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Crystalline Crown (Slices of Life)

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There was something terribly, terribly wrong with this family, and this Kingdom. There were secrets, buried deep in bloody soils hidden unseen from their sleepy eyes, their unsuspecting ears. Ezekiel – Zeke – Jäger, Prince of the Throne, current Inheritor of the Beast Titan, learnt that concealed truth five years ago, on the Brightest Night of the year 1245.

The ‘Brightest Night’ was a solemnity that came only once every 9 years. When the full moon met the brightest star high in the inky night sky, and the lake was enveloped in shining silver, glowing ethereal in the moonlight; every peak of the mountains and the Palace aglow. It was a celebration alike to New Year’s, in that it was held in the highest regards, occurring over the course of 3 days and 4 nights. The entire Eldian kingdom would come together, void of barriers or distances, with just about every square inch of the Palace open to all visitors from near and far.

On the fourth night of that celebration, their father came to him and his younger brother, Eren (himself aged 20 and Eren 10, respectively) and told them that he loved them. Eren was welcome in the Titan Shifters’ Shared Quarters that night, and slept by their father’s side until the clock struck 2.

And then… their world came crashing down, splintering into fragments of glass.

            The Prince came to in a daze, a stone heavy in his gut, his mouth dry and skin riddled with goose-bumps. His heart fluttered fretfully, his nerves blazed, his senses were sharp – why was that?

Despite his unrest, and the cold biting at his bare arms, there was a source of warmth nestled to his side. He glanced down, and saw his little brother snuggled there, wriggled under his arm and head pressed to his chest. Zeke’s arm rested over his shoulders, holding him closer, the blankets tucked around them both. Zeke hadn’t done that…

“…Dad?” he breathed, in the eerie silence. He urgently lifted his head, looking left and right; the majority of his fellow Shifters were all present, and deep in sleep.

The Attack Titan’s bed lay very, very empty, sheets flat and neat and unused.

Where was their father?

“Father,” Zeke tried, again, harshly whispering now. “Father, where are you?” He received no reply.

He pulled away his arm, and pried off tiny fingers fisting his nightshirt, gently resting them on his pillow. Discreetly, he swung his legs over the bed’s edge and slipped down, leaving Eren to slumber on peacefully. He took the time to readjust the sheets and the duvet, tucking them closer to the little boy. Hastily putting feet in slippers, he took to investigate for his father’s absence, only to notice who else was missing.

Her Majesty, he realised, puzzled. Wherever could she be, at this hour? Why would she leave us like that – she’s the Queen, sure… she can go wherever she likes, but…

It was the Brightest Night. The final eve of it, too; the specific Brightest Night itself. Through the windows, the curtains were left open as per tradition, with the unnaturally bright moonlight lighting up the whole room from either side of the massive Chamber. He’d argue that no artificial light they’d ever invented could illuminate a room so well. He could clearly see each one of the Shifters, contently sleeping away in their beds – all except for Father, and Frieda.

But where would any of them go during the night, on this night – the most sacred of them all?

Bathroom, he argued. They’re just… taking shits. At the same time. On the Brightest Night – I mean, we do eat a lot during the celebrations, and…

It just didn’t sit right with him.

Spurred on, his footsteps thundered on the smooth marble floors, echoing in the hallways as he sought out the Founding and Attack Titan’s Wielders. As room after room proved empty, dismal became his optimism. They weren’t in their Private Quarters, any of the nearby Restrooms or Offices, or the Dinery, nor the Treasury or the nearest Council Room, or even the Library. He even tried looking out at the Gardens, even if just to take in with a glance –

 – and was suddenly left recoiling, on one of the balconies, as a booming, blood-curdling howl tore through the air.

Monstrous, unfathomable… the roar of a Titan. The Attack Titan – Grisha – Zeke knew that noise could only be his father’s cry, deep like his soothing voice; he broke into a sprint, panicked, set for the Secret Garden.

What could have happened? He didn’t like the spreading sense of foreboding within him. To Father… to Her Majesty?

He reached the forbidden place – or, forbidden, from an unspoken and unquestioned stance. It was the last place he would’ve imagined.

The Secret Garden was at the far back-middle of the Royal Gardens, and at the back of the Estate was the tallest of the towering Crystal mountains. The place was absolutely breathtaking, and he’d only been a few times… those few times, he’d felt such inner peace, such bliss. The Secret Garden was one of the Kingdom’s most sacred spaces, and normally Zeke would never venture there without permission – but for this… surely, for this

“DAD!” he bellowed; voice unusually tight – what could’ve happened? “Father! Frieda! Where are you two?!”

Steam. He looked up – for the first time noticing the climbing puffs of silvery smoke in the black sky. He bit down a cry of terror. It wasn’t often he saw that smoke. He made haste to his location, the back of his neck prickling with unease. The smell in the air was… was… rancid. He couldn’t place it, no matter how hard he scoured his brain.

It was truly rancid, and perhaps – he could only pray it was a foolish idea – it was the smell of death.

The rustling of the bushes in his wake went unnoticed by the Prince, as soon as his eyes glimpsed the first glistening of vivid, vile scarlet – blood – blood everywhere. Steaming, motionless gargantuan corpses in the background, and crumbled stone and crystal surrounded by gently rustling emerald and viridian scenery; carnage misplaced within such immeasurable beauty.

And perched serenely atop a miraculously still-pristine spot of the snowy dais, was the Queen, their Frieda. Her eyes were alit with the glow of the Founding Titan’s power, shadowed by quiet grief, and in her lap was the blank-eyed head of his father.

His father – their father… Grisha. Dad – their Attack Titan, their Guardian, their father – he laid, bloodied and dead in their Queen’s lap.

Zeke couldn’t fully comprehend it, at first. He barely noticed himself, breath stolen, gasping and a hand clapped over his mouth. Tears began to escape his eyes even before it sunk in, this cruel reality. He felt the weight of the world bearing on his shoulders, even before he came to any conclusions. As if choked, only small whimpering noises broke through, uneven breaths of despair – he stumbled forwards, crumpling to his knees, and reached out a trembling hand.

Frieda’s eyes lowered to meet his blurry ones. Her face, although saddened, also seemed almost blank. Like her hands weren’t soaked in blood… like…

You killed him... Why would you, Frieda? Why? What could he have done – since when did he deserve this? Since when did we deserve this?

“Why… I… Your Majes… Frieda… please, I beg of you – to explain –”

“Ezekiel,” she murmured, “Ezekiel, dear. I’m so sorry. He challenged me,” she explained, and a delicate hand traced Grisha’s sharp jawline. Reverent, gentle, like the kiss of spring’s first sunlight on sparkling snow. “A Royal Challenge for the Throne.”

“A Challenge…” Zeke croaked. He tore his head away from staring at that face. Uncomprehending.

“Indeed,” she hummed. Nonchalant. She tilted her head at him, contemplative. The woman smiled a small, sorrowful apology – how could that possibly amount to anything – and sighed heavily. “Unfortunately,” she frowned, “even in his… frenzy, he could not bring the downfall of my Titan. I was the victor of our battle, and only one of us could come away from the Royal Challenge alive.”

But that’s not true.

“I fought honestly, as per our conduct, and what I imagine he would’ve willed… I’m very sorry, Zeke. I didn’t want to fell your father. He was dear to me, too. You know that…”

It was unnatural, how she was speaking, moving. Is this really our Frieda…? She’d never…

“He’s already here, isn’t he? That’s nice and convenient… perhaps he knew… Ezekiel, please bring me your brother. Won’t you do that?”

Zeke blinked, vacantly, at her.

“Ezekiel,” she repeated, softer further, “please bring me Eren.”

Eren…?

“And rouse the rest of our kin,” she added. She gazed down at Grisha’s awfully still form, limp in her clutches. “Yes… you can do that, can’t you? If you will, kindly.”

Zeke nodded. He was beginning to feel numb, despite the fraying seams. If he had any mind to argue, he doubted the strength would come to him. As much as he didn’t want to go… leave his place here or follow through with whatever Frieda wanted… he couldn’t muster the willpower. Not right now. Not now.

He felt drained, unhealthily light — too light, like a withering feather. His chest ached. He tore himself away from Grisha’s side — their dead father’s side — and made for the Palace behind.

Towering ceilings seemed to be an endless, blank porcelain sky above him, the stretches of floors under his feed unsteady. His head spun. In his dazed conquest, he soon arrived in their shared sleep space and one by one woke each of his fellow Shifters. He distantly noticed Pieck, murmuring sweetly in confusion at him, Tybur, who gave a silent huff of dislike and tried to go back to sleep, and Reiner, Bertolt and Annie who mumbled and groaned.

He turned his gaze upon the peaceful form of his half-brother, and quietly crouched by the bed. He stared at the face, all baby and rosy cheeks and the little button nose, unflinching in the moonlight. Tenderly he brushed his hand over the small one’s forehead, then cupped it behind the boy’s torso and another behind the knees, lifting him up. Eren stirred at once at the jostle.

Zeke swallowed.

“Hey, Eren,” he whispered, tense, and his breaths seemed to come out shortly and uneven. “Late-night wakey wakey… C’mon little one.” He choked back a mirthless laugh; he felt like crying. Right now. Out of nowhere – perhaps it was all the worse, talking to Eren, profoundly aware that he wasn’t just waking him up for no reason? “I need you to listen…”

Nooo…” That precious nose scrunched up in displeasure. “Why… ‘tis zoo early…”

“Eren…”

“No. I want sleep,” Eren hissed, tiredly – he batted weakly at Zeke’s chin, squirming slightly in his arms. “Put me down…”

“The Queen wants to see you,” Zeke explained, tone clipped. Eren quieted, and stilled; perhaps if he’d been more awake, he’d have stiffened up then and there, suspicious.

He was leaving out the whole ‘Dad’s dead’ thing for now. The not-so-friendly reminder made a lump precipitate in his throat.

Of course, as Grisha’s son and Zeke, the Prince’s brother, Eren had met Her Majesty before. They had engaged in civil, formal conversation, to a minimal degree. The Queen didn’t usually have very long interactions with anyone at all (and if it was, it lacked serious substance), though, so ‘minimal’ and ‘conversation’ were complimentary terms.

But even a kid like Eren knew not to pick a fight with or disrespect the Queen. You simply didn’t do it, no matter who you were.

And yet our father did. He fought her, and he lost.

But why?

Father had never wanted to be the High Ruler. He’d told Zeke that himself. No; he’d been totally devoted to Her Majesty, supporting her, and he’d been one of her most trusted advisors. He was – or had – proudly been the Queen’s Councillor of Medicine. Even if he’d been nearing his term’s end, at 13 years – they were meant to have the rest of that precious time – it just didn’t make any sense

He hated it. He loathed it. And it tore apart his heart, bloodily, mercilessly –

“Brother?”

Zeke summoned the strength to look down at his little sibling. The only real family he had left… Frieda didn’t really count. Not like Eren did.

How do I keep losing everyone I love? Why? Why them? Why me?

The gaze of bright, inquisitive eyes, pale oceans under the moonlight, made him swallow down a bitter cry of agony. It made him want to bawl his eyes out, hug Eren so close that it’d nearly suffocate the poor thing – but he’d never do that. Not to him, not him, anyone but him – and he refrained, somehow. He can’t muster a smile, though. Not right now.

He’s all I have left. He didn’t dare loosen his hold. Not even if his arms threatened to fall off. He’s all I have left, and I’m not going to let anything happen to him.

“Big brother… where’s Dad? I want Dad…”

Zeke bit his lip viciously; blood emerging where he did so, and it made him gag. Eren bristled in pure alarm. He was catching on to the mystery, but Zeke supposed that’d be inevitable… soon, he’ll know, and… those cold little hands grappled for his shirt again, some force of comfort, gripping tight. His frightened, pale face buried in Zeke’s chest.

“What’s wrong? Tell me… I wanna know what’s going on…”

Better by my admission than hers… right?

“I’m sorry, Little Brother,” he finally managed to croak. His voice was upon the verge of shattering, so he whispered only for Eren to hear, cradled close and dear.

“I’m sorry… I’m sorry… he’s gone. He’s gone, Eren... I’m sorry. Father’s gone.”

 


 

Eren didn’t really understand what happened that night, or why things happened the way they did… he’d never so much as considered the possibility that Father would die.

In hindsight, he should’ve known how soon that possibility would be realised.

Such as it was, he didn’t recall much of the events from that night. Whenever he tried recalling them, the clarity was vague – memories scattered and befuddled, like a mixed-up bag of jigsaw pieces.

He could remember familiar voices – which could only have been those of his brother and the other Shifters. He could recall the feeling of smooth, unblemished fingers light on his skin, hot, searing pain; he’d get aches of phantom pain in all his limbs when he thought of it, sometimes. His heart would squeeze, horribly, like it was in the unrelenting grip of a demon, but he supposed being turned into a Titan Shifter (however that worked) would likely be painful, though. It was a fairly radical change.

He could remember the agony of loss. He could remember knowing that Father was dead.

He could remember a brief, hazy glimpse of something absolutely awful – the only thing he saw after being woken, from out of the safety of his brother’s arms. He had seen the blood, dark hair, and pale, waxy skin… red and white that clashed in a nightmarish amalgamation of revolting wrongness. He knew what it was, but he couldn’t comprehend it in the moment. He had wanted to scream but it hadn’t come out, and Zeke had held him closer.

He’d held him, in that sobering silence… the nipping wind rustling in the lonely night air, and he’d tried to shield his little eyes, stroking his back even as time went on.

I’ve got you, he seemed to say, just through those gentle touches. It was consoling, and he’d forever be grateful for how those touches never lessened, never stopped, even as he drifted into blankness… and that’s where his memories of the night ceased. With heavy, teary eyelids drooping closed, and all he’d been able to see were a beautiful array of plants in the garden behind them.

How oddly beautiful and serene, they had been, those sweet lilac flowers.

How very out of place they’d been, on such a cruel evening… why, Eren could’ve laughed something insane and atrocious, at the sight.

            There were tears dappling his little brother’s cheeks. It pawed at the hole gaping in Zeke’s chest, so freshly opened. He hoped his touch was calming, and provided some form of comfort, as it passed over Eren’s back, over and over. His eyes kept straying to the body, fleeting… Father’s body… and as they waited for the other Shifters to arrive (any minute now…) neither he nor the Queen spoke a word for the longest while.

She didn’t offer any kind of condolences or words to Eren when he arrived, and there weren’t any bows or curtsies to be done within this hell.

At last, though, quite suddenly, she lifted her head. She tilted it back. Sighing heavily up at the bright moon, her expression was unreadable. Zeke considered her. He narrowed his eyes, pupils thin like a cat’s – which seemed to stir her interest, and she smiled at him and the child cradled in his arms.

“What the hell do you want with him,” Zeke hissed, a gravelly kind of retort. A threat. He clutched Eren to his chest like the world weighed upon it, taking a step back. Playing on the defensive, even as he simultaneously wanted to launch himself at her, snarling, and bring her hell. “In fact, I can’t believe… you can even bring yourself to so much as look at him. How can you?”

“I know the truth of what’s transpired tonight, that’s why,” Frieda replied, dully. She disregarded his threats, as easily as if he were a fly. “Hate me all you want.”

Zeke uttered a growl-like noise at her, incensed. “I’m not asking you that!” he snapped, “what about Eren?! What about my brother – what the fuck do you want with him?!”

“To comply with your father’s dying wish, and to pass on the Attack Titan to him. And, to make him my Heir; he, Eren, will become the next ruler of this Kingdom.” She stood, for the first time since he’d discovered this tragedy. Grisha’s head lay carelessly on the ground, and Zeke’s gaze averted by pure instinct. It was horrendous.

“I understand this will clash with your own status, Prince Zeke, but I’m sure you won’t have any arguments against your dear, fallen father’s last will…” Lowering her gaze to match his, her eyes burnt coldly and – dare he suggest – wickedly. “Am I correct?”

He stood, working his jaw. Feet glued in place, body as petrified as a tree carved out of stone. Those amethyst eyes – they’re too bright – bore into his soul, in ways inhumane. I can’t breathe – and she touched his cheek, gently as a feather… they’re like talons they hurt – make it stop – and she tenderly kissed his forehead. It seemed that her lips, warm and supple, could forcefully tame the panicked stampede raging inside of him, because he could breathe again and blink. A tear slipped down her cheek, and dripped down his skin, like the summer rains.

She embraced him, the best she could, and for a second it felt as if their heartbeats intertwined; and as she pulled away, a haunting shiver wracked his spine.

Zeke bowed his head, and restrained a sob, even though there was an unearthly clearness in his chest. It was winter frost, on a sparkly clean window. “You would… be correct, Your Majesty,” he whispered. “You have my consent… and our Father’s. Eren shall be the next Attack Titan, and the Heir of this Kingdom. It shall be done, on this Brightest Night.”

Frieda smiled, softly. Through the icy glassiness of her eyes, shone a true warmth – a genuine one – and she bowed, deeply, to him and Eren.

Her words were truthful. “Thank you, Zeke.”

“But I…”

She blinked, surprised. She looked up, wondrously, at him – and stiffened, disturbed, perhaps frightened.

Zeke’s smile was loose and eerie, and borderline flippant.

His hold on Eren was protective.

It carried with it something that was ferocious, and undoubtedly sinister, if invoked. Within the recesses of his words lingered a dark, restless promise.

“I won’t let you take any more of my family,” Zeke warned her, in a misleadingly steady tone. Her lips were set in a grim line. She watched, as Zeke briefly bent down his head, to sweetly bury his nose in Eren’s soft fluffy hair. Only that could make kindness flicker in those cold eyes, in that moment. From there, he again glared venomously at his Queen. “And I wish hell upon you if you try to hurt Eren from this day forth…

“Remember that, if nothing else, if you are to end me too someday, Your Majesty. I’ll drag you to hell with me, if that’s how you want to play this twisted game.”

The Founding Titan closed her eyes, delicate eyelashes aflutter. Unbothered, by the dried speckles of blood settled on her fair features. “Quite understood… Ezekiel, love, if you will allow me to, I have a… suggestion, if you will, that you can accept to further your quest.”

Zeke glanced down, as he fiddled with Eren’s limp fingers resting on his nightshirt. “What kind of suggestion, Highness?”

“A crystal harness,” Frieda said, simply, and held up her hands. “For you and your little brother, so he’ll be by your side at all times, and you cannot lose him.”

“A harness…?” Zeke frowned. He seemed doubtful, grasping Eren’s fingers tighter. “That’s… but if he’s safer for it…”

She wearied her gaze, when his thoughts dwelled longer than a minute. “Hasten your decision, my Prince. The others approach.”

She’s right. There’s no time to think about it right now.

“Do it,” he growled.

Immediately after, came the pain – a bitter sliver of bile in his throat, copper on his tongue. He nearly doubled over onto his knees. He tugged Eren closer in the moment, spooked, but one of the Queen’s hands – when did she get there – already supported the child from beneath. A befitting look of elegant serenity encompassed her face, as her eyes emitted a faint and enchanting glow. She then tapped the elder brother’s torso with a single finger, just beneath his collarbone.

“You’ll be able to adjust and remove it, of course,” she murmured, “as you share blood of the current Royal line… my own. Eren will be unable to, however.”

He watched, teeth gritted – ow, what the hell? – and bore witness to the power of their Queen. It was a strangely sobering, but a frightening thing, to see what he’d only be able to rationalise as pure magic then and there… since it seemed to defy scientific law as he knew it. She laid her hand on Grisha’s face, as if cherishing the feel of it for one last time, and then moved her fingertips further down until she reached the point where the kill had been made.

Zeke bit back a noise of horror at the sight, and nearly screamed at what she did. He borderline barely refrained from hurling his guts out.

The neck. She’d torn directly through the nape, severing the head from the base, but not completely… certainly enough to kill. Her long, dainty fingers passed gracefully over his skin, over the carnage, and then reached in – yep, he wasn’t sleeping ever again after this – and she gingerly entwined them around the brutalised muscle sinews and bloody threads like ornamental strings. She tightened her grip, then furrowed her brows and hissed, a drawn-out, gurgling noise that made his mind temporarily blank and revolt. His toes curled, uncomfortable, his hairs bristling, stomach churning…

The next thing he could register were quiet, tinkling noises, like jewels clinking into one another on one of the dining hall’s chandeliers. Frieda had looked away from her process, now, eyes half-lidded, like she didn’t want to see it either…

Ribbons of flesh hung in her dripping hand. In such a demonstration that he might’ve appreciated the sight, had it been in a very different context, change began. Before his very eyes those tendrils faded from bright crimson to a lovely shade of frost – lighter and lighter, shinier, and connecting, until instead of messy gore, only a long chain of Titan crystal was left in her palm. Not a drop of blood tarnished it. Somehow, it wasn’t even tainted by the gore still on her hand, he noticed, as she quietly passed it to Zeke.

It was perfectly polished and gorgeous, twinkling almost from every angle in the moonlight. No one would ever guess where it came from.

“You’re awfully pale,” she said, a slight note of concern to her voice. He didn’t have a reply for her.

After all, what do you say to something like that? Idiotic.

“Fair enough… I suppose that was a frivolous question. I’ll make the harnesses, then. Do you have any requests, Ezekiel?”

“No… no, I don’t,” he managed to mumble. He passed a frantic look over his shoulder. Those kids didn’t need to see this. “The others. Didn’t you say –”

“It’ll be fine. This won’t take long.”

Her hand – the one not bloodied, thankfully – touched him again. He watched, carefully, unsure if he’d be able to restrain himself if she tried to touch Eren with those hands.

How can I trust… why do I…

But she didn’t do that. That other hand went over to Grisha’s corpse. Zeke couldn’t bring himself to look this time. He screwed his eyes shut, and desperately tried to block out the sounds – hell, the sounds – and prayed to whatever gods may be out there that Eren couldn’t possibly hear any of this. Gods, if his baby brother heard – if he knew about any of this…

He’s the reason why I agreed to any of this in the first place, though, he reminded himself. It’s all for him. It’s fine, as long as he’s fine…

That’s all that matters.

Frieda patted him on the head. He tried not to wonder if his hair was now blood-stained. “All done,” she reported, and when he looked again she stood, in her hands held the delicate-looking (he knew they’d be strong, though) harnesses. “If they’re too big or too small, simply adjust them…” She inhaled. “Will it, and with yours or my own touch, they will obey.” Her eyes gleamed, and her smile was honestly pleasant, but Zeke still shuddered as she stepped forwards to give help. “If I may?”

The Prince looked solemnly down at Eren. “Go ahead.” He had no way of knowing if this was really the right choice, if it was any kind of choice, but…

I’ll do anything to protect him.

He wouldn’t let Eren die like the rest of their family – his family. He wouldn’t let his precious baby brother die like their father, splayed out cold and forsaken on the blood-spattered stone.

Whatever it takes.

The harnesses clicked into place, wrapping around him and Eren like lithe, crystalline pythons upon their torsos; cold, smooth as glass and deceivingly lightweight.

It finally occurred to Zeke, quite bone-chillingly, though, that this was only the first of many changes that’d come after tonight. He knew that as a fact. And from now on, he would be all alone in raising the next generation of Titan Shifters as their Guardian – raising the next King of Eldia. His little half-brother. The one who meant the world to him.

And he was all alone.

He fingered the fragile cord of their harness between his numb, cold fingers. He glimpsed again at his beloved, now-deceased father’s mutilated corpse.

At least now, after tonight, he knew of some hidden, forbidden truth.

The something he was sure Father had figured out, too.

It was the only explanation.

There was something terribly, horribly wrong with this family, and this Kingdom. And it was his duty, as the next Guardian… to defy that wrong.

He’d protect them. All of them.

Even if it damn well killed him, their father’s death wouldn’t be in vain. He’d protect Eren to the end. That was a promise.

 


 

For a bit of context, see below for a brief history lesson on the AU;

 

For nearly 400 years, the Eldian Kingdom has held within its walls a great power; a certain few of them are able to transform into great, terrible creatures known as ‘Titans’. In two major sections, the Kingdom is split into ‘Interior’ and ‘Exterior’ areas; the Interior Eldians, consisting of 9 Titan Shifters and those closest to them, rule over the Exterior as their protectors and governors.

They live together in the same halls and under the same ceilings, in co-existence and harmony. (Well… relatively speaking.)

The oldest of these Shifters is generally the ‘High Ruler’ and ‘Head of Family’ (responsible for management of Interior, Exterior, and Royal businesses), with the oldest / second-eldest granted the role of ‘Guardian’ (responsible for overseeing and caring for the 9 Shifters, and potentially other matters, typically confined to the Interior).

Depending on circumstances, the youngest of the Shifters is typically the Heir to the Throne. Conditions apply based on members of the current ruling Royal Family’s bloodline.

The 9 Titan Shifters are family, close as can be – although, for as close as they are, that doesn’t mean they’re void of chaos. (And hiding behind those bonds may be secrets, locked away deep in their souls – darker, and more terrible than they can even imagine.)

 

The current 9 Titan Shifters of the year 1245 are, ordered by oldest to youngest (excepting rank) ;

 

High Ruler, Head of Family: Queen, Frieda Reiss; Founding Titan                   

Age – 18 (3) years

Guardian: Prince, Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Jäger; Beast Titan                                           

Age 20 (2) years

[REDACTED] Tybur; Warhammer Titan                                  

Age (?) unverified

Pieck [No family name known]; Cart Titan                             

Age – 14 (2) years            

Ymir [No family name known]; Jaw Titan                               

Age – 12 (0) years

Reiner Braun; Armoured Titan                                                

Age – 12 (2) years

Bertolt Hoover; Colossal Titan                                              

Age – 12 (2) years            

Annie Leonhart; Female Titan                                               

Age – 11 (2) years

Heir to the Throne: Prince, Eren Jäger; Attack Titan                           

Age – 10 (0) years

 

Listings based off the latest records, from: The Brightest Night, 1245.

 

 

Chapter Text

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.