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i am free whenever you're in front of me

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(“i know it’s late,” Farlan had said, sounding as exhausted as Levi had felt, even through the muffled static of the phone, “but this one’s kind of important.” There had been a pause, and it had been heavy, and Levi had been tugging on his scrubs even before Farlan had said, “it looks like a homicide.”

Levi’s shoulders had dropped, and his sigh into the phone had sounded like a wheeze.)

Death is always sad, but it always seems a little bit worse when it’s a young one. This John Doe can’t be more than twenty-one, even controlling for the age that death adds to the human face.

The face, for all its almost too-sharp angles, is serene and peaceful, like most of the faces Levi sees on the bodies that pass through the morgue. The corpse’s skin is gray and pale, though there are deep and ugly bruises on his face, his throat, his chest. Judging by the coloration, the general state of the body, the defensive wounds, and everything else, the cause of death could be anything—but whatever killed this boy certainly wasn’t friendly, and a homicide is entirely possible.

All of these things have to be noted before he can begin the actual examination, and he has to blink the bleariness from his eyes before he can scribble down his notes. Doe, John. One hundred forty-one pounds, six feet tall.  Race not identifiable. South Asian, maybe? Indian? Brown hair. Messy. Eye color is just as indiscernible. They might’ve been green. Twenty-one years old, approximately. Left ear had been pierced, once. There look to be burn scars around the holes that had never healed. It’s impossible to tell if they’re recent or not.

Levi sets aside the clipboard, pulling on his exam gloves with a sigh before directing the overhead light toward the body’s chest.

When he presses a scalpel to the corpse’s shoulder, it gasps.

It’s only when the body lurches upward and smacks its head against the examination light that Levi drops his scalpel and takes a step back, yanking the face shield off hard enough to hurt. The body has a hand pressed to his own chest, and the breaths he’s taking sound painful, like it’s difficult to do. Levi can imagine that, for a dead body, it would be a little problematic, the whole breathing thing.

But watching the corpse is like watching a black and white picture go technicolor. Life starts to rise in his cheeks and spreads downward, wiping out the worst of the bruising and superficial wounds. With each labored inhale, the color gets a little more real, a little more alive. The sharpness of the body’s features is at once enhanced and dulled by the blood now presumably pumping through his veins, and the contrast is something surreal.

The face-screen slips from Levi’s fingers, just as unintentionally as the scalpel had. But this time its loud enough to get the dead man’s attention.

And he’d been right and wrong, you know. The body’s eyes had, in fact, been green—but he hadn’t expected them to glow like that. Those eyes travel from the center of Levi’s forehead down his body, stopping at his rubber shoes before working their way back up to hold Levi’s gaze. It makes the room tilt, a little, makes ice crawl up his spine, slow enough to chill his body as it rises.

“You were going to cut me open,” the dead man says, incredulity settling over his features as if it were entirely comfortable there, as if rigor mortis hadn’t been getting ready to set in only moments before now. “You were literally just going to cut me open, right here?” There’s an accent when he speaks, and it most certainly isn’t South Asian, nor is it Indian, as far as Levi can tell. British? No. It’s bounces more than that. It’s softer, too, and only audible in certain syllables.

The fact that Levi finds his voice to respond is fucking appalling, but he supposes that there’s a part of him that thinks he’s seen worse. This is the first person that he’s ever seen come back from death, after all.

“It’s my job to cut you open.” The ice has settled in his mouth, has frozen his tongue solid, and yet he can keep speaking. Medically speaking, it might be shock. But it could be something else entirely. “You were dead not even five minutes ago.”

“I—“ the boy frowns and looks down at his body, naked but alive. Or, rather, apparently alive. Levi hasn’t had the opportunity to verify that, or anything. “Where am I?”

“A morgue,” Levi tells him. “Where dead people go.”

“A—what?” He frowns further, rolling his neck on his shoulders, maybe to iron out some of the stiffness that comes with being dead for an hour or more. “A morgue where?

“Seattle?” This can’t be normal. This conversation that they’re having is not normal. “Who are you?”

“What?” He swings his legs down from the autopsy table, sitting properly for a moment and curling his toes. “You—what?”

“You. Who the fuck are you, and why are you talking?”

“You didn’t answer my question. What morgue am I in?” He slides from the table, his legs unsteady beneath him when he stands, and there’s a moment where his face goes gray enough that Levi is almost convinced that he’d died again—or maybe that he’d imagined the whole thing in the first place. “I’ll answer your question if you give me one.”

“This isn’t a—“ and he stops. Levi doesn’t know what this is, frankly, so he guesses that he can’t be sure, precisely, as to what this isn’t. So he has to work with what he has. And what he has is a talking dead boy in his fucking morgue, looking like he’s about to puke all over his sterile floor. “You’re in Virginia Mason Medical Center. The basement. The morgue.

“I’m beginning to understand the morgue part, yeah. Did I have any stuff with me?”

He’d gone through the motions of collecting the clothes and noting the evidence when he’d been half-asleep. It’s been commonplace enough these days that it was second nature, and while he’s certain that he performed the pre-procedural bullshit, he can’t remember exactly how he’d done it.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Levi says, instead of answering anything else. “Who the fuck are you?”

“What, I don’t have a toe tag?” He glances down at his bare feet, holding his weight against the metal table with one hand, and there’s a smile touching his mouth. While it’s probably just Levi’s opinion, this is not, exactly, the time to be smiling at much of anything. Unless the whole being-alive-thing was unexpected.

“You don’t get a toe tag until I get some identifying information on you, or unless you have to sit in the fridge until you can be examined. I got here almost the same time you did, so no toe tag for you.”

The sigh the boy lets go gets lost in the humming of the morgue. The only reason Levi knows that he sighed at all was because he’d noticed the rise and fall of his chest, slow and purposeful.

“So,” Levi tries again, and the boy looks at him with those ridiculous eyes, “who are you?”

“Eren,” the corpse says, and he takes a few steps closer, his knees threatening to give with each step. Levi stays in place, within reach of the medical equipment. He might’ve dropped his scalpel, but sharp objects aren’t exactly hard to come by, should he need them. “And you’re—“ the eyes drop and find his ID badge, and another smile rises in a reflection of the first. “Levi. Ackerman? They keep the print of the last name small, huh?”

“We go by first names at the hospital, regardless of degree achieved.” It drops out of his mouth without much thought given, something he’s said hundreds of times. It’s only after they’re laying between them that he realizes he probably shouldn’t be speaking so casually with a former corpse. And yet he continues, “it’s supposed to build a sort of instant-relationship with patients.”

“Interesting,” the body—Eren—says, nodding to himself. “So, about my stuff?”

“It’s evidence.” A pause, and the chill from Levi’s mouth settles inside it, colder even than the morgue they’re standing in. “You were dead.”

“You said so. But I still kind of need it. I need to leave.”

Leave,” Levi repeats, and something in his stomach drops. “Leave? You—you are hearing me, right? When I tell you that you were dead. You died. You had no pulse, no nothing. It wasn’t a trance, it wasn’t some New Age death-like state bullshit, you were really, really dead. You keep parroting it back to me, but dead is dead. You can’t just walk out like a fucking zombie.”

Eren’s nose wrinkles when he laughs, and it’s low enough to raise the hairs on Levi’s arms beneath his scrub suit. “I can shuffle, if you want. Fit in a little better, if that would help? I really need my stuff. It’s cold in here.”

Levi drops his eyes for only a moment. When Eren had breathed himself back to life, all of him had gone from the gray of death to the almond-shell brown of life, it would seem.

“Let me check your pulse,” falls out of his mouth before he can stop it, and the words roll across the tile to rest at Eren’s bare toes.

“What?”

“Pulse. Heartbeat. Let me check, and I’ll consider your request.”

Eren snorts, a soft thing, and he holds out his arm, taking another step forward. “Everyone has ultimatums, fucking Christ.”

Curiosity tickles the back of Levi’s skull, but no proper question comes to mind as he pulls the gloves from his hands, tossing them into the wastebin by the rolling table where his equipment rests. Any questions he might’ve had disappear entirely when he takes Eren’s wrist, pressing his thumb to his pulse with practiced ease.

“Are you the only one here?” Eren asks, shifting his weight between his feet, even as he keeps his arm still. “Or do you have a morgue assistant.”

“Just me tonight. Someone called in a favor and I was the one that got out of bed.”

“Oh,” is all he gets as a response, and he can’t tell if that’s a satisfied one or not.

Eren’s skin is warm beneath his thumb and feels very much alive. The pulse tapping against his own skin is only confirmation of that particularly impossible fact.

“Your pulse is slow,” Levi speaks to Eren’s wrist. “Wait here. I’m going to grab a hand light.”

“What? I need my stuff and I need to leave.” There’s a set to his jaw that makes his eyes flicker, and Eren’s whole body seems to tense into something akin to stone. But Levi only arches his eyebrows, particularly unimpressed with the display. He’s felt something like that happen to himself many times over, and he knows exactly how to handle it.

“Well, you’re going to wait. I’m going to examine you real quick.”

“Examine,” Eren echoes back, his own eyebrows arching. “Are you actually going to cut me open?”

No.” A pause. “Not while you’re breathing, anyway. Wait here.”

Levi glances over his shoulder only once to make sure he stays in place, and he’s a little bit surprised that his instruction had actually been listened to. Eren sits back on the autopsy table, swinging his legs while Levi pushes through the door between the morgue and his office, grabbing the hand-light from the bottom-most drawer of his desk. It’s a relic from a different world, almost, and it feels foreign and familiar in his hand.

Eren’s legs haven’t stopped moving on the autopsy table, and that’s probably a good sign. Levi takes it as one, anyway, for all that this situation is something that makes less sense the longer in goes on.

“Look at me,” Levi says when he takes a place in front of Eren’s knees. Up this close, the color of his eyes is almost a physical presence by itself and it makes Levi swallow when Eren complies. “I’m going to flash a light in your face to make sure you don’t have any neurological damage from whatever the fuck it was that happened to you.”

“Sure thing, Doctor Levi.”

Levi scoffs quietly, watches as Eren blinks when it hits his face. Another good sign. “It’s either Doctor or Levi, not both.”

Excuse me,” a smile once more flirts with Eren’s moth, and it’s offensive to watch. He’s pretty, alive. Pretty in a way that’s almost hurts to look at. “I was trying to be polite.”

“Well, shut up while I look at you.” Levi lifts the hand lamp, pressing his thumb to the switch at the back and turning it on. With his free hand, he presses his other thumb above Eren’s left eye, pulling the skin upward enough to make it difficult to blink as he holds the light in front of the eye.

Eren flinches, his pupil having been blown wide by... something. Being dead, maybe. The low light, perhaps. Toxicology hadn’t been run on his blood yet—he hadn’t drawn blood yet—but with his current energy, it’s unlikely it was a strong enough depressant to mimic death, nor could it be a stimulant, because, once again, he’d definitely been dead.

But the pupil contracts like it’s supposed to, even if Eren’s eye does water, and Levi repeats the process with his right eye, with much the same results.

“Did you always work with dead bodies?” Eren asks, rubbing at his eyes with his palms when Levi lowers the hand-light, flicking it off with a frown.

“Pardon?”

“Did you always work with the dead?” His eyes are still watering when he lifts his gaze back to Levi’s face, but they’re glowing, just like they had been, and it makes Levi’s skin prickle to hold them. “Because it seems like you’d be really good with, like, living people.” Eren tilts his head, his hair scattering across his forehead. There’s dried blood above one ear, where Levi had missed a head wound and it had healed over when Eren had risen.

But the question makes something rise in Levi’s throat, something that burns its way up from his chest, hot enough to scar.

“My bedside manner is shit,” is what he ends up saying, and the ice in his mouth melts underneath the intensity of older feelings. “It’s absolute garbage. Dead people don’t complain about that.”

(“you’re quitting.” Erwin had said, three years earlier. His tone had been flat, had reminded him of a flatline tone, or the low, droning sound of a dead phone line. The suit he’d worn had matched the way he’d spoken—dry and cold and pitiless.

no,” Levi had replied, just as flatly but with a little more venom. He’d never liked being spoken down to this way. “it’s a change of venue. you can’t kill a dead person, and i don’t have to report the shitty news to families anymore.” He’d paused and his lungs had been on fire with the things he’d wanted to say. “if you need me, i’ll be in the morgue.”)

“Oh,” Eren says, the sound stretching from his lips a little bit like a bubble. “Well, I think your bedside manner is pretty okay, all things considering.”

Levi’s own laughter surprises him, bursts from his throat has if it had been born there, and not in beneath his ribs. It’s a little bit too close to hysterical for comfort, the unreality of the situation hitting him all over again, pressing down on his collarbones hard enough to break them. “All things considering! Shit, something must’ve hit you upside the head really hard, kid. Do your brains feel knocked around, or anything?”

“Not that I can tell,” Eren replies, watching Levi carefully. His legs have started moving again—back and forth, back and forth, alternating. When one goes forward, the other goes back, and so on. Levi can’t tell of it’s a nervous gesture, or if it’s just something he does when he has more nervous energy than he knows what to do with. Levi wonders if Eren would tell him, if he were to ask.

“Good to hear.” Levi pauses, and somewhere between the scalding feeling in his mouth and the laughter, the pain of that stupid fucking memory had disappeared. “So, do you remember what happened to you? Since I can’t currently cut you open, I’ll need to gather the details in a different way.”

The smile that rises to Eren’s face this time is different from the others Levi had seen. There’s a softness to it that’s almost sad, and it’s the first time Levi’s noticed how chapped his lips are. He probably chews them, and it’s something that might’ve made it onto the autopsy report. But now it’s just a fact about this strange zombie person, something that Levi wouldn’t’ve known in this context if it weren’t for the fact that he was alive.

“I’m pretty sure this is why people tell you not to get attached to one night stands, or something,” Eren says, and it’s so far out of left field that Levi has to wonder if he’d missed something when he’d noticed how chapped Eren’s lips are. “I’ve never had a one night stand before, so I guess I didn’t really get it.”

“I’m going to repeat my head injury question.” Levi’s already reaching for the side of Eren’s face, prepared to turn his head to get a better look at the dried blood in his hair. He’d have a better understanding of what could’ve gone wrong if he knew where, exactly he’d been hit. But Eren doesn’t let his head move on his neck easily, keeping his eyes fixed on Levi’s face.

It’s enough to make Levi sigh and drop his hand away. “You’re making even less sense than you were when you started talking as you rose from the dead.”

“I’m saying you won’t remember this tomorrow, Levi.” Eren moves and it’s like liquid, a seamless movement coordinated throughout all of his body. It’s so fluid, in fact, that there’s no time to move backward, because one of Eren’s hands is cradling the back of his head, his other hand pressed gently over Levi’s eyes. “I’ll treasure the intimacy we’ve shared and the fact you’ve seen me naked.”

He wants to fucking punch this kid, but his body won’t move. There’s the needling feeling of betrayal humming in his sinuses, and it’s enough to make him want to vomit. But even that urge dies away under the weight of something, and he can feel himself going pliant in Eren’s arms.

This must be what Eren had felt like when Levi had been checking the reaction of his pupils—all white light burning back into his head, tears coming to his eyes under the sting of its intensity. But Eren’s thumb is tracing circles against the back of his head, and it’s not the worst feeling, probably. There are almost certainly worse feelings he’s had, just like there are worse songs he’s fallen asleep to.

It’s funny, really. He can’t remember the last time he’d heard someone humming Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. This might be the first, or something. Maybe he’d never heard it before this.

The thing that follows him into unconsciousness, however, isn’t the feel of Eren’s thumb or the stupid song coming from—wherever, Eren or otherwise. It’s the smell of rainwater and soil and the distant taste of heather.

(The morgue will be empty but immaculate when Levi wakes up at his desk. Everything will be in its place, unchanged and empty—of both the living and the homicide he was called out of his home for.

there wasn’t a body,” Levi will say into his phone, irritability making his words clipped as he pulls a jacket on over his scrubs to keep the chill of the morgue away from his body. He’d needed to take it home for weeks now, anyway. It’s been a chilly walk to work, recently.

what?” Farlan will reply, affronted.

you never sent me a body. i fell asleep at my fucking desk waiting for one, and got nothing.

but—there—“ a deep breath and then a deeper sigh. “maybe it got sent to the wrong place. fuck, i’m sorry, levi. get some rest, i’m going to see where my goddamn body wandered off to.

shouldn’t be that hard,” Levi will tell him, already locking up behind himself. “bodies don’t generally just get up and walk away.

Farlan won’t find it as funny as he would’ve if the joke had been made in the afternoon rather than the early hours of the morning, but there will still be a huffed out breath of laughter and Levi will smile, just a little. “sure,” he’ll say, and Levi will catch the remnants of an unfamiliar smell as he cradles his phone between his shoulder and his ear, and he will feel like he ought to know where it came from.

It will just be rainwater—common enough in this city. The smells beneath it will be inconsequential, just hints of his closet, or something like that. It will have been a while, anyway, since he’d taken this jacket home, and smells do change when they have the opportunity to waste away.

The only thing that will follow him home, then, is the headache behind his eyes.

But that, of course, is what happens when one falls asleep at a desk—muscle stiffness and headaches. Even a doctor for the dead knows that.)

-

(He’d found his clothes in Levi’s office, accessed without any fuss thanks to Levi’s keys.

The plastic bin they’d been in had been blue, and everything Eren had carried on his person had been split into plastic bags. One for his shirt. One for his jeans. Another for his jacket. Still another for his socks. And still another one for his cell phone, for his keys, for his sneakers.

They’d all been labeled with Doe, John, scribbled in tight, even penmanship that Eren had been sure was Levi’s. It had been amusing, a little, to have his identity stripped away like that. For creatures as blind to magic as humans are, it was impressive to find himself rendered so invisible by nothing more than a mortal label. After all, names have power in the world that Eren comes from, and it had been jarring, for a moment, to find himself without one.)

The headache building behind Eren’s eyes might just put him back onto an autopsy table with the way tonight is going.

“‘If card is lost or stolen, call 206-398-5500 or 800-992-3808.’” With a whisper under his breath, magic buzzes in his fingertips, wraps itself around the Stockbox receipt in his pocket, and squeezes, the taste of heather and rainfall landing heavy on his tongue. The headache almost splits open his skull in the heartbeat between the receipt flickering out of existence and his debit card taking its place in his pocket. In this moment, he’s almost certain that his nose will start bleeding, that someone’s going to call an ambulance that he’ll be alive for, and all for an unfortunately limited amount of Chinese takeout.

But, to be fair, coming back from the dead is really hungry work.

What he’s ordered is a lot more food than anyone wants to make this late at night—this early in the morning?—and it probably still won’t be enough to make his muscles feel functioning again, or to chase away the pounding in his skull. But there’s a saying about beggars and choosers and Eren definitely isn’t a chooser right now.

A light flickers in the kitchen behind the cashier, and Eren can feel the hint of electricity twitch beneath his skin as he signs the receipt and passes it across the washed-out green countertop. Neither he nor the cashier speak to one another, and he watches as they tuck his slip of paper into a drawer beneath the register, immaculately kept.

Beneath the sounds of hissing steam and half-shouted Cantonese, Eren thinks he can hear the hums of soft laughter. In the shadows, he’s certain he sees hands, reaching into pots and pans left to simmer for a moment, just like he’s certain that the people beside them see nothing at all.

Eren pretends that he can’t see them either as he reaches for the bags of food, each one set on the counter one at a time. He figures the creatures paying him the same courtesy—after all, they’ll have to make their way back to the mountains outside the city before sunrise, and neither he nor they need anyone getting in the way of dinner. Breakfast?

His stomach growls again, and says that he’s splitting really unnecessary hairs.

The bell rings behind him when the door falls shut, and the put-upon cashier almost leaps across the counter to lock it, the Open sign having been turned off about fifteen minutes before. Eren doesn’t glance over his shoulder when he hears the lock slide into place.

(He’d woken up gasping, and a Banshee had been screaming somewhere in the darkness of the afterlife.

Only the dead can hear a Banshee’s scream.

But... maybe there hadn’t been. He thinks there had been, but... Either way, his ears had been ringing, and the table beneath him had been cold, and his skin wouldn’t stop prickling. He could feel the static of someone’s eyes making the hairs on his arms rise, and his head was swimming, and there was so much noise inside his head for that split second—

But he met the eyes that had been on him, had held them with his own even as his pupils adjusted to the too-bright fluorescent light.

They had been the color of rainclouds. And they’d been unmistakably human.)

There are always humans on the street, even this late at night. Some of them wandering around to ease restless legs, some of them bouncing from bar to bar to celebrate something or forget something else. But when the sun goes down, there are things that weave their ways between pedestrians, extra whispers fluttering around the shadowed streets.

Figures of too many sizes will traipse around, revealing too-sharp teeth or too-pointed cheekbones, too-rough skin or too-black eyes. Some will be wearing human faces, open to human scrutiny, but others won’t bother, brushing against mortal pedestrians for the fun of watching them shudder. Neon signs will light up storefronts that aren’t quite visible to the human eye, advertising foods that normal people have never heard of, trinkets they’d never want to know the origin to.

After dark, the purebloods come out to play, wearing the smells of their magic like shawls.

(Fingers pressed down on Eren’s windpipe almost hard enough to crush it, and the palms were cold enough to burn his skin. It had been a struggle to breathe—and then it had been impossible, because the thing above him had shoved its weight behind its hands.

The air wouldn’t come, even though he’d been desperate for it.

The creature had leaned down, had whispered in his ear like a sigh of winter, had said, “you can’t come back forever.” One of the park’s streetlamps had haloed its head and obstructed its face, had blotted out every defining feature there.

The faerie should’ve burned him, then. Should’ve set his body ablaze and left nothing but ashes behind. But that’s a rite reserved for purebloods, to keep the humans from finding and corpses they shouldn’t see, and Eren hadn’t been worth the trouble.

He supposes he ought to be glad that people haven’t often found him worth the trouble.)

It’s only when he can separate himself from the night crowd that the pounding in his skull takes a step back. The edges of the novelty store, blurred by magic, are achingly familiar when his feet hit the sidewalk, the Open sign a steady indicator of the fact that at least he’d been making money while he’d taken a trip to the afterlife and back.  

Eren shifts the bags on his arms when he stops outside the store’s heavy iron door, already slipping one hand into the sleeve of his jacket to reach for the handle. The night, by now, has been long enough that his reflexes almost fail him when it swings open fast enough—close enough—to send the sting of iron-exposure racing from the tip of his nose down to the soles of his feet.

The store-smell hits him across the face with sharp knuckles as Connie takes two of the bags from Eren’s arms. It’s the scent of mixed magic, a combination of charms the both of them had woven into and around any of the endless charms stocked behind him in the dimness of the shop. When Connie speaks, it’s with a furrowed brow, freckles at the corners of his eyes wrinkling with displeasure.

“Where have you been?” He steps aside, ignoring the fact that he’d almost broken Eren’s nose with the door he lets drop behind them, the fogging ward hissing its way back into place. The plastic bags whisper when they’re set onto the wooden surface of the front counter, the glass case beneath it displaying necklaces imbued with protection charms. Some of them taste of heather and rainfall when Eren breathes in. Others taste of cinnamon and maple syrup, and their loops around the twine are looser than Eren’s spells usually turn out to be.

It’s a distraction from the way his own words freeze on his tongue.

“I was in the Virginia Mason Medical Center,” Eren says, hopping over the counter to drop into the wheeled-chair on the other side. It creaks with his weight, the joints stiff with age, though it can’t be more than half Eren’s own.

“For what?” Styrofoam and cardboard containers are already being spread out on the counter, chopsticks laid atop them. “And you didn’t think to call? You know you don’t trust me to run the store by myself for more than an hour. I’ve been here for three. How do we even know the register is balanced? We don’t.” A pause, and Connie looks up from the countertop before continuing, “I mean, we do. I counted it to make sure. But a text would’ve been nice.”

Eren shuts his eyes and rubs at his throat. If he listens close enough, there’s still a Banshee screaming in his head somewhere.

“I was in the morgue.”

He can hear when Connie stops moving, the plastic bag he’d started fiddling with going quiet in his hands. “What?”

“The morgue.” Eren pauses, and he can feel his lips twitching upward. It’s a stupid thing to smile about, isn’t it? The word-choice of the man who’d been about to cut him open. And yet his lips stretch a little wider when he says, “where dead people go.”

“I know what a morgue is. Why were you in the morgue?”

“Because I was a dead person.” Eren leans forward and opens his eyes, the chair protesting the entire affair. He uses his heels to ease the chair toward the wall, reaching for the dry erase board hanging beside this year’s calendar, and grabbing the marker from its base.

431 days, it says in Connie’s clean, if enthusiastically large, script, since our last incident.

The 431 disappears behind Eren’s palm, replaced with a fat zero, just a little bit off-center.

“Oh,” Connie says. “What about the contact you were supposed to meet at the—“

“Park? Didn’t find him.” Eren reaches for one of the cardboard containers, unfolding the lid to find pan fried noodles inside. His stomach rolls eagerly, and the room tilts a little bit. “But I did find his ashes.” The chopsticks in his hands break unevenly. He blames it on the tremors in his fingers.

The pause this time is longer, and Eren uses it to twist some noodles onto his chopsticks, even though his hand won’t stop shaking, as if this had been his first trip to and from the bridge between life and death. It feels stupid.

No. It’s more than that. It feels weak.

(The first time he’d seen a Bean Nighe washing his clothes, he’d been the size of a human grade schooler. He’d seen her in a twenty-four hour launderette, smoking despite the sign behind her that had prohibited it. She’d been leaning on her washing machine and had been watching Eren the whole time.

what’re you looking at?” The woman had said in Welsh that she’d stretched out like taffy, despite the fact that the language didn’t allow for that sort of thing.

Eren hadn’t known she wasn’t human then. Her voice had sounded like branches rubbing together, and it had risen upward on a cloud of smoke.

i was looking at your stuff,” he’d told her, waiting for his mom to fetch him from the hospital across the street. “you’ve got a shirt like mine in there.”

The moonlight had blended in with the light from the launderette, smudging the line between outside and inside.

you don’t say?” She’d said to him, sighing smoke from out her nose. It only came out of one nostril, which Eren had found weird. “then it looks like we’re two of a kind, aren’t we, little one?” When she’d smiled, all her teeth had been made of gold, except for one of her front teeth. It gleamed the white of newly-bleached bone.

He’d told his mother about that, long after the woman had gone, taking her laundry with her.

That city had ended up being the second place he’d died.)

The clock on the far wall chimes the turn of the hour softly, breaking the silence that had settled between them.

Eren uses the newly made space to say, “a Sluagh got me. At the park. Pretty sure that’s what got our contact, too.”

Connie perches on the countertop, one of the Styrofoam containers of dim sum sitting open in his lap, though his chopsticks are still unbroken in his hands. “Are you sure?”

Eren thinks of the fingers that had been cold enough to steal his breath away, thinks of the way the thumbs had felt as they’d pressed into his throat. He thinks of the way the faerie had looked at him, thinks of the pointed teeth and rotting breath. Thinks of the laughter he’d heard fluttering around his ears, though the sources had been just out of sight.

He thinks of the way the creature had whispered. He thinks of the fact that his mother’s hands are cold like that.

“I’m pretty sure,” Eren replies. “We ended up getting pretty close, I’d say. Close enough to verify.”

Connie turns the chopsticks in his hand slowly, and the smell of cinnamon and maple syrup gets thick around them. Sparks flicker form his fingertips, and the hairs begin to rise on Eren’s arms. It’s a nervous gesture. There’s no spell or will behind the magic dripping from Connie’s shoulders like molasses, and so the energy around them doesn’t have anywhere specific to go, but it does make the noodles in his mouth a little tasteless.

“I thought they’d been chased off,” Connie says after a moment. “From what I remember, your mom seemed pretty upset last time.” He glances toward the small whiteboard Eren had changed moments before.

“Maybe they decided that edicts from the Underworld don’t apply to half-bloods.” His shrug is stiff, the bones in his shoulders rubbing together roughly. “Or maybe they just decided that edicts in general don’t apply to the Unforgiven Dead. Either way, I was in the morgue.”

Connie stabs a dumpling with his chopsticks, still held together. “And the client that you were going to get out of the city?”

“I told them to stay home,” Eren tells him. “Before I went to the park. I wanted to check to make sure everything was in order before I called them all the way out. As it stands, they still have their protection charms and stuff, but they’re still in the city limits.”

Connie swallows before he speaks again. “This sounds pretty balls to me.”

Eren snorts, setting the empty noodle container aside before grabbing one filled high with rice. “Seconded.”

The city thrums beneath Eren’s skin as it chugs along outside the storefront windows. Pedestrians pass by without much of a first glance, much less a second. Human or otherwise, it’s just a slow-moving stream of people, with streetlights splitting the nighttime darkness into pieces. It’s a sign that the fogging wards are still doing their job, at least, regardless of the shit that’s outside the door.

For all that it’s a little less than ideal for a booming business, having a ward that keeps away people who don’t need the shop’s services is better than having every fae, human, and each one of their mothers swarming his store.

It’s safer this way. Eren supposes it’s been a while since he’d realized that.

“Did anyone see you at the morgue, or did you just wake up in the fridge?”

Rice falls from its place on the edge of Eren’s chopsticks and back into the container.

He rolls any number of lies around in his mouth, trying to get a measure of how it’ll feel to tell them. And he could get away with it, if he wanted. His mother’s people can’t lie, but humans make it an art, an elaborate sort of contortionism that is almost admirable to watch. The human in him would make it easy.

But he was raised like one of the Fair Folk, and so he says, “I woke up when someone was about to do an autopsy on me.”

Connie flinches in sympathy before popping another dumpling into his mouth, speaking around it. “That’s awkward. I bet it was fun for them.”

Levi’s fingertips had been callused when he’d taken Eren’s pulse, and his eyes had been sharp, a lot like his tongue. But the touch had been gentle, had been soft, and even in lighting that had burned Eren’s eyes, even though fluorescent bulbs don’t do anyone any favors, the medical examiner had been something akin to beautiful, even though the word doesn’t feel quite right even as he thinks it.

There has to be something better than that.

(“a concussion,” Levi had said to Eren’s back as he’d reached for the door that led back out into the morgue, now that the office had been straightened and cleaned—free of evidence bags and bins and any sign that there’d ever been a body there. Levi’s voice had held Eren there, frozen for one heartbeat and then two before he’d turned his head to find him sitting upright but only barely, his eyelids heavy with magic.

what?” Eren had felt bile rising in his throat, had wondered if he’d spent too much energy getting his breath back that his fucking spell hadn’t worked.

you could have a concussion,” Levi’s eyes, for all that the rest of him looked weighed down with exhaustion, had been clear. “don’t end up back in a morgue because you didn’t think about a concussion.

Eren had reached back to touch the dried blood in his hair, had felt the matted clumps beneath his fingers, had felt further the unbroken skin of his scalp.

okay,” he’d said, though Levi’s head had fallen back on his arms, though his eyes were closed and his breath was even, though the memory of this would be there and gone again in an hour or so. “i’ll remember that.”

Levi had looked peaceful, in his sleep. Had looked fragile and human and vulnerable.

Eren had wondered, then, if that was the thing that faeries found so fascinating about humankind.)

“It was a blast.” Eren clears his throat around the words. “Wild, exhilarating, only one of us was naked. But, like all good things, it didn’t last forever. He should be awake by now, and remember approximately zero percent of anything that happened between us.”

Connie swings his feet gently back and forth, watching the city breathe outside the windows. One pedestrian stops, glancing from the Open sign to the shop’s label, poised above the fabric awning in bright neon purple. There’s a hesitation in the way they shift their weight between their feet.

“It’s a little bit sad, huh,” Connie tells him, another dumpling disappearing into his mouth.

“What?” Eren gathers the containers that are still mostly full, tossing away the ones that are empty. The last thing they need is a potential customer calling some sort of health inspection on a store that is almost impossible to find.

The person outside makes no move to come in, but they make no move to back up into the flow of foot-traffic, either.

“The fact that the only person that’ll ever see you naked forgets the whole thing.”

Ha-ha, thank you. You’re hilarious. Maybe you should quit this job and do stand-up, that way I don’t have to pay you or take your shit.”

Connie laughs, and any of the nervous energy from before disappears without a trace, leaving behind only the lingering smells of the shop’s standard charms. “Maybe it’s a blessing! Maybe they’d tell their friends about the entire thing and talk about how you really weren’t a looker. Maybe it would’ve just been a rumor-mill of incredible proportions, and you wouldn’t’ve even been able to defend yourself.”

Shut up, what kind of insubordinate institution am I running? What on this fucking green—“

A soft bell rings and the iron door swings outward, pulled open by the human that had been waiting nervously outside, the collar of their peacoat pulled up against the breeze. Eren kills the argument still in his mouth, throwing the last of the chopsticks into the trashcan behind the counter.

“Um,” the human says. “I’m looking for something that’ll help me on my midterms.” A pause. “But not, like, a cheat-sheet or anything.”

Connie hops off the countertop, a white smile splitting the dark skin of his face open with good humor. “Then you’ve come to the right place! We’ve got retention charms, good luck charms, unbreakable pencils, and all of it comes guilt-free.”

The two of them walk together deeper into the store, toward the back wall where all the academic fortifications are kept. Eren stands, the chair once more squeaking its displeasure, and makes his way toward the iron door.

The city is as it always is, just outside. There are people, and then there are things that aren’t, and all of it comes together at the edges of human awareness. There are people laughing outside the window, one of them pointing toward the sky where lighting flickers between the clouds.

But for all that everything looks the same as it always is, there’s something else out there.

The iron of the door burns, just a little, when Eren presses his hand flat against it, splaying his fingers wide. Even if it is the same city, with the same routines and same pulse, it couldn’t hurt to fortify the wards around the store. It also couldn’t hurt to trap the edges of the windows, and the doorframe. If there’s time before sunrise, it might be best to ward the back door and trap it too.

It’s safe here, after all. It would be best if it stayed that way.

(“you can’t come back forever,” the Sluagh had said.

Eren touches the skin of his throat and his own fingertips leave warmth in their wake—a trail from pulse-point to pulse-point. Perhaps the creature had made a very valuable point. Maybe he can’t come back forever.

But the good doctor Levi had personally requested that Eren not end up back in the morgue. And Eren had personally replied that he would remember to consider that request. Just because Levi is probably at home with no recollection or their conversations doesn’t mean that Eren will forget them.

After all—memory or not—he’d hate to be a liar.)

Chapter Text

Nine days go by, and there’s fucking nothing to show for it.

Well—that’s not entirely true. Three clients had been relocated outside the city, where another one had been received from somewhere else, ready to set up a new life outside the jurisdiction of whatever Court they’d left. In the interest of honesty, Eren has to admit to himself that the past several days have been overwhelmingly successful, even in terms of sales at the store.

Eren knows he ought to be happy about that, just like he knows that he can’t make information appear where there is none. But he also knows that he should have more on the Sluagh inside the city than he currently does, and it’s making his bones itch to have not even a miniscule extra detail. Someone has to know something, has to have seen something. Shit, Eren himself ought to have seen something by now.

After all, Sluagh don’t travel alone. Where there’s one, there’s a pack. They’re like ants that way, like vultures, like—

(“you can’t come back forever.”)

—killer whales.

It speaks to sense of organization that everyone says isn’t present in the Sluagh. They come in hordes and cause trouble however they can, and the proximity to Samhain only makes things worse. It’s a destruction borne from bitterness, from untampered anger, from having died a human and come back again as something monstrous. But what had happened at the park was... personal. To asphyxiate someone to death is personal, and it isn’t—none of this makes any sense.

Eren starts, almost jostling the table above his knees when his phone vibrates beside his coffee cup. It pulls his attention away from the window, away from the people outside it, and drops him right back into the café where his coffee still hasn’t cooled in its cup.

He swipes to the right with his thumb.

From: Spring Loaded
     how did it go?
     client secured?
     boss??
     if ur in another alley being dead ill tell ur mom

Eren leans back in his chair with a sigh, already typing out his own series of replies.

client’s been given to next contact. i took a coffee stop, bbs. He pauses, thumbs poised above the screen of his phone, and then he continues, you could tell mom but she’ll just send a bird to harass you.

It takes not even half-a-breath for Connie to send something else in return.

From: Spring Loaded
     pls no i promise not to tell ur mom
     tell her to get a cell phone i’m sick of her fukin crows
     see u soon pray i don’t set the place on fire

Eren tucks his phone into his pocket, snorting softly, and reaches for his coffee cup, sinking a little lower in his chair. It’s a moment of peace and quiet, despite the noise inside the café, despite the noise knocking around in Eren’s skull. He’d been craving this for days, it feels like—running back and forth across the city to check in with clients, to get them settled, to run the store, to see his mother, to find information on the Sluagh.

Just thinking about it makes the exhaustion slam into him from behind, and he considers, very seriously, resting his head on the table and taking a nap, or something. For all that Connie believes himself to be the worst store clerk on earth, Eren has never had a problem trusting him with it. The state of his shop has never been one of the things he’d worried about when he’s risen from the dead.

“Mind if I sit here?” Someone asks, and Eren watches his coffee cup for a moment, the plans for a nap circling the drain in slow motion.

There’s a smile that tries to rise to his face when he lifts his eyes from the table, if only so it looks like he’s not getting ready to say no, but when he meets the human’s eyes it dies before it can get proper footing.

“There’s nowhere else,” Levi-the-doctor continues, and he’s not in scrubs this time. There’s a jacket around his shoulders and the T-shirt beneath it has a logo on it that’s almost too faded to read. Eren finds it incredible how ambient lighting can soften the human face far better than the harsh white fluorescents of a morgue, how a change of clothes can alter someone’s posture. Clothes work a lot like glamours that way. “Unless you’re waiting for somebody, in which case you can tell me to fuck off.”

(The population of this city according to the most recent census is 652,405 people. Statistically, Eren should not be face-to-face with the man who’d almost done an autopsy on him not yet ten days before. Statistically, Eren should have been able to avoid this man for a much, much longer period of time.

People can go their whole lives in cities this size without seeing the same stranger twice.)

“No,” Eren finds himself saying. There really is no seat open, even though it’s just after 10:30 and a great many people ought to be in bed. But it’s the time of midterms, and from what Eren can see, most of the patrons here are students. The rest aren’t human at all. “I mean, no, I don’t mind, not no, you can’t sit here.”

Levi’s lips twitch with amusement—probably amusement, anyway—and he pulls out the chair across from him and takes a seat. There’s steam rising from the mouth of his cup’s lid, curling around Levi’s face before fading away.

“There’s a shitload of students here,” Levi says, just as the silence stretches between them for just a little bit too long—just as Eren had been planning his own getaway, leaving all notions of peace-and-quiet behind. “Usually this place is basically empty.”

“It’s midterms,” Eren replies, popping the plastic lid from his cup to take a sip of almost too-sweet coffee. It makes his blood run warmer when he does. “Eventually studying at home drives you mad, the campus library is full of people crying, and the smell of coffee does wonders for the soul.”

Levi takes a quiet sip from his own cup, keeping the lid firmly in place. “I remember midterms.” The look that Eren gets leveled at him is something spectacular, like a weather pattern on the move. He’s never seen eyes that capture a coming rainstorm so well. “You don’t have any books with you. Are you above midterms, or are you not a student?”

“I’m a graduate,” Eren says, trying not to think of the way Levi had spoken to him when he’d been nothing but a dead man walking, trying not to tell him that he’d survived whatever concussion Levi had been worried about with flying colors. He’d survived worse, even. “I just like to come here and watch people suffer as I suffered.”

Levi laughs, and it’s so much softer than the only other laughter Eren had ever heard from him, he wonders if this person is even the same man he’d met at all. There is a factoid out there that reports that there are at least seven doppelgangers for every human on earth. Maybe he’d simply run across one.

But... eyes like those are hard to replicate, no matter how alike two people are.

“That’s a little harsh, don’t you think?” Levi tells him, and this time there is definitely a smile, and he’s definitely amused.

“I think that I’m entitled, as a paying customer, to use this vantage point for whatever I choose.”

Levi shakes his head and the warm café light dances over his face, caressing the line of his cheekbones. “That’s fair, I guess.” He pauses to sip again at his coffee up before he says, “so what did you graduate with?”

“Two B.A.s.” It’s a harmless fact. This whole conversation is harmless. This whole conversation is, in fact, just a reason not to go back to the store just yet, just an excuse to finish his coffee before he has to fall back into the life of a half-blood nobody. “One in English Literature with a minor in Religion and the other in Folklore Studies.”

“So you like to read,” Levi says, and Eren thinks he can see the corner of a smile around the shape of his coffee cup. “Got excited enough for two degrees at your age?”

(approx. 21 yrs old, Levi’s autopsy notes had said, written in his close-but-even hand. Eren had found it funny, at the time that he’d read them.

Being more than twice that age will do that to a person, he supposes.)

“I got excited enough that people offered to pay me to get them, so yeah.” Streetlights leave a swathe of contrasting brightness along the surface of the table, broken by the shadows of pedestrians passing by. Eren can feel the pulse of the city beneath his skin as it makes tracks against his bones. “What about you? What midterms are you reliving?”

A shudder starts at Levi’s shoulders and works its way down his body, past the lip of the table. His nose wrinkles. “Medical school ones.”

“Yikes.” Eren furrows his eyebrows sympathetically, as if he didn’t know Levi’s occupation at the start of this. It’s pretty easy to do, all things considered. “So you’re a doctor then? The kind that works on people, not the kind that writes papers.”

The look on Levi’s face is a replica of the one Eren had seen in the morgue—faraway and a little bit painful, his mouth heavy with a history that Eren doesn’t know.

(“my bedside manner is shit,” Levi had said, holding Eren’s gaze and yet staring right through him. “it’s absolute garbage. dead people don’t complain about that.

It had smelled a little bit like a lie in the sterile chill around them, had made the air heavy. But it’s not like Eren could’ve called him on it, and it’s not like he would’ve known what to say even if he had. But something in his chest had tightened enough to be painful, and for a moment, all he’d been able to say was, “oh.”)

“I’ve got the degree for it,” Levi says. “But mostly I just handle dead people.”

Eren takes a second to figure out what he wants to say—even though Levi doesn’t remember that they’d talked before, even though he doesn’t remember that Eren already knows about his place in the morgue. “I’m sure that they appreciate it endlessly.” 

Levi coughs out a sound that Eren can’t identify, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, shutting his eyes against—something. Tension starts in the furrow of his eyebrows and works its way outward, settling in his jaw.

“Um,” Eren says into the murmur of the café, setting aside his coffee cup to lean forward and lower is voice. “Are you... okay? Was that a shit thing to say? I just meant that, like, no one really thinks about people after they die, so having someone like you handling that sort of thing is—“

Levi huffs out a breath and when his eyes open they’re clear and... breathtaking, or something. He drops his hand away from his nose and says, “you didn’t say anything shit. Sorry. Headache. They come and go.” He shifts in his seat, resting his chin in his hand, and Eren finds his attention caught by the motion of Levi’s fingers. “So where are you from? You’ve got an accent, and I can’t tell what it is.”

Eren can taste his own magic on the back of his tongue, can feel himself already running through words he can say to make a soothing spell real and effective—but then it stops, falling back into his chest, and he blinks with surprise.

“What?”

“Accent. You say some words differently, but I can’t tell where you’re from.” There are shadows beneath Levi’s eyes, as if someone had pressed their thumb in ink and then swiped them beneath his eyelashes. “Unless you hate that line of conversation. You can tell me to shut the fuck up.”

“No, I—“ Eren feels his skin prickle as he draws shapes on the surface of the table with his index finger. There are... memories, maybe. Or maybe it’s that he’s never spoken with a human this way, before. “I’m Welsh. I mean, I grew up in Wales. My dad was Welsh.”

“Oh yeah?” Levi’s fingers tap against his cheek once more, and Eren finds himself focusing on his fingertips. His nails are blunted but not bitten, and there are no cuts there to indicate that they’ve ever been cut to the quick. “Don’t they fuck sheep there?”

The laughter in his mouth tastes like chocolate and coffee. “Did you get that joke from an Englishman? Because that’s in real poor taste.”

Levi snickers and he looks so—something. Soft. His face is soft, even though there are angles on it, even though he looks like he works a countless amount of graveyard shifts. “Sorry. It’s the only joke I know.” He hums against the lid of his coffee cup, his humor still pulling at the corners of his mouth.

Eren’s coffee isn’t cold just yet, but it isn’t warm either when he takes a mouthful and swallows. It’s thick with the mocha syrup that had settled at the bottom of the cup, and it feels... unfortunate. It feels like an hour-glass has run out.

Or, lamer still, it feels like the clock has struck midnight and Cinderella has to get back home from the ball.

He’d laugh at his own stupidity just then, because it really is stupid, but Levi speaks before anything can come out of his mouth, and whatever had been blooming beneath his sternum freezes, stiffening beside his lungs.

“Have we met before?” is what Levi says, placing his cup back onto the surface of the table and lacing his fingers together, one over the other. Eren finds it odd that the cup manages to stay in place, what with the room tilting as sharply as it is—but that could just be a trick of his own perception, because he feels like he might throw up.

(He hadn’t been worried about triggering any memories, not really. He’d wiped Levi’s head clean of anything he’d seen in the morgue. He’d—he knows that he had. Levi had sagged in his arms, had been deadweight even as Eren had placed him carefully at his desk.

There shouldn’t be a sense of déjà vu. There shouldn’t be anything that reminds Levi of him at all.)

The fact that his voice comes out even and unhurried shocks him. “Do I remind you of somebody? Were they charming like me?”

Levi snorts as Eren leans his chair back on two legs. “It’s not like you remind me of anybody. You remind me of you, so I could swear we’ve met somewhere.” This is the first time Eren notices how chapped Levi’s lips are, as they turn downward in a frown. It might be that the fall is getting to them, despite the semi-constant humidity. “It’s rare that I’m this...” He stops, blinks, and the frown deepens.

Eren could leave this here. He could deny everything, leave the conversation hanging like the noose it’s turning into and walk away, because if there’s anything he knows, it’s that the universe will dig its claws into any opportunity to kick the shit out of him.

But his mouth moves forward, because his mouth always moves forward, and he says, “that you’re what? This charming? This funny? This interesting?”

Talkative.” There might be pink drawing itself against the jut of Levi’s cheekbones, and there might be something hiding in the way he scoffs. “I’m not usually this talkative, especially with people I don’t know.”

Eren finds himself smiling, even though it doesn’t feel like it belongs on his face. And what comes out of his mouth is, true to form, not really a lie, even if it is one of the dumbest things he’s ever done.

“I think I’d remember if I met someone like you.”

(He’s died enough times to fill a number of obituaries, and nothing has ever felt quite as much like flirting with danger as what he’s doing now.

He supposes that danger has never looked like this before.

And, besides, it’s in the interest of preserving the fae’s secret. How else would he throw a human so used to asking questions off the trail of something that’s eating at him like that?)

The color in Levi’s face touches the curve of his ear, hiding beneath the hair that falls over it. “Shut up. Fucking—shut up. I—nevermind. I’d remember if someone said something so fucking ridiculous before. Fucking Christ.” It’s kind of funny, watching him swear like that. It’s better than watching him swear close to hysterics, speaking with the body he’d been about to cut open. “You say shit like that, and you don’t even have the decency to have your name on your coffee cup.”

“I’m a regular,” Eren tells him, replacing the lid now that his coffee is gone. “And what do you need it for? Are you going to report me?”

What pulls at Levi’s mouth just then looks to be a cross between a scoff and a smile. It’s an expression worth writing home about, but he’s probably just waxing poetic, or something like that.

No, I—“

Whatever Levi had been about to say dies on his tongue, the little bit he’d managed to articulate rolling across the tabletop and onto the floor.

Ice is stretching along the window in delicate patterns, following in the wake of a creature’s fingertips with dark hair and eyes that look like burning coals. Its teeth are sharp, almost hidden by the collar of its leather jacket, and when it meets Eren’s eyes he can feel fingers wrapping around his throat.

Eren doesn’t turn around to follow it with his eyes. It hadn’t seemed to be in a hurry anyway.

Across the table, goosebumps are rising on Levi’s throat, visible from Eren’s seat, though the ice at the end of the window is already melting.

It’s only when Levi opens his mouth to speak again that Eren stands, pushing his chair backward with his calves. His own fingertips are still warm on his throat, like they always are when the panic starts to hold onto him too tightly.

“I have to go,” he says, and his windpipe cooperates the whole time. Just because his brain can’t forget doesn’t mean his body has any troubles at all.

“What?” Levi half-rises, his skin smoothing out as the ice turns into streams of water, working their way down the glass and onto the brick of the outside windowsill. “Are you—sure?”

“Yeah.” The chair is louder than he means for it to be when he pushes it back in place, and it swallows the sound of Levi dropping back into his own seat, glancing between the window and his coffee cup. Any color that had been beneath his skin before is gone, now. “It was nice to meet you, Mister Doctor.”

“It’s Levi,” is the reply he gets, though he doesn’t attempt to stand up again as Eren pauses beside him. “You don’t put Mister in front of Doctor. It sounds stupid.”

It’s weird, this entire affair—and Eren’s seen more than anyone’s share of weird things in his life, he thinks. Somehow this takes the cake, because he doesn’t really understand how he’s having a harder time breathing now than he was when he could feel the Sluagh pressing its palms against his throat, crushing it with brutal force.

“It’s nice to meet you,” he says again, but this time he adds, “Levi.”

A question might’ve been directed at Eren’s back just then, but he doesn’t stop to have it repeated. This was a one-time thing, anyway. It’s not like this will be a routine, just like it’s not as if Eren’s normal and could afford something like this anyway.

He throws the coffee cup in the wastebin beside the wooden door. He doesn’t remember crushing it with his fingers, and yet it definitely was when it had left his hand.

“See you soon!” says the Glastig behind the counter, all dolled up with a human glamour that dulls the points of her ears and the intensity of her cheeks. The apron around her waist does a lot of the work hiding the unevenness of her gait as she leans forward to wave him goodbye.

Really, it’s a courtesy that Eren doesn’t say anything in return as he pushes out the café door, taking one step and then the other as if he were about to start the walk home. If he’d spoken to her, he’s sure he would’ve puked on her floor. It would’ve been embarrassing for them both—and it would’ve put him even farther behind than he’d already made himself by not sprinting after the Sluagh at the window the moment he’d spotted it.

Eren swallows the bile rising in his throat that would’ve ended up on the café’s floor and takes a right, following the path that the Sluagh had walked as it had dragged its hand along the glass in a carefully executed taunt. When he breathes in through his mouth, he can taste it’s magic—like something rotting in a freezer, like something long dead hadn’t been found before a hard freeze.

He doesn’t break into a run until he hits the end of the coffee shop’s window, and by then the hairs at the back of his neck have begun to rise.

The Sluagh isn’t wearing a human face just then, and so the people on the sidewalk can’t see it—but that doesn’t mean they can’t feel its chill, that they can’t feel its presence, and so Eren follows the path where people aren’t walking, shoved aside by a fear they probably can’t explain. It makes things easy, makes it so he doesn’t have to push his way through the city’s nightlife, makes it so he can follow the wayward faerie without too much trouble.

Eren rounds a corner, too-cold air burning in his lungs, and finds the Sluagh waiting on the next street corner, a smile hanging from its lips. Or, rather, Eren assumes that it’s a smile. It’s impossible to tell from so far away, but there’s a slice of white across its face, dark hair piled on its head in a tail-turned-knot.

It turns around to run again when Eren makes it halfway down the sidewalk, the length of its strides eating the short distance of the crosswalk. Eren keeps after it, a car blaring its horn as he leaps onto the crosswalk himself, keeping the creature in his sights as he does. To lose this would be to lose the only lead he has on the ashes from the park nine days before.

(“you can’t come back forever.”)

It is to be noted, however, that this is very obviously a trap. It is to be further noted that Eren can’t bring himself to give a shit that he’s going in the polar opposite direction of the shop, that the pedestrians have thinned out to the point of basically disappearing, that the cars have stopped their nightly commute in this district. The less people there are, the more time Eren has to ask questions. The less people there are, the less likely it is that someone will call the cops. Or an ambulance.

Or a medical examiner.

A turn and an alleyway, lined with trash. His lungs are killing him, lined with ice sharp enough to scar the inside of his chest, and if the fucking Sluagh isn’t around this corner at the other end of the alley when he takes it, he’s going to turn his ass around and go home, leads be damned

The air is knocked from his lungs when his shoulders hit the ground, the sudden change in direction disorienting enough to make his head spin. Or maybe that’s the fact that his head hit the concrete. Whatever the case, there are spots dancing across what he can see of the sky, bordered between to brick buildings, stretching up toward the darkness.

It’s almost silent in this alleyway. There aren’t even any roaches moving against the stone.

The quiet makes the sound of a body falling from the fire-escape above him impossibly loud.

Eren presses his palms to the pavement, kicking himself upright and into a standing position, as the Sluagh hits the concrete hard enough to give it pause while the impact rattles its way through its bones. It gives him the time he needs to catch his breath, to shift his body into a defensive position, to—

He rolls forward, the echo of another creature leaping between the buildings’ outer walls sending his heart into his throat.

When he stands, the Sluagh that had leapt from the fire-escape is no longer standing in the middle of the alley. The footsteps behind him, however, are still very much there and very real, and Eren finds himself leaping over scattered trash toward a more open playing field. It’d be stupid to fight two-or-more fae in close quarters—but the only way to lure them out was to set the bait. Bait for the baiter, or something like that.

The street is empty, infinitely more spacious than the alleyway, and for a moment he can breathe in the taste of Puget sound, rolling over the asphalt and the through the industrial district, cleaning away the smells of a working day, even if it can’t quite wash out the fish-smell of the coast. It soothes the ache in his skull and between his shoulders, makes him feel a little less like he’d run the entire way here only to be laid flat like a villain in an old cartoon.

Even the Sluagh across the street are a little bit less intimidating, now that the chase is over, now that he’s got the time to ask any question he wants.

The first one that comes to mind has to do with the creatures bleeding out of the shadows, lining up beside one another and licking their pointed teeth. A headcount puts them at four, which means that Eren had either hit his head harder than he thought, or two had been waiting for an opportunity in the alley that Eren hadn’t afforded them.

Chances are it’s the latter, because the universe tends to work like that.

“Does four-on-one really seem fair to you?” The sea-smell of the air does nothing to muffle his voice as it bounces across the pavement to gather around the Sluaghs’ shoulders. “Because from this perspective, it seems a little... skewed out of my favor.”

One of the Sluagh moves forward on bare feet, slow and predatory, and it isn’t the face of the one that had brushed its fingers along the window at the café. This is the one that had killed him, pressed his back against the grass and crushed his windpipe in a blind-sided move while he’d been crouched to inspect the ashes of a Tuatha dé Danann that had been the contact between him and another Court.

It smiles wider when its toes hit the curb of Eren’s sidewalk, its teeth pressing into its lower lip, and it speaks the way a tree does during a hard freeze. There are echoes of splitting bark, as if branches on trees close by had gotten get too cold and burst away from the trunk, scattering shards of ice along the ground.

“You are a charming little monster, aren’t you?” There are vestiges of humanity still hanging from its features. It must come from having been human once, though the whites of its eyes have been swallowed by darkness, making their gaze just this side of disturbing as it sticks to Eren’s head while it circles him slowly. Its associates keep their place across the street, watching. It’s making his skin crawl. “An ugly little freak of nature.”

His blood freezes between one heartbeat and the next.

(He’d been breathing in river water and a man’s hand had been pressed to the back of his skull, holding him under. The last bubble of breath inside his lungs had already risen to the surface, and popped. Eren had wondered, at the time, if it had broken through the river in a scream or a wheeze.

It’s not as if he’d had the opportunity to ask.

The voices above him had been garbled, stuck together like melted candies, and by then Eren had been inhaling mud, and the reeds around him had been going dim at the edges of his vision.

an abomination,” the man had said, and a small chorus of agreements had skipped across the water’s surface, hopping toward the other shore. “you were right to bring him here.” A pause, and then, “what of its mother?

Eren’s fingers had stopped churning through the riverbed, and he could feel his body easing into the arms of death—or something like that.

He’d heard a Banshee, somewhere. But he hadn’t known that, then.)

“Which part of me is the part you don’t like?” It’s like swallowing the river all over again, and there’s silt behind his teeth. “Is it the human part or the fae part? Or is it the combination of both? Because that helps inform which kind of shittalk would be the most effective.”

The Sluagh’s skin is ice cold when Eren catches its wrist before it can backhand him across the face. If it’d had pupils, he’s sure they would’ve dilated just then.

“Don’t call yourself anything close to human.” Another branch splitting from a tree trunk, clattering its way to the forest floor. “There’s nothing human in you.”

It’s weird to hear a Sluagh saying so much at once. They’ve never been a chatty people, and in most of their folklore, it’s always been war cries and laughter. He’d never known they’d be prone to sinister monologues. But he supposes that, too, is a remnant of the human that it had been, before it had come back in a form like this.

“So it’s the fae part.” Eren lets go when the Sluagh pulls on the hold on its wrist. Across the street, the other three have disappeared and the silence around them has gotten thicker. Even the sea-salt smell of the not-too-distant Sound is heavier with the chill. “Which is kind of funny, considering how pure your faerie blood is.”

A cloud of white is hissed between the Sluagh’s teeth and Eren almost shivers, the skin beneath his jacket’s sleeves going clammy. “Say that again and I get to rip your tongue out.”

The sidewalk crackles as Eren takes a step back, shifting his weight on his feet. “I’ll just grow it back. I’m like a bad rash that way.” A can rattles in an alley close by. It could be a cat, or a rat, or one of the Sluagh, but he doesn’t turn his head to check. He’s got questions scrambling on the back of his tongue. “Unless you’re back to finish the job, in which case this is the shortest crime drama I’ve ever seen.”

The creature’s hair flutters about its face in a breeze that isn’t there and it doesn’t blink as it watches him. But its mouth stretches into a smile that could swallow the light around them, if it wanted.

“You’re dumber than you look.” Laughter, this time like a frozen tree splitting in two. It bounces from building to building and around the empty street, multiplying itself into an army all its own. “This is just pre-gaming, changeling. We’re just here to let you know your days are numbered. There’s a Hunt coming for you.” The Sluagh takes one step forward. Eren takes another step back. “For all of you.”

“That’s alarmingly unspecific,” Eren tells it. The city still thrums inside his bones, even in the apparent solitude of the Industrial District just now, and though the cold is numbing his fingertips, the magic gathering beneath them is enough to make them feel almost normal.

It’s the beauty of living in a place with so many people. Life creates the energy that magic needs to thrive—and the human world has magic in spades, whether the humans themselves can see it or not.

“You want me to spoil the surprise?” The hairs on Eren’s arms rise and he can taste heather and rainwater behind his teeth, can feel the headache already coming to life behind his eyes. “You’re an impatient little monster.”

The Sluagh takes another slow step forward—from bare heel to bare toes—before it springs into vicious motion.

(As far as Eren has been taught, changelings most often fall into one of three categories.

The first are, according to faerie lore, the most unfortunate. Their human blood has overwhelmed most everything else, and the only thing their supernatural genetics had to offer them was faerie Sight and longevity. Their spells are weak, their magic thin and fragile like sugar threads. Eren had always heard that their magic doesn’t taste or smell like anything.

The second are tolerated more often, though they are the most common nuisance. Something funny had happened when their natures met, and instead of mixing properly, fae and human blood collided hard enough to shift things around. Changelings like this are more like nuclear reactors, though their magic puts a strain on their bodies that purebloods never envy.

The third changeling is where most of them end up; a balance between human and not, their magic suited to charm-crafting, or artistry, or something like that. It’s a safe place to be—overlooked by two worlds at one time, and therefore punished by neither.

His mother had never told him which category he’d fallen into.)

Eren moves on instinct and skill, his fingertips itching with the spell burning past his lips. “‘I’ve got the world on a string,” he says softly, turning on his heel to twist away from claws aimed at his face. The song is older than he is, tastes even older than that as it falls from his mouth.

The Sluagh hums, low and dangerous as it turns toward him for another strike, and Eren sees one of the others flicker between the shadows, untouched by the city’s streetlamps.

It’s at the second Sluagh that Eren throws the spell, the tendrils of his magic latching onto it and pulling hard, hard enough to make the creature squeal when he yanks on his magic again, hopping backward on the balls of his feet, out of reach of two more would-be punches from the first.

The second Sluagh is struggling against Eren’s hold, against the sting of his magic sticking to its bones, and the first’s eyes narrow. The smell of sea-breeze turns to something icy, and beneath it is the smell of something dead.

Magic sings toward him in a straight shot, unbothered by gravity or friction or the physics of the human world.

If Eren hadn’t done something like this before—if this had been his first experience with magic this heavy, if this had been his first ballroom dance with combat magic—the tendrils of his own spell would’ve snapped, would’ve sent the second Sluagh barreling forward with the momentum of its struggle.

But he’s done this before. And this particular brand of puppet magic isn’t new to him at all.

Eren pulls the second Sluagh between him and pieces of ice thicker than steel rebar, and he stretches his arms wide to spread the creature in a mirror of his own position, taking three impacts to the lower body. When a fourth doesn’t come, he cuts the Sluagh loose, lets it fall to the concrete to lie in a puddle of blood and ice-melt, surrounded by the lingering smells of death and winter, heather and rainfall.

The first Sluagh stands there, for a moment. Even the not-there breeze has stilled around it, its hair hanging limp around its face. Behind him, there’s the sound of footsteps, the sigh of bare skin on pavement, and the black holes of the Sluagh’s eyes are swallowing the light around its face.

“Scary,” the Sluagh says, its voice a brittle thing, though there’s a threat living behind it. The footsteps have gone silent around them both. “I’d be shaking in my boots, if I had any.”

“Lucky you,” Eren replies, rolling his shoulders against the city’s heartbeat vibrating in his chest. Touching magic can do that—can turn up the volume of the city’s rampant energy, bleeding into the buildings and the streets, the sewers and the metro tunnels. “Saves you the embarrassment.”

The Sluagh’s lips curl in something that would be a sneer if its teeth weren’t so sharp, and it moves forward for another strike as Eren moves backward, nerves stretching thin beneath his skin. A whisper-hiss behind him is the only warning he gets of another Sluagh at his back before the skin of one wrist burns beneath the too-cold touch of its fingers.

The first Sluagh launches toward them both, mouth open wide in a sound sharp enough to almost draw blood, and Eren twists in the third creature’s grip, gathering magic in his free hand. There are a countless number of songs running through his head, testing themselves on his tongue as the third Sluagh’s fingers tighten and the first ducks into a roll to adjust to Eren’s movement. Any of them would be an effective spell for something.

But none of them taste right, here, with something like sour panic curdling behind his teeth.

His shoulder screams a protest as he rotates again, throwing his weight against the Sluagh with a hold on him. Eren braces, curling his body so as not to lose his breath, feeling the Sluagh itself wheeze at the impact, its body going limp for a hairsbreadth of a second.

In that hairsbreadth, Eren drops himself into the life of the city.

It’s all noise and feeling, metro stops and bus routes, clubs just letting out or letting in, and each and every piece of it buzzes with energy, loose and free and vibrant. There are hints of faerie life inside the ebb and flow of Seattle, heavier than mortal experiences, aged over like wine with the thickness of mud. He breathes it in, holds it in his lungs, and shoves both hands in it, curling his fingers around the stinging feeling in his palms.

(In the moment between the last breath of his first death in the river and the darkness afterward, there had been a split-second where he’d felt the life around him glitter like stars. Everything had felt bright and connected and incredible.

In retrospect, he should’ve seen his own life flashing before his eyes, he thinks. Instead, he’d seen what life looked like from the other side of things.)

Eren pulls.

The spell comes to his mouth with perfect timing, a song as heavy as the magic burning tire tracks onto his bones. “Shut up and move with me,” he says, and his voice doesn’t feel like his own, “or get out of my face.”

The pipes beneath the sidewalk and beneath the asphalt of the road beside them burst up, spewing water as he scrambles back to standing, his fingers pressed to the city’s pulse. The metalwork curls around the second Sluagh’s corpse, manages to pin down the third creature’s legs, holding it tight to the concrete, even as it tries to claw its way free, hissing against the pain of the steel pressing to its skin. Purebloods never could hold their iron that well, even as diluted as it is.

One streetlamp in front of him bends to the side at a ninety degree angle, spitting sparks and throwing out searching copper wires as the first Sluagh dances out of its reach. There’s a fourth Sluagh, somewhere—or there had been, a moment ago. The city is a swell of light and sound, depthless and just this side of blinding, and yet he can feel the two living Sluagh around him, the fourth having disappeared, maybe. Could’ve run off, probably.

His connection to the city snaps as the first and final Sluagh slams shoulder-first into his sternum, and the emptiness inside his body is enough to send him reeling. His spine is pressed back against the concrete, only this time there is actually a Sluagh above him, and this one doesn’t feel like a malicious prank so much as it feels like war.

“The Gwyn was right about you,” the creature says, pressing both its hands to Eren’s throat, and this level of repeating history is too much just then. If he weren’t being strangled—again—he’d have a lot of questions that would need answering. But as it stands, the Sluagh’s fingers are cold enough to be painful, and the weight behind then would be enough to crush his windpipe for the second time.

Would be, because this time he knows what he’s in for.

Eren rolls to the side, the Sluagh grunting when its shoulder hits the concrete, its fingers coming loose just enough that he can take a breath and bring up a leg to wedge between them. It gives him the leverage he needs to push away, the concrete tugging at his clothes as the Sluagh tries to pull him back in range.

With one arm, Eren pushes himself upright, gathering both his feet beneath him to stand, taking three steps backward on trembling legs as the Sluagh rolls onto its own feet, a snarl pulling its skin tightly over the bones of its face.

When Eren speaks, it’s a wheeze. Embarrassing. “Had enough yet?”

The image of exploding branches is gone. Instead, when it replies, its voice is like the sound of ice shifting on the surface of a lake. Still and quiet and cold. “I’m going to enjoy killing you again. The only thing I’d enjoy more is killing you for good.”

The echo of a memory of frozen fingers against his windpipe makes his ribcage rattle, makes it easy to slide his knife from its sheath, pressed between the waistband of his jeans and the skin of his hip. He can feel the hum of the iron blade, even through the wooden hilt, even with the wood as enchanted as it is, but the weight is comfortable in his hand, still itching from its brush against the city’s heart.

“So,” Eren says, curling his toes against the soles of his sneakers as he adjusts the position of his feet, shifting his weight between them, “are you going to kill me, or what?”

It’s a sight he’s starting to get used to, this Sluagh moving toward him with a singlemindedness that ought to be admired, at least a little bit. It strikes out with its claws, brushing against the fabric of his T-shirt as he hops backward out of the way, trying to keep his knife in a defensive grip to keep the creature just out of range.

A crack in the concrete rocks Eren’s balance for a heartbeat, and he wonders if this round is already over, if he’s been done in by a piece of sidewalk that’s seen better days. That would be a story to tell Connie—how he’d had the Sluagh on the ropes, but then he’d almost tripped and he'd given it the room to—

The Sluagh pulls Eren forward by his shirt, using its other hand to take his throat between its fingers, digging its claws beneath the skin and into his throat. It’s not the ideal way to regain an upright posture, to be sure, but it’s better than cracking his skull against the ground for the third time. At least this time he can still breathe.

But the quarters are close and there isn’t quite enough space to move his knife in a way that would guarantee a quick enough death, and a strike wasted from this distance could cost him his throat. It’d be an ugly way to go. So Eren uses their proximity to twist his hips, pulling the Sluagh’s legs out from beneath its body, stooping his body as its claws wrench its way out of Eren’s throat.

It spills blood. Not enough to be alarming, really, but it’s never pleasant.

The Sluagh catches itself on one hand with a swear, swiping at Eren’s legs with its free hand and finding nothing but empty space as he jumps over the strike and lands a kick against its stomach instead. It’s body curls around the feeling like a dying spider, and Eren feels a thrill run through him, feels it like a break between thunderstorms.

But the Sluagh grabs his leg with both its hands, and there’s magic locking around his skin, brought from the creature’s palms by whispered couplets, hissed in a tongue older than anything Eren’s ever heard.

His muscles lock and freeze, his right leg becoming nothing but deadweight, and the Sluagh rolls hard to the other side, dragging Eren’s body with it. His shoulder ends up taking the impact, and he thinks that after this he’s going to try and find a way to avoid being winded as best he can. He’s had it with being breathless.

The Sluagh pins him, scrambling atop his body and seeking purchase against his chest this time, digging its hands against his ribs. The pressure makes it almost impossible to get back the breath he’d lost and he can feel his bones protesting, can’t feel his leg at all, feels the wood hilt of his knife gathering sweat like a fucking sponge

Eren’s fingers tighten around the hilt as he twists his body and once again brings the Sluagh to the pavement, adjusting his grip on the knife. His knees are on either side of the Sluagh’s hips and it’s hair had gone from tousled to wild, splayed behind its head like a curtain as Eren drives his knife into its throat, smells magic like an arctic winter that had killed a village—

A spell leaves its lips as the blade hits home, and Eren thinks he hears a Banshee screaming, behind the sound of water hissing from the broken pipes, behind the racing of his own heart, behind the headache beating brutally behind his eyes.

He doesn’t look at the point of ice breaking through the skin above his solar plexus. It wouldn’t do him any good to see the damage done when the Sluagh’s glorified icicle had pierced him through the lower back.

“An iron knife,” blood bubbles from the knife wound at the Sluagh’s pulse point and it’s body twitches beneath Eren’s own. “The thing they use to put down filth like you.”

There’s an endless stream of questions he could ask just then. There’s shit he needs to know, things that he ought to clarify and bring home to make this entire bait-and-ambush thing worth it. But he can’t find it in himself to ask any of them, something hot and angry rising up from his chest instead.

“Welcome to the monster club,” he says. He can feel blood rising in his on throat, can taste the copper-iron-salt mix of it on his tongue, can feel it on the backs of his teeth when he smiles and continues, “eat shit.”

Something rises and flickers in the Sluagh’s eyes. Whatever that emotion is twists its lips, whatever it is that pulls its skin tight across its face, it never makes it to the creature’s mouth. It dies, fading away as its body relaxes beneath him, and the weight of its frozen spell lifting from Eren’s lower body, leaving freezing water and a wound behind.

The city smells like treated water and the blood of the fae, smells like winter and asphalt and a funeral on the moors. And underneath all of that there’s the whisper-sigh-flutter of sea salt, brushing itself over everything, as if none of this had interrupted the city’s nightly routine at all.

The Banshee’s scream rings a little louder in Eren’s ears as he struggles to stand, stepping away from the Sluagh’s corpse, savoring the feeling of being able to curl the toes of his right leg, even as it’s punctuated by the warmth of blood making its way down his calf, mingling with the water that had soaked into his jeans.

The brick edifice of the closest building is support enough to make the slide down into a sitting position easier, and he considers it a personal victory that he remains upright at all as he lets his eyes fall shut, feeling the city hum around him, beneath him, inside him.

The taste of heather and soil and rainfall pile onto his tongue as he fumbles for the city’s center, tapping against the riot of living bodies still going about their nighttime habits. He presses both palms flat against the concrete, surprisingly dry beneath his hands.

“‘And the splendor of the moon and the splendor of fire, also from Me.’” The spell sends his skull into an uproar, the headache hitting him hard enough to make him see spots against the backs of his eyelids—but his body tingles like it always does when a spell hits its mark and his fingertips itch as his magic rushes out from the epicenter of his body, rising up from the ground only when it finds each of the Sluagh to wrap itself around.

Eren opens his eyes only when the smell of smoke brushes against his cheeks.  

Only ashes are left behind on the pavement, mingling with the water still coming from the broken pipes.

It’s with relief that Eren lets himself sag against the building behind him. He can feel his headache all the way down to his toes, can feel his muscles stiffening with bruises and abrasions. On the one hand, they won’t matter when he makes his way back to the world of the living. But on the other, they’re still pretty fucking uncomfortable, now that he has the time to notice them.

He stretches his legs out slowly, the movement pulling on the open wound in his abdomen, and he shuts his eyes to wait. It’s not the best hiding spot he’s ever picked for his body, but it’s not the open space of a park. He’ll have to hide his wallet somewhere, when his limbs aren’t so heavy. On the off-chance another person finds his body, he needs to be as anonymous as possible. Names have power and records make it easy to become the entire reason that the fae are brought out of hiding. He’s not quite sure he could handle a burden like that.

Just like he’s relatively certain that he can’t handle the sound of footsteps making their way down the sidewalk at a pace just short of a sprint.

“Holy fucking shit,” and Eren knows the voice that lives in the body behind the footsteps. He just wishes that he didn’t right then. “Holy shit, kid, are you—what happened?

(Meeting once is chance. Twice is coincidence. Thrice is... cosmic, or something like that.

For his mother’s people, some things come in threes: omens, charms, disasters. Eren can’t remember ever hearing about blessings coming in threes before. But, then, it isn’t really a blessing for Levi, is it? He drew the short straw in this story. Stepped in the dog shit that destiny had left behind.

But Eren can’t help but be grateful, can’t help but savor this attention, can’t help but be drawn to the man who’d been delirious on memory magic and still managed to advise him about a fucking concussion on the way out the door.

It’s like an asteroid caught in a sudden orbit, inexplicable except by the force of gravity.

It’s like magic. How cliché.)

The sheer amount of energy it takes to open his eyes is ridiculous, and it takes a moment for him to focus on anything other than the fact that his fingertips feel cold when he tries to move his hands.

“Levi,” Eren says, and it feels like a chore to say it, though when he rolls the name around in his mouth, it washes away the taste of blood. “What are you doing here?”

One of Levi’s hands is pressed to his cheek and it’s warm and alive and Eren doesn’t think he’s ever been so grateful for that feeling. His other hand is pressing down on the hole above his stomach, a ghost of a sensation of pressure there, rather than the instigator of any kind of pain.

“I followed you,” Levi tells him, and it cuts through the semi-constant wailing of the Banshee. It makes Eren wish that all death omens were a little bit like the Bean Nighe of his childhood. “Obviously. I followed you, but you moved too fucking fast, but there was—the thing that went by the window, you took off after it, so I went after you—“ Levi’s skin is so pale and his eyes keep moving back and forth over Eren’s body, pausing on his abdomen, on his throat, on his face. “I went after you.”

“That’s silly.” His skin tingles when Levi moves his hand from Eren’s cheek to press down on his abdomen. He doesn’t look to see if it’s effective, knowing already that it isn’t. “You can’t see Sluagh.”

“See what?” Levi’s eyes drop to his own hands, and the sensation of his attention feels a lot like misting rain. Or maybe that’s a different feeling. “Jesus Christ, I need to call somebody, I—I’m going to call an ambulance, I—“

No.” His tongue feels heavy just like the rest of him, and his brain isn’t making the connections that he’d like it too. It’s the slow deaths that suck the most. “No, you can’t call anybody. I can’t go to a hospital. I can’t. I’ll be okay like this.”

“Kid.” Levi’s tone drops, gets low and soft and comforting. It’s like seeing the doctor Levi must’ve been before he took his place running the morgue. “You’re dying, and I want to help you.”

“I’m going to die anyway,” Eren says, and he presses one of his own hands atop Levi’s own. There’s blood still working its way out between his fingers, smearing against Eren’s palm. “And that’s going to be, like, really traumatizing for you. But I’ll—it’s hard to explain. It’s hard. But I’ll be okay, and I need you to trust me.”

“Why should I trust you?” His hands are shaking beneath Eren’s own, and it really isn’t fair. This isn’t fair to Levi, just like the morgue hadn’t been.

“I’m a really bad liar.”

A smile touches Levi’s lips, fleeting but real. “You’re pretty put-together for a dying man.”

“‘Now I am become Death,’” Eren says softly, and he can hear his mother’s voice in it for a heartbeat, a presence itself beneath his own, “‘the destroyer of worlds.’”

There are shadows at the edges of his vision, and it feels like there’s glue settling at the bottom of his lungs. And yet Levi’s hands are still pressed to the wound above his belly, shaking and sticky with new-and-drying blood. They’re warm beneath Eren’s own palm, having gone cold and just a little numb now that blood isn’t going where it needs to be.

“So you don’t want me to call an ambulance. Or the cops. ” There’s a thunderstorm in Levi’s voice, its cadence rough but distant. “What do you want me to do?”

It takes Eren a moment to find the words he’s looking for. It could be the fact that his body’s failing, or it could be that he doesn’t know what, exactly, he’d like to be done. He can’t remember ever being asked that before.

 “Stay here,” Eren tells him. “Until I wake up again.”

“Until you wake up,” Levi repeats back to him, and there’s nothing on his face that’s saying Eren’s crazy, or trying to call him on a bluff. “Until you wake up?”

“Until I wake up,” Eren says. “Is that okay?”

Levi lifts his hands and takes Eren’s own. It feels a little gross, congealing blood between both their fingers. “Yeah,” Levi says, softly. “That’s okay.”

(This isn’t what the Sluagh had meant when it had called Eren a monster. It had been vague and angry, and whatever rage it had been articulating might’ve been directed at his heritage or his skillset, or something else entirely.

But the happiness clinging to Eren’s bones right then is the truly monstrous thing. There’s a comfort in not being alone for this process, for the first time in... ages.

It’s the ugliest Eren’s felt in a long time.)

-

(“kid,” Levi had tapped gently at the boy’s cheek, had made him open his eyes as his head listed to the side in exhaustion, his almost-hazelnut skin going gray from blood loss. “kid, look at me. keep talking.”

i’m tired,” he’d said, and his words had begun to stick together like there’d been syrup drawn between them. “way sleepy.

tell me about something.” He’d known what he was getting into, objectively. He’d agreed to watch a young man die because he’d been asked to, because the boy had been so sure he was going to come back. Because Levi had trusted him, for one reason or another. Because he hadn’t been able to trust even himself, recently. “tell me about where you grew up. you said wales?

was born in llanelwy,” the kid said softly, blinking slowly, his pupils dilating wide, relaxing like the rest of the muscles in his body. “the english call it saint asaph, but in welsh it’s llanelwy. it means church on the river elwy. my mom would take me out to play on the moors.”

His accent got thicker when he’s faculties started failing. It would’ve been endearing if he’d been drunk instead of on death’s door. “that sounds nice.”

she was softer then,” the kid had continued as if Levi hadn’t spoken at all. “she would say ‘eren, be safe. eren, play where i can see you. eren, don’t wander off.’ she’s not soft anymore.”

It had been a comfort, a little. If nothing else, Levi had finally had his name given to him.

He could take that with him, if it turned out this kid was a better liar than he let on. For remembrance, or some bullshit like that.)

Death is always sad, but it always seems a little worse when it’s a young one. Eren can’t be more than twenty-one—wait.

There’s an itch at the back of his skull.

Levi’s been in a situation like this before, somehow. It’s needling at the back of his mind, but feels like smoke when he tries to make a grab for it. The memory slips through his fingers, leaving an acrid feeling behind in his mouth, but he’s sure that he’s been somewhere like this before. If it would just solidify enough to stay between his hands, he’s sure he could put it together. He’s sure everything would make sense then.

His head hurts.

His head hurts and Eren’s body is lying on the concrete where Levi had placed it, when he’d stopped talking entirely, when his chest had stopped rising and falling in one of the universal signs of life. The body had gone cold more than an hour ago, and yet Levi can’t seem to find it in himself to move. He doesn’t think it’s the guarantee that’s keeping him rooted beside Eren’s corpse—he’d expected that the kid wouldn’t actually rise from the dead. He’d been delirious from the loss of blood, obviously. And Levi had been stupid, drawn in by eyes that seemed to glow in the dark, held captive by the potential explanation for the shit he’s been seeing for more than a week now.

But that doesn’t mean he stands up, and it doesn’t mean he leaves Eren behind. He’d said he wouldn’t, after all. It’s only right to keep a deathbed promise.

Eren’s phone vibrates, loud enough to be heard over broken pipes, hissing water across the sidewalk and into the street.

It’s then that Eren breathes in a gasp that sounds like it’s almost half-liquid. His chest inflates with air at the same time his eyes open, and his skin gains its color back like sunlight breaking over the horizon at sunrise, like a black and white picture going technicolor—

(The itch hums again at the back of his brain. He’s been here before. He just doesn’t know when.)

Eren pushes himself upright with one hand, holding the heel of his other hand against one eye, and every breath he takes sounds painful, as if it’s being dragged through his windpipe between shards of glass. Each inhale is punctuated by short, soft coughs and his shoulders curve forward as he hunches around the blood on his shirt—but the wounds on his throat have disappeared, airbrushed away when life had removed the waxy finish from his skin.

It’s just the two of them and Eren’s gasps. Even the hiss-sigh-splatter of the pipe-water has become nothing but background noise, the absolute emptiness of the Industrial District odd even as late as it is. The sound of Eren’s breathing seems to echo between the buildings up and down the street.

Levi breaks its rhythm when he speaks. “Hey.” There’s a pause between one of Eren’s breaths and the next, an introduction to a smoother inhale-exhale pattern, even though each one trembles just a little. “Kid, look at me.”

Eren drops his palm away from his face, and when his eyes fall on Levi, they glow like clouds of interstellar gas. There’s something glittering on his eyelashes, and Levi can’t tell if they’re tears or not. “You’re still here?” When Eren swallows, the dried blood against his throat bobs, and his voice is the hiss of sand against stone. “Holy shit, you’re still here.”

He can’t say he expected being pulled into Eren’s arms like he is. But, then again, he can’t say that he expected anything like this at all. Eren’s body is shaking when Levi lifts his hands to press them against Eren’s shoulders, and he smells of heather and rainwater and soil, and mixed within all that is the smell of blood caked at the collar of his shirt.

It feels like his voice is coming from far away when he says, “yeah, I’m still here. I told you I would be.”

Eren’s warm inside the circle of his arms. It’s—all of this is unreal. It’s coming to him in pieces, all of the things he’d just seen. The street is in ruins, and yet there are no emergency personnel. He’d seen a monster out of a storybook pass by a café window, leaving ice behind. It smells like smoke and seawater and he’d found this kid bleeding to death. He’d watched him come back to life, watched him take a breath after being officially dead for more than an hour. He’d been cold.

It’s the peak to a week filled with inexplicable things, and Levi is coming to find that the only reaction he has inside him is to rest his face against Eren’s collarbone and breathe in. The smell is familiar, in some way, clings to the inside of his nose.

After the third breath, it’s easier to ignore the scent of blood.

Eren’s voice almost disappears even as he begins to speak, “sorry.” He pulls away to bring his legs close to his body, standing in an unbroken motion that would be graceful if he didn’t look like such a mess. Or, it would have been graceful, had he not needed to brace himself against the brick building beside him with his blood-caked hand to keep himself from falling face-first onto the sidewalk. “Sorry, that was—sorry. I let my—sorry.”

The hand that Eren offers him is his clean one, unmarred by the blood that’s dried on Levi’s own, and it shakes between them. But Levi lets Eren pull him up and when they lock eyes again, Eren’s are dry.

Levi would pat himself on the back for the calm surface of his voice if his dominant hand weren’t otherwise occupied. “So are you going to tell me what happened, or what?”

“I’m going to walk you home,” Eren tells him, and he lets Levi’s hand go as if it burned to touch him. “Where do you—where are we going?”

(This entire exchange feels familiar in the way that all of this feels like he’s done this before. It’s like déjà vu, being given this whole runaround, this whole conversation. The sensation of remembering is rising in his throat, hard enough to convince his body that he’s going to vomit.

i’m pretty sure this is why people tell you not to get attached to one night stands, or something.” It sounds like Eren echoing around in the shadows of his head, like he’s speaking over the background noises of a distant storm system.)

There’s a stone of panic sitting beneath his lungs.

“What happened?” His voice is louder than he’d intended it to be, and he feels his words cut his tongue when he says them. “There was that thing you called a Sluagh, or whatever, that walked by the window, and there’s city plumbing coming up out of the sidewalk, and you were bleeding out.” The stone inside his chest is boiling there, scalding the underside of his sternum, leaving open sores behind. “I need to know what the fuck is happening right now, because I’ve been—“

He thinks of the shapes he’s seen out of the corners of his eyes, thinks of the people and creatures that he’s noticed that no one else can see. He’s seen human bodies walking around on the legs of goats, has seen others with too-slick skin and slits that looked like gills. He’s seen coffeshops and bookstores, blurred at the edges and hard to focus on but unmistakably real.

He feels crazy—and he knows he isn’t.

“I need to know,” Levi says again, and he crosses his arms, tucking his hands underneath against the sides of his chest. “So I want you to tell me what the fuck happened.”

It’s like watching clouds dance their way across the sky, giving only hints of the sun behind it. It’s frightening, a little, to see the way Eren’s emotions travel across his almost-too-perfect features, the way they cloud his eyes with something that Levi can’t give a name to.

“Okay,” Eren says, as if he’d plucked the word from his mouth and laid it at Levi’s feet. “I’ll—okay. But I’d like to—“ He blinks, swallows, tries again. “Can I walk you home at the same time?”

There’s a hole in Eren’s shirt, made by whatever it was that had run him through before Levi had gotten there. The fabric is torn and turned rust-colored by dried blood, and Eren has begun to toy with it, pulling at the edges, one thread at a time.

His legs are still shaking from holding up his weight, and Levi feels his next words soften, soothing the cuts left behind by the edges of his first. “Sure. I’ll let you walk me home, if you give me the information that I want.”

A smile rises and falls from Eren’s lips in the same motion. “Deal.”

“I live at Six Hundred, Seventh Avenue,” Levi tells him. “Seventh and James.”

“Okay,” Eren says, and the first step he takes quivers at the knee and his skin goes gray with the effort. Levi falls into step beside him, matching his pace as best he can. It feels like there’s cotton stuffed into his shoes and sawdust in his mouth.

As they walk, his body begins to feel more like his own.

“So,” Levi says when he’s sure that Eren isn’t going to fall over and his skin settles on its proper tone. “Are you going to tell me now?”

The return to traffic sounds as they cross beneath the overpass is sudden enough to make Levi’s ears ring, and it’s as if they’d crossed a line between one world and the next. Despite pedestrian chatter and the hiss of traffic, Eren’s voice doesn’t get snatched away. It settled between them, low and soft and heavy.

“I don’t really know what you want me to say.” This close, Levi can catch the scent of heather and rainfall clinging to Eren’s clothes, uninterrupted by the car exhaust and city smells. It reminds him of... something.

“I want you to explain what a Sluagh is and why you are still... alive.”

(Watching Eren come back to life had been terrifying, had been like watching someone crawl out of a grave, fighting for one breath after the other. And yet, despite the newness of the experience, it had felt like a rerun, had felt like one scene superimposed over another.

He’d seen it before.)

The two of them brush pass other pedestrians on the sidewalk, and for every one that they see, Levi waits for the moment that they notice the state of Eren’s clothes, or ask after the flaking blood on Levi’s hands.

No one says anything until Eren does, his hands tucked into the pockets of his own jacket. “A Sluagh is a—the Sluagh are fae.” His voice cracks on the last word and Levi feels as if a rubber band had been snapped against his cheek. “It’s... complicated.” His face twists, his shoulders crawling upward toward his ears. “Fuck, it sounds stupid saying this shit out loud to someone who doesn’t already know.”

“Fae,” Levi parrots back. “Like... faeries.”

Eren’s shoulders inch a little higher, his lips thinning when he presses them together. “Yes. Like faeries. Like—yes.”

“And you are a faerie.” There’s something pulling at his legs, Levi thinks. Something thick and heavy dragging behind him, and it makes his next step a near miss, makes his body almost topple forward. It would have, probably, if Eren’s grip on his arm just then had been anything less than absolute. “You’re a faerie,” Levi repeats to the pavement and to the toes of his own shoes as Eren holds him upright. “Do you know how bullshit that sounds?”

“You told me to tell you.” Eren takes Levi’s other elbow in his free hand to keep him steady, and his hold is gentle enough to leave the skin of a peach unbruised, despite the firmness of his fingers. “I’m telling you. I—two worlds can exist at the same time. Just because you didn’t know it was there before doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”

“I’ve never seen it before,” Levi says, and for a moment he thinks his own words are going to choke him. “I’ve never seen this shit before. And I—“ He inhales sharply against the fluttering of his heart at the back of his throat. “And I don’t know what’s happening to me.”

(At first, he’d thought it had stemmed from lack of sleep, the shadows of endless hours vying for attention at the corners of his eyes. But the third day out from his night spent in the morgue, the shadows had become shapes, and from the shapes had hatched creatures.

Levi isn’t crazy. He knows he isn’t crazy.)

It’s a process, the way Eren lets him go. This time, instead of dropping his arms away as if it had hurt to touch them, he puts them down to rest beside his own hips. They feel boneless, now that Eren isn’t holding onto them, and there’s a tingling in his fingers he can’t explain.

What’s most inexplicable, however, is the way Eren’s looking at him. There’s a curve to his lips that Levi can’t place, like his mouth can’t decide if it wants a smile or a frown to rest there. His paling skin looks waxen, and looks to be pulled too tightly over cheekbones sharp enough to cut glass. They’d cut Levi’s fingers if he were to reach out and touch them.

“It’s hard to say.” He notices that Eren’s lips are chapped when he speaks again. For all that their shape is perfect, there are peeling pieces of dry skin tucked against their swell. It could be from dying like he had, but Levi finds himself unable to ask. “You could’ve come into contact with magic, and never noticed.”

“I would have noticed.” He doesn’t know when his own hands had started shaking. It could’ve been before or after Eren had set them by his sides. “I would’ve noticed if something had changed about me, don’t you think?”

“It’s complicated,” Eren says again. “I’m—you really—“ He pauses, whatever he’d been trying to say locked behind his teeth as he thins his lips around then. But then he takes a breath and tries again. “This shouldn’t’ve happened to you.”

“But it did,” Levi says. “It happened to me.”

It looks like Eren might say something, in the breath of time between the Levi’s last word and when they start walking again, but nothing comes. It’s just them and the city, moving along around them as if they weren’t there at all.

“I’m sorry,” Eren tells him, and his words feel like stones that he drops behind them. “That this happened to you.”

For a moment, Levi considers asking him what good an apology is, when there’s a world—or something—open to him that he’d never wanted to see. But instead he keeps his eyes forward, pulling at his sleeves. “So the Sluagh are faeries—fae. What are you, that you can see them? Are you one, too?”

A breeze runs its fingers though Levi’s hair, and this one doesn’t quite carry the sea-weight, left behind in the Industrial District. It pulls at Eren’s words with greedy fingers when he says, “kind of.” A pause, and then, “I’m half-fae. Not half-Sluagh, but—my father was Welsh, I told you. He was my mortal half. My mom is—she’s my fae half.” Another pause, this one longer than the first. “I’m a changeling.”

“Like in a fucking fantasy novel.”

When Levi glances at Eren’s face, he finds his gaze on the sidewalk, his eyelids at half-mast as if he could fall asleep at any moment. But then he says, “yeah,” and lifts his eyes to meet Levi’s, unwavering. “Like a fantasy novel.”

There’s an undercurrent to Eren’s voice when he says that. It pulls at Levi’s clothes, brushes its fingertips over his face, and hollows out his insides. It sounds hurt, far beneath the actual timbre of his vocal cords, and if Levi tilts his head just so, he thinks he can hear it properly. And he doesn’t know what to say to smooth it over, or even what had caused it.

A silence stretches between them so long that Levi almost repeats the first question he’d asked, almost says anything to cut through the nothing sitting there, tangible and thick like molasses. But Eren beats him to the punch, and somehow he looks smaller inside the fabric of his jacket than he had even when he’d been a corpse on the sidewalk.

“Why did you come after me?” Eren’s question is like a wisp of morning mist crawling toward the skyline and attempting to disappear. “When I left the coffee place.”

Something catches inside him, like a loose thread within a tapestry. Levi can feel it beginning to unravel, a little. “I—what?”

“You said you looked for me. Why did you do that?”

“That’s—“ Levi stops, swallows, thinks. The heels of his shoes drag against the concrete.

(“what?” Eren face had gone slack when Levi had asked where he was from, like he’d never been asked that question before. His eyelashes had fluttered, had kissed his cheeks with the motion, and the flicker of emotion across his face in that split second had been lonely enough to be heartbreaking.

And the conversation they’d had amid the smell of fresh coffee and pastries had made Levi feel normal for the first time in days. When Eren had spoken, there’d been a lull between him and whatever-this-is. The shapes at the corners of his vision and the things that suddenly walked the streets when the sun went down meant nothing compared to the fresh air he’d been allowed to have right then.

To let Eren go would be to be alone again, and Levi hadn’t been ready for that just yet.)

“I don’t know,” is what Levi finally settles on, and it isn’t really a lie when he says it. “It was the first time I hadn’t felt like I was losing my mind, because you saw the thing that—“ The words stop coming, tying themselves in knots in his mouth, and he shrugs, and its stiff enough to make it seem like his bones are rubbing together in its socket.  

Eren murmurs, like the sigh of morning dew over a field of grass, “Thank you.”

Levi feels the tapestry inside him come undone just a little bit more, Eren’s gratitude a sharp tug on the loose thread holding it together. “What?”

“Thank you,” Eren says again, “for coming after me. And for... staying there. It can’t’ve been—it wasn’t easy, and you thought I was crazy or lying or something, probably and I—“ He blinks, slowly, and his eyelashes kiss his cheek once more. “Thanks for that.”

There are a thousand questions that Levi wants to ask—how many times has this happened to you? do you usually have someone to watch out for you? what’s it like to come back from the dead? does it hurt? did you know that was going to happen when you went after that thing?

But he can’t find the way he wants to phrase any of them, and so all he says is, “sure,” and then, “anytime.”

Eren’s laughter is loud on the open street, propelling itself toward buildings and dancing across windows. It feels like a physical thing, the way Levi can hear it move away from them. It brings to mind the sound of bells, for a moment. Clear and almost melodic, but rarely used.

Christ,” and there’s a life to his voice that hadn’t been there, as if the dryness of coming back from the dead had been chased away by whatever it was he’d found so funny. “You’re—no. I would never. No. You can’t just—“ His sentences are coming in fragments, as if he can’t decide which thing he wants to say first. But the common theme among them is no.

Eren comes to a stop and Levi stops beside him, watching him work his jaw as he figures out what, exactly, he wants to say.

In the silence and the stillness between them, it’s hard not to notice the shape of his face. His attention had been dulled slightly as he’d guarded Eren’s corpse, and after that there’d been the questions crawling around his body that wouldn’t let him go. But now he has nothing but time, and the inhumanness of Eren’s features seem more apparent.

His cheekbones are one of the things Levi has noticed the most, and his eyes are almost ethereal. The shape of his body is lithe and defined, but there’s a graceful jut to every angle, and in every faerie story that Levi had ever heard pieces of, the fae are always too beautiful for words.

And with the streetlights casting golden highlights on Eren’s features, it almost hurts to look at him.

The humanity returns only when he begins to speak. “This isn’t what you want to hear,” Eren tells him, and Levi is pulled away from exploring the places of his face, trying to place where each piece of him had come from, “but the less you know about any of this, the better.”

Levi blinks and feels his knuckles crack when he curls his fingers. “Pardon?”

“The less you know, the safer you are,” Eren says, and his eyes are soft at the corners with kindness, and yet the loneliness from the café is back on his features, even though that entire exchange feels like it had happened too long ago. “It’d be best if you forgot today, and if you just... pretended that the shit you see isn’t there.”

When Levi scoffs, it hurts his nose, the autumn chill feeling a lot like winter when he breathes in. “Oh, and does that work for you? Pretending that creepy shit doesn’t walk by a fucking window and just carry on with your life? Pretending that you didn’t just fucking see a—a fucking goblin looking piece of shit, wandering in the middle of the street like it’s no big deal? And that works?

Eren’s face gets even softer, and Levi thinks for a heartbeat that Eren is going to reach out and touch his cheek. Goosebumps rise on his skin. But Eren just shakes his head and smiles with a sad stretch of his mouth.

“Not really,” is what he says. “But from what I know of folklore, humans are pretty good at wearing blinders. So theoretically, you ought to be able to put them back on.”

“That’s the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”

Eren shrugs like liquid, and it doesn’t look normal on him, for all the graceful bones and hand-carved features. It looks like he’s pretending at something. “Just... try. If they don’t know you can see them, you’re more likely to be left alone.” He doesn’t give Levi a chance to respond to that, jerking his chin at the building at Levi’s back. “We’re here.”

Levi turns, and they are, in fact, at his apartment complex, the multicolored siding stretching up along the face of the building. It’s then that Levi’s legs begin to feel the distance that they’d walked, going rubbery as he stands there.

When he turns back around, he almost expects Eren to be gone, like some campy supernatural creature from a teen novel, but he’s there, standing still, with his hands still tucked into the pockets of his jacket. Even with the incongruity of his features and his clothes, he still looks like a student. Still looks like just a kid who might’ve had a career in a photography industry rather than literature.

But the literature thing makes sense, with context.

“Thank you,” Levi says, even though the words rub up against his teeth. They aren’t the ones he wants to say, even though they’re true. He has more things he needs to know, more details that would help soothe the distant panic still living inside his body. “For walking me home.”

A smile flirts with Eren’s mouth. “Anytime.”

This scoff his gentler, and Eren takes a step forward. Levi had expected him to take a step back.

Levi watches him, feels the hairs on his arms rise. “What?”

Eren holds out a hand, palm up, and his eyes glitter like gemstones. “Let me see your keys real quick.”

“For what?” It’s like a game of tug-of-war. Eren lets go of the rope when Levi pulls, and pulls when Levi’s about to let go. It’s something that Levi has never liked playing, and he knows that even as he reaches into his pockets for his keys.

Because for all that this isn’t a game Levi had signed up for, it’s the same kid that said ‘trust me,’ when he was dying, and had made good on his guarantee.

“You’ll see.” This smile is almost mischievous, as if the night hadn’t gone exactly the way it had already played out. He takes Levi’s key ring and holds it between the thumb and forefinger of his clean hand, rotating it between them as he hums something under his breath. It’s a song Levi recognizes, maybe, but the tune gets lost as the city breathes around them, traffic still steady even this late at night.

Lines of deep green begin to loop around Levi’s keyring, and the smell of heather and rainfall hits him hard enough across the face to almost make him stumble. The scents are still curling around Levi’s shoulders when Eren places his keys back into his hand.

“It’s a protection charm,” Eren tells him. “It should look after you.”

“Why don’t you carry one?” Even his own words taste like the air at the base of a mountain.

Eren only smiles, and it’s then that he takes a step back, into a fog that’s begun to roll around his ankles. “It was nice meeting you, Levi,” he says, an echo of his goodbye from the café, and it sounds permanent enough to be just a little bit alarming, even though it’s to be expected, what with the way Eren had been talking this entire time.

“You too, Eren,” Levi says, and his keys are a warm weight against his palm when he curls his fingers around them.

This smile shows a flash of teeth, and it dulls every sharp angle on his face with the boyish charm that Eren had been wearing when he’d been sitting by himself in at the corner table in the coffee shop. But the fog—and Levi is certain that it hadn’t been there before, knows this for a fact—wraps around Eren like a shawl and he makes his way down the street, becoming a shadow in the mist until Levi can no longer see him at all.

He stands there, for a heartbeat, and then two, and his fingers curl tightly enough around his keys to bite into his skin.

But he supposes that he’s grateful that his hands aren’t shaking, even with the feel of autumn wrapping around his throat.

(That night—that morning—Levi will lay awake in bed, watching the ceiling for any trace of the change he will feel inside him after the night that had just passed. His keys will be on his bedside table, and even from here he will feel a hint of their glowing warmth against the side of his face.  

He will think of Eren, the faerie boy, and he will still seem so familiar as to make his ribs compress against his lungs.

Sleep will hang about him for long enough that his eyes will droop, and the keys on his nightstand will provide a comfort to him that he hasn’t had over the past nine days. The headache he’d been living with for the past week will feel like nothing more than a distant memory, and as he falls into the silence of the deepest sort of rest, he will feel almost content with things.

But the scent of heather and rainwater will tickle the inside of his nose, and his heart will kick against his ribs. Something will flash against the darkness of his eyelids, and the sterile scent of the morgue will drop upon his shoulders, and the memories that had been tossing around at the back of his mind push themselves forward, unimpeded by whatever had been keeping them locked away before.

you were going to cut me open,” the gasping boy will say behind his eyelids.

it’s my job to cut you open,” Levi will reply—has replied—is replying again.

And when he opens his eyes, his heart will be moving too fast to keep track of, and Levi will realize that forgetting is much easier said than done.)

Chapter Text

Levi can’t forget.

He’s been trying, in the two days that have passed since Eren had dropped him by his apartment, his hands caked over in the boy’s blood. He’s been pretending that there aren’t images that flicker against the backs of his eyelids when he blinks, that he can’t see the creatures that have been coming out after sunset in greater numbers, that there aren’t memories that are disturbing his sleep.

Two days isn’t the longest time to forget anything in, to be fair. But Eren’s eyes are haunting him, glowing in the dark when he lies down to sleep come sunrise. Shit, Eren’s smile is haunting him, loose and small like it had been as he’d disappeared into mist thicker than most soups. It should’ve looked melodramatic and ridiculous, should’ve been unrealistic and campy, but the only thing it looked that early in the morning was sad.

“You see, Levi hasn’t been sleeping much recently. He’s starting to look like one of his corpse friends down in the morgue.” Farlan speaks loudly enough to cut through the noise of the bar and hit Levi in the forehead, pulling him off the city streets from two nights before and dropping him firmly back into his seat.

He’d been staring at a man with pointed teeth, sitting in a booth almost entirely wrapped in shadows. Levi thinks that he can see gills opening and closing on his neck.

It feels a little funny, almost, what with it being Halloween and all.

“I wouldn’t call us friends,” Levi says, pulling his eyes away from too-smooth skin, reflecting the light of the bar even as dim as it is. “Their social life isn’t exactly hopping anywhere, and I’m pretty sure befriending a dead guy on Facebook is seen as offensive.”

Isabel snorts on her drink, coughing up the mouthful she’d had of her spiked milkshake. Condensation makes its way down the side of her glass, puddling around its base. “I think that could get you accused of murder.”

“It’d put you on the suspect list for sure,” Farlan loosens his tie around his throat with two fingers before lifting his own glass to his mouth. “I didn’t know being a medical examiner gave you the license to kill jokes like that.”

“Why do you think the Medical Licensing Exam is so fucking expensive?” Soda touches his tongue without a hint of alcohol, blubbing its way down his throat in a way that doesn’t burn. “There’s a clause that allows me to kill jokes where they stand with no probability of a malpractice suit. It almost makes the thirteen hundred dollars I spent on the exam itself worth it.”

Farlan spits his drink against the rim of his glass, sending a spray of his Long Island across the scarred wood of their table. “Jesus fucking Christ.” It’s breathed out on a wheeze, but the sound gets pressed to the floor beneath the conversations around them and Isabel’s howling laughter.

It’s within moments like this that Levi feels like he could forget everything. Isabel’s pigtails are brushing against her throat as they’re jostled by laughter. Farlan’s still trying to cough the portion of his drink he’d inhaled into his lungs, pressing his fingers over his mouth. It’s normal, being here. It’s something they’ve been doing together since college, and it’s just like any other night that they’ve ever had.

But then a person walks by with a too-wide mouth and slits for pupils, and Farlan is gasping like he’s coming up for air, and all Levi can think about are eyes that glow in the dark and creatures that move between people like they’re human. It’s impossible to pretend that this is normal—him, at a bar, while some boneheaded kid is probably dying on a different street corner, all by himself, with nothing but silence for company.

A part of him wishes that he didn’t know anything about anything, because it’s easier to function when half the world is out of view. But then there’s the rest of him that knows now, knows about people with gills and sharpened teeth, and boys who come back from the dead.

It doesn’t feel fair, all this fucking pretending.

There’s an excuse to leave beating against the backs of Levi’s teeth. It’s almost worked its way past his lips when Farlan takes a breath that’s finally steady and says, “speaking of work, kind of, you know that shit that happed in the Industrial District a couple days ago?”

As Isabel groans at the shift in atmosphere, the distance between Levi and the door gets a little longer, and whatever excuse he’d intended to settle on turns to sand in his mouth. When he blinks, there are still memories pressing against the edges of his vision, and for a moment the sounds of the bar fall away to be replaced by the gasps of the newly living swarming around his ears.

(Running had gotten too hard, that night. He’d lost Eren in the scattered pedestrians, had found himself trying to find the coldest patches of air and following those. There’d been ice chips in his lungs by the time he’d stepped over into the Industrial District, and it was almost like the city had died around it.

There were no cars, no people. Even the sea-smell was muted by... something.

The only thing he’d been able to place, wrapped between overpasses and baseball stadiums, were the sounds of a fight, muffled by distance and the concrete structures. It had made things easier on him—following the noise was more effective than following the chill left behind by inhuman bodies.

But even then he’d been too late. It seems like he’s spent a lot of his life being too late.

Seeing Eren resting all his deadweight against the brick edifice of a building that had seen better days was like being back in the hospital, out of the basement. The sound of a flatline was ringing in his ears, vibrating the roots of his teeth, bringing something painful up to the corners of his eyes.

It was only when he’d pressed his hands against Eren’s wound that the city pulled him back under. There was water, hissing against the concrete behind him, and there was no hospital humming around him. It was just him, and the broken street, and Eren.

kid,” Levi had said, and for a moment he’d sounded like the doctor he’d been before he’d let the morgue take him, “you’re dying, and i want to help you.

He’d watched the boy with the too-sharp cheekbones smile, watched him talk about his mother, watched him lose his words in the wobbles of his voice as he’d slipped into hypovolemic shock. Eren’s blood had been stiffening on his fingers, had been stiffening on his clothes, had been stiffening on the brickwork at Eren’s back.

It had felt like he couldn’t breathe again until Eren woke up gasping, cracking the congealing blood on his throat.)

“Yeah,” Levi says, his words grinding between his teeth. “South Atlantic Street is still being worked on, right?”

“Yeah,” Farlan sets his glass back on the table, resting his chin in the palm of one hand. “They called us in to look at it that morning, before the sun came up.”

Levi’s stomach twists, as if someone had grabbed it between two hands and squeezed. There are ways he could bring them back to where they’d been before, talking about expenses and medical exams, and other things that don’t matter—but none of them are rising like he needs them to, and he can’t stop picking at the surface of the table.

Isabel speaks before Levi can, and it’s probably a blessing that she does.

“The news said it was a sinkhole,” Isabel says, almost a little too loudly, as if she’d already had this conversation before. Levi feels the skin prickle at the back of his neck as Farlan snorts softly before shushing her. Her bangs flutter around her eyebrows when she huffs, but she lowers her voice enough that the ambient noise presses it flat against the tabletop. “I heard it was a sinkhole. There’s no reason homicide ought to be called for a sinkhole, even if the state wanted to file charges for property damage, or whatever.”

Farlan’s eyes flicker between their drinks and the small rings they’ve each left behind on the scarred wood surface. Whatever laughter Isabel had expected doesn’t come, and the smile that had been preparing to sit on her lips falls into her lap instead.

“There was blood at the scene.” Farlan pushes his glass slowly between his hands, the ice rattling softly inside it. “Like, a lot of blood. Enough to kill a person.” The watered down remnants of his drink settle when the glass hesitates against his palm. “Seven pints was the best guess.”

Levi wipes his hands against his thighs, trying to wipe away the feeling of Eren’s blood congealing between his fingers and crusting on his palms.

Farlan continues, tracing one finger around the rim of his glass. “But there wasn’t a body, right? So we’ve been searching the Sound for the past couple days. Still nothing.” He lifts his eyes from where they had been following the motion of his finger and lowers his voice to an almost-whisper, like he was waiting to tell the punchline of a horror story. “But CSI did find what look like ashes there, apparently. We can’t tell what the fuck they’re from, or anything, but the precincts are on edge.” Levi can’t tell if the next pause is for dramatic effect, or if it’s because Farlan is practically mouth the words rather than speaking them when he says, “they’re thinking it’s another murder.”

Levi’s eyes find the shadowed corner where the gilled man had been, only to find that his table’s empty, though there are coins glittering on its surface.

“Another murder.” His mouth is dry enough to make him sound like someone other than himself when he speaks, or maybe it’s because it feels like there’s cotton in his ears. “There’s always another murder. This city’s huge.”

“I mean,” Farlan stretches the word like one might pull on an elastic band before letting it snap against someone’s wrist, “another murder like the one I called you about a couple weeks ago. The one with the disappearing body.”

It feels like there’s a knife pressed to his throat.

“I think your people just fucked up,” Levi says, and he lets boredom drip from his mouth and onto his fingers, though his tongue feels heavy when he does. “Just because they lost a body doesn’t mean that this is something serial.”

The scoff Farlan wears sharpens his mouth. “You said it yourself, remember? ‘Bodies don’t generally get up and walk away.’”

(He thinks of watching a dead boy rise from the autopsy table, standing on shaking legs. The bruises on his face and around his throat had been washed away by whatever it was that had brought him back to life.

Eren had been very much alive as he’d tried to get his footing, as he’d tried to find balance even when he shouldn’t’ve had any. It was as if the waxen skin he’d worn only moments before wasn’t real, like it had never been at all. The only thing that death had left behind, it seemed like, was something sharp in Eren’s lungs, amking every breath seem like a chore.

But Levi hadn’t been wrong, or anything, when he’d spoken to Farlan. He hadn’t known about Eren then—or he had, and then he’d forgotten. And it was true, what he’d said: generally speaking, bodies don’t get up and walk away.

It just so happened that the one Levi had lost had gotten up twice.)  

The knife against Levi’s throat threatens to draw blood when he swallows, and he can feel a frown twisting his lips. “It’s a figure of speech. It’s the thing people say when you’ve lost a body, because bodies don’t get lost on their own. How is one body that got lost in-transit related to a bloodstain you found four miles from the original corpse’s destination?”

Farlan’s barstool creaks when he leans forward, lacing his fingers together tightly enough to turn his knuckles white. “What’s your deal? Since when have you had opinions about the way homicide conducts itself?”

“It sounds to me like you’re calling apples and oranges the same thing with no evidence, and since I help make your cases nine times out of ten, I feel like my input is warranted.” The air around them tastes like remnants of different kinds of alcohol and cigarette smoke, and it solidifies in his mouth when he breathes. “It’s for your benefit, remember? I don’t have to talk to make my case to the lawyers, I just answer questions and look pretty.”

Farlan’s nostrils flare and he opens his mouth to say something else, and Levi can feel the hairs on his arms rise in response.

But Isabel speaks first for the second time, and when she does, it’s gentle and far softer than it’s been all night. “There’s a reason we don’t talk about work on nights off, guys. It’s been a long month.”

Watching Farlan relax is like watching a person go boneless, and he leans away from the table with a sigh, the motion working through him like liquid. Levi’s own shoulders remain tense at their join with his neck, his bones rigid within the confines of his skin, and he can feel pieces of wood come away from the table’s surface as he picks at it with his thumb.

It’s only after a heartbeat’s pause that Farlan says, “she’s right.” The bar clatters around them, waitstaff gathering up discarded glassware while taking new orders, and each one is dressed up in a different costume for the holiday. “I’m sorry.”

Levi’s voice feels brittle when it comes out of his mouth. “Yeah. Me too. Like you said, I haven’t been sleeping well.” His soda isn’t even half-finished, and the ice melting inside it has watered it down to the point of being almost undrinkable. He takes a sip anyway. “I think we should call it a night.”

Isabel sighs, already pushing away from the table. “Halloween was more fun when we got free candy and didn’t have jobs and couldn’t legally drink.”

Levi snorts, sliding off of his own barstool to stand on legs that are almost too stiff to hold him up. “Halloween has never been fun. It’s like being at work all goddamn day. All weird facial wounds and slit throats and stabbings.”

“And vampires and mermaids, too, right?” Farlan grabs his coat from where he’d lain it on the fourth and unused barstool, sliding it onto his shoulders with practiced ease. “And pumpkin kings and ghosts and zombies.”

Levi glances back toward where the man with the gills had been sitting, and finds the coins being collected by a woman with goat’s legs, much like the owner of the coffee shop two nights prior.

“Yeah,” Levi says, and the sand is back in his mouth. “Just another day at the office.”

Isabel follows his gaze, smiling when she finds the waitress sauntering back toward the kitchen, a plastic bin of dishes resting on one of her hips. As the goat-girl disappears through a set of swinging doors, Isabel shoves Levi forward toward the door, a laugh bubbling up from her chest and out of her mouth.

“The costumes have gotten better though, haven’t they?” She tells him, zipping her own jacket closed when Farlan pushes open the door, letting in the wet autumn chill from outside. “Seems like they weren’t this cool when we were younger.”

“Just looking at some of them makes my pores feel clogged,” Levi says, stopping beneath the awning outside the bar’s double doors, tucking his hands into the pockets of his own coat. It smells like another wave of rain is coming, and the sidewalk is still shimmering beneath his feet. “I’ll see you next weekend?”

It’s impossible not to see Isabel’s influence on Farlan’s demeanor when he bows with a flourish like that, almost scraping his fingertips against the concrete before rising with a wide smile. His face is so loose that it looks like he hadn’t spoken about work at all.

“As always,” he says. “This time we were just a day or so late, that’s all.”

Farlan offers his arm to Isabel, an old fashioned gesture that makes the two of them look like they’d stepped out of some ridiculous vintage magazine. They stand there, for a moment, and watch Levi with eyes that ask questions. A breeze disturbs the air between them, smelling of impending rainfall and muted seawater. “Going home a different way?”

Levi shrugs and the nighttime dampness feels like it’s clinging to his shoulders. “I’m going to try and wear myself out a little bit before I go home. Be safe getting back.” He smiles, a little, leaning close to them both and lowering his voice. “Watch out for the body snatchers.”

Farlan laughs loudly, letting it bounce across the street and between the cars hissing along the asphalt. “Fuck off. I’m going to call you with a case at three in the morning for that.”

Levi lets his own laughter follow them down the street until they disappear around a corner, each of them lifting an arm to hail a cab before it passes them by. Another seabreeze sighs its way through the street, hiding itself underneath the smell of car exhaust and swelling rainclouds as Levi heads in the opposite direction, following 2nd Avenue until it hits Jackson Street.

There’s a part of him that wishes he’d driven out tonight. It would’ve made it easier to get home from here, especially with the threat of rain looming over Seattle like it always is. But there’s a restlessness that’s been eating at him for... weeks, now. It’s vibrating in his bones, scraping against the inside of his skull like sandpaper against gravel, and he’d rather leave it on the sidewalk behind him than take it home for another sleepless night.

His fingers find the warm weight of his keys in his pocket as he makes his way down Jackson. They make his fingers tingle as he turns them over and over, dragging his thumb along the jagged edge of his apartment key, the hilt embossed with painted leaves. It’s like electricity is crawling up his arm and settling at his elbow, buzzing against the underside of his skin.

It makes things quieter, a little.

There are more pedestrians out than usual, this late at night. Some of them are dressed in costumes that had probably looked more put together earlier in the day. There’s someone who’s missing a shoe, and another whose sleeve has disappeared from an otherwise well-cut jacket. Some are wearing masks and some are wearing facepaint, and some of them aren’t human at all.

None of the creatures pay him any mind as he parts the holiday crowd down the middle. Some of them brush against their human counterparts, laughing together as if there’s nothing peculiar about having teeth like needles, or having tongues that fork down the middle like a snake’s.

It really feels like Halloween in a way it hadn’t in the bar. It still smells like alcohol, still smells like too much perfume and latex, and when he breathes too deeply there’s the hint of something that smells like wet dog—but it looks different, looks lively and festive, looks like all the monsters that hide in the shadows have come out to play.

It makes Levi hold his keys a little tighter, makes him center himself around them even though the warmth is starting to make his palms sweat.

(He wonders, a little, if this is what it’s like for Eren all the time. Or—no. It probably isn’t. It’s different. Levi only sees these things, which means he can walk by them and take only their faces home, leaving the rest of those would-be connections behind as if the darker world could only look upon on him and touch him not at all.

Eren doesn't have that option, it seems like. One foot in either world, and yet entirely adrift in both, or something like that.

His fingers tremble in his pockets, and when he squeezes his keys next, he can feel the jut of their metal digging fiercely into his palm.)

“Get the fuck out of my store!” Levi’s body freezes as he rounds the corner around the Uwajimaya complex, and the autumn wraps itself around his throat like a scarf, or like fingers. The voice is familiar enough to be alarming, and yet it still feels like a surprise when he sees Eren holding a shop door wide open, his cheeks dark with anger as he stands outside in the chill.

Of the three times Levi had met him, Eren had been dead or dying twice. This feels new, seeing him so alive and full of something righteous, lit from the inside by a force of nature that Levi doesn’t really understand.

Though the scene is a little bit... different.

The neon sign above the heavy-looking ion door is bright purple, written in flowing script: Tricks of the Trade, and it casts a glow out onto the street, falling over Eren’s shoulders like a curtain, and sharpening the edges of the almost too-large raven that would’ve looked like nothing but a foggy silhouette otherwise.

The bird squawks loudly, flapping its wings at Eren’s eye level, and as Levi gets closer, the blurred edges of the store define themselves between the frozen yogurt place and the Japanese bookstore on the other corner. It hurts less to look at the storefront the closer he gets to it, and the raven screams a second time, warbled enough to sound like a human voice as it cuts through the citywide nighttime.

Eren’s voice cuts through further, and it’s feels like a presence itself as it pushes down the street, ruffling the edges of Levi’s coat.

“You tell her that if she wants to check up on me so badly, she can get a fucking mobile like everyone else.” People on the street glance around, blinking as if in a dream when they can’t seem to pinpoint the source of the noise they’re sure they’re hearing. “If I see one more fucking bird in my goddamn store, I’m going to kill it and eat it, do you understand me?”

The bird screeches one last time before it loops around and disappears into the sky, getting lost against the cloud-cover, lit from below by the city’s lights.

Eren breathes deep, his eyebrows furrowed and heavy above his eyes just then, and it’s the most alive Levi’s ever seen him look—or, maybe it’s better to say it’s almost the most alive he’s ever seen him look, burning from the inside with a bird-based anger that Levi isn’t sure the source of.

(It’s in a competition with the coffeeshop, he thinks, but he hadn’t known there was even a contest back then. Eren had just been beautiful, had been smiling in the soft light, and he’d felt so fucking familiar that Levi had been sure he’d known him the moment he’d sat down at Eren’s table, taking the only free seat left behind by overworked college students.

you can tell me to shut the fuck up,” Levi had told him, because he’d known that he was being invasive, had known that these topics of conversations weren’t built for complete strangers. But Eren had smiled, even as he’d drawn nervous shapes against the tabletop.

no, i—“ Eren had paused, blinking slowly, his finger stuttering against the table’s surface. “i’m welsh.” As he’d started talking, his accent had gotten thicker. It was like bringing his attention to it had made it more real. “i mean, i grew up in wales. my dad was welsh.

In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t a competition at all. In his memories, that stupid café comes out the obvious winner, though this version of him grabs Levi’s attention in a different way. But two nights before, he’d been made entirely of one-liners and wiggled eyebrows, of eager questions and sad-edged smiles.

It’s like watching two worlds come together in a single moment, now. And both of them are converging right here.)

A breeze whispers down the street, bringing with it the beginnings of the drizzle that Levi had known was coming, and it toys with Eren’s hair, revealing the glimpse of his scarred left ear. It’s with a slow blink and another deep breath that Eren’s body finally relaxes against the doorframe, his forearm pressed to the door’s iron shape, covered by dark green jacket sleeve, tugged over his fingertips.

And it’s when Eren pulls his eyes from where the raven had vanished against the skyline that the two of them make eye contact, and the drizzle thickens into the beginnings of a steady rain, brushing its fingers against the stone face of the storefront. Eren’s eyes are glowing, even with the street as brightly lit as it is, and the damp around them goes electric underneath them.

Neither of them speak, for a moment. For two.

Then Levi says, “Eren?”

Raindrops have started clinging to Eren’s cheeks and to his hair, and an entirely different color rises to the hollows of his cheeks.

“He’s not here,” Eren tells him, and he disappears into the void of the shop behind him, letting the iron door fall shut between one blink and the next.

And then it’s just Levi, the city, and the rain spattering softly against the store windows.

(“it’d be best if you forgot today,” Eren’s voice speaks softly in his ear, as if he were at Levi’s shoulder with his breath ghosting softly across his cheek, “and if you just... pretended that the shit you see isn’t there.”)

Tires spit against the street behind him, scattering the fresh rainwater in arcs around it. Pedestrians carry on their conversations at a more hurried pace. It’s rare that the damp bothers anyone who’s lived here long enough, and rarer still that it keeps people off the streets.

Levi thinks of Eren, then, as rainwater clings to the collar of his coat. Thinks of the morgue and the sidewalk, thinks of how he’d sounded when he’d pushed himself right on trembling arms, thinks of how he’d looked when he’d stood on legs that threatened to drop him if he’d taken a step too quickly. Thinks of how Eren had told him to forget, thinks of how he’d been given a protection charm, thinks of the way Eren smiled when Levi had asked him why he didn’t carry one.

But mostly he thinks of the way Eren had looked at him when he’d said, ‘stay here.’ His pupils had been wide, swallowing the otherworldly green of his irises, but he’d been watching Levi’s face with a focus that had felt like hands pressing down on his shoulders.

(“stay here,” whispers against his other ear, just as close as the first one had been, “until i wake up.”)

The handle of the iron door is warm beneath his palm when his fingers close around it, and when it opens Levi smells cinnamon and maple syrup, heather and too-fresh rain, untainted by the stench of car exhaust.

A bell rings above his head.

-

(He’d come back from the dead in the same way as always: fighting for breath that was sharp enough to dig furrows into his lungs. His body had been on fire, every nerve ending rubbed raw by the act of dying, and as he’d pushed himself up from the concrete, even his bones had groaned with the effort of moving.

Pushing his palms to his eyes had done nothing to ease the headache splitting his skull, had done nothing to chase away the lingering screams of a Banshee ringing in his ears, had done nothing to clear away the smell of congealed blood and pipe-water. The only thing it had managed to do was fight the stinging at the corners of his eyes, and even that had been debatable.

hey,” had been spoken into the space of time between one too-painful breath and the next, and he could feel everything inside him freeze. “kid, look at me.”

He could feel ice cracking in his joints when he’d dropped his palms from his eyes to find Levi still sitting there. His hair had been windswept and his face had looked like carved glass beneath the glow of the streetlamp behind him, dancing its fingers across the crown of his head.

The nighttime had deepened the shadows beneath his eyes as if it had dipped its thumbs in ink and then drew them beneath his lower lashes. Or maybe that had been Eren’s doing, nine days before, when they’d met each other like a train meets a bird stuck on the tracks.

Eren himself had been the train. He knew he’d been the train. He was the train and Levi was the bird, and yet he’d stayed on the pavement beside a dead boy’s body.

It had been the first time he hadn’t woken up alone in... years. Ages. And it had made him stupid.

But everything had been making him stupid, lately.

you’re still here,” he’d said to Levi, and he’d been unable to stop shaking. “holy shit, you’re still here.” His voice had felt brittle, like ice-melt in summertime, and it had hurt as it pushed its way out of his throat on delicate limbs.

He’d pulled Levi to him on impulse, and Levi had smelled of blood and disinfectant and like the café they’d left behind. His skin had been warm, where his face had been pressed to Eren’s collarbone, and he hadn’t regretted it until moments later. What had mattered most right then was that Levi had been there, had stayed the whole time, and it had made Eren selfishly, stupidly grateful.

It had seemed a mantra, then, when Levi had been so close: meeting once was chance. Twice had been coincidence. Thrice was something cosmic.)

Eren has no idea what meeting four times means in folklore.

Omens and portents most often come in threes, and so it seems that no one had ever thought to explain the significance surrounding other meetings, particularly those that seem to keep happening despite the overwhelming statistics that indicate they shouldn’t be.

It’s bordering on ridiculous, really. 652,405 countable people in the entire city, and Eren can’t seem to manage to avoid this one in particular.

He should’ve known that Levi wouldn’t just stand outside, and yet it’s still surprising to find him standing beside the front counter as the bell above the door fades back into silence. There are raindrops caught in his hair like gemstones and his jaw is set in a way that resembles the cut of granite. The shadows beneath his eyes look like a god’s thumbprints that had been dipped in heavy ink and smeared across the skin beneath his bottom lashes.

But Levi’s eyes themselves look like the Seattle skyline—all stormclouds with the afterimage of neon whispers, and their gaze is steady enough to cut through solid rock. It makes it seem less farfetched to realize that they’re cutting through Eren like a drill might work through bone.

It’s impossible not to notice that he’s beautiful, as close as they are.

The smell of Levi’s protection charm hovers between them as it clings to his keys, though it’s not quite strong enough to combat the newer impressions of Eren’s magic, of the maple syrup and cinnamon of Connie’s—and of the heavy weight of drying mud and wet dog, brought in when Levi had stepped through the shop’s iron door.

It’s the reek of Barghest magic, crawling through the streets in preparation for the Wild Hunt, and all Eren can do is swallow his heart, even as it tries to push further up his throat.

“So you must be the mortician.” Connie breaks the silence that had begun to grow too heavy to support, looking between the two of them as he turns a feather between his fingers that the raven had left behind as it had been chased out the door and into the city.

“Medical examiner,” Levi corrects him in the way a teacher might, watching him with all the attention of a lecturer who’d imparted valuable information onto a class with too many students. “I don’t paint dead bodies.”

“Oh,” Connie says, and the feather pauses between two of his fingers. “Uh. Sorry.”

The silence starts to writhe again, curling around their ankles in slimy shackles as if it desires a mind of its own.

The thick quiet squeals beneath Eren’s sneakers, breaking it a second time when he says, “the Wild Hunt is coming.” He doesn’t move his eyes from Levi’s face, but from the corner of his eye he can see relief loosen the stretch of Connie’s skin across his cheekbones even before he finishes speaking. “You should probably reinforce the wards so we don’t have to replace our fucking windows this year.”

The only thing Connie leaves behind is the almost too-sweet smell of cinnamon and maple syrup as he makes his way toward the back door and disappears down the corridor in the backmost corner of the shop.

“You’re looking... better.” Levi meets Eren’s eyes even before Connie’s footsteps echo on the staircase hidden behind the back wall, smothering the silence before it can start to grow once more, and goosebumps rise along the ridge of his spine when he does. “How’re you feeling?”

“I’m fine,” Eren replies. His voice feels like woodchips, drying out his mouth when he speaks, making his words flutter to the floor like paper scraps as he says them. “Bought new clothes and everything. It’s almost like it never happened.”

Levi blinks slowly, and his eyelashes leave leftover rainwater against his cheeks. “I see.” Disbelief looks at home on his face when he shakes his head, and if Eren squints, he can see the edge of hysteria that had been sharper in the fluorescent lighting of the morgue, and the lamplight on the sidewalk two nights before.

Guilt settles in his mouth with the texture of curdled milk.

“I’m sorry.” It feels weak when Eren says it, even as it stretches wide to fill the store around them, pressing against shelves and display tables like an elephant trying to tiptoe on too-large feet. “That you saw that in the first place. I shouldn’t’ve—“ He swallows and tastes blood in his mouth, feels it clotting between his teeth. “It shouldn’t’ve happened.”

“Which time?” The rain outside hisses louder against the storefront, and the hurried shapes of pedestrians flutter by the window as Eren’s stomach drops out of his body. “At the morgue, or the shit by Atlantic Street the other night?”

For a moment, the city slams against the back of Eren’s skull as he reaches for his magic out of reflex. The Metro makes tracks against his bones as it stops and starts while the Light Rail hums its rhythm against his teeth, and all the signs of life pulse through his body at once, making sparks flicker between his fingertips as he curls them against his palm.

Eren breathes out and it tastes like car exhaust. “What?”

Levi’s glitter with hints of lightning reaching between the stormclouds of his irises, and it’s like Eren’s head is being held underwater when he speaks. “Which time shouldn’t’ve happened? I’m just trying to clarify so I know which one was the mistake.”

Eren’s tongue is nothing but deadweight in his mouth as Levi watches him, and feels like there’s gravel lining his throat when he swallows.

He doesn’t know what to say to that, and so he doesn’t say anything.

The smell of wet dog gets a little stronger, and the rain spits against the window harder than before. The fog rolling down the street outside curls against the glass before continuing its journey past the front of the store, draping itself over everything like a curtain. It makes the silence seem muffled, almost, as if the walls of the shop are lined with thick fabric.

Levi’s laughter cuts through the cotton-weight, even though its low enough to crawl across the floor, its edges jagged with the echoes of something aching. “You really are a bad liar, holy shit.” The pause he leaves there is only long enough for Eren to feel bile rising to press against the backs of his tonsils, and the next thing Levi says rumbles softly like distant thunder. “Only one of them warranted having my memory fucked with, though, didn’t it?”

His stomach rocks as if the world were tilting sharply to the side and threatening to drop him to the floor.

(Coming back from the dead is a magic all its own, and he should’ve felt it when the spell backfired. He should’ve known it wouldn’t work before he’d even cast it.

It had been nauseating, feeling his own magic rail against him like it had, rising up from his feet and pushing through his body like it had been made of gelatin, stretching his skin tightly around its mass. The city itself had been unbearably loud, had been making the too-bright fluorescent lighting even worse, had begun to split Eren’s skull in two as Levi’s body went boneless against his own.

He should’ve known it hadn’t worked quite right. He should’ve known the moment Levi looked at him in the fucking coffee shop and said, ‘have we met before?’)

Eren’s words come to his lips in bursts, feeling phlegmy and slimy when they pass his teeth. “I’m—sorry. It was—neither of those things should have—“ There’s blood beneath his tongue, and it feels like it’s staining his mouth, like it’s beading at the corners and tracing lines toward his chin and Levi ought to be able to see. “Neither of them should’ve happened.”

When Levi blinks, his eyelashes touch the shadows smeared beneath his eyes, left behind by sleep still untaken. “How is pretending they didn’t happen working for you?” Levi asks him, and his mouth wears a smile that’s small enough to be almost invisible within the tension hanging over his features, and it makes his heart feel too small to fit beneath his ribs.

“About as well as you expected,” Eren replies. “Still probably the dumbest fucking thing you’ve ever heard.”

Levi laughs only once, and it’s sharp enough to tear at the heavy atmosphere between them. “I—why did you—“ He stops, his ribs opening up beneath a too-deep breath that shakes when Levi takes it, “what was the point in the—you messed with my memory?

It’s been happening a lot lately. The sensation of fingers curling around his throat, too cold to be human hands. It feels like frostbite is numbing his pulse, as if thumbs are pressing down there to keep blood from getting to his brain. It like he’s suffocating, and he knows exactly what it feels like.

“Were you ever going to tell me, or not?” Levi continues, and his words drop against the floor like stones, one after the other. Eren can feel each one digging into his skin until it hits bone. “I even asked you if we met before. I knew that I knew you, and you just... didn’t tell me.”

Eren speaks soft enough to mistake his own voice for the sound of mist rubbing against pavement. “I never said we hadn’t met before.”

This time when Levi laughs it’s with the cadence of marbles hitting wood, and it’s almost loud enough to rattle the merchandise on the closest display. It’s a parallel just then, to the first night in the morgue. “You were just going to let me believe we’d never met more than once and that all this shit—the headaches and the whatever had nothing to do with the fucking supernatural? What was the point of that?”  

The fingers around Eren’s throat tighten and every inhale feels barely stronger than a wheeze.

(Humankind had chosen to close their eyes, years and years and years before Eren had ever been thought of. And because they’d needed humans, for one reason or another, the fae had chosen to navigate within the blind spots.

Changelings didn’t have a place in either world, not really, because they couldn’t close their eyes nor could they be invisible to the humans around them.

So changelings had to make themselves out of tougher things, even as they moved through a world filled to the brim with weaker bodies.

Eren had aged like a normal human boy until he’d turned twelve. He’d looked like it and everything—even his bones had started aching, waiting for the moment when they’d start growing and giving him the height he’d wanted over the other kids in his secondary school class. It had been the most normal he’d ever felt, in retrospect.

But then, of course, he’d had to realize that the growing pains weren’t quite growing pains, and that the aching in his bones was tied more to the magic starting to boil in his blood. It had wrapped around his body, sometime after his birthday, and had begun to squeeze the air from his lungs, had made it painful to breathe when he’d woken up in the morning.

He’d figured it out, the thing that had been making his whole body creak painfully every time he took a step, at the same time his father had.

There’d been a reason that the humans had blinded themselves to the fae, you know. It wasn’t until the last breath of his first death, tasting of river water and dying weeds, that he’d realized the arrangement had been more mutual than he’d thought.

It had turned out that there were some things that the mortal world just couldn’t handle.)

The words pop from Eren’s mouth like bubbles made from dish soap, or maybe bubbles made from exhalations beneath the surface of a river. “You’re fragile.” When he swallows, it clears out the mess at the back of his throat—gravel and bile left-behind blood—and he tries again. “Humans, I mean. You’re fragile. And I was trying to put the blinders back on.”

Levi’s skin stretches tightly against the bones of his face, his jaw tensing as if chewing on the words rising into his mouth before he says them. “What if I didn’t want the blinders?”

It’s Eren’s turn to laugh, and it clatters against his teeth with the force of a fist. “Do you, like, look in the mirror before you leave the house, Levi-the-doctor?” Eren takes one step closer and Levi blinks as the space between them shrinks by half. “You haven’t been sleeping, have you?”

Levi huffs, sharp and loud. “I haven’t slept more than six hours a day since before medical school. Next excuse?”

“The blinders aren’t just for you.” His magic hisses against the back of his tongue, scoring his taste buds when he tries to take a breath deep enough to stop the blurring of the store at Levi’s back. “Since you seem to be so confident in your memory, I’m guessing you recall the fact that you were still going to report on me, right? You wanted my information and how I got to where I was, and what was I supposed to say? I was strangled to death in a park by a monster? And then what after that?” His words are cutting the insides of his cheek, dragging against his hard palate at the roof of his mouth. “You either lose your job because you’ve lost your marbles, or you end up with me in a science lab somewhere getting vivisected until I stop coming back from the dead.”

Levi’s breath catches in the sudden silence between them, and his eyelids flutter too quickly to be considered blinks. His throat bobs when he swallows, and when he opens his mouth no words come out.

It’s into this silence that the ground beneath them begins to tremble, and the wide windows begin to rattle in their frames as the smell of wet dog and wet earth becomes almost overwhelming. But it’s only when the bell above the door begins to sing softly that Levi looks over his shoulder, and Eren is already calling a spell toward his fingertips, electricity dancing against the underside of his skin.

“What’s that?” Levi says, and his tone is level enough that a coin could roll across it all the way toward the horizon, and it’s almost like they hadn’t been about to scream at each other at all. “What’s happening?”

(There are stories almost as old as his mother about the Wild Hunt, and in the earliest tales there had been Sluagh among their ranks long before there had ever been Hounds or Barghests.

there’s a hunt coming for you,” the Sluagh had told him two nights before, it’s voice breaking like bark peeling away from a frozen tree, and the smile it had worn had looked as if it were going to swallow Eren whole. Standing in the middle of the street like it had been, its hair scattered about its face, the Sluagh had looked like every ghost story that mortals ever told—it had given him a reason to stay inside on Samhain that had nothing to do with the fact he’d been born with human blood.

The reek of wet dog and drying mud was the least of their problems, this time around.)

“Get away from the windows,” Eren says, putting his body between Levi and the front of the store before humming a folk song, whispering the lyrics under his breath as his magic clings to the windowpanes, draping itself over the glass and clinging to the doorframe in a netted pattern without touching the iron itself.

The city is coming alive with a different sort of fervor at the edges of his awareness, and it leaves behind concrete dust on his tongue. “The Wild Hunt is coming,” Eren says, and even his own magic can’t wash out the taste of the Hunt.  

“That doesn’t mean anything to me,” Levi’s voice lowers, a whisper against his shoulders as he peers around Eren’s body. “What does that mean?”

The windows are beginning to sound like wind chimes as Eren turns around, herding Levi away from the front of the store, toward the back corner and out of sight from the street. “It’s Samhain. Halloween. It’s one of the days that the curtain between everything gets... transparent. It happens all over the world. In Wales, we had Nos Calan Gaeaf, which was a different thing with—but later on, Samhain became one of the days of the year that the Wild Hunt got to play, and they’re—it’s like a feeding frenzy, sometimes.”

Levi doesn’t protest when Eren presses down on his shoulders, tucking his body against the corner of the wall as Eren settles beside him. The store vibrates against their spines.

“Humans can get caught up in it,” Eren continues, watching Levi’s face. His pupils are wide, a black hole eating stormclouds, and his attention is focused on where the door would be if they weren’t behind a countless number of shelves and merchandise displays. “Sometimes. Most of them stay off the streets, because even the ones that don’t experience any sort of... thing on Samhain know better. But sometimes they disappear.” The breath that Eren takes feels heavy, as if the fog had finally begun to make its way through the store itself. “It’s usually changelings, though. The Hunt doesn’t know any better when the veil is thin. They’re driven by... its nature.”

Levi doesn’t say anything to that, and he doesn’t pull his eyes away from the front of the store. His breath is coming short, and every exhale shivers like the wall pressed against up against their shoulder blades. He’s warm from where he’s pressed to Eren’s side, but his body isn’t still, and it’s as if the rumbling beneath their backsides has rooted itself into Levi’s bones.

It’s as if whatever argument Levi had been making to keep the blinders off had died in his mouth.

“I’m sorry,” Eren says, his words draping over the tops of his own knees. “That this is... happening to you.” Connie’s footsteps are soft above them as he walks from one end of the apartment atop the store to the other. He’s always paced when he’s been nervous. “It’s my fault that you can see all this... shit. When I fucked with—when I touched your memories, it didn’t go like it was—it didn’t work right. I should’ve known it wouldn’t work right.”

Levi makes a sound that isn’t quite a word, but the only change in his expression is that he blinks, disrupting his focus on the front of the shop.

His skin is pale enough to look like it’s been made of moonlight, even with the warm lighting inside the store itself.

Eren pulls his gaze away from Levi’s face, giving his attention to the wide display in front of them. It’s lined with herbal charms in small glass bottles attached to necklace strings. There are sigils at the bottom of each one, handmade to ease anxiety or for protection or for invisibility in large crowds. Each and every one of them are clinking together with the commotion outside, and shadows pass by on the walls behind them as an endless amount of shapes and silhouettes hurtle down the street outside the storefront.

“I can try again,” Eren offers to the necklaces hanging on the display. “I’m not as tired, this time. Or if you want, my coworker—or... I know someone that can get rid of it, this time. For real.” He thinks of how it had felt to see Levi when he’d woken up, how his breath had come the easiest it had in years because he finally hadn’t come back alone. It had been worth it, in that moment—clawing his way back to the living world had been so worth it. “It’ll take away your sight, too. The—the supernatural sight. It’ll be like you never knew.”

Levi’s voice breaks through the rattling of the store like a fist through glass. “No.”

“What?” The necklaces sway in their place on the display, catching the lighting and throwing it to compete with the shadows on the wall. Eren’s voice bounces against them.

“I said no.” It’s then that Levi’s body stops shaking of its own volition and Eren pulls his eyes away from the charms in front of him. It’s like a storm system is pressing up against Eren’s skin when Levi looks at him like that. The hairs on his arms rise, and it has nothing to do with the magic held inside the stores walls, or with the sound of the Hunt fading away as it moves deeper into the city.

Why?” It feels like it’s meant to come out louder than it does, but the word settles against the floor like a feather spit from between his lips.

“I said no.” Levi’s shoulders curl forward, hunching up around his ears. “I don’t want to forget anything, why is that so hard for you to understand?”

“You’re getting headaches. You’re getting headaches, and you saw a person die. I’m trying to look out for your wellbeing?”

Levi’s nose wrinkles and his rain-gray eyes catch the light like flint. “I’ve seen people die before, kid.” His voice has calluses when it brushes along Eren’s face. “But never have I ever seen them get back up again like you. Who knows, it might be good for me.”

(“stay here,” Eren had said, and he could feel his words start to become heavy as if they’d been layered over with molasses. “until i wake up.

Levi hadn’t believed him. It had been written all over his face—tucked away inside the thin frownlines by his mouth, hidden inside the line of his jaw, held beside the column of his throat where his muscles had tensed with emotion. There was something terrified clinging to his features, and his eyes couldn’t settle in any one place for any amount of time.

But then he’d taken Eren’s hand, even as there’d been drying blood between their palms. “yeah,” Levi had told him, had squeezed his hand even though it had to have felt disgusting. “that’s okay.”)

“That’s ridiculous,” Eren tells him, and his windpipe feels like it isn’t wide enough to breathe through, much less speak with. “That’s fucking ridiculous.”

“Shut up,” Levi says, and it’s loud without the store shaking around them, though Eren doesn’t think he meant it to be. When Levi swallows, it moves through his whole body as he sits upright, resting the back of his head against the wall behind him. “I said no. Don’t touch my memories, or if I ever see you in a morgue again, I will lock you in the freezer.”

Eren’s laughter tastes like his magic does, but with a lightness that reminds him of whipped cream, or something just nonsensical. It’s a surprise when sparks burst against the backs of his teeth, feeling like pop rocks as they bounce along his tongue and against the insides of his cheeks.

“Okay,” Eren says, the fizz of his own laugh still sparkling against his tongue, smothering any remnants of Hunt magic still littered across the floor of the shop. “Okay. It’s your choice, but remember that I offered.”

Levi cuts a glance at him, and the weight of his attention feels like something Eren can’t describe. It’s like a mist has settled over him wherever his eyes wander, and when Levi shifts against the wall, a warmth begins to blossom beneath Eren’s sternum.

“I’ll remember that.” Levi unfolds his legs from where they’d been brought up to press against his chest, and the hint of the smile he’d been wearing rises back to resume its place upon his lips. The bruise-colored shadows under Levi’s eyes haven’t lightened any, and they haven’t gotten any less heavy, but something about his face seems younger just then. “So, what do you have against birds? I’m pretty sure you scared the piss out of the one you were screaming at in the middle of the street.”

Eren smiles, then. He smiles, and the fingers let go of his throat, and whatever noose had been about to hang him drops away to lie limply at his side. He leans forward like he has a secret, like the words he’s about to say carry the weight of another confession.

“Ask me again some other time,” Eren says. “It’s kind of a long story.”

Levi laughs, and Eren lets it fall around his shoulders like a shroud, like a blanket, like the soft sound of a misting rain.

(It isn’t until close to sunrise that Levi ends up leaving the store. Connie had found them by the sleeping charms—herbal bottles with chamomile and lavender, California poppy and ashwagandha; teabags with softer herbs for softer stomachs; carved wooden sigils to keep bad dreams toward the foot of the bed rather than the head.

take this,” Eren tells him with Connie at his shoulder, offering out one of the wooden sigils, run through with a string to keep it from getting lost. It smells of Eren’s magic much like the protection charm he’d woven around Levi’s keyring. “it’s supposed to help with sleeping, since you won’t let me do anything about the other shit.

you can’t just keep giving me shit,” Levi says, even has he takes the string and loops it over his own head, tucking it beneath the collar of his shirt. “it’s a shitty way to run a business.

seems to be working out for me so far,” Eren replies. “it can get wet, but make sure you don’t lose it. i charge after the first one.”

When Levi smiles, it’s like watching the moon come out from behind clouds. His eyes are lit from the inside by something, and for a moment it’s hard to believe that he’s a human man, and not made of the things that faeries came from.

The bell rings when Levi pulls the door open, and Eren stops him with his fingers curled around Levi’s elbow. “wait,” he says.

Levi turns, the door propped open with one foot, and he waits.

i was wrong when i called humans fragile,” Eren continues, and the fabric of Levi’s coat is soft beneath his fingertips. “even when i said it, i knew i was wrong. it’s a—it’s a faerie thing, i think, to call you fragile, and i’m not—“ pureblooded, he wants to say, but the admission feels like iron in his mouth, and so his sentence dies between them.

Levi’s eyes watch him, send delicate touches over the planes of his face. “i know,” he says. He licks his lips, soothing over the chapped skin on them. And then, “you won’t end up vivisected. i can promise you that.

He looks so solid, then, framed in the doorway with the city at his back. And Eren knows that humans are made of stronger things, even if their world wasn’t built for people like him.

i trust you,” Eren says, uncurling his fingers and letting him go. It feels like he’d just said more than he wanted to.

yeah,” Levi replies with a too-sharp smile, his eyes still glittering like moonlit cloudcover. “you, too.”

Something opens up underneath Eren’s ribs when Levi tells him that.

The iron door falls shut when Levi lets it go, making his way down the street with the collar of his coat turned up against the spitting remnants of the rain.

he looked a lot softer,” Connie says, locking the door behind him and turning off the blinking Open sign in one of the shop windows. “after he was hanging with you, i mean.”

it’s your imagination,” Eren replies, and a shadow flickers inside the doorway of a building across the street, lit only by the streetlamp in front of it. He rubs one eye with the palm of his hand, the image inconsistent enough to be an indicator of exhaustion rather than anything else. “come on. the sun is coming up, and i’m beat.”

okay,” Connie shrugs, heading toward the stairs with long, almost comical, strides. But when he speaks next his voice is almost too soft to hear. “are you sure it’s a good idea to let him walk out of here, bossman?

Eren pauses with his foot on the bottom stair and Connie stops at the top to look down at him. “no,” Eren tells him, with a voice just as quiet, letting it crawl up the stairs without so much as creaking them beneath its weight. “but it’s his choice.”

yeah,” Connie says, and his eyes flicker over Eren’s face, looking for something there. “i guess you’re right.

They stand like that for two seconds more, and if Eren listens he thinks he can hear a Barghest howling somewhere in the city, as if heralding the coming dawn. And then the moment is broken when Connie turns around, finishing the last few stairs in two large bounds, making his way to his bedroom across the apartment.

The stairs creak when Eren follows him, and the noise swallows the Barghest’s song like it had never been at all.)

Chapter Text

(The landline hadn’t felt real in Eren’s hand when he’d picked it up, the afternoon after the Wild Hunt had made its way through the city. Sleep had left sand in the hollows of his joints, grinding between his bones, and the still-bright sunlight stretching across the floor of the apartment through the blackout curtains told him that it was too early for this.

you’ve reached tricks of the trade,” Eren had said into the receiver,  and his tongue had gone rigid in his mouth with the urge to yawn. “business hours are from seven p.m. to—

it worked.” Levi’s voice had been the rustle of fabric against gravel, even as it threatened to dissolve into breathless laughter. Eren could feel the rest of what he’d been about to say crunch between his teeth as he’d shut his mouth around it. “the fucking—the sleep charm. it worked.

Eren could have said something eloquent there, probably. He’d had the opportunity to express some sort of benevolence, to explain the nature of the magic that had been pressed onto the surface of the wooden charm Levi had been given. But his mouth had felt filled with cotton, and he’d needed to brush his teeth, and it had still been far earlier in the afternoon than he’d intended on waking.

And so what had come out of his mouth was, “oh yeah?

Levi had laughed, the sound weighted with relief, even as soft as it had been. “i haven’t slept that well since—jesus christ, since i was in undergrad. i called to thank you.” A pause, thick with all the things that might have been flickering across Levi’s face. “your store is pretty impossible to find in a phone book.

it’s supposed to be,” Eren had said. His body had started waking up, then. His heart had started to stutter beneath his ribs, warm crawling over his skin like smoke breathing across an open field. “but the charm helped?

eren,” Levi’s voice had felt like the silence after the Wild Hunt had passed—like the eye of a storm, or something. “you have no fucking idea.”

The city had begun to push its way through Eren’s body, his own pulse falling into its rhythm like it had always done. The veil between the mortal world and the supernatural had settled back into place, and the city was filling its lungs with the autumn afternoon, and Eren had smiled against the receiver. He could taste the hint of a sea breeze on his tongue, even past the morning breath sitting behind his teeth.

so give me an idea,” Eren had told him, even though it was still too fucking early for him to be awake, even though there were still two more hours between him and breakfast. “tell me about the sleep you had.”)

It’s late enough that even the stunted bridge trolls that more-or-less haunt Occidental Park have made their way deeper into the city where there are far more people with pockets to pick. The humans here had made themselves scarce some time before, but those that still make their way through the park at this hour are always alone, moving with their heads down, shoulders hunched up against the chill. Every single one of them has somewhere to be, and none of them so much as spare a glance toward the bench where Eren and Ymir sit, just outside the reach of the ring of lamplight stretching across the patterned brick pathway beneath one of the London Plane trees.

The dryads that live inside them are quiet at this time of year, tucked deep within the bark as they doze through the colder months. The square feels just a little bit empty without the sound of gossip being passed between the tree trunks.

Despite the stillness, Eren can feel the city vibrating in the roots of his teeth like always.

“Historia just said she’s on her way back.” Ymir’s voice is sharp in the never-quite-silence of the park and it hits the brickwork sidewalk beneath their bench like stones. It’s almost enough to muffle the needle-laughter of a swarm of pixies as they flit between the empty branches above them. “So you can uncoil that spring in your ass.”

The chill burns the inside of Eren’s nose when he snorts. “So there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary?”

Ymir taps out another text message, the leather of her gloves creaking around her thumbs as they move, and the glow from her phone is harsh enough to cut heavy lines against her features even through the obscuring spell dulling the jut of her cheekbones and her chin. It’s easier to see the Gancanagh in her with light like that—there are too many shadows to hide the humanness that he knows ought to be there.

But then her mouth lifts in an easy smile, and she turns her head just enough that the shadows fall away to her shoulders, and she looks more-or-less like herself. “No. There’s been no sign of Sluagh since Connie gave us your little warning notice.”

It should be a comfort—and it is, a little. But there’s still sandpaper rubbing the underside of his skin raw whenever he moves, and it makes his stomach knot.

His voice feels thin when he says, “that’s good.”

(Ferrying changelings between the practically endless number of Courts had never been easy, but it’d never really felt this dangerous before, either.

There’d always been something that had felt just a little bit heroic about turning away the pureblood representatives of some of the more rigid Courts. It was a bit like writing a changeling faerie tale that had less to do with tragedy and more to do with triumph, or some poetic bullshit like that.

But this year feels different—tastes different, too, when he breathes. It’s just a hair too cold, too early, and in some alleyways he thinks he can catch the scent of something rotting. There’s something ugly squirming beneath the constant pulse of the city, vibrating in the marrow of Eren’s bones, and it makes the waiting game harder than it’s been in a long time.

He’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be nervous while out on business.)

Dead leaves whisper beneath their wooden bench, the breeze carrying with it the scent of Ymir’s magic, laced tightly into the seams of her jacket—jasmine and sandalwood. There’s a softer smell beneath it, hovering just above the sea-salt smell of the Sound less than a mile away. It’s Historia’s magic, he thinks, woven inside Ymir’s own; aged books and black tea.

The park around them makes the spurs in his throat feel out of place. Some of the storefronts still have a few lights on, visible through the long stretch of their windows, even though they’ve been closed for hours now. It softens the darkness that would be hanging in the doorways and to the brickwork faces of the shopping centers. The nighttime view from this bench in this park is picturesque enough to be slapped on the front of a postcard, even with the pixies dancing between the late-autumn trees like fireflies.

It’s elegant, or something like that—beautiful enough that Eren finds himself wondering if Levi’s ever been here, looking for a gift for someone during the daytime, the collar of his coat turned up against a spot of rain, maybe. He wonders what the sunlight would look like on him, whether it would darken the shadows beneath his eyes, or if it would rub them away with gentle fingers. He wonders what his voice would sound like, if it would be as soft as it was when he’d said, ‘I called to thank you.

The thought passes over him like mist does, soothing the itch crawling beneath his skin.

But then he swallows, and the spurs tear against the lining of his windpipe, and the Levi he remembers is covered in blood to the middle of his forearms, stiffening the sleeves of the jacket he’d been wearing. His hands are shaking and he’s saying ‘Jesus Christ, I need to call somebody, I—I’m going to call an ambulance, I—‘

And then Eren blinks, and he’s back in the park, and it’s a little less beautiful than before.

“If it’s bothering you so much, just talk to your mom.” Ymir has always been a bulldozer this way. It’ll get quiet, and the air will get heavy, and the nighttime will get thick around them, clinging to their clothes in thick, gelatinous splotches. But then she’ll speak in the way that she does, and the atmosphere that had been attempting to build will fall away in pieces as if it had never had a foothold in the first place.

Besides, it’s difficult to get lost in thought when there’s indignation burning a scalding stripe down Eren’s ribcage to land in his stomach.

No,” he says, as if there hadn’t been thorns biting at the back of his throats only moments before. “Nope. No. Nah. No thanks.”

Ymir laughs, scattering the pixies that have moved to the tree across the wide walkway, and it looks a little bit like a firework from here. “Okay, then maybe the Sluagh are just fucking around because of Samhain. They were never the same after the Hunt got rid of them ages ago, and it’s the holiday they like best.”

Ice settles in his stomach, tightening the muscles of his abdomen. Ymir isn’t working with all the information, after all—she just knows what Connie’s told her, and she hasn’t seen the dry erase board back at the store in months. She doesn’t know that the Sluagh can speak now, in a way they hadn’t been in the time before the humans and the fae had separated themselves from one another. She doesn’t know that their magic smells like dying things, frozen over by an unforgiving winter, like a land that had never seen the sun.

She doesn’t know a lot of things.

He should tell her, probably.

(“this shouldn’t’ve happened to you,” Eren had said to Levi, just before autumn had gotten cold enough to start digging fingers deep beneath the surface of his skin. The city had been louder then than it is now, traffic hissing by along the asphalt behind him.

Levi’s voice had been sharp enough to draw blood, its edges serrated with something angry. “but it did. it happened to me.”)

But the less someone knows, the safer they are.

The ice in his stomach melts in his mouth when he sighs, the bench creaking as he leans against the backrest. “That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be safe. The fact that they don’t answer to the Hunt makes it worse when they’re dicking around somewhere. It’s like letting murderous children wander the city completely unsupervised.” Another breeze rattles the branches above their heads, mimicking the whisper of the sleeping dryads. “I don’t see what the issue is with telling everyone to be safe.”

“You’re just tense, that’s all. We’re all safe and sound and living happily ever after. I’m just saying relax.” The force of her elbow against Eren’s ribcage feels like enough to bruise, but her laughter is contagious enough that his own comes to life on a cloud of white before melting into lamplight behind them.

The bench protests again when Eren shoves her back, her freckles stretching across her cheekbones as she laughs louder. “I’m relaxed, see?” Her boot catches him on the shin as she curls against the metal armrest. “Could a tense person do this? I don’t think so.”

Ymir’s palm presses against his shoulder, pushing him back onto his side of the bench as she catches her breath. “Okay, sorry, I must’ve had you confused with someone else. My mistake. I’m older than you, remember. I can’t seem to keep my memories straight.” She unclips her hair for a moment as she snickers at her own joke, gathering it in her free hand to clip back the strands that had been pulled loose by her movement. “Connie told us that your Samhain was eventful but disaster-free. How was it?”

His skin prickles at the question, her voice pulling at the hairs on his arms. “It wasn’t so bad. We warded the windows this year, so they survived when the Hunt went by. Pretty sure Nile wouldn’t replace them a second year in a row.”

Ymir hums, smoothing her hands down the front of her jacket and disturbing the magic stitched there. “Probably not. He’s stingy that way.” Her eyes narrow, then, going from honeyed-brown to something sharper, and the smile that rises to her lips bares teeth. “But Connie said something about a human sticking around?”

Eren’s bones strain around a feeling expanding in his chest. It’s something like embarrassment, as if he’d gotten caught doing something illicit. It sticks in his throat like hardened caramel, even as it’s almost impossible to describe.

“Connie’s a fucking gossip,” Eren says. He knows, objectively, that he was probably trying not to talk about something else—about the slain contact three weeks before, about Eren’s altercation in the park, about coming back from the dead twice in as many weeks. But it stings, somewhere. Eren had stolen those moments on his own, and it felt personal that someone else knows about them now. They’d been his first. “Nosy is what he is. He could’ve left it at the windows, but no, he had to give a play-by-play of our Night of the Wet Dog.”

“If the Barghests heard you talking shit like that, they’d tear you to pieces.” The light from the streetlamp catches inside the furrow of laugh-lines, tucked at the corners of her mouth. “Any details about this mystery customer, or am I gonna have to ask Connie for those?”

He can feel a bear trap closing around his ankle, and wonders just how the fuck he’d gotten caught in this conversation.

There are a lot of things he could say here, and all of them wouldn’t even taste like a lie. he’s a doctor, Eren could tell her, even though he knows he’d smile for her to leave it alone. Or he could lean closer, and speak conspiratorially into the space between them and hide behind humor by saying, he’d stayed ‘til dawn, looking at merchandise. obviously i’m more charming than any of us thought.  

But he thinks of the things he knows about Levi—of the way his eyes look like stormclouds building over a city skyline, of the way his mouth twists when he hears something that makes him want to ask more questions, of the way he looks inside a coffee shop where fluorescent light can’t quite reach him.

What he tells her is more honest than what he thought it’d be, and he speaks quietly enough that his voice can’t even manage to hit the brick beneath their feet. It feels more like it’s still a secret this way, like Levi can still stay safely outside the gravitational pull of the world Eren lives in, like he can keep the monsters’ teeth away from Levi’s heels if he can just tell her as softly as possible.

“He’s a medical examiner.” He can taste his own magic, heavy on his tongue, as if his body is remembering the charm he’d woven around Levi’s keys. “He’d been having trouble sleeping. I gave him a charm to help with it.”

An ambulance is wailing somewhere in the city, but the sound is bounced between too many buildings to figure out just how far away it is, or where it’s going. The pixies flutter toward the far end of the park, mimicking the sirens in voices almost too high to hear properly.

“I thought it would be more interesting than that,” Ymir says, crossing her ankles beneath the bench, disturbing the dead leaves that had settled there with the toes of her boots. “You know, like something clandestine and illicit and meaningful.” When she sighs, it’s as if the world has attacked her personally by getting in the way of the story she’d wanted. “I was hoping for some romantic and disgusting bullshit.”

Eren laughs, loud enough and deep enough that he can feel the late-autumn cold in his lungs, and the taste of the city is a welcome weight on his tongue—sea-salt and coming rain, car exhaust and hibernating trees, stonework and takeout. Ymir’s nostrils flare when she snorts at him, rolling her eyes as she pulls up the collar of her coat to hide her smile.

“Shut up,” she tells him, and Eren pauses only long enough to catch his breath.

(They’d met in a bar in the Rainier Beach district.

The store had been new then, and it had been the third time Eren had left it in Connie’s hands while he’d been with a client. Jean had been outside, lounging against the outside of the building like someone too drunk to keep going and but not tired enough to go home. It had been the routine they’d used in those days. Jean had been better at cataloguing threats, after all—the Tuatha dé Danann were born to be soldiers.

The way Ymir always told it, she’d needed the money that had come with delivering this client safely to her final drop point, a place to start her new life in a Court that left the changelings to their own devices in a way that her first one hadn’t. That client had been wealthier than most of the one’s they’d see, but no one had really known that at the time. Everything had been newer.

The collar of her coat had been turned up against the gazes of almost every other patron that had been in the bar that night. She hadn’t started stitching her masking spells into the seams of her jackets just yet.

Even the client had been unable to look away for a heartbeat too long, and Eren had wondered why a Gancanagh changeling would choose a public place like this for a pickup. Her touch could be deadly, even with her half-mortal blood, and the attention she’d been getting had been enough to lock Eren’s joints with tension.

The bar had smelled of spilled beer and sharper liquors, and the air had been foggy with the lazy curl of cigarette smoke.

He’d barely gotten close enough to speak to her before Ymir had turned on her barstool and punched him in the nose, her leather gloves pulled taut across her knuckles.

As Ymir would retell the story, it was the moment she’d fallen in love with Historia, whose hands had flown to her mouth in surprise. As Eren remembers it, the smell of blood had begun to mingle with the sour tang of the alcohol and the claustrophobic sting of the smoke still rising toward the ceiling.)

When Eren speaks next, it’s without thinking, and he can still taste laughter clinging to his teeth. “If it makes you feel any better, I’d seen him before that.”

Ymir’s eyes go bright for a moment, flashing like copper in the dim lamplight. “That makes me feel a little better,” she says. “When’d you meet him?”

The city lights cast a multicolored glow on the cloud cover above the skyline, and Eren watches it shift as the cloud lumber their way across the nighttime sky. If he focuses on the way the city feels around him, he can feel the late-night bus schedules humming their way through his body.

He could tell her about the coffee shop, if he’d wanted to. About the way Levi had smiled, and the way the lighting had made him look younger. The way he’d worn his clothes differently than he’d worn his scrubs, and the way his eyes had been colored like the sky above Seattle on a rainy afternoon. He’d be able to tell her about how they’d talked as if he’d never been in the morgue before, or about how Levi had recognized him past the fog Eren had tried to pull over his eyes.

He could tell her that Levi had asked questions about the human part of him that he’d tried to forget that he had.

But that moment is a snapshot all his own, something that he’d done is best not to share with anybody, and so he tells her something else instead.

Eren’s words taste like the water freed from pipes beneath the sidewalk when he says them. “We met before on South Atlantic Street. He caught me just after the Sluagh problem got handled in the Industrial District. It was awkward for the both of us. I was bleeding, he had a medical degree.”

She sucks in a break between her teeth, making it hiss against her tongue. “Holy shit. That’s—not what I expected at all.”

Eren shrugs, pulling his hands into the sleeves of his jacket, rubbing a little more warmth into his fingertips. He finds other truths to tell her, rolling around in his mouth. “He didn’t want his memory erased.”

It’s a fact that hits the bench hard, sitting between them as Ymir arches her eyebrows high. “But... you did it anyway?”

He shrugs again, pressing his thumbs more firmly against his fingers. “He didn’t want me to. So I didn’t.”

The pause between them stretches out like hardened syrup, dripping onto the bench and the brick in thick strands.

Ymir’s voice is a whisper when she says, “holy shit,” for the second time. And then, louder, “that’s—ballsy. You’re usually the advocate for keeping human noses out of changeling business, because we’re ‘too close to the fae this way.’” Eren feels something defensive rise in his chest, but Ymir keeps talking, “which isn’t wrong, and it’s not a bad thing, this is just... surprising.”

Then she squints just enough that the defensiveness brewing between his lungs curls in on itself.

And then she says, “he was probably cute, huh?”

“Oh shut up,” Eren tells her, his lips twisting into what feels like a grimace as it works its way toward the soles of his feet. His ears go warm under her attention, and if she decides to say anything about it, he’ll just blame the color on the cold. “It’s not like it was anything.” His words go sour in his mouth, and his throat tightens with the knowledge that it’s true, more-or-less. “There’s not a place for this sort of thing, and we haven’t—it’s not anything.”

This pause is longer than the last one, and Ymir watches his face like there’s something there that she wants to find. And then she says, “Connie and Sasha seem to be happy enough, and their worlds are just a different, technically. I don’t see why you should be so busy keeping yourself out of everyone else’s lives.”

(Sometimes, when Eren breathes in he tastes river water.

It’s a remnant of ages ago—a series of moments that his body forgot, but that his brain can’t seem to let go. Him, crawling up the riverbank beneath High Street, the small stones cutting into his palms as he’d gasped for breath. He’d coughed up mud and flotsam, and there had been blades of grass still held between his fingertips.

His whole body had been sore, after dying. He hadn’t really expected it to be that way. Dying was supposed to be the end of things.

The trees above him had started whispering, their leaves coming together to share secrets as they’d watched him. He supposes now that at the time he hadn’t known there were probably dryads inside them.

His mother’s footsteps had been loud enough to grind the murmuring of the trees into the ground beneath her shoes. The wind had been gentle at the time, but it had still managed to catch her hair, pushing it away from her face. He’d thought it odd that it was unbound like that.

It was the last time Eren had seen her soft.

The sun had set sometime after he’d stopped breathing, but he could still see that she was wearing the same clothes from that morning, and when they met at the top of the riverbank, she’d knelt down hard enough to dig her pants into the mud there.

mum,” Eren had said, because his accent had far thicker then. His voice wouldn’t come out quite right—it had been too soft and too rough, his throat raw from the river he’d swallowed, “i don’t feel very well.

She’d held his face between her hands, and she’d smelled of crematory ash and incense, as if it had been rising from beneath her skin. Her thumbs had been gentle against his cheeks when she said, “i’m so sorry, sweetheart.” Her eyes had been glittering with gemstones, or something like that. “i’m so sorry.”

She’d hugged him, then. She’d held him close, pressed his face against her shoulder and pushed her fingers through his hair like he was something fragile.

He’d swallowed, then, and tasted nothing but the river on his tongue.)

Eren’s voice rasps just a little too much when he says, “oh, you know. I’m bad luck.”

The angle is awkward, but the kick Ymir lands on Eren’s shin is sharp enough that it’s definitely going to bruise by the time sunrise hits the city, and he can feel the sensation travel all the way up his body to punch him in the nose. Eren recoils, pressing himself against his own armrest, feeling the iron there vibrating against his clothes.

Ow?” His voice echoes once in the semidarkness before getting swept up in the breeze and soft traffic sounds at the edges of the shopping center. “What the fuck was that for?”

Ymir’s face is sharp and her eyes are flashing like superheated metal. “For saying stupid shit within range of any of my body parts. What the fuck was that for, huh? What kind of absolute bullshit just came out of your mouth and—“

Two things happen at once before Ymir can finish speaking. Historia rounds the corner of the closest row of novelty shops, already waving at them both, and the sound of Eren’s phone swallows the words he can see falling from her mouth.

It’s a little bit funny, what’s happening on Ymir’s face just then. There’s a part of her that wants to hit him as he pulls his phone from his pocket and swipes to the side to answer it, and he can see it in the way she thins her lips. But there’s also a part of her that’s already going soft at seeing Historia there, and she’s is already unfolding her own body from the bench to make it easier to greet her.

It’s not the most artful way to kill a conversation, but it’s one of the better ones Eren has seen.

“What’s up?” The ringtone had told him it was Connie, but it hadn’t told him what the call was for. “Did you finally burn the store down like you’ve been dreading? Or did one of the enchanted hourglasses break again?”

The laughter he’d expected doesn’t come. Instead, Connie says, “your medical examiner called.”

Eren’s bones feel brittle as he sits up a little straighter, the wooden bench creaking softly beneath him like it has been all night. “Excuse me?”

Historia and Ymir are exchanging words, now that they’ve back together. Kisses are being pressed to blonde hair, and laughter that flutters in the way that birds’ wings do dances with the pixies that are still too energetic to rest.

But Connie’s silence is louder than both those things. When he speaks next, he sounds far more normal, and the shift in tone is enough to make Eren wonder if he’d imagined the tension there in the first place. “your medical examiner called and says there’s something you need to see? He wasn’t very specific, but he said that it was definitely pertinent to your interests.” A pause, punctuated by a huff that sounds like static, and then, “do I get a little something extra for now functioning as your secretary?”

“No,” Eren tells him, more a reflex than an indication that he’d heard anything after the first sentence. “No bonus pay until we check sales at the end of the year. Is that all he said?”

Ymir and Historia both go quiet, their own murmured questions and answers gathering at their feet like molted feathers.

“He gave me the name of the hospital, but—“

“I know where it is.” The iron of the armrest stings the meat of his palm in the split-second that he touches it, pushing himself upright with his phone still pressed to his ear with his other hand. “Thanks, Connie. But this’ll put me behind schedule for getting home.”

“I will destroy the store one day,” Connie says. “It’ll be an accident, but I’ll have seen it coming and you didn’t believe me.”

“We kept our windows this year because of you,” Eren replies. “So I’ll take my chances. See you in a while.”

Connie laughs, and it’s normal, and Eren pretends that it is, even though this is the second time Levi has called in less than a week, and one of these calls is certainly less positive than the other. “Sure thing, crocodile.”

Eren tucks his phone back into the pocket of his jeans when Connie hangs up, and then he meets the two sets of eyes on him. It’s more difficult than it sounds, really. There’s a significant change in height between them.

“So.” Eren rolls his departure around in his mouth, watching as both Ymir and Historia arch their eyebrows, though the gesture is all Ymir, down to the slightly higher lift in one brow than the other. “I’ve gotta run.”

“I’m sure you do.” Ymir’s voice is smooth, laid flat with the texture of ground coffee, but her tone tells him that the talk that they’d been having is far from over. “What’s the rush? New menace downtown? Did the Boogeyman finally come out of hiding to play with you?”

The smile Eren puts on his face is small and doesn’t feel as natural as he’d like. “No. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment.”

The trees hiss softly around them as the wind hangs from their branches with heavy hands, and Historia’s mouth turns downward with confusion—but Ymir’s eyes only wrinkle at the corners, speaking to the smile that hadn’t quite made it to her mouth. “A doctor’s appointment,” she repeats, the chill of the late night turning her voice white.

Warmth prickles against the back of his neck and crawls along his scalp. “You guys think you can make if home safe? Boogeymen and all?”

Historia’s frown gets lost in her laughter. “I’m sure we can handle it. But thank you, dad.”

Eren takes two steps backward before he replies, “remember, no sweets before bed.”

He turns on the heel of one foot then, breaking into a trot to the sound of mingled laughter, and the breeze behind him pushes the smell of magic forward—jasmine and sandalwood, old pages and steeping black tea.

It’s only when they can’t see him anymore than he begins to sprint.

-

Levi supposes that he ought to be more concerned that Eren managed to get all the way down here with no one getting in his way. There are countless cameras that might’ve caught him on his way down to the morgue, and there are countless more people that should’ve seen him making his way through the hallways and down the staircases.

There are a lot of things he ought to be thinking, certainly, but the only thing that’s on his mind at this moment is this: he can’t help but wonder when it will stop being surprising to see Eren so alive. It’s a stupid thought—unrealistic and ridiculous. Of the five times they’ve met each other, Levi has seen him alive during three of them. The math says that Levi’s memories ought to be full of Eren’s living face, of the way his jaw hardens when he’s frustrated, or of the easy way his smile comes when he’s not talking about himself.

But his brain disagrees with the rest of him, and when he blinks he sees how gray Eren’s skin can get when there’s no blood moving beneath it, the way his mouth looks when there’s no muscle pressing his lips together. And so looking at him now is like being amazed all over again, just like he’d been when he’d seen Eren shouting in the street in the middle of the night on Halloween.

There’s color high in Eren’s cheeks as he wheezes past the threshold of the morgue’s double doors and his hair is a windswept mess. His body is curled half over, his palms pressed to his knees, and his shoulders are heaving with the effort of having to breathe like he is. It’s different, somehow—these breaths are living ones, soft and weighty in a way that his other ones hadn’t been. The gasps of the newly living had been wetter, had been thicker, had been more desperate.

“Sorry,” Eren speaks to the floor, waving the fingers of one hand in greeting before replacing it against the surface of his knee as he squints against the harsh lighting. “I got here as fast as I could, but I don’t drive and I didn’t bring my bike, so I had to—holy shit, I need to get out more—I had to run here.”

Levi thinks he can taste autumn past the antiseptic smell of the morgue when he breathes in, as if Eren had brought it with him from the city. “No rush,” Levi says past all the questions piling in his mouth—like how far he’d had to run, what he was doing, and all the other nosy things that could qualify as smalltalk for someone so busy. “It’s not like bodies just get up and walk away.”

Eren’s laugh is just this side of too-thin as he straightens his back to stand properly, but it tucks itself at the corners of his mouth in furrows that will one day be laughlines, but not yet. “Is that a joke? It sounds like a joke. It’s pretty funny.”

Levi snorts, but the smell of the city outside the hospital is gone. “A friend of mine told me that after you walked out of my morgue, but neither of us knew that at the time. A sort of universal irony.”

This laugh is fuller and lower, an echo of Eren’s first time in Levi’s morgue, and the hairs on his arms rise as if they remember the first time perfectly, even through the moments when Levi himself couldn’t.

“So,” Eren says, shaking out his hair to settle it into some semblance of order, or something, “what did you need me to see?”

“Oh.” Levi’s scrubs feel stiff as they hang from his shoulders, and the fluorescent lights hum above them to fill the quiet left behind by Eren’s question. “Right. Well, this seemed like something that required your level of expertise.” Ice settles between Levi’s vertebrae when he takes a step backwards, opening one hand toward the autopsy table in the center of the room.

Eren’s eyes follow the line of Levi’s palm, and his footsteps are almost silent against the tile floor when he moves forward toward the person lying there. He doesn’t look shocked by the body stretched out along the table, but there’s something sad pulling at the curve of his eyebrows and running along the line of his mouth. The morgue’s lighting is harsh, making his features look ethereal and unreal—but the emotion there seems incredibly human just then.

Levi moves to stand at the autopsy table’s other side, watching Eren’s face. The body hasn’t changed from the last time he’d seen it, or the time before that. In the hour and a half that it’s been on this table, it hasn’t changed at all.

Besides, it’s hard not to see Eren there, for one reason or another. It’s something that he just can’t seem to forget, this time around.

Eren’s face, on the other hand, is dynamic as his eyes move from the corpse’s head to her toes. He can almost see his own autopsy report travel from his forehead to his chin.

The body belongs to a Polynesian woman, maybe in her thirties. Her hair is limp as it hangs to her collarbones, the shape of it covering her ears, and its ends are stiff with the blood that had come from the open wound at her throat. Skin is loose where her pulse would be beating if she’d been alive, as if her throat had been torn out by claws—but not by teeth. Eren makes no sound as his gaze lingers there, moving back and forth along the wound as if following the motion the claws had taken.

Then he moves the sheet covering the rest of the body, as if turning down a duvet for someone still living.

The most obvious thing about the woman’s body is the autopsy scars, and Levi sees Eren’s eyes trace them before he glances over the rest of her. Scales begin at the woman’s elbows, leading toward her webbed fingers. There are scrapes on her palms, and Levi had pulled chips of asphalt from them as he’d dictated his report. Scales travel further down her body, beginning at her bellybutton and cover the line of her legs that end in her webbed toes. There are patches on her knees where some had been torn away, revealing the skin underneath them. There had been pieces of asphalt buried there, too, as if she’d fallen to her knees before she’d been killed.

Levi can see every reaction that Eren smothers, from the twitching of his lips to the frown-wrinkle-smooth of his eyebrows as he tries to pretend that the sight doesn’t upset him. Everyone looks at the dead like that, the first few times—but no one looks quite so pained as Eren does.

“She’s a Merrow,” Eren tells him softly, reaching for the box of nitrile gloves sitting on the tray beside the table. The snap of the thin rubber against his wrist is loud in the space between them. “In fairytales, they’re called mermaids.”

Eren’s fingers are gentle as they inspect the torn edges of the corpse’s throat, as they move over the scrapes on both her palms and her knees, as they pry apart her lips to inspect teeth that are sharper than a human set, each tooth fitted perfectly between those beneath it. Levi knows motions like this in the way that he knows the shape of his morgue—it’s a field autopsy, a way to make educated guesses about causes of death, a way to try and picture the dead’s last moments before they’re shipped off to a more sterile environment.

It’s rare that Levi’s ever called to those, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what one looks like.

The sheet rustles when Eren tugs it back over the woman’s body, settling back into place like a blanket over someone sleeping. It’s only then that Levi gives himself the license to speak.

“Her hemoglobin was low.” He reaches across the body to press two fingers to her throat, creating a space between one edge of skin and the other, revealing flakes of dried blood too dark to be human. “The detective on the scene assumed this was dirt here, but it isn’t. Blood doesn’t normally look like that.”

“But she had some?” Eren asks, and his eyes aren’t focused on the body anymore. “Hemoglobin, I mean.”

“Sure,” Levi says. “But it was really low. No one has an iron count that low. People can’t survive with hemoglobin levels that low. And even with low hemoglobin, it wouldn’t turn this color. It’s like there’s iron in it, but not enough, and something else that I know fuck-all about.”

Eren’s lips thin, going bloodless for a moment under the morgue’s lights. The shadows stretch long against the shape of his cheekbones, and there’s something indefinable working its way across his face.

“She’s a changeling.” His words fall to the autopsy table like small hailstones—sharp enough to hit the walls around them, but not so much as to be painful to be hit by them. “You can tell from the shape of her teeth, and the scaling.” A pause, long enough to let the humming of the morgue sound like a voice on its own, and then, “and pure fae don’t have any hemoglobin. There’s no iron in their blood.”

Levi thinks of the blood reports he’d seen, going over them in his mind’s eye as different pieces slide into place. “They probably have a protein that has manganese as a base,” he say, lifting his fingers for Eren to have a closer look at the flakes of blood still there. “When dissolved manganese is oxidized, it turns dark brown or black—when it dries, it gets darker and looks like soil. Which would make blood less red than this.”

Eren pulls the gloves from his hands, the rubber peeling away from his skin with a hiss, and Levi thinks he can see the shape of a smile settling on the curve of his lips. “You know, I never did like chemistry that much. I took physics when they made me take a science.” He pushes the sleeves of his jacket up to his elbows before pushing one hand through the mess of his hair, dropping his eyes to rest back against the corpse’s face. The atmosphere shifts around him, and the smile that Levi had thought he’d seen disappear. “Come over here. I wanna try something.”

(The store had felt as if it were shaking apart around them, and it had been loud enough to almost swallow Eren’s voice when he’d spoken.

it’ll be like you never knew,” he’d said. His eyes had been focused on the wide display in front of him, necklace sets swaying back and forth to rattle together as an endless stream of shadows clawed their way across the wall behind them both.

There had been a moment, then, that Levi had considered it—had considered losing those pieces of himself for real this time, had considered giving away the feeling of blood dying between his fingers, of the way his knees had been pressed to concrete as he’d knelt beside Eren’s body.

But it hadn’t lasted longer than a moment.)

The air around his shoulders thickens, and Levi can feel his body hesitate, something sour sitting against the back of his tongue. It feels a little bit like panic, maybe, the way it’s scalding the underside of his skin. “What do you want to try?”

Eren raises one eyebrow, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “I... wanna try something?”

Levi’s stomach twists, knotting itself three times over, and his throat feels too tight when he says, “I told you that I didn’t want my head fried a second time, and I swear to god—“

The fluorescent light catches on the curve of Eren’s irises, curling around their edges in the way that light winds its way around a black hole before disappearing inside it. His eyelashes brush against his cheeks when he blinks, the touch fleeting enough to leave no other impression than that of surprise. “I’m not—that’s not what I I’m trying to—can you come over here, please? This is the first body I’ve gotten to look at that hasn’t been my own, and I need to see if this shit’ll work.”

Eren’s words hit the floor like gelatin, slapping against the tile before sinking into the drain at the center of the room. And then it’s Levi’s turn to blink, a slow thing, and his stomach rises to meet his ribcage in something that stings a little bit like shame. “I—yeah. Okay.”

His legs feel stiff as he makes his way around the table to stand at the woman’s feet, and his palms are sweating beneath the thin rubber of his exam gloves. Eren’s gaze is like a presence all its own, pressing down on Levi’s shoulders with heavy palms.

They stand like that for what has to be too many heartbeats—but then Eren looks away from where he’d been staring at the side of Levi’s face, and his spine bends to stoop beside the corpse’s ear, and he begins to sing a song that Levi doesn’t know the words to. He sings it low and soft and gentle, and when he tilts his head just so, his hair slips over the shell of his left ear, revealing the burn scars there.

Levi’s can feel his own attention linger on them, can see the way he’d documented them on Eren’s autopsy report weeks before against the backs of his eyelids when he blinks, even as goosebumps rise from his throat to his ankles. There are so many questions fighting for space behind his teeth that it’s difficult to breathe past all of them.

But then the lights above them begin to flicker, and the antiseptic smell is washed away by a sigh of rainwater and heather that dances around their bodies, reaching out with grasping fingers to tug at both their clothes. The hairs rise on the back of Levi’s neck, as if something electric is moving through the room around them—until the lights go out completely, sending the morgue into uninterrupted darkness.

Without the fluorescent bulbs humming around them, it’s too quiet.

And suddenly it’s as if a projector has opened up in the center of the floor, casting every surface in grayscale. Levi’s instruments glitter on the tray beside the table, freshly cleaned, throwing the unreal light across the room enough to disturb the setting rising up to drape over the inside of the morgue. The walls have been replaced by the coast of Puget Sound on one side and the buildings on the city’s waterfront on the other. It looks real enough that Levi can almost taste the hint of saltwater underneath what has to be the smell of Eren’s magic—heather and rainwater.

The stillness of Seattle in the early evening is disturbed by the faerie—the mermaid—the Merrow running down the waterfront.

It’s like watching a silent film unfold around them, her bare feet silent as they hit the pavement beneath them a force that has to be painful. Her mouth is open with the effort of gasping, though even that can’t be heard in the absolute silence of the morgue—of the city.

Eren’s eyes are the only thing showing any sort of color in the white-gray-blackness of... whatever the fuck this is.

The woman stops, her feet skidding against the pavement as something steps out from the shadows at the edges of the scene playing out before them. This one has a different face from the first one Levi had seen, but the shape of its teeth and the pallor of its skin is entirely familiar. He can feel his heart begin to beat itself against his sternum, can hear his pulse thrumming in his ears.

The Merrow knows what it is in the same way Levi knows it. He can read it on her lips, can see it as it falls to the ground at her feet.

Sluagh, she says with no voice. He wonders, a little, how she would sound, standing in the middle of the sidewalk on the Sound’s waterfront, watching a predator smile with jagged teeth. Was she resigned to this? Was she scared? Was she angry?

The scales on her fingers glitter as her hands tremble, catching the muted light of the streetlamp just outside her reach. She takes a step backward, her lips now pressed into a thin line, and the Sluagh takes a step forward to match her. Its smile widens, pulling its mouth into a grotesque shape, as though it were never made to stretch like that.

A second Sluagh steps into view from behind her, and the first says something, tilting its head in a way that makes a shiver run through the woman’s body. Her shaking fingers curl into a fist, then, her pointed nails digging into the meat of her palm. A breath of wind disturbs the dress hanging from her shoulders, pushes its fingers through her hair in a way that seems almost gentle in the almost-suffocating silence of the morgue.

The first Sluagh speaks again, taking another step forward. Whatever is coming from its mouth is unintelligible without a voice to go by. The second Slaugh eases up behind the Merrow, unhurried by the nighttime or the pedestrians that should’ve been around at that hour. She stiffens in its grip as one arm slips around her waist while the other comes up to press its claws to the skin of her throat, and her elbow rams sharply into its gut as the first Sluagh leaps forward—

Eren snaps his fingers, and picture disappears, leaving behind nothing but darkness and silence.

Or—maybe not.

Beside him, he can hear what might be the sound of muffled gasps, cut off before they can become anything louder, and if Levi listens close enough, he thinks he can hear them shaking. They hit the floor like balls of cotton, rolling across the tile with fabric-whispers.

There’s something Levi should say here, but he doesn’t know what it is. The words pushing up against the backs of his teeth are in no particular order, are mostly made of platitudes that he’d used on patients when he’d tended more of the living than the dead. None of them seem comforting enough, or apt enough, or right enough for what they had just seen.

But then the lights come back on, dissolving the quiet around them with the mechanical hum of business-as-usual, and the moment for comfort is gone.

There’s nothing on Eren’s face to speak to his distress except the thinness of his lips and the washed-out color of his cheeks.

Eren clears his throat, his eyes still focused on the place where the Merrow had been standing, the column of her spine pressed to the front of the Sluagh’s chest. “I don’t really know what I expected,” he says, blinking slowly enough that it looks as if he’s lost in thought for the string of moments between one thought and the next, “but I don’t think I expected that.”

Levi’s own voice is easier to find than he thought it would be. “Yeah.” He pauses, pressing his tongue to the roof of his mouth to ease the dryness rising up from his windpipe. “That was... something.”

Eren’s shoulders twitch when Levi speaks, as if he’d forgotten for a moment that he hadn’t been alone. “Sorry that you had to... see that. I didn’t really know how it’d go. I haven’t—it’s not something I’ve done a lot.” The smile he wears as his eyes glance over Levi’s face is barely there and does nothing to bring the color back to his face. “And the last time I did that, I was trying to figure out what killed the neighbor’s dog.”

As Levi meets Eren’s eyes, the edges of his vision still adjusting to the sudden brightness, he thinks he can see something like a double image—the one standing before him with too-sharp cheekbones and too-sharp eyelashes and eyes that glow in the dark, and the other is a man in grayscale with hand-shaped bruised pressed to his throat, his eyes alight with something ferocious in the way that Levi imagines he might’ve been before that first night in the morgue.

It makes his throat tight, thinking about things like that, and it’s difficult to swallow past the thing rising against the back of his tongue. “What was that, anyway?”

Eren blinks, both eyebrows arching only slightly. “Oh. It’s—hold on. I have a good way to explain this, I’ve just got to...” He stops speaking, his eyebrows coming back down to furrow while he thinks. And then, “it’s... an echo. Of the life left behind. Life creates energy, and so even when one life isn’t really there anymore, the echo still rises from its pint of origin for a little while. The—the body.” Another blink and Eren swallows. “We usually—it’s kind of a rule that if you kill a person with faerie blood, you burn the body. The tradition is almost as old as my—“ A pause, another breath. “Even political assassinations work this way. Even changelings get this right, so that our world can keep going, or whatever. So there’s almost never a body.”

“But they left this one.” Levi pauses and breathes in through his nose. The smell of Eren’s magic has been eaten by the sterile smell of the antiseptic. “Like they left you.”

“Yeah,” Eren says. “I don’t really know what’s going on.”

The morgue vibrates around them and Eren’s eyes find their way back to the Merrow’s body, still resting on the autopsy table. His attention lingers on the wound at her throat and the sadness rises back up to cover his features for another moment before he rolls his shoulders and straightens his spine.

“I’m going to get rid of the body,” Eren tells him, already grabbing another pair of nitrile gloves from the box and pulling them back over his fingers. They look silly, much as they had the first time, a contrast between the young adult-casual of his clothes and the professionalism of the surgical gloves, and the absolute ridiculousness of the situation hits Levi all at once. Or maybe it had just been sitting there since he’d called Eren’s store out of distress rather than forethought, waiting for the opportune moment to rise.

“You’re going to what?

When Eren looks at him, amusement is dusting over his cheekbones, highlighting the softer lines of his face. “We cremate the bodies. I just told you that. So, I’m going to get rid of the body.” He shifts his weight between his feet as he watches Levi’s face, and the black hole comparison comes to mind again as the harsh lighting curls around the outside of his irises, catching on his pupils before disappearing entirely. “Thank you. For calling me.”

It’s as if there’s a wall, here. Or a curtain, maybe. Levi keeps catching glimpses of what’s behind it, keeps seeing things that he knows, objectively, he wasn’t really meant to see. But then Eren pulls the curtain back over the monsters and the horrible things and shuts him out.

(“i’m trying to look out for your wellbeing?” Eren had told him, his voice going loud with indignation. It had been a little funny then, in the store that had smelled like baking things and early autumn mornings in the highlands of a country that Levi had never been to. Eren had been trying to put himself between Levi’s mortal fragility and the things that had run through the city streets that night.

He’d wondered then, like he wonders now, who’s between Eren and the things that hide in the shadows and go bump in the night. But he doesn’t know the kid well enough to ask that kind of question out loud.)

Levi’s tongue can’t decide just on what, exactly, it is he wants to say—technically, I didn’t call you, I called your employee, or you can’t just walk off with a body that was delivered to me by the police, or why do you keep treating me like I’m the child?

But his brain decides for him, and what comes out of his mouth is, “I’m going with you.”

Eren blinks at him. Again. And Levi blinks back, slowly.

And then, “ex-fucking-cuse me?”

Levi squares his shoulders, arching one eyebrow and turning his head just so. It’s a look that’s worked wonders on weaker people, and while it might not have the exact same effect here, it’s worth an attempt. “I’m going with you. Is there something you need clarified, or...?”

“You—what? You can’t!” Eren’s voice lowers to an almost-comical whisper, his whole posture shifting to match. His shoulders hunch closer to his ears as he says, “it’s a crime.”

Levi laughs loud enough to catch himself off guard. It travels from his teeth to his toes as he lifts a hand to muffle it, snorting against his fingers. “Holy shit, yes it’s a crime, but you said yourself that mortals are fragile, right? So, what, you want to wander around all by yourself with a corpse that would look at home on the cover of Weekly World News?

Eren’s eyelids flutter and a frown pulls at his mouth. “That magazine is ancient. And that’s not what I—“

“And you said,” Levi interrupts, moving forward just a hair to toe at the edge of Eren’s space, “that you don’t drive, so where are you going to stow the body so you can get rid of it? Were you planning to cremate someone beside the hospital? Where there are cameras?”

“I can get by cameras—“

“Or the people there? Hm? Or were you just going to erase someone’s memories if they happened to catch you?”

Hurt flashes across Eren’s face, dilating his pupils to swallow the color of his irises. “Can you, for one fucking second, just let that—“ His nostrils flare and his lips tremble, and he looks so much more than human in that moment. He shuts his eyes, his fingers coming to press against his own cheek as if he’d been slapped. When he opens them, he says, “fine. But don’t blame me when your car smells like formaldehyde.”

The sour taste has taken its place back in Levi’s mouth, and his throat feels slimy with curdled shame when he swallows.

But Eren moves before Levi can say anything, his body coming together with a liquid rhythm despite the gangly look of his limbs, and he wraps the Merrow in the cloth-paper sheet like a funeral shroud. Her body isn't yet going stiff with rigor mortis, so her abdomen still has enough give that she bends over Eren’s shoulder as he lifts her up. Even that looks graceful from here, as if he carries the air of a stupid elf from a Tolkien novel.

Eren turns to look at him, the woman’s hair swaying with the motion. “Are you going to gather your autopsy report? That way you can keep the record without leaving the evidence.” The pause feels brittle when Eren leaves it there, like glass that’s been cut too thin. “Since you insist on coming.”

Levi’s own gloves find the wastebin beside the now-empty table, and he lifts the clipboard from the wheeled tray, leaving his instruments behind in pristine condition. “I’ve got it.” There’s hesitation between them, then. Eren doesn’t turn around to exit through the morgue’s double doors, and Levi doesn’t move around him to lead. Instead he says, “it’ll be a good reference for next time, if something like this happens. I’ll be able to look for manganese in the blood, if necessary.”

“Next time,” Eren echoes, huffing softly. “Where did you park?”

“Let me show you,” Levi says, heading toward the double doors and propping one open with a foot as he turns the lights off behind them. Eren’s ‘thank you’ is quiet enough to blend in with the whisper of the door falling shut, and Levi only notices it when the hallway falls silent.

It’s the thing said between them as they navigate the hallways toward the parking garage.

The basement of the hospital is always practically empty, and so it’s no surprise that they don’t meet anyone at this hour. Nursing staff and attending physicians and surgeons are all on the higher floors, waiting for emergencies or tending to patient needs until the shift relieves them around sunrise. The employee stairwells are much the same. He’s used to being the only one within walking distance of the morgue—he prefers it this way.

The staircase they take leads almost directly to the parking garage, and the smell of lingering car exhaust and gasoline, coupled with the semiconstant threat of rain is a welcome change from the pressing smell of corpse preservative and leftover antiseptic from the morgue.

Levi’s car is in the middle of the garage, beneath one of the circles of light afforded by the never-quite-bright-enough lamps fixed to the concrete pylons that prop up the floor above them. It looks more blue than gray in this lighting, and he’s always liked it that way.

And then Eren breaks the tense silence that had been building between them like too-much rainfall with a laugh that echoes over the few cars still here for the night, bouncing across windshields and tires to make its presence known.

“You drive a Prius!” Eren says, and Levi glances behind him to see Eren adjusting the Merrow still draped across his shoulder. “I should’ve known you’d drive a fucking Prius. I should’ve guessed. It screams Seattle. Were you born here?”

Levi can feel his ribs uncurl with relief and the apology that had been grinding against his teeth feels less heavy now. “At least I drive,” he says, tapping the button on his still-warm keys to unlock his doors, flashing the headlights twice. “And I was born here, thank you. That doesn’t mean I was slotted to be given a Prius on my eighteenth birthday by my hippie parents, or whatever shit you believe.”

He can see Eren snicker behind him, his reflection looming in the window as he moves past Levi’s shoulder to open the back door, shifting the body a second time to lay her across the backseat as best he can, considering the circumstances. The car already smells like formaldehyde and other preservatives by the time Levi slips into the driver’s seat, and it stings the inside of his nose.

Eren takes the passenger seat not long after, pulling the seatbelt over his chest the moment that the door slams shut beside him.

When the car starts moving, both of them make the decision to roll down their windows, breathing in the taste of the city as it inches its way toward the end of the night. The air is lighter, outside the parking garage, and Levi makes his way to the waterfront without thinking, the saltwater sting of the Sound sighing its way through the car.

Eren speaks into his fingers at the first red light they come to, his elbow resting just outside the line of the window. “I bet she would’ve liked to be sent off by the waterfront. Nice choice.”

“It was a reflex. Most of the waterfront is closed this late at night, so I figured it was the ideal place to burn a body.” Levi tells him, taking a slow left behind one of the Night Owl buses, easing its way downtown. It isn’t until he can make his way around it that he asks, “did you know her, or something?”

Eren turns his head away from the open window, and the nighttime breeze messes up his hair beyond repair, and in the split-second glance that Levi can spare away from the road, he catches sight of his scarred ear. “No,” Eren says. “I don’t know her, or anything. But it’s still a little sad, isn’t it?”

(death is always sad, but it always seems a little worse when it’s a young one—)

“Yeah,” Levi replies after a heartbeat. “It’s still sad.”

A soft, misting rain begins to coalesce on the windshield, beading along the glass until it can form into streaks. Neither of them make any move to close their windows.

“So what happened to your ear?” Levi continues speaking into the quiet, his words rising over the hiss of his tires, going damp against the asphalt. “The left one.”

“You ask so many questions.” Levi can’t tell if Eren’s about to laugh or not, but his voice isn’t as heavy as it had been in the morgue when his face had looked carved from granite. “The deep and personal kind. What happened to the age of smalltalk? ‘How’s your employee, Eren? He seemed very nice on the phone.’ Or maybe something like, ‘so how did the store fare after the weird stampede?’ Oh, or maybe like, ‘do you have any other sleeping tips for me?’”

Levi huffs out a breath, rolling his eyes upward before focusing back on the road. “Is your mystery part of your charm, or something? Are you trying to stay an enigma?”

“How am I supposed to be interesting if you keep asking about all my secrets?” Eren leans out the window, then, almost rising out of his seat to have his hair pushed away from his face by the wind that’s now smelling more like seawater than anything else. “But I’ll tell you what, you can ask me any ridiculous fucking question that you want, and I won’t even give you a bullshit answer, but then I get to ask one. A fair trade.”

“Is this one of those faerie things?” Levi asks, taking another left as he crosses into the International District, still a stone’s throw away from the waterfront. It’s familiar, this place—Eren’s store is a short walk from here, tucked away in the Uwajimaya complex down the street. “A question for a question of equal value? A magic deal?”

“No magic,” Eren tells him, and this smile is wider than the last one he’d tried on. “But it might be part of my ‘riddle-me-this’ heritage.”

“I’ll take your bargain,” Levi replies, sliding into a parallel parking space on Occidental Avenue. During the daytime, parking here without a permit would be illegal, more-or-less. But it’s too late at night for anyone to check his parking, and they won’t be out here long. “A question for a question.”

“Okay,” Eren says, popping the buckle of his seatbelt and letting it slide back into place above and behind his head. “Ask away.”

Levi lets the engine idle as he considers all the questions that have been trapped inside his body since that night on Atlantic Street, watching Eren rise from the dead with gasps that sounded like they’d bordered on painful. He could ask anything he wanted here, allegedly—he could ask what kind of fae Eren’s mother is, he could ask how he’d died the very first time, he could ask how he figured out he could do this at all. He could ask any number of things, and none of the questions would even come close to satisfying his curiosity.

But Levi finds a question he can live with, for now. He rolls it around on his tongue to feel the texture, tests the edges of it with his teeth to make sure it’s open-ended enough to give Eren the opportunity to expand upon his answer, if he wanted to.

And so he asks, “what’s it like, coming back from the dead?”

The engine rumbles softly in the time it takes for Eren to consider his answer. Mischief glitters in the darkness of his pupils before it fizzles out and disappears, his mouth thinning out into a line. Levi wonders if he’d just watched an almost-lie rise to Eren’s tongue, wonders if he’d just watched that same barely-truth get swallowed and held beneath his ribs.

When Eren speaks next, it’s like the air pressure changes. “You know how, a long time ago, people would get so drunk that they’d be buried alive, because doctors were really shitty at their jobs back then?” He stares out the window, following the motion of the windshield wipers as they bat away the rain that hasn’t gotten any rougher in the moments they’d been sitting there. “It’s kind of like that.”

The air conditioning whispers between them as Levi watches Eren’s face. There’s something there that makes him regret asking his question like this.

“Except no one’s there to dig you out, really,” Eren continues. “There’s no bell on your wrist, or whatever. It’s just you, and the darkness, and it’s like clawing your way out of the ground, like dirt’s falling into your mouth and you can’t breathe, and every single part of you is so fucking sore that it’s like all your bones had just started healing from something really, really shitty.” He blinks, and his pupils are wide with whatever it is he’s seeing behind his eyelids. “It’s like crawling out of the water after you’d almost drowned, and coughing it all of it up before you can breathe properly again.”

The car reeks of formaldehyde. It reeks of formaldehyde and funerary preservatives. It smells of saltwater and fresh rain, and it smells like downpour-worthy rainfall and the soft sigh of heather, growing somewhere far away. It smells like the morgue, and it smells like Eren, and Levi’s throat is so tight that he wished he hadn’t asked that question at all.

Levi still hasn’t found it in himself to breathe right yet, but Eren asks his own question anyway. “So... why did you quit being a doctor-doctor?”

The customary response squeezes its way through the straw his windpipe has become. My bedside manner was shit, he almost says. But Eren had trusted him with... everything that he’d said, and so Levi lets the words cut his throat on their way back down as he swallows them.

“I was one day hoping that I would be taken away on a ridiculous adventure like this,” Levi tells him, pressing his palm against the steering wheel hard enough to make it groan. “Pulled into a world of mystery by an enigmatic stranger.”

Eren scoffs, huffing his hair away from his forehead. “I didn’t bullshit you when I answered. This is injustice.

“I know, I was kidding,” Levi says. “I was a surgeon before I took over the morgue. Or, before I undertook the morgue, maybe.”

Eren snorts, a quiet thing, and makes no comment, but there’s something about the almost too-soft laughter that makes it easier to keep speaking. “I was pretty good at my job. I’d saved a lot of people, and I’d helped make a lot of people’s lives better, but... losing people was hard, and it was the loss that was easier to remember.” If he listens, he thinks he can hear the sound of a heart monitor coming from somewhere deep inside his body. It’s a sound that he knows better than a lot of things. “I was good enough at my job that I started getting more of the emergencies—more of the on-call sort of scenarios. And so I started losing more people simply because it was unlikely to save them.”

Eren’s voice is a breeze when he says, “I never really liked statistics. It’s the most depressing sort of math.”

Levi’s own laughter feels like stones in his throat, but it’s better than leaving them inside his lungs. “It’s true, and it stopped being fucking nice to me. No matter what I did, someone was likely to die, and I was tired of that pressure. I was tired. I was so tired that I quit being a surgeon, and decided to take care of those that something else had killed instead. They didn’t give a shit about my bedside manner, or my skill with my hands. They just... wanted to make it to whatever fucking next life they believed in.”

The space between them is filled with the idle engine and Levi’s own heartbeat when he’s done speaking. One heartbeat. Two heartbeats. Three heartbeats. Four—

“Your bedside manner isn’t bad.” Eren’s voice is no more tangible than the barely-there raindrops still crawling their way down the windshield until Levi flicks the wipers on a second time. “And you were—you’re a great surgeon. You’re a great medical examiner, but you were a great surgeon, too.”

Levi laughs for the second time, and this time it’s like glass. “Ha! And how would you know that?”

“‘So you don’t want me to call an ambulance. Or the cops.’” Eren’s voice is low, covering the dashboard of the car with its presence, raising the hairs on Levi’s arms. “‘What do you want me to do?’”

“Eren,” Levi thinks his own voice is shaking when he speaks, and his mouth is going dry despite the humidity, “what are you doing?”

(“why did you come after me?” Eren had asked him, though it had been so quiet that the city had almost eaten his question alive. “when I left the coffee place.

Levi hadn’t known what to say to that. He’d liked Eren’s company, he’d liked the way he smiled and the way he’d laughed. He’d liked the way that Eren had gotten bashful, had gotten surprised, as if no one had ever asked him where he was from before. He’d liked him, and watching him go had felt a lot like watching someone walk into a monster’s open mouth and waiting for teeth to close down around him.

He’d stuttered over an answer because he hadn’t known what to say. He still doesn’t know what to say.

But with the city as his witness, there’s something about hearing this that is shaking him to pieces.)

“‘Stay here,’” Eren continues, and his voice is more normal, then. “‘Until I wake up. Is that okay?’” He pulls his eyes away from the windshield, holding Levi’s gaze with his own. “‘Yeah,’” he says, with his low voice. “‘That’s okay.’” Eren blinks and his eyelashes brush over the skin of his cheeks in something that’s too gentle to even be called a kiss. “I was dying, and you were with me anyway. I was hurting you, and you were with me anyway.” Another blink, another breath that changes the air pressure in the car a second time, and then, “People were really fucking lucky to have you there. I was lucky to have you there.” Eren swallows and his eyebrows furrow enough to create a deep wrinkle between them. “I’m lucky to have you here, for this.”

Who says these things to you when you need them? Levi wants to ask. Who tells you all the shit you need to hear? But he’d only been awarded one question, and he’d used it on something more painful than that.

“You didn’t want me to come,” is what Levi says, instead. “You wanted to get rid of the body yourself, because my medical expertise wasn’t required in this situation. You, as usual, were just going to walk out of the morgue to handle whatever the fuck you wanted all alone.”

“Sure was,” Eren replies. “I get rid of bodies, concussions, death, all by my lonesome. It’s a skill, really. I’m a miracle worker.”

“Shut up.” Levi finally cuts the engine, rolling up the windows before the battery gives out. The keys are a warm weight in his palm, still electric with the feeling of Eren’s magic. “I’m... sorry. About what I said in the morgue. About my—about your memory bullshit.”

Eren pops the passenger door open, glancing over his shoulder as he angles his legs toward the sidewalk outside. “It’s okay. Besides, it was fair. I shouldn’t’ve—I was just trying to—“

“I know.” Levi pulls at the handle on his own door, stepping outside into the whispering rain. Eren follows him out, shutting his door behind him, but making no move to open the door to the backseat and retrieve the Merrow. “Thanks for letting me come.”

Eren looks at him for a moment, and his gaze lingers in a way that feels like fingers against his face. Levi’s skin prickles, as if there’s a callused thumb stroking along his cheekbone, and—

His phone goes off.

It takes more time than he’d admit to fumble with it, sliding his thumb across the screen to answer Farlan’s call, his name flashing on the screen in front of the picture he’d chosen as his identification photo. His ringer is loud in the quiet of the street, and Farlan’s voice isn’t much better when he brings his phone to his ear.

“What?” Levi speaks into the receiver, pushing his free hand through his hair, his fingers catching droplets of water from the misting damp. “Can I help you?”

“Do you have a status report on the body?” Farlan’s Business Voice has always been something to behold, all stiff lines and unbreakable edges, the clearest signal that he’s in the office, in front of his junior detectives, or the general police gathered at whatever precinct was closest this time. “We need to move forward as soon as possible.”

There’s a choice to be made. There’s always a choice to be made, but there hasn’t been one in recent history that’s been quite as illegal as this one. Levi had thought he’d outgrown behavior like this.

But Eren is watching him with both his eyebrows arched, and there are beads of water clinging to his hair that are catching the lamplight from every direction, and Levi breathes a sigh that is more heather than antiseptic. “There was never a body brought to me,” Levi says, and an emotion flickers over Eren’s face that he can’t put a name to. “I left. Again. I actually need a body before I can do anything for your case, and if this keeps happening to me, I’m going to be billing the police department for all this legwork they’re making me do for nothing.”

Farlan swears, barely a whisper, and Levi wonders if the other staff can hear it, or if they’re watching him pace inside an office with glass walls. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“No,” Levi tells him. “Now find your fucking body so I can do the goddamn autopsy that I get paid to do.”

Farlan’s laugh holds no humor in it, and Levi can picture the slow shake of his head as he says, “yes sir, Doctor sir. I’ll—call you when I find something.”

“Okay.” The metal of the car is cold against Levi’s forehead when he presses it to the topmost curve of the door. “Good luck, Farlan.”

“Yeah.” A pause, filled with a sigh borne from past cigarette use, long and deep and tried-upon. “Get some sleep, Levi. Talk to you soon.”

Farlan hangs up before Levi does, and he doesn’t lift his forehead from his car door until he tucks his phone in his pocket, and by then Eren has shouldered the woman’s body in a way that makes it easy enough to stand.

“So,” Eren says, “you’re friends with a cop.”

Levi can feel his voice go flat even before he speaks. “A detective, technically. But yeah, a cop.”

“This is very illegal.”

His car beeps once when he taps the keyfob, locking the doors. He keeps his fingers wrapped around his keys as he tucks them into his pocket. “I’m aware, thanks. Let’s just get this over with.”

Eren looks at him, his expression heavy and complicated, before he shrugs and begins walking in the direction of the waterfront. Levi follows behind him, stepping over discarded trash in alleyways and stray cats wandering around in the dark. The Sound is a thick smell in this part of the city, all brine and sea-breeze, and it’s in the middle of an alley a couple blocks down from Occidental Square that Eren ends up stopping, setting the Merrow’s body beside a set of empty trash cans, clean enough that their smell doesn’t cling to the buildings at either side.

Puget Sound is just within view from here, the city’s lights casting a kaleidoscope of color along the water.

“You sure you wanna stand around for this?” Eren asks him, sliding into place at his side two paces away from the corpse, her eyes watching the sky above them, searching the clouds for something that looks like an afterlife.

“I’m sure. Jesus Christ, kid, I’ve seen dead people before. I’ve even been to funerals. I’ll be fine.”

Even when he shrugs like that Eren looks graceful, his whole body falling into the motion as if he were born to move like that. He folds his hands together below his abdomen and shuts his eyes, speaking under his breath in a way that’s still musical, but unintelligible.

It isn’t until a circle is drawn around the women on the pavement that he realizes that Eren isn’t singing anything in English.

Fire rises first at the outer edges of the circle, the flames glowing blue as it moves inward to envelop the body, sending smoke rising toward the clouds that her eyes had been watching. A breeze that hadn’t been there before pulls at their clothes, much like it had in the morgue. Eren’s hair fluffs up at the attention, sparks dancing between his teeth when he opens his mouth and curling around his fingers as he squeezes them together.

It’s a quick thing, the cremation. The flames flicker into nothing just before the rain begins to pick up, washing away the ashes toward the waterfront. It’s poetic, this moment—the sea calling back one of its children, killed along the small stretch of coastline only hours before.

For some reason, Levi can feel his eyes water just a little. He can blame it on the smoke still clearing from the alleyway, blending in with the fog hovering over the Sound.

He clears his throat against the acrid sting, looking away from the charred concrete where the Merrow had been not minutes ago. “You know what we deserve, after all this shit?”

Eren sniffs once, rubbing his nose with the heel of one hand. “What?”

“Coffee,” Levi says.

Eren’s laughter rises toward the city skyline faster than the smoke ever had, and it lingers longer than the smell. It’s full and loud and echoes deep enough that Levi’s own bones are shaking with it, a smile rising to his lips even though they feel tired, all of him feels tired—but not as tired as he’s used to. Not really.

 “I agree,” Eren replies, his laugh still threading through his words, bouncing them along. “We each deserve a really fucking good cup of coffee.”

(“what’s this?” Levi will say later, his coffee cup sitting closest to the window, his body tucked in the corner of the booth between the wall and the cushion. Sunrise will be at least an hour away by then. His fingers will brush against the napkin Eren pushes forward, a phone number scrawled upon it in ballpoint pen. The handwriting will be neater than Levi would have expected.

it’s my phone number,” Eren will tell him, and there will be shadows beneath his eyes that hadn’t been there when they’d been in the morgue. Levi will wonder if magic takes that much out of a person who’s anything less than pureblooded fae, but he won’t ask. Not yet. “this way, next time some weird shit happens, you can get to me first, instead of having to struggle through a phone book that’s hard to navigate.

Levi will laugh and it will feel genuine, like carbonation against the backs of his teeth. His fingertips will be warm when he thumbs along the string of numbers. “next time,” he will repeat, much as Eren had done earlier, his voice heavier and thinner at the end. “thanks. maybe i’ll use it.

maybe,” Eren will agree, taking a sip from his mocha that he’d put enough sugar in to kill a small child.

Silence will try and settle, but Levi will beat it to the punch. “so,” he will say, “my headaches have gone away, too. since you gave me that sleepytime knock-off shit.”

Eren’s lips will twitch upward and his eyebrows will arch. His head will tilt to the side, and the softer lighting of the coffeeshop with touch the shell of his injured ear with gentle fingers. “oh yeah?” he’ll reply. “tell me about it.”

And he will. Tell him about it, that is. Just after he enters the phone number into his contacts. Memories can be hard to keep track of, after all.)

Chapter Text

Levi had been sitting on that fucking phone number for almost a week.

And, honestly, he hadn’t really expected Eren to reply to his first text message—‘so how long have you been doing this mysterious stranger routine?—sent on a whim three hours before, when his shift had ended. So he supposes that makes this response surprising in more ways than simply the fact that it exists.

From: Eren
     i’m 55 yrs old

It’s a benefit, really, that steam gathered along the width of Levi’s bathroom mirror, because he knows that his face must be just this side of priceless as he lifts his phone to his face to make sure that he’d read it correctly. If there were going to be any reply at all, he would’ve guessed that it would say something like why do u need to know? or do u want the rest of the info on my birth certificate? or wow i am shocked and appalled that u would use this privilege for being so nosy, or something equally evasive without being an outright refusal.

Certainly, after everything else, this isn’t the weirdest thing he’s heard—read. And yet this thumbs move across the screen of his phone to say, bullshit.

From: Eren
     no it’s true
     i was born in 1961
     i’m just slower than you
     inside i’m approx. 21 yrs old :)

The water left behind by the shower freezes against his skin fast enough to sting.

(doe, john, Levi had written between one pair of nitrile gloves and the next. The memory is surprisingly durable, despite all the shit it had been put through. 141lbs, 6’0’’. race: unknown; other: indian? eyes: green? approx. 21 yrs old. left ear pierced 5x. burns?

It had been clinical, his assessment. Bruises and defensive wounds, what could’ve killed him, any data between the cursory exam and the press of the scalpel against the line of his shoulder. It had been entirely impersonal, just another dead boy on his table who could’ve been sleeping at any other time in his life.

He’d never really considered that Eren had read up on his own murder.)

Levi doesn’t reply until after he’s dressed, tossing his discarded scrubs into the laundry basket with one hand, considering his response letter-by-letter with the other.

The floorboards creak beneath his feet as he makes his way to the living room. It’s quiet enough in his apartment that it’s almost easy to forget that he lives in a city with more than six hundred thousand people. It’s just him and the silence and the whisper-sigh of a sent text message.

that’s not funny, Levi tells him, turning off lights behind him as he makes his way toward his front door. The skin beneath his fingernails no longer smells like antiseptic, but there’s a restlessness curled tightly inside his joints after nights like this—death is the standard in a hospital’s basement, but that doesn’t ever make it easy. you didn’t tell me you read my report on you.

Levi’s keys are warm when he grabs them from where he’d left them, tossed atop the arm of the sofa. It makes him wonder if magic fades, or something—whether or not the warmth will ever disappear from where Eren had wrapped it tightly around the keyring. It’s a question he could ask, if he really wanted to. But the moment passes as he locks his apartment behind him, his phone vibrating in his back pocket with another reply—set of replies.

One vibration. The door is definitely locked when Levi presses his weight against it. Two vibrations. The hallway is just as quiet as his apartment had been. Everyone else on this floor works mornings, Levi has come to find. They pass each other, sometimes, when a night has been particularly long. Three vibrations.

From: Eren
     you never asked
     i thought it was funny
     are you going to tell me your age or no?
     i feel like i’m back in uni
     college

When Levi snorts, it chills the inside of his nostrils, the noise and smell and feel of the city hitting him all at once as the glass double-doors fall shut behind him. For all the bodies that he sees, for all the causes of death that he signs his name to—subdermal hematoma from the ICU, organ rejection from the ER, blood loss from one of the cardio operating rooms in another hospital entirely—there are countless other people that are alive.

And one that by all rights shouldn’t be.

I turn 29 this year. Watered-down light from streetlamps gather in the puddles that remain from the afternoon’s rain. The aftermath of rainfall makes the autumn feel clean in a way that’s different than the too-sharp smell of hand-sanitizer and antiseptic. It fills his lungs and pushes out the taste of the morgue from between his teeth, brushing the stiffness from his shoulders, tugging gently at the softer edges of his street clothes.

Seattle has a habit of chasing away nightmares with one hand, even as it distributes them with the other. It balances a little funny that way.

From: Eren
     ah so u have a winter birthday
     interesting
     so what big bad thing can i help you with today?

Levi’s thumbs pause above the screen of his phone, and a car hisses by as it rounds a corner to beat out the yellow light hanging above the intersection. White moths gather around a hanging lamp in a shop doorway, too large to be any species Levi’s ever seen before—and there’s glitter inlaid in the patterns on their wings.

It’d be stupid to ask about magical moths, if there even were such a thing. Dumber still to make up something that he’d seen that he’d need an answer for. And it’s thrice as foolish that he’s even thinking about coming up with some reason that he’d thought to talk to Eren at all. Does he need something supernatural to start talking about anything, or what? Was this some small-printed clause that he’d agreed to that he’d been unaware of?

(Eren had smiled, giving the glimpse of teeth that Levi had caught out of the corner of his eye. His eyes had been glittering, throwing light like cut gemstones, like something ethereal—like something unreal.

sure was,” he’d said, Seattle sitting still outside the open window to his right. Levi had been able to feel the idling of the engine deep within the roots of his teeth. “i get rid of bodies, concussions, death all by my lonesome. it’s a skill really. i’m a miracle worker.

He’d spent his single awarded question on something painful, on something that could’ve waited, something that didn’t need to be asked that fucking second. He could’ve asked anything else.

This is what asking questions to an enigma is like—there are never enough answers.)

Something twists in Levi’s stomach uncomfortably, leaving spurs against its lining that shift when he crosses the street in front of him.

there isn’t one, Levi replies. His thumbs hit one latter after the other, flitting across the keyboard from one sentence to the next. does everyone need to report on a monster or a murder before they can speak to you, or is it just me and my mortal sensibilities?

Levi knows he shouldn’t’ve sent it the moment he lifts his thumb away from the message itself. It’s just the night he’d had talking—and something that aggressive warrants an apology, surely. It’s not like they know each other, is it? No. Hardly. And statistically it’s a fair question, isn’t it? They don’t exactly have the best track-record of meeting on normal terms. There’s always something: a murder, Eren’s own murder, a monster, a Hunt.

It hadn’t been fair. Christ, that hadn’t been fair.

This must be what it’s like to be in high school with a cell phone—no filter and instant regret.

He’s halfway through an apology when he gets a message in return, and his thumbs stutter across the screen.

From: Eren
     uh no
     sorry???
     i just assumed that something was wrong
     uh how was work???

The underside of the overpass reeks of stale gas fumes and runoff from up the street as he crosses beneath the I-5 Express, the rumble of late-night traffic almost negligible. It’s colder in these shadows, and something whinnies from between the parked cars wrapped within them, tucked between the concrete pylons on either side of the roadway. It’s not a horse, probably—it’s too muffled to be immediately recognizable as anything Levi’s ever heard before.

If he listens close enough, it sounds like it could be coming from underwater.

work was busy, Levi sends back when he hits a more reliable row of streetlights, winding his way through the scattered people who are on their way home or on their way back to a graveyard shift after a break that was probably far too short. less forensic autopsies, more requests from family members. or for malpractice claims.

There are less college students hopping from club-to-club this time of year, and so if this had been any other time in Levi’s life, the streets would seem far quieter. But there are different shapes making their way from corner to corner, eating the distance of crosswalks with long strides. What laughter Levi catches can range from melodic to horrifying—the strike of crystal against a fork to the sound of a ship running aground on a reef.

It’s the city Levi grew up in, and it’s like he’s learning it all over again.

From: Eren
     the county doesn’t pay you enough
     the county is the one that employs you, right???
     you just have a hospital as a home base

Creatures that rise only to Levi’s knees scurry by, using their long arms to move their bodies forward, their knuckles pressed against the sidewalk until their feet touch the ground. They’ve been everywhere, recently, but it’s only now that the days have gotten colder that they move farther into the city where it’s safer to gather after dark. It seems that even the faeries don’t like being around each other for too long.

Without mortals, who would they play with?

Without their mortal counterparts, how would they have changelings to kill?

He swallows against a dry throat, huffing his hair away from his eyebrows. the county pays me, yeah. I just stay at the hospital where I’d worked before. There’s a pause at another crosswalk, and this one is empty. He can taste the remnants of baking things, despite the Closed sign in the bakery’s window. But it’s not the bakery itself that’s giving him pause, here—it’s the way his reflection looks, framed by decorations for the coming holidays, generic-colored garlands pinned against the windowpane.

From: Eren
     that’s cool i guess??
     unless you hate your hospital. that makes it less cool.

It’s weird to consider how young he looks just then, without his scrubs and with more than four hours of sleep. Maybe the comparison to a high schooler had been more apt than he’d thought. He knows that there are frownlines by his mouth, just like he knows that there are the beginnings of crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, but it’s impossible to find them in the lack of detail of the too-wide window. It’s the youngest he’s felt since fucking medical school, and he can’t tell if it had started after Eren had sat up gasping in his morgue, if it had begun in the fucking coffee shop that had led him to Eren’s second murder, or if it had come about when he’d seen Eren fresh from running, color so high in his cheeks that it had almost looked painted on.

(“i was one day hoping to be taken away on a ridiculous adventure like this,” Levi had said, watching the waterfront wink at them from between the buildings where they’d lay the Merrow to rest, giving her the funeral that had been denied her by the Sluagh. “pulled into a world of mystery by an enigmatic stranger.”

Maybe it hadn’t been as much of a lie as either of them had thought.)

This shit should be taking years off his life. It should be turning his hair gray. And yet.

The metal of the crosswalk signal is freezing, even through the fabric of Levi’s coat and the sweater beneath it. But the posture gives him the air of someone far more casual, someone far more used to conversations like this as he lifts his phone to his ear and holds the chill of mid-autumn beneath his sternum, listening to it ring.

“Uh,” Eren’s voice is tinny on the other end of the phone, and there’s a murmur in the background that Levi hadn’t heard when he’d called the store’s landline. Something about this feels personal, just like it had when sleep had pulled Eren’s words into something like taffy when he’d said ‘tell me about it.’ “Hello?”

His accent is thicker today. Levi hadn’t known that Eren’s voice had worked that way when he wasn’t bleeding out, tucked inside the shadows cast by a building older than the both of them.

“I don’t hate my hospital, most days,” Levi says. A Night Owl bus eases its body through an intersection, and he can see someone’s sleeping face pressed against the backmost window. “How’s work for you?”

For too-many heartbeats, there’s nothing but the sounds of the city and the gentle murmuring from Eren’s end between them. It stretches there in the way a spider web does, a mistake that he hadn’t realized he’d made until he’d already stepped through it. And now, of course, it was impossible to pull away from.

But then the murmuring stops, and something else rustles on the other end of the phone, and when Eren speaks next, it’s far clearer than it had been the first time. “Sorry. I had to find my headphones.” There’s a breathlessness that hadn’t been there before, as if he’d had to go searching for them. This is what’s unfair about the world—the way Eren sounds right now. “So, uh. What was the last thing you said? You said you didn’t hate your hospital, but I thought I’d left my headphones within reach and I missed the second part.”

There’s a knot in his gut that moves Levi forward, sniffing once to curb his leaking nose. “I asked how work was. You work ridiculous hours, right? Seven to seven?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Fog crawls through the street, inching forward in thin strands, dragging its weight against storefronts and windows in thick pieces. It looks much like this silence feels, muffling the streetlamps farther up the road. “It’s really boring, actually. This is like the slow set of weeks between the end of midterms and the beginning of finals—and the holidays are coming up. People love to buy shit for the holidays. Teas and charms and all that. Necklaces for protection, or to watch over travelers. But no one’s stopped by today, and Connie’s got the day off.”

“Is that wise? You’re a company of, what, two people?” His keys shift in his coat pocket when the fingers of his free hand find them, tracing the circle of the keyring with the pad of his thumb. The energy woven between them gives him goosebumps.

A chair creaks as Eren shifts his weight against it, maybe leaning back to watch headlights cast shadows on the store ceiling when cars roll by. “It’s his anniversary. He stays at his girlfriend’s place, and he’s earned that kind of thing. He puts up with so much shit from me.” Eren sighs and the fog dances between Levi’s ankles, as if the city’s pulse is hidden in his breath. “How else would I know exactly how many days it’s been since the last Situation?”

He speaks of others so softly. Levi doesn’t think he’s ever heard Eren talk about himself like that.

“That’s good of you,” Levi tells him. If he spoke any softer, he’s certain that his words would get lost in the fog still rolling along the asphalt, kissing the traffic-lines with closed lips.

“Not really.” Levi can feel a protest rising up in his throat, can feel it gather on his tongue like overcooked gelatin, clinging to his teeth in indignant chunks. But Eren continues, knowing nothing at all about the feeling gathering in the space beneath Levi’s lungs. “So, uh. Got any fun plans for the night? Since you’re off shift and the night is young, or whatever.”

“I don’t know yet. I was thinking about grabbing dinner, but I don’t really know what I’m in the mood for, and a lot of places are closed when I get off. Except, like, Denny’s and IHOP, but I’m not really in the mood for breakfast.”

Eren laughs, and the mic on his headphones has to be right next to his throat for it to be as low and as loud as it is. It wouldn’t be any different if Levi had pressed his ear to Eren’s chest and had heard it from there. It’s—close. Intimate? Different. Like the way Eren had looked at him over the roof of Levi’s car before Farlan had decided to cut the moment in two. Like the way Eren had repeated Levi’s words back to him, when his fingers had been pressed to an open wound in an attempt to keep his blood where it fucking belonged.

“I’ve been starving for two hours,” Eren says, because he still has no idea what’s happening in the marrow of Levi’s bones just then. “I’d wanted to eat my body weight in bacon and powdered donuts, but we don’t have either of those things in the apartment, so I’ve been making charms with no caloric reload, and it’s killing me. How can I live like this?”

When Levi swallows, it hurts his throat. “Powdered donuts and bacon. Is that your official recommendation?”

Fuck no.” More laughter—just as loud, just as low, and just as effective at doing whatever the fuck it wants to Levi’s insides. “No. Um. Hm.” The chair on the other side of the phone makes another sound, and something brushes against the mic gently enough to make a sound no louder than a whisper. “There are some Chinese places open really late. And a couple noodle places. That’s usually where I default after I’ve been using too much juice. And Chinese is really filling and fucking delicious. And you live really close to the International District, so you’re pretty close to all the good shit.”

Levi’s own laughter tastes so different in his mouth after hearing Eren’s rumble through the speaker pressed to his ear. It barely feels like his own. “You’re just saying that because you live there.”

“It’s quantifiable fact, but okay.”

His frownlines are probably jealous of the smile pulling at his lips, but he doesn’t glance at another window to check on them. “Sure. What’s your favorite Chinese food, then? Specifically. I want details to see how much of an aficionado you are.”

“Using those MCAT words.” When Eren laughs this time, it’s soft enough to remind him of cloud cover moving across the nighttime sky. It lingers barely long enough to throw light, and leaves the stars longing for it after it disappears. “I have a lot of favorites. I eat Chinese a lot.”

“So give me a list. Sway me before the Chinese places close.” Something howls, somewhere in the city. It’s faint, barely recognizable—and for all Levi knows, it could just be sirens, too-far off to identify. He can’t hear it at all when he continues, “unless that’s one of those too-personal questions?”

There’s a huff of air that could be anything on Eren’s end of the speaker. It makes the hairs on the back of Levi’s neck rise. “You don’t pull any punches, do you?” It’s spoken at a volume that makes it a rhetorical question, but that doesn’t stop Levi’s tongue from feeling heavy behind his teeth. “But let’s see. There’s this place I go to all the time—they’ve got this hot-and-sour wonton soup, which are my two favorite Chinese-place soups combined. Sweet and sour anything is delicious. Mongolian beef. Spring rolls. Buddhist delight, which is some vegetable thing. Noodles! Anything with noodles.”

The longer Eren speaks, the harder it is to find whatever had been hiding in his voice only moments before. It’s like it had been burned away by something—like fog in summer.

“Is that good enough?” Eren says, and the chair he’s sitting in creaks for the third time. “I did say I was hungry, and you’re punishing me for that.”

Levi stops at another street corner, the fog curling around his calves, his hips, his shoulders. He can taste the Sound in it, can feel the diluted remnants of saltwater clinging to his skin, his eyelashes, his hair. It’s cold, despite the warmth of his coat, and his cheeks are starting to sting the longer he’s out here. But that’s not what has his attention.

He knows exactly where he is. That isn’t surprising, really—he could pinpoint countless places in this city, knows and endless number of streets like the back of his hand.

But as he looks at the brick façade of a building that’s older than he is, Levi realizes that he’s never really come as close to the Uwajimaya complex as he’s been the past few weeks. If he were to turn around and spit, he’s certain he could hit at least one window of Eren’s shop two blocks down. It’s uncanny, really. Embarrassing.

For a moment, when Levi breathes in, he thinks he can taste blood in his mouth.

It doesn’t taste like his own.

(Eren’s words had been dragged across the shop’s wooden floorboards like a roughly-made sack, filled to bursting with rusted nails. They had to have hurt when he’d said them. In retrospect, Levi had been surprised that he hadn’t coughed any up—that there hadn’t been any blood on his lips.

i’m sorry,” he’d said. His eyes had been focused forward, and the dim lighting inside the store was bending toward his pupils. “that this is... happening to you. it’s my fault that you can see all this... shit.” Eren’s vocal chords had rattled. Thick fabric against wood. The rattle of nails against one another. “when i fucked with—when I touched your memories, it didn’t go like it was—it didn’t work right.” A sigh with flared nostrils, lost in the chaotic noise of the Hunt. “i should’ve known it wouldn’t work right.

Something inside Levi had coiled at that. It had tightened, stretching from the back of his throat to his abdomen. It pulled his skin too tightly over the frame of his body, and there were places where he could feel it tearing at the seams.

Eren’s voice had lowered further when he’d said, “it’ll be like you never knew.

who looks out for you? Levi had wanted to ask, even when his throat had been too closed to say anything at all. who makes sure that you’re okay, at the end of shit like this?

Levi hates how he keeps wondering shit like that. Hates even more than he has to. Hates further still that he should’ve asked, and hadn’t.)

“Levi?” It’s a whisper against the shell of his ear, barely distorted by technology and by limited distance. If he were to turn to his right, he might’ve been surprised that Eren isn’t there. It reminds him of nails in a burlap sack—or wind chimes, nervous before a storm. “Are you okay?”

“Sorry,” Levi says, and the only thing on his tongue is saltwater and the heavy smells of Chinese food in the making. The Hong Kong Bistro’s sign glows red enough that even the fog can’t touch it. It’s like a fucking beacon, and it makes Levi’s stomach growl. “Sorry. I just found dinner, I think.” He can hear the chair creak as Eren shifts again, can hear him inhale for another laugh. “Your list of food won me over, and it was the place I was closest to.”

He’d been right—Eren laughs, and it reminds him of the way the rail system in the city feels as it makes the concrete rumble; like a heartbeat, like the soul of something. “Success! It’s the small victories, isn’t it?” He hums into the receiver, and for all Levi knows it could be the beginnings of magic, of a spell, of a sleeping charm. “Is this where you tell me to let you eat?”

The Open sign blinks, one letter after the other, above a vertical line of Chinese characters, and Levi’s stomach growls again. But he’s deliberate when he says, “this is the part where I tell you that I’ll talk to you later.” He pauses and tastes the air for cooking things—thinks of his apartment, and how empty it is.

Thinks of creaking chairs, and ambient lighting.

And then he continues, “and I won’t even need a murder to want to talk to you.”

“I’m glad I’m setting the bar low,” Eren replies, and Levi thinks he can hear a smile there. It makes him wonder if it’s gathering something a little bit sad at the corners. “Manslaughter, maybe? Vandalism?”

“Shut up,” he says, and means only in the vaguest sense. “I’ll talk to you later.”

“Right.” The murmuring begins again, in the background. It’s still too quiet to tell if it’s the radio, or a television, or something else. “Goodnight, Levi.” The heartbeat’s worth of pause is too heavy to break. And then, “get some rest.”

“You, too. Tell your employee I said happy anniversary,” Levi tells him. He feels a lie opening up its petals on his tongue when he continues, “goodnight, kid.”

He doesn’t hang up until Eren stops laughing, and the goosebumps smooth out along his arms.

(“do you know that boy?” The cashier—the owner?—asks him, his voice accented thickly enough that the words stick together like melted sugar. His graying hair looks like spun silver in this light, and he pushes his glasses back up his nose before he repeats himself, stretching out his sentence for both of their benefit. “do you know that boy?”

what boy?” Levi asks, sliding money across the counter. His stomach is curious as to why, exactly, he’s standing around when they have even more walking to do.

he’s tall. his skin is dark. his eyes are not. his hair is very messy.” The man’s glasses slip down his nose, only to be pushed back up again with one knuckle. “he eats very late, too. right at closing time. looks very tired, usually. too tired to turn away, even when we close at two.

There’s a fishtank on the countertop, long enough that both their reflections are swimming with the koi in the green-tinted water. Levi’s stomach is ready to leave. But instead he says, “what’s his name?

i don’t know,” the man tells him, curling his fingers around the tip that Levi places in his palm. “but he’s a very nice boy.” He smiles, and it deepens years’ worth of wrinkles on his face—there’s been joy in this man’s life. “he tips like you. and he likes the hot and sour wonton, too.

It’s stupid, Levi thinks, to wonder what Eren would look like with a life like that written by his mouth, on his cheeks, on his forehead. It’s stupid, but he wonders about it anyway.

he sounds like a very nice boy,” Levi says, hooking the plastic handles of every bag over each arm, shifting his feet so that he doesn’t drop any. He doesn’t think he’s ever carried this much food before—but, then, Levi’s seen magic give birth to shadows beneath Eren’s eyes, so surely it must be a hungry business. “maybe i’ll meet him one day.”)

-

(Regardless of how average Nile managed to be in appearance, there had always been something unsettling about looking him in the eyes. There was nothing but darkness from corner to corner, as if the new moon itself peered out from behind his eyelids. For as long as Eren had known him, he doesn’t think he’d ever seen the man blink.

This early evening had been no different—just Nile, and him, and the smell of wet dog, all while Nile just stood there, staring.

we’ve not used sluagh in centuries,” he’d said, eventually. Everything he’d said had been laden with the thick tongue of the Scotsman he still was, despite the change in venue. “you know that. we’d stopped using sluagh ages before the witch hunts started. they’re too unpredictable.” There’d been a glimpse that would’ve been a smile on a normal man. But leading the Wild Hunt had made Nile anything but normal. “barghests are smarter. hounds, too, naturally.

i know,” Eren had replied. The smell of wet dog had begun to smother the softer scents of his own fucking changeling magic. “but one of them said something about a gwyn of their own, so i was hoping you’d heard something. since, you know, you’re the gwyn. lord of the wild hunt, master of the hounds.

Nile’s pointed ears had been barely visible when he’d shaken his head. His hair had been the perfect length to hide them, no glamour necessary. Wearing human skin ruined the impact of his presence, surely. “nothing that i’ve heard. i can’t help you.

you cannae?” Eren had rested his chin on his knuckles, the heavier cadence of the Scottish Highlands sticking to his teeth as he’d shaped his voice in its image. “or you donnae want to?

Charms had rattled on their shelves when Nile shifted his weight between his feet. If his eyes had been anything more than pupil, Eren would’ve been certain that they would’ve narrowed. Instead, his voice lowered, dragging itself across the wooden countertop on stony feet.

it’d benefit you if you watched your tongue. i’m sure your mother taught you that.” Eren had felt a muscle in his jaw twitch, had felt his molars grind together when he’d swallowed. “how is the morrigan doing, little boy? bored enough to come out of hiding, yet?

Even the kindest purebloods had their moments of cruelty. If he’d been younger—much younger—he might’ve told his mom about this insult. “if you’d wanted to summon her,” Eren had soaked his voice in sugar water, setting his words out to dry between them both, “you might want to start by calling her by a name older than you are? i’d personally go with carla, or mom, but you should probably begin with daksinakali. just so she knows what hand to hit you with.”

Nile’s nostrils had flared, and for a moment the stench of wet dog felt like a rag being stuffed down his throat as the storefront windows trembled in their frames.

good luck with your sluagh problem, little jaeger.” Every word was like an ice cube, rounded at the edges with whatever softness Nile felt for his mother—with whatever softness Nile felt for him, specifically. “and watch out for barghests. they’re very independent this time of year.” He’d blinked, slowly, for the first time ever in his life probably. “and you know how much death takes a shine to you.”

The Gwyn of the Wild Hunt had turned away then, and he’d used the front door like a mortal man, curling the sleeve of his leather jacket over his fingers to avoid ironburn, whistling for the Barghest that he’d left on the street corner down the block. The bell above the door had chimed his exit, the fog from Puget Sound sighing through the entryway only to die against the floorboards.

It would take hours for the smell of Hunt magic to die away enough to make the air breathable again.)

The shop is almost unbearably quiet now. His phone is facedown on the front counter, his headphones coiled beside it, out of reach to avoid whatever temptation might still be around to text, or whatever. To get comfortable with Levi’s voice and his jokes and this. Whatever the fuck this is. The... afterimage? Afterglow? Aftermath?

Even with his palms pressed to his eyelids, he finds himself thinking of Levi’s face, of the way he’d spoken, of the way his voice had sounded even distorted by a phone. He’d laughed, a couple times. Soft, like early rainfall against a window, or against grass, or against concrete. It was like the coffee shop—but he’d sounded less tired on the phone, as if the shadows beneath his eyes had been rubbed clean by better sleep. Thank fuck.

He can feel the city’s pulse moving through his body. Can feel the Night Owl bus routes lumber across his spine and his ribcage, can feel the light rail and the Metro leaving its mark along the underside of his skin. The taste of car exhaust is almost painful in his mouth, burning against his gums, but that doesn’t chase away anything either. It just makes him restless.

His laptop murmurs from where it sits on the stool beside his chair, tiptoeing over the silence with delicate steps.

“Unfortunately,” Sue Perkins says, her hands folded in front of her as her eyebrows bow beneath the weight of her duty to send the lowest ranked baker home, “I’ve got the rough job this week.”

“Welcome to the fucking club,” Eren tells her, leaning back in the chair that’s been squeaking for the past—however long. He’s sure that Connie’s mentioned it, just like he’s sure that he hasn’t really had the time to get another one. It almost smothers the distressed sighs from the competing bakers as they say goodbye to one of their own. Competitions do that to people, he supposes. Brings them closer, in some ways. After all, one week you’re the Star Baker, and the next you’re going home due to some ridiculous technical challenge.

Or, in Eren’s case, it’s a little different—never quite the Star Baker, more often than not the man who goes home. Yet he keeps coming back. Like garlic breath, or bread mold, or parasitic weeds—

The bell chimes above the shop’s door for the first time all night.

“Welcome!” Eren calls over his shoulder, tapping the trackpad of his laptop to once more mute the Great British Bake-Off , tucked away in the leftmost tab. The credits roll as the Star Baker for the week keeps speaking, leading into the next video in the queue. “Sorry, one second.”

There’s laughter from the doorway, and goosebumps rise on the back of his neck as he turns, his stomach already tightening with what his ears know already to be true.

The chair squeaks again when Eren turns to find Levi in the entryway, his arms laden with plastic bags of Chinese food, Thank Yous stacked on top of one another in red block letters on each. He’s wearing a smile, outlined in manmade shadows thanks to the dim lighting inside the store, and there are beads of water clinging to his hair. A misting rain has begun to fall outside the windows, blurring the lights across the street into something more appropriate in a painting, or a photograph.

This scene feels like something from a postcard, or from a movie.

“It’s been a second,” Levi says, and an eyebrow arches upward, perfectly curved. “Do you want dinner, or not? I thought you were starving, and it was killing you.”

(Portents and omens and significant events come in threes, or sevens, or something.

There aren’t any stories in the world that are able to tell him what it means that this keeps happening.)

“What are you doing here?” When Eren stands, the chair sighs as if it had considered squeaking and decided against it.

Levi’s second eyebrow joins the first, arched high on his forehead, and he holds up his arms. The plastic bags rustle against his clothes, settling their weight at the crooks of his elbows. He’s playing stupid, Eren can tell. It’s written in the tilt of his head and the curve of his lips and the way he places the bags on the counter. “You know, it kind of smells like—“

“Wet dog.” Eren’s throat feels like it’s been lined with... sandpaper. Or sawdust. Or potting soil. “I know.” He pushes one hand through his hair, his fingers catching in knots left behind by the city’s humidity. “Levi,” he says, and his voice feels like a far more distant sound, “why are you here?

Levi is a master of complicated facial expressions, Eren has come to learn. They move across his face like the nighttime swallowing the daylight, and his lips thin around whatever it is he wants to say. Eren can almost see his words fighting to get out from behind his teeth.

“I’m here to have dinner with you.” Levi speaks in the way tectonic plates move together, an earthquake on the other side of the world. “I thought that much was obvious.” He blinks, quick enough that his eyelashes barely brush against the skin of his cheek. “And no one had to die for it. Would you look at that?”

It’s as if there’s acid pressing against the space beneath his chest, and it stings when he pushes a sigh from his nose. “That’s not—“ A pause that tastes of fucking wet dog and Chinese food, and Eren swallows. “I didn’t ask, this time.”

“No, but you’re fucking thinking it. What’s so hard to believe about the fact that you’re interesting to talk to?” Levi scoffs, and it travels through his body, stiffening every joint that it hits as it does. “You really are older than you look. College students never turn down free food.”

(“i don’t want to forget anything, why is that so hard for you to understand?” Levi’s jaw had been set in a way that could break knuckles, in a way that could make a statue jealous. It was the immobility of the truly stubborn, and Eren had wondered in passing if that was what it had been like to work with him.

Looking at Levi then, in his own stupid store that had felt like it was going to break into pieces, had made his chest feel just a little bit too tight to breathe.

He’s feeling like that right now, he thinks. But the only thing that might shake to pieces is him.

Fucking embarrassing.)

Eren’s stomach growls at the reminder that there is Chinese food in his store, and it’s the ultimate betrayal.

“Are you always this pushy?” Eren asks, rolling his chair out of the way with one foot as he reaches over to shut his laptop. This feels like a defeat. “Or is it just when you’re bored?”

Levi shrugs like his body is made of liquid, and it rolls through him like fog over a walled courtyard—or something like that. “I’m not bored enough that I need to go looking for shit to do.” The floorboards creak beneath Levi’s shoes as he turns to look at the shelves behind him. “If anything, you’re the one that sounded bored.”

Eren scoffs, crouching behind the front counter to open the bottom-most drawer, pulling out a handmade sign that’s been doing nothing but collecting dust for more than six months now. He holds it above the lip of the front desk, waving it gently to get Levi’s attention.

“Could you turn off the Open sign, and hang this under it?” The cardstock is already slipping from his fingers before he finishes his question, and he toes the drawer closed with his foot as he rises, interrupting the semi-present silence pushing against the shop’s walls, the shelves, the displays—pushing against everything.

Levi is silhouetted against one of the storefront windows, looking at the sign in his hands, and it looks like a different kind of photo that it had when he’d been standing in the doorway. His hair is hanging just above his eyebrows, and the streetlamps outside are highlighting the slope of his nose, the edge of his cheekbones, the curve of his forehead. The city light drapes over him in delicate streams, hiding in the furrows of his coat and the waistband of his jeans.

Even with his eyebrows arches as they are, Eren realizes that Levi is beautiful. Or—that’s not the right way to put it. Levi was beautiful in the morgue, washed out by fluorescent lights. He was beautiful in the coffee shop, even with the sleepless bruises hovering just below his eyes. He was beautiful when here had been blood on his hands and the streetlights on Atlantic had been haloing him. He’s been beautiful this entire time. But this is a human-sort of beauty.

It makes Eren’s stomach tighten, makes his windpipe constrict, makes his palms sweat.

Faerie beauty has toppled kingdoms, has ended empires, has spawned religions. But mortal beauty ends lives, ruins people, makes them ache for something. It’s a very personal kind of loveliness, and it gives birth to bone spurs between his vertebrae—makes it difficult to move.

“‘Closed for a family holiday,’” Levi reads, his lips tilted upward at one corner. His eyes look like liquid silver from here. “‘Normal business hours resume tomorrow.’ Does this shit happen often? The way you were talking, it sounded like no one had ever brought you dinner before.”

The store keys clink together when Eren snags them from where they hang on the wall beside Connie’s whiteboard, and the plastic bags hiss softly when he passes them to lock the store. “People don’t bring me dinner. Connie made that for some fucking holiday this year, said he wanted me to take the day off and get drunk or something. So we did, and got that sign out of it.”

Levi makes a noncommittal noise at the back of his throat, and Eren can see the questions clinging to his shoulders in twisted shapes, casting deeper shadows on the floor at his feet. “It’s just dinner. You don’t have to close the store for this.”

The bone spurs grind together when Eren shrugs, filling the space between his joints with skeletal dust. “I haven’t seen anyone for, like, six hours. This isn’t going to lose me any money, or anything. Besides,” the cardstock taps against the glass when Levi hangs it in place, and Eren locks the front door with both of the bolt keys, “you’re nosy. Might as well show you where I live. It’s not like it’ll spare me anything.”

“You really don’t like questions,” Levi says, sharpening the edges of his voice against the whetstone of the windowledge, and his nostrils flare with whatever-it-is that he doesn’t want to say. The building groans softly around them, into the quiet left behind by Eren’s barbed statement and Levi’s reply.

It gives him the space he needs to murmur a folk tune under his breath, the cadence of it bringing to life the magic in his fingertips has he weaves a warding spell together. The threads of magic gather together like lace, or like spun sugar, working their way outward into a curtain of energy between his hands. The scent of his own magic slams against the lingering wheeze of Nile’s visit here, leaving behind only the familiarity of rainfall and heather as he tosses the wards against the windows, draping it over the doorframe and the windowpanes, watching as it burrows into the finished wood, melts into the glass, dissolves into the air with its excess.

Pressure pops behind Eren’s eyeballs, like it always does when he throws around the first magic of the night. His body always has to acclimate to the energy he wants to spend, and he’s never been able to figure out why. Maybe it’s the weather, or the season, or the barometric pressure all by itself. Or maybe it’s just his human half, his weaker half—the half that would certainly be better off without all this noise.

“What is that?” Levi asks, whatever tension had been settling in his body evaporating beneath the heat of his curiosity. “That looked—“ He blinks, his lips thinning, “—interesting.”

Guilt tastes a lot like bad milk, or unripe oranges, or something else sour and inedible as it collects behind his teeth. That’s nothing new. “It was a warding spell,” Eren tells him, stepping away from the entryway to make his way back to the desk. He can hear Levi fall into step behind him, the floorboards huffing against their weight. “There’s already magic that keeps people who don’t need to be here from seeing it, mostly. But I don’t want any burglars, or unwanted beasts, or fucking Sluagh to find this place. Or touch it. Never hurts to refresh the wards.”

“Huh,” Levi says from behind him, almost soft enough to be enveloped by the rustling of plastic bags as they gather the food resting on the counter, and the whisper of Eren’s clothes as he leans across the counter to grab his laptop from the stool. “Upper windows and doors, too?”

Eren flicks off the shop lights when they get to the stairwell, casting a small smile over his shoulder before scaling the stairs themselves. “Never hurts to be safe.”

What he hears behind him has to be laughter, but the creak of the stairs pushes against it, tossing it against the walls as they make their way to the single door at the top of the stairs, its blue paint still looking as pristine as it had when Eren had started this too-mortal business years before.

He can smell Connie’s broken wards as he pushes the door inward, adjusting the bags on his arm and tightening his grip on his laptop, hitting the closest lightswitch with an elbow. He sheds his sneakers by the door, hanging the shop keys above them on the wall.

“You can put your shoes by mine,” Eren says, turning on lights as best he can on the way to the small kitchen, setting the bags of food on the dining table. Levi’s footsteps are behind him, if much slower, and he steps inside the living room to set his laptop on the coffee table, out of reach of any crumbs that might get stuck where they don’t belong.

Levi is in the kitchen when Eren returns, already setting out containers as Eren himself pulls out dishware and condiments and paper towels, tugging his own chair out from beneath the table with one foot.

It’s domestic in its efficiency, and Eren can feel his toes curl uncomfortably in his socks.

Levi drops into the chair across from him, pulling apart a pair of chopsticks with a gentle snap.

Eren’s stomach rumbles for the second time as he crosses his ankles beneath the chair. “Uh. Thank you,” he says to the table. “For the food, I mean. This really has never happened to me before.”

Levi taps the ends of his chopsticks against the plate that had been set in front of him. “It’s just dinner. It was pretty reasonable for the price. I’d never been there before.” Taptaptaptap against the plate. And then, “I also wanted you to understand that spending time with you doesn’t hinge on the fact that I can see creepy shit and you can also see creepy shit and that you died a couple times.”

There are containers of soup on the table. Eren thinks he can see wontons floating in the hot-and-sour broth.

“I’m trying very hard to avoid you,” Eren says. “It’s becoming really difficult. I erased your memory so you could live your life, but I was tired and stupid and inconsiderate.” The paper around his own chopsticks hiss when he tears it. “I saw you at the coffee shop, and said you could sit with me, which in retrospect was selfish, because I keep telling you to stay the fuck away from me, but then I do things like that. And I give you my fucking phone number, and you bring me dinner, and I bring you to my flat—my apartment. I bring you here, and at the same time I’m telling you that you shouldn’t be here, and that’s—stupid.”

Eren thinks he can smell Mongolian beef is one of the containers in front of him. There’s something aching in the roots of his teeth.

“You really should stay away from me,” Eren continues, and he can’t pull his eyes away from the soup, because if he does, he’ll have to look at Levi’s face. He’ll have to look at his face, and feel the city go soft under his skin. He’ll have to feel the city go soft, and know that the sound of the city’s pulse will be muffled in his ear drums. All of that will be happening, and he’ll know that—something. He’ll know that whatever the fuck this happens to be is different than seeing Connie, or laughing with Ymir on a park bench. He won’t be able to put words to it, but it’ll exist, and that’ll be—he can’t do that. “But I really like having you around.”

He can feel Levi looking at him, can feel every glance across his face. “I wasn’t going to fuck off anyway,” Levi tells him, and says it like it’s absolute fact, unbothered by the fact that Eren had admitted that he was shoving Levi as far away from him as he could. Or, rather, that he’d been trying very hard to do so. “But, for what it’s worth, I really like being around.” Tap-tap-tap... tap. “You’re an enigma, after all.”

Eren lifts his eyes, then, and everything hits him exactly as he’d known it would.

His throat is dry when he says, “you got hot-and-sour wonton soup.”

The smile that lifts Levi’s lips makes his cheeks glow, or something, makes his face sharp with an expression that looks a little bit like pride. “I did. I got two—one each. I’d never had it before, and it was recommended to me.” His smile widens, sharpens further. “You go to the Hong Kong Bistro a lot?”

Eren can feel his skin go warm under a smile like that, and he bends his lips twist in a frown. “Yeah. I love that place. Is that where you went?”

“Yeah.” Levi leans forward, the chair shifting against the floor. “The owner—or whatever, an older man—seemed to know you.”

“I always show up so late.” God, it’s like Levi is just getting into his life without even trying. “They hate me. Or the kid does, I think. Tips can only go so far to make up for the fact that coming back from the dead is hungry business, and it’s never really at a convenient time, or—so.”

“The man I talked to liked you just fine.” The paper box squeaks when Levi opens one, tipping the food onto his plate, directing it with his chopsticks. “But your opinions are pretty low-bar, so, you know, I’ll just let you have that one.”

Eren laughs and it tastes like his own magic—like his own magic and Chinese food. “Whatever, okay.” He reaches for a container of his own with one hand, pushing some Mongolian beef onto his own plate before grabbing one of the soup containers to bring as close to him as possible.

He really had been starving.

“Your accent is thicker today,” Levi says after he swallows what he’d been eating, catching some sauce at the corner of his mouth with his tongue. “Is that just how accents work? Thicker on some days, or is it a mystical thing?”

Eren snorts, reaching for his glass of water before he replies. “I was, uh. I was watching a show from back overseas. The—uh. The Great British Bake-Off. I’d been watching it for... hours? I sort of fall back into old habits when I don’t hear people talking all ‘American.’”

Levi coughs on his own water, pulling his glass away from his mouth to press his knuckles to his lips. His shoulders are trembling, his knuckles white around his chopsticks, and Eren’s concerned—until he can hear the quiet, wheezing laughter coming from behind his teeth.

“You watch a bake-off,” Levi coughs a second time, turning his face away from his plate, “and it fucks with your accent. Holy shit! Holy shit, that’s—that’s hilarious. That’s fucking—you’re serious?

Eren rolls his eyes toward the ceiling, stabbing through a piece of beef with his set of chopsticks. “I’m fucking serious.” He can almost feel his voice bounce around on his tongue now that something’s been said about it. “It’s like riding a bike. You never really forget what you sound like.”

Levi’s nose wrinkles when he snickers into his fist. Eren hates that he notices that. “It’s funny. I like it. And it’s not like it’s not always there—it’s just I can hear it and recognize it. Ha.” His eyelids flutter when he blinks. Eren hates that he notices that, too. “Does this mean I’m free to ask whatever questions I want? You were so gracious with that last one.”

There’s a challenge in Levi’s tone. It juts from the plane of his voice like a shard of glass, like something that’s supposed to give Eren pause. And it does. Give him pause, that is. It’s something that very obviously bothers Levi—the way Eren avoids questions without outright lying, the way he steps away from things that may-or-may-not-be too personal.

Levi’s trying to be kind, trying to understand, and Eren is refusing to let him. He’s been doing this the whole time.

(the less someone knows the safer they are)

His attention found its way back to the soup, sitting still beside his plate. There are beads of condensation on the inside of the plastic cup itself, and the bottom of the lid. It’s still warm. Still hot, probably. It’s going to be delicious, because it always is. He loves this fucking soup, and Levi had brought it to him for no other reason than because Eren had happened to like it, had said so on the phone, and he’d just happened to find the restaurant that Eren prefers.

Obviously, shutting Levi out of his life has been unsuccessful. He’s already here.

“Or not.” Levi’s chopsticks move across his plate to balance rice atop them, and his eyes follow their movement with too-much focus. “That’s fine.”

“I didn’t say no,” Eren says, reaching for the soup, popping the lid off with his fingernails. “I was thinking of an astoundingly embarrassing and personal question to ask you. In the interest of fairness. I’ve decided on it, so you can ask whatever the fuck is on your mind.”

He puts soy sauce in his soup and watches Levi’s mouth twist. Eren can see the question of why? fluttering across his face on moth’s wings, and for a split-second he wonders if that’s what Levi’s going to ask him: why are you a disgusting eater, literally what the fuck?

But what he says instead is, “what happened to your ear? The left one.”

Levi’s asked him that before, but it’s still a little bit surprising that that’s what he decided he wanted to know. It’s surprising enough that Eren lifts one hand to trace along the scars on the shell of his ear, can feel the ridges of smooth skin where the burns had never healed.

“I don’t know how much fantasy shit you read,” Eren begins, lifting the plastic cup to his mouth, foregoing a spoon for the soup entirely, “but iron and silver are the two metals that mess with the fae. It’s why they don’t have any hemoglobin—no iron. Iron poisoning, for a pureblood, is the worst say to die, so I’ve heard. Silver poisoning works much the same.” He licks his lips. The soup is fucking delicious. “For changelings, it’s not the worst way to die, but it can be really uncomfortable and it leaves behind burns when we’re exposed for too long.” Eren tilts his head, tucking stray hair behind his left ear. “These are silver burns.”

Levi blinks slowly, and the skin across his face looks like it’s being pulled too tightly over his skull. “Who did that do you?”

The central heating unit comes on, deeper in the apartment, and the vent above the kitchen sink begins to hum. The movement of the air around the kitchen ruffles Levi’s hair, sending some of it to linger by his eyebrow.

“I did,” Eren tells him, and Levi’s face is a painful thing. “It was a phase. An identity crisis. Hated my fae half, so I pierced my ear five times with silver rings.”

It’s easy to remember how it had felt to have his ears pierced. Five quick jolts of pain, followed by stinging, stinging, stinging, burning. The piercer had been concerned with how dark his ear had started to turn, had offered to pull out the rings, had asked after his allergies—and Eren had paid him, and he’d left.

“I always ask the worst fucking questions.” Levi’s voice is a whisper, laying across the table like a breath of bone dust. “Holy shit, I always ask the worst questions.”

Eren shakes his head and continues, holding the cup of soup between his hands. “It was my own fault. I left them in so long that I did eventually get sick, and I fucked up my ear, and it turns out that when you burn yourself on iron or silver, not even coming back from the dead can erase it.”

Levi pales, which is an alarming look on him—he’s already so light that he looks like a ghost, or something. A banshee. Ha! “Silver poisoning killed you?

No,” the soup almost spills from how fast to drops out of Eren’s hands and back onto the table, “no. No, no, that didn’t kill me. No. Something else did, later, but not the silver. I was just nauseous and delirious for a couple days. Nothing to worry about, really, my ear is just permanently ugly. Christ, I’m fine.”

Levi had stood almost out of his chair, one of his hands white-knuckled on the table’s edge. It takes four heartbeats for him to ease back into his seat, takes another four for him to breathe, and when he does it shakes.

“Ask me your fucking question, please, so I can pretend I didn’t ask mine.”

“It’s really not as big a deal as you’re—“

Ask.”

Eren blinks. Blinks again. Leans back in his chair as he picks his soup back up. And then, “when’s your birthday?”

There are moments, like this one, where guilt hits him so hard in the mouth that it’s a wonder he still has all his teeth. Levi loops through his own shock, whiplashing into absolute confusion, and seeing the expressions change places on his face happens so quickly that it’ll hurt in the morning, probably. Eren’s almost sure of that—just like he’s sure that this more than likely happens often, just like he’s sure that this is one hundred percent his fault.

What?” Levi’s nose wrinkles, this time in incredulity. The skin by his eyes comes together in what’ll be crow’s feet one day. Eren wishes they were happening with a softer curve instead. “What did you just ask me?”

“I asked when your birthday is, was, will be.”

Why?

Eren could answer this one of two ways: first, he could shrug and craft some cryptic bullshit. He could give as little information as possible, keep Levi guessing for however long he decides this... thing, his place in this between-worlds nowhere is worth it. Or, alternatively, he could just tell him the truth. The rigid truth, not the loose honesty of the fae themselves.

Mortal truths, or something.

“You know when you turn on Location Services on your phone, and it knows where you are?” Eren says, setting the container back onto the table, lifting his chopsticks to pierce one wonton sitting against the bottom. Levi nods, his eyebrows furrowed. Eren wishes that were softer, too. “Knowing the exact date of your birth is kind of like that, with magic. By knowing that, I know what stars watched your birth, I know your starsign, I know all that pagan shit that makes you vulnerable. I can cast charms on you from a distance, cast curses, can use magic in ways that are borderline unethical. Purebloods never share their full names or their birthdays with one another, and with this on you, I’ll know both.”

Levi watches him and Eren’s skin prickles. His stomach rolls against his intestines, putting pressure on his abdomen. “Sounds dangerous,” he says, “since people leave their birthdays lying around. Driver’s licenses, medical records, voter’s registration...”

Eren drags his index finger over the surface of the table, smearing his fingerprint against the slightly-warped wood. He can feel himself smile, can feel something boil against his tonsils. “You know how, in stories, vampires can’t come into your house unless you invite them in? And the Devil can’t enter your body without your consent? This is like that. If it’s not said out loud to another person by you or someone who knows you personally, it might as well not exist.” The table shifts when Eren rests his elbows against it. “Magic like this has a lot of rules.”

Levi hesitates, as if something his catching in his throat. His eyes flicker over Eren’s face, storm clouds that glow from the inside—like they’re lit from behind by the moon. “This is how mortals get caught in tragic stories, isn’t it?”

The thing in Eren’s windpipe scalds his tongue as it washes over his teeth. “Yes,” Eren tells him. “Effectively. So you’re going to have to trust me.”

There’s no pause at all when Levi replies, “December twenty-fifth, nineteen eighty-seven.”

Eren’s heart twists in his chest, curls in on itself, burrows to hide behind his lungs. It’s difficult to breathe past whatever his happening under his ribs. There are—there’s knots, rising up from his stomach when he inhales, and it makes body feel... weird. Uncomfortable.

When Eren speaks next, his voice is thin—rice paper under pressure. Clearing his throat doesn’t dislodge the stones there, just rattles them against his molars. “So,” he says, and holds Levi’s gaze with his own, even as he feels heat crawl up the back of his neck and over his scalp, “is there anything else you wanna know?”

An expression that looks a lot like fear gathers over Levi’s face for a split-second, marring his features and blurring the edges of his eyes. There are things he wants to know but feel too heavy, maybe. Maybe he’s worried that the next thing he asks will hurt them both of them too much.

But the moment is gone when he leans forward and lowers his voice to say, “everything.” The kitchen swims in Eren’s vision, the lighting and the hand towel and Levi himself all swirling into a mix of color. And then, “but I’m sure I can settle for less than that right now.”

There are words, probably, for what Eren is feeling. There are descriptions for the thing that’s coating the inside of his body, for the thing that’s pushing hard enough against the underside of his skin to tear it in places. There are poems for it. There are—he could describe this at any other time.

But words fail him in a way that they haven’t in a long fucking time.

The only thing Eren can say to that is, “ask away.”

(The kitchen will be clean by the time they head to the living room sofa, Eren’s laptop open on the coffee table with Mel Giedroyc explaining in her comedic fashion the requirements for the bakers’ technical challenge that week. Sue Perkins stands beside her, interjecting with quips and addendums as the bakers watch them, already trying to figure out what the recipe will be.

this is the most relaxed i’ve ever been watching a cooking competition,” Levi will say, resting his elbows on a pillow in his lap, resting most of his weight against the armrest to his right.

Eren will have the opportunity to agree, to elaborate on just how formative this show is for him, and how it makes him homesick—if only for brief moments at a time. But what he will choose to say is, “eren jaeger, born march thirtieth, nineteen sixty-one.

Levi will pause, will blink at the laptop. Eren will be close enough to see the way his eyelashes stroke along the skin of his cheeks, and he won’t say anything about them. Eren knows that this will seem like a non-sequitur, like it doesn’t matter.

But then Levi will tilt his head, will glance at Eren’s face, and his voice won’t be any louder that the rain still coming down outside. “that’s pretty dangerous information. this is how tragic stories start.

there are a lot of tragic stories, Eren will want to tell him. but i’ve never wanted one to work out this much before. But that will be too much, and the living room isn’t big enough for that. So he will reply, “i know,” because he does, and, “but i trust you,” because it will be true.

Levi will turn to look at him then, and the bakers will be baking on the laptop screen, murmuring together and talking to the camera and the hosts about what they’re making, about how they think this recipe is supposed to go.

okay,” Levi will tell him, and there will be more behind that than Eren can label. There might be more questions there. But for now, Levi won’t ask any of them, will just lean back against the sofa with the pillow in his arms.

But he will be smiling, and Eren won’t tell anyone about this in the morning.

He will suppose that this is just another one of those moments that he will want to keep to himself. He is, after all, a very private person. Most of the time.

Or maybe it’s more like this: maybe he’s just greedy with them. And he doesn’t know which half of him that comes from—the human, or the fae.)

Chapter Text

(Levi had been shrugging on his coat when he’d asked, “what kind of story do you want this to be?”

The apartment had smelled too strongly of Chinese food, had smelled like Eren’s older magic still clinging to Levi’s keys, had smelled like whatever shampoo it was that Levi had used before he’d gotten there. Mint, it seemed like. And raspberries, maybe. Whatever it had been, it was embedded in Eren’s pillows and his couch and his clothes. It even seemed to be sticking to his fingertips when he’d lifted his hands to his temples.

It had been as if there was a foreign magic in his home, and he’d been the one to let it take root there.

But for all that there should’ve been panic rising in his gut, for all that there should’ve been an earthquake beginning in his chest, for all that there should’ve been an alarm screaming in the hollowed-out space between his ears where his fucking brain ought to be sitting—Eren hadn’t been able to find anything like regret hiding anywhere inside his body.

what?” Eren had replied, pulling his sneakers onto his feet, if only so he could follow Levi down the stairs to lock the back door behind him. The fabric of his socks had whispered against the weight of his shoes.

you said that this,” Levi had gestured between them before beginning to work on the buttons of his coat, “is how mortals get caught in tragedies. what kind of story do you want this to be?”

The city had been a presence at the back of his skull, humming through its early morning motions like it had always done. The nighttime bus routes faded into nothing against the shape of his bones only to have their rhythm taken up by train systems and heavier traffic, the people stirring against sidewalks and along roadways, the interstates beginning to congest in his sinuses.

And yet the loudest thing between them both had been Eren’s own breathing, and it had tasted of his own magic, and raspberries, and mint.)

Eren can feel Seattle vibrating in his sinuses.

The parking garage smells like wintertime and chilled rubber, scattered against the concrete at uneven intervals, interrupted only by the shiver of the garage’s pylons that shake loose some brine-dipped memory of Puget Sound when a breeze whispers in from the city outside. It’s a contrast, a little, to the soft sighs of coffee steam, rising from the two cups balanced carefully on the sloped hood of some kind of Porsche, the paint some unidentifiable mix of silver and mother-of-pearl.

He can’t tell if it’s supposed to bring to mind the surface of a mirror or not, for all that he can catch the distorted shape of his shoulders out of the corner of his eye. Maybe that’s just an added benefit of the chrome-like finish. Whatever the case, the most he can say is that the paintjob is just this side of tacky, like something coughed up by a movie set right before the turn of the millennium. The future, after all, was meant to shine in shades of silver and off-white chrome.

Instead, it ended up caked over in mildew and patches of moss, tucked in the hollows of gutters and between broken mortar on too-old brick buildings. Instead, the world had made a home for darker things, monsters that mirrors never could quite catch.

It’s entirely possible that the fae never would’ve made it in a future like that.

“Does the owner of that Porsche know that you’re using it as a cupholder?” Levi’s footsteps echo in the parking garage, almost loud enough to compete with the sound of the stairway door falling shut behind him, sliding back into place with the whisper of polished metal against metal.

The city huffs against Eren’s teeth when he smiles, the cold rubbing at his nose. “Maybe I should leave them a note, let them know that it’s worth the money. The shape of the hood is perfect for coffee cups.”

Levi laughs and it curls away from his mouth on a cloud, his eyes catching the fluorescent light like chips of ice as he closes the distance between them. “Have you thought about writing the company instead? They’d probably like to know what consumers are looking for in a car these days, and external cupholders might be pretty high on the list.”

“I don’t drive,” Eren tells him, passing over the coffee cup that smells of cinnamon and hazelnut, sweetened barely enough to make it drinkable, “but who knows? I could be the demographic they’re aiming to please. Businesspeople who have no business driving.”

This laugh is louder and echoes longer as it skips against the concrete pylons, lingering in the empty parking spaces where rainwater had puddled beneath slowly drying cars. It swallows the hum of late-night traffic knocking at the inside of his skull, muffles the clatter-squeak-sigh of the train system going through the motions of its graveyard shift.

It’s alarming, in a way; he’s never felt the city get as quiet as it does when he’s here, as it does when he’s with Levi. When he’s—when this happens.

(“oh,” Levi had said the first time Eren had shown up with two coffee cups, almost three weeks before. His left foot had hesitated on the bottom stair between the hospital stairwell and the bottom-most floor of the parking garage. It had smelled much the same—the damp softening the pointed edges of gasoline still lingering around the trash cans and parking lines. “shit, huh. seems like you weren’t joking about the location services thing.

Eren’s skin had prickled, and heat had settled behind his tonsils, and he’d replied, “no. i wasn’t joking.” Behind the exhaust fumes and the still-warm coffee, he could catch the whisper of raspberry and mint. “but i’m curse-free. i brought coffee instead.

Levi had smiled, had let it relax his face, and the soles of his shoes had huffed against the cracked pavement as he’d taken the last step down.

a man after my own heart,” Levi had told him, and their fingers had brushed as he’d taken the coffee cup, pressing against the cardboard sleeve with his thumb. “do you need a body cut open?

His mouth had been dry, his tongue a stone in his mouth. “does the world really need to be ending for me to want to say ‘hello’?” Levi’s reflection stretched across the hood of his own Prius, curling toward the headlights, the color clinging to the corners. “besides, chinese food is pricey. consider it a down-payment on my debt.

Levi’s laughter and been loud enough to make Eren forget exactly where he’d been just then. For the heartbeats that it had lasted, he couldn’t feel the railways or the bus routes, the tides or the partygoers.

It had been just them, and the coffee, and the cold.)

This has been happening more than it ought to be, really. And Eren’s been letting it happen.

“You know,” Levi says, resting one knee against the Porsche’s headlight, making the suspension creak beneath his weight, “just in terms of what you’ve probably spent on coffee, you paid off the Chinese more than a week ago.” Eren watches Levi’s thumb trace the edge of the cardboard sleeve wrapped around his coffee cup. “The additional legwork is probably unquantifiable.”

Well—that’s not quite right. Technically, he supposes, he’s been doing the happening this go around, after the... dinner. After the time they’d spent on Eren’s sofa. After the last of the raspberry and mint had faded from the cushions there.

It’s the faerie half of him that’s allowed this, surely. There’s nothing quite so weighted as an unpaid debt.

“I was already out,” Eren replies, his own mocha warm between his hands, “doing shit for work. The extra travel is an excuse for me to take a break before I end up back at the store stitching anonymity enchantments into thrift-store sweaters.” Another door opens from the hospital into the parking garage, two floors above them. “And you didn’t bring your car today. If I paid off the Chinese food a week ago, how did you know I’d be here?”

Levi looks at him, his head barely tilted to one side, and his jaw sets around something. It’s a look that Eren’s becoming familiar with—the way it shapes Levi’s face and thins his lips and pulls at the skin around his eyes.

“I didn’t.” The car’s suspension creaks again as he leans harder against the headlight. The structure rumbles around them as someone leaves for the night, their engine idling one floor up as they make a turn. “But what’s the worst that could’ve happened? The walk home is too healthy for me? I get today’s and tomorrow’s cardio in?”

“Or, alternatively, you get mauled by some supernatural being and die. I can’t really speak to the facts of this, but I’m pretty sure it’s harder to get mauled while you’re driving.” Eren’s coffee is almost hot enough to scald his tongue, and it brings feeling back into his toes.

Something rises onto Levi’s face in slow motion—a question, probably. Eren can almost see it trying to cling to his teeth as he swallows it, can see the shape it had been trying to take as his throat bobs around what it had been about to be. There’s been more of that, recently. Hollowed out questions, left to be filled by whatever answer Eren chooses to put there.

Levi’s afraid of drawing blood, he thinks. Eren doesn’t know whose blood it is that he’s so scared of shedding.

“So,” the Porche huffs with relief as Levi drops his knee, shifting his backpack for the second time before he makes his way to the door that leads out onto the street, “how’s work going? I didn’t know magicians made house calls so late at night. Were you booked for a birthday party or something?”

The city eats Eren’s laughter before it can get very far, the door to the parking garage falling shut behind them both. “First of all, I would never perform at a birthday party, and second, no.” The end of autumn presses cold fingers to the back of his neck as they step outside the hospital’s shadow, the streetlights pretending to give off a warmth of their own. “It was... changeling business. I had to help move someone around.”

“‘Changeling business,’” Levi repeats, arching one eyebrow. “Is that part of your distance-routine, or is that what you actually call it?”

Eren can smell his own magic on Levi’s keys as they turn a corner, the crosswalk signal blinking orange across the street. He can almost feel it’s rhythm against his ribs. “It’s the easiest thing to call it, kind of. The fae have their own inefficient government institutions just like mortals do, and some Courts are kinder to changelings than others. I help move them to safer places.”

“Oh,” he says, the pad of his thumb scraping against the edge of the cardboard sleeve as he turns the cup between his hands. “That’s... not at all what I thought you were going to say.”

That’s because sociopolitics is boring,” Eren tells him, listening to a burst of laughter from nurses heading toward the hospital for their shift. There’s the smell of magic sticking to one of them, and it curls Eren’s tongue with something bitter. “For the record, you call a lot of the shit I say ‘part of my enigma-routine,’ or whatever, but I don’t know that much about you either.”

Eren bumps their elbows together, arching both his eyebrows in the perfect imitation of one of Levi’s favorite faces, but it’s an effort that goes entirely unrewarded. Levi’s attention is elsewhere, focused on something just out of sight. This is what it must be like for humankind, probably—knowing that there’s something in your periphery, but not knowing anything about what it is.   

Another pause stretches between them then, and a different expression flirts with the edges of Levi’s face, tightening the skin at the corners of his mouth.  It reminds Eren of the way clay looks as it hardens, settling into an image that’s made of sharper lines and polished points, as if they hadn’t left the too-bright lighting of the parking garage behind them.

A second crosswalk comes into view, and the icon across the street says that it’s safe. A pick-up truck idles at the traffic light as the driver checks their phone. It’s barely the beginning of the walk to Levi’s apartment, and the conversation has already taken a turn for the uncomfortable. It’s the perfect time to let Levi know that it’s not him that makes this shit happen—it’s not the questions about dying, or about pierced ears, or about the sociopolitical climate of the world wedged in between the humans and the purebloods. It’s just Eren, and the way he says things, and the curse that comes with wrapping words in barbed wire to keep people three steps away from his personal space. Except it’s not a curse.

Shit, it’d probably be easier if he was cursed. At least you can fix those. Skills are harder to get rid of.

Levi stops at the crosswalk, even as the signal across the street continues to glow a steady white.

There’s nothing sharp on Eren’s tongue when he breathes in to say something, and what he wants to say doesn’t cut his windpipe on the way up, but Levi beats him to speaking anyway.

“When do you have to be back at work?” Levi asks. The driver of the pick-up truck rubs at their nose, their features cast half in shadow by the light from their phone.

“Um, probably not for a couple hours? I promised Connie a vanilla chai latte for taking a generalized ‘coffee break,’ so that probably gives me about half an hour of wiggle room.” The signal on the crosswalk changes, blinking red at them in anticipation for the pick-up truck to restart its journey to wherever it’s going. “Why? I didn’t mean anything by—you know, it’s fine to be a private person, and you’ve been really understanding about this whole... thing, so...”

The crosswalk stops blinking and the pick-up truck rumbles forward, making a turn onto the cross street. The driver’s phone is back in the cupholder, or on the passenger seat beside them. It’s then that Levi takes the corner, away from the crosswalk toward his apartment, and begins to skirt the edges of the medical center, sipping from his coffee cup.

It’s surprising enough that it takes Eren more than half-a-breath to follow after him. “Where are we going?”

When Levi speaks next, it sounds like carved marble, shaped in exactly the way he’d intended it to be as Eren falls back into step beside him. “You’re right. About the fact that I don’t really tell you anything, I mean. So if you’ve got the time, let’s go somewhere.” There’s a pause, and Levi’s nostrils flare. “We’re going to need to take a bus, though. This would be just a little too much cardio after a graveyard shift.”

“No such thing.” His response is a reflex, almost, and isn’t anything like what he’d wanted to say. He clears his throat to try again. “I really didn’t mean anything by it. I was joking. It’s really—you’ve given me a lot more information than you’ve needed to, so I’m not—“

“I’m boring,” Levi says. It’s like a marble, the way it hits the pavement beneath their feet and rolls ahead of them, clattering softly in the chill. “Compared to you, I’m boring. I’ve lived an average life with average problems, so it didn’t seem important, really.”

Eren’s feet stutter over a raised crack in the sidewalk, and feel his insides knot around his stomach. When he swallows, he can feel the imprint of tires against his tongue. “Last I heard, there wasn’t anything wrong with an average life, and from personal experience, weird shit happens to you. Even if it didn’t, I don’t see how that makes your business less important than my business.” His own lips are chapped from the cold as he drags his tongue across them. “You didn’t think you were boring when you were telling me shit about you in the coffee shop, back in October.”

Levi snorts, a quiet thing against the mouth of his coffee cup. “That was different.”

“No,” Eren replies, and when Levi glances toward him, he holds onto his gaze with both hands. “It wasn’t.”

Rhythms shift beneath Eren’s skin as Levi sips from his coffee cup, dropping his eyes away from Eren’s face. Night buses trim their routes a little further now that two o’clock is coming, and the ferries are still hours off from their first runs of the day. There’s something else vibrating in his gums that feels like the city, or something squirming around inside its borders, and it makes his head ache. But the discomfort lasts only as long as the pause between them does, and when Levi opens his mouth it’s almost enough to make Eren laugh.

“What do you want to know?” The question is carried on what looks like coffee steam, twisting through a series of shapes as its caught in the backdraft of a passing cab. Levi’s nose wrinkles—at his own phrasing or the reek of gasoline fumes, it’s impossible to say. “Jesus Christ, is that how you feel when you ask that? Like you’re going off to war?”

There’s coffee in Eren’s lungs when he tries to breathe past the snort that had almost killed him, and the nighttime is cold against his teeth. “More like to my own execution, ready and waiting for you to call me on some bullshit and then pull the lever and, whoop, there goes the noose.”

Levi’s lips thin further, going bloodless underneath the pressure before he says, “that’s not how it is.” A pause, punctuated by barely-there traffic and the whisper of lips on the edge of a paper coffee cup. And then, “so what did you want to know?”

It’s an echo from Eren’s apartment, and when he blinks he can see the imprint of Levi’s face on the backs of his eyelids as he leans forward with his elbows pressed to the surface of the table. His chair had creaked when he’d leaned forward and he’d said—

“Everything.” His voice doesn’t carry very far, though it should. Instead, it sounds like they’re sitting in Levi’s car, with Eren’s speaking low enough that it’s Levi’s tone he’s trying on, tasting antiseptic and formaldehyde when he breathes. Except this doesn’t taste like the morgue had—like after-the-morgue had. Like a burning body and the edges of a saltwater fog. This is something else entirely. “But I’m sure I can settle for less than that right now.”

Levi makes a sound at the back of his throat that’s a cross between a laugh and a scoff, hiding it against his fingers as if that would make it any less audible. “Do you save the shit I say just so you can use it later? For that little extra impact when I’m feeling particularly stubborn?”

Eren’s coffee cup almost slips from his fingers.

(There are moments in his life that are impossible to forget, no matter how many times he rises from the dead.

He knows the taste of riverwater, though his taste buds have changed countless times since then. He knows the feeling of broken ribs, the way that tires sound when they can’t get proper traction against the road underneath them. He knows the way that twenty-four hour laundromats smell between sunset and sunrise, and knows the way that the smell of cigarettes mingles with the thickness of fabric softener as an analog clock ticks in the background.

Eren remembers a lot of the moments that have changed his life, word for word.)

“Nah.” There’s sandpaper in his throat as the sole of one sneaker hits the curb on the corner of Pike and Boren. The sign there advertises the bus routes, both for the morning and the nighttime runs. Every 15 minutes, it says in peeling paint. “Nothing like that. Are you trying to avoid the questions I haven’t even asked yet? That’s admirable. I’m not sure even I’ve done that, and you’re really fucking nosy.”

Raindrops, left behind hours before, still cling to the signpost on the street corner. They quiver when Levi leans against it, falling to the pavement as a grimace pulls at Levi’s mouth, wrinkling the skin beside his eyes in a way that laughter ought to do. His coffee cup turns slowly in his hands, one of his thumbs dragging against the edge of the cardboard sleeve. It’s a habit, Eren thinks, and his attention is always drawn there.

“So, what do you want to know?” Levi’s voice opens like flower petals, unfurling before a sunrise as he asks the same question—but it feels different. It feels intentional, when he speaks like that, though his eyes are focused on a storm drain across the street. A newspaper sticks to the grating there, its headlines blurred by the day it’d had and the early evening’s rain. “Specifically.”

Eren can hear the water moving beneath the sidewalk.  

“Well,” he speaks against the lip of his coffee cup, shifting his weight between his feet, “where are we going?”

Levi’s laugh hits the theatre across the street, scattering against the backlit marquis. The streetlight above them tucks itself in the lines beside his mouth, spreads itself across the hollows of his cheeks. It makes Eren’s throat feel tight. “That’s a surprise? That’s barely even a question. I thought you wanted to get weird and personal, not impatient and juvenile.”

A bus brakes up the street, its hiss making its way down the street to precede the soft squeal its tires as it rises from the curb where it had stopped. Sylphs flutter in front of its headlights, casting shadows along the wide windows of the buildings. From this far way, they almost look like pixies.

“I thought I would make it easy for you,” Eren tells him, watching the bus lumber toward the traffic light at the intersection of Pine and 9th. Levi steps away from the bus stop, tossing his empty coffee cup in the wastebin behind it. “But if you insist...”

“Now you’re just dicking around,” Levi replies, pulling is wallet from his back pocket. “And after I told you my fucking birthday.” He clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth, a smile playing with his lips. Everything he says is colored white, balancing on the vapor even as it disappears.

“Maybe I couldn’t decide on a question. Maybe I’m biding my time.”

The Night Owl pulls over, kneeling with another hiss, and it makes the air around them taste of diesel. Eren can feel the rumble inside his chest, can feel it tap a counter-rhythm to his heartbeat—and then something inside him shifts back into place, scribbles the street-map of the city back onto the underside of his skin, and the inside of his nose stings with the smell of gasoline.

He can feel magic itching in his palms as Levi steps onto the bus with a snort, swiping his ORCA card twice at the ticket station. Behind him, Eren can catch the still-stale smell of his magic attached to Levi’s keys.

It isn’t until the bus begins to move again that he smells a different kind of magic.

The reek of diesel fuel is forgotten under the weight of seaweed and seal fur, and the rocking of the Night Owl is reminiscent of something else entirely—like a fishing boat out at sea.

The driver and Eren only lock eyes for half-a-moment, and the wide, dark pupils swallow the whites of their eyes until they look back at the street through their windshield. Their webbed hands are loose against the steering wheel, their cold-weather clothes worn close enough that it’s almost impossible to see their too-smooth skin even this close.

There’s no Selkie skin tied around their waist, or worn around their throat—and Eren has always known a changeling when he’s seen one.

Levi is waiting for him in the back seat, despite the fact that every seat is empty. The column of his spine is pressed against the window, his legs stretched around across the seat beside him. Eren takes up the same posture at the seat’s other end, the city moving slowly around them both.

“Smells like a beach,” Levi tells him, one arm draped over his backpack, resting in his lap.

“Smells like a Selkie.” The air unit above them comes to life to breathe out a huff of warm air, soothing the almost too-cold tip of Eren’s nose. “But I figured out my first question.”

Levi’s eyebrows arch high as he shifts against the window, the corners of his lips turning upward, though there’s tension settling in the hard line of his jaw. His eyes are doing that liquid thing, as if moonlight is trapped inside them, and his eyelashes catch the harsh white of the fluorescent lights along the roof as if they’re holding onto stars.

There are a countless number of things he could ask here, things that a member of the fae would want to know. what’s your blood-type? what time of day were you born? where are your parents from? what’s your earliest memory? He knows what kinds of magic each question lends itself to, knows the dangerous pieces of information that humankind offer up without knowing just how powerful they are.

But in that moment, Eren feels like a human grade schooler—like a boy playing twenty questions at the ass-end of the morning, unable to sleep with a phone in front of his face. what’s your favorite color? what’s your favorite song? are you a cat person or a dog person or both? is there anyone you like?

Every question is coated in something sour, in something too-tart to stomach, and it purses his lips into a thin line. It’s enough to make his teeth feel close to rotting.

When he swallows them, they scrape against the lining of his throat. “What did you want to be when you were little? Before you went to doctor school?”

Levi blinks at him, and the thinness in his smile disappears as it relaxes in surprise. “That’s your first question?” A laugh, soft and disbelieving, the ghost of mist over water. “You could ask me anything, and you ask me that?

(A harmless question, stuck between a coffeeshop window and the general noise around them. Everything had smelled of ground coffee beans and baking things, of autumn and the rain, of Samhain magic building at the edges of everything, curling under doors and pressing against walls.

so where are you from? you’ve got an accent, and i can’t tell what it is.”)

“‘Hi, my name is Levi, so where are you from? You talk funny, and I’m not sure just what kind of funny it is.’” It’s an oversimplification of a scene that Eren knows verbatim. He can still see the way the question hangs between them, can still see the way it had rested on the table. He can still feel the way his own magic had been building on his tongue.

But it earns him a snort, soft against the inside of Levi’s nose, and the force-less weight of Levi’s sneaker against his shin. “This’ll bore you. You’ll say it’s the most boring shit you’ve ever heard, and I’m going to tell you that I told you so.”

Levi’s gaze is heavy enough to feel like a hand pressing down on his sternum, and Seattle once more goes quiet beneath the stretch of his skin. “Stop stalling and tell me what you wanted to be when you grew up.”

A sigh, and his head hits the window, his shoulders rolling slowly. “I always wanted to be a doctor, I just waffled on what kind of doctor I wanted to be. When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a pediatrician, and I wanted to ban shots.” Levi’s nose wrinkles when he laughs, his eyes following his memories back and forth in the space where Eren’s knee is bent. “When I was in high school, I wanted to be an oncologist, because I thought that was very noble. When I actually got to medical school, I appreciated the precision necessary for surgical work, and I could save lives with skills like that, instead of guessing at saving lives. I felt undefeatable, for moments at a time, every time I changed my mind. Like, I don’t know. Like ‘this is what I wanna do for the rest of my life.’ Shit like that.”

“I’m not as surprised as I thought I’d be by that,” Eren says. “You are really stubborn. It figures that you’d pick your career at, like, age five.”

Another nudge from Levi’s sneakers, another snort that hits the backs of Levi’s teeth. “Fuck you. You’re the one that’s like ‘ah, yes, I’m going to cremate bodies all by myself because I am the only one who knows what I’m doing at any given time.’ Stubborn my ass.”

Eren’s own laughter drags itself against the roof of his mouth. “Excuse me? You are Doctor ‘I’m very obviously uncomfortable with all this faerie shit, but I don’t want you to erase my memories because I’m stubborn.’ That’s literally a conversation we had. Multiple times.”

Levi’s fingers tighten around his backpack as the bus takes a corner, the momentum jostling them both. “Ask me something else. I like you better when you’re not being a fucking know-it-all.”

“Ha! Okay.” Eren wedges his empty coffee cup between his hip and the seat itself, resettling against the window at his back. He can feel the coming winter through the glass, can feel ice settling against his shoulder blades. “Hmm. Did you collect anything as a kid? Coins? Bugs? Baseball cards?”

Levi’s fingers toy with one of the zippers on his backpack, his thumb pressing hard to its topmost curve while he hums a tone that might be something thoughtful. His head shifts, offering up a view of his profile, and it’s haloed by the city’s lights as they move through the streets, crawling down Eastlake Avenue toward Portage Bay. Holiday lights throw pearls of color over Levi’s skin, turning the edges of his irises into an endless play of shifting shades.

They’re like freckles, almost. Kisses left behind by streetlamps and traffic lights blending in with the shadows left behind by nightshifts and a high caffeine intake.

When Levi finally speaks, it’s like the drag of fingertips on sand. “I collected poetry books.” The zipper pressed to his thumb taps gently against his backpack when he lets it go. “Older ones, if I could get them. First editions at thrift stores. Yeats was one of my favorites. He’s the asshole that wrote that—that wrote ‘wine comes in at the mouth, and love comes in at the eye; that’s all we shall know for truth, before we grow old and die. I lift the glass to my mouth, I look at you, and—’”

“‘—I sigh,’” Eren says before his mouth can hit the brakes, and the last line tastes like mocha on his tongue. One of Levi’s eyebrows rises, a little, balanced in a question he doesn’t even have to ask. “I’ve got a friend that—she likes her poetry. Usually it’s really Classic stuff. She—Shakespeare. Very into—yeah.”

“And you’ve got a Bachelor’s in English Literature. I remember.” Levi’s face softens in places that Eren hadn’t even realized were tense, and this smile is different from the few that had come before. It’s even different from the one’s he’s seen on recent nights a lot like this one, where Levi’s on the other end of their stupid question-game.

Levi looks so human—but that doesn’t make sense. He’s always human. This is something—different. It might be something different. Eren doesn’t know what it is.

(There’s a memory, here—though it’s old enough to be faded at the edges.

humankind is beautiful,” his mother had told him once, before the world had decided to carve her out of granite. He’d been curled up in his bed, had been buried beneath one blanket and one quilt as snow had fallen outside his window—snow that would be melted come morning. “they’re soft, when they let themselves be. they’re trusting.

She’d reached out from where she’d been sitting, her wooden chair creaking with her weight, and she’d pressed her finger to one of Eren’s cheeks. “like you,” she’d said, as if his mortality hadn’t been a curse, then. As if the human world wouldn’t come after them both.

He’d blown a sound at her with his tongue pressed between his lips.

Her face had gone gentle enough to look almost human.)

Ah. It’s that Levi looks vulnerable.

“Why poetry books?” Eren’s voice is barely above a whisper, as if they’re sharing secrets in a place filled with people—as if this information is something the bus driver would be craving on a run this late at night.

“I like the rhythm. Started with that Shel Silverstein shit when I was a really little kid. Carried from there, I guess. I’ve got like two full shelves of them, just to have them around. I haven’t even read them all—just found collections of them with poems I liked and bought them to skim through.” He lifts a hand to wiggle his fingers, leaning forward to speak low enough that goosebumps rise on Eren’s arms. “Besides, it’s easier to work when you can find a rhythm that gets your mind off of the hard part.”

For a one heartbeat, the city is loud enough inside his head that it’s almost unbearable. Magic is pushing against his skin, pulling it tight enough to be painful. A sudden chill, the press of a hand against the back of his skull, mud and silt and reeds beneath his fingers, the feeling of people everywhere at the edges of his awareness, the feeling of the town becoming sharp in his senses as water filled his lungs—

The moment carries into two heartbeats. Three. Four.

(“the hard part.”)

Levi speaks again, and there’s the rhythm—the city settles again into something quieter. “My mom was really accommodating, all things considering. She’d spend hours in thrift stores with me. Old bookstores. My friends have even gotten me little pocket poetry books, as if I carry that shit around with me. I’ve got a drawer of those.”

A pulse. Rail lines, bus routes, pedestrians. Storm drain runoff and shifting tides. Traffic light sensors and the traffic itself. Diesel, brine, and the electric-hum of life. Energy. Humankind collected. Magic.  

Eren’s mouth is dry when he says, “did you know that you’re really not near as boring as you think you are?”

Levi blinks, this time slowly. The timbre of the bus changes as they hit the bridge across Portage Bay.

When he smiles, it begins around his eyes. The skin there wrinkles, making lines that will one day be crow’s feet. It stretches over his cheekbones, makes the hollows of his cheeks disappear. It pulls at his mouth and lifts the corners of his lips. It dips his shoulders, curls his spine, and pushes him another half-inch forward.

“Shut up,” he says, and the city’s lights behind him drape over the water, rippling in the breeze. “Ask another question.”

“Right,” Eren replies. There are Sluagh in the city, somewhere, and he’d left his store behind for longer than he’d planned. He’s been taking time like this more often than not, recently—meeting in a hospital parking garage for an hour or so at a time, taking a break from the careful balancing act between two worlds that can’t handle one another. There’s work to be done, because there’s always work to be done. But here he is, on a bus, across the city. “Okay.”

The work will be there when he gets back. It’s always there when he gets back.

It is then Eren pushes aside the curtain between the mortal world and the fae. He can feel it give beneath his hands, flutter against his fingers.

And he reaches out.

-

(Eren’s shape had fit the doorway almost perfectly as he’d leaned against the doorframe, the streetlamp from the mouth of the alley barely strong enough to cling to the edges of his face, to the curve of his irises, to the line of his throat. But he’d been distinct enough, backlit as he’d been by the light from the stairwell, haloing his shoulders like a nebulous cloud.

i’ve got a weakness for happy endings,” Eren had told him, and he’d spoken so softly that Levi had almost missed it inside a breeze that smelled of distant seawater. “like, real happy endings. the heroes win and the bad guys lose, all that shit.” His eyes had looked impossible, edgeless and wide, throwing even the weakest light as if they’d been cut to do so. “tragedies have always been hard on my stomach.”

Eren had said it like a secret, as if he’d murmured his confession into an envelope and physically pressed it into Levi’s hands.

The air around him had tasted a lot like the city’s alleys always had—like old newspapers, left to soak up stagnant rainwater, like the Sound, just too far out of reach to freshen anything. But the shop’s back door had been wide open, and the smell of magic had been pressing hard against his tongue. Cinnamon and maple syrup. Rainwater and heather.

you know something?” Levi had replied, leaning forward to leave his own words against Eren’s palms. He’d been able to see a bicycle resting against the stairwell wall out of the corner of his eye. “me too.”)

The darkness of the planetarium is split apart when the projector comes on, displaying labeled constellations on the curved walls, lines connecting stars together that would be impossible to see in a city this size. For a moment, the only sounds are Levi’s fingers on the keyboard and the hum of the equipment to either side.

Eren’s shadow reaches across the stars as he skirts the edges of the wall, trailing his fingertips over the paths that human eyes had traced between the stars, making shapes or whatever it was they’d looked like centuries and centuries before.

Levi can’t tell if he’s impressed or not.

“I never really visited the astronomy department,” Eren says, standing on his toes to follow the line of Capricorn with his index finger. “I didn’t even know this place had a fucking planetarium and I probably graduated after you! Maybe I was a worse student than I thought.” 

“I’ve got a friend that works in the astronomy department,” Levi explains, tapping his fingers against the keyboard until the lines between the stars disappear, the solar system flickering into view as stardust rotates along the walls. “They’d let me study here when I had exams, and they showed me how to work the equipment. They were bored, I guess, and I needed a break sometimes.”

There’s a hole in the curve of Saturn’s ring shaped like Eren’s head as he wanders along the wall, still trailing his fingers along its edge. “You studied in here?”

It’s not the question Levi had expected. Eren hasn’t asked anything that Levi had expected.

(Levi had seen it on the inside of his eyelids when he’d blinked. “and they gave you a key to this place?” The Eren he’d been trying to predict had said. His eyebrows had arched high on his forehead, and Levi had caught a glimpse of his teeth as he’d smiled. “i saw you with a key to this place.

they did,” Levi had said in the fake-world he’d made to practice in, in the world where he could’ve said any number of more interesting things, “after they caught me picking locks for some peace.

This is what he gets, Levi supposes. One should never try and predict the unpredictable.)

“I did.” There’s almost no echo in the planetarium, even as Levi joins Eren near the bottom of the stairs, Jupiter coming into view around an asteroid that has a name with more numbers than letters. Stars stick to Levi’s skin when he points to a long table that looks almost white, just outside the projector’s reach. “Right over there.”

Eren’s footsteps are silent as he makes his way across the floor, his shadow traveling along the wall in his wake, scattering stars and planets and space-rocks with his shoulders. It doesn’t disappear until he perches on the corner of the table, the wide cone of the projector’s lights barely missing the artful mess of his hair.

There’s a pause between them as the stars watch, the room filled with the gentle murmur of running equipment and the heating units set into the walls. From here, Eren’s eyes look like nebulae—like stars ready to be born.

“Are you coming, or not?” And there’s the smile Levi had pictured, the hint of teeth behind his lips. “You’ve got a pop quiz.”

“I didn’t study,” Levi says, though his feet are moving him forward anyway. The solar system rotates around them, it seems like—even though the Sun itself is farther along the wall, the size of a fist in the infinitude of space.

“I have the utmost faith in you.” Eren speaks over the scrape of Levi’s chair along the floor, the toe of one shoe resting against the tile beneath the table. “So, first question—what are the given names of the Big and Little Dipper, respectively?”

It feels silly, this whole thing. The way his elbows feel against the table, the way Eren’s lips are curved just enough to make this question something mischievous, the way Jupiter comes from the left and turns the room red and brown and yellow. The colors tint Eren’s hair, a little, clinging to the strands that aren’t quite safe from the rotating projector.

“Ursa Major,” Levi tells him, resting his chin in the palm of one hand, “and Ursa Minor. That’s not even a real astronomy question. That’s a question you ask kindergarteners.”

Eren snorts out a laugh, his teeth pressing against his lower lip to smother it against his tongue. There’s a whisper of sound behind him, something that sounds like music, and a flicker of light out of the corner of his eye. Another sound, this one even softer than the first, the murmur of... claws? Of... something against the floor.

And then nothing but the hum of machinery, the projector whirring gently against the curved slope of the ceiling.

“What’s a real astronomy question, then?” Jupiter has left a wine-stain against Eren’s throat as it moves between the stars, its moons winking in and out of sight. One of the many presentations in the planetarium uses this exact system map coupled with a voiceover, engaging and informative. Levi knows that there would be a question about Ganymede, the largest of Jupiter’s moons.

So he says, “is it possible that a gas giant’s moon could support life?”

Eren’s laughter carries out into the darkness, captured by the gravity of Europa, Jupiter’s second largest satellite. “Fuck, um. I don’t know. Probably? I think that happened in Star Wars. But I—shit. I don’t know. You turned my quiz back on me. That’s hardly fair.”

Levi slides his fingers into place over his mouth to hide a smile, lifting one eyebrow only slightly. “Maybe you should ask better questions.”

He’s rewarded with another snort as Eren turns his head to watch Jupiter rise higher on the wall as it moves farther into space. One of his cheeks is sucked in just enough for him to chew on it, the motion shifting muscles in his jaw as he thinks. Levi can see echoes of thoughts moving through his body—the way his sneaker twitches against the tile floor, the way he leans his weight against the palm pressed to the surface of the table, the way his throat bobs when he smiles.

Whatever it was he’d been thinking about settles in his left hand as he lifts it, palm out. It’s a ridiculous posture for a classroom—planetarium. A museum would want art like this, a boy with his hand held out to someone in an offer. A faerie, about to make a deal with someone. A story, beginning with a half-smile and an introduction, instead of a gasp and a muffled curse, instead of a room that smelled of preservatives and antiseptic, instead of—

The image breaks apart when Eren speaks.

“If you could make up your own constellation,” he says, “what would it be?”

Levi blinks. “What?”

Eren’s eyes aren’t on his face, but he can feel his attention as if they were. “You said to come up with better questions, so I did. If you could move shit around to make your own constellation, what would it be?”

“Is this the essay portion of the quiz?” It’s a stalling tactic, a sentence like that. It allows time for him to process whatever his answer would be. For a moment, he’d been on even footing, had been able to guess at the information Eren had been looking for. Standard things, if asked after in a roundabout way, or things that Levi hadn’t asked himself in years.

This isn’t quite like that. Levi’s never thought about this before. He’s a doctor, not an astrologer. He wouldn’t know how to craft a starsign if it bit him on the ass.

“No,” and Eren’s standing, a breeze ruffling the hem of his shirt. Levi’s seen this before. “It’s show-and-tell.”

That’s the only warning he gets before planetarium goes dark.

It’s a darkness that his eyes can’t seem to adjust to, though the projector is still whirring from deep inside the shadows, as if it’s undisturbed by the fact that it’s suddenly become ineffective. The central heating is just as noisy, and Levi can smell it still pushing warm air into the room, can feel it curling around his ears. He can taste it, too, just before he opens his mouth to ask Eren if they’re both about to die.

Eren answers him before he can even ask.

“‘With a golden string,’” his voice comes from beside him, exactly where it had been before the lights had gone out, only this time it’s melodic, carried on a tune that Levi doesn’t know but raises goosebumps on his arms, pricks at his scalp. It’s beautiful enough to border on unnatural, as close as it sounds, “‘our universe was clothed in light.’”

The smell of rainfall and heather sighs across the floor, like a candle had been lit and blown out in the space of a heartbeat, barely long enough to let the smell linger—until a bubble of light comes alive in the center of the room, casting the tables and chairs within its reach in a yellow-white glow. Eren’s magic sighs again as the first light is joined by a second, the smell strong enough to push itself over the backs of Levi’s hands, up the line of his neck, over his cheeks.

A third, closer to the wall reveals the projection of the solar system, Pluto coming close enough that its color is washed out by the extra lighting. A fourth, bursting into existence at Levi’s shoulder, revealing Eren’s shape beside him, his hands tucked into his pockets as he murmurs under his breath. A fifth light, and a sixth, and a seventh, joined by at least ten more, gathering together around each other like oversized fireflies.

Or, rather, like stars.

(Memory-washing, pressed against his eyelids. Protection charms, wrapping around a keyring. Listening to the echoes of a life cut short, a silent film played out in the center of a morgue. Cremation, the acrid smell of smoke and burning things. Warding windows and doors, covering them in magic threaded together like lacework.

There had been a function to spells like those—magic given in fits and bursts, in situations where options were limited, in moments that were either desperate or routine enough to barely warrant the batting of an eye.

This feels like something different. It feels—like Chinese food eaten at a kitchen table. Like a baking competition, seen only in the form of reruns. Like a birthdate, spoken without any preamble, tucked between the cushions of an ugly-but-comfortable sofa. Like the beginning of a tale that has an ending worth finding out.

It feels like magic given freely, and Levi isn’t quite sure what it means.)

“So about that constellation?” Eren says, his eyes glowing in the lamplight—starlight. He nudges one of the bubbles with his hip, letting it bounce against Levi’s elbow with a gentle heat. “Words don’t count, by the way.”

“Well, there goes my idea of writing ‘what the fuck,’ in the stars.” The bubble is solid between his hands, though it feels like a paper lantern when he drags his thumbs across the surface. “What happened to the relatively normal questions you were asking before? Is this supposed to give you some special insight into my personality like some weird, space-age Rorschach test, or are you just showing off for my benefit?”

Eren’s laughter is like—stardust. No. Like rainfall on concrete. Like... fuck. Levi doesn’t know what it’s like, but it carries across the room, hitting tables and chairs with excited fingers. It’s difficult to describe, when there’s magic-born light playing across his features, sharpening his cheekbones and the cut of his jaw, curling beneath the curve of his eye and turning the honey-almond of his skin a different shade.

He’s ethereal. He’s not—he isn’t human, and Levi can tell, can see it in the way his laugh travels from his head to his feet like liquid, and he’s beautiful. Almost enough to be terrifying. Almost enough to scaled his fingers if he were to touch him.

Levi,” a ball of light is tossed between Eren’s hands, shifting the shadows across his face. It makes him look younger than he is—than he normally looks. It makes him look like this is the first university classroom he’s ever been in. “Are you implying that I’d use my magic to impress you?”

Levi’s scoff tastes of Eren’s magic and coffee, and when he tosses the faerie star in his hands at Eren’s chest, it bounces away like a balloon, half-filled with helium. “I’m not implying anything. Are you telling me there aren’t codes against frivolous uses of magic, or something? You don’t have regulatory boards for that sort of thing?”

Eren’s shrug is small enough to leave the air beside him undisturbed. “The fae don’t believe in frivolous uses of magic. Purebloods are like powerhouses—they don’t really waste magic. They use it, and they’re fine. Sure, there are some that can’t use strong magic, but for the shit they’re good at? They can do it all day.” The planetarium’s projector speckles distant stars on Eren’s forehead, settling them above his eyebrows. “Changelings are different. We’ve got limits, generally speaking. All magic is frivolous when it’s done by us. ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.’ Basic physics. Changelings can use magic, but not indefinitely, and not without costs. Headaches, exhaustion, nausea...” A pause, half-a-breath long, and Eren’s pupils contract only barely. Levi doesn’t know what they’re reacting to, with the lighting as sporadic as it is. It’s like he’s seeing something else—feeling something else.

When he continues, it’s as if there hadn’t been a break between one thought and the next. “But even if there were rules about that sort of thing, I don’t consider this frivolous.”

Even without the star-bubble in his hands, Levi’s palms are sweating. “No?”

“No,” Eren repeats himself, shrugging for the second time. This one is larger than the first, loosens his shoulders as it lifts them. “It means I didn’t put any thought into it, or that it’s not important, or that—I don’t know.” His lips thin and his eyebrows furrow, and when he looks at Levi like that, there isn’t a whole lot he could say that Levi wouldn’t believe. “I did think about it, and I decided to do it anyway.”

Levi doesn’t know what to say to that. He’s coming to find himself in this position a lot when Eren is involved.

(“i’m lucky to have you here.” That same expression—furrowed eyebrows, a frown pulling at the corners of Eren’s mouth. The air pressure in the car had been much the same as it is now. It had felt difficult to breathe. It had felt at once like a weight on his chest and a stone being lifted from his shoulders.

Eren’s eyes had seemed to be glowing then, too—but he hadn’t used any magic yet.)

When words finally try to scramble onto Levi’s tongue, they’re all out of order and crushed together. They’re lightweight, but suffocating, like marshmallows that hadn’t quite committed to inflating yet. Trying to order them takes time, and Eren’s just looking at him, and his eyes are something that have to have some from somewhere otherworldly, and Levi almost can’t believe that he’d doubted the reality of magic, of things just outside the realm of human possibility.

With the universe twirling around them both, with more-than-manmade stars still hovering by their bodies, Eren is once again too beautiful to be human.

“You’re going to get an ego now, aren’t you?” Eren speaks before Levi can get the words right, though they’d been shaping into something that had tasted like a thank you for sharing this with me, like a you don’t have to do this, like... something meaningful, maybe. “Now that I’ve said that, you’re—“

The main door to the planetarium swings wide, its weight hitting the wall with an echo loud enough to startle them. Eren’s shoulders twitch, his eyelids fluttering, and the bubbles of light around them all pop at once, the shadows evaporating like water against a hot stone. Levi feels his own bones ice over, his skin prickling with disbelief, and the beam of an LED flashlight settles on their shoulders, pressing against their clothes with all the intensity of a verbal accusation.

“You shouldn’t be in here,” the police officer says, their voice low enough to hit the thin-tiled floor with a heavy sound. “You know this is breaking and entering? Tuition doesn’t cover after hours visits for this department, and this is private property.”

“Holy shit,” Eren whispers, taking a step backward, his entire body shifting so that one hand is just out of view from the officer, who’s already taking purposeful steps toward them with their keys rattling at their hip. “I thought you had a key?

“A key isn’t the same as actual authority to be here,” Levi replies, hissing from between his teeth. “Hanji never asked for it back, so I never returned it. It never came back up.”

Eren’s nose wrinkles when he laughs, his teeth catching hold of his bottom lip until the sound is too strong to keep in. Sparks come from behind his teeth, and for the second time the planetarium begins to fill with the scent of heather and rainwater, rising up from the floor, pulling a fog up behind it, thick enough to cut. The jingling of the keys stops, the officer’s voice muffled by the weight of the magic, or the fog, or both.

The spell itself is something simple, carried on a tune that Levi knows he recognizes, something weighed down with excitement, something driven forward by a thrill.

And Eren snaps his fingers.

The solar system display goes dark at the same time the planetarium itself is thrown into some sort of motion. It’s as if the room had been filled with fireworks, sparks catching in the fog to give the illusion of motion, the different colors swirling together in patterns that are difficult on the eyes, weaving around one another in too-bright ribbons. The fog itself has thickened further, a living thing curling around Levi’s ankles and his shoulders and his throat. It makes him dizzy, standing here, and if he didn’t know better he’d say that there was another song, somewhere in the chaos. Fucking—he’s imagining it, he knows he is—Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

“We’re running for the door. Hold your breath.” Eren’s voice is close enough to Levi’s ear that he can almost feel his breath there a heartbeat before there are fingers wrapped over his own. The light behind them is already slowing down, and there’s the thud of a person hitting the floor, and then they’re out the door and into the hallway, the planetarium shutting solidly behind them.

It smells different out here. The air is breathable and tastes of the building’s heating unit, though Eren’s magic is still buzzing around Levi’s body, filling his nose, clinging to the inside of his sinuses. The lethargy that had been beginning to wrap around his body has been left somewhere in their wake, cast aside as they took the stairs too quickly to be safe, and Levi can feel his fingers tightening around Eren’s own.

They don’t stop running until the Institute for Nuclear Theory is just in sight, and Eren doesn’t let go until they stop running.

It’s fucking cold outside, noticeable in a way that it hadn’t been before now that Levi’s sucking in air, the deep breaths catching on his tonsils, scraping down the lining of his windpipe, and hitting the base of his lungs like rocks. He feels out of shape in a way he hasn’t felt since—well... since he’d chased after Eren in that coffee shop almost two months ago now. Fucking Christ.

Eren’s gasping is matching Levi’s own, even as he holds onto a streetlamp with one hand, swinging himself around it as though a musical number is about to start that Levi hadn’t been made aware of. And he hasn’t stopped laughing since he’d thrown the spell at the police officer, yards and yards and yards behind them.

There are words in there, maybe. It sounds like gibberish, but it has to be something. What Eren just said had definitely not been a laugh. It had sent something electric through Levi’s body, had curled in his gut with enough force to warm his cheeks.

“What did you just say?” It’s easier to breathe in slower bouts when Levi rights himself, pulling his hands away from his knees to watch Eren go still against the lamppost.

“What?” His hair is a fucking mess, tossed wild by their run, or his magic, or whatever. His pupils are wider than they’d been inside the planetarium, and that isn’t normal. There’s more light out here. “What did you just ask me?”

Another deep breath, this one smoother than the last. Progress. “I asked you what you said. It came out garbled, and I didn’t know what you were saying, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t another cue to run.”

“Oh.” Eren’s hand comes away from the streetlight to push through his hair, and the smile that had been sitting on his lips goes wider. “Nah. It was—“ He swallows, takes a breath, and slows down, shaping his mouth around the words, “I said, ‘rydym yn dawnsio ar y dibyn.’ It’s a... Welsh figure of speech. We’re ‘dancing on the edge of a cliff.’ We’re playing with fire. We’re flying too close to the fucking proverbial, police-enforced Sun.” This laugh is softer, the edges of it gentle when it falls upon the concrete. “Fucking—shit, that was fun.” His gaze is warm enough to mimic the feeling of palms against Levi’s face. “That was fucking fun, Levi.”

It feels like a reflex when he says, “but Eren, that was a crime.”

Eren scoffs, bumping their shoulders together. It’s a casual gesture—like the passing of Chinese food across a table. Like the sharing of a television show from an ocean away. Like the buying of coffee for almost three weeks now. “Shut up,” he says. “You’re being cheeky, first of all, and second of all you were getting high-and-mighty with me about remembering the shit you say. I call a foul.”

“Call a foul all you like,” Levi tells him, sliding his backpack from his shoulders to ease the weight of his clothes there, rolling them to make sure they still work. “I don’t see anything wrong with matching your bullshit. And when I remember things, it’s not whole conversations. You’re just fucking... good at that, I guess.”

“No. You just say important things.” Ah. There’s the—Levi can see it, when Eren tilts his head just the right way. The lamplight gathers on his skin enough to emphasize its darker color, and it crawls up his temple to curl over one eyebrow. It rounds the corners of his cheekbones, smooths out the sharp corners by his eyes, presses a gentle thumb to one corner of his mouth—and this is where the human and the fae meet in him, right here, when he smiles like this. He looks like the meeting of worlds. The—fuck. The beauty of both, or something. “You never got to answer my constellation question. Pony up.”

This is what he gets, you know, after talking about his fucking poetry collection.

Levi nudges at his backpack, sitting on the toes of his sneakers. “It probably just would’ve been a scalpel or something just as boring.”

“Stop calling yourself boring,” Eren huffs out a breath, tucks his hands into the pockets of his jacket, his face twisting into a grimace. “I don’t think you’re boring. And a scalpel can’t be any worse than a fucking belt. Three stars in a line! That’s boring.”

The chill rubs the tip of Levi’s nose raw when he scoffs, shaking his head. “So you’re an art critic now? Going to go back to school to get a degree in calling the stars liars?

For a moment, Eren only hums in response.

The only car on the road cutting through campus just then is a taxi, murmuring along the road to take a corner toward the residence halls. A screech comes from deeper on campus, something high-pitched and inhuman—but no human screams follow it, and the nighttime is quiet again, as much as it can be in a city this size.

“The stars don’t lie,” he says, finally. It’s spoken like a simple fact, as if it’s something that everyone ought to know. “The eyes of mortal beings, though? Prone to lies. We block out the shit we don’t want to see. Out of sight, out of mind...” Eren rocks back on his heels, somehow making even that gesture some kind of graceful, and he rolls his head on his neck to loosen the muscles there. “But whatever. I guess I’ll settle for another question then.”

Levi arches both his eyebrows and he watches. And he waits.

“What was your favorite childhood movie?” It’s asked with a sort of earnestness, the kind with which Eren asks all his questions, and yet it still catches Levi off-guard. It’s impossible to tell exactly what it is that Eren wants to know about him, what kind of information he’s looking for. This has become... something else. It’s become something that’s more like reaching across a chasm and finding something there to hold on to.

It’s funny, in a way—and frustrating in another. This was never supposed to be about him, really.

(Eren bleeding out on a concrete walkway, alone. Delirium from blood-loss. Words sticking together with thick strings of glue. He’d asked for something, and Levi had known then just like he knows now that Eren would never have said it aloud if he’d had just a pint more blood in his body. His fingers had already started to go cold when he’d spoken.

stay here,” Eren had said, and it’s something that Levi will remember for the rest of his life.)

He supposes that, at some point, the story had decided to become about them.

“Easy,” Levi replies, and his own voice feels like it’s coming from someone else, like it’s coming from far away, “Balto, hands down. Best movie I ever watched growing up.”

Eren snorts, a laugh sitting on his tongue as he speaks around it, “really? I mean... I guess I should’ve figured, huh? That whole ‘hauling lifesaving medicine to people in desperate need,’ would be right up your kid-doctor alley. I was thinking something along the lines of Disney films, or whatever. Maybe even The Goonies.”

Levi huffs out a breath that might’ve been a laugh of his own if there hadn’t been a hand around his throat, making it difficult to breathe. There are things he wants to say digging into his tonsils, his tongue, the roof of his mouth.

it’s not the fucking antibiotics, he wants to say—but it’s the things he wants to say that tend to stick in his throat. it’s the wolfhound. the half-and-half. the place between worlds, to the benefit of both.

Instead, what he says is, “I told you, I’m a sucker for happy endings.” Levi’s spine creaks when he stoops to lift his backpack and shrug it back onto his shoulders, and he can feel Eren watching him move. “Tell you what. Since the stars didn’t line up for your creativity bullshit, do you want to see something else? It won’t be the same, but...”

Eren’s pupils dilate as he grins wide. “Oh? What are we going to go see?”

It’s hard not to smile back at that, and his own lips are curving upward before he can even gather the presence of mind to stop them. “I can show you where I learned to cut people open?”

The glimpse of teeth as Eren tilts his head and his face sharpens back into something ethereal. “What, I cheated you out of an autopsy and you’re trying to make good on it now? That’s a little fucked up don’t you think?”

“That’s not what I—“

“I was joking.” Eren flicks his fingers to knock Levi’s protest out of the way, letting it land in the middle of the street. “I want to see it. I told you I wanted to know things, didn’t I?” Their eyes meet in a way that’s becoming all too common, and Levi can feel his lungs squeeze together. Eren’s are glittering, as if there are precious metals hiding in the color there. “Do you have a key for this place too?”

Levi squares his shoulders and starts walking, Eren falling into step beside him only half-a-heartbeat behind. “No. This time, we pick the lock.”

Eren’s laughter carries on the breeze, and the late-autumn chill tastes like heather, and rainwater, and left-behind coffee.

(The medical school’s auditorium is almost-silent at three-thirty in the morning, the harsh spotlight pooling on the autopsy table at the bottom of the stairs that cut through the stadium-style seating. It will feel different, standing there and looking out at all the empty chairs. Levi had never seen the room from this angle, after all. The last time he’d been here, he’d been a student.

It smells like the hospital in here, almost. Antiseptic is clinging to almost every surface, stinging the inside of Levi’s nose.

The autopsy table itself creaks as Eren takes a seat on it, swinging his legs gently back and forth, the toes of his sneakers barely touching the morgue-style floor. It’s a lot like the first time they met, in some ways. His eyes are traveling along the auditorium’s walls, just like he’d mapped out the morgue at Virginia Mason. The too-sharp lighting is still puddling at his back, washing out the warm color of his skin.

so,” Levi says, and Eren’s attention is yanked away from the walls as Levi takes a seat beside him on the autopsy table, “i have a question for you.

i’m supposed to be asking the questions here, doctor,” Eren replies, the motion of his feet jostling the table, its wheels rattling from their locked positions, “but you’ve been really accommodating. go ahead and ask.

you said once that you don’t drive.” Levi’s legs are still from where they’re hanging over the edge of the autopsy table, and the metal is cold beneath his palms. “why don’t you drive?

Eren’s feet pause, settling into stillness for half-a-breath. And then they start moving again when he says, “i already told you. there are trade-offs when changelings use magic. usually we just get pukey. but i think the whole... dying thing makes things different, or whatever. maybe.” A hum, low and contemplative, and it raises the hairs at the back of Levi’s neck. “i get... distracted. i can hear the—you know. the city. christ, that sounds like bullshit.

Levi watches him, traces the shape of his profile with his eyes. The jut of his nose. The cut of his jaw. His fucking cheekbones. “what do you mean?

it’s easy to get lost in all the noise. it’s noisy. and magic comes from—magic comes from the noise. the life of... wherever you are. the more life, the more magic to use, the noisier it is when you try and grab onto it. for me, i guess. i can’t drive, because i’ll get distracted and probably hit something. i’ve got a bicycle, though. it’s easier to manage.

It’s the pit that Levi always falls into—the weird questions that seem to be wrapped in barbed wire. “and you just, what, decided to use magic for fun today?

Eren shrugs, and the table quivers. “told you that, too. i thought about it, and i wanted to.” Both his eyebrows rise on his forehead and a smile touches his mouth. “besides, it could be worse. it’s harder to get lost in weird rhythms and shit when you’re always asking me stuff. ‘why does magic have a smell? how many people do you work with? what’s your additional job?’

i knew you kept me around for a reason,” Levi replies. His fingers feel stiff.

Eren leans his weight for less than a second against Levi’s shoulder. It’s hesitant, like the brush of fingers. “shut up.” A pause, and there’s the hint of magic, somewhere. Levi can smell it underneath the antiseptic. “i’m lucky to have you here.

An echo of an echo. Leather seats and magic and formaldehyde.

And then Levi says, “do you have any other questions for me?”)

Chapter Text

(Hot chocolate by the waterfront on a day that all three of them had managed to merge their schedules just enough get off work before sundown. Puget Sound had held the sun afloat, turning itself yellow-gold-orange with the effort of it all—but there’d been pink and purple at its farthest edges, ready for the coming dusk. The semi-constant cloud cover had framed the sun like a cap of painted cotton.

It’d been cold enough to see his own breath.

what’ve you been up to lately?” Farlan had asked, sniffling once. Winter had never much agreed with him, even before the calendar had told him that it’d arrived. “you’re never home when we call, you don’t leave notes, your phone is always going off in your pocket like you think we don’t notice...

Isabel had laughed, had thrown it into the breeze coming in from the Sound. It had smelled of saltwater, mingling with the steam rising from the mouth of the cup held between his hands.

Levi had shrugged, had thought of Eren, had cleared his throat. “i’ve been busy. work shit, work shit that you give me, life shit.” Another shrug, and the hot chocolate had been warm beneath his tongue. “you two are the ones that tell me i never get out enough.

A pause, filled with the whisper of the water, the cawing of seagulls circling the docks just out of sight, the endless chatter of traffic against pavement, deeper in the city. And then, “so, does that mean you’re getting out more?” Isabel had asked him, her eyebrows moving upward on her forehead in a way that asks far too many questions. He should’ve been more choosey with his words. “are you getting out with someone? with other people? i’m assuming you don’t mean hanji, or you would’ve said hanji.

you’ve been cultivating a social life and you didn’t even say anything?” Farlan had pointed at him with the lid of his cardboard cup, scattering loose beads of hot chocolate toward the Sound, only to have them pushed back to fall against the concrete. “this is obstruction of justice.

“stop using your fucking detective words like that’ll scare me.” Even breaths had led to an even reply, hd tasted of hot chocolate and saltwater, had been heavy with the urge to describe, in brief and vague detail, just how much his life had changed recently. But instead he’d said, “use them instead to keep us updated on your body-snatcher case. how’s that going?

Groaning, loud and put upon, and Farlan had almost thrown his cup into the wind in frustration.

Levi’s social life had been largely forgotten after that, had been swallowed by the lumbering of the police bureaucracy and Farlan’s curses against it. The sun had turned a burnt red in the water by then, and Isabel’s fingers had found their way between Farlan’s own. For moral support, for comfort, to calm him down.

For a moment, Levi could almost feel the other half of the city moving around him as it had started to rise underneath the shadows crawling through the city streets. But the city’s smell hadn’t changed, the seagulls hadn’t faded into something darker, and the traffic had been just as steady in the dusk as it had been in the late afternoon.

But his phone had vibrated in his pocket, and Levi had known that less-than-mortal things were stirring, were calling four o’clock in the afternoon the early morning, were tasting the twilight like others might taste the dawn.

And he’d smiled.)

There is something different about tonight.

The most obvious thing is that Eren is sitting outside the door to the morgue, tucked against the corner of the wall and the three-inch-thick plastic. The tile underneath his backside is probably fucking freezing, because the morgue is always fucking freezing—but he’s sitting there and staring down the hallway, his eyes lit from behind in the nauseating glare of the fluorescent lights. There’s dirt beneath his fingernails and there are no coffee cups in his hands, just like there’s no easy smile on his face, and there’s still the smell of formaldehyde and chilled-corpse hanging around in the space behind him.

Levi is caught between the urge to check his pulse and the urge to push his hair away from his forehead.

The corridor seems to vibrate with the humming of the lights, drawing out the shadows in the ugliest of places, making mildew-stains out of them, letting them crawl across the floor. Levi begins to feel the frequency in the roots of his teeth, in his sinuses. Whatever-this-is feels ominous, or maybe it just feels heavy, or maybe he just doesn’t have the word for what this feels like. It’s just… different.

And underneath everything, Levi can smell Eren’s magic—heather and rainwater and freshly turned earth.

“Eren?” It’s like a bubble pops when Levi speaks, scattering the almost-silence along the walls, lodging it into the grooves along the tile floor. He watches the force of it move through Eren’s body, from his shoulders to his feet, and it’s a little bit like watching a predator shift. It could be the angle that’s making him think that. It could be the way the shadows hover in the hollows of his cheeks, sharpening them to deadly points. It could be a lot of things.

When Eren looks up at him, his pupils are the size of moons.

“Oh shit,” he says, and he blinks slowly, as if his eyelids are heavier than they look. “Hey, Levi.”  

“Hey yourself.” Levi’s knees creak when he crouches down to sit beside him between the corner-space and the door to the morgue, settling his backpack onto the toes of his shoes. Down here Eren’s magic is thick, bleeding into the space around him. Levi’s hairs rise on his arms. “So… what’re you doing down here? Did you run into a black cat in the garage?”

Eren snorts, softer than the rustle of fabric, and he shakes his head. “First of all, that fear is rooted in baseless superstition. Second of all, cats like me just fine, it’s dogs that have an issue with the way I smell. And third—“ His eyes shift out of focus, falling away from Levi’s face to follow something else on the floor, or not on the floor, or… something, “third, the garage reeked of gasoline, and my head’s killing me. I thought I’d wait here instead.” A pause, and the hospital sings to itself around them tunelessly.

Eren lets the quiet fill the hallway without interruption, stretching toward the bulbous shape of the camera at the far end, with no light blinking to show that it’s even on.

A protective measure, probably.

The chill is worming its way through Levi’s skin toward his bones. It makes his teeth grind together, a little, and he can see it lifting goosebumps on Eren’s skin. This close, he can see countless other things—the dirt under Eren’s fingernails is also on his palms and his knuckles, the hair at his temples is stiff with sweat, and the stains on the knees of his jeans are beginning to flake in the way that blood does when it’s been sitting too long.

Levi can’t taste anything except Eren’s magic when he breathes in, worry needling at his stomach, his throat, the inside of his ears. When he swallows, he can feel fresh rainfall in his mouth, unspoiled by the sting of smog or acid or city life. It’s like being smothered, like there are strings of it clinging to his lips, like it’s piling on his shoulders and curling around his collarbones.

Eren picks up a different thread of a different conversation, stretching it taut between his fingertips, before Levi can open his mouth to break the silence.

“So how was work today? Did you do anything cool?” A smile, small and a little gray, pulls at the corners of his mouth. “Besides, you know, being in a giant refrigerator.”

Levi finds himself breathing out a laugh that reminds him of the morgue—cold and stinging of antiseptic, tasting of the powder on his nitrile gloves. It’s as if the air had changed in the space of the corridor, sending the afterimage of the night Eren’d had into a spiral down a floor drain. “Ha-ha. I’ve never heard that joke before. Were you holding onto it while you waited? Was the anticipation killing you?”

The smile widens, carves out Eren’s face, and his eyelashes go on forever. “That is a pretty funny joke.”

Levi’s cheeks go warm as he rolls his eyes, shoving Eren’s shoulder with one hand. His body gives way beneath it, wedging itself farther into the corner with a laugh that echoes, skipping down the entire length of the hallway before making its way back to them, rolling to rest at their feet. “That’s not what I meant, and you fucking know it. Your sense of humor is terrible.”

Laughter, louder and rising upward. Color makes its way back into Eren’s cheeks, smoothing out the edges of his cheekbones. When his eyes come back to Levi’s face, they’re glowing, and his pupils are narrowing into something that makes more sense, that looks like it hurts less, that seems more natural

No, wait. It seems more human.

“Come on! That was funny,” Eren says. “That was genuinely funny. You just don’t think it’s funny.”

Nobody thinks it’s funny. I can bet you six more takeout dinners that Connie doesn’t find it funny, and you eat like a fucking—I don’t know. Like a fucking bear about to hibernate.” It’s getting warmer in the corridor, or maybe the chill just isn’t bothering him anymore, but there’s a dryness to his lips that still feels like worry.

He can’t stop looking at the stains on Eren’s knees.

Indignation, a quiet presence between them, and a tone that feels like petulance. “Using magic burns calories, thanks. And I’m not taking that bet.” There's a pout pulling at his lips. Fucking Christ, he really is as young as he looks, isn't he?

But Levi's response is already out of his mouth before he can comment on Eren's expression, or his mouth, or his age. He doesn't like the way it tastes as it shoves its way past his teeth. “Why, because faeries only take bets that they can win?”

Silence falls again, and this time not even the light fixtures dare to break it.

Moments like this happen, Levi is coming to find. Atmospheric shifts, the bending of light, the constant freeze-and-thaw of things that are safe to say and things that aren’t. Levi watches it happen on Eren’s face, sees the meeting of worlds in his expression, sees the narrowing of his eyes and the jut of his chin and the tightening of the skin beside his eyes.

(“does this mean i’m free to ask whatever questions i want?” Levi had been pushing, then. Had shoved against Eren’s walls with both his hands, the challenge sour in his mouth. He’d spit it out like fruit-seeds, like chunks of gravel, like phlegm. “you were so gracious with that last one.

Eren’s face had done something similar, then. Levi had seen the—there had been pieces of Eren, sharp and made of stone, mashed together with his softer edges. It had been like watching two storm systems meet over an open horizon.

Levi’s throat had been burning with some kind of shame, as if he’d reached out and slapped Eren across his cheek.)

He expects Eren to brush him off, to ignore his question entirely, to keep talking until whatever tension is in his jaw disappears.

But Eren has never been predictable. Levi wonders when he'll come to terms with that.

“Something like that.” Eren’s voice is made of endless glass, catching the light and throwing it, making his words glitter like stars, or like snow, or like chips of polished rock. “Faerie wagers are a magic all on their own, and they can get people into a lot of trouble.” Eren smiles then, even if it doesn’t exactly look normal. “You more than me. I mean, I could’ve made that ‘six takeout dinners’ work more in my favor. It’s really not specific. Takeout , just like taking food out? I could make that cheap, even if I lost.”

“You,” Levi begins like he’d never said anything that had brought to mind the shattering of statues or the tearing of pages, and he keeps going just the same, “are being an absolute asshole right now and giving away all your magical secrets.”

“Not all of them,” Eren replies. “I did tell you that I love being an enigma. It keeps things interesting.”

Levi scoffs, ready to say something else, to carry this until his spine is frozen solid and his backside has gone completely numb—but Eren keeps going, rolling the shape of his words between his hands like clay in the heartbeat between one thought and the next.

“Really, though,” he says, and his knuckles crack when he flexes his fingers. The dirt beneath Eren’s nails is still distracting, “how was work?”

Levi’s backpack rustles against the toes of his sneakers as he shifts against the wall. “It was interesting, I guess. A legal dispute, but not quite involving the police department yet. A family wanted to know if the death of their business-mogul matriarch was foul-play or not before they start digging through her will.”

Eren laughs, more through his nose than his mouth, and it sticks to his lips. “Ha! Wow, that’s some Clue bullshit, isn’t it? Damn. What did you find out?” His eyebrows arch and his smile goes crooked, and for the first time tonight Eren looks more like… himself. “Unless that’s privileged information. I probably don’t need to know.”

Levi snorts, shaking his head. “What’re you gonna do? Tell your faerie friends about morgue drama? Report me to the ethics board? No one ever sees me with you, so would they really believe you anyway?”

More laughter, absolutely unrestrained. Levi’s lucky, he supposes, that he works in the basement where people rarely go. Surely someone would’ve caught them by now—or maybe it’s less about the basement and more about extra protections. Maybe there’d been a reason for the smell of magic curling around Eren’s shoulders like a second skin.

“Yikes! You’re right. Nobody would believe me, and I’d never tell anyone.” Eren stretches out his legs in front of him, and the stains on his knees crack with the motion, splitting into microcontinents against the denim. “Besides, where would I get my gossip and thrills then? There’s only so long you can make charms before your brain starts to go numb.”

The hallway tumbles when Levi rolls his eyes. “You’re trying to pretend you’re boring, and it’s not working.”

Eren nudges him, his elbow against Levi’s, and his smile is small and soft. “I learned it from you, obviously.”

“Shut up,” Levi tells him. “God. Whatever. How’s your work been? You’re looking a little too filthy to’ve been on charm duty all night. Did you get in a scuffle with a goblin?”

“You’re just making shit up,” Eren says, and his eyes move away from Levi’s face, their color going dull beneath… something. Curtains. Shutters. Walls. “Goblins always travel in packs. I’d never scuffle with just one goblin.”

This is a redirect. Tangentially relevant, but only holding itself together with threads, with spider silk, with halves of halves of hair. Levi has become very familiar with how these maneuvers feel, how they move against his skin, how they turn into rivers large enough for the original question to get lost in—just like he’s become very familiar with the act of swimming against the current.

“Of course. My mistake,” Levi replies, and his fingertips feel cold when he presses them against one another. “Did you scuffle with a pack of goblins? A horde, maybe? Or did you trip on your way across the street to get here?”

The air around them pops as if it’s alive with energy, with static, with something. And the only thing that comes out of Eren’s mouth is, “no.”

It breathes against the floor like mist, trying to disappear before it can turn into anything else, before it can form into a sentence or an explanation. It leaves footprints down the hall that wash away when the air conditioning rumbles to life, the aluminum tubing rattling softly down the hallway. Nothing else follows it, and Eren’s lips thin, chapped skin brushing against chapped skin in a way that has to be uncomfortable.

The cold is more apparent when it’s quiet like this. It’s surprising that Levi doesn’t see his breath when he says, “then what happened to you? Seems to me that you’re not…” It’s a struggle, finding the word that he needs. The one that he ends up settling for is, “yourself.”

Eren blinks, then. He blinks, and his lips twist, and the skin beside his eyes wrinkles. Shadows flicker beside the edges of his pupils, and the color in his cheeks washes out just enough to make his skin look blue or gray or—

“Levi,” Eren says, and his voice is a wire pulled tight, threatening to split apart at the center, “I really don’t want to talk about it right now.”

Levi doesn’t know how to respond to that with anything other than silence.

It’s an explanation in and of itself, really. It’s the reason behind the atmosphere, the driving force behind the thick film of difference that’s splayed upon the walls and Eren’s features and his posture. It’s alarming enough to give rise to ice chips in his lungs, to make them gather against his sternum.

Eren begins to pick at the dirt beneath his fingernails. The sound doesn’t even make it halfway down the corridor before it fades into nothing.

That’s what probably makes it seem so jarring when Eren clears his throat. “I didn’t bring coffee today, so I should make it up to you,” he says. The skin underneath his left thumbnail is clean by then. “I can’t say that I forgot, or anything, but you know how it gets when you’re in a rush somewhere. I guess I would’ve rather been empty-handed than late.

“Eren,” Levi’s tone feels like a warning in his mouth, scalding his hard palate. Or—hm. Maybe it tastes more like shame, a bitter weight on his tongue. He’s got a habit of stepping in shit when he speaks, and he wishes that he could just fucking learn to stop already. “I really don’t give a shit about the coffee.”

“Okay,” and Eren’s tone is lighter, this time. Levi can’t tell if he’s faking it or not, but his eyes are shining, even through whatever-it-is that’s happening inside them. “Rephrase. We should do something. Let me take you somewhere.”

Levi doesn’t know what this is, this thing growing beneath his ribs. Eren’s smile softens, pulls at the corners of his eyes, and Levi’s bones crack beneath the weight of it, squeezing his lungs, making his fingers feel like liquid despite the chill.

Eren doesn’t look human in lighting like this, with the way it cuts his jaw, his chin, his fucking cheekbones—but he doesn’t look entirely inhuman either, and Levi finds himself noticing it more often lately. He’d seen it in the library, had caught it on the street, when his whole body had been alive with laughter and the thrill of being almost-caught.

There’s something about the way the shadows of his magic waver, a little, beneath the weight of a smile like this one, though—the way the wrinkles beside his eyes lose their tension. There are so many things that happen on Eren’s face at any given time, and all of them are just this side of too-beautiful.

Levi thinks he wants to kiss him.

His brain bounces against that thought, the marrow of his bones going through some sort of ice-cold whiplash as his body tries to compensate for the force of it—going from concern to humor to this—and it makes his throat too dry to swallow properly. His toes curl inside the fabric of his shoes, and when he speaks it’s as if there’s desert sand scraping between his teeth.

“Does that mean you have somewhere in mind?” he says, and his backpack shifts again on the toes of his sneakers. The zippers rattle like wind chimes.

A hint of a fragment of humor, tucked at one corner of Eren’s lips. It seems to make his skin glow, as if he’s lit from inside. “Have you ever wanted to see a Welsh sunrise?”

Levi snorts, even as the breath gets squeezed from his lungs. “Is this the part where you tell me that Seattle sunrises are strikingly similar, and you suggest we go see one from, I don’t know, a mountaintop or something? Isn’t sunrise practically past your bedtime?” He can feel his eyebrows arch in his forehead as the barely-there amusement moves across his face like a—like a fucking shooting star.

“I mean, I guess technically it’s past my bedtime,” Eren tells him. “But that’s not the point, because this is actually the part where I tell you that we’re going to Wales.”

Laughter bursts from Levi’s throat, an unstoppable force. This is so—it’s unbe-fucking-lievable. Bringing stars to life is one thing. Casting memory spells and crafting sleeping charms is something else. But going from one side of the globe to the other? That’s unreal. It’s unreal, incredible, impossible. He’s collected a lot of poetry in his lifetime—from adventures to epics to faerie rhymes. He’s ended up reading even more than he’s owned, and he’s never heard of anything quite like this.

Then again, he supposes, if anyone could promise transatlantic travel and mean it, it’d be Eren.

“You’re serious?” Levi says, the too-loud echo of his disbelief still sliding down the walls in a liquid pattern. “You’re completely serious.”

“Absolutely,” Eren replies, and his clothes rustle as he pushes himself upright, the red-brown stains on his knees flaking as he does. Handprints shift against the denim on his thighs, the same dark color as the mess on his knees.

When Eren offers out a hand for Levi to take, his palm is completely clean.

Eren’s grip is solid as he pulls Levi to his feet, already lifting Levi’s work-bag with his free hand to hold it within reach. Levi can feel his legs creak as he shifts his weight between them, can feel his spine trying to stretch itself out from where he’d been sitting too long against the absolutely freezing tile. It’s only when Levi rolls his shoulders, loosening the tension in his neck, that Eren taps his fingers against Levi’s own sternum with that fucking half-smile still hanging from his lips.

“You’re going to need to stand back for your own safety, sir,” Eren says, and fuck if there isn’t something impish flirting with the arch of his eyebrows. “Keep your hands and feet attached to your body at all times.”

Levi snorts, taking three steps backward and crossing his arms loosely over his chest as Eren makes his way toward the plastic-and-rubber doors that separate the hallway from the morgue. He can feel goosebumps rising underneath the weight of his coat, the fabric doing nothing to eat through the chill of the freshly-dead. Or maybe that’s just the admiration, the thrill of watching magic in action. Something like that.

Eren braces one hand on the metal doorframe, tapping out a slow pattern with one knuckle of the other against the almost-hollow plastic of the doors. His voice is low and melodic, but the words are unintelligible at this volume. The only thing Levi knows about this spell is that it’s making his stomach knot, making his mouth go dry, makes... the hallway seem almost warm.

The fluorescent lights flicker as the smell of heather and rainfall rise up from the tile floor, and the atmosphere buzzes with... everything. Levi’s ears pop underneath its pressure, and a breeze pulls at his clothes with all the force of a human hand. His backpack shifts against his spine as he shifts his weight to keep himself solidly on his feet.

And then the doors of the morgue rush inward, their shape clapping against the doorframe hard enough that Levi’s almost surprised that they don’t fall from their hinges.

What’s on the other side of those doors is definitely not the morgue.

Eren takes half-a-step back, out of the reach of shadows that look like they’re writhing just outside the reach of the corridor’s lights. Tendrils of them cling to the edges of the doors, where they would be pushing through thick strips of plastic if they’d been opening into the morgue like they’d been supposed to. The impression of lights, flickering in the shadows’ depths, make Levi’s eyes ache, make his sinuses feel as if there’s something heavy pooling inside them.

Levi opens his mouth to ask a question—to wonder out loud what the fuck is in his morgue, to ask what the point of this particular show of magic is, to get information as to how this shit manifested so quickly when his workspace had been entirely clean almost half-an-hour ago.

But all the things he’d wanted to know turn to dust on his tongue as a man steps out of the darkness and into the hallway proper. There’s... nothing sharp about him. He’s made entirely of human lines, his pupils the width of a mortal man’s, the stubble stretching from the hollows of his cheeks to the curve of his chin looking absolutely and completely normal. The only thing of note about him at all is the tattoo of a single dark feather, curling around the back of his left ear and trailing down his hairline, its shaft disappearing beneath the collar of a well-worn coat.

None of the shifting shadows are clinging to him. At all.

More questions, all of them fighting for attention behind Levi’s teeth—except the man is already laughing, already speaking loudly with an accent that’s not-at-all like Eren’s own, already pulling Eren into a hug with one hand.

“Holy shit, look at you,” the man says, ruffling Eren’s hair before the embrace is even over. “You’ve gotten so fucking tall, you know that kid?” He keeps one hand on Eren’s elbow as he pulls out of his, the crow’s feet by his eyes bending with good humor—ages of good humor, though he can’t be much older than his late forties, maybe. “You’re a giant. Eren fucking Jaeger, all grown up.”

Eren’s hair is a goddamn mess as the unidentified man ruffles his hair for the second time, and Levi can see that he’s probably grimacing, even though he can’t see any part of his face from this angle.

“Can you stop that, please? You’re embarrassing me.” Eren steps away from the man who isn’t letting go of his arm, turning so that Levi has a now-unimpeded view of them both.

“Embarrassing?” A pause, and Levi finds himself meeting blue eyes the color of some washed-out photograph of the ocean in the middle of the day. He could say something here, if his brain could cacth up to the rest of this situation—to the shadows and the mysterious maybe-mortal man. “Ah. And who’s this?”

Beneath the smell of Eren’s magic, Levi can smell something else. Cedar-wood incense and rose water.

“This,” Eren says, exasperation pulling his skin tight across his cheeks, “is Levi. He’s the doctor whose morgue you literally just walked out of. He’s a friend of mine.”

“A morgue?” Eyebrows, arching high toward a sandy-blonde hairline. “What are you doing in a morgue?

Eren smiles, then, and it loosens something in his eyes. It almost looks easy. “You’d be surprised.” He sniffs once, rubbing at his nose before he continues, his attention falling onto Levi in a way that makes his lungs flutter with the reminder that they’re supposed to be used. “Levi, this is Hannes. He was my babysitter.”

“He makes it sound a lot less glamorous than it really was, I promise.” He can place is accent, almost. Hannes’. It’s not French, and it’s not quite Slavic, so—German, maybe? Levi can’t be sure. “He got into a lot of mischief when he was really little. He was curious little bear.”

“I did not, and I wasn’t.” Eren’s nose wrinkles, his eyebrows furrowing just enough to make his eyes look darker. It might be intimidating, somehow, if his cheeks weren’t pink with sheepishness. “But I didn’t actually ask you here just to introduce you Levi. I called for a favor.”

“That’s what happens when kids grow up, they only call when they need something.” Levi doesn’t know who Hannes is talking to, but there’s a flare for the dramatic in him somewhere. Surely it has to be for someone’s benefit. “But what did you need?”

Hannes has to look up, just slightly, to meet Eren’s eyes when he turns his head back to face him. It makes Levi wonder if this must be weird for someone that Eren had called his babysitter. It makes him wonder when they’d spoken last. “I’d like you to take us to Wales for a couple hours,” Eren tells him. “The sunrise is beautiful this time of year.”

A slow blink, still human-looking enough that Levi can’t quite call it feline. “You want me to take you to Wales.” Hannes’ glance feels like a flicker of dew against Levi’s cheek before his eyes are already back on Eren’s face. “Both of you?”

Eren nods, just as slowly as Hannes’ blink at been. The fluidity of the movement looks a little less human on him. “Yeah. Both of us. He’s never seen it, and it’s something that everyone should be allowed to look at once.”

Hannes lifts a hand to his mouth, the length of his index finger pressed against the space between his lower lip and the beginning of his chin. “Does your mother know that you’re planning to step on her soil for your adventure, little bear?”

Ah, a familiar feeling in the pause that stretches between them—ice across the surface of a lake, stretching from the shoreline to the center with no discernable movement beneath it. And then, “are you going to tell her?”

Hannes’ mouth moves for an answer. His lips part, and his chest inflates with whatever might come out of it. But this time, Levi breaks into the conversation first, the pieces of all the things he’d had to say falling to the tile floor, pushed from between his lips by the question already leaping from his tongue.

“Does she need to know?” Levi asks, and he can feel his eyebrows rising in a way that has to look incredulous.

For a second, the only sound in the hallway is the humming of the lightbulbs. Not even the shadows still shifting inside the morgue—or not-the-morgue—have nothing to add to the lack of noise. But then Hannes laughs, just as loudly as he had when he’d seen Eren standing in the doorway, and it really is a fucking blessing that the morgue is located so far beneath the hospital proper. There’s been so much noise down here tonight already.

“I can see why you’re a friend of Eren’s!” Hannes scatters his words like coins, letting them clatter wherever they land. Some of them sound heavier than others—particularly when he continues by saying, “are you sure that you want to make the walk?”

It feels like a challenge, even if it isn’t one. Levi knows it isn’t one. And yet his teeth grind together and his jaw sets, and he can feel stubbornness pushing rods through the center of his bones. “Why wouldn’t I be sure?”

“You’re human, right?” Hannes lifts one of his eyebrows, cocking out one hip in a way that reminds Levi so much of Eren, even as Eren himself is covering his eyes with one hand. The question isn’t left in the air long enough for Levi to answer before Hannes is already pushing forward, “right. Travelling through Doorways isn’t something that mankind just does. We’ll be walking Between—and mortal eyes weren’t meant to see that.”

so what? is the response already crawling its way up Levi’s throat. But Eren takes the conversation between two fingers, and for the first time since Levi had met him, his is the softest voice present.

“You know the story of Eurydice,” he says, and it’s not a question. “This would be... similar but different. You’d have to keep your eyes closed and hold onto my hand so that you don’t get lost, or trip over anything or...” He trails off, dropping his hand from his eyes, and his lips are pressed thin. He doesn’t keep speaking.

Levi sighs, and it tastes like Eren’s magic. Tension that he hadn’t even felt gathering bleeds out from his shoulders. When he speaks, it isn’t to Hannes—if he can have a conversation without Levi being involved, well, the reverse is just as true. “I can see why you didn’t open with that originally, but you probably should’ve explained what we were going to do.”

Eren’s skin goes gray, a little, the color bleeding out of his cheeks. “It’s not exactly a selling point. It’s also not very—“ his lips twist and his eyes drop to the floor. “I can’t open Doorways myself. I need someone else to—“ The same expression, for the second time, and then nothing.

“Eren,” Levi says, “just ask me again. Give me the uncensored version of what we’re going to do tonight.” Silence, stony and filled with the humming of the lights and the trailing edges of rainwater and heather and soil. “You keep asking me to trust you. Return the favor, and ask me again.”

A sudden influx of color back into Eren’s face, turning his cheeks dark. It’s funny, really. He looks embarrassed, only this time he’d done it to himself, more-or-less.

“Fine,” Eren replies. “Okay. Levi, do you want walk through an uncomfortable number of dead people so that we can go to my childhood home for a couple hours to see the sunrise?” Levi can see his jaw working around an expected refusal, just like he can see Hannes’ eyes flickering between them both from where he stands at Eren’s side.

It really is comical—and a little bit sad, the way Eren’s face walls itself up like that.

It is then that Levi says, “yes, I’d love to, thanks for asking.”

What’s funnier, of course, is what happens when Eren’s surprised—and besides, it’s only fair that Levi return that favor, in pieces. He doesn’t think he’ll ever really be able to outdo Eren when it comes to the unexpected. But this face? The way Eren’s eyebrows are arching and his face just relaxes, the way his cheeks can’t seem to decide just how deep they want their color to go, the way his eyes can’t seem to settle anywhere on Levi’s face? That’s good enough, he thinks.

Hannes’ palm against Eren’s shoulder breaks the chatter of the hospital’s electrical equipment, and the smile on his face deepens the furrows by his mouth, his eyes, across the bridge of his nose.

“Kid,” Hannes says, shifting his arm to hold Eren’s neck in the crook of his elbow, even as he’s met with half-murmured swears, “I think I like him.”

Eren shoves him away as he makes a face, stepping just out of reach, smoothing out his clothes with one hand. He shakes out his hair in an attempt to settle it, to fix the admiration that it had been through. It doesn’t help.

He turns to Levi with an open hand, looking totally abashed—fucking embarrassed, like he can’t believe any of the exchanges just took place in the middle of the hallway in a hospital basement. But his eyes are shining, and there’s still a fraction of a piece of a smile holding tightly to his lips.

“Does that mean you’re ready?” Eren asks. Levi watches the way his mouth works his way around the words as he says them, watches the way his eyelashes kiss the bruise-colored smudges beneath his eyes. “It really is uncomfortable. And you really can’t open your eyes.”

Concern, soft in the hollows beneath Eren’s cheekbones.

Levi’s pretty sure he still wants to kiss him.

(“we’re running for the door,” Eren had told him, had smelled so strongly of his own magic, and his eyes had been catching the planetarium light like the stars they’d been in another life. His voice had been threatening to buckle beneath barely-contained laughter. “hold your breath.” His fingers had been warm, and solid, and callused.

Levi’s read poems like this, over the course of his life—read poems and heard stories about mysterious and magical strangers that bewitch mortal souls. They’ve been written in religious texts and novels, passed through oral traditions and painted on murals.

He’d known then, just like he knows now, how tales like this often end.)

“I’m ready, I won’t open my eyes, and you’re taking your sweet fucking time,” Levi replies, and Eren laughs in a way that brings to mind fog on the surface of Puget Sound, curling between the support pillars of different piers along the city’s coast. It raises the hairs at the back of Levi’s neck, like everything else Eren does when his voice looks like that, when his face looks like that, when he looks at Levi like that.

He doesn’t kiss him in this hallway, with the mortal-looking stranger watching them both.

But he does take Eren’s hand, lacing their fingers together, and the fluorescent lights hum softly as they step into the shadows where the morgue should’ve been.

-

(Franz’s blood had still been flaking from his knees as they’d walked through the Doorway between life and its after. The shadows had whispered, had brushed over Eren’s body like worn cotton, had opened up into a barely-visible pathway made of cobblestones.

Thick branches had poised themselves in a canopy, too tightly woven to let through any in any light. Ravens and turtledoves murmured together, somewhere out of Eren’s line of sight—but that wasn’t saying much. There hadn’t been a whole lot within his line of sight to begin with, except the vague shapes that hurt his eyes to look at, the curve of Hannes’ shoulders, and the shape of Franz Kefka, holding Eren’s bicep with a rigid grip.

Levi’s hand had been shaking in Eren’s own.

The shadows in front of them had trembled when Hannes turned his head to speak, their movement making Eren’s head swim, rattling against the city-noise beating against the inside of his skull. “you don’t look very well, kiddo,” he’d said, and it had sounded as if his voice had been coming from far away, from the mouth of a tunnel, from behind a too-thick wall. “been firing all pistons lately?

Eren had squeezed Levi’s hand, once. He’d heard Franz’s labored breathing beside him, bubbling softly through the hole in his chest. He’d been able to feel the way his blood had been congealing on his own knees, had been able to hear the cracked-ice laughter of the Sluagh.

He’d been able to taste his own blood in his mouth, and had wiped at his nose with his thumb.

you know what they say,” Eren had replied, his words almost getting lost in the chatter of too-many ravens, still tucked away in the dark. “no rest for the wicked, and all of that shit.”

He’d been rewarded with no laughter, and if there’d been a sigh it had been lost in the ambient noises of the path they’d chosen—whispered last words and faded memories, vestiges of the dead as they made their way into the world that comes after. More than memories lived in that place.

A child’s laughter, somewhere—familiar. Heather and rainwater—and then the taste of river-mud and reeds. The pop of bubbles as they’d rose to the surface. The flicker of green eyes in a break between the shadows, the glimmer of water clinging to the eyelashes there, mud beneath fingernails stuck to the soles of shoes.

And beneath all of that, the smell of his mother’s magic—cedar wood incense and rose water.

we’re almost there,” Eren had said, keeping his eyes forward even as he’d been speaking over his shoulder, had raised his voice to make himself heard over the rasp of Franz’s breathing. “you okay?

please tell me that this shit will be easier on the return trip,” Levi had replied. He’d spoken softly, had almost thrown his voice onto the cobblestones to hide against the moss there. His eyes had been closed, squeezed shut, and Eren had only barely been able to see the dead curling around his shoulders like mist.

this shit will be easier on the return trip.”

A sigh had rattled Levi’s shoulders, even if Eren had been unable to hear it. “you mean that?

Eren had held Levi’s fingers, then. He’d squeezed them tightly as he’d watched Hannes turn his head to eavesdrop. “do you want me to swear, like, an oath or something? i think I’ve got enough juice for that. ‘if I’m a liar, turn me into a toad,’ or... whatever.

Laughter, and it had been surprising. “no,” Levi had told him, and Eren had been sure he had no idea what that kind of thing did to him. It felt like someone had been squeezing his heart between two hands. “you’re always saying what a shit liar you are.

i am,” Eren had said, and the cobblestones had begun to turn into grass under the soles of his shoes.

and i trust you.”

Hannes’ shape had fleshed out, had become outlined in the undecided dimness of late-night-early-morning. Eren had seen the shadows beginning to break around him, had been almost able to catch the smell of the moorlands, underneath the pathways of the dead.

yeah.” Eren’s voice was an obstruction in his throat, and it had tasted of the blood in his nose. “i know you do.”)

God above, he’s missed this fucking place.

The cemetery at the cathedral smells like the rest of town—like moorland and recent rain, like the lingering weight of gasoline and winter settling in, like old brick and the rivers on either one of its ends. It’s fucking nostalgic, reeks of childhood memories, and even with Seattle beating its rhythm at the back of his skull, he can feel the magic here. Sure, it isn’t his own, and he’s not even sure he could use it, now that it’s been so long, but he can feel it, and it makes his chest ache.

It also makes him a little bit nauseous.

“You’re good to open your eyes,” Eren’s breath comes out white when he speaks, and his free hand trembles as he wipes at a line of blood that keeps trying to leak from his nose.

“A cemetery,” Levi says from his place at Eren’s shoulder, and he sounds entirely unimpressed with where they’d ended up. But the chill is already bringing color back into his cheeks, and his hand only shaking a little within the grip of Eren’s own from the—the walk they’d just taken. “We’re in a cemetery.”

“We started in a morgue,” Eren replies. “Doorways like this connect one place where dead people are to another. It’s how gravekeepers get around.” He nods at Hannes in front of them, lounging against a headstone that might be as old as he is, moss clinging to its base. “That’s, uh—he’s one. They... collect the dead. Help them move on.”

“So they’re like the Grim Reaper, but multiplied.” Eren’s heard this tone before. It’s the calm before the storm—the kind prefaced by the noise of the Hunt, or the whisper of water leaking from a broken pipe and onto shattered concrete, or the absolute freezing feeling of an autopsy table against the naked skin of his backside.

And better dressed.” Hannes looks up at them both, his eyes looking some weird, incandescent orange-yellow from the lights at the edges of the graveyard’s wall. It’s unsettling, even when Eren knows they’re blue. “But don’t you youngsters have a sunrise you’re waiting for? A night on the town to experience? Trouble to inevitably get me in?”

Ha-ha.” His own footsteps are silent against the stairs, though Levi’s are just half-a-sigh louder as he follows behind him, their hands still linked. Eren doesn’t know who’s supposed to let go first. He’s never actually led someone through a Door before. “You’re funny. We’ll meet you back here just after sun-up?”

There are questions crowding Hannes expressions, and they look nothing like the questions Levi asks him. There’s too much worry there from too long ago, and there’s catching up he wants to do, and all of it is digging into Eren’s skin with half-bitten nails, their jagged edges looking for purchase.

It’d been risky to do this. He’d known that going in. Hannes had always had a place at his mother’s ear, just like he also knew a shitload of Eren’s history, and all his baby stories, and all the—everything. It’s a test, maybe. Eren’s testing himself, and he’s testing Hannes, and he’s testing... Levi?

No. That isn’t what he’s doing.

He’s sharing.

His family and the place he grew up. The views from his childhood, the way this town smells, the side streets and the landmarks, the Welsh-written streetsigns and the—rivers.

Feels more like a romantic comedy when he puts it like that.

“I’ll be here,” Hannes says into the silence that had stretched just a little bit too long. “Try not to get carried away. I know how kids today can be when they have a night off.” A smile pulls at his stubble, nudges his eyebrows up his forehead like there’s something hidden in what he’s saying, and this feels like something that could’ve happened in any number of novels that he’d read. Over dinner, maybe. With less ravens and more—whatever. He doesn’t know. More something.

The ground is somewhere between hard-and-soft beneath their feet as they cross the cemetery-proper, weaving between cross-shaped headstones and polished stone nameplates. The grass hisses with the sharp edges of winter frost every step of the way.

Levi’s fingers are still a vice on his own. They’ve gone numb.

Neither of them say anything as they reach the edge of the churchyard itself, the single-lane road stretching past their feet and into the town itself, almost-leafless trees standing to either side of the street itself. It’s a little bit atmospheric, this early in the morning. Smells like ancient magic, rising from the dirt, mingling with the newer, electric hum of modernity sitting in the powerlines and on roadways, sleeping in houses or working a restaurant.

And so Eren decides to ruin the atmosphere by speaking.

“So,” he says, a breeze whispering through empty boughs as it dances down the street, “I’m sorry about the... walk. The... Door. The...”

“Shut up.” Eren hadn’t thought that Levi’s grip could get much tighter, and is proven wrong. “I was just—surprised. I didn’t expect—“ Words in the shape of fog, a sharp exhale that looks like steam, and then, “the description was a little vague. I guess I just—“ Another pause, this time emphasized by thinning lips. “What do you hear, when you walk through a—a Door?”

Ivy glitters with frost across the road, clinging to a stone wall of the same make as the one at their backs. Eren keeps his eyes there when he replies, “that’s a complicated question.”

“‘Complicated’ like you don’t want to tell me?” It’s not an accusation per se—it’s like Levi’s waiting to decide if it’s an accusation or not. Eren hadn’t known there was a tone for that. “Or ‘complicated’ like I’d need a degree in—that.”

Eren snorts, and he can feel what’s left of his nosebleed freeze inside his nostrils. “It’s complicated like it’s complicated. The—we literally walked through dead people. What you hear depends on who’s haunting you at the time. If it’s nobody, it’s white noise, or ambient shit. Like—wind through tree branches. Crows or something cawing from some indeterminate distance. Rain on cobblestones.” It’s too cold for his palms to sweat, but he can feel them trying. “What’d you hear?”

Another breeze, and then silence settles again. It’s quiet enough that Eren can almost hear the dryads snoring beneath the bark of their trees. A Barghest howls, out in the moors somewhere, and another one answers—and another one. The sounds raise goosebumps under the collar of his jacket as they fade into... music? Into—laughter, out in the darkness and far away.

Well, he supposes, it is the faerie time of year. He’d just forgotten what rural fae were like.

Eren clears his throat to break the stalemate between the wind and the distant celebration of the fae. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t’ve asked. That was—it’s different for everybody, is what I mean—“

“Flatlines.” Levi interrupts him, and it’s quick enough that it hits the asphalt like he’d spit it there, breaking into pieces like glass. “Flatlines, like on heart monitors? Crash carts. The high-pitched whine of one charging. Someone was crying, but I—“ The ivy trembles as the nighttime drags its fingers through the leaves, and Eren watches it. “You said that—you said the return trip would be easier.”

Despite their grip, Levi’s fingers are pliant enough when Eren squeezes them gently. “Yeah. You should just hear pretty standard ‘meditation sounds’ on the way back. Going through a Door keeps the dead firmly where they belong.” Eren hums, lifting his gaze from the ivy to the stars, pinned to the sky like silver dust. Fuck, he’d forgotten that there’d been so many. “Ghosts usually hang around when they feel like they’re leaving someone behind without... support? Gratitude? I don’t know. Sounds like you were haunted.”

He thinks of the specters he’d seen curling around Levi’s body, even obscured by the Otherworld’s shadows as they’d been. They’d wanted to say something—but then, the dead always leave something unsaid.

(Tonight had, in the simplest of terms, been fucking rough.

Franz’s blood had been congealing on Eren’s knees, leaking from any number of wounds. His chest had been pulled open, a hole carved out in his ribcage. His eyes had been open and staring at nothing, and his skin had been white enough that his veins had looked like scripture against it.

Blood had been caked on his fingers, too. Had gotten beneath his fingernails as he’d checked for a pulse.

It had made him want to vomit, the way it’d felt almost like gel by then.

But he didn’t.)

“Did you know that?” Levi sounds a little bit incredulous, and Eren can almost trace the way his nose must be wrinkling one particular line of stars. “That I was being haunted by shit, and you didn’t tell me?”

Eren’s lips are chapped when he rolls them over his teeth, but he smiles anyway. “Nah, didn’t know for sure. I can’t see dead people. I didn’t get blessed with that skill. Can’t fucking raise the dead either.” A wisp of a cloud blurs a fraction of the stars in his field of vision as it makes its way to the—east? Toward the sun. “But I could’ve guessed, yeah. You were a surgeon.”

“So, what, you decided that we’d go to Wales for a cleanse?” Ah. Yeah, that’s definitely incredulity, and definitely an accusation. And it’s just a little bit unwarranted, really. Levi has a habit of making Eren out to be far kinder than he is, in some ways.

“No,” Eren tells him. “I decided to go to Wales because you took me to—you showed me where you—“ It’s difficult to describe what Levi had shown him in a way that makes sense. Eren can already feel himself failing. “Well, anyway, we live in your hometown, and I thought that—I—“ Shit, his head hurts, and he can feel his sinuses getting ready to leak blood again, and for a second the sky sways, even though he’s standing completely still. “I wasn’t actually thinking, probably. Call it whimsy. The exorcism was just a bonus. But congratulations, you’ll probably sleep even better, charm-free.”

In the second-third-fourth silence that follows, Eren wonders if Hannes might be eavesdropping on them from the graveyard at their backs. And just as quickly he decides he doesn’t care overmuch if he is. So what? He already knew they were coming to Wales, and the only thing Eren had done was present as an inarticulate tool. Nothing new.

The branches rattle and Levi’s grip eases on Eren’s fingers, but he doesn’t let them go.

“You sure as shit don’t give yourself a lot of credit,” Levi says.

“Maybe you just give me too much.” How can their hands be as warm as they are when it’s this fucking cold? “But did you want to actually start walking in the direction of the moors, or did you just want to stand, like, ten meters from where we got dropped off?”

Levi’s laughter is like—a firework. A cannon. The—the breathless sound of tires on asphalt that’s been layered over by fresh rain. Or—Eren doesn’t know. But he lets go of Eren’s hand to press his fingers to his mouth, muffling anything else with them, digging his teeth into his lower lip with a snort.

He’s gorgeous, Eren thinks. Some kind of stunning. The kind of beautiful that doesn’t feel toxic when it’s touched.

The human kind of extraordinary that his mom had told him stories about.

(“humankind is beautiful,” she’d said, and she hadn’t even known she’d think herself a liar one day. Her finger had been soft against his cheek. “like you.”)

“Okay, fine. Let’s see what this is all about,” Levi says, his cheeks pink but colored like grapefruit with the streetlight positioned as it is. “Lead the way.” The stormclouds of his eyes look backlit by moonlight when he smiles, tucking his hands back into the pockets of his coat. “I get to keep my eyes open for the tour part, right?”

“You think I’m not funny, but you ask me that?” Eren’s legs feel stiff as he starts walking toward the intersection down the street, but he thinks he can feel laughter somewhere in his body. Maybe in the warmth of his palms. “But yes, you get to keep your eyes open. Otherwise you’ll miss all the pointing that I’ll be doing for your benefit.”

There’s still a wan-ness to Levi’s cheeks as he smiles, and there are still shadows beneath his eyes, but his shoulders seem lighter when he says, “right. So what’ve we got to the left and right?”

Eren gestures with a flourish of his wrist, holding his hand, palm-up, to the right. “Well, to the right we have the River Clwyd way, way over there, and we’ll be heading that way last. To our left, past all these buildings and shit, we have the River Elwy, which is what this place is named for.”

The street is empty as they take their left, and Levi hums. It carries far in the almost-stillness. “Tell me the name of this place again.”

“Llanelwy. Church on the River Elwy. Saint Asaph in the, you know, conqueror’s tongue.”

“Ha.” Levi’s fingers brush against the stone façade of buildings in the cathedral’s style, a sigh in the sporadically-broken dark. “It’s got two Ls though. You say ‘chan-elway.

“Nope.” Eren’s feet are moving in a way that doesn’t feel natural here. It’s all city-pulse and the push-pull of the tide, all noise and the end of academic semesters, all Sluagh and the—and the coming winter solstice. “I say Llanelwy, you just can’t make that sound with your mouth because you weren’t taught. You can say Saint Asaph, if you want.”

Eren knows that exact expression—the set of Levi’s jaw and the almost-scathing glace. It’s the look that said ‘i don’t want to forget anything,’ the one that demanded answers. “No. I’ll figure it out, thanks.” He scuffs the heel of one shoe against the sidewalk, shifting the weight of his backpack on his shoulders. “So you were born here? Seems kind of small for a personality like yours.”

He can taste the hint of saltwater, can feel it hitting the back of his tongue to mingle with—with riverwater. With riverwater and mud and the last swell of air in his—“Technically, I was born one town over in Bodelwyddan, because the hospital’s there, but more-or-less this is it.”

It’s just this side of hilarious when Levi’s eyebrows arch as he tries to figure out how to spell whatever it is that had come out of Eren’s mouth. It’s funnier still to watch him work his mouth around the syllables. “It’s fucking quiet. I thought this was one of those places that was supernatural central, where all the fae stories come from.”

The smell of Indian takeaway rises from up the street, one of the only places open so early, before the sun has the opportunity to even get a leg up on the stars. Eren doesn’t remember if it had been there when he was younger or not. Probably not. His stomach growls anyway.

“It is where the stories come from, yeah,” Eren says. “Because of that, smaller towns tend to mind their own business, and the faeries tend to live outside them. Mortals here and up north? They’re fucking superstitious, and they’re more likely to be able to catch glimpses of—the fae, of us—than, say, anyone who lives back home. The nightlife over there? A community within a city. The nightlife over here?” He shrugs and his shoulders grind in their sockets. “Children have a bedtime for a reason. People that don’t usually have someone they pray to, or made a deal with something that lives in the middle of some farmland no one’s touched in years.”

“So how’d you get by, then?” Eren can already see the question was a reflex, can see the way Levi shuts his in the split-second of regret. It’s not a new expression by any means, but it hurts, still. Stings, a little. “I—sorry. That wasn’t the right—“

“Kids like me age like—like people.”

“Eren, what the fuck, you’re still people—“

“Kids like me age like people until we hit our magic, and then everything slows down. I guess the fae genetic system kicks in when a human would hit some sort of puberty, and then it staves that off until fuck knows when.” Christ, that takeaway place smells good. He really shouldn’t’ve burned through his magic like he had. He really should’ve at least tucked a granola bar in his back pocket. “Besides, no one’s going to say, ‘I think your kid or your wife or whoever is a soul-sucker.’ Most of the time.”

Disbelief gives way to bemusement, gives way to displeasure, gives way to, “most of the time.” Levi’s nose wrinkles, and he kicks a loose stone down the slope ahead of them, lined with closed restaurants and the single Indian takeaway place, with businesses and parked cars. The can hear it long after it disappears from view. “Eren.”

Levi slows to a stop, just ahead of him, and he turns his body so that they’re facing one another. At his back is the rest of High Street, the River Elwy, the rest of town—the home that Eren had grown up in. His eyes are liquid mercury, circling a black hole.

“Uh,” Eren says. “Yes?”

“What do you hear when you go through a Door?” The breeze is playing with the ends of Levi’s hair, and this is a picture to savor. It’s—something else. Levi, and the town he grew up in. Levi, and his cheeks are pink and his lips are chapped and his face is so, so serious. Levi, and Eren, and magic that he hasn’t tasted in a long, long time.

God, he wants to kiss him. That’s the least romantic question ever, and Eren wants to kiss him anyway.

“I told you. Depends on what baggage you bring.” His breath is white, then peach under the streetlight, then gone.

“That’s not what I asked. What do you hear? Not, like, generally.” Eyelashes against Levi’s cheek when he blinks.

Eren’s lips are dry when he draws his tongue over them. “Depends. I don’t—I mean, it’s not like I use Doorways all the time. I haven’t—it’s been years. Tonight got a little crazy, I guess, so I’m just tired, and I—I took someone with me. I relocated him, before. He was a changeling. He’d—you know.” The pause feels like an ice sheet waiting to break, but Levi doesn’t say anything. Just waits. “Connie and I listen to police chatter, emergency calls, all that. It’s how we—before a changeling ends up in a morgue, you know?”

Levi doesn’t laugh, or smile—but he blinks, drops his eyes to Eren’s knees, and he frowns.

(Whispers from the shadows, laughter, and the smell of death-and-ice, or a frozen corpse, of something mummified crawling out of a too-cold tomb. There’d been four, maybe. Just enough to cause a problem, but not enough to take him out for good, maybe.

Someone had been playing with their food. Again.

Hands, grabbing for his thighs, covered in Franz’s blood. Shocks of magic that connected more often than not, but where ultimately unimpressive. Eren’s heart beating in his own throat, the last Slaugh falling hard on an iron knife that had hissed against his skin when it had connected.

A wheezing sort of laugh, a dying whisper, “you stole something from us. return it.

Maybe it hadn’t been so surprising that there’d been a ghost tagging along with him.)

Eren continues, wiping and his nose. “Anyway, rough night. His name was Franz, and he followed me, I guess. I’d hoped he’d been dead long enough, that it wouldn’t be a problem. But he’d been bait, and I’d fallen for it.” His palms are sweating officially, now. It’s uncomfortable in this weather. “But that’s rare, really. Hardly ever meet a fresh corpse, and it’s not like I was you, carrying around all of... that.” That almost makes Levi smile. Eren can see it at the corners of his mouth. “Usually, I guess, I just hear me.”

An exhale, like a falling rock. Levi’s hand comes up to his own chest and presses against his sternum like he’d been hit there. “That’s—a little fucked up, don’t you think?”

When Eren snorts, his head aches. He hates that expression on Levi’s face. Hates the fact that he’s the one that put it there, too.

(Riverwater. Mud. Hands in grasses too slimy to get a grip on. Hand on the back of his head.

Life, bursting around him, filling up his mouth as he’d died the first time.)

“Hadn’t really noticed.” Eren knows there’s sweat on his palm, just like he knows that it’s cold outside. He knows that calluses always feel worse in cold weather, just like he knows that he shouldn’t even be here in the first place. But he offers his hand for Levi to take, lets the chill tease at the back of his neck with a gentle touch. “But come on. I’m tour-guiding, not trying to harsh our vibe.”

Levi watches. Waits. And the breeze caresses his face, softly. “How come all this shit happens to you?

“I’m a capable young man,” Eren tells him, wiggling his fingers. “And I’ve got you, right? Mr. ‘I-agree-to-crazy-shit-like-transatlantic-travel-for-fun.’ Keeping me on time and all that shit. A fucking enabler of all my terrible habits, like verbal puzzles and caffeine addiction. Some people aren’t so lucky. They’re just grumpy.”

“Shut up.” Levi takes his hand, falling into step beside him as they walk in the opposite direction, toward the farmland moors and the River Clwyd. “I told you before, maybe I always wanted to get stolen away on some bullshit adventure. You’re—fucking unbelievable. I—“ There it is. The vice grip, returned in all its glory. “I’m... sorry. For all the... stuff.” When Levi clears his throat, it sounds like sand in a glass jar. “So... Hannes seems nice.”

“He is,” Eren agrees. “Mostly. After we—“ A raven, chattering above the takeaway restaurant, ruffling its feathers against the cold. “After we moved from here, my mom was always busy. Like, Hannes was my babysitter before, but he was around all the time while we were in Cardiff, and then in London. I didn’t know he’d moved to the Pacific ‘til today. I just assumed he’d still be here.”

“It was always just me and my mom,” Levi says after two moments’ worth of silence. “At home, I mean. My father was a piece of shit, I’m pretty sure, and so was my uncle. We did just fine.”

It’s—equal, when Levi does that. That’s not shocking. There’d been the planetarium, the surgical atrium, the—his fucking birthday. But there’s a level of equivalence in this tit-for-tat whatever-they’re-doing that feels... overwhelming. Like—like ‘here, this is mine,’ and ‘okay, here’s mine.’

This isn’t magic, but it feels like it is. It’s too old for words.

“Hannes was—I mean, he was kind of my dad.” It feels strange, saying that out loud. It’s not something he’s ever admitted before. Then again, he supposes that he’s not quite a teenager anymore. “But don’t tell him I said that. He’s the one who taught me to swear, to throw shit, to... I don’t know. Be... human, I guess.”

“Isn’t that weird? For a—a faerie.”

Eren laughs, barely loud enough to scrape the roof of his mouth, and there’s a mix of energy in his mouth. Seattle and Llanelwy, old and new, moorland peat and asphalt. “He’s not a faerie. He’s human, just like you. Well—not just like you. But like you.”

Levi’s eyebrows arch, and his breath can be seen on puffs of white as they climb back up the hill they’d come from. The sky is softening into a deep purple, melting underneath the weight of what’s to come. “Okay, so, do you want me to actually ask the question, or are you just going to tell me?”

“Because I’m kind and giving, I’m going to tell you,” Eren says into Levi’s laughter, echoing down the street, probably hitting the Clwyd like a skipping stone. “He’s dead, but he’s like... an employee. He works for—he works for my mom. Only humans can do this job, usually. Lesser fae that’re made for this shit ride with the Hunt, punish souls, all that. Fuck if I know why. But it’s another way someone can make a bargain with the fae—service, for your life. I’m sure you’ve heard of deals like those.”

Their feet, hissing against the concrete. Music, still going in the distance. Whatever fae they are, they’re almost certainly off their faces by now, wasted on wine aged for this season. “He works for your mom.” A laugh, killed early, and it turns into a scoff. “I should’ve put that together. He—“ Levi shakes his head, looks down, looks up again, “he’s nice, kid.”

“I know.” Eren changes their direction, transitioning them from the sidewalk to grass, the soil beneath their feet the same hard-soft mixture of the graveyard. “Shit, though, keep this up, and you’ll meet my whole family eventually. Connie’ll brag that he met you first.”

There’s... something complicated happening on Levi’s face just then. A twist of his lips, a furrow between his brows—and then, a smile. It’s small, but fuck if it isn’t a smile so soft that it makes the scenery around them look like watercolor. “You’re pretty shitty at keeping me out of your goddamn business, huh?”

Levi’s lips would be chapped beyond belief if they kissed right now. Eren’s heart flutters under his ribs at the thought of that.

“You’re just really great at being nosy, more like. I’d been doing fine at it, before.”

Levi takes a breath and holds it before he lets it out like steam from a train, letting it rise toward the sky that’s getting lighter. The stars have already started to fade into pinpricks. “That? I’m not sorry for.”

“I really didn’t expect you to be, but thanks anyway.”

The grass crunches beneath their feet, stiff as it is with the frost that’s covering everything else. Will-o’-wisps dance in pairs farther along the shrub-line, some of them ducking toward the jagged edges of the trees. Eren can almost hear them whispering, even from this far away. If he shuts his eyes, it’s almost distinct—the will-o’-wisps, the faerie songs, the sound of practically silent paws on damp soil, the breeze between the frozen grasses making the scenery sing like windchimes.

Even the Seattle inside his head can appreciate peace like this.

In the center of someone’s private properly, just out of view of the River Clwyd, Eren stops.

With Eren’s fingers held in his own, Levi can’t help but follow suit.

His hand is cold when he lets Levi go, shrugging his jacket from his shoulders, shaking it out to drape it over the frosted-over ground. Here, there are almost no obstructions to the horizon, barring some trees rising from the river’s shoreline and some shrubbery put in lines that make attempts at squares to denote one person’s land from someone else’s.

Eren is sure that there are faerie rings that the shrubs were built around.

“Aren’t you going to freeze your fucking fingers off?” Levi’s arms are crossed over his chest, and there’s stubbornness tensing up the lines of his shoulders. “Is this necessary?

Eren shifts his weight between his feet, curling the fingers of one hand under his chin. “I guess we could stand, or sit on the cold, probably-wet ground as if the hallway in the hospital’s basement wasn’t freezing enough, but, you know, it’s your choice.”

Silence, but not really. Faerie-music and wisp-whispers, wind across the dirt and through trees. The sky is going pink while they stand there. And then, “fine. But I’m buying coffee on the way back to your place.” Another pause that’s anything but silent, because Eren can feel his heartbeat drumming in his ears. There’s a dryness to his throat that has nothing to do with the cold. Because—“If... I can walk you home,” Levi continues. “I know it’s been the other way around, but we’re—“

Levi sets his jaw and Eren wants to kiss him. He doesn’t know what he wants to say to that, sure, but fucking hell does he want to kiss him.

“I want to walk you home,” Levi says. “I want you to let me walk you home. For once.”

Gold is beginning at the edge of the horizon to the east. Eren’s surprised that he can see that from here, because he feels like he ought to be laid out on the ground from the—the weight of that. Or something.

“Okay,” Eren says, and his voice comes out a hiss. He clears his throat and tries again. “Okay, sure. But can we get, like... food instead?”

Levi blinks at him, once. Blinks twice. And then—that fucking smile. That watercolor smile. “Yeah. Sure. We’ll finally be even.”

nah, Eren wants to say, even as the words get stuck in his throat. i don’t really think we’ll ever be even.

With a cough that still tastes like blood, even though his nosebleeds have probably frozen in his sinuses for the second time, he takes a seat on the jacket, beckoning Levi down with one hand. “Whatever. Sit down, the show’s about to start. This is what we came here for.”

Levi snorts, easing onto the ground in a way that he can keep his knees close to his chest, and he looks up, watching. The dimness smudges the edges between his profile and the world around them. Eren’s chest feels tight, and he wonders if he’ll survive this.

Sunrises are slow things, after all.

“You know something?” Levi says. Eren watches the way he says it.

“What?”

“This place smells like you.” It’s almost a whisper, and the sun is cresting, like a whale in water. Light begins to make its way toward them. “Your magic. It’s weird, but—“ Levi makes a face, and his eyelashes are golden. “But I can see this place in you, a little. Even when you’re definitely some city-kid.”

“Says the guy with a Prius, born in a metropolis.” It’s taking a ridiculous amount of effort to move his jaw like this, to speak like this, when all he wants to do is take Levi’s face between his hands and hope that there isn’t any more blood beneath his fingernails. He wants to know if Levi’s cheeks would warm up beneath his palms as he brought their faces together for a—

Eren pulls his eyes away, and looks out at the fields.

The sunlight catches on some treetops, works its way around their shadows, and turns the frosted grass into a kaleidoscope of color. Each blade turns into a tiny prism, throwing different perspectives of the visible spectrum of light in a thousand directions. It stretches toward them by inches, and it’s mostly red, and it’s gorgeous, and the light is hurting Eren’s eyes to look at it. It’s making them water.

Eyes like his weren’t made for sunlight, really.

But god, just listen to Levi talk.

“Holy shit,” Levi says beside him, and he’s shifting from holding onto his knees to sitting on his knees, watching the movement of the sun along the grass with one hand shading his eyes from the glare. “Holy shit. Holy shit. Eren, what the fuck.”

“Didn’t I tell you so?” Eren makes his voice a sing-song, some bastardization of a simple spell that he really doesn’t have the juice for, but does it anyway. “I told you there was nothing else like a Welsh sunrise.”

Eren presses his fingers into the dirt behind him and pushes out.

His magic is hot in his mouth, tastes like the countryside, like heather and rainwater, and he can feel the electricity of it hurtling through his circulatory system like he was sitting right in the middle of Seattle itself. A wind that’s not in any way natural whips through the grasses, shifting the prisms from red to gold, gold to orange, orange to pink, and back again, as if they’d been sitting in the middle of the ocean.

It sends two chisels of pain right behind his eyes, makes his nose go warm and oozy, and he knows without a shadow of a doubt that he’s going to felt like he’d been hit by a train tomorrow.

But Levi’s looking at the horizon, and his eyes are shining, and one of his hands is reaching out to hold onto Eren’s shoulder. He’s shaking him, and he’s laughing, a little, and there will be beautiful laughlines on Levi’s face later in life.

“You were fucking right,” Levi says, and he sounds like he’d just got done running around the world, and Eren catches his nosebleed with his thumb before Levi turns to look at him, before Eren can see his pupils go wide with awe, before he can see the way his eyes move back and forth along Eren’s face.

Eren wonders what he has to look like, in lighting like this. Wonders if he wears a sunrise half as well as Levi does.

“Hey,” Levi says, and the back of his hand is pressed to Eren’s cheek. It’s cold against his face. “You okay? Your... eyes are watering.”

“Yeah,” Eren says, and there’s a willpower he didn’t know he had that’s keeping him from leaning into Levi’s touch. “Homesick. Fucking thrilled. You should see your face.”

Levi scoffs, shoves at his cheek with no malice, with good humor, with an almost-laugh. He turns his attention back to the sunrise, keeping one hand pressed to his brows to make sure he doesn’t go blind from it, to make sure he doesn’t miss a second of the way the world looks when it’s freshly bathed in the morning.

Eren sniffles and tastes blood.

“Thank you,” Levi tells him, and maybe there’s water in his eyes too. “Holy shit, thank you for this.”

This is worth it, one hundred percent.

(When the bell above the shop door rings, it will be two-twenty-nine in the morning, Pacific Time, and Eren’s head will be fucking killing him. The city will be too noisy in his head, he’ll feel like his hands were never made of anything lighter than scrap metal, and his feet will definitely bring to mind the idea of cinderblocks, duct-taped to his ankles.

Connie will know right away, because Eren’s done this before.

But Levi will have two boxes of pizza, and they’ll still be hot, and Eren’s nose won’t quite be threatening to bleed anymore. Right then, anyway.

oh,” Connie will say, and the store will smell like his magic—like cinnamon and maple syrup—and there will be some bullshit horror movie playing on his laptop, dyeing the wall behind him in faded shades of grey-white. “shit. hi, doctor-medical-examiner levi.

it’s just levi,” will be the reply. Eren will already be leaning against the counter, will already be dusting away the feeling of blood on his knees. Wales will have left the taste of memories between his teeth. “but i brought pizza. somebody implied he was starving.

somebody is always starving, because somebody is always up to something,” Connie will agree, solemnly. The pizzas will change hands, and the smell will be overwhelming. Eren’s stomach won’t be able to shut the fuck up. “are you staying? i was watching nosferatu. it’s on hulu.

Levi will look from Connie to Eren, and Eren will feel—relief. He’ll feel—something. And he’ll smile, a little.

yeah,” Levi will say, into the store that smells like magic. He’ll speak like he belongs there, and Eren will want him to, even as a part of him flinches, knows this is dangerous, knows this is fucking stupid. But he's a fucking sucker for happy endings, isn't he? “i’d planned on it.”

Connie will smile, and he will say, “then i’m going to get some plates. one sec.”

Oh yes. Fuck yes. God yes. Everything will have been worth it, standing there in Pacific Time. Even the fucking ghost he’d brought with him to the morgue.

Surely this will be something that Eren will remember for the rest of his life.)

Chapter Text

(The bus station had smelled like all of them do—like diesel fuel and chili-cheese dogs, like bleach trying to smother the reek of urine, like alcohol and days-old laundry detergent. Beneath all of that, wriggling against the floor, had been the meeting and meshing of countless kinds of magic, identifiable only in the way it had made the hairs rise on Eren’s arms as he’d sat there, the hard plastic of the station’s bench vibrating at the coming-and-going of any number of buses.

Hannah Diamant’s seat, across the lobby, had been empty for almost two hours. She’d been heading to a destination that Ymir and Historia knew of, had picked out themselves, had guaranteed for safety ten times over. Eren hadn’t asked after the location. They hadn’t offered it.

Between his hands, his screen had been lit with an unsent text message, his thumb hovering noncommittally above the glass.

To: Doctor Levi
    what do u want to do for ur birthday?

The empty space beside him had creaked as his surprise made the decision for him, the pad of his thumb tapping his phone just hard enough to send the message as a cloud of cigarette smoke scattered in the air in front of him, filtering the fluorescent light into something absolutely no less painful to look at. One of the patrons of the station, dozing against one of the cracked tile walls, had rubbed their nose against the smell.

NO SMOKING a sign had read, pinned to the tile between the restrooms.

Eren didn’t need to glance beside him to know he knew this woman from years ago, but he’d done it anyway. He’d met the eyes of the Bean Nighe and it had been impossible to know which of them had been the one of handmade glass. Smoke had been sighed from her nose, coming out only one nostril, and when she spoke, she flashed a mouth of golden teeth—except for one in the front of her mouth, the white of long-bleached bone.

small world,” the Bean Nighe had said in pulled-taffy Welsh, the wrinkles by her mouth endlessly familiar. This time around, he’d known exactly what she was, even without her having to reach for the fabric laundry bag almost-hidden behind the bench’s legs. “ of all the troublemakers to run into .”

Eren hadn’t been sure of the statistics regarding Bean Nighe in the world—how likely it was to meet the same one twice, how likely it was to run into one at all, how many were alive after the faerie-purges and witch-burnings that were scattered through history. But a weird feeling had still settled in his chest, had made the universe seem out of place, and had made the city seem louder at the back of his skull.

i’ve always wondered,” Eren had said to her in Welsh that ran closer together, tickling the roof of his mouth with the weight of her cigarette smoke drying out his tongue, "what happens if someone throws out a shirt that you wash before they die. seems kind of impractical, don’t you think?” It hadn’t been anything close to an acknowledgement that they knew each other. The conversation was proof enough.

The Bean Nighe had laughed, dropping it to the floor in the guise of desert sand, hissing against her tonsils, her golden molars, the roof of her mouth. “are you calling my laundry fraudulent?

no,” Eren had replied. “i’m just wondering.

The expression on her face had been complicated, her eyebrows white against the dark skin of her face bending beneath the weight of... something. That had always been the best term for whatever-these-things were: something . And somewhere mixed within the bowing of her brows, a sadness had tucked itself in the frown-lines in her cheeks.

who picked up the shirt?” The Bean Nighe had said after another bus had loaded and gone. “who ended up with the shirt in their possession? who says it was even that shirt that one of us washed in the first place? there are a lot of questions in your questions, little one.” She’d breathed in another inhale from her cigarette, almost burned to the filter. “ but either way, if it isn’t one person, it’s somebody else.”

Her eyes had glittered, almost in tandem. Eren had been watching her pupils, trying to figure out which one wasn’t watching him quite as much as the other.

And then she’d continued with a voice like tree branches, leafless and dry. “somebody is always dying.”

Eren’s phone had buzzed softly against his palms, pushing against the ache in his knuckles, now gone white.

so,” he’d said, turning his phone just enough to keep the screen out of sight, keeping his eyes on the double-doors leading to the terminal itself, “what brings you to seattle?

He’d been able to feel her gaze against his face, the way her cigarette smoke warmed the air around them, the way the whole bench leaned back just slightly as she’d shifted in her seat. The rhythm of the city had worked its way into the roots of his teeth, the hollows of his cheeks, the space behind his eyes. The terminal doors lit up as another bus pulled into view, backing slowly into the space left behind by one that had left thirty minutes before.

what do you think?” she’d told him. “people are dying here.”)

Eren’s life has been lived in a series of fits and starts, and he guesses he shouldn’t really expect things to be any different just because he found something to spice the routine up a little.

He lives, he dies, he comes back again. He changes cities, then countries, then occupations. He dies a gain, comes back, keeps working. Dies again, comes back, meets Levi. Dies again, comes back, meets Levi for real. Keeps working, something happens, something changes, Levi looks at him with the Welsh sunrise catching against the stormwall of his irises—and then Eren makes a housecall. Sure, there are things that happen between all of that, but it’s all fluff, all waiting , because nothing can stay stable forever.

At this point, Eren’s pretty sure that he’d benefit from remembering that.

The streets still stink of wet dog and congealing revelry, leftovers from the winter solstice that had been celebrated two nights before. Everything had gone off without a hitch, really—outside the one-or-two disappearances that happen every year, when someone gets swept up in the Wild Hunt, their missing persons posters destined to fade out long before their bodies turn up, if ever. While always tragic , it’s normal. The whole solstice had been normal, had lifted the veil just long enough to remind mankind that they sure as shit weren’t as safe as they’d thought they’d been from the other side of things, or to remind the fae of the days when making merry in the middle of a mortal bar was worth the risk. 

It’d given Eren a headache, just like it did every year—twisted his stomach, just like it did every year. Of all the fucking holidays, it would’ve been the perfect one for mayhem. He’d expected mayhem, like—like a body, or two bodies, or too many to count, thrown in alleyways or in parks or whatever. He’d expected the other shoe to drop. 

Sure, by nature it’s impossible to predict unpredictable murders, but at this point it feels like the universe should give him something. An inch, maybe. Half-an-inch would be preferable to nothing. 

But here he is on a fucking Friday night, two days after the night when the fae run wild, jogging up the waterfront after a panicked call from a selkie. A pureblood selkie. A pureblood selkie who’d been too scared to speak above a whisper. 

A feeling had started churning in his gut that had nothing to do with the time of year and he’d barely passed a goodbye onto Connie before he’d made it out the door. 

The waterfront is quiet at this time of night. All the restaurants and tourist shops have been closed for hours—even the ferry has gone silent after its 12:50 a.m. run, leaving behind the sigh of seawater against broken pavement and the barely-audible whicker of a kelpie haunting the walk. If he breathed deep enough, Eren could probably taste seaweed on the back of his tongue. 

There’s a ringing in his ears.

The city’s Ferris wheel has gone dark by now, but its shadow is cast in some sort of amorphous shape thanks to the evenly-spaced streetlights and the half-obscured, crescent moon. It makes the atmosphere some kind of ominous, or maybe the silence does, or maybe it’s all just in Eren’s head—the draft coming off the water in an almost-moan, the pop-skitter-cough of thrown-away coffee cups.

Sleet has started to gather on every surface, holding reflected light in half-frozen puddles, and Eren’s sneakers scrape through them in a way that’s far too loud for the ambience crawling up his legs, gathering around his shoulders, pressing tight against the back of his neck. The hairs rise along Eren’s arms as he picks up his pace, running the pad of his thumb along the zip of his jacket, feeling the electric thrum of a ghostwalk enchantment stitched into the seams there. It’s a gesture meant entirely for comfort, the sensation of his own magic connecting with the tips of his fingers. As he rounds the curve of a cement sign advertising the Seattle Aquarium, it feels a lot like walking into a barfight, armed to the teeth.

What he finds isn’t entirely unsurprising, but it still makes his stomach twist. The aquarium stretches from the edge of the street to the end of the pier, and the southward side has seen the sharp end of something unpleasant, though it’s impossible to say what . Shattered glass and pieces of navy blue siding litter the sidewalk, and deep furrows in the concrete wall reach from the lowest windowpane toward the roof in wide branches.

Eren lifts his hand from his jacket to press his index finger to his nose, and half-hums under his breath, the taste of his magic rising up from the back of his throat, “fe-fie-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.”

The smell of heather, rainwater, and freshly-turned earth bursts to life in his sinuses, the pressure making his skull feel just a little too tight for two deep breaths—and then everything is writhing against his nose in a rancid mess . The wastebins that won’t be emptied until just before the sun comes up, the trash that didn’t quite make it into the bins sitting in stagnant water from this afternoon’s rain, the dead fish caught in the rocky foundation beneath the line of piers placed at irregular intervals along the waterfront— all of it is piling into his mouth and threatening to make him gag.

But beneath all of that, almost swallowed by the shitstorm that is everything else , is an odor that’s like an afterthought: seaweed and a rainsquall over open saltwater. It tastes like selkie magic, smeared along the aquarium’s façade, tucked in the fissures of the almost-busted wall.

When Eren presses his hand to the siding, he can almost feel the magic there, the perception dragging itself against the underside of his fingernails. It’s practically negligible, some leftover ward that hadn’t been reset since before the solstice, swallowed up by all the magic that had risen around it, and muffled further by the constant mist-rain-sleet. 

He breathes in again and the city sits on his tongue, presses hard —and he swallows it,  rolling it around in his mouth. Spoiled food and seawater, car exhaust and wet paper, seagull shit and wet dog, too-much magic and the metallic sting of blood—but not sharp enough to be human. 

There’s no shock of frozen wilderness hiding anywhere in this place. No dying things, buried beneath untouchable earth, no ice-chips needling at his skin. It’s like there hadn’t been anyone here at all, except the selkies and the fish and the steady murmur of the city.

A moan crawls its way out of one of the busted windows, encouraged by the coughs of wind coming from the water, and it almost smothers the sound of his phone vibrating in his pocket, sending a jolt down his thigh. He pretends a scream didn’t smack against his tonsils as he fishes it out of his pocket, and it’s not like anybody can document a flinch that no one was around to see in the first place.

From : Ymiracle
    Selkie made it to the safehouse
    Relocating asap
    Any boogeymen?

When he snorts, it’s on a cloud of white and tastes like garbage, and he shoves his phone back in his pocket before snapping the charm away with his thumb and forefinger. It washes out his sinuses, pushes the nighttime out from between his teeth, clears his head just enough that his stomach doesn’t feel like it’s going to meet his throat just yet. Of course, the night is still young, and Eren reminds himself of that as he steps over the splintered wood of what had been a recently-painted windowpane. He can still feel the tang of it flaking against his molars.

Glass crunches beneath his feet. 

“Ahoy there!” The streetlights catch in the puddles on the floor as he makes his way through the aquarium, his hands held just far enough from his hips that he could swing them, if he’d needed to. “I heard someone had some concerns about a leak?” 

God , he hates it when he gets fucking quippy with himself. If he’s going to get low with his humor, he might as well have an audience for it. It doesn’t do any good to taunt monsters who aren’t even here . It’s just him, and the nighttime, and the fish, and the increasingly heavy odor of blood-and-saltwater. The fish tanks babble around him, gossiping with one another about all the shit they’d seen. Eren sighs out an incantation into the mumble of the aquarium, bouncing it along on a familiar rhythm, and the low light widens, turning the darkness into a softer gray, into a brighter blue, into color .

With eyes like this, it’d be impossible not to notice the body, sprawled behind one of the man-made tide pools. The selkie’s skin is still tied around its waist, as if it hadn’t even reached for it, as if escape hadn’t been an option. Instead, the air around it is peppered with the afterglow of its magic and the lingering film of its blood. The residue of whatever this fight had been tastes entirely of offensive magic, crafted of serrated edges and tucked away in the dying scent of a rusted-out ship. 

Eren doesn’t look at his sneakers, knowing that their soles are turning concrete-gray under the attention of watered down faerie blood. Levi had said it was manganese. It stings like oil against the underside of his nose.

When he crouches beside the corpse, he can feel someone’s eyes on him, right at the place where his neck sits on his shoulders. Everything about this feels like a trap, just like the rest of his job has been for the last set of months. There’s a body and darkness, and eventually there will be hands and shoulders and bodies crawling out of the shadows, flashing their pointed teeth and coming for his throat. So maybe it’s better to say that it’s a trap within a trap, or something. 

Eren supposes that he’s come to terms with the fact that he makes pretty good bait.

The pads of Eren’s fingers find torn skin at the base of the dead faerie’s throat, the edges curled inward just enough to have a cauterized texture that Eren would recognize anywhere, half-blind and just by the feel of it against his hands. Whatever had made a wound like this had been made of iron or silver, and either way it had to’ve hurt . It’s nothing at all like the bodies he’d seen before this. Everything else had been brutal, had been savage , had been executed with bare hands or ice-hemmed magic. This selkie had tangled with something else, something different , but still firmly in the same genre. Hopefully the same genre. But maybe not, right? After all, this is a pureblood fae, and everyone else had been changelings. 

And yet — 

He pulls his phone from his pocket, swiping his thumb to the left across the screen before he brings it to the side of his face, the call-waiting tone trilling against the shell of his ear. He tilts his head to get a look at the selkie’s condition, trying to find something more identifying than the basic descriptions of ‘dead’ and ‘sitting in about two inches of water.’ 

The sensation of eyes against his neck moves to the space between his shoulder blades, right between his vertebrae.

There’s still no magic here but his own and that of the dead. 

“You almost never call,” Ymir picks up on the third ring, her voice the practiced-calm of having a client in the same room. “Is everything clear?”  

“What’d the selkie tell you?” Eren tilts the head of the body to look at him, watching the metal-burnt tear stretch across the perimeter of its throat. Rigor mortis has never touched faerie corpses, so it’s almost impossible to tell how long its been sitting here, except for the blood congealing against its lips, its throat, its clothes. “The one that made it there.”

Ymir pauses, and there’s a murmur in the background—Historia and the client, maybe. He thinks he can hear crying. “Hard to decipher,” she says, her voice going low. A door opens and shuts and there’s a breeze dusting itself against the speaker, filling the space until Ymir continues, “he said something about hearing a knock against the doors after they’d closed, but no one was there. Then knocking at the windows, or something. And then there were ‘monsters.’” A swear, taken away by another knock of the breeze against her phone. “Should’ve guessed someone’d been left behind.”

“You said something about monsters.” Eren plucks at the clothes the selkie had been wearing, finding tears in the fabric that are barely-hiding the burns underneath them. Whatever had killed them had been using a knife. “Any idea what they’d looked like?”

Broken glass hisses against the floor, carried by a breeze or by something else, it’s hard to tell. “Not a whole lot of information that way either.” The tide pool above Eren’s head sloshes with another wave, covering the urchins and starfish and probably the sound of footsteps. “Might’ve had sharp teeth. Might’ve had weird eyes. Looked like a person. There wasn’t any magic, I think. Or at least the client didn’t know of any.”

Wood creaks somewhere behind him, as if something had moved aside a broken windowpane. The sound brings Eren back to standing with a half-sung incantation that leaves the feeling of guitar strings vibrating against his tongue and the haze of smoke rising into the aquarium around him. Ash starts catching against his shoelaces, and the smell of burning flesh reaches up to press itself against the tanks, the ceiling, the walls. “Thank you kindly. You’ve been a great help. Keep me updated.”

“What?” It’s not a shriek, but it is heavy, sharp enough to remind him of a metal pipe against concrete. “Isn’t that my line? What did you find?”

“A dead body.” He takes a step back, the ash-water-blood pulling at his feet like mud. “I’ll talk to you soon.” He ends the call with the same movement that shoves his phone as far into his pocket as it’ll go, pressed against his thigh and layered over in security wards. He can feel his magic humming through his jeans.

His hands run an inventory over his own clothes, feeling out the checklist like they always do for situations like this, dangerous situations like this: back pockets—empty; front-left—empty; jacket pockets—empty. His palm hovers over his stomach as he takes a breath—empty. It’s a checklist he’s been running a lot more lately, during what should be routine check-ins, coffee-stops, work

No identifying information. No waste hanging out in his system. It’s practically the dream set-up for a dead kid, just as much as it’s a set-up for the morgue that could get him. A surprise . A John Doe, approximately twenty-one years old, one hundred and forty-one pounds, and six feet tall. An enigma.

Levi would hate that he’d thought about that. For a second, Eren hates that he thought about it too.

(“people are dying here.”)

But if it has to be somebody on the Bean Nighe’s laundry list with this ensemble, well—it might as well be him. 

The smoke curls toward any exit it can find as Eren turns away from the burning body, and it’s blurring the edges of every fish tank and tide pool in the main display hall, making the incantation for low-light vision useless enough that he cuts it with a click of his tongue against the backs of his front teeth. The lighting goes back to grayscale, mixing with the orange-yellow-orange flicker of a dying fire and the incandescent glow of the streetlights outside. But for all that he can’t see much of anything, it means that much of anything can’t see him either.

Besides, the smoke gives the shadows pressed against the wall a more distinct shape, despite the stinging of his eyes, and it’s drawing out the lines of shoulders and hips as it gathers onto every surface, leaving flakes of cinder as it climbs out broken windows and fractured doorways. So now he knows that he was definitely being watched, and he knows that the things watching him are bipedal— 

And as the smoke is split open by the cut of an elbow and the jut of a knee coming toward him, Eren knows that it’d been Sluagh watching him, though it’s hard to tell how many with the smoke shifting around them and the sudden burst of noise associated with moving bodies in a space this close. It’s enough , that’s for sure. Enough of them to be somewhere on the spectrum of an issue and a problem. 

When he catches the Sluagh by the wrist and presses his palm against its sternum, throwing its weight behind him, he thinks he’s relieved —at least it’s just the Sluagh that are unpredictable, and not something else entirely. At least only some things in the shadows want him dead. At least he knows how to handle this, more or less. 

Eren side-steps a low kick aimed at his knees, the ash-and-saltwater mixture sucking at the soles of his shoes, the sound almost drowning out the low noise of frustration coughed against the floor. He slides around the closest tide pool, putting it between his body and the room around him, his fingertips trailing the surface of the water—and he breathes in, tasting smoke and the sting of a burning corpse, saltwater and concrete, waterfront garbage and wintertime. But underneath everything, there’s just a twinge of brine and blubber, and the weight of heather and rainwater. 

Regardless of whether he can smell their magic or not, the shadows solidify into Sluagh bodies with the smoke more-or-less gone, caught by the Sound-made breeze and pulled into the city to mix with the smell of alleyway garbage and asphalt. 

There are four Sluagh here, if he’s got nothing else to go by except a headcount, and all of them are watching him.

Eren can feel the heartbeat of the city at the back of his throat, can feel the tread of countless tires moving across his bones. He taps the rhythm against the surface of the water, his fingertips itching with electricity. His magic curls against his tongue as he says, “how often are we going to have to meet like this before it becomes boring and we all just go our separate ways?” 

Street-lighting dances over the Sluaghs’ skin, shifting across arms and chests and legs, blurring their shapes almost-enough to take them back out of sight. One of them tilts its head slightly, blood leaking from its nose. When it speaks, there’s something off—but it’s hard to identify, and harder to explain. 

“Funny question.” It’s voice is soft, as though it’s entirely ignoring the blood curling over its lips, and it’s like—it’s like—an echo in a cave, smothered by stiff, winter air. It’s less breakable, less pointed , but has more direction. Eren’s skin crawls underneath it. “You’ve got a lot of funny questions, right? That’s your schtick.” Or—it’s too nuanced. This conversation carries itself far more delicately than any of the other ones Eren has been blessed to be a part of. 

And that’s when the feeling comes to mind. The sensation of a knife being dragged along the slope of his shoulders and up the back of his neck. The tide-water is cold against the pads of his fingers. “That’s my one-note routine, yeah.” Eren curls his toes in his sneakers against the seeping cold of the water at his feet. His socks squish under his weight. “Do you have a funny answer for me?”

The lighting changes inside the aquarium as clouds move across the moon outside. Two of the Sluagh flicker out of sight and back again, their positions slightly different than before. One of them has their hands behind their back. 

“That depends.” The Sluagh who’s elected to speak for all of them rests both its hands against the edge of the pool. Its fingers are placed just outside the reach of the seawater, even as it leans forward. “How often are you going to have to die before you come back like us?”

When Eren breathes in, it feels like his throat has frozen over.

But there’s still no taste of their magic in the air. 

(It’s a question that could’ve been thrown away months ago, weeks ago, days ago—but it’s pretty alarming to think about, considering the situation and everything. 

Sluagh aren’t born in the way that most beings are—carried through a painful labor that often ends in what many people call a miracle . Sluagh are born of darker things, of angrier things, of violent things that’ve crawled their way in and out of the hearts of mankind. Of course, it doesn’t become dangerous until those things are allowed to stick around and grow .

And dangerous situations become Sluagh even less often.

A person is born and raised, and the dangerous situation grows and festers, and then something terrible happens, and then it dies, like everything does. A Sluagh is what comes after the everything . The body dies and comes back, revived by whatever magic latches onto those who have been cursed by something too old and too unknowable to name. They die human, or changeling, or something , and are born again as something pureblooded fae, doomed to roam the earth cloaked in bloodlust that’s impossible to satisfy, with no memories of the life they’d lived and lost before. 

Rumor’s always had it that it served some sort of purpose, that a faerie like that would be useful during another kind of birth—the birth of the Wild Hunt.

If things weren’t the way they are, if Eren wasn’t where he was, he’d probably find it pretty funny how things like this always manage to bite somebody in the ass eventually. It just seems to be that the one that’s always getting bitten is him.)

The moment fractures when the Sluagh who’d spoken vaults over the tide pool, feet first.  

Eren rotates on his heel, grabbing the Sluagh by its knee and calf, swinging its body toward the wall with more force than finesse. It catches itself only barely, its palms bracing against the wall to keep its face safe. It twists, trying to jam its heel toward Eren’s jaw and kick his teeth in—but he ducks, leaving the Sluagh to flail for a heartbeat as its foot catches one of its companions in the throat. It’s nothing that’ll do any lasting damage, but it gives Eren just enough time to slip across the floor and out one of the broken windows, glass crunching beneath the soles of his sneakers. 

Among the outdoor enclosures, Eren can see the way the nighttime is playing over the skin of other Sluagh, revealing the flash of teeth and the curl of fingers, somewhere between the harbor seal tanks and the railing perched above the seawater. The conflict, then, is that if he stops running, he’s got four Sluagh behind him—but if he doesn’t, there’s no way to tell how many are in front of him, not with the way the clouds keep moving against one another and changing things around.

It doesn’t really matter what decision his brain would’ve made, since he’s always let his reflexes do the thinking for him in moments like this, and he lets his momentum carry him forward, his feet almost-slipping against the bleachers, the eyes of the harbor seals following him from the shadows at the bottom of the tank. 

The nighttime opens and shuts around him, revealing another Sluagh poised at the end of Eren’s bench. It moves forward quickly, carefully, and with movements so precise that Eren almost misses the way something flips into its right hand, glinting underneath the stiff, white light of the streetlights to either side of them. Eren lets his body go loose, angling his shoulders perpendicular to the Sluagh’s body, the knife in its hand getting close enough to his face that he can feel the sting of silver against the inside of his nose when he breathes. 

The sensation is all in his head, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less alarming as he feels things clicking together behind the scenes. Something tightens in his chest as he uses the Sluagh’s inertia against it, slamming his forehead against its face hard enough that he feels its nose break against his skull. 

The silver knife clatters against the bleachers, skidding against the wet surface, as the Sluagh uses its left hand to claw at Eren’s shirt, pulling him forward to jam its knee into his gut, doubling him over around the pain. The second blow is given by the Sluagh’s left fist, knuckles catching him hard across his cheek. 

(Despite everything, Eren makes a note to himself, scribbles it in the front-most corner of his mind—the Sluagh are fighting like humans do.

If he’d been holding a pencil, it’d be shaking.)

There’s a hand placed at the back of his neck, attached to thin fingers, calloused from however long this Sluagh had been walking the earth. Its skin is cold enough to raise goosebumps under the collar of Eren’s shirt.

“Did you know,” the speaker-Sluagh says, tightening its grip around Eren’s neck as it drags him toward the glass of the harbor seals observation tank, “that it’s possible to drown in only two inches of water?” 

The Sluagh kicks the glass once, kicks it twice, kicks a third time to release a flood of treated saltwater out onto the pavilion. It’s fucking freezing , just as freezing as the Sound underneath them, and it’s soaking into the fabric of his jeans, into his skin —or maybe it’s just the implication that’s making him feel this clammy. Either way, this is hardly the ideal place for him to be, with a hand around his neck like a misbehaved cat, poised above an open tank of water. 

“I thought that was more common with kiddos,” Eren replies, letting the taste of his own magic fill his mouth as he rubs his thumb and forefinger together, trying to find the right words to get him out of this, anything to get him out of this. “I think I’ve aged out of that.” 

“That’s why we’re going to be extra cautious with you,” the Sluagh tells him, rattling like icicles that had grown too close together. “One of these days we’re going to figure you out, little monster. And when we do, we’re going to get back what you stole from us. By then, I doubt we’ll have to worry about you anymore.”

Eren watches his reflection in the water left behind in the depths of the harbor seal tank just long enough to catch his breath—and then he shuts his eyes. “‘Cause I’m Mr. Brightside!” 

A flash bursts from his palm, sharp enough to turn the backs of his eyelids orange, and he can hear the spitting of the light against the skin of the Sluagh, can once more smell the thin edges of burning flesh. But the grip on Eren’s neck only tightens, digging too-sharp nails into the muscles in the hollows underneath his jaw.

“I don’t think so,” the Sluagh tells him, its voice tight with pain as it shoves Eren’s head underwater. It’s voice is distorted when it continues, “none of that this time.” 

Eren’s hands find purchase only where they’re not supposed to—against glass, against the edge of the water, against sea-slick concrete. He can think his way out of this, he should think his way out of this, he has to think his way out of this—  

His heart is in his throat and the Sluagh’s grip only gets worse as Eren tries to bring his legs to his chest for leverage. There’s no—there’s no fucking room to struggle, here. He’s stuck. He’s stuck, and the city is white noise at the back of his head. He’s stuck, and the city is white noise, and it’s beating against his lungs. He’s stuck, and the city is white noise, and its pressing against his lungs, and he can’t breathe. He can’t breathe. He can’t breathe .

His body tries anyway.

There’s the never-distant memory of river-mud oozing between his fingers, caught underneath his nails, collecting against his tonsils as he inhales water that’s entirely different, tasting of brine and mechanised treatment, like copper, or iron, or— 

God, he’s going to die here. He’s going to die here in a harbor seal tank, choking on water, drowning , and he knows he’s going to die here because he can feel his thoughts getting cloudy, becoming shapeless, turning into nothing. He’s going to die here, and he’s going to wake up gasping, like he always does, left among the broken glass to end up in another morgue.

Eren inhales again, bubbles rising from behind his teeth. His limbs feel heavy and useless. 

(“people are dying here.” )

One of his hands curls around a shard of glass, its edges drawing blood from his fingers. Warmth is curling in his stomach, beneath the curve of his spine, in the soles of his feet, in the roots of his teeth. He can feel the bus routes tracing patterns on the underside of his skin. And he reaches for his magic out of comfort, even if he can’t turn it into anything, even if there’s nothing he can say that’ll make it useful. 

Eren can feel the life of the city rising up, pushing against his teeth—more than 652,405 pinpricks, itching from within the marrow of his bones.

(if anyone’s got to die here, it might as well be me.)

And then his body catches fire while the rest of him is swept away, wrapped up in a feeling that’s just this side of too warm. He’s being rocked, side-to-side, as he goes around the curve of—the light rail system. He’s on a train , coasting along the railway between the airport and the university. Usually, his ears pop when he takes the train anywhere. He isn’t sure why that isn’t happening now. 

There are only a few people on the train this late at night, and Eren has no idea how he knows that. But the train is way louder than it should be for this volume at this time on a weeknight . He can hear the oxygen machine whir, click, and exhale in the centermost train car. He can hear the way someone’s thumbs are tapping against the screen of their phone. He can hear the murmured conversation between the conductor and the rail system management as if it’s being spoken right into his ear

This sure as shit isn’t normal, and Eren sure as shit isn’t dead.

The light rail eases into the stop at Rainier Beach, the squeal of the wheels against the track tightening the muscles of his stomach— 

When Eren comes back to himself, he’s disoriented, and nauseous , and his body is definitely moving without him telling it to do that. 

He’s in the street, somehow, a Sluagh coming toward him with a silver knife exactly like the one he’d thrown aside earlier. Eren can feel it humming, from this distance, which is a new feature, or something. Or maybe that’s just—just the thing that’s pulling at his limbs, the thing that’s driving him forward, the thing that’s burning underneath his lungs.

Whatever’s moving Eren forward is taking deliberate steps, one after the other, as if it’s trying to figure out how the whole thing works—the delicate attention that’s required to move each finger, the way his legs have to move so his knees don’t lock. It’d probably be pretty interesting if Eren wasn’t a passenger in his own vehicle, but right now it’s just unsettling , and he can feel his magic scalding the back of his throat. 

The Sluagh adjusts its grip on its knife with practiced ease, and as it tosses its hair, Eren recognizes it as the Sluagh who’d done all the talking, with the soft voice and the cryptic-answer bullshit. This close, Eren can almost see the misting rain beading on its cheek, too thin to be the sleet that had settled around the aquarium.

He can feel his muscles twitching with the energy tucked away in the center of his body, and his hands come up to brace against the Sluagh, stopping it in its tracks. One of his hands is placed at its throat, just above the hollows of its collarbones. The other is pressed against the center of its chest. Whatever learning curve had kept his steps calculated before is over and done with now, having evaporated somewhere between his next step forward and the Sluagh’s strike toward his throat.

Eren’s face doesn’t feel like his when the Sluagh meets his eyes—it’s as though all the effort his pilot is putting in is going toward the rest of his body: his hands, his legs, his feet. His face is too stiff, like it’s caught in the grip of rigor mortis. But that’s a stupid thought to have, and Eren knows that as soon as it curls at the back of his brain. Rigor mortis doesn’t settle in those with faerie blood. It’s more like—it’s more like his face just isn’t giving anything away. It might be that there’s nothing to give in the first place. 

His magic tastes like somebody else’s when it pulses from his palms, and the Sluagh turns to ashes between his fingers. 

He feels like he’s going to gag against the taste of car exhaust and wastepaper, the smell of ozone between phone lines and sea-spray collecting against the piers. This magic is foreign and familiar, all at once everything and nothing like his own. 

He swallows, trying to taste his home there, the home he carries in his blood, reaching out only to find more of the same— 

This intersection is like all of the other ones in the city, just like this bus route, just like those pedestrians crossing between the closest bus stop and the gas station—an exact copy of all the other ones on all the other routes, with limited differences. Eren can feel it burning against his chest. Diesel exhaust is thick against his tongue, the bus’s engine rattling in his sinuses. Old bubblegum is stuck on the underside of almost every seat, dark splotches stuck to faded blue-white plastic. 

Eren wonders if the mint gum the bus driver is chewing will end up stuck to the center if the aisle like all the other indeterminate flavors. If it wouldn’t reek of gas fumes, maybe he’d laugh—but then again, maybe he wouldn’t.

The bus rumbles to a start again, its passengers shifting in their seats to compensate for the turn its making. A private security guard yawns, leaning their face against the back-most window, arms crossed loosely over their chest. Layers of grime sit on the outside of the window, smearing streetlights against their cheek, drawing the bags under their eyes into sharper relief. Two seats forward, a nurse sits, his badge pinned to the collar of his university sweatshirt. His eyes aren’t yet bleary, and the smell of coffee rises from the thermos between his hands. He’s heading toward a long shift, probably. The last passenger, just behind the bus driver, has earbuds tucked inside her ears, the murmur of the music bouncing around the inside of his skull. 

It’s a song he barely recognizes, all strings and piano. It sticks to the ceiling, the floor, the center aisle—exactly like the bubblegum, trampled by so many feet.

Rain spits against the bus as it rolls by North Seattle Community College, and Eren can feel it against his cheeks, the bridge of his nose, his lips. It stings, a little, as it breathes against the windows. The tires hiss against the asphalt, scattering mist in short arcs behind them. A wet newspaper is caught in the undercarriage, somewhere. Eren can feel its soggy weight pressed against his stomach. 

Eren’s body is somewhere, but he can’t place it. It’s like his brain is split between varying perceptions, split right down the middle. His limbs are like rubber, his abdomen barely anything more than a crushed soda can, leaking from all its sides—

When he inhales, his lungs bubble with seawater and the taste of something else’s magic. 

Lightning arcs from his fingertips when the thing inside his body snaps them, no musical help required, no spell of any kind at all. His skin tingles with the feeling as another Sluagh vanishes, leaving nothing but smoke and the smell of burnt meat behind. The lampost beside the closest bus stop flickers once before holding steady. Eren wonders if he’d blinked—wonders further if the thing inside his body needs to blink. He can’t tell if his eyes feel dry or not.

More Sluagh flow through the shadows around him like they’re made of fabric , and most of these still have echoes of beasts tucked at the corners of their mouths. Their teeth are bared in not-really-smiles that Eren’s familiar with. One of them has a silver knife, catching streetlight and throwing it out into the street. Another has a bat, smooth and wooden, carved haphazardly with misshapen runes for battle. Its grip is lined with electrical tape, which means it might be rubbed down with iron shavings. From here, he can’t tell. Not with this magic still congealing in his mouth. 

Metal screams from somewhere. The sound of it hits every surface like solid glass—the water, the street, the concrete of the buildings, the grass—

The grass?

The thing inside his body turns, the collar of his shirt rubbing roughly against his throat, rough with drying saltwater. He can see the shapes of the Sculpture Park from here, one of the pieces listing sharply enough to the left, a broken piece pointed skyward, as though it’s positioned to cut the clouds. The rain hasn’t made it to this part of town yet, but he can smell it, buried underneath everything else.  

Eren has no idea how he got here. 

The wind tries to shove its way through his hair, catching its fingers against the knots left there by the saltwater that’s turning his clothes into sandpaper.

His body snaps its fingers again and magic ripples up his arm, toward his shoulder, up the back of his neck. Flakes of skin peel away from his knuckles, his elbows, the tips of his ears, before smoothing over, soft and newly healed. The wounds don’t even have time to weep before they’re gone. 

Eren’s face is exactly the same as it moves toward the newer Sluagh, and his fingers snap a third time. The pads of his index finger and thumb feel callused, this time, roughened from whatever power he’s using, or this thing is using, or—or something. The magic cracks outward, the air around him popping with it, and even the skin around his eyes isn’t any tighter with the strain. 

There’s no brake fluid in this car. There’s no brake fluid in this car and the gas pedal is stuck to the floorboard. It’s careening on a path that he can only guess at, the map having been thrown out the window a long time ago. 

His left hand snaps out lightning this time, a claw spreading wide enough to knock a stop sign flat. Pigeons scatter in the darkness, unseen, disturbed from their nighttime roosts. If Eren were in his body like he ought to be, he’d gag against this feeling, this taste, this smell. It’s too harsh, too strong , too fucking different—and yet it’s familiar, maybe. He knows it from somewhere. It reminds him, a little bit, of the way his own magic had dragged itself against his bones years ago, reaching out and over his body as he’d pulled up muck from the riverbed—

Eren splits apart.  

He’d be breathless if he had the time, standing in the middle of another intersection that’s much closer to the chaos this time around, watching his body move toward him, each and every step more fluid than the last. Skin continues to flake from the line of his cheekbones, the jut of his chin. From here, Eren can see that his pupils are blown wide open, big enough to almost swallow his irises whole.

It’s a little bit haunting, looking at himself like this.

The traffic lights flash red above him, over and over and over again. He thinks that his heartbeat sounds like that, drumming between his ears—over and over and over again.  

Streetlamps cast light through Eren’s torso, hitting the crosswalk in front of him with no filter. There’s no shadow there to give him away, to tell anyone that he’s watching all of this from the outside. His body grabs a Sluagh by the throat, its fingers twitching against the hollows underneath the Sluagh’s jaw. Lightning-burns crawl up toward his elbows as the Sluagh dissolves into ashes, just like the one by the aquarium had.

When Eren swallows, his throat feels raw. 

Voices come from somewhere distant, incongruent with the scene in front of his face, made entirely of joyful screams cut off too early and the crack of magic too powerful for the hands snapping them off. Eren turns his head, keeping his body in the periphery of his vision, but looking for something else. The whispers feel like they’re getting closer. 

Eren swallows again and tastes seawater. 

The murmurs are louder but still not distinct as Eren turns his body, the flash of spells glancing off the windows of the buildings around them. The asphalt cracks under his feet, but doesn’t turn into a sinkhole. He wonders if he would’ve fallen in, as incorporeal as he is right now. But that thought is a distraction, redirected by a voice that rises in volume, the words blending together into something soupy and indiscernible, but he’d recognize it anywhere.

It’s his mother’s voice.

Her shape flickers underneath one streetlamp—and then another. Beside her, there’s a hooded figure, looking like a cross between a grim reaper and a carriage-hand. That shape, too, isn’t solid, but it’s lifting its head between one scene and the next, like the way rolled film stutters when it’s aged too much. Eren thinks that, if this had been real and not some bullshit figment of the whole mess of this whole night, the figure would be looking right at him. 

The figure breathes out a dark cloud with flecks of starlight in it, and Eren knows exactly what it is.

An Ankou—an Ankow—an Angau. A classic death omen, but not one of the first. Old, sure, but Eren’s seen older. But there’s something different about this one, something ancient. It reminds him of his mother that way. It seen things that Eren doesn’t know of, that Eren couldn’t possibly know of, and the longer its inconsistent shape looks at him, the fuzzier his head feels. 

The shape of its shoulders looks sad from here, just like his mother’s have for years and years and years. Maybe it’s his imagination. Maybe it’s not. But grief tightens his stomach anyway. 

His mother’s voice says something else that’s unintelligible, and this time something viscous rises up from his stomach, to his lungs, to the back of his throat. It’s nauseating, a thick mix between a muddy river and Puget Sound at the beginning of winter. It’s suffocating him, threatening to make him vomit, threatening to come out his nose

The flashing traffic lights are impossible to look at, but his heart is still beating with that steady rhythm, even if he can’t breathe all over again, just like always, just like every bad dream he’s ever had— 

“Eren?” Far away, but right next to his ear. The sound of his name shakes. It warms the shell of his ear. “Eren?” Distressed. Higher pitched. Eren can almost feel the warmth of its breath against his cheek, can feel its timbre against the line of his jaw.

He slams back into his body hard enough to see stars, the street clear of Sluagh, silent and eerie and empty except for him, these fucking traffic lights, and—

“Levi.” Jesus Christ, even his voice isn’t his anymore. It’s too loud and there are too many other voices underneath it, like hundreds of thousands of people , saying the exact same shit, and it splits his skull open like a cantaloupe, narrowing his sight into a pinprick. And so he tries again, and when he does, he doesn’t spit up blood, doesn’t speak like he’s too many people all at once, and the taste of gasoline and soggy newspaper sits on his tongue as only an afterthought. “Levi?” What comes out of his mouth this time around is raspy and almost-broken, wet denim against a gravel road, but it’s better than that other nonsense and easier to understand. It keeps his brains from leaking out his ears—but he can taste blood on his upper lip, oozing from his nose. “What are you doing here? It’s—you’re supposed to be with Farlan and Isabel. It’s—” Eren squints against the feeling behind his eyes, tries to grab for the relevant thoughts underneath all the sounds, and the smells, and the feeling of the flashing fucking lights in the intersection behind him. “Happy almost-birthday.”

What?" Levi’s hand is cold against his cheek and his fingers are calloused. Eren thinks that there might be sweat behind his own ears. “Are you serious right now? You’re burning up. Your nose—your fucking face—what was that? Are you okay?” He pauses in the middle of it all, touching the other side of Eren’s face with his other hand, before moving it toward his forehead, underneath his hair. “What I mean is thanks. But what about you?”

Eren takes a breath and it’s cold. Colder than it’s felt all night. “Farlan and Isabel?”

Levi sighs, dropping his hands away from Eren’s face, and there’s exasperation moving across his face like clouds, touching his eyes, forehead, his mouth. There’s something tense in his jaw. 

“Farlan got called away for work and Isabel went with him,” Levi tells him, tucking his hands into the pockets of his jacket. He’s not looking at Eren’s face anymore. “Sounds like local police have been getting a shitload of calls about something happening on this side of town. Farlan wonders if it has something to do with his walking corpses.” Levi does glance at his face then, a quick thing, before looking away. But Eren can feel that glance long after, like there are thumbtacks pinning it to his face. “Does it?”

(“people are dying here.”)

Eren’s guts are losing it , rolling around under his skin. It feels as though there’s gelatin in his body, shifting under his weight when he tries to move. There’s a response that he wants to give him—something helpful, intelligible, and quick . At the corners of his vision, he thinks he can see the shadows start to melt, thinks that they’re preparing for something. Police sirens sound like they’re coming from s elsewhere deeper in the city, but for all he knows, they could be coming right towards them. All of these pieces of information belong in sentences that Eren wants to string together in the most effective way possible.

Instead, what comes out of his mouth is, “I’m going to puke.” 

When he does, it’s nothing but seawater, blending in with the puddles at his feet.

(There’d still been the lingering smell of cigarette smoke sticking to the insides of Eren’s cheeks long after he’d left the bus station. His body had felt stiff after sitting for so long, and it had seemed like the soles of his sneakers would be sticking to any type of floor for a long, long time. His skin had felt greasy, or slimy, or itchy. No—more like, it was hard to say, how, exactly, he was feeling. At some moments, it had felt like he’s been trying to live too many lives at one time, and keeps losing all of them.

He’d been rotating his phone between his hands the whole way home, reading and rereading the response that Levi had given him. 

From: Doctor Levi
    i’m spending time with farlan and isabel on the 23rd, but after that, i’ve got nothing specific.
    why, you wanna make plans? 

Everything with Levi had always been, naturally, a mixture of that sweet, sweet ‘yes and no’—of the fear of wanting and not having, of the fear of safety versus danger. It had always been far more complicated than it needed to be, and all of that complication had, obviously , been Eren’s responsibility. 

of course, he’d wanted to say. of course i wanna make plans with you.

He’d typed something else instead—something closer to “ if you’re free, we should throw a party and celebrate with a fucking baking show .” It had been dismissive of all the other things he could have said. Fuck, he could’ve called . He probably should’ve called. The Bean Nighe had left him shaken, or maybe he’d left himself shaken, or maybe he really just needed a solid day’s sleep, from sunrise to sunset. 

Maybe he’d needed a vacation.

But like most things, Eren had placed these feelings on a backburner, and this backburner was on a different stove in a different kitchen in a completely different house than the one he’d been painstakingly trying to build since he’d died-and-come-back the first time around. There’d always be time to fret about his feelings later, about the way his sleeplessness was texturing the inside of his eyelids like the surface of a corkboard. 

The bell had chimed above his head as he’d entered his stupid store. His phone had vibrated against the skin of his left hand. He’d left the store to Connie for the second time that night, before he’d climbed the stairs, doing everything in his power to avoid all of the concerns written in the frown on Connie’s face.

And in that space of time where it was just him and the aftertaste of cigarettes, it had felt like the exact right time to do a load of laundry.)

-

(He’d hated the way Eren had decided to look at him like that, with his eyebrows bent low and his lips pressed tight enough to go pale, just like the rest of his face had been. Well, just like the rest of his face had been— except for the hollows of his cheeks, flushed deep and dark and splotchy.

levi,” he’d hated it in the same way that he’d hated how Eren had decided to say his name like that, his voice rasping from whatever-the-fuck had been going on before Levi’d gotten before, during when he’d gotten there. It’d sounded like he’d drowned—either underwater or under the weight of all those voices that’d come out of his mouth, Levi couldn’t be sure. “i need you to run.” 

“excuse me?" Indignation had hit him hard, like it always does. But this time around, it had left him winded , had risen up from the soles of his feet to pound against the underside of his sternum. He’d still been able to feel the sear of Eren’s skin against his palms. “eren, you look like shit, you sound like shit, and you want me to leave you here? are you fucking serious ?

that’s the second time you’ve asked.” Something like a smile had tried to rise up and sit on Eren’s lips, but it had faltered before it had the chance to connect, falling to the ground between them. “i can absolutely promise you that i’m so serious right now. i need you to run and i need you to meet me at—uh—” Eren had glanced around them, trying to focus on the street names on either side, pushing his hair back from his face in a way that didn’t help clean up his look at all. Blood had still been oozing from his nose. “the hills of eternity cemetery.

a cemetery.” Levi’s mouth had gone dry. The saltwater smell from the Sound had scraped the inside of his throat. “we’re going to meet at a cemetery. in queen anne?

Eren’s head had turned, the color on his cheeks shifting as though it was twisted through the lens of a kaleidoscope. He’d looked as though he were listening for something. 

in this case, i don’t even need to you trust me,” he’d said, and when he’d turned back to face Levi, his eyes had been almost-glowing, despite everything. Even with blood crawling toward his chin. “i just need you to listen.”

Eren had shrugged his jacket from his shoulders, looping it around Levi’s own. His touch had been impossibly gentle, and it’d made Levi want to return Eren’s favor and throw up in the middle of the street. 

what’s this for?” Levi had asked, even though he’d already known the answer. Beneath all that other shit—the smell of saltwater and blood, bus exhaust and wet magazines—there’d been the touch of heather and rain-soaked soil. 

it’s enchanted.” A sigh had moved through Eren’s body. Levi had almost been sure he’d heard his bones rattle with it. “keep it on, okay?"

A pause. The wind was catching a glass bottle, somewhere out of sight, and pushing it along the sidewalk. “okay.” 

In that moment, the smile Eren had been trying so hard to manage rose to the surface, though it presented itself more as wrinkles against the bridge of his nose than a shift in the position of his mouth. But however it manifested, it had been a relief.

be careful,” Levi had said in the exact same tone that Eren had told him his jacket was enchanted. “i’ll come after you if you don’t.

The color within the irises of Eren’s eyes had swirled like something liquid when he’d replied, “well now i have to be on my best behavior.” Another smile, all in the nose and the corners of his eyes, while nothing stuck to the edges of his mouth—and then he’d stepped away, slapping his own cheeks with open palms, and sang quietly under his breath, “you’ve got blood on your face, you big disgrace, waving your banner all over the place.”

Eren’s body had begun to glow, his hair shifting with a breeze that Levi couldn’t feel, and his afterimage lingered in the air between them. He’d looked like a time-lapse photo as he’d moved, leaving trails of light behind him, solid enough that the light from the streetlamps had split around them. 

Eren hadn’t glanced over his shoulder before he’d broken out into a run, stumbling only once, recovering quickly enough that if Levi had blinked, he’d’ve missed it.

But he hadn’t, and so he didn’t.

Levi then pushed his arms through the sleeves of Eren’s jacket. It was warm to the touch. He’d taken one step back, two steps, three steps— 

And he’d launched himself into a run, just the same as Eren had.

If he’d been just a little farther away, he would’ve missed the sounds of bare feet pounding against the roadway, would’ve missed the smell of ice and frozen skin, would’ve missed the sensation of both these things rolling forward into the direction that Eren had gone. 

But he wasn’t. And so he didn’t.)

It’s pretty fucking eerie, standing beside a cemetery all by himself. 

Of course, it’s even more eerie with gargoyles preening themselves on the lip of the funeral home’s roof, their stone bodies rattling as they shake themselves, their clawed feet clinging to the stonework there. Their style is just incongruent enough with the architecture around here that they had to have come from somewhere else—someone’s garden, maybe. Or a church, potentially. There are enough of them in the city for at least one to lean into gothic décor. 

Levi’s gone in and out of superstition at different periods in his life, but generally, he likes to think of himself as entirely pragmatic. The wind through the bushes behind him is just the wind, just like the ravens cawing in the cemetery are just ravens, just like the shadows flickering against the sidewalk are only moths attracted to the funeral home’s floodlights, positioned along its facade at even intervals to keep the neighborhood from falling into complete darkness. The graveyard itself had closed at sunset, as is tradition in every cemetery he’s ever heard of. Even for those who aren’t particularly superstitious, it’s probably best not to tempt fate after dark.

Maybe it’s that atmosphere that makes Levi’s skin crawl, or maybe it’s the fact that pragmatism doesn’t hold up in the face of what he knows now, or maybe it’s the passersby who look just this side of preternatural, whose pupils have eaten the whites of their eyes, whose teeth are just a bit too sharp when they smile at one another. Though not a single person or creature or whatever is sparing him a single glance, it still doesn’t feel quite right .

Either way, something is shaking Levi’s stomach, gripping it in a tight fist, and it makes him feel jumpy.

The sleet from earlier in the night has started up again, rolling against the street, the brickwork of the funeral home, the vegetation around him. The dirt around his feet is too cold to turn into mud, but Levi can almost feel the soles of his shoes sticking to the earth anyway. It’s like—it’s like he’s fixed in place, still watching the chaos of the intersection on a loop. He thinks of the way Eren had snapped his fingers, the way his skin had peeled away from his body, of the way his hair had been caught in the aftershocks of whatever magic he’d thrown forward, all without the use of wordplay that he’d said was paramount for changelings.

When Eren had spoken, it hadn’t sounded like him at all. Instead, it’d been as though there were countless people talking out of his mouth at once, a swell of noise that’d tear against whatever throat it’d come from. Something else had been speaking with Eren’s tongue—except he’d said Levi’s name, had said it twice , and an expression that had looked a lot like solace had taken shape on his face just for a second — 

Levi had felt as though he was walking across a frozen lake, and nowhere had been safe to step.

The driver’s side door or a car bursts open across the street, shattering the almost-silence around him with a shrill alarm, scattering the gargoyles from their perch with the crunch of brick and mortar, still gripped in their claws, and discontented howls. Lights come on in the windows of the houses up and down the road, revealing figures in pajamas peering out from behind the glass.

Levi takes one step forward, loosening his fingers from the fists they’d rolled into, and shifts his weight between his knees. 

A shape swings outside the car door, feet first. Sneakers hit the pavement, then knees, then palms—and Eren really does look like shit. He lifts his head and there’s blood smeared across his cheek from where he’d probably wiped his nose. There are new bruises under one eye, a split in his bottom lip. When he gasps, it’s like dried branches scraping against one another, as though it’s a struggle to  breathe right, and no matter how many breaths he takes, it doesn’t take away the gray-blue pallor of his skin. 

These things become more apparent the closer Levi gets, and there’s dread pooling at the bottom of his gut like ice-water, chilling him to the marrow of his bones. 

“Eren?” A question, covering the pop of his knees as he crouches to eye level. It might not be loud enough to be heard over the car alarm. 

Eren lifts a hand to slam the door shut behind him, swallowing once before saying, “hush little baby, don’t you cry.” Levi’s relatively certain that the tune is hiding underneath all of that, but Eren’s voice is too broken to make it distinct. Then he looks up at Levi, and something relaxes in his jaw. Or, alternatively, Levi could’ve just been seeing things. “Hi, there. Best behavior. See?”

Even when Levi rolls his eyes as he rights himself, palms pressed to his knees, it’s hard not to notice the way the sleet catches in Eren’s hair before it starts to melt there. He doesn’t mention it when he says, “I thought you didn’t drive.” He holds out his hand, palm out, in an offer.

Eren’s bones creak when he stands, using Levi’s hand for leverage. “I don’t. That car’s not mine. It’s a birthday trick.” Eren’s smile this time has a little more teeth, a little more mouth, and it cracks the dried blood on his cheek, revealing the fevered color there. “I’ll tell you all about it when we’ve got the time. But we need to keep moving.” 

Levi’s gaze follows the direction of Eren’s eyes, ignoring the shape of his eyelashes and the droop of his shoulders when he does. He’ll have time for questions later, when they’re not in the middle of all this shit. “You want us to go into the cemetery.” It’s a question and it isn’t, because while Eren talks a lot , there isn’t a lot he says that’s frivolous. Used for misdirection? Sure. Disingenuous? Yeah. But not empty. 

“I want us to go into the cemetery,” Eren confirms, the works cracking under their own weight. The movement he makes forward barely shakes at all, and if Levi had been standing further away, he probably wouldn’t have noticed the way that Eren’s legs are trembling if he stands still too long. “They’re not that far behind me. I’m not—” From behind him, Levi can hear the grimace on Eren’s face more than he can see it, but it sits between them all the same. “I’m not doing so good on juice right now.” 

“No shit,” Levi says. “Is that supposed to surprise me? What surprises me is that you’re still standing.”

Eren laughs with a sound that’s more like a wheeze, almost too soft to be heard over the rustle of the bushes as he pushes his way into the cemetery. “You could at least be like ‘wow, Eren, you know, you could look worse.’ That’d be nice. A little boost for the ego.” 

“Wow,” Levi delivers, stepping around the headstones of people he doesn’t know, stretching his words out like half-chewed gum, “Eren, you know, you could look worse .” A roost of ravens fluff their feathers in the branches of a tree, one or two of them shaking their heads and scattering water from their bodies. Like this, it almost feels as though they’re going for a walk, as though Eren’s about to break into one of his stories about the sociopolitics of a world Levi doesn’t understand. “How’s that? An improvement?”

“You could use a little more sincerity,” Eren says, and the impression that absolutely nothing is going wrong at this very second splits down the middle. He glances over his shoulder with his cheeks still flushed but the edges of his face less unsettlingly gaunt. “So, I’ll give it a four-point-five out of ten.” 

Levi’s about to say something clever, about to take this rhythm that they have and run with it—but the wind pulls at the edges of wet leaves, pressed tightly to the graveyard soil, and it carries with it the sound of laughter that cracks across the nighttime, exactly like the sound of ice, splitting over the surface of a lake. Levi thinks that he can feel thin, frozen fingers crawling up from the base of his spine, inching upward as they attempt to loop around his throat.

By the cut of Eren’s shoulders against the glare of lamp-posts strewn throughout the cemetery, Levi can tell that he’d heard it too. It becomes obvious when Eren turns around, and his jaw is set like stone.

There’s fury on his face.

“Fuck,” Eren’s voice is tight and thin. The sentiment is apparent. “Fuck, fuck, fuck . I thought I’d bought more time. Fuck .” 

The loosely kept bushes at the edge of the cemetery tremble on all sides, liquid shadows peeling out from underneath trees and headstones, forming out of nothing like noxious gas. Eyes glitter in the loose shapes of faces, and the smiles there are all teeth, mirthless and sharp enough to split glass like butter. Levi doesn’t bother to count them all. It’s not like that would do anything to ease the dread that’s building behind his eyes. 

“What did you bring us here for?” Levi asks, keeping his voice low. It curls around their feet, rigid. 

Eren’s hand is warm against the inside of Levi’s elbow, and he doesn’t bother to lower his voice at all. It’s not like it carries very far with the state it’s in. “I was going to try and make a call, but that takes a second, and I’m not sure we’ve got that. So we’re going to have to play this hard and fast.” With his other hand, he pulls a knife from a leather sheath, tucked between his hip and the waistband of his jeans. He presents it to Levi, hilt first, held between the pads of his thumb and index finger. “Take this.” 

The hilt is made of wood and etched with runes, leaving behind the sensation of sparks against his palm. “Enchanted?”

Eren’s lips twitch, his eyes following the movement of the closest Sluagh. It carries a crude spear in one hand, holding it in a loose grip over its shoulder. The blade shines a little too-brightly, all despite the cobbled nature of its make. “Absolutely. If things go too far south, pull the hilt from the blade and it’ll send you to the store.” 

Anger rises up Levi’s throat fast enough to scald, with every brand of possible protest piling up against his teeth and digging into his gums. But before he can say anything at all, Eren cuts him off and keeps talking.

“I’ll need you to tell Connie so that you can bring people back here.” His lips twitch for the second time, and another almost-smile catches fire against the furious glare still clinging to the edges of his eyes. “I’d really rather not end up in a morgue that isn’t yours.”

“I’d really rather you not end up in a morgue at all.” Levi flips the knife it his grip, shifting at Eren’s side to press his own spine against Eren’s. The Sluagh are inching in toward the center of the graveyard, murmuring to one another. Some of them move their hips to reposition their weight in a way that’s patently human, where others are almost hunched entirely over, whatever energy they’re moved by barely contained underneath their skin. 

However many of them there are, none of them seem to be looking at Levi just yet.

The Sluagh who’d laughed speaks, its voice scraping against itself like a glacier against rock. “I see that you’ve found yourself cornered again, little monster.” 

Eren stiffens, the soles of his sneakers disturbing the grass beneath them. “Last time I got cornered, your lot got fucked up.” Even when he tries to raise his voice, it doesn’t get very far—but it had reached far enough to make the Sluagh bark out laughter for the second time.

“Last time you got cornered,” the Sluagh replies, “you’d almost ended up dead.” It sounds like it’s getting closer, its counterparts at the edges of the cemetery moving forward at a slightly more lethargic pace. Step by step by step. “Before that, I think you did end up dead, if what I heard was right.”

“Seems like I just can’t stay dead.” Eren throws his rasping words outward, polishing their sharp edges enough to still manage some kind of intimidation. “You must be pretty shit at your job.”

Levi can hear the Sluagh’s bare feet against the ground, the sigh of its skin against the dead grass. The sound of its grip shifting against the body of its spear hisses somewhere inside its footsteps. The Sluagh’s shadow twists against the headstones, split into different pieces of varied shades by the lamp-posts. 

“Maybe,” the Sluagh’s words feel deliberate, the slow pop and moan of a tree close to splitting open in the dead of winter, “that’s the fun part of chasing you.” A laugh, this one softer, sharper, closer . “You can’t keep coming back forever.”

For a moment, it seems like Eren’s about to cast something. The edges of the jacket around Levi’s shoulders rustle, and he can feel something warm breathe down the back of his neck. The stillness is broken by the smell of Eren’s magic, fresh and heavy, rising up from the ground— 

But as soon as Levi can taste it, it’s gone, dropped away like wet clothes, fading out with an almost-audible cough.

“Fuck,” Eren says again, and Levi feels him move again, taking one step forward. “Goddamn it. Fuck .” Where his voice had been tight before, now it’s brittle, held together by paperclips and rubber bands. Levi can hear his knuckles crack as one of his elbows brushes against Levi’s bicep.

The shadow of the Sluagh shifts position, its spear flipping upward, its grip entirely different, and the wheeze Levi catches is gleeful . The blade is whistling, piercing against the fall of sleet, cutting against the caw of a raven from its roost and Eren’s spreading his arms in a miserable excuse for a defensive posture—but then again, the position hadn’t been for him anyway, because it’d been for Levi, who’s already twisting around him, ducking underneath Eren’s left arm, the knife held in his hand positioned perfectly for an upward thrust, right into the Sluagh’s solar plexus.

The last word from Eren’s mouth had been a serrated croak of “mom!

From there, it’s as though the world is moving frame-by-frame.

Whisper-click. Eren’s face is ghostly in Levi’s peripheral vision, and an expression that reminds Levi of despair settles against his eyelashes to mix with the melting sleet. Whisper-click. For the first time, the Sluagh seems to notice him, and hatred is burning across its face. Whisper-click. Eren is reaching for the hood of Levi’s borrowed jacket, but his limbs are heavy with the way his night has gone.

all the time, Levi thinks to himself. eren does shit like this all the time.

Whisper-click

The Sluagh stops moving entirely, as though suspended underwater.

Whisper-click.

The Sluagh have scattered in the graveyard, and are just as still.

Whisper-click

A raven caws for the third time, and the earth begins to roll beside them, rising into a hill of gravedirt, taking the form of a person—a woman —that stands at at least a full foot taller than Eren does. The soil falls from her shoulders, revealing a cloak of bright colors, from which come wrists adorned in a number of golden bracelets, clinking together in the way that wind chimes do. Her hair is loose about her shoulders, a golden earring shaped like a serpent wrapped around the shell of her ear. A sheathed saber is belted at her waist, simple in its decoration. Ash is smeared across her eyelids, rubbed against the edges of her cheekbones, and her lips are painted a deep red.

So close, it’s impossible to mistake this person for anything less than Eren’s mother. Levi can see him in the shape of her eyebrows, the bridge of her nose, the color of her skin, the curve of her mouth. He can see where Eren got the set of his jaw and the squaring of his shoulders, can see where Eren’s penchant for aggressive intensity has come from by the way her eyes glitter in the split dim-bright distance of a city in the nighttime. 

When Levi breathes in, he catches the smell of burnt incense and charred bamboo—like a funeral pyre.

With a flick of the woman’s fingers, the Sluagh suspended in half-movement burst, scattering ashes throughout the cemetery. It falls like snow and smells like nothing. The movement doesn’t even disturb the silence much, outside of the glimmering murmur of her bracelets tapping against one another.

Very few Sluagh remain standing—remain existing?—and the ones that do are outside the boundaries of the graveyard. None of them take another step forward, choosing instead to melt back into the shadows. Even from this far away, Levi can see the way their eyes have widened into something that looks a lot like terror, can see how bloodless their lips get before they’re swallowed by the darkness against the side of the funeral home. 

Nothing else seems necessary for the woman to do, except to bend the length of her body to meet Eren’s eyes, her hands pressed gently to the sides of Eren’s face as she turns his head toward her for further inspection, her unbound hair falling over one shoulder. Christ, even her eyelashes look like Eren’s do, almost endless. 

Levi doesn’t say anything about any of that, because Eren’s mother licks her thumb and begins to wipe away the blood still caked on the side of Eren’s face, on the tip of his nose, on the Cupid’s bow of his lips. It’s a slow process and inherently parental in its tenderness. The intimacy of it makes Levi almost wish that he were somewhere else . It’s like watching a child have their tears wiped away in a department store, or something like that. Or—really, it’s not really anything like that at all. 

Mom,” Eren draws out the word, bordering on a tone of petulance, “stop. You’re embarrassing me.”

A car rushes by in one of the side streets, catching Levi’s attention just long enough that he doesn’t know the precise moment that Eren’s mother focused her eyes on him, but when it happens, it’s as though her blunted nails are digging into his own cheeks, though she hasn’t so much as stood upright to move. The whites of her eyes are tinged with red, either in some restricted sense of anger or the presence of tears, Levi doesn’t know.

It’s uncomfortable regardless.

Eren’s mother does stand upright then, and her height is only reinforced without the threat of being impaled by a fucking spear. The wind catches its fingers in the ends of her hair, playing with them.

She asks a question in a language Levi doesn’t know or recognize—can’t even begin to guess at. Her tone is sharp, but even though her face is composed to the point of being almost too polite, it carries with it a sneer.

Eren replies in kind—same language, same sharpness—except his lips twist in his mother’s direction, and it feels like that response wasn’t meant for him.

Her eyes move over Eren’s face with practiced efficiency. When she speaks this time, Levi understands her clearly, though her words are carried on an accent that bounces gently, giving the impression of fruit, rolling against the ground. 

“What sort of trouble was that just now?” Eren’s mother asks, her gaze shifting slowly between Eren and Levi both. “It seems to be a bit above your vigilante paygrade, doesn’t it?”

Eren returns her questions with nonchalance, which is made incredibly ineffective by the fact that it sounds like he’s forcing his voice through a paper straw. “The Sluagh have been stirring shit up for a little while. I didn’t expect to end up in, uh, such dire straits. I expected that during the solstice.”

Eren’s mother tilts her head, a gesture that Levi’s seen Eren mimic once or twice. This is bizarre . What features is he supposed to have gotten from his father? “Nothing happened during the solstice?”

Eren shrugs. Levi can practically hear the way his shoulders grind in his sockets, but it’s evidenced only by the way his mouth tightens. “Nothing out of the ordinary. A little too much party, a little too much Hunt, a little too many humans took a sip here, a bite there. The problems were very, very normal .”

“And this?” Her voice thins out, stretches, like a wire pulled taut. “Is this normal?”

“Kind of.” Eren wipes at his nose, catching a remaining bit of not-quite-dry blood on his knuckles. “It’s been semi-normal since, like, August. Up until tonight, they’d been just killing changelings.” 

There’s a heartbeat where Eren blinks and something flickers across his mother’s face. It’s a pained look, filled with speculation about something , but’s gone before Eren opens his eyes again. 

“Up until tonight,” she repeats.

Eren glances at him then, brows furrowed. His pupils are enormous, and he looks exactly as he had when he’d lost a client of his and had tucked himself beside the morgue’s doors, fatigued and wan and distant. 

“They killed a pureblood selkie. They let another one go.” 

The cloak shifts over his mother’s shoulders, her eyes hardening into solid amber. “I really must insist that you come home. It doesn’t seem like calling on you is working anymore.”

The roosting ravens chirp at one another. Eren’s mother doesn’t even cast attention to their direction. At this second, she’s focused entirely on Eren and the way he’s looking at her. It’s a face that leans into rebellion, and his jaw is set exactly like hers had been when the gravedirt had fallen from the fabric of her cloak. 

“You’re not calling,” Eren tells her. Levi thinks that he really shouldn’t be here for this. “You’re sending birds. If you wanted to call , that’d be a little different, don’t you think?” Eren’s shirt is becoming almost soaked through with the sleet. His body doesn’t seem to notice—not with the fevered flush still on his face. 

“Eren,” it’s so soft , the way she says his name like that, even though her expression doesn’t change. “Please come home. This? This situation doesn’t feel normal. You call me when you need this, and this isn’t right.”

“Mom,” just as soft, but different. The hiss of rain against saturated earth. A force of nature sitting on the horizon, waiting, waiting, waiting. “Home where? The one that’s gone? With you? In some place that’s neither-here-nor-there with dead people all the time?”

Ah, there it is. The set of his mother’s jaw. “You’d be safer if you listened to me.”

“You’d be happier if you listened to me .” The response is quick, absolutely no hesitation behind it. “One of us needs to do some packing, Mom, and I really don’t think it’s me.” A pause, but not long enough to give her a chance to respond. “Maybe you should think about coming home instead.”

There’s a lot less fanfare when Eren’s mother disappears compared to when she’d arrived. Her form dissolves into a mixture of cemetery soil and crematory ash, leaving behind the smell of her magic—burning incense and scorched bamboo. The ground doesn’t even tremble at her absence.

Eren watches the space where his mother had been standing, breathing in and out slowly. One set. Two sets. Three sets. Four sets. Five— 

And Eren covers his face with both hands, sighing so deeply into his palms that it’s a wonder he doesn’t fall over, with how unstable his body looks. His knuckles are absolutely fucked , his hands all kinds of different shades of blue and purple and red. It’s difficult to tell if the blood on them is from his nose, the Sluagh, or the split skin. 

He stands there like that for moments on end, his hands pressed to his face. What little of his jaw Levi can see is tight, which means he’s probably grinding his teeth. 

Levi thinks about reaching for him—about touching the side of his face, carding his fingers through his hair, running his thumb along the edge of his cheekbone. He thinks about holding him, about pressing his fingertips against the jut of his spine, about holding their foreheads so close that Levi could probably smell nothing but his magic and dried blood.

He thinks of the way Eren had looked—even though this moment is nothing like that one, at all —haloed by a Welsh sunrise, unparalleled joy making his skin shine like there’d been countless stars underneath it.

Levi had wanted to kiss him so badly that he’d almost bit his tongue. 

Yeah—this moment isn’t anything like that moment had been, but Levi wishes it was, so that the liquid softness of his heart had somewhere else to go, so that it didn’t weigh as much as it does in this second, this heartbeat, this breath , and all the ones after. 

(For the first time in a long time, Farlan hadn’t brought up the murders at all.

so,” he’d said, watching Levi from where he was perched on the arm of the loveseat, where Isabel stretched out along the cushions, her head propped against Farlan’s thigh, “are you going to tell us about the person you’re seeing, or are you going to keep all this information to yourself forever?

They’d been sitting around Levi’s coffee table earlier in the evening, plucking at leftover pizza and drinking canned lemonade, with a garish birthday candle placed just a hair off center, out of the way of the pizza box. It’d reminded Levi of being in college again, years before he’d ever entered medical school, staying up too late and drinking just a hair too much. He’d wondered, in passing, what Eren’s college life had been like. He hadn’t really thought to ask, with all the other shit that Eren’s been involved in for his whole life. 

what makes you think i’m seeing anybody?” Levi had replied, splitting pizza crusts in half, in fourths, in eighths, and into unidentifiable amounts. Farlan’s phone vibrated against the surface of the end table beside the loveseat. Levi had made an effort not to think about the silence of his own phone. 

 “you’ve been checking your phone every fifteen minutes,” Farlan supplied, pulling at the pop tab on a half-empty can of lemonade.

and,” Isabel had continued, because they’d been having conversations like this for the better part of a decade, “you’re different. you’re out and doing stuff, you’re not always at work, you’re not as morose —”

i was never morose.

you’re not as morose,” Isabel had said again, with emphasis. “you don’t have to be seeing anybody.” A shrug, awkward against the cushions. “but if you are, we’d wanna know.

yeah.” An agreement, practically obscured by a swallow of lemonade. “like, everything about them. who they are, what they do for a living, what they look like, what their astrological sign is, what their future goals are, if they went to school or not —”

Farlan’s had vibrated for the second time, and then a third time in quick succession. That time, Farlan had glanced at the screen of his phone, and had elected to ignore it. Whatever other things that he’d wanted to know had been placed out of sight and out of memory, lost to a distraction. Levi had been relatively grateful that he hadn’t continued.

Besides, it’s not like he was seeing anyone anyway. But if he were — 

i’m not seeing anybody,” Levi’d told them. Farlan’s phone had vibrated again. “but i have been spending time with this guy i met. ” Something absolutely identifiable had twitched in the cage of Levi’s ribs when he’d said that, its leaves reaching for the sunlight even as late in the night as it’d been. Even so, he’d avoided labeling it, choosing instead to breathe it out, tasting a reminder of frost-covered moorland.

Isabel had pushed herself upright, her eyes near to glowing. “oh? how’d you meet him?

Levi had considered his response long in advance—sometime after Halloween, when the thing in his chest had been nothing more than a seed. “we met at work.

office romance?" Farlan had said, absently, checking his phone for the second time, as it had vibrated once more.

no. more uncomfortable than that.” Levi’s lips had twitched, a little. He’d wondered what Eren would think of this story. “he’d shown up to identify a body.

Isabel had laughed to the point where it was more-or-less a shout. “classy! really classy.

we didn’t exchange numbers that night.” A deadpan delivery, one of Levi’s favorites. Isabel hadn’t stopped laughing. Farlan’s phone had become a nonstop buzz in his palm, until he’d lifted it to his ear and muttered into the receiver. “we’d run into each other a couple more times. that’s just where i’d met him. you asked how we’d met.” 

Isabel had curled over one of the throw pillows in her laughter, trying to muffle it against the fabric there—at least until Farlan had reached for her shoulder, his face losing color in slow degrees, his lips going thin with the force of whatever was being spoken into his ear. 

you know this is my night off, right?” Farlan had said. The atmosphere had shifted in a hairsbreadth of time, quick enough to give the three of them whiplash. From where he’d been sitting, Levi had been able to hear the response only in the form of an intone that had been bordering on frantic. The words had been unintelligible. “how likely do you think it is?

Another response, whispered into Farlan’s ear. The glow of the birthday candle had seemed suddenly ominous against Isabel’s cheek. 

okay,” Farlan replied. “i’m on my way. i have to stop home first, but i’ll be there as soon as i can.

The call had ended, then. If the situation had been any less tense, any less unsettling, Farlan’s face would be pinched enough to make jokes about. It’d been the same face he’d made at lackluster grades, or the smell of cigarette smoke. But as it stood, it had just been unfortunate. 

levi, i will owe you literally the best birthday party in the world,” Farlan had said, standing upright and tucking his phone into his back pocket in the same motion. “and, in return, you will owe me all of the details that you were just getting into.”

i don’t owe you shit. but i’m busy day-of, so you’ll have to make it up to me at new year’s.” A pause. Levi and Isabel had stood up in the same motion—Isabel, adjusting the cushions on the loveseat; Levi, closing the pizza box and blowing out the candle. Smoke curled in looping wisps, disappearing before it took shape against the lights on the ceiling. “is everything okay?

some chaos over at the waterfront.” Farlan had grabbed his coat from the floor, tucked out of Levi’s sight. Elsewise, he’d have been scolded for it. A mess . “the city’s department headquarters has been getting calls for the last hour or so, and they think it might be related to all the other weird shit that’s been going on.” Farlan had looked at Levi, his eyebrows arching halfway up his forehead. “like the bodysnatcher.

this had been a new record for you,” Levi had said to hide the fact that his mouth had gone dry, that his tongue had become deadweight in his mouth. “you hadn’t talked about work all night.” 

shut up.” Farlan had rolled his eyes, Isabel sighing loudly at his back. “i’d made a promise not to.

i’m sure you did.” Isabel’d had to stand on the tips of her toes to be seen over Farlan’s shoulder, and from what Levi could see of her face, it’d been flat with discontent. "come on. i’ll walk you guys out.” 

Something had been starting, somewhere. Maybe by the waterfront. Maybe somewhere else.

Wherever it was happening—whatever was beginning—Levi had been able to feel it in the roots of his teeth.)

“I’m sorry,” Eren says, dropping his hands away from his face, clearing his throat against his voice’s persistent rasping. “You got into a lot of trouble because of me. Again .” His face twists into a grimace, and Levi blinks himself back into the graveyard, hunching his shoulders against the cold. Eren’s magic still smells close enough to taste, depending on how deeply he breathes. When Eren continues speaking, it’s almost too soft to hear. “You know, I really wish you hadn’t done that—getting in the way like that.” 

“So what was I supposed to do?” Levi’s tone is sharper than he means it to be. It makes his tongue feel like iron sits there. “Let you get impaled?” 

In this half-light, Eren is leaning into his faerie blood. There isn’t quite enough warmth in his skin, yet—not outside the fever, anyway.

But Levi’s watching the way Eren’s face moves and can see the process already beginning, the shift back toward the center. He’s straightening his spine and shifting his weight between his feet. His limbs are trying to go loose, even though they’re stiff with the chill and with adrenaline. 

yeah, actually , is what Levi expects him to say. But Eren only sighs, pushes his hands through his hair, and looks at him. For a moment, pain hangs from his cheekbones. But it’s there and gone again as Eren sniffles in the sleet. “Let me walk you home for your trouble.”

Even though it’s different than what Levi had expected, it’s just nonchalant enough to mean that he was right —because what Eren is going to do is this: his smile will come easier this time, and it’ll look just spry enough to be normal. It’ll rub out the shadows underneath his eyes a little bit, blending them into the darkness in his cheeks. He’ll say something a little bit funny, redirecting the topic of conversation entirely. And then he’ll drop Levi off at his apartment, will smile again and look exactly like himself,  and he’ll go home and pretend like this never happened. He’ll show up at Levi’s doorstep on his birthday and his bruises will still be there, and his lip will still be split, and his knuckles will still look battered, but he will say nothing except happy birthday. you’ll never guess what tricks i can show you

Eren will call himself a terrible liar, and it might be true—but he’s a master at keeping the truth to himself.

Levi knows that, if he lets this happen, he’ll be blinded by it, and it’ll leave an awful taste in his mouth.

all the time, he reminds himself, again. eren does shit like this all the time.

There’s probably a metaphor that could go here, about how Levi wants to hold Eren down to the earth for just a second, instead of letting him keep going on this merry-go-round that never really seems to let him go. There’s maybe something he could say about how nights like this are unfair, about how this feels exactly like the moment that Levi had seen him outside the morgue, hunched over his knees. He could tell him about the roots that Levi feels in his lungs, overwhelmed with this feeling, this thing , this phenomenon with a name that’s earth-shattering in its vastness.

But there’s nothing that feels adequate to describe all the things that Levi finds himself thinking about. So instead, he says, “how about you stay at my place for the night?”  

Eren breathes out a sound that might be a laugh. “What?”

“You sound terrible, you look about as good, and what’s going to happen is, you’re going to walk me home, like always, and something just like what happened ten minutes ago could happen all over again.” Levi’s eyes never leave Eren’s face. Something flickers underneath the surface of Eren’s expression, like the skin of a fish. “Maybe I just want to keep an eye on you.”

He can see Eren grinding his teeth in a way that makes him wonder what sort of way out he’ll think up. And yet, when Eren opens his mouth, he says, “okay.” 

“Uh. Okay?”

“Yeah,” Eren nods. His hair is starting to stick to his skull. “Okay. I need to call Connie, though. He’ll think I’m dead in a ditch somewhere.” 

“Could’ve been.”

Eren looks at him, and the smile that he gets is—disorienting. It’s nothing at all like any he’s seen on his face before. “Yeah. Could’ve been.” When Eren breathes, it sounds a little like popcorn. Levi can’t tell if it’s because of all the running he’d done, or the scare he’d had, or what. “Thanks for keeping my shit together, Levi.”

That feels… cryptic. He’s not really one hundred percent sure what that means. 

“Shut up.” The thing in his chest shifts in a breeze far warmer than the air around him. “Call Connie so we can get you a hot shower so you don’t die of pneumonia or hypothermia or worse .”  

“Sir, yes sir.” Eren steps away, pulling his phone from his back pocket. Unlike his hands, or his face, or his body, the phone is entirely unscathed. There’s probably a spell on it, and that enchantment probably doesn’t translate to organic matter. 

Levi watches him go, holding his phone to his ear. He lifts his arm to rub at the back of his neck, a giveaway at feelings of embarrassment, or feelings of shame. He might be getting a lecture, or he might be having to explain himself. Whatever’s coming out of his mouth, it looks less-than-comfortable.

It’s a brief phone call, and it’s late-enough-early-enough that the city has gone quiet in its entirety, except for the distant sound of police sirens, wailing far out of sight. Eren’s footsteps against the cold-and-soggy grass is the loudest thing on the street. 

“Ready to go?” Levi asks him, arching his eyebrows at the cowed look on Eren’s face.

“Yep.” He rubs the back of his neck again, scattering water as he shakes his head. “I have been praised on my judgment to stay at your place instead of walking home. By report, I ‘sound like I crawled out of a dumpster, and Ymir and Historia sounded upset when they called more than an hour ago ’, and so on, and so on.”

“Yikes,” and Eren laughs, a shadow of what it would sound like if he weren’t suffocating on the cold air. “Come on. Time to go home.”

Though they’re walking toward the edge of the cemetery, Eren isn’t looking at it. His eyes are far away when Levi says that, and they’re tracing a shape that Levi can’t see. “Yeah,” he says. “Let’s go home.” It’s an echo of what he’d told his mother, shortly before, but it sounds different, or sounds like it means something different. 

Their feet hit concrete and they keep their pace. Eren doesn’t ask which direction to go in. His head is cocked in one direction and then the other, as if he’s listening to something. His hands splash softly when he rubs them together for warmth.

“Do you want your jacket back?” Levi’s question comes out on a cloud of white. The only time he’d seen Eren’s do that was when he hadn’t been himself—when something else had been speaking from his throat.

“Nah,” Eren tells him, glancing at the way its sleeves are bunched up at Levi’s wrists. “Just in case, you know.” A pause, just long enough to glance either way before crossing a street. Levi’s shoes make more sound than Eren’s do, like he’s walking next to a ghost. Eren clears his throat into the space between one footstep and the next. “I think I scared you, earlier.”

“Earlier when? The whole graveyard thing, or the you passing me the knife thing, or the Sluagh thing, or—”

“I get it, thank you.” Eren wrinkles his nose, kicking a loose piece of pavement down the street, like a rock skipping over the surface of a pond. “I meant—I mean before I barfed. I think I scared you.”

Levi thinks about that, for a moment—feels the reminder of the way a stone had sunk to the bottom of his stomach when Eren had looked at him with eyes that weren’t quite right, had spoken to him with a choir of noise and dissonance. And he replies, “that’s not the scariest shit I’ve seen.”

Eren laughs, and it could be a perfect copy of all his other ones, if only it were louder. “I guess not.”

Levi continues, even though the conversation would be fine if it were left there, “I’m glad you recognized me though. You looked—out of sorts? Like you were a couple of crayons short of a box.”

Eren snorts, this time his breath manifesting itself in front of him. “I probably did. But I’d recognize you anywhere. Obviously . No magic tricks needed.” Eren’s gaze leaves warm thumbprints against Levi’s cheeks. “Who else would be dumb enough to walk up to some jackass in the middle of the street, at nighttime?

“Like I would do that for just anybody,” Levi says, and this , this feels normal. This feels like all the other talks they’ve had, like all the other nights they’ve spent fucking around and drinking coffee and watching movies. This is solid ground, and Levi can’t feel any ice cracking beneath his feet. “ Please .”

Eren grins at him, tilting his body just so to bump their arms together. He still looks tired, and he still looks messed up, but—he’s the same person he’s been as long as Levi’s known him. Somewhere behind them, he’d thrown away the veneer that he’d been gathering the pieces for, stitching it together with shaking hands.  

Levi feels giddy, for a second—like he’s a lot younger and a lot less grumpy than he is.

There are so many questions on his mind, hiding beneath all that giddiness. Questions about Eren’s mother, about the way they’d spoken to one another, about the way she’d looked at him and held his face like that. He has questions about the selkie he’d talked about, about the aquarium, about the way Eren had looked at him when he had-and-hadn’t been himself. There are countless questions, all varying in importance and level of need, and if Levi were to swallow them all at once, they’d choke him.

But right now, they’re good. The two of them—they’re good . There are creatures in the street, laughing with one another as they get closer to more active parts of town, and the two of them are good. 

These questions? They can wait. They can wait until this goodness is less brittle, until Eren’s fever goes down, until the sun rises and sets and everything is just a little farther away. 

But there is one question Levi chooses to ask, and he smiles when he does.

“So, how do you feel about bagels?”

His smile grows when Eren looks at him like that , when the streetlamps gather in his irses to make the green of his eyes look like a starscape. “I don’t think anyone has ever said anything so beautiful to me.”

When Levi laughs, it tastes like a mixture of things—Eren’s magic, and something with a name.

But he doesn’t name it yet.

(Dawn had been breaking when Levi had rolled out of bed, his throat sore and parched from the cold-as-shit night they’d had. The curtains had been drawn wherever a window was open, the only light coming from a plug-in nightlight in the hall bathroom, and the fluorescent light in the kitchen, just above the sink.

The bagels had sat on the kitchen counter, less than a quarter of them having been eaten. Despite Eren’s enthusiasm, he hadn’t touched a single one. He’d asked for a shower, and a towel, and standing in the middle of Levi’s living room, it’d looked like the night had been catching up with him. 

If Levi had blown air against his face, he’d probably have fallen over.

Eren had taken a spare set of Farlan’s clothes, tucked in Levi’s guest bedroom from who-knows-how-long before, and he’d showered, steam seeping out from underneath the bathroom door. 

Levi had been able to hear Eren humming to himself, but only just.

From there, he’d fallen face first onto the couch, and had fallen asleep. Levi had found himself surprised that he didn’t snore.

As far as Levi could tell, in the barely-interrupted dimness of his apartment, Eren had still been sleeping—except it was too quiet, here. Even under all the sounds of traffic, of the water still moving through the pipes, of his neighbors walking on the floor above him, it was too quiet here. 

Levi had carried his glass of water and had placed it beside the closed pizza box, still sitting on his coffee table. The smell of candle smoke had long since vanished. 

Eren’s head had been tilted to the side, his right arm draped over the side of the sofa, his left tucked under his chest. Levi had draped a blanket over his shoulders before he’d gone to bed himself, and the fabric had moved as Eren had inhaled, burying his face into a throw pillow that had to have been more-than-a-little uncomfortable. 

But in the moment where Levi had found him, the blanket had no longer been moving. 

Eren’s face had turned a deep gray-blue, his eyelashes brought into sharp relief against his cheeks. The fevered darkness that had been tucked away in their hollows had disappeared, replaced instead by the general wanness that was apparent on every other place where Levi had been able to see his skin.

Though he’d known, crouched as he was by Eren’s face, that Eren had died sometime between falling asleep and when Levi had gotten up, he’d checked away, holding his fingers in front of Eren’s nose.

Levi had felt nothing against them. From so close, Levi could see dried saltwater flaking under his nose, caked at the corners of his mouth.

Eren had drowned in his sleep.

Levi’s knees had cracked when he’d stood, and he’d felt bile rising up in his throat. It’d be embarrassing, certainly, if Eren had woken up to find him throwing up. It’d be twice as embarrassing if Eren had woken up to Levi throwing up on him

So Levi had swallowed, surrounded by a half-awake city, his apartment, and the corpse of someone so important that the thing growing between his lungs had shaken violently , had threatened to stop his breathing.

He’d ruffled Eren’s hair, once. It was soft underneath his fingers. 

see you when you wake up, kid,” Levi had told him, and his voice had cracked only slightly. He’d considered it a win, at the time, dropping himself onto the loveseat across from him, turning his water glass between his hands.

He’d been unable to stab this thing, of course, had been unable to swing his body in the way of this, hadn’t even known this was coming —and he should have. He should’ve heard it in Eren’s voice, should’ve known by the fever, should’ve known by the way has skin had been unable to determine what shade it was trying to be. 

But he hadn’t.

And so, as a result, all Levi’d been able to do was sit, and worry, and wait.)