This was one of the worst ones to date – in so far as the date had any meaning when there seemed to be no pattern to the times into which they were reborn. Erwin looked down, smiling, at his lovely bride, and then up at the camera. Rosalind’s small hand, in its expensive white satin glove, rested lightly on his arm as she composed her face for the photograph. On her right, her father visibly swelled with pride beneath his new silk top hat. The photographer emerged from beneath the black cloth that kept light from spoiling the picture.
“Keep still now, ladies and gents,” he said, reaching for the ignition switch for the flash, his eyes on the wedding party, checking the composition. Father and mother of the bride, three bridesmaids, bride, groom –
The photographer’s eyes met the groom’s.
“Oh!” Erwin whispered. Rosalind turned to look at him and the flash went off with the usual bang and puff of smoke; the usual half-startled laughter.
“The bride went an’ moved,” the photographer said, frowning quite fiercely. “We’ll ’ave to do another one. Take your places again. - If you’d be so kind,” he finished, the courtesy an obvious afterthought. While he changed the plates and poured new powder onto the flash stand, Rosalind’s grip on Erwin’s arm tightened slightly. “What did you say?” she asked. “Do you know that man?”
“I’m not sure,” Erwin said, playing for time. “He – I think he looks like someone I knew at school, but I’m probably mistaken.”
“He sounds like a Cockney, and there’s a foreign cast to him,” Rosalind said quietly. “How could someone like that have been at your school?”
“You’re right, of course,” Erwin replied, pressing her hand gently. “It’s probably just a remarkable resemblance. But they do say every man has his doppelganger.”
“Goodness!” Rosalind smiled. “Well, in that case, I do hope I’ve married the real Erwin Smith!”
When the second photograph had been successfully taken, the photographer began to pack away immediately, while the wedding party started to make their way across the lawn towards the house. Erwin looked back, and Rosalind slipped her arm out of his. “Go and ask him,” she said. Erwin gave her a surprised look. “The photographer,” Rosalind added, thinking Erwin hadn’t understood. “I know you, Erwin – you’ll be wondering about it all day if you don’t ask. Find out if it is your old school pal, or not. I want to talk to Mama about the gifts, anyhow.”
“All right,” Erwin replied, grateful to her for having given him the excuse he’d been struggling for. “I’ll ask him. Why not?”
Rosalind watched her new husband walking back towards the little, scowling photographer, marvelling for a moment at the differences in God’s creation, that one man could be made so small, dark and swarthy, while another could be so beautifully tall, blond and fair. And to think Papa had sniffed at her choice, at first, and said she could do better! Erwin might not be quite as rich as the family would have liked, and Smith was, it had to be admitted, a rather common kind of surname, but when a prospective husband was so very handsome such shortcomings could be overlooked. He really was a fine figure of a man, even Mama had agreed. And think of the grandchildren, as Aunt Lillian had so scandalously whispered! Rosalind turned and walked back towards the house with all the proper poise expected in a married woman, but she felt like skipping with joy.
“Can I ’elp you, Sir?” the photographer asked, doing a good job of appearing to be busy with dismantling the flash stand as Erwin approached.
“Levi. There’s no point.”
Levi went still, his hand gripping the metal stand so tightly that Erwin could see the whiteness of bone beneath the thin skin on each knuckle. “Then pretend! For god’s sake, Erwin – it’s your wedding day!”
Erwin placed one hand over Levi’s. “I’ll admit the timing is even more unfortunate than usual –”
“Unfortunate!” Levi turned at that, shaking off Erwin’s hand, his expression bleak. “It’s impossible! It’s always impossible. Why does this keep on happening?”
“I don’t know, any more than you do. But - you remember everything, don’t you? The Survey Corps – the titans?”
“And I remember how it ended. Go back to your bride, Erwin.”
“I will. I have to. And then there’s the honeymoon – the Italian lakes. But we’ll be back in a month.”
Levi’s mouth hardened. “Don’t ask me –”
“We’ll just talk. Only, please – don’t run. Not again, Levi. Don’t run.”
“We never ‘just talk’. You know that.”
“Promise me, Levi.”
Levi sighed. “You bastard…”
“Give me your word.”
“All right. I promise. Shit.”
“Was it your old school friend?” Rosalind asked, when Erwin rejoined her. She smiled up at him, her eyes the same china blue he’d fallen in love with, the pale gold of her hair still beautiful. But everything was different now.
“No,” Erwin replied. “No – you were quite right, of course. Not even all that similar, close to.”
“I didn’t really see how it could have been,” Rosalind said, shaking her head. “A tradesman like that. One could see at once that he wasn’t our sort of person at all.”
It’s not her fault, Erwin reminded himself. Ten minutes ago I would have agreed with her.
How could Rosalind have any idea that ten minutes ago Erwin had had no recollection of any existence but the idyllic one they shared, in which both of them had been born into wealth and high society? How could she guess that the moment he’d met the photographer’s gaze he had been flooded with the consciousness of more than two hundred lives in which she had possibly never even existed – lives where the only constant, aside from Erwin’s own physical body, had been the presence of Levi?
Levi opened the door and sighed when he saw Erwin. “You’d better come up.”
He led the way up a narrow, dark staircase into a bedroom that was cramped and sparsely furnished but immaculately clean, as always.
“How were the Italian lakes?”
“Beautiful. They don’t change.”
Levi gave him a faint, bitter smile. “Some things don’t.”
Erwin was already undoing the cheap horn buttons of Levi’s flannel jacket. Levi’s hands pressed against Erwin’s chest for a moment, nowhere near hard enough to push him away, before seizing the lapels of Erwin’s coat, as though involuntarily.
“What happened to ‘just talking’? Levi asked, his mouth an inch from Erwin’s.
“We never ‘just talk’,” Erwin said, his smile a little cruel against Levi’s lips.
“Bastard,” Levi murmured, between kisses, as they undressed each other with as much haste as the stiff buttons and many layers of their clothing would allow.
“I know,” Erwin admitted, licking Levi’s neck, kissing along the line of his jaw, as his fingers worked to unknot the inevitable plain white cotton neckerchief, “I know.”
When they were completely naked, Levi took a step back, and for a long moment, both of them stood still, looking. Erwin took Levi’s right hand in his and turned it palm up, his eyes on the raw pink scar that ran from Levi’s wrist to his elbow.
“Flash powder,” Levi said. “I used too much. Rookie mistake.” He shook his head. “I’m better at fighting titans than I am at photography. You still have both arms, anyway.”
“So far,” Erwin smiled. “Give it time.”
“Tch. Well, we seem to have plenty of that. Although –”
“It’s never simple, is it?” Erwin asked.
“Not so far. I hate your moustache. Fucking Edwardian facial hair.”
“I could shave it off.”
“No you couldn’t. What would –”
“Don’t, Levi. You know –”
“Yeah, I know.”
Erwin bent his head and kissed the scar on Levi’s arm. Levi ran his left hand through Erwin’s hair. “Huh. At least you left off the Macassar Oil.”
“Out of consideration for your sheets.”
“Oh – so you assumed sex?” Levi asked.
Erwin looked up at him, and then knelt to lick a wet line from Levi’s balls to the tip of his erect cock.
“I did assume that, yes,” Erwin said.
“Bastard,” whispered Levi again, reverently, closing his eyes, trying not to tremble too hard as Erwin took his cock deep into his mouth and began to suck.
Levi concentrated on the pure pleasure that was Erwin’s mouth on him, shutting out all thoughts of past lives, or what the future of this one might hold. This is real – this, and now, he told himself, opening his eyes again, gazing down at the soft gold of Erwin’s hair in the lamplight. The heat of Erwin’s mouth, and the even more intense heat in his eyes when he looked up and ran his fingers with teasing lightness down the backs of Levi’s thighs as he sucked harder, was already almost too much -
“Wait! Fuck, Erwin – slow down,” Levi gasped.
Erwin let Levi’s cock slide out of his mouth and sat back on his heels, smiling. “So soon?”
Levi controlled himself with an effort, breathing hard. “Yeah, well, it’s been a while.”
Levi looked towards the bed. “Too long. I just want –”
“Anything,” said Erwin fervently. “Anything you want, Levi.”
Levi went to the bed and turned down the neatly tucked blankets and the top sheet, before getting in. Erwin climbed into the bed beside him, grimacing a little at the coldness of the sheets and wincing at the creaking of the springs.
“You always were an elephant!” Levi mocked. “But there’s only the shop underneath. No one will hear.”
Erwin turned on his side to face Levi, and reached to pull him close.
“Tell me what you want,” Erwin said softly.
“Nothing fancy,” Levi murmured into Erwin’s chest. “This – this is good. The smell of you.” He turned his head a little and flicked his tongue over Erwin’s right nipple. Erwin made a quiet, appreciative sound.
“You still like that, huh?”
Levi’s fingers trailed down Erwin’s side over his ribs. Erwin squirmed.
“Still ticklish there?”
“Yes. Yes!” Erwin yelped, grabbing Levi’s hand and rolling him onto his back. “What about you, here?” Erwin straddled Levi’s narrow hips, and leaned forward to find the exact spot on Levi’s neck that always drove him wild when it was licked and nibbled like –
“Fuck!” Levi gasped, writhing beneath Erwin, their cocks bumping against each other with the motion. He lifted his hips urgently, pressing himself against Erwin.
“Just – like this,” Levi panted, reaching between them to wrap his hand as far as he could around both their cocks, squeezing and rubbing them together.
Erwin knelt upright, pulling the blankets and sheets free, and letting them fall behind him, watching Levi’s hand working. The room was silent apart from their harsh breathing. Erwin’s gaze travelled from Levi’s hand around the shafts of their cocks, along his small, lean body, to his flushed face and parted lips.
“God, Levi,” he said, “I love –”
Levi’s brows drew together in a way that was so familiar Erwin’s heart ached. Levi dropped his hand to his side, and turned his head away, his eyes on the window, as though searching for an escape, even though the casement was closed and the curtains drawn. “Erwin – I know. But we agreed –”
“All right. We’ll talk, after. But don’t pretend you don’t want me.”
Levi sighed. “Of course I want you. Look at the state of me! I always fucking want you. That’s –”
Erwin’s much larger hand closed around their cocks in place of Levi's, and began to move with a firm, rhythmical stroke that left Levi gasping.
“Like this?” Erwin asked.
“Yeah. Yeah. Oh –”
Levi arched back on the pillow, his hips lifting off the mattress, fucking himself against the hard heat of Erwin’s cock and the warm pressure of his hand. Erwin leaned forward, never breaking the rhythm, and licked at Levi’s lower lip. Levi closed his mouth, tried to turn his head aside. Erwin’s hand tightened on Levi’s cock, and, when he gasped, Erwin kissed him deep and hard until he stopped pretending to fight.
“I love you,” Erwin said, thumbing the wet head of Levi’s cock, his hand moving faster.
“Shut the fuck up!”
“I love you.”
“Oh – god –”
Levi came into Erwin’s hand, his eyes on Erwin’s, his expression desperate. Erwin let go of Levi’s cock and brought himself off with a few more hard strokes. Levi’s lip curled disdainfully at the wet splash of come on his stomach. Erwin laughed softly and kissed Levi again, moving to lie at his side. Levi reached for a pair of neatly folded facecloths on the small table beside the bed, wiping himself clean with one and handing the other to Erwin.
“If you dare get that on my sheets –”
“I know better than that, Levi.” Erwin couldn’t keep the amusement from his voice.
Levi glared at him. “I’m glad you think this is funny. Fuck – this is disgusting. When do they invent real toilet paper and tissues, again?”
“Soon, I think,” Erwin said.
“Not soon enough.”
“This time is relatively civilized, anyway,” Erwin said. “It could be much worse. Remember the newspapers we used to cut up for toilet paper in the Survey Corps? Or - remember the heads on the Andromeda?”
“Or that muddy pit outside Agincourt.” Erwin continued, merciless. “Or the latrines in –”
“All right, you’ve made your point! Edwardian England sucks, but it could be worse – I get it. Ugh – give me that. Levi took the dirty towels and got out of bed.”
“Where are you going?” Erwin asked.
“To put these to soak in a bucket downstairs.”
Erwin didn’t have to ask whether Levi really needed to do that now.
When Levi returned he turned out the gas lamp and stood still by the bed for a moment as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. The curtains were thin, and there was a faint light filtering through from somewhere – a street lamp or the moon, Erwin couldn’t tell. Blinking, he found he could just make out Levi’s silhouette against the pale rectangle of the window.
“You staying the night?” Levi asked as he climbed into bed. Erwin reached for his hand, and Levi allowed him to take it.
“Yes, if you’ll let me.”
“Where does – where are you supposed to be?”
“In town, on business. And picking up the wedding photo from you.”
“The photo turned out well, anyway. She’s - very pretty.”
“Yes. Bright, too. That Erwin was pretty thoroughly smitten.”
Levi sighed in the darkness. “I wish you wouldn’t do that. It’s creepy.”
“I don’t know what else to do. He wasn’t me.”
“I know. But we agreed we wouldn’t do this. Not if one of us was already with someone. We agreed.”
“We did. But when I saw you, I knew it wasn’t going to work. I can act the part of a good husband to Rosalind, but I can’t love her. Not now I remember. It’s not fair on her, but it’s a fact I can’t change.”
Levi’s fingers tightened around Erwin’s hand. “We could arrange an accident,” he said. “The shop is full of combustible chemicals. A gas explosion would be quick. If you were supposed to be coming here anyway, we could do it tomorrow morning, as soon as the street’s quiet.”
“Too risky,” Erwin said.
“I’d make sure there was no one close by. The shop next door is empty. The other side – ha – he’s a funeral director. He’ll be at work.”
“Too risky for us,” Erwin said. “What if this is the last time we come back?”
“You always say that.”
“It’s always true. Would you risk it?”
“No, not really.”
Levi moved closer, resting his head on Erwin’s shoulder. Erwin stroked his hair. “I miss the undercut,” he said, running his fingers down over the nape of Levi’s neck and back up, the shape of Levi’s skull comforting in its familiarity under his hand.
“Might be back in fashion in a decade or so,” Levi replied, his fingers moving, restless, over Erwin’s chest. “Since it seems we’re not going anywhere.”
“I’m sorry,” Erwin said. “It’s going to be shit for you. I could develop a sudden passion for photography – a gentleman’s hobby. It would be an excuse to see you.”
“I’m not coming to your house,” Levi said. “You’re not introducing me to your wife. This is exactly why I ran, the other times.”
“And how did that turn out?” Erwin asked. “You as good as drank yourself to death, or ended up in some pointless duel, or in prison. And I –”
“Wasted your life looking for me,” Levi said. “Yeah, I know. I thought time would make it better – that we could both make a life apart - but once you know, you can’t live a real life can you? It’s like – being in a play.”
Erwin chuckled suddenly.
“What?” Levi asked.
“That Cockney accent you had when we met – I assume that’s your actual accent in this life? It’s going to be so odd listening to you talking like that when other people are around.”
“Well you sound like a right toff, gov’ner,” Levi countered. “That’s what I mean – that was my real voice, until I remembered, and now it sounds like - like a Cockney tradesman bit-part in a West End show.”
Erwin grew serious again. “It doesn’t matter what you sound like. We’ll stick to what we agreed as far as we can; I’ll do my best to give as convincing a performance as I can manage as Rosalind’s husband, you keep taking photographs, and we’ll meet when we can arrange it. It’s better than the alternatives – hurting everyone, or avoiding each other. And we’ll hope that there’s a next time, and that, if there is, we find each other before our lives are caught up with other people’s. If we keep coming back, we have to get lucky eventually, don’t we?”
“Unless this is hell, after all,” Levi said quietly.
Erwin bent his head and kissed the side of Levi’s cheek, then his mouth. “This isn’t hell, Levi.”
Levi said nothing to that, but he returned Erwin’s kiss with unusual gentleness.
“Makes a change to be able to sleep with you in a real bed, anyway,” Levi murmured, settling his head on Erwin’s shoulder again. “Those fucking hammocks on that frigate!”
Erwin put both arms around him, glad of the chance to hold him like that after so many years. “I wonder how we’ll die this time?” he asked.
“Tch. Morbid. As long as it’s quick.”
“As long as it’s together,” Erwin said.
“Yes,” Levi agreed, listening to the steady, strong beat of Erwin’s heart under his right ear. “I don’t mind it nearly as much when we’re together.”