---'Just Be': Part 8 ---
A beaming Marco was there to congratulate you at the firing range, approaching you with a newly-polished flintlock rifle slung on his shoulder. "You did it, [First]! You were absolutely brilliant in that last exam! Where the class ranking is concerned, I'd say that you're at least on par with Connie and Sasha for eighth place!"
And as you recalled, that was directly below Marco and Jean, both of whom were currently dueling it out for fifth, and sixth. Possibly seventh, as well. Darkhorse Eren Jaeger was starting to become a major factor of unpredictability in the placement competition, much to Jean's chagrin.
Sitting on a wooden bench, wrapping up your wrist in bandages, you tilted your head upwards and flashed a grin at Marco.
"Oh please, it's still up in the air," you waved off his compliment stubbornly, though not before you blushed with pride. "Connie is fast. That makes him as tough-as-nails to follow, even if he's hardly paying attention to his blind spots. And Sasha's got all the instincts of a predator. I swear, sometimes she can practically smell me arriving a mile a way."
You smiled faintly. "Plus, Christa and Ymir aren't that far behind. Can't write them off just yet."
No. You weren't going to rest on your laurels just because of your recent spurt of improvement. But as far as your latest exam results were concerned, you actually felt good about yourself for the time being.
Lately, you and Marco had gotten into the frequent habit of conversing amiably over the past two years. As a result, you felt comfortable enough around him to smile and even laugh on a regular basis. Not only was he endlessly friendly and tolerant, he was genuinely kind. You appreciated his presence - it enveloped you with warmth, like the sun.
You smirked and gave him a playful wink. "But you know, I saw what you were up to during that exam. You always manage to find the Titan first, but you leave it to the others to score points. That's real generous of you, Marco."
Startled, Marco turned red and grinned sheepishly. You blinked up at him, confused. Was it really that embarrassing, that you pointed out such a thing?
After a while, he murmured quietly with a smile, that blush lingering over his freckled features. "...Eren Jaeger called me out on that, too. The truth is, I know I can't move nearly as fast as you or Jean. So at the very least, I can spot the Titan first and leave it to you two to make the kill."
"Just bloody admit it, Marco. You're way too nice," you told him bluntly, still grinning. "That's your weakness. In a competition like this, that attitude is going to lose you points. You sure as hell don't want someone like me to wind up on top, do you?"
His eyes widened. You blinked as Marco stared at you speechless for one second, his face turning absolutely redder than you had ever seen. The sight of his sudden and unexplainable fluster left you completely baffled. Did I say something untoward? You wondered, bewildered to no end.
...Well, sure! You said 'top', there was no denying that. But you sure as hell didn't mean THAT kind of 'top'! Honestly. Boys, you thought. Not with irritation, but with peculiar affection.
As you abruptly shut your mouth, the beet-coloured Marco turned the other way and began clearing his throat violently. Your attention was momentarily captured by the blasting noise of gunfire, not too far from where you were sitting.
Jean Kirschtein was at the firing range, exercising his marksmanship on a practice dummy with stubborn concentration. Somehow, you found it obvious he knew you and Marco were there, talking together. He stood well within listening range after all, and neither you nor Marco found the need to keep your conversation hushed. ...That said, from the strangely cold look in Jean's eyes, you felt as though he was doing his absolute best to ignore you both.
"Something up with Kirschtein?" you asked casually, raising a brow. "My God. He looks as cantankerous as ever."
Marco quickly recovered and glanced with a worried look towards Jean. His friend, on the other hand, affixed his eyes firmly upon the target.
"Probably still shot down over the exam results," mused Marco. "He's used to being praised endlessly for his 3D-control skills, but you outshone him this time. My guess is that he's just not accustomed to being bested by you just yet."
You smirked boldly. "Well, he's going to have to get used to it, because that sure as hell won't be my last victory. I kept telling him - he might be ahead for a while yet, but I'm just a step behind him. Maybe now he'll start to take me seriously."
"... Who says he hasn't, already?" Marco said, gazing off distantly with a look of genuine affection towards his friend. And then his face became strangely subdued. Jean remained abnormally deadpan and silent in the midst of all this.
Something tugged at your instincts, telling you that something was going amiss with the ordinarily strong dynamic of friendship and camaraderie that existed between Marco and Jean. In light of that, you found yourself suspiciously wondering, ...Did those two have an argument, or something?
The conversation trailed off into awkward silence. Meanwhile, another gunshot tore through the air like thunder.
...Changing the subject, Marco glanced at your bandaged wrist, suddenly looking concerned. "Is everything alright with that, [First]?"
"Huh?" You glanced down at your arm. "Oh... Right. This." Your face fell into an uneasy expression.
You had brought down your wrist a little too hard while making that last point-winning strike. It felt strained. Pulled. Not like something you had ever felt before. Handling the dual blades had never been as easy for you, and the stiffness in your wrist wasn't helping matters. You sighed, feeling troubled. To have to deal with this at such a crucial time, when you absolutely had to do well in the final exam to keep your place in the top ten...
But, smiling bravely at Marco, you reassured him, "I just pulled it a little, that's all. It should be better in time for the finals."
"If you say so," Marco said, still looking worried. "Still, there's no need for you to push yourself too hard-"
"Bullshit," you told him, jumping up from the bench into a standing position and obstinately stretching your arms. You were still basking in the glow of your triumph earlier today. "I'm on a roll, and nothing can stop me. I might be level with Kirschtein in 3D Maneuvering, but I still have to make up for my crappy striking ability by working on other subjects. And on that note...!"
Brightly, you grinned at Marco, pointing a finger at him. "I believe you agreed to help me out with my marksmanship, yes? You brought the rifle like I told you to, after all."
Marco laughed and removed the rifle that was slung over his shoulder. "You're right. I did. Shall we get straight to work?"
Standing before the row of dummies, you selected a station just a few spaces away from where Jean was still engrossed in his practice. Curiously, you glanced at him, but he still appeared utterly disinclined to spare even a look in your direction.
You looked back towards Marco, who handed you the rifle and the magazine pack. "Well then," he said enthusiastically. "Let me see your shooting form, [First]. They're marking you on grip and posture, after all. Not just accuracy."
"I know, I know," you told him. Your voice fell oddly quiet.
Going over the proper procedure, you loaded a cartridge into the rifle and pulled back the flintlock. Weapon primed, you planted your feet, aligned your shoulders with the target, and fluidly lifted the firearm to eye level. The target was directly ahead, and in your sights - a humanlike head and torso fashioned from a sack filled with straw.
Your throat was suddenly filled with iron, causing you to gulp nervously. Your hands trembled, causing the length of wood and metal to rattle in your grip. "Shit, Marco. This is why I can't shoot straight. It looks too human." You uttered in a low voice. "That will never stop bothering me. For the love of God, I'm firing on a goddamn human."
Unseen by you, Jean lowered his rifle and looked in your direction for the first time in hours, eyes narrowing slightly with concern.
"You're firing on a mannequin," Marco reminded you gently. "No one's going to get hurt, or killed here. This is just practice for Military Police work. You'll be expected to uphold security after all, and that requires anti-personnel combat skills. I know how much you hate it. But right now, no one is asking you to fire on someone indiscriminately."
You nodded shakily. And then you muttered darkly, "Some Military Police candidate I'm turning out to be. When I signed up, I didn't even consider the fact that I'll have to turn my sword or firearm on a human..."
"It's easy to forget," Marco said in his reassuring voice. "That doesn't make you weak. In fact, I think you're a better person for it."
You were silent, but somehow you knew that he sensed your gratitude.
The idea of death and killing never sat well with you. Things were never quite the same since you witnessed your first casualty during aerial training - a brutal spinal injury that resulted in a fatal end. A handful followed afterwards, effectively bringing the harsh reality of military life down on everyone's heads . The harrowing fact was, not everyone would survive to see Graduation Day.
Once the impermanence of life had hit you, you had found yourself from that day on treating your fellow trainees less as annoying obstacles and more like ... fellow human beings. Precious. Irreplaceable. You had even become considerably nicer to Sasha these days. Right now, Marco was the one who knew exactly how you felt. After all, he was first person you had run to that day, tears in your eyes.
That's why he was the one you trusted to help you with marksmanship.
As if he possessed intimate knowledge of your thoughts, Marco placed a hand on your shoulders, squeezing them and steadying you. Through the fabric of your uniform, an affectionate warmth spread from his hand to your skin, easing your shaking nerves. You finally calmed down.
Trust Marco to make everything better again, you thought with a shaky smile. He was familiar. Safe. An anchor of stability. Being with him was never a complicated matter. That's what you believed. ...Of course, you should have known better.
Slowly, he moved closer to polish up your firing stance. He gazed at you intently with a critical eye, making note of the little details and nuances you needed to work on. And then he moved further in...
As he stood directly behind and planted his feet next to yours, you could feel the faintest brush of his long and sturdy legs against the sensitive back of your calves. Broad hands maneuvered to gently ease the tension out of your elbows and realign your shoulders into a more natural, comfortable position. The barrel of the rifle was cold and unyielding in your grasp, but as his hands covered yours, the surface of his skin felt pleasantly warm.
"Those fingers could be a little looser, you know."
As he reached out to examine your grip to closer detail, playing with your fingers delicately, his arms slanted inwards. For one heart-tugging moment you were almost certain that they would swoop in to wrap you up at any possible given second, caging you...
"You're too tense. Just relax."
...And as you were so intent on holding the gun upright, there would be absolutely no avenue for you to escape or even move an inch if he chose to do so. But did you really have to worry about that? Right now, the attentive Marco was as helpful and professional as could be. Without faltering, or letting his attention turn elsewhere from the task at hand, he gave you some advice on your shooting form, told you to adjust this and that - to tilt your chin up, to lean your face a little more inwards.
"Lean your cheek in against the stock. Don't look away from the target."
When did he become so tall? ... Or has he always been that way? You wondered this faintly, made aware through acute physical sensation that the breadth and broadness of his muscular shoulders overshadowed yours by far- as did his height. But that was a natural difference, was it not? After all, Marco, for all his saintly purity and kindness... was still a man.
"Now, point your barrel straight at his heart."
A man who had a killer's aim when it came to marksmanship, you reminded yourself a little nervously. Your own heart pounded a little shakily. Marco had his moments of meekness, but you knew better. He was not to be underestimated. Just put a gun in his hands, and one would be hard pressed to find a soldier who more poised or confident.
...Somehow, he didn't seem quite so innocent or harmless anymore.
He leaned his body closer inwards, and as a result his chest pressed softly into your back. His chin hovered above the top of your head, tickling your hair with the subtle breath from his nose...
From out of nowhere, his head suddenly lowered to eye level right next to yours - almost cheek to cheek. He murmured softly, yet deeply, in your ear. "Straighten up a little." A strong, firm palm planted itself into the small of your back, causing you to gasp and jerk your spine outwards in surprise.
Behind you, Marco gave a hum of satisfaction, turning to gaze into your widened eyes with ever the angelic smile. "...That's better. Isn't it?" The surface of your nape prickled slightly, sparks running across your skin. Still pressing against your back, his fingers spread out. You turned red from the low vibration of his voice and the sigh of his warm breath brushing against the sensitive wing of your ear...
"...What's this? You're trembling again."
A strange, heart-pounding sensation fluttered at the inside of your chest. That said, it wasn't as though you hated the feeling. (Marco would have been a dead man walking, otherwise.)
When you made no noise of protest, he continued with these playful ministrations. His hand slid from the small of your back to the side of your waist, gradually shifting down to come to a rest right at your hip, the large tips of his fingers curling inward...
All around, the birds scattered from their perches and took flight.
Startled out of your wits, you gave a shriek and jerked your entire body back a step, flinching at the explosive sound. Your back crashed into Marco's chest, causing him to yelp in surprise. The force of the impact knocked you two apart. Wide-eyed, Marco stared at you in bewilderment, too shocked to utter the question that was all too apparent on his face. You clutched the rifle with shaking hands, giving him a terrified look that plainly said 'Fucking swear to God that was NOT me!'
And it was true. The rifle was still loaded, and everything.
"... My bad."
You and Marco turned towards the sound of that familiar voice. With drawn eyebrows, Jean Kirschtein stood there before you, finally deigning to acknowledge you two at last. The barrel of his own flintlock rifle hissed with smoke as he stared at you both, wearing the strangest and most dissatisfied expression on his face.
The air was filled with the acrid scent of black powder and flaming burlap. The human-shaped dummy before you had a still-smoking hole torn into its chest, right where the heart was.
The days that remained until the final exam soon grew scarce. Competition for the top ten was fiercer than ever. Even your placement just a notch above Connie and Sasha was still precarious at best. Every trainee was frantic to brush up on every discipline imaginable in order to score a respectable mark. ... All except for their hand-to-hand fighting skills, which was the one combat skill that was not being graded. Surely no one needed to explain the futility of fighting a Titan bare-handed.
That said, Keith Shadis was displeased by the alarming level of lethargy that the students displayed in their martial arts training sessions. Finding this as an opportunity to also educate them on an additional crucial matter, the fearsome Drill Sergeant from Hell called all of his male trainees to the Proving Grounds. With the women were nowhere to be seen, the men were all left to ponder and scratch their heads at this anomaly.
When the Drill Commander himself appeared, walking briskly through the ranks with his hands folded neatly behind his back, they all threw a salute and greeted him. Every ear was hanging out nervously, waiting for what he had to say to his fellow men.
"...Gentlemen." He began, sounding much more quiet than usual as he strode on. His naturally booming voice was as stern as ever, but had for some reason took on a more calm, tempered volume this time. "We, as soldiers, are no strangers to the women who share our ranks to join us in battle. In spite of all differences with regards to physical strength, they have shown themselves to be remarkably resilient in their efforts to stand beside us on equal footing. Time and time again they have been asked to put themselves in harm's way, to risk their very lives for the sake of serving humanity."
He paused, to stare at them all intently with those fearsome eyes of his, seeking their agreement. "Does it not follow then that in the course of our duty as soldiers, we as men are obligated to protect and watch over them with our lives? To keep them safe from harm and to offer our lives in exchange for theirs?"
Slightly aback at the subject of this particular lecture, the men looked at each other briefly before shouting bravely in chorus. "SIR! YES, SIR!"
One could hardly fault their sincerity and good intentions, that was for sure.
But hearing this, Keith Shadis whirled towards the trainees in sudden explosive fury. His eyes bulged with anger, his brows snapped together, and his teeth were bared in a growling snarl they knew all too well. Within that instant, his tranquil and thoughtful sham evaporated to once again reveal the Demonic Drill Sergeant from Hell that he truly was.
"WRONG, YOU FILTHY, ROT-EATING MAGGOTS!"
At least one unfortunate trainee standing in rank managed to soak his trousers at the sheer and unexpected thunder in the Instructor's voice.
"YOU ARE NOT HERE TO CODDLE AND FUSS OVER YOUR FEMALE COMRADES. WHAT YOU ARROGANTLY CALL 'CHIVALRY' WILL DO THEM ABSOLUTELY NO SERVICE TO THEIR EFFORTS TO BECOME WORTHY SOLDIERS. FOR TWO YEARS, THEY HAVE BEEN YOUR STALWART COMRADES AND YOUR MOST FORMIDABLE RIVALS. TREAT THEM AS YOUR EQUALS. RESPECT AND SUPPORT THEM AS YOU WOULD YOUR OWN FAMILY, BUT DO NOT BEHAVE AS THOUGH THEY ARE FRAGILE DOLLS. TO TREAT THEM AS THE WEAKER AND HELPLESS PARTY WOULD BE AKIN TO AN INSULT UPON THEIR PRIDE AS SOLDIERS."
His voice lowered into an ominous growl.
"...And I'm sure they would NOT be the least bit pleased with that."
With that, Shadis turned towards one of the wooden facility buildings. By now the men were all in a state of panic, wondering what in the bloody hell was going on.
"Women! FALL IN!" The deafening roar of the Instructor's voice was a resonating echo that bounced back and forth across the surrounding cliffs.
BANG! With tremendous force, the double doors of the building flung wide on their hinges, kicked open sharply by the imposing figures of Mikasa Ackerman and Annie Leonhardt. Both had eyes as cold as steel. With brisk and precise motion, the female soldiers all filed out of the building in ramrod straight lines. Mikasa and Annie briskly fell in to join them. Their solid leather boots battered against the ground, filling the air with thunderous drumbeats.
As they marched into their ranks, the men could see that each and every single female soldier had the same unnaturally stoic expression on their faces, an air of iron-clad purpose. The temperature began to tank as though it were the dead middle of winter.
By now, it was clear that the ladies were all part of some huge, elaborate joke that the men had absolutely no comprehension of. And everybody knew that Shadis had his own twisted brand of humor when it came to devising his training methods. The men were in for a load of fun, indeed.
"EYES, FRONT!" Shadis barked his order to the ladies.
With a drumming footstep, the ranks of female soldiers turned in perfect unison to face the rows of men with stares of granite. Their hands folded tightly against their backs.
And then, nodding in quiet approval, Shadis gave his final order. "...Salute your brothers."
Spines straightened into the correct posture. Eyes flared open with bright attention. Chins tilted upwards proudly. Breaths were sharply drawn, rousing the warrior-like spirit that was hidden within.
The young women of the 104th Trainees Division all shouted together in a fearsome chorus, drawing their arms tight and striking a fist against their chests. Their combined voices created a tremendous war-cry that shot into the sky above. The birds scattered from their trees, filling the brilliantly blue backdrop with a multitude of flapping wings.
More than a handful of men in that crowd appeared awed (and intimidated) by this display of courage and discipline from the ladies.
You were part of that crowd of women that stood opposite of the men. Though you kept your face deadpan, you found yourself faintly amused by the baffled, almost nervous expressions on the faces of your male counterparts.
"Behold, gentlemen," Shadis said, gesturing towards the rows of female soldiers. "These are your Sisters-in-Arms. What I wish for you all to learn today, is a lesson that they are more than happy to teach you."
Narrowing his gaze into a warning glare, he added, "Underestimate them at your own risk."
There was a reason why Shadis had made this request personally and in secret to the female trainees. The boys all meant well, you all knew, and for the most part they were kind and upstanding. But where tactical concerns were involved, it was easier to program a male soldier to kill than to convince him to get over his protective instincts towards the other sex. As noted by various members of the Garrison and especially the Recon Corps, It was often found that such emotions ran a risk of jeopardizing the mission at hand, making a man's aggression to be chivalrous not an asset but a liability that endangered all.
And so, the women wished to convey a message to the men - 'If you are going to protect us, protect us not because we are women, but because we are your comrades in the line of duty. If you expect to put yourself in harm's way for our safety, then expect us to do the same.'
With that, the lesson began. "Stand at ease and listen up. You will all engage in a one-on-one sparring match, no-holds-barred. Men will be paired with the women. When I announce your names, pair up and begin post-haste. As always, I expect you to exercise your best judgment and professionalism as soldiers - act untoward, and you answer to me."
Seeing a few reluctant expressions on some of the men, Shadis narrowed his eyes - but addressed the other party instead.
"A special word for the women. Take it not as advice, but as an order. Don't hold anything back. Show these whimpering little boys exactly what you're made of, and what you're here to do."
With the words of Keith Shadis, an electric current swept through the crowd of female trainees like rippling thunder. The courageous Mina Carolina narrowed her eyes fiercely, driving a fist into her palm. Mikasa coolly planted her feet into the ground, appearing as solid and immovable as a marble statue. Like a predator, Ymir curled her lips upwards in a feral grin. The ever-angelic Christa gave the boys a sugar-sweet smile suddenly appeared strangely ominous. A smirking Sasha mounted a hand on her hip. The intimidating Annie fired off one her trademark ice-blaster stares.
As for you, [First], your expression did not change. All you did was stretch out your neck and crack each of your knuckles, one-by-one. Loudly.
...A few of the boys exchanged uncertain glances with one another. You spotted Connie inching a few steps back.
You watched and waited as Shadis began calling out pairs. Who shall you be playing with today? You wondered excitedly.
Everyone looked on intently as the first pair was called up.
"...Mina Carolina, and Eren Jaeger."
Biting back hesitation, Eren gathered his resolve and stepped forward, brows tensed. A rosy-cheeked Mina followed suit, looking strangely pleased with this particular arrangement. Side-by-side, they tensely walked off towards less crowded area in the Proving Ground to begin sparring.
"...Armin Arlert and Sasha Braus."
Sasha grinned cheerfully at poor, nervous Armin, who looked completely out of his element. "Don't sweat it," she told him kindly once Shadis was out of earshot. "Pummeling people within inch of their lives isn't my style anyway. ...Let's work on throwing each other instead!"
"...Reiner Braun and Christa Renz."
With a bounce, Christa walked up and smiled brightly at the heavily-built tank of a man. Hilariously enough, the ordinarily level-headed Reiner Braun looked on the verge of a panic attack. You knew the exact reason why. Most of the men would rather let themselves be struck by a thousand lightning bolts than do anything to hurt the lovely Christa, and Reiner was no different.
But hey, who ever said that these pairs were randomly assigned in the first place? In fact, you had a sneaking suspicion...
Interrupting your thoughts, Shadis called up the next pair.
"...Annie Leonhardt - "
The remaining men paled, holding their breaths-
"- and Bertholdt Fubar."
-only to immediately exhale in relief as the petite powerhouse strode up coldly to face off with the gentle giant. Bertholdt looked absolutely frozen in abject terror for that moment, then finally resigned himself to his fate with a sigh. Having been a frequent victim of Annie's vicious throws and bashings in practice, you couldn't help but sympathize.
"...Marco Boldt and Mikasa Ackerman."
Mikasa's face was as deadpan as ever, while an apprehensive Marco walked up to greet her with his cheerful politeness. Glancing across, you spotted Jean looking somewhat discontented with that particular pairing. You narrowed your eyes a little.
Ugh. Don't tell me he's still into Mikasa after all these years, you thought, feeling strangely irate. Jealousy, much? Hell no. I mean, really? She's way out of his league, and it's obvious that she doesn't care much for anyone except Eren-
The deafening voice of your Instructor jolted you out of your thoughts.
"Jean Kirschtein..." Honey-coloured eyes snapped to attention. "...and [First][Last]."
You blinked in surprise as your name was called. As the realization began to hit, you and Jean stared at each other with the same startled looks on your faces.
A faint wind whistled through the air between you both, scattering small clouds of dust from the ground.
You blinked. ... Huh. And here I was starting to think I had absolutely no luck to begin with. A maniacal smirk slowly appeared on your face. Ohhh, this was going to be such bloody, beautiful fun.
As Shadis announced the next pairing (Connie with Ymir - NEITHER was pleased), you and Jean walked right up to stand square in front of the other. He sized you up with a hawk-eyed stare, and you did the same to him.
Ever since that awkward moment at the firing range, you noticed that Jean had looked strangely subdued for the past few days. For a while it even appeared as though he were going out of his way to avoid you. But not this time. The brash and argumentative Jean bloody Kirschtein was back in action, haughty grin and all, and undoubtedly itching to settle a two-year old score.
There was an air of menace surrounding you both, crackling like a storm of sparks.
Jean mounted a wiry hand on his hip as he peered down the bridge of his nose to stare at you. "You know," the lean-bodied, copper-haired soldier said with an angular smirk. "Fate has a funny way of bringing us two together."
Oh please, you thought, rolling your eyes mentally. You want a REAL testament to all the powers of fate? It's coming right up - my boot, your ass!
"Stow your crap poetry back up where it came from," you retorted crudely. "Let's just get started, already."
"Ladies first," he gestured towards you, dipping his head in a mocking bow. Quite frankly, the urge to just roundhouse him there and then was absolutely beyond human comprehension.
Now this was a sparring arrangement that left the both of you seething with delight and anticipation.
The two of you claimed an area close to the woodland border. Testing the traction of the ground by dragging back the soles of your boots, you shrugged off your uniform jacket and carelessly flung it against a post. That left you wearing only your shirt and stark-white trousers, along with your form-hugging leather boots and the full-body harness that wrapped around your body. There was a sound of whipping fabric - Jean had already removed his own jacket and now hurled it roughly into the corner. From where you were standing, you could see that he was fairly well-built underneath that jacket - lithe and broad-shouldered, with supple limbs. The leather straps of his harness were bound tightly against his defined musculature, stretching and flexing visibly with his movements.
You dusted off your knuckles in a pan of chalk and shook out your legs a little. Jean was busy at work stretching out his arms and flexing his palms. The tension between you both was mounting as you both prepared for the match. Judging from the vigorous shouts and the exchange of blows around you, the other pairs were already hard at work sparring. (And little Christa had just managed to throw a completely hapless Reiner over her head and onto his back.)
Rolling your shoulders, you fired off a few casual words at your soon-to-be opponent. "Remember what you told me two years ago? 'We'll see who's the real soldier here. You or me.'"
Kirschtein gave an incredulous snort as he slipped a finger underneath the top edge of his sleek leather boots, smoothing it out and making sure that it was snug and comfortable. "...And you honestly think that one little fistfight between us is going to settle that?"
"Nahh," you told him bluntly, flashing him your best shit-eating grin. "I just wanted to see if you finally started shaping up after Eren knocked you over on your ass the other day."
You felt like rolling over with glee at the sight of Jean's red-faced snarl. Two years, and your relationship with him barely changed a jot. In fact, your rivalry had only grown more intense since the day you first met him, and right now, everything was culminating to a climax. It was time to see who could best who on equal terms.
"If you want to know that badly," he murmured, his low voice suddenly ominous as he gazed at you with a hunter's glare and grin. "I'd be more than happy to show you."
He firmly planted his feet apart and assumed a defensive stance, raising his open-palmed hands. Your heels raised in a slight crouch, ready to pounce at a moment's notice. The game was on again.
"Brilliant!" You told him cheerfully, staring him down with brimming fierceness. "In the meantime, allow me to show you what I picked up sparring with Leonhardt!"
With a cat-like spring, you lunged towards him. Jean was waiting for you, brow furrowed in concentration. His hands opened up wider...
Driving your front-most heel into the ground like a stake, sending a burst of gravel into the air, you braced your stance and hurled your fist forward.
"Heh..." Uttering a vicious smirk, Jean shoved your fist off-course with the flat of his palm. Gripping your wrist, he pulled your arm askew from its path and into an awkward angle, forcing you off balance. Wincing as his fingers left bruises on your arm, you pivoted on your front foot to spin the other way, allowing you to ram a well-placed elbow into his back.
To your satisfaction, Jean gasped and jerked forward, but still did not let go. Using your free hand, you grabbed hold of his arm, pulled it off and lifted it into the air, immediately spinning in the other direction, locking his elbow and forcing him to crash down on his back.
"Argh-!" A growl of pain escaped his throat as he hit the gravel with clenched teeth, copper-blonde bangs flying back from his forehead. That said, he was conscious enough to roll away just before you managed to stomped your boot down on him. Your feet drove into the ground instead, causing small cracks to run along the ground. You snarled in frustration, but before you could move a step further...
Rising into a crouch, Jean grabbed your arm again, stopping you in your tracks. A long and supple leg whipped out in a sweeping horizontal arc, squarely striking the back of your ankle and sending you off balance with a gasp.
Shit... you thought, panicking as you tripped and Jean rose to his feet. I forgot - he's fast. Your eyes moved frantically to track his movements. And looks like he really did learn something since getting owned by Eren...
Even though he was the first to recover, Jean refused to move any closer, standing in a strangely relaxed stance and grinning with fierce confidence as though inviting you to make your move. Fine then, you thought grimly, raising your fists in a boxing stance and darting forward, feet kicking up dust. You let out a spirited kiai that shrilled throughout the proving grounds.
Eyes flaring, you threw him your best flurry of punches, one after another - a few here to trap him, a few more to connect! With your lightning fast movements, your hair whipped freely against the side of your face, beads of sweat flying into the sunlight. Your taller opponent was forced to think fast in order to weave through the maze of punches. While you positioned yourself to deliver punches, his hands remained open for the purpose of catching them. That said, the sheer quickness of your actions were had sent him into a frantic state... and then-
Roundhouse! Right in the shoulder blade! With a grunt, Jean sank a few inches from the impact. Unrelenting you reeled your fist back, revving up for another barrage.
Your scuffle with Jean attracted a few onlookers, inciting murmurs all around. "Goddamn, those two look like they're serious..."
"What's the matter, Kirschtein?" You taunted maniacally, drunk on the thrill of the fight. "Finally feeling the kickback from slacking off in martial arts?!" Haha. Kickback. You were such a bloody clown. Regardless, you pitched your fist forwards - Let's see him try to smirk once it lands on that face of his....
...A broad, sinewy hand appeared at your elbow, practically engulfing your forearm and squeezing it like a vice. Your eyes widened, unable to connect the punch. Taking advantage of your shock, Jean's free hand flew out to capture your other arm, effectively pinning you in place.
The two of you were locked in a tight-range arm-to-arm grapple. A beat of sweat ran down your face as you stared up into the eyes of your copper-haired opponent. Shit. This was where he had you beat. In a match of raw strength, man versus woman...
Planting his feet into the ground, brows knit tight in concentration, Jean sneered at you and began to push his way forward with the intent to shove you onto your back. Unable to move forward or escape, you simply resisted as best you could, bracing your legs and pushing back against his powerful grip. Glaring, you shot him your best stare of fury and defiance-
...He smiled back amicably-
- and rammed his forehead hard against yours, filling your sights with stars.
Everyone who watched was stunned beyond all wit. No one knew that Jean had it in him to do such a thing - even to a tough-as-nails girl like you.
The shock of the impact knocked you over, causing you to land backwards right on your rear. Within seconds, you were clutching your throbbing forehead and whimpering pitifully. "Ow... What...! Ow owwww.... Damn it, Kirschtein, what the fuck?! ...Owwww...!!" Your eyes stung with burning hot tears.
Jean's reaction was immediate - the sight of you in that miserable state left him both devastated and shamefaced. All smugness was wiped off of his face immediately.
"Shit... [Last]..." he uttered, looking absolutely guilt-ridden. Relaxing his stance, he lowered into a crouch to check up on you. A hand reached out to you gently. "Oh my God... I'm so sorry. I don't know what the hell had gotten into-"
Amber eyes bulged. Punished for his gullibility, Jean had a lungful of wind knocked out of him as your heel connected square into his stomach. As he curled up moaning on the ground, clutching his abdomen, you rose to your feet and grinned like a devil.
"...Oh, this?" you inquired dismissively. "I just had something stuck in my eye, just now. That's all."
Of course, that was your bravado speaking. Your forehead actually hurt like HELL.
Heh... and my trousers are dirty again. Who'd have thought.
Your audience continued to stare at you both in awe. Reiner muttered to Bertholdt alongside, "My money's on [First]... Just saying."
Betholdt flat-out refused the bet and continued to watch, completely engrossed.
The match continued, this time with Jean hunting for vengeance. Still seeing stars, you continued to deal out hits and took a few in return. The aggressive Jean was swift-footed and tenacious, but it was clear he was out of practice. After all, the only reason the insufferable prick had ever started taking hand-to-hand combat seriously was because of Eren Jaeger utterly humiliating him that one time at dinner. Even so, you had to admit ... when Jean was serious about something, he was bloody serious.
You forced Jean on the defensive, driving him back towards the forest edge with carefully aimed punches and whirling kicks. That said, you had yet to land a decisive blow - and quite frankly, all this exertion was starting to get to you. Your chest was starting to hurt. This had to end sooner or later.
"Who are you watching, Kirschtein?!"
Mustering the reserves of your strength, you swung your arm out in a left hook with the intent to catch him off guard. That should give you the perfect opening for a finishing blow, you thought...
To your shock, Jean latched onto your wrist again, this time taking advantage of your worn-down state. Whirling around until he was directly behind you, he stretched your arm outwards to immobilize it. You were slow to react-
His free arm wrapped over your neck and face - not to strangle you, but to pin you in a tight embrace, your back pressing up against his violently heaving chest. In the end, you were left struggling helplessly in his grasp like a fly in a web, head nestled securely under his chin, with his arm around you.
"Mmmf...Mgh!" The arm that held you in place was thick enough to cover your lower face, muffling your voice. Broad, callused fingers interlocked with the hair on your scalp as he held you in place. As he closed in, planting his legs close against yours so that you were unable to run off and escape, his physical presence became crushing. Overwhelming. You couldn't move, you couldn't fight, you couldn't speak, you could barely breathe-
For the first time, the insufferable jerk named Jean Kirschtein struck fear in the very core of your being.
"Huh. What do you know... Worked like a charm," Jean's voice was a rough growl in his chest, vibrating against your back. "You're not so difficult to read after all."
His panting breath felt hot and moist against the wing of your ear, sending an alien shiver down your spine. With him standing so close, you could practically feel his lips curving upwards into a wolfish smile. The back of your neck prickled in alarm.
"You know what they say... all's fair in war," he murmured slyly. "You know what I'm talking about. Right, Firefly?"
Incensed beyond all belief, you writhed in his rough hold, unable to pry his arm away. Your other wrist was rendered immobile in his vice-like grip. As his body heat melded with yours, you felt your face and neck flushing red-hot with fever. Your hair was damp with sweat. Your heart was hammering furiously... and with Jean's chest against your back, you could feel that his heart was pounding as well.
His grip squeezed you slightly - not enough to hurt, but not making it any easier for you to move. A completely perverse and inappropriate thought entered your head. Damn it, Marco was far gentler than this!
He was much larger than you - much stronger - you couldn't fight him...!
Frowning, Jean stared down his chin at your struggling form. With your panicked movements, you reminded him of a fluttering bird caught in a trap, caged in his arms, demanding release. "Shit... calm down, you crazy girl. I'm not going to hurt you, or anything like that."
The bastard was playing with you again, you realized. Making fun of you. If only there was some way to throw him into a tree from here...
You refused to bloody calm down. Knitting his angular brows together, and gritting his teeth to suppress your thrashing, Jean delivered his ultimatum. "This game needs to end. Say that you'll call it quits, and I'll let you go. No tricks. Got it?" He looked down, peering into your glaring eyes and waiting for your submission. You uttered an angry muffled reply that sounded more like a distorted, 'Fuck you!' than anything resembling an admit of defeat.
Staring at you, Jean sighed before glancing off with a look of unexpected amusement, content to just hold you captive and helpless in his arms. But goddamn, did you put up a bloody fight!
"Or, we could just stand here all day," he muttered offhandedly. "I hope you're a sucker for attention, because right now everyone's watching us. Any second you could save us the embarrassment and just learn how to quit-"
His composure shattered as your sank your teeth into his arm.
"..!! AGH!" Jean's features contorted in an expression of rage and pain as he flinched, pulling away from you. Feeling his grip loosen at last, you threw every last bit of strength into ramming his chest with your shoulder in an attempt to throw him of. It worked - he stumbled. And so did you.
Little did you two realize that you had been standing right at the forest boundary, on the very edge of a ravine. Both of you flew right off the edge, and tumbled down the slope as bewildered onlookers watched in horror.
You tumbled, you rolled, you slid, you picked up debris, and flew through a shrub until you finally came to a stop...
Hair stick with leaves and twigs, you landed with an impact that left you stunned. Drawing in a sharp breath and opening your eyes, painfully struggled to lift yourself-
Something underneath you groaned and shifted, lifting your body from the ground.
Your eyes flew wide open. Directly beneath you, honey-brown eyes, narrow and angular, widened in turn to stare right back at you in utter shock. Jean Kirschtein had fallen on his back, and you had landed on top of him. Both of you were covered with leaves, bits of grass, and dirt stains.
Without even realizing it, your palms had wound up pressing against his arms as you propped yourself up, effectively pinning him down. Through the fabric of his shirt, layers of thickly-built muscle tensed underneath your palms and fingers as he struggled to lift his head up. The moment he shifted his hips, you could feel it - your thighs were practically resting on them, after all.
Lost for words, you stared into his face, finding yourself dangerously close to those clear-cut, masculine facial features, yet unable to move away. Something about the roguish nuances on his handsome face left you hypnotized...
Under your stare, that warm-toned and rough-textured skin suddenly flamed up with red - Jean Kirschtein of all people was blushing. Furiously.
You snapped awake out of your trance. Likewise... your face also flushed with heat and embarrassment as you fumbled on your words, stammering frantically. "Jean... I-I..."
As Jean suddenly shifted to sit up, his head abruptly tilted forward. Inexplicably, you found yourself leaning your face closer at the exact same moment. You felt the brush of his chiseled nose against yours as his face closed in, breath radiating warmth-
...Something soft, moist, and burning hot touched the surface of your lips.
Your heart nearly jumped into your throat at the accident. Both of you snapped your bright red faces back in a flinch, as though singed by a flame. You gasped. Jean flailed his arms-
In your combined panic, you both tumbled further down the slope, and deeper into the forest ravine.
This time, you were the one to land on your back in a soft bed of leaves. When you finally opened your eyes, you felt a strangely crushing weight against your chest, hot and heavy. There was a familiar groan vibrating close against your ear. Your heart pounded faster as you gradually realized what was happening now...
Jean's lithe, supple body covered your smaller form, engulfing you almost entirely and pressing you deep into the leaf-covered ground. You felt a little squished, it was hard to breathe when you were sandwiched between the ground and his chest. Meanwhile his arms were entangled with your own. Your hips were pushed up against his, and better yet - the sturdy trunk of his leg was squished between your thighs.
... Somewhere, somehow, the collar of your shirt had opened up, revealing the soft skin inside - more than you were comfortable showing.
... And right now, his face was buried deep into your neck.
There he lay stunned from his rough (yet soft and 'cushiony') landing. The fluffy ends of his short-cut copper-blonde hair brushed against the surface of your cheek.
Eyes wide and body frozen stiff, you simply stared up into the canopy of leaves, from which sunlight gently bathed your entwined bodies on the forest floor. Jean's back rose up and down with his breathing. Suffice to say, your mind had finally shattered under the sheer effort of trying to comprehend ...just what the bloody hell was happening to you both right now?
As Jean regained consciousness, he released a breath through his nostrils, tickling the surface of your neck and sending shivers down your spine. With his chest pressing against yours, you could hear the soft rumble of his voice, the sharp surge of his breath, and the thunder of his heart. Eventually, he recovered the presence of mind to snap awake, lifting himself by straightening his arms. His palms were planted near each side of your head as you stared up from underneath him. You both shared the same shocked look - neither of you were able to comprehend how you had both ended up this way in the first place, least of all what either of you should be doing next.
Your legs were still tightly entangled with his in a very awkward and compromising manner. That, you were very much aware of.
"...[First]," In a deep voice, Jean uttered your name breathily, staring in awe and bewilderment at your figure lying prone against the soft mattress of leaves, arms flung helplessly above your head. As he hovered above you, your eyes drifted subconsciously to the collar of his shirt. Like yours, it had popped open too, somehow, revealing the robust line of his neck and the sensual sculpt of his collarbone. ...Then again, he always did leave the top button undone, you realized suddenly. Not that you were particularly interested in his pectoral muscles until now, but perhaps if you leaned up a little closer...
Wait, what were you thinking? What in the world was he thinking?! Neither of you could find the nerve to speak - the only avenue for communication here was through the way your eyes stared into his, the texture of his skin against yours, the physical warmth that seemed to meld you two together...
His narrow lips parted with a strange and sudden longing. So did yours. An irresistible gravitation began to lure you both into the unknown and unventured -
The moment was shattered by the sound of approaching footfalls against the forest floor... accompanied with the sound of Marco's voice.
"...Jean! [First]! What happened?! Are you two alright? We all saw you both falling into the ravine and-"
Panting, freckled face pale with worry, the black-haired soldier ran over to you, leading an entourage of trainees - only to freeze in place the moment he saw you and Jean in... a rather unprecedented position.
Right alongside was the rescue team, consisting of Mikasa... Armin... Sasha... Christa... essentially, the entirety of the usual group. Each and every single one of them stared at you with looks of absolute astonishment.
Jean palpitated at the sight of them. His jaw mouthed desperate words, but his voice refused to work. Staring at the group, then back at you lying on the ground, he snapped away from you abruptly, a look of red-faced panic on his face. Feverishly working to untangle your legs from his hips, he immediately sprung to his feet and sprinted off without another word - effectively fleeing the scene.
The entire group stared off after him, open-mouthed, then turned their baffled gazes towards you as you sat up against the blanket of leaves. The sparring match from mere moments before was now completely forgotten. Your comrades were completely ignored. All you could do was ruminate on what happened just now between you and Jean.
You still could not comprehend just what the hell had happened a moment ago.
You were lost for words, a strange and misty look in your eyes. Your cheeks still flushed with red and your heart fluttered as you remembered the various sensations... his voice in your ear, his breath on your neck, his body pressed tight against yours, and perhaps most important of all ...
...Your eyes drifted downwards.
... You lifted your fingers to softly touch the surface of your lips, reminding yourself of the tingling impression that had been left there when Jean Kirschtein had... accidentally ...