.eleven.

{the snow queen}

She stood erect as Keith Shadis stopped in front of her. His eyes were cold and harsh, and she stared into them with a measured gaze.

"Name," he barked.

"Mikasa Ackerman, sir," she said.

He studied her face for almost a full minute before passing her by. She watched in apathy as he intimidated, rounded upon, and then promptly verbally and/or physically attacked trainees. This did not surprise her, but she did have to wonder why he had skipped over her. It could be anything, really, so she decided not to dwell on it.

They were dismissed soon after a girl was sent to run rounds until she was near death. Mikasa took her free time to devise a letter to Levi, though she was not sure she would actually send it. She was certain Levi was furious with her for joining the military. Not that he had any right to be. In all honesty, she could live with Levi hating her, so long if it meant she could be near enough to him to protect him if need be.

At dinner she wrote a letter so long, it spanned three pages front and back. She wrote everything on her mind, and spilled her heart onto the pages, and wondered vaguely if Levi would roll his eyes and scoff at the words. It was this image that convinced her not to send it, and what pushed her to write more and more.

When dinner was over, she gathered up her things slowly, her mind still buzzing with words she wanted to write. She didn't know what she would do with the letter. Maybe she would burn it. Or tear it up. Or both.

She bumped into a boy on her way out, thoughts of Levi's wrath entangling her thoughts and senses. Her letter spilt onto the floor, and she sighed, bending down to pick it up. Her skirt pooled around her feet as the boy spluttered in surprise.

"O-oh!" he gasped, "hey, I'm sorry!" He bent down beside her. "Wow, I'm stupid, I mean, I— I saw you coming, I just didn't move. Um… wow…" He picked up the first page of her letter, as well as her book of fairy tales. She felt his eyes on her face, and so she looked up at him. His face was very long, and his hair was pale and it fell limply across his forehead. His eyes were wide, and she could see perspiration glistening against his pores. "I've… I've never seen anyone like you before— uh, crap…" He winced, and she blinked confusedly at him.

He looked away, his shoulders tensing up. "Sorry," he mumbled. "You have beautiful hair."

"Thanks," Mikasa said hesitantly. He was looking at her letter, and she felt herself stiffen in defense. He looked at Levi's name, and she saw his entire face transform— nervousness bled into anger, which morphed into disappointment, and then defeat. She was partly stunned by the display of emotions, but mostly she needed him to stop looking at her letter, because otherwise she was prepared to break his wrist to get it. She held out her hands expectantly, and when he continued to stare at the letter, she cleared her throat. "I need those."

"Oh." The boy tore his gaze away from the letter, and handed it and the book back to her. "Right. Sorry. You have nice handwriting."

"Not really," Mikasa said, rising to her feet and moving past him. He sat on the ground and stared up at her as she moved. "But thanks."

She walked out of the mess hall, hugging her book and her letter tightly to her chest. Subconsciously, she touched her red ribbon to be sure it was still there. Then she touched her wrist, where the woven band made from her old red dress was tied. Her neckerchief was not around her neck, and her throat felt a little bare without it.

Taking note of her previous blunder, she dodged a boy walking in front of her by whirling around him when he stopped abruptly. He glanced at her, his green eyes narrowing a little at her face. He said nothing as she passed, but instead studied her warily. And then he grabbed her arm.

Instinct snatched her up without mercy, and she exhaled sharply, a scream perched upon her tongue as she whirled around, her leg flying out. She heard him speak hesitantly before her shin landed between his legs.

"Hey, your name is Ackerman, righ— shit—!"

Mikasa stared at him as he went down with a cry of pain, curling into the dirt. She opened her mouth in shock, and mentally berated herself for attacking him. That isn't how you make friends, Mikasa, she chided herself. She dropped to her knees beside the boy, her dark skirt melting into the ground around her.

"I'm sorry," Mikasa said weakly.

"Shit," he groaned, rolling onto his back. His brown hair curled around his eyes, and he choked a little on a chuckle. "Ow."

"I'm really sorry," Mikasa said, biting her lip. "I don't… I don't do well with people grabbing me."

His arms rested against his lower abdomen as a few other trainees stopped to stare at them, whispers flying against the night. He opened his eyes, and smiled weakly. "Sorry," he said, his voice thick with pain. "I was going to talk to you at dinner, but I got distracted…" He sat up, wincing a little as he took a deep breath. "My name is Eren Jaeger."

Mikasa nodded, plucking up the pages of her letter before they blew away. "I'm Mika—" She froze. Something slimy slithered into the pit of her stomach. Like a bad memory, it choked her, and left her feeling queasy and stunned. She looked at Eren sharply. "Did you say Jaeger?"

He nodded eagerly, searching her face. She was startled to find he was smiling a little, looking just as stunned as she was. "My dad was your doctor," he said, his eyes wide. She felt a chill run through her like a sword burrowing into her abdomen. "We… we went to your house, and… um…" He glanced away. "Yeah."

"Yeah," Mikasa said distantly.

There was a short pause between them, and Mikasa found herself wanting to put a lot of distance between her and the stranger. She didn't want to remember that day. But he was forcing her to go back, to watch an axe come down, to hear her mother screaming.

He broke her revere with the caustic quality of his voice. "I'm so sorry," Eren Jaeger said, his shoulders tensing up as he stared at her with his eyes burning with intensity. "We looked for you everywhere! Armin and I went out to look every day after my dad gave up." Eren blinked, and glanced away sheepishly. "Yeah, Armin kept telling me that there was little chance for you to be found without any clues as to who took you, but we still tried…"

"Thank you…" Mikasa said softly. Someone was looking for me, she thought numbly. I wasn't alone, even before Levi. I wasn't alone at all. "That… that means a lot."

He shrugged. "I'm just glad I found you," he said, picking up her book and handing it to her. She took it gratefully. His eyes grew very concerned, and she was further stunned. "Did those guys hurt you?"

She shook her head. The she paused, thinking back. They had hurt her, hadn't they? "Well," she said hesitantly. "Maybe a little. But I was saved before anything too awful happened."

He nodded, and held out his hand. After staring at it for a long moment, she took it, and nodded as well. "I'm glad to hear it," he said earnestly. Then his eyes brightened up. "Wait until Armin finds out!"

She helped him to his feet, and she ignored the fact that she did not know who Armin was. "I'm sorry," she said again. "For kicking you."

"No, it's fine." He let go of her hand, and waved his own casually. "I shouldn't have grabbed you."

"Yeah…" She glanced away. "Don't do that again."

"I won't." He dusted himself off, and looked around at the spectators who had paused to watch the exchange. Mikasa noticed the boy who she had bumped into earlier was watching from the steps of the mess hall with a haunted look in his eyes. "What the hell are you all looking at?"

She turned away to hide a smile. For a moment, he almost sounded a bit like Levi. Though, his voice was much harsher and louder and angrier. It was a familiar sort of callousness, though, and she wondered if perhaps she had made a friend after all.

The next day Mikasa easily hung from the cords attached to her belt. It was much simpler than she could have ever imagined, and she tried to imagine what it might be like to swing with maneuver gear.

"Hey," a boy said, stepping in front of her when she was released. He was small and slender, his blond hair framing his round, smooth face. He smiled a little, and he waved amicably. "You're Mikasa Ackerman, right?"

"Yes," Mikasa said. She turned around when she felt someone gently toss the braid that rested at her back. "Hello, Eren."

"Your hair's pretty long," he said.

Mikasa pulled her braid over her shoulder to examine it. It was tied tightly into a bow with her red ribbon. "I didn't notice," she said. "I guess it is."

"You know that can get you into an accident with the 3D maneuver gear, right?" Eren asked, peering at her.

"I'll take my chances," she said, tossing the braid back over her shoulder. Eren shrugged.

"Suit yourself," he said. He jerked his chin at the blond boy in greeting. "You did good, you know."

"Really?" the boy asked, his eyes widening. "I felt like I was going to fall over the whole time, honestly."

"Didn't look like it," Eren said, clapping the boy on the shoulder.

"Aren't you up next?" the boy asked. Eren blinked, and he twisted his head.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "Guess so. Be right back!"

Mikasa watched Eren leave, and she listened as the boy exhaled softly. "He's really confident…" he said quietly. He turned to look up at Mikasa, and he smiled again. "Um, my name is Armin Arlelt."

"Oh," Mikasa said. She nodded slowly. "Eren said something about you— you helped him look for me?"

Armin smiled wider, and he nodded. "It's so strange," he said, giving a little laugh. "I mean, we tried so hard to find you, and when we stop looking you just appear out of nowhere. It's kind of amazing."

"Thank you for looking," Mikasa said. "You and Eren… are complete strangers to me."

"We weren't trying to be creepy…" Armin said nervously.

"No, that's not it," Mikasa said. "I meant… why bother?" She stared down at the boy. "Why put so much effort into trying to find a complete stranger?"

"Oh." Armin blinked rapidly, and he stared at her in wonder. "Why wouldn't we?"

"I don't know…" Mikasa turned her face away from him. "I guess… I'm just surprised. This world is very cruel, after all."

"I'm sorry you feel that way," Armin said, still smiling weakly. She looked at him, and she noticed how the smile did not reach his eyes. He looked very sad. "I understand, though."

But… don't you think… her own tiny voice echoed back at her from the catacombs of her memory, that maybe it can be beautiful too?

"It's people like you two," Mikasa said, "who make me reconsider the way I feel about the world."

She felt him jump as if she had slapped him. She decided to move forward after that, blinking as a group of trainees watched Eren. She followed their gaze, and her eyes widened. Armin appeared beside her, and they both stared as Eren hung upside-down, his expression one of shock and distress.

"That's not supposed to happen," Mikasa observed quietly.

Armin said nothing. He stared at Eren with a look of horror upon his face. Mikasa twisted the woven band around her list, and frowned. After Shadis proceeded to chew Eren out about how to properly hold his body, Eren was let down. Armin immediately went to Eren's side, slinging the boy's arm around his shoulder. Mikasa realized Eren was bleeding from the head, and she watched as Armin buckled under the taller boy's weight.

She continued to watch, fighting an internal struggle. They were both complete strangers to her. And yet… they had cared about her, without ever seeing her face. They had looked for her when she had been kidnapped. These two boys she didn't know had genuinely cared about their safety before she had even known they existed.

Mikasa moved to Eren's other side, and hefted up his arm, slinging it across her shoulder. Armin looked up at the suddenness of the weight being lifted off him, and he stared at Mikasa with his blue eyes large and glowing with awe. His brow furrowed, and he smiled slightly in gratitude. They dragged Eren away from the crowd, and Armin directed to where their bunk was.

"Thanks," Armin said, pulling some gauze from a drawer. Mikasa had no idea where the gauze had come from, or how Armin had known it was there, but she was grateful. Eren sat, staring dazedly into nothing. "He's so silly sometimes. He has a tendency to get himself into situations like this."

"It's the least I can do," Mikasa said gently. She peered at Eren's face. "Will he be okay?"

"He'll be fine," Armin sighed, carefully pushing back Eren's hair in order to properly administer the gauze. "He's just shocked, I think."

Mikasa nodded. She leaned against the beam of a bunk, and she turned away. "If that's all," she said, "then I'm going to go."

"That's fine," Armin said. He was focused on the gauze, but he jerked his chin in acknowledgement. "Thanks again, Mikasa."

Mikasa paused at the door, and she let her hand rest against the doorframe. She turned her head to peer back at Armin, and she found herself debating once again. "I'll save you two seats at dinner," Mikasa said gently. She paused, and turned her face away. "If you'd like."

"Oh, that'd be great!" Armin gasped. "Thank you!"

Mikasa nodded, leaving the room. She smiled slightly to herself. How strange it was, the sudden charge of energy at the mere thought of mattering. Her existence had been enough to send two boys searching, and she felt guilty that the search had been fruitless. She was glad, though. Because at the very least she had something to cling to. A little pinch of home that lingered in the determination of children. Yes, she was very grateful for that.

She wrote a new letter to Levi at the dinner table briefly summarizing her encounters with Eren and Armin, and she knew she'd never send it. By the time the two of them had actually shown up, she was nearly finished with it. Armin plopped Eren down beside Mikasa, and then moved around the table to sit across from him. He sighed, shaking his head a little in disbelief.

"Go ahead and try and talk to him," Armin said, setting a plate before Eren. He pushed it farther in front of the boy when he didn't budge. "He's completely oblivious."

"Does this happen often?" Mikasa asked, glancing at Eren's face. He still looked dazed and mortified.

"No," Armin said. He shook his head fast. "No way. Eren's never this quiet."

"Have you tried to snap him out of it?" Mikasa asked.

Armin stared down at his own plate, and he pushed around the chunks of potato in his stew. "Well… not really. I'm a little scared to."

Mikasa stared at her letter pensively. "Eren?" she asked, setting her pen down. The boy stared vacantly ahead of him, his lips parted in a stunned sort of gape that left his face looking utterly imperceptive. Mikasa heard Armin give a little sigh. "Eren."

"I told you," Armin said, shaking his head. "He's completely—" Armin gave a soft cry of horror, his chair flying back as he jumped to his feet, and his body curling in alarm as Mikasa's fist collided with Eren's cheek. He went flying out of his chair, falling into a crumpled heap against the wall. He blinked rapidly, and flung himself upright, his eyes ablaze.

"What the hell?" he snarled at her.

"Mikasa, why would you do that?" Armin squeaked as she rose to her feet. She noticed how the mess hall grew quiet. That was interesting.

She stepped up to Eren, and she saw the fury in his eyes. "Are you angry?" Mikasa asked.

"Fuck yeah, I'm—!"

She offered out her hand, her own eyes boring into his. "Then be angry," she said sharply, "and don't mope around like a lamb for slaughter. You look stupid."

Eren stared up at her, his eyes growing wide. She could feel his rage, and she could also feel the eyes of all the trainees in the room burning at her back. She kept her hand extended, and her head high, and she let herself be as calm and frigid as a winter sky before a storm.

Then, to her satisfaction and honest surprise, Eren gave a short laugh. He nodded curtly, and caught her wrist in his fist. "I guess I do look pathetic, huh?" he asked as she pulled him to his feet. He rubbed his cheeks, and winced. "You're really strong."

Mikasa whirled around, her eyes scanning the room. She watched as every eye averted from her gaze, and she wondered if this was how Levi felt. "Sorry for hitting you," Mikasa said quietly.

"I think I needed it," Eren said, sitting down.

Armin still stood, looking stunned and fearful. He stared at Mikasa for a long time, his mouth agape as if he wanted to say something, but he couldn't bear to let the words out. Mikasa sat down beside Eren, "You had confidence in yourself this morning," Mikasa said. "Too much, maybe, but so what? What the hell are you going to accomplish if you act like a zombie every time you fail?"

Eren looked at her, and then he looked at Armin. "Okay," he said. "Okay, you're right. I've gotta get through it. No moping."

"Good." Mikasa looked at Armin, and she saw that he still looked a little confused. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"N-no," Armin said, waving his hands anxiously. "It's… um… I just wasn't expecting you to do something so violent."

Mikasa glanced away as he sat down, looking around anxiously as the hall filled up with soft murmurings. "Sorry," she said once again. She didn't know why she was apologizing so much, but it seemed only right. She had to remember that these boys did not know her, or Levi, and couldn't possibly understand her thought process. "I'll try not to hit him so hard next time."

Eren choked a little on his stew, and he clapped his hand against his chest as he coughed. "Next time?" Eren asked.

"Discipline requires pain." She gently flicked the bandage beneath his hair. "Which is another reason not to mope about what happened today."

"O-okay," Eren said. He was staring at her strangely, and she bowed her head, wondering if perhaps she needed tone herself down. She was around new people, and it was probably wrong of her to be so quick to bruise.

"Hey, Mikasa," Armin said tentatively. "I'm… I'm sorry to ask, but where did you learn to hit like that?"

"Yeah," Eren said, twisting in his chair to look at her. "How are you so strong? Can you teach us?"

"Eh!" Armin flushed, and he shook his head furiously. "No, no, I don't think I'd be able to hit anyone like that if I tried—"

"I'm not sure if I could teach it anyway," Mikasa said. She looked down at her letter once again, and rested her cheek against her fist. "It wasn't something I learned."

"Oh," Eren said. He looked a little disappointed, but he shrugged it off. "Well, anyways, you're right. If I'm gonna join the Survey Corps, I've gotta endure whatever is thrown at me, right? Even some dumb obstacle like this."

Mikasa looked up from her letter, letting her fist drop from her cheek. "You're joining the Survey Corps?" she asked. She couldn't help the squirming feeling in her stomach. Will he last out there, she wondered, or will he just be another meaningless death? She didn't want to face her own fear of the job she was preparing to take.

Eren nodded eagerly, tearing into his bread and smirking. "Yup," he said after swallowing. "I'm gonna eradicate the titans. Every last one."

"That seems unrealistic."

Eren's smirk fell, and he glanced at her. He made a derisive noise, like a scoff mixed with a snort. "Yeah?" he asked. "Well where are you gonna go, Miss I-Can-Do-Everything-Better-Than-Everyone?"

"Don't call me that," Mikasa said quietly.

"Well?" Eren asked. He wrinkled his nose. "Don't tell me you're gonna join the Military Police."

"No," Mikasa said. "I'm joining the Survey Corps too."

"Really?" Armin asked, his eyes widening. He shared a look with Eren, a glance that could not be read by Mikasa, and then he looked back at her. "Why?"

Mikasa shook her head. She folded up her letter, and tucked it under her arm as she scooped up her plate and cup. "I have no other choice," she said, rising to her feet. I've given myself no other choice. She moved to clear her plate, but a girl appeared in front of her. Mikasa recognized her from the bunk she shared with several other girls, and she watched as the brunette beamed at her eagerly. Her warm brown eyes were hungry and glowing.

"You're not gonna throw that out," the girl said, pointing to the bread still sitting on Mikasa's plate. "Are you?"

Mikasa looked down at it. And then she looked back up at the girl. "Oh." She said. "How silly of me." Mikasa balanced her cup against her plate, and picked up the bread. The girl stared at it eagerly, reaching for it with slow fingers. Mikasa tossed the bread into the air and caught it between her teeth, spinning away from the brunette and inwardly smirking at the noise of distress the girl made.

That night as the other girls chattered restlessly, Mikasa pressed her back to the wall of her upper bunk, reading idly from her book of fairy tales. There were four other girls who shared the loft with her, Sasha, the brunette from earlier, two small blonds, and one dark haired girl. One of the blondes was sitting with her legs slung over the edge of the loft, staring ahead of her with a bored gaze as the girl with dark pigtails tentatively, but amiably, chatted with her. The other blonde was somewhere on the ground.

Until Mikasa realized she wasn't.

"E-excuse me."

Mikasa looked up from her page to stare at the tiny girl. Her hair fell against her face in silky yellow tresses, and she looked up at Mikasa with her hands splayed against her knees. She had a strange air about her, as if she was afraid to speak, but couldn't help it. At the ladder, another girl lounged, her darkened complexion sprinkled with faint freckles. The girl glanced at Mikasa with an acute gaze, and Mikasa stared back.

"Yes?" Mikasa asked, addressing the blonde girl.

"That book," the girl said softly. "I recognize it."

Mikasa glanced down at the book in her hands. "Oh?"

The girl nodded eagerly, and she folded her hands in her lap. "I read it when I was little," she said, her eyes wide and bright. "It's got so many wonderful stories!"

"Yes," Mikasa agreed. She stared at the girl for a long time, studying her round, beaming face. Gently she closed the book, and offered it out. "You can look at it if you want."

The girl grasped the book with tiny hands, and she turned it toward her, examining the cover closely. "This copy looks so much older than mine was," she murmured, running her fingers across the faded inscribed title. The other girl hopped up onto the loft, crouching over the blonde's shoulder.

"Doesn't look like much to me," she said, her voice coarse yet lilting.

"Oh, it's wonderful," the blonde said. The girl smiled at Mikasa, and she tilted her head. "Which one is your favorite?"

"I'm not sure," Mikasa said. She hugged her knees to her chest, and thought about it for a moment. "I think I like the one about the tin soldier."

"I remember that one," the girl said. "It's so sad, what happens in the end."

"Yes," Mikasa agreed. "But it's a nice story."

"What is this thing even about?" the freckled girl asked, snatching the book and frowning at it.

"Fairy tales," the blonde said meekly.

The freckled girl wrinkled her nose. "Fairy tales?" she scoffed.

"They're really good," the blonde said quickly. She looked back at Mikasa, with wide eyes. "Aren't they?"

"I like them," Mikasa said. She wasn't sure if it was because Levi had introduced the stories to her, or if she genuinely like the stories. She couldn't tell the difference.

"Let's hear it then," the freckled girl said, crossing her legs and raising her chin. "I want to know if this book is all that you're griping about."

"Oh," the blonde gasped. "Oh, I don't know…"

The freckled girl shoved the book back in Mikasa's face. "You read it."

"Ymir!" The blonde looked a little frantic, and she waved her hand in apology. "I'm sorry, you… you don't have to, it's—"

"I'll read it," Mikasa said, taking the book. She looked at the blonde, and she rested the book against her knees. "What story is your favorite?"

"Oh," she said. "Erm… I like the one about the snow queen, actually— but—"

"She said she'd read it, didn't she?" Ymir clamped her hand on the blonde's shoulder, causing her to jump a little. "C'mon, Christa, let the girl give it a go."

Christa looked at Mikasa with her large blue eyes glowing with a mixture of guilt and amusement. She smiled weakly as Mikasa opened the book, carefully flipping through the pages. As she flipped through the book, Ymir studied her face. "Hey, you're the chick who punched that kid into a wall."

"Yes," Mikasa said.

Ymir snorted, and Christa looked a little horrified. "That was you?" Christa asked, her eyes wide. "But that boy was already injured…"

"I'm sure he'll be fine," Mikasa said.

"I hope so…" Christa murmured.

"Why?" Ymir asked, peering down at Christa's face. "You don't even know the brat."

"Well, no… but—"

"I'm going to start the story now," Mikasa said. Her hair was loose across her shoulders now, and she'd tied her ribbon around her bicep for safekeeping. Ymir and Christa quieted, and looked at her expectantly. So she clutched the book, and began to read hesitantly, "Story the First. Which Describes a Looking Glass and the Broken Fragments."

Christa looked very eager to hear the story, while Ymir looked rather bored, and turned her head to look at the other duo on the loft. Mikasa watched for a moment before returning her attention to the page. "Youmust attend to the commencement of this story, for when we get to the end we shall know more than we do now about a very wicked hobgoblin; he was one of the very worst, for he was a real demon."

Ymir gave a snort at that.

"One day, when he was in a merry mood, he made a looking-glass which had the power of making everything good or beautiful that was reflected in it almost shrink to nothing, while everything that was worthless and bad looked increased in size and worse than ever," Mikasa read. "The most lovely landscapes appeared like boiled spinach, and the people became hideous, and looked as if they stood on their heads and had no bodies. Their countenances were so distorted that no one could recognize them, and even one freckle on the face appeared to spread over the whole of the nose and mouth. The demon said this was very amusing. When a good or pious thought passed through the mind of any one it was misrepresented in the glass; and then how the demon laughed at his cunning invention."

She noticed how the girl with pigtails had stopped talking, and was now listening to her read. Even the other blonde girl had turned her head to face Mikasa, her dull blue eyes on the book. Mikasa glanced back at Christa and Ymir, who were both watching her expectantly. She continued carefully.

"All who went to the demon's school—for he kept a school—talked everywhere of the wonders they had seen, and declared that people could now, for the first time, see what the world and mankind were really like. They carried the glass about everywhere, till at last there was not a land nor a people who had not been looked at through this distorted mirror. They wanted even to fly with it up to heaven to see the angels, but the higher they flew the more slippery the glass became, and they could scarcely hold it, till at last it slipped from their hands, fell to the earth, and was broken into millions of pieces."

"What the hell is this story supposed to be about?" Ymir asked.

"You'll see," Christa whispered.

Mikasa continued to read until her tongue was dry. She spoke with her voice soft beneath the lulling sound of chatter beneath them. She let the words pour from her mouth, and she read until finally Christa eyes began to droop, and she fell asleep hunched over, listening to the low, empty sound of Mikasa's voice. When she finally did stop, it was growing late into the night, and Sasha had appeared on the loft as well.

"I'm stopping here," Mikasa said quietly, shutting her book and setting it beside her blanket.

"Fine." Ymir glanced at Christa, who was leaning against her arm, her breathing shallow and soft. "Guess I should go to sleep too."

"What story is that?" the girl with pigtails whispered urgently. Mikasa was pretty sure her name was Mina. "I've never heard it before."

"It's just a stupid fairy tale," Mikasa said. Even though she knew it wasn't. None of them were. Wasn't that why she kept the book around?

The next morning she stood beside Armin, watching Eren with curiosity and trepidition. She didn't want to see him fail, but she knew it was a grave possibility. This was the test that decided if she would find Eren beside her when she joined the Survey Corps.

She stared at him as he was lifted into the air. She could see every muscle shaking from the pressure as the boy struggled to hold himself upright. He held himself with such bitter determination that she almost smiled. There, she thought. That's no lamb.

Around her trainees chorused, "Oooh!" Mikasa looked down at Armin, who looked so relieved she couldn't help but let herself relax.

She was forced back into a state of tenseness as Eren's body flipped, and his head smacked against the ground once again. Armin jumped beside her, his mouth falling open in shock. Mikasa looked away.

"Put him down," Shadis said. Mikasa listened to Eren protest profusely. She let herself get a look at him after he was set back on the ground. He looks terrified, Mikasa thought. It made her feel sick. But it might be for the best. "Wagner. Exchange your equipment with Jaeger's."

Mikasa understood what he was doing, and suddenly she found herself second guessing her initial perception of Eren Jaeger. Especially when he managed to hold himself upright with someone else's belt. She felt Armin slump beside her, and she closed her eyes. She would be seeing more of Eren, it seemed.

"If that look on his face isn't triumph," Armin said excitedly, "I don't know what is."

Mikasa folded her arms across her chest. "He looks constipated to me."

Armin blinked at her, and laughed a little nervously as the two tall boys beside him glanced at her. The large blond with a square face roared with laughter. His taller friend managed a weak smile, his brow furrowing a little, and Mikasa shook her head. Nonetheless, she was please with herself for making someone laugh.

The true training began after that. Mikasa took no mind to it. She had known it would be rigorous, and she had been prepared. And she excelled. She could not fathom it herself, but it came like a second nature to her. Eren and Armin stuck close, though she found herself reluctant to spar with either of them. Especially Armin. It was difficult to be ruthless with him, and she could not be sure why.

"Please don't hold back," Armin said, taking a deep breath.

Mikasa shifted her position, her head tilting as she watched his body. His muscles were tensing in preparation for her attack, and that wasn't good at all. She didn't want to hurt him. "Are you sure?" Mikasa asked.

He nodded. "I think," he said, "if I can just… at the very least, react faster in situations…" He bit his lip. "How do you do it?"

"I just do it." Mikasa didn't want to think about it.

"Okay," Armin said. He turned his back to her. "Okay, go."

Mikasa sighed. She would rather have Eren as a partner. It was fun to hear him curse after she flipped him. With Armin she just felt guilty and uncomfortable, because it wasn't fair at all. He was a lot weaker than her, and she felt like she might break a bone if she kept flipping him onto his back.

As she'd promised, she did not hold back. She had Armin on the ground before he could bat an eye, and she pinned his wrists above his head, digging her knee into his chest. Armin gave a little choking gasp of pain, wincing a little bit. "Okay," he choked, "u-uh, maybe…"

"This isn't working." Mikasa released him, and she crouched in the dirt for a few moments before wrinkling her nose. "I shouldn't be your partner. I can't teach you how to fight."

"Well," Armin said, sitting up. He rubbed his chest, grimacing a little in pain. "Maybe I can learn more about defense. I think I'd be happy if I could just dodge you…"

"You can try," Mikasa said. She stood up, dusting off her knees. "I'm sure if I just keep kicking the shit out of you, eventually you'll just be able to see it coming."

Armin smiled weakly. "Please don't let it come to that," he said softly.

"Why don't we switch?" Mikasa offered. "Do you think you can flip me?"

"I'm not sure I could lift you!" Armin laughed, scratching his head. His hair fell around his cheeks as he ruffled it nervously.

"Really?" Mikasa considered this, and she watched Armin curiously. "Try."

Armin's smile fell. He stared at Mikasa for a moment, and then his eyes widened. "Are you serious?" he asked, his mouth falling open.

"I don't see why I'd be joking," Mikasa said. "Try to pick me up."

Armin looked a little horrified. He nodded distantly, and Mikasa moved closer to him, gesturing for him to turn around. He obliged reluctantly, and she studied his back for a few moments before planting her hands on his shoulders. He offered out his arms, giving her the signal to jump, and she did. Immediately he buckled under her weight.

She wrapped her arms around his neck and rested her chin in his hair. She felt him stumble, but she waited it out anyway. "Come on," she whispered into his ear. "You can hold me longer than that."

To her satisfaction, he held her for nearly a minute before she felt his legs nearly give out. "Okay, okay," Armin gasped.

She jumped down, and straightened out her jacket. She watched the boy double over, grimacing a little as he tried to level his breathing. He's weak, Mikasa observed, but not as weak as I thought. She was pleased with the revelation. "Armin," Mikasa said softly. "Which branch are you going into?"

Armin's shoulders tensed up. He was quiet for a few moments before straightening, running his fingers through his limp yellow hair. "Well…" He turned to face her, and he looked a little uncertain. "I… I'm going to join the Survey Corps."

Hearing that made her a little sick to her stomach. She wasn't sure why, but every time she heard that one of her peers was going to join the Survey Corps, she felt a sharp pang of fear fly through her. Was fate so cruel as to send her friends, only to send them alongside her to her death? She knew well that Eren and Armin had both faced the titans before— that was much more than she could ever say. But still, it was a somber thought. She didn't want to lose Armin or Eren or anyone, but she was reminded of the stigma that plagued the very thought of the Survey Corps. The low survival rate, and the unavoidable fate they were flinging themselves toward.

"Are you joining," Mikasa said quietly, "because Eren is joining?"

Armin's brow furrowed behind his sweaty bangs. "No," Armin said firmly. "I have my own reasons— different than Eren, but… maybe the same, in some way. I don't know. I guess it'd be easier to just choose the Garrison." He smiled faintly. "It's tempting."

"You're brave," Mikasa stated. He flushed, and she turned her face away. "Don't get me wrong. You two are both fucking fools, and you'd be much better off in the Garrison. But you're both incredibly, stupidly brave."

"You never told us why you're joining," Armin said. He was still smiling, albeit tiredly.

"I did, didn't I?" Mikasa frowned, and she thought back. "Because I have no other choice."

"That's not a real answer, you know."

"No?" Mikasa shrugged, and she began to play with the end of the braid. "I don't really care. It's the answer you're getting."

"I'm sorry," Armin said, flinging his hands into the air. "I didn't mean to pry."

Mikasa stared at her ribbon, and found herself a little bemused with herself. There was no shame in joining the Survey Corps because of Levi, that was certain, but she was still hiding it. Perhaps it was because Levi was making a name for himself already amongst the recruits. Of course, it wasn't until a later date that she realized the extent of his popularity.

"— world's strongest soldier? Is that for real?" It was the boy who had bumped into her the first night, smoking behind the barracks with a freckled boy by his side. Mikasa had been searching for Eren with Armin before dinner, and instead she found Jean Kirschstein and Marco Bodt leaning against the back wall of the barracks. Jean was the one smoking, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, and smoke breathing into the late autumn air and mixing with the mist of Marco's breath. Jean looked at her, and his eyes widened a bit.

"Yeah," Marco said, "I heard Connie talking about him! He's landed more titan kills in a few months than most do in a year! He's one of the Survey Corps's best right now, I think."

That caught Mikasa's interest. She turned to face them, tugging thoughtfully at her neckerchief, and she felt Armin stop beside her. He glanced up at her, and then at Jean and Marco.

"Hi, Marco," Armin greeted, waving meagerly. "Jean."

"Hi," Marco said, waving back. Jean seemed to be paralyzed against the wall, his eyes widening a little. "What are you guys doing back here?"

"Uh," Armin said, scratching the back of his neck. "Looking for Eren. Have you see him?"

Jean pulled his cigarette from his lips and blew smoke through the corner of his lips. "Yeah, like we'd know where he is." He swallowed, and looked away fast. He shoved his hand into his pocket, and tore out a carton of cigarettes, shoving it into Mikasa's face. "Smoke?"

Mikasa nodded, pushing the box open and pulling a cigarette out. Armin merely stared at her, and then, very hesitantly, took one of his own. She recalled the first time she had smoked, and mimicked what she had done then, only now she cupped the flame as she lit the end of the paper. When smoke filled her mouth, she spat it out without the same disgust that had been before. Of course, she still didn't like it. But at the very least it was easier to deal with than before.

Armin coughed a little at his first drag, and so she clapped him on the back gently. "You don't have to do it, Armin," Mikasa said, pulling the lit cigarette from her mouth.

He coughed and shook his head. He spoke, and smoke billowed from his lips in a murky cascade. "I'm fine," he rasped. Mikasa decided to believe him, and she turned back to Jean and Marco. She took a drag on the cigarette, letting it chill her nerves. She had yet to receive a single letter from Levi, and so it was a little disconcerting to hear anything about the Survey Corps.

"So," Mikasa said, blowing smoke into the wind. "Who are you talking about?"

"Uh…" Jean blinked rapidly, and she watched the end of his cigarette wither. "Marco, who are we talking about?"

"Um, the world's strongest soldier," Marco chirped. He didn't seem to mind all the smoke blowing in his face. Perhaps he was used to it. "His name is Levi…" His eyes widened as he looked at Mikasa. "Oh."

Smoke was stinging her eyes and tongue and lungs, and she stared up at them both for a few moments. World's strongest soldier, she thought. You're already a legend, Levi. So don't die. Don't be the stupid tin soldier who melts in the end.

"Thanks," Mikasa said. She tossed her cigarette into the dirt, and smothered it with her boot. Armin mimicked her, exhaling smoke a little easier now. She could tell by his expression that this was the first and last time he ever would try a cigarette, though. She turned around and began to walk away, Armin close at her side, watching her very carefully.

"Are you two related?" Marco called out. Mikasa froze where she stood, staring ahead of her in shock. She whirled around, her brows furrowing a little as she studied Marco's innocent face. His freckles stretched across his cheeks as he smiled genuinely at her.

"Why would you ask that?" Mikasa asked.

"Because…" Marco's smile was dampened a little by his confusion. "W-well, you have the same last name."

Mikasa stared at him for a few moments. In those moments, she could hear her heart pounding inside her head, and taste the fresh tang of cigarette smoke as it clung to her tongue. She could feel the kiss of autumn wind on her cheeks, and she could feel Armin's stare burning into her shoulder blades. The gaze was too sharp, too curious, too knowing. It was beginning to scare her how well Armin could read her.

"The same last name…?" Mikasa asked.

"Yeah!" Marco said, blinking. "Levi… Ackerman?"

She turned away from them. "I see," she breathed. She pulled her neckerchief up over her nose, and she closed her eyes. She moved forward again without warning, and she walked fast, ignoring the shouts that called her back. My last name, she thought wildly. Does that mean we're family, Levi? But how could they be? Families talked to each other. Mikasa had scarcely any letters from Levi that year.

"Mikasa!" Armin stopped her by skidding in front of her, looking a little disgruntled. "Why didn't you say you had surviving family?"

"Because I don't," Mikasa said. She watched his face fall into something akin to confusion.

"But… that guy they're talking about…"

"We aren't related," Mikasa said.

"Oh." Armin shuffled his feet, and glanced up at the dim evening sky. "The way you reacted—"

"It's hard to explain," Mikasa said, fidgeting with her neckerchief.

"So you know him?"

Mikasa nodded. She wasn't sure what else to say. Instead she studied his face. "Are you okay?" she asked, prodding his chest. She felt him squirm a little at her touch, and he squeaked as he jumped back. "You didn't have to take a cigarette, you know."

He looked at her with his blue eyes glowing against the blanket of shadows that buried them. In the bleary twilight, Armin's eyes searched her face, and they saw right through her. It made her acutely aware of just how clever Armin was, and she had to swallow the sudden fear that built up inside her chest. Oh, she thought numbly, why is he looking at me like that? It was a strange sort of creeping feeling that stung her as Armin watched her. She wasn't used to anyone looking at her like they could read her thoughts, not even Levi.

Armin laughed, and she relaxed almost immediately. "I was scared to say no," Armin admitted, rubbing his chest.

"Marco wasn't smoking," Mikasa pointed out. "It wasn't a big deal."

"I know," Armin said. "I guess I just… wanted to prove something. I don't know."

"You don't need to prove anything." Mikasa let her arm fall back to her side. She turned her face up to the sky, watching as stars began to blink into slow, brilliant existence in the papery sky above them. "And, yes."

"Yes?"

"Yes," Mikasa said. "I know him."

"Oh." He smiled at her, and he looked around. "I guess we should go find Eren."

"He's probably off taking a shit somewhere," Mikasa said.

"Mikasa," Armin sighed, still smiling.

"Let's just go to dinner." She tugged at her neckerchief. "Might as well."

Dinner proved to be a bit of a bother. Marco and Jean came over immediately upon their arrival, and Armin glanced at Mikasa. She ate her broth in silence, staring at Jean with dull eyes. They watched each other, and Jean quickly looked down at his own food, tearing into his bread and looking away. Do I intimidate him? Mikasa wondered.

"Sorry to bother you about it," Marco said weakly. "But you ran away so quickly, it just made us really curious."

"I'm not sure what you want to know," Mikasa said slowly.

"Who's Levi to you?" Jean asked suddenly. "Like, a brother? Your father?"

Mikasa's spoon froze before her lips. She stared down at as she mulled over his words, feeling the word father chill her blood. Of course, back in Yalkell Levi had been mistaken for her father more than once. Stefan had often just referred to him as her papa, and nothing else. But they did not know Levi, and she wasn't sure if she wanted them to think of him as her father.

Armin was watching her worriedly, and she watched her spoon drop into her bowl when he gently pressed his hand against hers. She opened her mouth, and then snapped it shut.

"It's okay, Mikasa," Armin whispered.

"Yeah," Mikasa said quietly. She blinked up at Jean and Marco, who were watching her with a mixture of horror and confusion. "Sorry. No, he's not my father. He's a friend."

"Who… has the same last name as you?" Jean asked slowly. She could sense how skeptical he was by the way his lips twisted.

"Levi doesn't have a last name," Mikasa said. "I told him he could use mine if he wanted to. I had no idea he actually did."

"He didn't tell you?" Marco asked, his eyes widening. "He just took your last name?"

"And you're okay with that?" Jean cut in sharply.

"I told him he could," Mikasa said. She blinked at the two of them, and picked up her spoon again. "I wanted him to."

"And he's just a friend to you?" Jean asked. She could feel him pushing the topic, and she couldn't be sure why.

"Just a friend," Mikasa said slowly, watching broth fill her spoon and letting it slowly dribble back into the bowl, "might be understating it."

"So is he like your boyfriend?" Jean asked so rapidly, she barely understood his words.

"What?" she asked. She looked up at him blankly.

"Jean," Marco whispered, shaking his head. He smiled weakly at Mikasa, and waved his hands quickly. "Sorry for all the questions, Mikasa. We're really just curious!"

"No, it's…" She frowned, and glanced at Armin. He was watching her, and he shrugged. "It's fine. I just don't understand where that question came from."

"Um." Jean sat back, and he winced. "Yeah, sorry. I don't either."

"Levi is…" She tugged at her neckerchief subconsciously. "He's the closest thing to family I have. You asked me if he was my father." Mikasa looked pointedly at Jean. "You weren't totally wrong. But calling him my father would be a lie. He cared about me, I'm sure, but with Levi it's very hard to tell…" She found her thoughts drifting back to the day Levi had left. He hadn't said he would miss her. He hadn't shown much care that he might die. He just left her with a book and a goodbye, and not even a sorry. And in her most desperate moments, she wondered if she had imagined that he actually cared for it. If his moments of genuineness had all been a farce. "It's been a very long time since I last saw him. I'm not sure anymore who he is to me."

She knew, of course, that no matter what Levi did, she would be there. Because it didn't matter if he loved her with all that he could, or if she meant as little to him as a speck of dust he meant to wipe away at the soonest possible time. She would fight for him. That was the decision she had made.

"Hey."

Mikasa snapped out of her revere to see Eren standing behind Jean, his brow furrowed. Armin smothered a laugh in his hands as the boy's expression.

"What the hell is horse-face doing in my seat?"

"Sit next to me, Eren," Mikasa sighed.

"Oh," Jean said, twisting to look at Eren. He had a strange, shit-eating grin on his lips. "Is this your seat Jaeger?"

"Actually—" Armin said.

"Yeah," Eren snapped. "It is."

"No it's not," Armin murmured.

"Well I'm sitting here." Jean raised his head high, and turned back to face Mikasa. "Thank you, Mikasa, for telling me all of that. I know it's very personal."

"It's not a problem," Mikasa said distantly.

"Wait, what'd you tell him?" Eren leaned across the table, looking at her intently. Mikasa saw Jean grin against his cup, and he glanced between her and Armin, motioning behind Eren's back to keep silent. Mikasa shared a glance with Armin, and they both turned their heads down to their bowls as Eren repeated himself. "No, seriously, what the hell did you tell him?"

"Nothing, really," Mikasa said. "It's not that interesting. Sit next to me, Eren."

"No," Eren said stubbornly. "Not until I find out what you told him. Armin?"

"It's not a big deal," Armin said slowly. "If you sit down, I'm sure Mikasa will tell you."

"I would," Eren said stiffly, "but someone is in my seat!"

Armin closed his eyes, and shook his head in disbelief. "Yes," Armin said, his eyes snapping open. "Marco is."

Eren froze. He looked down at the duo sitting in Mikasa and Eren's usual seats, and Mikasa was amused to find that Armin was right. Mikasa usually sat where Jean was sitting, while Eren sat in the seat where Marco resided. Mikasa watched Eren's face flush with embarrassment, and Marco's face dawn with horror. Jean just looked confused and a little angry.

"Don't get up," Jean said briskly, grabbing Marco's shoulder when the boy scrambled to gather his food to move over. "Don't give him the satisfaction."

Marco looked at him, and he smiled a little before shaking his head. "No, I want to," Marco said. "It'll give me the satisfaction of being polite."

"No, Marco," Eren said quietly. He sat down beside Mikasa, dropping his bowl in front of him and scowling at Jean. "Don't get up, it's okay."

Well played, Armin, Mikasa thought. They bumped their fists together beneath the table in their triumph. And somehow they went the entire dinner without Eren and Jean starting a brawl.

Later that winter, Christa suddenly wanted Mikasa to read more of the fairy tale she had started the first night. Mikasa had no idea why, but she obliged, reading aloud from the book with a makeshift audience. Mikasa noticed Annie Leonhardt was among those sitting around her in a circle, listening intently to the story. When Christa fell asleep on Ymir's shoulder, Mikasa decided to stop for the night, and she began to close the book. A hand shot out, slapping between the book as she snapped it shut. Mikasa looked up into Annie's icy blue eyes, which watched her without a flicker of emotion inside them.

"Keep reading," she said, her voice soft enough not to wake Christa, but hard enough to be commanding. And inside this mingled tone, there was a tiniest hint of a plea.

She read a little bit more before lights out. When she left the next morning for training, her book was beside her blanket as it always was. When she came back that afternoon, it was gone.

And immediately she went into a panic.

"Christa!" Mikasa called, running up to the tiny girl. Ymir stopped as well when Christa turned to face her, and she jumped when Mikasa grabbed both her arms. "Have you seen my book? I know I left it right next to my blanket, but it's not there. Did you take it?"

"Yo," Ymir said, taking Mikasa's shoulder. "Hands off."

Mikasa was a little shaken up about Ymir grabbing her, but she had too much on her mind to lash out. So she let go of Christa, and continued to stare at her desperately as the girl's eyes widened.

"N-no!" Christa gasped, blinking rapidly. "No, no, I didn't…" Something seemed to dawn on her, and she averted her eyes suddenly.

"Who did it?" Mikasa asked, her body coiling with tension.

"I…" Christa bit her lip anxiously, and there was a pause as she wrung her hands. "Well, I don't… I don't know for sure, but…"

"But…?" Mikasa asked through gritted teeth.

"But," Christa said softly, "Annie was the one who asked me… to ask you… to read that story last night."

"Annie." Mikasa took a step back, her heart pounding in her ears. "Thank you."

"Mikasa, wait!" Christa cried, reaching after her. "Don't—!"

Mikasa bolted across the lawn, her braid trailing after her as she maneuvered between trainees being released from their various classes and exercises. She weaved around them, her eyes falling upon each of their faces as she glided past. Her goal kept her searching for about an hour before she was stopped by Armin and Eren.

"Are you okay?" Armin asked worriedly. Mikasa was not listening, but rather looking around her for Annie's face. "You look really…"

"What are you looking for?" Eren asked, cutting Armin off.

"Annie." Mikasa's fists clenched as she tried to steady her breathing. "She has something of mine that I need back."

"Oh!" Armin gasped. "I just saw Annie!"

Mikasa looked at him sharply, while Eren glanced Armin with raised eyebrows. "You were with Annie just now?" Eren asked.

"Yeah, I wanted to see what book she was reading—"

"Where is she?" Mikasa asked briskly.

Armin stared at her with round eyes, and she could feel him taking in her anger and reading it as he did. There it was again. The uncanny ability to read her without even realizing it. So he nodded, his hair bouncing around his ears, and he turned around. "I'll show you," he said, waving her forward.

"Just tell me," Mikasa hissed through gritted teeth.

Armin shook his head, and waved her forward still. "It's better if I show you."

"Well I'm comin'," Eren said. He jumped to Armin's side, walking steadily in time with his smaller friend. He paused to glance back at her. "C'mon, Mikasa, doesn't Annie have something of yours?"

She exhaled furiously through her nose. "Yes," she said. She started forward with them, and as they walked she began to cool down. She also began to put the pieces together. Annie wanted to hear the story last night, Mikasa thought, and she stole the book so she could finish it. It was almost enough for Mikasa to sympathize with her. But not quite. Because she'd still stolen something precious, and that wasn't easy to forgive.

Mikasa was surprised to find herself standing on the roof of the girl's barracks as Armin settled himself beside the smaller blonde and whispered something to her. Annie did not react, but through her long bangs Mikasa could see her eye flicker fast to look at her face. Mikasa slid down the side of the roof, mentally reminding herself over and over not to push the girl off.

"Annie," Mikasa said. The name felt chilly on her tongue as Annie met her gaze, her tired eyes hard and unyielding as the gazed at Mikasa's face. She held Mikasa's book in her hands, and it was open to the familiar story of "The Snow Queen". "Give me my book."

Annie's jaw tightened, and Mikasa could almost see a flicker of emotion there. They stared at each other for nearly a minute, their glares measured and their faces blank. There was nothing between them but icy stares that flashed every so often with a bitterness.

Annie snapped the book shut, and handed it over without a word.

Mikasa snatched it back, hugging it to her chest with her heart drumming against her chest and her eyes closing with relief. There was nothing more terrifying than finding that something irreplaceable had been ripped away. And there was nothing more soothing than feeling it being returned, the sudden rush of sweet reprieve as if nothing else in the world mattered.

It's just a book, Mikasa reminded herself. But she was overwhelmed with the relief anyway.

Annie stood up to leave, and Mikasa looked down at the book. Driven by impulse, she leapt to her feet as well, balancing herself easily on the slant of the roof. "Annie," Mikasa said. "I would have let you borrow it if you had asked."

The girl froze. She stood in silence, facing Eren with her back turned to Mikasa and Armin. There was something undeniably cold about her, and with every moment that passed there was a bone chilling finger of wind that stroked their faces. The shingles beneath them were slick with ice, but they were trained enough that they could handle it.

"I imagine," Annie said quietly, "that it's too late to ask now."

"Yes." Mikasa's mouth felt dry. She watched Annie nod, and she began to trek carefully up the roof. Mikasa felt Armin's stare, and she gritted her teeth in frustration. "I'm going to read it out loud again tonight, though."

Annie seemed to consider this for a few moments before she turned away and slid off the roof, landing easily on her feet when they hit the ground below Mikasa listened to her footsteps as they echoed in the winter air. She pulled her neckerchief up to her nose, and she closed her eyes.

"She said…" Armin looked a little apprehensive, his eyes following Annie's back. "When I asked… I mean, she didn't answer right away, and I'm really surprised that she did, to be honest, but… she said that she never got to read stories like that when she was younger. Maybe that's why she stole it."

"I don't care," Mikasa said. She squeezed the book tightly, afraid to let it go. "I don't care."

"You don't sound like you don't care."

"Hey," Eren said, sliding down the roof and halting himself between them. "So can Armin and I listen to you read that story tonight?"

"What?" Mikasa asked dully.

"Me. Armin." Eren made gestures with his fingers, his index and middle fingers darting across the air in a mimic of legs. "We sneak into the girl's barracks and listen to your story."

"That is a terrible idea," Mikasa said.

"I agree," Armin said feebly. "What… what if we get caught? We're not allowed in each other's barracks after dark."

"If we get caught," Eren said, "which we won't, by the way— then I'll take the fall. Do the rounds for both of us, I don't care."

"I'm not even sure you'd like the story, Eren," Mikasa said.

"If it's good enough to catch Annie's attention," Eren said, "I wanna hear it."

"Fine," Mikasa said. "Do what you want."

They looked out at the ground below, and Mikasa found herself reminiscing about the nights she spent with Levi on the roof watching the stars. She wondered what he was doing, and if he still watched the stars. She wondered a lot of things as time passed. She wondered why Levi didn't write. She wondered if she had angered him so much that he wanted nothing to do with her now. She wondered, and she hoped that she could amend for it. But even if she couldn't, it made no matter.

Armin and Eren came and went undetected that night when she read the story. Annie listened, but from the edge of the loft with her back turned to Mikasa. Oddly enough, Armin and Eren kept coming back after that. When Mikasa finished her book of fairy tales, Armin brought other books. Of course, she let him read them, because she was a little sick of her own voice by that point.

By the next winter, they had somehow gotten away with sneaking in and out of each others' barracks numerous times. And it more trainees joined in to listen to Armin read vivid descriptions of the outside world out of his thick tomes, listened to him articulate orations from archaic histories, and listened to him speak with attentive eyes and ears. Mikasa preferred listening to Armin read than reading herself. He was a calming presence, and his voice was just as pacifying. His stories were strange, but wonderful, and she enjoyed them to a great extent.

One night, however, Ymir tore the book out of Armin's hands and tossed it onto the ground.

"Hey!" Connie cried, lifting his head from the pillow he'd been hugging. Sasha lifted her head groggily beside him.

"Ymir!" Christa gasped, jumping off a bunk and rushing to the tall girl's side. Mikasa just lay lazily beside Annie on the loft. They still didn't talk much, but Mikasa had more or less forgiven her in the year between the book incident and the current gathering. They were also the only ones who preferred to not be on the ground with the rest of the trainees.

"Alright!" Ymir called. She was hushed rather viciously by her peers, and she promptly ignored it. "Everyone in a circle. We're playing a game."

"A game?" Armin asked faintly from his spot on the ground.

"Your little history lesson is getting boring," Ymir said. "It's time to have some fun."

"I'm having fun," Christa said, her voice very soft as she shot Armin an apologetic look.

"So am I," Marco said, smiling from the bunk beside Connie. "I like these stories, and the way Armin tells them."

Armin, who was sitting on his knees, shot Marco a look of gratitude.

"Don't care." Ymir bent down, and peered at the book. She pulled the clip from her hair, a leather frame with a wooden chip that held her hair within the frame, and she set the small spike of timber down on the book. "Anyone gonna play?"

"What is it, exactly?" Armin asked.

"Oh," Christa said, staring down at the book. Her eyes widened. "Oh, no, Ymir, I thought you were joking about this—"

"Your mistake," Ymir said, smirking. She gazed around the room. "I need a brave volunteer."

There was silence throughout the room as they all looked around. Mikasa, out of curiosity, sat up.

"You volunteering up there?" Ymir called.

"No," Mikasa said.

"I'll do it."

Mikasa watched as Jean pushed himself off the bunk below her, and he stepped up to Ymir. He raised his head high, and shrugged. "Kay, what do I do?"

"Spin the clip."

Mikasa watched Christa take a very careful step away from the point of the wooden clip as Jean acquiesced. Just before the clip stopped spinning, Connie fell off his bunk in revelation.

"This is spin the bottle!" Connie cried. Mikasa watched Jean blanch a little as the clip came to a very gentle stop.

"Are you kidding?" Jean asked flatly. "No offense, but no way."

"You volunteered," Ymir said, grinning toothily. She clapped Jean on both shoulders, and shoved him forward. "Go get 'im, tiger."

"Ymir," Christa said, biting her lip worriedly. "Come on, this isn't fair."

"It's only a game," Ymir said, folding her arms across her chest. She jerked her head up at Annie and Mikasa. "You two are next."

"No," Mikasa said. Annie sat up beside her and watched Ymir with her icy blue eyes piercing downwards. Without a word she moved to the ladder and slid down it, peering at Jean as he stood rigidly. He looked a little uncomfortable.

"Um," Christa said, her eyes flashing rapidly about the room. "How about a new rule? The… the two people who get picked have to go outside for a minute. And we're not allowed to look."

"Then how do you know if they did anything?" Connie asked.

"You don't," Ymir said, her smirk widening. She caught Christa in a headlock, and she nodded eagerly. "No, this is even better. Because no matter how much you deny nothing happened, there's no way to prove it."

"Um," Jean said, glancing at Marco as the freckled boy stood up awkwardly. "It's cold outside?"

"Get the hell out."

"Fine," he said, his eyes narrowing. He marched forward, allowing Marco to slink behind him without much attention to the stares. Mikasa sighed, and she really wished she could get away with just sinking into the wall behind her and not being part of this horrible little game. However, that didn't stop her from following Annie down the ladder, and standing stolidly as they all began to form a circle on the ground.

"Do you think they're actually doing it?" Sasha whispered.

"With Jean?" Connie shook his head. "Who knows."

The entire room was silent when Jean and Marco returned a minute later. Mikasa had no idea what had transpired beyond the door, and she could not guess. The flush on both their cheeks could easily be explained by the frigid temperature, and otherwise they looked no different from when they had left. That didn't stop Reiner from giving a wolf whistle.

Annie went next, flicking the wooden hair pin with little interest. It spun fast, and then lazily for a few moments.

There was no awkward smirks or giggling when the pin landed on Armin. Instinctively, Mikasa wanted to pull Armin out of the spotlight. She couldn't be sure why she was uncomfortable with the idea of it, but she didn't trust Annie with Armin. Anyone else, maybe, but not Annie. Maybe it was because of how much Armin trusted her. It was too strange to be sure.

"O-oh," Armin said quietly. He stood up. "Okay."

Annie watched him with her gaze unchanging. Can Armin read her like he reads me? Mikasa wondered. She hoped so. She hoped that Annie felt the intensity of Armin's gaze, and felt it sneak into her head and devour all her thoughts. Mikasa hoped that Annie knew just how smart Armin was. The boy knew more than he let on, but never let it slip. He could know anything and everything, and hide it behind a shy smile.

"This is a stupid game," Mikasa declared when they disappeared behind the door.

"You're next, Mikasa," Reiner laughed beside her, elbowing her gently. "You ready for that?"

"I'd rather go back to listening to Armin," Mikasa said dully.

"Do you think they're doing anything?" Eren asked.

"No way," Connie said. "Annie wouldn't let Armin make a move on her."

"Armin wouldn't," Eren said. "Annie, I don't know…"

"They have like, twenty seconds," Jean said, looking neither guilty nor sheepish. Mikasa did have to wonder if he and Marco had actually did anything outside, or if they had just sat there and talked. She would have to assume the latter.

"Mikasa, spin now," Ymir ordered.

Mikasa glanced up at her, and she felt a little uncertain as she reached forward and spun the clip. She sat back and watched it spiral, blurring into a circle of brown. She was not entirely certain she even knew how the game worked. When they went outside, they could do anything or nothing? It seemed a little abstract to her, and she couldn't grasp what the rules were exactly.

She stood up and walked up to Eren. She couldn't find it in her to be surprised that the clip had landed on him. She saw him frowning a little as he stood as well, and he glared back at Ymir before following Mikasa to the door.

"They went over a minute," Christa said quietly from behind them.

"What are they doing?" Connie wondered aloud. Mikasa and Eren glanced at each other. Mikasa opened the door enough for Eren to slip through without anyone else seeing outside, and then she promptly disappeared, closing the door swiftly. She was certain they had done it quick enough that no prying eyes had seen into the darkness.

"You two got picked?" Armin asked. He was sitting on the steps, embracing his knees as snowflakes fluttered in the lantern light.

"Yeah," Eren said. He sat down beside Armin, and rested his hand on his shoulder. "What happened to Annie?"

"She left."

Mikasa couldn't say she was surprised. She couldn't help feeling a bit irritated though. She set herself down on the other side of Armin, freshly fallen snow licking at the backs of her legs, melting against her thighs. Her loose hair was tickling her face, long strands catching against the wind and blowing about her head as the icy air bit at her cheeks.

"It's a stupid game," Mikasa said. "Don't let it bother you."

"Yeah," Eren said, bumping his shoulders against Armin's. "I'm pretty sure this dumb kissing thing is just Ymir trying to make us all really uncomfortable, or some shit like that." He perked up, and shrugged. "It's probably better that you didn't—"

"We did, though," Armin said softly. His breath blossomed against the frigid night air, visible under the saturated yellow lamplight.

Mikasa and Eren shared another glance. "And she still ran off?" Eren asked, frowning now.

"Maybe I'm just a bad kisser."

The door opened behind them, and Jean appeared in the entryway. Mikasa glanced at him as he drawled, "Time's up."

"Give us another minute," Eren said, never looking away from Armin's face. The smaller boy tucked his chin to his chest and hugged his knees closer.

"You had a minute," Jean said. "That minute's over."

Mikasa stood up, dusting the snow off her skirt. She stepped back up onto the porch of the boy's barracks, and she stood before Jean with her chin raised high. "One more minute," she said sharply. "Got it?"

He stared at her, and his jaw clenched. Then he looked past her at Armin, and his brow furrowed ever so slightly. She watched him exhale sharply, his nostrils flaring. "Fine," he said, spinning away from her. The door slammed in her face.

Mikasa relaxed a little as she wandered back to Armin's side, steam flooding from her mouth as she spoke. "We can leave too," she offered. "I can grab my blanket. We can sit on the roof of the girls' barracks."

"I think I just want to go to sleep," Armin admitted. He smiled up at her. "Thanks anyway, Mikasa."

Mikasa considered this for a moment, and she looked at Eren. He looked puzzled, and a little angry. Perhaps at Jean for interrupting them, or at Annie for hurting Armin's feelings. Or perhaps at Armin for being so sad about the entire ordeal. Mikasa could not say. She was certain she didn't know Eren as well she could know him. And maybe that was her own fault. She could not say that she could really comfort Eren if he was sad, or understand him when he was angry. She knew him as an impulsive oddity. A boy who had looked for her when she was missing, and a boy who had been inexplicably happy to find her after so many years. And that warmed her heart.

She grasped Armin's chin and turned his head to face hers. He looked up with her with widening blue eyes, his lips parting to form a question. Very carefully, she stole that question from his lips. There was something very tender about it, very innocent and tentative as she felt her lips vibrate from the words Armin muffled against her. He blinked rapidly as she pulled back, still cupping the boy's chin.

"I don't know, Eren," Mikasa said. She turned Armin's chin towards Eren, who caught her gaze. She wondered if he understood what she was doing. "I don't think Armin's a bad kisser. Do you?"

He smirked. Armin's entire body jolted as Eren planted both hands against his head, and pulled him up to kiss him. Mikasa watched Armin's arms flail outwards in shock, and he sat back awkwardly when Eren released him.

"Nope," Eren said. He was still smirking, his face flushed, and Armin sat stunned between them.

He laughed a little, weakly at first, and then he had to muffle his giggles with his hands. "Thanks," he gasped, his face bright red. He shook his head, blinking rapidly and pushing himself to his feet. "I can't believe you two just did that."

Eren and Mikasa shared another glance as he turned away from them. Mikasa pulled her neckerchief up to hide her smile. Armin went inside after that, but not before throwing them one last glance. He was smiling at them, and Mikasa stared ahead of her as she heard the door click shut behind them. They still had a few seconds left. She was well aware of it.

"This is a really stupid game," Eren said from beside her. He'd scooted closer, his breath unfurling against the flood of winter air. Mikasa pulled down her neckerchief, icy fingers of wind touching her lips gingerly. Snowflakes danced around them, freckling the darkness and gathering against the windswept mass of hair bundled around her shoulders.

"Yeah," Mikasa said. She felt him beside her, very warm in spite of the winter chill. She could almost feel the mist of his breath. "It's really stupid."

She kissed him. It was all her, and she had justified it by telling herself that she could easily die with him at a later date. It was only fair to kiss him. He tasted like pure warmth, and that made the kiss more heated and less innocent than the one with Armin had been. And in a few seconds, she felt Eren carefully apply pressure back to her lips, his fingers tangling in her hair when he reached for her shoulder. Mikasa saw snowflakes clumping in his eyelashes as they grazed her skin. The mist of their breaths blinded them as it blew about their cheeks, and by the time the door behind them opened again, they were back to staring out into the dark night around them. Snow melted in their hair as they stood up, never speaking, and went back inside.

Mikasa had neither sent nor received any letters to or from Levi in her time training. She'd intended to, but her heart wasn't in it. Everything she wrote never felt right. Instead she wrote to Greta, and received some letters in return. The woman seemed grateful that Mikasa bothered to keep in touch, and that made Mikasa happy. Sometimes she felt that she had taken Greta's hospitality for granted. It had not been the woman's fault that Levi had left, and Mikasa often thought about how difficult she had been with Greta for no reason at all. It was sad, not knowing if she'd ever see the barmaid again.

Near to her graduation, Mikasa was surprised by a visit from a high ranking soldier of the Survey Corps. The trainees were abuzz with rumors as to why she was there, if she was trying to gain recruits or if there was an actual issue. Mikasa watched her speak with Keith Shadis for a little while, and she noticed how eccentric the woman's movements were as she spoke. She couldn't help a thought surfacing in her mind. I wonder if she knows Levi.

Mikasa was further surprised when the woman plopped down across from her at dinner.

She'd looked up sharply, sitting up straight as she acknowledged all the eyes on her. The woman especially had an intense gaze, brown eyes wide and searching Mikasa's face. She had an air of undying curiosity, and it gleamed inside her eyes without fail. And then the woman smiled.

"It's so strange," she said, cupping her chin pensively. "He said you aren't related, but I could almost swear you look alike."

Mikasa felt her heart jump into her throat. She dropped her spoon, and she nearly jumped to her feet with excitement. A thousand questions congealed on her tongue, sagging heavily in her mouth. In the end she could only utter one. "You know Levi?" Mikasa gasped, her eyes flashing wide.

The woman nodded fast, still smiling. "He's actually the reason why I'm here." She shook her head. "When he found out I was scheduled to pass near here, he asked me to find you."

"Me," Mikasa repeated softly.

"Does that surprise you?" The woman grinned, and she rested her chin in her hands. "It's funny, since I think you're the only person he really overtly shows affection for."

"Affection." Mikasa didn't know what to say. Was this woman serious? Levi wasn't affectionate, not really. It occurred to her that maybe they had different definitions of the word affection. In truth, Mikasa associated the word with the foreign sensation of a hug.

"Oh, hey!" The woman leaned forward, pointing to Mikasa's neckerchief. "You're actually wearing it!"

Mikasa touched the fabric, and subconsciously tugged it to her lips. She looked down at her plate, and she had to wonder just how well this woman knew Levi. She was wild and strange, and her curiosity had no bounds. Mikasa was unsure of how to approach her, or how to approach the situation at hand.

"Levi made it," Mikasa said. "Why wouldn't I wear it?"

"I'm just surprised," the woman said, smiling. "Oh! I'm Zoë Hange, by the way."

"Zoë," Mikasa said slowly.

"Hange is fine," Hange said. She watched Mikasa for a few moments, and her eyes softened a bit. "I know it's not fair to ask, but do you know what branch you'll be joining yet?"

"Yes," Mikasa said. "I'll be joining the Survey Corps."

Hange continued to smile. "Because of Levi," Hange said, "right?"

Mikasa stared at the brunette. Because I want to protect him, Mikasa wanted to say. Because I owe him my life, and I would gladly give it to save him. It means nothing without him. But she couldn't. She couldn't speak. Maybe she was scared to admit any of it, or maybe she just wasn't so sure she wanted to be on this path.

"At any rate," Hange said, "I know he worries about you. He won't say it, or even really emote it, but it's easy to tell when he's worried. He's simultaneously quieter and more talkative." Hange paused, and she scratched her head. "You know what I mean?"

"Yes," Mikasa said. A trickle of warmth blossomed inside her chest, and she sunk against the bench. "When he has a lot on his mind, he'll talk a lot but never really say anything."

Hange's smile widened. She pulled out an envelope and slapped it on the table. "Well!" she said, rising to her feet. "I really need to get going, since this detour was unscheduled. I've got a lot of work to do, and stuff, you know." She waved offhandedly. "I hope to see you soon, Mikasa."

"Yeah," Mikasa said vacantly. She lifted the envelope up, and stared at it for a long time. As Hange moved, Mikasa felt herself spring to her feet. "Wait! Hange, can you tell Levi something for me?"

Hange turned to face her. She smiled, and stuck her hands into her pockets. "Sure," she chirped. "What do you want me to tell him?"

"Tell him…" Mikasa felt her heart thudding as she tried to breathe, tried to speak. She was losing her mind in her struggle to keep calm. "Tell him I…" Tell him I love him. "I miss him."

Hange's smile only widened. Mikasa managed to relax a little when she nodded profusely. "Of course," Hange said, looking as though she wanted to laugh. "He misses you too, you know."

"Yeah…" Mikasa sat down, and she let her fingers gingerly run across the ends of the envelope. "Thank you."

"Not a problem." Hange studied her face. She grinned, and waved. "Bye!"

"Bye…" Mikasa watched her leave, her eyes glued to her back. The wings of freedom were burned into her mind and she could almost feel them. Feathers fluttered against her shoulders, against her cheeks, and she could taste them molting inside her mouth. She could see them wilting against rain, frosting against snow, whipping against wind. She could feel them digging into her back, growing stunted and weak.

She didn't open her letter. She was still staring at it when Eren and Armin showed up ten minutes later, excitedly asking about the woman from the Survey Corps who had come to speak with her. Mikasa didn't have much to say. She was too busy mulling over what Levi could possibly have written. Was it an apology for not writing? Was he forgiving her for joining the military? Could the words printed on the page be any worse than what she had imagined? She was stunned by her reluctance, and stunned even still by her lack of faith. She didn't want to know what Levi had to say.

"Mikasa, are you even listening?" Eren asked.

Mikasa sat stolidly, her eyes cast toward the letter. "I'd apologize," she said, "but I'm not sorry."

"What is that?" Eren pointed to the letter, ignoring her coarse behavior. Armin sat across from them, looking between them with anxious eyes.

"Nothing that concerns you." Mikasa took the letter and slipped it into her lap.

"Did that lady give it to you?"

"Eren," Armin said, "stop being nosy. She obviously doesn't want to tell you anything."

Mikasa nodded to Armin gratefully as Eren sat back. He looked a little sullen. Mikasa went through the rest of dinner sitting very quietly, staring at the envelope. How bad could it be? What if it wasn't bad at all? What am I so afraid of, anyway?

She set the envelope, seal unbroken, in her book of fairytales. She did not read it until the night before the disbanding of the 104th Trainee Corps.

As Eren and Jean went at it again at their last dinner as a unit, Mikasa slipped the envelope out of the book. Reiner was mopping up the drink he'd snorted into Armin's hair, which left everyone around her distracted. She knew she would have to read the letter before she joined the Survey Corps and saw Levi again. Her time was up, and her stomach was churning nervously.

She opened the envelope, and tentatively unfolded the paper. The corners of her lips twitched at the familiarity of Levi's closely knitted, thickly scrawled handwriting. She found herself muddled in a bout of nostalgia, taking measures to soak in every word that Levi wrote. It wasn't so long ago that her life had revolved around waiting for these letters to arrive. Short and matter-of-fact, never overtly containing emotion. Mikasa could tell Levi's hand by glancing at the way he strung words about. There was no need for a signature.

Mikasa,

You made a mistake in joining the military. There is no comfort here, and a lot of loss. You've lost so much already, been through too much shit, and I can't understand why you would risk everything just to lose more.

Mikasa almost wanted to stop there. Her heart was thudding in her chest, and she had known that it was coming, but even so she was sad to see the words written. She looked up at Jean and Eren, their argument a stream of words rushing past her, inaudible and thrumming. She felt as though she was dreaming.

Except, Levi wrote, the worst thing is, I do understand. I fucking hate it, but I understand your ass-backwards logic. You didn't make the mistake, Mikasa. It was me. I can accept it. I was responsible for you, and I left you to fulfill a selfish desire. Do you remember when I left, and I asked if you hated me? I wish you said you did. You should hate me for abandoning you, and you should hate me for being a piece of shit of a human being for so long. When I found you, I had every intention of selling you. You know that, right? I would have sold you if you had been a little older. Does that make you hate me? If it doesn't, I won't be surprised. But I hope it does. I want you to hate me, because I don't want you to care about the man who nearly sold you like a fucking pig for slaughter.

Mikasa took a deep breath, and she turned the page over feverishly.

I can't deny that since meeting you, I've become a better person. But only recently has the glass been torn from my eyes. I see how terrible I was. To you, mostly. You didn't deserve to have me looking after you, and I want you to hate me for putting you in danger, for making you complicit in crimes, for not being there. The world is cruel, and we both see it. It is disgusting, and ruthless, but I think you made it better. I was in a very bad place. You can say I had a shard of glass in my heart, and in my eyes, and I had little faith in humanity. You made me see the world clearer, and I'm thankful, but that doesn't mean I want to see your blood soak what little beauty there is left. I know by the time you read this letter, you'll probably be near done with your training. I'll admit, it took me a while to write. I hate this situation, and I hate pointless deaths. All I have ever wanted from you, Mikasa, is to see you live. You don't need to be near me. It's too late, I know. I know that I can't change your mind. I don't think I can make you hate me either. But you don't need to do anything for me. I just want you to be breathing, and that's all the thanks I need from you.

Take care,

Levi

There was warmth tingling her cheeks as she smiled and closed her eyes. Thank you, Levi, Mikasa thought. She pressed her hand to her chest, feeling the rise and fall. Thank you for everything.

"Mikasa?" Armin asked, his voice heightening in shock. "Mikasa, what's wrong?"

She shook her head, wiping at her eyes. She didn't trust herself to speak. Her eyes snapped open, and her heart thudded in her chest. Eren had spun around to face her, and she saw all his rage at Jean disappear as he leaned across the table, his brows furrowing.

"Are you…?" Eren looked surprised. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and stood up. She folded the letter and moved quickly. She didn't know how to explain her tears, and she was scared of Eren and Armin. Because she let them know her. And she knew that they could see her heart, and all the filth that she had allowed to gather there.

Eren grabbed her arm, swerving his body when her leg flew out. His entire body buckled, and he dropped to the ground when her shin connected with his knee instead of his groin. She stared at him, tears glistening in her eyes as he knelt, still clutching her arm. She blinked rapidly as the hall quieted, and she bent down before him.

"Why the hell are you crying?" Eren asked through gritted teeth. He was wincing from pain.

"I don't know," Mikasa whispered. She shook her head and forced the tears away. "Did I hurt you?"

"Nah." He let her help him back to his feet anyway. He studied her face, and he gave a teasing smirk. "You're not scared, are you?"

"I don't know," Mikasa said honestly.

"You can't be," Eren said firmly. "You're the strongest person I've ever met. So you've gotta stay strong. Or else what the fuck are people like me and Armin supposed to do? I mean, we ain't weak, but we sure as hell ain't you."

"I can be scared," Mikasa said, "and I can be strong."

"Okay," Eren said, smiling at her. "Good to hear."

Her mind felt frenzied from the letter. She was stewing in her own unbridled emotions, and she took Eren's hand. "I can be scared," she said distantly, "and I can still protect the things I care about. Can't I?"

"If anyone can," Eren said, "it's probably you."

She looked between Eren and Armin, and she nodded. "Thank you," she said. She blinked, and she turned away. "I need to go do something. I'll be back in a little bit."

Eren let go of her, and she whirled around, pulling up her neckerchief over her mouth.

When she returned from her room, she found Eren outside the party hall beside Armin and a tall man. As she approached, she watched Eren fall to his knees, clutching his head. She ran to Armin's side, her long hair streaming behind her, and she stared at Eren as he trembled.

"What's wrong with him?" Mikasa asked.

"I… I don't know," Armin said weakly, "he just…"

"Eren?" Mikasa bent down beside him, her hand landing on his back. She could feel his entire body buckling as he held his head, sweat appearing on his brow.

"I…" His voice was reedy and thin, shaking from pain. "I-I'm fine, but… don't ask me why… my head feels like it's gonna split apart." She looked into his eyes, and saw that they were watery and glistening. "And yet…I can't remember anything…"

Mikasa caught him as he fell against her, his entire body quaking. Armin supported Eren's head, cradling it as he fell limp. Mikasa quickly checked his pulse, and her body slackened with relief when she felt it drum steadily against the sweat slicked skin of Eren's neck.

"What the fuck did you do, old man?" Mikasa asked the stranger sharply. She hovered over Eren defensively, her resolve only strengthening. I'll protect everyone I care about, Mikasa swore. No matter what.

"Mikasa!" Armin gasped. He shot the man an apologetic look. "Hannes, this is Mikasa Ackerman."

The man's frantic expression transformed as he looked at her. "The missing girl?" he asked, bending down before them. His eyes widened. "Damn, that's some luck that you all ended up together."

Mikasa said nothing. She scooped Eren into her arms, ignoring Hannes's surprised shout, and she looked down at Armin. "Where are you sleeping?"

Armin stood up, waving her forward. "C'mon, I'll show you." Eren shuddered in her arms, and she raised her head high. He felt light as a feather compared to Levi.

She laid him out on his bed, and she pressed her hand to his forehead. "He feels warm," Mikasa said, turning to face Armin. Hannes stood in the doorway, looking concerned. "And gross."

"Do you think he's sick?" Armin asked worriedly. He touched Eren's forehead as well, and Mikasa watched him frown, his thick eyebrows knitting together.

"I don't know," Mikasa said. "I don't think so. It came on suddenly, didn't it?"

"Yeah," Armin said. "When Hannes brought up his dad."

Mikasa bit her tongue to keep herself from reacting at the mention of Grisha Jaeger. It was still a sore topic. She would rather forget everything that had happened that day, but she couldn't help but associate Eren's father with the slaughter of her family.

She nodded, and she turned away. "It's late," she said quietly. "I'm going to go to bed. I'll see you tomorrow, Armin."

"Okay," Armin said, sitting down tentatively at the edge of Eren's bed. "See you."

She passed Hannes by, moving from the room fast. She was worried about Eren, yes, but she was certain the boy was too stubborn to succumb to something so feeble as an illness. And even if his condition worsened, Mikasa was aware of the ways in which she could procure something to save him.

But she was certain it was nothing life threatening. Or at the very least, she hoped.

She didn't find out until the next day that the Survey Corps was in Trost. And they were preparing to leave for an expedition. Mikasa found Eren, who was much better after whatever had happened the night before. Armin wasn't far behind, and she listened to them talk about the Survey Corps while they walked to the gate of Wall Rose.

She waited anxiously, clutching a piece of paper in her hand and watching the road. She knew Eren and Armin were watching her closely, and so she kept her face impassive. She couldn't let them know how nervous she was to see Levi again. When the sound of horses shuddered through the air, Mikasa felt her body coiling. She wasn't sure if she had the urge to run toward the horses or away from them.

"Mikasa," Armin murmured beside her as the people around them chattered about the approaching Survey Corps. She shook her head. She watched as the men and women streamed by, and she bounced on her feet, feeling uncertain as her eyes flickered through the faces. She saw Hange, and then she began to move. She walked along with the trotting horses at first, craning her neck to get a good look at all the soldiers. Eren and Armin stayed behind, but Mikasa could here Eren shouting after her.

She spotted Levi as the troops halted before the gate. She recognized him immediately, his stature and his hair and his posture. She knew Levi well enough to catch him by his back. She could hear the crowd around her chatter restlessly, "What is that girl doing?"

She squeezed through the troops, ducking under horses and weaving between soldiers. "Hey," a man gasped. "Hey, girl! You shouldn't be here!"

She might have flipped him off if her mind wasn't focused on Levi's back. She moved swiftly, dodging and maneuvering almost as she would if she was using her three dimensional gear. She was so enrapt in her goal, she couldn't be bothered. She flipped over a horse or two on her way to Levi's side.

When she reached it, her heart was pounding so hard that she could feel it drumming inside her throat. Her legs felt a little weak, and she found herself bolting to attention when his head turned, and he looked down at her. His eyes were the same shadowy blue they had always been. There was a surplus of circles under his eyes, but that was the only difference she could see in his appearance. He held himself with the same air of confidence, and he had the same hardened expression he always wore.

Her breath caught in her throat. Everything she'd been dying to say for five years knotted up on her tongue. Her mind had drawn up a blank for her, and she took a deep breath, feeling his gaze as it searched her face. There was shock in his eyes, deep in the recesses of them. The way his brows moved told her so.

Mikasa thumped her fist against her heart, and she folded her other arm behind her back. She raised her head to him, bits of hair framing her face, and the rest tightly braided at her back.

"Hello, Levi," Mikasa said. She saw Hange peer over Levi's shoulder, and the woman smirked. "Or should I call you Captain Levi?"

Levi studied her face, and she grew restless as she watched him. She was keenly aware of her thundering heartbeat, and it made her even more anxious than she already was. Had she always been so nervous around Levi? No, she was certain it was just because… because it had been so long… It was strange to think that she had only spent a year with Levi, and five years away from him.

"No," Levi said. His voice was low, empty of emotion, and so soft she had to close her eyes. "Don't call me that."

Mikasa nodded. She took a deep breath, and she lifted her fist from her heart to reach behind her. She tugged the ribbon from her hair, and felt the tight braid loosen around her shoulders. Her hair tumbled against her cheeks, and she hesitantly reached up, sliding the red ribbon around Levi's bicep. He made no move to stop her, but merely watched, just as his fellow soldiers watched with a mixture of awe and confusion as she gripped his arm with both hands. She pressed the paper she'd been clutching against his upper arm, and tied the ribbon into a bow around it.

"I need you to promise," Mikasa said, pulling the ribbon taut, "that you won't die today."

"Don't be stupid," Levi said. His eyes never left her face. "I'll be back. We have a lot to talk about."

"Promise me," Mikasa said. She could feel herself growing desperate, and she squeezed Levi's arm as she bowed her head. "Please. I need you to say it."

"Fine." Levi's jaw tightened. "I promise I won't die today."

Mikasa exhaled, and her body relaxed. She stared at the red ribbon, and she nodded, her hair curtaining her face. "Then I'll see you soon," Mikasa said. She was surprised when he took her hand, and nodded, his face turning out toward the gate. His hand moved from her hand to the ribbon, and then finally to the note she had stuck in the bow.

She turned away, not wanting to be around when he read it. She cut through the stationary horses, tucking her loose black hair behind her ears and taking a deep breath. She began walking slowly back to where Eren and Armin were. She saw that they had moved closer, and were coming to meet her. She saw Eren throw his arms into the air, which she read as, "What the fuck was that, Mikasa?" She waved at him, feeling as though a weight had been lifted off her chest.

"Mikasa!"

Levi's voice had her freezing in her tracks. She watched Armin and Eren freeze as well, their expressions blooming with shock. Mikasa whipped around, her hair smacking against her face. She was reminded that Eren had once told her that it was too long. Perhaps he was right. She pushed it out of her eyes, and blinked down at Levi as he very swiftly approached her. He was in a hurry, and she could sense it in the way he moved, in the murmurs and the confused words that burst through the crowd. She couldn't help but be stunned by how suddenly very small he looked. Levi seemed to have the same stunned revelation as he stared up at her.

"You've grown," he said. She knew he had said it without thinking, by the alarmed look in his eyes.

"Yes," Mikasa said. She glanced at the restless Survey Corps, and she nodded. "That tends to happen with time."

"You're a shit eater, you know that," Levi said. He was staring at her, and she knew he wanted to say something. She knew it was about her note, and she couldn't help but smile a little. He looked away for a few moments, his face turning back toward the front of the mass of soldiers. Mikasa saw a blonde man looking at them, his eyes watching them with an inscrutable sort of wisdom to them. She could sense it even from the distance, and it unnerved her. "I have to make this quick, or Erwin will piss himself from having to wait."

The name prickled Mikasa's memory. "Erwin?" Mikasa blurted. Her mind drew back to the repetitive words she had found in Levi's old room. Kill Erwin. Shock had her by the throat as she tried to put the pieces together.

"Yeah." Levi shook his head. "We can talk about him later." He reached up and grasped her by the shoulders, pulling her head down so it rested against his shoulder. She thought that her legs might give out as she stared ahead of her, her lips pressing against the fabric of his green cloak. Her eyes were wide, and her arms felt heavy as she wrapped them around his torso. He took her hand, and she felt the crumpled note dig into her skin as he squeezed her knuckles. She understood what the return of the note meant. And she smiled into his shoulder, squeezing her eyes shut. It felt warm to have a family. And it felt warm to be loved.

Levi pulled back first, his hand brushing against her bowed head, and he mussed her hair gently. It made her feel a bit like a child, but she was too happy to care. He took a step back.

"Thank you, Mikasa," he said, his soft voice drifting as he took another step back. She raised her head, and she almost laughed.

Mikasa smiled tremulously, tears building inside her eyes as he turned away from her, and she watched him pause for just a moment when she said, "Don't."


The End.

Fun fact, I had three chapters planned beyond this point. But I like this because it's ambiguous. It's up to imagination to figure out how different the story would be with Mikasa's focus turned to Levi instead of Eren.

Also, if you're wondering about the shippy bits, then please get over it. Because I promised make outs, and daMN IT ANGIE I FUCKING DELIVERED.

Okay! This story was amazing to write, and I'm so glad I did! If you've made it this far, thank you for reading, please review, and most importantly HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ANGIE! 3