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The Talk

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“You got piercings together?”

“It was that or a tattoo, Hanji, and fuck if I’m gonna get a tattoo on a first date. What is this, ‘Next?’”

The BLEEP over his expletive was nothing new but it never failed to make Levi flinch. The on-air censorship still surprised him every time. Awful, grating, intrusive sound. BLEEP, you’re a bad person. BLEEP, bad word. Did he really swear that much? Oh well. He never claimed to be a saint.  

Hanji almost snorted on her water, and really, the girl should have been in film, not radio, because the facial expressions she made were hella noteworthy. But her whiskey-and-cigarette voice was iconic, as was the dry sarcastic way she bantered through the daily twenty-minute The Talk segment just after the 90s at noon. Raunchy entertainment for boring desk jobs and stuffed cubicles, courtesy of 102.9 FM, the highest-rated alt-rock station in the surrounding seventy miles. And Levi figured she looked no better anywhere else than she did behind the mic and the switchboard, headphones on and glasses perched atop her head, unneeded when she wasn’t reading.

“So where’d you get it?” Hanji prodded.

“Where’d I get what?”

“The piercing.”

“Oh, at Dirty Dave’s—”

“Not the parlor, you jerk—which, by the way, sounds incredibly worrisome—where on you?”

“Oh. My belly button.”

Whaaat—”

“Yeah. She said she thought guys secure enough in their masculinity to get their navel pierced were hot.”

“And you were drunk enough to agree.”

“I was drunk enough to suggest it.”

Hanji was dying. Her laughter was infectious. Levi glanced at the glaring light of the live signal and chuckled low and soft into the mic, smirking meekly. Yeah, that had been an interesting first date to bring up on Flashback Friday. Way back in college, when he’d still been convinced his heterosexual side was the more dominant. And then after he and Isabel had risen the next morning half-naked on the lawn sofa and poked awake by the mailman with the rest of the Home Game victims, she’d said, “It’s probably not gonna work,” and Levi had said, “Move,” and just barely missed throwing up on her pretty red toenails, oh look at that cute butterfly ring. And Erwin had helped him get the belly button ring out between classes later that day, almost laughing too hard to carefully and painlessly extract it cramped as they were into a doorless stall in the Trost Hall bathrooms where everyone Sharpied the names of those who’d put out on the first night under soliciting messages and phone numbers. Call me for a good time – 2 0 6 7 9 8 1 3 1 3. Regina swallows. F A G H A G. God saw what you did to me and you’ll burn in hell for it. Oh, college.

“Okay, okay…” Hanji gathered composure again, clicking around through The Talk’s digital agenda. “One more listener question and then we’re outta here—”

“Two more,” Levi insisted. “I’ll answer fast, I promise.”

“All right—first is—‘Have the two of you ever dated?’”

Hanji met Levi’s eyes with the most ridiculous look of disgust on her face. Levi was sure he mirrored it, nose wrinkling. And together they both dissolved into laughter, fingers curling on scattered papers and memos.

“God no,” Hanji said.

“Not a chance in hell,” Levi said at about the same time.

“Aww, but look—they said we’re perfect for each other—no, I’m sorry, honey, we have great chemistry together but I’m happy with my man and our resident prince of pleasure Levi’s been strictly dickly since 1999. Er, 2000. 2001? Oh shit, can I say ‘dickly’ on-air?”

BLEEP. Apparently dickly was acceptable, but shit was not.

“Somewhere between ’99 and ’01,” Levi politely confirmed. “Last question.”

“‘How much longer do we get The Talk before you find someone you actually fall in love with?’”

Hanji glanced at Levi, her mouth open but nothing coming out. There was a strange apologetic light in her eyes like she knew that was a sore topic and she shouldn’t have read the question, but she had and now they had to deal with it. The silence in the wake of that one was too long. Too long for the airwaves. They’d get a tongue-lashing from Pixis, for sure. Dead air was no bueno.

Levi cleared his throat, not quite sure why he suddenly had a bad taste in his mouth. “Hey,” he grunted into the mic, voice gravelly, “are you asking me out? You’ve gotta come up with something a little wilder and more regrettable than that, the kind of stuff you’re terrified your relatives are gonna bring up over Thanksgiving dinner.”

Cut to the ending mash-up, light switching colors. Off-air. Commercials and then a couple cued songs to carry them over into Mike and Nanaba’s lame afternoon stint. Nobody gave a shit about current events and pop culture. From here on out, they were just waiting for the Top Five at 5.

Levi threw his headphones to his shoulders and stared at the memos where he’d been playing Hangman with himself earlier. Hanji swayed to and fro in her roller chair, nibbling on the eraser end of a pencil.

“Nice save there at the end,” she muttered.

“Mm,” Levi hummed noncommittally.

“Sorry I read that question—”

“I’m not so fragile about the fact that I’m six months from thirty and still coasting by on the entertainment value of my failing love life that you can’t read a damn question, Hanji.”  

“Your love life isn’t failing—”

“It’s nose-diving. It’s a fucking suicide bomber.”

“That implies it had a high point to begin with and I’m not so sure it ever did.”

Friendly jab, with a little nugget of truth wrapped inside. Levi’s shrugged in offhanded agreement.

Because it was the truth, after all. He was closing in on thirty and his peakless love life—well, didn’t actually exist yet. It was just a never-ending chain of one-night stands and zipless fucks and casual dates and friends with too many benefits, full of worthless connections and a steaming hot side order of self-hatred. At least he could still laugh at himself. At least he amused tens of thousands in the range of their FM waves with the scandalous and kinky mishaps and mistakes.

“You’ll find someone,” Hanji encouraged.

“I’m not changing for anyone,” Levi countered, more like a defiant kid than a man whose longest relationship had lasted nine months.  

“…Someone will find you,” Hanji reworded. Levi threw a crumpled-up memo at her. She laughed and batted it away.

The door opened. It was Pixis, the program director, looking characteristically tired and distracted. His two midday disc jockeys quickly attempted to look busy and productive, avoiding his once-over. He had the most awful way of smiling like he knew everything you didn’t want him to know, right before he dropped all his heaviest bombs.

Ah, and there it was, sending Levi’s heart plummeting to the pit of his gut:

“Can I have a word with you before you head out today, Levi?”

 


 

“You’re reviewing the Hole concert at the Moore, next week, aren’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you’re updating the blog with today’s Talk Q&A.”

“As soon as I get home. And the Facebook, and the Twitter.”

“Do you know what your two most popular posts of all time are?”

“Obviously you do, Pixis. Which ones?”

“‘Sex in Public’ and ‘That’s Not a Hickey, That’s a Bruise.’”

“Really? Not even the toys one beats those two?”

“By the comments, people apparently love hearing about getting jiggy on top of your car and twisting your ankle falling in laundry baskets.”

“I feel so special.”

“It’s a controversial program, but people love it…”

“We’re not the Disney station, that’s for sure.”

“Listen. The ratings have fallen since January. Do I even need to say it?”

“No, I get it. My stories aren’t…controversial enough anymore?”

“Well, no, not that… You Olympic medal skate across that thin ice. You’d think all the redneck listeners would blackball us for the mere fact of your sexuality. But it’s a new age, and people crave train wrecks.”

“…Train wrecks. My sex life isn’t crazy enough anymore, is what you’re saying.”

“Exactly! If we don’t get the ratings back up in two months, the program is in deep water and may not be around by next year. If we can make it stick, though… Well, I think a raise is worth it. Right?”

“So what do you suggest, Pixis? Any romantic advice you can give me?”

“I don’t know, Levi! I’m sixty-five years old and have to drink to listen to my wife. Hell if I have any advice for you—try some nasty positions? Oh, you know what… We are supposed to do a review of this strip club downtown… You wanna do that?”

“Sure, but—if I’m technically on the job—can I still drink?”

 


 

Levi didn’t think he was all that unattractive for a guy in his late twenties. Late—late—latest twenties, anyway. And if it didn’t matter to a potential hook-up and maybe steady thing that he stripped himself bare and told a seventy-mile radius (and the whole world online) the nitty-gritty of almost all action he scored, well, they were worth a shot, right? Or they were missing more screws than he was, and no wonder there were so many disasters.

“So Petra and Mr. Handsome slept together again, huh?”

Levi shrugged limply, flipping his straw in and out of his drink. He blinked against a scattering of droplets and scowled.

“Ohhh, it all makes sense now!” Hanji cried, slamming a hand down on the bar. The dim smoky lights flashed off their own reflections in her glasses. Rocks jumped in her lowball. And through the voices and the music and the clatta-clat of the bartender behind the counter like the pool balls in the loft upstairs, Levi slid a resentful look around to meet her dancing eyes, wary of the answer to his painfully obvious but unfortunately requisite question.

“What makes sense now?” he gritted out.

“The way Petra was acting the other day,” Hanji explained. “It makes sense now.”

Goddammit. “I don’t understand what you mean.” I do understand what you mean, though. Regrettably.

“You know, all cute and Petra but—with this overhanging storm cloud of remorse and self-loathing and ‘It’s complicated’ deflection.”

Levi almost choked on his drink. “You see? Erwin is selfish and absolutely blind to the repercussions of his actions. He thinks he can just swoop in all tall and rich, and girls will toss their completely relevant feelings out the back door, but—no. That’s not how it works. He’s using Petra and she’s falling right for it, each time, every time.

“Hnmm…” Hanji drummed her fingers with a little staccato of her nails. “I think you’re jealous.”

It felt like the buzz of the little crowd around the bar attenuated just at that instant, so Levi could make a lovely spectacle of himself as he fired back, “I’m not jealous—” Eyes. Too many eyes. Levi scowled, hunching down over his drink. “I’m not jealous,” he said again, meeting Hanji’s glance grumpily. God, he hated that mad smirk of hers. “It’s just that—as his friend, I hold myself personally responsible when his Rich Hunk Syndrome begins to flare again.”

“As his friend with benefits.” Hanji snorted on her whiskey. “Rich Hunk Syndrome?”

“I could write a case study on it.”

“And you started DJing when you could have majored in snarky psychology…why, again?”

“Waving my dirty laundry for the world just seemed so much more rewarding.”

Hanji’s whiskey-and-cigarette laugh bounced off the bodies around them. “Whatever, buddy,” she hummed, and she tousled his hair like an older sister. She knew it drove him crazy. She also knew she was the only one allowed to do it. Except for Erwin, of course.

Heaven and Hell, the strip club was called, and it was ritzy as fuck. All blue and silver glow inside, ice sculptures and flat-screens flashing football games above the pseudo-futuristic glass bar, with something of a gothic flair like Trinity and The Unicorn had merged with Showgirls. Except the Heaven part was the girls, and the Hell part was the boys. A co-ed strip joint. Was that legal? Was that politically correct? Whatever, it was clean and smart and smelled like incense, not booze and sweat.

“Let’s go by the dancers,” Hanji begged, and Levi was just glad he had Hanji with him. Hanji was the best wingman. But Levi wished Hanji couldn’t read him so well. That Hanji wasn’t right. But she was just so damn good at seeing through the bullshit—

“I’m just feeling restless!” Levi sputtered over his beer, slamming a hand down on the central bar that wound and snaked through the club, rising up a foot or two to the stripper’s walkway. The DJ of the place had a nice fast-paced electronic track going, one that kept the crowd energized enough to forget they were drinking too much and throwing too many dollar bills. The girl strutting and shimmying her way up and down their end of the walkway was cute, but Levi was at the point where he was tipsy enough to give in to anxiety and not yet drunk enough to let it go.

“You’re worried,” Hanji deduced.

“Yeah, I’m worried!”

“About work?”

“No, about life, Hanji. About life. The only person I see myself with in ten years is Erwin, but that’s because we already live together and I’m sure as hell not about to readjust with someone else. But—I just—it’s like that question you read today—how much longer can I really keep doing The Talk before I find someone? And what if I just fuck it up and lose my chance because of The Talk? And if I don’t, well, what if I get boring because it’s just the same old same with the same person?”

“Jesus, did Pixis really upset you that much?”

“I’ve gotta get fresh material for The Talk, Hanji. I’m not crazy enough anymore. I’m thinking maybe angry breakup. Angry breakup sex. New positions. Bondage. Trips to Lovers…?”

“Look, the boys are coming down this way now!”

Hanji bounced in her seat excitedly, lighting up like Christmas morning. Levi sighed, slouching down miserably and picking at his straw again. He just couldn’t stop feeling restless and dissatisfied. And Pixis’s little chat had felt vaguely threatening, and deposited so much pressure on his shoulders—because if he couldn’t save a simple segment like The Talk, what sort of asset did that make him to the station? Not much better than an intern anymore. Just another humdrum lame-ass DJ who talked sports and Kanye’s latest tantrum, and slammed reality TV and got shitfaced at concerts and called it a review. All right, so maybe it wasn’t that bad. He got into incredibly expensive festivals and concerts with VIP access just because of the 102.9 stamp on his badge, didn’t he? He got to meet artists and managers and rub elbows with a lot of great, talented people, and it wasn’t like he was pretending he really wanted to be anything other than the peanut gallery—fuck, was this a midlife crisis? But he was hardly past the quarter-life crisis that had led him to 102.9 in the first place!

“Oh…” Hanji’s elbow dug into his side. She threw her arm around his shoulders and pressed her mouth to the shell of his ear, eyes trained on the guy making his way to the end of the walkway. “Oh, look at him,” she purred.

Levi wasn’t too excited—he was very preoccupied pitying himself—but then he lifted his eyes—and he froze as if a toy whose key needed another twist or two.

Him. Dark hair, flashing eyes. A shade of seduction about him that seemed mildly volatile and mysterious. Had to be freshly eighteen or at least a twenty-something whose youth clung to him, like that long slim frame and the flicker of tight muscles under sunkissed skin. Sunkissed skin that looked silky-soft and fever-hot to the touch, and he was barefoot on the glowing walkway, which gave for a strange primal boyish childhood summer sensuality that leather and boots failed to evoke. All he wore was a pair of shorts, tight shorts, clinging shorts, shorts that nipped at the jut of his hips and drew attention to the perfect smooth stretch of his legs. Virility. Ganymede. God of youthful masculinity, right there, with a cute heart-shaped face and the ghost of a smirk on a precious parted mouth. His hair was in his eyes. But he caught Levi staring, and maybe the best part about him was that there wasn’t an ounce of shame in him to be found. Or so it seemed.

The club’s thudding beat cascaded down Levi’s spine. The stripper wouldn’t break the stare-down. His toes splayed on the white walkway as he went down into an erotic crouch, rolled forward on the balls of his feet and onto his knees. Fuck, look at the shadow of ribs. The tension in his abs. Nipples. The roll of his shoulders was feline, the hunter’s glint in his eyes intense. He knew he had Levi ensnared. It was his job. And he was fucking good at it. It looked like he was trying not to laugh at Levi’s open-mouthed stare. But Levi was too bewitched to be offended. Right, feline, but now serpentine as he swung his hips forward and stood without using his hands. And then he just moved to the music, tearing his eyes from Levi’s only when a group of bachelorettes whistled at him from the other end of the walkway and he went down on his knees still bouncing to the music to take their crumpled bills in the waist of his tiny shorts.

“They call him Jaeger Bomb,” Hanji yelled over the noise. The crowd was going wild suddenly, now that the performers were really making their rounds.

“How original,” Levi scoffed.

“I guess his last name is Jäger, though. I think it’s cute. I think he’s cute.”

Levi didn’t agree or disagree. His heart was in his throat and his face was on fire. He couldn’t rip his eyes from the guy, watching the way he slithered and moved for strangers. The cocktail waitress with the shimmering wedge cut was talking to him, but he heard nothing. Eventually she left.

“I got it!” Hanji cried, so close to Levi’s ear that he actually jumped.

“What the hell—”

“I got it! Something crazy for you to do for The Talk! Sleep with a stripper!”

Levi burst into laughter. “Oh my God, I’m still too sober for this.” But the laughter died away as he realized Hanji was staring at him pointedly like she’d missed the joke. “What? Excuse me? How about I just get a lap dance and we’ll call it good? You don’t sleep with strippers, Hanji. They just strip. Stripper. Not sleeper.”

Prostitute,” Hanji corrected. “Sleepers are the eye boogers you have in the morning.”

“I’m too sober for this,” Levi repeated.

And so it was another round, and somewhere between his third rum and Coke and a mixed drink the bartender proudly called “Dante’s Inferno,” Levi found himself turned away from the bar on the receiving end of a lap dance from Jaeger Bomb.

All the patrons in watching range whooped and heckled good-naturedly as the stripper worked his black magic. The loudest of all was Hanji, little shit of a wingman. She’d bought it for him, of course. Rock of the hips, swing of the ass, tantalizing closeness and that hardened look of carnal need in his little half-smirk. Hardened—practiced. And Levi blushed like he was a kid with a crush again, wondering if he tasted like licorice, like Jaeger. Dreamily thinking he looked so soft and beautiful, he could crush him like a rose in his palm. But this was clearly a kid with experience. A vagabond angel who knew his way around the block. Oh shit, he was getting poetic. He was head over heels. Fuck.

“You’re good at this,” Levi husked when Jaeger Bomb was close enough to be the only one in earshot.

“I kind of do it often,” Jaeger Bomb whispered back, and the heat between their laps was almost too much to endure. Shit. Levi was hard. Fuck this shit. It was all a well-manicured act, of course. It was the kid’s job. And he did it so well

“Do you ever sleep with your patrons?” Levi grumbled next, raising a tentative glance to seek out Jaeger Bomb’s burning eyes. It was honest and harmless curiosity, really, but it had come out sounding all too hinty-hint. Damn it.

Jaeger Bomb’s body ground to a halt. The distance of inches, of breaths between them was torturous. And there was something so raw and vulnerable about the way Jaeger Bomb frantically met Levi’s stare like he’d been caught with the reddest of red hands. Was he blushing? Goddamn, leave it to Levi to make a stripper blush. Why couldn’t he just be a normal man with a normal sex life?

“I don’t kiss and tell,” Jaeger Bomb husked, voice like burnt velvet on Levi’s ears. A shudder snaked down his spine. “You should buy an hour in the Red Room—the VIP room—”

“No.” Levi shook his head, shifting below the dance of Jaeger Bomb’s hips. He cleared his throat. “Maybe next time. I mean, if there’s a next time. See, this is for work…”

Jaeger Bomb laughed and it was probably the most amazing thing to grace Levi’s ears in a long time. “For work? Where the hell do you work, buddy?”

“102.9, The Ex.”

Jaeger Bomb dropped his leg from where he’d thrown it up near Levi’s shoulder. His eyes danced—with a new light, an unpracticed and childish sort of light. “I knew it!” he sputtered. “I knew I recognized your voice! You do the 90s at noon, right?”

“Yeah…”

“I won tickets from you guys once! Yeah, I’d like—just woken up and I ran around my apartment naked trying to call in and I totally got on-air and I won tickets to NIN from you guys.”

Levi was briefly distracted by the image of a messy apartment and a naked Jaeger Bomb with bedhead and sleepers. Maybe the kind of studio with a fire escape out the window. Maybe hickeys.

“You wanna go see Hole?” Levi asked before he could keep check of how fast the rum talked.

Jaeger Bomb was ecstatic. Professional character gave way to a little bit of hopping from foot to foot and an awkward shuffle of the hands through his lovely dark hair. “Are you serious right now? You’d just give me tickets, right here, right now?”

“Yeah. I’m going next week, at the Moore down on Skid Row. You can come with me.”

Jaeger Bomb snapped back into work mode, propping a heel on the edge of Levi’s chair—right between Levi’s thighs. He smirked, and although every inch of his body was back in gear, his eyes still gleamed with that honest excitement. “I’m not allowed to give out personal info on the clock,” he murmured. “You know, don’t wanna invite advances from dangerous creeps and weirdoes. This is a tightly-run ship, my radio friend, but—seriously, if you’re telling the truth, slip the waitress with the red scarf your digits and she’ll give them to me later. Mikasa is her name.”

Digits. This kid was unreal. Or he knew how to sweet talk his way through any patron. Probably the latter. Levi scowled up at him, struggling for something clever to retort.

“Okay,” was all he could come up with.

“Jesus, you’re awkward!” Hanji laughed once Jaeger Bomb had drifted off again, climbing up to dance on one of the raised platforms near the DJ’s booth. “You could have looked like you enjoyed it a little more than that. It was forty bucks, Levi.”

“Oh, I enjoyed it enough,” Levi husked, crossing his legs to try and ignore just how much he’d enjoyed it. “I haven’t gotten a lap dance in… Christ, I don’t know. Years?”  

He stole a pen from Hanji’s purse and scribbled his phone number onto a napkin, below the Heaven and Hell logo. There she was—the waitress with the red scarf. He flagged her down and handed her the napkin. Then snatched the napkin back and wrote

JAEGER

at the top before coyly passing it back.

The waitress with the red scarf stared at him grimly, waiting. She tucked the napkin into her bra and continued to stare. Levi snorted. “What?” he grunted. But then he understood. He sighed, offering her five bucks for playing the messenger. She nodded and tucked that away into her bra as well, disappearing into the crowd again.

Oh God, was it going to be an interesting Talk tomorrow after the 90s at noon.

“Hanji,” Levi mumbled.

“Mm?”

“Can I sleep at your place tonight?”

Hanji visibly softened, brow knotting. She ran her fingers through Levi’s hair and nodded, once again playing the older sister. He didn’t even have to explain how much he really didn’t want to see Erwin after his return to Petra. At least not for a day or so.

“Sure thing, baby,” Hanji hummed. “I’ll take the couch and you can have my bed.”  

Chapter Text

“So I accidentally asked a stripper on a date.”

“You didn’t!”

“I did.”

“How do you do that accidentally?”

“It just sort of came out. Hope Pixis doesn’t mind I’ve got a plus one for the Hole show next week.”

“Oh my God, Levi… And I bought you that lap dance, too!”

“Yeah, maybe I’ll learn his first name, too.”

His—”

“Don’t act like you weren’t there, Hanj. Heaven and Hell caters to all needs.”

“So what are you gonna do, fly to Vegas and do cocaine all weekend?”

“Hanji. No. He works at a classy establishment! Heaven and Hell, downtown. Check it out. Also, you know you can’t get cheap flights to Vegas unless you leave from Bellingham and who’s really gonna drive all the way up there?”

“Is this gonna be like a weekly-updated affair?”

“Probably.”

Yes! Another To Be Continued Tale!”

Click. Off-air. Closing reel, Pearl Jam on cue. Levi threw his headphones to his shoulders and slouched low in his chair, giving it a slow twirl. Mess of papers, unorganized records, tangle of cables, bulletin board—Hanji, leering at him like a man. Levi stuck a heel out, halting his spin.

“What?” he grunted.

“You.”

“What did I do this time?”

“Jaeger Bomb.”

Levi rolled his eyes. “You can stop with the shark grin. It’s creeping me out.”

Hanji struggled to contain her amusement, absently running her fingers through her sloppy half-back. “Sorry,” she mouthed. “You really asked him out?”

“Not technically.” Levi grabbed a ballpoint pen, clicking the tip in and out a few times. “I just asked if he wanted to see Hole with me.”

“Pixis is gonna kill you.”

“He can take it out of my paycheck.”

“And you didn’t even want to go to that strip club. Look at you, you’re intrigued. I can tell. You’re into this stripper.”

Levi sighed curtly, flashing Hanji an impatient glance. “I’m intrigued, yes. I’m not into him. I don’t even know his first name. I was drunk and accidentally invited him to a concert and I’m too much of a gentleman to un-invite him.”

Bzzt-bzzt.

Hanji and Levi looked to Levi’s cell phone, which sat unassumingly by the mic. It was unavoidable. Three—two—

Hanji flew for the phone. Levi snatched it milliseconds before she could, spinning around in his chair to put his back to her. Hanji uttered a dissatisfied string of grunts and sighs. “Nope,” Levi said, scooting away from her nosy leaning and thumbing into the text message he’d just received.

 

+2066150934 – hey i’m sure you know who this is

So Mikasa had given Jaeger Bomb his number. Levi had tried to convince himself it wouldn’t happen, but—well, he was treading water with no floaties in the deep end now, wasn’t he.

Bzzt-bzzt.

Another text message. His phone vibrated in his hands.

 

+2066150934 – you shoulda played black not betterman

“Is it him?” Hanji was practically begging to know. “Hey, is it the stripper?”

“Oh my God, you’re like a teenage girl at a slumber party,” Levi moaned, shoving his phone in his pocket and swinging up out of his chair. He grabbed for his jacket, casting Hanji a friendly scowl over his shoulder. “And yes. It is.”

Hanji accepted defeat, burying her face in her arms atop the desk. With a rattle of headphones, she turned to peek at Levi over her elbow. “Mike and I are going on a bar run tonight. You wanna go?”

“Nah.” Levi shook his head. “I’ve got some shit on DVR, a couple blog updates, and a dinner date calling my name tonight.”

“Dinner date with who?”

“Myself,” Levi grumbled.

Hanji blew him a kiss as he left the studio.

 


 

Levi did indeed have some shit recorded on his DVR and a few posts to write for the radio’s social media and some Phad Thai and Mike’s calling his name that particular Saturday night—but apparently there was also Erwin.

“Excuse you. You make a better door than a window, Mr. Smith.”

Levi scowled up at Erwin from the sofa, where he’d made a perfect little nest for himself. Throw-blanket, pile of pillows, slippers discarded under the coffee table, Phad Thai half-devoured near his abandoned laptop and his second Mike’s cuddled in the crook of one arm as he stretched to see around Erwin—who had stationed himself directly in front of the television, arms crossed and an impassive brow cocked.

“Where’s your tub of ice cream?” Erwin grunted.

Levi offered an indifferent stare in reply. “What?”

“You look like a girl who just got dumped. I haven’t seen you in those pajama pants since… Well, the last time you got dumped.” 

“I’m actually just trying to enjoy a night of me time, but you’re blocking my ‘NCIS.’”

Awkward silence. Erwin looked nice, Levi decided. Saturday night date nice, unfortunately. Shower-fresh hair, charcoal-gray slacks, gray muscle tee to go under the casual suitcoat draped for the moment on his shoulder. Not that Levi would compliment him aloud—not tonight, oh no sir. Maybe another night when he wasn’t fully content leaving him nasty messages on the stainless steel fridge with those nifty little word magnets. I hope you get a jungle river infection in your peehole. Erwin hadn’t seemed very happy when he’d gone to take a swig of orange juice and noticed Levi had crossed out “flower” and “sunshine” and “smile” to Sharpie in his own choice of words.

“So how’s Petra?” Levi asked around a loud swallow of Mike’s. “I’m assuming you’re off on a date with her, right?”

“We’re going to Triple Door and then Kell’s tonight.”

“Doesn’t sound as fun as what I’ve got going on, but I guess to each their own. Can you move now?”

“I get it, Levi.” Erwin was not, actually, moving now. He stood his ground, and God dammit, Levi fucking hated that look of cool knowing composure he wore so well. Hated how good his ass looked in those pants. Levi steeled himself, not sure what Erwin got but pretty confident it was going to hit him in all the wrong places if he didn’t prepare himself.

“I get it,” Erwin said again, sighing like he honestly felt bad. Well, Levi wasn’t going to believe him. “You’re jealous.”

Not jealous.”

“You’re obviously mad at me about something. You threw my clean laundry on the floor so you could use the dryer. You rearranged the kitchen to throw me off. You put my shoes by the balcony door. You wrote on all my little word magnets!” Erwin veritably pouted. Win. Levi hid a victorious smirk behind his bottle of Mike’s, lifting an unsympathetic brow. “So if you’re not jealous, I don’t know what else you could be torturing me for.”

“I’m not jealous,” Levi said again, quietly. “You and I have a benefits thing. Why would I be jealous of your on-again off-again tango with Petra?”

“You’re fucking jealous.”

“How do you think she feels, huh? About sleeping with a man who never fails to crawl back to another man after his girlfriends discover he’s just a rich hunk who’s too full of himself to stay interested past a piece of ass?”

Erwin’s face hardened. With a curl of the lip, he cast Levi a cold look and left the sunken living room, stepping up into the kitchen. Levi waited. His eyes followed cute little Tony Danza across the television screen but he wasn’t listening. He was waiting for Erwin’s silence to break, because it inevitably would, and it would rain in razor-sharp shards of insult and injury around Levi so that if he moved even a twitch, he’d cut himself right open. Never failed. Didn’t matter how much he prepared—

Sound of Erwin swinging open the fridge. Rattle of utensil drawer. Levi snuck a quick glance over his shoulder. Wine. Erwin was taking wine and a wine opener. Where the fuck was he going to open that shit? Not in public. Fuck, were they getting a hotel? Maybe going back to Petra’s place? Levi’s stomach soured. Why was he so enraged? He blamed control issues. He blamed it on the fact that Erwin seemed like he was doing it on purpose. Wasn’t he doing it on purpose? Wasn’t he doing it just to rub it in Levi’s face that Petra still wanted Erwin despite Erwin’s more questionable escapades, when a few years ago Petra had put a tender hand on Levi’s face and said, “Honey, it’s never, ever going to work out between us…” Levi’s toes curled where he propped his feet against the coffee table.

Erwin sighed. He stopped at the island counter and Levi could feel his tender stare. His voice was so soft and intimate as he husked, “Levi, what are you doing with your life?”

For the blow it struck, he might as well have just spat, Grow the fuck up, Levi.

The front door shut heavily behind him. Levi fiddled with his bottle of Mike’s, the lump in his throat thick and disgusting. Tasted like shame and a reality check.

“Fuck this shit,” he grumbled, and turned off NCIS for a little Nick-at-Nite instead. He needed to laugh. He’d probably be up until 3 AM putting off the radio blog updates, but what the fuck ever. The Nanny had never failed him once, and certainly never accused him of jealousy.

 


 

Eren was trying very, very hard to act cool—and it wasn’t that difficult, not really—but the fact of the matter was that this was not a normal occasion, and he was, underneath the excitement, sort of freaking out.

Tickets, Will Call. Seats three rows from the front. A Skinny Little Bitch cocktail to nurse while browsing the merch up for sale under the domed ceiling of the Moore.

And no, it really wasn’t normal at all to be meeting up with a man he’d given a lap dance to last week, because Eren had never really kept track of the men he gave lap dances to, because it wasn’t important and it was bad juju, and he sure as hell never made outside-of-work contact with anyone who threw money at him because A) he more often than not wanted to forget the people who threw money at him, and B) that was just fucking stupid, fucking dicey, fucking weird, and stranger-dangerous.

Did he really want to play cabana boy for the glitter-covered bachelorettes in the sunlight? No. Did he want to meet up with the creeper guy for coffee after class? Capital N-O. Was he going to turn down a Hole show at the motherfucking Moore with Levi from 102.9 who just so happened to be equally sexy and sarcastic and charismatic in person (albeit drunk) as through a mic? Um… Hell no.

So—here he was, and he wasn’t even one bit uncomfortable or ashamed.

“Told you he was a hottie,” Mikasa whispered to Armin as the last of the stragglers found their seats and the lights went down for the opening act.

Mikasa,” Eren hissed. Thank God Levi had stepped out to make a phone call.

“I wouldn’t say hottie,” Armin mused. “Pretty cute, though. In a dark and mysterious scrawny nineties coffee shop poet heroin chic kind of way.”

“You’re fucking weird,” Mikasa mumbled. “But I totally see what you’re saying.”

Oh my God,” Eren groaned through clenched teeth, wriggling past his friends and out of the seats. Mikasa and Armin peered up at him innocent as choirboys, but the knowing sparkles in their eyes spoke of joint mischief. Definitely time for a smoke break thanks to them. Maybe he’d catch Levi on his way back in or something.

Tuesday, a July night in Seattle.

The tour bus was still looming out front. Some weirdo with an old video cam was stopping anyone who walked by, wanting to ask questions for some homemade music documentary or something. Eren carefully avoided him, crouching at the curb under the street signs and watching the way the lights bounced around between the buildings as he flicked cigarette ash towards the gutter.

Dark and mysterious scrawny nineties coffee shop poet heroin chic kind of way—well, Levi had the classy vintage thing going for him, anyway. That much was true. The 102.9 website had bios and photos of their DJs, but no matter of studying the page while sneaking texts all weekend (and revealing his real name) could have really prepared him for seeing him in person again because of course the first thing he’d thought about had been glancing over during a lap dance to find Levi’s lovestruck drunken smirk that night in Heaven and Hell. Mr. Radio Levi, Levi and Hanji with the 90s at Noon, Levi and Hanji with The Talk, Levi and Hanji with the Mid-Morning Pop Culture Trash—

Riley was apparently his first name. God knew why he went by his last name. It was probably a smart thing to do. Eren technically did, too. But nobody really believed him when he said his last name was Jäger. And the moment Levi had texted

 

almost there where are you waiting

Eren’s hands had gone clammy. And when Levi had come up the hill, through the sea of milling fans and ticket scalpers all dark eyes and dark hair, denim and a hoodie, and a baseball tee underneath, nice black jeans and a pair of beat-up Docs, 102.9 lanyard around his neck and hands in his back pockets, well—

Well, Eren felt shallow for thinking a third time (fourth time?), Thank you Christ in heaven he is actually attractive.

 


 

The opening act was all right. Nothing too spectacular, except for the guitarist. Mikasa was entranced by the way he moved, a dreamy look on her face; Armin bet Eren three drinks he wasn’t straight anyway; Levi breathed a few comments about the skill in the riffs.

The show itself was killer. A small pit started in the lower aisle and security did nothing. Arm in arm with Armin and Mikasa, Eren was sure he lost his voice somewhere in Northern Star but maybe it was actually somewhere in the chorus of Violet.  

Flashing lights, vibrating chords, a ripple of emotion connecting them all as the music infected the dark, something so raw and natural. It was hot from all the jumping around. And a few minutes into the screams for an encore, Eren climbed over abandoned seats to find Levi where he’d stayed behind in the seats when the jumping had begun in the aisles.

“Enjoying yourself?” Levi asked over the noise, stage lights dancing in his eyes as he watched Eren monkey up to sit on the chairback beside him. He had his arm out and one leg crossed over the other; his wrist dusted Eren’s back. Intentional?

“Are you?” he countered, raking his hand through sweaty hair. “Or is this just another work assignment for you?”

“Both,” Levi grunted, wagging his foot idly. “But I’m glad you had a good time.”

“Not had yet. You know she’s coming back out for an encore.”

“Probably.” A look of deep thought softened Levi’s face. Lips parted, eyes hooded. Looked about as full of awe as everyone else had down beside the stage and the bouncers. “I can’t wait to write about all this,” he murmured. “She puts on a mean show.”

“You’re fucking lucky.” Eren slid down off the top of the seat. It was hurting his ass. He’d fully expected Levi to remove his arm from the boyfriend stretch, but—Levi didn’t. And Eren didn’t really mind. It left him feeling a little shy, though, avoiding Levi’s livening stare.

“Why am I lucky?”

“Getting to see all these shows for free just to write about them.”

“It’s the best part of the job, to be honest. I didn’t know you were inviting your friends.”

Just like that. No change of voice, no twitch of expression. Sneaky transition.

Eren raised his brows. “I didn’t think you’d mind. They just found this really great last-minute deal on Groupon, and… What, was this supposed to be a date, Mr. Radio?”

Levi shrugged idly, tipping his head. The glance he cast made Eren feel tiny and stupid again. It was like the way his dad squinted at him when he asked about things like jobs and girlfriends. Or the way his stepmom raised her brows at him when she saw through his most ambitious lies. Or the way college professors smiled at him like his passion for life was cute but unrealistic. Left him keenly aware of the distance between twenty-one and… How old had the 102.9 bios said Levi was? Twenty-nine?

“Maybe,” was all Levi said.

Maybe. Maybe? What the fuck was that supposed to mean? Was this really supposed to be a date? Eren had listened to The Talk last Friday. He’d heard Levi say he’d asked a stripper on a date. Him. He was the stripper. Ding-ding-ding. But Eren had been positive—beyond positive—that it had been a joke. Maybe it was a joke. It had to be a joke. Levi had invited him drunk. He was probably wishing the night would hurry up and end. Maybe Levi’s maybe was meant to fuck with him.

But Eren sort of had the feeling it wasn’t.

The conversation stalled. Was Levi waiting for him to say something? Eren didn’t know. He was sort of in a daze. A tipsy daze. A tipsy, riveted daze. Was that bad bitch going to come back out on the stage or not? The yelling was starting to hurt his ringing ears.

“I could let you know what shows I’m covering,” Levi offered, voice so low Eren had to lean a little closer to really hear it. Was that a note of boredom, or something more meaningful? “That way if you wanna go to any of them, I can try to weasel you in.”

“Why?”

It came out faster than Eren could catch it. Levi met his eyes sharply, cocking a brow. Eren returned the dubious look.

“Why?” he repeated. “This was an accident. You were drunk last Friday and never meant to invite me—”

It hit him then, hard enough to flutter his heart and turn his stomach. Fuck, he was blushing. This really was a date, then. Levi had not been joking. And now he was basically asking him out again. Shit, Eren sucked. Majorly. He’d been on the casual dating bench for far too long, no thanks to Jean. He’d forgotten how to flirt in the real world. Or maybe it wasn’t that so much as he’d forgotten how to be flirted with in the real world.

“Yeah, sure, whatever,” Eren grumbled, and thankfully then the crowd went absolutely wild as Ms. Love reappeared on the stage for one last song, so he darted back down to squeeze into the sea of bodies with Armin and Mikasa again.

Not without feeling the heat of Levi’s eyes burning into him from behind, though.

And that was sort of nice.

 


 

“Hey, you! Can you take a picture?”

“Thanks—”

They closed the gates as soon as they got everyone out. Eren caught his cell phone and stood under the downtown lights admiring the snapshot. Mikasa had her arm about his waist in the photo, looking all cute and typical with her little side-purse, girly combats and gray tights, and that stupid little half-bun coming loose around her ears after all the jumping around. Armin was squished in the middle, mid-laugh when a fellow fan had taken the picture, grainy from the shadows but a mess of blond and sleeveless hoodie, fingers hooked in both Eren’s and Mikasa’s belt-loops.

“The Three Musketeers!” Armin cheered as he snatched Eren’s phone to send himself the picture. He added Mikasa’s number to the receiving list.

Mikasa stared gravely at Eren, even as her cell phone went off in her purse with the forwarded picture.

“What?” Eren grunted.

“Were Armin and I training wheels tonight?”

What?”

“Training wheels. The third and fourth wheels. Of your date.”

Date. Eren choked on a guilty laugh, rolling his eyes. The streets of Skid Row were awful this time of night. They needed to get back to the parking garage. Levi had already gone off his own separate way, with a lingering glance and a casual nod of farewell to Armin and Mikasa. And Eren had mentally kicked himself in the ass for not realizing it had actually been an actual date because there was no way in hell he was going to actually get an actual second date now, not after crashing the first date with his friends even accidentally.

“Not a date, Mikasa.”

“What about Jean?” Mikasa peeped.

“What about Jean?” Eren spat back.

“Don’t even pretend you weren’t crushing hardcore.”

“The guy bought me a ticket to a show, I had to at least act grateful!”

“Those weren’t grateful eyes. Those were the eyes of sexual attraction.”

“Jesus fuck, Mi—”

“Show him, Armin. Show him the way he looked.”

Armin stopped walking in the middle of the sidewalk and peered up at the vibrant sign for Joe’s Mart with a lazy, enchanted glow softening his face. Then he snapped out of it and raised his brows at Eren as if to say, Don’t even deny it.

 


 

Eren paid for parking because Mikasa volunteered to drive home, and it was about the time they were all singing along to the late-night rock and passing the 520 exit that his phone went off.

 

+Levi – i think youll be the main focus of the article

Babump. That was his heart, climbing up his throat. Because he hadn’t expected Levi to text him at all, just shake off the awkward night and get back to normalcy and never set foot in a strip club again.

Thumbs, dancing over the keypad. Stamped sent:

 

wtf do u mean

Streetlights washed in and out of the car, rolling over the seats. The nighttime air felt good on flushed skin.

Bzzt. Bzzt.

 

+Levi – i mean the way you looked like the martyr in the middle of a religious experience dumbass

A smile pried its way across Eren’s face. He hid it against his shoulder, curled up in the backseat. He kind of liked the giddy jump of his heart and the butterfly sock hop in his gut. It had been a long, long time since he’d felt like this, anyway. And who was to say he couldn’t foster a tiny crush on someone who’d paid for his lap dance last week? It wasn’t like his judgment was bad. Good-looking responsible guys went to strip clubs sometimes, too. They were allowed. And strippers were allowed to notice as much. Right?

“Did you guys have fun?” Eren asked around a yawn in the back.

Armin flashed him a grin from shotgun, nodding. Mikasa flipped him off in the rearview, affectionately. In his lap, Eren hit the send button on the text message he’d hurried to write without looking up to no good.  

 

i promise if we hve a 2nd date i’ll make up for ruining the 1st. ;)

Eren kept his promises.

 


 

end ch. 2

Chapter Text

“You don’t have any classes, do you?”

“No, Dad. Not for the summer.”

“Are you coming to dinner with Carla and I tonight?”

“No. I have to work.”

“You know I can help you with rent if you need it.”

“I don’t need it. Because I work.”

There it went. The Worst Silence in the World.

Eren knew it well.

It’s other name was The Silence As Your Dad Judges Your Choice of Employment.

Eren rolled out of bed with a couple of thunks and a muffled groan into the blankets, wishing if he breathed deeply enough he’d choke and black out and when he came to, his dad would hopefully have hung up. It wasn’t as easy as muting the call and just walking away, but it was more dramatic and therefore more entertaining.

His father cleared his throat. It was the usual preface to a long speech about good and bad decisions.

“Eren—”

“Daaaad, save your breath! I like where I work and I like what I do and I’m being careful and I’m not going to drive drunk and I always use protection and I’m declaring my major soon, I promise, okay?”

“Good. How many credits are you planning on taking in the fall? The minimum or full-time?”

“What you’re asking is how many more credits do I need you to pay for before I get my head out of my ass, right?”

“I said nothing of the sort. It’s just that—how long do you think—” Uncomfortable pause. “—stripping—” Like the word was hard to say. “—is going to last after you graduate? You need to think about interning. Maybe at a magazine or a literary agency.”

Eren glared at his backpack, sitting against the side of his bed with his knees drawn up and his toes curling in the carpet. Midday sunlight spilled through the crooked blinds. He hadn’t touched his backpack in a while. All his books and things were in a pile under his desk, anyway; he’d been using his backpack as an overnight bag since summer break had started.

There was a weary nostalgic sigh from his father’s end of the line. Eren’s heart sank. He recognized that conversational cue, too. Like a little kid in trouble, he fiddled with the end of his shorts, eyes drifting off elsewhere plaintively.

“All your mother’s favorite pictures of you were of you naked, you know. I guess maybe that’s why you like taking your clothes off so much.”

DAD—”

“This is why you don’t have a girlfriend, son. You leave nothing to the imagination.”

“Dad, I can’t—I can’t even—I gotta go—”

“Brunch this weekend with me and Carla?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“Don’t be late.”

I won’t.”

“I love you.”

“Okay, bye.”

Mikasa eyed him over the back of the couch as he stumbled stiff and groggy into the kitchen, scratching through his bedhead and scowling at the sinkful of dishes.

“Morning, Sleeping Beauty,” Mikasa chirped.

What Eren grunted in response didn’t really count as words, but Mikasa took it.  

“I found reruns of ‘Pants-Off Dance-Off.’”

“Is this coffee fresh?”

“By Jean standards.”

Eren dumped the half-pot of coffee down the sink, watching it wash off a few dirty dishes. Mikasa offered the rest of her chai. She’d already been out and about, apparently, as far out and about as Starbucks. Eren kissed her on the ear in thanks and let her try to fix his messy hair as he curled up beside her and let the spices of the tea latte wake him up a little more one taste bud at a time.

“I’m doing brunch with my dad and Carla this weekend,” he grunted, giving Mikasa another sip or two of her own coffee. “Wanna go?”

Mikasa hummed in thought. She curled her toes against Eren’s, squished between him and the throw-pillows. Her fingernails felt nice at the back of his skull. “You don’t want to go alone, do you?”

“Not particularly.”

“You think he wants to talk about something serious, don’t you?”

“I’m a little terrified.”

“Well, nothing could be worse than your I’m A Stripper dinner, so…” Mikasa paused, tipping her head. “When are you planning your Coming Out dinner, by the way?”

“I’m not planning it.”

“Not planning on it, or just not planning it?”

Eren didn’t reply.

Mikasa hummed again, massaging the back of Eren’s neck gently. “Yeah,” she murmured. “I’ll go with you to brunch.”


Levi –

Dinner w/ Petra tonight, candles & all

Just a warning

Don’t water my plants with Draino, please

– E

Damn.

Erwin knew him too well.

Levi sniffled in distaste, nose wrinkling under the bridge of his glasses. The apartment was quiet. The sunlight slanted through the windows, dust dancing in the rays. He liked the peacefulness of the hours before work. It was sort of nice to shuffle around in his pajamas tidying up the kitchen and the living room, wiping down the faux marble and pausing to get distracted by the way the summer sunlight scintillated off the water in the distance, past the hills and clustered neighborhoods of North Seattle. Who said the sun never shined in the Pacific Northwest?

Just standing there, in the window, letting the steam of his tea curl up under his nose. Morning news on in the background, clock ticking on the sidetable. Moments like that made him feel pleasantly grown-up and important. The order and unexciting contentment everyone hoped for. Right?

Erwin. Petra. Dinner.

Candles.

Levi lit a morning cigarette and let it smolder in the ashtray under the open bedroom window as he sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed with his laptop. The article on the Hole show was practically writing itself, flowing surprisingly effortlessly.

The lights, the sounds, the power of the performance, the way it had made wide-eyed and wondering idiots out of them all, struck dumb by the raw energy and emotion like only the queen Love herself could accomplish—and the way a certain dark-haired boy had been screaming along to the lyrics at the top of his lungs but even though the guitars had swallowed his voice in the dark theater, the passion was clear in the tension in his body and the enchanted sparkle in his wide amber eyes—you could just see it, the brotherhood, the commingling of souls together stripped bare in the Moore, fuck life, fuck outside problems, fuck work, fuck school, fuck everything but that fucking concert and the way the bass chords rumbled through you and rumbled through the seats and proved that music was music and music was something fucking indescribable, like hope and tragedy in one breath, like the way that dark-haired boy jumped and sang along, free and innocent though you knew, you just knew he was hiding something bruised and broken deep inside, because if he wasn’t, how could he enjoy Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to

Eren.

God damn it.

Levi got dressed. He needed to go to the bank and pull out some cash on the way to the studio. It was apparently a night to be out of the house and if he didn’t have cash, he’d just run his card, and if he only had his card, it was too easy to spend too much.

He paused near the steps to the kitchen, glancing once—just once—at the note on the fridge.

Dinner w/ Petra tonight

He threw his satchel over his head and locked the front door behind him. Bank, work, dinner with Hanji, maybe.

Maybe he’d text Eren and take him up on that offer for a second date. It couldn’t hurt, right? And the listeners were digging this whole dating-a-stripper thing.


Wednesday night. The flashing colors could blind a man if he wasn’t careful, like the way the dancers emerged as silhouettes through the dancing colors like angels from a dream. Bodies, moving. The girls working the poles were masters. The dancers near the bar knew how to play the game.

It was Weirdo Wednesday. The girls and guys played characters tonight. The cover was half; the bar had killer deals; all the freaks and geeks were coming out of the woodwork to enjoy the alternative tracks. By nine-thirty they were playing the Bump and Grind mixes, and Marcy Playground, and some electronic redux of Back in Black for the choreoed bits with their angels and devils. It was casual and fun, much lighter and more carefree than Thursday’s usual desperation.

And damn, why the fuck did Eren look so good in neon-green mesh and ripped jeans? How did he move like that in those jeans? Fingers, splayed on the pole. Bouncing on his bare heels as he went down into his calling card crouch, back arched like a cat and one hand between his thighs to keep him steady. Rolling his head on his shoulders, eyes hooded above a silent laugh. Never mind the jeans. The jeans were gone now. Some cougar with her girlfriends on the left side of the stage had caught them and they were all laughing tipsy and thrilled.

Jean knew that smirk of Eren’s. It was the mischievous grin of someone who knew what he was doing, fucking tease. The dimpled leer of a fallen angel that regretted nada, Lord.

But somewhere between the lap dances and the pole, the playfulness faded and about the time he was topless and swaying his hips to the custom NIN edit, he was lost to the zone.

Jean knew the zone as much as he knew the smirk. Sitting at the bar comfortable in the shadows, watching from over the rim of his drink as he waited for the end of Eren’s shift, the zone scared him.

Lay my hands on heaven and the sun and the moon and the stars, while the devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car...

The zone was a dazed and disillusioned emptiness to that heart-shaped face and parted lips, erotic twists and undulations to the beat that started to get slow and eerie as the lights turned Eren’s face blue and purple and green but the shadows didn’t leave his eyes. Swing of the hips. Curl of the toes. Something dark and dangerous about that raw sensuality, something like sin that beckoned one forth but promised no escape from secret pain—

“Mikasa didn’t work tonight?”

“Nah, just me.”

“We should go see Armin.”

Eren threw back a shot at the bar, shrugging on his UW hoodie. He was out early tonight, ten PM. Usually he stayed until last call at 2 AM. Was that glitter in his hair? Glimpse of sunkissed skin at the place where his pants hung loosely on his hips, work clothes left in the dressing rooms backstage. One of his coworkers—Ymir, if Jean remembered correctly—slapped him on the ass and cackled as she fled before he could retaliate. He just laughed, leaning over the bar to replace the shot glass before Reiner noticed he’d stolen a drink.

“I talked to Marco earlier today,” Jean grunted outside under the dazzling lights over Heaven and Hell’s Olive Way entrance. Flick of a lighter. Rush of nighttime traffic.

Eren cut him a critical glance, cocking a brow. “How’s he doing?”

“Good.”

“Good is good.”

“I guess.”

“If he’s happy, Jean, stop wishing he wasn’t.”

“Lay off, Eren. I get one pity party a month. We all do. It’s in our house rules.”

“No, the douche bag jar is in the house rules. Pity parties aren’t.”

“I’m rewriting the rules.”

Eren’s knuckles brushed Jean’s lips as he borrowed a drag from his cigarette. “Whatever,” Eren snickered, tongue between his teeth. Thank God he was getting out of the zone now.

“Oh—” Eren jumped, rummaging in his pocket. “Actually, I can’t go see Armin. I mean, you can if you want but I’m gonna head to Northgate—”

“Northgate? What the fuck for?”

Eren blushed. Fucking blushed. Squirmed and avoided Jean’s dejected scowl. “I told someone I’d meet them there for late-night coffee.”

Oh. Jean shrugged roughly. “Oh,” he echoed aloud. “Okay, sure. Whatever. You need a ride there, or…?”

“Actually…” Eren wilted in shame, glancing at Jean hopefully. “If you don’t mind.”

Actually, I do mind, because I was hoping we could be lonely together tonight but I guess if you have other plans, big shot, that’s fine.

“That’s fine,” Jean grunted, keeping it short and simple. “What time do you need me to pick you up? Armin should be out by then, too.”

“I don’t know. I guess the place closes at eleven.”

“Shit, we better hurry then. God, I hate playing taxi driver for you guys.”

“You’re just so convenient and taxi drivers don’t accept food and small favors as forms of payment like you do.”

“Hey, how was that concert last night, by the way?”

There it was, the spark back in Eren’s eyes as he grinned to himself like Jean wouldn’t see it. The look like he was laughing at some joke the world hadn’t heard the punch line to yet.

“Fucking awesome,” he grunted, and chucked his stuff in the backseat of Jean’s Mazda before scrambling in shotgun.


+Jaeger Bomb – the jewel box @ northgate?? yeah ive been there

+Levi – best place around to sit and work

+Jaeger Bomb – oh god you really are the coffee shop type

+Levi – what?

+Jaeger Bomb – mind if i stop by to say hi im off work

Levi didn’t actually reply. He didn’t, actually, see the text until seven minutes before Eren walked into the Jewel Box Café. Off work. Was that so?

He was hiding in the private nook to the left where random decks hung on the walls next to local art, nursing a triple-shot and narrating his procrastination on his 102.9 Twitter feed as he browsed the internet. It was a shameful way to spend the evening, in all honesty. But about the time he figured the candlelight dinner back at home between Petra and Erwin was getting hot and heavy—ugh, he’d have to walk through that apartment later wondering how many spots around the place they’d soiled with a passionate make-out or two, he’d be up until dawn cleaning just to feel like he’d scrubbed the romance off the countertops and table, and if he found a single rose petal, he was going to barf at the harlequin standards—was about the time Eren found him. And Levi relaxed without even realizing he’d been tense.

“What are you working on?”

Eren slid down across from him with an air like he’d been invited anyway.

“Oh, hello there.” Levi minimized a few windows on his laptop and shut it, staring dully at Eren over the table. “Nothing important.”

Nothing important, yup. Definitely not worth sharing. God, Eren looked so normal outside the strip club. So sloppy, so…adorable. Outside Heaven and Hell he was a regular indie brat, all gray beanie and wrinkled t-shirt, open hoodie and Adidas snap pants that offered a peek at sleek black boxer briefs riding slender thighs. Fucking tease.

Levi felt a little pang of remorse. He felt sort of bad for playing this whole thing off as “Hey, I’m dating a stripper, I’m wild and crazy” because in all honesty, all circumstances aside, Eren was really cute and Levi was really lucky Hanji had bought him that lap dance.   

“Okay then.” Eren smiled. It lit up the dim corner of the café. There was a brief pause, some lingering eye contact. And then it was just the easy chit-chat of hitting it off. How the fuck—?

Levi decided not to question it. Because he sort of liked it.

“You don’t really have to get me into shows…” Eren said after a while, after he’d wandered off to get his own drink before the place shut down. Slouched across the table, one knee drawn up against his chest. He looked tired. “What’s the last one you went to?”

“Fall Out Boy, Showbox Sodo,” Levi grunted.

Eren’s jaw dropped. “I went to that one, too! How fucking weird! Small world, man. We were in the same crowd and didn’t even know it.”

A tiny smirk twitched at Levi’s mouth. “Are you saying we were supposed to meet each other?”

“No.” Eren’s face went sly, like Levi was reading too much into things. “Just kind of cool that we’ve been skirting each other on the dance floor and finally stepped on each other’s toes.”

Levi imagined it, like a waltz. Trading partners. Finally coming face to face with the figure in the periphery. It was very quaint and sort of romantic, in a writerly way. Eren was something fucking else, he decided. Endearing and goofy and a little detached from reality…but in a good way.

“Their last album is a great comeback,” Levi commented, redirecting the conversation.

“No joke. Armin was all convinced they’d surprise Seattle with Elton John, but the slideshow was just as good in my opinion.”

The Jewel Box was sweetly quiet, slowly emptying out. The waitresses were eyeing them, probably wondering if they should ask them to leave yet or not. The way Eren licked foam from his latte off his lower lip was really not sexy at all, but that was what made it fun to watch.

Eren mused on something for a moment, staring into his coffee. Finally, he reminded, “Last week, you asked me if I sleep with patrons.”

“It was a joke with Hanj.”

“But what made you assume I liked guys?”

“Nothing about that says I assumed you liked guys. Not even when I asked you to go to the Hole show.” Levi flicked a brow. Eren colored immediately, flustered by his own accidental admission.

“Hey, come on. You’re openly gay, Levi. It’s part of your shtick. So when you asked me to go, I thought…”

Adorable. The awkward pinch to Eren’s face was beyond adorable. He thought he was fucking everything up. Levi drummed a finger on the side of his coffee cup, struggling to contain a dry smirk. The thing was… He really hadn’t given a thought to a male stripper’s sexuality before telling all of Seattle (and anyone listening to 102.9 online) that he’d asked that stripper out on a date. It had definitely been something akin to a gimmick. Just because a guy was a stripper didn’t mean he was gay—the girls absolutely loved Jaeger Bomb, from what Levi remembered. And Eren outside the club gave off no nods to alternative choices—not in the way he dressed, or the way he carried himself, or the way he talked. He was all-around practically the poster child for the boy-next-door. But if anyone knew sexuality was much more complicated than that, Levi did.

“Well,” he grunted, raising his brows slowly, “you’re the one who mentioned a second date, so… Are you gay?”

“Yeah, Levi.” Curt nod, a chuckle just short of a scoff. “I’m gay.” Levi watched the tension infect the lines of Eren’s shoulders; he bristled almost like a cat ready for a fight, something defensive and proud flashing in his eyes as he droned, “I’m a normal dude who just prefers dicks over chicks. Not that—uh—anyone else isn’t normal, but. That’s my shtick. You know, breaking hearts and taking names, rebelling against mainstream commercialized romance with the unconventional idea that you should just love who you love, shattering stereotypes in the new frontier of gay strippers with tight abs and tighter asses.”

Levi snorted on his coffee. It actually went up his nose a little and he felt like a dunce, scrambling for his napkin. Eren didn’t waver. He seriously just sat and stared, daring Levi to question any bit of his dynamic discourse. Something. Fucking. Else.

Thankfully, however, Eren softened quickly back into the same goofy grinning kid who’d walked in twenty minutes ago. “I mean, I’m just using use you for free show tickets,” he lied. God, he was weird. And Levi kind of liked it. Click. There it was, the attraction. Subtle and irresistible. Ah, the curse of Cupid.

“Glad we’re on the same page. I thought dating you would make a good couple weeks for The Talk.”

Neither of them meant either of those things. And neither of them believed any of it, either. Suggestive glance, dimpled smirk in return. The art of seduction.

“They’re trying to close,” Levi muttered, gesturing around them in their private little partitioned corner of the café. “Wanna get out of here?”

“No, you’re supposed to ask—‘Wanna head back to my place?’”

Eren had the most beautiful way of deconstructing any delicate wooing into some sort of flirting reverse psychology. It was impressive.

Levi stood, swinging his satchel up over his shoulder. Eren’s eyes looked so big, the way he turned them up to meet Levi’s, still sitting. He needed to be careful with those intense eyes of his. How did he know when he was looking at another Big Bad Wolf or not?

Levi almost said, “Let’s go then, punk.”

But outside near the fountain he stopped so suddenly Eren ran into him under the lights and the stars, and his stomach dropped as he remembered

Dinner w/ Petra, candles & all

his place was probably not a good choice at all.

“That’s fine,” Eren grunted, shrugging idly as Levi explained the circumstances. Roommate, girlfriend, candlelit dinner. The discomfort outweighed the fun in crashing it. Eren wasn’t offended at all. Thank God. But Levi still felt like he’d let him down a little. God damn it, Erwin. Here he was, trying to get lucky and somehow without even being around Mr. Smith still found a way to fuck things up for him.

On the sidewalk outside Subway, Levi wound an arm about Eren’s side and held him in place as he craned forth and caught his mouth in a kiss—a first kiss, an apologetic kiss, a kiss promising much more to come. How the hell had he gotten from a lap dance in a strip club to here, kissing Jaeger Bomb in the chilly summer night? God, he tasted good. Hot, pliant mouth, pouty lower lip shifting just right with Levi’s like he’d been made to kiss no one else. Was that…glitter…in his left eyebrow? Body, rigid in Levi’s elbow, because first kisses were always a burst of sensory overload, and good Christ, if he felt this good in one arm, imagine him in both, imagine him in bed—

Pop of pulling away. Burning urge to do it again, this time harder. Deeper. Hungrier. Releasing inhibitions and letting the chemistry flow. They could do it in Levi’s car if Eren was up for it—

No. Levi stayed strong.

“So this was a second date, then, right?” he murmured.

Eren stepped away and shoved his hands deep in his hoodie pockets. He nodded. Hummed a thoughtful little, “Mm-hmm,” as he licked his lips and pressed them into a firm line, looking away. Then he lit with a devious grin and cast Levi a heavy look. “I better hear about this tomorrow on The Talk, Mr. Radio.”

Levi nodded. “Oh, you will. Maybe I’ll come see you Friday night and get a lap dance room or something.”

“Only if you take me home after. For all the wild stuff you talk about on your show, you’re playing a little tame right now, don’t you think?”

“Don’t test me, Jaeger Bomb.”

Levi was going to ride this wave to the end, whether it got serious or not. Right now it was just some casual fun—a good distraction, a good angle for work. And it was the most refreshing casual fun he’d had in a long while.


Casual dating was complex only because it was so maddeningly simple.

The part that Eren found the most ironic was that you could try people on like you were shopping for pants, any number of strangers, any series of dates or hookups, and it wasn’t considered unfaithful. Until one of those dates said, “Let’s go steady,” and things went exclusive, and then sleeping with your roommate who was still off-and-on mourning the loss of his first mega-serious relationship was sort of frowned upon. Considered cheating by some.

Eren could never wrap his mind around why loving more than one person was so hard to do or understand for other people.

Quarter after one in the morning. The light from the little TV on Jean’s desk danced, flashing off pages of his sports car calendar and the collage of high school photos still pinned beneath it. Parties, pranks, graduation, bromances and romances. The whole gang in the senior spirit week garb, probably the last time they’d all been together at one time happy and carefree—Armin on Reiner’s shoulders, and Mikasa on Annie’s; Sasha, licking Conny’s cheek; Conny, looking disgruntled and disgusted; Eren mid-yelling at Jean for something or another as Jean laughed and laughed, frozen in time with that grin of delight on his face, and under his arm was Marco, dimples and freckles and soft brown hair. All of them, washed out by the flash, the football field in the background and the sky over Roosevelt an eerie reflected violet.

But Annie was at boot camp now. And Marco was in Europe. And Sasha had moved to Montana. And Conny was hella busy with a summer internship. And Reiner worked the Heaven and Hell bar while Mikasa played cocktail waitress, and Armin gave tours with Spooked in Seattle, and Jean pulled three to four overnights a week at the Amazon warehouse until school started again.  

And Eren was thinking about Levi when he kissed Jean, which he felt sort of guilty for. The thinking about Levi’s hands going down his pants instead of Jean’s, not the act itself. Because he was still technically single and so the whole friends with benefits thing was still all right, and it was nice to moan low in the back of his throat at stroking fingers and cold lube because the way Jean shuddered with pleasure as he dragged Eren up and onto his knees, tangling the sheets, was far from lonely. And that was all Eren wanted. Heated horny happy or not, it was still happy for the night, and Eren wasn’t about to complain. Jean was hot and Jean was good and Jean could keep saying it was a no strings attached sort of thing, but Eren was still determined to be there for him when he realized Marco had cut the strings he’d thought had stayed attached.

The silence afterwards blanketed the room like a daze, spooning in Jean’s ruined blankets, an arm thrown over a naked side and hands laced together loosely below Eren’s chin.

Jean’s voice vibrated through Eren’s back as he said, slowly, “So are you dating someone now, or…?”

Eren shifted, tucking Jean’s elbow in more comfortably at his side. “Sort of. It’s not very serious yet, but I’ve been seeing someone.”

“Don’t go blaming me again if you fuck it up.”

“I won’t blame you. But if it gets real, this is stopping.”

“Like you say every time,” Jean scoffed. “But it never gets real with you, does it?”

“Thanks, asshole.”

Jean was quiet. Eren knew after what happened with Marco the thought of stopping whatever this was terrified him, but he wouldn’t voice it. Just stew in the puzzled regret and sense of rejection he created for himself.

“Shh,” Eren hissed, elbowing Jean from the front. “Hey, let’s go out this weekend and try to get you laid, yeah?”

The pattern of Jean’s breath on the back of his neck slowly evened out. His little kitten snores signaled he was out for the count. So Eren traced circles in his limp palm and thought about Levi breathing down his neck instead.

Shit.

He really liked Mr. Radio.


end ch. 3.

Chapter Text

Everyone wanted the adventure, but nobody wanted the danger.

Tongue swirling idly with her mouth slack in characteristically dorky concentration, Hanji clicked around through the blog comment notifications and agenda of questions—farmed from retweets and e-mails and anonymous posts on the 102.9 feeds. Her hair was loose today, one hand habitually raking it out of her way to tumble off one side in lustrously careless waves.

“Oh, here’s one—” she husked into the mic, lighting up. The image of the e-mail opening reflected off the face of her glasses. “MixMaster69 commented, ‘More stripper talk!’ Jacquie Todd from Kenmore says, ‘The club is awesome, def check it out, Jaeger Bomb rocked my sister’s bachelorette party before he was even a blip on Levi’s romantic radar.’ JasonJar posted, ‘I live in Omaha but now Heaven and Hell is on my Seattle bucket list.’ Aaaand… MarkyMarkyMark tweeted at The Talk, ‘I hate that I want to know more, hashtag-bang-the-stripper.’”

“Oh God, don’t let that trend, you guys,” Levi muttered, cradling his head in one hand and shaking his head sadly at the mic. That last one was a little too disrespectful.

Hanji’s burnt velvet voice squeaked on a deep giggle. “Well, didn’t you have a second date with him?”

“Yeah.”

“How was it, buddy?”

“We pushed closing at a café after he got off work, corrupted social structure with some heated PDHA—”

“PDHA?”

“Public Displays of Homosexual Affection.”

“Oh, right. So tonsil hockey. Damn! What’d you do after that?”

“Uh.” Levi scratched his cheek, avoiding Hanji’s glance. Ick, he’d missed a spot shaving this morning, right there by his ear. Fucking A. “Well, I went home.”

Silence. Dead air. Hanji, no—but this was a well-crafted pause, a dramatic break before Hanji snorted behind her hand and cocked a brow, swinging around in her chair to face Levi but leaning on one arm to keep close to the mic. There it went, that cute toss of the hair with her pretty fingers. “You went home?” she sputtered. “Boring! Boring, boring, boring, Levi!”

“What? I couldn’t take him home. My roommate was having dinner with his girlfriend. A candlelit dinner, Hanj.”

Another pause.

This one was not so artful.

Hanji’s brow knotted. She seemed suspended in time for a moment, gaze flickering up and down, seeing everything he didn’t say. Roommate—Erwin. Girlfriend—Petra. Erwin also being an ex-boyfriend. Petra being a girlfriend from an earlier era in life. The only two names Levi refused to drop on-air. The only two who had ever truly broken his heart—and on separate and unrelated occasions, too. It was too complicated, too fucked up, too private of a pain to share with the world for a few hyucks. Because the wound was still open and bleeding, drunken bar fight stitches ripped afresh too soon and the sand and salt of difficult grownup decisions massaged in with the sandpaper of heartache—

“So he went home, and I went home, and then Farlan called me drunk and wouldn’t shut the hell up for two hours.”

Hanji caught the cue, crystal-clear. “Farlan? Four-years-ago Bumbershoot boyfriend Farlan?”

“Don’t you love the exes that still call you up wasted to update you on how well they’re doing since you walked out on them and the hotel tab?” Levi waved a hand, swatting away the emotional landmine they’d narrowly avoided like a swarm of invisible flies. “All right, enough of the lame game. I’m gonna buy a few songs in Heaven and Hell’s VIP room this weekend, but until then I don’t have any more stripper talk. Questions, Hanj. Lay ’em on me.”

“Uhh… Let’s see… Here’s one—‘What’s the quickest quickie you’ve ever had?’”

“Four minutes. Literally four minutes. In the SAM.”

“The SAM?”

“The film viewing rooms are surprisingly easy to get frisky in.”

“Yeah, I guess they’re pretty dark and secluded…”


It smelled like coffee breath in Pixis’s office. Probably had something to do with the multiple coffee pots and large silver thermos on the desk by the flat-screen Dell.

Pixis cracked his knuckles. His mustache danced over his enthusiastic smile—all teeth, crow’s feet wreathing his gray eyes.

“Ratings are up,” he stated.

Levi felt the tension unwind in his back, in that tiny little space between shoulder-blade chicken-wings where all the tiny knots usually fused together into one massive pinch. Good. He relaxed, raking a hand through his hair and meeting Pixis’s grin with a flick of the brow. He didn’t want Pixis to see how honestly relieved he was to hear it—relieved, and moderately proud.

“Is that so?”

“It is. We’ll see how long it lasts… You know listeners get bored easy. They’re like kindergarteners at recess. High schoolers at a pep rally. College kids huffing whip-its and humming Dave Matthews in the back of their Socio-Economics lectures—”

“I get it.”

“I was sort of leery, actually. I didn’t expect you to pick anyone up when I asked you to review Heaven and Hell, but you know what, your unorthodox methods work, Levi. They always have. I don’t know how you do it.”

Levi couldn’t tell if Pixis was mildly uncomfortable or not—and if so, about what. The stripper part? The talking live on-air part? The gay part? Levi shrugged. “People love train wrecks. Like you said.”

“They do. They love dirty laundry, and mysteries, and controversies, and the juicy twists and turns. The stripper with the heart of gold!”

Levi’s nose gave an discomforted twitch, the tightening of a stifled lip-curl. Probably wasn’t the right time or the right phrase, but—maybe he was wrong about that.

Whatever. Ratings were up.


It would have utterly turned Levi off for being so grossly typical if not for the fact that he was so Goddamn nervous to be buying time alone with Eren Jäger in Heaven and Hell’s VIP room. He’d never paid for a stripper before. He’d never really given much thought to strippers, apart from the more lighthearted and gaudy jokes with friends. And the awful part about hosting a sex life segment on the alt-rock radio was that it was always there, in the back of his mind, the knowledge that his life experiences were in a constant race to one-up one another but he couldn’t make himself not enjoy it. There was a guilty glee in being bad; a dirty delight as the provocateur; a fantastic fetish in the pride and the expertise.

Unless he was talking to Erwin, that is. Then he just felt desperate and old.

Hanji had wanted to go. Levi had adamantly denied the request. This was his move. This was his date—because, you know, when you were doing the dance with a stripper (no pun intended), putting yourself out there to surprise them in the VIP room was a really romantic gesture, right? Too bad he hadn’t had the forethought to bring flowers or something. Or was that too gay?

It was really more like—Hanji was a stellar wingman, but he needed to do it alone to prove something to himself. What, exactly, he was not sure of yet. But he didn’t want to share the moment with anyone else so he just tried to fade away into the shadows of the bar, struggling not to feel old and unhip with the way the beat cascaded through the foggy lights, prism rainbow of blues and reds and purples and golds and bodies swimming through it like sirens in the sea.

He saw Mikasa again, all Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon with her bold makeup and the chopsticks in her hair. She gave him a sharp eye as she made her rounds past the bar, red scarf flowing like a scarlet breeze down her back along the crisscrossed straps of her revealing halter. He couldn’t tell if she didn’t like him or just recognized him. She was disarmingly hard to read that way, he’d learned after that disaster of a test run-date at the Moore and the way she’d swindled him out of some extra cash just to deliver his phone number to Jaeger Bomb.

The boys were on one side of the stage tonight, the girls on the other, so cliché with their Ke$ha and Britney Bitch, winding and weaving together in an awfully mismatched parade of lace and leather and neon bikinis. Designers would have died of dismay to see the lack of cohesion. Oh look, here came a more put-together group. Move over, amateurs. Heaven and Hell’s best angels were on display now, all glitter and gasps.

On the male side of the club, the firemen and policemen were done writhing and stomping and sexualizing of props like fire-hoses and batons. Next.

The buzz of voices beneath the music was comforting. It was a chasm to slip into, easy anonymity. Don’t look his way. Don’t notice him. He was just watching the stripper who’d gotten under his skin. He wasn’t about to analyze it, to try to explain it, or justify it. It happened. And it was working for him thus far.

There he was, Jaeger Bomb.

He was hand-cuffed to another go go tonight. That was their act, moving together as flawlessly as yin and yang incarnate. His hair was perfectly messy, his skin—if one looked closely enough—faintly glistening. The other dancer was surfer blond, damp wavy hair held out of his face David Beckham style.

The music thudded through the shivering lights.

Vacancy was lit… The guests were checking in…

It was sort of creepy-sexy. The blond peeled the silky basketball shorts off Eren’s hips. Eren rolled the blond’s sweats off his ankles with ease. Unison. Practiced routine. Escape artists on ecstasy, in a sultry twist of bodies they teased the crowd until the blond found the key to the handcuffs on the cord around Eren’s throat and they escaped the cheap sex shop shackles. Tiny bright matching shorts, elastic waistbands snapping on bony hips. Look at the money, crumpled, like roses thrown to a stage actor, sticking out of their pants. X’s on their hands and a strange irony about their black and gray tube socks with the inverted crosses on the calves. 

Levi couldn’t tear his eyes from Eren.

The way he dropped it low, bouncing, bouncing, serpentine slither of his silhouette. There was something lazy and enchanting about it, a cocksure confidence, swiveling, isolations—he would have made a killer belly dancer in another life, maybe. Little bit of ass peeking out there at the waistband of his shorts—flick of a thumb adjusting, now a little bit of cheek where ass became thigh. Cheers. Groans. Tipsy chuckles from straight men; tipsy whistles from straight women.

Levi wasn’t sure whether he wanted Eren to look out past the lights and see him in the crowd or not.

He decided it was a much sweeter sin to go unnoticed, captivated by the way the blond dipped straight forward, legs spread and locked, and Eren’s hips rolled behind him in a teasingly hypnotic and liquid display of boyish black magic. Down. Thrusting into greedy eager hands, stuffing dollar bills in the elastic. The socks. The place where his treasure trail disappeared into stretchy fabric. No shame. No fear. Pretty plump in the front there, Jaeger Bomb—

He rolled and ground on his knees with a graceful shuck and jive of his hands above his head, torso slithering into cocky jerks of the hips, following the music. Bouncing on the balls of his feet. Bouncing on his knees. Bouncing on his ass to the faster beat and laughing while he did, laughing like some little prince of pleasure, some sorcerer of seduction, some little demigod of sex and sin and secrets, and the blond one slapped his ass and Eren dragged a hand up his body to hold his face kissing-close before the blond swerved away to put some dollar-filled hands on his hips and move intimately in their grip.

Look, Eren’s tailbone was dimpled. Fuck. Gorgeous. Fucking flawless creation. God, You did fucking right with this one.

Touch me, yeah. I want you to touch me there. Make me feel like I am breathing. Feel like I am human…

Levi recognized the bouncer at the VIP room from the bar when he’d come with Hanji. His mouth was a little dry; Jesus, why was he so nervous? He’d done crazier things than this before. Far ballsier, more depraved things.

“Jaeger Bomb?” the bouncer echoed. “How many songs, pal?”

“Three,” Levi husked.

“That’ll be seventy-five bucks.”


“Levi… You didn’t have to actually do this—”

“I told you I’d see you in the VIP room.”

“But—Levi, you paid for three songs?” Eren flinched, keenly aware and a little embarrassed of the way his voice cracked with that. In his defense, he was still sort of out of breath from the act with Armin. But—Levi was here—and Levi had a look in his eyes like a beast on the prowl—and Eren’s heart gave a guilty little flutter because really, this was not cool. This was inexcusably poor work etiquette. It was supposed to be dance, hustle, dance, hustle. Not dance, hustle Mr. Radio, dance, date Mr. Radio because he’s fucking cute and actually into you maybe.

“Let’s do this,” Levi grunted, rolling up his sleeves and getting comfortable on the damasked divan under the track lights. His heated eyes were hooded. He said it with all the casual air of someone meeting for an after-school scuffle, a thug with a deal about to go down, a cop ready for the sting. It was so offbeat, Eren had to laugh.

“You like my socks?”

“They’re odd.”

“Armin’s idea.”

“Armin? From the Hole show? What is this, a family business?”

“Only two nights a week. Otherwise, Armin gives tours of haunted Seattle. And Mikasa… Well, Mikasa goes wherever I go.” Shrug. “Did you like the act tonight?”

“It felt both Houdini and Lovelace.”

Levi. Lovelace was porn.”

Eren went to the dial near the door and dimmed the lights more. The rumble of the club’s noise outside the padded VIP room was like a heartbeat, distant roar of voices and music and the tintinnabulation of a bar’s bustle. He moved the curtain on the computer system in the corner. It was really simple for such a world of technology, but it worked and it made the VIP room feel a lot more intimate, manually finding the songs you wanted to play. He typed into a video search, double-checking all the wires were connected so the beat could throb through the surround-sound hidden around the room.

Grinning, he turned with his hands on his hips and met Levi’s lazy lion glance. “I’m gonna teach you to give a lap dance!” he declared.

Levi’s seductive look crumpled in on itself and it was adorably awkward. “…Teach me what?”

“Watch me first,” Eren instructed.

Everybody wants me to be their angel. Everybody wants something they can cradle…

He stuck to simple moves. He’d redressed after he’d been notified of a private session request—not that he’d realized he’d be stripping for Levi, peeling off those loose Nike shorts again, teasing with a self-curious hand and sultry glance, slithering out of his tank top and dropping low at just the right angle for Levi to get an eyeful—dragging himself back up onto his knees with an arch in the back—throwing a knee up for some good old-fashioned air grinding and dusting contact—God, so close—he hoped he looked as present as he felt—he hoped Levi knew this was just for him, all for him, no hustle here—

Levi looked absolutely drunk with quiet desire.

“Your turn,” Eren whispered, darting over to change the song.

I’m in love with a stripper—

“Just kidding!” Eren cackled. But the look on Levi’s face had been fucking priceless.

I eat my dinner in the bathtub. Then I go to sex clubs, watching freaky people getting it on…

Levi did his best, precious thing.

“There you go, there you go… Yeah, move like that. Don’t think too much about it. All you’re trying to do is tease. Fluid, simple—there you go. Damn.”

Eren wanted to kiss him for the very basic half-strip—he just unbuttoned his black shirt and let Eren watch the way his body moved with the rhythmic glide, belt chattering unfastened at his hips but nice gray slacks staying securely done up—and for having the guts to even try it. But there were strict rules and hidden cameras and he really didn’t want to get himself in too much trouble.

“Enough of that.” Eren hop-skipped back over to the music player. Okay, so maybe he’d had a shot or two backstage. But Levi had been drinking, too. He could smell the Kraken on his breath. “You paid, so I’ll stop cheating you of your time. Here’s a real show…”

“A real show?”

“Yeah.”

“Eren, this is Pearl Jam.”

“I know.” Eren shrugged limply, moving back to center stage before Levi. Gentle nudge of two fingers on his shoulder. Sit back, get comfy. “I’ve always wanted to dance to this song,” he whispered, and as the music kicked into gear, his lashes fluttered to half-mast and he let the sound guide him.

Ooh, and all I taught her was everything… Ooh, I know she gave me all that she wore…

Black, not Betterman.

Something swiftly changed in the elegant little champagne room. The antsy dance of nerves and quips finally settled, distilling into a soft sweet intimacy stripped of flirting’s formalities.

Levi’s eyes followed him. Eren swayed, head rolling back on his shoulders. Eyes closed. Maybe he accidentally hummed. Shivered. Blushed. He felt sort of exposed. But he liked it. Made the dancing all the better. Slow, slow churn of the hips. Toes curling. Arms up, reaching for the ceiling, fingers slipping through the air like water, elbows interlocking and sagging back down. Knuckles trailing his own sides. Head moving side to side. It was sort of like a trance. And he felt sensual, and erotic, but in a very dangerous way—a personal way—and maybe it was the backstage shots to blame, but he was feeling very dreamy and tingly now, and if Levi was really going to keep his word and take him home after this—well, Eren was going to be a pretty easy fuck tonight. He could feel himself giving way.

Giving. Gone.

Yet he was still caught off guard when Levi stood, suddenly. Shirt buttoned again, and tucked in, and crisp and warm and ticklish against Eren’s skin as Levi gathered him loosely into his arms, right into a slow dance.

Twisted thoughts that spin round my head, I’m spinning, oh, I’m spinning

“Levi—”

Levi kept his face low, hidden from Eren’s embarrassed glance. He husked, voice low and gravelly, “Where do you go when you dance, Eren? You go somewhere else in your head, don’t you?”

Eren couldn’t even reply. It pinched him deep in the chest. Definitely the shots. He blamed drinking on the job. He melted into Levi’s embrace and tried to stumble into time with the slow dance, resting his head against Levi’s. God, he smelled so good. So clean and warm and delicious.

I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life, I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky…

Eren’s chest tightened. This was alarmingly raw, and romantic, and perfect foreplay oh my gooood the stimulus of it, the feel of Levi’s body—so innocent, and yet so intimidating. It was…sensual in every bit of the word. He wanted to look him in the eye, but it sort of terrified him. He was ensnared, ho-hum. Fuck. The last time he’d slow danced with someone on the clock had been such a disaster of desperation and devastation when Eren had to explain why they were not sleeping together in the VIP room, and before that it had been in the living room with Mikasa when her date had ditched her to that one school dance. And oh God, Levi’s fingers had threaded up into his hair and Eren could have just dissolved into a hot lusting gushy mess right there at his feet if not for Reiner knocking at the door and calling:

“Time, my friends.”


The front door bounced off the wall as they staggered through it, Levi shushing Eren’s choked laughter as they struggled to stagger together into the dark apartment without untangling from one another, kissing, nipping, chuckling, groping.

This was it. This was happening. They could stave off the chemistry no longer—chemistry, the carnal covetous natural impulse left over when the small talk ran out and all you wanted to do was kiss hard and fuck harder.

“Shit, shit, shit—”

“Yeah, dumbass, don’t wake my roommate up—”

“Oh, you don’t want me to meet him? Ashamed of your bedmate, Mr. Radio?”

“No. Ashamed of my roommate.”

“Wow! Your place is so nice!” The words dissolved into a rosary of little gasps and whimpers as Levi wound his arms about Eren from behind, hands plunging down the front of his pants. He smelled like sweat and stage and that sweet heady scent very specific to him. Levi kissed his neck greedily—showered it with kisses, actually, nibbling and darting out his tongue and loving the way Eren’s thighs tensed under his fingertips, the way he went rigid and it ground his ass back against Levi’s lap.

Fuck strip teases or paying the rent by undressing. No mind was paid to the art of disrobing as they went to it on the couch, impatient and horny after all the tiptoeing of unconventional courtship. Eren was so hard under Levi’s palm, rearing to go beneath those tight boxer briefs. And when Eren rolled his hips up, brushing stiff dick against stiff dick, the friction of the front of his jeans dragging across his hard-on was sinfully perfect. Sumptuous. Fabulous.

Open-mouthed kisses, sloppy. String of spit snapping between searching tongues as chins tipped away and heated eyes exchanged looks of burning desire. Upon the individual discovery of each one, Levi kissed all of Eren’s tattoos—which there were five of, in total. Zodiac sign. Nautical stars. Sun and moon in orbit. Bold black compass rose. He let Eren find his secret ink, too, grazing his fingernails over the minimalistic black—dates in Latin. Birds scattering. Pearl Jam was stuck on loop in his head. All the love gone bad turned my world to black, tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I’ll be… Maybe one day they’d talk about their tattoos and explain what each meant to each other. Or maybe they’d never get that intimate.

Well, they were getting fucking intimate on the couch, anyway, and when Levi yanked Eren’s shorts down to his ankles, Eren’s back arched and his hips rolled and he threw his head back and gasped in the most defenseless way. Levi throbbed behind his fly. God, he wanted to fuck him until his toes curled and he scraped the leather of the couch with his nails.

“Condom—” Eren sputtered.

“I have one—” Levi promised, voice ragged and ripe. “Obviously not your first rodeo, huh?”

“We can compare firsts and lasts later, right now I just really, really, really want you—go, go. Put it on. Put it in.”

There was a reckless indifference to pace and proper First Time etiquette that always went well when natural—which it was that night on the couch in the unlit apartment, clock ticking in the kitchen, lights of distant Seattle spilling through the wide windows. If that one particular floorboard creaked, Levi knew Erwin would be on his way to investigate the ruckus—but for now it was just the silence, and Levi clapped a hand over Eren’s mouth as he eased in, ah fuck, oh God, the slick heat, the pressure, the roll of his insides on his hard sex—

Eren cleaved to him like he was his last anchor to anything corporeal, face red and the most blissful twist of pain and pleasure on his lovely little face. He squeezed one eye open and sought out Levi’s timid stare, cocking a brow. Was it a farce, then? No. He was just self-conscious because Levi was gawking.

“You wanna take a picture, Levi? It’ll last longer.”

“No. I’d rather memorize it. Shush. I’m etching it into the walls of my mind.” Thrust of the hips. Eren moved in his arms, back arching, hips shifting to adapt to the penetration. Low, soft moan from the back of his throat. It drove Levi wild and he wanted it louder, wanted his name tumbling from Eren’s lips. But they ran the risk of discovery. And you know what, that made it all the more fun.

Slap of skin. Hips already cramping. Ramming hard and deep and indulging in the way a certain Jaeger Bomb jostled and clawed for purchase, beating a fist against the back of the couch with the other arm thrown above his head. The moonlight made him look unreal. But oh. He was real. And he put a hand against Levi’s chest and flipped their positions, riding him with every turn and swivel of the hips he’d mastered in his line of work.

When he came, it was into Levi’s tented palm. Couldn’t stain the leather, after all. And it was with a smooth rippling of the tight heat on Levi’s dick, sending him over the edge. Silent orgasm, hips rocking, waves of pleasure shuddering hard and heavy from the splayed toes to the hair standing on end on the back of the neck.

Shit.

Shh…

Eren was like a sleepy cat, slouched atop him on the couch. Fingers curling. Fever-hot skin. Lashes fluttering on dazed eyes. Still pulsing between the legs every few breaths. “No, wait,” he whispered, bracing himself for Levi to pull out. Dirty condom, wrapped in a Kleenex and deposited in the trash under the sink.

When Levi sauntered back down into the living room, he found Eren weakly collecting his clothes. He managed to get back into his underwear before sighing in defeat and looking up over his shoulder.

“I’m exhausted,” he mumbled, voice thick with satisfaction.

Levi smiled. Lit an after-sex cigarette and lent Eren a puff or two before tugging him by the elbow off the couch. “Let’s go,” he murmured.

“No, I can sleep on the couch—”

“No. My bed. Now.”

Eren laughed, cracking a dimpled little grin as he tucked his clothes under his arms and trudged after Levi into the bedroom. Couldn’t leave any pennants for the roommate to recognize, anyway. “You’re so backwards,” he mumbled, brushing a hand along Levi’s back before throwing himself to Levi’s bed as casually as if it wasn’t his first time in those sheets. Lovely touch, gentle touch. The touch of a fling that was definitely worth it. “You’re supposed to say ‘My bed, now’ before we go at it like rabbits.”

Levi finished his cigarette watching Eren drift off to sleep, struggling in his exhaustion to make a comfortable nest of blankets for Levi to slip into beside him. And damn, it was going to be nice waking up to that in the morning. Mess of hair, naked slope of neck, slim staircase of spine to that dimpled tailbone and taut ass. Hopefully Erwin wouldn’t say anything in the morning. He probably would. Curse of living with someone who knew you too well. But—

Not bad for a third date, Levi decided.

Not fucking bad at all. 


end ch. 4


for your listening pleasure, ch iv songlist in order:

a little death - the neighbourhood
devil inside
- utada hikaru
i'm in love with a stripper
- t-pain
habits
- tove lo
black - pearl jam

Chapter Text

“No, Hanj, this kid—this guy—he can move. There’s something sexy about it that’s so far from your name-brand sexy, you don’t even realize you’re hooked until you’re hooked. He tried to teach me to give a lap dance—”

“Pff! I bet that was disastrous.”

“Thanks for the confidence, Hanj. Let’s just say… I’m content with the smooth moves I already have and if I never needed lap dance skills before, I certainly don’t need them now.”

“Did he laugh at you?”

No.”

“Did you make out?”

“The VIP room isn’t that kind of room, Hanji. Not at Heaven and Hell, at least. We slow-danced to ‘Black’ and…”

Fzzz. Fzzzzzzzzzzz.

“Fuck you!” Eren spat at his little boombox. He’d had it since middle school and couldn’t bear the pain of abandoned nostalgia to toss it. The anarchist symbol he’d scratched into the top of the speaker was still there and so were all the stickers from late nights with friends and munchies, and the memories attached were just too precious.

But, precious or not, his boombox decided when it did and did not want to pick up stations perfectly—and this was one of those times no matter of stroking or sweet-talking would convince it to tune back into 102.9 FM.

Tumbling out of his nest of blankets, Eren yanked the battery-powered handheld stereo from his windowsill and fiddled with the antenna. Nothing. He scrambled into the living room, cradling it in the air and chasing the voices that broke through the static. Damn, it was just getting good, too! Coffee table, nope. Windows, nope. TV? Nope.

“—slow danced—and—really nice—”

“—back to my place—”

“—woo hoo, baby!”

Fzzzzz.

vale, puedes quedarte a mi lado, siempre que no hables sobre el clima—”

Aaaaaugh!” Eren threw his head back and growled in frustration, boombox held high in the air where he stood on the arm of the couch like Mikasa did when she was hitting the ceiling with the broomstick to get the upstairs neighbors to shut the fuck up.

“—finally did the nasty. Hashtag-banged-the-stripper?”

“I don’t like that, Hanj.” Audible smirk. “But I banged the stripper.”

“Yeah, you did,” Eren muttered, grinning like a shark as he sat on the kitchen island counter with the portable stereo between his knees, resting against the side of the fridge.

Armin eyed him from around the hall corner, brows climbing in gentle arches to his hairline. “What…are you doing?”

Eren jumped, knocking a few magnets off the side of the fridge. “Uhh.” He colored a bright red, laughing at how moronic it must look to Armin. “Trying to get the radio station.”

Armin cocked a brow. His expression stayed neutral, but his eyes danced with a mischievous authority. “Is that a hickey?”

Don’t look at me—” Eren clapped his hands over his neck, fully aware of how absolutely guilty he looked half-dressed and wearing the Day After glow from head to toe.


Click-click. Bolt snapping and the grind of the key leaving the lock.

Levi looked up from his paperwork at the kitchen table, watching as Petra came in the front door looking cute and classy in a double-breasted coat and dark tights that followed the lines of slender thighs into off-black ankle boots. Tiny and perfectly fragile everywhere but her big, lovely eyes, she almost tripped on the step up into the living room, closing the door behind her and tucking her spare key into her coat pocket.

Spare key.

Levi suddenly wished he looked a lot better than he did, slurping a pitiable dinner at the table sitting cross-legged in his cotton pajama pants and the band T-shirt he’d worn to work. He quickly licked up the lone ramen noodle dangling off his lower lip, eyes widening. He suddenly wasn’t hungry. He suddenly, actually, felt sick to his stomach.

Spare. Key.

Petra saw him and stopped rather violently against the back of the couch, clutching her purse on her shoulder. Her face blanched and then flushed a cute cherry red made all the more vibrant in juxtaposition to the strawberry-blonde sheen of her hair.

“Oh—” she sputtered. “Levi—I—I’m sorry, I just came in—”

It was like a CD skipping on a scratched track in his mind. Spare key spare key spare key spare key they were on the spare key level, Erwin and Petra, and Erwin hadn’t told him that

“It’s fine. You have a key, you’re obviously allowed.” He meant it a lot less snotty than it came out. Levi shook his head. Cleared his throat. Tried to look uninterested and unaffected but really probably only looked like he was scrambling to look acceptably impressive. Fixing his hair. Scooting his instant ramen out of view. Straightening up to maybe look a little better in his…pajamas. Because the ultimate defeat would be seeming a mess and a failure in the wake of two breakups awkwardly tangled together, but if he looked like he was doing hella better it would be proof of success.

Why did he care?

Petra loitered near the kitchen, smiling faintly at everything and anything but Levi. Leather couch. Speckled counter. Back-lit cabinets. Wine rack. The awfully expensive for its own simplicity Rittenhouse drum pendant lamp hanging over Levi and the cluttered table.

“How are you?” Petra hummed, voice soft and airy as the innocence in her eyes. God, it wasn’t even about being the one who went gay after she broke up with him. It was about feeling small and stupid under the gaze of a woman who felt untouchable and flawless. And knowing full well that there was a fifty-fifty guarantee Erwin would break her heart, again, like he’d broken her heart before at Easter, and at Christmas. Untouchable and flawless and a fool for bright blue eyes, apparently. Did she still smell like walking past the Bath and Bodyworks in the mall? 

“Fine…” Levi cleared his throat again, cutting her a sidelong glance. “You, darling?”

Darling prompted a realer smile, less of a timid pleasantry. “I picked up yoga.”

There was the familiar clatta-clack of a not-so-distant door swinging open, creak of the Telltale Floorboard at the threshold of Erwin’s bedroom. He came out shower-fresh, hair still damp and smoothing his shirt down where he’d just tucked it in. Plain white V-neck, Captain America physique. His intro scene in The Avengers, that was. Fuck him.

He stopped short with a shuffle of his fine black socks on the tile, looking up and looking instantly guilty for the awkward tea party he’d interrupted—and somehow he managed to look not guilty at the same time. Probably had to do with his big blue eyes.

Quick glance to Levi. Spare key. Flickering into his Prince Charming smile, his gaze veered to Petra.

“Hey, you,” he veritably purred, welcoming her into his arms. Jesus, had Levi looked that tiny against his chest, too?

Petra giggled. Rose up on her tiptoes and kissed his chin. Murmured something sweet about his aftershave, stroking his jawline. His fingers laced at the small of her back and it rumpled her coat and her dress a little, revealing a little more of those lovely black tight thighs.

Levi looked to his bowl of instant ramen and wondered if it would suffice should he retch and not be able to make it to the toilet, or the sink. Mental reminder: make a dentist appointment, because he probably had fifty cavities now. No exaggeration. More than one on each tooth.

SPARE KEY.

“Have a good time, you guys,” Levi called after them as Erwin shrugged on his coat and the door was swinging shut behind them, talking in the low secret hum of intimate conversation.

Erwin and Petra looked back at him like A) they’d forgotten he’d been audience to their gushy bullshit or B) they’d fully expected something a lot less kind and forgiving from him in farewell.

“Be nice,” Levi added dryly, raising his brows at Erwin.

“I will,” Erwin parried, winking over his shoulder.

“Have a good night, Levi!” Petra singsonged.

The door shut.

Their voices and footsteps faded.

Levi threw his instant ramen in the sink. He wanted to go all close-call touchdown on it—in fact, he almost did, but then he pictured himself scrubbing chicken-flavored broth and half-plastic noodles off the stove hood and cool tile, so he thought twice, instead just tossing it carelessly in the garbage disposal side of the basin and maybe flinching a little as it splashed along the stainless steel. But it stayed in the sink.

He abandoned his work and retreated to the couch, grabbing a beer and turning on the television. He wasn’t jealous. Actually, he was surprisingly okay. He just felt a little…off. He didn’t want to write reviews. Or reply to comments on blog entries. Or call Pixis and see if he was doing the entire Bumbershoot weekend, or just one day. He just wanted to be.

Texting Eren made him feel a lot better.


Their voices bounced around through the night and the stars were like little fish swimming in the black velvet sky.

I’m aliiiiiiiiive!

“We’re aliiiiiiiiive!”

“I almost got laaaaaid!

“Would you three shut up?”

Mikasa didn’t mean it. Her smile betrayed her good tipsy cheer. She never complained about playing DD and keeping her blood-alcohol level at a comfortable .06.

They’d hit Broadway first, parking at the funeral chapel and sauntering down to Neighbours. Then was Pioneer Square for Trinity, and Fremont for High Dive and Neo. No one was at the troll under the bridge, either, which was a pleasant rarity, so they climbed all over its head and knuckles and tried to wipe dirt off the windows of the old VW in its grasp but that was a futile quest. Then the hobo who lived in the shadows of the Aurora Bridge chased them off so they booked it back down the hill screaming with laughter and crammed themselves back into Mikasa’s two-door like clowns into a clown car.

Shots, shots, tying cherry stems into knots with nothing but the tongue, Patrón, Grey Goose, silver rum, Goldschläger, Jäger Bombs, cake shots, the shy cute boy with the freckle under his left eye who’d given Jean his number under the flashing lights of Neo’s dance floor after they’d practically dry-humped against the wall out of sight from the bouncers.

“Wait! Mikasa, turn here!”

Mikasa swerved off Stone Way and cut Eren a dirty glance in the rearview as they all clung to their seatbelts at the sudden redirection. “Why?” she demanded.

“I wanna say hi to Levi.”

Levi?”

“Eren—it’s two in the morning—”

“So? We’ve been texting all night.”

“Eren—”

“Eren wants to see his boyfriend—”

Eren punched Jean on the shoulder. Jean threw himself half in the backseat to elbow him in the ribs.

HEY,” Mikasa swatted at them like trying to get a cat off the counter, “NO VIOLENT BOY UST IN MY CAR WHILE I’M DRIVING.”

“Pleeeease, Mikasa? I just wanna say hi.”

“You want more than that,” Armin contended groggily, smirking from where he leaned against the cold glass of the window. He was cut off, little lightweight. “We all know you, Eren Jäger. You’re an insatiable tease.”

Tease indicates he doesn’t put out,” Jean snorted. “Stripper diva puts out.”

Diva? Fucking eat me, Jean.”

“You see what I mean?”

“Uurgh—fuck face—get over here—”

I SAID NO BACK SEAT-FRONT SEAT WRESTLING MATCHES WHILE I’M DRIVING!

The neighborhood was quiet in the hush of the dead hours between midnight and dawn as Mikasa rolled to a halt, parked along the curb across from Levi’s apartment complex. Eren kissed her on the cheek before scrambling out of the car.

“Just give me ten minutes,” he pleaded, slamming the door and sprinting across the lamplit street.

He wasn’t too drunk to remember the way to Levi’s apartment, but the security code to get inside the iron gate was another matter. Ducking out of sight of his friends so they couldn’t tell he’d hit a roadblock—or that he was having a little bit of a struggle trying to text straight—he shivered in the kiss of cool summer night and whipped out his phone.

+Levi – heyyyy come down and say hi

Waited. Swayed side to side to a song stuck in his head. Adjusted his shirt and fixed his hair and—nothing. No reply.

+Levi – oh mr. radio wherefore art thou

Was that the right play on words? Whatever. It was funny to him. Where was Levi’s apartment again? Sixth floor. Left side. Skip around the hedges. He plucked a few pebbles from the sewer grate at the curb and cocked an arm back, launching some of the tiny rocks at the window he remembered looking out of in the midday glow of Morning After glory the other day. Thank you, childhood baseball games for the perfect arch—rap. Rap, rap.

Give it a second…

A light went on. Yes.

A patio door flew open. Shit, hopefully it was the right place—

It was. A very rumpled and very perplexed half-asleep Mr. Radio emerged on the tiny apartment terrace, with its strung patio lights and closed patio umbrella and hanging ferns shadowy blobs before the windows.

“Hey, baby!” Eren called, waving from down below. “Wanna let me in?”


Levi sighed, raking a hand through his hair. It was tousled and wavy enough as it was; he’d gone to bed with it wet. Hand on his hip, rubbing a little more sleep from his eyes, he mumbled across the unlit living room, “Why don’t you just stay the night, Eren? Let your friends go home.”

Levi assumed, anyway, that they were the ones who’d honked twice from the street below about forty-five seconds ago.

Eren turned around swiftly, with a squeak of his Keds on the kitchen tile. He’d been wandering around with a drunken curiosity touching everything in the dark from front door to kitchen table to entertainment stand for the last five minutes—after his sweet hot touchy-feely kiss of greeting, anyway. Eyes wide, head tipped, he stared at Levi from across the island counter, looking full of harmless hope and gratitude.

“God, is that okay?” he breathed.

Levi nodded mutely. It wasn’t like they were on that level yet—just casually staying at each other’s places—but Eren was obviously too drunk for it to matter either way, and Levi figured it was appropriate to offer.

Eren left his phone on the counter after texting his friends. Headlights rolled through the living room as the car growling at the curb abandoned the quiet street.

“So what’s up?” Levi grunted, gesturing for Eren to take the leather couch while he made some tea to wake up a little more. It was sort of nice, just lounging around in the dark. Something sort of intimate and raw about it, stripped of daylight’s inhibitions.

“I don’t know, it just hit me while we were driving home…” Eren stared at nothing in particular it seemed, deeply moved by his own thoughts. He punched one palm with a little slap to symbolize the power of the inebriated epiphany. “…you and I, Levi, we don’t know all that much about each other and I think we should rectify that. I mean, all I know about you I learned from years of listening to 102.9, and the bios on the radio website and blogs—that your grandfather was straight off the boat from Russia, and your mom’s side is French-Canadian, and you went to a private boarding school as a kid where you were a little shithead, and you’re twenty-nine, and a Capricorn, which is actually not a match with me as an Aries but whatever. Your favorite tea is vanilla chai, you identify vaguely with a Catholic spirituality, you have a Marvel comic book collection hidden under your bed, you hated the fad of tennis shoes with suits, you lost your virginity to the Danzig song ‘Mother’ after stealing your dad’s car to roadtrip to Woodstock ’99, your favorite actor is Ryan Reynolds, you were born in New York and you’re living with your ex-boyfriend—”

“Wow. Okay. I get it.”

“I am too, you know. Technically.”

“You are what?”

“Living with an ex-boyfriend. Or two.”

Levi uttered a wry little chuckle. “We’re fucking morons. Masochists.”

“Yeah. We are.”

The tentative hush after that was a little thick with unspoken baggage. Levi stared at Eren, one brow cocked. But he wasn’t even annoyed. He was sort of startled. And flattered. And touched. That he had filed away so many minute and seemingly pointless details about him—that he was someone who had grown up on 102.9 FM, and that he really meant something serious with this if he’d been surfing the bio pages.

“Well, what should we talk about then, genius?” Levi grunted.

“I don’t know. Hey, I listened to The Talk earlier. Levi, I’m practically a celebrity! People love hearing about me! Conservative redneck trash rockers and radical white Republicans who accidentally catch wind of it are probably giving themselves ulcers over me!”

Levi felt a sour little pinch in the gut at that. He didn’t know why. Sipping his tea—and burning his tongue, unfortunately—he had the ungratifying hunch it had something to do with something Erwin had said a long time ago.

Why do you tell the world about the things you do between the sheets? What do you think your lovers and partners feel about it, having their dirty laundry aired to God-knows-how-many? Do privacy and intimacy mean nothing to you, or is kissing and telling a way of justifying your lack of relationships?

“Eren…”

He wanted to ask, How do you really feel about it? But it seemed a wasted opportunity with Eren drunk as he was.

“Want some tea?”

“Mm—hot.”

“Sorry.”

“Let’s play 1 Question, Levi.”

“The hell is that?”

“A way to get to know each other. Like a genie in a bottle, you get one question.”

“Genies give you three. Wishes, I mean.”

“Do I look like the motherfucking Genie to you? You get one question. Choose carefully because if you do it right, you can learn a lot about a person by their answer.”

Levi’s brow knotted quizzically. “Okay, but you start,” he yawned.

“Bitchin’.” Eren licked his lips, shrugging in the dark and holding the tea Levi had made him in both hands like he needed to get warm. “Uhh… Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

Huh. He’d fully expected something like, Why’d you start The Talk? Levi shook his head. “I’m an only child and therefore the destruction of my father’s name—unless, you know, any of my male cousins reproduce.”

“See how much your answer just told me about you?”

Levi shook his head another time. “That I’m an only kid and have a few boy cousins.”

“Yeah, but—that you have at least one uncle, if your cousins having kids will carry on the name. That your parents put an awful lot of responsibility on your shoulders you never asked for. And that family and roots is not a topic to broach over dinner with you if you wanna get anywhere.”

Goddamn. He was wasted and still that perceptive? Levi was fucked.

“Okay, Freud,” he fired back. “I’ll counter with—what ever made you consider stripping?”  

Eren’s eyes flashed in the dark. He smirked around his tea. “You really wanna know? Is that the question you choose? Final answer?”

“Just answer the Goddamn question.”

Eren stared somber into his tea for a moment, eyes distracted by distant conflict. The smirk lingered, however, sagging further and further into his recollection. He looked torn between spilling the beans or cultivating the mystery, until suddenly he shifted, and livened again, and drew a breath like waking from a nap and flashed Levi a devious grin as he said, “I was dating Jean. I was mad at him. And at my dad. Reiner got hired at the Heaven and Hell bar, and the club was having their quarterly auditions. I thought well, why the fuck not? So I tried out and I ended up actually loving it. If I got it, why not use it?” Illuminating beat, gentle breath. “My dad would tell you it’s because I miss the attention from my mom in some fucked up Freudian way, but he’s a therapist so that’s his answer to everything.”

“Way to outshine my answer,” Levi husked around a sip of tea.

“But you learned a lot about me, didn’t you?”

Levi smiled into his tea, cutting his eyes away. Yes. Yes, that he had. Dating Jean? Utter shamelessness? Daddy issues? Miss the attention from my mom… Levi let the feeling he shouldn’t touch on that one just yet guide him away on a gentle wave of understanding.

Eren’s breath reeked of alcohol as he climbed across the couch and between Levi’s knees, which sagged apart to cradle him there, toes curling in his mismatched ankle socks. Levi snorted, evading Eren’s kisses before finally letting one land on his chin. He was so warm and real against his chest. Was that his heartbeat? Tea dangling from tented fingers, with his free hand he massaged the back of Eren’s head, right where his hair curled out at the nape of his neck.

“You’re drunk,” he cooed.

“I am.”

“Is this a booty call?”

“Levi…” Eren nestled into the crook of Levi’s neck, feeling about as soft and sweet as he smelled. His breath tickled the back of Levi’s ear. “I’ve never dated anyone like you before. So confident, and sure of yourself, and kinky without it being corny or uncomfortable.”

No. No, he was not confident. He was not sure of himself. And all Eren knew about his kinks was from hearsay, which he may or may not have been more proud of in retelling to sell the experience on the radio.

Eren kissed the shell of his ear. Pleasant shivers twisted down Levi’s spine—sensual, but not sexual. It was nice.

“I just wanted to tell you,” Eren husked, against his cheek, “that I’m kind of excited. What’s a better time to try new things? Your listeners will go crazy.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, don’t ever hold back with me. I’m willing to try anything with you.”

Was this supposed to be a deeply-moving confession? Or was it intimate in that carnal heat sort of way, the coming-together of two souls without the complication of romantic demands? Fuck. He was blushing. Almost thirty years old and he was blushing because a drunk college kid stripper was putting the moves on him hardcore. Jesus fucking Christ, Eren—

Eren sought out his eyes to prove he meant it, and seeing the devious glint of determination in his smirk, it was a little less intimidating. “Let’s make a list,” he sputtered. “Of the stuff we’ll try, the stuff you’ve done. Toys, bondage, crazy sex in hotel rooms even though there’s no reason to get a hotel room except to be super loud without having to wake up and explain it the next morning—”

Levi chuckled below his breath, smiling and nodding along. “And sex up against the windows, and sex in the daylight, and sex in public, and sex in the car—”

Eren wriggled on his lap like a kid on Christmas morning and Levi grunted, trying not to spill his tea. Thrilled, he went on: “And those little sex coupon books, and sex Twister, and sex in the shower, and crazy positions, and kinky costumes, and naked tango, and threesomes? And you can blog about all the different flavors of lubes and condoms we use—”

“Oh my God, Eren,” Levi choked on a swallow of room-temperature tea, and as he coughed and hacked into his knuckles, Eren threw back his head and laughed so loud Levi was sure Erwin would come all the way over across town from Petra’s and demand to know what all the ruckus was. Except that was unrealistic.

There was something Goddamn bewitching about Eren Jäger, and Levi was frantic to keep his hold on it.

Levi put on late-night TV, welcoming Eren curled up against him. Ankles crossed on the coffee table and tea abandoned, he swirled his fingers in Eren’s hair and let Eren pass out on his lap.

See, it hit him then.

They were both damaged—he and Jaeger Bomb. Eren. And that was why it would work so well, whatever this precious perfect thing was between them. Wasn’t it?


The infomercials were still on when Erwin snuck quietly back into the apartment, the first birds chirping as the sun crept out of the fog of dawn. Seabirds squawked and blackbirds cawed and somewhere a few blocks away, a car alarm went off for a grand total of seven seconds.

Jacket draped on one elbow, he stood blinking blearily down at Levi where he’d fallen asleep on the couch with his new boy toy.

They looked soft and warm and peaceful together—half-covered by throw blankets, Levi’s fingers on the dark-haired boy’s neck, the dark-haired boy’s arm hanging off the side of the couch. Levi would be pissed when he woke up with an awful crick in his neck, sleeping with his head cocked back like that.

Fucking adorable.

Good for Levi.

Erwin smiled tenderly as evil plots to use this against Levi somehow swirled in the back of his mind—childish, maybe. Friendly, of course. A testament to their undying bond, definitely. He drifted as slowly and silently as he could to his bedroom, fighting a wide yawn. Thank God it was Saturday. He’d at least get six hours of sleep if he slept until eleven. He still felt vaguely tipsy. Smelled Petra on his collar.

As he closed his bedroom door, the smile disappeared and he felt a strange weight fall on his shoulders.

He blamed exhaustion.


end ch. 5

Chapter Text

The midday sun glared down in excruciating judgment of him and his hangover.

Eren thumbed the code to unlock the house gate, a real paradox of chipping iron framed by an overhanging wing of laceleaf maple. Snowdrift clematis drifted along the stacked-stone fence, too. High-end tech wrapped in sweet-smelling nature. Eren dodged a bumblebee and scowled when the gate didn’t pop open.

Click.

You’re late,” his father’s voice buzzed through the intercom speaker, hidden as it was behind the mailbox with the regal roaring lion face.

Eren jabbed the speaker button now that the green go-ahead light was aglow. He sputtered, “When did you change the key, Dad?”

Click.

Last week. Hold on, I’m coming out…”

Cl-click.

“…You’re late,” Dr. Jäger reiterated once Eren was inside, watching him kick out of his shoes at the front door. Ah, air conditioning. August was as hot as July.

Eren cast his father a sheepish glance as he steadied himself at the corner. Smooth bamboo hardwood, reflecting sunlight in a vaguely golden way. Slippery under his socks. This was a floor plan he knew by heart, one he’d navigated plenty of times in the dark—a real testament to wealth and modern amenities, with the alarm system and intercoms, tracklit coffered kitchen ceiling and black walnut antique Lombardy themes, surround-sound living room with the signed movie posters and television long as Eren was tall. And up there, straight ahead, beyond his father’s silhouette, the wide open sitting room with the European mantle and wall of bookshelves, and the line of broad windows that washed the world with the soft bruised light of stormy days, the tiny orbs of rain sliding down the glass.

Eren sniffed, looking hopefully to his father. “Carla made bacon?”

“Remind me to give you the garage and back door codes. I changed those, too…”

“I don’t need them, Dad.”

“I just don’t want you finding yourself locked out if we’re not home or sleeping and you need something.”

Locked out if you’re sneaking in again, was what he meant, kindly enough. But why would he do that, Eren wanted to ask. He had his own place. He was in school. His car was still broken down in his dad’s garage, but—that wasn’t the point. What would he possibly need? Clothes shoved in the back of his old closet he hadn’t touched in years? The skateboard deck propped against the duct-taped amp from that year he and Jean and Sasha decided to try and start a band? His fucking baby book or something?

How did his father do it, reminding him of his past delinquency in such a loving and nostalgic way? Like he wanted him to know he knew about it, and remembered it well—but that he wasn’t angry about it? That he’d never been angry about it? Because therapist fathers were never angry, just curious, and gently said things like, “How did that make you feel?” a thousand times before they’d say, “You’re grounded.”

“Carla made bacon,” his father confirmed. “Do you want orange juice or milk?”

Milk. No, no. Too close to Tequila Rose. Eren swallowed a shiver of nausea in the back of his throat and brushed past his father into the kitchen. “Orange juice,” he moaned.

Dr. Jäger smiled at Mikasa where she lingered in the spot where Eren’s shadow had been. She crouched to straighten up the shoes he’d so carelessly left scattered about, then cut her eyes over to tentatively meet Dr. Jäger’s.

“He forgot about brunch, didn’t he?” Dr. Jäger murmured.

Mikasa nodded apologetically. “I couldn’t get him up any earlier than noon. I’m sorry he invited me without asking you.”

Dr. Jäger shook his head and gestured for her to follow into the kitchen, steering her along with a fatherly hand between the shoulders. “No, you’re always welcome, Mikasa. And thanks for bringing him. Carla wanted to ask you about something, actually—she wants to know if you’d be interested in helping her with a wedding in August, I think… It would look great on your resume, anyway…”


“So either you’re in the throes of another growth spurt, or you were out all night,” Carla surmised from her side of the table, spreading blackberry jam on her multigrain toast. Her hair was up, her neck sloping too soft and delicate into her Saturday casual T-shirt. She raised her brows very slowly as she took a careful bite, rolling her eyes around to meet Eren’s.

Eren avoided her deliberate look, face pinching. He took the syrup from Mikasa and squirted more on his eggs.

“Gross,” Mikasa whispered.

It was a fancy spread for a simple brunch, but brunches were one of Carla’s favorite weekend events. She’d been a caterer when she’d met Eren’s father, but now she ran Ballard Boutique, planning vegetarian weddings and all organic receptions and spoiled children’s gluten-free birthday extravaganzas. What would she say if she knew Eren still didn’t take his vitamins?

No; that was wrong of him. He loved Carla. Carla was all he had by way of mothers and knowing everyone else’s moms, he could count his lucky stars. But he was grumpy because he’d been jerked awake by Mikasa’s stalker-grade string of phone calls, and falling off the couch stiff and sore at noon realizing you were late for something was never a good way to start the day.

“Carla,” his father stressed around a swallow of coffee, “he was out all night.” He smiled wanly and offered his familiar conciliatory shrink look. Now, now, that look said, he IS technically independentHe IS his own person who makes his own decisionsHe IS allowed to be out all night if that’s what he wants… How does that make you feel, dear?

Carla clucked her tongue in disapproval. Mikasa quietly arranged a wall of sliced strawberries and bananas and grapes around her dry French toast. And Eren cradled his head in his fingers, applying a small level of pressure.

God, he was hungover. This fucking sucked. Why couldn’t he be back at Levi’s, slowly naturally waking up? Sleepy glances, warm skin, lazy morning kisses, maybe a quickie in the shower to wash off the worst of the night’s clutch after popping Tylenol and chugging some water—

“So, Eren… What’s your plan?”

The tension around the dining table sharpened to a point and Eren felt all eyes turn to him.

“Uhh…” Eren shrugged limply, stabbing a forkful of eggs and French toast. “Well, I don’t work today so I figured we’d stop at the grocery store on the way home. Probably play ‘Tomb Raider’ with Armin tonight—”

Work,” his father interrupted, smiling that placatory smile of his and pointing with two fingers, the rest of them laced together. Like a gun. Pew-pew. “That’s what I’m talking about. What are your plans as far as work, and school?”

Carla and Mikasa wore the same wide-eyed look of grim expectation, trained on Eren and his dance through this field of emotional landmines. Eren’s mouth went dry. He sniffled loudly. He hated how he was always congested when he was hungover. He slouched low in his chair, feeling like a man on trial with a deeply and unfairly biased jury.

“Is this why you wanted to do brunch?” he mumbled, trying very hard not to sound resentful but well aware of the injured and suspecting frown darkening his face. “To give me the third-degree?”

His father’s smile faltered. Something clouded his eyes for a moment. He shook his head. “No…” he said slowly. “But you have plans, don’t you?”

Eren felt the snap of defensiveness. “Why do I need a plan?” he grumbled.

“You can’t strip forever,” Carla interjected.

“Sure, I could!”

Eren,” Mikasa urged.

“No, seriously! And Carla, technically it’s exotic dancing. Go go-ing. It’s classy and it’s safe. All right? And I like it. I like it. Okay? I’m good at it! Dad, you always told me to do what I’m good at. Guys who are good with grease and wrenches fix cars. People who have steady hands go into neurosurgery. Dad, you can pick a person apart in a second so you went into psychology. What’s wrong with me doing what I’m good at?”

“Because jiving about on stage for someone else’s voyeuristic pleasure is something anyone could be good at,” his father parried in a low, ominous tone. “You’re limiting yourself.”

“You just think it’s trashy!” Eren fired back.

“I’m worried for you,” his father countered.

“There’s nothing to worry about!”

“Yes, yes, I know you’re smart, and can handle yourself, and are surrounded by good hardworking security when you’re at work. But—damn it, Eren—it’s just not realistic. You might as well do phone sex.”

“I’ve thought about it.”

Eren,” Mikasa hissed again, this time accompanied by a kick under the table. “Your dad has a point. It’s a stepping stone, not a career.”

Eren looked to her in betrayal, mouth hanging open. Carla was white-knuckling her napkin. There was an awful tension hovering over the table, sticky and uncomfortable like stubborn spider webs, and Eren did not like feeling responsibility for it. He didn’t like feeling like a disappointment.

“Obviously it’s not a career,” Eren echoed, voice wavering under the weight of humiliation. “And I’m sorry if it embarrasses you. I’ll get a real job one day. Promise. But for now, it’s what I do.”

“What about when you start dating?” his father pressed. “What then? What will you tell them? Will you quit? What kind of girls do you think would be all right with their boyfriend stripping at a gay bar?”

“It’s not a gay bar,” Eren sputtered. “It’s a co-ed club, Dad! Did you guys forget Mikasa works there, too? Why aren’t you drilling her?”

“I only serve drinks,” Mikasa peeped. Eren shot her another pointed look of distress.

“That’s not the point I’m trying to make,” his father husked.

“For your information, I am dating someone!” Shit. Stop. No. Fuck. The words just skittered out, desperate for clemency. “And they’re totally fine with it!”

Silence.

Eren wilted. He felt sicker. Fuck the hangover; this was worse. He’d rather be clinging to the toilet throwing up all the shots and cocktails.

The worst part was that he was being awfully rude and they weren’t even condemning him, just asking the grown-up questions. And they didn’t begrudge him for it, either. Just wilted and smiled sadly and shook their heads, forgiving him for his unwillingness.

Eren frowned at his orange juice. When are you planning your Coming Out dinner? Mikasa had teased the other day. See, Mikasa, he couldn’t even handle talking about his choice of employment. How was he supposed to say, I’ve been sleeping with guys since my sophomore year of high school. Worse yet: what if they just looked at him and said, Well, duh?It was hard to know how to act when your family was far too accommodating. Why couldn’t he just have parents who hated him like Jean did? Or parents who’d left him like Armin?

Carla cleared her throat. She stretched a hand across the table to touch Dr. Jäger’s wrist in reassurance. She hummed cheerily, “What’s her name?”

Her.

Eren cut Mikasa a terrified glance. She had nothing much to offer, raising her brows and shaking her head and shrugging limply at the same time.

“Where’d you meet her?” Eren’s father interjected. “School? …Work?”

While work was the appropriate answer, it felt better to lie and evade any more dangerous questions. “The bookstore,” he fibbed. He felt Mikasa staring at him, just waiting for him to fall so she could cover his ass for him. She was so much better at it. Always had been. Who broke the African vase, Eren Jäger? Uhhh—uhh— The cat did, Grisha. Why is the window screen in the hall popped out, Eren? Um—I— The wind knocked it loose so we took it off so it wouldn’t break, Grisha. Why does it smell like sex in your room, son? Uhhhhhhhhh— Because, Carla, Eren’s in that awful stage of teenagedom where he doesn’t wash his clothes and it’s not sex you smell, but dirty laundry, here, I’ll get his clothes out of the corner and help you wash them…

“Are we going to meet her?”

“Maybe.”

“How long have you been involved, Eren?”

Involved. How old-fashioned and quaint. “Two weeks. Or so.” Damn, it was too simple to lie.

“Mikasa, would we approve of her?” Carla was joking. It wasn’t like their approval was law or anything.

Mikasa nodded and shrugged at the same time. “Of course,” she peeped.

“Dad,” Eren sputtered, clearing his throat and poking at his food, scrambling to redirect the conversation. “I’ve decided what I’m declaring for my major.”

That one deflected all the awkward spotlight to his father, now, and the look of relieved disbelief softening his face. Tiny little smile, dancing eyes. “Really?” he pressed.

“Yeah. I took your advice.” Eren nodded decisively. “I’m double-majoring in Communications and Classic Literature, maybe keep going for my Master’s or something. I think I’ll do my senior project on the Titanomachy…”

It totally mended the situation. And Eren wasn’t even making it up, either. He was serious. His father stretched a hand out to the back of his neck—a warm, heavy touch, a loving touch, a proud touch, followed by a hair-ruffle and a knowing glint in his bespectacled eyes. Look at those crow’s feet. God, it was awful when you realized just how old your parents were getting.

“You know if you’re dating Mikasa, you two can just tell us,” he husked.

Mikasa choked on her tea.

“It’s not Mikasa, Dad!” Eren cried.

“Boo,” Carla lamented, handing Mikasa a napkin. “She’d be so good for you. And you’d make cute babies, too.”


…You and I, Levi, we don’t know all that much about each other and I think we should rectify that. …Your mom’s side is French-Canadian, and you’re twenty-nine, and a Capricorn. …Your favorite tea is vanilla chai. …You lost your virginity to the Danzig song ‘Mother’ after stealing your dad’s car to roadtrip to Woodstock ’99…and you’re living with your ex-boyfriend—

Rome, New York. 1999.

No shade. It was a former air force base where they hosted the festival; trees had been cleared out long ago and the throbbing masses ensconced by plywood and steel fence moved from stage to stage to ATM machine. The smell of water bottles burning in the dark was gnarly. The portable toilets, too. People got raped and shit got looted and MTV pulled their live coverage because the fans were just too out of control—but Levi and his friends left long before the armored crowd control rolled in, which seemed a waste of a ticket that pricey. But gut instinct was not something to ignore especially for a group of mini-grownups who operated in end-of-the-millennium new age truisms and anarchy. Hotboxing in the borrowed leather-lined Cadillac, chasing the dragon, lashes fluttering, laughing and whispering together under the distorted chords blasting from the stereo, carefully passing back and forth and manually rewinding treasured tape cassettes with pinky fingers jammed in the tiny teeth of the reel holes.

They parked just far enough away from Woodstock after leaving to bask in the cool summer evening, ears ringing, watching cars fly by on the highway and letting the distant throb of live violent music whisper their way in the weak wind. Farlan and Hanji were dating then—back when none of them knew what they wanted to major in, because subscribing to the mainstream as life expected them to was not as appealing as raging against the machine, and back when none of them knew Hanji and Levi would end up working together at a Seattle rock station, or that Levi would be living with Erwin Smith hot and cold and hot and cold again.

Hanji was flashing cars that zoomed by, laughing her wild laugh and dancing around on the edge of the blacktop. Farlan swung her around by the waist, whistling long and sharp. And as the sun fully faded from the world, draining away in shades of bluish-gray, letting the stars peek through the velvet summer night sky as distant lights flickered on and mosquitos buzzed and you could still hear the screams and riots from the festival, Levi stretched sexy across the front of his father’s Cadillac to seduce Erwin with the French inhale. Disenfranchised youth, disillusioned youth, desperate and rebellious youth, wearing too much black for the killer summer heat. Black hair, black band tee, black jeans, black All Stars, black shoelaces on his wrist and chipping black Sharpie on his nails and the black smear of no sleep or old eyeliner bruising his eyelids. Could have been both. In 1999, you could pop ecstasy or amp like SweeTarts.

Tongue shifting between his teeth, passing headlights had rolled around Erwin’s face. What a fucking stud, seventeen going on romance novel handsome. Okay, so there was still a little bit of acne on the places where his chiseled jaw met his thick throat. But what a Class A stud, all right? Taut muscles under Levi’s pawing hands, thin cotton T-shirt and chatter of a belt studded with safety-pins. Flannel knotted around his cut waist—pried away by demanding hands. The same strong, demanding hands that dragged Levi onto his lap and that intimidating, titillating heat that balled at the front of his jeans—hard, terrifying, ripe with lust and seemed so dirty to grind down against it, to like grinding down against it, the threat of penetration and pleasure throbbing there behind Erwin’s fly as the music from the idling car rumbled—

Mothertell your children not to walk my way

Like hippies, Hanji and Farlan had run off into the stretch of grass along the highway. Probably wanted to smoke a bowl without sharing with Erwin and Levi. Whatever, didn’t matter, this high was better than any high a counterculture pharmaceutical could provide. And in the back seat of the Cadillac, sweaty skin sticking to the leather, fingernails digging into broad shoulders, back arching, neck craning, teeth gnashing and, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, Erwin, it hurts…”

“Shh… Shh…”

Fathergonna take your daughter out tonight, gonna show her my worldoh father

“Slower—slower—”

“I can stop if you want me to!”

I don’t want you to—”

There was just something about the pain, and pushing past it, that made a twisted little pride blossom. He could take it. Jocks and meatheads and some punk rockers alike said real men didn’t bottom, but if he wussied out from the awful prying pinch of Erwin’s dick inside him, wouldn’t that make him much less of a man, anyway? Strange paradox of machismo. The idea that he was doing something illicit was enough to get him off. The fact that it felt hella good and it was Erwin and he smelled so good, tasted so good, felt so good, ah, cradled against his chest as his hips rolled, rolled, rolled, and the pain numbed and left nothing but the sensation, ribbed condom, thick heat, erotic pressure at his tailbone, hot strong hand pumping him between their hips, well, that was—ahhh

And if you wanna find hell with me, I can show you what it’s like ’til you’re bleeding!

It was Farlan and Hanji’s turn next. If the Cadillac’s a-rocking, don’t come a-knocking. But it wasn’t rocking that much, and Erwin and Levi shared a beat-up cigarette or two, huddled together on the hood of the car watching the cars and the stars and listening to the faraway echo of raves and rock.

And the silence between them was so pure—so right—so innocent…

And Levi’s heart had stopped when Erwin had looked at him in the moonlight, wind tossing his neat blond hair this way and that, one hand at the small of Levi’s back protectively, possessively, warmly, and Erwin hadn’t said anything—no—but he’d just looked—in love—and Levi had been winded in fear, and guilt, and the awful beautiful ache of loving back—was it okay to love back?—was it right to love back?—it was perfect—but perfect wasn’t real—even if it felt like Perfect was smiling at him in the dark right there on the hood of the Caddy—ears ringing from the wind, the noise, the post-coital daze—ba bumpba bump

Well.

That was then, and this was Seattle, 2013.

“So how was Watershed?”

Hanji’s groan vibrated in Levi’s ear. He had to fight laughter, leaning way from the phone with a devious little grin. Ah, Watershed. Nanaba had bribed Hanji into trading 102.9’s August Home Grown tour of local artists in local bars and clubs for Nanaba’s annual trip to a less-appealing Gorge festival, where 102.9 tried to promote diversity by reviewing a band of a different genre. Good karma, anyway.

“I have seen too many pick-up trucks, too many hunter jackets, too many girls in ripped camis chugging PBR, and I swear to God I started picking up a Dixie accent,” Hanji lamented. Chatter of dishes in the background; she was at home, then, probably cleaning up from dinner with Mike. “Though I have to admit, Blackberry Smoke was not bad at all. Very classic, very easy listening, very nostalgic.”

“Reminded you of your dad?”

Soft, guilty chuckle from the other line. “Yeah. But not the tunes for me.” There was an awful crash from her end of the phone call, a string of hissed obscenities. She must have dropped something. “Leviiiii!” she whined. “The Home Grown tour is my baby!”

“I know.”

“I helped a local band sign with Robert Lang last year!”

“I know, Hanj.”

Heartbroken sigh. Levi held the fridge open with his hip, rummaging for a V8. It was, in all honesty, better than that last Corona. Despite the very tempting fact that Erwin was probably saving that Corona for himself and it would be beyond hilarious to Levi to steal it.

“Anyway, Hanj, I gotta go—Eren should be here in a few and I doubt he remembers the apartment code—”

Hanji snorted. “He’s coming over again?” Suspicious pause, echo of water running. “Is it a date?” And the word date carried so many sly implications in that unique tone of voice, one only Hanji could master. Curiosity forged with affectionate accusation forged with gossip.

“No.” Levi cleared his throat, popping the V8 open and closing the fridge with an elbow. He paused near the hall, cutting a surreptitious glance over to sneak a peek in Erwin’s room. Nope, still preoccupied by some house-flipping show or another, sprawled on his bed like the domesticated stud he was. Rich Hunk Syndrome at its finest, lazing about in his Sunday glory. What an old man. He’d probably fall asleep halfway through Holmes on Homes, all snuggled up in his grandma’s knit throw blanket. Like a big fucking baby. Big fucking old man Rich Hunk domesticated stud baby.

He really hated that they legally occupied the same space but rarely spent time together anymore.

Was that his fault? Did Erwin not want to be around him, or did Erwin think Levi didn’t want to see his stupid lovely face? Because he’d crossed out the words on Erwin’s little word magnets? Because he’d inadvertently given the sign he needed space when really he’d just been a brat to be a brat? It was fun, God damn it. Getting a rise out of Erwin was fun. Fucking with Erwin was fun. Always had been, always would be.

“Levi—”

“Sorry, Hanji. Yeah, no, we’re not dating. I gotta go. See you tomorrow.”

No. They weren’t dating. This wasn’t a date. Letting Eren in, offering him some leftover pizza, asking how his day was, telling him to pick out a movie or something—it wasn’t a date. This was just two people who knew each other, perhaps intimately, hanging out on a dead Sunday night that just so happened to be the dead Sunday night directly after the Saturday they’d both woken up stiff and disoriented on the couch together because the immediately prior Friday night, Eren had fallen asleep there on Levi’s lap.

God, Eren was something fucking else.

He came over in basketball shorts and soccer socks, and a UW T-shirt. When he yanked off the ridiculous beanie with earflaps, his hair was a mess just begging to have fingers run through it, a nose buried in it, a kiss pressed to the cowlick there above the ear. When he went down into a crouch near the shelves of DVDs after Levi told him to pick out a movie, Levi tried hard not to look totally enthralled lest Eren turn around to ask him something and find an expression of utter lust softening his face. It was so near to his siren’s stage strut. But—the slope of his back, the lines of his arms… Gorgeous. Too good to be true. Ganymede, he’d thought before. The devil in the desert. The fruit coiled in the serpent’s tail—or maybe the serpent itself. Levi just wanted to tug him into his lap and grip him tight in his hands and feel that boyish magic writhe against him. Smell that sweet skin. Taste that sweeter sin. There was nothing romantic about it, he was ashamed (or not) to say. Just the carnal twist of chemistry. Desire. Illicit impulse. Horny hijinks. He wanted to bite that soft warm ear, hips knocking together like chips of flint, sparking shudders of pain and pleasure—

See? Not dating. Casual sex with a stripper.

For the first twenty minutes of Die Hard, Levi was as paranoid as a kid with their crush over to study and the bedroom door left open. The knot in his shoulder was getting worse, the more he looked behind them just to make sure Erwin wasn’t spying. Did he want Erwin to be spying? No.

“You want a Smirnoff?” he asked, nudging Eren with his knee.

“Sure,” Eren replied, distracted.

Fucking kids and their fucking attention spans for action movies.

In the kitchen, two grape-flavored wine coolers in hand, Levi spied on Erwin to see if Erwin was spying on him. He wasn’t. He’d fallen asleep, just like Levi had expected. Big old man Rich Hunk domesticated stud lazy lion overlooking his pride baby.

The house was dark, light from the television flashing across the living room. Eren was curled up against one arm of the couch; Levi sprawled limply on the other. And about the time McClane and Holly met Powell in person, Eren stirred a little bit, shifted, adjusted his socks, wiggled his feet together, then announced, “So, yesterday my dad gave me a hard time about not having a plan in life. The thing is, I don’t need a plan. Why do you always have to have a plan? The world won’t follow your plan anyway. What do you think? I could be a stripper forever.”

Levi frowned. It was kind of nice Eren asked him for advice. Eren knew Levi was fairly experienced in life, anyway. But it was also kind of bad he asked him for advice because Levi didn’t have very good advice to offer. Here he was lounging around on a Sunday night with two different pairs of socks on in a wrinkled vintage baseball tee eating leftover pizza for dinner and toasting wine coolers to Die Hard with a stripper named Jaeger Bomb. He was a fucking sham of an adult with good advice, wasn’t he?

He wrestled with it for a moment or two, nursing his drink. Ah, Eren was young still, and ambitious and impassioned, starry-eyed and rebellious. Of course plans didn’t appeal to him. But to Levi… Plans were very important. They started, in all fact, breathing down your neck quite ominously around the time twenty-seven hit and by now—by twenty-nine, almost-thirty—they were getting out the gloves to choke you until you paid attention.

It was a little skewed, Levi kept in mind, on Eren’s end—because all of Eren’s liquor was top shelf, and he was either in stubborn denial, terrified of change, or lying to himself. Okay, awful metaphor. But what it meant—what he’d gathered, that was—was that Eren had had a pretty easy life and now that his wealthy psychiatrist father wanted him to make a decision for himself, well, he was anxious. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t trust himself.

At the same time, though… There was something very comforting about that. About not having a plan. Just going with things. Something good to take out of that reckless philosophy, anyway.

Levi didn’t have a chance to explain that to Eren, or the chasm between them when it came to things like scope of the world and necessity for plans—because Eren didn’t wait for an answer before he announced:

“I also told my dad I was dating someone.”

Levi swallowed his Smirnoff Ice wrong and coughed, cocking a brow.

…What?

Eren turned wide, guileless eyes on him, like he had no awareness of the weight of such a statement. Me? Levi wanted to ask. Maybe the question moved wordlessly; Eren shrugged and shook his head.

“I didn’t name any names,” he added quickly.

Oh God. Fuckfuckfuck. And here he’d just been talking to Hanji, explaining—

Eren raised his brows very slowly, like he recognized the precarious hush for what it was. Like he had no misconceptions, but worried Levi might. “Are we dating?” he murmured, voice so soft Levi wanted to curl up in the breaths between.

What was he supposed to say? He had to let him down easy. He couldn’t say yes and screw himself. He couldn’t say no without looking like an asshole. Unless he did it in a way that might teach Eren how grownups casually saw each other.

“No,” Levi muttered, reaching out to toss some loose hair out of Eren’s eyes with a knuckle. He cleared his throat, relieved to see Eren didn’t look as heartbroken as he’d expected. He got it, then. There wasn’t much teaching to do at all—just clarifying. God, that black magic in his glance. Why wouldn’t he get it already? He was young. He was impassioned. He was full of naiveté’s reckless abandon. He was a fucking stripper, for Christ’s sake. And Levi wanted him again. He was a little embarrassed of how much Eren turned him on, actually. It wasn’t kosher. “We’re not dating. This is just…something good. Really good. And I want it.”

The look on Eren’s face swiftly changed—for the better. A dark sensuality twisted his brow, lashes lowered on heated eyes. Was that the ghost of a seductive smirk? He knew what he was doing, the little shit. Fuck, had he just played Levi right into this—?

“Then have it,” Eren whispered thickly, stretching across the couch right into kissing range.

Quick glance to the bedroom by the kitchen. Nope, Erwin was still out like a light.

Levi met Eren in the middle, head tipped just so. Mouths, sealing together—pausing, the shock of such bold contact still quite electric—and then moving, soft, supple, hungry, working. Little bit of tongue, satisfied purr in the back of the throat, sneaking out with an impatient gasp. Eren’s fingers followed the line of Levi’s jaw; what a dominant gesture. Levi chuckled. Yes, this was the way he liked it. He wanted to be on his toes. Kept guessing.

The Die Hard credits rolled.

“I need a pen and paper,” Eren announced, licking his lower lip.

“What are you writing?” Levi murmured, leaning against one knee and watching Eren’s chicken-scratch bloom on the notepad.

“The List of Sex Things We Have to Try That You Can Mention On The Talk,” Eren explained. So harmlessly. So simply. How could a guy wield such innocence talking about adventures in kink?

“What’s the first thing?” Levi pressed—slowly, softly.

Eren consulted the list, mouth puckering and twisting around silent words. “I don’t know,” he whispered. Was he blushing? Levi smirked. Did he know what he was getting himself into? Rather—did Levi quite grasp the gravity of what he was getting himself into? Eren’s eyes flickered up, lighting on Levi’s. He pushed the notepad forth. “You tell me,” he added.

Levi’s eyes traveled the sloppy list. Some of the bulleted ideas made him blush. These were the spontaneous things you tried on a love-drunk whim, not plans you made in advance. Definitely the types of things you only considered in the Dionysian moonlight and never spoke a word of in the logical sun. Bondage—sex in public—sex toys

Ah. There was one.

Levi cut his eyes up, meeting Eren’s. Moment of shared heat, every breath a new spark between them. Static charge. “Eren…” he hummed, flat tone of voice betraying no shred of the excitement stirring within. Funny, how the thrill for such adult things was so childish at the core. “I have a line of windows in my room…”

Eren understood in an instant. He practically leapt off the sofa, tugged at Levi’s wrist. “Come on!” he urged. “Let’s go, then—”

“Shh,” Levi hissed, but he followed, a weak smirk perking at his mouth. “You’ll wake Erwin up.”

“Oh, baby,” Eren parried, a boyish little lilt, “I want your neighbors to know my name—”

Eren.” Levi snorted. But Eren wasn’t ashamed even in the face of Levi’s censure. Just ducked his head and blushed a cherry red and cast Levi a shy glance over the shoulder as if to say, Just kidding, Mr. Radio.

No. There was no kidding in sex against the window at all.


end ch. 6

Chapter Text

Sex against the windows went a little something like—

Awkward. Sexy-awkward. Awkward of hot and heavy, reckless and horny, and anyone who said sex wasn’t an awkward act in and of itself was a God damn liar so realistically, getting jiggy against the window was relatively normal. Nothing too crazy. Awkward only because coming while upright was awkwardly amazing. Toes, curled on carpet. Clammy fingers, scraping at the glass. The stiff prying thrust, the slap of sticky skin, soliciting groan after groan after vulnerable gasp, shh, not too loud, as lower lumbar muscles quivered tight trying to keep the back arched at an angle that made penetration more comfortable, more accessible, knees shaking and elbows friction-bruised. But—and most especially but—the fucking dirty thrill of bare chest against windowpane, goose-bumps, nipples flushed pink and button-hard by the way lust changed the traffic of blood in the veins—the idea that if someone looked really, really hard, from down below or across the street or in that adjacent apartment building—they might witness this daredevil affair, the kind of shit you’d see on CockyBoys or something—and the lights were out, sure, but the idea, the notion, the concept, not that you wanted to be seen but that you ran the risk of being seen, thatwas both terrifying and incredibly hot. Nngh. Yes. A healthy libido was not hard to please. Eren’s breath fogged up the glass and Levi would have to Windex away palm-smudges, and when Eren’s tongue rolled on his fingers, graze of teeth, low husky moan vibrating up his throat, through his ribs, under Levi’s knuckles, that—well, that—shit—

“Yeah, he made this list of things we have to try…”

“And you’re gonna do it all?”

“Well, I have to keep you guys interested, don’t I?”

“What’s on this list, huh?”

“Ah, Hanji, I can’t ruin the surprise. But I can say hashtag-did-it-against-the-windows.”

“Oh my God, people could have seen you!”

“And that’s the thrill, Hanj. You should try it. Hey, how many of you have checked out Heaven and Hell? You better be tipping Jaeger Bomb well. I’m not a cheap date. If you tell the beefy blond bartender you came because of 102.9 The End, he’ll discount your first drink.”

“What if kids saw you? Against the window?”

“A, the kids in my neighborhood annoy me from the other set of windows. B, I’d be more worried their parents are letting them stay up that late at night than their future psychotherapy bill. Hey, you act like it’s the most shocking thing I’ve done.”

Hey, I’m scared of getting old and being alone.

Bruised pause. Saved by the sound byte—wind-chimes, ocean breeze, waves lapping the sand, a gong. “Quick-fire horoscopes!” Hanji cried.

“Aries, take a—” BLEEP. “—chill pill, for Pete’s sake.”

“Taurus, your credit cards are in danger.”

“Gemini, cat got your tongue?”

“Cancer, the bipolar storm will pass.”

“Leo, make everyone bow to your majestic roar. Then take a cat nap.”

“Virgo, volunteer at a soup kitchen or something.”

“Libra, time to take that art class you were thinking about.”

“Scorpio, put away your stinger and smell the damn flowers.”

“Sagittarius, stop—” BLEEP. “—asking questions.”

“Capricorn, you can smile?”

Lay off the speed, Aquarius.”

“Aaaand Pisces, yoga looks good on you this year.”

Cue the break to music, leading up to sponsor audio and eventually the queued Lorde.

“You’re listening to 102.9. Tweet of the day is strangest place you’ve ever peed. Tag ‘@1029queen’ and if it’s one of the five that ends up on-air during our Top 5 at 5, two hundred dollars cash is yours. Don’t forget to check our ‘Hangover Diaries’ for the latest concert news and reviews, and keep listening for your shot at Bumbershoot full-weekend tickets with Mike and Nanaba. Hakuna ma-vodka, my friends!”

 


 

Hakuna ma-vodka. Levi was still laughing at that one.

That is, until Pixis found him in the break room.

“I like this List idea,” he declared after propping himself against the counter and smiling brightly at Levi for a grand total of forty-seven unsettling seconds. “Good one.”

Levi cut him a glance from the tinier Mr. Coffee, the one with the Post-It on the side that said TEA ONLY, D-BAGS. Stirring creamer into his Cacao Mint, he chanced a halfway denial. “It wasn’t me, it…”

Pixis didn’t seem to care either way. “I’m not saying it’s permanent or even noteworthy, but listener count is up from last week. What did I say about controversy, again?”

Look at that, the old geezer’s thoughtful stroke of his mustache, rolling his eyes around absently because he already knew the answer.

Around a swallow of tea, Levi paraphrased, “Controversy is the Easy-Grow you plant your idea seedlings in so they grow into big success.”

Pixis clapped his hands together softly as if it wasn’t his saying in the first place. “Keep it up!” he praised. “I don’t know what The End would be without you two.”

 


 

 

Eren wasn’t entirely sure how anyone could give up living with your best friends to get married or have “their own place,” because living with your best friends was the solution to everything. It was not a cold and impersonal sort of shared-space situation. The unpredictability of strangers wasn’t a hazard, like dorm-mates had been when Armin and Jean had been starry-eyed freshmen in residence halls. Then Eren’s dad had said, “You need to get your own place,” and so a place with his best friends it was. Come on, guys, fuck RAs and duct-tape barriers down the middle of the room; this is a call for roommates and the only requirement is that you’re okay living with Mikasa, too, despite the fact that she crushed your little hopes and dreams in high school when she wouldn’t go to the dance with poor old sexually confused you (yes, Jean; you).

But really, bills and rent were divided into fourths; chores were never any one person’s burden; walking around without pants on was not a problem; maybe he just lived with the right people, but there was never a dull moment; dinner at the table was more about unwinding than stifling familial pressure; you knew each other in and out so it was easy to respect personal boundaries and sleep schedules; you could carpool, and sing in the shower, and throw Super Bowl parties, and send someone else to the grocery store, and not worry about needing someone to take care of you when you were sick, and you all generally liked the same TV and the same food; and when you came home smelling like lube and someone else’s bed, nobody let it slide. Nobody.

Eren tried super hard to act innocent.

He knew Jean and Armin would be there when he got home, and he knew they’d know he had not been present in the apartment since last night, and he knew they’d be able to see right through him, but—he still tried.

Quietly closed the door. Carefully put his hoodie up. Stealthily slipped off his shoes. Very, very unimportantly walked around the back side of the living room to get to the shower—

Two sets of equally attentive and equally curious eyes abandoned whatever it was on TV to follow every minute movement. God damn friendly judgment.

“Your shirt’s on backwards, dorkwad,” Jean sneered.

“You have sex hair,” Armin observed.

“It’s fucking two in the afternoon,” Jean added. “What, did you just wake up or did you take the time to hang out today?”

“If he’s taking the time to hang out, he must be serious,” Armin concluded.

“He’s not serious,” Jean scoffed.

To which Eren swiftly retorted, “Jean, suck a dick—”

After which Armin hurried to redirect with a hesitant albeit victorious fist in the air, saying, “Hey, Eren, I got a credit card today.”

“I have, like, four,” Eren grumbled. “One for emergencies, one for gas, one for—”

“—cocaine, and the last for molly,” Jean finished for him, humor echoing in the burnt edges of his voice. Complete with an over-the-shoulder glance, it was something of an I’m Sorry for the rude comment. In a different tone of voice, it would have been a political observation on rich boys with rich daddies.

“I accept your apology,” Eren huffed.

He showered, washing the post-coital tingle out of his muscles. There was another hickey on the slope of his shoulder. Jesus Christ, Levi did not seem like the kind of man to go wild in bed but wasn’t that what made it so damn sexy? Also, why the fuck was lube so hard to scrub off the inner thighs?

“Come watch ‘Ghost Hunters’ with us,” Armin flagged from the couch, pushing Jean over with a nudge of the foot.

This—this was why living with roommates was the best. Banter about sex, ripe with unspoken understandings, snack on popcorn and watch ghost-hunting docudramas. Lazy summer days. But it was August; lazy summer days would soon give way to frantic fall days and then the saturation of holidays and after that the lackadaisical rhythm of winter quarter and… Shit. He actually did need to meet with an advisor about his major because he needed to declare. Really, he did. He just really wasn’t sure still, and the pressure was killing him.

It was when Jean disappeared down the hall and into the bathroom that Armin seized opportunity by the collar and demanded milk money.

“I listened to the radio earlier today.”

There was nothing incriminating about it; there were no hidden triggers or connotations. Okay, maybe a connotation or two. The cloud of guilt by association gathered around Eren’s shoulders and he bristled like he’d done some grievous error, casting Armin a knowing glance.

“Okay?” he grunted.

Armin shrugged. Here it was, his point, and it wasn’t like his knowledge of his friend’s sex life was totally unexpected, just blissfully silent until now:

“The radio DJ… The one you gave a lap dance to… The one who took us to the Hole concert… The one whose house Mikasa dropped you off at the other night… You’re sleeping with him, right?”

It wasn’t a question that required confirmation, or even validation; it was a warning that denial was futile. Eren shrugged, slouching further away into the cushions still radiating coziness after Jean’s departure.

Oh God, oh Lord, oh sweet tender and mild baby Jesus in a bed of hay somefuckingwhere in Nazareth, Armin had listened to the radio. Meaning, Armin had listened to 102.9. Meaning, it was after noon, and Eren had woken up once between passing out on Levi’s bed and then having a minor panic attack at Levi’s closed bedroom door wondering if he should exit or not because what if Levi’s roommate was there, what if there was a maid, what if there was anyone who would look at him knowing exactly what he’d done with the man of the house last night, and that one and only time he’d woken up had been when Levi had been staring at him from the bathroom doorway, brushing his teeth, looking all snazzy and press-corporate, because having sex against the windows did not mean Levi could skip work, and Levi had paused by the bed and Eren had waited for him to run his fingers through his hair or kiss him goodbye or something else significant like that but he hadn’t, so Eren had tried really hard to open his eyes enough to say “I’ll get up and leave in a few…”but it had come out like, “Mm gonna hmm…ah, unfff…?” and then the next thing he knew he was fully awake and Levi was gone but it had never occurred to him that Armin might tune into 102.9 just in time to hear Levi talk about what they’d done oh sweet majestic Lord, Armin had listened to the radio

Armin’s eyes burned holes into him. Eren refused to meet his stare directly. Armin had the most amazing way of seeing right into your soul; it was saintly and a little unnerving and he usually followed it with a quick-witted quip or some dry, humorless remark that was still fucking funny anyway. Armin was smart, and Armin wasn’t afraid of addressing the things you shouldn’t talk about in the day because they were too hotheaded and impulsive to belong to anything but moonlight filtering through the blinds over the windows against which you just shot your loa—er, got freaky.

Don’t bullshit me, those blue eyes said.

So Eren confessed, “…Yeah. I’m sleeping with him. But what does that have to do with you listening to the radio?”

Armin shrugged limply, distracted for a brief moment or two by Ghost Hunters. Then he snapped back to the conversation, brow knotting. “Eren, he’s broadcasting your sex on his show.”

Eren snorted. “I know. Hey, what did he say about last night?”

“That you started a list, I don’t know, ‘hashtag-against-the-windows?’” Armin’s nose wrinkled. “How do you feel about that, huh? That he’s keeping everyone up-to-date on your…well…dating?”

Eren grinned.

He buried the grin in a throw pillow, shaking off Armin’s prying hands. Finally, however, Armin triumphed, and the small wrestling match that ensued dissolved into laughter.

“You’re proud!” Armin cried. “Aren’t you? You twisted, messed-up little—”

“I’m not proud…”

“Aren’t you embarrassed? Or mad? Have you been getting more business?”

“No, and no, and yes, and I lied, I’m proud. He’s hella hot, Armin. He likes me, I like him, we’re just having fun, you know—”

When Jean came back into the living room, he was upside down, but that was because Eren was currently under Armin’s half-assed body-slam, head hanging off the edge of the couch. And the laughter faded quickly, because the look on Jean’s face was not good.

“What’s up?” Armin asked at about the same time Eren blurted, “What’s your deal, K-Stein?”

Maybe it was that he’d heard the whole conversation; maybe it was selfish of Eren to think that because it wasn’t about that at all. Whatever it was, it left Jean gray and distracted, snatching up his car keys from the kitchen counter.

“Nothing, I’m going out,” he muttered.

“I’ll go with you,” Eren invited himself. A gentle squeeze to Armin’s shoulder promised the conversation could continue later, preferably not with Mikasa in ear-shot.

 


 

“You don’t have to come.”

“I want to.”

“I’m just running errands.”

“So?”

“I wanted to be alone.”

“You don’t look like you should be alone. What’s wrong?”

“Eren, seriously, I just need some quiet.”

“What got up your ass and died?”

“So you’re fucking a DJ, huh?”

“A radio host. Hey, wait, do not turn this on me. That’s not quiet, either.”

“Marco texted me.”

Okay, so this wasn’t about Mr. Radio. This was about good old Mr. Bodt. Eren’s heart plummeted below his stomach. He pretended some of it wasn’t possessive or jealous and let the rest of it be sadness, good-intended concern for his friend.

Jean didn’t look up. His teeth scraped the tiny spoon as he forced another bite of his Baskin Robbins, then sighed, shoved the tiny bowl of ice cream away, and slouched low and plaintive in the plastic chair. The reek of ice cream was strong; the clamor of the U District beckoned them from outside the narrow ice cream shop on the corner of 45th Place and 45th St. Never mind they went to get ice cream and what sort of hilarious play on clichés that was; Jean’s eyes were glassy and distant, and Eren did not like it.

“He texted you?” Eren prompted, poking at his mint chocolate chip. “Isn’t it super late over there in France right now? Or, super early, or whatever?”

Jean was quiet for a very long time. Too long, actually. Mouth tight, gaze skittish, shoulders tense. Quiet all through small grocery shopping at QFC. Quiet all through eating the jojos before they had to buy them. Quiet all through flipping through magazines. Quiet all through the traffic lights and usual mess of rush hour on the way back home.

Finally, in a voice that was both tiny and thick at the same time, Jean asked, “Do you have to work tonight?”

“No.” Eren reached over and turned down the stereo. He put his phone away. He got comfortable in the passenger seat and waited for Jean to look at him, the Kirschtein signal of being, in fact, ready to talk. There it was, tiny sideways glance. Almost a pout. Jean’s pout was kissable. The kissable pout did not fit with his beanie and pierced ears. It just made him look very small and in need of holding.

“You gonna see your boyfriend again tonight?” Jean asked next.

“No.” Careful conversational cesare. “Why? Also, he’s not my boyfriend. Yet.”

Eren didn’t really have to pry to know why Jean asked. When sleeping with a friend was no longer a shy and spontaneous accident here and there but a regular coping mechanism for grief and sexual awakening, you knew the cues.

“Marco sent me a picture,” Jean husked, jerking up the leafy hill past Delta Gamma, Sigma Alpha, Phi Gamma Delta, back towards Roosevelt.

A picture.

Eren wasn’t sure why his mouth was dry or his chest tight. Maybe it was secondhand nerves; maybe it was empathy. His hands twisted nervously at his knees. He flipped off a close-call lane-changer for Jean because Jean didn’t seem in the mood to do much more than slam the brakes and sigh.

“What’s the picture of?” Eren ventured.

“Marco. Duh.”

“I mean—”

“Just him. Why the fuck would he send only me a picture of only him? What’s that supposed to mean? That he misses me? That he thinks I need to see a picture of him because I’m so God damn pathetic? You think he’s still confused? Or do you think he’s trying to act like everything’s cool and no biggie and we can just be friends without even talking about everything that went down? Am I reading too much into it, you think?”

Eren opened his mouth but nothing came out immediately. He frowned. He really thought about it. Jean slammed the brakes once more instead of gunning for a yellow and Eren caught himself against the dashboard with a tiny hiss of, “Jesus, Jean.” Oh yeah. The tension in this seatbelt wasn’t the best. Forgot about that.

“Can I see the picture?” he tried.

Jean threw his cell phone in his lap.

There wasn’t much in the off-colored cell phone photo to read into at all, in truth. It was just Marco, on the terrace of whatever student hostel he and his classmates were being put up at this month, and the terrace was blanketed in sweet tangles of leafy vines and clusters of bell-shaped flowers, wrought-iron and old-world stone and crooked rooftops over his shoulder, sloping a European terrain to the distant Eiffel Tower in the background. Flags, laundry lines, Parisian city-dwellers cameoing on their own balconies. The sky was clear and Marco’s Princeton cut had grown out a little and his scattering of freckles softened his little smirk. It was a nice picture. It was a cute picture. Okay, so maybe there was a tiny bit of reading into that could be done, but Eren didn’t endorse it.

“He looks happy,” he commented. “He looks like he’s doing good. He looks excited to be there. I still think his school’s uniforms look gay as hell but I kind of feel like he sent you this just to share in how much he’s enjoying himself. Friends are supposed to be happy for friends. Right?”

Jean didn’t reply. Eren handed his phone back; Jean didn’t even glance his way. Finally Eren set his phone in one of the cup holders, abandoning the gesture.

Man, Jean was really torn up about it all still. And damn it, you know, whether Marco was just trying to share his excitement or not, he really had no excuse not to know how much a picture could so violently throw a carefully-constructed healing process all helter-skelter again.

“As long as he’s happy,” Jean finally husked, turning sharply down the right street. His begrudging scowl did not support the statement. The bruise of loneliness was deep and rotten as ever, it seemed, but who would ever have known that high school boyfriends could have such a falling-out, one jetting off to study abroad while the other sought love in all the wrong places as desperate distraction from a broken heart?

“I hate this, I’m lonely, I hurt, I want you but I feel bad because I’m probably using you,” Jean said—except only with his eyes, of course.

There was no sex tonight, not even a friendly grind.

It wasn’t that Eren felt guilty; he just wasn’t interested like he might have been a few weeks ago. He didn’t need it like Jean needed it. That was normal and allowed, right? As much normal as was allowed in an apartment split by four college kids like them—one who was a stripper, and friends with benefits with the one who wanted to drop out of school and be a tattoo artist, the one who’d experienced his bisexual evolution when he was friend-zoned by the one who was now a bartender and aspiring PR agent, who had found out the stripper one was gay when he’d dated the fourth one who was a haunted tour guide who frequently moonlighted as a stripper. Did any of that make sense or was it one of those nuclear friend problems only those at the radioactive core could understand?

He let Jean hold him, though.

It was a compromise. Spooned on Jean’s bed, World’s Dumbest and an arm around the side, a slow heavy heartbeat against the back. Soft kiss of apology to the temple, the shell of the ear. Because love was a bitch of a force, in all her many forms, wasn’t she?

Eren messaged Levi very cautiously under Jean’s arm, trying hard not to wake him as he thumbed the phone keypad. He thought maybe his tongue-between-the-teeth snickering at the flirty back-and-forth might be too loud, but Jean was out like a light, breathing down the back of his neck again.

Eren contemplated telling Levi about it all. He didn’t. He just needed to stop thinking about it. He was angry at Marco—wrongfully, sure—but angrier at Jean because his heart ached to see him like this. It made it so hard to keep ersatz boundaries intact. It made it really hard to keep it no homo. It made it incredibly hard to deviate from routine and safety nets and actually date someone else because he couldn’t, just couldn’t, let Jean hurt alone. He was an Aries, after all, and the tickle of Jean’s dreaming sighs was sort of like that July Talk song—

 

When I think about you, my whole world falls in.

When I think about you, my whole world falls through…

 

+Levi – i hate when i can’t cheer my friends up

 

Bvvt. Bvvt.

You could cheer anyone up, Levi’s text back said. Eren hid a goofy smile in his elbow like there was actually someone around to call him on how cute and sweet this hardcore crush was, and Jean’s fingers twitched hot and limp against his side.


end ch. 7

Chapter Text

Lights.

Glitter.

Shouting. Whistle. Bounce.

Pumping beat that triggered action potential between nerve synapses.

Sweat and money stench on the knuckles, slap on the ass.

Jaeger Boooooomb!

This was no place for a guy to be proud of working, but there was just something about the crepuscular chaos that Eren loved. Really, what was so unmanly about dancing a little dirty?

This was a fine Greek romp, a classical fair of pleasure and pageantry, deep Freudian cues and basic human design. This was when nothing mattered but the music, the sway, the way creepy faces disappeared beyond the stage lights so it was just a body and a pole, and it was easy not to think about whose eyes were burning into you without an ounce of shame or moral justice because you were an object here, you were a service here, you were a treat and a secret and a god here for the lowest of the lows and the highest of the highs. You were at the rotten core of mores here, fuck equality, fuck political progressions, fuck cultural and social appropriations and the status quo’s deep-rooted and unfortunate stigmas, this was the corner of the night to which the world still turned a blind eye. This was less flattering than porn; this was more degrading than Guy Spy; these were the shadows of the fragile infrastructure of the sex industry and no amount of class or security could carve the truth from that.

Maybe shame came with age or something. Maybe one day he’d be in a real job; he’d be a grown-up; new faces in his life, maybe coworkers, maybe significant others, would ask him over apricot-espresso glazed tenderloin, roasted asparagus, wild rice pilaf, and wine, “So what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?” and he’d say, “I put myself through school with scholarships and stripping.” And it would be funny, it would be unique, it would be a great ice-breaker and honesty was a virtue, wasn’t it?

But see—that was in the future. That was not now. Right now he was here, and he wasn’t quite sure how he’d get from here to there, but one day it would happen and that was enough for him. Eren didn’t need to defend it; he didn’t need to analyze it. He stripped and it was fun and he was young and wild and carefree and the unorthodox satisfaction derived from the shock on people’s faces was good enough to distract from the weirdoes and sleezballs and the pressure of not having a plan digging its metaphorical thumbs into his throat from behind.

What would she say if she knew he was here, planless, majorless, hips rolling, hips swiveling, toes curling, booty dropping, booty shaking, inner switch flipped to full-on tease mode tonight?

Hustle, dance, hustle, dance.

Would she be horrified by the way the lights flashed off his naked chest? Would she feel disgraced by how very little his shorts left to the imagination, or would she try to find some cousin concept like string bikinis as a form of justification? Would she be proud of how well he’d mastered his own sex appeal, like any other person could hone a skill if they really tried, or would she watch him twist and thrust to Work Bitch and borrow from his father’s route of acceptance and say, “Well, it’s because when you were little I let you listen to Mandy Moore and air dry around the house after your baths, isn’t it?”

Mom.

He didn’t remember her enough to get too caught up in grief.

Sometimes he even confused early memories of Carla with early memories of her, and that was what really fucked him up. It seemed like betrayal—sore and blue—muffled disloyalty to someone, somewhere, fleeting and unfortunate.

Aren’t you embarrassed he’s broadcasting your sex on the radio?

No.

Things never get serious with you, do they?

Yes, they do. That’s the problem sometimes.

Where do you go when you dance, Eren? You go somewhere else in your head, don’t you?

Please don’t stop looking at me like that.

Marco texted me…

A bulky shadow slapped the camera phone out of someone’s hand down there by the edge of the winding bar, where the LED lights glowed under the surface and the catwalk stage was elevated like a dais—Reiner. “No video,” he growled, as Eren ducked down on hands and knees to apologize to the backwards-caps half-buttoned shirts too-much-Old Spice douche bags who had tried to sneak some video of the most hashtagged stripper in Heaven and Hell.

“If you guys want a show, I’ll give you a show—”

No video,” Reiner barked again.

“—and I know you’re probably trying to record a few seconds to show your friends, but I’m sorry, guys, they’ll just have to come and see me for themselves… Hey, you mentioned The Talk at the bar and got your discounted drinks, right?”

Hustle, dance, hustle, dance, take a grand total of seven selfies with patrons only there to see the stripper they talked about on 102.9 The Ex, nod and smile four times and counting when another stranger says, “I read about this place in ‘The Stranger’…” hustle, dance, dance.

Shift. Over.

Some guy in a stained pinstriped shirt, quite unfashionably untucked from very unexciting Wrangler’s, stalked him from the Workers Only hallway to the bar, where Eren was just following tradition hoisting himself on tiptoe and flopping prostrate across the counter to sneak himself a post-work shot.

“That creeper is watching you like a ‘Dateline NBC’ special waiting to happen,” Ymir muttered over the club noise, saving Eren the trouble and pouring him some Mount Gay.

“What?”

“You’re an idiot, right? He’s like, ‘Hi, my name is Buttmuncher777, I have an extensive collection of child pornography on my computer’ and Eren, stop wagging your ass like that for Christ’s sake—”

At the corner where she was collecting an array of well drinks on her tray, Mikasa’s face pinched in that telltale mother bear look. It was a little cold and intimidating.

Stop wagging your ass like that,” she reiterated for Ymir, and disappeared with a flash of red crop top and ruby-eyed dragon belly button ring.

Embarrassed, Eren stopped with the bouncing on his toes and slid off the top of the bar, quite aware of the severity of his pout. “Okay, okay,” he muttered, not sure he wanted to chance a glance at his stalker lest Buttmuncher777 be waiting for eye contact. He pounded the rum and hissed between the teeth and outside waiting for Armin to pick him up, he wondered how much longer he would have had to wait there smoking away the work exhaustion in worn-out muscles under the lights of Olive Way before Buttmuncher777 would have grown the balls to approach him instead of just standing near the bouncer awkwardly looking around like he wasn’t blatantly eyeing Jaeger Bomb street clothed now in a pair of basketball shorts and a screen-printed tee. Not like the bouncer would let anything happen, but Eren decided a good escape plan was to bolt up towards the I-5 onramp and hide in the bushes there.

“You look tired,” Armin commented as he pushed the passenger door open from his side of the car.

“I am tired,” Eren sighed, sliding in shotgun. “But I made bank tonight. And thank God because I need to get my car fixed.”

“I thought your dad was getting it fixed for you?”

“I told him not to. I told him I was doing it. I’m not a baby. I swear to God, if he fixed it for me…”

 


 

 

Bumbershoot was hot and crowded per usual, but inside the Key Arena bobbing his head to Fun’s set, Levi still had to wear his jacket. His Press badge chattered on the lanyard with his keys. Friday he spent seven hours wandering around with Hanji and in the hotel room the station put them up at for the weekend, he almost fell asleep trying to update the station blog with a recap of the day.

Saturday he got to actually enjoy himself. He split dumplings and strawberry shortcake in a cup with Nanaba. He went to a panel about Star Trek slash fan-fiction. He’d already weaseled some free passes out of Pixis for Eren and his friends, more out of obligation than actual gift-giving or bribery. He was working; he was too busy to even attempt a date at the same time. Maybe the age difference made it easier to say, “Here’s a few passes, have fun, see you later.” God, did that make him a sugar-daddy or something? He was not ready to be a sugar-daddy. Well, eventually he did meet up with Eren, outside the Sky Church Saturday night, where Eren was partying with his friends at the pseudo-rave inside. It hardly constituted a date. It was, in fact, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, playful conversation and nervous laughter and uncomfortable shuffling of manly pride, tempting hug and shy kiss of gratitude snuck in the shadows, “Hey, thanks for the tickets.” Reminder that this was still a booty call stage of interpersonal activity, somewhere unknown but still exciting between zipless fuck and exclusive encounters. They weren’t even having dinner dates yet, for fuck’s sake.

Back to the hotel for a long shower and vegging out on the big bed with Hanji like girls at a sleepover, all most humiliating pajamas and vending machine snacks, gleaning vital festival notes and footage and photos for another blog update. If you didn’t make it inside for Tegan and Sara today, you sure as hell didn’t have fun with FUN., either. Thanks, Bumbershoot. Get yourself together.

The first half of Sunday was his stint to spend hours at the 102.9 booth, livecasting the festival; the second half, he interviewed some of the outside bands and took a picture of Hanji with the painted doll man to post on the Facebook. They squished together for another humorous selfie with their sunglasses and the Space Needle behind them, and the smell of pot was very strong and it was shameful how much better Hanji was at the sandbag toss.

“Hey, Hanj!” Erwin cried in that honey-smooth tenor of his, pulling her into one of his infamous gentlemanly one-armed embraces as they all convened at Kell’s Sunday night for dinner and drinks.

Don’t call her that, that’s my nickname for her, Levi wanted to snarl. But he did not.

The smell of Erwin’s cologne was good and strong. The look in his bright blue eyes was of a man getting regularly laid. He’d ditched the sleek downtown entrepreneurial look for another plain V-neck and a leather jacket, and it was too much like a shift backwards in personality that Levi didn’t trust it.

At least Petra wasn’t there.

Mike, Erwin, Hanji, Nanaba, Ilse, Nile, Moblit, Nifa, Keith, Levi. Their table in Kell’s was, surprisingly, not the rowdiest, but it was coming in close. A round on Nile, everyone. Wait, a round on Hanji now. Hanji, don’t spend that much on these assholes. Someone get Levi another drink, and fast, he’s not dancing on the table yet.

“Your birthday’s this Friday, right, Hanji?”

“Thursday, actually. Hope everyone’s livers are still up for a good time because some of you might not survive my alcoholic tour of Seattle this year.”

“We’re splitting a room in Hotel 1000, anyone else want to chip in?”

“Maybe—”

“I’ll text you.”

“Too many birthdays this time of year.”

“Birthdays and holidays.”

“Levi’s got it the worst,” Erwin muttered around his beer, eyes dancing in the dim lights. “Birthday and a holiday, isn’t that right? December 25th, birth of Jesus Christ and Levi Ackerman.”

“Yup.” Levi’s mouth was in a tart line; it had nothing to do with the scotch and everything to do with Erwin’s tipsy lack of conversational tact. “I get jipped every year. All you bitches get two days of presents. I only get one.”

“Yeah, and this year you’re joining the big 3-0 club, buddy!” Nile’s chuckles kickstarted a ripple of whoops and laughter around the table, and Levi’s stomach soured.

“Don’t remind me,” he muttered.

Cue all the kind-hearted jokes and heckling, the cracks on aging and life expectancy. Everyone around the table had already hit the big thirty milestone, after all—everyone except for Levi. Even Ilse had turned thirty a few months ago, though she still passed for twenty-three. Whatever, they were all kids at heart, and didn’t they say age was just a number?

“And Mr. Smith over here is domesticated—”

“Mike’s whipped—”

“Hey, now!”

“Admit it, Hanji, you’ve got his balls in your pocket.”

Mike smiled around his drink, fully unashamed of his clean-shaven housebroken state. He even had his hair in a tiny little stub of a ponytail tonight. They were the group’s resident perfect couple, after all, Hanji with her husky reverberating laugh and Mike, man of few words and that abashed grin. He even did the laundry and cooked dinner. Everyone knew that like they knew Levi was practically the group’s resident call-boy.

“Nile, where’s Maria tonight?”

“With the kids, obviously.”

“Moblit’s still wooing chicks with his Celine Dion impression.”

“Every girl’s a sucker for ‘Titanic,’ motherfucker. Take notes, Erwin.”

“And Levi—”

No. Hanji, no. They didn’t need the details. They knew already, in that mysterious way that a close group of friends always knew everything before anything was ever announced.

“—Levi is—”

Hanji, stop. You’ve had too much to drink and sometimes when you’ve had too much to drink you don’t realize the repercussions of your words.

“—meanwhile, Levi’s the luckiest of us all, robbing the damn cradle—”

Well, now this was awkward, nine sets of eyes trained on him and four of which he’d looked into in bed before.

Levi’s gaze veered around the table, ringing with a new attenuation in the midst of the dark pub roar. Avoiding all stares directly, he cut Hanji a sharp look. She shrank away against Mike’s shoulder apologetically, nervous smile and glazed eyes.

“Is that so?” Ilse hummed.

“You haven’t heard?”

“I haven’t—”

“‘Robbing the cradle’? How old is she this time? Er—he, sorry, I keep forgetting…”

“Twenty-one!” Hanji cried.

Levi slouched low in his seat and nibbled on the straws of his drink as the table marveled over the nine-year age difference, remarked on Levi’s adventurous qualities, compared scars between those who had ever been courageous enough to date him. Nifa, Mike, Hanji, Erwin. Was that sick, or just typical of nuclear friends?

“In my defense,” Levi muttered, “it’s not like he’s a stupid kid. He lives on his own, he pays his own bills, he goes to the UW—”

“Studying what, erotic dancing?”

Levi shot Erwin a dirty look. There was a shimmer of remorse there, but not enough for Levi to forgive him just yet. He could literally feel the unspoken questions, ants on his skin, so he just sighed and explained, “Yeah, he’s a stripper at Heaven and Hell down by Pike.”

And after that, Nanaba had enough sense to change the topic immediately. Nobody fought it. But it wasn’t laid to rest.

God damn Erwin.

He followed Levi outside for a smoke break. He borrowed the lighter. He said, “You’re clinging to your youth.”

Finally Levi gave up on the cold shoulder and turned to face him fully, scowling deep. He hated this height difference. It was sexy and it was a wasteland of missed opportunity and it made him feel looked down upon—literally, and figuratively.

“What the fuck do you mean?” he spat.

“He’s barely legal.”

“So fucking what?”

“You’re going on thirty.”

“Yeah, all you assholes won’t leave me alone about it. Your tone of voice says you don’t think I’m ready to be thirty, Mr. Smith. What, you think I can just pause time until I’m ready to have a birthday?”

Erwin’s eyes flashed. His voice was low, firm. It made Levi’s heart jump and then drop, sickeningly. “No. What I’m saying is, I think you’re scared. You’re scared of not feeling young anymore, and you’re avoiding settling down because you’re afraid of slowing down and seeing you don’t have anyone or anything to settle with. You think you can coast through the next decade playing games, too? What happens when you hit forty and you’re still hooking up and breaking up and talking about it on the radio? That’s it, that’s what I’m getting at. You’re using this kid to keep your job. You’re using him as distraction. You’re using him to feel young. What are you doing with your life, Levi?”

A cold wind swept through Levi’s soul; maybe it came from the breezeway of sparkling Post Alley, or maybe it was completely internal. Maybe it was that Erwin had just stabbed a hole right through him and it felt more like an attack than any shade of betrayal. How fucking dare he? Really, though, taking everything in him he ever had to offer a man and holding it ransom the rest of his life and stealing his ex-girlfriend and how fucking dare he

The worst part was the way Erwin’s face softened instantly after. Softened like it had on the hood of a father’s Cadillac at the turn of the millennium. It was kryptonite for anger and Levi despised him for it; perhaps it was just that when you were this close to someone, cruelty was never truly cruel but a no-nonsense kind of honesty. No, scratch that, the worst part was the way the shock choked him on a nicotine sigh when Erwin disclosed, like he hadn’t just ripped into Levi’s life choices like lifelong friends are allowed to do:

“I’m thinking about shopping engagement rings next weekend…”

Wait—what?

It was unnerving, to feel a wave of rage crash through you and suddenly dissipate. The wave carried the jealousy, and the betrayal, and all the unresolved feelings, and then—just like that, the stormy seas were silenced by a windless void of…peaceful bitterness.

It didn’t feel like finality. It didn’t feel like reality. It felt, actually, like a joke. And it was an awful fucking joke. First, the SPARE KEY. Now an engagement ring. What the fuck, Erwin? Are you a fucking idiot? Is this some poorly-executed revenge? Are you really serious about blowing money on a girl you’ve been on-again off-again with for months and months? Is there a catch? Is this a hidden message? Are you crazy?

What are you doing with your life, Levi?

Oh God, Erwin was leaving him in the dust.

Oh fuck, what would happen to their living situation? Oh shit, what about their friendship? Friendships had a peculiar way of dying when someone got hitched. Right? Something about shared time and what-not, third-wheel jealousy. Thanks for making him look like a clown, Erwin, getting all fucking serious and wanting to check out rocks for the very girl who’d dumped Levi five years ago saying, “You’re in love with Erwin Smith and I’m not mad, I’m not sad, I just want you to be happy, and you’re not happy with me. The two of you are practically husbands. Admit it.”

Levi hadn’t admitted it. He’d accepted Petra’s rejection and chalked it up to manipulation on her part to save face and keep Levi from hating her for choosing Adonis factor over him. He’d reminded himself that what you wanted was not always what was best for you, and he’d foreseen exploring his options being a bit more successful than it had actually proved lately, but…

He was moving on. He was dating. He was interested in someone who was interested in him and who fucking cared about the age difference, it was no one else’s business. He was moving on and Erwin could try as he might to keep himself under Levi’s skin, but Levi was starting to see the cracks in his Rich Hunk syndrome. Well, he was not going to win this time. Levi refused to accept defeat. His heart could keep pounding like this, frantic and hurt, but he was not going to give in to Erwin’s games this time around. What about Erwin, huh? What was Erwin doing with his life? Apparently something. All right, he wasn’t going to let Erwin down as a friend, either. Hello, everyone, the bigger man is a full foot shorter and smoking a menthol cigarette, choking less on the smoke and more on the complicated mess of exes and friends and an alarming lack of closure. Was he the only one stuck in the past, or was he the only one who hadn’t picked up a pair of snazzy rose-colored glasses? This was a disaster. Spare key. Engagement ring. This was just laughable.

Erwin scanned him quickly and critically; they knew each other too well, unfortunately.

“You don’t have to look so sick to your stomach,” Erwin muttered.

“I feel miserable,” Levi retorted.

“Are you jealous?” Erwin spoke the blasphemous J-word once again for the second time in the last month, and Levi felt something inside him snap.

“I’m not,” he hissed, eyes narrowing. “I’m trying to move on from you because you obviously don’t want me anymore like I wanted you. Wanted, Erwin. Wanted. Past-tense. I have someone else in my life who deserves my attention more than you do, with your fucked-up need to keep rubbing your life achievements in my face like it makes you feel better about your fucking selfish actions.”

Selfish?” Erwin echoed, jaw tightening. Hnn, that jawline. God damn it. Here came the closing of the distance between them, the low and intimate hiss of fighting words. “I have responsibilities as a man, you know. I didn’t think wanting to get married and start a family was such a selfish act. In fact, I thought it was contributing to the world in a positive way—”

“Succumbing to the heteronormative pressure of generations past,” Levi scoffed, masking it in a sarcastic cough and rolling his eyes. But Erwin caught his glance again, demanding attention. Here it was, the bomb:

“This ‘someone else’—this stripper, this guy you met—he’s a kid, Levi. He’s twenty-one years old. He can’t handle your baggage. I don’t think even you can handle your own baggage. You, yourself, you’re the heaviest part about it. You’re not twenty-five anymore, Levi. Neither am I. But I’m not clinging to my youth, either.”

“Stop saying that!” Levi cried through clenched teeth. God, they were making a scene. His head hurt. He hadn’t had enough to drink to push past the initial dehydration. “Stop saying that,” he spat again. “Can’t I care about someone for real? Is everyone going to constantly go pop-psych on every relationship I have? What, you guys all think I’m this big crazy slut with no idea what I’m doing?”

“Well, you created the role for yourself, Levi.”

“You know what, no. I’m not having this.” In a flurry of frantic hands and elbows, Levi put some space between them again. He was livid. He felt so deeply wronged. He felt picked on, actually, and the pressure was suffocating him. “I’m done. This is bullshit, Erwin. No wonder you and I never worked out, you fucking rom-com plotbunny in a leather jacket.”

“Takes two to tango, Levi,” Erwin muttered coarsely.

Two to tango, huh?

There was so much tangled up painfully here in this moment, it was just too much. He needed to sleep before he said something he really regretted. He needed to sleep on it before he thought something toxic. He needed to breathe before he had a panic attack. He didn’t like the way it felt to have some impending doom breathing down the back of his neck, doom he could not classify nor trace. It wasn’t quite like a breakup; it wasn’t quite like a falling-out. It was just cold and black, and hurt. A lot.

God damn it, this was fucked up.  

What a great fucking way to end Bumbershoot weekend. Not.

Finally, Erwin ventured, “Want to go with me?”

He meant the engagement ring consideration. Like it was just meeting for lunch or something. Like he hadn’t just ripped right into all of Levi’s insecurities and laid them out bare. What was awful was that Levi accepted the stalemate, because it was how friendships like this worked.

“Sure,” Levi conceded, glumly, and flicked his cigarette butt into the gutter and left.

He fell asleep in the hotel before Hanji got back, passed out on folded arms with the cursor still blinking on the night’s 102.9 blog update, waiting to be published.

Monday morning greeted him with quite a few hundred Twitter favorites on the pic Hanji apparently took when she returned to the room, a fuzzy poorly-lit snapshot of him drooling on his elbow which she tweeted with the caption:

Bumbershoot took its toll on my fave man… xoxo night seattle!

She had no idea.

 


 

 

Using him as a distraction, Erwin had seethed.

I hate when I can’t cheer my friends up… Eren had said last week, and it had pained Levi a little to catch a glimpse of Eren struggling to carry the weight of the weary world on his well-cut, sun-kissed shoulders.

 To: JaegerBomb – What are u doing tonight?

 To: Levi – well it’s a tues & im not working so nothing

 To: JaegerBomb – what’s next on our lovely little List?

 To: Levi – sex store, i guess

 To: JaegerBomb – I will pick u up, let’s go to lovers

 


 

 

“Soooo…do you come here often?”

“Not really.”

“Look, it’s a candy bikini!”

“I take it you don’t come here often, either.”

“Well, sometimes they have lube on sale, so…”

“Ah. I see.”

“Sex Twister! Woah, handles for having sex in the shower! Look at this apron, what the fuck! This stuff is hilarious. Hey, come here—”

Levi stood rather unamused with his hands in his pockets and a gentle cock of the brow as Eren swatted at his shoulder with a faux-leather riding crop in the bondage section of the adult toy outlet. It wasn’t quite the reaction Eren had hoped to elicit, but whatever. The aloof thing was hot, too.

Examining the expansive selection of sex toys was a little more entertaining, especially trying to guess how the female personal vibrators worked.

“Can I help you two?” the sweet little sales associate asked near the condom bowls, all freckles and hopeful smile.

Eren went rigid; he was pleased to know Levi did, too. Like shoplifters they both played innocent, shrugging and shaking their heads.

“Shopping for your girls?” The sales associate nodded like they’d confirmed. “We have some awesome Halloween costumes over here…”

“Where are your butt plugs?” Levi interjected, with another casual flick of the brow, and Eren choked on a startled breath. The sales associate and Levi waited patiently until he’d gathered composure again before they made their trek around the store to the more adventurous sex toys. Cool, he looked like an idiot now. That’s okay.

Cock rings, vibrators, beads. Eren could hardly even imagine how some of this shit worked. What was the difference between silicone and…not silicone? And did someone really need nine different patterns of vibration—oh. Okay, that was kind of cool, actually.

“You ever use one of these?” Levi prompted, holding up a Sutera Silky prostate stimulator.

Eren’s face burned. He laughed. “Are you gonna put my answer on The Talk?”

“Maybe.”

“Nope. Haven’t used it before. Sorry to disappoint.”

“You should try it sometime,” Levi muttered, and his sigh was almost dreamy but more weary as he carefully replaced the toy on the shelf. “It’s not like it’s an insult to anyone. Real dicks don’t vibrate, and all.”

Levi wandered off to inspect the sale items, but Eren stayed behind. Dropped down to a crouch, holding his face in his hands and gawking at—well, nothing actually. He was torn between laughter and embarrassment. Was this real life? Nine o’clock at night and out at Lover’s with Mr. Radio? God, his face was on fire and Levi was just so nonchalant, so bored. Except it was sort of detached. Distant, sad. Eren didn’t like it. He felt like something was wrong and Levi was trying hard to keep his mind off of it. Was it him? Was he doing something? Was he not doing something? Was Levi bored with all this already? Were they not moving fast enough down the List of Crazy Sex Things for Mr. Radio’s liking?

Levi paid. Eren flipped his Lover’s card across the counter to feel helpful.

“I thought you said you didn’t come here often…” Levi teased on the way back to his car.

Eren nodded and shrugged. “No. Not often. But I got the card last time just in case—”

Ah, thank God. He was really starting to worry about Levi’s mental state—that is, until in the dark parking lot Levi backed him up against the passenger door of his car, keys jangling in one hand as the other danced down Eren’s side, across his hips, between his legs, possessive massage of fingers on the inner thigh, so fucking close to his balls. There he was, good old Mr. Radio, breath sending shivers sparking down his spine, hot and thick on the shell of his ear. Delight pooled at his hips; if Levi kept up the groping like that… But wait, there was something more imperative nibbling at his focus.

Eren slid his hand around to cradle the back of Levi’s head in his fingers. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah…” Levi purred into the crook of his neck.

Eren’s brow knotted. “Are you lying?”

Levi’s sigh tickled. His teeth tickled more. “Yeah…”

Eren sort of got the feeling he was Levi’s distraction from something tonight.

But you know what, there was something relatively gratifying in that. There was a sort of sexy power in that. To be wanted so desperately, to hold some sway over someone’s frame of mind.

This was, after all, what he did best.

He sort of got the idea from the way Levi clawed at his clothes, impatient and reckless. The way he tore at Eren like there was no tomorrow, like pausing for thought or cliché was dangerous. The way he smiled in the dim light slanting in from the hotel bathroom, the way he chuckled so tenderly when Eren threw a pillow over his face and choked on the stench of Day’s Inn laundering just so he didn’t have to watch Levi get out the Sutera Silky. Yup, they were going there. Yup, this was happening. Yup, that felt hella fucking good, and sharing an experience like this was hot enough before the vibrating part and well now, getting a blowjob at the same time was just magical, what, what was anything, distilled pleasure raged through his veins, waves of it, zaps of it, electric lust and nothing more, sensation, toes curling, hips thrusting, and—

“Fuck me,” Levi husked, raw and ragged, lying under him with his fingers behind Eren’s ears, body rocking up, up, bulge beyond his open fly teasing Eren’s spit-slick hard-on. His hard-on, which Levi had left high and (not very) dry, throbbing at the kiss of cool hotel air so soon after the heat of a skilled tongue and throat.

Right, fuck him, because that was why he’d so brutally, sadistically, vindictively stopped at the threshold of Eren’s orgasm.

Right, fuck him, and use that kinky “silk binding sash” thing they’d gotten and forgotten because Levi had practically jumped his fucking bones the moment the hotel door shut.

And Eren was terrified of being bad at it—or, at least, not being as good as any of Levi’s other dominant partners—but he wanted to be Levi’s distraction, Levi’s safe haven, Levi’s whatever the fuck Levi needed, because Levi was known for his prowess but this, knees sagging apart for Eren to crawl closer, hands bound above his head with the belt from the sex store, this seemed something much more intimate than usual. This was guards down. This was sacrifice. This was trust of the unknown. What a fucking rank to live up to. It had been a while since he’d been on the penetrating end, but Eren was determined.

With the lights out, he could hardly see him. With the lights out, it was just the craving and the need, slap of skin, handful of ass, body rolling underneath him to take his sex deeper—deeper—“Ahh, Eren!” God, don’t do that. Too close to the edge. Don’t wanna come yet. Feels too good. Fuck. So much tighter than the hand. Like velvet inside, fever-hot, pulsing, alive.

“Ah—ah, right there—that’s it, good boy—”

Good boy. Like he was a fucking dog. Eren couldn’t handle it; he half-collapsed into a peal of laughter, too horny to really be insulted. Slow, slow, fingers digging into a naked thigh, that’s it, tongues touching, gasps breaking, Levi’s face a twist of pain and pleasure as Eren changed up the rhythm. Slow, deep, a little faster, a little harder, in, in, in, in.

Yes, in a hotel you could be as loud as you wanted when you came because you didn’t have to explain it to anyone the next morning.

But the after-sex hush was a lazy one, punctuated only by the buzzing hum of the air conditioning and the throb of the heartbeat in the ears as the comedown settled.

Something had shifted there between them.

Maybe it was the humbling exchange of positions; maybe it was the endorphins and Eren’s success as diversion. It wasn’t like he’d never done it before. Well, thanks Jean, for that practice, then.

Still, it was sort of…nice to know he meant so much to someone. To be the one they ran to when they needed to feel good.

“We’re awful people,” Eren moaned into the pillow. He was sore. He was beyond sore. He wondered if Levi was, too. Every guy wanted to know he could pound it home good and hard, right?

Levi cast a glance over his shoulder, half-dressed in nothing but his pants and trying to get the room tidied up before passing out. Eren was way ahead of him, eyes heavy and dreams already nipping at his heels where his toes poked out of the hotel comforter. “What do you mean?” Levi prompted. Shreds of his vulnerable moans were still there in his voice; they gave Eren the chills.

“We really just did this,” he explained. “Had crazy sex toy sex in a hotel room. Levi, we haven’t even had a dinner date yet…”

Levi’s gentle smirk was damn attractive. “I was just thinking about that the other day…” Eren’s fingers twitched in the sheets. The bed sagged under Levi’s weight as he flopped down and swiveled a palm on Eren’s bare foot. “You want a dinner date, Jaeger Bomb?”

“Yeah. I have class, you know. But you probably just think I’m a slut, getting this crazy with you.”

“No…” Levi’s tone of voice changed dramatically; the look he flashed Eren from the corner of his eye was the temptation of Eve. “No, I don’t think that.”

“My dad would say I have voids and don’t realize it and that I don’t feel worth it and so I try to fill the voids with material fulfillment and sexual rebellion.”

“Do you, Eren?”

“No. Not really. Do you?”

“I’d be the world’s biggest hypocrite if I denied.”

“I got your mind off whatever was bothering you, right?”

Levi didn’t reply. He slapped Eren’s ass, playfully. He ruffled his hair. He kissed his eyelashes as Eren squeezed his eyes shut, hunching into the pillow. Without opening his eyes, he lifted his chin again and met Levi’s mouth in a chapped kiss. He knew the answer was Yes, anyway.

He was almost asleep when Levi leaned down over his ear and whispered, during a commercial break in whatever late-night talk show he was dozing off to, “You’re not going to ask what was on my mind?”

Eren shook his head slowly. “No… I made you feel better. That’s all that matters. Hey, Levi—not bad for a sixth date, huh? But dinner would be cool next time…”

He fell asleep with Levi’s hand a comfortable weight on his hip. Possessive, protective.

Boyfriend hand.

Damn, he was head over fucking heels. No bueno.

Okay, hella bueno.

 


 

end ch. 8.

Chapter Text

Eren couldn’t stop thinking about it.

He felt like such a baddie.

Levi, the hotel room. The look in his eyes and his electric touch. Chemistry was a funny thing. It was fickle and it was intense and it was sort of embarrassing how hormones and epinephrine could hijack a man so swiftly and unapologetically. Sort of embarrassing how good it felt to give in to that hijacking, actually, just camp out in the backseat and let the butterflies on crack do the driving.

His father would reduce it from such a poetic form to simple human need and an innate drive for satisfaction, reproduction, etcetera, etcetera, reference this or that colleague’s paper on it. Desire. What divorced the act from the simple animalistic function? The philosophy of it? The artifice of romance? The modern convention of wooing and courtship when for most of the world’s history relations that weren’t for pleasure were solely used for politics and workforce creation? No, couldn’t be; there were also after all so many studies on things like scent and the science of attraction. Even the most impersonal of interactions were personal in some deeply-buried and innate way, wound in and out of inherent human design. Empirically, it was only an added bonus to have feelings involved. It wasn’t necessary.

“The three P’s,” his dad always said. “Philosophy, physiology, and psychology. You simply cannot have one without the other two, at all.”

Okay, Dad, but what about the kinky thrill of just having fun? Of sleeping with a guy eight years his senior? Of trying new things with the reckless abandon of nighttime, where nothing felt taboo if you kissed long enough? What about that, huh? What insecurities and fears and behavioristic roots did those thingspoint to? Oh God, don’t ever listen to the radio, Dad.

“Fuck this!” Eren snorted, teetering out of bed and into mid-morning sunlight. Time to start the day, he supposed.

Because if he stayed in his blankets any longer without actually sleeping, he was going to keep thinking about Levi, after all. If he kept laying there thinking about Levi, and the way Levi tasted, and the way Levi felt, and the way Levi made his heart jump, and the way Levi looked at him without lifting his head, and boyfriend hand, and the way Levi’s voice sounded on the radio, and the way Levi laughed with that asshole quirk of the brow, he ran the risk of despicable morning behavior. He was a healthy albeit naughty young man, not a fucking sex addict.

Pederasty. That was another P-word. Maybe didn’t really fit here but still. They’d had lengthy and quite volatile discussions on it spring quarter in that Ancient World class he’d always been late to in the morning. The mentor and the pupil, right? Like teacher-student fetishes, right? Man, you could learn a lot about a society and basic human blueprint from porn, too, couldn’t you? Except for the pizza guy thing. That one was just bullshit.


“I’m sorry.”

Levi looked up sharply and almost missed as he stopped pouring his glass of orange juice.

He squinted across the kitchen at Erwin—in part an expression of doubt, on the other hand just the hangover. It was too God damn bright in the apartment. The light flooded through the line of windows, sparking off countertops and glass. Made his head pound. The alcoholic tour of Seattle in honor of Hanji’s birthday had really kicked his ass this year and he really hoped a piece or two of dry toast would still the sloshing Sea of Galilee that was his sour stomach. Note to self: remember water, remember pacing, remember to pop multivitamins and Advil before sleep, remember tequila fucks you up, little man.

And then there was Erwin, the cherry on top of the stomach acid uproar, the morning after congestion, and the awful hangover stiffness.

Erwin, loitering his bedroom doorway, right there near the kitchen. Erwin, looking model fine in a plain gray T-shirt and man-jamas. That is, Boss Hugo Boss, one-hundred percent luxury cotton lounge pants. Eighty bucks Erwin was willing to drop on fucking pajama pants and it blew Levi’s mind almost as much as how good his ass looked in those eighty-dollar PJs.

But Erwin didn’t seem aware of how good his ass looked in those pants, or how sexy his arms were, peeking out of that gray tee. And that wasn’t normal. Erwin not projecting sleek manly confidence was not normal; Erwin standing there looking like a sad little boy was not right. Shuffling feet, mess of bedhead that borrowed bits of gold from the morning light, kicked puppy glance as he waited for Levi to stop the week long silent treatment (he wasn’t even leaving hints around the house this time, either) and acknowledge his apology.

Levi rolled his head around on his aching shoulders and heaved a burdened sigh.

This—this was the awful part about a bond like theirs. They were each other’s shelter; they were each other’s pain; they exacerbated each other’s insecurities and at the same time accommodated them. Even the cruelest of cruel could be pardoned because the kindness, the selflessness, the love on the other side of the soul was well-remembered and well-known. He knew every part of Erwin, well enough to understand one night’s scathing argument did not at all negate the dimpled smiles and perfect laughter and the way he did everything in his power to make people happy, even when it became his own downfall. It was quite possibly the best and worst thing to have someone know you well enough to sting you so deeply, then mend it perfectly. Didn’t they say it was the ones you held dearest whom you hurt the most?

Christ, they were pouting at each other from across the apartment. Were they men, or what?

“You were mean the other night,” Levi grumbled, casting Erwin a begrudging glance around the toaster.

“I’m sorry,” Erwin said again.

“Are you, really? In front of everyone, Erwin—”

“Really. I’m sorry, Levi. I shouldn’t have said a lot of the things I said. I’m a selfish rom-com plotbunny in a leather jacket, you’re right.”

“Thank you.”

The ringing tension in the apartment released its death grip. It was a much-needed truce.

“How was Hanji’s birthday drinkathon?” Erwin prompted, joining Levi in the kitchen to procure some oatmeal for breakfast. “You need me to make you some eggs or something?”

“Don’t—just don’t, I might gag thinking about anything but toast.”

“I’ll make you tea.”

“You should’ve stayed longer,” Levi muttered, leaning on the counter and pretending he wasn’t watching Erwin through his lowered lashes. “It was a lot of fun and I think Hanji’s a little sad you left halfway through.”

Erwin did not deny his transgression; he remained quiet, mouth in a thin line. Finally, he proposed, “Hey… You wanna order take-out tonight? Drink some cheap bubbly, and watch ‘The Producers’?”

God damn it, Erwin knew that was an irresistible tradition, the sneaky son of a bitch. Wine, take-out, The Producers. All cozy and relaxed on the couch with nothing to worry about, lights low, surround sound on. And Erwin was damn well aware the suggestion would melt away any last traces of resentment in Levi. Levi wished he could say, “Making it up to me isn’t that easy.” But it would have been a lie. A big, ugly, obvious lie. Just like denying that Erwin could rip him apart night after night and still Levi would inevitably bend to clemency because Erwin… Well, Erwin was an essential part of him. Had been since high school. And that much time shared with someone else was practically impossible to reject.

“What happened to engagement ring shopping?” Levi grunted.

Erwin shrugged, poking at his steaming breakfast. Avoided Levi’s immediate glance because he couldn’t hide a thing from eyes that saw every side of him. “I’m still thinking about it. It’s a big thing, you know. I want to look, but it’s not like I’m proposing tomorrow.”

“How much are you thinking about dropping on a ring?” Levi asked, because the forgiveness was brutally relieving and he didn’t feel so bitchy today. The feelings weren’t so hard today. Insecurities did not feel so exposed and raw and mistreated today. All the wrong nerves were far from reach today.

It said a lot about willpower that Levi refrained from vindictively scoffing, “If you’re still thinking about it, you probably don’t actually want to.” But he did, and he was proud of himself. The hangover was enough; forcing himself to be angry at one of his best friends in the world seemed an unnecessary pain in the ass.

Instead he cleared his throat and acquiesced, “…Sure, we can do wine and take-out and stuff,” and didn’t mind that Erwin ruffled his hair like an older brother with those glorious long fingers.

“We are so metrosexual, it pains me,” Erwin husked.

Levi laughed. “Yeah,” he sighed. He might have used the word volatile or dysfunctional. But metrosexual sufficed. “We are.”


The day he and Levi had so informally met (if you could call a pricey lap dance and an intoxicated radio host informal) had been July 19, a Friday. Not that Eren was keeping track or anything.

Seven and a half weeks since that lap dance in Heaven and Hell, and that made this something like a two-month anniversary—not that anniversaries meant anything except measuring your level of seriousness or whatever, but Eren figured it was a pretty healthy casual thing, this sort of crazy sort of kinky tango between them, Mr. Radio and the stripper, if it was going two months strong. Oh, two months strong it was, and in the film viewing room of the SAM, where it was dark and isolated and hush-hush like a chapel, Levi’s fingers massaged circles on his inner thigh, swirling, pawing, kneading through the denim of his jeans, under the jacket Eren clutched with clammy fingers over his lap as he struggled to keep the pleased shock from showing on his wide-eyed and fever-hot face.

Number Six on the List of Sex Things To Try: sex in public.

It just sort of happened. It started as a joke. It started as a really nice, clean, sort of nerve-wracking real-ish date, going to the SAM mid-afternoon on a Monday, actually. Fall quarter was rolling along smoothly so far. Eren did not yet feel the exam frazzle imminent in a few weeks. The weather was nice and it wasn’t dinner, but it was just as good because it still required dressing up a little, right?

They wandered around the SAM for an hour or so. He felt a little off at first, not having Armin there to gush over the art with him. He forgot himself in the Renaissance galleries, utterly captivated by the Dutch and Italian paintings. Forgot himself entirely until he felt the eyes on him and turned around, flustered, to meet Levi’s gentle smirk.

“What?” he hissed through the quiet of art admiration.

Levi shook his head, eyes hooded. “Nothing,” he mumbled. “You’re cute,” he corrected himself.

Eren hid his blushing by hurrying off to the next gallery. What, a stripper couldn’t appreciate fine art and cultural enrichment without being cute? God damn, what was this world coming to?

Levi just followed him around with their coats on his arm, and his shoes made fine tapping sounds on the pristine floors.

Examining a wall of quite vicious quotes, each on a colorful square of its own, Eren finally found the guts to ask, “So you did it in the film viewing room here once?”

It was Levi’s turn to get all cute and flustered, put on the spot. “Well, it was just a sneaky hand-job. Nothing really crazy.” He paused. “Where did you hear that?”

“You said it. After our Jewel Box date. On The Talk, you mentioned it. Right after you announced we just kissed.”

“Like I said, sneaky hand-job. Nothing crazy.”

“Right, because sex in public isn’t crazy at all.”

“No, just dirty.”

Dry smirks, playful chuckles, eye rolls. The art of flirting. Sex in public. More specifically, sex in the SAM. Like what Levi had mentioned on The Talk after the Jewel Box chitchat, their first date, whatever he wanted to call it. And living up to that legend… Again, as it did sometimes, occasionally and very fleetingly, it hit Eren that he wasn’t just dating someone; he was pushing the boundaries. He was throwing himself into it full-throttle, one gajillion percent, which was how much he threw himself into almost everything, which everyone said was his downfall, but he couldn’t help it. He was passionate. He was an Aries. He was a ltitle bit of a maniac. He was an adult, for Christ’s sake, making the adult decision to do adult things in a very unadulterated way with another adult capable of making adult decisions like reaching under the coat in Eren’s lap in the back row of the darkled film viewing room on the third floor of the Seattle Art Museum.

Yup, and now here he was.

Levi’s groping fingers prodded at the fly of his jeans, hidden under his jacket, and Eren bristled in embarrassed shock but he couldn’t push Levi’s hand away. There was a reason it was a kink, obviously. Curiosity killed the cat, right? An erotic shiver ran up and down his spine like kids on a spiral staircase. His heart pounded so hard it almost choked him.

Levi.”

“It’s on the list, isn’t it?”

“You’re right, I guess…”

He couldn’t doubt him, now could he? This was a man who’d been enthralling 120.9’s listeners in and out of the metropolitan area for how long now with his kinky adventures? This was a man who’d been around the block enough times to know all the shortcuts and crosswalks and the distracting little cracks that would break your mother’s back. This was a man who was older and more knowledgeable and more practiced, and Eren should feel honored to be his current boy toy. Right?

Hella fucking right.

Shit, he was a fucking bitch for this guy.

And Levi’s thumb expertly found just the spot to apply a little bit of teasing pressure, right there, agh, fuck, okay then, and the friction of his jeans and his shorts and the swivel of Levi’s masterful hand on top of it all was just too—much—shit—his knees twitched. His hips jumped, neural impulse. The lust zapped under his skin like static electricity. His hair stood on end. The muscles between his hips stirred, sparks of arousal ticklish from head to toe. He struggled to sit still. Damn. Damn. Damn it. Shit. His stomach was in knots. His toes curled in his tennis shoes. Yes, tennis shoes. Jeans and tennis shoes were still nice when he wore them with a sweater that made him look like Q from that Skyfall Bond movie; lay the fuck off. He’d even fixed his hair. Ah

“What’s the matter, Eren?” Levi hummed, tongue and teeth on the shell of Eren’s ear. Fucking sadistic bastard. Eren’s libido was playing God damn jump rope with common public decency and you know what, it was fun.

Debauchery. The shameless nerve of this act was turning him on. So hard. Secret hand-job in public, adrenaline rush and horny hijinks. Wet dream type of stuff. Couldn’t believe he was doing this. The lights from the projected film flashed, fractured, around the dark little room. Made it all the more surreal. Mouth dry. On the screen, in the weird avant-garde images, there was a lady running around naked and in heels. Two or three people sat, captivated by the train-wreck of a movie. Others drifted in and out, awkwardly curious. Someone could find out. Nobody found out. Nobody noticed. Nobody knew that in the back corner, Levi was torturing him under the tent of his jacket and he was fidgeting, blood pounding in his ears—

“Close your mouth,” Levi whispered. “You look like one of Pavlov’s dogs.”

Eren snapped his mouth shut. His ears burned.

“Breathe,” Levi husked, sweetly, gravelly, ungh, he was in control and Eren was powerless and he loved it. Do it, show me, teach me the way of the wayward Cupid, show me what it’s like to be unafraid of it all, utterly enriched by sexual fantasies, playing the games of harlequins and Warning: Mature Content.

Eren gasped.

Someone a few rows away glanced at them.

Eren masked a few helpless sounds in a cough, digging his fingers into Levi’s wrist under his jacket. But that just meant he could better follow the motions of his hand as he moved it, grasping, dragging, groping, fingers prying into the front of his pants so casually. Pulled him out into real indecency and squeezed and Eren shifted and his jacket brushed against the swollen head of his dick and it startled him enough to even squeak a little, eyes wide, ears ringing. Look, no one could even see Levi’s arm and its pumping motions from the angle at which he sat, leg crossed and foot wagging like he was just watching the damn film—what kind of fucking film was this, anyway—fucking hippie trash—fucking weird-ass early experimental cinema—the chick was just running around the fucking garden wearing nothing but heels and a flower hat and looking like a classroom full of finger-painting toddlers had Picassoed all over her from her nipples to her pubes—this shit made Andy Warhol look like church art, what in God’s name was this director smoking—ah, ah, Levi, careful of the zipper, wait, don’t, if you do that—

Fuck.

Eren grabbed at the edge of the bench so violently with one hand that he cracked his knuckles. There it was, coming. Over and out. His back arched, heels digging into the tile to keep his hips from jerking as they so badly wanted to, waves of climactic chills rattling through him. Breathe. Breathe through it. God, trying to keep an orgasm secret always made it that much more intense. Like the first one all over again. At the last second he broke, he couldn’t do it, a moan cracked loose from the back of his throat but he managed to cage it between his gritted teeth, turn it into a low lusty string of guilty chuckles as he squeezed his eyes shut and threw his head back, clammy fists and pounding heart.

Outside the restrooms around the corner, where Levi was discarding a few paper towels after washing his hands like the gentleman he was, Eren looked up from his dizzied daze of guilty blushing and whispered, “So who’s Farlan?”

Levi looked at him funny, nose wrinkling. “What?”

“When you mentioned—you know, in the SAM film gallery—on The Talk after our Jewel Box date—”

Levi seemed remarkably perturbed by Eren’s powerful memory.

“Uhhh.” Eren cleared his throat. Levi’s eyes were the kind of eyes that said, Let’s go again, baby. Right here. Right now. But sometimes they were also the kind of eyes that said, You are in incredibly deep already and I won’t take any blame for it. On their way out and back up to the parking garage, Eren finally finished explaining, “You said on The Talk that you went home after the Jewel Box and your ex Farlan called you.”

“Oh.” Levi put two and two together in record time. “You think I did that with Farlan? Hell no. Farlan hasn’t been to Seattle in years and years.” He slid those mysterious eyes around to fix on Eren and Eren’s heart jumped to think of the way they’d seared into him as Levi’s hand had worked under his jacket in the film room. God, they were fucked-up motherfuckers. They were hot together. Shit.

Levi seemed to see that Eren did not put two and two together as easily. It was not a matter of logic, though; it was simply an inadequate amount of information provided. “Farlan’s an ex,” Levi reiterated, “from a looong time ago. Tried dating after college, broke up. He came to visit a few years later and we tried again. That happened twice. Now he just calls me when he’s really shitfaced and sometimes forgets we are completely irrelevant to each other at this point in our lives. No, I did not get a hand-job from him in the SAM. I got it from someone else. Hey, I thought you said you listened to The Talk religiously? You don’t remember any of those stories?”

“I remember all that about Farlan, I just got a little confused. Sorry. You mentioned doing it in the SAM. You’ve never, ever said with who. That I’ve ever heard, that is.”

Levi shrugged. He looked, actually, a little pinched and paranoid, like he’d stumbled upon a conversational trap. At the corner of Pike and 1st, he threw an arm around Eren’s waist and Eren kind of liked it. Mostly because it made people stare. Also because Levi was shorter than him but it still felt utterly protective and possessive. Like boyfriend hand.

Boyfriend hand. There it was again in the car parked outside his apartment. On his knee. On his thigh. On his shoulder. Boyfriend kiss, stretching across the front of the car, gentle tip of the head, soft supple mouth and a tiny sigh on the lower lip. Ugh, Levi tore him up in the worst way. This was trouble. When was the last time he’d been this hardcore into someone? The first few months with Jean? That was so long ago. Felt like eternities. Made him feel old and very out of practice.

He was Levi’s choice of action, too, in a sea full of sexy little homosexual fishies. Uuuugh, he was hella lucky, wasn’t he, to be hooking up with someone who knew so much and was so comfortable with himself and—right, the four P’s: philosophy (like their matching outlooks on casual intimacy), psychology (like personal histories that perpetuated their chemistry), physiology (like Levi’s hot fucking bod, Jesus tap dancing Christ), and pederasty (the mentor-pupil thing, the maestro and the nymph, the classy guy and the sex hair stripper).

“What is it, two months now?” Levi grunted, running a hand through his own hair.

Eren froze swinging out of the car, casting Levi a vulnerable glance over the shoulder. Thank God Levi didn’t catch it. There might have been a lot to read into in its depths. Two months now—was Levi a mind-reader, or just keeping count, too?

“Yeah,” Eren muttered hesitantly, leaning on the car door with a hand on his hip and searching out Levi’s eyes for subliminal messages. There was nothing to find, though; nothing but another jump of the heart and rabid butterflies swarming his gut. “I guess so.” That was cool and aloof, awesome, Levi wouldn’t have the slightest clue Eren was keeping track, too. Ha.

“If we keep this up, I might have to change your contact info in my phone to your actual name,” Levi joked curtly, raising his brows in that offhanded way of his. Hnn, look at that boyfriend hand on the gear shift in his car. “I like to respect my booty calls like that.”

“Oh, how sweet of you.”

“Later, Eren.”

“Text me.”

“Will do, brat. Oh! I wanted to ask you…”

“Yeah?”

“What are you doing? You look like you’re soliciting. Stop it. Stop acting all seductive and cute.”

“It’s my job. Is that what you wanted to ask me?”

“No. No, I meant to ask—do you wanna come to the station tomorrow?”

“…Huh?”

“As a guest. Wanna make your radio debut on The Talk? We’ve been getting a lot of questions for you lately, actually, you know, on the Facebook and the blog and e-mails and crap, and I talked to my boss and he said it might play out pretty well…”

“Is that unethical?”

“All shticks are unethical.”

“Um. Yeah. I… Yeah, sure. I don’t have class until four tomorrow. Pick me up?”

“Here’s another question. When are you getting your car fixed?”

“Uuuugh, soon. Soon. Pick me up.”

“See you tomorrow, Jäger.”


end ch. 9

 

Chapter Text

“Well, you guys have been asking for weeks and here he is…”

“Ha ha!”

“Do I just…”

“Yeah—not so—don’t get that close to the mic.”

“Ahem. Hello, Seattle.

“You are freaking adorable!

“Yeah, yeah, he knows he is. That’s his problem. Don’t encourage him, Hanj.”

102.9’s broadcast room was cramped quarters, a cozy little nook of scattered papers and tangled wires, switchboards and computer screens and lovely chunky mics hovering like hives. It smelled like cold coffee and the coming and going of familiar people. Jaeger Bomb had made quite the sophisticated transformation from feisty stripper to studious college sophomore—reading glasses and all. The cowlicks were still there, somewhere between bedhead and sex hair, but Levi was becoming quite fond of the rough-and-tumble look, the clinging-to-adolescence look, the I-can-legally-drink-and-be-charged-with-any-crime-and-have-sex-with-you-against-the-windows-in-your-room-but-I-still-have-a-claim-on-softness-and-innocence look.

And all that and a bag of chips hunched anxiously between him and Hanji under the green on-air lights made Levi both self-conscious and utterly, wickedly pleased.

“So bear with us here, you guys asked for this…”

“Welcome to The Talk, Jaeger Bomb! You’ve got quite the fans, huh?”

“I guess so…” Good Christ, Eren was blushing, and Levi just wanted to push the mic out of his face, shove his tongue down his throat and taste his breakfast. Okay, maybe not so much tasting the breakfast. Kiss. Eren was God damn kissable and it was torture, how could anyone be that endearing and tempting all the time? There had to be a flaw somewhere in there, a fatal flaw, a catch. Was it wrong to intimately know the seconds before his orgasm before he even knew his fatal flaw? Maybe. Oops.

“Let’s get started then…” Hanji hummed. She danced in her seat, actually, ponytail bouncing.

“How’s your day going?” Levi grunted, nudging Eren with an unassertive knee.

Eren shrugged. “Fine. Don’t worry about taking me home, I brought my things for class with me.”

“We can grab some late lunch before I drop you off if you want.”

“Okay.”

“Uuuuugh, Gooood,” Hanji groaned, grinning behind her mic. “You guys are gross. Stop it.” She navigated the e-mails and comments and tweets from the actives swiftly, eyes flickering all over the screen of her laptop. “Okay,” she said, and her voice was magic like always; her voice made the airwaves her bitch, “let’s start with blog comments.”

How old are you?

“Geez, hasn’t Levi gushed about me enough? Twenty-one.”

Did you see me at Heaven and Hell?

“I don’t know. Maybe. I can’t see much through the lights.”

Any brothers or sisters?

“Nope, sorry. I’m an only child.”

“Spoiled rotten brat is what you are.”

“Levi’s sweet gentlemanly charms strike again!”

Boxers or briefs?

“I was waiting for that question!”

“Tch, typical.”

“Aha, boxer briefs. Usually.”

“Okay, I’m going to tweets and e-mails now, guys.”

Jaeger Bomb: how long have you been stripping?

“A year and a half.”

To the stripper: how do you practice?

Eren leered behind the mic. “Honestly? I play music and dance around when I clean my house.”

“How ‘Risky Business’ of you.”

“I also play those dance video games.”

Jaeger Bomb, what’s the longest and shortest shift you work? In case I’m hypothetically considering stripping, too. What’s your biggest tip? What do your parents think?

Levi cut Eren a glance. Eren didn’t seem aware of it; surely if he had been, he wouldn’t have worn his feelings so plainly on his face. Little pinch of the brow, a very temperamental shadow flashing through his eyes. “My very best night of the last year and a half, I walked out with six hundred dollars in my pocket. But that is not typical and I was just really lucky. It depends on the club’s line-up for the night, it depends on events downtown, it depends on timing and… Well, okay, I’ll put it in perspective—one night last quarter, my tuition refund from school hadn’t come in yet, so I needed to work. But I was also really—” BLEEP. “—sick. Oops! Sorry, I didn’t mean to swear—”

Hanji winked, flashed a thumbs-up. “I got your back.”

“Anyway, long story short, I didn’t even break seventy that night. But it’s because I sucked. I was sick.”

“And your parents?”

Levi’s eyes veered to Hanji. Body language, dudette. Body. Language. Family relations was probably not the best thing to prod at. Not that Levi knew much more than surface-level information, but whatever. Shit. He was protective. Protective? Did he really deserve to use that word about the booty call he was flaunting like an expensive Armani coat?

Eren shrugged. “My dad and stepmom give me hell about it. But they give me hell about everything because apparently I give them all sorts of grief and indigestion.”

For Jaeger Bomb—best and worst customers?

And just like that, the angst was gone. Eren laughed; Levi felt Hanji’s sharp glance. She knew a bird of her own quixotic charismatic feather, after all, voice infecting the airwaves.

“Well,” Eren sighed, drumming his fingers on the desk. Levi swatted his hand down. The equipment was too sensitive; it would pick up the sound. “Listen, Heaven and Hell is a classy establishment. Touching between patrons and dancers is negotiable but under strict conditions. It makes lap dances really tricky when people get touchy-feely. I mean, all a lap dance is for is to convince someone to buy a few songs in the champagne room… And in the champagne room is where things get really weird sometimes. I’ve barked like a dog for someone once. I’ve called a few guys ‘Daddy.’ This one lady wanted me to pirouette for her. Sometimes I don’t even do lap dances in the champagne room, I just give people foot rubs or let them cuddle me or argue with them about how we are not going to have sex. Seriously, don’t even get me started on the weird sh—” BLEEP. “Like, this one time, I straddled a guy in the champagne room and all he wanted me to do was ‘Big Daddy’ spit and suck over his open mouth.”

Dead air.

Hanji gawked at Eren.

Levi gawked at Eren.

Eren looked between them both and slowly raised his brows.

Hanji burst into laughter.

“He was really drunk,” Eren explained, very quietly, very comically, into the mic, wide eyes turned on Levi as if apologizing for such behavior in the past. He was blushing, but the smirk on his face was one of corruption. “So was I.”

“Is that the craziest thing you’ve done for work?” Levi husked, mirroring Eren’s blazingly personal glance with the corner of his mouth to the mic. “Spit and suck over someone’s open mouth?”

Eren grinned, eyes narrowing. “No, last summer I totally got a wax and bleach.”

“A…what?”

“You know. Anal wax and bleach.”

Hanji nearly knocked her chair over shoving away from the mic and into a peal of wild laughter. There was a little bit of feedback. Flick. There went the start of the ident jingle and Levi almost choked on the words:

“We’ll be right back. You’re listening to The Talk on 102.9 The Ex.”


“You woke me up for this?” Jean bemoaned, hands permanently affixed to his mess of morning hair like Armin had never seen him look like shit before. “The fucking radio show Eren’s boyfriend works for?”

Armin held up a finger, mutely. Turned the volume up a little at the tail end of July Talk’s Guns + Ammunition. There was that really funny girl with the husky voice, the one named Hanji. Saying—

Oh crap, we’re back, huh? Hey, I hope you’re texting your questions live to 99-1209, because I’m not on the blog or Twitter anymore.”

Oh, wow, that’s the phone you get the live texts on? Weird.”

Jean dropped his hands from his head and probably gave himself whiplash turning so fast to pin Armin with a look like Armin had made Eren’s voice come out of the little stereo. He’d gotten home at four in the morning, like usual; the overnight shifts really burned him out when school started up again. He could never fall asleep until after dawn, seven o’clock breathing hard down his neck. But not even a meager five-ish hours of real sleep could detract from—

Eren’s on the radio,” Jean sputtered.

Armin nodded.

“What the fuck is Eren doing on the radio?”

“He didn’t tell you?”

Armin motioned for Jean to join him on the couch, portable stereo on the coffee table and—miraculously—right in a perfect spot for clear reception.

“‘Do you share dances with other strippers? Do you practice together? Do you have actual choreography?’ That’s like seven different texts condensed into three questions, by the way.”

“Yes,” Armin grunted at the stereo. “We do choreograph things, thank you. We’re not monkeys.”

Yes, yes, and yes.

‘Do you ever use the pole?’

I’m fifty-fifty. I feel like I get more money in my shorts when I’m walking the stage instead of staying in one spot. I mean, I am no pole-dancer, but I know how to use it to look hot.

“That’s for damn sure,” Armin sighed.

Oh man, get a load of this one—‘You’re really cute and I wish I was a gay man so I could date you.’ Honey, all the good ones are gay or taken, don’t you know?

Next one, Hanj.

‘Do you do bachelorette parties?’

Yes! A lot, actually! Call the club. Ask to book me.

‘Did you go to stripper school?’

Jean snorted. Armin rolled his eyes. “This is bullshit,” Jean complained. “It’s not like he’s Jenna Jameson or anything. He just has a nice ass.”

‘Top or bottom?’

Depends.

‘First boyfriend?’

Awkward pause, some rustling from the other side like the personalities lived in the stereo, caged in there. Finally: “My best friend in high school. I topped. Sorry, by the way, if you’re listening.

Armin’s face burned cherry red and he was sure if Jean rolled his eyes any harder, they’d actually rip off the nerve fibers in the back and bounce away into the kitchen.

‘Worst sexual experience?’ Hey now, guys, remember we have to keep things at LEAST PG-13, and I totally censored that question.

I don’t know. That’s a hard one.

That’s not a good one, Hanji. Skip that one.”

Last text question! ‘What are you studying?’

Not what my father wants me to study, that’s for sure.

You guys keep texting your questions, we don’t have that much time left. We’re opening the phone lines for questions. Jaeger Bomb, pick a number.

Listen to the pretentious douche fuck, all suave and sarcastic, this old-school homosexual, this Levi guy. So what if he spoke like fucking honey. So what if the chords in his words practically dripped charisma. So what if the stereo radiated classy bad boy cliché from the timbre of his voice. He didn’t even call Eren by name, the prick. So what if he—

Jean crossed his arms angrily on a throw pillow, joining Armin’s on edge audience.

Uhhh… Fifteen.

Caller fifteen—no, don’t call yet, wait until I say go. Don’t worry, we know you don’t really care about the stripper THAT much. But if you’re caller fifteen, Jaeger Bomb’s all ears, and you’re gonna be all in because you’ll also win backstage passes to the Saints and Martyrs show at the Showbox Sodo. Great deal, right? The number’s 206-227-1029. You better think up a damn good question, caller fifteen.

Armin fiddled with his phone, considering calling. He did not.

Click.

Caller fifteen, what’s your name?

Christa.”

And what are you up to, Christa?

Leaving school.

UW?

Yeah, actually.

Maybe you two go to school together. What are you studying, Christa?

The historical theory and psychology of sexuality, chiefly in circumstances of socio-economic appropriations.

That Hanji chick had the best awkward laugh. “Come again, Einstein?

Like how women couldn’t raise their arms higher than their shoulders in the Victorian era and Sandusky got away with what he did for so long because of human socio-economic history, trends, and corruption.

Uhhhh, okay then! Christa, before we get you your tickets to Sodo, what’s your question for our weird little stripper?

Brief pause, the fuzz of a distant telephone connection transmitted via broadcast. Finally:

What’s it like being objectified as a male dancer? What’s it like being a spectacle, Levi’s Show and Tell, something pretty to entertain us? What’s it like having a magnifying glass on your romantic life like you’re not a real person dating someone, just another comedy spot using homosexuality as a ‘funny angle’ for commentary and controversy?

“Oh my God, what a bitch!” Jean sputtered.

Armin’s brow knotted; a protective instinct sank like lead in his gut. “Christa… Christa… I feel like I know her from somewhere! Psych 101 a long time ago, or something, that girl who always argued with the prof—”

The seconds of air time ticked away.

Wow.”

I’m sorry, but that—

No, no, it’s fine. Hey, Christa, you make a really good point. But here’s the thing. I’m dating Levi Ackerman and this whole radio thing is just a snazzy accessory to a really great man who respects me and my choice in employers. Got it? Cool. Have fun at the concert. Hey, Levi, can I front sell a song?

It’s…not front selling if it’s not a new song.

Can I announce a song, then?

Sure.

All right, Christa, Hanji here is gonna get you those passes! What song, Jaeger Bomb?

Arctic Monkeys. ‘Do I Wanna Know.’ Peace out, Christa.


No wonder Levi loved doing this.

There was something sort of fun about spilling it all on the radio. Telling everyone. Shocking everyone. It was kind of…liberating. Like purging. No secrets here, man.

“The stripper with the heart of gold,” Hanji called him, winking over her Hello Kitty coffee cup. But really, there was no heart of gold in there. Just ruthless rebellious Aries passion. But maybe those were the same things.

He waited in the break room for Levi to finish up whatever it was a radio host did for the modest 40K a year. Eren had looked it up. And that was the mean salary, too, but surely such a popular DJ at such a popular station in such a large metropolitan area made at least that or more. He was only guessing. He was not by any means an economics guy.

Levi started tea for him before he left him to his own devices, with a lingering glance like he didn’t trust him going unsupervised. Kind of cute, honestly. Maybe it was Levi’s way of saying, “I know what you did there, I heard the subtext there, when you shut down that caller there…”

Chocolate-minty tea. It tickled his taste buds and his nose. He almost dropped it all over the caramel-colored tile in the break room when a gravelly voice caught him off guard from the doorway:

“Eren, wasn’t it?”

He turned to meet the weathered old grin of a man whose grays did not seem to match his vigor. Right, he’d shaken this guy’s hand when he’d come in with Levi earlier. Pixis, the program director. Pixis, in his bleach-stained KISS shirt. Pixis, with his faded tattoos and a Batman lanyard extending from the back pocket of his very plain bluejeans.

“Are you in school for communications?” Pixis drawled. “You’re a ham. I was afraid you’d be boring. I told Levi I’d fire him if you were boring. This was a ballsy thing and the big guy would’ve pitched a fit if it backfired, but you know what, even when that girl hit you with a hard question, you handled it like a boss. Communications? Entertainment? Public relations?”

“No, actually… Classics. I think.”

Pixis leaned in the doorway, crossing his arms. The smile didn’t leave his face; it was a little eerie, all-knowing and mildly too sweet. His crow’s feet made it hard to tell if he was squinting or not.

“Sometimes I’ve wondered if he makes this shit up,” Pixis sighed. “His crazy sex stories. He doesn’t, does he?”

Eren felt the tension uncoil between his shoulders just as he puffed up a little with that warped Aries pride. “No. He doesn’t.”

“Well.” Pixis swung off the doorway and nodded in pre-farewell, still smiling that awful Cheshire grin. “Good luck with him. He’s a real mess, isn’t he?”

He didn’t really think anything of it.

He didn’t have it to think anything of yet, actually—not until he was wandering back towards the studio area, tiptoeing, carefully, really sort of curious as to how this whole place worked, a bunch of little honeycombs in one great buzzing FM hive. He didn’t realize he was eavesdropping until it was too late not to overhear, standing just around the corner from Levi and Hanji his partner in crime, watching through the thick glass as Nanaba and Mike took over for the afternoon segments.

“Erwin apologized?”

“Yeah.”

“You forgave him?”

“I hate myself for it, but I did.”

“I’m sure he means it. He’s not a mean guy, Levi.”

“Rich Hunk Syndrome.”

“Whatever. So he really mentioned…rings?”

“I think he was trying to hit a nerve.”

“But what if he wasn’t?”

“No, he was trying to hit a nerve. You know why? Because in the same conversation—the same fucking conversation, Hanj—he said, ‘You’re just using him to keep your job. You’re using him to feel young. Blah blah blah.’”

“Well… Are you?”

The cesare there was too long.

The brief hush held too much weight.

In the silence there, Eren could just imagine Levi’s dark and damning glance, a wordless, What the fuck? Right? That’s what it was. Shock, insult. Levi’s voice was low and thick but somewhat off when he retorted through his teeth, “Don’t, Hanji. Don’t even ask me that. It’s bullshit.”

Eren’s stomach fell.

It was a lot like stage fright.

His hands were still clammy even when Levi pulled up to the UW and he felt bad for pulling away from Levi’s boyfriend hand, but he didn’t want Levi to key in on the cold palms of insecurity.

“Thanks for the ride,” he husked, instead touching an elbow to Levi’s shoulder and craning across the gear shift to kiss him right on the curve of the cheek, right where there was a tiny bit of stubble near the ear, the almost-sideburn, the sweet-smelling hair.

“Sure thing, brat,” Levi said, smiling faintly, that wry little smirk of his. Brat was a term of endearment. Brat felt like he was saying baby and giddy butterflies and stage fright did not mix well at all. “Hey, you were awesome today, you know. I bet the listener count’s going to be up tomorrow.”

This was fun.

This was all just fun.

He was an idiot and there were fifty million different things suggesting Mr. Radio was not quite as serious about him as he was about Mr. Radio—like Pixis’s comment, like Levi’s evasion of Hanji’s question, like track records and simple truths. But that fear in and of itself meant he was fucked. Because now the L-word was imminent; all the rules of dating loomed. And his mind was throwing on all the Warning and Danger alarms.

He shook it off by work.

Where do you go when you dance, Eren?

It was nothing.

This was fun.

His fun got ruined too much. Nothing was going to ruin it this time. Not like it did before.


But what if he wasn’t?

What if he wasn’t?

What if he wasn’t?

What if

They used to do this, this same thing, a long time ago. In college. Pre-Petra. During Petra. After Petra, especially, but before Petra started sleeping with Erwin. This, lying sprawled and mellowed by an after-dinner drink or two, in Erwin’s big bed watching television like pals. Erwin didn’t care that Levi curled up the wrong way; if it were Levi, Levi definitely would have told him to get his feet of his pillow and stop dripping from shower-fresh hair on the bed runner.

“I don’t mind going ring shopping with you, you know,” Levi grunted. He met Erwin’s glance over his shoulder, foot wagging idly.

Erwin regarded him quietly from his pillow throne at the headboard. His brows climbed in a slow, patient arc to the widow’s peak he hid under a cowlick. “Okay,” he hummed. “This weekend?”

“I thought you were going to think about it.”

“I’m done thinking about it.”

Levi’s jaw tightened. He breathed a forceful sigh between his teeth, reaching over Erwin’s crossed ankles for the remote, turning down the volume on the television commercials. It was not a now or never thing; it was really just that he was at the bottom of his second drink and that meant he had a lot of brutal honesty to offer.

“I know you don’t want to be with her, Erwin.”

Without missing a beat, Erwin sighed, “Levi, get out of my life.”

“I don’t want you making a mistake.”

“I think you have some hard feelings towards her that you need to work out.”

“I fucking told you, I’m not jealous.”

“Jealousy and resentment are two different things.” Erwin shifted, nudging the remote closer to him so he could turn the volume back up. “You have no room to talk about mistakes, by the way. I’m trying to settle down. You are not. Please do not give me relationship advice.”

“You’re only thinking about marrying her because your mom wants grandkids. You don’t want kids, Erwin. You hate kids.”

“Petra wants kids.”

“You disgust me. I won’t be your best man. I refuse.”

And there it was, because there it always was, the low blows in the wake of the truce. It was just all too easy to pick and prod at wounds so familiar to you; to what end, though? What was the point? Being right? Levi found no solace in being right. He found no solace, actually, in saying any of it at all. God damn this Shock Top. Maybe if he glowered at it hard enough, it would confess its wrongdoings.

“But will you still go ring shopping with me?”

Erwin knew he didn’t mean it about the best man thing. That, or he didn’t care enough to argue through House Hunters.

Levi lowered his head and tried to make the bed runner damp with his hair. He shrugged and folded his arm over his ear, lest Erwin catch his defeated pout.

“Yeah,” he grumbled.

“How are things with Eren?” Erwin prompted. Levi caught the hidden meaning. Why do you never talk about me on your show? It was not meant to derive an answer. It was meant to make a point. Levi kicked the point back down. He had grown quite accustomed to such suppression over the years.

Bvvt. Bvvt.

“Your phone?”

“No, yours.”

“My phone.”

“What is it?”

“Eren sent me a dirty picture.”

Erwin swallowed his beer wrong; he chuckled, swiping a bit off his lower lip. “Is that so?” he purred.

It was awkward like continually stubbing the same toe, talking openly about your love life with someone who had taken up so much of it before. But there was also something sort of gratifyingly vindictive about it, too. Hey, look at you, I’m still getting some, too. I don’t need you. I have a picture of my stripper getting ready for work.

“Can I see?”

“Hell no.”

“Let me see.”

“He’s a brat, right?”

“A cute brat. You might not want to settle, but you’re happy. I know you’re happy, Levi. And I’m glad.”

“Be right back.”

“You’re going to send one back, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am, Mr. Smith. Yes, I am.”


Jean’s silhouette blocked the hall light in his bedroom doorway at five in the morning.

Eren looked up blearily from his nest of blankets, lip curled. “What the fuck?” he whimpered. “Jean, I’m tired, I got out of work at two…”

Jean was still fully dressed. He smelled like the warehouse. With a rattle of wallet chain and rustle of his jacket, he crossed Eren’s messy room in two short strides and tossed his cell phone down on his pillow.

“You were sexting earlier,” he scoffed.

“What…?”

“You were sexting someone,” Jean said again. He snatched up his phone and punched a few buttons, opening his text message history. “Look. You sent me this picture.”

Eren squinted groggily. No, he didn’t. He sent Levi that picture. He made sure to look stellar in that picture. Selfie game was hella strong in that picture. Look at that time stamp. 1:13 AM. He—oh. He had sent it to Jean on accident. He threw himself back into his pillows to muffle his growl of disbelief. “Fuck! No wonder he didn’t text me back!”

“Yeah, dumbass. You texted it to me.”

“I thought he didn’t answer because he went to sleep!” Rising again from his pillows like a beast out for the kill, Eren lurched for Jean’s phone. How the fuck could he have not noticed—maybe because he’d been so distracted—trying to make up for being suspicious earlier, after all— “Delete it. Jean, delete it right now.”

“No. It’s blackmail. Hey, Marco’s coming back to the States for Christmas. He’s bringing his girlfriend.”

Suddenly Eren was much more awake than seconds before, and the issue of a blackmail dirty picture that had been the last of quite a few dirty pictures sent back and forth all night was far from important.

That’s what this was about.

“Marco has a girlfriend?” Eren echoed, sitting up and trying to rub the last of the sand from his eyes. “Since fucking when?”

“I don’t know. No, stop. Don’t get out of bed.” Jean kicked off his shoes and dropped his jacket. “Move over.” Eren obeyed, pulling his blankets up around him like an Eskimo. Jean lifted a corner to join him, twin bed sagging under his knee. “But yeah, she’s French. Her name’s Sarette but you say it like ‘Sarah’ and they’re coming back for Christmas. The whole class is, I mean.”

They sat in silence together, in the dark, shoulder to shoulder. Eren wished he could see Jean better than the outline of his face. Then again, he sort of didn’t. He could hardly even handle the very faint quiver in the back of Jean’s voice when he edged out harshly, “I’m French, too, you know. On my mom’s side. Omelette du fromage. Baguette. What the fuck, Eren? A fucking girlfriend!

Eren knew him all too well.

Maybe it was because he was still a little hurt by what he’d overheard at the radio station. Maybe it was because he was just a little slut and giving himself to other people made him feel important somewhere carved deep in the dynamic unconscious, the semi-destructive and ironic subliminal whispers, the part of the soul teeming with animal urges and repressed desires, and don’t forget to feel guilty about it like Freud said you should. Maybe it was the disorientation of being jerked out of sleep. Maybe it was leftover sexual tension or maybe it was just that Jean was his friend and he was hurting and it broke Eren’s heart.

Jean’s face was hot and soft under his fingers and his sad hungry kisses sang songs of old routine. Nymphos. Rebels. Bad, bad boys. Grinding hips. Greedy hands. Racing heart. Knees, going up, sagging apart. Was he fever-hot under Jean’s touch, Jean kissed cool by the summer briskness between car and apartment? All silk and heat, wrinkled T-shirt and easy access of shorts instead of boxer briefs tonight? Toes curling. Tongue, forcing his mouth open wider, wider, twisting. Just him and Jean again, fighting for dominance, fighting for comfort, deflecting heartache, pretending it was okay, rebound, replacement, sloppy kisses, covetous hands, wild reckless need to feel needed. Thanks, cognitive unconscious; thanks, Freudian crevices in the soul; thanks, persistence and ironic process of mental control.

This… This wasn’t fun.

He was enabling him. He was not helping him. This was starting to become really complicated. Was it really about trying to fill the void Marco left or was it because Jean just wanted him?

He liked the glazed look in Jean’s eyes afterwards because it was much better than the pained, almost-tears light in them before, but—

“This has to stop,” Eren whispered. “This is the last time, okay? Jean, you’re kind of using me and I mean, it’s whatever, it’s fun, I want to be there for you, but… I’m—”

“I know,” Jean interrupted.

“I know,” he said, and it sounded like he really did know. Like he’d known from the moment he’d opened Eren’s bedroom door and woken him up that this was going to be a lonely pity party season finale. He turned Eren’s face away with a hand on his neck; he kissed his temple, so tenderly.

He muttered, “I know, you’re serious about someone. So we’ll stop. I just needed it really bad tonight, okay?”

Love sucked.

Nights like these—er, early mornings like these—moments in the dark like these with his chest so tight and his stomach full of guilt, curled up in a friend’s arm but turned away, hunched protectively away—Eren saw no point to it at all. It was just a fucking prank war a guy could never win.

Maybe he should ask Levi about it.


end ch. 10

Chapter Text

No, I’m not saying you should all date a stripper. But I am saying the sex is great. Can I say that, Hanj? I can? The sex is great. What, you want details? Some things I really can’t talk about on-air, guys. What? His ass? I can talk about his ass? It’s a nice ass. Nice legs. Nice hands. Nice mouth. Nice…you know… Ha ha ha, all right. Enough. This is a PG-13 show. Hey! Don’t forget! The Ex Club Members get free VIP upgrade to the Halloween bash at Nuemo’s…

Eren turned the radio off.


The pain was like cancer recurrence. Okay, maybe more like acid reflux than cancer. But the principle endured.

When it was there, it was awful. It was all Levi could think about, dictating his every day. When it wasn’t there, everything was peachy keen. Like avoiding greasy food to quell heartburn, he just had to avoid retrieval cues and triggers and he was fine.

And, admittedly, when he was fine, it was sort of nice. Sort of nice to participate in Erwin’s thirty-third birthday. Sort of nice to get dressed up and feel dashing, feel grownup, feel sophisticated and snazzy and laugh so hard he snorted on his late-night cocktails like old times, like good times, loitering the bar at Trinity, playing darts and watching a Mariners game and exchanging birthday cards and birthday hugs and birthday cheer smoking under the curtain of trees on Washington and 1st as taxis and sports cars zoomed by and the crosswalk signals danced their usual dances hoping just as he did not to be forgotten though no one paid them any heed.

It wasn’t really the wrongdoings that bothered him, anyway; it was the need to know Erwin understood.

Everything that had happened, that was. Everything since high school, since college. It was the fear of being forgotten as they both moved on. It was the fear of looking at him in the dark like looking at him on the hood of a Cadillac and feeling the same way again—weak, vulnerable, desperate, in love. It was the fear of someone having that power over him again, holding him hostage with their beautiful smiles and beautiful eyes. It was the fear of not meaning anything like he didn’t seem to mean enough to Petra, to Farlan, to Ilse, to Mike, to…

Levi closed the heavy front door quietly behind himself, peeking into the living room from the foyer of the Port Orchard rambler. He slipped his shoes off, shrugging down his jacket.

“Mom? Dad?”

“Oh, he’s here—”

“In here, sweetie!”

“You look like a million bucks, Levi.”

“Hey, stop it, he’s probably just tired. He’s a busy man.”

“You hungover?”

Levi sighed, seating himself at the dining table after nodding through his mother’s kisses and his father’s one-armed hug. “No,” he said. “Tired. I’m a busy man.”

“You want some wine, sweetie?”

“What is it?”

“Merlot.”

“Sure, Mom.”

Dinner with his parents never failed as both a confusing and relaxing affair. It was basic principle of holiday dinners and family get-togethers, familiar dysfunction and comfort hand-in-hand. His mother had been bothering him to come for dinner for months now; she was aging as gracefully as the Merlot she brought up from the wine cellar. His father, on the other hand, looked more his part—retired insurance executive coasting on pension and preserved fifties charm, spending his free time now pretending he knew anything about the classic cars he and his buddies fixed up and showed off at car shows.

It was kind of sad to Levi that he couldn’t look around this house and be slapped in the face by childhood memories. But maybe it was also a good thing because it made for a safer environment. Childhood memories were back east—Chicago, New York, Pennsylvania. It would have been college back there, too, if it hadn’t been for his father accepting a promotion that required him to uproot and relocate to the Northwest just before Levi’s high school graduation. It would have been college back there, still, just to be with his friends, if his friends hadn’t made the fairy tale decision to road trip across country the summer after graduation, too, saying, “We secretly applied to schools here, Levi, we’d miss you too much, we can’t break up the gang, it’s not right, we have to stick together…”

You know, back when such huge commitments had been so much easier to make. Now long distance relationships were all the rage.

“I can give you the recipe for this,” his mom said, meaning the salmon. “You like the pine nuts?”

“I like the pine nuts, Ma.”

“How’s your boyfriend, honey?”

Levi closed his eyes, painfully conscious of his tiny cringe. Ooh, there it was, like always, the same bitter taste in the back of his throat every time they tried to act like they weren’t still reeling from his coming out years and years ago. Not acid reflux this time; more like an almost-gag. But he kept the same awkward smile plastered on his face, cutting his mother a glance through his lashes. He didn’t even have to ask; he knew she did not know about his current boyfriend. She meant, of all fucking people, Erwin Smith. God, was there respite nowhere?

“Mom, I don’t know how many more times I have to say it, we broke up. A while ago.”

“Well, you don’t visit me enough. You don’t call me enough. I forget.”

“We did his birthday last weekend. He just turned thirty-three.”

Ooh, I bet he just oozes that successful thirties charm, huh?”

Perhaps it was from his father that Levi had inherited his dry and humorless glances, because it was just such an unamused look Levi mirrored from the man, thrown his mother’s way. Double trouble. Excuse me? that glance said from his father. Fuck that, was the more contemporary translation on Levi’s face.

“I’m sorry,” his mother chuckled. She looked innocently into her Merlot and shrugged. “Let me dream, all right?”

“Your mother’s been reading this book ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’” his father complained, pinning Levi with a damning scowl like it was somehow Levi’s fault.

“Oh God, really, Mom? Nanaba reviewed that book—”

“Harlequin is going mainstream! I love my romance novels! Can’t a woman have her Fabio in peace? It’s groundbreaking! It’s innovative! It’s trailblazing!”

“It’s awful,” his father lamented. “She’s getting all these funny ideas from it.”

“Okay, stop,” Levi interrupted, frantic to put a halt to that particular thread of conversation. “In other news, I have a boyfriend, Mom, but it’s not Erwin.”

“I thought you two were so good together. Better than Petra. Better than anyone. You try too hard, Levi. With Erwin you didn’t try too hard, I could tell. You were yourself. You two looked right. You fit.”

Levi shrank down in his chair and stabbed at his salmon like he was still fucking sixteen and fragile. “Well, we didn’t fit. Anyway, I’ve been—”

“Well, I’m sure you fit in some places.”

“Dad, the gay sex jokes are really old by now.”

“You’re really old by now.”

Boys,” from the head of the table, Levi’s mother regained control of the dinner talk with a stern frown around her wine, “I want to hear about this new boyfriend, now stop.”

All eyes on Levi. He had Smashing Pumpkins looping in his head. It had been playing on the radio when he’d pulled up and parked. Ugh. This was torture. How did you explain the difference between casually seeing someone—like Eren—and actually being boyfriends—like it had been with Erwin? You didn’t. Not to old-fashioned, old-school, apple pie sweethearts.

“Well,” Levi began instead, absently, “he’s a UW student.”

“Med? Prelaw?”

“Doctorate?”

“…No.” Levi’s mouth tightened into a thin line. He raised his brows slowly. “He’s an undergrad.”

“Undergrad?” his mother repeated, raising her brows in similar fashion.

Levi nodded around a long, long swallow of wine, preparing for the grand finish. “Yeah, undergrad. He’s twenty-one. His father’s part of the Psych department on campus. I met him through a work assignment. He’s a stripper.”

No cliché crickets here, just a bit of ear-ringing in the painful pause that followed. Ah, he loved those expressions on their faces. He’d missed it; really, truly. Who didn’t want to see those not entirely pleased looks of forced acceptance in their parents’ eyes from around the table? Who didn’t want to be continually retold of how well he fit with a contentious ex? Who didn’t want constant subtle maybe unintentional reminders of how much he’d disappointed them over the years with his failure to subscribe to a traditional lifestyle?

Like they’d learned over the years (or given up long ago), they steered away from the subject. His father cleared his throat and said, “So when are you gonna leave the radio? Or are you gonna get paid to drink and party away your degree for the rest of your life?”

Oh, what a pleasant new way of repeating the same old tune. That was cute; that was creative, Dad. At least they’d stopped asking about the content of The Talk lately.

What the fuck are you doing with your life, Levi?


The lights could disorient a man.

Flashing, spinning, rolling, a sea of colors riding the rise and fall of ringing sounds. Voices. Laughter. Music. Drink glasses. Chairs scraping. Wallets falling to a table top.

Through it all like a fog of mythical creatures and mythological tropes, Armin watched over Eren.

Trouble-maker, heartbreaker, wild-eyed Eren. All reckless child wonder and mischievous soul, he was never going to change. Armin didn’t mind. He just worried.

Worried like he did now, hunched in a Spooked in Seattle hoodie to keep anonymous amongst the quieter shadows during his break. If not for his track pants, his bare legs would have stuck to the seat, sweat evaporating. And Armin worried because he didn’t like the look on that particular guy’s face as Jaeger Bomb worked his lap dance black magic. Hoots, hollers, forgotten again. The anatomy of a place like this was both repulsive and fascinating.

If he listened really hard, he could pick up on the guy’s questions. Little ribbons of voice, sort of demanding, sort of disrespectful. There he went again; Eren pushed a hand off his thigh and masked his brittle impatience in his best-crafted laugh.

Worried.

“So why are you here, big boy?”

“Don’t patronize me.”

“I’m not, I’m making conversation… Do you listen to the radio?”

“I know why you’re here.”

“And why is that, huh?”

“All strippers are the same.” The guy needed to shave. His eyes were bloodshot. His smile was too kind as he stuck a few folded dollar bills in Eren’s shorts and elaborated, “Daddy never loved you, and mommy never hugged you. Right?”

Eren’s ass jumped under the guy’s rough slap, and Armin was on his feet before a wrinkled five shaken loose had even fluttered to the floor between Eren’s feet.

He didn’t think to scan for security; the protective instinct coiled and snapped like a whip across levelheaded problem-solving. He did not like the way the guy wound his arm around Eren’s waist and forced him into an awkward embrace. He did not like the way he seemed to hold so tight Eren could not seductively squirm away. He did not like the way he was whispering now, against Eren’s ear, as the lights flickered away, and he was getting very close to bad touching, and Armin especially did not like the shocked and lost look on Eren’s face because it was not really his style at all. Something was bothering him. Something was throwing him off tonight. And that really worried Armin, too.

Fuck you!

It was loud in the club; even Eren’s shout didn’t make it past the surrounding five-ish tables, but that was enough. Armin almost ran into a cute little cocktail server, moving fast and frantic through the slippery dark.

Fuck you, my dad’s a shrink, don’t even try to play this stripper psychology bullshit on me, let me go, you fucking creep, I’ll get you banned from this place, I told you before and I’ll tell you again I’m not going to let you fuck me in the champagne room, if you want a hooker, try the fucking streets, pal, fuck you, of course my mom doesn’t hug me, she’s DEAD!

By the time his voice broke on the last notes of his outburst, Reiner was already over the bar and had the inappropriate patron in his iron grip, Armin had his arms around a swinging flailing half-dressed Eren, and…scene. Slated, rolling, damage done. A few of the newer dancers stopped to stare; some of the waitresses hurried to distract the distant tables; someone heckled and someone else cheered and a very wealthy very pleasant regular cougar named Heidi called, “Is that Jaeger Bomb? Hey, is that my favorite boy over there?”

They threw the guy out; the scene dissipated; the DJ called for attention back to the stage; Eren scrambled to retrieve the money that had fallen to the ground, like a vampire assigned with the task of collecting a thousand grains of rice one by one.

Armin’s ears rang. He could still feel the voltage of Eren thrashing in his arms, sore from an accidental elbow to the side or two. The lights rolled over Eren’s pinched snarl, lending a rotten shadow to his face. Shit, there was the manager—

Jaeger Bomb. Back of the house. Now.


Twenty-one minutes past midnight.

“Take a week off,” Keith said.

Twenty-seven minutes past midnight.

“Give yourself a break. Just because your radio boyfriend is pimping out the club doesn’t mean you’re responsible for appearing, you’re just overworking yourself,” Keith sneered.

Thirty-one minutes past midnight; the air shivered on his flushed skin in the spill of downtown lights.

“Keith, really, I’m fine, I just have a bunch of shit on my mind—”

“So take a week off and get that shit off your mind before you make another scene in my club. Okay, kiddo? Okay?”

Eren didn’t know that Levi’s apartment was lit by the lowest kitchen lights. He had no idea Erwin was fast asleep, dancing glow from the television long gone. He didn’t know Levi had been in bed nodding out to some Netflix on his laptop (which he’d rewarded himself with after completing a record total of six job projects a breath away from deadline) when he’d texted him, and Eren really didn’t mean to come barreling through Levi’s front door like he owned the place but all of that sort of made sense as to why Levi looked so startled when he did.

“Hey, Mr. Radio!”

“Eren—holy shit—”

Man, he probably looked like a maniac, half-dressed with his hoodie hanging off one shoulder, jeans riding crooked on his hips. He hurled his backpack down at the door and beseeched Levi from the lower half of the living room like a Montague prowling for more than a light at yonder window breaking.

Festering. A lot of shit on his mind and he’d done a good job ignoring it but now it was festering.

Objectified . Levi’s Show and Tell . Just another comedy spot using homosexuality as a ‘funny angle’ for commentary and controversy . He’s a real mess, isn’t he? Erwin apologized? Yeah. You forgave him? I did. Just using him to keep your job. Using him to feel young. Well, are you?

Levi was, innocently, brewing a pot of late-night tea. Cocking that beautiful, sarcastic eyebrow of his, lips parted, he slipped his hands into his pockets and regarded Eren with a blatant mark of cautious confusion, all messy hair and oversized sweater and mismatched socks. Oh, what—was he annoyed by a temperamental and indecisive twenty-one-year-old pitching a tantrum in his kitchen at one AM? Did it throw off his old man circadian rhythm? Good.

“Chill out, Jaeger Bomb,” Levi breathed between his perfect teeth. “I swear to God, if you wake up my roommate—the hell’s got your little shorts all in a bunch?”

How condescending. “Don’t fuck with me right now, Levi. I had a bad night!”

It was one with the steady bass chord of his thumping heart. My roommate. My roommate.

“Clearly. Seriously, keep your voice down. What happened?”

“I know I can play my part pretty well, but you can’t expect me to pretend I love creeps all the time, you know.”

Something vaguely protective tweaked in Levi’s expression. But he still seemed mildly irritated. Eyes narrowed, he moved to meet Eren at the step to the kitchen. The air between them was electric, uncomfortable. Levi reached out to pick some glitter out of Eren’s hair. Eren ducked away.

“What happened?”

“Nothing, nothing happened, don’t worry, I’m fine. I’m taking a week off. I’m fine.”

“Week off? You can do that? …Did you get fired?”

No.” Eren was offended Levi could even conjecture he’d do so poorly as to be terminated. Festering. It was making him sick now. If his father had been observing, he would have brought up thought suppression and ironic processes of mental control and the dynamic unconscious raging at a million miles an hour. Probably would have likened the whole shebang to a rubber band stretched too thin, thin enough to snap.

Without a beat of transition, Eren sputtered, “What are we, huh? You and me, are we serious? Or not? Because I’m tired of being used. Jean uses me, you use me, Christ, even my dad uses me if you wanna get bitter—stop! Don’t touch my glitter! Answer my question. Me and you, are we something or not, because I’m not just gonna be more material for your fucking show, Levi!”

Woah, there. All that just sort of…came out.

Tired of being swatted away, apparently, Levi dropped his hands and scowled. “That’s uncalled for. That’s a little fucked up, Eren. That… You’re kidding me, right? You’re a stripper! You get paid to ‘hustle’ people and you have the nerve to say I’m lying to you? How do I know you’re not playing me?”

“Fuck you, Levi! I wouldn’t be fucking you if I were hustling you. I’m a dancer, not a prostitute. You’re using me for ratings!” Eren hissed, and it was sort of funny how he’d gotten stuck on this particular idea like a scratched CD when he’d thought the knot in his stomach had been guilt about Jean. He couldn’t stop. He felt scattered and a little crazy, honestly. But he couldn’t help it; it was like micro expressions, it was undeterred and like catharsis, a purging of emotions, it just needed to happen. Get that shit off your mind. Well, he was. On accident. God, he felt like he was unraveling

Oh crap, was this their first fight?

Flurry of arms, scramble for purchase, sharp whispers. Quickly, Levi secured both Eren’s wrists in a steely grip and backed him up hard into the counter, hissing low and firm in his ear, “If you wake up my roommate, I swear to God…”

“What? You swear what?”

“Just—please lower your voice—”

Finally blinking that glitter out of his eyelashes, Eren jerked out of Levi’s grip and hoisted himself up on the kitchen counter. Levi gawked at him. Eren glared back, unyielding.

Levi was quiet. He swallowed hard a few times, squinting through the dark. He was chewing on something, and with purpose. What was he thinking? What did he see that Eren didn’t? Finally, face set in a cold frown, studying him defensively, Levi muttered, “I thought you of all people were okay with it.”

Ba-bump. Ba-Jean. Ba-roommate.

Eren shrugged. The adrenaline was finally beginning to wear off and logical thinking was tiptoeing back in to survey the mess heated emotional outburst had left, but his face was still on fire and his fingers still shook. Okay with it.

“What,” he mumbled, “broadcasting our sex life on the radio? I’m fine with it. But you—and Hanji—you were talking about your roommate. Your ex. And how he said you were using me for the show. Look, Levi, I know what it’s like to live with an ex. It’s a constant tug-of-war with your heart even when you’re trying so hard to get over them. But hey, I have standards, too, God damn it. I don’t want to be some wild connection to your youth or whatever!”

Levi laughed.

Eren cut him a startled look, a little hurt.

Levi seemed startled, too, actually. Like the laugh had been unintentional.

“Why are you laughing?” Eren demanded.

“Ah… You eavesdropped on me and Hanji?”

Eren blushed. “I overheard,” he corrected.

“You think I’m using you to keep my job.”

“No, I just…”

“No, you do. You think I’m using you to keep my job and feel young.”

Eren shrugged again, roughly. Feeling miserable now instead of violent, he hooked his legs around Levi’s waist so that Levi staggered closer. Body heat. Touch. It pacified him.

“You really think that’s true, Eren?”

His eyes flickered around Levi’s face. “…No,” he conceded, practically pouting.

“This…this has been bothering you since you were at the station?” Levi murmured. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I figured it was stupid. It wasn’t a big deal.”

“Well, obviously it is because look where we are now. Hey, who’s this Jean who’s using you?”

“I—Jean and I—”

“Oh wait, your friend with benefits, right?”

Little twinge of guilt, tiny grimace. “Don’t say it like it’s okay. It’s not okay anymore. I told him that.” The knot in Eren’s stomach tightened. He cut Levi a curious look, the gravity of this moment breathing down his neck. “Levi, what do you think about all that with Jean, anyway? Are you jealous? Or what?”

Levi looked vaguely uncomfortable. But who wouldn’t be, forced to break down the arithmetic of their romantic view? “Christ, Eren. Sort of? Not really? Do you want me to be jealous? We’re not exclusive. I came after Jean, didn’t I?” Levi cocked a brow, scooting to the side to make his cup of tea with Eren’s legs still locked around him. “Why wouldn’t it be okay? We’re not—”

Eren reached out, grabbing Levi by the shoulders to reclaim eye contact. Sort of did not suffice; sort of spoke of something else to be said. Maybe he did want Levi to be jealous. He didn’t want Levi to be hurt, no, but…maybe he wanted Levi to be territorial.

Scrambling to explain himself before Levi cemented any real opinion on the matter now that real opinions were beginning to count, Eren sputtered, “It’s really fucking complicated with Jean, okay? He had this guy, this guy he really loved, decide to be straight and break up with him and go study abroad in Europe and that’s gotta really suck, you know? So of course when he gets lonely, I’m there for him. It’s an unconditioned stimulus, Levi—spontaneous recovery of exes, you know? But the other night, I told him that’s it, no more, because I’m serious—I’m sorry, I feel really bad for it, but the fact that I feel really bad for it is what’s freaking me out because…”

Levi snorted. His sarcastic eyebrow twitched upwards in something almost amused. Eren relaxed a little more. Levi muttered, “You really are the son of a shrink, aren’t you?” Pause for a breath, a sip of tea. He offered Eren a sip, too. He spoke in a low voice, face softening. “You sniveling little shit. Look, I’m not mad. I should be, right? Probably. Am I? Not really. Maybe it just gives away volumes on my own issues, but…” Levi looked hung up on something. Far less irritated than before, touched now, concerned. Very gently, he prompted, “You’re serious, huh? You’re freaking out because you’re putting thought into this now.”

“Of course I am!” Eren wilted. His lip curled. “You’re all I can think about, anyway. I lo—”

ve you.

Levi clapped a hand over Eren’s mouth. The words stumbled to a halt, like a multiple car pileup against Levi’s cool palm. Again there was a short stare-down, a moment of embarrassed clarity. Oops, Eren’s bug-eyed grimace said, mouth open against Levi’s heart and family lines.

The seconds ticked away, taking with them any hope of skirting the tangle of feelings unearthed here.

“Don’t say it,” Levi breathed, brows raised, and the intense look he flashed from behind his hair made the butterflies go wild in Eren’s gut. “Don’t say it,” he said again. “I can see it.”

Eren pulled at Levi’s hand, heart pounding. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… Well, it’s hard to explain what it even means, right?” Panic loomed. Love. It had just slipped out. It—it was something you said to precious people, friends who made you laugh so hard your sides physically ached, to middle school sweethearts who understood when you said you were gay, to stepmoms who stroked your hair just right and fathers you spent the anniversary of your real mother’s death with like it was some fucking holiday, to volatile boyfriends who eventually became miserable ex-boyfriends, it was…

“I don’t really know what ‘I love you’ means,” Eren whispered, letting Levi brush hair out of his eyes. Breathing deep, he caught the smell of Levi’s hair, his skin, the lingering scent of laundry soap on his sweater. “I think it just means, ‘Please, please, don’t leave me here alone.’”

Levi set his tea down. He caught Eren’s face in his palms, and kissed him. Hard. Eren recoiled first, then surrendered to the embrace, shoulders sagging, head tipping, hands pawing for Levi’s sides. The kisses were deep and rough and Eren clung tight as Levi backed away from the counter, but it was awkward so he slid down off him until his toes touched the linoleum.

Please, please, don’t leave me here alone.


So he was a little stricken by Eren’s admission about Jean.

But he was more moved by the fact that Eren was serious. It was his fault, after all, that Eren was so upset. And it was about damn time he started to take responsibility for his actions, especially when his actions came storming in after midnight and demanded that the blurred boundaries between casual and serious be rectified.

Exasperated, Levi told him about Erwin.

Briefly, quickly, skipping the juicy details, he summarized their topsy-turvy past. The start of it, in high school. The peak of it, in college. The on-again, off-again waltz of young men under pressure all through their twenties until Levi dated Petra and Petra dumped Levi and Erwin swept Petra off her feet like the all-American prince he was.

“Fuck Erwin,” Eren mumbled over the cup of tea Levi made for him, tucked comfortably beside him into a pillow fort on the couch. Levi had lent him a pair of pajama pants; the idea that Eren was literally in his pants was slumber party fiendish, juvenile, laughable, but not enjoyable enough to truly distract him. He was much more concerned by the shadows in Eren’s eyes.

“Eren…” Levi sighed, cradling his head in his fingertips.

“No. Really.” Eren scowled at Levi over the pillow fortress, fractured light from some late-night Whose Line dancing across the soft planes of his face. “I don’t like how he’s trapped you in this vicious circle of self-doubt and guilt. It’s not very fair of him. If he really cared about you, he’d want to see you move on, not plant seeds of contention in your new relationships.”

“He’s not a bad guy. Really, he’s not. It’s just what happens when you date one of your best friends…a lot…and live with that same best friend after—”

Gravely, Eren interrupted, “Well, you don’t have to feel guilty for moving on. From Erwin, I mean. That’s kind of sucky. If you’re best friends, he should be behind you a hundred percent. Levi, Erwin may still love you. He probably does, in all honesty. He probably doesn’t know what he wants. He probably still thinks about you all the time. But that isn’t what matters. What matters is what he’s doing about it, and what he’s doing about it is nothing. And if he’s doing nothing, you most certainly shouldn’t do anything. You need someone who goes out of their way to make it obvious they want you in their life.”

Levi didn’t know if he really liked that Eren had a shrink for a dad; the kid looked so innocent and college boy stupid, but he could cut right to the deep aching chase of anything with the blink of a big wide eye. God damn.

“I mean…” Eren sighed, turning back to his tea for a moment of reflection. “You probably still love him, too. You’re best friends. You gave parts of you to him that you’ll never get back. And that’s okay. Just because you love one person doesn’t mean you love another person any less, or that you can’t or aren’t allowed to.”

“Like you and Jean?”

Eren’s face reddened. With a caught-red-handed dimple in his brow, he cast Levi an apologetic look. “Uh. Yeah?” He cleared his throat. “That’s the problem with romance today, though! The brainwashing of the monogamous model. We think we’re prohibited from loving anyone but The One. Save yourself for The One. Casual dating is slutty because you’re not committing to The One who might not even be the real The One. And then pervs and sociopaths and businessmen cave under the pressure of it all and cheat on their wives with hookers on out-of-town business trips, or serially rape people, or fap to child pornography. You know?”

Levi cleared his throat, twitch of a smile at the corner of his mouth. “I’m not so sure all of those are on the same scale, but I see your point.”

Eren was undeterred. It was like that tangent he’d gone off on in the Jewel Box, or one of his drunken speeches after throwing rocks at Levi’s window. He was passionate; that was for sure. “Truth is, infidelity exists because we’re afraid of sharing, because we’re afraid of trusting, because we’re afraid of not being loved and not getting what we want, and because we try to control universal love to a selfish degree. The greatest thing to happen to love was also the worst thing to happen to love, and that’s that somewhere after the Greeks and the Renaissance, people started marrying for love. People who don’t know how to handle the responsibility of loving more than one person created infidelity. But how do you know what you really want if you don’t taste other flavors?”

It was almost like Eren was trying to defend his last romp with Jean, but at the same time lecturing himself, proving himself. It was endearing and felt sort of unnecessary to Levi. Didn’t Eren remember who he was talking to?

Oh, but it was the last bit of his warped little monologue that really caught Levi off-guard. It was that that struck a deep resounding chord in him.

“Just because you love more than one person doesn’t mean you love either of them more or less. Because it’s different with both of them. It’s a different love. Don’t argue with me. You know I’m right. Just agree with me.”

Eren slid a dark-eyed glance Levi’s way, waiting for him to indeed agree.

Levi was speechless. He was, in fact, kind of shocked. Almost insulted. Sort of afraid. More bewitched.

So when are you gonna leave the radio?

Do privacy and intimacy mean nothing to you, or is kissing and telling a way of justifying your lack of relationships ?

Petra wants kids .

What’s gonna happen when you fall in love?

Well, you created the role for yourself, Levi.

Oh God, Eren was right.

The stripper with the heart of gold and shining morals and uncomfortably sensible romantic theories was right. After a lengthy moment or two, Levi husked, “Jesus Christ, you’re something else.”

Maybe it spoke volumes on the way his own twisted dating history had formatively imprinted upon him, these distorted schools of intimacy, or maybe it was just that through all the insanity…Eren was a sliver of crazy clarity. And Levi needed clarity.

Erwin, Petra, Hanji, Pixis, his parents, fucking station actives, everyone, everything, all the scolding, mistreating voices, stop. It just wasn’t fair, was it, the admonishments and counter-suggestions and supposed advice of those dear to him. It was a mystery why those who claimed to love him, too, could lettheir words cut so deeply—no, actually, the mystery was this: why was he still listening?

He was tired of everyone else’s input. Fuck everyone else. This was his choice. He could insist to Erwin and Petra and even Hanji that he was okay until his voice wore to shreds, but this—this was the moment to consciously make the effort to…

Move on.

Levi reached across the piled pillows, brushing hair out of Eren’s eyes with loose knuckles. “I was just thinking, Eren, the other day…that I know your orgasms before I know your fatal flaw.”

Eren’s face pinched again. “My…fatal flaw?”

“Yeah. And that’s when I thought, you know what? I want to know your fatal flaw. Let’s get serious. I want to be serious, too.”

Everything that hurt because of Erwin…didn’t hurt when he was with Eren.

Eren made him feel young, yes, but he wasn’t a connection to his youth. He wouldn’t have met him if he hadn’t been trying to save his job, and this—I love you, the stripper said—was definitely not part of the save the job plan, but… Levi’s heart hurt in the most tragic and hopeful way. This felt so good, so pure. So…uncomplicated. He wanted it. He craved it. He, honestly, needed it. If only for a short time, he needed a break from the toxicity. He needed a new dorky idiot to put a smile on his face.

“Can you handle my baggage?” Levi muttered.

Eren’s lashes lowered over daring eyes. “Can you handle mine?” he warned. And then: “Fuck Erwin,” he said again.

Levi snorted. “Fuck Jean,” he parried. All right, so maybe he was a little jealous.

“Fuck them both! We deserve better!”

Levi laughed, rolling his head back against the couch cushions. “Damn right we do. Those jerks don’t know what they’re missing.” The smile faded slowly. Once more he touched a hand to Eren’s temple, seeking out those big lovely eyes. It was possible then, that having some scars offered a man a bit of wisdom and insight. Eren was just as desperate and damaged as he was, it seemed, and perhaps that was why they worked.

They could not, after all, break each other when they’d already been broken by others.

“You are not just material for my show,” Levi whispered. “You know that, right?”

Eren was very quiet. He frowned at his tea, at his fingernails, at the knees of borrowed pants. Then he dissolved into an embarrassed smile, shaking his head and looking away. “Yeah. I know. It was really stupid of me to think otherwise. I think I just… I think I was just scared of being serious about someone who wasn’t serious back. But everything’s okay now. And hey, I have a week off from work. We can do dinner some night. Our first real date!”


Okay, NOW you can start hashtagging ‘dating the stripper.’ What do you mean you thought we were dating before? No, we are now. No, that was ‘banged the stripper.’ Oh my God, you’re listening to 102.9 The Ex, and it’s time for a little Green Day, don’t you think?

Eren turned the radio up, grinning.


end ch. 11

Chapter Text

Bubblegum texted, hey baby u okay?

Ymir texted, da fuk was that about the other nite??

Fiona Peach said, DID U GET THE BOOT?

Jonah the regular go-go sent, fuck the creeps mang hope ur all right will u be back in time for halloweenie?

Halloweenie! Eren had forgotten about that. Heaven and Hell’s annual Halloween “ball” was not actually called Halloweenie, but it was an inside joke that never failed to illicit a stupid snicker or two. No, he’d definitely be back at work by Halloween. He was not giving up his spotlight. Keith gave him his own act this year. Last Halloween, he’d just been background ass, when that twinky trio had done the angel-on-one-shoulder, devil-on-the-other bit and they’d needed a bunch of guys and girls to play dancing twisting scenery. But this year he got his own spot. He got a solo act. He’d been choreographing it with Armin and Jonah for a few weeks now—something totally sexy-spooky and fit for all audiences. Er, all the club audience, at least.

“Hey.”

Guh—”

Jean and Eren watched as Eren’s cell phone went skittering kamikaze down the cement steps. Eren heaved a sigh and stretched to retrieve it, glancing over his shoulder at Jean. He’d snuck up on him in Red Square, across from the library and Gerberding Hall, where Eren had squeezed in between the brick towers for a moment of privacy (and maybe a snuck cigarette) on a blustery, bustling campus.

“You drop that thing too much.”

“I have insurance.”

“So, I heard…” Jean trailed off awkwardly, stretching the last note out under his breath for an exchanged glance or two. The wind tousled his hair, slipping through the narrow brick. He looked markedly more put-together than he had all summer, maybe because school called for looking sharp or maybe because summer’s blues were finally lifting—denim jacket, baseball tee, satchel strap riding the lines of his chest like a movie stud cliché. He held a hand out to bum a drag off Eren’s secret smoke before finally going on:

“I heard about the other night. At work.”

“Who told you, Armin?”

“He was pissed.”

“At me?”

“Well, kind of. That you let yourself get so worked up. But not really. More at the weirdo. Also that you went straight to your boy toy’s instead of home with him.”

Eren fiddled with his phone, hoping Jean couldn’t see the stamp of blame in his frown. “Yeah. I did.” Boy toy. Whatever, guys.

“So you have a week off, huh?” Jean nudged him with a booted toe. “Wanna do a ‘Star Wars’ marathon Friday night?”

Little twinge of guilt again, an uncomfortable look of apology. “I have a dinner date Friday.” Cool, right, when was this going to stop being so weird, when was this going to stop feeling awful, like he was rubbing it in Jean’s face that he was dating againand Jean was back at square single with no mingle?

The smug indifference on Jean’s face was a mediocre attempt. “Oh. Okay, well whatever. Where are you going?”

“Dunno. Somewhere nice?” Eren stood, brushing off the back of his jeans. He cut Jean another glance, this one a little more puppy-dog. “We can do ‘Star Wars’ tonight.”

Jean visibly brightened at that. He tried to hide it. He shrugged roughly, following Eren out of the brick crevice. “Whatever, jerk. Just write me in to your busy schedule or something.”

“You wanna see my Halloween act later?”

Jean laughed, rolling his eyes. He was a brooder, sure, but he was still the logos to Eren’s pathos sometimes. And Eren appreciated that. “Yeah, sure. You can show me your creepy strip tease later. You have Anthro next?”

“Yeah. Gotta go memorize a bunch of bones.”

He thought about asking if Jean had heard anything else from Marco about this holiday visit to the States or not.

He decided against it. He was, contrary to popular belief, sometimes moderately good at judging when and when not to bite his tongue.


“Levi, have some donuts. The intern brought them.”

“No thanks, Pixis. I ate breakfast already.”

“I’m bored, Levi,” Pixis said over mid-morning coffee, faded ACDC T-shirt and untrustworthy orbicular oculus. That suspicious smile, that boss smile, surely it wasn’t genuine, right? “I’m bored,” he said again. “We’ve gone from current dating scene failures and past romantic adventures with multiple partners to shock value with one partner. You see how that can flat-line after a while? Mix it up a little. Train wreck syndrome, remember?”

How disgustingly accurate.

But if listeners were getting bored, it was Pixis’s job to crack the whip, and—fine. They wanted some Talk? Levi was ready to give them some Talk. He was refreshed. He felt renewed. I love you.

As the seconds counted down to live air, Levi sighed, gathering himself.

“Nice glasses,” Hanji teased, grinning. “We match now.”

“Match we do, Hanj.”

“You ready?”

“I’m ready.”

“Hey, what are you wearing to the Halloween party?”

“Uhh, I’m not sure yet.”

“We should do a two-person costume. Like—scientist and science experiment. Nurse and patient. Kurt and Courtney. No, that’s lame.”

“Zombie rockers. Get it?”

“Because real rock is dead—yes! Subtle political statement and looking cute, too!”

There was the ident. Bing. The green live lights popped on. Hanji took control without a second thought, swinging around to the mic.

“Levi and I can’t figure out what to wear for Halloween. We want to match. If you have any ideas, tweet them. Hey, hope you’re enjoying the nineties at noon whether you’re stuck at work or stuck in traffic at Lynnwood.” Same roll of brief announcements, little bit of music news, and then—The Talk.

“So I know stripper talk is supposed to be exclusively Tuesdays, but we got in a fight the other night,” Levi muttered into the mic, casting Hanji a playful glance.

Hanji caught on beautifully, twirling the danglies on her gray hoodie. “Oh, no… You and the stripper? About what?”

“Okay, let’s just say romance gets really sticky when you’re almost thirty and out-and-about in Seatown dating a UW undergrad.”

“All the subtle ironic puns in that statement are gold, Levi.”

“Thank you, Hanj. Anyway…”

“Trouble in paradise! What is it, like the age difference or something?”

“Hey, I’m not that old. More like we’re both sluts.”

“Ouch! That’s an awful word, you know.”

“I don’t mean it like an insult. I mean we both know what we want and go after what we want.”

“So how bad was it? Like on a scale of ‘Oh, you’re so cute when you’re mad at me’ fight or ‘I’m throwing all your crap out the window now!’ fight?”

“Uhhh, how about ‘Pacing and screaming in my kitchen at one in the morning, please God don’t wake up my roommate.’”

“Did you sleep on the couch?”

“We were at my place, Hanj.”

“Did you sleep on the couch?”

Laughter. “Very funny. No, just thought I’d let you guys know it’s not all freaking fun and games. Just wanted to make sure you guys weren’t getting bored with my relationship. That’s all. Maybe next week I’ll have something else from our lovely little List to entertain you all. But—what is it, Thursday? Throwback Thursday? Advice, right?”

“Right!”

“What picture are we putting up for Throwback today? Oh my God—that one?”

“Yeahhh, buddy, I threw it that far back. Look, you’re so tiny and closet nerdy!”

“Look at your hair! Ha ha!”

“I look like a meth kitchen blew up in my face.” Hanji snorted, angling her laptop back to her. She gestured for Levi to get the queued song rolling. “Hold on, let me pull up the questions… All right, guys, enjoy another little throwback and we’ll be right back to answer some of these dating advice questions. It’s Thursday, it’s still beautiful outside, and you’re listening to The Talk on 102.9…”

Hangin’ round, downtown by myself, and I’ve had too much caffeine


“Way to throw ’em a curve ball,” Eren joked over the Brut Reserve bubbly, and Levi didn’t have to think twice to know it was his way of getting the dinner date nerves to bow to his command.

God, he looked good.

From bare toes and booty shorts to the semi-sweaty, half-dressed interruption at the Jewel Box Café, hipster fashion statements at the Moore or Bumbershoot to comfortable casual watching Die Hard in Levi’s living room—Eren cleaned up extraordinarily well, and the awkward pinch to his brow like he had no idea what he was doing in charcoal-gray slacks and a stonewashed sweater in the slowly revolving restaurant at the tippy-top of the Space Needle was a precious albeit accidental choice of accessory.

“I didn’t know what to wear,” he’d confessed down in the parking lot, fidgeting. “Armin picked out my shoes. Jean made me wear his denim jacket. It doesn’t match, right? He said it looked cool. I guess.”

Levi had laughed, crossed his arms, leaned to the side in thought, smirking at Eren in the downtown lights. Ah, the innocence. It was boundless. “When’s the last time you went on a real date, huh?” he teased.

Eren’s seductive charm snapped back to attention. God damn that sultry glance through his lashes, head just slightly hung. Like everything was secretive, because secretive was real and what you saw was what you got with Jaeger Bomb.

“It’s been…way too long,” he’d mumbled, and hightailed it into the lobby without checking to see if Levi followed.

Prosciutto and flagship gave way to Wild King salmon and agnolotti. Eren’s eyes kept sliding over to the bottle of champagne, probably suspicious of its price.

“Curve ball?” Levi echoed, back in the present.

“Yeah, telling everyone about our fight.”

“Oh—are you mad? I mean, I know some people don’t like talking about their fights. Like, Nile and Mary… He won’t even dish about marriage spats at the bar with the guys.”

“I’m not mad.” Ugh, that smile. It was so sweet and yet suggestive at the same time. Don’t let my youth fool you, that impish smirk said. “Maybe we should fight more often. That’ll keep them entertained. I can throw your stuff out the window.”

“Ah… No, that’s okay.”

The laughter faded into nervous sips of champagne. Eren cleared his throat, tongue darting out slick and pink over his lower lip to catch the last shimmer of wine from his glass. Brow knotted, he mumbled, “What are we even supposed to talk about at dinner, anyway? It’s not like we have to get to know each other. We know a lot about each other.”

Levi nodded, smirking faintly. “Right, but…only in certain areas.”

“Oh, right. Orgasms versus fatal flaws.” Eren grinned, teeth scraping his fork. “I forgot. Hey, you sound like my Classics professor when you say that. Fatal flaws.”

“How are classes, by the way?”

“Good.”

Another awkward conversational cesare, skittish glances, blushing eye contact. Yeah, it was a little weird, doing this courtship thing backwards—sex first, fighting second, wining and dining last. The last time Levi had been up here, twirling slowly through Seattle’s sky and privately panicking about the price tag of the meal, had been… Not that long ago, actually. But it felt like eternities. (And he hadn’t been the one paying.) Maybe that said something about progress.

“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” Levi muttered, throwing Eren a staid look without lifting his head. He prodded at his summer squash slaw. “About…you know, love.”

Eren froze. For a moment, Levi worried he’d choked on a piece of asparagus or something. No, he was just embarrassed and guilty and a little frantic but that was understandable. They hadn’t brought up his slip of tongue since midnight in Levi’s kitchen, after all. And it was a very, very sensitive subject for any man.

Mute, Eren gawked, wide-eyed and slouched forward like a kid awaiting a lecture. Go on, that face said. Lay it on me. I can deal. As long as you don’t put THAT on The Talk

Around them, waiters drifted by and the lights of Seattle streamed like the tails of shooting stars, and the murmur and tintinnabulation of fine dining was a sharp but soothing melody. Levi sighed, propping his chin in one hand.

I don’t know what love is.

“Stop freaking out,” he intoned, curtly.

Just because you love one person doesn’t mean you love another any less or any more.

“You look like you’re going to shit yourself. Relax, babe. I just wanted to say I’ve been thinking about what you said, and I’m just…sort of in awe, still. Because you’re right. You’re right about Erwin. You’re right about it all. It makes so much sense. And I’ve never heard anyone make it make so much sense before. And it makes me feel pretty damn stupid that here you come, this barely adult brat, and you just…”

It’s a different love.

“You fucking schooled me, Eren. I thought I knew so much, but you know what? I don’t think I know enough. I wanted to say thank you for that. …Thank you.”

Slowly, very slowly, Eren relaxed.

His shoulders drooped. The tension drained from his body. The puckered look on his face softened; a tiny smile formed; a distant but very intense light filled his eyes. He sat back in the chair and poked at his fish and then after a slow sip of champagne, he whispered, “Thanks, Levi. I wish I could say I thought long and hard about it all. What I told you, I mean. But really, it’s just…what I’ve learned.”

“A fucking stripper who’s barely legal enough to sit at the bar knows more about love than a guy with eight substantially intimate relationships in his pocket.”

“Hey, at least I don’t need a booster seat to sit barely legal at the bar,” Eren countered, grinning madly as he toasted to the small difference of inches between them. There it was. There he was, that spellbinding little shit from the first night in Heaven and Hell. From the Northgate coffee shop.

Dinner dates were all about testing waters and screening a mate, that awful clinical profile-building of the casual dating scene. But there was no guessing game here. Like they didn’t already know what was going to happen after they paid and left, honestly. It was redundant to point out they were into each other. Never again did Levi want anything but this, this slightly awkward, slightly pretentious foreplay from opposite sides of the table, coy gestures and sexy laughter, hinting glances and the way the low lights followed every line, every angle, every piece of the beautiful boy in front of him. It was sort of nice to treat Eren; he had a hunch Eren hadn’t been treated in a long while.

Under parking lot lights and a misting autumn rain, they kissed in the car. All the tension from being good in public—no offensive displays of alternative affection, playing by the rules of public decency—snapped craning over the middle console to the low hum of the idling car and the whisper of the radio.

And we’ll never be royals…

No. Levi reached over without looking and punched the stereo key programmed for a different station.

Ooh, and all I taught her was everything, ooh, I know she gave me all that she was

Ah—perrrrfect. Good to know they were still in that fresh, sexually charged window of dating, where a simple brush of knuckles or soft kisses to the ear and neck or—what did Eren call it, his “sarcastic eyebrow?”—could really get the blood pumping.

Levi pointed, still feeling Eren’s tongue behind his teeth. “You,” he panted. “Me. Sex. Now. Let’s go. We’re doing this.”

“All right!” Eren gasped, all shivers and arching back and frantic giggle—yes, giggle, what delicious blackmail—as Levi’s hands went up his sweater and straight to his nipples. “Sex in the car!” he cheered, trying to wriggle into the backseat. “Isn’t that on our list? Hey, does the ‘Titanic’ hand thing really work?”

“Guess we’ll find out. Get your shoes off the upholstery, idiot.”

“Tell them on The Talk this is our crazy make-up sex from that fight. Tell them I threatened to set your shit on fire instead of throw it out the window. Tell them I’m psycho but you can’t stay away—you—you ‘wish you knew how to quit me!’”

“I swear to God, if you ever use a cowboy accent again…” Levi stopped Eren’s laughter with a graze of the teeth on the lower lip, tossing hair out of his narrowed eyes. “Hey,” he said. “I elaborate and stretch the truth sometimes for entertainment value, but I don’t lie. And I definitely am not going to make stuff up about you. Got it?”

Eren fell still under him, lifting a look full of hot, tipsy enchantment. His eyes burned with desire, lips parted, head tilted to one side. He nodded, dumbly, fingers running up the sides of Levi’s throat to thread into his hair.

“Yeah,” he husked. “I got it.”

Getting it on the car meant a lot of leg cramps and improvisation. They needed to get going before somebody found them—not that Levi had any doubts about how fast it would be, judging by the way they were both straining at the fronts of their pants. Ungh, the glimpse of a stifled hard-on, the friction of dry grinding, it was all so shamefully delighting. It was deeply personal. Raw. Passionate. So easy. Stripped of formalities and expectations, and nobody outside the knotting of lust and trust in the backseat knew that spark—in the shadows of a car, against a window, under a coat in the SAM, on a hotel bed. It was theirs and no one else’s. Not even The Talk’s scandalous recaps threatened the intimacy, ironically enough. They could wonder, they could all wonder, but none of them had Eren beneath them shuddering at their touch, lashes fluttering, knees twitching apart as Levi’s fingers fell between his thighs.

So much of it had been the thrill of the forbidden, but now the forbidden was his and that was a whole new flavor.

“Kiss me,” Eren demanded, and Levi opened his mouth to let Eren’s tongue squirm its way back in there with his.


 

Eren loved Armin because Armin was a very unique cookie.

In elementary school, he’d wanted to work in a bakery. Through high school, he told people he was going to make thousands and thousands of dollars photographing high fashion models. During his third quarter at university, he tried to organize his school classes to better suit a goal of parapsychology and metaphysical investigation, but then he realized he was more interested in archaeology and anthropology. He wanted to work on Easter Island digs or curate at the Louvre. To get through school, he danced with Eren a few nights a week and gave tours part-time at Spooked in Seattle. He drank a lot of orange juice and wore his hair in tiny ponytails or half-backs. He had a pair of shoes that went with every outfit, and he had a secret thing for Japanese rock.

“See? You needed that week off,” Keith had said after Eren’s Halloween strip. Eren walked out with three forty-seven (and some candy) in tips, and took a picture with Armin and Mikasa to text Levi in response to the snapshot he’d sent of him and Hanji in their matching costumes.

+Levi: hey… armins bday is coming up…

From – Levi: stop by the station party n i’ll get you tickets to whatever show you want

Happy birthday!” Eren and Mikasa cheered over the roar of the cramped restless crowd in the dark of the Showbox at the Market, as Jean elbowed his way back over with a few beers and Armin practically melted to the floor in sheepish gratitude.

“We’re so close to the front…”

“Jean, you better put Armin on your shoulders—”

“What? Are you kidding me? I can’t—he’s too big for that—”

“But you’re the tallest out of all of us.”

“Fine, take Mikasa. I’ll take Armin.”

“Eren, I’m too heavy for you.”

“Yeah, but I bet you have less muscle mass than Mikasa. She does kickboxing.”

Laughter. Lights. Sticky with sweat already, they huddled close together as the band trickled out in silky purple-gray shadows. Up went the hands, screams vibrating through the air. Hard, exotic rock blasted from the speakers. Eren could feel it in his bones.

“Hey—” Armin grabbed his wrist, leaning close and speaking up into his ear. “How the fuck did you get Dir en Grey tickets, anyway? I thought they sold out. They weren’t on Groupon, either—”

“A couple weeks ago I stripped for the 102.9 Halloween party,” Eren explained, grinning wickedly. “The perks of having a boyfriend in radio, right?”

Armin looked highly entertained by his own confliction between disapproval and laughing disbelief. His eyes danced. His grip on Eren’s arm tightened. The first song of the set crashed through the wild crowd and Eren glanced towards the bar, where he knew Levi and Hanji were chilling, observing, collecting info for their review. Hanji, at the bar, looking fabulous in ripped jeans and pinstripes, Levi reminiscent of that first night at the Moore with his press pass and look of journalistic indifference, sleek and sexy in a plain black tee and matching Cole Haans, thin jacket draped on one arm as he’d raked his fingers through his loose hair and let it fall like magic back down and over one eye—so suave, so aloof, practically radiating self-confidence and the dark, delicious mystery and gravitas of the erastes

He’d carefully set this up so that he and his friends would stay divided from Levi and Hanji. He didn’t want any of them finding out the uproarious midday 102.9 pair was throwing back shots within a number of yards; he didn’t want them thinking this was a half-assed birthday gift even if it was thanks to a free strip tease for practically the entire station that he’d even scored four tickets to Dir en Grey, anyway (weaseled in by his radio boyfriend because he was doing a review again). He didn’t want Armin, or Mikasa, or Jean getting the wrong idea, that he was in that awful freshly dating rose-tinted selfish daydream stage, incapable of doing anything without his special buddy.

Levi saw him looking. Waved with two fingers, slouched on one elbow against the bar. Sexy fucker. Eren grinned, stupidly, glancing away. Long-distance flirting. You stay there, I stay here… Somebody jostling through the crowd in the pit elbowed Eren in the back of the head and he ducked back to his friends.

“Up! Up!”

“Help—ack—”

“Ha ha, blockheads… Jean—wait, stop!”

The lights turned red. The lights went down. They flared back in ribbons of blue and violet as projected images flashed stark and eerie against the backdrop. Jean held fast to Mikasa’s thigh; the fingers of her free hand swirled through his hair and she leaned to the side to bump heads with Armin where he was clinging for dear life as Eren got situated with him on his shoulders, then handed up the beers. They threw their hands in the air. They sang along. Jean moved closer, free hand loitering between Eren’s shoulders. He was probably worried Armin would go tumbling. He gently headbanged to the same pace as Mikasa.

“This is pretty cool,” he cried—loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to reach the others. “This is gonna be fucking fun!”

Head tipped to accommodate Armin’s legs, gripping his shins, Eren looked to Jean, blushing. Blushing because he was all torn up by a protective, possessive feeling. Because he didn’t need praise for his accomplishments, he just wanted everyone to be happy. Blushing because this felt pure and carefree and simple like life so seldom did anymore, before cranky parents, and financial problems, and the diabolic dance of love and heartache… No Marco, no Annie, no Reiner, no Erd, no Levi. Nothing to worry about; nothing to fret over. Nothing but their secret language of smirks and sneers and murmurs that no one else could penetrate.

Looking at Jean, Eren thought about how cute he was with his messy hair and big dark eyes, that dimpled little grin—in a totally un-romantic way, that is, just admiring him for who he was. Dorky, perfect, precious, trying. How many people were going to treat him like he was as precious and perfect as he was? Mikasa, too, with her loving eyes and bright smiles—and Armin, full of dreams and stories—how many people were going to treat them like they deserved to be treated? Did they understand like he did that this was a moment of reminder—that best friends did exist and wouldn’t stab you in the back or leave you behind or just stop calling or let you walk out of the house wearing a terrible outfit? They’d seen each other’s ups and downs; they were irreplaceable parts of each other’s lives. And Eren wanted it to stay that way, God damn it.

“What?” Jean said over the screech of the guitars. The lights turned his eyes all different colors, sending shadows dancing around the angles of his half-smile. “What is it, weirdo?”

“Nothing,” Eren shouted, swaying a little to bump him with his hip instead of his arm, too worried of letting go of Armin. “Just love you guys.”

“Gay,” Jean grunted. Eren translated. Love you, too, buddy.

“My turn! Put me on your shoulders now!”

“Eren—I mean, I can try…”

“NO. NO CRUSHING ARMIN TONIGHT.”

“Oh my Gooood, Mikasa, live a little!”

THIS IS MY FAVORITE SONG RIGHT NOW!

Armin accidentally knocked himself loose from Eren’s shoulders and security swooping in from near the amps helped them untangle before the crowd trampled them. Well, it wasn’t a real concert until there was beer all over, right? Jean laughed, holding tight to Mikasa’s knees. Mikasa looked on, concerned.

Their eyes gleamed.

They felt it, too.


end ch. 12

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming, I’m locking my front door right now, Dad—God…”

Telltale accommodating sigh over the phone, followed by a soft, placating, “Eren…” He was probably shaking his head. He was probably smiling faintly, that weird weary all-knowing smile of his, just one upturned corner of the mouth and a distant look behind his glasses.

Eren gave the apartment door a tiny tug to confirm it was locked. Double-checking for wallet and cell phone—oh, wait, he was using it, balanced precariously between ear and shoulder. “All right, I’m on my way down.”

Let’s do something this weekend, Dr. Jäger had said (which was what Let’s have a Daddy Day had evolved into around middle school, when Daddy Day had become terminally humiliating).

You still haven’t introduced me to this girl you’re dating, Dr. Jäger had also said.

Let’s go have breakfast, the doc had suggested, and then we can go to the bookstore and you can get whatever you want.

Eren swung open the passenger door of the sleek silver 2012 Benz. Oh look, there was the tiny, tiiiiny mark near the handle where he’d accidentally dented the car when washing it had been last summer’s job. Just before he’d taken Reiner’s advice and auditioned for Heaven and Hell, back when he’d still been dating Jean—that hot and heavy whirlwind of a volatile romance stage between awkward butterflies and rule-following, and the inevitable collapse into stale UST. Hey, Jean, my dad and Carla are out, come over and help me wash my dad’s car quickly turned into a water fight and war of soap bombs and slapping towels, which had even more quickly become soaked clothes and making out against the sudsy door, carefully out of sight from the neighbors. Wrestle-flirting, playful groping, losing purchase on the hose which flew spraying wildly against the door and left that nice little ding right there in the otherwise flawless paint, and then all the fun had just deteriorated into panic and arguing.

His dad had never noticed. Maybe. If he had, he’d never said anything to Eren. But it was one of those peculiar memory cues that never failed. Ever. He remembered the sticky summer afternoon every time he saw it. One of the hottest summers in Seattle in a long while. Taste of Jean’s tongue and shiver of guy tang, wax, hose water, wet cement.

“You look nice,” his dad greeted, half-smile becoming full-smile.

Eren gave himself a once-over, hand tangled in his bedhead. Wrinkled white T-shirt flirting with the waistband of his Hanes, jeans with holes in the knees, the machine-destroyed kind that always cost more despite being less actual product. Was that irony or just stupid?

Eren tumbled down into shotgun, scowling. “No I don’t, I look like shit. I worked late last night.”

His father’s composure betrayed a little twitch. Worked. He waited until Eren had buckled up. He asked, “Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t care.” Eren sighed and reached over to turn the radio station to 102.9. It was habit. Didn’t really matter because it was the weekend shows. He tasted the metal of adrenaline rising on the back of his teeth. His nerves were so alight, it was making him sick.

This was it. This was the day. There was no going back. He’d made the decision and he intended to follow through; he was not one for chickening out of dares, especially not when he dared himself. It had sort of been a split-second idea, but—well, he was all in.

The awkward silence on the way to breakfast was not, by any means, empty air.

Dr. Jäger was waiting patiently for Eren to spill about his current romantic partner.

Eren was waiting patiently for the figurative cat to return his figurative fucking tongue.

Breakfast—or, by this time of day, was it more like brunch?—was equally if not more painfully uncomfortable. Eren could hardly choke his food down, which was weird for him; he poked at his French toast and nibbled at the bacon, fiddling with the discarded corners of sugar packets dumped into coffee. They drank their coffee the same way, he noticed, he and his father. Black, maybe one cream, alarmingly sweetened.

His dad tried to keep conversation alive by talking about some lectures he’d done, some interesting questions some students had posed, how sad it was they both haunted the same college campus but hardly saw each other at all during the week, maybe they should start meeting on Wednesdays during Dr. Jäger’s office hours, just for lunch or something?  

“Carla’s all excited about Thanksgiving,” he said.

“Carla’s always excited about Thanksgiving,” Eren grumbled.

“You used to come hang out at home more…” his father began, and Eren looked up sharply, bristling. His father noticed. His father noted. His eyes scanned Eren quickly, critically, and still smiling that little smile of his, and rolling his straw wrapper between thumb and forefinger the same that Eren fumbled with a different piece of trash, he suggested, “Is it because…you’re busy with this girlfriend of yours?”

Shit damn ugh motherfucker Jesus please-us—it was Eren’s worst fear. He was pushing the topic himself.

“…Yeah,” Eren murmured in reply. It wasn’t a total lie, right?

It took him until Barnes and Noble to finally muster the balls to say it.

His hands were clammy. His stomach was in knots. His mouth was dry and he felt sort of like a paranoid cokehead or something, popping his knuckles anxiously, shifting from foot to foot, breathing hard hoping just to calm his thundering heart. In all actuality, maybe breakfast would have been a better setting than this churchlike quiet, standing together before the Newly Released fiction and staring, waiting for the other to say something, say anything, because they both knew there was something important to be said—but, alas, this was the setting Eren had now.

“Dad…”

“I’m serious. Get what you want. I don’t care how many books, or how expensive. I haven’t taken you on a Daddy Day in a while and I feel bad.”

Eren closed his eyes, swallowing hard. Daddy Day. He smiled; he couldn’t help it. He felt guilty now, which with the very mild embarrassment (all conditioned, none honest) and serious fucking nervousness was quite the emotional state.

A wave of white-hot anxiety prickled his sides, jumping from nerve to nerve swiftly as he opened his eyes again and scooped a bestseller off the shelf. Balking. Balking. He was making it worse on himself. Heaving a sigh, he shoved the book back and turned to his dad, brow knotting.

“I don’t have a girlfriend,” he came clean.

A quizzical shadow fell over his dad’s face, but that little smile remained. Slowly, his brows climbed the creases of confusion. “You don’t?” he murmured, voice so low and gentle on the bookstore hush.

“I have a boyfriend.”

Bam.

Eren tried really, really hard to keep a straight face, but the relief at having spoken the words—the giddy, rebellious glee at shocking his father, at being bad in this traditional scenario—it was unavoidable. He cracked a sheepish grin, two notes shy of a mischievous smirk, and looked away as the guilty blush flooded his face. Damn. Okay, that had actually felt pretty good. What the hell had he been so freaked out about?

His father stared at him. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t even marvel, “You’re gay?” which was a damn stupid question but it would have posed the chance for a quip like, “Guilty as charged,” or something. Anything to sort of ease the tension between them.

Like Eren had been dreading, there didn’t seem to be much surprise on his father’s end. He took it like he took everything else—like a psychologist. Analyzing, considering, wondering on all the possible motives, motivations, drives, formative factors. Evaluating all the plausible rhymes and reasons.

“So this girl…?” he started, cocking a brow. He trailed off, but Eren knew what he was asking.

“Yeah, that girl I told you and Carla I was dating is actually this guy. I… I don’t really like girls, Dad. Come on, you really didn’t notice?”

His father cleared his throat. Issued a little shrug and embarrassed smile. “Well…” he stressed, but nothing followed. He sighed. His eyes moved over Eren, head to toe and back again. Eren knew precisely what questions were floating through his sharp PhD head—Is it my fault? Is it because of your mother? Did I coddle you too much, protect you too much, that you want to rebel? Did I starve you for affection? Did I drive you into homoerotic tendencies because I’m never around? Is this a cry for attention, for help?

He said none of it, thankfully. Eren mirrored his slouched, wary stance, brow knotting over worried eyes.

“Say something,” he prompted, mildly aware of how other customers wandered wide around them and the New Releases. What, was it that obvious they were having a very serious father-son enlightenment here? What if someone was eavesdropping from the other aisle? Honey, you’ll never guess what I overheard today at Barnes and Noble, this kid totally came out to his dad…

Dad,” Eren pressed, “stop trying to write a paper on me in your head and just tell me whether you’re happy or not, whether you support me or not.”

His dad smiled again. This one was much realer, more connected. “Well, I can’t say I approve yet or not, because you haven’t told me anything about him—”

“No, I don’t care if you approve,” Eren interrupted, blushing furiously. “I just wanna know if you’re behind me a hundred percent.”

“You know I support you.”

“God, you act like it’s so normal! Like I just told you I was going to pierce my nose or something.”

“It is normal. It doesn’t change a thing about you, fundamentally.”

“Okay, your ethics and your standards and your studies tell you that, and I know you’re probably dying to logic it all out like the whole ‘Oh, you miss your mom so you strip’—but, Dad, are you okay with it?”

The smile faded. His father’s eyes narrowed. Firmly, and very quietly, he hissed, “Of course I’m okay with it.” He shook his head, frowning at Eren as if to say, How could you? How could you ever even think I wouldn’t be okay with it?

The thing was, he wasn’t. Not one hundred percent. Maybe ninety-nine point nine percent, but definitely not completely okay with it. Nobody wanted to be told one day that the image they’d had of someone was not quite right, that they were missing a detail here or there, that something had been kept hidden from them. There was a sense of betrayal in that, a sense of sadness and loss. And Eren knew his dad was going to insist he was okay with it until it either drove him mad or he did, indeed, become completely okay with it.

“Well, good,” Eren mumbled, uncomfortably. “Glad you’re not mad about that because you’ll probably be mad he’s eight years older than me.”

That changed the look on his dad’s face right away. Eren bit his lip against another nervous laugh, scuttling off to look at some other books. He really did want to walk out with something material, not just emotional.

Eight years?” his father echoed, then quickly lowered his voice, remembering himself. “Eight years!” he said between his teeth. “Where the hell did you meet this guy?”

“He’s a radio DJ for 102.9, the rock station. And I wasn’t lying when I told you and Carla that my girlfriend-boyfriend-thing was okay with me stripping. His name is Levi, by the way. He’s hella classy and treats me really well, I promise. Hey, this book looks good, huh?”

“Okay,” his father breathed, looking very confounded. “Eren, I have one question. Humor me, all right? Who is the, ah…top and bottom?”

Eren almost dropped the book, going white and then cherry red again. “DAD!” he sputtered. “Are you serious right now?”

Dr. Jäger was far more disturbed, however. He shook his head and grimaced and held his hands out as if to say, I don’t know? He explained, “I thought knowing everything about it would just help me better adjust to it. Does he put his arm around you in public, or the other way around?”

Well, he jacked me off in publicand I totally topped him that one time

Blushing hot, Eren laughed triumphantly at his father’s discomfiture. Man, there was a wicked little pride in being open about this, seeing the look on his dad’s face. He was such a trouble-maker. He felt like a kid again, wreaking havoc on his poor parents’ stress levels. It was kind of refreshing, kind of nostalgic, kind of…nice to talk to his dad about this as an adult now. Why the fuck had he waited so long!

“Dad,” Eren stressed, “the boyfriend hand is his.”

“Boyfriend hand?”

Oh, right. Translation: “He puts his arm on me in public.”

“…Ah. So he—you receive, then?”

“Yes, Dad. When we have sex, I am the one taking it. I apologize for being a failure as a man.”

“No, no, that is not what I’m saying—listen, it’s been found in the study of ancient Greece that—”

Eren shook his head, winding an arm around his dad’s side in a loose, reassuring hug. So which of the three P’s was this, Dad? Philosophy, physiology, psychology? “I know,” Eren said. “I was joking about that. Takes a real man to wear pink, and all that jazz. Geez, I really am your son, huh?”

Dr. Jäger smiled. It was, unfortunately, his distant one. Eren didn’t like it. He liked the weight of his father’s hand on the back of his head, tousling his hair as he tipped up and studied his dad’s face. But he did not like the faraway glint to his dad’s eyes, or the way he looked almost…weepy. And it hit Eren suddenly, that for the first time—or maybe just the first time he’d noticed—his dad was finally treating him like a person, not a psychotherapy treat. His dad smelled like syrup from breakfast and expensive cologne, and it was in a thick, emotional way that he said, “Yes. Yes, you are.” But then he snapped to again, looking frantically to Eren, wide-eyed. “You’re careful, right?”

Careful. Eren groaned. “God, yes. Safe sex, blah blah blah.”

“When are you going to tell Carla?”

“Oh my God, Dad, I don’t know! Can we stop talking about it now? Please?”


“So you’re really going for it, huh?”

Erwin looked up from the display case of finely-crafted diamonds, sparkling carats and polished bands, glittering necklaces, bracelets, earrings. Levi peeked at him from around a revolving tree of overpriced but very authentic birthstones.

It sent Erwin reeling.

Reeling, tumbling, down—metaphorically, of course. Into the past. Five years, seven years, ten years. Same owl-eyed look from around a half-open doorway, silhouette against bright dormitory hall lights, silky mouth all skewed thoughtfully to one side and those big, dark eyes, assessing Erwin from under a shock of darker hair. Fragile. Arms crossed. Vulnerable. Quiet, grim. A labyrinth of secrets to explore in college kisses and drunken star-gazing. Whisper of, “Your RA is a piece of shit,” before scampering in and leaping onto the narrow twin with Erwin, pajama pants and a baggy T-shirt, all hot skin and smooth form under his hands, just begging to be held against his side.

Nearing thirty, it was almost the same look—fragile, vulnerable, grim. But there was an edge to it now. What had once been hopeful abandon was now a tired concession, biting words and acid comebacks coiled like a whip at the back of his tongue.

Well, not so much anymore. Not since this Eren Jäger guy had come into the picture. Levi was a lot less of a bitch to live with now. Whether that was because he was getting laid or getting happy again, Erwin couldn’t tell; he wasn’t quite sure which he hoped for, as long as it worked.

“Yeah,” Erwin husked, smiling shyly. “I’m really going for it. Ah, excuse me, sir—could I see this ring closer, please?”    

“That’s a nice one.”

“I thought so, too.”

“You think she’ll go for that big?”

“You’re right, she probably isn’t worried about showing it off…”

“You think?”

“Well, I—I didn’t think so immediately, but I guess every woman wants to show it off.”

“Hmm… Sure.”

“Levi, you are not making this easy.”

“Sorry, sorry. I’m not very good at this stuff, as you know.”

Erwin slid a glance Levi’s way, narrowing his eyes in a little warning laugh. Not very good at this stuff, as you know… Little shit. Okay, so he wasn’t as much of a bitch to live with anymore, but he was still sort of standoffish and quite vindictive. But that was just what made him…Levi, and Erwin could not complain. Kept him on his toes, at least. Kept him vaguely entertained, too.

“What about this one?”

Yes.”

“Not too big, not too small, right?”

“Just like you, buddy.”

Anguished glance of embarrassment at the salesman assisting. Erwin laughed—a little too loudly, a little too forced. Great. “Oh, ha ha,” he tried to save face, shaking his head dismissively. The salesman stared, unmoved regardless. Lovely. Levi smirked, arms crossed.

“Let me buy you a coffee,” Levi said.

“No, you owe me one after that,” Erwin muttered between his teeth as they strode swiftly out of the diamond crafters’, but really he didn’t care. He was coasting on the jumpy excited buzz of having just secured a beautiful, cleanly-cut, unpretentious but still remarkable engagement ring for Petra. Oh, her face when she’d see it… Maybe she’d be in one of those cute little sloppy buns she did when she didn’t feel like doing her hair, and it would bounce and dance atop her head when she gasped and grabbed the box and barked, Oh my God, you didn’t, Erwin, are you serious, what the hell! Spitfire. She was a real spitfire.

Just like you, buddy.

Petra was like Levi—in that regard, anyway, all this magnificent energy condensed into such a tiny little package. Perfect for holding in the elbow, perfect for scooping up in both arms, perfect for spooning at night, not so perfect for sixty-nines but definitely perfect for riding him during sex, hands perched in the same clawing V right at his navel… So small, so precious, so delicate. He loved it. Something to have and to hold… Look, he knew his lines already! Who was the one to have and to hold with Levi, though? Levi—or Eren? Did Levi do that magnificent back-arch through a spill of moonlight, straddled on Eren’s hips? Surely a stripper knew quite a few tricks from the penetrating end—at least, knowing how to work his body. Right? Ah, but Levi had said once, so many years ago: Only you, you fucking asshole. I don’t want anyone inside me but you, ever. No one else is good enough. No one else deserves that privilege.

And not so long ago, during their first official breakup (the first of about four-ish…or five), Petra had also shrieked at him, Don’t you ever ask me to marry you, jerk! It had been in the heat of the moment, though. Like that one time Levi had thrown all his things out the window, screaming, I’m tired of crying because of you! Who would ever want to marry you?

“I think she’s going to love it,” Levi murmured around his coffee, unaware of course of Erwin’s recollections.

“You think she’ll say ‘yes?’”

“Of course she’ll say ‘yes,’ Erwin. She’d be an idiot not to say ‘yes.’”


He fucking proposed the day before Thanksgiving.

The day before Thanksgiving. Mere hours before the annual Friendsgiving Pre-Thanksgiving dinner out—no family, no kids, no kitchen hassle, just a happy hour menu and a table reserved big enough for their party.

How fucking unfair was that?

Levi ordered another drink, trying very—very—hard to keep his congratulatory smile from seeming too fake. Like any of them believed he hadn’t already known. Hanji kept glancing his way surreptitiously, nudging him under the table with the toe of her cute little ankle boot. He ignored it and stole her drink for a few long sips in the interim between his refills.

“Oh my God, congrats, you guys!”

“Damn, Erwin. That’s a nice rock.”

“Don’t let Mary see that. She’ll ask me why I couldn’t do better.”

“Ha! No, she’ll say, ‘I should have stayed with Erwin.’”

Bullshit, you fucking player.”

Laughter, layers of laughter, swirling ribbons of one huge free-for-all dialogue, pressing in closer and closer around Levi. Ah, his drink. Thank you. No. Stop flirting, Waiter. Not interested. Tipping the same regardless.

“Well, I’m sure you guys all know what I’m thankful for this year…” Petra sighed, blushing a lovely shade of pink under everyone’s celebratory words and jokes. Her eyes drifted down the table to meet Levi’s, like she was checking his reaction. He concentrated harder on seeming completely supportive and not at all doubtful of Erwin’s capacity as fiancé. The low lights of the busy restaurant sparked off the diamonds in her ring. She looked beautiful in her semi-sheer blouse, black cami underneath; she looked happy, cute ponytail and side-swept bangs, eyes wide and smile sunny, leaning into Erwin’s arm as she laughed around her straw at—whatever Nanaba had said, didn’t matter.

And so down the line they went in the tradition of the Pre-Thanksgiving dinner, naming one thing they were each thankful for. New car, low rent, job promotion, a toddler’s first words, bonus at work, health insurance, timeshare. Loved ones, loved things, goals in sight.

Another flash of the ring as Petra’s hands fluttered like doves, accessories to some story or another. Levi’s chest tightened. He met Erwin’s eyes this time, and offered another smile, brows raised. If you’re best friends, he should be behind you one hundred percent… Well, Levi couldn’t prove that theory wrong by being a hypocrite, right? He was behind Erwin.

He was always behind Erwin.

Spare key. Engagement ring. They were grownups. This was a grownup world. And yet Levi felt small and teary like a child, and it was irreparable. Why was he upset? Time was supposed to heal everything. He was moving on with Eren. If he isn’t putting forth effort…why are you? It was like that song—I’m so afraid of the gift you give me… He was. The admiration, the affection, the love Eren had in his eyes when he looked at him, Levi felt undeserving. He loved Erwin; he really did. He did not want a day to go by that Erwin was not part of his life. Didn’t he trust himself? Didn’t he trust Erwin to let him move on? What was this heartache, this sick knot in his stomach?

Oh. It was fear. Fear of what, being happy? Or was it sad, accepting hope, the closing of a chapter in his life he had frantically tried to keep open? All chapters inevitably closed. Every day lived was another page turned. It wasn’t giving up. It wasn’t denying everything he’d ever felt. Maybe…it had just become a different kind of love between him and Erwin. He had to understand that.

Leaning against his car, watching Petra and Erwin make their good-night rounds amongst the others before Erwin drove Petra all the way up to her parents’ in Snoqualmie for the Thanksgiving weekend, Hanji handed Levi his lighter back so he could join her in the after-dinner smoke.

“So what are you two doing tomorrow?” Hanji grunted. She knew. She had to know. She was worried.

“Erwin’s flying out to New York in the morning. I’m driving him so I can pick up my family then after our shift, it’s Port Orchard to watch the game while everyone cooks.”

“Isn’t it weird how some days, you feel so damn old. Then holidays come around and you feel like an idiot kid again.”

“It’s exhausting.”

Hanji swung an arm around Levi’s shoulder, leaning down to kiss him right above the ear. “Baby, I can read you like an open book. Are you okay?”

Levi nodded, flicking his lighter a few times. Turned around in Hanji’s arm and planted a tipsy kiss above her ear in return. “I’m okay. I promise.”


“Fuck Black Friday. I do not go out on Black Friday.”

“Agreed. I’m not getting shot over a TV. Hey, I’m gonna practice a little for this weekend. Is that okay?”

“Ah… Go ahead?”

“I have to warm up first, hold on…”

Levi watched as Eren fumbled to hook the laptop up to the surround sound in the apartment. Erwin was gone until Monday; most of the family was either staying in Port Orchard or a hotel; there were Thanksgiving leftovers in the fridge from his mom and dad, and some abandoned Noodle Nation getting cold on the island counter; and Levi was curled up contently in a hoodie and cotton pants, and—matching—socks. He’d been sort of reluctant to text Eren, worried he’d be interrupting any manner of Jäger holiday activities, but he’d been more spurred to action by how much he really did not want to be alone in his empty house tonight. Last night had been fine; today, he’d enjoyed. Peace and quiet, relaxation. But now—now the zen had already begun to ring sour and toasting light beer to Ave takeout with Jaeger Bomb was a perfect fix.

All nestled into the couch like an outpatient fresh from discharge, knees drawn up to his chest and head tipped back against the cushions, Levi’s eyes followed Eren’s hands on the keyboard and mousepad of his notebook computer. Satisfied, he stretched a little. He reached over to press play on whatever song he’d found on YouTube.

Grinning like a madman, he said, “Hey, you remember that Miley Cyrus ‘Wop’ video?”

Levi cocked a brow. “Actually, yeah. Mike and Nanaba made us watch that thing like five hundred times.”

“Well, I can do it.”

Levi stretched for the coffee table so he could keep his laughter contained behind a few sips of his drink, brows slowly climbing closer and closer to his hairline. Yes, yes indeed Eren could wop. Eren was…good at wopping. Eren made silly faces and mimed putting a baby in a microwave and checked that lady who was fine and dropped it to the floor and leaned and played dead and wiggle-wiggled and Levi was too caught up in the magic that was just Eren to really care that he couldn’t watch his ass bounce because he hadn’t taken off his pants yet. Oh, wait—never mind. There they went. It wasn’t called a warm-up for nothing, right?

As the song faded, Eren collapsed on the floor between the television and coffee table and laughed at himself for a few gasping moments, absently wagging a foot. Then he rolled back up to his knees in just his boxers and a Henley shirt, sleeves shoved up. He entered a new YouTube search.

Levi accepted the free show with hooded eyes and the lingering ghost of a dazed smile, cradling his beer in against his chest and staying curled up on the couch. Idly fiddled with the end of his sweatshirt like a lovestruck idiot—watching.

Eren danced to Beau Malheur first, a slow and teasing routine that was a lot more erotic than sexual.

“You know that Lil Wayne song, ‘Lollipop?’”

Levi shook his head slowly—but in disbelief. “Yes,” he said, and regretted it instantly. He was a little afraid of a college kid’s musical interests at this point.

“No, don’t look so disturbed. This band Framing Hanley covered it and it’s hotter. Watch.”

Shorty want a thug…

What? Oh God—

Eren’s hands moved up his own thighs. Bottles in the club, shorty wanna hump… Look at the definition in those sun-kissed legs when he went down on locked knees, and—the outline of secret sinful places there kept warm and cradled by thin soft cotton. I ain’t never seen an ass like hers, that shit in my mouth had me lost for words, told her to back it up like berp, berp, and I made that ass jump like… Swivel of hips. Foot up on the coffee table, toes curled. Body undulating, shirt off. Rise and fall of the chest. That distant, devilishly pleased shadow coming over his face as his bare arms twisted and moved serenely above his head and his hips rolled, grinding nothing, humping the air—and back down he went, popping it, locking it, dropping it, signature crouch, Magic Mike on his back and a goofy laugh ripping through the song because he knew the whole thing was extremely awkward in a living room as compared to a lit club stage…

Never in his life had Levi ever imagined that a vivacious young male stripping to an alternative rock band’s cover of a grating hip hop bedroom track could be such a sensual, electrifying treat.

But—well, there it was.

Levi really wished he was horny. He really, really wished he was not emotionally drained and mentally drained and just physically beat. Alas, he was, and when Eren finished with a dreamy sort of swaying bit to Pearl Jam’s Black—yes, the one Levi hadn’t let him finish in the VIP room—Levi just sat there, eyes hooded, lips parted, falling for the kid more and more with each breath that escaped his pouty mouth as he danced, head tipping to and fro, eyes shut tight. Our song. The concept was intimidating and thrilling. Our song. Ownership. Actuality. Manifestation.

He wanted to feel his heartbeat under his palm, under his kiss.

He held his hand out for Eren to come closer.

Eren shut the laptop and put the surround sound back on the radio before obeying. Background music. Ambience. He understood exactly.

When you say you need me, know that I need you more…

He panted, vaguely sticky, body radiating heat from the workout. He gave that dorky grin again, proud of himself, proud he’d pleased Levi; what kind of person was so purely concerned about others that someone else’s smile meant so much to them? Fucking Eren. Fucking Eren—

I adore you…

“This tattoo is because I’m an Aries. The nautical stars… Well, they were really cool for a while. Ha! My favorites are these—the sun and moon, and the compass rose.”

“What’s the sun and moon for?”

“Night and day. Passion, logic. Pathos, logos. Dark, light. I guess you could say it’s the same concept as, like, yin-and-yang or something. And the compass rose is just a reminder that…we each have a purpose.”

“I just have gay-ass Latin and some cute birds.”

“Not gay. They look elegantly badass. What’s the Latin?”

“Dates.”

“Important dates, I bet.”

Eren melted into a sleepy pile on the couch. Perfect, so fucking perfect in every way. Levi rubbed at his feet. Kissed his insteps. Worked his way up those smooth, exposed calves to his knees, his thighs, the edge of his boxer briefs. Eren chuckled, tongue between his teeth.

“You’re extremely affectionate tonight,” he whispered.

Levi nodded.

“I like this…”

Levi nodded again, hiding his smile on the inside of Eren’s thigh as he trailed kisses from one hip to the other, making a brief stop at the zipless fly up front. Opened his mouth a little, let the heat of his breath and open lips strike up a sweet torture there. Eren squirmed, gently. Knees shifting, fingers moving through Levi’s hair, lashes fluttering as his hips twitched up, just a little, closer, more, please, ticklish delight of…loving. Ah, mouth on his dick, there was the rich sweet smell of a man: skin, sweat, sex. Levi drifted upwards, catching Eren’s waiting mouth with a satiny smack. Eren’s arms closed immediately around his neck, body cleaving closer. He trembled.

This—just this—this was nice. No need to go further, no expectation to follow through. Just sparks of delight and dizzying desire from nerve to nerve, massaging hands, stroking fingertips, heartbeat to heartbeat and deep, slow, passionate kisses. Sharing an existence. This was fucking nice. Graze of teeth, suction of tongue, pop! of a lower lip and shivering breath as an enamored glance was hidden again by a shy duck of the head.

Levi broke away and nosed into the warmth between shoulder and ear, shuddering weakly at the trail of Eren’s knuckles up and down his neck. There, on Eren’s jaw line, he whispered:

“I know it’s a little late, but—I love you, too, by the way.”


end ch. 13


for your listening pleasure, ch xiii songlist in order:

the gift - seether
beau malheur
- emmanuel moire
lollipop (cover)
- framing hanley
wop
- j-dash
i adore you - miley cyrus
black - pearl jam (of course)

(eren wopping. that’s all. just imagine it. eren jaeger, everyone. wopping.)

Chapter Text

Shopping for Christmas presents, Eren dutifully spilled.

“So what did Carla say?”

“Your dad’s pissed, huh?”

“No, not pissed—”

“Eren, they knew it was coming.”

Mikasa…”

“No, I feel like she’s right, Armin. But it’s whatever. Carla was a little weird about it at first and then she just got all excited. Like now I’m almost the daughter she never had…?”

Eren—”

“No, no, it’s funny! Seriously, I’m amused! It’s like all these doors of common ground between us have just swung wide open because I like dick. After dinner we sat and watched ‘Fast Five’ and talked about all the reasons Paul Walker was so cute. I’m not even joking. I haven’t laughed that hard with her since that one year we collaborated to prank my dad on April Fool’s.”

“EREN—”

Mikasa wagged her head in disbelief. But Armin was practically in stitches and trying not to choke on his Cinnabon. “That’s fucking great,” he sighed, dreamily. “Can I come over and marathon shows with you guys? We can talk about Matt Bomer—” Mikasa sent him a sharp glance and Armin shrank away.

“That prank was a good one,” he changed the subject quickly, cackling around his double straws.

None of that—not telling his dad, not blushing hot as Carla stared him down, filing the facts into the appropriate places deep inside her motherly head and motherly heart, not Armin and Mikasa gawking at him over their coffee break at the mall, eagerly (and protectively) gobbling up the secondhand drama—none of it prepared him for Levi throwing his own backpack at him the day before Christmas, saying, “You brought nice clothes, right? Get changed. Come on, hurry, we have reservations at Lark with my parents in forty minutes.”

Eren almost choked on—well, dumbly, nothing.

He sat cross-legged on Levi’s apartment floor, putting together the last of his Christmas gifts for friends and family. It was carefully planned, anyway, their separation today: Armin was at his grandparents’, and Mikasa had kicked Eren and Jean out to finish her gifts, and Jean had taken the Christmas pickle from the tree and threw it at her on his way out, snickering with Eren, and Jean had gone to frantically last-minute shop (dodging Eren’s scathing disapproval) after dropping Eren off at Levi’s because Levi had gotten the day off thanks to a few interns.

And really, Eren had just been minding his own damn business. Making a mess in Levi’s living room, sure, but he understood, right? Him and the silver and blue Christmas shrub he and Erwin had unfortunately deemed celebratory enough, but whatever, they were busy grumpy old men and Eren had no right to criticize their holiday decisions. They probably went to their families’ for Christmas; they had no one to impress. Right? Well, Erwin and Petra were engaged, but really couples shouldn’t start hosting holidays in their homes until they were courthouse legit.

Look, there was the gold-trimmed bag where his presents for Mikasa were tightly stowed, and the nested boxes with Armin’s riddle of a present chain, and in his backpack which Levi had so rudely tossed was Levi’s present, and the duct-taped shoeboxes he was currently tagging with a pattern of K-STEIN K-STEIN – K-STEIN – STUPID-HEAD. Look, he had listened when Levi had told him to bring nice clothes. Look, he was a little busy at the moment—parentsreservations

Eren dropped the permanent marker and grabbed at his face, distraught. “Levi, this is happening really fucking fast!”

Levi cocked a brow, perched at the kitchen counter with his laptop and phone, checking e-mails and work things, probably. Grumpily, he reminded, like it was a getting-even: “…You told your parents. I thought you liked the dinner date thing?”

“Yeah. Dinner date. Not meet the parents! You said—to bring nice clothes because we’re doing your birthday dinner—”

“Which my parents are also joining us at. You think I really wanna do this, either? No. Look, it’s not that big of a deal. It doesn’t mean anything. I just want them to stop bugging me.”

Eren sighed. He could understand that. But— “I can’t, Levi. I have to meet my dad at Midnight Mass and then…”

“I promise I’ll have you home before Midnight Mass.”

Eren threw himself against the side of the couch in a near toddler-grade tantrum. He groaned. He beat his fists on the leather. He whined, “I’m not ready for this!”

Levi sighed. “Yeah, you are. Come on, get changed, get cleaned up. Suit and tie. Take a shower. You can use my soap.”


And thus was how Eren found himself seated stiffly across a table at an upscale restaurant on Christmas Eve, staring at his wine so maybe Mr. and Mrs. Radio Boyfriend wouldn’t see the fear in his eyes.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to meet Levi’s parents. It was just that meeting Levi’s parents meant this really was fucking real. Right? I love you, he’d accidentally said. Little late, but I love you, too, Levi had said. His name’s Levi and he treats me hella nice, he’d told his dad. He was no longer just a character making guest appearances in Levi’s life; he was part of his history now. And here he was cleaned up, hair still shower-wavy, and he really didn’t want to make a bad impression because he did have a little bit of wicked pride as significant other.

“Hi, hello, yes, nice to meet you, too, I gave your son a lap dance and we had a series of casual hookups on the couch and with sex toys and against the window before we decided we do, actually, dig each other’s fatal flaws enough to admit we’re dating, and I really hope you can’t tell I borrowed his shirt because mine got all wrinkled after I shoved it in my backpack.”

No, that probably wasn’t the best.

So Eren stayed very quiet, eyes wide, smiling, nodding, hands twisting under the table. He was a performer, wasn’t he? Why couldn’t he relax, play it cool, flip on the charm he was so very infamous for?

It doesn’t mean anything, Levi had pressured.

Which was true, probably. It wasn’t like Levi would meet his dad and Carla—not yet at least, not that he was a fortuneteller or anything—and it was really only sensible that Levi should have dinner with his parents the eve of his birthday instead of Christmas itself, to keep birthdays and holidays separate.

Sure, but all that did not repudiate that this was Eren’s first dip into the snazzy world of grownup affairs.

That was it; that was why he was so panicked. He was at dinner at a ritzy place with his older boyfriend and his older boyfriend’s parents, and under their eyes youthful bliss and kneejerk romance was not part of this equation. This was the evaluation of his potential as influential bed partner—er, life partner?—of their son. Different rules here. Different expectations. Different etiquette, different behavior.

He had to seem grownup. He had to seem good enough. He had to look the part and feel the part. He didn’t want to be judged because of the age gap. God damn it, he was dying to test Levi’s boundaries here, because it was easier to just be a little shit than be serious, but he actually really wanted to impress Levi’s parents. He’d never wanted that before. It was new and galvanizing and hey, he wasn’t going to pass up free dinner, was he?

“You’re just a baby still!”

“Mom, please. He’s not.”

Mr. Ackerman squinted at Eren, sitting rigid in thought. Then he nodded sagely and pointed his steak knife at Levi. “So how long have you two been together? Must be a while if we’re all at dinner.”

“It’s my birthday dinner, Dad. Don’t even joke that way—”

“We’ve only ever had dinner with Levi’s long-term dates,” Mrs. Ackerman explained to Eren behind her hand, like it would keep Levi from hearing.

“Just saying, Levi, it must mean something if you brought him to your birthday dinner.”

Eren cut Levi a glance, brows raised. Doesn’t mean anything, huh?

“How did you guys meet?”

“At my work,” Eren replied quickly, at about the same time that Levi grunted, “On one of my work assignments.”

Levi’s parents slid a slow, sidelong glance at their son. Eren could not interpret it.

“What do your parents think of…all this, Eren?” Mr. Ackerman prodded—and it was kind of relieving, his conversational tone, much less curious and interrogative than Eren had expected.

“Well…” Eren offered a tiny confused smile. “If you mean about me being into guys, they took it pretty well, I think.”

“You’re pretty brave. Levi didn’t—what’s it called, coming up?”

Levi ground his teeth twice, speaking through them in a curt way: “Out, Dad. Coming out.”

“He didn’t do that until he graduated college.”

“But your dad’s a psychiatrist, right?” Mrs. Ackerman butted in. “So he gets this stuff.”

“Well, he worked in clinical psychology for a while, yeah, but he lectures now at the UW.”

“Speaking of college, what are you studying?”

It was the usual pattern of questions. It felt sort of right, in an ironic way. They were building a profile of him, not probing too deeply but grazing enough of the surface to be involved. Eren was keenly conscious of that; he was very aware of the personal image he was painting. Twenty-one, UW Classics major, only child, not living with his folks, avid listener of Levi’s radio station, didn’t know there wasn’t a separate baking mix for cupcakes and cakes, enjoyed football the same as baseball or basketball, preferred dogs over cats and coffee over tea, and no, no, he didn’t mind at all spending Christmas Eve dinner with them and Levi for Levi’s birthday, really, Christmas for his family didn’t traditionally start until Mass.

Levi’s parents were graceful fifty-somethings; they didn’t smell like old people and didn’t really look like old people and their approach to meeting their son’s new boyfriend felt very typical, very traditional, very…blasé. Except—

“Do you always date older men?” Mr. Ackerman asked gruffly around his drink. Ah, that’s where Levi got that sarcastic eyebrow.

Eren shook his head, making a face.

“Well, Levi’s still a kid at heart,” Mrs. Ackerman quickly saved, beaming at her son. Levi did not seem to notice it. That, or he ignored it coldly. She went on: “He’s being good, right?”

“Oh, ah, very good.” Eren shrugged, ears burning. Awkward smile. “We had dinner at the Space Needle the other day,” he boasted. Was that what they meant? If Levi was treating him like twenty-nine year-olds were supposed to treat their young stripper boyfriends? God, it was disappointing that parents still asked such nosy questions even when you were older. Or…did it come down again to the fact that parents never really adjusted to their sons dating other sons, or daughters dating other daughters? That they weren’t sure what to ask because they couldn’t manage to wrap their minds around its surprising normalcy in the wake of the spectacle?

Levi—what about Levi? God, Eren was being selfish. The way he’d felt telling his dad about all this a few weeks ago, he could only imagine… What about Levi’s nerves? He was probably on edge, probably secretly panicking, probably—

Nope. Levi looked cool as a fucking cucumber, all nice in his nice clothes sipping nice wine and poking nice silverware at his nice entrée. At Eren’s glance, he threw that inherited brow-cock again, a silent scoff, as if to say, Don’t worry about me, I’m used to this shit, I’ve done it enough, you’re the one center-stage right now, baby.

Eren wasn’t quite sure how he felt about that—that Levi was not freaking out because Levi was used to this. How many times had he done this, then? Was that why the air felt a little thick with distrust and faked ceremony? Or was Eren really, really over-thinking it? It was just a birthday dinner Levi happened to have both his boyfriend and parents at. It didn’t mean anything like dinner with parents usually did. It was simply manifestation of their relationship, like having a song. Their song. It was… Which of those things did Eren prefer? God, this was why he’d taken a break from real dating. The rules and routines just got him so worked up. Threw him off. He couldn’t tell if Levi was in on something with his parents or if it was just an extraordinarily uncomfortable situation.

There was a long, uncertain pause after the waiter refilled some waters. The restaurant music was like elevator music. It was possibly more torturous here than in an actual elevator. Finally, Mrs. Ackerman cleared her throat and put on a huge—a genuine—smile, prompting:

“So you work in the sex industry?”

The look Levi and his father both shot her was one and the same.

Eren gawked, mouth open and rice pilaf raining off his fork as it halted sharply on the way to his tongue. Blinking a few times, he felt the heat flooding his face. Fuckfuckfuck—sex industry, Levi? Really? What the fuck had he told his parents? What—what

“Sort…of…?” Eren murmured, brow knotting above a perplexed smile as he abandoned the idea of rice pilaf and instead went for a sip of wine. His mouth was dry; the wine did not help. All eyes were on him again and they made him want to squirm like a kid desperate for a potty break. “Ah—” He was normally so okay with saying it. I strip. But he wasn’t sure at this moment if it was right or wrong or if it mattered at all and if Levi didn’t stop looking at him so impatiently, Eren was going to kick him under the table. “I’m a dancer,” he managed. “Exotic dancing.”

“Oh honey, we know you’re a stripper,” Mrs. Ackerman laughed, waving a hand. “It’s okay. The reason I’m asking is—have you read that ‘Shades of Grey’ book?”

Jesus Christ,” Levi sputtered at the exact moment his father also groaned into his wine glass, “Told you she’d bring it up. You owe me five bucks, Levi.”

Eren burst into laughter so suddenly and so loudly that a table or two turned their way in arbitrary disapproval.

All the nerves quieted. Like ice falling from the roof in the winter, the eggshell tension shattered. The air was easy to breathe. The tune around the table swiftly shifted.

“Actually, I have read it,” Eren confessed, grinning guiltily. “My friend and I made a drinking game out of it.”

“That sounds fun!”

“My other friend—she’s a waitress—okay, and this bartender we know—they made drinks themed around it.”

“Well, I’m sure it’s a required read for your line of work, right? At least for a laugh!”

“You know, Mrs. Ackerman—”

“Please, Josie.”

Ba-bump. First name basis. Damn, this was either really informal or really over the line. Eren laughed nervously. “Josie,” he corrected himself, glancing quickly to Levi out of curiosity of his reaction to that. “If you come to Heaven and Hell—the club, where I work—and mention Levi’s radio show, you could get one of those ‘Fifty Shades’ drinks half-off.”

“Did you just invite my mother to a strip club?” Levi snapped.

Mr. Ackerman shook his head, squinting at Eren. “I like you,” he muttered; it was almost threatening. He pointed, looking to Levi now. “I like this one, Levi. He’s not as gay as I imagined he’d be.”

Eren snorted. “Thank you, sir. If I had a dime for every time I heard that…”

“Capitalist, eh?”

“Well, I’d only have probably a dollar, so…”

Levi’s father found that exceedingly funny. “Screw that other guy, Levi. This one’s a keeper.”

Other guy. Like Erwin? Eren grinned. Levi rose, shaking his head. “I need a smoke,” he hissed. “Don’t have too much fun without me, you guys.”

“We will,” Levi’s mother singsonged. “You’re the party-pooper here.”

Eren glowed under Levi’s disbelieving scowl as he grabbed his jacket and headed outside. There it was, back in action, his little shit pride and wily glory. What had he been so worried about again? Geez. He and Levi’s parents were hitting it off damn well. Not even another brief mention of Erwin from Mrs. Ackerman—“I don’t know how Levi finds all you fun guys when he’s such a spoilsport, his last boyfriend was a real charmer, too…”—could ruin this success. It felt like that movie, that old movie—Wilde, with Jude Law and Stephen Fry. Dinner with daddy.

His phone buzzed with a text. It was his father. Quickly, under the table, he thumbed: yes i will meet you at mass cant wait to see u carla better be making ham not turkey tomorrow

“We’re just giving you a hard time, you know, Eren…”

“Really, we’ve been through this dinner with the parents thing so many times, it’s fun to play a few head games with him.”

“You can relax, kiddo. He dates who he dates and we love every one of them. …But seriously, half-off drinks?”


So Eren had gauged Levi’s attitude at dinner entirely wrong.

Alas, fatal flaws. Or whatever.

Levi’s parents waved good-bye from their car. They were cute. Eren waved back. Levi did not.

He sped through Christmas-encrusted Seattle, cutting yellow lights and drifting gears. The silence in the car was suffocating. Nothing Eren said from shotgun to start any sort of conversation worked; the words just hung there, rotting. They were as bad as the holiday jingles on the radio.

At the curb by Eren’s apartments, Levi threw up the parking brake and sighed, “See? I promised I’d get you home early.”

Eren did not unfasten his seatbelt. He sat, hands folded, wagging his feet under the dash. “I’m not getting out,” he announced.

“Jesus Christ, Eren, why not?”

“Are you upset or something?”

“I’ve been upset all day.”

“Well, I didn’t notice.”

Dry laugh. “You didn’t notice,” Levi echoed sarcastically, like Eren should have or something.

Maybe Eren should have been more worried about not knowing Levi well enough yet to accurately decode his unspoken emotional cues than he was about trying to figure out what the fuck had pissed him off, but it wasn’t so. “What’s wrong with you? Are you, like, embarrassed or something? Are you not happy with the way your birthday dinner went? That was really fucking unfair pressure on me so why the hell are you all bent out of shape suddenly?”

“You’re exhausting sometimes, you know that?”

“Oh, fuck, I’m sorry, Grandpa!”

Levi had his mouth open for a quick comeback, but that silenced him with an icy snap of the teeth. His eyes flashed, narrowed, jaw tightening. An ugly misty rain was beginning to fall; the streets would be awful in the morning and everyone knew how Seattle so loved to salt the roads.

“What?” Eren barked, fidgeting a little. “What now?”

“I’m dropping you off.”

“No, you’re not. I’m not getting out.”

Why not?”

“Let’s just drive around or something! Look, it’ll officially be your birthday in about three hours and you don’t even want to celebrate?”

“I celebrated tonight. Everyone’s out of town, Eren. It’s Christmas.”

“Oh my God, Scroooooge—”

Levi yanked down the brake and jerked the car back into motion. “Fine. Fine. Where do you want to go, then, brat?”

“Anywhere, just drive.”

You’re driving me crazy—”

“Why? Why, because I had a fucking fun time with your family tonight? Your mom’s right, you’re a party-pooper!”

“I’m so sorry I’m not fun like you, jackass. Sorry I don’t dance around Seattle for cash and bum around college undeclared, or play up the daddy issues and the enfant terrible and get away with everything I want.”

Aaaauuuugh!” Eren growled into his hands, clutching at his head in frustration and then burying his face into his fingers. He reached over and cranked the volume on Angels We Have Heard on High. Levi swatted his hand away and punched to a preset station instead. The carol switched violently to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s A Mad Russian’s Christmas.

About the time glum puddles of light from N 36th St washed in and out of the car, as Eren sulked at the passenger side with arms crossed and Levi sulked against the driver’s window, drifting on neutral, Eren mumbled, “You know, for being the host of a radio show about a bunch of crazy sex and dating exploits, you really aren’t that spontaneous and daring.”

Levi snorted. “What do you mean?”

“Turn here,” Eren pointed limply. Levi, surprisingly, obeyed. Up the hill they went towards the bridge. “I mean… If I asked you to go with me to an actual club one night, to party—you probably wouldn’t.”

“I’m not into that stuff anymore. I’ve done my share of it. I’ve outgrown it.”

“If I said we should sneak into Roosevelt’s football field and smoke a bowl, you’d say that sounds stupid.”

“It does. What’s the point? You could get arrested.”

Eren sat sadly in the quiet as Levi parked under the bridge, right in front of the Fremont troll. Luckily, on a miserable Christmas Eve like this, the landmark was all theirs.

“Crazy kid stuff,” Levi muttered. “That’s what you mean. You’re saying I don’t do crazy kid stuff anymore. You’re right. It’s fucking boring.”

“…Gee, thanks.”

“I’m sorry, Eren. I’ve grown up.”

“Oh what, and I’m an immature idiot? You’re pissing me off now!”

Levi threw his hands in the air; in the tight quarters of the car, it was a startling movement. “Eren, I’M OLD! I’m thirty years old in less than three hours!”

Ohhh, that’s what this was about.

His birthday.

The big 3-0. The contrast of their ages and stages in life. It already sucked to have a birthday the one day of the year that nobody could rightfully join in on because it was already a major holiday; add all those quiet personal nightmares and the dinner with his parents highlighting muted worries and Eren being unavailable for birthday sex (and cuddles) because family loyalty beckoned… No fucking wonder.

“Yeah, well, you’re sure as hell acting like it,” Eren fumed, stubbornly.

“Oh my God, you’re so young and stupid! It’s aggravating! You’re so—so unaware—why the fuck are you with me? What the fuck do we have in common?”

“You’re not serious, are you?”

“I’m fucking serious.”

Ugh, you OLD MAN!

I AM an old man! Get that through your head, Eren—I’M FUCKING THIRTY! YOU’RE DATING A THIRTY-YEAR-OLD!

YOU DON’T HAVE TO ACT LIKE A THIRTY-YEAR-OLD—”

WHAT DO YOU SUGGEST, I ACT LIKE YOU?

YES! ACT LIKE A CRAZY KID!

THAT’S STUPID!

DO IT!

FINE. I’LL ACT LIKE A STUPID FUCKING KID. READY?

They were screaming at each other. It was the almost comical kind of screaming where the volume keeps rising until you stop and wonder if you’re just purging or actually that furious. Levi jabbed another radio button—classic rock station. Poor late-night DJs there, wasting away Christmas Eve. But—

What fucking magic was that, that Danzig’s Mother should start ripping through the brief ceasefire in the front of the car.

Levi gawked, like someone had slapped him. A chill zipped down Eren’s spine. The meaning of this song—the meaning of this moment, tied to a moment in the past by the red string of fate (or maybe just weird coincidence).

I’m old. Connection to youth. Doesn’t mean anything

Eren cranked the volume again. He pushed on Levi’s arm, saying, “Do it, Levi. Act like a stupid kid.”

Levi practically kicked open the car door. He left it ajar; the cold air bit at Eren. I’ll act like a stupid fucking kid. He meant acting like Eren. There was no denying that as he strutted, spitefully, into the headlights of his car and threw down his jacket. He was…going to dance. Like the night Eren had tried to teach him how to strip, Levi was putting on a show for him, to the very song he’d lost his virginity to with Erwin Smith.

In the swell of car lights, as the song rattled under the bridge, Levi danced.

Motherrrrr

Crouched, came up out of the crouch, slapped his hands on his knees to drag them slowly, purposefully, up his legs to his stomach. Little flash of skin there under his knuckles. Hips rolling, fluidly. His hands slithered up his body. Behind his head. He turned. He swung his body. Eren had to climb up and sit on the middle console to see him bend forward, beyond the hood of the idling car, nice pants smooth across his tight ass.

Can you keep them in the dark for life? Can you hide them from the waiting world?

It was an angry, angry dance. It was sharp and methodical and unemotional, like a Nazi march. It was…heart-breaking, not because it was bad—oh, it wasn’t bad at all. Eren’s heart hurt. Wasn’t it peculiar how loving someone was painful, sometimes? Like something inside you was changing with it, accommodating it, carving out a little space for the love to live?

Oh, motherrrrrr

With a double th-thud, Levi threw his hands on the hood of his car. Eren jumped. Through the smudged windshield, Levi’s eyes flashed. It was a fierce feline aching look that sharpened his face. Eren hugged his knees to his chest and watched as, like a cat, Levi crawled up the slope of the hood—just a bit, a tiny bit, and as the song faded out he lifted one hand and gestured with two fingers for Eren to come out with him.

It was cold. It was damp. It was late. It was dark and it was not exactly where Eren thought he’d be two hours and some before Midnight Mass—under the shadows of the Fremont troll, that is. However, Levi’s arms were exactly where he wanted to be then, and it was into Levi’s arms he stumbled, skirting one headlight and colliding with him as he slid off his car. Sat there, all Grease cool cat, letting Eren throw his arms around him and bury his face against his shoulder. Swaying with the impact, his hands planted firmly at Eren’s hips; his mouth was chilled but soft, hungry, nudge of tongue, sweet, sweet kisses of need and apology. He panted. He had a thin layer of end-of-day jaw fuzz and it tickled.

“I’m sorry—okay?”

“No, Eren…”

“Don’t. It’s okay. I know this birthday is hard for you. I know everyone’s made you feel like shit lately. You’re not a grandpa. You’re kind of a Scrooge, but you’re not a party-pooper. I don’t think you’re an old man. I don’t think you’re boring. Are you kidding me? The stuff we do together? You’re not boring. I was just mad.”

“I’m not very good at dancing, either…”

“Bullshit!” Eren laughed, covering the slope of Levi’s neck in kisses because it was warmer there than against his nose. “Fuck Midnight Mass. I want you. I wanna go home with you and do it.”

“Classy, baby.” But there it was, tentative, a dry chuckle on the back of his tongue. Levi heaved a sigh. “Oh God, they’re playing Asia now… Come on, let’s go. I’ve gotta get you back. I don’t want your dad worried.”

“No, see—saying, ‘Your dad will kill me…’ sounds a lot less old and responsible. Right now we’re supposed to be young and irresponsible.”

Levi smiled softly under Eren’s fingertips, shaking his head weakly. “Why don’t we just say we even each other out, and leave it at that?” He paused, arms tightening around Eren’s waist. “…This was actually kind of fun, though. So thank you.”

Eren held him in place to kiss his forehead, teeth chattering now. “Happy birthday,” he mumbled. “And Merry Christmas or something.”

“We used to joke, ‘Merry Birthday.’”

“Well, Merry Birthday, Levi.” The words almost snagged in his throat on a branch of second thought, but he gave it a shot. “…I love you? I mean, are we supposed to say that regularly now? Or…?”

Levi’s hand brushed along the small of his back, tapped his ass affectionately, then slid down his thigh and away as they parted to get back in the car. “No. It’s not like an end-of-date kiss or anything. You say it when you say it, that’s all. Damn, you’ll have a lot to confess before Midnight Mass, huh?”

“Oh, Levi,” Eren sighed, shaking his head, rolling his eyes. “You know how many times I’ve seen the priest incognito at Heaven and Hell? Pretty sure God and I got a deal after that.”

“That’s fucked up.”

“It’s very fucked up.”

He gave Eren’s knee a loving squeeze before Eren got out at his apartments. “Merry Christmas,” he whispered, and Eren watched from the third-floor breezeway until Levi had rolled off and disappeared around the corner.

Eren lingered. He leaned against the rail of the breezeway, knuckles dusting his lips as if the cold night air might suck the feel of Levi’s kisses right away from him. He didn’t want that. He didn’t want that at all.

Well, this was real, then.

His dad knew, Carla knew, he’d met Levi’s parents, they were officially comfortable enough to fight with each other, Eren had even used his soap in the shower so now he smelled like him—and he’d also forgotten the Christmas gifts for his friends in the back of Levi’s car, so that sucked but maybe he could—oh God, here it was—maybe he could have his dad run him by Levi’s place to get them on the way home from church. Another point for the real factor. In fact, maybe that was a great idea. Maybe that was killing two birds with one stone—hey, Dad, Carla, this is the guy I’m dating, okay, got the presents, let’s g-t-f-outta here.

It never gets real with you, does it?

Oh. Eren smiled against his hand. He felt stupid. He felt giddy. He felt head over fucking heels crushing hardcore. Oh, this was real. About as real as Mikasa looking for hickeys when she finally unlocked the door and let him in. She was all ready for church, too, nice black dress and barrettes in her hair that matched her scarf. Eren wound her close in one arm to kiss her cheek happily. Did he smell like wine? Rain? Making out in the dust under Aurora Bridge? Eh. Didn’t matter.

“Great,” Mikasa sighed, trying to fix his hair for him. “I know that look. You’re in fucking deep with this one, Eren. You’re going to get your little heart broken if you keep this up.”


end ch. 14

Chapter Text

Thank God the major holidays were almost through. After getting drunk and maybe scoring some stripper ass at the New Year’s bash at Heaven and Hell, it’d be back to regularly-scheduled programming.

Not that Jean really minded the holidays themselves. They were, at the very least, predictable. Armin went to his grandparents’; Eren and Mikasa went to Dr. Jäger’s; Jean sat around the apartment by himself from sunrise until about nine AM, when he figured everyone over the age of ten was finally getting up and starting their holiday morning rituals, but eventually as always it was off to Dr. Jäger’s as charity case where Eren’s stepmom shoved hot chocolate at him and Dr. Jäger insisted he sit in his big leather armchair as gifts were opened. Eren teased him like a little brother and Mikasa sat suspiciously close to him, doing that comforting thing with her fingers, and his hair, and Jean would sneak out on the back porch with Eren for a smoke or two to get rid of the last of the bad feelings and everything would be fine. They pigged out on Carla’s Christmas dinner, they watched a show or something, they napped off Christmas dinner, and then they met Armin back at home to exchange gifts in their friend circle.

No, it wasn’t the holidays themselves. He loved the holidays. He really enjoyed the look on Mikasa’s face when she saw the hella expensive perfume he’d bought her. He liked Eren’s stammering shock when he realized Jean had somehow, through the warehouse where he worked, gotten his hands on something or another that Eren really wanted but which was also currently out-of-stock everywhere. Armin’s excitement at the authentic map of Ancient Greece Jean had found was absolutely precious. Dr. Jäger was overly pleasant, as always, and Carla was hilarious like childless moms always were.

It was the feeling of still being on the outside that got to Jean every time, usually heightened by that awful panic-attack stretch of Christmas morning between sunrise and presents where he either called his mom or stopped by to see her if his stepdad was out.

“Jeanny boy!” his mom would singsong, in that tired way of hers, the tired way that never failed to elicit a sharp stab right in Jean’s heart.

“You sound like shit, Mom,” he’d say. “Mom, you gonna leave his ass yet, or not?”

“Honey, it breaks my heart you and Allen don’t get along. All I want is the family together for Christmas. That’s all I ask for every year…”

“Mom, Allen kicked me out, remember?”

“It’s just that you two are very different people and don’t see eye-to-eye, but maybe if you try, he’ll try, too.”

Mom, he’s a narcissistic manipulative maniac.”

“Now see, this is just childish… You both say such mean things about each other behind each other’s backs…”

“Mom, he kicked me out the day I turned eighteen. Because I’m—”

“Jean, at least come over for breakfast. You know, how I put the food coloring in the omelets—red, and green. Jean, you know Allen only wanted you to follow his rules. You’d think a woman would love this, two men fighting over her. But I don’t. I miss you. I—oh, shit, Allen’s up. I gotta go, baby. Merry Christmas!”

Telephone connection, closed.

Technically, it was still a holiday. Boxing Day, in England, and up in Canada.

Sarette was beautiful.

Maybe it was just the appeal of something exotic, something otherwise unknown to the day-to-day routine, but she was really beautiful, Jean thought, brow knotting slowly, deeply, over a smile that felt frozen on his mouth.

Lovely blonde hair, smooth shoulders and big French eyes, a lyrical twist and turn to her words as she petted Marco’s hand or crossed one leg over the other, looking around in wonderment of her American holiday. The U-Village Starbucks was still weighed down by red velvet ribbons and tiny Christmas decorations. It would take a good week or so for the city to get it all down, anyway. Funny, how fast Christmas died when it took three months to arrive.

“Marco’s family spoiled me,” Sarette cooed, giggling around her latte. “I felt like a princess.”

Jean’s smile gave another twitch. Gag. “Cute. I bet they were just sooo excited to meet you, Marco’s first girlfriend.”

Sarette raised a brow.

Marco stared at Jean from the other side of the café table, a look on his face like Jean should have known better than to say that.

“First girlfriend?” Sarette asked. “Marco, you said you had a girlfriend before me. Here, before you went to abroad.”

Went abroad, Jean corrected her in his mind. No ‘to’. Jesus Christ.

Marco laughed, shaking his head. “Jean means my first serious girlfriend. High school girlfriends don’t count, right?”

Jean shook his head very slowly, playing with the edge of his coffee lid with a restless thumb. No, Jean meant what he said. Jean meant Marco’s first girlfriend because Marco was fucking gay until he went abroad because Jesus told him to.

Jean cleared his throat. “So when do you guys fly back?”

“The first of January,” Marco replied, and it made Jean fucking sick how he wouldn’t take his arm off Sarette’s side. “Sarette’s leaving tomorrow to stay with a cousin up in Vancouver for New Year’s, but we’re leaving right after.”

What did it feel like, Marco? What did it feel like to dump your first kiss, your first date, your first dance, your first home-run sex, your first Valentine’s Day, your first everything—for school abroad as a straight boy? What did it feel like, coming back to flaunt your pretty French girlfriend like some kind of war honor, some trophy of valor, some proof of your surety? Did you feel guilty? Did you feel uncomfortable? Did you question your heterosexuality or was it all really just a phase like your parents fucking convinced you before shipping you off to Europe?

God damn it, Jean couldn’t even hate him.

His big, lively eyes, the constellation of freckles he knew so well, that perfect smile and the graceful self-confidence with which he spoke, and gestured, and moved. Happy. He possessed some inner happiness Jean was so painfully jealous of. But Jean was trying very hard to be supportive of him as a lifetime friend, instead of suspicious of any glance, any shift, any twitch of expression that could be interpreted as self-doubt. God, they were gross. And not the good kind of gross. They were like forced gross. They were like the sugary-sweet utterly unrealistic lovebirds you immediately kicked out of your nuclear friends gross. The already-planning-a-wedding and play-by-the-rules and only-do-it-missionary-style gross.

But maybe Marco really had gone through a phase.

Maybe Marco really was straight now.

Maybe school and Jesus and being gross with Sarette was what Marco wanted.

“You’re cute,” Sarette said, smirking a spring break smirk at Jean across the table, leaning harder into Marco’s arm as if conspiring with him about Jean’s relative cuteness. “You’re like the bad boy type, aren’t you? Look at your leather aviator. You’re like… You’re the type of boy any one of my girlfriends would cheat on their boyfriends with during holiday. Fortunately, though, I love my Marco Polo.”

“Sarette!” Marco cried, humiliated but laughing at his dumb nickname. Because it was. It was a dumb fucking nickname, Marco, what the fuck are you doing with this girl.

Jean had a right to judge, right? It was the important ex clause. He had a right to judge any and every of Marco’s subsequent partners. And Marco, baby, her hair was pretty, her eyes were trouble, her body was bangin’, but she was not a keeper and Jean felt worse for Marco than for himself with this apparent replacement.

“Anyway…” Jean flashed Marco another smile. He was getting better at squashing down the rotten feeling inside, the weird tangle of insecurities and reopened wounds. “Tell me all about class. The picture you sent me… You could really see the Eiffel Tower, holy shit!”


Eren looked up as quickly and attentively as a dog left home alone too long. Stricken by momentary sensitivity, he scrambled to turn the radio down before looking to Jean again, eyes wide.

Jean heaved a sigh, slamming the front door shut behind him. “You don’t have to turn down the radio like we don’t know why you’re listening anymore.” He hung up his coat, glancing over his shoulder. Eren was still staring. “Where’s Armin and Mikasa?”

“Store.”

“Fuck, I forgot to tell them—”

“More Windex? I told them.”

“…Thanks.”

Silence. Tiny bit of background buzz from the radio. Commercials for used-car lots. Commercials for McDonald’s. Commercials for home security systems and diamond retailers, what with February so close and all. And Eren just kept fucking staring, that quiet knowing stare of his, that stare of someone who knew Jean inside and out. Knew where Jean had just been. Knew what the holidays did to Jean. Knew that Jean was not about to forfeit the stare-down even though he could feel the emotion boiling up in the back of his throat and crystallizing hot and thick, stinging the backs of his eyes—

Jean’s shoulders drooped. He felt small and miserable like a little kid. He mumbled, pathetically, “I need a hug.”

Eren shuffled around the side of the couch, facial feedback theory registering a very genuine frown. He sought out Jean’s glance again with those big eyes of his, God, eyes like baby worlds, eyes like windows into some safe place. Jean avoided them. Eren’s arms snaked around his sides and Jean crumpled down against his shoulder, letting Eren hold him for a second. No homo. Friendship. Jean pitied the men who felt hugging each other was not worth their reputation, because seriously, sometimes it was just all that worked. Oxytocin, and all that jazz, right?

“Was it that bad?” Eren muttered.

“They’re disgustingly cute. Like a bad romance movie.”

“Gross.”

“Marco’s doing good, though. He seems really happy.”

“You gonna hang out before they go back?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. It’d be nice. It’s not like I don’t still want to be his friend.”

Jean returned the hug. God, Eren… The way he felt was so comfortable. The shape of his body, so warm and snug in Jean’s arms. Marco was taller than him; Eren, however, fit perfectly against his chest. He tightened the embrace, hit by a wave of something desperate. He was all fucked up inside, now. All torn up, all… Eren’s hair was so soft, in his fingers as he cradled his skull in his palm, practically clinging to him. To memory. To familiarity. To a happier place, one that hadn’t been as cruelly ripped away from him. Eren drove him fucking nuts in so many ways, but Eren was still there for him. Eren didn’t use the knife of It was a phase to cut deep. Eren was honest and Eren was—Eren smelled different. He smelled like the new guy he was macking on. The new guy who was holding him like this, who he was holding like this.

“I’m sorry I’m a mess,” Jean mumbled.

“We’re all fucking messes!” Eren laughed, shrugging out of the embrace. “Are you hungry yet? We were thinking pizza for dinner.”

“Mm… Pizza.”

“Hey, you’re still coming to the New Year’s thing to see me and Armin, right?”

“I guess so.”

“See, there’s the old bullshit charm.”

Jean smiled faintly, shaking his head.

“Jean, we’re gonna get you laid this New Year’s. For real this time. I solemnly swear it.” Eren paused, cutting Jean a secret glance like he fully expected him to say, And if you break your oath, you owe me a night in bed to compensate. And maybe a few months ago, Jean would have said it. Would have used it. Would have sprung at the chance to taste the old flame of eros again, leftover smitten. But he was a little less selfish and codependent lately, thank you very much. And he was tired of Eren not getting it.

“Sounds good to me, buddy,” Jean said instead, flopping down on the couch. “So, you’ve been keeping Mikasa and Armin up-to-date on your adventures in old man land, how come I haven’t heard any new gossip?”

Eren was blushing. Good God, he was serious. Jean was, all things considered, happy for him. Really, he was. If he wasn’t, what kind of friend would he be? Certainly not the kind of friend who sat and listened to all Eren caught him up with. (But he was. And he did. Contrary to popular belief, he was not a total loser.)


Jean got laid before New Year’s, actually. It was awful and it was necessary.

December 30th. Four-ish days after coffee with Marco and Sarette.

“I’m bored at home alone,” Marco explained when Jean let him in, laughing his contagious little laugh and looking around for a place to hang his coat and scarf. “My parents are back at work and Sarette’s still at her cousin’s…”

They sat and talked about how much everything had changed since Marco had first left.

They sat in silence for a moment, ruminating on it all. And then with the snap of some secret design, they jumped up, threw on their coats again, and decided to go see how much everything had changed.

Laughing. Laughing like they used to. Talking over each other like they used to. Finishing each other’s sentences like they used to. Bopping to the mix CDs in Jean’s Mazda like they used to.

Jean drove by Roosevelt High, where they’d all gone together and graduated together. Marco and Bertolt, coming in from Kirkland SDA; everyone else, migrating from Eckstein. In the halls of Roosevelt, Jean and Eren had wasted most of freshman year with fistfights, stupid boy machismo contests. Sophomore year had been the year of clubs and sports teams. Junior year was the year of Breakfast Club rebellion. Skipping pep rallies, bullshitting homework, tagging bathroom stall walls. Mikasa shot Jean down; Armin and Eren shared bi-curious kisses and queer awakenings; Reiner and Conny smoked weed in the locker room; Bert won track and field achievements; Annie dated Reiner; Annie dated Bert; Marco asked Jean if he wanted to be his boyfriend and Jean said, “Sure,” like there was nothing weird about it. Senioritis had lasted a year. It felt like that Eve 6 song. Tomorrow’s gonna come too soon…

They drove past old haunts and remembered places. They stopped to walk around Ravenna Park, hands shoved in their pockets, and talked about how weird it was that life changed so much but streets and street signs and street lights—they all stayed the same.

It was biting cold outside.

Marco took a deep breath of the crisp, purified Northwest breeze. He smiled distantly, lashes lowered. He hummed, “I miss it, you know. I miss being here. But it’s so amazing over there… It’s like a dream.”

“I’d love to do the time abroad for some art history credits,” Jean mumbled.

Back home, it was just the two of them.

Eren and Armin were at the gym. Mikasa was at work.

Nobody around to keep them from making out on the couch in the raw gray light of a winter sunset.

Take them by the shoulders, by the hand, pull them gently away from each other and say, “This is not a good idea. This is quite the ironic fuck-up.” Nobody to keep them in line and at a safe distance from the waters of romantic rebound.

It was totally, wholly, completely, honest to God an accident.

They were on the couch, just chatting. Comparing life experiences. Marco was so close. His elbow was propped on Jean’s side. His eyes were eating Jean up. His smile was the same flirty smile from before, the same open radiant warmth. God, his freckles. God, his long lashes. That little wave of his hair off his forehead.

There was a brief pause in conversation; there was prolonged eye contact. Dangerous, dangerous thing—eye contact. And then like a string wound too tight, the tension snapped and wholesome self-restraint went crumbling into dust. They slammed together and into wild kisses. Impatient, hungry kisses. Hot, open-mouthed, prying tongue, sticky hands, rolling body, bruising teeth, desperate kisses, needy kisses. Kisses of pent-up desire, kisses of repressed feelings, kisses of sexual frustration and lack of closure in the wake of a brutally civilized breakup.

Jean, I… God, I don’t want to upset you, but—

But you’re going to.

Jean, I’m not saying I don’t love you, but—not…like THAT. Jean, it’s wrong. Jean, I’m getting baptized in two weeks. Jean, I… It was a phase. You’re my best friend, but it was a phase. I’m not gay. I was confused.

Jean had cried. Jean had flinched at the overhead passing of any and every plane for about two months after Marco went abroad, resenting them like it was their fault Marco had gotten aboard one at all. Jean had pretended not to care first; then he’d been enraged; and then depressed; and then in denial; and then had come Eren and he’d been happy for a while, a long while, not long enough.

In the empty apartment, as the last of the sunset died and left them in watching shadows, Jean jerked away. He hissed, “Marco, you have a girlfriend.”

“Jean, shh—”

“Marco, I thought you were straight.”

Marco looked so wounded. His eyes were so sad. But they were not sad for himself. No, they were sad for Jean. Like Jean was missing some piece of a greater puzzle. Kitchen light falling on just half his face, leaving the other side in darkness, he implored, “Jean… Please don’t mess me up any more than I already am, being back here at all. It’s my own crap to deal with. Just, sometimes… Sometimes there’s nothing but the right here, right now. And right here, right now, I want you…”

Damn, Marco Polo.

Here Jean was a whole violent mix of feelings—regret, guilt, confusion, relief, bliss, excitement. Did Marco do this with other boys over there in Paris? Or was this simply a home-for-the-holidays rendezvous? Jean didn’t want to analyze it. He didn’t want to complicate it. A pall of finality and conclusion hung over this beautiful moment and he didn’t want to look at it just yet. Eat that, Sarette. Eat that, parents and phases. Marco had gone straight and gone abroad and now he was back and Frenching Jean like he’d never Frenched before. (Puns.)

Coffee with Sarette… That had been a mockery of reunion.

This was reunion. Jean had no qualms. He didn’t care about Sarette or if Sarette ever found out. And this reunion was bittersweet and it was sinfully sweet and it was both right and wrong in ringing concurrence like a musical accompaniment in minor key. It was like flipping through a photo-album of over-exposed pictures, hot pinkish-orange smudge of fingers at the corner of the flash. Times, gone. Feelings, stored. Hands, down the pants—

Jesus, Marco!”

“Ah—w-what?”

Jean chuckled; Marco shuddered at the sound. Nice little tent there in the front of his jeans. At the practiced brush of Jean’s thumb there was already the sticky trail of pre-cum. Oh, Marco. Oh, did you really believe yourself when you decided it was a phase? Oh, Marco, you were going to have a lot of confessing to do after this—oh wait, right, Adventist, not Catholic.

What a fucking plot twist this was, the born-again straight riding his ex-boyfriend on the couch over winter break back in the States.

But it…wasn’t the same.

Running his thumb over lashes, over freckles, over parted lips and a rosary of sighs, it was like going through the motions, all sentiment and logic completely divorced.

It was sort of…weird.

As much as he’d ever fantasized before about Marco coming home and running right back into his arms, this…was not at all what he’d wanted. This was laughable, almost. In fact, now that he’d finally gotten it, he sort of regretted it. It felt forced. It felt pointless. It hit Jean then, cold and disappointing, that it wasn’t the loss of Marco that had been torturing him.

It was the feeling of being unwanted that haunted him.

His dad had left him and his mom, back when he was eight. His stepdad had given him the boot the day he turned half-legal. Marco had left him to figure himself out, whatever good that had done him. Eren had decided to give his feelings and comfort levels a big fat Fuck You and start stripping. And now that he was dating that radio guy, he really didn’t even give Jean a second thought. God, even back in junior high, Mikasa had rejected him, too, and—

And how much longer was he going to let that pathetic, miserable crutch keep dragging him down?

No one wants me.

I’m not enough.

Fuck this, he was done wallowing in self-pity. This was a breaking point. This was the crux of it all and it was also the renewal of self. Like those stupid Claritin commercials that started out foggy and ended bright and clear and colorful.

Things changed now.

Jean wasn’t sure why he held out a little hope; it was exhausting and he didn’t care. “When are you coming back to the UW?” he asked. “Fall 2014?”

Marco was very, very quiet.

For all Jean knew, he could have been seized by the guilt of what they’d just done. Marco wasn’t a heartless person. He wasn’t selfish. He was…confused, at most. He’d confused himself beyond outside help at this point.

Maybe Jean felt the most guilt. Surely he was at fault; he was to blame. If he’d just stopped Marco, if he’d just said No

“I think I’m extending my session.” Marco finally spoke, in a low, careful tone, back turned to Jean. He could connect the freckles on his shoulders. He wanted to kiss him. He didn’t want to want to kiss him. There was nothing there for him, nothing but shame and failure.

“…What?” Jean grunted, as if he really couldn’t connect those dots.

Marco shrugged his shirt back on, touched the hickeys Jean had left on his neck. Shit. “…I want to transfer completely. I want to continue abroad for the rest of my major. I just…” He turned, roughly, and it wasn’t the shine of forbidden love in his eyes, just the gleam of being afraid of himself. “This was our last hurrah, Jean. I had to get it out of my system. It was hard, really hard, leaving you. Leaving everyone. But this isn’t me anymore. I… For a long time, over there, I thought about you non-stop. It was torture. I’d miss you, I’d dream about you, I’d touch myself thinking about you, and then I’d feel so shitty… I prayed a lot. And then I met Sarette. I’m so happy with Sarette. Jean, I’m in a different chapter of my life. I’m not saying I regret anything, or hated what we had, but… It’s what we had. I got it out of my system. I’m done. I found myself over there and I’m happy.”

That… That was an incredible blow.

(Okay, that bit about Marco masturbating to thoughts of him was mildly redeeming, but still.)

But Jean had seen it coming and his new understanding of the entire situation softened the shock.

“I’m sorry, Jean.”

Jean swallowed hard. “As long as I’m not the bad guy,” he countered, the ghost of a smile trying to claw its way across his mouth. He wanted Marco to go. He was trying really hard not to despise himself for even giving in in the first place. He was a romantic, deep down. Honestly. He also had a lot of inner cobwebs to clear out, he saw now, and he needed to do it alone.

Marco smiled, the most sensitive, forgiving smile Jean had ever seen. There were the tears. Jean knew the look of Marco trying not to cry. That was that look. It was nice to see. “Neither of us are the bad guy, Jean. It just…is what it is.” He cleared his throat, voice thickening. Squeezed Jean’s hand. Jean almost pulled away. “I went to Europe to find myself, remember?”

Yeah, Jean remembered. He remembered quite well. It had really, really sucked to think you were absolutely in love with someone and then they turned around and said, Never mind. But it wasn’t Jean’s responsibility to figure shit out for Marco. He’d be damned if he was going to be some holiday booty call like Sarette talked about.

“We should grab coffee before I go. Hang out one more time.”

“Yeah! Sure. Of course.”

They both knew it wasn’t going to happen.

The good-bye hug at the apartment door was a little too long, a little too empty.

Watching him go, Jean was in a sort of daze. He felt shocked, actually. His chest ached in a sick, sad way, but… This was an eye-opening sort of heartbreak.

He and Marco were done.

That was what he felt. Not loss, not desperation, not longing. He just felt done. Relieved. Ready to let go. Hanging on Marco’s every word, every breath, just wasn’t his style anymore. And that was… That was okay.

That was okay.

How long had they all been telling him, in their own ways—Mikasa, Armin, Eren—Jean, you’re more than that.

Man, they were going to kill him when they found out, too.


end ch. 15

 

 

 

Chapter Text

@1029theex retweeted @jaegerrbombb, Dec. 31 5:47 PM

seatown u better be heading down to @clubheavenhell to ring in the NEW YEAR!!

@1029theex retweeted @jaegerrbombb, Dec. 31 5:49 PM

sharing the stage w/ special guest miss candie apple hailing from SAPPHIRE in VEGAS

@1029theex favorited @jaegerrbombb, Dec. 31 5:53 PM

hey im pretty good at this publicity stuff huh?

It was a short shift.

Six PM to ten PM—but it was a packed Tuesday, New Year’s Eve, and Eren broke three hundred in tips even as a club regular and with Candie Apple in town. Not bad, baby.

That was the funny thing about stripping: everyone thought it was some semi-glorious goldmine.

Really, it was not.

Especially not when you stayed with a club for more than six months. People got used to you. People wanted the next big thing. People didn’t want to be recognized (for the most part). Every now and then Eren and a few of his work friends hit other clubs—now that, that was where he struck gold. New face, new body, new moves, new crowd, one fucking grand in a weekend easy. After that? Hell no. No, a typical night was anywhere from one-fifty to two-fifty stuck in his shorts. Add that up three to five nights, he could make anywhere from four to twelve hundred in a week. Predictable, with weird outliers, but not reliable. Good enough for a guy with a college fund from daddy and about a penny in financial aid.

Free dance music pounded through the crowd. Ain’t a party without me… A party without me… Some of the cocktail waitresses donned silly New Year’s hats, popping champagne for this table and that. Mikasa wore leftover Mardi Gras beads. The few television screens by the bar were tuned in to Time Square. Amateurs slithered in ribbons of light to Morandi’s Colors and backstage, Armin convinced Eren to join him Harlem shaking with Jonah and Mina and Thomas for Ymir’s vine. Jean turned down the offer to take Hitch’s phone number so Eren tried to get him Candie Apple’s instead. Candie Apple worked the pole to Beyoncé; judging by the cheers and whistles, girls really did run the world. Keith handpicked three of his boys and three of his girls to pull from the audience for a sexy musical chairs competition and the winner’s jackpot was a rotating six-person lap dance on stage. It felt very Cell Block Tango—to Eren, at least, who, like with Halloweenie, was just thrilled to be considered one of Keith’s bests.

Bite into me harder, sink your teeth into my flesh, pass the test, taste the flesh…

#NewYears at Heaven and Hell, baby. It was a sinful circus.

But Eren could not wait to pound a glass of water backstage, stumble around the strewn costumes and clothes counting, organizing his tips, and get the hell outta Dodge because he had elsewhere to be for the real midnight countdown.

“What are you getting all snazzified for?” Hitch teased, with her stoner grin and smoky eye shadow. She had her hair in a ponytail tonight; she popped her gum like Mikasa would cut a bitch for. She was all stems in those booty athletics and Eren knew she totally would have slept with Jean if he’d given in to it, but Eren kind of didn’t blame Jean for not digging her. Personality mattered, too, after all.

Bass thudded from out in the club. Turn down for WHAT? Turn down for WHAT? layering like ocean tides with Playas wanna play, ballers wanna ball, rollers wanna roll

Eren blushed, kind of embarrassed how he was acting a total girl in front of the mirror—fixing his hair, examining the angles of his expressions, scrubbing at glitter on the bridge of his nose, inspecting his outfit again and again like an obsessive-compulsive with moderately crucial rituals.

“A party,” he confessed, shoving his cash in his wallet and jumping up from the pillows in front of the mirrors. “I don’t smell like sweat and money, do I?”

“No, you smell like fifty-dollar cologne.”

“Good. Because that’s what I’m wearing.”

“Peace, cabana boy.”

“Ha! See you.”

Kiss to Armin’s cheek, kiss to Mikasa’s cheek, shot across the bar with Ymir like tradition required, less of a bro hug and more of a brotherly hug when Jean dropped him off outside the Madison Park condo where a New Year’s party was lighting up the night from open windows. What else were interns good for but using to keep the blogs and Twitter feed rolling on holidays when those with seniority really just wanted to get drunk and have fun together?

“I’m sorry we didn’t get you laid, again!” Eren cried over the late-night wind, stooping down from the curb and holding Jean’s passenger door open.

Jean shrugged, good-naturedly. Laughed, waved him away. “It’s no big deal. I’m heading back to keep Mikasa and Armin company. Have fun, Eren—be good, I guess?”

“Oh, hey—I’m getting my car fixed next week.”

“Thank God, I’m so fucking done with playing taxi.”

“Happy New Year’s!”

“You better fucking text me at midnight. You’re a failure of a friend if you don’t. No mass texts, either.”

“Send me a picture with everyone!”

“Go get shitfaced with your boyfriend.”

Eren winked and slammed the door, sprinting up the stacked-stone stairs towards the glowing condo with his hands in his pockets as Jean revved his engine and pulled away from the sloping curb.


It was practically an unofficial private 102.9 New Year’s party, with almost half the station’s jockeys there all cleaned-up and toting significant others in one hand, Belgian DeuS in the other. Levi had always wondered how intimidating or interesting it was to outsiders to see them all out of work character—er, to hear them all out of work character. Did they match their voices? Did they match their spunk? Was it offsetting to see the lot of them in button-downs and mini-dresses and party shoes, after they talked Seattle ears off about blowing chunks in the gutter outside some rock concert, having sex in crazy places, interviewing up-and-coming bands, all the hottest updates on the pop culture and medical marijuana front?

Really they were just a bunch of glorified dorks who liked any opportunity to get dressed up and drink together. Could Eren tell?

No, Levi could see Eren was all sorts of on tonight, somewhere between awe and deference and a mite of what he’d offhandedly called significant other pride the other day—that mildly nervous but cool and casual state where a young guy hoped to impress strangers but most of all impress his date by impressing those strangers.

He didn’t really have to try, though; he was cheeky and hilarious and downright lovable, and while there was the semi-awkward unspoken of, Levi invited his stripper boyfriend, the power of entertainment and the reception of a tight friends group was indubitably stronger.

Petra looked nice.

Petra in a tight black dress, bangs swept soft and light out of her eyes, red nails and the sparkle of that fucking rock on her finger. She was with Nanaba and Nifa as Erwin mingled out on the patio with some of the other men—laughter, low velvety vibrations of conversation. Oh, the lovebirds weren’t attached at the hip? Imagine that. They were talking about Moblit’s awful experience buying his new car last week, how he accidentally left his garage door opener on his old keys at the sales lot, not to mention they gave him the factory key, so he had to drive around Seattle for ten minutes waiting for the car alarm to stop shrieking and explaining to the police that he needed to get back to the dealership before it closed and no he did not steal the car, for Christ’s sake.

Low music bounced from Moblit’s bachelor pad stereo system. He had the perfect widescreen for Super Bowl parties—or, in this case, the pre-recorded New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. Being a single man, he hadn’t worried about Christmas decorations; the condo subsequently felt both drab yet relaxed at the same time.

Levi lingered in the kitchen with Hanji, raiding the salsa and chips, surveying the party from under the backlit cabinets over the party-plattered counter.

“Moblit’s place is like the kind of place they shoot porn in,” Hanji commented around a deviled egg. She handed Levi one.

Levi snorted, smirking absently. “But you chose Mike instead.”

Hanji leered, shrugging, swaying a little to bump Levi’s hip with her own. “It’s the better choice, if you know what I’m saying.”

Mike, with Nile—whose wife was keeping their two kids entertained in Moblit’s bedroom, hoping they’d maybe fall asleep before midnight, watching the smaller TV in there—were meeting Eren for the first time. Maybe Levi was more nervous than even Eren was, much as he convinced himself he was not. But he knew his friends. Oh, he knew them.

They were initiating Eren, of course. They were going to ask prying questions. They were going to ask dirty, over-the-line, blackmail potential questions. They were going to ask questions that would give them room to secretly and personally judge, because didn’t everyone make comparisons between their life and others’? Oh God, Nile was talking to Eren about children—oh God, Eren was talking back like he understood—

Levi went outside for a cigarette as most of the other guys drifted back in.

There was a stellar, breathtaking view of the lake, reflecting the sky, the lights of the Space Needle, downtown and across the water Bellevue, lights on the hills like the stars in the clouds.

Through the familiar noise—the voices he knew, the people he knew, the communion he knew—he picked out Eren’s laugh implicitly, but immediately. Brilliant, golden string of notes, winding like an anchor through the party waves. His anchor. Levi sort of wished he could have seen him at the club tonight. It had probably been a lot of fun.

“Hey—”

Levi looked over his shoulder, raising a brow. It was Erwin. Erwin with his tousled blond hair, rolled-up sweater sleeves. He was smiling. Levi knew that smile. Oh, he could see right through that smile. It was the smile of consciously trying very hard to be happy in the face of chronic stressors.

Erwin gestured, that acute smile melting into a real grin. “Are you going to come inside and show off your boy, or are you gonna let him make the rounds himself?”

That was nice, actually. That was kind of uncomfortably heartening, awkward support like that. Your boy. But oh, Erwin.

Ohhhh, Erwin.

Surely what was meant to be asked was this: Are you going to make me be the only gross one shoving my relationship down people’s throats here, or what?

Oh, Erwin, Levi knew all too well what the point of this was.

“So you’ve done dinner with the parents, eh, Erwin?”

“What’d they say?”

“Are they excited about the wedding?”

“I bet your mom wants to plan it, huh, Petra? She’s been planning it since you were five.”

It was a waltz of getting even.

“How’d your folks take meeting Eren?”

“They fucking loved him. They loved him. How messed up is that?”

“I invited his mom to the club for half-off drinks.”

“Ha ha!”

“Priceless.”

Suuuure.”

It was drifting around Moblit’s house, socializing, laughing, joking, munching, drinking, toasting, as a couple. It was bitter intimate glances cut back and forth with Erwin from across Moblit’s apartment—daring, challenging, flaunting, one-upping, show-stealing. Oh, Erwin and Petra are talking wedding plans with Nifa? Well, Levi and Eren had Mike and Nanaba in stitches over the stuff Levi didn’t talk about on the show. Erwin and Petra had plenty of hilarious stories about breaking up and making up and silly dating mistakes and—and Levi had no qualms accepting Nanaba’s praise for the success of The Talk, and Eren humbly denied their requests for a New Year’s strip, and there was even Moblit’s indirect congratulations on being happy, a stiff mumble of, “Well, you get free lap dances, so that’s cool…”

But maybe nobody really gave a shit. Maybe nobody even noticed Erwin and Levi’s childish rivalry. Maybe it was just that Erwin threw Levi sarcastic glances and Levi offered Erwin disdainful smiles and the pissing contest was really just between the two of them, both immature and yet wholly, vengefully galvanizing—

“Why are you marrying her?” Levi hissed between his teeth, back on the balcony while everyone else was debating in the kitchen on what shots to do when 11:59 became the first midnight of 2014. Petra and Ilse and Mary had donated their heels to Hanji, Eren, and Mike to see who could walk better in them. They stumbled around the kitchen clutching onto each other, crumpling against the cabinets in laughter. Nile tickle-wrestled his youngest in the living room because Mary had just given up on getting the toddler to sleep and finally joined the party. Ah, a taste of grownup problems for Eren, right?

Erwin cut Levi a narrow glance, jaw tightening instantly. Maybe he suspected Levi of starting shit again. Maybe he knew Levi wasn’t trying to. “What else in life is a person supposed to do but get married and have children?”

“Oh my God, you’re brainwashed.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Are your parents really putting that much pressure on you lately?”

“…Yeah.”

“So you’re not brainwashed, you’re just weak.”

Erwin took that one like a man. He smiled bitterly, shaking his bowed head. He looked away, smoking quietly for a moment. He had that mellow, ruminating daze he always got when he was moving quickly from tipsy to drunk.

Levi felt a sudden cold come over him. It was a raw chill, a desperate, rather confident and logical cold that emboldened him a little. He was right; he knew he was right. There was no satisfaction in being right, but there was a kind of empowering relief in having minor epiphanies like this. It was mildly gratifying to feel content with the revelation instead of triggered. Clear thinking was what it was.

“You don’t want to…do you, Erwin?” Levi murmured, running his hand absently along the icy balcony railing. The lights spilling from the cracked patio doors lit the backside of Erwin; his face was still in shadows, eyes scanning the dark hills and dimly-lit upper crest neighborhoods.

Erwin slid him a short look, still smiling that distant smile, as if to prompt: Go on. Say it. Surely he was beyond tired of hearing this. Surely they were both beyond done with this same conversation, this same interrogation, this same poking and prodding at a wound with thickening scar tissue. This same broken record of ultimatums and buts and what-ifs and accusations.

“I mean—I asked you before—” Levi whispered, brow knotting. “But I was also yelling at you when I asked, too, so I’ll say it again… You don’t want to get married and have children, Erwin. I know you don’t.”

Erwin shrugged and shook his head at the same time, running a hand through his loosely-combed hair. He husked, “Levi, I do. Who doesn’t? Come on, family. Being a man. Having a life—”

“You don’t mean that.”

“Hmm… I always thought it was very careless to put anything you mean out in the universe.”

Little pang to the heart, purely philosophical. “You’re making me sad,” Levi argued—but gently, honestly, no belligerence here. Simple truths between friends. Words that required no justification and no response, either. “You really, really are…”

Erwin turned, hunched over the railing still. This close, it was almost familiar ground. It was extended eye contact, fading smiles. Silent conversation, a dialogue with eyes. Things better left unsaid. It was disarming and intimate, and simple, and why were they trying to one-up each other again? Why were they both so curious about the others’ feelings on their night’s dates? It alarmed Levi a little bit, somewhere beyond the DeuS, rang out a warning that a warm and comfortable closeness like this was dangerous, those blue eyes were poison, because they were going to make it too easy to forgive, to forget, to give in. The responsible thing was to keep arm’s distance between each other; the safe thing was to keep a tiny grudge harping in the back of the soul, because it was going to help him move on. It wasn’t fair if moments like these softened all the anger and betrayal, made all the angst seem pointless—

Shwoop.

“Hey…”

Erwin and Levi both pivoted, like they were doing something wrong. They were not. They weren’t. Honestly. Erwin accidentally elbowed Levi’s shoulder when he moved; Levi scowled, rubbing at the short-lived tenderness.

It was Eren’s silhouette in the patio doorway, holding the door he’d slid open. Levi could tell by the tip of his head and lean of his body he’d hit the threshold of cutely intoxicated. Cutely intoxicated, but not cutely intoxicated enough to go unaware of how close Levi stood to Erwin, how blameless they both tried to look like Eren had walked in on something secret, something bad. Was that a stamp of confusion, or…jealousy?

Whatever it was, Eren shook it off quickly. Cutely intoxicated worked wonders on him. Worked wonders on Levi, too. He wanted to hold him. Kiss him. Taste his skin.

“You guys coming in for the countdown toast? We’re doing shots of Patrón—”

Erwin laughed, smoothing down his sweater. “Yeah, we’re coming.”

“What time is it?” Levi asked, moving first, strutting across the patio and gathering Eren to his side in one arm as he moved back into the house.

“We have ten minutes.”

“You’re drunk.”

“I’m not!”

“You were racing Hanji in heels.”

“I—don’t—okay, I’m drunk, leave me alone, jerk.” Blushing. Snickering. Fingers curling on Levi’s wrist, clinging. Levi could really have cared less what everyone else thought, but there was a small private part of him like in any basic human design that really deviously enjoyed showing off in the face of everyone’s doubts. Did he make some of them uncomfortable? Good. He was happy, God damn it. You created the role for yourself…

Erwin closed the patio door behind them, catching Levi’s over-the-shoulder glance and offering a smile in return. A brow-raise, a gentle supportive nod. But the meaning of the smile had not changed. And Levi was still sad about that.


Homeward bound on I-5.

The highway lights fell in pools on the asphalt. Vines and greenery drooped damp with the cool air of night on bridges and sloping cement cutting in angles this way and that like an abstract painting. Hours like this, strung somewhere between midnight and dawn, felt so separated from real life. Disconnected, uninvolved, not part of the rest of the world. The daze was deep; Heaven and Hell’s New Year’s had been quite the affair.

Mikasa stretched her legs out, bare toes splaying just under the glass of Jean’s windshield. She’d taken her shoes off immediately tumbling into his car; in the back, Armin had his hand out the window, swirling dreamily in the icy kiss of winter air seventy miles an hour.

“Eren says he’s staying at Levi’s,” Mikasa kept them up-to-date, checking her text messages.

Jean yawned. “I can’t believe it’s 2014.”

“I’m feeling it now,” Armin hummed, rubbing at bloodshot eyes. “How many shots did Ymir give me?”

Mikasa turned to Jean, reaching over to idly scratch the back of his neck, like she was petting a cat. “What time are you saying bye to Marco at the airport tomorrow?”

Jean’s pause was lengthy. It was not suspicious but it was not empty, either. He shrugged, turning up the late night classic rock radio. Perfect driving at 3 AM music. Felt as ghostly and mystical as the empty road in the heart of Seattle as one year died and was born into another.

“Not,” Jean said, finally, firmly, bluntly. “I’m not.”


It was hard to cuddle puddle with only two people, and a bag of puffy Cheetos and some cherry tomatoes for the drunken munchies.

Mikasa went straight to bed. The rest of the apartment was dark save the kitchen light, trickling down the fridge as the digital clock on the stove guided the way into the wee hours of the first morning of the new year. Jean philosophized about cars and graveyard shifts at the Amazon warehouse. Armin kept him sleep-deprived giggling over a story about a recent Spooked in Seattle tour, and how creepy the bathrooms were right by the mouth of the Underground.

It was just that—it was only the two of them, and too much to drink, and Jean was cute and vulnerable lately and Armin liked to kiss when he was drunk.

Hands, tangled in the hair. Bodies, rolling together on the linoleum (which sort of hurt the back a little). Fingers grasping. Tugging. Clawing. Gasps breaking on a lower lip, string of spit snapping between vodka-flavored tongues.

“Jean—Jean—”

“Shh, Mikasa might still be awake—”

Tongue-between-the-teeth snicker, head tipped back, lashes fluttering as hot ticklish kisses pranced up and down an open throat like the beating of butterfly wings. Jean’s hoodie was so soft in Armin’s hands. His body covered him; his need radiated like cancer from a microwave. Fun. Drunk. Fling. Just a fling. Sometimes friends had flings. Sometimes friends got drunk at Ren Faires and made out. Sometimes friends got a little touchy-feely and a little flirty but life kept friends too distracted to follow through. Sometimes friends pounded too many shots and made out with their first ex-boyfriend’s last ex-boyfriend, but there was nothing wrong about a free love dogma, right, and friends knew friends didn’t take advantage of each other and why would you want to make out with someone you didn’t know inside and out?

Armin was down. It wasn’t like Reiner was free anymore, and Annie’s Skype calls had gotten fewer and farther between now that she was really, really doing the boot camp thing. There was that Gunther guy, at Spooked, and he was a cutie—there was also Mina at Heaven and Hell who flirted back regardless—but—but Jean—and—

“What are you laughing about?” Jean grumbled and it tickled Armin’s ear.

Armin shook his head, wriggling away. The heat skittered in goosebumps down his body—back of the neck, shoulders, nipples hard under his T-shirt, tightening in his lower gut. The raw desire in this moment was turning him on in the most classical way but it came and went in fuzzy waves. Thank you, Ymir’s deathly strong Green Jesus. Armin broke free of Jean’s snuggling arms and steadied himself on the edge of the counter as he climbed to his feet. Pulling his hair back into a sloppy half-bun, huffing a sigh to blow some of it out of his eyes, he cast Jean a Come and Get It look as he rounded out of the kitchen and tiptoed down the dark hall.

“Just wondering,” he sing-songed, Jean chasing him all hands and impatient kisses, “who’s actually the bicycle of our friends group—you, or Eren?”

In all honesty, brutal as honesty was, this scandalous affair was not unprecedented and it wasn’t all that surprising, either.

They almost tripped on a pair of shoes, moving through Armin’s dark room. Shiver. Smack of mouths. Writhing tongue. Back arching. Limp fist to the eye—

Ow, Armin!”

“Oh my God—oh, hey—are you okay? I’m sorry! It’s dark!”

“Ow… Ow, ow…”

“Did I hit you?”

“Yeah—”

“I’m sorry—I’m not laughing because it’s funny—but it’s kind of funny—”

“I forgot how dangerous it was to make out with you. Last time, you elbowed me in the throat.”

Crooning, whining laughter, half apology and half hilarity. “I’m sorry!”

Jean hoisted Armin up ho-hum; his muscles were tight under Armin’s clutching hands, fingernails grazing, hoodie discarded. Ungh, so hot. Hit him right in the soft spot reserved for Jean—that eye candy sidelines crush sort of soft spot, the one that would either fade away after finally taking action, or eat him alive from the inside out.

He’d always had it, from the moment they met in middle school to junior year in high school when Jean’s acne had cleared up and his voice had leveled out into cinnamon honey and he’d gone from dorky gangly pubescent punk to Landon Carter heartthrob, all tanned and toned up from baseball. The soft spot had stayed, deepened, became multidimensional, even all through Jean’s Hallmark-innocent romance with Marco, and the obvious sexual tension between him and Eren (which was probably one of the very reasons Armin and Eren broke up in the first place, too, besides having grown out of that experimentation stage).

That was the funny thing—Eren and Jean had that volatile, fantasy-grade silver-tongued wild and reckless rivalry chemistry, the kind that dissolved from arguments into five-second orgasms, but Armin and Jean had always nurtured a healthy history of Flirty McFlirtington eye contact and smiles and inside jokes, the fluffy sort of UST, to borrow Mikasa’s terminology, that was just bound to fall right into place here and there without threat of discord.

Which was… Well, what was happening right now.

Throwing someone down on the bed wasn’t realistic. Jean lifted Armin to his toes; Armin took up the other half of teamwork and scooted back onto the bed. The mattress squeaked. Always squeaked at that corner. That was realistic. But not sexy. Jean laid him flat, all wandering hands, the most passionate and curious of loving touches. Massage of fingers, stroke of knuckles. Body curling. Fuuuuuuuck. Jean had one of the unluckiest combinations a guy could ask for—Cupid magic and bumbling self-doubt. His lack of confidence just turned Armin on more. Maybe that was sick. There was a warning bell ringing in the back of his mind, or maybe just a song stuck there from work. A little uncomfortable stab. Eren’s replacement.

No, Armin knew Jean too well. See, if it had been Eren tangled up with Jean this lovely New Year’s, Eren probably would have posed such a low and judgmental suggestion out loud. Replacement. Unintentionally, of course, but Eren had always struggled with thinking before speaking. Then again, Eren had been the one to announce he and Jean were friends with benefits. It was Eren who’d decreed Jean came to him when he was lonely. It was Eren who, in the end, set himself up for each of his romantic destructions and Jean had wisely let Eren proclaim it was what it wasn’t because he still loved Eren too much to say he needed him, too much to confess how guilty he felt for the last few times they’d slept together.

No, Armin knew Jean respected him too much to even pretend to take advantage of him like he did with Eren.

This had nothing to do with Marco, or Eren, or with anything or anyone in particular. This was just him and Jean and their bubblegum chemistry, and they didn’t go very far past swapping spit. Neither of them really wanted to go very far past swapping spit. The ease of vasodilation was in the rearview. They were slowing down like a car running out of gas from hungry, bruising kisses to soft, chapped-lip nuzzles of the mouth, fingers swirling in messy hair. Dizzy. Sweetly dizzy, tingling from head to toe…

“We’re not going to date, are we?” Armin whispered, eyes closed. He liked the way Jean laid against his shoulder, like he was the bigger one, the one that did the holding.

“I don’t know. Are you single?”

“Single and ready to flamingle.”

“What?”

“Yes, I’m single.”

“I hooked up with Marco the other day.”

Armin jerked to the side, flashing Jean a look of very deliberate shock. “Huh?”

“You heard me. Ow, my eye really hurts.”

“Don’t—don’t take this the wrong way, but… How stupid could you be, Jean?”

Jean was crestfallen. It was almost a pout. It was adorable, fucking adorable. “Man, thanks, Armin. And I thought you were the nice one.”

“Why the fuck would you think that? You know, in traditional ancient theatre, the blonds were the trouble and the brunets were the innocent ones. It was reversed from the modern model—”

“Stop. Stop your geek talk. Please. I can’t deal with it right now. Am I really that stupid, you think?”

“No—what I mean is… I don’t know, did Marco—did he say he changed his mind back, or…?”

“No, he said it was his ‘last hurrah’ or some shit.”

“Why do you keep letting him hurt you?”

Jean was very quiet for a very long time, tracing arabesques on Armin’s chin. Maybe he was really giving it thought. Maybe he was falling asleep. Armin was going to fall asleep waiting. Finally, Jean stirred him back into focus as he confessed, “Armin, it fucked him up more than it fucked me up.” Long, long pause. Meaningful pause. Then: “…And I’m okay with that.”

“Jean,” Armin sighed. His voice was coarse from screaming Happy New Year! Happy New Year! He wanted to say something along the lines of, “It’s over. It was good. It’s done. You can’t keep forcing something if it’s just not right.” He wanted to remind Jean that dating amongst friends was hella fucking messy—friends broke up and stayed friends and dated friends other friends had dated and then some friends collided in a weird steamy chemistry when all other friends were sleeping or busy…

He said, through a yawn, “I’m here for you, you know. We’re all here for you.”

He meant it. Jean knew he meant it. It was enough for Jean, apparently. Armin wished he could stay alert long enough to see when Jean would stop staring at him like that, all loving and thoughtful, brushing loose blond hair out of his eyes. Mm, that was nice. He liked this. He and Jean, they were the odd men out, sometimes. They got each other. They were both watchers, witnesses, listeners, supporters. Anyone on the outside would probably look at the twisted spider web of strings connecting them all and be disturbed. Like that L Word show Annie had shown him once. His eyes were heavy; his eyes were burning. Hypnos was dragging at him.

Like any other time he and Jean had secretly made out, Armin whispered, “Don’t tell Eren…” He wanted to explain why; he wanted to remind Jean how territorial Eren was, how protective, how he’d probably feel betrayed in some weird claim of loyalty because Eren was illogical passion sometimes. But he figured Jean knew all that. Of course Jean knew all that. He fell asleep.


end ch. 16

Chapter Text

Levi dropped him off on his way to work. Hungover, Eren managed to stumble into his room and kick his shoes and pants off before collapsing into a cocoon of blankets for two more precious hours of sleep, but when he came staggering out into the hall at the exact moment that Jean came sidling out of Armin’s room in a similar state of wrinkled bedhead glory, Eren’s eyes widened and his skin went cold and a charge of epinephrine snapped him right to attention.

Jean stared.

Eren stared.

Eren crossed the hall in two frantic strides and shoved Jean out of the way to affirm that—yes, there was Armin, and if anyone could honest to God look graceful and unburdened while sleeping, it was him. On his stomach, drooling on his arm. Bare feet poking out of mussed comforters.

Before Eren could even finish drawing a breath to yell, Jean clapped a hand over his mouth and jerked him back out into the hall. Swiftly, powerfully, he closed the door—but he kept the handle turned to latch it soundlessly. How fucking respectful.

“Why were you in there?” Eren sputtered through Jean’s fingers. He could feel the murder writing itself across his face, nostrils flaring, shoulders tensing, pushing at Jean to let him go. “Did you—did you two—Jean, you’re unbelievable.”

Jean looked mildly dazed, like it was too soon out of sleep mode to be frantic or think cleverly. “Eren, chill. You’re gonna wake everyone up.”

I can’t believe you!

“Look, what you’re thinking didn’t happen.”

“You lonely, miserable piece of shit!”

That was apparently where Jean drew the line. Eren didn’t really blame him; it was harsh and rash for him to say, but… Gentle, embarrassed defense turned vicious and sneering. Jean snapped, “Look who’s talking!”

“You’re using Armin!”

“For your information, he kissed me first.” Jean scoffed. “If that’s using him, then I was using you, too. But you had no problem with that.”

Eren reared back. Neither of them wanted to admit to each other that maybe it wasn’t as simple as that. “Yeah, well, I’m not Armin!” he hissed. He had nothing better in his artillery.

“Get over it, Eren. You’re not his fucking guard dog. He can make his own decisions.” Jean rolled his eyes, raking his fingers through tousled hair. He was sulking. He was offended. He looked…mildly proud of himself. And Eren felt the jab of that. He could see it on Jean’s face: he was proud, he was satisfied, whatever he’d done with Armin had pleased him.

How, though—physically? Emotionally? More importantly, why did it cut Eren to the quick like this?

Because it was Armin. It was his Armin. Jean couldn’t fuck with Armin. Not that Armin was inexperienced or even naïve, it was just—Jean and Armin? Please! Don’t let it be real! It was weird. It was violating. It was…

“Why do you care, anyway?” Jean snorted. “You have a boyfriend, Eren. You got a problem with me being happy, too? ‘Get over Marco, get over Marco,’ you keep saying. Well, I’m trying.”

“Oh, what, you’re gonna date Armin now?”

“No, we made out, oh my God.”

Okay, that was a little relieving. But: “This isn’t cool, Jean—”

“Are you jealous?”

“No. Fuck no, I’m not jealous. But—”

“Just because you had your queer awakening with him doesn’t mean he’s your property, Eren.”

“I—I didn’t say that—that’s not what I mean—”

“You act like he’s so fucking innocent. He’s not. You know he’s not. Why aren’t you mad at him, huh? Why just me? You’ve fucking had it out for me since we broke up, Eren. Like you don’t want me to be happy because God forbid anyone or anything else make me happy when you couldn’t. Don’t act like it’s so fucking out of left field, either—me and Armin, I mean. We’ve made out a few times before, like you and Mikasa—”

“That’s different.”

“No, it’s fucking not.” Jean paused, a shadow eclipsing his face that Eren really didn’t recognize and did not feel comfortable trying to define. Brow knotting, Jean whispered, “You’re being greedy, you know that? You’re being real fucking greedy.” He shook his head, sadly. Smugly. Looked at Eren like he pitied him as he headed for the bathroom.

That… That immobilized him. He knew by the end of the day he’d be ashamed of this kneejerk reaction, because it was tainted by just waking up, by the hangover, by a surge of groggy and misguided instinct—Eren’s heart fell. He didn’t mean to seem greedy. He wasn’t greedy. He just… He…

“I just feel betrayed,” he sputtered, not quite sure what else to say or do. He suddenly felt like crying. He’d hit that point of rage, the violent and teary. He wanted to just sit down in the middle of the hall and cry and kick. His skin was so hot with the anger. His fists shook at his sides; he felt sick.

Betrayed. Yes, that was it. But—why? Really, why?

Jean gave him one last sad look, something almost like an apology but a little too removed. It wasn’t mockery, and it wasn’t revenge. It was almost like he didn’t really have any idea what to do or say, either. Instead he just closed the bathroom door and flipped the lock, and Eren wiped away the angry tears with clammy palms. He waited. He listened to Jean pee. He knocked gently and whimpered, “Hurry up, I have to puke,” and even though he was livid beyond reasoning, he let Jean sit by him when he threw up.

Fucking Patrón out his nose, uuuugh, God.


“The AQH fell a little, but the cume is still pretty steady. The cume’s up higher than it was this time last year, anyway.”

“Did you see we broke a comment record on the blog?”

“I did. I also saw we broke twenty-thousand Twitter followers.”

“Yeah, people really dig the ‘dating advice’ thing we just started…”

“Levi, I’m trying to get you on the roster for Coachella. Levi, I think I want to give you a raise.”

Levi pushed his reading glasses up atop his head and swiveled away from his computer, looking at Pixis with a small dimple of distrust in his brows. “…A what?”

“A raise. You know, an increase in pay.”

“For what?”

“You’ve pioneered this ‘Talk’ spiel. I really didn’t think you could keep it alive, but you have. Somehow. Sex sells, right?”

“Right…”

“Keep it up. I talked Fritz into a raise. How does forty-nine a year sound to you?”

“Sounds like almost sixty bucks more a paycheck.”

“And sixty times two times twelve is almost fifteen hundred more a year.”

“Sounds a hell of a lot cheaper than just a bonus. I’m fine with a bonus, you know. I don’t need a raise.”

“Fritz already talked to payroll.”

“Tell Fritz I said thank you and I will review the fuck out of Coachella this summer if he lets me go.”


But the truth was this.

Levi was fucking tired of The Talk.

He’d been tired of The Talk before Heaven and Hell, before hashtag-banged-the-stripper, hashtag-dating-the-stripper, the List of Crazy Sex Things. He was tired of Flashback Friday. He was bored of titillating with scandalous remembered affairs. The role of resident slut—ah, yes, the role he’d established for himself—was getting really, really old.

He wanted to do something more fulfilling than exploiting himself. His personal life was not his own anymore—at least, not completely. His personal life was a sideshow attraction.

Who was it who’d said it, when The Talk had first begun? You hurt others. You miss out on the chance to be with someone because of your show. Erwin, right? Or had it been Nile? Levi couldn’t remember. It was true, actually. How much longer before you fall in love? someone had listener-asked months ago. Well, Seattle… Levi wasn’t entirely sure. Sorry.

It wasn’t like The Talk was his dream. Just a brainchild in a mid-midlife crisis. He’d gotten into radio because he loved the music, he appreciated the business, he liked reporting, but…he’d fallen pretty low, hadn’t he? It wasn’t his concert reviews that got the most comments. It was the shock value of a gay man being open about his trials, his triumphs, his tribulations. It was the posts about having sex against the windows. About a handjob in the SAM. About the best kinds of lube. About the throes of age difference. About making out in a bathroom stall in a mirrorless restroom in a Fremont rock bar. About getting a piercing in his belly button when he was partying his way through college.

His dad had hounded, So when are you gonna leave the radio? Or are you gonna get paid to drink and party away your degree for the rest of your life? And rightfully so, to be totally realistic and maybe a little cynical. Levi was the odd one who actually had a degree relevant to his current position; how many radio DJs had he met who had gotten the job through connections, who had no ambition, no drive, just a penchant for getting shitfaced at rock concerts and babbling about it?

What did he want, then?

What would happen if he said he wanted to stop The Talk?

Would he get fired? Was he that disposable? If he just left 102.9, would they find some other brazen soul to take over the segment?

People changed.

He was thirty now. And he was ready to be serious about things.


“Welcome back, guys. I’ve got something really interesting for you today…a ‘guide’ if you can call it that to the weird stages of modern dating culture. Let’s see… Yeah, here it is. In no particular order: ‘One-Night Stand: The chemistry-driven usually chemically influenced hookup.’ ‘Second Glance: Revisiting the casual sex out of curiosity or interest.’ ‘Booty Call: You know you want it, and you know where to get it.’ ‘Friends With Benefits: Not quite a booty call, but not quite dating.’ ‘Fling: The too close for comfort one-night stand, a booty call without the casual, guiltless atmosphere.’ ‘Date: You actually mean it.’ ‘Backup Plan: You’re just there in case that booty call falls through or the date goes awful.’ ‘Stepping-Stone: You’re being used, or using someone, to a) get what you want or b) figure yourself out.’ ‘Boyfriend/Girlfriend: Congrats, you’ve somehow avoided or successfully made it through all those other stages and have official status.’ ‘Common Law Married: You live together, you pee in front of each other, you share groceries and sometimes pants.’ ‘Lost in Translation: You don’t know. Because you don’t talk about it. So talk about it.’ And with that and some Nirvana—Happy Valentine’s Day, Seattle.”

I need an easy friend, I do, with an ear to lend…

What better day for Valentine’s Day than a Friday?

It was the kind of Friday where you could just lay around in the raw silvery light of a winter day, clouds rolling like bruised velvet over the city and the kiss of snow glittering in the brittle glow of early, early sunset that filled the open apartment.

Years ago, back when pagers had still been relevant and everyone was grossly obsessed with looking like they’d just waltzed off the set of Friends, Valentine’s Day was a lot more complicated. Valentine’s Day was all about rules and impressing. Valentine’s Day was about petal pathways to a candlelit bedroom, Post-It notes to a parking garage make-out, candy hearts like a sugar-crumb trail to some steamy shower sex, blindfolds and stuffed bears and dinners that took far too long to make or cost far too much to valet park.

Valentine’s Day with Farlan had been a drunken carnival. Valentine’s Day with Erwin one year had been arguing in the parking lot outside the restaurant before the very first Dinner with the Folks. Valentine’s Day with Hanji had been a baseball game and flipping off the Kiss Cam and a bar run that ended with laughing so hard, they both threw up on some Pioneer Square curb. Valentine’s Day with Nifa had never happened.

Valentine’s Day with Erwin another year had been throwing all his shit out the window because dropping the M-word was too weird, the M-word was too much of a spectacle for a man whose very sexual orientation made him a freak and a fool and drawing attention to that on the steps of some West Coast courthouse was just asinine, it was laughable and pathetic. I’m tired of crying because of you! Who would ever want to marry you?

Valentine’s Day with Mike had been walking in on Mike and Hanji and not really even being upset about it. Valentine’s Day with Petra had been a sexy massage, scratchy see-through lacy panties and the heat of sweet secret tender places waiting beneath. The last Valentine’s Day with Erwin had been high fashion cologne, a bouquet of fucking flowers, Vivaldi at the Benaroya sitting in silence admiring how like a little boy Erwin was at an event like that, utterly captivated, utterly lost to the magic of classical music.

Eren wasn’t the type to take to the Benaroya like Erwin was. Eren was the type to laze around with half-dressed and dozing off to movies, snuggled close together as the rain and slush turned the city into gray smudged scenery, running in icy rivulets down the windows.

Levi napped while Eren sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor, finishing up some homework. Woke up and chased him around the kitchen for little ass-grabs and neck kisses and warm, boring hugs just standing together in cool afternoon light, warming hands on hot tea and watching the winter evening descend on the vista of the city. Bonded over baggage and loaded statements pacified by awkwardly casual and contemplative conversation. No wooing here; no flattery, romanticizing, or unnecessary ambiguity.

“Where’s your roommate today?”

“I don’t know, out with his girl. They set a date, you know.”

“For the wedding?”

“Yup.”

“Armin…and Jean hooked up the other night.”

“What the fuck is wrong with friends always dating each other? Are we all so fucking afraid of being alone or being rejected that we won’t stick our necks outside our safety zones?”

“Well, I mean, it is scary dating someone who’s not your friend. Some people do it, though. They’re just…not friends with their lovers.”

Lovers. You’re cute. Hey, rub my feet.”

“You have a headache? If you rub the big toe, it helps headaches.”

“How do you feel about it?”

“I don’t care, I’m not freaked out about feet—”

“No, Armin and Jean. They’re both exes of yours, right?”

“Ah… Yeah. But it’s not as complicated as you and Erwin and Petra. Armin and I were stepping-stones to each other. Jean was my bad boy stage.”

“Huh. My bad boy stage was Mike.”

Really?”

“Yeah. He had a motorcycle and everything. Leather jacket. We had sex against the wall, once. You know, how they make it happen all the time in movies but only ever happens to real people, like, twice tops. Legs around his waist and all.”

“Man. Before you, the craziest I ever did was… Okay, in the same room as other people.”

“They were all sleeping?”

“Yeah, it was at one of Reiner’s parties.”

“You work tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“Can I come see you?”

Eren stumbled over a few words or two, blushing cherry-red. He shrugged, looking away, pushing Levi’s foot off his lap. Funny, so funny, how now at this point in their relationship, the sweet innocent self-consciousness came in gushes. “…Yeah, if you want to.”

“I’m making more tea. You want more tea?”

“Sure, Mr. Radio…”

There was something to be said about the slow, lazy transition from snuggling to languid lovemaking, the kind of lovemaking that did not start with a spark of lust but a sluggish egging-on. Slow, hot sex, one hand crawling down the front of Abercrombie sweatpants, curling on a mildly limp dick, stroking the satiny skin of it, skin as velvety and petal-soft as the eyelids. Nipples hard under a faded band T-shirt, toes curling in black ankle socks, head tipping gently from one side to the other, tiny rosary of sighs and butterfly kisses, chest rolling with deep breaths and pleasured gasps. Harder, getting harder, curving gently in a palm with the throb of blood. Pouty mouth, working up a little bit of spit to save the trek into the bedroom for lube. When Eren’s tongue hit the underside of Levi’s cock, he let out a low moan, covering his face with one arm and letting the sound rattle out between his teeth. Abs, crunching as his hips thrust up. Deep throat. Massage with fingers, tongue, teeth. Snatching a fistful of hair and loving, fucking loving the way that mouth popped away with a slightly choked gasp as a rush of come mixed with spit and a pumping hand finished off the waves of delight rippling through his body. Nice, nice in the daylight. Terrifying in the daylight. Seeing each other was as dangerous as eye contact. As dangerous as—

“Love you.”

“…Heh. Love you, too.”

Somewhere across Seattle, Mike was wearing a suit and Hanji had her hair curled, and in the dark of a Regal Cinema they jumped and gasped and snickered at all the same parts of I, Frankenstein.

Mikasa took the night off; a poli-sci major had asked her out for drinks and dancing.

The bustling fine dining swirl of 35th Street Bistro had been full and no one had made reservations, so a short walk to Pel’Meni was in the stars and under the Fremont Lenin statue, Petra was laughing at one of Erwin’s charming anecdotes, tucking hair behind her ear and letting him stroke her hand between their double-breasted coats, smiling his princely smile, fluttering his princely lashes, running his thumb over her thumb and letting his knuckle hit the ring he’d bought her as they shared Russian dumplings instead of twelve-dollar diver scallops.

Highs of 53°, lows of 40°, less than an inch of precipitation (thank God, because there was still snow on the ground), with the fourteen-mile-an-hour winds calmed by evening when restaurants and boulevards and movie theaters and parks all around the metropolitan area were just teeming with bundled-up, rosy-cheeked valentines.

“Valentine’s Day is a marketing scheme,” Armin loved to insist.

Those averse to the commercialized excuse for dating obligations were not forgotten, however. Comfortable corners all around were still open for those not interested in subscribing, or not interested in talking about how they had no one to subscribe to. Funny, how one night could be so glorious or so personally devastating, all at once.

Heaven and Hell hosted their annual “Cupid’s Rejects” theme. “Cupid’s Rejects,” Jean thought, was pretty damn snarky, and, hunched low under hung glasses and bottles that winked back the lights of the stage and catwalk, turning from another of the many glances he was casting Armin’s way as Armin swayed and swung like nobody really expected him to, he vented to Reiner at the bar:

“It’s totally cool.”

“Uh huh.”

“I’m here for him because no one else is. Eren’s all head over heels, real puppy-love bullshit, he’ll burn himself out soon—anyway—”

“Yeah, I saw Eren had his boyfriend here tonight. Keith’s gonna get pissed if he does that too much.”

Right? But me and Armin—are we dating? No.”

“Oh, Armin will let you know when you’re dating. Trust me.”

Over his drink, Jean watched Armin dance.

There was something sweetly, dangerously androgynous about Armin… Whereas Eren was all boy next door, all hard sculpted arms and deep, rusty laughter, all morning shave in certain places and firmer jawline—Armin was smooth, and succulent, and soft. Armin was pubescent summer innocence, before testosterone hardened and darkened and complicated things up, if pubescent summer innocence could find a place in an obviously post-pubescent young adult. Yeah, that was it: Eren was scraped knees and street hockey and sweat turning dirt to mud on the elbows, Marco was campfire raw and sweet, midnight walks on the beach, and Armin was…Armin was pillow and blanket forts in the living room, ghost stories in the glare of unneeded flashlights.

Jean wasn’t searching for anything; he was just philosophizing over a nice cold drink, thud of club bass tickling his spine. It felt pretty comforting to straighten things out in his head like that lately, to make sure he knew exactly what he felt and when and where. It was when he stopped paying attention to those things that he really fucked himself over, anyway.

“We’re not dating,” Jean reiterated around a long swallow, meeting Reiner’s eyes in a sidelong glance. Never mind Reiner was one of Armin’s exes, too, until he met that photography intern Berthold, the tall one, who was really excitable in a nervous sort of way. Jean said again, “I’m just here to take him home when he’s off.”

Reiner shrugged, nodding to the music. “Valentine’s Day is such a waste.”

“Yeah. It is, isn’t it?”


end ch. 17

Chapter Text

There was a misconception about young college students—something about wild ragers and hazing and poor diets and Girls Gone Wild and all-nighters with or without the friendly aid of Adderall, all manner of irresponsible behavior to fend off the terror of choices with lasting consequence and huge life changes. How dare the world demand so much out of new adults who not even five years ago still had a high school curfew? And hey, forget about good credit; you can leave that shit back at home with your stuffed animals and semester system.

However, not all young adults were solely concerned on where to score a week’s worth of PBR or how to get in good on Greek Row. Some understood what real rent was, how to file their own taxes, that paying their own phone bill was only right. There was some hope for the starry-eyed new twenty-somethings, these good people with good hearts and good intentions and good heads on their shoulders. Some of them were bartenders; others had Psych professors for fathers; some were strippers and others were seriously considering dropping out to just be tattoo artists or something because fuck Art History if finals were like this.

Speaking of which, after the required St. Patty’s Day celebrations and Spring Forward party to ease the pain of losing an hour of sleep… Finals. Fuck finals. Dead week fell too close for comfort to Eren’s birthday.

Well—admittedly, this year—this year his birthday fell right at the end of finals and this year was actually pretty damn enjoyable.

They went out a night early, so they could afford to be out late. His pals at Heaven and Hell made a big deal out of it. They suggested picking a cocktail at the bar to name after him for the night except oh, wait, Jaeger Bomb. Damn, he was ahead of the game. They wouldn’t let him work. He got a lap dance from Hitch and Fiona and Ymir, which was funny, because Ymir wasn’t even a dancer, she was a bartender, and she was tall and tight and into chicks, all tanned elbows and cropped tee, so it really just dissolved into laughter on both sides until they switched spots and Eren showed her how it was done.

“Happy birthday!” Mikasa had said earlier, presenting him with a zombie video game he’d been dying to play, and gift cards for coffee, and books, and music, and the Veni Vidi Vici T-shirt he’d had his eye on for a while.

“Happy birthday!” Armin and Jean had howled after leading Eren by Post-It notes out the apartment and down the stairs to where they had his car waiting and freshly washed, fixed for him the weekend before under much sloppy secrecy, and fanned out on the dash, under the windshield where Eren’s shocked face was reflected like a mirage, were four tickets to the April Ellie Goulding concert.

“Lady Gaga’s postponed until August,” Armin apologized.

“This is the gayest thing I will ever do for you,” Jean muttered, but really it was just the witty cruelty permissible between friends. Like, “Fuck you, I appreciate good dance music.” And, “Yeah, ‘Telephone’ is your fucking anthem, isn’t it?”

“Of course I helped them get the tickets for cheap,” Levi grumbled over the phone, and Eren could just imagine him cocking a brow, little flourish of How dare you think I’d let them pay full price? “Armin asked me about two weeks ago. Hey, baby, I deliver. You still want to go to Sasquatch with me in May, right? I don’t know if I can get more than two passes for that, but…”

So that was why Armin had looked so suspicious when Eren had gotten out of the shower to discover his cell phone misplaced. Armin, the little sneak, had stolen it to find Levi’s number. Eren immediately colored an embarrassed shade of pink, really hoping Armin hadn’t had the urge to go through any of the text messages or photos. God damn it, Armin—

“I’m gonna pick you up tonight, Levi,” Eren boasted before he hung up. “Be ready at ten. I’m going to show you how we crazy stupid young’uns party for our birthdays. We’re hitting the Pier after I leave work. I wanna go on the Ferris Wheel.”

Of course a newly fixed car required a few joy rides around Seattle to celebrate, peeling off down Olive and jumping back on the highway, windows down, sunroof open, radio blasting. If they didn’t get pulled over for drifting around empty corners, they’d surely get pulled over for Mikasa and Jean hanging out the window loyally barking and howling at an abandoned Husky Stadium. Yeah, there were a few types of soul mates, Eren decided, and one type was friends like these.

Friends like these who squished together in the backseat so Levi could take shotgun when Eren picked him up, the very Encyclopedic definition of poorly-maintained and suspicious inconspicuous behavior, complete with cliché innocent whistling before Armin elbowed Jean hard in the ribs.

“Hi,” Mikasa finally broke the awkward silence, and then the backseat erupted into playground giggles as Eren shot glances of fire and brimstone and Levi smirked behind the hand he leaned on, obviously quite tickled by Eren’s friends’ mission to embarrass him as he showed off his car and his ability to run a date. What else were friends for?

Birthday dancing demanded birthday shots and luckily Fremont’s Neo didn’t see as many creepers as a Cap Hill dance club would. Smoke break. Reiner and Armin play-wrestled under the dappled shadows of trees. Reiner’s sugar baby Berthold snapped pictures of Mikasa and Eren under the streetlights like photography interns did, always ready for spontaneous photo shoots, as Jean joined in on the wrestling with Blondie and Bigger Blondie.

It wasn’t like it was anything super special; the big shindig of Eren’s twenty-first had covered that. But it was a night out with friends to revel in self-indulgences otherwise mostly kept in check, and it was nice to just be for a while. Not working, not studying. Just being. Dancing tight with trusted friends—with Mikasa, with Armin, with Jean, laughing hysterically when Reiner and Bert sandwiched them all together—getting dizzy to the lights, to the music. He even forgot to worry about Levi being uncomfortable or bored. But Levi mingled; Levi chatted; Levi stepped out for a cigarette when Eren danced with his friends; Levi bought them all drinks when they wandered down to High Dive for a brief break around one AM and then back again they went to sweat it all out.

Grinding to a very heavy bass with Levi near two in the morning was reminiscent of their first few dates, and that was kind of invigorating. Or it was the tipsy talking, but whatever.

Dates. Yeah, those times had all been dates whether they’d admitted it together or not—the Jewel Box, the VIP room, the booty calling with or without the booty. And the way Levi looked at him in the roll of club colors, eyes hooded, body hot, hands planted firmly at the small of his back, letting the slither of Eren’s body guide his along with…

“Hey, sexy, you wanna come home with me?” Eren cooed, flashing his most charming and seductive smile. It was fun, doing this, pretending they weren’t already established, stripped raw again in the nitty gritty of the city’s night.

Levi snorted, rolling his eyes. Paused, studying Eren as if decoding the moment. Finally he nodded, playing along, hooking his fingers in the belt-loops of Eren’s jeans. “Why the fuck not?”

The embarrassment about a messy room and an apartment being seen for the first time by a significant other was very brief.

Acutely aware that all three of his roommates were not blind, nor deaf, nor stupid, but still did not say a word about Levi not getting dropped back off at home, Eren dragged Mr. Radio straight for his bedroom.

“Good night!” Armin called from the kitchen, digging in the fridge for a cold water bottle.

Mikasa and Jean waited until the door closed to start whispering together at all about whether or not it was rude.

“Overruled,” Armin said. “Hookups and one-night stands are rude. It’s not rude once a roommate is serious about their partner. We went over this, remember? With the Douche Bag Jar. Come on, guys, he knows not to be loud, stop making a big deal out of it…”


Brittle March rain ran like watercolor down the windows and music with no other real purpose but to be background fuzz throbbed from the old loved portable stereo in the corner of Eren’s room. The scent of Levi invading his own territory powerfully excited him; it was that much more distinct in a foreign environment. Smell of him on Eren’s sheets, on his pillow, smell of his skin, his hair, his cologne, his laundry, his kisses, his hugs. Warm and sweet and vaguely musky. Ah, pheromones.

“Happy birthday,” Levi whispered, running his fingers through Eren’s hair as Eren arched up under him, skin sticky with sweat already. Haaah…

Yeah, slamming together as soon as Eren closed his bedroom door was very reminiscent of stumbling through Levi’s dark apartment and getting freaky on the couch. And it was comforting, and familiar, and rejuvenating, and indefinably sweet to revisit the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am place of their chemistry again. Sex appeal, seduction, stimulation, turn-ons, two forty-five AM and Eren was on his back on his bed half-naked, legs dangling off the edge were blankets had been shoved out of the way.

Dating artifice was so tiring in a moment like this. So fuck it.

There was something stunningly savage and yet magic about the knotting of lust and trust, the alchemy of sex. Something about baring your all, your bones and your flesh and your breath, giving it all to one person, one person who had the power to break you, to leave you, but you gave yourself to them anyway. An erection was a grotesque enough manifestation of desire, so obvious and indiscreet. So primitive and alluring. Hard throbbing evidence of the sensations, electric, zapping from nerve to nerve.

He wore only his T-shirt; Levi had stripped his shorts off already, shirt bunched up under his chin after Levi had abandoned his nipples, left them hard and shocked by the cold air after the tight nibbling heat of a wet tongue, soft lips.

“My turn,” Eren growled—playfully, of course, heated, and ready, loving the way the low light flashed in Levi’s eyes as he rolled over and loftily acquiesced. Ugh, that was the fun in doing these things with him. It took a while, but there was a fragile orgasmic center in there beyond the seductive pretense and smoldering glances, and Eren loved digging for it. Breaking him. Penetrating the defense and invading the fortress, seizing the king. Shattering his suave exterior and finding the shudders and thrusting hips that turned his narrowed eyes into a brow-knot of sexual collapse.

Cooling lube. Ribbed condom. Massaging fingers—stroking, teasing, prying, ungh. Feline arch of the back, finding the best angle for the strange thrillingly violating pressure of penetration. Crunch of the body, tip of his own stiff dick tickling the underside of his belly. Take me take me take me, now, do it, your kisses still taste like booze and my nipples are still sore from your teeth, don’t let me go, fuck me, fuck me, hard, fuck me.

Eren had been really, really concerned that after turning the legendary twenty-one, no year would feel like the same liberation, or accomplishment, or merriment.

But hey, twenty-two was starting off in completely different but equally as thrilling ways.


“To be honest, I was kind of worried he wouldn’t have fun going out with us on my birthday. He’s outgrown all that type of partying, you know? He’s like, classy now—like, penthouse apartment and wine tastings and—”

“Eren, you’re not supposed to talk through yoga. It defeats the meditative purpose.”

“He’s so fucking out of my league, Armin.”

“Are you saying that like you’re worried, or like you’re happy?”

“I’m in awe, I guess. I’m hella lucky. This guy could get so much better than me. He could get someone closer to his age, he could get someone with a real job, he could get someone out of school already, he could get someone who makes his fucking bed in the morning, someone who…I-I don’t know, dominates more—”

“Lower your left knee and go into Anjaneyasana.”

Ow—but you know what I mean? I mean, his ex is like the definition of man. I’m not really that.”

“Inhale. Exhale.”

“Armin, are you listening?”

Yes. Not to mention your ‘Crazy Sex List’ thing.”

Eren’s face puckered; he almost lost his balance in the low lunge. He’d forgotten temporarily that his and Levi’s List was a public matter. Kinky. Kinky shit. They were kinky motherfuckers, weren’t they? Sex against the windows, handjob in the SAM, sex toys in a hotel room, sex in the car, Sex Truth or Dare in the bedroom. Look, Ma—look, Carla?—look how far he’d come from a snickering teenage moron flipping through novelty items like steamy foreplay coupon books with friends, all the way to laying naked and vulnerable in an older man’s sheets, letting him lick a dollop of honey off his inner thigh, shocking ticklish skin with ice already melting between thumb and forefinger. Yeah, five years ago, he would have thought this gross and embarrassing. Nah, physiological aphrodisiacs and skipping all the Sex Truths to get to the Sex Dares was fun, damn it. And Levi’s kisses had tasted like strawberries. Funny, how growing up could actually mean being crazier than you were before. And yet here he was grinning like a madman. Oh, Armin. Oh, Armin, if you only knew. Except maybe you sort of did because you obviously listened to The Talk—

“Back to Downward Dog and next side, Eren. Look, saying he’s out of your league makes it sound like you don’t think you deserve him.”

“No, it’s just…so different from what I’m used to. I guess I’m just still sort of shocked that we’re even together.”

“You don’t look weird together. I mean—he’s older, but—you don’t exactly have baby face anymore, so…”

“Dating someone older is kind of fun. We fight about it, though. The age gap.”

“Fighting is normal.”

“We fought about just letting loose and being crazy. He gets hella uptight sometimes. I don’t know, I was nervous he’d get all weird about going out with us for my birthday but he didn’t, and that’s good.”

“You haven’t been this into someone in a long time.”

Eren nodded sagely, coming up into the low lunge on the other side. “I love him.”

Armin was visibly startled, arms falling out of position as he glanced Eren’s way sharply.

“…What?”

“I—you know what I mean. I just really like him.”

“Oh, I heard what you said.”

“Don’t look at me like that. There are different types of love, you know. Just because I said I love him doesn’t mean I think he’s ‘Oh my God, the one—’”

Armin scoffed, rolling down to cradle his knees against his chest, toes hovering over the floor. He wiggled them, arms folded against his hamstrings. He cast Eren an exasperated look, cocking a brow. “Trust me. I know. I’ve heard your speech on love enough times to have it memorized. Namaste, motherfucker.”

Namaste, kumquat. You going to campus with Mina now?”

“Yeah.”

Sounds of movement drifted from Jean’s bedroom. His door opened; he staggered down the hall and just before he closed himself into the bathroom, Armin called, “It’s aliiiiive!

Jean flipped them off around the doorjamb and then returned to his wake-up routine as Armin scuttled off to get dressed in something more appropriate for Art History 343.

“Hey,” Eren grunted, cornering Jean in the kitchen after the chatter of Armin’s house keys disappeared with the slam of the front door and a scuffle of fashionable shoes.

In all his just-rolled-out-of-bed glory, Jean cut Eren a look. “…Hi?”

“When’d you get home last night?”

“Three.”

“Gross. I thought you were going to quit the overnights back in September.”

“Yeah, well, guess who barely has any credits and therefore is Financial Aid’s bitch?”

“Hey,” Eren said again, because really, he was trying extraordinarily hard to choke the words out, and not asking Armin about it was both torture and relief.

Jean’s brows arced, a wordless question.

“Um.” Eren shrugged.

“Spit it out, bro.”

“I’m sorry,” Eren rushed, retreating to the other side of the narrow kitchen as Jean reheated a cup of stale coffee. “I’m sorry for…earlier. A couple weeks ago. When we argued about Armin.”

“Oh, God…” Jean sighed through his teeth, rubbing at his sleepy eyes. “Eren, please, not again—”

“No.” Eren stopped him, stepping up onto one of the dining chairs and sitting with his knees to his chest. Why was his heart pounding? Because he knew he was wrong. God damn it, he hated being wrong. More like, he knew he’d behaved badly. That was how Mikasa said it. That was how Carla said it. “You were right,” he said thinly, avoiding Jean’s suspicious frown. “I never meant to sound greedy. I was just…surprised. And like I said, I felt weird about it.”

“You said ‘betrayed,’” Jean reminded, mumbling it dejectedly at his coffee mug. “Like me and Armin conspired against you or something. Like we purposefully made out to stomp all over your feelings.”

“I mean, I still sort of feel weird about it.”

“Well, don’t. We’re not dating. Trust me, we’re not dating. Armin plays hard to get a lot longer than you do before giving in—and he actually means it. But we were drunk, Eren.”

“You think I don’t know how Armin operates? I actually did date him. Maybe that’s what I’m concerned about. Maybe I’m more worried about you. Maybe I’m worried because you were crushed like an aluminum can after Marco and Armin can break you ten times worse—”

“Crushed like an aluminum can…”

“Okay, not the best analogy, but you get my point.”

“This is fucked up.” Jean laughed, sliding down at the seat across from Eren. “Why are we even having this conversation? This is a fucking mess. I think maybe you’re—” He pointed, smiling that faint little boy smile of his. “—sort of jealous—wait, hear me out—because you made me feel better about myself. But now I don’t need that. I’m sorry, too, by the way. I said some nasty things to you. Eren, it’s just… I didn’t make out with Armin because I can’t make out with you, or anyone, for that matter. In fact, I didn’t tell you, because I knew you’d go off on me, but—I hooked up with Marco winter break. I mean, hooked up, Eren. Sex.”

The word was like a cold wind, hitting Eren hard and startling. Maybe it was just in the way Jean said it. “Jean—fuck—”

“But you know what? I’m over it. I’m legit over it. I thought I wanted it so bad, but it was… I don’t regret it, but I didn’t enjoy it much, either. Me and Marco, we’re done. We’ve been done. It flat-lined. And that’s the point I’m trying to make. I don’t need you, or anyone else, to take care of me anymore. Neither does Armin.” Dramatic pause, wholly unintentional. He lowered his head and lifted his eyes and God damn it, Eren hated it when he looked at him like that because he loved it. He had a thing for smoky glances, apparently. Smoky glances and sarcastic eyebrow and boyfriend hand.

A perplexed look dimpled Jean’s brow. He scanned nothing for a moment, as Eren watched; it was like he was literally looking for the words in the silence. Finally, he cleared his throat and fixed Eren with his gaze again. “I’m really glad you found someone that makes you so happy, Eren.”

God damn it, he wasn’t a spectacle. He didn’t need comments from the peanut gallery. He didn’t—

“But I still get worried sometimes that you’re gonna run yourself ragged for everyone else before taking care of yourself and… Hey, that’s just as bad, right?”

Jean ruffled his hair, like an older brother. Eren elbowed him away, lovingly. But he wanted to cling to his arm. He didn’t want Jean to go; his eyes lingered as he walked away. Left him quiet and maybe avoiding important thought, sitting all alone with his knees to his chest in an unlit kitchen where the midday sunlight spilled through the blinds and caught the dustbunnies in its shadows. He wished he’d said, Holy shit, I’m so proud of you, Jean. He wished he had something a little more sentimental than that to convey the same meaning. So proud of you.

He heard the shower go on. Jean hadn’t finished his coffee. He stuck it back in the microwave for him for later, and went to get dressed in turn. The quarter had just started. He couldn’t give in to skipping classes this early, now could he?


Ereeeeeennnnn!

It was either extremely comical or extremely pathetic the way a group of grown men called his name like they actually knew him. Levi went with comical, rolling his eyes over a grin of secondhand pride as the greater part of Erwin’s bachelor party gravitated to greet his boyfriend at the door. Look at those one-armed hugs and fist-bumps and hair-tousles, like Eren Jäger was some cherished and very-missed brother or something. He had that effect on people.

(Needless to say, they were quite a few beers into Mr. Smith’s bachelor party already.)

Wedding-planning websites like “The Knot” advised bachelor parties timed up to a month before the actual wedding, which seemed pretty safe, in all honesty. Petra’s bachelorette was two weeks closer; Hanji had confided to Levi earlier at the station, with a serious glance singing songs of secrecy and friendly doubts, “They decided the two weeks between the bachelor and bachelorette would be the mad dash to get everything planned so Petra can relax for her party. I mean, they have florists picked out, and a baker picked out, and they booked the venue, but that’s about it. They don’t even have a DJ. They don’t even have a schedule or invitations. We were up all night last night trying to pick bridesmaid dresses but Nifa’s making it real fucking hard because Petra wants to please everyone but pleasing everyone means a lot of last minute decisions and snacking on Cheerios to prevent heart attacks.”

“…Huh,” was all Levi had had to offer by way of answer, and Hanji had narrowed her eyes at him like he was being a little shit but he wasn’t, not really, it was just kind of nice to see Mr. and Mrs. Perfect fraying at the seams a little. Erwin Smith, the Plan Guy—without any plans? Choice.

What happened after the wedding, by the way? What happened when Smith and Raal were legally bound in holy matrimony? Petra was not rearranging Levi’s living room or redecorating the kitchen. And what about when the lease was up in November? Were they renewing it the same as always then, or…was there going to be a change in rentership?

Here, in what was still a shared marriageless metrosexual living space, all the guys had gathered and broken out the pre-bar booze. Per tradition, engagement band was safely stowed. Bets were being made on how good Nile was at darts anymore, and how many numbers Erwin could collect from ladies who thought he was single. Numbers that would be, of course, responsibly lost, but the fun was all in the acquisition, wasn’t it?

“Hey, brat,” Levi welcomed when Eren finally made it through the door and greeted him at the couch, leaning down into Levi’s waiting hand for a tender little kiss.

“Hey, babe,” Eren breathed on his lower lip. Mm, he smelled good. Fresh out of the shower. Young and hot and ready to rock and roll.

“Ugh, God, Levi, I’m not drunk enough for that yet—”

Woo, get some, Ackerman—”

“Lay off, Nile, your negativity reeks of closeted curiosity.”

“They call that resistance to repressed unconscious material, good sirs.”

“His dad’s a psychologist, Nile.”

“Have a beer, Eren, have a beer…”

“I did my curiosity thing in college, dickhead!”

Levi whispered against Eren’s ear, “Did you bring what I asked?”

Eren smirked his work smirk and shook loose of Levi’s hot fingers. “Oh, did I…”

The look of astonishment on Erwin’s face when he realized the double meaning of Eren’s presence was absolutely, deliciously priceless.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Levi husked, leering at Erwin around his beer. “He does bachelorette parties all the time, apparently. This isn’t that different, is it?”

The boys were in a hooting, hollering, knee-slapping uproar as Levi hurried to get some better music pumping and Eren climbed up on the island counter between kitchen and living room, flashing Erwin a patented Jaeger Bomb wink-and-grin, pointing with finger-guns. Pow.

“This one’s for you, big guy. I won’t tell the lady if you won’t. Your life of single man freedom is going out with a bang.”

Oh shit!

“Ha ha ha!”

“You’re fucking kidding me, right…?”

Levi…

Erwin was a stammering, laughing, blushing mess behind the palm of his hand, which guarded the large O his mouth had become in humiliated surprise. Hilarious. Erwin didn’t get nearly enough flack for his past homosexuality, especially not in the wake of his heterosexual commitments, so he deserved it. Besides, Levi’s well-known mishaps usually saved him from the glare of all that spotlight. You’re welcome.

Luckily, the cult of male friendship had strict regulations for homophobia—that was to say, homophobia was a social invention, and quite often a result of deindividuation, so as nature decreed, with a group of relatively liberal, mature, self-sure, and moderately buzzed men, there was no threat to one’s masculinity, no need to insist on machismo or protect one’s image, and having a male stripper at a good friend’s bachelor party became all fun and games.

Eren started on the island counter, body moving to the beat first. Leaning. Gentle undulations. One foot firmly planted, the other rising up on the toes. He was in those Adidas snap pants Levi had come to absolutely adore, and a loose T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off beach bum style. Like a guy you’d see at the gym; like a frat boy lounging in a dorm; no unnecessary flamboyance or embellishments, just man and that was it. God, the lines he blurred. The stereotypes he broke. The rules he questioned. He was revolution in a wicked laugh and fiery eyes.

The shirt came off. Laughter, whistles, shouts, cheers. Look at that physique, fine-tuned and precious. Corona dangling from his fingers, Levi was mellowed out enough not to worry about footprints on his clean countertop. You know who knew where that thin treasure trail led? Levi knew. And it led to satiny skin and a tiny bit of manscaping stubble. There it was, the calling card crouch. Bounce. On the balls of his feet, on his back, thrust to the beat with hands clasped on the edge of the counter. Up. Knees locked again. Lean to the front. Back it up. Put that stupid “wopping” to some use. Show off that ass.

Ha! Make it rain—”

“What a fucking show.”

“I don’t have any ones!”

“I’ve got ones.”

“I gotta save my ones for the bar!”

“I take plastic, baby.”

It was a joke. Eren did not expect any money from Levi’s friends; this was for fun. It was a joke to slip a credit card in Eren’s waistband, too, but it was a joke they all shared and Eren laughed that black magic laugh again, slithering down off the island counter and making his way across the living room to where Moblit and Mike had positioned Erwin for the inevitable lap dance.

Daaamn!

“Erwin, can I take a picture?”

No—” With Eren draped on him like a courtesan hanging off the shoulder of the sultan—okay, fuck the imagery, he was a stripper in the heat of a lap dance—Erwin flung an arm over the back of the chair as if his jabbing finger was enough to keep Nile from snapping a cell phone shot. “No, God damn it, I swear to God—” And then he was all in stitches again, deep velvety chuckles threading through the layered voices, laughter, music.

And Eren stared Erwin down, with those blazing honey eyes of his, shoulders rising, falling, back stretching, muscles tensing. Fingers running up his own body, circling his own chest, closing on his own nipples and then diving back down to snap the waistband of his shorts on soft skin. Threw a leg up, foot planted right between Erwin’s thighs, guided Erwin’s hand to explore between the snaps of his pants as a mad smirk livened his face. He knew what he was doing. He knew what this was—to Erwin, to Levi. He understood the unspokens in this moment and he reveled in them, didn’t he? The little fucker

Or was this one of those moments where Levi expected him to have razor-sharp insight only for Eren to turn around all goofy and oblivious?

Erwin’s jaw was tight; Levi recognized the spark in his eyes. He was enjoying this, definitely. He was well aware of Levi’s scrutiny, but he was also buzzed, and he covetously squeezed Eren’s thigh and Eren laughed and ran his hands through Erwin’s blond hair before yanking away to finish his dance.

Pants, off. Again, backing it up. Dropping to his haunches. Very slowly, very sensually, rising back up between Erwin’s knees. At the same sultry speed, he wound all the way up, hips swiveling, thumbs adjusting the ride of his shorts. Turned, threw another leg up, held Erwin by the collar of his fancy shirt and rolled, rolled, rolled, someone’s credit card peeking out the waistband of his boxer briefs and plastered at one end to sweaty gluteus medius fascia.

Levi sat back.

This was gratifying in the strangest way, to watch his current boyfriend half-dressed and moving so erotically mere breaths away from his ex-boyfriend’s hips. That ass he knew, so close to that dick he knew—greedy, something so twisted and darkly greedy about it, wild, fantastic. Was there another shiver of pride in there? Yes, probably. My Eren is doing this to you. It was a collision of past and present and it was so sweet in action. He’d never tell Eren that. He’d never tell Erwin that. Maybe.

“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s hit downtown!”

“Who’s DD?”

“We could take a taxi?”

“No, the bus runs until super late…”

“I need cologne, hold on—”

“Eren, you coming with us?”

“No way, I feel like I’d throw you all off.”

“Come on, one drink, buddy. Levi will sulk all night without you.”

“Um. Will not, thank you very much.”

“One shot, here, before I go. Because I have to go. I have a paper to write. Unbelievable, right? So early in the quarter and I already have a paper due.”

Why do you tell people about those things?

What—

Why do you tell people about those things? Erwin had asked before, when The Talk was still new and proving itself. All those things about your personal life, private moments you shared with other people? So the world can judge you and you can play victim? So the world can praise you and you can find some warped sense of pride in your mistakes and misadventures, so you don’t have to worry about learning your lesson, so you don’t have to look back and feel like a failure, or feel pain, or loneliness? Promise me one thing, Levi. Don’t EVER—don’t you EVER—talk about me on that show.

I don’t talk about you, Erwin. I’ve never talked about you on The Talk. I—

I won’t be another notch in your bedpost. I won’t be another short on your show.

Yeah, but clearly I’m just a notch to you.

You don’t know a single thing, Levi. And that’s why we couldn’t ever work out. Something’s got you stuck in the past. So fucking stuck in the past, you’re making a living out of it instead of growing up.

It’s you, you big dummy. You egotistic motherfucker. It’s you, the way you looked at me when you said you loved me so long ago, more than ten years ago, and then—and then you just turned around, and you walked away—

“I’m breaking up with her.”

Levi stumbled so hard against the side of the couch in the dark apartment that he actually lost his balance, sitting down heavily like he’d been pushed.

He turned, frantically, seeking out Erwin in the shadows. His head was still spinning from the walk up the stairs from the cab. They’d hit the bars after he’d kissed Eren good-bye; they’d painted the town any color, every color, all the colors of the fucking rainbow; they’d had such a good time; Erwin had a lipstick kiss on one napkin with one girl’s number; and Erwin stood looking disheveled and distressed, collar crooked, slouched in his leather jacket, wide guilty eyes catching the moonlight from the open windows as his brows knotted so deep, it shaved a few years off his handsome face.

Come again?” Levi spat.

“I’m breaking up with her,” Erwin confessed a second time, and this time he sounded infinitely more assertive.

“Erwin—” Levi could hardly believe him. Okay, it wasn’t like he hadn’t expected it at some point, but that was his own shit. That was his own bitter resentful streak. And he hadn’t really prepared himself for when the expected came to actually be. “Erwin,” he said again, “why? You’re happy. You’re going to get married. You’re going to have a wife, and kids, and family Christmases like you’ve always wanted, and—”

Erwin threw his jacket down and strutted over to sit beside Levi, uttering a sound of impatience and distaste.

This was a slap in the face. No, wrong feeling summoned by that phrase. This was…out of left field. Right? Whatever.

He had to be there for him.

They’d just finished up his bachelor party, for Christ’s sake, and he was closing the night with Never mind, I don’t want to anymore. Here it was, the same old pattern. And now Levi had to be an accomplice to the secret like accidentally witnessing a crime, or something. It was unfair, but he had to be there for him. He’d been a broken record, harping on Erwin about working out his own personal drama; here Erwin was, inviting him into that very landmine of unspoken fears and insecurities, and after the initial urge to spout, Ha, I was right,Levi really did want to be there for him. He was the troubled one, after all; he was the problem child of their friends circle, but now it was his chance to impart some of the wisdom he’d discovered in the last few months. He was ready for it. Heartburn and cancer, right?

Why?” Levi said again. “Erwin, are you freaked? Are you getting cold feet? Is it because nothing’s planned? Look, I’ll help you plan things. Look, I’ve got your back, okay? Erwin—you can’t do this to her, not again. This shit gets old, you know? Just—why? What happened—”

“You damn well know why,” Erwin seethed. Sitting beside him now, the light hit the back of him; it was an angry, hunched silhouette that beseeched Levi, and it was a little intimidating. “You’re taunting me now,” the shadow fumed. The shadow’s breath reeked of alcohol, but its words were firm, its words were raw. “Do you want to be with me or not, Levi?”

Ba-bump.

“I’m with someone!” Levi fired back, in absolute disbelief.

Ba-bump.

Why was he shaking? He’d had one too many beers to think logically. Sudden surges of mixed emotions roiled inside him like an angry tide—here he was, utterly free of toxic feelings, here he was, with Eren, here he was, happy, and—how dare Erwin turn around and drop this bomb? He wasn’t even excited to hear Erwin was thinking about leaving Petra, like he thought he would be a while ago, back before he’d had a little renewal of self. No, he was enraged. How dare Erwin spring this on him—how dare he come crawling back after the hell he’d put him through, jerking him around and around—

Erwin had recoiled. In fact, he’d flinched back like Levi had physically swung at him. Levi could feel his shadow changing; he didn’t have to look at him to know the embarrassed shock that had written itself upon his face, like he hadn’t meant to ask. Do you want to… The grimace was eclipsed quickly by a deep pain whose name neither of them dared to speak.

Why, why did it hurt so much to say: “You lost your chance, Erwin Smith. You lost your fucking chance.”

“Well,” Erwin hissed back, eyes hardening, and then his voice, with that unspeakable ache connecting them both, “the way you look at me…”

He trailed off. That was all he had to say. Levi flew to his feet; he felt fit to pacing, hands clenching, unclenching. But he couldn’t even pace a straight line, damn it. The pain was contagious. His chest had tightened with it, locked, like something in there was rusting, rotting, dying all over again. He could put the fucked-up psychology of it all into a prettier design tomorrow, but right now… Right now he couldn’t handle it. He was sick with it. He was irritated and too impatient; he was fighting it with all he had because he was very afraid of deciding Erwin might not be the swell guy he’d always thought, that maybe he was fickle and unreliable and Levi would have to help clean up his messes the rest of his life if he chose to continue this friendship. Clean up his messes and walk on egg-shells around his Rich Hunk manipulation, because maybe it had nothing to do with Levi at all, maybe Erwin was just a really fucked up guy and Levi was merely a puppet for his well-scripted stage show—

Morning. Morning and coffee would bring clarity. Night and booze burps would bring nothing but chaos and misunderstanding. His head was pounding already. Erwin wanted a revelation; he wanted to figure himself out, find some new resolution. But Levi couldn’t do this conversation, not right now.

“I’m going to bed,” Levi edged out hatefully.

“Levi—please, I’m being so serious here—I can’t marry her. You were right about all that. I’m forcing it. I… I don’t know what to do—”

“God damn it, Erwin!” Levi sputtered, pivoting violently at his bedroom door. He wished he sounded a lot colder and less like crying. He wished Erwin looked more like Rich Selfish Jerk and less like Vulnerable Confused Blast From the Past, standing there desperate by the couch with no light in his oh so bright blue eyes. “Can’t you just let me be happy with Eren?”

He slammed his door before Erwin could draw a breath to answer.

He locked it for good measure. Like he used to. When they were dating. And fighting badly. And all he’d needed for satisfaction was the sound of Erwin jiggling the locked doorknob and pleading, “Levi, let me in, I’m sorry…” Like a dog at the back door, scratching for attention. Pet me, praise me, reward me, love me.  

He paced again at the edge of his bed, shaking still with that tipsy, thinly concealed alarm.

He was terribly aware of a distinct and uncomfortable apprehension, building inside, like they were drawing near to a finish line. Levi couldn’t figure out who, or whether it was good or bad. It portended big change. The fury was quickly deteriorating into a sick sort of fear—he’d accepted it, after all. Erwin was going to marry Petra, and things were going to be different but they were still going to be okay. He’d accepted it but now what the fuck was going on? Wasn’t Erwin as fed up with this roller coaster as he was? How many more times were they going to have this same depressing tango? Levi was tired of it. Wasn’t Erwin tired of it? This same game, this same song, this same bullshit—always somehow for some reason winding up right back at square one. Come back, I need you, do you want me, or not?

“Lost in Translation,” he’d written for the 102.9 Valentine’s Day blog post.

And that was as far as Levi got with the feeling. It was just a thick, suffocating blanket of dread that felt like the weight of the world coming to perch once again on his narrow shoulders.

The living room was empty when Levi tiptoed out to rummage for some Nyquil; he needed help getting to sleep.

The living room was empty, and Erwin’s bedroom door was closed, and Erwin’s TV was on, and Erwin’s lights were off, and Levi stood staring with clammy hands at the bedroom door deeply tormented by the urge to barge in and finish this discussion now.

But he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. He didn’t even know what to say. He was dumbfounded and still a little incensed. He pounded half a dose of Nyquil and waited for the doxylamine succinate to work its magic.


end ch. 18

Chapter Text

“This is ‘The Stranger,’ Molly speaking.”

“Hey, Molly—this is Levi Ackerman—”

“Oh, yeah—the journalist from 102.9, right?”

“Right.”

“Hey, dude, I love your show, by the way. Your lunchtime nineties, and stuff. Everyone tries to do that throwback hour but no one plays the real good tracks like you and Hanji.”

“Ah… Thank you, Molly. I was just looking for Shane to check on the status of my application…”

“Yeah, Shane said he’d be calling you back by the end of the week if he’s interested. Hey, are you on your way to the station right now?”

“Actually, yeah…”

“That’s so cool. You know, I wanted to be a radio DJ for a long time when I was little. Eh, went into something more practical…”


Hanji’s place was comfortable like a second home, like going to family for the holidays or a childhood friend’s. They made a mess of the kitchen putting together a hot pot stew—udon, and sirloin, and mushrooms, the works—but Mike wouldn’t mind as long as all the dirty dishes were in the sink and the countertops were unharmed. It was maybe a tad too fancy for a Friday night at home, but they bummed it up by eating in their pajamas watching Scrubs.

Utterly indiscreetly, Hanji stared at him during commercials.

After seeing the same shaving cream commercial three times, Levi looked up angrily, working out the tension in his mouth by grumbling around the straw in his drink, “What?”

Hanji shrugged. “Nothing, just… We haven’t done this in a while, huh?”

Levi nodded. It was, unfortunately, very true, and he hated what it implied. “I know. I’m sorry. We have to hang out more—”

“No, not hanging out. The whole ‘I’m not comfortable to be at home with Erwin thing.’ Haven’t done that in a while, I’m saying.”

Levi almost bit his tongue, savagely scraping vegetables off his fork. Ah, what a travesty, there were no chopsticks in the house. Wiping broth off his lower lip, he threw Hanji a scornful glance.

“What are you talking about?”

“Levi, baby, I can read you like an open book. What’s going on now? Is it the wedding? It’s the wedding, right? I’d be uncomfortable, too, you know. You’ve got feelings. Feelings don’t make you a criminal.”

“He’s breaking up with her.”

The silence that dropped as they just stared at each other was the most relaxing silence Levi had experienced in a good few days.

Hanji slowly raised her brows, while at the same time, her mouth deepened the other way. She didn’t think he was bullshitting. She didn’t think he was starting shit. She knew he was telling the truth, and that was the worst part.

After a long moment, Hanji stirred from thought. She stood, stretched a little, went for her purse. “Hey,” she husked, “it’s only nine-ish. Let’s run over to Starbucks for some lemon pound cake, it goes really good with this coffee I just bought…”

Hanji made a French press brew of Kati Kati. She tried to teach Levi to do a coffee tasting. Levi’s tongue was too burned from the pseudo hot pot. He regaled her on the closing ceremonies of Erwin’s bachelor party, and apologized miserably for not telling her right away. He’d been trying not to think about it.

See, the morning after Erwin’s bachelor party had definitely brought the expected clarity. Nyquil had kissed away the usual bags under his eyes, his hair had been atrocious, but he’d felt sober in almost every situational sense of the word. Maybe it was a little vindictive, but he’d felt considerably at peace. Er, void of spite, at least. The revelations inside were like something carved of ice, of crystal, of fine fragile features, but they were stuck there, inside. He had felt them—minutely carved, definitive, concrete—but they would not uproot themselves from the place of epiphanies and inner monologues, and so the morning, while full of clarity, had also been very quiet.

“Morning,” he’d grunted to Erwin.

“Morning,” Erwin had hummed back. “I left you some coffee.”

“Thank you.”

“What are you doing for dinner?”

“Fuck if I know.”

“I’m going out with Petra. If I don’t see you after work, I’ll see you tomorrow…”

“Yeah.”

Ah, yes. That graceless, defenseless tap dance of words, tripping over stifled emotions and twirling through a landmine of unspokens. Erwin knew he’d crossed a line the night before. Erwin was going to bring it up again, but—not now. Not when he looked so defeated, and weary, and distracted, all cold dark eyes and fake smile. Not when the first thing he had to address was I’m not marrying her. He was a more carefully-worded man than that.

Levi hadn’t said anything. Levi had kept very quiet, mouth bitten into a thin line, watching Erwin with the most harmless presence he could consciously manage because—well, it would take a monster to lunge at that one, seize the moment by the throat and hiss, Are you breaking up with her tonight? Did you mean what you said last night? What the fuck is going on, big guy?

But Levi was not a monster; and Levi was Erwin’s only best friend, as sad as that was; and Levi knew Erwin and Levi knew what it was like to be picked at like a loose scab; and so Levi, in a moment of utter kindness and sympathy and a knot like lead in his gut, said nothing of the sort.

He said, “Have a good night, Erwin. Call if you need anything.”

Fixing his shirt at the mirror near his door before grabbing his things and hurrying out because rush hour mattered to him, Erwin nodded. “Same, Levi. Have a good night.”

“Well…”

Hanji picked at the corner of her little lemon cake, sitting curled up opposite Levi against the arm of the couch. Their feet met in the middle; her bare painted toes prodded at his socked ones. “Well, that’s really fucking awful of him, you know, but… Man, he really asked you that? If you wanted to be with him again?”

“Yeah.”

“What a prick, man.”

“He’s pathological, right?”

“Hmm, he’s also your friend, though. And I mean, Levi, you’ve wanted to be with him since…ever, so… No offense.”

Levi cringed inwardly. Leave it to a best friend to cut right to the terrible, personal, dirty chase. Best friends did not specialize in lip service, God damn it.

“No,” Levi husked, thankful for the blaring chaos of another round of commercials on the TV because it made his words feel smaller and less loaded than they were, “it’s the truth. I’m sick. I’d go running back to him any day and we all know that. That… That makes me a real shitty person, huh? I feel like a failure. I really thought I got over him but the more I avoid him after the other night, the more it doesn’t seem so crazy. …Me and him, I mean. Me and him again. It’s just—it’s a little late for him to realize I was right about things. It’s—he’s a bully, you know? I don’t want to give in again. I’m tired of him always getting what he wants. He needs to learn a lesson. I’m over it. I’m with Eren! And Mr. Shitty Rich Hunk Smith wants to destroy all I’ve worked so hard to rebuild? He wants to waltz in and stomp all over my sand castle?”

Hanji issued a little matter-of-fact gesture, washing lemon pound cake down with coffee. She licked her lips; she looked completely on Levi’s side, shaking her head and just marveling bitterly at Mr. Shitty Rich Hunk Smith’s latest capers. But then she opened her mouth and what she said was not at all what Levi had expected.

“You don’t have to let him in your sandbox,” she chastised.

Levi had no words for that. How could she imply he was also in the wrong here? He’d done nothing but try to shake Erwin away from him, to ascertain he was moving on, to get Erwin off his case about his life decisions, to prove Erwin’s new life could not hurt him because he was not stuck in the past and—

Hanji’s brow creased. A smile that looked an awful lot like a tiny frown at the same time passed across her face. “But you want him in your sandbox, don’t you?” she murmured, and it was as mellow and unassuming as just thinking out loud.

The hot pot and the coffee and the small light dessert were all starting to churn in Levi’s stomach, like a storm was kicking up inside. He felt antsy, fidgety, like some internal code was being violently marked up and rewritten.

He turned away from Hanji and went back to Scrubs. Stubbornly, he ignored the last of her staring and poured himself another tiny cup of the coarse brew, hoping it might settle him with its sweet steam and earthy tang.

Unfortunately, the Scrubs episode was over.

The finality of the credits irritated him.

“Jesus, I have some on DVR, give me a sec,” Hanji mumbled, scrambling for the remote.

She kissed his cheek before moving their dishes to the sink.


The List of Crazy Sex Things To Try was looking a little sad as of late. Crinkled, and folded enough times to make its edges soft, and finger-smudged in some corners, and stained with a splash of coffee in others. It had seen quite some time resigned to a pocket, a notebook, the face of a refrigerator held up by a very sarcastic violently yellow smiley-face magnet. It had been hamburger-style for so long now, it required a little extra help to keep it open all the way, textbook here, mug of tea there, and lines of ink and pencil slashing viciously through Things accomplished.

“What else is there?” Levi hummed, tapping his foot on the edge of the coffee table.

Eren shrugged. “Sex against the wall seems kind of boring now that I know you’ve done it with someone else.”

Ouch. Boring. The word was like a pinched nerve or the twitch of a tired eye. Levi sighed. “It’s not at all as exciting as you’d think. We’re not the right size difference for it, either.”

“Oh… Sad day. Hmm… Angry sex? Makeup sex? I can’t just get angry on command, though.”

 “Really, Eren? You can’t?”

“Ha! Okay, well…”

It was another soggy night; lounging on the couch in a fresh sweater and pajama pants was magic, flipping through news shows and entertainment channels, listening to the dishwasher hum and Eren breathe softly and slowly, concentrated on texting his friends rather than keeping up with celebrities or anchored atrocities. His toes wiggled under Levi’s leg. The sweetness of his hair and skin and tiny bite of laundry detergent on his T-shirt was all too delicious, the kind of thick tantalizing scent like incense or other aromatics that was supposed to really work holistic wonders.

The List of Crazy Sex Things sat pried open on the coffee table.

Eren put his phone down with a purpose, turning to Levi in the nest of couch pillows. “What haven’t you done?”

Levi laughed. He thought about it, realizing how lofty his laugh had made him seem. He shrugged. “Have sex in someone else’s bed?”

“Really? Something that normal?”

“Ah… Yeah.”

Eren hunched over the coffee table, pulling a pen out of Levi’s stack of work papers. He scribbled some amount of chicken-scratch, then leaned back to proudly show Levi the revised Crazy Sex Things. “Hey, would you look at that,” he beamed, “it’s on the List now. Let’s do it. Your roommate is out. You said he’d be out all night. Fuck sex in the kitchen or whatever we were talking about, let’s totally do it in your roommate’s bed…”

How dirty. How utterly bold and depraved. How telling that despite having met Erwin enough to be allowed to call him by name, Eren still referred to him as roommate, standing guard at that line between impersonal and personal, insignificant and significant, unimportant and…important.

“I’ll have to wash the sheets—”

“Yeah, duh, I’ll help you. But the point is—”

“I know. I know, I get the point. You are some special kind of twisted, Eren Jäger.”

Eren’s hand was some special kind of warm in his, prying, pleading with fingertips, swirling Helen Keller arabesques on his inner wrist and lower palm. Tickled. Levi tightened his grip and caught Eren right outside Erwin’s bedroom doorway—creak. There went that tattletale floorboard. Gentle smack of mouths as the kiss started and then broke apart again, and Eren propositioned with a teasing knee, wiggling impatiently in Levi’s embrace.

Sex in someone else’s bed, huh…? How absolutely bad of them. Levi wasn’t opposed. Eren was hard to resist. Eren was…impossible to resist. Eren’s sweet warm kisses distracted him from the great guilt breeding with dread in the back of his mind to be invading Erwin’s space like this. This was wrong; this was just sort of mean. Right? It was like dancing on his grave or something. Ha ha, you’ve got cold feet because I was always right and by the way, I had sex in your bed while you were out—

Ah, yeah.

Erwin’s bedroom.

Windows with drawn but open blinds, soft city night leaking through, black Folldal bed and that stupid Ikea dresser that had caused them so much grief, all themed in cool blues and grays and modernist décor. The bed was half-made; the lights on the cable box under the TV were like watching eyes. Erwin’s stupidly expensive pajama pants were draped over the edge of his bed and Levi moved them respectfully before Eren knocked them off, jumping up into the mess of blankets and pillows and waiting there for Levi, all sexy mischief and mayhem.

“This is awful,” Levi reproved, though it met great opposition in the way the stretch of Eren’s body, peek of flesh under the T-shirt, curl of fingers above the head, was turning him on in the most defenseless way. “We are awful people…”

“But it’s hot, right?”

“Yeah. It’s hot.” Multidimensional hot. “Well, let’s get to it, then,” Levi purred, stripping off his shirt and letting it fall somewhere, anywhere, on Erwin’s off-white carpet.

Hard, biting kisses. Playful tongues. Grinding hips, knocking together like two chips of flint, sparking a thoughtless lust. Took a moment or two to get hard, but—ahh… There it was, and Eren was on his knees already. Dimples, right there, at the tailbone. Fingers digging into slappable flesh. Back arching like a cat, nails grazing the scalp under the hair, hips rolling at an enduring pace. In… Pause. In… Pause. Harder, deeper, tension of quaking legs, aching wrists—shit, hip cramp. Always a hip cramp in this position. Pulse of muscles relaxing, opening up for each thrust.

Nngh, Levi—”

Tickle in the nerves of erotica, sensation, sex. Sex, sex, sex, sex with Eren, smell of sex, taste of sex, heat of sex, tangled up, dropping hickeys on the slope of the throat, voice vibrating through a ribcage and against a racing heartbeat, faster, harder, faster, deeper, harder, harder, slap.

“Fuck… Fuck…!”

Eren’s arm gave out weakly and he ate a faceful of Erwin’s pillows. He offered an embarrassed laugh. The laugh became a gasp in an instant and then dissolved into a low, mollified moan. He scrambled for purchase; his fingers locked in a pillow. He clutched it to his head, hiding.

The familiar smell of Erwin on the pillow and the comforters hit Levi hard.

It was like he hadn’t been breathing until this moment. He was so hard. His hands tightened in the sheets. The pillow was between them and Eren trembled beneath him, moaning, writhing, one hand searching between his own legs for simultaneous stimulation—

The smell of Erwin consumed Levi.

Throw, throw the hips. Eyes squeezed shut. Sweet, soft blond hair. Chiseled jaw. Little bit of peach fuzz when the alarm clock went off. Gravel in the voice as he woke up, a lazy lion. Fingers walking the angles of Levi’s side. Heartbeat, under his. Laughter. House Hunters International. Petra? Tiny whiff of Petra, fleeting, faraway, like a flicker of headlights across a dark room. More of Erwin, Erwin’s smell. The smell Levi had known since high school. Sticking to the leather in a Cadillac. Shaking from the exertion. Shaking from the feelings. Precious skin, morning kisses, tight warm embraces and lying together, lying together, lying together—

Levi’s hands shook in the bedding as he supported himself, rocking, thrusting, fucking, driving down fast and rough. The mechanics of pleasure were just appalling, weren’t they? He took a slow deep breath, filled himself with the scent of Erwin, came.

He came hard. His voice cracked, a failed string of obscenities. His hair fell in his eyes as he buckled downward, for a split second.

Haah—” Eren’s bitten-down nails scraped his fingers as he scrambled to lace their hands together, shoving the pillow away, and—stop. No. Levi white-knuckled the pillow in place, picking up the pace. Yup, there it was, the rare buddy system orgasm. Prostate stimulation, probably. Shit, it was an awful thing to think so clinically about a moment like this. He was a terrible person. Shit, the way Eren milked the last of the climactic shudders out of him, the way his insides pulsed and his body bucked for ejaculation.

Daze of release. Muscles tingling, heart fluttering.

Still twitching with a few stray neural impulses, like hiccups, sexual hiccups, Eren squirmed beneath him. He emerged from under the pillow, looking…somewhat shocked. His breath was short. Levi could feel his heart thudding, thudding, with their bodies stuck together like this. Eren’s wide eyes searched out Levi’s face, brow knotting. It was a strange fearful sort of look, and Levi didn’t like it.

“What?” he murmured, raining kisses around Eren’s face and neck and ears. “What is it? Hey, you’re shaking.”

Eren swallowed. He moved a little, uttered a tiny hiss and sigh at the fresh soreness once Levi pulled out. He shrugged and folded his arms on Erwin’s pillow, shoving some hair out of his eyes with a weak palm. “No, it’s nothing,” he gasped, “that… That was just really good…”

“Good,” Levi whispered. And then he nudged Eren’s naked thigh with one sticky knee, coaxing him out of the ruined blankets so he could gather the sheets to wash.


There were so-so orgasms. There were great orgasms. There were humiliating orgasms, orgasms you didn’t want to talk about, conscious orgasms and accidental orgasms and the orgasms you staved off quickies and masturbation for, orgasms you just let break you down, orgasms that left you uncomfortable and raw.

Something was bothering Levi.

Eren could tell. Something seemed weird. Something felt like that First Fight, about the ratings thing, in the kitchen, after the creep at work. Something felt like after dinner with Levi’s parents and realizing he could so easily misread his boyfriend. Something felt like stumbling upon Levi and Erwin talking alone together on New Year’s Eve, like interrupting someone else’s party. Something was just off and it had been all day; it was partially his reasoning behind turning to the List for fun in the first place.

No, nothing, that…that was just really good…

No, nothing, it was just…

The fucking pillow.

Levi’s fist had been a clear outline, balled in the pillow, holding it there against the back of Eren’s neck as he’d pounded into him, throbbed inside him, came like crazy.

Yeah, good idea, you fucking idiot. Have sex in the ex-boyfriend’s bed. That had quickly hit a deeper, darker chord than initially intended, hadn’t it?

He’s not a bad guy, Eren. It’s just what happens when you…

Levi, Erwin may still love you. But if he’s doing nothing… You need someone who goes out of their way to make it obvious they want you in their life…

Yeah, but now that Eren was thinking about it—thinking about everything—maybe overthinking everything—

Eren didn’t want to think about it.

Was there anything to think about?

Cleaned up, waiting for Levi in his bed, Eren stared at the wall and picked at a loose thread in Levi’s comforter. He heard the laundry going. Heard Levi pause to smoke on the balcony. He tiptoed out to join him, bumming with an open palm and no words. Everything was sore but he wasn’t so sure it was the good sore.

Something just didn’t feel right.

“Love you, brat,” Levi mumbled.

God damn it, Eren swooned. But yes, there was something off in that silky timbre of Levi’s, like he knew something Eren didn’t. Like he wasn’t saying something important. Like he was hiding something. Like something was eating at him. Maybe it was that he felt guilty for what they’d done; he was secretly a good guy like that, anyway. And it was kind of fucked up that they’d—

It hit Eren, then.

Shot right through him as swiftly as an arrow through poor beautiful St. Sebastian on the post. Took his breath away with the quiver.

Oh.

Like a storm finally being blown in over the sun—that was what it was, huh?

He’s still in love with Erwin.

His dad, once, had paraphrased some great thinker or another, years ago when he and Eren had spent an afternoon together sadly reminiscing about the first Mrs. Jäger. He’d said:

“‘The universe is not obligated to make sense to you.’”

Eren had been irritated by the sentiment then; it was only later in life he’d finally gotten the hopeless mystique of such a statement. But it fucking sucked, in all honesty. Seemed downright unfair. No, not unfair. And not right or wrong, either. It just…was. And the universe made him feel both sick to his stomach and steely with defiance.

He’s still in love with Erwin.

His mouth was dry.

It was supposed to be a shock, right?

It didn’t feel like a shock. It felt like procrastination. It didn’t hurt him. Maybe he was overtired, but he felt too drained to be upset. It was like he’d already resigned to it somewhere in the unconscious. He was detached from all that drama; he had nothing to feel about it because it wasn’t his.

What was that saying? Sooner or later in life, the things you love you lose. Or what about that other one—Rather to have loved and lost than never loved at all.

Okay, he was being a little melodramatic now. But—what was love again, anyway?

Please, please don’t leave me here alone…

He wanted to ask. It was probably best to ask. You still love him, don’t you? No, that was a given. You’re still in love with him, aren’t you? He didn’t ask. Where the fuck were his balls? He couldn’t ask. It seemed intrusive; it seemed rude. Who was he to begrudge someone for their own feelings? Levi was his own person. Levi was with him right now. He was with Levi right now. Levi…

He craved Levi, he burned for him, he ached for him. But Levi’s fatal flaws were still a mystery to him, too. He didn’t feel like he had a right to go digging around through them, either. And weirdly enough, he was okay with that. Was that so eloquent of the nature of love, or selfishness, or just plain stupid?

That First Fight in the kitchen had been enough then, but hindsight presented it from a totally different angle. Yeah, 150, close-up. No wide-shot BS. Get right up in there and catch all the secrets of the scene. No, Levi was not using him for ratings. Yeah, Levi felt guilty from moving on from Erwin. Fuck Erwin. Except—shit, it was all making so much sense now. It wasn’t that Erwin couldn’t let go. It was Levi. It was that Levi was still in love with him. It was that Levi didn’t even realize this secret of his yet. Under the stars, on his balcony, Levi’s tender, loving smile drove that home and wasn’t that just the most powerful irony in all the world, or what?

It was like watching a tragedy from the sidelines, witnessing but powerless. There, but not quite, like listening to a car alarm go off blocks away for minutes on end. Worried, but desensitized, habituated, divorced from action and unaffected.

Eren really should have asked.

He leaned on the edge of the balcony, cocked a brow Levi’s way and flicked cigarette ash down into the potted plants of the neighbors below. He couldn’t figure out anything else to say but, “Love you is different from in love with you, you know that, right?”

Levi’s face darkened—like worry, like annoyance, like impatience. Like he wasn’t sure what Eren was getting at. Eren wasn’t either, though. That was the God damn trouble.

Levi opened his mouth; he closed his mouth. He slipped a hand along Eren’s side, stroking a thumb on a sliver of exposed flesh. Eren didn’t blame him for not having an answer. Whether or not there was something dark and dangerous to think about, what was Levi supposed to say? I know, I’m not in love with you or I know, I’m in love with you. Both held connotations far beyond the capacity of the moment’s structural integrity and Eren wasn’t entirely ready to deal with either, let alone decide which he wanted to hear. This weird limbo was safe and better safe than sorry, right?

“Sorry,” Eren grumbled, stubbing out the bummed smoke and swatting Levi’s hand away. He wasn’t upset or mad so much as he just felt…bruised. Heavy. Guilty for knowing. Like he’d seen something he shouldn’t have, eavesdropped on something dissatisfying. “Sometimes I think out loud.”

“Stop thinking,” Levi whispered. It was placatory, succoring. Again for the umpteenth time, Eren wished he could read Levi’s distant smiles. God, Levi had been so right about all that—fatal flaws and what-not. He just couldn’t decode these moods of Mr. Radio’s, not even after eight months. He hated it. But there was something comforting about that unknown territory. It was awful to know every part of someone.

He’s still in love with Erwin.

Stop it. It’s bullshit. It’s not worth worrying about right now; shove that fucker back into the unconscious for Passive Problem Solving.

He’s still in love with Erwin.

Stop. Forget about it. Was there something wrong with him that he just…accepted it?

Levi smoothly transitioned from the swatting hand to bury his fingers in Eren’s hair. The touch melted him. The touch said, You’re being fucking stupid. Eren leaned into it like a cat seeking affection. He was. He was being fucking stupid. Shake it off; shake it off. And he really hated the taste of menthol in the smoke but he didn’t mind it so much on Levi’s tongue as they kissed there under the string of porch lights, tentative, tender, lingering seal of mouths. He drank in Levi’s sigh, shivers sparking down his spine. Forget about it. Forget about what?

He was too tired to logic through this. Maybe it was a testament to self-destruction, but it was surprisingly easy to shrug off. The moment of panic was there and then gone just as quickly, taking with it the nervous pain in his chest. Everything was fine. Eren swallowed the words burning on the back of his tongue like heartburn. He didn’t want to worry the man that made him melt inside. He didn’t want to invade on feelings that didn’t belong to him. He didn’t feel betrayed; he didn’t doubt Levi cared for him; just sometimes it was a conscious effort to practice what he preached when kneejerk emotion was so potent and God, he was exhausted, couldn’t they lay down to sleep now? He was so beat, he was limping. The universe isn’t obligated, yeah, yeah, cool. And hey, they were Levi’s feelings, not his, so he wasn’t going to poke and prod at the embers for a blaze when he didn’t have to. If Levi realized he’d never left square one, mazel tov; if not, oh well. Right?

He’s still in love with Erwin.

The kiss burned its ghost onto his lower lip and Eren didn’t want to let go of the fashionably frayed edge of Levi’s Henley shirt so he just shuffled after him to the laundry to switch the wet sheets into the dryer.


Sound byte—wind-chimes, ocean breeze, waves lapping at the sand, a gong. “Quick-fire horoscopes!” Hanji cried, dancing a little jig in her seat behind the mic. “Ready?”

Go.”

“Gemini, some doors open, others close, but if all else fails, break in.”

“Taurus, you want off the hook. Life isn’t that easy, though.”

“Cancer, you’re good at guessing games. Not so this time of year. Sorry, pal.”

“Screw everyone, Leo. Not like that—like, eff them all.”

“Libra, you’re not ready.”

“Close, but no cigar, Pisces. Stop overthinking things and working yourself up.”

“Capricorn, there is never an easy way out and there is always a reason for everything.”

“Aquarius, are you being unrealistic? No. But try a different route.”

“Do you need a break, Virgo? Take a freaking break.”

“Scorpio, you’re still not taking care of you. Change that!”

“Sagittarius—so you screwed up, so what? Clean up your mess and move on with honor.”

“Aries, you’ve got your head in the clouds. Get your—” BLEEP. “—back in focus, my friend.”

Ident. No longer live. Rolling track, Nine Inch Nails, Copy of A.


Sunday, April 6. If there wasn’t a holiday, there was a friend’s birthday. Such was the life of an adult who knew the pain of budgeting paychecks.

Happy birthday, Jean!

When Armin drank tequila, his inborn ladykiller came out. Or so Reiner loved to tease.

When Mikasa pounded Hornitos, she danced like no one was watching, maybe even sang along like no one was listening, laughed like she never laughed when Jean grabbed her around the waist and swung her through the air.

“Jean! Stop! Stop!

When Jean let himself go, he was more worried about his denim jacket coming off his waist than his hair being all over the place. His tipsy smile was like midnight sunshine—or was that just moonlight, full of magic and mystery and wicked charm?

After presents and lame cards from work buddies and Skype sessions with friends in other time zones—Montana, France—there was cake from Conny who was back from Miami to dance off and Eren requested three different songs of the club DJ before the club DJ told him to fuck off. In the smoky dark of a Pioneer Square bar, glasses clinking, light bouncing, cell phones came for too many wasted selfies under dartboards and pub TVs, laughter and kisses and wrestling matches in flash.

“Wait, I look like shit, let’s do it again—”

“Oh my God, you look fine!

From – Levi: hope ur having fun tonight babe

 +Levi: what r u doing

 From – Levi: work

 +Levi: youre ok right?? ?

 From – Levi: u keep asking me if somethings wrong, nothing is wrong i’m fine Eren

 +Levi: i m drunk phones dying ahh miss u bye kisses hugs do no t fret we have DD

“Don’t make out!” they teased Armin and Jean. “Don’t start a bar fight!” they giggle-begged Mikasa. “Don’t throw up!” they comforted Reiner, who had made the awful mistake of beer before liquor.

It was just the six of them—Jean, Mikasa, Armin, Reiner, Conny, Eren. There was no I miss Marco in the birthday boy’s eyes. There were no work friends, or seventh wheel romantic partners playing satellite. No Bert, no poli-sci major, no Gunther, and when the bar played Journey, the new generation’s Free Bird, and everyone was belting along, Eren leaned his head on Jean’s shoulder. He swayed there, let Jean put his arm around his waist and drunkenly slow dance with him, because Eren felt like it conveyed much better than a hug that he knew how much the giftless, remorseless, loaded Happy birthday! from Mama Kirschtein earlier had torn Jean up inside. Nobody look; nobody point out this lonely closeness. It was theirs and it was longstanding and it was embarrassing and drunken people were given a few irrational freedoms, weren’t they?

It felt a lot like old times, and Eren basked in it.

Up 1st, away from Pioneer Square, beyond Pier 57 or even Pike Place, further than Denny but not quite as far as 15th, the Sunday night was not quite as rewarding.

Levi had graciously taken Hanji’s workload for parts of the 102.9 social media so Hanji could enjoy her anniversary with Mike. Levi didn’t mind at all. He had take-out; he had a wine cooler; he had House on DVD; his socks actually matched tonight. Texting his partying boyfriend was only a nuisance because he let it distract him, though Hugh Laurie was just as bad, and so were the nerves already kicking in for the interview with Shane at The Stranger he’d scored for Tuesday.

God, if he got the job, what was he going to tell Pixis? What if it didn’t pay as well? What if it didn’t work out after leaving the station? What kind of stories would they stick him with, gay-lesbian or socialite or event review or—? What the fuck did you give a guy whose qualifications were talking shit, talking sex, and talking music around the nineties at noon?

It was a mellow, much-needed Sunday night alone.

Well, not alone; Erwin was there. He was in his bedroom. Not because of a toxic wasteland between them, or any amount of traditional cold-shouldering and witty quips and subtle passive-aggressive statements via household patterns—no. He’d bought the take-out. He’d suggested veg-out night. He’d just gotten out of the shower. He was on the phone. He—

—was raising his voice, actually. Levi hit the Send tab on his phone to get one last text message flying through cyberspace and satellites to Eren, who was probably having too much fun to get it anyway, and turned around to peek over the back of the couch at Erwin’s open bedroom door.

Shh, Hugh Laurie, shh—

“Mom, I told you why.” Tense pause. “Are you joking?” Irritated scoff. “Yes, I know how old you are. Dad—Dad? Hey, since when was this a conference call?” Broken pause. “I’m well aware of that, Mom. But it’s a different—” Impatient breath; Erwin despised being interrupted. “Of course I want family. Of course I want to settle down with someone. What the hell do you think I’ve been trying to do? I’m just saying, maybe it’s not the right time for it. And maybe it’s not going to happen like you want it to happen.” Another tense beat, the sound of him pacing, toes brushing carpet. “Yes, Dad, I’m very thankful you handed your share of the company to me and I don’t know what I’d do without that opportunity, but you can’t hold that over my head for life decisions. Mom, I know you want grandkids—” Another thought, bitten in two. Erwin’s voice was tightening. He was getting angry. “Mom, it’s my life and I won’t do something I don’t want to just because YOU want me to.” He was talking over them now. Levi knew that icy tone. “No, this has nothing to do with the wedding, Dad. The wedding is off. No, Mom, I am not a fucking playboy. Look, I’m your only child, for Christ’s sake, and I’m going to do what makes me happy and you two are just going to have to be okay with it whether it means grandkids or not. Hey, I’m going. I’m irritated. I’m tired. I have to get up early. Love you guys. Bye.”

Levi gingerly threw his laptop to the other side of the couch and rose without a second thought. Before the floorboard at the doorway creaked under him, Erwin had already retreated into the bathroom and slammed the door. Man, he was pissed. He was really worked up. There were two engagement rings on his bed and it was the strangest thing to feel butterflies of relief and butterflies of dread both at the same time.

Obligingly, Levi climbed up to sit on Erwin’s bed. He waited, patiently, examining the expensive rings. So the wedding was off, then. It stung a little that Erwin hadn’t told him. Okay, so maybe he didn’t blame him, because Levi hadn’t exactly been very supportive. But maybe it had just happened and thus the phone call to the very demanding folks. What guilt trips were they playing, anyway? Grandchildren card, check. Rich Hunk Syndrome card, check. Ambiguous sexuality card, maybe? They’d never taken to Erwin’s homosexual sprees very well. Ever.

The bathroom door opened.

Erwin reared back a breath when he saw Levi on his bed, a flash of shame across his face. He knew Levi had overheard. He knew there was no way around this one. Maybe he hadn’t expected Levi to care, but now he was pouting as vulnerably and brokenly as a baby and Levi didn’t like it. He slipped one of the rings on his pinky finger and cocked a brow at Erwin.

“Thank you for doing my laundry the other day,” Erwin mumbled. “I’ve been busy.”

Zing. Levi cleared his throat. Man, if life were a comedy show, right? “Yeah. It’s fine. What’s up with this?” he redirected the conversation promptly, holding up his pinky finger with Petra’s engagement ring.

Erwin shrugged meekly. His jaw was tight; his face was getting red. Any comedic relief Levi had prepared fled at the sight of the storm brewing in Erwin’s bright blue eyes.

“Well,” Erwin sighed, voice low and considerably calm, “the wedding is off and I’m out quite a chunk of cash for the venue and shit, but luckily we didn’t get very far with the planning.”

“What happened?” Levi bit out, not meaning it as brittle as it sounded.

Erwin shrugged again. He smiled bitterly, triumphantly, disdainfully, and ah, yes, there was the meanest side of him but tonight it was not a blade sharpened on Levi. “Hey, you know, apparently for the last five months she’s been cheating on me with Erd, this other med student in her clinicals.”

Levi’s jaw dropped. He looked up in utter disbelief. “You’re fucking kidding me!” Here he’d been prepared for Erwin’s long sob story about how hard it was to break up with poor Petra Raal, again. Here he’d been ready to take swift judgment on Erwin for being so heartless and cruel. Man, they were all awful people, weren’t they? Here he’d—

Levi threw the ring down like it burned him. Petra’s ring. He held a hand out. His heart jumped. Something in him snapped suddenly and he wasn’t quite sure what it was. Whatever, he’d figure it out later. He hissed, “Come here, jackass.”

Erwin showed no signs of even secret hesitation. His eyes were glassy. His mouth was bitten in a very firm, very cold line. Levi held both hands out. He didn’t like this; no, only he was allowed to put that look on Erwin Smith’s face. Not Petra, not Erwin’s parents, not any one else.

“Come here, Erwin,” Levi whispered again, brow knotting, as Erwin approached the bed. “Come on, let’s talk, okay?”


end ch. 19…

 

Chapter Text

“You never told me what happened with Marco!” Eren chastised through a sputter of a laugh, under the glow of downtown hunched on the curb for a smoke break. The live music from the bar pulsed out on the cobbles, tickled the base of the spine, and the flashes from streetlights and headlights and overhead neon rendered the world dreamy and safe.

Jean uttered a nervous laugh, swatting through the air like he could scatter the conversation away. “What’s there to tell?”

“Hey, I’ve bought you like three birthday drinks now, you owe me a story.”

“Look, we had sex and then he said, ‘Oops, I’m still straight,’ and I said, ‘Oops, I don’t want you like I did last week,’ and he went back to Paris and I went back to the real world.”

Damn! That’s brutal, Jean—”

“It’s the truth.”

“He’s lying. He’s not fucking straight. He’s lying to himself.”

“Whatever, Eren. You know what, you’ve gotta stop picking at things. If he’s happy, it’s not on me to say, ‘You’re full of shit.’ Oh, also, he never told Sarette about me and him. I don’t think she has any idea he used to not date girls.” Jean squinted through a sigh of cigarette smoke, cocking a brow. “What? You look offended. What did I say?”

“I don’t pick at things.”

“You do, you’re an over-analyzer. It’s your dad’s fault. You can’t just let things be. You’re always going all philosopher Freud guru on shit.”

“I—no, I don’t—”

“Yeah, you do. Ow, that hurt—”

“Hey, I have something else for you, birthday boy, it’s called a big fat fucking black eye—”

Grappling weakly with Eren on the curb, Jean threw his head back and laughed. A passing cab driver shot them a fishing look. Jean staggered up and back a few steps, taking a drag off his cigarette as he steadied himself against the old fashioned lamppost there. “Look, Eren, I’ll hand it to you—you see things a hell of a lot clearer than most people. But that’s gotta be hell, right?”

“Yeah,” Eren husked, as the weight of the world blew him a kiss from the barstool inside where it reclined, patiently waiting for sobriety or utter stumble-down trash.  

“You’re not responsible for the world’s philosophical health, Mother Theresa.”

“Fuck you—”

Seriousness returned to Jean as swiftly as a closing curtain. He stood over Eren, head tipped, leaning against the lamppost. It was a placid thoughtfulness, a serenity that sort of cowed Eren a little bit. Hadn’t he had too much to drink to look at him like that? Apparently not. Jean shrugged. He raked a hand through his hair. He murmured, “Marco said something that made a lot of sense, you know. When we hooked up like horrible people. He said, ‘There’s nothing but the right here, right now.’ And it’s true, Jaeger Bomb—”

“Oh God, don’t—use my stripper name, please—you are drunk, huh?”

“Listen. The right here, right now. Stop thinking about future. Stop thinking about past. The right here, right now… That’s all there is. You’re existing only in this moment, not in yesterday and not in tomorrow. So…” He trailed off, cringing at the sloppy finish. “…Yeah. Hey, come on, let’s go back inside…”


For the first time Levi noticed the late-night sitcom, background buzz from the TV on Erwin’s dresser, paid absolutely no regard. What was Fran Fine up to now? Didn’t matter, because Erwin wore heartbreak with a mesmerizing glory, slouched in the doorway of his bathroom, and Levi threw Petra’s ring down like it burned him.

He held a hand out. His heart jumped. Something in him snapped suddenly—something protective, something instinctive, something sort of like sympathy but more like loyalty. Whatever, he’d figure it out later. He hissed, “Come here, jackass.”

Erwin’s eyes were glassy, his perfect mouth bitten into a perfect albeit cold line. He’d thrown his phone so carelessly after disconnecting from his parents’ conference call that it had almost fallen behind the bed. Levi didn’t like this; no, only he was allowed to put that look on Erwin Smith’s face. Not Petra, not Erwin’s parents, not any one else.

Erwin needed him and Levi felt no resentment.

“Come here, Erwin,” Levi whispered again, brow knotting, as Erwin approached the bed seemingly without a second thought. “Come on, let’s talk, okay?”

Erwin’s hair was still damp from his shower. The tension from talking with his parents was still wound tightly in his shoulders, his clenched jaws, his sharp glance. Like he didn’t trust Levi right now—he didn’t trust Levi? You’re taunting me now… Ha! That was a joke, right?

This was different, though. This was not the same pattern of the last few years—get together, fight, break up, fight some more because they refused to talk about the important things. Men didn’t have to talk about the important things. The important things were implicit; the important things were mutually understood. Except now here they were and the important things were still tangled up inside, sore and fresh as yesterday. For so long—too long—they’d been skirting the important things like scratching everywhere around the swollen red center of a really bad mosquito bite. And why? What were they afraid of saying to each other? They were friends. They were best friends. They were lovers and exes and partners in crime and they were each other’s rocks and why had they gotten to this point? What the hell had happened to them? It was a tragedy—

“What?” Erwin husked, brows gently arcing to the widow’s peak usually hidden under side-swept blond. With a slicing gesture, he pushed the loose engagement rings to the side. “Go on, rip into me, Levi. Remind me you were right all along. Explain to me again that I’ve never been in love with her, that I was in love with the idea of being in love. Laugh at me.”

“Jesus, Erwin, I’m not going to be that mean,” Levi muttered, fiddling with the edge of Erwin’s comforter. His face burned to think what he’d done with Eren in this bed, not even a week ago. And Erwin hadn’t sounded so young and vulnerable in a very long time. His defenses were crumbling; his facades of confidence and self-surety were failing him. Levi volunteered, “But maybe it’s more that you’re in love with the idea of doing things right, not being in love.”

Erwin gawked at him, the sharpness in his glacial eyes dulling. Apparently Levi had hit a nerve here. Erwin avoided meeting his stare. In a gravelly voice, he cut out, “How do you have it all figured out, huh?”

There it was, that underlying theme. Levi’s the resident slut. Levi’s the fuck-up. Levi’s the scapegoat. Levi rolled his eyes. “Because I’m not worried about what’s right, Erwin. I’m worried about what makes me happy.”

“But isn’t that what’s right in the end?” Erwin snapped. It was almost mockery, more like defiance in the face of a too-easy truth.

Levi smirked bitterly, only because Erwin wasn’t looking. He didn’t like the semblance of triumph in this moment; it didn’t seem appropriate and surprisingly enough, after all their feuding, he wasn’t looking for it. He whispered, “Exactly.” He shrugged, not really appreciating the knot in his throat. “Look, I’m not saying it’s all your fault. Petra obviously fucked up here, too.” It was the truth. She was after the same things: marriage, family, succeeding at being a grownup. But they’d been forcing it with each other because they were scared of branching out into the unknown.

“It happens,” Levi whispered. “We’re human, Erwin. We don’t know what’s right until we try, right? Mistakes aren’t punishment. They’re lessons.”

Erwin snorted, rolling over on his side and casting Levi a sulking glance that, coupled with his tiny doubting smile, was somehow both penitent and playful. Aha, there it was. You had to laugh at yourself sometimes, right? Levi chuckled a little, too. He sounded like an inspirational poster. And damn, Erwin had harped on him for years and years and years—from college, all through his twenties, the last few years—and Levi had just accepted it as truth. Levi, you’re afraid to let go. Levi, you’re clinging to your youth. Levi, what are you doing with your life? But—oh God, oh—what if it had all just been projection of his own faults, his own worries, his own fears, lest he face himself?

…Oh God, that was it, wasn’t it?

Levi fixed Erwin with a startled look, like Erwin himself had initiated this revelation. “You have problems,” Levi blurted, brow knotting. He didn’t mean it as a low blow; it had just very violently and unexpectedly stricken him: sweet, established, responsible, gorgeous Erwin had problems.

Erwin scowled. “What?”

“You play it so cool, all Mr. Handsome, so suave, but… Really you’re just the same scared little boy inside you were back in high school—the same scared little boy bent on doing everything like you’re supposed to because you’re terrified of disappointing.” The words were just pouring out. Levi knew him too well; it stabbed deep in the heart to know someone that well. To know the blueprints of their complexes, their fragile psyches. Before Erwin could even recover from the onslaught of exposed truths, Levi summed up gently, “Everything you’ve been scared of, you’ve used me to shift the blame. You, of all people, are insecure, Erwin. You are afraid of being alone. You’re afraid of being ridiculed. You’re afraid of being a failure. You’re afraid of your own desires in the face of what everyone else wants you to be. You’re afraid of not being enough for someone so you do this on-again off-again thing to keep yourself mysterious and chased after. You love the sweeping someone off their feet part, but you can’t fucking deliver afterwards because you doubt yourself. You’ve got money, and a nice fucking car, and a really nice job, and—everything they say a man could ever want—but you’ve done it for other people, not yourself. And that’s your problem.”

Well, holy shit, stick with Eren Jäger for half a year and you could dissect a guy’s innermost fears and failures like a pro.

Erwin was speechless, the wounded stamp of being forcibly stripped an awful, awful shadow on his lovely face. A look so hurt and defeated and humiliated and horrified did not belong on a face so perfectly carved of A+ genetics. You’re right, that kicked puppy look said. You’re fucking right, you asshole.

It was weird. Levi was just as shocked by his own diatribe. Immediately the guilt for so mercilessly tearing into Erwin churned inside and maybe he wore the same confused pain on his face as Erwin did. But, seizing the crux like that was so…rewarding. It was kind of liberating.

Erwin’s eyes sharpened. He sat up on his elbow; the moment of vulnerability passed. It wasn’t anger thickening his voice, though. It was something like…desperation. Desperation to be heard, to be understood. “That’s unfair, Levi. It’s not all for other people.”

“You’re just mad because I’m right! I told you you didn’t want any of those things, and it’s going to keep coming right back to this every time until you accept that!”

“But I do,” Erwin seethed. “I do want those things. I want to settle down, for fuck’s sake. I want me and the person I love, living together, sleeping together, eating dinner together, and Christmas cards, and common law if not legal union because damn, the tax breaks some people get—”

“That sounds like us already,” Levi scoffed.

“No,” Erwin fired back, “it doesn’t, jerk. We’d need a cat or a dog or something to complete the image, because fuck grandkids.”

There was an awkward pause, frantic eye contact. But words could not be taken back and the idea was so heartfelt, he was so insistent, and it was so simple. He’d thought this through, apparently. Levi burst into laughter. Erwin, sheepishly, joined in. And it was the oddest thing to be beyond happy yet feel your heart break in two at the same time. Didn’t they say happiness and pain were two sides of the same feeling, like love and hate? Couldn’t have one without the other, yin and yang of the soul? It was just so sweet and harmless, it was unbelievable. How could he not forgive him for everything in the wake of that accidental concession? Something in Levi threw up a white flag—but something else in him was still on tenterhooks.

“No more fucking excuses,” he hissed. “Listen, Erwin, it’s nice and all that you’re having epiphanies and stuff, but—you can’t just ask me if I want to be with you. You can’t just come crawling back to me. It doesn’t work that way.”

“You mean—the other night, what I said after my bachelor’s? Levi—”

Levi held a hand up, hurrying to reinforce his resolve. He didn’t like how it felt like a mantra, something rehearsed. Hi, I’m Levi and… “I am with someone and I am very happy and he loves me and he means it.”

This offended Erwin, apparently. Sitting up fully now, the look on his face was one of disgust. “What makes you think I don’t mean it?” he condemned. Yup. Tenterhooks. Tugging. Ouch. Swap meet of emotions.

Levi threw his hands out. What part of this did Erwin not understand? Great, the old rotten feelings were roiling back up again, hardboiled cynicism and defense mechanisms. But the deception wasn’t there. They were toe-to-toe flinging stinging truths now. “Because, Erwin, you’ve said it so many times but it never seemed to last very long! You know how much that hurts?”

Excuse me, if there was a World’s Most Vindictive Ex award, you’d win first place!”

“I was vindictive because I was upset, asshole! If I didn’t care about you, you think I would have wasted my time being a brat to you?”

“Well—I—I don’t know, I’ve never been in that position—”

God, Erwin, you’re an idiot sometimes.”

“You said I lost my chance, Levi. Have I lost my chance?”

“No, I was fucking mad at you, okay?”

“So you’ve been in denial this whole time.”

“You’re twisting my words—God damn it, Erwin—I—”

Admit it, Levi!” Erwin fumed—or was he begging? “You’re not over me, are you? I’m taking the fault, okay? I’m taking my blame. I pushed you away. I was fucking scared. But I’m not over you. I have never been over you. I will never get over you.”

“Tough, big guy! Look, there are different kinds of love, okay? You can love one person and another, and it can be totally different because you don’t love any two people the same. Do you get that? I fucking love you, Erwin, and of course that will never go away because I will never love anyone the way I love you—”

He lost it. He lost the words. He lost the fight. His head was a mess. His heart was pounding so hard, it was making him sick. But he couldn’t tell if the rush was rage or panic or some other wash of adrenaline. Fourteen fucking years, of course he wasn’t over him. Fourteen fucking years of his life and it absolutely terrified him to imagine life without him. And saying it out loud, God, just saying it—

I don’t want to be some wild connection to your youth or whatever.

I don’t like how he’s trapped you in this vicious circle of self-doubt and guilt. It’s not very fair of him.

You probably still love him, too. You gave parts of you to him that you’ll never get back. And that’s okay.

Just because you love more than one person doesn’t mean you love either of them more or less.

Erwin’s hands closed on his shoulders, dragging him forward. His hands went to his face, cradling. He moved fast, but he didn’t have to. Because Levi didn’t turn away from the kiss. He didn’t fight it. He parted his lips for a breath of defeat and surrendered, the squirm of Erwin’s tongue into his mouth sending jolts of relief and pleasure and fear and guilt and resurrected desire sparking through him. It was conscious and indefinably sweet, and it was wrong in one sense but it didn’t feel wrong in the other. It felt like forgiveness, repentance. Their personal tortures matched like puzzle pieces. And the ache deep in his chest was addicting. God, Erwin was like caramel on the teeth. He was a shameful, pathetic, weak-willed creature to give in. But give in he did, breaking down under Erwin’s careful touch.

Cue the live studio audience uproar.

“I’m sorry,” Erwin moaned. “I’m so sorry, Levi—”

Levi shut him up with an apology of his own and it involved some teeth and some tongue and some tears he hadn’t expected. This release was paralyzing. For the first time the release felt real and complete; it was overwhelming. There were no words needed to know that Erwin forgave him, too.

Cue curling toes, spreading legs, biting kisses. Cue blazing eyes. Cue arching back and rolling hips and sweet, golden scent of the blond hair knotted in his fingers as he gave in to be ravished. Cue loving caress, greedy hands. Cue the slither of strong shoulders and stronger back muscles under a thin cotton T-shirt as Erwin went down between his knees like a mortal worshipping his god. Cue ravenous kisses, searching tongues, frantic desperate clipped moans between clenched teeth and gripping fingers as waves of climactic ecstasy racked bodies stuck together like they shared the same heartbeat, shared the same gasp, shared the same dreams and thoughts and raw incontrovertible passion that left him open and defenseless like a good song.

Fuck… Fuckfuckfuck…

He was desperate, he was ready, he was tired of pretending he didn’t want this, he was tired of being stubborn, he was so ready to give in—what would everyone else say—didn’t matter, this wasn’t theirs—and how could something so simple be so complicated, and something so complicated be reduced to a moment so simple? Had it really taken them fourteen years just to be honest with themselves, with each other? This wasn’t going to go away. And Levi knew why. From the hood of a Cadillac to a dormitory bedroom whispering sweet nothings in the foreign dark, to slow dancing in this very apartment, to the age of wining and dining and I love you, I hate you, I don’t know how to tell you I need you, please, please don’t leave me here alone

Cue the utter horror and disappointment in himself as Levi swiped come off his inner thigh with one hand and swung the other fist out for a good smack across Erwin’s chest. But he wasn’t mad at Erwin. He was mad at himself. He couldn’t stand himself.

His voice rattled out of his throat as he cried, “Why do you keep doing this to me! How do you keep doing this to me? I’m happy, Erwin! I’m happy and you—you just can’t stand me being happy, can you?”

Erwin waited. He nodded guiltily, taking the hit. He licked his lips. He had the pain of understanding on his face, like he knew the answer to his own question before he asked: “But what do you want, Levi?”

Really, how dare he stomp on his sand castle? How dare he destroy all he’d worked so hard to rebuild—with weak timber, okay, recycled materials, sure, a fortress that had never stood a chance in the first place, but—

Levi was in a panic, a cold sharp panic—like all his denial, all his defiance, all his deflection had surged back up in an awful riptide, one last struggle to take him under. Why the hell had they spent so many years trying to torture each other? Because they’d both been too caught up waging wars on themselves? Because they’d both been waiting for the other to apologize first? Oh God, they’d been so stupid.

Eren… Oh God, what the fuck was Eren going to say about this? Probably something totally unexpected but utterly valorous and real, but…

He couldn’t use Eren any longer. He had to be like Eren and be brave. But he was so afraid of taking the wrong chance. Life with Erwin… He wanted it. He didn’t see a life with Eren. He saw mentorship. He felt the bruise of Erwin’s kisses on his mouth and his breaths tasted like sublimation and long overdue pardon. Was it stupidity or was it love to forgive him so easily for everything?

This was what he wanted. This was all he’d been trying to get back in his convoluted way. This was why he’d never spoken about Erwin on The Talk. He wanted this. He wanted to sleep in the same bed, and share dinners. He wanted common law. He wanted domestication. He wanted to settle down and he wanted to settle down with Erwin and Jesus, even Rich Major Personal Issues Hunk reached that conclusion before he did, didn’t he? Shameful.

What do you want, Levi?

“…I want a cat,” he whimpered. “Not a dog. That’s what I want.”

Eren

Oh God, Eren…

Sweet, spunky, lovable, loving, amazing, psychotic Eren—

Levi’s voice caught in his throat and he wasn’t surprised at the way Erwin reared back, because the words were like daggers as he laid down the law: “Do not think you’re my fucking sun and moon and stars, Mr. Smith. I love Eren, too. I love you like I don’t love him, and I love him like I don’t love you.”

Oh shit. Not until this instant had Eren’s revolution made ultimate sense, but now Levi was stranded between two points of seeming clarity. He didn't know what to do. One did not cancel the other out. But revelations were dawning like the sun after a night of rain, and he was terrified of what the light might reveal in the landscape of his mind and heart. He was so torn. Eren had helped him, changed him, taught him, and that—well, Jesus tap dancing Christ, that was the point, wasn’t it?

Levi despised the way his words trembled, pacing—limping—at the foot of Erwin’s bed. But then he didn’t hate it so much, because God damn it, Erwin needed to understand he was telling the absolute truth here. He wavered, icily, “I feel so bad… I’m a shitty person, aren’t I?”

Erwin was quiet. Erwin was respectful. Erwin seemed to be receiving all this quite well, like all he’d needed to get his act together was for someone to grab him by the hair and scream in his face, YOU HAVE FUCKING PROBLEMS.

Erwin whispered, “Do what makes you happy, Levi. That’s what’s right, isn’t it?”

Fuck him for using his own words against him. With a soft little promising smile, too.


It was hell trying to sleep.

He wanted to see Eren. He wanted to talk to Eren. He wanted to feel like he could breathe again. He slept in Erwin’s bed with him, legs tangled somewhere near the knees and toes poking out of shared blankets, a rumpled pillow thrown over his eyes because Erwin liked morning sunlight and Levi really did not.

Levi woke up two minutes before Erwin’s alarm went off, which was a special kind of punishment from the universe. He rolled over and into Erwin’s arm, let Erwin hold him for a long, belated moment or two. Erwin was still basically asleep; his motor instincts hooked Levi close against him. Levi let himself melt into the silence, the mold of their bodies together. He closed his eyes, breathed deep, tried to initiate a little parasympathetic comedown from nervous nature. Erwin was soft and calm, breathing, heartbeat, morning stubble.

There went the alarm.

It was a scene Levi knew like the back of his hand.

It was a scene he’d missed.

Erwin’s hissing morning sigh as he eased out of bed, fumbled to turn off the blaring alarm. Erwin’s unsteady shuffle into the bathroom, latch of the bathroom door. Running water. Philips shaver. Morning news out in the living room as he drank his coffee with his shirt still unfastened at the collar, tie waiting for him draped over the back of a chair. Spicy tang of aftershave, cologne. Warm blooming kiss of his skin, his hair, him. Whiff of Colgate as Erwin stooped Prince Charming to kiss Sleeping Beauty goodbye.

“I’m awake,” Sleeping Beauty growled.

“I left coffee.”

“Hnmph.” Levi sat up slowly, fought a nauseous lurch of his stomach to realize he was still swimming in the shirt Erwin had been wearing post-shower the night before. God, he was a mess. God, he was every bad romantic cliché, wasn’t he? And not in a good way. He was gross. The lover, the fighter, the slut, the hero, the teacher, the cheater— “Move, I’m getting up.”  

“I have to hand it to you,” Erwin murmured, from his side of the kitchen as Levi fixed a cup of coffee. “He is a fucking cutie.”

He meant Eren. He meant, I think it’s fucking hot you dated…are dating…were dating?...a stripper and I will keep alive the memory of that lap dance he gave me while you watched. He meant, I’ve been jealous from the start. He meant, I know you love him. He meant, I know you hate yourself right now.

“Save it,” Levi grumbled. He went into his room for a shirt of his own, some casual pants, searched for a sweatshirt. He put his shoes on and waved at Erwin from the door as he scooped his keys off the table. Baseball cap for good measure. He felt like Tony Stark in Rose Hill, Tennessee—without the scrapes and contusions, or whatever.

“See you when you get home,” he muttered.

“Bye,” Erwin called, reaching for his tie.

He texted Eren as he shuffled down to his car to let him know he was on his way over.


“This sucks.”

“You look fine.”

Unintelligible noise.

“Are you hungover?”

“No. I hardly slept. I don’t even know if I’m technically sober yet or not.”

“Did you throw up before you went to bed?”

“A little.”

“You’re probably sober.”

Eren opened his mouth for some clever retort or another, but the buzzer for the breezeway entrance went off, a little grating chime. Armin looked to the callbox near the front door; Eren looked to Armin; Mikasa threw open her bedroom door like the Cryptkeeper and croaked, “Who is here this fucking early?”

“It’s almost seven by now,” Armin offered in defense.

Eren staggered to the buzzer and held the call button. “Hey.”

Hey, babe.

What is your problem, it’s seven in the morning was what he wanted to say, but he was not so early-morning vindictive as to be insensitive to the fact that if Levi was here this early, something was wrong.

“I’m letting you in,” Eren said instead.

Thank you.”

Mikasa glowered from her bedroom doorway. Armin watched arbitrarily from the kitchen, munching cereal and nursing a glass of orange juice.

Eventually there came the knock on the door they all awaited.

Eren greeted Levi with a yawn. Levi gathered him forward into a loose but tender embrace, right there in the doorway. Boyfriend hand. Commandeering arms. Soft, sweet kiss to the corner of the mouth as Eren relaxed from the yawn.

“Hi,” he peeped.

“Hi,” Levi whispered back, like he was unaware of the peanut gallery inside. Which would have been impossible, because they weren’t exactly even trying to pretend they didn’t stare. “What are you up to today?”

Eren shrugged limply, loving the way Levi kept his arms locked around him. He smelled like just rolling out of bed. He felt tense. Like images on shuffle, Eren saw him—from the uptight radio DJ under the smoky lights of Heaven and Hell, asking him if he ever slept with his patrons—to the coffee shop heroin chic that had treated him to that free show at the Moore—to the sexy awkward boyfriend attempting to sultry dance in the VIP room—to the guy who looked so peaceful and carefree when he fell asleep against his shoulder on the couch, the guy who looked so full of wonder when they kissed, so dark and sensual when they fucked, so worried across a fine dining table from his parents on Christmas Eve, so perfect and untroubled when he laughed his realest of laughs—

There was a brittle pause. Levi’s fingers tightened in Eren’s shirt. There was a distance in his face that Eren hadn’t seen before and not even at seven AM was it hard to draw conclusions there.

Eren knew.

He scooted forward, ushering Levi back out the door. He closed it quietly and sat down in the apartment hall and, looking up serenely, he said, “Lay it on me, Mr. Radio.”


end ch. 20…

Chapter Text

They sat side by side with their knees drawn up like warped mirror images of the same person—Eren in a loose baseball jersey and track snaps, Levi in a plain sweatshirt and lounge pants scrunched halfway up his calves. Today and Tomorrow, Old and Young, Past and Present, Innocent and Jaded. Eren decided even Apollo and Dionysus was fair game, but then he wasn’t quite sure who was who because logic and passion were sometimes very personal evaluations.

Ba-bump.

“Lay it on me, Mr. Radio.”

Ba-bump.

“Eren…”

Ba-bump.

“It’s too early to bullshit me, Levi. Come on. What’s up? You’re not even dressed. You’re too uppity to come over unannounced and undressed.”

“I’m not unannounced, I texted you…”

Ba-bump ba-bump.

Levi’s face was set in a hard frown and Eren hated how attractive he was even in all that angst. It was just his storm cloud flair, and damn did he wear it well. He looked like he hadn’t slept much more than Eren, even though the festivities of not even six hours ago felt eternities away.

Levi cleared his throat. Eren wished he would look at him. He didn’t; he looked at his hands. He whispered, “You know I love you, Eren, more than I’m proud to admit…”

Maybe he should have been offended by that, but he knew what Levi meant and it made him smile a tiny bit even as his pounding hard tried to choke him.

“You know I love you,” Levi repeated, hoarsely, and—oh man, he had sex hair. Sex hair. Eren’s smile sharpened—or was it just that his expression tightened, lest it fall away into pieces too soon. Levi finally met his eyes, and Eren felt secondhand fear just seeing how torn up he was. He’d practiced this speech. He’d probably rehearsed it on the way over. “I care for you, and you care for me, but I think we can both agree there are others who we…”

Ba-bump. Eren cocked a brow. All things considered, he was feeling surprisingly calm. Okay, so his palms were starting to get clammy. We can both agree there are others… What? Like who? Ba-bump. He scooted closer, so that his shoulder touched Levi’s. He needed to be connected to him even just by that nudge right now, especially if they weren’t going to be connected tomorrow.

Because… That was what was happening, right? This was a breakup.

“Stop,” Eren interrupted. “You don’t have to be so textbook about dumping me, baby.”

Levi physically flinched and Eren didn’t like that. He looked over, frantically seeking Levi’s eyes. And that was all good and well, because Levi did the same, beyond worried it seemed about Eren’s current state. The guilt was like a bruise under his eyes.

“Erwin, right?” Eren murmured. He cleared his throat because he didn’t like how hoarse he sounded. The smile was stuck on his face like a song on repeat. He nodded as if Levi had said anything at all, raising his brows, gently coaxing a reply. God, he was on autopilot but it wasn’t that bad. Nothing was confusing here; nothing was out of left field. There was no fight in him because there was nothing to fight. This was happening. It was over already. There was a weird at-peace feeling in that, a sad and sore resignation. “You’re getting back with Erwin, right?”

The words leapt from Levi’s tongue like he was being timed. “He and Petra didn’t… I mean, we… We got back together, yes.” Visible wince. Slept with him. Levi didn’t even have to say it; it didn’t really feel like a guess on Eren’s part, either. But still he asked:

“What’d you do?”

“Eren…”

“You guys kissed?”

Eren…”

“You fucked, huh?”

“Jesus Christ, Eren—”

“I’m not mad, I’m not guilt-tripping you. I really just wanna know. Was it good?”

Levi’s icy resolve flared back up, a defense mechanism, it seemed, in the face of confessing his actions. “It’s incredibly complicated, Eren. Life is too complicated. I’m sorry everything is so complicated. Listen, I never used you—at all, ever. I mean it when I say I love you—I never thought… I didn’t know this would happen like this. Don’t hate him. Hate me. I’m the weak one. I—”

“I knew,” Eren explained. “Shh, stop.” He put a finger to Levi’s lips and the simple brush of that silky skin gave him a lovely ache. What about Erwin, did he experience such charged chills when he kissed Levi? He’d fucking better— “I don’t hate him. I don’t hate you. You guys…are just it for each other. I knew I think from New Year’s. No, maybe even from our first fight, in the kitchen. But New Year’s really hit it home. Seeing you two together, you just… You guys look right. We don’t.”

“Now, that’s not true at all—”

“I knew since you sniffed his pillow when we did it in his bed.”

Levi’s face went bright red and then gray, and the sheen to his eyes like a veneer of tears terrified Eren. No, don’t cry, God, if he cried, Eren wouldn’t be able to handle it—

“I knew,” Eren whispered, “and it’s okay.”

No. No, don’t. No, it’s not okay, it’s not okay, I hurt a little bit, I don’t want to lose you, I’m madly jealous, you are the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time and I don’t know what I’m going to do without you keeping me on my toes—without your arm on me when I fall asleep—without your texts making me smile—without your voice talking about me on your show—without you getting irritated at my stupidity until you’re so irritated you can only laugh—without people looking at us, and wondering, and thinking, and knowing—without your awkward charm—your sultry glances—your boyfriend hand—the smell of your skin—without—without—I mean, it’s ridiculous—it’s foolish—it’s irrational and pathetic to think something will last forever, but still, I didn’t think about the ending yet, either, and—I’m going to fucking miss you, God damn it—

“I’m sorry,” Levi sputtered again, and Eren worried all those internal pleas had been written on his face.

He wagged his head hard enough to hurt, trying to shake them all off if that was the case. “Why are you apologizing for your feelings? Never do that.”

“But Eren—”

Eren sighed, giving Levi’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. Levi grabbed his wrist so he couldn’t pull away; they huddled together like hoodlums and Eren wanted to remind Levi this closeness would make it really hard to continue the conversation on the appropriate note, but at the same time, the threat wasn’t there. Eren wilted into his grasp.

“Ah…” He cleared his throat. “Listen, Levi, I guess we have to have the Talk again, huh?”

Oh, the irony here.

Levi wore his guilt like a canonized martyr, hair falling in his eyes and brow not quite creased but not quite raised, either. It was the look of a question and an ellipses, all at once.

“…What?” he breathed, probably trying to wade through all the subtle glimmering meanings packed in there.

“I told you before,” Eren maintained, voice thin. He was struggling to stay poised here, not because he didn’t want to but because he was running out of time to be poised. “This is how casual dating goes, Levi. You meet someone, you love them, but maybe they’re not The One so you move on.”

“Oh my God,” Levi groaned into his hands. “I get it now. ‘The Talk.’ We’re having the talk right now. You’re giving me your Love Talk. Nothing is fucking simple with you, is it, Eren?”

Eren skirted Levi’s moment of discovery. “And if they’re not The One, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t meaningful. And that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real. Loving more than one person doesn’t mean loving one of them any less than the other. You know my whole spiel—every love is different. You can’t love one man the same as you love another. And that’s the hardest part about caring for people because you have to lose some to win some, as they say.”

“Yeah.” Levi smirked dismally, tossing his gaze elsewhere. “It’s why I generally try not to.”

“That’s not true,” Eren argued. “At least, I don’t think so. But if it is, well, I’m glad I taught you to again because this was the best year of my life, Levi. You’re out of my league and I always knew that. I guess I’d rather end…things on a good note, not a bad one. There’s a reason you get tangled with someone when you do in life. Right? There’s a reason you love them and a reason you leave them—”

“Eren…”

“No, stop, listen. Sometimes what you want isn’t what you need and that person was in your life for a reason and the reason is done and it’s okay to let go—”

He paused then, waited for Levi to say something. Levi didn’t.

“You know, it’s funny,” Eren mumbled. “Jean was just telling me about… I don’t now, ‘the right here, right now.’ You know what I mean?”

“I think I know exactly what you mean,” Levi said thickly. He cut Eren a glance, one that was almost teasing. “Jean, huh?”

“Oh no, don’t you dare act like he’s my Erwin—”

“No, no…” Uncomfortable cringe at that. My Erwin. “No, I just thought it was nice you’re taking what someone else says into consideration. Making it part of your…‘spiel.’ I figured you were more stubborn than that.”

Eren fidgeted. It was getting kind of hard to stay wise and unemotional about this. He never thought he’d have a breakup like this, where the relationship just sort of stopped, and without any hard feelings. It was kind of interesting. And kind of breaking him down. He hated how his voice gave a tiny bit as he sputtered, “Levi, I just want you to be happy, okay? I just want everyone I care about to be happy.”

“No, don’t misunderstand me, Eren, you make me happy—”

Then why? No. No, not a valid question. No one is required to explain themselves. Eren shrugged, leaning forward against his knees. “That’s good. But I’d hate myself if I knew I kept you from being even happier just because I don’t want to miss you.” Fuck. The tears. Fuck. Be a man, for fuck’s sake. Buy a little more time. “So what happened?” he prompted, chancing another look at Levi through his lashes as he swallowed the burning ball of emotion rolling up his throat. “I mean, what made you finally realize…still Erwin?”

Levi shrugged and shook his head at the same time, like he was frustrated. Hands laced limply in his lap, he cast Eren a similarly bare and brittle glance. “You did,” he murmured.

Incredibly enough, that made all the sense in the world.

Fuck, he couldn’t pretend he didn’t want to cry anymore. Levi noticed. Levi looked very conflicted; he looked unequipped to deal with tears, a little awkward, a little nervous, but it was nice that he put both arms around Eren and ducked down to watch, concerned, as Eren rubbed at his eyes with the balls of his palms.

“I’m fine,” Eren laughed, which was true. “I just don’t feel good. I hardly slept. I drank a lot last night. I’m okay. I promise. It’s just that—‘you did,’ you said. And if you think about it, if you think about everything I said, that just seems fitting, doesn’t it? It makes absolute perfect fucking sense and I just want you to understand that.”

“I do, that’s why I feel guilty—”

“Well, if you do understand it, you won’t feel guilty because you should know I understand it, too. I love you, Levi. But go get ’im, tiger. You deserve it. You two are…gross and perfect for each other. If you’re still not over him after—how many fucking years? You guys are old, I’m sorry. I can’t tell you what’s right for you, Levi. Don’t feel bad for doing what’s right for you. You feel me?”

“You’re rambling now.”

“I’m tiiiired,” Eren whined, and okay, it was even nicer that Levi’s thumbs stroked up under his eyelashes for the last few sticky tears. He laughed again, liking the way it felt to bounce Levi’s arms, draped on his shoulders.

Levi didn’t even argue about being old. His voice was sharp and almost demanding, his eyes bright with something stifled like the way he spoke through his teeth. “I don’t want to stop talking to you.”

“You won’t,” Eren croaked, shrugging out of Levi’s hold. “I’m always here. I guess I’m just, you know…everyone’s favorite skeleton in the closet—”

No.” Levi pointed a finger, eyes narrowing. “First of all, I won’t come crawling back to you like that. Second of all, if I’m not allowed to feel bad, you’re not allowed to pull this self-martyrdom. You make a lot of sense with your Love Talk, okay? But when you say it, it’s like you’re reciting a poem. You have to believe it, too, you know.”

“Oh, I do—”

“Do you? Or do you use it as a shield? You deserve much, much better than you allow yourself, Eren. You’re young, and attractive, and fun, and I have no doubts someone will sweep you off your feet the moment we’re through.” Levi trailed off, but there was still a thought on the tip of his tongue; Eren could see it. God, the man was gorgeous in such a dark and dreamy way. The opposite of tan and rugged paperback handsome, but indiscriminately knee-weakening all the same. Eren could stare at him for hours—as acolyte, as bed partner, as passerby.

This sucked, man.

He almost flinched when Levi brushed hair out of his eyes, but really he was just trying to safely distance himself before he got sucked back into a vicious void of feelings.

Levi shook his head. “You did something to me I can’t explain and can’t…ever find the right words to thank you for. Where the fuck would I be right now, if I hadn’t met you? You know what I mean?”

“That’s the point,” Eren tried to insist again, but he was cut off.

“This was meaningful,” Levi echoed, using his very words against him. “And this meant something. Eren, you are fucking terrifying and strange and beautiful, you know that? Make them see it. Make them work for it.”

They sat in silence for a long, long moment—punctuated here and there by a lone sniffle, the whisper of clothing in a shy shift of position, the jangle of keys and heavy fall of footsteps from some neighbor or another off to work, to school. Shit, that meant Armin would be leaving soon, and Eren didn’t want Armin stumbling upon him and Levi like this, tangled together, not quite clinging together, but just loosely knotted together, and sitting, breathing, in quietude, tracing circles on bony knuckles and letting eyelashes tickle the side of the neck. Just sort of coexisting for a short time, sharing the same space, because when they pulled apart it would be over. It would be…done.

And life would have to begin anew, with a fresh pattern, a different purpose, a new rhyme and separate reason.

“Oh!” Eren cried, sitting up straight. Levi jumped like he’d fallen asleep there to the swirl of fingers on his back.

“What?” Levi muttered, checking the time. Right, he had work. Eren could skip class today (which he was probably going to) but—day jobs and all that jazz.

Eren untangled from Levi, reluctantly. He didn’t want Levi to think that was it, the point of separation, the overness. Oh, that was still coming. But he was stalling.

He stumbled back inside. He paused in the bathroom because the muscles in his face were cramping, burning, he needed to give in for one long grimace and quiet sob before he swallowed the bleak sting of rejection back down again, splashed some cold water and recomposed himself. Every part of him that Levi had been touching felt cold and exposed upon pulling away, left lost to wander the air on its own. He ignored Armin and Mikasa. He ran for his phone and brought it out, looked up the song. Who fucking cared if he woke up any other neighbors? He was giving Levi one last lap dance. Free, that was. No, it was the last. And it was a lot more forlorn and tired than any shade of sexy.

“Don’t. Please don’t play this song,” Levi begged when Black echoed tinny and coarse from the speaker of Eren’s phone.

Understandable. Eren was privately relieved. Funny, because Betterman was the song stuck in his head, anyway. He uttered a tight, mildly offended laugh. He huffed, “Fine, how about this one…” and put on something less personal, more fun (if fun was the word for this).

There’s no comfort in the truth… Though it’s easy to pretend, I know you’re not a fool… Never gonna dance again, the way I danced with you.

“You’re joking, right?” Levi muttered, flicking that sarcastic eyebrow.

“Nope,” Eren husked, pinning him with a dead-serious stare. “There’s no joking with a cover as good as Seether’s.”

Levi did not interrupt his dance this time. He sat perfectly still, chin tipped up, eyes unwavering from Eren’s even as Eren moved over him. He waited, until it was over, and then in one graceful sweeping gesture he swung Eren close to kiss him full on the mouth.

This was it, then.

Levi felt like a living apology in this embrace, all rigid and hot and—yup, there was a sniffle there, too. They hugged, and the hug started out intimate. They swayed a little. The hug faded from intimate to awkward, to encouraging, to friendly, to drifting away until Levi was at the stairwell in the pale morning light and Eren was clutching his front door like it was the only anchor keeping him from floating away into… Something. Reaction. Frustration. Shock. Grief.

Levi smiled—which was not entirely a rare occurrence, but was not as common as his sarcastic eyebrow or loving smirks—and it sort of caught Eren off guard only because it was so real and vulnerable.

“Thank you, Eren,” Levi half-mouthed, half-called from the stairs, tipping a vague wave. He’d almost forgotten his baseball cap; he had it tucked under one arm. And in that instant, for one brief, shimmering, merciful breath, staring at Levi from his door, Eren felt the hope-filled realignment of their bond, like Mercury in retrograde or something. Yeah, they could do this. They could be just friends. They could exist as people with a shared past. They could become something new, something better. Levi was so cool; Eren would be an idiot not to keep someone so awesome in his life.

But then he realized it was just the emotion in him rolling over and settling, and just like that the pain of separation took the wheel again. His hand tightened on the front door.

“Yeah, whatever,” he mumbled. “Go away, now,” he half-called back, and he knew Levi would get it. Levi knew him well enough. Eren even half-smiled for good measure because he could only sort of half-see Levi now, with his eyes stinging like they were.

Eren went inside without looking back, because he was either a coward, an idiot, or braver than he thought.

Mikasa had not returned to bed; Armin was getting dressed for class. They uttered not a word. They only looked at him with the telecommunication of blood brothers when he wasn’t looking at them, which was pretty much his entire march from front door to bedroom, where he gently closed the door and turned on his television and turned on his stereo and—

Head in the clouds, got no weight on my shoulders, I should be wiser and realize that I’ve got—

No, fuck that radio station, how about another?

He turned both volumes up and grabbed his duffel bag, which he was going to pack full of clothes because he was going to go home to his dad’s for the rest of the day. He just wanted to be alone. He wanted to sleep in his old room, and eat junk food sitting on the couch in the massive rec room, and watch stupid movies and play stupid video games, and let Carla ask him over and over what was wrong until finally his dad stepped in and said, “He’ll tell us when he’s ready. You want me to take you to school tomorrow, Eren, or will you drive yourself?”

Yeah, it’d be a mini-vacay. Treat yo’self, as he and Mikasa would singsong.

And then all the bad feelings crashed into him at once, all the betrayal, all the injustice, and who fucking cared if it was typical of him or not, Eren sank down to his haunches and stuck his head in his closet and broke down there clutching T-shirts and orphaned socks, letting the coarse echo of TV and radio drown the hiccups and quiet, lingering sobs.


Levi was sick to his stomach until he showered; then he just felt weak and tired.

He stopped for an espresso drink on the way to work. Tea just wasn’t cutting it. He couldn’t even get irritated about the midmorning traffic, just threw on his shades and counted how many awful songs the morning 102.9 DJs played between Roanoke and Denny.

“Rough night last night?” Pixis greeted with unnerving pep, and Levi had to almost literally bite his tongue against saying, I have an interview for another job tomorrow.

Right. The interview. God, he hoped it went well tomorrow. He needed it to go well.

It was almost cruelty, just going about his day like usual. It was a feeling stalled somewhere between good and bad, this weird revitalization, sadness forged with relief.

He was no stranger to breakups—God knew that, all of Seattle knew that, he knew that—but this was one of the hardest in a long, long while. And that sucked. Guilt and hope did not bode well on one breath. But at the same time, there was a weight gone from his shoulders and it had something to do with inner change, he reassured himself. Something to do with owning up, with being brave and making decisions he should have faced long before.

“What a weekend, Seattle! If you didn’t hit up Lake Washington Boulevard on Saturday for the twenty-year anniversary of Cobain, I hope you at least did something else fun…”

“Hey, congrats to Ally, Zeke, and Valentina, and two other lucky listeners, for getting their names entered in the drawing for Sasquatch. Remember, if you didn’t go to Cobain’s memorial, keep listening, because we’re hitting up two more locations before the festival and if you find us there, your name goes in the drawing for free weekend passes.”

“Remember to text your song requests to 99-1029, all hour! Got some awesome tracks on the list already. Let’s kick it off again with some Garbage. Stay here, 102.9 The Ex.”

Red off-air lights. Creak of Hanji’s chair as she swung up and out to the break room for a coffee refill. Click, cl-click, click, cl-click of the pen Levi fiddled with, staring blankly at his laptop, his notes for the day. Garbage, Stone Temple Pilots, Beck, old school Green Day.

I hold my breath and close my eyes and…dream about her. Because she’s 2000 light years away…

He just felt crushed. He wanted to go home and—God, this sounded pathetic, snuggle. That’s what he wanted to do, alone or not. Snuggle up and not give a fuck and maybe watch The Producers. Or Chicago.

“Is it that time?”

“I don’t know, what time is it?”

“Oh, Levi, ever the funny one.”

“No, Hanj. That’s you.”

Hanji made a face at him, like, What the fuck are you doing, Mr. Grumpy Pants? He waved her off, scowling. Didn’t Seattle love them for this, though? Bubbly, contagious Hanji and charmingly sassy Levi?

“Do you have any Talk today?” Hanji raised her brows. Oh, if only all of the radio listeners could see the way she looked at him. Her voice was unassuming; her face knew otherwise.

“Not really,” Levi sighed into the mic, rolling his eyes around. Wires. Tinted glass. Mess of a bulletin board. “I mean, we broke up.”

Silence.

One… Two… Too much dead air… Hanji was staring at him in the guiltiest of ways, like she shouldn’t have pried, like this was somehow her fault, but that she also really wanted to know the whole scoop. The curse of friendship.

“You and the stripper?”

“Me and the stripper.”

“You broke up?”

“We broke up.”

“Noooo!” Hanji booed gently, and damn was she good at saying one thing with her mouth and expressing something totally different with those big imploring eyes, scribble of a worried frown. Are you okay?

No. Yes? Don’t know. Careless Whisper was still stuck in his head.

“Yeah.” Levi shrugged. Chuckled. Come on, radio personality. Come back to play a little, okay? Kick the awkward personal moment out of the public eye. Wait, was that ironic? He waved another dismissive hand at Hanji, one that he hoped said clearly: We can get a drink and talk about it later, it’s all okay. “Come on, let’s go, we’ve gotta have some blog comments or questions, right? What’s this week’s theme, anyway? ‘Spring cleaning?’ Hold on, let me tell you about this one time I was trying to clean up some KY—look, first, just don’t freaking use KY, okay? Go to a real adult store, get some Jo. It’s worth it. KY gets all tacky and slimy and just… Don’t. Don’t, okay? Anyway, this one time…”

He just…wanted to be a man others would be proud to love.

He wanted to be a man he, himself, could be proud of.

He wanted to be a man who knew himself, and took responsibility for himself. He wanted to be a man proud of his life choices and—well, a man with his shit together. He wanted to be a man like Eren, who could guide others, and be there for others, and leave someone feeling so refreshed and self-sure. Someone who could make Erwin happy like Eren had made him happy. Wasn’t that all he could do now, pass the torch, pay it forward—no, just be the best he could personally be so that the ending wasn’t a waste?

He wanted to tell Erwin all about it, all about how Eren was just one of those curious peculiar characters that came into your life and spun you completely on your head, without a twitch of the lashes, or a slip of that wizened little smile, and would come and go forever bringing warmth and sunshine to your grayest days despite the fact that you’re not worth their unconditional love and admiration. He wanted to just lay on Erwin in silence like he’d sat in silence with Eren outside his apartment. He wanted a comforting hand, an arm around his waist, a shoulder to press his face into and hide from the world for a while.

He wanted to…do things right from here on out.

Click. Ident. Pearl Jam. God damn it.


It did, actually, play out pretty close to what Eren had anticipated.

Carla came home from a meeting with a client and almost had a heart attack when she walked into the kitchen and found him there at the middle counter, swinging back and forth on a barstool and poking at some Kraft mac and cheese—or, so she claimed, after letting out a very bird-like chirp of surprise and jumping back a few steps.

“I overcooked my macaroni,” Eren lamented, then buried his head in his arms and wished to disappear for a while.

“Your bags are here,” Carla noticed. “Why are your bags here? What happened?”

“Nothing,” he moaned in return, but then he got up and helped her with some household chores because he figured she’d appreciate it.

He kicked off the clothes that still smelled like hugging Levi in the apartment hallway and crawled into some pajamas, making a blanket and pillow fortress out of the leather couch in the rec room—just as planned. Didn’t he have class today? Yes, Carla, but he could afford to play hooky. Did he work tonight? No, Carla, he worked when he wanted to. Was there a reason he was being a little poophead today? Yes, and he didn’t want to talk about it because then he’d cry.

At dinner, somewhere between passive aggressive and spoiling, Dr. Jäger did indeed say, “He’ll tell us what’s wrong when he’s ready, Carla… You want me to take you to school tomorrow, Eren, or will you drive yourself?” And Eren bobbed his head to the words like it was a song he knew, humming along, “Driving myself, Dad.”

He wanted to hate Levi.

He wanted to be angry. He wanted to feel injustice. He wanted to play it up on the world’s smallest violin.

He…really couldn’t, and he knew he couldn’t, because it went against everything he stood for and everything he was built of, and it would paint him the heinous rainbow of hypocrisy.

He just needed a break from everything and everyone else. He needed a moment to not be grownup, to not be strong. He wanted to retreat; he wanted to get all the tears and scalding dissatisfaction out alone as opposed to break down like a car on the highway of life. Everyone deserved a moment or two like that, right?

He worked two short nights and dropped in for some choreo on Wednesday, but he just wasn’t feeling it. He felt too broken and nervous and exposed with so many eyes on him and being alone with anyone in the VIP room made him think of Panic Room.

Armin and Mikasa stopped by his dad’s house—twice together, once separate. They stayed up playing video games and talking breakups, talking more fish in the sea, talking good times and gossip and classic bloodletting in the form of slumber party confession hour.

He watched TV until his eyes burned. He read a book. He studied for class. Carla glanced at him distrustfully when she wandered out in the middle of the night for water and he was still up watching stupid MTV. His father waited patiently to hear all about his latest mishaps, but Eren wasn’t dishing any more than, “We broke up, Dad. Leave me alone, please.” And that was the end of that because neither his father nor Carla really knew what to say or do.

Eren Eskimoed in his blanket around his old room listening to music that sharpened the silver linings to deadly points. Over my head, know nothing at all, still learning to love, just starting to crawlWould you still need me if I told you what I’d done? I guess I’m not the only boy for you, that’s what I get…

He went into panic mode when Levi texted him on Wednesday saying:

+Levi – how are you doing

He almost tripped, actually, stopping short in the middle of Red Square and clutching his phone, squinting at the little message and wondering just how to interpret it. Was there a certain way to interpret it? Couldn’t it just be a question? Too soon. A little too soon, still.

To: Levi – gimme a lil more time n ill text u back

+Levi – you got it, jaeger bomb. Ttyl

Weird. Weird, how it was so easy. And you know, he really was dying to know all the juicy details about Levi and Mr. Rich Hunk getting back together, because he cared, because he was nosy, because he was a masochist, because he did want to stay friends, because he wanted to know if he had made a difference or not. But… A lil more time was probably best even with an unconventional ending like theirs.

“I’m not here to bring cookies to your pity party like Armin and Mikasa,” Jean announced when Eren let him in Friday around noonish, cloaked in his comforter like a whacked-out recluse or a sick king.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Eren sneered, slamming the front door behind him.

“You look like shit,” Jean returned cordially. “Have you showered? Okay, you know what, no. Enough with the breakup music. Go turn that shit off. I’m not doing it.”

They sat in the eerie quiet of an emotional landmine for a while, perched on opposite ends of the rec room couch.

“It’s been forever since I’ve been in your dad’s place,” Jean volunteered as the start of conversation.

“Only since Christmas,” Eren reminded.

“I meant… Never mind.” Jean shrugged. But Eren knew what he meant. He meant to see Eren specifically. He meant, Remember all the trouble we got into here? Remember all the havoc we wreaked here? The windows we’ve snuck in through, the roofs we all sat on? Remember when we made out on this very couch back in—

Jean snatched the television remote from between them and turned the volume down, fixing Eren with a no-bullshit stare. “It really hit you hard this time, huh?”

Eren shrugged limply, avoiding eye contact. “…Yeah,” he grunted. Because Jean understood. Of anyone, Jean understood, right? Jean…wanted to comfort him this time. And that was sort of strange and nice. “No,” Eren corrected himself, frowning. “I mean, yes, it hit me hard, but it’s more like…I’m just realizing how much I set myself up to be used. I want Levi to be happy, I’m happy he’s happy, Jean, but I wanna be The One for someone, too.”

“You’ve got to start drawing lines for yourself, man. You sort of asked for it,” Jean grumbled. That stung. Particularly because it rang true and it rang sour as it rang true. Okay, never mind the nice part. Then again, Eren had made a jab his way about the being usedthing.

“I’m not stupid,” Eren fired back. “I didn’t think for a second, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be with this guy forever.’ Except maybe that’s only because I just never thought about it. If I did think about it, I probably could have seen it that way. But…” His jaw tightened. “I can’t even be mad at him because it would go against…everything I believe. I am mad, though. Because I was an idiot.”

“What happened to your ‘free love’ dogma?” Jean mumbled.

“Fuck you.”

“Eren… Dude, I think you’re just all dazed and confused because it was a relationship like you’ve never had before. You know? He’s older, it was different, it was something you’re not used to.”

“…I guess it just hurts a lot more than I thought it would.”

“Of course it does. It was your first time really dating outside our friends circle. You probably feel like you failed.”

“Thanks?”

“No, what I mean is—look, Eren, you’re right. You set yourself up for failure. You can’t make yourself happy making others happy. You can’t be responsible for someone else’s…I don’t know…epiphany? Realization?”

“Romantic awakening.”

Jean exhibited an uncomfortable dimple to the brow. “Sure, whatever. Listen, you’ve got to stop setting yourself up to fail with fixer-uppers. You do that, you know? You make yourself a stepping-stone. Eren, you pretty much asked for it—you were dealing with older guys here, guys with baggage you can’t carry, two guys who had a lot of history.”

Eren cut him an embarrassed glance. Obviously Mikasa or Armin had told him what happened. Never mind that, what about—stepping-stone… Where had he heard that before? Oh yeah— “Jean… Have you been listening to The Talk?”

Insta-denial, one part blushing and two parts flustered. Jean snorted. “No, I—well, yeah—but—no, I went on the blog. I was bored the other night at work.”

Why was that so God damn touching? And did anyone ever really answer their own inner questions, or were they rhetorical, were they place-markers for the unconscious to start working something down where the conscious mind couldn’t fuck it up?

“Listen,” Jean went on, shifting around a little into a more guarded position and meeting Eren’s eyes over his shoulder, “what I mean is, this if anywhere is where your stupid ‘different loves’ shit comes into play. You didn’t stand a chance with that guy—”

“Wow, thanks, Jean. I know, okay? I’m not that naïve. People get together, break up, move on. ‘Different loves,’ uh huh, uh huh. My words are coming back to bite me.” Eren groaned, kicking his feet against the edge of the coffee table. “I don’t want to be the one dealing with this. I give out the advice—”

Jean uttered an exasperated cry, flinging his hands out. “Then take it! God damn, Eren, take your own advice. How can you suck so bad at this when it comes to yourself?”

“I am taking my own advice. I’m just a little upset, you know? Can’t I just be upset?”

“You dated the guy for fall and winter quarter and he ditched you for someone he’s got ten plus years’ under the belt with, yeah, you can be upset but, be real with yourself, too, Eren—”

“I just want to be wanted, too, you know,” Eren hissed coldly, voice thick in his throat. “People want me, but not enough. They love me, but not enough. I’m so real with everyone, but apparently never real enough.” Hmm, did that ring any bells, Kirschtein? Maybe reminding how hurtful those words were—Never gets real with you, does it?

Except Jean didn’t rear back in guilt. He craned forward, impatiently. His eyes flashed. He spat, “For fuck’s sake, Eren, you are wanted! I’m right here, I’ve been here all along, waiting!

“…What?” Eren grunted, scowling at Jean from his side of the couch. Here came the embarrassment again, a little more like miserable shame.

Jean’s face was red. He was getting worked up—but over what? He looked irritated, he looked fed up. He looked scared of confiding in Eren but at the end of his rope. He blurted, “I’ve always been right here, wanting you. What, am I speaking a foreign fucking language? Christ, Eren, I’m not you, I’m not good with words and shit, I’m just saying that I’m here for you, I’ve always been here for you, and I’ll always be here with you—”

With you.

He said with.

Maybe it was a slip of tongue, but maybe it wasn’t, and with meant something totally different than for. Right?

You have to believe it, too, you know… Levi had said.

Jean was still babbling. He was all sorts of fired up. “Our whole ‘friends with benefits’ bullshit, our ‘sleep together when poor little me is lonely’—come on, you’re an idiot if you believed any of that is really how it was. I said, ‘Sure, okay,’ to your stupid casual sex idea because I still want you, Eren.”

“You’re full of shit, Jean! You were all fucked up over Marco and I was there for you because you—”

No, you TOLD yourself I was! You TOLD yourself that so you didn’t have to take responsibility for me maybe still CARING for you!

Eren shut his mouth with a snap of the teeth. He leaned back against the side of the couch, slowly. A new rendition of the tragedy and comedy mask, disbelief and errant shock eclipsed him. It was like Levi had left a bruise on his heart and Jean had just swung at it. It was a brisk, startling shiver of insight and Eren felt it like a stab to the bones.

Jean shrugged, roughly. “Yeah,” he finally husked, jaws clenched, softening a little with a deep breath. His face was stony but his voice was vulnerable, conciliatory, apologetic. And when he spoke so sweetly like that, it swept Eren under.

“You get it now, don’t you?” Jean pressed. “You’re so caught up in taking care of other people, you miss out on the right here, right now. Remember? Remember what I said about that?”

Wasn’t that all there ever was—the right here, right now?

Well, right here and right now, Jean grabbed his shoulder through the blankets and kissed him. Eren stiffened. It wasn’t that he couldn’t process exactly what the fuck was going on and what it meant; he was reeling, sure, but mostly from the brunt of his own stupidity. You TOLD yourself…

God, fuck him for making so much sense. Fuck him for being safe and familiar and just Jean

Once again Eren felt like the string of a violin, the thinnest, most fragile string, pulled tighter, and tighter, until finally it gave, it popped, and it was released, and Jean’s mouth was indefinably sweet and familiar, and his hands were moving up the side of his neck to comb through his hair, and his touch was so possessive, so careless, so pleading to be understood. His tongue darted out on Eren’s lower lip and Eren’s mouth fell open for him as he submitted to it all.

He wanted to hate Jean, too. How dare he pull this shit right now? Did this really seem like the right time to say, Hey, I’m still into you? Did he understand the rules at all? Did he think he was some sort of Prince Charming, here to save the heartbroken princess? How dare he cut him down when he was already feeling so low? How dare he make him ache in such a tragically hopeful way all over again?

Jean’s kisses sang songs of self-renewal and a newfound forbearance that hadn’t been there a year and a half ago. The feelings tangled up between them were not as wayward and loveless as rebound. They were sort of sad, and shy, and guilty, especially to be here in the Jäger house where so much of this had happened before (which was, in its own way, kind of romantic and fucked up). But Jean seemed far from concerned with the past. Jean didn’t even make fun of him when Eren hid against his shoulder and fought the urge to cry like a baby yet again because those soft, tender, yielding kisses had swung him hard back down into reality.

It was like reprieve; it was a reprise. It was a slap in the fucking face. It was gross and intense like the rain kiss in The Notebook and Eren was conflicted for a moment between laughing his ass off and punching Jean in the face.

Instead, he just barked, “Why didn’t you ever say anything, Jean?”

I care for you, and you care for me, but I think we can both agree there are others who we…

Jean argued, “I—I don’t know, I’ve just been waiting—stop looking at me like that, you asshole, you think I’d talk you out of dating someone else, no, I just waited…”

I’m here for you, always been here for you, always be here with you

Everything as he’d seen it was being dismantled and rearranged and it freaked Eren out. What about Marco, what about Armin, what about—oh.

They lay folded together on the couch with the soundless television flashing images and ads, and it was so very similar to clinging to Levi in the apartment hall.

That same, shimmering bittersweet throb, so beautiful but so confusing. He didn’t want Jean to untwine their fingers. He didn’t want him to unravel from his body. He didn’t want him to lift his head from the place between his ear and shoulder, or stop running his thumb over his knuckles. He didn’t like the feeling of need. It was so desperate and scary. But if he could be allowed just one more weak and sniveling afternoon, he’d be A-okay tomorrow morning. He fell headfirst into this resurrected solidarity, this forgiveness, this amnesty, this…patching-up. This fire on his lips and on his tongue and in his cheeks because a week of nothing but yourself was torture when you just wanted the scent of someone else’s skin, the tickle of their hair, the heat of their body. Humans were really lonely, pathetic things, so weakened by solitude, weren’t they?

Eren closed his eyes and just breathed, because kissing Jean hard and slow had been something like a purging and it left him beat.

“I’m sorry I’ve been so mean to you since we broke up,” he mumbled against Jean’s hair. He hoped Jean could hear the parts in there that also whispered, I’m sorry I hurt you and I’m not sure what’s happening right now, but it’s nice.

“‘Good people are like candles, they burn themselves out giving others light,’” Jean sighed.

“That’s good. Who said that?”

“Fuck if I know, I saw it online. I tried. Look, can I tell you something? It’s kind of weird, but I don’t know, I’m not you, I can’t pick myself apart like you. I won’t lie, I wasn’t over Marco right away. That was…devastating. But it wasn’t justabout Marco, it was about me, too. I…uh, don’t laugh at me, but I just…I’m tired of getting left behind. You know?”

Hissing sigh between the teeth. That simple truth burned him and he needed it to. His fingers tightened in Jean’s shirt, under his arm. “‘Please, please, don’t leave me here alone…’” Eren whispered.

Jean looked up at him, face pinched. “What?”

“Nothing. Shut up.”

“Hey, if you really feel bad about being so shitty since we broke up, maybe we could try again.”

“I am. That’s what I’m doing right now.”

“No, I mean—let’s go out. Again. Let’s try again.”

Jean gave it a shot. He tried, valiantly, to recite Eren’s philosophy on love. Eren didn’t really listen. He was watching the way Jean’s lips moved on the words and hoping Jean didn’t notice. He was dazed by how quickly and smoothly this closeness of theirs had been revived—no, remembered, because it had been hiding behind stubborn denial and trailblazing theory. He was kind of hung up on the crazy idea that all the different roads of life diverged and met again and wound around and amongst and between each other, trodden by footsteps new and old and unfamiliar and shared and nobody knew where the paths were going but they were all, in essence, headed the same direction:

Forward, right here, and right now.

Was it okay to move forward? It was okay to move forward. Moving forward wasn’t forgetting. Moving forward wasn’t revoking all he’d felt before. Moving forward was all he could do; moving forward was a duty of love and well, he rebelled against the other rules, why not break the rules of It’s over, too?

Whatever, it was Jean, for Christ’s sake, so he gave in to blind trust.

“And it’s just like you said,” Jean spat, struggling to tie the loose threads together before he lost the power of the moment, “we’re all in and out of each other’s lives at certain times for certain reasons, so… I mean, I’ve changed a lot in the last year, and you’ve… Fucking never mind. I can’t. I give up. All I’m trying to say is, I was terrified Marco was the one that got away, and then I was scared it was you, but—whoever it is, I’m not gonna just let it happen. I’m not getting left behind anymore. Maybe you aren’t, you know, it for me, Eren, but… For now you’re damn good enough.”

Swoon.

“Okay, stop while you’re ahead.” Eren put a hand over Jean’s face and then just used his own mouth to shut him up, lashes falling to half-mast. He laughed a tiny bit. Jean stirred to the sound. Eren didn’t want him to move anymore; he’d made a perfect nest there against his side. “You’re fine. You made me feel better. Well, you made me feel like an oblivious dick, but you definitely made me feel better, too, and… Hey, you wanna get dinner later?”

“Mikasa was talking about pizza—”

“No. You and me.”

Jean shot him a look of uncertainty, frowning sharply. “You want to? You want to try dating again?”

“Hell no,” Eren sighed. He stretched a little, nestling closer, tighter. “You’re supposed to wait at least two weeks after a breakup to start dating again. That’s just good karma, man.” He laughed. He frowned, because Jean’s kiss to his ear tickled. He pushed Jean back an inch or two to look him very seriously in the eye as he said, “I can’t think about that yet, Jean. I’m just trying to embrace the right here, right now. Okay?”

Jean surrendered. The smile he tried to fight was so innocent and excited, Eren wanted to laugh in his face. But he could see it in his eyes, the same delicate, cautious sparks that were jumping in his veins.

Make them work for it, Eren.

It was going to be okay. Everything was going to be okay.

Finally, Jean whispered, “Tell me about him. About Levi. Tell me everything. I won’t say anything mean. I really just want to hear. I know how much it meant to you and I just want you to talk and know I’m listening…”

And Eren caved completely.


Three months and July was a testament to global warming.

“Come on, hurry, we’re already late—”

“Chill the fuck out, babe…”

“Ouch! Shit, watch out, there’s a tiny step up there—”

“Ha ha! Are you okay?”

Levi could hear them, down out under the apartment patio where Eren had once beseeched him like a wayward Montague. All four or five of them, maybe six. Somewhere in Seattle, traffic was already jammed outside Gasworks for the Fourth. Soul music echoed from some park or another; 102.9 The Ex buzzed low and arbitrary from the living room surround sound as wine chilled, and laughter and chatter bloomed around the spinach-artichoke dip.

Erwin sidestepped a potted fern on the lit patio, leaning down over Levi’s right shoulder. “Eavesdropping?” he whispered, a bolstering massage of the hand drifting along the small of the back, the hip, the side.

He wasn’t eavesdropping, though; now, if Erwin had asked, Nervously watching for their arrival? the answer would have been a big fat guilty, Yessiree, Bob.

When Levi let them in at the front door, Eren and Hanji immediately ran for each other in typical party greeting—hands up, grins wide, voices echoing. “Heeeey!

“What’s up, sugar?”

“Not much. Where’s Mike? That son of a bitch owes me a shot of Jack—”

Chorus of voices, ushering hands. “Come in, come on!” It was always so loud and electric when two friend groups merged into one big crowd. What really sucked was trying to find a table for so many when the celebration was out and about and not crammed into the Smith-Ackerman apartment. Kind of funny but mostly relieving that Nifa and Armin always hit it off so well, or that Mikasa and Hanji claimed their territory as resident comedian duo, or that Nile and Moblit eagerly received Jean into their midst to talk women and cars around their Coronas, conveniently neglecting to notice the way Jean’s eyes regularly scanned the premises to check on Eren.

Levi’s ears rang with the jump in noise. “You’re late, brat,” he raised his voice, taking the bag of booze and snacks Eren proffered.

“Fashionably,” Eren sang back, flashing a wink and a laugh. “Hey, you got a cat!”

Running a hand through soft blond hair, Erwin heaved a dramatic sigh as their cat wound between his legs, then darted off into hiding at the first burst of voices and laughter that crested harshly through the sea of sounds. “I wanted a dog.”

Levi smirked triumphantly at Eren over his shoulder, as if to say, I got my way.

“Are we going downtown for the fireworks?”

“No, we can see them pretty well from the balcony—”

Levi didn’t know how it worked.

It was radical, maybe, but it had happened naturally, honest to God—the blending of Eren and co. and Levi and co. into one great big club.

It started with Eren back in mid-April saying, “Let’s choose a Levi and Eren night,” which was utterly outrageous and utterly adorable and completely fulfilling after their unconventional breakup, so they’d started meeting every Thursday night for a drink or two at the Jewel Box. Casual, relaxed, catching up, teasing, advice, keeping posted—The Talk, version 3.0. Levi left 102.9 for The Stranger. Drinks at the coffee shop gradually began to involve new significant others, and somewhere after that it became everyone meeting for Friday night drinks at some bar or another and whoever showed up, showed up.

Maybe it had something to do with time. Time healed everything, they said, or was it just that with time came clarity and peace of mind and proof that some change really was for the better? Hey, exes could stay friends if they really meant it. It made for a surprisingly easy and surprisingly deeper bond than what they had before, which seemed awful, but was admittedly perfect.

Like how it made Levi smile to see the way Eren’s hand clasped with Jean’s in almost-secret touches behind their backs, the way they sometimes had conversations in their own little boyfriend code like raised eyebrows and tiny whispers against the cheek and shakes of the head and wrinkled noses. Like how it made him quietly giddy inside when Eren and Erwin got along like the best of pals, talking fashion and academia and old local music and oh gosh, that was one of Carla’s events Erwin had attended recently? Small world!

It was almost mean, the simplicity with which things worked themselves out.

“How’ve you guys been?” Eren asked, alone with Levi on the patio, dutifully slipping his lighter forth.

You guys. And Eren didn’t even mean it spitefully; there was and never had been any passive aggression there. Levi envied that gallant integrity. He wanted to bottle it up and keep it in case of emergency because it was damn hard to find in the world.

“Pretty good.”

“Boring!”

“Jesus, Eren—all right, here’s a good story for you. The other night we were trying to…you know, get busy, and this cat. This fucking cat we got, holy shit, we somehow stumbled upon the neediest, most high maintenance, devious, smartest feline in all the Pacific Northwest because this fucking cat has turned cock-blocking into an art form.”

“Wait, wait, I got one, too—so Jean and I got in a fight last week, right? Reiner just got him a job at the bar, too, which was awful at first because—well, me starting at Heaven and Hell is one of the reasons we broke up before, and all—but I don’t care if he likes it or not—”

“Classic Eren Jäger.”

“Anyway, we reached an agreement. I’m cutting back on hours. Me and Armin work the same shifts, now. That way it’s not…upsetting to see either one of us working alone.” Eren shrugged, smoking quietly for a deep thought or two. “Oh!” he cried, on a sigh of silky gray. “Hey, hold on. I have to show you something…”

Fireworks were going off over the lake, a shower of colors in sparks and tails. Echoes of shouts and good fun drifted through the cool dark streets. On a balcony below, neighbors had emerged to watch the show, too. Eren disappeared inside. When he wandered back out it was with another drink and the latest copy of The Stranger. Juggling a little, he finally flipped to the popular advice features where Savage Love was running just a page away from its newest young, hip rival:

The Talk, emblazoned in beautiful bold Times New Roman, caged by ads for night clubs and farmers’ markets, with the date and the author’s short bio italicized underneath.

E. J äger, ‘Sometimes all you need is some advice from a stripper.’

God, the balls of The Stranger. The shit this publication got away with was beautiful. Levi hadn’t really expected anything when he’d posed the idea to his editors and then Eren a month or two ago; he’d figured Eren would shy away from the nepotism and all the who-you-know, who-you-blow about the idea of Levi getting him a job. But he’d actually jumped on it, and it was a weird but successful transferal that Seattle had adjusted to quite well, actually. Bye-bye 102.9’s next-favorite DJ; peace out controversial radio show; hello real journalism and Jaeger Bomb’s new advice column. It was like passing the torch. Levi was done with The Talk; he was over it. It was Eren’s turn to take the platform and revolutionize it.

“Look at this anon letter I got,” Eren said under the strung-up patio lights, pointing to the page.

Levi’s jaw tightened as he fought an evil chuckle. He knew about the anon letter. He’d sent it, after all.

Dear Mr. J äger – I’m probably not as entertaining as the rest of your age bracket, but I AM an avid reader. After seeing the advice you’ve given on breakups—the before, the after, the interim—I was just wondering, is it okay to say ‘I love you’ still, even if you’re no longer together? (No Acronym Given)

“What a toughie, right?” Eren mumbled to himself, dragging his finger down the short paragraph. “Look, I hope I answered it all right… What do you think?”

Mr. Radio, it’s always okay to say I love you. Psychology says there are two different kinds of love: passionate, and companionate. You can have one without the other. You can have one which might become the other. You can have both at once. You can have one and then discover you have both in the end. So yeah, I’m gonna say you can still say I love you even after all this time. Just because you broke up doesn’t mean the love went away. You’ll never love anyone like you loved that person again, because the love you have with or for someone else will be a totally different and totally new love in and of itself. Here, I’ll give you an example: when I’m with him, and I think to myself, ‘God, I love this idiot,’ it can’t hold a candle to the times I thought with you, ‘God, I love him.’ Because it’s not the same. I don’t have to cancel my love for one of you just because I love the other, too. Another example: when I see you smiling at him, I feel the same hot ache in my chest as I did when I used to look up from your shoulder and tell you, ‘Love you so much, old man.’ Make sense? XO XO (Jaeger Bomb)

Levi recoiled like Eren’s glance had physically hurt him, sneaky and sultry as it was there on the porch in the dark with that impish little smirk.

Caught you, that leer said.

Levi sighed, leaning back against the patio railing. He fiddled with the sleeves of his thin sweater; he flicked cigarette ash. He grumbled, “How’d you know it was me?”

Eren laughed, shaking his head. “Because I know the way you talk, Levi.” He paused, that dark contemplative frown puckering his face again. He closed The Stranger and tossed it down on a patio chair, crossing to lean beside Levi and stare out over the lights and the hills and the celebrating neighborhoods, fireworks still popping over the lake. Woo, Happy Fourth!

“You can’t call me ‘Mr. Radio’ anymore,” Levi added. “I’m Mr. Writer-Slash-Editor now.”

“Whatever,” Eren chuckled. And then all raw grave honesty again, he whispered, “I mean it.”

When I see you smiling at him, I feel the same… When I used to look up from your shoulder and tell you, ‘Love you so much, old man…’

Levi gave Eren a gentle one-armed squeeze, nodding a little as Eren returned the friendly slump of a hug.

“Well, I mean it, too,” Levi hummed, with only a mild hesitation. But he was finding that exes like Eren Jäger were incredibly easy to talk to, to be open with, a whole new definition of unconditional best friend. “I still love you lots, kiddo. You’ve done more for me than I could ever thank you for.”

You helped me. You changed me. You made me see clearly. You loved me like I couldn’t have even loved myself a year ago. You and your fucking stupid ‘Talk.’

Eren smiled, casting Levi a sunshine glance over his shoulder as he moved back towards the balcony door and the light spilling out from inside, the voices, the good vibes, the waiting loved ones.

“Same,” he murmured. “And nothing will ever change it, Mr. Radio.”


end.