Author Note: I never thought I'd be writing Attack On Titan stuff. But I recently saw the end of season 3, had my mind blown and the rug ripped out from under me, and got inspired to dive in – because WOW.
I HAVE NOT READ THE MANGA, so please, no spoilers! And please give me some leeway if this fic includes something weird, because I still don't know all the truths of their world. Again, I've only seen up to season 3.
Hange headed down the halls, ignoring the recently-installed paintings on the walls of their new Queen, Historia Reiss. She checked instead for any signs that anybody followed her.
No one did. What a relief to have a government she could trust, now. Mostly.
She made a mental note to have someone look into Zachary's experiments. Hange didn't like to interrupt anyone's quest for knowledge — but the fact was, the man didn't hold back at all. What he was doing was purely torture. And for her to be saying that, after she had messed with Sannes, and with titans who'd actually been people...? Well. Hange figured something ought to be done. Her steps grew a bit heavier.
But Zachary wasn't her concern right now. Their first meeting with him upon their return from Eren's father's basement was over. The three books they had located... the truth was out of her hands now.
Her concern now was to locate Eren Jaeger. She stopped short at a window and leaned on the sill — but Eren wasn't in the courtyard down below. She pivoted and continued the route she still thought him most likely to have taken — the one that retired to the temporary bedrooms they'd all been given so they could rest and recover. Eren hadn't looked very well, after all. A little cloudy and tight around the eyebrows. Definitely a grim downturn to his mouth.
She passed Sasha's door first; it had been left open.
Hange glanced inside, catching the injured girl chewing rapidly and hiding her hands behind her back. Hange paused there and laughed. "Does recovery taste good?"
Sasha flushed, looked guiltily down at her blanket-wrapped lap. Then she just nodded.
Hange asked, "Say... I don't suppose Eren has visited you recently?"
Sasha swallowed the rest of her food. "Just Mikasa."
"I see. How odd." Mikasa, but not Eren or Armin.
But there was nothing to be done. Hange reached a hand into her pocket, drew out a dried piece of meat the length of her forefinger, and tossed it to Sasha for Sasha's trouble. Sasha stared down at it, eyes widening. "Shout if he comes in here, will you?"
"Yes! Yes, ma'am, I swear I will!"
At that, Hange took off again, with Sasha's whoop echoing off the stone walls. The other bedrooms were around the corner, at the farther end of the halls.
Eren Jaeger. Just what was he up to?
Hange had known what the look in Eren's eyes meant during their meeting that day, when he'd suddenly leapt up and interrupted their audience with a loud exclamation. The boy had realized something, she believed — some new bit of titan-related information that might lead them to another breakthrough. But for the moment, Eren was choosing to keep whatever epiphany he'd experienced to himself.
Hange hadn't minded covering for him, by smoothing out his faltering and breezing past it in front of everyone. It wasn't the worst scenario, Eren wishing to keep secrets. It just pricked curiosity too much for Hange to ignore.
She turned the corner in the hall. Eren was growing up, no matter which way she looked at it. He was learning caution at last, and discretion, thinking details and repercussions through before he went blurting information out. Hange couldn't complain about that; she knew the trick regarding knowledge that could change the world was straightforward — one must keep the truth quiet as long as possible, until one knew without a doubt said truth could be conveyed in a way that was acceptable to the noisy, dumb masses. Otherwise there might be chaos. But this time, there was one problem with Eren's logical approach.
The people in that meeting room... herself, Levi, Pixis, the remaining Scouts... those people were elites, not the masses. If Eren wanted to keep his realization to himself still, even then...
Hange knocked upon Mikasa's door first, when she reached the three rooms at the end of the hall. A stirring noise sounded within, but Hange received no answer. Mikasa was sleeping, then. Perhaps Eren and Armin were doing the same. And in that case... was it truly worth bothering them? Could Hange's curiosity wait... or not? What if this turned out to be a sensitive case in which it was her duty to investigate?
She hovered at Mikasa's doorway and thought. What Eren's silence meant to her was that... whatever he'd realized had repercussions, ones he didn't yet want to face by blathering. He was probably trying to protect someone. Mikasa? Armin? Ah... Historia? If the latter, no wonder Eren had clammed up.
If it was something that large, Hange definitely didn't want to rush the truth. She would much rather trust Eren. Eren was the boy, after all, who had been willing to let her experiment on his titan form more times than she could count. Eren was the boy who, after being kidnapped by Bertholdt and Reiner, discovering his power to control titans, then returning with the few people left alive, had found himself forced into hiding while he and Historia were hunted down by the Military Police... yet had still found time to write Hange a note about a conversation he had overheard between Ymir and Bertholdt — just because he'd thought it might be useful.
Yes. Hange trusted Eren to do the right thing. Which meant she could leave him alone for now. She could leave him alone, she told herself, when she noticed her feet still inched more down the hall.
And she shook a little in her great excitement.
Aah, she just couldn't stand it, wondering what new piece of information Eren had that now might be investigated! She gave up on her manners and marched past the next door — Armin's — after knocking upon it, too, and getting no reply. What she wanted was definitely the last door, the last place for Eren to be when she had found him nowhere else.
A grin curled up Hange's lips, of a type she probably shouldn't let people see. First, she would corner Eren, whether he was asleep or not — then make him feel like he had no choice but to tell her before she let him sleep soundly. He could stay in his blankets, though, nice and comfortable, so he couldn't accuse her of disturbing his rest. She'd make sure they were alone, too, by shutting and locking the door after her, so Eren would know he was safe and they couldn't be overheard. Her hand raised to knock on Eren's door and her excitement mounted more. This was also about trust; Eren had to know Hange would take care with his sensitive information. She had been wise with his trust before, hadn't she? Of course. So there was no problem; she could again become the adult Eren Jaeger trusted, even this abuzz with her anticipation and a little too willing to push him too hard.
Hange would find out everything. And then...
She hesitated in knocking after all. Briefly, she touched the bandage over her left eye.
She would find out everything... and then humanity inside the walls could take on their newfound enemy outside it.
Her jaw tightened. A place called Marley, is it?
Marley had no idea what it would be in for.
[ONE HOUR EARLIER]
Eren sat on his bed with his back to the wall. This time, Mikasa wasn't in the room on just the other side of his. She might not even be within hearing distance unless he shouted, judging by this building's thick stone walls. It felt odd not to be close to her — regardless of whether he needed or wanted her aggressive protection. Eren couldn't relax any more without her. But here, inside Wall Sina, they ought to be safe.
Or so at least Eren hoped.
At least he still had some comfort. As if to make up for Mikasa's distance from him, Armin occupied Eren's bedroom right now. The newly-minted Colossal Titan sat at the desk there, while Eren scanned him. Armin wrote something with a pen.
Eren's vision clouded up next. Hadn't he been in another place not long ago, set up like this? Himself, a strange mixture of restless and listless atop a bed, with Armin earnestly writing down notes. Eren felt groundless now, remarking it, not sure which 'where' or which 'when' he existed in.
Then he realized his present felt the same as his having been locked in that cell. For discipline. Yes, that had felt just like this. He was confusing rooms, perhaps. He wasn't locked in that cell any more. They'd let him out from behind bars. Eren was sure he recalled that...
He was supposed to be a 'hero,' now. But currently, he didn't feel like one.
The light outside the bedroom window died, and Eren watched it do so sourly. The truth was, he still partly wished Christa — no, Historia — had eaten him in that underground cavern. Later, he'd tried to punch that uncertain, whiny brat and his opinions out of himself — but in the end, the effect had been temporary. Eren continued to fight with mountains of doubt.
He had wanted to turn himself into humanity's hope. So he'd tossed those explosive barrels into the gullet of Rod Reiss's titan, exploding the man's nape from the inside, and then he'd watched Historia proclaim herself the rightful heir to the throne. In other words, he had helped the Scouts succeed. But now, as for Eren's feeling truly useful... Again, he felt useless instead.
The pen Armin used scratched noisily. It didn't look as if Armin wanted to be interrupted in the midst of his furious scrawl.
"Just a minute longer," Armin said, as if sensing Eren grew impatient with him.
When would Armin tell him what he worked on? "Okay."
Eren closed his eyes and listened to the sound of Armin's notes and breathing, next — sorting again through all that clamored in his head. To hell with getting extra rest.
Eren had the power of the Founding titan — and he needed to learn how to make use of it. Even if he couldn't use it the same way a royal family member might have... there still had to be something, right? According to Historia, Armin, Hange, everyone... Eren's normal, non-royal blood was what made him a trump card. The royal family members, once awakened to the Founding titan's power, all followed the first king's will and refused to save the struggling humanity inside the walls. But Eren, if he could only tap that same power, might be able to betray the wishes of the cruel and selfish king somehow. The only hope humanity in the walls had, the only person with a chance to save them... was Eren.
But the problem was, now Eren knew why the first king had wished his people to remain caged in the walls. That didn't mean Eren agreed with staying trapped. But surely other people inside the walls would prefer to remain so, once they knew the truth. People he'd come across already had.They all preferred their ignorance. The world outside — across the sea — was far crueler than anything Wall Maria enclosed. That world wanted Eldians destroyed. Eren was an Eldian descendent. Everybody else here was, too — which meant they'd be at risk if they left from the walls. The true conflict was bigger than anyone could have imagined. None of that changed what Eren needed to do; he still wanted to serve Queen Historia and all the Scouts. To save and to free his people. But now he had the truth — his father's well of memories — to contend with. He had to bear the weight of helping his superiors figure out what move to make next, based on it. What would be best for everybody in the walls, even the ones who preferred ignorance? Who could make a decision like that easily? Who had the right to decide it?
Eren felt like it was too much. To overwhelming for the likes of him. Grisha Jaeger, who Eren had eaten... who had told him to save Mikasa and Armin, had possessed too much reckless ambition from the start. Everyone thought Eren was bad? Grisha had married someone royal in Marley that— Eren faltered, a shiver running down his spine. Married someone that was now a titan, thanks to a grim chain of fateful events. The very same titan that had eaten Eren's mother. His mother! And then Hannes. Poor Hannes. Eren twitched, angry.
And yet then, that same titan... that very same cursed titan had enabled Eren to tap into the power to control the other titans. Was Eren supposed to pity that titan, his father's first wife, or hate it?
It really was too much for him.
"Almost done. I just want to make sure—" Armin cut himself off to write more notes. Again.
Eren didn't even reply.
He thought he knew now what it meant when he touched that certain titan. It meant Eren needed a royal-blooded titan to help him unlock the Founding Titan's powers. But who could Eren tell that detail to? How was he supposed to handle it? Who could he trust with that information that wouldn't endanger Historia Reiss? He'd seen enough of people transforming into titans. He didn't want that fate for Historia, too.
Perhaps he could tell Armin? Eren glanced up.
Armin's face scrunched in his concentration; he reached to tuck a blond hair-strand behind his ear. Upon seeing the action, Eren hesitated, feeling suddenly short of breath.
No. Not Armin. He couldn't tell Armin this. He'd already put Armin through enough. And what was this sharp stirring in Eren's chest?
The memories and thoughts from his father's perspective were rearing up in him again.
Dina... Dina, I'm sorry. I miss you.
Eren lost all focus on the room before him. He blinked. He had a son named Zeke somewhere. No... Eren didn't. Grisha did. Eren had a half-brother on the Marleyan side, outside the walls, who he sat remembering right now. But the memories mixed oddly with Eren's own thoughts. Zeke was probably an enemy to him. In fact, Zeke probably wanted the Founding Titan power Eren had too.
Eren was the whole world's most sought-after person, as far as he now knew. He would continue to be that, and no matter what it cost him... but it had already cost his friends too much. Zeke had better not mess with them. If he tried, Eren would obliterate him.
The Grisha in Eren didn't seem to like that. There was guilt, regret, sadness, more guilt Eren sensed... but anger from his father, too. His father still felt betrayed. Good; he had been, by his own damn son. Even if Grisha had created Zeke's viewpoint himself, that was no reason to rule Zeke out as a potential threat now to Eren.
All Eren felt himself was bitterness. Don't you want me to set him straight for you, Dad? Because I will. I swear it.
Eren felt like he lost pieces of himself every time he engaged with his father's memories. He grew afraid his sanity trickled away. Except he couldn't quite stop Grisha's memories or the odd dialogues that played out in his mind once they tickled at the surface of Eren's consciousness like this.
He stared at the stone wall blurring before him. He murmured for what felt like the hundredth time, "Shingeki no... kyojin."
"Yes, you've said that."
Eren came to after Armin said it — upon the noise of a pen getting set down. When he looked over at the desk, he found Armin assessing him.
Eren glanced away at once; he couldn't stand the concern and flash of pity in those blue eyes. But Armin kept studying him. The moment seemed to last a whole lifetime. Or was Eren's recognition of time passage still acting up? God damn, this was getting annoying. Couldn't Eren see anything any more with his own eyes?
Eyes. Those big eyes on Armin's face. That blond hair... Armin looked like Dina.
Eren covered his face and groaned. Armin asked him something, but he didn't hear it.
Which feelings, which emotions now were Eren's, and which belonged to his father? Or were they one in the same, now? Would it stay like this forever?
"Eren... is everything all right?" Armin sounded like he repeated himself.
Eren's voice rasped; words felt too difficult. "I don't know," he said. "It's like I'm—"
But then he stopped. If he said what he felt, that might make it twice as real. Or Eren might get stuck in a strange loop of memories and time — again.
"I know it's hard," Armin told him, "but I want you to go over it one more time. Everything you can remember — until I know it's thorough. If thirteen years is really all the time we have to live after becoming these special titans... then I want to be sure of it. Not only for Mikasa's sake, to see if we can comfort her. But because there's no telling how long it'll take for us to achieve anything outside these walls. If we're going to die well before that, or be required to pass our titan powers down..." But Armin thoughtfully trailed off.
Eren could barely follow Armin's words. "I was telling you out loud his memories again? I was? When? A moment ago, or just now?"
Armin jerked, clearly astonished. "Yes," Armin said. "You were, a few minutes ago. And then I was writing some extra notes down. Do you not remember when I knocked on your door and asked if I could come in, and—?" Armin halted when Eren laughed — a broken, breathy, chuckle-sob.
God. It was so funny in a sense, right? How everything in Eren's mind would simply run together, now. So many times, he'd just space out, and have little to no idea what was going on around him.
Unless he learned to deal with this, how could Eren fight titans now?
Pity softened Armin's features once more. "Never mind," Armin said, calm. "Thank you for searching his memories again. We've done enough tonight. Let's stop."
Eren stirred. Then he climbed up off the bed. He raked his hands back through his hair, just trying not to laugh harder. All Armin's prior words about time limits and life spans began to set in. "Humanity is doomed," he said, "because now we are. And on top of it, I'm slowly going crazy. Crazy, Armin."
Armin didn't reply to that — which made Eren think he must sound over-dramatic or childish. "Do you want me to make them bring you anything?" Armin asked instead. He turned and watched as Eren began pacing, next.
The pacing was Eren's attempt to act instead of speak another word. Eren didn't want Armin to look down on him. Making Armin have to chide him while appearing so disappointed in him... It hurt when Armin did that.
"Some food? I'll bet Sasha has some. She's been recovering quickly. Isn't that great?"
Eren couldn't help it; he laughed emptily again — and Armin swallowed, seeing it.
But Armin kept on in the face of Eren's mood. "Some water? Do you want to sleep? Ah — I know. I can have them bring you a few more pillows, so—"
"Armin," Eren cut in — and more roughly than he'd meant to.
When Armin fell silent and simply waited, Eren decided his mood was a lost cause. If he was going to be emotional, he might as well be it.
He asked one of the questions that had lately been bothering him. "Don't you hate us for all of this?"
Armin's brow clouded; his eyebrows drew together. He turned back in his desk chair just enough that all Eren could see was his profile. Armin knew, Eren could tell, what it was Eren referred to. Yet he still turned his back like that — as if he wouldn't dare answer.
Even though the answer was important.
The silence nearly drove Eren more crazy. He wanted to grab Armin's shoulders and shake. He wanted to demand, Look me in the eye, and say it boldly to my face! But he fisted his hands instead, and — in a rare show of patience — he waited.
Armin would speak when he was ready, after considering carefully what to say. Like always. Eren simply needed to be an adult, not the impatient little brat people expected of him.
After time ate further precious moments, Armin said, "It's like Captain Levi said to me on top of the wall, after I woke up there healed." But then Armin shook his head. "No... It's like what he said to me well before then, when I shot someone to protect Jean. All this..." Armin looked at his hands.
It hurt Eren deep in his chest to see Armin look that resigned to his fate, now.
"This is the new me," Armin said, letting his hands drop to his lap. "And I have to move forward with it. I'm no replacement for Erwin, like everyone already knows... but with the weight of the blood on my hands, and all that's been spilt for my sake, I can only do my best, since I'm still alive now. It's useless to hate you or Mikasa for your part in this." But after speaking such logical and noble words, Armin didn't look up at Eren or smile. He still looked down at his hands, as if conflicted about it. Eren couldn't stand to see Armin look like that, with such a deep crease across his forehead.
He tried asking Armin another question. "What are you really feeling, or thinking? What have you seen, yourself, since becoming a titan? Do you see Bertholdt's memories? Do you—"
"Please don't ask me about that. Not yet." At that, Armin turned to him, smiling at last... but not in any happy or open way.
Eren fell quiet out of shock. Armin looked strained and curt with him.
"I promise you," Armin said, "I've told anything relevant already to Hange. My condition isn't anywhere near as important as yours is. So... so could you please tell me whether there's anything I can do for you right now? It's late, and even you need rest—"
"Don't. Don't do this," Eren cut in.
Armin appeared startled again. But Eren just couldn't stand it.
He moved forward in three quick steps and seized Armin by the shoulders. "Talk," he commanded, still hoarse. "Talk to me, Armin. I feel so distant from you now. Don't just push me or Mikasa away. Let... let me in, somehow — please."
His words broke Armin's barriers; Eren felt relieved to see a kinder, more familiar expression soften Armin's face at last.
Armin said, "Don't be silly — I'm right here. And as long as I can be... then I always will."
It was a good proclamation to hear. So Eren felt very surprised when tears came to his eyes on hearing it. They seem to rise from the depths of his heart, and entirely unbidden.
Armin's words comforted him. So why was he crying right now? Hadn't Eren already cried enough, while arguing for Armin's life with Levi on that roof?
No, Eren thought after that. He knew why that hadn't been enough, why there were still tears to be shed. It was because he felt guilty. Guilty that even after all they'd been through, Armin had to be the one comforting him.
Eren cried now mostly because he knew he'd been a failure again. Armin was just too good for everyone, for the whole world — too good for him — and Eren felt like everything was his fault. Eren could have done better, from the day Bertholdt and Reiner first broke the walls. He could have worked harder to prevent Armin's needing to become the Colossal Titan.
His grip on Armin's shoulders loosened. The next thing he knew, he'd sunken to the floor — before the chair and Armin, on his knees. His head hung. His tears patted the hardwood to the side of Armin's shoes.
Armin pushed the chair back, alarmed, and made like he would join Eren on the floor. But then he seemed to debate it for an eternity — or maybe that was Eren's wrong sense of time. In any case, Armin remained standing a while. But Eren felt Armin's surprisingly strong hands close onto his shoulders, instead — as if trying to urge Eren to rise.
He didn't move. His tears made it hard to see. He sniffled and spoke aloud what he'd been holding back until then. All of it.
It felt like the only action he could take that would maybe stop his crying.
"Y-you," he said, "you lied to me. You told me we'd go see the sea together. Then instead, you sacrificed... How could you have done such a thing? Why?"
There was a shifting of fabric. Armin did join him on the floor. But he stayed kneeling just above where Eren hunched lower.
Eren curled around himself. A moment passed.
Then Eren heard a nearly inaudible breath. "I'm sorry, Eren. I am."
Eren scrubbed his eyes with his sleeve. But he still couldn't stop the sobs. "I-I'm not angry any more. I just..." One of Armin's hands ran through Eren's hair when Eren trailed off — suddenly, fiercely. A gesture unlike Armin.
But it might have been like Armin after all, Eren decided, his scalp tingling. There was lot about Armin he'd failed to notice. Like that Armin this close had a soothing and yet heightening effect on him.
Eren had consistently been underestimating his friend, despite how he'd cherished and admired Armin. Perhaps that made this tear-fall one hundred percent Eren's own fault — for not knowing Armin well enough to see through Armin's hero act before Armin's body had burned to a crisp.
God, Eren really was useless. He sniffed and wiped his eyes again.
"That's enough," Armin murmured. "It's okay." Then he pulled Eren in toward him.
Eren went unresisting into the embrace. His heart thundered as he settled into the fold of Armin's arms. Never once had Armin pulled Eren into a hug or dared to stroke his hair like this. How pathetic must Eren look right now, to make Armin feel forced to make such a display? Armin probably just wanted Eren to be quiet, to let sleeping dogs lie between them, so they could better face the more pressing issue of the fate of humanity inside the walls. But here Eren was instead, being immature again, crying out his eyes.
Still. Just for that moment, just for that instant, Eren wanted to indulge his childish side. He wanted this comfort to keep going, until his tears finally ceased. It felt nice to be held in someone's arms. Armin's.
"Listen," Eren managed to say — when Armin tried to hush his sobs again. The least Eren could do was tell Armin the feelings that were still churning inside him.
Maybe then Armin could help them to dissipate.
"Listen to me. Let me say what I need to say."
Armin's fingers tightened in his hair, then loosened. Then the rest of his body followed, relaxing too... and Eren realized Armin was listening.
Eren inhaled a shaky breath. "Once I realized what you'd done, I thought, 'I'm such an idiot.' I should have seen through you and protected you. I should have—"
"I didn't want you to. The only way that we could have—"
"I was scared, Armin!" Eren said. He cried harder, recalling it. "Scared because you'd gone away, and I couldn't do anything." The feelings rose in him again. The crushing horror and the pain of loss. "I missed you. I felt empty right away." Dina... I miss you. I'm sorry. "Like a piece of me was gone, because I thought I couldn't ever see you again. And I just wanted... so badly—"
"I'm right here. Now it's all okay."
"But you went away," Eren insisted. "The point is, you intended to!" Maybe the wound would never close, no matter how much he talked about it. "We almost couldn't get you back. But then we did, and the price you've had to pay—"
"Eren." Armin yanked Eren's head up, his hands gripping either side of Eren's face.
They locked eyes. Eren stared, forgetting to cry.
Blubbering to Armin was helping, then.
"There's no sense in beating yourself up," Armin said. "What's done has been done. Don't you understand? I am not blaming you for it."
A moment passed. Armin didn't look away. And then, despite his best efforts, Eren just continued to cry — though the tears were silent and steady this time. How amazing Armin was, to always know just what to say. Eren didn't deserve Armin.
Armin didn't release his face.
Eren registered rather late how close they were to each other. "Armin," he said after a moment more — smiling helplessly through his upset as he continued to hold Armin's gaze. "Did you know...? Now I know what the sea looks like — because my father has seen it. It's exactly the color and the depth I can see right now, in your eyes."
Armin leaned away from him, sounding breathless. "It's... It's wha—?"
Eren closed the remaining distance between them, kissing Armin easily on the lips.
He couldn't have helped the gesture. It felt correct in that moment. Like the only damn useful thing he could achieve. He raised one hand instinctively and ran it against Armin's cheek.
Armin's lips parted in surprise. Eren breathed in the scent and taste of him, inhaling sharply... but kissing gently, so gently, for a long instant. Who was Eren kissing again? Dina... No, Armin — who he'd missed terribly. How long had these feelings been there?
Eren didn't know. He didn't care. He simply needed, that moment. He needed Armin's faintly earthy taste and the heat of his trembling mouth beneath his. Needed Armin to acknowledge how important he was to Eren.
Don't you dare go away like that again, Eren thought. I won't let such a thing happen on my account. Never, ever, ever again.
Then he felt Armin pushing him away.
Armin's forearm came in between them and pressed Eren's chest until Eren backed off.
Afterward, they still stared in each other's faces. But now Eren felt thunderstruck and confused. And pure disbelief widened Armin's sea eyes.
"What..." Armin's voice sounded weak. "What did... why did you just do that?"
Eren fumbled to speak. "S-sorry."
"No. It's just..." Armin stuffed a hand into his hair, glancing above them at the desk he'd left, and at the pen and paper set up there. "I should be writing this down, maybe, as a side effect of the shift you're going through, because I'm sure Hange will want..."
That called Eren to the present.
His shoulders tensed. "Huh? Hang on. I didn't do that just now, just because..." But then Eren stopped.
Had he done this of his own reasoning? Or was this again because he'd been confusing his new rush of memories for reality?
God damn it, Dad, he thought bluntly. Don't make things complicated in this sense. I want to be my own person and do things like this by my own will and desire. Isn't it up to me now, anyway?
I thought you had disappeared, but I ate you. Either way, now there's only me. You're gone.
Your memories are only that.
Armin shifted to put one foot flat on the floor, so that he could stand up and return to his chair. "I guess I'm glad it was me," he muttered, "and not Jean, or... or Mikasa, or something. That would be too cruel for her, I think... and you wouldn't last the night if you did that to Jean." He appeared to be talking now just to himself.
Eren, too, rose to his feet — beating Armin there as Armin rose more slowly. He faltered, feeling his face flush. He tried to explain again. "That's not—"
"Eren... don't do that again, okay?"
Eren looked and saw Armin's hands trembling on the desk chair where he'd placed them.
"It's not that I have anything against it," Armin clarified, seeing Eren's face and looking kindly at him. "The truth is, I don't care about what's common, or about typical black and white thinking. I knew how Ymir and Chris— Historia felt about each other before they said it, because I, too, tend to see people for their qualities before I see them for their — well." He paused. Then he inhaled and went on. "It isn't that I'm balking at being kissed by you in principle. It's just..."
Eren put his face in his hands for the second time that night and groaned. He couldn't do anything right.
"It's just, I know this is a bad time to give anybody the wrong idea, or to let them see such a thing — even if just by accident."
Armin didn't have to say out loud what Eren had realized he must be thinking. Mikasa wasn't in the next room over, but she was certainly still near. What would she have done, how would she have felt if she'd seen Eren lean over and kiss Armin? How would the rest of their squad feel? The people in the walls depending on him?
Eren's face flushed even hotter.
"We'll have to come up with a plan," Armin said. The fingers of one of his hands now idly traced his lips in thought — in a manner that nearly drove Eren more mad as he recalled how those lips had felt against his own.
Eren wanted to kiss Armin again. But Armin was saying he didn't want it.
"A plan — to make sure that if the urge for you to kiss someone reoccurs at random like that, it doesn't affect anybody's morale, or anybody's trust in you. You're keeping a secret right now, aren't you?"
Eren jerked and focused again. Armin realized he kept something secret?
Of course he did. That was just like Armin. But still, Eren kept his mouth stubbornly shut and tried to show no expression.
"Something about what you yelled in our meeting today... You've realized something, haven't you? I won't press you to share it, but if you do too many things to make people question what you're thinking, or holding back, or what you might do at any moment—"
"It isn't what you think it is." Eren took Armin by the wrist. He pulled Armin in close to him.
He wasn't crying any more; the tears were drying down his cheeks. And he counted himself lucky he wasn't healing anything just then — or the tears might turn into steam and burn the eyelashes off the both of them.
He'd pulled Armin in very close.
"It's only what I said, Armin. I was upset. I didn't want you to die. And so... just now, I was trying to show it. It just... it wanted to come out." Eren glanced down at Armin's mouth, dizzy and muddled-feeling. Giddy. "I'm glad you're here with us again."
Armin tried to back away, but Eren held him too tightly. "Glad enough to kiss me?" Armin said.
"Does it sound ridiculous?"
They stared at each other a long moment more. Suddenly, Eren felt better. He had the familiar, aching urge to collapse and burst out laughing — mostly at Armin's attempt to wriggle away. How long had it been since Eren had felt a bolt of genuine good humor like that? Eren was so glad Armin was alive, even if, for Eren, they could only be together eight more years.
Thinking again of the time limit they'd discovered made something twist inside his heart, but this time, Eren ignored it — for the rest of this current moment that they had.
"But Armin. If I don't act on my instinct when I feel something powerful like this, and then if something else happens... then I might never get the chance to tell you what I most want to. And I don't want that tragedy."
"S-something powerful? Still, it's—"
"You're cute when you're startled, you know."
Armin turned his face to the side, his expression partly hidden by the fall of his hair against his jaw line — but there was no concealing the flush that tinted his cheeks now, too. Armin said, "There's no way I can believe, based on everything from the past, that you would actually show the least bit of interest in me in this sense. S-so excuse me if I don't..."
Eren's eyebrows rose. He considered Armin's statement, faintly amused, but mortified as well. Was that what Armin honestly believed that Eren thought of him?
Armin thought Eren wouldn't consider him worth kissing. But Eren had long ago learned to stop looking down on Armin for anything. And, if Eren didn't look down on him — and since Armin was beautiful, and since Armin mattered so much as Eren's friend — why wouldn't he be worth kissing?
Armin was still the little boy who never ran away from anything, even if he didn't fight back. And only Armin could make judgement calls that could bring victory to the rest of them. That was why Eren and Mikasa had wanted to save him. Armin's abilities were undeniable. They thrilled Eren to the core. Armin was a wonderful person and good friend.
"Give yourself some credit," Eren said.
Armin turned back, scowling at him. "Well, isn't it a matter of—?"
The moment Armin turned back, Eren dipped his head and caught up Armin's lips again.
He still held Armin's wrist, but lightly now, so that if Armin wished to, he could break away. But Armin shivered in his grip. And then he let out a small breath.
The sound of breaking resistance fueled Eren's mounting desire — that strange desire he'd maybe always felt, but never bothered to examine until now.
There'd been more important things, hadn't there? Sheer survival. His hatred of all the titans. His mother's insistence that he 'be a man,' and be there for Mikasa, no matter what. His mother's death. Hatred of titans again. His training as a Scout recruit. Wondering where his father had gone, then dealing with the realization that he'd eaten the man. The truth about himself, Annie, Bertholdt, Reiner, Ymir. But right now... Armin. Just Armin — that was what Eren felt.
The jolt inside him when Armin kissed back, the feeling of sliding his hand to Armin's waist and pulling Armin in closer... It was sweet. This trading body heat, trading breaths that shortened and increased, until they made a melody of little moans... It was so perfect Eren felt bliss. The movement against each other, the instinctive touching and guiding Eren did while Armin's hands closed in his shirt, against Eren's chest, over the belt Eren still wore because he hadn't bothered, even while on his bed, to take off anything but the bulky metal parts of his ODM gear... Eren wanted every bit of this.
A flash of memory came to him again. Of himself — no, his father — doing something intimate like this. With his first wife.
Then again. But with Eren's mother, now.
Eren's nose wrinkled — but only for an instant, before he got lost in more of Armin's responses. Armin muttered Eren's name, kissing back again.
Was Eren's new knowledge of acts like this — acts Eren had never done before himself — why he suddenly felt so confident? So sure of himself, so certain of what he wanted and intended to do next? He wanted to pleasure Armin until Armin could take no more. Show Armin how desperately he was appreciated. Kiss, touch, stroke, make love, perhaps—
Gross, old man, Eren thought, furious. Stay out of this. I can make Armin cry out... I can discover this, have this, live this for myself. It's me doing this, me and Armin, and you have no part in it at the moment.
He blinked, coming out of the memory world... and took stock of his present. Armin had squeezed his shirt.
Armin tipped his head back and stammered, "E-Eren... oh."
Armin liked what was being done. But when had Eren moved his lips from Armin's mouth to Armin's throat? The buttons of Armin's collar were parted, too; his collarbone looked white and beautiful — but for the marks of Eren's teeth now blooming over half of it.
Armin looked at him, breathing hard. Something like awe and fear filled his expression... mingling with what Eren recognized must be the same alarmingly strong, curious desire he felt. But Armin didn't tell him to stop. He simply nodded permission — for something, something more from Eren — while his voice spoke its last protests... out of some leftover sense of duty, perhaps. "A-are you sure you...? Should we really...?"
Eren tried to control himself. He tried not to rush, seeing Armin so open. He merely wet his lips with his tongue in preparation to speak, to try to give Armin some reassurance.
But nothing came out. So Eren shook his head, hoping he didn't look as comically startled and yet as hungry as Armin did. Too wild with the longing that had now roared awake in him.
Eren knew what he was doing — yet he didn't. Did Eren trust himself like this? How could he ask Armin to trust him blindly in such a matter?
But he didn't need to decide. Armin made the mistake of making the choice for both of them — by glancing over at the bed.
Eren groaned at that, long and low — while Armin said, "We could... I mean, if it's something you need to get out of your system..."
"It's not like that," Eren exclaimed. "It's not anything weird with my titan power, it's..." It's just you, Armin, he wanted to express. All these thoughts of mine... about you.
He bent his lips to Armin's neck again.
"Eren." Armin began shivering again. "I'm not going to be able to hold back, myself, if you keep on like this, you know..."
Eren didn't mind hearing that. So he steered Armin toward the bed. "Then don't hold back. You don't have to. We're both titans now... remember?"
Hange hesitated at Eren's door. Certainly, certainly those could not be the sounds she imagined meandering out from the door's other side.
They weren't loud sounds by any means. But they didn't need to be for Hange's sharp hearing to classify them, for her quick observations to make sense of it. Hange ran through her deductions.
Mikasa, already abed, having still looked a bit thin and weak at dinner. Hange had stopped by Armin's room too, on her way here to find Eren. But Armin hadn't been inside. Which meant that Armin was either missing, too... or here, in Eren's room, just like it sounded.
Hange wondered if she should laugh. She'd definitely found them at last. Except Eren Jaeger and Armin Arlert were, unexpectedly but absolutely—
"Oy," came a voice from down low, behind her.
Hange whirled. "Shh!" She raised a finger to her lips.
Levi's flat expression didn't change. He just stared at her, waiting for an explanation.
"It seems," she said, "that now isn't a good time—"
"Any time," Levi interrupted then, "is a good time to interrupt Eren Jaeger." He raised his foot like he would step forward and deliver a kick to bash in Eren's door.
Hange stomped her own foot down on Levi's — fast — to prevent him from moving in. When Levi's eyebrow twitched, and he looked from his violated foot to her with murder plain in his narrow eyes, Hange opened her mouth to offer him her excuse in a whisper.
But a low sound from Eren's room beat her to making the punchline. "A-ah— Eren..."
Hange winced and shut her good eye.
She didn't need to see to feel the realization take hold of Levi, anyway. When she dared to open her eye up again... Levi's intent was evident.
He would definitely break the door down — if the mingled affront and rage in his popping eyes and his scowl had anything to say about it. His growl sizzled. "That damn little—"
"Phase! It's just a phase!" Hange hissed. She linked a swift arm around Levi's throat and hauled him some steps from the door.
Levi tensed, likely debating whether interfering in the room's events was worth going through Hange first. Hange took advantage of his inner conflict to drag him off a bit farther.
She wanted to defend Eren — and Armin — any way she could. Although, for all the world, she didn't know why she owed those two her protection at this level. A couple of important young titan Scouts shouldn't be engaging in recreation of this type, at such a time when all of humanity hung in the balance.
Or maybe, she thought, feeling her eye scrunch up... Maybe that was exactly why they should be allowed to engage in it. Why Hange wanted to let them.
"We already agreed, did we not," she muttered, "that Eren's at that age, Levi? He is. He's fifteen, which means—"
"Only fifteen!" Levi exclaimed. He closed a hand on Hange's arm, squeezing so hard that Hange winced. "And he's ruining the golden boy — that I saved, with the injection that I could have used on Erwin."
Hange sighed, but she allowed Levi to free himself. It was a relief when he didn't barrel back down the way they'd come. "You're not wrong," she said. Levi just snorted. It was hard for him to forget letting Erwin go. She realized that. But still... "But let's let them—"
"Let them, my ass."
Hange's lips twitched upward when Levi stomped her foot. It could have hurt, if he'd really meant it to.
"Do you think I want baby titans born in there?" he went on. "They'd be ugly — and I'd have to kill all of them."
"I can guarantee you, in fact, that that isn't how titan breeding would work." She clapped Levi on his shoulder. It was pointless to keep standing around. "Come on."
"Let go of me, Hange. I'll break him in bits." But Levi let Hange steer him farther off down the hall.
What a relief, honestly. As furious as Levi was... his compliance meant he must realize as well that they needed to let the kids simply be kids. Kids discovering ways to become adults.
With so much going on in their world now, when else would any of the original 104th get the chance to experiment?
Or maybe she was only able to retreat with Levi because Levi couldn't disobey her orders now. She'd somehow ended up in quite the position of high command, hadn't she?
Hange tried to keep her face clear of expression. Right now, she didn't want to think about that burden.
"I'll slice his cock off," Levi said. But his protests grew weaker the farther they went.
"Would you even want to see his cock?" Hange asked. They took the corner of the hall and retraced the steps she'd travelled earlier. Levi cursed at her. She just rolled her eye and grinned. "He'd grow it back. He's a titan."
"Then I'll have to cut off Armin's—" But Levi stopped before he could declare it.
Hange let the silence pass while her companion began to walk slower, working out the layers of complications and new truths now that Armin could regenerate body parts, too. He processed all over again. The cloud on Levi's brow and the subsequent twitch of his understanding afforded her the chance to speak one more time while they retreated.
"Leave them for just one night," she said. "They aren't hurting anything. And even if they do, then... well. It will just make things more steamy for them — won't it."
And while Levi shouted at her, and she trotted out of his reach... she decided she'd ask Eren for his information tomorrow instead.