All that can be heard in the sparsely lit room is the insistent scratching of a pen upon paper. The sound is irksome, unceasing, like an annoying little insect right by your ear. In the pressing, complete silence the sound feels like a violation.
The shelves lining the walls, with their faded, fragile spines, are watching. The offender can feel their looming presence around him; the pen he holds is clawing at the paper.
He is hunched over a desk. A soft light cast by a banker lamp is reflected in the surface of the mahogany wood where it is not covered by heaps upon heaps of paper.
He is scribbling furiously on a respective document, his hand moving quickly from one margin to the other, each time coming dangerously close to knocking over a pile of papers that has been precariously stacked on the edge of the desk.
A heavy sigh escapes him, and he straightens up in his chair, stretching the stiff muscles of his neck. For a while he sits, staring at the papers before him with a hopeless expression. Slumping back in his seat, he releases a pitiful groan, and his body goes limp… He stares up into the ceiling, which he cannot see very well for the dark, and thick brown locks part to reveal a pair of startlingly green eyes.
Slowly, and like it is the single most demanding task he has ever had to perform, he lifts his arm to look at his wristwatch. It has him jerking back into life immediately, and once again he hunches over the cluttered desk to resume his work, albeit more frantically now, a string of expletives trickling from his lips.
The mantra continues as he flicks through a document, putting down numbers in the margins next to a long list of titles. On the top of each sheet there is a printed logo that reads, Jaeger Antique Bookstore.
“I’m not gonna fucking make it,” he mutters through clenched teeth as he glances at his watch once more. It is a quarter to seven.
He swears he is going to kill Auruo.
Why on earth did they have to do inventory today of all days? And to make it worse, Auruo just bails halfway through it because of some “important appointment”, leaving Eren behind to finish everything by himself, and the reading would be starting in – 11 minutes.
If he left now he might just make it…
“Fuck this shit!” he declares in a high-pitched tone, and he throws the pen he has been clutching for the past three hours dramatically across the desk; it skids across the papers and dives off of the edge, coming to a disdainful and clattering stop in a dusty, darkened corner. Eren nearly knocks over the pile of papers when he jumps from his seat, but they only sway threateningly as he hurries to put on his coat.
He should not be leaving, but he cannot bring himself to care. He would come back early in the morning, before opening hours, and finish the work then. If his father figured out he could put some of the blame on Auruo – and, honestly, he would not feel even slightly guilty in doing that.
He turns off the lamp and the light is swallowed so quickly that it startles him – a feeling of dislocation, as if, perhaps, he has been swallowed along with it; now trapped behind a row of sharp, gleaming teeth that he cannot see within the darkness of an imagined maw.
Eren’s heartbeat quickens.
He stumbles through the bookstore, now draped in a cloak of night. He is halfway through the room when he realises that he has forgotten something. Shocked at his own carelessness he turns around so quickly he loses his balance and ends up tearing down a pile of books; they sound like thunder in the dark silence. He curses himself for the habit of using the banker lamp only, when he has to feel his way back to the desk where it sits.
When his fingers touch the cold metal that is the lamp, and the light washes over the mess on the table, he is somewhat relieved. His eyes are scanning as his hands frantically shuffle the books and the papers away in his desperate search.
“Where’d it go?” he whispers, as if atoning for all the noise before, trying to control his breathing because it is too loud in the oppressing hush of the place.
He knows he is running late, but he does not want to leave without it.
A stack of papers is pushed off the desktop so that they flutter away in the dark to slide underneath shelves that stretch ominously to the ceiling; their flight reveals what Eren is looking for and he sighs when it appears before him.
It is a tattered, well-used book, its cover a faded blue; a paperback copy whose title reads Metaphysics.
When he has it secured, he lets the room swallow itself up once more, and he escapes outside, cracking the spine of a book that lies on the cold, unforgiving floor as he flees.
He can breathe again when he stands outside on the pavement in front of the shop.
It takes some rummaging through pockets and a few solemn profanities before he finally happens upon his keys and can lock the door.
Eren runs across the street, setting a brisk pace as he walks down the pavement, casting a disgruntled look at the lamps lining the street, which remain stubbornly unlighted.
It is cold. The wind is pulling at his coat, ruffling his hair and chilling the skin of his face; it feels like a taut mask has been pulled onto his skull.
The sky is dark so Eren cannot see the clouds that lurk in the abyss above. Still he can feel them hovering; his shoulders tense up and the muscles of his face contract as a headache starts to pound in the back of his head. It is the cold, he concludes. His hands feel numb so he digs them into his coat pockets. The thought of winter crosses his mind and he shudders.
He quickens his pace; he has to get to that reading on time.
It is risky, of course. He would have to be discreet. If his father were to find out that he has attended…
Eren grits his teeth and bows his head to the merciless wind. At least it is not raining, he thinks. But the air is shivering; he senses there will be a violent downpour before the evening is over.
He is clutching the blue book; his fingertips are cold and itchy.
Walking like this, neck bent against the wind, eyes squinting at dark asphalt, he can’t see much, but he knows these streets well – he has walked them a thousand times.
A look at his watch tells him he has less than five minutes, and he speeds up to a half jog.
He turns a corner and slips on the wet leaves covering the asphalt, only just managing to regain his balance. Relief washes over him when he looks up to see his destination ahead – a white stone building that is modestly ornamented; the sign on the front reads, ‘The House of Literature’. The place shines like a beacon, calling Eren to it with its promise of warmth and light.
When he finally reaches it he does not climb the stairs for the main entrance. Throwing a look around him to make sure no one is nearby, he slips down a cobbled path that leads to a back door.
The minute he enters through it he can hear the noise from the kitchen at one end of the corridor; he hurries in the opposite direction. There is a small flight of stairs up ahead and he climbs them two at a time as he keeps ignoring the hitch that has appeared in his side. His heart is hammering in his chest.
It is seven p.m., he is almost there, and he is going to make it.
All right, all he has to do now is try to press his way into the auditorium and somehow spot Armin in the crowd. He should be somewhere in the back, as is their usual –
A hard impact sends Eren reeling backwards. His balance fails him, and he falls to the floor rather ungracefully.
“Jesus, fuck –!”
Sitting on the floor, groaning in pain, Eren attempts to gather his wits. Looking up, he catches sight of his assailant – who looks very, very angry. Extremely very angry, Eren decides.
“What the fuck is wrong with you!” the man snarls.
“I-I’m sorry,” Eren gasps, out of breath, and still a little disoriented.
The man is glaring at him; the frown he is wearing is as severe as one carved into marble. He is holding a glass with a brown liquid in it; most of it has spilled onto the floor and it looks like some got on his suit as well. The intensity of his gaze strikes something of a chill into Eren, and he scrambles to his feet, because it looks like the man might be seconds from kicking his head in.
“Who are you?” he barks, looking Eren over critically. “You’re not staff.”
Eren opens his mouth to give an explanation, but he is having a hard time. The man’s vehement hostility is making him nervous and he knows he is running out of time; he can hear the sound of a buzzing crowd up ahead – people are most likely making their way into the auditorium right this moment...
“Oi, I’m talking to you.”
Presently, Eren realises that the book he’s been carrying is no longer in his hand, and his heart skips a beat. However, he spots it immediately after, lying on the floor at the feet of the angry man. Eren bends down and snatches it up quickly.
The book now in his hands has drawn the man’s attention; cold, grey eyes behold the badly treated copy, before they return to the one who is holding it, perhaps too tightly; and they are narrowing.
The man gives an annoyed huff.
“You know what, I don’t care,” he steps forward, “nor do I have time for this.”
With a last look at Eren, eyes slipping down his form to settle briefly on the book in his hands, he brushes past him and continues down the corridor.
Eren stands immobile for a second, a little out of it. Yet he sets off again, out of time, heart hammering, thoughts chasing him down the corridor.
He gets there just in time to join the throng of people filing in through the double doors leading into the auditorium. He can feel the excitement building in him, it causes him to shiver minutely, and the disquieting encounter he has just had is pushed out of his mind.
He tries to locate a particular blond head among the people in the crowd, but it is not an easy task. When he finally enters through the doors his eyes scan the seats in the back, still looking for his best friend. He should be there somewhere…
Finally his eyes catch sight of a hand waving at him from the second row in the back and Eren spots Armin’s blond mop of hair. He manoeuvres through the crowd, climbing the stairs to where Armin is seated.
As he makes his way through the crowd, he feels like a hundred eyes are watching him. It is tempting to pull his hood up, but the thought is a little ridiculous, and it would undoubtedly only draw more attention to him. Instead he does his best to keep his head down as he makes his way, cursing under his breath when he sees familiar faces; it would not do him any favours if he were recognised here tonight.
“Eren!” Armin beams when he reaches him. He looks relieved. “I didn’t think you would make it.”
“Me neither,” Eren pants; slumping back into the seat Armin has saved for him. It feels like he has just finished running the marathon. As he relaxes in the comfy seat, finally getting the opportunity to catch his breath, a surge of irritation hits him.
“It was that bloody Auruo’s fault,” he explains. “He bailed on me.”
Armin sighs. “You should tell your father, you know.”
Eren lets out a spiteful laugh. “Yeah, that way he’ll be fired and then I’ll have to do double the work. I don’t think so, Armin.”
Armin shrugs. “Yeah, maybe you’re right.”
When he is calm enough, he has the sense to throw a discreet look around before slumping further down into his seat. It earns him a sympathetic glance from Armin.
“I hate this so much,” Eren mutters.
“I know. I’m sorry, Eren.”
The silence is tense for a few seconds before Eren says, “There’s a lot of people here.”
And it is true, he can’t remember the last time it was this packed.
“I’m not surprised,” Armin says. “Everybody’s talking about him.” He throws a meaningful look at Eren. “Some people are physically incapable of shutting up about him.”
“Fuck you,” Eren laughs, but he does not deny it.
His glumness is expelled as they watch and wait, his irritation wanes when he becomes absorbed in the present and in the prevalent atmosphere of expectation that permeates the air in the room. Eren’s eyes are glued to the stage.
Any minute now – any minute he would appear before them. Eren’s fingers are splayed on the book in his lap. He wonders what he will be like.
When the lights are dimmed Eren’s heartbeat picks up. He gives Armin an excited look before he attaches his eyes to the stage again.
A woman appears. She walks over to the podium and welcomes them.
“We are so glad to have such an amazing turn-up for this event. As you all know, our guest tonight will be talking about his debut novel, Metaphysics. He has attracted a lot of attention from the literary community recently, and has caused some substantial controversy. We are very lucky to have him here with us tonight. Please welcome – Levi Ackerman!”
A round of applause breaks out and the woman retreats. A minute or so passes before another figure appears onstage. The atmosphere of tense expectation eases up when the audience can finally look upon the writer, as if they were half expecting him not to show, or were perhaps entertaining the idea that the fabled author did not exist at all.
But there he is and he looks very real.
And very, very hostile.
Wait – what?
Eren nearly falls off his chair when he recognises the man.
There can be no doubt about it – it’s that short angry guy from before.
He is walking up to the podium.
That is Levi Ackerman.
When the author finally takes his place by the podium and the stage lights can illuminate him properly, Eren decides that he looks even more unpleasant than before. Eren can’t help it; he sinks lower in his seat like he is afraid the man will notice him in the crowd. Maybe it is just Eren’s imagination, but the author’s grim demeanour seems to have increased a tenfold.
The audience is applauding him, evidently unfazed by his dark appearance, or maybe they have not yet noticed. After the applause dies out, the auditorium falls into an expectant silence as they willingly submit to the great presence on stage. Everyone is watching him, waiting for the author to speak.
But for a moment, the man seems petrified. Underneath the stage lights he looks exceptionally pale, unhealthily so. The gaze that he turns upon them is antagonistic yet defensive; involuntarily the image of a hedgehog appears in Eren’s mind; curled into itself, its spikes sticking out in a threatening manner.
Eren can see him clutching a glass filled with a clear liquid. He is not so sure that it is water.
The man flicks the mouth of the microphone and people jump in their seats when the speakers emit an obnoxious crack.
”I am not here today to talk about my book.”
Eren’s stomach drops.
The author's voice is a cool, bored drawl that travels across the auditorium like an icy wind, and the sheer enmity of it cannot be mistaken. Abruptly the atmosphere shifts; people are noticing the unfriendly appearance of the writer; uncertain and confused looks are exchanged.
“Although, I must say, I am a little humbled to see so many of you here tonight. You must be very interested in my novel.”
The scorn in his voice is not lost on Eren.
The author removes his glare from the audience, and his fingers release the glass he has been holding to bring out a folded sheet of paper, along with a pair of glasses from an inner pocket. The glasses are placed on the thin bridge of his nose. Slowly he starts unfolding the paper. When it is done he places it atop the podium and takes a sip of his drink.
He looks perfectly unconcerned by the fact that he has an audience, even seems like he has forgotten all about them as he lets the tension in the room build to the point where it becomes nearly unbearable.
A terrible feeling is forming in the pit of Eren’s stomach and, he is not aware of it, but his fingers have started to abuse the cover of the book placed snugly in his lap.
When the author speaks once more it feels like the drawing of breath after having been submerged under water.
“My novel has become exceptionally fashionable, which would explain your immense interest in it, of course,” he says, and Eren thinks he can detect a slight slur in the man’s speech, but it is barely there. “Because you’re all so very interested in things, aren’t you,” he holds up a finger for emphasis, “- in the right things, naturally. And at this moment, my novel is the right thing to be interested in, isn’t it? It’s fashionable.”
The author pauses and directs his gaze out onto the audience. It is punishing; Eren can feel it weighing him down; it is crushing him further down into his seat. The bad feeling that has been growing within him is now bordering on nausea. Eren looks to Armin and he can tell that his friend is feeling uncomfortable, too. His eyes travel back to the creature on stage.
What is this? Why is he being like this?
“Getting to it, I am here to make an official statement.”
A murmur runs through the auditorium. A statement?
“I will make this brief and to the point. I don’t wish to stay here any longer than I have to… I have been invited to join this little club and I am here to officially decline that invitation.”
His voice is becoming more forceful as he speaks, more purposeful, fuelled by some kind of conviction that has yet to be disclosed.
“They want to affiliate me – this literary institution wants me to join them. But I do not believe in institutions such as these, and I will not be affiliated. I want no part in it, this closed minded, elitist, stagnant, traditionalist, club. And they must be deluded, thinking that I would even consider joining them.”
As the author speaks, his movements are a little unsteady, uncoordinated, but his voice is firm, powerful, compelling; Eren recognises the voice – it is the voice of the book he is currently clinging to.
This is the man it originates from, he realises. This man is its source, and it makes sense – it makes perfect sense. It is that dichotomy of control in the midst of chaos, of a fragile harmony made out of contradiction – something that can easily be taken apart.
“I am on my own,” he declares. “I will not let you disarm me.”
Inexplicably, that particular statement has Eren’s spine tingling; a shiver runs through him, and he finds himself having a hard time taking his eyes off of the author, the being, the presence on stage.
Before Eren is able to gather himself, the man’s voice is ringing out across the auditorium again.
“And before I wrap this up I would like to share with you a few lines from a sensational review of my novel, perhaps my favourite one so far.”
A pale hand slips inside his jacket to retrieve another piece of paper, this one crumpled and bearing clear signs of having been torn out of a newspaper. He attempts to smooth it out as best as he can, before downing the remainder of his drink in one go.
“This particular review was printed in the evening paper, and I’m sure many of you have already read it, as it is by the one and only Grisha Jaeger.”
Eren, against his every instinct, jerks up in his chair, and it does not go unnoticed by the people sitting around them, but Eren is oblivious.
Armin is pushing him back, and Eren tears his eyes from the stage to look at his friend, eyes wide with shock and hissing, what did he just say??, but Armin is only shaking his head.
Ackerman clears his throat and starts reading.
“‘Ackerman’s Metaphysics is a rare example of exceptionally coarse literature. It is lacking in style and finesse, the prose is unprocessed and chaotic, vulgar and cringe worthy, and, regularly, completely incomprehensible - although, however, some fault must be attributed to Ackerman’s editor, Erwin Smith, here. It is a mystery how such an unrefined script would be accepted for publication at all. Overall, the novel is lacking in seriousness. It has absolutely no respect for the genre it operates within, or more accurately, the genre it claims to be operating within. Metaphysics cannot be called a novel. Frequently it resembles nothing more than the rant of a neurotic, a cry for attention – and yet, it does not say much at all. I cannot comprehend the reason behind its receiving this extreme amount of attention. Personally, I see no merit in it, this ugly patchwork, this mockery of language, style and tradition.’”
Every word that is being read is like a blow, yet Eren listens intently, nails digging into the flesh of his palms; and he hates those words – god, he hates them.
The author ceases his recitation and he looks out on the audience once more – it is utterly silent.
He removes his glasses, folds them. The slip of paper is folded, too, neatly, before being deposited in his jacket pocket along with his glasses.
Relentlessly the author lets the moment drag on; it squirms before him, but he does not step on it immediately, relishing every second that sees it dragged along, suffering.
In the taut quiet he has constructed, his voice sounds particularly impressive when he finally shatters it; it echoes in the great room, but he sounds calmer than before; more in control.
“As you may have gathered, Jaeger and I have very different views when it comes to language, style, and literature.”
“I’ve been waiting to hear what the Great Jaeger would have to say to my work, and to think that I’ve received a response like this is honestly more than I had ever dared hope for. It makes me feel extremely accomplished, and,” a smile is slowly stretching on his lips, “extremely motivated…”
He inclines his head in the direction of the audience.
“Thank you for having me. It has been a pleasure.”
And before anyone can fully grasp what is transpiring, Ackerman is marching off stage.
There is only a brief moment of prolonged silence, and then the audience is erupting in a cacophony of excited murmurs, and the lady-host soon comes running to the podium, stammering into the microphone, but few are actually listening, and Eren has had enough.
He gets out of his chair. "I really want to leave."
Armin nods, and joins Eren as he makes his way down the row of seats, muttering apologies as they try not to step on the feet of those still seated.
They are standing outside the auditorium. Armin is surveying his best friend, whose hand is trekking through his brown locks for the third time already.
“I had no idea my father was going to review his book," Eren says in near disbelief.
People have started filing out of the double doors now, and Armin guides the disturbed Eren towards the “alternative” exit before too many people can appear. They turn a corner and a deserted hallway is exceptionally welcome.
"I don't think anyone recognised me," Eren says, sensing Armin's apprehension.
Armin nods, but he doesn’t look reassured.
“That’s good, but are you okay? You look upset.”
They are walking down the hall, leaving behind the noise emanating from the crowd currently pouring out of the auditorium.
“I don’t know,” he says.
The image of the ranting writer won't leave Eren’s mind, and the words he spoke echo inside his head. The terrible feeling from before sits in the bottom of his stomach, but it has evolved into something else, something indefinable. It is an intimidating conglomerate of feelings, spreading through him, quickly, like a gas desperate to fill its container.
He is so acutely aware of the book he has lodged in between his arm and his side, like it's being welded into his flesh, like it's merging with his body, too, just like it has merged with his mind.
Looking over at Armin, Eren can tell that his friend is in deep thought. He sighs, but he does not say anything.
They walk down a flight of stairs and shortly they spot the exit ahead of them. Armin is the one to push the door open, delivering them out into cold darkness. The light of a nearby streetlamp serves as a substitute, illuminating the paved path that leads to the front of the building; it also reveals the figures of two men, presumably in the middle of a discussion.
“ – completely unnecessary, Levi! This is not going to be good for your publicity.”
“Does it look like I care, Erwin? ‘Cause I’m telling you, I don’t give a single fuck.”
Eren and Armin halt, both flinching when the door slams shut behind them. The sound startles the men, too, and they both turn to locate the source of interruption.
The shortest of the pair Eren recognizes immediately; it is none other than the writer, Levi Ackerman himself. The taller one, with his broad shoulders and blonde hair, he does not recognise. He looks weary and annoyed and Eren kind of feels sympathy for him, whoever he is.
The writer, on the other hand, inspires no such sympathy.
His eyes are narrowing as he turns to look at them – gaze honed; Eren can feel it cutting into him. A second or two passes, and there is a look of recognition in Ackerman’s features, and Eren recalls their unpleasant encounter in the hallway earlier.
The taller man next to him is giving the author a serious look, which the latter promptly ignores. The jaw that he has stubbornly set, relaxes as something moves in his eyes and makes him look possibly meaner than before, like an animal sensing the smell of fresh blood.
“Look who it is,” he says, a sneer pulling at his lips. “Did you enjoy the show?”
Eren’s voice is stuck in his throat. Again he is taken aback by the sheer hostility that is emanating from the man. It is stronger and more acute than before, and it robs him of the immediate ability to speak. Never in his life has he encountered such a spiteful person and he does not know how to deal with it.
One look at the man and Eren can tell that he is starving.
To speak is to bare one’s throat, and Eren has a feeling that the creature before him will lunge the minute he opens his mouth.
Armin is tugging at his sleeve, motioning for them to leave and Eren wants to, desperately, yet… there’s that feeling.
He can’t shake it. He has to know.
“What was that – at the end?” he hears himself say. The words tumble out of his mouth, desperate to escape, as if they know they will be withheld if they are any slower. “What did you mean?”
In the silence left by his words, Eren’s heartbeat speeds up and he thinks he might be shaking. He can tell that he has surprised the author; the sneer on his lips is waning, his eyes adopt something akin to curiosity.
Within him there is a tiny, trembling flame of hope, and it feels good, its light brushing against an intimidating darkness, its warmth comforting; he does not want it to be extinguished.
“A sharp one,” is what the author says and he looks amused. Eren cannot tell if he is being sarcastic or not. His arms are folded across his chest as he turns to the younger man, giving him his full attention. “What’s your name?”
It is rather blunt, but Eren is beginning to see that bluntness is one of the writer’s most representative characteristics.
He hates the way he yields his name so quickly.
“You were rushing weren’t you, Eren? To catch the reading?” There is a hint of triumph in the man’s voice.
Eren can feel himself becoming increasingly nettled by the way the author is behaving. Suddenly he finds himself wishing that he were not carrying the man’s book under his arm.
“Well, I hope you found it entertaining,” the author says.
The man is mocking him. Not only him specifically, but all the people who came to hear him speak, too.
“What’s wrong with you?” Eren cries, clearly startling the men in front of him, and honestly, he’s a little alarmed by the outburst himself. Next to him, he can hear Armin doing a sharp intake of breath. He does not look at his friend, fearing the rationality he knows he will find in those sharp, blue eyes, and when his lips part it is like an act of defiance.
“Many of those people admire you. They came because they are interested in your work, because it is different, because they’ve never read anything like it before, because they are – ”
- because they are starving, he thinks, but he doesn’t say; he knows he is shaking now.
“They wanted to hear you speak,” he continues. “They wanted to hear your thoughts, and instead you insult and disappoint them. I don’t see why you even bothered coming here if that was all you wanted to do. No matter what you say, this place is a good place, and I don’t know what those people have done to deserve the treatment you just gave them. That was so mean spirited. You belittled and disrespected them. That is not how you should treat your readers. For all you know they are very committed to your work. Don’t let them pay for your cynicism and spite.”
As he goes on, the surprised look on the author’s face soon vanishes. Instead a grim, foreboding air descends on him as he lets his gaze bear down upon Eren, as if it alone has the power to shut him up, but Eren does not budge, he has never been one to back down, and although it is extremely unnerving, he meets that deadly glare square on.
When he finishes it is silent for a long moment; Ackerman’s face is stony, his lips sealed tightly, as if demonstrating his unwillingness to break it – silences are his speciality after all.
It is cruel. Eren can feel tears stinging in his eyes.
“Are you done?”
The author’s voice is freezing cold; dead, and so is his stare.
Eren can feel his throat constrict and he is so grateful for the greedy night; otherwise the tears he is forcing back would only be too apparent.
“Come on, Eren.”
Armin takes a firm hold of his arm, and it makes it easier to break from Ackerman’s assaulting glare. He feels calmer when he looks to Armin, Armin who gives him a reassuring smile and says, “Let’s go,” in a nice, warm voice.
As they walk down the cobbled path, Eren can feel the author’s eyes on him; it makes him hunch his shoulders.
Armin squeezes his arm in response. They reach the curb and they move down the street together.
Eren’s heart is still hammering away in his chest, fuelled by the adrenaline of confrontation. Every word he threw at the writer is looping in his mind; words that he has never imagined himself saying in the scenarios he has frequently conjured in his mind. This is not how he has pictured meeting the man who he admires so greatly, whose writing has had such an impact on him…
It is only when he knows they must be out of sight that Eren allows himself to relax. He slows his pace and Armin falls into step beside him. They walk in silence for about two minutes before Eren breaks.
“Oh my god, Armin.”
“Oh my god.”
Armin puts a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, Eren.”
“I just lectured Levi Ackerman!” he shouts, looking at Armin with an expression of horror. “Why did you let me do that?!”
“Eren, calm down!” Armin begs. “He had it coming!”
“Really? You don’t think I was being unreasonable?”
“No, I think he was the unreasonable one,” Armin says. “Besides, it’s not always sensible to stay silent, Eren. I think you did right in telling him. And…” he adds, a little hesitant, “he was clearly acting very… unprofessional.”
Eren frowns, remembering the author's unsteadiness, the slight slur of his speech. They walk in silence for a while, both lost in their ruminations.
There are not many people out, even though it is still relatively early. Eren suspects that it is the cold and the dark that have chased them inside.
He utters the name quietly, carefully, and Armin turns to him with a serious look on his face.
“I’m not sure, but," he hesitates, taking a minute to breathe, to confirm that his skin is prickling, to check if the book really has slotted itself in-between his ribs, because it kind of feels like it. "I think he was challenging my father.”
A wave of exhilaration runs through him as he says it.
But Armin does not reply immediately, and Eren feels a peculiar anxiousness seething in him, like the eruption of a cold sweat. He wants Armin to confirm his suspicion; the flame inside him is flickering – it is so vulnerable. Armin is quiet, still in deep thought.
They reach the end of the street and Armin halts beneath a streetlamp. Eren follows his example and slows to a stop next to his friend, eyes alight, watching him expectantly.
“No,” Armin says eventually, his brow corrugated in a frown. “I think it was more than that.”
Eren feels his breath catch in his throat. “What do you mean?”
“Rather than a simple challenge, I think it was a declaration of war.”