Set in the middle of Chapter 51, right after the panels cut away from Historia telling Eren that they needed to get to the walls immediately. Presumably, someone was like, "Historia, no, it's like 2 am. Go to bed." At least, that's what I thought.
EreMika implied as much as Armin is implied to be a canonverse shipper. So yeah.
Disclaimer: I do not own Attack on Titan. If I did, Eren would be in T-shirts much, much more often. Like, really. *_*
If there was anything that Eren Jaeger sincerely hated about being a soldier, it was the aftermath of a battle. He hated the hollow desolation that replaced the once-fiery determination in the survivors' eyes. He hated the thick stench of blood that clogged his throat and saturated the fibers of his clothing. Most of all, he hatred the hard knot in his stomach that formed when, like running the tip of his tongue over the empty spot where a lost baby tooth used to be, he felt the weighty absence of those who would not return home.
Eren swallowed, shuddering at the sensation of cold sweat running down his neck as he sat on the ledge of Wall Rose, his feet dangling off the side. He despised himself for thinking it, but his run as a soldier had more or less made him numb to the deaths of his comrades; though he grieved along with his fellow survivors, he did not cry or question the unfairness of the demises of the fallen, and eventually the knot in the pit of his stomach would loosen until he could barely feet it pressing up into his lungs anymore.
But on this night, the knot would not go away. Try as he may, Eren could not do anything to dissolve the burning mass of guilt and anger that seared in his abdomen. It was cemented there tightly by what he realized was betrayal—hot, bitter betrayal that roiled up whenever the faces of the shifters surfaced in his mind. The knot was also lodged in place by guilt so intense that it made him feel physically ill; he had been so helpless as he watched Hannes die earlier that day, yet he hadn't even been able to bring himself to witness it all. Eren gritted his teeth and slammed his fist against his knee in disgust. If it weren't for his own damn cowardice, he might have been able to save Hannes, and maybe Erwin Smith would still have both arms, and perhaps Mikasa's ribcage would not be shattered into fragments like blown glass.
He had never seen her so broken open in front of him before. Careful, guarded Mikasa… when had she ever given up so wholly that she resigned her life right before his eyes with a smile like she had that afternoon? He could not recall. He could only see her in that moment, thanking him as she drew so close to him that he could feel wind-swept strands of her hair tickling his face, could see the crystalline teardrops that clung to her dark eyelashes…
Startled, Eren looked up to see Rico Brzenska standing over him, looking as battle-worn and weary as he had ever seen. A bandage was wrapped tightly around her head, and parts of her silver hair were still matted with dried blood.
"Cadet Jaeger, how are you holding up?" Rico asked quietly.
Eren hastily scrambled to his feet. "I'm fine, ma'am. And you…?"
"Hmph…" Rico grimaced in place of an answer. "Commander Erwin asked me to check on you," she said, crossing her arms. "Also, I was to tell you that all soldiers who are still able-bodied have been ordered to patrol along the top of the wall until we can carry out our retreat back to Trost at daybreak. Is that understood?"
"Yes, ma'am!" Eren answered, pulling his fist over his heart in a salute. He looked around hesitantly. "Um…where exactly are the commander and…the other soldiers who are not able-bodied? I don't see them on the wall from where I'm standing…"
Rico shook her head gingerly, careful not to disturb her head wound, and pointed at a small cabin on the ground a few yards away from the wall. "The injured are being treated there for now. The goal is to let them rest up for as long as possible before we transfer them into the wagons for the journey home. We're hoping that all of them will make it through the night, but some are still in critical condition."
Eren's eyes widened. "Then… Commander Hanji…?" he whispered, sighing in relief when Rico shook her head again.
"She's not in any immediate danger, as far as we can see," she reassured. "A little banged up and bruised, but, well, you know what she's like. When I left, she was already trying to plan counterstrike actions with Captain Levi."
"Yeah, that sounds like her," Eren laughed, the sound bubbling out of him nervously. He quickly sobered. "Then, what about Mikasa? How is she doing?"
"Ackerman?" Rico glanced back at the cabin, as if half expecting to see Mikasa standing outside. "From what I can understand, it doesn't seem that Ackerman is likely to die tonight, but a lot of her bones have been broken and her body has sustained a lot of serious damage; if it weren't for how well she trains her abdominals, her organs would have been crushed into paste. Short of mummifying her in bandages, the only thing they can do is keep her as still as possible until we can get her to a surgeon, preferably one from within the inner wall."
A fist twisted itself around Eren's stomach as he listened to Rico. He followed her gaze to the makeshift infirmary cabin and watched as reinforcements from both the scouts and garrison regiments hurried about with their arms full of bandage rolls, slogging steaming buckets of hot hater into the little building one at a time.
"C-can I go see her? Mikasa?"
Rico lifted her eyebrow at Eren's pained expression. "I'm sorry, Jaeger, but no can do. You're able-bodied; you've been ordered to guard the wall from here. I know you two are very close, but it wouldn't make a difference to her. Ackerman's been so heavily sedated that she'll probably stay unconscious until we get back to headquarters, or at least partway into the journey there. She'd never know you were there."
"It doesn't matter, I just need to go see her for a moment," Eren pleaded. "I have to know that she's okay!"
"What part of 'orders' fails your comprehension? I told you that she's not going to die, didn't I?" Rico snapped, her eyes flashing behind her round eyeglasses. "So, since there's no reason to go down there, you will follow your commands and keep your butt stationed on this wall like the soldier you're supposed to be, Jaeger!"
Clutching at a stitch in his side, Armin jogged towards Eren and Rico, who were locked in heated glares, and glanced back and forth between them nervously.
"Eren… Squad Leader Brzenska…" he panted, wincing at the pain in his side. "I heard shouting, is something wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," Eren said shortly. His anger dissipated he sight of Armin doubled over, white-faced and gasping for breath, and he reached out to help steady his friend. "Hey, what about you, Armin? Are you alright?"
Armin nodded, waving away Eren's concern. "Yeah… I just got hit earlier today in my side and I forgot about it until I started running." He stared anxiously at Eren, whose cheeks still sported bright spots of color from his temper. "But enough about me. Really, are you sure nothing's the matter?"
"Quite," replied Rico coolly. "I was just reminding Cadet Jaeger here that a soldier's duties are not to be ignored… despite what happens on the battle field."
"Understood," Armin said quickly, catching Eren's shoulder firmly as Eren opened his mouth to retort. "It's been a long day for everyone, and we've all witnessed some horrible things today. Eren's just a little on edge right now, but aren't we all?" He eyed Eren warily and gave the tense muscles beneath his hand a squeeze. "Right, Eren?"
"…yeah, Armin," Eren conceded, all of the fight and bluster leaving him. His body relaxed and he cast his eyes down, not wanting to meet Rico's anymore. "I'm sorry, Squad Leader. I'll be here on wall patrol."
Rico paused, and then nodded curtly before turning away. "Hang on there, Jaeger," she said, her voice softening. "Daybreak's just a few hours away."
Watching Rico's retreating figure, Armin led Eren back to the edge of the wall by the arm and the two boys sat down side by side, swinging their legs over the side despite the dizzying height. Armin studied Eren intently, taking in his taut posture and twisted expression. "Eren…what's going on?" he asked gently. "What's gotten into you?"
Eren sighed. "It's Mikasa," he admitted, turning to his best friend. "I just wanted to go see her, but they won't let me leave this damn post." He speared his fingers through his hair. "So stupid, I know…"
Armin's brows knitted together in confusion. "Mikasa? She's okay, isn't she? I remember when we brought her back to the wall, she was still conscious and even talking!"
"Ah, yeah, she's fine, according to Rico. Well, not fine, really, but she's alive."
"That's good news, then! Why would Rico have any reason to lie about Mikasa's condition? She wouldn't, right?"
"I know," Eren said impatiently, knocking his heels into the side of the wall again and again. "I can't explain it, but ever since this afternoon, it feels like everything is different now. Like, something about Mikasa changed?"
Tilting his head in confusion, Armin regarded Eren carefully. "…changed? In what way?"
Eren sucked in his breath through his teeth. "Well," he said slowly, his voice breaking, "I guess you heard that…Mr. Hannes…he was…"
"Yes," Armin cut in, knowing that Eren would not be able to finish the sentence. He hung his head forlornly. "I heard that you guys saw it, too…"
Eren nodded, shivering as through someone had run an icy fingertip down the length of his spine. "Mikasa and I both saw it, Armin. And the Titan that did it?"
"…it was the same Titan that ate my mother."
"What!" Armin's head snapped up sharply and he whirled around to see Eren's haunted green eyes meeting his own blue ones, swimming with sorrow. "Oh, Eren…"
Eren nodded once before he continued. "In that moment, Mikasa and I didn't know what to do," he mumbled. He leaned forward to rest his forehead on his laced fingers, elbows balanced on his knees as he stared into the stark darkness below. "It was just… it felt like the end for us, you know? It was like we were kids in Shiganshina again, watching that Titan consume Mr. Hannes… It was like nothing had changed, even though we've put in so much hard work to training these past few years."
He exhaled slowly, agony apparent in the shaky breath as it left his lungs. "Armin, I…I've never seen Mikasa like that before. Even on the day she saw her parents get killed, she still had it in her to fight back, somehow. But today, she really gave up, just like that. Whether it was because she was too injured by then or something, I don't know…" Eren shook his head. "You probably didn't hear what she said to me, huh?"
"Well, no," Armin said sheepishly. "You two were too far away, and I had other things to worry about at the time. I only looked over when I heard you scream and summon all of the Titans away. Why, what did she say?"
"It wasn't really what she said, so much as it was how she said it," Eren answered slowly. "Everything must have really gotten to her because she was completely—how should I say this—open, I guess. Yeah, she was just totally open and raw and, I dunno, it was so different from how she usually is. Normally, you can't even guess what she's feeling when you look at her face, but she let absolutely everything out this afternoon. When was the last time you saw her like that, do you think?"
"When you emerged from your first Titan body," Armin replied absently, his deeply-engrained habit of answering questions getting to him before he could think. He chuckled nervously at Eren's quizzical expression. "I mean, I don't think you'd have remembered because you were unconscious then, but the first time we saw you come out of Titan form, Mikasa held onto you and she cried and cried. I'd never seen her be so emotional before." Scratching his nose, Armin peered at Eren, who looked even more bewildered. "Sorry, I guess we never told you about that, Eren…"
Eren turned his gaze to the fringe of trees he could see silhouetted in the darkness miles away, staring as if he expected to see something emerge from the forest. "No, never…" He reached up in attempt to tug his sleeve down, unused to the short length. "It sounds a lot like what happened today, though. Armin, she had tears running down her face and she was saying all of this nonsense about being grateful to me for helping her live, and thanking me for giving her that damn old scarf, and just being completely unlike herself. She looked so sad but she was smiling the whole time, can you believe it? And she kept leaning in closer and closer until we couldn't be more than an inch apart from each other—
"She did?" Armin interrupted, surprised. Eren, distracted by his own train of thought, was only partially aware of what he'd said.
"Huh? Um, yeah, she did. I just remember her face coming closer towards me and I had no idea why, but I stood up to punch that Titan right before she—what? What are you smiling about?"
Armin, despite himself, had broken out into a grin; he shook his head frantically. "N-nothing! I didn't expect her to, you know… heh…" He coughed in an attempt to regain his composure. "So, um, that inspired a change, do you think?"
"Who knows…" Eren sighed. "But in that moment, when I thought that I was done for, I looked at her and realized how useless I've been. To her, anyway."
He drew one knee up against his chest. "I think I need to start making it up to her." He stood up suddenly, swaying forward so dangerously that it seemed for a moment like he might have toppled off the wall, and looked down at Armin with a hardened gleam in his eyes.
"Armin, I need you to help me break in there."
"I—huh?" Armin scrambled to his feet. "What are you talking about, Eren? What are you going to break?"
"No, no, listen." Eren jerked his chin towards the infirmary cabin. "They won't let me off this wall for nothing, so I need you to do me a little favor and help me out. I need to go see her with my own eyes, just for a minute so that I know she's okay."
"Please, Armin." Taking two steps forward, Eren held his gaze steady while Armin faltered. "Mikasa almost died today because of me. I can't…I can't just sit here and…"
He trailed off, shifting his glance away at his loss for words. Armin said nothing for a moment, but he'd already seen the determination that had made Eren Jaeger famous among the trainees of the 104th cadet squad. He sighed and rolled his eyes.
"Well, let's hear your plan, then," he said with mock exasperation, propping his hands on his hips. "Unless you're counting on me for a plan, in which case I will charge you for one."
Eren grinned. "Any plan of yours would probably kick my plan's ass," he admitted, "but I think I'd better save up my funds for a tailor." He plucked woefully at the tattered, shortened sleeves of his shirt and shrugged. "Still, I think I've got a good idea…"
It was ridiculous of him, Eren knew, but he held his breath as he crept down a dark hallway in the cabin, afraid that the sound of air leaving his lungs might wake someone up. He rounded a corner swiftly and, after checking to make sure no one was around, proceeded towards the last room at the end of the corridor.
The farthest one, Armin said. The last one…
It had only taken the boys ten minutes to scale down the wall and sprint to the infirmary cabin where Armin, playing up his side injury convincingly, had persuaded the dumbfounded orderly at the door that he needed to lie down and rest, and that Eren's support would be enough to help him to an empty cot.
"Find the darkest, quietest hall and go to the last room you see," Armin had whispered as Eren bent over him while pretending to settle him down on the thin mattress. "The more sedated a patient is, the less they're going to get checked on by the staff."
Wrapping his fingers around the doorknob, Eren inhaled sharply and opened the door, hoping whole-heartedly that Armin was right as he ducked into the room.
Darkness lay heavy in the room, compressing the limited space in the room to make the area feel even smaller than it already was. What little light filtered through the window struggled to weave around the overgrown tendrils of a bush outside, which obscured more than half of the window solidly with its unruly growth. From what Eren could make out, there was nothing in the room aside from that window, an old, rickety desk, and a narrow cot pushed against the wall. He went still.
A small square of moonlight cast the left half of Mikasa's body in silver, leaving the rest steeped in shadow. From what he could see, she was covered by a blanket that had been pulled up to her chest, arms resting on top of the fabric. They had removed her clothing to treat her, but had bandaged her so thoroughly that the only skin left exposed was that of her face, fingers, and slivers of her shoulder. Nicks and scratches marred her pale cheek and dark bruises bloomed at the corner of her lips and eyes, which were shut heavily in a drugged sleep that left her as good as dead to the rest of the world.
Eren moved slowly towards the cot, the sickening sensation in his stomach growing as he drew closer and saw the extent of Mikasa's injuries more clearly. She had been the strongest and most talented of all of them, a cadet considered to be on the same level as seasoned, elite veterans on the battlefield; and yet, here she lay, listless as a ragdoll.
Holding his breath, Eren reached his hand out into the dark and his fingertips found the side of Mikasa's face that he couldn't see. He trailed his hand across her cheek ever so gently, so gently that he was barely touching her, but he felt it all the same—the scar that he had etched permanently into her flesh.
He snatched his hand back as if from an open flame and stared down at his palms ruefully. His own skin had once been marked all over from countless incidents and injuries collected from street fights, training, and even accidents throughout his years; now, with his newfound regenerative abilities, all evidence of broken skin erased like melted and blurred wax each time he emerged from his Titan body. It was like his body reset itself each time, previous damage sustained to his flesh and bones all but forgotten.
But Mikasa's wounds would never heal the way his did. Her scars would soften, but they would never disappear; her bones would mend, but they would be left weak and more vulnerable than before. The ugly gash she bore on her face now would remain there forever even if it faded over time, disrupting the nearly flawless complexion that had been the admiration and envy of so many of the girls during training.
Seeing that there were no chairs or benches in the room, Eren sank to his knees at Mikasa's bedside and gingerly took one of her hands in his own. She gave no indication that she had felt anything, and her fingers were almost alarmingly cold, but Eren could detect a faint pulse at her wrist, beneath his fingertips. He let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding.
He had been so reckless with his own life, so ready to let himself be fueled by adrenaline and rage that he gave no thought to the others, who would have to chase him into his careless brawl in order to bring him back. He should have known that Mikasa would be the one to follow closest at his heels, and that she would stop at nothing to pull him back to safety, even at the cost of her own life. She was always saying that she would go where he would, stay with him and defend him by any means, but he had always dismissed her concerns, only hearing her words as words. It had never occurred to him to worry about her safety—after all, Mikasa was one of the strongest fighters humanity had ever seen—and, with her having sworn to protect him to the best of her ability, he didn't think he'd ever need to offer her protection instead.
How wrong he had been.
For the first time in many years, Eren had witnessed how painfully human Mikasa was. She had kept it stowed well out of sight behind her stoicism for so long that he had all but forgotten about it, but when her humanity had surged on the waves of emotion that afternoon, Eren froze. He saw in her the little girl from six years earlier, helpless and paralyzed and completely resigned to her death, and he felt the inexplicable yet violent urge to save her and keep her safe until the danger had passed once again. He realized now—too late, perhaps—that the danger had never passed, and that it never would pass until the end; he had simply been plunging himself into danger before Mikasa could, and he had never looked back to see if she was putting herself in harm's way to go after him.
Eren could not stop himself from bringing Mikasa's hand to his mouth and gently brushed his lips against her knuckles, even though his own voice was shrieking in the back of his head, asking if he'd lost his goddamn mind. He'd come so close to losing one of the people he was closest to in the world, and he hadn't even noticed until she was nearly gone. How many times had the current situation been reversed, where Eren had been the one unconscious and bedridden, and he had woken up to see a seat dragged to the side of his bed, even if her person was not there at the moment? How long must she have sat with him, days bleeding into nights, before the heady scent of her hair became the first thing to register his attention when he regained consciousness? How much must she have worried to be so overcome with relief when he finally opened his eyes to see her that all she could say was "Thank goodness"?
Mikasa cared so much for him; that much had always been apparent to Eren. But while he cared about her well-being, he had never thought to caution her about her life as intensely as she had for him before, and the lack of having done so stirred a feeling he couldn't name deep in his abdomen. She was strong, yes, but she was sometimes still the fragile, frightened child she had been on the day they met at her core. She could take care of herself very well, but she could not do it alone forever. If he could offer up his heart to the military for the sake of humanity, could he offer his heart up to peril for the sake of Mikasa's life?
Heat swirled beneath Eren's skin and he shut his eyes.
I'm going to protect her.
I'll have her back from now on, just as she's always had mine.
No matter what I have to do, I will keep her safe.
Eren did not know how much time had passed; he had lost track. Surely, someone would be coming around soon to check on the patients, or Armin would be cleared to go back to defending the wall by one of the nurses on duty. At any second, he could get caught and be severely punished for defying direct orders, but at the moment Eren did not care. All he knew was that at present, he was kneeling at Mikasa's bedside with her hand clasped between his own, hoping that some of his warmth would seep into her cool skin as he whispered apologies she could not hear into her palm. He murmured his promise to her against her slender fingers and swore to her that he would not let her be broken again.
He knew that he owed Mikasa so much more for what she did for him and that his promise was not enough, but it would have to do for now.
A/N: Ahhhhh, really tired + lots of stress = warped plot and jumbled writing. Sorry y'all, my brain's been kinda fried lately...
I got the sense from chapter 50 that something changed in Eren when he realized that he and Mikasa were about to die, even more so than after his trial. (Famously, it's been noted that after he heard that he tried to kill Mikasa, Eren felt so guilty that he never snapped at her for her protectiveness again in the series.) Whereas Mikasa seemed to recognize that her feelings for Eren went beyond familial after he emerged from the rogue titan (in one of the most beautiful scenes in the history of anime, omg ;_;), Eren probably noticed that he sees Mikasa differently from chapter 50 onward but failed to figure out how his feelings towards her have changed. You know, because he's a teenage boy hell-bent on getting revenge. But I definitely see him being softer with Mikasa in their interactions after chapter 50. There may be hope for him yet, yeah?
Also, I know Rico didn't get a head injury, but hey, why not? She still doesn't trust Eren entirely, so she'd be likely to bust his balls a bit.
Another also, I really love Armin. Like, I really really love him a lot. He's just so lovely, and I want to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with him because I think he'd be a great cultural-intellectual date. I don't know, I'm dumb.
Thanks very much for reading! xx