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24-Hour Cardio

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            The whole thing hadn’t been Eren’s idea. Not directly. Mikasa had arranged for it after being harangued once too often about how she should teach the rest of them her ‘ways,’ as if her athleticism was simply some secret she stored in her locker at the off-campus gym. She went there after class sometimes to kill her extra energy if she hadn’t burned enough while jogging. Today Eren had announced that he would go out running with her. When pointing out the high incidence of muggings on and around campus after dark had simply produced a declaration that Eren was just as capable of punching out an attacker as she was, Mikasa had thought about it for another minute and then decided that they would go to a more controlled environment. Sasha, both their friend and at that moment their barista, overheard.

            “Ohh, you’re going to the gym? Can I come? It’s been too long since I’ve worked out—my joints are getting all stiff.”

            “Yes,” Mikasa said.

            “Can I invite Jean?”

            “…Yes.”

            “Great. I’ve been bragging about how far I can run—I’ve got to prove that I can go farther than him.”

            It only snowballed from there. By the time Reiner texted them half an hour later to confirm a time, it had become a full-blown event. Mikasa, Eren, Sasha, Connie, Annie, Reiner, Bertl, and Jean were all going to be in attendance.

            Eren didn’t mind. Some of them he’d only known since the first few weeks of classes—themselves only a few months ago now—but they seemed like a fun group. ‘Fun’ had been sorely lacking since he and Mikasa had arrived at university. The campus was broad and sunny, the professors were engaged and interesting, the city was large and new—and Eren was still managing to be bored. Lethargic. Some days, positively listless. It wasn’t that the course work was too hard for him, or that he’d had trouble making friends. He wasn’t anything approaching miserable. He just didn't have the drive to go out and do anything beyond what was required of him. Maybe if they had so many people with them, he'd be a bit more open to improvisation.

            It was the sort of hope that virtually guaranteed regret in the near future. 

            They took the bus there. There was a ‘recreational facility’ on campus that they could have used just as easily, except that the place was always full to bursting and wasn’t open late enough to accommodate them. It was after eleven o' clock when by the time they'd all found their way onto the bus, and the rec centre closed at ten thirty. Some local gym owner had made a deal with the school such that students could use his facilities free of charge in return for a whole pile of advertising courtesy of the university’s graphics department, and presumably some slice of the students’ tuitions.

            “We don’t need any ID, do we?”, Connie asked while they were all piling off of the bus and it was far too late.

            “Just your student card,” Mikasa said, and there was a collective sigh of relief. “And don’t bother the people who work there. They don’t need it.”

            “Why would we bother them?”, Jean asked. Mikasa shrugged.

            Eren suspected there had been some reason for her comment, but didn’t care enough to press for it at the moment. The social atmosphere was surprisingly good, given that when they went out as a group like this arguments were almost a certainty; he didn’t want to ruin it by bickering with Mikasa.

            The gym was larger than Eren had expected, and not nearly as shady and makeshift. When they entered it, the place was nearly empty. It was early enough that the gym on campus would have just been closing, so the great migration would not have yet begun. Eren had never gone to the rec centre. Actually the only gym he’d ever used had been the deserted, rather pathetic one at his high school; he had no idea how this place worked. His friends fell more or less naturally into a line leading to the desk by the door so they could provide their IDs. Eren was so busy thinking about the weird plastic-and-sweat smell of the place and marvelling at the emptiness of it that he didn’t notice the person at the desk until Mikasa moved on and Eren was right before him.

            There hadn’t been time or interest enough for Eren to form some expectation of what someone who worked at a gym would look like. This boy would not have matched it if Eren had bothered. He was narrow across the shoulders, short even for someone sitting down, and with small, delicate-looking hands. Something about the curve of his cheek made him look positively angelic, even with his face turned down towards the binder sitting before him. His hair was blond and smooth and, for a moment, more distracting than the proverbial golden apples.

            “ID,” the young man said, for the third time. Eren gave himself a mental slap and found his wallet. Privately Eren hoped to get a good, lingering stare from the blond when he checked to verify that Eren’s face matched the photo on his student card—Eren wanted to know what colour his eyes were—but the boy didn’t even bother to glance up. He took the card, jabbed the name ‘Eren Jaeger’ into the keyboard to his right with sharp, precise strokes, and then held the card back out again.

            “Are you planning to get out of the way ever, or…?”, Jean asked. Eren set his jaw, shot Jean a glare over his shoulder, and marched off to join Mikasa. She was making for a hall at the back, and he’d followed her right to it before she turned and stopped him with a firm hand on his shoulder.

            “Not this way,” she said, pointing behind him. “Over there.”

            He’d nearly waltzed right into the women’s showers to get changed.

            “Right,” Eren said. He chose not to look at the line to see which of his friends were snickering at him. They must have realized what his problem was—he didn’t know how to be anything but obvious, and certain members of his social circle never let him forget it.

            But it wasn’t what he was doing. He was here to work up some energy—to get some exercise, get his heart going, get his blood moving. That was all. Beautiful young men were entirely, completely beside the point, and he had the force of will to keep them there.

 

            They didn’t end up staying for that long. Connie had an early class the next morning, Jean had worked right through the night before on a philosophy paper (or at least used that as an excuse for why Sasha outran him on the treadmill), and they were in some danger of all falling asleep in a pile on the bus home if they stayed much longer. It was midterms season, and there wasn’t one of them without two dozen research books to scour or a study booth in the library to covet.

            Of course, it turned out that, for Eren Jaeger, mental exertion was ten times as exhausting as physical. His eyelids drooped in the library if he stopped focusing for more than ten seconds at a time, but this place was different. He felt more awake here than he had in his dorm room since orientation week; he felt lit up, somehow, like he hadn’t in ages. Maybe if he came here more often he could use the excess energy afterwards to study, but that didn’t occur to him right then. At the moment he was only really concerned with making the sensation last as long as possible.

            “I’ll catch the next bus,” he said, as the others all relinquished their machines. Reiner was the last to do so. He’d been demonstrating the absolutely absurd amount he could benchpress (and causing Eren and Jean to agree that under no circumstances were they to ever pick a fight with Reiner). Eren himself had stepped momentarily away from the treadmill he’d claimed after Jean’s defeat.

            “Eren,” Mikasa said, as the others all moved for the changerooms. “Don’t.”

            “Don’t what?” She pinched his nose.

            “Don’t bother him.”

            “Bother who?”, Eren said, but his eyes betrayed him. They strayed over to the young man at the desk, who was poring once more over the binder in front of him.  

            “I wouldn’t have brought you if I’d thought you would be a pain for the people who work here. Don’t flirt with people who are at work.”

            “I know—hell, Mikasa, I’m not an animal. I never even said anything to him. And I’m not going to, alright? I just feel like I can run a few more kilometres. You know. Here where I’m safe from muggers.” Mikasa narrowed her eyes, inhaled deeply, and then marched off. She didn’t have to say it—the ‘I’m going to ask him next time I’m in here,’ or the accompanying , ‘I will fill all of your shoes with toothpaste you harass this boy.’ Eren had been living with Mikasa since they’d been children. He knew she was right, and, more vividly, he knew she was not to be crossed.

            So, once the others left and Eren returned to his running, he kept his head down. The gym attendant had apparent schoolwork to do, and Eren had work to put off; there was no sense ruining a perfectly good situation by floundering and starting a conversation and making an ass of himself. By the time another twenty minutes passed Eren’s calves were burning; it was after midnight, and the next bus should be arriving soon. Now was as good a time as any to go. When he went through to the change room he found the floor wet—the others must’ve had showers. Probably it was polite, since he’d be bussing home; the things reeked enough without him adding his own personal stink. Normally Eren wasn't all that quick on the draw when it came to etiquette, but he was feeling so much better already, now that he'd finally gone out, that he thought maybe he'd be doing this some more. He might as well learn the ways of the busfarers if he was going to be counted among their number.

            Eren pulled his phone from his pocket and checked the time. He should have another fifteen minutes before the bus’s scheduled arrival, plus the ten to thirty on top of that before the thing actually arrived.

            He had time. Of course he had time.

            He remained confident about this until approximately the moment—standing out on the damp locker-room floor with a towel around his waist—that he acknowledged that he had in fact opened the correct locker. The lovely sharpie artwork and its accompanying obscenity on the door made it unmistakable. After he stared at this for another moment Eren opened the locker again, as if the result would be different this time. A (nearly) bare metal box greeted him. His backpack was gone. His backpack containing all of his clothes but his underwear. Was gone. He was alone in a gym with the world’s most beautiful person, after midnight. With nothing to his name but his underwear.

            Eren was not at university for anything overly taxing on his causal reasoning skills, but he knew his friends well enough to work this out. Someone had stayed behind to wait until he got in the shower. Then that someone had made off with most of Eren’s clothes and all of his dignity.

            That same someone is getting tripped down the next staircase I catch them at, Eren decided.

           

            Guilt was an amazing thing. Jean had never been the sort to sit in statuesque stillness, but this level of fidgeting was certainly unusual—especially on the bus, where he typically tried to look as aloof and casual as possible. This whole thing had been his idea. He’d overheard Eren’s comment about the muggings, and it had grated. The boy did not appreciate Mikasa or the care she took with him. Jean had thought a lesson in helplessness might cut his hubris short. He’d asked Connie to hide in one of the stalls until Eren left, swipe Eren’s things, and leave his phone there so Eren would have to call and ask for a ride home.

            He would have done it himself, but he’d been friends with Eren since junior year of high school, and rivals since they’d been tiny over-aggressive ninth-graders with something to prove. There was no chance in hell that Eren would not have sensed the deception if Jean had been the one lying in wait.

            Jean and Connie were nearly back at the residence where they shared a dorm. They’d talked about maybe waiting nearer to the gym itself, but in the end Jean’s need for coffee had won out. The nearest place open this late had been several minutes away by bus, so bus away they had. From there they’d just sort of ended up here, watching the main gates of the school flick past through the window. Connie had his head leaning back against the glass, rattling anytime the tires went over a bump. Both he and Jean were already starting to regret doing this. They could have picked a better night for it, at least. 

            Something beeped. There were others on the bus, so it could have been anyone's phone. Jean was content to go on believing that and ignoring it until it happened again. This was not just any beep. It sounded familiar. He and Connie both looked at Connie’s left pocket at the same moment.

            “Shit,” Connie said when the familiar ringtone sounded again. His phone was not where it was supposed to be. They had just stranded their friend out in unknown territory with nothing but his underwear.

            “Oh for fuck’s sake,” Jean said. “What’s he supposed to do? We can’t just leave him like that.”

            “Don’t say it like it’s my fault—”

            “It is your fault!”

            “I was distracted by the fact that I had to touch Eren Jaeger’s used boxers, alright? I always get stuck doing the dirtywork. This is just your cosmic payback.”

            “Well Eren’s the one eating it, not me.”

            Connie sighed and sank lower on his bus seat.

            “Alright, don’t worry—we’ll go back at the next logical stop, alright? It’ll be fine.”

           

            Eren was as dressed as he could manage, and he’d left the towel hanging around his neck. It was sort of like having a shirt, anyway. He was going to be needing that. Since it was the blond guy’s job to guard the gym, the odds of Eren getting out there and making use of the phone at the desk without being spotted were slim to none. He didn’t need to scar or startle or generally harass the boy. He was already doing coursework while covering the graveyard shift at a gym; he probably didn’t need his life getting any worse. The best thing would be to just go out there openly. Stealth wasn't really Eren's strong suit anyway. 

            He was as prepared as he could be, given the circumstances. He couldn’t very well hide in here forever. The guy had probably seen worse before anyway—people had been pulling this prank since elementary school.

            He works in a gym for fuck’s sake. He'll be fine.

            Eren pushed open the door to the change room and stuck his head out. His gaze first went to the desk, since as far as he could tell the young man was bolted to it—but it was empty. A whirring sound directed Eren’s attention to the gym equipment, and specifically to the bicycle at the end of the row nearest to the change rooms. The gym attendant had set up a notebook on a spindly, wire music-stand; he’d stationed it just beyond the handlebars, and had his gaze fixed to it as his feet turned the pedals. He blew upward in a vain attempt to push his bangs back, out of his eyes; when it didn’t work, he lifted his hand and dragged his wrist across his forehead.

            ‘Beautiful’ was not a word that rose very often in Eren’s mind. He usually thought more in colours and movements and sounds than words, and he’d never been that concerned with aesthetics. He’d been getting his hair cut the exact same way his whole life, and though he tried not to dress badly, he’d never put that much thought into how he looked, or how other people did.

            But the way the young man’s back sloped down from his shoulders, and the way his arm curved in and then jutted out as it descended to the elbow, and the way his hair fell around his face—most especially the look on his face, with the angled brows and the clear eyes and the mouth pressed into a firm determined line. He looked like there was nothing in the world beyond what he was focusing on in that moment. That was beautiful, and Eren didn’t care that his mental image of Jean fired a spitball into the back of his head and called him a pretentious prick.

            Eren gave a quick shake of his head. This was very much an inappropriate thing to be doing. This guy had probably forgotten Eren was even there, so Eren had him at a disadvantage. He had to talk, not ogle.             

            In his haste to declare himself, he said the first thing that fell out of his mouth. It wasn’t the most tactful choice, but he realized that too late.

            “You know, if I was self-conscious about working out I’d think I'd go for the weight machines.”

            Most of this speech was delivered not to a composed young man on a stationary bicycle, intent on his notebook, but to a wide-eyed boy freshly fallen to the floor, staring at Eren through the still-spinning spokes of the machine’s front wheel. He’d fallen off around the word ‘know,’ and Eren had filled out the rest of his sentence more because his brain was distracted and his mouth kept running than because he really meant to.

            “You’re still here,” the blond boy said. That was some consolation; the superstudent’s brain wasn’t working either.

            “Yeah,” Eren said, and was glad that he was still mostly hidden behind the door. The other boy was already turning an unhealthy shade of crimson just for having been caught on the machines; Eren could only imagine how he’d have felt to be discovered there by someone more than half naked. “Sorry for messing up your studying. My friends ran off with my clothes.”

            “I…” The boy hauled himself back to his feet with the aid of the bike’s handlebars. The red in his face was not diffusing at all. “Are you serious?”

            “Yeah.” Eren leaned out a bit farther so that the other youth could see that he was, at least, shirtless. “Did you see someone go tearing out of here a few minutes ago?”

            “Um…short, with really short hair… I wasn’t concentrating when I signed him out, so I don’t remember his name.”

            Connie, Eren thought with a sigh. At least that meant it probably hadn’t been done with true malevolence in mind. He wouldn’t have been certain how to respond if Annie had done it, since he was never sure of her motives or what exactly she was thinking.

            “It’s alright, I know who it was,” Eren said. “Anyway, could I use your phone? I’ve got to call my sister.”

            “Oh—sure. Yes.”

            Eren ducked back into the change room for a moment so he could fasten the towel around his waist. He figured this was probably more decent, in the end. That done, he went out and found that the gym attendant had swivelled on his heel and was facing firmly the other way, with his back perfectly straight and his arms folded.

            “I’ve got a towel,” Eren said as he made for the desk. “It’s fine if you want to…not do that.” The other boy’s shoulders relaxed, but he didn’t turn. The most Eren got was a glance when he made it to the desk. Eren took some pride from the fact that he didn’t let himself glance back to figure out the young man’s eye colour. Better not to know, really.

            He had the landline’s receiver held up to his ear and his fingers hovering over the number pad before he realized that without his phone he had no idea what anyone’s phone number was other than his parents’. They were about six hours away, and they would probably just laugh at him anyway.

            “Uhh…” He set the receiver back down. “Actually, maybe I’ll just take the bus.”

            The other boy finally looked at him more directly. Eren suddenly became even more aware that he was mostly naked. 

            “Are you sure?”

            “Yeah. It’ll be fine. I’ve done weirder things.” All in high school or earlier, though. Actually, I guess this is the first time I've really done anything that makes me a jackass at university. Huh. 

            “Alright, but… You need something to wear other than that. I think I’ve got an extra set somewhere, hold on…”

            “You don’t have to,” Eren said, but the young man had already scurried away through a side door. When he returned a few moments later he was carrying a small red and black backpack, from which he pulled a blue t-shirt and a pair of shorts.

            “They’re clean,” he said. “Probably too small…”

            “You brought these to work out in?”, Eren asked as the shorter boy passed him the clothing. His savior blushed even more deeply.

            “Theoretically,” he said, and dropped his gaze to the fabric so he wouldn’t have to meet Eren’s gaze. It gave Eren the opportunity to look at the plastic nametag pinned to his shirt. Armin. He glanced back up at Armin’s face and decided that the name suited him. “I tend to not, since…”

            “It’s easier to escape to your desk this way if anyone comes in?”

            “Yes,” the boy said, and looked like he regretted it; his teeth came down firmly on his lower lip, just fast enough and just long enough to look like it hurt. “Um. If you could go get changed, please. The next shift will be here soon. They’ll get the wrong idea.”

            Eren complied and retreated again to the change room.

            Getting into the shirt was a bit of a struggle, but it was no worse than his high school gym uniform, really. The shorts were just the typical basketball sort, with an elastic waistband, and they weren’t too short on him. The shirt must have been too large for its owner in the first place, so although it was a bit tight across the chest, it at least didn’t ride up around his ribs as much as he’d thought it might.

            The other boy seemed to disagree. When Eren arrived again out in the main machine room, the gym attendant had to muffle a sound against his knuckles. Eren had the profound suspicion it had been a laugh.

            God, he hoped it had been a laugh. If Armin could laugh at him, maybe it meant he wouldn't continue to be so painfully uncomfortable about all this.  

            “Hey, I don’t care,” Eren said. “I can do ridiculous.”

            “If you say so… But I don’t think I can send you on the bus looking like that.”

            “I’ll call a cab.”

            “Was your wallet in your backpack?”

            “…Yeah.” It had just occurred to him to dread Mikasa’s reaction to this whole situation—he’d inevitably have to borrow money from her to pay for the taxi, which would require that he explain what the hell was happening—when the other boy spoke again.

            “My shift’s over in two minutes. I can take you home.”

            “You really don’t have to do that,” Eren said, and it was a lie in intention if not in explicit wording. The young man really didn’t have to, but preventing it from happening was the last thing Eren wanted. His heart leapt at the prospect. “You’re already letting me borrow your clothes—”

            “This way I’ll know where you live, so I can egg your house if you don’t return them.” Armin paused. He looked like he’d just been caught swearing in the presence of an elderly relative. “I wouldn’t ever actually do that.”

            Eren nodded once. He tried to look serious so that Armin wouldn’t think he was being laughed at. 

            “Okay.”

            “You can go wait outside if you want. I just need to sign you out on the computer so Historia doesn’t think someone’s still hiding in here.”

            “I hope you don’t need my student card…” Armin shook his head and moved around the desk to access the keyboard.

            “It’s already in here. I just need to mark you down as signed out," the keyboard clacked a few times, "and…”

            The gym’s front door squealed as it was pushed open. Both boys looked up at the same time. Eren’s instincts reacted first and sent him sliding over behind Armin, as if there was any chance at all that he could condense himself into invisibility behind someone so much smaller than him. Armin recovered a moment later, with the advantage of a working brain. Without turning around he grabbed Eren by the wrist and dragged him down onto the floor behind the desk. Armin himself remained standing. He slid along to the far end of the desk so that he could lean out and greet the new arrival.

            “Hi, Historia,” he said, and Eren thought his voice was a bit higher in pitch than it had been. “Did Ymir not come in with you?”

            The petite blonde girl making her way around the equipment shook her head. She had a paper coffee cup in one hand; the other held the shoulder strap of her backpack, which she was just swinging from her back.

            “It’s just me tonight,” she said. “Ymir’s coming in in the morning.”

            Eren wasn’t really listening—in part because this was none of his business, and in part because he’d found, pushed up against the back of the desk, a whiteboard. Scrawled on it in big, loopy, pink and purple letters was the sentence, ‘HERE FOR THE MONEY, NOT FOR THE HONEY.’

            He snorted. He couldn’t help it. It earned him a light kick in the knee, which was difficult for Armin to deliver when he was at the far end of the desk—but he managed it without falling over.

            “That’s too bad, especially for this shift,” Armin said. He’d needed to say something to override his impulse to hiss in Eren’s direction. “They’re not supposed to schedule us by ourselves overnight.”

            “I know. It’ll be fine though; it doesn’t look like it’s exactly busy tonight.”

            Her brisk footsteps led her to the office door. Armin simply turned slightly so that he stayed between her and Eren even when she turned into the office.    

            “Okay,” he said once the heavy door had swung shut behind her. He offered one hand to Eren and was already reaching out towards the music stand with the other. “Go now—we have to go—”

            The moment Eren was on his feet he had one small hand pushing between his shoulder blades, steering him towards the door.

            “Gogogogo,” Armin whispered frantically, and didn’t let up with the pushing until they were out in the cool November air. Winter hadn’t really hit yet, and the nearest thing they’d seen to snow was a shimmery layer of frost coating the windows in the mornings, but the wind still bit at Eren’s mostly-exposed legs and arms. He didn’t mention it. Armin was going so far out of his way for him that he didn’t see how he had the right to complain.

            Besides, he felt more awake now than he had in weeks. If the cold was contributing to that, then he was all for the cold.  

            He followed Armin as the latter hurried to his car, which was compact and so incredibly green that even the dimness of the parking lot couldn't mask it.

            “Sorry,” Armin mumbled, “sorry,” as he wrestled to get his keys out of his jeans pocket and then into the passenger door’s lock.

            “S’fine,” Eren said. “Was that your sign in there?”

            Armin paused and looked right at him.

            “It’s Historia’s,” he said, without the quiet maelstrom of apologetics. “People are awful to her. They’re always asking for her number, and it’s not easy to say no when you’re working.”

            “Right. Sorry.” At last Armin managed to open the door. While he opened the back door to toss his stand and notebook inside and then circled around to the driver’s side, Eren got in. The car was cramped and full of litter from fast food places. “Sorry,” Armin said again as he settled into the driver’s seat. “It’s been…sort of a long time since I cleaned, and I spend a lot of time in here.” Before Eren could say that Armin really did not need to apologize for the state of the car he had offered up as a rescue vehicle, Armin went on. “But we’re lucky. I mean you’re lucky. Normally I ride my bike to work. I just didn’t want to have to manage that.” He waved one hand over his shoulder to indicate a truly enormous textbook sitting in the middle of the backseat.

            “Oh god,” Eren said. He decided that Armin must have been a junior at the very least to have to contend with such books. “What do you even do with a textbook that big?”

            “Wind up drooling on it a lot, mostly… Now, where do you live?”

            “Maria Hall.”

            “Really?”

            Eren thrust his chest out unintentionally. Frosh status was to be avoided, even if he really was in the fall term of his first year at university. If he was being mistaken for an upper-year, he couldn’t help but be flattered.  

            “Do I not seem like a freshman?”

            Armin shrugged and turned his attention to the ignition, but he didn’t successfully hide that he was smiling a bit.

            “Getting left without your clothes in a school facility seems like sort of a first year thing, I guess,” he said quietly.

            With a great and embarrassing rush of giddiness Eren realized that Armin was, yes, comfortable enough to make fun of him. To distract himself from this Eren messed with the radio, flicking between stations with (probably irritating) abandon. He couldn’t decide what he wanted to listen to, let alone what he thought this stranger would want to hear. He left it on something sugary and mindless, tried to ignore the acute angle to which his legs were forced by the smallness of this car, and looked happily out the window for most of the drive.

            He was so distracted that he didn’t notice that the car had stopped, or that Armin was saying something, until the latter poked his arm.  

            “What do you take in your coffee?”

            “What? Why?”, Eren asked, straightening up from his comfortable slouch and looking over. The brilliant clashing colours of a drive-through menu turned Armin into little more than a silhouette.

            “Um…” Armin gripped the steering wheel a little tighter, squared his shoulders, took a bracing breath, and said, “Because we’re here now. It’s fine if you don’t want anything. I was going to stop here anyway. But I do have to finish the order, so…”

            “I don't take anything in my coffee,” Eren said. This was not actually the case, but Mikasa took her coffee black and it had always struck him as somehow tough. Once he had the coffee in hand it was too late for regret, so he tried to down it as fast as he could only to scorch his tongue and narrowly evade humiliation by spit coffee.

            If Armin noticed this spectacle occurring in the passenger side, complete with the wide array colours Eren’s face turned as he dealt with both the heat and the bitterness, he remained mercifully silent. Eren wasn’t sure how to judge that sort of quiet, and he wasn’t all that comfortable with quiet when he was wearing someone else’s clothes, sitting in someone else’s car, and drinking coffee bought with someone else’s money. He felt there should be more of a connection here, to help justify or refund Armin’s generosity.

            Failing to come up with some topic they had in common—because really, the more he thought about it the more this boy was a total stranger to him and the worse this whole situation became—Eren decided he would resort to small-talk. He could talk about the weather, or the campus. He could talk about his own major (music) or ask about Armin's. Harmless, easy topics. Those were what he needed. 

            His mouth, once again, had other ideas.

            “You know, I didn’t mean you should be embarrassed to get caught on the machines,” he said, and listened to the words go unbidden from his mouth with interest but not with real alarm. “I just figured if you were so self-conscious about it that you don’t do it when anyone’s watching, you’d go for the weights, since the results there are—more what people go to the gym for in the first place.”

            “I…” Armin took a corner with more care than really was warranted so that he could buy himself a moment. He made a conscious decision not to get embarrassed and kick Eren out onto the sidewalk and zip away. He’d been locked up studying in his room or in the gym so much lately that he’d hardly interacted with anyone other than Historia, Ymir, gym management, and a few of the friendlier patrons of the gym. Sightings of him were so rare that his roommates had taken to calling him the abominable snowman. The only reason he even knew that was because he’d seen the note on the fridge declaring it his week to get milk.

            “It’s just cardio,” he said at length. “It’s not about muscle. I can’t really win the machismo game anyway.”

            “Well,” Eren said, twisting in his seat so that he faced Armin more directly, “that’s fine though! Fuck the macho bullshit. Cardio’s more important than—biceps, or anything, right? A strong heart’s the most important thing. And you were going a pretty good, steady clip there, when I walked in. I think you’ve got one.”

            “That’s—thank you,” Armin said, sounding surprised at himself for not apologizing again.

            They passed the university gates just a few moments later, and sailed quietly past the gold and black grids of residence windows that flanked the road. Eren had never made much of the campus before, but now that he bothered to look, it was sort of pretty. 

            “Maria’s just the first one on the right, here,” Eren said, tapping the window.

            “I know.” Armin brought them smoothly to a halt in the parking lot—having, by some apparent miracle, found a parking space near the rear gate.

            “Can I borrow your phone?”, Eren asked once the car had stopped. He’d just remembered an obstacle: if you were in past curfew, you had to present residence security with your student card or be admitted as a guest. “I think I remembered my sister’s number.”

            Armin handed it over and waited patiently while Eren typed out a request for Mikasa (or the person he hoped was Mikasa) to come let him into the building.

            “Aargh,” Eren said after a minute or two passed with no response. “She might be in the shower or something.” She never used the ones at the gym, after all. “She’ll get back to me soon, though, I swear. She’s a light sleeper, so it’s not like she’s just snoring through it or anything. You won’t be stuck here all night.”

            “It’s alright,” Armin said as he pulled the keys from the ignition. “I really have nowhere to be.”

            “Won’t your roommates be worried?”

            “I don’t think so.”

            The silence, long though it was, wasn’t as painful or wincing or awkward this time. In the thirty seconds or so before the radio shut itself off, Armin was tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, perfectly in time with the sappy love song. Hell, he was doing a better job of keeping the rhythm than most of the kids in Eren’s high school concert band could have.

            Eren wondered whether he majored in music. He had after all been studying off of a music stand, and those hands... So of course he was a music major—probably he played, oh, the flute. Something graceful like that, which carried the melody up above the general mill of the harmony.

            But the silence, comfortable though it may have been for Eren, was probably getting too long. He was making an upperclassman—an upperclassman in Eren’s own program, as he had just decided—sit out here in a parking lot with him and miss out on valuable sleep.

            An upperclassman with a job, too, Eren thought. And a really awful courseload, if we're going by that textbook. I owe it to him to at least make conversation.

            “Hey,” he said, “did I thank you yet? I’m not sure if I did. For all of this. Though I’m going to have trouble falling asleep now, I think. I mean—not that I mean—that sounded really leering. I’m talking about the coffee.”

            “Alright,” Armin said after blinking slowly. Eren was so preoccupied with looking at Armin’s eyes (because Oh fuck look at his eyelashes) that it took him a moment to notice that Armin was smiling. “Sorry about that. I tend to assume everyone keeps hours the same way I do. Coffee at midnight isn’t as much of a problem for me.”

            “What, you’re up late studying?” Don’t assume that you waste of space for fuck’s sake— “Or, out partying or something? Club…activities?”

            “Studying,” Armin said. "I try not to explore too much after dark."

            "Explore? The city?" Armin nodded. 

            “Ahh, okay. And I mean—don’t apologize for it. Hell, it’s good I’ll be awake later than usual. All I’ve been doing lately is sleep anyway. I should live a little. It’s supposed to be part of the whole university thing. Not to just know school subjects, or whatever, but to know—people.”

            “Not everyone’s great at that.”

            “But you are! You saved my ass—several times!”

            “That's putting it a little strongly. It was all just...normal stuff to do—”

            “No—you would’ve been totally within your rights to just kick me out of the gym and wash your hands of it. But you didn’t. You even got me coffee. And holy damn, this coffee is bitter," Eren said, because he was talking now, and still riding his happy little high from his first adventure of the year, and he wasn't going to be easily stopped. "I mean, I can hardly even taste after burning my tongue like that, but I can still tell. But that’s not a complaint at all against you—it’s my own fault. I was trying to impress you, I guess. Even though you got a double-double so there isn’t a single reason to think you’d be impressed by someone drinking black coffee. But I just wanted to try.”

            Well, there it went, out there in the open. It had been a very long time since Eren had confessed a crush to anyone, let alone to the crushee. He'd certainly never done this with a stranger. He really wasn’t sure what to expect.

            But Armin didn’t react like he was surprised.

            “You don’t need to impress me. Really. You're in sort of a weird situation, here. You're allowed to just…be.” 

            That was of some reassurance. This was an absurdly strong crush for someone who Eren had known for less than an hour, but so it was. He wanted so much to just lean across the gap between their seats and kiss this boy. Armin's shoulders were relaxed; he held his coffee cup with both hands and was tracing his thumbs slowly along the lid; his mouth was soft, like he wasn't searching for anything else to say. Like he was waiting.  

            Eren would have loved to deceive himself that this was because he was beyond casual and comfortable; he would have loved to think that Armin was, in fact, waiting to be kissed, or to be asked a direct and important question. There was a warmth in his gut that told him this was the case. Tonight had already been odd enough. He was anything but afraid of kissing someone he barely knew. 

            But Eren was not so lost in tonight's strange wave of energy that he'd lost track of common sense. More likely, Armin had just misinterpreted what Eren had said. Understood it non-romantically. This whole mess was just a situation born only of strangeness and subsequent politeness. This was not a date. Eren could not spring a kiss on him without context, without warning. Armin was only being kind the way strangers were kind. It was just—altruism. Well, just altruism’s a bit unfair, given that it’s altruism I’m talking about here, Eren thought. He risked another glance at Armin, who in his surprise at hearing his own phone go off had just missed his mouth and spilled coffee down his shirt.

            “Oh, fuck,” Armin said softly.

            This guy is an angel, Eren decided. 

            “I should get going,” he said as he glanced down at the small screen of the phone sitting in his palm. "That was my sister; she's going to meet me at the doors, so I'll get out of your face." 

            He handed the phone back to its owner. As he stepped out of the car, Armin spoke.

            “I hope you get your clothes back.”

            “Good.” Armin’s eyebrows rose. “That was supposed to be ‘thanks.’ I'll bring yours back to the gym once I've done laundry.”

            “Alright. And beat up the friends who stole your clothes, for me. Not that—I don’t mean this was inconvenient or anything like that.”

            Eren grinned at him. It wasn’t as embarrassing to be a stammering, miscommunicating mess when the person you were trying to talk to was just as bad as you were.

            “No, no, I got it. Thanks again, eh? I owe you. If you ever need that book hauled around for you, just let me know.” He shut the door, but had just turned around to face the residence entrance when the car door popped right back open. Armin was leaning across the passenger seat, clinging to the steering wheel with his other hand like it was all that was anchoring him to the earth.

            “I just wanted to know, because I’ve never been on that many, but… Did that feel like a…not very good first date, to you?”

            Eren ducked so that he could stick his head into the car again. His eyes were wide but so, so focused on Armin.

            “Does that mean it did to you? And are you angling here for a slightly better second date?”

            “Eren.” After the obligatory split second of startled tension, he turned and found Mikasa standing on the sidewalk that bordered the parking lot. He’d been right; her hair was dripping, and her phone was in hand.

            “Right,” Eren said, and with a regretful glance at Armin, he shut the car door for a second time. He stepped over the curb to join his sister.

            “What happened to your sense of self-preservation?”, she asked as they walked to the building. “You don’t know him. This is a very basic safety failure. Kindergarten level.”

            “You were all protective of him, though. I figured you wouldn’t be if he was an asshole.” The look she gave him confirmed that she had one major counterexample in mind. “Wow, thanks a lot.”

            “I feel bad for him. And the girls who work there. I don’t think they have an easy time.” She sighed and poked his arm. “I’m happy he brought you back though. Jean and Connie will be happy, too.”

            “Why should they care? They did it.”

            “They think you’re wandering around the city mostly naked. I received more than fifty texts while I was in the shower telling me you had vanished and assuring me they would find you. And asking me not to eviscerate them.” She paused for a beat; a slight frown crossed her brow. “Do I scare people?”

            Eren snorted.

            “Yeah. Try not to kill them, though. I'm not that mad." After all, he probably would not have had the chance to really talk to Armin had his clothes not so mysteriously wandered off. Certainly Armin would not have had to leap to the rescue, and then Eren probably would not have been swooning quite so hard.

            Then again, he would like it if next time they met, he was fully dressed. Eren was quite happy with the general shape of himself, even if he wasn't as impressive to look at as Mikasa; but he felt he could have made a better first impression. To Armin he was probably always going to be 'That naked guy,' when he felt he could have just as easily been 'That really good-looking guy' or 'That amazing trumpet player guy' or 'That upstanding sort of guy saving that kitten from a tree.' Or something. 

            "I was thinking we could all go out again tomorrow night,” he added, to avoid having to answer questions about why he was in such a good mood. 

            "Where?" Eren shrugged.

            "Anywhere, really. I just want to do something. It's good as long as we're moving." 

            They were in the building’s east stairwell before Armin finally withdrew from across the passenger's seat. Then he took a deep breath and dropped his head against the steering wheel with such force that the horn blared. He couldn’t even manage to be embarrassed, or to twitch back away from it; he let it go for a good three seconds before he pulled himself back again.

            That was not how he’d expected his night to go. He crawled halfway into the back seat, picked up his mammoth of a textbook, and left his car behind. Just beyond the double doors of Maria Hall he showed his student card to the exhausted-looking security woman, cut across the lobby, and took the west stairwell up to the second floor. As he shuffled along the hall towards his room he rubbed his forehead where it had met the steering wheel. It stung a little, now that the shock and general emotional spike had diminished. Sorting the information was taking longer than it should have, in part because that had all felt so much like some sort of stress-produced dream.

            It wasn’t until he was opening the door to the suite he shared with his three roommates that the last words in their conversation were categorized and stored properly. They'd found their proper mental shelf with its little mental label, and as Armin read it his fingers went rigid on the handle to the door.

            He. He had just.

            He had just been asked out on a date. By a boy whose name he’d never bothered to ask or to look at, on his student card or on the gym’s computer. Who had been wearing Armin’s clothes. Who had fluffy touchable brown hair and bright, intent, warm eyes that had made Armin too flustered to just let him into the building where they both lived.

            He could be my neighbour for all I know.

            That was an incentive to get out of the hall if there’d ever been one. Armin clicked the door firmly shut behind him. He sighed a little in the dark of the kitchen and let the weight of the textbook drag his shoulders down.

            Well. This was perfectly ridiculous. He’d better wring as much study time out of this night as he could to try to put the thought of it behind him. There was nothing to be done until the other boy brought him his clothes back anyway, and in the meantime it would be easier on his concentration to just pretend it hadn't happened. 

            There were of course the assorted images that might make this difficult. The slant of his collarbones, the curve of his neck, the shape of his jawline. Armin wasn't that worried about those. It was his eyes. Those eyes weren't going to be easy to put out of mind. 

Chapter Text

            Midway through hopping off of the bus, Eren realized that he really should not have been hopping in the first place. The two cups in the drink tray swayed disconcertingly but, happily, did not spill scalding coffee across his hands and the pavement. He’d been doing this every few days for three weeks, and this was the first time he’d had two of the cups to contend with. Nine times he’d tried to bring coffee to Armin to thank him for getting him home, and nine times he’d found the gym being supervised not by a cute blond boy, but a cute blond girl, or a muscular freckled young woman taller than he was and just as scowly. Mikasa had been too tired lately to be up for working out after the rec centre's hours, so he hadn't even had an ally scout. He’d spent a lot of time peering through the gym’s front window like a weirdo, and a lot of time drinking coffee that was just a bit too sweet for him. Today, he had decided that he couldn’t take it anymore, and that it was two coffees or nothing. If Armin still wasn’t there he’d just junk the spare coffee, toss the clothes inside the gym, and run. He'd forget the whole mess had ever happened.

            That said, he felt good about his chances. Buying himself a drink as well would be some sort of good luck, he thought. If having his clothes stolen could work that way, having two coffees should also. He could feel it.  

            Immediate evidence was less encouraging. That incredibly green car was not in the gym's parking lot.

            He said he rides his bike here usually, Eren thought, and glanced at the bike rack. There were a few bicycles chained to it. Eren decided this was good enough and marched right up to the door. No hesitating at the window today; he walked right into the gym as if he were a regular.

            Then stopped immediately. His luck had held. Armin was at the desk like he’d been the last time, with his eyes trained on a notebook.

            But there was no shapeless t-shirt today. Oh no. That would have been too easy. It had to be a well-fitting button-up shirt rolled up to best display the soft curves and sharp angles of his forearms—Armin just had to have his hair halfway pulled back, just needed to look like he was fresh off the stage after a virtuosic performance.

            Or like he was going out on a date.

            Fuck, Eren thought, with undiluted happiness. He didn’t really know and wouldn’t have really cared that it was unusual to get worked up like this about a stranger. Armin had halfway almost sort of asked him out already, which meant that they were halfway, almost, sort of, boyfriends.  

            As Eren approached the desk he heard but did not pay any mind to the whirring, clanking, and grunting of the other gym patrons. It was about three-thirty in the afternoon, but he didn't care or especially notice. It might as well have been after midnight again like when he’d first met Armin; they might as well have been the only people there.

            Again Armin did not even twitch his nose away from his studies when Eren reached him.

            “ID, please,” he said, turning one hand palm upward and holding it out. When Eren handed it over Armin got halfway through typing his name into the computer when his glance strayed to the picture beside it—hooked by the familiarity, even in his peripheral vision. Eren’s official university ID had him grinning lopsidedly out from under a bad case of bedhead. When Armin’s eyes—blue, Eren noted, to his rapture—lifted to the card’s owner, he found that he looked much the same. Armin’s mouth shifted, just a little, but that was undeniably a smile. “Your pride’s finally recovered enough that you could come back?”

            “My pride wasn’t hurt in the first place,” Eren said. “I just—” He plunked the tray down onto one of the few spaces on the desk that wasn’t taken up by computer paraphernalia or books. “I wanted to say thanks.”

            “Oh,” Armin said, his eyes and his mouth momentarily forming matching circles. “Coffee.”

            All of a sudden Eren realized why this might be a problem. 

            “This is not me repeating the weird unannounced date one. This is just me paying you back for the coffee you got me. I’ve also got the clothes you let me borrow.” He held up a grocery bag with his other hand. “We are officially not on a date anytime we’re in here. If you can’t tell me to screw off and go home it can’t be a date.”

            “Alright. Only, I’ve got another half hour before I can go,” Armin said.

            “Ahh, okay. I should have expected that, probably.” He looked around. Since it was so much earlier in the day, there were actually a few people around; the machines and benches nearest the door were all occupied. “I guess I should find something to do, then, so you can work. I mean I’m not really dressed for it.”

            “I never am either,” Armin said with a shrug. “And there’s also a man over on one of the treadmills in semi-formal dress, so… It’s fine. Also you look sort of nice in clothes. Ones that fit you, too." It should not have been as flattering as it was, especially given how defeated Armin looked after saying it. "I’d stay away from the weights, though. They’re popular, and someone might try to argue you off of it if they think you’re not…well-suited to them.”  

            “Okay. And—you’re dressed sort of different today too. You look—” Hot? Sexy? Way too weird no fucking nope what about gorgeous?? Beautiful? That might sound a bit pompous though I shouldn't give the impression that I like big words he’ll kick my ass with them— “good.”

            That was disappointingly neutral.

            “Thank you,” Armin said, as if he didn’t hear the clunk when the compliment fell flat on the desk.   

            “I just meant, you look like—do you have plans after?”

            By this point Eren was very much aware that his heart rate was elevated. He’d been the trumpet section’s first chair in high school, and he'd had an absurd number of solos then and now in crowded auditoriums or on competition stages. He’d been nervous about performing during his first year or so of high school, but the memory was so far back and fuzzy that until just now he’d forgotten what it was like. He was honestly quite used to not really giving a damn about audience approval. Rooms absolutely full of judges and friends and family and absolute strangers held no fear for him anymore.

            But here he was with one lone adjudicator, and he wanted more than anything to get full marks.

            “I have an appointment with one of my professors,” Armin said, and then, before the disappointment could crunch in Eren’s chest: “But you could walk me there, if you want.”

            “Great—”

            Eren leaned forward to take his coffee, but Armin said, “You can’t have that out on the floor with you.”

            “Really?”

            Armin shook his head.

            “Only water. But you can—you can come over here when you want it.”

            “That’s allowed?”

            “I don’t remember in training anyone mentioning that we couldn’t,” Armin said. "We're supposed to keep anything people shouldn't have out on the floor here with us at the desk." Besides, he did not say, this way you have an excuse to come talk to me. The words didn't need to be spoken out loud for Eren to get the basic message. He could feel another of those big loopy smiles washing over him and making him look ridiculous, so he turned and headed out onto the floor.  

            Eren wasn’t particularly interested in actually working out right now. The languor that had covered him over that first day when he'd come to the gym wasn't a problem now, and certainly not after that conversation; he didn't need to get his heart going any quicker than it already was. When he left Armin to his work he just sat on one of the benches in the far, less populous end of the gym, got his phone out, and started texting the person he thought most likely to understand the real weight of what was happening here.

 

 I WASN’T LYING I WASN’T WRONG EITHER HE DEFINITELY IS KIND OF DATING ME FUCK YES FYCK UES!!!!!!

 

Well holy shit.  Congratulations I guess

Do I get a thank you or what?

 

FUCK YOU JEAN

THANK YOU JEAN

Oh ya and do u think dinner’s too sudden if we already had coffee

 

Idk it doesn’t have to be a huge production food's just food. Just ask him if he’s hungry

 

It’s not tonight though i can’t ask him if he’s going to be hungry on like friday

 

Then why do you care just improvise

 

            Historia had been over helping a student new to the gym with sorting out one of the leg machines. She returned now to the desk and dropped into the chair more heavily than Armin would have thought possible for such a short young woman, had he not worked so many shifts with her. Historia was tired from school and tired from her social life and was most especially tired from dealing with people at work all day. That amount of fatigue could change the way a person threw their weight around. Sometimes he'd wondered whether she'd started out so short, or whether school had actually just condensed her into a small neutron star of absolute unwillingness to put up with bullshit. 

            She was not so exhausted that she’d lost track of her peripheral vision while helping the new girl with the equipment.

            “The boy in the corner,” she said. “Is that the naked guy back for another attack?” She thought about adding, 'He's the one who's had his nose pressed up against the glass so much lately,' but she remembered that Armin hadn't actually had to witness that for himself. It wouldn't really help to clarify the situation. 

            “There was no attack. He’s been trying to bring my clothes back,” Armin said. He’d ended up having to explain that situation because the next day at work Historia had noted aloud that either Armin had started using some sort of new bodywash, or he’d been keeping someone under the desk, because the place smelled different.  

            “That sounds like ‘yes.’”

            “He has a reason to to be here.”

            “Hm. Fine. Don’t tell Ymir, though, or she’ll never stop teasing you about it and we’ll both have headaches. Also she might get ideas about ‘losing her clothes’ in the changeroom… ”

            There was a loud, sharp clang from near the doors. Neither Armin nor Historia even had to look over, though they did scowl in unison. A discouraging percentage of the university boys who used the gym liked to lift what they deemed an impressive amount of weight just so they could drop it to emphasize the herculean nature of their feat.

            “Please stop dropping the weights,” Armin said, with so much politeness that it went way beyond the boundaries of civility and into the realm of cold but dauntingly professional dislike. Eren, still sitting across the room and still in conversation with a surprisingly helpful Jean, looked up. That voice Armin had just used had sounded like something honed from experience. 

            Eren edged his way back over to the desk, where both Armin and Historia sat looking towards the offending student with matching, totally flat expressions. There was a whole semicircle of them over there near the doors, laughing and jostling and speaking in the general tone of voice that said, ‘fuck your job, we’ll do what we want.’ 

            “Do you get them in here a lot?”, Eren asked. He picked up his coffee as a pretense for being over here, but he too was looking in the students’ direction.

            “People like them,” Armin said, blinking and looking away from the students. “These specific ones… I don’t know. They've been doing this already for half an hour.” 

            Another crash from the same area. Armin sighed. 

            “You aren’t supposed to drop the weights,” he said, to general laughter.

            “What’re you going to do about it?”, asked one member of the collegiate horde. “I mean, who staffs their gym with Tiny and Tinier?”

            A pencil snapped. Eren looked over just in time to see Historia shoot to her feet.   

            “Ohhhkay,” Armin said, and hurried to intercept her. At least, Eren had thought Armin was going to intercept her. He actually showed no inclination whatsoever to stop her from reaching the gaggle of students.

            Historia didn’t hesitate over it, or approach with particular politeness. She just stomped right over to them and then slammed her foot down when she reached them. There were seven of the students, hanging together in the sort of mass that made Eren feel embarrassed for how he and his friends had arrived two weeks before. He wondered whether Armin had been suspicious they would act the same way.

            He didn’t have time to linger on it. Historia spoke.

            “If you can’t lift the weights without being able to put them back down properly, you’re lifting more than you can take. It doesn’t make you look tough. It makes you look weak and arrogant and pathetic for trying to cover that over with some sad attempt at—”

            “Nothing’s cuter than tiny girls like you who think they’re intimidating,” one of the boys said to his friend. Then, to Historia: "You got a number?" 

            Armin had no idea how they could look at Historia in the present moment, with her biology midterm looming and her patience nonexistent, and see ‘cute.’ He looked at her and saw ‘certified assassin running on six coffees and no sleep.’

            To be sure that she didn’t fulfill the first criteria as well as she filled the second and third, he opened his mouth. There was never any shortage of verbal ammunition to be used against him. He made a good target. If he could split the attention between the two of them he could probably save the lives of half the group while also getting them to get the hell out of his face.

            “What’s your fucking problem?”, Eren asked before Armin could speak. He was still at the desk, but looking like he was considering launching himself over there. “Can you not see the signs? There’s gotta be four dozen of them in here—don’t hog the machines, clean off your bench, respect the other patrons—hell, they even had to make a ‘don’t flirt with or harass the gym attendants’ sign." He indicated the whiteboard, which was today displayed on the side of the desk that faced the room. "The general message here is ‘don’t be an asshole’—but maybe they should’ve slapped that on a banner over the door?”

            “Who the fuck are you, anyway?”, one of the students demanded. “Her boyfriend?”

            “Excuse me,” Armin said, and drew their notice for the first time since leaving the desk. He might have just popped up out of the floor given the way they looked at him. “He’s right. There is literally a sign asking you not to make comments like that about the people who work here. There is also one,” he pointed to the nearest wall, “asking you to be careful not to lift more than you can handle, and to be careful that you don’t drop the equipment. Actually, ‘asking’ is the wrong word. They’re telling you. This is a school facility—we don’t have to let you keep using it if you’re deliberately disobeying the rules. We can have you banned.”

            “You have no idea who we even are,” one of the students said.

            “Yeah! What even makes you so sure we’re—”

            “You gave me your student cards when you came in,” Historia said. “Stop fucking around.”

            “Yes,” Armin said. “Please. We have your names and your student numbers. If you damage the equipment the school can and will add the repair or replacement fee to the cost of your tuition.” Armin wasn't actually sure about this, but it sounded plausible enough to him that he could sell it convincingly.  

            Of course, what was convincing, or at least what had any sway, depended on the audience. The nearest student, who was well over six feet tall, bumped forward toward Historia and Armin. He was one of those people who deliberately dressed to give the impression that his musculature could hardly be contained by any mere clothing. He could probably crush Armin straight through the floor.

            But Armin didn’t give any ground, and neither did Historia.

            “We’re telling you to go,” she said.

            “Use of school facilities is a privilege, not a right,” Armin said, and had never in his life been happier to hear that his voice didn’t squeak. The student grabbed him by the collar.

            Armin hadn’t immediately noticed, but the rest of the floor had gone quiet in the course of the confrontation; nobody else was still using the machines.

            “Does anybody know the number for 911?”, someone asked loudly—the middle-aged man in the tie who’d been on the treadmill.

            “That reminds me. Did you know there are cameras in here?”, Historia said.

            The student released Armin’s collar; he scoffed and snorted and said something about the whole place not being worth their time. He and his group filed out without bothering to return to the desk to sign out.

            It was just as well. Eren was standing over there with his fists clenched. The group would have left with fewer teeth if they’d come near him, or if they'd said anything else to the two gym attendants.

            Armin and Historia sighed in unison and then started heading back to their desk. As he passed, Armin offered a brief ‘thank you’ to the man who’d come to the rescue at the end there. The wheeze and whir and clank of the machines started up again as the remaining patrons went back to their business.

            “Fuck,” Eren said when Armin and Historia were near enough for him to say it without screaming it across the whole room. “Is it always like this?”

            “More often than it should be,” Historia said with great exasperation as she took her seat again. Eren looked again at the whiteboard. He decided that all the bright colours and bubbly letters were sarcasm in visual form.

            “It’s not always that bad,” Armin said. He'd just downed most of his coffee in one go in an attempt to settle his nerves. If he got routinely punched, he liked to think that his managers would have had something to say about it to the school. Today’s situation had all gotten out of hand. Armin shouldn’t have been so forceful, probably; but he’d thought it was better to get them a little angrier with him than to let Eren shout his way into a proper fistfight. The other people in the place shouldn’t have had to get involved.

            "They especially don't get that out of hand if Mikasa is around," Historia muttered.

            "You know her?", Eren asked. She looked up.

            "You do?"

            "She's in here a lot," Armin said. 

            “But why do you even work here if it’s like this?”

            “Because it pays,” Historia said, in a tone that suggested she was fielding no arguments.

            Eren resisted the impulse to duck.

            “Holy shit,” he whispered instead, not because he was offended but because he was genuinely in awe of the both of them. He held out his coffee to Historia. “I—don’t know what you take in yours, but you can have this. The tab thing is still closed so I haven’t had any or anything, and it’s still pretty hot.”

            Historia looked sideways at Armin, who shrugged.

            “Thank you,” she said as she accepted the cup. She glanced at the clock. “Your shift’s done, Armin; you should get going before Ymir gets in.”

            “Right,” Armin said; he started gathering up his books. “Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He looked at Eren. “I’ll meet you outside in a minute? I have to get my things from the staffroom.”

            Eren nodded and marched out to wait outside. When Armin came out he was wearing a coat and had his backpack with him. He wasn’t wearing the latter yet, and the zipper was undone.

            “Here, I forgot—I can take those clothes from you,” he said. Eren handed the grocery bag over, and Armin stuffed it inside the backpack. As he did so Eren caught another glimpse of the notebooks and textbooks Armin had had with him at work that day. 

            “What are you studying?”, he asked. Feeling then that he should offer something up if he was going to be prying, he said, “I’m in music.”

            “Really?”

            “Why really?”

            Armin shrugged slightly.

            “I just never would have thought you would be… What do you play?”

            “Trumpet.” Armin snorted. “What?

            “I played in high school, and—”

            Eren leaned over so close so quickly that if Armin had had his instincts all sorted and proper, he probably would have fallen down or at the least scrambled away from him. As it was, he remained rooted. This was not such a bad face to have so close to his.

            “You play trumpet?”, Eren asked. “Seriously?”

            “No—it’s just, it makes sense now. You suit your instrument.”

            Eren withdrew to a more reasonable distance.

            “Why do I feel like that’s an insult?”

            That got him a full-blown laugh. It did not sound all that angelic; it snorted a bit, towards the end. But it was heartfelt, and because of that it was leagues better than what Eren had expected.

            “It’s not,” Armin said, waving a hand. “The trumpets are important. You just seem like you’d have one of the more important parts in a given piece, you know?”

            Something in Eren clunked in a happy, if not very well-oiled, way. He couldn’t think of how to respond to that, but he refused to let the silences of their last meeting take over again now, so he said, “You biked here today, right?” Armin nodded.

            “I can just pick it up after, though.”

            “Why? We can both go.”

            “On the bike? I think you have more faith in my pedalling than I do.”

            “So we’ll trade halfway. I can go first if you want.”

            “I’ll start. Traffic’s a bit heavier at this end; it evens out when we’re closer to the campus.” He was making already for the bike rack, where there were a good half-dozen bikes still present.

            “I knew it,” Eren said when Armin stooped to unchain an old, yellow one with a rack installed over the rear wheel.

            “You knew it would be yellow?”

            “I saw the thing on the back and figured it must be yours. You know, for the books. How many do you usually carry in a day, anyway? One metric tonne?”

            “Well, they’re science books, and they tend to be sort of…hefty. But it’s not too bad usually.”

            Science, Eren thought, with a bit of a sigh of what he thought was going to be disappointment. It felt more like admiration. He didn’t have much of a head for numbers, himself.

            Armin, meanwhile, had pulled the bicycle out of the rack and gotten it pointing the right way. Now he was situating himself on, or more properly, around it. He was standing just in front of the seat, with one foot on either side of the bike.

            “I think it should work if you have the seat, and if I just don’t sit,” he said. “I was thinking you could sit on the rack, but it’s really old and flimsy and I don’t want you to fall off. It’ll be a little tippy with both of us up here, but it might work. I don’t know what you’re going to do with your feet, though.”

            “I’ll work something out,” Eren said. He hopped on behind Armin. The frame stayed steady beneath him, thanks to Armin’s efforts.

            “No helmet?”, Eren asked. Armin shook his head. “Isn’t that kind of unsafe? You go on the roads, don’t you?”

            “Partly. I just never thought to get one. Besides, you suggested this. You’re not in much of a position to complain about safety when this is probably going to get us killed. Or arrested.”

            “Is it illegal?”

            Armin nodded serenely as he started to pedal across the parking lot. Eren swayed disconcertingly as he lost all say over their movement. Then he found a grip on Armin's backpack, and everything didn't seem so bad.

            “Don’t worry,” Armin said. “We’ll go on the roads that don’t have so many cars, and the bike paths where we can. We probably won’t cause an accident.”

            “Oh, probably,” Eren said, but it was hard to be nervous about this when Armin was so entirely tranquil about it.

            Even though he could never quite find his balance, much less a spot to put his feet that was remotely comfortable, Eren couldn’t help but be distracted. Armin took them down sidestreets, all residential and with tall, healthy trees that you couldn’t see from the main thoroughfares. They’d had a little bit of snow, but not  a great deal, so the air still had that autumnish quality; it was cold and clear and smelled like damp leaves. Eren had never thought to explore the side streets. He and his friends had been all over the city's lively downtown and had traced the main roads; they were lit up and loud and erratic and entertaining. 

            He supposed bouncing around between clubs and bars wasn't the only definition of 'exploring,' though. He wondered what sort of places Armin went to, and whether the were all quiet and subdued like this, or whether he ever went dancing, and what he liked to eat, and whether he ever went out with his friends. 

            And he had his hands more or less on Armin’s waist. That was also a distraction. The main distraction, really. Armin slipped up and down smoothly as he pedalled, able to account for both the extra weight and the strangeness of the balance. He must have been used to it to some extent, what with all his textbooks. 

            He did nonetheless tire. He pulled up to the curb in front of a pretty brick house that had ivy up its walls and a wide, tasteful porch. For a moment Eren forgot their arrangement and halfway expected to be invited in.

            “Are you sure you want to switch?”, Armin asked as he settled his feet on the asphalt and looked over his shoulder at Eren. His breath puffed out in little clouds from his mouth, and the wind had nipped his nose and cheeks into a state of patchy redness which was just inexcusably unfair.

            “Hm?”, Eren asked, without releasing his hold on Armin’s backpack.

            “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. It’s not too much farther.” Eren looked around and had to blink his way back into reality. Of course that was not Armin’s house—Armin was a student, and students didn’t own houses like this one.

            “Oh,” he said. “Yeah. I’m sure!” He didn’t see how he could say no when Armin was clearly tired from hauling both their weight; it had been Eren’s idea in the first place. It was far too late now to admit that, although he had learned to ride a bike in elementary school, he hadn’t actually done it since then. He and Armin swapped places, and then Eren pedalled his way along according to Armin’s directions. The handlebars seemed strangely wobbly, but once he realized that this was because he was putting so much of his weight on them for want of a seat, it became more manageable.

            “Turn here,” Armin said, at about the same time Eren started to be more confident in how the hell to do this.

            “Why? Going straight gets us to campus faster. I know this street.”

            “That’s the bus route, but it’s not actually true when you’re on a bike. I did a lot of exploring near home, and there are a lot more bike paths than there are roads.”

            “Wow—this is home? You must’ve got a place pretty close to campus.”

            “Um. Sort of. I’m in Maria Hall.”

            “What—”

            “Eren, the turn—”

            Eren jerked the handlebars to the side in an attempt to make the corner, but swerved immediately back to the left to save them from bumping into the curb and going over the rail that lined the slope.

            “Sorry, sorry,” he said, pedalling harder, “don’t worry, I’ll get you there on time still—”

            “No, no rush, we’re actually on the hill now—”

            They were indeed; just past the turn, the road swooped down in a long curve. Eren had never really thought of it as much of a hill when he’d been on the bus. Now that they were picking up momentum, he revised his opinion. This was a mountainside. 

            “Brake, maybe?”, Armin suggested as the wind started to pick up alarmingly. Eren could feel the way Armin’s grip tightened on his coat.

            Eren did what his elementary school instincts told him, but turning the pedals backwards just resulted in a saddeningly unhelpful whirring sound.

            Holy shit somebody cut his brakes—

            “Armin I don’t know how to tell you this but I think someone’s trying to assassinate you—”

            “What?”

            “Your brakes don’t work!”

            “Yes they do, they’re on the handlebars—no not the left one we'll flip—”

            One of Armin’s arms snapped around Eren’s waist as he leaned forward, and the other shot forward to the handlebars. He put his hand over Eren’s and squeezed the handbrake. He had to do this with rather more urgency than he might normally have liked, given that this slope was also a curve and they were rocketing right towards the edge of it as if it were a straightaway.

            They skidded around in a broad semicircle at the widest point of the curve, flinging slush up into the air.

            For a moment after that, there was nothing but stillness. They both had a good long few seconds to reflect on the fact that Armin had his arm around Eren's waist and his face squashed against his back—that they were, in fact, holding hands now, even if it was in a less than traditional way. Then Armin relaxed as a whole. His hand slid off of Eren’s, and he grabbed the back of Eren’s coat—higher this time, up near his shoulder blades. He pressed his forehead into the scratchy material, and for a moment, feeling him shake, Eren thought he was crying.

            But he was laughing.

            “That was so…so fucking ridiculous,” he said. “Ohhhh god—”

            “Maybe you should be the only one on the bike, for the rest of the way,” Eren said.

            “Maybe,” Armin said, with something that was bordering on sarcasm, but he was still laughing. Eren stepped over the bike and held it steady while Armin leaned forward to put his hands on the handlebars and his feet on the pedals.

            “You can see now why helmets are a good idea, though, maybe,” Eren said.  

            “This has been a very useful safety demonstration, yes, thank you Eren.” He wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “Oh, wow. That was fun. Here, we're almost at one of the paths..." He rolled on ahead to the end of the curve and waited for Eren at a wide asphalt path that tucked in towards the campus. Once Eren caught up, he felt that it was on him to make conversation. He’d been responsible for nearly killing them, after all; they probably could have been talking quite normally if it hadn’t been for that.

            Besides, there had been a very important piece of information left up at the top of that hill, and Eren felt it could use some further investigation.

            “So you’re in Maria,” he said. “Does that mean you’re a first year?”

            Armin nodded. He was pedalling gently backwards to keep his feet busy without launching him on ahead of Eren; he just drifted slowly beside him at a pace that was easy to match. "Where in it? I'm in 439 E." 

            “I'm on the second floor of the west half,” Armin said.

            “So you’re one of the genius kids, then—that’s where all of them live, right?”

            Eren thought maybe Armin blushed a little, but it might have been the lingering windburn.

            “It’s just the advanced program, and it’s not as impressive as it sounds. Sorry I didn’t say so and just let you in, last time. I was a little overwhelmed.”

            “Hey, it doesn’t bother me. It meant the conversation lasted long enough that you nearly asked me out.”

            This time Armin’s blush was unmistakeable.

            “Right,” Armin said. “About that—we are dating now, right? Or I guess I should put it, um—do you want to go out with me? I’d been meaning to ask more clearly but I never did get your name, and you weren’t coming in to the gym for me to ask—”

            “But I was! I was going all the time—I just was never there when you were." Knowing that Armin had been thinking about him and wondering when he was coming back warmed Eren up considerably. If he'd known quite how often these questions had crossed Armin's mind (along with a few vague queries about whether he was ever going to see his clothes again) he would have been positively toasty. "Oh and also fuck yes absolutely, to your question, there.” Armin grinned at him and then looked back at the path to be sure he didn’t hit a bump. The last thing he needed was to wind up on his face after they'd just pointedly not crashed the bicycle. “If I'd known you were in the same building as me we could've saved a lot of time. Why don’t I ever see you in the caf? You do all your cooking in your room? We barely use the stove, honestly…”

            “Ahh, no, it’s not that I cook,” Armin said. “I go out, mostly. At least for dinner.”

            “Oh yeah… You eat in your car, right?”

            Armin shrugged.

            “It’s quieter,” he said. “It’s not like I don’t like people, but the coursework is pretty tough and I want to be able to think it through while I eat.”

            “And also while you work, apparently. Shit. Sorry I keep distracting you, then.”

            “No—no, don’t be. Sometimes it’s good to be distracted.”

            “Good—great, because—I was a little nervous for a minute there that I was like those guys at the gym, you know? With all the weird cocky inappropriate bullshit.”

            Armin glanced at him. Much as he would have loved to just take this moment to admire the turn of his jaw or the shape of his shoulders or the intensity of his eyes because hell those eyes were wonderful and hell Armin wanted them looking his way again—that wasn’t what he noticed first. Eren was looking ahead and frowning, not with anger but with some more generalized concern; his mouth (and it was such a good mouth, but that was beside the point) was tugging down a little at the corners. He was genuinely worried that he might be like those other boys.

            “No,” Armin said, and watched as the frown dissolved away. “You’re not like that."

 

            Eren walked Armin right to the arched doorways of a neo-Gothic building on campus, where Armin's professor had his office.

            "I guess I'll see you around, then," Armin said, tucking his hair behind his ear with one hand.

            "Yeah. I mean, if you go out all the time for dinner anyway maybe that won't work super well for a date, but." Then he perked up. "Actually, I guess it means you probably know some pretty good places, right?"

            “Umm, maybe? I usually just get takeout."

            "Yeah, but I saw all those wrappers in your car. There's at least a pretty good variety. Or we could go to a movie or something."

            Armin's main issue was lack of faith in his own judgement; he hadn't meant to discourage Eren. Right, he thought. He's assertive. I should try to be too or he'll think I'm not interested. 

            "No, dinner's good. We'll find someplace." Then he froze up momentarily like a frightened animal. "Do you like kissing?"

            Eren was quite at a loss, not because he didn't know the answer (he very certainly did), but because he'd never really thought he would be asked. For once, his mouth was there for him.

            "Yes?"

            Armin darted forward to kiss Eren’s cheek; then he said, "Bye," and when Eren didn't answer he ducked inside to meet with his professor. 

            Eren continued to stand there for a moment, looking and feeling like the sort of sculpture that would lose marks in an art class for lack of vivaciousness and an unsettlingly intense expression. When he finally pried himself from the spot where he'd been fixed, he made it as far as the bike rack before his knees went too bendy to hold him. He supported himself with the now-familiar handlebars of a large yellow bike and processed several things in succession.

            Armin was not a trumpet-playing angel several years Eren’s senior.

            Armin was a courageous science-studying angel who lived so close they might as well have been floormates.  

            Armin had kissed him. Right on his face and everything. They were going to go on a date.

            And Armin’s surname and phone number were still entirely mysterious to him, so he had no way to set up for this proposed dinner date.

            Eren released the handlebars and started running back towards Maria Hall at top speed, just because he couldn't imagine walking at a normal pace right now. All this energy had to go somewhere. He didn't care, he didn't care, it didn't matter if he didn't have Armin's number—everything was going to work out just fine, because Armin had kissed him. 

Chapter Text

            They didn’t tell Armin face to face. They didn’t even bother to call him. Armin poked his head out from under his blankets at ten-thirty on Sunday morning when his phone buzzed on his dresser. He pulled the thing over and ducked back under the covers to read the new message. 

 

            Mikasa knocked on Eren’s door at eleven.

            “Yeah,” he said, without withdrawing his nose from between the pages of his music theory workbook. “It’s open, I think.”

            The door swung open. Even just from his peripheral vision, Eren could see that Mikasa had her phone in hand.

            “Historia just texted me.”

            “Alright.”

            “Because her manager had texted her.”

            “Is this going somewhere? Sorry, it’s just counterpoint’s sort of kicking my ass here and—”

             “Apparently some students came in this morning to file a complaint with the gym’s manager. They said Historia and Armin had been ganging up on them with other customers. So they reviewed the tapes, and saw that, and eventually they went back over enough of their shifts looking for other misbehaviour that they saw—”

            “Me meeting Armin,” Eren said. His stomach suddenly seemed to be full of ice cubes. “Him giving me his clothes, and…oh fuck. What should I do? I’ll go explain to his boss that that was not what it looked like—”

            “There’s nothing you can do. He got fired. They both did. Historia wouldn't have, but she argued with them about her suspension.”

            The workbook slapped against Eren’s desk.

            “What?!”

            “It was against company policy—”

            “Text Historia back! Get his number from her—”

            “I don’t know if it's a good idea right now.”

            Eren resorted to the only other method he could think of at the moment, which was tearing right out of the room. Mikasa thought about going after him, but ended up just sighing and going to get her boots. She had obligations elsewhere right now; she didn't think Eren could do too much damage at the moment, so she might as well let him burn off some of the energy.

            He was getting a good start. He ran down the staircase, sprinted across the lobby, ranup the west staircase, and then stormed down the second floor hallway until he happened across a fellow student.

            “Do you know Armin?!”, he asked, catching the boy by the arm.

            “W-what? What’s that? Let go of me—”

            Eren did so mainly because another student was just emerging from her room. He charged over to her.

            “Do you? Armin? What room?!”

            “I—I don’t know him—”

            So Eren started knocking on doors—not systematically, just at random, like a bird trapped indoors and looking for an exit. Nobody had heard of Armin until Eren seized the collar of a boy just stepping in from the stairwell and made the standard demand for information.

            “Yeah, he’s my roommate—could you let go of my shirt?” Eren complied.

            “Where is he?”

            “He went out a few minutes ago on his bike.”

            “Where?”

            “I don’t know—he was kind of upset, so he’ll probably be out for a while. Why? Who even are you?”

            Eren growled and stomped off towards the stairwell. He couldn’t really justify explaining who he was. ‘I’m the guy who’s been really hung up on your roommate because he drove me home one time’ wasn’t going to be a valid excuse for going off on people like this, and ‘I’m the guy who got your roommate fired’ was only going to invite hostility.

            And if there was going to be hostility, there was one place in particular he wanted it to go.

            He was cutting across the lobby—able to see the street through the glass doors of the residence—when fingers closed around his wrist and dragged him to a halt.

            “Where are you going?”, Mikasa asked. Eren was not in a fit state to notice that she was wearing her coat. He didn't register that she was clearly going out to spend time with her friends, maybe even to cheer Historia up, and was not some sort of demonic intervention here specifically to thwart him.

            “To the gym!”

            “Why?”

            “Because they’re fucking wrong and they need—”

            “What? A punch in the face? A lecture from some freshman who couldn't even bother to put on shoes?" Eren suddenly became aware of the thin carpet pressing against his, yes, bare feet. "You can’t get their jobs back for them, Eren—all you’ll do is get asked to leave, or the police called on you. You can’t really help.”

            Eren yanked his arm out of her grip, or he tried, but she was stronger.

            “You wouldn’t be saying that if it was me who got fired! You’d be over there already—”

            “No, because you would have stopped me.” The rest of Eren's intended tirade wound up condensed into one muffled grunt against his mouth, which had clicked shut with surprise. “You don’t like it when I do things like this for you—and Armin’s only an acquaintance for me, but I think there’s a good chance he’s similar to you in that way. All this is going to do for him is insult him, probably. So is going over there really for him, or is it just an excuse to let out your own anger about it?”

            Eren couldn’t continue to stew for much longer than a few seconds, faced with an admonishment like that. When his hand relaxed from the fist it had been balled up into, it slipped easily out of Mikasa’s grasp. 

            “Well, what, then?”, he asked, with a voice not so thick with rage.

            “You could talk to him.”

            “I can’t. I don’t have his number, remember? Or his last name.”

            “Ah.”

            “And now I don’t even know where he works. I know the floor he lives on, so I guess I can probably find out somehow…”

            Acting right now, right this second, didn’t seem as important anymore. He couldn’t very well run around campus screaming into stranger’s faces to see if they’d spotted a blond boy on a bicycle; Armin might not even have been on campus by this point. He'd said he liked to explore, so surely he knew a good place or two to run off to when he needed a moment to be alone. 

            And to be alone, Eren had to acknowledged, was a fair enough desire given the circumstances. 

            So, Eren went back to his room and slammed the door and worked on counterpoint until his eyes were going fuzzy from keeping his face so close to the page.

            When Mikasa came back from her outing she kept her distance at first. She was always ready to drag Eren out of a sulk if he needed it, but she’d let him take his time if he needed that. This was the sort of situation he couldn’t really change, so she felt it was better to give him his space.

            When four o’clock rolled around and he still hadn’t emerged from his room, she knocked on the door.

            “The food in the caf’s alright today. You should go. You get cranky when you’re hungry,” she said.

            Eren did not actually need to be told this, given that he was sitting with his scowling forehead planted on an open textbook and his work only half-finished. It was hard to concentrate on homework when the word ‘fuck’ scrawled itself in red capital letters across his mind’s eye any time it slipped from his awareness for a moment that he’d contributed to Armin’s lost job. That was not, however, the source of his frustration. For the past half hour or so his stomach had been churning not with guilt and anger but with the more mundane hunger.

            “I’ll go,” he said. When he opened the door, she was still standing there. “You don’t have to come with me,” he said. “Sounds like you already ate. Did you go see Historia?” She nodded. “How was she?”

            “Alright. She didn’t like working there in the first place. Ymir quit, too.”

            “Huh. That’s…good I guess? Fuck, I don’t know. Anyway I'll see you after.”

            The cafeteria wasn’t busy when he got down there. The only times it really filled up were at about ten in the morning and about seven at night—the latter because the place shut its doors at seven-thirty, and everyone collectively remembered that when there was only half an hour to spare.

            Eren was glad Mikasa had reminded him to get down there now, rather than later. He felt a bit better now that he was moving (and now that he didn’t have musical notation swimming before his eyes), but he wasn’t at his friendliest. He didn’t very much feel like having to jostle for position at the counter. He was feeling quite ridiculous and freshman-like enough already today, honestly, without filling out all the worst stereotypes.

            It wasn’t until he’d picked up a tray from the stack that he even bothered to really look at who he was sharing the serving area with—at which point he would have sworn he choked on his own breath.

            There was a familiar short, skinny boy with absolutely unmistakable blond hair, even if it was a bit windswept and messy. He was over in the far corner where they kept the breakfast cereal. This meant that Armin had not simply sailed out of Eren's life forever on his bicycle. It also seemed to mean that Armin favoured the flavourless chips of plywood passed off as cornflakes in this place, but that was beside the point.

            “Armin!”, Eren said. The boy jumped and dropped his tray; fortunately it only had an inch or two to fall onto the counter. The cafeteria’s other occupants, including the server, looked at Eren flatly. “Sorry, I just—” He scooted over to Armin, nervously, like he thought he was going to be swatted back. The fear was unwarranted. At the moment it looked like just holding his as-yet empty tray had absorbed all of Armin’s energy. He hadn’t even looked around when Eren yelled his name, though he did say, “Hey, Eren,” when the latter slid up to him.

            There was a blunted, tired quality to his voice, but no twist of anger. Eren didn’t really understand why that might be, so he addressed something else instead. 

            “I thought you didn’t eat here—”

            “It’s cheaper,” Armin said as he scooped out dry cereal into one of the cafeteria-issue bowls. “I already have a meal plan. I should use it.”

            “I heard about your job, but you didn’t have anything saved?”

            “I do. But the point of savings is not to spend them. If I can’t contribute any more to them in the foreseeable future…”

            He shuffled along to the beverage machine to get milk. He slid his bowl beneath a nozzle and pressed the corresponding button. A steady, thick stream of orange juice poured down onto the cornflakes. Armin just sighed and kept his finger on the button. There was no saving it now; if they were going to be doused in orange juice, they might as well be soaked.

            “Oh—god,” Eren said when he saw what was happening, but he was far too late. Armin released the button and picked up his tray again. “Just dump it in the garbage and get another bowl—”

            “That would be a waste.”

            “You can’t be that broke—”

            “No, but.” Armin looked into the bowl. He shrugged. “This is how it is.” He lurched off to join the line at checkout.

            Eren stood where he was for a moment with twitching fingers before he turned on his heel to face the counters. He marched over and made a flurry of careless requests to the fellow manning the ladles that day—just pointing at half a dozen things without paying much attention to what they were. Once his tray couldn’t take any more without getting creative with stacking, Eren joined the checkout line. Nobody else had done so since Armin had, which meant Eren got to watch and wince as Armin asked the checkout lady if they were hiring. Her name was Mary; she and Eren were on friendly terms, since Eren was through here every day, but she didn’t seem to recognize Armin.

            “Not right now, I don’t think,” she said. “Put your bowl on the scale, please…” When Armin did so, she of course had to look into it. Salad had a different pricing system from fruit, or cereal, or any of the other various items you could get in a self-serve bowl. Almost immediately she looked again at Armin. “Aw, honey…”

            “It’s fine,” Armin said, with a polite if somewhat unconvincing smile. He held out his student card. Once she swiped it and returned it to him, he picked up his cereal, wished her a nice day, and headed off into the cafeteria proper.

            “Someone’s hungry,” Mary said as she eyed Eren’s tray. She started typing into the cash register immediately.

            “Yeah,” Eren said, “but I think it’s going to be him once he quits trying to eat that.”

            “Ahhh, that’s so good of you—looking after him like that. Is he a transfer student?”

            Eren shook his head and passed his card to her. It would take too long to explain and embarrass too many people if he told her what had led to this.

            Armin had moved to the least-busy corner of the main eating space—the ‘dining room,’ as the paint over the door so generously called it. Really it was just a collection of sticky tables, unstable wiry chairs, and rowdy first-years. Eren followed Armin away from this last item, even though typically he would rather eat with a crowd.

            “Hey.” He put his tray on the table in the space across from Armin but did not sit. “Do you want me to go somewhere else to eat?” Armin, who had a mouth full of cornflakes and orange juice, covered his mouth with one hand and shook his head. “Are you sure? I got you fired.”

            Armin swallowed with evident displeasure and said, “Those guys from last night got me fired. And even if I did get fired for having a new friend, I don’t see how it benefits me to lose the friend at the same time as the job.” He sniffed. Eren’s heart clenched.

            “Thennnnnn—” He sat across from Armin. “Then we’re still friends?”

            It didn’t seem right to push his luck and say ‘dating,’ at this point.  

            Armin nodded.

            “I mean I didn’t even need the job, really… Tuition’s covered for this year, and everything. It was mostly just so I could…have enough to just get out,” he gestured vaguely with his spoon, “go exploring, you know…? I mean after school, so the debt wouldn't be so bad...”

            By this point he wobbling right on the edge of tears, though he staunchly prevented any from falling. He blinked furiously a few times and then resumed eating his cereal with a grim slant of his eyebrows. Eren just sat there gripping the edges of his tray tightly and wanting to do something about this.

            ‘Don’t cry’ seemed like the worst thing imaginable to say, but ‘It’s alright’ would be just as useless. He could say something about how Armin would definitely find another job, with a brain like his, but he wasn’t sure it was true. 

            “How’s your cereal?”, Eren asked in the end, because those were the words his mouth most wanted to form. Letting this happen had led to some awkwardness with Armin in the past, but he doubted they would have wound up having this much contact if he'd picked his words carefully and with due social consideration. There seemed no point now in trying to stop, especially when Armin seemed to respond so well. 

            “Pretty terrible,” Armin said. 

            “I was wondering whether salt might help.” Armin gave him a skeptical look which was in no way diminished by the puffy redness of his eyes. “It was already such a weird combination, and I thought just—crying right into it… I couldn’t see how that would make it any worse if you wanted to go for it.”

            Armin made a sound. Eren couldn’t define it precisely—it sounded like the sort of noise a seal might make underwater—but it had been, maybe, a distant relative of laughter. There was no more encouraging sign in the world, so Eren fought onward.

            “But there’re choices here,” he said, pushing his own tray forward and looking for the first time at what was on it. “I mean, this’s—tuna casserole, I think, and over here, that’s grilled vegetables with tofu, probably. Are you vegan? Probably not, since you were aiming for milk. Oh, and this is lasagna, or…lasagnish. Another casserole thing, anyway. Spring rolls, and…chicken wings! I’d recommend the last two, definitely, since they hold their shape a bit better. I mean, the food here’s not really as bad as people say. It’s actually pretty much fine if you don’t think too hard about the fact that almost all of it has the same consistency. Which is…mush of kind of variable thickness.”

            This time it was unmistakeable. Armin’s eyes were red and his face was blotchy and he was trying not to laugh around a mouthful of the world’s worst cereal.

            “You’re not making it sound that appealing,” he said, once he’d successfully saved himself from shooting orange juice out his nose.

            “Well I’m not going to lie to you about it. But c’mon. You should eat something that at least kind of qualifies as food.” He slid the tray over, bumping the bowl aside. “If you like fast food, they’ve usually got fries in there—I can go get those, too. They’re actually decent.”

            “You already bought a lot. You didn’t have to…”

            Eren shrugged and said with perfect seriousness, “It's my dinner too, and it’s no more than you did for me. So pick something. Have as much as you want.”

            Armin sniffed again, with finality.

            “Okay,” he said. “But does that make this date two? Because it’s worse than the first one—not your fault, obviously. I’m just worried about what that means for date three.”

            “Ohhhh…" Eren couldn't manage anything more coherent within five seconds of it being confirmed that yes, they were still going out. He could not believe this; he could not express it in any other way short of cheering. That would have felt a bit obscene right now. "You’re right. We should turn it around or there’ll be a bit of a downward…”

            “Trajectory?”

            “Yeah. We could go back to my room after if you want.” He didn’t even really care how that sounded, at this point. If Armin didn’t like being out in public spaces like this, it made sense to take him someplace private.

            Besides. This was the second date, apparently, and he didn’t think it was that unusual to end up in one person’s living space or the other. Really. It’s not like he was planning to end up in bed or anything.

 

            Eren’s bed was exactly where they ended up, though they both would have been very quick to point out that they were fully clothed. Armin had brightened up too much at the prospect of getting out of the cafeteria for Eren to have any real thought of reneging on his offer. Each residence bedroom came equipped with only one chair, so the bed was the more sociable, and more comfortable, option.

             Eren spent the first few minutes being grateful that he'd remembered to clean his room and wash his bedding yesterday. Armin spent the first few minutes thinking not about detergents and and the mess stuffed under the bed, but looking around at the posters on (or in some cases hanging precariously away from) Eren's walls. 

            "So you play a lot of videogames?", he asked. He couldn't even identify a lot of the ones on display.

            "Not so much right now," Eren said. "My mom wouldn't let me bring a console, and I'm trying to keep them off my laptop so that I can. You know. Concentrate sometimes on coursework." 

            "Probably a good idea..."

            It occurred to Eren that he couldn't easily picture Armin at rest in his own space, where he didn't have to tense up awkwardly or hide under layers of fluster. It was difficult to imagine him really at ease. 

            “Do you play at all?" Armin shrugged.

            "Not really. They're fun, but I never really got that invested in them."

            "Well what do you normally do in your free time? When you’re not saving hapless naked people and standing up to dirtbags, that is. You probably like, write huge scientific treatises or come up with medical breakthroughs, or something.”

            “Ahh, no, it's nothing that ambitious," Armin said. "I just walk or bike or drive around, mostly… What about you?”

            “Lately we’ve been going out a lot. Bars and things, rallies on campus, movies—you know, just whatever looks interesting at the time.” Actually, in the course of it all Eren thought he’d probably stumbled across a good number of potential date sites, but he wanted to be sure he didn’t drag Armin anywhere he already knew better than Eren did. He didn't want to bore him. “One time we actually went to the observatory—I mean it was Sasha’s idea, not mine—you don’t know who that is. Huh. But anyway they were having an open night where they lined up the telescope with Jupiter and just let anyone look at it who wanted to—”

            “Was this last Thursday?”, Armin asked.

            “Yeah!”

            “I was there! They do this every Thursday that isn’t overcast—earlier in the semester they were showing Saturn. It was amazing… I mean I'd seen pictures on the computer before, and I know it shouldn't make that much of a difference just to see it through a telescope since they're more or less the same images, but something about it felt realer? Especially looking at the rings. Did you know they're mostly ice? I can't take astronomy courses for credit until next year but I've always sort of liked to look things up, and I just—imagine looking at them close up...”

            The way Armin brightened up when he explained all about the rings of Saturn was enough to make Eren almost forget that he’d been nearly in tears not half an hour ago—and it was more than enough to stop Eren from resenting him for ruining the novelty of a potential date. If Armin was already a loyal patron of the campus observatory, Eren couldn't very well wait until there was some particularly interesting event scheduled and then haul him along. He couldn’t see taking him out to a bar, really, or a club. At least not right away. He’d have to think harder.

            In the meantime, Armin had fallen into happy silence and was hugging his knees as he thought further on the solar system. He was just a small, content little bundle sitting there, and all Eren could do was finish with the rather pointless, “But when we’re not out screwing around on campus or in the city I mostly just practice.” 

            But Armin refocused quickly and clearly, without any obvious signs that he was still lost somewhere between Jupiter and Neptune. 

            “That’s right—trumpet. Do you practice here?”

            “Yeah. There’s that practice room down by the caf.”

            “Does that mean you have your trumpet here now? Can I see it?”

            Eren wondered whether he should alert the newspapers about this. It could not have been normal to be so absolutely besotted with someone he was only seeing for the third time. There may have been real sociological value in what was happening here; he could be a case study for—for—something. He didn't even know. 

            “Yeah, it’s just here—” He sprung off the bed and pulled the case out from under his desk, where he’d started stowing it after tripping over it and landing on his face once more often than he could take with dignity. When he hopped back onto the bed the give in the mattress pulled Armin down a bit closer to him, so that it just made sense to rest the case across both their laps.

            “Ahhhh,” Armin said when Eren undid the clasps and swung the case open. “I always did like the silver brass instruments…”

            “Right?! They’re way cooler.” Eren pulled the trumpet out of its case and showed it to Armin with genuine pride. A lot of paychecks had gone into this horn, and it wasn’t that often he got to show it off to people outside his department.

            “Is it new?”, Armin said as he took it. "It looks like it's in such good shape."

            “I got it towards the end of twelfth grade. I just shine it a lot, really. It’s a way to procrastinate when I don’t want to work on a difficult passage or whatever.”

            “How’s it sound?”

            “Great! It’s—I mean it’s an off-brand, but it sounds really good. Here, I’ll—” He pulled the mouthpiece from its niche in the case and slotted it into the body. There was a moment before he put the metal to his lips where he registered guilt about playing so soon after eating, but he resolved to just clean the trumpet extra thoroughly next time.

            He meant to just play a simple C, but wound up doing the whole chromatic scale up to high C. It was an instinct after all those warmup sessions, competing with the other kids in his section to see who could hit the high notes the easiest.

            “Wow,” Armin said, as the last note faded. “It really is clear.”

            “Want to try?” Eren tipped the thing towards Armin, paused, wiped the mouthpiece on his shirt, and offered again. Armin held one hand up to protest, but Eren eased the trumpet into it.

            “I—don’t know, I wasn’t a trumpet player—”

            “C’mon, it’s not that hard to just get a note. I’ll show you how. You just—”

            Pbbbbbbtttttvvvvvvvvvvvvt, went the trumpet. Armin pulled his mouth away from it briefly, made a face, and then tried again. This time, with ease, he produced a very respectable C.

            “It’s been a while, so my embouchure’s sort of shot,” he said. When he looked up at Eren, however, he found the boy with a look of astonished elation. He looked like he'd just found a winning lottery ticket on the ground when he'd been looking for a twenty dollar bill he'd dropped. 

            “I thought you didn’t play trumpet!”, Eren said. 

            “I don’t. I was on French horn—”

            Eren just barely stopped himself from tackling him.

            “Your school had French horns?!”

            “Yeah, a whole section of us,” Armin said. “Did yours not?”

            “No!”

            “I didn’t start out there. I’ve played piano since elementary, but there was a really great pianist in the band…with bigger hands, too, so she could reach chords more easily. Our conductor said if I wanted to be in the band I should pick up a second instrument. I wanted trombone, but my arms were a bit too short.”

            “Seriously?”

            Armin set the trumpet down and held his arms out to either side of him to demonstrate their length. Eren did the same, strictly for comparative purposes; his were indeed longer. He wasn’t really thinking about that, though—how could he, when Armin had just made himself look like the most huggable person on the planet?

            Eren didn’t go for it. Somehow he felt that a hug would be more intimate than the kiss on the cheek they’d already had. Maybe it was just because they were sitting on his bed, or maybe it was because of the state Armin had been in earlier—but he held off.

            “I probably could have if I’d practiced, but there wasn’t time,” Armin said, oblivious. “I was alright on horn, though. I mean, we barely ever got a decent part… And I liked piano better, since, um. Well, the face was one factor.”

            “The brass player face?” Armin nodded; he laughed when Eren clamped his lips together, puffed his cheeks out, and crossed his eyes. “C’mon,” Eren said once he’d finished, “that is the most attractive face imaginable.”

            “I guess if anyone could make it work it's you, but you don’t understand, I go really red and—all the band pictures were always so ridiculous… It was fun though. Band, in general. I’m kind of jealous you get to keep doing it.”

            “W—don’t be, you can still play, I can show you how on the trumpet it’s actually so easy to get the basics especially since you already play—”

            One of Eren’s other suitemates hammered on the wall.

            “Enough of the foreplay, for fuck’s sake—sex’d be quieter than this!”

            “Ahhhh, you don’t know that!”, said the fourth suitemate. “Don’t tempt fate—”

            Eren knocked on the wall even louder than they had.

            “NAHHHH, SORRY!”, he said. “Don’t make me start practicing properly, because you’ll regret it!” He looked at Armin. “Don’t let them scare you off. They’re just jealous because my boyfriend’s cooler than theirs.”

            “I’m not scared off,” Armin said. Actually, since he'd arrived here he hadn't so much as checked the time on his phone or looked around for a clock. Eren, who had honestly thought Armin would take the first chance to retreat back to his room now that he'd calmed down, decided that if Armin was going to stay he should probably try a bit harder to entertain him. 

            “Do you want to—uh, watch a movie or something?”

            “You mean go to the theatre? There’s one on campus, but they usually only have one movie at a time…”

            “Nah, just—anything you want to watch, any genre or whatever, I don’t really care. And just. On the computer. Here, you know?”

            Armin looked right at him for a moment. His eyes weren't so red and swollen anymore, and his gaze was steady and didn't waver. Eren honestly couldn't make out what he was thinking. Armin would have been glad for that, had he known Eren was trying. What he was thinking about was how strangely not strange he felt about this whole situation. For all the absurdity of it, and for all that he knew he should have still been upset or angry about his job, he was comfortable. 

            “Here sounds nice,” he said. 

 

            They never did watch a movie. Somehow they wound up an hour deep in cat videos. Halfway through a particularly long compilation of cats ruining their reputation for grace and stoicism, Eren was sweating. It wasn’t because he was ruminating on any transcendental filmic themes. He and Armin had, gradually enough, fallen together at the middle of the bed. They sat now shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip. Eren was reasonably sure he could identify the precise brand and variety of Armin’s shampoo. He was starting to get worried that Armin was going mention that the humidity had increased. Especially along his entire right side.  

            Armin didn’t notice that in particular, but he did notice that over the past five minutes or so Eren had been utterly fixed in place.

            “You can just do it,” Armin said.

            “Do what?”, Eren asked, and was about as convincing as a child caught standing on the counter and rooting through the cupboard.

            “Whatever you’re thinking about. I’m pretty much fine.”

            Well in that case.

            Eren managed to pull his arm out from the (very, very warm, very warm) space between himself and Armin and put it around the latter’s shoulders.

            “This looks more comfortable in movies,” he said after a moment.

            “Oh—um, hold on, I think maybe—” Armin shifted his weight downwards a bit. This had a number of effects. It made it easier for Eren’s arm to rest across Armin’s shoulders at a natural angle, so in that respect it was a resounding success.

            But the comfort of Eren’s arm and shoulder were the least of his concerns at the present moment. What this shift of position also did was press Armin more closely to Eren’s side, right up against his ribs. Just on the other side of them, Eren’s pulse was suddenly pounding frantically.

            He wondered whether Armin could feel it. He wanted Armin to feel it.  

            And then there was the third effect, just as important as the second. In order to see the laptop screen, Armin now had to tilt his head slightly so that it rested against Eren’s chest. It was at just such a height as to request—no, demand—that Eren put his chin on top of it.

            Eren thought it would be rude to refuse.

            “Does that feel weird?”, he asked.

            “Mm, not really,” Armin said.

            He didn’t say it, because it would have been embarrassing, but what it felt was right.

            The video ended and neither of them noticed.

 

            Around sunset Eren offered to sleep on the floor so that Armin could spend the night rather than go back to his own suite, but Armin shook his head.

            “I think my roommates would get a little concerned if I went out upset and just never came back,” he said. “They don’t see a lot of me, but I think they'd catch on to that.”

            "Ahh, yeah, good call. I sort of shouted at one of them already so they'd probably think I'd bumped you off or something..."

            "Really? What for?"

            "Well, not so much at him as into his face. I was trying to find you. You know. To check on you. Apologize."

            "Oh. You really didn't have to—"

            "But I wanted to. And I still do. Sorry I was part of the whole mess. I'm not sorry I bumped into you in the caf, though." Armin's mouth couldn't seem to settle on a shape, but the general impression he gave was of flattered embarrassment. He checked his phone.

            “I think I'm going to hear about you when I see my roommates," he said. "I should actually be getting back, I guess, so they don’t think anything happened. Plus I thought I’d have time to study today, and never got to go to my shift, so…”

            “Alright,” Eren said. “I’ll walk you back.”

            They were in the stairwell before he thought of anything else to say. 

            “You know, I'm still sorely fucking tempted to break into the gym, get onto the computer, find out who those guys were, and egg their houses. I know you said you never would, but I think in these circumstances it’s warranted.”

           "You really think that's a good idea?"

           "I can do it if you don't want to." 

            Armin looked at Eren and saw utter destructive sincerity on his face. He had suspected that might be the case, but he hadn't expected it to be quite so full-blown, or to suddenly have the mental image of the gym and the boys' houses lying in ruins. So he said: "It wouldn't change anything. I'll go in tomorrow, probably, after class. I'll talk to them."

            "You could probably convince them to take you back."

            "Probably. But I think I’ll try finding work somewhere else.”

            “What? Why? You could study there! Don’t just let them bully you out of it—this isn't right at all!”

            Armin pushed open the door that led out into the lobby.

            “No, but the hours were all over the place and never long enough, the management was bad, and too many of the customers were…well. You saw. I was never going to quit, but I guess I can look at this as being cut loose. There are some postings around campus about research positions; I might be able to get one of those.”

            “Then why—I’m not making fun of you, but why did you get so upset if you hated it there anyway?”

            “Well it doesn’t feel great to get fired,” Armin said, but did not sound offended. “You don’t have huge existential crises every few days?”

            “Not really, no.”

            “Well. Good. And I am going to talk to them, so don't worry that I'm just...folding.”

            They’d nearly arrived at the door to the western stairwell. Eren wasn’t all that happy about it. He wished Armin was staying longer, mainly because he wanted Armin to just let him be sure, really tangibly sure, that he was alright. The imminent parting at least gave him a flash of inspiration.

            “You know,” he said, with immense seriousness, “everyone in high school always said that brass players were the best kissers.”

            It was the closest thing to a pickup line he had ever uttered in his life, but at least he’d put the words in the right order and hadn’t thrown in any superfluous pauses or fumbles. He thought this was good progress; it felt more like him, at any rate. 

            Armin paused before he pushed the door open.

            "Did they really say that? Why? I don’t think embouchure should really have that much of an effect, really. Kissing is more than just…mouth pressure, isn’t it?”

            “You mean you don’t know for sure?”

            Armin shook his head.

            “I’ve kissed people, but it was never all that good. So I don’t have that much data to work with.”

            A million questions and images sprouted in Eren's mind about Armin's first sloppy attempts at kissing, but he swept them aside for the moment. There was something much more important at hand, here.

            “Do you want some more?”

            Armin had known this was coming, but he still couldn't quite flatten the smile down. It would have been impossible not to smile at least a little when Eren's expression was so grave. 

            "It—couldn't hurt. I mean as far as data goes, more is usually better, right? It just seems like good, responsible..."

            "Sciencing," Eren said. Armin snorted. It was a quiet, private little sound, soft enough to nearly be mistaken for a breath. Eren was glad that he was standing near enough to have heard it. They'd wound up so close together here at the door, like they had on the bed. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. Like they'd known each other for years. Like they fit.  

            "Yeah," Armin said. "Sciencing."  

            They got so close. Armin would have sworn he could feel the warmth radiating from Eren’s lips, and he could certainly feel the electricity sparking up his spine, straightening him up to meet Eren—

            The door opened behind them, and Armin froze solid. It took all his attention not to tip backwards onto the feet of the hapless student trying to get to class, or to clutch onto Eren's shirt for balance.

            “Armin?", asked a voice he knew from behind him. One of his floormates. "Thomas's been looking for you. I think they're all getting sort of worried." 

            "Ah—right,” Armin said. "I'm sorry. I should go." He looked at Eren, who absolutely would have kissed him witness be damned had Armin not gone so plank-like at the thought of it. "Later, Eren," he said, because it passed as a normal goodbye even though he meant it as a promise. Then he moved through into the stairwell. The other student offered Eren no more than a quizzical glance in passing. By the time the stairwell door bumped gently closed, Eren was left alone in the lobby, utterly unkissed. He’d really been hoping to solidify a tradition here, but he hadn't meant for it to be the tradition of abrupt, incomplete departures.

            For about half a second he gave  serious thought to just chasing Armin up the stairs and trying again, since they both clearly wanted this so badly. His hand swung briefly toward the door, but that was as far as he got before he swivelled back around to face his own end of the building. It wasn't the right time. He'd feel it when it was the right time, and Armin would. Besides, he'd never finished his theory coursework. 

           

            The next morning when he stumbled out into the kitchen to get breakfast before class, Mikasa—currently in search of her own meal—held something out to him.

            “I found this just inside the door,” she said without leaning away from the fridge into which she'd inserted her head and shoulders.

            Eren took it, fully expecting it to be another flyer from some university club, fraternity, or sorority. There was a stack of pizza flyers thicker than some of Eren’s textbooks sitting on the kitchen table in case of culinary emergency.

            This was not going to be added to the illustrious pile. It was a small, lined piece of paper with ripped edges and part of an equation crossed out. Initially Eren wondered why Mikasa was handing him someone’s discarded math homework; then he flipped it over. This side of the note contained four things things: the name A. Arlert, a room number, a phone number, and a sentence: ‘so you don’t have to attack my roommates again.’ It was all in the same cramped lettering Eren had seen before, on a desk at the all-night gym.

            Eren’s first priority wasn’t adding the phone number to his contacts list. He slammed the paper against his chest and held it there like he was swearing fealty.

            It wasn’t until he was sitting around waiting for one of his classes to start that he remembered what he’d forgotten. He scrambled to get the note out of his pocket and add it all into his phone, and then hastily sent out the following:

 

hEY IT’S EREN

shit the capitals got all fucked up sorry I’m not that excited

actually that’s a lie I am I am that excited HI

 

            Four minutes slipped past before he got his answer, and he spent them chewing on his lip and pacing in the increasingly populous hallway and wondering whether Armin was on campus too. Maybe they could skip class. Armin didn't seem like the type, but maybe, just maybe... The other kids in his class were starting to shuffle and shift like they were considering asking him if there was some emergency they could help with. Then his phone went off. He yelped and tossed it, but managed to catch it midair and see the text, held up toward the ceiling like a message from on high.

 

Hi! I’m glad you got the note. Afterwards I wasn’t as sure I put it under the right door. I was really sure I'd get prank called at some point. 

…and, full disclosure, I was going to pretend that I was in class because I heard it’s bad form to text back right away, but that just wasn’t working out, so. Sorry for the delay. And at least you’re not alone?

 

            Eren had the most ridiculous, vapid grin on his face for the rest of the day.

Chapter Text

            By the time Christmas break ended and Armin returned to a snow-coated, picturesque campus in his tiny green car, he had really only two complaints to file with the world. One was that he could not start picking up shifts at the university's on-campus gym until mid-February, which meant he had a month's worth of too little car access and too much cafeteria food. The other was that he had not seen Eren nearly enough. After his firing he’d spent a lot of time looking into research positions with his professors, and when he’d found nothing that fit with his schedule he’d branched out through most of the science department. By the time he’d found a (tragically unpaid) position doing grunt work for a professor’s paper on eukaryotes, exams had been upon them. Between work and studying, there hadn’t been time for more than a few passing moments with Eren, who had taken stock of Armin in study mode and decided it was best to give him space to work. They’d spent a few nights playing horror games in Eren’s room, a few afternoons exploring the full range of the cafeteria’s menu, and a few minutes here and there bumping into one another on campus. It had all been brief touches and quiet private moments and Armin knew he should have been satisfied with it, given their newness to this; but he wanted more.

            Communication hadn’t been lacking, which he was thankful for. Armin wasn't sure whether it had been the distance or the fact that they were only barely dating and Eren was nervous of losing touch— but Eren was nothing short of prolific. Armin had thought their contact might peter out over Christmas break, until on Christmas day itself he’d started receiving occasional snapchats of Eren’s presents and sister and dinner and tree. There did not seem to be much Eren could not get excited about. 

            Once he’d hauled up his suitcase to his room—abandoning it to be unpacked later—Armin headed back out. His suite was dark and quiet; class didn’t start until the day after tomorrow. The rest of his roommates wouldn’t be back until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest. Though he was tempted to just stay and relish the silence for a while, maybe even sit out in the common area (as yet untested ground), he’d rather go for bolder explorations. Since so many of the students were still away, much of the snow on campus was undisturbed; it was the first time he’d seen the place looking so honestly beautiful, and there were a lot of stone buildings on this campus he thought would benefit from the snow. There might even be animal tracks. He would swear he'd seen a deer just before Christmas, but he hadn't been sure. The campus was a huge sprawling mess complete with woods and a river, so there must have been a lot of wildlife he hadn't met yet. 

            Of course, a largely untouched campus and an early arrival meant a lot of snowed-in bikepaths, so he wound up taking his bicycle out on the road, kicking up slush and feeling he was getting in the way of traffic. It wasn’t as much of a problem once he was in amongst the school buildings, and from there it was a short ways to the nearest bike rack.

            He spent a while exploring, or rather re-exploring, on foot. Even the heart of the campus was dotted heavily with trees, oak and pine and maple, all with their boughs laced with snow. The clocktower, too, was unusually pretty, with the cirrostratus clouds bright behind it. It was all bright, all clear blue and silver.

            Armin glanced around. There were a few footprints in the nearby snow, but no visible people. He was alone out here. He dug his phone out of his jeans pocket but paused just before he took a photo. Then he turned around so his back was to the tower, held his phone out at arm’s length, and snapped the first selfie he’d taken in months.

            (The last one had shown him holding up a trophy from a science award he’d won in senior year of high school; he’d gotten his hair tangled up in it, but the shot didn’t show the anguish and frustration that had followed the flash).

            Looking at the image, Armin was a bit annoyed with how his hair stuck up from under his hat, and he thought his eyes were squinting weirdly in the winter sunlight, but the smile looked right. It looked genuine. It also looked in his opinion like it belonged to a five-year-old about to be handed a lollipop, but he’d take what he could get.

            In a fit of impulsiveness Armin sent the photo along to Eren, with the caption, ‘Let me know when you get back!’

            By the time he stuffed the phone back into his pocket his fingers were numb, and it didn't even cross his mind to be surprised that this was because of the cold and not because of the expected heaping pile of nerves. Increasingly over the break he'd started to think of Eren as his friend, as well as his boyfriend. He should get to send him senseless selfies every now and again, especially after that boatload of snapchats. He was owed a stage for his own ridiculousness, and he wasn't going to be kept off of it even by himself.

            He also wasn't going to let himself get frostbite. The university's community centre was close by. It was always overstuffed with food vendors; most of them probably wouldn’t be open on the Saturday before classes resumed, but there was always a chance he could get some coffee. Even if nothing was open, at least the air in there would be warmer.

            Armin was barely through the doors when he was struck still by the high, clear tones of a trumpet. Another moment passed before he recognized that it was not a soloist, but a brass quartet. His immediate instinct was to duck, and he indulged it. In the middle of the community centre’s lobby was an enormous fake Christmas tree in a state of half-undress; the people taking down the decorations, and ultimately the tree itself, must have been on their lunch break. Armin was glad for it, since it allowed him to proceed forward into the lobby and peer around the tree without any eyebrows quirking at his rusty sneaking skills. He reached out, put his hand on one of the plasticky boughs of the tree, and pushed it down so that he could get a glance at the group practicing on the other side of the lobby.

            So instincts don't always lose out to rationality, Armin thought. He would never have let himself creep across the room like this if he'd been letting himself think clearly—this school's music program was large and prestigious, so there was certainly more than one trumpet player about—but he'd been right. There across the room, just lowering his that bright silver trumpet of his in a fit of frustration, was Eren. He was standing behind a short row of music stands along with a trombone player, a tuba player, and French horn player. Eren was dressed crisply in black for the performance even though this couldn’t have been anything more than an informal practice session. He was the only one who had turned up in such a state, as if he’d just assumed that demands were the same for rehearsal as for performance. 

            There were a few other people drifting around the lobby—the place never seemed to be totally empty, since students were always in need of fast, cheap food—but nobody was giving the players a second glance. Even when the campus was fuller, getting a proper audience for performances like this was rare. Armin himself hardly noticed when one of these groups was out there playing. Admittedly, having them play such dry pieces was part of the problem. If they went for something a bit livelier I'm sure they'd have better luck...

            If Armin had had any mind for superstition, he might have cursed himself for even thinking of luck at a time like this. As soon as he did, one of the ornaments on the tree—a big, plastic, gold-coloured thing—fell off of the branch he’d displaced and clunked on the floor.

            Armin’s hand snapped away from the branch and over his mouth so quickly that the smack of skin was probably louder than the falling ornament. The quartet, which had been producing a lot of muttering and page-rustling and half-hearted brassy hoots between pieces, fell quiet.

            “What was that?”, asked someone Armin was certain was not Eren.

            “Who cares?”, said someone Armin was certain was Eren. “Let’s just run it through again.”

            There was some groaning, but Eren’s bandmates complied. It gave Armin a moment to catch his breath and turn back around as quietly as he could—but when he did, he found two pairs of eyes looking at him from over the nearby wall that sectioned off the food court.

            “That’s him, right?”, one of the people asked. The second person nodded, and then lifted her face above the wall. At last Armin recognized her, from the gym and now from his time spent in Eren's suite. Mikasa motioned for Armin to hurry over to them. Armin considered it for a moment, and then committed; the path to the food court stairs should be mostly obscured from the quartet by the tree. He darted across the space, up the steps, and behind the shelter of the wall. Mikasa and one of Eren’s friends—Jean, Armin thought—were just settling back into their seats at one of the food court's many, dirty tables.

            “We thought it’d be better to get you out of there,” Jean said, sliding over so that Armin would have access to the seat further from the wall. “If he spotted you he’d go charging over and their practice would go right to hell.”

            “I was thinking that as soon as I heard them playing,” Armin said. “He can be a little…”

            “Thought-repellant?”

            “Direct,” Mikasa said. "I don't think he would disrupt practice over it. He takes rehearsals seriously." Then she looked right at Armin, leaned forward across the table, and said, “Are you afraid of me, Armin?”

            Armin had seen Mikasa a few times now out of a professional context, but they hadn't exactly plunged straight into questions about fear and each other's nature as people. Of course, now that he thought of it, she didn't seem like the sort for small talk. 

            “Wow,” Jean said. "Let's just get right into it, eh?"

            “The only people who should be afraid of me are the sort of people who will hurt us. You don’t seem like the type. Are you?”

            “You know this is exactly why people are afraid of you, right?”, Jean muttered.

            “I don’t—I don't think so,” Armin said. “I wouldn’t deliberately hurt anyone. And I like Eren. He’s really…” Armin was not often left at a total loss for words, but the best he could manage for a moment was a vague motion with both his hands. “He’s—good. Energetic, and earnest, and…warm. I don’t know.”

            Mikasa stayed like she was for a few moments—leaning forward, scrutinizing Armin directly and unabashedly—before easing back into her seat. She smiled at Armin with perfect friendliness.

            “Alright,” she said, and by the time the smile faded she was giving her attention to the straw of her drink.  

            “General handwaving and incoherence is all pretty much anyone can come up with to explain why Eren’s worth having around,” Jean said. Mikasa gave him a look. “What? I mean for me too—it’s all ehh, yeah, I can’t say why exactly but I suppose he’s one of the best friends I've ever had in life. I'm not complaining so much as commenting on the mystery of it.” He gave Armin a glance, much quicker than Mikasa’s appraisal. “Just for clarity’s sake—are you actually Eren’s boyfriend? He’s been going on about you nonstop but I’ve seen you all of twice, so I couldn't be sure whether he was getting ahead of himself. I mean, he said he was going to be a musician before he'd ever touched a trumpet, so...”

            This could not have been less surprising to Armin.

            “I’m definitely his boyfriend," he said. 

            “I’m the asshole who masterminded the stealing of his clothes, so I’m sure you’ve heard about how I’m a vile betrayer and all that.”

            “I—he hadn’t said you did it, actually.” Jean scratched fitfully at his hair. 

            “He should’ve. I feel like shit for getting you canned.”

            Before Armin could point out that Jean could not have known that would be the result, Eren’s voice rang out.

            “Fuck! I fucked it up again—”

            “God, Eren, who cares,” said one of his bandmates.

            “That’s like the most important part—”

            “Trust the trumpet to say that…”

            “—so I care! Just one more time through that section and then you can do your solo, alright? I swear.”

            Jean snorted and shook his head.

            “About the same as ever… Results or the apocalypse, with no in-between.”

            “Do you go to all of his rehearsals?”, Armin asked, thinking this to be almost implausibly supportive of them.

            “Fuck no. I meant that sort of more generally. But no place else on campus is open, and if you’ve got a pick a place to eat your sandwich, there are worse places to do it than in proximity to Wolfgang over there. I guess. I mean it’s a little jaunty for my taste, but whatever.”

            “They don’t practice that long,” Mikasa said. “We all had to come back to town early because he has a performance Monday. We walked him here, and then it was just as easy to wait and get something to eat as to head back.”

            “Ahh, okay…”

            As the conversation bobbled intermittently along, Armin could not shake the feeling that he was being sized up. These were clearly two people who knew Eren well, and who cared for him a lot, and who would be distinctly unhappy on his behalf should Armin prove unsatisfactory. He would have been lying if he said he wasn’t intimidated by that, but he refused to cower away. They seemed amicable enough—curious but friendly, not openly hostile, not suspicious of him. Probably, if he suddenly got shy and evasive they would start to be suspicious. Better to try to be confident, then, he thought. Apparently this was a trait they valued, if they were close with Eren. 

            He stayed as long as he could, which was exactly seven minutes and twelve seconds. His hands were restored to full feeling by this point, so his initial objective had been completed. He could have held out longer if there’d been more conversation, and if they hadn’t all three of them mainly been listening to the rehearsal. Armin kept having to blink his way back into focus whenever he found himself sinking all his attention into the trumpet melody—because oh, Eren was good at this. Sometimes he got overexcited and shot the note up a little sharp, but the quality of his sound was rich and deep and warm and…

            There he went again, starting upright like he’d caught himself falling asleep.

            Besides, Mikasa had said these practices didn’t run long. He wanted to see Eren, but there were books he’d meant to pick up for his research paper. The library would become a bit too reminiscent of a big-city subway train if he put off his visit until classes started, and the texts he needed might have been signed out by then. Competition for resources might get fierce, and Armin wasn't the sort to elbow people out of his way to get what he needed. Better to use the books now and restore them to their shelves before anyone else needed them. 

            “I should get going,” he said as he got to his feet. Mikasa shot Jean a sharp glance for reasons neither of the boys understood, until she spoke.

            “You should have offered him part of your muffin.” Jean looked down at the empty wrapper on the table. 

            “Ah, shit—”

            “No, no it’s really alright,” Armin said. “Just, thank you—”

            “For what?”, Mikasa asked.

            For…letting me date your brother? That’s not really—

            “Just for talking to me.” That was so much worse. He did everything he could to stop himself from sighing. “I should really get going though, so—”

            “Where?” Armin blinked.

            “Just the library,” he said, and was honestly proud of how little he sounded like he was slinking off into the nearest dark alleyway in order to escape. There wasn't as much as a wobble in his voice. 

            Mikasa nodded once. Armin had barely disentangled his legs from the metal tubes that supported the table and chairs when Mikasa said, “I want you to know that we like you very much.” Then, less stiffly: “We’re going downtown tonight. You could come. It would be nice to get to know you on your own terms, not just through Eren.”

            “Okay,” Armin said. He probably could not have surprised himself and the others more if a starfish had popped out of his mouth in place of an agreement. “I will just…be going now, then. Eren can text me when you want to go? That should be fine.”

            He got out of there; he cut across the food court and took a side exit rather than risk crossing the hall and distracting Eren from his practice. As he went, he did glance across to the lobby just long enough to get a glimpse of Eren, reeling out some new silvery solo. Even from so far away Armin could see curve of his back (perfect playing posture), the lightness of his hands on the trumpet, the way he kept his eyes intent on his music but his bell lifted so the melody would make it clear of the stand. 

            And yes, did it ever make it clear. It stayed in Armin's head even once he'd left the community centre behind him. 

            “I thought we agreed that ‘we like you’ was going to sound weird,” Jean said.

            “Eren said I scare people,” Mikasa said, casting a frown his way. "I don't want to scare people." 

            “I don’t know why you thought the best way to not scare him would be to reveal that you’ve been rehearsing lines…”

            “I wanted him to know." She rested her elbows on the table, rubbed her temples, and sighed. Over the break, she more than anyone had heard renditions of everything Eren knew about Armin, and a whole lot more of what he felt about Armin. Such overtures may have biased her opinion in favour of the young man, but she did genuinely like him from their brief encounters at the gym. She felt that she and Armin could, and should, get along marvellously; it was just a matter of not scaring the wits out of him. “If you get any more muffins tonight, you have to share them with him.”

            “Yeah, I’m sure there’s going to be just a ton of them downtown.”

 

            After his rehearsal, Eren was given a quest by his sister: find Armin, wherever he was in the depths of the library, and try to put him a bit more at ease so that he wasn’t a ball of nerves that night when they went out. "Make him happy," she'd said.

            This was exactly the sort of mission Eren liked, or it was until he actually arrived at the university’s main library. It was Eren’s first visit. The place was darker than he’d expected, and also a good five times bigger. He'd had no idea that even a university would require this many books. The place was five floors high, and every time he poked his head out of the stairwell to look around for Armin, the air seemed a little stiller. By the time he stepped out onto the fifth floor—resigned by this point to actually searching beyond the entryway—even his breathing seemed too loud, much less his footsteps. There was the same sort of sign near the door that had been on all the other floors, but here absolutely every option was crossed out with a red ‘x.’  No food, no drinks, no texting, no whispering. Eren could only imagine that turning pages was quite forbidden.

            It all made Eren quite vividly aware of the way his wet shoes squeaked on the floor. Starting out on this adventure he'd told himself he was not going to text Armin to ask him where he was. He'd thought it would be more fun that way, and anyway it would give Armin more time to do whatever it was he'd come here for in the first place. When Eren cut across the aisle by passing between two bookshelves, a light hanging high, high overhead flickered pathetically and then died. The aisle became a thin space filled mostly with semi-tangible murk. Eren kept the image from Armin’s text in his mind as he walked, to help stave off the feeling that he’d wandered into a horror movie. Woolly-hatted, red-faced boys smiling and blinking in the snow-reflected sunlight had no place in horror stories. There was nothing to be afraid of if he had a ward like that in his coat pocket. 

            That thought did not prevent Eren from jumping a foot in the air when he was tapped on the shoulder. He was glad he didn’t instinctively elbow his assailant, because it turned out to be exactly the person he was here for, though he was lacking the hat he'd worn in the protective charm on Eren's phone. Armin had managed to get within a foot of him without making a sound. 

            Eren elected to pretend that he had not just responded like a cat having an ice cube dropped on it.

            “I brought you a—”

            It was like the entire universe turned to look at Eren at once, and its expression wasn’t friendly. He hadn’t even realized that there were so many other people in the library, let alone so many with him in their line of sight; but he could feel the glares easily enough.  

            At least Armin didn’t look angry, or even particularly ruffled by the ire Eren had raised. He looked like he was trying to squash down a smile, but wasn’t quite managing it. He held one finger up—just one moment—and then turned and walked along the aisle again. His right hand drifted back and encircled Eren’s left wrist. Eren let himself be tugged along. He watched as the fingers of Armin’s left hand traced along the books they passed, sliding slowly down the spine of this book, darting across that. Whatever he was looking for, it must have been very particular, because he kept right moving without pausing to pull any of the books off the shelves. He knew what he was doing. Even when he'd been in the gym, Eren had thought Armin looked like he could and would take on anything, but here it was like he didn't have to. Like the armour plating wasn't so necessary. He moved so quietly and so easily here that it was hard to imagine he’d ever gotten any enjoyment at all from his time spent dealing with loud, sweaty machines and louder, sweatier customers.

            It had been about a month since Eren had physical contact with Armin. He hadn’t given it any thought, really, over the break. What he had with Armin was new enough still that when they’d been hundreds of kilometres apart, the details had gone a bit fuzzy and unfocused—and he’d had enough to look at right in front of him. He’d been busy working, practicing, running around with Mikasa and Jean and the rest of his friends—busy sprinting up snowhills and sledding down them, tracking down Christmas presents, meeting up with friends he hadn’t seen in months. It had been just as busy and just as strangely exhilarating as these last few months at school had been. The rush had carried him along perfectly. That said, as he watched the way Armin used them now, Eren was not too proud to admit that maybe he should have pined for these hands just a little.

            Eren had never before considered what it would be like to be a red balloon on the end of a string, but now he felt he understood the experience intimately. He was grateful for the hand on his wrist, since it seemed to be all that was keeping him from bobbing away.

            At length Armin did take a book from its place on the shelf; then he tucked it under his arm and led Eren out of the labyrinth of shelves. They emerged from the aisle and into the more open space of one of the study areas. Even now, days before classes began and right at the start of a new term, many of the tables were full. Armin’s navigation did not waver for a moment despite the surplus of students and chairs and backpacks in his path; he picked his careful way to a table near the window where a few thick books were stacked neatly, with a hat resting beside them.

            Sorry, Armin mouthed as he gathered the books. Eren shook his head. He pulled his phone from his pocket and sent Armin a text—hoping for Armin’s sake that his phone was set to silent. Armin’s phone gave a muted little buzz, and when he checked it, he found the message:

 

Brought you a present

 

            Armin frowned at Eren a bit, since of course he hadn’t gotten anything for Eren. He’d considered it briefly, but decided that he’d have no idea where to even start. Seeing the scowl, Eren immediately sent a follow up:

 

Nono don’t even worry I didn’t drop like 3 million on a car or anything this is a basic thing it’s cool

 

            Given that the unwritten ‘please don’t be mad at me’ was as plain as if Eren had screamed it, Armin just nodded. Eren gave him a grin first (present enough on its own, Armin thought), and then pulled his backpack off. He’d had to run back to Maria Hall drop off his trumpet anyway, so while he’d been there he’d grabbed the item. It had barely even fit into the backpack even once he’d taken it out of the packaging, which meant pulling it out caused a lot of rustling and barely-stifled cursing—and, thus, a lot of glares flung their way.

            When Eren finally dragged it out of the backpack, Armin had to stifle an exclamation. Eren stood there, proud as can be, holding a bicycle helmet. Once he’d passed it over to Armin Eren scrambled again for his phone.

 

Idk I was just thinking it’d be bad if u died. Like I would be so pissed off why don’t u already have a helmet fuck WHAT IF U CRASH

Ur lucky I didn’t spend all break sending u safety videos ffs

 

            Armin squinted at Eren. He had to set the helmet and the books down before he could type out a response.

 

That is very

 

            He deleted it before he even finished it. Better to save it until Eren saw for himself.

 

There’s something I want to show you, so. Do you want to go someplace else?

 

Haha when u put it like that it sounds like ur asking me on a date

 

            Given the way their first two dates had gone, Eren had concluded that Armin was probably not going to be the one suggesting the third. They'd been strange and out of nowhere, and Armin struck him as someone who'd hesitate to go barreling into famously tricky territory without a plan. Eren expected Armin to huff and look away and provide him with a prompt denial. Eren did not expect Armin to tilt his screen towards Eren immediately and present him with two words:

 

I am.

 

            This formally finalized Armin's status in Eren's mind as 'The Absolute Coolest.' There was no need for Eren to type out a response; it was right there on his face, first in the ‘o’ shape his mouth formed, and then in the frank, unsmiling gaze he turned Armin’s way. Armin was blushing furiously, and all the more so when he saw Eren’s answer.

 

Where you thinking? Bc I’d go literally anywhere with u rn

 

We’ll see, I guess?

 

            As if they'd decided in advance, Eren put Armin’s books and hat in his backpack, Armin took the helmet, and they set off. Rather than head for the stairwell, Armin hit the button to call the elevator. His fingers tapped on the helmet, but not in time with some tune he had stuck in his head. It was a more stuttering, erratic rhythm than that, driven more by the blips in his thought process than anything. He glanced sideways and up at Eren and caught just the tail end of Eren’s glance at him, and he was not nervous at all, but he was profoundly aware of the way this was going to go. Hell, he was helping it along, and it wasn’t like he was doing it in some stumbling accidental way. As far as destinations went, the elevator was a good enough start, he thought. The library’s elevators were close and dark and creaky enough that they were barely used, which meant they could probably get a good thirty seconds of privacy if they hit the right buttons.

            Armin inhaled slowly through his nose. Right. Privacy. Something naturally desirable in a situation like this. Of course it was going to be Armin’s first kiss since, oh, sophomore year of high school, but surely he could wait the ten seconds for the elevator to—

            He’d dragged Eren down by the collar and planted their mouths together before he could bury himself in opposing arguments. For about two seconds everything was appropriately silent; then Eren broke away, inhaled like a drowning man who’d just breached the surface, and said:

            “Fuck—!”

            “Shut up!”, somebody snapped. There was a ding. Armin grabbed Eren’s hand and hauled him into the elevator without turning around to see if there was already anybody in there. Eren really, really did not need to be dragged. Before the doors even began to shut Armin’s shoulder blades met the far wall of the elevator. Eren’s hands had lifted instinctively first to cup Armin’s face and then to slide back, brushing along and under his jaw and the rapid thud of his pulse. They came to rest along the back curve of Armin’s neck, with the thumbs resting just in front of Armin’s ears.

            They weren’t really aware of any of that, or of the way Eren’s front teeth scraped briefly against Armin’s—not even the fact that Armin’s hands and the helmet were trapped between their chests. That was all just mechanics—things that could be adjusted and fine-tuned and perfected later. What mattered here, Eren thought, was that they’d kissed at all. They could be a well-oiled kissing machine later—

            Well-oiled haha

            The laugh burst out embarrassingly, but at least it wasn’t alone. Armin let out a somewhat higher-pitched version at just the same moment, and then dropped his head against Eren’s shoulder with a thunk. His shoulders were squared up and shaking, and the sound he was producing wasn’t like the laughs Eren had heard him give before.

            Beyond the sheer joy at the continued physical contact, Eren was glad for this revelation because it meant that Armin had a great number of different laughs. He’d heard several so far, and there was every reason to suspect that there were more yet to be discovered.

            Eren had always been up for that sort of challenge.

            In the meantime, Armin seemed to be having trouble breathing. When Eren remembered that he did in fact have hands, and that he’d lost track of them some time ago, he found one of them steadying Armin by the hip and the other rubbing small, comforting circles on his upper back. Really, that meant this was a hug, which, really, meant this was a moment to celebrate for yet another reason. 

            “Sorry,” Eren said.

            “Don’t,” Armin said. “Don’t be sorry. It’s just I remembered—you were right, and it’s so...”

            “About what?”

            “Brass players,” Armin said, lifting his head. His eyes were watering from the attempt to stomp the laughter down. “You’re actually just—such a good kisser… I’m probably too out of practice. With the horn, I mean. The muscle memory’s probably not quite so good.”

            Eren frowned, and then he said, “Actually you were really amazing? I mean—”

            Armin held his hand up.

            “It’s alright,” he said. “I know I’m out of shape. But practice makes perfect.”

            Eren’s first elated thought that Holy shit we can practice together I want to hear how he plays we can go to the practice room on the first floor he probably doesn’t have a horn but I can show him how to play the trumpet that is so much better was bulldozed by the recognition of what Armin actually meant. This of course brought with it a jumble of images all its own.

            “Wow.” Eren scratched his head, and inadvertently made his hair fluffier and more damnably touchable than normal. Noting that they hadn't actually gone anywhere yet, he pressed the button for the ground floor, and the elevator started moving with a lurch. "You know, I was sort of thinking the same thing.” Armin dragged the back of his hand across his eyes.

            “I’m glad we’re on the same page,” he said. “If you hadn’t started laughing then too I’d be so embarrassed.”  

 

            “It’s different,” Eren said when they reached Armin’s chained-up bicycle. He couldn’t immediately place the reason for this assessment. The paint was the same yellow as ever, and it wasn’t as if he’d swapped out the chunky old frame for a racer.  

            “I replaced the rack,” Armin said; he leaned on it with one palm to demonstrate. “It’s sturdier now.”

            “You didn’t, uh…”

            “I was afraid of my books falling off,” Armin said. “But there are also, um.” Eren looked again at the bike. There were pegs on the rear spokes.

            "Ummm—

            “I have a friend who runs a bike shop, so it barely cost me anything.” Armin said this in such a way as to disallow argument. To cement his point, he pulled the helmet onto his head and fastened it snugly beneath his chin.

            Eren wanted to resent this—Armin had clearly spent more money than him—but he couldn’t manage it. There was a belt on the rack which would be used to keep books anchored, and even a plastic bag tied up in it to protect them if they got wet. Obviously Eren's status as a potential passenger had been a secondary motive, here. 

            Besides, what it meant for Eren was that he’d get to ride on Armin’s bike again. That was a desirable outcome if there had ever been one, and if this was what Armin had wanted to show Eren, it meant he knew that. 

            "You know this is sort of counter to the point of the helmet," he said, in one brave last stand before his inevitable defeat. It was really hard to argue with someone wearing that helmet and looking that determined.

            "I won't crash. You can wear the helmet if you want."

            "No! That's for you."

            "You can walk beside me, if you're more comfortable with that."

            This would naturally preclude the whole part with the speed and the adrenaline and the touching.    

            “We’re switching halfway,” Eren said as Armin got onto the bicycle, and as he himself settled onto the rack. "You've got to keep the helmet on when we do, though. I'm not as good at this as you." This time Armin was completely without a backpack, so Eren folded his arms around Armin’s waist in order to keep himself on there. He paused for a moment as they got moving. “Halfway to where, though?”

            “I don’t know,” Armin said. “We could get food, or go down by the river; we could go back to Maria Hall; we could go downtown; we could go some place neither of us have been, yet. Though, to do that you’ll have to tell me where you’ve been. Or show me.”

            Eren pressed his forehead just below the nape of Armin's neck, cushioned by the fabric of Armin's coat. He thought, if he really concentrated, he might be able to feel Armin’s heartbeat thumping through his chest. They were picking up speed now, moving seamlessly even though he must have been throwing off Armin’s balance yet again.

            “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, we’ll find something.”

            His scramble in December to think of the perfect, triumphant date to end all dates seemed fairly pointless to him by this point. They’d come this far with drive-through coffee and cafeteria food; clearly the presentation was not the most important part. Impressing Armin didn’t seem particularly necessary now. Making him laugh, sure; kissing him, absolutely. For right now, the best and highest ambition Eren had for this relationship was a vague notion of getting Armin to play something for him on the piano in the practice room—holding his hand—walking him to class. Things like that.

            So long as they still had chances for that, wherever they wound up was going to be more than good enough. 

            Eren couldn’t keep his head down for long. He had to look around. He had to see where they were going, whether he’d been there before, whether he could fit it into his mental map of the city. He found he knew the streets in passing from walks downtown; they were familiar, but he hadn’t really explored them yet.

            They rolled to an easy halt at the intersection of two minor, little-travelled streets, and Armin put his foot down.

            “We could probably find another way,” he said, and there was a different edge to his voice than usual. Eren leaned up to look over Armin’s shoulder. A hill opened up before them, sloping down and away, with a big broad curve at the bottom.

            “But why would we?”, Eren asked. “You’re not at the gym anymore—we’ve got to get your heart going somehow.”

            Armin bit his lip, just for a moment, and smiled, just for a moment. Then he lifted his foot back to the pedal. As they started forward towards the drop, Eren folded his arms more tightly around Armin’s middle and pressed a grin against Armin’s shoulder. He could not imagine how any place they might end up could be better than this.