At the age of 11 and three quarters, Eren Jaeger had his first sleepover with the boy across the street.
They weren't friends. In all honesty, Eren barely even knew the boy's name. There were very few things Eren knew about the neighboring blond boy with the big blue eyes, and all the things he did know made him a less than appealing friend.
He knew that they went to the same school because they rode the same bus. Blue eyes sat in the front while Eren crammed himself into the back with the rest of the troublemakers. The other boy was at the top of all the smart kid classes and got to take care of the third grade science teacher's class bird as a reward, while Eren lived in the principal's office. The blonde stayed indoors during all hours of the day, whereas Eren's father had pitched a tent in their backyard where Eren had lived through the entire summer, only retreating inside to steal snacks and juice pouches to stock his Igloo cooler with.
The other boy was clean, proper, mannerly, and thoughtful. Eren practically sweat dirt, only bathing when forced into the shower by his stronger-than-she-looks mother, and he'd pick a fight with anything that provoked him.
There were no two people more opposite than Eren and the boy across the street.
They weren't meant to be friends. Their parents, however, were.
"Eren," his father had said over dinner, studying his plate more than anyone in the room.
As a form of a reply, Eren remained silent, only looking over his own fork with limited interest.
"Armin Arlert will be spending the night with us this coming Saturday," Grisha continued, dabbing at the edges of his mouth with his napkin. "Or spending the night with you, rather."
"Who?" Eren asked, shoving his fork back into his mashed potatoes.
"Armin. The Arlert's child."
"Yeah, I got that from the name. I don't know who that is," Eren replied shortly.
"He lives across the street," Mikasa cut in before their father could become angry with Eren's attitude. "He's nice. He's in my math class."
"Oh," eyebrows knit together, Eren folded his arms over his stomach. "No. Why? I don't like him."
"Because," his mother interjected softly, "Armin is having a hard time adjusting to Trost. His parents are worried. He's a sweet boy, Eren, he just wants a friend."
"Why me?" Eren scowled, "it's not my fault he doesn't fit in."
"Eren, need I remind you that you don't exactly have the greatest friends either?"
"At least I have friends, mom."
"And now Armin does, too," his father added with finality, "you."
Eren gave a frustrated sigh through his nose, face pinching in an ugly frown.
"It's just one night, Eren," Mikasa rolled her eyes, standing to take her plate to the sink. "Stop being a baby." She collected his plate as she passed, giving him an excuse to push away from the table with a loud scrape against the tile flooring.
"I'm not a baby," he spat, before fleeing to his room on the upper level for added effect.
"Of course not," he heard his sister sigh from the top of the stairwell.
Angry tears flooded his eyes. That was easy for her to say. She didn't have to hang out with people she didn't like. She didn't have to entertain someone who made her look bad by comparison.
She didn't understand.
The sleepover was set to begin on a Saturday afternoon at exactly three.
He tried not to seem anxious, but it was hard to conceal as he sat in the window for two and a half hours straight, face pressed against freshly cleaned glass, as he watched the neighboring house awaiting his reputation's end to step out of the front door.
"What was his name?" Eren called through the house, "Alfred?"
"Armin," Mikasa corrected him from behind. Her hand clamped against his shoulder, pulling him away from the glass for the fifth time in the same hour. Windex occupied the other hand. "And would you stop doing that? I told mom I would clean the windows, and you're messing it up."
Eren rolled his eyes and sat back when she squeezed past him yielding a wet rag that smelled like cat piss and chemicals.
"Jesus Christ, what is that?" He coughed into his sleeve.
She didn't grace him with an answer, rather she hit him in the back of the head with the Windex bottle she carried.
"There he is," she announced as she distractedly scrubbed Eren's face print off of the pane of glass.
Eren could feel the smile in her tone. He shoved past her, pressing back against the window.
"Eren!" She growled.
"How am I supposed to be friends with him?" Eren whined as they both watched the boy totter across the gravel road that separated their lawns, toting two overstuffed bags. Both bags seemed heavy by the way he struggled, hiking them high above his head as he made his way across the uneven path.
Once his feet made contact with the Jaeger property line, Mikasa made a point to shove Eren out of the bay window seat. He landed painfully against the carpeted floor.
"Go help him," she hissed, still rubbing at the same spot on the glass.
"Why?" Eren grumbled in return.
"He's your company, and he's cute and in distress. You live to help cute kids in distress."
"I hit a kid for knocking someone off the slide in Kindergarten, and this is the thanks I get."
Eren slung the door open, and it creaked on its hinges before clattering against the brick home. The noise made Armin snap upright; he looked bug eyed and startled.
"Hey!" Eren called, crossing the lawn in long strides.
"Hi!" The other boy returned, attempting a wave which, in turn, made him to drop a bag. He made a disgruntled sound while stooping down to get it. As he moved in a downward motion, his other bag tumbled off his back and into the grass. Eren huffed a sigh when he caught Mikasa's glare through the window.
"Let me help you," Eren said just low enough that only he could hear it. From the corner of his eye, he caught the thumbs up his sister threw in his direction. He rolled his eyes.
Eren bent down at Armin's feet, collecting the bags in his arms. They were a lot lighter than he'd been led to believe. When he moved to resume standing, he realized that he and the boy stood nearly nose to nose, Armin being just a fraction shorter than he was.
"I'm Eren," he said in an uncharacteristically quiet tone whilst taking a fraction of a step backwards.
Armin followed his lead by taking a step back himself. "I'm sorry. I could've gotten those. I didn't mean to be any trouble."
"Relax," Eren instructed, waving away Armin's concerns with a flick of his wrist. "I don't know much about you, but I do know that your name isn't sorry."
The smile Armin cracked almost made the terrible joke worth saying.
"I'm Armin," he amended.
"Cool. Let me show you around," Eren jerked his head in the direction of the house.
"Okay," Armin nodded and motioned for Eren to take the lead. "I'm really surprised you invited me over," he said softly as they took the stairs leading up to Eren's bedroom two at a time.
"Yeah, so am I," Eren muttered, slinging his bedroom door open so that it crashed against the nearest wall. "This is my room," he said, one arm spread wide in the open space, "the bathroom is the first door down the hall to the right. The room on the left is my sister's room. My parents stay downstairs most of the time. And that's the grand tour."
Unceremoniously, Eren dropped both of Armin's bags in the center of his bedroom.
"So, what kind of things do you like to do?" Eren asked once Armin's silence became uncomfortable and the air was growing increasingly thick.
"I read mostly. Well, my grandpa reads to me. I draw sometimes, too." He looked away, cheeks dusted pink.
Eren cleared his throat. "Okay. What kinds of fun things do you like to do?"
Armin only shrugged.
"Do you know how to fish in a creek?"
"I don't," Armin admitted.
"Well," Eren said, taking Armin by the wrist and pulling him towards the staircase they'd just ascended. "I know what we're doing today."
Armin was willingly tugged away.
"Okay," Eren said, ankle deep in the creek. The tackle box he had taken from his garage sat by Armin's side on the steep bank. "All we have to do is catch some bugs, hook them onto the end of one of those bigger hooks, and throw them in and wait."
"That's it?" Armin asked.
"Yeah! That's it. Anyone can do this. I mean, normally dad buys bait, but since he didn't this time, we have to catch it. Is that cool with you?"
"Definitely," Armin confirmed, standing and brushing the back of his pants to remove excess dirt. "What do we put the bugs in?"
Eren nodded and stooped down, pulling a large Tupperware bowl from the box at Armin's feet.
"This. It has holes in it and everything so they can breathe."
"Okay," Armin giggled. "Well, then let's catch some bugs."
Eren nodded in agreement. "But first-" he knelt by the creek bed and swiped his hands through the mud there, dragging the sopping wet dirt in two thick lines across his cheeks.
They dripped down his face and ran along his jaw, forming small droplets at the point of his chin.
"We have to show the bugs we mean business," Eren explained, not failing to notice Armin's bewildered expression.
"Oh, right," Armin laughed. "I didn't think they would pay attention to that sort of thing."
"Bugs are weird," Eren smirked, rubbing his thumb along the apple of Armin's right cheek. He squirmed at the touch, but otherwise allowed Eren to do as he pleased. "See, before now, you weren't scary at all. Now you look tough, though. They'll know who's boss."
Armin took a brief moment to study himself in the glistening water of the creek bed and couldn't help but crack a smile. "I think I look dumb."
Eren cleaned his hands on his grimy jeans while shaking his head with surety. "Nah, dude, you look awesome now."
"I do?" Armin's already pink cheeks deepened in color under the intensity of the sun combined with Eren's open staring.
"Sure," he shrugged. "You go that way, and I'll hunt for grasshoppers over here."
Armin nodded his understanding and darted off in the direction Eren had pointed him in.
As it turned out, catching bugs was much more difficult than Eren had made it out to be, and Armin found much more joy in watching Eren kick up trails of dust in an attempt to catch insects that skittered past him.
"How's it going, Armin?" Eren called across the backyard, rubbing at his brow, dripping with sweat.
"No luck," Armin shook his head, blond hair sticking in the smear across his cheek.
"Well, crap," Eren huffed.
"What if we just try to catch the fish with our hands?" Armin asked, holding his muddy hair back at the base of his neck.
At first, Eren's expression contorted into something that resembled disbelief and mockery, but within a second his eyes softened and his jaw unhinged just slightly.
"That's- Yeah! Let's do that! Come on!"
Armin laughed and ran back to where the tackle box lie in the grass. Eren was the first in the water, splashing about wildly.
"Aren't you going to scare them away?" Armin screamed over Eren's laughing and whooping.
"They'll come back!" Eren replied, splashing Armin with a handful of water.
Armin screamed and ran in reverse up the embankment. "That's cold!" He shrieked.
"You bet it is," Eren giggled, gap-toothed smile stretching ear to ear. "Come on! Maybe it'll get warmer with more people in it."
"I really doubt that," Armin countered, creeping back towards the water's edge.
Eren waded through the water until he stood directly in front of Armin, hand outstretched. Armin studied his hand skeptically when he wiggled his fingers.
"Come on," Eren repeated, "I won't let you drown or anything."
"Eren, it's like two feet deep. I won't drown no matter what."
Eren huffed. "Well, I can't be cold and wet alone, dude. If you want my friendship, this will seal the deal. Get your butt in the creek."
"I really don't want my butt in the creek," Armin frowned, allowing Eren to latch onto his hand. "Can't I stop at my ankles or something?"
"Nope," Eren replied shortly before jerking on Armin's hand and propelling them both backwards into the shallow water.
Armin, mercifully, landed on top of Eren who pushed himself onto his elbows, cackling loudly. The icy water lapped at his sides and numbed him to the core until his teeth began to chatter.
"I don't want this friendship anymore," Armin laughed, pushing Eren's head back under water before heaving himself onto his knees and hovering over Eren's lap.
"You'll never find anyone like me," Eren smiled when he resurfaced, spitting water back into the creek.
Armin wrinkled his nose. "I know. That's what I'm hoping for."
As a response, Eren pushed Armin back over into the creek bed and sat upright. His smile was broad and his eyes formed small squints, cresting over his rounded cheeks. Two teeth were missing from the top row. "Liar," Eren said as Armin gasped and scurried into a seated position. The water splashed up to the chest pocket on his overalls. "Your butt is in the water, by the way. Friendship official."
"Can I just have a towel?" Armin pouted. The mud from his cheek dripped down the entire right side of his face, outlining his jutting lower lip.
Eren smirked. "Yeah, come on. I'm freezing, and I just learned how to make coffee a couple days ago."
It turned out that Eren did not, in fact, master the concept of coffee making, and his methods created something that probably resembled what battery acid sweetened with kerosene would taste like. Armin drank his portion without complaint, though, because Eren was proud of his concoction. It settled like tar in the pit of his stomach, yet somehow Eren managed to down two extra cups before tossing his mug in the sink.
"D-don't you need to wash those?" Armin asked, fingers knotted together anxiously, "I can do it. Where's your dish soap?"
"Nah, dude, I just-"
"Can we keep him?" A female voice cut Eren short from the living area just beyond the kitchen. "Better yet, can we replace Eren with him?"
"No," a man's voice replied from an unknown room at the end of a short and wide hallway.
Eren stood with his arms folded over his chest, eyes rolled into the back of his head and a deep frown etched in place. "This is my family. That's Mikasa," he pointed into the living room where a girl their age sat cross legged on the couch; her contours were outlined by the glow of the television. She gave a slight amicable wave. "My sister," he added for clarification, "and then my parents are in their room, but you already know them."
"Hi, sweetheart," Eren's mother greeted him from the doorway of her bedroom, robed in an over-sized sleeping gown that brushed the back of her shins.
"Hi, Mrs. Jaeger," Armin smiled, his fingers were still tangled together in a chaotic mess. His knuckles were starch white against his already pale skin. His nervous energy was enough to make Eren begin feeling uneasy. Without preamble, Eren grabbed one of his hands and held it by his side in the most comforting action he could come up with. Armin, after slight hesitation, twined their fingers together, and squeezed hard every time he breathed.
"Call me, Carla." She said in a voice like velvet as she tied her hair to the side in a loose ponytail. "If you need anything we'll be here. Help yourself to the kitchen any time you'd like. I assume Eren showed you where the bathrooms are?"
"Yes ma'am. He did."
Eren nodded in conformation. "I can draw him a blueprint if you want."
Carla elected to ignore Eren's comment and instead maintained eye contact with Armin as though he'd never said anything. "You boys have a good night, alright? Don't stay up too late. We'll know about it. Eren," her gaze shifted, "understood?"
"Yes, mom. I understand. We'll only be up until like 4:30, tops."
"Goodnight, boys." Carla said past a tired smile. "And that goes for you, too, Mikasa. No staying up late."
"I know, "she twisted around to look over the back of the couch. "I'll turn it off after this."
After some consideration, Eren's mother nodded and shut her bedroom door.
"Yeah Mikasa. Don't stay up too late, you delinquent," Eren teased from the base of the stairs.
"Shut up. Stop bothering me, and bother Armin instead," she fired back, tossing a throw pillow in his general direction. It thudded against a wall and fell to the ground with a soft thump.
"I don't bother Armin. He likes me," Eren seemed confident in his response. He didn't bother looking at Armin for conformation.
He wasn't wrong, regardless.
It was only then that Eren seemed to become aware of the fact that their hands were still intertwined and he dropped his grasp immediately.
"He's misguided because he doesn't have to live with you," Mikasa said coolly, flopping against the couch cushions with her feet peeking over the armrest.
"Whatever," Eren spat, "night, loser."
"Night, nerd. Night, Armin."
"I like your family," Armin whispered as he followed Eren upstairs, "they're really nice."
Eren shrugged, turning to walk across the landing to his room without sparing a glance back to be sure Armin was following. "They're alright, I guess."
"No, they're great," Armin argued.
"Dude," Eren spun on the balls of his feet to face Armin, "if you think this is great, what is your family like?"
"They're great too," Armin laughed when Eren gave him an unbelieving look. "Really, they are. They just aren't really home much. That's all."
"What do you mean? Your parents don't live at your house? That would be the good life, dude."
"Well, I mean, yes, they do, when they're here. They're church missionaries, so they travel a lot and don't come home for months sometimes," Armin explained as he studied the floor. "It's just me and grandpa most of the time. That's part of why we moved. It's easier for him to look after me when we live in the same house, you know?"
Eren nodded while heaving the door to his room open and shoving clutter out of the way to give Armin room to walk.
"What were your old friends like?" Eren asked while pushing himself onto his bed which sat high up like a throne.
"I didn't have any there either," Armin mumbled beneath his breath, studying his feet with undivided intensity. "That's that also part of why mom and dad thought moving would be a good idea. They thought I could get a new start with new kids, and grandpa lived here anyway, so it seemed like a good idea, but-" he gave a humorless laugh, "nothing changed. People still don't like me."
"I like you," Eren said too quickly.
"Well, yeah, after you pushed me into a creek of ice water," Armin smiled, "by the way, if I get sick, I'm suing you."
"I have like five dollars and some lint."
"I'll take what I can get," Armin gave a smile that didn't quite meet his wide eyes gone dim. "Seriously though, you're my only friend, and until tonight, you didn't like me either."
"You have Mikasa, too. That's a good start."
Armin tilted his head in consideration. "I guess you're right," he smiled.
"Well, obviously," Eren scoffed as if it were the most clear thing in the world before throwing himself back against his mattress and staring blankly at the popcorn ceiling. "You've got us now, buddy. We may not be much, but mom buys really good snacks sometimes, so that counts for something. And since you live across the street, you can come and steal some any time."
"What are you friends like?" Armin asked.
Eren laughed. "Jean Kirschtein, Connie Springer, and Reiner Braun. Jean's a rich kid who thinks he owns the world. Connie's an idiot and his future revolves around women and drinking, he swears on it. Reiner failed a few times and now he's 14 and still in sixth grade. My parents don't approve, so we never get to hang out outside of school. So really, you're my only friend who's likable."
"Well, you've gathered yourself an interesting crew," Armin said in an attempt to be supportive.
"Is 'interesting' just your way of saying I'm in with the wrong crowd? Because my mom said the same thing. Dad said he always knew I'd go to Juvy, but that's a different story."
"No," Armin shook his head, picking at Eren's duvet, "I don't know if they're the wrong crowd or not. They just seem interesting, that's all."
"They are," Eren agreed. Seconds seemed to extend into hours, and his eyes were beginning to sting as sleep weighed him down.
When Armin pushed himself off the bed, Eren hardly noticed. "What're you doin'?" He asked, voice groggy.
"I'm going to sleep," Armin replied softly, grabbing one of the two bags he carried across the gravel road. "I brought my grandpa's sleeping bag. He promised it was comfortable. Where should I put it?"
"No where?" Eren replied, propping himself up on his elbow, legs dangling over the edge of the bed.
Armin's face fell, eyes wide with confusion. "What do you mean?"
"We have a guest bedroom," Eren said, "or we can both sleep in my bed. It's big enough, I think?"
Hugging his sleeping bag securely against his chest, Armin eyed Eren with visible concern. "I- Are you sure? I mean I'm okay with sleeping on the floor. I really don't mind, I've done it before."
"Armin," Eren deadpanned, "either get on this bed or let me show you where the guest bedroom is. I should've just drawn blueprints."
Armin went through minutes of mental deliberation before sighing and pulling himself onto Eren's bed.
"If you change your mind, just shove me into the floor, okay?"
Eren barely acknowledged the request with a quiet hum as he reached to turn off his bedside lamp. "Goodnight, Armin."
"Night," Armin whispered into the darkness.
His heart thrummed to the rhythm of Eren's steady breathing, and in that moment, Armin wondered if there was any way to freeze time or bottle happiness. He knew that no good thing lasted forever, his parents had told that only God could supply forever, but that wouldn't stop him from hoping that Eren would want to keep him for as close to forever as possible.
He fell asleep face to face with Eren, their hands intertwined between their sleeping figures and under layers of blankets.
Armin had never felt so warm.