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Chasing our Freedom

Chapter Text

The air around the group of soldiers was so quiet that it was eerie; so silent that the soft beats of the birds’ wings as they flew from the wreckage of what was his town, racing to freedom, were like rapid cannon fire, echoing off the towering, restrictive walls they were fleeing from as they were spooked by the strange, foreign thump of the worn, leather military boots against stony pathway. Those paths hadn’t been walked by men or women for so many years. The homes were in shambles, reduced to pathetic rubble that Eren couldn’t distinguish from the stone that the colossal titan had kicked from the wall all those years ago.

Shiganshina had been a bustling and crowded place, one where the squealing, high pitched laughter of children rang through the air constantly, carried by a gentle, cool breeze along with the fresh scent of laundry and the smell of horses as they worked hard every day pulling the heavy, worn down wooden carts of farmers from the far away fields or as they carried busy, loyal as they went about rushing people around the district centre. The cosy, rustic, stone built homes that lined the twisting, narrow pathways always had their doors swung wide open and their windows doing the same, letting the smell of cleaning products, delicious home-baked goods or freshly picked flowers drift into the streets. Eren remembered his uncontainable excitement when the weather was pleasant, because that meant wasting the day at the waterside, or in the lounging in the glen with the weeping willow draping overhead as his shade. In Shiganshina, everyone knew everyone, and everyone knew Grisha’s son and adopted daughter.

Eren’s dearest, fondest childhood memories were of him, Mikasa and Armin strolling lazily down the streets of their district, chatting about absolutely nothing important because nothing is really important to a child. The clunking sounds of the horse and carts or the buzz that was the bustling life of the town acted as their music. Occasionally, the voice of a passing neighbour calling “Hello, Eren!” or “How’re you today, Mikasa?” would change up the tempo and interrupt their chatter, not that any of them really minded.

They’d roam aimlessly around the streets, rambling animatedly on about their dreams, their hopes, and their goals. Sometimes, with the sound of the chugging of engine that powered the boats acting as their cue, they would race eachother to the riverbank, arriving just in time to watch the boats ferry people between the walls that were their cage. They’d toss flat, smooth stones that lay littered across the stony pathways into the water and watch them skip across the surface, shattering the reflection of the sky as they leave ripples in their wake, each throw getting the stone slightly further than the last.

As the sky they could see, the part not cut off by the towering stone structures they were confined by, turned from blue to a mix of sunset shades of golden and ruby, the three would wander home, splitting up at the corner of Eren’s street so Armin could rush down the path to his home with Eren and Mikasa watching over him. As soon as their younger, more vulnerable friend was safely home and out of harm’s way, Eren would grab his sister’s hand and lead her to their house, where Carla would be patiently waiting for them with her arms folded and a worried scowl on her face.

“You two always come home late!” his mother’s eyes would hold no fire, no maliciousness would coat her voice. She wasn’t the best actor either, Eren had to admit. Carla Jaeger could never keep up her angry façade when it came to her children. A smile brighter than a thousand candle flames could slip across her face the moment Eren and Mikasa turned on the puppy dog eyes, no matter how hard she resisted. The woman would scoop Eren and Mikasa up into her arms as if they were weightless, spinning them both around as she laughed at their squeals.

Every memory of his time before the fall of Shiganshina was… perfect. It was his home, his life, his happiness.
So… why did finally coming home make him feel so… empty?
This just didn’t feel right.

Finally achieving his mission, finally getting to the basement that he remembered from his childhood should have been the best feeling in the world. He should have felt bolts of pure lightning in his veins, his heart should have felt weightless. He expected the air around him to feel refreshing against his face, the sun to shine brighter. He expected his house, no matter how destroyed or turned to rubble it had become under the weight of the boulder and the passage of time, to be beautiful. To feel like home, because this is where all his memories were born. It should have felt better than… than this.

Eren had fought to the point he didn’t know how his body continued to hold up, he had sacrificed so damn much. He had trained for years in boiling sun and cruel snowstorms to build himself into a war machine, a man with every ability necessary to grasp victory in the war that raged all around him, to cut down any titan that dared crossed him swiftly so that, one day, he could finally walk into this old, wrecked place and discover what his father had hidden under his feet, just what secrets had that man hidden just down those steps.
He shouldn’t have felt like… like this.

The streets were nothing like he remembered. This place was a ghost town, a place of death and chaos. His home was a community, a family, a place with life in every street. He couldn’t possibly connect this war torn, bloodstained hell-scape to his memories of a peaceful home and bustling life. He knew Shiganshina was going to feel different, but not to such an extent where he felt like a soldier walking into a battlefield to collect the dead.

As his feet carried him reluctantly towards his house, turning at the correct points without Eren even having to think about it, Eren’s mind ran rampant with memories.

He remembered the little girl with the ice-blond pigtails that lived around the area he currently forced himself to walk through, about three streets away from his place. Her mother was a wonderful cook, and sometimes would bake cookies for the children who lived in the area. The girl looked just like her mother, huge crystal blue eyes and a smile that stretched ear to ear constantly decorated her pale, chubby face. He remembered the flowers he would see her bring home, purple ones that grew in the glen he used rest in, or as Mikasa would call it, ‘hide from his chores’ in. Her mother would plant the pretty plants in soil, and watch them grow into bushes of violet and lavender. Then she would take the girl to the market to sell the remaining ones. Now their home was a pile of rubble.
Eren approached it, only to see what was left of the lady and her sweet little daughter. His eyes scanned the rubble, unsure of exactly what it was he was searching for. Then he spotted it. The flower pot that the mother used to keep her gift of flowers in sat on what looked to be the old staircase of the house. The surrounding area was in shambles, destroyed beyond recognition, but the flower pot remained intact…
Eren felt himself freeze up, as if someone had hit pause on his movements.

“How…” a pained whisper fell from his lips, and he almost took a step closer, if even just to feel the pot for himself, just to prove it was real. His captain’s hand on his shoulder was what stopped him, and Levi’s eyes looked at him in a way Eren had never seen before. The captain looked beyond pained, yet masked it all with a cold wall of indifference that Eren probably wouldn’t have noticed if they hadn’t become so close since the titan joined the captain’s squad.

“Keep going, Eren. We’re almost there.” Levi’s voice was rough, scratchy and hushed. He sounded like someone had stolen his voice, or like he’d been screaming off the top of the wall for hours without pause. Levi had a very distinct voice, one that commanded power and respect without having to even try. Now… he sounded like a ghost, like a broken man.

Eren nodded at the command, honestly a little scared of Levi at the moment. He trusted the man with his life, but he just watched his best friend die. He just sacrificed his commanding officers life for the life of a cadet he barely knew. Levi wasn’t stable right now, and Eren didn’t want to be the thing that made him snap.

Returning from the remains of the home to the pathway, he reached his hand out towards Mikasa, who curled herself close to his side. He knew his sister, he knew exactly what she was feeling. He could see it on her face, in her eyes. She was scared, she was hurting just as much as he was. This place was her home too, but she had memories of both the Jaeger and Ackerman families to grieve for. Her long, raven eyelashes held the remnants of fallen tears, and her fair cheeks shone wet with tears she couldn’t bring herself to wipe away. She looked sickly, like she hadn’t eaten in days. Dainty fingers squeezed her scarf as she pressed it into her nose. She looked exactly as she had when they were younger, only now her eyes held the pain of so much more than just her parents’ deaths. Now they held the weight of her comrades’ deaths, of her squad-mates’ betrayal, of her own brother’s death and rebirth as a titan. He squeezed her arm, and she tilted her head up to look at him.

A forced smile pushed itself across her face, and Eren’s heart clenched in his chest. She looked so tired, like she had been carrying the world on her shoulders for one day too many, and the time was quickly catching up with her.

“I’m here, ‘Kasa. It’s alright” he soothed, brushing her cheek with his thumb and catching a tear as it fell from her eye. The way her face relaxed at his touch made his heart clench with guilt. She’d taken care of him since the day they left this place as refugees, and what had he done to thank her?

Eren swallowed a lump in his throat, willing himself to continue down the pathway.

He turned the corner, two streets to go…

There used to be an older lady who lived in the house they were walking past, Eren remembered. She was a genius when it came to medicinal herbs, so smart that even Grisha would seek her advice when it came to a difficult case. The woman had these silver eyes… they held a strange wisdom, beyond that which older people normally have behind their irises. She had treated Eren and Mikasa to a cup of tea after the incident with her parents, one that tasted of mint and honey, claiming it would calm their nerves or help them to sleep and the next morning, poof! Their wounds had healed. And they weren’t the lightest wounds either. These things were deep, and painful and ugly. Then they were gone, and as hard as Grisha begged for the secret, she would never tell.

Her home was overgrown with vegetation, now. Some herbs Eren’s sharp eyes recognised from a distance, lemon balm and mint were two he could very obviously see. It was almost as if the woman was living on through her herbs, through the very things she worked such magic through.

Eren looked over his shoulder, and noticed Levi staring off blankly into space. The man never let his guard down like that, and seeing him do so was beyond unsettling to a soldier who had trained under him for years. In the time they had fought together, Levi had never looked so vulnerable.

Levi walked behind the siblings, still covered in his friend’s blood. His eyes weren’t focusing, he was dragging his feet as if they weighed a thousand tons. His scarred, bloodstained hands were trembling by his sides in a way that would have Eren rushing him to the hospital if it were any other circumstance.

But now wasn’t the time. Not when they were so close to seeing what Erwin Smith had died for.

Eren reached out a hand and grabbed a huge bunch of lemon balm leaves, thinking for a moment before he grabbed the cloth he used to clean his gear from inside his jacket pocket. The snow white fabric was clean, thanks to Levi’s insistence on cleanliness under any circumstances. His heart shattered in his chest as he realized that he was partly responsible for Erwin’s death, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to regret his choice. This was the least he could do for Levi, who had sacrificed so much for him. Wrapping the delicate, sweet smelling leaves in the soft fabric, Eren tucked the bundle into his jacket pocket before he began walking again, losing himself in the maze of his thoughts.

Another corner turned, they were almost there.

Eren could see his home from where they stood, yet he didn’t feel accomplished at all. He simply felt hollow, like something just wasn’t right. His eyes were starting to well up with tears as he saw himself sitting on the steps by their home with his mother, steps that were now destroyed, just like everything else from his childhood.
Mikasa squeezed him tighter, and he remembered exactly where he was and who he was with. He had already screwed up once, and was going to be punished for insubordination. The last thing he needed to do was get himself deeper into trouble by allowing his emotions to jeopardize the mission.

The familiar zip and following thump of an ODM gear hook being reeled in sounded behind him, and Eren turned his head just in time to see Hanji land right beside Levi. The woman landed with the grace of a drunken baboon, and stumbled with exhaustion. The bandage around her eye wasn’t going to make the use of the ODM easier by any means and the loss of both Erwin and Moblit on the same day had clearly destroyed her emotionally. The section leader looked just as exhausted as her friend, and Eren could tell she was barely holding herself together. The man looked just a little weaker as his friend walked towards him, and Levi refused to even attempt to fight her off. Hanji wrapped her arms around her captain, and Eren watched transfixed as a single tear rolled down Levi's face. The raven haired man’s face didn’t change, his expression stayed the same, but his eyes were pits of pain and suffering.

Eren and Mikasa watched the two converse for a second, Hanji looked quite distraught, yet had the same attitude Levi seemed to have. They both seemed to have this view of ‘we have to complete the mission, no matter how much we’re suffering right now’.

Hanji approached Eren, and forced herself to smile at the siblings.

“Eren, Mikasa, I’m glad you’re both okay.” Eren felt a pang of guilt rise itself in his throat, yet smiled tiredly in return.

“I’m alright, we’re alright. We’re almost there, it’s just up the street.” He turned and pointed, watching Hanji’s eye widen in shock. Eren expected her to shriek in happiness the way she did when she saw any titan. She never did, she just nodded, and walked back to stand by Levi’s side.

They continued to walk, Eren watching the boulder that crushed his home grow closer and closer with every step they took. Eren’s pulse grew cold in his veins, and a cold sweat broke out across his whole body, yet he couldn’t stop.

And then he was there.

He stared at the spot that his mother had lay in as her legs were crushed under tons of rock, and where she had screamed for her friend to take both her children and run far, far away from this place. Where he’d screamed for Hannes to help him, to save her from that grinning monster that’s footsteps were like earthquakes.

Where she had been picked up by that damn titan and snapped in half like a fucki-

“Eren!” Mikasa’s frantic voice broke through his thoughts, and he felt his eyes refocus into the world around him.

“You’re shaking…” his sister noticed worriedly, incredibly so. He didn’t even realise his body was trembling until she brought it to his attention. His brows were furrowed deeply, and he didn’t know what to do with this strange cocktail of emotions, of pain and grief and pure, unrestricted anger.

“Eren…” Hanji’s hand rested gently on his shoulder, and Eren felt himself stiffen involuntarily under her touch. He couldn’t take his eyes off the spot where he’d last seen Carla.

“We’re almost there, Eren. It’s right there” Hanji called to him, and his eyes widened as he realised that they were waiting for him. Hanji, Mikasa and Levi were all watching him. They were waiting for him to move, to take the first step.

He breathed deeply, closing his eyes for a moment and focusing himself. He remembered every moment with his family, his mother. He remembered the innocent people whose lives had been stolen moment of Shiganshina’s fall, the ocean of blood that was spilled, and the lives that were destroyed. He remembered his brave comrades, the ones who died to protect him. All these people who had given their lives for him to finally get him where he was.

‘Stop being so selfish’ his mind screamed at him.

‘You’re not the only one impacted by all of this.’

His heart swelled for a moment at this thought, and his eyes flashed with strength and courage that he definitely needed. He realised that, for him to continue this gruesome, merciless war, he had to fight for everyone.

“Let’s go…” Eren declared, locking eyes with Mikasa for a moment. He tried to communicate with his sister, to tell her that they could do this. That they had to do this. That they were strong enough together.

Chapter Text

With a nod from Mikasa, they began to make their way through the endless mountain of stone and rubble.

Eventually, after around a half an hour of digging through the wreckage, Levi called out to them. The group rushed over to the voice, whose eyes lit up just a little bit at his discovery.
Eren came to stand by the man’s side and gazed as the staircase stretched below them. It looked like it stretched on forever, dissolving into darkness, a pathway into hell itself.

“Here, Eren.” Mikasa’s voice called him, and she handed him a glowing, iron lantern. He nodded once, finding himself unable to form any words. Grasping the handle tightly with clammy hands, he looked to Levi for guidance. The silver eyed man simply nodded once, silently giving his permission for his charge to continue down the staircase first.

Eventually, after what felt like years of careful steps and squinting into nothingness, the four reached the end of the seemingly infinite stairway. They came to a damaged wooden door, the white-oak faded with time to the point it now looked dirty, grey and ugly. Black steel hinges still held the thing together, stubbornly refusing to allow the rotting wood to fall apart.

“Oh for fu-“

“Move, Eren. I’ll do it.” Levi interrupted his complaint before he even had the chance to voice it, moving his arm to push Eren out of his way and give him access to the door.

Eren watched the man position himself before drawing his leg back and kicking the door down completely. Eren felt a slight flash relief, noticing that the leg that Levi used to destroy the door was the leg that had become injured as the man had slaughtered the titan that had tried to steal him away.

“Glad to see the leg’s healed up nicely.” Hanji piped up, though there was no laughter in her voice. It was dry, as if she’d been forced to say it by some unseen gun pointed between her eyes.

Levi ignored it, though Eren watched the man’s face change. His brows, ever furrowed and creased, lifted slightly. He looked like he was shocked, like he hadn’t expected to see what he saw. For a second, Eren was worried. Was the place in shambles? Was everything he fought for destroyed? Frantic, he rushed into the room like a crazed man. The room was extremely dark, and his eyes took a moment to readjust. He blinked once, then again, and then a third time before finally, the candlelight began to allow him to see shapes in the room around him.

The walls were decorated with parallel, dark oak planks, while the floor was simply barren grey stone. Bookshelves lined each of the four walls, surrounding the room with the colour of faded dyed leather. Each cover was a different colour, with golden writing on the spine. The room took on a very strangely wise vibe, and Eren made a mental note to bring Armin back afterwards. His friend would love a place like this.

He was alive to enjoy places like this.

There was a single, black, worn down oak desk in the very centre of the room. On top, a few large lanterns rested unlit. The white, waxen candle inside each was burned almost into nothingness, though Eren could barely see that through the blanket of dirt that had made it’s home on the surface. A mess of papers was scattered across the surface, some having fluttered to the floor around the desk like feathers from a torn pillow. Pens sat on top of the papers, expensive looking pens with golden pen-tips and stunning green and gold metal as the handles.

Eren took a step into the room, the sound of his boots clicking against the stone echoing around the room, as his eyes scanned the table’s contents with particular interest. The letters looked like someone had been rushing, trying to write quickly and running out of time.

Eren tore his eyes away from chaos for a moment, eyes seeking the thing that was blocking him from standing directly behind the desk. The leather chair that sat along with the piece of furniture looked ancient. The red leather was torn in the corners, revealing yellow stuffing that would have fallen out if it wasn’t so tightly packed together by years of use. The arm rests, though… they looked brand new. The only blemish to them was that there was a slight layer of dust laying atop of it. It was almost as if his father had never leaned his arms on them.

As if he’d never paused long enough to even rest his limbs.

Eren moved the chair out of his way with the hand that wasn’t holding the lantern, placing the light source down, being careful not to place it on top of the papers.
He could read those in a moment. Right now he had another aim in mind…

Where the hell did this damn key fit?

The brass around his neck felt so much heavier than it normally did, like it was trying to drag him into the floor. His hand came up to grasp it, the mental cool against his heated skin, and he looked at Mikasa with confused eyes. She stared back with the same look, and the two turned to their superiors for some form of guidance. Levi nodded towards them from where he was looking through Grisha’s books. Handing the book he was reading to Hanji, he mumbled something to the squad leader before approaching the two siblings.

“Give me your key, Eren.” The captain ordered, eyes not leaving the desk as he held up his palm. For a split second, Eren felt a flash of reluctance, as if he had any choice in the matter. He wanted to keep his key close, because it was the only thing he had left from his childhood that hadn’t been destroyed by the titans.

This just wasn’t the time for being childish hopes and dreams and ideals of a perfect world.

He made quick work of removing the key from its permanent home on the string around his neck, carefully pocketing the leather after he handed the heavy brass to Levi.
Even still, the weight hadn’t felt like it’d been removed.

In fact, it felt heavier.

“To think you two are members of my squad. You seriously couldn’t even notice this keyhole?” Levi scoffed, eyed rolling slightly as he made quick work of the hidden compartment under the desk.

The moment the compartment was pulled open, all three sets of eyes were drawn to a single, blood soaked letter in the centre.
Eren plucked the letter up quickly, stomach churning at the smell of old blood that smacked him in the face. His face paled whiter than a ghost as he read the words scrawled onto the page, and he turned to his sister with horror swimming in his eyes.

“Mikasa…?” Eren couldn’t really comprehend what he was reading, and his sister was more concerned for Eren than what had shocked him so deeply that, for once, he couldn’t form words.

Levi noticed the shock on his charges face, and his instinct was to quickly remove whatever it was that could distress Eren. The last thing he needed was for everything they’d fought for just to be destroyed by Eren’s titan form.

Everything Erwin died for…

Levi felt his stomach drop, and took a deep breath to stop himself from crying.

‘Focus, Levi. Be a fucking soldier’ He ordered himself, determined to see this mission through to completion. He could cry like a bitch for the loss of his friend later, now he needed to focus.

Furrowing his brows, his eyes flicked down to the stained paper in his hands, eyes scanning the faded and messy scrawl.
For a second, Levi was sure he had to have made a mistake. There was no way that was what it said. It couldn’t be. Levi read the writing again, just to be sure he hadn’t misread it, and his stomach dropped when he realized he hadn’t mistaken anything.

“Oi, the both of you!” Levi called to the cadets, and Eren turned his eyes to his captain.

“What’s your old man doing with a letter like this?” Levi scowled in confusion, holding the flimsy paper up between his fingers with the writing clearly on show.

Taking a moment, Mikasa squinted in order to read the writing, and Eren noticed the moment his sister had realised what they had found. She looked like someone had just tore her heart out, stomped on it and then forced her to watch Eren go through the same. Her eyes, already so exhausted, welled up with even more tears. Her pale lips began to tremble, and she stepped closer, reaching out with trembling fingers and taking the letter from Levi’s fingers.

Hanji, who’d been silently combing through Grisha’s vast book collection, noticed the sudden silence and approached the trio. Concern flashed across her face immediately, seeing all of their faces absolutely shocked, what had horrified them more than the disgust of titans?

“Mikasa… what does it say…?” Hanji urged, bringing her own lantern up to allow the soldier to see the writing clearer.

Mikasa looked like she was struggling, and Eren raised a hand to her back. He rubbed soft, gentle, assuring circles into her back, watching her scan the writing with eyes full of heartbreak. She glanced up at him, and he nodded his support toward her. She nodded back, cleared the tears from her throat and began to read.

“Your payment will be split between the three of you when you deliver the bodies of Mikasa Ackerman and her mother and father to the organisation headquarters…”

Chapter Text

Hurt is an agonizingly painful thing to feel.

Hurt comes in a lot of ways. It creeps up silently, and seizes you with a sharp tightness of the throat, cruelly stopping life giving air from replenishing your lungs and making you feel like you can't even steal a shallow breath, like you're drowning in the agony, like you're suffocating on the pain.

Mikasa felt like an invisible person was gripping her throat, choking her in a hold like iron that she couldn't escape. She couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't even try to form a word. She felt as if someone had punched her in the throat, as if someone was holding her under the water and watching her struggle to breathe, laughing at her suffering. How could this happen? Why her? Why her family...? What had they done to deserve to live in such a cruel, disgusting world that snuffed out any light of happiness before it ever got the chance to burn. Why did the pain just keep coming, why didn't she ever get a break?

Hurt comes with shaking, body mercilessly trembling to the point that moving to get any help is impossible, that makes you feel like you've been trapped by chains of pain and weights on your legs made of suffering.

Her hands were quivering in confusion, her fingers struggling desperately to hold onto the delicate, flimsy paper in her hands. She had thought those filthy, murderous bastards were dead, that they got what they deserved. She thought they had snuffed out that evil that had taken her parents, the same way they had snuffed out the light of her parent's smiles. She was sure she had killed them, her and Eren. Together, she thought she'd avenged her parents. She thought they were resting peacefully now, that they were able to move on to wait for her.

She was wrong.

Hurt comes with tears, hot tears streaking down your face like acid yet leaving no scars to prove your pain.

Her face was a distressed, broken mess. Streaks coated her cheeks like salty, hot raindrops racing each other down a window during a thunderstorm. Her pain was spilling from her eyes like a waterfall, and she couldn't stop it. The pain was just too much to contain, the flood was too strong to hold back.

Hurt comes with rage.

Eren was seeing red.

His pulse was pumping furiously at a rate that had him woozy, blood racing around his body and fueling his anger like coal fuels a fire. His mind was dizzy with fury, his aims clouded as he realized what they had stumbled upon. His impulse was to rage in anger, was to grab Levi's gun and slaughter the bastards. He watched helplessly as his sister crumbled before his eyes, the only thing he could do was reach out to catch her before she crumbled on shaking, weakened legs. He thought desperately about how on earth he could fix this, what could he possibly do to protect his sister the way she protected him so fiercely for so many years. Her poor, agonized silver-blue eyes looked beyond hurt, and he could see a storm of frenzied anger swimming just under her tears, waiting for the moment to rush to the surface and take control.

His heart shattered at the sight and he moved on impulse. Reaching out to her, he gripped the straps of her ODM gear and pulled her close. He gently cradled her to his chest while she cried silently, the only indication of her brutal pain was the desperate grip on his chest, as if she was worried he'd vanish, and the tears soaking his shirt from her eyes. He carefully placed a gentle hand in her messy, soft hair and cradled her close, a hand around her waist to keep her secure, safe against his chest, away from the horrors of the war raging around them for just a second.

Even for just a second, he just wanted to hide her away.

He closed his eyes, feeling his judgement becoming more and more clouded by white hot anger as every second ticked by on the clock. He buried his face into his sister's hair, struggling to hold himself together as storms of fury rolled over his mind. For just a second, he wanted to pretend they were still those nine year old kids with no worries other than collecting enough sticks for the fire and making it to the pathway in time for the Scouts arriving from outside the walls.

"God, Mikasa... I'm sorry... I thought we- fuck, 'Kasa..." Eren mumbled against her hair softly, feeling his sister gripping him even tighter at his words. He couldn't even begin to explain his anger at that one moment.

"Eren, what's going on...? " Hanji gently approached them both from where she and Levi had watched the younger scouts, hands up slightly in an instinctive way of showing them both that she made no harm. Mikasa turned her head to look at Hanji, tears streaming quickly down her face at the sudden movement. Hanji's eyes widened at the sight, and Mikasa sniffled like a little child calming down from a scratched knee. Another step brought Hanji even closer, and the woman opened her arms enough to take Mikasa from Eren.

A flash of protectiveness flashed through Eren's whole body, and he brought Mikasa closer to himself. His brows furrowed deeply, and he eyed Hanji reluctantly. Hanji looked shocked for the quickest of moments, before a soft smile of pity slid it's way across her face. She looked back at Levi, who's eyes were locked impatiently on Eren. The captain looked incredibly confused and extremely impatient. The man was never one to wait, even in a normal circumstances. Right now, well she didn't want to keep the man waiting any longer than absolutely required.

"Give her to me, Eren. Your captain is not a patient man." Hanji ordered, eyes looking incredibly serious for once.

Eren reluctantly, incredibly reluctantly, relaxed his protective hold on his sister for a second, his arms loosening just enough for Hanji to transfer Mikasa's trembling body from his within his own arms into her own waiting hold. His arms followed his sister, but Hanji stopped him. Eren locked eyes with the eccentric section leader briefly, eyes pleading with the woman to take care of his sister. Hanji nodded, mouthing the words 'Talk to Levi' and smiling warmly before she embraced Mikasa against her chest, hands petting the girls raven hair like a mother consoling her child. Hanji held the youngest Ackerman for just a moment, and Mikasa started to calm slightly with the motherly section leader muttering reassurances against her forehead.

After being sure that his sister would be comfortable, that she was safe, and she was alright enough for him to move way from her to stand at his captain's side, Eren made his way to Levi. The man was tapping his leather boot against the cool stone rapidly, brow quirked in confusion and his eyes locked with Eren's in a way that said 'Start talking before I make you.'

Eren breathed deeply, closing his eyes for just a second to gather his thoughts. How would he even begin to explain this to Levi? How do you tell your hero you killed two people at the age of 9? How do you explain something like that when they have so much more to do.

Eren gulped, running his hand through his thick, dirty hair before he heaved a sigh and turned to face Levi.

"Captain, Permission to speak freely?" Eren spoke, seriously not in the mood to rack up even more insubordination points by disrespecting Levi. He also wanted to make sure he didn't push Levi over the razor edge he was currently balancing on.

Levi's eye's widened slightly, and he could feel the headache building already. Though, Levi was a smart man, and he knew that hearing out his subordinates was a vital part to being a captain. He didn't get to his position, to his level of power, by ignoring everyone who tried to give him any advice.

"Go ahead, Eren. I'm listening."

"We have more pressing issues to deal with right now. Can we just... talk about this when we get back to base...?" Eren tried to sound professional, like a member of the Levi squad worthy of being there. Levi though... he felt comfortable enough with the man to be human. So he begged slightly, not wanting to bring his sister more pain or himself more anger. He couldn't go back over that information. He wouldn't finish the mission if he started. He knew he had to continue with this mission, he knew he couldn't allow himself be distracted by the storm cloud in his heart. Even through the pain, he knew his duty to those who have died.

The captain looked at him with consideration for a moment, and Eren felt his heart clench in his desperation to move on from the situation. He pleaded with his superior with his eyes, glancing at his sister and Hanji where they stood together. Mikasa just didn't have the strength to relive the trauma of her parents deaths right now.

"Alright, just go fix her up. We have to get a fucking move on, now's not the time for emotional meltdowns." Levi barked in frustration, but Eren could see the sympathy in his eyes. The captain gazed at the trembling young woman with a strange type of pity. He was still emotionally destroyed from the death of his commander, but even still he couldn't just sit and watch her completely breakdown, especially not when the breakdown in question could risk his mission's success.

Eren nodded once, smiling a small, nervous smile.

"Thank you, Captain Levi. l'll explain it all later. I'll even make us some tea." Eren smiled, before he walked across the room again after thanking his captain, eyes locked on his sister's calmed form. Eren nodded his thanks to Hanji, who smiled softly before moving to the side to allow Eren to hold his sisters hands.

"Listen, Mikasa..." Eren began.

"I know you're hurt, I am too. I wish we could've just kept living believing we'd avenged them. But right now just is not the time. We can cry later, we can train 'till we pass out later, we can do whatever it takes. Just... not right now. We have a m-"

"We have a mission." Mikasa finished his sentence, nodding once as she wiped her cheeks just a little too aggressively, as if she was trying to wipe her pain away with her scarf. Her eyes were back to normal, or as close to normal as possible after what they're going through. He smiled at his sister with pride, wiping her tear with his thumb before turning to Levi. He nodded at the man, and the captain moved to remove more papers from the chaos that sat spread on the desk.

"Let's get this started."

Chapter Text

The journey back to headquarters was silent.

Everyone who was awake was staring into space, minds somewhere far away from the battle field as the poor, shocked horses dragged their bodies forward, the to-and-fro sway not enough to distract them from the chaos in their minds. Every last detail of information they discovered was battling in their heads, raging a fearsome war with each preconceived shred of common sense they had treated as fact for so long.

You could see the evidence of that conflict written on Hanji's face. The section leader had removed her shattered, damaged eye-wear after they had arrived at the basement, the lenses completely useless as the glass was shattered and broken. The only thing they equipment did now was put her at risk for further scratches and cuts from protruding shards. Further damage was not something she could afford, especially considering the already horrific gash to her left eye, one so severe that it rendered the organ useless. Thankfully, Eren's father was the town doctor. After Hanji raided his medical bag, she found a huge stash of medical supplies that were promptly used to treat the wounds of the group, including painkillers for Hanji and stitches for Levi's arm. It was a good thing too, because her eye was starting to throb with a dull ache as the first hints of infection began to set in. She had given up hope of seeing from both eyes ever again, not that it mattered to her very much right now.

As the silent journey continued, her frantic thoughts were consumed by final moments her subordinate lived, the look on his face as he sacrificed himself to protect her. Moblit looked absolutely fixed on his decision, his eyes focused on nothing other than getting Hanji out of harms way, no matter the cost. She had felt her heart shatter like glass as she watched him be destroyed by the blast of Bertholt's transformation. The man she had trusted more than so many other people, gone. In the blink of an eye, he was gone, and there was nothing she could do to bring him back.

So was Erwin.

Erwin was gone, just like Moblit. The remnants of her destroyed heart clenched even tighter at that thought, Erwin's final moments flashing in front of her eyes. He looked so tired, like he had just passed out at his desk. It was something he frequently did, exhaustion written on his face as his pale cheeks were smushed into the polished chocolate oak of his desk, his hair a shaggy mess, as if someone had came up and ruffled his hair, like a father coming home from the day greets his children. He wouldn't get come to bed, of course he wouldn't. The man was beyond what qualifies for a work addict. No matter how much sleeping drug she slipped him, no matter how many times his tea was spiked with enough medicine to knock out a horse, he would always fight it off until he had completed his work, and then his desk became his bed

He was honestly quite scary in that regard.

She couldn't even see the difference as she looked at his face, the only distinguishing factor that let her know that he wasn't simply sleeping was the huge gash on his abdomen, crimson flowing from the wound. His eyes, though... No, she could see the difference there from a mile away. Erwin's eyes were always so bright, so vibrant. When she had seen them as they sat on the rooftop, though... They were dull, the same color sure... but the life wasn't there anymore. He was just gone.

Hanji felt a tear leave her eye, a sharp stinging from her wound coursing through her head.

She glanced to the side at the siblings who currently shared a horse, Eren up front and taking care of the steering. The boy looked absolutely horrified, yet his eyes still drooped as if he were struggling to keep them open. His hands held the reigns loosely, allowing his horse to simply follow behind Levi's. Hanji found herself forgetting sometimes that Eren was just a boy, a 17 year old boy who never got to experience life as a cadet. He never got to adjust to a soldiers lifestyle, never got to build his skills enough to rank himself up. He was simply thrown into the deep end and expected to swim, right up there with Levi. He didn't have the tools to cope with the things he had seen that day, the things he had been forced to do. Sure, the kid was a fighter like Hanji had never seen before, his heart was as strong as his titan and his passion was a roaring flame, but this mission... one where he was forced to beg for his friends life, where he watched his comrade be eaten and learned that every Titan he'd ever killed was once a human being...? That seemed to be the thing that broke his spirit. For once, Eren's eyes were a dull flame, and Hanji could only hope that the fire had not gone out completely. That fire that was the fuel for the war they raged.

Behind him, Mikasa lay slumped. Her cheek was smushed against his back in exhaustion, her arms curled loosely around his middle for balance. The poor girl was too tired to even attempt to stay awake, her mind quickly shutting down the moment she was rested safely behind Eren and they began their journey home. Hanji pitied the girl, the secret of Mr and Mrs Ackerman's murder had only added to her suffering and stress. Desperate to remain professional, she had put up a strong front during their time in the basement. She was a warrior, with the heart and soul of a huntress, but sometimes even the strongest warrior will break down.

And with that thought, her eye turned to Levi.

Of all the years she had known the captain, she had only seen him cry once. The death of his sister and brother had brought him to his knees, and that day he had vowed to her that she would never see him cry again. Levi wasn't an emotional person, his reputation as a cruel, heartless bastard didn't come from thin air after all, yet he still had a heart. The look in his eyes when she found him was empty, as if there was nothing more to say. He looked dejected, like he had given up. She couldn't blame him, it was his choice to let Erwin die after all. Her heart still ached for her friend, and for the loss they both endured as Erwin drew his final breath.
He rode ahead of the group, his posture perfect, his eyes forward. It was as if he was on auto-pilot. She couldn't see his face, but she knew that his steel eyes were empty.

"Section Leader..." a soft voice called to her, breaking her out of the trance her thoughts had trapped her in. She turned her head to face the source.

"Yes, Mikasa?"

The raven haired girl was still leaning onto her brother, her eyes puffy and red. She still looked extremely tired, to the point Hanji expected her to fall asleep again mid conversation, and yet she still tried to speak to the section leader with a heavy voice.

"I'm sorry... for your loss." Mikasa looked genuinely hurt, as if the events of the day were finally catching up with her.

Heart clenching, Hanji walked her horse closer to the two, not stopping until she was within touching distance of the soldiers. She stretched her hand out, smoothing gently through inky strands of hair. Mikasa blinked up with wide eyes, and for a moment Hanji saw an innocence in them that she believed died in every soldier after their first battle. But no, it was definitely there. Mikasa seemed to be clinging to that last shred of purity for dear life.

"Go to sleep, Mikasa. It'll be okay." Hanji soothed, comforting her in a way that Hanji could only have dreamed of being comforted when she was a young cadet. The way Mikasa drifted off so quickly was proof enough to Hanji that she needed the rest, that she needed the comfort.

Her eyes turned to Eren, who mouthed a silent 'Thank you'. She could see the love he felt for his sister shining in his eyes, and she could only smile as she recognized that look.

Moblit always looked at her that way, even as he yelled for her to 'get a move on! The Titans are literally outside!'.

With a quick nod and a nostalgic, pained smile, she moved her horse back to position and they continued their long trek home.

Chapter Text

Arriving at his office was a welcome sort of relief to Levi.

He was absolutely desperate to get out of his uniform already, the sweat and dirt clinging to him like a stubborn second skin and making his throat clench in repulsion. They had arrived at headquarters hours ago, Eren and Mikasa both having the luxury of going straight to bed as they had arrived. Levi and Hanji, though... no, they weren't afforded such rights. They had been forced to sit and listen to Zachary reading Erwin's will, their bodies still stained with the man's blood as they listened.

"The likelihood that I will survive past the mission to retake Shiganshina is slim, so slim in fact that I feel an urgent need to straighten out any affairs I may have left unchecked..."

Pixis had read each word as if it were gospel, something Levi found himself resenting as each second dragged itself along. He so desperately wanted to just be alone for a moment, to gather his thoughts. Yet he found himself wanting this moment, this one moment where everyone in the room, from representatives of the Wall religion to Military police, respected Erwin for the hero he really was to drag on.

"...As for who I will appoint to the position of Commander of the regiment I have fought so hard to build into a beacon of hope for all of humanity, I feel I can trust the title to no other than Hanji Zoe. She is the only person I feel has ever seen past my madness and to the true goal I have fought for, though perhaps that's because she has that same madness driving her forward..."

Levi's eyes had flicked to said scientist as those words were read aloud, as did the rest of the room's. Hanji looked like she had known, though. Her face only held a strange mix of determination and pain, as well as a sliver of amusement at the last line. Maybe she and Erwin had discussed this before hand? He wasn't sure. Levi knew they were close, after all. Closer than he and Erwin, or he and Hanji had ever been. It would only make sense for them to have their goodbye in a more intimate setting that on the bloody soil of the battlefield.

Hanji had only nodded, though Levi could see the tears building in her good eye. He reached a hand out, placing it on her knee. She looked at him with shock, as if she had just been electrocuted by his touch. He could only manage a curt, quick nod of reassurance, never the best with words under any circumstances. It seemed to be enough though, because the woman returned the gesture and then turned her full attention back to Pixis. Levi removed his hand from her knee before doing the same.

"...and finally, to Captain Levi. I know you hate mushy goodbye's almost as much as you hate people knowing your business. Given that this will probably be read at an officer's meeting, I have written you a personal letter. It's on your desk. You'll have to forgive me, old friend. I had to go into your office without your consent."

Levi's heart clenched in his chest, yet his mask of indifference remained completely intact. He simply started ahead, as Pixis read Erwin's message to the leaders of the regiments.

After what felt like a lifetime, Levi was given the go ahead to leave. He had made it very clear that he hadn't been even remotely interested in partaking in the drawl and pleasantries that would be expected of him, and Hanji's first act as unofficial commander was to excuse Levi from his duty.

Pushing his door open, his eyes instinctively did a survey of the space, noting for any suspicious activity or changes that had been made in his absence. His room sat exactly how he had left it as far as he could see, his desk organised neatly, papers categorized depending on which of his four duties they applied to. His large, practically unused bed sat neatly made, the white of the silk shining in the moonlight as it poured in from the huge windows that sat behind his chair. He was glad Erwin hadn't moved anything, though he doubted he would have been too angry had he found the room in even the worst state of chaos. He approached his desk after he removed his boots at the door. His socks made the floor feel slippery, yet he was used to it. He only ever wore his boots inside if he had just polished them. The clink of his gear and the flare of a match being struck filled the room. he held the flame to his desk lamp, the golden glow erupting around him, replacing the cool white light the moon had provided. The glow didn't quite fill the room, only creating a sphere around his desk as he settled against the leather of his chair. he eyed his paperwork with disdain. One pile was in regards to the training progress of the newest recruits, the second was a record of all the deaths that they had suffered during the latest expedition; each name was a letter he had to write to a soldiers waiting family, informing them that their loved one would never come home. The third pile was his personal letters, letters that regarded to ventures the man took on that didn't apply to his position as Captain. The fourth were letters he received from his queen, asking his advice and wisdom to aid her as she ran her kingdom. In Historia's own words, "You pushed me into this role, you can bet that you'll be my adviser." Each piece of paper would take energy for him to sort his way though, energy he simply didn't have at the moment. Even the act of walking from the officer's meeting room to his private quarters had taken every shred of effort he could muster.

He opened his drawer, eyes widening slightly as he realized what he had found waiting for him.

There sat an envelope, one that in Erwin's neat, flowing cursive, was addressed to him. He eyed it for a moment, as if he were waiting for it to explode. After around a minute, when he was quite sure the letter wasn't a cleverly disguised bomb, he picked it up from where it rested. His fingers were trembling ever so slightly as he popped the wax seal and unfolded the paper. Immediately, he recognized Erwin's hand writing, and a lump raised in his throat as he began to read.

If you're reading this, I didn't make it back this time. I'm sorry to have abandoned you and Hanji this way, but find some comfort in the fact that I'm with our fallen comrades now. I'm with Miche again, I'm with my father. I may even get to meet your mother, wouldn't that be nice? I'm sure she has stories to tell me about you...'

A burning feeling erupted in his throat, but Levi continued reading anyway. He owed it to Erwin.

'... I know it's not going to be easy. Though, when has any part of our lives ever been easy? You have to keep going, Levi. You know what it's like to be trapped underground. You have to fight. I'm so-'

He closed the letter quickly at that, refusing to read about regrets Erwin may have had. He didn't do apologies, because apologies meant regrets and regrets were something he never allowed himself to feel.

He rested his elbows against his desk after he shut the drawer, his fingers interlocking in front of his face. He stared into the room, his eyes and mind elsewhere. He expected to cry, to scream in frustration. But nothing happened, he felt...hollow. His eyes were dry, his heart was numb.

There was nothing left to say, nothing left to do. There was only silence.

The timid knock of a door sounded, and Levi found himself simply not caring enough to even reprimand whoever was out of bed past curfew. He only called his permission for the stranger to enter.

The door swung open, and a figure emerged from the shadows of the hallway. Levi's tired eyes couldn't make the person out for a moment, the light not quite illuminating them just yet. The clank of metal sounded as the person walked closer, Levi squinting to make out a figure. Finally, they were close enough for Levi to make out a face, and he sighed in relief as he realized he didn't have to go anywhere professionally right now.

"Eren... can i help you?"