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Dead Veterans Society

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She had tried to do the right thing and lay them all to rest. She had wept when she burned the patches stored in Levi’s desk drawer, Erwin’s bolo tie, all their jackets, their boots, their gear. There was only so much she could burn before the fear of having nothing left overwhelmed her. But each time, when the fires had died low, the four of them always came back.

Now, they all sat on her deck watching the sunset together. Hanji liked to make drinks for them, even though they didn’t need them. Levi complained that she always made his tea too astringent, even though he couldn’t taste it.

Moblit held her hand. The feeling was akin to that of a breeze blowing across wet skin, sharpening the sensation. Except it was warm, not cold. Hanji found that interesting; all of them were always warm to her.

“I refuse to be your latest test subject,” Levi said. He took a disdainful sip of his tea. It ran down his transparent throat and settled in his transparent stomach.

“Fascinating,” Hanji said, adjusting her glasses and leaning in for a closer look.

Levi tried to cover himself with transparent hands. “Stop that. You’ve seen it a dozen times already.” 

“What happens if I—” She jammed her hand into Levi’s stomach. She could feel the warmth of Levi’s form, and the wetness of the tea on her fingers. She thought maybe it would be like piercing a bubble, and the tea would spill out like amber blood when she removed her hand. But when she pulled her hand free the tea resettled again. “And you really never pee it out?” she said.  

Erwin laughed, coming up to put his arms around Levi. “The best way I can explain it is still that we kind of just . . . will it away,” he answered for Levi. “It’s like picking things up, or being able to touch you or each other. We just will it to happen.” He demonstrated this by letting his hand pass a few times through Levi’s head, and then wrapping his arms around him again.

“Or we can just do this,” Levi said, and suddenly fell through the chair and deck. Erwin stumbled forward. The tea from Levi’s stomach splashed down, dripping through the wicker of his empty chair.

A few moments later he rose up again so his head showed above the deck, and glared at Hanji. “Why am the guinea pig for this crap, anyway? Do it on Moblit. Isn’t that what a boyfriend’s for? Or Mike. He’s been dead the longest.”

“Whu—?” Upon hearing his name, Mike jolted awake.

Hanji was sorry her friends were all dead, of course. It was a truly unfortunate situation. But there was no use crying forever; she’d done enough of that already. Instead, she was determined to make the best of it. “What happened while you slept?” She picked up a grape and threw it at Mike, but it passed through him. “How did you stop yourself falling through the ground? What did it feel like?” She had asked all of them these questions a number of times before. Back in the house, she had a whole drawer of notebooks filled with her notes on them all. But she wanted to know everything—any changes, any new discoveries, any disparities between their individual experiences.

Mike ran a hand through his hair and sat up, shoulders slumping and hands resting on the ground between his spread legs. “It felt like I was dreaming peacefully until someone rudely pointed out I was the oldest dead guy here, and someone else threw a grape through me.”

That was exciting news to Hanji. “You were dreaming again?” she asked, pulling a notebook from her pocket. “What about?”

“Well, I was naked, and—” Three pairs of ghost hands clamped over Mike’s mouth.

Hanji sighed. “Erwin, Levi and Moblit are right. I supposed we don’t really need to hear about your weird ghost sex dreams again, Mike.”

--

For every four raspberries Erwin picked, he ate two. Hanji kept trying to slap his hands away from his mouth, but he would suddenly let part of himself turn fully incorporeal and her hand would pass without obstruction through his wrists or cheeks. “You can’t even taste them,” she complained. “Stop wasting my berries. I want to make a pie.”

“It makes me feel good,” Erwin said, cramming a whole handful of raspberries into his mouth. “Like I’m . . .” He gave Hanji the most ridiculous set of puppy-dog-eyes “. . . alive again.”

Hanji hated when he did that. “I don’t buy it,” she said, turning back to her berry-picking. “And you weren’t half the asshole you are now when you were commander.”

Erwin grinned. There was a ridiculous raspberry-pink line running from his mouth down to his stomach, where the mashed-up berries were visible. Ghosts were pretty gross.

--

Mike’s specialty as a ghost was napping constantly and raiding Hanji’s alcohol cabinet when he was awake. She and Moblit often woke to find him sleeping in their bed next to them. It was hard to kick him out when, like Erwin—like all of them—he would control his intangibility at whim to be an enormous goddamn pain. 

She had started filling her whiskey bottles with dyed water. Mike just liked the aesthetic of pouring himself a whiskey to sip while he sat on the deck at sundown and pretended to be deep in thought. Of course, he couldn’t actually taste it.

That was where he was that night, in his favourite chair on Hanji’s deck. Erwin and Levi had gone for a walk down to the beach together, and Moblit was folding the laundry inside. Hanji took a seat next to Mike.

They all had the things they missed most about being alive. And Hanji missed those things about them, too. For Mike, it was being able to smell things. Sometimes she caught him in the bathroom with her soaps, seeing if he could catch even a hint. She missed him smelling her hair after she’d showered, and the game they used to play where he would guess who she had talked to during the day by the scents they had left on her. They used to joke that his ability was supernatural. Now, seeing that all her friends were ghosts, that hypothesis didn’t seem so implausible.

She held her slice of raspberry pie out to Mike. He sniffed, smiled, and shook his head.

“I’m sorry, Mike. It might change one day. We’ll keep trying.” Once, Moblit had sworn he had experienced the briefest taste of wine when he stole a sip of Hanji’s glass. Maybe, with time, they could re-develop their senses.

“It’s okay, it’s not the end of the world. It was nearly the end of the world.” Mike laughed to himself. “Erwin and Levi on the beach?”

Hanji smiled. “Yeah, they said something about shielding me from their mushy romance. Help me tidy up?”

If she didn’t keep the place clean, Levi did it for her. And she felt bad making a dead man clean. She and Mike fell into a comfortable silence as they bustled around the deck, picking up the glasses and plates from earlier in the day and setting them on a tray for Hanji to carry inside. When Erwin and Levi suddenly appeared next to them, Mike jumped in fright. Stifling her laugh, Hanji set the tray down and hugged the poor guy. She remembered the days when no one could sneak up on Mike—he smelled them all coming from a mile away. And that nose of his had saved her ass more than once on expeditions outside the walls.

“I thought you were shielding Hanji from your mushy romance,” Mike said, recovering. “Looks like I’ll have to do it instead.” Hanji felt the contradictive breeze-on-wet-skin warmth of Mike’s fingers over her eyes, making her laugh. The thought was there, but his hands were of course see-through.

For their viewing displeasure, Levi dipped Erwin and kissed him passionately. “Am I being mushy enough?” he said against Erwin’s mouth, looking at Hanji out of the corner of his eye.

Hanji pretended to gag.

--

Through her trips into town, Hanji learned even more about the nature of her ghost friends. For example, much like their ability to will themselves to be fully or partially incorporeal, they could also will who could and couldn’t see them. And because they were all assholes, they liked to be invisible to everyone but Hanji. Though that was probably for the best, since they looked rather ghostly. Even if it did make Hanji appear as though she was talking to herself all the time.

Moblit was sitting on the driver’s seat of the carriage with Hanji, while the rest of them were in the carriage itself. One of them knocked on the window between them. “What is it?” Hanji said, turning to glance at them. It was Erwin.

His head popped through the glass. “Levi wants us to make a detour to Nile’s place,” he said.

“What for?”

Levi’s head popped through too. “Reasons.”

Moblit kissed Hanji on the cheek. “What reasons?” he asked Levi.

Hanji squeezed Moblit’s hand and said, “Let me guess. Levi wants to draw dicks on Nile’s foggy bathroom mirror?”

“You make me sound so unimaginative,” Levi said. “I don’t want to just draw dicks. Other stuff, too. And maybe scare him while he’s pissing or something. Wouldn’t that be funny? Oh, that reminds me, we’d better stop by Jaeger’s place as well.”

Nobody needed to ask what that one was for. It had become a tradition for Levi and Erwin to go haunt Eren and Mikasa for a while every time Hanji brought them into the main town. It was their revenge for the whole betraying-Erwin-fiasco. Hanji approved of their reasoning. She was damn lucky she hadn’t ended up a ghost herself. In fact, it was thanks to her that humanity wasn’t completely doomed after Erwin’s death. Though it had come very close. 

She took them to Nile’s first, and climbed into the carriage to wait. She made out with Moblit for a bit—to the groans and gagging sounds of Mike and Erwin—and then laughed so hard when she heard Nile screaming, she would have fallen out of the carriage if Moblit hadn’t caught her.

Levi appeared next to the carriage looking very amused with himself.

“What did you do?” Mike asked.

“I popped up out of his toilet tank while he was pissing,” Levi said. “Out of the bowl would have been funnier, but even as a ghost I’m not going to touch another man’s piss. Also you were right about his size.” He brought his thumb and forefinger close together.

Mike seemed pleased with that.

“And what did you draw on the mirror?” Erwin asked, sticking his head out through the wall of the carriage.

Levi looked him in the eye and said, “You mean aside from the obligatory dicks? You and I fucking.”

Even Moblit couldn’t stop Hanji from falling out of the carriage that time. She hit the ground and rolled onto her back, still wheezing. Mike’s hand appeared through the wall next to Erwin’s head, seeking a high-five from Levi. Hanji laughed even harder.

“Who is that? Was that a prank? You kids stay put, don’t you know I’m part of the police force?” Nile appeared on his front porch, waving a rolled up newspaper.

“Oh, shit,” Hanji said, barely able to breath. “I’m the only one that’s gonna get busted. Moblit, steer the horses.” She dived into the carriage as Moblit shot to the front seat and urged the horses on, hoping she was quick enough that Nile didn’t see her face. It would be pretty embarrassing if he caught the Survey Corps’ last commander and one of humanity’s greatest heroes laughing in the dirt outside his house.

Mike stuck his head out the back of the carriage and then brought it back in, laughing. “I’m dying! Nile looks as though he’s seen a ghost!”

“Shocking,” Levi said. “Also, you’re already dead.”

--  

She wished she could go in with them. She would kick both Eren and Mikasa’s asses if she could. But again, it wouldn’t be an entirely good look for the Survey Corps’ last commander/a hero of humanity. So she played cards with Moblit in the back of the carriage while Mike napped. Levi and Erwin usually took a while.

She remembered the first time Levi had gone to the Jaeger place to scare them. Erwin didn’t know yet how he had died. He thought it was on the battlefield, in the suicide charge. He had tried to talk Levi out of haunting “those poor kids.”

So they took him home, sat him down, wrapped him in a blanket, and explained the truth. It was painful. Hanji had known Erwin since they had first met in the training corps, and never had she seen him look so hurt. Levi distanced himself before the end, moving away to the corner of the room, too loyal to Erwin to leave entirely. But he didn’t want to hear them say what he had done—the choice he had made.

When it was over, Hanji held Erwin in silence and Mike went to fetch Levi back. Then they left them alone together.

Levi had been the first to come to her later that night. It was evident he had been crying. So ghosts could cry, somehow. “He said he forgives me,” he said quietly. Hanji held him for a while, too.

“Of course he did,” she told him. “He’s Erwin. He loves you.”

“He shouldn’t.”

“You did it out of love,” she said. In truth, it had taken her a very long time to understand that. Or accept it, more like. Levi had actually died before she could come to terms with his decision on the rooftop. She had managed to free humanity from the walls and titans in the end, but the casualties . . . Erwin would have handled it better. Levi was one of her best friends, but he had forgotten her twice: the moment he let Erwin die, and the moment he himself abandoned her to go fight the Beast Titan to his death. It hurt her. “Levi?” she said, before he could leave.  

He turned back to her. “Yeah?”

“I forgive you, too.”

He bit his lip, nodded. Tears welled in his eyes again. “I’m sorry for everything, Hanji.” And he left. 

Then Erwin came. It seemed the touch of a real person was comforting to ghosts. He held Hanji’s hand and said, “I can’t hate him, Hanji. I think part of me wants to. I—I don’t fault him on not choosing to save me . . .”

“You never valued yourself enough,” Hanji interrupted.

Erwin looked at her with sad eyes. “I fault him on laying all those burdens on a child,” he continued. “Obviously, I held no qualms about letting young people fight, so long as it was their decision. And I gave Levi the authority to use the serum at his discretion. But Armin was not the right choice. I’m not saying that I was—”

“You were,” Hanji said.

“—but to force him to eat his own comrade, a boy he had once called a friend? And he wasn’t ready for that much responsibility.” Erwin hung his head. “I know I shouldn’t dwell on it. It’s done now. Armin survived. You survived. Humanity survived. I just . . .”

“You just wonder if things might have turned out differently,” Hanji said softly, “and if your survival might have meant Levi’s, too.” She knew Erwin. He would never tell Levi the truth: that he wasn’t ready to die that day. Because he never worried enough for himself. Instead, he would forever wonder if more people could have been saved if a different decision had been made, if a young boy could have been spared the trauma of devouring his own friend and becoming a monster, if Levi might not have died facing the Beast Titan in a haze of vindictive grief. Erwin would gladly shoulder all the woes of the world if it meant nobody else had to experience any suffering.

He ran circles on Hanji’s hand with his thumb and said, “I feel childish asking this . . . but will things be okay between me and him again?”

“I promise they will,” Hanji said.

And she was right. For Erwin, the fault now lay primarily with Eren and Mikasa. Insubordination. Disloyalty. Purposeful aggravation. Assaulting a superior. He couldn’t believe he had lost his arm and countless good soldiers saving Eren for this.

So while he still couldn’t bring himself to personally do any of the haunting, he liked to go in and watch Levi at work. And to break the occasional dish, according to Levi, who sarcastically added that Erwin had gotten “disgustingly wild” in his death.

No matter how many times they went over there, Eren always ended up screaming like a little bitch. Hanji grinned. The brat deserved it. He had personally put her through hell.

“What was it this time?” she asked. Erwin and Levi had just arrived back.

“I put a sheet on and chased Eren around the house a couple times,” Levi said, sitting down. “When he tried to lock himself in the bathroom, I came up out of the toilet and scared the shit out of him. Literally. Erwin threw a couple plates at the wall. Mikasa tried to fight me so I let all her hits go through me and then kicked her in the leg.” He laughed. “It was pretty funny.”

“You’re both terrible,” Moblit said. “Snap!” He slapped Hanji’s hand over the card pile between them.

“Ow!” She withdrew her hand, shaking it. “You guys sure are painful for ghosts.”

Levi shrugged at Moblit. “Hey, we all put our lives on the line for those kids. And then we died. And they didn’t care. I think we deserve a little retribution.”

--

Leeeviiiiiiii!

Levi’s head appeared out of the wall, wearing a peeved expression. “What?”

Hanji tried to flick him on the nose, but her finger went through it. “Don’t look so pissy at me. Where are my tights? The floral ones?”

Levi let his arms sink through the wall with the sole purpose of letting Hanji know they were crossed in annoyance. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

“I left them on my bed this morning. And no offence, but I can’t imagine anyone but you snatching them.”

“Full offence taken. Also, you may want to rethink that theory.” Levi raised his eyebrows and pointed to the doorway.

Hanji turned in time to see Erwin flexing his floral-tights-clad legs in the mirror of the bathroom across the hall. “What the fuck, Erwin?” she called.

He jumped and spun, guilty. He looked down at his legs, and then back up to Hanji and Levi. “They’re nice for gardening,” he said. Was that an embarrassed blush Hanji could see? Interesting. “The bees like me when I wear them.”

Sometimes (everyday), Hanji wondered why she kept four dead guys around her house. Not that she could do much to get rid of them. Though Erwin had brought up something that was actually of interest to her. “The bees like you,” she said, “because they can somehow sense you, even when you’re invisible. Give me my tights back. And then come with me to the garden. Your punishment is taking part in my bee experiments.”

He sagged and started pulling them off on the spot. Levi tried to cover Hanji’s eyes. It didn’t work.

--

Thursday night was date night. Date night involved Erwin and Levi finally getting out of Hanji’s hair—usually to go down to the beach—and Mike quietly leaving any room of the house Hanji and Moblit wanted to use. Mike didn’t mind that everyone abandoned him for their partners. Hanji had known him for twenty years now and she couldn’t remember him once giving a damn about dating. And besides, they also had a “family” night every week.

That night, she and Moblit took over the lounge. They picked a book to read. They dragged all the blankets off their bed to cuddle under on the couch. They made far too much popcorn and spilled it everywhere. She was quite sure Levi would be complaining about popcorn between the couch cushions for the next month.

Moblit held her and kissed her. A lot of people would have questioned her decision to date a ghost. It wasn’t ideal, to be honest. It had taken her a long time to get used to the thought that his body was elsewhere, blown apart, gone. But what did she have to lose? Moblit had died to save her life, and she loved him. And if his ghost wasn’t around, she would never bother to date anyone else. She would just be lonely. And friendless. Because all her friends were dead, too.

So that was that. Her boyfriend was a ghost.

“I like your new glasses,” Moblit said, gently taking them off her and putting them on himself. She wished she could see him well enough to fully appreciate how cute he looked in them.

“I like your face,” she said, taking her glasses back. She kissed him on the cheek.

“I love you,” Moblit said.

“I love you, too,” Mike said.

Hanji grabbed her shoe and threw it at him. He laughed and disappeared back through the wall before it could reach him. “Bastard!” she said.

“I heard that!” Mike called through the wall.

Okay, so Mike didn’t always follow all the rules of date night.

Moblit lay his head over Hanji’s heart. When she looked down at him, he had his eyes closed and he was smiling. She ran her fingers through his hair and imagined what it would feel like if he was a real, solid human being. They hadn’t exactly gotten the chance for much intimacy during the war.

“I would have married you some day,” Moblit murmured. 

Hanji gave him a light swat across the ear. “Don’t say that, you’ll make me cry. And this book is sad enough as it is.” The book was A Concise Study of Anatomy and Physiology. She leaned down to kiss him. His lips were barely more solid than air. It wasn’t fair.

But when had her life ever been fair? And at least he was here, with her.

She read to him out loud and Moblit asked questions for her to answer—questions he knew she would love answering. He was great like that. Their date nights usually consisted of reading and learning and discussing long into the night.

After about a half hour of reading, Moblit pulled the hair-tie out of Hanji’s hair and looped it until it made a little ring, and slid it onto her ring finger. “You look lovely with your hair down,” he said, reaching up to stroke some of it back from her face. “You should wear it out more. Which reminds me, I got you something.”

“Oh?” Hanji fiddled with his fingers, kissing them one by one. “How did you do that? And what is it?” She felt a flash of excitement. Gifts? That made this whole weird relationship seem a little more normal.

He pretended to struggle, his legs caught under her. “Will you free me long enough to go fetch it?” he asked, teasing. 

Hanji pretended to swoon and fell sideways, her body covering his. “I’m not sure I could bear it to see you gone,” she joked. But then she sat up and looked at Moblit. That probably wasn’t the best joke to make with a dead guy. Especially one that felt a lot of guilt about dying right in front of her.

But he was smiling at her. And the whole situation was a joke anyway, since he could just fall through the couch or rise up through Hanji and free himself. He kissed her on the nose and then went away to their bedroom, returning with a silk scarf.

“I swiped it while you were running errands in town the other day,” he said, his cheeks reddening. Hanji noted that a blush looked awfully cute on a ghost. She wondered how it worked. “It wasn’t too expensive. If you lend me some coins I can go pay the merchant back, but that would defeat the purpose of it being a gift. May I?”

Hanji sat still while he pushed back her bangs and tied the silk scarf in place like a headband. It was hard to tell where the silk ended and his fingers began, they felt so similar. Light and airy. Moblit picked up a little mirror and sat next to Hanji, holding it out so she could see herself. The scarf was so pretty: stripes of quiet, dark tones of red, white and orange decorated with delicate flowers. “It suits you,” Moblit said. Hanji had to turn her head to see his smile. His reflection didn’t show up in the mirror, even though his head was leaning against hers.

She lifted a hand to touch the scarf. It really was pretty. And her face looked so different with her hair pushed back like that. “You really think so?” she said.

Moblit put the mirror down and kissed her again. “I really do. You’re so beautiful, Hanji.”

I would have married you some day.

She played with the hair-tie around her ring finger, making sure Moblit saw. “I would have said yes, you know,” she said, “if things had been different. If you had ever gotten the chance to ask.”

Moblit put a hand to her cheek. “I know.”

--

“For fuck sake, Mike.”

He pushed her sunglasses down his nose a little, peering at her over them. “Problem?”

“Yes, problem. You guys are ghosts. Stop taking my stuff. Do you even get any glare from the sun?”

Mike pushed Hanji’s sunglasses back up his nose and tipped his head back over the top of the chair, settling back into his comfortable lounging position. “Yes, actually.”

Hanji’s notebook was out of her pocket and in her hand before she even finished sitting down. “Really?” she said, excitement bubbling in her. This was news to her. “Tell me about it.”

Mike smiled without lifting his head. “Just kidding.”

She threw her notebook at him. It passed through his head and shot off the edge of the deck.

--

The beach was unofficially called Hanji’s Beach. It was a secluded little bay, smaller and less impressive than the main beach a little further south where the townspeople went to sunbathe and swim. But to Hanji and her dead friends, it was perfect.

Every few evenings they walked along the shore together. They would have competitions to see who could leave the heaviest footprint in the sand. Hanji always won, though everyone complained that being alive and corporeal was cheating. And they would all go swimming together. Once, early on, they hadn’t been cautious enough with their visibility while they were in the water. Hanji surfaced to find herself seemingly deserted, and she rushed back to the shore and threw herself on it, pounding her fists into the sand. She thought they were all gone. Really gone. They were always careful to stay as solid as possible in the water after that. It was like camouflage to them.

Hanji shoved Moblit playfully and watched his feet stumble through the sand and shallows, both undisturbed by his movement. He shoved her back and then caught her hand, pulling her back towards him for a kiss.

“Gross,” Levi said. And then literally climbed Erwin like a tree so he could kiss him and outdo Hanji and Moblit’s grossness. Afterwards, he somehow scrambled round to Erwin’s back and they continued to walk like that, Erwin piggybacking Levi.

“Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” Hanji said, poking a stick through both of them from behind. “I thought Levi was the crazy strong one.”

“You’re right,” Erwin said, unceremoniously dropping Levi. Levi shot right down through the sand and disappeared. He reappeared and glared at Hanji while Erwin gleefully hopped onto his back.

“I don’t appreciate you putting these foolish ideas in Erwin’s head,” he said. “Let’s go, babe.” He took a firm grip on Erwin’s legs around his hips before speeding away across the last stretch of sand and up the slope to the house. Hanji laughed as Erwin raised his arm, swinging an invisible lasso as if he was riding a horse.

Mike watched them forlornly. “I don’t usually get down about this kind of thing . . . but sometimes I do wish I had someone to piggyback me, you know?”

“I’ll piggyback you,” Moblit said.

Mike perked up. “Really? You would do that?”

“Sure! Hop on.”

Hanji couldn’t decide which was more ridiculous: five-foot-two Levi dashing away with six-foot-two Erwin on his back, or five-foot-eight Moblit walking calmly and pointing out a seagull with six-foot-four Mike perched on his hips, his feet almost touching the sand.

--

This was the life. Or death, in Mike and Moblit’s cases. Technically, the weed didn’t do anything for them. But they got enough entertainment just out of smoking it with Hanji and watching her. The more blazed she got, the more fascinating she found the way the smoke pooled into Moblit and Mike’s chests in the shape of their lungs. She put her hands in and out, curling her fingers into the smoke, trying to tug it out of its invisible confines.

They grew it in her garden. And they smoked it on her deck.

Hanji exhaled slowly and sank further into her chair, passing the joint on to Moblit. “Look at those nerds,” she said, pointing to Erwin and Levi. They were down in the garden. Erwin was holding a sapling in a pot and following Levi around, who was moving from point to point in the garden and rubbing his chin in thought. “Hey, nerds!” Hanji shouted at them, and then laughed so hard she choked on the chip she tried to eat. It was worth it for the ridiculous friendly wave she got from Erwin and death-glare she got from Levi.

“I bet I can hit them,” Moblit said, and stood with an apple in hand. He swayed, steadied himself, lugged the apple, and fell off the edge of the deck with the force of his own throw. And he missed Erwin and Levi by half the garden.

--

“You know,” Hanji said, “you never told me what it is you miss most about being alive. Is it a sense, like the others? Moblit misses touch. Levi misses taste—or the taste of his fancy black tea, I suppose. And of your mouth, probably. Ick. Of course, Mike misses smell. I think he feels lost without his nose. What about you?”

Erwin’s chest rose as if he was taking a deep, thoughtful breath. But when his chest fell again, no air expelled with it. “Breathing,” he said. “The feeling of it. And heartbeats. Levi’s heartbeat.”

“The things that let you know you’re alive,” Hanji said.

Erwin smiled at her. “Does that say something about me?”

He had unintentionally touched a sore point; Hanji’s stomach knotted. She couldn’t put into words how much she missed hearing Moblit’s heart beating. “Probably. It probably says you saw too much death.”

“Maybe it does. I miss hearing Levi’s heartbeat a lot. I feel responsible.”

“Don’t you dare,” Hanji said sharply. Her discomfort was replaced with anger. She wasn’t going to let him do this to himself again. “You were already dead. He’s entirely responsible for the decisions he made. And what would you prefer? Seeing the pain on his face when he looks at you and knows he’s supposed to count himself lucky, even though you’re still dead? It’s not easy being the one left alive, you know.”

Erwin’s expression softened. “You’re right, Hanji. I’m sorry. I think we forget sometimes what we all put you through. And still put you through. It can’t be easy to live with a constant reminder that . . .”

“That everyone I love has died?” She shrugged. “I guess I’m getting used to it. But remember that, won’t you? Whenever you start thinking too much about what Levi could have had if he had lived? He would just waste his time wishing he had died with you, anyway.”

Erwin gave her a long, searching look. She had revealed too much. Erwin was always ahead of them, and she wasn’t exactly being subtle. She regretted ever bringing the conversation up to start with. “It’ll be okay,” he said in the end, still holding her gaze. “We’re not going anywhere now. Moblit’s not going anywhere. Unless you want us to.”

Hanji shook her head. “I don’t.” She added, “Don’t tell Moblit I said that, about dying? I didn’t mean to sound so ungrateful. I’m fine.”

He put his hand on hers. “I know. And I won’t.”

--

Hanji held her apple pie out to Mike out of habit. He sniffed, smiled.

Hanji withdrew the pie and dug in.

But Mike suddenly grasped her arm, stopping her. His eyes were wide, wild.

Hanji frowned. “Mike? What the hell is up with you?”

He sniffed her pie again. “I can smell it,” he said. Sniffed again. “I can fucking smell it. Apples. Cinnamon. Walnuts, too. I can—I can smell it.”

Hanji immediately whipped out her notebook. “Tell me everything,” she said. “Explain everything that’s happening right now. Is it the same as when you were alive? Stronger? Weaker? Details, Mike, I need details.

But Mike was too busy smelling the blossoms in the trees overhanging the deck and the lemon slice on Hanji’s glass and the shampoo in her hair and smiling, smiling, smiling.

--

Levi took a sip of his tea and immediately spat it back out. “Ugh, you make it too fucking astringent, Hanji.”

“So you keep telling me. But as the only one here with working taste-buds, I would like to defend myself by saying that I think my tea tastes fine.

When Levi didn’t reply, she glanced up. His expression sent her heart thumping. “You can taste the tea,” she said. 

“Where’s the pot?” Levi asked, looking frantic. “Bring me the whole goddamn pot. I don’t care how shitty it tastes.”

Hanji did, and she sat and watched while Levi poured himself cup after cup, downing each one in seconds. “I can taste the fucking tea,” he said. He was visibly shaking. “Where’s Erwin? Erwin!”

Erwin appeared on the deck looking alarmed, rushing over to him. “What is it? What’s happened?”

Levi grabbed him and kissed him. “I can taste you,” he said, breaking off the kiss to hold Erwin’s head back. “You taste like fucking blood but I can taste you.”

When was the last time Hanji had seen Erwin smile so hard? His whole face lit up for Levi. They both looked so happy, she almost cried on the spot. After Mike’s incident, she wondered what this meant. Would they get all their senses back? Was there some way they could make it happen faster?

Would Moblit finally be able to feel it properly when he kissed her?

--

They all crammed onto one couch. It was easier with ghosts. They could jam their elbows against each other and sit on laps and sprawl out limbs without hurting each other, and Hanji got to sit in the middle of it all. Family night.

Except everyone sitting on the same couch didn’t really work for board games. Hanji stretched out her big toe, trying to nudge her piece along a space on the board. It fell over. She tried to grab it with her toes to set it right again. She knocked over Moblit and Erwin’s pieces. “Ugh, it’s too damn hot to move.”

Even her dead friends were sweltering. They had all the windows and doors open, and Hanji had tied her hair back off her face with the scarf Moblit had given her to keep herself cool. “One of you is going to have to get up and fix the board,” she said. “And move my piece. And move the piece Mike was too lazy to move last round. And roll the dice. And pick up cards for all of us for the last three rounds. Why are we playing this again?”

“Not me,” Levi said.

“Not me,” Mike said.

“Not me,” Moblit said.

Erwin gave a heavy, melodramatic sigh. “You guys all owe me.” He started to get up.

“Wait—do that again,” Hanji said.

Erwin paused, half-risen. “Do what?”

“What you just did. You sighed. Was that real? Can you fake a sigh? What was that?”

Erwin remained frozen a moment longer. Then he slowly drew in a breath and let it out again. A smile came with it. He looked at Levi and blew on his hair. Levi’s hair lifted.

Fascinating,” Hanji said, up and out of her seat, all heat forgotten. She pulled Erwin up so he was standing straight and moved all around him, peering close. “You’re still transparent, so it’s not as if you’ve suddenly started living again. I don’t understand this at all, but it’s incredible. And you’ve all been developing your senses, haven’t you? You can all smell and taste again.” Experimentally, she put her hand through Erwin’s chest. “Does it feel any different? Like I’m touching your lungs or anything?”

Erwin shivered. “It feels . . . stranger than it did before. I mean, I couldn’t feel it all when you used to do that. Do it again.”

Hanji did so. “Well?”

He laughed this time, and shoved her hand away. “It tickles. This is amazing. What could be causing these changes, do you think?”

Hanji rubbed her chin. She had a number of theories, none of which were very satisfying, even to herself. The titans had seemed less mysterious than this. But one theory stood out above the rest. “It’s like a kind of evolution. You’re adapting to your environment. By which I mean, a living environment. Usually evolution would occur over generations, but since you’re the D word, you can’t pass on traits to offspring or receive them from parents. So maybe you’re adapting all on your own.”

She knew what question was coming next. It was Levi who asked it. “Could this carry on to the point that we live again?”

Hanji didn’t think so. The fact that they were ghosts at all was something far beyond her comprehension of the world, meaning, really, it was entirely possible. But implausible.

They were all looking so hopeful after Levi’s question. She didn’t want to break their hearts. But she had always sworn to favour honesty, no matter how brutal. “I think it’s unlikely, I’m afraid,” she said. “It’s clear that Erwin is still the D word. I can see right through him. And yet he’s breathing. That suggests to me that it’s a kind of artificial breath, perhaps one he’s developed out of the idea of comfort rather than out of an actual growing need to breathe.” She looked at Erwin, identifying the disappointment he was trying so hard to keep off his face. Mike missed smell. Levi missed taste. Erwin missed the comfort of breathing and heartbeats, the evidence of life.

“That might explain all the changes you’ve been experiencing,” Hanji went on. “You’re adapting to a living environment, but it’s almost like it’s through a combination of memory and desire. And you’re living in such close proximity to each other, it’s causing a chain reaction. Mike could smell first, and then you all could. Levi could taste first, and then you all could—starting with Erwin, the person he’s closest to. Now Erwin can breathe. If this theory is right, then Levi should be the next one to pick up this latest phenomenon.”

“But if that’s right,” Moblit said, “and don’t get me wrong, I trust you, Hanji, but if that’s right, why would it take us so long to develop these artificial abilities?”

His expression pained her. She knew what he was thinking: If I want to really feel it when I touch and kiss and hold you, why can’t I?

She took a moment to settle her thoughts, and think up the best analogy to explain it. “When you were born,” she said, “could you walk? Of course not. You hadn’t learned it yet, and your body wasn’t capable of it. Dying is kind of like being born, in a way. You’re being born into death. Except you remember how to walk and all that. Instead, you’ve forgotten what your body knew by instinct: smell, taste, touch, breathing, pumping blood—”

“Wait,” Erwin interrupted.

Rude. “What?” She didn’t want to lose her train of thought.

“Come here. Listen.” He grabbed her head and pulled it towards his chest. Th-thump. Th-thump. Th-thump. A heartbeat.

Hanji leaned back, staring at his chest. It was still transparent. There was no heart to beat, just like there were no lungs to breathe. And yet, when she leaned forward to lay her ear over his chest again, she could hear it. “Pumping blood,” she said again, trying to pick up what she had been saying, because this just served as more proof. “Your bodies—or forms, more accurately—are re-teaching themselves these things from some kind of connection to the programming of your physical bodies. You wanted these things, and it’s just taken your forms a while to catch up and re-learn them. To fake them. It’s all comfort. Memory. Artificial. But still important and real,” she added quickly, because she should probably stop using words like fake and artificial. They weren’t very positive words.

“Let me listen.” Levi grabbed Erwin’s wrist and pulled him back on the couch, first placing his hand over Erwin’s chest and then his head. Hanji could pinpoint the exact moment he heard Erwin’s heartbeat: Levi took a deep, shuddering breath.

“A chain reaction,” Hanji said, pleased with herself.

Levi looked to her, his ear still pressed to Erwin’s chest. His hands were curled tightly into the ghostly material of Erwin’s shirt. He took a breath. And another. And another.

--

Moblit laid his hand on Hanji’s cheek. He linked their fingers. He traced circles on her chest. He tangled their feet together in bed, reminding Hanji of all the times she’d screamed when he was alive and would put his cold feet on hers.

“Why isn’t it working?” Moblit said, sighing. He had breath and a heartbeat too now.

They had all gotten what they missed most. Except Moblit.

“Maybe my theory was wrong,” Hanji said, linking both her hands with his and raising them, pushing them apart, bringing them together. “Maybe I’m looking for logic that doesn’t exist. Try not to dwell on it. There’s nothing we can do. I’m happy with this. It’s enough that you’re here at all.”

“You know I want it, right?” Moblit said quietly. “I want to feel your skin properly when I do this.” He leaned forward to press a kiss to each of her cheeks, and one to her forehead. “And when I do this.” He put his hands on her hips beneath her shirt and slid them up her sides, up her back. “And when I do this.” He freed his hands and moved them to either side of her face, kissing her deeply on the lips.

Hanji bit her lip when he drew his head away. She wanted it too. Except she couldn’t tell him that; he already felt terrible. She put her hand over his chest. There was no feeling of it thumping. But when she put her head on him, she could hear it. It was so comforting. Thank God for Erwin Smith and his desire to hear Levi’s heartbeat again. “I love you so much,” she said to Moblit, listening to the th-thud, th-thud, th-thud of his inexistent heart.

It brought a small smile to his face, and that made Hanji happy. “I love you, too, Hanji.”

--

The shower was running. Hanji stormed into the bathroom. “Levi, for the last time, I have to pay for the hot water you use, and you don’t even need to clean yourself—” She stopped short. Levi and Erwin were both in her shower. Naked. Erwin stared at her. Levi glared.

“Ever heard of fucking knocking?” he snapped, trying to cover Erwin’s junk with his hands.

“Transparent hands,” Hanji reminded him, pointing.

“Get the fuck out!”

“I will, I will. But before I do, I have to ask: where do your ghost clothes go? And how does the sex work—?” Levi moved as if to rush at her and strangle her, so Hanji left and shut the door behind her. She would ask them later when they were feeling less exposed.

--

A quiet knock sounded on her bedroom door. “Come in,” Hanji called.

It was Erwin and Levi. “Oh, you heard that?” Levi said, stalking in and sitting himself down at the end of the bed. “You do know what knocking is, then?”

Erwin gave him a look, and Levi sighed before letting himself fall back onto the bed. He waved a hand at Erwin. “You’re doing all the talking.”

“Right.” Erwin sat himself down on the edge of Hanji’s bed, and then rose and pulled a chair over to sit in instead. “Hanji, listen. What you saw in the bathroom last night. It’s perfectly natural. When two men love each other a lot, sometimes they like to—”

Hanji couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Should she laugh, or should she cry? “Erwin, are you here to give me the sex talk?”

“We just want you to feel comfortable about what you saw. We realise we’re both dead. It probably makes things a little confusing for, you know, people like you.”

“People that are alive?”

“Exactly. We just want you to understand that—”

Hanji decided to laugh. And she did. Hard. “I’m going to stop you right there,” she said, giving herself a moment to calm down. “I do not give a damn that it looked as though you were about to bend over for shorty over there. What I am interested in is the biological functions happening here. Is it like the breathing, and the beating hearts? I had brushed off the blushing before. But I mean, you don’t have a blood flow, but it’s the blood flow that causes your p—”

“Alright, we’re done here,” Levi cut in, pushing himself up and hopping off the bed. “I don’t have it in me to listen to you talk about our dicks. Can’t Moblit tell you all this?”

Hanji pulled a face. “I’m not going to have sex with a ghost.”

Levi rolled his eyes. “Oh, sure, that’s where she draws the line.” He grabbed Erwin’s hand and pulled him towards the door.

“Wait, I have so many more questions!” Hanji called.  

Levi pulled Erwin through the door and slammed it behind them.

“But I didn’t even get to ask about your ghost clothes!”

--

Some peace. Hanji curled her toes into the couch cushions and tugged her blanket up higher, engrossed in her book. The guys were all out in the garden. Or so she thought.

Mike stuck his head around the doorway of the lounge. “Heard you saw Erwin and Levi’s junk,” he said.

“I saw them both naked plenty of times in the Survey Corps bathrooms,” she said, refusing to look up from her novel. “You know that. You were there.”

“So their ghost junk isn’t different?”

“What?”

“I just want to make sure I’m still the most impressive.”

Hanji threw her book at him. Apparently he forgot he was a ghost for a moment, because he ducked and the book broke the lamp in the hallway.

--

Hanji and Moblit walked hand in hand along the shore together. The sun was setting. A flock of seagulls was seated on the sand, and Moblit released Hanji’s hand to run forward and frighten them. He turned back to Hanji, grinning, as the flock of seagulls lifted off into the air behind him, black silhouettes in the fading life. “Stop traumatising the wildlife!” Hanji called, picking a shell up to toss at him.

“Ow!” Moblit rubbed his arm where the shell hit him. “Careful!”

Hanji stopped walking. Moblit’s head suddenly snapped up, looking back at her. She took a steadying breath before calling, “Moblit, what did you just say?”

He paused a moment, and then slowly walked back over to her, stopping when he was a few inches away. He raised a hand to her cheek.

Hanji’s eyes burned. The first tear fell, rolling down past her nose. When Moblit brushed it away with his thumb, it felt real. Skin on skin.

“Moblit.” She couldn’t say anything more. Even that had made her voice tremble.

He raised both hands to pull the scarf off her head, and then run his fingers through her hair. Hanji watched him, as fascinated by the emotions on his face and the feeling of his hands as he seemed to be by the feeling of her hair, her skin, her tears.

He was still transparent, but that was okay.

Moblit suddenly pulled her into a tight embrace and spun her, her feet lifting off the ground. Hanji’s cheeks hurt from smiling, and she let out a wild sound of joy.

When he set her down, Moblit cupped her face in his hands and kissed her so hard she stumbled, and he had to move one of his hands to her back to steady her. His lips were soft. Real. He pulled away for a moment to grin at her. He looked so beautiful, so happy. More tears spilled down Hanji’s cheeks. And Moblit kissed her. Over and over and over again.