Hooray for impromptu continuations! This is really the end of this story, I promise ;_;
Disclaimer: I still don't own Attack on Titan, unfortunately. If I did, Eren would just be one big, messy cuddlebug~ (Sorry, I'm slightly drunk...)
It was so funny, Eren always thought, how darkness seemed to amplify noises. When night fell, everything that was usually silent during the day seemed to come alive and teem with sounds he had never even thought of listening for. The earsplitting chirps of the tiny crickets outside; the deafening rustle of fabric as he shifted beneath his bedclothes; and even the thunderous pounding of his own heart in his ears—these were all sounds that usually went unnoticed when the sky still held light, but Eren's brain buzzed with these alien reverberations each night as he tried to fall asleep, sometimes so loud to him that they kept him awake. Maybe, Armin had once suggested to him, his hearing was just more acute than that of most people.
This seemed like a very plausible summation to Eren when he heard the faintest whimper, coming all the way from the other side of his house, as clearly as if the source had been in the shell of his ear.
Frowning, Eren swung his legs over the side of his bed and jammed his feet into his raggedy slippers, pulling his blanket around his shoulders as he reluctantly stood up; it would snow soon, and even the air inside the house was bitterly cold with the anticipation of winter. His mother would yell at him for sure if she saw the way he let the blanket drag on the floor as he walked across the room, but he wasn't worried—she would never see.
He reached the slanted alcove beneath the stairs where his father kept a cot for patients and pulled back the privacy curtain that separated the small space from the rest of the room. The dim orange glow of the dying embers in the fireplace crept into the alcove, chasing away some of the shadows.
She looked even paler in her sleep than she had while she was awake, somehow, and her expression was so anxious that it was impossible to say that she was resting at all. At some point she had kicked away her covers so that they bunched together in a crumpled ball at her feet, her hands twisting tightly into the sheets. Despite the freezing temperature, a thin sheen of sweat had formed across her brow, and another strangled noise somewhere between a gasp and a groan emitted from her throat. The girl probably didn't even know she was crying.
The name felt strange on Eren's tongue, like a round sweet that turned out to be a glass marble instead. It was a weird name—certainly one he had never heard around town before—but, then again, her facial features were unlike any he'd ever seen before either. It would take some time to get used to calling this name, or to even have her around at all.
"Hey, Mikasa," he said more loudly, "you're having a bad dream." Mikasa stirred at the sound of his voice, but did not wake. Eren sighed and reached out to brush a tear away from the corner of her eye.
"Oh! I—!" She started, sitting up quickly and looked around wildly, her eyes round. "Mama, I can't—!"
Suddenly she caught sight of Eren and her breath hitched, realization flooding her face. Her chest was heaving with her frantic gasps, and she stared at him, bewilderment slowly turning into grief. Eren stared back, nonplussed.
"What're you doing?" he asked, crossing his arms. Mikasa ducked her head quickly.
"I…dreaming," she whispered, drawing her knees up against her chest. "I was dreaming… of…" She shook her head and looked up at Eren; he could see fresh tears in her eyes. "W-what…what are you doing?"
"I heard you making noises in your sleep," he answered simply, shrugging. "I came to see if you were having stomach cramps or something. Sometimes people come to my father in the middle of the night for stomachaches."
Mikasa bit her lip and cast her eyes down. "…sorry…for waking you up…"
"It's okay, I didn't fall asleep yet. Don't worry about my folks, either," he added, seeing Mikasa glance around nervously. "They're asleep upstairs. That's where all the bedrooms are. My father just put you here for today because he thought you looked too tired to climb up the steps, but you can have the extra bed in my room tomorrow."
"Then…why are you down here?"
Eren rolled his eyes. "Because the hearth is down here and it's warm!" He tilted his head and regarded Mikasa carefully. "Seriously, are you in some kind of pain? I can go get my dad if your stomach hurts…"
"Then what is it?"
"I… I don't know," Mikasa admitted softly. "I guess…I guess I just miss my parents." She sniffed, and the tears began spilling down her cheeks. "I'm never going to see my family again." She buried her face in her knees, her thin shoulders trembling.
Eren's brows unknitted as he watched the girl in front of him cry, and his chest suddenly felt tight. She was only his age, after all. He opened his mouth to reply but stopped abruptly as Mikasa continued speaking.
"Every time I close my eyes, I see them," she mumbled, her voice muffled by the fabric of her dress. "I see everything that happened today, and I can't get it out of my head." She sucked in her breath and let it out in a shaky puff. "I don't want to see it anymore. I just want it to stop, but I'm so scared… I'm so scared that I can't even sleep…"
Eren stilled. He turned his head away so that he could no longer see Mikasa's face, choosing instead to focus his attention on her discarded blankets. It was cold even with the two of them standing in the small space beneath the stairs, and too cold for the hearth to offer up much warmth despite its proximity to Mikasa's cot. The dying embers provided little heat to the space immediately around it; it was impossible for any heat at all to escape to the other side of the room where Eren, bundled in his blanket, had been curled up on the couch.
It hadn't been heat that had prompted Eren to stay downstairs with Mikasa, but he would never admit that he had the same fear Mikasa had just confessed, especially not to her. He sucked in his breath and steeled himself for the rush of icy air that was about to hit his skin.
"Why'd you have to go and kick your blanket away? Look at how much you're shivering," he muttered. He unwound the blanket from around his shoulders and settled it clumsily over Mikasa's quivering form, accidentally draping it over half her face while missing one of her knees. Dazed, Mikasa looked up, the tear tracks streaking down her cheeks glistening in the muted light.
"Move over a bit," Eren commanded, pulling up the covers at the foot of the cot. He layered it over the first blanket, his blanket, and tried to smooth it out more evenly. "Come on, my feet are going numb!"
Mikasa stared at Eren with wide eyes. "What are you talking about? What…what are you…"
Eren scowled, but he felt his cheeks redden. "W-what do you think? I've told you how cold it is a million times already!" he said haughtily, tilting his chin up so she wouldn't see his faint blush. "It'll be warmer for us to stick together, right? You said you were scared, anyway…"
He clamped his mouth shut, already starting to regret this stupid idea of his as Mikasa continued to stare at him with what he perceived to be growing horror. To his surprise, Mikasa nodded hesitantly after a moment and scooted back against the wall to make room for Eren on the narrow cot. The thin mattress sank beneath Eren's weight as he crawled in next to Mikasa and yanked the doubled covers over his own body, sighing as warmth enveloped him again. He stretched out his legs and inadvertently brushed his foot against Mikasa's bare leg; she yelped softly at the contact with his frigid skin.
"Sorry, sorry," Eren mumbled hastily, drawing his feet back away from hers.
Mikasa shook her head slightly. "It's okay… I was just… not expecting that…" She closed her eyes and sighed, and Eren could feel the tension release from her tired body, little by little. Suddenly, just when it seemed that she had finally become completely relaxed, Mikasa rolled in towards the center of the mattress and she collided with Eren, making him jump. She gasped, mortified, and shrank back immediately, trying to put as much distance between their bodies as possible.
"I-I didn't mean it!" she whispered, pulling her hands up to cover her mouth. Eren lay motionless for a moment, waiting for his erratic heartbeat to settle down. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, counting to ten before returning his gaze to Mikasa's terrified expression.
"It's okay, you know," Eren murmured, taking Mikasa's wrist in his grasp. "I…I don't mind." He gently tugged her hands down from her face, nodding his head in an effort to beckon her to come closer. Mikasa resisted at first, but her fatigue quickly got to her and she gave in, allowing Eren to draw her in towards him until they were face to face and mere inches apart, nestled together awkwardly but somehow comfortably. She let out a breath Eren hadn't realized she was holding and her eyes drifted shut; her fingers were still icy.
Eren tightened his grip on Mikasa's wrist and used his free hand to search for Mikasa's other hand beneath the covers, curling his warm fingers around hers when they brushed against cold skin. Mikasa stiffened, but she did not protest, and the heat radiating from Eren's body slowly soaked into her flesh, warming her until she all but melted into the sheets. Eren frowned.
"You're not used to sleeping by yourself, are you?" he asked.
"Huh?" Mikasa looked up quizzically, her eyelids heavy with exhaustion. "Why would you think that?"
"You just seem to be more at ease now," Eren replied. "That's all."
Mikasa hesitated for a moment before turning her face into her pillow, a single tear trailing across the bridge of her nose. "…we used to all sleep in the same bed," she said, so quietly that Eren had to strain to hear despite their proximity. "My parents…our family…"
She made a motion to pull her hands back to cover up her face again, but Eren kept his firm hold on her. He dipped his head forward to touch his forehead to hers, accidentally knocking into her skull with too much force so that the crash was audible, but held his gaze steady as his green eyes burned into her watering ones intensely.
"We'll be your family," he said quietly, clutching Mikasa's hands between his own even more tightly. "I know no one will ever replace your parents, but… we'll take care of you. I promise." He swallowed and brought Mikasa's hands closer to his chest, where he could feel his heart pumping in an unbroken rhythm. "My folks are strict sometimes and have a lot of rules, but they're still nice people. Dad, well, you've gotten to know him a little, right? And Mom yells at me when I get into fights and things like that, but she's really caring and loving and she's also a really great cook."
Mikasa was silent but she listened to Eren's words carefully, battling the drowsiness that was clouding over her eyes. Eren saw this and offered her a small smile; tiredness was sinking down into his brain, too, and he struggled to stay awake. "Tomorrow… you want to come with me to meet my friend? I'm going to his house… He's very smart…and his grandfather tells the best stories…"He could feel himself nodding off and only barely heard Mikasa's response.
"Okay… what's your friend's name?"
"Armin… Armin Arlert…"
"Armin…Arlert…" She stifled a yawn and nodded once, threads of consciousness spinning into the depths of slumber. "I'll remember that…"
"Good." Eren let his eyelids fall, deciding that it was impossible to keep them up anymore. "Do you remember… do you remember my name, Mikasa?"
"Hm? O-of course, I do…"
"Yeah? What…what is it, then…?"
"…Eren. You're Eren…"
Eren gasped and jolted out of his sleep, blinking rapidly as his eyes failed to focus quickly in the dark. He tried to remember where he was and was attempting to process his surroundings when he felt a hand rigorously shake his shoulder. He looked up, startled to see Armin's frantic eyes staring back at him.
"Armin, what's going on?"
"It's almost dawn and they're sending someone around to check on the patients before they start packing up," Armin whispered urgently, glancing back nervously over his shoulder. "We need to get back to the wall before they do a roll call, or else we'll get caught!"
"Damn," Eren muttered, rubbing sleep out of his eyes with the heel of his hand. "Rico's going to haul my ass if she finds out I came here. How long have we been here, anyway?"
Armin flushed. "Um… a few hours, I think…"
"I'm sorry, Eren, I fell asleep!" Armin admitted sheepishly. "I-I meant to go and get you after about an hour so that we could leave, but I…"
Eren waved away Armin's apology. "Don't worry, it's not like I did any better," he sighed. "Either way, let's just go now, before anyone shows up."
He started to stand up when he realized that he held weight in his hand, and looked down to see that, somehow, his fingers had become tangled with Mikasa's while he slept. He swore lightly under his breath and gently pulled his hand away, careful not to jostle Mikasa awake with the movement. As he turned to leave, he saw Armin watching him with his arms crossed and eyebrows arched, trying desperately to hide his grin but failing miserably.
"What?" he demanded.
"Huh?" Armin feigned innocence, and Eren scowled.
"Not a word about this to anyone, got it?" he hissed, throwing open the door to the room before taking one last look around. Mikasa was still asleep soundly, thanks to the narcotics she had been administered. Perhaps it was only his imagination, but Eren could have sworn that her expression had become much more peaceful. Either way, relief flooded his chest.
Armin rolled his eyes and smirked. "Sure, sure," he said, ducking as Eren moved to swat the back of his head. "Come on, though, we need to get out of here…"
As the two boys sprinted back to Wall Rose, Eren found himself thinking about his dream. It had been so long since he'd thought about that time—those few, fragile days after they took Mikasa in—that he was surprised at how much he still remembered from that first night. Back then, he had seen only weakness in her countenance, and he'd sworn to protect her then, too. Why had he let that promise flounder and float away into the back of his mind?
He hitched his maneuver gear higher up on his waist and shot the hooks into the wall near the top, feeling his feet leave the ground as his body launched skyward. He could remember clearly now, the memories playing in his head like a film reel as wind rushed past his ears. He remembered how quickly Mikasa had fallen asleep, curled up against him like a fern, and how he, too, had felt safer in that moment. He remembered being woken up when the curtain strung up around the cot had been pulled back to let in a flood of sunlight. He remembered how his mother had scolded him, telling him that it was kind of him to care for Mikasa's wellbeing but that it was also inappropriate for him to invite himself into a young lady's bed. He remembered his father chuckling into his sleeve before asking Mikasa how she was doing, pressing a hand to her forehead to check for a fever. And he remembered how Mikasa had smiled just a bit, the first time he had ever seen her smile, before saying that she was doing fine, that she was alright.
Maybe that's when it began, Eren realized as his feet touched down on the top of Wall Rose. Maybe it was after that first smile that Mikasa had started to construct the layers around herself, gathering her resolve around her like hardened coats of enamel to protect herself from harm. She would rely on this armor of hers and build upon its strength until it became evident that she filled the role of the protector instead of the protected, and she never needed anyone to save her, it seemed.
But her battle-worn shell had finally cracked and Eren had been the one to witness it shatter. He had been the first to glimpse the vulnerability Mikasa had kept locked away for so long and he had watched it seep out of the cracks of her tough exterior, catching it in cupped palms before it slipped through his fingers. She had entrusted him with her own weakness, putting all of her faith in him, in knowing that if he would not be able to keep her safe, he would at least be by her side when everything crumbled.
The sky was streaked a rosy gold as Eren watched the sun slip up over the horizon degree by degree, chasing away the somber indigo of night. He reached out towards the bright, burning sliver as though he might catch it in his fist and felt warmth envelop his hand. It was mere minutes ago that he had held a similar warmth, locked into his palm with interwoven fingers, but this time he swore that he could feel it beating just within his grasp. Like a baby bird, the warmth fluttered against his fingertips until his entire body pulsed with heat, burning away at his brain and spine and lungs and heart.
This was the promise he had made to Mikasa Ackerman years ago, the same promise he had made to her at her bedside just hours ago, and the same promise he would again be making to her now. This was the promise to protect her life and keep her safe, the promise that he had made not only to Mikasa but to his mother and himself as well, the promise that he could not ever go back on. This was the promise he had failed to keep the first time, but he would never lose hold of it again.
Eren clenched his hand into a fist and held it up before the rising sun. This time, he would not fail. He would do everything in his power to help keep Mikasa from falling to her knees again; perhaps she didn't need him to hold her steady, and she would certainly be able to fight on without him. But this time he would be there beside her to catch her if she tumbled, for he knew that he could not bear to let her go anymore.
A/N: Yaaaaay, *now* it's done! This was originally a scene that I deleted from the first chapter; I wasn't too happy about some of the characterization in it and it sat rather awkwardly in the middle of the previous chapter, so I decided to take it out altogether. But I guess that didn't stop me, because I then tweaked it a bit and posted it here anyway. I know, I'm terrible. I just don't know when to quit, huh? :P
Also, I'm sorry that Armin just sort of disappeared at the end. I don't know what happened to him, but I swear that I really, really love him, that I do!
Anyhoodle, thank you for reading the conclusion of this fic! However, if you want a pseudo-continuation of this Eren-realizes-that-he's-seeing-Mikasa-in-a-new-light plot bunny of mine, please check out my story, Rehabilitation, as it follows a similar scheme! (I don't mean to cross-promote myself, but, yeah, I totally do. Sorry, not sorry.) Much love to you all! xx