HELLOOOOO!

It's been way too long since I was on here. College is rough, man! I am really loving my classes, though, so there's that.

SO! A friend of mine recommended the anime Shingeki no Kyojin (did I spell that right?), or Attack on Titan, to me a few weeks ago, and I kind of fell in love with it. It's horrendously sad, and quite traumatic in specific places, but it's SO GOOD.

Plus, there's an angsty, lonely orphan boy and an older, lonely, angsty commanding officer, so my parental feels radar almost exploded.

So I wrote this!

This story takes place somewhere between episodes sixteen and seventeen of season one.

WARNINGS: mentions of death, blood, and gore. Bits of PTSD.

SPOILERS: Attack on Titan anime season one. It's not exact, but there are spoilers in here all the way up to episode sixteen.

Enjoy!


By Blood, By Choice (The Heart Can See No Difference)


Levi jerked awake as a heart-stopping scream echoed through the castle. He leaped out of his bed and ripped his blades from his ODM gear before tearing down the hallway.

Another awful cry sounded from up ahead, even more desperate than the last.

Levi's jaw tightened. He shot past the staircase and rounded the corner at full speed—and promptly crashed into what felt like a stone wall.

He reeled backwards with a grunt of surprise, only for someone to grab him by the shoulders and steady him.

"Levi!" Erwin's voice was stern. "What's happening?!"

"I don't know!" the smaller man snapped. "I don't even know who's screaming!"

"LEVI!" Hange's voice thundered up the stairs. "GET DOWN HERE!"

The two men exchanged grim looks and sprinted down the stairs.

The scientist's arms were full of Armin Arlelt, and the boy was beyond hysterical. Gasps and desperate cries of "EREN! No, no, no, please!" spilled past his lips in a constant stream as he fought to get past Hange. It was all she could do to hold on to him.

Erwin sighed, the tension seeping out of him as he rubbed his forehead.

"What's wrong with him?" Levi barked, not relaxing in the slightest.

Hange winced as a particularly shrill cry rang out in the narrow hallway. "Nightmare," she said bluntly. "He's in a full out panic attack, and I can't snap him out of it. He doesn't even seem to be aware of who's around him or where he is."

Sure enough, Armin's eyes were wide with horror, full of tears and completely unfocused, utterly unaware of everything around him.

"Tch," Levi finally dropped his blades, a scowl on his face. "Where's Mikasa? She should be able to—"

"Mikasa is on a patrol," Hange said shortly. "He's calling for Eren, and he's starting to hyperventil—hey!"

Armin stopped trying to go through Hange and instead just went over her, grabbing her shoulders and vaulting over her head. He hit the ground with a hoarse gasp and took off down the hall towards the dungeon staircase.

"Hey, get back here, you brat!" Levi shouted.

Erwin and Hange exchanged worried looks and ran after him, and Levi groaned.

"Just what I wanted to be doing at one o'clock in the morning," he muttered sourly as he followed them. "Chasing some snot-nosed brat around the castle because he had a bad dream. Tch."

He increased his speed and soon caught up with his friends.

Armin had almost reached the staircase at this point, and Levi was vaguely impressed at how fast the brat was going. He was significantly less impressed at the way the brat was still crying and shouting for Jaeger.

As they got closer to the thick wooden doors that led down to the dungeon, Levi started to hear someone else shouting as well, but the sound was distant.

He frowned and turned to Erwin. "Do you hear that?"

His Commander nodded, wincing briefly. He opened his mouth to answer, but Armin had reached the doors at this point, only to find that they were locked.

He yanked at them desperately, chest heaving and hands trembling violently. "Please, please, please," he sobbed. The boy's legs actually gave out, and he curled into a tiny ball on the floor, a thin wail tearing out of his mouth.

Levi frowned. "Hange, sedate him," he ordered briskly, stepping forward to restrain the brat.

Hange just shook her head and snatched the keys off Levi's belt.

His eyes narrowed as she made to unlock the door. "Four eyes—"

"Listen, Levi," she cut him off, her voice unusually serious.

Levi's lips flattened in irritation, but he did what she asked. He focused on the faint sound of shouting that he'd heard earlier, and realized it was actually coming from the basement. His eyebrows rose. "Is that—"

"Armin!"

The shout was faint, but very obviously Jaeger.

Hange nodded, moving on to the second lock. "It's Eren," she confirmed. "There are several ventilation shafts that feed air into the basement, and Armin screamed right next to one. Eren's been shouting for him for a while now."

She finally got the door open, right as Jaeger shouted again.

"ARMIN!" the shout was desperate, and a loud clang told them that Eren was doing his best to reach his friend.

The smaller boy's head whipped up, his bloodshot blue eyes widening. "EREN!"

He sprinted down the steps, jumping four at a time. It was all his officers could do to keep up with him. Hange still hadn't given the keys back, and for some reason, she was fully outfitted in her ODM gear, even at this ungodly hour. Levi knew her well enough to not ask why that was, but he was grateful for it now as the slender woman used it to reach Eren's cell before Armin did, unlocking the door and ducking to the side as Eren slammed out of it.

The Titan shifter got maybe two steps before Armin came flying around the corner.

"Armin!" Eren held out his arms, and Armin rocketed into them so fast he knocked them to the ground. Eren grunted at the impact but didn't let go of the younger boy.

"Your arm, your arm, your leg, Eren, oh God, Eren, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, you can't be gone, it's all my fault that you died, I'm so sorry—"

"Armin, Armin, you have to calm down," Eren said. He sat up and pulled the smaller boy into his lap, hugging him tightly and stroking his tangled, sweat-matted blond hair. "I'm here. I'm not dead. I'm alright. It's not your fault."

"It is," Armin sobbed. "It's all my fault. If I hadn't frozen, if I had fought back, you wouldn't have been eaten!"

"Eaten?" Levi repeated. He rolled his eyes. "Arlelt, Jaeger obviously wasn't eaten. He's fine. Get a grip on yourself, would you?"

"All due respect, Captain," Jaeger bit out with the sharpest look Levi had ever seen on his face. "You have no idea what happened that day in Trost. Armin had to watch us all die, one by one, until he was the only one left."

"Die?" Erwin frowned as Levi's glare intensified. "What do you mean, Jaeger?"

Jaeger's mouth snapped shut, and he shook his head with another dark look at Levi. He turned back to Armin. "I'm right here, Armin," he murmured, rocking his friend back and forth. "I'm right here. I didn't leave you, Armin. I've got you."

The older boy repeated it over and over, a soothing mantra whispered into Armin's hair until the younger boy finally cried himself out and went limp in his arms, his face pressed into the curve of Eren's neck, clinging to the older boy's left arm. Eren didn't try to make him move or speak, just rubbed his back silently and let him cling.

Hange moved into Eren's cell and grabbed his blanket off his cot. She frowned at it.

"This is far too thin," she muttered disapprovingly. "And it's cold down here at night, Eren!" she wrapped the blanket around the two boys on the floor, and Eren offered her a tired smile. She ran her fingers through his hair. "You should have said something."

He shrugged, turning his head to plant a gentle kiss on Armin's temple before he rested his chin on the younger boy's head. "It's fine," he said. He shrugged the shoulder his friend's head was resting on, getting his attention. "Hey," he said quietly. "You ready to talk to me yet?"

Armin sniffed and twisted the fingers of one hand into Eren's shirt. "The Titan had me by my jacket, and then I was being swallowed and then you were there and I—I had to watch you die all over again!" A full-body shudder tore through his thin frame.

Eren sighed, his eyes closing. "I'm so sorry, Armin," he murmured. "I was careless, and because of it, the rest of you suffered."

"It wasn't your fault," Armin whispered. "You were just trying to avenge Thomas. The rest of us were too scared to do it. And you succeeded, too."

Eren grinned then. "I did, didn't I?" he said wryly. "If I remember right, I kind of…"

"Tore out its nape with your teeth?" Armin giggled. "Yeah. You did."

Eren chuckled. "Whoops."

"Tch," Levi crossed his arms. "What's this about you being eaten, Jaeger?"

Eren glared at him as Armin stiffened again, the light atmosphere turning heavy. "It's what triggered my initial transformation," he answered reluctantly. "I lost a fight, and next thing I know, I'm waking up in the courtyard with fifty guns and three cannons aimed at me."

Armin held on tighter for just a moment before he sat up straight, facing his superior officers. His hand was still wrapped around Eren's left forearm. "One of our squadmates was eaten by an Abnormal. He was…he was begging us for help, and it just…" he sobbed once before roughly scrubbing away his tears, his face hardening. "We froze. Eren was the first one to snap out of it."

Eren winced. "I was an idiot," he said softly. "I just charged it, with no backup, and no plan."

Armin put a hand on his shoulder. "At least you did something," he pointed out. "The rest of us couldn't even move. Until you took off, that is. Then we started to follow you, and that's…" he swallowed hard. "That's where things went wrong."

"What do you mean?" Erwin asked. The Commander crouched down in front of the boys, putting himself on eye level with them.

Hange flopped down cross-legged on the floor beside them, her eyes wide and compassionate.

Levi stayed leaning against the wall. He wasn't good at all this emotional crap. Erwin and Hange could deal with all the snot and tears. Disgusting.

Armin took a deep breath. "Eren's always been one of the best on the ODM," he said, "so he was catching up to the Abnormal just fine. Until…" the boy's face went white, and Eren took over.

"I was going over another Titan," he explained, "and it decided to jump for me."

Erwin winced, and Hange's jaw tightened. Levi's stomach dropped.

"It took off my left leg above my knee," the boy continued, his eyes going distant. "I lost control of the ODM, and I crashed hard. I couldn't even tell you how many bones I broke, but it was a lot."

"There was a pool of blood around you," Armin said quietly. "There was so much it was dripping off the roof."

Hange reached out and put a hand on Armin's back as Eren sighed and pulled the younger boy against his chest again. "I was unconscious for a few minutes," he said. "When I woke up, the first thing I saw was a Titan holding Armin over its mouth. And then…" his voice shook. "And then it dropped him, and Armin screamed."

The blond boy wrapped his arms around Eren's shoulders. "I thought I was dead," he admitted. "I was absolutely sure I was going to die. I was reaching for the light I could still see—the Titan hadn't closed its mouth yet—when somebody grabbed my arm." A faint smile lifted his mouth. "Eren had jumped from the roof he crashed on into the Titan's mouth and caught me."

Erwin's eyebrows shot up, and Hange's mouth dropped open.

Levi's eyes widened, and his arms fell to his sides. "He what?! But I thought you said that he was missing a leg!"

"I was."

"He was."

The boys answered in unison, and Levi blinked, crossing his arms again and leaning back against the wall, trying to cover up his shock.

Erwin didn't even bother. "How…" the man shook his head in disbelief. "You jumped into a Titan's mouth? On purpose? With one leg?!"

Eren nodded, his mouth twisting in remembered pain. "I'm…not exactly sure how I got there. The roof I was on was only about six feet away, and I was the only one who could," he said softly. "The rest of them were…" he closed his eyes. "The others were already gone."

Hange's brow furrowed, and she reached out, gently squeezing Eren's shoulder. "Why did you do it, Eren?" she asked quietly. "That's basically suicide."

Armin laughed suddenly. "There's a reason the entire 104th calls him the Suicidal Idiot, you know."

Hange's eyes widened in delight, and she laughed. "Really? That's where that comes from?"

Eren nodded, grinning.

"You didn't answer the question," Levi cut in. "Why did you do it, Jaeger?"

The boy turned to look at him, his viridian eyes solemn. "Because Armin is my brother," he said simply. "Me, him, Mikasa…we're all we have left. There's nothing I wouldn't do for them."

Levi found himself speechless for the second time in as many minutes.

Hange had no such problem. "Well, what happened then?" she scooted closer to them, propping her chin in her hands like an excited child.

"Tch," Levi rolled his eyes as Erwin bit back a smile at her behavior.

But Eren and Armin's smiles faded.

"I had one of my blades in the roof of its mouth, between its teeth," Eren said. "That's how I was keeping its mouth open and not falling in myself."

"He grabbed my wrist with his left hand," Armin said. "He pulled me up from the back of the Titan's throat, and then he threw me. All the way back to the roof."

"With one arm?" Erwin's eyebrows went up again.

Eren shot him a faintly amused look. "I couldn't exactly let go with my other hand," he said. "The thing would have eaten us both."

"So, you're saying that you threw Arlelt approximately six feet, ODM gear and all, with one arm, while holding open a Titan's mouth with the other," Levi said flatly.

Eren met his eyes. "Yes, sir," he said. "I didn't have any other options."

"I landed on the roof," Armin said softly, leaning against Eren again. "I turned back to Eren, and he was reaching for me, and then—" the boy was trembling, and Eren tightened his embrace. "And then Eren's arm—" he broke off with a harsh sob, turning to hide his face in his brother's neck again.

"I was braced between its teeth," Eren explained in a slightly calmer manner. "My foot was on its lower jaw, and like I said earlier, my sword was in the roof of its mouth. But I slipped a little bit when I reached out, and it snapped its jaw shut on my arm, a little bit above my elbow." He swallowed hard, and Hange made a soft noise and gripped his shoulder tightly.

He gave her a small smile of appreciation. "It swallowed me," he said bluntly.

Erwin went pale, and Hange's face twisted with grief, and Levi's heart thumped heavily in his chest.

"How did you get out?" the Captain asked, surprised at how soft his voice was.

Eren closed his eyes and shook his head. "I don't—I don't really know," he whispered. "I just—there was someone else still alive in there, but I couldn't reach her, and then she just sank, and—"

"Sank?" Hange interrupted, her scientist brain suddenly locking on to the fact that she was speaking with someone who had seen the inside of a Titan's stomach and survived. "What do you mean, sank?"

"It was a lake of blood," the boy answered softly, his eyes wide with remembered horror and far away. He was shaking himself now. "There were so many people in there…and…and parts of people. And there was so much blood…she drowned in it, and I couldn't help her." A single tear spilled from his eyes, and Levi had to look away.

The brat didn't deserve that…

Hange winced. "I'm sorry," she murmured, rubbing his shoulder tentatively. "That was…I pushed too far."

Eren tried to smile, but he couldn't. His face was whiter than Erwin's.

"I just kind of…snapped," he shrugged awkwardly. "I can't explain it any better than that. One minute I'm in the thing's stomach, and the next thing I know, I'm fifteen meters tall and tearing apart every Titan I can find. I really don't remember transforming at all." He stared at the floor, still shaking.

"He saved Mikasa," Armin said softly. "She was out of gas, and a fifteen meter had found her, and Eren just took it out. Then he attacked one that was after me and Connie. We were desperate, out of gas, and had no idea if anyone else was even still alive. We really didn't have anything else to lose. So, we decided to use him. We killed one of the two he was fighting, and when he finished the other one, he started for HQ, which was where most of the other Titans were. He killed twenty-six Titans before they finally managed to bring him down." He grinned suddenly at his friend. "Four of them with nothing but his teeth."

Eren blushed, and Hange cackled.

"Jaeger, you beast," Levi deadpanned.

The boy's face went utterly still for just a heartbeat before he was laughing with Armin again, but Levi noticed. He frowned at the boy.

What was that about?

They stayed down there awhile longer, letting Eren and Armin draw comfort from each other's presence. Soon enough, though, they started yawning, and Armin's eyes were starting to close without his permission. Eren was blinking pretty slowly himself.

Erwin pushed himself to his feet with a tired smile. "It's late," he said softly. "And you boys have training in the morning, although I think we can push it back a half hour, considering all the excitement tonight."

Armin flushed. "Sorry about that," he said, and Erwin patted the top of his head.

"We all have them, Armin," he said gently. "Why do you think Hange, Levi, and my rooms are all on the same hallway?"

Armin looked up at him, eyes wide. "I hadn't thought about it," he said. A tiny smile pulled at his mouth. "Thank you, sir!"

Erwin smiled at him, full and warm. "No problem. Hange, walk Armin back to his room, would you? I'm going to go find a thicker blanket for Eren. It really is quite cold down here."

"Oh, no sir, you don't have to do that," Eren protested. "I'm fine, really! I don't want to be a bother…"

"Nonsense," Erwin said easily. "You're one of my men, Eren. Just because the higher-ups are arrogant cowards who demand that we keep you locked up like some kind of monster—"

Eren flinched again. It was so minute Armin didn't even notice it, and he was still literally sitting in Eren's lap. But Levi was watching for it, and this time he had an idea of what was causing it.

"—doesn't mean we can't show you a little human decency," Erwin continued, oblivious.

Eren smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes.

Levi frowned.

"Come on, Armin," Hange said, holding out a hand. "Let's get you back to bed."

The boy turned to Eren, and they held each other painfully tightly for a long minute before reluctantly letting go.

"I'll see you in the morning," Eren said, pressing their foreheads together. "I promise."

"Okay," Armin whispered. He took a deep breath and managed a smile for his brother. "See you in the morning."

Eren nodded, strong and sure, and smiled back. "Goodnight, Armin. And get a good night's sleep, would you? No more nightmares."

Armin's smile strengthened, and he grabbed Hange's hand, letting her pull him to his feet. "Goodnight, Eren. I'll try!"

Hange wrapped an arm around Armin's shoulders and started up the stairs, quietly babbling away about some discovery she'd made the other week. The boy leaned into her and yawned as they rounded the first curve of the staircase, and Levi rolled his eyes.

Who needed sedatives when you had a Hange to bore you to sleep?

Erwin laughed. "I'll be back in a bit with those blankets," he told Eren. Then he clapped Levi on the shoulder before heading up the stairs himself.

Levi waited until the Commander was well out of earshot before he shoved off the wall and walked forward, stopping in front of the brat and extending his hand.

Eren startled, like he'd forgotten there was someone else down there. But he accepted the help with a tiny smile, and Levi easily hauled him to his feet. Eren yawned, turning to go back into his cell and nearly falling over.

Levi rolled his eyes, grabbed the brat's shoulders and steered him back to his cot. Once the brat was all settled in, Levi turned to go.

But something stopped him in the doorway.

"Eren," he said softly, using the boy's given name in a rare display of sincerity. "You're not a monster."

Eren jerked upright, inhaling sharply. "Wh-what?" he whispered, eyes wide.

Levi felt his heart sink at the confirmation of his suspicion. He sighed, running a hand through his hair.

"Stupid brat…"

Eren looked down again, pulling his knees to his chest and curling his arms around them. Levi walked back over and sat on the edge of the cot next to the kid.

"Look at me, Eren," he said quietly.

The boy clearly didn't want to, but he was conditioned to respond to Levi's voice, so eventually, those green eyes met his own silver. Eren's eyes were supposed to be vibrant and full of fire, not dull and hurt and afraid, and Levi's heart fell just a little further.

"You are human," he said, turning to stare straight across the cell. "You are the most human person I have ever met in my life. Yes, you can turn into a Titan. So what? You're still Eren Jaeger. You saved the entire city of Trost. Furthermore, when given a choice between going after you or other soldiers, the Titans always chose to attack you. They want you dead even more than the rest of us. That, if nothing else, is more than enough to convince me that you're on our side. It's just like Erwin said: just because the higher ups are all cowardly, cruel men who demand that we lock you up like a monster doesn't mean you are a monster. You are what you do, Eren. And you've never done anything but help and save other people. You've never hurt anyone." He shrugged. "To say that you're a monster is nothing more than a blatant lie."

He glanced at the brat out of the corner of his eye and frowned. He realized that maybe he wasn't Eren's favorite person, what with the whole courtroom debacle and all, but he didn't think that attempting to be kind would be enough to make the brat hunch in on himself and clamp a hand over his mouth, trembling, with tears coursing down his face.

"But I did," he choked out, and Levi blinked.

"You did what?"

"I did hurt someone," the boy buried his face in his hands. "I—I attacked Mikasa. I attacked my sister. There's a scar on her face now, Captain. I hurt her. Saw her and deliberately tried to kill her."

Levi winced. He'd forgotten about that.

Eren started shaking harder. "Oh, God. I tried to kill her…"

"Eren!" Levi slid off the cot, kneeling in front of the boy and grabbing the sides of his head, forcing the brat to look at him. His green eyes were unfocused, and he was starting to gasp for breath. "You're starting to hyperventilate, brat. Look at me. You're in your cell in the castle basement. You're not in Trost. You did not kill Mikasa, and Arlelthas hurt her worse in training. She's fine. Mikasa is safe. Arlelt—Armin—is safe. You are safe. I've got you. Look at me, brat. Not whatever else you're seeing."

Slowly, the boy's breathing normalized, and he flushed, averting his eyes. "Sorry," he muttered, embarrassed.

"Don't be," Levi squeezed his shoulders gently. The man sighed. This was obviously going to be harder than he thought. "Why do you think you're a monster, Eren?"

Eren scrubbed his hands over his face, taking a deep breath. "Because I didn't even hesitate," he answered. "I went straight for her, instantly. As soon as I shifted."

Levi nodded silently. "Did you attack any of the other squad members?"

Eren frowned. "I don't…I'm not sure, but I don't think so. Why?"

"Because you were already irritated with Mikasa," the Captain answered. Eren's eyes widened. "She was being overprotective earlier in the day, and it made you frustrated and angry with her."

"I—that's right, I'd forgotten…" Eren shook his head.

Levi patted his knee. "Your Titan form is fueled by emotion," he said. "Most of the time, it's rage. That's why you fight so well. But that time, it was irritation and fear. You were afraid that you wouldn't be able to seal the wall, and you were irritated by Mikasa's smothering attempts to protect you. Your Titan just lays all of those emotions bare. Mikasa was present, so your irritation came out first. When you two are mad at each other, do you fight?"

Eren shrugged. "Sort of? We kind of just shove each other a little bit and get over it."

Levi sighed. "Tch. Of course you do. I sincerely doubt you were trying to kill her, brat. You were reacting like you always do. You were just fourteen meters taller than usual, and the emotions were heightened thanks to all the stress, so the effect was a bit more dramatic." He tipped the kid's head up with one finger and met those wide, disbelieving green eyes. "You are not a monster, Eren Jaeger."

Eren tried to shake his head, but Levi got a good grip on his jaw and wouldn't let him move away. "No. Listen to me. You are not a monster. You are a human."

Eren's eyes filled up with tears, but Levi didn't stop.

"Erwin and I have no intention of putting you down, Eren," he said, and the boy's breath hitched.

"But—but what if I lose control and I hurt people for real and I'm a threat and—"

"Erwin and I have no intention of putting you down," Levi continued, "because we, quite frankly, don't think we're going to need to."

Eren's mouth dropped open.

"I've seen your Titan form," Levi said quietly. "You've been tested by Hange sixty million different ways. Not to mention I beat you halfway to hell in the courtroom, and you just let me. We both know that you could have taken me out in seconds, and there would have been nothing I could do."

"I would never!" the boy burst out, and Levi actually gave him a little smile.

"That's my point, brat," he said with a touch of exasperation. "You could have, and you chose not to. There is a human heart in here—" he lightly rapped on Eren's chest. "—and the rest of you is just as human. You fight to protect people, not to hurt them. You are intelligent. You know your goal and you get it done with as little harm to those around you as possible. You. Are. Not. A. Monster. You are a human, Eren Jaeger. Do I make myself clear?"

The boy stared at him, tears running down his cheeks, and nodded.

Levi nodded back, satisfied. "Good."

He started to stand up when Eren's whole frame shook with a sob, and the kid slid bonelessly off the cot and into Levi's arms. Eren pressed his face into Levi's shoulder and cried.

Levi was frozen for a good long minute, but when Eren didn't move, he let out a long sigh and settled back onto the—filthy, you're scrubbing this place from top to bottom in the morning, Jaeger—floor. He raised a hand and gently carded his fingers through Eren's hair and wrapped his other arm firmly around the boy's—stars above, Jaeger, are those your vertebrae—back.

Eren's fingers twisted in Levi's shirt, and the Captain closed his eyes, leaning his head against the boy's.

"I don't know why you're so surprised," he muttered, his gentle embrace a stark contrast to his uncaring tone. "It's obvious to anyone who looks at you for more than five minutes. You can't even kill spiders without tearing up. You're almost as bad as Hange."

A teary laugh bubbled out of the teen, and Levi felt a smile pulling at one corner of his mouth. He adjusted his grip on the boy and lifted him—too easily, for God's sake, Jaeger, do you even eat—up onto the cot, so he wouldn't have to sit on the disgusting floor any longer. Levi leaned against the wall and guided Eren's head back to his shoulder.

The brat basically melted into him, tucking his face into Levi's neck and getting a fistful of his shirt in one hand. Levi let out a long, put-upon sigh, but started stroking Eren's hair again.

"Thank you, Captain," Eren whispered a few minutes later.

Levi leaned his head against the brat's. "I realize that this whole situation is insane and different, but unusual or not, you are still one of my men, Jaeger. It's my job to watch out for you, just like I would for Petra or Eld or any of the others. I will always help you when I can."

The boy didn't say anything, but Levi could tell that he'd started to cry again.

"Tch," he rolled his eyes and pulled out his handkerchief, shoving it in the brat's face. "If you had told me this was how you were feeling, we could have taken care of this a long time ago. Stupid brat."

But he was stroking his hair, and the kid was literally almost on top of him at this point—head tucked down against his shoulder and legs thrown over his lap with Levi's arms wrapped tightly around him.

"How old are you, anyway?" Levi muttered, not really sure he wanted to know.

"Fifteen," Eren answered, just as quiet, and Levi closed his eyes.

Too young. Far, far too young. You should be worrying about girls and education and careers, not giant, man-eating monsters and some freakish affliction that your own father poisoned you with, was what he thought.

What he said was more along the lines of,

"So, you're a baby brat?"

Eren jerked, trying to sit up, but Levi wouldn't let him. "I am not—"

The Captain laughed softly, and Eren dropped his head back to his shoulder a little harder than was strictly necessary. Levi couldn't have stopped his fond smile if he'd tried. He tousled the kid's hair, and he relaxed again, actually leaning up into the caress.

"You're like a cat," the older man grumbled.

Eren started to laugh, but a yawn interrupted him.

Levi couldn't help his fond smile as, after a few more minutes, he felt Eren start to fall asleep, shaking his head a little bit to wake up each time he almost drifted off.

"Tch," he huffed. "If you're that tired, go to sleep. Idiot."

"Sorry," Eren yawned. He started to reluctantly pull away from Levi, lowering his head and letting his bangs hide his expression. The Captain rolled his eyes.

He dragged the moron closer and made himself comfortable against the wall. Eren hesitated for a moment, but when Levi gently guided his head back to his shoulder, he curled as close as he could possibly get, his fingers clenching in the fabric of Levi's shirt.

The Captain raised an eyebrow at that but didn't comment. The brat sure was clingy…

Maybe because everyone around him treats him as less than human and doesn't touch him unless they absolutely have to or they're trying to hurt him, and this is the first kind touch he's had apart from Armin and Mikasa in months?

The thought made Levi's heart hurt, and he tightened his hold on the brat.

"Thank you, Captain," the boy whispered drowsily.

"Go to sleep, brat," Levi whispered, but he squeezed him once to wordlessly tell him you're welcome.

Eren hummed softly. He went completely limp a few moments later, his breathing deep and even. Levi stared down at the kid, wondering when and how the absolute brat had managed to worm his way so deeply into Levi's cold heart in less than six months.

Eren's face was relaxed and peaceful, completely vulnerable, utterly trusting Levi to watch over him while he slept.

"Why in the world do you trust me so much?" he whispered, still absentmindedly stroking the messy hair. "You're supposed to be afraid of me. It's my job to kill you, remember? Idiot."

A deep chuckle came from the door, and Levi's hand was going for his sword before he realized that he recognized that laugh.

"Do you want a sword through your chest, you idiot?!" he hissed, trying his best not to wake Eren. "Don't sneak up on me like that!"

Erwin was doing his best to hide his smug smile, but his lips were twitching so much that there wasn't much point in pretending.

Hange, right behind him, was actually jumping up and down, both hands clamped over her mouth to keep her squeals of joy inside.

Levi glared at them, doing everything he could to stop the flush he could feel rising in his cheeks. "Why are you down here again?" he asked crankily.

Erwin gave up and grinned, wide and pleased. "Blankets, remember?"

"Tch."

Hange sucked in a deep, long breath and managed to semi-calm herself. She snatched the thick, woolen blankets out of Erwin's arms and scurried into the cell.

As it turned out, the night's surprises weren't over yet, because Levi got to experience first-hand the one and only time Hange Zoe was ever calm and gentle in her entire existence.

When she caught sight of Eren's slumbering face, all her excitement just drained away. Her smile went from wide and manic to soft and loving, and she gently reached out to tuck a stray piece of hair behind his ear.

Eren murmured softly in his sleep and turned more into Levi, tucking his forehead into the curve of the Captain's neck.

Hange's eyes were very bright, and even Erwin's smirk had faded into something genuine and warm. The scientist tucked one of the blankets around Eren's form, so he was completely covered. Her hand lingered on his face for a moment longer before she grabbed the other blanket and turned to Levi.

"Do you want me to lift him so you can get out?" she asked quietly.

Levi glanced down at the kid again. He carded his fingers through his hair and shook his head. "I think I'll stay," he said softly, and her smile was brighter and warmer and more real than anything he'd ever seen from her. She unfolded the second blanket and set about tucking Levi in as tightly as she had Eren.

For once, he didn't complain and just let her fuss. The cell really was cold, and he was irritated that Eren had been down here for so long without saying anything. With the blankets, and with the way the two of them were curled together, the temperature quickly became much more bearable.

"Okay, all set," Hange whispered. She took a deep breath and started to turn before she suddenly whipped around again, eyes serious.

Levi blinked at the sudden change, but she didn't leave him confused for long.

"Did you talk to him?" she asked.

He frowned at her. "Talk to him about what?"

"He was looking upset before we left, and now he doesn't." She raised an eyebrow at him. "So, did you take care of it?"

It took him a minute to answer. For all her air-headed babbling and incessant talking, screaming, and ranting on about things no one else on the planet understood, Hange could sometimes be a very sharp person, and there was a good, kind heart underneath all the blithering that drove every last one of them so crazy.

"Yeah," he said, meeting her gaze. "I did."

Her entire face lit up as she smiled again before waving goodnight and skittering back up the stairs.

Levi could hear her excited squeal even after she closed the doors at the top, and he rolled his eyes with enough force that he was briefly concerned they might get stuck in the back of his head.

Erwin laughed quietly and slipped into the cell, laying down Levi's keys on the other end of the cot. He nodded at Levi and turned to go.

"You know," Levi said suddenly, "I never did understand why you took me in, all those years ago."

Erwin stopped in the doorway, silhouetted against the lanterns' golden glow.

"I think—" the younger man jerked his chin towards the brat. "I think I get it now."

Erwin was smiling, he could hear it. "You were asking why he trusted you enough to sleep in your presence when he knows it's your job to kill him if he loses control," the Commander said quietly. "He trusts you because you gave him a chance to be more than the thing everyone else expected him to be." He turned, his deep blue eyes locking onto his subordinate's silver ones. "I've found that trust and forgiveness are a recipe for the strongest soldiers on earth—and more importantly, a recipe for the most loyal friends and brothers a man could ever have."

The Captain swallowed hard as his Commander gave him such a proud, warm look that Levi probably would have run from it if he could have.

He just nodded and looked down.

Erwin laughed quietly. The oldest man stepped forward, bending to gently kiss the top of Levi's head. "Goodnight, little brother," he said warmly. He rested his hand on Eren's head for a moment before he turned to go.

"Goodnight, Brother," Levi said, so quiet that even he almost couldn't hear it. But Erwin did, and a warm hand squeezed Levi's shoulder firmly before he left.

As the oldest member of their imperfect little family made his way up the stairs and through the door, the echoes of his footsteps fading away, Levi watched the lamplight dance on the walls.

Little brother, Erwin had said.

Little Brother.

He sighed, shooting a half-hearted glare at the kid sleeping against him. "Stupid brat," he muttered with no heat. "Look what you did. I was doing just fine not caring about anyone. Then you had to come along. Tch."

"Not true…" came a sleepy mumble.

Levi jumped in surprise. "Wh—how long have you been awake?!"

Eren snorted. "Somewhere around 'trust and forgiveness are a recipe for family' or something." He yawned.

"Tch," Levi scowled at him. "Eavesdropping is rude."

Eren shrugged, still not opening his eyes. "If you want to get specific, it's only eavesdropping when you're listening in and they don't know you're there. You were both aware that I was in the room."

Levi muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath about brats and rude and scrub this entire castle from towers to cellar.

Eren was silent for so long that Levi thought he'd gone back to sleep when he suddenly spoke again.

"He was right, you know."

"Hmm?" Levi tilted his head back against the wall and watched the tiny flames in the lanterns leap and dance.

"About why I trust you so much," the boy said quietly. "You treat me like a human. And…and you care. Really, legitimately care."

"Tch," Levi scoffed.

"It's true!" Eren insisted. "You've only known me for a few months, and you've already done more for me than anyone other than Mikasa and Armin. You—all the other commanders and captains wanted to kill me. All the scientists wanted to kill me and then dissect me. My own—my own father did this to me. I don't—I still don't even know what he did. Or what he did to my memories. He did this to me and then he left me. I have no idea where he is, I haven't seen him in over five years. He just…he left me, Captain."

The boy's voice broke, and Levi sighed heavily. He tightened the arm he had around the brat's back and pressed his head into his shoulder as tears started soaking into his shirt again.

"Then he was an idiot," he said simply. "You're the most loyal, dedicated, and one of the most talented brats I've ever had the misfortune of meeting, and if your father couldn't see that, then he's an idiot."

"I wish he'd been more like you," Eren whispered, and Levi froze. The boy's fingers tightened in his shirt. "I wish he'd been more like you. I wish he'd stayed. I wish he'd cared. I wish he'd protected me. I wish he'd been more like you."

Levi couldn't quite force any words out at the moment, but he could hold on to this amazing little brat as tightly as humanly possible, so he did.

"Stupid brat," he got out. Eren curled impossibly closer, and Levi knew he'd understood.

"You're more like a father to me than he ever was," the boy said, and Levi let out a shuddering breath.

If the boy was willing to trust him with so much of his heart, the least he could do was give a tiny bit in return.

"You're the closest thing I've ever had to a family," he whispered into the brat's hair. "You and Erwin and—" he cringed. "—and Hange, stupid four-eyes. She and Erwin have always treated me like their brother, like their family, and you…" he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "You're the closest thing I'll ever have to a son."

Eren's arms tightened around him to the point of pain, and he knew he was holding on so tightly that the brat probably couldn't breathe right, but neither of them really cared at the moment.

"Thank you," Eren choked out.

"Tch," Levi muttered. "Don't expect me to coddle you or give you any special treatment. You're still just a stupid brat."

Eren laughed wetly. "Love you, too."

Levi choked on his own spit. "I didn't say that," he managed, and Eren pressed his face against his shoulder again.

"You didn't need to," he said, sleep beginning to slur his words again. "I heard it anyway."

Levi stared at this freaking amazing kid for a long moment, and then, ever-so-slowly, he bent his neck and pressed his lips to the crown of his kid's head.

Eren hummed and pulled his legs up, curling into a little ball on Levi's lap. "Love you, Dad," he yawned.

This kid was going to kill him.

"I love you, too, you stupid brat," he muttered. "Now shut up and go to sleep."

Eren smiled, and it didn't take him more than a few seconds to follow the order.

Levi tilted his head back and closed his eyes, listening to the sound of his kid's heartbeat.

And for the first time in more years than he cared to remember, not a single nightmare haunted his dreams.

(The brat still had to scrub the castle tomorrow, though. His kid or not, this place was filthy.)


I know, I know, Levi was horrendously OOC, and I'm super sorry about that!

But overall, I was pretty pleased with how this came out.

Loved it, hated it, let me know!

Till next time!