He has always cared for her.
Of course he did. He cared for her the moment he saw her bound up in the cottage with the beasts who wore men's skin. He cared for her the moment he told her to fight. He cared for her the moment he handed her the red scarf that she never took off afterwards.
He had cared, does care, and will always care about Mikasa Ackerman.
They had their rough moments, of course. Everyone does.
One time, when they were mere children, she had beat up the boys who hurt him first. Her knuckles were slightly bloodied and bruised. (Mostly from the boys, however) And he had pushed her away; fuming over the fact that she had protected him instead of the other way around. When he came back home, after Armin talked a bit of sense into him, he found her crying softly into her small little hands that are stronger than they look. He grabbed those hands and bandaged them up nice and good and kissed them softly. He didn't understand why she started crying more, but she did hug him, and he enjoyed that plenty.
Another time, Eren had screamed at her for being so overly protective. He was a child who grew up twice as fast, with the titans looming over their heads, he had no choice. But he didn't like being treated like a kid, either way. She was so intent on being beside him every moment and it felt like he was suffocating. He snapped one day, during training when they were assigned groups and Mikasa insisted that she was with him. He screamed and yelled at her, not caring that everybody could listen in. He was slightly surprised that Mikasa started yelling back, considering she almost never raised her voice.
"You're always so reckless! How do I know that you're not going to end up dead one day?"
"Me? Reckless? You're the one who always does shit for me, getting into fights and trying to protect me when I'm a grown man who can take care of himself."
"You're merely just a kid! We all are, nothing more."
Eren had stopped then, his breathing was heavy. Mikasa had hit a sore point, and all that was going through his head was him being too weak to save his mother.
The others watched in silence, and the only voice that had spoken was Keith's, albeit slightly awkward. They finished their missions in different groups, and didn't speak to each other for three days until Armin got fed up and forced them together, leaving them to figure out things by themselves.
They had stared at each other, not sure who would give in first. In the end, it was Eren who grew weak, who grew tired of this game of dancing around each other in hopes things would turn out alright.
"I crossed a line back there, I shouldn't have yelled. I just don't need you all the time, alright? I am capable of taking care of myself, I am a grown up, aren't we all, Mikasa?" Which was slightly true, but they were children pushed into the shoes of an adult and sometimes they trip up.
"I suppose. I just don't want you to die, I get worried. You're the only thing I have left, Eren."
Eren nodded, who suddenly became silent. He thought of his mother, and he thought of Mikasa's parent and he wonders about his father. He brought his hand up to cup Mikasa's face, brushing away a stray tear.
"You're crying." He had said, "It's so unlike you."
She stared intently at him, hands hovering near his cheek. The trees rustled in the wind and he wondered if the trees themselves were mocking him. "So are you."
A hand came up to touch his face, and found it to be indeed wet. He remembered telling her not to tell anyone, and it reminded him of the worst day of his life, but also of the old days. He grabbed and tugged her sleeve and prompted her on.
"C'mon, let's go." He had said, and even though they didn't properly apologize, everything was somewhat okay between them and it was okay with him.
He was awfully selfish sometimes, but he would never admit to that.
And of their bad moments, they had their good.
It was the little things that stood out and overshadowed the bad.
Songs under the sun and kissed bruises and hands holding and whispered comforts under blankets when they were children.
Support and hope and words unsaid with love and defense and trust when they are older, but just slightly; hardened against the world.
They relied on each other; that was the thing.
Mikasa was so intent on protecting him, and he was intent on being independent when they were supposed to work together equally.
They had not reached that equilibrium yet, but he cared for her just as much as she cared for him and it was close enough.
But it never was, was it? Mikasa Ackerman wasn't invincible, and Eren knew that. She held a wall so strong not even a titan could break through it. He had never seen her smile, never seen her laugh or cry. Only on those few rare moments where she'd forget who she's with and she'd let her true self come out.
He's sad to say it doesn't happen often, and with the titans and the walls breaking and new mysteries upon mysteries it feels like she has never smiled before and he misses those moments.
So after a particular grueling mission, he was surprised to see her fall. They had patrolled around a village, killing off the titans around the area. Of course they had casualties, many of them to be in fact. He was so used to death he didn't even give a second look to those who had fallen, just hoping that one day he'll make sure they didn't die in vain, and that none of his closer friends will bite the dust.
He saw her collapse onto the ground, the body of two titans behind her. He wasn't even sure if it was Mikasa at first, his pace was a slow jog, but as soon as he saw the bit of red scarf fluttering beside her he broke out into a full run, unwanted thoughts curling around his heart and for a moment he thought she was dead.
He chided himself for not having more faith in her. If anyone could survive this, it would be Mikasa.
He kneeled beside her curled up body, and he checked over her, finding there to be no serious injuries. He fussed over her, checking their surroundings to make sure there weren't any titans in their area. He shook her carefully, calling her name. No matter how many times he has said it, it always felt foreign on his tongue.
"Mikasa, what is it? Are you okay, are you alright?"
Her body shook, and it took a moment for him to realize that she was crying.
He pulled her body up, forcing her from her position on the ground. She was covered in blood that wasn't her own. Mikasa's tears were mixing with the blood of her comrades and Eren had to stop himself from gagging. It was so morbid, staring at your friend with tears down her face covered in the blood of the people he assumed she was too late to save.
"Mikasa this isn't like you, why are you crying?" And he realizes that he says that a lot, and he wonders if she's been crying more than she used to. He found that strange, coming from the person who was the toughest out of all the other people he knew.
She pulled up her scarf to cover her mouth, mumbling something to it and wailed some more, hands shaking.
"What?" Eren shook his head, not knowing what she meant. "Come on Mikasa, you're stronger than this, I know you are. You've seen worse, this is just a routine scouting, there's no need to get-"
"It's too much." She managed to sob, and Eren pulls back. He's never seen her react like this before. He's seen her gone through the death of her parents, multitudes of bullies, hundreds of titans and the deaths of her fellow classmates and soldiers, but something so simple like a mission to exterminate the remaining titans is making her upset to the point where she can't even speak or move properly?
He groaned, and grabbed her by the soldiers. He may be slightly insensitive, but it was for her own good. She couldn't just start bawling in the middle of a battle.
"Snap out of it, Mikasa! You can't just give up in the middle of a battle, you could get yourself killed."
"I haven't cried in so long and my chest felt so heavy and I couldn't take it anymore, Eren."
He inhaled sharply, dropping his hands from her shoulders. He understood now. He was so stupid and so selfish that he didn't notice. Everyone had a chance to mourn someone or something, whether it is a friend, family or their innocence. Eren showed his feelings, albeit reluctantly, and he wasn't afraid of crying once in a while.
Mikasa had kept it all in, however. She built a wall around herself to keep her emotions at bay. She had become someone without feeling and it was terrifying. If he were her, he would be breaking right now too.
He wasn't an overly affectionate person, but he pulled her into a hug and let her cry. He whispered nothings into her ear in hope that it would have some effect on her.
He felt the stickiness of blood between them, and the smell of death on their bodies but she was warm and soft and it felt nice for her to be in his arms, for her to be protected by him for once.
He didn't have enough time to relish in the moment, before pulling her up when he felt her sobs lessen. He steadied her, and looked her in the eye. "It's okay to cry sometimes, alright? You don't have to fight all the time, that's why I'm here." He smiled, bumping their heads together. "Don't be stupid and keep it all in. There's not a lot to be smiling about, but you should do it more. I like it when you smile."
He pulled back and grabbed her hands. "You don't need to support everything. Your hands are strong but even then there are moments where you need the extra support. Let Armin and the others and I help you with that, okay?"
He dropped them, looking over at the general direction of the others. They had either ignored their little moment, or didn't notice at all. However, Jean was giving him dirty looks, and Armin, covered in a large amount of blood put both his thumbs out.
Mikasa wiped away her stray tears, and straightened herself up. She looked up at Eren, and tried out a smile. He smiled back.
"I'm sorry for that Eren; you don't have to worry anymore."
"Oh, but I do that all the time." Eren smiled. "Not as much as you do, however."
Mikasa shook her head, and held onto his sleeve, pulling him to where the others were.
"Let's go home."
Eren nodded, his heart swelling with warmth and happiness and-
"Yeah, let's go home."