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Hard-Won Perfection

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The wind is howling, driving the unceasing rain against the glass and Levi leans back against the cupboards, ignoring the hollow sound of the drops hitting the window as he stares at the kettle on the stove. It just needs a few more minutes to heat before it the perfect temperature for the tea and he doesn’t want it to go over. Tea made with burned leaves is horrible and he’s already been inconvenienced enough today.

He should have known when he woke this morning, with the familiar prickle that something was going to go wrong. It doesn’t happen much anymore, not with the threat of the Titans gone, but today he had chosen to ignore it and irritation prickles under his skin at the thought. He hadn’t wanted to go into town, but the cupboards had been mostly bare, and it had been necessary.

So he had gone into town, under the heavy leaden clouds, wanting to get home before the storm had broken. The first hour in town had been uneventful as he had loaded the wagon with all the staples that had been so hard to come by when they had been trapped behind the walls. Had he not gotten caught up in conversation with some of the people he has known for years now, something that had once felt impossible, he would have been able to avoid spending the rest of his day irritated.

He hadn’t recognized the man when he had come up to him, but it had been obvious the man had fallen on tough times. His nose and cheeks had been covered with a web of broken capillaries, the whites of his eyes carrying the hint of an unhealthy yellow. His clothing had been dirty and patchy, and Levi had felt a pang of compassion, because he remembered what that had been like.

The compassion hadn’t lasted long though when the man had started yelling. His words had been slurred and some of them had dropped off, but there had been enough for Levi to get the point, that the man had never moved on from what had happened with the Titans, was still caught up in the horror of everything that happened, and that Levi was an easy target because of who he is.

Levi was content to ignore him, as the man hadn’t been yelling anything he hadn’t heard before. He had gotten used to it in the Survey Corps, when even being dubbed ‘Humanity’s Strongest’ hadn’t been enough to keep people from spewing their vitriol. It hadn’t been until the man had taken a threatening step forward that Levi had really taken notice, prepared to move if necessary.

But before the man had been able to come any closer the townspeople, who had all stopped to see what had been going on had closed ranks between him and the man. This hadn’t been the first time they’ve done the same, though normally it is from some well-wisher, who has some how managed to track them down to this small town, so far from the capital.

The wall of bodies had given him a chance to climb onto the seat of the wagon and he had headed home, making it back with only minutes to spare before the promised storm had finally broken. He had unloaded the wagon, annoyance still hot under his skin and even now he can still feel it, simmering low in the pit of his stomach.

Grabbing the towel from the counter he lifts the kettle and carefully fills the two cups sitting on the counter next to the stove. He sets the kettle back down before moving away to the small icebox set in the wall. There is a partial bottle of milk, and he pulls it out, setting it on the tray before getting the sugar. He nearly loses his grip on the smooth porcelain of the bowl, and he cups his whole hand over the bottom, rather than risk dropping it. Normally his hand doesn’t bother him much, but the sudden change in weather isn’t helping any.

He sets the sugar down with the milk before carefully moving both cups of tea on the tray. He has long since given up on trying to put the right amount of tea and sugar into Erwin’s cup. It is one thing he can’t ever seem to get right, and it offends his sensibility to even try. Picking up the tray he heads for the back of the house, the sound of the rain following him.

The door to the office is half open, a silent invitation, not that he needs one. A closed door has never meant much to him when Erwin is involved, though he has heard plenty about it over the intervening years. He pushes the door open with his foot and slips inside. Rain pelts the big windows behind the desk, water sheeting down the panes.

“You’re limping.”

Levi rolls his eyes as he makes his way toward the desk. “That tends to be what happens when a Titan tries to rip your leg off.” His limp comes and goes with the weather and this storm has promise to hang around for the next couple of days. It will likely be enough to make him miserable, but there are some days that doesn’t take much.

As he moves towards the left side of the desk, kept clean for just this purpose, he does his best to ignore Erwin’s warm, familiar smile, the gentle heat in his gaze. Just as he ignores the flash of heat that runs through him, which is pointless, as he has given into that more times than he can remember. He sets the tray down, making sure the milk and sugar are close to Erwin. “Making progress?”

With a sigh Erwin sets his pen down and smiles. “It depends on your version of progress. Is there slightly less on my desk? Yes.”

Picking up his cup Levi retreats half a step to the chair in the study that is his. It is a big wingback, upholstered in a dark, soft fabric. He has spent more hours in it then he will ever admit to, but it is close to the desk and the fireplace. Sitting down, he watches as Erwin moves carefully to add milk and sugar to his tea. “I still have no idea why you let them rope you into being a part of the reconstruction.”

He can hear the bitterness in his voice, and he can’t bring himself to care. He and Erwin have given enough to the land and the government, yet it still seems like every week another massive packet of dispatches arrives for Erwin, and he spends time poring over them before sending out responses. The only good thing about this arrangement is nothing is so pressing he can’t hide it away to make Erwin step away from the desk from a few hours, if not a day or two.

Erwin smiles as he picks his cup up. “Because someone needs to make sure we have the supplies we need.”

Levi snorts in derision as he takes a drink of his own tea. They could both never lift a finger again and live more than comfortably. Historia had made sure the surviving members of the Survey Corps would be taken care of, and she has more than made that promise truth. They still get a monthly stipend and if they need something they can’t find, they get it. Hange has taken advantage of that, filling their lab with all sorts of equipment from around the world and Levi doesn’t even want to think about what kind of trouble they might be able to get in.

He shifts, stretching out his leg, but it doesn’t do anything to ease the ache that has settled in. “Alvin wanted to know if you need more paper yet.” He shakes his head. “You would think by now people know I’m not your keeper.”

Erwin just smiles and Levi feels a little flicker of irritation, but it doesn’t last long before turning into a warmth he will never admit to anyone else. The same thing had happened behind the Walls, how everyone in the Corps had come to him when they needed something from Erwin, like the request would sound better coming from him. Most of them had gone running with a single sharp look and most of the time he never found out if they had found the bravery to ask Erwin for what they wanted.

Taking a sip of his tea, Erwin sets it down before shifting in his chair, so he can pull open the bottom drawer on the right side of his desk. Levi shakes his head, exasperated affection running under his skin. He has no idea why Erwin hasn’t reorganized his desk to make it more accommodating. The desk is set up exactly like when he had been commander, but old habits are hard to break, as he well knows.

Erwin reaches into the drawer, ruffling through the contents before he sits up. He nudges it closed with his foot before looking at Levi. “No. I should be good for the next month at least.”

Levi nods, hands curled around his mug. “Then you can tell him the next time you see him. I’m still not your secretary.”

Erwin’s smile is fond as he again reaches for his cup. “And a good thing. No one would have dared to breach my office, and nothing would have gotten done.”

With a shrug Levi settles deeper into his chair. Despite what he had made others think, he really hadn’t minded playing watchdog when Erwin had been in his office. Some of the reasons people had needed Erwin had been absolutely asinine and he had taken immense pleasure in sending them off, looking over their shoulders like they expected him to swoop after them at any moment.

Others would have kept him trapped in his office until the early hours of the morning and Levi had only allowed that in the days leading up to a mission and only until all the contingencies had been worked out. After that he had driven the others out of the office, locking the door behind them. Everyone had seemed to take Erwin sleeping for granted, like his brain would function without sleep. Levi couldn’t help what thinking Erwin did in bed before a mission, but he could at least make sure he laid down a little bit, got some rest before they went beyond the walls.

And it had been worse after Erwin had lost his arm. Everyone had been clamoring to see him, wanting assurance he was going to be okay. He had been forced to take up camp in an uncomfortable chair outside Erwin’s room to give him some piece. Even Hange had to be driven away, but they had simply smiled before wandering back off, mind already racing to the next task.

Taking a drink of his tea, he watches Erwin over the rim of the cup. His partner has gone back to whatever he was working on when he came in, teacup where he can reach it, but not close enough to endanger his work. Even with the crackle of the fire and the steady sound of the rain hitting the window he can still hear the steady scratch of Erwin’s pen against the paper in front of him and the familiar sound of it further loosens the knot of tension and irritation that has been sitting tight in his chest since his encounter with the man earlier today.

He has long since lost track of the hours he has spent in a similar position as this, either perched on the narrow windowsill in Erwin’s office, looking out or in a chair near the desk, trying to figure out what was going on in Erwin’s head, based on the look on his face, the way his eyebrows had draw together, the set of his shoulders.

Now though, he doesn’t usually worry quite as much about what might be in the letters. No one is going to send them to their probable deaths, they don’t have to worry about budget cuts, or popular opinion. They can live their lives out here, until old age claims them and the only people who might actually miss them will be the people of the village and the few members of the Corps who survived. For the fact they had been tormented by the Titans for so long, most of the population seems content to leave them in the past, to not have to think about them anymore.

Levi shifts, wincing as the slight movement makes a muscle in his back protest. This is something else he never thought he would have to contend with, the slow aches of getting older. He had always expected his end to come at the hands of a Titan, a moment when he had slipped up. Zeke had almost done it, though he had won out in the end, but he supposes it counts in a way. His hand still aches most days, with the phantom pain of his missing fingers, though the headaches have faded a little.

Adjusting his grip on the cup a little Levi glances at Erwin. He knows there are more than a few strands of silver in his hair, impossible to see except when summer sunlight streams into their room the mornings he is up before Erwin, the times Erwin backs him against the kitchen counter, arm caging him in as he leans down with a smile to kiss him. He tends to ignore the streaks in his own hair. He earned them, by somehow managing to survive and he isn’t going to be bothered by them.

He moves again, feeling suddenly restless and this time Erwin raises his head to glance at him with a look Levi would uncharitably call besotted, but they moved beyond that a long time ago. He has never given it a name, much preferring to avoid labels, but Hange coos in that annoying way and calls it love. It always makes him roll his eyes, and Erwin always smiles in that same damned way, like he knows a secret he is waiting for Levi to figure out.

Now he is smiling the same way and Levi feels heat flush his cheeks and he can tell from the way Erwin’s smile widens, that he has been caught. He can’t help it, because Erwin has always been captivating, in a very dangerous way. For the longest time he had tried to avoid being pulled in, but that had proven to be impossible, which is why he is here.

This is something he had never imagined having. Any kind of domestic life beyond the Corps had seemed like one of those impossible dreams, hidden behind a curtain of blood and dead comrades. But then the war had ended, the Titans gone like something in a horrible dream and suddenly they had found themselves out here, guarded by the people of the village. Even here, in domesticity, he and Erwin fit together, like they had in the Corps.

While Erwin works on whatever Historia needs of him, he works on keeping the house and taking care of all the chores that are simply easier when one has two arms. Enough time has passed he has even managed to adapt to the loss of his fingers, though his grip sometimes fails him. Other times he takes odd jobs around the village, everyone willing to trade his help for silence, none of them asking about what it had been like to fight the Titans.

When they are in town together, Erwin always seems to end up on his right, even thought that is his own weak side, a buffer between him and the village, none of whom ever seem to realize coming up on that side is dangerous. He isn’t completely blind in that eye, can differentiate between dark and light, but some reflexes are hard to give up and having people sneak up on him is still enough to send his heart racing, body tightening in anticipation.

It takes him a few seconds to realize the faint scratching of Erwin’s pen has faded away and he looks towards the desk. The other man has abandoned his pen near the stack of paper, hand curled around the cup. He is watching Levi with that same smile, but there is a heat in his gaze that makes liquid heat run through him and Levi shifts, eyes flicking to the stack of paper.

“Already done?”

Erwin glances down at his work and shrugs. “It isn’t anything that won’t keep for a few days.” His gaze sliding over him again, heavy with that thing Levi still doesn’t want to put a name to. “I can think of better ways to spend the rest of the day.”

He pushes back from the desk and stands, leaving his cup on the desk. Levi fights the urge to move, anticipation prickling under his skin, until he finally has to move, and he leans over, setting his empty cup on the floor. Cleaning the dregs of tea out is going to be a pain later, but right now he can ignore it.

Rounding the desk Erwin stops in front of the chair, toes just barely touching his and Levi tips his head back to look at his partner. This is something else he has long since gotten used to, having to look up at Erwin, but the other man has never made it a big deal, has never made him feel less because of his height, though plenty of others have tried.

They look at each other for a moment before Levi spreads his legs, arms resting on the armrests. Erwin steps forward, until his legs brush the inside of his and Levi feels the heat running through him turn molten. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get tired of feeling this way, of even getting the chance.

Erwin’s hand cups his chin, thumb dragging across his bottom lip before he closes the distance between them, catching his mouth in a slow, easy kiss. Levi presses into it, hand curling over the back of Erwin’s neck, fingers scratching at his hair. He quickly loses track of time, falling into each kiss and the quick stolen breath, the gentle pressure of Erwin’s hand on his skin.

He shifts, wanting to be closer, but the chair makes it awkward, and he nips at Erwin’s lower lip. Erwin pulls back with a laugh, thumb touching the scar across his lips. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not eager for a repeat of the chair incident.”

Levi nods, fingers still idly stroking at the back of Erwin’s neck. The incident in question had been awkward but enjoyable, but he shares Erwin’s sentiment. “Not to mention I’m not in any hurry to injure you.”

Erwin laughs, hand sliding from his chin, teasing against his neck before sliding down his shoulder to curl lightly around his wrist. He tugs gently. “I’m not fragile.”

Levi snorts as Erwin pulls him to his feet. “That’s not what I said. I’ve never said that.”

“No, you never have. Even when everyone else was saying it after I lost my arm.”

Smirking, Levi takes a step towards the doorway, using Erwin’s grip on him to pull him along. “No, I was just saying you must have lost some intelligence planning what you did while still recovering.”

Erwin dips his head to steal another kiss. “I wouldn’t have expected anything else.”

Levi keeps moving, Erwin following after him, thumb stroking against his skin. “I didn’t want to let you down.”

Erwin’s smile sends the heat running through him higher and Levi ducks his head. “You never have.”

Levi surges forward, stretching up on his toes to catch Erwin’s mouth in a hard kiss, arms sliding around his body.