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Crystalline Crown (Slices of Life)

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Eren thought mornings were the worst part of the day. Waking up was the start of new experiences, and new adventures, but, getting out of bed was a genuine chore. He truly believed that one should be awarded for it. It was outrageous that they weren’t. And the earlier woken, the worse; and whipping open of the curtains, all children knew, was an unforgivable sin.

When he awoke that morning, it wasn’t to aggravating light hitting his face; warmth seeping in; or a rousing ‘up’ or ‘time for school’ or any of the like. He awoke, seemingly all on his own accord, and the room — while the curtains had faint backdrops of daylight hinting through— overall it was relatively dark.

More importantly, he noticed, it wasn’t his room. This wasn’t his bed…

Snoring. Loud, unfamiliar snoring and that was the first thing he heard. Somehow Eren felt like it was a fitting opening to the day’s oncoming events. He looked around, still sleepy, alarmed by the alien situation. He saw directly to his right side a magnificent display. A blonde-haired child, around his age, no doubt (but still much, much bigger) who was splayed out in a lazy, uncoordinated manner, and snoring his head off.

Behind him, on that right row, was another sleeping child, and across from him was another… and to his left was Zeke, sat up and diligently working away at something – and oh, he knew where he was now.

The Royal Palace, in the Titan Shifters’ grandeur, shared bedroom. Of course.

Last night was… the Brightest Night.

Wasn’t it?

This was Father’s big, nice bed. Brother slept to his side, in the Beast Titan’s spot. And he… what was he?

You’re the Attack Titan now.

Slowly, in bits and pieces, his memory came back to him. His mood, which was relatively unbothered but still morning-fuzzy, grew darker. Tendrils of conflict, like ink spilling into a clear pool, began to seep into his thoughts. He was old enough and had the past experience to understand the egregious concept of death. Their father was dead and gone; he wasn’t coming back.

Eren understood that. He didn’t need to be told, he didn’t want that, or to be reminded, or…

Or to take his place... he didn’t need that. He didn’t want that.

His eyes stung. They’d teared up. He couldn’t quite decipher his emotions, and if he was really sad yet or not, so it could’ve just been the morning’s bite. He lifted his arm, to rub his sorrows away on his sleeve. In response, shifting his body, he heard the faintest of chiming clinking noises. It was new, and unexpected, and he finally noticed the subtle weight around his torso.

Eren stared, dazedly, at the shiny and pretty crystal thing all wrapped around his chest and belly. What was… and since when did he…?

And why the hell was it connected to Zeke?

“Eren.” What timing, he thought, hearing his brother’s voice. Eren looked over, with a vulnerable, questioning gaze. Zeke’s was weary and lacklustre. “Good morning, Little Brother.”

“Mornin’… Zeke, what’s going on?”

Zeke looked considerate, even if it was a kind of subtle expression that a stranger wouldn’t detect. Eren had simply grown to notice. “It’s Friday,” Zeke said, to begin with, and then tried addressing deeper waters. Warily, he asked, “What do you remember? Last night was…” Horrible? Atrocious? Agonising? “Dramatic.”

“Understatement of the year,” Eren muttered, bleakly. He sighed. His fists clenched the fabrics, and he burrowed down in them.

And god, they smelt like Dad. But Dad was dead. He’s really gone. He’s gone…

Tears welled up in his eyes, then, and he knew these ones well. The ones that hurt. The ones accompanied by a big lump in his throat threatening to choke him, the oncoming symptoms of panic. They were fleeting, menacing, and he feared them. “Brother?” he said, shakily, and the beginning notes of a sob escaped his chapped lips. He put up his hands to his eyes to hide them away. “Brother, can I… can we cuddle? I wanna cuddle…” He heard some rapid footsteps, arms sweeping him up, even as he kept descending into grief. “Wanna cuddle…”

“Shh…”

“I want Dad back,” Eren choked out, and he whimpered. Zeke’s hold tightened. “Why can’t Dad come back?”

“He’s not coming back,” Zeke said quietly. It was an admirable level of composure for the situation.

Eren didn’t have that same composure. He didn’t know how to.

All he knew was how horribly upset he was, how cruel this was, and the so-close-yet-so-far hold of comfort, like the twinkling pretty stars. Like the ones shining high, from that night. He’d always liked them… had they been mocking him? Knowing that this would happen? Gleefully waiting for it, even, to swallow up their father and take him away?

Zeke held him close to his chest, sure not to drop him, making the very short journey back to his own bed. There, he kept Eren up awkwardly with one arm while he crawled back in first, adjusting them both to cuddle under the duvet. The prior occupation of Zeke’s attention laid further down the bed, abandoned mid-work.

“I know it hurts,” Zeke soothed him. “I know it hurts, dear one, but it’s gonna be okay. We’re going to be okay, you and I. Alright?”

Eren merely cried, on and on. His brother tried a few more consoling things, promises and all that he’d do to keep them safe and happy. Eren would later put some of those foggy memories together and work out the general mystery of the ‘thing’ he’d earlier discovered, which happened to be their new ‘crystal harness’. He’d take some comfort in knowing that through all of this drama, Zeke had firm plans to stay by Eren. He wouldn’t leave for the world.

But then, and there, all he seemed to be able to do was cry. Weep, his face buried into his beloved brother’s chest, and let his heart burn.

Zeke didn’t cry, throughout all of Eren’s tears. He looked sad, and faded, crumpled in ways the sophisticated, eldest Jäger child usually wasn’t. The Prince as the Kingdom knew him, was a sore contrast to the one Eren knew in this privacy. They didn’t — and wouldn’t ever know — how brutally their hearts were being battered. How tightly they held to one another, how desperate for each other’s mere company.

Eren thinks, if in that very moment someone dared try to separate them… he’d scream. He would scream and kick and cry. Zeke would sit, frightened, until adrenaline propelled him forwards with a bloodcurdling snarl in retaliation – and oh, how horrible he bet it’d be, and Eren could only shrink in on himself and imagine it. He didn’t know too much of his elder brother’s fighting skills, but he’d heard they were impressive; certainly, enough to make him a terrifying enemy.

But he’d never be subjected to that. Instead, gentle touches, and gentle words were all that came his way. They managed to ease Eren’s grief, in those early morning hours.

It was a rather private thing, of course, so when a very sudden yawn interrupted Zeke mid-hush it was quite startling. Eren jumped, and Zeke blinked, sharply turning his head in the general direction of the blonde child from before. But just by the noise alone, it seemed he’d figured out the suspect. “Reiner,” he said, sounding rather affronted, “good morrow to you, too.”

“Oh, eh, morning,” the child replied. He sounded well-rested, but his voice betrayed his bedraggled looks.

Eren sniffled, loudly, choking down his remaining sobs and tears, and levelled a weak glare at this interruptive child.

Said interruptive child blinked back at him, baffled.

“Zeke? What’s the kid doing here?” At the Beast Titan’s incredulous look, he uttered an uncertain noise and cursed, quietly, beneath his breath. “Sorry. Who’s…”

“This is Eren, my little brother,” Zeke said. “In fact, his full name is Prince Eren Jäger.”

Prince Eren. Huh. It didn’t sound too bad…

Wait.

He’s that Prince. Oh. He wasn’t sure how to feel, but – good grief.

Glancing at Eren, Zeke too glared at he-who-was-rude. “You ought to pay your respects to ‘this kid’, I should think.”

“Oh. Crap. Oh! I’m uh —” For such an early hour, the shade of magenta on the boy’s face was impressive. Still laid in bed, and not thinking to get up (which would’ve been unnecessary, Eren thinks) he deeply bowed his head and torso instead. He fumbled with his words. “I’m very sorry, Your Majesty. Forgive my imprudence. Good morning to you! I will now… uh…”

Imprudence?” Eren turned to Zeke, and, ah, now he looked amused. Eren was lost. It didn’t help he kept occasionally sniffling, which was uncomfortable and painful. “Brother… what does he mean? I’m confused.”

“Yeah, that might’ve been a bit much, I’ll admit.”

Interruption-child fidgeted. “Uh… well…”

“Ease up, Reiner, I was messing around with you. Can’t believe you forgot the basics of little Eren here being my brother, though.” He huffed. “Rude.”

Reiner… that must be interruption-child’s name, then. Eren winced. Interruption-child Reiner.

I should really just call him Reiner.

“Since we’ll all be together from now on,” Brother was saying, casually, and interruptive ch – no, Reiner – had finally lifted his head and relaxed at Zeke’s insistence. “Introductions are ideally in order.”

“Eren, this is Reiner,” he gestured to him as so, “our Armoured; there to the end of our row is Bertolt, our Colossal… hmm, remember him as the tall child, therefore, tall Titan. Across from me is our darling Pieck, the Cart; and across from you is our Female, Annie. And by them, our Jaw, the recently arrived Ymir; and thither over in that far corner is the Warhammer’s place, although they aren’t here right now. It would seem that Annie and Ymir aren’t here, either… eating breakfast, perhaps.”

Zeke affectionately patted Eren’s head, a slight smile on his face. “I’m sure you’ll get to know more about everyone soon. And, oh — of course, over there is where Her Majesty would sleep.”

This, Eren could understand. The layout of the room: rather circular in structure, and massive. With a large open space in the middle, there were two rows of four beds (identical in size and base structure, but with unique details to each) on the opposing sides. At the ‘front’ was the door leading in and out, and by its sides two giant bookcases, and on the other end was a much larger, curtained bed-space that looked big enough for about ten people. Smaller doors were on either side of that, and each bed had once again synonymous, yet distinctive bedside tables. And between each bed, between the bedside tables, were giant arched windows, with fine, elegant curtains hanging on either side.

He didn’t care for much else. Everything seemed very dark-coloured, though, which aided to the dim lighting and difficulty in distinguishing his surroundings. And soft; everything was very soft, and luxurious…

He’d have to examine the room closer, some other time. It still made him curious. He was just tired right now. Eren hadn’t properly observed the room last night, or ever before, so it was rather mind-boggling to actually just look at. Was this really where he’d now be sleeping…?

Was he genuinely going to be staying in the Royal Palace?

“Oh, Eren – that reminds me. We’ll have to talk about everything later, of course,” Zeke said airily, “but for now I don’t want you to worry much. I just wanted to let you know, later this evening I have a council meeting to attend…” He hummed, and warmly nuzzled the top of Eren’s head. “And so, you’ll be coming with me. You’ll sit by my side at those, from now on. You are a prince, after all.”

“But I’m not,” Eren murmured. He nestled, anxiously, into his brother’s side, wrapping his arms around his girth. “I’m not meant to be a prince… What if I don’t wanna?”

“You’ll have to be.” Zeke’s face was solemn, as he said it. “It’s quite decided, I’m afraid.”

Eren wasn’t done with his concerns, or his displeasure. He didn’t know the first thing about being a big, brave prince, like the ones from books and fairy tales. He didn’t fancy being that kind of snobby, or sappy person, bossing people about or being sent around on silly errands… come to think of it, though, what did Zeke do? His brother was a prince and had been for a while, after all. What kind of princely things did he do?

He went to ask his brother, opening and closing his mouth like a guppy. The words failed to form off his tongue, as if tied up in his mouth.

Zeke’s attention was spent elsewhere, even though he still kept his arm snugly around Eren. He’d leant over, picking back up the thing he’d been using earlier. It was a blocky, fiddly-looking kind of thing, with lots of circular buttons, in raised rows…

“It’s a type-writer,” Reiner said, noticing Eren’s curiosity. He leant over the edge of his oversized bed, as if this was a very conspicuous thing. Maybe it was. How would Eren know? “It’s like writing a letter,” Reiner said, impressively, “but you don’t have to use a quill or pencil. You just press the buttons! It’s like magic, isn’t it?”

Zeke side-eyed the two of them, pawing at his ear. It was a familiar habit. When they both looked up at him, with eyes full of wonder, he snorted. “I’d agree it’s pretty cool. But nothing magic-related.”

“Then how does it work?” Eren frowned at the object. It looked far too chunky in some parts, and far too tiny in some.

“There’s a detailed explanation for that I doubt either of you would… fully comprehend,” Zeke gently said, but nonetheless seemed to find their questions relevant. Teasingly, he tapped both of their noses, and then the side of the machine. “But basically, you insert a roll of paper in here… you press these keys, which are little levers, and they put the words onto the paper…. just like a stamp might. You know those? Hmhmm. That’s about it. If you’re still curious, then certainly I’m sure at some point you’d be able to look more into it.”

Eren nodded, hearing Reiner’s understanding ‘ah’ from beside him. He crept closer into Zeke’s side, moving upwards, as if to nudge at his chin. There was an innate curiosity to touch the stubble on his brother’s face, and it was bizarre. Zeke didn’t mind, merely adjusting his arm to keep up with his wriggling. “Brother, but what are you writing?”

Reiner inquired, too. “Is it a story? Like the ones we read at bedtime?”

“Ah… no. I wish.” Zeke smiled, wryly, eyes a bit too lightless to suggest such true amusement. He almost seemed like he’d rather shrug and slip under the grip of pressure, than push it up with his shoulders. “Although, then again… but no, it’s an official letter. It’ll be sent off at once by this evening to a neighbouring Kingdom.”          

“Oh,” Eren said, slowly. “That sounds very… uhm…”

“Official?”

“No,” Eren plucked, uncertain, at the bed, before looking up and deadpanning. “It sounds very boring.”

Zeke barked an unexpected peal of laughter. It seemed like real, delighted laughter, so Eren’s spirits lifted a little. He liked that flickering spark briefly reignited in his brother’s kind eyes, like a beam of light catching on a dazzling pane of stained glass. He tugged Eren closer, quite suddenly – seizing an opportunity to blow a loud raspberry into Eren’s hair. The smaller Shifter gave an uproarious shriek, thrashing in return, where the nearest arm mushed him in.

“Oi! Lemme go – argh –”

Eren’s defiant cries must’ve signalled something in Reiner. Seconds and a “BEAR CHOKE!” later, the other boy came barrelling in there, too, and laughed as they both roared and yelped.

“Reiner, I swear, it’s not a ‘bear choke’ for the laST TIME –”

“Bear hug,” Eren gasped out, considering his case of contagious giggles, “but it might as well be!”

“Oops, you can both breathe, right?”

“Yes, silly…”

They remained like that, for a good more dozen beats, where Eren giggled and Reiner gave a sheepish smile, and Zeke shook his head at them both. The poor typewriter, the legend, miraculously stayed upright where it’d slid to its place on Zeke’s lower legs. “You’re both very silly,” Zeke affectionately told them, and he shifted Reiner so he could settle by his other flank.

“Reiner’s sillier,” Eren argued. He stuck out his tongue at the boy. Reiner made a funny face back at him in repayment.

“Well, I’m sure he is. Now boys, just how much mischief are you two going to get into? How close an eye do I need to keep?”

“But I’m sophisticated, Zeke,” Reiner said. He sat up, poised, and gave a puff of pride. “You needn’t worry about naughtiness on my behalf!”

Clearly,” came the sarcastic response. If the younger blonde realised that, well, Eren didn’t see it on the boy’s face. He remained all puffed up and preening, even when Zeke playfully cuffed his ear. “Now you both ought to let me finish this very official – and yes, very boring – letter. Reiner, why don’t you go wake Bertolt up? Eren, go to, with Reiner here.”

“Mhmm… eh, okay,” Eren said and squirmed out of his spot. He shot one last look behind him, before Reiner was eagerly tugging him away. He was just that little uncertain, and wary. He wasn’t sure on leaving his brother’s side so readily, just yet. He’d only been rather upset not long ago, although he felt better now after crying and playing a bit.

But Zeke isn’t going anywhere, he reminded himself. It was just as Brother said; they were going to be okay. Brother was going to make sure of it. He was right there. He wasn’t going to disappear, because he was right there.

The two of them dashed over to the bed on the far left. Reiner immediately clambered over the edge and rolled fashionably onto the bed. He did it so fluently, so quickly, that it made a shiver of amazement run up Eren’s spine. The bed was so big! Eren heard immediately a muted snort of amusement from Reiner. When he looked closer, standing on his tippy-toes, he saw why.

This Bertolt’s sleeping position was inconceivable. There was a leg there – and an arm there –somehow still, with a serene smile – and god, how was his foot there?

Morning, sleepyhead!

Shielding his ears from the onslaught of noise, Eren started. The twisted human pretzel half-under the duvet gave a small noise of distress, wriggling about until his face pressed stubbornly into the bed. Reiner took to putting his hands atop of the Colossal, bouncing up and down and pushing poor Bertolt there and so. He received more unhappy replies.

Morning to the ski-es, morning to the su-n, the world is briGHT ~”

“No… isn’t not… snot…”

Eren blinked, somewhat in fear. Was this normal? This couldn’t be normal. There was no way Reiner could have this much energy in the morning.

Reiner, unsatisfied, dove under Bertolt’s covers. A moment later, Bertolt released a mortified squeak, and a shriek of “NO TICKLES”, a desperate plea for help before he began writhing. Muffled, despicable laughter boomed from the Reiner-shaped lump wedged in the covers. Agonised phrases about torture and too-early bullies followed.

Eren turned, unnerved, looking at Zeke. The man seemed quite untroubled. “Uh… Brother…?”

“Oh, this is normal. Every other Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, this happens, I’m telling you. Sometimes even on Wednesday and Thursday.”

I will devour your toes!

NOOO!

Eren decided to take a leap of faith. He jumped onto the bed, where chaos was underway, finding despite that space was aplenty. He tucked his legs under his bum and watched the squirming taller child, and the concealed ferocious child’s interactions. He hadn’t talked to Bertolt yet. Assuming he survived this, though, hopefully he’d be nice. Reiner seemed okay, if capable of ungodly morning liveability.

“Hey,” he spoke up, quite awkwardly. He felt like a scraggly kitten, stood in some brittle winds. “Um… hey?”

HmmmphffffFFRRGLE,” Bertolt garbled back.

Eren blinked. “Should I come back later?” he asked, prodding (nicely) at a nearby finger. “You seem a little busy…”

(Zeke assured him that apparently, “nah, he’s cool”, in the background.)

This Bertolt, gasping a bit, finally moved his head and opened his bleary eyes to look at Eren. “Mmrmph, what?”

“Should I uh… you good?” Eren hovered over him, bright eyes wide and fascinated. “Morning.”

The tenseness lessened a little in the other boy’s figure and he sniffed, quietly. “Oh,” he murmured, “that’s right… um…” He glanced up and down, squinting, as if loitering with his thoughts and gathering them into a vaguely neat pile. He finally uttered a soft noise of understanding, and said, “good morning, Your Majesty.”

“Oh, uhm, thanks? Well see, uh –” Eren stammered, weakly – he did not know how to deal with this! Finally he simply nodded, sharply. “No, it’s just Eren.”

Bertolt squinted harder, brows knitting together. He rubbed at his tired eyes, and propped himself up in the bed to address Eren better. “Was that, uh… what… revoked?” He looked to and fro for Reiner, came up blank, sighed despairingly and bit his lip. “Was I dreaming about last night, then? Uhm… oh, I could’ve sworn… Zeke?”

“You weren’t dreaming,” Brother said, briefly meeting worried Bertolt’s eyes. Eren wondered if Bertolt sensed the same empathy Eren felt from him, in those few words. Zeke returned to typing.

“Oh…”

Eren swallowed. “Yeah,” he said, gloomily. “It was all real. I can’t believe it either. And I know almost nothing ‘bout all this…”

“I’m sorry,” Bertolt said, “about your father.”

“Huh?”

“Oh, just… since he was our Guardian. I really liked him – we all did. We were… still are, all really upset about it… if you didn’t know. Figured I’d mention that.” Bertolt pawed at the duvet in his hands, eyes misty. “If it’s some sort of comfort to you… to know we’re suffering, too, but we can be quiet about it, too, if you’d prefer…”

Eren nodded. It didn’t surprise him much. He had known about the big things, and a bunch of titbits about their now-late father’s life, between his family’s word and others’. With as much time as Grisha had, living here and spending his time with the other Shifters, when he was younger, and the newer ones that were inhabiting these halls now, it made sense they’d have been close.

The sting of familial loss, despite that Father and these kids hadn’t been related by blood, was undoubtedly being felt regardless – wasn’t it?

These guys are my family, now, though, he thought, sombrely, and they’re just as much Brother’s, too. They have been for a while.

I should start treating them as such, then, shouldn’t I?

“It’s fine,” he said. Several questioning expressions turned on him. Bertolt’s, sniffling, and Zeke’s duller expression pinching. As if surprised – the notion made Eren stumble a little. He stubbornly shook it off. Reiner had peered out from beneath Bertolt’s sheets, where he’d been subdued that whole time. Eren wondered what he must’ve been thinking, overhearing those words. I don’t want you to feel as sad as I do.

“I mean… well, it’s not,” he faltered, briefly, then in-took a breath and began anew. “But you guys – we – have each other, don’t we? And I’m gonna be with you guys now. And I mean, surely, between us, we can’t ever be so lonely? I don’t think that’d be fair.”

They gazed at him in wonder. Zeke looked like he’d been thrown for a loop – had he ever seen that expression on Brother’s face, before? And Reiner was gaping. Bertolt’s expression had gone from impenetrable misery to a small smile, his persistent sniffling quelling. A vague sense of comfort and pride seemed to flare in Eren’s tiny chest, as he looked over them.

“And I don’t want you guys to worry about things like –” Eren wrinkled up his nose, snorting incredulously. “Things like… ‘Your Majesty’, and ‘My Prince’… seriously, it’s just ‘Eren’ to you all. I wouldn’t want any more from you guys.”

“Is that a request, or an order?” Zeke asked. He played him with a smirk, smugly. “Do phrase it correctly, Your Grace…”

“Oh, damn you,” Eren said. He sat upright, with a pout on his face. Zeke chuckled to himself.

Eren closed his eyes and focused. He tried to think of taking up that higher mantle in his head and tried to imagine what it felt like to sit on a throne, or wave down at his people. Like it or not, he’d have to be a prince. He’d need to do this, for them. “So, uhm…” He looked at the smile on his brother’s face, and the thumbs-ups of Reiner and Bertolt. “I would like to ask you all – both – to call me only by informal name, my… dearest peers or uh – subjects – underlings… no… oh for the love of…”

He paused and it soon dwindled into clueless silence. Expectant faces turned into ones restraining traitorous amusement.

He groaned. “Oh, god, I have so many regrets.” But he laughed, feeling a rather giddy foolishness, and it spread to his newest friends as they laughed, too.

“Ah,” Zeke said, shaking his head, “I suppose it doesn’t really matter. To heck with it!”

To heck with it!” they chorused.

“Nice first speech, though,” Bertolt said to him, “it wasn’t so bad.” He tilted his head gracefully at Reiner, who clasped his hands together.

“Indeed! I’m sure you’ll get loads better in no time. Say, Eren, you hungry?”

“Hungry…? Oh, uh…”

“I didn’t even think of that,” Zeke admitted, and he rubbed the back of his neck. Apologetic, he dipped his head. “Does everyone agree to room service?”

“Sounds good to me,” Reiner said, and Bertolt in tandem. They seemed like close friends, Eren noted. He added in his own vote, and Zeke nodded.

“Alright, then. Let me just finish writing this, and we’ll go… I’ve been meaning to get up and stretch my legs, anyhow. Been up half the morning…”

The three of them nodded and began to converse, in the meantime. It was mostly introductory conversation – what they liked, disliked, who they were, and a bit of their backgrounds and families on the two boys’ parts.

Reiner proudly described his awesome, strong Armoured Titan – Bertolt was far shyer, and simply described that the Colossal was… big. Reiner got a good laugh out of that one, and they both promised they’d show Eren sometime soon (and of course, they’d get to see his in turn). As he’d previously noted, his assumptions appeared correct; Reiner and Bertolt, as well as the girl named Annie (the Female, he thought?) were very close friends. Pieck was epic, too, and Ymir was… Ymir. Eren would have to meet them later.

But it occurred to little Eren, at some point, whenever he’d peek back to see his brother, that he was still wearing the funny… thing.

The harness. It was still on.

With a displeased huff, he discreetly nudged at it and went to yank at it until it came off – and gave a great start of surprise. He even made an audible sound of frustration, tugging and poking and scratching at it – which did absolutely nothing at all – and the boys asked what was wrong. They eyed Eren’s harness curiously.

“It’s this thing I woke up wearing,” Eren said, to them. “I don’t even know. It’s connected to Zeke. It’s weird.”

“Has he talked about it?” Reiner asked, lowly. He seemed pretty clueless.

Eren grumbled. “No.”

“But won’t it come off?” Bertolt hesitantly touched it, flinching backwards when Zeke shifted, but didn’t turn his attention on them. His voice quivered a little. “At all…?”

“Nope…”

Reiner shivered. His tone dropped low, grim, all of a sudden, and his expression – a serious one Eren would bet rarely beheld on his face. “I might know… I have an idea, but… damn.”

“What?” Eren hissed – he gripped at the sheets beneath him, frowning. “What’s this about?”

Bertolt winced “Oh… oh, that? Yeah, I get it.”

Well I don’t. Guys, help me out here – why won’t it come off? What’s going on?”

Reiner considered him, for a breath. His mouth set in a thin line, and he heaved a dreary sigh of sympathy. “You’d have to ask Zeke for the details, but it’s likely his attempt to keep you safe.” At Eren’s questioning nudge, he growled, deep in his throat. He seemed to struggle with the reply in a manner that seemed… irritated. Like Eren was missing something big, monumentally big.

“I can’t believe you don’t get it… I know it’s painful to bring up as so, here, but what just happened last night to Zeke?”

“We… well, he lost Father,” Eren said, painfully. “What’s that to do with it?”

Bertolt squirmed. Reiner pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Look buddy, I ain’t going into these nasty details. I don’t even know the full story, either, it’s dark stuff. But think of Grisha – surely you know…”

“I don’t,” Eren snapped. They stared. “Guys, I don’t know anything!”

Anything…?”

“Oh, hell,” Bertolt croaked. He gasped, horribly, and scrunched up his knees to his chest in a vain try at comfort. Not knowing entirely what for, but concerned, Eren patted the taller lad’s knee. “Why’re you comforting me?” Bertolt questioned aloud, and desperately spun around to Reiner, sat stiff. “Reiner, please… you have to tell him, you must. Won’t you?”

“I – I don’t think I should, Bertl,” Reiner said. His greenish-gold eyes were glazed over with uncertainty, and pain. “That’s not my right…”

Eren glanced behind them, sour and bitter words on his tongue. “I don’t know if my dear Brother will tell me. He’s all tight-lipped about it.”

“Yeah, for good flipping reason,” he heard Bertolt mutter. How queer, Eren thought – and infuriating.

Reiner finally resolved to a firm head-shake, regretful, but resolute in his choice. “I’m sorry, Eren – I swear that by your honour,” was his reply, “but I can’t. Maybe if Zeke won’t… sometime later… but its just – it’s so complicated and personal. And I shouldn’t intrude on those rights. It’s not mine nor Bertl’s place to. Zeke himself needs to explain it. Only then I think you’ll really understand, and that’s… just how it should be. I’m sorry.”

“No need to apologise. Right… okay...” Eren slumped. “That’s okay. Bertolt? What ‘bout you?”

Bertolt shivered. “I’m with him,” he uttered softly, “and I won’t say. Although…” He looked down, then back up, almost desperately. Eren couldn’t place the kind of plea he was sending. “When he does, try to be, uhm – considerate? I don’t know, just… think for a minute. We can tell you it’s not going to be pretty and it makes sense, even if it’s rough.”

“We don’t know much but we know by the gods Zeke loves you to bits –” Reiner broke for a breath, speaking in such haste. “So yeah. Even if his words suck, know he definitely loves you for it and… y’know…”

“Okay,” Eren whispered. He tiredly closed his eyes, leant back, and exhaled. “Okay. Thanks, guys.”

He’d just have to be patient, and he’d bring it up nice and easy to his brother. He’d be a sensible boy. He had to be. He couldn’t be so immature anymore, right?

I’ll listen to you, Brother, he vowed to himself. He slid out of Bertolt’s bed with quick, fleeting smiles of reassurance to his new friend, when Zeke called him over. He padded with half-baked enthusiasm, giving his hand to Zeke’s offered one at once, as they exited the room and the harness’ chain trailed dutifully a little way behind. A pang seemed to echo in his chest, as the doors closed behind them.

Zeke, almost immediately into their journey, switched from hand-holding to carrying him. Eren’s head nestled against Brother’s chest.

He didn’t mind it. Eren shifted and peered up at his caretaker’s face. I’ll do my best to listen well to you, Brother, because I trust you. I trust you’ll keep us safe. Won’t you? Placid, and blank, he couldn’t comprehend Zeke’s unreadable expression, but he felt safe all the same, and snuggled close. I know you will.

In response, soothing hands held him snug, and soft. He felt at ease, heart beating in his chest steadily as his brother’s stride.

There wasn’t – and shouldn’t be – a reason to fret, he knew, as long as he was up here in those arms. They’d be okay – just as Brother promised.

            Breakfast ended up being a two-sided event. Carrying his littler sibling, Zeke had walked them to the closest kitchens – which weren’t far away at all – and Eren only really caught a glimpse inside. Before he knew it their ‘dining request’ was in, and promised to be brought in due time, and they were on the move again.

Eren didn’t end up saying much. He’d looked around, at the surroundings they swiftly past. He only tugged at Zeke’s sleeve once or twice, curious about a certain something he’d seen; one ugly moss-coloured vase, and a very curious painting.

They returned to the room, where Eren finally got a real moment to appreciate the sheer size of the Chambers’ double doors. Oh – how heavy they had to be! But Brother didn’t seem to struggle. He opened them wide, calling his greetings, and in they went. Zeke graciously placed Eren not on his own or Eren’s bed this time, though, and instead the one opposite – the one he called Pieck’s, if his memory was true, which was confusing at first.

He heard seconds later a sweet noise, though, and found himself looking into warm brown eyes. He found himself tackled to the bed in a very cuddly welcome.

So, he met Pieck, the Cart Titan, which was a blast. He quickly found himself liking her, too, just as he’d taken to Reiner and Bertolt, who avidly joined their conversation. Eren would describe her as carefree; kind, respectful, with a smidge of reservation. Maybe not necessarily shy, but certainly not as outgoing as Reiner – she simply seemed to make friends very effortlessly.

And, she was intelligent. Incredibly so. He realised that immediately; the same kind of natural genius his brother had, and it caught Eren off-guard, in a good manner.

But so, they talked some, and Brother carried on working as diligently as ever Eren had known him to. He paused only occasionally to answer a query of one of theirs’, make a comment, or scan them with his eyes like a mother-hawk to check on them.

Breakfast arrived, and Eren almost fell into a fit. He figured that as, essentially, the royal ‘family’, all of the Shifters would live in luxury. He’d figured that ages ago. But to experience it was completely a different thing altogether. Zeke must’ve gone for a ‘vague’ demand, possibly to cater for what he wasn’t sure Eren would want. And now he really didn’t know.

It took a solid couple minutes – consisting of Zeke’s gentle suggestions and head-pats, and the other kids’… louder suggestions, until Eren could finally settle on his plate. He chose to sit by his brother’s side to eat, for despite how much he liked the other Shifters’ company, he still felt the need to cling to his brother and indulge in that comfort.

He ate in silence. He nibbled away at the food, tasteful as it was, with a lack of fervour, and when Zeke inquired, he just shrugged. “I’m fine,” he assured his brother, “just thinking.” And perhaps sensing the closed-ended remark, Zeke had left him at that, patting his shoulders then letting him be.

On one hand, he felt… at ease. But just as much he felt like that, uncomfortable, and lonely, even with company so close at his side.

He didn’t know.

It truly was a two-sided coin. Would he soon find out why, he wondered – were those answers out there, after all?

 


 

“Let’s hurry along, Little Brother,” Zeke said, firmly. Eren merely shot him a stink-eye, fiddling with the end of his sleeve. The boy noised his reluctance, and Zeke’s eyes narrowed. “We shouldn’t be late,” he said, “or would you rather it be embarrassing for you? I certainly don’t mind. But it’s your first appearance as Prince.”

“Why should I care?” Eren crossed his arms, scowling at the jingling of the harness. “It’s just some dumb gossip over tea and biscuits, isn’t it?”

“No – goodness, Eren. You really know nothing about the Council?”

“Meh,” was his reply. Zeke merely sighed.

In truth, it wasn’t like Eren didn’t know anything about the Council meeting. They were supposed to attend it that afternoon; apparently, they usually took place in the mornings. He knew there were certain important people who gathered there, who sat around and talked about certain important things. Brother and Father had always attended them, as some of those individuals. He wasn’t sure what roles they’d played, or much else about it, though. He figured they would just sit around and drink tea and eat biscuits. Like old, snobby rich people.

Zeke bent down to adjust Eren’s collar, with his face patient but lips pulled into a thin line. Eren wondered if Zeke – for how he’d said ‘he didn’t care’ – if in fact he did, and if so, how badly? Make a good impression, it seemed his brother was trying to convey, hence the nicer clothes and how he’d insisted Eren bathe before going.

“Okay, but this won’t take too long, right?” asked Eren, and he rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, waiting for his sibling to finish.

“Not too long, no. There’ll be plenty time left before bedtime.”

“M’kay. I wanna talk later to Reiner and Pieck and… uhm…” Eren cringed, fumbling desperately at his memory – what was it, again? “Bear… tote? The uhm,” he squinted, “tall guy?”

Zeke looked very much on the verge of laughter. He snickered. “Close,” he said, “but no. You mean Bertolt. I’ve also seen it spelt ‘Bertholdt’ - b e r, t h o, l d t. Same pronunciation, it’s just harder to spell. Has regards to formalities. Now you’re all set – we ought to be going.” He gave Eren’s sleeve a little tug, taking hold of his hand. “Come on.”

They went down the fancy hallways, coming out of Zeke’s bedroom, or his ‘private quarters’. He’d only been there once before, a year or so ago, and they hadn’t changed much. Big bed, the balcony, the books, everything you could possibly use to study... it made his head spin, just wondering how much knowledge was in there.

The Palace was so massive, and he was so small. How could any of them possibly know this place? Wander it, without getting lost?

“Stay close to me,” Zeke warned him. He clutched Eren’s hand firmly. “Don’t go astray.”

Well, I couldn’t, even if I wanted, Eren thought. The harness clinked innocently, and the boy gave it his best, meanest look.

“Eren?”

“Yes, I heard you, Brother. I won’t get lost.”

Zeke passed down a dubious look. Eren was about to question it, insulted, when Zeke gave a chuckle. “I get lost all the time, though, too. Don’t worry.”

Eren nodded. “The Palace is huge... Hide and seek would take forever... Can we play hide and seek later?”

“Not right now. Later.” His brother gestured, out towards a glass arched doorway, one of the many down this hallway. It was getting dark, in the sunset’s darker hues, but he could still make everything out.

It was across a wistfully pretty, small flowered courtyard, the hallway curled around it to move into a big, flat-roofed building. Only part of the inside building was visible through arched windows, with delicate vines wrapped around the white pillars, but most of it was closed walls with high-up, smaller windows for ventilation. Two hung decorations on that outer wall, carved out of white and black stone, resembled the torsos and heads of a deer and a fox.

“Brother?” Eren nudged Zeke and pointed out the two animal decorations. “What are those?”

“Those –? The décor, you mean?” Zeke frowned, and then shrugged. “Well, it’s a deer and fox... why, you mean? Oh. Well,” he said, “I sort of know. I think there’s some kind of symbolism to it. Stories. The other Council rooms have different animal’s statues, though. The one in the north-west wing, on the third floor, has a raven and a snake.”

“That’s interesting.” Eren’s face fell blank. They kept walking, making the turn around the courtyard and the two animals. Eren kept glancing at them, wondering. Something nagged at the back of his head.

Had he heard about those, some other time? What was the sense of nostalgia – faint, and tingling – in the back of his mind?

“Well, we’re here,” Zeke said. They walked through the exit of the hallway – the one pointing to the right, not the left, or straight ahead. It opened into a large, flat space void of anything much, open on the both sides – he spotted a few hanging potted plants. In front of them were the doors to the Council Chamber, and his brother gave him a moment more, then pushed them open.

Eren twitched. His fingers tightened around Zeke’s as the doors shifted, creaking with wizened use. He gave into an adrenaline-surged desire to leap forwards, with such childish urge, but found himself bumping into someone right away.

“Eren!” Came his brother’s frightened cry. There was a great ‘oomph’ on the other end, wobbling legs, as Eren fell to the floor.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Maybe you should’ve… Your Highness –?”

Eren slightly opened his eyes, squeezed shut after the blunt impact of butt on stone. Gentle hands held Eren’s head and arm – Zeke, no doubt – and he could practically feel Brother’s incinerating glare radiating outwards.

When he looked up, he saw the adult he’d crashed into. Tall, looming, and tan-skinned; Eren felt himself shrink beneath a scrutinising attitude. He was tiny, compared to the man. And although from down there he couldn’t fully see their face, it was an intense one. The numbness of the butt had ceased, leaving a slight ache in its place, but he’d rather have that than the cold entrapment of this person’s outward demeanour.

Zeke, by his side, had no such fearful qualms. His hold on Eren deceived the visual tenseness of his muscles. He looked ready to pounce and tear this man apart.

“Well, hello there, Shadis,” Zeke said, darkly and shortly. “Good evening.”

Eren had a sinking feeling that he’d see this again. A paranoia, and fierce protectiveness in Zeke. He worried, though, if it grew too great –

 “Your Majesty. I apologise.”

Zeke growled, a dissatisfied, threatening noise. “I’d watch where you’re going to, next time, if you’d be so kind.” Eren squirmed, as Shadis bent to see him. “We’d appreciate it.”

Is this just how it’s going to be? Eren quivered, uneasy. Am I just – weak, now? I’m not a baby!

“Of course,” Shadis said. He grimaced. It looked worrisome, but it could’ve been contempt under the surface. “I didn’t mean to bump into the child. But… wait. Would this be…” Slowly, Shadis’ face fell grim, on the verge of paling, and he exhaled. Straightened himself, composed his features, and regarded the both of them with his head bowed. “My apologies, your Highnesses. And my most apologetic greetings, Prince Eren. It is my most ashamed honour that this came to be our first meeting. I sincerely plead your forgiveness.”

Zeke replied only with a begrudging silence. Eren wasn’t sure what to do, exactly, but he nodded and said, “It’s okay… uhm, well, it was an honest accident. And uh, I was – being silly, anyways. I’m sorry too. You don’t have to apologise like that.”

“Worry yourself not, my young Prince. I take the blame. And, both of Your Majesties; please, if you’d still be happy to join us…”

Zeke’s voice was brittle as frosty pine needles. “Of course. Let’s go inside, Eren.”

Hands curled around Eren’s middle and legs, pulling him upright. Zeke went further, to lift Eren into his arms. Something resentful pounded fiercely in Eren’s chest. He squirmed – he kicked, protesting against Zeke’s intent, and wordlessly his brother put him down. He did so albeit, with a funny look on his face, as if hurt. As if he hadn’t expected that.

“I don’t wanna attend my first meeting like a baby,” Eren explained, glaring at the floor. “So don’t treat me like one, Brother.”

“Eren –”

“Then… just for today,” Eren said. He sweetly upturned his lips, grabbed Zeke’s warm hands in his own, and entwined their fingers. “I’d like to make that good impression now. Okay?”

It struck the chord Eren had hoped to wrap around his finger. Zeke’s shoulders slacked, his anger seemed to settle, and affection replaced distrust towards Shadis.

He wouldn’t understand, until much further along that he’d make it a habit. In his opinion, out of necessity — for the sake of his own liberty and sanity — but not sheer pettiness. He didn’t mean to be a brat. But Zeke’s overwhelming protectiveness was a presence who took centre stage beside him, watching him with one eye and the audience with another.

And Eren had begun to feel the tug of rebellion.

He was going to be a prince who didn’t let the world do its will with him. His freedom wasn’t going down without a fight.