Chapter 1: The Centre
It happened when we were very young.
When my father spoke to me at dinner, I had not expected it. Everything else about that night was ordinary, everything except for the topic of conversation that we found ourselves on. At the time, I was ten, and I did not speak with my father very much, so to hear him address me so forwardly was, so to say, a little jarring.
His eyes were crinkled in that nervous way he always looked at me. Though I was young, people always did seem to comment that my father looked a little older than someone with a child my age should have. I was aware my father had me later into his twenties, but the fact never bothered me. I did not envy children with younger parents. I had rarely spent much quality time with my own.
“Tomorrow, I'm going to take you to the centre,” My father spoke with reservation, the kind that I always heard in the classroom or when speaking one on one with one of his pupils at the schoolhouse. I held my fork in my hand and tried to chew the half-cooked corn between my teeth, watching the adult with apt curiosity and formality. “It'll be long after class so don't worry about coming home too early.”
I waited until he'd taken a bite of his own dinner that I posed my own question. It was a little hasty of me to speak before my father could ask, but I was brimmed with inquiries. My father was not the type to take his children out for camping trips. “Why are we going to the centre?”
“Because I have business to take care of.” My father paused when he noticed my confused expression. Of course I wondered why he'd take me. I never concerned myself with adult matters. “It will effect you greatly, so I thought I let you tag along.”
The conversation died right after that, and we continued to eat dinner until my father gathered up the dishes and began to wash them in the wash basin. For a moment, I sat there, staring at the toes of my new shoes as I contemplated asking more. On a normal night, I'd spend the last few hours before bed finishing up my homework, but tonight, something new and arisen. I could never help myself when I got interested.
“What are we doing in the interior? Are we going to Sina?” I asked with more hope in my tone than intended.
“Yes, I paid a carriage to come after dark,” My father went on as the sound of wooden bowls swished in the sink. “So you can play with your friends for as long as you like as long you come home before dinner.”
“I don't play after class, so I can just come straight home,” I informed him as I hopped off my chair. “Should I get something from the market after school?”
For a moment, my father sent me an odd look. At the time I couldn't identify the emotion, but looking back on it, I'm sure it was pity. He dried the dishes shortly. There were only two bowls. Our family wasn't big, so the kitchen coverts were typically empty. We had a few extra bowls and utensils set aside for guests but our home rarely had any. I never brought any friends and my father liked to keep his work colleagues strictly out of the house. For now, they did well gathering dust.
“Sure, how about you rent some textbooks from the library on your way home?” My father grabbed a sheet of paper out of a drawer and quickly scrawled a list on it. I received it mechanically. My father always tasked me with getting his materials. I didn't mind it, but sometimes I wished he gave me more interesting chores. He knelt down and tapped his finger on a longer title at the top of the list. “This is a fairly popular text on psychology so it might be hard to get a hold of. You don't need to get it tomorrow but whenever you can would be excellent.”
I nodded at him and let my eyes linger on the list.
My father sighed and prompted me to look him in the eye. His shoulders slacked and lips set in a shaky thin line. I noticed his glasses fell low on the bridge of his nose. My father usually corrected that. “Erwin, I'm so sorry that I can't take you out to do more fun things together. Perhaps someday we can.”
I blinked at him as he rose and moved for the stairs, probably retreating to the study. In that moment, I blurted something quite stupid. I hadn't even realized at the time how horribly pitiful I looked, even if I didn't feel sad or cheated at all. It was simply life as it was to me. “That's okay.”
My father halted on the stairwell.
I looked up at him as I folded the list in my hands. “It'd be unfair to the other students if we did that. Fraternizing between instructors and pupils is against the rules.”
I didn't even realize what I was saying back then.
My father stepped down for a moment. Silence overtook the room, and he appeared to struggle with speaking until something finally came out. “Erwin, you're my son,” He trailed off.
I was a little confused but nevertheless, nodded at him like the foolish child I was. “I know.”
For Erwin, the next day began with the tolling of the bell. It was a standard practice for all school-aged children to rise at the sound of it. Knocker-ups were too expensive for the city to afford and they were ultimately a dying job anyway. Erwin had heard the stories of the many children who jumped out of bed when the knocker-up smacked their windows with their long poles. Morning-time injury was a commonplace event back then. Erwin had even heard some windows broke if the knocker-up in question was too hasty. Luckily, his family never had to fix their windows. Erwin was glad for that, and he couldn't imagine the stigma of being the kid tasked with annoying everyone in the morning.
Breakfast was as good as a loaf of bread from the pantry. Mr. Smith was nowhere in sight but Erwin was barely troubled. The boy would be more surprised if his father was actually present when he woke up. Since his old man worked as an instructor at the local school, he had to rise earlier than his son, and Erwin had long since learned to either rise with the bell or rise with the sun.
Erwin didn't get to see his father until homeroom an hour later, and by then, Erwin thought nothing of being the instructor's son. It was a silent agreement he had established with his father a long time ago to cope with their reality. After all, it was well known rule that instructors and students were not allowed to get too close. The main reasoning behind it was to prevent the instructors from playing favourites, but in their situation, that rule was simply a fact of life to the boy. Never once in public had Erwin ever addressed his father as his parent, and Mr. Smith never acknowledge Erwin as his son.
It was just like that, no more, no less. Erwin was never a particularly social child to begin with so he'd never known what it was like to crave attention. Some children in his class liked to paint him that way. The bullies and hotshots always scoffed whenever “Caterpillar Eyebrows” rose to speak or aced an oral reading test at the front. They scorned Erwin for the lack of wrinkles in his clothes and the way he had his hair done as if everyday was a special event. 'The Sina-Noble Wannabe', Erwin sometimes heard them say. Erwin wondered sometimes if he really did resemble one of the Sina citizens. Not that Erwin admired them at all. An omega boy from years ago told him once that Erwin looked good with his hair done up so he just kept it styled that way. It was a hard habit to break. Sometimes, they threw paper spitballs at him. Erwin never cared to change his response: “it's mean to throw things at people.”
When school let out, Erwin only gave his instructor a court nod before heading off towards the town. His father always had work after class so Erwin usually didn't see him until Garrison soldiers popped their evening alcohol. The books listed from yesterday were fairly easy to obtain at the local library, but Mr. Smith was right when Erwin almost whined with frustration to find that the psychology text he was looking for was absent from the shelves. It always frustrated him when Erwin didn't find the book he wanted for some reason. Anything else, Erwin could brush off but books were always just more important. His father always panicked whenever they lost even a single spine from the study so he probably rubbed off on Erwin.
“Zimbardo's research texts huh?” The librarian at the desk drawled. A straw of wheat grass bobbed up and down between his floppy lips, and Erwin couldn't help but stare at it as the man leafed through the thick sheaf of that day's records. In a second, the man clicked his tongue. “Sorry kid, that one's been checked out.”
Erwin nodded, chin nearly hitting the edge of the desk as he tried his best to keep his head visible over the table. These things were always a bit tall for him. Erwin didn't like how the help desks were on an elevated floor. “Excuse me sir, but do you have any idea when it'll be returned?”
The man blinked and considered Erwin for a moment. Erwin tried his best to stand still, sweat dripping from his temple as he gripped the messenger bag around his shoulder.
“Kid, do you even know what's written in those books?” The librarian ignored Erwin's offended scowl. “Certainly nothing someone your age should be reading, that's for sure.”
“Why, is it an adult book?” Erwin furrowed his brows and spoke with mild hostility. He visibly recoiled at the mere possibility that his father sent him out to borrow something as mortifying as that. Surely not.
The librarian barked out a laugh at his question, loud enough that some readers in the lobby behind them sent glares their way. Erwin felt his hands get sweaty at the prospect of being stared at but kept his feet planted. He hated it when this guy was at the desk. Always treated Erwin patronizingly, like he was a better alpha for being older than him or something. Erwin preferred the nicer lady who worked most days. At least she didn't treat Erwin like some pest.
“Might be, for some interesting folks,” The librarian chuckled and Erwin prickled. “No, it's not but it's got some stuff in it that isn't exactly tailored towards the fainthearted. Why do you want to check it out?”
What's father trying to read? Erwin stood straight. “My father has tasked me to rent it for his studies. I'm just picking it up for him.”
“Errol Smith huh?” The librarian's gaze floated towards the ceiling for a moment. Erwin wasn't surprised to hear that the man knew his father. There were only a couple of schoolhouses in the entirety of the town. For being the instructor to so many children, the Smith family was well liked, or well, Erwin's father was well respected as an academic. Erwin himself? The boy had big shoes to fill. “Fine, it'll probably be returned any day now, it's supposed to be anyway. Come by tomorrow at the same time and it might be available.”
Erwin nodded and bowed his head. “Thank you very much.” He bit his lip. This exchange had been anything but efficient. Not to mention they disturbed the people around them. If Erwin had been a child driven by impulse, he would have buried himself in a hole.
“Get your coat ready, the carriage is coming soon.”
Errol waited outside the house as his son came staggering out, fixing the buckle of the messenger bag slung over his shoulder. The moment he reached the bottom of the stairs, Erwin couldn't help but pause and absorb the sight of the empty street. The world was certainly a different place at night. Instead of a coloured sky, only endless swaths of black hung over the walls, speckled with bright sparkles that Erwin had only seen through his window. The bustling town streets were empty as well, only lit by the weak glows of torches and lamp lights. Erwin found the absolute silence almost refreshing to his ears. There was truly nothing.
“Why are you carrying that?”
Erwin noticed his father raise a brow at him, then gesture towards his bag. Erwin blinked at it and began to fumble with the clasp. “I brought some homework and a canteen just in case the trip was long. I might need to do some studying on the way and-”
“No, put it back.”
A sudden tension broke the silence. Erwin stiffened at his father's reprimand and he let the sling fall off his shoulder as he shamefully slipped the bag off of him. Errol sighed when Erwin turned around and continued. “This trip won't be long, we'll be back before morning. And where we're going, you might lose your homework.”
The boy peered over his shoulder curiously. “What if I get thirsty?”
“You won't die of thirst for one night. It's best if you don't take anything but your coat with you. It will be cold around midnight.”
Erwin stared at the cobblestone road for a moment in thought, then nodded and darted back into the house to put away his book bag. Not a moment too soon, the slow trot of a horse worked its way up the street, and Erwin had returned with his father.
It would be Erwin's second ever trip in a carriage yet. The first time had been when Erwin had only started walking and his parents moved into the town over ten years ago. The carriage this time had been much cushier and nice-smelling than the last. Red velvet seats were a hallmark of luxury, and Errol couldn't help but smile when his son's eyes sparkled at the sight of the incredible accommodations. Occasionally, Erwin would shed his proper-pupil act and really act like an ten year boy for once. Each time he did it, Errol felt like he was seeing his son for the first time.
It was always so hard to see each other.
The trip had started out silent. Errol observed his son gawk out the window, eyes darting around the empty street and beautifully lit lanterns hanging like glowing fruit. The sensation of riding in a carriage was not an experience limited to the upper classes but Erwin was too young to pay a carriage a toll. Not to mention that everything Erwin needed was usually within walking distance. Erwin simply didn't have a need for it.
But for their short trip, Errol didn't mind letting his son experience a little bit of what travel was like. They did so little together, and it didn't help that Erwin's idea of a proper father-son relationship was of such a low priority compared to the rules that governed the schoolhouse. Errol's face fell and his chest twisted at the thought. He used to avoid it all the time. It disgusted him at the mere memory that at some point in history, he actually preferred it. Being a father was so much easier this way, but it wasn't the right way to do it.
“Say, how about we talk a little bit?”
Erwin blinked and looked away from the window, the faint moonlight casting a Rembrandt on his chubby cheek. It was almost a little embarrassing when Errol saw his son grow into puberty. Erwin was anything but a cute-looking child. Unfortunately, his only offspring carried the worst of his traits. A boxy head and a roman nose were not endearing traits on an ten year old, especially as prominent as they were on Erwin now. Erwin was even a little stocky compared to his classmates, and not in an athletic way. It was a shame that Errols' little alpha son happened to be...less than physically gifted but at the very least Erwin was bright.
Almost immediately, Erwin settled into a straight spine and a formal tone. “Okay, what do you want to talk to me about?”
“No, no, I didn't mean it like that,” Errol stammered and felt a hint of frustration when he was only met with a puzzled look. “Stop sitting like that.”
“Sitting like what? Am I doing something wrong?” Erwin instantly looked a little fearful and Errol mentally berated himself for thinking he could describe to his son how he hated how formal Erwin tried to be around him. They were not in the schoolhouse right now but Erwin still insisted on treating his father like some stranger.
Or it felt like being treated like a stranger at least.
“Erwin-no, I meant-”
The blond boy blinked when his father suddenly dropped his head and exhaled loudly to himself. Errol took a moment to gather himself and looked his son in the eyes. “I'm sorry, there's nothing wrong with the way you sit. I just wanted to,” Mr. Smith paused and tried to word his next sentence carefully. “Talk, both of us. It can be about anything. Say whatever you want. Ask whatever you want. You don't have to wait for me to let you ask questions.”
Erwin blinked at him. “Okay.”
“Okay! I'll start!” Errol hummed in thought for a moment and instantly came upon a topic he was sure he could discuss. “How are your friends at school?”
“...Friends,” Erwin registered the question slowly, “at school..?”
“Yes, how are they doing? I never heard you bring them up.”
“That's because I don't,” Now it was Erwin's turn to stammer, and he brought his gaze to his knees. “I don't play with anyone.”
They sat in a pregnant silence for a while, and Errol panicked when he realized the air had grown stale with the carriage's thrumming. “Um, do you have a crush?” He decided to change topic. Best not to make his son feel bad for not having many friends. “Anybody you like?”
“Yes, somebody you really like. Really, really like,” Errol tried to elaborate, predicting that his son might not fully understand the question. “It can be anyone. A student from your class? A neighbour? A girl? An omega?”
“I don't know anybody like that.”
This was hard. Errol had always had only known Erwin to be an academically gifted child but he never thought the boy had been so socially inept that he had nothing else going for him. Well, Erwin did get called names sometimes, but they stopped in the classroom. Had the bullying continued when Errol wasn't looking? Was Erwin being mistreated by his peers behind his back?
Errol nearly jolted in his seat but recovered with a nicely timed smile. At last, Erwin would try and continue the conversation himself. Begone were the awkward questions and it was his son's time to shine.
Erwin's tone was as composed as ever, but there was something else in his tone. His thick eyebrows creased with subtle determination. “What was that book you wanted me to rent about?”
Mr. Smith made a sound of surprise. He hadn't expected Erwin to ask about that. “Book? You mean the one you couldn't get today?”
The boy nodded. “The librarian said it was a research text by an author named Zimbo.”
“I think you mean 'Zimbardo'.”
Erwin's cheeks tinged pink from embarrassment but he kept pushing for an answer anyway. “Zimbardo. He said it wasn't a good book for the 'fainthearted'. What's it about?”
Errol contemplated his reply. The librarian had been the mean one that Erwin disliked, he could tell just from the way the child spat his title. “It's just a supplement to my personal research. He wasn't known for being a good person so it's not something fit for you to read until you're older.” He brought up a hand and ruffled his child's hair.
Erwin shrugged away from the act and immediately protected his hair, feeling it for fear that his father had messed it up badly. Erwin couldn't be seen in public all scruffy. It was never good. But the curiosity still nagged at him. “But if the researcher was a bad person, why are you reading their work?”
“It always helps to get a multiple perspectives on the world to understand it. Even if someone is defamed, it doesn't mean their opinions and claims were unfounded. For example, the wall heretics.”
Erwin blinked at the name.
“Personally,” Errol began, “I don't think the wall heretics are all that bad. They just want to know the truth, and is that such a bad thing to want?”
Erwin had never put much thought into the wall heretics. Sure, he'd heard of them. Citizens who defied the MP's warnings and wondered about the walls of the old. For a century, the ringed walls had protected their land, human-territory as scholars referred to it. Apparently what threatened them from the outside were creatures only known as the titans, but it wasn't like Erwin had ever seen one. Titans were almost mythical in his mind, and since he lived within the middle wall Rose, Erwin had an even lesser chance of ever seeing one. Naturally, citizens were forbidden from venturing into titan-country. Erwin didn't much care for it. Life as it was comfortable. Erwin didn't starve for more. The wall heretics were the ones who resisted Erwin's ideal of life. They weren't satisfied with the common way of living as it was. Sometimes Erwin saw them on the street, yelling at strangers to fear the titans and to fight for the liberation of humanity. Erwin wondered what they were talking about. Sure they were trapped, but everyone was living in peace weren't they?
But if all they wanted to know was the truth then, Erwin mulled over the thought. He didn't liked to think about the heretics. Erwin was enough of an outcast at school, he wasn't eager to associate himself with the likes of conspiracy theorists to isolate himself even further.
It just wasn't worth worrying about.
“I guess not,” Erwin hummed and glanced out the window, spying the noble silhouette of the great wall that protected their pocket of town. They lived close enough to Trost that Erwin got a good look at the Garrison and MP soldiers that would man the walls. On their current route, they'd pass through Hermina along the way Erwin didn't even know commoners were even allowed to enter the centre ring. “But they're kind of loud and they disturb people.”
“Is that what you think?” Mr. Smith chortled and watched the silhouette of Wall Rose fade into the night sky. “I don't think they're all like that. I know a few myself and they're quite tasteful people.”
“But they want to go to the outside world. That's bad.”
“Why do you think that?”
Erwin raised a brow at his father. “Because there are titans out there right? And they eat people. It's dangerous. It's against the rules.”
“Just because something is against the rules doesn't mean its inherently terrible.” Errol smiled when his son cocked his head at his statement. Of course this would go against everything Erwin's ever been taught in school but the boy had one lesson he had yet to learn: not everything could be taught from a textbook.
“Then why is it against the rules?”
At that, Erwin watched his father pinch his chin in thought. “Well, there could be many reasons. Maybe it's just convenient, or the person making the rules simply does not want other people to do something they dislike. They could be paid to do it, or be threatened with something they love.”
Dissatisfaction was written all over the boy's face and Errol felt glad to finally be able to talk to his son for real. Even if in end, it always ended up more like teaching than quality time, at least he was just the two of them.
They arrived to Stohess not too shortly after. Erwin easily fell asleep and drooled quietly in his father's lap as the minutes ticked by. With the slightest movement, Erwin jolted awake and his groggy eyes registered that the carriage had stopped moving. His father helped Erwin up and off the carriage, letting his son sway in a half-conscious state while he paid the driver an generous bag of coins.
It took a while for Erwin to register his surroundings. The ground seemed to sway beneath his feet and he hated how the warm embrace of sleep was beginning to unravel. For a moment, he regretted coming with his father. Erwin wasn't good at staying awake at night. When he was younger, he used to insist on it all the time, but more than once had Erwin found himself waking with his pen and inked writing glued to his cheek. Erwin wiped the drool from his chin and sighted a pair of shoes in front of him. Blearily, he took a step forward and smacked into a wall.
The boy staggered back and shook the sleep from his eyes, heart-stopping when the reality sunk in. His eyes focused on the dirty shoes, then the brown trousers and the long trench-coat before him. A frankly gigantic and scruffy looking man glowered at him beneath the shadow of his brimmed hat.
That was definitely not his father.
“Erwin, don't wander off!” The familiar scolding of his parent reached his ears and Mr. Smith had grabbed his shoulders to yank him back almost instantly. Erwin stiffened. They stood on an unpaved street, the dark recesses of an stairwell leading down into the earth before them. The carriage waited patiently not too far off, but the horses were rattled.
Where are we? Eren's eyes scanned the area while his father held him, apologizing to the man before them with a solemn bow of his head.
“I'm so sorry! It's way past his bedtime, he's sleepy. Forgive my ignorance.”
Erwin blinked at his father. He'd never heard the man speak like that before. Fearfully, submissively, and quite cautiously. His father was a confident man. Always had been. Notable as the town's pride and joy as their smartest academic, respected for his educational record. But now, the man spoke like a cornered rat. Erwin almost didn't recognize the pale face of Mr. Smith above him.
The stranger regarded his father for a moment, sharp eyes switching between the two. The way those beady pupils shined sent a shiver up Erwin's spine and the boy felt the sudden need to inch closer to his father. The strange reeked of 'criminal', the kind that his neighbour's parents always warned about. With a gruff sigh, the man shoved a hand into his coat pocket and tipped his hat. “This yer son?”
At that, Errol collected himself and stood tall, facing the stranger head on. He firmly gripped Erwin's shoulders as if to present him. “Yes, this my only child, Erwin Smith. He's ten years old.”
The scruffy man drew a predatory gaze to the child. Erwin swore that the man held a snarl at the corner of his lips. “He an alpha?”
“Yes, he presented just last year.”
What's going on? Erwin gulped as his father and the stranger continued the exchange. Why did he ask for my type? Erwin had barely considered the idea of types even since he learned about them when he was only seven years old. As far as Erwin picked up socially, it was rude to ask another person's type. They were always just background info to him. So what if he was an alpha? There were many children who were alphas. They were not uncommon.
Suddenly, the stranger bent down to hold his face unnaturally close. Erwin tried to shrug away when the man's nose nearly brushed his forehead but his father prevented him from running away. Erwin felt his heart beat against his chest as the musky individual held his nose close to his neck, carefully breathing against it. Erwin's eyes widened and the hairs on his neck stood on end. What was this man doing? Why was he so close? Why did his father let this happen to him?
“F-father,” Erwin stammered. “What's going on...?”
“Hold still,” Mr. Smith commanded. “He won't hurt you if you stay still.”
If I stay still? The child's mind raced. So that means if I move, he'll hurt me!?
“Alright, smells like the real thing.” The stranger withdrew and Erwin stood deathly frozen on the spot. The man considered them both once again and a diabolical grin spread across his face. Erwin never thought a man could smile like that, so garishly. “Too bad you weren't lyin', cause your son really does have a good jugular on'em.”
“Be quiet Erwin.”
Erwin winced at his parent's tone and promptly shrunk into his side, shamefully watching his own feet.
“I'd rather you didn't say such things about my son right in front of me,” Mr. Smith firmly stated, only to gain a barking laugh out of the man.
It reminded Erwin of the mean librarian's laugh.
“And so what~?” The stranger taunted his father, easily overtaking him in height. “What are ye gonna do about it? Tell on little ol' me to the Military Police? Ya know they can't catch me. Yer only shortenin' yer own life span doin' that.”
His father stood firm, no longer the cornered rat that Erwin had witnessed when they began the encounter. There was some of that previous confidence in his words, though it was shaky, and prone to crumbling. Erwin felt his father's hands tremble around his shoulders.
“I'm sure you'd feel the exact same if I spoke so recklessly about yours.”
In an instant, the grin disappeared from the man's face, melting into a displeased scowl. It reminded Erwin of something like a wolf's snarl. “He ain't mine, I'm just baby sittin' em' for a little bit.” The man swiftly turned around and faced the darkness of the alley. “Come on, I'll show ya to 'em, and bring yer eyebrow brat along with ya.”
They followed the man down into the alley where the moonlight waned. For a moment, Erwin genuinely considered fighting his father and making a run for the surface, but something kept his feet planted. Perhaps it was fear? He'd rarely ever doubted his father. However, if there was ever a time to begin, Erwin figured now would be a good opportunity.
In the pitch darkness, Erwin recognized the figures of cats dancing over the sewer pipes. The skittering of the invisible rats beneath his feet made him stumble but his father held him even when the path disappeared. Soon enough, Erwin watched in awe as an opening in the ceiling illuminated the alleyway before them. A single stream of intense blue moonlight bounced off the walls. Underneath it, the man stood stiffly, arms hidden.
Mr. Smith stopped right at the edge of the harsh light, seemingly contemplating his options. The two adults stared at each other. To Erwin, they seemed to come to a silent agreement, and the scruffy man conceded with a lowered head.
“I think yer better off startin'.”
Errol nodded and knelt down to meet his son at eye-level. “Erwin, I know it's late, but I swear there's good reason behind why I brought you here.”
Erwin did nothing.
With that crinkled nervous look, Mr. Smith smiled at him fondly, then gestured towards the tall man. “That gentleman over there is Kenny, my associate. We've been speaking for several weeks, and he'd like to introduce you to somebody.”
The boy, blinked.
“Erwin, do you want a friend?”
“Um,” Erwin struggled to lift his jaw, unsure of how to answer. “I don't know.”
“Well, do you like the idea of having a friend?” Errol rolled on, determined to capture his son's interest, “Someone you can play with, and study with, and talk with all day! They'll never ignore you, and they'll make sure you're always safe. By your side, loyal to the very end! Doesn't that sound great?”
Overwhelmed by his father's pushing, Erwin screwed his eyes shut and just nodded as vigorously as he could, desperate to end the interrogation. Erwin didn't like the helpless feeling he got. He hated not knowing how to answer the instructor. He just didn't know what to do with himself.
“Well, let's see what you think of him first.”
Erwin blinked when his father turned him around and ushered him beneath the stream of moonlight. He glanced up at Kenny, narrow eyes suddenly soft with an unreadable emotion. In that instant, Erwin realized he had to be composed. Kenny would not hurt him right now, but if Erwin acted out in the slightest, he would certainly do something.
Once they understood each other, Kenny shuffled from his spot and shoved a tiny body towards the young Smith. The tiny thing nearly tripped over but righted themselves quickly, the voice that left its lips catching Erwin's attention.
Erwin felt his heart flutter.
Splashed in liquid blues, an even younger child stood before him. Short black tousled hair had a soft texture that prompted Erwin to touch it. Frail shoulders barely held the over-sized white dress the other wore, and even then, they pinned it up with one hand, careful not to let it slip from their hunched form.
“Erwin, meet Levi.”
His father's voice jolted him slightly from his stupor, but Erwin couldn't help but feel even more enamoured now that he had a name to go by. Levi. That sounded pleasant. No one in the neighbourhood had that name.
“Brat, meet Erwin.”
Kenny's gruff statement echoed his father's, and Erwin wondered why the man would refer to Levi that way. If this was Levi's father, surely he would address his son more politely?
As it seemed, the other child was not disturbed one bit by the rude call. Head lifting hesitantly at first, the blanket slipped around their shoulders. Erwin met strong silver eyes and a chubby face much more rounded than his own.
The two adults held their breaths.
Erwin guessed he should take his father's example and start. He leaned forward and blinked, trying to get a good proper angle in front of the other child. Back straight and lips pulled into a warm smile, Erwin held out his hand.
Chapter 2: A Simple Boy's Life
I'm gonna put as little effort as possible to explain what omegaverse is to readers cause I assume that you clicked on this fic cause you know what it is.
Erwin had never experienced real attraction before.
He had known the emotion in milder circumstances in the past. In his initial years of education, there had been a select few who caught his eye. A couple of inky-haired girls in the past were good playmates, but they bored of Erwin. Erwin didn't thrive in the social scene. Such a fact didn't help his case as a junior at his father's school but that didn't upset Erwin in the slightest. The concept of such things as crushes and courtship were beyond his years.
But knee-trembling, finger-twitching, chest-thrumming attraction in itself was completely alien to Erwin. Where only fear blotted out the entirety of his being, a sudden clarity reached his mind. A sudden strength poured into his limbs.
In his father's example, Erwin took the opportunity in stride. He had made excellent introductions hundreds of times before. Though few of them ended in long-lasting camaraderie, Erwin presented his open palm with confidence. “Hello there. Nice to meet you.”
Glassy slate-grey eyes idled on his thumb for a moment, then drew upwards to scrutinize Erwin's prim and proper smile, well-rehearsed after tens upon tens of oral presentations. They were hard to see behind wiry black hairs but Erwin felt his breath steal away from him. Blots of moonlight glared off of Levi's retinas, and he had an almost frail and innocent appearance to him.
“Yer supposed to shake his hand dumbass,” Kenny punched Levi's shoulder. Levi whipped around to shoot a withering glare at the elder man and turned his scowl on Erwin.
Levi scoffed. “Fine.”
In an instant, Levi grabbed Erwin's open palm and shook it like a dirty rag. Erwin was jolted and electrified at the same time, surprised at the less than reserved response and electrified by how icy the other boy's skin felt against his own.
Before he even knew it, Levi had retreated, as if touched by acid. If Levi had seethed at Erwin, the blond surely didn't catch on. He still reeled from the jarring experience, hand raised in the air. Levi craned his head to leer up at Kenny. “There? Happy?” He snapped.
In response to the retort, the tall man snorted, then burst into a fit of barking laughter. Levi radiated of a terrible aura as Kenny slowly ceased, one hand settled on his hat as if to hold himself sane. “The hell!? You sure those are what you want your last spoken words with me to be?”
“They're not anyway!”
The sardonic humour in the air faded as heavy hands left Erwin's shoulders. Both children paused and looked up towards their elders, stiff gazed locked on each other. Errol moved around his son and nodded towards a dark corner a bit further away. Kenny took a moment to decipher what the Smith was getting at before scoffing. “Yeah, yeah, whatever.”
Erwin's father smiled pleasantly and left his son with a whisper. “Stay here and keep Levi company for a while. I'm going to be speak with Kenny in private for a moment.”
Large curious eyes lingered on the elder's retreating back, then snapped down towards the head of midnight black hairs before him. Levi gripped the swath of blankets around his shoulders tightly and spat at Erwin. “Father?”
“Yes?” Erwin blinked at him. “That is my father.”
“I know that idiot, I'm not dumb.” Levi sounded irritated. Erwin cocked his head at him, unable to pinpoint the exact cause behind the child's annoyance. “Do you not call him 'dad' or 'papa' or something like that?”
Dad? Papa? Erwin had surely heard other children call their own sire's by such names before, but the concept that his speech convention was unusual never occurred to him. As a result, Erwin was at a loss. Why? Why did it matter? For a second, Erwin considered asking Levi this but instead, he went with a more formal reply. “ I have always called my father 'father'. Is there something wrong with it?”
Levi's brows twitched like he was about spit at him but Erwin was met with grit teeth instead. Erwin couldn't help but stare. There was a certain appeal to him. The grumpy face didn't fit his mild form but Levi's character was refreshing. “I guess not if that's the case,” Levi relented.
“And what about your father? What do you call him?” Erwin pulled a pleasant smile, pushing the previous conflict to the back of his mind. He wound his fingers behind his back and kept a steady lock on Levi.
Levi frowned and dropped his gaze to the floor. “He's not my father, we're not related.”
“Then,” Erwin lowered his voice and mumbled low, glancing warily at Kenny. “Who is he?”
Levi peered over his own shoulder. Kenny returned the pair's looks with a warning scowl. The kind that made Erwin shiver and Levi want to kick his ankles. “Somebody my mom knew.”
“He's kind of scary,” Erwin lowered his head when Kenny scowled at him.
“You don't even know.”
“How old are you?”
“Huh?” Levi whirled his head around only jolt at the sight of gigantic sky blues. Instantly, Levi reeled back, recovering quickly only to see that the taller boy hadn't moved in the slightest, face still lowered to his height and uncomfortably close. Erwin watched Levi with an terrifying attentiveness. “How old are you?” He repeated. “I'm ten.”
Levi held the answer in his mouth, both hands gripping the blanket around his shoulders like a lifeline. This kid- Levi tensed and answered in a mumble. “Nine.”
He's younger than me. Erwin blinked and decided to go on. He wasn't very good at talking to other children but he was determined to try his best. “What's your favourite colour?”
“Why are you asking me this?”
Erwin just shrugged and stressed the question again. “What's your favourite colour?”
“I-I dunno! Green?”
He likes green. Erwin straightened and took a moment to register this new information. In all honesty, Erwin was part of the larger population when it came to his fondness for blues. However, something at the back of his mind ushered Erwin to say something else. Blue was so common. It was boring. As empty as the sky itself. Erwin couldn't afford to look that way to Levi.
“I like green too,” Erwin tried carefully. He instantly regretted how cautious it sounded. It was too shy compared to what the boy would've preferred.
For a second, the two stood there. Levi tugged the quilt tightly around his shoulders and backed away from the moonlight, shrouding himself in shadow again. At this, Erwin's expression broke and his hands parted, wanting to grab the other child and bring him back closer. Did I scare him? “I-I'm sorry, was that not the right answer?”
The older Smith frowned at the scene. “I,” He turned to Kenny. “I don't know Kenny, this might not work out.” Errol pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and glanced at his son. Erwin approached Levi like a nervous puppy, smile fractured and eyes pleading for some kind of correction. Levi turned his nose at him. “I don't think they like each other-”
“What are ye talkin' about? I see no problems.”
Errol blinked and glanced back at Kenny. The gleam of a blade flashed underneath his coat alongside a dissatisfied scowl. So sharp that the glare itself reflected clearly in his lenses.
“They gotta like each other don't they?” Kenny pushed him. “Or else poor little alpha boy here might be in a whole world of hurt. You included.”
His brow creased as a rising fear and anger bubbled within Errol. The tips of his fingers trembled but he managed to match the ferocity of the other man's scowl. “You fiend.”
“Look, we've gone over this same song'n dance,” Kenny sighed, speaking low enough that anyone out of Errol's earshot would only hear a grumble. “I'm doin' this for as much as Levi's benefit as you are for your little spawn there.” The man hooked a finger into his coat and drew a long hook-bladed dagger. The edge was sharp but Errol could glean the little splotches of wear against the cold steel. With practised expertise, Kenny flipped the knife in his fingers and pointed the knife at the younger Smith child. “It ain't like I know how much time'n energy I can pour into raisin' a brat. Down here, uncertainties like that are as good as a death sentence, for both me and Levi. If you can keep'em up'ere and give'em a good life, that's all I need ta know.”
Errol swallowed thickly. “And you can guarantee that he has the skills to protect Erwin? Can you promise me that?”
“Oh yes I can,” Kenny gestured towards Levi. “And he can too, I filled Levi in on the plan weeks ago. He knows what his purpose is. I even added a bonus because of your generosity.” A knowing grin split his face. “He ain't there yet but little Levi'ere is shapin' up to be an omega. If all goes well and the wedding bells ring, your son is set for life.”
Set for life?
Kenny's grin widened when he saw a flash of consideration cross the man's face. Errol took a deep breath and whipped his head back towards the moonlit space. Levi had moved closer towards his son, head craned slightly upwards and delicate fingers gripped around his shoulders. There was no lie. Disregarding the possibility of malnutrition, Levi was indeed looking like an omega physically, thin wrists and all. At his age, he really should have bulked up a little if Kenny had fed him falsehoods. Erwin looked enthusiastic, eyes blown wide and smile genuine. Errol felt a tug at his chest. How long had it been since he'd seen such passion in his son's face?
“But Levi,” Errol returned to Kenny with remorse in his voice. “What did Levi say about this? I did not know he was informed until now. Is he alright with this?”
Kenny's grin held for a moment, then slowly faded as the knife lowered and slipped back into his coat pocket. Errol thought the famed Ripper of Sina was going to admit to regrets but the hoarse words that came out seemed forced enough, and lacking in accent. “Levi knows what he has to do to survive.”
Erwin's light laughter filled the air and rung in their ears.
“-so then, I think we're in Stohess but I've never been there,” Erwin pinched his chin in thought, “or here, before, so I don't know exactly.”
“This place is called 'Stohess'?” Levi questioned him, and Erwin perked up at the sudden interest.
As the shorter child began to scan their surroundings in what Erwin could only interpret has extreme curiosity, unable to catch the way Levi shifted his feet closer together. Erwin simply went on, mind pouring over every geographical map and textbook he had ever studied. “Father said we're in the inner wall, so that means that we gotta be in one of the four exterior cities of Sina. Stohess is one of them, and we passed right from Hermina so I guess it's probably Stohess.”
“Exterior cities?” Levi panicked. “Inner wall?”
Erwin's cheeks flushed with happiness and he bounced on the spot. “Yes! I live just outside of Trost in Wall Rose. It's pretty quiet there but we have some really nice gardens.”
Kenny never told me any of this! Levi snapped his head towards the elder man but his heart dropped into his stomach at the sight of the blond stranger approaching. Mr.Smith smiled warmly at them both and took his son's shoulder. “Are you having fun Erwin?”
Erwin nodded enthusiastically. “Are we going to come back again?”
“Come back again?” Errol raised his brows comically. “What do you mean?”
“I-” Erwin stopped himself. The boy seemed to mull over his words and leaned towards his father, hiding the red of his cheeks as he gazed sidelong towards Levi. “I really wanna to talk to Levi some more.”
At this, Errol snorted a bit in laughter and surprise. Levi shivered at the sight while Erwin viewed his father with equal novelty. When his episode died down, Errol beamed down at his little boy. “Erwin, you don't have to worry about that! We're taking him home.”
Errol didn't spare a look at Kenny before he went on to explain. “Starting tonight, Levi will living with us now. That's why I brought you here.”
Erwin gawked, head switching between Levi and his father. If this was a dream, he didn't want to wake up. “R-really?”
His father nodded.
It was as if butterflies had sprouted in his legs and flooded into his stomach. Erwin could barely contain the sheer excitement, he felt like he might hurl. Erwin came down from his high at the image. Puking in front of Levi was a nightmare situation. Doing so would surely taint him forever.
“Do you like him? Erwin?”
Levi stared listlessly at the floor, gaze slowly creeping up towards the darkness of the alleyway. He only caught a glimpse of the scruffy man's retreating back.
The ride back to Trost was silent. Wanting the two to get more accustomed to each other, Errol voluntarily kept himself out of conversation. A foot's length apart, the children sat. Levi hugged the gown he wore like a second skin while Erwin stole shy glances at him the entire ride. It seemed to Errol that Erwin really did want to talk. The boy kept his eye on the opposite window, searching desperately for things to speak about. Landmarks or people, anything his little brain could muster a sentence on. But Levi was having none of it. With each the comment, Levi remained still. His arms were bundled up, knees folded to his chest. He pressed up against the corner of the carriage, expression frozen and pale.
At the house, Errol helped Levi out of the vehicle. Glowing blues threatened to break from the edge of the sky and all of them knew they didn't have much time before morning. Upon feeling the carriage stutter to a halt, Erwin had bounced out of his seat and insisted on guiding his new companion. As much as Errol appreciated his son's enthusiasm, he had to deny the boy. Levi needed some time to adjust. Kenny had some mouthfuls to spill about his youngster's treatment and Errol fully intended to honour the man's requests. For now, Erwin was instructed to get ready for bed, much to his son's dismay.
Gather up his clothes and give him a good wash. The dark-haired child was understandably hostile at the idea of parting with his clothes. Errol had to at least let him keep the white gown while he prepared the tub, letting Levi sit nearby in the nude, nose pressed against the dirty cloth while Erwin poked his head in curiously. Errol had to shoo Erwin away.
“How are you feeling?” Errol mustered up a smile as he lathered the smaller child in soaps and warm water. The steel tub faced towards the wall and the teacher positioned where he had a clear view of the door. Erwin liked to peek unfortunately.
Levi stayed silent, mouth pressed thin and white gown floating damp in the bubbly solution. His small size was notable, the islands of his knees barely breaching the water's surface even pulled all the way up. Errol had inquired briefly about the boy's ability to wash himself but Levi was easily too withdrawn and shaken to take up the task. So instead, here they sat. Levi clutching and inhaling the scent of the white dress while Errol scrubbed his shoulders. The dirt and grime wasn't too bad. He could imagine Kenny had given Levi some cleanup before arriving to Stohess but his request stood regardless.
“Was the carriage ride fun?” There was plenty to clean between the child's toes but it was really only because Kenny had presented the boy bare-footed. Curious about this, Errol studied the youngster's feet and looked up. “Did you bring any shoes?” He already knew the answer to that.
Levi shook his head.
“Oh? Not even slippers?” Errol pressed gently.
“Kenny said,” Levi paused momentarily to contemplate his words, then pressed his nose back into the gown and dropped his gaze to the water. “He said that he wanted to give me away exactly the way he found me.”
An unreadable expression passed the teacher's gaze. “Really?”
Levi blinked when the Smith grabbed a mug and scooped up some water from the bath. Slowly, he encouraged Levi to brace himself and poured the warm water over his head, letting the liquid strain through his hair. Errol smiled. “Did you get a haircut?”
Grey eyes reflected against the flickering torch by the wall. Levi lifted his chin and hesitantly nodded.
“It looks good on you, very handsome.”
Levi visibly reacted to the praise, mouth falling open and narrow eyes widening ever so slightly. Resisting a laugh, Errol just smiled and soaked the washcloths while the boy self-consciously threaded his fingers through his hair. It was an undercut that was becoming more and more popular within the walls. It was likely that Kenny didn't want Levi to stick out among the other children.
By the time an hour had passed, the water grew murky and brown. Errol lifted Levi out of the tub and helped the child towel down. Still clutching the wet dress, Errol coaxed the dress out of the boy's grip, letting it hang and dry in the room while the teacher guided him upstairs to Erwin's bedroom in slippers.
The door clicked open with a creak and his son was instantly at attention. Erwin sat at his desk, burning the midnight oil over his study materials. When he saw Levi emerge behind his father's leg, he flushed pink and quickly fussed over the wrinkles in shorts. Seeing the boy all cleaned up and properly washed made his skin glow just a little more. Erwin wondered how that could be possible.
His father quirked a brow. “Erwin, why aren't you in bed? It's already 2 am, you have a test tomorrow.”
“I'm studying,” His son replied stiffly, but his eyes were still locked onto the younger child. Never before had Errol ever seen Erwin show such interest in someone else. He eyed Levi like something new and shiny.
“The test is easy, you should have no trouble with it,” Errol knew that for a fact. He had confidence that Erwin would pass with flying colours tomorrow, he had written the test after all. “By the way, could you please lend Levi some spare pajamas?”
At this, Erwin's eyes sparkled. “Okay father!” From the chair, he hopped off and darted to his dresser where he yanked open a drawer at the bottom. He paused for a moment. What pajamas should he choose? He had three sets since his family was fairly well off for a peasant family. Between the white, blue, and yellow ones, Erwin had to make a hard decision. He glanced up at Levi, who had his nose turned away but delicate lidded eyes drawn in his direction. Should I ask him? Erwin decided against it. Letting someone else choose would show indecisiveness. Levi wore white today. Maybe he'd like the white set. Too bad he didn't have a green set. Nodding to himself, Erwin picked out the white set with a nice embroidered collar and patted it from dust.
Errol backed away to let his son have some space. Erwin approached Levi and offered his clothes, mustering the best smile he could and shying away a look when the other made eye-contact with him. “H-here Levi,” Erwin started, voice unusually soft. “You can have these.”
The dark-haired child blinked when he received the set. He pinched the material with amazement, marveling at how soft and untouched it felt.
Errol put a comforting hand on Levi's back and nodded at his son. “They might be a bit big for you. Now that I think about it, I probably should have went out and bought some proper nightwear.”
“U-um,” Erwin began nervously to get his father's attention. “Where is Levi gonna sleep?”
“Levi will be sleeping in the guest room starting tonight.”
Levi looked up at the man. “I get to sleep alone?”
“Only if you want to,” Errol replied.
“I want to.” Levi settled at the thought.
“Alright,” Errol ended the conversation and gestured for him to face his son. “Say thank you to Erwin.”
Erwin tinged pink.
At this, Levi's brow crinkled in mild irritation. He glared at the younger Smith, then scoffed and turned away, cheeks flush with embarrassment. “Th-thanks,” He choked out.
Cute. Erwin heart-skipped a beat. Was he shy?
“Let's get you to bed,” Errol informed a fuming Levi and turned a stern eye on his son. “You should be doing that too. Put away your textbooks, I don't want to see them at night or your eyes will go bad.”
With a dutiful nod, Erwin went to put away his books and change into his own nightwear. Errol guided the younger boy to the spare room across the hall, a small study which had previously been his wife's abode. When they arrived, it was plain to see not much had to be changed about it. It was more sparse than when his wife had been around. A smooth wooden floor polished until shiny. At the end of the room, a large window sat above a single-person bed pressed up against the wall. A bed-side desk was placed next to the nightstand, where a single candle-lit oil lamp sat with a small flickering fire to illuminate the room. Errol had put some preparation into it. The shelf by the door was loaded with study materials and while the dresser really only had some of Erwin's old clothes. Errol's son hit a massive growth spurt after presenting so his old clothes barely fit anymore. Now armed with a new wardrobe, Erwin didn't notice when his old clothes went missing, now stashed away to be Levi's new dresses.
Errol helped the boy into his new pyjamas and almost laughed at the way the sleeves hung off his skinny arms like fresh laundry. Levi pursed his lip at the man, frowning at how baggy it all felt but Errol reassured him that he'd buy Levi a new set when he got the chance. Levi just glared at him weakly. Errol thought Kenny's kid was quite amusing, if not also much milder than he expected.
“You don't have to be so nice with me.”
Levi began when Errol sat at the foot of the bed, tucking the boy into the stale brown sheets, long unused after the previous owner had left the house. Errol blinked and noticed the unreadable look on Levi's face. Mouth set in a thin line and narrow eyes piercing.
A tiny hand gently swatted away Errol's palm, pulling up the sheets over his own shoulders as Levi continued on. “I know what I'm here for. You don't have to act like this even when we're alone.”
Errol took a moment to process what the child had just said. Instead of a proper reply, he made a stiff chortle. “What are you talking about? Act?”
“Act like you care,” Levi clarified. His voice was monotonous, smooth and experience. Levi moved his gaze to the window. “This is for your son's benefit isn't it? I don't mind when we're in front of other people but, I'd rather you didn't lie to me.”
“I'm not lying Levi.”
The boy returned his gaze to the man, challenging him to say more.
Pressured to explain himself, Errol sighed, tone never betraying gentleness. “Your guardian,” he paused to wonder if that term was even correct, “Kenny. He gave me some guidelines about how to care for you beforehand. I want you to have a good life up here, and so does he. This isn't just for my son's benefit, it's for yours as well.”
“But your son is the more important one here,” Levi retorted. “Am I right?”
“Don't say that.”
A silence fell between the two. Levi exhaled slowly, absorbing the sight of the night stars just visible past the windowsill. When he came up here, he expected to be filled with wonder and awe at the world above and yet, here he was, still looking at the sky through a cut out. Like the skylights in the underground. Life on the surface wasn't much freer than it was underground. “Kenny told you didn't he?”
“Told me what?” Errol asked.
“That I'm probably going to be,” Levi trailed off uncomfortably, “That I'm probably going to present as an omega. Isn't that perfect for you?”
“Even if that weren't the case, I would still treat you the same,” Errol shook his head. “I'm a teacher, it's my job to help children like you.”
“What if you weren't a teacher?”
An owl landed on a nearby tree branch, bright eyes observing the window with a locked gaze. Levi squeezed the blanket, frowning at the unfamiliar smells of the room. He couldn't wait for the dress in the bathroom to dry. Errol's lips thinned, and for a moment, Levi got a rise at the thought that he'd caught the man hook line and sinker.
But Errol chose to smile as softly as he had before. Eyes crinkled. “I would still do it.”
“Why?” Levi blurted out.
“Because I'm a parent,” Errol kept on.
“What if you weren't a parent?”
Levi suddenly sat up, letting the blankets pool around him. This didn't make sense. Why was he even having this conversation? And yet, he was curious. In the pit of his stomach, nothing made sense. If there was one thing he wanted to know, it was why he was allowed to live in such luxury-
“Because you're just like Erwin.”
A calloused hand gripped the sheets and draped them over Levi's stiff shoulders. Levi glanced down and slowly laid back down in bed, unable to tear his eyes away from the man before him. The blanket was tucked high up by his neck, leaving only his chin and head exposed. Levi observed as Errol began to tinker with the lamp, reducing the flame until it had fizzled out into a smoky scent.
Errol just laughed to himself.
Morning began with the tolling of the bell.
It also began with a note on the door, a note which Erwin would have nearly missed if he hadn't had to make another rush back to the his room to grab his schoolbag. In his father's hand-writing, Erwin was reminded to wake Levi up and get them started for the day. There would be no after-class chores for him to do but a tiny hint jogged Erwin's memory of his previous visitation to the library. Standing in the hallway, the mere thought of the pretty boy made something flutter in his chest. That was right. He was living with a new friend now. Could he call him a friend? Erwin folded up the note and pocketed it. Maybe. They didn't really know each other yet. After getting into his daily sweater vest, Erwin spent an unexpectedly long time in front of the mirror scrutinizing his reflection. First impressions meant everything. Perhaps this wasn't exactly a 'first' impression to be accurate but it was a second and Erwin believed in second chances.
Hair combed, collar straightened, smile pleasant. Erwin felt a giddy confidence in himself when he started down the hall and arrived at the guest room door. The room was where his mother used to sleep. Erwin had heard more than once that parents were supposed to room together but it wouldn't be the first time that his family was counted an odd case. Erwin had only ever heard of his mother from his father. A woman who wasn't terribly affectionate and left only a couple of years after he was born. Erwin felt no desire to see her. It didn't matter one bit to him if he ever met his mother or not. After all, the woman never bothered to visit.
Erwin stood at the door and straightened out his clothes. Satisfied with his appearance, the boy nearly grabbed at the doorknob but restrained himself. No, this was impolite. He needed to be more gentlemanly with a guest. Pacing in front of the room for a moment, Erwin fixed his hair once more before knocking. “Good morning Levi! Can I come in?”
Ah. Erwin paused at that the flat reply. Rebuilding his smile once more, he turned the door open and poked his head inside the room to find the dark-haired child sitting up in bed, shiny black locks tousled in erratic cowlicks. He seemed to be listening to the sound of the bell. Erwin brightened at the sight and let himself inside.
Levi turned to acknowledge the other boy.
“I'm going to go to school in an hour or so. Do you want breakfast?” Erwin informed as he inspected the room curiously. He never noticed his father cleaned out his mother's room.
“School?” Levi repeated incredulously. He raised a skeptical eye at Erwin, now fully able to intake the blond's clothing. Erwin looked much different than he had the night before. Dressed in a standard wool sweater vest, collar, and shorts. Levi thought he looked like a rich kid.
Catching the other's wandering gaze, Erwin shifted his feet. He hoped Levi was doing that because he thought Erwin looked nice. “Yeah, school.” That was odd. Erwin wondered why such a thing made Levi so puzzled. “What school did you go to in Stohess?”
Levi grit his teeth and glared hard at the opposite wall. An irritated sound serving to make Erwin jolt in surprise. The room grew still. “I didn't live in Stohess, idiot. And I didn't go to school.”
“It's not nice to call someone that.”
Levi drew his gaze back onto Erwin. The blond's expression now stern and stony. Levi almost took it as a challenge. “Huh?”
“Idiot,” Erwin added.
What is this kid on about? Levi easily reminded himself of where he was and sighed. “Whatever.” He drew the blankets aside and threw his skinny legs over the bedside. He was sure Erwin was clapping his mouth shut to contain his amusement at how large the pajamas looked on his body but he shouldered it off. Erwin could think whatever he liked of him.
Stepping into the main household, Levi found himself in sheer awe.
The world was so painfully bright.
He'd seen the kitchen before but not like this. At night, it was nothing but shadows and dull moonlight but now it was as if a long, sparkly, yellow curtain had draped over the entire room. The floor glowed with strips of light, floorboards shiny and sink textured with some evidence of bumpy rust and wear. Out of a low wooden covert beneath the kitchen table, Erwin withdrew a long paper bag. A slice of bread was already hanging from his mouth.
“Sorry, bread is all we have,” Erwin admitted sheepishly and fished a modest-sized loaf.
He stopped at the look on Levi's face; gaping with wide eyes. Erwin found himself staring too. The expression looked terribly endearing on the younger, and the young Smith stepped deeper into infatuation. After returning the bag to the covert, Erwin patted the table and urged Levi to sit and eat.
“I have to go soon so you'll be alone in the house for a while,” Erwin sighed apologetically while the other child ate. He poked his head over the table. “I'll try and get home as soon as I can. And after that, we can go out and play.”
Levi swallowed and drew a weary gaze at the blond. “Play?”
“Do you not want to play?”
The two boys remained in the kitchen. Levi continued to nibble at his bread while Erwin watched him curiously, awaiting an answer. A minute passed before the young Smith realized that the other wasn't interested in responding, so instead he turned to packing his messenger bag.
“Where's your dad?”
Erwin lifted his head from the floor. It was twenty minutes before he was due to leave and the child was getting in some last-minute review with his notes before heading out. Levi eyed him carefully from the table. “He left already for work,” Erwin replied.
“Does he do that everyday?”
“From Monday to Saturday,” Erwin clapped his book closed and shoved it into his bag, slinging it over his shoulder. “Our family doesn't go to church on Sundays. Father isn't a Wallist so we usually just spend it as a day off.” The boy got up and fastened the belt of the strap. He spied Levi hop off the chair and glance out the window.
It was a sunny day today. Good weather, and only a few blooms of clouds dotted the skies. The great silhouette that towered in the distance was very visible from the window, taller than the buildings across the street, taller than the trees themselves. Erwin thought of something. “Are you a Wallist?”
Levi shook his head. “What's that?”
“You don't know the Church of the Walls?” Erwin blinked suddenly.
“I've heard of them.”
The older boy hummed and glanced at the clock perched on the cabinet. It ticked away to fill the silence. He would like to head to class early and get a seat for himself. Erwin wasn't keen on getting pushed to the back of the room by his classmates. Not that he had vision issues but it was lonely back there. Hard to get picked for answers. “They're just people that worship the walls, that's it really.” Erwin collected himself and started for the door. He grabbed the doorknob and smiled at Levi. “I gotta go to school. I'll see ya later!”
With that, the door creaked and clicked shut.
“Sorry, it's still checked out.” The librarian drew back in his seat, creaking precariously on a single leg.
Erwin held a lidded gaze over the edge of the help desk, mouth set in thin and tired. The boy's eye twitched and he glanced up at the man. “Do you have any idea when it will be returned?”
The librarian grumbled deep in his throat, leaning over the table to peer down at Erwin. Callused fingers combed through oily brown curls in thought. “Look, kid, same answer as yesterday. It's supposed to be in any day now. If it doesn't come in within the week, we'll send a fine.”
“That's not enough,” Erwin snapped. His small stature stiffened as his hand gripped the book bag slung over his shoulder, hands drawn into small fists. “My father wants the book soon. He can't wait.” That was a white lie. Errol was never particular about any chores he gave Erwin but curiosity got the best of him.
“Well tell Errol that there's nothing we can do about it!” The librarian barked, prompting the boy to wince at his sharp tone. “If it gets returned, it gets returned. If he really wants it that bad, I can reserve it for him.”
Erwin seethed but he wasn't itching to start a fight. No, he wasn't like that. He was better than that, above the trouble-makers in every way. Surely his father would reprimand him if he witnessed him acting up. But still, it bothered the child. Librarians were supposed to be passionate about literature, weren't they? The sloppy male before him could definitely read, that was for sure, but he seemed to lack any sort of interest in the texts that lined the shelves. Erwin wondered briefly when the old librarian would come back. The boy sighed and took a moment to collect himself. “Please.”
“Sure,” The man drawled. “But I need his signature to properly hold the item.”
“What?” Erwin squeaked. Hands flew to the edge of the counter as Erwin pulled himself up, standing on his toes just to bring his chin over the desk. “But my father is working right now!”
“Still need a signature.”
“Can I do it? I can reserve it instead,” Erwin found himself begging but the librarian was having none of it.
“You need to be at least twelve years old to reserve an item here.”
Erwin watched uselessly as the man slammed the large archive closed in conclusion, blowing dust and dirt into the child's face. As Erwin spat and coughed, the old man stood up and plucked the straw of wheat out of his mouth, twirling it. “I don't make the rules kid.”
Dust stung his eyes but Erwin didn't relent. He glared weakly at the man. “But, I'm gonna be eleven in two years so-”
The librarian raised a brow and slowly rested his elbow over the table, looming over the younger. Erwin shrunk as the man locked gazes, gesturing his thumb towards the clock on the wall. “And I'm gonna go for lunch in two minutes. So you got two options: either you go home and bring back that teacher or you go home and come back in two years. Which one is it gonna be?”
Erwin returned to his street with a scowl. He dragged his shoes, hand gripping the leather of his book bag as the incident earlier rolled through his head on repeat. Was he in the wrong? Why did age even matter? Erwin had seen some twelve-year old's who could barely read much less write. In a way, he was surely more capable than they were and had the maturity to be a big kid and reserve a book all on his own but that librarian...
His shoe kicked a rock across the cobblestone. Erwin hoped that the old one would return in a week. Even better if the text itself finally got returned. He could tell his father that he was busy after school to avoid more trips to the library. The market was fine. The merchants were nice and Erwin had a pretty good grasp on what stalls to steer clear of. But there was only ever one librarian at the help desk at a time.
“You look gloomy. Something wrong Erwin?”
The MP inquired. He sat on the steps of one of the houses, his (probably unloaded) musket sitting discarded on the stairs. As Erwin approached, he instantly beamed at the man. “I'm fine Sannes, just had a bad day.”
“Something happened at school?”
Erwin relaxed. He'd known this officer since he'd was a baby. Sannes was usually stationed in his neighbourhood and often did the rounds with his friends. “No, actually I-” Erwin scratched the back of his head. How would he say this? He didn't like speaking ill of other people but sometimes the right words escaped him. “I...had to take out books for my father.”
For a moment, the MP blanched. “Oh, oh. That guy.” Sannes made a lazy grin and patted the boy hard on the back, causing Erwin to stagger. “He's a bit difficult but it isn't like we got many folks who can run that place like he can.”
Erwin smiled stiffly.
“Hey, when you're older, maybe you should take over and run the library yourself! Wanna be a librarian when you grow up?”
Erwin paused to think. He'd never actually considered what he'd be when he grew up. His classmates didn't talk about it much. Those who did usually just cited how boring it'd be to manage their family farm or take over whatever bakery their parents ran. His father was a teacher so...
“No, I think I'd rather be a teacher,” Erwin chirped, “Like my father.”
“Is that so?” Sannes chuckled. “Ever thought about being a soldier?”
The boy blinked. “No, I don't think I'm cut out for that kind of thing.” Erwin drew his gaze to the cracks in the sidewalk. “I mean, I'm not good at sports.”
Sannes withdrew his hand and slouched on the steps. “That's too bad. You know the King could use bright minds like yours. Your father has done wonders for the children here. Imagine what you could do for the military!”
Erwin shook his head. “Uh-uh, I know what I want.”
“You sure? It's free food guaranteed.” Sannes waggled his eyebrows.
“Stop it!” Erwin laughed. He readjusted his book bag, realizing it had slipped from his shoulders as the soldier joined in on his fun. “Anyway, I'm fine Sannes. It's good to see you.” He waved at the man.
Sannes watched as the boy walked off towards his house, waving as well. “Stay safe Erwin!”
The door creaked open as a little blue eye peeked inside. Erwin blinked and fully stepped into the house, noting that his father was reading the newspaper in the kitchen. Regarding his parent curiously, Erwin locked the door behind him. “Father?”
Errol looked up from the paper and smiled at his boy. “Welcome home, how was school?”
“You know how it went.” Erwin strolled over to the adult and placed his back on the table. He failed to catch the dip in his father's expression, more interested in another question. “Why aren't you at work?”
“I decided to take off early to make sure Levi was settled in,” Errol raised a hand to his son's head, hoping to ruffle his hair but paused when the action suddenly felt odd. Erwin stared at him like a fish. The creaks of the wood floors filled the silence until Errol coughed to clear his voice. His eyes shifted. “A-anyway, do you want something for dinner?”
“I'm okay with whatever,” Erwin replied. When the thought of the other boy floated into his mind, he sputtered, “I can ask Levi what he wants.”
“Sure, he's in his room.”
Quickly, the boy shrugged off his shoes at the entrance and began to dart upstairs, mouth growing into a smile at the thought of Levi. If there was anything that could brighten up his day, it'd be him. Erwin was still excited at the prospect of living with another child. He'd seen families with siblings in it and though they always complained about each other, Erwin wanted to know what it felt like. Erwin rapped on the door.
“Levi, father said you could choose what we're having for dinner!”
His knocks were met with silence.
Erwin blinked. Gingerly, he grabbed the doorknob and began to turn it, noting that the room wasn't locked off. Deciding against barging in, Erwin paused and tried once more. “Levi? Are you awake?”