They were halfway up the hill and Eren could smell it. It stank. He hated it but he followed it, loved it because it was new and different and hated it because everything in him screamed to turn away. It smelled like rotten fish and something earthy, but it also meant that something new was ahead, and he wasn't the only one trying to hurry over that hill through their exhaustion. Running was like moving through honey, but he did it anyway, pulling himself up with his hands when he had to, tearing up fistfulls of grass and earth on a slope so steep it felt like a mountain. The closer he got to the top, the stronger the smell got, pulling him upwards and forwards, begging him to find out what lay ahead even though Levi was yelling at him to slow down and look out for danger (yet what danger could there be when they were all gone now?), and he could remember being the child who had listened in wonder to the stories from Armin's books, the same child who had joined the Recon Corps just to catch a glimpse of something like this-
And then he was there, clinging to the top of this damned hill, and he couldn't find the strength to stand anymore.
What words did he have? What words were there to describe the vastness, this other world that swallowed the ends of the Earth and disappeared into the horizon? What words were there to explain the broken light of the sun on its surface? The hiss of the water as it devoured, pulled back and devoured again? He had learned words to describe the monsters that had destroyed his home, but none for the one that lay here, demanding his awe and admiration. The wind was so strong that there were was no way to get away from the smell that had brought him here, but it didn't matter when he had found something that even the titans must have feared. Because this was the sea, the creature so powerful that every horror that troubled the land seemed childish. If the titans were specks next to the sea, then he, as a human, barely existed.
The others joined him, and one by one, they were all silenced by the sheer magnitude of what they had found. Some cried out of relief. Others cheered hysterically and danced together, while the rest looked on without words. And the wind blew right into their faces, stronger than anything they'd ever felt. carrying the sting of the waves further inland.
Eren looked around for Armin and found him just a few meters away, clutching his treasured book to his chest, staring with tears running down his cheeks as he squinted against the wind. Eren could imagine Armin's lip trembling and his shoulders shaking; but that Armin had grown into this man, the one who had saved all of their lives more than once, the man who had learned just how important he was. But the child was still there when he opened that book, when everyone crowded around to hear him read from it with a fervor they had never been able to match. He was the same child then, as the one who had insisted that the sea's water tasted like salt, that there were entire landscapes of ice and hot sand. Even those who had been skeptical and scorned Armin for being so hopeful, listened. There wasn't a single soldier there who didn't want to see the legends they heard of from that book.
Mikasa was right beside him before he could even think to look for her. Her astonishment was more subtle than the others, but Eren still grinned when he saw it. She looked at him, and he could see the wonder in her eyes, the disbelief; they had all made it with their scars and through their agony. They had survived, and that was a miracle in itself-
Mikasa smiled. She turned away when she did and hid behind her hair. Eren wished he had something to capture that expression with, but he had never been much of an artist. She said something, but the wind carried it away as soon as it left her lips, so she pulled him down to reach his ear and repeated it.
"I think he's waiting for you," she said, pointing her chin towards the shoreline. While they had all been celebrating the success of their expedition, there was already a figure there, framed by the sunlight, his bare feet inching slowly into the waves.
Mikasa left him then and went to pry the book out of Armin's hands before his fingers dug right through the binding, but Eren could tell that she was still watching him. She was learning to trust Levi, but she still kept an eye on him sometimes. It was a step in the right direction. Mikasa's reaction had been the easiest to deal with in the end.
Others were starting to make their way down the slope to the beach, a good distance away from Levi. Eren made his way there, pausing to leave his boots by Levi's - and then he was distracted by the feeling of the sand under his feet, fine and almost soft. He found the source of the smell too- clusters of green and orange strands strewn around the beach and surrounded by flies, which he avoided as much as he could. The wet sand was cold. The sun was too weak to do anything about it yet. He took small, careful steps until he was close enough to reach Levi's hand. When Eren slid their fingers together, the other man didn't protest.
They stood together, listening to the roar of the waves and the cawing seagulls circling overhead. The icy water reached their toes before it drew back. Eren's feet were freezing but he didn't even consider moving. He'd have time to warm him feet later. He couldn't turn his back on the sea because it was cold.
"I wonder what's out there," he eventually said. He squeezed Levi's hand experimentally. Levi squeezed back.
"Maybe more monsters," Levi replied. His voice was softer than Eren expected. Even with the wind, it wasn't much of a problem when they were this close together, but Levi didn't use that tone often, at least not in public. That was the voice reserved for when he was alone with someone he trusted, when he stopped being a leader and became a human man. That was the voice he woke up with and the voice he made love with sometimes, although this was more thoughtful. "Maybe there's something out there even the titans were afraid of."
"Maybe," Eren agreed. "Or maybe this is it."
The wind lapsed into silence then, falling away suddenly and leaving behind the sounds of laughter from the other soldiers. Even from this distance, Eren could make out Hanji's screams of excitement above the rest, and he would have smiled if he wasn't reeling from what he'd just said. The titans were no longer a threat to humanity, they all knew that now. They had seen the last one fall themselves, had been there in the moments afterwards when so many had cried out of relief no human had experienced in over a hundred years. Yet they had spent so long despairing that Eren was struggling to understand it. His whole purpose had revolved around titans. To think that they would now only ever be part of forgotten history books was something he couldn't comprehend yet.
"What do we do now?" Eren whispered. He was sure Levi could hear how lost he was. How long would it take for the others to realise the same thing?
Levi didn't give him time to panic. Instead he took Eren's free hand turned him around so that they were facing each other, with Eren's back to the sea. And then he walked forwards, forcing Eren back as the water lapped at his ankles continued to rise. He felt like his bones were rattling with the cold, but Levi still pushed him back wordlessly, calm aside from the fact that he was holding Eren's hands so tightly that the blood had left his fingers.
Eren took another step back and stumbled as the ground sloped. He gasped t but managed to steady himself, caught a glimpse of panic on Levi's face as he was almost pulled forwards, and Eren would've laughed if he wasn't having a minor heart attack. If he stopped now, he knew Levi wouldn't force him, but he wanted to keep going. There were crushed shells under their feet now, and wispy tendrils of unanchored seaweed that made Levi grimace in disgust, and the panic left him a little - at least until he stumbled again and brought Levi crashing down with him.
The water wasn't deep even with the waves coming in, but Eren still cried out as he fell. For at least a few seconds, he was terrified - he knew how to swim well enough that he wouldn't drown for at least five minutes until he made it to shore, but this was much more than a small lake. And if he thought the water was cold around his ankles, it was astonishing when he fell right into it, especially when his head ended up under the water. He resurfaced, gasping, and was alarmed to find that Armin had been right after all - it was amazing that there was any water at all when it was that salty. He could taste sand too, feel it on his face and in his eyes, and he struggled to rub it out while coughing water out of his lungs, so it took him a minute to realise that Levi had fallen on top of him.
"If you wanted to swim, you could've told me," Eren joked, and Levi pushed him back into the water.
He came up again, laughing. He almost mentioned the look on Levi's face when they fell, but he choked and had to stop to cough his lungs clear. At least Levi didn't try to keep his head underwater, although he looked like he was considering it.
He looked up past Eren's head to stare again at the horizon, the flat line that seemed to cut the sky in two. There were very few people who Levi allowed himself to be unguarded around, and Eren was endlessly grateful that he was one of them. So he took the time to memorise the way his hair tangled around his ears, the sand brushed across his cheeks, the way his flushed skin showed through his soaked shirt…
Eren lifted a hand to touch Levi's cheek and he leaned into it distractedly. If he was aware of the fact that there was at least one pair of eyes on them now, he didn't care.
"I want to see the rest of it," Eren murmured as Levi turned to kiss his wrist. "The world. I want to see all of it. With you." He didn't think Levi heard him - the wind had picked up again and it was strong- but Levi turned one eye towards him.
"What about the rest of them?" Levi asked, taking Eren's hand away from his face. "You'd leave your friends behind?"
"That's not what I meant."
He hated begging like this, but he had to be sure. "Promise me you'll come. Promise me you won't leave and…and-"
Eren opened his mouth a few times to refute it, but he couldn't think of anything else. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed like a possibility. Levi had been fighting longer than Eren had been alive; if he wanted to stop now, no one would be surprised. He deserved to rest now, after all the work he'd done. Eren had seen the scars all over his body, from years of constantly escaping death, saving others, defending the wall and exploring outside of it. He had done his duty. If he wanted to go back now, who was Eren to stop him?
For all his worrying, he got thrown back into the water again. "You think I'm too old to keep up with you, is that it? This crusty old man can't survive another day outside the walls before he drops dead?"
Eren flushed. "I didn't mean-"
"By tomorrow I'll need a cane and an escort, won't I?"
Eren sighed. "That's not what I meant. I'm sorry." He shouldn't have tried. Maybe now Levi would go and see the rest of the world on his own without another group of people weighing him down, and Eren's begging would be for nothing.
Yet just as he was about to despair, Levi held his face and leaned forwards so he wouldn't have to compete with the howling wind. "You didn't have to ask for that promise, idiot," he said softly. "You think I would've stuck around until now if you did? Do you have any idea how annoying you can be?"
Eren grinned but it didn't last long; Levi's lips were already there with soft, painfully slow kisses that burned on his cold lips. He could taste seawater, feel Levi's fingers tangled in his hair, smell his skin and the dead fish stench of the sea, and if there was whooping in the distance from the other soldiers, neither of them remembered any of it.