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RIESE user【Jaeger】logging in. Race: Human Class: Berserker Level: 67 Rank: 229  New Messages: 0 Welcome Back!

 

Eren is killed by dragon fire.

 

Well, almost killed. He's pretty sure he's screwed, since he can't pull up the HP bar while futilely shielding from the flames. He looks at the largely unscathed green grass splattered with his blood beneath him and sighs. He wishes he were grass.

 

The stream of flame halts in order for the rainbow dragon to issue a prideful scream into the air. Eren peeks over the dented, melted, and generally useless shield. Yep, he's at 5% HP and shit, is Tyrone using Flame Hail? Yep, he's screwed. There goes at least ten thousand coins and rank. He sighs again and curls up, hoping this attack won’t hurt too much.

 

So he's pretty surprised when Tyrone misses, the scorching ball slamming into the ground near him, sending him sprawling and coughing through the dense fumes. The dragon is screaming again, this time in rage and pain, spikes rattling in renewed challenge. Through his wheezing and fanning at the awfully murky smoke, Eren can see rainbow scales flashing in the sunlight as the dragon paces around, searching for its attacker.

 

"Are you okay?"

 

The disembodied voice comes from behind Eren. Rolling his head back, Eren blearily looks up at the figure behind him through the smog. "No," he groans, "This smoke is too stinky and that dragon is ruining my beautiful view of the sky."

 

The figure glances up at the cloudless fake blue sky. It's a man, Eren discerns through the significantly less smoky air, a man with a feathered cloak.

 

"Well then," the man steps past Eren, voice dry yet amused, "We can't have that, can we?"

 

A fighter class then, considering the large sword strapped to the man's back. Eren squints warily at him. Was he one of those guys who skulked around fights until they could spring in and take the rewards themselves? "What are you doing?"

 

"Making your day prettier, princess."

 

Eren's sputtering fit grinds to a halt when the man walks into the sun lit clean air, cloak spreading out behind him into-

 

Wings.

 

"Holy mother of mine." Eren chokes in awe. He's never seen wings featured in the stores, nor any other player flashing them around before. And he's pretty sure these wings aren't simply something any ordinary player could buy. They're fucking gorgeous, the mighty expanse of white fletched in tawny gold, smoothly flexing and extending as the stranger leaps into the air. Each wingbeat is precise and strong, lifting the man to face the snarling, wingless worm head first. The sunlight glints off of the weapon the man hefts off his back, as reflective as the pearlescent scales of the monster he challenges. Eren can see the nasty bloody gash on Tyrone's neck, the wound significantly longer and deeper than any of the cuts Eren had inflicted. That would damage Eren's ego if he wasn't so enthralled in the winged wonder that had come to his rescue.

 

Tyrone rears back, its head swinging in rage, and then Eren can't see anymore except dust and flailing coils of Tyrone's movements. He retreats back to the ring of trees around Tyrone’s clearing, moving in vain attempts to catch a glimpse of the action. In the end, he resorts to grumpily sitting on a tree root and listening to the monstrous screeches. He’s wondering whether to wait and greet the stranger or leave, since he’s obviously not going to be the one reaping the rewards of the rainbow dragon’s defeat.

 

The green grass he plops down upon  is far enough from the scuffle to  look rather appealing for a nap, and he’s feeling it up when the sun glints off of something all of a sudden. Through a break in the dust and floating grime, Tyrone’s neck twists up, elegant in its regal rage. Eren forgets all about his nap and scrambles up as the winged stranger swoops into view, wielding his sword like an avenging angel. He dodges every snap of pointed jaws, countering the targeted flames with his own deadly grace. It’s like a dance, a deadly dance where one misstep could lead to something worse than a twisted ankle and wounded pride.

 

And then he breaks the tense pattern. He dives straight in, straight down, sword pointed and braced against his chest. Straight between the eyes, blade cleaving cleanly into the dragon’s head. It’s not a killing blow, Eren knows, but then the man’s mouth moves and a shudder runs through the entire body, coils freezing and falling to the ground in a limp thump.

 

The man hasn’t let go of the blade, hasn’t drawn it out of it’s gruesome sheath, wings still pumping to keep him in position. This time Eren can hear him shout, deep voice carrying, but still the words are unintelligible. As soon as the last sound leaves his mouth, there is a sharp crackle, light bursting forth from his blade, from the bloody wound it is embedded in and Tyrone screams, pain echoing in high, shrieking convulsions. The man manages to tug his sword out of the monster shaking in its death throes, retreating to a safe distance to watch its demise.

 

They both observe in silence until everything is still again.

 

~

When the man lands in front of Eren, frowning at the scorches on his tunic, Eren is practically swooning in amazement and excitement. He’s finally able to get a good look at his savior now that the gross smoke has cleared, and damn. There’s something really fine right in front of him. Those gorgeous wings, beautifully scrolled matching white and gold armor, fucking intricate as fuck sword. Those muscles. He feels scrawny instantly, even though body physique in the game is pretty accurate of representing the players' real life bodies. And he's not skinny, but he isn't that nicely toned either, dammit.

 

The man does not seem to notice his awed assessment, having pierced the sword in the ground and is currently Cleaning its whorls of Tyrone guts. His wings are curved about him in a majestic arc, and Eren feels a bit intimidated as he approaches, footsteps muffled in the grass. "Hello."

 

The man glances up, raking his own dark, sharp gaze down Eren before meeting his eyes. His grey eyes are flat. Not emotionless, but rather walled, hard to read. "Shouldn't you be looking at the sky, princess?"

 

"Something more interesting dropped by." He quirks his mouth innocently when the man raises an eyebrow, folding his wings in, to Eren's disappointment.

 

"Sorry for stealing your thunder. I wouldn't have interfered, but you looked like you really didn't want to die."

 

Frankly, Eren's surprised the man is even apologizing when Eren should be the one thanking him for sparing him the hassle of being sent back to the respawn point in town. He must not be a bad person, even though he said that all with a disinterested expression, words stilted. Eren fidgets uncertainly. "It's okay?"

 

"You didn't do so bad yourself. If you held on a bit longer and some critical strikes-"  The man suddenly cuts off and frowns, swiping out his screen. He flicks things around for a moment before pausing,"Ah the shitwit caught me. I'm in trouble. Bye, kid."

 

He doesn't wait for a response, barely gives Eren another glance, before extending his wings and giving a hop-skip to take off.

 

"Bye," Eren says to the empty wind, eyes tracing the powerful ascent over the treeline and out of his sight.

~

The bed creaks as he rolls onto his side, patting the blankets pooled around his stomach blearily. The gaming headpiece catches on his mussed hair when he tugs it off to set it on the charging station next to his clock. It beeps confirmation of correct connection, the sound loud in the silent room. He flops back into the warm sheets, returning to snuggling them and feeling the vestiges of sleep threaten to retake him.  His limbs are heavy and lazy in just the right way, and he’s so glad the game didn’t extend it’s nervous system control to real life, else he’d be waking up to feeling completely battered from last night’s fight. Mmm, why is it his blankets always felt the softest at this time of day.

 

He falls into that land between sleep and awareness, everything just soft and warm and good, the light sunlight peeping through the curtains crisping the black behind his eyelids gold.

 

The next thing he knows, Mikasa is swinging open the drapes rudely and shaking him. He grumbles unintelligibly at her, something along the lines of a not very nice word, but she just flings the blankets off him in return.

 

“Eren! You said you’d come with me to buy a new headpiece today!”

 

Eren doesn’t move even though he’s shivering from being blanket-less. “Mmpf.”

 

She shrugs and glides out of the room, calling back, “I’ll tell you more about the Corporal if you do. Your choice.”

 

The blankets tangle around his legs and trip him as he flails out.

~

The large store smells clean with ammonia, and Eren wrinkles his nose. The lights are high and bright, spotlighting different sections of products. The siblings are greeted with a chorus of welcoming phrases as they pass by different sales people, each dressed smartly and bearing a mouth full of white teeth. Eren skulks behind Mikasa, avoiding eye contact with them. They make him uncomfortable, the rehearsed, identicalness of the clerks so manufactured and inhuman. It’s their job, but still.

 

An employee clicks down the white tiles to meet them. Her blonde hair looks washed out under the bright lights, piled up stiffly on her head, and her dark makeup is a stark contrast against the paleness. At Mikasa’s request she leads them to a long row of stacked and boxed gaming headpieces. Eren dazedly watches her red nails flash as she gestures to different boxes, product explanations flowing in one ear and out of the other.

 

Finished talking, the sales assistant smiles even wider at Mikasa, who nods and begins looking at the shelves. The lady turns her blindingly fake smile upon Eren, who had been doing his best to blend into the background. "How about you, sir? Do you have any problems with your gear that we may be able to address?"

 

"Well, this morning as I took it off it pulled out some of my hair."

 

Constructive morning conversations aren't really his thing. The sales lady's smile is even more plastered on than before, and he can barely see the wrinkle in her forehead as she tries to restrain raising her eyebrows.

 

"If your product is unsatisfactory, please feel free to browse the ones we have, as many new models have arrived since the one you have purchased. Let me know if you need any more help." With a sharp heel click, she turns and steps smartly down the aisle.

 

Eren eyes the lady as she cruises around the other aisles looking for new prey, blonde hair bun frozen and unjiggling on her head. He ducks back down everytime she turns their way and Mikasa smacks him on the head. He whines."She thinks I'm an idiot or something, she keeps looking at me."

 

"That's because you are. Catching hair is not a problem."

 

"I was joking. Joking. Jeez can people not tell that nowadays."

 

Mikasa flaps her hand and him and he crouches next to her to look at the boxes on the shelves. She points to two boxed headpieces she had pulled out, one red in color and the other green. "I'll go with one of these. The stability is good so I probably won't need another for a couple more years.

 

"Is there a difference? It's the same maker as our old ones right?"

 

"Yeah, but this one is a slightly more updated model, I think it came out a month after ours did. Apparently our model was more prone to downloading glitches or something."

 

She pats the red box absentmindedly and then picks up the green one, depositing it in Eren's lap.

 

"Mikasa, no, I don't need one, too. We are going shopping because you wanted a new one, not me."

 

"Suit yourself. We are here, after all."

 

Eren shrugs, not really caring. He's happy with the one he has and it's served him steadily and well for two years. He does not need to replace it if nothing needs fixing. If it did cause problems, anyway, he probably could figure out how to administer to it himself. He wedges the box back onto the shelf, eyes drawn to the bright yellow notice on the price tag. Eh, glitches are tough cookies, changing colors in the game, flipping languages around, freezing progress; all you had to was report it to the GameMaster.  They aren't unsolvable. Most of the time.

 

It’s only when he’s climbing into the car and catches sight of Mikasa’s dangling Survey Corps ornament on the mirror that he remembers the bargain that got him out of bed. He slaps his hands eagerly on the seat’s armrest, startling Mikasa into missing the car’s control gel synchronization.

 

"So. The Corporal."

 

Mikasa cracks a smile, tilting her hand in the control gel. The car starts up smoothly with a low hum. "You have no shame, fanboy."

 

"I'm not a fanboy! I just want to know him better when I'm gonna fight with him some day."

 

"If you really want to know, you should join the Survey Corps. It's funny how you talk about him being your role model and you refuse to even go see him fight or even know what he looks like."

 

"It would give me an unfair disadvantage to study him like a creep, like others do. I want any fight to be a complete surprise for both parties, so each uses moves based in the moment, not some plotted plan. Plus, why would I need to join? You can tell me all I need to know." He shuffles his feet a bit sulkily, watching the buildings and other vehicles pass by. A neon light flickers out on a tall, rich looking building.

 

"Yes, but whenever we usually engage in battles, I'm too focused on my own to really pinpoint his movements, Eren."

 

"It's not like you mind talking about him anyway, Mikasa. I'd almost say you enjoy it." She just sends him a blank look.

 

He likes hearing Mikasa talk about her daily exploits in the company of the rest of the Corps. He's really proud of her for being able to get into the tough guild, but he's also adamant about not joining himself. He feels satisfied for now in honing his skills on his own without relying on others.

 

He likes hearing about the Corporal, especially. The Corporal is the Survey Corps' face, their main attraction. He has been dubbed, affectionately and fearfully, as Humanity's Strongest, being rumored to be that powerful. Girls swooned and guys cheered whenever his name appeared on Arena rosters. His fighting skills are top notch, able to utilize different weapons and skills that made people wonder what player class he even was. According to Mikasa's stories, he's a taciturn and grouchy man, who, although disliking to interact with most of the Corps' members, is actually a patient and good mentor, gruffly giving out pointers. In this way, the Corps members become quite fond of him, wholeheartedly following his orders, snapping sharply to attention whenever his black clad figure swished by. His reputation as a top player is so great that Eren idolizes him without even needing to see him.

 

Which is a problem Eren does admit he needs to address at some point, but hey it's not bothering him right now so why poke a sleeping tiger.

 

He taps his fingers impatiently on the car dashboard as Mikasa tracks a new route around a traffic accident.

 

"Today he seemed in a pretty good mood. After he came back from skipping guild duties, but I've told you he does that so much no one minds anymore. Declined our practice hunting session, though. Said he already did his rounds. Not much action to tell you today."

 

"I think you've mentioned this, but he doesn't wear armor?"

 

"It's not that he doesn't, you just can't see it. His black clothes are pretty good shape deformers, and you can't see his neck because of black cloth, sort of like a scarf. It's because of his outfit people speculate he's a ninja or thief class."

 

"He isn't?"

 

"I don't know." Wow, so even his own guild members do not know these sorts of things about him.

 

"Man, you're so lucky being in the Corps gets you things even in real life." He casts a glance disgustedly at a group of people gathered around a building, the double wing logo of the Corps stamped on their clothes. "Look at those wannabes."

 

"Shush, Eren, don't be mean. And also, you aren't even the Corps, should you be saying that?"

 

"I'm saying that as your brother! I am very proud of the fact your talent is known by those big shots, so I also have the right to dislike those posers." He sticks out his tongue childishly.

 

Mikasa rolls her eyes and they continue the ride home in companionable silence.

~

 

The town outside of the forest that once was the home of a fearsome rainbow worm named Tyrone is small, more like a pit stop for players on their way to the cities on the ocean. Eren hasn’t been to the ocean yet, working his way from the capital where every player started out, along the main trail that passed thru every major realm in the game. He can smell it in the air now, the salty breeze floating around the wooden houses and setting his nerves aflame. He’s climbed a tree once, too excited to wait until he arrived to finally glimpse the sparkling water, gazing over the treetops at the blue expanse that seemed to stretch into the horizon. At this distance, the cities line up across it like a road, a road fading into the unknown, a road that led to heaven. He had stayed up in the tree until the sun set watching miniscule lights spark up like tiny stars, the dark water blending into the night sky.

 

A tall player jogs up to him. “Hey, are you Eren? Eren Jaeger?”

 

Eren eyes the newcomer warily, the shoddy cloak wrapped around the guy’s shoulders shedding dirt with every movement.  His hair is cut strangely, the top mop lighter brown than the bottom.  “I might be, depending on who’s asking.”

 

“Oh, I’m Jean. I’ve talked with your sister before and she told me about you. She said if I wanted to level up quicker I should tag along with you.”

 

Eren sighs. Sometimes he really wonders how he comes up in conversations Mikasa has with other people. This isn’t the first time someone has approached him with that line, and Mikasa just shrugs whenever he mentions it. “What if I don’t want the company?”

 

Jean looks taken aback, then a little annoyed. “Well. Then. I won’t bother you anymore.”

 

“Relax I was joking, man. Do you want me to add you or something, then we can get going for today. I was thinking about heading for the forest outside town, how does that sound?”

 

“Yeah, my ID is DarkStallion. Yeah that one.” He points himself out on Eren’s screen and there is a tinkling sound as they are connected, information boxes about each other unfolding like a paper ladder. “And please, let’s go. Just got back from a desert world and I’m so fucking done with the sun right now.”

 

Eren laughs, nodding along to Jean’s narrations of his exploits, adding a comment here and there. The guy is level 53, not bad, and he has listed himself as a lancer, although Eren can’t see the bulky weapon anywhere.

 

One of the reasons Eren is choosing to go back to the forest, and he would have gone whether Jean was there or not, was because he wants to catch a glimpse of the winged man from before again. He would say he wants to thank the man for saving him, but really, usually nobody is grateful for battle interferences. Whatever his unconscious reason is, Eren is really feeling the urge to gawk at the man’s gorgeous wings, so he follows the path he had taken yesterday.

 

Of course, it’s all in vain hope, with no sign of the man anywhere in the silent forest, but Eren shrugs it off. He’s got a companion to entertain.

 

They make good time, getting to the center of the forest, marked by a weird red tree stump, and back. It turns out Jean’s lance weapon was conveniently spelled into a wrist ornament, brought into existence at the shake of his hand. Eren’s respect level for Jean goes from  zero percent to seven because it takes muscle to grasp the heavy weapon out of thin air and heft it accurately at the foe.

 

Eren’s own weapon of choice is his claymore,a golden hilt and a four foot tall blade that is deceptively light, yet sturdy and resilient enough to propel Eren this far in his success. It is his third acquired sword, and he’s spent so long specializing it, making it a weapon to be envied, especially in the weight department. He’s long since learned to swing this two-handed blade with one hand, although he usually does use both hands for increased strength, but at the moment he wants to learn how to be ambidextrous.

 

They talk mostly battle strategies, and Eren finds out Jean is good at two things. One, following orders, and two, fucking them up. Okay, he's decent at evaluating the foe and defense, but Eren is kind of wondering if Mikasa unloaded a babysitting job on him, under the guise of 'friendship'. Ah, well he'll try not to be too exasperated with the other guy.

 

After an intense round with a pack of bearded giant lizards, Eren calls it a day. He checks the clock and it's only about 4:30 AM and the sun hasn't begun to set yet, the game world running on reverse time due to the concept of people playing during their sleep. They both sit down painfully, muscles sore and creaking. Eren stabs his sword into the ground, tapping spots with Clean, fingers glowing at each touch to his blade with the spell. He grimaces when some blood needs more than one cleansing pass.

 

"So, uh, what's Mikasa like?" Jean looks like he's regretting talking when Eren glances up with eyes narrowed. "Just wondering. Since she got into the Survey Corps and you didn't. So she must be pretty great huh?"

 

"I never tried to get in in the first place, so it's not a question of skill," He says stiffly. What gives this guy the right to start making assumptions like that. Eren can definitely whoop his ass.

 

Jean tries to defend himself and they dissolve into some petty argument, and Eren comes out of it pretty sure Jean's goal is Mikasa, the Corps, or both. Gross. They part on amiable terms, trudging their separate ways through the forest and back to town.

 

He logs off, and five music notes play goodbye.

~

 

Red pandas are some of the cutest creatures to ever exist, but unfortunately, like any other animal with a coherent consciousness, they were fucking devils whose idea of play was definitely not for Eren. Like the heartless bastard he wasn’t, he had offered his apple to the red panda peering up at him through the brush. Instead of accepting the fine offering, the motherfucker barrels forward and takes his entire lunch bag. Then it runs.

 

At this point, he's sure the red panda is messing with him, so the obvious thing to do is to go hurtling after it, dodging trees and leaping bushes. All until it makes a sudden turn around and runs straight back at him. He stumbles in shock, the force of stopping sending him careening through a nearby bush. The little fucker zips past him screaming and disappears. When the stars clear from his eyes, he wonders if he should too.

 

Lo and behold, winged mystery man sitting cross legged and still good looking with his eyebrow raised.

 

Eren rolls over until he too is sitting, awkwardly brushing himself off.

"Hello. Sir." He tacks on when the man doesn't respond immediately.

 

"Oh. Tyrone."

 

What? The dragon's name? "No, no, my name's Eren. Thanks for last time, you left pretty quick."

 

"No problem," There's a glint in the man's eye and Eren realizes what he's going to say, dammit. "Princess."

 

Eren scowls teasingly, and the glint grows brighter somehow on the straight face. "No. I was going to offer you like a meal or something as thanks, but not anymore."

 

The man inclines his head in mock remorse and Eren has to smile. "My deepest apologies."

 

He pretends not to hear the silent 'princess' he knows is at the end.

~

“My name is Levi.” Eren’s mystery man tells him over lunch, sandwiches and tea at a nearby town. The cups here don’t have tea stains, and Eren wonders how they keep them so spotless. They’ve worked through three pots of tea already but only one sandwich each. Eren isn’t very partial to sandwiches himself. Sandwiches and vegetables, fuck that. He’s always been more of a meat eater.

 

“Is that your username?” Levi shakes his head and Eren tilts his own. “Will you tell me it?”

 

“Not this time.” And Eren pouts because he wanted to go the easy way to find out about him, like his class, but he guesses things worked harder for earn sweeter rewards. Or something like that.

 

It is with a sort of uncommon familiarity that they fall into, conversation flowing with Eren asking questions and Levi answering them, sometimes not. Though the other man does not ask, Eren tells him of himself and Levi listens, watches the bright eyed boy in front of him speak eagerly, and lets out a comment here and there just to see him clench his fists eagerly and reply with enthusiasm.

 

They sit at the white tea party picnic table, furled and flowered umbrella shading them from above. Six pots of tea have been ordered and downed and no more sandwiches are to be seen. Eren’s talked a lot, laughed a lot, enjoyed himself, and he’d like to think Levi had done the same. He can read the man’s expressions, a bit, after this short while of watching his face for reactions to his words. The angle his eyebrows arch, the stretch and relaxation of the corners of his eyes, the curl up or down of his lips, even the tilt of his head.

 

It is with great reluctance and hesitant lingering that they part ways, Eren mustering courage to shout after him, “Will I see you again?”

 

Great white wings unfurl from Levi’s back, soft and neat down that catch Eren’s breath, steal it away. He wears a tiny smile, just a gentle crease of his eyes and brow. “If you call my name as much as you’ve done today, then most likely so.”

 

Eren takes in a breath, let’s it out again in a joyful exhalation. “See you later! Levi!”

 

“Goodbye, princess.”

~

“Hey, did Armin tell you he’s coming back soon?” Mikasa is on her back, flicking a controller at the living room ceiling, changing the colors and patterns glowing through the oncoming darkness of dusk.

 

Eren rubs the back of his neck absentmindedly, trying to rub a tea stain off of his white mug but it’s not coming off. “Nope. Is his grandpa finally letting him escape from the farm?”

 

The ceiling is starry blue now, Eren glances back to see galaxies disappear in and out of existence. Mikasa waves the wand and the cosmos vanishes into white stucco. “He did want to go there in the beginning, Eren. He likes it there, but he complained once that he didn’t like falling behind in the game. So when he’s back, we probably won’t see him much in real life either for a bit.”

 

Eren laughs, giving up on the cup stain. Trust Armin to throw his all into this that caught his attention. Eren would never be able to stand being in a place with no reach to technology, but Armin cherished the chance to do exactly that. The blond boy, however, was as into the game as Eren and Mikasa were, and Eren can imagine the internal cringing Armin had suffered during his vacation, even as he enjoyed his grandfather’s company. “It will be good to have him back, though. Maybe you can recruit him into the Corps instead and stop bothering me!”

 

Mikasa just frowns and the ceiling changes to an erupting volcano.

~

They’re sitting at the edge of a sapphire lake, legs stretched out comfortably in front of them. The glistening water reflects the sunlight onto them, bathing the atmosphere in a warm golden haze.

 

Eren had been trotting through a town after another successful babysitting session with Jean. He’d been tired, having spent much of his day swapping blows with the lancer and the monsters they chanced upon. Even Eren understands that two volatile personalities don’t mesh well together, but Jean had all but begged him to train with him until his tryout with the Survey Corps.

 

He’d been checking out store windows and their displays, hoping for something akin to ice cream as a treat to himself, but there is nothing similar to be found. He settles for some jelly slathered pastries that glistened at him seductively from the bakery window.

 

And who steps out of the shop followed by the delicious smell of baking foods, but an equally delicious looking Levi, wings pressed flat against his back in an imitation of a cloak.

 

The man doesn't notice Eren until the boy hops up next to him, wearing a shit-eating grin.

 

“What.” He grunts, warily leaning away from the beaming smile aimed at him.

 

“Buy me something to eat, please! Levi!” Eren likes the way the name fits in his mouth. He likes it even better when Levi’s resisting expression twitches at the sound. He adds a jutting lower lip to complete the pleading, pouting look and Levi scrunches his nose like he’s smelled something nasty.

 

“If I do, what do I get out of it, you little fucker.” Eren brightens up, having thought for a moment Levi would turn him down.

 

“You’ll get the opportunity to be graced in my wonderful presence for the rest of the day!” He hopes he’s not stretching his boundaries, because he doesn’t know if Levi even would want to hang out with a low person like him.

 

But Levi just sighs and rubs his neck, reopening the door he had just exited. The smell that spills out smells like triumph and success.

 

So here they are, reclining at the edge of the lake, pastries devoured and savoured. The winged man does not talk much, but Eren gets the feeling it’s because he doesn’t know what to say to a basically complete stranger. But most people are like that so Eren doesn’t let it bother him. He wants to get to know his new friend, and so the best way to do that is ignore the awkwardness and talk to him normally. Eren is good at that.

 

He picks up a thread they had talked about last meeting at the tea house. “So you said before that you’re a crafter? I’ve never heard of that type of class before.

 

He rolls over on the grass a few times and Levi just looks at him in amusement, feathers ruffling as he shifts on the hard ground. There’s not much wind today.

 

“That’s because there is none. I make things because I want to. And I do what I want because no one can stop me.”

 

“Whoa!” Eren is impressed. Strong and independent man who don’t need no...other men… Uh. Something like that. “Show me! Show me something you’ve made. Please.”

 

Levi gestures to where they had laid their weapons down behind them, at his black blade that had so efficiently taken down the beast Eren had struggled with. Its blue inlays glimmer as Eren scoots over to examine it. It’s a beautifully made sword, intricate design  not hindering the deadly beauty the large blade exudes. The curls that twist into the hilt remind Eren of ocean spray, the black and blue the midnight sea.

 

He gets caught in the hints of shadows and stars embedded deep within the black, a galaxy captured in front of his eyes. It’s an enthralling combination, the sea and sky. He thinks back to the times he’s climbed trees to watch the heavens darken and the oceans reflect the bright lights that appear.  He drags a finger along the smooth surface of the whorls, tracing down. It’s strangely soothing, hypnotizing, and it is hard for him to drag his eyes away from the clean cut edges back to Levi, who just watches his exploration.

 

Eren blinks dazedly at him and Levi cocks his head, as if to ask ‘So? What do you think?’.

 

What he really wants to say is ‘How did you bottle up the stars and sea so perfectly you are so perfect’ but his mouth malfunctions on the way out, so all that sounds is a pathetic ‘it’s wonderful’. Wow Eren, no, it’s wonderful times ten.

 

As he silently slams his head against a nearby rock for sounding unappreciative, Levi brings his wings forward, arching them above himself. He flits his gaze across the feathers, brushing dirt from his primaries.

 

“I made these too.” He holds a single feather between two fingers, dragging them down the shaft until the vanes are clean.

 

If Eren’s brain was short-circuited before when he saw the sword, then it is now sputtering and wholly unresponsive. Make? Wings? How? They. Fly? He made? What?

 

“How,” His mouth is kind of dry in awe. “Is that possible?”

 

Levi just quirks his mouth, his rare little smile just as wonderful as his creations. “Magic?”

 

And when Levi offers Eren the chance to test out the gear he’s working on, Eren knows he’s got a new friend.

~

“How did you get to level cap so fast, this is completely unfair!” Eren wiggles on the grass in frustration, glaring at the small glowing 69 on his screen.

 

Levi pokes at their recently destroyed opponent, recoiling violently when the dead body spurts a rather disgusting mixture of goo and blood. “Level 75 isn’t that much of a reach for you.”

 

“I know,” He groans, massaging his temples. Levi has gone over to sit on a nearby rock to purify his sword of the nasty creature and Eren really should too. “I’m fine with working hard, but then you come along waving level cap at me and it annoys me that I can’t match you.”

 

“I’m not waving anything,” Levi maybe mutters, but Eren is too busy rolling around to bother listening.

 

“At your skill, you could probably be on even ground with the Corporal, Levi. I’m so jealous.”

 

Levi stills, hands coming to a halt across his blade. “Why are you comparing me to him?”

 

“Why wouldn’t I? He’s been my role model since forever. Do you know him?” Eren flips over onto his stomach, eyeing the winged man excitedly.

 

“I know of him.”

 

Levi’s movements haven’t restarted and Eren hopes maybe he’s thinking of stories of the Corporal to tell him. So he’s completely thrown off when Levi spears him with a glare and says, “You’ve never seen the Corporal.”

 

Oh. Oops. He found out somehow. Fucking Levi with his fucking level cap and his brain. “...No.”

 

"You've never seen the Corporal?" The man is looking at him in some sort of disbelief and Eren feels a bit defensive.

 

"Hey, in between real life and camping, I haven't had much time to hike back to the city and watch those dumb promo fights." He’s being truthful, although he doesn’t mention he avoids the staged arena fights like the plague. They are the main fights the Corporal participates in these days, and Eren dislikes arena brawls on top of evading actually seeing the fighter.

 

Levi's face smooths back into the lined disinterest. "Strange you never bothered to see who your idol really is. What if the Corporal was some giant berserker whom your scrawny ass could never grow into."

 

"Nah, I kind of know. He's nothing special in form, but he does have that killer aura and kick-ass gear. My sister Mikasa fights with him in the Corps so she comes home with lots of stories." Eren laughs and shrugs. "Plus it doesn't matter what he looks like, as long as he's strong? I'm a berserker class too."

 

Levi just mutters something that sounds a lot like 'fucking weirdo' and Eren just grins. Levi’s niceness is wrapped in a ball of thorns.    

 

"You think those arena fights are dumb, huh." It's neither accusatory nor questioning; he's just repeating Eren's earlier statement.

 

"Yeah. I mean, for all the lower ranked players, it's all fine and dandy cuz they are fighting to get noticed. But for guilds and the big names, the arena's just... a place to show off, I guess. There is little they could get out of it besides attention."

 

"Huh. So you're not just brawn, there is brain in there." Levi nods, eyeing Eren differently. "You do know guilds are required to participate in the arenas. Part of the provisions to making one. So it's not all voluntary advertisement."

 

"Oh. I wouldn't know, I'm not in a guild and I'm not really trying to be."

 

"Good choice, kid, they're a fucking hassle."

 

"So you're in one? You struck me as the loner type." He strikes a hopefully comic lone wolf pose, chin up and eyes staring stonily into the imaginary sunset, fist on chest. "Plus guilds must be drooling over your wings."

 

"Like you?" Levi snorts and Eren flushes, dropping his hands and fidgeting guiltily. Of course the sarcastic man laughs at the wrong thing. He had frozen up at Eren's question, the wings Eren had been eyeing ceasing their stretching for a split second. "Nah. Not for me."

 

There's a sort of flatness in the air, the scent of a lie, but it's not Eren's thing to pry into other's business, especially that of strangers. Perhaps he had been in one only to find it a "fucking hassle" and leave. Seems like a possibility.

 

In the pause, Levi's mind seems to have switched subjects, and he doesn't seem to notice the abruptness when he says, "Mikasa isn't a bad player at all. If she's your sister, you could have easily applied to the Corps also."

 

Eren grimaces. It's hard explaining it to strangers, who don't understand why he would give away a prime opportunity to get into the biggest guild. "I don't want to use her position as a member to get me in. They wouldn't be taking me in as me, then. Just 'Mikasa's brother'. I want my skills to be the reason I go places, not because of her."

 

But Levi just nods, and he's a little taken aback, not sure if his awkward reel got through and he's being taken seriously. "So. Uhm. You know Mikasa?"

 

“There aren’t many who don’t know the scythe-wielder.”

 

“Except the newbies.”

 

Levi scowls at him, leaning forward petulantly. “Do I look like a newbie to you, kid?”

 

"No! No," he laughs, holding up his hands in defense, "Just sayin'."

~

“Are you going to fight against him or with him? Your goal is pretty vague.”

 

“It doesn’t matter. With him, against him, it still means I’m at the top right? I guess it all depends what kind of person the Corporal is.” He slings his arms behind his head, stretching, and he catches the other man’s deadpan look. “What, you don’t think I can do it?”

 

Levi shrugs, the leather around his torso creaking and he looks down to feel it. “You have still got a ways to go, kid”

 

Eren’s not going to deny it, because hey, he can only go so far farming. Even though he was just trying to steadily level up, there is little merit and satisfaction from repeating the same fights over and over. He watches Levi silently; the man is grumbling something about feeding his leather again, the ‘oil-hungry bastard’.

 

“Maybe… if you came along with me I could definitely do it.” The heat immediately rises to his face and he’s glad he didn’t say it loudly, the annoyed mutterings not ceasing as Levi paws at his back to unbuckle his armor.

 

Eren flops backwards, pressing his dumb face into the grass, hoping it’s coolness could absorb some of the flush lingering. What is he even saying. It’s been coincidence that they’ve met so many times after Tyrone, and Levi’s politeness to not turn down the invitations to accompany Eren on some more runs.

~

When Eren logs in, there’s a ping from Levi telling him that he can’t meet up with him today. Eren grins and doesn’t delete the message, closing his inbox with a warm feeling. At least Levi cared enough to notify him.

~

"Did you know the Corporal has dropped a couple rankings the past few days?"

 

"What, Mikasa, really? What is he now?"

 

"Fourth. He used to be first."

 

"What happened to him?"

 

"No clue. He's been running off everyday lately doing who knows what. Usually he gets overlooked because he keeps himself steady, but to have dropped... I wonder what he is doing."

 

"Isn't he in trouble? Man, I hope nothing is wrong. It would suck if he started losing it before I can fight him."

 

"Mmm. Some of the senior members scolded him, I think, so we'll see."

~

Eren takes in a deep breath, tasting the dust in the air, kicked up by their feet, and the feel of sweat drying on his skin. He keeps his eyes focused on his opponent, adjusting his grip  on the leather of his hilt. He has just enough time to brace his forearm against the wide flat of his blade to intercept the next blow, the sharp ringing of two metals clashing vibrating through his bones. With a grunt and sharp exhalation, he pushes his opponent back, quickly angling his blade to swing forward at the same time in one smooth motion.

 

It all happens in a second. His blade is dodged, tapped aside with the opposing weapon, metal against metal screeching as it’s thrust forward, lightning fast, to rest lightly against his neck.

 

Eren takes in a deep breath, tasting the dust in the air, kicked up by their feet, and the feel of sweat drying on his skin. He keeps his eyes locked with the grey one of his opponent for just a moment more, before stepping back and dropping his sword in surrender.

 

“I didn’t last long. Again.”

 

Levi lowers his arm, appraising his tired form. “It was better. Pick up your sword, it’s gathering dust.”

 

And he pulls out a cloth from a pocket and proceeds to wipe down his own.

 

~

“Hey hey hey Levi.”

 

“What.”

 

“What’s your favorite food? Favorite color? Weather?”

 

No response. Eren huffs into his leather gloves. “Favorite weapon? Spell? Mons-”

 

“Clean.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Favorite spell, Clean.”

 

It’s so like Levi that Eren wonders why he didn’t see that one coming. Levi glares at him over his shoulder as they continue down the path. Eren is grinning deviously now though, “I bet you’ve spent tons of upgrades on that huh. What are you at, the upgrade cap?”

 

Levi doesn’t deign him with an answer, and Eren has to stop walking because he’s laughing to hard.

 

He’s right, isn’t he.

~

"Stop horsing around, Jean."

 

"Shut up, Eren." Copying his mocking tone.

"Oh, good one, Eren," He chortles to himself. "Horse. Horsing. DarkStallion and all."

 

Jean sighs. "Wow, I haven't heard that one before."

 

"Guess I'll just have to try harder then, horseface."

~

"Levi, this is Jean. Jean this is Levi. He's my best friend."

 

"I'm not your best friend, shitface." Levi doesn't blink an eyelash, giving Jean an intense stare, sizing him up.

 

"Shut up, you loser. Who else do you hang out with everyday. There's nothing else you're doing, usually." Eren chucks a small rock at the lounging figure and Levi just side eyes him with an ineffective death glare.

 

"Hey, something wrong?" Jean has frozen up a weird expression on his face, like he's constipated or something. Eren picks up a bigger stone and tosses it at him, regrettably missing.

 

"Uh. No. Everything is fine. Nice to meet you."

 

"Yeah, so he's Mikasa's stalker I was telling you about, Levi. He wants to get into the Survey Corps real bad. Almost as bad as he wants my sister to notice him."

 

Jean groans, picking up the missed rock and throwing it back, hitting Eren in the arm. "Oh my god, it's not like you are any different."

 

"I am completely different!" He bristles, reaching for the stone but Levi sits up and snatches it first. "I am going to fight with the Corporal, I don't care for the guilds."

 

"But isn't he-" Jean cuts off, looking at something past Eren in absolute terror.

 

Eren twists around, but the only thing there is Levi, who is examining the rock, one hand resting on his cheek.

 

Eren turns back and raises an eyebrow at Jean, "You okay, man? You need sleep?"

 

"No. No everything is good." The end of his sentence is high pitched, like he's asking a question. Eren resolves to ignore him until he gets his head together.

 

"I'd ask you to spar with him to judge how well practicing with me did for him, but I'm pretty sure you'd kick his ass to the castle and back." Eren scoots until he's next to Levi, grabbing the rock back.

 

"If you trained him, I'm sure he's quite capable."

 

"Ah, I didn't really train him. Just led him into the forest and watched him get kicked around a bit. And then saved his ass."

 

"A training regimen after my own heart." Levi says drily and Eren grins back sunnily.

 

"Hey can you guys not talk like I'm not here."

 

"Aw, our little boy is pouting. Levi, what should we do!"

 

"I didn't want him." Jean utters an offended 'hey!' and Eren watches the corners of Levi's eyes lengthen in amusement.

 

"If he's not going to spar, then why are we here?" Jean scratches his knee irritably.

 

“Maybe I just got tired of playing with an idiot like you and wanted to play with someone I like better. And he buys me food.”

 

“Seriously though, Eren.”

 

“We’re going canoeing!”

 

~

“So, uh, what’s the, uh, Levi like?” Jean nudges Eren’s boat with his oar, bobbing in close to him to talk quietly.

 

They both look at the figure several meters ahead of them, boat cutting smoothly forward compared to their fumbling.

 

“He’s great!”

 

Jean looks vaguely horrified and Eren frowns at him. “No, I mean, are you like an indebted servant or something?”

 

“What the fuck, no.” Eren shoves Jean’s canoe, which tilts dangerously and he yelps.

 

“Then what are you doing with such a great person like him?”

 

Eren stops paddling, gazing ahead hazily. “I have no idea. Luck, I guess? I’m pretty lucky to have him as a friend. I’m pretty lucky to have him instead of you. Hah. Loser. ”

 

Jean grunts, mumbles something about dumb luck and dumb lucky bastards, and Eren enthusiastically engages him in a oar fight. Which ends up with him tumbling out of his boat and hanging onto the side, sopping wet.

 

Levi’s paused, turned back to watch their shenanigans, and Eren can practically feel the teasing words he hasn’t said yet.

 

"Stop laughing at me," Eren hisses at Levi, who ignores him and resumes his measured paddle strokes. "Jerk."

 

"Uh Eren, he's not laughing. What are you smoking?" Jean mutters at him, casting a swift glance at the angry angle of Levi's brows.

 

"Yes he is. I can feel his brain laughing. I know you can hear me, dickwad!" He raises his voice at the end, glaring at the man.

 

"Stop pouting, Eren." The bored voice holds no laughter, but Eren's neck prickles, and he turns around, climbs back into his canoe, refusing to look at him. He hunches over and starts muttering 'smug asshole'.

 

Jean's uncertain voice floats over,"Were you laughing?"

~

"Shut up, Eren." Jean has turned, glaring at him even though his movements don't falter.

 

"What? What did I do to you now." Seriously, if Eren can't even mind his own business with pony-boy pissing off, they have a problem.

 

"I'm not Levi, so can you just let me fucking work in peace if you're not going to do anything.”

 

Wait. What. What? "I didn't even say anything?"

 

"You're thoughts are practically screaming his name, okay, so just sit back and wait til your boyfriend comes back."

 

"Wha-wh-what b-boyfriend?" Eren is practically hiss-screaming at Jean. The fucker has turned from looking murderous to highly amused, and Eren isn't sure what to react to at the moment. His face is definitely on fire though. "I wasn't... I didn't think about him!"

 

"Yeah, whatever, dickwad. You weren't thinking about him consciously, but you were unconsciously. What a creep."

 

Eren's throttling Jean's gross neck into the bottom of the canoe when Levi calls them out; they've fallen behind and the current isn't strong enough to keep propelling them forward. He sits back with a huff, sticking his contaminated hands in the water as Jean resumes paddling.

 

Chapter Text

The reward appears on the ground as the monster’s corpse fades away. Levi stills for a second before striding forward quickly, muttering a triumphant “Aha!” as he scooped up one of the items on the ground.

 

Eren dances around Levi to look at the rest of the loot. “Essence of Light? Can’t you get that anywhere though? The drop rate is pretty high too.”

 

The winged man shrugs, cataloging the shining orb into his Bag, the screen swallowing it up and pixelating into a void. “You know how when you’re looking for something specific, the system always never lets you seem to find it?”

 

“Oh yeah, then I totally understand. But couldn’t you buy it also. From the Store. Light Essences aren’t too expensive, especially for someone as loaded as you.” Eren’s seen all the high level gear in Levi’s Bag, and he’s pretty sure the man’s coin count is more than ten zeros if he’d read the back of the screen correctly before Levi had closed it and swatted him away.

 

“Then the stuff I craft wouldn’t be as special, would it. Also, gathering the materials myself let’s me be able to charge these fuckers a lot more. I’m not running around for no reason.”

 

“Everything you make is special though.” He doesn't mean for it to come out as loud as it did. Levi turns his head away from the sunset to stare at Eren with an unreadable expression, feathers ruffling softly in the wind. Eren shifts; he still can’t meet Levi’s piercing gaze sometimes, and he especially can’t if Levi is looking at him like that, something dark and warm in his eyes that crushes Eren's breath away. “S-so, um, you’re making something new? What is it?”

 

“I’m sure you’ll see later.” Levi blinks, breaking his heavy scrutiny of Eren, reaching around to adjust his armor straps. His thoughts seem to be somewhere else when he answers, and Eren knows not to push.

~

Levi grunts at him, catching his attention. He seems to have been in a bad mood all day, ignoring Eren's ramblings, the crease between his brows ever more pronounced. Eren flops down beside Levi and his rock seat, watching the man swipe horizontally on his screen then close it. "Sent you something."

 

Sure enough, Eren feels the notification ping and eagerly flicks to it. What has Levi made for him to test this time? He feels like moments like these are the epitome of his friendship with Levi, being able to play with the gear the famed Corporal created.

 

Eren can feel Levi staring a hole into him, and he looks up to smile reassuringly. This must be an important project to him for-

 

And all of Eren's thought processes grind to a halt at the sight of what awaits him. He's frozen, every fiber of his being fixated on the image on his screen, the low thump-thump in his ears beating in time to his heart.

 

With shaky fingers, he draws it out, a finger pinch pulling the image into a small model, reminding himself to breathe as he's drowned in the beauty of a magnificent pair of

 

Wings.

 

Unlike Levi's own white and gold wings, this pair is a tawny golden brown, gold and green etched into the feathers, flashing in the light as they flexed and extended.

 

He glances nervously at the Equip button and then at Levi, who is watching him with such intensity Eren is taken aback for a second. "Do you... do you really want me to test these?" He laughs nervously, "I might mess them up."

 

“Are you going to wear them or not? Close your mouth or else flies will shit in it.” Even as he expels harsh words, Eren can see his body is stiff, movements stilted, like he’s physically restraining himself from hurrying Eren onwards.

 

Eren can understand why. If the new pair of wings worked as wonderfully as they looked, he would never want for walking again.

 

He authorizes equip, heartbeat fast in his ears, the pink loading circle too slow to turn on the screen.

 

And then he can feel them, emerging, unfolding, a new section of his brain awakening, blinking open to connect to the new appendages. He can feel them, every single feather shift, the light sway and pull with his thoughts. He can feel them, running through the now tangible air, drinking the flow of the currents of wind, the drag against the existence of air.

 

They are a part of him, as responsive as any other body part, and he knows it will pain him to let them go to another.

 

“Can I really do this?” It’s with the grace of a fledgling creature he wobbles around with, arms and wings- he has wings!- outstretched in an ungainly balancing game. It’s not really that the added weight throws him off, it’s fine really, just another pair of ‘arms’. It’s just that Eren doesn’t know what to do with them, how to use them, how to utilize all the new stimulations he’s receiving from them.

 

He must look enough like one lost duckling that Levi smiles, sharp cheekbones lifting lightly with the curl of his lips.

 

Levi unfurls his wings, always careful to keep the end pinions from brushing the ground. He lifts off, gentle wing beats making the entire spectacle look so effortless and ethereal.

 

“Here.” He sighs, false irritation belied by the hand he extends towards Eren. He does beckon it in annoyance, however, when Eren hesitates dubiously. “Try and get off the ground at least.”

 

So Eren slides his hand into Levi’s, whose palm is cool against his own sweaty, anxious fingers.

 

“Think about it calmly, go with the flow, let yourself feel them carry you.” Levi gives his hand a quiet tug, urging him upwards. “It’s a bit like wiggling your toes.”

 

Eren feels a nervous laugh bubble up and escape his mouth and he bites his lip to stop any more unbecoming sounds emerge. Getting off the ground is harder than it looks. His feet are loathe to leave the security of the earth, to abandon everything that keeps him grounded. His shoulderblades twitch with every stuttered wingbeat that strains to send him into the air’s embrace.

 

“Come on, Eren.” The grip on his hands tightens. “It’s alright, you can do it. I’m right up here with you.”

 

Eren gazes up at him, dark hair fluttering around an impassive face wreathed in an aura of long-suffering affectionate patience. Something grips his chest tight and his resolve hardens. He will do this, he can do this. He will take his place in this endless sky, next to Levi. He won’t give up until he does.

 

He purses his lips, narrows his eyes, forces his legs to bend, to follow the yearning urge into the sky. His wings work overtime, flapping and straining frantically to prevent his weight from returning home.

 

“Good boy.” Levi’s voice is close to his ear, vibrations sending a startling shock down his neck. In Eren’s haste to escape the greedy gravitational pull, he had yanked on Levi’s offering arm, dragging himself up and Levi nearer. Their wings beat in synchronization around them slowly, a small bubble in this triumphant moment.

 

“I did it!” Breathless, face flushed, exalted and drunk off the exhilarating feeling of the wind sending him weightless. He grips Levi’s hand all the closer, messy bangs brushing Levi’s forehead as he turns and grins into those warm grey eyes.

 

“You did it. Shall we go higher, or is this already too much for you, princess?” At this proximity, Eren can see the tiny wrinkles at the corner of his eyes when they lift, the brush of his eyelashes on his skin.

 

Eren growls at Levi, but looks up, eyes wide at the expanse of blue that’s now his. Yes, he definitely wants to go higher.

~

With a heart full of regret and desire, he forces himself to push the button that sends the wings back to Levi. He sighs, feeling strangely drained and empty, his back flexing under the remembered weight of wings.

 

He looks up to see Levi frowning at his own screen. "What's up?"

 

"Why did you give them back?"

 

"What?"

 

"You didn't like them?"

 

"No, no I really really liked them!" Hell, he loved them. He is so jealous of the customer who gets them. Levi looks likes he's close to pouting now, though. "Don't worry, I think they're one of your best works!"

 

"Then why did you give them back?"

 

"Because? Aren't they for someone?"

 

"Yeah, you." Levi stares at him like he's an idiot. He must be, for missing something as obvious as that.

~

Mikasa falls out of the sky, light glinting off polished metal as she lands, scythe embedded in the ground to soften the descent. Her sudden appearance and red whirlwind has Eren and several large bushes in the vicinity flying backwards, and when Eren drags himself out of the tangle, she’s talking to Levi, who hasn’t budged an inch.

 

“....how dare they! Not only do they hijack our stuff but they issue challenge as if it was theirs in the first place? What should we do, Captain?”

 

Eren’s really confused because not only did Mikasa not even acknowledge him, she’s speaking to Levi in a deferent manner  Eren’s never seen her use.

 

“Mikasa?” Her reaction is priceless; she jolts mid-sentence and spins around, looking horribly taken aback. What, is her Eren-radar broke? It doesn’t get past Eren that Levi is watching them amusedly.

 

“Eren! W-what are you doing here? With him?” She whispers the last part as if the man himself couldn’t hear them.

 

He furrows his brows are her. She’s acting weird. “With who?”

 

“...The...Corporal?”

 

~

Eren presses the heels of his palms into his eyes, relishing the pain and white sparks behind his eyelids. "Did you have fun laughing at me this entire time? This dumb Corporal fanboy?"

 

"Have I ever made fun of you, Eren?" His voice is surprisingly gentle and Eren is almost brought to tears in anger, frustration and embarrassment.

 

"Yeah," His voice is raspy and he can't even look at the other man. "All the time. Douche."

 

He hears Levi sigh and shift his weight. "I never discouraged you. I think your goals are respectable and I wanted to help."

 

If he thinks about it, whenever he went on a speel about the Corporal in the past, Levi had listened quietly, and although he never added comments, he didn't say anything to stop Eren.

 

"Why didn't you tell me? I mean, I get it if you didn't at first, but how about later on? Didn't you trust me?" His lower lip is trembling, dammit. He sticks his face into his knees to hide.

 

"I do. Trust you." Levi's voice is hesitant, contemplative. "It just didn't feel right bringing it up. What good would it have done? Turning to you randomly, 'Hey there, I'm the Corporal'. I didn't know how to do something like that without breaking our friendship." A hand is placed lightly on Eren's head, tracing down to tap his chin up. They lock eyes, watery green to soft grey. "But, I guess I hurt you anyway. I'm sorry, Eren."

 

He feels like crying even more now. Why is Levi so nice to him, in that awkward, gentle way of his. Eren doesn't deserve such kindness from a significant person like him. The irritation has receded, leaving mortifying embarrassment and a small hollow feeling in his stomach.

 

"Don't be. I'm just an idiot running around trying to play at greatness. I guess you don't need to hang out with me anymore since I found out."

 

"Stop thinking so much, princess. Aren't I your 'best friend' and all? Nothing needs to change, nothing will." Levi pinches his face. Eren huffs and presses his cheek further into Levi's warm hand, closing his eyes. His chest hurts a lot, and although he doesn't know what that means, he knows he fervently hopes Levi means what he says. He truly would feel lonely if they parted.

 

"I don't know. I'm not going to tell you to leave," Levi looks down at him patiently, painfully handsome in the receding light. "And I'm not going to ask you to stay."

 

"Being a little shit aren't you. Didn't I already say nothing will change. Need I say it once more."

 

"That would be nice, yes."

 

He earns another pinch, on the other cheek for that.

 

“Does this mean I can add the highly illustrious Corporal to my friends list now? I mean, since we’re best friends and all.”

 

~

 

The next time they meet up Eren feels like a lump of awkwardness. Levi seems unaffected, face set in his usual indifference, offering his hellos and how are you doings.

 

"Jean knew, didn't he," Eren says slowly, recalling the first meeting between the two men.

 

"Perhaps."

 

"He did, that's what he kept trying to say. But you did something didn't you? Because he kept breaking off and looking behind me- at you."

 

"Maybe."

 

"So. What did you do?"

 

"I might've," Levi has the decency to look  a tad uncomfortable. "Threatened him a tiny bit."

 

Eren finds himself smiling. "That dumbass is so eager to get into the Corps, he must've pissed himself seeing the mighty you here. Eager to follow your orders to shut up, else you not let him in, huh."

 

Levi shrugs. That manipulative bastard.

~

“Have you told your guild leader that you’re not going in today?”

 

“No, why would I?

 

“I think you should,” He sees Levi’s confused frown, hastily tacking on, “It’d make me feel a bit better about hogging up your time.”

 

Levi holds his gaze, eyebrows raised in amusement as he swipes out his screen and activates the messaging service. “Hey Shitwin, not coming today, but you probably already knew that. But there’s a little princess here who’s worried you’re gonna mark me tardy on the roll call sheet. Please keep his delicate feelings in mind. Bye.”

 

“Really?” Eren sighs.

~

"You know, you're not as bad as people say you are."

 

"I am bad. Terrible. Thing of your nightmares."

 

"Oh, oh! My dreams, yeah! Cuz this kinda is like our dreams, since we're sleeping in the real  world. Whoa, weird, I dream of you everyday, Mr. Nightmare."

 

Levi is looking at him exasperatedly.

~

“Hey, hey, hey!”

 

Levi turns slightly at the call to register the voice and its owner,  his back muscles rippling underneath his white shirt. His wings are slotted away, his thicker overshirt pulled off and hanging loosely in his hands. He scowls. “You’re late.”

 

“Mmm.” Eren smiles blithely, ignoring the heavy glare. “Levi, meet Armin!”

 

“Have you adopted another kid.” Levi says it so flatly that Eren can feel the judging stare Armin is giving him burning his neck.

 

“No, no. He’s not an idiot like Jean.” He waves his hand carelessly, dispelling the unwanted name from the air. “Armin’s super smart. Do you know what class he is? I bet you thought magician or something nerdy, right? Hah, you’re wrong! He’s actually a thief.”

 

Eren’s lets go of Armin’s arm and flings himself over Levi’s shoulders in excitement, draping his body across the broad back. “And guess  what else! Armin enjoys it. Look at his innocent face ready to stab you in the gut.”

 

“Are you just going to let him do all the talking?” Levi asks Armin, folding his shirt neatly. Eren tucks his chin into the warm crook between Levi’s neck and shoulder.

 

“He does that a lot. Talking. Not thinking. Those kinds of things.” Armin smiles, watching Eren get dragged along behind as Levi places his shirt on the hilt of his propped up sword. “It’s nice to meet you.”

 

“Nice to meet you.” Levi nods at him. And then he shoves at Eren’s face, only letting up when Eren lets out little annoyed cries too close to his ear. “So tell me about your thieving ways.”

 

Armin tugs Eren aside late as they trot around the area. Eren’s pretty sure Levi notices the rather unsubtle stumbling, but he doesn’t say anything and just continues on.

 

“Are you two dating?” Armin whispers at  him, blue eyes taking on a rather parental gleam, Eren thinks.

 

“Nope.” Armin might be smart but he asks some dumb questions.

 

“No?” The blond boy tugs the ends of his hair in disbelief. “Then why were you hanging all over him earlier? Why was he even letting you?”

 

“Cuz I wanted to? I like him. He likes me.” Pretty simple.

 

“And you’re not dating.”

 

“Nope.”

 

Armin huffs irritatedly and turns away, effectively ending the conversation.

~

The air is more salty here, this trail they are taking, giving the area the aura of a dead sea. The hard rocks beneath their boots float in an ocean of soft yellow sand. Once in a while, Eren can see little tremors beneath the sand’s deceptively calm surface, slight lumps vibrating, monsters just waiting for prey to hop into range. He sticks close behind Levi.

 

They don’t fly as often as he would have liked. The sky offers no chances to level up, no monsters to fight, so they resign to continue tramping along the earth.

 

“Do you want to come to the ocean with me?” Levi had asked him a couple of days ago, clicking the buckles of his armor anxiously.

 

Eren had lit up like a firework then, excited murmurings and enthused fidgetings, all smiles and continuous urgings for them to go, go now! He felt like a little kid on a field trip, he still does, the little joyous butterflies in his stomach unfettered by the other traveling they must do first.

 

Levi had given him a tiny smile, fingers still against his waist, told him not to expect too much, but honestly, Eren is just happy he’s finally going to see the ocean in this world. And he couldn’t have thought of a better companion than Levi to go with.

 

(Armin is too noisy and too analytical about the stuff they encounter, Jean is actually not an option at all, and Mikasa has this thing about clearing out every single monster in the area. )

 

The air is bitter here, salty and cold although the sun shines brightly over head. There is a yipping in the distance and Eren smiles, wondering if the sound is akin to seagulls heralding the presence of the sea. The sand crunches beneath their boots now, no longer soft, but hard miniscule grains weathered by water.

 

They’ve emerged from their quiet trail, passing through a stone archway onto an extremely busy strip of land that borders the ocean. Eren can’t see the blue water, the crowds of players jostling along blocking his view. Vendors call out their wares and delicious smells waft through the salt. He’s so glad they’ve unequipped their wings because he shudders at the thought of grooming them from being crashed into rudely by so many people. He once fell into a mud puddle after being whacked down by a flying tiger and spent the rest of his logged in time that day cleaning every single feather with Levi’s help.

 

Somebody laughs way too loudly in his ear and Eren hunches his shoulders, pushing through the throng after Levi. He can already see heads turning after the man.

 

By the time they make their way across to the entryway of the road across the water, he can hear the echoing whispers, can see the majority of bodies in the area pressing in around them.

 

Levi ignores everyone spectacularly, stepping up to the two giant guards at the stone entryway. Eren scuttles closely behind, restraining himself from grabbing the back of Levi’s shirt to prevent himself from being lost in the crowd. The masses are hovering, buzzing, watching and repeating the Corporal’s praises.

 

He can finally see the ocean now, through the gateway, a blue expanse a different realm from the free sky above. The stone giants with their bird beak masks step aside, baring the wooden pathway for them.

 

Levi looks back, eyes only on him, patiently waiting for the wide eyed boy to finish his gawking. “Shall we go, Eren?”

 

And Eren smiles at him.

~

The wood slats beneath them rock slowly, mimicking the soft waves he can see in the distance. Eren steps carefully down the middle of the plankway, anxiously looking at the floating town just ahead. Hopefully there are more steady places to walk over there. The trips between each town are riddled with shaky and sparse excuses of paths, forcing them to equip their wings in order to shoot them out in time to balance and save themselves from toppling over for an unwanted swim.

 

“Hey mister, are you sky people?” There’s an NPC kid sticking his head out from under a wooden porch of a wooden house, his hair a soaking mop of water. He climbs out of the water onto the walkway, making it shudder loosely, and shakes himself off like a wet dog. Eren feels rather than sees Levi draw farther away.  

 

“What do you mean?” Eren’s laughing a little as Levi moves to the other side of him subtly as the kid hops closer.

 

“Cos you have feathers! My mama says there are sky people, earth people, fire people, and us! Water people!” He shakes the walkway vigorously and Eren’s laughter turns into horror, holds back a whimper. He really does not want to fall in the water, please stop, child. A warm hand slides around his waist and Levi is there to steady him.

 

The NPC kid is looking at him expectantly, bright eyes catching every twitch of the feathered “cloak” on their shoulders. “And if we are?”

 

The kid scrunches up his nose, toeing the water, and Eren can see the freckles that spattered his shoulders are also sprinkled across his cheeks. “I gotta go ask my mama. Will you and the scary man still be here?”

 

He lets out an accidental laugh, feeling Levi’s hold on his waist tighten in annoyance. “Yes, me and scary man are going to look around, okay?”

 

“Okay! Don’t drown! Lots of birds drown here. And then we eat them.” The boy gives this solemn warning before jumping off the walkway with a large splash, disappearing into the depths.

 

“Weird kid.”

 

“You only say that because he called you scary.”

 

“Keep that up and you’ll be following him into the water.”

~

"Hey!" The NPC boy pops up near them, and this time Eren can see his eyes fade from purple to blue. Now that he thinks about it, the townspeople all had varying shades of blue eyes, no matter what race they were. Did it have something to do with the water?

 

"My momma says I should give you a gift as a welcome to this element. Is there anything you want?" He says this all very seriously even though his body fidgets excitedly in the water.

 

"Do you know about the Symphony Fountain?" Levi's sudden question makes Eren jump, his deep voice closer than he thought he was.

 

The boy's eyes flatten and blank for a second, no doubt accessing the recent information of the realm. “Oh, that’s easy! Everybody knows where that is. You sure you don’t want something else?”

 

Eren shouldn’t feel like an ignorant dweeb under the child’s disapproving stare, but he does. Beside him, Levi shakes his head and the kid shrugs, pulling himself onto the dock and performing a little  splattering dance before waving at them to follow him. Eren watches Levi and the boy for a moment, one with wet, slapping footsteps, and the other with confident strides.

 

He lets out a quick breath, smiling briefly at the clouds in the sky, and trots after them.

~

The Symphony Fountain is a beautiful marble pool inside a white wooden temple near the outskirts of the other side of the local town. The building does not bob precariously as they step inside, the strange and seemingly natural white wood stiff and unyielding beneath their heavy boot steps. The halls do not echo, the enveloping whiteness they face makes Eren’s ears ring strangely, the whispers of the fountain lapping at the inside of his head.

 

As they near it, he sees why it’s called the Symphony Fountain. The pool is wreathed in tiles and metal scales, the water falling from tiered spouts dancing in a light tinkling melody. It’s soothing, almost hypnotizing, to watch a stream of water travel from the top to it’s destination, metamorphing into a sweet sound.

 

Eren almost doesn’t notice Levi moving from his side until he steps into the pool, discordant hums emitting from the ripples his feet cause.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“Gathering materials. I have to collect the water that makes sounds, like the water that has just hit one of those tiles. It sounds dumb, I know.”

 

“Oh. It does sound a little silly, but then again this is a game, so... here, can I help?” He climbs over the pool edge, the water warm against his shins, sloshing over to Levi.

 

“Unequip your wings,” Levi says sharply, “I don’t even want to think what soggy wings look like.”

 

“Sorry, sorry.”

 

He hovers uncertainly behind Levi, watching him putter around. It’s nothing particularly interesting, just some bottles, so he lets himself become entranced in the falling water again.

 

He’s completely unprepared when Levi soaks him in water, hands retreating from the gigantic splash. Levi steps back as Eren gaping and dripping in shock, glare just daring Eren to retaliate.

 

Which is exactly what he does.

 

If someone had told him before that someday he’d be engaging in a water fight with the Corporal, he’d laugh at their lying ass. But here he is now, unbelievably, tripping and slipping around a probably sacred fountain while cackling in glee with none other than said Corporal himself.

 

He dodges around the middle spout, hand grasping the marble carving for traction. He hears a growl behind him and squeaks in fear, swinging quickly around the spout. And immediately hits a stone hard chest, sending them both toppling into the water below.

 

Eren is still laughing, still slipping in the water when he tries to push himself back up. His palms are flat against Levi’s chest as they both struggle to catch their breath, sitting completely soaked in the pool. It's then, coming down from his little high, that he notices the solid figure under his hands. Levi's white shirt is almost translucent with water, clinging to every plane of his chest. Eren's fingers curl slightly and his breath stutters. They are so close. So close together. He can feel the heartbeat under him steady and strong. They're in a compromising position aren't they, limbs entangled, Eren rather straddling Levi. His breath is quick in his throat as he glances up at the silent man shyly through his damp bangs. "Hey."

 

"Hey." Levi's voice is low and amused. Eren wonders if he knows what had been going through his mind. Eren detaches a hand from Levi's chest to brush his bangs back, and when he meets the grey eyes in front of him again, the air is stolen right out of his lungs, slammed by the dripping wet sight in front of him. His dark hair is slicked back, defining his sharp jaw even more, pronouncing the ability of his eyes to render Eren completely to pieces. He looks so lovely, face smoothed in rare affection for him, for Eren, and Eren wants. He wants so much, so bad, need ripping through his chest painfully. He wants to curl up on his chest, stay here with him, laugh with him forever. Just being with him, drowning in the depths of his unguarded eyes, he's suffused with warmth that has nothing to do with the way he can feel Levi's body against his. The painful desire within him is burning, tearing apart his senses, his reason, overtaking his body.

 

He’s never been so aware of his fingertips, of the way they can feel skin even beneath wet fabric. He’s never been so sensitive, the hand sliding up the curve of his back, the light curl at the back of his neck sending shivers shuddering down his spine, the warm press on his waist delightfully firm.

They're so close now, breaths intermingling, eyes locked, and screw it all, Eren just goes for it. And for all the force he dives forward with, he manages to press his lips softly, shyly against Levi's, eyes squeezed shut and heart thudding in his ears.

 

For a moment, the world is still. All of his senses are zeroed in and focused on the gentle  press between them. And then the world slams forward again, sensation pouring into Eren, the hand on his waist, the lips moving beneath his, devouring him, breathing in his everything.

 

God, if he thought he was drowning before, then he's dying now. His hands are grasping uselessly at the cloth of Levi's shirt. It's not gentle anymore, these mouths. Little desperate whimpers unconsciously escape his mouth as he tries to get more, take more, more, more of Levi in, slotting his lips sloppily over and over again.

 

He can't see nor hear anything. All he can do is feel the surge of fire sparking with every touch of their lips. All he can do is be consumed by the roaring in his heart, his only anchor the warm arms around him. The taste of him is sunshine on his tongue and fireworks under his skin.

 

The hand on his waist gives a squeeze, and Levi breathes out a little growl, reverberating in his mouth as Levi drags him closer, as Eren melts even further.

 

They detach from each other with a soft moan, breaths heavy and quick. As oxygen returns to his lungs, Eren’s kiss-rattled brain catches up with him.

 

Eren makes a little gargled sound and Levi leans closer, sits up in concern. Eren can see his muscles shifting under that see-through shirt. Not that he's looking. Nope. Not looking.

 

What was he doing? Well, actually he knows what he’s been doing but wow, is this for real? He glances down shyly at Levi’s kissed-pink mouth and wonders if his own are such a pretty color, licking his lips in retaliation to such a thought.

 

Levi reaches up, raising his hand and hovering it next to Eren's head as if he were about to cup the back. Eren wishes he would, eyeing the arm while willing it closer.

 

Ah, that selfish thought definitely makes his cheeks red and he scrambles to tumble off of Levi, their wet skin sticking together.   

~

They emerge from the fountain’s temple, clothes all dry and faces unflushed. Eren smiles shyly when Levi slides his hand into his, entwines their fingers and kisses his knuckles.

 

The look in Levi’s grey is dark and promising, but the NPC kid comes bounding up to them, demanding to know what they did, and Eren tears his eyes away, face completely red.

~

Everybody is casting their gazes in the same direction, bodies shifting with excitement. This town, and in places all over the map, players were waiting for a sign that announced the unveiling of the long awaited new playing field.

 

“Hanji’s very excited about it,” Levi had reported to him, he himself indifferent to her emotions. “She’s made it her latest obsession and is really throwing too much into it, but whatever floats her boat. I feel like she’s pushed it a bit early though.”

 

Eren had smiled at that. When Levi said he hadn’t started gaming out of his own will, Eren had totally not expected it to turn out be because he was sent here by the GameMaster, who also turned out to be Levi’s employer. He was supposed to watch over the masses and make sure no one caused too much trouble, or else he’d send them back into their rightful place with a swish of his blade through their necks.

 

(“Does this have anything to do with you being a top ranked player?” “What the fuck, what kind of person do you think I am? Do you think my strength is fake?” “Ow! No don’t pull my ear- of course not!”)

 

Levi distanced himself by claiming to be only hired help, but he did care for the GameMaster in his own way.

 

A puff of smoke arises in the distance, the remote mountain line beyond the sea has awakened, and the crowd lets out a massive roar. Several weapons are shaken in the air in celebration and Eren can pick out a few players already off and running towards the drifting column of grey.

 

“Ugh, I hate crowds.” Levi waves in the general direction of the masses, as if they could disappear at his will. They don’t, and he looks extremely displeased.

 

“At least they aren’t looking at you this time?”

 

“This time.” He concedes. “Shall we be off then and be rid of this rotten lot.”

 

“Here? Now?” They had agreed to fly there, to beat most of the rushing players that would no doubt clog the land up and provide a terrible gaming experience, like how when new movies come out and you really can’t enjoy it because people are screaming everywhere. But Levi had never before expressed any interest in showcasing, in Eren’s opinion, his most beautiful pieces of work yet. It’s a bit selfish, the way Eren wants others to be in awe of Levi’s skills, yet wants to keep the wings between just them two.

 

Levi shrugs. They’re at the edge of the dispersing mob, the safety of the cover of trees just behind them, escape just a step away. Strange how at this moment, Levi is standing calm in the crows and Eren in the one yearning to run away. He pulls at a strap that has pulled too tight across his chest.

 

“I wasn’t trying to hide them.” Levi steps towards him, towards the foliage and Eren vainly hopes. “Until you came along, and things became complicated.”

 

He edges away, hoping to draw Levi out, but the man gives him a look, nose scrunched a bit. “Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah.” No. “Let’s just go quickly, okay?”

 

Brilliant white erupts from Levi’s back, gold flashing from meticulously preened feathers, and they stretch, soft pinions reaching out to caress him infinitely gentler than the man himself. He closes his eyes to the lovely expanse before him and lets forth his own answer, body awareness twisting, cleaning out of his shoulder blades, drinking in the newfound air currents.

 

He can hear the whispers now, the shocked sounds and stifled noises as people begin to notice them, the growing presence of bodies pressing down on them.

 

They are both itching to leave, wish manifested in the quivering readiness in the tense muscles of their backs. Levi is waiting for him, still concerned, and suddenly Eren can’t stand himself.

 

He’s always been holding Levi back, hasn’t he? His selfishness to hold onto the man, believing that they could spend their days together, just the two of them crossing the lands. Even when he found out his true identity as the Corporal, wasn’t there that satisfied burst in his chest for the fact that Levi had stayed?

 

Eren can’t stand himself, so he runs, jumps into the sky, lets the cold tendrils of wind tear his away to the empty blue horizon. Up there it is stagnant, a semblance of frozen time, a mirage of guiltless nothingness.


All the while he escapes, he’s aware that Levi still follows.

Chapter Text

“So how do you like the Titan region?” Mikasa hands him a glass of orange juice and sits across the table from him, knees crossing and slippers shuffling.

 

“It’s alright. Haven’t seen much of it. Only saw a couple of titans from far away.”

 

“Have you not been on lately? Levi came to me and asked me if you were alright.”

 

“Really?” Damn, he feels a tiny bit guilty for avoiding the game.

 

“Yeah, he said ‘That shit for brains didn’t die, did he?’” Nevermind, not guilty.

 

“I’ve been tired.” He fidgets as Mikasa just cuts her toast with an air of disbelief.

 

He has been avoiding Levi, that is true. After they had flown across the sparkling water and surveyed the new land and opponents, he’d mumbled an excuse and logged off. The silent flight had given his thought time to stew and jumble, leaving him drowning in confusion, honestly. Eren’s not sure why he feels so bad, why he is even feeling this way so abruptly.

 

He tilts the orange juice glass in a tiny circle, watching its contents swirl about. It’s another selfish reason, wanting Levi to partner with him because he actually likes him, rather than being because he hadn’t known Levi was the Corporal. Completely greedy, desiring to be the only one who knew his true self.

~

Eren is only able to hold back for another two days, sitting at the edge of his bed and staring at his green headset on its charging stand, fingers twitching. Isn’t it time he gave up his childish farce (at what really?), but he isn’t too keen on meeting Levi yet, especially when he still hasn’t figured out whether he wants to tell Levi to return to his position as the Corporal or be quiet until Levi ups and leaves him anyway.

 

He grabs the headset, its familiar weight in his hand and the soft glow winking back at him. It settles comfortably around his head, cushioned pressure against his closed eyes as he lays back and exhales slowly. The machine gives a light vibration and through the dropping sleepy haze, Eren can hear the five musical notes welcoming him back.

 

His being blinks into existence several hundred meters in the damp air over Titan, drifting aimlessly through clouds.

 

Down below he can see two prone figures surrounded by enormous bones, all scattered about and he can’t see a skeletal shape but it must have been a titan. He still hasn’t come across a titan by himself, due to his recent streak of not plugging in his headset before he went to sleep.

 

He’s curious, so he lets the wind settle him down next to the two players, two guys staring blankly back at him as they fought to catch their breaths.

 

“Hi! Had a tough fight?” Eren waits for them to recover, staring up in awe at the white bones towering over them, arched, imposing where they were struck into the ground. Damn, these things must be humongous. He definitely wants Levi saving his ass when he finally gets around to combating one of them.

 

“Hi there.” One of the players manages to sit up, running a hand across the side of his face, dislodging dirt from his cropped blond hair. The other man is still stretched out, limbs gangly and covered in strange red striations.  “Yeah, it took us a while to figure out how to beat it. I’m Reiner, that’s Bertholdt, nice to meet you.”

 

“I’m Eren.” He reaches out to grasp Reiner’s meaty hand, and the burning heat that encloses his fingers sends a reflexive spasm away. Reiner holds on, the heat bleeding into Eren’s skin uncomfortably. He’s relieved when he lets go of the handshake.

 

“Are you okay, man? Your skin is like it’s on fire.”

 

“Must be the after effects of a spell.” Reiner smiles, but it doesn’t seem to reach his eyes. Bertholdt is watching them both sharply, the red lines on his skin gone.

 

“Ah, we must be going. More titan hunting to do. Be careful out there, Eren. Not just anyone can control the battle with a titan. Nice meeting ya.” Reiner gives a cheerful wave, pulling his companion up. “You ready, Bert?”

 

The tall man nods, muttering a salutation to Eren before striding off, Reiner on his heels. Eren watches the pair trot out of his sight, filled with a strange sense of unease. Was it just him, or were they acting kind of funny. Oh, dammit, he didn’t have time to ask for some pointers in defeating the giants. Maybe next time.

 

He casts a glance back where to the two had disappeared to.

 

His hand is still tingling.

~

Eren trudges around for a while, dragging his sword in the ground behind him, haphazard lines trailing his meandering figure. The land trembles quite often with gigantic footfalls, and sometimes he thinks he can hear the screams of players getting slaughtered, but none of them are close enough to him. He’s getting tired of the endless dirt and sparse trees everywhere, wings tucked away into his inventory to stay clean from the dirt clouds he’s kicking up.  After a couple of battles with some smaller titans, he’s pretty sure their movements are swift enough to rip them from his back if he isn’t careful enough, so he keeps them stowed away.

 

He’s seen the one unread message notification blinking red at him when he’d entered Riese again. Are you there?  It simply reads.

 

Eren isn’t sure what it is really asking.

 

~

 

"Spit it out,Eren. Who do you see me as, Levi or the Corporal?" His voice is cold, face a matching frigid look that Eren probably deserves. He’s done his best to muster up enough courage to shuffle out of hiding and face the unavoidable explanation to why he had been avoiding the other man.

 

"What kind of dumbass question is that? You're both! You're my friend Levi who I'm really glad sneaks off to hang out with me- yeah you sneak off- and the Corporal, who has his duties towards his guild. I don't want you getting punished because of me." He doesn't want to say 'it's okay if you don't come to see me' because it's actually fucking not.

 

"Idiot, I'm not gonna get kicked out or anything. I'm too valuable. Don't worry your pretty little head. I do what I want. You shouldn’t have to worry about titles and labels while I’m here with you. "

 

"O-oh. Okay." He's at a loss for words, a little. Levi said he does what he wants, so does that mean that they'll continue seeing each other, since Levi had done that of his own will before?

 

But they’re all good again, he hopes. He’s still Insecure Eren and Levi is still The Corporal, but their friendship can cross that boundary, right? All he needs is Levi, and everything will be fine.

~

The Titan playing field is not only filled with it’s namesake, as Eren finds out, but also these crab creatures that lived in the earth. Probably the reason why he hadn’t come across any titans in the parts, the crab things erupted out of the ground halfway through his trek. Heart hammering, he coughs out a few ‘fucking shits’ and a couple ‘motherfuckers’.  Part of it from the shock of the monsters’ volcano imitating appearance, part of of it from wondering if crabs were supposed to be that big and ugly. Was everything titanic in this place. Did Hanji really have fun creating these things?

 

Remind Eren to never log off in the middle of buttfuck nowhere, because he hates walking. Hates the continuous plane of spindly trees and the wariness he has to treat them with, so as not to be ambushed by one of the titans he can see inching across the horizon. He’s heard so many stories of how the move quicker than one would expect them to. It’s like holding his bag in front of him on the metro so pickpockets won’t snag his wallet, except the wallet is his life. Here one moment and gone the next.

 

There’s a tingle at the back of his neck, a little buzz that travels down his spine. It only serves to amp up his annoyance, muscles tensing as he turns once again to glare at the figures in the distance.

 

He can see them better now, every bit of him focused on making out the shapes, the ground fading away, the electric buzz sparking across his back, down his arms, his legs. His muscles ache now, is it from the walking? His wings are hurting his back; they feel like they’re being tugged off, his skin too weak to hold their weight.

 

He can taste something in the air. It’s hunger. He’s hungry. It smells like blood. Blood is good. He will find blood. How? Hah. He lets out a scream of victorious laughter. Rip, tear, bite. Kill. He will get blood.

 

Kill. Good idea.

 

Time to

 

Kill.

~

He jolts awake, scorching sand sticking to where his skin lies upon the ground. He’s under the sparse shade of a tree, but it provides no respite from the burning heat. Eren groans blearily, trying to prop himself up on his elbows but everything hurts, like he’s been torn apart then stitched back together.

 

“Hey.” A concerned hand steadies his back and he turns to see Levi, complete with a frown. “Are you feeling okay?”

 

“Yeah,” He croaks, clearing his throat. They are in Titan, the familiar landscape and it’s wobbling figures across the plane. “What happened?”

 

“I don’t know. I found you here, like this...” Levi trails off, uncharacteristically troubled. Eren turns to see what he’s staring at and he sucks in a breath in shock.

 

It’s his wings, disconnected from his body, limp on the ground like a skinned bird. His feathers are all scraggled, matted, scattered around the main frame of the once gorgeous appendage. There are dark brown spots on them, and Eren suddenly wonders if he really was ripped apart. What happened?

 

Levi stands up and goes over to the dead wings, gathering them up. There’s a lump in Eren’s throat; he’s somehow destroyed a precious thing, one of Levi’s precious things. He blinks rapidly to clear his clouded vision as Levi places the pile in front of him. He picks up a feather, watches it dissolve into sunlight in his fingertips.

 

“Don’t worry about it.” Levi says, but he isn’t looking at Eren, sifting his fingers through the feathers, through sunlight that he can’t catch. “I made them once, so I can do it again.”

 

“But Levi,” His voice cracks as Levi finally looks up at him, gaze open and unaccusing. “I think I turned into a titan.”

~

 

A 3D pixelation of Hanji’s head comes sliding out of the screen, eyebrows waggling.

 

“Oop!” Her face wiggles impishly at Levi, mouth pursed in a wide ‘o’.

 

“Woop!” Back to 2D.

 

3D.

 

2D.

 

Squawking the entire time.

 

Levi’s mouth tilt is entirely fed up. Eren is torn between laughing and shutting down the projection, Hanji’s facial expressions becoming freakier as she gets more into it. When Levi said he’d ask for help about Eren’s predicament, Eren hadn’t expected him to turn to Hanji.

 

When the two make no more obvious reactions, she tires of her game quickly and reverts back to the flat screen interface. She scratches her cheek in sudden seriousness, the glow of her workroom sending an eerie shadow onto her face.

 

“So as you must have figured out, I messed up a teeny tiny bit. Probably released Titan without proper beta testing. But you never heard that from me!” Hanji wags a finger at them and Eren can see dark spots on it. He’d rather not know what they are. “Don’t let the government get to me again, Levi!”

 

“That’s what my next pay raise is for,” He raises his eyebrows at Hanji’s frozen twitching. “Right?”

 

“...Okay. Fine.” She wilts a little but springs right back up, talking again. “ So someone has hacked into a thread of my game. A small part of the code, really not one of the places I would have aimed for if I was hacking. But, ah, when I went over the specific lines they grabbed, it kinda made sense. In a weird way. I still don’t understand, though.”

 

Hanji is drifting off in thought, eyes not focused on them anymore from behind her frames, looking at something to the side of her screen. Levi taps the projection and she startles.

 

“They’ve set off a glitch in Titan. As we have discovered with Eren, players are forced to turn into one of my dear titan creatures, even though I never had intended anything like that before. I’ve only been able to monitor less than fifteen unintentional transformations, as indicated by the players’ shocked biometric readings, but I’m worried that the numbers will increase.”

 

Eren leans forward with a frown. “That’s not good. They might not be able to control themselves. I think I might have lost self awareness too, until Levi arrived. If people run around like that, they could destroy a lot.”

 

“Yes, you understand. It is not a terrible threat at face value, but I do not know how far this glitch’s read is, if it was enough to create an action command I never scripted. There could be worse things ahead.” She wrings her hands anxiously. “If perhaps I knew how players became exposed or activated to it?”

 

Eren’s hand tingles, phantom fire freezing him as he replays his memories. “Hey.”

 

Two pairs of intense gazes snap to him.

 

“Is it possible for someone to theoretically ‘activate’ you by touching you?” He flexes his fingers almost unconsciously, and Levi’s dark eyes zero in on them, face unreadable.

 

Hanji pauses her jittery seat dancing, and then her face blazes alight. “Who’s been touching you, Eren, besides Levi dearest?”

 

“Huh? Uh, Levi didn’t do it?” At least not on his hand like he had meant, and he’s pretty sure Hanji has jumped topics completely, with the way her grin is twisted in glee rather than worry.

 

“What?” She all but crows. “Levi, what have you been doing all this time, not touching this little cutie?”

 

Eren can feel his ears light on fire, heat traveling straight to his brain and under his collar in mortification and embarrassment.  If Hanji keeps talking like that, what if Levi gets ideas and actually does...touch him.

 

While Eren slowly stews himself to death, wonderfully red and confused, Levi gives the cackling woman the finger.

 

“Shitdick, that’s not what he was talking about. Ignore her, who approached you?”

 

Eren glances up at him through his lashes, quickly detaching himself from the multitude of scenarios, with said man, his brain had whipped up with rigor.

 

“Two guys, Reiner and Bertholdt they called themselves. Well, Reiner is the one who did the handshake because Bertholdt was on the ground winded.” He takes a breath, the scene in his mind’s eye running like a playback film. Hanji and Levi listen expectantly. “They were surrounded by titan bones, which I though came from a fight, plus they were pretty messed up. But now that I think about it, and compare it to my titan transformation… It seems possible they could have transformed back too!”

 

He speaks quickly, excitedly, mouth trying to match the lines being connected in his mind. “Is it a glitch, some kind of contagious error? When I met them, we shook hands, and my hand burned something weird afterwards.”

 

“Interesting…” Hanji mutters, eyes darting around, “That is something that is extremely possible.”

 

“If it’s possible, then it’s also a really fucking bad thing.” Levi sums up and they all nod grimly.

~

Eren’s hunted the two men down, Hanji announcing that she research the enigma, but it’s not enough for Eren. He needs to know what they did to him and possibly to others, and how to put an end to it. He can still feel the phantom tingles of his skin tearing, the phantom hunger and rage lurking in the back of his mind.

 

But here he is, confronting at them, and the first thing they do is laugh in his face.

 

“Oh, too bad,” Reiner almost croons, eyes him maliciously. “You’ve come here to stop us without knowing the most important thing.”

 

Eren’s grip tightens on his blade. Another road block? No matter. “I’ll stop you from making innocent people part of your hurtful plans!”

 

Reiner rolls his eyes, turning to complain to the tall man next to him. “Do you hear him, Bert? He doesn’t care.”

 

Bertholdt swipes sweat from the side of his neck. “Hurry up and tell him. It won’t be interesting if he dies without knowing.”

 

Cracking his hands, the blond man grins widely at Eren, no humor whatsoever present in his cold eyes. “You can’t get out of here. You can’t escape. Once you die, you’re dead. In here and out there.”

 

“Then all I have to do is not die.” He bares his teeth at them, a challenge he will see through even if it isn’t within his ability to.

 

Reiner clucks his tongue, about to speak again when Bertholdt grips his arm. “His companions have found him. Time to go.”

 

“Goodbye, Eren. Stay alive. It’d be a shame if you or,” His eyes cut to the side. “Your boyfriend disappear.”

 

When Levi and the others find him, he’s glaring holes at the barren earth where the two motherfuckers had been.

~

“They’ve locked you in good.” Hanji’s rueful face peers up at them. “It’s going to take me a while to find out what they messed with, decode it, and create a solution. So I suggest you hang on tight. And tell me how the disappearing thing goes! No? Maybe?”

 

Eren shrugs. “What do we do?”

 

“Well,” Hanji clicks something excitedly. “I’m gonna continue prying into this, but I’m gonna send you two to something interesting. Hopefully it’ll help. I really don’t know. But have fun!”

~

When Eren opens his eyes, he does not recognize the smoke and shade around him, things glinting at him from every angle. In the complete silence, he can only hear his own breath and the strange wetness the fog around him dulls the sound of his cautious movements as he scoots backwards. His limbs ache and he distinctly remembers falling, falling somewhere. The floor is grey grit underneath his fingers and as his back touches one of the looming shining things, he realizes that he is enclosed, trapped by a circle of mirrors. The hazy light above seems to be a single spotlight that barely pierces the odd mix of mist and smoke that swirls around lightly with every movement. He doesn’t even need to check and he knows there is no exit, and the smooth mirrors are too tall to climb. It is, in all senses of the word, a cage. He lets a hiss out through gritted teeth, lets the anger in his gut swirl and build.

 

How dare they put walls around him, how dare they take away his freedom, how DARE-

 

“Eren.”

 

The call is muted, low, and Eren almost misses it in stoking up his rage. His whirls around, anger disintegrating at the familiar voice, eyes searching wildly for its source. His heartbeat steadies as he finds cold eyes staring at him.

 

“Levi!” he chokes out, reaching forward for in relief, but there’s something off; his fingertips touch freezing glass where should be rough leather. A thick fume of smoke wafts in front of him and his eyes water, coughing and trying to wave it away. "Where are you?"

 

As the smoke dissipates, he once again touches the glass, as if the pressure of his fingers could swing open the divider between them. The figure behind it does not move, offers no assistance, watches uninterestedly. "I am here. Where else would I be?"

 

Eren frowns. Is he mad or something? "Can you come over here? We have to get out of this place quickly."

 

The Levi in the mirror looks at him passively. "I cannot leave this place yet."

 

"Why? Are you trapped in there? Can't you find a way to get out?" Oh right, between the two if anyone could do anything, it would be Levi. "Can I help you out?"

 

A spark of life finally enters Levi's eyes and he straightens up, reaching a hand out to Eren. "That is correct. I am trapped in here, as you are trapped in there. Free me. You can do it."

 

He looks dubiously at the extended hand. What could he do that Levi couldn't, besides transform into a Titan, and he's pretty sure that won't get them anywhere. "What do I have to do then?"

 

"Give me your blood."

 

"What." Blood? Through a mirror? This is some fucked up place.

 

Levi places a finger against his palm still resting against the glass. "Give me your blood."

 

Eren withdraws his hand sharply. Something feels off, and it's not just the way Levi had drawn out his last sentence like Eren was an idiot. Okay, well no, Levi actually does that a lot just to push Eren's buttons, but there really is something off.

 

"What's wrong?" The brow in the mirror tilts quizzically, but the eyes are stone cold.

 

That's right. Levi's eyes are never emotionless. Even when he's being a complete asshole his eyes insult you along with the rest of him, when he's fighting his eyes are blazing, when he's just walking beside Eren, his eyes are the window to his soul. Even when his face is smooth and unreadable, his eyes are never as flat as a fucking mirror.

 

Quick as a flash, he draws his blade, swinging it up to rest against the surface where the neck would be.  He's angry, words gritted out roughly."Who are you?"

 

The figure that looks like Levi draws back in serpentine false surprise.  It's almost disgusting, the way it uses Levi's voice to speak. "What are you saying? Have you hit your head on the way in? Aren't I the Corporal, Levi?"

 

"No," he spits out, and the figure tilts Levi's head, seems to have dropped all pretenses to watch Eren's reaction with avid interest. "You might look like him, talk with his voice, but you- there's no way you could ever hope to fool me with some pathetic imitation like this!"

 

He's breathing heavily, anger boiling in his gut, how dare this monster try and be Levi and talk him into doing shit for it. The fucking imitation just grins at him, the sight sending tingles of rage down Eren's spine. He would kill it, stab it right through its smug face right now if only they were not separated. It seems to sense his growing intent and looks delighted.

 

"Is there anything else?" It purrs.

 

"And you," His voice is sharp and accusing, line of sight unwavering. "You never once said my name."

 

"You are so picky, boy," The Mirror Levi sneers at him. "You should be grateful someone as great as the Corporal even graces you with his presence."

 

Eren vibrates with unreleased anger and tension, the muscles in his arm twitching.

Levi's handsome face has been twisted into something ugly, and Eren has to suppress a shiver as the imitation drags his nail down the glass. "You want to fight? Let me out and I'll tear that Titan monster right out of you, set you lose on the world. I'll rip your heart of your living chest and watch the streets be stained with your blood. And all the while, I'll have you locked up behind this instead of me."

 

Then it pauses, as if something had just occurred to it. "Let me free, else you never see this person again."

 

Fingers elongate into pointed claws that dig into Mirror Levi's neck, and it is a truly eerie sight; blood drips from the wound to stain the white cloth under the armor while the imitation smiles carelessly unaffected.

 

With a strangled roar, Eren swings, blade cutting a desperate arc, just make it stop! Make it stop using Levi's body to say such disgusting things, using his voice to slice into Eren, using his everything to defile what Levi is.

 

At the same moment his blade connects to the glass, it shatters inwards, towards him, and he skitters back from the razor sharp shards, suddenly remembering the mirror's hungry demand for his blood.

 

And speak of the devil, stepping thru the shattered fragments with a scowl on his face is Levi. Eren's Levi, scratches and a bruise on his cheek, perfectly imperfect. He's breathing heavily, eyes searchingly frantically until they rest on Eren and widen in relief.

 

Eren's heartbeat is speeding up rather than relaxing after the shock, drinking in the sight of something truly precious to him. An unwanted snicker breaks their momentary reunion. The thing in Levi's shape has just slid to the next mirror panel in the circle, eyeing the both of them with veiled disgust.

 

"Ah, I was wrong. It seems you do get to see him again. One last time." The reflection looks disinterested, but there is savage delight dripping off it's voice, "So you have slain your opponent, Corporal. As expected, you are a cold-hearted bastard."


So Levi had been trapped like he was? Of course he got out, since after all he was Humanity's Strongest, but then.... was his opponent a Mirror Eren? That he... killed? "Levi?" his voice cracks like a pubescent boy's.

 

Levi has not once turned to look at him since crashing in, but Eren can see him wince slightly at Eren's quaver. "There was no need to fight." He says lowly, and Eren is so confused.

 

Mirror Levi pauses for a moment, then throws his head back laughing, flat personality shredded into cold, cruel savagery. There is no humor in its voice. "And so you still destroyed him, though not the way expected. It does not change things, Corporal. His blood will be on your hands, forever in your memory."

 

"I do not need to explain anything to you."

 

"Explain? Explain what? It is not to me who you should tell, but the boy! Ah, the poor boy who clings to your coattails even now, filled with false hope that you will save him. Will you tell him how you cut him down to save your own hide? How your blade did not hesitate as it sliced through his flesh? How your ears and eyes were immune to his cries? How-"

 

The cold, mocking drone shatters, Levi's blade slamming into the twisted version of his own face. His own voice is tight and controlled as he repeats, "I do not need to explain anything to you."

 

In the falling fragments of the broken mirror, Eren can see a slate grey eye, staring straight at him even as the shard twists and turns before hitting the ground. He takes a step back, nausea rising in his stomach.

 

How could he have ever thought that fake could have ever been the real Levi. Sure, the wings and man combo was unapproachable, usually  being monosyllabic until he warmed up to you, seemingly uncaring about the fate of the world and others, but he wasn’t viciously cruel on purpose.

 

Maybe this is how others saw him, maybe this is how he saw himself. A reflection, a dark shadow hiding in the dark, following his every step and murmuring nasty things with relish.

He wonders then what Levi faced, what monster in human skin he had seen, what hidden facet of Eren he had most likely cut down with disgust in his eyes.

 

“No, Corporal!,” The saccharine voice cackled, and they both spin away from the dust and bones of the first mirror, searching for the renewed figure across the circle. “It doesn’t work that way! You have no power here. The boy must kill me, kill you, himself.”

 

And the Levi in the mirror tilts his head, nails pressing sharply against the surface. “Come, boy, free me. Let us get this started.”

 

The Levi beside him is gripping his hilt tightly, but his hands are at his sides and he’s finally turned to face Eren. He’s finally close enough for Eren to see faint redness fading from his eyes, the tired lines, the small cuts across his jaw. Of course, he’s gone through his own battle and won. Now it’s Eren’s turn. That’s how this world is, isn’t it? A balance of things. And they were on a race against time to fix the ticking bomb set to blow the clock apart. Whatever happened, the questions came later.

 

He reaches up to trace a wound, wishing he had been gifted with a healing command for moments like these. “What would you have me do?”

 

“Don’t hold back. Whether he’s me, whether he isn’t, cut him down. I have faith in your abilities.” His tone is somber, and Eren is really wondering what went on for him to say something like that. But he nods, noting the relieved look in Levi’s eyes, swinging around to draw his sword, feet apart and at the ready.

 

“God, finally, fucking lovebirds taking your time over there.” Mirror Levi scratches his neck, lips twisted in annoyance. “Come, boy.”

 

Alright. Eren breathes in, here we go.

 

The mirror's fingers shoot out of the glass, gripping Eren's hand roughly. Eren struggles away in horror, but its hold is too tight. Slowly, Levi's reflection is sucked out of it's mirror prison, each inch into reality it grows sends the seed of dread an inch deeper into Eren's stomach.

 

This imposter’s rough fingers tangle between his own, but the face that emerges from the glass prison is nothing but a monster wearing a handsome skin.

 

The rest of its body isn’t even completely out when Eren slams his sword into its heart savagely, teeth bared and breath hot in his throat. “You try to fool me with him? You deserve to die, suffer in hell, burn for all of eternity.

 

A strangled laugh bubbles up out of its throat, eyes flickering with different colors, but not the familiar grey it mimicked before. “But I almost got you. Almost.”

 

Eren drop his sword in disgust, the body thumping to the floor. He turns, striding over to Levi who watches him with tired eyes. He grabs his hands in both of his, their skin cold against each other’s.

 

“I love you,” Eren says fiercely, “I love you, and I’m not going to let you go.”

 

Levi meets his eyes, warm grey to burning green. “Good. I wasn’t planning on letting you escape.”

~

“Wow,” Hanji grins through the screen at them. “You guys are pretty dedicated to each other.”

 

“Shut it,” Levi grouses, hand curling into a fist. “Now what the fuck was that.”

 

“Nothing much.” She hums, content as a cat who got the cream. “Just something to gauge how much you meant to each other.”

 

“So you had us kill somebody who looked like the other?” Eren snaps incredulously.

 

“Well… If you were able to recognize the mirror as not real… The mirror was a reflection of the dark sides of you, something that scared the other because they were afraid that you could slip out of their grasp just like that. It revealed truths, truths about what you felt about them, how much you wanted to understand them, how much you actually did. You probably don’t know this, Eren, but Levi didn’t kill the mirror version of you. Yours was not apathetic like Levi’s was. The mirror you was a monster, a beast who wanted to destroy humanity. And did you know what Levi did?”

 

Eren glances at Levi, who refuses to look at either of them, glare deadly enough to burn the grass he’s staring at if it were possible.

 

“He embraced him. He gave him a hug!” Hanji crows, banging her fists on her table.

 

“Really?” Eren flushes, ears burning, and sneaks a look at Levi.

 

“I told you I wouldn't let you go.” Is all he mutters.

~

Eren looks back at Mikasa, and his stomach kind of drops. She's been watching him for a while now with a crooked, sad smile and she's slow to wipe her face blank. Eren feels a bit sick; he's probably felt this for a while, known it whenever she’s talked about the Corporal before, but has let his own jealousy and ignorance simmer him senseless.

 

"I'm sorry," he murmurs, and he truly is. Mikasa is always looking out for his happiness, and he can't even help her with hers.

 

"Don't be." She shakes her head but meets his eyes. There's papercut pain floating in her eyes, but they are unwavering, resolute. This kind of happiness she won't deny him, this kind of happiness she's willing to add her own feelings to his. "Like you, it was just hero's worship."

 

"You're lucky, you know? He treats us all fairly, equally here. We're all worth his attention, yet at the same time we're not. He goes off and leaves us to deal with the guild to spend time with someone else. With you. I don't know if he could ever return what you feel, Eren, but you are special to him in ways no one else is. Don't let it go to waste, okay?"

 

"I know,"he shifts uncomfortably in his seat on the wet grass, feeling the damp cloth stick to his bum. "Sometimes I wonder if I should even forget about anything beyond friendship, because I realize that even as friends, he doesn't treat anyone else the same. Sometimes it's like I'm his only 'friend' and you're all just 'acquaintances'. Ah, sorry, sorry not in a bad way." Mikasa tilts her head in understanding, gesturing him to go on. "I don't want to lose whatever this is. Just being with him makes me happy. In this fake world, he feels so real, but if I try to imagine him in reality, he doesn't fit into the grey. He's so fussy, he wouldn't stand to be anything the same color as dust."

Eren laughs, throwing his head back to stare at the fading colors of day. Shit, is he blinking back tears? "So I've decided, I'm not going to be the Eren Jaeger who charges into things and fucks things up. I'm gonna be the Eren Jaeger who lets things be so he can be happy."

 

Mikasa sighs, running her hands over the designs of her scythe shaft. There is an almost wistful tone in her voice as she comments, "You've changed. You've grown up."

 

"Somehow I feel like you think that's a bad thing." He says drily.

 

"Nah." She shrugs," You were so immature before."

 

Eren doesn't respond because hey it was true, and they both watch a flock circle overhead in silence, each lost in their own thoughts.

 

Mikasa is the first to speak again. "Eren, I think you're wrong though. It's close to the end of this world. Either way it goes, whether we win or lose, it's not going to be the same. I think you should try, try to love him as much as possible before you don't get to. It's better than sitting on half-lived 'what ifs'."

 

Eren grimaces. He's come to some sort of conclusion like that before, but if he's being honest, he's afraid.

~

It feels like a dream. A terrible dream. A nightmare.

 

Levi’s falling in front of him, body splintering apart into pieces of light, slipping through Eren’s fingers.

 

He’d jumped in front of Eren, having been ambushed by Reiner and Bertholdt on a road that isn’t even near the Titan region.

 

"Idiot!" Reiner is yelling faintly in the background. "You killed him! Now who are we gonna get that's that good?"

 

Eren’s fingers are trembling, and he feels so dissociated from his body. Everything is cold and hollow, sounds echoing dully in his ears. He can only faintly feel the pain as his knees collapse on him, disinterestedly watching blood pool beneath him. The ground is shaking under his hands and he wonders distantly if the world is falling apart.

 

There's someone screaming in the distance again, and Eren feels so bad for them; their heartbroken sobs cut into his own heart and he wonders why it hurts so much. It's only when the tears he can't feel drip off his gasping face onto hands clenched on the unforgiving earth that he realizes it was him all along.

 

"They- they killed him!" He's screaming at them, trying to get them to understand. His eyes are searching everywhere, anywhere. His throat hurts. "I have to fucking kill, kill them all!"

 

"Eren, Eren, stop, Jesus Christ, calm down-" There are hands touching him, stroking him, holding him down.

 

They don't understand. They don't know he was hurting, how he took all the pain meant for Eren, into himself. They don't understand that even in the real world he could be dead too.

 

He's crying again, he can faintly hear himself yelling, clawing at the hands that bind him. There's a muffled expletive and something hits his head really hard. He futilely tries to swim away from the darkness, but he's drowning and oh- the numbness feels so good. Darkness, and no more.

~

Mikasa is the first face he sees, the headset pulled off from his head abruptly.

 

He staggers up, looks down at the unfamiliar bed under him. “What is this? Where am I? I thought we couldn’t leave the game.”

 

“You can’t.” Armin says grimly. They’re in a small room, shades pulled over the window and an industrial door in the wall. “We’re at Hanji’s company building. She’s pulled a couple of us in for an emergency meeting. We’re lucky that she was able to code a few of us out of the program.”

 

They tug him up, and even though Eren is confused he follows along. His head aches and his heart hurts. Will this meeting of Hanji’s make anything better? Will she fix the problem of… Levi’s death?

 

Armin and Mikasa lead him down a hall to another heavy duty door, footsteps quick and urgent. Eren’s is lost in thought, tears prickling behind his eyes as he remembers Levi’s body pushing him out of the way, Levi’s eyes searching for his as they fade from sight…

 

They push the door open. And what he sees from the doorway makes him stop dead in awe and surprise. Because there are people here, familiar faces of people he doesn’t even know, people one could see walking down the streets of Riese, their faces plastered on billboards and flashing signs.

 

The blond man, who looked as much a Commander as he did leading his armies in the game, his whiskered second in command beside him sniffing the drink he is holding. The pony-tailed girl and shaved head boy shrieking with laughter as the man talking to them wipes desperately at blood dripping from his mouth. Jean, infuriatingly welcome face, chatting and chuckling with a freckled pair.

 

Mikasa slips around his frozen form in the doorway and makes her way to them, mingling seamlessly, the greetings and exclamations beginning. Armin gives Eren a light slap on his back, and he stares at him in lost wonder.  “They’re all real people, all of them here. Why are they here?”

 

“Of course they look the same, it’s highly amusing when people meet friends or enemies outside of the game. There’s a reason I didn’t allow major facial alterations, which also known as my personal entertainment.” A voice pops up right behind his neck and he claps at hand at his prickling skin, turning to see a bespectacled woman beaming at him, Hanji in her cackling glory. “Hello, Eren. Welcome to my gathering of the people, the future heroes, of Riese! I can see you already recognize some of them.”

 

He gives her a small smile, still feeling lost and a little unsure, “It’s nice to finally meet you in real life, Hanji.”

 

“Mmm,” She regards him with a funny little grin. “Why don’t you go join them over there before we begin?”

 

He shakes his head. “There’s someone...missing.”

 

The people inside the room have noticed him lingering and have begun casting him curious looks, although they cannot hear their conversation.

 

“Yes, there is.” Her expression is uncharacteristically sane and soft. “There was. But he’s here now.”

 

She’s not looking at him anymore, attention focused on something, somebody behind them all. The conversations in the room hush, and now everyone isn’t staring at him anymore and Eren can’t look, cannot turn around, unable to control anything, especially the raging heartbeat thudding in his ears.

 

And then Mikasa clears her throat. “Hello, Captain.”

 

Eren’s heart seizes up and he forgets to breathe for a moment, almost missing someone say, “Hello Levi,” and the chorus of greetings that follow.

 

“Hello.” His voice, quiet but firm. Eren can’t see his face, but he knows that lilt in his voice, the slight twitch of his brows in surprise at how many people are there. He clenches his fists at his sides, staring down at his scuffed shoes against the pristine tiled floor. The room feels stuffy yet his fingers are cold and numb.

 

Hanji looks at Eren knowingly, reaches out and gently grasps his shoulders, nudging him to turn around.

 

There he is. It’s really him. It’s that wonderfully dear face, tired eyes and eternal frown, pale skin above an ironed dress shirt. There’s a little joyful relief in Eren’s chest when he sees that Levi’s shirt sleeves are tight against his muscles, that perhaps even here he can feel those strong arms.

 

He hasn’t noticed him yet, still swamped by the salutations of the others. Eren’s legs feel like lead, he clenches and unclenches his fingers in indecision.

 

“He’s been waiting for you.” Hanji pats his arm. “He was worried that you’d suffered from his… death. Don’t be so shy. The real world isn’t as different from the one you had with him.”

 

He glances at her, smiles a little in thanks. “I don’t know what’s wrong. I’m just really afraid that this real me… isn’t good enough, you know?”

 

She wrinkles her nose. “Aw, you’re so cute! Don’t worry. I doubt that you’re  the only one feeling that way. After all, you’re not the only one in love. Trust me, I’m a scientist and psychologist the government hired.”

 

That gets a real smile from him. “Yeah, but don’t they come after your ass because you don’t do your job correctly?”

 

Hanji gasps in mock injury. “Don’t tease me, I’ll have you know that-”

 

“Eren?”

 

God, just say his name forever, and Eren will do whatever he wants. He’s looking at him, and his heart loves the view. He’s right here, right now. Everyone is staring at him, but the only gaze that matters is the grey pair of eyes that burns him to the very core, dark and enthralling, washing everyone else colorless.

~

“Mmkay, now that everyone is here, we can get started. So thanks to my funds provided by the dear government,” Hanji claps her hands together and grins like she’s sharing a secret with them. “I’ve been able to whip up a controlled environment for a number of headsets This is so you can dive back into Riese and hopefully put a stop to those two players.”

 

The blond Commander, Erwin, raises his hand to pause her. “So from what you are saying, we cannot be killed, but these targets still can?”

 

“You can still be ‘killed’, as per game rules, but the controlled environment of mine will allow me to counteract the lethality of the killing blow and send you back into the battle.”

 

“Theoretically,” Levi sighs. “As you haven’t had the chance to test it out on living humans.”

 

Eren glances down at him, at Levi sitting in a wheelchair for reasons unknown, drinks in the lovely timbre of his voice, the feel of his hand in his. He’d been a little taken aback to see the wheelchair, but Levi had shot him down before he made any assumptions. “I don’t normally have a wheelchair,” He’d snapped. “I only got it yesterday.”

 

“Yeah,” She shrugs. “I can scope them out but I can’t do anything to them because I’m blocked. They’re on a suicide mission it seems.”

 

“Or maybe they’re expecting to succeed.” Eren says. He wonders how many people have been killed already, on purpose or inadvertently, uncaringly meeting their end thinking that the blackness creeping up on them is the normal beginning of another cycle.

~

They all troop into Hanji’s prepared room, grim expressions softening slightly when they see the plush reclining chairs she offers them.

 

Eren walks slowly besides Levi, hands clasped in his. He’s pretty sure his chair can roll faster but Levi tugs his fingers to slow him down, motioning to Hanji bringing up the rear.

 

She pulls the door shut behind them and flicks a switch to dim the lights. Eren can hear everyone murmuring quietly as they settle down and wait for the game systems to boot up.

 

He looks at Hanji and Levi expectantly, fingers warm and heart content even with the challenge looming ahead.

 

It is Levi who speaks first. “Eren. I’m not going with you.”

 

Wait. What. Why?

 

Hanji smiles apologetically. “I’m sorry. As a doctor, I don’t recommend going back in a risking worsening his injury.”

 

“Sounds like there’s another reason,” Eren gripes, voice tight, fingers suddenly clammy.

 

“Yes, you are a smart one! See, that last time you met those two, I’m quite sure you noticed how distraught they were that they had thought Levi had died. To be honest, I think it’s safer for his well-being that he stays out of the entire game. I think that if they had the chance, they would have attempted to take over his code. And judging from how successfully they bricked up the section they attacked, they probably would have been successful too.”

 

“Take over his code? Like in order to control him or something?”

 

“Yeah,” Levi says grimly. “I wouldn’t be able to get out and I wouldn’t be able to control myself. No idea if they’d leave my consciousness intact but either way, it’s a shitty way to go.”

 

The air is cold and stagnant in the room, lending a hand to the surrealism of the situation. A few months ago Eren was a stubborn ass who cared less for the world, but now here he was trying to save it. He shivers. Hanji's gigantic screens glow eerily, each displaying a moving scene of the alternate world he had come to love. Levi's hand in his own gives a reassuring squeeze.

That's right. He wasn't doing this for the unchanged grey world, but for the people in it who he loved, the people he met in another world that would also be saved.

He's glad then that the others had stood and made a path for them, for him to be the one to enter the code to end this all. He wouldn't have been able to appreciate how far they've come. Being here, almost unable to comprehend it, the silence presses in, lulling them both into a sense of stilled time.

 

“Okay,” He takes a deep breath, wishing something would brace him, hoping he can be strong. “Okay, I’ll make sure we cut them down. I’ll save you.”

 

The way Levi looks at him now is soft, unguarded, and if this were any other time, Eren would let himself drown in the warmth of unspoken feelings Levi is letting him see. There’s a sort of astonishment in Levi’s gaze, like he’s seeing Eren for the first time. “Eren, love, from the moment we met, you have saved me.”

 

He pulls Eren in, Eren’s legs bumping against the frame of the wheelchair, but it is no matter because Levi is bringing his free hand up to touch his cheek. Everything is fine if Levi is there with him, right? “I am not the same person I was then. As always, I was dragged along at your pace. You fill my blank pages with noisy, indescribable, unintelligible things, and I find myself not minding at all.”

 

Eren opens and closes his mouth, red faced, speechless, and absolutely in love. He settles for a little pathetic whine. “You can’t just say things like that! You saved me just by being there. ”

 

Levi gives Eren’s ear a tug, all his abnormal expressions folding up and packed away, his face set once again in business. He uses both hands to turn Eren to face the flickering screens, giving his bottom a pat.  “I can say anything I want, at times like this. But now you have a job to do. Go save the world, princess.”

 

Hanji coughs awkwardly, “You guys are cute and all, and I’d love to take pictures of you all day, but we got stuff to do.”

 

Eren smiles brightly at Levi, ignoring the fluttering woman. "So, you trust Hanji enough about your legs?"

 

Levi snorts. "I trusted her enough to put a machine on my head and enter a game where I almost died."

 

"That's a lot of trust then," Eren laughs, unaffected by the glare Levi sends him.

 

"And I guess she feels partly at fault for this happening, which she should, so she is going to try to remedy it."

 

"But Hanji said you'd be fine!"

 

"Relax, pup. We shall see."

 

"You know EST, electric shock therapy? It's kind of a bit like that. You are lucky Levi died the way he did, Eren, or else he might not be here today." Hanji smiles pleasantly while Eren shudders, gripping Levi's hand more tightly. "The game headset is outside of the skull, like electric nodes, and the electric nature of that attack resonated through his brain, on orders of the new code to kill him. And since I was forced to amp down pain level parallels between the game and the body, this killing shock merely buzzed him. As soon as his body's electric currents realign themselves, he should be back to normal."

~

"See you later?" He starts awkwardly. The headset is heavy on his head.

 

Levi snorts, "You call us best friends, but you act like a stranger Eren? I think I'm offended."

 

"We are!" He hisses, glancing around. "And...sorry. I just. Don't know how to. Talk to you. The real you."

 

Levi reaches out a hand and runs his fingers down Eren's side, smirking when Eren's body arches into his touch. "Well, your body remembers and your mind remembers, so I think it's pretty real. And what am I, chopped liver? Aren't I Levi, here and there?"

 

"Yes," Eren mumbles. Fuck, he's fucking shy. He's knows Levi, dammit, but knowing this is reality makes him feel so self-conscious. "Says the fucktard one who didn't even give me his username when we met!"

 

"Didn't want you falling into your hero worship mode. That's right, I still remember all those times you ranted to me about 'the Corporal'."

 

"T-that wasn't! I didn't have hero worship! I just had a goal! It's not like it was-"

 

"Love." An obnoxious fake cough with the muttered word sounds from behind them, and they are suddenly reminded of the company they have. Levi's hand drops from where it had curled behind Eren's ear, and Eren feels like suffocating himself in the cushions.

 

"What are all you fuckers staring at?" Levi snaps, and all the heavy stares direct themselves accusingly at Jean the coughing culprit, who sinks down and scowls nervously.

~

The cut on his arm stings, and there is something caught in his throat he desperately needs to cough up.

 

“Cover me!” He yells at Mikasa, who sprints toward him, slashing at Bertholdt, who turns to engage her.

He doesn’t understand how Reiner and Bertholdt fend off seven other players all by themselves, sustaining less damage than the rest of them do. He hacks bloody spit up, swearing angrily when Bertholdt spins mid-strike at Mikasa and sends his attack at Eren.

 

“Fuck!” He swings up his blade too late, sharp pain lancing up his side where the attack had grazed him. They’re all injured while the two men are barely scathed. He can see somebody lying on the ground several meters away. Even the Commander looks likes he’s having a hard time, and Eren’s stomach drops.

 

They’ve tried the group attack, tried to overpower them, but they are repelled, unable to get close unless the group is all spread apart. It’s getting hard for Eren to breathe, and he barely registers the next blow Mikasa tries to defend him from.

 

As much as he wants to trust Hanji’s technological skills, but he’s not about to take a leap of faith and let himself die. Oh god, his ribs ache.

 

“Eren, watch out!” Armin yells, and Eren staggers around, reeling from Bertholdt’s attack to brace himself against the ax Reiner wields. Last time he had a broadsword, the time before that a pike. The ax slams against Eren’s sword once, twice, and then Jean is there to draw Reiner’s attention away. The blond man growls in exhilaration, engaging the lancer with gusto.

 

Eren’s vision flickers, and this is the first time his arms shake under the weight of his sword. Everything seems muffled, the shouts and clashing of blades echoing as if in the distance. The wound on his side is numb but he can feel blood trickling and staining his pant leg.

 

And then Reiner appears in front of him, ax raised and mouth sharp in a deadly grin. Eren can hear everyone yelling, can see the muscled arms move as if in slow motion. Eren’s limbs are stiff. He knows he’s too slow.

 

Is this how I go? I can’t. I promised Levi I would save him. I promised! Levi!

 

“Levi?” Reiner hisses, freezing, torso twisting, attention stolen from Eren.

 

Yes, yes Levi. He’s got someone to fight for and he will fight death for them.

 

But nobody is looking at Eren anymore, bodies gravitating towards something else, a figure that’s appeared across the field from Eren. Eren tries to pull himself together and counts the heads of those present. There are all seven of them, so who is that figure?

 

“Levi.” Reiner spits again, completely turning his back on Eren and charges at the figure. Out of the corner of his eye, Eren can see Bertholdt change trajectory and switch targets, also careening towards the new player.

 

Mikasa lands near Eren, gasping out, “It’s Levi!”

 

That’s not possible, he said he couldn’t.

 

The figure raises its hands, and Levi’s sword appears in it, stance open and ready for the charging opponents.

 

Eren and Mikasa don’t stay still, rushing after them, running with the rest of the group to come to the aid of whoever that is. Even if they reach them, will they be able to even attack? It hadn’t worked before!

 

The next moments happen so fast, almost unreal and unbelievably quick that Eren stops in his tracks.

 

The figure swings Levi’s sword forward, points it at the oncoming brawlers and slashes at the air. Reiner and Bertholdt freeze in their steps, faces twisted in savage fury. Commander Erwin wastes no time, slamming his blade into Reiner’s chest, roaring at the rest of the team to follow. Everyone converges on the two figures, stabbing into them with no mercy.

 

When the fray settles down, Eren notices that the figure with Levi’s sword has disappeared, pixelated out of existence.

 

Bertholdt and Reiner lie on the ground, blood bubbling from their lips with every haggard, struggling breath. They are released from the freezing spell, but their limbs twitch on the ground where weapons pin them down.

 

Everyone stands around them, bodies gasping for needed air, bodies drooping with exhaustion, but unable to relax until the last light of life leaks from the eyes of the two almost-world-destroyers.

 

Armin speaks first. “Is it done?”

 

“It is done,” Eren murmurs, eyes sweeping over the tired, victorious group. “We are done.”

~

The sound of crashing waves thunders through air, but the only thing Eren can smell is buttered popcorn and fresh cookies.

 

“I thought we were going to watch a movie,” Jean complains, grabbing a popcorn bowl from the Sasha girl, who pulls it back and glares at him.

 

“Yeah, but then the television turned to this, and it’s way more interesting.”

 

“I want to go visit the sea,” Armin pipes up from beside Mikasa. “Me, Mikasa and Eren want to travel to every ocean in the world.

 

They all trail off their grumblings, enthralled by the video playing on the screen, ears eagerly drinking in the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. Sasha perks up. "Oh! That's Saint's Avenue Beach!"

 

They all turn to look at her in confusion, until the announcer on the screen echoes her words.

 

"What," Armin laughs. "That's halfway around the world, Sasha. Even I wouldn't be able recognize that beach from just this clip."

 

"Nah, I listen to recordings of different nature sounds when I study, so I end up learning what each place sounds like. I didn't know what the beach looks like either." She shrugs dismissively while they look on in baffled amazement. Eren can bet that instead of learning what she was studying, she memorized the sounds instead. Completely unintentionally, of course.

 

“We should all go there someday.” Armin murmurs, and they all nod in agreement.

 

Yes, that sounds nice. A trip to a beautiful real sea of this real world, a wonderful reward for saving the world. With all his friends, new and old, celebrating the strangely fragile things of life.

 

And love, he amends his last thought, squeezing the warm hand in his. Levi turns from his book, healed legs shifting on his chair to face Eren.

 

He’s a natural disaster, he’s drowning in Levi, he’s burning in his love, he’s being wrecked apart by every touch on his skin.

 

Eren drinks him in, drinks in this gorgeous sense of realness because Levi is simply there. No wall of sleep, no fizzling code stands between them now, and he has no idea how to express the happiness that stuffs his heart to its seams. Well, actually, he has one idea.

 

“I love you.”

 

He whispers this, a bold little confession in a bright and noisy room, and Levi just smiles at him. His smile-that’s-not-a-smile, his eye smile, the one that says a million words when his mouth says none.

 

The smile that says, “I love you too.


RIESE user【Jaeger】logging off. Race: ? Class: Berserker Level: 88 Rank: 15  New Messages: 0 Thanks for playing! It’s been a fun ride. Have a wonderful life.