sunshine."
"I . . . am not complaining," I concede, huffing and looking around at the blue, cloud-dotted sky. "Wish I'd brought something to do."
"I'm right here."
"I'm not gonna do you."
"No, asshole, I mean I'm right here to talk! God! Why is your mind constantly in the gutter? You know, what, never mind, don't talk to me," she sniggers, clacking her needles for emphasis. "I might get corrupted or something."
"Corrupted?! You corrupted me, with all this secrecy and naga business!"
A pause, then, "Hah," is Ymir's only reply. Not even a "ha-ha." It strikes me as oddly short, and accompanied by the suddenly over-focused face she's sporting, staring at her knitting, which she's not even doing, I'm starting to think something I said made her uncomfortable.
What did I say? Crap, the guilt rises up as I recognize melancholy in the tenseness around her eyes, the crease of her brow, the way she draws back her lips to bare her front teeth. Did I blame her for . . . what, dragging me into the Marco secret? I was joking about that, and the entire debacle was my fault in the first place. I have to admit, all the trouble I've had so far, or at least a large part of it, has been attributed to me.
I can't stand for much longer the thought that I made her feel bad. We turn to each other at the same time.
"Hey, I just wanted to say-"
"Can I bring up some past-"
We both stop to stare at each other. "What?" I demand.
Ymir snorts at our simultaneous outbursts. "You go first."
"You sure? You never turn down an opportunity to talk over me, asshole."
"Neither do you to me. Start talkin' before I change my mind."
"I wanted to say," I continue, then falter; how exactly do I phrase this? "I, uh, sorry."
"Yeah. I mean . . ."
Ymir tilts her head, her squinty eyes widened. "Sorry for what?"
I shrug. I don't want to delve too deeply into it; I don't want to admit, even though she deserves to know, how often I'd call her or her brother stupid, or crazy, or monsters. I'm honest, I swear, but does my vitriolic side deserve to be shown all the time? Do I deserve to be considered anything other than an intruder based on how I've acted? "Being a dick," I just grunt, hoping it suffices. "And calling Marco and you names back before I got used to him." I fidget, my lower back aching and my face refusing to turn toward her; I shuffle forward off the log to sit in the sand beneath it, leaning back against the bark. "Sorry for following you into the woods."
Ymir doesn't answer for a while, and the longer her silence stretches on, the more I squirm. "Well, what were you gonna say?" I demand, scowling over my shoulder at her.
Thankfully, she barks out a laugh. "Sorry, sorry! I was just surprised, because what I was going to say was sorry, too."
"What? Sorry? For what?"
Ymir spreads her arms out. "Sorry for what? For dragging you into this crazy situation, of course. It-"
"Hey, no, wait, that's my point! I started all this shit."
"Yes, I know, it was your fault, so I guess I'm sorry you were so nosy and stupid." She pauses, then leans forward, reaching up and flicking my nose before I can scrunch it and pull away. "And sorry for hitting you that one time," she murmurs in the gentlest voice I've ever heard her summon.
"Wh-What are you even talking a-about?" I stammer, my ears starting to turn red, followed by my cheeks. Fuck my easy blush and constant crushing! "When did you hit me?"
"Jean, I clocked you in the nose before I even knew what your name was. No matter how stressed I was, that was shitty of me."
"When- OH!" I exclaim, finally remembering with a flash of sensation and memory: my clogged and rusty nose, a harsh kick into a creek, wiping streaks of blood from my face. "Ymir, I was a random stranger and you were scared I was gonna tell people about Marco!"
"So I deck you? Still not cool." She leans back, ruffling my hair and snickering when I squawk. "So I'm sorry for that. That's what I wanted to say. And it's nice, being able to talk about my brother with someone else. I didn't anticipate how cathartic it would be. I suppose I needed someone to lend an ear, and Marco needed another friend. So thank you."
"Thank you for following me into the woods."
This woman will be the death of me.
I whip my head around to stare at the dirt instead of her, swallowing past my dry throat. "Y-Yeah, well, whatever," I grumble, my face hot. "Tch. Riskin' my life and shit. Adventure of a lifetime."
We chat for a while about random things, and when we don't, we lapse into a comfortable silence that I don't feel the need to break. The shadows of clouds wash across the glade as the sun crawls across its ocean of egg-blue sky, appearing out of place without sparkling off the dew of a lawn of lush green grass to really provide that warm autumn feeling; instead it beams down on deadened vegetation and lifeless sand. "You know, Ymir," I wonder aloud, "at this rate I'll know how to shoot an arrow when I'm seventy. You suck at lesson planning."
"You suck at lesson executing. I'm doing my level best, you miserable little cretin."
"Look at you, letting me slack off like this. Think of all the bad habits I'm gonna develop!" I toss my head, smirking up at her. "But it's okay, because we both know you keep me around for my stunning looks and great personality."
"That," she guffaws heartily, "that, wow, that sure is exactly right. You got me there."
"You see this warm weather? All 'cause of me. I have that effect on things. If I took my shirt off right now? Boom, dog days of summer. Universe just can't take a body like this."
"Oh, yeah, that's absolutely right. Your see-through skin and balsa-wood belly really makes the world weak, huh?"
"Go fuck yourself," I whine, giggling as I do. "That doesn't even make sense."
"Knobby-ass knees, hair looks like withered-ass straw-"
"Why do you and Marco both consider my knees knobby? They're not knobby!"
"-screechy-ass voice and flat-ass pale-ass weak-ass ass-"
"You've never seen my ass," I choke out between fits of laughter.
"How do you know I don't creep on you when you're bathing? I'm kidding-"
"GROSS!" I screech (damn it, she just called me screechy!), recoiling animatedly away from her.
"I said I was kidding! Oh my god, if anyone knew I just said that-"
"You bet your ass I'm gonna expose you as a sexual predator-"
"-and we've got to leave this topic because look, it's Marcooo!" Ymir crows, bounding to her feet and spreading her arms to the sky. "There he is, my big shining boy!"
Her big shining boy isn't looking nearly as buoyant. Marco crawls out of the forest with slow hand-steps, looking exhausted but not displeased as he rears up at a low angle to wave at us. His hair is dark and wet, clinging to his forehead and hanging past his shoulders. As his snake body, oscillating slowly and gently, taking all the time in the world, emerges into the sunlight, his scales intensely catch the sun, practically glittering like a tightly-nested bed of black gems all over his body.
My jaw hangs open; ensorcelled am I, taking in the changes in his body. His back scales shimmer like the obsidian knives and arrowheads I've seen being traded around between auspicious buyers, his belly scales look clean and creamy as soft candy, and his stripes look lighter-colored and their borders are more clearly defined. Every scale, from the wraparound ivory of his belly just where it meets human skin to the small, dense pebbles of his tail, looks like it was scrubbed and shined by a team of professionals who make nagas sparkle for a living. Shedding seems worth it if that is the result. I momentarily get the image of a human's skin coming off to reveal a cleaner, shinier skin, and the absurdity of it almost makes me laugh aloud.
"I'm sorry I wasted so much time on our last day of the year," Marco frets, tucking his wet hair behind his ears as he approaches the log. "You have to leave soon, don't you?"
"Hey, not that soon," Ymir assures him, shrugging as she approaches her brother to fiddle with his hair and mush his face. She wraps her arm around his shoulder, leading him back to the log before sitting down in her previous spot. "We've got some time left!"
"You're right, I suppose. Don't touch me, Jean," Marco says sharply for the second time today, though this time it was necessary, as my hand was raised to run my palm across his back. "Normally I would let you touch me all you want, but I just shed and I feel sensitive after I shed."
"Sensitive baby," I simper, watching Marco settle down on my other side, his positively glittering coils arranging themselves on the log in a delicate fashion, slow and precise as Marco leans against his own body and smiles at me. "But goddamn, you look cool as all hell. If there was a naga lady around you and her would make some sparkly little naga babies."
Marco looks at me like I just suggested an orgy. "How am I supposed to respond to that, Ymir?" he demands when she bursts out laughing at his bewildered expression. "Here's how I will respond. Thank you for implying I would father some shiny children. You know there are no naga ladies, right?"
"Yes, yes, I know, that was the joke. God, it is actually hard to look at you; my poor eyes are getting all kinds of reflections and shit. I'm going blind! My eyes!"
We talk for a while, the three of us, switching between random topics while pausing in certain intervals to explain things to Marco, like who Sasha is, or what the purpose of a wall would be, or where Ymir's house is in relation to the town square. I amuse the both of them for a while with a recounting of my argument with my mom Sunday night after I learned she tried to harass Ymir, which got nowhere and culminated in a couple of slamming doors. Ymir and I both brought food in the respective forms of assorted fruits and vegetables and Marco's favorite chocolate rolls, along with some normal, edible bread products I swiped from the bakery, and we share it for a late lunch. Marco burns through half the rolls like there's no tomorrow, even though I packed them to last however long this "brumation" thing goes on for, but hey, they're his, he can do whatever with them.
It's nice like this. No lesson, no pressure to go home just yet. Though the sky changing colors, blue to purple to orange, is more excessively noticeable than any hourglass's inexorable sand, I let myself relax in the afternoon sun for as long as it beams down on us.
One more cloud besides the time running out looms over my mental horizon. I still feel guilty for reasons I can't explain, but the mystery of The Prince weighs heavily on my mind, manifesting in some excessive monitoring of Marco when he speaks. He hasn't done so so far, but I keep listening for that little slip of the tongue, that verbal mishap that now means much more. It hampers my investment in the conversation when I keep focusing too hard on what words aren't being said instead of what are, so I kick myself, figuring I'll let Ymir handle this one.
When the chill seeps in, halfway through an attempt to explain the steps of a folk dance Ymir and I both happen to know through hand motions and foot-taps we can all barely see in the abrupt autumn sunset, Ymir sees my shivering and hunched shoulders and sighs. "Looks like it's late," she observes, her voice quiet.
I respond faster than Marco does; the cold might fuck with me relentlessly, but it doesn't turn me into a damn statue. "Getting kind of dark," I agree, both looking forward to getting home and wondering if I can hold out for a little bit longer. I'm enjoying myself, damn it.
Marco, who eventually let me touch his absurdly shiny back (after asking me to be gentle and not whack him or something, which I of course complied with; he laughed when I compared his sensitivity to a sunburn) and has draped some of it across my lap, stirs, every coiled stretch of his snake body slithering in different directions as he moves behind me to huddle up to Ymir's side, wrapping an arm around her and resting his chin on her shoulder. She flashes him a half-smile, reaching up to pat his face. "Don't be glum, Miri," he tells her. "You'll still see me. You know that."
"'S not the same when you're lying there like a frozen dead body. I'll miss talking to you above all, squirt."
"You can still talk to me when I'm sleeping! I promise to listen, even asleep. It won't be long and I'll be awake to respond to you again."
"For you it's like a long nap, but I'll be living through several lonely months, my dear."
"You might just have to resort to Jonathan for company!" Marco says innocently, but I see that little glance he does out of the corner of his eyes in my direction, gauging my reaction!
I lean back and aim a kick at his snake body, remembering almost too late that I cannot do that and managing to redirect the impact to a light tap to his waist. "I hear that."
"I know you do. Please make sure Ymir doesn't shut herself inside her house all winter, if that's not too much to ask? Her only friends shouldn't be me and a couple of cats."
"Hey, I have met her cats and one of them makes for awesome company."
"Marco, I have plenty of friends! Who do you think I play dice with every week, a bunch of enemy hoodlums?"
"Oh, I forgot about them. Okay, her only friends shouldn't be a bunch of friends, me, a couple of cats, and no Jean." He stares between us. "What I mean to say is I want you two specifically to spend time together in the winter."
"That was so subtle," I observe to Ymir, immediately hiding the fact that my heart thumps hard at the idea. What is wrong with me?
"I know, just . . . way over my head there."
"Don't think I don't know that that's sarcasm," Marco warns, but his attempt at seriousness quickly dissolves into giggling. "I really do mean it. You two should hang out! You've been getting along so well lately."
"What are you talking about? I hate that crazy lady. I don't even know her. I don't even know her name. Emu, or something?"
"Ymir the Emu, reporting for duty," Ymir drones, saluting with a click of her teeth. She runs a hand through Marco's now-dry hair and stands, leaning back and stretching. "Ymir the Emu says it's time to walk little Jeanbo home, as it's past his bedtime, and if we leave him out here he'll get brittle as an icicle."
I clutch my heart, gasping, "Carry me."
"In your dreams." Ymir turns to Marco, who has risen vertically up to her level, looking mournful. Sensing finality, I stand as well, gathering my stuff together. Ymir wraps Marco up in a tight hug, holding it for a while, then takes Marco's face in her hands and leans their foreheads together. "You've got everything together that you need to do?"
"Got it all, don't worry. If I need anything else, I'll leave a note for you."
"Then I'll see you when I see you." She tugs his head down to kiss his forehead and then stands there for a moment, fiddling with Marco's dark hair and brushing it with her fingers, her hands gentle and maternal. Marco indulges her with a knowing smile, staying still and letting her stall, until she takes a step back and reclaims her aloof demeanor with a harsh bump into his shoulder with hers. "Well, say bye to Jeanbo! I'll try to cart his sobbing carcass into town without dragging him too much, but it'll be hard when he's sooo heartbroken about having to leave you."
Marco chuckles as he turns to me, drifting closer to me, then stops. "Am I going to see you again?"
I open my mouth to answer with certainty, but my voice falters as I realize what a good question this is. "That is up . . . to . . . ?" I glance at Ymir helplessly, hoping she'll fill in the blanks.
"What?" she asks.
"Will this be, like . . . happening? After winter . . . ?" Shit, did I assume too much? Ymir didn't explicitly say we were continuing my lessons in spring, did she? Was this only going to be a one-season thing, an autumn to be remembered but not repeated?
"This, as in our arrangement?" I nod, and her lips curve up in a smile. "Well, will you still be seeking the honor and prestige of an archer?"
She nods, appearing satisfied. "Then it's on, Jeanbo. I'll let you know when we start up again in spring."
I pump a fist energetically. "Sounds like a plan," I exclaim with a little more enthusiasm than I should allow, but I let it slide.
I turn back to Marco, smirking. "There's your answer."
Marco positively beams, from his shining eyes to his wide, nakedly delighted smile. "I'm so glad to hear that." He looks me up and down, his smile twisting in contemplation and nervousness. "Jean, is it all right if I hug you?"
I blink at the question, knowing it was coming but surprised by it anyway. "Thanks for asking first, but yeah, of course. Marco, do I have to remind you of something really important?"
His eyes widen. "Like wha?" Right as I lean in to talk he rears back in displeasure, as if he can dodge the inevitable. "No! I know what you're going to say!"
"You saved my fuckin' life, dude." I grin, snickering as he groans and looks at the sky in defeat. "So really, Marco, you can do whatever you want. A hug is totally fine."
"Not that again," he sighs, smiling through it all. "If you think I think you owe me or something-"
"I don't! I'm just saying I'm cool with anything. Honest to god."
"Good." Marco considers me, just smiling like that's the only thing in the world he wants to do, and cautiously opens his arms. I'm hit with a moment of panic - do I hug both arms around his neck, or one arm around his neck and the other around his chest, or both around his chest? - before settling on what feels natural, wrapping my arms around his chest with this dumb look on my face. I think it's a smile, which is pretty dumb. I can't remember the last time I hugged someone and I feel awkward at it, but thankfully Marco seems perfect at filling in the blanks; he practically seizes me and hugs me back tighter, one of those good full-body close-pressed never-let-you-go embraces that marks a professional, natural-born hugger.
It feels nice - my chin in the crook of his neck, his dark hair tickling my cheek, his bare, smooth skin under my hands - so when we let go I've still got that dumb look on my face. Marco laughs lightly and lifts my chin up a hair with gentle fingers. "Ymir, isn't he so handsome when he smiles?" he asks, and I swat his hands away with a grumble. "I'm serious, I mean that!"
"Ymir, don't let your brother hit on me right when he's about to become a frozen dead body or something," I implore, feeling the need to hug something again. Goddamn, am I touch-starved. I'm going to have to hug my dad when I get home or something (Mom doesn't get the privilege right now!), or Cane if no one else is there.
"All right, all right, lovebirds, break it up, let's go," Ymir drawls, grabbing her bag and then crossing over to me with a tired look on her face to sling her arm across my shoulders, jostling me. "It's time for all of us to sleep. Got all your stuff, Jean?"
"Got it right here." I grab my own bag and wave the strap for emphasis.
"If I say goodbye to Marco again it'll take another twenty minutes, so I'm just going to cut it short here now. See you, baby." She salutes Marco with a lack of vigor only my months around her have equipped me to recognize and spins us around, marching us toward the woods and releasing me halfway to the tree line.
I take advantage of the freedom and twist around to look behind me. Marco watches us go, his massive, shimmering snake body curled beneath him, his dark face framed by his shaggy black hair and eyes bright and friendly, but wanting. Dust hangs airborne in the shallow shafts of golden sunlight slicing through the trees above him, casting a xanthic glow upon the familiar glade. The whole scene looks like something out of a fairytale book. It looks ethereal; it looks worth capturing. My sketchbook flashes across my mind.
Marco lifts his hand to wave, and I wave back with a twist in my gut. When we're far enough away I turn to look at where I'm walking, and when I glance back again Marco's gone.
With silence it occurs to me now that this heart-thumping, stomach-swooping feeling might simply be acknowledgment. Acknowledgment that I'm included, that my company is sought after, even if it is by a solitary snake boy and his crazy sister. Acknowledgment that a couple of months ago, I wouldn't have dreamed I would ever see the naga, let alone speak to him, hug him, and become his friend.
I glance to the side at Ymir, disliking the silence. Her eyes are trained on the forest floor, her expression empty. "What do you do in the winter, Ymir? When you're brother's not around?"
She utters a dry, humorless chuckle. "Same thing he does whenever we leave. I wait."
Hey, guys! IknowIknowIknow, it's me, I'm alive, this fic isn't dead, I promise. I'm so, so sorry, I really am. I know you guys keep reassuring me it's okay, but I'll always feel guilty for taking so long to write and for all the people who lost interest because of it.
Aaand with that, we wrap up Year 0! This chapter will probably be the last one where Ymir has more focus than Marco, so look forward to that; the snake baby will have his day. Next chapter picks up the following spring, the beginning of Year 1, which is a pretty gay year, if I say so myself, but certainly not as gay as Years 2, 3, and especially 4. Lots of gay stuff to look forward to!
Someone recently commented that they liked how I didn't exclude Ymir to focus solely on Jean and Marco's relationship and it was super sweet of them to say that, and that probably contributed to the giant Jean/Ymir cheesefest this chapter became, as well as introducing the first inklings of ~plot~. Hope you enjoyed, and thank you so much - SO SO much - for reading! Sorry it was shorter than the last one, and I'm worried I lost Jean's voice halfway through; please feel free to tell me what you thought, especially in terms of pacing, dialogue, characterization, etc.
Oh, and that sunburn story Jean overshared? Yeah, that happened to me, lmao. Sun poisoning's the pits.
The place Marco was with the waterfalls is based on the Seven Sacred Pools in Maui - Google Image it for a nice visual!