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shrinking violets

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shrinking violets

::

you change all the lead sleeping in my head to gold
as the day grows dim, i hear you sing a golden hymn 
the song i’ve been trying to sing      

- neighborhood #1 (tunnels), arcade fire

::

            They meet on a summer’s day where the heat hangs like honey and the sky looms with a threat of a storm.         

            Eren is bug-hunting. He’s barefooted and suntanned, feeling like an animal of prey instead of a seven-year-old with a cheap net that his mother made for him. His pants are rolled up to his knees and grass-stained, torn in five different places. He thinks he might have torn them somewhere behind since he can feel a strange breeze blowing on his bum, but oh well. Two streaks of mud line his cheeks like war paint, which of course he’ll have to wash off before he goes back to his mother or else he’ll get a scolding and he’d much rather avoid that if at all possible.

            He hasn’t caught anything yet, but, well, he’s trying.

            A grasshopper leaping into the air a few feet away becomes his next target after umpteen failed targets prior. Eren tightens his hold on his net and takes a deep breath in anticipation of going after it; it leaps away at his first step, and his patience runs out in an instant as he whips out his battle cry and charges after it. Dust and dirt spring up beneath his feet in wild bursts as he looks back and forth, panting, in search of his lost target. When he realizes it’s long gone, he drops his net and flings himself to the ground in despair, huffing and puffing and trying not to cry. The tears come anyway because Eren has never been very good at Not Crying.

            Once his mini-tantrum passes, he looks up, sniffling.

            A little boy is standing in the doorway of the house Eren has flopped himself in front of. His hair is the color of sunflowers. His eyes are so blue that they glow. In his clean little hands is a jar, and in the jar is a blue butterfly.

            Eren wipes his runny nose on his arm and blinks up at the boy. The boy blinks back at him. The butterfly in the jar flutters its wings softly. Eren hides his discarded net behind him as he gets to his feet, embarrassed. “It’s not nice to keep butterflies in jars,” he mumbles. “They’re supposed to be free. That’s why they have wings.”

            The boy looks down at the perforated lid of the jar. “I know. I’m letting it go now.” His voice is very soft and light, like clouds. “But, um…weren’t you just trying to catch something?”

            “Well, yeah,” Eren says stubbornly, “but I was gonna let it go right after. I’m not bad.”

            “Okay.”

            They stare at each other for a few more seconds with that customary curiosity that all young children have when facing someone like them. But Eren gets the vague feeling that this boy is not “like him”; he’s prettier, cleaner, quieter, and he reminds Eren of wind chimes or pale flowers or other nice things. Eren decides right away that he likes him and it’s the most certain he’s ever been about anything in his life. “Hey!” he shouts, hopping from foot to foot. “You should play with me! I don’t have any friends and you don’t look like you do either!”

            For some reason, the boy looks at him funny at that, like he’s hurt. Eren tilts his head. “Did I say something bad?”

            “You just said I don’t have any friends…!”

            “Well, do you?”

            The boy looks down at the jar again. After a long time, he shakes his head with a look of great shame. Eren’s face lights up and he dashes toward him, but his overexcitement makes the boy yelp in surprise, ducking out of the way and causing Eren to run face-first into the front door of the house. He hears the boy apologizing over and over again, but Eren’s laughing too hard to say anything back, rubbing his sore nose with his fist and his shoulders bouncing with wild laughter. Eventually he hears the boy start laughing with him in soft little giggles, and he lets Eren take his arm and lead him out into the street, adventure on his mind. “Let’s go somewhere cool to let the butterfly out! There’s a meadow over by my house with lots of sunflowers.” He glances back at the boy, who watches him with wide, stunned eyes. Eren beams at him. “You kinda look like a sunflower, you know! You’re really pretty!”

            The boy splutters out a weird sound and Eren laughs, loud and wild and giddy. He looks back at the boy again, whose cheeks are red like roses. “Oh, and I’m Eren! You should tell me your name, too!”

            The boy mumbles something that sounds like a name, and Eren leans in very close to his face to hear him better. “A-Armin…”

            “Uh-armin?”

            “Armin,” the boy repeats, his big blue eyes fixed on the ground as Eren guides him through the dirty streets. “Please don’t pull me so hard, I might drop the jar…”

            “Oh!” Eren lets go of the other’s arm and contemplates for a moment before taking his hand, fingers entwining. “That better? Now we won’t get separated. I got you.”

            Armin nods. His hand is cool and soft against Eren’s dirty, calloused palm. When the old folks look out their windows to watch the boys stroll by, Eren smiles at them for the first time in his life, showing off the holes where his baby teeth have fallen out. They gape at him in shock as if they don’t recognize the boy looking happy for once.

            The two walk to the meadow together, where the flowers are swaying in time with the swelling winds that foretell a spell of rain. The air is humid and wet, holding thick clouds of pollen in its wake; Armin sneezes four times in a row, and for a moment Eren is terrified that he’s dying, but Armin just wipes his nose and stands in a patch of wildflowers, looking down at the butterfly jar with soft eyes. “Bye-bye,” he says, taking off the lid and giving the jar a gentle little shake when the butterfly hesitates. “Go on now, friend.”

            The butterfly waits another moment before taking off into the air, its pretty wings fluttering. But Eren is spellbound by Armin’s round face and how he has a little roll of baby fat at his chin that tucks in a fold when he lowers his head. An idea comes to him, and it’s so perfect that he has to shout it out right away. “Armin! We should get married!”

            Armin gapes at him, scandalized. “We can’t do that!”

            “Why not?”

            “Because we’re kids. We’re too young.”

            “So? My mom and dad are married. They used to be kids, too.”

            Armin mulls that over for a moment, considering. “Well, maybe when we’re older. Then we could own land like married people do. Maybe even a cat.”

            Eren’s entire body lights up like a firecracker. “You’d really marry me?”

            Armin lowers his head in a moment’s shyness. That little tuck of baby fat beneath his chin makes Eren want to jump very high up into the sky. “As long as you’d be nice to me,” Armin says, very seriously even in his bashfulness.

            “Course I would! Who wouldn’t be nice to you?”

            “Everyone.”

            Eren blinks in disbelief. Armin sneezes from the pollen again and wipes his nose. Stricken with determination, Eren leans in and plants a rough kiss to Armin’s cheek, like the sealing of a promise, a pact. He tries to be gentle but it doesn’t work, and afterwards Armin rubs at his cheek with his sleeve, staring at him in muted surprise. “Why’d you do that?” he asks.

            “‘Cause it made sense.”

            Armin looks thoughtful for a moment before he seems to decide that yes, it does make sense, and the way he smiles makes everything feel like forever.

::

            The people of this town sing working songs. The old men in their straw hats and shabby wool coats tend to their crops, sowing the earth of its spare riches, and their voices like gravel and smoke rise up in an ode to the sun, to the sky, to life, to life!

            Eren hates them. He hates their songs and their silly words and how the townspeople join in as they pass by on the dirty streets, picking up melodies here and there, throwing in harmonies that don’t mesh together as they should. The old women with their bleating voices hum and hum and they hum and Eren hates them. He hates that these people can be so ignorant, so comfortable in this little nest that can be trampled on at any moment. They sing their folk songs about the clouds and the stars and he wants to spit on them, he wants to knock them over and stomp on their faces, he wants to cry and kick and scream because it’s not fair.

            Sometimes on their walks together, he hears Armin singing with them, his voice angel-soft and shy, the sweetest and quietest murmur amidst this swelling gale of noise. He sings the same words that these old fools do, and yet Eren sharpens his ears to pick out his voice in the crowd, wanting to hear him and him alone. They walk hand in hand down dusty paths beneath a veil of cold white sunlight. Armin is wearing shoes and Eren is not. His feet are tough and hard on the bottoms, so he doesn’t wince when he steps on jagged pebbles or sharp, dry blades of grass. There’s dirt beneath his fingernails and toenails, his palms grubby and his knuckles bruised from alley fights. Armin’s hand is still so very soft and clean; it feels like the clouds he sings about.

            “I can stop if you want,” Armin says quietly.

            Eren looks at him, furrows his brow in confusion.

            “Sometimes I don’t even realize I’m doing it,” Armin says with a little laugh. “I know you hate their songs.”

            “I don’t hate them when you sing them.”

            Armin’s face turns a little pink at that. “Oh.”

            “I only hate them when they’re sung by people who don’t mean them.” Eren clenches his free hand into a fist, careful not to squeeze Armin’s. “Those people probably teach their kids those songs but do you think they’ll let them actually want those things? The sun and the stars and the oceans?”

            Armin hushes him at that. They’re not supposed to know about oceans. Those songs are never about oceans or ice fields or volcanos, only the things these people can see if they look around and sometimes up. Dying wildflowers. A sky that never changes. A stale circle of stars.

            Eren kicks at a clod of dirt. It skitters off and explodes in a tiny dust cloud when it collides with a brick wall. “No,” he huffs out. “Course they won’t. They’ll raise them like goddamn cattle just like the rest of us. Teasing them with pretty songs and leaving it at that.”

            Armin squeezes Eren’s hand, subtle, gentle. Sobering. “So you really don’t mind if it’s me?”

            “Course I don’t,” Eren says like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, which it is. “You really mean it.”

            Armin smiles a little sadly, and Eren thinks of his parents, how they’re the ones who probably taught  Armin those songs in the first place. Stricken by something, Eren leans in and plants a rough kiss to Armin’s mouth, because he likes Armin and you kiss the people you like and Eren reckons that’s probably the only simple thing this world has left. Armin makes a surprised little sound and his face flushes pink like a flower. Eren makes a goofy face at him to make him laugh, and when it works, he’s overwhelmed with a warmth that had been snuffed out by his anger, and then he’s pulling Armin close against his side, his arm linking around the other’s delicate shoulders. He kisses him again, kisses his little giggling mouth and his flower-pink face in quick little pecks, and people on the streets don’t stare because they’re just children and children are supposed to love each other before they grow old and forget how to.

::

            The people sing working songs, this time in the landfill. Songs of mourning, of redemption, of hope.

            Sometimes Eren thinks about jamming the end of his rake right between their eyes when they start singing about mothers and their children.

            He feels the others’ eyes on him, Armin’s and Mikasa’s. Their stares are just as heavy as each other’s but different in their sentiments. Armin watches him nervously, worriedly, sometimes paired with a soft touch to the elbow or the shoulder, anything to pacify Eren’s internal storm which is rapidly swelling into a hurricane; Mikasa watches him levelly, silently, taking in his every movement and shift in expression with that plaintive and wordless air she’s always had ever since she learned how to fight.

            She pulls him aside one day after six hours of raking and sowing, her face like a gravestone. “I’m going to be upfront with you,” she says, taking his arm. “You’re scaring Armin.”      

            Eren jerks his arm out of her hold and wipes his runny nose with the back of one rough hand. “Well, why’s he scared? I wouldn’t ever do anything to him and he knows that.”
            “You might mean that, but if you saw your face most of the time you’d find that you can’t blame him.”

            “He knows. He knows I wouldn’t do anything.”

            Mikasa stares at him, quiet in the loudest way. There’s dirt on her face and her messy, overgrown bangs are shoved off to one side so that Eren can see the somber blackness of her eyes in full.

            “Why the hell would I ever hurt him?” Eren demands, his voice cracking with frustration. “Tell me that! Why would I ever hurt Armin?”

            “I don’t know, Eren,” Mikasa says calmly. “Why would you?”

            A sudden flash of a memory snaps through Eren’s mind. Yelling at Armin, calling him weak. Snapping. Mikasa’s fist colliding with his jaw, knocking him down. The taste of dust and dirt on his tongue. Armin looking like a wounded animal the rest of the day, turning his face away every time Eren tried to look at him.

            “I didn’t mean that,” Eren mumbles, embarrassed. “That was just…I don’t know what that was but I didn’t mean it, alright?”

            “Of course you didn’t,” Mikasa says placidly. Her expression gives nothing away, brows raised and mouth neither smiling nor frowning. “But have you told him that?”

            Eren wants very badly to be annoyed with her, and maybe he is just a little, but only because she’s right. He moves away from her with a huff and shoves his hands into the too-big pockets of his worker’s pants, rounding his shoulders in defeat as he stalks off. He knows Mikasa is still watching him because when isn’t Mikasa watching him with those eyes that know everything?

The wind is brisk and cold as it whips about his face and reddens his nose. He wipes at it roughly with his sleeve, making the sensitive, cold-bitten skin ache and sting. The ground crunches beneath his feet and he wonders how they hell these people ever expect to raise anything living out of this dead earth.

            He finds Armin in the stables petting one of the skinny horses, small and fair just like him. Eren stops in the barn entrance when he sees him, but Armin looks over at him almost immediately, blue eyes wide. Eren is, at the very least, relieved to see how he relaxes a little at the sight of him, but there’s still a tension that hangs about those delicate shoulders and knowing that Eren himself is the one who put it there makes his stomach twist.

            “Hey,” he says.

            Armin gives him a little nod. His voice is small when he says, “Hey.”

            Eren shifts from one foot to the other, suddenly feeling nervous. What the hell? Armin isn’t supposed to make him nervous. “So, uh. Whatcha doing in here? The overseer let you off early?”

           Armin looks down at his dirty boots that are about two sizes too big for him. “Mm. He said I wasn’t looking too well, so he had me come in here and tend to the horses.”

            Eren’s  alert within milliseconds. “Are you sick?”

            “No. I was just holding everybody up. I’m too slow to work in the fields, I guess.” Armin turns back to the fair-haired horse currently nuzzling his arm with her long nose. “This one’s my favorite. I named her Daisy.”

            “She kinda looks like you.”

            Armin looks back at him, blinking slowly.

            “No, I mean. You’re both blond and stuff.” Eren keeps shifting back and forth on his feet, not sure where to look. “She’s pretty like you. If horses were pretty like people, I mean. I don’t know.”

            Eren thinks he hears a light breath of a laugh, but it might just be the horse. His face is hot and his legs feel like they’re buzzing with too much energy, like he needs to grab Armin’s hand and run and run until they’re far away from this place.

            “Eren,” Armin says, like he wants to say something else but doesn’t know what.

            “If you have to work in here,” Eren says quickly, “then I’ll work twice as hard for you in the fields, okay? Then you won’t have worry about anything.”

            “You’ll burn yourself out, Eren, don’t do that.”

            “I don’t care. I wanna do it for you.” Eren can feel his breathing picking up, his hands sweaty as he clenches them into fists at his sides in an earnest swell of determination that makes his heart pound. “I can do it, I know I can. I need to.” His voice catches, and he has to suck in a few quick breaths to fill up his lungs enough to speak. “Armin, are you mad at me?”

            Armin looks at him with his bright eyes like water and Eren thinks he looks like a bluebell or a bluebird or maybe an ocean. His little mouth parts as he takes in a breath and his cheeks are pink like petals again. “Eren, I’m not - “

            “You can hit me if you want,” Eren says, breathless. “Because I said something mean to you and I - I was just like the boys who bullied you, wasn’t I? So you can hit me like I hit them when they hurt you.”

            “I don’t want to hit you!” Armin says in a high, tight voice like he might cry. “And you’re nothing like those boys, Eren…!”

            Eren shakes where he stands, his mouth dry and his eyes watering. “Are you sure?”

            “Yes, I’m sure! You’re…” Armin sniffs just as Eren wipes his own nose on his sleeve again, the both of them choking up like the lost children they are. “You’re my best friend and I love you…!”

            The horses are starting to get distressed, and Daisy nips gently at Armin’s shoulder but just sudden enough to startle Armin off his feet. He lets out a little yelp as he slips, and Eren barrels toward him to messily catch him before he goes tumbling into the feeding bin; but the muddy floor of the stable sends them both crashing in a heap, and then they’re laughing through their silly tears and it’s so nice to hear Armin laughing again, so nice to hear how his breath hiccups and to feel how his arms wrap around Eren’s shoulders to hold onto him as they both shakily get to their feet. Even long after they’re balanced, Eren still clings to Armin’s tiny body and presses frantic, sloppy kisses all over his face as Armin giggles and bats at his shoulders. He calls Eren “overzealous”, and Eren doesn’t know what that means but he keeps kissing him because Armin keeps letting him.

            It’s innocent. It’s perfect. It can’t possibly last.

::

            They’re fourteen-year-old soldiers in training when the air between them begins to change.

            Eren isn’t the best at putting things to words, and so he doesn’t try to. But it’s a rainy evening alone in the barracks when Eren catches Armin watching him undress with a look he’s never seen before.

            Eren stops in the middle of pulling his shirt off, staring back at him with questioning eyes. Armin looks away from him with such urgency that Eren thinks something must be wrong. He looks down at himself to see if anything grotesque is growing out of him. Nothing there, just skin. Armin clears his throat twice in a row and hastily goes about unbuttoning his shirt. Eren doesn’t look away from him. “Armin?”

            “It’s nothing. Sorry.”

            “What’s nothing?”

            Armin just keeps unbuttoning his shirt, his mouth pursed in a thin, tight line.

            “Why won’t you look at me?”

            “Because you’re getting changed, Eren.”

            “So? You were looking at me just now, who cares?”

            Armin’s cheeks turn rose-red.

           Eren pulls his shirt off and tosses it onto the bed. “Actually,” he says, suddenly frustrated, “you keep doing this thing, too.”

            “What thing.”

            Armin sounds sharper than he should there. It sends a little thrill through Eren’s blood, quick and hot. “The thing where you look at me, I look at you, and then you look away like you’ve done something wrong. That thing. There, you just did it again.”

            Armin takes in a long, deep breath through his nose, looking up at the ceiling and tightening his jaw. His face is still soft and round but he’s gotten a little taller, a little leaner, slowly coming into his body as he inches into the first breaths of adulthood. The subtle display of annoyance in the clenched muscles of his jaw makes him look older, touched with a faint trace of thorns on his flowery exterior. Eren’s stomach tightens with another little thrill that he doesn’t understand.

            “Fine,” Armin says, his voice low and hard even as it shakes. “Do you remember that time in the stables back at the landfill? Or even before that, when we first met as kids?”

            Eren blinks. “Yeah, what about it?”

            “When you…when you called me pretty.”

            “Yeah?”

            Armin looks at him again, as if Eren should immediately know what he’s trying to say, but he doesn’t. “What’s wrong with that?” Eren asks, frustrated. “You are pretty. Why’s it just gotta be a girl thing with everyone?”

            Armin looks down at the floor. Then, with a quick, clumsy jerk, he shrugs his shirt off his shoulders and goes about unbuttoning his pants, steadfastly avoiding Eren’s baffled gaze. “Well,” he huffs out, “watching you just now, I thought the same thing. About you. There.”

            Eren stares at him, trying not to laugh. “Armin. Have you seen me?”

            “I mean it! Don’t try to derail me.”

            “I’m just saying. You’re the pretty one. I’m like a fuckin’ goblin compared to you.”

            “That is not true.”

            “I’m not upset,” Eren laughs out, shimmying out of his pants until they fall to the floor. “I couldn’t really care less what I look like.” He kicks his pants into the dirty clothes bin, standing in his boxers and shivering in the cold of the empty room. “Still don’t get why you’re so worried about looking at me, though.”

            Armin lets out a long-suffering sigh. “You really want to know what I mean?”   

            Eren nods like an eager puppy. Armin goes about studiously stepping out of his pants, slowly, looking everywhere but at Eren. After what feels like a long time, he finally says, “If you were to…kiss me now like you did back when we were kids, it - ” His voice is cracking. It’s not like him to be this bad with his words. That’s supposed to be Eren’s job. “It would just. It would be different now. I don’t think I need to elaborate on that.”

            “Yeah, you do.”

            “Eren, come on.”

            “Who gives a damn,” Eren says, half-naked and indignant. “It wouldn’t be different at all. I liked kissing you then and I’d like doing it now. Who cares.” His mouth twists in a hurt frown. “Even though we haven’t done that in like, a year, for some unknown reason.”

            “Keep it down,” Armin says quietly, looking nervously at the window with the curtains drawn over it.

            “Why? What’s the big deal? I don’t get it.”

            “Because it’s not the same as it was back then!” Armin snaps, shaking from head to toe and clutching his clean clothes to his chest with white knuckles. “I - god - this is justproving that it’s different between us now, you’re proving it to me right now that I’m the odd one out - “

            “I’m not doing anything!”

            “Exactly! And I want you to!”

            Eren takes a step back, blinking. Armin covers his mouth with his hand, squeezing his eyes shut and looking like he might burst into tears. Eren stares at him for a few more beats before huffing and grabbing the blanket from his bed, wrapping it around himself to walk over to him. Armin shrinks away to the wall when he approaches. “Armin,” he says quietly, “look at me. Come on.”

            “No.”

            “You know how stupid I am. You’ve gotta spell things out for me or else I’m not gonna get it.”

            Armin wipes at his eyes quickly with the back of his hand. “How many times do I have to tell you you’re not stupid.”

            “A lot. A million. A million and a half.” Eren stands before him and opens his arms, offering Armin a warm space within the blanket cocoon. “Come on.”

            Armin hesitates a few moments before tentatively setting his clean clothes down on the bed and accepting the warm space, though he stiffens when Eren wraps his arms around him and holds him close. Their bare stomachs touch. That feels weird, but good-weird, really-nice-weird. It takes Armin a little while to relax, but when he does, his arms sheepishly wind around the small of Eren’s back, and Eren settles his chin atop the other’s blond head, nuzzling the soft hair with his mouth. Armin stiffens again, but he doesn’t drop his arms or move away, so Eren guesses that must be okay.

            But something does feel different. It’s quiet, subtle, but it makes a presence between them nevertheless. Eren stares into its hazy, flickering light and tries to make out its form. It’s blurry and unclear, yet he still feels it in the pit of his stomach and deep within his chest.

            “Lemme see something,” he says on a mumble, and Armin lifts his head, staring at the place on his neck where Eren feels his pulse picking up. He leans in and sets a kiss to Armin’s cheek, then the other. The tip of his nose. The little slope of his chin. His forehead, right where his bangs stop in a blunt, straight line. All of the tiny, familiar places that Eren’s lips have mapped out for so long but suddenly feel like new places, places he needs to relearn little by little.

            Armin’s lips are pursed again, his breath puffing out short and shallow from his nose. When Eren leans in to kiss his mouth, Armin pulls away the tiniest bit, and the way Eren’s heart breaks tells him that it’s not just his imagination - things really havechanged.

            Just as Eren is about to step away, Armin suddenly stops him when he leans up on his toes and cups Eren’s face with fumbling hands. There’s an exhale of warm breath and then there’s Armin’s lips on his own, crooked but firm, and that quiet shape in the hazy, flickering light becomes so clear and so vivid in Eren’s mind for one hot moment, everything makes perfect sense. Their bare stomachs are still touching, the blanket shielding them both from the chilly, vacant room, and the world speeds up for a breath before slowing down, melting down, Eren is melting down and his body is hot and Armin keeps kissing him because Eren keeps letting him, keeps wanting him to.

            It ends too soon. It ends far too soon and one moment they’re on the verge of something incredible and the next moment Armin is breaking himself away with a gasp, giving up his warm space in the blanket to turn his back and hurriedly pull his clothes on. Eren stands there in a daze, staring at the space where Armin once was. His mouth is burning. Had it always burned after they did this? Had they ever really done this?

            That night at lights-out they lie with their backs to each other on their shared bunk, not daring to touch. Eren sleeps in blinks and fits, waking up every few minutes with a tension in his body that won’t settle down. A careful glance over his shoulder and he sees Armin’s shoulders rising and falling in soundless, shaking breaths. His arm moves very, very slowly.

            Eren’s heart leaps high up into his throat, and he’s the most careful he’s ever been as he turns his head back to look at the wall straight ahead, eyes wide. His body burns all night and sleep never comes.

::

            Back in Shiganshina, the townsfolk would always tell Eren that he was fated to wind up behind bars before he turned sixteen.

            He sees now, his wrists shackled to the wall and his sore body sitting on a hard bed that smells of mildew, that they were right.

            Levi makes it painfully obvious that it’s a massive charity of his to allow Eren a visitor, but Eren bites his tongue and keeps from making any bitter remarks; Levi is already intimidating enough, and Eren knows better than to push him when he’s granted him Armin’s presence after so long of only having his shadow as company in this cold, dark place.

            He can barely keep still on the bed as he waits for the cell door to be unlocked, breathing in quick little puffs in and out of his nose. He can see Armin’s shape from behind the security guard. After a moment of waiting, he peers out from behind the man’s back and meets Eren’s eye, and Eren is all but panting like a dog in a kennel, clenching his hands in and out of fists as they’re restrained in his cold, bruising shackles. Armin gives him a small, sympathetic smile, and the bob of his throat as he swallows tells Eren that he’s just as antsy as he is. Armin is just better at hiding it.

            “Please let me unlock his shackles,” Armin tells the security guard. “There’s no need to restrain him.”

            “I’m not convinced,” Levi sniffs from the entranceway outside of the cell, arms crossed about his chest. “The guy’s practically foaming at the mouth. He might pounce on you.”

            Eren bows his head, mortified and wanting very much to break out of these bars and take Armin all for himself, but that would likely just prove Levi’s point, wouldn’t it.

            “I can assure you that won’t happen,” Armin says, always the mediator. “It’s only making him more tense keeping him chained up like this.”

            “Eren Jaeger? Tense? I’m fuckin’ flabbergasted.” Despite Levi’s teasing tone, he gives a vague wave of his hand and says, “Do as you wish. But if he blows anything up, I’m holding you responsible, Arlert.”

            “Yes, sir.” Armin’s eyes are still on Eren, who is all but quivering as the cell door is opened with a clank and a rusty squeal. The security guard looks wary as he hands the keys to Armin, but Armin is entirely unaffected and takes the keys from him with a soft thank-you. The guard shuts the cell door once Armin makes his way inside; Eren has to bite back a needy whimper as Armin comes to the bedside and makes to unlock the shackles around his wrists.

            “I’m here,” Armin says, so quietly that no one but Eren can hear him. One shackle is unlocked, and Eren’s hand immediately flies out to grab onto Armin’s shirt. He thinks he might cry and so he hides his face in the soft fabric to keep out of Levi’s hawk-eye line of sight.

            “I mean it, Arlert,” Levi says from the corner. “Keep him in line. I’m giving you twenty minutes.”

            Armin’s eyes are directly on Eren when he says, “He’ll be okay.”

            Over Armin’s shoulder, Eren sees Levi’s stony face soften for a split second before he turns on his heel and leaves the room with the security guard in tow. Armin waits until they’re finally alone to quickly unlock the other shackle, and Eren all but flies toward him, wrapping his arms around him so fiercely that Armin falls down on top of him and gasps for breath. But Armin follows suit in holding onto Eren tightly, letting Eren pull him against his chest and down onto the bed. “God, Eren,” Armin says on a winded laugh, “you’re shaking all over.”

            “I fucking missed you so much,” Eren chokes out, his words muffled into Armin’s hair. “You have no idea how much - “

            “I do,” Armin whispers, raw, genuine. “I do, Eren. Trust me. I do.”

            Tears sting at Eren’s eyes and he squeezes them shut, panting. His face presses against the side of Armin’s neck to breathe in his scent. This prison cell always smells of cold steel and murky stone, yet Armin smells of sleep and sunlight and smoke, the soft musk of unwashed hair and bruised skin. Trees and the sky and flowers and Eren’s heart is suddenly pounding as Armin strokes at his hair with gentle fingers, touches his face with warm palms, nuzzles his nose against Eren’s sweat-damp bangs.

            Eren can’t remember the last time he was touched gently, but he’s positive that it was by Armin once upon a time before he was a monster, a prisoner, a criminal. Kissing in the barracks? Yes, that was it, that must have been it -

            Feeling Armin’s hands rubbing gentle circles into his shoulders makes him whimper and whine, and he can feel his leg start kicking and twitching when there are fingers scratching lightly behind his ears. Armin laughs softly, the sound like a bell. Eren rolls over onto his side so that they face each other; the cot is so narrow that they have to tangle their legs together to fit, but the closeness is a comfort that Eren doesn’t dare compromise lest Levi or the others burst through the cell door at any moment and take it from him.

            Even as their bodies are pressed up as close as they can be, Eren still murmurs, “Closer.”

            “Hm?” Armin hikes his leg up over Eren’s hip. “Like that?”

            “Closer,” Eren huffs out, his breath suddenly short and forced. “Armin, please…”

            Armin’s eyes are bright and wide as he places his hands on Eren’s stomach, fingers splayed and palms flat. Eren takes his hands and slides them up under his shirt; Armin doesn’t gasp, doesn’t move away, only lets out a soft, sweet sigh and touches the bare, hot skin of Eren’s stomach with a quiet eagerness that makes Eren twitch between his legs, sudden and insistent. Armin’s hands drift up to his chest. Eren sees his pale throat bob in a hard swallow. “Eren,” he whispers, “your heart’s pounding…”

            “Yeah,” Eren whispers back, dizzy and mindless. “It…it seems to do that a lot when you’re around.”

            Armin’s lips part in a soft breath. They both stare at each other in silence, Eren’s heartbeat thudding against Armin’s palms.

            And Eren doesn’t know who moves in first, but he does know that Armin’s mouth is soft, soft and sweet and open, and that the curl of heat that lights up his body is definitely a new and crazy thing that has no words. Or perhaps too many words. Words that the soft, tentative touch of Armin’s tongue against his steals away completely until his mind is blank and hazy and hot, his body going lax and his jaw dropping as he groans into Armin’s mouth. He’s uncaring of how ugly the sound of it is, and Armin seems of the same mindset when he lets out a winded little moan, the sort of sound that Eren has only heard from him in heated dreams. Armin’s fingers curl at the bunched-up hem of Eren’s shirt before Eren leans back to yank it off over his head. He sees Armin send a pointed glance to the corner of the room on the lookout for anyone walking by, but now Eren couldn’t care less if the entire scouting legion paraded in here - no one’s taking this from them, not during the first time they’ve been able to be alone in far too long.

            Armin sighs in relief when Eren kisses him again, rough and hungry, clumsy with inexperience - and it is inexperience, he realizes, since they’ve never kissed like thisbefore. The butterfly kisses of childhood and the quiet wonder of almost-adolescence are long gone and replaced with Armin biting Eren’s bottom lip, Eren rolling over to lie atop him, Armin’s trembling hands raking up his back. His breath is sweet on Eren’s tongue and he laps it up, only slowing down when Armin leans back for a moment to just look at him up close with shining, lidded eyes. Their foreheads rest together as they try to catch their breath, but the longer he goes without kissing Armin, the more starved he is for it, the emptier his lungs feel until he all but whimpers when Armin takes him under again.

            Time becomes meaningless. All Eren can focus on is the softness of Armin’s mouth, the quiet, eager sounds he pulls out of him, the rising heat between them as their breath becomes shorter and their kisses deeper, more certain, more needy -

            “Well, goddamn,” Levi’s voice drones from the entrance, nearly sending the both of jumping up through the ceiling. “Should I have knocked for the honeymooners?”

            In a daze, Eren blinks back to reality, shirtless and sweating and panting helplessly. Armin’s face is so red that it looks painful. Eren looks back at Levi in disbelief as Armin wriggles out from beneath him, likely in hopes of sinking into the floor and never returning. “Twenty minutes…? Was that twenty minutes?”

            “It was thirty, actually,” Levi says blandly. “I felt generous. Though judging by the sight of you two, perhaps it was too generous.”

            Armin is hurriedly tucking his hair behind his ears and resetting his rumpled clothing. Eren can practically feel the heat radiating from him where he sits. “T-Thank you, Captain,” Armin says quickly, his voice high and strained.

            Levi rolls his eyes so hard he deserves a medal for it. “Ugh. Don’t thank me. Jaeger’s so transparent that I can just tell he’s dubbing me as the world’s biggest cockblock. Am I right, Jaeger?”

            Eren doesn’t know what he’s thinking. All he knows is that his lips are hot and sore, still thirsting for Armin’s, and that he wants to cry when Armin has to leave him for the night. His chest hurts; he’s filled with such grief that he feels nauseous at the prospect of another night alone on this hard bed and in these shadows, away from Armin, away from everyone. He sees how those little white hands are shaking as the security guard leads him out, but his stomach flips when Armin turns to look over his shoulder. He meets Eren’s eye for one soft moment, and then he’s gone, nothing but footsteps that become quieter and quieter until there’s nothing there at all.

            Levi remains standing against the wall, his face a perfect deadpan. He gives Eren a quick once-over with his flat eyes before rolling them and turning on his heel to exit the room.

            “Youth,” he mutters.   

::

            This isn’t the first time this has happened - Eren, half-conscious, only semi-aware of his surroundings as he’s entrenched in scalding heat and rising steam; but most importantly, Armin’s arms around him, pulling him back into the universe as if being rebirthed.

            armin

            armin what happened

            to annie

            Eren’s voice is ragged and raw, his chest hollow with grief. His words taste like blood and ash, like guilt.

            Armin’s heavy silence and the way he tightens his hold around Eren’s chest tells him his answer. Eren slips back into the awaiting blackness of something more than sleep but less than death.

            He’s out cold for what could very well be two hours or two thousand years. When he wakes, just barely, it’s to soft, familiar voices. Mikasa. He thinks he hears Jean - Jean? Why is Jean here, that bastard. Where’s Armin. armin what happened -

            He keeps slipping in and out of consciousness, his sentience being stolen from him every few seconds. In the moments that he’s lucid, he can feel a presence at the end of the bed, curled up by his feet like a cat. He breathes in. He thinks he catches a breath of Armin’s scent, his senses brought to sharp focus. His fingers twitch; he wants to open his eyes and see him, but everything is so heavy, from his eyelids to his fingertips to his toes. All he can do is remain still, his breathing mechanical and shallow, and wait for the light to come back. Shapes move behind his eyelids, swimming in the haze. The only shape he can make out is Armin.

            Sometime during his delirium, he remembers standing in a field of wildflowers at Armin’s side. Armin opens the lid to a glass jar. A blue butterfly flutters out and up into the sky. It flies out over the wall into the world outside. Armin smiles, and everything feels like forever, and then the memory is swallowed back into the shadows of sleep.

            The next time he wakes, he’s able to move the barest bit, just a little lift of his hand as he seeks out something to touch. Armin. He can still feel his presence, but it’s closer now, in a different position. Eren’s eyes ache and sting as he opens them slowly, painstakingly. The room is dark and cold but Armin’s body is warm next to his, lying atop the blankets and sleeping softly. His hair fans over his face in a messy tide, and Eren’s whole body hurts as he reaches out a hand to brush it away. Armin snaps awake in an instant, a trained light sleeper, and the way his eyes are bright with fear and then soft with relief makes Eren’s heart feel too big for his chest, like it needs to be let out of a jar and to fly up into the sky -

            “Eren,” Armin breathes out. “Oh, god, Eren, I…thank goodness…”

            He seems to give up on speaking and chooses instead to move as close as he can to Eren’s body without touching him, for fear of hurting him. But Eren forgoes that concern and grabs Armin to hold him close, clutching at him even as his weak, aching limbs jolt with a pained protest. Armin takes the affirmation as his cue to scramble atop Eren’s body and wrap his arms around him, his breath choking and shoulders shuddering. Eren breathes heavily into the curve of Armin’s throat, groaning in pain and in relief of that pain - proof that he’s sentient and alive and back in his body. His body. When Armin tries to reposition himself to keep him from hurting, Eren only holds him tighter to keep them both in place, gasping out, “Stay there - feels good - “

            Armin gasps with him and lets his body fully sink down atop Eren’s, everything touching at once. Eren’s hips jerk up against Armin’s, his joints cracking in relief of movement after being stationary for too long. Their hands are everywhere; Eren’s frantic and slipping up Armin’s shirt to grab at his back, and Armin’s threading through Eren’s hair, cupping his face, grasping his shoulders. Their every movement is colored with desperation, grief, relief, hunger, every feeling colliding with one another in sparks and flashes - pain and pleasure, agony and wanting, the past and the present and the future that stretches out uncertainly before the both of them, lost in that haze of unsteady light.

            “We have to be quiet,” Armin whispers, “the walls are thin - “

            “I don’t care,” Eren whispers back, resting his forehead against Armin’s and already tugging at the waistband of his pants with needy hands.

            “Mikasa’s sleeping in the next room,” Armin protests weakly, even as he’s helping Eren out of his pants with fierce tugs until they’re bunched up around his knees. “If anyone hears…if anyone…oh, god, Eren - “
            They both mutually give up when they collide in a searing, frantic kiss, grabbing at each other’s clothes until they’re unbuttoned, untied, shrugged off of shoulders and pulled down trembling thighs. They whimper into each other’s mouths as they grind together, and Eren’s mind fogs over in a heated cloud when Armin takes them both in hand and pumps quickly, clumsily. Eren rolls his hips up and into every movement of Armin’s hand, growling and moaning against the other’s neck. He tastes the space of skin where Armin’s pulse beats hot and fast beneath, and Armin bites at Eren’s shoulder to muffle his cries that only mount in desperation as they surge against each other.

            Eren could almost cry when Armin suddenly breaks away, almost expecting the moment to be over far too soon, but then Armin is lowering himself down Eren’s body and then - fuck - then there’s his mouth, fuck, fuck, he’s taking Eren’s cock into his mouth, and it’s so good that Eren can’t speak, can’t breathe, can’t do anything but feel. He arches off the bed and curls his toes as his hands grip at Armin’s hair, hearing Armin groan when he tugs just a little too hard. The soft, wet sounds of Armin’s mouth passing over him are touched with breathy, urgent sounds every time Eren’s hips jerk up into his mouth. In the darkness, Eren can see Armin moving against the bed, grinding himself helplessly into the mattress in broken timing with every bob of his head; his hands grip at Eren’s forearms tightly, his eyes fixed hazily up at Eren through the shadows. Eren swipes Armin’s hair away from his forehead to see him better, panting and half-propped on his elbow even as his arm threatens to give out from beneath him.

            He doesn’t last long - there’s no way he could, not even with all the self-control in the world that he’s slowly, slowly learning. He doesn’t have time to warn Armin, to even realize what’s happening before it’s already there and he’s suddenly coming undone in a hard, arching shudder that has his whole body twitching and twisting. He thrashes and turns his head into the pillow to hiss out a long whine between his teeth, and through the blood beating in his ears he can hear Armin moaning around him, the sounds breathless and hungry as he takes everything down.

            Eren barely gives himself time to come down from his high before he’s grabbing at Armin to drag him up atop his body until Armin is straddling his hips, shaking all over and keening in low noises that make Eren’s blood hot all over again. He’s still lost in his own delirium as he takes Armin in hand, reveling in how the touch drags a hiss out of Armin’s mouth and how his head tips back as he rides into the movements of Eren’s hand. It’s fast and clumsy and Armin is whispering horrible things, wonderful things, rocking his hips as Eren watches him with rapt attention.

            He’s still gasping for air and his thighs are twitching with both parts exhaustion and exertion, so he’s not surprised when his hand starts tiring; but he tugs at Armin’s hips to pull him up more until they’re close enough for Eren to lift his head and take Armin into his mouth, no hesitation, no wondering if he’s doing it right. It’s instinctive and it’s perfect in every unpracticed, eager way that’s been looming between the two of them for ages. Armin’s hand flies up to cover his mouth when a teeming, tremulous moan breaks past his lips, and Eren takes it in greedily, grabbing at Armin’s hips in a wordless encouragement to keep moving.

            Armin’s free hand threads into Eren’s sweaty hair and holds tightly to keep him in place, and Eren just lets him, his eyes lidded and hazy as Armin’s dark shape rolls and shudders above him. He slides in and out of Eren’s mouth, groaning into his fist, his movements becoming more erratic and off-beat until one particular drag of Eren’s tongue has his whole body tensing up. Distantly, Eren can hear Armin’s choked-off warning, little more than a feeble, panicked cry of Eren’s name muffled into his hand.

            When Eren shows no intention of moving away and only grasps harder at the other’s trembling thighs, he feels Armin give everything up and let himself come with a ragged gasp, his hips jerking in Eren’s hold and his pretty spine arching in a deep bend and a full-body shudder. He ruts into Eren’s mouth with a high, muffled cry, and Eren takes everything with a low, keening groan as his hands stroke up Armin’s stomach to feel how the muscles spasm wildly beneath the hot skin. Armin grabs at Eren’s hands desperately and holds them against his chest, fingers curling tightly around them like they’re precious. He kisses each of Eren’s palms in the moments where his body starts to relax, but his heart hammers against Eren’s wrists and his skin is so warm, his body so familiar that Eren thinks, dazedly, that this was always supposed to happen, that all of their years together had been building up towards this for longer than either of them could have ever realized.

            Neither of them can speak nor move for a good five minutes afterwards. The most Eren can manage is setting sleepy, gentle kisses along Armin’s bare hipbones and stomach, the muscles ever twitching beneath his lips. Armin’s head is still tipped back as he sucks in huge breaths, holds them, and lets them out on wobbly exhales that try in vain to steady themselves. When the energy comes back to Eren’s arms, he slowly props himself up on one elbow and winds an arm around the small of Armin’s back, resting his cheek against the other’s chest. Armin is still panting as he sets a shaky hand to the back of Eren’s head, stroking softly. Eren closes his eyes and pulls Armin down atop him; Armin sinks against him, boneless and hot, their bodies seamless as they hold each other with weak limbs.

            They lie together in perfect quiet, breathing. They huff out little laughs when someone’s leg jerks with leftover adrenaline or when a shoulder jumps. The first to break the silence is Armin. “I have no idea where our clothes are. I’m pretty sure I…threw them.”

            “Forget it,” Eren says with a shake of his head. “I’m never wearing clothes again.”

            “I don’t think everyone else would appreciate that as much as I would.”

            Eren shrugs, and Armin laughs into the curve of his shoulder. Eren lets out a little whine when Armin slowly makes his way into an upright position, sitting on his knees and looking around. “No, no, come back down with me,” Eren whispers, reaching for him blindly.

            “Just a moment,” Armin laughs out, suddenly shy when he lights the kerosene lamp on the nightstand. The flame catches and the room is lit in a flickering glow, and it’s the first time all night that Eren can see Armin in full. The rail of Armin’s spine sticks out from beneath the soft skin of his back and his slender legs are white like candlewax, save for where they’re bruised in symmetrical streaks from the bindings of his maneuver gear. Eren can see the lingering flush to his face and neck, his throat dotted with little bite marks that Eren, having been too wrapped up in the heat of the moment, hadn’t even been aware he was giving him. That sends a little thrill through his chest and he shivers.

            “There they are,” Armin says, spotting their discarded clothing which somehow wound up in the far corner of the room. Eren snorts a little at that, and Armin shoots him a look that tries to be serious but falters when the corner of his lips quirks in a smile.  ”I wasn’t the only eager one, you know,” he says, picking up the clothing and making his way back to the bed.

            “Am I supposed to deny that?” Eren asks with a laugh, pulling up the blanket to settle around his bare shoulders. “Damn right I was eager. It’s you we’re talking about.”

            “And vice versa,” Armin says with a hidden smile as he bows his head and slips his arms into the sleeves of his unbuttoned shirt, the rest of him still bare. “I…kind of wish the light had been on, though.”

            “Why’s that?”

            Armin swallows hard, like he’s readying himself to say something of great magnitude. “I wanted to see the faces you were making.”

            “Pretty sure you’re lucky you didn’t,” Eren says, reaching for him. Armin comes to stand before him at the side of the bed, not bothering to button his shirt. Eren leans forward and nuzzles his face against Armin’s stomach, sighing into the warm skin. “I haven’t gotten any better looking since our training days,” he says contentedly. “I’m still a goblin. You’re still a prince.”

            “A prince?” Armin repeats with a quiet laugh, his fingers weaving through Eren’s hair as he cradles his head against the softness of his stomach. “That’s pushing it. And you’re not a goblin, for the hundredth time.”         

            “Whatever you say,” Eren says with a lazy lilt of a smile hidden against Armin’s belly.

            It takes some coaxing, but Eren eventually pulls his nightclothes back on with Armin’s assistance, the heaviness returning to his limbs and making it difficult to move on his own. Armin sits on the bed with his back against the wall, and Eren lies down before him to rest his head in his lap, half-asleep. Armin’s fingers rub gentle circles in Eren’s hair and at the nape of his neck as they both drink in the silence and the steady, even feeling of each other’s breathing.

            It’s in that quiet aftermath, that slow-dripping of reality seeping through the cracks, that Eren remembers the chaos, the conflict - Annie. His blood turns cold. “Armin,” he whispers, “what do you think’s gonna happen now?”

            Armin catches on quickly, not needing any context in order to understand. “I don’t know,” he says, honest and grave. “I don’t think anyone can know for certain.”

            Eren closes his eyes and takes a long, deep breath. “Sometimes I just really think about everything that’s happened, and I mean really think, and I just…I don’t know. It’s crazy. Everything’s so crazy.” He turns onto his side to wrap his arms around the small of Armin’s back, his forehead against the other’s warm stomach. “And to think you and I used to run through the meadows back home and let butterflies out of jars.”

            “You still remember that day?”

            “Course I do. It was the day I met you.”

            When Eren opens his eyes and looks up, he sees Armin looking down at him with the softest smile he’s ever seen. Soft like wind chimes, like flowers, like the few happy memories they still have left despite everything else.

            “That was also the day you asked me to marry you,” Armin says, stroking behind Eren’s ear with his fingertips. “I’d never seen someone look so earnest before. You were so determined.”

            “I still am.”

            Armin’s mouth parts the tiniest bit. Eren looks up at him, unblinking. “I really am,” he repeats, quieter. “I mean…I know we’re in no position to talk about that sort of thing now, but…” He lets out a little sigh when Armin cups his face with one warm palm, losing track of his words for a moment. They come back to him, and they’re breathless. “Armin, if all of this were to somehow blow over tomorrow, or next week, or even next year…and I know that probably won’t happen, but hear me out.” He takes a deep breath, holds it, and lets it out on, “That would be the very first thing I’d do. Without a doubt.”

            Armin closes his eyes, still smiling that soft, quiet smile. “That’s pretty sappy coming from you, Eren.”

            “Hey, I have my moments.”

            Armin breathes out a sleepy laugh. “That you do,” he murmurs, ducking his head down to brush his lips against Eren’s forehead. Eren tilts his face up to catch Armin’s lips with his own, sighing into his mouth with relief at the contact.

            The heat pools back into his body within moments, and Armin leans back to look down at him, his eyes sparkling. Eren stares at his mouth; he’s already shaking.

            Armin’s hand drifts down between Eren’s thighs. All Eren can see is the soft, teasing lilt of Armin’s mouth and the sweat-damp locks of golden hair that cling to his pale neck. They leave the light on.