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O Brightening Glance

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 When Mikasa was still young enough to be carried everywhere she went, her mother would clasp her tight and spin them in slow, gentle circles, while her father hummed a gentle tune that she would later forget.

When she was four, her father lifted her onto his shoulders and kept his hands circled around her ankles so that she could watch the quick tap-tap of the dancers’ feet over the heads of the crowd.

When she was six, she watched her father take her mother in his arms and swing them around the garden, their legs somehow tangling without tripping, heads thrown back in laughter, and she clapped along with the rhythm of their footsteps.

When she was seven, she stood beside her mother and followed her precise movements, slow and graceful, a dance that had been passed down for generations, she said, a dance just for the two of them. Mikasa bit her lip and nodded earnestly.

And when she was nine, a boy with a knife showed her a different kind of dance altogether.

The boy’s name was Eren, he told her outside in the cold, still air, and when he smiled it was nothing like the wicked-sharp grin of before; she looked down, at his feet, and remembered how they moved across the wooden floor of the shack, a quick one-two-three-four that matched the pounding of blood in her ears. She shivered once and closed her eyes against the sight, tried to forget the feel of blood beneath her hands, of the broken floorboard beneath her foot.

Eren asked if she was okay, if she was cold; she realised that she was, that she was chilled to the bone. When he wrapped his scarf around her neck, she could do little more than press her face into the worn and faded fabric and inhale. Eren smelt of lavender and sweat and hot metal. She didn’t know if she liked it, but she gripped the cloth a little tighter nonetheless.

By the time anyone arrived, the two of them had fallen asleep curled up together outside the wooden shack, Eren’s head lolling on Mikasa’s shoulder, mouths open and snoring gently.

They would remember nothing of the journey to Eren’s house, which was spent curled in the arms of two soldiers with Eren’s father walking grim-faced before them, but that evening when they lay side-by-side on Eren’s narrow straw pallet, they both opened their eyes to the darkness. Eren turned to her, took hold of her hand and asked if she regretted her decision to fight, to live. For a long time she turned the question over in her head, and when she fell asleep again, it was with a smile on her face.

 *

Armin, she came to understand, was not like Eren and her. Where words would often fail them, Armin could seemingly pluck them from thin air and mould them at will; he spun tales of the outside world that left her stunned and Eren breathless with excitement. Sometimes, he’d leap to his feet and drag Armin with him, spinning the boy in dizzy circles as they laughed and spoke of the day they’d finally get to the see the outside; they always sounded so certain that she could almost forget that such a thing was impossible.

It didn’t matter to her either way – outside the Walls or in, she was perfectly happy to watch Armin trip over his own feet as Eren tried to teach him how to focus his gaze as he turned so as not to become dizzy.

Not all of their moments together were so peaceful; Armin’s family, she learnt, had been branded heretics, liars and traitors. Should he already be with Eren and her, then there was rarely a problem (her ability to throw someone twice her size and weight was legendary, and the very sight of Eren commanded a peculiar respect) but sometimes he was left alone, and that was where the trouble would begin.

Armin was smart, and that was perhaps his biggest failing – in Shinganshina, intelligence meant nothing. The fact that he could already list off every major political figure in the Inner Wall, that he could defeat Eren’s father at chess, that he knew every weak spot the human body could possibly offer, was useless to him when surrounded and outnumbered.

So no, Armin was nothing like Eren and her, because while his mind was sharp as any scalpel, it was his body that could let him down.

And that was not a problem that she or Eren had ever had to worry about.

 *

The first time she saw Eren truly dancing, they were just inside of Wall Maria, and they were supposed to be gathering wood for the stove. As soon as they reached a quiet clearing, he dropped his bundle and stretched his arms towards the sky with a bright grin and a relieved sigh. Mikasa turned with an insult and reprimand ready on her tongue, both of which faded away to nothing when she saw that he was perfectly still, one leg lifted and poised behind him, forming a perfectly straight line with his torso. He had removed both of his shoes and his cardigan, and rolled up the legs of his trousers. She watched him lean forward to plant his hands on the ground and kick off, balancing his weight on his just his arms.

After a moment, his shirt slipped down over his steadily-reddening face and he collapsed into a laughing heap on the grass.

Mikasa had never seen anyone do something like that before, even when her father took her into town to watch the dancers with bells on their feet, and she told him so. Eren shot her a disbelieving look, but she was firm.

He relented eventually and showed it to her again, this time coming to stand with a graceful roll, spinning to face her with a broad grin. His mother taught him how to do it, he explained, and showed her again until eventually she also dropped her bundle of sticks and tried it too. Soon after, she wondered what the big deal was – standing on her hands was very much like standing on her feet, except everything was upside down and her scarf dragged along the ground.

She didn’t like handstands, she decided, and righted herself quickly.

In return, she showed Eren the dance that her mother had taught her – he followed her well, his movements fluid and graceful, but she could see that he was not suited to such a slow dance. He nearly vibrated with excess energy, although the whole purpose of the dance was to promote a sense of tranquillity; or so her mother had said. Just the two of them, she thought a little guiltily, before she shook it off. The dance was for her family, and Eren was her family.

As they gathered up their pitiful haul that afternoon, both red-faced and panting with excursion after a day literally dancing circles around one another, Mikasa couldn’t help but realise that this was the first time she’d danced since the death of her parents.

 *

Shinganshina  was unlike anywhere else within the Walls on the Day of Sacrifice – Mikasa’s own memories of it revolved around a day of quiet contemplation, of eating dinner with her parents and walking through the woods with them hand-in-hand. Small gifts had been exchanged, and it was the one day of the year that she was allowed to climb the enormous blossoming tree in the back garden, even while her mother watched from the gaps between her fingers.

The further inside the Walls you went, the stricter the celebrations became, or so she heard – it was the ruling of the King that the day be spent in silent thanks for the gift of the Walls, that no gifts be exchanged, that no food or alcohol be consumed within those twenty-four hours as a reminder of humanity’s suffering before the glory of the Walls, but the Military Police could only enforce this in so many places, and by the time they got to the outer districts, well.

As the last town to be sealed away from the rest of the world, the citizens of Shinganshina felt that they ought to celebrate in a manner befitting humanity’s escape from the titans.

Not all agreed with them of course – Armin’s tormenters were some of the few that followed such strange traditions devoutly. They, along with the members of the ever-growing Wallist religion could shriek ‘heretic’ all they liked, Armin told her one day, a strangely smug note in his voice as they watched Eren leap almost effortlessly from one rooftop to the next, shouting taunts at the larger boys. In this matter, they were outnumbered for once.

Mikasa had spent hours that evening with Eren and Armin, each of them with a small scrap of triangular fabric in their hands, trying to sew on the most elaborate designs that they could manage. Eren had explained to her earlier that it was a tradition for every child in Shinganshina to make one, and to decorate it however they so choose – then, all of the triangles would be gathered up and pinned carefully onto lengths of yarn that would be strung between the houses. ‘Bunting’, he said it was called, and Armin was quick to add that she didn’t have to join in if she didn’t want to, that if she would rather celebrate the way her family had, then that was fine too.

She thought of her mother and father, of their smiling faces as they whirled in giddy circles, thought of the embroidery that her mother had shown her, and picked up a needle and thread.

 *

On the day of the festival she remained close by Eren and Armin, quietly overwhelmed. Her fingers were sticky-sweet with honey and fruit juices – the streets were lined with vendors selling every manner of food that she could possibly have imagined, along with even more that she couldn’t. Eren had thrust a flaky pastry into her hands, handing over one of the silver coins given to him by his mother for the festival to the elderly woman behind the stall. She thanked him enthusiastically, and praised the ‘Jaeger boy’ for his generosity. He called it a baklava, and broke off a piece to stuff into his mouth, before he grinned at her through a mouthful of crumbs.

She couldn’t help but grimace at the sight, which only served to make him laugh harder.

Armin, on the other hand, looked gloomily at the stalls, and paid them no attention until Eren disappeared for a couple of minutes and came back with a paper bag of skewered meat, marinated in spices and cooked over charcoal until almost black. At that, Armin brightened considerably – later, when he had run off to find his grandfather, Eren confided that they were Armin’s favourites, but the spices made them incredibly expensive. As he lived with only his grandfather, Armin never liked to pay the extra for them – Eren, on the other hand, was the son of a respected doctor, and the three-time Queen of the festival. If he couldn’t technically afford the wares, he was given some small leeway.

Some of the vendors had been preparing for this weeks, even months in advance, Eren had told her as they explored. The Day of Sacrifice was very important to them, both from a business and a personal viewpoint.

Interesting as it was, though, it wasn’t the food that had made the day special.

In the centre of town the plaza, normally so empty and quiet, was alive with bright, quick beats – instruments that she had never seen before, and with names that she couldn’t pronounce even when told, and hundreds of people, all packed tightly together, dancing. She had never seen anything like it before – she turned to Eren, to try to pull him forward into the crowd, but he laughed and shook his head. He was dancing with his mother later, in the competition, he explained, so he had to save his energy.

Instead, she danced with two of the girls that lived on the same street as them – she knew them only by sight, but it didn’t seem to matter. She could have been dancing with strangers and she suspected she would have been perfectly happy.

It wasn’t the sort of dancing that she was used to, but her feet knew the rhythm even if she did not. One-two-three-one-two-three, turn, sway, the vibrations of hundreds of feet pulsed through her chest until it felt that her heart was keeping time with every other citizen. The day was warm, unusually so for the time of year, and sweat trickled down her face, down her back – she couldn’t bring herself to care, arms above her head and feet shuffling and stamping in time with the drumbeats.

Here and there she could see members of the Stationary Guard dotted in amongst the crowd; those that hadn’t managed to get the afternoon shift off stared moodily from the edges. So close to the outside world, the laws of the Inner City were almost completely forgotten, the military as much a part of the people as any other line of work. Her gaze skipped over the crowd, which seemed nothing more than a sea of bright colours, everyone having brought out their very best clothes for the celebration. The smell of sweat hung heavy in the air, but every so often a breeze would cut down through the streets, and with it came a gust of fresh, sweet air. She took deep, steadying breaths, and let them all out again when one of the girls grabbed her by the arm.

They swung in circles until they were almost ready to collapse, but still Mikasa could feel her body moving desperately with the music, all thoughts of anything else fled from her mind.

She caught sight of Armin amongst the musicians, sat beside his grandfather, playing a rounded string instrument that she wasn’t sure she recognised, a distant smile on his face.

Eventually, though, the dancing came to an end, and a space was cleared in the plaza – one of the Stationary Guard announced the beginning of the competition through a military-issued megaphone, and for a while the cheering was too loud for him to be heard even with it. Once the crowd had settled, he turned to the list in his hand, calling out the name of the first group of dancers.

Most of the groups were families, Mikasa quickly came to realise, watching them from her perch on a rooftop. She hadn’t realised that there were so many different types of dance, particularly for such large groups.

The first group to step forward was made up of ten people, and they relied on no music, only the clapping of hands and their own voices – despite herself, Mikasa found that she couldn’t help but clap along, swaying in time with the beat. They moved in perfect synchrony, every shuffle and turn performed as one; first in a circle, then, so gradually that she almost didn’t notice until they had formed a line of cheering, grinning faces. It was not a quick dance, nor a particularly graceful one, but she could see the strength in every line of their bodies, could see the sweat gleaming on sun-darkened skin.

After that, many of the dances seemed to blend together as she kept a watch for Eren and his mother; some were performed as groups as large as twenty, that consisted of ducking and weaving around one another, of complex gestures and so many quick steps that she could barely keep up. Some used props; sticks, or ribbons, or bells that glinted in the sun. Some dancers performed as pairs – slowly, gracefully, twirling across the cobbled ground as though they were lighter than air, whilst others took a less refined and more energetic approach. Mikasa could feel her heart racing as she watched men and women throw one another into the air, only to catch them inches from the ground; she watched people contort themselves into positions that should be impossible and hold themselves there, but all the while it seemed blurred and distant to her.

When Eren and his mother finally stepped out, she felt her breath catch in her chest.

She had grown used to the drab clothes, the gentle smiles and the warm hands, but the two people that sauntered into the plaza were nothing like that.

Gone was Carla’s floor-length skirt and apron, to be replaced by dark, soft trousers; rather than a blouse, she wore a close-fitting shirt of the same shade as the trousers – Eren wore similar garb, and the only splashes of colour were the sashes tied about their waists and the flowers woven tightly into their hair. For the first time that Mikasa could remember, Carla wore her hair braided down her back to keep it out of her face – she ignored the whistles and catcalls from the crowd with the air of a goddess looking down upon the mortal realm.

Eren simply glared.

They were announced by the Guard, and the sound of their names drew the loudest cheer yet.

Mikasa was simply disappointed that she didn’t get a chance to compete – to show off her own dance, the piece of her mother’s history. Carla stroked a gentle hand over her hair, and Eren eagerly babbled about next year, and how hard she’d have to try if she wanted to beat the so-far undefeated Jaeger.

She nodded to herself and thought of next year, the next festival.

 *

“I’m going to join the military,” Eren says his voice still wrecked, tears streaming down his face. Armin sits beside him, eyes wide and staring off at something she can’t see. Mikasa tells him what a bad idea it is, but she doesn’t try to stop him. She knows him better than that.

Instead, she thinks of honey-sticky hands, and feet that can’t stop stamping with a beat, and most of all, a plaza full of people all dancing as one.