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Winter Comes Quiet

Chapter Text

Coming home

Winter comes quiet. Voiceless and silent. With snowflakes brushing Levi’s face along with the soundless wind.

   It’s not like autumn with its howling whistles and crisp scatters of leaves. It’s not like spring when the snow melts, revealing eager crocuses in violet, yellow, and highlighted white. It’s not like summer with bright golden sun, and life everywhere.

   Each other season reminds Levi of Eren in a way winter does not.

   Spring is fresh. A covenant. It’s icy and warm alike. As are its breathless words and promises of genesis anew. It’s like Eren’s bold, knowing glances were. Looks sent into Levi’s orbit while pulling Eren’s heat as close as he could through the clothing that was the only barricade still between them. Spring’s colors are like Eren’s eyes were in the sun-drenched afternoon; new-birthed gossamer-green revealed above curious smiles and the vows of a new day. The pink of his lips like the hues of the morning sunrise. His nape’s scent in the morning; dewy and light with a hint of his strength.

   Summer is richer. Bountiful. Like cool sun-dappled water cascading over rock. It’s alive with crickets chirping their nighttime song, the first teetering steps of new life, and swooping birds. Abundant and boisterous. Its rain brings forth growth with tints of every shade. Flavors sweet and mild, and floral-perfumed breeze. It parts the drapes at night revealing a season that never sleeps before its heat rocks one into wakefulness at dawn.

   Autumn reminds Levi of Eren’s tone. His skin and his hair. The post-summer weariness winding down reminds him of falling asleep in his arms. It’s slumber’s oath, falling and falling like the green leaves which give way to red, gold, and orange. It’s spicy-warm and sweet; apples cooked with cinnamon but also cool like the brisk breezes invading it. A dichotomy. It’s like Eren’s shouting whispers of, look at this, look at this! followed by a sheltered embrace. Unpredictable, yet fortified with a promise of cloistered heat amidst the inevitable kiss of coming cold.  

   If the seasons were music, winter is minors, while summer is majors. Spring and autumn are an abstract symphony of both. Sometimes dissonant. A juxtaposition of joyful and somberly plaintive.

   Levi contemplates the endless cycle. He digs his fingers into the wounded place in his chest.

   He thinks of Eren.

   But Eren is gone now. He has been for a long time.

  

During the climax of the war, following the crescendo which preceded the conclusion, Eren took into him the last shifter, and with it, the last fragment of Ymir’s soul. When it happened, there was a flash, like a thousand erupting bombs, and then, pieces of flesh everywhere that steamed away to nothing.

   Levi was far from that area of the battle when it happened. He watched the explosion in the distance like a miniature sun was birthed across the skyline, his heart plummeting. When finally, he was closer, there was no flesh to cut Eren from and no Eren either.

   “The soul’s fragments disappeared … and Eren with them,” Hanji said when Levi arrived. She looked at him grimly, with her regretful glassy eye. He flinched when she put a hand on his arm, yanking it away as she continued, “The curse is gone. He was willing to sacrifice to make us free. He can be at peace now.”

   Her words weren’t a bandage for his private wounds. And so, Levi looked. Searched for Eren through war rubbish, twisted metal, and blood, knowing he wouldn’t find him. His mind and legs wandered while everyone else marched through the ordinary motions that follow a loss. There was mourning and grieving, tears from some, and “Good riddance” from others; those who could never forgive nor understand.

   The Hope, the Usurper. The savior, the destroyer. A hero, a demon. A monster, a man.

   Levi felt death before. He knew it intimately, like a dogged ache in a bone. The same sort he is still accustomed to, though scowls at now. It’s like a grouchy old friend whose endearing complaints are something akin to a worn and scratchy, but familiar blanket.

   Throughout his life, there was ever a sensation when someone was lost. A feeling of hollow, evanesce finality signifying the end. A cord cut. Though not with this. He felt it with his mother, even with Kenny—though a bit differently—and each comrade in turn.

   It was the order of things, and death, as much as he abhorred it, always reminded Levi he was still alive.

   It doesn’t anymore.

   And this … it is like Eren is a ghost. Everywhere, yet nowhere.

   He sees him in the market, on the streets, through the window of the teashop. His voice whispers through the trees that enclose Levi’s meager home. It howls and rattles his windows during late November storms. His smile is there in the morning when the sun wakes, and his frown when the weather turns broody and grey.

   Eren surrounds Levi despite it being six years since he ceased to be. Even without a body, Levi knows his demise to be real, and if by some chance it weren’t, Eren would have perished from the curse two years ago.

   Sighing into the elements at the flash of intense green eyes behind his own, Levi sets his jaw as he tugs at his collar, insulating his ears from the chilly breeze. The only sounds are from his feet crunching on frozen leaves and the rustling in branches as he walks through the season’s first dusting of snow.

   Trudging along the easiest route home, he stumbles as his old leg injury sends a shock straight to his hip.

   “Shit …” He should have taken his horse.

   Leaving at dawn with the sun shining and the last of autumn’s most stubborn leaves slipping from the trees, Levi decided against it, but now as twilight paints the sky like a grieving shadow, he curses his poor decision.

   He can see his house and barn on the rise beyond the moorland. The windows are glowless. No welcoming smoke heralds warmth from the chimney or stove pipe. And the roof is littered with a sprinkle of late autumn dross. It’s a smudge through the landscape of slumbering trees surrounding it. A tomb, he thinks. A sepulchre built of logs and round, heavy stones shaded by bare oaks and evergreens.

   The scent of their needles is heavy in the air today. It intensifies as he approaches.

   Their fragrance still reminds him of Eren.

   Levi’s throat tightens against the cold, and the hollow in his chest knocks against his ribs to remind him it’s there.

   A knot existed in the same place before Eren was gone. It would constrict and loosen, sometimes it would tingle and warm. It would stop Levi’s breath when kindly-fierce green eyes looked into him. Earnest and unwavering while somehow remaining fond and soft at the same time.

   Lifting his head from the ground beneath his feet, he abandons his memories and swipes away an icy-wet flake from his cheek.

   It’s only a little farther.

  * * *

When Levi reaches his house, he shakes away the frost and disentangles his arms from himself. He’s not sure when they snuck up there, whether he’s done it because of the unforgiving breeze or in some unconscious need for comfort against his wayward thoughts.

   Opening the door doesn’t help either. It reveals a different sort of cold. One that is barren and stark and tenebrous. The remnants of logs which smoldered when he departed are all but ash, and the oil lamps sit gloomily in their appointed homes. The tiny house feels as if it’s as large as an estate. Like the hearths and stove’s warmth could never reach all the corners and walls.

   He sets his satchel on the floor, removes his boots, and places them next to the door, shivering as he hangs his knitted cap and coat on the hooks above. Von, his feline compatriot, trots over, rubbing his head against Levi’s swollen ankle as if his purrs could heal it.

   “Hello,” he says as he looks at the grey ball of fluff blinking wide yellow-green eyes at him, then pulls off his gloves, and puts them in his coat pocket where they belong.

   War and loss and pain have done nothing to stave Levi’s need for routine. If anything, they have bolstered it. He’s no longer a thug; he left that life long ago. And he’s no longer a soldier; he abandoned being anyone’s strongest the day the war ended.

   Now he is only Levi. A man in a secluded cabin, stripped of all the masks he has ever donned. The nucleus of a modest, ritual steeped being whose ramparts have fallen.

   He was never the sort to make lofty or detailed life plans. Of course, when he was younger, he planned—dreamed—to live in the light. Then he did, and he didn’t think of what would come afterward. When he shared evenings with Eren, he never envisioned it as a future. And when the lifespan was revealed, well, Levi took each moment with Eren as its own. He existed in them and didn’t contemplate the next.

   Entertaining ‘what ifs’ and hopes was a follied chasm only a fool allowed himself to fall into, and it remains to be still.

   Smoothing his snow-dampened hair to repel the memories, Levi peers around his home and shuffles through the cramping in his leg to his kitchen table. He checks Von isn’t on his chair despite the necessity to relieve the weight on his left ankle and places his bag before him. The cabin is chilled, yet he ignores the fireplace and stove and only lights the lamp inches away from his frosty hands, releasing a breath he can see swirl from between his lips.

   The delicate vapors dying in the chilled winter air remind him of Eren too.  

   He closes his eyes at the empty grate and stretches the worst of the knots from his leg, then stares into the dim beyond the kitchen. A pair of armchairs guard the sitting area. He doesn’t know why he keeps them both. One embraces him with familiarity, and, at times, the scent of fitful rest, blade oil, and respite from war. The other smells like sunshine and pine and memories Levi sometimes wishes he could forget. Von is the only one who sits in it.

   Five years ago, the first time he walked onto this property to view it, he found Von in the barn; thin, matted, and mewling. The house itself, strewn with broken furniture, was a dusty, empty canvas, neglected since the fall of Wall Maria. Abandoned during the hysteria and terror which followed, its occupants never came back to claim it.

   And Levi thinks—with a brush of regret that comes these days fleetingly—they are most likely dead.

   After half a day, his decision was made. He returned to the barracks with a stubbornly following Von in tow, bought a cart, paid the military four years salary for both his horse, Eurus, and Eren’s horse, Vaka, and then packed up the few items he owned, much to Hanji’s consternation.

   With a faint twist in his chest, he recalls arriving in her office to tender his resignation. The stricken look in her remaining war-broken, brown eye wasn’t different than anyone else’s; distant and desolate—they had all seen too much—but her tears almost caused him to falter.

   In the end, he stayed an extra night. They drank whiskey, and Hanji spent the better part of the late hours ambling between drunken reminiscence and dodging Levi’s snaps after each attempt for him to speak about Eren. At dawn, he hugged her farewell, passed her a slip of parchment with his address, telling her she was welcome to visit, and then departed.

   When he returned home and took residence, the spider broom was the first tool to come out. Before Levi unpacked even a shred of clothing, he tied on his pair of handkerchiefs. One over his hair, another to cover his mouth and nose. Then he began from the top. At the corners, where the walls met the ceilings, and poured all his loneliness into a practical task, the familiar and tried movements of swiping away cobwebs and unwanted inhabitants falsely filling the empty spot beneath his ribs with potent purpose. The lie he told himself wasn’t unnoticed, but still, he worked. Through sore muscles, tired bones, and with hands raw from scrubbing with harsh soap and disinfectants.

   After he was finished, he was left with a sparkling clean, yet almost empty dwelling. There was no bed. He didn’t own one. There was no table for meals, he didn’t have one of his own either. All he had were his trunk and its contents, a phonograph, a small round table, and two mismatched chairs. Both covered in soft red-dyed leather, one more ostentatious than the other.

   Eren always preferred the less ornate seat when he came to visit Levi’s quarters.

   But then, after Levi scrubbed, dusted, swept, and mopped, and there was no work left to be done, he stared at the chair unoccupied before the fireplace. The dip where Eren sat on enough occasions to compress the cushion was still imprinted in its center.

   It remains there even now.

   Levi spent two weeks sleeping in his chair, eating in his chair, reading in his chair, and taking tea in his chair, before he rode Eurus to the nearest town and purchased a bedroom set in addition to a table for his kitchen. He splurged on a humble hearthrug, and a rather small, lumpy couch as well, intending it for Hanji’s visits if she decided to make the days-long journey there.

   Before the month was out, they were delivered, and his home has remained the same since. The sofa set against the far wall. Two chairs turned toward the fireplace on the simple woven rug, and the little round stand between them.

   Spying the chess set on the table, he shakes his head. Hanji doesn’t play. One pawn sits shifted. It’s been like that for two months. Waiting for the next move in a battle of strategy that will never come. The little soldier is illuminated in the faint glow of the single lit lamp in the kitchen, beckoning someone to challenge it.

   Each time Levi replaces it to its proper spot on the board, he vows not to move it again, and yet, he always does. Ever with a frownful pang and tense fingers, he takes a move which won’t be countered. Still, the piece sits—sometimes for days, sometimes months—before he replaces it to its home position to rest, succumbs and slides it forward once more, then goes through the motions all over again. If he had any nous left, he’d put the damn game board and its wooden armies away.

   With a feeling close to embarrassment, he turns his attention to his bag and opens it. There are three refilled tins of tea, two pairs of thick wool socks, a new flannel nightshirt, a cake of shaving soap, blade oil, a jar of toothpaste, a bag of chestnuts, six bars of chocolate, and a round tin of biscuits. Setting the items on the table, he organizes them based on where they will be stored. Provisions for the kitchen to his right, for his bedroom toward the empty seat across from him, and toiletries to his left.

   The cold is beginning to sink below his goose-pimpled skin, so he rises, winces at the ache in his foot, and limps to the stove in the kitchen. From his bed beside it, Von gives him a look—one that feels as if he’s saying, “Took you long enough.” Levi rolls his eyes, throws three logs inside, a handful of kindling, and crouches to coax the fire to life.

   “You’re going to bake us,” a memory of seventeen-year-old Eren says. He was always so warm, rarely cold, though he never honestly complained when Levi stuffed the stove or fireplace with an extra bit of fuel.

   Levi clicked his tongue on that unusually cold winter day, adding a, “So says the furnace” as he glanced at the icicles accreting into spears outside the window. He smirked then tossed another log into the fire.

   Cheeks already pink, Eren removed his jumper, hanging it over the arm of ‘his’ chair before he sat down in his undershirt and bit his lip. He was looking at the chessboard, procrastinating, mulling over his next move. “Can we have tea?” he asked, frowning in concentration with his thumb planted against his chin.

   “I thought I was baking you,” Levi said, already walking to the kitchenette.

   Without removing his eyes from the board, Eren said, “It helps me think.”

   Eren lost the game that night, as he usually did, though he only grinned through his pouting façade, pushing a lock of chin length hair behind his ear before challenging Levi to another round. “I’ll beat you this time.”

   Eyes drawn to the board as he hobbles to the hearth, Levi allows the memory to fade as much as it will. Persistent thing that is. They all are. It needles him as he lays split pine across the andirons. He feels the tickle of chestnut hair against his cheek at the first hint of sweet smoke, and there’s a spark with a brightness Eren’s eyes always held inside his chest when the fire blooms back to life.

   Levi is tormented by his ghost each day, but today it’s achier. It has been like this in the years prior too. On the days which announced the coming of winter. Each of the other seasons holds so many more reminders. A brighter sun, a starrier sky, fresh cool grass, light winds like breaths on his neck, and everything which reminds Levi of impossible blue-green-gold flecked eyes. The color of autumn’s leaves; rich umber and golden hues like the highlights in wavy perpetually tousled hair. The pleasing shade of tanned hands against his own pale, smaller ones.

   Winter should be easier, and yet, it never is.

   Time should lessen the ache, but it doesn’t. Even as Eren’s visage begins to slowly fade, like Levi is looking at memories sealed in a dusty glass bottle, the thoughts pierce his chest almost as acutely as the moment Hanji told him Eren was gone.

   Gritting his teeth at the memory and the obstinate pain in his ankle, he resigns himself to a simple dinner and a soak. Before that, he lights the rest of the lamps, puts his purchases away where they belong, and hopes merciful rest will come to him that night.

   When his stomach is full and his skin clean, Levi climbs into his bed. In his flannel nightshirt and wool socks that are insufficient to keep the true ice away, he pulls down-filled covers and his quilts up for Von to dart under, then settles his head on his pillow.

   A shield against his dreams is what he hopes the blankets will be, though a knowing that knocks in the base of his skull reminds him there is little chance of a reprieve.

 

Something’s missing

It’s before the first light of dawn when Levi awakes. His limbs feel leaden, and his heart is heavy, but to his surprise, he’s rested through most of the night.

   Breaking through the lifting fog clouding his head, his arms test the temperature of the room. He shivers at the weight of the chilled night air, and a flashing memory of last night’s dreams. They were filled with colors he no longer sees and scents he no longer smells. Beyond that, they’re a blur, but he has sweat in his sleep, and although it isn’t enough to scowl at, between the draft and Von’s demands for breakfast, it motivates him to rise and poke at the fires.

   Winter has come during the night. He can see it building in the corners of the window panes. Snow creeping quietly inward from the edges of each sheet of glass. Sneaky and slow, as though in time it will cover the entire house and hopes Levi won’t notice.

   At least his foot is less pained when he swings his legs over the bed and puts weight on it with an appraising step. It warned him this was coming. With a dull throb and strikes of sharp aches. With stiffness and knots that spread until his knee and ankle joined in tandem agony.

   With a wince, he scuffles through the early day cramping to his kitchen and feeds Von bits of chopped chicken. He goes to the barn and chicken coop. He bathes. He shaves and scowls at the white streak in his fringe and the rogue grey hairs that seem to join with it daily. He dresses and then makes his bed. After that, Levi heads to his kitchen. There’s a bite in the cabin, so he builds up the fire, repelling an invading cold he can only hope to keep out. When he’s finished, Levi slices bread and places it in a pan to toast.  

   Shaking his head with a faint curve to his lips, he reaches for a cream-colored teacup, allowing himself to fall into recollections he has no chance of halting. It’s his favorite, though he doesn’t always use it. The sound it makes when he places it on the wooden counter is different than his others, and its tone compliments its glazed pattern. Light yet gongy, like the green, fat-tailed swishes that seem to chase each other beneath its rim and over its cap. Two unending circles and cycles, as if they were swimming and searching for something in an infinite dance he can’t see.

   Perhaps they’re looking for their fatter fat-tailed swish leader who resides on the handle. Levi smiles despite the ache his reverie brings. Eren said he thought they were fish, abstract as they would have to be.

   He never explained why he chose it when he gave it to Levi so many years before other than a shrug and, “It has a top, so you don’t eat the leaves.”

   The night Levi received it, Eren was leaning on the door’s frame when Levi answered his knock. He didn’t meet Levi’s eyes at first, but looked past him, out the window across the room.

   “Here,” Eren finally said and handed Levi a messily wrapped package while Levi stared in disbelief.

   Levi raised a cautious brow. “What’s this?”

   “It’s …” Eren shrugged and glanced at his feet, rosy-cheeked and looking all his fifteen years. “Just something I thought you’d like … okay.”

   Levi stood aside and then brought the gift to his kitchen table, eyeing the parcel while planning Hanji’s demise.

   Eren didn’t explain any further why he brought it, and Levi had his suspicions, though he did not say he knew damn well Hanji had slipped to Eren about his birthday … or what he supposed was his birthday.

   He sat down, glancing at Eren while suppressing a smile at his eager expression. When Levi pulled back the paper and opened the box, the arguments and annoyances fizzled, and then died. It wasn’t a very fine piece of china, midgrade at best, but still pricey for a soldier Eren’s age. Unusual in that the cup had a cover. Something like the top of a casserole dish. Levi had seen cups like it before, but never with a handle as well. It was unique, and Levi controlled the evidence of his delight.

   “Thank you,” Levi said. He offered Eren tea and snacks and another chance to outwit him at chess.

   Distracting Levi from the daze of the past, the kettle starts to steam with insistence. He lifts it from the small kitchen stove and pours water into the cup, watching the leaves loosen and stretch.

   As the pearls unfurl, the whorls of Levi’s fingers trace the gentle curve of the china, pause their almost-not-there touches, then skim over the fluted rim. The glaze isn’t entirely slick and smooth, and to his pleasure, he can feel the indents the brush long ago left in the strokes of green paint. It makes the fat-tailed swishes seem more material.

   He sips Oolong and crunches toast while he cooks oatmeal in his quiet reverie, continuing to contemplate teacup artistry. Once breakfast is finished, he heaps a spoonful of butter and deep purple blackberry jam into the hot center and sits.

   The wind has picked up overnight, and snow is pelting the windows; icy flakes that don’t relent, knocking on the glass with a tap, tap … tap, tap, tap. It reminds Levi there is existence outside. A world he doesn’t belong to anymore.

   Despite the lonesome void in his chest, his lips twitch. He’s glad he made it to town yesterday. Between the supplies now in the pantry and the root cellar out back, Levi could hide in his house for nearly two months.

   There’s a sizable pile of books in the corner by the lumpy unused couch as well. Enough to keep him busy reading through the season. He’s forced himself through the worst of it the past five years. Getting by consuming volumes like a child eats candy, in addition to writing, cleaning, and chopping wood. Sometimes he replies to letters people have sent, though if the weather keeps up, he won’t be traveling to the mail office anytime soon to send posts.

   The day before, he sent a brief reply to Hanji, and one to Mikasa and Jean. The anniversary of Eren’s death was only two weeks ago, and as always, Mikasa sends word and checks with him. Levi ever replies but they don’t speak of it. Mainly, the missives exchange shallow niceties in short lines with wordless affirmations written between them.

   Levi sometimes thinks she only drops him mail to check he hasn’t run away where no one can find him.

   Banishing the thoughts, he stirs his oats until his breakfast turns a sickly brownish-lavender. It looks disgusting, but his next bite is warm and buttery, creamy-sweet with the tang of summer’s berries. It tastes like happiness, summer solstice, and how he imagines Eren did.

   He purses his lips against the ache, and with a salty gulp, stretches his legs out under the table to tap at shins that aren’t there. His feet struggle beneath, only catching the chair legs. They aren’t soft-hard and warm. They don’t wrap around him back or kick lightly at his bones in return. And no one is seated across from him trying to hide a smirk, but he reaches out nonetheless, knocks back half his cup of tea with a swallow that feels like one of the icicles hanging outside his window, and plans his day.

* * *

At half past two, Levi sets his book aside. It’s a bit drab anyway. A clichéd story about a villain and a hero. With black and white morality and unrealistic lines between good and evil. It’s predictable, and he’s struggling to stay invested in the flimsy plot. The hearth is growing cool, and when he stands to add fuel to the flames, he notices the wood box is empty. He’ll have to fetch more.

   He folds the blanket that was around his shoulders and sets it over the arm of Eren’s chair. Some days he thinks if he looks to the right, he’ll see him seated there, or the neat throw will be ruffled and used when he returns to the sitting area. It never is.

   His movements toward the door falter and slow as he spies the chess set and clenches his jaw. Its wooden pieces stand before him in neat, steadfast rows. Their strength feels close to provoking mockery. Daring him to put them into a box and lock them away.

   He picks up the pawn he moved last, staring down at its faceless head. He hears it call him cruel names, defying him to feed the fire with the board and the armies. His thumb brushes over it where he imagines its nasty little smirk is. Maybe he could scour it away if he only rubbed hard enough.

   Scrubbing his hands over his eyes, he scowls and replaces the piece with only a modicum more force than necessary, refusing to give in to the pawn’s chiding demands. Then he turns his back to it with a quiet snarl to suit up for the elements.

   It is on days like this when Levi wonders if he is losing some portion of his mind. Or perhaps he’s always been touched in the head, but had too much to focus on to take note of his state until after the war was over.

   He slides his arms through the sleeves of his coat, heads out the door, and envisions himself walking away. Walking past the pile of wood at the side of his house, further up the hill, and into the woods.

   He would walk and walk and walk, searching for something undefinable. For someone impossible. He could walk until he reached a town, then a forest, and then another town. A city would come next, and the snow would taper from heavy wet flakes to dust, then to ice, then to rain. He would walk through that too, and if he kept going, eventually he would reach the ocean.

   He would stand at the shore watching the waves. A young man would be there, with hair the color of autumn leaves and eyes more beautiful than the sky and crystalline blue of briny waters. Instead of watching him stand with rolled up trousers in the sand and point at the horizon and to his demise, Levi would turn him around and let him point at a different future.

   Tromping through the snow while he remembers tromping through sand, Levi tightens his fingers around both of his wood caddies. He raises an arm against the wind. It stings his eyes, cheeks, and nose. Levi isn’t made for long days in the hot summer sun, but he isn’t made for this either.

   His eyes narrow when he reaches the cord. The tarp he laid over his wood stores is covered with at least half a foot of snow. Less than expected. He throws the canvas back, examines the split logs, and frowns. “Fuck …”

   The pile is not how he left it the morning before. There’s a gap in the center. Levi always resituates the pieces straight across the top, and by his estimation—no, he knows—there are precisely four logs missing.

   “Fucking shit fuck,” he mutters, about to go into a whispered tirade about thieves and shitheads and lessons that need to be taught when it occurs to him whoever stole from him was kind enough to re-cover the cord. “Polite little bastard,” he says with a tickle of amusement beneath his ire.

   It’s a generous assessment. Generous, but ridiculous, Levi thinks as he loads his caddies. He’s going to investigate. It took him days and days during late August to prepare enough wood for the first months of the cold and the storms and the deluge of too happy, perfect, lily-white snow. He felled dying and dead trees. He sweated shirtless under the sun splitting them. His skin turned angry red and his back peeled and itched along with his pertinacious memories as it healed.

   “Nobody should be near here,” Levi whispers, seething. He stuffs the last log in his caddy, turns in an irritated circle, eyes searching, heart beating with the desire to give the brigand a good firm punch to his nose. Just enough to fracture it. Winter is infuriating, and though it’s only four measly splits of pine, it’s been a long time since Levi felt the exhilaration of a fist fight.

   His knuckles crack beneath buttery, broken-in leather.

   Bewildered and aggravated, he examines the snow-bestrewn ground. It has snowed all night; it still is, quite heavily, in fact. With big fat wet flakes sticking to his hair, nose, and clothes. Despite the niveous landscape, there is evidence.

   Depressions covered in yet more snow litter the surrounding area, and when Levi looks away from the house, he sees they continue into the treeline. Regardless of its tireless efforts, the heavy precipitation has not been a faultless accomplice in the theft.

   Pulling his scarf over his mouth and shoving his hands in his coat pockets, Levi follows the muted footprints. They look like someone has produced an eraser sometime during the night and smudged it over them, but Levi is trained, and he is no fool. They’re easy to spot if one knows how to pick out the shadows. They can be seen by his sharp eyes even through the near blizzard.

   He trails them up the hill. “Not so smart,” he says as he follows them from five or so feet to the right. They’ve been left out in the wide open, beyond the sparse woods past the rear of the house, through the clearing, around that spongey marshy area Levi knows to avoid, and on.

   When he reaches the base of the big hill—which is likely too imposing to just be called a hill—he scowls and plans his next course of action.

   The small fire left in the house must be all but dead. Levi is cold and wet. His ankle throbs. The snow is falling down harder, twilight will be there in nearly an hour, and four pieces of wood really isn’t too much to lose. Then he thinks of the unabating ennui, of the emptiness surrounded by four walls of stone and wood. Cold and lonesome and boring as boring can be. He thinks of the spiteful chess pieces and their whispered ridicule, of that sterile book he should cast into the fire or—if he wanted to be thrifty—could place in the loo to use as toilet paper. He smirks. He’s not yet had the satisfaction of wiping his arse with such a poor excuse for literature.

   Leaning forward to brace his feet, Levi climbs instead. It’s not steep enough he needs to use his hands, but he can feel the tension in his stomach and thighs by the time he’s a third of the way up. “If I had my fucking gear.”

   It’s in his trunk in the house. He’s not supposed to have it, but truly, who was going to stop the hero, Levi-fucking-Ackerman, Humanity’s Strongest from keeping it? Hanji didn’t even try, she only glared at him with a twitch of her lips and that sad brown eye of hers that became a fixture at the end of the war, and then never cleared.

   His hands clench around the girth of phantom sword handles as he broods. Were it strapped to him, the belts wound around the places they thought of as home, Levi would be to the top of the forsaken hill by now. His skin prickles to feel it again, bound and safe and held in the grasp of the sturdy material. He could fly and somehow be figuratively pulled back down to earth at the same time.

   He bites his lip, teeth hurting from the cold. The leather’s smell and the feel of their bindings still remind him too much of Eren.

   Of Eren’s fingers unfastening Levi’s buckles. Of them skimming over the indents in Levi’s flesh. Of Eren trying to rub away scars that will never fade.

   It’s too much safety and recollection. It’s blade oil, blood, war, and survival. But … it’s also gentleness and devotion, and Eren’s kind hands that said everything to Levi his voice couldn’t. It is mistakes and non-mistakes, and past opportunities lost that Levi only stretched out far enough to brush the tips of his fingers across, yet never grasped.

   The gear lives where it belongs; next to his phonograph in his trunk. In the past.

   When Levi makes it into the next copse of trees, the one that sits on the edge of the hillside forest, he pauses and glares at the too white—white everywhere, all over the place—ground.

   The tracks are gone, the snow is a blanket over grass, though cratered and soiled. Great compacted chunks of it have fallen from the boughs of the evergreens in the wind, leaving mars across the expanse. It covers the evidence. The wood-mugger is clever, wending his way to a place where his footsteps would be forgotten and hidden as if they never were. Muddled, so it seems by his pulpy, bark-entombed co-conspirators.

   “Shit,” Levi says. It comes out as a whispered hiss as he surveys the surroundings. He would go on. He would hold himself against the shearing, spiteful wind and all the sharp flakes that inhabit it, but when he looks down the ridge, there is nothing. No shadows, no erased prints. It’s as if the burglar went straight up into the trees or disappeared into thin air.

   He kicks the nearest tree trunk with a “Fuck, fuck, damn it fuck, fuck shit fuck. Shit!” The theft doesn’t bother him much as he turns back toward home, but he thought, just for a moment, he would have someone to talk to. Even if it was only snark and sarcasm and his protective cynicism before he taught the thief a lesson and broke small bones with oh so satisfying snaps or left them with a big fat swollen bruise. It would be contact. Contact Levi still insists—even in the almost-most deepest recesses of his mind—he doesn’t want.

   There’s only one person Levi wants to talk to. And he’s gone.

 

A garland

A few days later when Levi ventures outside, bundled in his coat, hat, and scarf, a curious article hangs from the rafters above his porch. It’s a garland of evergreen, pine cones, and cinnamon sticks swaying in the rough breeze. His head swivels. He looks at his feet, he looks at the porch steps. His heart jumps. A stumbling little trip in its beat. There are faded prints from whoever put it there.

   His jackknife flies from his pocket and opens in his hand. Danger, his mind and body scream as all his muscles coil in preparation for an attack. Danger, someone has been here. They’ve crept feet from his door during the night, and he didn’t wake.

   He peers at the unexpected offering as he approaches. Then prods it with his knife, as if grasping it and pressing his flesh to nature would cause it to combust.  

   He pokes it, then pokes it again, head cocking to his left as he looks it over with careful examination. Eren used to braid similar garlands. He would hang them over all the hearths in HQ during winter. Sometimes, he would lay them around the fires when they were stuck sleeping in the wilds. They smelled cosy, Eren said, explaining his mother used to make them as he twisted up boughs and pine cones and recounted memories of more peaceful times during his childhood.

   In war, it was common for soldiers to bring along something from home. And items such as this were always nostalgic reminders as well.

   It’s one reason Levi never begrudged Sasha cooking with supplies they weren’t supposed to be pilfering from bombed out homes, nor Jean and Connie bringing back games and decks of cards.

   Levi recalls one such occasion when Eren was nineteen. He came back with soap, tea, shaving cakes, and small dishes. Sometimes there were chipped cups, and there were that day too. Like always, Eren said it was all too pretty to not have a home.

   “They’ll get smashed anyway,” he said, holding out his hands and presenting Levi with two plates. “I might as well take them.” He pursed his lips. “They remind me of my mom.”

   “They’ll crack in your bag,” Levi said, eyeing the light lavender flowers decorating the edges on the brittle porcelain dishes in Eren’s hands, arms extended, so they were scant a foot from Levi’s face.

   “It’s stupid.” Eren shrugged, but said, “I can wrap them in something.” He cradled the plates to his chest, a glimmer of Eren’s younger self, burning below the calculated fury age and years of war brought. “Wanna eat honey cakes off them tonight? They’re already washed. I did it myself.” Then his eyes lit up as though suns rose in them. “Armin has some. He said he’ll give me four so we can each have two, but only because you’re ‘the Captain.’”

   Feeling heady and forgetful of death while watching Eren beam like he used to, Levi said, “I saved a few spoonfuls of Assam.” It was in his pack, it wasn’t getting any fresher. It pleaded to be made, and after so long, he missed the look on Eren’s face at the first sip.

   That night they ate honey cakes on fancy chipped plates and drank tea from equally chipped cups in Levi’s tent. Eren’s temporary home was right next door, but he said what he always used to, “I like it better in here.”

   “It’s all standard issue,” Levi said, watching Eren stretch out like a cat all over his neat sleeping bags like they were his too. Levi shook his head and scanned the canvas sheltering them as if he could see something different if he examined it hard enough. As if he could see what Eren saw. He wondered if Eren sought him out because he was the only one who didn’t treat him differently then. Like he wasn’t lost, or a weapon. “It’s only a tent,” Levi whispered, not believing his own words.

   “It’s always warmer in here.” Eren scratched his nose as his eyes darted everywhere then landed on Levi. “It smells better too, and the tea is always tastier.”

   “Idiot,” Levi said and smirked. He shuttered the lantern and put his head on the pillow next to Eren’s. He pulled the sleeping bag cosy and tucked around them, laid his arm over Eren’s middle, scuttled up to his back, then planted his nose against the spot where his neck and shoulder met.

   Eren didn’t go back to his own tent that night. He fell asleep in Levi’s after sharing solace offered in abandoned china, comforting tea, and honey cakes. Levi found his under rain-pelted, waxed canvas with Eren warm in his arms and his hair all over his pillow, brushing his face.

   And Levi slept good. He dreamed good too. He dreamed of a shared bed in a house. He dreamed of peace and simple things to accompany a simple life.

   He dreamed of something they could never have.

   His dreams were destroyed less than six months later.

 

Where are my fucking apples?

Two mornings after discovering the garland, Levi is sitting in his leather chair drinking his late morning tea and staring at the gift that—against his better judgment—he brought inside and hung from his mantel. Von is sitting above it, smacking it with his paw.

   “Like that?” he asks Von, who meows and gives him a bored look, then resumes his investigations into the piece of outdoors brought inside.

   Initially, he was going to throw it out into the snow. Levi didn’t ask for it, and if the wood-thief believes this makes up for his treachery, he’s gravely mistaken. Yet, there’s something about it that draws his eye and warms his chest.

   Perhaps the reminder of Eren is why he didn’t have the heart to discard it. He bites his lip and peels his eyes from pinecones and cinnamon sticks, blows out the comforting scent that makes him think of winter and smiles and expressive green eyes, then stalks to his kitchen. His tea is cold, it’s nearly noon, and his stomach is growling.

   When he pokes his head into the larder, it doesn’t reveal anything which jumps out. He’s craving something heartening, savory, and warm with tender meat and seasoning. It will take him all day, but he looks down at Von circling his ankles and asks, “Stew for dinner?”

   Von meows in return before he darts off to smack the chestnut Levi resigned himself to allow him as a toy.

   “Thought so,” Levi says, then stuffs his feet in his boots, grits his teeth at the pain in his ankle, and throws on his coat.

   Outside the snow has let up marginally, going from something that reminded Levi of powdered sugar topping pastries and giving way to sharp icy flakes that sting his cheeks each time they hit his face. As Levi trudges his way to the root cellar at the back of his house, he claims his shovel from its resting place against the stones under his kitchen window, kicking up heavy lumps of wet fluff in front of him.

   When he rounds the back corner of the cabin, he stops in his tracks. There is a long pile of snow on the ground beside the angled door which covers stairs leading to the basement pantry. And judging by the amount of snow covering it, it’s clear someone’s opened it during the night.

   Gripping his shovel tighter while replaying visions of his purloined wood, Levi stomps to the door. There are partially covered footprints again, and by the size of them, they’re from the same big-footed wanker who stole his fucking wood earlier in the week.

   He throws his shovel, and without clearing off the newly fallen snow, Levi wrenches the door open. The squeaks from its hinges die away as it settles against the gelid ground, and Levi scowls inside. There are no icy or wet prints on the stone steps, and although Levi knows the thief isn’t hiding amongst vegetables and meats, he readies his jackknife, flicking it open with a familiar click.   

   “Bastard,” Levi mutters, taking cautious steps down the stairs. When he reaches the soil floor, he lights the lantern, eyes darting from corner to corner in case the interloper is still there.

   Everything seems to be in order. His rabbit and beef are still hanging from the ceiling. His box of potatoes appears to be untouched. Even his sack of onions is still tucked away on an unmolested crate of parsnips and leeks. One burlap bag of wheat is shifted, though there appear to be no holes in it.

   He shoves it to the left, uncovering a bushel of apples he set aside to last him at least through the first couple months of winter. The ones in tins never taste as good, and they’re too gooey to go nicely on toasted bread with cheese.

   Irritated when he examines the bushel closer, Levi closes his eyes and hisses through his teeth. The apples are not as he left them, and by his estimation, five were taken. Two that were ripe and the other three in various stages of transforming from green to red. “Arsehole.”

   Since the end of the war, Levi’s proclivity toward contained rage has ebbed, and he usually shakes his head now, when before he would scowl or perhaps lash out, but today his old tendencies bubble up. It feels like sharp knives in his back. It’s not that he’s being stolen from so much that causes him to grit his teeth until his jaw aches, and it’s not so much his cramping fingers around his knife that make him frown and want to kick another tree. He doesn’t know who is visiting him under darkness in the wee hours of the morning or what their intentions are.

   The winter is harsh up here, and if it’s only a struggling urchin, Levi has no problem with charity or kindness if the prick would just fucking ask. But he hasn’t. He’s snuck onto Levi’s land, to the barriers of his house—almost into them—and helped his sodding self. It’s calculated and perhaps desperate too, but he’s out in the middle of nowhere, and the fact that anyone would be nearby sends the hair on the back of his neck straight up.

   What the thief could steal or do next escapes him, but he clicks his knife shut, heaves a forbearing sigh, and collects the needed items for his stew. He stuffs winter vegetables into his bag and two apples for good measure before unhooking a cut of beef from the ceiling. He should fashion a way to lock the root cellar door, he thinks as he emerges back up into the stark white landscape of winter, and kicks the wooden door shut.

   Back inside, Von is waiting by the door, happy to help clean up any water that has made it onto the floor from Levi’s shoes. He sets his items on the table and then sheds his jacket, hat, and boots. Pausing, his fingers clench around his scarf before he hangs it. He peers out the window. There is a part of him which is tempted to follow the footprints again. His eyes travel to his bedroom door. His gear is inside his old footlocker in the corner. But he hasn’t used it in over three years, and it’s been a month since he oiled it.

   Worse, it’s been years since using it felt right. Something is missing when Levi flies up into the trees or through them. There are no sounds of titans, and he doesn’t long to hear those again. What he does miss is spinning through the air with laughter trailing him and calls of Eren trying to catch up. His oohs and ahhs, and sensing him moving closer. The touch on his heels and his back when Eren ended up right behind him.

   Shaking his head when Von meows at him, Levi looks down and says something he already has countless times, “I would have liked for Eren to meet you.” He gives Von a scratch under his chin when he jumps on the table and nudges his head into his hand. “You two would have appreciated each other.”

 

A gift of dinner

It takes three days for the worst of the storm to flee and for the snow to complete its descent to the frozen ground. When it finally does, the landscape is swathed in reflective white, the sun is shining, and Levi knows without setting a foot outside, it’s frigid and ghastly. Still, as with every day, his animals need to be fed regardless of his desire to stay in and be cosy by the fire.

   He’s always had charges, he muses as he pulls on his coveralls, mindful of adding his grey too-large jumper as a secondary protective layer. He forgoes his long black coat with its shiny brass buttons and puts on his thick work jacket instead. He’ll be in the barn for a while. During the storm, he didn’t spend much extra time in it after feeding the animals and mucking the stable, but he hasn’t brushed Eurus or Vaka in three days, and the goats are probably lonely as well.

   He puts carrots in his satchel for the horses, grabs a cask for milk, and wraps his scarf tight around his chin before he steps out onto his porch, taking a jolting sniff of freezing air. Von jumps up in the window to watch him, and Levi looks at him with a pang that feels like jealousy at him toasty inside the cabin. “Be back soon,” he says.

   When he turns, there is a slab of meat about the length of his arm hanging from the porch roof. It’s in the place the garland was days before. His hand is around his jackknife, flicking it open before he takes a step forward. He swallows hard, and his grip tightens on the handle as his eyes dart between footprints and the generous offering of red meat suspended before him.

   He repeats the same cursory examination he did with the garland as he comes to stand a foot from it; poking it with his knife while his brows crunch together and his eyes narrow. It’s a strip of what looks to be venison, and it’s not frozen through, which means the gifter couldn’t have hung it there more than a couple hours before. It’s butchered expertly Levi finds after more examination, confirming it’s the most coveted of cuts from a deer; a backstrap.

   Levi doesn’t often hunt, and when he does, it’s usually for hare. Larger animals like deer provide pounds and pounds of flesh. More than Levi can eat on his own before it spoils, and he’s not one for the lengthy process of dressing the carcass then making it into jerky or salting it. When he does go into town and buys venison, he doesn’t buy the backstrap. It’s tender and flavorful and luxurious, but it isn’t a practical purchase for a man and his cat living alone on a farm and subsisting mainly on meat pies, soups, and stews.

   Despite the generosity of the apparent offering, Levi eyes it with suspicion. He’s had enough time to think about it, and it’s not serendipity. There isn’t a chance the ‘gifter’ and the ‘thief’ are two different people. It’s far too coincidental that after he was stolen from, a mysterious person began leaving him presents within a few days. There’s also the matter of the footprints. Granted, some have been covered, only leaving fading indentations behind, but they’re the same size as the treaded impressions he can see in the snow now.

   He moves to the railing, scanning the trail of them. They go the same way they always do, across the side yard and up the hill into the tree line. Levi could follow them, but he’ll only lose them once more, and he has hungry animals to feed.

   Bringing his attention back to the meat, he pokes it once again. It appears to be untampered with, and although his mouth waters at the idea of cutting it into neat little medallions to fry in a pan with butter and herbs, he doesn’t trust it. It could be poisoned for all he knows.

   While Levi has lived in the cabin, merchants have passed through, so have hunters, and occasionally a beggar. He has swapped goods with traders who had wares that made for a suitable exchange. He’s been generous enough to help a hunter out a time or two, and Levi has always given freely to the wandering mendicant looking for something better outside the slums of the city. What Levi has never had in these years was a thief, and he never imagined he would run into one who leaves gifts in return.

   It would be simple enough to come to his door and offer a trade of meat for apples, and Levi likely would have indulged a stranger and given him four logs for a garland. A garland isn’t practical like a split of pine, but as much as he is wont to admit it, he’s not always a stickler for practicality. Some items he likes only for their aesthetics or because they make his chest warm or his lips twitch at the corners. He doesn’t need the number of teapots or teacups he has, and he probably doesn’t need to stock over five kinds of tea at least, but he has to take his pleasures where he can, and he would have willingly traded away four pieces of wood for a pine cone and cinnamon stick garland.

   The apples; he’d have offered more than five for an entire backstrap of venison.

   Whoever this person is, they don’t know anything about fair trade, or perhaps, Levi thinks, they are desperate. There isn’t anyone living closer than a few miles, but the ‘neighbors’ would have come calling. They aren’t what Levi would call friends or even acquaintances, but they know him, and there is something of a safety net between those who live so far outside the city in the isolated hills.

   It can’t just be someone passing through either. The thought occurs to Levi that maybe the person is hurt, but the tracks don’t suggest the gait of someone who has suffered an injury. They move too far in and out of the forest, and considering the distance they’ve traveled over the last week and a half to Levi’s and wherever it is they hide, they could have made it to civilization for aid.

   A cold dash of wind swoops in under the porch awning as if Levi were its target. He pulls his scarf higher, puts his knife away, and unhooks the meat. He won’t throw it away right now, but he isn’t going to bring it into the house either. Instead, he carries it to the root cellar where it can be stowed while he ponders its fate. When he makes it to where the food is stored, he hangs it in the back, well away from his rabbit or the beef he has left.

   Brushing his gloved hands together, he makes one last visual, cursory check of his stock. Everything appears to be in order and undisturbed, so he moves on to the barn. It’s not far from the house, but far enough. He curses the thick blanket of snow on the ground. It’s up to his knees, and the icy-damp cuts through his trousers, brushing against his shins and aching left leg with every step.

   His muscles are tighter than they should be, and his shoulders attempt to keep the tension from shooting into his neck while his right hand still clutches the knife in his coat pocket. It feels like perhaps there are eyes on him and his vision tracks from one side of his land to the other, head swiveling only slightly, searching to see if anyone is hanging about or spying on him.

   Gaze sweeping from right to left one last time then toward the house, he grabs his shovel and hauls away snow piled against the barn door with quick, efficient strokes, then clasps his right hand around his blade and whisks it open. No footprints are leading to it, but it never hurts to be vigilant. The gifter-thief could be anywhere, and there’s no reason he couldn’t have made a temporary home in his barn. Then again, Eurus doesn’t take kindly to strangers in his space and has a tendency to kick when he’s displeased.

   When Levi walks inside, Eurus appears calm. He releases a huff of breath from his nostrils, sending the warmth of vapor toward Levi. He looks at Levi’s satchel with guileless brown eyes, shakes his head, and nickers to Vaka. Levi’s back.

   “Missed me, you two?” Levi pats the side of Eurus’ head. “I have treats,” he says opening Vaka and Eurus’ stalls. “But you both knew that, didn’t you?” His lips curl when Vaka nudges his cheek with her nose.   

   As he leads them to the grooming station, Eurus brays, and a teensy bit of the tension slips away. It’s only a little bit. A modicum. A smidge. But neither of the horses seem to be spooked, and the barn appears to be as he left it the evening before. “Just a minute,” he says, fetching a bucket of feed and pouring it into the trough. His goats are over to it in a moment. Of course, Sven barrels by him, banging into his bad leg in his hurry to eat. “Thanks,” Levi mutters, patting the coarse white fur on Sven’s back. “That beard doesn’t make you the commander, you know.” As if in agreement, Ava looks up at him, and Levi releases a snort.

   After Sven and Ava are content with their feed, and Levi checks their water is at an acceptable level, he turns his attention back to the horses and pulls a carrot from his satchel. He breaks it in two and holds out his palm. Eurus waits for Vaka to snatch a piece before he takes his own, bowing his head to Levi in something like gratitude.

   Levi wishes it were warmer. Both the horses could hold up to a ride, though a longer one might prove uncomfortable for them after a bit, and Levi’s ankle and entire left leg, in turn, wouldn’t last too long without giving him the hobbles for a few days. He shakes his head with enough petulance he bites his lip. He hates winter. It’s cold and lonely. As if all the sound is whisked by a nasty breeze away from the world. Even the birds don’t talk as much.

   Everything becomes drowsy and slumberous, and with it, Levi’s mind speeds up, like the snow when it cascades down the mountains he can see from his house in the distance. It’s like an avalanche. One fist-sized clump of cold—like a single thought—falling on the landscape and causing it all to slide down until he’s smothering.

   Vaka exhales a big breath, pulling Levi from his brooding. She nuzzles her snout against his hand, sorrowful gaze piercing his walls the same way Eren’s did. Her eyes have looked like that since the war ended. “I know,” Levi says scratching between her ears, “I know.”

   Shaking away the ache, Levi gives them both another carrot, retrieves his brush, and loses himself in the rhythmic movement of his hand skating over powerful muscle and the soft scraping of bristles against fur.

   During the war, the stables were Levi’s sanctuary as well. No cheering young recruits, no one pestering him with paperwork or asking him to beat the shit out of trustful, young titan shifters in courtrooms.

   Sometimes he’d catch a couple fucking in the hay, but a menacing glare and cracking knuckles always sent them running with their clothes half on, half off. They never saw Levi’s smirk once he couldn’t hear the “We’re sorry, Captain’s” anymore.

   The only person who ever cared to keep his company there was Eren. They didn’t speak much, but Eren always had what seemed an infinite supply of sugar cubes in his pocket, to go with the infinite amount of coy looks he sent in Levi’s direction. It was—dare he think—cute. Sometimes Eren tidied and hummed. Other times he stood in the stall beside Levi’s and joined in the silent grooming as well.  

   Levi never needed to say he was finished. Eren always seemed to know and would have everything squared and packed before they would head back into HQ and share tea in Levi’s quarters. He was ever so quiet too. Their shared silence over clinking cups and chess was a sanctuary from war, and death, and the stentorian rumbling of voices from the hallways, the mess, and the barracks.

   With a sigh, Levi pets Vaka’s side. That might be what Levi misses most about Eren. The periodic legs rubs in the bath were nice, and the warm solid body next to him—though odd at first—while they slept was comforting too, but what he misses most, he thinks, is how he never needed to say a word and Eren always knew what he was thinking. He longs for the unsilent silent. When they could have a conversation even though the only sounds were the thunk of the china set back on the table, chess pieces knocking on the board, and Eren rearranging himself in Levi’s less ornate, red, leather chair. The one which de facto became Eren’s own.

  

Levi spends the next hour grooming Vaka and Eurus and milking Ava in a haze of remembered smiles, toes poking his shins, and green eyes peeking at him from under messy fringe. It’s enough he doesn’t realize through his warmest gloves, boots, two jumpers, and his coat that he is, in truth, freezing. He can’t feel his toes by the time all the carrots are gone and he’s putting the brush away. He knows he’s wiggling them, but they throb and tingle, and they’re going to turn a deathly shade of blue if he doesn’t get back into his house.

   He hauls out Eurus and Vaka’s turnouts and covers them. The barn is well insulated and warm enough for the animals, but it’s a harsh day and judging from the stillness in the air, it will continue at least into the next. He drapes stable blankets over Ava and Sven as well, leaves everyone with a bit more feed, and departs with a bucket of nibbles for the three hens in the coop.

   When he returns to his house with a cask of milk and his satchel four eggs heavier, he scratches his head. Of course, Von immediately wants to see what he has, and before Levi has a chance to add a log to the fire and warm his hands, his mischievous cat is trying to knock one of the eggs from the table.

   The house is empty and too quiet. Even the crackle of the dying fire sounds as though he is catching half the volume, everything is already clean, and none of his books seem appealing.

   Von paws at Levi’s hand, meowing, and Levi looks down. It’s been two days since he collected eggs. “How about an omelette?”

Chapter Text

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.

 

Chapter Text

Dinner-breakfast and the lumpy couch

Levi doesn’t wait long. He’s already plotting by the time he’s finished cooking breakfast. He’ll play footsie under the table all through their meal, and not just their usual shin kicking.

   Gathering their plates, he spares his lack of maturity a half smirk.

   Eren looks small at the kitchen table in the morning dim when Levi sets their food down. He wears Hanji’s pajama bottoms again and a blanket around his shoulders, half covering his head. It lifts beside either ear each time he bumps his feet. Something wants to get out.

   “Warm enough?” Levi asks, picking up his cutlery before he pokes Eren’s shin with his toe. “I can add another log to the fire.”

   “No, no, I’m good.” Eren sniffs, pushes around a potato, and stabs a chunk of rabbit with his fork. “I’m sorry about earlier.”

   “What’s to be sorry for?”

   Eren shoves a bite of meat in his mouth and shrugs. After he swallows, he frowns at his plate. “I was a knob. I didn’t mean to fall apart like that.” He rips his bread slice in half. “Like I used to. I gotta knock it off. I need to grow up.”

   “You lost your home,” Levi says and reaches his foot toward Eren’s again, brushing wool-covered toes over wool-covered toes. “It’s only natural to be pissed, and you were sick from the cold.”

   “Yeah,” Eren says and looks at Levi with an earnest expression. He pokes his toes back. “Thanks for saving me. If you didn’t come, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

   “Mm.” Levi nods, chews, and warms at the returned color in Eren’s cheeks. “I thought something was wrong.”

   He recalls the prickles assaulting the back of his neck, how his hands wouldn’t cease clenching and unclenching, the pound in his chest. Levi’s heart drops at the thought that he could easily not be in the warm house having his feet poked while eating dinner-breakfast with a rapidly recovering Eren.

   “You always had good instincts.” Eren smiles and goes back to his food with renewed fervor. Like he had to get that out before he could scarf down his meal.

   Levi fills his stomach faster than usual, trying to smother the butterflies. He didn’t have any dinner the night before, too worried over Eren to care about his own needs. He watches Eren but doesn’t draw attention to him fumbling with his cutlery, trying to cut his meal using the knife with his left hand. Eren would minimize it anyway. He’s still a stubborn fuck, and he’ll grit his teeth through the agony before he asks for painkillers.

   “How’s your wrist?” Levi says. He keeps his rising smile to himself and traps Eren’s right foot between his own. “Your ankle?”

   Eren swipes bread through gravy on his plate and scoots his chair closer to the table. “Not gonna lie, the wrist feels like shit.” He sips his tea, holding his bread awkwardly between his right fingers. “I think it’s the same place I broke it before. When I got thrown from my titan.”

   “I’d like to take a better look at it now you aren’t frozen half to death.”

   “Sure.” Eren shrugs—and that is surprising. In the past, Levi was always greeted with grumbling and a frown or a begrudging scowl. This time Eren grins and nudges his knee between Levi’s before stuffing a too big bite of potato into his mouth.

   “I have something for the pain too.”

   Eren pauses chewing. “Will it make me groggy?”

   Finding Eren’s ankle bone with his toe, Levi taps the rim of his teacup, washing the worry from his expression. “Sleepy maybe.”

   “Don’t want it then.”

   “Don’t be a moron,” Levi says. “Why not?” He knows the answer, but it’s a good way to pry open the door for debate. Eren’s going to be there for a while; hopefully, this is the beginning of him being there forever. Best get it over with sooner rather than later.

   “Then I’ll just sleep.” Eren puts his hands on the table and leans forward until his blanket slips from his shoulders. “I know what you’re going to say, but I want to help.”

   Levi sighs. “It won’t be for long.”

   “I can’t just sit in the chair and look at the fire all day.” Eren trails his fingers over the bandage on his broken arm and the scowl Levi was expecting finally comes. “I’m used to doing things.” He heaves a heavy sigh and flexes the fingers on his right hand, glaring. “My head gets too full when there’s nothing to do.”

   “There’re still things to do.”

   Eren groans and rolls his eyes. “Like what?” he asks, gesturing under the table. “I can’t even go see Vaka like this.”

   Levi searches his head for anything he can think of. Thus far, moving from the bedroom to the kitchen, and bathroom trips have entailed Eren hopping on his right foot while bracing his left hand on the wall as Levi trails behind. He should smack himself. If Hanji saw him now, she’d cackle and tell him his “over-protectiveness” was “adorable” and that he should just kiss Eren already and get it over with once and for all.

   It sounds easy enough, but she never grasped how difficult it is. How that thing in his chest vibrates and stabs when he considers it. How crossing his self-imposed boundaries terrifies him.

   Frightened or not, he can hear her voice from some long forgotten corner in his mind, making it sound as simple for him as brewing a pot of tea. You’re no wordsmith, Levi. Just shag him already, you besotted idiot. He’ll never leave your side again. For some reason, he loves your grouchy arse. If she were there, he’d never hear the end of it.

   Biting his lip, he peers at Eren from behind his fringe, persistent white streak included. Of course, Eren looks back skeptically and crosses his arms over his chest.

   “You can do all the cooking,” Levi offers.

   Eren raises a brow and Levi feels like he’s looking in the mirror. “Without you meddling?”

   How Levi wants to grit his teeth, then again it would only prove Eren’s point, so he doesn’t. “I won’t meddle.”

   “I can stir soup and put things in the oven on one foot,” Eren says, brows pinching with the same determination they did before he entered battle, “I bet I can even chop the vegetables. It will be slow, but all I have is fucking time.”

   “You could let me help with the oven and carry dinner to the table,” Levi says. “You can’t hop holding a bowl of soup.”

   “Fine.” Eren groans and pinches the bridge of his nose as if the conversation was far more exasperating than it was. Levi knows when he’s exasperating, and he wasn’t.

   “What’s for dinner tonight then?” Levi smiles into his tea when Eren rolls his eyes.

   “Still have beef?”

   “We do.”

   “Then stew,” Eren says. “It’ll give me something to do this afternoon. I thought of reading, but most of your books look boring.”

   “No shit. Most of them are,” Levi says. “There’s always chess.”

   Eren grins. “Maybe you’ll actually beat me this time.”

* * *

“You really liked it,” Eren says, rubbing a dish dry. His cheeks are faintly flushed, his mood brighter, and his lips curve beneath his mustache.

   “It wasn’t bad.” Levi catches Eren’s smirk with his own. Admittedly, he is a little stunned. Eren was never bad at cooking, but when he was younger, his meals weren’t as well balanced and flavorful as their dinner tonight. Tender beef, potatoes, parsnips, and onions in savory, perfectly seasoned, rich gravy. Eren even used a tin of peas in the stew and managed to keep them from being mushy and flavorless. “Where did you learn to make it?” His mouth is already watering again after partaking in an uncharacteristic second smaller helping.

   Eren shrugs and smiles wider. “It’s kind of stupid, really.”

   “What is?”

   “How I learned.” Still beaming, he reaches to take the forks from Levi. “Recipes in a bunch of books I found.” Eren’s fingertips linger on his palm, flirtatious and cautiously daring before they disappear.

   Clearing his throat, Levi shoves his fidgeting hands under the spigot. Despite the tingle in this limbs at the touch, he’s too frustratingly disoriented by the caress to offer one in return.

   He’s warmed and wanting, yet frozen and fearful. It’s pathetic.

   “Cookbooks?” he asks through the strain in his throat and shakes off his hands.

   “Yeah.” Eren sets aside the dried silverware then turns off the tap. He pivots on his right foot and leans against the counter. “It was in the first house I found to stay in after I woke up. It was worse than that place.” He jerks his thumb behind him, in the direction of his ruined home, then scratches his brow. “I was fucked up still, just healing the best I could. I needed something to do, and whoever used to live there must have liked to cook because there were tons of books about it.” Eren laughs. “No other kinds of books, just ones about food.”

   Hands slowing as he dries them, Levi clutches the towel tighter, picturing Eren’s scars still bloody and fighting to mend. Eren carefully turning the book pages, struggling to not sully them with blood. His scowl when he did. “You memorized the recipe?” Levi asks.

   “I memorized so many.” Eren tugs on his beard. He looks up as though he were cataloging them from some disordered bookshelf in his mind. “I read them over and over just so I wouldn’t go crazy.”

   Levi’s unable to look away from the scars littering Erens arms and bare torso. He swallows at the penitent chill rising beneath his skin. They haven’t tended to the wounds yet today. Levi didn’t want to disrupt Eren while he was sitting at the kitchen table trying his best to chop. His mood had lightened, and he seemed content busying himself with dinner, but the day feels like something has been forgotten. Like there’s a little hole in it, or they skipped a step.

   When Eren’s been there, treating them has become routine, and Levi’s come to love Eren’s scars as well. The feel of exquisite flaws under his fingertips, the color of them, the way they reflect the firelight.

   How they represent life.

   Though there’s a scratch of guilt in his throat at the morbidity of loving something so excruciatingly beautiful. It’s selfish again—how selfish Levi has become—plotting to foist his undeserving self on a person he didn’t search for long enough to save, and now he stands loving-relishing-admiring the evidence of Eren’s suffering. Levi is a terrible, terrible man. Terrible more, he can’t—won’t—give Eren up. Even when he can’t yet muster enough courage to take the next step.

   Levi closes his eyes for a breath too long against his disobliging conscience.

   “Here,” Eren says, quietly prodding. He sounds beyond his years.

   With a gentle grasp, he takes the dish towel from Levi’s hands before he sets it on the counter. “Don’t look so serious,” he says, reaching toward Levi’s face.

   Watching his fingers move closer, Levi chokes on something, sure it’s the air he can’t breathe. He braces himself, chiding his traitorous lungs as Eren’s fingertips rise past his eyes and meet his skin.

   Eren traces a line across Levi’s brow, smoothing his frown like he hasn’t in years, and Levi doesn’t know if he wants to lean into the bygone touch or pull back.

   Lips numb, Levi nods against the stroke of calluses and warmth. “How long?” He needs to know. He needs to feel it. To suffer the truth of it piercing him.

   Eren smiles. “‘How long’ what?”

   “How long were you healing for?”

   Eren shrugs his left shoulder. “A few months,” he says, stroking Levi’s frown again. A little lighter this time. So tender it hurts. “It wasn’t as bad as I know you’re thinking.”  

   The words don’t settle the erring clench in Levi’s stomach. He looks at his hands, claw-like, twitching around the space where the tea towel was before Eren pried it from them. “I should have—”

   “Been there?” Eren finishes the words for him and covers Levi’s hands with his own. “No.” Long thumbs brush over Levi’s.

   Even Eren’s brow is raised. He has always been maddeningly endearing, making Levi’s heart pound with affection while he wants to shake him, run away, and kiss him at the same time. If getting over his own fears felt intimidating when Eren was a teen, they seem insurmountable now.

   In the past, Eren was fierce, but Eren older is a force.  

   Every expression is a dare. Throttle me or come into me … or do both … or let me inside of you. My arms are open. I’m waiting. His moments of calm patience and enlightenment are daunting and enchanting alike. His anger and fury and tears and smiles and serenity more intense. His eyes are wiser, his jaw sharper, his head taller, shoulders broader, hands more sure.

   It’s unsettling. Unnerving. It shoves at Levi and leaves him teetering. Unbalanced with trembling hands and a hammering pulse until all he wants is to retreat to the one place he can’t. Curled up inside Eren’s chest. Right beside his selfless heart.

   In the face of Eren’s brilliant intensity and his own covetous confusion, all Levi can muster is, “I shouldn’t have?”

   “No,” Eren says once more. “I had to fix myself on my own. I wouldn’t be here now if I didn’t.” He’s silent, staring at Levi until their eyes catch. “I wouldn’t have found my way back to myself if I had help.”

   The idea of it, the absolute loneliness, what Eren must have put himself through is enough to agitate the digesting dinner in Levi’s stomach. He breathes in. Slow and shallow. Visions of Eren’s suffering are heart-rending, but the idea Eren wouldn’t be here, that he wouldn’t be his Eren is worse. That he would be wandering or wouldn’t have lost those damnable shields he had before the end of the war. Levi wants to argue, but he’s wrong.

   “Should I stop talking?” Eren asks when Levi still hasn’t replied.

   He hates they need these conversations to be this close. He hates he relishes Eren’s hand holding his. How he adores the rough spots on Eren’s broad palm rubbing against his own. How warm his long fingers are. His thumb brushing over the pulse in his wrist. The way the trembling in them makes Levi need to do more even when he can’t force his treasonous body to follow his orders.

   Levi shakes his head. “No, I want to know.”

   Eren’s arms slip around Levi’s stiff body and pull him close. He probably needs it, but it’s so startling. Even when it shouldn’t be. They’ve shared numerous embraces through the years. Levi held Eren the entirety of the last night, but it’s always simple and easy when Eren is crying or raging or beside himself. It never is when there isn’t a reason, and Levi only wants it. He hasn’t yet given himself permission for this indulgence. It’s dangerous. And it doesn’t help the embrace feels like Eren is giving rather than taking.

   Pressing his lips to the top of Levi’s head, Eren continues, “I’m glad I lost my memories and memorized cookbooks …”

   Levi nods, leans his cheek against a chest that was so cold the night before and tries to find a place for his uncooperative hands.  

   “I’m glad I learned how to take care of myself and build and hunt. I’m glad I lived free and went to the Underground and started a fight.” His arms tighten until Levi is close enough he can hear his heart. “It all lead me here.”

   Eren starting a fight is no surprise, but it’s enough to yank Levi from his frozen turmoil. He tests a shaky brush of his fingertips down Eren’s shoulder blade. His lips are over the center of Eren’s chest. Despite his want, he doesn’t press them to the scar brushing them. Small touches and holding Eren first, kisses next. Small step, after small step.

   Succumbing to his curiosity, Levi clears his throat and skims a line up soft scar-riddled skin to Eren’s neck. “You started a fight?” His fingers move down again—with a tiny bit more confidence this time. “In the Underground?”

   “Bastard stole my little bag. You’d have been proud. I pulled my knife on him.” Snickering, Eren’s fingers walk a path down Levi’s spine. “Or maybe you’d have called me an idiot.”

   Yes, idiot, Levi wants to agree, but a thrilling shiver silences him. In his mind, he envisions Eren. His roaring fury, green eyes blazing, a cocky grin on his face, and every curse word he knows flying from his mouth. He rubs his forehead against Eren’s chest. He’s so fucked up.

   Interest thrums under his skin, heart pounding with the challenge to try and tame the untamable, to feel Eren’s fight. To feel Eren rise beneath him and try to throw him off while he smiles against Levi’s throat. To battle with Eren under the sheets the same way they did when they used to spar and wrestle in the grass.

   Levi bites back a sound at the feel of Eren’s body a soft-hard line against him, his fingertips pressing into his lower back. Eren’s bandages are wet with dishwater. It’s bleeding through Levi’s shirt, cooling his heating skin. He needs to change them, but Eren’s heartbeat against his ear and his breath shifting the hairs before his face are enough to keep him from making the suggestion just yet.

   Still, they can’t stand here all night.

   Arms slipping, Levi puts a few inches of distance between them and looks at Eren. This is safer. He’s getting ahead of himself. “Did you get it back?” he asks.

   “No,” Eren says, smirking, “he had friends.”

   “Tch.” Of course.

   There’s a phantom of a smile beneath Eren’s mustache, and more of Levi’s tension abates. “I’m still here, aren’t I?” Eren says. “Then I left, and I saw you. Only earned one bad scar in that stupid fight.”

   “The one across your hand?” Levi takes it, and though the bandage obscures half of the wound, he stares at the milky slash across Eren’s right hand.

   “That’s the one.”

   Levi would like to test himself. To see if he could stay like this for the rest of the evening, holding Eren’s hand, listening to Eren’s stories, feeling his words flit over his ear, but Von is scratching on the wall near the cleaning closet.

   “Damn it.” Levi slumps. He knows the sound too well. Von is making a mess of his litter box, throwing sawdust all over his tidy floor. Bothersome as it is, it might be serendipity.

   “What?” Eren asks.

   Stifling a groan of irritation, Levi huffs. “Von’s being an arsehole,” he says.

   “Is that what that is?” Eren squeezes Levi’s hand before he lets go and allows him space. He holds himself up against the counter instead of against Levi.

   “I have to sweep,” Levi says, “he does this sometimes. Probably displeased with his portion of stew.”

   Eren drops his gaze and touches the scar over his hand, looking a bit defeated and sheepish. “I snuck him more under the table.”

   “No shit,” Levi says raising a brow, “you must think I’m a halfwit.”

   “No,” Eren says, “but I thought I was being sneaky.”

   “You weren’t.” Nonchalance was never one of Eren’s strong suits, and unlike other things, that hasn’t changed with age.

   “I’ll try harder next time.”

   Levi smirks. “I should hope.”

   “I’ll make the tea,” Eren offers as Levi steps away. “Oolong?”

   “Yes.” Levi nods. “Then chess?”

   Eren snorts. “Sure you don’t want to try cards?”

   Levi glares. “No.”

  * * *

For the first time since Eren returned, Levi is scratching his head and grinding his teeth over a game. Eren bested him again during chess, and now he lounges in his chair with his leg kicked out, chuckling with a cocksure grin, just staring at Levi with his stupidly beautiful eyes gleaming in the firelight.

   He looks like he’s going to split from the laughter he must be holding in.

   “You’re cheating.” Levi knows he isn’t—but still. He could probably beat Erwin or Armin now if either of them were still alive.

   “You don’t really think that,” Eren says and tosses back the rest of his winter Oolong.

   Smirking, Levi says, “No,” and scratches his head again. He might figure out Eren’s strategy if he only digs hard enough with his nails.

   “I’m telling you,” Eren begins, tilting his empty teacup in the direction of Levi’s chess strategy book, “playing in your mind is a better teacher than that dumb book.” He taps his temple. “You have to see it. The entire thing, then you can picture everything that can happen during the game. It’s like a real battle, you could do it with that, and a game’s no different. Just try it.”

   “Fine then,” Levi says, skeptically. It sounds like bullshit, but Eren seems eager to watch him make an arse of himself. “What do I do?”

   “Close your eyes, and picture it.”

   Levi sets his hands in his lap. “I’ll humor you,” he says. Closing his eyes, he tries to conjure the board, all the pieces, black and white, the empty spot next to it where he’ll put all of Eren’s captured troops. It appears, wavers, appears, wavers, and then appears again as if through a cynosure, or like he’s looking into the disturbed surface of cloudy water. He fights to maintain the picture, but the rooks fade to fuzz at the edges as he attempts to envision the kings and queens. He can’t even see the entire board let alone an ongoing game. It doesn’t help Eren is always there when he closes his eyes either. He’s been burned into them for ten years.

   Stymied, Levi sighs, embarrassed he concedes so quickly. His concentration is shit at the moment. “I can’t do it.”

   “Of course you can’t.” Eren shakes his head. “You only tried for a minute.” He leans back, somehow tying his hair into a bun without anything to bind it but the strands themselves. His beauty is arresting, and Levi forgot how irritatingly gorgeous he is when his hair is up.

   For a breath, he closes his eyes against the image. A mess of a bun that can never hold all the locks prisoner. The warm, golden-brown fringe falling around his face. The fine, shorter hairs trailing down the back of his neck and Levi’s favorite; the softest wisps that curl under Eren’s ears and used to tickle his nose. Even the strands brushing the wound above Eren’s eyebrow are too captivating.

   “It got fuzzy,” Levi says. Thankfully his voice doesn’t break.

   Eren flicks his eyes at Levi, coy and dauntless. Like he knows exactly what he’s doing to him and wants to be doing it. “You don’t think I closed my eyes one day and could just play chess in my mind, do you?”

   “Of course not,” Levi says and frowns into his cup.

   “It took me months—years even—to do it well.” He stares at the fire, quiet as he unrolls and rerolls his right pant leg then lifts his bare, broad shoulders toward his ears. “Maybe it’s because my head was so empty at first, but I pictured it and practiced anytime my eyes were closed.”

   The tormenting wave of guilt returns as Levi places his teacup out of his own reach. Tensing his fingers on it is becoming an irksome habit as of late. He will not hold teacups so he can tap them, clutch them, or conceal himself behind them. Not anymore. He will face down his predicament with his hands folded in his lap and his eyes open.

   Besides, closing them now will only reveal an uncontrolled, yet still summoned vision of Eren bleeding on filthy linens in a broken cottage or worse. He mentioned staying in a cave. And images of that are what Levi suspects will buffet him next.  

   When you were hurt? is what Levi wants to ask. Instead, he finally says, “I don’t have enough patience.”

   Eren laughs at that. Boundless and bright while wiping phantom tears from his cheeks. “You think I have patience?”

   Eren’s had enough patience to play this game of mutual flirtation with Levi for a decade. Maybe they’re both masochists and admitting it means they would have to cease the pleasurably deranged self-torture. The notion makes Levi laugh along with him. “You have for some things.”

   “Yeah,” Eren says, blushing before he stuffs the last biscuit in his mouth. He raises his brow again, like it’s his new favorite facial gesture or as if he’s taken lessons in applying Levi’s own expressions to being alluring and flirting specifically. “I didn’t have much choice then. I could stare at the ceiling, read cookbooks, or play chess in my head.”

   Levi doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t remember how to speak.

   Eren lifts his wrapped left foot and pokes Levi’s ankle with his sockless big toe. “Hey,” he says, and rubs his nose, “what’s wrong?”

   There’s a lot. Firstly, Levi can’t decide if he wants to swoon or beg Eren’s forgiveness for not finding him. He’s being tossed from one extreme to another. Bask in Eren’s pretty smile and his gorgeous hair and his shirtless muscled chest, or ask him more about the fucking injuries and his recovery. It might not be so bad. Perhaps Levi believes it was worse than it was … then again … what if it’s beyond what he imagines?

   Either way, there’s only one way to apologize. Kiss and touch the old wounds he wasn’t there to help with so he can show Eren how sorry he is with his hands and his lips, then make sure nothing so gruesome ever happens to him again. Unfortunately, he’s only ready to partake in one of those physical aspects. And usually just if salves and balms are involved.

   He is getting better, he thinks, but still, some blockade in his broken mind won’t let him try kisses or worshipping Eren under the guise of anything other than medicinal tending or as comfort yet.

   He sighs as quiet as he can and sends the inner turmoil from his mouth to his guts then finally answers Eren. “You had no one to help you.”

   Looking more confused than anything, Eren frowns. “Well … no.” He scrutinizes Levi. Levi can feel it like Eren can see through his skin. Then his bottom lip drops, he breathes out “Oh,” and kicks Levi’s foot again. “Don’t feel bad about the cuts. I was all right. I really was.”

   “They must have hurt,” Levi says before he snaps his mouth shut. Six years ago he wouldn’t have said even this, but that was before he thought Eren lost. He’s taken being silent for granted too many times in his long life.

   “I’ve been through a lot worse.”

   You were alone, Levi thinks. “But you didn’t remember any of that.”

   “No,” Eren says, looking at the ceiling then back at Levi. “It was buried in there though.” He points at his head. “I just couldn’t find it then, and even if I could have, I would just’ve been happy I was alive.”

   Levi nods. He understands the sentiment. It’s why he loves the scars. Not only loves them, but venerates them.

   “You’ve been taking good care of them now,” Eren says, dipping his head, “they barely get tight anymore.”

   Levi’s stomach kicks. “We haven’t yet today.”

   “They’re not bothering me right now,” Eren says, stretching his arms above his head, demonstrating. “My back fucking kills anyway, I’d rather just relax in my old chair.” He pats the arm.

   “What’s wrong with your back?” Levi doesn’t shoot up, but he can feel his eyebrows slamming together. “Did you hurt it yesterday?”

   “No, no, no,” Eren says and kneads at his neck. “It aches sometimes is all. I’ve hurt it before, and I don’t think being so cold yesterday helped.”

   Considering it now, Eren has been stretched in his chair in an odd position all evening. As if he were trying to lay himself in it, but Levi assumed it had to do with his sprained and wrapped ankle.

   “Just a minute,” Levi says, holding up a finger. Before his mind has a chance to catch up, his feet are taking him to the loo for supplies.

   “Where are you going?” Eren calls.

   “To get something.” His voice sounds fucking arid.

   Early in the morning when Eren was crying, Levi was so determined. Set to show Eren. To offer them both something in most moments he’s sure they both desire. And he still is. He’s made it through footsie, Eren smiling and flirting from the kitchen most of the day, and a long embrace after dinner without completely freezing. He didn’t plan something as extreme as a backrub, and the prospect is a bit nerve-wracking, but Eren is aching and uncomfortable.

   Levi reminds himself to breathe.

   His fingers cramp around the knob of the cabinet. If I can just do this. Touch Eren like this without falling apart or going still as a statue, maybe the next step won’t feel so insurmountable.

   He finds the jar of warming salve more quickly than he would have preferred, takes a moment to shake out his arms, and will his shoulders to relax.

   When he returns, he’s so focused on the gentle arc of Eren’s long neck, he doesn’t see Von shoot from beside the wood box, and barely escapes tripping over him.

   Blundering into the sitting area looking like the lovesick fool he knows he is, he manages an inelegant recovery. “Pay attention, Von,” he hisses.

   “He’s just playing.” Eren makes little clucking sounds with his tongue and rubs his fingers together, calling Von. “Here,” he says and tosses Von’s chestnut toward the kitchen as Levi shuffles past and sets the jar on the stand.

   Levi sighs. “Always underfoot.”

   He peers around the room, trying not to wring his twitching hands. This would be so much easier on the bed, but he can’t do it there. Not with Eren shirtless in flimsy pants, and with his hair pulled up, and the shorter strands curling around his nape and framing his face.

   Taking the blanket from the arm of the chair, Levi drapes it over the hearthrug.

   “What are you doing?” Eren asks, raking his fingers through his beard. “Fireside picnic? More biscuits?”

   “I’m going to fix your back.” Levi’s already crouching on the floor, smoothing the wrinkles from the throw. He stands and points. “Lie down.”

   Eren grins, exuberant while his gorgeous brows thrust up toward his hairline. “You’re going to give me a massage?”

   Fuck, fuck, shit fuck! He sounds like he did when Levi offered him his toilet knife.

   “Yes,” Levi says. He clears his throat to banish the halting roughness in his voice. Sure, he sounds like a dying possum, but it’s too late to turn back now. He reclaims the jar from the table, fingers tracing the edges of its textured parchment label, wishing he could absorb the medicinal qualities of the salve through it. “If you want one.”

   “Fuck yes, please,” Eren groans, long and drawn out and so innocently salacious it makes even Levi’s toes hurt with want. “A Captain massage. It’s been so long.” He slides onto the floor, mindful of his ankle. “Yes. Yes, thank you.”

   It’s not possible Eren knows how ridiculously obscene he sounds. When he eats, when he’s in the shower, when Levi rubs ointment onto his scars, and when he sips an excellent new tea. It’s cruel.

   Levi’s mouth waters at Eren’s hum as he stretches his tall, lean body over the blanket, left hip bumping Levi’s toe. He closes his eyes and wiggles, as though he’s trying to shake away his tension.

   “The floor isn’t too hard.” Eren releases a contented chuckle like he’s lain on a fluffy bed. His flush was bleeding down his chest when he slipped to the floor, but as Eren settles, Levi notes it’s on his back too, dusting the tops of his shoulders in a deeper hue.

   Breath ragged, he gapes, noticing how low Eren’s pants are riding. The loosely tied waist reveals the dimples in his back. The gentle dip at the base of his spine where the cleft of his arse begins. The rise of his backside’s soft curve. If Levi weren’t so incompetent, he’d stop gritting his teeth and kneel down beside Eren. He would brush his fingers across that place, over the fine hairs catching the firelight, slip his hand lower, under the fabric. He imagines Eren would shiver and make a beautiful sound if he did.

   “I’m ready,” Eren says, unaware of Levi’s gawking. He spreads his arms to make room, bidding Levi like a willing sacrifice.

   Eyes widening as if he’s been caught, Levi forces his resistant jaw to relax. He pinches between his eyes and shakes his head, willing a deep breath into his collapsing lungs. This might have been a terrible idea …  

   Of course, his hardening penis twitches in disagreement. Glaring at the fly of his trousers, he tucks the treacherous appendage into his waistband rather than arguing with it. It never listens anyway, and he has to soldier on … still, if it were possible, he might kick himself in the face.

   “Comfortable?” he asks, hating his own voice.

   “Mhmm,” Eren hums, nuzzling his right cheek against the blanket. “Will you crack it like you used to?”

   “Yeah.” Levi bites his lip and orders himself to move. What in the hell he was thinking? He’ll be lucky if he can keep his lips off Eren’s shoulder blades or his hips from grinding against Eren’s arse. Or maybe his body will refuse to obey and go stiff.

   Levi had the best of intentions. The pain was what he thought of. Eren was in pain, and Levi’s need to relieve it has landed him in the too inviting position of having to straddle Eren’s thighs and sit on them with an already aching erection.

   Having Eren long and stretched and golden in the firelight makes it all the harder. At least once he’s up close, cracking joints and rubbing knots, he can focus on small areas of muscles and patches of skin instead of ogling Eren laid out like he’s there to feast on.

   He shouldn’t have expected any different, but Eren hums deep when Levi places his knees either side of his waist and lowers himself until he’s straddling the backs of his thighs. His warmth is pressing against places Levi should have known better than to allow it to press, and he searches his head seeking a younger version of himself who can explain how he used to do this without taking more or getting hard.

   Maybe ‘The Captain’ had better tactics for coping than he does.

   “That the same stuff?” Eren asks when Levi opens the jar. A clumsy recovery prevents it from slipping from his hands. He’s jittery enough, it’s as though they were already covered in its contents.

   “No, but similar.” Levi sets it beside him, so he doesn’t drop it, breathless as he takes in the expanse of skin before him.

   “I can smell it already,” Eren says. “It’s nice.”

   “Yeah.” Levi scoops some onto his fingers. It will smell even better on Eren.

   “And herby…” Eren’s thighs flex beneath Levi’s, and the glob stuck to his shaky fingers nearly falls on Eren’s arse. “… it’s herby.”

   Levi hums. “That it is.”

   “It smells strong.”

   “It does.” Attempting to keep his shit together, Levi rubs the balm into his palms and inhales the scent of ginger and bay leaf. Though it does little to calm his head or his fingers, and he commands them like ten little soldiers to skim over Eren’s lower back, somehow preventing himself from sighing at Eren’s heat.

   “Ah!” The sound Eren makes is wicked. It would probably taste perfect breathed into Levi’s mouth. “It’s so warm and herby.”

   “Yes … herby.” Levi doesn’t look at Eren’s face. His eyes and nape burn with argumentative defiance, but he knows what he’ll find. Eren’s bottom lip sucked between his teeth, eyes closed, a precious frown carved into his flushed forehead.  

   The expression is one Levi is too familiar with. What he pictured Eren would look like beneath or above him the times he has imagined it. Despite Eren’s groans and how the muscles in his back are contracting, Levi reminds himself there is nothing remotely sexual about this. It’s barely even intimate.

   He’s merely helping Eren while testing himself.

   He ignores the prickling heat under his skin and concentrates on using his weight and the heels of his palms to gently nudge Eren’s spine to crack.

   Another mistake.

   This time, the noise Eren makes is ungodly, high and whiny and sinful. Levi stops himself from whimpering along with him. His hips attempt to rock. He pulls his hands away but puts them right back, so Eren doesn’t say something like, Why did you stop?

   Levi looks at his frozen hands, but looking isn’t a better option than listening or touching. Eren’s pressing his belly harder into the floor, arse lifting while his muscles flex and his back curves in a subtle arch, straining to push into Levi’s touch.

   It would be simple to flip Eren over and finally show him, but Eren just cried the night before about losing his house, his wrist and ankle are injured, and his back aches. He told Levi he was alone and no one should like him.

   Though he seems better today, Levi knows how a distraught Eren functions. Eren would probably accept a physical demonstration of affection with more fervor than usual. He always craved innocent embraces and closeness when he was upset. Why would kisses or physical intimacy be any different? What if Eren responds with everything he has and they finally confirm all they both already know and then Eren questions it? Or regrets it? Or leaves?

   Levi ignores the persistent prickle on his skin, concentrating on kneading a knot in Eren’s lower back. It’s an excuse born out of fear and cowardice.

   No matter how much Levi wants something—anything—to force him to rip his chest open and—finally, entirely—expose his wounded heart, now doesn’t feel like that moment.

   He’s already fucked up enough, he’ll never be able to repair himself if Eren breaks what lay inside.

   “Fuck …” It falls out, but Levi stops the confession that fights to follow it, along with his fingers.

   “What?” Eren says. Though breathy and relaxed, his voice rises.

   “Nothing,” Levi says, “spine just cracked hard.”

   Levi rubs the back of his hand across his forehead and focuses on one of those thick scars from the rocks on Eren’s back. His heart is pounding, the sweat on his hands is mixing with the herby salve, leaving Eren’s skin hot and slippery.

   He rolls his shoulders, he’s maintained his control in more trying situations.

   He can handle Eren whimpering and stretching and tangling his fingers in the blanket beneath him. Levi can give him the kind touch he needs for his sore muscles and bits of bruising from yesterday’s mishap. “Where does it hurt?”

   “Mmm.” Eren squirms beneath Levi’s thighs, testing his body. “Close to my neck, and lower right side.”

   Levi coughs through a whine. “You hopped around too much.”

   “Pfft.” Eren scoffs and smiles. “I’m good at hopping.”

   “Maybe, but you should take it easier tomorrow.” Summoning all his determination, Levi slides himself up, so he’s sitting on Eren’s arse, and a rare curse at his height flits over his tongue.

   “Fine,” Eren says with a grumbling hum, drawing out the sound when Levi’s fingertips skim over his ribs. “You can always give me another back rub though.”

   “Brat,” Levi nearly squeaks and attempts to rally his former strength. To shore up the destroyed shields of resistance he used to possess. He concentrates on Eren’s neck, and not the euphorically cheeky expression on his face. Eren’s a greedy little shit. He’s audacious, inviting, and borders on kittenish. Levi wets his lips as something moves in his chest. It’s probably Eren poking little holes in this last wall of protection. “We’ll see.”

   Fingers trailing up and down Eren’s vertebrae, Levi gulps, recalling doing this for him when he was a teenager. He was brazen then—or so Levi thought—but now Eren is like a storm. If he were a breeze years ago, he’s a tornado now.

   “I could give you one,” Eren offers, looking more suggestive than he probably intends to be. “You’re always wound up tight. I’m surprised you haven’t snapped in half.”

   Whimpering at imagined hands on his skin, Levi’s heart stops, flips, and speeds pace. He forces all his want into Eren’s nape, with strong kneading strokes. As though he could begrudgingly rub the flirtatiousness right out of him.

   “Oh yes, right there. Thanks,” Eren says, adding, “I’d be gentle.”

   The thought of it is hair-raising, and Levi is grateful Eren’s eyes are closed because the fear is most likely etched on his face. He can feel it in his jaw. At first, it’s like relief. It seems like it would be easier than this. Eren touching him while he closes his eyes. He could hide there behind the lids like the poltroon he is.

   But as he narrows his vision and focuses on the wisps of hair curling behind Eren’s ear while willing himself to continue working a knot in the crook of his neck, the offer slams into him with waves of astounding fright.

   It’s petrifying. Everything about this—about Eren, about them—is petrifying. A confounding gallimaufry of impulses, want, and hesitance.

   They’ve tended to each other in the past. It’s not as if Eren has never rubbed Levi’s back or his foot or played with his hands, but Levi has more often tended to Eren than Eren has tended to him. Levi’s used to being the tender, not the tendee. And never when Eren has been so—so all over and bursting with dares of, Please fucking do something! What is wrong with you?

   Levi’s heart sprints. He shouldn’t have pushed himself. He was doing so well, but now he’s spinning out of control sitting on Eren, mouth drying, hands bathed in his warmth. Perhaps, Levi thinks, he can’t plot love. Maybe his stupid test was stupid to begin with. He shouldn’t have tricked himself into believing he isn’t the warden of his own self-imposed prison.

   Taking Levi’s silence as an invitation to babble, Eren readjusts his hips beneath him, fidgeting, and breathes another, “Thank you” that Levi feels through his hands. It’s laced with what sounds like disappointment, just the smallest hint, like drops of lavender oil in the bath. Levi frowns, and Eren stretches his neck beneath fingers now focusing lower, close to his shoulders.

   “I missed this,” Eren says.

   Taking out his frustration with himself on Eren’s muscles keeps Levi planted where he sits, but his heart is dying. And though it does nothing to soothe his stinging eyes, it gives him something to do with his idle hands. “Back rubs?” he asks, knowing it’s not what Eren means.

   “That too,” Eren whispers, and tugs hard on his beard, “but I meant having someone to talk to. I don’t have a cat.”

   “Mm.” Von is good for snuggling and grumbling at, but he’s not Eren. Levi missed having Eren to talk to too. He missed his smile. His voice. His intensity. He missed Eren making him crazy like he is now.

   Eren nods his head against the blanket, then rubs his eye. “Even when I was coming to visit, it was lonely at the house.”

   “Not many people out here.”

   “It’s not that,” Eren says, and Levi chances a glance at his face as his stiff hands slow. He looks melancholy. It squeezes something in Levi’s chest. “I missed being with you.” He sniffs. “I think I did even when I didn’t remember you.”

   Levi’s eyes close. This is the second time Eren has admitted it, and unlike the first time, it pries at the gash in Levi’s chest. It sounds like a confession, and it’s probably the best one Levi is ever going to get for whatever Eren’s reasons are.

   Though he can’t blame Eren for not saying it, Levi hasn’t told him either. And if Levi’s honest, he has to admit his dry, emotionless façade and closed off nature likely isn’t encouraging.

   He doesn’t know how to respond, so like the coward he is, Levi will his fingers to move to Eren’s shoulder blades, ignoring the tingle on his lips and asks, “This any help?”

   Hesitating, Eren frowns. A sorrowful little line forms between his brows. “Yeah, better already,” he says, clipped. It could be an exaggeration or a fib. Levi’s not doing the greatest job. He’s found himself absently tracing a scar by Eren neck, and kneading the same knot long after it’s untangled itself. He paused and stared at the fire, and he’s probably dug in a bit too hard on Eren’s tender lower back. “Makes me tired actually,” Eren says, shifting beneath Levi.

   It’s only eight. Eren didn’t get enough rest last night.

   “Hey?” Eren says, sounding so unlike himself.

   Levi’s hands pause their movement. He can feel Eren’s muscles tense under them. Under his hips and thighs too. Like Eren’s entire body has gone rigid. As if he doesn’t crave Levi’s touch anymore. Like rejection. Levi bites the inside of his cheek as his throat tightens. “Yeah?”

   Eren sighs and Levi’s fingers spread over his expanding ribs. He’s breathing too fast. Too deep. Like he does before he cries.

   Levi watches with widening eyes as he purses his lips and gives a weak smile. It isn’t an Eren smile. “It’s nothing. Just forget it.”

   “All right.” It’s not what Levi wants to say, but he can’t think of anything else before Eren raises his head and draws his hand down his face.

   “Tired is all.” His voice is rigid, and though Levi’s knows he did something wrong, he doesn’t know what it is. “I should turn in,” Eren says.

   What if he hurt Eren? What if he only made it worse? What if he said the wrong thing?

   Pulling his hands away and setting them on his thighs, Levi allows his fingers to twist into his trousers as he stands.

   “It’s been a long day,” he says and looks down at his empty hands still glistening with salve.

* * *

“Do you want another?” Levi asks, placing quilts on the arm of the sofa.

   Eren shakes his head and toys with the edge of his bandage. Right by his thumb. He looks lost. Glassy-eyed and weary. Hurt. He didn’t go to Levi’s bed after he pulled himself off the floor and weakly stretched. He only checked his drying clothes by the fire and asked for a pillow and blanket.

   “This should be enough.” Eren runs his fingers over the folded quilts and stares at the fire. “I can add logs if I need to.”

   Nothing about this is right, and in a rare moment, Levi wants to roar it. His chest feels as if it could crack open trying to contain it. Eren shouldn’t be out here on the lumpy couch with the bed coverings divided between them. He should be in Levi’s bed. In his arms, as he was the night before. As he used to be during the war.

   He was so bright earlier, pushing all of Levi’s buttons, and now he’s shadowed and sorrowed, and gloom hovers over him as though a magnetic vapor. Levi doesn’t know if it’s the reality of the house still settling, or if he did something to upset him. Years ago, he could ask what was wrong but now with Levi’s age comes ineptitude so thorough Hanji should doodle him into the margin next to its definition in her dictionary.

   “Tea?” he asks woefully, already knowing what the answer will be. Levi has little experience to fall back on in matters of the heart. He’s been fucking it up with Eren for a decade. Why not fuck it up some more?

   Eren drags a quilt over himself and lays his head down, expression indecipherable. “Not tonight.” Inhaling sharply against Levi’s pillow, he digs his fingers into down and the crisp case. “I’m just tired,” he says, meeting Levi’s eyes. “Too many bad dreams last night.”

   That hurts. That Levi wasn’t enough. That he didn’t guard Eren against his nightmares. He wants to kneel beside the couch and pull Eren close and apologize. He wants to cry. But he doesn’t. He untangles his hands from each other, stretches them from the gnarled knot they’ve made, and covers Eren in a second quilt, and then the third.

   “Thanks,” Eren says, lacking the usual surety in his voice. He sounds hollow—or perhaps like he is filled with too much.

   “Mm.” Levi reaches his hand towards Eren’s face, but he doesn’t know if he will touch.

   Eren catches it, enclosing it in his own—long, warm fingers trapping him, and gives Levi a sad smile. He runs his thumb over the pulse in Levi’s wrist until Levi’s heart is falling and breaking and smashing, down past his twisting guts, his frozen knees, his leaden feet.

   Eren looks like a softer version of himself at eighteen. When his hair had just begun to brush his shoulders and fury flourished behind the glimmer in his eyes. When Levi couldn’t always reach him.

   The touch feels like a question twisted up with a reluctant goodbye. Something distant lingers in the lines around Eren’s mouth and dimpleless bearded cheeks. Levi clears his throat, squeezes Eren hand, and says, “Good night.”

   Releasing Levi’s hand, Eren’s eyelids drop, like drawing window drapes and shutting him out. “G’night, Captain.”

   The moniker has never hurt before. Now it stabs.

   Hesitant, Levi forces his diffident feet to move. To carry him to his cold, unwelcoming bed. Even with Von curled up on his pillow, it feels stranger than it did the first night he ever slept in it. He’s shivering, and his eyes are burning by the time he is in his thin flannel nightshirt and thick wool socks. Even the bed-warmer couldn’t chase the chill in his spirit away.

   He rolls under the covers. He pulls them up to his chin. He tucks them over his head until there is only a little quilt-edged casement for him to peek from. He doesn’t even pull the drapes around the bed. He doesn’t deserve the extra warmth just like he doesn’t deserve Eren.

   In his bid to will himself to do something, all Levi managed was to damage Eren further. To make the brilliant smile slip from his face, replaced with something burdensome and forced and bitter as over-steeped tea.

   Eren sniffs from the other room, and Von leaps off the bed, hurrying through the crack in the door.

   Ice settling in his stomach, Levi’s fingers twist in his sheets. His eyes feel as though he’s sprinkled them with dust. Dry and gritty and stinging as he resists being tugged along by the thread reaching out from the gash in his chest.

   Despite his need to nurture, Levi’s no help to Eren when he’s like this. Definitely not when he has little idea of what he did wrong.

   Replaying the evening in his head, he recalls Eren’s smiles and groans and flirtatious poking … then it just ceased. Eren was frowning, and his voice dropped from light and blissful to a tenor that was low and raspy. After that, he wanted to go to sleep. He didn’t even want bedtime tea. Eren always loved bedtime tea.

   And now Levi is sure he is on the couch in the living room crying. Maybe he wanted—needed—to be alone.

   Levi bites his lip and squeezes his eyes shut. Perhaps he needs to be alone now too.

 

Yes, that’s my penis in my hand …

The morning finds Levi in the shower. Exhausted from little sleep, but clean as the last of frothy lavender lather slips from his skin.

   He’s standing under the spray brooding, leaning on the wall. The soaked shower curtain rubs against his forearm. His hand is hovering above his penis. He groans. This is so fucked up—so wrong.

   After he spent hours the night before forcing away tears and gritting his teeth against the grating flood of ache in his throat, Levi settled into restless dreams.

   First, he walked through a field, and then a forest. A maze of giant trees. He looked for Eren like a treasure at its end. A destination.

   When he found him, Eren gave him that soft-sad-serious look Levi remembers from an evening when Eren was nineteen. His eyes were hard and spirit-broken as he stood beneath a towering pine. Just as they were the last night he spent with Levi while they drank tea and Eren stared aimlessly at the fire blazing in Levi’s hearth. In the morning, Levi’s bed was empty, and his skin prickled like hot little needles were piercing him. He searched, but Eren was gone. Off to Marley without a word.

   While Levi slept and restlessly dreamed, the conjured world spun again, and Eren was beneath him. Skin to skin. It was hot, and Eren was trying to grin as his mouth fell open and his eyes shut. Levi felt the cooling spit on his neck where Eren had been sucking and biting. They moved like stormy waves, and Eren whimpered and whispered things Levi couldn’t quite catch, but Levi was soaring and twisting and finding, and then something snapped, and there was no Eren, nor was there Levi, but something else. Something that was both of them.

   And then, sweat-drenched and hard, Levi woke.

   Through pain and fear, nightmares, long-buried memories, and fantasies, the last rapturous visions and Eren begging for more and closer are what have stayed with him.

   Shaking his head, Levi curls his fingers around himself. Cautious and twitching as if his own erection could somehow burn him. He closes his eyes, tries to swallow his shame—and yes, he thinks, sighing. He has gone here.

   At the first jerk of his hand, he hates himself. Loathes that he’s envisioning Eren while doing this. Loathes that he’s doing it at all. Stroking himself while thinking of grasping Eren’s shoulders, bruising him. His lips on Eren’s collarbone, tasting him. His hips flush against Eren’s, fucking him.

   He bites into his arm beneath his lips, trying to stifle a grunt. It shouldn’t feel this good. Touching himself while fantasizing about besmirching Eren with his poisonous skin. Infecting him. Ruining him. Desecrating him.

   Behind his tired eyes, Eren says Levi is wrong. Eren kisses him, touches his cheek, and tells Levi he’s beautiful. That Levi deserves him. He traces Levi’s heart with his scar-spattered fingers, holds him close, and Levi’s chest tightens along with his hand grasping his dick.

   Quick and efficient—and with less flourish than he killed titans—he ignores the shameful wet smacking sounds and finishes himself off with a gasp. Then slowly, he opens his heavy eyelids, panting, and glares at the flowered shower curtain’s blurring pattern like he wishes he could glare at himself.

   “Fuck,” he whispers and rinses. “Fuck.” He turns off the tap. “Fuck.” He snatches his towel from the hook.

   Levi dries, wraps his towel around his waist, sits on the edge of the tub, and buries his fingers in his dripping hair.

   There are tremors in his limbs, unrelated to the aftershock of his release. His throat feels as though he swallowed dust, and the stark white walls of the small washroom close around him, looming in judgment.

   What he wanted more than anything was for Eren to be alive, and he is. But it’s not enough. Levi wants things he’s not sure he has a right to have any longer. If he were normal, this would be simple.

   But he can’t even wank like a normal human. His shoulders slump with decided guilt. Over losing his grace from such a small act. Over doing something Eren did more times than he can count in his very bed, years before.

   Not that it was a secret. Eren was more than obvious. Squirming and wiggling, grumbling and whining into his pillow when morning came. Levi would allow Eren his privacy and leave to make tea while listening to sounds that made his toes curl as he waited for the water to boil. He saw it in Eren’s flush when he would stumble out into the sitting area ten minutes later—sometimes two—still half breathless. Sweaty and red-cheeked and grinning like an idiot. His eyes would be glued to Levi all through breakfast, and Levi knew he released his frustrations while thinking of him.

   It’s all right if Eren does it. It’s not okay if Levi does.

   He shivers at how utterly inane the thought is and presses the heels of his hands to his eye sockets until white-yellow sparks explode like tiny suns behind them. Until they feel like they’re about to pop. He’d like to blame it on everything he has seen in the Underground—and though it was a bed of depravity and depredations—it’s not the reason.

   Rationality has fled. Logically, his thinking makes no sense—he knows—and he hasn’t lost so much sanity he can’t see it, but there’s one last barrier he can’t dismantle. And to ask Eren to do so for him …

   Eren’s already offered too much. If Levi’s laid himself out to be broken, Eren’s laid himself out to be slaughtered. He’s been the sacrificial lamb before, and Levi will never ask him to be that again.

   He shakes his head and rises, braces his hands on the sink, lets his eyelids fall shut, and takes a deep breath. When he looks in the mirror, the face of imperfection stares back. Not because of his height or the dark half-moons under his eyes. Not because of the streak of white, his little crow’s feet, or the frown lines that stuck and never came off. Not because Levi is too pale, or because even through his morning stubble, he can see the patches where a beard won’t ever grow.

   It’s something underneath.

   Below the delicate bluish rivers of blood flow in the hollows above his cheeks. Below the glint of muted-silver, lying eyes.

   It’s not in his chest now either. It’s in his head, leaking earthward into his throat.

   Oily black sludge that coats the inside of him, like a morbid reversed jacket.

   It tries to smother his already shrunken heart. If he swallows very hard, it might not reach it. He might push it out and away. He might dig and claw and find the beating pitch-caked thing under his ribs and show Eren.

   If it’s what Eren wants, he’ll let him have it.

   Eren’s seen past everything else. He’s dived through every layer if Levi invited it or not.

   Whether valuable or worthless, Eren has waited too many years for his long-desired prize.

* * *

When Levi leaves his bedroom after dressing, Eren is on the rug before the hearth, looking drained and shrouded. He’s tossing bits of resin-laden bark into the fire. Staring past the flames while ripping strips away as best he can manage with his left hand. His brows are drawn down as though he were searching for something.

   Eren glances at Levi’s socks, gaze traveling upward until their eyes meet. He scratches the side of his neck, lips twitching. The little smile seems contrite. “You look nice,” he says.

   Nonplussed, Levi masks his confusion. “Thanks …” It sounds too much like a question.

   He assesses himself, frowning, and grasps the cuff of his sleeve. Testing its texture, he rubs it between his thumb and finger. There’s a new run starting there. His ensemble is nothing impressive or flattering. He’s dressed in plain black britches and a thick wool pullover. And his drab shirt is layered with an even drabber jumper. It’s all grey and dark and dull. Just like Levi.

   “You look good in jumpers,” Eren says, though he shifts his concentration back to the bark in his hands, and then strips off another piece and throws it in the fire. “More relaxed.”

   The flutter is back under Levi’s ribs as his cheeks heat. “Oh.” He toys with the white streak hanging over his brow then drops his hand to his side. “I have a few.” He’ll make sure to wear them more often.

   Nodding, Eren adds, “Good.”

   Eren’s emotions aren’t frequently confounding. He’s usually, very, loudly honest about what he feels, but in rare moments, Eren has been distractedly quiet like he is now. Levi knows how to handle screaming, yelling, or crying Eren. Violent Eren isn’t beyond his expertise. Happy or elated Eren is easy. Bewildered Eren needs gently stern direction. But quiet, emotional Eren has ever been a conundrum. A puzzle Levi doesn’t have all the pieces to.

   The night before, and still when he woke, Levi thought Eren was hurt or cross, but now he’s handing out compliments like he has a whole lot of them saved up somewhere.

   “I folded the quilts,” Eren says, wrinkling his nose at sap stuck to his fingers. “I’ll put them back in the bedroom. And my pillow.”

   Levi’s breath catches. Eren doesn’t plan to sleep on the couch tonight? “All right.”

   Grumbling, Eren mutters something about “cold and stiff” though he doesn’t elaborate or continue.

   “Hungry?” Levi asks, hands pressed together before his waist, hoping Eren won’t answer with a worrying, “no.”

   “That’s my job. I have nothing left to do anyway.” He doesn’t look at Levi, but he pauses. His voice sounds faintly untethered compared to the night before. “I want to make you breakfast.” He rubs his contused cheek and glances at Levi from underneath his eyelashes. Eren’s still beautiful even when he’s forlorn.

   “Need anything from the root cellar?” Levi says, feeling awkward.

   “No.” Eren tosses the last of the bark into the fire, seeming lost in his thoughts as he uses the chair to pull himself up to standing. “I’ve got everything.” Hopping toward the kitchen, he adds, “I fed Von.”

   Earlier in the morning when Levi awoke to feed the animals, it was dark, and Eren was still asleep with Von snuggled up under his chin playing sentry. Eren was laying similarly. With his knees tucked close to his body and the quilts tangled around him. There was a line on his brow but other than that, he looked placid. Nearly peaceful.

   Levi pet Von before he slipped out, thanking him silently. Ever watchful over the person who needed him more or—more pointedly in Levi’s mind—the one who deserved his comfort.

   When he returned from the morning feeding and cleaning, Eren was still asleep. And though he had shifted, Von was still there, nuzzled between the couch cushion and Eren’s stomach while giving Levi a stern expression only an irritated cat is capable of.

   Now Von is at Eren’s heels, disinterested in Levi as he crosses the small sitting area. He doesn’t even attack the laces on his boots when he crouches to tie them. “I’m heading to the barn,” Levi says, “we need more sawdust for Von’s litter pan.”

   “Bring Eurus and Vaka more sugar cubes while you’re there?” Eren hops from the larder to the cabinet and pulls out ingredients like he’s collecting supplies for war. He glances at Levi. “Give Vaka extra pets too, and tell them the goodies are from me.”

   Patting the treats in his coat pocket, Levi nods and tries to will away the bemused tickle in his chest. “I’ve got some.”

   “Mm.” Eren fetches the frying pan from the cabinet and frowns at his wrapped right arm. “I’m going to try and wash up then make eggs.” He sniffs. “Jean always made them for Mikasa when he was an arse.”

   “That he did,” Levi says, “arsehole barely left any for the rest of us.”

   “Yeah, the idiot,” Eren says, sounding distracted.

   “Omelettes?”

   Eren shakes his head. “No, fried.” With a small frown, he shifts the jars of seasoning into a more suitable arrangement. “It’s dreary today, and I like the yolks. They remind me of the sun.”

   Bedecked in his outerwear, Levi nods, opening the door to blaring white and frost. He sighs as a gust of pitiless wind whips by and spreads flakes into the house. “I won’t take long.”

* * *

In the barn, it’s a modicum warmer than the brumal landscape outdoors.

   Levi’s not sure why he fled here. He changed Von’s pan two days before, and his animals had their feed and water before dawn. It’s just … it’s very, very quiet here—but not really. Not with the animals and the winds bashing against the walls and the creaking. Still, it feels quieter, and in the barn, Levi can usually clear his muddled head.

   Shutting the door, he sighs.

   Despite his early morning visit, Eurus welcomes him like an old friend, nickering and bowing his head as Levi approaches. Blinking thick lashes, he stamps his hooves excitedly. Levi’s lips twitch. Von might be pissed at him, but at least Eurus isn’t.

   On the other hand, Vaka, once again, seems to regard him with a bit of stern suspicion as he opens their stalls and lets them out into the barn. She turns to the hay and ignores him.

   “I know, you don’t need to tell me again.”

   He gives her a moment and removes his gloves, hobbling closer to Eurus while scowling at his aching left foot. He feels Eurus’ radiating warmth before his fingers brush the soft hair over his neck, appreciating the powerful muscles that flex under his hand. Eurus watches him with wise eyes as he shakes his head and snorts. If he were a human, Levi would believe he was chiding the maladroit command of his scattered emotions.

   Ignoring the imagined castigation, Levi reaches into his pocket. “I have treats. They’re from Eren.”

   They both perk at the name. Vaka moves closer, and Eurus sniffs at Levi’s neck as if he’s checking for Eren’s scent there.

   “He’s inside,” Levi says and opens his palms in offer. He looks at his feet and takes a breath. “I fucked up.”

   Eurus neighs. Vaka blinks and chews on her sugar.

   Levi isn’t above talking to the horses or his cat or his goats and chickens, and though he’s on the brink of spilling out his frustrations, he’s never given voice to this particular trouble. It’s simmered within since Eren was fifteen, but back then, Levi was able to store his fears. And now, after too long, they’re close to overflowing.

   Perhaps he left something of himself at HQ when he resigned. Maybe a part of him perished the day he thought Eren died and it hasn’t yet received the post informing it that it was all a cruel trick.

   Stamping his hooves impatiently, Eurus’s tail flicks. He blows a breath of hot air in Levi’s face. Vaka swishes her tail more agitatedly, still watching him. He imagines she asks, What did you do to Eren?

   She is about to get everything out of him. Already defeated, he whispers, “I’m scared,” and grits his teeth at the admission.

   Nudging Levi’s hand for another cube, Eurus snorts, and his ears stiffen. Levi passes them both another treat and ignores Kenny’s voice from a tiny dark place in the back of his head. Never let those witlings know you’re scared, kid. They’ll cut you to pieces and bury you under a tree. You’ve never seen a tree, have you?

   Levi grits his teeth, muttering, “Fuck,” as he shakes the unhelpful memories away. “It was fine,” he says, “it was good, and then it wasn’t.” He kicks at a few stray pieces of hay under his foot. He’s become such a liar, he thinks, recalling how stiff he was the evening before. How he said nothing when Eren kept poking-flirting-inviting. How Eren’s smile and the feel of his skin, at times, paralyzed not only his hands but his thoughts.

   Being surrounded by titans was nothing like this. Nor was the drop in his stomach or his pounding pulse during the war. When he wielded his blades and envisioned all the possible disastrous threads of a battle.

   Levi is hardened and practiced in the strategy of combat because he had to be. But mastery over that kind of fear is shaped by rote. Reaction and survival are etched so deep beneath his skin they’ve become a part of him. Matters of his heart, though not peculiar, are wholly unfamiliar; the blinding panic when he considers baring the last slice of himself and bidding Eren within, crippling. 

   His grasp tenses where his fingers are twisting in his jacket sleeve. War was easy compared to this.

    As he contemplates the precipice he stands on, Levi indulges Eurus and Vaka in more sugar and drags his fingers through Eurus’ mane. Eurus perks his ears toward him.

   “I was a coward and never answered him,” he says, watching his words dissipate in the barn along with his breath. Offering care in return, Eren asked to rub his back. “I wanted to say yes, but didn’t.”

   Vaka takes a cautious step closer, and nudges his hand, prodding him.

   “Fuck,” Levi says. “He said he missed me … I didn’t tell him I missed him too. Not this time.” He bites his lip. “Fuck.”

   Eurus sniffs and stamps his left front hoof beside Levi’s foot.

   “I know. I’m an arse.” His fist tightens at his side. “Damn it.”

   Vaka neighs loudly. Finally, she has something to say, and it only causes Levi’s guilt to widen.

   Uncaring of the horse saliva and sugar stuck to his palm, Levi runs his fingers through his hair. Tugs at the roots. A little harder on the white strands in his fringe and drops his hand. He’s always been the one doing things for Eren. Watching over Eren, saving Eren. Chasing Eren, tending to Eren’s injuries. Comforting Eren.

   Rejecting Eren.

   Swallowing his shame through a thickening throat, Levi looks at his feet. He remembers a Sunday morning when he and Eren woke to a gentle June breeze blowing through the opened window and the soft pattering of rain. Eren’s head was on his chest. He squeezed his arm around Levi’s waist and said he wanted to stay in bed all day and listen to it.

   It was tempting, but Levi denied himself. He denied them both, slid from Eren’s embrace, clicked his tongue at his puckish pout, made tea and breakfast, and then insisted they clean and oil gear all afternoon.

   He would take the offer now.

   He kicks at more of the hay and scrapes it into a little pile with his boot. There were Eren’s inviting looks as well. While sitting close on the couch in his office, or leaning against tree trunks under leaf-strewn boughs. The way Eren would stare at him with a lopsided half-smirk, he could barely control. How his eyes would flick between Levi’s lips and eyes.

   Levi could have taken what he wanted then, but he never did.

   And then there were the innumerable times Eren’s said something coy. Flirtatious enough it was apparent, but subtle enough Levi could ignore it.

   “I’m such a fucking arse,” he says and pinches his brow.

   Vaka turns and slaps him with her tail while Eurus only neighs loudly.

   Levi glares at Eurus. “Traitorous horse,” he says, scratching between Eurus’ ears to soothe the bite of his words.

   It’s impossible he hasn’t hurt Eren. He’s turned him away too many times over the years. Never overtly. Never aloud. Always by ignoring Eren’s actions or words or with an awkward subject change. Thousands of refusals, like tiny cuts littering Eren’s skin as do the scars now upon it.

   He grits his teeth at the revelation. At the imagery it evokes. He knew he was a prick, but facing the reality of what he’s done is agony. He’s been slowly carving Eren to pieces since the first yearning, yet unanswered look he ever gave.

   Taking a filling breath of ice, fur, and damp, he hands Eurus and Vaka the rest of the sugar cubes, and like any man searching for an answer to a problem, asks the horses for advice.

   “You both know him, should I apologize?” Levi’s head is shaking before he’s finished the sentence and Eurus’ grunt isn’t encouraging. Vaka looks as though she’s rolling her eyes at him. “I fucked up, but he’s the one making me breakfast.” He should buy more hens in the spring.

   Inconveniently—almost mockingly—unhelpfully, Levi’s stomach growls thinking about plates covered in Eren’s miniature sunshines and toast dipped in runny yolk. He should get back soon. “Fuck, I should get more eggs from the coop.”

   Ignoring him, Eurus chomps as he and Vaka share a look.

   Levi groans. He should punch himself.

   “Eggs,” he mutters, “a tasty breakfast for an arsehole.” He should be the one making the apology eggs, not Eren.

   Like Eren said, it’s what Jean did. At least a couple times a week it seemed. If Levi recalls correctly.

   Often, the sweet breakfast didn’t make up for whatever injustice Jean had committed, and he was relegated to his own tent or back to his old room at HQ, but he tried. In the interim, Mikasa was always quieter and stiffer and used fewer words than she usually did.

   That’s when Jean changed tactics and moved onto compliments and gestures that in the worst of circumstances only raised her ire.

   Eren told him he looked nice that morning. That he looked good in jumpers.

   He recalls with rising unnamed panic, one instance when Jean was particularly drunk at an HQ function. The next morning, Mikasa ripped her fingers from his grasp when he tried to hold hands and apologize, then scowled and continued on her way.

   Levi shakes his head. Eren was a bit over the top that night too. His tolerance for alcohol was impressive, but when he and Jean decided to reenact one of their past brawls, Levi dragged Eren out of the dining hall, and Mikasa took Jean.

   When he and Eren returned to his quarters, Levi stripped them both to their drawers before Eren collapsed, buzzed and heady on Levi’s bed, pulling Levi with him. They landed in a disordered heap, but Levi only sighed and wrangled them both under the covers.

   After they were settled, Eren snuggled closer, wrapped his long arms around Levi, took his hand, slurred “You’re so good for me,” and then was snoring in his ear within a minute.

   In the morning, Eren mumbled his apologies into Levi’s collarbone and made him fried eggs.

   It was so very domestic, and Levi told Eren he was forgiven despite there being nothing to forgive.

   Jean hadn’t gotten off so easily.  

   “Poor bastard,” Levi whispers, realizing he’s pacing.

   Vaka is twitchy. Like she’s trying to contain her energy. Meanwhile, Eurus is watching him carve a rut across the hay bestrewn ground, seemingly fascinated. Levi ignores them both for the moment, pressing the heel of his hand to his forehead, fingertips digging into his scalp.

   He teeters at an edge, reaching for something he can’t see.

   He’s going tip over.

   He’s going to fall. Like a line of his gear snapped.

   He’s dangling.

   Biting his lip, memories flit quick and successive behind his eyes as Vaka and Eurus fade.

   His skin tingles.

   He travels back a decade; reliving Eren’s rapturous surprise when he ordered him to his bed the first time. Then a hand seeking his under the blankets. Long stretches of quiet while wrapped in each others’ arms. Eren coming to his quarters simply to help clean. Eren laughing and chasing him through the trees. Eren tackling him in the grass, perching astride his hips, and smirking down at him. The phonograph playing while Eren cheekily insisted they dance. A heart beating against his back. His lips on Eren’s neck. Comforting Eren after his nightmares. Tears soaking his shoulder in the quiet hours of the night. Foot rubs in the bath. A cherished birthday teacup. Eren tracing all of his scars with his fingertips. Eren’s titan hand scooping him up as if he were a precious treasure and holding him to his chest.

   The memories slow to a blur. A visual cacophony of closeness, affection, and intimacy.

   The same kind of intimacy Levi has solitarily watched numerous couples enjoy over the years.

   Mouth going dry, Levi’s heart stumbles, jumps, sprints. Its beat-pounds in his head. His blood tingles in his fingertips. In his toes. In his ears. His skin is alight with his pulse as it sails through his veins. Hot and cold as his world spins until he’s dizzy.

   Scrunching his eyes shut against the whirling, he stumbles, catching himself against Eurus, and then clings to his mane. “How did I …” he mumbles, mouth feeling as if it was stuffed with cotton. “Eren thinks—he thought … he thinks … how did I not see it?”

   The smell of horse fills his nostrils. Fur strokes his cheek like living velvet. His mouth tastes like hay and saddle leather.

   “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.”

   He pulls his face away, walks in a circle, and tears at his hair. “What?” Levi nearly whimpers, swaying on his feet.

   His fingernails scratch at his undercut as he halts. In a wild gesture, Levi has never before made, his arms hug the sides of his head. Biceps pressing against his ears, shutting himself in his own head. The lines of wood grain on the wall of the barn coalesce and shift, as if they were floating on the surface of water, and then shoot back into focus like he was kicked in the head.

   His jaw shuts and drops, shuts and drops like Eren’s does when he wants to say something but doesn’t know how. “I … I—I’m a couple …” he whispers, the words slamming revelation into him like a titan’s fist.

   For the first time since his retreat to the barn, Vaka approaches, then ruffles his hair with a breath.

   “I’m a couple,” he repeats, mouth refusing to shut.

   Snorting, Eurus curls his lip and raises his head. Is he fucking smirking at him?

   Levi’s not sure his lungs are still working, but he glares at Eurus. “You think that’s funny?” he asks, feeling maniacal.

   Eurus snorts a second time.

   “I should have you gelded,” he mutters, dragging his hand down his face. “Fuck …”

   Empty threats to Eurus aside, Levi has more important things to worry about. Such as the fact that he’s been in a relationship for ten years and didn’t realize it. Granted, he thought Eren was dead for six of those years—but still.

   Flumping onto a crate, Levi holds his head in his hands. He’s sitting in Von’s clean litter shaking his head. His life is shit anyway. Why not complete the picture? “Give me a fucking minute,” he says, staring at his feet when Vaka nickers.

   No wonder Eren seems so miserable. As far as he’s concerned—probably as far as everyone has ever been concerned, including the horses—as unconventional as their relationship may be, they were together. Then Eren ‘died’ and returned. If he were in Eren’s shoes, whether they still were or not, would be the first thing Levi would worry about.

   His cheeks heat against the icy air, awash in a twinging tingle of bashfulness and guilt. He covers his face. Everyone knew but him. Because Levi is a fucking imbecile. Fuck, he remembers all the little clues. The huge gaping clues too. Like Mikasa always knocking on his door looking for Eren—and Eren always being there. Everyone saving them seats so they could sit next to or across from each other at meals. Eren’s sixteenth birthday, when Armin left them in the dining hall and told them to have a nice evening together. Hanji’s unceasing comments. How she cackled at him when he would attempt to shift the subject from Eren. Every time she called him the blindest fuck in the universe. Fuck … he really, truly is.

   He snarls at himself. Maybe he’s wrong, and he always knew. Perhaps obscured under the layers upon layers of Levi’s numberless faults, there is a crumb, a seed, a speck of clarity that realized.

   Working his jaw at the thought of his own blindness, Levi whines. An unwonted sound he has never before heard himself make. Today is full of firsts.

   Vaka noses at his hair.

   Looking up, he sees her expression is devoid of the scorn he swore he saw earlier. “Thanks,” Levi says, “I have to figure this shit out.”

   He needs to talk to Eren. But what can he say?

   “I’m sorry, Eren …” Levi whispers, trying to think of an icebreaker that will be a suitable precursor to stomping on his heart. “I’m sorry, Eren, I didn’t know we were already married. Please forgive my lack of notice.”

   Levi’s laughs at himself—at his absurdity—while scowling at the noises Eurus is making at his expense. He sounds like he’s giggling.

   He tosses a handful of sawdust in Eurus’ direction. “I’m a dickhead, you don’t need to rub it in.”

   Continuing with more babbled nonsense, Levi mutters, “Oh, Eren, I forgot, but how long have we been together?”

   And then, “Eren, I still love you and still consider you my boyfriend.” His nose is already wrinkling along with Vaka’s as he chokes on the last word. Boyfriend is stupid and insufficient and shallow. It doesn’t fit nor explain them at all. I love you, isn’t good enough either. Yes, he loves Eren, but those words barely brush the feeling deep below the filthy gash in his chest. And Levi’s never said it either.

   He draws a breath of barn and begins anew. “I’ll never be good enough for you, but you don’t seem to care,” he says breathlessly, “but I’m selfish, so I’m yours if you want me.”

   “Fuck.” Levi grinds his teeth and slams his fist into his thigh. Eurus and Vaka startle, then crowd closer.

   Everything he thinks to say is superficial and worthless and doesn’t begin to touch eloquence or coherence. The best he can come up with is, “I’m so sorry, I’m an idiot.”

   And he is an idiot. “He’s not going to be happy,” Levi tells Eurus and Vaka, deflating when he sees himself reflected in their eyes.

   Levi feels blind and stupid and more inept than he ever has before, but how will Eren feel? Eren will cry. He’ll be beyond embarrassed. Anger will come next with the first lull in the tears, and then more tears. And more.

   It doesn’t matter that it’s true.

   It doesn’t matter that Eren wasn’t wrong and Levi was too wrapped up in his own self-assured uncertainty to see what they are. It doesn’t matter Levi’s heart has been wrapped around Eren’s all along.

   He’ll never find the right words to repair this. “I’m a moron when it comes to talking.”

   Eurus doesn’t taunt him this time, but urges closer, nudges his nose against Levi’s temple, and then drags his wet snout over Levi’s chin. Of course, Vaka follows suit, running her nose over his brow.

   “Fuck! Stop.” He should never have let Eren teach them how to give kisses. “That’s not helping.”

   Levi kicks the crate with his heel, hissing at the pang that shoots up his leg. Kisses, fucking kisses. Of course, they don’t suggest something manageably complicated like Levi had wished for. Not something that requires a carefully crafted plan and a comforting mental list. Levi can’t tally off a series of actions or words and find Eren happily his at the end. It didn’t work last night. Even the horses know it’s shit.

   Kisses, he thinks, frowning. “It’s been a decade, Eren, would you finally like a kiss?”

   Eurus plants his lips on top of his head. “Shit! It’s … it’s—I don’t fucking know how.”

   And it might be the stupidest thing he’s said during their conversation. He knows how. It’s not as if he’s never done it. Granted, it was a long time ago. Before he even knew who Eren was. With Eren though, when Levi has thought of it, fantasized about it, pondered it, it felt new and insurmountable. Sacred.

   Mechanically, it can’t be much different than resting his lips on Eren’s neck. But it is. It’s not the same, and he tried two nights before, and his body wouldn’t move. All his muscles locked, and that needling voice that tells Levi he will profane Eren, pulled him back, like a hand grabbing a cat’s scruff and yanking.

   He rubs Vaka’s chest. “And what if Eren doesn’t want one?”

   Now Vaka sounds like she’s laughing.

   Levi nods, but he feels like a timorous cunt. Short of Eren actually putting his lips against his, he’s tried just about everything. Numerous times Eren bravely walked up to the line and held out his hands, silently offering himself. In return, Levi offered rejection disguised as probity.

   “It’s me …” He already knew it. His cowardice. His ineptitude. His fallacious excuses that he’ll dirty Eren. The fear of walking the last half step and meeting Eren where he’s been waiting patiently for all these years. Stoically poking Levi just a little, but never too far. Never sending him over the edge or crossing his last boundary. Wild, intense, emotional Eren has tempered himself in this, regardless the restraint has probably drained the last shreds of energy or hope he has. “I have to do it,” Levi says, squaring his shoulders.

   Levi could see the truth in his eyes the night before and this morning. “I’ve hurt him,” he whispers, panic dashing under his skin as he thinks, There’s only so many times you can refuse to take someone’s hand before they stop offering it.

   Eurus whinnies and blows a breath in Levi’s face. It’s an understatement. Levi’s probably broken Eren’s heart more times than the war itself.

   “I can’t lose him …”

   Shaking her head, Vaka makes a noise like a sigh. She gives Levi a long look with far too knowing eyes before she turns back toward her stall.

   “I won’t.” Maybe he can’t find the right words, but he’ll try. And if that fails, there’s always action. Levi’s better with that anyhow.

   Resigned. Terrified. Galvanized. Levi touches his hand to his chest and begins to tear away the bindings around his heart. His breath comes short and fast. He expects a giant fist to slam into the barn then snatch him up and swallow him whole.

   It doesn’t come.

   He smiles and scrapes his teeth over his bottom lip, staring at the rough walls still intact.

   Eurus shakes his head and steps forward, encouraging Levi to stand.

   Rising, Levi pets his head. “Thanks.”

* * *

“Almost done,” Eren says once Levi is back inside. The smell of frying eggs, toasting bread, and creamy herbed butter lightens the previous heaviness in the cabin but doesn’t erase it entirely. Gloom still sticks to the walls, thinner than earlier, but there nonetheless. It radiates from Eren’s mood. Discomfiture, some sorrow, and a bit of self-chiding confusion. The warmth doesn’t feel as warm, and the colors all look like they’ve been washed in translucent grey paint.

   Levi drops the sack of Von’s fresh litter by the door. Everything is always more difficult after an epiphany.

   Eren’s back remains to him as he begins the tedious motions of removing his outerwear. His fingers tremble with nervous anticipation as he unties his boot laces. “Smells good,” Levi finally musters. His voice sounds dry.

   “They like their treats?” Eren puts the toast in a basket. “They were always greedy for them.”

   “They’re spoiled.” Levi hangs his coat. He watches Eren while stripping out of his coveralls—eyes full and lips curving as Eren hops haphazardly, then gingerly plates breakfast. His hair is up again. Damp and fashioned into a gorgeously disheveled bun that reveals the gentle curve of his neck when he looks down to sweep crumbs from the counter into his hand.

   “Ready,” Eren says and braces himself against the edge of the sink. He looks to be contemplating.

   “Let me.” Levi hangs his scarf from the hook before he goes to the kitchen. When he has the dishes, one in each hand, Eren turns to face him. He blinks as the lines that frame his nose deepen.

   Levi tries to swallow down the nasty lump that’s taken residence in his throat. Eren’s eyes are red. The corners, the edges, the whites tinged pink. “Eren—” he begins.

   “I’m hungry.” With his face angling down to the right and away from Levi’s concerned frown, Eren hops past him.

   The plates feel like they’re weighted by the enormity of his new task. He looks at Eren’s perfect bursts of breakfast sunshine, now millstones in his incompetent hands. “All right,” he whispers on the way to the table.

   Now. Levi could do something now. Say something now. But neither perfect phrases, sentiments, nor platitudes come. He can’t ask what’s wrong. He already knows. He can’t apologize. He doesn’t know where to even begin. Action is simpler, but it doesn’t come either. Eren needs to know after everything, Levi is sure. That it’s not an empty apology or to repair the cumbersome awkwardness that permeated the walls of the house last night.

   “Thanks,” Levi says, trying to break the silence. He puts his napkin in his lap. “Looks good.”

   Eren shrugs, but smiles. “They’re just eggs.”

   “Tch.” Levi clicks his tongue. They’re gorgeous and perfect and made by Eren’s loving hands.

   “I’ll make something better for dinner.”

   “Tell me if you need anything from the cellar.”

   “Yeah.” Eren pokes at his egg and watches the yolk spill out like he’s looking for a revelation too.

   Levi ignores the swirling thoughts that demand he says or doing something, and cuts into his own breakfast with a soft thump in his chest when Eren gives him a gloomy smile and then kicks him in his shin.

 

I need a shave, let’s take a bath!

Levi shifts in his chair, adjusting the book propped on his leg. They aren’t playing chess, but Levi is staring at the volume on strategy once more. If it were upside down, he wouldn’t notice.

   Eren has a book too; Feline Care Basics, by Benjamin Brandybuck. He hasn’t looked at it in ten minutes. Instead, his attention has been divided between the fire and Von purring loudly on his lap.

   “Do you have a comb for him?” Eren asks, rubbing his eyes. Shyly it seems, he avoids looking at Levi.

   “I do,” Levi says, “should I fetch it?”

   Eren tugs his beard. “Not now. I’ll do it tomorrow.” His fingers toy idly with the fur on Von’s chest, and he frowns. “He has a knot starting.”

   “He’s prone to them. Doesn’t much like the comb.”

   “I’ll try anyway.”

   “Maybe he’ll be better for you.”

   Scratching his cheek, Eren hums and glares at his book, blinking likes he’s fighting to stay awake. He’s only a few feet away, but at the same time, he could be on the other side of the world. Off in one of those lands, Levi’s only heard about but doesn’t want to see.

   All day Eren has been floating like he’s trapped in his own head or daydreaming. His eyes are shielded and shrouded by purplish-grey. Still the same sparkling green-blue, but what’s inside them is beyond Levi’s reach.

   As the sun crept across the yellow-grey sky, Eren kept his focus mostly on dinner preparations at the kitchen table, muttering over vegetables while he tried to chop with only one uninjured hand. After that, he busied himself staring at the cat book and making snacks.

   “Tea?” Levi asks in an attempt to fill the silence. To pull Eren from the fog that obscures him. Levi doesn’t know why yesterday was—after everything through the years—the crux, but the space between them is filled with static. It’s going to crack with an explosion, like lightning. And Levi wants to be the one to break first.

   “Yeah,” Eren answers, but a flash of something sadder than the melancholy and frustration already there rolls over his brow and sullen mouth. “I guess.”

   Tea making doesn’t offer Levi any reprieve either. At least not from his own self-critical musings. He relaxes his fingers clutching the caddy and orders his pattering pulse to calm. It’s not helping.

   Counting up and down, he clears his mind of all the webs and dust. Swipes away the self-doubt with a little duster in his mind. Waiting for the proper moment is all he needs to do. Then, he can overcome his own irrational petrification.

   When he does this, if Eren rejects him, it will, without question, destroy him. Though regrets may provide more thorough and complete obliteration than a limited time with Eren could.

   ‘Optimistic’ isn’t a word Levi would use to describe himself, but when he returns, and the corners of Eren’s lips twitch, it’s like purifying bath water drenching his head. Or a toasty blanket. Surrounding. Encapsulating. Caresses of blind hopefulness, for once unhindered by his immuring uncertainty.

   His heart ceases to obey his orders when he hands Eren his share and their fingers brush. “Eren—” Levi begins and then loses what he was about to say, words swept back into the tempest in his mind.

   “Yeah?” Eren asks, brows rising as he brushes stray strands of hair from his face. He is breathtaking.

   “It might be hot.”

   Eren gives him a strange look but sticks his nose in his cup when Levi sits down. “Silver needle,” he says as his face hovers over his cup, bathed in steam. He inhales like he’s been starved of breath and closes his eyes. “It’s special.”

   “Black market.” Levi crosses, uncrosses, and crosses his legs, pleased with at least this choice. He’s done one thing right today. “You haven’t chosen it yet.”

   Shrugging, Eren glances at Levi then drops his attention back to Von perched on his thighs. “I was waiting.”

   A break in Eren’s voice leaves Levi struggling to focus on the golden tea swirling in his cup. He shouldn’t ponder it. Over-thinking hasn’t carried him too far where Eren is concerned. But he has an inkling his statement has less to do with chess and more to do with their odd relationship.

   “Saving it for a night when you take me in five moves?”

   Eren huffs a small gravely laugh, a hint of sardonic lamentation beneath his apparent lightness. “Yeah, it was something like that.”

* * *

Evening tea is a quiet affair spent staring without comprehension at open books. Levi’s contemplating actually turning his upside down or sideways—if only to prove a point to himself. Next to him, Eren fidgets, his fingers carding through Von’s fur before he rakes them through his beard. Back and forth; fur, beard, fur, beard, like he’s comparing the textures.

   Sighing, Eren yanks at the hairs on his chin once more, looking strangely vulnerable. He scratches with both hands—one on either side of his jaw and squirms in his chair. Tonight it’s not the usual pull or itch—a recent habit which Levi assumed grew along with the hair itself.

   “What’s the matter?” Levi sets his teacup down on the table between them with a soft clunk. It was a loaded question, but Levi’s own face is beginning to prickle just watching Eren.

   “It itches,” Eren says, fiddling with the hair on his jaw.

   “Of course it does. Your skin can’t breathe.”

   “I needed it to keep my face warm,” Eren says, eyes lowering to meet Von’s before they flick to his splinted wrist. “I really don’t like it, and I … I just want it off. ”

   Levi’s blood cools as they share a look.

   He saw a similar expression the evening they spent together before Eren went to Marley. When Eren was quieter than usual, his mood swaying from elation to downhearted solemnity, eyes heavy with woeful conviction. It sat on Levi’s skin that night—ignored but crawling like a November frost even as they slipped under Levi’s quilts at half-past eleven.   

   Until two nights ago, it was the last time they slept in the same bed. Years before, Levi didn’t understand it. He thought perhaps Eren was buckling under the weight of all that lie before them, but the next morning when Levi found he had disappeared, he was cursing through his sorrow at having missed it.

   Pulse racing, Levi watches Eren jitter and rearrange himself once more in his seat. If Eren were planning to leave, he wouldn’t want to shave. It’s something else, Levi thinks, though the thought does little to settle the unfounded panic blooming in his stomach.

   Dismayed, Levi clenches his fingers in the wool of his trouser leg, trying to mask his dread. “We can trim it,” he offers.

   In a gesture that comes close to mimicking Levi’s, Eren’s hand becomes a fist on his knee, trembling as if he were preventing it from flying. “No.” The tendons in his neck flex as he swallows. “I don’t want it anymore.”

   Levi feels his eyes widen. He wants to ask why—what the real problem is—though every instinct within demands he play along. “I have a good razor,” he says, then attempts to quaff his anxiety with a mouthful of cooling tea.

   The clench in Levi’s chest is stronger than he would like to admit. If he’s honest, there are other kinds of thoughts tangling around the foreboding trepidation.

   They’re like drops of oil swelling on the surface of water. A contrariety of alarmed apprehension and eager excitement.

   Eren’s beard has grown on him, but if this conversation is going where he thinks, by the time they say goodnight, he’ll see Eren’s face again. His soft, warm skin. His straight, strong jawline. He’ll see what Eren finally looks like fully a man.

   “All right,” Eren finally says, dropping his head until his escaped fringe hangs about his face. “I can’t do it all myself.” He holds up his injured right arm as if Levi forgot his broken wrist.

   “I’ll help you.” It comes out softer than Levi would like.   

   “Thanks.”

   “Steam will help.” Reticent, the corner of Levi’s lips twitch with guarded consolation. He sets his teacup aside and stands. “I’ll draw you a bath.”

 

Once they are in the bathroom and steamy water is filling the tub, Eren fiddles with the suspenders holding up his too big pants. He slips the leather straps off his shoulders and sits on the edge of the bathtub. “Think we can unwrap my ankle? You said it’s only sprained.”

   “I suspect it’s only a sprain,” Levi says with a raised brow. “But I want to see it anyway.”

   For the first time today, Eren is watching him. Intensely. Eyes fastened to Levi as he steps before him, following him down to the porcelain-tiled floor as he kneels and takes his foot in his hands.

   Levi works methodically, unwrapping the bandage, inhaling as he braces himself for what he might discover. It was swollen and purple-black the night he rescued Eren from his house. He hasn’t seen it since.

   Eren’s fingers hover over his shin, but he clears his throat and grasps a handful of his trousers, and then slides his pant leg up. For the moment, Levi keeps his focus on Eren’s ankle instead of the curious eyes he can feel boring into the top of his head.

   When the last wraps are unwound, Levi sets them aside. He and Eren both look, foreheads knocking together as Eren leans over.  

   “Shit,” Eren says.

   Levi looks up and finds Eren’s lips twitching in something close to a smile. “Okay?”

   Rubbing his head and looking nostalgic, Eren nods. “It’s fine. Sorry.” He straightens the white strand over Levi’s brow. “How does it look?”

   The flutter beneath Levi’s ribs is enough to halt his hands, but only for a moment. With the smallest of gestures, smiles, or glances, Eren has ever been able to knock Levi off-axis. As effortlessly as a breeze blows seeds from the trees in summer. It would be simple to allow it again, to fly away with it, but he’s done enough of that over the years, and he has Eren’s injury to focus on.

   The swelling has lessened, but the bruising has spread. If Levi had it his way, he’d order Eren to stay put and not to leave his chair or the couch or the bed. “I still don’t think it’s broken,” Levi says, prodding it carefully, “but you fucked it up pretty good.”

   Shoulders drooping, Eren sighs. His mouth has that familiar downturn at each corner, and the furrow between his brow is cutting deeper. “I stink.” He drops his pant leg and begins working his shirt buttons open. “At least, finally, I can have a decent fucking bath.”

   “Just be careful,” Levi says. He catches the slightest hint of his captain voice, and adds, “And don’t play with the faucet.”

   “I like sticking my toe in it,” Eren says, pouting. “And what if I need to add hot water?”

   Some of Eren’s cheek has returned. A hint of his brattiness. “Use your hand.”

   “What if I’m comfortable?”

   “Then call me.” Levi pauses for a moment to stare at the doorknob before he leaves. Von is walking back and forth in the hallway, on the other side of the threshold, like the big cats described in those books they pilfered from Marley, penning him in, daring Levi to retreat to his chair by the fire. His eyes are big, and his tail is up. He’s practically preening. All the animals are conspiring against him. “C’mon, Von. Move.”

   “Hey, Levi?” Eren says.

   When Levi glances over his shoulder, Eren’s still sitting on the edge of the tub, shirt discarded to the floor, long, slender fingers unfastening the fly of his pants. They’re already dragging so low he could probably just pull them off.

   Levi swallows. “Hmm?”

   “Come in with me,” Eren says without hesitation, sounding faintly desperate as he struggles with his trousers on the edge of the tub and strips to his drawers.

   Something kicks in Levi’s chest as he loses his voice.

   Eren has that deserted look again. Achingly so, like he’s fighting through something that pains him. As though Levi’s refusal would be too much. “I can’t get my back with one hand, or my left arm,” Eren adds, wrinkling his nose before his expression falls. “My armpit smells too.”

   Levi stares. Words still fail him, though he manages to wet his lips.

   He doesn’t want to say no to begin with, and Eren looked desperate enough when he asked for help with the beard that Levi knows declining the bath would be a foolish decision.

   Now Eren just watches, waiting. His eyelids are heavy, his mouth a tight line, brows pinched above his nose. His eyes are shiny, but he doesn’t stop looking.

   That tiny little voice inside Levi that usually is quiet is again, suddenly, very, very loud, and Levi’s heart is doing that thing where it patters hard, stops, patters, stops.

   Despite Levi’s own irrationality, he’s made a decision to conquer this, and it’s not as if they never shared a bath before. It’s possible Eren needs it, and this isn’t exactly strange for them.

   They’ve done this a hundred times before. Usually, when Eren was struggling and angry or breaking. After he was exhausted from long days of experiments. Those times he couldn’t express most emotions without yelling, and his dreams were filled with screams of anguish.

   Attempting to wet his dry mouth, Levi recalls Eren’s tears. Eren in bathrooms from the past, staring at the ceiling and whispering his thoughts from across the warm, clean, clear water. Knots worked from shoulders, backs scrubbed, and Eren’s kind fingers stroking over Levi’s ill-behaved ankle once he settled down and smiles—as small as they sometimes were—came again.

   As Levi spends a moment submerged in memories, Eren remains silent. If he’s surprised or bothered by Levi’s thus far non-answer, he masks it well. He keeps his eyes on Levi and nearly loses his balance trying to shimmy out of his drawers.

   “Shit,” Eren says. He’s perched on the tub, recovering balance with only one foot on the floor, bracing to regain his center as he kicks the last piece of clothing into the pile and stares at Levi.

   Now Levi is not only speechless but frozen.

   Not because Eren is naked and beautiful and yearning with sorrowfully pleading eyes, but because he is bare. Plainly, purely Eren, perfect and open, holding his heart out to Levi.

   It beats in Eren’s offering hands, more exposed than even his scar covered skin.

   Vaguely aware he’s showing himself, Levi bites the inside of his lip and drops the last shield an inch. “I—” He moves forward a step without telling his feet to do so.

   “Like we used to,” Eren says quietly, cutting Levi off. “I can rub your leg. I still have one good hand.”

   “All right,” Levi says, pressing his voice through his tightening throat. The bathroom is already steamy, and he turns toward the open door for two or three breaths of cooler air. “I’ll fetch another towel.”

   “Have any soap flakes?”

   “Hmm?” Levi turns, mumbling, “Soap flakes?”

   “Yeah, for bubbles?” Eren says. He shifts and dips his left foot in the water.

   “No, but I have oatmeal.” He should have thought of it earlier. “It’ll help your foot.”

   “If it gets me walking sooner,” Eren says, groaning, “hopping is hurting my fucking back.”  

   There’s the sound of gentle splashing over the tap filling the tub as Levi fetches the pouch of oatmeal from the cabinet. He uses it on his own ankle when it acts up, but not usually for an entire bath. Fuck it, he thinks in a moment when the anxiety drops. Eren’s windburned skin could use it as well.

   When Levi turns around, Eren is settled in the center of the tub, knees up to his chin, shoulders hunched. It’s an odd picture. He’s never been anything near modest. He’s always complained so much about being warm, he probably would have had tea and played chess naked in the evenings if Levi would have allowed it.

   “Here,” Levi says, holding out the bag. He sees his own fingers trembling, shocked he doesn’t feel it.

   He takes a breath and continues—relishes—not thinking for once as he unbuttons his shirt. Sailing through the motions, ignoring his quivering hands and the tear in his chest doing something strange. It’s throbbing again, but it doesn’t ache. Not like it usually does.

   He lets his button-down fall onto Eren’s pile of clothes, then his undershirt. Eren is swirling the bathwater with his good hand, concentrating on his task, averting his eyes—mostly—until Levi starts on his pants.

   Levi’s skin prickles, buzzes, as he unfastens the buttons, and then allows them to slip to the floor. Eren just watches, releasing a nearly silent gasp when Levi’s drawers join his trousers pooled on the glazed tile at his feet.  

   It’s freezing outside the tub, and goose pimples rise so strong, Levi’s skin stings.

   They’ve seen each other before, but he allows Eren his moment to take him in.

   For Levi, looking at Eren settled on the side of the tub was like seeing all of him for the first time.

   And now, as Eren treasures him in return—as if he is etching an eternal memory into his mind—the tension that’s been knotted inside Levi begins to abate. All these years and the last weeks twisting himself up so tight, and what he needed was this. To be naked and unguarded, stripped of everything but himself, meeting Eren’s glistening eyes while he sits in a bathtub.

   Eren doesn’t stop looking as he reaches for the tap. A slow, light motion, like the water extends beyond the bath into the rest of the washroom and he has to move through it. He wets his lips with a seemingly nervous flick of his tongue. “Not getting any warmer.”

   “That it isn’t.” Shaking his head to clear the heady fog, Levi steps in as Eren makes room, taking his place behind Eren how they always began in the past.

   “Let me have your foot,” Eren says once Levi is settled, glancing over his shoulder, reaching behind him with his left hand.

   Levi scrunches his toes into the small of Eren’s back. “I thought you smelled.”  

   Huffing, Eren sends a playfully stern glance in Levi’s direction. “I can tell it hurts. Give it to me.”

 

Sitting behind Eren with his leg slung over Eren’s thigh, Levi must admit his foot has been bothering him. He’s been ignoring it in lieu of spending time with Eren, fretting over Eren, and thinking of Eren. The ride to the destroyed house and back to rescue Eren then carrying him over his shoulder didn’t help the ancient injury along either.

   Levi groans when Eren’s thumb digs in wonderfully to the stubborn sore spot behind his ankle bone. He still remembers precisely where it is.

   Making a horribly grateful sound, he mutters, “Fuck.” It’s so good, a warm wave travels all the way up to his knee, but the bone-deep relief isn’t enough to distract Levi from Eren’s neck. The subtle curve of it, the hills of his vertebrae that look so delicate framed by his broad shoulders.

   He’s supposed to be washing Eren’s back, but Levi’s fingers have wandered up to Eren’s nape unthinkingly, and he’s taking far more time there than he needs.

   Eren’s breathy sounds don’t assist in moving him along either. Nor does the messy bun atop Eren’s head that’s stolen his hair away to reveal the soft skin beneath it. Even the now soapy, finer shorter wisps that have escaped are conspiring.

   “Too much?” Eren asks when Levi releases another restrained noise.

   “No.” His voice sounds like he swallowed a handful of pebbles. Raspy and coarse. “It’s good.”

   “Sure?” Eren’s grasp relaxes. His long fingers stroke over Levi’s skin, dipping into the hollows above his heel, making him melt. He shakes his head and makes a tutting sound that reminds Levi too much of himself when his calf tenses in Eren’s grasp. “You haven’t been taking care of it.”

   “It’s nothing,” Levi struggles to say.

   “Bullshit it is,” Eren says, “fucking stubborn.”

   “You’re one to talk,” Levi says, focusing on derailing the discussion. He smirks and spreads lather over a scar on the top of Eren’s shoulder. The one that was bleeding the day he came bursting half-frozen into the house.

   Over the last few weeks, while tending to it, Levi’s come to know the old wound and Eren’s pleased reaction to his touch there intimately. How Eren whimpers, goes limp and babbles broken gasps of “please” and “more.” And right now Levi wants to kiss the gnarled gash so much his lips tingle in time with the vibration in his chest.   

   Whining at Levi’s stroking fingertips, Eren willfully manages to continue the argument. “You always neglect yourself. You’re allowed to feel good too, idiot,” he says, fighting his boneless droop as he shifts his attention to the arch of Levi’s foot. Eren knows how sensitive Levi is there too.

   Brat.

   Skimming his fingers over the scar again, Levi hums a sound of disagreement but doesn’t argue. Eren can think what he wants. He’s probably right anyhow.

   “We’re soaking in oatmeal,” Levi says, attempting reassurance. “That’s all I do for it.” He works his thumbs either side of Eren’s spine, feeling the press of a rare self-satisfied smile.

   “You should have let me rub something on it,” Eren says and stops kneading Levi’s foot. The tips of his fingers paint a trail up Levi’s shin, stop, and then draw little circles. “I would have helped, you know. I still can.”

   “You’re helping now,” Levi says, and capitulates, “but yes.”

   “Yeah?” He speaks as if Levi might snatch the offer back. “Really?”

   “Yes, you can rub something on it.” Levi’s never accepted aid readily, and he’s never let Eren give much. He has asked very little of Eren except when he was forced to. And those circumstances were never pleasant, but he can’t continue making the same mistake over and over and over again.

   “Good,” Eren says. From his angle, Levi can just make out the lines around Eren’s eyes crinkling before he goes back to Levi’s foot.

   Inhaling the scent of oatmeal, soap, and Eren, Levi washes Eren’s back, his left arm, and the supposedly smelly armpit in shared contemplative stillness.

   For a time, Eren continues Levi’s foot massage, but when Levi starts squirming as he hits all the pressure points again, Eren’s fingers drift upward. He alternates between toying with the hairs on Levi’s calf, scratching lightly at Levi’s leg with his fingernails, and pinching his toes.

   Meanwhile, Levi’s fingers rediscover Eren’s neck.

   It’s surprising how easy touching Eren comes tonight. To be close. To taste the steam of their shared bath. To feel it when Eren speaks under his palms. It’s different than it was the night before.

   Tonight, it feels nearly intimate.

   Levi’s heart is still pounding, his fingers stroking Eren through tremors as the pulse drums in his wrists.

   Words aren’t as easy to find as they are during chess or meals, but a portion of the fear has left to some long-forgotten place Levi didn’t know he had. Dissipating, lifted away along with the vapors from the cloudy bathwater.

   He’s content with Eren exploring the scars on his leg while listening to his quiet breaths and skimming his hands over Eren’s clean, wet, warm skin. Levi’s not frozen and petrified anymore. In truth, he thinks, he might be exhilarated.

   For a moment, it gives him pause, a little tiny burst of elation, like an explosion under his ribs that fades in less than a blink to burgeoning warmth. The tear in his chest is shifting, its frayed edges finding frayed edges, like searching threads. It’s not close to healed, not even close to a scar—it may never be—but some of the hairline cracks in the web of fractures are sealing themselves shut.

   “Are they better?” Eren asks, voice overflowing, cracking the silence when Levi’s fingertips follow the weaving line of a scar down his left arm.

   “What?”

   “My scars.”

   “They’re better.” Levi pauses. “Much as you hate it, the rest is doing you good.”

   “Hmm, I guess,” Eren says, but the air changes, recast with pressing uncertainty.

   “Eren …” Levi begins, “what is it?”

   Eren wraps his hand over the edge of the tub, fingers flexing, struggling to dig into hard porcelain. He takes a deep breath. “They’re on my face too, ya know …”  

   Around Levi’s midriff, something squeezes. It forces a gust from his lungs. Not because he cares. Not because he’s bothered. Because Levi aches for Eren, along with the silent hurt that was in his voice.

   He pries Eren fingers from the side of the tub. “Turn around.”

   “They don’t bother me. It’s only a few,” Eren says, ignoring Levi’s order. “They really don’t, but I don’t want you to be surprised.”

   Just short of rolling his eyes, Levi sighs. “Shut up.” None of this is what he expected. Eren has never cared about things like this. He’s seen Eren with his face ripped off and with missing limbs. He’s seen him comatose for days while steaming from every hole in his body—whether he was born with it or not. “Idiot,” he says as soft as he can. He wants to force Eren to face him but clasps his shoulder instead. “Look at me.”

   While he wonders if Eren even thinks about the stupid shit he sometimes says, he watches him turn, trying to maneuver without wetting his bandage nor hurting his unwrapped ankle in the process. Of course, Eren sloshes water all over and splashes them both, but he lands unceremoniously on his arse between Levi’s calves, right arm still dry with his left leg bent and propped over Levi’s thigh.

   Levi grits his teeth. If Eren twitches his left foot, he’ll kick him in his testicles.

   Ignoring the urge to place a protective hand over his genitals, Levi takes a good look at Eren’s face. His beard isn’t remarkably thick, and he can see a few faint scars where the hair doesn’t grow just right or at all. It’s not the first time he’s noticed.

   It could be the question to end all questions. It could be a step in the wrong direction. Levi could be opening the door to a room furnished with misery that he can never escape. Then again, every moment he’s spent with Eren, he’s never risked enough. He drags in a settling breath, shuffles his own personal tumult aside, and summons a portion of himself he buried years before.

   “What the hell’s bothering you?” he asks.

   Fidgeting, Eren grabs the flannel and folds it, averting his eyes. His mouth opens and closes, and the lines between his eyebrows deepen. He looks fifteen and twenty-five at the same time. As though that furious young man Levi met a decade before is covering his older self like an encapsulating ghost.

   Reconciling this hurt boy sitting before him and the confident, flirty man who left Levi speechless with a hammering heart the day before is odd.

   Meeting Levi’s eyes, Eren shrugs. “You wish I was how I used to be, huh?”

   “What?” Levi sputters—actually sputters. Undignified and flabbergasted. “I never—” He stops himself and squeezes Eren’s shin in a gently scolding grip because it’s the closest part of him to grab.

   There are so many wrong answers to this question, and all the right ones take more words than Levi gives typically. He knows Eren isn’t talking about the scars. Not really. But he shouldn’t be surprised. They’ve been walking down the same path together hand in hand for years, and they’ve nary said a word about it. There was only so long Eren could hold his heart out to Levi before the proverbial, Look at it, you fucking arsehole! Take it! would come.

   Eren’s eyes dart from his hand clutching the flannel, to Levi.

   “No,” Levi says, but it’s not going to be enough. He knew before he said it, but every other response feels dangerous.

   Visibly relaxing, Eren tugs at the hairs on his chin. “You like me better now?”

   “No.” Levi sighs as quietly as he can. He wants to tell Eren he’s a fucking moron. People grow, but at his core, Eren’s ever been simply Eren. “You’re the same person.”

   “But …” Eren chews his lips and looks away, glaring at the lantern sitting on the shelf. “I hurt everyone.” He lowers his voice. “I was ruthless then.”

   “It was a fucking war.” Most people would coddle in this situation, but Eren doesn’t need coddling, and Levi’s no coddler. “People get over shit.” He shrugs and lightens his touch on Eren’s leg. “If they don’t, then they don’t.”

   “Did you?” Eren asks, eyes glinting in the low light, shedding the faraway look they had earlier. They’re intense again, the same way Levi’s always known them to be.

   What Eren’s asking about is something Levi would rather keep tucked in the back of an old cupboard. It doesn’t matter anymore. Eren left. He didn’t say goodbye, and when Levi’s honest with himself, he’s able to admit it hurt.

   Everyone who ever cared for Levi, everyone he ever loved left him or died. He’s been abandoned more times than he likes to think about. Starting with what happened at the brothel, through his childhood, his teenage years, and most of his adult life in the Underground. Then Furlan and Isabel died because of his own arrogant miscalculations.

   There were others, so many others, and he only shrugged and went on because it was all he could do and all he knew. Eren was—is—different, but in the end … he left him too.

   Levi runs his fingers through his hair, focusing on the streak of white when it falls back in his face, so he doesn’t have to focus on Eren’s mournful expression.

   It’s not as though he’s been perfect himself. He beat Eren senseless in the courtroom, and though he knows Eren would have perished without his showmanship, it was so much easier to do than it should have been. He still loathes himself for it. Not for kicking the teeth out of Eren’s head or for breaking his nose, but because it should have been difficult, and it wasn’t. Violence and spreading misery have always been easy for him.

   He can still see Eren’s expression the last time he saw him, after he kicked him in the face on the blimp before Hanji tossed him in the dungeon. It’s another thing he still regrets. Not because he didn’t agree with Eren that he deserved it, because he sure as fuck did, but because his reason for doing it has always been a lie. Worse, is Eren thinking he deserved it for a different reason than why he really did.

   He broke the rules, and he’s worthless so he’ll take Levi’s boot to the face. Meanwhile, it was a façade. And both he and Eren were truly liars.

   But it doesn’t matter anymore, it hasn’t for years.

   The memories wind something below Levi’s ribs. He digs his fingers into his chest to untwist it. “Yes,” he says, “I forgave you before you died.”

   Boy-Eren fades as the man Levi knows struggles back.

   “I’m sorry,” Eren says. “I should have told you.”

   “It would have been nice.” Since they’re being honest, Levi won’t lie to spare Eren’s feelings.

   Shifting closer, Eren moves through the cloudy water until he’s between Levi’s knees. He pulls his right leg up and rests his chin on his knee with a saddened air that seems casual. Like he’s too familiar with this feeling. His hair is falling in his face. It sticks to his sweaty forehead. He brushes a strand away and frowns resolutely. “You would have come with me.”

   Levi despises recalling how it felt. That rip in his chest spreading. How it affected him. Weakened him. Made him ache in a way he hadn’t before.

   He rubs at his clenching jaw. Denying it is pointless. “Right, I would have.”

   “And that’s why I didn’t tell you.”

   Pressing out a hissing little laugh, Levi digs his nails into his palm. He sounds like a snake. “So you were protecting me …”

   “No—well yes, but not from danger,” Eren says, eyes flashing, “from me.”

   Splashing water in Eren’s face would be inappropriate. And though, several responses run through Levi’s mind, none feel right. “It’s the past,” he says, at last, omitting the “bastard” or “arsehole” or “moron” which begged to be punctuation.

   “Is it really?” Eren asks. He seems skeptically hopeful.

   “For me,” Levi says, inching closer. Close enough he can feel Eren’s distress-quickened breath caressing his face. “Is it for you?”

   Finding Levi’s hand under the water, several emotions pass over Eren’s features. They soften and harden and soften again. “If it is for you,” Eren says, shoulders slumping as if he were trying to make himself smaller. “I’m sorry.”

   Levi’s squeezes Eren’s hand, skims his thumb over a prominent scar on his wrist. “It’s the past,” he reiterates more firmly.

   Eren nods at Levi, but he doesn’t smile. “I lied to you …” His fingertips twitch against Levi’s palm. “When I told you I didn’t want you to see me … I followed you. I was looking for you. As soon as I remembered,” he says, losing most of his air. “All I did was search. I wanted you to catch me.”

   It stops Levi’s breath as something like panic gives way to flutters. Somewhere beneath the self-defeating pile of detritus mounded inside, Levi knew Eren followed him. Looked for him.

   The tear shifts in his chest. For the first time, warmth spills from it. Pushes. Forces. Washes down his shoulders. His arms. His hands. It pools in his fingertips.

   Eren’s eyes are gleaming, glassy, sparkling along with a crystalline bead of water stuck to his cheek and the glint of little droplets trapped in his beard.

   There’s no thought as Levi reaches out with a weighted breath, fingers tracing Eren’s jaw, then the side of his neck, searching for his pulse.

   With widening eyes, Eren tilts into the touch, exhaling a whimpering breath that draws out until Levi finds it. It hammers, bangs, quickens against his fingertips as they draw closer. Eren looks lost and found for a moment as he swallows, leans forward a hair, back, and then forward once more.

   Levi’s thumb finds Eren’s bottom lip, pulls at it as his palm brushes Eren’s soft beard before his fingers grasp it.

   He thinks he hears a sharp breath when Eren closes his eyes, or maybe it puffs against his chin before his lips brush over Eren’s in spirit-filling connection.

   Levi is overflowing.

   The water is gone. The light is gone. Time is gone. The hard sides of the tub aren’t pressing into his knees. There are only Eren and the whimper he’s swallowing. And then teeth catching teeth. The tip of Eren’s tongue urging against his own, testing and tender and achingly slow. A hand pressing him back, Eren’s insistent weight crashing against his chest and stomach.

   Fingers twist into Levi’s hair as Eren mumbles in a whisper against his mouth, “You’re kissing me.”

   Levi can feel Eren’s grin.

   “Yes,” he says, and Eren licks half the word from right between his lips.  

   “You don’t have to.”

   “I want to.”

   Any pretense of hesitation gone, Eren’s next kiss is fevered and hungry. Levi is vaguely aware of water splashing over the rim of the tub when Eren rocks their hips together, hard and unrefined, his growing erection slipping over the crease of his thigh.

   Eren’s exactly how Levi expected him to be. Messy and eager beneath his hands. Stroking his tongue against Levi’s, greedy and promising and making wicked little gasps and whines that sound just like Levi always imagined they would.

   They’re like they are in his dreams. And Eren smells and tastes the same. But better. Like Levi was seeing it all in dulls before or half-colors. And Eren’s touches were half-touches. But now they’re blazing along Levi’s side, up his nape, while Eren nips at his lips.

   The fingers scratching and pulling in Levi’s hair are firm and material and careful and pushy all at the same time.

   They’re good.

   Real.

   “Have to move,” Levi manages before his teeth scrape across the hairs over Eren’s jaw fighting to meet skin. They’re going to hurt themselves in here.

   Eren’s groan trails off to a keening whine as he latches onto Levi’s throat, speaking between nibbles and kisses. “Levi, please—please fuck—I want this.”

   “Yes,” Levi says, sounding like Eren sucked the breath from his lungs. “You can have it.”

   “Fuck, oh fuck, please.”

   Eren’s brain doesn’t appear to be catching up. He’s sobbing and pleading, grinding into Levi’s thigh, spreading electrifying sparks everywhere. His right arm is probably soaked by now, and Levi tries to nudge them out of the tub and into the bed, yet Eren begs and doesn’t relent. It’s like trying to harness a storm.

   “Eren—fuck, Eren …” Levi finds Eren’s hand before it closes around his cock. He laces their fingers and squeezes—hangs on tight. “Eren,” he whispers again, hoping it will settle him. That he’ll see through the haze and finally catch on. “The bed.”

   “Levi …” he tugs on Levi’s ear with his teeth, clasping his arm around Levi’s shoulders, and then buries his face in his neck. “Bed …?”

   Ignoring the throb under his skin, his pulse pounding in his ears, Levi circles his thumb over Eren’s wrist. “Yes,” he says, “we have to get there … to the bed.”

   Eren sits back. The wheels begin to turn. He’s kneeling and panting with the tip of his flushed cock peeking out of the bathwater as if it needs to keep an eye on Levi too.

   “Yeah … the bed,” Eren says, looking drugged. His glistening eyes are almost all black. His cheeks are red. It paints even the tips of his ears and neck. Half his hair is wet, his bun is dismantling itself, and his lips are swollen and shiny.

   Levi watches the rise and fall of Eren’s chest as he towers above him, touching his fingertips to his lips. He’s probably hurting his ankle. Not that he likely feels it, but they need to move this out of the tub.

   “The bed,” Levi reaffirms, vocabulary and coherent thought significantly reduced.

   “The bed,” Eren repeats, lunging for more kisses, whispering, “but my foot,” against Levi’s lips.

   “We’ll get there,” Levi says, turning regretfully to avoid Eren’s tongue poking at his mouth. He pinches Eren’s hip. “Come on. Out.”

 

I’ll carry your dripping wet arse to the bed

Levi extricates himself from Eren’s grasp and the bath without too much problem, but Eren is struggling, trying to work his way to Levi without using his left foot, scrambling at Levi’s arms, whining.

   “Fuck, damn it!” Eren curses, flailing, “I have to get out.”

   It makes Levi ache—being wanted this much.

   “Come here,” Levi says, wrapping his arms under Eren’s. He’d roll his eyes if he didn’t feel just as desperate himself.

   Water spills over the tub’s sides, drenching the floor, but with Levi’s aid, Eren hurls himself toward him and wraps his arms around his neck, stumbling. Eren’s right foot slips on the tile. Levi keeps them upright, but it slams his back painfully against the sink.

   “Fuck this.” Grasping Eren’s thighs, Levi hauls him up. “I’ll carry you.”

   Eren’s legs are like a vice around his waist. He’s clinging. He’s slippery. He’s dripping wet. His nails are digging splendidly into Levi’s shoulders.

   And of course, Eren takes advantage of the friction, grinding himself into Levi’s stomach and blocking his view with an impassioned grin so ridiculously adorable, Levi wants to slam him against the wall and answer his rolling hips right back.

   He’s holding onto Levi so tight, he doesn’t slip when Levi uses one hand to open the medicine chest and blindly rifles around. He flings bottles and jars without care into the sink before he smirks as his fingers close around what he’s seeking.

   “What are you doing?” Eren whines, pressing kisses along Levi’s jaw. “I thought we were going to the bed.”

   “We need oil,” Levi says, “or are we getting in bed to read?”  

   “Leeeevvi …” Eren squeezes tighter, lips against Levi’s ear. He flicks the tip of his tongue over its edge. “I can’t—I can’t wait longer. It’s been years.”

   “Almost there,” Levi says, ordering his legs to move through the haze.

   Eren’s whiny and impatient and needful. He can’t stay still as Levi scrambles clumsily to the door, kicking over the basket of newsprint toilet paper scraps. They scatter under his feet, just as scattered as Eren is; grasping, pinching, kissing wherever he can reach like he can’t miss an inch of Levi’s skin.

   They bump into the wall as Levi steps through the door with Eren snickering between moans.

   The last obstacle is Von skidding in front of them meowing, then walking between Levi’s feet as he blunders through the hallway, trying to watch where they’re going with one eye over Eren’s shoulder.

   They careen into the doorjamb, but Eren still holds tight.

   “Shit, fuck,” Levi grits out.

   “Fuck, don’t drop me,” Eren says as they teeter.

   “Not going to drop you, nitwit, it’s fucking Von.” Levi almost trips over the threshold, holding Eren tighter and dripping water all over the floor. “Close the door. Keep him out!”

   Laughing in the crook of Levi’s neck, Eren reaches and pushes the door shut. It throws them off balance and Levi is so grateful the bedroom is small as he flounders through the last three steps, and they fall gracelessly to the bed.

   Eren’s still laughing. Laughing against Levi’s lips and his chin and his neck. Pulling him close, wrapping himself right back around him, and groaning once they’re flush. Like he was dying and getting to the mattress was the only thing that could save him.

   They’re wet. The top quilt is being soaked. The bottle of oil is in Levi’s fist lodged beneath Eren’s back, but Eren’s kisses are so full of ferocious longing it’s hard to breathe. And Levi’s not sure he wants to.

   When Eren rocks his hips again, Levi gives in. Tasting. Feeling. Inhaling. Breathing Eren’s breath as Eren gives him a messy, needy kiss—all wet tongue and lips, loud and starved with his beard prickling Levi’s chin.

   And then Eren is all there is again.

   Eren holding him, rutting against him, pulling Levi so close it feels as though their bodies will fuse.

   It’s still not enough.  

   Levi runs his fingers over goose-pimpled flesh, meets Eren’s thrust. Hisses when Eren pushes back faster and slides their cocks together. Once, twice, three times, tenses all around him, and says Levi’s name. He spills hot and sticky between them; jerking, and sucking on Levi’s bottom lip as his eyes roll back and shut.

   His head falls like a weight, and he pants, “Fuck” as he touches Levi’s face. He doesn’t even look surprised when their eyes meet. “Sorry,” he says with a maudlin smirk.

   For a moment, Levi just stares.

   At first, Eren writhes and tries to chase his lips, and Levi wants to indulge, but he’s waited a decade for this. He can wait just a few seconds—a few fucking seconds longer if it means looking into Eren’s eyes more open than he has ever seen them before. If he can take in the gentle light from the lantern painting his skin golden and glowing. If he can marvel at the paler pink where Eren’s teeth are scraping over his lip.

   Eren flushes darker. “What are you looking at?”

   “An impatient brat.” Levi finally tugs his arm and the oil from beneath Eren and then drops it on the bed. Hands free, he draws circles with his thumbs over Eren’s cheekbones. Rakes his fingers through his beard. Strokes down his neck, feeling the silky skin over his pulse.

   He’s beautiful like this. Breathing hard, heart hurrying, red all over, utterly fucked-out after only half a minute.

   He’s always so beautiful, and Levi has to remind himself he’s real.

   Eren looks like he’s thinking, pondering giving Levi one of those cheeky remarks he shoots at just the right moment. “I can come again,” he says, once again brilliant as the sunrise.

   “You’re not seventeen.” And Levi can already feel Eren squirming beneath him, using his legs to hold Levi closer like he’s going to prove it.

   “I can, and I don’t care if I do or not. I need—fuck—I need more.” His good hand is already slipping between them, sliding toward where Levi is throbbing. “Please.”

   Eren’s fingers are warm as they wrap around him, his palm covering Levi’s cock from the base to nearly the tip, and—like the little shit he is—he does terrible thought-numbing things with his thumb as he brushes it up the underside.

   “Oh shit,” Levi breathes, forgetting what he was going to say.

   Something about asking Eren precisely what he wants …?

   “Fuck me,” Eren says with a slow slide of his hand, stretching Levi’s foreskin back over the head. Like he knew just how Levi would like it. “Please fuck me.” He whispers it against Levi’s neck, and then his lips, and then his jaw. Sweet and vulgar and breathy. Almost serene.

   If Levi could form coherent thoughts, he might laugh. Eren, who was like a wild animal moments before; twisting and begging and moaning and biting and scratching, feeling as though he was going peel from his own skin is now cunning and methodical. Jerking Levi with vulpine strokes of his hand, delicate and perfect just the way Levi always longed for Eren’s touch when he allowed the fantasy.   

   “Shit, Eren …” Without his command, his hips are already driving forward, thrusting into Eren’s fist and Eren is already lifting his pelvis, letting Levi’s balls drag close to where he wants him to be.

   “It’s good?” Eren asks through a grunt.

   “Yes …” It’s more of a hiss than anything else. And yes, it’s good, and Levi feels like an idiot for waiting this long. But he doesn’t have time for regrets. Not right now. Not with Eren’s hand around him, and his tongue back in his mouth, and then his lips on his neck, and then right below his ear, sucking. This is good—so good—but he can wait for this. Being inside Eren is what he really wants. Eren needs to be connected. And Levi needs it too.

   Fuck, he needs to get closer.   

   “Please, fuck Levi, please.” Eren’s short-lived self-control falters. He’s rising against him squirming again, his lips and tongue wet on Levi’s collarbone, losing himself. “I’ve just—I just, I’ve wanted this since I was fifteen. It’s been so long. I want it so much it stings.”

   “I know,” Levi whispers. He already knew. As much as he thought he didn’t, he’s always known. Still, his heart twists and the gash in his chest binds itself closed a little bit more. “Relax.” He pulls Eren’s hand off his dick, presses it entwined with his own into the mattress and tries to calm him with a slower kiss while his other hand pats the quilt in sightless search for the oil.

   His fingertips find glass and cork just as Eren starts begging again. The bottle feels like a weighty prize in his hand.

   Levi struggles to his knees, but Eren goes with him, clasped around him, in his lap, heaving. He presses his forehead to Levi’s, looking into him, breath all but lost.

   “I want to be close to you,” Eren whispers, eyes glassy. “I’m going to fucking die if you don’t do it right now.”

   Levi smirks, trailing the tips of his fingers down his cheek in another bid to settle him down. “No, you’re not.”

   The moment of quiet and calm pleading is short-lived, and Eren is frantically wanting again, pushing closer, nearly knocking them off the bed. “Levi …”    

   “Slow down,” Levi says, regaining his balance before he drops Eren hard back onto the bed. He untangles Eren’s arms from around his neck and lays his hand over the center of Eren’s chest, holding him still, feeling his heart galloping under his palm so fast he imagines he can hear it. “Stay there, you’re going to hurt yourself.” He uncorks the bottle with his thumb. “And close your eyes.”

   “But I wanna watch.”

   “Are you sure?” Levi says, raising his brow and drizzling oil over his fingers. He drips half of it on the bed. “You won’t last a minute.”

   Eren gives him a half-hearted scowl. “But I want to see you.”

   “Very well,” Levi says, “but be a good boy and calm down.”

   And Levi probably shouldn’t have said that because Eren moans at the “good boy,” palming his hardening dick. But he nods anyway and breathes, “I’ll do anything” as Levi drapes himself across his chest and nips his bottom lip.

   “Good?” Levi asks, gently circling the sensitive skin in the cleft of Eren’s arse.

   “Yeah,” Eren says, “don’t tease me.”

   “I knew you’d be greedy.” Levi presses in, beginning to ease him open as carefully as he can with Eren whimpering and keening and swaying beneath him. Eager, impatient, and beautiful, and so hot and tight around his finger, Levi groans.

   Eren’s so keyed up, swearing at Levi and pleading. He probably would have skipped this part if not for Levi’s insistence. Then again, Eren hasn’t always been a bastion of good decisions. Especially not when it comes to injuring himself.

   “Levi,” Eren says. His eyes are half closed. Good. “More. I want another.”

   “Not yet,” Levi says right by Eren’s ear, touching and feeling in his search for something mythical while dragging his thumb down the skin under Eren’s testicles. “Relax.” He has to remind Eren again, and again, and again, and again as he stretches him until he goes boneless, a sob rising in his throat until it’s nothing but breath.

   “Fuck … do it again …” Eren says, and Levi grins against his throat. Yes, perfect, he thinks, stroking that interesting place inside he’s only heard people talk about in the barracks or during vulgar conversations in taverns, though never quite believed existed.

   Despite his surprise, it most certainly does, and Eren is melting and limp, arms clamped around Levi like he’s going to sink through the bed.

   He’s not quiet in any sense of the word, but orders and curses have given way to cries and whines and whimpers as Levi tests his own crumbling patience.

   When Eren shudders and his arms go slack, hands dropping to tug at the bedclothes, Levi cautiously gives Eren the ‘more’ he begged for. Eren’s wrecked and unraveling, and his eyes are closed with his hair spread about the crisp white pillow, and Levi just takes in this gorgeous man offering himself to him. His dark eyelashes fluttering against the curves of his blush-dusted cheeks, the strong line of his nose, the part in his lips panting hot breath over Levi’s face. This is for him. All for him.

   “Levi …” It’s all breath too. Warm and hinted with Silver Needle and biscuits as Eren’s hand strokes up Levi’s back, coming to tangle in his hair as his eyes slowly open. “Yes? Now?”

   “Yes.” Levi wants to be sure, he thinks as he sits back and slicks himself up, but he’s made Eren wait long enough, and he’s lying there stretched over the quilt with open awaiting arms, glinting eyes under half-closed lids, and a sentimental smile that says, Come here, and wrap yourself around my longing heart.

   And Levi goes.

   Levi goes where he’s always wanted to be. Skin to skin with Eren, so close, looking into each other as they slowly bind themselves together.

   “Oh! That’s—so … yes, yes, yes, yes …” Eren’s words drift off as he arches and pushes closer.

   It’s all Levi needs to move, gentle and attentive at first, holding Eren’s gaze and stealing chaotic kisses when Eren finds enough focus to use his lips.   

   Gripping Eren’s shoulder tighter, Levi rocks into him without elegance, faster, deeper, as Eren pulls him closer and closer like he’s trying to pull him into his chest.

   Eren’s quiet, panting and whimpering softly. Not like it’s not enough, but like it’s on the edge of too much. Overwhelming.

   “Okay?” Levi asks.

   “Yeah, yeah.” Eren sniffs, wraps his legs tighter around Levi’s hips, and pulls on his shoulders until their lips crash together again. His ribs move with arduous breath under Levi’s hand, heart thumping there too, hammering in answer to Levi’s.

   Eren’s so soft and bare. Exposed. Like he’s revealing a secret. Like this is what lies under all the fury and bravado. This tender, sweet man gasping into Levi’s mouth. Like Levi isn’t the only one ripping away the last layer.

   And Levi can feel him quivering all around him, trembling along with the little chokes in his whines. He kisses Eren’s chin, swipes away the tears trailing toward his smile, moving closer to completion and the place inside Eren he’ll never reach, but always wanted to be.  

   He’s so close, so close he feels it in his fingertips, in his toes, down his spine. But Eren has to go first. “Please, please,” Levi whispers, unashamed, throwing Eren’s begging words back at him.

   “Levi!” Eren says. He watches Levi, curls his hand around his arse, tries to drag him deeper when he’s as deep as he can get. Pulls, pulls, pulls until his jaw drops, his toes scramble on the backs of Levi’s thighs, and his body goes taut as Levi fucks him through it.

   Eren’s head plummets to the pillow, the length of him quivering.

   With his chest heaving and arms shaking, Eren skims his fingertips over Levi’s forehead, looking at him with a watery gaze. His chin trembles, but he smiles. “You’re so beautiful.”

   Levi’s heart clenches along with everything else, and it’s too much.

   “Eren …” Levi breathes, and then he cracks, sending all of himself into Eren in those last soul-piercing moments when he’s coming marvelously undone, and his hands slip from the thread.

   He presses his face into Eren’s chest, hiding against his immaculate heart because he might just cry. His eyes are damp and hot, and Eren’s gentle fingers painting stuttering swirls along his back and combing through his hair are making them hotter.

   “Levi,” Eren says softly, rolling them on their sides, folding the quilt around them. He heaves Levi up to press his face to his throat and buries his lips in his hair. “I love you.”

   Levi only clings to Eren tighter, trying to find air as his heart kicks and throbs in his throat.

   “You don’t have to say it back,” Eren says and kisses the top of his head, “I already know.”

   Levi nods against warm skin and sniffs, filling himself with Eren until he’s embracing him inside and out. “Me too.”

* * *

There’s a soft sound behind Levi’s ear, a puff against his neck, lulling him awake. It’s laced with lightness.

   “Levi?” Eren’s voice is rough and wrecked. “Are you awake?”

   “Hmm,” he hums, squeezing Eren’s hand. “Yeah.”

   “I thought …” Eren says, urging Levi closer, and Levi goes with it. Farther into Eren’s encircling arms, secure and warm in his absolute embrace. “I thought I might have dreamed that.”

   “No.” Levi smiles into his pillow. “Not a dream.”

   “Thank you,” Eren says, pressing a kiss behind his ear. “I would have tried that years before, but thought maybe … I thought maybe you didn’t like it.”

   “With you …” Levi says, quiet for a moment as he closes his eyes, “I like it.”

   “Mmm …” Eren’s hand glides over Levi’s waist, down his hip before he cups his arse. “Can I?” he asks and presses his lips against Levi’s neck. “I want to take care of you too. I want to be inside you.”

   Levi shivers at the twitch in his dick and the feel of Eren hard against his backside. He’s thought about it. He won’t deny he’s wanted it. It makes him vulnerable, he thinks; putting himself in Eren’s hands and letting himself fall apart. Then again, Eren’s already hopelessly unraveled him.

   He can’t muster more than a whispered, “Yeah,” as he nods.

   “Yeah?” Eren asks. The sweetly excited tone of his voice makes it worth how exposed Levi already feels.

   He lets Eren roll him over. Yes, he thinks. Yes, he wants this too …

   With Levi perched on his lap, Eren takes him. Eren’s louder this time, unrestrained, and his tears are now smiles. And he talks, oh how he talks. Babbling sweetly filthy whispers against Levi’s skin. Levi finds he likes this. The realization makes him tremble, but he likes how Eren is watching him too, being held in his long arms, pinned against him, surrounded. Eren’s hint of kind dominance.

   It lasts longer than the first time—though not by much. Levi falls first. Eren follows. Panting. Tensed. Moaning through clenched teeth then biting at Levi’s shoulder. They tip over in a tangled pile of each other, sticky and oily and sweaty onto the sheets.

   When they’re settled, with Levi’s thigh still draped over Eren’s hip, facing each other, chests still pounding, Eren looks at Levi and brushes the white streak sticking to his sweaty forehead from his face.

   “That’s—that was …” Eren’s stupidly adorable grin is back. He looks like stars are exploding in his eyes. “Fuck, I don’t know which way I like better,” he says, holding Levi closer. “Both were just so … fuck, you’re so beautiful.”

   And there it is again.

   Levi tries to hide his face against Eren’s shoulder. He’s too much, always too much. All his words flay Levi in the most painfully exquisite way, like he’s pulling all the gunk and ooze out of that infected wound in his chest and replacing it with love and kindness and devotion so concentrated it hurts. Healing it.

   “Hey,” Eren says, clasping Levi’s jaw in his hands. He doesn’t move, but Eren’s features soften at the emotional nakedness Levi knows is plain on his face. “Please don’t.” He kisses Levi’s forehead, speaking against it. “I know you don’t want to hear it—and I’m sorry, I’ll never say it all again if you don’t want me to, but now … today, just let me tell you.” He scratches his fingers into Levi’s hair, raking his fingertips down the stubble of his undercut, adding quietly, “Please. Just right now, and then you can remember, and you’ll know.”

   Levi’s nods, feeling Eren’s lips move across his skin. He squeezes Eren’s arm where his hand is resting. It’s frightening, so much so, it makes it hard to move, but Levi’s hurt Eren enough. He can allow this. And perhaps, he can say something in return.

   “Thank you,” Eren says. There’s a little sniff, but Levi doesn’t interrupt. “You are so kind, and I never told you, but you are … and your jokes always make me laugh, and I love your eyes and that you let me see you smile …” Eren inhales, and Levi holds tighter, heart sailing as Eren’s words sink into that long-rankling chasm inside. “You’re strong and amazing, and I love your little hands and your scowl and your spirit and heart. You’re a grouchy bastard sometimes, but I love that just as much too.

   “And …” Eren says breathless and watery. And Levi’s not sure if he wants to kiss him and devour all he’s saying to make him stop or continue listening. “I always wanted to tell you … so you know how beautiful you are.”

   Unguarded, dizzy, and trembling, words run away from Levi. None of them seem right or fitting. There isn’t one he knows to describe Eren.

   There are some that come close, but a long-simmering heart-ridden plea escapes instead.

   He holds Eren so tight it hurts. “Please, don’t leave me again.”

   “I won’t,” Eren says, and kisses Levi’s forehead. “I promise you, I won’t.”

 

Sunrise

One-and-a-half hours later, they are loping from the bedroom after Levi’s insistence they “get their lazy arses out of bed.” Levi’s moments of sentimentality have fled, and Eren is laughing again. He doesn’t seem to be able to stop. It’s infectious.

   “Von seems angry,” Levi says almost tripping over their hissing cat.

   “We locked him out of the bedroom all night.” Eren sways as he tries to reach down to pet him while still hanging off Levi. “We were dicks. It would be nice to give him a treat to apologize.”

   “Afterwards, we’re filthy,” Levi says, wrinkling his nose as he steers them into the washroom.

   “But what about Von?” Eren asks. And fuck, even his whining is adorable in the afterglow.

   “You can concentrate on feeding Von once we don’t smell like a couple of rent boys.” Levi should be repulsed. They haven’t cleaned up at all. They’ve slept in dirty sheets. They’re both oily, and dried spit and sweat sticks to their skin like a debauched adhesive. Still, lying together bound under the quilts, whispering precluded any pressing need to wash.

   “Fine,” Eren concedes, sniffing Levi’s neck. “By the way, I like how you smell.”

   Levi frowns through a snort, feeling the evidence of their ardor pasted to his chest, his stomach, the insides of his thighs. “Wonderful, but never again,” he says, “next time we clean up.”

   Eren shrugs. “I don’t mind it.” And if Levi is honest, grumbling aside, he doesn’t really mind it either.

   And he doesn’t mind another bath. One with Eren settled in his arms, stealing kisses and sticking bubbles on his chin and in his hair. He doesn’t even scowl when Eren tickles his ribs, and they splash water onto the floor. Instead, he laughs with a smirk he can’t hope to hide, and plots retaliation for later.

   Despite Levi shoving a flannel and bar of soap into Eren’s hands in an effort to hurry him, it takes twice as long to wash up as it should.

   Eren can’t keep his hands to himself, and Levi’s not any better. It’s what he imagines it would have been like to experience the conventions of ordinary youth. How it might have been if he hadn’t lived in the Underground when he was a teen and had known a first love; carefree, and without the ceaseless threat of neither violence, nor the perils of securing his next meal, nor maintaining a ramshackle roof over his head. Neither of them is a teenager, their lives haven’t been free of cares, and Eren isn’t a first love. He’s an only love. Still, Levi supposes, this is close.

   Or perhaps, it’s what it would have been like if he hadn’t been ruled by cowardice for so many years, and he and Eren hadn’t been in a war—then again, without that war, he would have never met Eren in the first place.

  

When the little bathroom suffuses with softer blue, heralding the coming sunrise, and the juncos begin to trill, Levi pours the pitcher over Eren’s head for the third time. “You still have soap on you.”

   Water cascades down Eren’s face. He whispers through the deluge as if volume will shatter the morning. “That’s because you keep getting it on me.”

   “Bullshit.” Levi examines himself, finding only clean, wet skin. “It was all you.”

   “It’s on your face,” Eren says, accusing. “Come here.”

   It’s probably some kind of trick to put more bubbles on him. Levi smirks as Eren tangles his fingers in his hair and tugs him closer until their lips meet. Levi sighs. He doesn’t want to go feed the animals. He wants to play in the bath with Eren until the water’s ice cold, and their skin is wrinkled.

   He feels Eren’s fingers trail the length of his spine. “Vengeance?” he asks, breathing the word into Eren’s mouth before he pulls back. “I know what you’re up to.”

   “I learned it from you.”

   “So you did.” Levi’s been caught, but he can’t say he cares.

   “I’m getting hungry,” Eren says, steadying himself with a bracing grasp of Levi’s waist. “Want breakfast or stay in a little longer? I could do either.”

   With the way Eren’s fingertips are stroking his skin, a meandering thought of skipping food stumbles through Levi’s mind. He closes his eyes when Eren nuzzles his lips over the pulse in his neck. They’re warmer than the water. “Eggs?” Levi asks.

   “And Silver Needle,” Eren adds.

   “Hmm.” Eren’s arms around him frighten away the impending chill, and he sinks a couple inches deeper. “Thought you were saving that.”

   “I was.” Eren’s eyes glint as he flushes pinker. “For this.” He kisses Levi’s cheek, his collarbone, his chin, and Levi’s never going to get enough of those.

   “For after a bath?” he asks.

   “For a happy morning.”

   Levi snorts. “What if last night happened during the day?”

   “Then for a happy evening.”

   Shivering, Levi coaxes Eren to lean against his chest. Breakfast can wait. “So you had plans?”

   “I—” Eren clears his throat and uses his toes to turn the hot tap back on. “A bit longer?” he asks.

   “We can.” Levi finds Eren’s left hand to link with his own.

   “Getting back to your question.” Eren’s voice drops to a whisper. “I had goals.”

   Luxuriating in hot water mixing with lukewarm, Levi feels Eren exhale. He traces the line separating the muscles down the center of his chest and stomach, plucks at the dark hair under his navel, feels the weight of Eren relaxing against him, kisses his shoulder, and sighs to himself.

   Eren hums like he’s mulling over a previous hurt. They’ve been so preoccupied for the last twelve hours, for a time, it was as though the pains of the past day—the past ten years—escaped him.

   “I was a pain in the arse,” Levi admits, poking at an island of lather floating in the water.

   “No, that’s not it,” Eren says. He taps a rhythm on the rim of the tub. “I was confused—it seems dumb of me now—but …” He tilts his head back and smiles, eyes looking wistful. “I thought you maybe didn’t—I mean … weren’t interested anymore.”

   “I was,” Levi says. “I am.”

   Eren presses Levi’s knuckles to his lips and holds them there. “I know that now. We’re both pretty stupid sometimes.” He sighs. “You know, I thought if this ever happened, that it would feel like something changed,” Eren says, “but it hasn’t really, has it?”

   “No,” Levi says, “not really.” Now that they’ve calmed and pulled themselves out of bed, it doesn’t feel much different to Levi either. More like they added the last dash of seasoning in a stew that makes it perfect, or like the final tooth of a gear clicked into place. Comfortable. Right. “I’m not surprised. I thought I would be, but I’m not.” And there he goes babbling again. Like orgasms are a switch to turn on his treacherous mouth.

   “What I missed most was holding onto you though.” Eren scratches his temple with the back of his bandaged hand. “You were the only person who ever did that. Who would lay with me and just listen, and not sit back and stare at me funny and tell me what to do.” He nuzzles his forehead under Levi’s jaw. “You’re the only one who didn’t make me feel like something was wrong with me.”

   “Bullshit.” Levi catches a few beads of water in Eren’s beard. “I told you that you’re a fucking idiot a time or two.”

   “It was more times than that, but it’s not the same.” Eren laughs, yet the surety in his voice sounds adult enough that Levi thinks Eren should be the one with grey and white hairs. Perhaps near-death does that to a person or knowing you’re going to die, then don’t. Then again, in some ways—a penchant for occasional childishness aside—Eren’s been wise beyond his years all along. “You only said it when I was being a fucking idiot anyway,” Eren continues, stretching his leg to turn off the tap. The water isn’t steamy again, but Levi doesn’t give a shit. “Most of the time you just gave me hugs and let me ramble until I fell asleep. That’s all I needed.”

   Levi missed that too when Eren was gone. Their closeness, the embraces, dancing, moments as small and short as a brush of hands in Levi’s kitchenette during tea making, or chess. Levi’s gone most of his life without anyone touching him affectionately, not that he ever looked for it or would have sought it out. He didn’t with Eren either, they just fell into it, but he knows it never would have happened with anyone else.

   “I needed it too,” Levi admits, yet the words come out stiff. It’s not the kind of proclamation he’s used to making, but at the moment, in the bath with Eren, the thoughts he usually keeps hidden escape. He’s lost Eren once already, now he has a second chance, and he won’t squander the currency of a miracle on possible future regrets.

   “Nobody else touched me so kindly.” Eren shrugs in Levi’s arms. “I didn’t want anyone else to, but you treated me like a person even when I was stupid, and you never looked at me like there was something wrong with me when I was an arsehole or a blockhead. Even when I made you furious or deserved it.”

   “I’m sure there’s someone out there who deserves you more than me,” Levi says, “but you’ve always been stubborn.”

   “Now you’re the blockhead.”

   “When it comes to you, that’s an understatement.” Twisting his fingers in Eren’s hair, Levi tries to distract himself from how raw and exposed the conversation makes him feel. “Shit … I’m bad at talking, but …”  His heart is in his throat, pounding, yet they need to talk about it. After so long, they can’t build their relationship on obfuscation and Levi’s uncooperative mouth. “I—I fucked up a lot with you.”

   Turning to face Levi, Eren frowns, looking indignant. “So did I!” He lowers his gaze to their still linked hands and draws a deep breath. “I was worried I screwed up the other night when you gave me the massage. Did I do something wrong? Was I an idiot again?”

   “No, you didn’t. You weren’t.” It’s all Levi can say for a moment through the stuttering in his chest. He was petrified when he was rubbing Eren’s back, but now he isn’t. At first, in the bath the night before, and then in the bed, Levi didn’t much realize it, and what cursory realizations he did have about not being scared, their fleetingness was attributed to being in the moment. Still, they have yet to return. He runs his fingers through his hair, foraging for a way to explain.

   “Good,” Eren says, shaking his head. “I don’t want to fuck up again.”

   “You didn’t, I did,” Levi says without calling himself an idiot. It will only make Eren argue. “Eren?”

   “Yeah?”

   “Fuck,” Levi begins. He pauses on a discordant breath, realizing how awful he is at this, but allows Eren to retake his hand, and trudges forward. “Remember when we were in the cave?”

   Eren frowns. “The first time I hardened?”

   Levi nods. “And I told you that you had to make a choice …”

   “We were all gonna get burnt,” Eren says. His eyes flash with the same hesitance turned purpose Levi saw that day, only it’s a bit distant. Diluted. “Or we could’ve all fucking died.”

   “Yes, but you said you wanted me to let you do it, just that once,” Levi says. Eren only nods, lips parted slightly, leaning closer; quiet, patient, waiting for Levi to go on. “And then you did, and you ran.”

   “I remember that too,” Eren says, “but what does that have to do with—”

   “The other night,” Levi says, “I didn’t run.”

   The dripping tap echoes in the silent room. Eren’s eyes narrow, searching Levi’s before his lips part and he inhales. “Oh …”

   Jokes aside, far be it from anyone to ever seriously call Eren stupid. Levi can see the realization cross his expression, the thinking frown melting away as his features soften in tender comprehension. Levi didn’t bring up what else Eren said before he saved them all; that for once, he wanted to believe in himself, but he doesn’t need to.

   “You wanted to run,” Eren says, struggling for the last bit of reassurance he needs, “but you couldn’t.”

   “Yeah.”

   “If I had known,” Eren starts, “I wouldn’t have—”

   “No,” Levi says, “It was good. Sometimes I need a kick in the arse.”

   “I’ll try not to forget that.”

   “Eren, I think you already know that.”

   “Maybe.” Eren smiles and moves closer. “It wasn’t what I was trying to do.”

   “I know that.” Levi’s left looking into green eyes inches from his own that glint with prankish delight. He inches back against the tub. There’s nowhere to go. “Not again. Don’t you dare.”

   Eren rests his left hand over Levi’s ribs, though this time, his fingers don’t tickle. “I’m not going to.”

   Levi’s eyes narrow. “I already need to mop.”

   “I just wanted to look at you.” Eren toys with Levi’s white streak, his features crinkling so sweetly Levi’s skin is alight with the weight of Eren’s eyes. He forces himself not to hide. “Have I told you how much I love this?” Eren says.

   Levi’s breath stalls on a voiceless shut the hell up, but he wets his lips and whispers, “I like this,” deflecting and combing his fingers through the wet strands of Eren’s long hair.

   “You like the bun best.” Eren’s brows rise, and Levi strokes his thumb through his beard over the dimple in his cheek. As much as Eren’s sweetness makes him feel stripped, he loves seeing Eren look this purely happy. When it’s like his heart is a flame that grew, burning brighter, shining from every bit of him. “I can tell,” Eren says.

   “Yes.” Levi’s cheeks heat.

   “Then I’ll put it up.”

   Levi nods, composure returning. “This spot …” he says, kissing under Eren’s ear right behind his jaw, “I like seeing it.”

   “Oh.” Eren whimpers, which only makes the prospect of soon dressing worse. “It’s sensitive.”

   He kisses it again. “Yes, it is.”

   “Levi …” Eren whispers. He says it in that new voice Levi is just getting to know since last night. The one that’s somehow softer and thicker, and resonates from his chest and his throat.

   For once, Levi really wishes he had a farmhand. “I know,” he says, “but I have to feed the animals. It won’t take long.” Levi peers up at Eren from beneath his dampened fringe. “After that, what do you want to do today?”

   “I want to hold you,” Eren says, “all day.”

   Levi raises his brow. “You won’t be bored?”

   “No.” Eren scoffs, looking at Levi as though he were a madman. “We could read too … you could read to me. Like you used to.”

   “Feline Care Basics?” Levi asks. He tries not to snort. “After chores.”

   “Sure,” Eren says, with a dramatic groan Levi knows is mostly for show. “Breakfast first?”

   Smiling faintly, Levi nods. “I still owe you apology eggs.”

 

Another attempt at shaving

That evening, back in the bathroom, Levi scrunches his face and looks in the mirror. His cheeks hurt from smiling too much. The ridiculous, awkward grin that rarely, if ever, tries to come out has been in a battle to annex the geography of his face since before sunrise. The one that looks awful and is too broad. The one that makes his teeth ache from being exposed and the wrinkles around his eyes cut like cracks in dry earth.

   All that incredible brat’s fault, he thinks and goes back to stropping his best razor.

   Eren’s already freshly showered and steamed, beard trimmed. He’s sitting in the kitchen waiting. Levi can hear him talking to Von, apologizing again for them locking him out of the bedroom for the night.

   “We’ll open the door next time before we go to sleep.” This is the fourth time Eren has promised.

   “He’s going to be spoiled,” Levi calls, turning the blade and running it down the soft leather.  

   “He was lonely all night long,” Eren chides, adding softly, “weren’t you, Von? You’re such a good boy.”

   “I’m sure he slept on your chair.” He runs the razor up, runs the razor down, and then inspects its glinting edge.

   “He was cold.”

   “He’s covered in fur,” Levi says, stepping from the bathroom.

   Eren has Von in his lap, and they make such a picture. Von looking up at Eren adoringly, blinking his big green eyes, and Eren looking adoringly back, scratching him behind his ears, whispering praises about Von’s long, silky fur, smiling conspiratorially as he assures there will be extra scraps tossed under the table all the rest of the week.

   Oh, how Levi loves this man.

   “Sure about this?” Levi asks. He’s torn between adoration of the scruffy hair on Eren’s chin and jaw, and curiosity. He hasn’t seen the skin there in six years. Not since Eren was a teenager, driven and terrible in his selflessness. When somehow—regardless of Levi’s own horrific experiences by the time he was the same age—Eren always looked far too young to shoulder the cruel burden he bore alone. The gentle curve to his cheeks and the dichotomous innocence in his eyes back then drove the stake of that knowledge further into Levi. Like a twisting blade. Always in the quiet moments; when Eren was in his chair in Levi’s quarters, in a shared look across a room surrounded by others, or when he was painted in shadows and sunlight as they lounged under leafy tree branches.

   Levi swallows a sigh. It’s the past.

   Eren rubs his hand over his cheek. He grins. “Chop it off,” he says, raising his brows. “I wasn’t sure at first, but I’ve got it in my head, and it looks like shit now anyway. I didn’t trim neatly.”

   Levi can see the scars on Eren’s face better as he places the razor on the table and then rolls up his sleeves. “Most of it’s shorn off.”

   “Amazing what I can do with a pair of scissors.”

   Surveying the table, Levi rubs the back of his neck. Eren’s arranged everything neatly. The shaving cake in its pot, the shaving bowl, towels, and Levi’s badger-hair brush. Off to the side, the kettle is on the trivet cooling. Eren’s shirt is hanging over the back of the chair, and without it, he is distracting.

   Especially now that Levi can look openly. Now that he can caress and kiss and nibble and suck.

   He bites his lip and pours water into the bowl, submerges the bristles to soak, and leans against the table’s edge in hopes a casual posture will help provide an illusion, so Eren doesn’t realize he feels anything but.

   Wringing his hands, Levi watches Eren pet Von. He’s wound up as tight as he was a day ago, almost as tight as he was the first day they had cocoa. Eren’s hands have been on him since sunrise and his hands on Eren in turn, the cleaning isn’t yet finished because Levi read to Eren snug in his arms, then they laid on the lumpy couch kissing for an hour, and they’ve already dirtied the replacement sheets they put on after breakfast. Shaving Eren shouldn’t send his heart racing and his hands trembling this way.

   Eren kicks Levi's toe. “Blade that dull?”

   “Mmm …” Rearranging the items on the table, Levi clears his throat. “Might as well use a butter knife.”  

   “So this is a big deal.” Eren shrugs when Levi swishes the badger in the water.

   “It’s been a while.”

   “Since you helped me shave?”

   “Seven years,” Levi says, flicking the anticipatory anxiety out of his fingers. He needs his hands to be steady. “Six since I’ve seen …”

   Planting his hand on his thigh, Eren pushes himself straight and stretches. “It’s just my face, Levi, you’ve seen it before,” he says. “It’s okay.”

   “Yeah, it is.” Levi shakes his head at himself and smiles.

   “And I’ll look like a little shit again.”

   Levi closes his eyes to keep from rolling them. “The beard doesn’t help you in that regard.” He tilts his head toward Von as he pours a few drops of water over the shaving cake. “He’s going to get cream on him.”

   “I’m sure you won’t be messy,” Eren says, smirking.

   “Tch.” Levi shakes the excess water out of the brush. The bristles are soft now. Perfect for Eren’s face. He nudges his legs against Eren’s knees. “Put him down, I have to get closer.”

   Eren doesn’t argue about that. He lights up and urges Von to jump to the floor. “Go find your chestnut,” he says and spreads his legs.

   Levi steps between them.

   He could allow Eren to wet his face himself, but this is caring, and as much as Levi loathes to use the word; it’s pampering. Eren won’t lift a finger in this.

   Raising his chin, Eren holds Levi’s gaze. His lips curve when Levi circles the bristles over his face. “Nice …” he whispers.

   “Doesn’t need much,” Levi says, “you have a remarkably soft beard.”

   “I guess.” Eren glances at his hands in his lap when Levi prepares the shaving foam.

   “Changing your mind?” Levi asks.

   “No,” Eren says, “I’m surprised is all. I thought maybe you didn’t like it.”

   Levi’s hand’s pause their movements. “Why did you think that?”

   “You hated it the last time.” Eren lifts his chin again so Levi can begin applying the cream. “I thought it might remind you.”

   It’s true Levi disliked that thin, silly little beard Eren had at nineteen. His hair was greasy too, and Eren was a filthy mess when they pulled him out of Liberio. Perhaps he didn’t have an opportunity to bathe while he was ‘undercover,’ but he resembled a street urchin when he climbed onto the blimp. It infuriated Levi.

   “It doesn’t,” Levi says, breath slowing. “Let me get your neck.”

   “I’m glad. It does itch, but last night I thought it would make you happy if I got rid of it.” Eren’s fingers brush over Levi’s hip as he lifts his eyes and they meet Levi’s.

   “We won’t get through this if you keep that up,” Levi says, ignoring the tingle spreading across his skin. “Tuck your lips in unless you want to eat shaving soap.” Swiping lather over Eren’s mustache when he complies, Levi picks up the beard conversation where they left off. Better to say it while Eren has to keep his mouth shut for a moment. “I wouldn’t forsake you over a beard … if it wasn’t obvious, I like it.”

   Eren nods, his nose knocking into the brush, leaving a dollop of cream on the tip. “I want you to like it,” he says when Levi gathers up more lather.

   “I do,” Levi says, “but it’s still your face. Do with it what you like.”

   True as that is, Levi’s felt the soft hairs tickling his neck and his jaw and his chest. He knows what they feel like threaded between his fingers. He’s heard the irresistibly unchaste groan that builds in Eren’s chest when he uses it to tug his lips to his own. He knows now how it feels brushing his thighs when Eren takes him in his mouth. “I won’t complain if you grow it back though.”

   “Mmmm.” Eren is glowing, giving Levi an immodest look that all but says, I know what you’re thinking. “I kind of like how it looks anyway.” A smile surrounded by smooth white cream peeks through as Levi rinses the badger and sets it aside. “I’ll grow it back,” he says, stroking his hand over Levi’s hipbone once more, looking ridiculously mischievous with sparkling green eyes above a face full of soap. “Since you enjoy it so much.”

   “Dipshit.” Levi swats Eren’s knee. “You ready?”

   “Been ready.” Eren’s caresses don’t relent, neither does his grin. Levi can’t blame him. He feels similar, but the cream won’t stay fresh forever.

   Removing Eren’s hand from his hip, Levi squeezes it. He doesn’t want to let go, yet sets it on Eren’s lap, hoping he’ll leave it there. “Now stay still.” He takes up the blade, holding it between them, and raises a brow. “Think you can keep your hands to yourself?”

   Eren huffs. “I’ll try.”

   “Be a good boy,” Levi says and swipes the first stroke of beard away as Eren gasps. Going by Eren’s reaction to the phrase both now and last night, it was the worst thing to say. Still, Levi can’t help himself. Eren’s responsiveness to his voice and words, to the subtle changes he can feel in his own expressions, to a simple brush of his fingers over Eren’s skin is too filling and warm in his chest for him to stop.

   “I’m trying not to talk,” Eren says as Levi cuts away more hair and cleans the blade.

   “Try harder.” Levi hasn’t even finished Eren’s left cheek before he’s reaching out and touching again, fingers ghosting along Levi’s waist. It’s so touchingly absurd Levi can only wheeze. “Sit on your hand, I don’t want to slip.”

   “You won’t,” Eren smirks, looking precisely like the troublemaker he’s set himself on being.

   Sighing, Levi rinses the cream and bits of beard from the blade and dries it. “You have more faith in me than you should … and you’re squirming.”

   “I’ll behave.” Eren shoves his left hand under his thigh. He says he will, but Levi shakes his head. It’s a bit difficult to believe.

   “Just try.” He swipes his thumb along the edge of Eren’s jaw. There’s a small patchy spot there. Probably one of Eren’s scars.

   Carefully, gently, Levi cuts the hair away, pulling Eren’s skin taut, distorting his smile. His animated expressions make the task more difficult, but there’s no use in telling Eren to wipe the smirk off his face.

   What’s revealed below Eren’s dimple is a faint, shiny scar, shaped like a little letter ‘Y.’ “Pretty,” Levi breathes, drawing his fingertip along it. He’s wanted to say that since he first saw the scars, to tell Eren how beautiful they are. How beautiful he is. He’s said it a number of times since last night, and it still doesn’t feel like enough.

   Perhaps someday it will lose its novelty, its specialness, become worn out … or maybe the words will taste different on his tongue, and he’ll have to save them as a rare bedroom whisper. But today is not that day.

   Then again, maybe that day will never come, he thinks when Eren’s glinting eyes flick up and catch his. Eren’s so soft and open. His knees squeeze either side of Levi’s thighs, and Levi slides his thumb over Eren’s cheek. Levi knows they don’t bother Eren, not really, but maybe Eren only expected him not to find them abhorrent. To simply be unbothered. Perhaps he didn’t think Levi would see beauty in the imperfections. That he would cherish them.

   Cutting the remainder of the hair on Eren’s jaw and the left side of his neck, Levi finds the jut of the bone beneath his ear. Eren still watches him as he traces the smooth skin there. The angle is sharper than it was last he saw it, littered with a few faint nicks, and as Levi suspected, the last bit of baby fat has fled from his cheeks.

   “Do I still look as lovely?” Eren asks, frees his hand, and holds the towel out to Levi.

   Never once has Levi laughed this much in a single day. “You have half your beard left, you look beautiful and ridiculous.”

   “We could leave it like this.” Eren shrugs. “Best of both.”

   “Ludicrous.” Levi kisses him. Just a chaste press of lips that leaves him with lather on his chin. He snatches the towel from Eren, wipes the soap away from his mouth, cleans the blade, and attacks the hair on the right side of Eren’s face. He’s too close now for more bawdy shenanigans. In his mind, he can envision what Eren will look like, but he craves to see it with his own eyes.

   Eren’s hand is back under his leg, and he closes his eyes, then lets Levi tug at his skin while he works in soundless concentration until all that remains is the hair above his lip and on his chin.

   “How do I look now?” Eren asks, cheeks straining with trapped laughter. They’re even turning red from the exertion.

   Levi snorts so hard he covers his mouth. “Like a cutpurse.” He turns out his pocket. “I’ve got no coin on me.”

   “I could just steal your trousers instead,” Eren says, his growing grin surrounded by the silly goatee still stuck to his face, “your shirt too … and your socks.”

   “Idiot,” Levi says, “I’d like to see you try.”

   Eren’s eyes blaze at the challenge. He’s nearly vibrating. His feet tap a rhythm on the floor, arms twitching in his fight to stay still against the urge to touch. He looks like he’s going to burst. “I bet you would,” he says, nostrils flaring and chest heaving with the building pace of his breath.

   Levi moves closer, legs pressed right up against the edge of the chair. “I’d break you in half,” he whispers, circling his thumb over Eren’s smooth cheek.

   “Why don’t you show me then.” Eren isn’t behaving anymore. His hands move to Levi’s hips, head tilting as his eyes follow his fingers tracing along the waist of his slacks on their way to fasten around his arse. He drags his teeth across his bottom lip. “I’ll take your drawers too.”

   Flirtation and intimacy still haven’t returned to being scary, and Levi feels cocky confidence build in the wake of their playfulness. Placing the razor aside, he grasps the hair on Eren’s chin, shaving lather slipping between his fingers. “This thing can stay for a moment.”

   “Oh fuck … shit.” Eren eyes go wide as Levi lunges for him, and then slings him over his shoulder as if he weighed nothing.

   So much for being ‘old,’ Levi thinks, eyes flicking in defiance toward the white hair draped over his brow. “You’ve no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into.”

   Eren’s fingers twist in the back of Levi’s shirt, untucking it from his pants in what seems to be an ill-planned attempt at its theft. “But my arm,” he wails through his laughter, “my foot! It’s not a fair fight.”

   Levi smirks. “Then you shouldn’t have picked it.”

* * *

Later that night, close to bedtime, they lie together on the lumpy couch with Von curled up beside them. They’re swathed in the armchair blanket, somehow managing to sip evening Oolong while nearly horizontal. Levi can hear Eren’s heart where his ear is pressed to his chest.

   “It’s been a long day,” Eren says, twirling Levi’s white streak around his finger. “A good day.”

   “So it has.” It’s been so good, Levi’s sure he could stay up for the rest of the night.

   There’s no chess tonight. Just the fire in the hearth, soft pajamas, and warm, tangled limbs. Their bedroom antics were followed by tea, a nap, and then what was technically their third attempt at shaving.

   Now Eren’s face is bare and smooth and soft, and Levi can feel all the heat of his skin there.

   Eren looks as beautiful as Levi thought he would too. No less attractive than he was with the beard—merely different. There’s a peppering of faint scars mostly along the soft-sharp edges of his jaw and in subtle hollows of his cheeks, but none do his brilliance a disservice. They’re a testament to Eren’s life. A tale scribed on parchment in a lost language only Levi can read.

   He looks at them now, leans his head back, resting on Eren’s shoulder and collarbone, cradled against his bicep.

   Eren sets their cups aside, and Levi doesn’t mind. Despite the fragrant bouquet and flavor, he was barely giving his drink attention.

   “I’m going look like a beet if you keep staring at me like that,” Eren says, covering his eyes.

   Levi rolls his. He’s been caught—because Eren always catches him—and he doesn’t care about that either. Just as he doesn’t care about the flush he can feel heating his own cheeks, nor that he feels more than naked under the gaze Eren gives him from between his fingers in return.

   Tomorrow he might, though at the moment, after so many years of hiding and deflecting and restraining, he can’t bring himself to. Levi doesn’t answer Eren with words. Instead, he kisses a jagged little scar on his chin. It leads all the way up to his lip, and it tastes faintly of the soft herbal salve Levi smoothed over Eren’s face once the beard was gone.

   Smiling under the edge of Levi’s lip Eren mumbles, “I lov—” and stops himself. Levi smiles and kisses the mark again. Eren’s said he won’t keep saying it, though all day he’s had a hard time keeping it in. Levi doesn’t mind that either.

   Just as the declaration comes difficult for Levi, it comes easy for Eren. Eren doesn’t force or beg Levi to say it so Levi won’t force him to stop, regardless of how it makes him squirm.

   It doesn’t matter that it still sounds strange to his ears when it’s directed at him. That there’s still that slowly healing gash knitting itself together which tells him he’s not worth it in a stuttering little whisper. Eren doesn’t believe that. Eren would tell Levi he was wrong. That the sharp pain which festered in his heart for years is mistaken.

   He kisses another little scar on Eren’s cheek, turns in Eren’s arms, heart pounding and swelling with warmth when Eren holds him tight.

   “Bed?” Eren asks and presses his lips to a scar on Levi’s hand.

   Levi scrapes his teeth over a mark beneath Eren’s ear. “Yes,” he says, cheeks aching. He’s going to kiss every last mar on Eren’s skin tonight. “Yes, bed.”

 

Holy shit, I can walk!

It takes two more weeks before Levi deems Eren’s ankle healed enough to allow a test.

   They’re standing in the open space between the kitchen and the sitting area while Von watches them from a short distance away, a silent supporter, casting his eyes on them curiously, cocking his head. They probably look strange. Eren’s arm is slung around Levi’s shoulder, he’s hunkering down to match their heights, and he’s fidgeting.

   “Can I just put it down already?” Eren asks, fingers digging into Levi’s bicep. “I probably could have walked a week ago.”

   Eren’s likely correct, but Levi is Levi. Where Eren’s concerned, he’s always approached things differently. He knows what it is that he does. He sees himself hovering over Eren comatose in bed after experiments, scowling to himself when other’s came near. Eren crying in the back of a wagon, and Levi sneaking him a handkerchief when no one else would see. Eren’s fierce green eyes looking at him as though he was something more than a fuck up whenever Levi did anything for him. A beautiful boy holding his hand in bed after battles, and Levi checking every inch of him for damage that never lingered. He watches bread rolls passed from his own plate to Eren’s, more teacups than he could ever hope to count thrust into Eren’s shaking hands, a switchblade laid across Eren’s palm.

   “Levi?” Eren asks, tilting his head, so their eyes are level. “You okay?”

   Nodding, Levi curls his bottom lip until he can pinch it with his teeth. “Go ahead,” he says.  

   Eren puts his left foot on the floor, and Levi feels his weight shift against his side. He feels stiff and a bit reluctant. Probably because of Levi’s earlier fussing. Which was extreme even for him. He knows that, but Eren’s sprain was gruesome. Dire enough Levi’s still surprised it wasn’t broken, and there’s a chance it is indeed a fine fracture. It’s still purplish and swollen around the joint, it aches regularly—despite what Eren claims—and the bruising on the top of his foot hasn’t faded, obstinately remaining like a sickly greenish-blue stain.

   “Feels all right,” Eren says, bouncing. Levi can sense he’s ready to move, swaying forward and backward as he tests the joint.

   “Don’t be reckless,” Levi warns, moving ahead when Eren takes a step, letting his momentum carry them along as Eren shambles forward until they reach the door. “How’s it feel?” he asks as Eren’s beaming grin stops his heart again.

   “A little sore,” Eren says, sliding his arm from Levi’s shoulder. He turns and faces the armchairs. “I think it’s just stiff, is all.”

   There’s a twinge in Levi’s chest, a pang of worry, but he gulps down the irrationality, and shifts, facing the chairs with Eren as well. A smile curls his lips as he looks at their seats while picturing Eren walking in with tea and a second helping of chess biscuits. “Do you want some shit for it?”

   Eren shakes his head, the bun atop the crown of it swaying to and fro. It always looks like his hair is about to escape the captor strands he wraps around it and cascade to his shoulders, yet for a reason beyond Levi’s comprehension, it never does. “It’s not bad,” he says, “I can live with it.”

   “A few more weeks until it’s fully healed.” Though Levi’s not sure if it ever will be. He is no doctor, but he flicks his eyes toward his own left foot, which didn’t look nearly as bad as Eren’s ankle did. That wasn’t a break either, but there’s not a day in the last few years he hasn’t scowled at it. “You still have to be careful.”

   “I know, I know. It’s not like it’s going to fall off,” Eren says, squaring his shoulders. He points across the room. “Go over there.”

   Levi frowns. “What for?”

   “Because I want to do it myself, and I don’t want you trying to help.”

   Rolling his eyes, Levi picks at the run in his jumper sleeve. He’s not that overprotective. “Fine,” he says before his wool-socked feet cross the floorboards through their own hobble, avoiding Von as he tries to beat him to the spot behind Eren’s chair. Of course, Von wins. “Brat,” he mutters at Von as he rubs against his leg.

   Standing now in his little cottage that he always thought of like a tomb, he looks across the way at the door with Eren standing beside it. He relives the innumerable days he’s moved through it alone. So far, he’s walked with Eren only a handful of times across that threshold, and all were when he was ruled by uncertainty. The night he caught Eren attempting to nick his split pine, the first time Eren visited when he took him to the barn to reveal Vaka, when he walked him out after they shared hot cocoa, and when—unknowingly—he carried a broken, hypothermic Eren into what has become their home together. They’ve never strode in or out hand in hand. Never when Levi could steal a kiss standing on the plank of rough-hewn wood that divides their haven from the world outside.

   “Ready?” Eren says from across what is probably only ten feet, though it feels farther. And even without the eager impatience in Eren’s voice, his expression tells Levi everything he needs to know. The little pinch in his brow while his eyes widen, the perked purse in his smiling lips as he fiddles impatiently with the bandage on his right wrist.

   “Should I send you an invitation?” Levi says, arms at his sides, hands already tilted ceilingward, ready to catch him should he stumble.

   Eren doesn’t need it, he thinks as Eren walks with a marked limp, feet moving faster as he draws nearer. Neither of them needs it, but somehow they do too.

   Falling against Levi in a crushing embrace, Eren bounces them hard against the chair back. Von meows, annoyed, but Levi ignores him. Eren is laughing with his lips pressed to his neck, right over his pounding pulse.

   “You did that on purpose,” Levi says, “you can walk fine.”

   “You were worrying too much.” Eren snorts. “You should have seen your face.”   

   “Keep in mind you still have a shitty limp. It’s worse than mine.”

   “Now we match,” Eren says.

   “Fucking idiot, you shouldn’t strive to match me.” Levi pulls Eren closer, holds on tight in case he’s full of shit. “Does it hurt?”

   “Sorer this time,” Eren says, “but it’s good enough for me to see Vaka and Eurus and help with the cleaning.”

   Levi makes a sound in his throat.

   Pulling back a hair, Eren stares Levi down like he’s pretending he’s the Captain now. “I’m not going to fuck it up more.” He kisses him. “I get bored waiting for you too,” he says, and there’s another kiss right on Levi’s cheek, Eren’s week-old stubble scratching marvelously against it, “and you need my help.”

   “Tch.” A click of Levi’s tongue has never carried the burden of more bullshit than now. “I’ve managed fine.”

   Eren’s brows draw down, he pushes the hair back from Levi’s brow, supporting him with his arm around his waist. He wets his lips and presses their foreheads together. “You have,” Eren says, and it’s such a lie. Such a beautiful lie.

   So beautiful Levi can’t say a word. All he can do is press a kiss to Eren’s lips, slipping his fingers into his hair to ruin his perfectly imperfect little bun. Good, he thinks, he can watch him fix it again before they go to the barn.

   “So this means I don’t have to wrestle you again?” Eren asks. He sounds like an absolute brat.

   Levi cradles Eren’s jaw against his hand, scratching at his scars and sprouting beard. “You can help me today.”

* * *

When they make it to the barn, a twenty-five-year-old Eren once again reminds Levi of a fifteen-year-old Eren. When he was trying to impress and be the perfect soldier.

   He goes right to work, shovels shit with a splinted wrist like Levi will make him do it again if it’s not perfect, feeds the animals, and fetches clean water. The injuries slow him, but he wants to work—needs it even.

   Eren’s spent the last half month frowning or sneering at his ankle each time he couldn’t assist Levi with chores. A pile of discarded books he’s paged through has been arranged and rearranged next to the lumpy couch more than once a day, and Eren’s bitten his nails down so short, Levi winces merely glancing at them. Worse yet, is the crease his brow, and the dispirited purse of Eren’s lips each time Levi leaves to tend to the animals, and he asks if he has the sugar cubes.  

   Each day when Levi returns after feeding and cleaning, Eren always has apple slices and cheese prepared, that he offers to Levi with drooping shoulders and guilt-ridden eyes. Sometimes in the evening, Eren is broody and quiet, and despite the budding new aspect of their relationship, Levi can’t entirely dissuade him from his pouting.

   Now, with the opportunity to work before him, Eren is manic. He’s given Vaka and Eurus treats, but he’s more focused on beating Levi to each task. Prying the sack from Levi’s hands, and filling it with fresh sawdust for Von’s litter pan, sweeping aside insignificant bits of hay that find their way back to the ground, calling out, “I’ll do it” when Levi fetches the other broom.

   When he nearly trips in his exuberance, Levi props a hand on his hip and sighs.

   Eren will keep going until he hurts himself. And his hobbling gait doesn’t soothe the errant frets that have niggled Levi since they awoke. He has to stop him. “Eren …”

   “Hang on,” Eren says, “I’m almost done.”

   “No, spend some time with Vaka,” he says with a steadying hand on Eren’s shoulder. “She wants more sugar cubes.” He grasps his satchel from the hook and dangles it between them. “There are carrots in there too.”

   “But there’s still work left.” Biting his lip, Eren looks from Vaka to the shovel in his hand, then at Levi.

   “You’ve done enough for today,” Levi says, “and they could both use grooming.”

   In truth, there isn’t much left to do. The floor of the barn needs a bit more sweeping to clean up stray hay but other than that, the morning chores are finished. And even if they weren’t, Levi rather prefers the nostalgia of the idea taking root in his mind. He fetches two grooming brushes and hands one to Eren, trapping his index finger with his thumb when he reaches for it. “Like we used to,” he says.

   Eren doesn’t argue. It could be the slightly stern line Levi can feel in his brow, or it could be Eren missed this just as much.

   

With Vaka and Eurus at the grooming station, Levi stares around the barn. Eren is already humming, immediately engrossed in brushing the velvety fur on Vaka’s neck. He glances at Levi and offers him a soft smile that brings out the lines around his eyes. “She missed this from me.”

   “Of course she did,” Levi says, running his brush through Eurus’ mane. Not that Vaka didn’t appreciate Levi’s attentive care in Eren’s extended absence, but surprisingly, given his animated and sometimes explosive personality, Eren has a shockingly delicate touch. One that Vaka seems to prefer. Levi’s used it now. He craves it even, but years ago, it was still breathlessly perplexing to reconcile Eren’s big beautiful hands wrapped so gingerly around his own or when his long slender fingers daintily brushed his while they played chess and passed cups of tea.

   “Can’t wait to take you out again,” Eren says to Vaka, smiling wistfully when she nuzzles her snout into the palm of his stroking hand.

   There’s a curious feeling of nostalgia that tugs Levi back. Beyond six years, beyond seven or eight. It more closely resembles nine and a half, or even more. When Eren always sought him in the stables instead of mingling with the other youngsters. Levi remembers when it first began; during that month when they were training at the old Survey Corps HQ. At first, he believed Eren was just bored, being away from his friends, but it continued on. Even when they were on the move, settling in temporary camps, Eren always joined Levi in mostly calm silence with the horses.  

   He’s not sure why he thinks of it now as he brushes Eurus while watching Eren. Eren doesn’t much resemble the boy he was then. For one thing, he’s even taller, and Levi smiles at that until he has to bite his lip to force it away. His eyes are the same vibrant green, though wiser and regrettably haunted at times, but still ever Eren’s. His hair is a touch longer than it was at nineteen, though his muscles are filling out again, balancing with his broad shoulders. His jaw is strikingly that of a full grown man, and the fuller beard is growing back too.

   Now Levi snorts. Though fifteen-year-old Eren once made an attempt, he didn’t grow a whisker.

   “What’s so funny?” Eren’s asks, keeping his eyes on his task.

   “Nothing.” He shifts to the other side of Eurus, closer to Eren. “I was thinking.”

   “About me?” Eren says, accusation clear in his voice as he moves around Vaka until they’re side by side, and Levi’s sure he can feel the heat of him. “Tell me.”

   “Very well.” Levi scratches the tip of his nose and catches Eren’s eyes. He feels even shorter like this. Flanked by their two strong horses with Eren towering beside him, raising an eyebrow until it’s hidden beneath his hood. “I was thinking about when you were younger.”

   “Oh great,” Eren says, shoulders slumping. He flicks Levi’s white streak from his forehead. “You mean when you didn’t have this?”

   “Exactly. Before you had this.” He scratches at Eren’s stubbly chin.

   “I bet it was something dumb I did.”

   “Not exactly,” Levi says, “I was thinking about the first time you tried to grow a beard.”

   Eren rolls his eyes, though his cheeks are already coloring, and Levi’s sure if he pulled his hood off, the tip of his ears are too. “It was a bet,” he says, pressing his palm to his forehead, “with Jean.”

   “I know,” Levi says, “you mumbled about it in your sleep.”

   “Fuck …” Eren tugs his hood forward until it’s almost hiding his eyes. “Do I still do that?”

   “A little,” Levi says, smirking.

   Eren scoffs and turns back to Vaka, and Levi knows it’s to hide the crimson that’s probably bleeding all the way down to his chest. “At least I don’t fart in my sleep like you.”

   Levi snorts. “You do that too.”

   “It’s those canned vegetables,” Eren says, snickering, though he doesn’t deny it.

   “A few more months until we can get started on the garden.”

   “I’m going to make us so much good shit to eat this summer.” He turns toward Levi again, mouth straightening into an emotion-heavy line. “Do you think once the snow melts we can go check my old house?”

   Levi frowns. “Did you leave something there?”

   “Nothing important,” Eren says with a hesitant twitch of his lips. “There’s a good pot though. It’s big and seasoned well.” He shrugs. “It was a trade, and it was too big to use cooking for myself, but now that I’m cooking for three it might be useful.”

   “Are you going to buy Von a chair too so he can sit at the table as well?”

   “He likes me and my cooking.”

   “Your cooking’s not bad.” Levi fishes out another carrot from his bag, breaks it in half, and hands Eren a piece. “And all the animals like you.”

   Shaking his head, Eren drops his voice to a whisper and glances at Sven and Ava. “Not Sven, I don’t think he likes me much.”

   Levi stretches on tiptoes closer to Eren’s ear. “That’s because he thinks he’s in charge. He doesn’t like anyone except Ava and Vaka.”

   “Maybe he only likes girls.”

   “Perhaps.”

    Eren shrugs and goes back to grooming. “Give him time, he and I are going to become friends.”

    And Levi doesn’t doubt it.

 

Sunset

They stay in the barn until they’re frosty, and Levi has to drag a mildly protesting Eren back to the house. The rest of the morning is spent occupying themselves with another bath while Levi grumbles that they’re feeding the animals and mucking the stable beforehand from now on, then breakfast.

   After that, the afternoon is no different than any other. They read while snuggled under blankets on the couch, Eren plays with Von while Levi takes stock of their supplies, and then there’s dinner followed by roasted chestnuts.

   When the sun completes its descent and Eren fills the sink to wash dinner dishes, Levi heads to the barn, only to be welcomed back inside by Eren and steaming tea when he returns.

   

It’s early still, but after the most minimal amount of persuasion, Eren convinced Levi they needed their evening Oolong in bed.

   That went just as expected, Levi thinks with a kick in his chest as he sips cold tea he can’t begin to mind.

   “We can do it again,” Eren says, fingers tugging at the hairs on Levi’s forearm.

   Levi snorts. “Then we’ll definitely need another bath. My skin’s getting dry.” Though given the reason for the extra bathing lately, he’s not going to complain.

   “Chess instead?” Turning his head, Eren kisses Levi’s cheek then props his chin in his hand. “There’s other stuff to do than fuck.” He glances at the wall clock. “It’s still sort of early.”

   “Von will be pleased to know you feel that way.” Levi peers at Von staring at them from the end of the bed. They’ve only just let him back in the bedroom. His tail is swishing irritatedly, and Levi swears his green eyes are narrowed at them in a judgmental glare.

   “I’ve been demanding.”

   “No,” Levi says, then gulps half his cup of Oolong with a grimace, and sets the cup aside, “you haven’t.”

   “I’m greedy, you said it yourself.” Eren kisses Levi again and pulls him back into his arms. “But I shouldn’t be so pushy.”

   “You aren’t,” Levi says. “I told you before, I like it.”

   “Now I know you do.” Eren covers his face with his hand. “But I didn’t before.”

   Levi pinches the space between his eyes to avoid hiding his face in Eren’s chest. No, he’s not afraid anymore, and talking about intimacy isn’t as difficult as he thought would be, but emotions like these have always made him feel like something is squirming beneath his flesh, and he supposes it’s possible that won’t change. They’ve already discussed their stupidity and his cowardice, and Eren’s not pushing for them to do so again, but they haven’t talked about this yet.

   “Another one of my fuck-ups,” Levi finally says, knowing it’s going to take more than a handful of short conversations and a couple weeks before they don’t fall into this again. He rearranges the quilt over Eren’s shoulder, smooths it with his fingers while staring at Eren’s throat, at the subtle lines of age carved into his skin there. “But now we’re making up for lost time.”

   “I’m glad we are. I’m glad it’s the winter, and there isn’t much else to do.” Eren shrugs in his arms. “When I was younger, you let me go everywhere with you and drink your tea and sleep in your bed, but you never kissed me or touched me like this—or asked me to touch you … or use my mouth—or anything I used to think about back then. I have a lot to make up for.” Now Eren’s the one blushing, trying to distract Levi while tracing a scar on his chest. He sighs and glares when Levi doesn’t interrupt. “Don’t look at me like that, I was a teenager, and I had a vivid imagination.”

   “You’d like those things you imagined?” Levi raises a brow. It seems Eren still has a vivid imagination.    

   “Yeah … all those things,” Eren says without hesitation, sounding as though his mind is already drifting away. “But honestly,” he pauses, rolls them over, and rests his head on Levi’s chest, “if you didn’t—if you—if you never wanted to … if you only wanted us to be how we used to be, I wouldn’t have cared. I’d still be with you.” He huffs out a small laugh, laced with bashful bravado. “I do have a hand I can use.”

   “Tch.” Levi draws his fingertips across Eren’s arm and then pinches him. “I wouldn’t object if you still did.”

   Eren snorts, but Levi imagines he can feel Eren’s face heating where it’s pressed to his skin. “Wrist’s not healed, I can’t do it with the left hand.”

   Levi combs his fingers through Eren’s loose hair. “Pity …” He’s certain Eren would look beautiful like that. A breathtaking disaster, panting and flushed, spread over their clean white sheets with his fist wrapped around his pretty cock. “Did you try?”

   Eren hides his face, stifling a mixture of a whine and a laugh.

   Repressing a laugh of his own, Levi circles his fingertips over Eren’s neck, where his love bites are. Where he’s marked him. They’re still there. The scars haven’t left either, and Eren will be twenty-six in March, but Levi still needs constant confirmation.

   In the morning, the scars are the first thing he checks for. Before he opens his eyes, he feels for them on Eren’s back, his chest, skims his palm over his arm, brushing the mars of lightly raised skin through the feathery silk of fine hairs.

   “How much longer until it’s healed?” Eren whispers, looking at Levi. He’s holding Levi’s hand again, resting his slender fingers over the pulse in his wrist, circling his calloused fingertip against it. Eren’s always liked to do that. Years ago in Levi’s bed, he would fidget before he drifted to sleep and rub there. Back then, Levi thought perhaps Eren was confirming life the same way Levi did when he would lay his hand over Eren’s chest and count each beat of his heart, but Eren does it more now. At night when they fall asleep. In the morning before they rise from bed. When he takes Levi’s hand from across the kitchen table during meals and always when they read on the lumpy couch.

   “Another month,” Levi says, rearranging his legs so he can put his cold feet against Eren’s warm shins. “Why, have more goals?”

   Now Eren’s the one pinching Levi. Grasping the skin on his hip, twisting it just enough to leave a bruise. He sighs. “I didn’t until you just said that.”

   “Why don’t I believe you?”

   “Because you’re paranoid by nature.”

   “You haven’t thought of it before now?”

   Clearing his throat, Eren’s tugs the quilt up to his chin. “Once or twice when I was a kid,” he says and groans. “Fuck, this is embarrassing.”

   “You’re the one who brought up your teenage fantasies.”

   “And you’re the one who suggested you wanted to watch me jerk off.”

   “It was only a thought.”

   “I’m sure you’ll catch me eventually.”

   Levi strokes his fingers along Eren’s spine. “This house isn’t big.”

   “You never—” Eren starts, flicking his eyes at Levi before concentrating on the few hairs at the center of his chest that he’s been anxiously yanking. “You never caught me when I was younger.”

   “That’s because I left to make tea.”

   Eren shoots up, jaw dropping before his mouth opens and closes wordlessly. His cheeks are bright red, and Levi has to bite back a smile at Eren’s expense. “You knew?”

   “You thought you were sneaky?” Levi says and squashes his lips together, trembling as he extinguishes the laughter inside. “With all your morning wiggling and whining how wouldn’t I know?”

   Burying his face in his hands, Eren groans again and then flops back into Levi’s arms. “I thought—” he says through a breath, “I thought you would have kicked my arse if you knew.” His voice drops as if the ghost of Captain Levi is eavesdropping on them. “I could have dirtied your nice bed.”

   “I wouldn’t have kicked your arse for that,” Levi whispers, “besides, you did dirty it a few times.”

   “Shit … sorry.” Eren’s back to finding something to do with his hand. Tracing the curve of Levi’s left pectoral, a rib, then another, the rise of his bicep, a scar on his forearm. Levi can hear him wet his lips before he speaks. “I liked your bed.”

   “That why you’re a pillow thief?”

   “Yeah.” Eren swallows. “And yours is broken in better than mine,” he says, rolling to stick his nose in it. His expression is drowsy when he pulls his face away and smiles. He looks if he was sniffing poppies instead of goose down.

   “We can trade.”

   “Really?” Eren asks, looking amusingly astonished. “You’d give it to me?”

   “Yes,” Levi says, poking Eren in the ribs. “It’s only a pillow, not a wedding ring.”

   “I don’t need one of those.” Eren laces their hands together, brushing the tip of his finger over a scar on Levi’s left ring finger. “A pillow is better.”

   “We can say vows over linens if you’d like.”

   Eren shoves at Levi and rips his pillow out from under his head. He stares down from where he's kneeling with a lopsided smirk, raising the pillow over his head. His eyes twinkle before he hits Levi in the face with it.

    Levi barely protects his head in time. “You can do better than that.”

   “You’re so stupid. What’s gotten into you today?”

   “Cold tea?” Levi says, smirking from between his arms covering his face, “you.”

   Expression morphing from mock exasperation to bashful affection, Eren’s adorable faux scowl gives way to something that looks a bit awed. His lips curl into his familiar grin, and his eyes glimmer as he stares at Levi peeking from beneath the crook of his elbow while his shoulders relax. He looks like he’s going to say it, but instead, he hits Levi again.

   “Violent,” Levi says, arms sliding from his face to slip around Eren and yank him closer until they’re chest to chest. He watches the muscles work in Eren’s throat as he swallows. And then he kisses him, just a gentle flick of tongues, Eren’s stubble scraping his chin. “Chess or tea,” Levi says as he pulls back, “or both.”

   “Tea,” Eren says, “we can skip chess tonight, I’m tired of kicking your arse.”

   Levi closes his eyes and sighs, “Kamairicha?”

   “I’ll make some,” Eren offers, “let’s have it in bed.”

   “You love my pillow that much?”

   Eren rolls his eyes and smiles. “You really are an idiot tonight.”

  

Twilight (Epilogue)

It is under a purple-pink-blue sky they stand in mid-April. In the quiet time before night—twilight, when for a blink, the sun and the moon and the stars meet. Levi glances heavenward and releases a breath into the cooling evening breeze.

   Unlike winter, spring hasn’t come quiet. It’s come soft and brilliant and warm and intense, like the murmur of a building whisper mending the still frozen and frost-scorched earth.

   It’s come with mornings filled with smiling green eyes sparkling at Levi and a kind hand entwined with his own that staves off the chill of their bedroom during the early day. It’s come with flowers and grass sprouting along with Eren’s returned beard and the fragrance of the slowly warming winds that match the scent of Eren’s skin. It’s come to heal the harsh, desolate landscape the same as Eren is healing the wound in Levi’s heart.

   This is the last stop on the way out of town. Levi glances at Eurus’ saddlebags filled with the day’s shopping. New clothes for Eren, a better comb for Von, sugar cubes for the horses, biscuits and chocolate bars, and tea from the black market seller, Felix, who they met at the back corner table of a seedy tavern. Like the old days, they’re two caddies heavier each of Kamairicha and Silver Needle, and then there’s the fragrant Gyokuro Levi splurged on when Eren marveled over its grassy scent. Well worth it, Levi thinks.

   He watches Eren ahead of him, standing before his old stone titan. The one he left, here, in Shiganshina the day they had to leave so many others behind. Beneath Levi’s cloak, his hand moves to where he can feel his heartbeat, fingers twisting a shirt button, like turning down the lantern flame on the bittersweet swirl of emotions beneath it.

   Clearing his throat, Eren shifts his weight. Evermind blooms are clutched in his hand; delicate and pure white, their petals stretching into a shape that matches the twinkling lights blinking in the firmament. Levi can’t quite make it out from where he stands, holding Eurus and Vaka’s reins, but in the winking light of the vigil candles’ flames, Eren’s fingers seem tense, his knuckles strained around the flower stems. He’s been watching the hardened shell of himself, silent and unmoving for a quarter of an hour.

   Levi doesn’t approach. Eren said he needed to do this part alone. It possible he’s whispering something to his younger self, reciting a prayer, telling him goodbye, or perhaps he’s crying, yet Levi’s feet stay rooted to the greening grass beneath his boots, quietly looking over him.

   He hears Eren sniff and bites his own lip as Eren kneels and lays the flowers at giant stone feet. When he stands, he bows his head, though he only lingers a moment before he turns and approaches. His hooded cloak hides neither his arms wrapped around himself, nor the glossiness of his eyes beneath his furrowed brow.

   Though Eren’s a bit worse for wear tonight, his shoulders are straight, his chin lifted, steps sure. He halts a foot from Levi, looking at him with a mixture of sorrow, hope, and relief.

   His hand slips beneath sturdy-soft wool, taking Levi’s from where it’s still resting over his chest and says, “It’s done.”

   Levi laces their fingers together and steps closer. Years ago, he wouldn’t have done this. Not in the open. They’re alone under the dying light of the day, but it’s not the impetus for this gesture. “Does it help?” Levi asks.

   Eren’s eyes narrow. He looks at their hands bound together. As if he could find the answer somewhere between them. “I don’t know yet,” he says.

   It’s not the perfect solution or repair, but there isn’t one. Still, Levi swells with fragile tenderness when he glances at Eren and notices the twitch in the corners of his mouth. He feels himself fill with peace and calm and perhaps true happiness. Levi’s not sure what that is like exactly, but he imagines it is what surrounds and imbues him when he’s with Eren. Sometimes, he thinks, maybe he dreamed of it whether he allowed it or not, but if he did, this is better than anything he conjured in the fleeting moments he denies he ever had.

   “Need more time?” Levi asks.

   Eren takes Vaka’s reins from Levi and stands so they’re shoulder to shoulder. He reclaims Levi’s hand and wets his lips. “Just a bit longer,” he says, staring at his stone-self blocking the gate. “If it’s okay.”

   “We can stay as long as you want,” Levi says, finding Eren’s pulse as the veil of silence falls.

    He watches the fading vapor of their breaths, listens to the nightingale perched on stone-Eren’s shoulder, and solemnly inhales the dulcet breeze of the unquiet quiet.

   “It’s strange,” Eren says after a few minutes, “I thought … I thought this would be harder than it is.”

   “To say goodbye?”

   “I don’t know.” Eren tilts his head to give Vaka his cheek when she tries to pull his hood off. “I’m not sure what I expected. I thought I’d be angry, but I’m not.”

   Levi thought he might be angry too. He thought both of them would be. He’s not too surprised at himself, but Eren’s often still quick to rage and despair when the past invades. Not that it happens often, but he has dreams—nightmares. Just as Levi does.

   Finding the right words isn’t easy, and now, more than ever, Levi worries over knowing which ones are right. It’s something he doesn’t always accomplish, and he doubts he ever will. Despite the uncertainty, he looks at the gate, then at Eren’s statue, and scrunches his toes in his boots. “Maybe you already spent all the anger you could on it.”

   Eren laughs. It sounds a bit watery or hollow. Like someone chuckling from the end of a long hallway. “I thought I had a supply of it that didn’t end.”

   “You used to,” Levi says, stroking his thumb over Eren’s knuckles. “You’ve calmed down.”

   Shrugging, Eren sighs. “At least no one’s around.” He lays a hand against Vaka’s neck and closes his eyes for a breath. “I didn’t think I’d ever come back here again.”

   “We don’t have to after today,” Levi says. “Not like other towns don’t have shops.”

   Eren shakes his head. “No, just this place maybe,” he says, pointing his finger at the stone circle, “This shit right here … I don’t need to see him again.”

   “Time to let him rest.”

   “Yeah,” Eren says, “I think he’ll be happier that way.”

   “And what about you?” Levi asks.

   “I’m already happier.” He hooks his arm around Levi’s and leans his cheek against his head. “I have been for months. You couldn’t tell?” he asks, sighing a content little sound that goes straight to Levi’s heart.

   “I can.”

   “Good, because if you couldn’t, you’re an idiot,” Eren says, turning at the sound of a cart over cobblestones. “I think I’m ready to go home.”

   “Sure?”

   “Mmm, I’m looking forward to my new nightshirt.” Eren twitches with a shiver. “It looks warm.”

   The honest simplicity of Eren’s excitement curls around Levi along with Eren’s fingers wrapped around his hand, and he bows his head. “And black market tea?” he asks.

   “It’s going to be awfully late when we get back,” Eren says, thrusting his foot in a stirrup, but his eyes brim with delight. “Can we have it in bed?”

   Smiling softly, Levi nods and turns to mount Eurus. “Eren, it’s never too late for Gyokuro in bed.”