There are children playing fivestones at the foot of a statue, but the man doesn’t think its subject would mind.
He enters the park at the same time once a week and stays most of the afternoon. A cane clicking on the pavement heralds his arrival. He picks a bench that gives him a view of the statue’s profile but keeps him from seeing much of the eyes. They’re too far removed from the warm, once-real gaze of their inspiration.
The man sits, bending into the familiar agony of his leg. He looks up.
“Hey,” he says, voice cracked with age.
The man takes a moment to rub away the throbbing pain in his calf. Then he sits back, shoulders popping against the hard stone of the bench. And he begins to talk.
It’s been an unusually eventful week. The fifteenth commander came out of retirement for the thirtieth anniversary of the eradication. The man watched the ceremony from afar. He’s the only one left of the Survey Corps from that day, he and Armin, though no one's seen Armin in a decade. No one tries to drag him away from what little peace he may have managed to find.
Yesterday the feral cat down the road from his secluded house had a litter. It’s been two years since his last cat died of old age. He misses having something to take care of.
“The cats complain about my nagging more than you ever did,” the man says. He smiles and it aches his jaw, deep into the roots of his teeth. “And I think that’s it.”
He stays for a while longer, until the near-autumn chill settles deep in his muscles, threatens to make them stiff. Then he stands again, an arduous process. He’s tired, so tired.
Something feels different today. There's something unearthly in the wind creeping across his neck, something plucking at the thin strands holding his body together. So he breaks from tradition. He crosses the path to the statue.
The statue would crumble within the century, along with all the pieces of their world the new government thinks will be better buried. Too much had already been sacrificed and the victory felt hollow, every ensuing celebration empty and cold.
The man looks at the statue with clouding grey eyes that never saw the sea. He couldn’t bear it alone. He couldn’t imagine anything being worth what he lost.
He lays a hand on the small plaque, focuses on it instead of the statue’s cold eyes. His fingers brush across a name. Just the thought of saying it, the ghost of its syllables in his throat, makes his eyes prickle hotly.
“When I die,” the man whispers. “I’ll find you. If you're out there, if you're anywhere. I don't care how long it takes. I'll find you.”
He presses his fingertips to his lips, trails the same hand lightly over the letters on the plaque. “We’ll be together soon. I promise.”
The man leaves, heavier on his cane than usual. It’s a relief when he gets home, a greater relief still to lay down. To sink into the pull of his bed, to call to mind the face he conjures every night.
The face is clearer than it’s been in lonely decades. God, he can almost hear his voice again. The corners of the man’s mouth pull up. They stiffen that way, like he drifted away smiling at some old inside joke--
And Levi’s eyes open slowly, gummy with sleep. He rubs the crust away with the back of his hand, blinking at the ceiling. Usually he can hold onto the details but this time they fade fast. The statue’s face, the name on the plaque written in an alphabet he doesn’t understand.
There’s still so much he doesn’t understand about his dreams. It’s been years since he last had one.
The wail of his alarm clock takes several seconds to reach his brain. He switches it off and sets the dream aside like he would any other.
On his work break that afternoon Levi takes his sandwich to the boardwalk. This is where he first sees the stranger.
The sky is cloud-thick and silver in a way that never feels gloomy against the sea. The wood railing scratches his bare elbows, and when he catches the stranger’s eye Levi feels like calling out to him. He feels like they’re old friends meeting for lunch. For a moment he can’t remember a single second in his life that came before.
There’s the taste of a name on the tip of his tongue.
The stranger slows before continuing his path down the boardwalk, just enough to make Levi wonder if he hadn’t imagined the sensation. He thinks he might be in his mid-twenties, like himself. Unlike Levi he's tall and fair-haired with an obnoxiously handsome face, even if he does possess a frightening taste for fashion ( a Hawaiian shirt on the north coast , Levi thinks, almost admiring). But Levi doesn’t believe this is why the world seemed to still when their eyes met.
A slice of tomato falls out of his sandwich and onto his napkin. The world resettles.
“Good afternoon,” the man says, tone a bit odd. It makes Levi realize he’d been staring.
“Afternoon,” Levi mumbles, turning away and fixing his sandwich.
He listens for the footsteps, slow in leaving like the man has nowhere to be. Levi sneaks a glance at his retreating back and watches him take careful steps. He walks like he wants to make no impact, like he could be a ghost.
Levi tosses his napkin when he finishes and returns to work, trying not to focus on how unsettled he feels.
The encounter is mostly forgotten by morning, save for a feeling like he’s neglecting an appointment. Levi wakes early and alone, and walks to work.
The town of New Mitras is a few passable square miles on the shore, a distant shadow of its namesake. It’s chilly even in late summer and wet sand cements itself in every nook. But there’s seagull song to fill the quiet, and his mother loved it, so Levi stays in her home even after she passes.
College was too far and too expensive but he’s content in his job, manning the gift shop at the town’s history museum. He puts neon sweatshirts on hangers and keeps plastic seashells in their tubs and he earns enough to enjoy cable at night. He’s happy, generally.
Less so when he enters the shop to find his organized stacks of books, waiting to be shelved, had fallen during the night.
Levi is halfway through re-stacking and alphabetizing when there’s muffled footsteps on the carpet somewhere behind him.
“What, Petra?” he says, expecting his boss.
“Oh, sorry,” says a voice at least an octave and a half down from Petra’s. “I was--”
“We’re not open yet, you shouldn’t be in here. How’d you get in anyway?”
It’s then Levi remembers he forgot to lock the door behind him. He almost feels bad for snapping, more so when the man’s voice tugs at him like a memory wanting to be recalled.
“Of course, I’m sorry. You open at eight, right? I’ll be back then.”
“Wait,” Levi says, before he’s even sure why.
He stands and turns, smoothing down his button-up. It’s the man from yesterday. Somehow Levi knew it would be. He’s not wearing a tacky shirt today, but there’s a baseball cap flattening his blonde hair that reads “ I wish I was adenine so I could be paired with U .”
“My friend’s a biologist,” the man says when he catches Levi staring at his hat. “They made me take it so I wouldn’t get sunburn, not that there’s much to worry about here.”
“Uh huh,” Levi says.
There’s a beat of awkward silence, then the man shakes his head.
“Sorry again for bothering you, I’ll come back later.”
“No, it’s fine,” Levi says, almost reaching out before stopping himself. He glances back at his fallen books. “Actually, you can help me while you wait.”
The man pauses, and Levi pushes through the hesitation that wants to tie his tongue in knots.
“It’s not a big deal," Levi says. "But maybe I’ll give you half-off a magnet for it.”
He snorts. “You’re quite the salesman, aren’t you?”
Somewhere between the man’s words and his smile, Levi has to turn away to hide his face.
He helps Levi carry stacks of books to their shelves, impressed by how many Levi can lift at once. Levi jogs on the beach when he can and he keeps in shape. It surprises people, but it’s his height and not his strength that’s the issue, so the man stocks the top shelves for him.
When the work’s done Levi goes to a revolving rack of magnets with dozens of names on them, which makes the man laugh and hold up a hand.
“Wait, no, I thought you were kidding--”
“What’s your name?” Levi asks, spinning the rack.
“I doubt you have mine in there, it’s unusual.”
“My name’s not that common, but we’ve got it here.” He pries one off the rack, holding it up for the man to see.
“Levi,” the man says, and Levi thinks he likes the way his name sounds in this stranger’s mouth, his kind, low tones.
“What about you? I mean, here we’ve got Jeremiah, Ruth--”
“Erwin,” Levi repeats.
He thought the name might spark something in his brain. He thought he might remember knowing him in preschool, something odd and distant like that. Instead he’s let down, but only for a moment, because Erwin is smiling at him again.
“Told you,” he says.
Levi spins to the E’s. “Yep, nothing. Got an ‘Edith’ though, how’s that?”
Erwin laughs as Levi presses the magnet into his warm hand before he can protest.
“Levi!” Petra’s sharp voice rings from the door. “Stop flirting with customers and get ready to open.”
“Better follow your own advice next time that florist is in here!” he shoots back.
Petra gives a hearty, disbelieving laugh. Then she leaves, her heels clicking down the hall.
“I love her dearly,” Levi tells Erwin, who looks slightly uncomfortable.
“Well that’s a relief. Your girlfriend?”
“ God no. We’ve just been friends forever.”
“I see. And she works here too?”
“She’s the curator, yeah.”
“Oh, Ms. Ral?” Erwin says, suddenly looking toward the hall with renewed interest.
“I have a meeting with her, I better go. It was nice to meet you, Levi.”
“Uh huh,” Levi says, surprised by the sudden departure. It takes him a second too long to remember the man’s name before he’s around the corner.
Levi wonders if Erwin will stop to say goodbye before he goes, and feels foolish for it once afternoon rolls around. He might have been imagining the strange connection all along. He might never see the man again. Levi puts his disappointment aside as he rings up a few lanyards.
At the end of the day he walks out with Petra, and speaks as she pauses to lock the doors.
“What did that guy from earlier want?”
“Just wanted to know about the town. Its origins especially. You know, nerdy stuff.”
Levi grunts in acknowledgment. Petra isn’t smirking anymore, and he relaxes as they walk toward the main road in silence.
“Cute, wasn’t he?” Petra says casually.
“Like you care,” Levi says, too disarmed to deny it.
“I’m gay, not blind. Anyway, he’s from Karanese but it sounds like he’s sticking around for a bit on some kind of research project. He might stop by again.”
“You’re such a gossip.”
“And you always attack when you can’t defend.”
Petra squeezes his arm, then turns toward her own street. He waves off her see you tomorrow with a grunt.
That night Levi dreams again, and somewhere deep in his subconscious he thinks this is odd. The dreams used to be nearly constant until his mother died, and they were always the same. He’d be older, and wearing a uniform. Usually he’s alone. Usually he has blades in his hands or bleach under his nose. Usually there's faces he doesn’t recognize, like strangers passing in a city. Sometimes he sees corpses with Petra’s hair, but he tries not to think about them.
This time he’s in a familiar office setting, but now someone else is with him. He looks like Erwin, and Levi’s subconscious thinks nothing of this at the time. The man who could be Erwin is focused, listening as Levi gives him information his present mind can’t begin to decipher. This Erwin’s hair is more controlled, his face wearier, but in Levi’s dream state he feels something powerful for the man, startling in its unfamiliarity.
He wakes up, heart still holding onto the remnants of a love he’s never felt, and he stares at the wall in confusion.
It’s two days before Levi sees him again, which he’s grateful for. He needs time to uncloud his mind. He can’t remember the last time a stranger made such an impact on him.
Today Erwin’s not wearing anything ridiculous, but his jeans fit in a way that has Levi reminding himself not to stare.
“Surprised you’re back,” Levi calls out.
Erwin stops in the hall, and his face lights in recognition when he sees Levi. He glances down toward Petra’s office, then turns and enters the gift shop.
“How come?” he asks, walking toward Levi.
“Takes someone, what, a half hour to see everything in here? And that’s taking your time.”
“Thirty-five minutes if I stop for a souvenir.”
“Har har,” Levi says, rolling his eyes. “Seriously, what’s your deal?”
Erwin leans against the counter on his elbows, taller than him even like this.
“I go to school in Karanese and I’m here on a research project. Going for my master’s in history next semester, actually. For my paper I want to study the Titan War.”
Levi’s surprised. “The Titan War? Wouldn’t that be mythology, not history?”
Erwin beams, fingertips tapping against the counter. “That’s just what I’m trying to find out.”
Levi wants to laugh but Erwin looks too delighted, like Levi said the words he’s always wanted to hear. Cute crosses his mind before he can stop it.
“Good luck with that,” Levi says. “Is Petra any help?”
“She doesn’t think I’m insane, which is a good start.”
Levi can’t help a small smile.
Erwin stops in a few times over the next two weeks, always coming to see Levi before meeting with Petra. He never goes into his research but Levi learns other things about him. The way he’s not a morning person, and not much of a person at all until he’s had his second cup of coffee. The way he hangs onto Levi’s words and remembers everything he tells him, even the story of his embarrassing prom date with Petra.
Levi's never felt an overwhelming need for friends, but he begins to believe he could make a new one. It helps that Erwin's been staying out of his dreams.
Everything is a dark whirl of color and screams. Someone, several someones, call his name through clouds in his ears. They’re flying, over the ground then through the air. There’s a roar that doesn’t sound human. The source hurries at their back, a gargantuan mess of shaggy hair and skinless muscle.
Then, a moment of clarity in the form of a face. He looks like Erwin in all but the severity of his hair and the hardness of his eyes. The storm of wet leaves and noise settles around them.
The man’s features go slack with relief, his eyes soften, and it’s the last thing Levi sees before he wakes.
Levi kicks the blankets off, his body thinly covered in chilling sweat. He’s shivering and far too hot at once. He turns his head to the open window, where waves roll like thunder in the distance. It only takes a moment before he’s out of bed, fetching a jacket.
There’s someone else at the beach, right on the edge of the shore. Normally it would keep Levi away. People in small towns drift to one another, and Levi feels left out of the orbit. He’s not sure if it’s of his making, due to the scowl etched in his face like stone, but slices of daily conversation evade him. He doesn’t know his neighbor from the far side of the sea.
Levi ambles closer and recognizes the broad-shouldered figure sitting with his legs stretched out on a blanket in the sand, the gold hair near white in the moon. He wonders when this happened, when he came to know Erwin even without his face.
“Hey,” Levi says softly, before Erwin hears his footsteps and worries about drill-wielding small town serial killers.
Erwin turns. His eyes are distant but he smiles when he sees Levi.
“I didn’t steal anything.”
“If you’re out here to shake me down,” Erwin says.
“Ah. Yeah. Better give it up, blondie,” Levi says, aiming a light kick at Erwin’s back. “Stealing fifty-cent postcards is a capital offense around here.”
Erwin’s smile brightens, something sad in his eyes ebbing away. Sometimes Levi worries he comes off too brusque, but Erwin isn’t put off.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Erwin says abruptly, shifting on the blanket. “Would you like to sit?”
Levi shrugs and sits next to him, drawing his knees up to his chest. The blanket has the itchy feel of a family heirloom, but it’s better than sand.
Erwin watches him for a moment, then looks back at the sea. Levi waits for him to say something but it doesn’t happen and it doesn’t feel awkward. He wonders if Erwin would stay until sunrise, content with his thoughts, content with the company.
Levi says, “Why are you here anyway? It’s like, four-thirty.”
“Yes, what would anyone be doing out at this time?” Erwin says, giving Levi a look.
Levi snorts, dips his head onto his bent knees. “Whatever. You first.”
One of the corners of Erwin’s mouth falls, just barely. He gives away his emotions in subtle moves, and Levi likes to think he’s learning to read them.
“It’s the anniversary of my dad’s death,” he says. “It’ll be fifteen years later this morning. This seemed like a nice place to sit and think about him.”
“Oh,” Levi says.
He never quite knows what to say. He remembers his mother’s wake, when none of the words given to him by friends and strangers could touch the gap in his heart. Levi wondered what the point was, if words were as empty as loss.
Luckily, Erwin doesn’t wait for platitudes.
“We were out of eggs, and he wanted to make my mom a nice breakfast. I hated everything but cereal at the time.” Erwin breathes a quiet laugh. “Still hardly eat anything but cereal, but I suppose that’s college life.”
He must catch Levi’s wince, for he meets his eyes.
“Sorry, just praying for your arteries,” Levi says. He immediately kicks himself for his insensitivity. “Keep going.”
Erwin’s mouth drops open in mock insult, and Levi continues to be surprised with what Erwin lets him get away with. Then Erwin looks at the water, relaxed.
“We lived up in the hills, and there was a rock slide on the road to the store. Just the wrong place and wrong time, nobody’s fault. That was what my mom made sure I knew. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.” He pauses, picks at a spot on his fingernail. “We moved to Karanese after that.”
Levi’s heart sinks for this near-stranger. “And...your mom?”
“Still living there.” Erwin turns toward him. “What about you?”
Levi sighs, his cheeks puffing out. “Dad took off when I was a baby, mom died when I was twelve. My uncle took over after that but I don’t see him much anymore. Once I could pay the bills him and his rich boyfriend holed themselves up in one of the Canary Islands or wherever the hell.”
“You’ve done alright for yourself despite everything.”
“You don’t know that much about me,” Levi says, though he feels a glow at the words. “I could’ve come out here to ax murder you for all you know.”
“Still waiting on it.” Erwin grins, and Levi isn’t sure if he wants to shove him or kiss him. “What are you doing up, anyway?”
“Had a stupid dream.” Without thinking, Levi adds, “You were in it, actually.”
Erwin’s eyebrows raise. “Oh, really?”
Levi glares, thanks the dark for hiding his face. “Not like that . There were a lot of people in it.”
“Well I’m sure I was happy to be included.”
Levi drags his hands down his face. Erwin looks far too amused at his little insinuation.
“For fuck’s sake. Do you want to hear it or should I leave you to the sharks?”
“This climate is far too cold for sharks.”
Erwin laughs as he takes Levi’s wrist to prevent him from fake-storming off. His palm is warm, and dry from the sandy air.
“Go ahead, tell me,” Erwin says as he lets him go, his sincerity unassuming. How strange, Levi thinks, that a man wearing a neon yellow windbreaker on the beach can get to him like this.
“I dreamed we were at war, or something. I’ve had these dreams since I was a kid but they’re getting clearer...God I already sound like I’m losing it.”
“No, keep going.”
Levi pauses, drawing aimless patterns in the sand at Erwin’s side.
“We were flying, or maybe only I was. Then I saw you, and everything just--well. I saw you. And you were shouting something at everyone, and there was this gross skinless monster. It was huge.”
The marbled moonlight on the water reveals Erwin’s growing astonishment.
“What?” Levi demands. “I told you, it was just a dumb dream.”
“It’s nothing. Was that all?”
Levi scowls at him, just long enough to let Erwin know he isn’t convinced. Erwin continues to watch him, unperturbed, with an attention he isn’t used to. An attention that makes him itchy and warm at once.
“Yeah, that’s basically it. Just a bunch of big ugly trees and a big ugly mammoth.”
“It was a mammoth?”
“Nah, it was humanoid, like--” Levi raises his arms above his head, makes a growling sound he instantly regrets.
“Can you repeat that?” Erwin says. “Wait, let me get my phone--”
They smile like children for a moment, watching each other out of the corners of their eyes. Then Erwin’s gaze drops entirely.
“Could I see you sometime? Outside of work?”
Levi inhales fast, and Erwin is quick to correct himself.
“Not like.” He laughs nervously, scratches at the nape of his neck, the sudden turn of shyness far too endearing. “Not a--a date or anything. Just wanted to talk with you about something.”
Levi hugs his legs close. “We’re talking now.”
Erwin takes in the top of Levi’s head, the strands blowing out, whipping at his knees. Levi takes in the smoothness of Erwin's face, the way his smile even seems to touch the sadness in his eyes.
“Another time?” Levi asks. He understands.
Erwin nods. “Another time.”
Levi wants to tell him to go home ( his motel? He could be staying in his car for all Levi knows) but the words seem too much effort over the waves and weight of his tired tongue.
He must have fallen asleep, for he flinches when Erwin nudges him what feels like seconds later, a brush of fingertips across his shoulder.
There's a stripe of navy across the horizon, lightening by the second and bleeding into the rest of the sky. Levi's seen it a thousand times, and grows bored quickly. Instead he looks at Erwin, who watches the sunrise like he's never seen one before. Levi tells him this, and Erwin tears his gaze away.
“Do I?” Erwin says. He sounds pleased. “I like to think it's different every time.”
“It's just a bunch of light pollution and gas.”
“Gross,” Levi says with a note of respect.
Erwin shrugs, his smile white and even and too sweet for the words coming out of it.
The sun trickles over the water, and Levi thinks it might be different this time. Just a little.
“So what do you think about the Titan War?” Erwin asks.
Levi’s barely sat down, his ass making acquaintance with an uncomfortable faux-wood stool. They’re at the worst cafe in town, though he doesn’t tell Erwin this. It’s a spit of a shop off the boardwalk with a weak view and weaker coffee.
He spent a hand-wringing hour getting ready that morning, all the it’s-not-a-date s in the world failing to relax him. Levi settled on neutral colors and a long-sleeved tee over fitted jeans, at Petra’s suggestion (not that he would tell Erwin he consulted anyone for this).
Expectations included awkward small talk, fingers drumming on the table in a silence waiting to be broken by the reason Erwin asked him out without really asking him out.
Levi didn’t expect this.
“Um,” Levi says. “Cute story, I guess. I was always more into math than lit though.”
“What about history?”
“Oh, that’s right. You think it’s real, don’t you?”
“I think it could be real,” Erwin clarifies. “And I think your dreams might be a clue.”
He smiles. “You don’t sound convinced. Can I show you something?”
Erwin reaches for the backpack at the foot of his chair and pulls out a spiral-ring notebook. Its cover is a puppy with sunglasses riding a skateboard, the words “Hot Dog!” plastered in bright neon letters.
“I got this when I was ten,” he explains when he sees Levi biting his lip against laughter.
“Mm hm,” Levi replies weakly.
Erwin flips to a page near the middle. “I began having dreams of my own after my dad died. There was something that felt real about them, something I couldn’t explain.”
“Like they were memories, not dreams,” Levi says.
Erwin nods, hairs across his forehead bouncing in his enthusiasm. “Exactly. So I started drawing what I could remember. My earlier ones were chicken scratch, mostly, but I like to think I got better as time went on.”
He turns a few more pages, past rough sketches Levi doesn’t have time to make meaning of.
“There,” Erwin says when he stops. “Does this look familiar?”
On the page in blue ballpoint pen is a symbol Levi’s only seen in his dreams. A staccato pair of wings drawn like a coat of arms, unmistakable. He feels slightly numb, the tips of his fingers tingling.
“How in the hell --”
“I have a theory. If you’d like to hear it.”
Levi stares blankly at the page for another moment, then finds his voice. “Yeah, okay.”
“Okay?” Erwin repeats. He looks slightly anxious, like he hadn’t expected Levi to react so positively.
“Erwin, unless you’re a mind reader or some shit, there’s got to be a reason we dreamed of the same thing. So tell me what you got. I can hear your brain working from here.”
Erwin smiles, and launches in. Levi tries not to stare when Erwin adds two sugar packets and half the small pitcher of cream into his coffee.
He tells Levi familiar tales, the mind wipe of humanity by the kings in the old Titan War stories. How some groups evaded the memory loss. But Erwin frames it as real, lays out his conjectures like a science project. There’s still a thread of disbelief running through Levi’s mind, just as there is in Erwin’s, but he feels like he’s already made his choice.
“So what,” Levi says, trying to understand. “You think we might be descended from them or something?”
“It’s one of the possibilities. I still don’t know what to make of the nature of our dreams. All I know is if they’re based on real events, then the Titan War was real as well.”
“So why cover it up? Sure, the story’s weird as hell, but why the secrecy?”
Erwin considers for a moment. “You know, it being ‘weird as hell’ might have something to do with it. Maybe people simply stopped believing. I think there’s something in the technology of it that frightens people, too. Perhaps the new government didn’t want anyone to know these titans existed. If they could be created, they could be recreated, couldn’t they? The story works better as a cautionary tale, a lesson for humanity in unity.”
“Shit,” Levi breathes. He slumps back in his chair, stares at the remaining black dregs of his coffee.
“It’s a lot to take in,” Erwin says, the twist of his mouth apologetic. “I’ve been thinking about this for years, and here I dump it all on you in one afternoon.”
“So what can I do?” Levi says, before he can say anything like I’m sorry .
Erwin’s eyebrows draw down. “Do?”
“Yeah, to help. With your paper or whatever.”
“You want to help?”
“You just gonna parrot me now?” Levi manages a real smile, though the muscles are stiff. “I dunno, this is interesting, and if it explains something about my weird-ass dreams then even better. Whatever I can do, just tell me, okay?”
Erwin looks touched, and Levi glances away before his face goes pink.
“Alright. I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks, Levi.”
They take a second to breathe, the weighty conversation giving way to the cafe sounds around them, coffee grinding and baristas calling names and fingernails clicking on laptop keys.
“Anyway, that’s plenty from me,” Erwin says. He takes his coffee in hand and looks at Levi squarely. “Tell me more about yourself for a while.”
“I thought you said this wasn’t a date,” Levi says dryly.
Erwin smiles with the top of his cup raised to his lips. “I’m just curious about you, that’s all.”
Levi swirls a finger around the rim of his empty mug. This part is difficult for him. He doesn’t find himself particularly interesting, and it’s worse because he wants Erwin to find him particularly interesting.
So when he finds his own life lacking, he branches out. A flash of his uncle crosses his mind, and Levi smiles.
“Can you keep a secret?” Levi asks.
Erwin leans forward, all attentive ears.
“No way,” Levi says, wholly disgusted.
“Levi--” Erwin starts, near pleading.
“No fucking way do potato chips count as vegetables.”
“But potato is in the name, why would they--”
“I never want to see you in here again. Be gone.”
“Levi,” Petra calls, coming into the gift shop with arms full of boxes. “Can you stock these?”
She walks past Erwin, leaning against Levi’s counter, and drops the boxes unceremoniously to the ground.
“Nothing fragile, I hope,” Levi says dully.
Petra raises an eyebrow at him, then looks at Erwin. “How’s the paper coming along?”
It’s been a week since Levi and Erwin first discussed their dreams. They’ve met nearly every day, piecing together bits of memory, the faces of the titans and the details of the uniforms. Levi’s starting to believe more in his theory but they lack hard evidence, and dreams hold little sway over anyone but the dreamers themselves. And five-dollar boardwalk palm readers, he supposes.
“It’s coming along,” Erwin replies. “I was actually thinking of heading down to Mitras this weekend, see what I can find.”
Levi looks up quickly. He hadn’t heard anything about this.
“That’s a great idea,” Petra says. “Don’t you think so, Levi?”
Her eyes bug out to a painful width.
“Um,” he says.
“I, uh.” Erwin looks sheepish when he runs a hand through his hair. “I was thinking of asking if you want to come along, since you offered to help. But I know you work Saturdays and--”
“Nah,” Petra says. “I was gonna have Nan come in. Get her lazy ass out of the house. Levi’s free.”
Levi shoots her a look, unsure if he wants to thank her or kill her. Petra’s face is deadpan save for her dancing eyebrows, out of Erwin’s line of sight.
“Yeah, that’d, um.” Levi fumbles through his office supply drawer, like he’s only half-focused on the conversation. He pulls out a box cutter with a bit too much enthusiasm. “That’d be great.”
“Super,” Petra says, like she’s the one who asked.
Erwin turns from her to Levi with a small, hesitant smile. You sure? he mouths.
Levi nods, returning Erwin’s smile. Erwin gives a nearly inaudible sigh of relief.
Petra heads toward the door, saying as she goes, “And potato chips are not vegetables.”
Levi slaps his palm down onto the counter top, gestures toward Petra and looks at Erwin as if to say, see?
Levi is pleased with the lack of potato chip bags littering the floor of Erwin’s car. He’s less pleased with the choice in music.
“This is grandpa shit,” he says. “No, this is like, great-grandpa shit. Old ladies are mocking this song right now in a nursing home somewhere.”
“I’m wounded,” Erwin says. “My mom says this song is ‘just groovy.’”
“Oh, well, in that case.”
The world passes in fragments of broken light and tree limbs and rushing vehicles. Levi scoots his seat up so he doesn’t feel so small in Erwin’s car. In the corner of his eye Erwin is a relaxed vision, driving one-handed with aviators perched on his long nose, sleeves rolled up and fingers devoid of rhythm tapping on the steering wheel. Levi tries to keep him there, in the corner of his eye, so he doesn’t get caught staring. He’s still trying to decide if he likes Erwin because he understands a facet of Levi’s life no one else does, or for something more. He thinks it’d be much easier to decide without the man’s sun-soaked charm trying to nudge him along.
“Asshole,” Levi mutters.
“Nothing, just thinking.”
“Ah. I’m sure it’s well-deserved.”
And there it is again. That blind acceptance of Levi's peculiarities. Or perhaps it isn’t blind at all. Maybe Erwin sees him, really sees him. Maybe he likes what he sees.
“Put on whatever you want,” Erwin says, waving a hand toward the radio. “I don’t just like great-grandpa shit.”
Levi flips through stations until he lands on a decade-old dance song that makes Erwin laugh.
“My high school girlfriend loved this one,” he says.
“Yeah?” Levi says, unnaturally high and enthusiastic to cover the disappointment at this discovery. Of course he’s straight, like you ever thought otherwise, get over it . “Does she go to your school, or?”
“No, no no no,” Erwin says in a rush. “We broke up halfway through senior year. She went with one of our other friends to prom, and I saw someone else for a while. I didn’t last long with him, either, and it’s just been college ever since. God, it seems like a lifetime ago already.”
“I bet,” Levi says, as his brain repeats an excited mantra of fuck, he’s bi, he’s bi .
“What about you, is there anyone?” Erwin asks. He smiles playfully, Levi can see the flash of it from the safe spot in the corner of his eye. “I’m not keeping you from a date, am I?”
“Hell no,” Levi says. “Hold up, here comes my favorite part.”
He turns up the volume and hums along, partly because he enjoys it and partly because he likes impressing Erwin, because Erwin doesn’t feel like someone he has to be restrained around. Erwin shared his dreams and his trust, and Levi feels he can give a bit of himself in return.
He gets so caught up in it he forgets to be self-conscious, and adds a few unfortunate moves into the mix.
Erwin laughs, not unkindly. “I’ve never seen you so animate.”
“I’m full of surprises, Erwin Smith. Want a kale chip?”
Erwin’s disgust disappears the moment Levi wears him down enough to try one. Levi barely suppresses a shiver when Erwin’s lips brush his fingers to take a proffered chip, and he’s beginning to think he definitely likes Erwin for more than his dreams.
“It could be worse,” Erwin says reluctantly, and leans in when Levi holds out another.
There’s no crumbs, no mess, and Levi folds the bag into his backpack when they’re done sharing. Erwin’s car is clean. He relaxes back into the seat, feeling safe.
“Could be worse,” he agrees.
“Thought we could save on hotel costs staying here, since it’s two nights,” Erwin explains as they knock on the apartment door. It’s late when they arrive, street lamps showing off perfect circles of pavement. “But if you change your mind just let me know, we can get a place.”
Levi stretches his arms high above his head, still sore from the road. “What, should I give you a signal or something? Armpit fart and we book it?”
Erwin looks like he’s about to say something smart-assed when the door opens. A strong scent greets Levi’s nose, and he can’t decide yet if he likes it or not.
“Erwin!” A bespectacled head peeks around the door, grinning under shiny auburn hair tied in a messy bun. “Erwin’s friend!”
They clap him on the shoulder, and the look on his face must send a message.
“Sorry, I can tell you’re not a toucher,” they say, holding their hands up and not looking the least bit put-out. “But you, c’mere!”
They pull Erwin into a tight hug, and the delight on Erwin’s face is enough to make Levi like this person a little more already. When they break apart Erwin turns to Levi.
“This is Hange, the biologist friend I was telling you about. We were in undergrad together. Hange, this is Levi.”
“Pleasure to--” Hange holds their hand out, looks down at it, then smiles apologetically. “Pleasure to meet you. Let’s head in, it stays too damn hot in this city.”
They all step into the apartment and the smell explains itself. The main room looks more like a greenhouse, potted plants with wide leaves in nearly every window and flowers hanging in baskets from the ceiling, all touched by the moon peeking through a large skylight. Fans whir in the windows that aren’t occupied, neutralizing the earthy heat. Now that he’s had a moment to adjust, Levi thinks the effect is pleasant overall.
“Would you like something to eat?” Hange asks as they both set their bags inside. “Something to drink? You can watch something if you want. I’ve got to work on this proposal for school but I could chat a little later if you wanted to catch up.”
Levi hides a yawn behind his hand, passing it off as a cough.
Erwin glances at him, then says, “Maybe just some water, then I think we’ll be ready for bed.”
“Oh right, you’ve been driving all day.” Hange gives Erwin a light pat on the arm. “I’ll get some water then show you where you’re staying. I’ve got the couch tonight.”
The moment Hange’s out of sight Levi gives Erwin’s elbow a quick squeeze. It’s a need to release some of the gratitude he feels at the way Erwin senses his feelings and accommodates for them. It's like being taken care of, something he hasn’t felt since he was a child. He never needs it, but it’s nice.
“Everything alright?” Erwin says, looking down at him when he feels Levi’s hand.
“Yeah,” Levi says. He feels the ridiculous urge to lean into Erwin’s side, and stands a little straighter.
Hange comes back with glasses of water and guides both of them to their room. Hange tells them one of them can take their bed, the other the air mattress ready beside it. Then the two of them are left alone.
Erwin’s the picture of poise, stripping off his shirt and fiddling in his backpack for pajamas, no shreds of self-consciousness to slow him down. Levi tries so hard not to ogle that he ends up ogling, just a little, just to show himself that this isn’t a big deal. He tries to find his own pajamas and ends up blindly pawing at the backpack pouch as he stares but doesn’t stare at Erwin’s back.
Then Erwin settles onto the air mattress, leaving the bed for Levi before they can have a discussion about it, like it’s a given.
“I bet you’d do the same for all the girls,” Levi says, too tired to be properly annoyed.
“Not just the girls,” Erwin says, so shamelessly flirty that Levi immediately concludes he must not be flirting at all. And the man’s wearing pajamas with pineapples on them, for god’s sake.
Levi climbs into bed, relieved by the obvious clean of the sheets, the crisp snap of them when he lifts them over his shoulders. He can’t remember the last time he shared a room with someone. Perhaps his uncle, the time they stayed in a hotel to visit the water park when he was fourteen. The time Kenny nearly got arrested for indecent exposure. It hadn’t even been Kenny's fault that time.
Erwin doesn’t snore quite as loud as Kenny. It’s soft and comforting, and Levi counts off his snores as he drifts to sleep.
Hange’s awake when Levi enters the kitchen in the morning.
“Did you even sleep?” Levi asks, pouring himself a cup of coffee. He suspects the coffee maker’s had a long night, too.
“Hm,” Hange says, glasses slipping low on their nose as they peer at their laptop. “The plausibility factor indicates.”
Levi only bothers trying to make sense of this for a few seconds before shaking his head. He finds orange juice in the fridge, alarmingly close to expiring for being so full. He pours a glass and brings it to Hange. The sight of it brings them out of their trance.
“Oh. Thanks!” Hange takes a drink, looking slightly more at home in the world of the living. “Levi, right?”
“Yeah.” Levi sits on the other side of the couch, folding his limbs close.
“Erwin’s been telling me about you. We go to different grad schools now but we’ve kept in touch. So you really believe him, huh?”
“You don’t?” Levi asks, a little defensively.
“Hey, I’m a scientist. I believe just about anything can be proven.” Hange sips the orange juice, wide brown eyes calming from the sleepless twitch of before. “There’s just as much danger in saying something can’t exist as in saying something can.”
Erwin walks out then, hair askew from sleep and a lengthy yawn in his mouth. He’s so tall he has to duck to avoid a plant hitting him in the forehead. It’s all a little much for a half-awake Levi, who turns away like he’s been offended.
Erwin tosses a ball cap to Hange and they jam it onto their head, looping their ponytail through the hole in the back. Levi recognizes it as the one with the ridiculous pick-up line Erwin wore the second time they met. Hange catches the look on Levi's face and grins.
“God, Erwin,” Hange says, looking over their shoulder to where he’s pouring himself a too-sweet coffee. “You didn’t wear this when you asked him out, did you?”
Levi stammers for something dignified to say while Erwin takes a drink, takes a moment to look thoughtful.
“No, if I was going to ask him out I’d borrow your shirt.”
Hange looks down at themself, laughs, and sits up on their knees to stretch out a shirt that reads “I wanna stick to you like glue-cose.”
“How charming,” Levi says.
Erwin takes his coffee into the other room to change clothes. Hange’s still grinning at Levi.
“Your ears are all pink,” they say.
“They are not.”
“Now they’re red.”
Levi buries his face in his bent knees, willing the couch to swallow him whole.
The central library in Mitras is a twelve-story wonder. The outside is ornate glass paneling, the inside airy and open enough to see every floor. Levi leans against the rail on the top story and looks down, just for the thrill that curls in his gut. He swears he can feel a breeze.
They arrived with the intention of heading straight for the old city records, but Erwin gets sidetracked along the way. An atlas lays open on a plastic display and Erwin goes to it like a wave pulled back into the sea. There’s something right about him here, something timeless in the glass-cuts of light that fall on his face, the wide hunch of shoulders as he pores over the fly-wing thin pages. Like he was born to stand amid the secrets of the world.
“Look, Levi,” he says. “According to the stories the walls were only about two hundred thousand square miles, even before the fall of Maria. About this size. Now we have all this.”
Levi looks over Erwin’s arm as he draws circles and lines with his finger to demonstrate. He still smells like toothpaste from an hour ago, clean peppermint.
“I’d go mad,” Levi says. “The sanitation issues alone, I mean. Were people swimming in their own shit or what?”
He’s usually better at holding his tongue, a habit tempered by years in customer service. But Erwin doesn’t mind, and Levi delights in the easy smiles he pulls from him.
“They’ve got to have some blueprints around here,” Erwin says, hints of laughter still playing in his eyes. “Maybe we’ll find one that’ll put your mind at ease.”
They spend an hour going through the oldest public city records and find nothing more damning than some centuries-old uncollected taxes. Erwin begins to entertain the idea of a coffee break when Levi spots something.
There’s a door labelled “Authorized Only” at the far end of the hallway, half-hidden by an enormous fern drooping against the wall. A library worker disappears into it, and Levi catches a peek of countless shelves of files before it swings shut.
“The hell’s in there,” Levi mutters.
He pinches the elbow of Erwin’s sleeve, points at the door. They nearly make it there when the door opens again, nearly knocking Levi in the nose.
“Can I help you?” the same worker asks, suspicious.
“Good morning,” Erwin says, his voice taking on an entirely different tone, higher and round. “I was wondering if we could--”
His eyes drift toward the door too quickly, and the woman snaps, “No.”
Erwin smiles pleasantly, undeterred. “I haven’t had a chance to explain myself. My name is--”
Levi deflates a little, is surprised when Erwin doesn’t.
“Can I ask you a few quick questions?” he asks.
The woman narrows her eyes. Sensing a fruitless pursuit at the same time as his persisting bladder, Levi pinches Erwin’s sleeve again.
“I’m gonna go piss,” he mutters, and disappears.
When he comes back three minutes later the woman is gone and Erwin is waiting, elated.
“Ready to go?” he asks.
Levi stares. “You got in? How in the hell?”
Erwin smiles and glances at the floor, looking for all the world like a remorseless child caught in the act. “You know the mayor?”
“My ex-girlfriend is his daughter. Turns out I remember enough personal details about him that convinced her I’m working an important job for him.”
“Wow. No shit. Remind me never to doubt you again.”
The room is tightly-packed and dim, a sharp contrast to the airiness of the rest of the library. Erwin explains this is where they keep more restricted documents, the likes of which the mayor and other government workers can access, but not the public.
“And she just let you in here with some fake story?” Levi whispers, feeling watched. “You’re one persuasive bastard.”
“Am I?” Erwin says lightly.
Levi makes a face at him.
Two hours later they’re surrounded by sprawling photocopies on Hange’s living room floor. Erwin’s lying on his stomach trying to put them in some kind of order. Levi’s sitting back against the couch, feet tucked under himself, tapping his nails against a mug of tea.
“This makes no sense,” Levi says, breaking the silence they’ve held for ten minutes.
“No, it doesn’t.”
The documents have been well preserved over the years, but it’s difficult to tell how old they are. They’re dated by arbitrary numbers, ending with 855. It isn’t clear whether this indicates days, weeks, or otherwise. The language itself is indecipherable, though there are enough Germanic characters for them to see there’s some sort of meaning behind the jumble.
“I hardly know where to begin,” Erwin admits, sounding defeated in a way that twists at Levi’s heart. “Do I try and date these? Do I start figuring out some kind of translating system? I could ask for help but we could get these taken away, they had to have been locked away for a reason.”
“Your instincts are good, Erwin. There’s gotta be something here if they were hiding this. Let’s just...look a little longer, get the full picture, and go grab dinner or something. Chew it over, ha ha. We can come back to it with fresh eyes tomorrow, yeah?”
Erwin stares at the papers for a moment, then looks over at Levi. He smiles, even as he wrings his hands together.
“You’re right. Thanks, Levi. I might’ve forgotten to eat without you.”
“You’ve always been so humble,” Levi mutters.
The second the words are out he blinks in surprise. They’d known each other for two months, hardly any time at all. Where had that come from?
Erwin looks a little taken aback too, but seems to forget it quickly enough. He turns his attention back to the papers spread in front of him, a daunting chore. Levi too looks down, just to have something to do with his fidgeting hands. He sifts through a few pages, just taking in the illustrations, not knowing yet what to make of the language.
“Shit!” he gasps, bumping his back into the couch when he finds a page near the bottom of his pile.
Erwin pushes up and scoots to his side quickly, their shoulders brushing.
“The symbol you drew,” Levi says, pointing. “The one from my dreams. Our dreams. Shit .”
The wings are drawn with even clearer detail than in Erwin’s notebook, matching Levi’s dream for each feather. In the storybooks Levi read growing up there were always wings to represent the Titan War, but they looked nothing like these. They were rounder, softer, an angelic representation of good. The truth is sharp and austere.
“Still want dinner?” Erwin asks.
“Well. Maybe let’s order in. We can work at this a bit more first.”
The drive back to New Mitras is quieter than the drive away. There’s a box of files in the backseat and two tired bodies in the front, worn from a long night of trying to piece together sense from the senseless. Erwin spends the first hour periodically rubbing at his face, and this is when Levi insists on taking over the wheel.
“You’ll probably be heading back to school soon, huh?” Levi says with all the nonchalance he can muster.
“I don’t have to,” Erwin says. He rolls his neck back against the headrest, getting comfortable. “When we’re on a research project we get the semester off attendance, just gotta check in a few times.”
Levi hums acknowledgment, catches himself nodding longer than he needs to and stops. The windows drip with the rainy grey and dull orange of a northern autumn.
“What are you doing tomorrow night?” Erwin asks.
“Um. Nothing. We close at four-thirty, so.”
Levi’s a good, careful driver. He’s attentive to the road, and if he has any vice it’s tailgating, but the highway is clear. So if there’s any hint in Erwin’s face giving away what he’ll say next, Levi misses it.
“Would you like to go out with me?”
Levi’s mind goes blank for a moment before he manages, “Why?”
“You’re funny, and easy to talk to. I’d like to get to know you more. You’re cute.”
Levi chokes on a laugh. “I think my mother’s the only other person who’s ever called me cute. And like, she had to. I think you get arrested if you don't call your kids cute.”
“Is that a yes?”
He sounds like someone who already has the answer to their question. It should annoy Levi, but it doesn’t, not at all. He wants to look at Erwin but his face is burning hot enough as it is. He also figures he shouldn’t wrap Erwin’s car around a tree before they ever get a chance to go out.
“Alright, then. On one condition.”
Levi raises his eyebrows. “You don’t even know what I’m going to say.”
He glances at Erwin for a millisecond, in time to see him shrug. “I trust you,” he says.
The words strike something in Levi, though he can’t say what. It’s like he just heard the voice of a long-departed family member across a crowd, a voice he thought he had forgotten. Lately Levi feels like all of his foundations are being shaken. He wonders what he’ll have when they settle again.
“Not one word about titans.”
Erwin laughs. “I’ll try.”
The silence that trickles in is comfortable, with no pressure to disturb it. Levi likes just having Erwin there, the steadiness of his presence, even when he falls asleep halfway home. At every traffic jam and red light Levi takes him in, the way he looks even more boyish in sleep, eyelashes casting shadows that stretch and shrink with the passing trees.
“Get a fucking grip,” Levi mutters when he catches his heart fluttering.
After work Erwin takes him to the nicest restaurant in town, which translates to the one with carpeted flooring.
“Hope you like seafood,” Levi says as he watches Erwin scan the menu.
“Looks like it’s that or starvation,” Erwin says.
Levi spent a decent portion of his shift stressing about tonight, but once they settle in he wonders why he ever worried. They’ve spent enough time together that conversation doesn’t feel forced. Even snippets of small talk, an observation on the chillier air, feel more like thoughts shared out of comfort rather than a desperate grab for common ground.
Erwin tells him about the shitty motel he’s been staying in. He doesn’t call it shitty, but Levi reads between the lines of too-small towels and not enough blankets for the approaching winter. Levi wants to offer him a space in his house, but he worries about the implications now that they’re dating ( dating? Does that require more than one date? ). He doesn’t want Erwin to think he’s pushing things too fast.
Levi tells him about his mother, finds stories bubbling out of him like a river undammed. Now and then he pauses to take note of Erwin’s expression, to be sure he’s not boring him. Erwin only encourages him with nods and questions. Sometimes Levi wonders if he’s even real, or if he dreamed Erwin into existence along with their strange, shared past.
Erwin tells him about his own mother in return, a librarian who became his role model of strength after his father died. Levi’s surprised to find himself hanging onto every word, prompting Erwin for more.
The topic ends up drifting to school, and Erwin must sense the way Levi bristles when he’s asked about college.
“Of course you don’t have to answer that,” Erwin says quickly. “I didn’t mean to pry. How’s your fettuccine?”
Levi twists his napkin in his hands. He thinks of everything Erwin’s told him, how many vulnerable pieces of himself he’s given Levi. He looks at Erwin sitting across from him, warmly-lit and kind-eyed. He sees someone who can hear his insecurities without adding to them.
“It was an easy decision at the time,” Levi says. “Nearest community college was forty miles away, mom and Kenny didn’t leave me with enough to attend without working, and my steady job was here. I got really good marks in school but didn’t participate in activities , so. There goes scholarships. And I was fine with it at first, but now...”
Levi set his fork down and Erwin reaches to cover his hand briefly, squeezing his fingers before drawing away again.
“Sometimes I hear from people who went to college, people who became successful, and it’s hard not to feel a little bitter.”
Levi realizes what he's saying and adds, “Not at you, of course. You’re hot, so I forget to be mad when I look at you.”
“I better keep that up, then.”
Levi snorts. “I dunno, sometimes I just wonder what I’m missing out on.”
“Are you happy?”
“With your life, I mean. Are you happy?”
Levi’s immediate instinct is to dwell on the relative monotony, the sameness that creeps into every small town life. But he thinks of the ambling path from his house to the shore. He thinks of the peacefulness of the beach, how right it feels to someone who finds nothing wrong in being alone. There’s Petra when the loneliness stretches too long, and Nan. He even likes his customers sometimes, especially the kids who ask him curious questions and leave him wondering the rest of the day.
And now he’s on a date with Erwin, whom he never would have met if he moved away. Who makes him think company can be preferable to solitude, if the company is just right.
“I guess so,” Levi says.
“Is there anything you’d want out of college?”
“Hm. Not really.” Levi shrugs, pushes at his food with his fork. “Our counselor in high school said I lacked ambition. Guess that’s still true.”
“Want to know what I think?”
Erwin hasn’t touched his food for several minutes, focusing on Levi, who nods.
“I think you’re a good person, Levi. And I think that means you don’t have to prove anything to anyone. It’s alright to be aimless.”
Levi lets his words sink in, feels his cheeks color when they do. They’re words he wishes he had heard five years ago.
“Thanks,” he mumbles, taking a too-large drink of ice water to cover his reaction.
Erwin mercifully changes the subject to the song feeding through the restaurant, an exceedingly maudlin number they spend a few minutes poking fun at under their breath.
On the way out to the car Erwin takes his hand, right there under the dim lamps of the parking lot and the gulls turning in for the night. Levi takes one quick glance over his shoulder before giving his palm a squeeze, a quiet joy lighting in his veins. When they get back to his house Levi’s the one to take Erwin’s hand, threading their fingers together on the way up to the porch.
“Tomorrow I’m heading back to school for a few days,” Erwin says. “Going to check in with my professors and make sure my mom knows I’m still alive. But when I get back, maybe we could do this again?”
“Yeah, that’d be. Yeah.”
They stop at the door and drop hands. He’s distracted by the way Erwin’s eyes are roaming over his face. Levi knows what he wants, knows he wants it himself, too.
“I guess you should kiss me,” Levi says with an exaggerated sigh. “In case you get into a wreck or something, don’t want to die with regrets, right?”
“You’re that good?” Erwin says.
Levi glares, makes a show of fiddling with his keys to go into his house. Erwin laughs, calls him cruel, and Levi can’t hide his smile when he looks back up.
“Good night, then,” Erwin says.
He leans in, and Levi turns his head to meet his mouth an instant before he realizes Erwin was going for his cheek. They freeze, and Erwin breathes a soft laugh an inch away from Levi’s lips.
“If you could kill me now that’d be great,” Levi mutters. “I think I have a shovel out back, my neighbors won’t miss m--”
Erwin cups his face in his wide, soft-skinned hands, and Levi goes quiet. He tilts his head up to meet Erwin’s kiss, gentle and warm as a morning cup of tea. Erwin sweeps his thumbs over Levi’s cheekbones as he pulls away a few seconds later, knocking loose a breath Levi hadn’t realized he was holding.
“Good night,” Erwin repeats. His eyes are so fond it makes Levi’s head spin nearly as much as the kiss.
“Mm. Yeah. Good night.”
Levi rests his shoulders back against the door the second Erwin is out of sight. Only the stars linger long enough to watch him run his thumb across his tingling lips.
The night sky outside the window is blown clear of clouds, a good omen for the expedition tomorrow. Levi watches it analytically, running through maps and numbers in his head.
“I thought you were the one who said we were done working tonight.”
Levi rolls over at the sound of Erwin’s voice, low and tired.
“I thought you were asleep,” Levi says.
Erwin lifts his remaining arm and Levi shuffles closer into the embrace. Even pressed together the air is too cold, and Levi pulls another blanket over them before wrapping his arm around Erwin’s waist.
“I could feel you thinking,” Erwin says. He trails his fingers across the line of Levi’s shoulder. “You get all tense here when you’re thinking too hard.”
“And your face gets all twisty here when you are,” Levi says, poking Erwin between the eyebrows.
Erwin smiles, pressing a kiss to the top of Levi’s head before hugging him tighter.
“When we reclaim the wall,” Levi says. He lets the when of his words sink in, tracing meaningless patterns along Erwin’s collarbone. “Will you start thinking about retirement?”
Erwin stiffens. “You know I can’t promise--”
“I know. Just think about it. That’s all I’m asking. Think of what color your house will be. That kind of shit.”
“ Our house,” Erwin whispers. He pauses, thoughtful. “We might never reach the sea, but maybe the countryside of Maria. Somewhere we could see as much sky as possible.”
He’s quiet for so long Levi thinks he could be asleep. Then Erwin says, in a voice wrecked and hoarse, “We could read together on the porch.”
Levi kisses what he can reach, the skin covering Erwin’s heart.
The scene shifts into a flurry of wind and blood, the smell of gasoline, a blade against his throat, something held tight and precious in his hand, something he clutches close like a lifeline--
Levi wakes with a twitch.
Once the heart-pounding panic of the final flashing images ebbs away, he’s left to focus on the bulk of the dream. He’s dreamed of the other Erwin before, but never like this. Levi wonders if he’s projecting now, if his wants and his dreams are blending, but the vision held the same quality of realness as all the others. He can still feel the scratch of military-issue blankets he’s never slept in, soft blonde chest hairs he’s never touched.
More to avoid over-thinking than anything, Levi rolls over to check his phone. There’s a voicemail from Erwin, left an hour ago. He brushes his slightly sweaty hair aside to press the phone to his ear and listen.
“ Hi, so um. I’m just now looking at the clock and realizing what a godawful time this is to call. If you want to block this number I understand. I’d block me, too. ”
Levi turns his head on the pillow. 3:46 a.m. Probably a godawful time to call Erwin back.
“ I just had the oddest dream, and I wanted to tell you about it. It was one of those dreams, but it was different. It was just us, or our counterparts or what have you, and...well never mind. The point is it made me think of you, so here I am, thinking of you. I already miss talking to you. And when I get back I’d like to-- ”
There’s a muffled sound against the speaker, then Erwin’s near-silent breaths.
“ Sorry, thought I woke my mom up for a second. I feel like I’m in high school again, sneaking midnight calls to my girlfriend. Not that--anyway. I’ll see you on Friday. Bye, Levi. ”
Overcome by a wave of giddiness, and thankful for the lack of another soul around, Levi squishes a pillow against his face and yells into it. Then, to regain his self esteem and control, he opens up a new text.
Hey, just got your voicemail. Ur not the only dreamer tonight. Wonder if it was the same. I’ll give you a hint: mine was embarrassing as hell. Sound familiar? Gimme a call when you get a chance. If you want. Not a big deal.
Levi almost adds I miss you too , lets his thumbs hover around the keys for a bit, but ultimately hits send without them. He hugs his pillow tight as he falls back asleep, remembering how a version of himself and Erwin held each other like this in a dream, in a make-believe war that may not be make-believe after all.
Levi blinks back into focus to find Petra staring at him. He wonders how long she’s been there.
“You’re not daydreaming about him, are you?” she says, frowning at him across the counter. “I’ll have to puke, then we’ll lose all our patrons.”
An old man, the only customer in the gift shop, waves at them uncertainly.
“I’m not,” Levi says. When Petra continues watching him in her slightly alarming way, he adds, “I’m not!”
He really wasn’t, in a way. He was replaying his phone call with Erwin from a couple nights ago, talking about their dreams and their days and nothing at all. Levi doesn’t think that counts.
“Whatever.” Petra waves a hand. “Can I invite myself over tonight?”
“Aren’t you doing karaoke with Nan?”
“Nan’s got a date with her boyfriend .” She drags the word like it hurts to say, the slow tear of a bandage. “Besides, I’ve got something you might want to see.”
So that night they curl up opposite ends of the couch with a blanket over their knees, Petra with a glass of wine in her hand. They spend time catching up and venting about work and family before Petra reaches for the book she brought.
“Were you going to kill me with that?” Levi asks as she dumps it into his hands. It’s heavy and old, with a faded leather cover and crisp pages.
She rolls her eyes as she scoots closer. Levi’s eye twitches when her wine swishes a little too close to the rim of the glass.
“It’s a phrase book, sort of,” Petra says. “From the old world. It dates back to the time of the Titan War, supposedly, so I thought Erwin might like it for his project.”
“This translates language from the old world?” Levi asks. A thrill shoots through him, and he feels like he can’t speak fast enough. “I thought that all died out?”
“Well, I’m not exactly advertising that I own it, am I? You know how the government is about all that old stuff. Live in the now, yada yada. But I always loved going through it. It’s like a bridge between our worlds.”
“You’re sure it’s real?” Levi starts flipping through the pages. The lingual characters strike him with familiarity, like he’s seen them before, even if he can’t read a word.
“It’s real,” Petra says. “My family’s had it for generations. Not entirely comprehensive, but it gives you the idea.”
Levi throws his half of the blanket aside, Petra sputtering when it lands on her face. He goes to his room and brings out one of the files he and Erwin retrieved from the library.
“Look at this.” He sits next to Petra and hands her the first page, a diagram outlining the gear he’s seen in his dreams. “Same language from your book, isn’t it?
“Holy crap.” Petra’s eyes go wide as she holds the page like something delicate. “Where did you get this?”
Levi explains as she begins thumbing through her book to a page near the middle.
“Maneuvering gear,” she mutters. “That’s what this page is talking about. Look, it’s translated here. It’s supposed to be what the police used in the old world.”
“And what they used to fight titans,” Levi says, mostly to himself.
Petra glances up at him, but doesn’t look as doubting as she once did. She sets her wine glass down and grabs another page.
Erwin comes back a day early when he hears about Petra’s book. The three of them sit at Levi’s kitchen table after hours of work, surrounded by translation notes and sketchings.
“So,” Levi says.
He brings them all their third refill of tea, doesn’t blink anymore at how much sugar Erwin dumps in his.
Erwin laughs, rubs at his eyes under his reading glasses. Petra taps her pen against the side of her head, looking a little brain-fried. They all take a moment for tea and talk.
“If the old kings could control memory,” Erwin says, “that could explain why the wars became a myth.”
“Why would they want to do that anyway?” Levi asks.
“There’s some awful stuff in these files,” Petra says. “Torture, executions, sending countless people to their deaths when food became scarce…”
“They wanted to cover up how this world was won,” Levi finishes.
“Not to mention the humanity of the titans they were killing,” Erwin says.
“Assuming all this is real,” Petra says.
Levi and Erwin haven’t told Petra about their dreams, and make no comment on her skepticism.
“I think we have to forget the stories we grew up with,” Erwin says. “We have to start new.”
“First, we need a break,” Petra says. “I feel like my head’s going to explode.”
She gets up while Erwin and Levi reorganize their notes. It’s the first moment they’ve had to be alone since Erwin showed up that morning.
“Was your drive okay?” Levi asks quietly.
There’s something shy in the air now, and it’s new. Like they’re still trying to figure out where they stand. Levi’s managed to convince himself he imagined Erwin asking for a second date, so he lets hesitation color his voice, his interest.
“It was alright.” Erwin smiles, tired but genuine. “Would’ve been nicer if you were there.”
Levi scratches at his hair. Before he can form an answer better than embarrassed grumbling, Petra steps between their chairs and slams down an open newspaper.
“ Revenge of the Crab People 4 is on in half an hour,” she announces. “Let’s go.”
At the theatre Erwin offers to share a hideously sweet cola Levi would normally never drink. Levi obstinately avoids Petra’s smirk when he takes periodic sips from the straw.
“I’m not sure what to do about the credits,” Erwin says.
He’s on Levi’s couch with his laptop balanced precariously on his crossed legs. Levi glances up briefly from where he’s chopping vegetables in the kitchen. It’s their third date, sort of. Levi likes that they’re both boring enough to count dinner at home as a date.
“Just getting the works cited out of the way first. Trying to figure out how I’m going to cite you and Petra without any trouble.”
“Shit, you don’t have to cite me. Petra, maybe, she loves all that academia stuff. But what do you mean? Like legal trouble?”
“No...I guess I don’t know. Our government now doesn’t begin to approach the corruption of the old government. But they’re still keeping secrets.”
He falls into a silence, and Levi can sense his stress from the kitchen. He puts down his knife and wipes his hands on his apron before going to Erwin, sitting on the arm of the couch and looking over his shoulder.
“Well you’re starting at the end, there’s your first problem,” Levi says. “Want some help with the intro? I know how to make an entrance.”
Erwin’s gaze falls, something guilty in his eyes that feels new and old at once. He’s never seen it in this Erwin, the only one he knows. But he’s seen that face in a dream.
“You’ve already helped me so much,” Erwin says. “I’ve been meaning to tell you. You and Petra both. I was originally planning to write on the lack of information available, but this has evolved into so much more, and it’s thanks to you. I can’t ask anything else. I’ve already asked too much.”
Levi feels more coming but he has to interrupt. “You didn’t ask anything. It was my offer, remember?”
“But I approached you about the dreams, I--”
“ I could’ve told you to fuck off any time I wanted.”
Levi’s trying to get better at expressing himself, to loosen the bottle of unspoken thoughts and feelings in his chest. He’s never been as eloquent with words as Erwin, but his actions can speak just as loud. He brushes his thumb affectionately along Erwin’s jaw, pushes Erwin’s glasses back up his nose with his free hand.
“So just shut up about it, okay?” Levi leans down, kisses him quickly at the corner of his mouth. “We’ve been in this together since you first walked into the shop, Edith .”
Erwin smiles at the memory. Then his eyes to go the top of Levi’s head.
“Is this Petra’s?” he asks, running his fingers along the beaded headband pushing Levi’s hair back.
“I wear it when I’m cooking.” Levi frowns, covers his hair protectively. “And I don’t want to hear a word about it.”
“I didn’t say anything. It’s adorab--”
“That’s a word, Erwin.”
Levi picks Erwin up at his motel for his birthday. Technically it’s two weeks after his birthday, but Erwin hadn’t brought this up until yesterday, when Levi was trying on Erwin’s new sweater and Erwin mentioned it was a gift from his mother.
“A gift? Why?” Levi asked, narrowing his eyes.
So they go to the town’s bar, which Erwin has taken a liking to. Levi doesn’t mind it. It doesn’t have the beer stench and tacky residue of every other bar he’s been in, but it’s always crowded on Saturdays. He scoots his stool as close to Erwin’s as possible to avoid anyone bumping into him.
“Alright, when’s yours?” Erwin asks now, taking a sip from something fruity and tropical.
“It’s coming up,” Levi says lightly.
Erwin watches him patiently until Levi admits, “December twenty-fifth.”
“No way,” Erwin says, eyes lighting up. “Well, twice the reason to celebrate.”
Levi’s mood cools and he hopes Erwin can’t feel it. They’re enjoying each other’s company now but Levi wonders what will change in two months. What if Erwin doesn’t feel like long distance when he goes back to school? Levi’s never had a serious relationship before. This is where he would begin to feel the urge to bolt, but he looks at Erwin and only wants to draw him closer. It’s never been like this.
Erwin watches him take a drink to cover his silence, watches the way Levi’s throat bobs, and it makes Levi feel hot despite the cool water.
“I still haven’t got you anything yet,” Levi says when he finds his voice again.
Erwin looks at him with surprise, then such affection that Levi already knows what he’s going to say, and it’s a race to get the words out.
“Levi, you’ve already given m--”
“--anything about how I’ve given you enough already and I’m going to be sick right on this table.”
“Close. I was going to add something about how you’re the only present I need,” Erwin says in a purposefully schmaltzy voice.
Levi makes retching sounds that turn the heads of fellow patrons.
Erwin finishes his drink, and they pay half-attention to a football match on television before Erwin touches Levi’s wrist.
“The only thing is,” Erwin says, like he’s already halfway through an idea. “Why the dreams? Every other aspect of this theory has some basis in logic. I don’t understand why we both share this. Is it a message? Is it our predecessors? Are we projecting ourselves into the war de to our own immersion?”
“Maybe we both watched too many trippy movies as kids.”
“Well of course.”
Levi taps his nails against his thick glass. “It would be nice to connect the dreams to everything else. But haven’t we gone through every piece of information ten times? Maybe it’s just one of those things that can’t be explained.”
“You’re alright with that?”
“They just feel important. Like I’m supposed to make sense of them. Or like, there’s a reason I’m seeing myself in this man from my dreams. Don’t you feel that way?”
Sometimes they feel like a warning, his dreams. Levi thinks he’s more cautious than the strange version of himself he experiences, and wonders if it’s because of what he’s learned from this man who looks like him. Whether the dreams were sent at random or by some ancestral connection, Levi wonders if he’ll ever know.
The why of it all matters less to him with time. He’s made a good life, and it’s getting better.
Levi brushes the hair back from Erwin’s forehead, waiting to draw him out of his contemplative stare.
“Focus on the facts for now,” Levi advises. “Maybe one day we’ll figure out the dream thing, maybe we won’t. But you’ve got a paper to write, and they’re going to flunk you if you start narrating your dream diary.”
Erwin smiles, takes Levi’s hand from his hair and kisses his knuckles. “Thank you.”
They leave soon after, the night air good to their flushed skin. Erwin starts for the road but Levi hovers near the alley. It’s a moment before Erwin notices, and turns back.
“What is it?”
Levi can still see the imprints of his fingers in Erwin’s hair. “Come here,” he says.
Erwin, catching on, smiles as he walks toward Levi’s outstretched hand. He lets Levi pull him into the alleyway, lets him nudge him until Erwin’s back hits the wall. Levi’s still wearing Erwin’s sweater and the sleeves fall back over his forearms when he reaches to tug Erwin down for a kiss. It starts slow, Levi’s fingers tracing the line of Erwin’s jaw and Erwin wrapping his arms around his waist to bring him closer.
Erwin draws away a minute later to glance at the street, to make sure they weren’t watched. The kiss lingers in a way that leaves Levi chasing more, letting out a small frustrated noise when Erwin doesn’t lean down within reach. Then Erwin’s hands slide from his waist to his hips. In a swift move he flips their positions, lifting Levi up onto the narrow brick molding along the wall to even out their height difference by a few inches. He’s back on Levi in an instant, tongue hot in his mouth and fingers firm on his hips to hold him up against the wall. Levi gasps at the sudden change but adjusts quickly, draping his arms around Erwin’s neck and appreciating not having to strain his own.
They stay like that for a few minutes, the cold of the night forgotten, until a break for breath lasts long enough to slow them down. Levi gives him a few shorter kisses then tips his head back against the wall, the brick gritty in his hair. Erwin lowers his face to Levi’s neck to catch his breath, kissing his skin between puffs of air. Levi rubs his back idly, until his hand slips under Erwin’s jacket and shirt.
“Your skin feels colder,” Levi says, still a little breathless.
Levi pushes Erwin back a step by his shoulders. Then he takes Erwin’s face in his hands, turning it toward the streetlamp.
“You look exhausted. And your back’s clammy. If you’re getting sick after kissing me like that I’ll kill you.”
“You know I wouldn’t,” Erwin says. “The motel has just been having some trouble with the heater, it’s not a big deal.”
Levi crosses his arms. “How long has that been going on?”
A grimace works its slow way onto Erwin’s face. “Two weeks?”
“Two--two weeks? ”
Erwin smiles apologetically.
“You’re lucky you’re cute,” Levi grumbles. “If I had found you dead there one day--”
“It wasn’t that bad.”
“You haven’t been sleeping well, have you?”
“I’m working on a term paper.”
“That’s not an excuse.”
Levi drums his fingers against his arm, weighing his options. The scales tip so fast it’s laughable to think there was ever a choice.
“Well, I’m starting to like you, so I probably shouldn’t let you freeze. I have an idea.”
He tugs at Erwin’s jacket, zips it up tighter, lets his hands linger.
“Check out of that shitty motel. Come home with me.”
Levi knows it’s only temporary, but it’s surprisingly nice having another person living with him again. There had been times in the last few years when he even missed the way his uncle argued with game shows.
Routine comes easy to them. Levi goes to work and Erwin works on his research, as well as his declaration of intent to graduate next semester. Some days Levi comes home to surprises on the counter, like sturdy new tea mugs Erwin found in town, or dinner already made. Levi’s not used to the special treatment and rarely knows what to say, but he thinks Erwin knows what he means when he kisses him hard and calls him a softie.
Sometimes when he gets home Levi kicks Erwin off the laptop to keep him in the world of the living. Sometimes he joins him, sorting through new translations. Sometimes he forgets this will come to an end in January.
“Hey, this one is talking about New Mitras,” Levi says, holding up one of Erwin’s pages of notes.
In the stories Levi’s town is the first settlement outside the walls, a new beginning. The myth made it seem that the war was won in glory, with masses to celebrate. The truth paints a bleaker picture.
Erwin nods, sipping from a cup of tea Levi pushed into his hands minutes before. “Sounds like that part of the myth is right. This is the first place the remnants of humanity came.”
“The remnants,” Levi repeats under his breath. Then he says, “I still don’t understand how no one knows about this.”
“If it was that easy for me to get the documents, maybe it’s a poorly kept secret. Maybe the people just don’t want to know. Or maybe they simply don’t care. After all, the world is good to us now.”
Erwin pauses, staring into his tea, then adds, “The mystery of it all hardly even bothers me anymore.”
“Yeah?” Levi asks, surprised.
“I used to obsess over this, especially the dreams. I couldn’t stop wondering how , and why . But…”
Pink blooms in Erwin’s face, and he scratches at his cheek as if he can pluck the color loose. Levi leans forward in his chair.
Erwin twists his hands together, wearing one of his shy smiles. “But now I think, maybe my dreams weren’t meant to lead me to any great truth of the world. Maybe they were just meant to happen so I could meet you.”
Levi blushes now. There’s too much he wants to say in reply. He picks at a splitting end of his hair.
“You really believe in that? Fate and stuff?”
“I don’t know. I just know that for whatever reason it did, I’m glad this happened.”
“Guh,” Levi says, covering his eyes.
“You’re too good at that.”
“Good at what?”
Levi feels like he could burst. “Saying how you feel. I’m just.” He shakes his head around, as if it sums up his behaviorisms in a gesture.
“Words aren’t the only way.” He hears Erwin rising, then feels a smile against his hair. “You’re better than you think.”
“You’re doing it again,” Levi growls, but he leans into him.
Levi twirls slowly in his chair at work. “Petra? Have you ever been in love?”
“Oh for god’s sake.”
“I have,” Nan says. She sets down her purse, ready to take over Levi’s shift.
“What’s it like?”
“You’re both disgusting,” Petra says.
“It’s like.” Nan flops into the chair next to Levi, stares dreamily at the ceiling. “When you’d do anything to see them smile, because when they’re happy you’re happy too. When you want to know everything about someone, even stupid stuff like their favorite bird. Like, you want to know every part of their soul. And when you know they’d do all the same for you, it’s such a safe feeling. So it’s sort of like that.”
Levi lays his head on the counter, accepting defeat.
“You’re a nemesis, Nana banana,” Petra says solemnly.
At Christmas Levi gives Erwin one present, and chides Erwin when he gives him two. It’s not until mid-afternoon that Levi notices the birthday banner hanging over the fireplace, underneath his mother’s old menorah on the mantle. Hanukkah's been over for a week but he likes having it there, likes seeing a piece of her near the little Christmas tree Erwin bought on a whim. It’s been years since Levi felt like he had a family.
After dinner they play board games on the floor and get furious at each other when they lose, inventing creative insults between helpless peals of laughter.
Levi packs up a particularly controversial trivia game, then Erwin tugs him down on top of him.
“You’re gonna be miserable in the morning if you fall asleep here,” Levi warns him when Erwin shows no sign of moving from the floor.
“I’m young,” Erwin offers, draping an arm over Levi’s back.
Levi shrugs, and lays his head down with his ear over Erwin’s heart. It feels important, somehow.
“Can I ask you something?” Erwin says minutes later.
Levi’s head gives a little jerk, half asleep. “Yeah.”
“I still want see you after I go back to school. Would you like that?”
“Would I--” Levi pushes himself on his elbows to look down at him. “Shit yeah, Erwin. I’d like that.”
Erwin smiles, starts playing with the strands of hair that fall over Levi’s face. “I only have one more semester after this, and I’ve been thinking about looking into teaching positions near here. I really like this place.”
Levi raises his eyebrows, and Erwin adds, “The people aren’t bad, either.”
“I’m glad you’re sticking around.” Levi thinks of a hundred other truths to say, settles for, “You make me feel good.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Jesus.” His head falls forward onto Erwin’s shoulder, huffing in exasperation. “I meant like, in my heart and shit.”
Erwin snorts. “Whatever you say, Levi.”
Levi glances up, loving the way every part of Erwin’s face goes alight when he’s happy. Levi touches the corners of Erwin’s mouth and wonders if one day he’ll see wrinkles there, laugh lines he can claim responsibility over. It’s a nice thought, but for some reason an unbearable sadness floods his chest, makes it hard to breathe.
“Are you alright?” Erwin asks.
“I don’t know,” Levi says, surprised at himself. He can feel the strings connecting him to the past, a rare thing when he’s awake. “It was like one of my dreams for a second. It’s stupid, but I was just thinking that I don’t want to lose you.”
Erwin’s face falls in concern, and Levi can’t express what it means when he doesn’t just laugh this off.
“I’m not going anywhere, Levi. I promise. Not unless you want me to.”
Levi nods, throat still tight, though he can’t say why.
Erwin sits up, and pulls them both to their feet.
“Let’s go to bed. I think my back will thank me.”
Erwin pulls an all-nighter before his paper is due and falls asleep against Levi’s shoulder moments after clicking submit. The movement wakes Levi, who doesn’t remember dozing off. He squints against the glow of Erwin’s laptop at the hideous hour. The document is open to the end of Erwin’s paper.
If my findings are indeed the truth, then the victory over the titans could be described as pyrrhic at best, an atrocity at worst, and in any case a far cry from the myths perpetuated today. Nevertheless, looking at the world, it is difficult to shackle the past with blame. The Survey Corps laid the groundwork for the peace we enjoy today. Our ancestors, wherever they may be, can rest easy knowing humanity not only survives, but thrives. Their sacrifices, and their impossible choices, were not in vain.
With thanks to Petra Ral for her dedication to history, and Levi Ackerman for his keen eye and steadfast support.
Nothing much will be made of Erwin’s paper, Levi knows this. He’ll get top marks, and then it will be forgotten as the curious but articulate musings of a curious, articulate mind. But if Erwin can accept this, Levi can, too. They set out to find the truth, and found something better along the way.
Levi closes the laptop, sets it on the coffee table, and lowers Erwin to rest on the pillow. His motions are slow, every muscle primed with care. He smooths back Erwin’s hair, presses a light kiss to his forehead.
I love you , Levi thinks properly for the first time, the tidal swell in his heart undeniable. Then he slips into the kitchen.
Levi shuffles from foot to foot as he considers the refrigerator, wincing at the cold linoleum under his toes. By the light, he can see Erwin’s mostly-unpacked box of personal items on the far side of the counter. He doesn’t want to pry, but something catches his attention, familiar before he even knows why.
“Huh,” he says, in wonder. Levi plucks the item from the box, holding the plastic like it’s made of glass.
Erwin’s waking up when Levi comes back to the living room. When he lifts his hand, Levi presses the magnet into it.
“Ah,” Erwin says, voice rough from sleep.
“I can’t believe you kept it,” Levi says, settling in behind him on the couch. He pulls a heavy blanket over them, snuggles close as Erwin turns the magnet in his hands.
“Ah, well. I had a hunch about you.”
“What about me?”
“That I didn’t want you to just become another stranger.” Erwin sets the magnet down and takes the hand Levi’s wrapped around his waist, lets their fingers slide together. “Someone I meet one semester then never see again. You struck me.”
Tell him , Levi thinks. Instead he trails his free hand across the line of Erwin’s shoulders, feels him relax back toward sleep.
“Should we go to bed?” Levi asks.
Erwin mumbles something unintelligible, puts a hand over Levi’s wrist to keep him there.
Levi tucks his smile into the nape of Erwin’s neck. He’s fine with this. “Good night, Edith.”
He’s flying somewhere dark. The air sticks in his throat and tastes like disease. There’s the familiar pair of zipping cables at his side, but soon there’s more, in the alleys and rooftops. His veins flood with the adrenaline of pursuit. His body forgets the persistent gnaw in his stomach, the tremor in his legs, everything but flight and fight.
The men following them are hooded. He’d love to get a glimpse of a face, just one. Kenny taught him the importance of reading a man’s face. Eyes give away more in a fight than any twitch of fingers in a card game, and Levi had watched Kenny play enough to know the power of a tell.
A cloaked body flies overhead, gaining speed. Levi wishes he could see their eyes. Will they drop, try and cut Levi off, or double back to take him by surprise?
Hey. Look at me, asshole. Turn around.
He does turn around, as if he heard Levi’s voice calling to him from a dream. Their eyes meet.
Time wraps a cane around his neck, jerks him forward--
Levi wakes confused and frightened, a jolt in his nerves. He shouldn’t taste salt in the air. There shouldn’t be someone warm pressed against him, a smell so familiar it makes him ache.
Then he sits up, and the spinning in his head eases. Then he remembers.
Then he remembers everything.
Erwin wakes at the same time, reaching for something with his left hand. Levi takes it, and Erwin’s eyes open. He looks at Levi like he never has. Or maybe like he has a thousand times before.
Erwin sits up beside him, exhales sharply, and the sound nearly breaks something in Levi. He pulls Erwin close, squeezes his eyes shut and presses his lips against the heartbeat in Erwin’s throat. He’s never felt so strong.
They hold each other for a long time. Levi feels Erwin trembling, or perhaps it’s both of them, undergoing the aftershocks of grief from another life. They murmur quiet words, apologies and forgiveness and love and meaningless questions and love again. Mostly they’re silent but for the slow sweep of their hands over each other’s shirts, the crackle of winter at the window, the distant roll of the sea.
“It’s you,” Erwin says.
He brushes his thumbs under Levi’s eyes, says his name so tenderly Levi wants to look away but he can’t, he won’t. Erwin’s own eyes are growing bright and wet. Levi kisses the corner of one, tastes a hint of the sea.
“I told you I’d find you,” Levi says.
In this life they stay close on the couch a while longer, time theirs to spend. In the afternoon they rise. Erwin puts an extra sweater on Levi, and Levi ties a scarf around Erwin’s neck and chin. In this life they walk hand in hand down an ambling sandy path, and the ocean greets them like a long-expected friend.