Chapter 1: the smoke filled room
While he stood at the bottom of a flight of stairs, watching office workers push past him, Jean wondered if he’d made a mistake.
He stared blankly at the elevator, debating turning around and just fucking off home. He felt eyes on his back, and in his head, they lingered disdainfully on his poorly fitting suit and unevenly dyed hair, seeming to silently scold him. Knowing he didn’t belong.
Last night, he’d stayed up and read up on his future employer: Erwin Smith. He’d been parachuted into a cushy, safe, London seat six years prior, following the previous incumbent’s resignation after a particularly grizzly sex scandal. Tall and blond with a cold smile, Smith projected the image of being a family man. His suits were expensive and his hair never moved. Despite winning his seat by a large margin in the last election, Smith was far from universally adored; there were even perceptions in his own party that he was a careerist at best and at a hack at worst. Jean supposed there was something rather hack-ish about the way he’d been fed down the Eton-Oxford pipeline, then gliding straight into politics with apparent ease.
His offices were on the fifth floor. Having been crammed into an elevator, in which Jean was forced unceremoniously into the corner, he found himself greeted by a blanket of smoke upon his entry to the office. A few eyes slid to him, then quickly away, too engaged in their own work, billows of cigarette smoke spewing into the air. Jean stood there for a moment, still, unsure of quite what to do. All of a sudden, despite his twenty-three years of age, he felt like snot-nosed, incompetent teenager.
He searched the room desperately for somebody, at the very least, who he would recognise. Barely anybody looked up, too absorbed in whatever they happened to be doing. Eventually Jean’s gaze settled on a woman emerging from an adjacent office; her auburn hair pulled haphazardly out of her face, a pile of papers spilling from her arms.
She’d been the one to conduct Jean’s interview, a pitiful affair consisting of Jean murmuring and mumbling his way through a half an hour slot. Still, his grades had always been good, and he’d graduated from Oxford with a first, which was always impressive enough, regardless of the employer. Besides, he had the distinct advantage of having friends in the right places; it had been Mikasa who’d procured the interview on his behalf, through her cousin. Of course, he’d never have gotten this job if it hadn’t been for the collective pity of Mikasa and said cousin, but having people feel sorry for you could be incredibly useful. Jean had definitely learned as much over the past year. In the current economy, one could not afford to turn down favours.
I think it would be good for you. Mikasa had told him. You can’t just sit around all day moping and watching TV.
He approached the auburn woman with apprehension. She looked even more dishevelled closer up; her periwinkle shirt was covered in wrinkles, the collar sticking up at odd angles. She grinned at him, sticking out a hand.
“You’re the newbie, aren’t you? Kirstein, right?”
“Yes.” Jean replied, accepting the handshake. Her grip was surprisingly steely.
“Right, right. So, this is your first day, is it? Come in, come in.” She ushered him into her office. Jean sat down stiffly, smoothing out his trousers as he did so.
“I’m terribly sorry,” the woman started, offering him a sheepish smile, “but what was your first name?”
“Jean, it’s great to meet you. I’m Hange Zoë, as you know, I’m Erwin’s chief of staff…”
“Yes. I remember from the interview.”
“Of course. I’m sure you’ll be a welcome addition… I assume you’re interested in politics?”
“Yes.” Jean lied. “Immensely.”
In reality, of course, he’d never had a particular interest in politics, aside from a brief phase of radical communism during his university years, which he’d quickly grown out of, as he did with most of his most radical opinions (Marco always used to say he was full of strong opinions loosely held) but a job was a job, and Jean had bills to pay.
“You see, normally I’d have Mike look after you, but he’s called in sick…” Hange reached under her desk, pulling out a folder. “We can wait until he’s back to sort that stuff out. For now, if you could just go through these letters…” She slid the folder across the desk. “Open them all, check there’s nothing weird in there, powders, human shit, that sort of thing. There’s no need to read any of them properly—they’re just from constituents—terribly boring.” She smiled weakly.
“Oh, sure. Yes, thank you very much. Um… where should I…”
“Where should you sit?” Hange shot up. “Shit, you’re right. I didn’t think of that. Can’t have you without a desk, can we? There should be a desk over there, is that alright?”
She got to her feet and opened the door, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the fire exit.
“Yes.” Jean said, following her gaze. “That’s fine.”
“Great. I’ll brief you more later, but we’re having a bit of a crisis, you see…”
Jean got to his feet. “Uh… should I just… start now?”
“Oh yes, if you could…” She seemed to finally notice his trepidation. “Normally I’d give you a tour, but you see, we’re in a bit of a crisis. This new agriculture bill, terribly unpopular…” She laughed amiably. “My apologies.”
“It’s alright. Really. I understand you’re very busy.” Jean got up hurriedly, nearly dropping the folder as he did so.
“Oh, and there’s a coffee machine near the fire exit. Help yourself.” She winked. “You might need it.”
Sitting down, Jean eyed a pile of magazines and newspapers that had been left on the desk. One, relatively new, was still open—one of those asinine gossip columns talking about London celebrities and their superficial lives. He couldn’t understand why anyone took an interest in these vapid trust-fund babies, with their endless parties and incestuous friendship groups. He’d had more than enough for a lifetime at university.
Jean’s eyes drifted distastefully over the faces of London’s elite, with their beautiful, bored faces and flutes of champagne; the picture in question was at some kind of charity soirée—two women stood with drinks in hand—one slightly older, one younger. Between them was a young, attractive man, his arms slung around the older woman’s shoulders, pulling her in for a kiss on the cheek. The caption said something about a fundraiser, in which millions had been raised for charity. What an easy existence it must be, Jean thought, to do nothing but mooch around, go to parties and live of inherited wealth. He closed the paper. Meanwhile, he’d be sieving through mind-numbingly documents for people he didn’t care about, all to pay the rent for his shitty apartment above a butcher’s shop in Pimlico.
God, life really was relentless, Jean thought to himself, opening the first envelope.
Two hours and three lattes later, Jean had barely made a dent in the vast pile of papers on his desk. He couldn’t understand why so many people felt the need to write to politicians, about the smallest inconveniences, it seemed—one letter, which Jean had skimmed through out of sheer boredom, complained that her neighbours had parties too late, as if Erwin Smith would be able to do anything about that. One woman even complained about the Czech deli that opened opposite her house, which she worried would turn her children communist. That one had at least made Jean laugh.
The office had maintained its sense of perpetual tension; typewriters rattled, phones bleated and cigarettes were chuffed and discarded, thrown onto the steadily growing mountains of fag-ends accumulating in the ash tray.
He wondered if everything would continue exactly like this for the entirety of his employment—he hoped not. Sure, he wasn’t particularly interested in politics, but the experience had the potential to be invaluable, but if it were this tedious…
A man, short and severe looking, entered the room. He wasn’t entirely sure what it was about the man that had caught Jean’s attention, only that he radiated an air of importance. His face was a picture of abject disdain as he stormed over to Hange, with whom he began a long and animated conversation. Hange appeared to be trying to soothe him, but the man was seething, his dark eyes flitting rapidly around the room. Jean studied them from the corner of his eye, half-paying attention to his work.
Eventually, when Jean looked back up, he realised, with a creeping sense of horror, that the man’s eyes were on him.
“You,” the man said. His voice was surprisingly low considering his size (which would have been, under different circumstances, somewhat comical). “I haven’t seen you before.”
Jean got to his feet, not knowing what else to do, and took a few cautious steps closer to the other man. He nearly bowed, although caught himself before he could embarrass himself further.
“I’m new.” He mumbled, staring at the floor. He wasn’t normally prone to social anxiety, but this work environment seemed to have installed a primitive fear in him.
“What? Can’t hear you. Speak up.”
“I said I’m new.”
The man studied him for a moment, without moving. Behind him stood Hange, hovering a good five inches above him. His eyes narrowed slightly, as if trying to remember something.
“Shit,” he said, snapping his fingers, “you’re Mikasa’s friend, aren’t you?” For a moment, Jean didn’t know what to say. “Are you just going to stand there with your mouth open like a blow-up doll? What’s your name?”
“Uh—it’s Kirstein. Jean Kirstein.”
“Well,” the man grumbled, “I suppose you should probably come into my office.”
So, this was the famed cousin—Levi Ackerman. The terror of Westminster, his cousin had told Jean, with a twinkle in her eye. He’d been hired by Smith a couple of years ago, apparently, his less-than-reputable past preventing him from running for office himself.
He understands what it’s like to need a second chance, Mikasa had told him.
He had a thin, pallid face and dark hair, streaked, Jean observed, with ribbons of silver. Although he can’t have been any older than his early-forties, various lines had settled in the skin by his eyes, most likely from wearing a constant frown.
Ackerman slumped down behind his desk and put his legs up. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you for a favour, Mr. Kirstein.”
Ackerman winced. “Don’t call me ‘sir’—we’re not in the fucking military.”
“Right. Of course. Sorry.”
Ackerman got back to his feet and reached into a drawer, groping around until he withdrew a chequebook.
“Do you have six-hundred pounds in your bank account?”
“Oh… I should think so, just about…” Jean said, reddening. It was an odd question, to say the least.
“Good.” Ackerman scribbled something down. “How do you spell your last name?”
Jean spelled out his surname. Levi Ackerman nodded, then tore a slip of paper out and passed it to Jean. It was a cheque—made out to him, Jean Kirstein—for six hundred pounds.
Jean couldn’t hide his bemusement. “I can’t say I understand… what’s this for?”
“There’s an ATM on the corner of the road, between the café and the estate agents. They don’t charge to withdraw. Go out and get six hundred pounds, put it in this envelope…” an envelope was slid across the table, “then take it to the address I give you. I’ll write it down now.”
Ackerman tore a page out a notebook, scribbling down said address.
“But before I give you this cheque,” he began, “I need to know you can be trusted.”
Jean shifted. “I don’t think I follow.”
Ackerman sighed. “This is politics.” He said. “Everybody, and I mean everybody, is in someone else’s pocket, in one regard or another. I need to know you’re sewn tightly in mine. Besides…” Levi paused. “I did you a favour, didn’t I?”
Jean opened his mouth, then closed it. “Right. Of course. And I’m very grateful—”
“Don’t bother with any of that. I just need to know one thing.” Ackerman leaned across the table, a strand of dark hair falling in front of his eyes. They were a steely grey, and surprisingly matte and depthless, like papers scattered across his desk. “I need your absolute loyalty. Can you give me that?”
“Good. Because if you were to do something that would threaten this party and its pursuit for power, I’d have no choice but to string you up outside the houses of parliament until you’re eaten by pigeons, who might mistake you for a particularly large ham sandwich. Clear?”
“Excellent.” He tore the paper from the pad, passing it to Jean. “You can catch the bus if you leave now. It shouldn’t take you more than an hour and a half—there and back. Withdraw the cash, give it to the resident. It’s really as simple as that. It’s not hard to understand, is it, Jean?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Good. I’ll see you back here at twelve-thirty. Don’t be late.”
“What should I say to the resident?”
“Nothing. Just give him the envelope and go. Understood?”
That was how Jean ended up on a bus to Notting Hill, all on his own, on a Monday morning. The address wasn’t somewhere Jean recognised, but he could tell from the postcode it was an area of relative prosperity.
Sixty-three Great Bridge Road.
As he got off the bus, he soon realised he hadn’t been wrong in the wealth regard. The road was leafy and bright, lined with great, tall buildings—once Victorian houses—now sectioned off into airy flats. The address was for the very end of the street, where the trees spread all over the milky sky, blocking out any light apart from a few narrow streams, trickling down through a canopy of bright green leaves.
Jean climbed the steps with some hesitance, feeling a little stuffy in his three-piece suit. It had been purchased for a wedding some years back, since residing in the darkest corner of his closet, untouched. It was a little ill-fitting, too tight at the shoulders and slightly too loose at the hips.
Jean rang the doorbell.
There had been one other instance where he’d worn it, of course, at the funeral; a grizzly, damp affair, where he’d been crammed into the back of the local chapel, his eyes trained to the ground. He hadn’t been able to cry, not even when he saw Mrs. Bott running her hand down her son’s coffin, eye makeup streaked down her face, shoulders shaking with the weight of it all. All he’d been able to do was watch, overwhelmed by feelings of his own inadequacy. It’s not right, someone had murmured from behind him, to have to bury your own child, no parent should ever have to do that—
The door swung open, and Jean was momentarily distracted by the fact that the person standing in front of him was one of the most attractive people he’s ever seen, all tan skin and pale-green eyes, a dusting of freckles over the nose and hair that’s grown a little past the boy’s ears (and it is a boy, Jean realises after a second, noting the height and muscled shoulders with slight disappointment) he’s wearing one of those button-up white shirts, too large, and a pair of tracksuit shorts. The boy’s eyes narrow sceptically.
“Are the one Levi sent?” He asks, eyes flitting down Jean’s clothes. “He never normally sends interns.”
And just like that, the spell was broken, and Jean feels a wave of irritation swell in his stomach. Why was it, he wondered, that all the most attractive people had to be the most insufferable? No, this boy was a prick, there was no doubt about it—the more Jean looked at him, the more he realised it to be the case. He had that smug self-assuredness that all attractive people had; the expectation of being treated better than everybody else.
“I’m not an intern.” He said thinly.
“Oh… sorry…” He didn’t sound very sorry. “What was your name?”
“Right, well, where is it, then, Jean?” His eyes were slightly clouded over, suggesting some kind of intoxication. Jean’s bet was on skunk. It was at that moment he realised, with dull surprise, that he’d seen his face before.
“Here.” Jean said, pulling the envelope out of his pocket and handing it to the boy. The boy examined it between his fingers then opened it gingerly, a finger tracing over the wads of cash. He nodded.
“Thanks, I guess.” He said, turning around and slamming the door behind him, without so much as a goodbye.
Jean really didn’t like rude people; perhaps it was a result of his own mother, who had drilled into him the finest details of etiquette from the moment he was born, but as he walked back down the steps, he found himself profoundly irritated. At whom, he wasn’t entirely sure—perhaps at Ackerman, for sending him for such an odd-job without so much of a trace of an explanation, perhaps at the boy, for his arrogant dismissiveness. Perhaps at himself, for accepting this stupid job.
He wondered briefly, on his way home, what the cash had been for, but that train of thought quickly escaped him.
When he returned, he flipped through the newspapers once again, returning to the gossip column he’d been skimming through earlier. He pressed his finger to the photo he’d seen earlier that day, of the young man with the two women. Sure enough, his suspicions were confirmed; even with only his profile visible, the boy was unmistakable. Jean’s eyes flitted to the caption, which he’d ignored earlier. Actress Zanya Demidova and daughter Ana with socialite, Eren Yeager, it read.
Socialite. What a ridiculous, nebulous term, Jean thought, it would be simpler to just tattoo on your forehead that you were vapid and had rich parents.
It was later that night, in the presence of three of his friends, that Jean relayed the events of earlier that day. Ackerman had made it pretty explicit that Jean wasn’t to mention this to anybody who could relay the information further, but he figured his friends could be trusted.
Once he’d finished telling the story, he looked back at them, seeing his own expression of bemusement mirrored back at him.
“Well,” Sasha said, breaking the silence, “that is very strange.”
“I’m sorry about Levi.” Mikasa added. “He can be terribly blunt, but he has a good heart, beneath it all. He’s really not as bad as he seems."
They were tucked in the back of some back-end Camden bar, overpriced cocktails (in Jean’s case, a mocktail) balanced in their hands. The lights hung low, low enough that Jean had managed to hit his head on them several times.
“It’s alright, I don’t mind.” Jean assured her. In truth, he hadn’t really been surprised—he was pretty sure there was something coded in the Ackerman DNA that made them intimidating—in the same way some people’s genetic code gave them freckles or red hair.
“What was the money for?” Sasha asked.
“No idea. He wouldn’t say.”
Sasha paused, looking pensive. She held a finger to her lips. “Do you reckon they’re paying him off for something?”
“I have no idea.” Jean looked down at his drink. It was just lemonade and orange juice, really, and had no right to cost as much as it had. “I didn’t ask. I assume it’s not my business to know.”
For a moment, nobody spoke.
“Well, you know, they are politicians.” Connie said, with exaggerated contempt. “They’re all corrupt, aren’t they?
“You’ve made your feelings on the matter clear already.”
Connie had always despised British politics with a burning passion, ever since Jean had met him at Oxford. Both were middle class, small-town boys in a sea of aristocratic, public school bred brats. For this reason, they had bonded quickly; they also shared a love of history, and general dislike their peers, whom they viewed as pompous and out-of-touch. Connie had soon introduced him to his two best friends, first, Sasha, a neighbour in his accommodation, and Mikasa, who was on his course.
“Connie wouldn’t be content with anything apart from full blown anarchism.” Mikasa said drily. Jean laughed.
Upon meeting Mikasa, he had fallen instantly and hopelessly in love. At that time, it had been a love that seemed to consume him in his entirety; so much so that being in love with Mikasa seemed to become his full-time occupation. It was a self-pitying, yearning sort of love, made worse by Mikasa’s obvious disinterest; although she’d never articulated it herself, Jean hadn’t really needed telling. Like most flames of love did, it had faded in time, eventually transitioning from something that felt like an open wound to what it was now, when it was more of a dull, aching pain.
He’d learned to live with it. More or less.
“So,” Mikasa started, breaking the silence, “who was he, anyway?”
“Who was who?”
“The person you took it too.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Some rich kid. I think I recognised him from the papers.”
Sasha’s interest was visibly piqued. “Oh?”
“Don’t worry, nobody actually important. Like I said, just some rich kid.”
“What was his name?” Connie asked. “The guy you work for, I mean.”
“His name is Erwin Smith.” Mikasa filled in. “Levi’s known him for years. They went to school together.”
“Where did they go?”
“Some ridiculously fancy place in Scotland. I don’t know. Apparently, they’d go down to the bike sheds to go smoke cigarettes and talk about Marx.” Jean tried to imagine Erwin Smith hunched over a roll-up in the pouring rain, squeezed into a hand-me-down uniform. He couldn’t. “Of course, their views have gotten less radical with time…”
“He’s very good looking.” Sasha added. Mikasa shot her a look that seemed to imply her implicit disagreement. “What?” Sasha asked. “I saw a picture of him in the paper. He has a nice face. Why are you looking at me like that, Mikasa?”
“I just don’t see it, is all.”
“Have you seen his photographs? That’s an objectively beautiful man. He looks like he plays rugby or something, his shoulders are so broad…”
“He’s just not my type.” Mikasa replied coolly. Jean wondered what her type was—could it be tall, blond, former-alcoholics who’d read History at Oxford? Unlikely, he thought morosely.
“Is he married?”
“Just curious. Obviously.”
“I’m not sure.” Jean said.
“He is,” added Mikasa, “I’ve met his wife.”
“Is she pretty?”
Connie and Sasha continued to squabble amongst themselves. Sasha shoved at him, and he shoved back, grinning lazily. Jean wondered whether they were sleeping together. It wouldn’t surprise him. Everybody seemed to be getting some at the moment, apart from Jean.
“Are you alright?” Mikasa asked, nudging him. “You seem quiet.”
“Yeah… I’m just tired, I guess. First day at work and everything.”
To tell the truth, he hadn’t been himself in a while. Since leaving rehab, a fog of unreality had followed him wherever he went. But he couldn’t tell Mikasa that, so he stayed quiet.
“I get that.” Mikasa said quietly. “It must be difficult—things have been changing a lot lately, haven’t they?”
“Yes, it does seem so…”
They both looked towards Connie and Sasha, completely absorbed in their own conversation—which seemed to have moved to whether the shots they were about to order ought to be rum or sambuca.
“You seem a lot better, though.” Mikasa said gently. Jean winced—her phrasing implied her perception of his poor (and it was extremely poor) state just a few months ago. It was all utterly mortifying; calling his friends in the middle of the night to start on drunken rants about dead historians, making embarrassing attempts to woo women who were almost always entirely out of his league, and showing up at Mikasa’s doorstep in the middle of the night, one sip away from needing his stomach pumped. He cringed again. God, had he really done that?
“Thank you.” He told her, avoiding her gaze while he sipped his mocktail.
“I mean it. I’m glad you’re still with us… it’s like the old Jean’s back, you know? There was a time when we were really worried…”
“Yeah. I know you were.”
“I’m going to get some Sambuca.” Sasha announced, getting to her feet. “How much will four be…?”
Jean cleared his throat. “Well, it will only be three, won’t it?”
“Oh, yes, you’re right!” Sasha went a little red. “How could I forget?” She hurried off.
“Do you think she’ll ever wrap her head around you being sober?”
“No.” Jean said, taking a sip of his juice. It was really rather pathetic. He’d rather have water, instead of this pathetic approximation of a cocktail. “But to be fair, neither will I.”
“I wonder what they wanted to give that girl money for…” Connie said, eyes still on Sasha.
“The one you took the cheque to.”
“It was a guy, actually.”
“Well,” Jean laughed nervously, “there’s always a fifty-fifty on gender, isn’t there…”
“No, that’s not what I mean. Boy implies a young man, right?”
“Yeah… I guess.”
“How old, would you say?”
“Maybe around nineteen or twenty.”
Connie raised an eyebrow. For a moment, he looked as if he were piecing something together in his own time.
“Nothing.” Connie grinned, slapping Jean’s arm playfully. “My imagination just got away with me.”
Sasha returned with a tray full of drinks. She placed the miniature glasses in front of herself, Connie and Mikasa, filled with a deep, amber liquid. Jean licked his lips.
Sasha slid over a tall glass of blue-green liquid to Jean. “I got you a drink, too, Jean. I thought you might like another one. Non-alcoholic, obviously. Oh, and I got some chips, too… alcohol always makes me crave carbs…”
“I hope you don’t mind us meeting here, Jean.”
“Really, it’s fine.” He worried he’d made Sasha uncomfortable—which was certainly not his intention. He didn’t like to cause Sasha any distress or worry; their relationship, through the years, had come to resemble that of brother and sister, and he felt a vague sense of protectiveness towards her.
“Other than that,” Mikasa said, “how are you finding it? The job, I mean. Not the other thing.”
“It’s fine—I’m mostly doing other people’s boring stuff. But the pay’s decent, all things considered…”
“That’s taxpayers’ money, mate. I hope you spend it entirely irresponsibly.” Sasha elbowed Connie in the ribs. “Ow!”
“Don’t worry, I plan to spend it all on hookers and blow.” His face heated up when nobody laughed. “That was a joke, by the way.”
“I’m glad you’re finding it okay.” Mikasa tentatively. “I know it’s not exactly your cup of tea, but…”
“No, really. I appreciate it a lot. You’re helping me out is…” Jean paused. He almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten this job if it weren’t for Mikasa. He didn’t want to understate how grateful he was. “…Appreciated. I don’t know what I’d do without it, I really don’t.”
Mikasa leaned over, gave him another smile, giving his arm a comforting, maternalistic sort of pat. Jean smiled weakly and continued to sip at his mocktail.
The second time Levi Ackerman asked him to bring a cheque to Great Bridge Road, Jean was a little taken aback. He hadn’t expected to ever be asked again, given the assumption that the only reason the task was allocated to him was due to lack of other options.
“The guy who did this job previously,” Levi explained, in response to Jean’s clear confusion, “has had to be let go. So, this task will fall to you for the next while.” He eyed Jean from behind his desk, legs propped up amongst a sea of papers. “I can tell you have some questions.”
“To be honest… yeah.”
“Well, I’m afraid you’re going to die not knowing. Now hurry along.”
“But I can trust you, can’t I?”
“Good.” Levi checked his watch, revealing his well-muscled forearms. From beneath his shirt, Jean thought he could see the beginning of a tattoo snaking up his arm, although it could have just been a shadow. “You better leave now. If you leave now, you can catch the train, which I’m told is much quicker.”
“Right, of course. I’ll get going.” Jean hurried out Levi’s office without looking back. As he left, he wondered how much he wasn’t being told.
Levi sighed, stretching back and tilting his head into his well-cushioned chair. He wondered if he ought to feel some kind of contempt towards the Kirstein boy, then decided against it. Really, he wasn’t in a position to feel anything other than grateful. Still, there was that instinctual dislike towards anybody too ready to take orders—but could he really maintain that disdain when he was the one barking them out?
He got to his feet, striding towards the cupboard and pulling out an unopened bottle of scotch. Although he liked to stay sharp while working, his long hours often meant he could do nothing but fall asleep the moment he got home. For this reason, he’d stashed a few bottles of expensive booze in the back cupboard; partially for offering to important people, but also for his own gratification, when the stress teetered on being too much. Often, when it came to thinking about that awful Jaeger boy, he felt a headache ebbing at his skull; the kind that could only be alleviated by knocking back top shelf liquor. And going all the way to the pub on the corner was so dirty and time-consuming.
Levi watched, through the glass doors of his office, the Kirstein boy disappear into the elevator. He rubbed his temples and lit a cigarette.
Since starting his job, Jean had fallen into a simple enough routine. He arrived ten minutes early every day, which encompassed the time it took him to buy a coffee, as well as the five minutes he liked to spend staring at his reflection in the office men’s room, mentally preparing himself for the day. At first, he worried the latter made him mad, but after witnessing one of the aides in the adjacent office banging his head against the mirror with no regard for who was watching, he felt quite sane indeed. Being on the edge of suicide or homicide (preferably both) in politics, it seemed, was not only tolerated, but actively encouraged.
Hange and Levi fell easily into the good-cop-bad-cop routine; Hange, despite her generally low executive functioning, was kind enough and sharp as a whip. She allocated Jean tasks with a dopey, apologetic smile, and spent much of her days scheming with Erwin in his office, or filtering through the day’s papers, cigarette dangling out the corner of her mouth. Hange would occasionally wonder outside, checking on the various aides and researchers tapping away at typewriters. She’d even bothered to remember both Jean’s first and last name, which was more than anybody else.
He’d only caught sight of Erwin Smith a couple of times, and had never spoken to the man.
Levi Ackerman, on the other hand, was aloof and difficult, although far more hands-on than his superior. Like Hange, he spent much of his day locked away in his office, but this had the effect of making his exit from the confines of his office (which smelled distinctly of tobacco, leather and gin) far more terrifying. He never raised his voice. He reminded Jean of his old French teacher, infamous for being his most smiley when about to deliver a nasty caning. He had the same intimidating quality of untouchable superiority that had attracted him to Mikasa in the first place, although without the facet of sexual attraction it was far less appealing.
Jean combed his fingers through his hair and rung on the doorbell. It was less that Levi made him nervous, more that he worried he might slit Jean’s throat in the middle of the night, should the fancy take him. It was a paranoia rather than an anxiety.
Nobody came to the door. Jean rolled his eyes and tried again. He waited for a few seconds. Still nothing.
He checked his watch. Levi had told him he’d be in, so, where was he? Jean rang a third time. This time, he heard the sound of feet, quite un-daintily, descending a staircase. The door swung open.
“Hello.” Eren said, looking bored. He was still in his pyjamas.
“I suppose you’ve brought me my money, have you?”
Jean groped through his pockets and withdrew a thin, white envelope. He handed it to Eren. Eren didn’t bother examining it, simply sliding it into his dressing gown pocket. God, did he ever get dressed into actual clothes?
For a moment, the two men stood there, regarding one another.
“Would you like to come in?” Eren asked, after a beat. “I’ve made a pot of tea.”
“It’s alright. I need to get back to work.”
Eren’s brow furrowed slightly. “But I’ve already made a pot now. What am I to do with it?”
“Drink it yourself, I guess.”
“How an earth am I going to drink six cups of tea on my own without it getting cold?”
“…I couldn’t tell you. Maybe you should invest in one of those hats that doubles as a drinking vessel, I hear they’re all the rage. But I really have to get going.”
“Come on, don’t be a bore. Levi’s your boss, isn’t he?”
Jean shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. “…Yes. He is. Why?”
“You don’t need to worry about Levi I’ll simply give him a ring myself and tell him I forced you to stay.” He grinned obnoxiously.
“Uh… maybe one cup, then.”
“Excellent. Come in.” Eren turned around and began heading up the stairs. Jean looked sheepishly at the door, wondering if it was too late to back out. What excuses were there? Would claiming the recent death of a family member be overkill? Probably. He’d have all sorts of questions to answer at work. He didn’t even really like tea.
“I’m Eren, by the way.” Eren said.
“Oh, really? How?”
“I saw you in the papers.”
“You’ve seen those, have you? Terrible. Absolute gutter press. Almost everything they say are lies.”
“Yes, that must be annoying.”
“Hmm. I wish they had the sense to be all lies. I’d much prefer that.”
“They seem to take quite a bit of interest in you.”
“I have no clue why. I’ve just been to quite a few parties, had my photograph taken with some C-listers, is all. People will read any old crap…” Eren reached into the pocket of his dressing gown and took out his keys, jamming them unceremoniously into the door. It was a beautiful, dark-wood door with an intricate lock; the kind of styling that only came from authentic Victorian architecture. Not that Eren seemed to care. “Sorry for the mess.” He said breezily.
When Eren had warned about mess, he hadn’t been joking. His apartment resembled an underwater grotto; sickly, pale light trickled in from the outside, through the crack between the blinds, doing little to illuminate the kitchen. In the centre of the table was an ashtray, stuffed to the brim with fag ends (menthols, Jean noted disdainfully, of fucking course) as well as an arrangement of tulips—an angry orange in hue. Sprinkled over the coffee table were half-smoked joints, empty cans of tonic, takeaway receipts, lottery tickets, magazines and rolled-up banknotes.
“I like the flowers.” Jean said weakly.
“Thank you,” Eren said, not looking at him as he poured two steaming cups of tea. “They were a gift from the Viscount of Redbridge. For my birthday.”
“Oh… that’s… nice.” Jean said. He had no clue who the Viscount of Redbridge was. It could have been a band, for all he knew. “Was last night rough?” He asked, eyeing Eren’s dishevelled hair.
“Awful. I just woke up.” Eren yawned, as if to punctuate. He dropped a cube of sugar into his tea, then, after some consideration, a second. “How long have you been working for Levi, anyway?”
“Just over a month. And I don’t work for him, technically, I work for Erwin Smith.” Eren seemed to tense slightly at the mention of Erwin’s name, although it could have been Jean’s imagination.
“Here’s your tea.” He said, grabbing a half-empty carton of cigarettes from table. “Do you have a light?”
Eren offered him the carton. “Take one, if you’d like.”
“Thank you, but I don’t like menthol.”
“I see. There’s some regular ones on the side, if you’d like to take one of those.”
Eren stood up, then, after some hesitation, plopped another cube of sugar in his tea.
They both lit up. Smoking was another nasty habit Jean had picked up since starting his job. Previously, he’d tentatively labelled himself a social smoker; he’d insist to Sasha and Connie that he’d only ever smoke when he was drunk. Well, they’d countered, that didn’t mean a hell of a lot when you were always drunk.
But working in Erwin Smith’s second office, not smoking was damn near impossible. Least of all was the impenetrable wall of smoke that greeted you the moment you stepped outside of the elevator, but then there was also the impossible stress of it all, which nicotine, at least temporarily, seemed to alleviate. Even when Jean was working through work that wasn’t particularly gruelling, he seemed to absorb the stress of his colleagues through diffusion. Now, he could easily chuff his way through a twenty-pack each day. Still, that was nothing. Jean didn’t think he’d ever even seen Levi without a Benson & Hedges shoved between his thin lips—he had to smoke at least sixty a day.
Jean inhaled, tilting his head back and allowing smoke to billow above his head and then dissolve into the air. He sipped his tea, thinking that perhaps a short break wasn’t so bad after all. Besides, Eren was quite nice to look at, even if Jean found his personality rather grating.
“I couldn’t do it,” Eren said contemptuously. “I loathe politics.”
Jean understood apathy towards politics—it was more common than not—but a downright aversion seemed bizarre to him. “You do?”
“Yes. I don’t even know the Prime Minister’s name.” Eren replied, sounding rather proud of himself.
“I don’t believe you. You’re lying.”
“I really don’t. All I know is that she’s a woman and I’ve been reliably informed I’m not supposed to like her.” At least he hadn’t missed the election of this country’s first female head of state, which would be a feat of truly commendable ignorance.
“Well, both of those things are true, I suppose. Depending on who you ask, that is. But working for Erwin Smith isn’t so bad… the pay’s decent. And I want the party to get in power and everything…”
“What’s he like? As a boss?”
“No.” Eren sucked away at his cigarette. “Erwin.”
“Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. I’ve never even had a conversation with the man.”
Eren nodded slowly, slurping down the remainder of his tea. “God, I feel terrible.” He announced.
“Maybe you should go to bed.”
“No. I’m scared if I go back to sleep, I’ll fall into a coma and never wake up.”
“Well, I wouldn’t let you slip into a coma.”
“I’d keep an eye on you.”
“If I was in a coma, that wouldn’t matter. Because I wouldn’t be able to tell you that I was in a coma. Because I’d be in a coma.”
Jean took a thoughtful toke of a cigarette. “Well,” he said slowly, “I suppose I can’t argue with that.” He checked his watch, thinking he ought to leave soon, but Eren was more entertaining conversation than he’d anticipated. “Where did you go last night anyway? Some fancy party?”
Eren hollowed his cheeks around the cigarette, taking a deep breath and then releasing a cloud of smoke into Jean’s face. “Well,” he began, his voice edged with the bravado of somebody about to tell a story they considered terribly amusing, “I went drinking with some friends from school, you know… I don’t know, perhaps I took something… anyway, we ended up at the Ritz, which we often do. Have you heard of Joss Colfox?”
“It rings a bell.”
“Well, he’s a playwright. He’s very good, you know. He wrote that play, The Impenetrable Palace, have you heard of it?” Jean shook his head. “Pity. Anyway, we met him with his wife. Did you know he has a wife?”
“He does, and she’s supposed to inherit ten million pounds of her father’s fortune. Apparently, he got peddling bottled water in Africa. Pass me another cigarette, would you? Thanks. We started drinking with him, after a while we ended up in the toilets, obviously, he had about ten grams of Charlie on him.” Eren put out his cigarette. “Turns out it’s all ghost-written. Did you know he’s gay?”
“I thought you said he had a wife.”
“He does. I reckon he’s helping his father-in-law launder money, but that’s my theory…”
“Then how do you know?”
“Well, I don’t. That’s why I said it was just a theory.”
“No, about him being gay, I mean.”
Eren snorted. “I just do. Anyway, I don’t remember much after that. What’s your name, anyway? I never asked for your name.”
“Jean Kirstein. I told you it the last time I saw you.”
“You did? John, did you say?”
“Jean. Pronounced like ‘John’, but the ‘J’ is kinda soft… it’s French.”
“Are you French?”
“Oh. Okay.” Eren paused. “Would you like a drink?”
“It’s half past three.”
“Well, it’s a Sunday. It’s different on Sundays.”
“It’s a Wednesday.”
By this point, Jean had decided Eren was the sort of rich person who was privileged enough to submerge themselves in a world quite different from the one everyone else saw. In this case, it seemed, a vague approximation of the inter-war party scene. It was charming enough in moderation, but he got a feeling it could get wearying after a while.
“I should probably get back to work.” He announced, putting out his cigarette in his mug.
“I’ve been here twenty minutes.”
“If I’m late, Levi will get pissed.”
“Yes, he can be quite scary, can’t he?”
Jean laughed nervously. “A little.” Just thinking about Levi’s ball-withering glare made him anxious to leave. As he got ready to go, that glimmer of curiosity started nagging at him again. He cleared his throat.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” he began, “how do you know Erwin?”
“He was friends with my father, back in the day.” Eren replied, without looking up. Jean supposed that was all the explanation he was getting.
“I suppose you know your way out?”
Sasha rang him that evening.
“It’s me. Can you not recognise my voice?”
“You are starting to sound like your mother.”
“Why would you say such a beastly thing to me? Listen, Hitch is having a party tonight. We’re all invited..”
Jean rubbed his eyes. “I have work tomorrow.”
“Does it matter? You’ll be sober anyway, won’t you? C’mon, don’t be boring.”
“I’m afraid I’m not sure I have the energy to be interesting at the moment, Sasha.”
“Well, I think you should come anyway.” She insisted. “You know Hitch throws the best parties.”
That much was certainly true. In their University days, Hitch had taken advantage of her family’s nearby holiday home to throw ridiculous, over-the-top parties that lasted well into the following afternoon. Most of Jean’s memories of said parties were fuzzy at best, although he had a distinct memory of climbing one of Hitch’s horses (for she had several) and galloping down a field without a saddle, deliriously drunk, then preceding to fly face first into some shrubbery. The details of events prior and following were decidedly murky at best, although he’d woken up the next day with a splitting headache. Hitch told him she’d never have forgiven him if he’d hurt Portia, her third favourite horse, named after her second favourite Shakespeare character (Hitch had read English Literature at Oxford, and didn’t let anybody forget).
“I suppose I can stop by for a couple of hours.” He told Sasha.
“Oh, fabulous. I’ll see you there, darling.”
Regardless, the Dreyses were fabulously wealthy. Previously, the copious amounts of booze had been his primary reason for attending Hitch’s parties, with the strange and varied company coming in a close second. For now, he’d have to settle for the latter; it wasn’t as if he had anything better to do at the moment, aside from the endless mundanity of work.
Hitch’s apartment was a penthouse in the middle of Chelsea—looking over the River Thames. Jean arrived alone; initially, he’d felt overdressed in a suit and tie, and had ended up tearing the tie off, unsure of what exactly the tone would be. He ended up in a work dress shirt and a blazer he hadn’t worn since University (now a touch too small, he noted with dismay).
Upon his entry, he was pleased to spot Mikasa almost as soon as he arrived, although he was surprised to see her speaking happily with Hitch, to whom she had made her dislike clear during their University days. Strangely enough, they appeared to be in deep conversation.
“You came,” she said, noticing Jean, a small smile adorning her normally immobile features.
“Well, there’s not much else to do…”
“I was just telling Hitch about your swanky new job.”
Hitch raised an eyebrow. “I hear you’re in politics now.”
“Me being in politics is putting it very strongly. I’m just a secretary.” Jean mumbled.
“Nonsense. Everyone in the proximity of a politician is in politics, to an extent.”
“Even their wives?”
“Especially their wives.” Hitch nudged him in the ribs. A strand of her sandy hair brushed against his face. “Anyway, I bet you already know all sorts of scandalous secrets.”
“Not really. I’m not nearly important enough.”
“Oh, no, darling,” Hitch insisted, “you’re just not looking hard enough.”
“How about that cheque you told us about?” Mikasa asked. She looked so pretty with her hair pulled back, a thin band of pearls wrapped around her slender neck.
“Oh… yeah. That. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
Hitch’s hazel eyes widened with interest. “Oh? A mysterious cheque? Do tell…”
“You’re a terrible gossip, Hitch.”
“You love it. Now tell me.”
“Well, I was asked to take a cheque to an address. That’s all.”
“’That’s all?’ Honey—”
“I know, I know. It’s weird. But I don’t want to start any unfounded rumours.”
“Who are you taking them to?”
“Dunno. Some socialite.”
“Some socialite? A London socialite? I might just know them. Give me a name.”
“Eren Jaeger?” Hitch’s eyes lit up.
“You know him?”
“As it happens, yes. I met him around a year ago. Strange sort, don’t you think?”
“Well, you know, it’s simply terrible what happened with his parents. God—Jean—I’ve just realised you don’t have a drink!” Jean tensed slightly. “What a terrible hostess I am…”
“Actually,” Mikasa cut in, “Jean doesn’t drink anymore.”
“You don’t drink? Why ever not?”
“Well, I’ve just got back—”
“Mikasa! Hitch! Jean!” The three of them turned around, to see Sasha bounding towards them, Connie trailing behind her. Her face was already flushed; Jean supposed she’d been pregaming prior to her arrival with Connie. She threw her arms around them. “Goodness, it’s wonderful to see you…”
“Bit tipsy, are we?”
“I may have had a little glass of wine at my flat…” Sasha giggled.
“I wouldn’t have guessed.”
Hitch linked her arm through Jean’s. “You all catch up… I need to go and make Jean a vodka orange.”
“Hitch. Sober. Remember?”
“Of course.” Hitch said dismissively. “I’ll make him a deliciously boozeless glass of orange juice. Come on.”
She led him through throngs of beautiful, drunk people tumbling over one another, writhing to the music. He saw two people kissing fervently, except they appeared to merge into one, sweat-slick mess. A woman met his eyes for a brief moment, her large eyes ringed with copper eyeshadow; she half-smiled, holding a long, manicured nail up to her nostril and inhaling. Jean tore his eyes away, following Hitch into the kitchen, which was mercifully empty. She leaned back, pinching a strand of curled hair and wrapping it around her skinny finger.
“You know,” she said, pouring herself a glass of wine. “There’s a very interesting story behind that boy.”
“Well, I know you’re full of interesting stories.”
“I’m made of little else.” Hitch said, smirking from behind her glass.
Jean was reminded of their brief affair just before graduation; alcohol had been a significant contributing factor (as it was with many of Jean’s decisions, at least at the time) and despite being short-lived, it had been really rather exhilarating, but had come to a sudden end following Hitch’s doomed and brief engagement to a Portuguese millionaire, which fell through within three months. By the time it had all blown over—both of them had lost interest.
“So… what do you want to tell me?”
“Well,” Hitch said, drawing out the ‘e’, “you know, his father was fabulously wealthy. He invented some kind of pipette, or some medical crap like that. It got sold off in America and he made millions. He was even made a peer.”
Jean nodded. “I have a feeling this isn’t the end of the story.”
“Of course not. So, once he got so brilliantly rich, he left his first wife for a younger woman—Eren’s mother.”
“Right. Should I be taking notes?”
Hitch ignored him, digging into her pockets and pulling out a carton of cigarettes. She placed one between her lips. “Of course, everything was absolutely divine, at least for the new wife. Then, the police come knocking, saying Dina, his first wife, had vanished. Light?”
Jean obeyed. “Vanished?”
“It was believed to be suicide. At first, the police’s eyes were on him, apparently, although it fell away in the end. But rumours still swirled… I hear her body was never even recovered.”
“And what happened? What’s he doing now?”
“He’s dead.” Hitch said shortly, tapping ash into the sink. “So is his wife. Has been for ages.”
“Really? What happened?”
“Utterly. Of course, rumours swirled again, as they always do. And people like to talk… some people say he drove off that cliff deliberately.”
“Sounds fanciful. Compelling—but fanciful.”
“I’m simply repeating what I’ve heard, darling. It’s a rather interesting tale though, isn’t it? Especially if you believe the theories he killed them both…”
Jean reached and took the carton from her palm, sliding out a cigarette and lighting up. “You tell very colourful stories, Hitch. I can’t say I believe them all.”
“Who knows? Maybe there’s some truth in it… but even if it isn’t. What misfortune… three deaths in five years. Rotten luck for Eren…”
“Not that I know of. But I only met him once.”
“It’s quite the story.” Jean repeated.
“Yes, although I wouldn’t mention it to him, if you see him again, that is. Now drink your orange juice like a good boy and go socialise.”
She put out her cigarette in her empty wine. It hissed as it was saturated by liquid, before fizzling out.
In the cloak of a humid London night, Moblit wound through back-alleys and sideroads, operating a route that had become habitual for him. He cruised down a tunnel, the yellow streetlights momentarily illuminating the darkened car, then turned right, onto the main road. The artificial red light of the brake lights of the car in front of him nearly dazzled him; he looked up to the rear view mirror, where, briefly, he caught the eye of the backseat occupant. Erwin Smith’s expression was strong and severe, sharpened further by a square jaw, his face framed by a pair of thick and inexplicably dark eyebrows. Those features, he’d been told, had made his boss quite the housewife pin-up.
Moblit, personally, had no particular interest in politics, which made his job much easier. Of course, he obediently voted for the opposing party, due to vague and lingering distrust of the woman in charge. The finer details of party politics, however, he had no interest in; all he really desired was for something to change, for something most certainly wasn’t right, although he wasn’t sure what that something was. At least, he reasoned, Erwin and his party were marginally less money-grabbing.
“How’s the traffic looking?” Erwin asked. He was looking down at some documents in his lap.
“I think it’s about to clear up.”
Erwin said nothing, nodding slightly.
Eventually, the traffic did thin out, as Moblit predicted it would. He indicated left, winding down a residential road that seemed to go on and on. He slowed down, searching the number plates for sixty-three.
“It’s just here,” Erwin said, still seemingly immersed in his documents. “By the big tree on the left.”
Moblit stopped by the big tree on the left.
Erwin got out the car before Moblit had properly parked, leaving his work and briefcase in the back. Moblit watched Smith approach the door and stand there for a minute, before disappearing hurriedly inside. He reached into the glove compartment and unwrapped a cigar, lighting it and letting the smoke fill the car. They were one of his few indulgences.
Moblit was a private man, in both his personal and professional life; he had no desire to gossip, and indeed, rarely felt the need to speak unless he believed it wholly necessary. Unbeknownst to him, this was the singular quality that had kept him in Erwin Smith’s employment for the past six years.
For the next hour, Moblit sat in silence, smoking, flicking through magazines and listening to the radio. He did not think about what his boss was doing, nor did he care.
An hour later, Erwin Smith returned to the car. Wordlessly, Moblit pulled away from the curb.
At 10:30pm, they arrived back at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
Mrs. Smith, noticing the car pull into the driveway, came out to greet her husband. She lifted her hand to wave at Moblit. Moblit waved back, thinking of little else but the warm bath awaiting him when he got home.
Chapter 2: oh, you poor thing
I appreciated all your kudos and comments so much. I hope you're all having a wonderful day x
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Eyes exhausted from staring at tedious document after tedious document, Jean’s began to drift, eventually falling on a woman stood by the elevator. She looked, Jean noted, profoundly lost.
She was in her thirties, short and attractive, with strawberry blonde hair cut just before her shoulders. Her taupe coat was wrapped tight around her waist, a Burberry scarf tucked under her pale chin. Her bright eyes scanned the room.
Jean cleared his throat, trying to summon her attention.
“Sorry,” he asked, trying to project competence and authority, “can I help you?”
“Yes, please.” The woman said. “I’m looking for Erwin Smith, MP.”
“…What was your name, sorry?”
“Petra.” She rummaged through her bag. “I’m his wife.” She withdrew a green snakeskin purse and, between two French-manicured nails, flashed her ID.
So this was the wife Mikasa had mentioned. She was, Jean supposed, as he might have expected—just as well-manicured and immaculate as her husband.
“Right… I’ll go let him know.”
He didn’t plan on actually going into Smith’s office to tell him—his status wasn’t nearly high enough to simply waltz in. Instead, he rapped on Levi’s door.
“What is it?” A surly voice asked from the other side.
Jean opened the door, peaking his head around. “It’s Petra Smith. She wants to see her husband.”
Levi had his legs propped up on his desk, his arms crossed as he flipped through some files. He tossed the paper down with a sigh, not bothering say anything else to Jean, aside from throwing a derisive glance at him. That didn’t bother Jean, however, who’d learned to stop taking Levi’s dark moods personally.
“Petra’s here, is she? Oh, well I suppose I ought to let him know…”
To Jean’s surprise, Levi’s features seemed to soften as he approached Petra. She embraced him tightly, kissing both of his cheeks. They exchanged a few words, before he led her to Erwin’s office door. Levi’s eyes followed her into the office, then fell to the floor. He stalked back across the office, tossing another pile of papers onto Jean’s desk with a thump.
“Thee need cross-referencing.” He said shortly. “Have them on my desk within four hours.”
Jean waited for Levi to leave, before taking a long, theatrical sigh—directed at nobody in particular. He leaned back in his chair and rubbed the bridge of his nose. The constant sleep-deprivation made him miserable enough; being the target of Levi’s wrath was just another nail in his coffin. At least the pay was decent. He had to remind himself of this fact at least five times a day just to will himself to keep going through the tedium.
There would be no way he’d be able to sieve through all of these documents in time, especially considering the work he already had. Not knowing what else to do, he lit a cigarette, staring at his hands for a moment, and skimmed through the first paper.
An atmosphere of tension had permeated the entire office block. Yesterday, Erwin Smith had been on the television for an interview with the BBC; having expected the whole thing to be softball, the whole department was shocked to see him repeatedly skewed by the anchor for twenty minutes. For the most part, Erwin had responded with tight smiles and a nervous laugh, silently stewing.
Levi had taken the whole affair particularly personally, spending most of his days skulking around the halls, smoking, drafting and redrafting various press statements and staring out of his office window, glowering at the people below. Then again, that wasn’t too far off his usual behaviour.
Around half an hour later, Petra emerged from Erwin’s office. Jean’s eyes flitted upwards automatically, tired and heavy through reading page after page of miniscule writing. She stalked past the rows of desks with her head down, her scarf pulled up over her chin, emerging from the cloud of smoke like a ghost.
Once she was alone in the elevator, Petra caught sight of her reflection. She sniffed, dabbed at her eyes, then turned away, unable to bear the sight.
Jean rang the doorbell for the fifth time, checking his watch. Normally Eren at least had the decency to make an appearance after the third or fourth ring—but this was starting to push it. He rang again, tapping his foot against the floor. As he raised his hand to ring again, the door swung open.
Jean opened his mouth to say something cutting, but before any sound could could escape, he realised that the person in front of him was not Eren at all, but someone else entirely.
The young man stared up at him, his face cautious.
“Who are you?” The boy asked, the boy, who was decidedly not Eren.
“I’m here to see Eren.”
The boy’s brow furrowed. “Why?”
“Uh… I have something to give him.” He pulled out the envelope, displaying it to the other man, hoping that might be explanation enough.
The young man regarded him disdainfully. “I suppose you work for Erwin Smith, then?” His pale hair rustled slightly in the wind. His voice was gentle, clearly unused to the hostility he was attempting to convey
“I mean, yeah…” Jean laughed nervously. He felt as if the young man’s eyes, a watery blue and unusually large, had pinned him to the floor.
“Well,” the young man huffed. “I was just leaving. Eren’s upstairs, if you’re wondering.”
The boy brushed past him and jogged down the steps without looking back. For a few moments, Jean watched him retreat, before ducking inside.
Eren was exactly where the boy said he was; lounged over his sofa, head tilted back. His hair had grown longer since Jean had last seen him, brushing just past the nape of his neck. He tilted his head back over the end of the sofa to meet Jean’s gaze, offering him a grin.
“Your friend let me in.” Jean told him, letting his bag fall to the floor.
“He didn’t seem very happy.”
“He’s not.” Eren said, heaving himself upwards. “But there’s nothing either of us can do about that, anyway. I wasn’t expecting you today. I would have tidied up.”
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“No,” Eren said, pulling himself up. “You’re right. I wouldn’t have. But I would have thought about it.”
Jean withdrew the envelope from the pocket of his coat and put it on the table. Eren eyed it, acknowledged it, then looked away.
“Would you like a coffee before you go?” Eren asked, pulling himself to his feet in one swift movement. At least, Jean supposed, that pedigree upbringing had drilled upper class hospitality into him. Eren flicked on the kettle, picking the envelope up from the table as he went.
“Yes please.” His watched Eren get up and head into the kitchen. “So… what was your friend so pissy about?”
Eren shrugged. “He doesn’t approve of my lifestyle.”
Understandable, Jean thought to himself. “It’s cash this time, by the way. Not a cheque.”
“No complaints here.” Eren replied, tearing the envelope open without ceremony. He began to count each bill, placing each note back in the envelope once he was done. The smell of coffee filled the room.
“Yeah… this was definitely one of my wiser investments.” Eren said, patting his espresso machine. “It’s ridiculously expensive stuff brought over from Italy. It’s good, though.”
“You have expensive tastes for someone who lays around in their pyjamas all day.”
“You have a sharp tongue, don’t you? I’m surprised Levi hasn’t skinned you yet. He hates when people talk back.”
“To be honest, I think he’s on the cusp…”
This scenario wasn’t unusual. Whenever Jean came to drop the cash or cheque off, which was normally every two weeks, Eren would invite him in for a hot drink and they would chat for a while. At first, Jean hadn’t been sure what to make of it, however, after a while, he’d realised it was because Eren probably got lonely—locked away in his dark apartment, nursing a hangover more often than not. He seemed to crave the human interaction. Jean didn’t ask questions. Besides, he liked Eren well enough, while he resented his lifestyle on principle, Eren himself was certainly entertaining company. Jean could understand why he was so popular at parties; he had the tendency to come out with outrageous statements, to which all Jean could really ever do was gawk. His flat, indifferent tone often meant Jean couldn’t tell if he was joking. He wasn’t sure if Eren could tell either. He was also full of good stories, as those who made partying a hobby often were.
“Levi’s been pissed lately.” Jean said, filling the silence. “You know, ‘cos of the interview...”
Ah yes. How could Jean forget Eren’s almost pathological avoidance of politics?
“He went on the news the other day to do an interview. It didn’t go well. Erwin, I mean.”
Eren snorted. “That would explain his rotten mood lately.”
Jean thought about asking a question but decided against it. Instead, he took another sip of bitter coffee and lit a cigarette. Eren, as if on cue, lit up too.
“His wife came in today.” Jean said. He wasn’t sure why he’d felt the need to say it, only that it had come out without him realising.
“Have you met her?”
“Once or twice.” Eren topped up his coffee. His face was unreadable. “I barely remember, though.”
“She looked kinda upset when she left…”
“I’m not surprised. Cream or sugar?”
Jean caught himself studying the lines of Eren’s back, and the strip of golden skin between the collar of his shirt and the hairs brushing against it. He lifted his gaze, realising that Eren was watching him watch him. Jean cleared his throat and averted his eyes.
“Just a splash of milk please.” He paused. “You know, you’ve never told me how you know Erwin and Levi.” Jean asked, overcome with an uncharacteristic audacity. Perhaps it had been the adrenaline rush of making eye-contact. Since when did eye-contact give him an adrenaline rush?
Eren blinked at him. “You really don’t know?”
“I assumed since you were dropping off the—”
“Know what?” Jean repeated.
Eren clucked, turning around. “I told you.” He said carefully. “He was a friend of my father’s. Anyway, what does it matter?”
“I guess it doesn’t.”
Eren’s dishwasher whirred. Jean sipped his coffee.
“Can I ask you a question, Jean?”
“What is it?”
“Are you straight?”
“Huh?” That had certainly come out of nowhere.
“Are you straight?”
“Uh… yes. Why? What does it matter?”
Eren shrugged. “Just curious.”
“Do I give off… vibes?”
Eren stared at his cigarette thoughtfully for a few seconds. “Uh, not particularly.”
“You took a while to answer.”
“It doesn’t mean anything. What, do you have a problem with gay people?” Eren’s tone was playful, although Jean didn’t pick up on it.
“No! No. I’m just not gay. I guess I wouldn’t want to give off the impression I was when I’m not…”
“Right. Okay.” Eren said. He was smiling slightly, in that unreadable way of his. Who did this guy think he was, anyway?
“Are you insinuating something?” Jean asked.
“Maybe.” What was going on?
“The money.” Jean asked. “What’s it for?”
“My silence. Isn’t that much obvious?”
“Your silence?” Jean asked, pretending not to understand. Eren, knowing he was pretending, snorted and looked away.
“…I’ve known Erwin since I was a kid. And Levi by extension.” Eren reached over to pour himself another coffee. He stared at it for a few seconds, his face blank. “I think that I’m going to make this Irish.”
“Suit yourself.” Jean glanced at the clock. It was just past two.
“Would you like some in yours?” Eren asked. He reached into a well-stocked cabinet of liquor and added a splash of whisky. “I’m not gonna get drunk or anything, I just like the taste…”
“I don’t drink.”
“Oh.” A pause. “Why?”
Jean put out his cigarette. His mind was still settled on whether or not his vibes were overtly homosexual. “I spent a bit of time in rehab, a few months back.”
“Oh yeah?” Eren had his back to him. He placed the bottle of whisky carefully back in the cupboard, his fingers momentarily hovering over the lid. “How was that?”
“Dull. Worth it in the end, I suppose. Although sometimes I’m not so sure…”
At the time, it hadn’t felt particularly helpful, more like separating him from the most passionate relationship he’d ever had. The place in question had been located in the depths of Southern English countryside, tucked away behind a thick blanket of fern trees. At the time, the days seemed endless and identical, filled only with group therapy sessions and Jean’s fantasies about raiding the pharmacist and getting drunk on rubbing alcohol and codeine.
“Did you learn anything?” Eren asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, you must have learned something, right? I mean, if you hadn’t, you would still be there.”
“Yeah.” Jean said. His gaze settled on the floor. “Maybe.”
Later than night, while Jean struggled to sleep, he wondered if Eren had been attempting to proposition him. There had seemed, for a moment, to be an atmosphere between the two of them, but was that presumptuous? Even homophobic?
Then again, if a woman had said the same thing, he’d assume she was trying to sleep with him too. Not that it mattered, anyway, since Jean was straight. He could acknowledge that Eren was attractive, of course, with his sinewy muscles and crop of dark hair. He had a nice face, too, in an objective sense; it was symmetrical, with full lips and high cheekbones. No, Eren was certainly attractive. If you were into that kind of thing, which Jean wasn’t.
Jean put out his cigarette and flicked it down to the street below. He watched a few drunken teenagers stumble down the road towards the train station, the girls squealing while the men staggered down the pavement, passing cigarettes back and forth. Jean heaved the window close. It banged against the windowsill and rattled. He crawled back under his sheets, pulling the covers over his head, not falling asleep until several hours later. By the time he finally felt tired, it seemed to sun was already rising from behind the horizon.
When Eren’s eyes opened, the clock by his bed was just trudging towards 5pm. His curtains, half-falling off the rails, allowed enough light in for him to reach for his cigarette and a lighter. For a moment, he sat smoking, pondering the events of the night before.
When he was finished smoking, he first felt a wave of thirst, propelling him to his feet. He placed his head under the water faucet and took several gulps, feeling his head spin, sweat clinging to his back like a second skin. He began to run himself a bath, slipping into the kitchen to prepare himself an instant coffee with plenty of sugar and cream.
Coffee in hand, he returned to the bathroom, dumping a generous dollop of bubblebath and watching the water froth. As he submerged himself, he closed his eyes, attempting to relax.
The previous night came back in fractured segments: shisha pipes, throbbing music, champagne, rosé, his face between a pair of pale breasts (Annie’s? Mina’s?) vomiting in a nightclub toilet… how regrettable. It was almost enough to make Eren go sober. Almost. Like that cute secretary, Jean, who was oh-so-definitely his type. Pity he was heterosexual. Good looks were so often wasted on heterosexual men, Eren thought to himself, despondent.
Fucking parties. House parties, flat parties, parties in hotel bars, parties in hotel rooms, costume parties, dinner parties, parties on boats, parties where models railed fat lines of cocaine, parties that carried on through the night into the next day, parties where the police were called, parties that spilled into the streets… it made one wonder what the point of it all was.
A pang of pain radiated through his skull, making him groan and grope around the counter next to him for an aspirin. Fuck.
He leant back, letting the water blanket his hair, his headache continuing to throb. If he took a couple of Valium now, perhaps he’d drown in the bath. Although maybe that was too much to hope for.
Eventually, Eren drained the bath. He sat in the tub for a few moments, shivering from the cold, but unable to will himself to get up. After what felt like forever, he dragged himself to his feet; then the room began to spin mercilessly beneath him, like a rug being yanked from under his feet. Only his arms jutting out to grab the edge of the tub saved him from smacking his head against the tile floor, which, he supposed, had it killed him, would have at least subsided his hangover. Damn reflexes. Ruining the fun for everyone. The human body, Eren thought, was so insistent of survival, while the mind seemed to give up so easily.
Not a moment later did the first wave of nausea wash over him, making him keel over the toilet bowl and wretch. Up came last night’s dinner. After that, nothing but the acidic taste of bile.
Once he’d recovered, he brushed his teeth and wondered back into the living room. Having made himself a cup of tea, he decided the room was too light, in spite of the curtains already being drawn. He switched off all lights aside from the single, dim lamp by his side and reached under the table to withdraw a baggie filled to the brim with weed.
He deposited it partially into his grinder. The process of rolling a joint was surprisingly therapeutic in its familiar mechanics. It was perhaps the most exertion he could bring himself to do for the day.
As he lay back and smoked, he considered the merits of sobriety. He’d probably feel physically better in his day-to-day life; he’d definitely sleep better, too. Still, what else was there to do, really? And being in an altered state was just so nice. The pleasant feeling of dope rushing to his head reminded him as much.
The phone began to ring.
Eren closed his eyes, hoping it would shut up. Sometimes, he wished everybody had the good sense to just be quiet. He’d like that much better—the quiet. The phone continued to ring. And ring. God, why couldn’t everybody just—
“Eren, it’s me.”
Eren rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, ‘course. How are you doing, Armin?”
“You sound sick.”
“I have a bit of a cold.”
“Are you sure you’re not hungover?”
“Positive. I’d know, wouldn’t I?”
“You know, Annie said she saw you out last night. Do you remember seeing her?”
“Oh, yes… I suppose I did.” Eren lied, twirling the phone wire around his finger. The image of his face between a pair of tits flashed back into his mind, causing him to sit up.
God, he really hoped he hadn’t slept with Annie. Armin wouldn’t admit it, but Eren noticed the way his eyes would follow her when he thought nobody was looking, or how he’d ask after her unprompted. No, he wouldn’t have slept with Annie. He would have had the foresight not to. Right?
“She said you seemed drunk.”
“Oh yeah?” He asked sheepishly. “What did she say?”
“Well, she said she only saw you briefly and that you were slurring and falling over the place. Are you sure you’re not hungover?”
Only briefly. That sounded promising. “Well, yeah. Now that I think about it, I guess I was a bit tipsy. But I’m right as rain now, darling.”
“I tried to call you earlier.” Armin continued suspiciously. “You didn’t pick up.”
“Oh yeah? What time was it?”
“Oh, well that was because I was out.”
“Out where? You never go out during the day.”
“I was at the shop.”
“Buying what?” Armin asked. With each sentence, the scepticism in his voice built on itself.
“I called you again around three, too. You didn’t pick up then either.”
“I was out then too.”
“The post office.”
“What do you think I was doing at the post office? I was posting letters.” He didn’t have the patience to come up with a more imaginative lie.
“Well,” Armin said slowly. “If you say so.”
Sometimes Eren wished Armin wasn’t so perceptive, but spending over a decade with Armin as his sole confidante had meant the other boy knew him better than he knew himself. Which, as it turned out, was very annoying.
“I don’t appreciate the judgement in your voice.”
“There’s no judgement.” Armin said. His turn to lie, Eren guessed.
“Anyway, point is, I’m fine. So, there’s no point in worrying about me.”
“I always worry about you. I can’t help it.” Armin laughed a little, although it came across as sad rather than anything else. Eren winced, leaning back. He needed to take another aspirin—his headache was returning with more force than ever. “I could lock you in a box fifty feet underground, sedated and covered in three layers of bubble wrap and I’d still worry about you.”
“If that were to happen, I'd be concerned about me too. But more about you, frankly.”
“You don’t need to.” Eren said, more quietly this time. “Worry, that is.”
“At this point in our relationship, I think it’s a little late for that.”
It was definitely true that Armin’s constant concern had always been a defining feature of their friendship, as much as that fact caused Eren embarrassment. Even during their days at school, every memory seemed to consist of Armin chasing after him, trying to get him out of whatever trouble he’d gotten himself into.
“Why do you stick with me, anyway, Armin?”
The question came out without him thinking it through—it seemed to pass without obstruction from his common sense—as a lot of things he said seemed to do. That was the lack of impulse control Armin liked to bring up so much.
Silence came from the other line, then a sigh.
“I just don’t understand why you do this to yourself, Eren.”
Then he hung up.
Around an hour later, Eren dialled up another number.
“Hey, Aunt Faye. How are you?”
“Oh, darling, it’s wonderful to hear your voice. I’m doing fabulously.”
“That’s good.” He waited for the question to be asked of him, but nothing came.
“So…” Faye said, clearing her throat. “What is it you wanted to talk to me about, sweetie?”
That was a good question—one that Eren wasn’t entirely sure of the answer to. Maybe it was that thing within him again, that endless impulse; to tell her, to tell someone, absolutely everything. What would he even say? That he’d been sleeping with a married politician for the past three years? That it was taking every ounce of his strength not to go out and scream it in the streets, or to sell the story to a paper? Not that he cared about the notoriety or even the money, it was more the desire for somebody, somebody to know that everything that man had constructed was a fucking lie—
“Nothing, really. Well, I guess I just wanted to talk…”
“What about, sugar plum?”
A pause. “I don’t know. I guess I’ve been feeling sort of down lately…”
“What’s troubling you?”
“A lot of things, I guess—”
“That’s terrible, sweetheart. I feel just awful for you. But you see, I’m just getting ready to leave the house…”
“Where are you going?”
“A charity gala, we’re raising money for children in India, you know, poor darlings…”
“Oh.” Eren said, disappointed. “Okay. I’ll leave you then.”
“You shouldn’t feel down! Think of it, you have everything in your life you could possibly need… you know, these children in India, so many of them really have nothing…”
“I suppose so.” Eren responded, feeling slightly worse than he had at the beginning of the call.
“Yes, well. It’s easy to forget, isn’t it? You know, I’m sponsoring this little boy from India called Aayush. He’s deaf, poor little angel… and he has to walk five miles for clean water…”
“Goodness...” Eren replied, pretending to care.
“Oh, but he’s just the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. I have a photograph; I must show it to you sometime… but I’m giving him money to learn clarinet.”
“What’s he going to do with a clarinet?”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you think he might prefer just having the money itself?”
“Well, darling, music is therapeutic… the road to happiness.” Faye said vaguely. Eren could picture her characteristic gesticulating. “Maybe you ought to pick up the clarinet, dear, it might help this low mood of yours…”
“Have you ever heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Aunt Faye?”
“No, pumpkin, you know I don’t keep up with modern pop. Anyway, music does wonders for the soul. I’ll tell you what, dear, I’ll write you a cheque now and send it to you in the post. Treat yourself to a clarinet.”
“I don’t want a clarinet, Aunt Faye.”
“Well, any woodwind instrument, then.” Faye replied irritably. “I’ll send you money for a few lessons, too…”
“It’s really not necessary.”
“Nonsense, sweet. I’ve already signed the cheque. Now I must leave you now, the taxi’s waiting for me outside…”
“Oh. Alright. I’ll speak to you soon.”
“Of course.” Faye replied distractedly.
“Enjoy your night.”
He put down the receiver, staring down at his hands for a few moments. Unsure of what else to do, and feeling exhaustion beginning to tug at his eyelids, he fell back into the sofa and closed his eyes.
When the buzzer first rang, at first, Eren thought it was a part of the vivid dream he’d been caught in the midst of—consisting of flashes of blood-streaked tarmac, a body hanging from trees, swaying with the wind and crashing to the floor. Then there was banging, the crashing of thunder that wasn’t really thunder at all, but knuckles wrapping against his door, again and again.
Shocked awake and sweaty, Eren jumped to his feet and stumbled down the stairs. The room was almost completely dark around him—apart from a thin, white band of light coming from the section of glass in the door.
He opened it, surprised to see Erwin standing in front of him; he became suddenly aware of the astounding difference between the two of them: Erwin, in his crisp and perfect suit, hair gelled back like a helmet and Eren, still in his pyjamas, hair in disarray, smelling of sleep and sweat.
“I wasn’t expecting you.” He said lamely.
“I should have called,” Erwin replied, eyes darting past him. “My apologies. May I come in?” Always so formal, Eren thought, but what was the point?
He stepped aside. Erwin went straight past him, smelling like smoke and the outside. Eren followed him upstairs.
“It’s a mess in here…” Erwin said, as Eren caught up with him. Eren ignored him
“Do you want a drink?” He offered instead.
“Do you have whisky?”
“Bourbon. If that’s alright.” Erwin nodded. Eren tossed some ice into two glasses along with a splash of Jim Beam. “How was work?” He asked lightly; normally Erwin would decline his offer of an alcoholic drink, opting for tap water instead. Clearly his day had been particularly trying, as further evidenced by the way his brow seemed to keep falling into a frown.
Erwin sighed. “Stressful.” He never bothered elaborating when Eren asked such questions, knowing that the younger man would neither understand nor care. Erwin had even said he liked that about him; how much he resided in his own world, wishing only for everybody else to leave him alone.
Once, he’d reached forward and touched Eren’s cheek with his knuckle and asked him to promise he’d never stop being what he was now. What was Eren now? A bored, ignorant orphan still living off his dead father’s money? He couldn’t stay the same forever, could he? Unless he died young. Perhaps that was the preferable option; to die beautiful, young and perfect. If he died young, he could be whatever the living wanted him to be.
“What have you done today?” Erwin asked, without looking at him.
“Nothing, really. I went out last night.”
“Mm.” Erwin drained his glass. He unbuttoned his top collar, leaning back into the sofa. Eren studied the clean lines of his jaw, the clean lines of his suit—the way everything about him was so perfect and orderly. That had been part of what had attracted him to him in the first place. He had a clear memory of hovering at the top of the stairs, hidden behind the bannisters, watching his father entertain his colleagues in the dining room. At the time, he couldn’t understand why adults found that sort of thing entertaining; he couldn’t have imagined anything more boring than being forced to sit still for three hours and eat tiny portions of disgusting food. Even then, before he had any concept of sexual attraction, Erwin had fascinated him. That fascination rapidly transformed into infatuation once Eren reached puberty.
“Why is it so dark in here?” Erwin asked. “I’ll turn the lights on.”
“Don’t bother.” Eren said, reaching for his arm. Erwin’s eyes searched his for a second, bemused. “I like the dark better.”
“Why? You’re going to damage your eyes.”
“I don’t know. It’s comforting to me…”
It always had been, even when he was a child. It had never been a source of fear. Whenever he’d wanted to escape the world around him, he’d run off to his room and turn the lights off, hidden by a shroud of blackness. It had never occurred to him to be scared of the things that were hiding there, as he was perfectly happy being one of them. He recalled the outline of his mother, standing in the doorway to his bedroom, while he buried his face under the duvet.
Why are you sitting in the dark, honey?
Erwin tapped his finger against the glass. Eren meandered towards him, hands plunged into his tracksuit pockets. His eyes scanned Erwin’s disinterested face. Eren sat down on the sofa, reaching towards the other man, looking for something—some kind of human contact—some kind of proof that there was somebody else in this world who wasn’t on fire.
Erwin’s blue eyes flashed. Eren reached forward and brushed his fingers against his forearm, where he’d rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, relishing the sensation of hard muscle and downy hair. He ran his finger down a protruding vein, hoping perhaps he’d feel his heartbeat from beneath his skin—perhaps that would make him seem more real, more human, and less like a figment of Eren’s imagination.
Suddenly, Erwin caught his wrist in his hand. His grip was steady. Eren looked upwards, his breath caught in his throat; Erwin tugged his hand down between his legs, until Eren’s palm was pressed against his erection.
Eren looked up, meeting his eyes for the first time. His face burned.
Those eyes. Something about those eyes.
Eren fell forward until they were side by side, beginning to knead Erwin’s crotch until he felt him hardening more and more. Erwin groaned, grabbing him by the arm to yank him closer, into his lap.
Later, when Erwin was finished, Eren remained still, like a doll, arms stretched forwards, grabbing on to the end of the counter for leverage. He saw nothing, face flat against the kitchen counter, breathing in the smell of nothing—allowing the coolness of the marble to flow through him.
Erwin reached forwards and finished him off with a few tugs. Eren groaned, allowing his hands to finally relax, curling at his side. He hadn’t realised they had become so stiff from gripping the edge of the counter.
For a moment, his brain was clouded by the feeling of post-coital bliss, that was, a foggy feeling of unreality. Slowly, he pulled himself upwards, noticing that Erwin was already in the process of putting his clothes back on. He buttoned up his shirt, sliding back into his façade of decency and acceptability; even his expression seemed to shift as he encased himself in his suit. He shrugged his jacket back on and ran his fingers through his hair; the strands, still coated in gel, hung in dirty blond ribbons in his face.
“Are you going to get dressed?” Erwin asked.
Eren sighed, reaching for his boxers on the floor and ignoring the thin stream of cum making its way down his thigh. Perhaps that in itself was enough to remind him of the gap between the projected reality and the truth, that Erwin was not nearly immaculate as he pretended to be. But nobody, not really, was completely spotless—everybody had dirt under their nails. Everybody was a bit of a degenerate, deep down; what a prison it had to be to be a politician—to tape on your smile on permanently—to give up your humanity for the sake of power. What kind of monster did that take?
Eren, still only clad in his boxers, reached for the carton of cigarettes on the counter. Unable to find a lighter, he turned on the hob instead, leaning down to catch the cigarette end glowed orange.
“Last night,” He began, his voice distant, “I dreamt I broke into your house. I climbed up the piping and got in through an open window. I looked at all the photographs on the walls, but every time I did, the faces all blended together until they all looked identical. The halls seemed to go on forever until I found your room.”
“Then…” Eren took a long toke, “I slit your throat.”
“Did Carla never tell you that some thoughts were better left unsaid?”
“Yes. But I didn’t listen.”
Erwin didn’t look particularly troubled by what he’d said, anyway. Instead, he strode towards him and took the cigarette from between his fingers. He took one, long drag, then passed it back to him.
“So, you smoke now?”
“Of course not. It’s a dirty habit.” Erwin checked his watch. “I should get going. My driver will be waiting.”
“Say hello to Petra from me.”
Erwin froze, meeting his eyes for a moment. The corner of his mouth twitched, and he exhaled from his nose. The sound was barely audible but could have been mistaken for a laugh.
Having spent the past few hours working overtime, Jean fell down into the tube seat and closed his eyes. His feet had even begun to hurt, having been crammed into the same pair of dress shoes, just a fraction too small, for the past twelve hours. If circumstances had been different, he would have gone to the nearest bar and gotten hammered until he needed to be carried home. How much easier those times had been—at the very least—he’d always known what he’d do to solve whatever was troubling him. He wondered, briefly, if the self-improvement tactics he’d been taught in rehab had really been worth it. Was it really better, to live a long life free of liver failure and alcohol poisoning, if those additional years on earth were spent utterly miserable?
There were other options, of course. There was always the possibility of burying his discontent in the flesh of an attractive woman. Still, following orgasm, the hard reality of it all would creep back like a tumour.
This train terminates here, the robotic voice announced.
Jean’s eyes shot open. How had he managed to fall asleep? It had felt as if only a few seconds had passed.
He stumbled to his feet and cursed, then tumbled out to the platform. The platform was almost devoid of life, aside from some trash blowing across the concrete. After a moment’s hesitation, Jean realised his surroundings weren’t as unfamiliar as he’d initially thought.
Jean had the kind of brain which refused to let go of a thought once it lodged itself into his skull. Not only would it remain there, but it would often become the subject of relentless obsession, until, at the very least, it was resolved in some capacity.
He lit a cigarette and walked, past the flickering street lamps, past the fluorescent glow of kebab shops, past clusters of giggling young women smoking outside a pub. As Jean turned a corner, a woman caught him by the arm, making him jump. Her blood-red nails dug into the fabric of his coat.
“Y’alright, sweetheart?” She slurred. She was rake thin, her body so shapeless and bony that it resembled a child. Her gaunt face seemed to shine in the dark, her thin gash of a mouth stretching into a smile. “Why do you look so sad, darlin’?”
“I’m not sad.”
“C’mon, babe. Come with me and I’ll take your mind off it.”“I’m okay, thanks.”
The woman kissed her teeth, letting his arm drop to the floor. “Fine. Suit yourself.”
Jean continued to walk. And walk. He barely looked, ignoring even the feeling of rain spitting onto his neck and sliding down his skin. Eventually he found himself on a snowy doorstep, in front of a glossy green door. He rang the bell and waited.
After a minute, it opened.
Eren blinked up at him, rubbing his eyes. His hair was swept at an odd angle, as if he’d only just woken up.
“Hello,” Eren said. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
“I wasn’t expecting to be here either, to be honest.”
Eren bit his lip. “Do you want to come in?”
He followed Eren up the stairs, his heart hammering in his chest. Once they were inside his apartment, he sat down on the sofa, limbs stiff.
“Would you like a tea, or something?”
“I’m okay. Just a glass of water, if that’s alright.”
“God, you think this place is a fucking hotel, don’t you?” Eren said, even though he was grinning. He went up to the tap and filled a pint glass, placing it on the coffee table in front of Jean. “So… how can I help you?”
For a moment, Jean was quiet, unsure of what to say.
“Eren,” he said, hope creeping into his voice, “are you going to seduce me?”
Eren’s eyes flitted over his face. “I don’t know,” he returned, amused. “Do you want me to?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“I thought you were straight.”
“I am. I’m pretty sure.”
“But you want me to seduce you?”
“You managed to seduce Erwin, didn’t you? And he’d married to a woman…”
Eren’s smile disappeared. He pursed his lips, averting his gaze. For a second, Jean could tell his mind had drifted off to someplace else.
“You look tired.” Eren said gently, following a few seconds of quiet, which had felt to Jean like an eternity.
“I am. But I reckon I’m awake enough.”
The smile returned. Eren inched closer, then closer again, until their faces were just inches apart. Eren leaned in, until his lips ghosted the outline of Jean’s jaw. For a moment, he didn’t move, allowing his breath to tickle his throat.
“I suppose,” Eren drawled, “you thought you might as well give it a go?”
“Bold of you to assume I was up for it.”
“You don’t seem too reluctant.”
When Eren’s lips pressed against his throat, Jean could feel his smile. Instinctively, his hand groped for Eren’s thigh, as he began to trail kisses down his neck. The feeling wasn’t unpleasant in the slightest, in fact, quite the opposite.
“You’re lucky you’re attractive,” Eren murmured, “otherwise, I’d think you were a cunt.”
Jean allowed his fingers to sink into the flesh of Eren’s thigh, hard enough to bruise. Eren hands locked around his neck, not hard enough to cause him any discomfort, but hard enough to hold him still.
When their lips finally did meet, Jean devoured them like a man who’d been starved. He traced his fingers down Eren’s sides and then up his chest, surprised when the hard muscle where there should have been soft flesh didn’t put him off. Eren’s hand snaked under his shirt, his nails scraping up his spine. That touch, for some reason, sent Jean over the edge, making him grab at Eren to pull him closer.
Eren began to fumble with the buckle of Jean’s belt. Jean hadn’t even realised how painfully hard he was until Eren wrapped his fingers around his erection, beginning to jack him off. It wasn’t perfect, Eren’s hands seemed to fumble slightly, but it still made Jean’s eyes roll into the back of his skull. Perhaps, partially, as a result of not having had sex in so long.
Perhaps his attraction to Eren had been the root of his persistent feelings of confusion, that seemed to dominate his thoughts whenever in his presence. Pleasure pooled in his stomach, to the point where he had to push Eren’s hand out of his pants.
They broke apart, both panting. Eren’s face was flushed. Jean decided he liked that look on him, before he dove back in, pushing Eren back into the sofa, his arms on either side of his head, trapping him in. Jean began to hurriedly unbutton his shirt, then shimmy off his trousers, while rubbing Eren’s clothed hard-on. He couldn’t lie, it had a juvenile sort of feeling about it, like the first time he’d touched a woman’s breasts, behind the bikeshed—hurried, but desperate.
When he did finally push inside, his face buried in Eren’s neck, he nearly came from the feeling alone. It was hotter—tighter—than he could have imagined; for a moment, he didn’t move, getting used to the sensation. He started at a slower pace, until Eren growled in his ear to go faster. Harder.
He picked up the pace until it became punishing, lost in the feeling, he grabbed a fistful of Eren’s hair and pulled his head back, hard, until his head was forced to look at the ceiling. Eren seemed to like the sensation, whimpering slightly, his nails raking down Jean’s back.
When Jean came, he continued thrusting for a few seconds, before taking Eren in his fist and pumping him until he reached orgasm. Eren’s eyes squeezed shut, then he relaxed.
For a moment, neither of them moved; Jean was suddenly aware of the bead of sweat sliding down his shoulder blade. He pulled out with a groan and sat back. Eren pulled up his boxers and got to his feet.
“Have you seen my fags?” Eren asked, looking nonplussed.
Jean was still hazy from pleasure. “I think… I saw them on the counter.”
Eren stuck one between his teeth and offered the carton to Jean. “Don’t worry, they’re not menthol.” He said with a wink.
Jean accepted. He lay back on the sofa and smoked pensively, staring up at the ceiling. He had much to consider.
“Does this make me gay?”
Eren’s eyebrow quirked. “I don’t know,” he said, “are you still attracted to women?”
“Did you enjoy having sex with a man?”
“Not just any man. You, specifically.”
“So that’s a yes, is it?”
Jean sighed. “Yes.” Did he need to do some soul searching? It certainly wasn’t something he’d considered, being attracted to men, that was.
“Why worry about it, anyway?” Eren asked, tapping the ash off his cigarette.
Jean thought about it for a moment. “I guess there’s no point.”
“It doesn’t change anything, not really. Sex feels good. Who matters who you’re having it with? As long as you’re both consenting.”
“Yeah. I suppose.’
That was the last said of the matter of Jean’s sexuality.
This chapter took a little longer than I would have liked, but I'm alright with the result. To be honest with you all, I've been going through a really rough time after breaking up with my bf of nearly three years, but seeing your comments and that people are enjoying this fic and the concept surrounding it has made me feel a lot better <3
If you want to ask any me any questions, shoot me an ask over at raitoyagamii.tumblr.com (if anybody even uses Tumblr anymore haha)
Chapter 3: shadows of men
if any of the political terms are confusing to my non-british readers, shoot me a comment and I'll explain if it's unclear. another long ass chapter because I don't know how to be concise
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Nile came to visit earlier.”
“The leader’s office is whipping to abstain on this new social services bill.”
Levi leaned back in his chair, hands absently tapping on the table. “Is that a problem?”
Erwin said nothing, frowning at something indeterminate. His eyebrows, which naturally gave him the look of constantly being in deep thought, furrowed further. He met Levi’s gaze, trying to communicate without words.
They were sat in one of London’s finest restaurants, obscured by a cloak of ambient lighting and cigarette smoke. It had been Erwin’s idea to come here—he knew the owner.
“It’s getting passed either way.” Levi said, kissing his teeth.
“Abstention looks weak.”
“Well, you’re not going to vote in favour, are you?”
Erwin crossed his arms and said nothing. He’d been stressed the past few days, caught between the demands of work and the demands at home. His daughter, Stephanie, had been acting up lately, getting in trouble at school, throwing tantrums at home. It had Petra at her wit’s end.
“I might.” He said finally.
Levi threw him a dark look. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll get sacked.”
“I don’t care.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, and you haven’t even been an MP long. You can’t just throw that away.”
They were sat in one of the restaurant’s best seats, which stared over the entire city scape—blinking, effervescent. Sometimes Levi would stare back over the countless high-rises, feeling if the city were whispering directly to him; of course, slabs of concrete couldn’t be sentient, but Levi sometimes felt as if the city would blink back at him, grinning, keeping away its secrets like a mistress.
“But what’s the point? If I’m serving a party with no bloody principle—”
“There’s a difference between a lack of principle and not bothering with fighting battles that have already been lost.” Levi said evenly, stubbing out his cigarette. He was reminded briefly of him and Erwin’s time at public school, and after that, at University: the dynamic duo who dominated the realm of student politics. Erwin, the ideologue, and Levi, the pragmatist—the one willing to get his hands dirty in order to get things done. Another by-product of growing up poor; Levi had no choice to be pragmatic. When you’d been raised with a silver spoon in your mouth, as Erwin had, it was easy to talk about vague, intangible concepts like integrity. When you were poor, you had to fight tooth and nail to make yourself heard. There was no other option but to take your opportunities as they came.
Levi sipped his wine. A waitress approached, young, dark-haired and slim.
“Are you ready to order yet?” She asked, with a polite smile at them both.
“The risotto for me, please.” Erwin said. Levi quirked an eyebrow. “I’m starting to get a gut.” He muttered in explanation.
“The steak mignon for me.” Levi added.
“How would you like that done?”
“Preferably still breathing. But if that can’t be managed—just give it a quick sear.”
The girl nodded, hurrying back to the kitchen. Erwin’s eyes followed her long legs back to the door.
“You’re an old pervert, do you know that?” Levi muttered, waiting until the girl was out of ear shot. Erwin snorted, unaffected. “Anyway…” Levi leaned closer, “don’t tell anyone I told you this, but there might be a cabinet reshuffle coming. And if it does happen, you’re in a good position to grab something big.”
“Big? Define big.”
“I’m talking Shadow Chancellor. Or Shadow Home Secretary.”
Erwin’s eyes moved to the ceiling, contemplative. “I can’t lie and say it doesn’t sound appealing, but…”
“But? But what? If we do alright in the next election, you’re in breathing distance from real fucking power.”
“Power’s nothing without principle.”
“And principle is nothing without power.” Erwin didn’t immediately respond, and Levi felt his irritation rising. “Look, do you know how many children are living in poverty in this country?”
“…Not off the top of my head.”
“One million in London alone. Do you think those kids give a fuck whether you abstain on a bill? No, they give a fuck about the social security cheques their family get just keep their heads above water. And under this heartless government, the dole keeps getting smaller and smaller.” Levi lit another cigarette. “You can’t help them if you never get into power. And unfortunately, this bill is incredibly popular. You risk irritating the press if you vote against it, and that’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is you get shoved so far into the backbenches you fall off and break your neck.”
Erwin’s face remained impassive, a skill he retained so beautifully from his youth. Levi envied his ability to mould his face like clay—to show anyone whatever they wanted to see.
“I suppose so.” Erwin said quietly, after a long pause.
“Good. I thought so. So, you’ll vote with the whip?”
“…Yes. I’ll vote with the whip.”
Levi nodded. “Gunther’s gone for good now, you know.”
Erwin’s eyes flashed. “Who’s taking care of…” His voice briefly trailed off. “…The situation?”
“Don’t worry. I’ve got the newbie to deal with it. The Kirstein boy.”
“The lanky one? With the dyed blond hair?”
“The very same.”
“What’s he like? Are you sure we can trust him?”
“Don’t worry. He’s loyal. He’s got an attitude, but he’s loyal. Plus, he’s only here because of my celebrated generosity—” Erwin rolled his eyes, “—so he’s not in a position to stray out of line.”
“Good to hear.”
The waitress returned with their meals, placing them down carefully. “Can I get you anything else to drink?” She asked. Being pretty and friendly probably paid well here, where the clients had deep wallets and liked getting their ego stroked.
“Another bottle of the house red.” Levi told her. Erwin threw him an amused glance, for he’d only just polished off his first glass, while the rest of the bottle was empty.
“You drink a lot.”
“You try staying sober with my job,” Levi grumbled, tucking into his steak. “Taking a shit is about as much downtime as I get. And I don’t have anyone to fuck to take my frustrations out on, either.”
“You could if you tried. There’s plenty of it out there.”
“Oh, but I’m not a sexual deviant like you.”
“I seem to remember you engaged in a little deviancy back in University. If we could even call it deviancy anymore. We’re not Victorians.”
“Yes, well, that was the sixties.” Levi said thinly. “Homosexuality had only just been decriminalised. One felt obligated to give it a go just to see what the fuss was all about.”
“There are plenty of women out there who are interested in you, you know.” Erwin added, with something resembling a smirk. “Some women like short and ill-tempered, apparently.”
“None of them really take my fancy. Besides, most of them are taller than me.”
“Does that really bother you? I thought you were a progressive.”
“I thought one day you’d consider shutting the fuck up, but here we are.” Not a day went by without Levi cursing the nasty joke genetics had played on him by giving him the stature of the average starving Senegalese orphan.
“Women like power.” Erwin said. “More than they care about looks. Some of the men, too.”
“Yes, well. I have very specific tastes.”
Levi bit his tongue. “The one’s I can’t have.”
“Ah, that’s us men, eh? Always wanting what we can’t have…”
Levi looked away, uneasy. “Quite. By the way, Hange and I have booked you in to volunteer at the local children’s hospital. It will be a good photo opportunity.”
Erwin gave him a pointed look. “And, just generally, a good thing to do. Regardless of optics.”
“Optics is my job, Erwin. I’m your director of communications for a reason.” He poured himself another glass of wine. “Then again, you’re already spending enough time with needy kids, aren’t you?”
Erwin mirrored his actions, pouring himself his second glass of wine. Unlike Levi, he preferred to stay sharp. “He’s not a kid. He’s nearly twenty-one.”
“And half your age.”
“Did you invite me out to chide my sex life?”
“No. But you trust my opinion, don’t you? And my opinion is—” He cut himself off as the waitress returned to take away their plates. The two of them remained quiet until she had disappeared.
“My opinion, Erwin, is that you’re making a mistake.”
Erwin took a tentative sip of wine. “I’m still human if I’m a politician, aren’t I?”
“It’s not just a case of having… affairs.” Levi hissed. “It’s him. He’s unbalanced.”
“And that doesn’t concern you?”
“Well, we’re…” Erwin’s eyes shifted cautiously around the room. His voice dropped to a lower tone. “We’re taking care of it, aren’t we?”
“For the moment.”
“Then, if an undesirable situation arises, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“I think we should bump up the cheques. He seems antsy at the moment. I don’t want to take any risks.”
“Is that really necessary?” Erwin asked.
“I’m just playing it safe, here. Look, I didn’t want to say this to you, but he’s become really rather… infatuated with you. Who knows what he’ll do.”
“Fine. I take the point. Give him another fifty per cheque.”
“God, I love it when you follow my advice. I wish it happened more often.”
“Pass me a cigarette, you grumpy bastard. I’m craving one.”
Slick with sweat, Jean stretched out outside, dressed only in his boxers. He was sat in the small square of patio outside of Eren’s apartment, choked with weeds and ivy from years of neglect. It was furnished with a wooden table, half-rotting and falling apart, plus two deckchairs, one of which Jean was sat on.
Today was hot—the kind of hot that only really over occurred in England once or twice a year. The kind of heat that suffocated, that followed you wherever you went, sticky and clogged with pollution. Britain’s usual climate meant that nowhere was equipped with air conditioning to alleviate the discomfort, making the heat all the more inescapable. It also meant Jean’s existing insomnia was made significantly worse—to the point he hadn’t slept at all last night. He felt strange, although, from the aid of copious amounts of caffeine, he wasn’t tired in the slightest. On the contrary, adrenaline and a manic sort of energy meant his hands began to shake if he left them still for too long.
“Look at you,” Eren said, appearing in the doorway. He’d put some shorts on but hadn’t bothered with a shirt. He sipped from a glass of iced water. “You’d think you own the place.”
“Gimme that.” Jean said, grabbing at the glass from Eren’s hand and draining it. Eren gave him a disapproving look.
“I barely had any of that.”
“Wow, if only there were infinite amounts available at any moment. From a tap, or something similar.”
Eren laughed. Sometimes Jean’s dry (and, if he was being frank, occasionally cruel) sense of humour put a lot of people off; he even found himself toning it down around his friends, lest he unintentionally hurt their feelings. He didn’t have that problem with Eren, though, who seemed to take it all in stride.
Eren sat down in the chair across from him, fishing them both out a cigarette from his carton.
“Is something wrong?” Jean asked. “You seem quieter than normal.”
Eren bit his lip. “My aunt’s coming to London tomorrow.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“I guess not.” Eren replied, scratching his ear. “I just don’t know how to face her.”
“Are you close?”
“Not really—I mean, she did raise me from the age of fourteen. But we’ve never been emotionally close in the way I was with my mother. But I can’t blame her for that.”
“You were close with your mother?” Jean asked. Eren rarely spoke about his parents, and Jean couldn’t help but be curious.
Eren drew his legs up to his chest, tucking his chin on his knee. It made him look a lot smaller than his normal broad-shouldered, six-foot-something stature would suggest.
“We were really close.” He said quietly. “I don’t know… we were really similar.”
“Is your aunt not like her at all?”
“She’s my aunt on my father’s side, not my mother’s. But she’s not like him either.”
“What was he like? Your dad, I mean.” Jean remembered, a second too late, the possibility that he was being tactless. He’d been unable to contain his curiosity surrounded the bizarre mythology of the Yeager clan. “Sorry. I don’t know why I asked that.”
“It’s alright.” Eren shrugged. “I don’t know, he was really intelligent. He worked a lot. To be honest, most of my memories are just of him being in his office. When he died, I felt like he should be sad. But I wasn’t.”
For a while, neither of them spoke, Jean unsure of quite what to say. He cleared his throat.
“I know it’s not the same,” Jean said, “but when my friend died, I couldn’t cry for ages. I couldn’t feel anything. Everything was just… numb. Then, when I was in rehab, they were doing this group therapy thing, and they went around the circle telling us to talk about people we cared about. Then all of a sudden, it all came out at once; I’d barely opened my mouth and suddenly I was sobbing like a baby—like it hit me all at once. That he was dead, and he’d never come back. I couldn’t stop for like, four hours. They had to guide me out.”
“Sorry for what, exactly?”
Eren opened his mouth, ready to say something, before the crashing noise sounded through the street.
“Fuck,” Eren said. The noise had made him jump, and when Jean looked closer, he saw his fists were clasped so tightly that his knuckles had turned white.
“Are you alright? I think it was just a car backfiring.”
“Yeah…” Eren combed a hand through his hair. “I guess I’m just jumpy. Do you want something to eat? I can cook something.”
“Since when do you cook?”
“Just because I choose not to cook doesn’t mean I can’t,” Eren said with a grin. He took a long drag of his cigarette then flicked it across the patio. “While I start, do you mind looking in the downstairs cupboard? There should be a fan somewhere…”
Jean obeyed, grateful for the prospect of some kind of fresh air. Stretching his arms, he pattered down the stairs and began rummaging through Eren’s cupboard. It was an utter mess, to the point where Jean wondered if Eren might be a little bit of a hoarder. The shelves were stacked with photo albums, old boxes of moth bitten clothes, a box of lighters in varying colours and shapes, and boxes full of children’s books. Eventually, Jean located a fan, coated in a film of dust. He gave it a couple of blows began to lug it upstairs.
In the kitchen, Eren was busy tidying stuff a way to make room to actually work. He pulled out a frying pan from under the counter and covered it in a thin layer of oil, leaving it to heat over the stove.
“You know,” Jean said, placing the fan down. “I can help you sort out that cupboard if you want. It’s a fucking mess, I’m surprised I wasn’t crushed by the CDs falling on me—leaning tower of Pisa, I fucking tell you…”
Eren was in the process of dicing an onion. He didn’t look up. “I want to keep all that stuff.”
“Why? You don’t look like you ever use it. It’s all dusty.”
Eren shrugged but didn’t respond. Jean sighed, electing to leave the topic alone.
“Would you like any help?” He asked. “I can chop something, if you want.”
“It’s alright. I like cooking. I find it therapeutic… when I can actually be arsed to do it.”
Watching him work, Jean could tell he was more skilled than he might have expected, dicing the onion with surprising speed and precision.
“What are you making?” Jean asked.
“Just a pasta sauce… maybe I’ll add chorizo or something.”
“Sounds good.” Jean eyed him for a moment, drinking in his tanned skin, his broad shoulders. “Do you do all your cooking shirtless?”
Eren half-grinned. “Of course. It removes the need for an apron.”
“I like it.”
They drifted into comfortable silence, interrupted only by the hiss of the diced onion being added to the pan, along with generous amounts of garlic.
“Jean?” Eren asked, after a few minutes. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Depends on the question.”
“Your friend… the one who died. What was he like?”
Jean took a pause, considering.
“Sorry,” Eren said quickly. “I didn’t mean to—”
“No. It’s fine. I mean, he was a great person, you know? Like, he was one of those people who was friends with everyone, really responsible… always getting me out of trouble. He stuck with me when a lot of people wouldn’t have. I mean, everyone was devasted. But what I couldn’t understand was…” He took a deep breath, trying to keep his voice steady. “What I couldn’t understand was… back when he was alive, I was drinking a lot, you know, not as much as I did after he died, but still a lot. But I’d drink and drive all the time, like it was nothing. At least a few times a week. But Marco… Marco was the one who died in a car accident. He wasn’t drunk… he had his seatbelt on and everything, but he just got unlucky. And yet, every time I drove while drinking, I got lucky. I never got hurt or anything, not even once. I didn’t even get a single bloody ticket. But Marco just got unlucky… and all I could think was that it wasn’t fair, you know? Like, he was this amazing person, and I was me. Well, a significantly worse version of me, but that’s besides the point. I could have easily hurt myself or somebody else. And yet I’m here and he’s not.”
Jean hadn’t expected quite so much to come tumbling out of his mouth, and found his cheeks heating up. “Sorry,” he said quietly, averting his gaze. “That was a lot.”
“Sorry for what? Sorry for feeling?” Eren tipped sliced chorizo into the pan. “It shouldn’t have happened to your friend, but that doesn’t mean it should have happened to you. Point is, you’re alive. So, you have to appreciate that. I’m glad you’re not dead.”
“Thanks.” Jean couldn’t help but smile a little. “I guess you’re right.”
“I’m always right. I mean, I felt the same thing, y’know? About my parents. Except, I didn’t think I should have died or anything, I just wished my dad had died instead of my mum. I know you’re not supposed to have favourite members of your family—but I preferred my mum. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my dad, but I loved her more. It’s horrible to say, but it’s true.”
“Your father’s still alive? I was under the impression he’d…”
“Nope.” Eren fumbled with a tin opener. “He died four years after. Cancer.”
“Why? Did someone tell you different?”
“Uh—I heard they both died in a car accident. By this girl I know who’d met you at a party.” Jean said sheepishly. “I wasn’t trying to gossip or—”
“No.” Eren said firmly. “Don’t be sorry. I really don’t care when people talk about me.”
“Really? I wish I could say the same for myself.”
“It’s a skill. Like anything else, you can teach yourself it.”
“Are you going to teach yourself how to properly use a tin opener?”
“Fuck off. I have this entirely under control.” Eren continued to struggle with the tin of chopped tomatoes.
“I’m not sure you do… shit, Eren, you’re bleeding. You’ve cut yourself.”
“Jesus,” Jean leaned forward and grabbed both the tin and the tin opener from Eren’s hands, “just give it to me, idiot.”
Unsurprisingly, Jean opened it with ease.
“I did most of it.” Eren said, snatching the tin back.
“Right. Tell yourself that. Whatever helps you sleep at night. I’m going to get that fan on, I’m sweating like bitch in heat…”
Jean got to his feet, then spent a few moments wrestling with the fan, which looked like it had remained untouched for a long stretch of time. He attempted to scrape some of the dust off, but it seemed to have infused itself with the panels of metal. He plugged it in with some difficulty and turned it on; at first, it moaned and clicked, but after a few seconds, it began to whir. Jean couldn’t help but let out a groan of contentment as fresh air rushed over his skin. It began to expel some of the stale air of Eren’s apartment.
“God, that feels good…”
“Food’s ready.” Eren called from the kitchen.
When Jean returned, he was in the process of filling two steaming plates of pasta, passing one to Jean. Jean took a bite.
“This is good.”
“Of course, it is.”
“To be honest, I normally just get McDonalds for my lunch.”
“How do you eat that stuff?” Eren remarked, wrinkling his nose. “You have no fucking clue what’s in it.”
“Well, I was inside you about an hour ago. And you have no clue where I’ve been either.”
Eren threw a clove of garlic at him, which he narrowly dodged.
Jean first clocked the lanky woman in the lobby. She looked uncomfortable in her baggy suit, a bag under her arm. She briefly met Jean’s eyes from the other side of the room, quirking an eyebrow, smirking and looking away, heading towards the café.
He saw her again in the office, emerging from the elevator, carrying two coffees in a tray.
“Hello,” she said, approaching Jean’s desk.
“Hi,” Jean returned, cautious. “…Can I help you?”
She was even taller up closer, gangly and slightly hunched over, her hands plunged in her pockets. She was of indeterminate ethnic origin, with a light dusting of freckles over her nose.
“I’m from the magazine The Red Canary.” She explained.
“I’ve never heard of it. I’m not supposed to speak with the press.” Jean tried to return to his work. The woman slid one of the coffees across the table.
“Come on.” She whined. “I got you a coffee. At least give me the time of day, eh?”
“I’m not just going to spill everything just because you got me a latte.”
“I’m not expecting you to spill everything. But y’know, that implies there’s something to spill…” Her steely eyes glinted.
“You should leave.” Jean told her coolly. “I’m busy.”
“Look, I just have a couple of questions. You don’t have to answer them, just let me ask.” She fumbled through her bag and withdrew a thin scrap of paper, pushing it across Jean’s desk with the tips of her fingers.
Jean looked down at it, his heart dropping. It was a clipping from the tabloids, of Eren along with a woman and a man; the woman looked vaguely familiar, like she might have been on the television before. His eyes returned to the woman, who was watching his expectantly.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” he said, attempting to keep his face as impassive as possible. “I think I’ve seen the woman on TV before. She’s in Coronation Street or something like that, isn’t she?”
“Her name is Tilda Jensen, but she’s actually not who I came to ask about.” She pointed to Eren’s face. “Do you know him?”
“Never seen him in my life. Why, who is he?”
“He’s a socialite, I suppose. He knows a lot of famous people. But there have been rumours swirling around London’s party scene.”
“What kind of rumours?”
“Unsavoury ones, I guess you could say. That he’s having an affair with a member of the shadow cabinet.” The woman crossed her arms, looking down at him with a flicker of amusement.
“Have you heard anything about this?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. And I don’t know what you’re trying to imply either, but I think you better leave.”
“Fine,” the woman said. She withdrew another slip of paper from her pocket and scribbled something down. “But here’s my number… should you change your mind. My name’s Ymir, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Ymir. But I really need to be getting on with my work.”
“Don’t worry about,” Ymir said breezily, “but remember… should you want to talk, my phone number’s there.”
“I’ll bare that in mind.”
Jean watched her leave carefully, flitting his eyes between her and his paperwork. Once she was safely in the elevator, he scrambled to Levi’s office, knocking on the door three times in quick succession.
“What is it?” The voice from the other side said. “I’m busy.”
Jean opened the door anyway. Normally, he’d be far too afraid to even bother, but he got the feeling Levi would want to hear this.
“This better be good,” Levi said, still looking through mountains of paperwork. He looked tired. Or, at least, more tired than normal.
“A journalist came in. I think she’s on to…” Jean looked around nervously, dropping the volume of his voice. “She’s onto the stuff with Eren.”
He’d never made it explicit to Levi that he knew what was going on, but if that irritated Levi, he didn’t make it obvious. His boss’s expression darkened, and he shoved his paperwork to the side, fanning the sheets out. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, shoving his glasses aside.
“Shit.” He hissed. “How do you know this?”
“She told me, more or less.”
“What? Who? Did you tell her anything?”
“Of course not. She’s from some magazine called The Red Canary.”
“I’ve heard of them, unfortunately. Some small tankie-ass rag. Fuck, I need a ciggie.” Levi stood up and started rummaging around his drawers. “I reckon they’ll be the thing that breaks through… but we’re not going to let that happen.”
“Right. Of course.”
“I’ll go talk to Eren as soon as possible.” Levi stuck a cigarette between his lips, offering the packet to Jean. Jean accepted.
“I reckon we both need it,” Levi responded drily, flicking open a gold-panelled lighter. Once he’d lit up for himself, he passed it to Jean. He began pacing up and down the room. “We’re going to kill it.” He said quietly, staring out at the grey slabs of the city below. “We’re going to shoot it dead before it gets out of control.”
Eren’s bedroom was an utter state, to the point where he couldn’t even see an inch of the carpet: crumpled clothes, cigarette ends, empty takeout boxes and dirty cups, the smell of stale weed clinging to the air. He was currently fishing through his closet, searching for something reasonably smart. He hadn’t realised how many items of clothing he’d hoarded throughout the years, and yet he was still unable to find anything suitable. Eventually he picked out a slightly crumped periwinkle shirt and dark brown blazer, which he figured would be alright with his usual jeans.
He needed to be at the restaurant within the next half an hour, but he was dreading it completely. Eren checked his watch. He probably ought to call his cab soon.
As he pulled out another pack of menthols from the drawer in his bedside table, he clocked a small baggie of white powder in the corner of the drawer. It had been purchased for a party a few weeks ago, deposited in the drawer, and then promptly forgotten about. He stared at it for a few seconds, debating whether or not he cared about giving a good impression.
Fuck it. Not he didn’t.
He slid the packet of Charlie into his side pocket, running a hand through his hair in an effort to tidy it up a little, then shrugging on a coat. He dialled up the cab company on the corner, asking them to send a taxi as quickly as possible. It arrived ten minutes later. The driver was a thin-faced, Eastern European man.
“Where to?” He asked, in a gruff voice.
“The Colossus in Soho.”
“Date?” The man asked, peering into the rearview mirror.
“I wish. Can I smoke in here?” The man nodded. “Unfortunately, I’m seeing my family.”
“Eh? Do you not get along?”
“It’s not as interesting as that. They just bore me to tears.” Eren replied, lighting up and taking a deep inhale, relishing the harsh mixture of spearmint and tobacco.
The driver laughed. “Sounds like my wife.”
“Mmm. Where you from, anyway?”
“Armenia, huh? How does London compare?”
“Pff. Let me see…” He said with a hearty chuckle, “You English, you’re… how do you say? Anazniv. You don’t say what you mean.”
They sat in traffic for a few minutes in silence. Eren stared wistfully out at the people pouring into bars and clubs, already on the edge of being drunk. While they sat waiting for the red light to change, the taxi driver stuck a cigarette between his teeth and began to smoke.
Eventually, they pulled up outside The Colossus. Eren groaned.
“That journey was too damn short.” He muttered to himself.
“Oi, be careful.” The taxi driver said, turning around to face him. “This place is crawling with queers.”
“I’ll bare that in mind.” Eren replied, hopping out and flicking his cigarette into the gutter. He shoved two twenties through the window. “Keep the change.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
The restaurant was teeming, and it took a few moments of visually scanning the room to locate Faye. She waved him over once she spotted him, her pinned up in a beehive style. Faye had been devotee of the decadent lifestyle of the sixties, to the point where she seemed to refuse to acknowledge that those years had long since passed, along with the attached optimism. Between her manicured fingers was a long cigarette holder, curls of smoke climbing the air.
She was far from alone—and although Eren hadn’t expected her to be—the party was much larger than he’d anticipated. A few of them he recognised, acquaintances of father-dearest. A broad-shouldered, blond-haired man had his back to him, turning around as Faye called his name, and—oh. This was unfortunate.
“Darling, I’m glad you got here.” Faye said, clasping his hands and pulling him for a kiss on each cheek. “How are you doing?”
“I’m alright.” Eren said, sitting down. He wiped his palms down on his trouser legs. His eyes darted around the table. Erwin was here with his wife, too, which made everything even worse.
Really, thinking about it, he shouldn’t have been as surprised as he was; whenever Faye was in town, she liked to invite out as many people as possible that she knew, for plenty of drink and expensive food. She thrived in large groups. He’d assumed Faye had fallen out of contact with Erwin and Petra following his father’s death, but perhaps he’d been mistaken. He should have bothered to ask who’d be attending.
He sat down. People spoke at him and he responded vaguely, reaching quickly for the bottle of white wine in the centre of the table and pouring himself a glass. They asked about the mundane—did he have a girlfriend? No. Was he thinking about going to University? No. The bluntness of his replies meant interest in him quickly waned.
“Pour yourself a healthy glass, sweetheart.” Faye whispered in his ear. A ‘healthy glass’ was Faye’s codeword for a near third of the bottle.
“I will.” Faye turned around to talk to the woman next to her, whom Eren didn’t recognise. He drained his glass quickly, hurriedly reaching for another, although he got the feeling he’d need something stronger. He glanced at Erwin, who’d turned away from him; he was in the process of charming everyone in the immediate proximity, apart from Eren, who he was clearly actively ignoring.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” he announced, although nobody was listening or paying attention.
The bathroom was clean and near empty, apart from an older man washing his hands. Eren opened the stall and waited for him to leave, impatient. Eventually the sound of the water faucet stopped, and Eren heard the sound of the door clicking closed.
He groped through his pocket and tipped around a quarter of the packet onto the lid of the toilet. Certainly not the most hygienic, but his options were limited. From his wallet he took out a twenty-pound note and his credit card, using the card to cut the powder into three thick lines. He rolled up the bank note and inhaled them all in quick succession.
He always enjoyed the sensation of numbing in his nostrils and throat that Charlie left him with. For a moment, Eren closed his eyes, enjoying the rush of energy and euphoria that hit of dopamine endowed him with. Nothing ever beat that first line. Not that he was an addict or anything like that; he only ever did it at parties, or the pre-party, or, indeed, the after-party. But this occasion required something to keep him going. Besides, this was more or less a party, was it not?
He flushed the toilet, just to maintain the illusion, should anyone else be in here that he hadn’t heard, and got up off his knees.
When he returned to the table, everything was much the same as it was before. Petra nodded at him in acknowledgement. Eren nodded back, feeling heat creep up his face.
A few minutes later, a waiter appeared and orders were taken. Eren, finding his appetite significantly diminished, ordered a salad and another bottle of wine.
Nobody seemed very interested in talking to him, which normally wouldn’t have bothered him, but the urge to babble on about nothing was beginning to overcome him.
“Pointless. This is pointless.” He muttered to himself, into his napkin. Who was he talking to? Nobody in particular. Only Petra had seemed to notice.
“Did you say something?” She asked with a bright smile.
“It’s nothing. I don’t know—just talking to myself, I suppose…”
“How are you doing, sweetie?” Petra said, leaning closer. “I haven’t seen you in years. Are you in University now?”
“Not right now. I don’t think academic stuff is really for me…” Eren took a long drink of wine, looking elsewhere—anywhere but directly at Petra’s face. The wine had begun to marinate with the coke inside him, creating an improved buzz—a pleasant mixture of euphoria—streaked with a little dizziness from the alcohol. But Eren could cope with that.
“What a shame,” said Petra. “I’m sure you’d do really well if you tried.”
Erwin had noticed them talking, his eyes shifting sporadically between the two of them and the man he was speaking to. His face didn’t change, although something behind his eyes became cold.
“Are you alright?” Petra asked gently. “Your hands are shaking a little bit.”
“Really? Are they?” Eren shoved his hands under the table and pressed them against his thighs in an attempt to still them. He finished another glass of wine.
“Are you still interested in science? Like your father was?” Petra asked. She was clearly trying to coerce him into polite conversation, but Eren was reluctant to take the bait.
“Not really. I just… I guess I lost interest.” He’d lost interest in life; that was the reality, from around the age of fourteen. Just like his father had just before he’d died; having been given ten months to live, he’d only lasted six. When you gave up, your body soon followed.
Eren clasped his hands under the table, feeling them continue to shake. The waiter refilled his glass once again, which he took another long drink from. The alcohol was really starting to hit him now, the point where the energy the cocaine had given him was becoming subservient to the drowsiness of the alcohol; he needed another line. Or maybe two.
“Sorry,” he said, “I need to go to the bathroom.”
Petra’s brow furrowed. “Didn’t you just go?”
“Uh—yeah. Sorry. Weak bladder.”
He scrambled back to his feet without looking back, hurrying into the bathroom. Once he was satisfied he was alone, he returned to the cubicle he’d been in before.
He tipped out more of the bag onto the toilet seat, but more came out than he intended. Well, there was no real way to get it back in, so he might as well do it all. He divided it up into six lines this time, snorting three, then leaning back against the wall of the cubicle. The coke hit him harder this time, and immediately he could feel his heart hammering against his chest. He felt a wave of dizziness, but not of the more pleasant variety.
Perhaps he just needed a paracetamol or something. He waited a few more seconds, until his head had ceased to spin somewhat, then snorted the remaining lines.
When he left the cubicle, another man was in the bathroom with him. He was older, perhaps in his sixties, and kept throwing Eren dirty looks. He’d probably heard the sound of inhalation. Eren splashed some cold water on his face, ignoring the other man hoping that would make him feel a bit better. It didn’t.
When he arrived back at the table, the food had already arrived. The sight made Eren feel slightly sick. Everybody else had already started—exchanging jokes over mouthfuls of pork, steak, lamb and endless streams of wine, the white being passed around before having seemingly been replaced with red. Eren sat down and filled his glass to the near brim, feeling another rush of dizziness and, this time, a little nausea.
The nausea was enough to put him completely off his food, although he took a few polite bites, since he wouldn’t be paying, and spent the next few minutes shoving cheese and rocket around his plate.
“Aunt Faye?” He asked. She didn’t hear him, too immersed in telling a story to a group of people on the other end of the table. He wasn’t entirely sure what he’d been planning to ask her, only that he felt self-conscious sat there, talking to nobody. Eventually, a deep voice broke through his thoughts.
“Not much has changed, huh?” It was Erwin—actually paying attention to him. Eren looked up, feeling his cheeks heat up. He wished he’d leave him alone. Then again, he knew he’d have felt irritated if he’d ignored him, too.
“Well,” he said, “that’s just how things are with her.”
“When you were younger, I thought you were a lot like your Aunt.” Petra said, with a small smile. She reminded Eren of a kind teacher, one who paid extra attention and kindness when she didn’t need to. God, he really was a festering piece of shit. “But now you’re all quiet and contemplative, like your dad was.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t think I inherited his brains.”
“That’s not true,” Petra protested, “you always talk yourself down, sweetheart. You don’t need to. Don’t you think so, Erwin?”
Erwin nodded non-committedly. A wave of nausea came over Eren, drowning him, holding him in its dizzying grip. Eren pressed his napkin to his mouth, trying to suppress it. He reached for the tap water and downed it all.
“Are you alright?” Petra asked. “You look pale.”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You’ve barely touched your food…”
“I’m just a slow eater. Excuse me.” Eren got to his feet and hurried back to the bathroom. He didn’t bother with an excuse this time; right now, he couldn’t find the energy to care about what people thought of him. Besides, if he stayed a moment longer, he’d end up hurling all over the dinner table.
Perhaps that second round of coke had been a mistake, especially in combination of copious amounts of wine. Whatever it was, the feeling was excruciating and all-consuming. For a second,
Eren felt as if he were going to die.
Furthermore, Erwin’s presence was disorienting, to the point where Eren felt contractions in his chest. One of the various psychiatrists he’d accumulated over the years had informed him this was a symptom of a little-known thing called a panic attack, although he wasn’t so sure. He was pretty sure he might be dying. It certainly felt that way.
It was difficult to face Erwin in broad daylight, when so much of their relationship, if it could indeed be called that, took place in the comforting veneer of darkness. In daylight, it felt too much—the colours too bright—the colours too saturated.
He barely made into the cubicle in time before vomiting up the little food he’d forced down himself. Around him, the narrow walls pulsated, then began to close in on him.
Eren continued to heave for a few minutes, alone, unembarrassed by the presence of two other men in the room, who could almost certainly hear each one of the pitiful sounds he made. His head was beginning to pound, and he could feel his heart in his throat.
The sight of Petra’s face filled his mind, indeed, it seemed to be tattooed on the back of his eyelids, bright and clear and gut-wrenching. He liked her; he really did. She was a better person than both him and Erwin combined. That was what made it so intolerable.
Eventually, the vomiting ceased. Eren spent a few minutes still bent over the toilet seat, clammy, a layer of cold-sweat making his dress-shirt stick to his back. Eventually, he forced himself to his feet and flushed the toilet. Outside, he examined himself in the mirror.
Petra hadn’t been wrong when she’d pointed out how ill he looked; his normally tanned skin was washed out and sallow, making the contours of his face appear more jagged—hungrier and more desperate. Almost feral.
Eren washed his hands thoroughly and splashed his face with cold water. He felt marginally better, in that the nausea had subsided, but he certainly could bare the idea of continuing to spend time with the party of people outside. He’d have to make a break for it. The exit to the bathroom was in full view of the table where everyone was sitting, so his best bet was to walk out quickly and hope nobody noticed, too engrossed in the conversation they all fancied to be so captivating.
Frankly, he didn’t fault Faye for being a little disinterested in him. She’d never particularly cared for children and had never expressed any desire to have some of her own. The only reason he’d gone to live with her was the lack of a better option, and Eren was still grateful that she’d taken him in; after all, living with a well-intentioned but somewhat absent aunt was still vastly preferable to being dumped in the state-run foster care system at the ripe age of fourteen, when he was neither cute nor charming to any potential foster parents.
Eren stalked out the restaurant and into the street, and to his relief, nobody seemed to notice. Once he was outside, he did peer through the tinted glass door at the table to notice one following his movements; Erwin’s face was as severe and unreadable as ever. For a brief second, their eyes locked: Eren watched Erwin, and Erwin watched him back, his lips pursed. Eren tore his eyes away, heart beating fast, and hailed a cab.
Eren spent the majority of that evening soaking in the bath, staring despondently up at the ceiling. The nausea had subsided, replaced instead by a gnawing hunger.
After the water had begun to go lukewarm and shrivel up the skin on the tips of his fingers, Eren drained the tub and threw a bathrobe on. He preceded to the kitchen, putting on some water to boil for pasta.
The buzzer rang, making him flinch. Eren cursed. He couldn’t be arsed with company at that moment. His best bet was it being Jean, since some good, rough sex could just be the tonic to his current woes. Still, Jean normally called before showing up on his doorstep.
He padded down the stairs and swung the door open. It wasn’t Jean. The person in front of him was too surly, and at least a foot too short.
“Levi,” Eren said, regarding the other man. “What is it?”
It was rare that Levi came to see him in person—normally this indicated he had something of relative importance to communicate. He was dressed in a pin-striped suit, tie loosened around his neck, his hair falling out of its gel-helmet, strands dangling in front of his face. He didn’t say anything to Eren, simply pushing past him and heading straight up the stairs.
“Hello to you too.” Eren mumbled, following him up. Ever the charmer. When he got back inside his apartment, Levi was already sat on the sofa, his short legs propped up on the coffee table.
“What is it?” Eren asked, rubbing his eyes. “Is something wrong?”
“There’s been a change in circumstance.”
“…A change in circumstance?” Levi’s tendency to talk in riddles was one of his more frustrating habits.
“Some journalists snooping around Erwin’s business. I’m going to need you to keep a low-profile for a while.”
Eren sat down opposite, reaching for a pack of cigarettes and, being the excellent host he was, offering one to Levi. Although Eren was a smoker, and had been since he was a teenager, Levi was on a different level. Eren hardly ever saw him without one dangling from between his thin lips. His lungs were probably as charred and grey as his eyes.
“And if I don’t?” Eren asked. He was only being playful, but the comment made Levi’s perpetual scowl further deepen.
“Well, there would be no point. We’re going to increase your financial support for each month… so there’s no financial reason to start talking.”
“Mmm. Buying more of my silence?”
“It’s been working just fine so far. We just want you to keep the parties to a minimum.” Levi deadpanned. “Of course, there is another option.”
“And that would be?”
“A one-off payment of twenty-thousand pounds. Enough to start a new life somewhere else.”
“And why would I do that?” Eren crossed his arms defensively across his chest. “I like it here. Plus I have more money than I know what to do with.”
“You know why. There’s no way this is going to end well for either of you.”
“Did Erwin tell you to say this?”
“No. This is my opinion. My money too.”
That was certainly a surprise.
“Why do you care, anyway?”
Eren thought Levi looked slightly pained, although it could have just been a trick of the light. “Because I’m in charge of managing his public image and you’re a huge fucking pain in my arse.
Besides,” he paused, tapping a pillar of snowy ash off the end of his cigarette, “you’re twenty-one. You’d be better off going and finding somebody who can give you an actual relationship.”
Eren shrugged. “I like it here.”
Levi studied him for a moment. “You don’t think…” his eyes narrowed slightly, “that he’s going to leave her, do you?”
“Good. Because he won’t. He’s a selfish bastard and he wants the best of both worlds, and unfortunately, it’s my job to entertain that stupid notion. I don’t care about what you and Erwin do together, but I do care about getting this party into power. This can’t get out.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m fully aware. Wouldn’t want it to get out that your party’s golden boy is a…” Eren lowered his voice theatrically. “Homosexual.” He fell back into the pillows of the sofa, eyes half-closed.
“I’m serious. Eren, you could stop this whole ordeal now.”
“Does Erwin know you’re offering me this money?”
“He doesn’t need to.” Levi stubbed out his cigarette, immediately lighting up another. He ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair, the biggest clue to his age; his face, despite his unhealthy lifestyle, was still surprisingly youthful, aside from the beginnings of crowfeet beside his eyes. He was attractive, and Eren certainly wouldn’t mind sleeping with him. He’d only ever made one attempt to, which had been promptly and bluntly shot down.
Unlike Erwin, he’d told Eren distastefully, I have no interest in robbing the cradle.
Fair enough, Eren supposed, although he’d been a little disappointed. Damn Levi and his unshakeable moral compass that he was so embarrassed about.
“Eren,” Levi’s voice had lowered. It was almost gentle. “If this continues, it’s going to fuck you up in the long run. It’s parasitic.”
Who was the parasite, and who was the host, Eren wasn’t sure.
“That’s fine. I’m pretty sure I’ve maxed out on the levels of fucked up anyway.”
“Have you ever had a job, Eren? Like, a real job?”
“See, that’s your problem. If you were waiting tables, you wouldn’t have nearly as much time to wallow in self-pity.”
“I want to stay here. And I know you don’t want to hear it, but I want to keep seeing Erwin.”
Did he know it was fruitless and self-destructive? Of course he did. He knew Erwin wouldn’t sacrifice his political career for him of all people. Still, at the age of twenty, he’d never been in a real relationship outside of sex. He still had an unquenchable desire for intimacy, to be touched, in something approximating love. Besides, infidelity ran in his blood. Before the death of Grisha’s first wife, Eren’s mother had been his mistress.
For a second, Levi was quiet. Then he got to his feet.
“Fine,” he spat. “I don’t know why I expected any different from an such an immature child.”
Pretty pleased with how this chapter turned out, not going to lie. As always please please leave a comment if you enjoyed. reading each one makes me very happy.
Have you also noticed how much I enjoy writing Levi in this fic? I love his old grumpy, chain-smoking ass
Chapter 4: the vulgar crowd
so I know you all probably thought I'd died, but I was hella busy with my exams, so this took a while to finish. bit shorter than the other chapters - only 6k.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Does it hurt? We can stop if you want.”
“No. Keep going.” Jean closed his eyes, tilting his head backwards. The pain was significant but bearable, and he could feel the beginnings of pleasure ebbing at his insides. Eren responded with a brief nod, a flush of pink across his cheeks. He thrust his hips upwards.
If you had told him three months ago, he’d be being buggered but none other than Eren Yeager—well, he’d probably be a little offended at the implication that he was gay. But now, there was little to argue with, since even Jean could admit taking up the ass from your boss’s kept boy was at least, a little gay. Ironically, the idea had been Jean’s—he’d asked Eren whether he ever got bored of being on the receiving end of things. Eren had shrugged and told him he liked it both ways, but figured Jean wasn’t interested in that kind of stuff. Jean had taken this as a challenge.
Eren’s hand had found its way around Jean’s cock, stroking languidly, his other hand ghosting over his hips.
“I haven’t done it like this for a while.” Eren admitted. His nails sunk into the flesh of Jean’s hips. Jean rocked back and forward, wincing with each shot of pain. With each thrust came another burst of pleasure, enough for him to let out a gasp. They continued like that for a while, until Jean felt pleasure creep up inside him, building, until it became ecstasy—unbridled and wanting.
“People don’t take it up there for no reason, you know.” Eren said.
The engine of the cab carrying Jean and Eren came to a sputtering halt. As Jean cast his eyes out of the window, he noted the lights of London on a Saturday night bouncing off the rain-slick pavements—all lazy strokes of gold, blue and red. Jean sighed, stepping out into the streets, a few droplets of rain spitting down at him, one sliding down the nape of his neck. He winced a little, feeling a pain shoot up his back. Eren’s hand shot out to his elbow, supporting him slightly.
“That’ll happen.” Eren said mildly. His hair was slicked back, both his hands plunged deep in his pockets. A cocky smile played across his mouth. Jean tore his arm away.
“It’s fine.” He mumbled, looking away.
“I assume your friends aren’t aware of the nature of our relationship.”
“…They know we’re friends.”
“So, you left out the sex part?”
Jean shifted from foot to foot, unsure. “Well, yeah.” A motorbike sped past, howling, drowning out the words escaping Eren’s mouth. A pair of round, marbled eyes blinked at him. “Are you worried about what they’d think? If you are, I wouldn’t hold it against you.”
Jean averted his eyes. “Well… I guess so. Yeah. I mean, I know they’re not against it in principle, or anything like that, but…”
“It’ll change the way they see you. It’s fine.” Eren’s eyes were fixed ahead, unreadable. “I get it.”
They continued down a narrow side street, illuminated only by a thin ribbon of streetlight. The party wasn’t being hosted by somebody Jean knew personally, but by a friend of Mikasa’s and Sasha’s—who’d allowed him to come by extension.
“Where is this place, anyway?” Eren looked up at the buildings looming above him, squinting. The graffiti-marred streets were teeming with life, with throngs of people pouring in and out of clubs and bars. Across the road, young boys in thick jackets called out to passers-by—offering coke, smack, pills and bud.
“It’s above the greengrocer.” Jean said. Eren raised an eyebrow. “Not everybody can drop a million for a flat in Notting Hill.”
A snort. “I’ve been to a greengrocer before.”
“That’s not the point. It’s so not the point.” Jean jabbed the doorbell with his thumb. “Have you ever been on a bus?”
“Fuck off. I’ve been on loads of buses.”
“You look terrified.” Jean murmured. “You’re not going to get mugged, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I’m not scared of being mugged! I just… I’m scared your friends will think I’m strange.”
“Well, I think you’re weird. And I still tolerate you…” Jean smirked. “Most of the time.”
“Do you really think I’m weird?” Eren’s eyes flashed, and for a moment he looked legitimately offended, his brows knitted together.
“Maybe not weird.” Jean said quickly, not wanting to cause legitimate offense. “How about… idiosyncratic?” He ran the doorbell.
Eren still looked a little crestfallen. “That doesn’t make me feel better.”
A woman Jean didn’t recognise opened the door and ushered them inside. She was tall and thin, her dark hair falling partially over her face. Her full lips were painted ruby red.
“You’re Mikasa’s friend, aren’t you?” She studied Jean, briefly acknowledging Eren. “She’s over by the big window, if you’re wondering.” The woman didn’t bother asking any more questions, apparently satisfied that they shared the same type of social circle.
Mikasa was, indeed, over by the big window. She had a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other, a dark turtleneck dress wrapped around her slim frame, sat talking to a man with his back turned to Jean. Her pale face shone through the crowd, her eyes eventually settling on the two of them. As they approached, she waved her companion away.
“I didn’t know you were bringing someone.” She said, looking at Eren. She gave him an apprehensive smile and offered him her hand. “How do you guys know each other?”
“Work.” Eren said, taking her hand and shaking it.
“You work in politics?”
“No.” Came the easy lie. “Just the café in the lobby.”
Eren looked, surprisingly, self-conscious, seeming to avoid Mikasa’s eye. Jean had never penned him as the type to get self-conscious at a party, although now, he looked as if he’d rather be anything else.
“Oh, right.” Mikasa said. “Well… it’s nice to meet you.”
“Likewise, if you don’t mind… where can I find a drink?” Eren asked.
“There’s a large variety in the kitchen… it’s just around the corner. Help yourself.”
“I will.” Eren said, grimacing. He disappeared.
Jean looked around the room; he could tell it was at the point where things were beginning to crescendo; drinks passed around, voices thrown across the room—the room’s aggregate level of drunkenness rapidly on the increase. Eren had disappeared, presumably to alleviate whatever anxiety was building inside him with an alcoholic beverage. The sight of the people around him enjoying the journey to intoxication with such vigour left him with a pang of jealousy.
It didn’t take long for Connie and Sasha to appear to, both teetering on tipsy. Sasha pulled Jean in for a long, tight, hug.
“I feel like I barely see you anymore.” She whined. “Since you started this job, you never come out anymore.”
“It’s certainly a demanding job… who would have thought?” Connie said, slurring slightly. His eyes had become foggy. “I didn’t even think you were capable of working this hard. What happened to the Jean we know and love?”
“Fuck you. I’ve always worked hard.” Jean scratched the back of his head, suddenly self-conscious. “It’s Ackerman, you know.” He eyed Mikasa. Her pale cheeks were flushed pink—a tell-tale sign she’d been drinking. “He can’t help but give me a tough time. It runs in the blood.”
Mikasa snorted, shoving him in the arm. “I’m happy for you, though.” She said quietly, after a moment. “You’re doing well.”
“Yeah… things are alright. Who knows? Maybe if I stick around long enough, I’ll get promoted.”
“You might just. Don’t mention it, but…” Mikasa’s eyes searched the room. “Levi does like you, you know.”
“What? No, he doesn’t. Does he? What did he say? Don’t tell me. No, what exactly did he say to you?”
“We all went out with the rest of our family the other week. He said that you ‘seemed like he has an IQ verging on the triple digits.’”
“I don’t think that’s a compliment.” Jean replied in a low monotone.
“Trust me, coming from him, that’s a compliment.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.” Jean said, turning his face away, but secretly pleased.
Eren returned moments later. The wild look in his eyes had subsided somewhat, although it hadn’t entirely disappeared. Jean watched him approach, enjoying the straight, long lines of his legs, the broadness of his shoulders, the deep tone of his skin—something within him that he couldn’t quite place feeling another thing he couldn’t quite place—perhaps it was pride.
“Is that your plus one?” Sasha asked. “Wait, that’s the—”
Jean pulled her towards him. “Yes,” he hissed in her ear. “Keep it on the down low.”
“Got it.” She whispered back. She smirked at Jean—enjoying their shared secret.
“What are you two gossiping about?” Connie asked, throwing an arm around Jean’s neck.
“You, obviously. How much of a dumb fuck you are.”
Eren pushed through some more people, catching Jean’s arm. “I got you a lemonade.”
As Eren pushed the can into Jean’s hands, their fingers brushed against one another; Jean suppressed a grin—enjoying the secrecy of it all. Eren’s red mouth twitched, and he glanced over to Connie and Sasha.
“Eren.” He said, offering a hand. They both took it, one after the other. Eren’s face arranged itself into its sociable, acceptable self. “Nice to meet you both.”
“Likewise.” Returned Connie. He hadn’t seemed to notice anything may be amiss, as Sasha had.
“Let’s go out onto the balcony.” Sasha suggested. “The view outside is incredible…”
The group trickled outside, to where the sky had reached a milky blue. Specks of bright, flashing colours dotted the horizon, some partially cloaked by a layer of pollution. Around them were various groups of party-goers, smoking, squealing—a few of the men dangling their legs over the edge.
“I love this time of year,” Sasha cooed. “When it doesn’t get dark ‘till real late… you could almost forget we live in England.”
That was true enough. The weather outside was cool but surprisingly warm—warm enough that all you needed out was a light jacket. Inside, the heat had been racked up; Connie had elected to stay inside, talking to some pretty thing with mascara smeared down her cheeks. Sasha reached into her coat and withdrew a joint. She caught Jean’s eye, grinned, planting it between her lips.
“Don’t mind me.” She said coolly, sparking up. The end of the joint turned white-hot orange, like a jewel in the dark. For a little while, the four of them were silent, quietly drinking in their surroundings. Jean could tell Mikasa was tipsy, at the very least—a pink flush cast across her pale cheeks. It was rare to see her inebriated—so he couldn’t help but laugh.
“What?” She demanded.
“Nothing, nothing. You’re just swaying slightly. Careful not to fall off the edge.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Mikasa scoffed, turning her face away. Still, Jean noticed her take a careful step away from the edge. Sasha offered her joint to Eren, who happily accepted.
“It probably doesn’t seem like much.” Jean mumbled. “Compared to the parties you frequent.”
Eren shook his head. “No. I like it. It’s nice.” He took a long toke from Sasha’s joint, the smoke escaping from his nostrils and rushing down his face, then dissolving into the air.
Happiness had never been a sure thing, not at least to Jean. His normal mindset was apathetic at best, and downright dreary and miserable at its worst. He wasn’t proud of his cynicism; he knew it wasn’t a particularly admirable trait, still, he did little to rectify it. However, at this moment, staring out at London as the sun sank further behind the horizon—he knew things were… nice. Yes. At the very least—
Things were nice.
Elsewhere in the city, Hitch Dreyse stood, swaying, in the cubicle of a club toilet, trying to pull herself together. Her pale brown hair, naturally curly, straightened with heat, treated, dyed, then curled again—stuck up at odd angles, greasy oily—full of the remnants of the night. She’d been drinking a lot of prosecco, then Polish Zubrowka vodka, too. But it had been the coke that did it; lines and lines of it, in the toilet cubicles, then at the pre-party, too.
It had been twenty minutes since her last line, still, she felt it surging through her veins—adding a layer of nausea to her existing drunken dizziness. Hitch closed her eyes, pressing a manicured nail to her temple, swaying slightly in her heels.
She’d vomited—that was probably just about enough to keep her lucid for the next half an hour. Hitch shook her head and stumbled out of the cubicle, towards the tap, allowing tepid water to rush over her fingers. Another woman stood next to her, around her age, her dark hair tucked into a low ponytail. She threw Hitch an amused look.
“Are you alright?” The woman asked. She was tall. Tall enough to be a man, and with the wide shoulders of one, too.
“Yes, fine.” Hitch replied, her voice clipped. She made a point of not meeting the woman’s gaze.
“You’re Hitch, right?”
Hitch turned the water faucet off. “How do you know my name?”
“We met once. At a party.”
“Oh, of course.” That wasn’t really a surprise, if Hitch was being honest with herself. She’d met more people at parties than she could ever think of being able to count; people she’d promise to meet later, people she’d fallen half in love with—in the end, all of their names and faces had smudged together in a singular, unreadable blur. Now she thought about, she supposed she’d seen the woman’s face somewhere before. “What was your name again?”
“Ymir.” Ymir’s eyes travelled to Hitch’s quivering hands. “Are you sure you’re alright? Do you want some water?”
“Yes please…” Hitch replied softly. Ymir handed her a half-full bottle of water, and Hitch drained it, not realising how thirsty she’d been. “Thanks. I guess I’ve had a little too much to drink…”
“It’s not a problem.” Ymir’s eyes were almond shaped and sharp. “You know, I remember the night I met you… it was at that bar in Soho.” Dim memories of red lanterns and multi-coloured fairy lights flashed in Hitch’s mind.
“Right…” The memories trickled back at a snail’s pace. “You’re… you’re a journalist, aren’t you?”
“That’s right. Actually, I’d been meaning to ask you something that related back to my work…”
“Oh yeah? And what would that be?”
“Eren Yeager. You know him, don’t you? I’ve been looking to meet him…”
“I’ve only met him once or twice. Why? Why does it relate to your work?”
“It concerns some rumours that have been bouncing around the London social scene…”
Hitch was well used to these kinds of Chinese whispers, existing in the world that she did. Gossip was all around her, and at all times; wherever she went, people wanted to know what she thought of this person, what was wrong with that person. In her world, secrets and whisperings were their own currency. Some of it ended up trickling into the gossip columns of the tabloids.
“Would you know how to get in contact with him?” Ymir asked.
“…Why?” The dizziness was returning. In all honesty, Hitch wanted to leave. She wanted to collapse into her comfortable bed at her penthouse apartment, and sleep for the next week.
“I want to talk to him.”
“What about?” Hitch asked, irritable. Ymir’s eyebrow quirked, perhaps sensing her discomfort.
“Do you want some water?”
“Stop changing the subject. And yes, I would.” Ymir passed her another bottle of water. “I don’t know. I might just have his number somewhere in my address book…”
“Can I get it off you?”
“Well, I don’t have it with me. Obviously. You never told me what you wanted to talk to him about.”
Ymir smiled at Hitch’s reflection. “It relates to Westminster.”
“What’s the story about?” Hitch bit her lip, crossing her arms over her breasts. She was starting to get cold—enough that the skin of her nipples felt red raw. God, why had she even come out?
“He has an interest in politics, apparently.”
“He is? I had no idea. How did you know I knew him anyway?”
“Just through the grape vine. You know how things are in this city—millions of people—and it still feels small.”
“Would he really want me putting you in contact with him?”
“If he doesn’t, he can tell me that himself.”
Hitch felt tired—it was probably time to call a cab, anyway. She didn’t have the mental energy to think things through any further.
“Give me your arm.” She muttered. Ymir obeyed. Into her tan skin, Hitch pushed the tip of her ball-point pen—her landline number.
“Call me tomorrow. Not in the morning. Maybe the afternoon. Actually, just call me on Monday. I’ll put you into contact with him. Oh, and when you speak to him, don’t mention my name.” Hitch shoved her pen back in her purse. “Do I get compensation from this?”
Ymir smirked, taking back her arm. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
“I apologise for not calling you to let you know I was coming in.”
“You don’t need to apologise.”
Levi would never normally let anybody meet with him during workhours without sufficient notice beforehand, but he made an exception to this rule for Petra. He made a lot of exceptions for Petra, really.
She was sat on the sofa in Levi’s office, knees glued tightly together, her designer handbag balanced in her lap. Her strawberry-blonde hair had just been cut, neatly manicured to cluster behind her ears.
“I hate to impose.” She said, with a sigh, reaching in her purse to pull out a silver-plated cigarette case. He could tell she wanted to rant about something—whatever the content of that rant would be, Levi couldn’t be sure.
He and Petra had met during their University years, having lived in the same halls during the first year. Petra had been bright, radiant and outgoing—forcing the surly Levi to attend a variety of parties along with her. Levi had in turn introduced her to Erwin, his childhood best friend, and the two had immediately got on like a house on fire.
“You have a light, don’t you?” She said with a huff. She still smoked with the same elegant movements she’d had in University. Since graduating, she’d made about a thousand promises to quit.
Levi fumbled through his pocket, passing her the lighter in her pocket. Petra spent a moment examining the engraving across the front—amber eyes alight. The words etched across the surface were small, small enough that they needed to be inspected closely to be comprehended.
“’The vulgar crowd is always taken by appearances,” she read out, “and the world consists chiefly of the vulgar.’ How cynical.”
“It was a gift, from Erwin, actually.” Levi explained, leaning back in his chair. “I think it’s supposed to be ironic.”
“What’s it from?”
“It’s Machiavelli. The Prince.”
Petra smiled thinly and passed it back to him. “Erwin has a strange sense of humour, sometimes.”
“Hmm. When I first met him, I assumed he had no sense of humour, but I’m starting to think in all actuality it’s just crueller than mine.”
Petra laughed, then stopped herself. She clasped a hand over her mouth, making a strange, almost hysterical noise. Like a dying animal.
“Is something wrong?” Levi asked. He wasn’t adept at utilising his emotional intelligence, and its functions were thus somewhat stiff from disuse. Petra sniffed and looked up.
The tears in her eyes had seemed to well up all at once, seemingly from nowhere.
“You know,” she said slowly, “as much as you and Erwin may think so… I am not an idiot.”
Levi was quiet for a few moments. “I don’t follow.” He lied, pretending, as he had done for so many years already. Petra’s shaking hand lifted her cigarette back to lips. As Levi examined them, he saw they were red and raw from being chewed at.
“I found a hair on his coat.”
“And how do you know it wasn’t his?”
Petra glared at him. “A dark brown hair. Long enough to be a woman’s too.” For a few minutes, her words hung in the air. “I’ve suspected as much for a while…” She said after a pause, her voice teetering off, small hands gripping the handle of her purse with increased force. “I don’t know why I’m surprised.”
Levi didn’t know what to say. What, really, was there to say? He couldn’t assure her that she was mistaken, nor could he act surprised. So, he remained quiet. Thinking.
“You’re not surprised.” Petra said, rubbing her temples. “What does that tell me? That’s all the confirmation I need…”
Levi’s face was solemn.
Petra’s thoughts drifted towards her wedding; it had been a sun-drenched August day back in ’77, just a few months after her graduation. Petra’s mother had been an intelligent, capable woman—one who’d run her own textile business. She’d lived in awe of her own grandmother—Petra’s great grandmother—a tough-as-nails, salt-of-the-earth suffragette. Her mother had been delighted when Petra became the first woman in their family to attend University, but significantly less delighted when she’d married straight after. Tears had even welled in her eyes when Petra had told her, but Petra had assured her that Erwin would never hurt her in the way that innumerable men had hurt her mother. Erwin was a good man, she’d told her mother, and it had been a promise to herself, too, that she’d never be made a fool of by a man she thought she loved.
“For your lack of expression,” Petra said lowly, “I’d say you already know. Am I wrong?”
Still, Levi said nothing.
“Fine. Answer me this—” She began, “—we’re friends, aren’t we, Levi? We have been since University. How long has this been going on?” Levi stared at her. It was extremely rare that he was lost for words—but this was one of these rare instances. “Don’t worry,” Petra continued smoothly. “I won’t resent you for not telling me. That’s your job, isn’t it? Keeping secrets? Please, Levi. Just tell me.”
The clock above Levi’s desk ticked steadily on—each tick punctuating the relentless silence.
“Three years.” He said quietly.
The noise that came from Petra’s throat was half gasp and half cry—a horrible noise, one that she didn’t recognise as having come from herself—it felt… animal. The rage building in her chest, was, it seemed, somewhat primal. She threw a hand over her mouth, attempting to suppress it, whatever it was.
“What an idiot I’ve been.” She said, her voice nearly a whisper. “All these years…” She got to her feet quickly, not wanting Levi to see her cry anymore. She walked towards the window, eyes scanning the arrays of slabs of concrete and metal.
“You shouldn’t blame yourself.”
“Who else is there to blame? If I were enough, things wouldn’t have ended up like this, would they?”
“Him. He’s to blame, not you. And I think you know this.” Levi said. Petra didn’t respond. “Do you know what I think?”
“I think you should leave him.”
“I can’t.” Petra’s response had come immediately. She’d anticipated some more loyalty towards Erwin from Levi, but it would seem Levi was nearly as disgusted by his actions as she was.
“Why?” Levi asked. His voice wasn’t dripping with contempt and sarcasm, as it tended to, but a genuine disbelief.
“I just can’t.” Petra said again, dabbing at her eyes.
Levi turned away. “I see.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that I see, Petra. That’s all there is to it.”
Jean picked at a pomegranate seed and feta salad, one he’d been nursing for the past twenty minutes. The waiter had informed him, with great assurance, that it was delicious—although Jean wasn’t so sure. The delicious components—that was, the feta and pomegranate seeds, were vastly outnumbered by the disgusting ones—that was, the rocket and lettuce. The restaurant had been Eren’s idea; according to him, he’d spent plenty of time pissing away money here. It sat next to the hotel’s grandiose, white marble lobby. Outside were huge bunches of fake flowers, suffocating in their saccharine brightness. Still, they offered a nice contrast to the grey, rainy streets. Eren, sat across from him, was in the process of shovelling another fork of pasta in his face, as well as polishing off his glass of white wine.
“I used to come here all the time. They turn into a nightclub at night-time—they do these amazing cocktails…”
“Eat or talk. Pick one or the other.”
Eren rolled his eyes. He searched the room for the waiter, then gestured him over.
“Could I get one of the chocolate cocktails?” He asked the waiter. “And one of the cherry ones too?”
“I don’t drink, Eren. Remember?”
“Who said one of them was for you?”
The waiter disappeared once more. While Eren continued with his pasta, Jean examined the cocktail menu.
“Jesus, nine pounds for a cocktail? Nine whole pounds? What kind of place is this? Shit, I didn’t even check the price—”
“Don’t worry about it. I have the bill. Besides, it tastes good, so who cares?”
“It’s not even that expensive.”
“Fucking hell…” Jean groaned, pushing lettuce around his plate. “I hate rich people. I really do.”
Eren shrugged, lighting a cigarette. He leaned back in his chair.
“Nothing like a ciggie after a big meal…”
“You’re lucky you’re attractive, you really are.”
“How sweet of you to say! I’m glad you think I’m attractive.”
“It wasn’t a compliment.”
It had been Eren who’d insisted he come out and meet him during his lunch break. Jean was used to just grabbing a sandwich from the café across the road, since his attitude towards the food they sold in the canteen was less than favourable, but Eren wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I always like coming here when I’m hungover. It makes me feel so much better…”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever spoken to you when you haven’t been at least a little hungover. That, or in the process of going out…”
“Not my fault you’re boring.”
“Sobriety isn’t boring—”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. I’m just kidding. You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you something…”
Eren wiped his mouth. “I’ve recently come into a significant sum of money…”
“Oh? How fortunate. You know, you seem to attract more wealth, somehow, despite doing nothing with your time…”
“You did economics at University, didn’t you? I want to invest it. Otherwise, I’ll just piss it away on nothing.”
Jean rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You know, you can pay people to work this kind of thing out for you… how did you get the money, anyway?”
“My great aunt died.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not. She was a huge bitch. Anyway, I think I’ll invest it into stocks…”
“Too risky. Go for property.”
“Preferably in London. House prices are skyrocketing, you know…”
Eren went quiet, considering, then drained his first cocktail glass. “Got it. Property.”
“I shouldn’t encourage this, really… my party is supposed to be against gentrification.” Jean checked his watch. “Shit, I need to be back in fifteen minutes… I need to call a cab.” Jean waved desperately at the waiter. “If I’m late, Levi will kill me.”
Eren sipped at his second cocktail. “It’s alright. I understand what it’s like to live in fear that Levi is going to castrate you. Thanks for coming out, you know. I was getting lonely.”
“I didn’t think you were capable of getting lonely.”
“Shut up.” Eren leaned further back in his chair, until the front two legs lifted off the floor.
“You’re going to break your neck.”
The waiter approached them, and Jean requested a cab to take him back to the office. The waiter left once again, and Jean’s gaze shifted back to Eren.
“Thanks for paying for dinner.” Jean said, voice low. “I appreciate it.”
“It’s not a problem.” Eren said, not bothering to look up. “Say hi to Erwin for me.”
Jean scoffed. “I’m sure you can say ‘hi’ to him yourself tonight. And then again, in the morning. Then once more, in the shower.” Eren didn’t respond. “Anyway, he never talks to me. I’m not important enough.” he checked his watch once more, reaching through his pockets for his carton of cigarettes. The cab would be there soon. He looked once more to Eren, who was running his hands through his hair. Jean received a brief, coy smile.
“I’ll see you later, Eren.”
The office was the same as normal—that was to say—teeming with life and radiating unbridled stress. Hange and Levi were tucked away in Levi’s office, drafting a press statement about the new bill concerning primary school meals. They’d already sent the first rough draft to Jean to be proofread, before Hange changed her mind and decided the whole thing needed to be scrapped and started again. Jean began with the thrilling task of stapling pamphlets together, chain-smoking cigarettes and vigorously watching the clock. The proximity to so much food and drink had left him feeling a little drowsy, so he went down to order himself a double-espresso with cold milk, too. It was when the clock edged towards three ‘o’clock, that he was finally disturbed.
“Mr. Kirstein?” Jean looked up. It took him a moment to process the person staring down at him, despite seeing him nearly every day; Erwin Smith was still impressive up close—tall, handsome—with a pair of steady eyes the colour of slate. He had his arms crossed over his chest, looking at Jean with moderate interest, as if he’d just noticed him on his way to do something else that was much more important. “I’ve never had the opportunity to say hello to you… how long have you been working here, now?”
“Three months, sir.”
“You don’t need to call me ‘sir’—this isn’t the military. Your name is Jean, right?”
“Jean, do me a favour and come speak to me in my office in… shall we say… half an hour?” Erwin must have noticed concern mar Jean’s face, since he laughed reassuringly. “Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble.”
Jean sat at his desk for a few moments, watching his boss’ figure retreat. He began to massage his temples, his pulse quickening. Erwin’s intentions could go either way—it could be a genuine attempt to acquaint himself with his employees, or it could be a subtle attempt at intimidation. Perhaps both.
Jean continued with his mountains of paperwork, but quickly found himself unable to focus. He tapped his pen against the surface of his desk, eyes flitting between rows and rows of bland, meaningless words, and the face of his watch. Eventually, half an hour passed.
Jean sighed, composing himself, and putting out his cigarette—the third he’d smoked in thirty minutes. He probably had nothing to worry about, he reminded himself. Probably. He rose to his feet, pattering across the room towards Erwin’s office, hands buried deep in his pockets. Erwin’s secretary, a tall, attractive woman, with pale hair cropped around her ears, gave Jean a nod of acknowledgement.
“Just go straight in.” She told him, tapping a pillar of pearly ash off the end of her cigarette.
“Thanks.” Jean rapped his knuckles against the door.
“Come in.” A voice said from the other side—low and steady. Erwin Smith was sat behind his desk, decorated with an array of personal photographs—his wife, a pair of older adults, presumably his parents, and another picture of his wife with a chubby, red-faced toddler.
“Good afternoon.” Erwin said, without looking up. For a moment, neither spoke, as Erwin continued with the work in front of him. Jean stood awkwardly for a few moments, unsure of whether or not he should make an attempt at small talk.
“Sorry about that.” Erwin said, after a couple of minutes. “I was just in the middle of something. Jean, right? You know, I normally like to acquaint myself with the people who work for me as soon as they come under my employment… but I suppose you slipped under the radar.”
“It’s alright. I understand you’re extremely busy. I mean, you’re an elected official…”
Erwin tapped his fingers against the surface of his desk. “Being a representative of the people gets… tiring to say the least. Not that I’d ever chose any other job. I try not to spend too much time in London, too—a lot of politicians nowadays are stuck in what I suppose you could call… a Westminster bubble. They’re removed from the concerns of real people.”
“My constituents feel the effects of the current government… they see it in their everyday lives. They see it when their children are denied proper nutrition at lunch and come home hungry… that’s what motivated me to go into politics. Changing people’s lives.” Erwin adjusted how he was sitting. His words sounded practised, as if he’d delivered this monologue a thousand times, to a thousand different people. “What motivated you to go into politics, Mr. Kirstein?”
A paycheck. That was the truth, at the end of the day, but Jean couldn’t say that. “Something similar.” He said instead. “Wanting to change people’s lives… in a concrete sense.”
Erwin nodded, as if this was an acceptable answer. “I understand you’ve been taking care of a few errands on Levi’s behalf?”
“And you’ve been carrying out those errands with the appropriate discretion?”
“You seem like an intelligent kind of person, Jean.”
“…Thank you.” Despite the general benevolence in Erwin’s words, Jean couldn’t help but feel nervous.
“You want to help people, don’t you?” Erwin asked.
“Well, I’m sure there’s room for advancement in this field for you. But there are a few necessary traits in order to succeed in politics… do you know what they are?” His eyes were fixed on Jean, cool—unreadable. Just like in his parliamentary portrait, which was hung on one of the adjacent walls.
“I can’t say I could name them off the top of my head…” Jean replied, with a nervous laugh.
“Of course, the first two necessary traits to even think about going into politics are empathy and ambition. You seem like you possess both of those things…”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I told you not to call me ‘sir’…”
Jean fiddled with his fingers. “Sorry. Force of habit…”
“Can you guess what the third thing is?”
“I’m sure there’s a few different answers I could give…”
Jean’s eyes drifted to the window. He pictured Erwin’s tall, broad-shouldered form towering over the streets below, knowing what he knew, knowing at any moment that all could be revealed. When Jean was still drinking, he had a recurring dream in which he’d be forced to hide a dead body for which, in some way, he was responsible for. In these dreams, the feelings of constant paranoia would follow him into the morning—leaving him with strange feelings of guilt and dread even hours after he’d woken up. He’d been informed, at rehab, that these were irrational anxiety dreams. But if the body was real, stinking and festering and ready to be found—was it really irrational to be anxious?
“That third trait is less obvious.” Erwin said. “Discretion.”
as usual, let me know what you thought - kudos and comments are extremely welcome <3