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TOUCH

I. Uncharted Territory


 "It's nothing."

The words come out in a rasped cough, and she licks her chapped lips, half-lidded charcoal blues locking onto distressed emerald greens. She attempts to roll onto her side and rise, but he halts her movements, pressing gently against her shoulder to push her back into the makeshift bed of piled blankets.

"Shut up," he replies with a shake of his head.

She doesn't protest, and he doesn't know whether she's too weak to resist, or if she's not even attempting to because it's him.

Whatever the case, she silently complies and stares up at him, and all is still.

Then, another cough pierces the silence and wracks her body, and she hisses in pain at the involuntary jerk, her hand reflexively wandering down to the area above her right hip to brush over the wounded region. He winces at the pathetic sound and sight, as though the pain has hit him secondhand.

Clucking his tongue, he directs his attention to her abdomen, shifting onto his left knee and pulling the loose shirt up to expose her lower torso.

The white wrappings around her lower abdomen that he had just put in place were already staining a deep crimson - to match the scarf around her neck, he morbidly muses.

The sight is unsettling.

He sometimes forgets Mikasa even has the ability to bleed, and her current state is a rude and unwelcome awakening.

To add insult to injury, he is the reason for the disquieting scene before him.

He clenches his jaw, quietly seething, his teeth gnashing together so hard they might break, and he has to squeeze his eyes shut just to cool the rage that threatens to bubble over at the thought.

"Hey."

Her voice is a soft rasp that cuts into his spinning thoughts, and he feels her fingers gently brush at the hair on the back of his head. The simple syllable and touch is enough to pull him out of the dark depths of his own mind.

He tugs the shirt back down to cover the bloodied bandages, turning to find her eyes trained intently on him.

"It's not as bad as it looks," she assures him.

He frowns.

Even now, she's trying to comfort him, and absolve him of well-deserved guilt. For the decade he has known her, such behavior has never ceased to irritate him. But now accustomed to it, he says nothing, instead letting out a disgruntled sigh. He shifts back onto his right knee, scooting closer to her, sitting deeper into his kneel, as her hand drops from his hair, back to her side.

"Do you need anything?" he almost asks, but he's not sure what more aid he can provide. She's already taken the medicine they have available onsite, and her wounds have been treated as necessary.

So he stares at her, at a loss for what else to do, and she stares back, unsuccessfully attempting to mask her labored breathing and exhaustion. Muting a cough by keeping her mouth closed, her hair falls into her eyes, the sight and sound only adding further to his helplessness.

He lifts a hand to brush her bangs from her eyes, and nearly pulls back, when his eyes catch upon the distinct line of smooth, puckered skin below her right eye. It's the scar. The mauve line is a subtle, but permanent fixture on her face, yet he had forgotten until now that it, too, was his doing.

He shudders, pangs of guilt cutting into him for his negligence.

But aside from the scar he had directly given her all those years ago, there was the fresh, deep gash in her abdomen she had obtained upon shielding him - in addition to the nicks and bruises on her hands and arms and legs and back, collected throughout their tenure with the Survey Corps. Were they not all his doing, too? The only reason she had ever received them was because she had voluntarily followed him into this hell.

Now that he thinks of it, every scar on her body bore his name.

All it had taken was a bleeding and half-dead Mikasa to realize it.

'I'm so sorry…' he thinks, but doesn't say.

He begins to trace his thumb lightly over the scar.

Mikasa's eyes widen at the gesture, body tensing at his side, and he wonders why. The scar can't possibly hurt - it's nearly four years old now.

So he continues his ministrations and feels her relax, and feels her eyes still fixed intently on his face.

Another brush of his thumb across the raised flesh, and he begins to understand the subdued bewilderment that has not yet faded from her eyes.

This is uncharted territory.

He never touches her, unless out of necessity.

Shove away, head-butt, carry, bandage, help onto ledge, shield, assist with manual labor, assist mid-combat, spar; these were the only times he bothered to reached out and touch her.

However, she had clung to him outside of such occasions every now and again, hands clutching onto him in bouts of desperation. Back then, he failed to understand why, and had always felt like a small child being coddled and protected by his mother - until the day she'd tearfully thanked him for everything he had done for her. He then understood that her clinging to him had always been an unspoken plea of "please don't leave me".

Yet, historically, he hadn't ever administered such contact to her - to do so would have been uncharacteristic of him. But, if he was completely honest with himself, he had never found receiving such physical contact unwelcome. The tight clasp of her hands on his, whenever she sat at his bedside, and he was battle worn and injured, had become a gentle reminder that there were living beings in existence that could touch you without meaning to kill you. It was a warmth he had always taken for granted, that only Mikasa could supply.

Now, for the second time since he's known her, he is the one at her bedside, and she is an exhausted heap of muscle, sick and bleeding - all on his account. He has nothing more to offer her - there's nothing more to give that will aid her flesh wounds, and offering words of comfort now seems superfluous and unhelpful.

He doesn't even have any alcohol to help numb the pain.

Though it was curiosity that had initially brought his hand to cup her cheek to stroke at the mark he'd left on her, he sees now that he has incidentally taken a page out of her book.

He swallows at the realization, suddenly feeling very self conscious, brow now furrowing in concentration at the movements of his thumb.

He feels completely out of his element.

He is not one for tenderness or needless touching.

His hands were made to bleed and break and kill - not this.

'This is stupid,' he muses, feeling his face begin to warm.

But then, Eren watches as her weary eyes droop closed, her lips tugging up very subtly at the corners into a small smile.

It doesn't feel so stupid anymore.

She then turns her head in his hand and presses into his touch, and inexplicably, he feels the hairs on his arms raise at the sensation of her velvet soft cheek nuzzling his skin.

No, he is not at all used to this.

His thumb halts, hand lingering, and he feels her shallow breaths against his wrist, and the sensation renders him motionless and unable to do anything but stare at his raven haired companion.

She looks haggard, but peaceful.

And she looks like… a woman.

A normal, human woman - not the mere expert killing machine he had come to regard her over the past few years.

Though he had certainly become more level-headed throughout their journey, his focus on their mission had narrowed even more with time - so much that he had begun to view the girl that had always stood by his side as a critical weapon to be used to further his cause. He hadn't even realized how detached he'd become until he saw her smile, and felt her breathing.

And now, too, her porcelain skin is incredibly soft and warm on his calloused palm, and the scar beneath his thumb seems to spell out his name, and blood is flowing from the fresh wound on her seemingly machine-made abdomen, colored and sullied with his purpose, vibrant like the scarf he had given her what seems like an eternity ago, and his stomach turns because, for all her steel, and strength, and stoicism, it's all a reminder that Mikasa Ackerman is, in fact, human.

Even her flesh could tear.

Even she could die - and she would willingly.

For him.

The guilt stirs in his stomach again.

'This was not the life you wanted.'

It's not the life she deserved, either.

He knew she had wanted to stay within the walls and live a peaceful life, but out of her warped sense of obligation to him, she had given it all up just to repay a debt he had never bestowed upon her.

And it all circled back to that obvious truth once more - Mikasa was only here because of him.

Mikasa had almost died, yet again, because of him.

"I'm sorry," he finally blurts in a whisper, swallowing down the lump forming in his throat.

Her eyes remain closed, and he hopes she is sleeping.

"You have nothing to apologize for," she finally whispers into his wrist.

He frowns.

She was always so quick to absolve him of guilt in matters involving herself. She was unforgiving when it came to all else, but he could probably wring her throat with his own hands, and she still wouldn't fault him for it.

"Stop that," he whispers sharply, temper spiking briefly from his dark thought process.

"What?" she asks, eyes fluttering open.

He gently pulls his hand away from her face and back onto his lap and looks up at the ceiling, shaking his head, taking a breath to calm his nerves. He gives pause before speaking, and he can feel her eyes on him.

"Why do you follow me?" he asks the ceiling.

It's a stupid question. Not only is it nine years too late, but it has already been answered time and time again, both through words and action.

"You know why," she says, reminding him of such facts, and he looks back down to find her clutching the scarf around her neck.

He sighs.

"Alright, I know… " he says, reaching over to give the scarf a light tug, hand resting upon her collarbone. "… but I never asked you to die for me."

"I know."

"I'm not weak anymore, Mikasa - not like I used to be. You don't have to keep going out on a limb like that for me."

"Better safe than sorry," she says and his frustration increases, because there she goes again, reminding him that his life matters more than hers, in her own subtle way.

"Humanity needs you too," he replies, struggling not to turn the conversation into a lecture.

"I know. But you're irreplaceable. At least there's still Levi if something ever happens to me-"

"Hey, you're irreplaceable, too. Come on, we'd be completely fucked without you," he insists, and Mikasa allows herself a small smile, and it's contagious because Eren has to fight the one that threatens to spread on his face at the sight. "It's true," he says with a shrug.

Brow arched in amusement, Mikasa opens her mouth to reply, but instead a single cough takes over - which then turns into a coughing fit, her face twisting in pain as she presses a hand over her wound, and now the hard truth of the lighthearted statement shakes him to his core.

To have lost her today would have been a major setback to the Survey Corps - and not only for the fact that they would have lost one of humanity's best soldiers.

In truth, Eren doesn't know what he would have done, had she died.

He tries to imagine carrying on without her, but it is literally impossible. Not only was she a pivotal component of his cause, combat and strategy-wise, but she was an integral part of his future.

And he owes her. Her current pathetic state is the result of her devotion to him and his cause. Yes, he had saved her life the day they met, but she has already repaid the debt a hundredfold - with every scar etched into her body, every drop of blood shed on his account. And now his debt grew with every pain and every wound she'd sustain from now until the end of their journey.

And to think - what if he never got to repay her? What if they had not reached her in time - what if the wound had been too deep to heal?

He feels nauseous at the thought, and makes a silent vow to ensure he never has to even think of such questions again.

When her coughing fit is through, and she slumps her head back onto his folded cape, drawing in a ragged breath, he leans forward and gently places a hand over hers - over where the gash is. He gives her hand a light squeeze, green eyes, overcome with emotion from his internal train of thought, meeting tired and perplexed grey.

Her gaze is just as bewildered as before, but when he does not break the eye contact, she turns her hand, wrapping her small fingers around his palm, giving it her own squeeze.

So this was how this felt - being the one to worry, and plea, and watch the other suffer.

He owes her for all the times he has put her through this, too.

Eren gently pulls his hand from her clasp to shift his position next to her.

"What do you want?" he asks. "When this is all over. When we take it all back. What do you want?"

She seems beat from the coughing fit, but is nevertheless nonplussed at the question and sudden change in topic.

"I don't know," she answers far too quickly.

He knows her well enough to catch her bluff, and can even sense that there is a concealed answer lying on the tip of her tongue.

"There's nothing you want when it's over?"

"I don't… I don't know," she says shakily. "Why do you ask?"

"Because," he says with a shrug. "Whatever it is… I'll give it to you. I'll make it happen."

Her exhausted eyes widen slightly and now it's her turn to look up at the ceiling.

"Why?" she questions, voice small and… slightly panicked?

"You know why," he throws back at her, wondering why she is reacting in such a way to such a simple and innocent question.

"You don't owe me anything. I'm the one that -"

"Just answer the question," he says, careful not to snap, and wishing to avoid another spiel of how indebted to him she was. "There must be something."

Everyone had something they were looking forward to after the titans.

It was no secret that he wanted to travel and see the world and the ocean, and then go home and rebuild Shinganshina with she and Armin.

"I really don't know," she says again, refusing to look back at him.

"You're lying."

She doesn't reply, eyes closing.

He is about to ask again, when she speaks, eyes opening to the ceiling.

"I don't know if it's something you could give me."

Her bashfulness has disappeared, the words coming out somewhat wistful.

"I could try," he replies, curiosity now piqued at the distinct change in tone.

The silence drags on, and her expression turns even more contemplative. He figures she's trying to come up with an answer, until she finally says:

"I can't tell you."

He was not expecting that.

"Sure you can," he says, brow arching inquisitively.

"No," she shoots back through a cough, covering her mouth with her elbow, "I can't," she finishes, laying her arm at her side.

"Hey," he says curtly, leaning over and catching her chin between his thumb and index finger, turning her head slightly so she is forced to face him. "Don't be difficult. I'm trying to be nice."

Her calm turns into that now very familiar puzzlement he's been seeing quite a bit of today, a gentle pink blush now invading the sick pallor her face had assumed. He raises an eyebrow at the response, but then realizes it must be the whole touching thing again. He has taken to it a little too easily for his own liking.

But then, with each passing moment, the surprise on her face melts into that rare gaze he has seen a few times prior, so incredibly wrought with restrained emotion. He has acknowledged, over the years, that the significant departure from her usually stoic demeanor seems to be reserved solely for him.

She opens her mouth to speak, closes it again. He releases her chin, but remains close, patiently awaiting her response.

"I just…" she starts, eyes flicking elsewhere momentarily before meeting his again.

"... I just want to be with you."

She falls silent, eyes searching his.

He blinks back, waiting for her to say more.

She does not.

She only stares back up at him, as though expecting him to speak.

So he does.

"That's it?"

His tone is more unimpressed than he intends for it to be.

Her face falls in response, and she looks up at the ceiling.

"I mean, I want to be with you too," he continues, in a matter-of factly way. "Of course we'll be together after all this. Me, you, and Armin will go back and rebuild Shiganshina together."

The additional information does nothing, as she remains silent and nods, her face back to its default calm expression.

"But… that's it? There's nothing else?" he presses, very quickly gaining the sense that he has upset her with his response.

He doesn't understand what the big deal is, and why she was so reluctant to tell him. It wasn't like it was bad. Her answer was simple, and honest, and he shared the sentiment deeply.

But their togetherness was already something guaranteed, if they all in fact made it out alive. It was the default ending he had promised - them and Armin, living peacefully and free to do whatever they wanted, and go wherever they wanted.

"Eren… I'm kind of tired," she rasps, voice cutting into his train of thought.

He suddenly remembers she has a nasty wound and a cold, and feels guilty for further dampening her mood.

"You wanna sleep now?" he asks quietly.

"Yeah," she nods, continuing to stare at the ceiling.

"Okay," he nods.

"Thanks," she replies, and he moves to stand, but the nagging feeling at the back of his head glues him in place.

"Hey… I didn't mean to upset you. What you said wasn't a bad answer - I want that too. You know that," Eren says, and he is not used to having to be this gentle with… anyone. In fact, he can't remember a time he'd ever had talk to someone in such a way.

In fact, he rarely ever struck up conversation like this. For Mikasa, he had gone out of his way to do a whole slew of things he would normally never do for others. He truly was trying to be nice - trying to make lighthearted and hopeful conversation.

And from her persisting silence and lack of eye contact, it had backfired.

He wonders if perhaps he should just stay in his loud, argumentative lane in the future.

"I know," she replies with a nod at the ceiling, yet it is weak and he knows she's holding something back.

He sighs, irritation growing as he unsuccessfully wracks his brain as to why she is acting this way.

"Hey," he grumbles, reaching over to grab her chin as he had before, tilting her head so she is forced to face him, once more. She is relatively expressionless as she usually is, but given that glossy-eyed gaze she had given him just moments ago, he finds it discomfiting and… aggravating as hell.

What was her problem?

"What's wrong?" he asks as gently as he can, exercising considerable restraint to mask his exasperation, and trying hard to control his temper.

She stares back, calm and unflinching, and it only further adds to his frustration.

But he refuses to back down and walk away, because he knows he is right - she is, indeed, hiding something.

So it becomes a staring game, and he can feel his face twisting further in concentration with each passing moment.

"Do you really want to know what I want?" she finally asks, breaking the silence. Though she is sick and wounded, there is a confident edge and challenge in her voice.

But he has won - and acknowledges that his reflex is to go on the offensive at so much as the suggestion of a challenge. But then he reminds himself it is an injured Mikasa he is talking to, and possibly upsetting, and forces his temper back down.

So he merely nods, not sure what to expect, as her eyes are now displaying an impatience he is not used to receiving from her.

"Fine," she says.

Then she shifts, palms pressing against the floor, pushing her upper body to rise.

"Hey - hey, what're you doing? You don't have to… "

He's not sure what he has started, but she is ignoring him, determined to sit upright. He presses his right hand to her upper back to help her sit up, now feeling stupid for taking things so far.

"You shouldn't be moving," he says. "The wound is still fresh."

With his aid, she is upright. She shifts to get comfortable, then turns her head to look at him, charcoal blues hard and determined.

"Come on. Look, I'm sorry, this whole thing is dumb, alright? Just - you shouldn't be sitting up like this, it's gonna put pressure on the wound - just lie down."

Eren places his hand on her shoulder and squeezes it, so as to pull her back down onto the mat.

But Mikasa resists the pressure on her shoulder, and places a hand on his shirt, pulling at the area right below his chest. Her fingers curl into a fist, balling the fabric in her hand, her eyes remaining downcast, and she pulls him forward with a gentle tug. He lets himself be pulled, curious as to what is occurring, and their foreheads bump lightly.

Then she just leans on him, eyes closed.

He blinks into raven bangs, awaiting explanation.

A few moments pass, and none comes.

He figures that perhaps she's in pain from sitting up, or has even possibly fallen asleep on him.

"Mikasa," he says her name softly, squeezing her shoulder again, and there is finally movement. She tilts her head up, eyes closed, and their noses bump. He blinks as her nose slides against his, and he does not register what is happening until she closes the space between them completely and presses her lips to his.

And he freezes.

And he doesn't know what to do.

But shortly thereafter, he can no longer think, because his brain is only capable of focusing on her warmth, and the feel of her lips, which are soft, yet frosted and slightly chapped. When they push lightly against his, he finds his eyes sliding shut of their own volition, head tilting to mould better to her form and press back of its own volition - but then she pulls back, forehead still pressed to his. He feels her warm breath on his mouth, and he is in a lightheaded daze and wants to follow the warm air back to its source and just...

He feels her fisted hand tug at his shirt, feels her head turn so that their noses bump again, and she is so, so close and it's… nice?

When she drops her hand from his shirt, his brain slowly catches up to the rest of his body, and he is suddenly aware that his heart is beating inexplicably fast because Mikasa just kissed him.

His eyes open wide, and he finds himself staring down at the bridge of her nose, and he doesn't know what possesses him to, but he leans forward once more - only to have her move back completely.

His hand slides off of her shoulder as she sits back and puts too much space between them, and as baffled as he is about what has just occurred, he is immediately disappointed at the loss of warmth.

And then he stares at Mikasa, who is staring at the floor, cheeks flushed again.

"I want to be with you," she repeats.

The inflection is different now, and her charcoal blues flick to baffled greens before resuming their observation of the floor.

'Oh,' he thinks.

It's all he can process.

"I want a house, and… and children with you. I want a life, with you," she continues, voice shaking as she confesses to the floor, and he doesn't know what to think. "Of course I want to go back and rebuild Shiganshina with Armin too, but that's… secondary. All I really want after this is all over is just…"

She looks up at him, eyes shining with emotion, and the sight renders him even more speechless.

"I want you."

'OH.'

Silence.

She holds his gaze.

He wonders what he must look like.

He can feel his own eyes are wide, only now registering the loud drumming of his heart in his ears, and he is filled with a kind of panic he has never felt before. He can only liken the feeling to the brief paralysis that occurs on the battlefield when one spots an aberrant titan breaking into a full sprint in one's direction - a situation in which he would have been titan food long ago, if relying on his current reflexes.

The silence beyond the booming thud of his heart in his ears is quickly becoming suffocating, and he feels dread as he watches the controlled hope in her eyes falter.

He swallows, parts his lips to speak, but no words come out.

Because he has nothing to say, because he can't think of what to say.

Another beat, and she finally looks away. He feels something in his stomach twist unpleasantly, unable to help the feeling that he's just done something very stupid.

"And I know that's obviously a lot to ask for, and… something you might not be able to give me, so…"

She moves to lie down again, pressing her palms to the ground to aid her descent, and he reflexively steadies a hand on her upper back to help her, but even touching her now is a different experience, and he feels relief when he pulls his hand back onto his lap.

"... so I'll… I can think of a different answer," she says, staring at the ceiling. "Okay?"

Her eyes meet his briefly, and he flinches involuntarily at the eye contact, and nods.

It doesn't go unnoticed by her, because she averts her gaze once more, this time unable to mask the hurt that she momentarily lets flash across her face.

Guilt has successfully consumed him whole, and he hates it because this was not how this was supposed to go down, but he doesn't know what to say.

"Uh… yeah," he replies dumbly, barely registering the words coming out of his mouth. He says it just to say something, anything to fill the stifling silence, because he has been mute this whole time.

Staring down at his knees and inwardly cursing himself , he scratches the back of his head, eyes wandering back to the region of her wound.

His guilt only deepens.

So much for repaying her.

"Do you need anything?" he asks without looking at her face.

"No."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Do you want me to change the bandages?"

"No."

"Last I checked, they were getting -"

"I'm fine, Eren," she says softly, and she doesn't even sound angry and it makes him feel worse.

He chances a look at her face, afraid of what he will see.

Her eyes are closed, face calm, and he is relieved, though he knows in his heart of hearts that it is a facade.

"I'm tired," she says quietly, and he knows it's just to get him out of the room. "I wanna sleep a bit before we move out."

"Okay," he says feeling terrible that he is relieved that she has given him an escape route. "I'll let you rest."

"Thanks."

"Yeah."

He reaches out to give her hand a reassuring squeeze, but stops short before he can make contact.

He decides it's best not to touch her.

So he leaves.

As the door clicks shut behind him, he regrets doing so immediately.