It took days﹣days to decide, days to work on, and even more days to make sure it was perfect. Sure, it didn’t look like much, but maybe that’s what made it so special. Rouge was the name of the painting that was just hung, the painting that Eren Jaeger had poured his heart and soul into.
The painting that no one was looking at.
As a close to broke college student, the day that Eren had heard he got a spot in the gallery thrilled him.
Majoring in art was usually considered a poor man's job; he was told every single day that he would never make money, that he would live alone, and that he should just keep art as a hobby. But to Eren, art was more than a hobby﹣much more. He couldn’t imagine ever switching majors, especially not when he saw his painting up on that wall.
The idea for the painting had come to him after another nightmare, one that had haunted him since his childhood.
He was on a horse. He could remember that much.
And the running.
He could remember running. From what? He wasn’t sure. Everytime he tried to look behind him to see what was chasing him, he was stopped by a rough voice calling out.
“Keep your eyes forward Eren!”
It was in a different language but somehow Eren understood it perfectly, and somehow that voice sounded familiar. He found himself drawn to the voice so he kept his eyes forward, staring into the back of the man riding in front of him; the man seemed much too familiar.
A blur, that’s what the rest of the nightmare was like, anger, violence, death. One in particular stood out to him, a woman, smashed against a tree, leaving a long streak of blood behind.
But then the dream would become clear again, a happier light, no longer a nightmare. He found himself at a long table, surrounded by people, laughing, talking, the soldiers from before not even mentioned. He couldn’t see any of the faces clearly enough to really tell but he felt like he was surrounded by those familiar to him. He glanced up to see someone leaving, the hood on their cape pulled up and the next thing he knew the dream had pulled him away again, He found himself standing behind the man, who stood in the middle of the room, his back still turned towards Eren. For the first time Eren realized how much taller than this man was as he took a few careful steps towards him, pausing when he heard a quiet sob.
“Why? Can you tell me why? Why innocent people have to die for this thing we call hope? Aren’t you humanity’s hope? Shouldn’t you know? No you wouldn’t.” His voice seemed to crack a bit at the end, startling Eren slightly with how broken this man sounded, even if he was just a dream, Eren knew that he was strong. Too strong to be breaking like this. The next thing he knew Eren had turned the man around, kissing him, the slight taste of tears only encouraged Eren in his attempt to remind his captain that they were alive at least. Remind his captain that at least they had each other. His eyes closed before he could see his face, and even if this was just a dream, a figment of his imagination, Eren knew he loved this man, and would do anything to keep him from breaking again. Eren almost hoped each night that the dream would end there. But it never did.
It always ended the same, seeing that same streak of blood against a tree, but instead of the woman from before, it was his captain, and instead of an unknown enemy Eren realized at the end of each nightmare as he shot awake covered in a layer of sweat that it was him. He had killed the man that Eren couldn’t get out of his head.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit...bland?” Eren was snapped out of his thoughts by his sister, dressed nicely for the occasion and staring at the painting with Eren’s name under it. A small canvas, entirely white except for a roughly painted red streak across the middle. Boring to the eye on first glance but the texture of the stripe stood out upon a closer look, giving it a similar appearance to blood.
“‘Kasa, it’s supposed to be like that.” Eren replied, his arms crossing across his chest, he honestly didn’t mind when other ignored his usual work, but this one was different, and Mikasa knew that. It must have been 9 years ago by now when Carla Jaeger died, leaving Eren and Mikasa with their father. Leaving the two children in what Eren could only describe as hell. Grisha was… not to be considered the best of parents, there were too many times to count when Eren and Mikasa came home from school to yet another group of drunk gambling men eating all their food and kicking the two kids out until much past their bedtime. It had been a rough time for the two of them until Eren turned 18 and moved out that very day. It had been 2 years since they had moved out and neither of them had talked to their father since.
But, perhaps something good had come from that, since it was soon after his mother's death that Eren had started painting. It must have been less than a week since her funeral when he woke up once again from the same nightmare, the same running, the same voice. But this time, he couldn’t run to his mother, he didn’t have her to comfort him. So he picked up a pen, grabbed a piece of paper and drew. He drew everything he could remember, he drew everything that had stood out to him, then he managed to go back to sleep. This repeated, over and over, until he had run out of paper, run out of ink, and decided he needed something more. Something that would last longer than a pen drawing on a piece of paper.
Art class. School regulated art class. This was probably the first time Eren was glad it was necessary in his middle school, because now he had a way to make things more permanent. Paint. Bright colours, blank canvasses, Eren knew that this was his calling. His first painting was long since destroyed in a fit of rage from his father. But not before he had shown everyone he knew, a forest, done as best as he could, but through the entire painting a thick red streak stretched from corner to corner. Crossing out nature with bright blood red. Mikasa had told him it ruined the picture, Eren thought it made the picture complete.
When his nightmares woke him up, he painted. When he had a bad day at school, he painted. When Grisha would kick him out and laugh at him and destroy his work, Eren just painted more and more. His heart and soul poured into his paintings, and as much as others didn’t understand, Eren knew that eventually the right person would see the worth in his work.
And perhaps someone finally will, with his painting up on the wall, in his own mind a tribute to his first painting. A tribute to his nightmares, in the hopes that maybe if he just kept painting them he would find out what they meant.
“If you say so.” Mikasa said, staring more at the painting, it looked familiar, like she had seen it before. That’s when it struck her, the red streak, more detailed and subtle than the one from all those years ago, but she could tell that Eren was trying to repeat his first painting. She wondered if he had even realized he had done that. Or if his nightmares had come back. She was too focused on wondering about that to notice the man behind them clearing his throat.
“Excuse me. Do either of you know where I can find the artist of this piece?” Tired eyes with bangs hanging perfectly above them glanced between the two, nicely dressed in a very expensive looking suit it was obvious that he had money. Levi personally hadn’t seen the point in attending this art show, but something had drawn him along, whether it have been his hopes to stay awake just a bit longer and run from those nightmares, or the constant chatter from Hanji— who claimed that one of their students would have art in this show— or perhaps it was that maybe by being here, he could see the beauty in the world again. Something that he hadn’t been able to recognize in years. He wasn’t even sure why he had been drawn to this painting, but one thing was for sure. He felt a connection to it, and he wanted it, no matter what the price.
“Oi? Something wrong?” He questioned when he realized that that brunette would not stop staring at him, kid looked like he had found the answer to everything.
Which was exactly what Eren thought he had found as he finally matched a face to the voice. The voice that had haunted his dreams for years. Dreams and nightmares. His Captain. His Lover. In an instant that face from his dreams was clear. He could see it, and it was like his life had become complete in only a second.
“Do I know you brat? I asked if you knew who the artist was. I want to buy this painting.” He said, crossing his arms, if he had to he would go track down Hanji by the sculptures and ask them who the artist was, but he had a good feeling about these kids knowing considering they had been standing by the painting for quite awhile now.
“Oh! Uh.. Maybe? I mean. You might know me. I’m the artist.” Eren mumbled out, still at a bit of a shock from the recognition, from finally being able to understand his dreams, and maybe a bit from how commanding Levi’s voice sounded even when not in power. It was something that Eren hadn’t even realized that he loved until now. He watched as Levi pulled out his wallet, confused for a second before it dawned on Eren.
“Sorry sir, this painting isn’t for sale.” Eren tried to explain but the look that Levi gave him made him almost reconsider.
“Everything is for sale for the right price.” Levi couldn’t help but smirk a bit, sure, it might cut into his retirement funds but Levi was sure it would be worth it to be able to see that painting every day. There was just something about it, that red streak that filled Levi with a sort of sadness that he just couldn’t explain, a feeling of loss, but at the same time it made him feel warm, and he loved that feeling of warmth.
“I’m sorry, but this piece is not. It’s very personal to me and I’d rather keep it.” Eren tried to explain, wondering if Levi recognized him as well, maybe he did, or maybe Levi didn't get the dreams, didn’t get the nightmares. For a second Eren was scared that he would have to start over with Levi, start as strangers again. Or that maybe in this world Levi didn’t love him back. But Eren wouldn’t allow that, he knew that they would be together again, he was sure that even if Levi couldn’t remember him, he would still love him.
“Are you sure? There isn’t any price I can offer you?” Like hell Levi was going to walk away from this painting, and not only that, he couldn’t help but notice the way the kid looked at him, almost as if he knew him. Levi couldn’t remember seeing him before, and if he had, he definitely would have remembered those eyes. The brightest green he had ever seen, the colour almost bordering on gold. They were mesmerizing to look into, if anything was on par with that painting, it was the artist’s eyes. The way he stood, slightly defensively, as if he was scared that his painting wasn’t good enough, almost as if he was scared that this was nothing but a joke. Levi couldn’t deny the fact that the painting really did look like nothing, but he also couldn’t deny how much he was drawn to it.
“I’m really sorry... “ Eren muttered before a new idea popped into his head. “But, maybe we can discuss a price over lunch?” He offered, knowing that he wouldn’t give this painting up, but also finding the idea of having lunch with Levi somewhat exciting. He watched as Levi thought it over, he looked at it conflicted, but it was hard to tell from his mostly blank face.
“Fine. How does right now sound?” He crossed his arms, knowing that if the painting wasn’t to be sold, someone else could surely stay by it if the artist stepped out for a bit. Not to mention that Levi was intrigued, he found himself wanting to know more about this artist with the bright green eyes. Eren seemed surprised by the sudden proposal. Was Levi really asking him to go now? That seemed pretty desperate just for a painting. But maybe— just maybe, Levi wanted to go to lunch with him for more than just the painting. Wouldn’t that be a dream come true, literally.
“Right now sounds fine. Just perfect.” Eren gave Levi a slight smile before turning to Mikasa to tell her to watch the painting, and that he’d be back before the show ended. With that out of the way Eren could focus on something he had just realized was important. Getting Levi to fall for him again. Maybe not as important as becoming a famous artist, but in Eren’s mind, both needed to be completed. Might as well knock one off the list if he could. With that in mind, Eren quickly ran after Levi who had already started walking, catching up to the shorter man quickly.
“Where are we going?” Eren asked as he walked beside Levi, hoping that maybe after some more time with him Levi would remember him. He knew that it was futile hope, one that was iffy at best. But one he couldn’t deny as he walked beside the man who had plagued his nightmares and dreams for years. There was no denying in Eren’s mind that history should repeat itself, except for maybe without the death.
“There’s a cafe down the street. My friend runs it with his wife. It’s honestly the only place around here that isn’t absolutely disgusting with its habits.” Levi muttered as they walked, taking Eren’s hand in his as he turned him down a side street that led to a small cafe with a brightly painted sign on the front with the words, ‘Maria Cafe’ spread across it. Small and quaint. In front of the building a smaller petite redheaded woman was sweeping with an old broom. She glanced up with a smile.
“Levi! It’s been a few days since you were around, who’s this?” She asked with a smile, gesturing towards Eren with her broom.
“Tch. He’s a stubborn artist.” Levi explained, bringing Eren into the shop and sitting down at an empty table in the corner next to a window, Eren sitting across from him a bit awkwardly. Maybe this was awkward, how Levi had just grabbed the boy and brought him here with no warning. But he couldn’t deny that he wanted that painting, and he couldn’t deny that Eren seemed interested in him. Which is why he had brought the boy here. Petra and her husband Aurou ran an amazing business, and he knew that there was no way that Petra would let Eren go easily. He could tell from the second that she had smiled that she was interested in knowing the boy, and even if it had sparked a tad bit of uncalled for jealousy in Levi. He knew that she wouldn’t let him leave and the last thing Levi wanted was for Eren to get up and leave, because he couldn’t deny that the boy interested him more than anyone else had in a long time.
“You like coffee right?” Levi asked, getting an affirmative nod from Eren before standing and going over to the counter. With a bored look he leaned on the counter, glancing at the taller man behind it, his face made him look a lot older than he was and his undercut clearly impersonated Levi’s own. But he had long given up on caring about the imitation.
“Aurou. Two coffees.” He said, sending a quick glance over to where Eren was sitting, he had pulled out his phone and seemed to be texting. He honestly seemed like a normal teenager in every way. Which only made Levi wonder exactly what was it that made him so interesting. Why was Eren so interesting? Just a normal person. Levi turned his attention back to Aurou as he was handed his coffees.
“Thanks.” He said, paying for the coffee and taking the cups over to Eren.
“Oh thanks.” Eren looked up from his phone, putting it into his pocket as he took his cup, taking a sip before setting it down with a smile. “It’s good.” He commented, before reaching into his pocket to pull out his wallet.
“Don’t bother. It’s on me.” Levi said, holding out a hand when he noticed the artist reaching for his wallet. “Now. About a price.” He wouldn’t— no, couldn’t let this painting go. He could already imagine exactly where it would hang in his house, in the front hall, just before the staircase so he could see it everyday as he left for work and when he came back. So that everyday he could look at it and try to figure out the story behind it. But he couldn’t do that until he work a price out of this brat.
“A price?” Eren asked, confused for a second before he remembered, “Right… a price for the painting.” He had honestly asked the ravenette to lunch in the hopes that he could forget about the painting and that they could talk, become friends, fall in love. Whatever happens. Right? But it seemed that the painting was the only thing on Levi’s mind.
"Yes a price. I really love that painting. It resonates with me. I'd like it in my house." Levi was getting a slight suspicion that maybe Eren was never planning on discussing a price, but what other reason would he have to bring Levi to lunch? None. Maybe it had just slipped the brunette's mind.
"I.. I'm still not sure about selling it." Eren admitted. He wanted to tell Levi why. He wanted to tell him about the nightmares. But Levi didn't know him. Levi didn't remember him. It would be absurd to mention them. Except. They were the reason that Eren wanted to keep the painting.
"See... I have these dreams. They're complicated.. I just. They're the reason I want to keep the painting. It was based off those dreams." Eren tried to explain, but he could tell by the blank look on Levi's face that he had done a shitty job of explaining. He opened his mouth to speak again, trying to think of what to say. But that's when it happened. Too fast to really see. Petra had come in to mop and had taken a break to deliver some tea to a customer when she slipped on her own mop work, the tea flying to scald Eren.
"Ow! What the-!?" Eren exclaimed as his shirt was spilled on. Petra apologizing profusely as she grabbed his arm, dragging Eren into the kitchen with the excuse to clean him up. Which she did. But with a serious look on her face.
"You get the dreams too." She stated bluntly as she wiped off his shirt. "The memories. The titans." She shivered slightly but her serious demeanour returned quickly.
"You get them too?!" Eren's eyes widened. He wasn't crazy. He wasn't the only one. It's in that moment he recognized Petra for the first time. The girl against the tree. Slowly faces were filling the blank ones from his dreams.
"So does Aurou. And Erd. And Gunther. All of us... Except Captain Levi." Petra explained as she finished cleaning Eren up. She felt a bit guilty for spilling the tea on him but it had to be done. She had to say this.
"Don't tell Levi."
"What? Why not?" Eren protested, a bit confused. If they all remembered why didn't they tell Levi? Why didn't Levi know as well? This was stupid. He wanted to tell Levi. He wanted Levi to remember him. It may be selfish, but Eren didn't care.
"He lives a normal life. He doesn't have the pain of remembering. Let him stay that way." Petra tried to explain, standing up straight when she had finished cleaning Eren up. "He'll be happier not knowing."
Eren shook his head, he couldn't believe that. No he could not. Levi looked tired, he looked dead to the world, and sure he had always been a bit bleak and intimidating but this was different. Eren couldn't believe that the man was happy with his life not knowing. Levi had to know. Had to know the background behind the painting. He had to know the background between the two of them. Petra's warning only made him more absolute of what he needed to do.
"Levi. Let me explain my dreams." Eren said as he sat down across from the man. Taking a sip of his coffee before he began.
Explaining things had never been Eren's strong suit. It had never been his favourite thing to do. But he would sure as hell try.
"I think there was a war going on. People were dying all the time. Humans were dying out and I had joined the military in this dream. We were fighting against giants. Human eating giants and it may have been the most terrifying thing I've ever experienced..."
It took almost an hour for Eren to finish explaining. Explaining all that he remembered, explaining all that it meant for the painting he had painted. Petra and Aurou watching and listening carefully from the other side of the counter. Listening to all the parts that they had missed. Until Eren finally managed to wrap it up.
"The last part of my dream is always the same. With the image of my captain thrown against that tree by my own hands. That's what the red streak is. It's a representation of all the people that died, but more than anything it's the blood of my captain spilt by my own hands." Eren finished with a heavy sigh, bringing a hand up to his face to wipe at his eyes that had started crying. He couldn't help it. It just felt so sad to explain this with the person he had killed right in front of him.
"Eren." It was in that moment, when the kid was explaining so full of emotion all these things that he realized what had drawn him to the painting. In an instant it was like his eyes had been opened to the world. It was sad, it was horrible and maddening to suddenly remember so much, to remember the boy sitting across from him. Humanity's Hope. But more than that.
"Eren. You.... You're..." And in an instant Levi Ackerman was at a complete loss of what to say.
"I'm insane I know... You don't belie-" Eren found himself cut off mid sentence by a pair of lips on his. No matter how much shock was coursing through him, no matter how long, how many countless years it had been those lips still felt like they belonged there. So he closed his eyes, letting himself drown in the kiss that felt so familiar. No different than the ones in his dreams.
Finally Levi pulled away, his eyes holding just as much shock as Eren's. Unable to form many words he settled on only a few:
"Eren. We survived."