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Good Times For a Change

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Levi had singled the bench out out of many.

It is a simple bench; just a few planks of wood, once painted in a yellow varnish that now is aged and comes off in tiny, little splinters which seem to cling on to the clothing for dear life. All the benches in this park look like it and yet this one—though it isn’t truly outstanding—feels special.

It’s a bit secluded from the other ones. Almost in the outskirts of the park and yet inside of it enough to not be disturbed by the city itself. He just has to follow the main pathway and take one of these little byways to the right, there where the apple trees grow. It is ideal for him to watch the people passing by without being much in the center of attention himself, sheltered a bit from the outside world, just as he likes it.

He’s always preferred the quiet. Always has been a creature of habit who values the comfort a routine can bring no matter how small or insignificant it is. Morning walks. Afternoon tea. Nighttime cleaning. And lunch in the park as it seems.

By now he knows every pebble under his feet. Every rusty nail in the bench. The big knothole in the smallest one of the apple trees that are crooked and bend under their age. The stray cat that started coming by every other day a few weeks ago.

 

*~*~*~*~

 

The first flock of returning migrant birds sear over the intense blue sky with white, puffy clouds and Levi fills his lungs with the fresh March air. The trees around him are just about to turn green, their pods so filled with growing leaves that they are on the break of bursting, dusting the tree crowns in the first traces of a very pale spring.

It is the second time that he sees the nature here come to life after its hibernation; the second year he is seeking the comfort this bench brings during his lunch breaks and sometimes again when his workday is over and he knows the more sensible thing would be to go home. Fact is, however, out of some reason this bench feels more comfortable to him than his quarters that seem to restrict him more and more with every day. Pathetic, really, he thinks not for the first time. He knows constricted and it’s not the four walls he’s living in these days.

A barely audible rustling sound next to him announces an intruder and he turns his head to see the cat sneaking out of the bushes and foliage from last autumn, turning its ears and looking alert.

“Hello,” he says quietly.

The cat freezes and regards him for a moment. He blinks back, otherwise holding completely still.

Apparently placated the cat stirs and hops up on the bench. It’s a rather miserable looking creature with its dull, tabby fur, a ripped ear, scars on its body, and haunted, amber eyes. But its coat is clean and tidy, its posture gracious, and its movements are elegant.

“You are an unsightly, little bugger, aren’t you?” he continues calmly, slowly stretching the fingers of his free hand towards his new companion for it to sniff. Even though it is a regular guest, it is the first time it has come this close.

After thorough examination the cat carefully pokes his digits, freezes again—probably at a sound that's too small for Levi to hear—and scurries off without making any noise at all.

“Yeah, I know exactly how that feels.”

 

*~*~*~*~

 

As odd as it sounds, Levi has made his peace with peace. The feeling of relief, gratitude or whatever these times should bring fails to appear, but that’s alright. Winning a war that he personally never really had much faith in ending—yet alone surviving it—had been a bit of a shock and picking up the pieces of their lives, literally and figuratively, had taken time. Months. Years. He’s still not there yet and he doesn’t know if he ever fully will be. Life goes on after all and he doesn’t see the sense in spending too much thoughts on the past.

The past seems to catch up on him, though, whether he wants to or not. And it’s the same every day.

He’d sit down on the bench, begin with his lunch, and soon enough there’ll be footsteps, strong and purposeful, even though not quite as dynamic as they once used to be, and with every approaching step Levi will be able to sense the closing distance like an elastic band that’s being stretched while his heart begins to speed up.

And yes, there they are again, coming closer and closer with crunches on the gravel, until they stop a little bit to his right and their owner plops down next to Levi, shoes well taken care of and shiny apart from a bit of fresh dust from their short walk.

“Hey, stranger.” The voice is warm and soft, sweet like honey and just the right kind of deep, matching its source.

Levi doesn’t have to look up into familiar, green eyes to know how he looks like. Tall and lanky, hair ruffled by the wind, hands relaxedly at his sides, winter coat that’s usually been left open.

He looks up anyway and completes their greeting ritual. “You’re late.”

Eren smiles and begins to unwrap his own lunch. “Yeah, I know. We’ve had new patients with the flu coming in again this morning and I couldn’t leave earlier.”

Accepting the offered half of Eren’s sandwich he returns the gesture with a half of his own.

With every other person Levi would mind to share his little lunchtime ritual. Everyone else would disturb this little bubble of tranquility, intrude into this private space, threaten the little corner of peace he’d carved for himself in his daily schedule between training and being at home. Eren has always been different. And Levi enjoys their precious minutes shared under a couple of apple trees.

No one had been surprised when Eren had declared to join Armin for the expeditions beyond the walls, on their search for the ocean and freedom. It hadn’t really needed a matter-of-fact “you’re coming with us,” from Mikasa and a pair of green eyes looking at him for Levi to make his preparations. They searched for the ocean two times to no avail before they finally found it, vast and gargantuan and breathtaking. A whole new force of nature that still visits Levi in his thoughts with its sounds of gnawing waves, swooshing back and forth, loud and quiet alike in a way that conveys longing and arriving all at once. Just like Eren himself.

Back at home, however, Eren had surprised everyone by leaving without telling anyone where he went or when he’d come back. He just disappeared, quietly, secretly in the middle of the night. No one had noticed his absence until the next day. Mikasa had been furious, threatened to search for him, alone if she had to. It had taken Armin, Jean, and Sasha to calm her down. Levi had let Eren go and almost thought they’d never see him again. It was better than hoping like a fool. Hanji had assigned him a new Squad and Levi had tried to forget.

About a month later Eren had come back, looking alarmingly pale, worn out, and listless. But alive. And just as sudden as he’d returned, Eren had left the military for good to plunge into medical apprenticeship at a doctor’s office in town.

The first time he’d met Levi here was by mere coincidence; a stroll through the park he’d said, cheeks pinked by a cold winter wind and looking honestly astonished at Levi’s sight. He’d sat down and accompanied Levi with that perfected nonchalance that was polite yet implied that disagreeing wouldn’t be worth the matter. Levi had offered half of his lunch, Eren had accepted and they’d finished their respective breaks in near-silence and parted with an exchange of almost-smiles and nods. On the next day Eren had come back and brought his own food. As on the day after that and the day after that and it’s been like this ever since.

Lunchtime with Eren is the highlight of Levi’s day.

It might have something to do with Eren’s smile. It is bright and colourful, makes the whole world shine, and Levi just can’t get enough of it. It’s everything he isn’t and yet everything he needs.

 

*~*~*~*~

 

“Hey, stranger.”

Rain clouds are gathering up in the sky today, piling up in grey mount-like shapes, and looking so heavy that the world seems to be just a bit compressed.

The cat is here again and doesn’t flee at Eren’s sight this time. It looks haggard with its visibly prominent ribs and Levi pinches a bit of cheese out from between the slices of his bread, holding it out for a pink nose to sniff at.

“You are late.”

Eren sits down.

Bread changes hands. It always does, ever since Eren had returned on the following noon after their first accidental meeting. It had been autumn back then. Colourful leaves had peppered the ground and the bench, rustling with every gust of wind and making Eren appear even warmer than usual in the midst of vibrant orange, red, yellow, and brown. Eren had looked at Levi’s daily sandwich with cheese, then at his own one with ham, and said it would be good to swap from time to time. Levi had said it would be fine and Eren had rolled his eyes, and offered one half of his share with a challenging look. Levi had given in and accepted. Eren had always had a way of making him try new things.

“You look tired,” Levi says.

“Yeah, I’ve been studying last night and forgot to go to sleep.”

Some things never seem to change. “Hm.”

Having come to the conclusion it must be safe to eat the cheese the cat pokes out a warm tongue to lick it out of Levi’s fingers, followed by a hesitant poking of his hand.

“Making new friends?” Eren asks softly.

Levi carefully tickles the cat’s chin, earning himself another poke and a faint purr. “Maybe.”

There’s that smile to his right again and Levi seizes it, wraps it around himself like a piece of armour.

It’s been a long time since the earth as Levi knew it had begun to turn around Eren Yaeger. In hindsight that feeling has probably always been there, simmering, waiting. Growing like a tree, so tiny and inconspicuous at first, only to become a fragile plantlet that begins to connect more and more with the earth, grows roots and branches, becomes tall and taller, until it is big enough to offer protection and strength. A place to retreat to when everything else seems to crumble down. To lean against its wide stem or climb up to its top to watch the world, a world that seems so small from up above that it isn’t dangerous anymore, only beautiful, until one feels like flying. And like aching.

Because as ridiculous as it is, Levi finds himself completely incapable of doing anything about it.

All he can do is sitting here, day after day, after day, guarding his sanity and his heart, and building walls around himself instead of reaching out and taking that warmth, that smile, that little bit of happiness that’s in his reach and yet so far away at the same time.

The first raindrop falls when Eren stands up and leaves Levi and the cat behind on the bench.

 

*~*~*~*~

 

“You should stop going out for lunch.” Hanji eyes him sternly through her thick glasses, arms folded and eyes full with worry. And maybe she has a point.

“No.”

“It doesn’t do you good, Levi.” It speaks for their friendship that she simply states it with as much reserve as she can muster.

“It’s a routine.”

“You could find another one.”

He cringes inwardly. The mere idea of leaving the comfortably familiar place for something unpredictable doesn’t seem appealing. “I’m fine.”

“Don’t insult me, we both know you’re not. When did you last sleep?”

“At night,” he answers dryly, hoisting the gear off his hips and slipping into a thicker coat.

“Which one?”

He summons his best glare but that never really has put her off.

“Levi–”

“See you later. I’ve got a cat to feed.”

He grabs his lunch bag and silently closes the door behind him.

 

*~*~*~*~

 

The cat isn't here today. Maybe the park is too dank from the rain that has been chilling the world throughout the night until it has glittered under a veil of frost in the early morning. Even now under the midday sun it’s a bit too cold and the remaining dampness in the air is on its persistent mission to gnaw its way through Levi’s spring coat. He wraps it closer around himself and wishes he could think of something else than the fact that it would be warm next to Eren.

He also wishes he’d brought some hot tea. But then again, tea goes awfully stale when it’s been resting for a while.

In spite of the icy temperatures the buds on most of the trees in the park have finally burst and the first leaves unfold in a bright, wonderfully rich green that nearly only spring can supply.

Nearly.

Footsteps crunch on the gravel.

“Hey, stranger.”

Eren smells like spring too. Like rain and the outside. Like sun-kissed soil and wind and not at all like the illness and medicine he surrounds himself with at work. And every time he sits down next to Levi a little bit of his enticing scent wafts over to him and floods his lungs with that delicious richness and the all too familiar longing.

“You’re late,” he manages.

“I know.” Reaching into his bag Eren produces not only his contribution to lunch in the shape of bread, but also a small thermos flask. “I brought something,” he explains, pouring some liquid into the cap and holding it out. “It’s not exactly the right season for spices, but well…” He shrugs.

Shooting him a curious glance Levi takes hold of the cap and shortly examines the opaque liquid. It is warm enough to pleasantly heat his fingertips through the metal and the scent of cinnamon and something sweet and fruity rises up into his nose in a gentle plume of steam.

“Mulled apple juice,” Eren explains and Levi takes a sip.

It’s heavenly. The spices sear through his blood and mind, coddle him from the inside out and the warmth of the juice spreads through his veins in a pleasant rush. Eren is right, it’s not exactly the season for all these spices, but it doesn’t matter. The world is cold today and this drink is everything but.

He offers the cap back. “It’s good.”

For the briefest of moments Eren looks surprised, but accepts it with a beam to take a sip as well. He fills up the cap again and puts it down between them on the bench before handing over his share of the bread. “I thought we could use it in this cold.”

Levi ignores the blatant fib. Eren doesn’t need it. He’s got his coat open again and Levi can feel his body heat wafting over to him. Can smell it. “What did you flavour it with?”

“Anise, cloves and cardamom along the cinnamon. Orange.”

“Sasha?”

“No. A rather talkative patient. They might get along well, though.”

Levi snorts. “I bet. Thank you.”

“Mm.”

 

*~*~*~*~

 

By the time Levi has eaten half his lunch on the next day he can tell Eren is in a particularly quiet mood. It emanates him in waves and surrounds him in an invisible barrier.

The flask with the mulled juice stands between them again. It’s spices are a bit more prominent as he remembers and Levi suspects it has been waiting for him on Eren’s stove since yesterday. 

As opposed to yesterday, however, the cat is back and Levi nods at it, calmly reaches into his bag and produces a small bottle with cream and a little bowl which he carefully puts into a spot on the grass, sheltered by the bench and the trees in their back. Eating his lunch he decisively disregards the animal who approaches the offered meal with reflexive twitches of its paw, sniffs attentively for a moment and eventually sits down to drink.

Besides him Levi can feel Eren relax and smile.

“Definitely a new friend,” he says. The first words since their greeting.

“Seems so,” Levi admits, warming his hands on the juice. “Animals are good listeners.”

“Hm.”

A curious, pink nose nudges against Levi’s leg.

“It’s a cute one, isn’t it?” Eren says.

“I think it is a she. And she isn’t pretty.”

“Doesn’t matter, does it?”

“No.”

While the cats keeps on examining Levi’s legs Eren falls back into silence for a while before he speaks again. “Sometimes I wonder how I would look like today without my healing.”

“Probably worse than she does,” Levi eventually answers. “You’ve always liked getting into trouble.”

Eren chuckles. “That’s not fair. Trouble liked finding me and I had to fight back.”

Levi smiles back. “Semantics.”

Eren rolls his eyes but still grins.

“I'm glad you still here, though.”

“Yeah, me too. Even though it's weird. I see so much sickness every day. Injuries that my body would heal in a few minutes. Infections that will never affect me. I wish I could help them more.”

By the sound of his voice Levi doesn't need Eren to say that it makes him angry. He can hear the scowl, the tenseness in his shoulders, the tightness of his hands.

“You are helping. You always have.” He affirms and notices the shadows under Eren’s eyes that tell he is more tired than he wants to let on. “You're one of the hardest working people I know.” He offers a small, teasing smile. “Even though you laze around on a park bench every noon.”

“What can I say?” Eren smiles back, eyes sparkling and a faint blush blooming on his cheeks. “I like it here.”

I like it too.

As always though the words stay stuck in his throat and lay there heavily, leaving him silent.

Maybe, Levi thinks, maybe this part of the park is a perfect hideout for misfits. As long as they have each other everything will be alright. Somehow.

At least he hopes they will be.

 

*~*~*~*~

 

Hope arrives late-not-really-late as usual on the next day. He looks lost these days and Levi doesn’t like it one bit, remembers these eyes burning like a pair of furnaces even when their owner was chained and on the edge of death. Nowadays he is free and looks somewhat like a prisoner nonetheless.

The cold has loosened its grip and the apple trees surrounding their bench have reached their full blossom. With every frosty breeze a new shower of little petals floats up into the air and sprinkles their quiet, little lunch nook with pink. The petals settle on Eren’s shoulders, on Eren’s hair, and one particularly ambitious one has landed on Eren’s knuckles.

Eren moves his hand and it wafts away. Levi watches it rise into the air for a second or two and then gently dance down.

And then every peaceful thought falls out of Levi’s head as Eren clears his throat.

“Do you miss the ocean?”

Keeping his breath even at the unsuspected question Levi frowns and carefully chews on his last bite of bread with ham.

It shouldn’t be this complicated to answer and yet his heart clenches in his chest.

“Do you?” He asks.

Levi recalls Eren standing on top of the cliffs, gaze fixed on the horizon and the endless waters below that reflected in his eyes alongside the sky. Back then Levi had thought the sight would give Eren some of his former spirit back, and in some way it certainly had. But it also had had a calming effect that hasn't ceased since. Eren had sat down right there in the grass and said nothing.

Somehow Levi had known right then and there that this would be Eren’s last expedition. It had felt like saying hello and goodbye at the same time.

There's silence for a while. And then: “No.” Eren shrugs. “Sometimes. Parts of it.”

Green eyes meet his, searching, inviting, pleading. Levi can see the loneliness in them that mirrors his own, the hesitation and the insecurity, the anxiousness and the silent hope and he loathes himself for not knowing what to do, for breaking their eye contact with a weak, apologetic frown instead of reaching out and threading his fingers through Eren’s like he wants to.

He senses Eren’s defeated nod, hears the unspoken “why?” and can taste the hurt.

Words have always been mostly unnecessary between him and Eren and yet, sometimes, he wishes he’d have more of them. Or that he’d at least be better with saying those he has out loud.

Levi tries not to inhale the remains of Eren’s scent as he watches him go, shoulders tense and head drooping just the slightest bit but enough for Levi to notice and to make him ache all over again.

“I’m sorry,” he says to the empty space besides him, much too late. “I miss you too.”

From behind him sounds a compassionate “miaow.”

How do people normally do this?

The cat pokes his thigh and purrs.

Just do it.

 

*~*~*~*~

 

The cat becomes less and less scared of them with every day.

Levi wouldn't go as far and think of her as tamed. Her temper is too wild for that, her experience too tarnished. Going by her visible proofs of hardship she probably wouldn't even be alive anymore without her ructious nature. Still, it is obvious she has developed some kind of trust towards this bench with its daily occupants and with every noon she seems to be more trusting. Especially Eren seems to have a charm on her; something Levi can too well empathise.

Eren is warm in every sense of the word. Pleasant fingers, kind voice, and cordial smile. A loving heart and gracious body.

Grey snow clouds loom over the pink trees as Levi and Eren watch the cat hop onto the bench and—after sniffing warily—turn around in a couple of circles before curling into a ball between the them whilst warming her back on Eren’s thighs.

“Seems like I can't go back to work now,” Eren says quietly with a grin.

Levi snorts.

The cat startles but after blinking shortly she decides there’s no danger here and snuggles back into her prior position.

“She purrs,” Eren nearly whispers, looking fondly at the figure between them.

Of course, she does. You’re a furnace.

The impulse to touch is too big in the following silence and Levi lets his hand rest on the cat's fur. It's bristly but still soft and astonishingly warm. A little ball of comforting heat. Her body vibrates softly under his fingertips and enhances as he begins to crawl.

He’s always liked cats. Maybe he should learn a lesson from her.

“Good cat.”

“We should give her a name.”

“Why?”

“Because “cat” sounds strange.”

“It’s working fine.”

“It’s strange,” Eren insists. “Do I call you “human”?”

Smiling Levi looks down at the cat in question—her fur a little bit more shiny than when he first saw her, ripped ear and scars, still a bit too thin, but clean, graceful, and proud.

“Lady,” he says, stroking her back.

Eren’s following beam is so bright that Levi has to look away again and can’t suppress a responsive smile of his own that rises from the pit of his stomach.

From afar the city bell rings. Their time is up. At least for today.

Sighing Eren stretches languorously, looking almost a little bit like a cat himself. “Well, I should go before my boss calls me lazy.”

“Hm. Good luck with that.”

Eren grins and leaves behind a trace of rain and sunshine.

“He’s beautiful, isn’t he?” Levi mumbles.

Lady sighs.

“What do you think I should do?”

She blinks and purrs, begins to tread her paws.

“Yeah, maybe you’re right.”

He lets her rest against his thigh for a while longer before he reluctantly stands up as well and makes his way back to HQ.

 

*~*~*~*~

 

Cats are wonderful beings, Levi decides as their usual guest first coils up on his lap, paws treading, eyes blinking, whiskers vibrating under a gentle purr that seems to hum through him as well and loosens his tense muscles into a puddle of relaxed bliss.

It is a small heat, but concentrated and soothing as it presses against Levi’s hands when he begins to course his fingers through the cat’s fur.

Memories want to rise under the connection to something living and he pushes them away as well as he can. It's pathetic, Levi thinks. They're memories. They aren't his alone and yet, maybe thinking about them too much or uttering them out loud will mean they were never true.

But it’s so warm and secluded on this bench and Eren is sitting next to him and for a short, unguarded moment Levi allows himself to close his eyes and remember a long, slender arm wrapping around him from behind, warming him throughout a winter on the road without ever being asked to do so. It’s been another one of these silent offers that somehow had been impossible to refuse, even though a simple no would probably have sufficed to avoid this situation from ever happening.

But the winter on the road indeed had been biting cold and one night Eren had visited Levi in his tent and simply stated it was freezing before demanding some space and slipping next to Levi under the thin blanket.

And as with so many other little things Eren had made himself a part of it, coming back night after night until the earth wasn’t icy anymore, only to come back the winter after that—the winter they’d found the sea. They had nothing with them, no home, no amenities, no real plan for the future. And yet it had been one of the happiest times in Levi’s life.

He hadn’t understood Eren’s disappearance when they returned to HQ after finding the ocean. He still doesn’t know where he went back then, still doesn’t know if it’s alright to ask. He’d been telling himself he was too strong to be consumed by that sudden loss, that feeling as if someone had cut something out of his life, out of himself, and told himself to move on like he’d already done so many times before. Then Eren had come back and looked as unhappy as Levi felt.

It’s clear why Hanji keeps on warning him to be careful. But he can’t bring himself to tell her it’s already too late. You can’t change what your heart wants. Can’t help who you love.

It should be ridiculous, and still Levi can’t remember longing for anything so badly as to feel Eren’s arms around him again. Maybe he’d finally find the courage to turn around and embrace back.

Growing old together never has been one of Levi’s dreams. Alone the dream of growing old itself is a far stretch to begin with in this world and he'd learned that lesson right from the start. But Levi has seen it. People, old people, living together, walking through this park with slow steps, one person leaning on the other, sometimes even holding hands. Sitting next to each other on a park bench…

He’s not envious. Not really.

Next to him Eren bites into his sandwich, carefully trying to not litter the space around him with crumbs and now assiduously picking a few stray ones off his cloak with long, pristine fingers.

Winning the war had at least granted them this. The possibility of making it through a whole year without any immediate danger. A bigger chance of growing old together as friends, confidants even if it isn't too presumptuous to call them that. Eren knows things about him that no one else knows, not even Hanji. He knows about Levi’s aching foot when the weather is too wet and cold, he knows about his nighttime cramps, and about how exactly Levi likes his tea to be brewed. And even though Mikasa and Armin probably know more about Eren than Levi does...it is enough. More than.

And maybe, one day, it will stop hurting like it does. It has to.

Lady opens her eyes and silently signs to him to take his chances.

Not today, he thinks.

When then? Lady blinks. And goes back to sleep.

Cats always do what they want to. They don’t hesitate to take what they want without asking for permission, quietly shaping their surroundings to their personality without ever really disturbing it. Instead they enrich it, make life worthwhile and a better place.

Sometimes Levi thinks cats are the most amazing creatures on this earth.

Maybe he should do something after all. One single, small step at a time.

Tomorrow.

And no turning back this time.

 

*~*~*~*~

 

The birds are chirping under a bright spring sun when Levi enters the park on the next noon, finding it filled with people. His bench, theirs, however, is empty. Somehow it always is.

He sits down and waits with his pulse in his throat, going through another discussion with Hanji. He wishes she would stop worrying. Then again, it’s good to have someone who gives a damn. He’s only got this many friends and he cherishes her concern.

A couple passes by, smiling at each other and holding hands as Eren plops down to his right.

“Hey, stranger.” He sounds tired. Too tired.

“You’re late.”

“Hm. No Lady today?”

“Not yet at least.”

They exchange bread and begin to eat.

“Mikasa wrote,” Eren says when he’s finished with his share of the food. “She says I should say hi.”

Levi nods. “How are they?”

“Alright, I guess.” Eren picks at a splinter of paint and examines the yellow varnish cracking more and more under his nails. “‘kasa is pregnant.”

Oh.

Something stirs in his gut and mingles with an ambivalent mixture of feelings. Happiness for Mikasa’s and Jean’s happiness, a silent wish that it will go well. Anticipation of something good happening. Irritation that they’ve truly come this far—that they can celebrate a new life among their midst for once. Uncertainty what Eren feels about the whole situation. Levi knows Eren isn’t jealous, but he doesn’t look particularly jubilant either.

Rubbing the yellow dust between his fingertips Eren continues. “They bought a flat with a back yard and everything. It’s all very domestic.”

“Well…, congratulations.” Levi doesn’t know what else to say while Eren begins to pick at the paint again.

“Mm.”

“Jean will be thrilled,” he offers eventually. “Babies shit a lot.”

Eren snorts and for a moment the world is sparkling. “I already wrote them that,” he admits with a conspiratory twinkle in his eyes.

“Good.”

“It’s kind of odd, though. Just yesterday we enlisted for Training Corps and now Mikasa is married with a kid on her way, Armin is exploring, and I’ll be an uncle.”

Understanding, Levi nods. He so much wants to reach out, but can’t, so he searches for a faint grin that he knows he has somewhere. “You grew a lot since that yesterday.

To his delight the comment elicits a chuckle and Eren’s smile still lingers when he continues. “I know it’s silly to think about that stuff.”

“It’s not. Life changes things and mostly not how we expect them to.”

“Hm. I certainly did not imagine to become a doctor one day. It’s sickeningly traditional, don’t you think?”

Levi holds his questioning gaze. “There’s nothing wrong with tradition. We all have to do something with our lives, don’t we.”

“I suppose.”

“You’ll be an uncle.” Levi teases.

“To Jean’s child. Ugh!” Eren’s groan and accompanying shudder are more out of habit than really genuine. “Good thing I already ate, huh?”

Levi smiles. “He’s not that bad.”

“No, I guess he’s not,” Eren admits easily, grinning.

A sudden outburst of delight attracts their attention and makes them turn their heads. Two kids lie in the grass ahead, pointing at the clouds, whispering into each other’s ear, and giggling from time to time.

Eren glances up at the sky as well. “Oh. A bunny.”

“What,” Levi answers.

“It’s a bunny. Look there’s the ears and there’s the tail.”

“It's a cloud.”

“It’s a…” Eren stops. “Don't tell me you never looked at the sky and made up shapes for clouds.”

Levi stares back. Raises an eyebrow and can tell the exact moment Eren understands.

“Oh.”

“So, that's a thing, yes?” Levi asks.

“Um...yeah. I did it a lot when I was young.”

Levi smiles at the thought. He can't help it. “How does it work. You just look at a cloud and think what animal it reminds you of?”

“Pretty much, yeah.” Eren grins. “But not just animals. It could be anything. And sometimes you’ll end up bickering about what you see.”

“Hm.” The clouds are big and puffy today, darker at the bottom and illuminated by the sun from behind, bright cotton balls against the pale, blue sky. Most of them seem bulky and nothing else, but Levi finds one that looks like a semi-circle on top of a narrower shape.

“Mushroom,” he says, nodding at it. Eren in the corner of his eyes smiles.

“Nice one,” Eren says. “Let's see…” His expression is concentrated as he chews on his lip, the clouds mirroring in his eyes, making them shine and fuck, Levi really does love him.

“Duckling.” Eren points at a fledgling-shaped cloud a bit to their left.

Keeping a stern expression Levi gives himself a little push.

One small step at a time. He can do this!

“How's that a duckling.”

Chuckling, Eren points upwards again. “There’s the head and the beak, see, on the right? And on the other side there’s its back.”

Levi squints his eyes. He has to admit that he is enjoying himself. “No way that this is a duckling. Looks more like a potato to me.”

“How can this not be a duckling? It even has a hole where it’s eye is supposed to be and–” Eren notices Levi’s smirk. “You’re teasing.”

“You said sometimes there’s bickering. I only did what I was told to do.”

Another chuckle and a pair of sparkling eyes meeting Levi’s. “True. See? It's fun.”

“Mm.”

“It's even more fun when you're lying in the grass, though,” Eren adds mischievously.

“Not a chance,” Levi growls.

“Ah, well.” Eren grins and looks up at the sky again. “It was worth a try. Your turn, then. I still have a few minutes left before I’ve got to go back to my books.”

 

*~*~*~*~

 

Cloud gazing becomes a new daily ritual at lunch break.

“Oak leaf.” Eren gestures at a particularly misshapen cloud and tilts his head. “Odd.”

“I agree.”

Lady stretches leisurely. She’s napping on Eren’s lap today and seems quite content, blinking happily every now and then and moving her paws in utter delight. Eren doesn’t seem to mind that his trousers will probably soon end in resembling terry cloth.

“She’s so warm,” Eren says, following Levi’s gaze.

“She is.”

Eren yawns and rubs his shadowed eyes. He probably studied throughout the night again.

“How’s work?” Levi asks.

“It’s alright. I started writing on my graduation essay yesterday.”

“Difficult topic?”

“No, it’s alright,” Eren mumbles, his earlobes flushing, suddenly very interested in the paint on the bench again.

Lady opens her amber eyes. Ask.

“What’s it about?”

“Orthopaedy,” Eren admits, and Levi can only stare. “I’m not really studying it,” Eren hastens to explain. “It’s just…I have to write the essay on a special field and it sounded…interesting. You never know when…it’s war wounds in general too.”

For me. You’re doing it for me.

And the realisation comes immediately.

“You didn’t leave because of me,” Levi says.

Puzzled, green eyes snap up from the bench to settle on him. “What! No!”

Lady sighs.

“I didn’t leave because of you,” Eren says again, frowning now and petting Lady’s back in appeasement.

Levi considers it for a moment. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” Eren says after a while. And then: “yes. It wasn’t really supposed to be a secret, you know. But I just couldn’t…”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s not.” Eren shakes his head. “It wasn’t fair to leave without a word.”

A butterfly flutters by and Eren regards it as he forms the sentences.

“I went to Shingashina. I needed to check…”

It takes Eren a while before he starts again. Levi doesn’t push him. Only looks at the park and its trees and tries his best to keep up.

“When we went there for the basement I didn’t even think about it. We’ve been so busy with other things.

“I thought visiting my home would help to finally come to terms with everything. I thought that if I went back to where I couldn’t save her and lift that roof beam I’d find my peace and…other things.”

Levi’s chest aches. Eren doesn’t have to go on for him to guess what happened. He can hear it in his voice and he’d seen it in his eyes when he returned, can still sense it in his quietness and his graveness.

“I couldn’t move it. Not a bit. All these years of training. All this stupid war and fighting and using every minute to get stronger. And I still can’t save her. Not as a human, anyway.”

Levi tries to picture it. Eren with that tenacious frown on his brow standing between the ruins of his childhood, trying to lift a piece of wood that once was supposed to carry a whole roof, stubbornly refusing to transform, and not giving up until his hands were splintered and bloody and exhaustion had taken over. And probably giving it another go when he’d woken up again. And again and again.

“Sometimes we can’t save who we love,” Levi offers. “No matter how strong we are. And you survived. She’d be proud, Eren.”

“I suppose.” Eren shrugs. “The odd thing is, I sat there and knew exactly that this was it. I don’t want to fight anymore. I want to help.”

Levi holds his gaze. “And you will.”

The most hopeful of smiles spreads over Eren’s features for a blissful, warm moment that makes Levi’s heart lurch.

Do you even know how strong and beautiful you are?

What I’d give to be able to tell you that.

The bell rings.

And as he watches Eren stand up Levi plucks up his courage and stands up as well. Time for a change. One small step at a time.

“See you tomorrow?” he asks.

Eren looks back and smiles. “See you tomorrow, Levi.”

 

*~*~*~*~

 

On the next day Levi brings a threadbare blanket.

He’s been considering it all morning long and in the end he’d slipped into the stables, fetched one of the better-looking, old horse rugs, and hurried off to lunch before he could change his mind.

Now the blanket rests next to him on the bench and he considers it a rather silly idea. But he knows he has to do something, and after Eren had offered a part of himself yesterday, he should do the same.

“Don’t be a coward,” he mutters to himself and silently waits for Eren’s appearance. “It’s just a stupid blanket.”

He doesn’t have to wait long. Only a few moments later he already can hear the familiar sound of boots crunching on the gravel and just as always his heart begins to speed up with every approaching step.

“Hello, stranger.”

“Hello, Eren.”

Obviously surprised Eren lifts an eyebrow and then notices the horse rug. “Is that a blanket?”

Levi braces himself. “You said it is better to watch the clouds from the grass.”

“Um…”

“Lunch first,” Levi insists.

Eren grins. “Okay.”  

And he sits down.

“Ham?”

“Thank you.”

 

*~*~*~*~

 

One small step at a time spring melts into the early days of summer.

The apple trees behind their bench carry green, little fruits, and the air is buzzing with bees. Dandelions cover the meadow nearby, losing their seeds that flow up into the sky with every blow of the wind.

Levi watches them fly from underneath, laying on his back next to Eren. He’d never admit out loud that he really likes it here, watching the sky from a different angle and doing nothing of much significance, but gazing at clouds. Sometimes he can pretend that the whole world disappears during lunch time and that’s alright.

Children laugh nearby, scream with joy, and the wind whistles in the trees, reminding Levi of the ocean and the birds there. He allows himself to close his eyes and fills his lungs with the scents of grass and sun.

It’s been so long since their expedition times. And even though on some days it feels surreal enough to convince himself that it’s never even happened on some other days it’s like he’s still got the scent of salt on him, just stood on the top of the cliffs and curled up into a warm embrace at night whilst listening to the sea crushing against the rocks in wave after wave after wave. A constant give and take of land and water alike, hungry and saturated, leaving and returning, welcoming and letting go, always, always. Forever.

Harmonic. Balanced.

Do you miss the ocean?

“It sounds just like it, doesn’t it?” Eren says and Levi opens his eyes to a nearly cloudless sky far away from his wandering thoughts.

“A bit, yes,” he admits. “It’s nice.”

“Hm.”

And it is.

Lady rests at his side, napping and soaking up the sun. She’s gained weight over the last couple of weeks, just enough to not look haggard anymore and it suits her.

And Levi still follows her example.

He’s started varying his daily sandwich fillings, just out of curiosity, and earned another smile from Eren at the first habitual exchange that didn’t supply him with the usual cheese. He’s started inviting Hanji to his place on Friday evenings. He’s started making it into a home instead of merely a couple of walls to live in, filling it with little pieces of memories, a cosy pair of armchairs, and investing in a comfortable bed. He’s still got a long way to go, but it doesn’t seem too impossible anymore. He’ll get there. One small step at a time.

A soft summer breeze makes the grass around them whisper in the wind. It gently cools his cheeks that have been heated by the sun, and carries the scent of warmth, earth, and a reminder of spring.

Good times for a change.

Burying his left hand in Lady’s soft fur for support Levi slowly reaches out with his right.

Now or never.

He finds a hand, warm and soft under his touch, and Eren next to him becomes very still. Encouraged Levi searches on, reaches further until he finds long, slender fingers that invitingly open up to easily intertwine with his own.

Levi catches his breath and closes his eyes as he wills his heart to stop pounding this frantically behind his ribs, while the surrounding world shrinks together until it’s only them and one single wish.

Please…

Please.

“Levi, I…”

“Shhh.”

Eren smiles.

Levi can feel it like the sunshine on his skin, feels him radiating and glowing, feels his pulse speeding up against his own.

Warm, alluring, promising.

He blinks his eyes open.

“I miss it too,” he says, carefully running his thumb over Eren’s. “Am I too late?”

And with that he turns his head, waits. Hopes.

Please.

Eren squeezes his hand, turns his head as well and simply looks at him with such an open fondness that it makes Levi gulp and his stomach swoop. “No.”

Levi blinks, squeezes back, and takes in the silence around them, wondering how on earth he ever could have thought waiting all these years for this to happen would make sense.

“Do you have plans this evening?” Levi whispers.

“I have now.”

“Good.” He lifts his hand and presses Eren’s wrist against his lips. “Good.”

Ahead the city bell rings.

At his side Lady begins to purr.

And they just lay here, holding on to each other and wordlessly pouring out sleepless nights and guarded hopes and dreams that now are filled with promises of something worthwhile. Eren makes it all easy, fingertips tracing knuckles and brushing over palms, exploring lifelines, and tentatively caressing exposed skin. No one has ever touched him like this before and Levi wants it to last forever.

“Don’t we have to go back to work?” he asks after a while.

“Yes,” Eren says, smiling up at the sky with sparkling eyes and lacing their fingers again with a gentle squeeze.

Levi smiles. “One more minute then.”

 

*~*~*~*~

 

Good times for a change
See, the luck I've had
Can make a good man
Turn bad

So please please please
Let me, let me, let me
Let me get what I want
This time

Haven't had a dream in a long time
See, the life I've had
Can make a good man bad

So for once in my life
Let me get what I want
Lord knows, it would be the first time
Lord knows, it would be the first time

-- The Smiths