Eren really didn't like walls. It was bad enough when they were huge and high, but at least providing protection. The worst had been in prison, locked behind bars and chained down; a few nights of that, and Eren had been close to gnawing off his own arm to get away (it would grow back anyway, right?). The courtroom had been a relief. He was tied down, true, but at least there was air.
By contrast, being in the custody of the Survey Corps was a picnic. During the day he was assigned various duties (albeit with suspicious eyes watching him), and even received some small measure of free time But when night fell, Levi would come for him, leading him back down the stairs to his underground cell to be locked in for the night. Eren had tried protesting once, ("five more minutes, sir?") had gotten a flat look for his troubles, and been dragged down anyway.
He hadn't tried again.
So he followed Levi downstairs quietly, feeling the growing weight of stone and still air gradually suffocating him. The black opening of his cell yawned before him like the maw of a titan waiting to swallow him up. Eren forced himself not to drag his feet, and gripped his small candle tighter.
"Get in already, I don't have all night."
The candlelight went ahead of him, spilling light through the small cell, banishing the darkness to the corners, the shapes of his bed and chamberpot revealed before it. Eren gulped, and flicked a glance at his candle. It would probably last half an hour.
Going to sleep wasn't the worst. It was the waking up.
Eren looked back at Levi, his face even more forbidding by lamplight, all sharp angles and deep shadows. It showed not a bit of pity for Eren's plight. He sighed and shuffled forward, to lay his stub of a candle on the stool next to his bed.
"Goodnight," said Levi, and Eren jumped. He had never merited a goodnight before.
"- Goodnight!" he stammered back, but Levi had already slammed the door shut. The grind of the lock was his only answer. He wouldn't see anybody else until Levi came for him in the morning.
Better get to sleep, before his candle burned down. Eren lay on his back, the ceiling seeming far too close for comfort. He closed his eyes, but could still imagine the weight of earth and buildings above him, pressing down on his chest and throat. He forced himself to take a deep breath. There was enough air, the vent in the door was big. He wouldn't suffocate. The building wouldn't collapse.
He realized that his fists were clenched in the sheets, and relaxed them.
How long had it been? He could still see the light of the candle through his eyelids, but…
Just to check. He probably had loads of time.
Eren cracked his eyes open, and his heart clenched painfully in his chest. Idiot, he told himself. The ceiling isn't dropping. It's the same place it was before. He glanced sideways, just to see that he still had quite a bit of candle left, then clenched his eyes shut again.
He couldn't hear anything but the harsh rasp of his own breath. If he listened to the silence too long, he knew, his ears would start ringing.
Only about seven hours to go. He would get through this.
At some point he managed to fall asleep, and while he slept, he transformed.
His body was suddenly far too big to fit in the tiny cell, but not strong enough to break through the thick stone that surrounded him on all sides. Something had to yield, and he felt rupturing deep inside himself. His bones shattered as he struggled to find some way out – horrible pressure on every part of his body – but no matter how he struggled, there was no give anywhere. Red was flashing in front of his eyes, and he gave a bellow of pain, but there was nobody to hear him. Nobody to help him. The entire world was crushed between these four walls.
He couldn't move, couldn't breathe, was going to die here locked away killed by a titan, the irony –
Eren jerked awake in pitch blackness, tangled in his sheets, gasping painfully through a scratchy throat. He was buried alive, human but cut off from his senses. He couldn't see, couldn't hear anything but his own cut-off scream. Every muscle ached. He scrubbed at his eyes and his hands came away wet; his mind stained his fingers with blood.
He almost fell off the bed, the invisible floor hard and cold. A tomb. Eren scrabbled forward, searching for the door – what if it had vanished? What if they had locked him away forever?
On his hands and knees, Eren found a breath of fresher air. The door. He got to his knees, tugging and scratching at it, wishing for a handle, a hinge, anything –
Another frustrated cry escaped him when he couldn't even make it budge. He would break it down, he thought feverishly, pulled his fist back to punch, then ABORT ABORT and managed to pull back and just smash into it with his shoulder and the side of his head.
He collapsed to the floor in a daze, cheek against stone, but he hadn't hit the door, if he hit the door and wounded himself – if he transformed the nightmare would be true, this would be his grave – he would die in the dark, underground, captive-
A heavy rhythmic thudding echoed in his ears, and he was sure it was the pounding of his heart until the cell door was thrown open in a gust of air and his eyes were blinded by light.
"Eren? Hey, Eren, get a hold of yourself!"
He was on his back, his wrists immobilized captive, captive, his breath coming shorter and shorter, and he still couldn't see past the light burning his retinas.
Bright, sharp pain cut suddenly across his cheek, and Eren gasped one last time in shock – and felt oxygen filling his lungs. His entire body tensed, and reality reasserted itself.
The light no longer burned; it was from a lamp resting on the floor to his left. The manacles about his wrists were hands, warm and strong, keeping him grounded. The room swam into focus, and coalesced in front of Eren's exhausted eyes into Corporal Levi.
"Sorry," he gasped reflexively, his brain struggling to keep up. 90% of the time starting with an apology was the most prudent thing to do. But Levi's expression was still grim, and Eren registered that he was on his back on the floor, and Levi was leaning over him, his body a heavy weight against Eren's. Levi, who was disheveled and barefoot and wearing what could only be his pajamas.
"Are you back?" Levi sat up on his heels, and roughly pulled Eren upright by the front of his shirt.
"Yeah," Eren gasped, because if he was lucid enough to think about how completely embarrassing this was, and how close and warm a partially-undressed Levi was, he had to be back to normal. Tremors were still jerking him every few seconds, but he felt steadier.
Light. Warmth. Air.
Levi let out a frustrated sigh, and brushed a hand across his eyes. "Fucking 5 AM," he said. "I could have slept another half an hour."
Eren couldn't lift his eyes, suddenly finding his lap to be the most fascinating thing in the world. His mind was swimming with disparate bits of information. Levi normally woke up at 5:30 AM. Levi slept close enough that he had heard Eren screaming and come for him. Levi's pajamas had a small, crooked rabbit embroidered on the breast.
Any moment now, he would be deluged with a scathing tirade about his messiness, his sleeping habits, and probably something about the bogeyman and being afraid of the dark. Eren could already imagine Levi's caustic flat voice –
"I hope you're not pretending to be sleeping sitting up or some kind of stupidity," Levi said, getting to his feet. "You got me up at 5 AM, no way you're getting back into fucking bed. Not that you could, anyway, it looks like a disaster zone. You're positively a genius at bizarre sheet architecture. Get up, we're going for a run."
Stupefied, Eren could only stare at him. "In my pajamas?"
"You've got two minutes to change. Well, one, since you spent one asking stupid questions. I don't give a fuck how you want to go out. Go naked."
"But you're not dressed."
"I just need shoes."
"You're running in your pajamas?"
Levi growled and hoisted Eren up by the arm. "So are you, now, since you were so busy being a smartass instead of fucking putting on some clothes."
"Wait-!" Eren just managed to snatch his boots, and hopped after Levi awkwardly, trying to put them on while being dragged up the stairs. Levi picked up his shoes somewhere along the way, and then they were heading out into the yard.
A film of unreality lay over the buildings. Only a few guards were about, none of whom dared even look surprised that Humanity's Strongest was going jogging at 5 AM in his pajamas. Maybe he did this every day. Dawn had hardly broken, and the old castle was lit with dim blueish morning light. It was very still, except for some birds chirping over-enthusiastically somewhere in the trees. The air smelled fresh and clear after the stifling closeness of the dungeon.
Eren took a deep breath through his nose, eyes closing involuntarily.
A rough shake by the shoulder made him yelp and choke on the exhale.
"I told you no sleeping," Levi snapped. "Come on, lazy brat. I have little faith in your skills, but surely you're capable of pacing me."
He took off, and Eren stumbled after him, ready to race. Running with Jean always devolved into a competition, usually involving tripping. It took him only a few strides to realize that Levi wasn't cooperating. He set a steady pace at a decent clip, and kept to it. Could he be goaded into horsing around? Eren pulled ahead, and watched out of the corner of his eye. The look Levi shot him made him feel like he was three years old. Chastened, Eren matched Levi's pace, settling in beside him to a comfortable rhythm of feet on the ground. It wasn't taxing, but Eren felt his muscles loosen, his mind soothed by the steady beat.
Before he knew it, they had circled the fortress twice, and Levi was slowing to a walk. Eren might have wanted to continue on, but he figured it was enough. He stilled, and pulled a deep breath into his lungs.
"You look so fucking happy," Levi said. "I should drag you out of bed for this every day."
"Please!" Eren blurted, before he could stop himself. Getting up earlier meant less time spent in the suffocating darkness—He pushed the thought away. No point in ruining his mood again.
"Hn," Levi said. Since Eren had exhibited interest, he probably wouldn't do it now.
"Levi!" Hange's voice came, unnaturally loud in the early morning peace. "And Eren! Boy, you look a mess, what happened?"
Eren gulped, some of the shame from earlier creeping back, paralyzing his tongue.
"I might have kicked the little fucker by accident a few times," Levi said. "After I tripped him."
"You should be nicer to him!" Hange protested. "If you bang him up too much I won't be able to experiment."
Oh god, not more experiments. Eren tried to look small and unobtrusive, which was difficult considering that he was taller than both of them. Maybe if he stuck to Levi-
"If you insist," Levi said, and swept his leg at Eren's knees, neatly knocking him to the ground. Unprepared, Eren hit the ground on his side, and it took him a moment to catch his breath. "There, he's out of commission for today."
Hange sighed, but recovered quickly. "I see you're wearing the pajamas I got you!"
"You shredded my other ones, what was I supposed to wear?"
Eren picked himself up, his mind spinning, his eyes fixed on Levi. He didn't know what to make of the man. He knew what he wanted to think – that Levi was trying to take care of him, in some weird way, but wasn't that just being full of himself? He hadn't gotten much sleep. Maybe he was imagining it.
"Get to the shower and clean up, then report to my office. Since you're obviously too wounded to be any use to Hange today."
"Yes, sir." Eren sketched a salute and headed off, his mind buzzing.
After the shower, Eren made his way to Levi's office. He knew where it was, though he hadn't had an opportunity to visit yet. It was 6 o'clock by now, and the fortress was waking up. Eren had passed by a few of his friends on the way up, but had been afraid to exchange more than a few words with Mikasa and Armin. Levi probably had some freaky sixth sense to tell him when people were procrastinating.
A quick knock, and Eren was told to enter. The office was smaller than he had expected, but actually kind of cozy in a weird way. There were a few bookshelves, a desk, and an old couch in the corner. Needless to say, everything was sparkling clean.
"You came. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to hunt you down. Go sit." Levi nodded at the sofa, and came towards him, gathering a stack of papers from his desk.
Eren sat down obediently, and Levi dropped the stack onto his lap.
"You see these? These are the most fucking boring reports on the planet. You could live a thousand years and not find anything more mind numbing than documentation of the number of pickles our unit goes through. For some completely bizarre reason, probably because he's an asshole who hates life, Erwin wants me to read them and come up with an estimate of how many jars of pickles we need to stockpile for the next winter. Since I don't give a fuck, you're going to do it. And if we run out of pickles, it's coming out of your rations." Levi took a breath. "Fuck, it's so boring I can hardly bear talking about it. Get to work. I don't want to hear your voice until you're ready to chirp 'I'm done, Corporal Levi' at me."
Eren shut up. Levi turned his back and went back to his desk, supposedly to deal with reports marginally less boring than pickles. Eren looked down at the sheaf in his hands, and considered that maybe the corporal was pulling his leg, because Levi liked tormenting people – but no, they really were about pickles. He was just a little shocked at hearing Levi speak about Commander Erwin that way, but Levi didn't really mince words around anyone.
Well, better get to work. He didn't want to think about what Levi would do to him if he mucked this up. Eren started on the first page, and… discovered that it truly was massively boring. He could feel his brain threatening to shut down, his eyes skittering away from the words on the page, but he forced himself to concentrate.
But seriously. So damn boring.
Levi's office really was rather nice. Flooded with morning light where Eren's cell was sunken in darkness, airy, a nice breeze fluttering in from the window. Even the sofa was comfortable, soft and cushy, worn in just the right places.
Without even noticing, Eren's eyelids drooped, the restless night catching up with him, and he slipped into sleep.
When he woke up the sun was high in the sky, and the sheer panic over the fact that he had fallen asleep, oh shit, made him fall to the floor with a crash. He jerked his head up towards the desk, but Levi wasn't there – a small reprieve.
Levi was gone, and so were the papers that had been on Eren's lap. Instead, a green scout's cloak was covering his shoulders, which had spilled to the floor when he had. Levi was going to kill him.
Eren picked up the cloak (and where had it come from, anyway?) and had the presence of mind to brush it off and fold it with military precision before tearing out of the office. He would grovel, he thought. If he groveled enough maybe Levi would have mercy on him.
Who was he kidding? He was dead meat.
Whenever he was trying to avoid him, Levi invariably turned up immediately, but now Eren combed what must have been the entire base before he managed to track him down in the armory, cleaning his maneuver gear along with two of his squadmates. Eren skittered to a stop in front of him, hands on his knees, and gasped for enough breath to stammer out an apology.
"What do you want? I'm busy."
As if the entire morning hadn't happened. Eren stared at him in utter bewilderment. "But – the report-"
"I was taking a shit and ran out of toilet paper," Levi said. "Forget about it. Go play with the other baby scouts, or whatever it is you do when you're not necessary. Which is most of the time."
"I… okay, sir," Eren said, because there wasn't much else to say in the face of such obvious dismissal.
The day ended up being strange, almost two days fused into one. The second part was a normal day, which he spent training, one of the few times he was allowed to be with his friends. The temptation to talk to Mikasa and Armin instead of working on maneuvers was high, but not enough to actually act on it. The first part, that early morning meeting, remained strange and a little bit unreal, something shared between him and the corporal. In the mundanity that followed Eren almost managed to forget how the day had begun, pushing it to the far back of his mind.
Even so, he couldn't help the rising tension as the sun sank in the sky, knowing that when the day was over, Levi would come searching for him again, and it would end the same way it had started.
"Are you okay?" Mikasa asked suddenly, drawing Eren back to the present.
"What? Yeah, I'm fine!" He forced a grin onto his face, and hoped it looked convincing. Judging by Mikasa and Armin's faces, it wasn't particularly.
"You've been weird all day. Weirder than usual."
"Ha ha, Mikasa."
Armin cut in. "Is it the corporal? You keep turning around and looking for him. And you're awfully jumpy."
"I am not jumpy. And the corporal is fine. He's been nice to me."
A stunned silence greeted his words.
"I don't think anybody has ever put Corporal Levi and 'nice' in the same sentence before," said Jean. "Unless the sentence is 'it would be nice if Corporal Levi didn't kick me today' or something."
"I saw him knock you down earlier," said Armin.
Eren's answer was forestalled by heavy footsteps behind him, and everybody snapped their mouths shut.
"Come on, Eren," Levi said. "Bedtime for little boys."
Eren's breath stuttered. He forced his face to neutral and stood up, locking his knees against weakness. Armin's eyes narrowed, and Eren had the feeling he wasn't putting on a very good show.
"'Night, guys," he said. "See you tomorrow."
"Are you sure you're okay?" Mikasa had that look in her eyes that she usually got right before attacking someone.
"Seriously, I'm fine." Eren made a warding motion with his arms. "I don't know what you're worried about."
"Are we going to stand here yapping all night?" Levi asked. "Because you can talk just as well while cleaning out toilets."
"No, sir, I'm coming." Eren resolutely turned his back on his friends, head held high, and spent most of his energy forcing his legs to keep moving. His heart was fluttering a mile a minute, making him lightheaded.
Instead of thinking about the destination, he focused on all the details of the way there. He counted windows, noting the birds coming to roost for the evening outside of them. The first high-pitched squeak of a bat reached his ears through the darkening gloom.
For a moment, the world outside the window seemed pitch black, and Eren hurriedly pulled his eyes away, to the light inside the corridors. He watched the stone tiles pass under his feet, and noted a small smudge of mud on the toe of one of his boots. Lucky the corporal hadn't seen it. He followed the wings on Levi's back, and thought about how quick he was, how precise his movements in battle. His frame was slight, but solidly built, all muscle. Eren felt large and clumsy beside him.
They stopped only once along the way, when Levi picked up his lantern and a book, and was joined by Petra. Eren wished they could stop forever, and only got his feet moving again with reluctance.
"Hey, Eren," Petra said, kindly but not very warm. Eren nodded, and wondered what she was doing there.
Levi obviously wasn't going to explain. He started talking to her about some technological development that was being blocked by people Eren didn't know but Levi obviously had an extremely low opinion of. To his surprise, the corporal directed almost no insults at Petra herself, and she seemed amused by his creative cursing.
Eren kept expecting her to leave, but she followed them all the way to the final staircase that led to his cell. Why was she still here? Why did she have to watch?
"Come on," Levi said, already three steps down, and turned to see why Eren wasn't following.
Eren looked down at the stairs, fading to invisibility beyond the light of the lantern. He didn't have a candle, Eren suddenly realized in terror. They were going to throw him into darkness.
"Well?" Levi added, and Eren found that he couldn't move his legs. Levi made a move towards him, and he knew that violence was coming, that Petra was watching him, and Levi would probably beat him up and toss him into the cell anyway.
Move, he thought at his legs desperately.
"Eren," Levi said softly. "You are going to walk down these stairs."
Eren swallowed thickly, trying to fix the command on his heart. He was going to walk down the stairs. Into the dark. He inched his feet forward, the scrape of boot against floor almost the only sound audible down here.
He could already feel the silence pressing at his eardrums.
"Please." Eren's voice cracked.
"You have to be locked up at night," Levi said.
Eren shook his head. Levi, who until now had had his eyes trained intensely on Eren, exchanged a meaningful look with Petra, and handed her the lamp. Eren registered what was going to happen a split second before Levi had hoisted him over his shoulder and started carrying him down the stairs.
A small noise escaped Eren, and he bit his tongue, forcing his limbs limp. He wanted to scream, but held on to whatever shreds of dignity he still had left, and swallowed it. He wanted to fight, but the thought of challenging the corporal was beyond him. Some part of him knew that no matter how bad things seemed now, it could always be worse, and attacking the corporal would surely lead to that worse. So he jolted his way down the stairs until he couldn't bear to watch them swinging by in front of his eyes and clenched them shut. Better not to know, not to see.
The walk downstairs seemed interminable, but Eren would have preferred to spend eternity like that and never get to the bottom. But no matter how he tried to ignore it, he could feel when the stairs ended, and Levi was striding across level floor again.
It was almost over. Eren couldn't stop a whimper.
"Levi, are you sure about this?" he heard Petra ask from far away, and felt Levi's nod somewhere near his stomach.
The door creaked open, and Levi stepped inside. With a swift, easy move, he tossed Eren onto the bed. The moment Eren's body hit the mattress he curled up on his side, hands wrapped protectively around his head. Maybe if he kept his eyes closed he could fool himself that the light hadn't gone, that he was still safe upstairs in Levi's warm, light office.
Another squeak, this time of the door closing. Eren knew those squeaks as well as he knew the sound of his own name. It crashed shut with a bang that hid the noises trying to escape from Eren's throat, the bolt slid with a rasp, and the lock clicked shut.
He was alone.
In the silence, he couldn't help the muffled sob that escaped him, now that there was nobody to hear. He wondered if Levi would come back for him if he screamed.
A strange, harsh sound, unfamiliar, out of place, echoed through the cell and made Eren's tears freeze on his cheeks, his heart stop in his chest. Something dragging across the floor.
He hadn't even noticed that his eyes jolted open, staring blankly at the rough rock wall.
The visible rock wall.
There was light.
Eren jerked around with a gasp, rolling the other way, and couldn't register what his eyes were telling him. The cell was light because the lamp was still there, resting on the floor, and Levi was sitting on the stool by his bed, which he had dragged up to the wall so he could lean on it.
He looked completely at ease, unconcerned, with the book he had been carrying open in front of him.
Levi clicked his tongue, the sound like a cannonshot in the silence. "Crappy light," he said. "Should have brought something to hang the lamp on."
"Wh-what are you doing?" Eren managed, almost afraid that once he spoke the apparition would vanish.
"Catching up with my reading. Nobody'll bother me here."
"But – the door – it's locked."
"Oh dear," said Levi, not looking up from his book. "I hadn't considered that when I told Petra to lock us in."
Levi finally looked at him. "If you have nothing intelligent to say, could you shut the fuck up and let the rest of us have some peace and quiet?"
Eren gulped and nodded, scrubbed one hand across his eyes to wipe away the moisture and sniffed. He rolled onto his back, staring up at the dim ceiling, and listened to the sound of breathing that wasn't his own, and the occasional turn of a page, the rustle of fabric, the scrape of a shoe against the floor.
The ceiling wasn't moving.
He was still in his clothes and shoes, Eren realized, and sat up to pull them off. He looked at Levi again, and considered carefully before asking, "Do you want my pajamas?"
It was bad enough that the corporal was stuck here with him all night, and wouldn't be able to do anything until they were let out tomorrow morning. Which meant – "And do you want the bed?"
"Not after your shoes have been all over it," Levi snorted.
"You're the one who tossed me onto it," Eren mumbled before he could consider why that was a really dumb idea. Levi stared at him, then shifted in his chair and cleared his throat.
"…I apologize for dirtying your bed."
Of all the things… Eren flopped back and couldn't help a slightly hysterical giggle.
"You can sleep on top of the blanket," he said, breathless, when he had gotten himself under control. Levi looked supremely unimpressed by the display.
"I suppose I can," he said, which made Eren relieved for all kinds of reasons.
"I'll take the floor, then." Eren sat up again and started to climb out of bed. Levi watched him, frowning.
"Stay on the bed."
"Isn't it kind of awkward?" Eren asked in a small voice. He had shared barracks with enough people, but they hadn't been his commanding officers. And they especially hadn't been Corporal Levi.
"Awkward is dead," said Levi. "I killed it myself. Quit being such a damn teenager about everything."
"I'll try, sir." He wasn't imagining it; Levi's lips twitched towards a smile.
He lay quietly and watched the corporal take off the straps of his maneuver gear and boots. Even though he had seen Levi in his pajamas just this morning, it was different, watching him take off his cravat and fold it neatly on the stool, peel off the layers he wore during the day. There was something about him undressing that made Eren's stomach shift and oh shit what if Levi was going to sleep naked or something?
He rolled onto his side, his back to the corporal, hoping Levi hadn't seen his face burning. Awkward is dead, he reminded himself sternly. If anybody could kill awkward it was surely Corporal Levi. And don't be a teenager about it.
It looked like nobody was going to be wearing the pajamas tonight, but at this point Eren wasn't going to get up again and change. He closed his eyes.
The mattress shifted when Levi lay down, and the dramatic thump of Eren's heart was probably audible for miles. But nothing happened. Levi just lay down beside him on top of the blanket, hardly touching him at all. Eren could hear his breath slowly evening out.
Maybe that's what he meant by not being a teenager about it. They were just sharing a mattress. Eren let out a sigh he hadn't even known he was holding in, that shuddered up from the tips of his toes, and relaxed.
The cell was still, but not quiet. Two heartbeats, two rhythms of breathing, and the warmth of somebody near him. The light was soft.
Not a tomb.
And if Humanity's Strongest, who was the freest person Eren had ever met, could lock himself up in this cage, who was Eren to complain?
The next night was even better. Levi brought down his own pajamas (the same ones with the rabbit) and some bedding, and bunked down on the floor next to Eren. That part was just a little bit disappointing. The nightmares didn't return, assuaged by the simple human presence next to him, but Eren couldn't help but squirm a little when he remembered the closeness of that first night.
What would the corporal do, if he wanted somebody to share his bed instead of taking the floor? Probably announce what was going to be and glare flatly until the other complied. Eren had a feeling that tactic wouldn't work well in reverse.
"Goodnight," he said, just to hear Levi's voice answer.
"Hn," Levi said. "Goodnight."
It wasn't that he enjoyed being locked up, but at least now it was tolerable. Knowing that Levi would be inside with him was enough to keep his heart rate down, and at this point he was starting to tell himself that he had just imagined it, it was all some big overreaction.
He even started feeling calmer around his friends, thinking that maybe Jean was wrong. Maybe he wasn't such a gamble, maybe he wouldn't go berserk. Even so, he felt uncomfortable around them, always searching for one of his minders out of the corner of his eye. Most of the time he spent with the corporal, though, and that was okay.
When Levi came to get him on the third night he seemed tenser than usual, and Eren wracked his brains wondering if it was something he had done. It probably wasn't, Eren thought cautiously; the corporal had a lot on his mind, after all.
As they exited the mess hall, Commander Erwin's voice stopped them.
"Levi," he said, and both of them stopped to look back. Levi exchanged a long, serious glance with the commander, and hardly bothered to hide his annoyance.
"Yes, sir," Levi said, turned his back, and yanked Eren out of the mess hall.
What had just happened?
All the way down Eren debated whether or not to ask, but decided against it. It wasn't his business. He did notice, however, that Petra wasn't joining them, and just like that, could feel some of the old anxiety start up.
But Levi's clothes were still on the stool, and his bedroll still on the floor. He shut the door behind them, and now Eren was sure something was weird.
"Who's locking the door, sir?" he asked.
"Nobody," Levi grunted, and pulled out a manacle on a chain. "Give me your wrist."
Eren instinctively pulled his hand close to his chest.
"Don't give me that look," Levi snapped. "Erwin said I couldn't stay the night, so nobody's going to lock us in. Can't have you wandering out, so I'm chaining you to the bed."
He snatched at Eren's arm and locked the heavy metal ring around it. "But- if the commander ordered you not to stay…"
With a heavy clanking, Levi fastened the other end of the chain to one of the legs of the bed. Eren tugged experimentally, and found that there was enough give not to significantly restrict his movement while sleeping. Levi straightened up and glared at Eren.
"Look around you, brat. You see all the fucks I give about those orders? I said I was going to take responsibility for you. If you're a bloody wreck, how will you fight titans?"
Eren opened his mouth, then closed it. Levi was defying orders for him? He felt far too tiny and insignificant to merit such a thing. But if he told Levi to go, he'd probably just get hit. Levi made it clear that he only ever did what he wanted to do.
Instead, he watched in silence as Levi lay down with his back to Eren. Levi was trying to look out for him, and there was something about that that scared him worse than all the locked doors and walls and chains in the world. Eren thought back on the adults in his life; since his mother, he hadn't felt that any of them had cared about him, not really. Adults lived in their own world, where kids were an annoyance to be taken care of. Hannes had certainly done a shit job of protecting anybody.
In Trost, when Commander Pixis had listened to him, Eren had felt for the first time that he was joining that mysterious world where his voice mattered, and he was judged as his own individual. But even then, it had been him, Armin, and Mikasa. The three of them against the world, against the adults, against the titans. In Trost, he had been put on a pedestal, while other fought and died as he closed the walls, the weight of the responsibility on Eren's shoulders far heavier than the boulder. And during the trial, he had been chained down and helpless, while adults fought over his body. It had been the commander and the corporal who had won that day, not Eren's own words. Not in public, at least.
Levi hadn't grown up with him, had no reason to see him as anything more than a monster the way everybody else did. Levi didn't have any special powers, nothing but the strength he had built up through countless battles. If there was one thing Eren regretted about his titan abilities it was the shortcut they provided. He would never be able to compare to the humans who fought knowing that if a titan ate them, it was the end. He felt like he was cheating.
Eren looked again at Levi's back, at Humanity's Strongest Soldier who had claimed him once in another cell, and now again in this one.
"Thank you," he said softly.
"Some of us are trying to sleep," Levi mumbled back.
He only saw the corporal for a few minutes that morning and then nothing for the rest of the day, given over to Erd and Gunter's care. Eren considered hunting him down, maybe cornering him in his office, but if Levi wanted to talk to him he knew where to find him. Searching Levi out often had the unwanted side effect of extra cleaning duties.
The rest of the 104th wasn't around at dinner, so Eren had nothing better to do than spend most of the time craning around at the other tables, trying to catch a glimpse of the corporal. Nothing. Maybe Levi had been sent out on some mission? Eren felt a twinge of disappointment that he hadn't been told, but stifled the thought quickly. The corporal didn't owe him anything.
Darkness was falling rapidly outside. Surely Levi would come soon. He refused to think about any other option.
Eren jerked around to see the huge form of Mike Zakarius. His heart gave a little thump.
"But," Eren said. "Where's the corporal?"
Mike narrowed his eyes, though his expression remained impassive. "He was detained. I'll be locking you up tonight." He dangled the key from his fingers, then made a jerking motion with his head. "Come on."
Detained, Eren thought, as he followed mechanically. Could something have happened to Levi? What if he was wounded? The thought was almost ludicrous, but scarier for it. The question tugged at the tip of his tongue, but he didn't feel comfortable asking.
Levi was widely considered one of the most intimidating men in the Scouting Legion. So how was it that Eren would have been comfortable asking him what he didn't dare say to Mike?
Thoughts about Levi pushed everything else out until they were going down the final staircase, and he remembered that if Levi wasn't here, it meant Levi wasn't going to be sharing the cell either.
Mike pushed the door open, and looked at Eren expectantly. Eren forced himself to take a few more steps.
"You stink of fear."
"Sir," he blurted. "The corporal lets me have a candle. It's very dark in there." He was proud that he managed to get out the whole sentence with only a small waver in his voice.
Mike shrugged. "You can keep the lamp, then." He held it out to Eren, who grasped it quickly, before he might change his mind.
Somehow, he took the last few steps into the small cell. Levi's blankets were still in a roll by the wall, and his pajamas still folded, just the way they had been this morning.
"Do you know why Levi's not here?" Mike said abruptly. Eren turned to him, questioning. "He's on punishment duty. Because he disobeyed orders to stay out of your cell."
The thought of Corporal Levi on punishment duty was just weird. He seemed so far above everybody else, Eren sometimes forgot that he was subject to orders, too. Levi was probably going to be pissed off at him later.
"The reason Erwin doesn't want him in your cell," Mike continued, "is because if you transform in your sleep, he'll be crushed to death."
The breath left Eren in a rush, the words winding him worse than a training session with Annie. He stood frozen as Mike slammed the door behind him and locked it.
He stumbled towards his bed and collapsed onto it. He hadn't thought of that at all. Had been so busy thinking of how awful it would be to be pulverized by the cell that he hadn't considered Levi's fate, locked in with him, with nowhere to run.
Better suffer a thousand nights of nightmares than risk that. He wouldn't hurt Levi. He wouldn't. No wonder they had to lock him up – he was a monster, he didn't have control, and no amount of cute experiments with Hange would change that. He had attacked Mikasa in Trost, and Armin nearly hadn't been able to snap him out of his comatose state. For some insane reason Levi trusted him, which was a really big mistake, and would just lead to Levi getting hurt.
He had nightmares about that. Dreamed of smashing Mikasa against a building. Dreamed that Armin was eaten in front of his eyes, while he lay there in his titan body, unmoving. Dreamed that he was the titan bringing down the walls.
Once, he had dreamed that he was the titan eating his mother, and had vomited for an hour after waking up.
These were warnings - not to get complacent, not to think that just because he hadn't attacked anybody in a few days meant he was safe to be around. They should just let him loose to fight, give him titans to kill. That took no elegance. He didn't have to be careful, didn't have to think about collateral damage. Killing titans, he knew that every one he tore apart was one less titan that would attack his friends.
Eren curled up on his side, pulling his knees to his chest. His stomach turned with the smell of his own sour sweat. He probably wouldn't get much sleep tonight, not with the way his mind was spinning.
Of course, he did.
Of course, he dreamed of clawing his way out of his rotting titan corpse in the cell to find Levi's crushed body beside him.
Eren jerked awake – at least, he thought he was awake, he couldn't tell in the pitch black. Maybe he was still dreaming. He pressed a fist to his face, trying to muffle the sobs, his eyes open and staring into the darkness, the image of Levi's lifeless face burned on the inside of his retinas, vivid and real. Eren scrambled out of bed – had to find Levi, had to make sure Levi was okay ¬– and stumbled halfway to the door before he remembered that Levi wasn't here tonight.
He was alone.
Eren shoved a hand in his mouth to silence another sob and shuddered at the feel of teeth on skin. He fumbled around on the floor trying to get back to bed and suddenly came across a blanket, which he grabbed and shoved in his mouth, biting down against the scream trying to escape.
This was safe. He wouldn't transform. Wouldn't scream.
His entire body curled around the blanket, clutching it to him, burying his fingers in the coarse weave while he breathed roughly through his nose. Inhale, exhale.
He was slowly calming, and he didn't even understand why each breath came a bit easier than the last. There was no reason that sitting on the ground inhaling around a blanket should—
It smelled like Levi.
Reason returned with a rush. This was Levi's blanket, discarded for the night. Eren immediately pulled it out of his mouth, because oh shit Levi was going to kill him if he found out that Eren had been chewing on his blanket.
He hadn't even realized that he knew what Levi smelled like.
He should get back into bed. Who knew how much more of the night was left? Counting away the hours in pitch blackness was worse than trying to sleep in it. Worse than dreams, sometimes.
Eren pulled the rest of the pile to him, and spread it out on the floor, wrapping himself in the blanket and pulling it to his nose. He could smell Levi even more strongly like this, surrounded by the scent of him. Eren took a shuddering breath, and resisted the urge to bite the blanket again. Instead, he imagined Levi's soft breaths in the darkness, somewhere just out of reach, imagined that beyond his eyelids was the warm glow of Levi's lamp.
Eventually, he slept.
A murmur in his ear cut through muddled dreams, and he could feel himself being shaken.
"Hey Eren, you've got five seconds to get up before I start kicking. Five… four… three…"
Eren had enough time to blink groggily before a toe nudged him ungently in the gut. He curled up, whimpering.
He cracked his eyes open to lantern light, and the impossibly welcome visage of Levi standing over him.
"Wasn' five seconds," he complained.
"I got bored. You up?"
Eren rolled onto his back, and registered that he was on the floor, tangled in Levi's blankets. A hot blush ran all the way to his neck, which was thankfully probably not terribly visible in the poor lighting. Levi was scrutinizing him, looking at his face (which was probably a mess), and registering every detail of Eren in his blankets.
Eren didn't even want to know what Levi thought of him right now.
"Wash those when you're finished with them," Levi said. "You probably have lice."
Eren sat up, indignant. "I don't!"
In a burst of inspiration, Eren said – "I don't think lice would survive my transformation."
Levi closed his mouth and looked thoughtful. "Congratulations, brat," he said. "First intelligent thing that's come out of your mouth."
Eren grinned, and privately considered that if he put off washing the blankets, he'd get to keep the scent for another night. He refused to think about what that said about him.
"I'll see you in the stables at 10 o'clock," Levi said. "Leave your 3D maneuver gear."
Eren spent the morning frankly eaten by curiosity. They couldn't be going to kill titans (but oh god, the thought of fighting titans alongside Levi was amazing), because the corporal had said he didn't need his maneuver gear. Perhaps there were going to be more experiments with Hange? But in that case, why would Levi be the one telling him, instead of her? Thus far Levi hadn't been particularly invested in the experiments, even though he'd been around for most of them.
He was so excited he ended up arriving ten minutes early, and started pacing back and forth. Levi had told him to come to the stables, that meant they were riding, right? Deciding to show initiative, Eren got Levi's horse out and saddled up, then got one for himself. Levi found him like that, holding both of their reins and shifting from foot to foot.
"Hey Eren, get the- oh." He blinked, actually looking slightly surprised. He didn't even insult Eren while they mounted.
Yes, Eren thought, not even sure why he was so utterly pleased.
Levi was carrying all his gear, full harness and blades. It made sense, though, Eren told himself. He didn't go many places without it.
"Where are we going, sir?"
"I could give you a bullshit answer, or you can just shut up and see."
"What's the bullshit answer, sir?"
"Watch your mouth, smartass. We're going to gather wildflowers."
They headed out, Levi nodding at the gate guards, Eren trotting obediently beside him. It looked like they were aiming for the woods across the field. Warm sunlight flooded the landscape, but the breeze was cool enough to be pleasant. The fields were turning golden, the trees a slightly dried-out green. Eren inhaled the scents on the wind, and when his horse nudged ahead, let it have its head.
Apparently Levi was inclined to be more lenient as well, because while he didn't race, he was willing to encourage his horse to a gallop alongside Eren. When Eren tried to trade an exuberant smile, he just rolled his eyes. Shadows assaulted them upon entering the wood, cool and dark after the ride in the sun. Eren stretched, then turned to Levi, who was a bit windswept, with color in his cheeks. They walked the horses to a creek among the trees, while Levi finger combed his hair back into place. Eren watched the movement out of the corner of his eye, and had to keep his own fingers from twitching.
"Dismount," he said. "We're tying the horses up here. And stop looking so pleased with yourself, you haven't done anything yet."
They tethered the horses, and Eren followed Levi curiously back out into the sun. They were about forty minutes' ride from the base, out in the countryside, no habitation visible but the wall cutting off the view in the distance.
"Now," Levi said, turning to Eren. "Turn into a titan."
"Eh?" Eren felt the smile on his face freeze, the sunlight turning cold. Why would the corporal ask that Hange wasn't here was this an experiment what kind of experiment-
"That was an order."
"I… yes, sir." Eren swallowed, raised his right hand to his mouth, and glanced back at Levi, who was watching him intently.
Levi was wearing his maneuver gear. Eren thought of the sharp blades, so close to Levi's hands, and felt suspicion worming into his heart. It couldn't be, but- what if – somehow – had he done something wrong? Why would Levi bring him here, so far from everybody else, and tell him to transform?
He took an involuntary step back.
"Well?" Levi said impatiently. "What's wrong with you, it never takes you this long with Hange. Are you having performance anxiety? Do you need me to coo at you like she does?"
"No, I just."
It couldn't be that, Eren told himself. Levi hadn't spent all that time with him just to kill him for no reason. Eren hadn't even pissed him off especially, today.
Had he transformed in his sleep and forgotten?
"Have I done something wrong, sir?" Eren managed. His hand still hovered near his mouth, shaking.
Levi's eyes narrowed. "… I don't actually have the faintest idea what your problem is right now. Just so we're clear on that. I had planned to do some training today, but since you've apparently decided now is the time to be useless, you're welcome to spend the day mucking out stables with your hands. Do you need a goal? Because your goal can be not pissing me the fuck off."
Training. Eren sank his teeth into his hand almost before the thought could be completed, and the world around him shattered.
As usual, it took him a moment to adjust to titan perspective. The trees, which had been so large, were suddenly small next to him, and the distance they had traveled earlier seemed much less. Everything was a bit distorted, and it took a few blinks for his vision to settle.
Levi hadn't moved, hardly even seemed any tenser than before Eren's transformation. Despite the fact that the size disparity was so much greater, Eren didn't feel comforted by his titan bulk. He had seen Levi in action.
He never wanted to be on the wrong side of Levi's blades.
"You hear me?" Levi called up to him. Eren nodded. "Good. Lift your right hand."
Eren did, slightly puzzled, then complied when Levi told him to lift his left, hold up three fingers, put a hand on his head, tell him how much was seventeen times two. He found it easier to keep his head in titan form, these days, and less of a cognitive disconnect. Inwardly, he had to admit that maybe Hange's experiments were doing some small good.
Then Levi had him pick up some larger and smaller rocks, pick up a tree trunk and break a branch off, all the way down to lifting a piece of wood so small he had to use the tips of his fingernails to do it. He presented it to Levi, and preened at the nod he received.
"Now," Levi said, "Pick me up."
No way. He must have misheard, because there was no way in hell that Levi wanted to be picked up. Not that Eren would do it anyway.
"I said, pick me up."
Eren shook his head. It felt weird, being so anxious in titan form, because he couldn't really feel his frenzied heartbeat or slight nausea or any of the normal signs of things being fucking not right.
"That's an order, in case you didn't get the memo."
Eren shook his head again, and put his hands behind his back, just to drive his point home. There were bad ideas in the world, and there were worse ones, and one of the worst he could currently think of was picking Levi up. He had dreams of picking people up. They ended with dead people in his hands.
Levi sighed and crossed his arms. "Why don't you want to do it?"
While Eren could get words out with his titan mouth, there was a weird glitch in his brain that made it more difficult to translate the sounds in his head to reality. Instead of trying to speak, he stretched his hand out in front of him, fingers loosely curled, then clenched them into a fist.
Levi got the message. "Aren't you the least bit curious as to what the purpose of this exercise is? Because I'm getting sick of shouting up at you."
Well… he did want to know, but there was no way he was picking Levi up. He got down to his knees, then carefully lay down onto his stomach, propping his chin on his hands, and getting his face as close to Levi as he could while still maintaining eye contact. Levi watched the whole process neutrally, hardly even moving when Eren's breath made his clothes flutter, he was so close.
"Stubborn, aren't you," Levi said, and kicked him in the teeth. It didn't really hurt, but the action was so normal it made Eren huff a laugh, feeling the tension drop. "Fine. Have you ever picked up a kitten, Eren?"
Eren thought back to his childhood and nodded.
"You know that you could kill a kitten easily with your bare hands. Are you afraid to pick up kittens?"
Well no, but that was different! Eren made protesting sounds.
"Interacting with your surroundings is a matter of building muscle memory," Levi said. "When you pick up a kitten, your body knows how much pressure to exert to hold it without hurting it. At least, in normal kids, which you may not be – have you ever set fire to cats or anything?"
Eren shook his head decisively.
"Good, that would be worrisome."
I'm a fucking titan, Eren wanted to say. That's not worrisome?!
"How do you teach little kids to interact with things? You hold their hand, you show them how to make nice to the kitty." Levi adopted what he probably thought was a cutesy falsetto, but in reality was kind of terrifying. "So you grow up, and you don't have to think about how to be careful. Your muscles know it instinctively. But you don't have those instincts when you're picking up people, you can't think of anything but what if you crush them. You're so busy thinking about that, you can't trust yourself. Am I talking shit here or is this at all accurate?"
Eren nodded furiously.
"The only way for you to build muscle memory in your titan form is to build fucking muscle memory. You can't learn how to pick people up safely if you don't learn those safety parameters down to your fucking bones. And one day you'll be able to go into battle and snatch your friends away from danger without even thinking about it."
Levi took a step forward, standing so close Eren was nearly cross-eyed trying to look at him. His eyes glittered with an intensity Eren had seen once before, before the trial, when Levi had first claimed responsibility for him. Almost unconsciously, it seemed, Levi reached out one hand, running it across the bridge of Eren's nose, and when he spoke, his voice was low and rough, distracted, and tugged at something within Eren.
"That fear is holding you back. You're tied up now, you've got all these inhibitions. When you've got control, when you can trust yourself in battle, you'll let yourself loose. You've got all this power, and it's just waiting for an outlet. You'll go crazy. Perfect control is perfect freedom," Levi breathed. "Do you know that your eyes are the same when you're a titan?"
Eren shuddered, hanging on every word. Feelings were different in his titan body, more diffuse, but Eren could feel his human body responding. He had a feeling he would be replaying those words in his memory for a long, long time.
And he hadn't actually known that his titan eyes looked like his own. That Levi had noticed this… he didn't even begin to know what it meant. All he knew was that he now felt a burning desire to do what Levi had said, to get free from the fear that had been his constant companion since he had first realized he could transform.
Levi blinked, reason suddenly returning to him. He stepped back and gave a small, slightly awkward cough. Eren had the feeling he had said more than he intended, and held that knowledge tight to his heart. He had gotten under Levi's skin. He wanted to do it again.
"We're going to try this again," said Levi, his voice just a bit louder than needed. "Pick me up." He glared at Eren challengingly.
He was going to do it, Eren decided. Next time he saw Mikasa and Armin, he wouldn't be afraid to touch them. He pushed himself straight, sitting cross-legged, and observed the problem before him. He had to grab carefully, not to cause any damage, and watch out for the 3D maneuver gear, whose straps would snap if he exerted too much pressure. Gingerly, he reached out with his thumb and index fingers, inching them towards Levi's chest.
"If you only use two fingers," Levi said, making Eren snatch his hand back as if burned, "you'll only have two contact points, which means you'll have to exert greater pressure on those two points."
Calm down. He hadn't done anything wrong. Levi didn't even look bothered. Try again. Think.
He flattened his hand, moving his last three fingers out of the way, and brought it in from the side, to try and encircle Levi's ribcage with his thumb and forefinger. Levi raised his arms obligingly, giving Eren easy access.
There. He tightened his grip just enough to feel the presence of something warm and living between his fingers, watching Levi's face like a hawk for any sign of discomfort, and lifted. Levi leaned forward, his forearms resting against Eren's thumb, and his legs dangled a bit. He looked supremely unconcerned about being held in the air.
He was so light, Eren thought. From this angle, from his titan's perspective, he could appreciate the symmetry that was Levi's body. Every part of him was perfectly proportioned, his shortness invisible. He was soft but deadly, his strength currently coiled, dormant in Eren's hand.
"Transfer me to your other hand," Levi ordered, cutting through his reverie.
With his fingers taking up Levi's torso, he wasn't quite sure how to make the transfer without dropping him. Maybe… he tilted Levi backwards, supporting him with his other fingers, and replaced his right thumb with the left, then tilted him forward and repeated the process until he was holding him the same way as before, only now with his left hand. Levi had dangled passively throughout the entire transfer.
"Again," Levi said. "I'm not a doll. Take my responses into account."
Of course. This time, when Eren brought his hands together, Levi reached out and pulled himself into the other hand, using Eren for support.
From there they moved on to a variety of other exercises – catching Levi midair (two important things to remember: catch by the cables if possible, follow the movement to minimize impact), acting as a base for Levi's anchors (he had been surprised at how little he felt them, once he got past the initial flinching), and tossing him.
Eren had balked at the last one, thinking of at least five hundred ways it could go wrong. Catching Levi was one thing, but throwing him at trees was a different story altogether. Why would he ever need to do this?
"Is your imagination really so weak that you can't fathom why this is an important skill?" Levi looked so disappointed it made Eren shrink back. "You're in battle with your friend, cut off, and they're running low on gas. You'd be stuck fighting on your own, sooner or later. If you can toss them into the proper trajectory, it'll give both of you a better chance of survival."
Eren was slowly realizing that nothing Levi demanded was pointless. He had about five reasons for every single exercise, and that just made Eren's appreciation go through the roof. This was the difference between him and a soldier like Levi. It wasn't just about attacking, it was about maximizing resources, and using what you had creatively in battle. Armin was better at that sort of thing, actually, Eren thought. Though, Armin was more of a strategist than a tactician like Levi. No wonder he had survived to become known as Humanity's Strongest.
Every so often Levi would land on Eren's shoulder to give him a brief lecture.
"The essence of teamwork is trust," Levi said at one point, sitting down against Eren's neck. "Not trust that they won't betray you, or run away screaming, that's a given. Real trust is knowing your comrades' abilities, and them knowing yours, and knowing that they're absolutely going to do what they said they would. It means you don't have to be looking over your shoulder to make sure they're in position. As long as you're a wild-card berserker in battle, you'll never have your squad's trust."
By the time the day was waning Eren felt like he had learned more in those few hours than in the entirety of his training. Levi really was a head and shoulders above the rest. Eren laughed to himself at the irony.
Levi jumped at his face, and suspended himself in front of Eren's nose.
"Right," he said. "Time to head back. I will tell you, in conclusion, that even though you're far less useless than I thought, you've still got a ways to go. But I'm hungry, and I don't want to know what happens when you get hungry, so I'm cutting you out now."
Without warning, he retracted his anchors and dropped. Eren hardly had to think before catching him easily midair. Levi swung around behind him while Eren sat down, minimizing the distance to the ground. He felt the cut in his neck, and then everything distorted – he was seeing double, the dark pink of titan flesh superimposed on the tiny landscape, feeling Levi's hands under his arms at the same time he felt himself sitting slumped in the field.
Then the world righted itself and he was back in his own tiny body, Levi's arms strong around his torso as they leaped down to the ground. Eren was still trying to figure out the sensations of being human again, clothes pressing on his body, the feeling of fragility, of the world being so big, of something slapping him gently in the face-
"Hey, brat, wake up."
Eren forced his eyes open and saw Levi bent over him, huge and imposing after so many hours spent holding him in the palm of his hand. Eren looked at his hand and back to the corporal, the physical memory of him vivid.
Before he knew what he was doing he had reached out and thrown his arms around Levi, feeling his warmth, his weight, his solidity.
"What the hell?"
Eren ran his hands down the corporal's back, reveling in the roughness of fabric, the sheer detail he could feel on this scale. Not just a small diffuse weight in his palm, but infinite textures, soft and hard, and Eren wanted to touch his skin-
"Eren! What do you think you're doing?" Levi snarled and threw Eren to the ground, pinning him by the wrists.
"You're so human," he said. Levi stared.
"And you're a fucking imbecile."
Eren took a breath, reality slowly coming back to him. He was lying in grass, soft and prickly on his neck, his wrists pinned down by his head, and Levi's weight holding him down because he had been groping the corporal.
He was going to die.
"Sorry!" he stammered, suddenly panicking. "I don't know what – I'm sorry, I didn't mean to, please, please-" he babbled. Levi shot him a disgusted look and sat up, releasing Eren's arms. Eren immediately covered his head protectively, his automatic reaction still trying to curl up into a ball against a beating.
"You never got this handsy with four-eyes after her experiments," he mused. "I suppose I should be flattered. Or maybe carrying people around turns titans on."
Eren whimpered. He wasn't turned on, he was just – oh god, he actually was turned on, and Levi knew it. Hell, he would give his left arm to have Levi back on the ground against him right now. At least with his face hidden Levi couldn't see how completely red it was.
Maybe he could just stay like this for the next fifteen minutes, until the problem went away. Or forever. He could do forever.
"What's wrong with you now? Can we get going? I wasn't kidding about the hungry. Unlike you, I was working hard today."
Eren looked up from his protective curl on the ground. "But, sir…"
Levi looked down at him, followed the curved line of his body and rolled his eyes so hard it was practically audible. "Fucking hell Eren, I don't give a damn, do you remember what I said about being an insufferable teenager over every little thing? Get the hell up and walk it off!" Levi stormed off towards the woods to find their horses, leaving Eren to sit up glumly.
He didn't want Levi to not care, he realized as he pushed to his feet. He wanted…
The clop clop of hooves heralded Levi's return. As he exited the woods, the setting sun caught his hair, lighting it, throwing dramatic shadows across his features, lending them a reddish tint, while a breeze tossed his clothing. Eren's breath caught.
He wanted Levi.
"Shame you got up. I was beginning to think I'd have to tie you to your horse all curled up. That would have been funny."
How could he ask? Levi didn't want him to be a teenager about things, and apparently he identified embarrassment as teenager-ish (which was kind of messed up, now that Eren thought about it, and probably reflected Levi's own general lack of embarrassment more than anything else).
So… blunt force it was.
Eren strode over and took Levi by the shoulders. Levi slanted a glance at his hands, then narrowed his eyes at Eren, who could feel the bunching of his muscles that preluded an attack.
"I thought we went through this already."
"It's not the transformation!" Eren said quickly. "I want you. I… really want you."
Levi frowned. "What, now? But you're sweaty and gross. I'm sweaty and gross." He looked around the field skeptically. "And doing it outdoors is filthy. From experience. You have no idea what can get up your ass. And I don't know what stories you trainees tell each other, but sex on horseback is a terrible idea."
Eren could feel his mouth hanging open, and didn't seem capable of closing it. Levi turned his gaze back up to him.
"I realize you horny kids are adventurous, but have some self control!"
"I," Eren managed. "I meant in general. At the base is also okay." More than okay.
Levi shook his hands off. "If you meant at the base, what was this little drama just now? Don't answer that. I don't want to understand how your strange mind works. It's probably contagious. Freak." Levi tossed Eren his reins and went to mount.
Eren scrambled after him, trying to pick up the scattered pieces of his thoughts. So that was a yes? Maybe? Definitely not a no. His mind still a muddle, he galloped after Levi.
It was already full dark when they arrived at the base. Eren brushed down and stabled his horse in record time, then hurried off to shower. Excitement tempted him to skimp, but he remembered that he was going to Levi and being at all dirty would make the evening end badly. When he felt clean enough to satisfy even the corporal he hurried to his room, hair still flopping wetly in his eyes, only stopping in the kitchen to snag something to eat.
What if Levi changed his mind? What if… He gulped, and opened the door.
Levi was sitting cross-legged on his bed, reading a book, which he set aside when Eren came in. He was shirtless, wearing a pair of soft, loose pants, and the lamplight turned his skin warm and golden, throwing his muscles into sharp relief. His arms were perfectly toned, his stomach taut and chest sculpted, and Eren had to admit somewhere deep down he was just a bit intimidated.
"Are you coming?" Levi said. "I talked Mike into giving us an hour, but if you plan on wasting it all dithering I can go back to my book."
Eren crossed the room quickly, nervousness building in his stomach. This had been so much easier before he had several hours to stew about what they were going to do. Levi unfolded to meet him, then quick as a flash, grabbed Eren and tossed him onto the bed. Eren let out a yelp that was quickly muffled when Levi's lips closed on his own, his mouth pushed open by Levi's tongue.
He tried to kiss back, but had no idea what he was doing, didn't know where to put his hands or what to do now that Levi was on top of him. Levi was heavier than expected, smelled like the barracks' soap, his single-mindedness just a bit overwhelming at such close quarters.
As suddenly as he attacked Levi pulled back, giving Eren's bottom lip one last swipe with his tongue before fixing Eren with a frown. "The hell's wrong? I thought you wanted this."
Eren took a gasping breath and tried to relax, only now noticing how much he had tensed up. "I do!" he blurted. "I just don't… know what I'm doing."
Levi sat up, pulling his hands off of Eren as if burned. "You're a virgin?" he demanded accusingly.
Eren swallowed. "…Sorry?" Seriously, when was he supposed to have had time for sex? He had been training nonstop! He had goals! He needed to kill titans! He was fifteen!
"But," Levi said, and the confused look on his face would have been hilarious if the whole situation wasn't so damn awkward, "what the hell do you do with virgins? I bet Erwin knows that shit. I think he said something about candles once. Do you want a candle? Fuck knows what you're supposed to do with it."
"No!" Eren pushed himself up on his elbows, ready to tackle if Levi decided that he needed to go ask the commander for advice or something. "I'm fine! Really!" How the hell was he supposed to tell Levi what to do with him? Levi was the one with experience, not him! This really wasn't supposed to be such a big deal! "…Don't you remember what your first time was like?" he asked hopefully.
"I wish I didn't."
"Look," Eren said, the words practically tumbling out of him, because Levi was getting this look like Eren was something weird and dangerous that shouldn't be touched. Hell, Levi hadn't even looked at him like that when he transformed into a titan! "It's not a problem, is it? I'll figure it out if you show me! Just… take it a bit slowly…?"
Levi was eyeing him dubiously. "You sure you don't want to go and fuck one of your friends first, then come back when you know what you want?"
This was going nowhere quickly, and time was ticking by. If there was any hope of getting any today, he would have to do something quickly. Holding himself up by his stomach muscles, Eren grabbed the hem of his shirt and pulled it off in one quick movement, tossing it aside on the floor. He flopped back onto the bed, ran a hand through his hair, and fixed Levi with what he hoped was an imploring look. It must have been reasonable, because Levi looked more interested and less like he was going to bolt. "Please?"
"Look, kid, I'm not good with the patience and the teaching," Levi mumbled, even as his hand was trailing unconsciously across Eren's hip.
Eren frowned. "What are you talking about? You're a great teacher. Today was amazing!"
An embarrassed Levi was adorable. "Your instructors must have been shit if you thought I was good. Scratch that, I know they're shit. You're shit. Shit." Without warning he attacked Eren's mouth again. This time, Eren had enough presence of mind to kiss back, trying to apply what little skill he had.
As it turned out, when Levi put his mind to it he could indeed be patient, and though he was a little rough and demanding, Eren honestly wouldn't have expected him to be any different. The roughness woke something in him, fanned the flames of the hunger that had dogged him since he had left his titan form, and he found himself reciprocating in kind. Levi cursed up a storm and called him a monster when he bit, but the way his words dissolved into a moan just made Eren want to do it more. Levi wound him tighter and tighter to the point where he saw stars when he finally released.
He lay on the bed panting and sated, a well of stillness going all the way down to the core of his being. Levi was moving about the room, puttering with things, and Eren followed with his eyes, enjoying how from every angle he could see at least one mark marring Levi's pale skin. It made Eren want to claim him all over again.
"Get up, lazy brat," Levi said. "You need to get out of here, and I need to change my sheets. They're so gross I can barely look at them."
Eren rolled to his feet with a sigh and hunted down his pants. "Do I have to?" he asked, even as he held out his arms to receive the soiled sheets, to drop at the laundry on the way down. "I wanna stay with you."
"You need to be locked up," Levi said, and Eren wondered if he wasn't imagining that the words were more gentle than usual. "That was the deal."
"I'm not going to transform in my sleep."
"I don't care if you do," Levi said. "I care that you have control. But those are our orders."
Eren sighed, but obediently went and opened the door.
"Eren." Levi's voice made him turn back, a sudden hope that the corporal might have changed his mind-
"Are you feeling better?"
"Yes, sir." He was surprised to find it was true.
"I'll see you tomorrow, then."
A smile curled his lips. "Yes, sir!"
He dropped the laundry off, then wondered what he was supposed to do now. Mike was in charge of locking him in, but he didn't know where to find him. Maybe he was waiting downstairs? All along the corridors leading down to the dungeon and through the mess hall Eren didn't encounter him. He paused at the last staircase, tightened his grip on the candle he was carrying, and went downstairs.
It wasn't nearly as bad as he had steeled himself to expect. The room was still small, still cramped, still worryingly solid, but Eren was too caught up in his high from the day to leave any room for panic. He set the candle down on the stool and changed into his pajamas. Levi's blankets were on the floor in the corner where he had left them; Eren had forgotten to take them to the laundry. He fought a very short battle with himself, before carrying them to his bed. Levi wouldn't care, he told himself. Or rather, it didn't matter, since they needed to be washed anyway.
He pulled back his own blankets, spread Levi's on the bed, and pulled his own over them. Lacking anything better to do, he slid in between the sheets. Levi's scent was still strong, drowning Eren in memories of their recent activities. Another grin stole onto his face at the memory, and he stretched luxuriantly, feeling a pleasant burn in his muscles. He could almost pretend Levi was lying against him.
Mike found him like that, lying obediently in bed in his cell, waiting to be locked in. He didn't say anything, just nodded at Eren once before locking the door. Eren closed his eyes, breathed deeply. He pushed away the lingering anxiety, and thought instead of the open field, of endless exercises of tossing and catching. He visualized trajectories and distances, imagined the force necessary for each kind of toss, and fell asleep with the phantom feeling of a small weight against his palm.
He dreamt he was a titan, in a large empty field with a few trees, playing catch with the corporal, not missing a single landing, not fumbling even a little. Then instead of the corporal it was Mikasa, flying around him fearlessly, and no matter how far he tossed, she always came back. Armin was more delicate, because he was smart but not quite as fast at responding, and had a tendency to tense up in free fall. He was careful with Armin.
Sometimes there were two of them, sometimes it was Jean or Sasha or Reiner, and at one point he realized that there was a soft, warm feather-light weight on his shoulder – just out of sight, but he knew it was his mother.
And for once, nobody at all died.