Actions

Work Header

Sleepwalking in Pairs|In Gardens Without Names

Chapter Text

Light flashes across Levi’s eyes as he blinks, one, two; he traces the lines and shapes of faint sunshine and shadow as they splay across the walls. Consciousness comes slowly, sluggishly. He has always demanded a room with a window, and his new quarters are no exception.

The water is cold, wakes him up fully, sluices down his forearms and leaves the hair on his neck standing on end. No stubble – he shaved yesterday. He peers into the mirror intently, looms there for seconds. It’s all just philosophy anyway, the kind that stays locked away and dusty in the thick tomes that line Erwin’s bookshelves. There’s no second person, no second pair of eyes. It’s really just him staring into himself.

Clean. That’s what the morning is, fresh and cold in his nostrils. He looks across the mess hall in the pale, dawn light. The chair at the far end, facing the doors, is still slightly askew from where he left it just four hours before, having left alone. It looks foggy in here, washed out and a little indistinct, gray, and somehow the pale yellows and creams of weak illumination make him think of lemon rinds, bitter and sharp.

Tea for one. One teaspoon. One cup. A seat for one, at the end of a long, long table. Here too, sunshine and shadow plaster close to stone, and he watches quietly as they move, centimeter by centimeter, across the floor. No one sits across from him.

The morning is gray, and it’s all philosophy, it’s really just him looking into himself. In another half hour, the sun will have risen fully above the horizon, and things will be as they should be. His squad members will mill about for breakfast, murmuring themselves to wakefulness until they start fighting over who has the lion’s share of bread or cheese or eggs. In another half hour, he’ll be stepping away with his stomach oddly heavy, but there will be no voice to bid him goodbye, there will be no voice to call his name and bid his attention from outside his office window, and right now there is no one here but himself, examining morning light and colors and mirrors like he knows fuck all what any of the philosophy books ever said, like words or theories could ever make sense and understand who he was better than the man who smiled so clearly and willingly at him every morning, every afternoon, every sleepless night.

Levi sips from his cup, the faint fragrance of roses rising in his nostrils. He blinks. It is day two of the fifth trial.

Eren is not here.

Chapter Text

Eren has traveled far, and fast. Sometimes he rides close to the others, and it’s like old times when things were less complicated and they were just trainees in the barracks trying to live their lives in the ways they thought were better. Sometimes he rides far from them, so far that he can only chase after their backs, faint dots on the horizon, and he rides steadily, methodically, even though the pit of frantic worry in his chest likes to grow, likes to tell him he’s being left behind.

Stars wheel above his head, and when he looks to his right Armin will tell him all the stories he used to, his Grandfather’s book clutched tight in his hands, and when he looks to his left, Mikasa will be listening, will look at him with quiet eyes, and her left cheek will dimple just a little, and she’ll hide her smile in her scarf. When they do not ride, it is just him and his dependable mare, walking shifting sands and crunching gravel. There are many things for him and his mare to see as they walk – the twilight roads, shadowed and blue, are lit by the fantastical sparks of the mountains of fire, the sky bruised by smoky grays and purples and the violent oranges and reds of the flame, the icy roads are treacherous but lined by shifting drifts of snow, and sometimes he and his horse go tromping through little hills on purpose, just to feel the soft squish of snow beneath their feet. Sometimes he is just surrounded by green, grasses and weeds so tall he cannot see past them, lush, age-old forests that drop their leaves quietly as he passes by.

Sometimes he can’t go on any longer. His limbs will get heavier and heavier until he’s so weighed down he feels the ground will just open up at swallow him, and he’ll stare straight up into the blue of the sky until he suffocates and the earth takes him in. But his mare will lift him onto her back and carry him.

“She’ll keep you safe, that’s why she’s going with you,” he hears Levi say each time he’s buoyed by her strength and courage, feels the shift of her muscles and the snort of her breath.

Where he’s headed, there’s an ocean, like Armin promised him long ago. He’s on the mare’s back when he sees it for the first time, and he looks behind him and he’s alone, because he’s walking, he’s been walking, and Eren has traveled far and fast, sustained by sights and stories.

He’s dumped in the water, and it tastes like tears. He sputters, coughs, but there’s a short, dry chuckle that has him straining to get his head above the waterline.

“Levi,” he gasps, and he sees him standing waist deep in the water, he sees him smiling in that small, sad way of his like he did at Historia’s coronation. He’s been to the lake, he’s been to the river, he’s swum and he knows how to float, but as he tries to reach Levi he sinks, he sinks, he’s heavy, he’s weight, and the horse is gone because Eren walked, and when he walks he’s alone. The water tasted like tears, but it’s so beautiful, endless blue so clear he could see straight to the center of the earth, Levi’s so beautiful and Eren hears him whispering his name in his ears, laughing.

Where he’s headed there’s an ocean, and when Eren opens his mouth in a gasp and the water washes in, he wonders how many times he must have cried and drowned to make it, how many months and years he had to walk, how many days he spent alone with the echo of Armin’s songs in his ears, Mikasa’s solid determination swinging from his neck, Levi’s strength of will tied to his feet. He’s seen so many things but it’s not enough.

The water’s so clear, he can see Levi’s legs as he sinks and sinks, walking toward the shifting steps of his mare, the both of them headed to shore. Dizzily, Levi’s voice in his ears, Eren thinks that his tears will nourish the world. He’ll be the rain, he’ll be the snow, he’ll be the ice that traps and tricks unwitting travelers. He’ll be the ocean too, unattainable. He’ll be a legend.

Chapter Text

The night before Historia’s coronation, Levi gave Hanji the vial Kenny left behind.

Left behind. Ha.

Hanji had the glasses off, had the hair down, looked at him quiet and steely with the sardonic edge carved deep into their mouth. Hanji of old, Hanji of days past – Hanji as they always were, a little ruthless, a lot merciless, angry and sad and betrayed.

“You sure?” they still asked, anyway.

“Yeah,” Levi said.

That was it really. They stared at each other a little bit, at least until Hanji closed the cloth-lined box with a small thump and thanked him, and Levi walked away, the sound of his footsteps heavy on the walls.

He did it for a reason. He’s had a bad habit, ever since long ago, a bad habit of always being too late, always losing people and things, and somehow, that’s not something that ever managed to change. He’s never had the right kind of strength. Eren does. But Eren has changed. Eren smiles and speaks and salutes the same, but he dreams more, he dreams wide and vast, he dreams so hard he’s learned to blanket his world in the unreality of it. Since the experiments started, sometimes it’s even worse.

It’s not that Levi doesn’t understand. Some days Eren is stuck in caves and basements, just like Levi is sometimes stuck curled up on the horribly familiar floor of a shadowed room, or in bloodied streets. They’ve never talked about it. They only talk of mundane things, the new mole Eren spotted on Armin’s ear, the training plan for the next week, paperwork and transfers, because there’s nothing else in their lives that can be touched upon – as if their words were weapons, they say nothing for the slight fear, the slight superstition, that their speech would bring nothing but ill. They are waiting for the next thing to strike. They are waiting for the next axe to fall. Historia is now a queen and Levi’s squad has its own separate barracks in a lush forest in eastern Rose because of their intense involvement with the events leading up to her coronation, but when the ground shakes Eren, Mikasa, and Armin still look to the south.

Three months is all Hanji needs. Kenny’s sample is too precious to use, too precious to waste. They’ve studied the sample day and night for weeks, and the result is a replica that they’re hoping will reproduce the crystallization effect that Rod Reiss’ mysterious solution induced.

When Hanji presents their proposal in their lab, Eren’s reaction is shockingly tempered. His hands clench, his lips press together, but he blinks placidly and gives his agreement. Levi watches him, back to the wall and arms folded across his chest, and wonders if Eren’s still waking up with nightmares.

The first test is a failure. Eren’s titan is a quiet beast, no longer roars and blunders as he used to, but instead curls down meekly on the ground with a huff, as if trying to get closer to the nervous soldiers milling about below. Steam pours out of his nostrils with a steady exhale, and Levi finds something familiar in the way brown hair slips over knotted brow, over distant looking eyes.

“He’s hotter than usual!” Sasha yelps, dancing away from one gargantuan hand.

“Sasha’s right, I can feel the hot air from here,” Armin murmurs grimly from where he stands near his friend’s prone form.

Eren’s titan lets out a low keening noise, like the distant groan of a falling tree, blinks slowly. Levi is reminded of Eren in that lab, looking so small and sleepy in the midst of crooked piles of books and papers, is reminded of the way Eren’s shoulders were slumped the first time he came walking out of his room in the early morning, pale, sweaty, and shocked, eyes so wide and terrified Levi could see the hungry pupil threatening to swallow all the color Eren seemed to have in him.

Eren doesn’t really talk about what happened to him when he was captured. The parts about being put in a coffin, about being gagged and offered like some grand sacrifice, he’s divulged readily enough. The rest Historia had to fill in.

Too late, Levi thinks resignedly, and he feels tired, like he should be able to feel more devastated, more heartbroken, but the cracks in his heart and the heaviness in his chest are such old friends he doesn’t even need to dig into them for them to swallow his thoughts at night. The first time he met Eren and saw the spark in his eye, the will and the determination, feels like so long ago.

Eren’s titan cries again like a beast wounded, and lies still, unresponsive, eyes closed for the first time. When they cut his neck open, Eren lies curled inside like a baby, skin searing hot and breathing shallow, only very slightly connected to his larger form with thin, weak fibers. His limbs are terrifyingly limp as Levi and Mikasa and lift him out into the waiting wooden cart, an old drill that they’ve grown used to since they lived together in a little cabin in the woods.

But even the cabin is a dream, even the cabin is something soft and whimsical and idyllic. Now Historia is a queen in the capital separated from her friends, now the other kids shudder awake in nightmares or run to the toilets to throw up when they cut themselves in the kitchen and see the blood, and Eren walks the halls at night restlessly, over and over, at least until Levi can tug him into the kitchen to settle him with a cup of tea. They’re a barracks full of wide-eyed sleepless creatures, dark bags carved under their skin, uncertainty dug into the dips of their hands. They’re losing the things that fueled them, they’re losing sight of the things that used to guide them, and where Eren used to be a compass straight and true, he needs his time to recalibrate, to spin his needle, to understand where and to what he wants to point.

“I had a beautiful dream,” is what Eren says when he wakes from the first trial, early morning when the sun is still tucked away, and the skies are greyed and blued with hues of slate and indigo. His lips crack and bleed a little when he talks, but the puff of healing steam doesn’t come. His voice is tremulous, delicate, young, and he is but a boy. He is but a boy.

“What kind of dream?” Levi asks, looking up from his stack of papers, achingly awake as he usually is during these hours.

“I don’t know,” Eren says, and Levi reaches over with a clean, dampened cloth to wipe away his fever sweat, dab at the blood at his lips. He blinks at Levi, raises a hot hand to touch the part of Levi’s wrist that hovers before him, just the jut of bone, the barely-visible tracery of artery and veins beneath skin. “I don’t know. I can’t remember.”

And he cries. He’s a quiet crier, Eren, and Levi is his witness. He clenches his hands in the sheets and sniffles a little, face red and scrunched up, he puts the backs of his hands against his eyes as if it could stem the fevered spill of his tears. The fragrance of Levi’s rose black tea hovers in the air, perfumes the room of its sanitized smell.

Since then, the trials have gone better, and it has become increasingly difficult to wake Eren up. He’ll take the injection, his skin might harden enough just to begin flaking and crumbling off his muscles, and he’ll collapse all at once like a flawed watchtower, only to wake screaming three days later. He’ll crystallize an arm, let the ice creep up his back and across his shoulders, and then he’ll stop, body locked in paralysis. He’s stiff and unyielding when pried out, and he complains of muscle soreness when he wakes.

Trial five, day six. It’s actually a special trial because Hanji’s solution worked, but it might have worked a little too well because Eren’s been half encased in crystal for days. Not like Annie Leonhardt, who remains entombed in an entire block of solid titan crystal, but like the surface of a lake, the frost creeping gingerly over his limbs, nesting close to skin, still and silent and threatening.

Levi visits him sometimes, in the early mornings since that’s become the time for them. Them: one, two. Sits there with his tea and paperwork, just like the first time. It feels silly, but the routine is like a ritual, like if Levi did it enough times he could get Eren to wake up and drink the tea with him like he would in the mess hall. No one says it but it’s on everyone’s mind – titan crystal tends to be permanent.

But Eren won’t give. Even quiet and blinking, small and sleepy, Eren won’t give. If Levi is able to put faith in anything that’s what he’ll invest it in. Too late, he’ll sometimes think at night, and he’ll reach over with very slightly shaking hands to rest two calloused fingertips against the hollow of Eren’s throat, he’ll stop breathing just to make sure that the distant throbbing beneath his hand is a sure thing, a real thing. Minutes and seconds slip by in that room, and it’s been six days but it feels like the passing of eras, and strangely, strangely, while he waits he’ll sometimes slip into uneasy sleep.

But sleep isn’t what it should be: he doesn’t dream, he doesn’t rest. In the syrupy gray and lemon-bitter mornings he’ll look at Eren’s rapidly paling face – the slightly crooked line of his nose, the messy line of his brows, the scatter of slight freckles on the delicate curve of his ears. He’ll wake up slumped against the bed, against Eren’s side, and the warmth of Eren’s body disappears in an instant, as if he were an illusion. His tea is cold, his papers are mussed. He is in a dream. He is a dream. Eren the dreamer, Eren the compass, Eren who has lost his way.

Too late, the words drum inside Levi’s head, his fingers trembling and tucked against the side of Eren’s throat. The ritual is beginning again, the sincere wish, the summoning, and Levi’s eyes trace against lines of stone. He thinks of mirrors and bullshit philosophy, and holds his breath for the heartbeat.

 

Chapter Text

Prickling, tingling, a low hum and a weight on him. Coldness, softness, the sharp sting and heckle of something he can only vaguely recognize as cold air, and distantly, he can feel the heaviness of his own body, the way his fingers sink and carve into rough bedsheet. His eyes are closed but they cannot open, he breathes but still it feels as if he would stop anytime. Cresting, roiling, open your eyes, open your eyes, and the weight increases, crushes him under its bulk, he imagines his sternum cracking bit by bit, his ribs snapping outward like a splayed, spidery lily, and the hum crescendos, rises to a scream, to the buzz of a thousand flies, and his heart hammers, hammers away, prey, prey. He tells himself to breath, tells himself to move, but his body does not listen, his body does not heed.

Suddenly, he breathes in deeply, sharply, chokes on the air and jerks out of the bed to fall onto wood, lies gasping there like he were newborn. He grabs at his throat, pats at his chest, and he is cold, he is cold and the sheen of his sweat makes him colder, and the walls are blue, the world is blue, and he scrambles, remembers the weight and the scream of the world and wraps his arms and the bedsheet tight around himself like a shield and runs, heedless of the slap of his bare feet on stone.

He is lost, each hallway like the last, labyrinthine and dark, and desperation drives him to run, always run, because the cold chases him, the screaming chases him, and he is scared of the cold and of the weight, and there are some things, he is learning, that he cannot fight on his own. Terror nips close at his heels and he blinks hard, eyes forward, eyes open, and breathe. He cannot recognize the corridors, he cannot recognize the identical doors and shadows, he doesn’t know how to trace his steps, and he stops, he stops running, crouches against the frigid stone wall in pitch black fighting down the yell crawling up his throat, pulls the blanket around him in place of something warmer, closes his eyes and presses his hands against his face as if he knew how to pray.

Fingers trail across walls, leaving no trace behind, he walks blindly, for lack of anything else. He times his breathing to his footsteps, feels a little sheepish as the panic recedes. He’s in the barracks. He’s just woken up. He’s cold, because it’s the middle of the night, and he’s not wearing all that much clothing, and maybe because he’s still fighting off the remnants of shifting sickness. How long has he been asleep?

Welcome glow ahead, soft and quiet and familiar. His heartbeat quickens again, but this time it is a hopeful thing,

“Captain,” he murmurs to himself as he totters towards the gentle bubble of light pooling against the wall, leans against the doorframe and peers into the mess hall, Levi glancing up sharply as soon as he so much as twitches a finger.

“You’re awake,” he says. The air smells like roses. A week and a half ago they’d found a clearing full of wild rose bushes and Eren had told Levi that at some point, he would like to return there. The blooms had been sizable and brightly colored, creamy oranges, pinks, and sunset yellows. Perhaps the petals would be good for tea, he had said, only half serious. The fragrance of those roses wafting under his nose, Eren remembers the soft quirk of Levi’s mouth, the soft huff in place of a chuckle, the way the sun had dappled against a pale cheek as the Captain moved away, brushing by so closely that his hair almost tickled Eren’s chin.

Levi looks him over carefully, scrutinizing him head to toe for residual signs of injury. “Do you still feel warm?” he asks, tone brooking no argument. This bit, at least, is familiar, one of the rote questions that Eren is habitually asked by Hanji or Levi after a shifting session or experiment.

“Actually,” Eren says, lifting the edges of the bedsheet wryly, “I’m a little cold.”

Unexpectedly, Levi steps closer and lays his hand over Eren’s forehead. Eren closes his eyes and lets the shiver shudder through him, feeling the barely-there slide of Levi’s fingers on his skin, the molten warmth of a rough palm. Eyes open, and the glow of candlelight on Levi’s slightly upturned face turns harsh angles and sharp, aquiline features to something soft, something like understanding.

He jerks in surprise when Levi slides fingers in between his, slowly, carefully, attentive grey eyes tracing his face and watching his reactions as Levi lifts his hand, turns it over to splay it out gently, swiping a broad thumb over the heart of his palm, lingering at the fleshy bit beneath his thumb, stroking.

“Your fever’s gone,” Levi says, enunciating the words carefully, rolling them out of his mouth syllable by syllable.

“Is it?” Eren murmurs. When Levi’s fingers travel over his palm, exploring the lines carved in his hand, he grabs on, intertwines their fingers together, studying the almost unnoticeable widening of Levi’s eyes, wondering if Levi could possibly track the slow flush of heat beginning to rush through him. He’s in thrall, he’s fevered again; Eren breathes in and his eyelashes flutter when he feels the slight pressure of a squeeze on his hand, can’t stop his mouth from turning up just slightly at the corners.

“Tea,” Levi says quietly, squeezing again before stepping away. “For the cold.”

The heat lingers. Eren wanders to his usual seat, hand smoothing over the wood of the seat back, examining the spread of papers, pen, ink, and tea saucer on the table. Levi’s been sitting across from Eren’s seat, the place that Eren’s been thinking of as his. A strange mix of pride and excitement bubbles in his chest, gossamer thin and hopeful. He watches Levi prepare the next pot of tea, every movement smooth and economical, the soft burble of water and clink of teaspoons and porcelain somehow soothing.

When he closes his eyes and breathes, he breathes in roses.

 

Chapter Text

The story of Humanity’s Strongest is a romantic one, extolling the virtues of justice and empathy—a tale of how one of the most feared thugs in all of Sina Underground grew to learn and understand the value of humanity, of freedom, and traded his brute savagery for a sword to wield on behalf of the people. It’s a story so compelling that it’s unquestionable in its authority. Humanity’s Strongest remains an icon despite the fact that Captain Levi No-Last-Name is a member of the imminently unpopular Scouting Legion, despite the fact that viewed the right way, the tale of Humanity’s Strongest is also a tale of the righteousness of the state, the character of Erwin Smith its guiding hand, bestowing the benefit of “civilization”, presenting the idea that civil obedience is tantamount to moral enlightenment and goodness.

Nevermind that Sina Underground is humanity too, nevermind that in the shadows of the gutter, there also dwells kindness and kinship in the parents that toil for their children, in the unruly gangs who take in the kids who have no one to support them, in the collective decisions to stay silent when the MP make their sweeps. A story like that of Humanity’s Strongest means nothing there. Other whispers, other rumors, are more important.

Humanity’s Hope, they sneer in alleyways. Word on the street – a military recruit turned into a titan during the Invasion of Trost and helped plug the hole in Wall Rose. It’s news that matters to few. No one thinks of titans here, no one thinks of joining the military, for that way lies paper trails and red tape thick enough to bury someone alive, lengthy and pointless enough to frustrate and stall anyone who would want to apply. When even living aboveground seems like distant dream, the issue of walls and titans, seems like a distant matter reserved for those who have the privilege of living on the surface. There was rumbling when Shiganshina fell, there was rumbling when the titans invaded Trost, but the only signs were the panicked motions of the usually smug Military Police who walked the crooked streets and guarded the main staircase. For them, there was no warning or news of invasion, and there was no sense that anything had changed at all, at least until the sudden influx of confused, devastated and desperate refugees from the outer walls began to appear in the streets, usually not of their own will.

They start calling the government’s newest pet PR plan Humanity’s Hopeless. But then Stoess happens. There’s shaking and rumbling, dust and stones raining down from the ceiling, and there’s screaming as fragile, paper-thin houses begin to collapse from tremors. Crashes, thumps and thuds reverberate through the streets like the roll of distant thunder. There’s widespread panic, and those who remember the events of three, five years ago rush toward what MP members are confusedly milling about, seizing them by the shoulders with shaking hands and yelling, The titans are coming, the titans are coming, let us out, let us out. Opportunists seize the moment to cause havoc, and genuine surprise, shock and panic roils and turns to violent rioting. The crowds swell, and it’s said in public, loudly, for all to hear, instead of muttered darkly in the alleyways and dark corners of the dive bars: Let us out.

After that there’s a suffocating uneasiness in the streets. Before there was resignation: you’re born in the Underground, and you die in the Underground. Few people could bypass the guards and the extensive certification process to live up top. But there’s now an acute awareness that the walls could come down around their ears at any moment, and they would all be buried alive. No one would remember them, no one would help them, they would be trapped. And the news comes down – a titan shifter in the interior, taken down by Humanity’s Hopeless, verified and witnessed by entire squads of military personnel.

Humanity’s Hopeless becomes a catalyst. He becomes a symbol. He represents any multitude of things: a turning point, the repeated and intentional failings of a corrupt government, a reminder of the imminent end of the world. But ironically enough he also goes back to being Hope, he goes back to being the possibility of something better, the possibility of change, the possibility of escape. And as Sina Aboveground plunges into political uncertainty, swept into a storm of big headlines, trials, and manhunts, Sina Underground starts a revolution.

In a set of barracks hidden in Eastern Rose, Eren watches the rise of a rusty dawn, hovering gray clouds turning the brilliant vermillion sky to a hazy, uneasy smear of pale orange. There are many windows in this building, he finds, head resting against a familiar wooden table, tea long gone cold beside him. He blinks wearily, cradled in an odd combination of threadbare sweater, bedsheet, and moth-eaten blanket, still frequently struck with chills and bouts of dizzy panic. He feels a double beat vibration traveling through thick wood; Levi has a habit of tapping his pen against the desk when he’s annoyed, or making a clicking noise with his tongue whenever the ink blots onto his hands, which is tragically often. Eren finds himself searching Levi’s hands for greyscale smears and haphazard lines during the day, but he can never find them.

“Tell me a story,” he says, words sloppy and soft from inescapable exhaustion, rewrapping himself more securely in his nest.

Levi pauses in his scribbling to study Eren. Across the table, he looks like he could be anywhere, rather than the middle of a war. His eyes are a muddled grey in the reflection of a blood dawn, and his hair is getting long, pooling in soft looking strands on the table, sticking up at the ends. He blows an errant section out of his face, sighs when it flops down in the same place. There are shadows beneath his eyes, the same ones that all his friends boast, but the line of his mouth is for once relaxed. His eyelashes are short, economical even, and as he sniffs a little his nose twitches to one side.

Levi wonders how that peaceful face would change if he told him about the reports that Hanji gave him when they visited, or the letters that Erwin sends from the capital. Lists of casualties from continuing riots in the underground, scattered skirmishes all around the tunnels and public areas, increasing clashes with the Military Police on the stairs. Notices are nailed to establishments, calling out owners or inhabitants for being in the pocket of the government, for collaborating against their fellows. There are sometimes killings or beatings, people hogtied naked in public areas with signs around their necks denouncing them. And the emblem of the movement, a white, jigsaw tombstone grin, signing off the notices, the graffiti, bright against the dark green of the face masks and kerchiefs that the fighters wear.

It’s the mouth of Eren’s titan; Levi would recognize it anywhere. Reading those letters, looking at the numbers of injured and dead, Levi had wondered if Eren would give a firm nod and say that it was good that people were looking beyond the bars that caged them, or if he would be sad or angry about the pushback, the refusal for reform, the way that Historia was struggling to learn to govern her people as the nobles fought and scrambled all each other in the wake of the power vacuum, trying to manipulate facts to their advantage. He had wondered if Isabel and Farlan would still smile at him the way he was now. If they were all still stuck in the dank filth of the Underground, would he be a frontline fighter? Or would be considered a collaborator, to be hunted down to the ground with all else he held dear? Perhaps, if Isabel and Farlan were still around, he would keep his head down and his mouth shut, and just try to keep them all safe, even against the siren call of clean, open air and wide, open skies. Would they be disappointed that he was there, spending his early mornings sitting serenely in the mess hall across from him, batting around trivial questions and drinking tea, instead of in the capital, supporting his fellow gutter rats and fighting alongside them?

“I don’t know any stories,” Levi says, studiously looking back down at his papers. His pen feels very heavy in his hand.

“Everyone knows at least one,” Eren insists stubbornly, crossing his arms atop the table and propping his head against them. “About a friend, or someone you know. Or about your horse.”

“Leave my horse alone,” Levi retorts, signing a supply shipment form. “Why do you like stories so much anyway?”

“I don’t dream a lot,” Eren admits, yawning. “And I’ve liked them since I was a kid. Got me out of my head a little bit more.”

Eren doesn’t stay up with him because of a lack of dreaming, this Levi knows. Eren has become a restless sleeper, jerking awake from quiet night terrors, nightmares. He has become many things. Monster and savior, hope and cause, both the idealist and the painfully disillusioned. More-than-protégé, something-other-than-friend. His stories have grown too large and too heavy, so much bigger than his character, monoliths dwarfing the boy who asks to be told stories so he can learn to dream, the boy who turns soft and sleepy in the right places at the right times. One day, Levi will have to tell him the truth. One day, Levi will have to stop waiting for him to wake up.

“I only know one other story,” Levi says. “But you wouldn’t want to hear it.”

 

Chapter Text

Eren’s got a little nook for himself in a corner of the kitchen, a little upturned box that he sits on, wedged in between the wall and the stove. Sometimes when it’s his turn for KP duty, he’ll stay and eat his food in there instead of coming out with the rest of his comrades. He likes the heat that radiates on his skin, even though the slow fade into coldness is one that leaves him feeling a little bereft and abandoned.

He’s sitting there when Levi finds him, swaddled in a woven throw that he’d found digging through the linen drawers in semi-desperation in the middle of the night, teeth chattering and limbs shaking. It’s been two weeks since he woke up, but he can’t seem to warm himself, even though the others say he’s running hotter than normal – Armin startled when he touched him the other day, surprised at the sheer heat of his skin, and no one really wants to stand around him after drills, since his constant temperature makes them feel even more tired and sweaty.

Levi nudges up the short, stubby stool that everyone uses when they’ve got lots of things to peel into the compost bin. The tea tray clinks quietly in his hands as he sinks down to sit, held completely steadily. Wordlessly, he holds out a single cup and saucer.

Eren sets the saucer in his lap, holds the cup between both hands, and Levi beckons him silently, raising the tea pot and looking at him steadily with clear, clear grey eyes, an obvious invitation. The feeling of heat slowly pooling and rising between his palms is indescribable. As if the cup is an extension of his own self, he feels as if Levi too is pouring warmth into him, filling him with the composure and stability of his steady, reliable presence from his toes to the tips of his fingers.

“Before I thought of being a shifter as a responsibility,” Eren says quietly, tapping his fingers restlessly on the side of his teacup. “When I think about it now, I feel stupid. Like I thought I was a hero.”

“It is a responsibility,” Levi says. “But you always have a choice.”

“You’re always saying that to me.”

“Am I wrong?”

Eren sips at his tea, scowling.

“…no,” he says eventually. “I don’t think you are. But sometimes I don’t…I can’t carry it. I don’t make the right choices. I can’t control anything. I can’t contribute anything. I didn’t choose, to be anything…sometimes it’s not about choices. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with choices.”

“No one can tell you how to make your choices.”

“’The only choice you can make is the one you won’t regret’, right?” Eren sets his tea down with a sharp clink. “But I didn’t make this one. I decided to go into the military, I decided to move forward with the Scouting Legion, I decided to become a pet experiment. Those are things that I decided. Humanity’s Hope, they said, and I fell for it.”

Suddenly, Levi seems inscrutable, unreachable. He must find Eren so childish. Eren’s mind is spinning; he’s angry like he hasn’t been in so long, helpless, turned inside-out. He shivers, rubs his arms over the soft, worn wool of the throw. Father did it, he remembers thinking dazedly the night he woke up after defeating Rod Reiss’ grotesque titan, reeling and tasting metal in his mouth. Father did it, he thinks, kneeling on the bathroom floor, throwing up what little he’d eaten for dinner. Father was not a violent man, Father did not kill. He was a doctor.

“Avenge your mother.”

Apparently father and son were more alike than they ever thought.

Eren had hedged his bets on himself. He hadn’t realized it then, but he’d fallen for the trap the way the populace fell for Historia Reiss, unbalanced and looking for easy answers. He’d bought into the illusion of Humanity’s Hope, and it had been unbelievable to hear Levi tell him about the riots in the capitals, emblazoned with teeth that were both his and not his, teeth that had bitten into titan flesh, but had never bitten their shaking palms bloody in a dark well, wondering if he would be killed if he couldn’t do things right, line the musket men up behind him for the kill.

Everyone deserves freedom, that’s what he firmly believes, and that hasn’t changed. But accepting lives – killed not for him, but for a cause he’s come to encompass, in one way or another, has never gotten easier. It is a mouth because it is hungry, it is a maw because it is greedy. There is a cause, there is a purpose, and for the cause and purpose people will die. Eren is a soldier, this he knows well, but to hear that there has been no true purpose, that even if he tries and gives his all to fulfill the lives that were sacrificed to protect him…he is in the way. He is not the bastion they thought he could be, he’s just another reliability. One day Erwin and Hanji will run out of excuses for him and their risky plans, one day he’ll become unusable, his body so wracked by the consequences of experiments that he’ll probably die blind and limbless. They need him because he’s the only shifter they have, Armin and Mikasa need him because they’re his friends and he needs them too, but he doesn’t know how to describe the feeling of being swallowed by something bigger than himself, something that is him and not-him, something he chose but also didn’t choose.

He cannot do anything. The power as Coordinate, as compass, is locked away inside him, and even if Historia were to have eaten him she might have just walked down the path of her forebears and kept silent, kept the secret of the walls unto her death. But he doesn’t want to be eaten. He doesn’t want to disappear. He doesn’t want to be a sacrifice or a martyr anymore, he’s forgotten what it’s like to live for himself and for the world beyond, and he doesn’t the way his mother smells, or how he used to spend his days as a child. And it shames him, it shames him and angers him because he feels like he’s done something wrong, but shouldn’t he be allowed to live? Shouldn’t he be able to dream?

“You have a responsibility,” Levi says abruptly, leaning over to refill his half-empty teacup, “But you are a person first.” The soft murmur of flowing tea almost seems to echo, a sound just for the two of them, wedged into this secret, private space. Hot and cold, and Eren’s bitterness curdles as he wraps his hands around the cup and drinks in the warmth again, swallows it down against the unpreventable swell of soft affection in his heart.

“People,” Levi says, jabbing a rigid finger none too gently into Eren’s chest, “people like you, and me. We don’t always get to do things without thinking what happens after.”

“Because we’re responsible?” Eren asks uncertainly.

“Because people don’t look at us like we’re people,” Levi replies bluntly, sourly, and slides away with just enough pressure to the tips of his fingers to leave trails of fire simmering under Eren’s skin. “Humanity’s this and Humanity’s that. It’s bullshit.”

Eren frowns. “Isn’t it true though?”

Levi sighs. “It might be, but you’re a person first. You have choices. If you decide there’s something you need to do, no one can do fuck all about it. Take care of that,” he jabs Eren’s chest, “and this,” he flicks Eren on the forehead, “before you take care of all those shitheads out there.”

“What about you?” Eren asks, rubbing at his forehead. “If you take care of humanity, who takes care of you?”

“I’m a grown ass man, I can clean up after my own shit,” Levi scoffs, and makes to drink his tea. But Eren stops him, reaches out to wrap careful, gentle fingers around his wrist.

“I mean like this,” Eren says, staring at him deliberately as he balances Levi’s hand with warm, warm fingers, pouring tea in a thin, controlled stream so none of the water splashes beyond the rim, pooling peacefully and steadily into white porcelain. Wrapping his hands around the cup and Levi’s hand both, he lifts the teacup up towards his face. Softly, he blows across the top three times, barely making ripples, and nudges the teacup back to Levi.

Levi stares at him in silence, long enough that Eren has to fight against the urge to fidget, but eventually, his lip curls into a kinder version of the small smile he’d worn when Historia punched him after her coronation. “So,” he says, takes a sip of his tea and sets it down, “Are you volunteering to take care of me?”

Eren flushes, slow and charming, rubs a thumb along the rim of his own teacup. “Well, if we’re people first,” he says, “then we would know that best, wouldn’t we?”

Eren’s direct gaze makes him think of bright sunlit clearings, lush and verdant, filled with the fragrance of large blooms colored all shades of the sunsets and sunrises that Levi has never tired of seeing.

“Then,” Levi says, thinking of a rainbow’s spectrum of bright, open skies, “you’ll take care of me, and I’ll take care of you.”

 

Chapter Text

Light flashes across Eren’s eyes as he blinks. He has to swipe at his eyes to erase the winking light of the stars that still spark before his vision. There’s the dull ache of his neck, and he groans softly as he levers himself up and away from the cold wall he’d been sleeping against, can almost hear the creak of his lower back, the twinge and echoes of soreness that will probably follow him throughout his day. He stretches, rolls his head from side to side, grimaces at the series of sick sounding pops that follow. Exhaling slowly from his nose, he rubs his eyes one more time, looks up to absorb the full, creamy light of dawn falling into the kitchen, glinting off the beaten metal of the well-weathered pots pans hanging from their ceiling racks, the kettle still on the stove from his and Levi’s last round of tea. The entire space is awash in gentle golden light, as if the single window in the wall was a gateway to a different, brighter world.

Levi still sleeps beside him, slumped against a stack of crates with his arms cradled limply in his lap. Eren can see the minute movements of his eyes tracking back and forth under their lids, eyelashes fluttering gingerly with each pass. In sleep, his face is slack, eyebrows arching gently with the ridge of his forehead, and his mouth, a little dry, a little torn in the corners, is slightly open.

There’s still tea in their cups, in the pot. The ringed, brown stains carved into the porcelain make Eren think of the tree rings that fascinated him as a child. He had tried to draw them, but all he could come up with was concentric contours and circles and shapes, endlessly orbiting their steady centers. Under morning sunlight, the liquid in their cups turns to amber, and Levi finally looks the way he feels, warm and comforting.

As if he were under a spell, Eren speaks.

“I dreamed,” he says, and he’s faintly shocked to hear the amount of surprise in his voice. He’d never cared much for sleeping or dreams before, and he hasn’t remembered a dream for months. “You knocked at my door and woke me up, threw the gear in my arms and crooked your finger at me. So I followed you out, and you wouldn’t speak to me no matter how many questions I asked. You swung yourself into the trees and I followed you, but it was night and it was dark and I couldn’t really see you or track you. The longer we spent in that forest the more I felt I would lose you, and just when I was about to panic you appeared a little bit in front of me, grabbed me by the waist, and swung us both in a circle and threw me in the air.

“I was so shocked,” Eren continues, his voice soft, rubs his hands and clasps them together to resist the urge to touch. He wonders if Levi is actually awake, and just listening. “I flew up so high and when I looked down I saw that you had been having us trace the constellations in the forest, and we’d been swinging from star to star the entire time, painting the skies. I turned around to thank you, but you weren’t there.”

Levi never spoke in Eren’s dream. At the end he had just been another dark speck in the sky, smiling up at Eren sailing farther and farther away, the same damn smile as the one he had given at Historia’s coronation. Levi’s smile was beautiful, devastating, but all Eren wanted to do when he saw it was break down and cry because there was something sad and desolate about the forlorn quirk of lips, the quiet sense of vindication and gratitude, the slight droop of his shoulders.

“Don’t you go away,” Eren whispers like a love confession, voice trembling, and the words suspend themselves in the crisp air of morning as Eren watches the slow, rhythmic rise and fall of Levi’s chest. He wants to touch, cradle a cheek, tuck away the mussed and unruly black hairs, wrap his hands around broad shoulders and cling tight. In this small nook, in this sunshine room, time seems suspended. It seems possible, in this moment, in this space, that he could claim this small part of Levi, this small, quiet, unconscious time, that he could sneak off with it like a little thief and bear the guilt like a badge for the rest of his life.

There’s cold tea in the cups and it looks like amber and tree rings, and the dreams Eren seeks and once sought are no longer the dreams he wants. But it is morning already, the day of the last and final trial, and there are still bitter responsibilities for Eren to swallow—the light touches everything; there is nowhere to hide.

He swings the throw from his shoulders to tuck around Levi’s slumbering form, tucks the edges in cautiously, in a way he thought of so many times before. He takes the remnants of midnight tea, tries to stay silent and quiet as the porcelain clinks together. Today he will submerge himself in dreams again, and perhaps this time he will not wake up. He is always cold now and in sleep he feels not a thing, in sleep he does not care about roseate skies and open lands or sad smiles and the heat of a hand on his. It is a maw because it is greedy, it is a mouth because it is hungry, but Eren never wants to see Levi smile again.

He’ll be a legend, he’ll be a myth, he’ll be a minstrel song that every newspaper in the walls will print. He’ll be the story Levi never wants to hear, tucked into the crevices of that old heart, small, tragic splinters for him to find when he thinks that it’s been too long for him to think or feel anything, glinting cruelly in the night. If he’s a person first, before responsibility, before duty, then selfishly, he wants to carve a mark. Wants to spread out his hands and touch, freeze and burn himself into that composure, make Levi run hot and cold, make him forget choices and remember only regrets. The dawn makes Eren frigid, the dawn makes him ruthless. Only dead things get trapped in amber, and trees must be cut down to discover their history.

Emboldened, Eren uses just his fingertips to tuck away the strands of Levi’s hair, leans forward just enough to press his lips to the space between eyebrows, just a touch, a mere point of contact. He doesn’t want to see Levi smile, doesn’t want to dream, and he strokes Levi’s cheek with just a finger, pockets and steals just a little time, Levi won’t mind, will he?

“Don’t you go away,” he says again, by which he really means, remember me.