They bring him in a van, wrists and ankles cuffed to the seat, diesel smell clogging his nostrils. The driver hums to the radio as they pull onto the prison grounds. Through the window, Levi can see inmates jogging around a track, their figures skewed by the line of fence and barbed wiring. Not far from them, guards stand with holstered guns. He shifts in his seat. The cuffs are loose, but heavy enough to remind him. Like Levi needs to be.
He's ushered inside by the same guard that unlocks the cuffs from his ankles and wrists. The inside of the prison smells so particular—suffocating, hopeless. Levi sits in a plastic, orange-colored chair while the guard checks him in. He can hear buzzers go off as doors open, the shuffling of shined shoes over a linoleum floor. He shuts his eyes. The sound of it all is so foreign it makes his skin itch. The walls feel like they're closing in, a labyrinth he can't escape. It's like he's sitting in his grave.
"You, stand up."
Levi's eyes open.
"Stand up," the guard says again. "We have to process you."
They strip him down and take photographs, make him squat to make sure he's not hiding any contraband, touch him with gloved hands. They treat him like a package—something to catalogue but not to respect. He doesn't deserve that. After, Levi gets his prison-issue uniform but not the rest of his things.
"I had more stuff," he says to the guard.
"Yeah, you'll get it later."
The guard rolls his jaw like he's chewing a wad of gum.
"When they give it to you," he says. "Now come on."
Levi tugs at his collar and follows. The layout is pretty much what he imagined the inside of a prison would be. There are four separate cellblocks depending on the level of offense, a cafeteria, library, community room, phone area. A visitor's room is cut out by the front office, but Levi knows he won't ever be going in there. The walls are all white-painted stone, thick like someone smeared plaster over them. Levi catches glimpses of sunshine as they pass by reinforced, wired windows. It's a low-security prison, but there's still towers with guards and guns and strictness.
His cell his empty when he gets there, but the books and mused sheets let Levi know he has a cellmate. He touches the itchy top sheet of his bed and sneers.
"What," the guard says. "Thread count not high enough for you, princess?"
"I could break your neck," Levi says quietly.
The guard leans forward.
"What did you say?"
"I said, how often do they change the beds?"
"That's your responsibility," the guard says. He tugs at his belt to pull his pants up higher. "Lunch is in twenty minutes, I suggest you go if you want to eat. You'll be meeting with the social worker after."
The guard leaves, keys singing as he walks down the hallway. Levi waits until the sound fades away and then sits on the bed. It sinks down some under his weight. He leans back, head against the wall, and stares at the cracked concrete above, gray sky. She cried when he left this morning, when he told her not to come.
"Isabel," he says.
Inmates watch him when he enters the cafeteria. They know he's fresh blood, he's new and vulnerable. Levi grabs a tray and waits in line, ignores the watchful eyes of the others. Normally, he skips lunch—two meals a day has always been enough for him—but the early start left him no time for breakfast, and he hates the open way he's being watched. Dissected. All Levi wants to do in blend in.
He's just at the front of the line when an inmate takes an interest in him.
"Check out short stack," he says.
Levi steps forward in line, gets potato salad dumped on his tray. The inmate steps closer to him. His buddies are laughing next to him, like a gang of prepubescent schoolboys.
"Wasn't he on the news?" another says.
"Was he? Hey, short stack."
Levi glances at him, just enough to remember his face. He's got a shitty little beard and beady eyes. What Levi could do, what he wants to do, is to turn and smash his tray into the inmate's nose. Instead Levi tightens his grip on it to control his anger, jaw set. He has to lay low. He can't fuck this up. He walks away biting his tongue. That's when the inmate grabs his arm.
"I'm talking to you, shorty," he says.
Levi drops his tray and grabs the wrist of the hand holding him and twists it hard. The inmate grunts, surprised by his strength. It's a gut reaction, Levi does it without thinking.
"New guy! Nile! Knock it off!" one of the guards yells, hand on his truncheon.
Levi lets go. The inmate, Nile, snatches his hand away, massaging his wrist. If Levi had twisted any harder, he would have broken it. He curls his fist. He already fucked it up. Levi turns around after Nile brushes past him and picks up his tray. When he turns around again, he can see another inmate watching him from his table. His hair is blonde, eyes intense. They remind Levi of gun barrels. He's looks pleased but Levi doesn't know why. It's unnerving. He gets new food and sits alone at the far table, spooning cold potatoes into his mouth and ignoring the grimy feel of the table. No one sits by him. Nile shoots him dirty looks that he easily ignores, but from across the room, the blonde inmate is still watching him, and Levi can't shake the gaze.
He gets to the office before the social worker, but one of the guards lets him in regardless. Levi shuffles in and sits in the first cushioned chair he's seen since he got incarcerated. Across from him, there's a nameplate that reads Hanji Zoe. He's met with a few social workers before, but mostly during his childhood, and Levi isn't looking forward to doing it again.He's only alone another few minutes before the door shuts. Levi looks up and sees an officer enter with a folder, definitely his folder. This must be Hanji. They don't make eye contact until they're sitting across from Levi.
"Levi," they say. "I'm Hanji Zoe. I'm a correctional officer and social worker here at Sina. I'll be overseeing you while you serve your sentence. Why don't you—"
"I know," Levi says. "Follow the rules. Be on my best behavior. Don't make your job difficult. You don't want to see me in here again."
Hanji waits until he's finished and then laughs.
"I'm guessing you're no stranger to social work."
Levi isn't, not at all. He grew up in one of the worst parts of town, still lives there.
"I was going to say why don't you tell me if you have any requests, anything I can do to help with your rehabilitation," Hanji says.
Rehabilitation. Levi snorts. "Right."
Hanji glances over his file, humming.
"Look, we both know why you're here," Hanji says. "We both know what happened."
Their eyes flash, mouth crooked up.
"Actually I'd love more detail if you have the time later."
This must be some kind of joke. Of course he has time, he has too much time. The trouble is he doesn't remember all the details. Levi sinks into his chair.
"Whatever," he says. "Can I go?"
"Sure," Hanji says. "Sure, sure."
They flip Levi's file closed as Levi stands, adjusts his uniform and heads for the door.
"Oh, one more thing," Hanji says.
Levi pauses in front of the door.
"You don't have anyone on your list of approved visitors," Hanji says. "Did you want to change that?"
Levi grips the door handle tight and pulls it open, jaw clenched.
"No," he says.
They have him running around all day, and then at night Levi washes and brushes his teeth and is too exhausted to think about anything other than sleeping. He still hasn't met his cellmate. Levi turns in the hall, a slight pang of anxiety in his chest at the thought of Nile being his cellmate. He didn't want to get off on the wrong foot with anyone. Before he left, his lawyer told him to just lay low. To just keep to himself, not let anyone know who he was or get involved.
Levi walks into his cell and it's not Nile, it's the blonde inmate from earlier, and Levi isn't sure if that's worse or not. He's sitting on the bed, reading, and when Levi stops short at the cell door he looks up. He doesn't seem surprised to see him.
"Hello," he says. "I'm Erwin."
Over the top of his book, he looks almost happy to see him. Levi finally stops standing in the doorway and climbs into his bed. He considers not answering, but this isn't the time to make enemies. He doesn't need any more of those.
"Levi," he says. "But I'm guessing you knew who I was already."
Erwin puts his book down. "They told me I'd be getting a new cellmate today, if that's what you mean. You've already made quite an impression."
Nile, Levi thinks, and grimaces.
"He gets under a lot of people's skin," Erwin says. "But he's harmless."
"Yeah, you seemed real pleased about it."
"Did I?" Erwin says. "Well, the reaction time was impressive."
He pulls his covers back and climbs into bed, the fabric of his uniform stretched around his shoulders and back. Levi mimics him, crawls under the thin layer of bedding. He feels like he's lying on a pillowcase that someone stuffed with socks. He shifts against the lumps, flexing his shoulders to try and get used to his new bed.
"This is your first time in prison, isn't it?" Erwin says.
Levi flattens against his pillow, wonders what gave it away, if anything. Erwin seems to know a lot of things for being a prison inmate. He's alarming, somehow, even though he seems so quiet and contained, and maybe that's all an act. Levi's been in a juvenile detention center before, several times actually, but it was nothing like this. This is real.
"Yeah," Levi says, and then turns toward the wall, ending the conversation.
He's tired. He doesn't want to talk. He wants to serve his time and get out. He needs to. A guard calls lights out and then the prison is dark. Moonlight cuts across the ceiling, and all at once the prison is silent. What Levi has now are four walls, barred windows, and, whether he wants him or not, Erwin. Levi shuts his eyes, remembers dirt under his feet, and tries to sleep. Three hundred and sixty-four days.
He wakes up panicking and reaching for a gun that isn't there. Blurred seconds pass before Levi remembers he's in jail. His breathing comes back quickly after that. Erwin is sitting up in bed watching him and light is cutting through the wired windows. It's morning. He woke up three times in the night during checks, and he's exhausted. Erwin looks like he's about to ask something, but the guards are making morning rounds and he doesn't get to. Levi walks fast and edges past inmates in the bathroom to take a piss before walking over the cafeteria.
There's powdered eggs, bacon, toast, and really, really shitty coffee. Levi takes it all and sits in the corner table, tries to make himself as small as possible. He wants to get outside today if he can and run around the track a bit. It feels like it's been a year since he stepped outside, but it's been twenty-four hours. And he still has thousands left to go. Levi stares out the window, and though it's smudged, he can see the grass below, all that tempting green. It makes him think about calling Isabel. She's probably still pissed at him. The table shakes and Levi turns just in time to see Erwin and another inmate sitting down next to him. He scoots away, though his side is already pressed up against the wall.
"This is him?" the inmate says. "You didn't tell me he was so small."
"Mike," Erwin says, before Levi can open his mouth.
Mike inhales deeply, nostrils flaring. Then he nods to Erwin.
"Yeah, he smells okay," he says.
"What?" Levi says.
His question is ignored. Mike pours salt over his eggs. An inmate walks over to the table, arms folded together in front of them. Erwin motions to him and he leans down. Then Erwin whispers something into his ear. They shake hands, and if Levi hadn't spent most of his life on the streets, he wouldn't have been able to catch the exchange between them. He shifts, uncomfortable at the idea of witnessing a prison drug deal. But then he sees that Erwin's slipped him nothing more than a small jar of Tiger Balm. The inmate nods thanks to Erwin and walks away.
"Was that…Tiger Balm?" Levi says.
"Rick has a bad back," Erwin says, as though this is normal. "I'm getting coffee."
He stands up from the table and Levi is left with Mike shoveling eggs into his mouth. He wonders if he should get up and leave or not. Are they planning something? Are they trying to be his friends? Is there some need for Tiger Balm in prison that he isn't aware of? Either way, Levi doesn't want to get involved.
"Stay away from Nile," Mike says.
He says it softly, without looking up from his breakfast.
"He's not a problem, but he hangs out with Mr. Sannes."
Levi blinks, too curious to ignore him. "Mr. Sannes?"
Mike nods and sips his orange juice.
"He's sitting next to Nile right now," he says. "Controls a lot of illegal activity in here. Don't get involved."
Levi surveys the room carefully. He sees him right next to Nile, surrounded by others, a hooked nose and dry eyes.
"Right," he says. "Anyone else I should look out for?"
"Sonny and Bean. They're brothers."
Levi rips apart a strip of his bacon. "And Erwin?"
Mike smiles around his fork, like he expected Levi to ask him that exact question.
"Erwin is good," he says. "Trust me, you're lucky to be his cellmate."
Levi wants to ask what's so lucky about it, but Erwin comes back over stirring sugar into his coffee. He notices a few others at the end of the table now, most of them nodding to Erwin, relaxed. Levi doesn't get it. He keeps eating, drinks his burned coffee. Eventually, the inmates start dwindling away, standing up to dump their trays until Levi and Erwin are alone at the table sipping their coffee. Erwin hasn't said one word to him, not the whole time. It's like he's sizing him up. Levi pushes his tray away.
"You don't have to sit next to me," he says.
Erwin bites into the last of his toast like he's oblivious. Levi's lip twitches.
"Just because you're my cellmate doesn't mean we're fucking buddies—"
"I don't do anything if I don't want to," Erwin says. He sips coffee from his Styrofoam cup. "If I'm sitting next to you it's because I want to, not because you look sullen and miserable."
"I don't look sullen and miserable," Levi says, automatic.
Erwin grins. "Don't you?"
He swallows the rest of his coffee and stands up from the table.
Later, when Levi gets up to dump his tray, he sees Mr. Sannes watching him.
He runs. The cool air cuts his lungs and he runs. His feet pound against the dirt and he runs. The circle seems so large compared to inside, even with the fence running tightly around it. Levi doesn't care. He watches the sky as he runs, gray this morning but still beautiful, clouds spilling across it. He runs four laps across the track before cooling off in the grass. A guard watches him as he sits in a browning patch by the fence but doesn't say anything to him. All the guards here look like the inmates are an inconvenience to them. Levi runs his hand through the grass, blades slipping between his fingertips. Just on the other side of the fence, there's a little patch of white flowers growing. Levi stands up and walks inside.
He waits ten minutes for the phone and then calls Isabel. It bugs him because all the phones are lined up together with a guard watching and there's no goddamn privacy here, not anywhere. The line rings three times, then she picks up.
"Who is this?"
"It's me," Levi says.
There's silence on the line.
"You," Isabel says. "You bastard! You fucking bastard!"
Levi pulls the receiver away from his ear and lets her yell. She cusses him out for a good fifteen seconds before calming down.
"Are you all right?" she says. "Are you doing okay?"
"I'm fine." Levi leans against the wall, phone cord draped across his arm. "The food sucks and everything smells but it's okay."
"Clean enough for you?"
Her tone is teasing, but Levi answers in earnest anyway.
"No, but there's nothing I can do about it."
Isabel laughs over the line, light and feminine.
"Are you okay?" Levi says. "Are you safe? Do you need anything?"
"I should be asking you that," Isabel says. "I'm outside the city with a friend, okay? I'm fine, seriously. I'm fine."
"Last time you said that I had to drive two hours to come get you."
Isabel laughs over the line again.
"When can I come see you?" she says.
Levi looks out the window. It's gotten darker outside, it might rain soon.
"You can't," he says.
"Why not? Levi, at least let me—"
"I said no, Isabel. I don't want you near here."
There's fumbling on the line, sounds like Isabel is walking.
"Don't you want to see me?"
"Of course I do," Levi says, throat going tight. "Idiot, of course I do. But I don't want those Rose punks following you. I don't—"
"What am I supposed to do without you for a year?" Isabel says, and her voice is quivering. "Farlan is gone, and now you."
Hearing Farlan's name has Levi wincing. He and Isabel haven't spoken his name out loud to each other since he died four years ago. The thought of abandonment still stings.
"I'll be back." Levi looks down at his scuffed shoes, voice low. "I just need you to stay out of trouble."
"I will," Isabel says. "I will…Levi, please let me come visit."
"Stay out of trouble," Levi says, and then hangs up the phone.
He doesn't interact much with Erwin even though they're cellmates. Erwin doesn't seem too bothered by it, but Levi will catch his gaze in the bathrooms, in the halls, by the jogging track. When he sees Levi, he nods to him, but that's all. He's everywhere and nowhere all at once. They eat together during meals still, Mike and Erwin talking and Levi silent. Nile still seems sore about the first day, but he doesn't do much else besides sneer at Levi across the room. Other than that, he does a lot of laundry. They were going to put him in the workshop at first, but Levi managed to convince them he'd be better suited for laundry.
Levi likes the job. On top of being able to clean his own things, the white noise of the machines is soothing to him, and no one goes downstairs to do laundry much anyway. Levi can sit on the table and listen to the soft tumble of the machines, eye shut. He can almost forget where he is. Once everything is clean, he wheels it out in a giant cart for inspection, then gets released.
This is it. This is his life for the next year. Levi dreams of freedom at night, of rundown buildings and blood on his teeth, a night sky full of stars. He dreams of home. Every morning he wakes up in Hell.
A few days in, one of the machines in the laundry room breaks. It's Nile who comes down to fix it, holding a toolbox, being followed by an officer. He huffs when he sees Levi, mouth slack, and starts fixing the dryer. Levi watches him from the table, on alert even with the guard there. Nile swings a screwdriver in his hand and motions Levi over.
"That look right to you?" he says.
Levi raises a brow. "Shouldn't you know?"
Nile shrugs. He looks to the officer, who's busy texting on his phone, and then leans closer to Levi, voice a whisper.
"Heard you're in because you took down the Rose gang by yourself."
Levi tenses, glances at the officer. His head is still down.
"I guess you hear a lot of shit," he says.
He steps away but Nile reaches for him.
Levi dodges his hand. "Don't touch me."
Nile puts both hands up, right one still brandishing the screwdriver.
"No touching," he says. "Sorry. But listen…Mr. Sannes wants to meet you."
There's a pause, and all Levi can hear is the sounds of the machine running and the officer's fingers moving against his phone screen. He remembers Mike's words.
"Not interested," he says.
Nile goes wide-eyed.
"Listen, there are people here you don't want to piss off. I'm saying that for your own good."
"Not interested," Levi says again. Then louder, so the officer hears, "Thanks for fixing the dryer."
Nile walks out watching him like he's made some kind of big mistake, and Levi hopes to hell that he hasn't.
Showering is a strange experience. The first time, Levi felt exposed and humiliated, standing naked next to a bunch of other men cleaning himself. But over the past week it's become slightly less invasive feeling. He's seen more dick than he ever thought he would in his life. No one bothers him in the showers, even if a few guys have whistled at him. Some of them act like it's a big joke. Most of them treat showering like a sacred thing, and in here, it kind of is.
A few times, Levi's caught sight of Erwin in the showers, eyes closed, washing himself. His body is fit, really fit, and Levi wonders if he spent time in the military. That night, Erwin showers right next to him, and he doesn't look at Levi, but Levi still feels like he's doing it to rile him up. He glances down at Erwin's dick because he can't help it, then looks right back up again. From out of the corner of his eye, he could swear Erwin is smiling.
Levi reads before lights out. He's started to form a routine in here. Every morning when he wakes up Erwin is already up, but he's never in the cafeteria when Levi goes for breakfast. He always shows up a few minutes later to sit next to Levi. Then Levi will lose sight of him for most of the day and do laundry, or work out, or watch the TV in the center room where no one can change the channel. He'll see him again at lunch, then dinner, and then at night they inevitably end up in their cell together, but Levi doesn't talk, and Erwin doesn't press for conversation.
"Your book any good?"
Levi glances over for just a second, then back to his book. He hears Erwin chuckle.
"That good, huh?" he says.
Levi licks his finger and turns the page of his book deliberately. He feels Erwin watching him, and Levi doesn't get why it's so hard for him to shake his gaze. His skin prickles.
"The book sucks," he says.
"Then why are you reading it?"
"Because I've got fuck all else to do." Levi drops the book down into his lap, looks at Erwin. "What do you want?"
Erwin turns quietly to face him, feet on the ground.
"I want to know about you," he says.
His voice is so candid and earnest that Levi checks behind him to see if someone is looking into their cell, if this is a prank. Only no one is watching. It's quiet. It's only them.
"You mean what I'm in for," Levi says.
Erwin shakes his head. "No, I already know why you're here."
The news, Levi figures. His trial was pretty low profile, and he took a plea bargain, but what else is there to do in prison besides learn about other criminals?
"So then you know everything." Levi folds in, defensive, arms crossed. "Is this some kind of joke?"
"I'm not joking," Erwin says. "Tell me about yourself, Levi."
Levi fumbles with the request. He doesn't know how to answer. There's nothing about him that hasn't been related to his crime for the past three months.
"There's nothing to tell," Levi says. "I'm nobody. That's my story."
Seconds pass with no reply from Erwin. He's watching Levi as though he's some formula, a puzzle. Levi decides to try and turn the tables.
"What about you? What's your deal, huh?"
"Same as you." Erwin smiles. "I'm nobody."
For the first time, Erwin looks caught off guard, but he catches himself pretty quickly. He cocks his head, practically encourages Levi to continue. It's like he wants to see how much he thinks he knows.
"People follow you around," Levi says. "You're definitely somebody. Maybe not out there, but in here. So what is it, then, you're the gang leader? Sannes' rival?" Levi pauses. "A Tiger Balm salesman?"
Erwin laughs. "I don't have a gang," he says.
Levi actually wants to believe him. Erwin doesn't really seem like the type, but it's definitely something. And it's something he's just not telling him, maybe waiting for Levi to figure out.
"Sannes wants to meet me," he says, just to gauge Erwin's reaction. "He sent that idiot Nile to talk to me."
There's definitely a reaction. Erwin leans forward, eyes sharp, almost terrifying. He's tense now, fingers gripping the mattress tightly, but still somehow in control, calm.
"And I told him to fuck off."
Erwin visibly relaxes. The reaction tells Levi he probably didn't make a mistake telling Nile that. He's usually a good judge of character, and Sannes doesn't seem like someone Levi would want to be involved with. He still isn't sure that Erwin is. But he keeps talking to him anyway. Levi shoves his book under his bed and moves under the sheets. Lights will be going out any minute.
"You should read Hemingway," Erwin says. "I have a copy of The Sun Also Rises."
Levi shifts to get comfortable, slings an arm under his head. He doesn't know how to react to Erwin. That throws him off guard a bit. He stares at the light fixtures on the ceiling and waits for them to go out.
"Who is Isabel?" Erwin says, quieter now.
Levi stills, keeps his eyes on the ceiling. He doesn't say anything, and Erwin doesn't press for more. The lights go out, and Levi thinks of the stars.
During visiting hours, the prison seems so empty. Not everyone gets visitors of course, and those inmates go about their business in peace, either used to it or good at hiding the sting of it. Levi wonders if some families really come every week, every week for years. Or do they get tired, do they leave them. His footsteps echo in the hallway. Levi goes to the bathrooms, because with most of the inmates in the visitor's room he might actually be able to piss in peace, but when he gets there Erwin is coming out. They don't move, suspended in the doorway, watching each other.
"Shouldn't you be in the visitor's room?" Levi says, and looks down.
"I don't get visitors," Erwin says.
The tone of his voice makes Levi think that he doesn't have anyone to visit. He can't place Erwin yet, which bothers him. Most guys in here, Levi can peg their crime by the way they move, the way they act. Erwin is like a marble slab—he could be anything.
"How long have you been here?" Levi says.
Probably a year or longer, Levi thinks. Enough to have established himself. He hates how vague Erwin is with him, though he's been much the same.
"With any luck, I'll be out soon," Erwin says. "Though I'd have Hanji to thank for that."
It takes Levi a minute to remember that Hanji is their social worker.
"What can Hanji do?"
"A lot of things, if you let them." Erwin nudges past Levi finally, squares his shoulders. "You should to talk to them if you're interested in an early release."
He's off down the hallway before Levi can respond. Then he is alone and the word early release stamps over and over again in his brain. He walks into the empty bathroom. It's like a different place now, quieter, though Levi can see the dirt and grime more clearly now. The wall that the urinals sit on has mold in the grout that crawls all the way up to the ceiling. Levi stands in the bathroom long after he pees and just enjoys the quiet. He never noticed before how much he appreciates the quiet. Prison is so loud. He would give anything to just have this quiet again, even if it ended with Isabel crashing through the door being way too noisy. He wants it back.
There's the sound of vinyl shoes squeaking on the floor so Levi leaves, walks down the empty hallways and is by Hanji's office before he even realizes that was his destination. He sees Hanji scribbling away, office door open. Levi lingers long enough that Hanji looks up, sees him, and then waves him in.
"Come on," Hanji says. "Come in."
Levi walks in.
"What a pleasant surprise," Hanji says, looking up from the paperwork. "Did you need some—"
"I want an early release."
Hanji pauses at the interruption, eyes shining behind their glasses. Finally, they lean forward, attentive, hands folded together.
"Early release!" Hanji says. "That's some initiative, I like it."
Levi sits up straight in the chair opposite.
"Erwin said…he said you could help."
"I can help." Hanji's voice softens. "I can help you with a lot of things if you let me."
Hanji shoves their paperwork aside, everything bunching together, a few papers even float to the floor. Hanji doesn't seem bothered by this, but Levi is struck with the urge to pick them up.
"Fine," Levi says. "So what do I have to do?"
"Well there's been no complaints about you so far, that's one good thing." Hanji leans back in their chair, fingers tapping against the desk. "With an aggravated assault charge, you need to be sure to demonstrate good behavior. The courts want to know that you've learned something. And trust me, they want you out of here."
Levi furrows his brow. "They do?"
"Well, in a manner of speaking," Hanji says, and then laughs. "You may have noticed already but we're pretty crowded. Usually, it's the nonviolent offenders that get out first, but since you cut a deal, you may have better luck being granted parole."
Levi nods. Good behavior. He's been trying for that, at least.
"Then what?" he says.
"I'll keep track of your progress, present you as a candidate for early release to the parole board." Hanji scrambles to lean forward now. "But that means no fighting, no drugs, no nothing. And you'll have to undergo a psychological exam. Got it?"
Levi thinks of Nile and Sannes and how easy it would have been to break Nile's wrist. He thinks of the walls closing in on him, thousands of hours behind concrete.
"Yeah," he says. "I got it."
And for the next few days, he does pretty well. He does his work with no complaints, stays away from the guards. A lot of them have a hair trigger from years of working in the prison system. They aren't afraid throw you to the ground. Levi's even seen someone get thrown into solitary for a day. They weren't the same when they came out. And Levi doesn't want to be here any longer than he has to.
But three days later, it happens. The yard is pretty large. Prisoners are usually rotated in and out because there aren't enough guards to account for the amount wanting outside. That afternoon it's sunny. Levi sits and leans against one of the tables, squints his eyes against the sunshine. He can see Erwin and Mike in the distance working out. It's gotten to the point now where Levi is pretty sure Erwin is keeping an eye on him. He doesn't know the reason—whether or Erwin finds him interesting or is just playing with him—but it's starting to bother him less.
Someone else is watching him. Sannes is by the door with some of his men, and he's been there for a few minutes. After another minute he walks inside, disappears behind the doors. Levi shuts his eyes against the sun and feels the warmth of it on his cheeks. It's a welcome change. He's getting paler in prison, like papier-mâché. When he gets out, Isabel will probably make fun of him. Shadows cast over Levi's face, the warmth gone, and he opens his eyes. It's not clouds. It's five inmates. Levi doesn't know them, but he knows they hang out with Sannes.
"You're in our spot," one of them says.
Levi doesn't stand up. He stares at them, and somewhere behind them, birds are chirping.
"You deaf, man?" another says. "You're in our spot, move."
"This isn't your spot." Levi uncrosses his legs because he is many things, but stupid is not one of them. "Leave me alone."
He could just get up, but he knows this isn't something that's going to be solved by him moving. These guys have never sat here before. That isn't why they're here. Nothing Levi does is going to change what's about to happen.
"You think you're fucking smart, huh, runt?" the first inmate says. "Guess I'm going to have to teach you a lesson."
The air goes still. For a second, nothing moves, not even the air, and then the first punch comes. Levi was expecting it. He dodges to the right and kicks out, pushes the inmate back stumbling. Then he's up and they're all fighting, five against one. The mistake a lot of people make is assuming that Levi's height is a disadvantage for him. It's really not. He takes down two of the guys easy, a kick to knock the legs out, then a punch to the head, and the other he's able to twist his arm back and flip him over the table. A third grabs him by the neck, strangling him, so Levi reaches behind and digs his fingers into the pressure points on his neck, legs kicking back. He hits him in the balls and the inmate drops him, falls back. Levi stumbles to get his footing and the fourth inmate gets him with a punch to the eye. He's disoriented for just a second, but it's enough that the two guys are ready to get the jump on him.
Only they don't. From out of nowhere, Erwin tackles one, elbow cutting up into their chin. It stuns Levi, to see Erwin suddenly moving, fighting, a fire in his eyes. He punches the other inmate, kicks him into the table. Then the guards are rushing over to wrestle them down and all Levi can see are Erwin's blue, blue eyes. All he can see is Erwin.
The inmates get confined to their cells until dinner, every single one of them. Levi gets taken to the infirmary. He keeps telling them he's fine, but they recite something about protocol. He gets an ice pack for his eye and once they've determined he has no other injuries, he's escorted back to his cell. None of the guards say anything to him, and Levi can't tell if he's in trouble or not. It was self-defense, but does that matter? He fought, took down four men. So much for being on good behavior. Levi passes by Mike's cell, sees Mike lounging on his bed.
"You okay?" Mike says.
Levi nods slowly.
"I've never seen Erwin jump into a fight before, you know," Mike says.
Levi doesn't know how to respond to that.
Erwin is already in the cell when Levi gets back, knuckles red. The door closes behind him, rattles, and the footsteps of the guard walking away. Levi sits on his bed, holds the ice pack to his eye. It's dripping down his wrist now, cold water. Erwin mimics his position, hands folded together. Levi doesn't know what to say. He took a risk, stepping in like that. He could've gotten hurt, gotten in trouble. But he stepped in anyway.
"Why did you do that?" Levi says.
"You're my cellmate," Erwin says, and shrugs. "I couldn't just stand by and watch."
That's not the reason, Levi thinks. He wants to tell him that he could have handled himself, but it's obvious that Erwin already knows that. Instead, Levi switches the hand that's holding the ice pack, ice crunching under his fingers.
"I've never seen anyone fight quite like you before," Erwin says, voice low, almost like he's in awe.
He stands up and walks over to Levi, reaches down to pull the ice pack away. Levi avoids the touch at first, a natural reaction, but then he drops his hand down so Erwin can see his eye. It feels a little swollen, but nothing too painful. Erwin's fingers touch the skin just above his eyebrow and they feel so warm on Levi's ice-numbed skin. He tries to remember the last time someone touched him in a way that wasn't to hurt.
"Why did you do it?" he says again.
Erwin draws his hand away.
"I told you I don't do anything I don't want to."
He walks back over to his bed, and Levi feels kind of stupid, because it took him this long to realize that Erwin likes him. He shifts, not so much uncomfortable as he is wary.
"So, I owe you now, is that it?" The words prison bitch pop into Levi's head. "You expect me to suck you off or something?"
Erwin stares him, quietly amused, and Levi's face heats up immediately.
"You don't owe me," he says. "Consider it me helping a friend. I think you could use one in here."
"Could I?" Levi says.
He puts the ice pack back over his eye. Normally he'd be suspicious, because Levi's never been able to afford not to be, but Erwin's tone leaves little room for him to doubt his sincerity. He believes him.
"Isabel is my sister," Levi says. "Basically. She's a pain in the ass like one anyway."
Erwin blinks, but he's obviously pleased. He shifts on his bed to get more comfortable, a silent urge for Levi to keep going.
"I need to get out to take care of her…she's not…she's a smart kid but she makes bad decisions sometimes."
There's a long stretch of silence. The ice pack is practically melted now so Levi sets it on the floor. His left eye is numb anyway.
"You took the fall for her, didn't you?" Erwin says.
He doesn't know how Erwin figured it out from so little information, and Levi can't do much to stop himself from looking surprised. Isabel had just been so reckless. Levi had told her too many times not to meet with guys from Rose gang but she still did. Luckily, he got wind the drug deal was going bad and rushed over there. Then it was all fighting. All Levi remembers is getting throw into a police car. Later he would find out he fought off six of the Rose gang before the police arrived, but the only thing he cared about at that point was that Isabel was out of there. The District Attorney offered him a deal—one count of aggravated assault and no possession charges if he could give information on the Rose gang's next drop. So he did.
"If Isabel is so close to you, why doesn't she come visit?" Erwin says.
"The Rose gang." Levi scratches a phantom itch on his knuckles. "Isabel fucked them over, they're going to be looking for her. I don't want her coming anywhere near here. It'd be like leading them to her. All she had to do was stay away from them and she didn't listen, she didn't—"
Levi wipes a hand over his mouth and exhales. He's been holding that in for too long, and he feels pitiful blurting it all out to Erwin. He picks his feet up and lies down so he can stare at the ceiling instead of Erwin. After a while, he hears Erwin get up, move around, and then sit back on his bed. He doesn't push Levi for more conversation. He's just there. And for the first time, Levi doesn't feel quite so lonely in here.
The smell of burnt bread and grease hovers in the cafeteria the next morning. Things are back to status quo, inmates shuffling around half awake, the excitement of the fight forgotten. Erwin said nothing about yesterday when they woke up. When Levi walks into the cafeteria, a lot of the inmates look up at him, quick glances, then whispers to one another. They look impressed rather than upset, awed rather than fearful. A lot of inmates were outside when the attack happened yesterday, a lot of inmates saw Lev take down four men twice his size. He's definitely proven he's not someone to mess with. He goes over and sits by Erwin and Mike at the table.
"Morning," he says, and it's the first time he's greeted Erwin.
Erwin smiles next to him. "Morning, Levi."
Sannes and his crew are sitting in their usual spot, a few of them looking at Levi, mostly down at their trays. It's no coincidence that Sannes left right before the inmates attacked him. They didn't have any weapons, so they definitely weren't aiming to kill Levi. Nile said in the laundry room that Sannes wanted to talk to him, and Levi refused. No, they were trying to send a message. Levi had no plans to join any kind of prison gang, but looking around the table, he supposes he's joined Erwin's by default. Sannes knows that now. Hopefully he'll leave him alone. Levi takes a sip of his coffee and grimaces. The bad flavor is a shock every time.
"Okay?" Erwin says.
"Yeah, I just miss good coffee."
There's a collective nod around the table. Mike and Erwin exchange a glance, a quick dip of the head, and then Erwin stands up.
"Come with me," he says to Levi.
Levi shoves a forkful of eggs into his mouth and then stands. Erwin walks down the centerline of the cafeteria towards the kitchens and Levi follows. They walk by the Sannes and his men and Levi feels smug about it, the way no one says anything to them. Erwin nods to one of the kitchen inmates, and the inmate lifts the countertop latch to let them back into the kitchen. Levi keeps following even though he's not sure what's happening. The inmate leads them down a short hall into the actual kitchen, a ventilated room that smells like sweat and grease and chrome. A few inmates are chopping vegetables. None of them seem interested in Levi and Erwin being there.
"Could you get Levi a coffee, Ian?" Erwin says the inmate who led them in.
Ian looks at Levi and his lips quirk, but he walks away anyway. Levi decides to save his questions. Thirty seconds later, Ian comes back around the corner with a Styrofoam cup of coffee.
"Sugar and creamer is over there if you need it," he says.
Levi stares at the coffee. It smells different from the coffee they serve here, smells more homemade. Levi takes an experimental sip.
"Shit," he says, and takes another sip. "This is good coffee."
It's so good he doesn't even need to add creamer or sugar to it. He can't tell if it's really that good or he's just gotten used to the shitty coffee they serve here.
"Where did this come from?"
"Ian is in charge of kitchen orders," Erwin says. "I asked him for a favor. I like good coffee too."
He waves his hand and Ian walks off and Levi stands there dumbly holding his coffee. He takes a few more sips and then follows Erwin out of the kitchen and into the hall. Levi's satisfied enough with his coffee to start asking questions.
"You're the leader, aren't you?" he says.
Erwin stops in the hall with him.
"I told you, I don't have a gang."
"But this is something." Levi gestures down to his coffee. "Call it whatever you want."
"I just want to be comfortable while I'm here," Erwin says. "And so do some others."
"Like good coffee," Levi says. "And Tiger Balm."
Erwin nods. "Like that."
It's so odd, it's so fucking odd. Levi has never heard of anything like this. Erwin must have some kind of connections. He's the one people go to when they need something you can't get on the inside.
"Sannes has a way of doing things that a lot of us don't agree with." Erwin backs them up to the wall while a kitchen inmate passes by. "Stick with me, and he won't bother you."
"You mean join your not-gang." Levi licks his teeth, half-grinning, coffee hot on his breath. "You were hoping I'd join the whole time, weren't you?"
Erwin smiles and it's so telling, like he can't be bothered to hold back.
"I found you interesting the moment you got here," Erwin says. "Fascinating, even. I wanted you the whole time."
Levi swallows, looks down. He's starting to realize that an alliance in here is a good thing. Maybe Erwin doesn't lead a gang, but he definitely has a lot of power, and that's something Levi needs.
"Well I guess you got me," he says.
He doesn't have to look up to know Erwin is smiling wider.
"I guess I did," he says.
It's all laundry and prison bullshit for a while. Hanji calls Levi into their office to let him know he's not in trouble, but insists on questioning the incident until Levi wants to bang his head against the wall. Hanji wants to know the reason, but he can't give them one. It's settled now, anyway—Sannes knows whose table Levi is sitting at. Other than that, nothing much happens. A few inmates leave, a few new ones come in. Prison is a revolving door, people are always coming and going.
Levi tries not to pay attention to the time, because that only makes it go slower. He concentrates on his job in the laundry room instead, gets so good at working the machines he can fix them himself now. They're temperamental, and after so long down there with them, Levi has started to learn how each machine behaves. He almost considers them pets. Now that it's gotten colder, Levi likes to collect the freshly dried sheets in his arms and hold them, take the warmth. Everything in prison is cold, so he finds warmth where he can take it.
There is running outside, sometimes television, sometimes even a movie. No matter what's happening, Levi is usually with Erwin and Mike. Erwin will bring them good coffee at breakfast, has an excellent relationship with the guards. He's a smooth talker, and Levi wonders if he wasn't some sort of politician outside of prison. The trouble is Levi doesn't know what Erwin did outside prison, or what he's in for. He asks, one night, when neither of them can sleep, because so much of Erwin is a curiosity to him.
"Ah," Erwin says in the darkness. "I'd prefer not to say."
And Levi doesn't push it. Sentences are mostly unknown between inmates in here, an unsaid rule. But Levi doesn't like not knowing things. He even asks Mike when they get a moment alone, but Mike only shrugs and tells him that he doesn't know. He's never bothered to ask. All he knows is that Erwin has been here for a few years. And just like Erwin said, there really isn't a gang. It's just Erwin's influence against Sannes', a weird type of power struggle. Erwin tells Levi that Sannes pushes drugs and other stuff that Levi wouldn't want to be caught with.
"He looks for people to carry," Erwin says.
Levi is walking back with him from his job in the workshop.
"And people for protection. That's probably why he wanted you."
"I'm not hired muscle," Levi says.
"I know," says Erwin, the line of his brows drawn down.
There are certain times when Erwin's tone with Levi becomes so serious, like he's trying to reassure Levi of something. It's a habit that Levi has only just noticed. He's noticing other things about Erwin as well, like how he seems more keen to help others than himself, how he's never, not once, mentioned anything about his life outside of here. He acts like he doesn't have one. Or maybe he's just that private. Either way, Levi's started to become comfortable around him. He's very used to Erwin's presence now, the steadiness of his breathing when he's sleeping across from him. He no longer tries to shake off his gaze.
Two months pass. Levi checks in with Hanji about his progress. He's managed to go two months without another fight, without any behavioral incident at all. The guards don't bother him as much now, mostly because Erwin deals with them before Levi gets the chance. They like Erwin. Just about everyone likes Erwin, and even Sannes seems to have some sort of grudging respect for him.
"It's too early for parole," Hanji says. "But you're doing well, keep it up, okay?"
Levi likes Hanji. They're weird, and always in their office to the point where Levi isn't sure they ever leave, but it's obvious that Hanji cares. Hanji asks about Levi whenever they see him, and that means something in here.
"When will it not be too early for a parole hearing?" Levi says.
"Too early to say." Hanji adjusts their glasses, wiping a smudge away but only succeeding in smudging them further. "I'll let you know as soon as I do. In the meantime, try not to drown in that jacket."
Hanji throws their head back and laughs. Levi sneers and pushes his sleeves up. Because it's winter now, all the prisoners are issued coats. Levi's is two sizes too big. According to the guard, they were on short supply.
"Yeah, thanks," Levi says to Hanji.
He walks back into the halls toward the phone room. It's been a week since he talked to Isabel, and he misses her voice.
The bathroom is crowded as usual. All the inmates in the block are stuffed inside brushing their teeth, taking a leak before lights out. Levi spits toothpaste into the sink, Erwin washing his face next to him. There's light talk, a few laughs, and the one of the inmates nudges Levi with his elbow.
"Hey, man," he says. "Heard you arguing with your girl on the phone earlier, everything all right?"
Levi wipes his mouth, doesn't answer. He keeps his gaze to the mirror.
"That bad, huh?" The inmate laughs, beats his hands against the counter. "When I got in my girl went wild about it too. All you have to do is keep her happy with sweet talk. That's all bitches need, you know?"
Levi turns swift, fist made, but Erwin's already grabbing his hand. He holds Levi in place, and Levi can feel red-hot anger in his chest. The inmate steps back, hands up.
"Come on," Erwin says, and tugs Levi back.
A few of the guys start whistling, making oooh sounds, and all that does is make Levi's temper flare more, but he still lets Erwin drag him out. It isn't until they're back in their cell that Levi rips himself away. Erwin doesn't grab him again, just puts his hands by his sides.
"What was that?" he says.
"I don't need you to babysit me."
Erwin continues like he hasn't heard him.
"You can't just fight in here."
"I know that, don't you think I know that?"
Levi runs his hands through his hair, agitated. It's gotten long. He's pacing now, jaw clenched. A guard walks by and calls the warning for lights out.
"Get in bed you two," he says.
As soon as he walks by, Erwin takes a step toward Levi. It's hard not to feel cornered right now, not in this tiny cell. But Levi holds his ground.
"What's going on?" Erwin says. "You know better than to let your temper get the better of you in here."
Levi pinches the bridge of his nose. Exhales, tries to get ahold of himself. If there's one person he can tell this to, it's the person standing right in front of him.
"I talked to Isabel," he says. "She's back in town even though I told her to stay out for a while."
Erwin nods. "I see."
The final call for lights out comes and then the prison goes dark. Levi blinks into the darkness, trying to adjust his vision. Moonlight cuts through the windows but even then, Erwin is only a shadow at the moment. When he speaks again, his voice is quiet.
"You can't take your anger out on others like that."
Levi's temper flares again. "I know that, stop telling me things I already know—"
"You come to me when you feel angry from now on."
Levi laughs sharply. "So I can fight you?"
"No," Erwin says, and in the darkness touches Levi's neck.
Levi jumps at the contact. His anger dissolves just like that, gets replaced with apprehension instead. He thinks Erwin might kiss him or drag him forward to his bed, but he just rests his hand there, long enough for Levi to realize that's he's waiting. He's waiting for Levi to submit, but giving him the opportunity to get out. He exhales slowly, tries to think of his answer. The longer they stand there, the longer Levi realizes that he'd made his mind up about this long ago.
He turns his head to the side and kisses the skin of Erwin's wrist. It's a definitive enough answer, and he's never been good with words anyway. The hand on his neck grabs onto his hair and pulls hard, makes him bare his neck. Erwin walks backwards to his bed, pulling Levi with him. He starts to sit, takes Levi down as well until he's sitting on the mattress and Levi is on his knees. Levi swallows hard, cock going stiff. He puts his hands on the floor in a show of trust, submission. Erwin pets the back of his head and his hand is shaking and Levi has to wonder how long it's been.
Erwin pulls away only to undo the front of his jumpsuit, pushes it down just enough so that he can pulls his cock from his underwear. Levi can see now. Can see the deep flush on Erwin's cheeks, the fluid welling up on the tip of his cock. His mouth waters, and something about it all feels so obscene, so crazy.
"Levi," Erwin says.
Levi braces himself with one hand on the floor, the other holds the base of Erwin's cock. He licks the head once to taste the pre-come there, familiar but all Erwin's own. Then he goes down. He takes what he can in, lips pulled over his teeth, eyes sliding shut. Erwin's hand returns to his neck, fingernails scratching lightly against the skin. He's breathing heavily through his nose. Trying to keep quiet. Levi bobs his head up and down, cheeks hollowed, his own cock hard and making a damp spot in his underwear.
"Shit," Erwin says, whistling through his teeth, and then he's pushing Levi's head further down.
His cock hits the back of Levi's throat and he chokes once but doesn't pull off, just moves his hand down to cup Erwin's balls and urge him along. It works. A few seconds later Erwin spills down his throat and Levi falls back coughing, limbs about as useful as a wet towel. He inhales sharply and then makes himself stand up. But now he isn't sure what to do with himself. Levi fidgets, still hard, debating whether to retreat to his bed five feet away or climb into Erwin's. Erwin makes the decision for him.
"Come here," he says.
Levi walks to him, and Erwin leans forward to nuzzle his erection. Levi stumbles, grabs Erwin's shoulders for support. Erwin mouths him once more, warm and insistent.
"Let me see you," he says.
The fabric of Levi's jumpsuit sounds loud as it falls around his waist. Erwin touches his stomach, the muscles of his abdomen jumping at the contact. The pads of his fingers feel rough on Levi's skin. Erwin grabs his waist and tugs him down until he's sprawled in Erwin's lap, and it seems like the next step at that point to kiss, and so they do. Levi cups Erwin's jaw and tastes him, the bitter mint flavor of his mouth. He shifts forward to seek that friction, still helplessly aroused and feeling ready to unravel. But Erwin seems to sense that. He shoves his hand into Levi's jumpsuit and grips his cock, starts to move like he wants to bring Levi into oblivion.
Levi keeps himself quiet by keeping his lips on Erwin's, whines into his mouth until he's jerking forward and coming into Erwin's closed fist.
"Fuck," he says, the word spoken against Erwin's swollen lips.
They take the time to breathe against each other. Levi feels like he's been knocked by a wave, limbs sandy, but against Erwin he is solid. The realization of what they just did and where hits Levi. He glances at their cell door, expecting someone to come by any second and expose them, take this moment and ruin it, like so many other things have been ruined. But there's just silence, silence and Erwin kissing the soft skin under his jaw. Levi relaxes into him, and the night passes them by.
He sleeps in Erwin's bed. He tried to return to his own at first, but Erwin maneuvered them in the small space until they were tucked perfectly against each other and there was nowhere else to go. When Levi wakes up in the early morning, Erwin is still beside him. The sun isn't even up yet. Levi shifts on the mattress, tilts his head up to look at Erwin. His hair fans the pillow, lips drawn down. He's got one arm slung over Levi's hips, but Levi thinks he can manage to get off the bed without waking him. Guards walk the halls during the nights for checks but usually don't look into the cells until morning, and Levi doesn't want to get caught in Erwin's bed. He doesn't know if that's considered poor behavior or not.
He rolls away from Erwin, but on a bed this small he only gets a few inches before hitting the wall. Levi sits up slowly instead, Erwin's arm sliding away. He manages to scoot halfway down the bed without making too much noise or movement.
"Leaving so soon?" Erwin says, and Levi freezes.
"I'm five feet away, if you recall." He gets off the bed and stands, stretches. "I don't want the guards to see."
Erwin turns so that he's facing him. Levi has never had the privilege of seeing Erwin wake up before. His eyes seem to glimmer, almost a haze of blue, and Levi has the strange urge to run his hand through his hair, so he does. Then he leans down and kisses Erwin quick on the lips before getting into his own bed. The sheets are cold. Erwin is watching him, but his gaze feels different now. No less intense, just different in a way Levi can't define. He watches Erwin back until the footsteps of the guard in the hallway draw them back into reality.
They shuffle along with the rest of the prisoners to the bathrooms. Levi's morning routine is very important to him. One of the worst transitions in prison was having to shower on a schedule like this one, privacy completely torn away. He undresses next to Erwin and the other inmates, folds his clothes neat and then steps under the lukewarm spray. The water pressure in prison is shit. Levi shuts his eyes under the fall of the water and pushes his wet hair back. Someone moves next to him and he jumps, eyes snapping open. It's Erwin. He says nothing but his face is tight, stone, and when Levi looks behind he sees the inmates watching. There's an unspoken rule that you don't move into someone's space while they're showering, not unless you're about to fight them, or you're fucking them.
Levi pours shampoo into his palm and lathers it into his hair, ignores the stares. Erwin reaches over him to grab the shampoo, hands brushing Levi's hips, naked skin sliding along his own. The meaning of the touch is obvious to anyone who's looking, and people are. Levi shivers, tenses, but doesn't pull away. Erwin's fingers are solid on his skin, and he feels grounded. He checks behind again. Most of the inmates are looking away now, occupied with their own showers. Levi rinses the soap from his hair.
"You want to tell me what that was all about?" he says after.
They're walking down the hall to the cafeteria for breakfast. Erwin shoves his hands into the pockets of his jacket, casual.
"I don't want anyone else touching you."
Levi's face goes hot but he still scoffs.
"Who the hell else is going to touch me?"
"No one, unless you let them," Erwin says. "But I don't even want them to try."
This is some kind of prison thing, or maybe Erwin is just a possessive person. Levi steps behind him in line, stomach grumbling.
"They know that goes both ways, right?" he says.
Erwin turns, eyes electric. He looks utterly, unreservedly pleased at Levi's audacity.
"No one touches me," he says.
They get the good coffee and they sit at their usual table. Erwin once again lets his fingers drift across Levi's body, his shoulder, his arm. Mike is across from them, and if he notices the change, he doesn't appear to care. Mike doesn't seem to worry about a lot of things. He mostly only talks to Erwin and otherwise keeps to himself, but his quiet demeanor isn't to be mistaken for meekness. Should something happen, Levi has no doubt that Mike would hold his own brilliantly.
It's one of the rare days that they're served pancakes, sticky sweet syrup on their lips. Outside it's snowing heavily, and Levi wonders if Isabel is warm, safe. He wonders what she's having for breakfast. He misses her. He wants her to come and visit, but he won't risk it. As long as she's staying out of trouble, Levi can wait to see her.
Next to him, Erwin is nearly finished and Levi realizes that he's yet to touch his food. He gets distracted often here, but Erwin always seems focused. It makes Levi jealous, in a way. Jealous that for Erwin, it seems his years spent in prison have made him smarter, more acute. He fits in easily, adapts to any situation. Levi feels like he's becoming hardened, less aware. Prison is too much like a vacuum, and anything that happens outside of it might as well not exist.
His name gets called and Levi looks up, hand grabbing his plastic fork defensively. It's a guard. He sees Levi at attention and walks over to him.
"Officer Zoe wants you in their office," the guard says. "Dump your tray and get moving."
"I'm not finished eating," Levi says.
The guard leans over and grabs his tray, pulls it away from him.
"You are now."
Erwin's got a hand on his wrist before Levi can even think about getting angry. Some of the guards, no matter what, are just outright assholes. It's not worth getting thrown into solitary.
"Fine," Levi says. "I'm coming."
He steps inside Hanji's office and finds Hanji chewing gum loudly. The sound is annoying but Levi finds himself craving some. He hasn't had gum in months. It's strange, what he's come to miss being in prison. Levi sits down and slouches into the chair.
"I was told you want to see me."
"Yes," Hanji says. "Yes, yes, yes."
They close a file and stack it on top of a few others.
"I wanted to check in. I like to check in with all my cases. How are things?"
"Fine," Levi says, with absolutely no intention of telling Hanji, or anyone else for that matter, that he had his lips around another inmate's dick last night.
"You know that we do all we can to help with rehabilitation. We've got AA meetings, NA meetings." Hanji lists them out on each finger. "That's helpful for inmates facing DUI or possession charges. We also have anger management meetings."
"Okay," Levi says.
Hanji dips their head down. "You were charged with assault. I want you to go to anger management."
"But I don't have an anger problem."
"Whether you have or don't have it is irrelevant. A parole board cares that you attended it. Do you understand?"
Hanji blinks heavily, maybe their version of a wink, Levi isn't sure. Hanji is helping him. This is a tip.
"I understand," he says.
"Good." Hanji leans back into the chair and smiles. "Though for the record, you are a bit prickly."
"…Thanks," Levi says.
He stands up, watches Hanji's jaw click as they work the gum in their mouth. Then he decides to go find Erwin.
Erwin stands when he walks into their cell, smoothing a hand down the front of his jumpsuit. He hasn't shaved yet and stubble peppers his face.
"What did Hanji want?"
"Stupid shit," Levi says. "I'm going to anger management meetings."
Erwin's eyebrows lift. "Do you have an anger problem?"
Levi stalks closer to him, chin lifted, eyes flashing.
"Do you want to find out?"
"Maybe later," Erwin says. "I have other things planned for you right now."
He kisses Levi, presses his body against him and Levi clutches the front of his jumpsuit. There is something about Erwin that feels concrete and real. Even in getting used to being here, not much has felt solid and constant to Levi. Mostly it's been like walking through a fog. But now here's Erwin, a lighthouse. Or maybe Levi is giving him too much credit. Either way, he's got one of the more powerful men in the prison kissing him like he wants nothing else. Levi pulls back for air, gives a quick peck to Erwin's mouth.
"I want gum," he says.
"Gum?" Erwin says, with a sort of dopey look on his face that is terribly endearing.
Levi nods, licks his bottom lip. "The kind you can blow bubbles with."
Erwin's eyes cloud and then he kisses him again, long and hard enough that Levi wonders if he's forgotten his request. He wonders if he's pushing too much. He's never been good at relationships, and prison blurs the lines of them even more. Levi isn't sure what this is, but he enjoys it, he wants. In less than year they'll part ways and probably never see each other again, but the future doesn't exist in prison. Only the now does.
Erwin pulls back, lips swollen.
"All right," he says. "If that's what you want."
Levi steps away and wipes at his mouth, heartbeat caught in his chest.
"It's what I want."
He learns two things the first session of anger management:
- A long-term inmate, not an actual counselor, leads it.
- Mike attends it.
The second one is a surprise. Mike is so reserved, so unassuming, that Levi would have never suspected he needed anger counseling. When Levi walks into the room and sees him, he stops and almost leaves. He feels like he's intruding on something personal. But Mike smiles softly and nods for him to take a sit next to him, so Levi does. The room is freezing so they all sit relatively close together, wrapped in their coats. Two guards hang by the door and Levi wishes that just for one minute that they'd disappear. The inmate leading the meeting looks at Levi halfway through and asks if he has anything to say.
"No," Levi says, shaking his head.
He's afraid they'll force him to speak, the inmate just nods.
"Just raise your hand if you'd like to speak," he says.
Most of the meeting is talking, sharing experiences, and learning breathing techniques for controlling anger. Some of the inmates have really wild stories, and a lot of the stories are the reasons they're here in the first place. Near the end of the meeting, Mike finally speaks.
"I never had a problem controlling my anger until I lost my wife." He's staring at the inmate leading the meeting like he's the only one in the room, like he's stepped into some confessional. "But then I was just angry all the time. I was angry because I lost her. I think I was mostly angry at myself."
He talks more than Levi has ever heard him, and the genuine emotion in his voice forces Levi to look down at his feet. He's always been uncomfortable at displays of emotion. It feels too private. He never imagined Mike with a wife, or as anything other than an inmate he got along with, maybe a friend. But Mike has a whole, darkly twisted tale behind him, starting with the death of his wife and leading to him accidentally killing someone.
Once the meeting ends, they walk the hall together, silent, both of them rubbing their numb and frozen hands together to warm up.
"I didn't talk for three weeks," Mike says, motioning back to the room. "But listening is good too."
Levi is tempted to say he doesn't have an anger problem, he's just doing this for parole, but that seems more like it'd be a spit in the face to people who actually need it.
"I just don't see how talking to strangers helps," he says instead.
"It's about trust," Mike says. He looks at Levi. "You build it up. You understand the experiences. You have to find someone, right, that you trust?"
Levi looks away, watches cement block pattern of the wall. He doesn't want to talk about this, doesn't quite know how, so he changes the subject.
"Sorry," he says. "About your wife."
Mike shrugs, but Levi can tell by the weight of his shoulders that he appreciates the gesture. He feels the need to say something else. Other than Erwin, Mike is one of the few people in here Levi can actually stand. In a way, he almost admires him.
"My friend died in a car accident," he says, and thinks of four years ago, of Farlan, of Isabel sobbing over his casket. "All I had time to feel was angry."
"It feels safer than grief sometimes," Mike says.
They keep walking, thinking. There's an inmate getting tackled in the hallway for some reason or another. Levi barely glances at these kinds of things anymore. This is his new normal. He's seen things in here that even Isabel may not believe. But once he gets out, he hopes to forget most of them. Mike pats Levi on the shoulder, drawing his attention back.
"Think about talking next time," he says. "Goodnight."
He walks off to his own cellblock and Levi stands in the hall, thinks of trust.
After lights out, Erwin steps out of his bed and walks over to Levi's, looms over him.
"Stand up," he says.
Levi does. It's been almost a week since the night he sucked Erwin off, and since then they've been fooling around almost every night, taking the opportunity to explore each other as soon as the lights are out. There's a certain desperation to it all, mostly, Levi thinks, because of the circumstances. Even though he's around Erwin every day, there aren't many chances to touch.
Levi pushes up to his toes to kiss Erwin, tugs him down so their lips can meet halfway. Levi likes the way Erwin kisses. He likes the way he's insistent about it, calculating. Levi reaches up to unzip Erwin's jumpsuit but Erwin stills his hands, breath coming out hot.
"Turn around," he says. "Brace your hands on the wall."
"What the fuck—"
"Do it," Erwin says.
Levi growls but obeys, places his palms flat on the wall. He isn't particularly fond of this, because he can't see Erwin, and Levi has an issue with having blind spots, but he's too hot with arousal right now to care. He waits, eyes focused on the concrete. Erwin reaches around and undoes his jumpsuit, tugs the zipper all the way down.
"Step out of it. Your underwear too, please."
Levi does, resists the urge to fold it and just throws it onto the bed, shivering now in the cold but still aroused. He braces his hands on the wall again without having to be told. He only has to wait another second before Erwin presses against him from behind, cock already hard and pressing into his lower back. Levi shivers, drops his head. Erwin pulls away for minute and Levi hears something snap. Turns his head, curious, but can't see much from this angle. It isn't until Erwin's finger, slicked with lube, drags itself down the center of his ass that he understands. His hips jerk forward, nails scraping against the wall.
"Shit," he says. "Where did you get lube?"
"Someone owed me a favor." Erwin's voice vibrates above him, hesitant. "Is this okay?"
Levi blinks stupidly. They haven't done anything like this yet, and Erwin is no fool—he's noticed the way Levi tenses when the touch gets too intimate. But now he's asking, and it strikes something in Levi, the way Erwin does so. He doesn't take unless Levi tells him to. He's asking for his trust, asking if he's prepared to give it.
"Do you…" Levi pauses, licks his lips. "Do you have condoms, too?"
"Yes," Erwin says.
So Levi nods, rests his forearms against the wall now too. He pushes his ass out a bit, widens his stance.
"Oh," Erwin says, breathy. "Good."
His finger presses in and Levi's body shakes. It's been a long time, too long, and he feels wound up so damn tight for Erwin. He breathes out. Erwin stretches him, free hand holding his hip, and then adds another finger. Levi bites the skin of forearm. They can't make too much noise or the guards will come over, and that's the last thing they need. Though somehow the knowledge they could get caught is a bit thrilling to Levi. He presses back against Erwin's fingers, hips moving, body responding to the stimulation almost too fast. The second Erwin fits a third finger in, Levi's nerves are on fire and he has to slam his fist against the wall to keep from crying out.
Erwin is draped against him like he just wants to melt into Levi's body, presses soothing kisses to his neck. He works his fingers faster, impatient, and Levi's toes curl against the floor.
"Enough, please, enough," Levi says.
Erwin stills and then listens, eases his fingers out. Levi exhales heavily, the emptiness startling to him. He hears the foil of the condom wrapper crinkling and then Erwin is turning him around. Now that Levi can see his face, he can see how flushed he is, eyes blown. He looks like out of everything and everyone in this world, Levi is the one who's wrecked him. Then he picks Levi up. Puts his hands under his ass and lifts. Levi wraps his legs around Erwin's middle on instinct, arms winding around his neck. They stumble until Levi's back is pushed up against the wall, and then Erwin slowly spreads him and presses his cock in. Levi's mouth drops open but no sound comes out. He just stills, waits, arms tight on Erwin's neck and knowing nothing but the sensation of being filled.
"Shit," he says, and Erwin starts moving.
The wall gives them pretty good leverage, and in hindsight is probably smarter than using the beds as they tend to squeak. Erwin's hips snap up, and he holds Levi's weight almost entirely. If it's straining, he doesn't show it. He bites Levi's neck, licks up the column of it, fucking him into the wall. Levi has to drag him up by his hair and kiss him because he isn't sure he can keep quiet anymore. He runs his tongue lazily against Erwin's, distracted by the force of his thrusts. When that get to be too much he just mouths helplessly at his jaw, little nips and kisses. Erwin is holding him spread open still, nails pricking the sensitive skin of his ass but it feels good. It all feels so overwhelmingly good. Sweat slicks Levi's back and he slides against the wall.
"You're so tight," Erwin says, voice low, dripping honey. "You feel perfect."
Levi stutters, distracted, almost unable to form sentences.
"Fuck," he says. "Fuck—ah—oh god."
"Shh," Erwin says, half soothing him, half reminding him to be quiet.
Levi almost doesn't care at this point—let the guards find them, let them see. He drops a hand down between them and takes his cock in his hand, starts to move. Levi feels desperate for it now. His toes curl and uncurl, the growing tingling in his groin letting him know that he's close.
"I'm gonna come," he says. "Erwin—"
But then Erwin slows, nearly comes full stop inside of him. Levi whines, pushes his hips down to try and keep him moving.
"What are you doing?" he says. "Come on, move."
Erwin mouths wetly at his temple, speaks against his hairline.
"Do you want them to hear you?" he says. "The other inmates? Do you want them to know whose cock you're taking?"
He drags his hips up slowly. Levi's legs pull tight and then shake at the pressure. Erwin is bringing him to the brink of orgasm and then keeping him there. This is the game they're playing. Levi laughs, slightly hysterical.
"You pull this shit on every inmate you fuck?"
Erwin looks at him, somehow seeming closer even though there's no space between them anymore.
"There's never been another inmate," he says, face serious, and just like that, they're not playing a game at all.
"I want it," Levi says, pushing his hips down again. "I want it, please. I want them to hear, I want to come."
Erwin shivers against him like he hadn't expected it, hadn't expected Levi to respond like that for him. He starts moving again, drives himself deep, Levi's orgasm building fast again.
"Good." Erwin pushes his hips up harder, his lips at Levi's ear. "Good. I want to feel you come for me."
Levi touches himself again and lets Erwin hear him, face burning, speaks Erwin's name into the stale air. Right before he orgasms, he bites Erwin's shoulder. His back bows and he comes, whole body shuddering with it, his moan muffled into Erwin's skin. He squeezes down on instinct and Erwin shudders against him, throat tightening.
"Christ, Levi," he says, and then starts moving harder, hips pistoning like he means to fuck Levi through the wall. His mouth is still pressed against Levi's temple, and in the haze of his orgasm Levi almost doesn't catch that's he whispering something against his skin, not necessarily something he means Levi to hear. Just before Erwin comes, Levi thinks he can make out what he's saying, an echo in the cell of stay with me, stay with me.
In the morning, Erwin wakes Levi up by kissing the bridge of his nose and slipping something into his hand. Levi looks down, blinking himself awake, and notices the pink rectangular foil, the words Bubble Gum written over the top in fat lettering. He looks up, sees Erwin smiling at him.
"Good enough to blow bubbles with?"
Levi clutches the gum in his hand, his legs tangled with Erwin's under the thin sheets. Something flutters in his chest, something unfamiliar, but he's afraid that he knows what it is anyway. He thinks of last night, of Erwin so close to him, Erwin inside of him, Erwin telling him to stay. And then it seems impossible to speak past the thickness in his throat, so Levi just nods.
The next month goes by quickly. Even though the days blur and feel monotonous, Levi is almost four months into his sentence. He goes to anger management meetings once a week with Mike, though he still hasn't talked at one. It's interesting enough to hear the stories, to learn the techniques. Levi sits and listens, wrapped up in his jacket, silent and respectful. The last two times he's gone to a meeting, Erwin has followed. He doesn't come in, just waits by the door, almost like a guard. It doesn't make any sense to Levi, and each time after he's asking, Don't you have something better to do? But Erwin just shrugs and smiles, walks back with him.
It's strange because there is nowhere to go in prison where you aren't in prison. He and Erwin can't go on a date, Erwin can't drive him home. Levi can't call him up and ask to come over. Erwin is just there, and Levi is there with him, and it's not a romance by any means, but it works. When Erwin picks up shipments from the kitchens now, Levi stands guard by the door and acts as a lookout. Just about all the inmates now know that Erwin and Levi are together in some way. No one even looks at Levi when he gets in showers anymore, and inmates are careful not to touch him. It's oddly exhilarating, the knowledge that Erwin's declared him off limits.
And the more time passes the more Levi learns about Erwin, though he still doesn't know why he's here, and that aggravates him to some extent. But lets it go, because Erwin doesn't have to tell him anything. They aren't a real couple. They're prisoners, thrown together and seeking something to hold until their time is up. Everything that happens here is separate from outside.
Levi waits outside the kitchens while Erwin picks up an order from Ian. The temperature outside is above freezing but it's raining, the ground turned to slush. It always puts Levi on edge when they can't go outside. Then he really feels trapped, an itch underneath his skin. Levi isn't particularly fond of the rain but he'd stand outside without an umbrella right now if it meant actually being out there. He turns his head to focus on something other than the pounding sound of the rain and sees Nile approaching. His muscles tense on automatic.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he says.
Nile stops a good distance away and shrinks a bit under Levi's gaze.
"Heard Erwin was getting dark chocolate in." He shoves his hands into his jumpsuit pockets then pulls them out as to show he's not going for some kind of weapon. "They don't sell dark chocolate in the commissary."
"Your precious Mr. Sannes can't get you some?" Levi says.
"You know he doesn't deal with that."
"I do know."
Nile makes a frustrated noise, lips twitching.
"Look, I got a wife and kids on the outside, okay?" he says. "I need to get money for them. What would you do?"
The building creaks a bit as the wind blows outside, and Nile doesn't look so idiotic anymore as he does desperate. A man backed into a corner that chose what he thought was the best option.
"You see them every week?" Levi says.
Nile nods, a smile at his lips now that's thinking of his family.
"Yeah. My youngest girl just turned three."
Levi glances through the window of the door to see where Erwin is. He's still talking to Ian. Erwin told Levi that Ian is in for a good fifteen years. He was here before Erwin, and he'll probably he here after he gets out. Erwin was lucky to make fast friends with him. But he's very personable, charismatic. It's strange for Levi to imagine Erwin even getting arrested. He used to think military, but now he wonders if he was a politician.
"So you and Erwin, huh?" Nile says.
Levi turns back around, blinks. "What?"
"You know…" Nile makes a vague gesture with his hands, almost a clap, then abandons it. "Company in prison is nice."
Levi doesn't know how to respond, even in insult. He just stands there.
"You guys have plans for when you get out?" Nile says.
There's an abrupt silence. Getting out. The idea has been at the back of Levi's mind lately and he didn't even notice. His immediate response should be no, of course not. When he gets out he's going back to take care of Isabel, he's leaving all of this far behind like an old memory, like a bad dream. But he hesitates anyway.
"Are you aware of the shit that comes out of your mouth?" Levi says finally.
Nile's face drops like a scolded child.
He cuts himself off as Erwin pushes through the kitchen doors and straightens. Erwin looks between them, eyebrows raised.
"Everything okay?" he says.
Levi grabs a dark chocolate bar from under Erwin's arm and rips the foil open.
They walk out of the kitchens together, and Levi can only hear the rain.
After lights out, Levi can't sleep. He tries two different positions and then just lays flat and exhales loudly, sheets bunched at his ankles. Erwin chuckles across from him, arms folded behind his head.
"Can't get comfortable?"
Levi sits up. "What are you going to do when you get out?"
There's a pause, and then Erwin sits up too. His lip is pushed out like he hasn't thought about it in a while, arms resting in his lap.
"I'll get a job, of course," he says. "My old house is being rented, but hopefully I can take that back. I'll live."
Levi stands up and crawls into Erwin's bed. They face each other sitting up. Erwin's hair has somehow already become mused and in the dull light from the hall glows like static.
"You'll just forget all this shit?" he says. "Move on just like that?"
Erwin watches him, eyes running over his face like a scan.
"I could never forget this."
His voice is soft. Levi is struck with the urge to bash his face in. Instead he breathes, a deep inhale through the nose and then slowly out the mouth, just like they teach in ager management. He should not be bothered by this. His plan is much the same. But he is bothered, and that grates on him, the way he feels so out of control here.
"You can forget anything you want to," Levi says. "Once I get out of here I'm not looking back."
"Is that so?"
"Yeah, it fucking is."
His tone has more bite to it now, but Erwin doesn't the least bit bothered by it. He looks curious, eyes bright in the darkness.
"You're in a mood," he says, his voice very fond.
Levi pushes him down onto the bed and pulls the zipper of his jumpsuit. He doesn't want to talk anymore.
"Shut up, Smith."
They wiggle out of their clothes, the bed sighing beneath them. Levi doesn't let Erwin up, he holds himself over him and strokes him to hardness, watches the way Erwin's eyes flutter. He has learned Erwin in so many ways. The sweep of his tongue across his lips is a sight that Levi holds his breath for. He holds a hand out and Erwin lays there stunned a moment before he pours lube onto Levi's fingers, droplets of it hitting his chest. He looks positively elated at this change of routine.
Levi fingers himself open quickly, and though the angle isn't perfect he still hits where he needs to. He drops his head down, a flush sweeping over his face. One of Erwin's hands strokes over his neck and chest, encouraging him. They've gotten pretty good at volume control now, but Levi's voice always sounds too loud to his own ears, especially when he's about to come.
Erwin starts to stroke Levi's cock as he fingers himself and the added stimulation has Levi pushing his hips out, a low ah sound escaping him lips.
"Stop, stop, I'll come," he says, and Erwin lets up.
Levi eases his fingers out, wipes the excess fluid on the mattress as Erwin rolls the condom on. He guides Levi down with both hands on his hips, Levi's thighs shaking until he's fully seated, body thrumming. Then Erwin starts to move. He pushes his hips up and pulls Levi's hips down, teeth clenched. Levi rolls his hips, arms braced back on Erwin's thighs. This is a feeling he lives for. It's intense, draws all his focus, consumes him. He likes that Erwin takes him out of his head, pushes his limit. Right now he doesn't want to know anything but the feeling of Erwin's cock inside him.
"Harder," he says. "Come on, come on."
The grip on his hips tightens, Erwin's thumbs pressing into his hipbones something painful. Levi lets out a choked moan and then touches himself, hand moving fast over his cock. It's good like this. Levi can't think straight. He bites his lip and comes, abs spasming. Erwin's thumbs stroke over his skin now to soothe, and he's watching Levi like he can't look away.
"You look so beautiful when you come," he says.
Before Levi can say something dismissive, Erwin surges up and flips their positions, Levi with his back on the mattress. He pulls out, rips the condom off, and then jerks himself until he comes all over Levi's chest and stomach. Levi doesn't move, mostly out of shock and laziness from his orgasm. He breathes heavily, mouth open.
"Erwin, what the fuck—"
Erwin dips his head down and starts licking the come from Levi's stomach. He drags his tongue up and Levi doesn't even think to stop him. He cleans his stomach, then moves to his chest, stops to nip at Levi's right nipple. Once he's finished he kisses Levi hard, tongue moving like he wants Levi to taste. He wants him to feel him. Levi puts his hands to Erwin's shoulders but he doesn't push him away. He can taste Erwin in his mouth, can feel him all over, and his brain is distracted again and that's what he needs. Erwin pulls back and drags his thumb down Levi's lips, Levi taking it into his mouth because he can and he wants to.
"You're beautiful and you're mine," Erwin says.
Levi bites the skin of Erwin's thumb and has no intention of disagreeing.
He ends up talking at the next anger management meeting. He hadn't planned on it, had actually gotten used to being a silent participant. Mike walks over with him and they sit together like usual, the room slowly filling in a circle of inmates. They always sit together now. Anger management has afforded Levi the opportunity to learn a lot about Mike, like how his wife died of cancer six years ago. The cancer took her in eight months, too quickly, Mike had mentioned in meetings. That's where his anger came from. He couldn't hold on to her but he could hold on to that. But it was the drinking that landed him in prison. He had one drink too many at a bar and drove home, collided with another vehicle and killed the driver.
"He was a veteran," Mike told Levi one night before class. "Survived two tours and I killed him because I was too drunk to think straight."
He's never applied for parole even though he's eligible. He has his head on straight in here, so Levi doesn't fault him for not. For some people, prison is a welcome relief from unforgiving reality of the outside world.
Tonight, Levi is tired. He keeps looking back, knowing Erwin will be by soon like he has been the other times, silent in the doorway. The inmate who leads the meeting opens up with a poem, and they start talking. Compared to the AA and NA meetings, their group is small, only seven inmates including the leader. But Levi enjoys that. He doesn't need or want an audience.
Things go as usual up until the last fifteen minutes of the meeting. They do a breathing technique, and then Levi looks behind again to see if Erwin's there yet. He's not. The group leader calls his name, brings his attention back.
"And you, Levi? You've been to several meetings but you've yet to say anything."
It catches Levi so off guard he can't find words for a moment. He glances around the room and sees the other inmates watching him, expectant and curious. He clears this throat.
"I have nothing to say."
"It's okay to speak," the group leader says. "It's important to in this process. What makes you angry?"
Levi wonders if Hanji knows that he hasn't spoken at a meeting yet, if this will affect his chances for parole. He hasn't talked, not because he has nothing to say, but because he's afraid that once he starts saying it, he won't be able to stop.
"Well?" the group leader says.
"This place," Levi says, because it's the best place to start.
"Okay." There are a few nods of agreement around the room. "Why?"
"Because everyone's always whining about how it's not fair. Of course it's not fair. Nothing in life is fair, and that pisses me off too. But what pisses me off in here is that there's no control to change it. Things happen and you can't change it."
The group leader nods in understanding.
"That's true, but we can change how we choose to deal with the things that happen to us. We can get angry, or we can choose a healthier way to cope with stress."
"That's not good enough for me," Levi says.
In the ensuing silence, he looks back again and sees Erwin standing there now, arms crossed. He wonders how much he heard. Probably all of it. Levi turns back around and only half-listens to the group leader as he speaks. He knows he and Erwin are going to talk later, because Erwin just has that look on his face, the one that tells Levi he's too curious to let it go. And he's right. Before dinner, Erwin beckons him over to him and Levi comes, sits close to him on the mattress and waits for it.
"Did you get a hold of Isabel today?" he says.
Levi blinks. "Yeah…she's fine. Warmer than we are, probably."
Erwin nods slowly, head tilting up, then back down. Instead of saying anything else, he turns Levi toward him with a hand on his jaw and kisses him slowly. Levi kisses back, pleased they're not talking. He presses into Erwin and rests his hands on his thighs, knows they can't do anything right now. Erwin pulls away and kisses the bridge of his nose.
"I heard they're serving shepherd's pie for dinner," he says. "Mike smelled it."
Levi blinks again, forehead wrinkling.
"As long as it's not that meatloaf again." Erwin pats his stomach. "Dreadful stuff."
Levi pulls back even more, eyebrows rising. This was not the direction he thought this talk was going to go. He thought Erwin would push for more information or try and say something to soothe him. Instead he's making small talk, not pushing for anything deeper. Levi isn't sure if he's relieved by it or not.
"That's it?" he says.
Erwin looks down at him.
"That's it," he says. "Unless there's something else you wanted to talk about."
He wants to. He wants to but he won't push it, because somehow Erwin's come to learn Levi better than Levi thought he had. He leans his head against Erwin's shoulder and hopes that he understands the meaning of the gesture, is pretty certain that he does.
"No," he says. "Nothing else."
Spring hits fast and brings more rain with it. Most days Levi is underground with the laundry, the damp darkness and whirring machines. He trains a new inmate on the machines and gets awarded more privileges, like taking the laundry cart without a guard escort. According to Hanji, he's been displaying impeccable behavior. Pretty soon he'll be able to get a parole hearing. He'll meet with a parole board and hopefully get out of here. In the meantime, he tries to be patient.
It's easer to be patient with Erwin around. As much as Levi hates the routine of prison, he enjoys the routine he's come to craft with Erwin. Once the guards make the rounds, they walk to the bathrooms together, shower side by side. Erwin still lets his hands drift to Levi's hips under the water. They eat breakfast with Mike and shove processed food into their mouths, nurse cups of good coffee. If it's not a workday, they'll head outside, work out or run, sometimes both. After they spend quiet moments in their cell, Erwin with his head draped across Levi's lap as Levi reads. He'll reach down and run his fingers through the short blond strands, absentminded and content.
One day, Erwin's favorite book falls apart from having been read too much. The spine comes undone, pages falling onto the floor. Levi picks them up and tries to shove them back in, but it's beyond repair now. In the end, The Sun Also Rises gets thrown out, useless like some many other things in here have become. Erwin tells him he's been meaning to order a new copy anyway, though weeks later he still hasn't. He keeps ordering things people ask for, forgets to worry about himself.
Things continue to happen that Levi feels removed from. A natural disaster, a riot. They're things that seem nonexistent still. They drifty by as afterthoughts and he can't react to them. But he feels less like he's hanging on the thread of prison life now. Sina isn't a home, it's a temporary holding, but Levi has gotten to know its walls and its leaky pipes and grimy toilets. They are, in a strange way, comforting. Familiar. And even more now, the feeling of Erwin curled around him at night has become something so second nature that Levi has trouble imagining sleeping without it.
Just after Levi hits his six month mark, he notices just how used to Erwin's presence he's gotten. Even seeing him every day, being confined to a cell with him, it doesn't stop Levi from itching for him when they apart. It's not a dependence on Erwin but a feeling of control. Levi feels like he has more control with Erwin around, because he trusts Erwin enough to let him take it. But it also doesn't stop Levi from needing that time to himself, time alone by the laundry machines to think of nothing but white noise.
After a rain shower on a Friday afternoon, the sun peaks through the barred windows, puts everyone in a good mood. Levi and Erwin are walking to the commissary when Hanji steps out of their office, glasses off. Hanji sees Levi frowns.
"Levi," they say. "Would you come here a moment?"
Dread sits in the pit of Levi's stomach. The tone of Hanji's voice doesn't have that same manic joyfulness to it. He walks into their office, Erwin following right behind. Hanji notices him, steps faltering.
"This is a private conversation," Hanji says.
"It's okay," says Levi.
Hanji hesitates for a minute, then just sighs, walks back over to their desk and picks up their glasses. They're hesitating, Levi can tell, and that only makes him more nervous.
"What?" he says. "What is it?"
Hanji taps their closed fist on the desk.
"I received a call from the hospital this morning. They had someone come in with multiple gunshot wounds from a drive-by shooting…the victim didn't make it. You were listed as her next of kin."
Abruptly, all feeling leaves Levi's body. He's washed white, numb, every limb and tendon frozen.
"I don't understand," he says.
Hanji's eyes soften even further.
"Isabel Magnolia," they say. "I'm afraid she was killed early this morning. The hospital was directed here to notify her next of kin."
Levi blinks, keeps blinking. He's heard the words, every one of them, but somehow it's not registering. It's not making sense. He talked to Isabel yesterday. She laughed, she was going out with a friend. She was alive. She can't suddenly not be alive. Levi looks at Erwin, expecting him to correct Hanji, to make them understand. But Erwin is watching Levi with an expression of shock, sympathy.
"I'm sorry," Hanji says. "There's chapel, or I can arrange for a grief counselor to come—"
"The funeral," Levi says, and his voice sounds hollow in his own ears.
Hanji worries at their lip a moment.
"I'm afraid it will be near impossible to grant you release to attend."
That's all he needs to hear. Levi turns and walks out, brushes right past Erwin, determined to walk but unsure of his own destination. He walks to the stairs, eyes blurring, not registering his feet beneath him. She's dead. Isabel is dead. Was it Rose? Was it random? Where was the shooting? These are questions he can't even fucking answer. Levi gets halfway down the stairs before Erwin catches up with him.
He keeps walking, Erwin's voice an afterthought.
"Levi." Erwin grabs his arm, spins him around. "Levi…"
Levi stares at the zipper of Erwin's jumpsuit, then draws his gaze up.
"I'm so sorry," Erwin says. He reaches out, strokes Levi's cheek. "I'm so sorry, Levi."
"I'll kill them," Levi says.
Erwin's hand stills on his cheek.
"I'll find whoever did it and kill them."
"You know you can't do that." Erwin strokes his cheek again, but the touch is making Levi hysterical. "You'll end up right back here."
Levi seizes him by the neck, consumed by something blinding—rage, grief. He's furious at Erwin, furious at Isabel, at Hanji, at himself. He knows nothing but anger and he doesn't want to hear this. He doesn't want reason. He pushes Erwin back by the throat and Erwin doesn't try and stop him, doesn't even speak.
"Don't tell me what I can't do," Levi says. He lets go of Erwin's neck and pulls away. "Don't follow me."
He walks. He walks the stairs and past the guard at the open door to outside, ignores the gazes of the inmates. Levi doesn't know where he's going. He just walks. When he and Isabel talked yesterday, she mentioned them getting sushi once he got out. She was going to take him to all the places he couldn't go on the inside. They were going to see each other in six months, and it was so soon. Levi reaches the fence by the track and then his legs give out. He collapses into the wet grass and mud. Isabel is dead. She's dead and he wasn't there to protect her. He thinks he's going to vomit. Levi puts a hand over his mouth, ready for it, but instead he cries, the outburst unexpected. It hurts. The tears feel hot, painful. And Levi can't even stop them. They wrack his chest and he sobs, moisture running down over his fingers.
Erwin is there now, and he bends down next to him. He followed anyway. Of course he did. Levi only now notices. He sits next to Levi in the wet grass and puts a hand on his back while Levi cries, his whole body shaking. He doesn't say anything. He lets Levi cry, his hand the only thing that Levi is aware of. Somehow it's keeping him grounded. Somehow he feels all right with it there, with Erwin there.
"Let's go inside," Erwin says. He touches Levi's arm. "Let me take you inside."
Levi lets Erwin help him up. He leans against him and feels drunk, unsteady. No one says anything as they walk back inside, Erwin with his arm around Levi and Levi's face red and splotchy. They walk the stairs together and then Erwin steers Levi to the bathrooms.
"Get washed up," he says. "Take your time."
He leaves Levi in the bathrooms, not for lack of caring but of understanding. Levi needs this moment alone. He steps over to the sink, runs the water and splashes it over his face, squeezes his eyes shut tight before opening them and looking into the mirror. His eyes are puffy and swollen, cheeks red. Suddenly Levi can't think of anything, can't think at all. He braces his hands over the sink and stares at himself until the reflection almost doesn't seem real.
When he gets back into the cell Erwin is reading on his bed. He looks up when Levi walks in, not expectant, just acknowledging that he's here. Levi doesn't know what to say. There really isn't anything to say, and he appreciates that Erwin hasn't tried to console him with bullshit. He's just there. Levi walks over to his bed and Erwin puts his back down like he's already read Levi's mind about what he's going to do. Levi climbs next to him in the bed and Erwin immediately holds him, arms solid. He drops his head into Erwin's lap and allows himself to be held, fingers holding onto the rough fabric of Erwin's jumpsuit. Levi doesn't know how else to show Erwin that he trusts him. Saying it outright seems too terrifying at the moment.
Erwin's fingers card through his hair and Levi's eyes sting, so he shuts them.
"I was it, I was all she had." Levi swallows thickly. "She was all I had."
He opens his eyes and sees Erwin looking at him like he's just said the saddest thing in the whole world.
"I was supposed to take care of her. She told everyone I was her brother."
"Levi," Erwin says. "Don't do this to yourself now. Just rest, okay? Just rest."
Rather than fight him, Levi closes his eyes again. He's just so tired, and even thinking seems like a chore, so Levi doesn't. He relaxes into Erwin and falls asleep.
He wakes up expecting to be home for the first time in months. It startles him, and he tries to sit up, but Erwin is there to calm him. He holds Levi in his lap, hands on his shoulders, forces him to see where he is.
"It's all right," he says. "It's all right."
Levi stills and makes himself breathe. He gets his bearings back. He's in prison still. Isabel is dead. He closes his eyes as the information hits him again, feels how they're still swollen.
"Isabel died," he says, as if Erwin hadn't heard.
"I know." Erwin strokes his hair. "Do you want to talk?"
Levi shakes his head and tries to sit up again. This time Erwin lets him. He rubs a hand over his face glances at the high window, tries to gauge the time.
"How long did I sleep?"
"A few hours," Erwin says. "Dinner is in thirty minutes."
Levi doesn't respond. Talking seems like it would take too much effort. He stretches instead, still exhausted, and avoids laying on Erwin again out of some misplaced embarrassment. Some feeling of weakness. Like he's shown too much. Levi is afraid of losing everything. He already has.
"I worked for a very large firm before I was arrested," Erwin says.
Levi shifts on the bed, has to take a moment to understand what's happening. When he does, he looks at Erwin. He doesn't speak. He waits for Erwin to continue.
"We won a lot of cases. I was very good at my job. I enjoyed helping people." Erwin pauses, runs his tongue over his teeth. "But then I found out that some of my partners were cutting deals with judges for money. I couldn't just stand by and let that happen. I…attempted to blow the whistle, leak the information, but while investigating my partners one of them found out. I still don't know how. I was fired, then charged with burglary of classified files. It was a bogus charge, but the judge involved was crooked. They sentenced me to four years in prison. Of course, some of the other partners caught wind of what was happening, and they've been helping me ever since."
Levi swallows, mouth dry. He can't believe Erwin is telling him this. He had been so resigned to never knowing. It was just one of Erwin's secrets, and he has many.
"How long have you been in?"
"Just over three years now." Erwin smiles, hardened. "I had my parole denied last year, but this year I'm hopeful."
Levi sits back on his elbows and stares ahead. Hearing Erwin's story, it's a show of trust. Levi is certain that he's the only inmate who knows. But hearing it has also made him angry, angry for Erwin. Being in prison is one thing, but being falsely accused and incarcerated for over three years is something else entirely. And yet Erwin has never once showed discontent being here. Levi doesn't understand how.
"How are you not a bitter old man?" he says.
Erwin looks at him a moment, then throws his head back and laughs. He chest shakes, laughter echoing off the walls.
"Seriously," Levi says. "How are you not angry?"
"I tried to be," Erwin says, serious now. "But it did nothing for me. I let it go."
Levi is quietly jealous for a moment, then admirable. Admires the fact that Erwin, through all of this, has maintained his humanity and sanity. Levi wishes he could say the same.
"Though sometimes I wonder if I deserve this," Erwin says. "For failing to stop them."
"Shut up." Levi says it quickly, not to bite but to reassure. "You're probably the only person in here who doesn't deserve this."
"I'm no better than anyone else here."
"Yes, you are," Levi says, and in saying it he's saying that Erwin is better than himself. But it's true. Erwin is a wholly good person. Levi isn't. He's never considered himself to be.
"Levi," Erwin says, leans over to press their foreheads together. "Thank you."
Levi shuts his eyes, holds on to the quiet for a moment. He wishes he could hold on to it forever.
"I don't know what to do," he says.
Erwin holds the back of his neck, fingers massaging gently into the muscle.
"You don't have to do anything right now," he says.
And so they stay there, bodies pressed close, and Levi does nothing.
Hanji helps him arrange for flowers to be sent to the funeral home. Isabel's things, though few, are sent to into storage. All that's left of her life fits into one storage unit. The day of the funeral, nothing is different. There is no rain, no mourning clouds. Spring sunshine mocks Levi through the windows and he goes on with his day like normal, because if it falls apart then so will he. Levi imagines moments of the funeral, Isabel's friends crying, the color of her casket, the distinct absence of his presence. He sent out instructions for her to buried in her favorite jacket, one he bought her. He hopes they were followed. He hopes Isabel will understand why he wasn't there.
Near midday, Hanji calls him into their office and shuts the door.
"I thought you would want to know the details of shooting."
Levi clenches his fist automatically.
"Gang-related?" he says. "It was the Rose gang, wasn't it?"
Hanji shakes their head and Levi stands confused.
"I have a friend in the gang unit so I asked him for a favor." Hanji clicks through to their email, scans through. "An eye witness was able to identify the driver of the vehicle. He's with the Trost gang. Apparently they were trying to send a message to a new gang starting on their turf."
The florescent light in Hanji's office flickers and Levi glances up. Trost gang. They'd never dealt with them. They operated on the opposite side of the city, completely away from their area. It wasn't Rose. He thought it was them, he wanted it to be them. Levi doesn't know why that disappoints him. He'd been holding onto this anger for them, this drive to hate, but now he can't seem to grasp it. He isn't sure how to react.
"So she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," he says.
"Looks that way," Hanji says. "I know a SWAT team is moving in soon to get this guy. He won't be on the streets for long. I hope that's a small comfort to you, Levi."
Levi nods, though he doesn't feel comforted. He feels numb again, lost. It was just a random crime that Isabel happened to be there for. Levi can't even really be vengeful for her, and somehow that's worse.
"Thanks," he says, and watches the light flicker again.
For the rest of the day, he's quiet. Hanji tells him he's excused from laundry duty, but he does it anyway. Sitting idle doesn't seem like a good idea. Erwin notices something is off, even Mike notices that something is off but he says nothing. That's part of the reason why he's someone Levi considers a friend in here. He knows when to not say anything. Even Erwin, who's good at pushing, doesn't ask. He stays close, closer than usual, but does not push.
It isn't until lights out is called that Erwin asks how he's doing. The concern in his voice has Levi feeling strangely guilty.
"It wasn't Rose," he says.
They're standing together in the middle of the cell, Erwin's hands on Levi's shoulders.
"What do you mean?"
"I talked to Hanji." Levi pauses, tries to figure out how to explain something he doesn't quite understand still. "It was just…random. She was just in the wrong place. That's it."
"I see," Erwin says.
Maybe he doesn't quite get it, or maybe he does, but he doesn't let go either way. They stand together in the darkness.
"You wanted a better reason," Erwin says.
Levi wanted a lot of things. The only comfort he has now is in knowing that he can visit her grave when he gets out. Six more months, though Levi isn't as desperate to leave now as he was before. He hadn't realized that until just now. For six months he'd been scrambling, worrying. But now he has more in prison than out of it. All that's left is here, and Levi has trouble imagining the outside world without Isabel, doesn't particularly want to. He doesn't want to think at all. So when Erwin opens his mouth again Levi kisses him. Kisses him wet and full of intent, fingers reaching for the zipper on his jumpsuit.
Erwin hesitates, stills his hands. "Levi…"
"Come on," Levi says, nips his lips. "I want you, come on."
He looks at Erwin, eyes hard, and tries to make him understand. And after a moment, Erwin seems to. He unzips his jumpsuit and Levi kisses his chest and presses his nose against his skin.
"You want this?" Erwin says, and Levi nods against him.
They fuck on the bed, Levi on his back to let Erwin do the work. All he does is lay there and take it, palms Erwin's ass to try and pull him deeper. He hurried along the prep work in his desperation but the burn feels good. He likes that it hurts a little, likes how his thighs are stretched so wide around Erwin's hips, how Erwin's face is drawn tight with pleasure. Levi lets his head fall back and closes his eyes.
He thinks of a coffin lowering. He wonders what Isabel was doing out so late, being so stupid. He thinks. When Erwin's hand wraps around his throat, Levi's eyes open. It's just the slightest bit of pressure, but all his attention is on Erwin now, back in the here and now. Erwin is looking down at him like he really does understand, and also gauging Levi's reaction, his boundaries.
Levi pushes his neck into Erwin's grip. Erwin increases the pressure. His thrusts become more powerful, each one shifting the bed a bit. Levi feels lodged on his cock, the drag of it sending little sparks into his groin. And the harder Erwin's grip on his throat becomes, the tighter his groin gets. He can't breathe properly now and his body tenses in the struggle for air. He feels a bit lightheaded, mouth dropping open. Levi gasps for air but none comes. His body tenses up again, this time the pressure sending Erwin into orgasm. He jerks forward, body stilling and grip going slack, his muscles shaking. Levi takes huge breaths, still hard, still ready.
When Erwin pulls out he whines, the emptiness startling, but Erwin replaces his cock with his fingers. His grip on Levi's neck tightens again, this time more than before. Levi lets his legs fall open. He looks at Erwin as the pressure on his trachea becomes painful.
"That's right," Erwin says. "Watch me. Look at me."
The lack of air is terrifying but he likes it. A strangled noise reaches up from Levi's throat and echoes past his lips, sticks in the air around them. It's a lot of stimulation at once, Erwin's fingers working him and his hand on his throat and feeling of the world going fuzzy, of nothing existing. No thoughts. And the whole time he watches Erwin and the halo of his hair.
Levi tries to inhale one last time for air, and then he comes. The intensity of it is shocking. He goes impossibly tense, then limp. Erwin's hand drops from his neck, his fingers easing out. Levi turns to the side and gasps ragged, curls in and coughs. Erwin is already wrapping himself around him, holding him close and stroking his sternum.
"That's it, breathe," he says. "You're okay. Breathe."
Levi breathes. Reaches up, holds Erwin's arm and breathes. And after a while, the breathing gets easier.
He cries later. Cries like when he collapsed in the yard. Levi quiets the sobbing by pressing his face into the sheets but the whole bed shakes. He feels Erwin's arm wrap around him and just cries. It lasts a long time, almost an hour, and then there's nothing. He can't cry anymore. And through all that Erwin holds him. Even when the sun rises and reality returns, Erwin is still holding him.
Something changes after that. It isn't just between then. It's everything. Levi notices it in the air, in the discordant rhythm of the prison. He can't quite put a finger on what it is, but it feels like time has sped up, like there is nothing to wait for. He doesn't look at Erwin anymore as a distraction to occupy his mind until he's released. Erwin's become more important than that to him. A lot more important. Levi relies on him, not for any sort of protection or even sexual release, but to keep him grounded emotionally.
And Erwin relies on him too. Levi hadn't realized it at first, maybe because he'd been too caught up in his own bullshit. But Erwin is constantly watching him with a tenderness in his eyes that Levi understands is only reserved for him. Three years in prison and Erwin is still able to trust. Levi isn't sure what he was like before he got incarcerated, but he gets the feeling that Erwin's never done much for himself. Especially with everything that has happened to him. But Levi has taken so much, and Erwin has never asked for anything back.
"I need a favor," he says to Ian one day.
He's snuck into the kitchens before anger management, Ian chopping carrots and surrounded by the dirty chrome. Ian looks back at him, still chopping, hair caught in his chef's hat.
"Erwin's not with you," he says, sounds surprised.
"We're not attached at the hip, you know," Levi says.
Ian sets his knife down and turns around, wipes his hands on a towel.
"Coulda fooled me." He throws the towel over his shoulder. "So what do you need?"
Levi pulls a folded slip of paper from his jumpsuit pocket and hands it over to him. Ian takes it, reads it, and then looks up frowning.
"This is seriously what you want?" he says.
"Yeah," says Levi. "Can you get it?"
Ian tucks the paper into his pocket.
"I can try. No charge since you're one of Erwin's."
One of Erwin's. Levi is in too much of a hurry to get angry about that comment.
"Don't tell Erwin," he says.
Ian squints but doesn't question it. He waves Levi off and turns back around to continue chopping.
It comes in a week later, during the excitement about a bird's nest below one of the cafeteria windows. There's an awning underneath the window and a robin built its nest there, laid eggs. Nile was the first one to notice it, and now everyone goes over to check on it and see if the eggs have hatched yet. They check so often that the guards yell at them to quit crowding.
"If those birds have any sense they'll fly off soon as they're able," Mike says. "Get as far away from here as possible."
"Maybe they'll learn to like it," Levi says, and shrugs.
He sneaks back into the kitchens after lunch and meets Ian, who pulls the package out of a vegetable delivery and hands it to him. It smells like lettuce. Levi unwraps it to check.
"That what you wanted?" Ian says.
Levi nods. "Yeah. Thanks."
Ian scratches the back of his head. "Kind of a weird request. You like Hemingway or some shit?"
Levi tucks the package under his arm.
"No, but I know someone who does."
They're laying in bed when he gives it to him. Levi is stupid embarrassed the rest of the day, hyper aware of the package under his mattress. Erwin notices, because Erwin notices everything, but he waits like always for Levi to reveal himself. And after lights out, Levi does. He untangles himself from Erwin and walks over to his bed, wordless, and pulls the package out from under his mattress. It's wrapped in construction paper.
"What's this?" Erwin says, sitting up.
Levi considers shoving it back under his mattress and saying nothing, pretending it's nothing, but he hands it over to Erwin anyway. He looks down while he unwraps it, waits for Erwin's reaction, an absurd expectation for rejection gripping him. Instead he hears a quiet, "Oh," from Erwin, and looks up. Erwin is holding the book in his hands, construction paper forgotten on the floor. He knows it's hard to see in the darkness but Erwin is smiling and for some reason Levi feels all the more embarrassed.
"A new copy of The Sun Also Rises," Erwin says. "What did I do to deserve this?"
He flips through a few pages, turns the book over and Levi thinks, everything. You did everything. Erwin is looking at him, smiling.
"Well you said your other copy fell apart, so…" Levi folds his arms. "I thought you'd want another one."
He isn't sure what else to say, but luckily Erwin speaks for him.
"Thank you, Levi."
"It's not a big deal. I just asked Ian—"
"Come here," Erwin says. He sets the book down.
Levi walks forward and Erwin catches his arm, pulls him into him and kisses the curve of his neck. Levi drops his head back.
"Thank you," Erwin says into his neck. "Thank you, thank you."
Levi leans his head forward again and runs his hand through Erwin's hair, nails scraping.
"I want to stay with you," he says.
Erwin leans back and looks at Levi, their gazes level. He looks shocked at Levi's words, his willingness to stay. It's not just that Levi has nothing left, it's that he wants to able to build something with the fractured pieces of his life, and he wants to do it with Erwin.
"Then stay with me," Erwin says.
"Okay," Levi says, and then kisses him. "Okay," he says again. And then again, until words no longer come to him.
Hanji starts to set up his parole the next week. With everything that's happened, parole hasn't even been on Levi's mind. He's been too busy with Erwin, too busy helping move things, too busy thinking about anything but leaving. But Hanji calls him into their office after working that day and looks more manic than usual. They can barely sit still. Levi takes a seat across, slightly alarmed. He smells like freshly dried sheets and cheap fabric softener.
"What the hell are you so happy about?" he says.
Hanji makes a noise close to a giggle.
"Parole," Hanji says. "Your parole, more specifically."
Levi swallows. "I have a hearing?"
"Next month." Hanji grabs the top paper on their desk and shows it to Levi. "A parole board will meet with you and decide if you're ready to be released."
Levi stares at the paper. He should be happy. In a way, he is, he's happy at the thought of being able to walk around with running into an armed guard every two minutes. But it isn't like before. When he leaves now, Levi isn't sure where he's going to go.
"What do I do?" he says.
"Nothing for right now, just keep going through the motions. Once the date gets closer we'll talk and prepare, okay? I just wanted you to be aware."
Levi nods but it's delayed, sets the paper back down.
"Just okay?" Hanji holds the paper up again and shakes it. "You could be getting out at seven months, Levi. Show some enthusiasm."
"This is my enthusiasm," Levi says.
He tries to think about the feeling of leaving, of getting rid of the fences and the schedules. But the only thing that comes to mind is Erwin. When Levi thinks of getting out, he keeps thinking of Erwin.
He waits until night to tell Erwin, when he meets him after anger management. Levi's hesitant about telling him even though he knows Erwin's reaction will be positive. He's not someone Levi would call selfish. When Levi turns around after they end class, he sees Erwin waiting for him, and it's a good feeling, knowing that when he turns Erwin will be there. They walk down the hall, silent, clad in short sleeve jumpsuits now for the late spring. Fashionable, Erwin had said when they got them, trying to be funny, and Levi had kicked him, something close to a grin on his face.
"Let's stop by the commissary before it closes," Erwin says. "I want to get some candy."
It's a bit late for candy, but Erwin has something of a sweet tooth and Levi is almost too distracted to say anything about it.
"You're going to rot your damn teeth out."
"Will you still kiss me if I need dentures?"
Erwin gets a bag of gummy worms and opens it right there in the hall. As he and Levi walk back to their cell, Erwin holds the bag between them so Levi can take a few. Levi doesn't usually eat candy, but he has a habit of wanting whatever Erwin offers to him. He pops a worm into his mouth and chews it slowly.
"You seem distracted," Erwin says.
Levi swallows the gummy, decides now is a good a time as any.
"I have a parole hearing next month…I could be getting out."
Erwin doesn't miss a beat. "Levi," he says. "That's amazing news."
Levi takes another gummy worm from the bag and shoves it into his mouth.
"I don't know if they'll even approve it—"
"They'll approve it."
He sounds so confident. Levi wishes he had that right now. Bits of gummy are stuck to his teeth and Levi runs his tongue over them.
"You that eager to get rid of me?" he says.
"Just the opposite." Erwin rolls up the half empty bag of candy. "My next parole hearing is on the fifth of next month."
"Oh. You mean…" Levi's heart flutters a bit. "We might get out at the same time."
He stops walking and Erwin stops with him. Erwin had another parole hearing coming up, Levi knew that, but in the chaos of everything it sort of got lost in his memory. And now he has a parole hearing only a week after Erwin. Who knows, after that, what they could do? They wouldn't be confined to prison anymore. They could do anything. It's almost a scary thought.
"Well, that might be nice," Levi says.
Erwin smiles, and the skin around his eyes wrinkles beautifully.
"It might be very nice," he says.
He leans down and kisses Levi, still smiling, lips sweet. Levi allows it even though anyone could see, could not care less at the moment. Erwin hovers just over his lips and his breath smells like candy. Then someone whoops from the side and Levi jolts back into reality, spins his head to glare in the direction it came from. Erwin laughs, tugs on Levi's arm.
"Come on," he says. "Let's go."
And they go.
The month passes by slowly. Levi knew it would, but it doesn't stop him from itching for the days to end. He sticks to his routine just like Hanji said to, works the laundry and goes to anger management and doesn't fight anyone, doesn't even look when a fight is happening. At nights, wrapped in Erwin, Levi thinks about getting out. He hadn't thought about it much over the past few months, didn't want to think about it all when Isabel died. But he lets himself fantasize about it at night, Erwin sleeping next to him.
He thinks about watching a sunrise. Thinks about getting a job, visiting Isabel's grave. Farlan's, too. He thinks about walking outside just because he can, because there are no walls to confine him. And Levi thinks about Erwin, wonders if he has a job lined up, if he'll get his house back. Wonders what he's like outside of these rusting walls. Mostly, the thoughts are good. Mostly, Levi goes to bed with something like hope in his bones.
A few nights he's woken up crying and not remembering the dream but knowing it must have been about Isabel. Anxiety squeezes his chest and he lies there trying to breathe. Erwin is always next to him, and his arms tighten around him with his eyes still closed and Levi can't tell if he's awake or just somehow knows.
Hanji gives him advice over the next few weeks. Every day after breakfast Levi goes into their office and sits while Hanji shows him updates on his file, tells him what to expect.
"I'll be present at the hearing with you as your social worker, and I'll be testifying to the board on your readiness for release."
Hanji shows him his file, the marks made, the comments. Other than the fight he had, his file is pretty clean. He's a good candidate for release, that's what Hanji keeps telling him. That's what Levi keeps telling himself. He doesn't want to think about the alternative.
Mike likes to reassure him even though Levi hasn't shown or voiced any doubt to him. They get to anger management early sometimes and sit in the empty room together, lean against their chairs. Mostly, they sit quiet, but sometimes they'll talk.
"You won't have anyone there trying to stop you from getting out," Mike says. "No victims or anything like that. Do you have a job or anything?"
"No, but I can find one easily enough I think."
"I hear that's good. They want to know you'll be productive when you get out."
A few inmates trickle in and take their seats, scatter around. Levi knows all their stories now, but they don't know his. He hasn't talked about Isabel and he doesn't plan on it. Not even Mike knows.
"What will you do if Erwin leaves?" Levi says. "You could try for parole."
Mike shakes his head. "No. I got seven years and I'm doing seven years. It's what I deserve."
"You'll get along without him?" Levi says.
"I will," says Mike. "Would you?"
It doesn't sound like an accusation, more a question of concern, but Levi still takes it that way. He bristles in his chair, chest tight.
"I'd be fine," he says, unsure, when he says it, of who he's trying to convince.
The day of Erwin's hearing he gets taken out in chains and looks so calm Levi actually gets angry. He inspects Erwin twice before letting him walk out of the cell, Erwin acting like he's just taking a trip to the commissary.
"At least look nervous," Levi says. "Shit, you want them to think you're being smug?"
"I think you're nervous enough for the both of us."
Erwin kisses the top of his head and there's a small tremor to him, enough for Levi to get that he is nervous. He's just trying not to be.
"They'll approve it," he says.
Erwin touches the line of his jaw. "I'll be back in a few hours."
He pulls away but the touch lingers.
"Enjoy the outside," Levi says. "Don't get lost."
Once Erwin goes, he's gone for almost three hours. Levi spends half of the time he's gone outside running and the rest of it in their cell, restless. It feels like Erwin is gone for three days rather than three hours. He wants to go to the front and check but he knows the guards will just yell at him, so Levi sits in the cell, unable to keep any of his limbs still. He tries to read but can't concentrate, ends up chucking the book over to Erwin's bed. Minutes pass, and Levi listens to the nothing sounds. Then he hears footsteps, deliberate, and perks up.
Levi scrambles off the bed and sees Erwin walking down the hall, his face giving nothing away. When he gets close enough, Levi pulls his forward by his jumpsuit, into the cell.
"Erwin, what did they say?"
Erwin grabs his shoulders but doesn't answer.
"What the hell did they say—?"
"Levi," Erwin says. "They approved my parole."
He breaks out into a smile then, and Levi's stomach flips.
"When?" he says. "When are you getting out?"
Levi kisses him. He's relieved, he's happy, but he's also nervous. His nervous they won't approve him. Erwin hugs him with one arm and Levi can feel how fast his heart is beating.
"You'll be out soon, too," he says, and Levi believes him.
He believes something good could come out of all this for the first time.
Hanji is saying his name. They were at the courthouse a minute ago, now they're back at Sina, and Levi doesn't remember a thing in between then. He looks at Hanji, their glasses off, their face long.
"We can make another appeal," Hanji says. "At worst, you'll have five months left. That's less than what you've already served."
Levi hears Hanji but not much else registers. He walks the halls of the prison with them and everything feels sort of numb and dreamlike. Hanji keeps talking, making plans. All Levi can think is, I'm not getting out. He walks right past Hanji's office with Hanji still talking. They call after him but Levi just keeps going.
He has been too wound up to enjoy being outside properly. The trees blurred past like smeared green paint and the bus ride made Levi a bit carsick. They only traveled a few miles to the courthouse. Then Levi was in front of the parole board, and then Hanji leaned over and told him they hadn't approved his parole. Levi didn't understand. He'd done everything right, had a few hiccups in the beginning but he'd been good. The members of the parole board were wearing suits, skirts, hair pulled back neat. They had never been on the inside, they had no what it was like. They had no idea what Levi was riding on for this.
When Levi gets back to the cell, he sees Erwin's things packed into a bag, Erwin sitting on the bed. He's leaving tomorrow. He stands when Levi walks in, face dropping. Levi doesn't have to say anything.
"What happened?" he says.
Levi exhales sharply.
"They didn't approve me. They said I wasn't ready, those fuckers—"
"Okay, okay, calm down."
"—It was that stupid fight with Sannes' lackeys. It wasn't even my fault."
Erwin strokes his face with the back of his palm and Levi realizes that he's shaking, he's pulled so tight now and ready to snap. The prison feels like a coffin again, the walls closing in. It's like he's back to his first day.
"You can make another appeal," Erwin says. "I'll help you. I'll wait—"
"You can't go," Levi says.
Erwin's hand stills on his cheek. He looks pained and Levi feels guilty about it but he also feels hysterical and out of control. He hates him for leaving him, and the anger is misplaced and overwhelming and quickly replaced with panic.
"Levi…" Erwin says.
"You can't leave." Levi shakes his head. "You can't—I can't—Erwin, please—"
"I can't stay," Erwin says. "Levi, please, you know I can't."
Levi grabs the front of his jumpsuit in his fists, holds the rough fabric tight and then lets go, pushes himself back. He feels for the bed and sits down, drops his head. He knows Erwin can't stay, but he wants him to, needs him to. It seems impossible to even be here without him. All of it seems like a bad dream. Erwin comes and sits next to him. He puts an arm around Levi and drags him close.
"I'm sorry," he says. "It wasn't supposed to be like this. It's fucked up."
"It's always been fucked up." Levi leans his head against Erwin's shoulder. "I don't know why we expected any different."
Erwin is silent for a long time.
"I don't either," he says finally.
They have sex that night for the last time. It's different from before. It's goodbye. Levi wraps his legs around Erwin's waist and keeps him like that, winds his arms around his neck and holds him there, their foreheads pressed together. Erwin drives into him slowly, breath hot against his face. They don't speak. Once he comes, he pulls out and takes Levi's cock into his mouth, presses three fingers back in to bring him over the edge. He takes care of him, he always has, and Levi has been so selfish. He's taken so much. Levi bows his back and slams his fists into the mattress and curses Erwin, curses himself, curses everything.
In the morning, a taxi is called for Erwin. People say goodbye at breakfast, but only a few. Mike is going to take over deliveries and Levi will be helping because it's what he knows how to do. After breakfast, Erwin grabs his things from his cell, dressed in plain clothes. He's wearing a button down shirt and nice trousers, somehow exactly what Levi pictured for him. Erwin pulls the sheet up over what used to be his bed and takes a slip of paper from his pocket.
"This is going to be my cellphone number," he says. "So you can call me."
Levi takes the paper, looks at Erwin in his plain clothes and thinks how fucking selfish he's been.
"I want you to promise me something," he says.
"Promise you won't come back here for me."
Erwin's body shifts oddly in front of him, like he's trying to process Levi's words.
"What do you mean?" he says.
"I mean go live a free life," Levi says. "And don't wait for me."
Levi folds the paper with Erwin's number on it and tries to hand it back to him. Erwin just stands there, shocked, unmoving. A guard walks into the cell, knocks on the wall.
"Smith, your taxi is outside."
Erwin blinks and turns. "I'll be just a minute," he says.
He grabs Levi's hand and pushes it back toward his chest gently, the paper with his number on it still folded tight in Levi's hand.
"Please keep it," he says.
"Please," Erwin says.
Levi drops his gaze. He nods. Erwin squeezes his hand and then walks out of the cell with the guard. Once he's out of the doorway, Levi doesn't go to watch him leave. He doesn't move. He stands there with Erwin's number pressed into his palm. Everything feels very empty.
Erwin's absence doesn't hit him, really hit him, until lights out. The prison goes dark and Levi stares at the ceiling, then over to Erwin's old bed. He almost expects Erwin to be in it. But he's not. It's made up perfectly, white and empty and such a blatant, horrible reminder. Levi looks away from it, then looks back. None of it's right, not any of it. He climbs out of his own bed and walks over to the empty one, lays on top of it. The sheets have been washed. The bed doesn't smell like Erwin. It doesn't smell like anything. Levi fits himself into the corner like Erwin is still beside him. He falls asleep.
Four days later, Mike joins him running. Levi's run every day since Erwin left until one of the guard's yells at him to get his ass back inside. Running feels like the only thing left to distract him. When he's not running, he's thinking about how Erwin isn't there. He walks into the cell expecting to see him, still waits for him in the mornings, coming over to the table with coffee for them both. When something ridiculous happens, Levi still turns to make a snide comment to Erwin about it. And when he realizes he's not there, his chest goes cold and then feels like it's crumpling in.
Erwin's phone number is still tucked safely in one of his books, but Levi hasn't called him. He thinks about it in moments when he remembers Erwin isn't there, remembers that Isabel isn't there and he has no one. But he's taken so much already. Even thinking that Erwin might want to hear his voice, he can't bring himself to do it.
So he runs, and that fourth day Mike joins him, catches up and runs silently beside him. Levi skipped the last anger management meeting, so he hasn't seen much of Mike other than eating. They run the length of the track four times together before stopping to catch their breath. Levi wipes his forehead, Mike bending over to breathe.
"Long stride for someone so short," he says.
"Yeah, well you run pretty slow for a giant."
Mike laughs, breathless, and stands upright.
"You've been running a lot lately."
"Keeps me busy," Levi says.
Mike leans against the fence. Warm air blows from the north and cools the sweat on their skin. Even though Levi already knows what Mike is going to say next, he doesn't walk away.
"Are you okay?" Mike says.
"…Have you talked to Erwin?"
Levi looks up at the sky, always an endless blue this time of year. It's the first time he's heard Erwin's name in five days.
"No," he says, and then starts walking.
Mike doesn't follow him. Levi washes his hands inside and splashes water on his face before walking over the kitchens. Lunch is in an hour, so Ian will be preparing. One of the newer inmates sees him and lets him into the kitchens. Ian is standing over a big pot stirring something that looks like chili. He pulls the spoon out to give Levi a taste. Levi holds his hand out.
"That's not sanitary," he says.
Ian laughs and keep stirring.
"Forgot you were a germaphobe."
"It's mysophobia, and I'm not. I just like being clean." Levi pulls a square of paper from his pocket and sets it next to the stove. "Here's the list for next week."
Ian grabs it with his free hand and tucks into his apron without looking.
"Got you," he says. "Hey, you hear anything from Erwin? How's he doing?"
Levi bites the inside of his lip. He's the one people are asking, and of course he would be. Anyone who knew them knew they were together.
"I don't know. I haven't talked to him."
He gets out of the kitchens before Ian can prod him for anything else. His chest feels tight again. Levi only gets so far before he runs right into Nile. He exhales sharply, frustrated. This place has always been too small, now it feels even more so.
"Hey," Nile says. "Have you talked to—?"
Levi shoves him up against the wall before he can finish. Nile's jumpsuit is bunched in his fists, back pressed tightly against the wall. He grabs Levi's wrists for leverage but doesn't try and fight him. Levi doesn't say anything, just breathes heavily, anger flooding his veins and his vision and his heart. If Erwin were here, he'd put a hand on Levi's back and calm him. If Isabel were alive, she'd pull him back by the shirt and try to get a punch in herself. But neither of them is here, and something in his face must give all his emotion away, because Nile squeezes his wrists like he's trying to comfort him.
"I'm sorry," he says.
Levi lets go. Nile stands there with his collar rumple and Levi hates him more than he ever has for understanding. He hesitates there for a moment, neither of them moving, before finally walking away. He spends the rest of the day in his cell.
Levi gets a new cellmate that weekend. He's not told, though he supposes he should have suspected. The prison is crowded as it is. Levi walks in and sees the clothes on the bed, on Erwin's bed, and then the new inmate. He's young, sandy-haired and strung out looking. A drug addict, mostly likely. The cell feels crowded. The inmate look sat Levi, shifting on his feet with his head down.
"Uh, hey," he says, and his voice isn't right.
"Talk to me again and I'll punch your teeth out," Levi says, so angry his head actually hurts.
The inmate shrinks back, shocked, and Levi doesn't even feel bad because he's all wrong. He shouldn't be here. He grabs Erwin's number out of his book and walks over to the phones. He walks fast, seized with some unnamed mission. Once he picks up the phone he slows down. The dial tone is shrill in his ear. Five minutes pass and Levi hasn't dialed any numbers, hasn't done anything except stand there with the receiver tucked against his ear and shoulder. There are inmates talking around him. Most are oblivious, caught up in their own conversations, though a few have looked over, wondering why Levi's spent over five minutes at the phones without talking to anyone.
He finally holds the paper up with Erwin's number on it and presses each number slowly, huddles closer to phone for more privacy. On the first ring, Levi stops breathing. He doesn't know what to say. He doesn't even know why he's calling. The line rings two more times and Levi realizes that Erwin isn't going to pick up. He doesn't know if that's a relief or not. It rings one more time, then goes to voicemail.
"This is Erwin Smith, please leave a message."
The sound of his voice startles Levi. It sounds lighter, but just as smooth and familiar as he remembers it to be. The beep to start the voicemail pulls him back into reality. Levi slams the phone down and walks away. He doesn't know what he was thinking.
He goes back to his cell and, tucks Erwin's number back into his book, his new cellmate missing. He tells himself not to take it out again.
Hanji finds him in the hallway a few days later, a week and half now since Erwin got out. They're walking with a purpose, but they look excited, all their teeth showing.
"Levi," Hanji says. "Levi!"
He stands and waits while Hanji catches up, eyes drooping and tired. He's been tired a lot lately, energy alluding him. Hanji skids to a stop in front of Levi and puts both hands on his shoulders.
"I have good news." Hanji pauses to inhale, apparently out of breath. "You've been granted parole."
Levi hears what Hanji is saying but doesn't know how to respond.
"Did you hear me?" Hanji says.
"I thought…" Levi fumbles to find his words. "I thought my parole wasn't approved. The board said so."
"I know, but I got a call from the courthouse, and they decided to grant you an early release to avoid any more overcrowding." Hanji shrugs, apparently not clear on the details. "Congratulations, Levi. You're getting out in three days."
The day comes like a dream. The last two weeks have felt like walking through mud, and now suddenly he's packing his things, edging the line of freedom. His new cellmate, whose name he still hasn't bothered to learn, is probably thrilled to know he's leaving. He hasn't said one word since Levi threatened him. Levi finally gets his clothes back—black jeans and thin gray t-shirt. It feels strange to be wearing them again. They're a bit stiff, but the fabric is an incredible relief from the over-starched prison jumpsuits. Levi looks at his bed. It's not his anymore. He won't spend another night on it, staring at a cracked ceiling wishing he were somewhere else. Levi slings the bag with his things over his shoulder and walks out of his cell for the last time.
Mike shakes his hand before he leaves. He's waiting by the front offices, the only other one. Levi only told him he was leaving, not anyone else. He's never been very good at goodbyes. When Mike sees Levi he smiles, a satisfied tug of his lips.
"I don't want to see you back here," he says.
Levi nods to him. "You won't."
He walks up the office and a guard and Hanji are waiting for him. The guard will walk him to the front. Once he does, Levi's gone. He's out. Hanji is standing there expectant, though Levi isn't sure what he should say. Thank you, probably. Hanji's helped a lot while he's been here, likes him for some reason. It's strange to think about leaving them behind to deal with all this bullshit. But this is Hanji's job, and for whatever reason, they seem to like it.
"I called a taxi for you," Hanji says. "It should be waiting out front."
"Thank you," Levi says, and he's not just talking about the taxi. "So this is it?"
"This is it," Hanji says, look like they're considering saying something else, but instead smiles. "Goodbye, Levi."
Levi reaches out and shakes Hanji's hand.
"Come on," the guard says. "Or that taxi will drive off."
He walks Levi through two sets of electronic doors, and then buzzes him through. There are two new inmates waiting to be processed, and they watch Levi with jealousy in their eyes. The last door Levi opens himself. He looks back once and the guard is already walking away, the barred door closing behind him. He's out, he's really out.
Levi steps through the door and outside. It's warm. There's sunshine, a breeze. Levi walks toward the open gate, struggling not to break into a run, half afraid they'll shut it again and he'll be trapped. But they don't shut it. Levi walks right out and a guard nods to him before the gate starts to squeak shut again, metal and barbed wire shaking. There's a yellow cab parked to take him wherever he wants to go, though Levi isn't sure where that's going to yet. He has some acquaintances in the lower town he can stay with for a bit, but long-term plans aren't something Levi's thought of yet.
To the left of the cab, Levi notices another car, a black sedan with the motor running. He squints against the sun and tries to see who the driver is, but the glare blocks his view. The door of the car opens, and then Erwin steps out.
"Levi," he says. "Get in."
It's a shock to his face again. He looks good, sunglasses on, dressed in light button down shirt. Levi can't quite catch his breath, can't quite get his feet to move. How did he know? When Hanji told him he was getting out, he thought about calling Erwin again, but ultimately didn't. His number is still tucked into a book though. Levi looks at the taxi again and then walks to Erwin's car and gets in.
It smells like leather inside, leather and air conditioning. Erwin puts his bag in the backseat and then gets back in and shuts the doors. Levi runs his fingers over the leather, a texture he hasn't felt in almost eight months. He feels nervous and awkward, a lot of questions buzzing in his mind that he can't seem to ask. Erwin puts the car in drive and they start moving. Levi looks back at the fading buildings of Sina, the yellow cab shrinking to a dot.
"You talked to a judge, didn't you?" he says.
Erwin comes to a stop at the end of the road, cars driving by them. It's a sound Levi almost forgot.
"I had an attorney friend mention the overcrowding."
He doesn't pull out onto the main road. The car vibrates underneath them, sunshine speckled through the trees. Levi looks at Erwin. His face is solid, without expectation. His eyes are watching the road with a focus that tells Levi he's trying not to look at him.
"Why didn't you call me?" he says.
Levi pulls at a loose thread on his shirt. "I don't know," he says, but that's a lie. He corrects himself. "I didn't want to be selfish. I wanted you to be selfish."
Erwin laughs low, takes off his sunglasses and finally looks at Levi.
"I was always very selfish for you," he says, and this time Levi has to look away.
Erwin puts his sunglasses back on and they sit in silence again. Erwin helped him get out early. He helped him do so much, and all he wanted in return was Levi.
"Are you headed anywhere?" he says.
Levi watches the black of the road, cars going either direction, any direction. "I don't know where to go."
"I have a house near downtown."
Erwin's face is less schooled now, his fingers tapping nervous against the steering wheel. Levi's heartbeat speeds up.
"You can stay with me," he says, and quickly adds, "If you want."
Levi watches another car go by. Everything he's had in the last eight months is in Erwin's backseat. And everything he has left is sitting next to him. He doesn't know why, anymore, he thought pushing Erwin away was the best thing. Like Erwin had been doing him a favor. Like he hadn't wanted it just as much.
"Stay with me," Erwin says again.
"Okay," Levi says, without thinking about it, without hesitating, because there is nothing else to think about.
He reaches across the gearshift and grabs Erwin's hand. Erwin squeezes back. And Levi feels like he knows exactly where he's going. Erwin takes his foot off the brake, and they pull out onto the main road.