For the most part, they leave Reiner and Bertholdt alone. For the most part, Reiner and Bertholdt sit in the cell across from Annie’s crystal coffin in silence, sometimes talking but most times not because there isn’t much to talk about when you are well and truly fucked in every definition of the word.
For the most part, they’re left alone until suddenly they aren’t.
“Colossal and Armoured!” Hanji coos as they scramble down the stairs that lead to the more isolated part of the dungeons. Reiner flinches when he hears what they call them. Bertholdt doesn’t react at all, hunched in on himself in a corner of the cell, but Reiner isn’t actually sure that he’s moved since three sleeps ago, the last time they’d had a conversation.
“Don’t call us that,” Reiner rasps, because they’ve been trying to starve themselves out and his throat is parched.
“Isn’t that what you are?” Hanji asks, eyes bright and challenging, non-judgemental when they repeat the monikers he and Bertholdt had been given.
Reiner flinches back into the stone wall behind him, feeling this itching anxiety start in his mind and he can’t think too much about what he is, he can’t, because, because –
Bertholdt heaves in a breath that sounds like a death rattle, slumping his weight forward in a way that lets him reach Reiner’s wrist, squeezing it just enough to keep him where he is. He doesn’t let Reiner meet his eyes.
“What do you want?” he asks, and his voice sounds worse than Reiner’s.
“Well, for starters, for you two to drink this,” Hanji says, sliding in a tray that has two mugs of steaming tea and two bowls of – of porridge, porridge with brown sugar and fruit. “And eat, preferably, but at this point I think hydration is more important.”
Reiner doesn’t really hear those last words, his eyes fixed onto the porridge and his stomach cramps up on itself with how hungry he is.
The last time he’d been so hungry had been –
A headache blindsides him, makes him double over and grasp his head in his hands. And Bertholdt, who’d been the one to think of starving themselves, just to get away, just to be done, looks at Reiner with broken eyes before he uncurls himself from the position he’d kept for days. Crawling looks painful, and Bertholdt bites dry, papery lips and laps at his blood as he pulls himself to where the tray sits. He keeps his head down, stays servile and fearful as he grasps the tray with shaking, swollen fingers, doesn’t bother to try lifting it, just drags it along the ground carefully as he shuffles back to where Reiner is swallowing back painful snaps of memory he can’t make sense of.
“Reiner,” he whispers. Reiner shakes his head, whimpering.
“I just want – I don’t want –” He stutters, and talking hurts, so much, but not nearly as much as the strange ripping sensation in his chest cavity. “I’m tired, Bertl,” he sighs to the ground. “I’m really tired.”
“This will help,” Bertholdt tells him, and his tone makes something in Reiner shudder and stretch, because that’s the tone he uses when something is wrong with Reiner and it’s not his fault and it’s not all the time but sometimes – “Reiner,” Bertholdt says, and Reiner sucks in a breath and realizes he’s shaking. “This will help.”
Bertholdt’s swollen fingers are wrapped around a mug of tea – when did they get tea, aren’t they trying – aren’t they trying to – and Bertholdt’s breath catches wounded in his chest as he uses the strength of both arms to lift the mug, some tea splashing over the rim and trailing down his fingers. He presses the hot ceramic to Reiner’s lips, and Reiner jerks back, startled. “No,” Bertholdt breathes, and Reiner freezes. “You need to drink this, Reiner.”
He sounds coaxing, and Reiner parts his lips, raising his own hands to cover Bertholdt’s. Tipping the mug forward, Reiner almost chokes over his first mouthful of tea, how hot it is and how much taste it has, almost overwhelming him.
“That’s good,” Bertholdt says, a rictus smile appearing on his face when Reiner holds the mug by himself, swallowing again and again and again. “That’s really good, Reiner.”
He sounds like he’s trying not to cry.
When the mug is finished, Bertholdt holds another one up, pressing this one to his lips, too. “There’s another one.”
Reiner almost takes a swallow before a thought occurs to him. “What about you?”
Bertholdt’s eyes redden, and he presses the mug more firmly to Reiner’s lips. “Reiner, just –”
“You have to have some, too.”
Bertholdt pulls in a raspy, shaking breath, and his hands shake more violently. “Reiner, please.”
And Reiner isn’t sure about a lot of things anymore – not all the time, anyway, and it’s weird to know that he’s broken but not be able to feel what parts of him are damaged – but he’s sure that he’s had a mug of tea and Bertholdt hasn’t, yet. “You have to have some, too,” he repeats.
“Fuck,” Bertholdt whines, the sound ragged. Looks like he’s going to try to fight Reiner on this, but Reiner clenches his jaw, raising one hand and sliding it between his mouth and the mug. Bertholdt does start to cry, now, small tears that look like they’re painful to shed as his trembling hands bring the mug to his own lips, as he takes a sip and makes a noise in his throat and swallows it down as quickly as Reiner had.
Sniffing, Bertholdt scrapes his hand across his mouth, before he picks up a bowl next, pulling a spoon heaped with porridge out and holding it against Reiner’s lips. “Now you have to eat.”
Reiner shudders and comes back to his mind violently, one hand flying out and Bertholdt doges tiredly, hunches over the porridge protectively before he holds the spoon out again. “Reiner, you have to eat.”
He sounds pleading, and it takes Reiner a few moments to process those words, a few more to process the texture he feels on his mouth. Reiner parts his lips, and Bertholdt angles the spoon between his teeth, drops the porridge onto his tongue.
Reiner grunts in surprise at the tart taste of some kind of berry, and then he can feel his stomach again, feel how empty it is inside of him. One hand grabs the bowl, the other wrestles the spoon from Bertholdt’s grip and begins to shovel the food into his mouth quickly, barely chewing before he swallows.
Bertholdt watches with a raw, bleeding expression, his arms wrapped around his knees as he rocks back and forth. When Reiner is scraping the sides of the bowl with the spoon, Bertholdt holds up a second bowl.
“That one’s yours,” Reiner says, remembering the tea vaguely. He can’t remember how long ago that was. “You tried – with the tea, too, you tried –”
“Sorry,” Bertholdt cuts in, placating. “Sorry, look, I’m eating too, see?” He picks up his bowl, shoves a spoonful into his mouth. “I’m eating, it’s okay.”
He doesn’t talk for a while after that, eating as desperately as Reiner had, licking at the inside of the bowl when he’s done.
“…I didn’t know,” Hanji says, and Reiner shudders as he remembers that Hanji is here, as he remembers that he forgot Hanji is here. “I didn’t know you two were in such bad states.”
“You don’t care,” Bertholdt says tiredly, defensively. “You don’t.”
This is said as a reminder, as a shield between them and the people they grew to love too much to kill like they were supposed to.
Reiner remembers that now, too. He wonders if they’d have been better off if they’d managed to go through with it.
He doubts it.
“…Alright,” Hanji replies softly. Then they straighten, adjusting their glasses. “The Commander may need your help.”
Faster than Reiner has seen him move in a while, Bertholdt scrambles to place himself in front of Reiner. “I’ll do it, if you need experiments, or interrogation, I’ll do it, don’t –”
“Hey,” Hanji interrupts, “Hey, there’s nothing like that just yet.”
The phrasing isn’t lost on him, or on Bertholdt, but Bertholdt relaxes and Reiner feels twisted up, when he thinks of how Bertholdt moved to shield him.
It used to be him, that did the protecting. He had armour for a reason.
“Okay,” Bertholdt says, swallows thickly. “What is it?”
Hanji doesn’t answer, nods neatly instead and then scrambles back up the stairs. “Eren! Eren, what – no, don’t do that, that’s not for eating, come here.”
Reiner hears the stamp of their foot. “Eren. Come. Here. Don’t make me come and get you, young ma – young creature.”
He hears animalistic snorting, a familiar sort of grunting and Reiner feels disbelief rise heady in him, sees what he feels reflected on Bertholdt’s face.
Then Eren scrambles clumsily down the stairs, only it isn’t Eren but it is, Eren from before, from when they were family and Reiner feels a sob rip itself from his mouth. In front of him, Bertholdt has frozen up completely.
Eren stares at them for a moment, grunting in recognition, and then Eren wails, loping forward and grasping prison bars, yanking them from stone with a harsh crack.
Armin tries to slit his wrists with a sharpened spoon on the third day – the first and second, Levi fully fuckin’ realizes, was probably spent sharpening the damn thing. He doesn’t die, because the medics they have at HQ are goddamn miracle workers and also used to working on Titan wounds, but it’s a close thing, and Levi grumbles as he shoves his way into the room Armin’s kept in, flipping off the guards who try to stop him.
“Does he need blood?” he asks, because Levi’s blessed and cursed with the kind of blood that can go into anyone. He doesn’t understand it, despite how many times Erwin has explained it to him, but he doesn’t need to understand it to know that it works.
The medic on duty stops, looks at Armin with thin lips and even Levi can tell that the answer is a yes, with how waxy the kid’s skin is. “He’d probably survive without it,” the medic says ungenerously, and Levi grits his teeth.
“Does. He. Need. Blood.”
Clenching her jaw, the medic tosses her hair over her shoulder. “No need to waste your blood on a traitor, sir.”
Levi punches her. Then he repeats the question.
Minutes later, he is sitting on a chair by Armin’s bedside, sleeve rolled up and clear tube connecting his arm to Armin’s. The boy is muttering restlessly in his sleep, whispers pitching up into hysteria every so often until Levi shushes him awkwardly, pats the kid’s hand in a way he can vaguely remember his mother doing for him before she died. It speaks of a certain insidious kind of mental damage, Armin’s frenetic mutterings, and Levi clenches his jaw as he thinks on how much he failed the kid as his commanding officer.
It’s Levi’s job to goddamn notice trauma in his people, and usually he does a pretty good fuckin’ job.
Levi’s nose twitches. He looks at Armin.
“I thought you’d moved beyond assaulting medics,” Erwin says from the doorway, walks to stand at Levi’s shoulder and putting the warm, comforting weight of his hand upon it. Levi shudders, eyes closing as he tips his head back. Erwin moves so that his head is propped up by the Commander’s stomach.
“Guess not,” he replies, turns his face to press a kiss to the Commander’s knuckles. “God, we fucked up.”
Erwin laughs a bitter laugh, looking down at the child he wanted to mentor. “That we did.”
His neck still bears a cut from where the Ackerman girl almost slit his throat open.
The 104th and their loyalty, Levi thinks, is absolutely fuckin’ terrifying.
He’d always had the feeling that kids with knives – twitchy trauma survivor kids, at that – would be. He was, anyway.
Levi asks the question they’ve been avoiding for days. “What the ever-loving fuck are we going to do, Erwin?”
Erwin sighs heavy, and Levi has never heard him sound so damn tired before. “…I don’t know, Levi.”
Levi knows how much it costs him to say those words.
Huffing in a breath, Armin shakes in his sleep, starting the medicine-sticky process of waking up.
“Get the fuck out,” he tells Erwin unsympathetically, and Erwin nods, ducking to brush his lips against Levi’s before he leaves.
Armin’s eyelids flutter, and Levi yanks the needle from his arm, making the brat jerk up, surging against the restraints at his wrists and ankles. He releases a shout, and Levi hears the guards physically restraining Ackerman outside.
It sounds like she’s putting up a hell of a fight.
“Eren isn’t hurt,” he informs Armin, because he knows where the kid’s priorities lie. In seconds, Armin forces himself back into his head, biting back his screams and rolling his shoulders, wiping his expression blank for a bare heartbeat before it becomes vulnerable, pitiable.
“Eren’s…okay?” Armin asks slowly, not making eye contact and the tone making it a submissive plea, quiet and vulnerable.
Fucking fake, and Levi smiles, thinks he had his eyes on the wrong brat at Trost.
“Yeah,” he says, plays along because unlike Erwin – who is a good man, who is able to make himself not a man, but who is a good man nonetheless – he feels the tug of like to like with this one, doesn’t believe it like the rest of them. Armin’s a little monstrous, just like him. “He’s fine. Wanna see him?”
It’s a manipulative offer, and the light behind Armin’s eyes shift as he recognizes this, his mouth purses as he parses through what he would gain by keeping the act or by calling Levi out. After a moment, he enunciates carefully: “Yes, please, sir.”
Levi feels himself grin, sharp-edged. “Good. Answer a few questions first.”
Armin shuts down so quickly it’s like a candle Levi’s blown out, expression stiffening into neutrality and his eyes going flat, unreadable.
God, if humanity had the brat’s loyalty instead of Eren, they’d be set to win the war, Levi thinks ruefully. But the survival of the species isn’t this kid’s priority.
“Did Eren eat human flesh?” Levi asks. Armin remains dead-eyed and unresponsive, though he begins to tug at his wrists in what seems to be the first subconscious move Levi’s seen from him since he’d woken up. “Fuck, kid, you aren’t going to believe this but I wanna help Eren, too.”
Armin has to have seen the soft spot Levi has for Eren. Everyone can see the soft spot for Eren. Auruo can see it, and Auruo –
Is dead. Auruo is dead.
Abruptly, Levi understands Armin’s self-sacrificing, all-consuming urge to protect Eren better. He’d slit in wrists in a second if it’d bring that clumsy asshole back.
“Off the record,” Levi says, with a sinking darkness opening up in his chest, because he always seems to break fucking orders, always seems to find himself in a position where it’s betray himself or betray someone he goddamn cares about, and Levi fuckin’ refuses to betray himself, not for anyone. Not even for Erwin. “Off the record, I swear on my mother’s corpse, did Eren eat Willem’s squad?”
And there must be something in his voice that alerts Armin to his honesty – like calls to like, Levi thinks viciously – because Armin’s chin begins to tremble, his eyes, wide and fixed blindly on the ceiling, begin to water, tears trickling down his face with no reaction on Armin’s part.
Armin takes in a thin, wavering breath, and mutters something so quiet Levi can’t hear it.
“…he fed me Joden’s heart,” Armin croons, sounding like he’s reaching deep into himself for the words, ripping them out and handing them messily to Levi like Levi has any goddamn clue what to do with them.
It takes a couple seconds for the full meaning behind those words to hit Levi.
“Shit,” he breathes, as his mind tick-tick-ticks over them, stubbornly refuses to process something so horrifying. “Oh, shit, Arlert.”
He can’t think of anything else to say, a wide, cavernous fear for the boy before him opening up in Levi’s gut. Armin sucks in a breath, and another, and another, fighting back the sobs Levi can see shaking his shoulders.
Levi reaches out and holds Armin’s hand, squeezing it, and this is what breaks the kid. Armin hunches in on himself as best he can as he howls, sobs tearing violent from his chest and he sounds inhuman, almost, in his ragged screams.
Ackerman bursts into the room wildly, hair mussed and a bruise darkening her cheekbone. “Armin,” she whispers, crawls onto the bed beside him and this makes Armin shake more, cry louder. “Armin,” Mikasa repeats, curls her arms around him and nuzzles the side of his face.
She begins to hum him a lullaby, and it feels almost private enough that Levi thinks of leaving, but when he tries, Armin’s hand clamps down on his, tight enough to cut off circulation in his fingers. The boy’s bright blue eyes lock onto Levi’s, a wordless, unformed plea there.
When Armin has fallen into silence, when Mikasa is dozing lightly beside him, Armin focuses on Levi. “…I want to see Eren,” he says, and there is an ache threading through his words.
Motherfucker, Levi thinks, thinks about refusing on principle, like how he refused to grant one of his people time off so they could visit their abusive girlfriend.
He’s not entirely sure how different the situation is, anymore.
“I want to see Eren,” Armin repeats, and his voice is just hitched enough that Mikasa is conscious and alert in seconds, rising protectively over Armin.
“Fuck,” Levi states, and Armin’s expression darkens.
“You said –”
“I know what I fuckin’ said!” Levi snaps. The little trust Armin has of him is fragile, and Levi – God, Levi needs to preserve it, he thinks, if he’s gonna help this kid at all. “Fuck. Fine. Fuck.”
He undoes Armin’s restraints, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Hanji brought him down to Reiner and Bertholdt.”
Armin freezes, eyes flashing viciously. “Why?”
“Because maybe they know what the fuck is going on with him,” Levi bites, helping Armin up despite the glare Mikasa sends him. “Motherfucker, I hope I don’t regret this.”
He pushes the door open, looks over his shoulder to where Mikasa is wrapping her arm around Armin’s waist. “Let’s go, you shits.”