Background Music: /blubick/collections/les-ombres-grandissent
Disclaimer: Attack On Titan and its characters belong to Hajime Isayama. I own nothing but my writing.
Mikasa frowned at the boy in the water. He'd gotten his trousers soaking wet; she knew for a fact that his behind would burn as soon as his mother found out what he'd done. She wasn't keen on sharing the experience with him.
Thus, Eren's shouts of encouragement fell on deaf ears. He gave up on them after a few more, staring at her feet as they swished in the creek.
"Its boring in here without someone to play with," he complained.
Mikasa sighed. "Why didn't you invite Armin along?"
"He can't swim, and he doesn't care to learn yet. Besides, he wanted to read his stupid book. But nevermind him, you're right there, and you can swim just fine. Come down with me."
"You're mother'll have it when she sees you," Mikasa warned him.
"That's none of your concern, is it? Not like she's your mom."
Mikasa fiddled with the skirt of her dress. "But my mom'll have it, too, if I end up looking like you."
Eren barked out a hardy laugh, one too rough and masculine for a boy as young as he, but natural, all the same.
"What's that supposed to mean?" he challenged. "You saying I'm ugly?"
Mikasa hesitated. What a stupid question. What a thing to ask when your hair and clothes cling to your body, glimmering droplets adorning them like tiny gems. When lines of light swim across you as the water dips and sways around itself. When your hair is the color of chocolate and your body is lithe and graceful and your eyes are like that of a kitten's, sharp and enormous and full of wonder, and they hold the entire ocean, vast and sparkling, in their irises.
But Mikasa said "yes", anyway, because she knew it would make him laugh. And it did.
"Well, Miss Ackerman," Eren replied with mock-indignation, "not everyone can be born with looks like yours. That gorgeous, long, flowing, silky black hair of yours could be sold for a good sum of money, I tell ya. And that face- you could be a doll, I swear. Those rose petal lips of yours, and those ginormous black eyes- agh!" Eren clutched at his heart and fell into a backfloat. He opened his eyes and fixed his gaze upon her, grinning. "You're going to have your pick of the crop, Mikasa. Don't be cruel to the less fortunate."
"You're the cruel one, you liar," Mikasa muttered, her cheeks burning. Eren didn't seem to hear her. He flipped himself over and swam to the edge of the ground, right next to her, resting folded arms atop the mud.
"That's a nice dress," he said. "Your mom make it?"
Mikasa glared at him suspiciously. "...yes," she answered.
He grinned wickedly back. "That's nice of her. Now, wouldn't it be a shame if something were to-"
Before she could say much, Mikasa was pulled from the ledge and into the water.
"-happen to it?"
Eren burst into laughter. Mikasa shoved him underwater, smirking when he came up gasping.
"The hell was that for?!" he sputtered.
"Revenge," Mikasa answered simply. "You're lucky I didn't take it any further. I was ready to punch you in the throat."
"I'd kick your ass if you did," he retorted.
"Is that a challenge?"
Eren's words turned to a shocked yelp. Mikasa yanked him backward and grabbed a fistful of his hair, pinning him to the ledge with her foot. He kicked and swung wildly to escape her grip, but remained pinned.
"Fine," he choked out. "You win. You win."
Satisfied, Mikasa released him.
Eren didn't miss a beat. Mikasa barely had the time to blink before she was trapped between his arms, his palms digging into her shoulders.
"Gotcha," he chuckled.
She glared at him. "This doesn't hurt, you know."
He gave her a funny look in return. "Of course it doesn't. I wouldn't hurt a girl. My mom would beat my ass."
"Then what were you trying to accomplish?"
"Well," he started, eyes trailing upward in thought, "I guess to prove I could win something."
Mikasa snorted. He clearly hadn't thought this through.
"What would that something be, Eren?"
He paused, obviously at a loss. Mikasa waited for his reply, her devious little grin growing wider and wider.
And then, he leaned forward and kissed her. Just a peck, no longer than a few seconds, but a kiss, nonetheless. Mikasa stuttered.
When Eren pulled back, he looked about as startled as Mikasa felt. His eyes dug into hers with mild panic, asking her questions he couldn't find the answers to.
After a moment, he looked away. "Sorry," he said quietly. He removed his hands from her shoulders.
Before Mikasa could even begin to consider what an appropriate response would be, there were shouts from behind them. She and Eren both scrambled out of the creek, certain it was his mother.
But it wasn't. A short, dark-haired man emerged from the wood. As soon as he saw them, he jogged the short distance to the creek. Mikasa stiffened at the sight of him.
"What's Mr. Levi doing here?" Eren murmured to her. "I thought you said he was out of town."
"He was," she confirmed.
Her cousin was just as she remembered: sour-faced and low-voiced, with the unmistakeable scent of alcohol and tea soaked in his skin and hair.
He smelled more strongly of the former than the latter today. Eren made a slight face and took a step back.
"Mikasa. You need to come with me. Now."
He sounded urgent and authoritative, and it made him rather terrifying. Mikasa reached back and took Eren's hand.
"Why should she?" Eren asked, trying to keep his voice even. "What are you doing here?"
Levi shot him a sharp glare. "Family matters, boy. Mind your own business."
"Family matters?" Mikasa repeated. "Is it about my parents?"
Her cousin hesitated. "...yes," he said, rather quietly. After a dubious look from Mikasa, he took a deep breath and knelt down to meet her eyes.
The creek rumbled and babbled as he said it. The wind rushed through the canopy of leaves above them. Birds sang to themselves. Mikasa's toes dug into the thick mud beneath her. Eren's grip on her hand tightened.
"They're dead, Mikasa."
Everything was so dark.
The umbrellas, the dresses, the suits, the coffins, the sky, her house, the dirt, their faces, her eyes.
The world was a mass of black the day she said good-bye.
It was a closed-coffin funeral; apparently, their bodies had been grotesquely mangled, nearly unrecognizable. Mikasa ached to see them just one more time, but no one would allow her to. It'd give her nightmares, they said.
What they didn't know is that she'd already had nightmares, ones where she was running through the woods, barefoot and soaking wet, as her parents screamed her name. The wood never seemed to end. Mikasa would trip and fall, her parents' screams fading, and the ground would open up, and she would fall into the creek and drown. Cousin Levi's cold eyes would regard her harshly as she inhaled water and mud. She would wake, gasping and crying, and Eren and Armin would be lying beside her, holding her tightly.
I wasn't there, she'd sobbed, every night since that day. I wasn't there.
Today felt like those nights, but with the added embarrassment of being the victim, the poor little orphaned girl.
Eren and Armin, dressed in their finest slacks and suspenders, their hair combed neatly, stood as Mikasa's barrier to the outside. Levi followed the three like a shadow. They spoke to no one.
They sat through the hymns and the tears of strangers, until it was time for the eulogy. Grudgingly, Levi stood and made his way to the front of the lot.
"My aunt and uncle were good people," he said quietly. He didn't meet the eyes of the crowd. "Maybe the best of us Ackermans. And I'm not great with words, but I can say a few things.
"My aunt- she was so smart. And my uncle, stupidly kind. They took me in when no one else would or could. They gave me a place to sleep and food to eat, even with a daughter of their own and a business to run. They didn't deserve to die, but that's just how the world is. The worst doesn't discriminate. It can happen to any of us. And sometimes, it decides to fuck over the kindest. And all the rest of us can do is sit back and blame ourselves, or seek justice, or live in fear of it happening to us.
"But if there's anything we should learn from this, it's that the world will keep turning. We're still alive, and there's not much we can do about it, so we might as well make ourselves at least somewhat useful. Might as well try our hand at living a life we won't regret when our time comes."
He took his seat. The crowd clapped. He tapped Mikasa's shoulder. She turned.
"That was for you," he told her. "They were your parents, not theirs. It was for you."
Mikasa looked away. "Thanks," she murmured, turning back around. Armin and Eren both scooted closer.
Even when the funeral ended, and everyone retired to their own houses. Even when night fell and Armin and Eren fell asleep, and rain began to pound on the roof. Even when Mikasa curled into a ball on the floor and began to cry.
All she could see were closed coffins and black umbrellas.
Everything was so, so very dark that day. Mikasa wondered if she'd ever see anything in color again.
It passed. Mikasa ran out of tears. Her old, haunted house was made accessible again. Levi became her new guardian. They restarted her father's bakery.
Most things didn't change. Eren and Armin still dragged her outside, rain or shine, day or night. She still went to school with them, and was second in her class to Armin. She woke early every day, like always, and delivered pastries to the townsfolk. Like always. Most things had been left unaffected by the ordeal.
But one thing did change.
She didn't smile.
It was her fifteenth birthday. Eren and Armin were having a snowball fight. She watched them giggle and yelp. Eren turned to her and jokingly asked for assistance.
"Not today," she answered, her voice as quiet as usual.
Eren and Armin shared a look. The darker of the two marched over to her and took her by the hand, pulling her up.
"Hey-" she said, "I said not to-"
"If not today, then when?" Eren shot back, grinning. Mischief glinted from his eyes and his bared teeth.
Mikasa faltered. "It's too cold right now," she muttered. "Maybe when it's warmer."
Eren rolled his eyes and removed his scarf. "Please," he scoffed, wrapping it around her neck. "That should be enough to keep the cold out."
All she could do was gawk at him, at his dead-seriousness and the soft look he gave her, at the feeling of his gloved hand enveloping her own.
"Consider that a birthday present, by the way," he said. "Red looks good on you."
"Yeah. I like it."
For the first time in a long time, Mikasa felt a tug at the corners of her mouth.
Nevertheless, she never let it grow into anything more than that. Cold or not, she wasn't ready to tempt fate just yet.
Poinsettias, spices, candy cane stripes, ribbons, fireplaces, papercuts, Santa suits, and cherry pies.
All the world was red Mikasa's 16th December, and the bakery was busier than ever.
"I don't like you going out in the dark," Levi said gruffly one night over supper. "Never have. You could be shot, kidnapped, run over-"
"Run over by what?" she interrupted.
He gave her a steely look. "Horses," he stated simply. "Lost men in carriages. Anyway, no one can see you when it's dark out, and it's dangerous."
"What would you prefer I did, cut my delivery hours?"
"Maybe hire some help."
"Who would we hire?"
"Eren would make good time."
"He's busy chopping wood."
"Tell him to quit."
"He's an only child, Levi. If he quits, his family business dies."
"What about Armin?"
"He can barely make it to town without passing out. There's no way he'd make a good delivery boy."
Levi sighed in exasperation. "What about that boy in your class, Jean Kirschtein?"
Mikasa made a face. "Annoying, and he runs the inn. His mother's not in good health."
"Sasha Braus. I hear she's a hard worker."
"She's also an only child. We have to get our meat from somewhere. Besides, she'd eat all the goods before she was halfway there."
"Connie Springer. He's quick on his feet."
"And busy supplying us with ingredients."
He let out a frustrated huff and stood, gathering his dishes. "Well, we have to do something. You know very well that you're a possible target-"
"It's been six years-"
"Kenny is ruthless-"
"He'd never recognize me-"
"He has his sources-"
"You're so paranoid-"
"And I have every damn right to be."
The older of the two looked as though he were ready to kill someone. And he probably was.
"You find a way to travel safer," he said, "or you stop delivering. That clear?"
She gritted her teeth.
Christmas day came. There was a knock on the Ackerman's door. Eren and Armin stood behind it, their rosy cheeks bunched in great grins, their arms full of treats and neatly wrapped gifts.
"Come in," Levi sighed. The boys might as well have been his wards, too, they spent so much time in his house.
"Merry Christmas, Mr. Levi," they greeted cheerily. He mumbled back a greeting and turned toward the staircase.
"Mikasa!" he called. "Eren and Armin are here!"
Seconds later, she was dashing down the stairs and plopping two wrapped boxes down on her friends' laps. The three gladly tore into the taffy and cookies and candy canes their parents had made as they tried to decide on who would open their gifts first.
Armin was chosen, in the end. He'd gotten new books (from Eren and Mikasa both), a new sweater (hand-made and monogrammed by Mrs. Jaeger herself), and a sturdy pair of suspenders (bought by Levi, who insisted it was Mikasa's idea).
Eren, who was already wearing his own new Christmas sweater, recieved a telescope (a hand-me-down from Armin's grandfather), a brand-new axe (again, a gift from Levi, who'd all but disappeared from the scene), and an etiquette handbook (from Mikasa, who rolled her eyes when he objected).
Finally, it was Mikasa's turn. The boys grinned widely. She had only two boxes, one bigger than the other.
The first box, of course, held her monogrammed sweater. She pulled it on, asking Eren to give his mother her thanks.
The bigger box was next. Mikasa studied Eren and Armin's eager expressions.
"We put our entire allowance into it," Armin said. "Saved every last penny."
"Took a lot of chopping and housework, but it was worth it," Eren added. "Now go on. Open it."
Mikasa obliged, and pulled out a beautiful, masterfully made, cherry-red cloak.
The fabric was heavy, rough on the outside and lined with fur on its inside. At the neck were two silk ribbons to tie it together. A large hood hung from its back, buttoned straps hidden on the inside. For covering her mouth, Mikasa guessed.
"This is lovely," she said, and it was so hard not to grin back at her boys. "Thank you both."
"We know Mr. Levi's been on your back about safety," Armin said. "Since it's red, you'll be more visible at night."
"And red's your color, isn't it?" Eren beamed at her. "As soon as we saw it in the shop window in town, we thought of you, and we knew we had to get it."
That broke her. Mikasa suppressed her smile, anxious to tempt fate, scared that if she showed how happy she was, the world would take away her boys, Levi, her job, everything. But the warm feeling in her chest had to make itself known, somehow. Before she knew it, Mikasa was crying.
"You don't like it?" Armin's voice was soaked in heavy disappointment.
"No," Mikasa insisted, her voice thick, "I do like it. I love it. It's more than lovely, it's fantastic, and you two are so important to me. Thank you, for everything."
Without a word, Eren and Armin both enveloped her in a hug.
Apple spice cookies, candy cane stripes, a fireplace, a wrapped gift, an old scarf, a new cloak.
Red was her color. Red would always be her color.
Not the next spring, but the spring after that, Armin became an astronomer's apprentice. His friends didn't see him quite so often, anymore.
For the first month or so, Eren moped, while Mikasa simply missed him. But once some time had passed, the former of the two began to fill the space their brilliant, blond friend had left behind with his idea of adventure.
"Good morning, Little Red Riding Hood," he would chirp, matching Mikasa's quick strides with his axe resting against his shoulder. "What are we delivering today?"
"Bread," Mikasa would answer, or, "None of your concern."
And he would ask to sample some, and occasionally she would let him, and he would always tell her they were delicious, and then invite her to join him at the creek, or to a trip into town, or to climb a very large tree.
"Not today," she would say every day. "Sorry."
And that evening, he would show up at her door and pester her until she had to leave for her next round of deliveries. Then he would join her, again.
"You're a lucky girl, to have such a loving beau," Mrs. Kirschtein sighed once. Mikasa flushed and corrected her. Mrs. Kirschtein didn't seem to believe her objections.
"You're a cute bunch," Sasha Braus once giggled, when Eren had snatched Mikasa's cloak. Hastily, the two insisted that they weren't a "bunch" at all, but Sasha didn't listen.
"Some girl you got," Jean Kirschtein muttered bitterly to Eren. Eren didn't object this time, only too happy to be making him jealous.
"I don't deserve her," he agreed smugly, suppressing a laugh.
"You don't," Jean growled. Eren ignored him.
Eren turned eighteen that month, just thirty or so days younger than the girl in the red riding hood. His father told him he was a man. Eren didn't believe him; he was certain he was still a child.
Nevertheless, he couldn't ignore the overwhelmingly adult feelings blooming within him, as vibrant and obvious and lovely as the wildflowers sprouting in the woods. Feelings that stretched toward his childhood friend Mikasa, as though she were the sun. They painted scenarios in his daydreams, in the things he imagined before he fell asleep at night. He would see himself holding her hand, or playing with her hair, or kissing her neck, or- well- other things.
And the image that popped up the most often, the one that sent thrills down to his stomach and set his face on fire, was a specific one.
He saw Mikasa in a white gown, clutching a bouquet of flowers to her chest, a veil over her face. Her lips, colored crimson for the occasion, were stretched into a smile he missed very, very much.
He hadn't forgotten what he'd done that day at the creek, or how it had felt. Not since it had happened. And time had pressed against the flower buds that had sprouted then, opening them into the feelings he had now.
Eren, at eighteen years old, was in full bloom, and in love with Mikasa Ackerman.
"Old Man Arlert is dying."
The news cast a spell on the town, one of hushed families and solemn, folded hands. Armin Arlert I's name was added to the prayer list in church. Few dared to knock on his door, and even fewer once Armin Arlert II made it clear he wasn't welcoming guests at the time. The boy had never been a frightening one as long as the townsfolk had known him, but suddenly there was something threatening and horrifyingly empty in his pale, drawn face and his lean, stretched-out body.
"He gives you this… this hollow look," Jean Kirschtein said quietly. "Like he's the one on his deathbed. His eyes are purple underneath. His lip is busted, and there's no color in his face. His hair sticks up like he never combs it, and he practically whispers everything. Until you overstep. Then he yells."
"You overstepped?" Connie Springer asked, the hairs on his arms raising.
"I thought he'd let me in," Jean murmured. "He's one of my best friends. I thought he'd…...he screamed at me."
"Screamed?" Sasha Braus gasped.
"Screamed," Jean confirmed. "He said, 'I can't do this today! Not today, not tomorrow, maybe not ever! He's leaving me, Jean. And he's taking a piece of me with him. I can feel it. Part of me is dying. I don't have room for your petty chats, not any of you. Your condolences, your pity, your sickeningly false tears. Keep them all away from me. Get off of my porch, Jean.' And I did. And I haven't even heard from him since."
"Mikasa?" Sasha frowned at her. "Are you okay?"
"I have to go," Mikasa answered. "Thank you for lunch, Sasha; it was delicious." And with that, she rose and left, as quick as the almost-summer breeze fluttering at the ends of her cloak.
Pastries were a small and silly gift to give to someone as frantic as Armin must've been, Mikasa knew, but she didn't know what else to do. All she could offer were her condolences, her empathy, her presence, and her pastries. She prayed it would be enough for him. She didn't want Armin to feel the same things she'd felt. No one should have to experience what she had, but Armin least of all.
By the time she finished, it was dark out. Eren hadn't come over. She was sure he'd already gone to visit. It was possible he hadn't returned yet.
Levi came down the stairs just as Mikasa had pulled her hood on. He gave her a long look, as indecipherable to her as any expression he made.
"Be safe," he told her, "and let them both know I'll be there within the week."
Before a minute had passed, the front door was shut behind her, and she'd already taken her first steps into the silent, moonless night.
-end part one-
AN: Part one of three (I think...maybe longer...why do I do this to myself?). Inspired by tumblr user lolakasa's lovely art.
Writing this took a fuckton of southern gothic music and listening to Sacred Heart by the Civil Wars on repeat for at least an hour. A special thanks to natiwati for betaing me (seriously, this story's quality would've been half as good without her help).
Part two is already written and revised, so expect it soon!