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How to catch a gifter-thief

Regardless of how flavorful Levi’s savory dinner omelette is, it isn’t enough to keep the gifter-thief from poking at his mind.

   His irritation doesn’t abate as the evening drives on, and he stiffly retires to his fireside chair. He spends hours staring at the wood and flames and coals, scowling, seesawing between conjuring an imagined vision of the gifter-thief and trying to un-think of him altogether. At eleven o’clock he grunts and grinds his teeth, abandons his seat, and tears through his mountain of untouched books. He skims his nose into six exceedingly dull stories, deciding against any of the stodgy tomes, jaw listlessly working in agitation before he gives up. By the time it’s midnight, he shutters the lantern and goes to sleep, Von purring under his fingers as a plan hatches behind his closed eyes.

  

He spends the next day and a half working on a strategy.

   There is no question his mysterious visitor will return. After the first theft, Levi assumed it was a wanderer. And after the first gift, he thought the thief hadn’t vacated the area and felt guilty, but now Levi’s stomach churns, and the hairs on his skin rise.

   The gifter-thief has come every few days, and by Levi’s calculations, he’ll return soon. Levi learned a lot when he was in the military, but the skills he’s going to put to use this evening he learned from being in the Underground. Mainly from Kenny. Stalking, sneaking, being very, very quiet, and setting a trap.

   Perhaps it’s only something to take up his time, to whittle away the boredom. Something to give him a goal or purpose. Despite how pathetic he feels being this twitchy and wound up about the hunt, he is this twitchy and wound up. Von is too it seems. He jumps from high place to high place, pacing back and forth as though he thinks he is much bigger than he is while Levi readies himself.

   Tightening his jaw, Levi puts an extra dagger in his boot—which he is wearing in the house—before he straps on his knife holster and secures his big buck knife under his left arm. There’s another in his left pants pocket and his trusted jackknife in his right. There’s always been several hidden around the cabin, but he’s spread more around the house throughout the day.

   Lastly, he thrusts a sheathed dirk into the back of his trousers. It’s cold through the thin fabric of his drawers, but he represses a shiver and stations himself beneath the kitchen window, stretching over the sink and planting his chin against the sill while his eyes peek out and search through the frosted glass pane.

   For a moment, the blade resting in his hand feels so very big, like it did when he was a child and Kenny thrust it into his fist for the first time, mumbling, It’ll keep you alive, kid, and Levi—shocked, yet attempting not to let it on—held it like a valuable jewel in his small hands—oh-so-tight—knowing his grasp was too hard.

   He scowled and tried to make a mean face. He wanted to protect himself, exactly as his mother would have hoped. He wouldn’t rely on anyone, least of all Kenny.

   At the same time, he wanted to make him proud. To fit in his shoes, to walk with his head held up and look down his nose at people while he swaggered. When you swaggered, no one tried to kill you or rape you or make you do their bidding.

   Swallowing memories that should have stayed locked away, Levi readjusts himself. He’s half-strewn over his own kitchen counter with his torso melting toward his sink drain. The position sucks, and it sucks enough without reminiscing about his shit childhood and how fucked up he is. He’ll catch the gifter-thief tonight … or maybe the next … or the next, but he’ll catch him. He’s run around too freely, and Levi needs a distraction.

   He smirks. Nabbing whoever it is, is a good one.

  * * *

Once the moon has crossed half the sky, Levi pulls out his pocket watch, opens the cover, and runs the thumb of his unarmed hand down its face. It’s past two in the morning, Von has been nudging him to go to sleep for over an hour, the fingers on his right hand burn, and Levi’s back feels like someone drove a railway spike into it. When he tries to ease out the kinks, the pain and stiffness run up his spine, blooming like petals opening across the top of his shoulders and neck.

   Resigned to have little decent rest, Levi scrapes his teeth across his bottom lip. He extricates himself from the counter that’s become an uncomfortable bed, stands, and stretches. He’s not big, he’s always known that. It doesn’t bother him, but even Levi can’t lay on a cramped kitchen counter for five hours without pain.

   Von jumps from Levi’s kitchen chair where he was lounging moments before to the table and scratches around like he’s covering something that doesn’t smell quite right—perhaps the ache in Levi’s bones—then holds up a paw, stretching, stretching, stretching until he nearly touches Levi’s stomach with claws trimmed in long fur.

   “I’m tired too,” Levi says, but Von turns and bolts for his spot under the table where he likes to cower when sounds around the house are too loud.

   Levi’s head shoots toward the window, knife at the ready. He’s so hot in his coat, but he plasters himself back across the countertop with a humiliating grunt and peeks out the window, head rising like one of those people who love filthy lakes so much emerging from the benthos.

   Maybe he won’t find any sleep that night.

   He squints through the glass and sees nothing. No fox scurrying through the snow, no bear planning on raiding the root cellar, and no gifter-thief. He drags his hand down his face and rubs his weary eyes. He’s about to give up for good this time and call it a night, but Von scrambles onto the table, bounds the distance toward Levi and lands on his hip with a bit too much claw as he launches himself over to the windowsill. His head is pulled up high, eyes alert, paw touching the glass.

   “Damn it, Von,” Levi says with a hiss and sits up. “They’re just snowflakes.” In the five years since Von has been Levi’s companion, he’s never lost interest in attempting to catch them before they melt.

   Von gives Levi the same answer he always does; a meow. He chirps at Levi then looks back through the glass into the ink-black of night. Levi follows Von’s line of sight and narrows his eyes. He can barely make it out, but there is a person’s silhouette not more than thirty feet from the house. He—it must be a man—is almost swallowed up in the dark, but he’s there. Whoever it is, is tall and broad-shouldered, but hunkering down a tad, like Von does when he’s trying not to be seen after he steals from Levi’s plate.

   He can’t make out exactly where the thief is going, but it looks like he’s heading toward the woodpile again. Levi slides off the counter, readjusting his grip on his knife. “Keep an eye on him,” he says to Von before quietly slipping out his front door. He closes it with precision, letting its hardware slip into place with a soft click, then tiptoes down the front steps.

   Sticking to the shadows, Levi crouches and walks like a prowler, foot over foot, making sure his steps don’t crunch the snow too loudly. He slides along the side of his house, keeping his eyes glued to the visitor who is closing in on Levi’s hard-won cord of pine. The person’s head whips from side to side, peering into the harsh winter landscape, and Levi presses his back straight up against the cabin’s stone base, watching and holding his breath.

   Unaware of Levi, the thief reaches for the tarpaulin covering Levi’s wood, chancing a glance on tiptoes into Levi’s kitchen window before his fingers wrap around the stiff fabric.

   “Not this time,” Levi says to the gifter-thief, darting out from his hiding place. He eyes the thief’s back as he stands with his hands up. Levi hadn’t noticed at first, but the man’s clothes are worn and bedraggled. His boots aren’t right for the elements, and his coat looks much too thin to offer any protection from the fierce winter cold. Levi wouldn’t begrudge someone in need, but he won’t abide being looted. He grasps the handle of his jackknife tighter. “Turn around.”

   The thief’s head sinks, and he sighs. Other than that, he fails to heed Levi’s order.

   “Turn around I said.” Stabbing someone wasn’t on his to-be-done list for the day. And a struggling vagrant is the last kind of person he would like to cut. The poor bastard doesn’t even have a decent pair of gloves.

   The gifter-thief turns around. He has a thick beard, and his hood is drooping low over his brow, hiding his eyes and most of his hairy face. The front of his jacket is patched and missing two buttons. In the faint light coming through the window from the lantern in the house, Levi can’t make out more.

   Unmoving, with his arms still raised, the man’s hands clench into loose fists either side of his head, but he doesn’t speak.

   “Are you indigent?” Refusing to relinquish the grasp around his blade, Levi moves a step closer. “You look like shit.”

   Still, the thief says nothing but shakes his head.

   Usually, Levi would have his knife to the man’s throat by this time. Not necessarily to kill or cut, though there is a surprising bubble of compassion that wells in Levi’s stomach and chest.

   “I’m sorry,” the man says. He drops his right hand to the top of his head and pulls his hood back with a slow and apprehensive motion. “Levi …”

   When Levi looks at his face, he’s sure even the snowflakes have stopped falling. The only thing that’s plummeting is his stomach while his heart winds itself into a tighter, meaner, little knot and green eyes which were lost to him blink. His whole body is aching, and his skin is alight with his shock as his heart thuds-gallops-pounds into his ribs like it’s trying to crash through them. “Eren …”

   His knees begin to falter, and if he were a dainty damsel or made of softer stuff, he would faint.

   Air; there isn’t enough of it. It’s been sucked from the world. “You can’t be,” he musters to rasp as his throat clenches, and his mind thrashes against reason, feeling as though a carpet has been ripped out from beneath his feet. “You’re not possible,” he whispers. It can’t be. It’s an illusion. An apparition conjured from a mind so broken and destroyed, memories materialize into deceptively convincing tangibility. Convincing enough Levi is sure he could grasp his vision if he were to reach out. However, it’s not only what Levi can see and maybe touch, but it’s also what he can smell and hear too.

   What he believes he could remember the taste of if he had ever sampled it.

   Perhaps Levi’s dead as well. Maybe he passed in his sleep and didn’t realize it … or even years ago. Perchance this is the afterlife, and Eren was waiting for him, or it’s a test.

   He doesn’t say anything else, but the lookalike does. He repeats Levi’s name again, and again, and again like a pounding drum from the East Sea. It’s impassioned and longing. Soft and heartbreaking because it sounds exactly like Eren, but then Levi’s halting disbelief flips to fury.

   “You’re an imposter!” Levi has never been one for yelling, he raised his voice to shout orders when he was in the military, and on occasion, he barked at a bumbling recruit for the sake of their continued survival. Other times, it was cretins in the Underground, but never with a jaw as tight as it is now, nor with spittle flying from his lips. A roar begins in his chest and screams out into the bitterly cold night.

   He hollers, “You’re not real!” leaning forward toward this fake Eren—though not close enough to touch.

   “You’re not him,” he says through gritted teeth, shifting his weight to the balls of his feet. “Who are you?”

   “It’s me,” the man says, though he doesn’t raise his voice, and he doesn’t take a step forward or back.

   “Bullshit!” Levi yells hoarsely. “What are you?”

   “I’m Eren …” A mouth framed by scruffy hair turns down at the corners, and a furrow carves deep into the space between his eyebrows as the imposter closes doleful eyes. “Eren Jäger.”

   At the sorrowful sight and the hint of too much moisture building in his own weak fucking eyes, “yes,” Levi says, yes, as emotions and logic throw the first volleys of their war inside and he stands silently heaving. One army pushing him to wrap up the person before him who looks as if he is about to cry too. The other tells him to kill the falsehood for its brutal emotional ambush.

   Still, Levi doesn’t move. As much as Eren is impossible … maybe he isn’t. Despite the desire to believe, to invest in a dream, Levi squeezes his eyes shut and allows his suspicious shields to remain firmly around him. He ties a reinforcing rope around them. All frayed and broken and faintly tan, like tattered flesh, but looking so old and rotten and discarded. “I don’t believe you,” he bellows.

   Other than a small wounded sound, Eren is quiet, watching Levi with large open eyes. Levi remembers how easy it is to fall into them. They’re soft and fierce and at the same time, pleading for what Levi knows is something other than rejection. I’m not a lie, I’m not a lie, I’m real, I’m me, I’m Eren, they say. And Levi wants, wants to, wants it to be true so much it feels like he’s being shredded. He wants to trample logic and give himself over to madness.

   His entire body tenses from his jaw to his feet, descending as a hot wash of salt and ache floods his throat. If he knew this was truly Eren he might sink into the snow and wail like a child. Concerning Eren, the walls of his pride are thin enough he wouldn’t be ashamed, and Levi wouldn’t try to fight it. Instead, though, he steels himself, building up his protective defenses with the speed of a slave laying bricks under threat of the lash, mind still reeling between not possible and accepting there’s a miracle standing before him.

   He tries to wet his dry mouth, stumbling over what words to choose. “How?” he asks. The second question is one Levi has said to himself countless times before, but could never to Eren. “How are you real?”

   With a look of astonished hope, Eren says, “I know it’s not easy to believe, but it’s a long story.”

   Levi feels anguish and the simmering roll of anger. If this is Eren, it doesn’t make any sense. But more painful is that if it is Eren, it means he allowed him to think he was dead for six years. To leave Levi twisting. To mourn and grieve and suffer his demise. It also means Levi failed when he searched for him. That Eren slipped beneath his notice and was left abandoned and alone or worse … that he didn’t want to be found.

   How Levi is holding himself from cracking into thousands of jagged, sharp bits and landing in the snow evades him. “Why?” he asks only to fill the silence as his head grapples with more impossibles. The explosion was so powerful all that remained were pieces of titan flesh no bigger than a man. Most were even smaller. If by providence Eren survived, he still should have perished two years ago. Levi has known this truth for well over a thousand days of his life. Despite that rationale, there’s a tug in his chest when he looks at Eren and asks himself if this is him.

   His answer is an already knowing part of himself. He just knows. Though it’s too complicated for his mind to accept. Like he’s a record on the phonograph, winding himself backward, making himself scratchy and squeaky and resistant.

   “I shouldn’t have come here…” It’s an Eren answer. Humble and quiet, and in a timbre Levi has never before heard from any other mouth. Its tone is broken too. There is something injured in it.

   Eren remains where he is. Watching Levi like he’s keeping an eye on a crippled animal with particular caution. As though he expects Levi will lash out with the knife still clutched in his grip. His left hand is still up over his head, and the right hangs limply at his side. Levi can’t see him as well as he would like in the darkness, but he seems slighter than he was before. His jacket drips from him like it’s a size or two too big, and his pants are baggy and rolled at the cuffs.

   The cold wends its way through his own muscles, and Levi eyes Eren closer. They can’t stare at each other indefinitely, and Levi isn’t going to put a knife to his throat, regardless of the sprouted seed of suspicion this person may not be what he claims.

   So Levi treats him like he was a puzzle to figure out. As if he’s an intruder to interrogate without letting on they’re being interrogated. “You shouldn’t be here,” he says, knowing when Eren’s expression shifts from wary curiosity to bewilderment, it’s come out the wrong way. “You died,” Levi says.

   Eren bites his lip, twisting as the breeze kicks up around them. His right foot shifts like it can’t decide whether to stay planted or run. “I steep Assam half a minute too long,” he blurts out.

   Lost for the words his heart has swept away, Levi relives the taste of Eren’s too malty, sharp, morning tea on his tongue.

   Allowing his other arm to fall, Eren adds, “You scowl and say it’s too bitter.”

   It was long ago, but Levi remembers hearing sinister stories as a child. They were his favorite. He can recall the one book his mother possessed to read to him. Filled with fairy tales and yarns of trickery by malevolent beings. Perhaps this is one of them—and there was truth to them—or maybe the wishful thinking whispering it’s very much Eren isn’t a lie.

   Whether it’s a charade or trick or a foul supernatural being in disguise, Levi can’t ignore him.

   Eren has lost limbs and had his face ripped off only to grow them all back. He’s survived when he shouldn’t have more than once. Levi’s seen him accomplish too many impossibilities to walk away. If anyone could return from the dead, it would be him.

   Turning on his heel, Levi catapults the gut feeling it is undoubtedly Eren to a dark corner of his mind and says, “Come inside.”

   There is a chance he is inviting in his own destruction.

   For how much he wants to, Levi doesn’t look behind him. He can’t. Though he keeps his knife at the ready and opens his ears. He stretches his perception beyond the wailing wind, releasing a breath of relief when he hears Eren’s footfalls hasten until they’re beside him, falling in time with his own. Eren doesn’t say anything, but his strides through crunchy-cold snow are so achingly familiar it’s as if Levi’s white and grey hairs were gone and he was leading Eren outside for a day using their gear alone in the woods.

   The only difference is, in the past, Eren walked so close their knuckles often brushed.

   The distance from the side of the house to the entrance has never felt so long, and Levi chances a glance over his shoulder as he wraps his fingers around the frosty, brass door handle to check Eren is still there.

   Levi wants to see him in the light.

   His eyes are downcast as he holds the door open and Eren slides inside with a nervousness Levi can feel like persistent, lapping waves. Eren moves to the mat beside it and stands statue-like for a moment other than shifting his feet to wipe them. Levi can’t quite lift his head yet. One lantern is burning on the stand between the chairs before the hearth, and Levi knows what it will reveal if he dares to tug Eren near it.

   Even now, the faint glow illuminates golden-brown highlights in the hair hanging about his face in damp, subtle curls when Eren crouches into Levi’s line of sight to untie his boots with his fingers trembling so hard Levi can see it. Above the scruffy beard and mustache, Levi sees his nose; straight and strong, but with a gentle curve to it that hasn’t changed in six years. Levi knows his fingers are still long and slender under his beaten leather gloves, and the furrow in his brow when he argues with the double knot in his laces is deeper and older, yet so indisputably Eren’s it leaves Levi legs threatening to buckle.

   He drags a breath into lungs that feel far too small and braces himself with a hand against the frame of the door, then shuts it.

   Filling the silence their voices don’t, Levi rattles off commands in his head. He orders his hands to stop shaking, his shoulders to unwind, and his knees to keep him upright as he tries to pull his eyes from Eren. When Eren’s finished with his shoes, Levi is staring at a chest two feet from him covered in what he now notices is a poorer coat than he first thought.

   “Should I sit?” Eren asks.

   “The kitchen table,” Levi answers, wondering how he manages to speak.

   After his outerwear is off, Levi turns and focuses once more at his feet. He’ll never be prepared to take the first look in those eyes in the light, so instead of scowling at the ill-knotted seam on the toe of his left sock, he inhales the deepest breath he can muster and raises his head.

   The kitchen seems to grow brighter, like the flames from the fire and oil lamp are reaching out and surrounding the person before him, gilding him in golden light. Along with the smoldering logs in the hearth, his green eyes burn and flicker beneath the arch of two dark-brown, determined eyebrows. Even the scruff on Eren’s face fails to obscure the shape beneath it. The chiseled jaw is a tad more angular and adult than it was before. His lips, though chapped are the same dusty rose Levi recalls watching him bite when they used to play chess. And his cheekbones have lost the last of the youthful softness they had when he was nineteen.

   “It is me,” Eren says, wringing his hands where they’re set before him on the table. “I swear. I swear it’s me.” He looks at Levi and slumps, like the weight of the world is once again on his back. Eren’s gaze slides to Levi’s cup with the fat-tailed, green swishes on the countertop then back to him with a flicker of misery. “I gave that to you. Almost ten years ago. It was your birthday!” When Levi only stares back, he trudges on, fast and breathless and tripping over his words. “We—we used to play chess every night. You let me sleep in your bed when I had bad dreams. You took me out when I was angry to fly with the gear. Only the two of us. You have a long, bumpy scar on your left shoulder right above that big freckle. I used to rub it when I fell asleep.”

   Eren is out of air. Leaning forward, heaving and looking at Levi with imploring desperation. Levi’s heart is smashing against his ribs, and he can envision himself rounding the table and crouching before Eren. Grasping the sides of his face and tugging at the hairs on his jaw.

   He wants to ask him why. He wants to ask him how. He wants to allow the stinging in the corners of his eyes to culminate into the tears they’re battling to be, but instead, he straightens himself up as straight as he can go, and says, “You have my attention.”

   Rubbing the back of his hand across his eyes, Eren nods. “I’ll prove it. I just don’t know where to begin.”

   “To begin, I need some tea.” As if its stout wood can lend him strength, Levi fastens his fingers around the top rung on the back of his sturdy kitchen chair.

   Eren chose to seat himself in the one Levi never does.

   When Eren doesn’t say anything and only nods, Levi adds, “Hang up your coat.”

   “All right,” Eren says and rises. “I’m sorry.” It’s mumbled and sounds raw and gravelly.

   Levi moves through the kitchen, turning away from the ghost in his house. He hasn’t touched Eren yet, and for all he knows, his hand would move right through him. He’s afraid to. As if Eren would vanish in a cloud of steam if he were to disturb what merely appears to be a physical manifestation.

   It’s stupid, beyond it really. Levi has never paid any mind to tales of the afterlife or the promises of faith or religion. He doesn’t believe in hopeful stories to remedy indescribable yearning. Despite simply knowing, he curses the fancifully childish and too human part of himself which questions it.

   He closes his eyes and then looks at the pinecone and cinnamon stick garland hanging above his fireplace. Recalls the weight of venison that still hangs in the root cellar. Both either fashioned or butchered by human hands. “You mentioned Assam,” he whispers when he hears the sound of Eren returning to his seat.

   “Assam’s good,” Eren begins, then makes a rough sound in his throat, “it’s been a while since I had tea. I’m happy with anything.”

   Levi stares at the tin in his hands. Eren stole only a few apples and four pieces of split pine. As much as looking at him is like a bizarre dream, the man sitting in his kitchen doesn’t look well cared for. More unsettling is he seems pulled thin. Stretched. Like he actually fought his way back from death and returned to the living. Wounded, ground around the edges, and broken. Like he has nothing.

   Eren and tea went together like Levi and tea go together. They go together how Eren and Levi went together.

   He closes his eyes against what he still isn’t sure is real or not and sighs. No tea? It just isn’t right.

 * * *

The Assam is brilliant when Levi pours it into two cups. Steaming, gorgeous, and cinnabar. Nearly vermillion.

   As it always did in the past, it compliments Eren’s eyes. Though their draw is as it ever was—something Levi can’t resist—Levi tries to tell himself it’s not Eren. The battle which began outside wages on, but the side that screams no, no, no! is becoming doubtful of itself and is losing soldiers. It’s drowned out until all that is left is a persistent, undying squeak.

   “I remember this set,” Eren says carefully, trailing the tip of his index finger over the handle of the cup after Levi slides it toward him.

   Levi feels Eren watching him as he observes his hands. There are nicks on his knuckles, a fresh scar across the back of the right, but other than that, they look the same as the ones that used to hold his own, tracing his knuckles, twining their fingers together and squeezing while Eren’s thumbs circled over Levi’s wrist bones.

   “I don’t have the souls. I don’t heal anymore,” Eren says, placing his palms flat on the table. He tilts his head, offering Levi a closer look.

   Finally meeting Eren’s eyes, Levi asks in a voice too weak for his own liking, “What happened to you?”

   He grits his teeth after the words come out. He didn’t want to prompt it. He’s giving into what is probably a fantasy. Watching it unfold from Eren’s lips in his own time and in his own way was his plan. Picking a question out of the million dashing through his mind seemed impossible, and now one minuscule thought out of all of them has slipped from between his lips.

   “Should I start at the beginning?” Eren closes his eyes and takes a sip of tea. He holds his cup in a delicate grasp like he always did. In big beautiful hands that always seemed too strong to hold a handle so daintily.

   “It’s a good place.” If this is Eren and not someone else, he wouldn’t know where to begin. He never did when his mouth was full of too many things to say. Levi resigns himself with a silent sigh. He wouldn’t know where to begin either. He doesn’t now. He could make the jump, grab Eren’s shirt, get in his face and force him for answers. He could demand to know who sent him or to know what he indeed is, but a niggling voice inside soothes him like a mother’s hand on his back. It fights to trample down his alarms and tells him his distrust is misplaced.

   Still … he doesn’t fully heed its assurances.

   “I ate the Armored,” Eren answers, still sounding so hesitant, yet dichotomously open. “And the next thing I remembered, I was waking up in the forest bleeding.”

   “You didn’t try to find anyone?”

   “I didn’t remember then,” Eren says. He shifts in the chair, looking frustrated after only a few sentences of barely taxing conversation.

   “Didn’t remember what?”

   “Anything.” Eren pushes hair that trails past his shoulders behind his ear. “I lost my memories. I didn’t know who I was. I was injured … maybe I was dead for a couple minutes or almost dead, maybe it broke my head.”

   “No one found you?” Soldiers were canvassing the area for weeks. Looking for bodies. Looking for survivors, though Levi was the only one who searched for Eren.

   “Something told me to get away,” Eren says. “I knew I wasn’t safe.”

   “The war was over.” Levi is in shock, he knows what it feels like. The way it sends his heart into his throat and makes his skin both numb, yet prickly-itchy all over. Taking a sip of fortifying tea, he struggles to keep his defenses up. Eren was always proficient at knocking them to dust without any effort.

   Eren shakes his head. He looks Levi in his eyes, locking them in place. “They would have locked me away until they fed me to someone else. And if they figured out the souls were gone, they would have executed me or kept me in prison for the rest of my life.”

   Levi slowly blinks. Eren isn’t wrong. There were dissidents, bombs went off, insurrection, people died. In those instances, the higher-ups always want their pound of flesh. Levi didn’t intend to let them have it. If he had found Eren, he wouldn’t have told anyone. Not even Hanji. He wouldn’t have taken him back. He would have snatched up Eren and left. Given him peace somewhere distant and cosseted so he could live out the last four years of his life without worry or care. Levi had steeled himself for the inevitable. For sickness and weakness as Eren’s time dwindled. He practiced building the wall he would use to keep his heart safe and would have sustained it until Eren’s last breath.

   Pulled farther into reverie he hasn’t indulged in a long while, Levi remembers forgotten intentions. If they had fled, he thought perhaps back then he would admit how he felt for Eren if it ever seemed unselfish. He wouldn’t burden or obligate him, but Levi hoped he would at long last have the chance to voice and show what Eren already knew.

   After releasing a hidden breath, Levi says, “You’re not mistaken.” He drops his eyes to his cup then takes a sip that feels like resignation.

   “Are you going to turn me in?” Eren asks. “I don’t have them anymore.”

   It’s a stupid question. Such a silly stupid question. Levi wants to enquire if perhaps Eren did break his head, yet he understands why he asks. It’s like he’s looking at his cards after a hand is dealt, or when Eren used to scratch his forehead and ask Levi if he was serious about chess that night before he took his turn. Besides the fact Levi’s been a murderer and a thief and a hitman and worn a number of unsavory hats, if this is Eren—even if it’s not—he’s never been one for calling lawmen.

   “No,” Levi says and shakes his head, abandoning the part of the conversation that stabs too deeply. “Should I ride to the constable because you swiped my apples?”

   “I was so hungry,” Eren says, “I’m sorry.”

   “And the wood?”

   Eren’s head hangs, heavy and weighted with decided guilt, swinging over the half drank tea he is staring into. “I broke my ax. The handle cracked.”

   Levi nods.

   “I tried to pay you back.”

   Rotating his cup on the table, Levi purses his lips. “So you did.”

   “I remembered you liked my dumb crafts.”

   They weren’t dumb. Levi clears his throat then turns the conversation back from wandering into the familiar, quiet comfort that is already burning his spirit. “When did you remember?”

   “About a year ago.” Eren grimaces around one of his customary too big sips. His eyes crinkle shut. The lines around them are deeper. Too deep. “I remembered my name first. When I came-to in the forest, I thought it was Jäger.” He shrugs. “I guess I only had half of it right. Then last year, I woke up one morning and I was so cold. I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes. I said to myself, ‘you have to get moving, Eren,’ and that was it.”

   Eren is dirty. His fingernails are grimy and so are his hands. His face looks a bit windburned too, and his skin is dry. That he may have been living in the elements all this time occurs to Levi, especially with how lanky he appears. Even through the layers he wears, Levi can tell his muscle is still there, but the hollow at the base of his neck is more pronounced, and his Adam’s apple juts out with a bit more point than it used to. “It all came at once? Did you try to find anyone? Your sister?”

   “No,” Eren shakes his head while tracing a knot on the tabletop. “You were the first person I remembered, everyone else came after that.” His expression appears regretful for a moment before he continues. “It wouldn’t be safe to find any of them. I tried to stay away from people mostly.”

   “They’d probably like to know you’re alive.”

   “They’ve mourned me,” Eren says frowning, “why open their old wounds?”

   Levi can feel his own coming undone. Like stitches being snipped too soon.

   “But you’re here … how did you find me?” Levi asks, thinking, Did you look for me? as he gives into the soft squishy part of himself below his barriers Eren found his way past a decade before.

   “I didn’t mean to find you or for you to see me.”

   Levi chokes on an undignified sound as his heart twists.

   How are you alive? is what he wants to say, but it behooves him to keep his lips shut tight for now where that question is concerned. What would befit him even more, would be to dispose of the proverbial fucking shield slung from his arm. But he can’t. Not when he’s spent every day for the last six years mourning and missing and bewailing so thoroughly at times he wonders if he is a dead man himself.

   Levi’s going to keep asking stupid questions because he doesn’t know how to un-mourn someone, and he’s still too stunned to ascertain if this is genuinely Eren or not. All he can do is have a surreal conversation and dissect his answers as best he can with a foggy head whirring with thoughts so fast, he can’t quite catch them. “How did you end up here?”

   Eren’s mangy beard ruffles as his lips curve into a sad smile. “I was in the Underground.” He pauses and narrows his eyes before he continues in a hushed tone, “But things got fucked up there. I had to come to the surface. I saw you on the street in town. You were buying bread.”

   “When?” Levi asks. He tries to keep his trips to town as limited as possible. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes people recognize him. They like to thank him and call him a hero. They enjoy asking him bothersome questions too while trailing him through the market collecting more curious onlookers and well-wishers as they go. It’s him, they whisper, It’s Humanity’s Strongest! It’s Captain Levi. The thought of it makes his head pound.

   “A few months ago,” Eren says. “I saw you, and—and—and I didn’t think it could be you.” He smiles like he used to smile at Levi with one hand on his chest. Enough to say, I love you without ever saying it. “But I’d know you anywhere.” Eren’s head falls as he glares deeper into his tea. He sniffs and wipes his eye, whispering in a cracked voice so soft Levi can barely hear it. “I tried, but I couldn’t turn around and go the other way.”

   Levi wants to ask why Eren didn’t say anything, but given the cold reception he’s offered him, it’s a pointless query. Eren wouldn’t expect embraces and tears and blubbered whispers about miracles.

   Disrupted when Von skitters onto the table, Levi allows his thoughts to trail. He watches Eren. He watches Von. His companion, at the best of times, hides on the few occasions he has visitors. At the worst, he’s run out ready to attack with claws like little knives, then spit and hissed with his fur standing on end.

   Von looks to Levi, to Eren, and back to Levi then rubs his head against Eren’s free hand on the table.

   “Hey there,” Eren says, leaning closer and scratching Von’s cheek. He clears his throat. “Who are you?”

   “His name’s Von,” Levi says, chest tingling.

   “Never thought you’d have a cat.” Eren smiles when Von scrambles onto his lap, makes a circle, and lies down like he and Eren are close friends. “He’s very friendly.”

   “Not usually.” Hiding his surprise at the scene across the table and the clench in his sentimental heart, Levi refills his cup and turns it idly on the table, so he has something to do with his hands.

   Eren is smiling and petting a purring Von, looking at him fondly and whispering how handsome he is.

   Levi stills his hands around his teacup before him, hoping foolishly its imparting warmth can help him make sense of the situation. Heartened by Von’s immediate approval of someone other than himself, he steers the conversation back to where it was before his furry companion decided to say hello. “You saw me,” Levi reiterates, “you followed me?”

   “I wanted to tell you …”  Eren ceases spoiling Von then pinches the corners of his eyes and rubs them with unsteady hands. He looks like he always did when he was discouraged and trying in vain to find the right words. The movement of his fingers, his brows smashed until there’s a little ‘V’ above his nose and his lips pressed tight together is even more ‘Eren’ than his frustrated, stumbling answers to questions. “I didn’t know how you would react. I thought maybe you’d have a heart attack, or you hated me.”

   Levi stretches his fingers, so he doesn’t make a fist. He doesn’t hate Eren. Far from it, yet all at once, he wants to embrace him and punch him in his perfect nose too. Levi also wants to do something very Eren-like, such as rant and bang his fist on the table. “I don’t hate you.”

   “I’m still sorry.” Eren falters for a moment before he looks at Levi completely unguarded, opening himself up for his judgment. “I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t convince myself it would be easy.”

   “It’s hard to swallow,” Levi says. Eren is a vision of what Levi couldn’t dare dream about years before. A future Eren alive past his expiration date, with his same smiling face framed by the hard-lined jaw of a man. Sometimes when he couldn’t sleep, he would envisage how Eren would look, though he never allowed his quixotic dreams to grasp too tightly.

   He’s wounded in a way that makes no sense to him, and it’s showing in the most selfish of manners. Eren who has seemingly not had it easy, from amnesia to an apparent tussle with feeding and clothing himself, scraping by on Levi doesn’t know what—is the one apologizing.

   Eren only watches as Levi struggles to keep his composure and stop himself from asking why he didn’t come to him.

   “I know it’s hard …”  Eren doesn’t need to say how fearful he is of a negative reaction and he doesn’t bring up the past. Still, Levi can sense his discomfiture. It’s in the set of his shoulders. In how he moves. In the way he lifts his teacup. In green eyes that are a bit too shiny. “But, do you believe—”

   “Was the curse bullshit?” Levi asks.

   Eren sighs, shrugging. “I don’t think so.” He readjusts himself in his seat and leans his elbow on the table, chin in his hand. He looks tired. “It could have been, but I’ll never know for certain.”

   Levi sips his tea because he doesn’t know what to say. He shouldn’t care what happened. Eren’s alive—or it seems he is—but the rational part of his mind still pokes around a corner like a suspicious old bitty. He clears his throat, mustering more words than usual. “You understand how it’s difficult to believe?” Even as the words come out, he wants to eat them all. He sounds like he’s negotiating a contract or explaining to someone as politely as possible he’s extorting them.

   “Yes.” Eren nods and laughs a soft bruising little noise. “I should be dead twice over.”

   Levi began to mourn Eren before he was even gone. It’s as if someone drove a knife into his chest ten years ago to only remove it now. “It’s not every day I drink tea with a ghost.” It’s a lie. Eren’s ghost has been with Levi since the day he died.

   “I wish there was a way to prove it that you would believe.”

   Levi wishes there was too. Other people—ordinary people—would be joyous. Relieved. Tears would overflow, and the wall of disbelief would be smashed by tides of bittersweet consolation. But Levi’s always been different. The bitter pills have been shoved down his throat too many times for him to take a gulp without a fight. Eren told him so years ago; that his walls and his shields and defenses were his greatest protector and his greatest flaw. Words of wisdom from a seventeen-year-old who knew he would never grow old.

   Rubbing his forehead, Levi grasps for something to convince himself. To shred the last bit of skepticism. It should be so simple to say. He won’t ask Eren to repeat something as intimate as the words he used to breathe against his nape as they fell asleep, but still, a secret that was only theirs. He rubs sweaty palms on his thighs and uselessly wills his disobedient heart to stop pounding as if he is running. “There was a song,” he begins, forcing away the memories it evokes. “Lunae Lumen …”

   Eren smiles. Soft and sad and whimsied as his cheeks flush. “You used to play it on your phonograph,” he whispers. “We danced to it.”

   Swallowing an undignified noise, Levi bites his bottom lip as nonchalantly as he can. His chin wants to quiver and scrunch up, and his eyes feel like they’ve been plunged into hot coals. His breaths are in competition to catch up with the galloping in his chest as the last vestiges of doubt fray. He doesn’t trust himself to speak. Instead, he slides his hand toward Eren’s on the tabletop, pausing when Eren gasps. Their fingertips are less than an inch apart when Levi finds the courage to meet wide green eyes.

   When Levi holds his breath and stretches to touch them, Eren’s fingers are warm and rough and shaky. His smile is pulled between his teeth; heartbreakingly poignant, and his eyes shine with the same adoration they always have for Levi.

   Just like Levi remembers.

  * * *

Silence and Eren’s sniffling surround them for what feels longer than it must be. Eren alternates between rubbing at his face and tending to Von’s demanding nature. And Levi alternates between frowning at the unlit lamp on the table, looking into the fire across the way in the hearth, and not moving his hand which is now under Eren’s.

   This doesn’t happen to Levi. People leave. They don’t come back. It’s why there’s still a persistent nasty part of him which tries to convince him of deception. There are green eyes that don’t lie. Eyes he would know anywhere. Ones which told him it was the truth the moment he saw them. There are all Eren’s quirks and the same way about him he’s ever had. He knows details so private no one else could know, and cats don’t interact with a figment of imagination from a cracked mind. Still, he bites his lip when Eren looks at him with a painfully warm curve to his own.

   Levi tries to take a sip from his cup, forgetting it’s empty. “More?” he asks, motioning to the pot.

   “Thanks, please.” Eren slides his hand away with a slow brush that lingers against Levi’s fingers. He puts Von on the floor, stands, and rubs his hands up and down his biceps. “I could get the fire.”

   “There’s a chill.” Levi only notices it now.

   When Levi makes it to the kitchen counter, the bit of space between them is both welcome, yet not. He takes a moment to catch his breath after he puts the kettle on the stove, and commands his rebellious muscles and eyes to once again obey while he slices apples and bread.

   Eren is shuffling around by the hearth, pulling wood from the box and making achingly familiar little grunts and huffs that pull Levi back years. There’s the gritty sweep of Eren’s short, efficient strokes with the ash broom and the scrape of the brass shovel against stones. A “Woah, shit!” at what Levi assumes is a lump of stray coal which needs to be pushed back into its proper place.

   “I’m glad you liked my garland,” Eren says, and Levi can hear the smile in it.

   He has to steady his fingers around the tea caddy. If he looks over at Eren, he knows he will be looking at him with twinkling green eyes that catch all the light. It will be too much. Eren has always been too much. Too glowing, too beautiful, too selfless. Too magnificently intense even in his unbalanced rage.

   Too big to fit in Levi’s chest.

   He snorts out a small half laugh, recalling how besotted he’s always been. At least that’s the word Hanji always used. “That’s high-grade cinnamon.”

   “I traded some meat for sticks before I left the city.”

   Eren’s chair scrapes across the floor, but Levi focuses on pouring water over the tea. “Where do you live?” Based on Eren’s appearance he can’t stop pondering his residence, wondering if he’s been living in the woods.

   “There’s an abandoned house on the next hill over.”

   The teapot nearly slips from Levi’s hand. “Half its roof is gone.” It’s out before he can stop it. Fighting his frown and visions of Eren curled up in a sleeping bag and being snowed on, Levi returns to the table and sets down the teapot and a snack-filled plate with a clunk. “Eat.”

   Eren shrugs, looking delighted as he snatches an apple slice despite the conversation. “It’s better than a cave, and it’s better than the Underground. I’ve lived all sorts of places in the last six years.”

   Stomach churning uneasily, Levi presses his palm to his forehead to stave off its ache, and serves Eren tea first, as if overfeeding Eren tea and fruit will protect him from living in a half-destroyed, crumbling shack.

   Levi’s head has never made much sense to him when his heart is involved. Especially when Eren is once again nurturing the shriveled black thing in his chest that passes for one. Making it flip and jump and swell and clench until he feels as though it will burst.

   Levi wants to do something very dangerous. He wants to keep Eren. He wants to invite him to stay. To feed him. To scrub him in a good, warm bath then shave off that horrid beard and trim his split ends. He wants to climb into bed and offer Eren his chest and open arms like he used to then lie with his nose pressed to his neck and Eren’s hair tickling his cheek. Levi wants to feel Eren’s heart beating under his palm as they drift off to sleep. He wants to warm his cold feet on Eren’s shins, stroking the silky soft hair which covers them with his toes.

   Eren is watching him as too much expands inside. He envisions Eren sitting in the chair ten feet from them in clean clothes with clean skin. Eren tucking his hair behind his ear while they play chess. Eren watching him while he decides his next move. Levi presses his fingernails against the unyielding surface of his teacup.

   “Does it have a hearth?” he says instead of asking Eren to stay with him.

   “It’s still intact,” Eren says, patting his lap, beckoning Von to return, “and I have a bed. There’s a water pump too. No boiler, but I manage.”

   Levi nods, pressing his lips together to trap his worries.

   “It’s really not bad,” Eren assures. “Don’t worry.”

  * * *

When Eren makes to leave that night, Levi opens the door to shadows and uncertainty. Eren’s going back to a half-broken house he’s determined to fix, to little food, and even less wood. Levi packs as much of both as Eren will be able to carry, but it’s a preoccupation for the rising anxiety he won’t return. That Eren will walk out into star-peppered blackness and cold, and it will be like the fading of a dream.

   Heaving a bundle of wood over his shoulder, Eren’s lips curve below a worried pinch in his brows. “I’ll be back.”

   “All right,” Levi says, leaving off when?

   “I’ll be okay.” He adjusts the rope in his left hand. “There’s shit I need to check. That house doesn’t stay standing without my constant attention.”

   Levi jerks his chin toward the split pine. “Will that be enough?”

   “Yeah,” Eren says, “thanks.”

   It won’t last long, maybe a day, but it’s possible Eren plans to return quickly.

   When Levi doesn’t say anything, Eren adds. “I have to take care of myself.”

   Levi nods. Perhaps Eren needs to prove something he doesn’t think he has before, or maybe it’s the awkward unspoken rift that’s still unresolved between them. Or perchance it would be too forward to merely say, Levi, please let me live here with you. Levi can’t get out the, Don’t go, himself, but Eren’s always been the more forward of the two of them.

   Handing over the rest of the provisions, Levi parts with more apples, a bar of chocolate, some assorted nuts, biscuits, tea, and winter vegetables. It’s not much, but it’s enough to keep Eren from subsisting only on meat for a few days. “You have a cup?” he asks.

   “A kettle and a cup with a broken handle.” Eren smiles wider. “Just no tea.”

   “I packed you some Assam. You used to like it in the morning.”

   “I still do.”

   Fussing and shifting his weight from right to left to right, Eren stands at the threshold, and Levi can’t stop him. They look at each other for more heartbeats than Levi can count, before Eren turns, reaches his hand toward Levi’s, a few inches short of taking it, and pulls it back. “I’ll see you soon … if that’s all right.”

   Levi nods with visions of chess and dinner and Eren tracing the scars on his hands flitting behind his eyes. Eren has scars to trace now too, and Levi wants to touch them, to kiss them. He wants to hear the stories behind them, how Eren got that slash over the back of his right hand that looks so similar to the one over Levi’s left. He looks at it now as his hand curls in a fist, though it’s too intimate. Perhaps Eren doesn’t feel how he did when he was young, pining after an old man. The white streak at the front of Levi’s hair falls forward before his eyes as if to remind him.

   Maybe Eren only wants a friend.

   Finally, Levi finds all the nerve he can scrape together, sounding awkward and childish to his own ears. “I’ll be here.” He shrugs. “I don’t leave much in winter.”

   “I bet you don’t leave much in summer either.” Eren grins fondly, taps Levi’s toe gently with his boot, and walks out the door, gone from Levi once more.

   Levi doesn’t close up until Eren’s down the steps and glances at him before heading in the direction of the hill with the trees and the animal tracks and too much distance between them. His toes curl as he shuts and locks the door, hand remaining on the handle until his fingers are so tense they hurt. Pulling it away and shaking it, Levi doesn’t rush to the kitchen counter like he wants to. He takes slow, measured, dignified steps, the resistance to the lazy movements burning from his ankles to his hips. When he reaches the sink, he leans over it, the edge grinds into his stomach, but he ignores the discomfort and gazes out the window. Eren moves from the house, trudging through the snow in his too thin pants and his beat-up boots and patched coat.

   Once he’s at the treeline, he stops and so does Levi’s heart. Eren turns and meets his gaze, raising an arm in farewell before he’s turning away from Levi again, going to a far crummier home than he deserves.

   Levi watches until he no longer sees Eren through the trees, and even then his eyes still search. It’s only Von who pulls him away, jumping onto the counter and pawing his hand. He looks into yellow-green eyes that blink slowly at him. “I love you too, Von.”

   It’s so much easier to say to a cat, and Levi regrets he never said it aloud before. He turns away from the window, slides down the lower cabinets, and settles on the floor, heart reeling. Eren is stupid and infuriating and wonderful and beautiful like he always was. He makes Levi want to laugh and kick the chair leg so close to his feet at the same time. All that stops him is Von jumping into his lap and looking up at him as he runs a hand over his soft, fluffy fur, smoothing his ears until he curls up as if he thinks this is where they’ll sleep for the night.

   Von stretches his neck and settles his chin on Levi’s thigh, and Levi gives him one last, long pet down his back. “I knew you’d like him.”

  * * *

When Levi curls up under his bed covers in the early hours of the morning—after another pot of tea, Von’s persistent niggling to go to bed, and too many false starts of tears to count—he’s not sure how he feels or what he’s supposed to. He looks at the pillow next to his own, wishing he was still in his chair by the fire, fingers twisting in flannel and down as he releases a breath into the cool air. He’s numbed a bit, he supposes, and he doesn’t have words to explain what’s thumping between his head and chest. There’s happiness, and something close to relief, but relief isn’t the correct word for it.

   He’s been bound so long everything has lost feeling, but now that the bonds have loosened, the sensation is coming back. First, a buzzing prickle, then pins and needles, and finally, shooting pain which settles to a potent ache. Eren’s alive, and that knowledge needs to sink through the layers until it bashes through the last hardened shell of dubiety.

   Sure he’ll find no sleep, Levi tosses onto his back, stretches his cold, lonely toes, and stares up into the cavernous darkness at his ceiling. If he closes his eyes and gives in to exhaustion, when he wakes, it may not have happened. Perhaps he’s asleep right now.

   Von nudges at his hand still laying on the empty pillow beside him, purring and curling into a ball along with Levi. Levi scratches his chin and shuts his eyes. “Good night, Von.”

 

Predictable move, Eren. By the way, you need more fucking knives!

Despite the late hour Levi retires, he finds little sleep. And what he does manage is besieged with unflagging dreams that after years, come to him still. Bright yellow and white and red and green. Nothings and emptiness. Pounding in his chest which feels like his heart were trying to thrust itself up his throat and out his mouth. The sensation of his hands clutching around the handles of blades only for something to cling to. Running, and then plunging his fingers into man-sized chunks of flesh, digging and digging until nothing is left to touch but billowing steam. The searing heat in his eyes. The wet salt on his face.

   “Fuck.” He presses his cheek into his pillow.

   His stomach lurches, his jaw aches from grinding his teeth, and his eyes are crusted in the corners. He rubs at the rheum, blinks at his hands with a mumbled, “disgusting,” and rises from his bed.

   Wincing at the throb in his ankle, he drags himself into the living area with Von nearly underfoot. “Watch out, Von.”

   Levi’s tiny domain doesn’t look any different. It’s still exceedingly clean, the time-worn floorboards are of the same rich, scratched mahogany they were the night before. Gouged in places and scuffed with stories Levi wasn’t there to see. As always, the window over the lumpy sofa is leaking, with a slow drip that paints the pane in the top left corner, and it’s freezing … but it’s emptier now.

   Even with Von meowing and walking a serpentine around his ankles, something’s missing. It’s too quiet.

   Levi rubs his eyes again and repeats the tiring task of tending the fire like he does every morning. “Give me a damn minute,” he says to Von, grasping a log with a “tch.”

   Once the flames are roaring, and Levi’s fingers are soiled with sap and ash, he turns toward the kitchen, eyes focusing between his two leather chairs. He tilts his head, vision blurring around the edges like he’s looking through an unfocused spyglass. His breath stops. It’s been corked in a bottle.

   “Please,” he whispers.

   Levi blinks as he takes shaky steps, reaches out, fingers halting. A black knight has been moved on the chess board. He blinks again just to prove it’s there. It remains in its place. A smile tugs at his lips, body warming from something other than the fire at his back. Ever Eren, he’s shifted his piece into a terrible position, aggressive and over-eager.

   “Idiot.” Levi shakes his head. “Predictable.”

   Trembling, he pulls his fingers back before they meet wood. Von is asking for food, he has time to ponder his next move, and the tingle on the back of his neck tells him Eren has something up his sleeve.

* * *

A day and a half later, Levi still hasn’t decided what strategy he’ll take to counter Eren’s brazenly hawkish knight. He’s pondered it over cleaning the entire house—whether it needed it or not. When he prepared tea, cooked dinner, and while he folded his wash. He asked Eurus this morning, but he only nudged his hand for a sugar cube. Vaka had a similar reaction, and Von has been unsurprisingly silent on the matter as well.   

   He almost wants to wait until Eren returns—if he returns.

   Levi’s head hurts. He scratches his forehead and puts down his book. He’s read the same page three times and can’t recall a word of it.

   Boiling the kettle for the eighth time that day, he peers out his kitchen window. Twilight is beginning to descend, and though there isn’t much new snow, it’s still frigid. How could Eren have enough blankets to weather it with half his roof riddled with holes? Levi can see him huddled in the corner of his bed, wrapped in threadbare wool with his broken-handled teacup. “Stubborn,” he says toward the window, directing the thought across the yard, through the forest, and up the hill.

   Pressing his palm to his forehead, he tries to will his headache away while he waits for the water to boil. He paces. He looks in the pantry. It’s the same as it was the last four times he checked. He walks to the front door, sticks his nose defiantly into the frozen air, and stares at Eren’s footprints. They’re still there. Then he shakes his head, presses the heels of his hands hard against his eye sockets, and shuts the cold back out.

   The water is ready by the time he returns to the stove, and he notes with a frown, the motions of preparing the tea don’t settle him anymore. He’s worn out the ritual over the last two afternoons.

   Neck twitching with the need to raise his head and look out the window again, Levi fights the indomitable urge and stares at his distorted reflection in his cup. He doesn’t need to to know he looks exhausted. He saw himself in the mirror when he shaved this morning.

   His palms are clammy and slippery against the porcelain as he clings to it tighter, he can feel the pulse in his wrists, and a sharp, little lump burns in his throat, like a splinter of glass. He puts the china down at the fearful jolt in his arms when he thinks of it breaking.

   His nape tingles as he braces his hands on his countertop, unrelenting, like a string on a marionette attempting to wrench it up. Resisting makes it worse, it burns and yanks and provokes until he grinds out a defeated, “fine!” and raises his eyes.

   He doesn’t believe it when he first sees him. But a figure is traipsing through the snow toward the house. He looks like he’s been inked on the landscape, dark, near-black against the peach-pink-violet of the day’s dying sun. Retaining his purposeful strides, Eren holds himself against a gust that tosses the long hair framing his face from his hood and into the breeze.

   Levi’s eyes are hot.

   With his bottom lip between his teeth, he dashes to the washroom. He looks like shit, tired and rough, and scraped off his own shoe, and though he hasn’t shed more than a half tear, the corners of his eyes are red, and the whites are painted with crimson threads that remind him of bloody little spider webs. He rubs his face like he could scrub away all his flaws, scowls at the streak of white hanging over his brow, and wipes imagined dust from his shirt sleeves.

   On the way to the kitchen to check the infusion of Gunpowder, he makes a final frantic decision on his move to counter Eren’s knight.

   A lazy looking strategy Eren won’t expect. Levi can’t wait to see his confused little frown over the game he’s planning to play.

* * *

Despite Levi’s dogged inquietude, Eren’s knock comes quicker than anticipated. And the need not to hurry too quickly to the entrance is overridden by the knowledge Eren must be freezing.

   When Levi opens the door, Eren’s brows are raised like he’s a bit astonished. “Hi,” he says, lips curving and eyes crinkling as they settle on Levi’s.

   “Hi,” Levi says back. It’s quiet and solitary on a tongue that feels too fat and dry in his mouth to say more.

   Once they’re both inside, Eren is quick to shuck off his coat and boots and grin at Levi with a smile below flushed cheeks that still looks like the fucking sun. He rubs his hands together, warding off the cold that must cling to them. “Hi,” he says again. His hair is tidier than it was two nights ago—ruffleable—and his beard, though still thick but patchy in spots, has been trimmed and neatened. His scent carries a hint of washing powder, like he scrubbed his clothes, but couldn’t rinse them well enough.

   It’s only when Levi still doesn’t say anything in return that his smile drops and he frowns. “I told you I’d come back.”

   Levi nods. “It’s been cold.”

   Eren moves to the table, not like he used to in Levi’s quarters—like they were his quarters too—but with a tight shuffle he appears to be trying to fight his way out of and with his shoulders inching up toward his ears. Levi wants to push them down and tell him he’s not a guest, but Von does instead when he jumps into his lap.

   “Hello, Von.” He ignores Levi for a moment, and Levi doesn’t blame him. Von was beguiling enough he took him in after the first meow. “I brought back your bag.”

   Good. Levi’s going to fill it up again. “Was it enough?” Levi retrieves the pot of Gunpowder, sets it on the table, and sits with two cups. He doesn’t need to ask Eren if he wants any.  

   “Yeah.” Eren’s eyes glimmer with the same mirth they did before the war peeled him away from everyone layer by layer. “I ate the chocolate as soon as I got home.”

   “Impatient.” Greedy too, Levi thinks, so wonderfully greedy.

   “I haven’t had any in an age.” Eren takes a sip, peering at Levi over the rim of his cup. He smiles but looks thoughtful and contemplative when he sets it down. “Thank you, I really mean it.”

   “You can’t starve.” The table creates too far a distance between them. Too much separation like it’s attempting to stand in Levi’s way. “Hungry?” he asks.

   “Smells good in here.” Eren inhales.

   A half-done meat pie has been sitting in the pantry since the afternoon. One of Levi’s many—almost—manic activities to pass the hours. He contemplated using Eren’s venison, but with no clear idea of when he would next arrive, Levi opted for rabbit, potatoes, carrots, and leeks with gravy in a rich, crumbly crust. “It needs to finish,” he says, noting Eren licking his lips when he fetches it and then sets in the oven.

   Levi wants to pace, or he wants to sit. He’s not certain. Eren looks better today. Healthier. There’s a bit more color to his cheeks, and he wonders if stuffing him full of more chocolate would complete the transformation.

   “I brought something,” Eren says and sets Von on the floor.

   “Hmm?” Levi reclaims his seat, bracing his shins against the backs of his chair legs despite the ache in his ankle.

   Eren is digging around in his pocket as if it holds as much as a bag, but he stops finally, looks at something in his lap Levi can’t see before he expels a breath and slides a knife across the table. “I thought,” he begins, “I thought, if you still doubted, this might … I don’t know … take it away.”

   The jackknife sitting between them is finely crafted with a handle of Rosewood. Slipping his hand forward, Levi places his index finger on it and slides it nearer. He doesn’t need to look closer to know what it is. Swallowing slowly, the pain in his cramping leg subsides. Levi can almost feel the heat of Eren sitting beside him on his bed when he gave this knife to him. Fifteen years old, peering over Levi’s shoulder as Levi instructed him how to use it. Eren’s breath on his neck when Levi flicked it open and shut, demonstrating again and again. He can see his determined expression as he practiced using it while hanging about Levi’s quarters that evening. “You didn’t lose it.”

   “No,” Eren says. “It was one of the few things I had after …” He shrugs. “You know.”

   The weight of it is even more familiar than its appearance when he hefts it in his palm, examining it. “You’ve kept the handle well polished.”

   “I knew it was important. Needs some sharpening though.” He releases a breathy laugh. “I think I spent the last of its edge on the deer last week.”

   “You don’t have a whetstone?”

   “Sharpening kit got nicked in the summer.”

   Levi looks at Eren and frowns.

   “The Underground,” Eren says, fingertips tapping the tabletop.

   Levi wants to admonish Eren for not having the barest essentials for knife maintenance. He could have been attacked, robbed, murdered, an animal could have come out of nowhere. He raises a reprimanding brow like he’s playing the exhausting old game of pretending he’s only Eren’s captain again for half a heartbeat. “You didn’t have this last night?”

   “Didn’t think I’d needed it to swipe your wood.” Eren smirks.

   “There’re bears out there.” Levi gestures with the knife toward the window, then flicks it open.

   “I doubt I could kill a bear.”

   “Slash it in the nose, then it runs away,” Levi says, examining the blade. “This looks like shit.”

   Eren’s slumps. His fingers twist tremulously around the handle of his cup, and Levi might be the most insufferable jackass on the island of Paradis. He should eat his own boots before any more inane observations come from his mouth. How Eren ever did—or perhaps still does—love him is something he will never understand.

   “Sorry,” Levi begins, faltering, searching for something diplomatic to say that won’t sound as if he is patronizing. “I—I didn’t mean it like that.”

   Levi wants to plant his palm on his forehead with a bit of force. He’s stuttered, and he’s shit at this. Instead, he looks at Eren because it’s what he deserves.

   Pursing his lips, Eren blows a loud breath out his nose. He appears young for a moment, like the beautiful boy who enchanted an unworthy Levi a decade before. “I still don’t like to disappoint you. I won’t grow out of it.”

   “I’m not disappointed.” Levi rises to fetch his supplies. “You’ve taken good care of it. It just needs sharpening and to be oiled.”

  * * *

By the time they have everything spread on the table, Eren is smiling again, setting up the stones and the oil in the same fashion Levi taught him years before. His tongue is poking from between his lips as he tests the angle, and Levi can feel himself falling all over again.

   It’s like history repeating itself. Eren bright and glowing and everything he does being so perfect even when it so often isn’t, and Levi remembering watching him leave his rooms at night or his bed in the morning. The only difference was Levi knew what Eren felt then, but Levi never said anything because he wasn’t good enough for Eren, and though Eren is now someone most people in the city wouldn’t give a kind glance to, he’s still so much better than Levi will ever be. Neither a teenager, nor a young man knew that, but a man, Eren’s age, will.

   Sending the thoughts away as best he can, Levi clears his throat. “Is that the only knife you have?” Eren needs at least two … or five … or ten … or better yet, he needs to be under a real roof with a knife hidden in every hiding place imaginable.

   “I have one more,” Eren says, meeting Levi’s eyes. “It’s for cutting hide. I’m trying to teach myself leathercraft. I’m not too good yet.”

   “I have extra.”

   Eren snorts with arched brows pressing up and creasing his forehead. “You always have extra.” The dimple in his cheek peeks through his beard before he looks under the table and says, “I knew it!”

   Levi’s been caught out, and it’s his turn to snort as both the twist in his heart and spine begin to unwind. “Clever you.”

   “I bet it’s the same one,” Eren says, disappearing further beneath the table.

   Before Eren ends up crawling all the way under, Levi unfastens the dagger and sets it next to Eren’s teacup. “See for yourself.”

   Eren nearly bumps his head in his enthusiasm but looks at Levi with lips that are a little bit parted and eyes that are a little bit wide. “You never let me play with it when I was younger.”

   “That’s because you wanted to play with it.”

   “It’s a tough knife.” When Eren turns it over in his hands, he looks like Levi just handed him a bag of treasure. “It’s beautiful,” he says, tracing the engraved handle.

   “I have one for you that’s similar.” Levi drums his fingers on the table. “You were always best with daggers.”

   “I can have one?”

   “Yes.” Levi stands and pauses for a moment, about to omit it’s the knife he keeps hidden behind the toilet tank. Eren is gorgeous and gruff and still awkward, but he’s there making jokes like he used to and smiling as he did before he was left world-weary as the rage snuffed out all but a spark of this part of him. He’s sitting in Levi’s kitchen like he belongs there, and Levi is sure—knows—he’s going to make a bathroom joke in his lower, coarser, older voice and brighten the cabin more than the fire and lanterns ever could, and Levi’s heart is going to hurt. Aching because he’s still un-mourning him and still bleeding and nothing is ever this easy for him. He pinches the bridge of his nose.

   “What’s wrong?” Eren looks up at Levi standing beside him.

   “I have to get it from the bathroom.” Levi runs his fingers through his hair, which is a mistake since that streak is back in his face. “It’s behind the tank.”

   Eren laughs. Of course, he does. “You’re going to give me your toilet knife?”

   “So I am.”

   Picking back up his jackknife to sharpen, Eren asks, “What if a bear breaks in when you’re taking a shit?”

   Levi sighs. “I have three other toilet knives.”

* * *

They finish knife maintenance mainly in silence, with a comment or two here and there, or Eren asking Levi to check his blade after he’s completed each step before he moves onto the next. Levi keeps his calves locked around the front legs of his chair, so he doesn’t do something stupid like touch Eren’s toe with his own.

   Eren helps clean up, wiping down the table with thorough efficiency just like he used to. He’s even helpful enough to set it when dinner is finished.

   When they sit back down, Eren tucks his napkin on his lap with slow, careful movements—the way Levi pictures his mother would have asked him to do, and Levi wonders if he carries on with the manners when he eats at home or if Eren needs merely something to do with his hands.

   He eats like he always did; ardent and with unfettered enthusiasm. There’s something in his expression though. In eyes that are duller than usual but glassy, shaded with woeful exhaustion beneath them. He probably hasn’t had a meal like this in Levi doesn’t know how long.

   “S’good,” Eren says with a mouth full of food. The left corner of his lips lift as if to tell Levi not to worry.

   Levi nods and watches enraptured between his own bites as whatever melancholy that took Eren melts away like the butter on his toasted bread. Eren is a man who is practically homeless, who has lived through his own nightmares, burdens, and amnesia, who is just as alone as Levi but who smiles and unfurls and laughs over Levi’s toilet knife, swiping split pine, and rabbit pie warming his stomach. Meanwhile, Levi stews in his weltschmerz, twisting his hand in the fabric of his left trouser leg instead of reaching it across the table.

   “We could make your backstrap next.” Levi looks at his plate after he says it, eyes cast on the buttery crust and a bit of potato that somehow seems like it has a sneering little face.

   Eren frowns. “You didn’t eat it?” He appears disappointed enough it pokes into the already too tender gash in Levi’s chest.

   “Didn’t know who left it.” Levi puts his fork down, holds green eyes in place the same way he always could. “If I had known …”

   “Probably smart,” Eren says and shrugs. He sips his tea and reclines in his seat. “There could have been something wrong with it, but I wanted you to have it. I kept the other.”

   “I’d rather share it …” Sometimes, once in a very great while, Levi’s mouth wants to take all the thoughts in his head and run away with them. His lips want to spew all his secrets and all the feelings he keeps locked away. His fingers prickle with chiding self-consciousness. He battles the, with you which is attempting to make an escape and finish his sentence, decides against it’s a lot for only one, and recovers with, “I have sage.”

   “Do you have cinnamon?” Eren asks.

   Levi knows he makes an odd face … cinnamon and sage on venison with butter sounds … it’s insanity. “Only the ones on the garland.”

   “There’s no way you don’t have cream if you have chocolate.” Eren’s eyes twinkle. “I’ll bring cinnamon for hot cocoa.”

   “I have cream. From the goats.” Levi envisions chocolate mustaches and dislikes Eren’s real one even more, but keeps his scowl to himself, allowing his lips to twitch instead. It’s too cold to suggest he shave it.

   “Goat cream hot cocoa …” Eren whispers, spearing a carrot. He pauses with the bite at his lips. “What other animals do you have?”

   Clearing his throat, Levi sets down his fork. He contemplates the wisdomless tea in his cup. It’s not that he doesn’t want to tell Eren about Vaka. In fact, he’s warring to keep the words behind his lips, but Eren’s potential reaction has his heart speeding its pace.

   He’s told Eurus and Vaka of Eren’s return. When he stood in the barn yesterday morning. How he’s alive and tall and beautiful. What his deeper voice sounds like and how he looks with a face full of beard. Both horses know Eren’s name, and perhaps it was imagined, but Levi saw comprehension. Vaka circled in her stall, ears pricked and stiff, eyes wide and searching. If her reaction was half as intense as Eren’s, Levi’s not sure his heart will be strong enough to take it.

   “When we’re finished,” Levi says, nodding at Eren’s half-empty plate, “there’s something I want to show you.”

* * *    

Clouds slip across the dark sky above, shepherding their snows east. They look like dissolving froth in the moonglow. Nebulous, blurred, and luminous as they dance; obscuring the twinkling heavens only to reveal them again.

   “The sky’s beautiful,” Eren says behind his scarf.

   But Eren is more beautiful. His eyes are smiling.

   They don’t only catch the sunlight, Levi thinks, they catch starlight too, like thieves plotting to take all the world’s glow for their own.

   … Or maybe Levi just imagines that. Still, he would help them steal every last flicker of flame.

   “Peaceful,” Levi whispers.

   Eren is closer beside him than he was twenty paces ago. No snow falls. The frosty air carries the susurrus of promise on it, but other than that vow and their footfalls crunching snow in tandem, the silence in the mountains is total.

   “Are we going to feed the goats?” Eren tugs on his hood, hiding him behind wool and scarf and beard. “I can help.”

   “They’re fed.” Hiding the curl in his lips, Levi shoves his free hand in his pocket. The urge to take Eren’s swinging beside him is staggering. “It’s something else.”

   “What is it?”

   “You’ll see.” It’s a secret. One that’s weighty and long. It stretches out before them, leaving Levi feeling like his strides are shorter than they are.

   “You’re quieter than usual.” Eren’s steps hasten. “Is it something illegal?”

   Levi snorts. “No, what law could I possibly be breaking?”

   “I don’t know.” Shrugging, Eren looks at Levi. Now he’s grinning mischievously. “A black market tea shop.”

   “Doubt I’d have customers out here,” Levi says, amused, and points ahead, “Relax, we’re nearly there.”

   Kicking a chunk of ice, Eren sighs. “Right.”

   He doesn’t offer more theories, but by the time they pass under the bare branches of the apple tree, he’s walking with fidgety excitement. Silently hurrying Levi’s steps.

   “Just a minute,” Levi says when they reach the door of the barn. He hands Eren his lantern and shovels the snow the winds have left piled against it. “Almost there now, be patient.”

   “Like that’s easy.” Jittering, Eren hands Levi back his lantern. He’s bouncing in his boots as he watches Levi unfasten the latch.

   Always so eager, Levi thinks. For all Eren knows, Levi might have brought him here to help shovel shit. Still, Eren bites his lip, cheerfully impatient, assisting Levi to yank open the door.

   “Go ahead,” Levi says, palm raised, chin lifted, gesturing toward the inside of the darkened barn.

   Frowning, Eren meets his gaze. For being so excited a moment before, he doesn’t move quickly. Instead, he adopts an air of caution. “What’s in there?”

   Levi rolls his eyes. “My murder victims.”

   “Huh?”

   “Just go fucking look.” Levi gives him a gentle shove.

   Holding his lantern high, Levi follows as Eren steps inside. He doesn’t want to miss this. The light from Eren’s flame slowly illuminates the barn’s interior, like a sunrise. It first reveals the piles of hay, then the pitchforks, metal tools hung from the walls glinting in the light, Sven and Ava pausing their chewing to regard Eren, saddles, brushes, and then the billowing vapors of horse breath.

   “Eurus …?” Eren says, his own breath adding to the cloud of condensation. “Is that you?”

   Levi smirks. Eren still hasn’t made it to the second stall. “It’s him,” Levi says.

   “You still have—” Voice breaking when Vaka neighs, Eren freezes. He looks at her, looks at Levi, looks at Vaka again, and then stares at Levi, gaping. His expression morphs; elation, sentimentality, relief, and perhaps a bit of sorrow wash over it. It’s one of those faces that is terrible and beautiful at the same time. “She’s okay …”

   Levi nods.

   Rooted in the feed strewn earth, Eren covers his eyes and sniffs. “She’s alive.”

   “Yeah, and temperamental as ever,” Levi says, “go see her.”

   Nearly stumbling, Eren looks back and forth between them again before he rushes to Vaka’s stall. She stretches her neck to nuzzle Eren’s cheek before his fingers meet her mane. “Vaka,” he says as she knocks off his hood and leaves horse kisses all over his face.

   “Vaka,” he says again, voice tight. “She remembers me … she remembers.”

   She sniffs at his beard, at his now longer hair, noses against his neck.

   “I don’t—” Clearing his throat, Levi chews on the inside of his cheek. “I don’t think she ever forgot you.”

   “I can’t believe you have them.” Eren looks at Levi but doesn’t loosen his fingers knotted in her silky strands. “How did you …?”

   “I bought them when I retired.” His expression shifts from tense into something slightly cocky. “You think Hanji would have argued with me?”

   “No …” Eren’s eyes don’t leave Vaka as he flicks his tongue over his lips, “but you didn’t have to buy her too.”

   “You think I’d leave her behind?” Scratching his shoulder through layers, Levi swallows the returning itch in his throat. “She deserves a quiet life.”

   “Yeah,” Eren says, “I don’t know what to say.” It’s a soft breaking whisper. “Thanks.”

   “I’ll give you two some time,” Levi says. He pulls a handful of sugar cubes from his pocket and hands them to Eren. “I’ll be in the house.”

   “Thanks,” Eren says, “Can I take her out of her stall? I want to brush her.”

   “Of course you can,” Levi says, blinking, “she’s your horse.”

  * * *

Levi’s eyes feel as though he’s hurled his face into that grimy ocean by the time he closes the door to his house. His bottom lip isn’t faring better, having dug his teeth into it the entire walk back.

   Eren’s emotions etch his skin, slinking their way inside. He adores his intensity. Levi always has, but sometimes it overflows, and he can scarcely breathe above its engulfing waves. Like it’s drowning him. Sometimes, it’s too much. Sometimes, Eren’s smile fills one of the delicate little fissures in his chest, and it stings like astringent on a wound.

   Leaning against the door, Levi runs his hand down his face. He’s taken care of Vaka every day for five years. Not only those but all the days before them after Eren was gone. And before Eren was ‘dead’ too; when he was lost to Levi, busy enacting his secretive plans.

   Other than Eurus, she’s the only one he’s voiced his sorrows to. He’s looked into her solemn gaze and witnessed a pain as unique as his own. Seeing her has been a stab each day—some worse than others, but a stab nonetheless. Grooming Eurus while Vaka waits in the next stall always clamps around the ache under his ribs. Cold fingers squeezing when he only hears the sound of one brush scraping fur or when no humming fills the fragile quiet in the barn. When there are no ‘fuck damn it’s’ hissed as Eren trips over a bucket or scrub brush some careless idiot has left lying around.

   Despite the pained smile he musters as he removes his outerwear, the age-old grief rises cold-hot and rests in his limbs. It clashes with his contentment and leaves Levi happy-sad. It reminds. It evokes. It shoves.

   Levi releases a breath through his teeth and sets the kettle to boil. It’s all he can do. And sometimes, when it works, and he’s not left staring into the bitter dregs at the bottom of the cup, scowling, and his fingers cease twitching, and his arms and chest get light, Levi can be numb again.

   Busying himself, he moves to clear the dinner plates while he waits for the water. No, he doesn’t want to be numb now, he thinks, frowning at a trail of gravy paw prints across the table and little tongue marks on mostly empty china.

   “Enjoy your treat?” he asks Von when he jumps on Eren’s chair and noses at his napkin. “Of course, you did.”

   Eren might take some time. When he was younger, he could stay in the stables with Vaka for hours. The thought of it curls Levi’s lips as he plugs the drain.

   Inquisitive, Von joins him when he crouches and reaches under the sink. “You can help with clean up since you got the spoils.”

   Von ignores him and makes a run for the cabinet.

   “Not helping,” Levi says.

   By the time he turns on the tap, Von is already on the counter, poised to fight the stream of water.

   Snorting, Levi shoos him back a foot. “I’ll wash, and you can dry.”

* * *  

It takes Eren the better part of an hour to return.

   He busts into the house red-faced with his hood falling off and halts, looking like he’s about to trip before he takes a breath and moves to the mat. It’s obvious he’s spent a good part of his visit with Vaka crying, but he looks happy.

   “Levi!” he says, huffing, going for his bootlaces as soon as the door meets the frame.

   “Right here,” Levi says. He abandons his teacup and strides to the entrance, then retrieves Eren’s scarf from where it has fallen to the floor and hangs it. “What’s the—”

   Levi doesn’t get the rest out before Eren’s arms are clamped around him and his lips are pressed into the white streak hanging over his forehead. There’s beard in his eyes, he can only take half a breath for how hard Eren is hugging him, and Eren reeks of horse, but Levi’s lips curve where they’re smashed into Eren’s top coat-button.

   “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Eren whispers. “Levi, thank you.”

   “Fuck, it’s not a big deal,” he mumbles into cloth covering warm skin, wrapping his arms around Eren in return. His fingers twist in the thin wool of Eren’s cold jacket. They haven’t embraced in so long. “I already have enough animal shit to clean, what’s some more?”

   Squeezing harder, Levi feels Eren nod. “I thought—” There’s sniffling and now Levi can feel Eren’s trying-not-to-cry face pressed against his brow. “Levi, I thought maybe she was gone. I missed her so much.”

   “I kept an eye on her.”

   “Thank you. Thank you so much.” For a moment, Eren arms pinch like a vice, before he releases Levi and takes half a step back. He puts a hand on Levi’s shoulder and wipes his eyes. “I can never repay you … fuck … they must have cost you a fortune …” he says, but continues rambling as he blinks away the last of his tears. “I don’t have a barn, and I can never pay the money back, and it’s been years, and all the feed, and all the horse shit, and grooming, and—”

   “Eren …” Levi squeezes Eren’s arm where it’s resting against his chest. “I don’t want money.”

   “But—”

   “I wanted to take care of her.”

   “Thank you. I can help clean,” Eren says, “and I’ll help with the rest of the animals too. I’ll do chores.”

   “You were always the best at shoveling shit.”

   Eren grins, eyes sparkling through the remnants of his tears. “Because I didn’t want you to make me do it all over again.”

   Levi raises a brow. “I still will if you fuck it up.”   

* * *

Late into the night, when Eren stands at the threshold ready to part, it’s with a full stomach, more wood, four knives, and Levi’s bag restuffed with as many supplies as he can fit. Eren’s glowing. He looks like he’s been painted with distilled happiness.

   He’s not nearly as stiff as he was the night Levi found him outside skulking over to borrow more pine but holding himself with his free shoulder slunk down. He rubs the back of his neck. “So I’ll bring cinnamon next time?”

   Levi nods as warmth cascades over his shoulders and the length of his arms. “Cocoa’s better with it.”

   “Mm, it is.” Eren shuffles his feet like they want to jump from his boots. He glares at them before he looks at Levi. “I’ll help.” He smiles. “I want to do something other than just bringing the cinnamon.”

   “You can have your old job as the chocolate chopper.”

   Eren smirks. “I’m better at it than you.”

   “True,” Levi says, as his heart kicks. How he wants to keep Eren and listen to him hum while he knocks the cleaver onto the cutting board every night. He pinches the inside of his lip between his teeth to keep the thoughts in. “But you burn the cream.”

   “I ruined your pot.” Though the beard is there, it doesn’t make Eren look any less guilty than he did when he was seventeen.

   “It wasn’t ruined.” It took Levi only three soakings and two hours to scour it.

   “Almost.”

   At this moment, Levi would allow Eren to ruin all his pots if he knew he would be safe. He doesn’t doubt Eren is Eren anymore. He knows, even in the deepest recesses where the suspicious voices bashed against his heart two nights before. They lost the war. Levi knows it is him.

   He knows it almost as much as he knew Eren was dead. Though there’s disquiet that one day, he won’t come back. He’ll visit Levi for months, maybe even years and then he won’t. He’ll find someone and make a life with them, or leave to a distant village to open a leathercrafts shop. But what scratches most painfully is Eren departing for the decrepit cottage he is determined to make into a home. That it will somehow kill him, he’ll succumb to hypothermia in his sleep, or be snowed in when a storm hits and starve.

   Levi’s arms stiffen against his sides, fighting the urge to reach out and ask Eren if he has enough blankets. He gestures at the dagger on Eren’s hip. “I gave you a kit,” he says, “keep it sharp.” At least if Eren wanders off for better parts, he’ll have keen blades.

   “Thanks,” Eren says. “I will. I promise.” He rubs the back of his neck again, trails his fingers over his jugular, and tugs on his earlobe. “In the spring, I’ll be able to pay you back for all”— he looks at the bag in his hand—“for all of this. And when I get meat, I’ll share.”

   You don’t owe me shit, Levi thinks, but nods. “We have a deal.”

   Levi is cemented in his spot, and Eren looks glued in his. He’s smiling at Levi with the softest expression, chewing on his chapped bottom lip except no steam swirls now like it used to and there is a small scab.

   Levi is staring.

   Something in Eren seems to snap. Like a mysterious force unseals his feet from the roughly polished planks of the floor, and he straightens up.

   Eren turns to open the door. “It’s late.” His arm swings, knocking his knuckles lightly against Levi’s. So soft a brush, Levi wouldn’t be sure it happened if Eren’s eyes weren’t looking into the void where their hands met. “Thank you for taking care of Vaka again.”

   “She’s here,” Levi says, “anytime you want, you can see her.”

   “I know, thanks,” Eren says. His fingers twitch, stretch, then hesitate before he wraps them around the shoulder strap of Levi’s bag. He ducks his head as he crosses the threshold. “I’ll be back,”

   Swallowing so hard it scratches, Levi says, “I’ll be here.”

 

Chess and hot cocoa

Levi’s spent the last ten minutes sitting on the side of his bed, contemplating his dark-grey vest hung from his wardrobe door. Until now, he’s had no reason to wear it since he moved here.

   He shakes his head. He’s procrastinating again. Procrastinating or trying to pass the time. He’s not sure which. He spent yesterday calmer than the day before, catching up with his usual chores, organizing and reorganizing his supplies, then settled down with a book about chess. After Eren left, in his nostalgic yearning and fret, Levi didn’t notice until he shuttered the fireside lantern on the way to bed that Eren shifted his other knight.

   His second move was more foolhardy than the first.

   “Sneaky little shit,” he muttered to himself. Eren must have taken his turn while he was fetching the toilet knife.

   It’s been a day and a half since, and he still hasn’t answered Eren’s reckless move. Today instead, Levi carved through the hours extracting milk from Ava, pondering chess strategy, sorting his clothes, and fighting to maintain the last shred of dignity he has. It’s not a hot cocoa date. Not close to one. He and Eren have never had a date, but something about it feels like it is. Or what Levi thinks it would feel like if he had ever been on one.

   With a relenting sigh, he stands and puts on his vest, appraising himself after he buttons it. He stares at his reflection, running his fingers over the smooth fabric, then adjusts his cuffs and shirt collar. Levi hasn’t had a reason for ages to wear this vest, but he thinks it looks nice. He isn’t pretty or handsome in any ordinary sense, but perhaps, he thinks, the color sets off his dull-hued eyes, makes them look a little shinier and a bit more human. The corners of his mouth lift. He allows the smile …

   … And then his stomach flops.

   Thus far, Levi has only seen Eren in a single worn outfit.

   A pair of ill-fitting, too large, cool grey slacks, a mismatched, warmer-hued plaid button-down with a ratty dark blue jumper layered over it. Stitches mark the spots where Eren has repaired obvious tears, and his pants have a patch on the right knee and one on the left rear under the pocket.

   Levi’s chest twinges at the revelation. He glares at himself, purses his lips, then returns the vest to his wardrobe.

   He spends another five minutes rifling through his bureau before he finds his most comfortable, black jumper in the bottom of a drawer. He nearly forgot its existence.

   Squeezing it in his hands, his thumbs trace its woolen stitches, checking it for moths, finding a hole in the seam of the left shoulder two fingers wide. Its neck is stretched out, the cuff of the right sleeve is beginning to run, and the elbows are close to threadbare. Still, it was always his favorite. His evening chess jumper.

   It’s why, timeworn or not, he lays it on his bed, seventy-five percent sure he’s going to wear it later.

   Back in his kitchen, away from his wardrobe and weighty outfit decisions, he catches Von red-pawed attempting to get at the milk. “You had some already,” he says, shooing him from the counter. “Tch, greedy cat.”

   An irritated meow is Von’s only answer before he stretches his front paws up on the cabinet, about to make another attempt.

   Levi stops his efforts with a wave of his hand. “No wonder you like Eren so much.”

   Scampering a few feet away, Von flicks his tail, dismissing him before curling up on Eren’s chair.

   “Traitor,” Levi whispers, lips twitching as he checks the work surface and the milk cask for evidence of feline intrusion. There appears to be none, and the cream is almost separated. Another few minutes and Levi can ladle it off the top then put everything in the larder, releasing him from cat guard duty.

   He should have known better than to leave it unattended, but it’s been two days since he last saw Eren, and the prickling on the back of his neck has become distracting. Waiting to see Eren again is like sitting on glass.

   Shaking his head and distracting himself, Levi fetches a smaller container from the cupboard.

   “Fuck …” His palms are sweaty, and his hands are shaking as he skims the cream from the top of the milk, careful not to spill a drop.

   He bites his bottom lip. The prospect of an evening of hot chocolate and chess has never held such frenetic excitement. He’s probably had too much tea.

   When he’s transferring the last bit of cream, he hears crunching outside. He looks up and sees Eren from the kitchen window a few steps away, veering toward the front of the house. He’s earlier than his last visit, and the ladle almost slips from Levi’s hands in his stupefied haste. His heart jumps, and a fluttering mass of butterflies emerge from a forgotten chrysalis in his gut. Feeling like they might burst from his mouth, he puts the milk in the larder, winces at his argumentative ankle, and sprints toward his room.

   By the time he’s standing at the foot of his bed, half the buttons on his shirt are undone. He tugs it over his head, drops it on his quilt, and pulls on his soft black jumper. There’s a knock at the door when he’s partway through the living area, and he hasn’t had time to check his hair isn’t a disaster due to his impetuous outfit change. Smoothing it down, and telling the white streak to fuck off, he takes a deep breath and opens the door.

   It’s blisteringly cold.

   Levi steps aside with a speed his ankle shrieks at, allowing Eren in, then seals them away in safety and sheltered heat. He looks at Eren.

   Even two shades lighter from the brisk mountain gales, Eren is bright and radiant. From the florid tip of his nose and flushed cheeks to his green eyes which seem to have gained colors along with the rest of his face, and the snow-flecked, russet locks trailing from under his hood, he is ethereal even in his dowdy coat and scarf.

   Levi trips on his breath as Eren smiles. The butterflies are going to fly out. Levi’s going to throw them up, staring into impossible—they can’t be real—eyes.

   “Hi,” Eren says and unwraps his scarf. His grin stretches wider, and his cheeks flush darker as he looks Levi over. “You look …” He exhales. “You look good in that jumper.” Even with the stumble, he sounds so confident beneath the winter-roughed whisper.

   Levi flicks his eyes over himself as nonchalantly as he can. “It’s warm.”

   “It always suited you,” Eren says.

   “Thanks.” Levi’s voice sounds strained and shallow. He rubs at his sternum.

   “I swore it was lucky when I was younger.”

   “Hmm.” Levi stares at his sleeve. “Did you?”

   “I never won at chess when you wore it.” Eren scratches his elbow, looking nostalgic. “Not once.”

   Levi’s not the kind of person who would run into a blessed item. “It’s not lucky.”

   Eren raises his brows. “We’ll see.”

   His eyes are gleaming like pure light has ignited them. He’s so beautiful. He smells like the wind and smiles like the sun. Always the sun. Everything he does makes Levi ache with the need to touch. To merely bask in his aura.

   Cheeks heating, Levi stares, but Eren doesn’t shy away or distract from it. He stares back while the lines around his eyes deepen, pulls off his hood, and stows a snow-dampened, stray lock of hair behind his ear.

   Levi wants to mess it all up so he can watch him do it again. His hand moves forward. For what, he’s not sure, but he lets it fall to his side when a ripple shifts from his midriff, and he notices his fingers jittering.

   He doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, but he wishes he could be normal.  

   “Cocoa?” he says, shifting the subject. Eren is shivering.

   Swinging his bag from his shoulder, Eren lights up brighter. “I brought the cinnamon.”

   “Cream’s ready.” Levi can’t think. All he can do is look, and berate himself for how ridiculous he must seem and how hopelessly incompetent he is—always was—at this. Worse, Levi doesn’t know what this is. His heart lurches, and something there comes undone and spreads.

   “Good.” Eren smiles, rubs his hands together, and bends down to tend to his boots. “This is going to be so good,” he says, seemingly unaware of Levi’s ineptitude when Levi turns toward the kitchen to find his center.

   He orders various parts of his body around like they were a miniature Survey Corps unit. Legs standing. Arms slackening. Neck relaxing. Lungs breathing. Heart calming. Stomach settling. Cheeks un-swelling.

   Pulling the mask back into place with one last bracing inhale, Levi turns around.

   Eren is sliding his gloves into his coat pocket, winter-wear cast to the hooks. “I can already taste it.”

   Levi notices Eren’s empty left hip and raises a brow. “You have your knife?”

   “Hung it up,” Eren says, lifting his coat from the hook, revealing the belted sheath slung next to it. He clasps his hands together, blowing on them while he bends either knee; back and forth, back and forth like he’s trying to work heat into them. “Kind of like the gear.”

   “Smart.” Levi’s duplicitous heart isn’t obeying his commands anymore. “Cleaver’s in the drawer.”

   “Let me wash my hands first.”

   “Soap’s in—”

   “Under the cabinet.” Eren sidles up beside Levi to use the sink. “You’re lucky, I only have a pump.”

   Oh, Eren.

   Levi’s blood is pounding in his neck, everything rushing over something as trifling as Eren knowing where the soap is. But the sore spot under Levi’s ribs he’s filled in the last four days with visions of Eren shivering alone under worn blankets covered in snow demands he wrap his arms around him and warm his frosty limbs. It wants him to breathe against Eren’s chilled fingers and neck until he is the robust, towering furnace he was when he used to sleep in Levi’s bed.

   Frowning, Levi wonders if without the curse Eren’s still as hot as he used to be.

   He holds the bowl of cream in his hands, watching Eren wash, slender fingers gliding over the butter-yellow bar of soap.

   Eren brings his lathered hands close to his nose and sniffs. “Smells nice.”

   “Cassis,” Levi says as Eren resumes scrubbing, scouring his fingernails against his palms.

   “You always had fancy soap.”

   Levi can hear Von’s claws scrambling across the floorboards before Eren hisses, “Shit!”

   Expecting him to make a run for the cream, Levi scolds, “Von!” but when he looks, Von is halfway up Eren, clinging to his trouser leg with all four paws.

   Eren’s left elbow is pointed toward the ceiling, torso stretching to allow Von room to keep climbing while he snickers and tries to finish rinsing. “Easy there.”

   “You don’t heal anymore.”

   “They’re just scratches.” Eren turns off the tap, then dries his hands as Von reaches his side. “It doesn’t hurt. He got my clothes more than anything.”

   Despite Eren’s protestations, Levi removes Von and glares down at his exuberant cat. “You’re rude.”

   “Give him here.” Eren reaches out for him.

   “Then you’ll have to wash again.”

   Eren smiles and shrugs. “I know.” He takes Von from Levi’s willing hands and holds him to his chest, eyes closing when Von rubs against his chin and gives him a lick. “But I didn’t get to greet him yet.”

  * * *

Once Von and Eren have said their hellos and Von is curled back up on his favorite chair, Levi and Eren are side by side in the kitchen; Levi stirring the heating cream in a saucepan, and Eren furiously pulverizing chocolate. With the cockeyed angle of the stove to the counter, they’re a mere foot apart, and Levi hangs onto the thick wooden spoon with a tight hand, stirring with smooth strokes that kiss the side of the pot as he concentrates on Eren’s rhythmic chopping.

   Eren inhales and groans. “Been so long since I had this.”

   Levi planned to save cocoa for after dinner, but there was a touch of white frost on Eren’s mustache when he arrived. “You looked cold.”

   “Once I get moving it’s not bad.” The metal thunking against the wooden board ceases and the hairs on Levi’s neck rise. He knows Eren is watching him. A quick flick of his eyes over his shoulder confirms it. “The winds are what makes it the worst,” Eren says.

   “The trees slow it a little, but only so much.”

   “Sometimes it would be nice if I could still transform.” Eren releases an uncomfortable sound. Something between a laugh and a cough. “Sorry.”

   “Don’t be,” Levi says and swallows. Joints aching around the spoon, his wrist flicks, trying to steady his uneven strokes. “Chocolate?”

   “Yeah.” Eren slides up close, his elbow brushing Levi’s upper arm as he tilts the small board over the saucepan, allowing the perfect amount of cocoa to cascade into the heated cream. “Smells good already.” Levi can feel Eren’s voice thrum close to his ear.

   “Grinder’s in that cupboard.” Levi nods to his right, catching Eren’s eyes as they glide over him standing so close. He can taste Eren’s tension, his quiet unease. Like he thinks he’s going to do the wrong thing. His well-forged verbal incontinence probably doesn’t help. It reminds Levi of the first times he invited Eren into his quarters for tea. How his arms pressed against his sides as if he were afraid of breaking something, and the little tremors in his fingers when he plucked up the teacup handle with too much verve. Still, he puts up a calmer, more at ease exterior than Levi believes he himself puts on. Of course, Eren’s playful, but then again Eren always was before the war changed him.

   Not that he seems as though it never happened—he has the same haunted look behind his eyes Levi sees in his own—but with Eren, it’s as if something profound and virtuous burns through the nastier, battle begrimed layers which adorn them both.

   “Yep,” Eren says more to the ceiling than to Levi, drumming his fingers on the edge of the counter before he stops watching Levi and retrieves it. He laughs as he marvels at the wooden box, giving the handle two experimental turns. “Do you ever replace anything?” he asks.

   Levi feels the corners of his mouth rise. “It’s not broken.”  

   “It’s not.” Eren turns his attention back to his task and unscrews the cap of the frosted jar, grinning at the spice inside before he removes a stick and sniffs it. “Don’t misunderstand, I love your grinder, but it is old.”

   “Rather save my money for good tea than replace shit that doesn’t need to be.”

   “Luxuries are important.” Eren wags the cinnamon stick between them. “Like these.”

   “So they are.” Even unground, Levi can smell the perfect quill of cinnamon from three feet away. “Why cinnamon?” he asks. Knowing Eren, he probably traded a fat lot of meat for them and let himself be ripped off.

   Eren breaks off a piece, drops it in the grinder, and snorts. “You mean why I traded for cinnamon when I don’t even have decent pants?”

   “I didn’t—”

   “I know they’re shit,” Eren says, turning the handle, “you don’t have to pretend.” He sounds more amused than offended. “I saw them in the market the week before, and I had more meat than I knew what to do with.” He rubs his forehead. “I just … I don’t know. I wanted them. To make the house feel like home, I guess.”

   Wondering if Eren has a similar garland over his hearth, Levi asks, “What have you done there?”

   “Cleaned it, first off.” Eren is still grinding, but he turns his head, meeting Levi’s eyes with that infuriatingly sweet dimple showing through his beard. “Got all the broken shit out, kept what I could use. Then I started repairing it.” Pulling out the little drawer in the grinder, he faces Levi and smiles at the pile of fragrant spice. “I wanted to get to the roof, but this shit came early.” He gestures toward the window.

   “Bad year,” Levi says. He can see the harsh, snow-covered months stretching out before them. They’re barely into winter, and there are at least two feet of snow on the ground. In his experience, at this elevation, once it falls, it doesn’t melt until spring. “You could tarp it for the season.”

   Eren nods. “Sugar or salt?” he asks, flicking his eyes between Levi and the mound of cinnamon.

   “Salt.”

   “Good choice.”

   “Just a pinch,” Levi says, focusing on preventing the concoction from burning.

   “I know.”

   After a moment, Eren is beside Levi again, sprinkling piquant, red-brown dust into the swirling chocolate. He brushes his hands on his pants when he’s finished. “There’s enough left for more.”

   “Mmm,” Levi says, raising a brow. “After dinner. You only get this now because you walked in here looking like an icicle.”

   “I’ll make sure I’m covered in snow more often.” As with the first time Eren was here, Levi can hear the smile in his voice. He can feel his breath on the shell of his ear, across his nape as Eren shifts from his right to his left for a better look. “My mouth’s watering.”

   A buzzing jolt darts up Levi’s spine. Eren is behind him. So close he can feel his heat as he peers over him in the cramped space around the stove, avoiding stomping on Von’s little cat bed. Eren’s breath is warmer still as he leans closer, subtle puffs of tempt caressing the skin revealed from the hole in the seam at Levi’s shoulder.

   Levi grinds his teeth. Fuck this jumper. His fingers itch, torn between the urge to rub his neck, then cover the spot with his hand, or face Eren and make a fumbling attempt at letting the cocoa be damned.

   At least Levi wishes it were that easy for himself.

   The butterflies are gentling, though a seeping blight in his chest replaces them, bringing a wretched sensation he hasn’t felt since before the war ended.

   He attempts to control the pace of his breath. There’s a beat under his ribs. It builds brutally with a remorseless throb, reminding him. Like a sinister old friend.

   Please, not this.

   He clutches tighter to the spoon and pot handle. He thought he smothered the insidious thing with a layer of numb years before, but his atrophied bindings aren’t holding. And beneath them is a blooming gash.

   A fissure with ragged torn edges and cracks and fractures stretching in all directions. Overlapping. Intersecting. Circumnavigating. Thin lines, too fine to see, like single threads of delicate silk.

   Everything goes tight, and like a predator’s lazy yawn, the ancient rift cracks open.

   Inside, it is dark. Black and nightmarish and unbidden. But a chasm exists there. Oozing sludge bubbles there. It festers there. And the gimcrack bandage Levi slapped there years before to forget it comes undone.

   Though it used to ache sometimes before Eren ‘died,’ it’s been six years since he’s felt it. It’s feeding his insecurity like it once did. The belief in his ineptitude, breeding surety he’ll never be good enough for Eren.

   It whispers to Levi he is polluted. That he will infect Eren.

   He thought perhaps it was gone.

   Resting his hand on his chest, his jaw clenches.

   He douses the monstrosity with the only remedy he knows; visions of Eren’s smiles and his laughter and kind touch, clashing against the malevolence until it stubbornly fades.

   Until it retreats.

   Until it is as if it was never there at all.

   “Hey.” Eren pokes Levi’s elbow. His voice sounds like Levi’s own did when Eren would stare at the fire too long without a word, and he’d have to prompt him back to reality.

   “Hmm?” He meets Eren’s worried gaze.

   “You’re quiet.”

   “I’m fine.” Levi clears his throat. “Got lost in stirring.”

   “If you say so.” Eren gives Levi’s forearm a tap with his knuckles and speaks with a gentle voice. “Looks about ready. We don’t want to burn it.”

   “Yeah,” Levi says, finding his last steps back, dragging in a breath of chocolate, cinnamon, and home as Eren’s spirit washes the rest of the dwindling corruption away. He rests his hand on his brow, shakes his head, and musters a cautious smile. “Eager are you?”

   “Of course I fucking am.” Eren smirks. “I’ll get the mugs,”

   “In the top right—”

   “Cupboard.” Eren laughs. Not a little chuckle or snort, he laughs loud and from his chest, sniffing as it settles into little gasps that make Levi mostly forget about the creeping gash in his chest. “Your system hasn’t changed. I bet your wardrobe is still arranged from dark to light.”

   Levi shakes his head. “Just get the fucking mugs.”

   “Fine.”

   Once they’re on the table, Levi divides the pot between them, offering Eren already in his seat, the last drops.

   When Levi’s done filling the pot with water to soak, he finds Eren beaming into creamy light-brown goodness with his hands wrapped around the ceramic. His nose is nearly in the cup as he inhales long and slow through his nose and his eyes close.

   “Mmmm,” Eren hums and then blinks. He looks antsy.

   Levi settles across from him and resists kicking him in the shin. “Going to drink it?”

   “I was waiting for you.”

  * * *

Cocoa is good. Eren doesn’t get any in his mustache.

   Dinner is better. With Eren assisting in searing the medallions in Levi’s homemade, herbed goat butter after a visit with Vaka.

   He spends the meal poking Levi’s shins and toes and practically moaning over his plate with bright, thankfully glinting eyes.

   After stumbling through his own internal chaos earlier, the noises don’t go to Levi’s groin. They don’t make him tingle the way Eren’s presence behind him during cocoa making did either. Instead, everything Eren does is a balm for the gash in his chest and makes Levi’s heart swell and heat with thanks, sentimentality, and a hidden elegiac smile while filling Eren’s belly.

   When their plates and teacups are empty, Eren makes the second round of sweet, velvety chocolate while Levi washes their dinner dishes and listens to him hum.

   Feeling the butterflies settle and his confidence rise, Levi turns his attention to the two leather chairs before the hearth when Eren stands next to the kitchen table with a mug in each hand. “By the fire?” Levi asks.

   Blinking, Eren is quiet for a moment, his jaw falling open gently before he smiles. He clears his throat. “Yeah.”

   He looks a bit in awe as they walk the last few feet to the sitting area. Halting, Eren stands behind the seat he used to take, eyes fixed on the indentation in the cushion he made years before. He sets the mugs down on either side of the chess board, drops his hand to the soft leather on the chair’s back, strokes his fingers across it, and then sighs with careful reverence.

   Almost, Levi thinks, he almost wants to stand behind his own seat and watch Eren’s tension unravel over a worn chair all evening. But Levi can’t read minds, and Levi can’t tell from Eren’s stony-faced expression if he’s genuinely in awe or if something is wrong.

   The first night he saw Eren, Eren cried. It was only some sniffs and rubbing of the eyes, but it was unsurprising, neither was it when he brought him to Vaka. Given their peculiar situation, both were to be expected. Truth be told, Levi was still too in shock for it to affect him profoundly either night. But now, with the taste of butter still on his lips and the scent of bittersweet chocolate steaming into his nostrils, Eren looks as he used to before he went into one of his full-on episodes.

   How are they back here again? With the armchairs and the table and the cocoa and the chess set while Eren staggers under the weight of his burdens. Like the past was transplanted to the present.

   “Chess?” Levi asks, grasping for anything. “I didn’t take my turn yet.”

   Blinking, Eren shakes his head, his pupils dilate from pins until all that remains is a thin halo of green-blue ringed around black. He stretches his fingers, cracks his knuckles, and turns to Levi. “Sorry. Since I remembered, sometimes the words don’t come right. They get stuck,” he says, touching his throat. “Yeah. Yeah, we can play.” He nods again, frowning. “You didn’t take your turn?”

   Sliding into his chair in hopes Eren will mimic him, Levi says, “No.” He doesn’t reveal between Eren’s early arrival, his own juvenile fretting, and preparations for his visit, he didn’t get a chance. “I thought this would be better.”

   When Eren seats himself, he doesn’t fit as well as he used to. Still, he curls up with his knees bent by his chin and his socked feet bracing against the edge of the cushion. Wrapping an arm around his legs, he hugs them. “You haven’t gotten a new set,” Eren says. “I noticed the first day, but it’s weird to be sitting in this chair, looking at it again.” His index finger traces the edge of the board closest to him before he squirms and tucks his feet beneath himself. “It’s weird but good, and think I play better now.”

   Levi raises a brow. “Do you?” He pushes his third pawn forward.

   Grinning at the board, Eren readjusts in his seat again, looking over his pieces. His excitement is so palpable Levi feels it from across the little battlefield between them. “I played in my mind,” he says. His gorgeous long fingers hover over a pawn opposite from Levi’s as he bites his lip, and Levi can’t help but follow their movement, notice them tremble as they come to rest behind another piece. “When I’d get pissed off trying to remember, I used to play against myself in my head. It calmed me down.” He slides his pawn forward, leaving it to face off against Levi’s and purses his lips. “I didn’t have anyone to challenge but myself.”

   Throat thickening, Levi looks at his hand around his mug, running the pad of his thumb over an imperfection in the slick-glazed clay. A sharp-edged little crater bites at his skin. He presses against it harder. “Me neither.” Shaking away the recurring images of Eren curled up alone, he sends a white-knight off to the front lines.

   “Hmm,” Eren hums into his cocoa, frowning thoughtfully, eyes flicking as if he’s playing out strategies behind them. He’s distracted for a moment when Von jumps onto his lap but shifts a bishop while petting him and asks, “How did you end up with him?”

   “Von?” Levi captures one of Eren’s pawns.

   “Mhm.”

   Looking at Von and Eren doting on each other, Levi allows a hint of a smile. “He came with the house.”

   “Really?”

   “Not technically,” Levi says and sips at rich chocolate. “He was in the barn when I toured the property.”

   “And you didn’t just leave him be?”

   “Little bastard refused to stop following me.”

   “He loves you a lot,” Eren says, scratching Von’s ear, sounding wistful in a way that ties Levi’s stomach in a knot. “I can tell.”

   “Until I take away his cream.” Levi snorts. “But he seems to prefer you lately.”

   Laughing, Eren smooths Von’s long fur. “It’s only because we just became friends. I’m sure it’ll wear off soon.”

   Little lines crease the corners of Eren’s eyes, and Levi still wonders how his left dimple continues to present itself from beneath his beard. Eren relaxes into his chair further, tucking his right foot under his thigh with an ease of movement Levi hasn’t seen from him since before he was eighteen.

   ”Hey …” Eren’s mouth scrunches to the side as he scrutinizes the board then looks at Levi with bright eyes that catch the light as if they were reaching out for the flames in the hearth. “Serious tonight?”

   “When am I not?”

   “Fine then.” Eren stretches, removes his jumper, and sets it over the back of his chair. He shifts his knight, grinning at Levi like the cheeky little brat Levi remembers. Even with a face full of fuzz, there’s a youthfulness to him Levi is sure will remain even when he’s an elderly man.

   He swallows deeply at the thought. Levi never pictured Eren as such before. In truth, until the white and grey hairs began to appear two years ago, Levi couldn’t see himself in that form either and still can’t wholly envision it now. He runs the tips of his fingers over the white streak, suddenly more aware of the importunate strands than he has been all evening. Attempting and failing to tuck it away behind his ear, he spares it a half roll of his eyes, and takes his turn, luring Eren into a trap.

   “Why are you doing that?” Eren asks as he captures another of Levi’s pawns.

   “Doing what?” Levi taps his finger on the rim of his mug and shifts a bishop before setting both of his hands in his lap.

   “Trying to hide that?” His brows drop as he nudges his chin in the streak’s direction.

   Knowing what Eren is referring to, Levi opts for playing oblivious. “I’m not hiding anything.”

   Laughing, Eren leans forward, raises his eyebrows and pulls at the hairs on his chin. “I think it looks good.” He makes a determined little face, studying the battlefield. “It means you lived to be old enough for it.”

   “Tch.” What Levi’s been doing doesn’t exactly feel like ‘living.’ Despite the testy click of his tongue and the darker thoughts, his blood is thrumming at the compliment. At Eren leaning closer, sliding his eyes from the game to his face with a growing smile, awaiting his reaction with what seems to be anticipatory longing. “Not much I can do about it,” Levi says.

   “No.” Eren rubs a lock of his hair between his fingers. “I’ve found a few myself, and I’m only twenty-five.” He pauses to take his turn. “In the beard too.”

   Levi tries not to dwell on the grey-white pubic hair he found while in the shower during the summer and gulps. Sure, it looks good to Eren when it’s on his head, just that pencil width streak of white and the handful of greys that pepper the rest of his dark strands, but someone as young and beautiful as Eren won’t be enamored by it for long. That’s if he isn’t only hanging about out of loneliness while swept away in the nostalgia of the past to begin with.

   Nostalgia has a tendency to become boring quite quickly.

   Turning his attention to Eren rather than himself, Levi finally asks, “Grew the beard for the winter?” He’s warming up to it, not that he wouldn’t prefer to lather Eren up and shave it so he could once again see his face, but Levi wonders what it would feel like brushing against his lips and cheeks, prickling his shoulders and neck.   

   “Yeah,” Eren says and scratches at the hairs in front of his ear. The scar on the back of his hand gleams in the firelight. “It helps in the cold. And it makes me feel safer.” He takes his turn and shoots Levi a grin. “Have you ever grown one?”

   “Still don’t have enough.” Levi studies the board. His plan to lay a trap then dominate Eren is going to shit where their chess game is concerned. He doesn’t iterate to Eren he still believes it’s far more sanitary not to have hair growing out of his face. They aren’t on battlefields or sleeping in the wilds or in abandoned cottages anymore, and although Levi has no aversion to what’s on Eren’s jaw and chin for cleanliness reasons, Levi would never grow one of his own. “It would be patchy.” He scratches his faintly stubbled chin, feeling for the barren spot on the underside.

   “Maybe I’ll shave this in the spring.” Eren runs his palms over his cheeks, yanking at the hairs on his jaw, and—fuck—Levi wants to grasp them too. “I kept it short until September, then let it go again.”

   “Mmm.” Levi buries his nose in his mug of cocoa instead of reaching over the stand between them to touch. Eren’s already backed his pieces into a proverbial corner, and for the moment, it’s better to concentrate on strategy.

 * * *

The defense Levi employs is ineffective. Eren puts him in check within the next five moves, and he finally admits defeat.

   Levi has never much cared whether he won against Eren or not, but if he had this round, the smile on Eren’s face would have made the battering he’s taken worth it. Even with the teasing—and besides, Levi was preoccupied. “I won for once,” Eren says, pushing his hair out of his face. “That means you have to make the tea, and it’s my choice.”

   “Oh, we’re playing by the same rules?” Levi smirks and stretches, then collects their empty mugs.

   “Why wouldn’t we?” Eren says, glowing and beaming as if they’ve been doing this every day for the last six years. “Why would they change?”

   Why would they, indeed? Levi’s fingers tense around the cups as Eren traps him with his gaze, eyes glimmering, and Levi wants to leave the mug washing and tea making for later and kiss the cockily innocent smirk right from Eren’s face. His arms are tingling, his palms are warm, and his head is light. A week ago he thought Eren was dead, now Levi’s seen him three times, and his heart has dived right back to where it was before he thought Eren was gone.

   Maybe it never left that place.

   How he used to live like this is something Levi doesn’t remember. How he controlled himself with Eren’s close proximity. How he could press his lips and chin in the crook of Eren’s neck as he fell asleep with his arm around him, and yet, never tried to have more. Eren used to sit and trace the scars on his hands when they could seize relaxing evenings, and somehow Levi never pulled him closer and tasted his lips.

   He shakes his head. Perhaps he was stronger before Eren ‘died.’

   “Assam, Earl Grey, Gunpowder, Oolong, Silver Needle, or Kamairicha?” Levi stands and nips his lip, watching Eren bite his own while he decides. “Choose wisely.”

   “Do you still have that tiny pot?” Eren asks and—being distracting as he can possibly be—tucks his too shiny hair behind his ear and rubs the side of his neck.

   “The kyusu?” Levi says, recalling Eren wonder at how “dinky” it was when he first bought it. “I have it still.”

   “Then Kamairicha.” Eren brushes his palms against his thighs and holds out his hands. “I’ll clean the cups and the pot.”

   Levi nods. Eren’s fingers wrap around his own when he passes them over. Brushing against his skin. Warm. Lingering. As clammy as his own hands are. Levi almost whimpers, but swallows another ungodly noise, and departs to the kitchen on legs that feel like they’ve lost all their bone.

   The kitchen isn’t big by any stretch, but it feels half its size with Eren so close, finding the soap flakes under the sink without having to be told. He doesn’t even look, just reaches over to the right side where he knows they’ll be. He plugs the sink, runs the water, and rolls up his sleeves.

   Levi spies warmly tan arms which now sport a smattering of small silver-white and dusty-pink scars. He frowns, catching himself staring with the kettle handle tight in his grip as Eren pours flakes in the water and swishes it with his hand. “Eren?” They don’t seem fresh, but Levi closes his eyes and grits his teeth. It looks like Eren crashed through a window or someone sprinkled him with splinters of glass.

   “Yeah?” Eren says, eyes focused on the mug he’s now clutching in his hand. “Is this the wrong washrag?”

   “No,” Levi says, shaking his head. He takes a breath and places the kettle on the stove. “Want biscuits?”

* * *

Rising from his chair, Levi allows his eyes to roam over Eren snuggled up across from him. Even with three infusions of tea in his veins, he’s been dozing in his seat for an hour with Von curled on his lap, elbow braced on the arm, cheek against his fist. Levi’s content to leave him be. He must be exhausted.

   His hand moves at his side, tempted to reach out to brush the stray strands of hair from his face, pausing when his eyes are drawn to the tiny scars littering Eren’s right forearm resting across his stomach. Levi leans closer. He wants to touch those too, he wants to ask Eren what they’re from. But he doesn’t adjust Eren’s hair, nor does he run his fingertips over shiny-faint mars. Instead, he wrings his hands in front of him and retreats to the kitchen to wash the kyusu and cups.  

   He won’t wake Eren. Just as he never did when he used to fall asleep in the chair in his quarters. Granted, that was before Levi first allowed him to sleep in his bed.

   Recalling Eren’s screaming and cursing in the wee hours that night, Levi fiercely scrubs china.

   The first time it happened, he was at his desk with a pile of paperwork from Erwin, Eren having fallen asleep after chess. Smiling faintly, Levi covered him with a blanket, then retreated to his usual late night tasks.

   He would be lying if he denied he loosened his cravat as his eyes flicked over Eren snoring softly by the fire. The flame’s light licked at his flawless skin, long eyelashes casting shadows across his flushed cheeks that Levi couldn’t hope to pull his gaze from. Peaceful sleep for a boy who never was allowed any peace.

   It was near three in the morning when Levi noticed Eren scowl. His brows pinching, teeth baring, his arms flying up and flailing before he screamed. At the time, Levi had been unsure of what to do. He shot from his desk, pacing around the chair, his hand reaching out with an unhelpful tremor before he pulled it back and crossed his arms over his harnessless chest. Then Eren yelled. “Captain! Guys!”

   “Shit.” Levi saw the cave, Eren’s forehead bleeding, Eren crying, and what minuscule reserve he had broke. He shook his shoulder. “Eren,” he said, then more firmly when Eren only winced, “Eren, you’re having a nightmare.”

   Eren awoke. Fuzzy and sniffing, rubbing his eyes before they landed on Levi, shifting in and out of focus before he stood horrified. “I’m sorry!”

   Levi put a hand on his shoulder and clicked his tongue. “Don’t apologize, brat.”

   Eren still made to leave, standing and pulling himself from Levi’s grip with mumbles about nightmares, and memories, and how embarrassed and stupid he was.

   Unsure of what else to do, Levi claimed his hand, effectively shutting him up as he tugged him tripping over his own feet to the bedroom then pushed him until he sat on the bed. Levi was matter of fact, short-worded, and clipped as he instructed Eren to strip down to his drawers and, “Get in the damn bed.”

   It was folly. The first of many times Levi knelt and waited for his own ruination, the most injudicious of choices Levi could make given the feelings he had already acknowledged.

   Though the prospect of sending Eren off when looked like he was about to fall apart was worse.

   Levi kept his back turned while they both undressed, and when Eren said he was finished, Levi told him to slip under the covers.

   There was a pause, then a quavering whisper of, “Are you sure?”

   To which Levi answered with the plainest, smoothest voice he could manage, “I’m tired. Get under the fucking blankets, Eren.”

   After he heard a gasp and the rustling of the quilts and linens cease, he turned down the lantern’s flame and followed, telling Eren to make room.

   Levi didn’t plan to sleep with Eren clinging to him. He didn’t intend to cuddle with Eren’s head on his shoulder, nor with his fingers tangled up in his nightshirt and his lips on his neck. Though Levi should have expected it when he settled in on his back and Eren faced him on his side. So close he could still smell that evening’s tea and cookies on Eren’s breath.

   When Levi was halfway to sleep, and there was no more than a respectable three inches of distance between them, Eren took his hand. Not brazenly, not imposingly, nor flagrantly. It was a skim of his pinky over Levi’s, then the slow slide of his fingers over the back of Levi’s hand. Tentative and careful and skittish, until Eren’s big warm hand was cocooning Levi’s. Levi’s fingers twitched beneath Eren’s, but he didn’t push him away, and Levi could only assume it was why Eren entwined their fingers together, made a small hum, then within minutes, was asleep.

   In the morning, Levi woke to Eren drooling on his neck, softly smiling. Levi was still on his back, and Eren was still on his side, but now he was pressed against him, tangling him up with his gangly teenage arms and legs. His fingers twisted in the neck of Levi’s nightshirt as if it was the only thing that kept him from flying away.

   Indulging himself in the first of many new, more intimate—yet never enough—touches, Levi brushed the hair from Eren’s forehead and smoothed the pinch between his brows with his fingertips. “Good morning.”

  

Levi closes his eyes against the memory and loosens his grip on the teapot. “Shit … shit …”  

   Poking the little brush into the spout of the kyusu, he scrubs away tea along with his past frustration and gives into his current one. He glances over his shoulder at Eren tucked into a ball that looks too small given his stature. “Fuck,” he says, wiping the back of his hand over his brow before he moves on to rinsing and drying with hands that move with a bit too much vigor.  

   He won’t go to bed—not that he’s tired—but he can’t leave Eren out here to wake up and create the awkward situation of him trying to slip out without saying goodbye.

   Levi doesn’t have paperwork to do like he used to, nor a big desk to sit at, and cleaning will be too loud.

   He frowns at his counter, plucking up his sandglass and turns it over in his hand while he peers around for a distraction.

   There’s always the book on chess strategy, he thinks, scratching his chin. After his poor performance tonight, he could use it. Perhaps his angle to the game is stale, maybe he was that distracted, or playing chess in your own head for years sharpens skills more than moving pieces back and forth and scowling at them as Levi did.

   Sighing, he pinches the space between his brows and pushes off the cabinet. He takes his book from the little table next to the couch, walking as softly as he can as he passes Eren asleep in his chair. Von puts his head up in a lazy greeting and stretches with his back arched.

   “Go back to sleep,” Levi whispers, but Von doesn’t heed his order and begins to knead Eren’s lap. Levi can hear his claws pulling at the threads of his pants. “Von!” he hisses as low as he can. When he reaches to take him, intending to cover Eren with a blanket to replace a warm cat, Von sneezes, and Levi scowls.

   “Levi?” Even after a short time resting, Eren’s voice is thick from sleep. “Von …?” he says when Von starts licking his hand.

   “Nice job,” Levi says as Von gives Eren one final nudge with his nose and darts away in the direction of the kitchen. He’s done his cat duty and awakened someone only to scamper off.

   Eren stretches. Long arms over his head, back bowing against the chair as if he’s been sleeping there all night, then blinks his eyes open. “Sorry,” he says and rubs his face.

   Twisting his fingers against the rigid covers of his book, Levi’s frowns. “Big dinner,” he says, taking his seat. At least Eren isn’t standing up as if he’s been snapped to attention or rushing out of the house.

   “Yeah.” Eren shakes his head and yawns, then reaches his fingertips in the direction of the fire’s warmth. “Forgot how comfortable this chair is. I think I was having the best dream.” He looks at Levi with a sleepy smile. “What time is it?”

   “A bit after eleven,” Levi says glancing at the wall clock.

   “Shit. I really didn’t mean to fall asleep on you.” He rubs his eyes again then looks into his palms, pressing his lips together. “I should get going.” Eren stands, and Levi feels himself sag as anxious dread knots deep in the pit of his stomach. Eren’s going to leave again, and the frost on the windows tells him it’s colder out than it was when he arrived.

   “Take extra wood.” It’s all Levi can think to say in his quiet apprehension. He sets down his book and moves toward the door to put on his own coat and boots before Eren can argue.

   Eren trails drowsily behind him. “You sure?”

   “I have plenty behind the barn.”

   “All right,” Eren says, joining Levi by the entrance. He slips on his coat. “Thanks. I really didn’t think it got this cold here.”

   “Not this bad normally,” Levi says, thrusting a foot into his shoe. “Take one of the wood caddies too.”

   Eren pauses tying the laces in his hands and looks at Levi from where he’s crouching. “What about—”

   “I have more than one. I can spare it.”

   Eren doesn’t say anything, but he nods.

  

After they’re swathed in coats, scarves, gloves, and boots, they go to the cord at the side of the cabin, and Levi loads Eren up with as much wood as he can carry. If Eren wouldn’t stare at his feet then tell him to fuck off, Levi would fill the cart and bring a decent supply to his house.

   Then again, if Levi saw the broken-down cottage with his own eyes knowing Eren was living there, he would do something foolish and impulsive like order Eren to fetch all his shit and move in with him.

   Levi grinds his teeth until his jaw aches. Maybe fifteen-year-old, or even nineteen-year-old Eren would have listened, but he’s not so sure he would now. Meeting Eren’s eyes as they stand under the cold, clear, star-sprinkled sky, he knows what he would say; I have to take care of myself.

   The expression on his face says it already. The crease in his forehead, the purse of his lips. He stands with shoulders curved against the cold, but at the same time, tall and confident. He scratches at his beard, glances in the direction of his home, and looks back at Levi. “I’ll be back.”

   Levi stuffs his hands in his coat pockets, so he doesn’t touch. “I’ll be here.”

   He remains outside, sitting on the tarpaulin-covered logs, watching Eren grow smaller as he dissolves into the bitter, unforgiving night.

   After he’s gone, Levi looks up. He glances at the crescent moon, sighs fog into the frigid air as he wraps his arms around himself, and then bites his lip. See you soon?

 

A broken pump, a shower, and lots of ointment

Two days later, Eren visits a fourth time. According to the clock and the long shadows cast from late day sun, it’s just shy of three in the afternoon. Levi hears the knock; earlier and more abrupt than the last two times Eren called.

   Levi’s stomach doesn’t churn like before, but a warm wash begins at the top of his head, pouring to his fingers and toes. When he opens the door, Eren isn’t hesitant. He doesn’t say “Hi” in a scratchy-soft tone, matching his smile while standing at the threshold. Instead, he bursts in like a tempest, blowing on his hands before he rips off his gloves.

   “Suh-Sorry,” he says through chattering teeth, wiping his boots on the mat, shedding the snow stuck to his pants while he drops Levi’s empty bag on the floor.

   “What—” Eren is shivering. Shaking. His face is pale. Nose and cheeks wind-battered and chapped. Raw. Even his eyebrows have sprouted frost. He looks like he froze outside two days ago when he left and didn’t even make it home.

   “Pump bruh-broke,” Eren says, fumbling with jerky fingers, making no progress with the uncooperative buttons on his coat.

   “Hold still.” Levi pushes Eren’s hands away and begins slipping the wooden buttons through the holes. When he’s finished, he stands on tiptoes, slips off Eren’s coat, and hangs it. “Sit down,” he says and fetches a blanket.

   “But my boots.”

   “Fuck them.” Levi frowns. “Sit.”

   “But your floor.” Eren opens and closes his hands, yet still fails to move.

   “I have a fucking mop,” Levi returns with the blanket and throws it around Eren, arranging it, so it stays put. “Sit down,” he says again, before moving to the sink to fill the kettle while still managing to glare at Eren.

   Eren sighs. He shuffles his feet and stares at the floor like it might bite if he dares step on it but finally nods as he unsticks himself from the mat. “I’m freezing.”

   “What the hell happened?” Levi is at the stove, putting the water on to boil. Eren needs a good warming infusion, or maybe seven. Food. He could probably use some invigorating dinner as well. Rounding the chair, Levi crouches before Eren. He doesn’t take his trembling hands in his own like he wants, and he doesn’t set them on Eren’s knees either. Instead, he fiddles with the edges of the blanket hanging over Eren’s chest and pulls it snugger.

   Eren takes a deep breath and opens and closes his hands again. “Tried to wash up last night, but the pump was fucked.” He rolls his eyes. “I’ve been out there since dawn fixing it.”

   “What the hell’s the matter with you?” Levi asks, “That’s hours.”

   “Yeah, I know, but I only—” Eren hesitates, combing his fingers through his beard as he stares at his feet.

   Incensed and with a twisting gut, Levi tightens his jaw and holds his eyes closed for a breath. He’s not going to yell at Eren for doing something so reckless. He’s seen him do much, much worse, and he knows how to deal with this. It angered him then too, though at least years ago, Eren couldn’t freeze to death. He wets his lips, forcing himself to pause. “You’re not invincible anymore. You can’t stay out in the shitty cold so long.”

   Lips turning down, Eren huffs. His eyes meet Levi’s and then immediately drop, so he’s staring at his still trembling fingers. “I wanted to clean up.”

   Following Eren’s line of sight, Levi notes the grime under his fingernails, the dirt ground into the whorls of his skin. “You had to dig?” Levi asks.

   “Yeah,” Eren says. “Luckily the ground hasn’t frozen yet.” He meets Levi’s eyes, expression guilty and forlorn. “I thought it was something in the house, but it was the pipe outside. Fitting rusted to shit and I just wanted to fucking get clean and wash my clothes.” He surveys himself and grumbles. “Now I’m a bigger mess.”

   Clearing the ache from his throat, Levi squeezes Eren’s shoulder. Washing was always the first thing Eren did when he was given a chance. Going straight to bathe when they were back at HQ or finding a stream or lake when they were on a mission. Levi’s discovered him more times than he can recall standing naked in a lake surrounded by bubbles, beating his clothes against a rock, scrubbing until he removed all the war dust from his laundry, and sweat and grit from his skin. Besides himself, Eren’s the cleanest person Levi has ever known.

   Levi stands. “Use my shower.”

   Head shooting up, Eren frowns. “I couldn’t.”

   Levi wants to smirk. Eren has taken baths with him in his quarters at HQ. Not that they ever did anything but rub each other’s feet and shoulders and backs, but Eren has soaked naked with Levi in a tub with his foot in Levi’s massaging hands, and now using his shower is somehow off limits. If Levi weren’t close to furious with Eren for nearly turning himself into a snow sculpture, he’d roll his eyes and bring it up.

   “Shower,” Levi says, jabbing his finger toward the bathroom door. “Get your boots off and warm up. Tea will be waiting.”

   Hesitating, Eren’s mouth drops open. “But …” He pauses as he tugs on his collar.

   “Eren,” Levi says, taking in his flushed ears and cheeks above his beard before he glances at the mud caked on his clothes.

   “Levi …”

   Granted a raised brow and a glare from Levi, Eren shakes his head and sighs with an expression that looks like it’s more than halfway to resignation. “My clothes are muddy. I’ll get it everywhere.”

   “Do I look like I give a shit?” Levi says. “You can clean it.”

   Levi’s feet are already taking him to the tea cabinet, casual in the face of Eren’s protestations. He collects the caddy of Assam, then searches his pantry for bread and cheese and butter, allowing Eren his ruminations.

   When he hears a huff, then Eren dragging his feet to the mat to put his boots where they belong, he calls over his shoulder, “Towels are in the cupboard, the soap’s where it always is.”

   “Yeah … I’ll tidy everything up when I’m done …” Eren says, and Levi meets his eyes.

   He wants to tell Eren he can come in here blowing like a windstorm and destroy all his order. Smear dirt and mud all over his clean floors, leave his socks lying around in the living area, and forget to rinse his plate. “You can clean after tea and food.”

   Eren nods, though not as emphatically as Levi would prefer. He’s fretting and twiddling his hands—and fucking damn it—it looks like Levi’s kindness is about to make him cry. Levi’s chest constricts as Eren swallows. His sharper Adam’s apple dips slowly as he looks at Levi, the puddles on the floor, then at Levi once more, appearing like he were a teen again and spilled a bottle of ink across Levi’s desk. Torn between barking an order to distract Eren from his discomfort or wrapping him in a consoling hug, Levi bites his lip and threatens, “Don’t make me throw you in like Hanji.”

   Eyebrows rising, Eren hugs his arms around his center, twitching with a, “Yeah,” before slinking off to the bathroom.

   The door shuts with a soft click.

   Once the barrier of the wooden slab is between them, Levi rubs his hand over his face. “Fuck, fucking fuck shit.”

   Worrying about Eren now is no different than it used to be. He may no longer be a titan shifter with a dwindling lifespan embroiled in war while usurping governments, but he’s just as lost as he always was. Pushing himself too hard, taking dangerous chances, disregarding his own safety, and refusing to ask for assistance. Levi can probably blame every grey and white hair he has on Eren. He’s certain by the time winter is over—provided Eren doesn’t perish during it—he’ll look like he’s seventy years old.

   He sets down the loaf of bread he’s been squeezing, grasps the edges of the counter, and stares into the sink. “What the fuck?” he whispers. Maybe the basin has better answers than the ones he can find in his obviously addled brain.

   The sound of the water in the shower comes on, and he can hear it gurgling through the sink drain as if in answer to his rhetorical curses. He can’t even be anxious or nervous knowing Eren has probably disrobed behind the thin piece of wood down the hallway. He’s barely off-kilter listening to him groan and hum and make pretty “ah” sounds through the wall while most likely enveloped in steamy warmth with little beads of water running down his spine. Levi’s too worried Eren’s going to kill himself in the elements being a stubborn fuck.

   The kettle whistles. “Fuck!” Giving his head a quick shake, Levi whispers, “and fuck you too,” to the sink drain as he fetches a tea towel. It would be just his luck. To be fortunate enough to reunite with his thought to be dead—whatever he and Eren are—only to have the mountain winter claim him before he ever has a chance to find his balls and put feelings to words or action. If he wouldn’t stub his toe, he’d kick his stove.

   He hears Von scratching at the bathroom door as he spoons leaves into the pot and adds boiling water. “He’ll be out soon,” Levi calls to his destructive cat, snapping his fingers to summon him for a treat.

   When Von comes trotting in, Levi sets the tea and food on the table, fending off his attempts to climb his leg. He cuts off a small bit of cheese and tosses it on the floor as a bribe. “Stop fucking up my door.”

   Von attacks his treat with fervor, picking it up with his tiny, sharp teeth and shaking it murderously before running off to Eren’s chair to eat his spoils.

   Meanwhile, Levi sits and waits. He pours two cups of tea and sets a napkin over the top of Eren’s to keep it warm. Then he busies himself slicing his now partially mangled bread loaf as he listens to the sound of the water cascading off Eren and into the tub. After a few sips and a cursory check Von is indeed distracted cleaning, and thus their snack will be safe, Levi retrieves his mop and bucket to soak up Eren’s puddles. It doesn’t matter what Levi said, he’ll be damned if Eren has to clean a thing.

   Losing himself in the task, and watching the yarns of the mop slide across the deep mahogany of the floor, Levi settles his worries from a blaring alarm to a steadier, bassier thrum. By the time Eren shuts off the water, his hands have loosened around the handle, and they don’t ache quite so much. He pours out the bucket, and stows both it and the mop in the cleaning closet, hearing a faint bump then the rattle of the bathroom door handle turning.

   When Levi returns, Eren is standing in the kitchen, shirtless, drying his hair. He’s wearing his dirty pants, but over his hips hangs the shirt portion of his union suit along with his suspenders.

   “Tea’s ready,” Levi says, averting his eyes while moving to the sink to wash his dirty hands. “Better?” he says.

   “Much, thanks. I haven’t had a hot bath or shower in … fuck … I don’t know how long.”

   “Use it when you want,” Levi says, turning. “It’s—” He stops. He frowns. He feels ice and fire beneath his skin and crawling up his throat. He blinks just to see if it’s real.

   Eren is seated at the table, towel slung over his right shoulder, pulling the cloth covering from his cup. His back and arms and chest are littered with tiny scars like the ones Levi saw two days earlier on his forearms. Most are between a quarter-of-an-inch and an inch long. A few are longer, like the gash down the left side of Eren’s ribs. Some are shiny and pale and smooth, others are angry and red and bumpy. As if they never healed well. Like the gnarled scar on Levi’s left shoulder from when he was stabbed as a teen in the Underground.

   “What?” Eren says and lifts his shoulders as he bites into a piece of bread, taking half the slice with him.

   The towel in Levi’s hands twists. He doesn’t say anything because he can’t find words. He wants to know who did this to Eren so he can bleed them drop for drop and more, then hang their lifeless corpse up as a reminder.

   He needs his fucking knives.

   Eren frowns. His gaze follows to where Levi’s eyes are glued to his ribs, and his features soften. “These?” he asks, pointing to the nasty crimson zig-zag on his side. “It happened at the end of the war. From the crystal.” He purses his lips and rubs his hands down his arms, looking at the imperfections.

   Balance momentarily lost, Levi rocks on his heels. “The—” he starts, ambling on weak knees to the table, and then sits. The towel is still clutched tightly between his quivering fingers. “The crystal?”

   Eren nods and eats the rest of his slice of sourdough along with a slice of cheese. “Mhmm,” he says with his mouth full, as if they were discussing the finer points of knitting or the grassy bouquet of a fine new black market tea. “How’d you think I survived my titan exploding?”

   Levi blinks. The first night he saw Eren he was in disbelief. In rightful shock. All doubts were erased by the time Eren departed, but if any lingered, Eren brought his knife when he visited next. From then on, Levi was wrapped up in the reverie of spending time with him again. He didn’t have a chance to think about how he survived. Knowing Eren woke up, and then didn’t remember, but was alive was enough for him. “I didn’t think about it.”

   “I was at the center of the field,” Eren says, makes a little sandwich, but doesn’t stick it right in his mouth. “I landed in the forest. Without the crystal’s protection, I would have looked like a bug that got stepped on.”

   Chest tightening, Levi shakes away an image of Eren only a bloody smear, and the phantom sensation of his searching hands plunging into steaming chunks of titan flesh. His mind is racing. If Eren could make the crystal, how could he not still have the souls? “I thought they were gone. That you didn’t have them anymore,” he says.

   “We umm …” Eren pauses and sets his food on his napkin. He rubs his face, leans back, and tugs on his damp hair. “We got off track the first night, and since then, I didn’t see any reason to bring up shitty stuff.” His eyes are like two flames when he leans back over the table. “They’re gone, Levi.”

   “How do you know?”

   “Because I’d be dead already,” he says. “They left, I could feel them—it—leave me.” He gestures in the air toward the ceiling. “It went somewhere. I knew it was going to before I ate the last one.”

   “But the crystal,” Levi begins, trying to wrap his head around information that refuses to fit. It’s close to finding out Eren was alive, but where that brought hope, this brings fret. “Hanji said the explosion happened right after the Armored was consumed.”

   “Yeah. I thought I was going to die too,” Eren says. “I was ready for it to happen.” He rubs his temple with a wince, and then drags his fingers through his beard. “But before it left, it told me how to save myself. Or at least try.”

   Levi pinches his eyes shut. Eren was never great at explaining things succinctly. Always meandering and going off topic, in ten different directions. At least he’s not yelling and standing at the table flailing his arms with his eyebrows smashed together.

   “It?” Levi asks.

   “The Attack titan,” Eren says and trails off, looking out the window, “or maybe not it, but someone who had it. Maybe my father. Once they were all there, I could feel them joining back into one.” Eren makes a fist on the table, knuckles going white. “See, that’s all they ever wanted—to rejoin, but I knew it was going to kill me.” He looks at Levi, a rueful expression ghosting over his features before he chews on his lip. “I’d already accepted that, but then the Attack told me to shield myself with the crystal. Not like Annie or Tybur, but it showed me a vision—I’ll call it—of crystal over my body like armor.” He looks at his arms, at his hands, down at his scar beset chest. “Covering myself was the last thing I did before the explosion, and then everything was dark. When I woke up, I didn’t remember any of it … or anyone. I didn’t even know who I was.”

   “It shattered,” Levi says, blinking wide eyes, remembering all the debris at the festival in Liberio from Eren and the Warhammer littering the battlefield. How jagged it was. How easy it was to flay yourself open on it if you weren’t careful.

   “Like glass.” Eren nods. “Broke my arm too. Fucked up my knee. I was a mess, but I lived.”

   Eyes roaming over Eren, Levi examines him from across the table. Eren sits back with his arms hanging at his sides. Open and voiceless, an invitation for Levi to look.

   Catching a noise between a sympathetic whimper and growl at his own ineptitude, Levi doesn’t avert his eyes as a wave of nausea rolls through his gut. He should have looked for Eren better. He should have searched for longer. He shouldn’t have given up to his own sorrow.

   There must be hundreds of scars covering Eren’s entire body. Levi can imagine the torture it was, especially for someone alone and confused and without their memories or medical treatment. Eren’s known tireless physical torment. He’s been maimed, impaled, burned, bloodied, skinned, he even cut off his own leg … despite what he’s endured, he’s always felt pain the same as any other human.

   Brow twitching as he fights to disguise his heartache, Levi allows every mar he can see to brand itself into him. There’s one furious mark on Eren’s left shoulder that looks fresh and faintly bloody. Levi rises, commands his empty hands to stop trembling, and comes to stand beside Eren. He tilts his head and inspects his skin closer. “It’s bleeding.”

   Eren turns and bends his neck awkwardly to look where Levi’s fingers are hovering. He touches the mark, hisses and shakes his head, and then flicks his gaze to Levi. “Some of them don’t do great in the cold weather.” He groans. “They don’t open back up, just get raw.”

   “Eren …” Levi wants to ask him if he put anything on them while they were healing, but even with a cursory look, he already knows, and if Eren did, it wasn’t anything useful or often enough. How did he even keep them clean?

   Looking at the smear of blood on his fingertips, Eren’s voice hitches like he’s catching a whine in his throat. He swallows and whispers, “Do they … do they bother you?”

   “No.” Levi’s head snaps up. “No, why the fuck would they? But these,” he says, glancing at Eren’s back, finding more bleeding scars, “they need attention.” Truth be told, they all need it. Levi has enough of his own to know how they must feel. The big gash on his own back is tight and uncomfortable at times. He can’t imagine what Eren suffers being riddled with hundreds of minuscule ones. “I have medicine.”

   Eren looks as if he’s going to protest, but Levi gives him an expression that tells him to bite his tongue.

   He nods. “Fine … yeah.”

* * *

“Turn,” Levi says once he’s back from the loo, hands, and arms filled with a menagerie of creams, liniments, ointments, salves, and sterile cloth. He sets it all at the corner of the kitchen table with quiet efficiency.

   Eren shifts in his seat, so his back is no longer blocked by the runged seatback. He grasps a little, green glass pot and looks at the label. “What’s this for?”

   “That one?” Levi asks, unscrewing the bottle of antiseptic with steadier fingers than he had five minutes ago.

   “Yeah,” Eren says, setting it down.

   “For aches mostly.” Levi shakes the strong smelling astringent onto gauze and rakes his eyes over Eren’s skin. It’s the worst on his shoulders and upper arms. “It has herbs and some camphor.” Clearing his throat, he adds, “You were digging around all day.”

   “Well, yeah.” Eren rubs the side of his neck, humming at Levi’s first touch on his shoulder then taps the green jar. “Probably smells nice.”

   Eren doesn’t need a warning, but it’s kinder than dabbing at the scars turned abrasions without one. “This is going to sting.”

   Eren snorts. “You got a hanky in case I start crying?”

   “Tch.” Levi pats the stripe of red in the crook of Eren’s neck, cleaning where crimson has coalesced to a scab. Eren doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t even hiss.

   “Not so bad,” Eren says. Other than stretching his neck so Levi can better tend to him, he remains motionless. So still Levi can see his muscles tensing under the imperfections sprinkled across his flesh. “Will this …” Eren starts, “make them go away?”

   “No.” Levi frowns. “But they might fade some if we keep up on it.”

   “Good.” Eren rests his hands on his thighs, swallowing so loud Levi can hear it. “They get uncomfortable sometimes, but I don’t want them all to disappear,” he says. “They remind me I’m not going to die.”

   Gauze tightening in his grip as his hand stills, Levi coughs. His chest hurts with an ancient and deeply ingrained fear, and his skin feels a size too small. He loves and hates the marks on Eren’s flesh equally. They represent both thankful confirmation of his life and his agony at the same time.

   When Levi doesn’t move, Eren goes stiffer and lays a hand over Levi’s still pressed to his neck. “They don’t hurt anymore.” He turns his head to meet Levi’s eyes. “Just tight today.”

   Remembering himself, Levi tends to an irritation on Eren’s spine. “That’s what the calendula’s for.”

   “I overdid it.” Eren releases a breathy laugh.

   “You fucking don’t say.”

   Eren remains quiet, only stretching and shifting and moving his hair as needed. When Levi’s finished, he holds out his hand over Eren’s shoulder. “The blue container.”

   Eren passes it, taking the lull in Levi’s ministrations as an opportunity to eat another little sandwich. “What’s that shit for?”

   “So they heal and don’t get infected,” Levi says. “The ones on your back need it.”

   “Couldn’t reach it good.” Eren wipes his mouth and sips his tea before settling. “I stole some ointment a couple days after I woke up on the battlefield.” His left shoulder lifts in a shrug. “Don’t think it was the right stuff for it though. Made ‘em feel a bit better at least.”

   Levi swallows. “They’re … it’s—that was resourceful.”

   “Don’t …” Eren starts and hisses out a breath. “I survived.”

   “Yes, but—”

   “Levi …”

   Frowning, Levi brushes his thumb down a smooth scar in the juncture of Eren’s neck. It’s where he used to put his lips when they slept.

   Having never found value in entertaining regrets, Levi certainly has a few. He can’t change the past. He can’t go further into the woods or scour the battlefield closer. He can’t go back in time to when he searched, and berating himself over it now won’t erase Eren’s scars or take away any of the hurt. Still, his self-admonishment keeps him focused on the task. As if he can caress and massage away his mistakes and miscalculations with his hands.

   This is something Levi can do.

   He asks Eren for the green jar, dips his fingers into the thick herbal concoction, spreads it over his palms, and starts at Eren’s shoulders.

   At first, Eren doesn’t say anything, but he drops his head, letting it hang as his muscles unwind under Levi’s hands. “It’s warm,” Eren says.

   “Hmm.” Levi kneads Eren’s shoulders and neck, working in extra salve where the scars are worst, and his muscles are most tight.

   “Your hands aren’t freezing anymore.”

   Looking at his thumbs pressing into Eren’s skin, Levi shrugs off the lurch in his stomach. His fingers are cold when leans his cheek in his palm or brushes the fringe from his brow, and Eren still feels warmer than Levi ever does. “Maybe it’s because you don’t run hot anymore?”

   “Maybe.” Eren makes a sound. Something between a whimper and a contented groan when Levi’s palms slide down his shoulder blades. “So much better already.”

   “Good.” The chances are high no one has touched Eren this way since last Levi did years before. There’s a chance no one has touched him at all. Levi closes his eyes, and his fingers drift lower. He sniffs when he feels Eren’s ribs. He’s bony there. Not terribly so, but some of the meat he once carried is gone, lost to what Levi assumes is too much physical toil and not enough food.

   “Hey, Levi,” Eren says. He sounds trepidatious as he toys with his trousers where they stretch over his knees. Like he used to when he asked if he could steal more of Levi’s biscuits, or skip training for the day.

   It gives Levi pause, and his movements slow. “Hmm?”

   “Did you know …” He sniggers mournfully. It’s heavy and mostly breath. “Did you know I’m still in Shiganshina?” he says, shaking his head. “My hardened titan, they left it there. Have you seen it?”

   Levi’s hands rest on Eren’s shoulders. “I did … once,” he says, holding his breath as a phantom ache grows under his skin. He remembers standing in the rain alone with his jaw clenched, watching the townsfolk hold vigil. Watching them leave candles that refused to be snuffed at Eren’s stone feet. “Before I resigned I was there.”

   “It’s weird,” Eren says.

   “War shrines.” Levi’s not sure if he should roll his eyes or kick something. Memorials and tributes exist all over the island, he knows about the plaques and his many likenesses cast in bronze. He’s seen them from a distance. He’s seen the patina that creeps over their surface, time slowly tarnishing them the same way it soils his skin.

   Someday it will claim them, and they will be forgotten. Levi doesn’t care.

   “Yeah …”  Eren rocks in his seat, wiping his hand over his forehead. “Before I came here, I went home … to Shiganshina. I had to see what it was like there now,” he says. “I looked for my house, but—but there was nothing left, and then I saw the gate.” He shrugs under Levi’s palms, clasping his hands together. “My stone titan was still there crouching, blocking—blocking that fucking hole just how I left it.” Flicking his wrist, he draws a circle in the air. “They planted grass, you know? Made a ring around it with rubble too, like a little wall.”

   There was no little wall when Levi saw it. Six years ago even the big walls were already gone, their crumbled foundations all that remained, though the massive stone Eren endured to fortify that blemished gate. A relic eternally guarding the town where Eren lost not one, but two pieces of himself.

   Levi stiffens. “They don’t understand.”  

   “There were people there too,” Eren says. “They were leaving flowers like they were for some god, but they don’t know what I am … what I was.” He rubs his face. “I don’t know why I went. Maybe because of Armin, or Erwin, or Zeke, or everybody else, or victory … or maybe because of you …” He trails off.

   “Maybe it was for all those reasons.” Levi can feel—see—Eren’s clashing emotions. In his posture, his stiffness, the droop of his head while he stares down, down, down. He imagines he can hear the grind of his teeth. Rage and confusion and despair twisting inside Eren like the key on the back of a child’s wind up toy. “Maybe because it was a fucking hellscape.”

   “Yeah.” Eren laughs humorlessly, bobbing his head in a lolling nod as he gulps. “Looking at that thing was like looking at someone I forgot about and someone I don’t know at the same time.”

   “No one—fuck …” Levi squints, hesitating, paging through his mind for a perfect, yet non-existent idiom. He rolls his neck, shoulders rigid, still searching. There isn’t one, and all he can offer is a shallow cant. “No one comes back from that the same.”

   “No … they don’t.” Eren nods. “After Shiganshina, that’s when I left myself behind,” he pauses, “but that titan Eren … I don’t know, but I feel like he’s dead.”

   “Because the souls are gone?” Levi asks, breath fast, tongue swollen in his dry mouth.

   “That’s not why,” Eren says and shakes his head, “it’s because it’s over, and—” he inhales a quavering breath. He’s trembling. “Because that boy didn’t get to be who he could have been. He had to grow up and be terrible and shrewd and cold and horrible and a lie—a liar, and I know sometimes you all thought it wasn’t me, but it was.”

   “I knew it was you.”  

   Eren is silent, but he sniffs and chokes and gasps, and Levi abandons his back and kneels before him. Tears streak his cheeks. More hang in his eyes about to spill over as he grits his teeth. Despite the beard, Levi knows this expression.

   Levi’s hands are greasy, but he takes Eren’s in his own, rubbing his thumbs over his knuckles. “It’s shit. It was all shit,” he says. He contains long-repressed anger over the war, over the titans, over needless death, over the situation and how awful, awful, awful it was. “We were all shitty. There’s no innocence in it.”

   Eren hangs his head and growls. “I know, but I want to be what I couldn’t be then … just a man.” He sniffs miserably. Wet and phlegmy with snot dripping from his nose that he wipes away with the back of his hand. He’s a mess, but Levi lets him be a mess in that fragile moment when the prospect of moving is a knife to their throats. “I want to bury him and say goodbye,” he says, “that Eren died on a battlefield.”

   Careless of Eren’s salve besmeared skin, Levi wraps his arms around him like he used to. With his hand on the back of his head, pressing his face against his neck. He doesn’t have enough words. He never did. Still never does, but he’ll let Eren soak his shirt and stand the itch of his salty tears. He’ll rub a circle between Eren’s shoulder blades over his spine because it soothes him.

   And he’ll stay there with his knees on the floor, the boards biting into his bones because his own discomfort doesn’t matter. And when Eren’s cried himself out or instead clenches his jaw and sucks all his pain up in a needle-sharp breath, he’ll make him tea and feed him biscuits and poke his shins under the table.

   Eren’s fingertips dig into Levi’s back, bruising and clinging. He whines pitifully and mumbles something incoherent. Little words falling over and over, softer and softer until they’re only murmurs, and then just staggered breath.

   “Fuck,” Eren whispers into Levi’s shirt collar, “fuck—why can’t I ever … why do I always do this?”

   “You’ve always been a crier,” Levi says, twisting his fingers in Eren’s hair.

   “It’s fucking kid shit.” Eren pulls back, fists rubbing his eyes. He hiccups and grits his teeth. “I’m too old for this bullshit,” he says, and Levi smiles sadly when Eren bites his lip like he’s going to start again. He looks like he wants to say more. It’s easy to see his volatile emotions roiling under the film of his strength. They could surface at any moment.

   But Levi doesn’t push because he’s not a pusher. He’s prompter if anything. He pokes and waits quietly for Eren to say what he needs, or wants, or can’t prevent falling out. That’s their methodology. Built during battle, countless days and nights in the sanctuary of Levi’s quarters, the solitude of canvas tents covered in darkness, and while alone together beneath the silence of forest trees.

   “There’s nothing wrong with you,” Levi finally says when Eren doesn’t continue. It’s probably a lie, he thinks. There’s a-fuck-of-lot wrong with both of them. More than Levi can tally, but Eren’s justified in this. “And crying is better than swearing and kicking trees.”

   Eren rubs his eyes, sniffing, and there’s the lightest lift in his lips. “You still do that?” he whispers.

   Finding an interesting stray thread on Eren’s knee, Levi admits, “Too often.”

   “Haven’t seen it happen in a long time.”

   “When you stole my wood.”

   Eren huffs a watery laugh. “Sorry about that again.”

   “You needed it,” Levi says, patting Eren’s knee, and then at a speed only those who never know the right thing to say possess, shifts the conversation. “How about some biscuits?”

   Taking a breath, Eren wipes the last of the drying trails from his cheeks, his dimple appearing under his beard. “Treats before dinner twice in the same week?” he says. “You’re not as strict in your old age.”

   Levi snorts. “You’re getting brattier in yours.” He brushes the hair from Eren’s brow so he can better see his beautiful face. “You’re still a little shit too.”

   Eren smiles. “Can’t help it.”

   “So, biscuits?” Levi squeezes Eren’s hand and stands.

   “Not yet,” Eren says, raising red-rimmed eyes to catch Levi’s. His expression holds all the bashfulness it did when he was a teenager. Cheeks flushed, the corner of his lip between his teeth, vision focusing on Levi’s nose when he can no longer hold his gaze. “Will you still …” He clears his throat and tugs on his ear. “Can you finish my back?”

   ”Yeah.” Levi nods and slides behind Eren. He resists asking Eren if he’s all right. He’s better, probably not entirely all right. Not truly, but Levi doesn’t know if either of them ever is. And Levi’s always been more useful to Eren with kind and careful touch than he was with discussion. At least that’s what he believes, but his embraces or a ruffle of Eren’s hair always seemed to help more than his words ever did.

   Looking at his hands hovering above Eren’s shoulders, Levi nearly laughs at the notion. That his hands which have dealt out so much death and misery could imbue affection or heal anything.

   “Thanks,” Eren says as Levi resumes kneading. He moans breathy and low. Like Levi imagines he would if his touch was less innocent. “Fuck I’m so much stiffer now.”

   “You gave yourself more knots.” Levi shifts to the stubborn one he was working before, bracing his hand on Eren’s shoulder to keep leverage.

   “Sorry,” Eren says. He doesn’t sound like he genuinely means it. Not with how he’s already dissolving beneath Levi’s touch.

   Levi smirks and flicks Eren’s ear. “No, you’re not.”

   “About being a crybaby, I am.” Eren huffs. “But I can’t complain about the back rub.” He angles his head to catch Levi’s eyes. “Your hands holding up?”

   “Yeah,” Levi says, feeling Eren’s sorrow drain as he sinks further in on himself, shoulders slumping, head dropping lower while he releases a quiet, relieved gasp. “I might be ‘old,’ but my hands still work.”

   “You’re not really old,” Eren says, “but I wouldn’t care if you were.”

   There’s a pang in Levi’s chest, and he pulls his hands away. “Have some more bread.”  

   “C’mon,” Eren says, “that felt so good.”

   “You’ve depleted yourself.” Levi pokes Eren’s neck. He cried, he needs food, and Levi needs a moment to breathe. He rubs his palms together, thankful Eren can’t see his face. “I need more of this shit anyway. It’s getting thin.”

   “It’s tingly,” Eren says.

   “Supposed to warm your muscles. Loosen them too.”

   When Levi doesn’t begin again, Eren sighs, slices a piece of cheese, and fashions another sandwich. “Okay, I’m eating.” He hesitates, tapping his toes on the floor. “Please.”

   “Brat,” Levi says when Eren looks over his shoulder, rolls his eyes, and stuffs the sandwich into his mouth. Twenty-five years old, and he’s still a fantastic pain in Levi’s arse. He probably always will be.

   “I lost some weight.” Eren traces his free hand over his waist, grasps at his skin with no fat beneath it. “It’s not easy to keep it on.”

   “You always needed a lot of food.” Levi drops to his knees behind Eren so he can get a better look at his lower back, skimming his fingers down the pronounced ridges of Eren’s vertebrae. There are a few bumpy round spots that look like they came from bullets. Levi grinds his teeth. “What are these from?”

   Eren reaches behind him and finds Levi’s index finger where it’s tracing one of the blemishes. “Oh, from rocks.” He shakes his head. “Sharp ones. Took a tumble in the woods last year. I thought I broke my arse.”

   “You can’t break your arse.”

   “You know what I mean.” Eren laughs and rubs next to Levi’s investigating fingertips. “My fucking tailbone.”

   “Might have fractured it.” Levi peers closer. This would be so much easier if Eren were lying on the bed. Then Levi could have better a look, maybe take out his magnifying glass. The scar on the right side is hard and lumpy. What if there’s debris still stuck in it?

   Eren pokes the scar Levi is rubbing more salve into. “Does it look like shit?” he asks, “I mean … is it ugly?”

   Nothing about you is ugly.

   “No,” Levi says, circling his thumb. If they were a little closer, as close as they were before Eren was gone, Levi might have enough courage to kiss it. Just to prove it.

   “You keep poking it. Did it heal all right?” Eren asks. “I tried to keep it clean as best I could without seeing it.”

   “Didn’t heal smooth.” Levi chews on the inside of his cheek. “Might be some grit or stone left in it. We’ll keep an eye on it for now.”

   “Just keep your sharp little tweezers away from me today.”

   “Fine,” Levi says, “for today.”

  * * *

Levi finishes covering Eren’s torso and arms with warming liniment and healing ointments, then rummages through his wardrobe for the pajamas he keeps for Hanji.

   When he returns to the kitchen, Eren is standing near the sink drying their teacups. His eyes are bloodshot, but there’s a gentle curve to his lips.

   As was often the case, it’s like he hasn’t cried at all.

   “You’ve been frowning at your trousers since you got here,” Levi says, holding the pajamas before Eren. “I have a spare. Go wash your clothes.”

   Eren scans himself, and Levi must admit, he’s a bit of a disaster. Blood has dirtied the top of his union suit, mud is smeared on his britches to his knees, a check of his button-down and jumper hanging in the bathroom revealed the same mess on the sleeves to the elbows, and his socks have seen cleaner days. They’ve probably smelled fresher too.

   “Those aren’t going to fit,” Eren says, scratching the back of his neck.

   “You’d have to leave the shirt unbuttoned,” Levi says, frowning, “but the pants will fit your waist. Adjust the tie.”

   “I was going to help with dinner though.” Eren’s swaying, shifting his weight from foot to foot. He’s flushed down his neck, rosy patches bleeding onto his chest.

   “You can do the dishes.”

   “I’m imposing.” Eren sets down his cup.

   Eren’s always done what he thinks is imposing and Levi has always adored it. How he charges his way in, sitting in Levi’s chair, drinking his tea, eating his biscuits, flailing in his sleep and wrinkling the sheets on Levi’s crisp bed. “Do you think I enjoy only having Von to talk to?”

   Biting his lip, Eren shakes his head. “No,” he says, but the line in his forehead is carving deeper, consternation painting his features, eyes narrowing in gently dismayed panic and Levi realizes his mistake.

   He brushes his knuckles over Eren’s hand. “I like having you here,” he says. Blinking when Eren’s pinky catches his own, he whispers, “It’s good you’re back.”

   Eren looks at their linked hands, discomfort draining from his expression as the tips of his ears redden deeper. “I’m glad I found you.” Allowing the touch to linger, he accepts the clothing Levi still offers and grins beneath his mustache. “I’m really glad.”

   Despite his aching cheeks, Levi holds back his own ridiculous grin. He’s probably blushing himself, so he turns to collect the teapot. “There’s a dirty pair of socks and a nightshirt in the hamper if it makes you feel better.”

   “I’ll get them too,” Eren says and heads down the hallway.

   “Mangle’s next to the bathroom where I keep the mop and broom.”

   “I don’t have to squeeze them out by hand?” Eren’s voice comes deep and delightfully animated through the little house. “Fuck … yes.”

   Shutting his eyes, Levi exhales sharply. He wants to tell Eren to watch his filthy mouth just to hear him whine and grouse. Perhaps Levi enjoys torturing himself, he thinks as he pulls dinner ingredients from the pantry, then fills the kettle. He needs more tea.

   His fingers tremble around the handle as bottled declarations he does not yet have the nerve to say attempt escape. Levi’s always been like this. He can find ten different ways to tell someone to fuck off when he’s feeling creative, but words that were sowed in the depths of his chest are intractable and gummy. They sit in his throat, choking him until he has no air. Until he stands before Eren, frowning and searching for alternative, yet unworthy phrases then says nothing instead.

   Even now, his heart clenches as he halts it from reaching out too far when he hears the water running and Eren humming again. If not for the defeating voice that whispers Levi’s unworthiness, he might say it. He might confess and wake beside Eren in the morning, laying in his arms, enamored by his sleepy, early day smirk. He might be able to hold his face in his hands and kiss his forehead and breathe “Good morning” against his lips.

   “Shit,” he whispers instead, dashing away visions of things he doesn’t know how to let himself have. He’s not even sure if Eren would even want him for his own.

   Pondering and torturing himself aside, there are other things to be done. Things he can do for Eren, like making sure he has clean clothes, his wounds are treated, and his belly is filled.

   He thinks to slow himself down, so there’s something left for Eren to do when he’s finished, but Levi’s stomach growls as he dresses the beef with dried herbs and cuts potatoes. The onions don’t even sting his eyes as he chops. He adds extra butter once it’s all in the baking dish. Partly because it tastes good, but mainly because his fingertips recall the feeling of Eren’s ribs and spine, and there is no denying he could use the extra fat.

   “Does Von always help with laundry?” Eren asks from the bathroom as Levi closes the oven.

   Fetching two plates from the cupboard, Levi shakes his head. “I lock him out.”

   “That’s cruel,” Eren says, “he likes watching the suds.”

   “Cruel is what he’ll do to you if he falls in.” He peers at a trinity of scars from Von’s claws on his forearm, recalling scratches and hisses, Von soaking him when he attempted to rescue him before tearing through the house, leaving a trail of water in his wake.

   “He’ll be fine,” Eren says, “he’s my assistant.”

   “He’s a little menace,” Levi says. “But I warned you.”

  * * *

The walls of the house settle around them as they retire to their chairs after dinner. With the roast eaten, the leftovers have been stowed in the coolest depths of the pantry. The dishes were washed by Eren then dried and set away by Levi, and Eren’s clothes along with Levi’s socks and nightshirt are hanging near the hearth to dry.

   Most of the lanterns are extinguished, and golden Oolong steams flowery and fragrant from their cups. Eren is simpering into his share, holding the china in his cupped palms, closing his eyes and inhaling. He’s curled up shirtless in his seat, Hanji’s too short pajama bottoms rolled up to beneath his knees.

   Levi sees more scars there. They begin above his ankle bone—where his boots must have ended—and continue under his pants, though when he narrows his eyes to get a better look past the soft hairs on Eren’s legs, he discovers with some measure of relief, none of them are in the condition of the ones on his shoulders and back. Still, he’ll treat them the next time Eren visits.

   His fingers tap agitatedly against the blanket over the arm of his chair. If he could find the spirit of Ymir and destroy her again, he would, or better yet, resurrect Grisha Jӓger and kick him around in broken glass while listening to him scream.

   “This is a toastier brew,” Eren says, tugging Levi from his murderous ideations as he finally indulges in his first sip.

   “Do you not like it?”

   “No, no.” Eren sniffs the tea again and smiles. “It’s a good Oolong for winter.”

   “Goes well with the biscuits.” Levi pushes the little plate closer to Eren.

   Smirking, Levi watches Eren snatch one up and dip it in his cup. The cookie is in his mouth in two bites before he’s swallowing and rearranging himself, so he’s facing Levi, hanging over the arm of his chair, grinning at the chessboard. “I want to be white tonight.”

   Levi raises a brow. “That’s not how we choose.” In the past, they put one of each pawn in a small burlap bag and took turns choosing, or when they were away from HQ Levi held them in his hands, and Eren picked right or left.

   “Just this once.” Eren smiles, blinks, and then softens his features. And Levi can’t deny that in his efforts to look cute and endearing he’s doing precisely that.

   “This once,” Levi concedes, adding, “I’m playing serious tonight.”

 

Halfway into the game, Eren has Levi cornered again with some harebrained strategy Levi can’t quite understand. It’s reckless and cheeky, and every time Levi thinks he’s found an attack or a better defense, Eren surprises him again.

   “Sure you’re being serious?” Eren asks, clutching the rook he’s just captured.

   “Are you sure you’re not cheating?”

   “You’ve been watching the board the entire time.” He pours more tea in Levi’s cup, then his own, sets down the rook with the rest of Levi’s captive army, and rubs his hands together. “I told you I got better.”

   “That you have.” He’s kicked Eren’s arse at this game more often than not over the years, not because he was better so much as Eren was impatient. Now Eren’s turned his impatience from a disadvantage into an edge.

   Perhaps it’s because Levi can’t wholly focus. A thankfully dry Von has been distracting him, running across the hardwood before the hearth, taking leaps toward their socks hanging on the line, and trying to pull Eren’s union suit onto the floor.

   He glares between the board and Von, scratching his temple. Eren’s close to putting him in check already, and there are still four biscuits left on the plate.

   “Von,” Eren says and pats his thigh. “C’mere, you’re distracting Levi.”

   Releasing the cuff of the leg of Eren’s long underwear from his teeth, Von trots over, jumps up, and folds himself into a furry loaf on Eren’s lap.

   Levi rolls his eyes as he stifles a click of his tongue. He settles on moving a pawn he’s sure Eren will take, but it might keep him from capturing a more valuable piece.

   Eren doesn’t fall for it. He doesn’t fall for any of Levi’s tactics, and with the last biscuit into Eren’s mouth, so goes Levi’s king into his clutches. Levi’s expecting a comment, some goading, and a boastful smile, but none comes.

   Eren is immediately quiet, pensive. His smile falls, and he stares ahead at something Levi can’t see, twisting his fingers around the tie of his pajamas.

   “Eren?” Levi says, but Eren only sighs.

   He’s scraping his teeth across his lip, and Levi knows he’s trying to think of a way to say or ask something. Probably something he’s been ruminating on since earlier.

   Doing what he always has, Levi waits in silence, sipping tea and watching the fire. In most cases, he’s found it’s more effective to get Eren to talk by letting the silence stretch. Prodding usually comes later.

   “Hey, Levi?” Eren says, eyes focused on Von sprawled over his folded legs as he untucks a strand of his long hair from behind his ear.

   Levi braces himself, curling his fingers around the arm of his chair. “Hmm?”

   “So these are Hanji’s?” He pinches the fabric covering his thigh.

   “Yes. I keep extra clothes for her.”

   “How often do you see her?”

   Levi suspected this was coming, though he didn’t expect it so soon. Foolish considering how raw Eren was earlier. “She’s visited four times in the last five years,” he says planting his stiff left ankle over his right knee, “and of course, she brings herself and nothing else.”

   “Does she bring Valtari too?”

   “Varúð,”  he says and frowns, “though she still calls him Fluffy.” Over six years, and Levi's still willing to debate the cat's name. “But no. Doesn't get along with Von. Tries to steal his food. He's pudgy now too.”

   Eren is quiet for a long stretch, eyes finding the glowing coals beneath the grate. He scratches his nose, mouth opening, and closing as he tugs his beard like he thinks it will help pull the feelings out and make them words. He doesn’t turn his head or look at Levi, and his voice is quiet when he asks, “Do you see anyone else?”

   “No.” Levi didn’t buy this home so far away from everyone to see people. He bought this house to escape, thinking he would find peace or death. He left because everything reminded him of Eren and everyone’s sympathy for his uniquely personal loss cut too close to his heart.

   His escape didn’t work. Eren was everywhere. He has always been. Even before he returned. “Sometimes they write.”

   “Hmm,” Eren says. Sniffing, he meets Levi’s eyes, and for the second time that day, Levi can see the dam about to break. Eren’s jaw is set, shallow lines crease near the sides of his nose, and his lip is trapped between his teeth. “I miss them.”

   “I know.”

   The beard doesn’t hide the repressed quiver in Eren’s chin, and the low light can’t mask the glassiness in his eyes.

   Searching in his pocket, Levi finds his handkerchief.

   “I didn’t get to tell them I was sorry for everything I had to do.”

   Levi is out of comforting assurances. Besides, he’s never been good with them. He can employ witticism when it involves violence or while cursing shitty situations, but not in this. Eren has never needed Levi to be different than he is, but now, frozen in his seat, as Levi watches Eren looking so small in his own, he searches for something. He can’t tell him they forgive him. He doesn’t know it to be true or not, and everything else his mind searches for feels flimsy and hollow and woodenly insufficient.

   He moves without consciously deciding to, strides two steps until he’s before Eren, and for the second time that day crouches then hands Eren the soft bit of cloth clutched in his fingers along with hopeful honesty. “Maybe someday you can.”

   It’s as though Von knows what’s coming when he jumps to the floor. As soon as the handkerchief is in Eren’s hand, he leans forward and slips his arms around Levi’s shoulders.

   Moored to the boards beneath his feet, Levi’s throat constricts as Eren’s face presses into his neck, and he wraps Eren up as best he can from his place on the hearthrug. There are no words from Eren when Levi’s hand glides between his shoulder blades, and he tangles his fingers through his long hair to knead the back of his neck.

   Eren doesn’t shudder and gasp, only lets out a quiet tide of ache and warm, wet salt against Levi. He’s been alone for so long. Longer than Levi in his self-imposed isolation. As Levi did, it isn’t even what Eren chose. At least for the first five years … and after that, Levi’s not sure what he was thinking other than to stay away for his own safety or out of guilt. Levi looks up, eyes flaring with heat. Another reason he’s not good enough for Eren; he can’t even dredge up comforting words.

   “Levi …” It’s a muffled whisper under Levi’s ear, but Levi knows what his name feels like when Eren says it against his neck. Pulling him tighter, Levi stands on his knees and gives into Eren’s movements as he rocks himself back and forth. It’s not violent nor swift, only a gentle sway as he sniffles, breathing his way back down as his pounding heart slows.

   When Eren’s embrace loosens, Levi isn’t it sure how long it’s been. Eren’s arms are still around him, but he’s not clinging or squeezing how he was when he cracked. Levi feels his breath on his ear, his jaw, what he’s sure is a press of lips against his neck in a lingering touch before Eren clears his throat and sits back with his head hanging low.

   “Levi …” Eren says, then covers his mouth and groans. “Fuck … shit, again … I—what the hell is wrong with me today? I’m—”

   “Don’t you do that.” Levi rubs Eren’s palm with his thumb, willing some strength back into him.

   “Do what?” Eren sniffs and wipes his nose with the handkerchief.

   “Apologize.”

   “But—”

   “We’ve done this enough for you to know not to try.”

   “That was different.” Eren plays with the hanky and avoids meeting Levi’s eyes. “I’m not a kid anymore, but I can’t stop acting like one.”

   Levi squeezes Eren’s hand and looks at his ear instead of red-rimmed green. “Kids aren’t the only ones who miss people they love.”

   It seems for a fleeting moment when Eren looks at him and wipes his eyes that Levi’s made a miscalculation and his words will cause another deluge, but Eren gives him a small smile, squeezes his hand in return, and says, “Yeah.” He rubs his face, gulps the rest of his cooling tea, and scratches his forearm. “I miss them, but seeing you makes them feel closer than they were when I was alone. It’s harder.”

   The words stab Levi’s chest like an unwanted intruder. It’s irrational, idiotic. Levi is a connection to Eren’s past, one he’s been cut off from since the day his titan exploded at the close of the war. There’s no doubt Eren is better off than he was before he found Levi again, and if he had the faintest inkling of Levi’s self-defeating thoughts, he’d be on his feet yelling at him. Things like you’re everything, and you’ve always taken care of me. He might even scream in his face that he loves him and shake the insanity from Levi’s bones.

   Despite the impulse to berate himself, Levi ignores the urge and shakes his head. Logically, he knows his thinking is flawed, regardless, that infected black gash in his chest remains.

   “We can’t have it all.” He says it to himself, but it slips out in a near voiceless breath as he combs his fingers through Eren’s hair and tucks it behind his ear.

   Eren rises, pulling Levi up with him. He doesn’t relinquish his hand. He looks at him, and it’s as if the stretch from leaving his chair has returned his resilience. “We can’t.”

   “No.”

   “So we have to take what we can,” Eren says.

   For a moment Levi thinks Eren will close the distance between them and take it all. Levi would give it at this moment. After Eren’s tears and his own veiled confession, he would cross that line while suffused in their emotionally sore impuissance. Unhealthy and beautifully imperfect just like them. He would take Eren’s kisses and give them back, and all his sounds and his clothes and his smiles. Levi would bring Eren to his bed and exchange all the closeness he aches for and try, finally, to pull him into his chest and wrap himself so thoroughly around Eren’s heart they would never come apart.

   Levi would weave them together until Eren knew he was truly Levi’s and Levi was truly his.

   But Eren doesn’t move forward, and he doesn’t lean nearer. Eren closes his eyes and releases Levi’s hand with a parting squeeze then retrieves the teapot from the table. “A while until those are dry,” he says, gesturing at his damp clothes, “Oolong again?”

   Levi wants to tug the madness out of his heart through his hair, but instead, he squares his shoulders, inhales, and whispers, “Oolong it is.”

 

Where has Eren gone, he needs a splint

It’s three in the afternoon. While Levi waits for the kettle, he hangs the big, fluffy towel Eren prefers in the bathroom. Lips curving, he brushes his fingers across its soft fibers. Eren could be here at any moment.

   Over the last three weeks, he’s visited every other day, always arriving between now and five, depending on the weather and how busy he is with his house. Aside from when he broke down, their days and evenings together have been filled with jokes, affectionate ribbing, shared meals, ointment applications, tea, chess, visits with Vaka and Eurus, and quiet hours by the hearth.

   Eren doesn’t argue about taking showers or washing his clothes at Levi’s anymore. A thought that broadens Levi’s smile.

   These days, Eren opens Levi’s unlocked door and walks right in. He removes his boots, hangs his outerwear, greets Levi, and strides straight to the bathroom like he lives there too.

   While Eren washes, Levi makes tea, gritting his teeth in frustration at Eren’s moaning and humming under the warm spray while he uses Levi’s soap and makes the entire house smell like Eren and springtime and sanctuary. Still, Levi does nothing to soothe his want. They’ve taken to sporadic hello, and goodbye hand squeezes, but aside from the times he cried, and when Levi showed him Vaka, Eren hasn’t put his arms around Levi, nor his lips to his skin.

   Levi doesn’t know if they were moments of congenial vulnerability or sorrow-mired slips of desire for something more.

   He’s pondered it regularly since. While he goes about his own daily routine. When they eat dinner and Eren’s eyes twinkle at him over stew and soup and well-seasoned roasts. When they play chess, and Eren’s gaze lingers too long, or when he pokes his foot with his toes, and when Eren leans over Levi working in the kitchen, his chest only a hair’s breadth from Levi’s back.

   Having built a new routine for themselves free of war, Levi’s beginning to feel more daring—or stupid.

   Stupid or not, it’s where his thoughts meander now, through conjured visions of Eren’s grin, his skin under his fingers and lips, the curve of his neck, the almost erotic hum in his throat when he sips evening Oolong.

   Distracted, Levi nearly over-pours the boiled water and ruins the second infusion of tea that day. Despite his frequent preoccupied blunders, it’s become impossible to keep his mind from straying into possibilities.

   His skin tingles and the sandglass slips when he turns it as he wonders what Eren would do if he nuzzled his neck tonight while he rubs warming salve onto his back. How Eren would react if his hands dallied on his shoulders more than necessary, or if he turned and faced Eren the next time he comes up behind him and crowds his space when he’s at the sink.

   Levi has so many ideas. He closes his eyes to keep from rolling them. Perhaps he has too many ideas.

   Fingers twitching, he slams the heel of his hand against the kyusu to settle the leaves. He’s had one or two pots too much of Gunpowder today.

   Of course, there is the rabbit Eren brought two days ago to consider too. It’s worth looking forward to. They planned out today’s meal at Eren’s prompting since it’s been a month since they reunited. Levi’s never been one for celebrating anniversaries or birthdays, but he smiles and ignores the butterflies when he thinks about how different both their lives were a month ago and how much healthier Eren looks.

   His neck tingles when a gust drives icy snow against the window. He looks up, smile faltering, aching cheeks slackening as he peers outside.

   It’s been snowing for the last day and a half, and the intermittent squalls appear to be whipping themselves into a storm.

 

By eight in the evening, the butterflies in Levi’s stomach have morphed into an acidic churn, and the tingling on his neck is a persistent, shocking buzz. Eren should have arrived by now.

   They don’t have a standing date. They don’t have a set time, but Eren brought the rabbit last visit and said it was for today. Since the first night Levi caught Eren pilfering his wood, he’s come every other day. Never sooner, never later. And never past dinner time.

   Von has been behaving strangely as well and still is. Pawing at Levi’s front door and walking in circles before it, then jumping on the table and meowing his cat breath in Levi’s face before running back to the entrance.

   Standing to pace, Levi runs a hand through his hair. He walks from the sink to the sitting area and back, ignoring his burning ankle, and counts down from ten to one then back up again. His feet try to take him in the direction of his front door, but Levi halts and stands in the middle of his too quiet, too empty house that doesn’t smell like Eren and shower soap.

   If he leaves and goes looking and it’s nothing, he’ll be making a fool of himself. Levi doesn’t own Eren. He isn’t his keeper, and Eren isn’t beholden to show up at Levi’s every other day. But what if something happened?

   Taking a deep breath, Levi directs his senses outward. He takes in the sensations on his nape. The roiling in his gut, the tingle on his skin, and the twitch in his muscles. Levi knows this feeling. It’s how he felt before titans came bursting out of the forest. It’s how he felt before he was jumped in the Underground. It’s how he’s always felt when Eren was in danger.

   No regrets.

   “Fuck it,” he says, striding to the bedroom to fetch his extra jumper. He pulls it on while walking out of his room and goes straight to his coveralls and coat. Eren’s house is a distance, even with Eurus it will take him some time. The wind’s still blowing, the snow is coming down in frosty waves, and it’s cloudy and dark. It’s possible Eren couldn’t make it through the elements, but it’s also possible he tried and ran into trouble or worse.

   Careless of walking over his clean floor in boots, Levi fetches extra blankets, a canteen, and supplies. If Eren is lost in the storm, he could be dangerously cold when Levi finds him.

   In the event Eren reaches the house while he searches, Levi scribbles a note and tacks it to the unlocked door before he departs to the barn.

   Either sensing Levi’s unease, or something else is amiss, Vaka’s ears perk, and she stamps her hooves when Levi enters. “Don’t worry,” Levi says, running a comforting hand down her neck as he unfastens the latch on Eurus’ stall. “I’m going to find him.”

   Eurus bucks and brays, pushing on the door as it opens, eager and restless until Levi pats his head and begins tacking him as quickly as he can. “Time to focus, Eurus,” he says, “we have a mission.”

* * *

It’s blustery outside. Tempestuous. Levi holds the reins in one hand and a torch lit by one of those cave crystals he despises in the other. Far better illumination in the storm than a lantern.

   He and Eurus have made it two-thirds up the hill. They’re in the trees now, cutting through the snow and the driving winds, but Levi’s heart still gallops along with Eurus’ hooves. There’s no sign of Eren and no prints either. In truth, the snow has blanketed the ground so thoroughly, it looks like no one has been between their respective houses this week.

   Levi presses on. He presses Eurus, but Eurus doesn’t seem to need it. He turns before Levi prods him, slows when Levi needs to examine the landscape closer, and shakes his head when Levi stares in the direction of Eren’s home debating.

   After what feels like hours, but less than one, they come up over the rise. Beyond where Levi ventured after Eren stole his pine. The forest parts and Levi sees the cottage Eren has claimed as a blot in muted illuminated white. He slaps the reins against Eurus’ neck, pulls his heels in tight, and leans forward.

   There are depressions from Eren’s footprints, though they are now filled with soft, cold fluff. There’s no smoke from the chimney, and no light appears through the window glass that glints in the distance. Levi stands on his stirrups as Eurus draws near.

   “Fuck!” Levi clamps his lips together. His fingers tense as his heart drops. The hole-riddled roof has fallen in, and the house is in far worse condition than it was when Levi passed it during summer. It reminds him of the towns years ago smashed to pieces within Wall Maria. He halts Eurus near the door, dismounts, and orders him to stay.

   There’s a thin wisp of smoke from the ruins of the cabin, and Levi can smell things burned that shouldn’t have.

   “Eren!” He calls. He yells. He presses his ear against the door, then his nose against the window.

   There’s a sound inside. Something tumbling.

   He could climb. He could scramble over the ruins but kicks the still intact door in instead.

   Wood bounces against wood, the reverberation rattling Levi’s bones. It settles in his old, injured ankle, but he presses inside, heaves a deep breath, and narrows his eyes, peering through the settling dust of wreckage. “Eren?”

   There’s a faint rustling. A whine. Curses. “Levi!”

   Eren’s voice is tired and small. Slurred. Levi’s fingers tighten around nothing, but he follows it. “Eren?”

   “Over here,” Eren says and Levi squint-sees his hand lift in the gritty dark. He’s a hunched, depleted silhouette of a man slumped on the floor. Like all the light and color has drained from him.

   Dashing forward, he asks, “Are you all right?” nearly smashing into the floor as he trips on debris.

   “Sort of?” Eren croaks.

   “I’m coming.” Levi reclaims his torch. “Just hang on.”

   “Okay,” Eren says through chattering teeth.

   “Shit.” Levi drops to his knees, clambering over plaster, rock, and wood, fingers scrambling. When he’s closer, he freezes.

   Eren is propped against the wall, his foot is stuck under a beam. Blood glints crimson on his brow, there’s bruising on his face, and dust smudged over his forehead. He’s covered in the kind of grit only destruction brings. A glance to the left reveals a pile of rock from the destroyed masonry of the hearth pinning a fallen header to the floor. Pinning Eren. If he puts weight in the wrong spot, he’ll make it worse.

   “I’m about to piss my pants.” Eren runs an unsteady hand through his hair, shivering. “Fuck … I’m so gluh—glad you came.”

   I didn’t fuck up this time, Levi thinks, scowling at the beam over Eren’s leg as he tears off his gloves. “What the fuck happened?”

   “The snow was too heavy.” Eren grunts, trying to dislodge himself. “I’ve been stuck here since noon. Shit fell all over me. I’m lucky the fire went out.”

   “Stop squirming.” Levi rests his hand against Eren’s jaw and lays the other on his shoulder to keep him still. “Are you bleeding anywhere else?”

   “I don’t think so, but my wrist’s fucked up.” Eren lifts his arm. It’s swollen. “I got it free, but my leg is stuck.”

   Ignoring his hammering heart, Levi points the torch at Eren’s leg. The heavy timber is across his left ankle, but Levi exhales, bowing his head when he notes it isn’t in an unnatural position. He sets the light on the sooty cabin floor. “Stay still, I’m going to get this shit.”

   “Yeah,” Eren says, trembling through a snicker as he closes his eyes. “Thanks … thank you.”

   Starting with the rocks which once made up the chimney, Levi digs on his knees, pushing them behind him as he goes, fingers and arms prickling to move faster.

   Eren is biting his lip. His face is screwed up in a grimace. It’s how he looked lying in that cart after Levi rescued him when they returned through the gate after the 57th expedition. “Hold on. If I lift, can you slide your leg out?”

   “Yes.” Eren nods. “Fuck.”

   “Quick as you can.”

   “Just …” Eren nods and closes his eyes, “… get it off me.”

   Uncaring of the pain in his hands, Levi braces his fingers on the edges of the beam, locks his elbows, uses his legs to bear most of the weight, and lifts with his knees. He watches Eren snatch his foot back with a small breath of relief. When Eren’s extremities are well away from the dense wood, Levi drops it and scrabbles over to Eren’s side. He takes Eren’s face in his hands, feels his cold cheeks, the freezing tips of his ears.

   “So cold.” Levi leans their foreheads together and takes off his coat.

   “Freezing,” Eren says.

   Levi tips Eren forward and slips his warmed jacket around him. “This will help.”

   “So sleepy …” Eren mumbles as his eyelids begin to drop.

   Levi slaps Eren’s cheek so hard it leaves a mark. “No sleeping.”

   “But tired …”

   “I know.” Levi shakes him and strokes his uninjured hand. “I know, but it’s an order.”

   “You saved me.” Eren smiles, touching the curve of Levi’s jaw with frostbitten fingers. “You always save me.”

   Swallowing, Levi sighs. Not always. His heart twists. The sentiment is sweet. It would even be darkly amusing if it weren’t a product of lethargy from Eren’s lowered body temperature.

   But there’s no time for thinking about when he didn’t save Eren. Instead, Levi makes a tentative mental list, ready to shuffle its order depending on Eren’s state. He grasps Eren’s pants to see if they’re wet with melted snow, awash in the faintest touch of warmth when he feels Eren’s jackknife in his pocket. “Can you move your foot?” he asks.

   Straightening his left leg, Eren watches with near drunken fascination. “My toes. I can move them. The ankle a little, I think.”

   “Your arm?” Levi brushes his fingers over the back of Eren’s right hand. His wrist is swollen thicker than he first thought. It’s a livid purple and black, probably broken. At least no bone is sticking out.

   “No,” Eren says. His teeth chatter and his muscles tense under Levi’s hand. “I’m really cold.”

   Eren’s pants are wet, but pulling them off over his boots will be a problem. If Eren weren’t ashen and trembling and drowsy, Levi would tend to his ankle and wrist now. If only enough to immobilize them until they were home. Levi has seen people die in the alleys of the Underground. He’s watched tramps and the destitute huddle under rags and dross and bits of anything they could find to warm themselves only to stumble past their sickly blue-grey bodies in the morning. Their eyes sometimes open, devoid of life, stiffly flopped on the wet walkways in the damp chill of the cave.

   Removing his coveralls, Levi grits his teeth at the rimy draft that finds its way through his britches to his skin. He presses away his panic when Eren groans.

   “You need those,” Eren whispers as Levi cautiously begins to slide them up his trembling legs.

   “I’m fine.” Repressing a shiver, he yanks them up the rest of the way. “You’re too fucking cold.”

   Eren reaches a hand toward Levi before it falls. “I want to go home.”

   Heartsore but resolute, Levi ignores the clenching in his chest. “We are.”

   “Don’t forget my bags,” Eren says, “and my clothes too. I was drying them. The line fell. They’re on the floor.” He points giddily to the corner near the ruined hearth where Eren’s outerwear, a pair of drawers, pants, and a shirt lay crumpled and strewn with detritus. “That’s all I have. Please.”

   At the moment, Levi shouldn’t care. He doesn’t, but Eren just lost his home, and everything he owns fits in two mismatched, beaten satchels. He won’t force him to abandon what little else he has.

   “I’ll get it,” Levi says, “are your knives in them?’

   “Yeah.”

   “Good.” Levi orders his feet to move from Eren. He doesn’t take the time to shake out the clothing, just stuffs it all into the emptier of the two bags, buckles them shut, and throws them over his shoulder.

   Eren stares at Levi once he is back at his side, teary green eyes catching the glint of the torch. He sniffs pitifully. “My teacup broke.”

   “You can pick out another.”

   “One of yours?”

   “Whichever you want,” Levi says, brushing some dirt from Eren’s cheek.

   “Okay … I want the one with …” Eren says. His voice sails away toward the end as his eyes shut and his head droops.

   “I said no sleeping.” Levi grasps Eren’s jaw and shakes until his eyes open. “Ready?”

   Eren startles. “Yeah …”

   “Come on then,” Levi says. “Up we go.” He assists Eren onto his right foot, and with mild difficulty, lifts him across his shoulders. Eren was easier to carry when he wasn’t so damn tall, but Levi finds his balance despite his protesting ankle and climbs over the wreckage, doddery step after doddery step until they’re free of the destroyed cottage and at Eurus’ eager side.

   “Hi, Eurus,” Eren says, reaching toward his mane before his arm drops sluggishly and his head falls. “You helped save me.”

  * * *

Levi has to help Eren piss before they go, but they’ve done stranger things than hanging off one another while the other takes a leak, and they’ve been in worse situations than an injury-riddled venture through a snowstorm.

   The ride home is utter shit. For the most part, Eren is only half conscious. He doesn’t even look back at the crumbling ruins of his house as they leave.

   When they arrive home, Levi carries Eren inside and leaves him slumped on the couch covered with a mound of quilts to warm him. After that—while assuring Vaka Eren is all right—Levi executes the fastest horse untacking of his lifetime and then sprints through heavy wet snow to the cabin.

   He hasn’t even removed his damp jumper when he’s back at Eren’s side, testing the temperature of his hands, and rousing him.

   “No sleeping yet,” Levi says, beginning the painful task of untying and removing Eren’s left boot. “This is going to hurt. Try to keep your leg still.”

   “It already hurts.” Eren rubs his eyes. “Just fucking do it. My clothes are wet. I can’t stand it.”

   Levi’s tended to both his own injuries and those of his comrades in battle. Back then, his hands were always steady whether stitching a wound or holding the hand of someone he knew was inhaling their lasts breaths. But now they’re shaking as he pulls the laces free of Eren’s boot, tugs out the tongue, and begins to slide it off as gently as he can. His jaw tightens when Eren cuts off a groan and pinches his eyes shut.

   “Fuck!” Eren grits out once his foot is free.

   Peeling off Eren’s sock, Levi sets it aside and looks at his ankle. “Oh, fucking shit …”

   “What?” Eren shivers again.

   “It’s fucked up.” Eren’s ankle is bruised and swollen around the joint and across the front. It could be broken, but it could be a sprain. “Can you move it?” Levi asks.

   First, Eren’s icy toes wiggle against Levi’s palm, then with a slow movement, the rest of his foot does. The range of motion isn’t spectacular, but better than what Levi feared.

   “Is it broke?”

   “I don’t think so,” Levi says. He scratches his temple and pushes his hair back. “Might not know for certain for a couple days.”

   “Damn it.”

   Examining Eren’s arm, the diagnosis is disheartening. Levi knows Eren’s wrist is fractured upon his first close glance in the light. It will need to be set, splinted, and wrapped along with his ankle. “It’s busted.”

   Eren sighs and punches the couch cushion with his left hand. “How am I supposed to do anything?”

   “You don’t have to.” Levi wishes he hadn’t said it as soon as he sees the expression on Eren’s face. His brows are scrunched together, lips turned down, damp eyes looking at the ceiling instead of at Levi.

   “I bet your plans for the winter didn’t include waiting on me.” Eren tries to cross his arms but gives up when he looks at his battered wrist.

   “I didn’t have plans for the winter.” Refusing to give in to the argument, Levi moves onto Eren’s other shoe. Eren has never done well with limitations. In fact, Eren used to devour limitations. He used to kick them and punch them and blow them up. There was a time when he dived on them and threw them across city squares until all that stood around him was havoc, bedlam, and rubble.

   “Don’t worry,” Eren says, snickering darkly, “I know how to get around on one leg.”

   Levi rolls his eyes and takes off Eren’s other boot. Marley jokes and rogue obliteration aside, he has to get Eren out of his cold, wet clothes and warm in the bed. He’s still shivering, his speech is slurred, and his remarks suggest his slight confusion has not yet abated. “You’ll get around fine.”

   “Wish I still had my crutch,” Eren says, eyes flashing with past mayhem before he huffs, “but I left it in that fucking basement with Reiner.”

   Ignoring the comment, Levi continues; removing Eren’s clothes while keeping the quilts over him as he goes. It’s not for Eren’s modesty—he’s seen him undressed plenty of times before—but so he doesn’t lose more precious body heat. Eren cooperates as best he can, raising his arms so Levi can get the jumper, and then his shirt, lifting his hips so Levi can slide off the coveralls, wet pants, and his union suit.

   When Levi’s finished, he’s left with a shivering, naked Eren cocooned in quilts, topped by Von who has come out from hiding or more likely his nap.

   Levi feels Eren’s cheeks again. Still cold. “We need to get you in bed.”

   “That sounds nice.” Eren closes his eyes and smiles. “I always liked your bed.”

   “Can’t fall asleep yet.” Levi sits him up. “You need a hot drink first.”

  

Shepherding Eren to the bedroom isn’t tricky. He hops along leadenly with his arm slung over Levi’s shoulder and falls onto the center of the quiltless bed with a grateful sigh as soon as his knees hit the edge. Levi puts a blanket over Eren’s head, wraps another around his middle, then presses him back into the mattress and pillows before covering him with the throw from the sitting area and six more quilts. He tucks them around Eren until he resembles a patchwork-covered bread loaf. “Better?” he asks.

   Von is immediately on Levi’s pillow next to Eren’s head, and all Levi can see is Eren’s reddened nose and green eyes when he blinks at him. “How I’m going to drink tea lying down? I can’t even move.”

   “You’ll sit up.” Levi runs his fingers through his hair, and tugs at the white streak, wishing it would simply fall out. “And we still have to wrap your arm and leg.”

   “Can I have Earl Grey?”

   “Not good for this,” Levi says. “You need herbal.”

   “With honey? I want cream and honey,” Eren says. Levi shudders at the notion, but Eren isn’t quite in his right mind at the moment. “In the cup with the yellow flowers. I want that to be my cup.”

   Levi nods. “If that’s what you want.” Leaning over the edge of the bed, Levi feels Eren’s cheeks. Not as bad as he was when he found him, but still too cold. Definitely too cold for Eren. He may not run feverish anymore, but he’s still warmer than most people on any regular day.

   “Just a minute,” Levi says. “I need to heat some towels and get your tea.”

   “I’ll be all right.”

   “No sleeping. I mean it,” Levi warns. He doesn’t want to move. He wants to take off his own cold, damp clothes and slip under the covers too. He wants to hold Eren until he stops shivering and press his lips to his forehead and leave them there so he can feel Eren warming through them. Despite what Levi wants, it’s not what Eren needs right now. Eren’s still pale, his lips are ringed blue, and the tip of his nose and fingers feel like icicles.

   “Stay here,” Levi says.

   “Where the hell am I going to go?” Eren asks, squirming.

   “Nowhere,” Levi says. “I’ll be right back.” He hurries through the hallway and the ebbing pound in his chest, pricking his ears to listen for Eren. He can hear him babbling to Von as he flies through the kitchen, sloshing water as he sloppily slams the kettle on the stove.

   Usually, Levi enjoys cream and honey—when used correctly, but he scowls at the little cask and jar, leaves them on the counter beside Eren’s teacup, and sighs. “Disgusting.”

   Before the kettle barely begins to whistle, Levi is already down to his drawers, clothing discarded, forgotten, and added to Eren’s pile on the sitting room floor. Towels are hanging by the hearth which Levi’s stuffed with logs, and he’s already checked on Eren twice and left antiseptic, salve, bandaging, and wood for splints on the bedside table.

   Eren thankfully isn’t asleep when he returns, but based on the shape of the lump under the covers, he’s pulled his knees up to his chest, attempting to hoard as much heat as possible.

   “Drink this,” Levi says, steam rising against his palm as he clutches the rim of the cup. “Up you go.”

   Grousing, Eren worms his way up enough to lean on the pillows. “Is there honey and cream in it?”

   “It’s what you asked for.” Levi passes him the cup and tries not to bite his lip. Eren still looks half dead. “I have something that will help. Sip that.”

   “Yessir.” Eren gives Levi a half-hearted salute that Levi lets slide as he leaves.

   The towels are heated and dry and perfect when Levi retrieves them, his hands and arms already warmed by the time he is back beside the bed. “Give me your tea. You’re going to dislike me in a moment.”

   Eren’s face is only peeking out from beneath his blanket hood, but Levi sees his lips curve. “I would never dislike you.”

   “I have to take off the quilts.”

   “I’ll die.”

   “Dramatic.” Levi chances another check of Eren’s temperature with a press of his hand to his forehead, distracting him before he takes his cup, and then whisks the coverings away.

   “Awww fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!”

   Eren flails on the sheets, but he doesn’t have a chance to protest further before Levi descends on him and wraps the heated towels around his chest and stomach. Eren whimpers at the soft warmth against his skin, closing and opening his eyes with a tiny grateful smile as Levi winds one around his neck like a thick, granny-knitted scarf.

   “Thanks,” Eren says, sleepy and slurring.

   Lastly, Levi drapes one over Eren’s groin, clenching his jaw when he notices he’s scarred there as well.

   Over the last few weeks, the sharp stab when he sees the scars has ebbed to a subdued ache. Levi has grown used to the perfect imperfections. To Eren’s resilient jokes about them. To Eren’s soft groans of appreciative comfort when he rubs all manner of balms and salve into his back and chest and arms and legs. Levi’s grown used to paying this penance. Reveling in rectifying his sins.

   But Levi didn’t know about this.

   He should have.

   It isn’t surprising, and it does nothing to demolish Eren’s enduring beauty. It doesn’t vandalize him, nor lessen Levi’s desire for him, but his throat and the rims of his eyes feel hot and itchy at the new discovery, realizing how much agony Eren must have suffered.

   Despite the excruciating revelation, Levi buries the solicitous twinge to ruminate on later and stifles his first half snort of the day when Eren flushes the palest pink as he glowers at him. “What?” Levi asks, shrugging.

   “I need one for my dick?”

   Somehow, even when he doesn’t realize Levi’s in it, Eren can always pull him from the mire. “Yes,” Levi says.

   “That’s the only part that’s not cold.” Eren’s voice cracks like it used to when he was sixteen as his neck joins his cheeks in their bid to redden.

   “It will help.” Maybe Levi could heat Eren up faster if he made him blush at cock jokes all night. Probably not, but Eren’s bashfulness suggests the fog in his head is clearing. “Tuck it in.”

   Eren looks at him, frowning. “Tuck what?”

   Scratching his head, Levi closes his eyes. This is a ridiculous conversation. “The towel, tuck it between your thighs.” He motions in the direction of Eren’s hips. “Under your balls too.”

   With parted lips, Eren stares at Levi like he’s grown an extra head. “What … why? They aren’t cold either.” He fiddles with a wrinkle in the quilt.

   “Your blood’s close to your skin there.” He gestures more awkwardly than he’d like toward Eren’s crotch.

   “Oh!” Eren looks at the towel covering his penis. Even his bloody brow is rising up toward his hairline as his eyes widen.

   He swallows, glances at Levi, and then back down, quivering hands doing as Levi instructed—gingerly. Like he’s never touched himself there before.

   When he’s finished, he closes his legs as though he can’t get them back together fast enough. Even his chest is pinking. “There.” It comes out as more a squeak than a word.

   “Not bad,” Levi begins, his own face feeling hot, “now get back under the covers and let me see your arm.”

 * * *

Setting the bone above Eren’s wrist comes with a string of curses, so numerous, Levi is sure Eren’s trying to establish a new bar of vulgarity between them. Levi clenches his jaw but goes to work splinting his arm, while Eren breathes through the last of the sharp pain, head thrust into the pillows with his eyes shut tight.

   By the time he’s finished tending to the ankle, Eren is looking at him with a sleepy half smile. Levi wets gauze with antiseptic and begins dabbing away the blood on his brow and cheek. “I can’t give you anything for the pain until you’ve warmed up again.”

   “I’m tired,” Eren says. “Don’t need it.”

   “You’ll want it tomorrow.” Levi unscrews the jar of salve. “There’s a lot of bruising.”

   “At least it didn’t get my head.” Eren smirks and closes his eyes when Von curls up on his chest. “I’m good at escaping death.”

   Levi’s fingers halt on Eren’s cheek as he inhales. It would be lovely if everything inside would stop tying itself in knots. Even his muscles feel like they’ve been twisted and untwisted and twisted again. He wants to tell Eren to stop doing things that leave him having to escape it in the first place. He wants to hold him and whisper tender admonishments next to his ear to never be so fucking careless again.

   When Eren looks at him, Levi closes his eyes for a breath. “Always have been.”

   “I’ll try and stop having to.”

   Eren sighs a little content sound, and Levi finishes treating the contusions on his face. He turns slowly on his side to nudge Von down next to him and gives him a long lazy pet.   

   “I’d appreciate it,” Levi says.

   “Thank you for finding me.”

   “I wouldn’t leave you to freeze,” Levi says. From now on, I’ll always find you.

   Silence surrounds them with only the crackling of the fire. Levi scrutinizes Eren’s face, brushes the hair from it, and tries to gauge how much color has returned to his skin while Eren lets Von nip at his fingers. They don’t look as waxy anymore, but blotchy red and still drained of their natural tan.

   “Does he sleep with you?” Eren asks, watching Von.

   “Yes.” Levi nods and scratches Von’s ear. “Maybe he’ll stay with you tonight.”

   Eren frowns, the shiny balm on his cheek and brow catching the light. “You’re not going to sleep in here?”

   Levi would like to. He could keep Eren warm and watch over him and wake up to a messy bed with their legs tangled, but Levi didn’t intend to be so presumptuous. He already laid the last spare quilt on his chair by the hearth. He planned to sit there awake all night and read and stare at the fire and check on Eren at least twice an hour to assure himself he was all right.

   Eren needs the bed more than he does. He’s still not as warm as he should be and he’s battered and bruised and maybe broken in two places. Levi hasn’t indulged himself in the whim he could embrace Eren, pull him against his chest, and bury his nose in his hair tonight.

   Disguising his yearning, Levi passes Eren his cup of tea and bites the inside of his cheek. “You’d like me to?”

   “Yeah, I thought you’d keep me warm too.” Eren doesn’t look at Levi. He keeps his gaze focused between Von and cloying honey-sweetened chamomile, but under his mustache, his lips draw a thin line, and his cheeks strain to flush rose again. “My hands are freezing,” he says, “my feet too.”

   That’s a new one for them. Eren warming his feet on Levi’s shins.  

   Heart racing and stuttering and leaping, Levi nudges the back of his fingers against Eren’s teacup. “Finish that, I’ll get my quilt.”

   Eren seems more comfortable already, nuzzling his face into Levi’s soft pillow and inhaling as Levi departs the bedroom. When he glances back, he can’t help a small smile at seeing the fierce-eyed, wild-haired, raging sun beaming in his bed.

   Shuttering the lanterns in the rest of the house, Levi counts up and down again. Up and down, up and down, up and down. His arms ache with the urge to wrap around Eren. His skin tingles and itches with the need to feel Eren’s against it. There’s a hole in his palm that can only be filled with the beat of Eren’s heart.

   “Shit,” Levi whispers. He pulls in a breath, blows out the last lantern by the hearth, retrieves his quilt, and with painfully slow steps across draft-chilled floorboards, finds his way to the bedroom.

   “You’re back,” Eren says.

   “Stay put,” Levi says, clasping Eren’s shoulder as he struggles to sit up and lift the covers. “Careful of your wrist.”

   Eren frowns, though acquiesces when Levi opens the quilt and drapes it over the thick pile covering the bed and tucks it behind his back. He’s always been like that; complying, sometimes with a small scowl when Levi fussed over him in the most unfussy way possible. To an outsider, it wouldn’t even look like fussing. To an outsider, it probably looked like nothing.

   “It’s so warm.” Sighing, Eren squeezes a handful of stitched, down-filled linen, and Levi’s heart clenches, knowing Eren hasn’t been this cosy and comfortable in too long. He would have made him cosier if he could only figure himself out. “Thank you,” Eren says, his small smile growing wider as he watches Levi pull the curtains closed around the bed.

   “You don’t have to thank me,” Levi says when too cool fingers reach out and entwine with his own. He takes Eren’s empty cup from where it balances on the bed, places it on the nightstand, and slides under the covers with Eren’s hand still knotted in his own.

   Prepared to embrace the fount of the only true shelter Levi has ever known, he releases the tie of the curtain on the last post of the bed, and shuts the world out.  

   Von—ever perceptive—hops to his spot on the pillow behind Eren’s head, and Levi closes the newly created space between them, then skims his fingertips over Eren’s icy hand. He shouldn’t rub too hard. Not until Eren’s warm again and it won’t force the cooled blood to his heart, but he circles his index finger over his wrist, feeling Eren’s pulse, contented as his own heartbeat slows, synchronizing with its powerful, yet gentle thrum.

   Dark eyes blink at him, reflecting in the thin strips of flame-glow invading from the parts in the heavy drapes. The abrasion on Eren’s cheekbone is swollen and angry, and Levi can’t help but brush his thumb beside it, then sweep his fingers above the cut on Eren’s brow.

   “I’m all right.” Eren swallows, and even in the faint light, Levi sees his Adam’s apple as it dips, and the strain of the constricting tendons in his throat.

   “I—” Levi begins, words halting, “Have enough tea?”

   “For now.” Eren traces the scar on the back of Levi’s hand. Tentative, barely there, skittering touches of fingertips.

   Levi holds his breath, worry and butterflies warring in his guts as he drags his thumb next to Eren’s nose, over the hair above his lip, the corner of his mouth. He remembers himself and pulls away, but Eren grasps his hand and holds it to his cheek. The hair on his face is soft against Levi’s palm. Silky. He fights with his shaky fingers to keep them from curling into it as he watches Eren’s teeth scrape over his chapped bottom lip.

   Watching Levi with a faint curl at the corners of his mouth, Eren nudges the top of his right foot against Levi’s shin, presses his knee to Levi’s thigh until it’s nearly draped over it. He leans closer when Levi hisses at the chill, skimming his jaw over Levi’s chin and presses his forehead close to Levi’s lips. “Never thought I’d have to use you like a furnace,” Eren says, his beard brushing Levi’s neck. He scrunches his arms up against Levi’s stomach and rests his wrapped hand at the center of Levi’s chest.

   Levi’s sure Eren must feel his heart crack then mend itself back together into the cobbled mess that it is. Feel his longing through his stilted breath, through bone and muscle and skin.

   “My fingers feel funny,” Eren says and rubs his hands where they’re trapped between them.

   Stilling them with a soft squeeze, Levi asks, “Are they tingling?”

   “Yeah.”

   “Don’t rub them hard.” Levi brushes his thumb over Eren’s palm. “Do they hurt?”

   “Feels like pins and needles.”

   “They’re warming up.” He presses his lips to Eren’s forehead. The blankets and towels and body heat are working. It’s enough to make Levi sweat where they’re stuck between them; his thighs and hips, stomach and chest. “Your temperature’s going up.”

   “Probably why everything is starting to hurt.” The slur in Eren’s voice is subsiding, though it remains gravelly and broken enough to make Levi’s heart stumble on a beat.

   “What hurts?”

   “Achy everywhere,” Eren says, nuzzling his face against Levi’s throat and moaning under his ear. He chuckles morosely. “A roof did cave in on me. I’ve no right to be surprised.”

   “You’re lucky, it could’ve been worse.” The words don’t begin to touch the raw amalgam of consolation and terror Levi still feels inside. He buries his face in Eren’s hair, breathes him in until he can’t breathe in anymore, feels the tip of Eren’s cold nose on his throat, then Eren’s lips move when he says his name.  

   “Levi …”

   Levi swallows around something that feels too small and dry. “Okay?”

   “Mhm … it’s just …” Eren sniffs. “I missed you.”

   Chest aching, Levi squeezes Eren’s hand, wraps his arm over his waist, and tugs him closer. “I missed you too.”

   * * *

Teetering on the horizon of slumber, Levi shakes his head, repels the weight of exhaustion on his eyes, and continues playing guard. His fingertips press on Eren’s back, urging him nearer when he whimpers in his sleep.

   Cloistered in Levi’s arms under the drape-swathed darkness, Eren has long since returned to a regular temperature. But with his renewed warmth have come nightmares.

   It’s enough to shock Levi’s eyelids open each time Eren cries out or goes stiff. To make Levi’s muscles twitch with the need to pull Eren closer when he’s almost as close as he can be.

   When Eren was younger, the terrors that crept in under the covers weren’t irregular. They came like waves on the shore. Sometimes gone for weeks or months, only to return and plague him every evening for a season from the moment his eyes closed until they reopened against the day’s light.

   But that was before.

   Levi bites his lip when Eren mumbles his name and groans, strokes his hand down Eren’s back, then up again, kneads his neck with gingerly touches just hard enough to soothe without causing Eren to stir.

   Since Levi shared his bed with Eren routinely, much has changed. There was destruction, insurrection, death, betrayal, violence, and poisonous words. Regardless of his reasons, Eren was complicit in spreading misery thick as the snow beyond the walls of the house. Where for other, less emotional people, the trammels of being crowned ‘Hope’ might have been easier to shoulder, it wasn’t for Eren. The mantle of his guilt has always been too burdensome for his selfless heart to carry.

   At a whine and a tremor, Levi wonders if Eren suffers terrors every night or if they’re impelled by his house’s destruction. They didn’t talk about it when Levi slipped into bed, he was more concerned with warming him than prodding his inevitable melancholy and angst.

   Hours ago, after Levi had him settled, Eren scuttled as close as he could and fell asleep mumbling against Levi’s chest.

   Now Levi guesses, it is near five in the morning, and Eren’s discomfort is coming heavier. Levi presses his cheek to his head and draws a lazy spiral on his dewy skin, trying to ease him back into peaceful sleep.

   “Levi …” He feels his name flutter against the top of his chest more than he hears it. And what he does hear is a bleating little croak. Like a whisper over shards of glass.

   “Right here,” Levi says. Eren might be talking in his sleep, but Levi reinforces his words and brushes the hair from Eren’s face. Off his forehead, then his sweaty tear-sticky cheek, untangles it from his beard, stowing the lock behind his ear. “Are you hurting?”

   Eren nods against him. Gasps like he was drowning during his dreams and needs to refill his lungs. “Nightmares too.”

   “Mmm.” Levi holds Eren tight and finds his hand where it’s clutching his waist. “Every night?”

   Eren sighs. “Not for a few weeks.” Raising his head from its hiding place, he slides himself up until his forehead is pressed against Levi’s temple. The now warmer tip of his nose touches Levi’s cheek. Eren’s chin hairs tickle Levi’s jaw. Their lips are so close if Levi tilted his head toward Eren, they would brush. “They got better after you caught me stealing,” Eren says, puffing hot breath over Levi’s face.

   Knowing Eren can’t see it, Levi chews on his lip, impulse rising under his skin. Sometimes when Eren’s been upset, and Levi has held him in the bed, it felt as though he was waiting for Levi to offer more. When he’s sobbed angry tears over what he believed was a mistake or woke from tormenting dreams in the quiet dark.

   Levi strokes Eren’s spine. Fingers quivering when he rests his hand on the small of his back, not venturing lower. He can feel a dimple under his index finger but doesn’t explore it when he hears Eren snivel.

   “In my dream, the house kept falling on me.” Eren’s voice is wet. “I bit myself trying to get out, but it didn’t work. I didn’t shift, and no one came to help me.”

   Instinctually, Levi’s thumb brushes over the edge of Eren’s left hand, feeling for indentations from teeth. When he believed Eren was dead—even before—Levi berated himself for never saying enough, for not always telling Eren what he thought. He’s relieved it didn’t work. He’s ecstatic it will never work again. That Eren can’t transform. He tries to say it, but his throat shrinks, and all he releases is an arid, grating rasp that sounds nothing like a word.

   He’s so useless.

   “Did you get all my shit when we left?” Eren asks. “It’s foggy.”

   “Your clothes and your bags,” Levi says, dragging his fingertips over Eren’s back. “Was there anything else?”

   “Not much,” Eren says, rubbing his nose with his right hand. He makes a pained noise like a wounded dog and rests it back under the quilt on Levi’s hip. “Nothing important.” To Levi’s ears, it sounds like a lie.

   “We can go back when you’re healed.”

   “It’s dumb.” Eren sighs. “I had a garland too and a few pretty plates. They probably broke. Like my cup.”

   The quaver in Eren’s voice twists Levi up again. He’s surprised after all these weeks the shield which prevents him from doing anything more hasn’t yet shattered. That the unyielding voice whispering he’s not good enough refuses to depart. His hand gentles on Eren’s neck, fingertips raking into his hair. “They’ll be there. No one comes up the mountain this time of year, and the house isn’t in any condition for someone to claim.”

   There’s a tremor through the length of Eren’s body, then a gulp. Levi’s skin freezes from his shoulders to his toes. Like he’s being painted in ice. He’s said the wrong thing. “Eren …”

   “I still can’t believe it,” Eren says and inhales a wretched breath, trying not to cry. “I worked so hard.”

   Levi tries to mend his mistake. “This shit happens. There was too much to do before winter.”

   Eren’s about to bawl. He’s trembling in Levi’s arms, holding back. Fighting it like he always does.

   The fight always makes it worse.

   “So many splinters and hours. Fixing that fucking pump.” His voice cracks and he covers his mouth. “I’m such an idiot, I should have cleared the roof.”

   The roof was shit, to begin with. “The snow was heavy. It wouldn’t have been safe.”

   “It’s my own fault.” Eren clears his throat, falters and sobs. “I always fuck everything up.”

   “It was an unexpected storm,” Levi says. “You couldn’t have known.”

   “I’m not going to be able to fix it.”

   Levi wets his lips. “It’s …” He pauses when Eren groans that frustrated tearful groan he knows too well. “No, I don’t think it’s salvageable.”

   Whining, Eren rolls onto his back. In the faint light from the crack in the drapes, Levi can make out Eren’s hands covering his face. The mattress shakes beneath his shuddering, his voice muffled by fingers and bandaging. “It was all I had,” he croaks. “I have nowhere to go.”

   If he pulled back the curtains, Levi would see Eren in the lantern’s dying glow. He would see his sulking brow and turned down mouth, the quiver he can hear in his voice pressing wrinkles into his chin. He would see Eren bare and vulnerable. And maybe Levi would know better how to fix it, but the light is too much. Eren needs the shelter of the darkness and Levi’s seemingly inept arms.

   “Fuck!” Eren drops his injured hand to the bed when Levi doesn’t say anything. He sounds exactly like he did at fifteen. “Ow, fuck …”

   “Be fucking careful.”

   “Why?” Eren seethes. He does it a second time because apparently, he’s still a stubborn arse when he’s this upset and has yet to grow out of his tantrums and petulance. “I’m going to be alone again.” He sniffs.

   “What?” Levi frowns, stomach contracting and churning until he has to press his hand to it. He feels ill.

   “I don’t belong anywhere.”

   Levi’s chest throbs and prickles along with his arm trapped beneath Eren.

   It feels like Eren stabbed him.

   It feels like Eren kicked him.

   It feels like his heart is bleeding.

   It’s been a long time since Levi kicked or punched Eren, but he’d like to now. Eren’s self-deprecating delusions make Levi want to cry and yell and confess and kiss and hold and touch and fuck just to show him how stupid and wrong he is. It doesn’t matter Levi knows Eren deserves better, he’s furious and tingling and wounded.

   Levi’s breaths are ragged. They expose him. He’s more naked than if he removed his drawers and tossed them to the floor.

   He holds his hand against his forehead and inhales, breath whistling through his teeth. He doesn’t care if Eren hears it.

   Levi has never been the emotionally unhinged one. He’s unhinged in other ways, and as Eren always brought the light into the depths of Levi’s somber gloom, Levi’s always choked down his rage or hurt for both their benefit.

   He rolls on his side, and half-careless of Eren’s bruising, pulls him to his chest. Skin to skin, forehead to forehead, his legs trapping Eren’s so he can’t escape to the other side of the bed and hide in his misery.

   “You aren’t alone, Eren.” Levi doesn’t often use Eren’s name, but he does again and again and again. He repeats it until Eren stops blubbering and goes slack in his forceful embrace. “You don’t have to leave,” Levi says and closes his eyes. He doesn’t want to say it. “Unless you want to.”

   For a long time, the only sound in the room is their breaths and Eren’s weeping. Even Von has ceased purring on Levi’s pillow in his sleep.

   “Why?” Eren releases one of those tiny painful mewls that breaks Levi’s heart. “You didn’t move all the way out here to see people. Nobody does.” It’s all breath with no conviction behind it.

   After Eren was gone, Levi wanted to be where no one could love him. “I had my reasons.”

   “You would have stayed with the others if you wanted friends.”

   While the word ‘friend’ makes Levi think Eren is the blindest fuck who has ever breathed the free air, he has only himself to blame. He resists the urge to tear at his own hair because he’s a fucking coward and still can’t make himself say it. It’s always three words. It doesn’t matter which endearment he tries. They won’t come out. They never do. They bash against his fears and his feelings of insufficiency, and they never prevail.

   Please don’t leave. Stay with me. I love you. You’re my heart.

   Perhaps he should attempt two words or four. Or simply kiss Eren. It’s what a normal person would do, but Levi isn’t normal, and when he tries to lean in, his muscles go stiff and lock until they burn. His body is set against him. Set against his useless heart. Like he’s a tongueless, lipless, soulless corpse. Maybe it happens to Eren too, or maybe, now that Eren’s not a teenager, he realizes Levi isn’t everything in the world.

   Levi’s been trying to work through his ineptitude and this inefficacy for years. He still can’t demolish it. Instead, once more, he attempts to say it or show it, or make Eren understand through touch, and slips his fingers over Eren’s arm, kneads his thumb into his bicep with careful caresses.

   “There wasn’t anything for me there,” Levi finally says, “not anymore.”

   Eren nods his head, slow movements that brush his beard over Levi’s chin. “Someday you’ll have to stop taking care of me.”

   “Bullshit,” Levi snaps. He tries to close the inch of distance between them a second time to prove how mistaken Eren is. His neck revolts with a sharp stab, as if a rope is tugging on the back of his head. He can barely see Eren, but he feels him like magnetism. Like buzzing static trying to climb inside his mouth and fill him up. “I’ll do what I like.”

   “I’m not worth it.” Eren chokes down half the words on the way to another crying fit. “Nobody should like me.”

   Levi’s vision flares red. “Eren!” It’s loud and comes out between clenched teeth. Levi loosens his arms around Eren and rubs his back again, on the edge of crying his own tears. “Stop. For once in your life, please … just fucking stop.” His throat burns.

   “Levi,” Eren says, and Levi can barely understand his garbled speech through his sobs. Through his gasping breaths. “I wanted to take care of myself for once. The things I’ve done … I don’t want to taint anyone … never you. Especially not you.”

   Levi’s eyes widen as Eren shudders in his arms. Everything freezes in a rush. His chest feels like he ran into a wall and his lungs didn’t stop with the rest of him as a piercing epiphany tramples him. It’s like an explosion behind his own stinging eyes. They’re not talking about the house and Eren staying.

   Eren probably doesn’t realize it, and Levi can’t explain how fucking idiotic and thickheaded what Eren just said is. Not now. He nearly laughs at Eren thinking he—Levi Ackerman—is taintable. How Eren believes he could befoul Levi’s filthy soul.

   Eren hates himself more than Levi hates himself, and that is astounding.

   Soft as he can, Levi combs his fingers through Eren’s hair. He’s a selfish, horrible man. Selfish because he’s not good enough and he doesn’t care how he used to when he honorably tried to spare Eren from him. When he tried not to love him. He’s selfish, and Eren is selfless. While Levi attempts to find a way to pursue, Eren is ready to run away just to save him.

   Levi does not deserve this beautiful man. He never has.

   “That’s enough,” he says to Eren when his tremors cease. “That’s enough.”

   “But—”

   “No more,” Levi says more firmly. Like he did when Eren was in his mid-teens. Though now, it sounds like cooing to his own ears. “You’re in no shape to leave.” He pulls Eren’s head to his chest so he can hear his clumsy heart pound into his ribs. So he’ll understand. “Don’t make me kick your arse.”

   Despite the threat, Eren’s echoing words still cut. Levi halts a stutter and wets his lips, then whispers into Eren’s hair. “If you still want to be a stubborn bastard, go when you’re healed.”

   “I’m not a—”

   Levi pinches the skin on Eren’s back, hard. He’s said enough stupid things for the night. “You are, and hungry judging by your grumbling belly,” Levi says, hoping Eren won’t wind himself up again. “We still have the rabbit, and I’m sure you’d like a bath.”

   Eren grumbles and rubs his face in Levi’s chest. “Yeah,” he says, drawing a shape with his fingertip over Levi’s shoulder. “Yeah, okay.”

   “Good.” Levi’s muscles release some tension. Eren’s wrist will take a couple months to heal, which leaves Levi until the end of February to figure his own shit out, enact a plan, and show Eren how worthy he is.