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On Freedom's Wings

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Perhaps it was foolish or naive to think so, but Eren thought it was a good sign that his apartment was within  walking distance of a coffee shop. Late mornings and afternoons found him there, unnoticed in a booth by the window with a cup of coffee (even though he didn’t really like coffee). There he sketched until he got tired of sitting in the same place. Within two weeks his sketchbook was full of strangers; passersby glimpsed through the windows, customers and the baristas behind the counter. There was a girl with hair so long it nearly brushed the ground when she sat down; a boy with red hair who was the first to have some colour added to his sketch; a business man with a laptop, captured at the moment he smiled at something on the screen; two people on a tandem bicycle; and one of the baristas who was there most often during the week. The barista featured a lot, Eren realised when he took the time to flip through the filled book later. Despite the colours and lengths and styles he’d seen, maybe it was the haircut (how long ago exactly, had it gone out of style?). Or maybe the fact that when Eren first (nervously) ordered a coffee, his intimidating stare wasn’t as cold up close. Or maybe, Eren thought as he paused on his last sketch, maybe it was the first time he saw the man smirk at a joke his co-worker told him, a smile that Eren had had drawn as quickly as he could before the moment passed.

When Eren learned to discreetly read the man’s name tag, more pictures of Levi began to appear in his sketchbook, not quite right in the background Eren saw him in. Behind a counter making drinks Eren didn’t care to name, there was something about Levi that was like a chord played in the wrong key. He belonged somewhere else, although Eren didn’t know why he thought that. He’d stare at the man for a while trying to understand what it was, but then Levi would look up and Eren would tear his eyes away, heart thumping as he glared determinedly out the window.

And in the evenings he went home, brought out a canvas, laid it on the floor and painted what he had seen or whatever was in his head; discordant colours and forest clearings from his dreams, boats on water so calm it was like glass, and faces he remembered from his sketches. He painted on his knees, lying on his side and bent over so that he always kept moving when he got uncomfortable. It felt tame after the things he’d done with his own room at home and he missed it, but the most he ever did was get paint on the newspaper laid out on the floor. He rented. There was only so much the landlady would tolerate, he was sure.

He took to going to the shop later after that, coming in as close as possible to closing so that maybe he could catch Levi before he left and- what? Eren didn’t have trouble getting dates but that wasn’t what he really wanted now. He wanted coffee and a conversation. A friend. Yet every time he thought about it, he was reminded unpleasantly of all the other times he had wanted to be friends with someone who was hopelessly out of his league. He could pretend that he didn't care and go so far as to point out how shitty the person he wanted actually was, but he was a terrible liar. And  since Levi disappeared the minute his shift was over, Eren couldn’t find a chance to corner him into a conversation anyway. But it got to the point where he was willing to endure rejection just so he'd stop dreaming about talking to Levi. Sometimes when he woke up, Eren really believed that he had talked to him. Realising otherwise was painful.

By the end of the week he was at the end of his rope, and he took the first chance he saw.

The shop was almost empty when Eren walked in that evening, and the stragglers were gathering their things in between drinking the last sips from their cups. Levi’s co-worker- a blonde man who Eren thought was far too attractive to be working in a tiny coffee shop in this huge city- spotted Eren as he walked in and said something over his shoulder. Levi turned and Eren thought he saw relief flicker across the man’s face, but it was gone as soon as it came. Eren swallowed and wished his heart would stop hammering. It wasn’t like he was going into battle. He could talk to people, even though approval (or lack thereof) from this person could make or break the next month for him.

Eren came by so often that by now Levi only raised his eyebrows and waited for an order. Eren tried leaning casually against the glass display cabinet beside the counter and gestured towards the sign above Levi’s head. “Surprise me.”

It was first time Eren had seen Levi look amused. He wanted to draw that face so badly, almost as much as he wanted the ground to open up and swallow him. “Excuse me?”

“Pick a favourite. I’ll take that.” He hesitated. “Two, actually.”

That was a smirk. That was totally a smirk and Levi was laughing at him, even though the same expression on anyone else would probably look like a milder scowl. Eren had never felt more like a child, but he forgot some of his anxiety as he watched Levi work. What started as a glance became a lingering gaze, and Eren tried to convince himself that he was only staring at Levi the same way he did everyone else; with the sole intention of drawing them, to practice anatomy since he spent too much time on landscapes. Except he couldn’t help but notice every movement of Levi’s muscles and his shoulder blades when his shirt stretched over them;  Levi’s his fingers seemed so delicate until moved and the tendons and blue veins became obvious under his pale skin, and Eren began to understand why his eyes were always drawn to the hands in Renaissance sculptures-

Levi turned and Eren quickly pretended to look somewhere else. He paid, waited for his change and receipt, and then slid one of the cups towards Levi. In the end, he couldn’t find the courage to look the man in the ye.

“Sit with me.”

There was surprise there maybe, Eren thought, but surprise at the request or the boldness? The man behind Levi had taken up a smirk of his own, and Eren desperately hoped his face wasn’t as obviously red as it felt. But something changed in Levi’s eyes as if he was accepting the challenge, and he took off his apron, throwing it in the direction of the man behind him without looking. “I think I’ll take my break now, Erwin.”

He walked around the counter to pick up his coffee and whether he leaned towards Eren on purpose just to give the kid a heart attack, he never said. It was ridiculous anyway; they were both adults, even if Levi seemed to be on an entirely different level of maturity. Being close to another adult was no reason to panic, even one that he was so hopeless, pathetically fascinated by. Besides, getting Levi’s attention (or pity) was a result of luck rather than his personal charm, he was sure.

Levi picked a booth and waited for Eren to join him. He wasn’t even sure what was in his cup but he took an experimental sip to fill the silence. He tasted peppermint underneath the pain of the roof of his mouth burning. It was good. Very good. It wasn’t even coffee.

He took a few deep breaths to steady himself, and tried to keep his voice even. “You don’t look like you work here.” Levi didn’t look at him like he was an idiot, so he took that as a sign to continue. “I mean, you don’t... look like this is where you’re supposed to be.”

Levi stared. Eren wished he would say something, anything- that he was an idiot, that he wasn’t making any sense, and what kind of conversation starter was that anyway? But the man just stared with his infuriatingly blank expression and Eren took another sip of his hot chocolate even though it was still at a temperature slightly below boiling.

“I’m not,” he said eventually. “I’m still...” He paused, doubting suddenly if it was even worth saying, but he said it anyway. “I’m still waiting.”

Eren was so relieved that Levi was taking him seriously that he nearly laughed the way he did when he was nervous, but he confined himself to an easy nod and another sip of scalding peppermint.

“I’ve seen your paintings,” Levi said, and Eren gracefully choked on his last mouthful.

“What?”

“The exhibition,” he continued as Eren coughed. “A few weeks ago.”

“O-oh.” He coughed away from the table, into the inside of his elbow, so Levi couldn’t see his face.  Now either Levi would say something vaguely nice or explain why Eren was a talentless waste of space. There was very rarely ever an in between in his experience, especially with his teachers.

Levi stared vacantly at something beyond Eren’s head, his cup raised to his lips although he didn’t drink. God, who held a cup like that? “They were beautiful.” His eyes were suddenly as soft as his words, and it sent a shock through Eren, of pride and surprise and joy.  “And I thought-” He stopped suddenly, shook his head and drank. Eren waited and eventually, staring at one corner of the table, he finished.

“I think that was the first time I really hated myself for...giving up.”  

Eren would never have expected to see such a look on Levi’s face, not something so vulnerable, not  something that made him ache because he could remember exactly how that felt. He could think of nothing that could ever be enough consolation, but when he nodded his understanding, he noticed that some of the tension eased out of the man’s shoulders.

Neither of them spoke again. In that companionable silence, Eren tried to find the words to describe how he felt, especially now sitting across from a person he’d only dreamed of knowing.

There was a reason, of course, why he had decided long ago to use his hands for pictures instead of letters.

 


 

 

Eren started looking forward to the evenings. The next time Eren showed up, Levi spotted him coming through the door and had two coffees almost made by the time he reached the counter. It was a vanilla-something this time, sweet and just as hot. Eren wondered if he could get Levi to show him how the coffee machines worked some day.

Levi settled back into his seat while Eren perched on the edge of his, anxiously tapping the side of the cup as he tried to think of something interesting to say. He started to realise that he would never be able to hold Levi’s attention for long enough. They had shared something last time, but it could’ve been a fluke. With billions of other people crawling all over the planet, maybe that happened all time.

What was he really to this man, other than a kid with a sketchbook who just showed up for their cheapest coffee with bags under his eyes at two in the afternoon? He wanted to know exactly what Levi had seen in his paintings. He wanted to know what Levi given up that had brought him here. He wanted to know everything all at once and slowly, an entire autobiography and fragmented puzzle pieces that would mean nothing to anyone else. But that wasn’t something  Eren could ask for, not yet. There weren't even any phone numbers involved. For all Eren knew, Levi had had moments like that with tons of people other before.

"You were more interesting yesterday," Levi muttered, and it went through Eren like a knife. He’d told himself to be prepared and yet it still hurt worse than he’d imagined to find out that he’d been right.

But Levi rolled his eyes and sighed a second later. He set his coffee aside. "I'm joking." Eren didn't find it funny and Levi didn't smile anyway. "That's not why I'm here.”

Eren nodded, traced the edge of the cup with his little finger and stayed silent. Levi leaned forwards on his elbows. "What do you do?" he asked, and Eren was almost overwhelmed by how intense his gaze was. "When you're not here, what do you do?"

For a moment he didn't know what to say. Levi wasn't the type of person who was interested in someone like him. Eren had spent years of his life looking up to people like that, wanting to be friends with them and not being important or interesting enough to even get a leg in. The paintings were one thing, but beyond his art he didn’t know what part of him Levi wanted to see. Now he had a chance to talk about something that was his whole life and he was sure there had to be a camera hidden somewhere, waiting for him to stupidly believe that Levi cared. "You want to know?"

Levi visibly struggled with saying something sarcastic and nodded instead, and although Eren was still partially convinced that he was being tricked, he told him.

"I paint," he said cautiously, and then stopped when Levi glared.

"I know that," he snapped, "I've seen some of it."

Oh. So it was like that.

"What do you want me to say?” His palms were beginning to sweat. “I paint, that's what I do, that's how I eat and sleep and breathe. I go home and I paint, I finish commissions I almost don't want to do, I regret ever going to school because I keep worrying that I'm not good enough to keep doing this so I keep painting so I won’t think about it. I break paintbrushes sometimes, step in acrylics and don't notice until I wake up with it everywhere. I don’t…” He paused, shook his head and wished his stomach would stop doing this awful, sickening roll. “Whatever you saw in my work, I’m not...I didn’t do it for anyone. I did it for me.”

He sort of wanted to get up and walk away at that point because he felt sick. If Levi wanted the story of the starving, yet brilliant artist, the sweeping metaphors and pearls of wisdom, he was going to have to find someone else. He’d already said too much, said things that he only ever confessed when he knew he could trust his listener with the words. Eren still didn't quite understand Levi, but he couldn’t just stupidly trust him either. He had to stop hoping that the man he’d wanted to talk to for weeks would be the same man who would sit with him and want to hear that Eren loved making art so desperately it was like an illness.

He didn't leave. Eventually the anger  and embarrassment humming through his veins faded and he sat there, gripping the handle of the cup and waiting for Levi to say something. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking, and Eren hated that he'd wanted to be friends with him at all. He couldn't be with someone like this. He felt like he’d tricked Levi and that didn’t feel good at all. Instead of some admirable mentor he got some stinking kid. Yet what he hated more was the fact that he still ached with curiosity. Had Levi really gone to that exhibition, the same one where Eren had been so nervous at the prospect of hundreds of strangers seeing his art that he'd felt like throwing up? What was he doing here now, talking to a kid who walked with a sketchbook glued to his side? What was he doing working a job he hated?

“I wasn't trying to be a dick."

"It just happens, does it?" Eren snapped.

Levi blinked.

And then he sighed, ran a hand through his hair, winced, and immediately smoothed it back down. Eren almost thought he was going to apologise, although he wasn't sure if he really wanted an apology. He wasn't even sure whose fault it was in the first place, other than maybe his own. He wondered if it would've been different if they’d begun normally, with painful small talk and pleasant adult conversation which eventually led to discussions about work and the exchange of phone numbers, and maybe even the usual sex routine before they settled as friends who called each other occasionally when their two-point-five kids weren't in the way.

The idea had always horrified Eren a little. It wasn't that he didn't want children exactly, it was just that he couldn’t imagine willingly giving in to that kind of responsibility. He didn't want normalcy with Levi, although why he thought it wouldn't be that way was beyond him. Levi had given no indication of being anything out of the ordinary. For all Eren knew, he had a fiancee at home who loved him to death as much as he loved her. Something shifted uncomfortably in Eren's gut at the prospect and he hated it. And then he thought about the fact that if he embarrassed himself too much he could always find another coffee shop (even though it would never be the same), so he gave up on trying to be interesting and cautious and all of the things that he could never be. When he leaned in he expected Levi to give him some space, and when he didn’t, Eren swallowed his nerves and dealt with it. "What did you mean, when you said you gave up? What’re you waiting for?"

Eren wanted it to be the same as before, with that same aching, understanding heaviness in his chest. But despite his closeness, Levi was too abrupt with his words. His eyes were cold."There were things I wanted to do, before I ended up here. But I got scared and I stopped. That's it."

"That's it?"

"Yeah."

And there was that silence again, growing in intensity with every passing minute that they refused to break eye contact.

It quickly turned into a game, and Eren struggled. Eye contact wasn't nearly as romantic as stories suggested, and Levi was clearly ten times better at intimidation. It was worse because not a single muscle in his face moved, so Eren had no idea what Levi was thinking. Maybe it would always be like this for them, Eren thought, endless guessing and awkward not-quite arguments when they misunderstood each other.

Eren lost, of course. But it didn't matter when Levi smiled a little, because that meant they were okay. To Eren, being with Levi felt like a crooked table, maybe the sharp terror of missing a step on the stairs, but he could see it getting better. Or maybe that was his own delusion; he had drawn the man so many times and had dreamt about talking to him after all, and real people were never like dreams.

 


 

 

Mikasa called, just as he was cleaning his brushes and hating himself for not doing it earlier.

About halfway through the conversation, Eren couldn’t hold it in anymore. "I met someone a few days ago.”

Mikasa was instantly curious, and he could hear her getting ready to discourage him from any bad ideas. Even with a life infinitely more organised than Eren's, he was still one of her few worries. It’d been years ago, but he could clearly recall the horror on her face when his last reckless adventure had landed him in hospital. The rollerblades and the painting had sounded like a great idea at the time, at least until the car.  He'd tried to worry more about his own safety after that.

"He works at that coffee shop I told you about," Eren continued, trying to sound casual while soaking another stiff brush.

"What was it? The vanilla latte or whatever it is they sell at those places now? Is that all it took to convince you?" The amusement was good. He could work with that.

"I’m not that easily seduced, Mikasa."

They were both silent for a while. That wasn’t good. She was supposed to continue the joke until she forgot to give him some stupid talk like she was his mother or something. "So what was it?"

"Do you want me to tell you what he's like? Are you going to ask if he's-” he dropped the brush, lost it in the sink of murky water and cursed  “- treating me right or something?" Maybe he could still work with bristles that were like concrete bricks. Maybe cleaning his brushes wasn’t worth it after all.

"Do you want to tell me?"

He thought about it. He thought about handing Levi  his sketchbook with the same enthusiasm as someone getting their foot nailed to the floor. He thought about sitting there for five minutes feeling like he was going to throw up and die, and then how it  was worth it when he looked at Levi's face. And he thought about spending whole shifts at the shop, being there when Levi took his breaks in the same booth, not talking but reading something new every day. He thought about the first time Levi touched him, when he'd jumped and nearly knocked over a girl walking by the table, when they'd both frozen and Levi had kept to himself for a while before trying again. He thought about Levi pushing his hair back from his face as he drew, and even though it had been once and days ago, Eren could still remember the passage of the man's fingertips across his skin-

"Eren?"

"Yeah, sorry. I'm here, I just..." He licked his lips nervously. He wanted to talk about Levi to someone, but he didn't go around gushing about the people he dated (were they dating? Is that what they were calling it?). He hadn't ever felt the need to anyway, not with Emily or the weird, brief thing with Amy (who had proceeded to pretend that he didn't exist for the rest of high school). There were others through art school, Alex and Katherine and Jean, but they weren't quite like this. Being with Levi didn’t have the same ease, but it had something that felt stronger. He didn't know how to describe that or if he even wanted to. He trusted Mikasa with his life, but he hesitated to tell her about something like this. Once Armin had stopped being terrified by everything involving relationships, Eren had someone he could sort of talk to, but they rarely had those kinds of conversations and he liked that about Armin. His dilemma, he realised, was that he was worried about Mikasa's approval. Her disapproval rarely ever stopped him from actually doing things, but that was usually because the things he decided to do often got him into various degrees of bodily harm.

"You like him."

Eren sighed. "Yes."

"Does he even have a name or are we not past the ‘staring from a distance’ phase?"

Eren scowled into the receiver. “Levi. His name is Levi.”

Yet instead of some patronising chuckle, she said nothing.

“Mikasa?”

“Is that what he told you?”

“What?” He switched the phone to his other, less sweaty ear. “Why would he lie?”

She didn’t answer that question. Something cold settled in the pit of Eren’s stomach as she said, “Just...try not to be an idiot, okay?”

After she made him promise, she quickly hung up. He accidentally dropped his phone into the sink afterwards  and cursed profusely for five minutes straight, but couldn’t easily forget the split second of panic on the other end of the line.

 


 

 

"You're not doing anything on Thursday."

Eren looked up from his sketchbook, blinking as he adjusted from staring at the page for two hours straight. He hadn't even noticed Levi slipping into the seat next to him. "I'm not?"

"Well. You’re going to be. If you want to."

Whatever Levi was trying to say or whatever subtle hints he was trying to drop, it wasn’t working. Eren had started noticing it after a few days, and he still wasn't used to it; Levi would say something, and Eren would have to guess if he was joking or not. It was more difficult than he had anticipated.

"Are you..." He paused. He had glanced past Levi's face and Erwin had looked away pointedly, suddenly directing his attention to something fascinating in the back room. "Are you asking me out?"

There was a beat of silence in which Eren panicked and was about to apologise, and then, "Yes." Levi's expression didn't change, but his fingers tapped the side of his mug nervously, and Eren realised that he'd probably been working up to this for a while and he smiled, just a little.

"Okay." He grinned as the tension eased out of Levi's shoulders. "Did you really think I was going to say no?"

"'Course not," Levi mumbled, finishing his coffee and hiding his face. "That's not what I was- no." He cleared his throat. "No."

Eren tried to pretend he wasn't enjoying it. He went home that night with a grin all over his face and a bruised ankle.

 


 

 

It was odd to see Levi out of the clothes Eren usually saw him in. He didn't know what he expected when he answered the door the next afternoon, but Levi dressed like any normal person his age. Thinking back to his drawings, he thought it was a little childish of him to only think of Levi in the context of where he worked, like a kid who still believed that teachers slept in school and didn't have lives outside of the classroom. Levi wore t-shirts and jeans. But then he also had two small, silver hoops in his ear which was fascinating and also did something to Eren that he couldn’t quite explain.

When he answered the door, he tried to open it as little as possible and slither out without revealing the chaos inside but it didn't work. Despite the fact that Levi was so much shorter, he still saw around Eren's anxious, guilty shimmying.

"Is that paint on the wall?"

There was a witty answer to that, and he realised this three seconds after he blurted "Yes." He held his breath waited for the disdain and the dressing down, the lecture about respecting property, but instead he got a foot in the door and a hand pushing him back into the room.

"I tried cleaning up before you got here!" Eren lied as he stubbornly pressed forward. "I just don't get around to doing it often and sometimes things just happen to end up on the ground and stay there but I air it out every so often, I swear-"

It was too late by then. Levi stood just inside the door, before a mess of clothes (of varying degrees of cleanliness), takeaway boxes and drink cans, dried paintbrushes and paints. But to Eren's relief, he wasn't paying attention to any of it. He stepped over a whole pile of paper bags just to get closer to the opposite wall. He reached out a hand and drew over the colours, his fingertips just hovering over the drying paint. His fingers ghosted over the rolling hills and evergreens, the path leading to a city of medieval houses and the carriage tracks in the square, the canal and the wall in the distance, and he froze suddenly when he reached the giant looming over the wall, its face made of muscle and bone without skin and Eren saw his hand begin to shake-

"Levi?"

He backed away and almost tripped over a pile of clothes and Eren reached out to help him but the man batted his hands away. Levi was so pale it scared him, but no matter how much Eren asked, he wouldn't explain and he wouldn't even look at him, not even when he fumbled with the handle, threw the door open and slammed it behind him. And when Eren composed himself enough to try to run after him, he was gone; the stairs were empty and when he ran outside, Levi had disappeared.

He went back upstairs. He shut the door softly behind him and refused to look at the wall. He cleaned up and it took forever because there was more mess than he'd thought. He even tried to clean his brushes again and hoovered, organised his paints and the list of commissions he had to finish, did laundry and made his bed.

And when there was nothing left to do, he laid out newspaper, found an unopened can of paint, and destroyed his work with massive black strokes, covered his hands and smeared it all over the face of the monster peering over the wall and blacked out the meadow he had been perfecting for weeks. And when that was done he took a shower and crawled into bed early, tried to call Levi even though he knew he wouldn’t get an answer, and forced himself to go to sleep.

He dreamt about the monster. He dreamt that the giant kicked a hole through the wall and the other giants crawled into the city and crushed its people, dreamt that he saw his neighbours devoured and children crushed, dreamt screaming mothers and torrents of blood raining from the sky, dreamt himself running with Mikasa behind him and finding Levi crushed under the debris, his body still warm but lifeless, and in the chaos of the dream he was lifted into the air by the hand of a titan, felt the searing agony of its teeth tearing into his leg; but he was still awake to watch another take Mikasa, to hear Armin crying out for him-

He'd been crying in his sleep or he'd woken up crying but it didn't matter. He was shaking when he jerked awake, twisted in his sheets, sobbing and gasping for air. He'd had nightmares about drowning and watching people he loved die, but not like this. People died from plausible causes, like gunshot wounds or plane crashes in those nightmares. But this had felt real, like a warped memory, and it burned through his chest and made him so afraid. He lurched out of bed a few minutes later, stumbled through the dark to the bathroom and threw up nothing, remembering that he hadn’t eaten before going to bed earlier. He knelt by the toilet as his stomach twisted and tried to empty again, wept until there was nothing much left except snot and a trail of spit sticking his cheek to the seat, and he still felt like he was going to lose his mind. He considered it a few times, pushed the thought aside, but thought of it again, until he finally made himself to get up, get his phone from his bedside table and dial.

Levi didn't answer. Eren dry heaved again, put the phone down and forced himself to take a few deep breaths until he could control it and called again. He got the automated voicemail, the one from the phone company without Levi's recorded voice. He didn't know if hearing Levi’s voice would've made him feel better or worse, but he left a message anyway, a desperate, garbled one that he regretted as soon as he sent it but he didn't call again to tell Levi to ignore it.

Yet a minute or so later, Levi called him back.

"Eren?"

Thannk God. Thank fuck. "Sorry," he gasped, pressing a hand over his eyes as if that would force the tears back into his head. "Sorry, I panicked. I'm okay. Um. If I did anything today...I'm sorry for that too. I don't know what it was-"

"That was my fault." Eren had never heard him sound so high-strung. "What happened? You sound terrible."

He laughed, which was a mistake. "No, I...I just had a nightmare. It's stupid. It's not anything to call you about."

"It sounded worse than that," Levi said quietly. He was shivering and it felt like his skin was crawling. He couldn’t argue with that.

Levi surprised him again, like he'd been surprising him since they'd met. "Tell me."

"You don't want to hear it. It was...it’s nothing-"

"Shut up, Jaeger. Tell me." There was the slight irritation that Eren was used to, enough that he was almost able to breathe normally again. So he slowly lay back down and told Levi about the wall breaking, about the hell the town had turned into, and about finding Levi crushed to death under a collapsed building. And when he was done, the other end of the line was completely silent.

"I'm afraid to close my eyes again," he went on. "I'm afraid to be alone even though I'm an adult and I shouldn't-"

"Do you want me to come over?"

Eren blinked up at the ceiling and nearly asked him to repeat the question, but thought if he did Levi would pretend he'd never asked it. "Please." Maybe he hadn't really wanted Eren to say yes, but either way, when they hung up, it was with the promise that he'd be there within the hour. And Eren kept staring up at the ceiling and waiting, concentrating on the voice he had heard on the phone as he tried to chase away the memory of the nightmare that had prompted him to seek it in the first place.

 

*

 

Levi showed up an hour later with tea, and Eren was more grateful than words could afford him. He was still shaking a little when he answered the door with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, but the sight of Levi eased his nerves. If Levi wondered about the state of the wall, he didn’t say anything.

Eren swayed towards Levi the second he shut the door behind him, and remarkably he  didn’t protest when Eren leaned heavily against him. Levi smelled of fabric conditioner and bar soap and his hair was slightly damp. It curled against his skin where it was still wet. Eren had managed to make it as far as the shower and back, but he mostly smelled wet, he was sure. Yet Levi brought his arms around Eren’s waist almost immediately. He expected the embrace to be stiff; although Levi had touched his face, his hands, his hair, this was different. He didn’t seem like the type to give into hugs easily, but there were his hands on Eren’s waist, so comforting it almost made him cry.

“Sit down,” Levi said softly, smoothing Eren’s rumpled shirt back over his hip. “Relax. I’ll be right there.”

Eren reluctantly shuffled towards the sofa while Levi headed towards the kitchen. Eren curled up with his  blanket and listened to Levi filling the kettle, searching through cupboards for cups, the rustle of a paper bag. He shivered a little but after a few minutes his breathing settled and he almost felt normal. He must’ve dozed off for a minute or two, because seconds later it seemed, he felt the sofa dip as Levi sat next to him. He held out a mug - the one Jean had given him two Christmases ago, with the break-dancing reindeer. Eren took the cup carefully, drank deeply and nearly moaned- he didn’t know how Levi had done it, but he’d never had a cup of tea like this. People had spent years trying to convince him that tea was the answer to everything, and now he truly understood.

He drank until his cup was empty, and by the time Levi asked him to explain the nightmare again, he began without the fear that he had woken up with. He leaned against Levi’s shoulder and somehow migrated to his lap by the time he began to struggle for words to describe why the the dream had been so terrible. Recounting it wasn’t as bad as Eren expected, maybe because even after he finished, Levi’s fingers continued to run slowly through his hair as if it was something he’d always done. He didn’t say anything for a while, and Eren assumed he was thinking of something to say. He just hoped he’d say it fast, because Eren was starting to fall asleep again.

Levi never said anything in the end, and Eren was too tired to think it was strange. He was far too focused on the gentle fingers in his hair, Levi’s warmth, the rise and fall of his chest…

Despite falling asleep easily, he woke up with a crick in his neck and like all the moisture in his mouth had been hovered out in his sleep. He groaned as he sat up, and hissed as his left shoulder twinged. He wondered briefly what kind of rock he’d slept on before he turned and remembered last night.

It hit him so suddenly that he actually slapped a hand over his chest as if he could feel the sudden twist of his heart under his fingers. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling really. It was just that when he’d looked at Levi’s face - relaxed, peaceful, lips parted, face shoved into the sofa cushions- he’d realised just how much he cared. It was somehow scarier than the dream, knowing that someone could become so important to him, that those sort of feelings could creep up on him. Of course he depended on Mikasa and Armin, loved them both to death (even though he’d never say so out loud) but this was different. This was a feeling that burned its way through his veins and made his heart race; the words were there on the tip of his tongue but he didn’t have the courage to say them, even though Levi wouldn’t even be able to hear. But at least now he understood, as he carefully slipped his fingers through Levi’s, what exactly the man had become to him.

 


 

 

Levi spent the first few minutes of his break grumbling about the fact that he couldn’t turn his head to the right without his neck seizing up, and that he’d almost been late for work because he’d had to rush home to get ready and get back in time for his shift. Eren would’ve been irritatingly smug about it if it wasn’t for the fact that he couldn’t draw that day because muscles he didn’t even know he used were too painful to move. A few weeks ago he would’ve gone home and spent a long, dejected day watching movies he usually couldn’t find time for. But he stayed for Levi’s grumbling, the mocha, the opportunity to try to learn how to make all the drinks on the menu just by watching.

Levi lapsed into silence like he usually did, except when he broke it, there was a nervousness in his voice that was a little alarming to Eren.

“About yesterday-” he began, but Eren shook his head (hissing afterwards, remembering too late why he’d barely moved all day).

“Don’t worry about it,” Eren said. Levi glared.

“I’m taking you out,” Levi insisted. It sounded like a threat. “Tomorrow.”

“What if I’m busy-?”

“You won't be.”

Eren grinned and Levi glowered for another five seconds before he looked away. He tried to hide his smile behind his cup but Eren still totally saw it.

 


 

 

The crick in his neck was thankfully gone by the time Levi came around to pick him up, but he was still flushed when he answered the door. He’d been so nervous earlier that he’d panicked and called for help - he’d considered Mikasa, remembered their last phone call, and tried Armin instead. It’d been a terrible mistake. He’d explained that he didn’t know what to wear,  and what if he embarrassed himself or did the wrong thing and made Levi angry again? And then Armin had laughed for three straight minutes, unhelpfully pointed out that if Levi had lasted this long, there wasn’t much Eren could do to embarrass himself, and Eren again regretted ever introducing Jean to his best friend.

He hadn’t even considered the fact that Levi might be just as nervous, not until they were both sitting in the car in tense silence. Eren desperately reached out to turn on the radio and so did Levi, so that their hands brushed at the dial and they both flinched away. They were both still for a moment, until they glanced at each other and realised how stupid they were being. Eren tuned the radio to something mellow and Levi took one hand off the steering wheel to hold Eren’s. He did most of the talking and Levi listened, interjecting with a question every once in a while, but for the most part he let him go on about things Eren didn’t think would be interesting to anyone, least of Levi. He talked about his family, about Mikasa and meeting Armin, about art school and the idiotic things he’d done that had ended in hospital admittances. Eren expected Levi to tell him to stop at least once, but he never did. He rubbed circles into the back of Eren’s hand and just let him talk until he couldn’t think of anything else to say, and by then he suddenly, guiltily remembered that he’d hogged all their time together and hadn’t asked Levi a single question about himself. Yet when he tried to apologise, Levi snorted.

“You do enough talking for the both of us,” he said.  “Don’t worry about it.”

“But…” I want to know about you, he didn’t say, I want to know about your family, your friends, what school you went to, what you’re still waiting for, why you talked to me, shit, why your ear’s pierced? I want to know you.

Levi glanced at him, and then sighed. “What do you want to know?”

Eren thought carefully. He had to ask the most important one first. But it also couldn’t be too intrusive, because now didn’t feel like the time. None of the questions he could think of seemed good enough.

“Don’t do that,” Levi tittered. “You look constipated.”

Eren gave him a withering look which he pretended not to see. “How old are you?” It wasn’t a question he’d intended to ask, but it was too late now.

“Old enough to probably make this illegal,” Levi grumbled.

“I’m twenty-three.”

“I might need to see some ID. Maybe one that’s not in crayon.”

If it was anyone else, Eren might’ve hit them, but a person didn’t hit Levi. Not unless they were suicidal, anyway.“Hilarious. What’re you, like, forty?”

Levi glanced at him again, and Eren’s smirk faltered a little. “Close.”

Eren waited a few seconds for the punchline. There wasn’t one.

“Are you serious?”

Levi’s expression was positively stormy. “What did you expect?”

“But like...there’s a limit to how young someone can look, right?”

“That doesn’t even make any sense.”

“If you’re going to lie about your age, at least make it believable.”

“I’m not lying!” Levi argued. He was having fun under that scowl, Eren could tell.

“I think I’ve seen grade schoolers who look older than you.”

“You’ve seen grade schoolers who look thirty-four?”

You see. There’s no conceivable way-”

“Maybe this date was a bad idea after all,” he muttered.

Eren shut up fairly quickly then, but Levi sighed tried to pick up his hand again. “We’re nearly there, Eren. I’m not turning around after an hour and half.” Eren continued to refuse to unclench his fist, at least until Levi added, “I was joking.”

He supposed he should’ve wondered where they were going after all this time, but he didn’t want to start another argument, no matter how frivolous. He found out a few minutes later anyway.

 

*

 

Levi made him close his eyes (with the threat that he would staple Eren’s eyelids shut for him if he didn’t), so that he could only depend on his other senses to guess where they were.

The first clue was the wind. They’d left behind the occasional breezes of the city for the overpowering barrage that only came from the coast. Eren immediately thought of the beach, but he couldn’t find the familiar stink of seaweed and wet sand. Then again, everything just smelled cold with a wind that strong. He held onto Levi’s arm, trusting him to guide him over the rocks under their feet, and then up a steep incline. He was breathless by the time they got to the top, but at least the wind stopped enough for him to be able to hear something other than howling. They weren’t alone- he could hear other feet, other voices, some in languages he couldn’t understand- but they eventually faded into the background as they left them behind. For a while there was only the sound of their feet on gravel and the warmth of Levi’s arm; and they stopped and Eren was allowed to open his eyes.

Eren had been to the beach before, on rare sunny days and more the common gray ones. He had seen the ocean, slipped on rocks, cut his feet on broken glass, choked on salt water, nearly lost a kite to sea gales. He had stared out across the waves and watched boats disappear beyond the horizon, watched the sky meet the water until the light faded and the sun sank beyond that line, watched the day die in orange and rose, never staying long enough to see the stars over the water.

Yet he’d somehow never gotten the chance to look over it like this; the water reflected the gray-blue of the sky and he was too far away to hear the waves clearly, but that wasn’t important. What was important was that when the sun broke through the clouds and the wind paused to take breath, the cliffs glowed; the water sparkled as it hit the rocks like broken glass at the feet of giants. For years it had battered the coastline and yet hadn’t quite won, and in the light these cliffs seemed so proud to be so powerful. The grass rippled at the summit, heather rolled forwards until it stopped at a horrifying sheer drop...and then the sun disappeared behind another cloud and took the shimmering beauty with it. But he was left with a sudden love of his world that was so strong it left a deep ache in his chest, and for a while he couldn’t remember how to form words.

He became aware, eventually, of Levi watching him anxiously. Most first dates, Eren supposed, were a little more conventional. The cinema, dinner, grossly cliche strolls through the park and ice-cream; this wasn’t even the beach- they were standing over a thousand meters over one and shivering- but it was better than anything Eren could ever have imagined. It resonated with something he felt like he’d forgotten, inspired him, made him happier than he could remember being in weeks.

He hurried to find the words to say so, but couldn’t. He turned to try to explain, but before he could start, Levi’s lips were already there, stopping every other thought in his head. It was more of a brush of lips than a kiss because he hadn’t quite reached high enough- but then he tugged on the collar of Eren’s shirt, pulled him down and kissed him, achingly slowly, tugging on his bottom lip, slipping into a rhythm of short kisses and long pulls; he tasted warm, like the smell of black coffee, and every press of his lips sent a new thrill through Eren’s body. Levi’s fingers curled in his hair, his breath cool on Eren’s wet mouth and yet still, somehow, they weren’t close enough. Every press was painfully sweet and not quite enough. There were a few aching seconds where they hesitated, breathing heavily against each other’s mouths before they kissed again, the next one more desperate than the last.

He’d never kissed anyone like that before, never wanted to kiss someone that badly before, hadn’t even considered that it could happen until then. And now he was here, standing on a cliff at the end of the world, with someone he’d never imagined to fall so hard and fast for.

“Thank you,” Eren said, when they could finally stand to break apart. “Thank you.”

 


 

Levi has several thoughts, arranges them into a logical list and reviews this list obsessively for weeks.

The first, is that trains do not derail like that in a country like this. This thought is followed immediately by bitter self-hatred. Does he really think that an accident like this should only be allowed to happen in a place where there isn’t enough money for new tracks? Honestly, selfishly, he wishes it had. He can’t lie to himself like that.

The second, is that he has failed again. If he had only insisted that Eren let him drive, this wouldn’t have happened. Or maybe he should have gone with him to see Armin, gotten a later train that wouldn’t have ended like this. It doesn’t help that now he spends his waking moments with a cold, sick feeling in his stomach, one that had settled in when he’d looked up at the screen in the dining room at work. When he sleeps, he remembers a detached sense of obligatory sadness before horror truly sinks in. In his nightmares he relieves hours of trying to call Eren and only getting his voicemail, hours of desperately using a hotline and biting his nails raw despite the fact that he’d stopped biting his nails years ago. In his nightmare he hears the soft “I’m sorry” through the receiver over and over again.

So he doesn't sleep. Instead he thinks about how lucky he was that Eren wasn’t numbered amongst the dead. As if he won’t have to live with the consequences for the rest of his life.

Eren is out for a few days, lapsing in and out of consciousness as the drugs wear off, only to need more meds before he becomes fully aware. The most Levi can do was visit him as often as he can, often falling asleep in the chair beside his bed. He thinks about holding Eren’s hand or something, but Levi can’t bring himself to touch him. Touching Eren comes with an air of finality, and he’s not quite that hopeless yet. Doing something like that brings back memories of the last funeral he went to, and he doesn’t particularly want to bring that despair into  situation already choking on it. He takes to staring out of the window at the end of the ward instead, trying to block out the grief-stricken voices of two parents with their broken children..

And one day,  just as Levi is drifting off again, Eren wakes up.

Levi sits up so fast that the chair nearly topples, and although Eren is still very disorientated, he’s conscious enough to look around as if he’s searching for something; his eyes fall on Levi perched anxiously on the edge of his seat and he slowly reaches out.

“I feel weird,” Eren says, frowning deeply as if not sure where the words came from.

Levi hesitantly moves closer and Eren waits until he’s close enough to touch the man’s cheek. He had never truly appreciated the sea green colour of Eren’s eyes, Levi thinks, sometimes more blue than green in the right light. Eren gradually relaxes but Levi is still tense, waiting for the questions that he knows he’ll have to answer.

“You’re tired,” Eren continues, his thumb clumsily brushing over the deep shadows under Levi’s eyes. “You worried?”

Levi nods because he doesn’t think he can trust himself to speak.

Eren frowns again, and it’s more distressed than confused. Levi’s mouth is suddenly very dry.

“I feel weird,” Eren says again, shifting, trying to understand what it is that’s changed. Watching him struggle with hazy, disconnected thoughts is painful “Why….why can’t I feel my arm?” His eyes widen in panic as he stares at Levi. His palm is hot where it touches the man’s face. “Why can I feel my other arm?”

He should say something, Levi knows that. He should explain the accident, explain that the train derailed halfway to the the last station because of some stupid, stupid mistake, that his right arm was crushed beneath a broken seat, that they found him screaming in the wreckage of a carriage they hadn’t expected anyone to survive in. Levi should have explained that he would heal and learn to walk again at least, learn to use his other hand- because Levi knew how stubborn he was, and how hard he’d try to run before he could walk- but he couldn’t. He stared back at Eren’s crumpled face, saw his cold expression reflected in the boy’s eyes and couldn’t say a single word.

The hand on Levi’s face begins to tremble. “What did you do to me?” He shrinks away as his voice rises. “What did you do to me?” He struggles to sit up, slips and nearly rips out his IV. “What’ve you done?” He is screaming now - he’s still partially drugged and he is screaming and Levi couldn’t remember how to speak, how to think anything other than the fact that Eren is right, that if he had only tried harder-

A nurse arrives , pushes him gently aside and goes about calming Eren down with soothing words and another dose of painkillers. Hopefully, she says,that will be the last one to knock him out for a while.

Levi leaves the room.

He wants to be left alone to think. First of all, he has to force himself to remember that it isn’t his fault, despite whatever idiotic reflex he has for blaming himself for things outside of his control. Next he has think about whether Eren needs him at all; he has people who know him far better and who he probably won’t automatically accuse of amputating his limbs. He wants to sit down and really think, even if it takes hours to come to a conclusion. But he’s only sitting outside Eren’s room for a few minutes when someone takes the empty chair beside him.

“Levi, is it?”

He’s only ever met Mikasa once, if the encounter could be considered a meeting. He’d just been leaving for his closing shift at work when she had come in to visit Eren. At most she’d spared a glance before turning all of her attention to the boy in the bed. It was obvious in the way that she looks at him that he means the world to her. She is a formidable woman with a glare like reinforced steel blades, and she looks at Eren like she would commit murder if it meant keeping him alive.

And now here she is, imposing and warily curious. Levi nods, thinks about holding out his hand to shake then decides he didn’t care enough. “Eren’s told me about you.”

In another time perhaps, Levi would’ve asked what exactly Eren had said. He wonders sometimes what Eren thinks of him, if he talks about what they do together to people Levi’s never met. He wonders what the expression on his face might be in those conversations to Mikasa. But now even trying to think of those things is exhausting. He would’ve gone home and slept but he knows he can’t. Even closing his eyes is a risk, but he can’t help it when he’s reaching the end of his rope.

“How much do you remember?” Mikasa asks.

He frowns. “Of what?” The accident he was never in? Seeing Eren for the first time after it? The icy grip of guilt and horror that had had on him for the past few days?

When she doesn’t answer straight away, Levi cracks an eye open and finds that she’s staring at him. He scrubs his face roughly with one hands and glares back “What am I supposed to be remembering?”

She reaches for her bag without looking away, digs around inside and pulls out a folded piece of paper which he grudgingly accepts. He takes one look at the drawing on the paper and nearly gets up and leaves right then.

“I knew we weren’t the only ones,” Mikasa said softly, but Levi is still too busy trying to make sense of the picture in his shaking hands. “Armin was right.”

It’s impossible of course, one side of him thinks. The creature rampaging through some medieval city is something that’s occasionally appeared in his dreams. It had all started years ago, at a time when he’d been much more optimistic and naive, so that by now every memory of the monsters comes with the bitter taste of failure.

But he has never told anyone about the giants in his dreams. After Eren had painted over the one on the wall of his apartment, Levi had decided to forget about it. It was probably just a coincidence that Eren had had the same idea, he’d thought, but now he isn’t so sure. Now when he looks at the face of this titan, it doesn’t feel like some idea he’d had ages ago. It feels like a memory.

“So it is you,” Mikasa says, and there is a cold fury in her voice so strong that the air in the entire corridor seems disappear. Levi looks up from the picture in his hands, thoughts still reeling. He feels as if he’s in trouble for something he can’t remember doing, but he’s too exhausted to be angry in return. Yet as he watches, the anger on her face cools into suspicious calm.

“Stay away from Eren,” she says, swinging her bag back onto her shoulder.

“Excuse me?” The paper crumples a little as his fists clench. He’ll regret it later.

“You heard me.”

She walks away then, bag swinging on her hip, leaving him more lost and frustrated than he would’ve thought was possible to be.

 


 

 

Sleep is an escape. Sleep is death without the long-term commitment. Sleep is what allows Levi to completely forget everything that’s plagued him for the past week, so that for the first few seconds after he wakes up, he feels peaceful and human again. For a few moments he feels totally in control until everything comes crashing down around his ears and the last few hours come swooping back. Suddenly his chest hurts and he has to sit up because he can’t breathe and every muscle in his body felt like it’s been hammered with a meat tenderizer before being put back in his body. He tries to pulls his knees up to his face but is too week to manage it. So he lies on lies on his back, twisted awkwardly in the sheets, and shakes He can remember feeling lost like this before, but he hadn’t expected it to happen quite like this. He’s stronger than this. He’s been through worse, been to friends’ funerals, woken up in hospital after a suicide attempt, lost everything he owned because of foolishness.

But he’s never put so much hope in someone before. He’s never been in love quite like this either. Clearly he still doesn’t know himself and that scares him. He didn’t know that if he almost lost something that mattered so much, it would break him.

He thinks about the manuscripts saved somewhere in some forgotten folder on his computer. He think about the others gathering dust in boxes in his wardrobe. He thinks about the way his fingers used to itch when he got an idea, how he used to frantically search for something to write it down on. He thinks about spending long, frustrated hours at the keyboard, doubting himself, hating himself for thinking that he could make a career out of the one thing he loved, knowing he wasn’t good enough to succeed. He thinks about the pills he took, about spitting them out seconds later because the idea of dying still scared him too much. He thinks about going out to get a drink, walking home with the plastic bag of beer, opening a can to drink on the way home. He thinks about how he lost count of the drinks, stumbled towards a bridge and finally decided that it was worth it. He thinks about almost drowning.

He thinks about how it would feel to die in the accident that almost killed Eren and leaving his boxes and folders of unpublished manuscripts behind.

As his chest aches again, he thinks about going to visit Eren.

Mikasa is already there by the time Levi arrives. He would have quietly left to give them some time together, but they both abruptly stop talking as soon as they see him. Levi hovers at the foot of Eren’s bed and opens his mouth to say that he’ll come by later but the words stick in his throat and he has to shut his mouth again.

He realises a second too late that what he’d been hearing hadn’t been an actual conversation. For one long, sickening second, Levi feels as if he’s looking at his own warped reflection. Eren’s face is twisted with endless, black hopelessness and despair, a sadness so deep that it makes Levi cringe to look at it. There’s no light in his eyes anymore and it reminds Levi of himself.  

He understands Mikasa’s distress but he is also aware that worrying is completely useless. Tears won’t bring back Eren’s arm. Either the boy will have to learn to live without it, or he’ll continue on a downward spiral of hellish nightmares. No one can save Eren but himself in the end.

Levi moves forward, slowly, in case Eren doesn’t want him there after all, but when he slides their fingers together, the boy doesn’t protest. Eren squeezes his fingers and Levi’s heart swells; and a second later the boy’s face crumples. Levi only has a few moments notice before Eren reaches out clumsily for his shoulder and cries ,digs his fingers so hard into Levi’s shirt that he can almost feel bruises forming in his skin. He’s bent awkwardly over Eren’s lap and it doesn’t take long for it to become painful, but he stays.

Out of the corner of his eye, Levi sees Mikasa leave. He never catches the expression on her face.

 


 

 

It doesn’t take long for Levi to learn that talking to Eren now is a one-sided affair. If he closes his eyes, he can imagine that Eren is only sleeping instead of staring blankly into space, because the thought of Eren fading away like this terrifies Levi He tries to stay calm, but it scares him that  someone who had begun to inspire him could disappear so suddenly and quickly, and that he’s helpless to fix it. He could barely fix himself - here he is, after all,  dressed in the eternal costume of Disappointment and working a minimum wage job in a coffee shop franchise with all of his dreams and potential wasted. He is miserable but fairly comfortable, finally convinced that dream chasing is for luckier, more talented people. That was how his life is supposed to be.

Or maybe it isn’t.

He doesn’t know why he does it. He doesn’t know if Eren even listens. The boy is moved to a private room before Levi can bring himself to break the silence that has consumed his visits again. It’s raining that day, so heavily that when he leaves later he’s soaked within seconds and his shoes squeak on the tiles. Summer has bled into autumn by then, cold and bitter with downpours and streams of dead leaves in the gutters. It rains so hard that day that he’s sure there’d be at least one traffic accident, and thinking about accidents leads him along a path he hadn’t even considered exploring before. Leaning forwards in his chair, holding Eren’s limp, cold hand, Levi speaks.

“I wanted to write.”

He surprises himself with the words, but the potential to tell his story hits him so forcefully that he forgets to feel ashamed. Here are words he can only remember saying a few times but never with such confidence. He can remember the gentle fingers on his face and the lips at his ear, telling him to do it. He can vividly recall the first man to kiss him senseless, make him desperate to be good enough, to want to become some sort of artist even if it killed him.

He sees the man’s face every day now and the desperation has changed from hatred to resignation. And sometimes Levi wishes he had never seen Eren in his life (or any past lives he might have had), wishes he had never met those eyes and realised how much he hates his stagnant existence. He squeezes Eren’s fingers and even though Eren continues to stare vacantly at the wall in front of him, Levi talks.

He tells Eren about the meaningless drabbles he wrote as a child, crammed into exercise books over the years until he began collecting his words in notebooks. He talks about how he felt so sure that he would become a writer by the time he got halfway through high school that he thought of nothing else. Writing meant the world to him then. He wrote, like he read, to escape the drunken mother and distant, cold father. He wrote his vengeance through wolfmen and demons, created heroes in universes of despair and imagined new world orders. Even if everyone else at school thought he was quiet and weird with a scary face, he had his stories and the friends who stuck with him. And there was Petra, loyal, outspoken and outstandingly observant. She was the first to criticize him and she was the first person he listened to.  He surmises that perhaps, if he hadn’t killed her, he might have married her. They were comfortable together - never quite romantically, but their relationship was easy enough that Levi assumed that was what all couples were supposed to be like. He’d never know now, not after stupidly, stupidly  driving drunk with her in the seat beside him, after ignoring her yelling at him to pull over. Eren doesn’t look over when Levi pushes his hair back and traces the scars. It’s not fair that he somehow escaped, but he supposes that being trapped here is his retribution, as well as the fact that their friends stopped talking to him and he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of them since.

He stops there the first day, but by the next he has recalled his anxiety at picking a career in his last year of school. His confidence waned even with Petra’s input, so that by the time they were all graduating, he’d almost gotten cold feet. There was only so much disappointment from his parents that he could endure, so many sensible answers to career questions. Other people went to university to become doctors, engineers, psychologists, people with futures. Suddenly, wanting to write for a living was laughably juvenile. He panicked. He searched desperately for something else he wanted to be, something with a job market and a stable future, but he had spent so long hell-bent on one that thing he loved that it was all too late.

It was with a certain resignation that he thought about uni, skipped around courses he wanted to take in favour of finding one with better prospects. Yet the start of the semester found him starting a class on storytelling of all things.  And he loved it. He loved the lectures, the discussions with people who understood what it meant to tell stories and how important they were, how history changed their heroes. It wasn’t the sort of thing that would ever get him a job, but it didn’t matter when he felt like he was living. His memories of university still feel like a dream, too comfortable and content to be real next to the things that happened next. It started with Erwin and he knows that now, but at the time he was too clueless to know any better. He fell hopelessly in love with a man who seemed like a genius to Levi, someone who spoke about histories greatest novels with a reverence that Levi almost worshipped. Erwin was everything he hoped to be and more.

And then Petra had died and Levi had lapsed back into depression, stopped writing and dropped out. Erwin followed, citing reasons he never fully explained, until eventually even their relationship fizzled and died like Levi’s inspiration. He ached every day with the urge to write, but it was never enough.

Levi finished his story in broad strokes, leaving out details that he couldn’t bring himself to think about even now. But he missed something very important, and it took him even longer to mention something that had plagued him since he could remember.

“The more stressed I get, the worse they are,” he murmurs. Eren’s eyes are closed and his breathing slow, so Levi assumes he’s finally drifted off. “They’re always set in the same place, and people always die.” He pauses, stares at their interlocked hands. “I can’t remember faces exactly. But you remind me of him. The..boy in my nightmares.”

When Levi looks up at Eren, his eyes are open and staring and Levi jumps. Looking at Eren nowadays is like being at a wake, especially since he eats less every day. But for the first time since the accident, it seems as if he understands. And when he squeezes Levi’s hand, the manbegins to think that maybe this time, he’s done something right.

 


 

 

The first time he tries to do it, his hands shake so badly that he can’t even turn to the right page in his notebook. That day, he looks at the vacant expression on Eren’s face and doubts himself again.

That day, Mikasa comes to visit. She comes earlier than usual, although Eren has already dozed off again. Yet instead of standing aside and waiting for Levi to make himself scarce, she pulls another chair closer to Eren’s bed and sits. There is a brief, uneasy silence.

“He talks about you a lot,” Mikasa says. Her voice, though quiet, sounds loud in a room where the only noise is breathing. “Or…” He did  is left to hang in the air unsaid; using the past tense makes it sound as if the person in the bed is only a corpse, yet the present is deceptive. If Eren wants to talk at all, he hasn’t tried to.

Levi tries to pretend that he’s not interested, but no amount of pretending will change the fact that he suddenly wants to know how Eren describes him to his friends when Levi isn’t around to hear it. Mikasa continues regardless.

“I don’t think he means to,” she says, fiddling idly with the end of the red scarf she always wears. “I’ll ask him how his day went and before you know it, he’s talking about how Levi really seems to like peppermint, or how he wonders what Levi’s favourite colour is….” She trails off as she watches Eren’s sleeping face and then her expression hardens. “He wouldn’t be in this mess if it wasn’t for you.” Levi has been thinking this was for so long that he almost agrees. But Mikasa doesn’t seem to be talking about the present.

“If you hadn’t gone on your own,” she says, her hands curling into fists on her lap, “if you had just waited for me, you would have come back with more than his body.”

Levi doesn’t say anything, mostly because he doesn’t remember, partially because he knows that she won’t try to kill him, at least not yet. For as long as he’s useful to Eren, he’s safe.

“How much do you remember?” she asks again. He doesn’t look at her when he answers, but he can feel her eyes watching him, daring him to lie.

“Glimpses,” he says carefully. “Vague memories. Not enough.”

Neither of them say anything else for a while, and Levi assumes the conversation is over. Yet when Mikasa stands to leave, she adds something.

“You never married,” she says, looking anywhere but him. “You grieved for a long time. I don’t think you ever stopped.”

Levi finds himself wishing that when she leaves, she’d stop leaving him feeling so cold.

 


 

 

The second day, with his hands still shaking, he does it.

He stumbles over words he’d rehearsed for hours, has to stop to breathe because his nervousness makes his breaths come in short, shallow gasps, tugs at the collar of his shirt and wishes  he’d stop sweating. Eren probably can’t hear it anyway, he thinks. He can’t hear Levi struggle in the beginning, can’t hear the awkward newborn lines that haven’t been edited yet.

But for the first time in eight odd yaears, Levi shares his writing with someone. Somehow, out of all the things he’s gone through in all his thirty-four years, this was the moment that scares him the most. Eren is someone who matters far more than he was ever supposed to, and conscious or not, Levi is as still anxious for the boy’s approval.

Levi hates his own poetry. He hates the words he put together and ever dared to write down, he hates that the stories he was once proud of have become embarrassments after only a few weeks. He hates that he was never good enough, and that even after all these years he still doesn’t have the courage to take his manuscripts out of their boxes.

So maybe that’s why, he thinks as he stares at the words he’s just stumbled through, maybe that’s why he was so drawn to someone who still had that familiar spark in his eye when it came to creating things. He felt nervous when it came to sharing his art, of course he did,  but he went through with it. Levi had learned to shy away and hide his vulnerabilities, because pretending to be cold and stoic was far easier than confessing to the fact that he wants art and love and alternate universes with spellcasters. He wants to hold a book in his hands and see his name on the cover and he wants to prove to his old man that he could  do it, and that he wouldn’t land himself in a lousy dead end job, and that even if he did he would get published.

Tomorrow, he thinks, tomorrow I will do something about it. But then tomorrow always became tomorrow, didn’t it? Anything that could alter his life in any way is always postponed. At thirty-four, he’s supposed to have his life in order. He’s an adult with a job and an apartment, a useless uncompleted degree, an ex-boyfriend as a co-worker. He’d always been scared of being ordinary but he craves the safety and certainty of normalcy. He wants to leave behind a legacy but part of him wants to actually make it beyond middle-age without being homeless. And he loathes the fact that he spent so much time chasing after his dreams and being sure he’d make it, only to turn around at the last minute and realise he wasn’t ready, that he wasn’t good enough, that it would be infinitely easier to give up.

But as he looks at the boy in the bed beside him, the broken boy who has lost his spark and given up on his art and even his life, he knows that he has to do it.He has  to stop being a failure, stop feeling sorry for himself, and write; because in the end, it’s all he has. It’s the only part of himself that he was truly proud of, and he can’t waste that. He can’t.

Levi never knows, but when he leaves, Eren’s eyes follow him out of the room. There is a faint curiosity in those eyes, and yet a second later when Levi turns the corner, the expression is gone.

 


 

 

He begins again by getting a notebook and a pencil and carries both around with him everywhere. He doesn’t pressure himself to write something down. It’s only a simple reminder that should any idea strike him, he has the opportunity to record it. And at first there’s nothing. He’s spent so long convincing himself that he isn’t good enough that the voice he’d once heard in his head is gone. The first day is bad and the night is worse; it’s hours spent tossing and turning, whole moments spent wide awake with his heart lurching sickeningly in his chest for what feels like hours before he finally passes out. He feels ill and conflicted and it shows on his face when he goes to work, but he forces himself to keep the book with him, especially when Eren starts therapy. Whenever Levi visits now, he looks paler and weaker than before, thin and tired and defeated. The nurses smile around him but it never reaches their eyes. Levi can see the doubt all over their face and Eren can probably feel it. He’s making progress, the doctor says, walking a little further each day and faster than predicted.

But there’s always that uncomfortable beat of silence afterwards, before she adds that he refuses to use his remaining arm. Even when he stumbles, she says, he lets himself fall instead of grabbing hold of something to steady himself. Now his left arm is covered in bruises and faint grazes, and his fingernails are bitten. He once took so much pride in his hands, and now his nail beds are crusted with blood. It turns Levi’s stomach. He almost wishes for the boy who cried on his shoulder all those weeks ago, because at least then he was still human.

The ideas come eventually, slowly, small ones that Levi dismisses at first for not being good enough. At work, he watches an old man count his change before putting it into a battered leather wallet, and wonders what he looked like when he was younger, what his dreams were, who he fell in love with and where he’d grown up. He watches two girls get into a fight outside the shop, sees one hit the other and imagines how they came to have their argument in the first place. And as he’s sweeping the dining room, he finds a forgotten magazine lying open on a table, an old one advertising a familiar art exhibition. He stares at a picture of a figure standing in a field of roses made of razor blades for so long that Erwin has to come over and tell him to get moving. Levi takes the magazine with him.

 

He doesn’t bother with a hello when he next sees Eren. There isn’t any point anymore. “Doc tells me they’ve been trying to get you to write again.” Eren stays silent and Levi tries not to let it get to him for the hundredth time.

“I found something today,” he adds quietly instead, taking the rolled out magazine out of his pocket and turning back to the page he found that afternoon, “You might recognise it.”

Levi holds up the spread for the art show, watches Eren slowly turn his head to look and then as his eyes change. He reaches out his hand to touch the page but holds back a few inches away.

“You can get it back, you know,” Levi murmurrs, keeping his eyes fixed  on the longing expression on Eren’s face. “This, the art, is you. Not the kid that’s let himself die.”

“I...know,” Eren says, and Levi’s heart thumps so hard that the pain of it lingers for a few seconds afterwards.

They stare at each other without saying another word for a few seconds and then Eren speaks again, slowly, with a voice that’s rough from sleeping for so long.

“I need you to get me something.”

 


 

 

The hardest part is convincing Mikasa to give him the key to Eren’s apartment and when she finally gives in, she insists on going with him. Considering what he can recall, Levi accepts her paranoia.

The air in Eren’s apartment is stagnant and stale, and the door stirs a cloud of dust that’s only visible in the shaft of light coming through the window. It’s clean at least, floor vacuumed, dishes washed and long dry, laundry done. There’s still a stack of books on the coffee table, a jacket thrown across the back of the couch, the first hint of a painting crawling its way along the wall behind the tiny TV. Eren had started to paint the walls again before he left, but it was still a mostly unfinished sketch. Despite that, Levi can imagine how beautiful it would look, curling around the TV and up towards the ceiling, the thorny stem of  a single, burgundy rose.

Levi tears his eyes away from the painting to find what he was sent there for, and heads for Eren’s room. Mikasa follows and hesitates in the doorway, but doesn’t go in. She watches instead as Levi carefully pushes aside Eren’s clothes in the wardrobe to look for the light blue box in the back. There’s an empty sketchbook in there, Eren told him, and at least five more in case of emergencies.

Levi lifts the box out of the wardrobe to find them all, and ends up discovering a whole stack of filled books underneath. He is very aware of Mikasa’s eyes on the back of his head and of every movement he makes. But he lifts out the first black book anyway, carefully opens it, and finds his name written on the inside cover.

Levi has seen a few of Eren’s drawings before, but only the ones that Eren has allowed him to see. Those were small portraits, hand studies, flowers, animals, mountains. But this, this is nothing like those. The hands are familiar and so are the legs, the chest and collarbones repeated over and over on a single page before forming into entire faceless bodies. He realises that Eren drew him, his face softer and kinder than it looks in the mirror, and definitely far more beautiful. He sees his face deep in concentration, sees how his hair falls away from his face when he leans over, how he smiles with one corner of his mouth and sometimes unconsciously bites his lip. He’s so flattered but so overwhelmed; there’s no doubt in his mind now about how much Eren cares. He reaches the end, or so he thinks, finds the last blank pages and more sketches. His heart stutters and then starts again in double time, and he subtly turns away from the door a little because he suspects Eren wouldn’t want Mikasa to see this. Levi wonders vaguely if the pictures should make him uncomfortable. They don’t. It doesn’t bother him to see himself with his eyes closed, head thrown back and lips parted, to see himself asleep with only the bedsheets covering his body, to see the special attention paid to his exposed neck, to his mouth and eyes and hair, to the naked body he’s sure Eren has probably only glimpsed once a long time ago. It doesn’t bother him at all.

“DId you find it?” Mikasa asks, and he jumps. He snaps the book shut without thinking and realises a second too late how guilty it looks. He stops himself from hurriedly shoving the book back into the box, but Mikasa is already there and peering over his shoulder. He waits for her to say something, but after a few seconds, she leaves him with the box and turns her attention to the wardrobe.

“There’re some clothes he wanted,” she explains unnecessarily, but it gives Levi another minute or two alone with his book. When he looks through the box again, he finds another one near the bottom with his name on it. He looks at it for a long time, debating whether or not to look through this one too- it has his name on it, but then it’s still Eren’s, and opening the first sketchbook was probably a bad idea- when Mikasa suggests that they should get going.

He leaves his book inside the box and takes out the blank ones Eren asked him for, even though he wishes he could take his sketchbook with him. There’ll be a time for that, he hopes, as he hefts the box back on the shelf in Eren’s wardrobe, a time when they can go through the pictures together.

 


 

The first time Eren tries to draw again, it ends with a thrown pencil, a handful of torn pages, and then  Eren trying to apologise over and over again for the cut on Levi’s cheek. Levi silently wipes away the blood,  picks up the crumpled sketches, smooths out the creases and slides them in between the pages of the book.

“Keep them,” Levi says, avoiding Eren’s eyes because he knows the kid is just going to try and apologise for getting frustrated and angry and lashing out the way he did. “Keep every awful and embarrassing mistake you make, because it means that you can get better.” Eren’s looking at him with eyes so desperate for help that it twists a knot deep in his stomach. He feels like such a hypocrite for pushing Eren to keep drawing when he can’t even bring himself to finish a single one of his novels.

It’s hard for Levi to go then, even though he knows he has to, especially when Eren grabs his hand and almost begs him to stay a little longer. They both stare at their clasped hands for the longest time, wondering which of them will be the first to let go, and Levi is so tempted to call out of work again even though he knows he can’t.

Instead he drops a kiss on Eren’s forehead and lingers there for a moment. “I found my book,” he says, and the words surprise him. He didn’t know what he intended to say, but it wasn’t that.

But Eren isn’t angry. He sighs, tilts his face up to reach Levi’s mouth. “I know.” He presses in almost forcefully, lets go of Levi’s hand and presses his palm to the side of the man’s face. “Why else did you think I asked you to get the books for me?”

Levi wants to complain that he could’ve used that information earlier and saved himself a night of worrying that he’d invaded Eren’s privacy, but suddenly he’s too caught up in their kisses to speak or even keep track of time, so that in the end he has to run and is still ten minutes late for work.

It’s all worth it, though, to see the faint smile on Eren’s face before he leaves.

 

*

“You’re writing again.”

He’s perched on one of the stools in the back instead of sweeping or cleaning like he’s supposed to between orders. He doesn’t have a good excuse. The notebook he carries is still in his back pocket. He’s daydreaming.

“You’re stalking me again?” he asks. At least they just hired some new kid so Levi won’t get into too much trouble for skiving off.

Erwin leans against the wall with his drink (black coffee or water or white-chocolate mocha- it’s always different and Levi doesn’t care which it is today), watches him over the rim of his cup. “You have that look on your face again,” he says quietly, “it’s not as strong as it used to be, but it’s there.” Levi doesn’t have anything to say to that, so he goes back to staring vacantly at the week’s schedule posted on the wall behind Erwin.

“That Jaegar kid still in hospital?” Erwin asks with such faux nonchalance that Levi raises an eyebrow. “It’s him, isn’t it?” Levi smiles just a little. It’s somehow satisfying to watch the way Erwin’s eyes darken, just a little. He’s good at hiding it, but there’s the smallest hint of jealousy there.

He’s thrown for a loop when the expression disappears and he  asks, “How is he?” It’s genuine, and Levi doesn’t understand why it would be.

“He can walk by himself now,” Levi says warily, “But he has to adjust to using his left hand for everything.”

“That’s good,” Erwin answers lightly. “It could’ve been worse.”

“I’m aware.” It’s colder than Levi intended, but he finds that he doesn’t care even when a flash of pain crosses Erwin’s face.

“Levi,” he tries again, for the millionth time in eight years, “I never intended-”

“Your intentions don’t change the fact that it happened,” Levi points out, like he always did. He gets off the stool and looks around for the broom he’s been avoiding. It was true that Levi probably wouldn’t have left school if Erwin hadn’t spun some yarn about running away together somewhere, but it had happened so long ago that by now, it hurt less. Besides, they’d both been fools then. “You’re going to have to forgive yourself before I do.”

“I’m trying,” Erwin murmured, and Levi scoffed.

“Try harder.”

 


 

He wakes up in the middle of the night, and it doesn’t feel right. At first he’s not entirely sure why he’s awake- it’s completely silent outside and he can’t see a thing. He groans and rubs his sore, tired eyes, stretches and then coughs when he tries to breathe in. And keeps coughing. His lungs hurt and his throat is raw, he can’t see even though his eyes are open, something smells strange but he can’t place it-  

There’s smoke in his room, Jesus, every single one of his printed manuscripts is on fire and there’s nothing he can do to save them, he’s still breathing in smoke and his computer is in the flames somewhere and the noise he ignored is his fire alarm screaming but it’s too late because he’s dying but it’s worse because he can hear a voice outside the room desperately calling out his name and banging on a door that won’t open to save him in time because it’s locked and on the other side of the door Eren is too stupid to run out and save himself-

And then he comes up for air gasping and covered in sweat, shaking worse than he ever has so it takes him a second to figure out that the screaming in his dream is his phone ringing. It’s an unknown number. They’ve called twice already.

“-know! Jesus Christ, pick up!”

He’s so still so freaked out that even though the voice is familiar, he can’t figure out who it belongs to. “What?”

“What took you so long?”

“What?” He’s pulls the phone away from his ear, looks at the time and feels anger start to settle in.  “What the fuck, it’s three in the morning, who is this?”

“Levi-”

Mikasa?”

“Listen!” Her voice is too high, Levi realises, it’s too high and strained and he feels sick. “Listen, Eren is...is he with you?”

Levi swallows but still feels like his stomach is getting ready to shift an entire week’s worth of food. “No.”

Although she doesn’t say anything, he can imagine that her face is pinched with stress. He can also imagine her determind fury, and he thinks he would feel the same if he was fully awake. For now, the most he can do is ask, “What happened?”

Eren, Mikasa explains, disappeared from the hospital a few hours ago. He’d left behind his phone, hadn’t gone home, or gone to see anyone else. No one had even seen him leave,  and the cameras only showed him leaving the hospital car park that afternoon.

“...I called all of the taxi companies he could’ve used and none of them say they saw anyone like him. It doesn’t help that most cab drivers don’t care who they’re driving anyway as long as-”

“I think I know where he is.” Levi cuts in. He pinches the bridge of his nose and tries to take deep breaths to remind himself that his apartment isn’t on fire and that Eren isn’t burning to death (at least not yet).

“What? Where?”

Levi squeezes his eyes shut, runs a hand through his hair and begins the arduous task of getting dressed. “I’ll find him.”

“Like how you found him last time?”

He’s been expecting that since the second he remembered all the years he’d forgotten. So he is prepared for the hard fist of guilt and shame that tear through his gut. “I’ll find him,” he says again, “Alive.”

 


 

It was strangely easy to just drop everything and run. Refreshing, even. Freeing. Terrifyingly easy too, although walking was still a pain in the ass. It was amazing how much he was ignored when he was dressed in his normal clothes; but then again most people were too caught up in their own little worlds of misery to notice him. If he kept the empty sleeve of his jacket tucked into his pocket, he didn’t get pity stares. All he felt he needed was some money. There was only one place he wanted to go, alone, before he could stand to see anyone else. One place that felt like the end and the beginning of the world, that both scared him and made him feel human.

He stumbled a few times trying to get to the shore. It was a lot darker out here than he’d expected and he started to wish he’d brought a flashlight when he nearly screamed after walking into a clump of seaweed, but he forced himself to keep going. There were no murderers waiting in the shadows, he reminded himself, only the sea and the wind and the sky that was really the pitch black abyss of the universe and its dying stars. Out here he was so small that he felt like an idiot for spending so long consumed with his lost arm. He felt it deep in his chest, felt it rise into his throat and behind his tongue until he was screaming wordlessly into the wind, fighting to be heard and not heard against the waves and the endless ticking of space, a tiny, insignificant, wailing pinprick in time and space. He cried for his arm, for his legs, for his mother and every friend he’d ever lost, for the girl whose hand he’d held in that broken train, for that girl who died minutes away from rescue, for his own selfish grief. And after the tears a whole lifetime when by where he was just gasping alone on the beach, not screaming but not quite sure how to come back to himself.

Seconds, minutes, years later, someone joins him, not quite touching but close enough that they can be heard without having to shout over the wind.

“It took a few tries,” the man says as Eren turns to him. “I had an idea of the kind of place you were looking for.” Eren puts his fingertips to the man’s lips, carefully, lovingly. “I’ve been where you are.”

A moment passes . The sky begins to lighten and Eren focuses on the man’s warm breath under his hand, the movement of his lips when he speaks.

“I love you,” Levi murmurs. “I never told you, before.”

Eren meets Levi’s eyes, wishes painfully that he still had both arms so he could hold him but knows that the time has passed for self-pity.

“Come with me,” he says.

Levi takes him home, helps him upstairs, pulls the keys from Eren’s jeans pocket and unlocks the door. Neither of them say a word. As Eren wanders around his living room, Levi opens a window to let out the dank, stale air. Dawn is so close that he can almost smell it, but there’s still a while  of darkness left. He stares at the black wall in the dark, the wall that used to show the monster he’d painted over. He stares until it reminds him of the night sky over the water, and then he stumbles over the cabinet under the sink, to the cupboard over the toaster where he meant to put all his cutlery but where he puts his paint instead, takes out wall paint and oils and watercolours, knocks a glass of paintbrushes to the floor and slides back to the living room, lets it all fall from his hands and then

and then he’s painting again, feverishly, desperately, smearing lines with his clumsy, unpracticed fingers, mixing colours into gross, muddy browns and not caring, breathing heavily, half-crawling back to the kitchen for more paint, wiping his fingers on his shirt, streaking paint through his hair, throwing it at the wall and kicking it, creating chaos from the sideboard to as close to the ceiling as he can reach, and then picking out a scene, painting a man kneeling by the sea with a body in his arms, head thrown back towards the sun, face unshown and back scarred from his shoulders to the end of his spine-

 

*

 

He comes back to himself later in the dawn’s light, lying on his back, naked on the ruined rug, surrounded by streaks of colour. The first thing he sees is the broad stripe of paint along the curve of Levi’s throat, the handprint on the man’s chest, the smears across his bare hips. He’s better than the drawings, Eren thinks, better because there’s a whole myriad of scars that he never accounted for and a cluster of new bruises across his skin that oddly look a lot like teeth marks.

It takes him a moment to think to look where Levi is looking, to finally really see the mural he painted. He can immediately see a thousand mistakes that make him want to clap his hand over Levi’s eyes. But he can see now that although he imagined most of it, he painted his death.

“Did we win?” he asks. His voice is hoarse but he doesn’t want to clear his throat because he doesn’t want to ruin the near silence. “In the end?”

Levi turns to him, carefully takes his hand, slowly kisses his fingers. “Have you seen any titans lately?” Levi asks dryly and Eren laughs, just a little.

“What happens next?” Eren asks later, after showers and more lazy kisses tangled together on the bed. “In the story you were telling me in the hospital, about the girl with…a supernatural nightclub under her bed?”

Levi stares at him for so long that he starts to feel uncomfortable, and then, “I did not use the word ‘nightclub’. It’s not a ‘nightclub’.”

Eren rolls his eyes and Levi makes an irritated sound and explains precisely how Eren is wrong. And Eren knows that is exactly how he wants his life to be.