Winter comes quiet. Voiceless and silent. With snowflakes brushing Levi’s face along with the soundless wind.
It’s not like autumn with its howling whistles and crisp scatters of leaves. It’s not like spring when the snow melts, revealing eager crocuses in violet, yellow, and highlighted white. It’s not like summer with bright golden sun, and life everywhere.
Each other season reminds Levi of Eren in a way winter does not.
Spring is fresh. A covenant. It’s icy and warm alike. As are its breathless words and promises of genesis anew. It’s like Eren’s bold, knowing glances were. Looks sent into Levi’s orbit while pulling Eren’s heat as close as he could through the clothing that was the only barricade still between them. Spring’s colors are like Eren’s eyes were in the sun-drenched afternoon; new-birthed gossamer-green revealed above curious smiles and the vows of a new day. The pink of his lips like the hues of the morning sunrise. His nape’s scent in the morning; dewy and light with a hint of his strength.
Summer is richer. Bountiful. Like cool sun-dappled water cascading over rock. It’s alive with crickets chirping their nighttime song, the first teetering steps of new life, and swooping birds. Abundant and boisterous. Its rain brings forth growth with tints of every shade. Flavors sweet and mild, and floral-perfumed breeze. It parts the drapes at night revealing a season that never sleeps before its heat rocks one into wakefulness at dawn.
Autumn reminds Levi of Eren’s tone. His skin and his hair. The post-summer weariness winding down reminds him of falling asleep in his arms. It’s slumber’s oath, falling and falling like the green leaves which give way to red, gold, and orange. It’s spicy-warm and sweet; apples cooked with cinnamon but also cool like the brisk breezes invading it. A dichotomy. It’s like Eren’s shouting whispers of, look at this, look at this! followed by a sheltered embrace. Unpredictable, yet fortified with a promise of cloistered heat amidst the inevitable kiss of coming cold.
If the seasons were music, winter is minors, while summer is majors. Spring and autumn are an abstract symphony of both. Sometimes dissonant. A juxtaposition of joyful and somberly plaintive.
Levi contemplates the endless cycle. He digs his fingers into the wounded place in his chest.
He thinks of Eren.
But Eren is gone now. He has been for a long time.
During the climax of the war, following the crescendo which preceded the conclusion, Eren took into him the last shifter, and with it, the last fragment of Ymir’s soul. When it happened, there was a flash, like a thousand erupting bombs, and then, pieces of flesh everywhere that steamed away to nothing.
Levi was far from that area of the battle when it happened. He watched the explosion in the distance like a miniature sun was birthed across the skyline, his heart plummeting. When finally, he was closer, there was no flesh to cut Eren from and no Eren either.
“The soul’s fragments disappeared … and Eren with them,” Hanji said when Levi arrived. She looked at him grimly, with her regretful glassy eye. He flinched when she put a hand on his arm, yanking it away as she continued, “The curse is gone. He was willing to sacrifice to make us free. He can be at peace now.”
Her words weren’t a bandage for his private wounds. And so, Levi looked. Searched for Eren through war rubbish, twisted metal, and blood, knowing he wouldn’t find him. His mind and legs wandered while everyone else marched through the ordinary motions that follow a loss. There was mourning and grieving, tears from some, and “Good riddance” from others; those who could never forgive nor understand.
The Hope, the Usurper. The savior, the destroyer. A hero, a demon. A monster, a man.
Levi felt death before. He knew it intimately, like a dogged ache in a bone. The same sort he is still accustomed to, though scowls at now. It’s like a grouchy old friend whose endearing complaints are something akin to a worn and scratchy, but familiar blanket.
Throughout his life, there was ever a sensation when someone was lost. A feeling of hollow, evanesce finality signifying the end. A cord cut. Though not with this. He felt it with his mother, even with Kenny—though a bit differently—and each comrade in turn.
It was the order of things, and death, as much as he abhorred it, always reminded Levi he was still alive.
It doesn’t anymore.
And this … it is like Eren is a ghost. Everywhere, yet nowhere.
He sees him in the market, on the streets, through the window of the teashop. His voice whispers through the trees that enclose Levi’s meager home. It howls and rattles his windows during late November storms. His smile is there in the morning when the sun wakes, and his frown when the weather turns broody and grey.
Eren surrounds Levi despite it being six years since he ceased to be. Even without a body, Levi knows his demise to be real, and if by some chance it weren’t, Eren would have perished from the curse two years ago.
Sighing into the elements at the flash of intense green eyes behind his own, Levi sets his jaw as he tugs at his collar, insulating his ears from the chilly breeze. The only sounds are from his feet crunching on frozen leaves and the rustling in branches as he walks through the season’s first dusting of snow.
Trudging along the easiest route home, he stumbles as his old leg injury sends a shock straight to his hip.
“Shit …” He should have taken his horse.
Leaving at dawn with the sun shining and the last of autumn’s most stubborn leaves slipping from the trees, Levi decided against it, but now as twilight paints the sky like a grieving shadow, he curses his poor decision.
He can see his house and barn on the rise beyond the moorland. The windows are glowless. No welcoming smoke heralds warmth from the chimney or stove pipe. And the roof is littered with a sprinkle of late autumn dross. It’s a smudge through the landscape of slumbering trees surrounding it. A tomb, he thinks. A sepulchre built of logs and round, heavy stones shaded by bare oaks and evergreens.
The scent of their needles is heavy in the air today. It intensifies as he approaches.
Their fragrance still reminds him of Eren.
Levi’s throat tightens against the cold, and the hollow in his chest knocks against his ribs to remind him it’s there.
A knot existed in the same place before Eren was gone. It would constrict and loosen, sometimes it would tingle and warm. It would stop Levi’s breath when kindly-fierce green eyes looked into him. Earnest and unwavering while somehow remaining fond and soft at the same time.
Lifting his head from the ground beneath his feet, he abandons his memories and swipes away an icy-wet flake from his cheek.
It’s only a little farther.
* * *
When Levi reaches his house, he shakes away the frost and disentangles his arms from himself. He’s not sure when they snuck up there, whether he’s done it because of the unforgiving breeze or in some unconscious need for comfort against his wayward thoughts.
Opening the door doesn’t help either. It reveals a different sort of cold. One that is barren and stark and tenebrous. The remnants of logs which smoldered when he departed are all but ash, and the oil lamps sit gloomily in their appointed homes. The tiny house feels as if it’s as large as an estate. Like the hearths and stove’s warmth could never reach all the corners and walls.
He sets his satchel on the floor, removes his boots, and places them next to the door, shivering as he hangs his knitted cap and coat on the hooks above. Von, his feline compatriot, trots over, rubbing his head against Levi’s swollen ankle as if his purrs could heal it.
“Hello,” he says as he looks at the grey ball of fluff blinking wide yellow-green eyes at him, then pulls off his gloves, and puts them in his coat pocket where they belong.
War and loss and pain have done nothing to stave Levi’s need for routine. If anything, they have bolstered it. He’s no longer a thug; he left that life long ago. And he’s no longer a soldier; he abandoned being anyone’s strongest the day the war ended.
Now he is only Levi. A man in a secluded cabin, stripped of all the masks he has ever donned. The nucleus of a modest, ritual steeped being whose ramparts have fallen.
He was never the sort to make lofty or detailed life plans. Of course, when he was younger, he planned—dreamed—to live in the light. Then he did, and he didn’t think of what would come afterward. When he shared evenings with Eren, he never envisioned it as a future. And when the lifespan was revealed, well, Levi took each moment with Eren as its own. He existed in them and didn’t contemplate the next.
Entertaining ‘what ifs’ and hopes was a follied chasm only a fool allowed himself to fall into, and it remains to be still.
Smoothing his snow-dampened hair to repel the memories, Levi peers around his home and shuffles through the cramping in his leg to his kitchen table. He checks Von isn’t on his chair despite the necessity to relieve the weight on his left ankle and places his bag before him. The cabin is chilled, yet he ignores the fireplace and stove and only lights the lamp inches away from his frosty hands, releasing a breath he can see swirl from between his lips.
The delicate vapors dying in the chilled winter air remind him of Eren too.
He closes his eyes at the empty grate and stretches the worst of the knots from his leg, then stares into the dim beyond the kitchen. A pair of armchairs guard the sitting area. He doesn’t know why he keeps them both. One embraces him with familiarity, and, at times, the scent of fitful rest, blade oil, and respite from war. The other smells like sunshine and pine and memories Levi sometimes wishes he could forget. Von is the only one who sits in it.
Five years ago, the first time he walked onto this property to view it, he found Von in the barn; thin, matted, and mewling. The house itself, strewn with broken furniture, was a dusty, empty canvas, neglected since the fall of Wall Maria. Abandoned during the hysteria and terror which followed, its occupants never came back to claim it.
And Levi thinks—with a brush of regret that comes these days fleetingly—they are most likely dead.
After half a day, his decision was made. He returned to the barracks with a stubbornly following Von in tow, bought a cart, paid the military four years salary for both his horse, Eurus, and Eren’s horse, Vaka, and then packed up the few items he owned, much to Hanji’s consternation.
With a faint twist in his chest, he recalls arriving in her office to tender his resignation. The stricken look in her remaining war-broken, brown eye wasn’t different than anyone else’s; distant and desolate—they had all seen too much—but her tears almost caused him to falter.
In the end, he stayed an extra night. They drank whiskey, and Hanji spent the better part of the late hours ambling between drunken reminiscence and dodging Levi’s snaps after each attempt for him to speak about Eren. At dawn, he hugged her farewell, passed her a slip of parchment with his address, telling her she was welcome to visit, and then departed.
When he returned home and took residence, the spider broom was the first tool to come out. Before Levi unpacked even a shred of clothing, he tied on his pair of handkerchiefs. One over his hair, another to cover his mouth and nose. Then he began from the top. At the corners, where the walls met the ceilings, and poured all his loneliness into a practical task, the familiar and tried movements of swiping away cobwebs and unwanted inhabitants falsely filling the empty spot beneath his ribs with potent purpose. The lie he told himself wasn’t unnoticed, but still, he worked. Through sore muscles, tired bones, and with hands raw from scrubbing with harsh soap and disinfectants.
After he was finished, he was left with a sparkling clean, yet almost empty dwelling. There was no bed. He didn’t own one. There was no table for meals, he didn’t have one of his own either. All he had were his trunk and its contents, a phonograph, a small round table, and two mismatched chairs. Both covered in soft red-dyed leather, one more ostentatious than the other.
Eren always preferred the less ornate seat when he came to visit Levi’s quarters.
But then, after Levi scrubbed, dusted, swept, and mopped, and there was no work left to be done, he stared at the chair unoccupied before the fireplace. The dip where Eren sat on enough occasions to compress the cushion was still imprinted in its center.
It remains there even now.
Levi spent two weeks sleeping in his chair, eating in his chair, reading in his chair, and taking tea in his chair, before he rode Eurus to the nearest town and purchased a bedroom set in addition to a table for his kitchen. He splurged on a humble hearthrug, and a rather small, lumpy couch as well, intending it for Hanji’s visits if she decided to make the days-long journey there.
Before the month was out, they were delivered, and his home has remained the same since. The sofa set against the far wall. Two chairs turned toward the fireplace on the simple woven rug, and the little round stand between them.
Spying the chess set on the table, he shakes his head. Hanji doesn’t play. One pawn sits shifted. It’s been like that for two months. Waiting for the next move in a battle of strategy that will never come. The little soldier is illuminated in the faint glow of the single lit lamp in the kitchen, beckoning someone to challenge it.
Each time Levi replaces it to its proper spot on the board, he vows not to move it again, and yet, he always does. Ever with a frownful pang and tense fingers, he takes a move which won’t be countered. Still, the piece sits—sometimes for days, sometimes months—before he replaces it to its home position to rest, succumbs and slides it forward once more, then goes through the motions all over again. If he had any nous left, he’d put the damn game board and its wooden armies away.
With a feeling close to embarrassment, he turns his attention to his bag and opens it. There are three refilled tins of tea, two pairs of thick wool socks, a new flannel nightshirt, a cake of shaving soap, blade oil, a jar of toothpaste, a bag of chestnuts, six bars of chocolate, and a round tin of biscuits. Setting the items on the table, he organizes them based on where they will be stored. Provisions for the kitchen to his right, for his bedroom toward the empty seat across from him, and toiletries to his left.
The cold is beginning to sink below his goose-pimpled skin, so he rises, winces at the ache in his foot, and limps to the stove in the kitchen. From his bed beside it, Von gives him a look—one that feels as if he’s saying, “Took you long enough.” Levi rolls his eyes, throws three logs inside, a handful of kindling, and crouches to coax the fire to life.
“You’re going to bake us,” a memory of seventeen-year-old Eren says. He was always so warm, rarely cold, though he never honestly complained when Levi stuffed the stove or fireplace with an extra bit of fuel.
Levi clicked his tongue on that unusually cold winter day, adding a, “So says the furnace” as he glanced at the icicles accreting into spears outside the window. He smirked then tossed another log into the fire.
Cheeks already pink, Eren removed his jumper, hanging it over the arm of ‘his’ chair before he sat down in his undershirt and bit his lip. He was looking at the chessboard, procrastinating, mulling over his next move. “Can we have tea?” he asked, frowning in concentration with his thumb planted against his chin.
“I thought I was baking you,” Levi said, already walking to the kitchenette.
Without removing his eyes from the board, Eren said, “It helps me think.”
Eren lost the game that night, as he usually did, though he only grinned through his pouting façade, pushing a lock of chin length hair behind his ear before challenging Levi to another round. “I’ll beat you this time.”
Eyes drawn to the board as he hobbles to the hearth, Levi allows the memory to fade as much as it will. Persistent thing that is. They all are. It needles him as he lays split pine across the andirons. He feels the tickle of chestnut hair against his cheek at the first hint of sweet smoke, and there’s a spark with a brightness Eren’s eyes always held inside his chest when the fire blooms back to life.
Levi is tormented by his ghost each day, but today it’s achier. It has been like this in the years prior too. On the days which announced the coming of winter. Each of the other seasons holds so many more reminders. A brighter sun, a starrier sky, fresh cool grass, light winds like breaths on his neck, and everything which reminds Levi of impossible blue-green-gold flecked eyes. The color of autumn’s leaves; rich umber and golden hues like the highlights in wavy perpetually tousled hair. The pleasing shade of tanned hands against his own pale, smaller ones.
Winter should be easier, and yet, it never is.
Time should lessen the ache, but it doesn’t. Even as Eren’s visage begins to slowly fade, like Levi is looking at memories sealed in a dusty glass bottle, the thoughts pierce his chest almost as acutely as the moment Hanji told him Eren was gone.
Gritting his teeth at the memory and the obstinate pain in his ankle, he resigns himself to a simple dinner and a soak. Before that, he lights the rest of the lamps, puts his purchases away where they belong, and hopes merciful rest will come to him that night.
When his stomach is full and his skin clean, Levi climbs into his bed. In his flannel nightshirt and wool socks that are insufficient to keep the true ice away, he pulls down-filled covers and his quilts up for Von to dart under, then settles his head on his pillow.
A shield against his dreams is what he hopes the blankets will be, though a knowing that knocks in the base of his skull reminds him there is little chance of a reprieve.
It’s before the first light of dawn when Levi awakes. His limbs feel leaden, and his heart is heavy, but to his surprise, he’s rested through most of the night.
Breaking through the lifting fog clouding his head, his arms test the temperature of the room. He shivers at the weight of the chilled night air, and a flashing memory of last night’s dreams. They were filled with colors he no longer sees and scents he no longer smells. Beyond that, they’re a blur, but he has sweat in his sleep, and although it isn’t enough to scowl at, between the draft and Von’s demands for breakfast, it motivates him to rise and poke at the fires.
Winter has come during the night. He can see it building in the corners of the window panes. Snow creeping quietly inward from the edges of each sheet of glass. Sneaky and slow, as though in time it will cover the entire house and hopes Levi won’t notice.
At least his foot is less pained when he swings his legs over the bed and puts weight on it with an appraising step. It warned him this was coming. With a dull throb and strikes of sharp aches. With stiffness and knots that spread until his knee and ankle joined in tandem agony.
With a wince, he scuffles through the early day cramping to his kitchen and feeds Von bits of chopped chicken. He goes to the barn and chicken coop. He bathes. He shaves and scowls at the white streak in his fringe and the rogue grey hairs that seem to join with it daily. He dresses and then makes his bed. After that, Levi heads to his kitchen. There’s a bite in the cabin, so he builds up the fire, repelling an invading cold he can only hope to keep out. When he’s finished, Levi slices bread and places it in a pan to toast.
Shaking his head with a faint curve to his lips, he reaches for a cream-colored teacup, allowing himself to fall into recollections he has no chance of halting. It’s his favorite, though he doesn’t always use it. The sound it makes when he places it on the wooden counter is different than his others, and its tone compliments its glazed pattern. Light yet gongy, like the green, fat-tailed swishes that seem to chase each other beneath its rim and over its cap. Two unending circles and cycles, as if they were swimming and searching for something in an infinite dance he can’t see.
Perhaps they’re looking for their fatter fat-tailed swish leader who resides on the handle. Levi smiles despite the ache his reverie brings. Eren said he thought they were fish, abstract as they would have to be.
He never explained why he chose it when he gave it to Levi so many years before other than a shrug and, “It has a top, so you don’t eat the leaves.”
The night Levi received it, Eren was leaning on the door’s frame when Levi answered his knock. He didn’t meet Levi’s eyes at first, but looked past him, out the window across the room.
“Here,” Eren finally said and handed Levi a messily wrapped package while Levi stared in disbelief.
Levi raised a cautious brow. “What’s this?”
“It’s …” Eren shrugged and glanced at his feet, rosy-cheeked and looking all his fifteen years. “Just something I thought you’d like … okay.”
Levi stood aside and then brought the gift to his kitchen table, eyeing the parcel while planning Hanji’s demise.
Eren didn’t explain any further why he brought it, and Levi had his suspicions, though he did not say he knew damn well Hanji had slipped to Eren about his birthday … or what he supposed was his birthday.
He sat down, glancing at Eren while suppressing a smile at his eager expression. When Levi pulled back the paper and opened the box, the arguments and annoyances fizzled, and then died. It wasn’t a very fine piece of china, midgrade at best, but still pricey for a soldier Eren’s age. Unusual in that the cup had a cover. Something like the top of a casserole dish. Levi had seen cups like it before, but never with a handle as well. It was unique, and Levi controlled the evidence of his delight.
“Thank you,” Levi said. He offered Eren tea and snacks and another chance to outwit him at chess.
Distracting Levi from the daze of the past, the kettle starts to steam with insistence. He lifts it from the small kitchen stove and pours water into the cup, watching the leaves loosen and stretch.
As the pearls unfurl, the whorls of Levi’s fingers trace the gentle curve of the china, pause their almost-not-there touches, then skim over the fluted rim. The glaze isn’t entirely slick and smooth, and to his pleasure, he can feel the indents the brush long ago left in the strokes of green paint. It makes the fat-tailed swishes seem more material.
He sips Oolong and crunches toast while he cooks oatmeal in his quiet reverie, continuing to contemplate teacup artistry. Once breakfast is finished, he heaps a spoonful of butter and deep purple blackberry jam into the hot center and sits.
The wind has picked up overnight, and snow is pelting the windows; icy flakes that don’t relent, knocking on the glass with a tap, tap … tap, tap, tap. It reminds Levi there is existence outside. A world he doesn’t belong to anymore.
Despite the lonesome void in his chest, his lips twitch. He’s glad he made it to town yesterday. Between the supplies now in the pantry and the root cellar out back, Levi could hide in his house for nearly two months.
There’s a sizable pile of books in the corner by the lumpy unused couch as well. Enough to keep him busy reading through the season. He’s forced himself through the worst of it the past five years. Getting by consuming volumes like a child eats candy, in addition to writing, cleaning, and chopping wood. Sometimes he replies to letters people have sent, though if the weather keeps up, he won’t be traveling to the mail office anytime soon to send posts.
The day before, he sent a brief reply to Hanji, and one to Mikasa and Jean. The anniversary of Eren’s death was only two weeks ago, and as always, Mikasa sends word and checks with him. Levi ever replies but they don’t speak of it. Mainly, the missives exchange shallow niceties in short lines with wordless affirmations written between them.
Levi sometimes thinks she only drops him mail to check he hasn’t run away where no one can find him.
Banishing the thoughts, he stirs his oats until his breakfast turns a sickly brownish-lavender. It looks disgusting, but his next bite is warm and buttery, creamy-sweet with the tang of summer’s berries. It tastes like happiness, summer solstice, and how he imagines Eren did.
He purses his lips against the ache, and with a salty gulp, stretches his legs out under the table to tap at shins that aren’t there. His feet struggle beneath, only catching the chair legs. They aren’t soft-hard and warm. They don’t wrap around him back or kick lightly at his bones in return. And no one is seated across from him trying to hide a smirk, but he reaches out nonetheless, knocks back half his cup of tea with a swallow that feels like one of the icicles hanging outside his window, and plans his day.
* * *
At half past two, Levi sets his book aside. It’s a bit drab anyway. A clichéd story about a villain and a hero. With black and white morality and unrealistic lines between good and evil. It’s predictable, and he’s struggling to stay invested in the flimsy plot. The hearth is growing cool, and when he stands to add fuel to the flames, he notices the wood box is empty. He’ll have to fetch more.
He folds the blanket that was around his shoulders and sets it over the arm of Eren’s chair. Some days he thinks if he looks to the right, he’ll see him seated there, or the neat throw will be ruffled and used when he returns to the sitting area. It never is.
His movements toward the door falter and slow as he spies the chess set and clenches his jaw. Its wooden pieces stand before him in neat, steadfast rows. Their strength feels close to provoking mockery. Daring him to put them into a box and lock them away.
He picks up the pawn he moved last, staring down at its faceless head. He hears it call him cruel names, defying him to feed the fire with the board and the armies. His thumb brushes over it where he imagines its nasty little smirk is. Maybe he could scour it away if he only rubbed hard enough.
Scrubbing his hands over his eyes, he scowls and replaces the piece with only a modicum more force than necessary, refusing to give in to the pawn’s chiding demands. Then he turns his back to it with a quiet snarl to suit up for the elements.
It is on days like this when Levi wonders if he is losing some portion of his mind. Or perhaps he’s always been touched in the head, but had too much to focus on to take note of his state until after the war was over.
He slides his arms through the sleeves of his coat, heads out the door, and envisions himself walking away. Walking past the pile of wood at the side of his house, further up the hill, and into the woods.
He would walk and walk and walk, searching for something undefinable. For someone impossible. He could walk until he reached a town, then a forest, and then another town. A city would come next, and the snow would taper from heavy wet flakes to dust, then to ice, then to rain. He would walk through that too, and if he kept going, eventually he would reach the ocean.
He would stand at the shore watching the waves. A young man would be there, with hair the color of autumn leaves and eyes more beautiful than the sky and crystalline blue of briny waters. Instead of watching him stand with rolled up trousers in the sand and point at the horizon and to his demise, Levi would turn him around and let him point at a different future.
Tromping through the snow while he remembers tromping through sand, Levi tightens his fingers around both of his wood caddies. He raises an arm against the wind. It stings his eyes, cheeks, and nose. Levi isn’t made for long days in the hot summer sun, but he isn’t made for this either.
His eyes narrow when he reaches the cord. The tarp he laid over his wood stores is covered with at least half a foot of snow. Less than expected. He throws the canvas back, examines the split logs, and frowns. “Fuck …”
The pile is not how he left it the morning before. There’s a gap in the center. Levi always resituates the pieces straight across the top, and by his estimation—no, he knows—there are precisely four logs missing.
“Fucking shit fuck,” he mutters, about to go into a whispered tirade about thieves and shitheads and lessons that need to be taught when it occurs to him whoever stole from him was kind enough to re-cover the cord. “Polite little bastard,” he says with a tickle of amusement beneath his ire.
It’s a generous assessment. Generous, but ridiculous, Levi thinks as he loads his caddies. He’s going to investigate. It took him days and days during late August to prepare enough wood for the first months of the cold and the storms and the deluge of too happy, perfect, lily-white snow. He felled dying and dead trees. He sweated shirtless under the sun splitting them. His skin turned angry red and his back peeled and itched along with his pertinacious memories as it healed.
“Nobody should be near here,” Levi whispers, seething. He stuffs the last log in his caddy, turns in an irritated circle, eyes searching, heart beating with the desire to give the brigand a good firm punch to his nose. Just enough to fracture it. Winter is infuriating, and though it’s only four measly splits of pine, it’s been a long time since Levi felt the exhilaration of a fist fight.
His knuckles crack beneath buttery, broken-in leather.
Bewildered and aggravated, he examines the snow-bestrewn ground. It has snowed all night; it still is, quite heavily, in fact. With big fat wet flakes sticking to his hair, nose, and clothes. Despite the niveous landscape, there is evidence.
Depressions covered in yet more snow litter the surrounding area, and when Levi looks away from the house, he sees they continue into the treeline. Regardless of its tireless efforts, the heavy precipitation has not been a faultless accomplice in the theft.
Pulling his scarf over his mouth and shoving his hands in his coat pockets, Levi follows the muted footprints. They look like someone has produced an eraser sometime during the night and smudged it over them, but Levi is trained, and he is no fool. They’re easy to spot if one knows how to pick out the shadows. They can be seen by his sharp eyes even through the near blizzard.
He trails them up the hill. “Not so smart,” he says as he follows them from five or so feet to the right. They’ve been left out in the wide open, beyond the sparse woods past the rear of the house, through the clearing, around that spongey marshy area Levi knows to avoid, and on.
When he reaches the base of the big hill—which is likely too imposing to just be called a hill—he scowls and plans his next course of action.
The small fire left in the house must be all but dead. Levi is cold and wet. His ankle throbs. The snow is falling down harder, twilight will be there in nearly an hour, and four pieces of wood really isn’t too much to lose. Then he thinks of the unabating ennui, of the emptiness surrounded by four walls of stone and wood. Cold and lonesome and boring as boring can be. He thinks of the spiteful chess pieces and their whispered ridicule, of that sterile book he should cast into the fire or—if he wanted to be thrifty—could place in the loo to use as toilet paper. He smirks. He’s not yet had the satisfaction of wiping his arse with such a poor excuse for literature.
Leaning forward to brace his feet, Levi climbs instead. It’s not steep enough he needs to use his hands, but he can feel the tension in his stomach and thighs by the time he’s a third of the way up. “If I had my fucking gear.”
It’s in his trunk in the house. He’s not supposed to have it, but truly, who was going to stop the hero, Levi-fucking-Ackerman, Humanity’s Strongest from keeping it? Hanji didn’t even try, she only glared at him with a twitch of her lips and that sad brown eye of hers that became a fixture at the end of the war, and then never cleared.
His hands clench around the girth of phantom sword handles as he broods. Were it strapped to him, the belts wound around the places they thought of as home, Levi would be to the top of the forsaken hill by now. His skin prickles to feel it again, bound and safe and held in the grasp of the sturdy material. He could fly and somehow be figuratively pulled back down to earth at the same time.
He bites his lip, teeth hurting from the cold. The leather’s smell and the feel of their bindings still remind him too much of Eren.
Of Eren’s fingers unfastening Levi’s buckles. Of them skimming over the indents in Levi’s flesh. Of Eren trying to rub away scars that will never fade.
It’s too much safety and recollection. It’s blade oil, blood, war, and survival. But … it’s also gentleness and devotion, and Eren’s kind hands that said everything to Levi his voice couldn’t. It is mistakes and non-mistakes, and past opportunities lost that Levi only stretched out far enough to brush the tips of his fingers across, yet never grasped.
The gear lives where it belongs; next to his phonograph in his trunk. In the past.
When Levi makes it into the next copse of trees, the one that sits on the edge of the hillside forest, he pauses and glares at the too white—white everywhere, all over the place—ground.
The tracks are gone, the snow is a blanket over grass, though cratered and soiled. Great compacted chunks of it have fallen from the boughs of the evergreens in the wind, leaving mars across the expanse. It covers the evidence. The wood-mugger is clever, wending his way to a place where his footsteps would be forgotten and hidden as if they never were. Muddled, so it seems by his pulpy, bark-entombed co-conspirators.
“Shit,” Levi says. It comes out as a whispered hiss as he surveys the surroundings. He would go on. He would hold himself against the shearing, spiteful wind and all the sharp flakes that inhabit it, but when he looks down the ridge, there is nothing. No shadows, no erased prints. It’s as if the burglar went straight up into the trees or disappeared into thin air.
He kicks the nearest tree trunk with a “Fuck, fuck, damn it fuck, fuck shit fuck. Shit!” The theft doesn’t bother him much as he turns back toward home, but he thought, just for a moment, he would have someone to talk to. Even if it was only snark and sarcasm and his protective cynicism before he taught the thief a lesson and broke small bones with oh so satisfying snaps or left them with a big fat swollen bruise. It would be contact. Contact Levi still insists—even in the almost-most deepest recesses of his mind—he doesn’t want.
There’s only one person Levi wants to talk to. And he’s gone.
A few days later when Levi ventures outside, bundled in his coat, hat, and scarf, a curious article hangs from the rafters above his porch. It’s a garland of evergreen, pine cones, and cinnamon sticks swaying in the rough breeze. His head swivels. He looks at his feet, he looks at the porch steps. His heart jumps. A stumbling little trip in its beat. There are faded prints from whoever put it there.
His jackknife flies from his pocket and opens in his hand. Danger, his mind and body scream as all his muscles coil in preparation for an attack. Danger, someone has been here. They’ve crept feet from his door during the night, and he didn’t wake.
He peers at the unexpected offering as he approaches. Then prods it with his knife, as if grasping it and pressing his flesh to nature would cause it to combust.
He pokes it, then pokes it again, head cocking to his left as he looks it over with careful examination. Eren used to braid similar garlands. He would hang them over all the hearths in HQ during winter. Sometimes, he would lay them around the fires when they were stuck sleeping in the wilds. They smelled cosy, Eren said, explaining his mother used to make them as he twisted up boughs and pine cones and recounted memories of more peaceful times during his childhood.
In war, it was common for soldiers to bring along something from home. And items such as this were always nostalgic reminders as well.
It’s one reason Levi never begrudged Sasha cooking with supplies they weren’t supposed to be pilfering from bombed out homes, nor Jean and Connie bringing back games and decks of cards.
Levi recalls one such occasion when Eren was nineteen. He came back with soap, tea, shaving cakes, and small dishes. Sometimes there were chipped cups, and there were that day too. Like always, Eren said it was all too pretty to not have a home.
“They’ll get smashed anyway,” he said, holding out his hands and presenting Levi with two plates. “I might as well take them.” He pursed his lips. “They remind me of my mom.”
“They’ll crack in your bag,” Levi said, eyeing the light lavender flowers decorating the edges on the brittle porcelain dishes in Eren’s hands, arms extended, so they were scant a foot from Levi’s face.
“It’s stupid.” Eren shrugged, but said, “I can wrap them in something.” He cradled the plates to his chest, a glimmer of Eren’s younger self, burning below the calculated fury age and years of war brought. “Wanna eat honey cakes off them tonight? They’re already washed. I did it myself.” Then his eyes lit up as though suns rose in them. “Armin has some. He said he’ll give me four so we can each have two, but only because you’re ‘the Captain.’”
Feeling heady and forgetful of death while watching Eren beam like he used to, Levi said, “I saved a few spoonfuls of Assam.” It was in his pack, it wasn’t getting any fresher. It pleaded to be made, and after so long, he missed the look on Eren’s face at the first sip.
That night they ate honey cakes on fancy chipped plates and drank tea from equally chipped cups in Levi’s tent. Eren’s temporary home was right next door, but he said what he always used to, “I like it better in here.”
“It’s all standard issue,” Levi said, watching Eren stretch out like a cat all over his neat sleeping bags like they were his too. Levi shook his head and scanned the canvas sheltering them as if he could see something different if he examined it hard enough. As if he could see what Eren saw. He wondered if Eren sought him out because he was the only one who didn’t treat him differently then. Like he wasn’t lost, or a weapon. “It’s only a tent,” Levi whispered, not believing his own words.
“It’s always warmer in here.” Eren scratched his nose as his eyes darted everywhere then landed on Levi. “It smells better too, and the tea is always tastier.”
“Idiot,” Levi said and smirked. He shuttered the lantern and put his head on the pillow next to Eren’s. He pulled the sleeping bag cosy and tucked around them, laid his arm over Eren’s middle, scuttled up to his back, then planted his nose against the spot where his neck and shoulder met.
Eren didn’t go back to his own tent that night. He fell asleep in Levi’s after sharing solace offered in abandoned china, comforting tea, and honey cakes. Levi found his under rain-pelted, waxed canvas with Eren warm in his arms and his hair all over his pillow, brushing his face.
And Levi slept good. He dreamed good too. He dreamed of a shared bed in a house. He dreamed of peace and simple things to accompany a simple life.
He dreamed of something they could never have.
His dreams were destroyed less than six months later.
Where are my fucking apples?
Two mornings after discovering the garland, Levi is sitting in his leather chair drinking his late morning tea and staring at the gift that—against his better judgment—he brought inside and hung from his mantel. Von is sitting above it, smacking it with his paw.
“Like that?” he asks Von, who meows and gives him a bored look, then resumes his investigations into the piece of outdoors brought inside.
Initially, he was going to throw it out into the snow. Levi didn’t ask for it, and if the wood-thief believes this makes up for his treachery, he’s gravely mistaken. Yet, there’s something about it that draws his eye and warms his chest.
Perhaps the reminder of Eren is why he didn’t have the heart to discard it. He bites his lip and peels his eyes from pinecones and cinnamon sticks, blows out the comforting scent that makes him think of winter and smiles and expressive green eyes, then stalks to his kitchen. His tea is cold, it’s nearly noon, and his stomach is growling.
When he pokes his head into the larder, it doesn’t reveal anything which jumps out. He’s craving something heartening, savory, and warm with tender meat and seasoning. It will take him all day, but he looks down at Von circling his ankles and asks, “Stew for dinner?”
Von meows in return before he darts off to smack the chestnut Levi resigned himself to allow him as a toy.
“Thought so,” Levi says, then stuffs his feet in his boots, grits his teeth at the pain in his ankle, and throws on his coat.
Outside the snow has let up marginally, going from something that reminded Levi of powdered sugar topping pastries and giving way to sharp icy flakes that sting his cheeks each time they hit his face. As Levi trudges his way to the root cellar at the back of his house, he claims his shovel from its resting place against the stones under his kitchen window, kicking up heavy lumps of wet fluff in front of him.
When he rounds the back corner of the cabin, he stops in his tracks. There is a long pile of snow on the ground beside the angled door which covers stairs leading to the basement pantry. And judging by the amount of snow covering it, it’s clear someone’s opened it during the night.
Gripping his shovel tighter while replaying visions of his purloined wood, Levi stomps to the door. There are partially covered footprints again, and by the size of them, they’re from the same big-footed wanker who stole his fucking wood earlier in the week.
He throws his shovel, and without clearing off the newly fallen snow, Levi wrenches the door open. The squeaks from its hinges die away as it settles against the gelid ground, and Levi scowls inside. There are no icy or wet prints on the stone steps, and although Levi knows the thief isn’t hiding amongst vegetables and meats, he readies his jackknife, flicking it open with a familiar click.
“Bastard,” Levi mutters, taking cautious steps down the stairs. When he reaches the soil floor, he lights the lantern, eyes darting from corner to corner in case the interloper is still there.
Everything seems to be in order. His rabbit and beef are still hanging from the ceiling. His box of potatoes appears to be untouched. Even his sack of onions is still tucked away on an unmolested crate of parsnips and leeks. One burlap bag of wheat is shifted, though there appear to be no holes in it.
He shoves it to the left, uncovering a bushel of apples he set aside to last him at least through the first couple months of winter. The ones in tins never taste as good, and they’re too gooey to go nicely on toasted bread with cheese.
Irritated when he examines the bushel closer, Levi closes his eyes and hisses through his teeth. The apples are not as he left them, and by his estimation, five were taken. Two that were ripe and the other three in various stages of transforming from green to red. “Arsehole.”
Since the end of the war, Levi’s proclivity toward contained rage has ebbed, and he usually shakes his head now, when before he would scowl or perhaps lash out, but today his old tendencies bubble up. It feels like sharp knives in his back. It’s not that he’s being stolen from so much that causes him to grit his teeth until his jaw aches, and it’s not so much his cramping fingers around his knife that make him frown and want to kick another tree. He doesn’t know who is visiting him under darkness in the wee hours of the morning or what their intentions are.
The winter is harsh up here, and if it’s only a struggling urchin, Levi has no problem with charity or kindness if the prick would just fucking ask. But he hasn’t. He’s snuck onto Levi’s land, to the barriers of his house—almost into them—and helped his sodding self. It’s calculated and perhaps desperate too, but he’s out in the middle of nowhere, and the fact that anyone would be nearby sends the hair on the back of his neck straight up.
What the thief could steal or do next escapes him, but he clicks his knife shut, heaves a forbearing sigh, and collects the needed items for his stew. He stuffs winter vegetables into his bag and two apples for good measure before unhooking a cut of beef from the ceiling. He should fashion a way to lock the root cellar door, he thinks as he emerges back up into the stark white landscape of winter, and kicks the wooden door shut.
Back inside, Von is waiting by the door, happy to help clean up any water that has made it onto the floor from Levi’s shoes. He sets his items on the table and then sheds his jacket, hat, and boots. Pausing, his fingers clench around his scarf before he hangs it. He peers out the window. There is a part of him which is tempted to follow the footprints again. His eyes travel to his bedroom door. His gear is inside his old footlocker in the corner. But he hasn’t used it in over three years, and it’s been a month since he oiled it.
Worse, it’s been years since using it felt right. Something is missing when Levi flies up into the trees or through them. There are no sounds of titans, and he doesn’t long to hear those again. What he does miss is spinning through the air with laughter trailing him and calls of Eren trying to catch up. His oohs and ahhs, and sensing him moving closer. The touch on his heels and his back when Eren ended up right behind him.
Shaking his head when Von meows at him, Levi looks down and says something he already has countless times, “I would have liked for Eren to meet you.” He gives Von a scratch under his chin when he jumps on the table and nudges his head into his hand. “You two would have appreciated each other.”
A gift of dinner
It takes three days for the worst of the storm to flee and for the snow to complete its descent to the frozen ground. When it finally does, the landscape is swathed in reflective white, the sun is shining, and Levi knows without setting a foot outside, it’s frigid and ghastly. Still, as with every day, his animals need to be fed regardless of his desire to stay in and be cosy by the fire.
He’s always had charges, he muses as he pulls on his coveralls, mindful of adding his grey too-large jumper as a secondary protective layer. He forgoes his long black coat with its shiny brass buttons and puts on his thick work jacket instead. He’ll be in the barn for a while. During the storm, he didn’t spend much extra time in it after feeding the animals and mucking the stable, but he hasn’t brushed Eurus or Vaka in three days, and the goats are probably lonely as well.
He puts carrots in his satchel for the horses, grabs a cask for milk, and wraps his scarf tight around his chin before he steps out onto his porch, taking a jolting sniff of freezing air. Von jumps up in the window to watch him, and Levi looks at him with a pang that feels like jealousy at him toasty inside the cabin. “Be back soon,” he says.
When he turns, there is a slab of meat about the length of his arm hanging from the porch roof. It’s in the place the garland was days before. His hand is around his jackknife, flicking it open before he takes a step forward. He swallows hard, and his grip tightens on the handle as his eyes dart between footprints and the generous offering of red meat suspended before him.
He repeats the same cursory examination he did with the garland as he comes to stand a foot from it; poking it with his knife while his brows crunch together and his eyes narrow. It’s a strip of what looks to be venison, and it’s not frozen through, which means the gifter couldn’t have hung it there more than a couple hours before. It’s butchered expertly Levi finds after more examination, confirming it’s the most coveted of cuts from a deer; a backstrap.
Levi doesn’t often hunt, and when he does, it’s usually for hare. Larger animals like deer provide pounds and pounds of flesh. More than Levi can eat on his own before it spoils, and he’s not one for the lengthy process of dressing the carcass then making it into jerky or salting it. When he does go into town and buys venison, he doesn’t buy the backstrap. It’s tender and flavorful and luxurious, but it isn’t a practical purchase for a man and his cat living alone on a farm and subsisting mainly on meat pies, soups, and stews.
Despite the generosity of the apparent offering, Levi eyes it with suspicion. He’s had enough time to think about it, and it’s not serendipity. There isn’t a chance the ‘gifter’ and the ‘thief’ are two different people. It’s far too coincidental that after he was stolen from, a mysterious person began leaving him presents within a few days. There’s also the matter of the footprints. Granted, some have been covered, only leaving fading indentations behind, but they’re the same size as the treaded impressions he can see in the snow now.
He moves to the railing, scanning the trail of them. They go the same way they always do, across the side yard and up the hill into the tree line. Levi could follow them, but he’ll only lose them once more, and he has hungry animals to feed.
Bringing his attention back to the meat, he pokes it once again. It appears to be untampered with, and although his mouth waters at the idea of cutting it into neat little medallions to fry in a pan with butter and herbs, he doesn’t trust it. It could be poisoned for all he knows.
While Levi has lived in the cabin, merchants have passed through, so have hunters, and occasionally a beggar. He has swapped goods with traders who had wares that made for a suitable exchange. He’s been generous enough to help a hunter out a time or two, and Levi has always given freely to the wandering mendicant looking for something better outside the slums of the city. What Levi has never had in these years was a thief, and he never imagined he would run into one who leaves gifts in return.
It would be simple enough to come to his door and offer a trade of meat for apples, and Levi likely would have indulged a stranger and given him four logs for a garland. A garland isn’t practical like a split of pine, but as much as he is wont to admit it, he’s not always a stickler for practicality. Some items he likes only for their aesthetics or because they make his chest warm or his lips twitch at the corners. He doesn’t need the number of teapots or teacups he has, and he probably doesn’t need to stock over five kinds of tea at least, but he has to take his pleasures where he can, and he would have willingly traded away four pieces of wood for a pine cone and cinnamon stick garland.
The apples; he’d have offered more than five for an entire backstrap of venison.
Whoever this person is, they don’t know anything about fair trade, or perhaps, Levi thinks, they are desperate. There isn’t anyone living closer than a few miles, but the ‘neighbors’ would have come calling. They aren’t what Levi would call friends or even acquaintances, but they know him, and there is something of a safety net between those who live so far outside the city in the isolated hills.
It can’t just be someone passing through either. The thought occurs to Levi that maybe the person is hurt, but the tracks don’t suggest the gait of someone who has suffered an injury. They move too far in and out of the forest, and considering the distance they’ve traveled over the last week and a half to Levi’s and wherever it is they hide, they could have made it to civilization for aid.
A cold dash of wind swoops in under the porch awning as if Levi were its target. He pulls his scarf higher, puts his knife away, and unhooks the meat. He won’t throw it away right now, but he isn’t going to bring it into the house either. Instead, he carries it to the root cellar where it can be stowed while he ponders its fate. When he makes it to where the food is stored, he hangs it in the back, well away from his rabbit or the beef he has left.
Brushing his gloved hands together, he makes one last visual, cursory check of his stock. Everything appears to be in order and undisturbed, so he moves on to the barn. It’s not far from the house, but far enough. He curses the thick blanket of snow on the ground. It’s up to his knees, and the icy-damp cuts through his trousers, brushing against his shins and aching left leg with every step.
His muscles are tighter than they should be, and his shoulders attempt to keep the tension from shooting into his neck while his right hand still clutches the knife in his coat pocket. It feels like perhaps there are eyes on him and his vision tracks from one side of his land to the other, head swiveling only slightly, searching to see if anyone is hanging about or spying on him.
Gaze sweeping from right to left one last time then toward the house, he grabs his shovel and hauls away snow piled against the barn door with quick, efficient strokes, then clasps his right hand around his blade and whisks it open. No footprints are leading to it, but it never hurts to be vigilant. The gifter-thief could be anywhere, and there’s no reason he couldn’t have made a temporary home in his barn. Then again, Eurus doesn’t take kindly to strangers in his space and has a tendency to kick when he’s displeased.
When Levi walks inside, Eurus appears calm. He releases a huff of breath from his nostrils, sending the warmth of vapor toward Levi. He looks at Levi’s satchel with guileless brown eyes, shakes his head, and nickers to Vaka. Levi’s back.
“Missed me, you two?” Levi pats the side of Eurus’ head. “I have treats,” he says opening Vaka and Eurus’ stalls. “But you both knew that, didn’t you?” His lips curl when Vaka nudges his cheek with her nose.
As he leads them to the grooming station, Eurus brays, and a teensy bit of the tension slips away. It’s only a little bit. A modicum. A smidge. But neither of the horses seem to be spooked, and the barn appears to be as he left it the evening before. “Just a minute,” he says, fetching a bucket of feed and pouring it into the trough. His goats are over to it in a moment. Of course, Sven barrels by him, banging into his bad leg in his hurry to eat. “Thanks,” Levi mutters, patting the coarse white fur on Sven’s back. “That beard doesn’t make you the commander, you know.” As if in agreement, Ava looks up at him, and Levi releases a snort.
After Sven and Ava are content with their feed, and Levi checks their water is at an acceptable level, he turns his attention back to the horses and pulls a carrot from his satchel. He breaks it in two and holds out his palm. Eurus waits for Vaka to snatch a piece before he takes his own, bowing his head to Levi in something like gratitude.
Levi wishes it were warmer. Both the horses could hold up to a ride, though a longer one might prove uncomfortable for them after a bit, and Levi’s ankle and entire left leg, in turn, wouldn’t last too long without giving him the hobbles for a few days. He shakes his head with enough petulance he bites his lip. He hates winter. It’s cold and lonely. As if all the sound is whisked by a nasty breeze away from the world. Even the birds don’t talk as much.
Everything becomes drowsy and slumberous, and with it, Levi’s mind speeds up, like the snow when it cascades down the mountains he can see from his house in the distance. It’s like an avalanche. One fist-sized clump of cold—like a single thought—falling on the landscape and causing it all to slide down until he’s smothering.
Vaka exhales a big breath, pulling Levi from his brooding. She nuzzles her snout against his hand, sorrowful gaze piercing his walls the same way Eren’s did. Her eyes have looked like that since the war ended. “I know,” Levi says scratching between her ears, “I know.”
Shaking away the ache, Levi gives them both another carrot, retrieves his brush, and loses himself in the rhythmic movement of his hand skating over powerful muscle and the soft scraping of bristles against fur.
During the war, the stables were Levi’s sanctuary as well. No cheering young recruits, no one pestering him with paperwork or asking him to beat the shit out of trustful, young titan shifters in courtrooms.
Sometimes he’d catch a couple fucking in the hay, but a menacing glare and cracking knuckles always sent them running with their clothes half on, half off. They never saw Levi’s smirk once he couldn’t hear the “We’re sorry, Captain’s” anymore.
The only person who ever cared to keep his company there was Eren. They didn’t speak much, but Eren always had what seemed an infinite supply of sugar cubes in his pocket, to go with the infinite amount of coy looks he sent in Levi’s direction. It was—dare he think—cute. Sometimes Eren tidied and hummed. Other times he stood in the stall beside Levi’s and joined in the silent grooming as well.
Levi never needed to say he was finished. Eren always seemed to know and would have everything squared and packed before they would head back into HQ and share tea in Levi’s quarters. He was ever so quiet too. Their shared silence over clinking cups and chess was a sanctuary from war, and death, and the stentorian rumbling of voices from the hallways, the mess, and the barracks.
With a sigh, Levi pets Vaka’s side. That might be what Levi misses most about Eren. The periodic legs rubs in the bath were nice, and the warm solid body next to him—though odd at first—while they slept was comforting too, but what he misses most, he thinks, is how he never needed to say a word and Eren always knew what he was thinking. He longs for the unsilent silent. When they could have a conversation even though the only sounds were the thunk of the china set back on the table, chess pieces knocking on the board, and Eren rearranging himself in Levi’s less ornate, red, leather chair. The one which de facto became Eren’s own.
Levi spends the next hour grooming Vaka and Eurus and milking Ava in a haze of remembered smiles, toes poking his shins, and green eyes peeking at him from under messy fringe. It’s enough he doesn’t realize through his warmest gloves, boots, two jumpers, and his coat that he is, in truth, freezing. He can’t feel his toes by the time all the carrots are gone and he’s putting the brush away. He knows he’s wiggling them, but they throb and tingle, and they’re going to turn a deathly shade of blue if he doesn’t get back into his house.
He hauls out Eurus and Vaka’s turnouts and covers them. The barn is well insulated and warm enough for the animals, but it’s a harsh day and judging from the stillness in the air, it will continue at least into the next. He drapes stable blankets over Ava and Sven as well, leaves everyone with a bit more feed, and departs with a bucket of nibbles for the three hens in the coop.
When he returns to his house with a cask of milk and his satchel four eggs heavier, he scratches his head. Of course, Von immediately wants to see what he has, and before Levi has a chance to add a log to the fire and warm his hands, his mischievous cat is trying to knock one of the eggs from the table.
The house is empty and too quiet. Even the crackle of the dying fire sounds as though he is catching half the volume, everything is already clean, and none of his books seem appealing.
Von paws at Levi’s hand, meowing, and Levi looks down. It’s been two days since he collected eggs. “How about an omelette?”